For Story’s Beginning, Don’t go Back!
Start with something exciting! Do not start by boring readers! Not with your character’s back story!
It isn’t necessary to “bring the reader up to speed, more of a big mistake because it’s boring until you know the character. In real life, when you meet a new friend, you don’t know his or her back-story.
Let readers meet the story’s characters in the same way.
In Vow Unbroken’s opening, who cares about Sue Baylor? Where she’s been, what she’s done? Who cares that her father’s a Tennessee judge or who her best friend is and why?
No one. Not yet. Think about it.
If you met someone new, would you hold still to listen to their life history as soon as you sat down? No, it’s only after you get to know the person and find her interesting that you’re willing to go along on a journey with her—and even then, in small increments, finding out more and more about her as you go, each time you meet or visit.
No one opening your book and meeting your characters cares about their pasts, not yet. They will—or should—before they read the last page, but backstory is boring. You do not want to bore readers at the start of your story! It’s great for the author to know, even vital, but leak back-story out only on a need-to-know basis to readers throughout your story.
This helps create tension (Why is he that way?) and avoids another common problem, author intrusion. That’s writing information the POVC—point of view character—would not be thinking at that time because of what’s going on in his world.
Just jump into your story in the middle of action! That’ll keep ’em reading! Backstory will not…
The private eye straightened behind the wheel at the ready. The object of her stakeout just emerged. He almost bounced down the brownstone’s stairs. What was the guy so chipper about that early in the morning?
Wiping blur from her eyes, she shook her head. Though he’d kept her up all night, she never regretted becoming a PI.
Her father had objected, and her mother practically fainted the day she announced her decision, but she liked her work. Even if that first cheating husband almost shot her, the job hadn’t been too dangerous.
Risk, she loved it! Ever since the time her grandfather talked her into swinging on that grapevine.
Can you see? The first two paragraphs drop right into the action, and the reader knows nothing about the POVC except she’s a girl and PI.
Then the next paragraph is all wrong backstory! Even though this may be interesting back-story, there’s no way the character would be engaging in all that introspection at that particular time, so it isn’t truly her POV (point of view or who’s telling the story). It’s all old news for her; she knows it. Save it for later when readers need to understand how her parents feel about her career.
All of the character’s focus and internal dialogues are going to be on that man leaving the strange address. Let your characters’ histories come out in dialogue or introspection, naturally—the same way you get to know that new friend. You learn about the person’s past, and she learns yours, a little at a time, as it comes out through the course of the relationship.
That’s how your readers should learn about your characters. Think salt and sprinkle lightly; too much backstory in one place—whether the beginning, middle or end of a scene—ruins the bite.
Telling what’s happened before your story begins early on, no matter how beautifully written with amazing descriptions, is not from your character’s POV. Our PI in this example lived it, so why would she be rehashing what her parents thought of her career choice right then? She simply would not.
It isn’t the character at all, but the author wanting to make sure readers get to know a tidbit of information of the player’s history—no matter how important it is or isn’t to the story. Don’t do it, especially right then. Keep the action going instead!
So if she isn’t thinking it, then it is not her POV. So, whose head is it in? Yours, the writer’s! Boom, author intrusion. Keep the story in your character’s perspective, not yours. Switching POV kills tension—which any fiction writer strives to build.
Because I write romance and women comprise the lion’s share of my audience, I almost always open with my heroine, in her POV. Pulling the curtain up on a western, the author might want to start in the cowboy’s POV.
Hopefully, Vow Unbroken enjoys a crossover gender appeal due to the Texas adventure backdrop. By the way, if you don’t know exactly what that viewpoint is all about yet, don’t be concerned. I’ll cover that soon here at #Because Fiction!
There are many methods to hook your reader, and none are always right or wrong, but a writer certainly wants to avoid anything outright boring like backstory, the weather, or scenery. Get straight to the action.
That’s what I say, but hey, if you could throw a blank page at the reader and catch their attention, great! Do that!
But…to hook a reader…a crisis that leads to a decision or a decision that leads to a crisis proves a good place to raise that curtain and let the story begin every time. Hook ’em, reel ’em in, land ’em! Use drama!
The crowded hall parted in front of the linebacker. He marched right down the middle as though king, and the students beneath his notice. Stopping short, he grinned like the devil he was.
“Hey, punk, meet me behind the gym after school.”
Troy swallowed. “Hey yourself, Butch. Your day going good?”
“Shut your smart mouth, Jonesie, or I won’t wait until after school.” The bully brushed past without another word.
Okay, would you agree Troy Jones has himself a crisis and a decision to make? And please notice, I didn’t “tell” the readers his proper name, but how the information came out naturally. I hold fast to the practice being nothing but author intrusion and undesirable, a blatant switch in POV, even though I know it’s standard operating procedure.
SOP does not make it good writing.
Do you wonder why Butch wants to beat up our hero? Will Troy decide to show? Will he lose face with the other students if he doesn’t? Maybe he’ll report the incident to his coach. I’ve opened right in the middle of the action though and revealed a bit of both boys’ characters.
Here’s how I open my newest release Duplicity at the Lowell House:
Sunday, May 13, 1866
“Morgan? Where are you?”
“In here. I’m almost ready.” He tugged on his vest then checked his pocket for his tithe check. It was there, safe and sound. He hated not being prepared.
His almost child bride burst into his dressing room. “Morgan! There’s been a murder!”
“What? A murder? You know who was it? Where?”
“Right here at the Lowell House! In room three-thirteen! A man’s body has been discovered in room three-thirteen, and he’s dead!”
“Here?” He smiled at her excitement; most murder victims were dead. “Who found him?”
“One of the maids, Darcy, I believe.”
“Has someone gone for the undertaker?”
“No, sir. Not that I know of. I didn’t. I sent for the sheriff though and asked Billy Bob to get all the information off the register. The man’s got a knife in his chest.”
Readers may not know who Morgan is or that his excited wife is Charity, but that’ll come! I do believe readers will turn that page! We have our crisis that will lead to a decision! We’ll talk more about ways to hook your readers next month.
In the meantime, I hope you’ll try the first in my new Cross Timbers Mystery series! You’ll see many of the characters in the Cross Timbers Romance Family Saga popping up in it!
Linda Brooks Davis
Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!
Revelation 5:12 NIV
Anybody out there grown worth-weary?
I have. I’ve worn myself out, clawing my way through one more task, one more chore, one more word. Why? I confess it often has been to earn my worth.
Have I done enough?
Enough for what? Another pat on the back or smile? An award? To be tagged deserving?
For years I sewed, sometimes until 3:00 a.m. (That’s what Super Mom does, right?) I grabbed a couple hours of sleep and trotted off to work by 7:00 a.m. Trouble is, I had little left for my students, and by 6:00 p.m. I possessed not a shred of energy for my family.
I’ve been known to write for twelve hours straight. But by bedtime my back aches, my eyes are crossed, and I can’t think straight. It’s all I can do to stumble past my husband and into bed. At those times, I’ve closed my ears to God’s voice through His divine megaphone: “Enough, already!”
It’s easier to express my thoughts and emotions in writing than with the spoken word. As a result, at times I regret not speaking up. But then, I have yet to figure out what’s enough. Can the Word of God enlighten me?
And let us not be weary in well-doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.
Galatians 6:9 (ASV)
The Apostle Paul encourages the Galatian church not to be weary in well-doing. In the past, I thought that meant to concentrate on the well-doing and push aside the weary. “Just work, work, work and ignore your weariness, folks.”
I have a different take today. As a result of the fall in Eden, our physical bodies grow weary. No way around it. But, like pain (a la C.S. Lewis), weariness can serve as God’s megaphone.
How’s that? The world’s Summer Olympics is coming up in July and August of 2021. Those athletes have fine-tuned training and recuperation. Take the rowing competition for an example.
Coxswains today don’t hold megaphones as in the old days. They use a headset, which is hooked up to speakers along the inside of the shell so rowers can hear what’s coming up. They call out in a language their teammates understand and in tones they recognize. Coxswains direct, focus, and encourage their teammates. Why? Because the rowers grow weary, off track, and even discouraged in their task. And in order to work successfully as a team, all rowers must work together in harmony.
Weary, off track, and discouraged? Sounds a lot like me at times. How about you?
Olympic rowers have built more than muscle strength. They’ve honed their listening skills, response time, and output. They respond to the coxswain in ways that achieve the goal without collapsing before the race is complete. They would fail completely if they didn’t listen and heed their leader.
