Friday, February 13, 2015

Finding the Backstory

As I read the posts from Rick and Barbara this week, I was breathing much easier. I had finally finished that short story I mentioned I was working on. The short story for an anthology with all of the contributors writing about the hero of three "B" westerns. According to the guidelines we were given, genre-blending was permitted. As you might expect, my story involved a murder. But it took me forever and a day to get to that murder. Halfway through, I had to change directions and rethink the plot.

I know I've written before about sagging middles and endings that won't gel, and the agony of getting through a first draft. But I'm not a pantser. I usually know more or less where I'm headed. I'm that hybrid that Barbara discussed. But with this short story, knowing where I wanted to go and getting there was not happening.

One of the problems was that I was writing about a character that I had not created. He stood there before me, an adult, fully formed. He had done things and had cowpoke buddies that I needed to take into account. In addition, the publisher had provided some guidelines about this character's behavior (i.e., good guy hero). I started writing with those guidelines in mind. I wrote and wrote and the character never came to life. It was only when I took the working title that the publisher had provided seriously that I begin to see how much room I had to write the story I wanted to write. The title was "the birth of" -- as in origins, roots, what is this character's backstory?  Why did Batman become a vigilante superhero? Why had my cowboy from Texas become a man who would do the right thing, who would be on the side of law and justice? That was my entry point into my story.

Realizing this stopped me dead in my rewrite. I needed to think about not only where this character had been born but the family he had been born into. I needed to think about why he would understand the reaction of another character to the murder of a family member. I needed to dig deeper and think about what "my" protagonist felt and cared about -- not just how he looked and rode his horse.

This was my mini version of what Reed Farrel Coleman talked about in his weekend guest post a couple of weeks ago. Coleman needed to figure out how to write about Robert B.Parker's protagonist in a way that was true to Parker's vision but drew on Coleman's own strengths as a writer. I needed to do that for my short story. But that wasn't the end of the process. Once I had a grip on my character, I need to claim my setting. I needed to stop playing western movies in my head and draw on the research I had done.

I'm not sure what the editor of the anthology is going to say about the story that I ended up writing. It's true to the spirit of the character, but I turned at least one convention on its head. Within the context of my story, it makes sense and had to happen that way. And contributors were given some leeway to write grittier than movie-version stories.

Meanwhile, I am now back to the countdown to pub date for my March mystery (What the Fly Saw). I'm on a virtual book tour and writing guest posts. The challenge is to make each one unique and targeted to the audience of the website. I have a list of book-related ideas, and I'm telling myself that if I could write that short story, guests posts should be easy. They're not. But I'm getting them done.

Will let you know what happens with the short story and how the virtual book tours goes.

No comments: