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Backstory: How Did We Get Where We Are?

January 15, 2013

Love and Not Destroy -jpegEven when you know the story you want to tell, sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. Common wisdom says to start as close to the end as you can. Start when a character is about to be taken out of his (or her) comfort zone. Good advice. Why? Because the character’s reaction to change and the challenges it presents is the heart of a story. How will he solve the problem? That’s what makes a reader turn pages and keep reading into the night.

That’s pretty straightforward. Start with a problem. But, at some point, you want to show who the character is, how he got that way, and why this particular problem is important to him. That’s where backstory comes in.

Love and Not Destroy is the story of a young woman’s search for her true identity. It’s a mystery, so there’s also a murder to solve. I start with the discovery of the body of a homeless man – the one person my protagonist, Peace Morrow, believes can provide the answers she needs. This sets the story in motion.

Discovering the man’s identity and solving the puzzle of his death are the challenges of the plot. Why does Peace care enough to become involved? Because of who she is – her backstory. I waited until Chapter Three, when I hoped the reader would be hooked by the puzzle, to tell this. This is how I began to give the reader the information he needed to understand Peace and why the answers are so important to her:

An old-fashioned Christening dress and bonnet, encased in a shadowbox frame, hung in a place of honor in the room. Peace’s earliest memories were of her mother pointing to the dress and crooning to her: “Somebody loved you so much they dressed you like a princess and set you adrift, just like the baby Moses.” A scattering of daisies, embroidered with stitches so tiny they were almost invisible, edged the dress’s flowing skirt and the bonnet’s brim. A silver cup and a pillow, embroidered with the words “Peace Be With You” rested on a shelf under the shadowbox. When Caroline had adopted the foundling child, she’d given her the name Peace Daisy Morrow, taken from the fine needlework and in honor of her own Quaker tradition. Peace loved to tease her mother, calling her the most militant pacifist on the planet. Invariably, Caroline would retort, “And proudly so.”

On a table near Peace’s elbow was a photograph of her and her mother, taken last spring, on the day of her graduation from Temple. The physical disparity between the two was striking. Peace was five feet, nine inches tall, large boned and rail thin, with fair skin, red hair and a cinnamon dusting of freckles. That coloring, paired with clear blue eyes and a snub nose, suggested an Irish lineage. That’s all Peace knew about her biological heritage. Caroline Morrow was barely five feet tall and weighed less than a hundred pounds. What she lacked in size, she made up in energy; her dark eyes snapped purpose and resolve. Fifty-eight years old, her hair was an even mixture of salt and pepper. She wore it long, in a single braid that trailed down her back. When she was upset or deep in thought she’d bring the braid forward and run her fingers along its length. Watching her, Peace would imagine she heard Mozart.

I hoped that, by showing some of the treasured items in Peace’s life, I would give the reader a glimpse into her history and, at the same time, pique their curiosity enough to make them want to share Peace’s journey.

Love and Not Destroy  –

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 16, 2013 10:14 AM

    You have managed to cram an entire Charles-Dickenslike story into a couple of paragraphs here. We often don’t have the opportunity to explain as much as we would like, once ‘the story’ gets going.

  2. Sydell Voeller permalink
    January 17, 2013 11:44 AM

    A great example of how to effectively get a story up and running! This is a wonderful book.

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