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Boggling over Backstory

10 Apr

So, how important is it to include all of the tiny and potentially inconsequential details that you’ve labored over in creating your own world or your own version of our world?

This is a problem that I faced first and foremost in writing my fantasy manuscripts. Since I was creating an entirely new world, I wanted to hammer out details of the economy, the judicial system, class and caste, the ecology and environment, and of course, the history. To me, it was important to have all of this decided in case it was relevant to the story. And, admittedly, it was the more satisfying part of developing a fantasy world. This is the instance in which a writer becomes a god, capable of creating and destroying and turning the tides of evolution and development to suit his or her needs.

The problem, then, became how much of this information to include in the actual manuscript. For instance:

“Their rootstocks cultivated to limit expansion and their limbs pruned to prevent uncontrolled growth, the black-barked trees looked like nothing less than a phalanx of fastidious soldiers…”

This passage from Blood of a Godkiller shows up in the first chapter. The protagonist is, as is usual, a simple youth tossed into the larger world. He comes from a sharecropping town that handles the bulk of the apple supply for this small realm. Now, I know that the extent of climates inclusive to this realm is such that this particular area is best suited for apples. I also know that the powers that be have a habit of encouraging singular production to maintain control over the economy. As such, any attempt by the community or its landed lord to challenge the existing power structure would be met with an attack on their one and only sustainable crop. A history of ore production from nearby mountains had once provided this territory with considerable wealth, but meddling administrators worked to diffuse the monopoly by encouraging mining in another territory with similar access to ore veins.

My first inclination was to provide all of this information at the introduction to the settlement because I had assumed the reader would want to know everything they could about Wylard’s Ferry before moving on to the next new concept. After creating a relentlessly informative first chapter with absolutely no action, no plot formation, and no character development, I realized that I was writing an encyclopedia entry rather than a story. Well, no, that isn’t exactly accurate. It wasn’t until beta reader after beta reader told me the first chapter was a plodding mess of unwieldy facts that I realized my mistake. Even then, it wasn’t until much later that I was able to find it within myself to hack and slash my way through the morass to rewrite the entire chapter.

So, I went back through the original manuscript and peppered some of the information throughout. I wanted to incorporate some of the same ideas, but I needed truncated versions that could be incorporated without turning into lectures. So, in chapter five, I added to a conversation:

“We’ve kept the people poor for fear that inheritance rights among these xenophobic farmers and stonewrights might create an amassed wealth too far from Canon to be controlled,”

There I tackle the importance of why this particular territory is so poor in comparison to some of its neighbors. It actually leads into a specific instance in the sort of tactics used, including the introduction of a disease that causes women to become infertile, but that’s neither here nor there. The important this was that I was able to sneak in a bit more of what I thought to be a very important component of the backstory without resorting to endless historical accounts.

I put off the history of the territory’s once-wealthy past because it wasn’t entirely relevant to character or story development. I kept the information, however, and did include it in the next manuscript because it made much more sense there. And, as an avid reader, I don’t find it too offensive to continue learning about the world from book to book. I also waited to deal with the specifics of the ecology as it applies to the apple-farming community because the breadth of travels is larger. Where the first manuscript primarily takes place in a relatively small area, the second sends the protagonist across the realm. It just made more sense to delve into the broader ecology when it was actually relevant.

So, really, more than anything my thought is this: Developing a world from scratch is the most exciting, agonizing part of writing off- and other-world fiction. I’m still tackling with how I present the science-magic of the realm without explaining it. I’m still fretting over characteristics of places and people that I want to include, but cannot find a really good reason to do it. Ultimately, having a beta reader with superior grammatical and spelling skills (thanks, Mom!), the bulk of my edits are focused on turning historical discourse into descriptive prose.

Never mind the entirely different set of problems I discovered in maintaining some level of accuracy peppered with alternative history in writing the Steampunk manuscript…

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2 Comments

Posted by on April 10, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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2 responses to “Boggling over Backstory

  1. jdhoward

    April 10, 2012 at 7:23 AM

    I have the exact same challenge. I couldn’t have described it any better. I’m working on both a paranormal novel and a separate romance novel. Writing the romance novel is a breeze because it takes place in the world as we know it between two normal human beings. The paranormal novel is extremely difficult to write on so many levels. LIke you said, the creation of a world, of a people with superhuman qualities,,,, and all that different stuff has to be explained and has to make sense, all without writing huge chunks of backstory. I found Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire a good example of how to infiltrate backstory throughout the scenes. I love it though, if you can pull it off well, your book could go far. My hats off to SciFi/Paranormal/Fantasy, etc. writers.

     
    • tobiaswrites

      April 11, 2012 at 8:24 AM

      My Steampunk manuscript going through edits now was considerably easier because it takes place in our own world, but adapting the tech to suit a Steampunk alternate history took a different sort of juggling. I can look up and utilize historical facts, but I have to be careful about the tech and discoveries so that I haven’t strayed so far from the actual past that it isn’t reasonable. When I use argon, I have to know when argon was discovered and what sort of uses it had in 1878. I can adapt to suit the alternate history, but I can’t simply decide that they have nuclear technology without really re-writing history, as it were.

      But yes, I love it too, despite all the extra effort required to incorporate a viable backstory without providing an actual timeline.

       

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