But who is my coxswain? To whose words am I to listen? Whose tone am I to recognize? Jesus himself answers that question.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Matthew 11:28 NIV
I’m immensely honored to have received Jerry Jenkins Operation First Novel award and ACFW’s Carol for The Calling of Ella McFarland, As I look back on the years of mulling over the idea and researching the subject matter, I can relive the weariness, discouragement, and faulty focus. But unlike in my younger days, I’ve learned to stop the press, if you will, to rest. My goal isn’t to win an award. It’s to shine a light on Jesus Christ and in so doing, to leave a legacy of faith in writing for my grandchildren.
Not to earn my worth but to show God’s. That mindset takes a load off my shoulders. It relieves the weariness. And gives me rest.
My spine is crooked from years of bending over a desk, sewing machine, or computer. Had I heeded God’s voice in my weariness, no doubt I would sit straighter and experience less pain at the end of a day of writing. I can’t undo the past, but I can adjust my behavior in the present and consider the future without anxiety.
Neither you nor I can earn our worth . . . only cling to Jesus’ worth. Trust Him with our labor. And when He shouts, “You’re weary. Rest!” … obey.
P.S. Please excuse me while I take a holy nap.
Linda Shenton Matchett
Proxy Marriages: Not Just For Royalty
This past fall, I was given the opportunity to contribute a story to the Proxy Bride series, and I was excited to participate. I knew all about mail order brides: that time period in U.S. history when women in eastern cities answered advertisements from men living western states and territories who were looking for wives. But I had never heard of proxy marriages.
Rubbing my hands together gleefully because research is one of my favorite aspects to writing, I delved into a study of proxy marriages. I was stunned to discover the practice has been in existence for hundreds of years. But first, what exactly is a proxy wedding or marriage? According to Wikipedia a proxy wedding is a ceremony “in which one or both of the individuals being united are not physically present, usually being represented instead by other persons. If both partners are absent, a double wedding occurs.” I wonder what it feels like to miss your own wedding!
During medieval times, proxy marriages generally happened between royalty, most often with the bride and groom coming from different countries or territories in an effort to cement alliances or handle regional political problems. Upper-class people such as dukes, duchesses, or other highborn individuals also married by proxy.
The earliest record I could find is from 1385 when Mary, Queen of Hungary married Louis I, Duke of Orléans by proxy. However, four months later her country was invaded by Sigismund of Luxembourg, who nullified Mary’s marriage to Louis and took her as his wife. Later proxy marriages include Catherine of Aragorn to Prince Arthur in 1499 (long before she married Henry VIII), Marie Antoinette to Louis-Auguste in 1770, and Napoleon I to Archduchess Marie Louise in 1810 after divorcing his first wife.
By the late 1800s, proxy marriages among royalty had died out, but continued in the U.S. during the period of western expansion, with most states and territories implementing laws in order for men to marry their out of state fiancées. However, Montana’s law, enacted in the 1860s and still on the books, allows for double proxy marriages where both parties are represented by other individuals.
A half century later during the Great War, proxy marriage rose in popularity for soldiers who were unable to leave the front to marry women at home, then again during the second world war for the same reason. Between 1945 and 1976, there was a surge of proxy weddings in Italy when over 12,000 women married Italian-Australian men, then traveled to Australia to meet their husbands.
Nowadays, proxy marriages are only legal in Texas, Colorado, Kansas, and Montana, with California permitting proxy marriages exclusively for deployed military personnel, however, there are also various internet sites that offer to arrange proxy weddings. Thanks to current technology video conferencing enables the couples to experience the ceremony together. How times have changed!
Can two people set aside presumptions, prejudices, and pain to find love?
When her father dies after a lengthy illness, Madeline Winthrop is horrified to discover his will bequeaths their home to his business partner, a cruel and dishonest man, leaving her destitute. With no job or marriage prospects, she seeks help from her pastor who suggests she considers becoming a mail order bride. There’s just one catch. She’s to marry the man by proxy before ever meeting him.
After three mail order brides refuse to stay and marry Seamus Fitzpatrick because of his brother’s mental health issues and two rambunctious children, Seamus decides a proxy marriage is the only way he’s going to secure a wife. When the Boston-bred socialite arrives with few practical skills, he wonders if he made the biggest mistake of his life.
