Monday, January 08, 2018

The Back Story

Recently in The Author there was an article by David Williams about the world's shortest stories. He quoted the tale that Ernest Hemingway was asked to produce one, on the promise of having his bar bill paid, and he came up with, 'For sale: baby shoes, never worn.'

Whether he wrote it or not, what a wealth of human tragedy lies in those few words! Margaret Atwood's attempt was a rather more cynical, 'Longed for him. Got him. Shit.'

Williams also quoted one of his own from his book, HE and SHE: 1000 stories in 1000 tweets, that I particularly liked: 'A Lasting Hand: Their marriage started with two hearts and a diamond. It ended with a club and a spade.' A crime novel in miniature.

They're all clever. They whet the curiosity and the answer to the questions the reader wants to ask could be a short story, or even a whole novel.

Wanting to know the back story is a fundamental human instinct. When we first meet someone we all ask what I call 'establishing' questions. Where do you live? What do you do? What family do you have? What books do you read? What films do you like? It's the way a meeting proceeds to a friendship.

When we introduce a main character to our readers, they need to know a bit about the back story if they're going to feel involved. The trouble is that we can't set down a list of attributes and tastes and a lot of personal history without slowing up the story and boring everyone rigid as well.

To be convincing, I need to know the answer to all these questions, even though I'll never actually write everything down. It's a gradual process, like getting to know a real person, but it's what makes them take on a life of their own. I sometimes found myself saying about DI Marjory Fleming, 'I didn't know she'd done that!' I hope that's what percolates through to the reader.

In the past months I've spent a lot of time learning the back story of a new detective, DI Kelso Strang. What drew me to write about him wasn't exactly a shortest-story-style tweet, but it was a very brief image that came into my head: a young man, his adored wife and their unborn baby fatally injured in a car accident, signing the paper to switch off her life-support.

Somehow the idea took possession of my mind and the new book, Human Face, comes out this month. I'll be writing about it in my next post.


Marianne Wheelaghan said...

How exciting, Aline, a new character and a new book. Yay! I'm looking forward to hearing more about DI Kelso Strang and Human Face in your next post.

Ps: Well said, feeding in a back story without boring our readers rigid requires our finest writing skills.

Aline Templeton said...

Thanks Marianne. Hope you got your invitation to the launch!

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Oh yes! Thanks. Thursday 18th January. Looking forward to it :)