What Lurks Beneath
“You wrote these books? You’re the last person I suspected would write something like this. Where do you get this stuff?” More than one person has said this to me because, on the outside, I’m flowers and ribbons and sparkles. They can’t imagine someone like that writing chilling historical romantic suspense.
And frankly, I didn’t imagine I would ever be writing it myself either. When I first started in this business almost two decades ago, I decided I wanted to be like Jeanette Oke. You know, boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl live happily ever after. Throw in a good prairie fire and plenty of long skirts, and you have yourself a story. Romance. Candlelight and hearts and sappy songs.
But something funny happen on the way to publication. No one wanted to buy my straight romances. I finally did publish a few of them as novellas, but no one wanted any of my full-length novels. What they did want was the WWII books I wrote, all based on true events and people. And then they wanted the gritty true-crime suspenses I wrote. And just between you and me, I’m so glad they did. I love writing the gritty and gripping.
My parents always knew I had a flair for the dramatic. When I was little, they called me Sarah Bernhardt. She was an actress (before my time – really!) who was known for her over-the-top performances. So I guess that I’ve always had that inside me. While much too introverted to be an actress, my fondness for compelling stories and dramatic tales has served me well in my writing. A good day at the office is when I can write my hero or heroine into a corner with no idea how I’m going to get him or her out. It’s a great puzzle I get to solve every day.
That’s what made the story of The Gold Digger one I had to write. The real-life crime was horrific and chilling, full of mystery and suspicion. The criminal was drama laden. There were plenty of tense scenes to be written and corners back my characters into. I’ve written almost twenty books now, but The Gold Digger has to be among the top of my favorites to pen.
So when you meet an author, remember that we present ourselves as very normal people (okay, most of the time). But it’s what lurks underneath, the part we don’t let the public see, that defines our writing.
Marguerite Martin Gray
Because Fiction—the Name
I don’t know how this magazine’s name originated, but I love it. I am an avid reader of fiction, and I have been since a child in grade school, devouring as many books as I can. There will never be enough time to read all I want, especially since I stop to write novels myself.
Why Fiction? Because…
Fiction adds the elements of characters and plots that non-fiction can lack. I will admit though I have read many nonfiction research books that held my interest and sparked my curiosity. But because I love knowing the whys, hows, and whats of the characters, I seek out a novel. Because I know I will find deeply invested characters involved in action packed plots, I escape to the pages of fiction.
Because I want to laugh, cry, and grow through the antics of the characters, I choose the novel to find escapades, tugging at my emotions—whether embedded in love lost, new beginnings, war, new ventures, old friends, birth, or death.
Because Fiction, the magazine, is a perfect place to find new and seasoned authors who have their readers for choosing fiction as their template for their novels. Check them out—Contemporary, Historical, Mystery, Suspense, Amish, and Women’s Fiction. If you are like me, your love of fiction has some “because” factors. The novel fascinates me and spurs my curiosity as it satisfies my adventurous longings.
Thanks for the unique title, ladies!
Wild Heart Books featuring Lisa J. Flickinger
Behind the Scenes of Rocky Mountain Revelation by Lisa J. Flickinger
When I research a new novel, I love to find obscure facts about the setting. My study of the old time river drives for Rocky Mountain Revelation led me to a particularly tasty morsel. The river crews were served massive amounts of food over four meals to make up for all the energy expended transporting logs in the frigid water. Often, their meals included donuts.
Yes, donuts! However, we’re not talking about the scrumptious treat picked up at your local bakery or grocery store. These donuts were cooked over an open fire in the backwoods. Yum.
Picture what they call a tin kitchen, a small boxy metal contraption, set over a blazing fire. The cook would place a wide mouthed aluminum basin on top and fill it with cooking oil. When the oil reached the perfect temperature he would drop the batter into the oil using a ladle. The piping hot donuts would be rolled in sugar when they were cooked and served to the crew fresh from the fire. A half whiskey barrel of donuts could disappear in just one meal. Several times a day, the cook would travel downstream by raft and repeat the process.
Will, the hero of Rocky Mountain Revelation, finds his sweetheart Madeleine particularly pretty with flour up to her elbows. However, he grows tired of the mounds of donuts and by the end of the drive attempts to trade them for the cook’s fluffy biscuits.
Enjoy the trip downriver with Will, Madeline…and the donuts.