A World of Backstory

As a budding fantasy writer I remember rushing off to George R. R. Martin’s blog to glean some advice from a master. As luck would have it the very first questions on the FAQ page was: ‘I want to be a writer. Can you give me any advice?’ I devoured his response: Read widely young apprentice and let your curious creative soul be nourished by others that have gone before. And then, fledgling writer, do that thing that draws you back to the page again and again – write, grow strong and develop some writing muscles. (Of course I am paraphrasing for effect, but you get the drift). But then he said something that deserves to be quoted in full:

Given the realities of today’s market in science fiction and fantasy, I would also suggest that any aspiring writer begin with short stories. These days, I meet far too many young writers who try to start off with a novel right off, or a trilogy, or even a nine-book series. That’s like starting in at rock climbing by tackling Mt. Everest. Short stories help you learn your craft. They are a good place for you to make the mistakes that every beginning writer is going to make. And they are still the best way for a young writer to break in, since the magazines are always hungry for short SF and fantasy stories. Once you’ve been selling short stories for five years or so, you’ll have built up a name for yourself, and editors will start asking you about that first novel.

Cue needle skidding off the record with a jarring discordant thud. Hang on a minute, I’m rubbish at writing short stories. And five years worth? Five years? Five! But George I have this great whopping story in my head that is desperate to get out. And the problem with writing any fantasy for me is the world building involved. Write a 2000 word story and it takes me three months to build the world. Sorry George, it’s not going to happen.

Well a few years on, and this word of advice doesn’t seem quite so outlandish. Because one thing I’ve discovered about writing a novel with a handful of POV characters, set in a fantasy realm, is that it’s really complicated. And as the story progressed I began to see that there were great big holes that required details as rich and as commonplace as the world we experience everyday.

Perhaps I should have cut my teeth on short stories.

However being in this deep with the story, I’ve had to forge ahead and do whatever it takes to keep this novel going. This has meant spending a lot of time world building and working out backstories, and evaluating whether the story still works on the crisper canvas.

Surprisingly rather than just adding colour, the world building and backstory has really influenced the story too.

For example, there is a ring in my story. Not a ‘one ring to rule them all‘ type, but a small identifier in some larger action. I’d sketched it in and not really given much thought to what it looked like, symbolised, or why the character had it in the first place.

However while I’ve been working on the backstory of one of the characters, and coming to grips with the culture this character lives in, I found myself focussed on this ring. I’d written it as being pretty insignificant in appearance, but of significance to a small group of people. As I pondered what it looked like, it not only became very vivid in my mind, but I realised there needed to be something special about it that evoked a reaction in this group of people. As the details were pinned down, so was the impetus to move the story forward.

It’s not possible to nail down a backstory for every little detail in your novel, but the right detail can motivate your characters to action and kick-start a stalled story.

Do you use world-building or back stories to help you push through a knotty plot? Or have you ever been surprised by some seemingly insignificant detail that took the story in a whole new direction?

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5 thoughts on “A World of Backstory

  1. Raewyn can I just say, welcome back! Then add this: I COMPLETELY UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU HAVE BEEN GOING THROUGH. There have been times in the past 5 minutes and also thousands more in the past few years that my story has felt too big, too complicated, to interwoven with so many other things that I have felt so completely under qualified to finish it. Epic fantasy is, well, EPIC. And with so much going on in my personal life as well, I have found it almost impossible at times to keep writing. I am still going at it, but slower than ever before, and often feel like I’ve gone further backwards or sideways than forwards. It has occurred to me that perhaps if I stopped writing this WIP and focussed on short stories built around this world and the current conflict, that it might have been easier. But, like you, I didn’t do that. So I’ll struggle alongside you and maybe, just maybe we’ll publish these books yet!
    Thank you for this post. It has made me feel better tonight.

    1. The reason I’ve missed the blog so much Alison is having the connection with others who really get the journey. So it might take us a while (*coughs*) to finish these books, but knowing that other people working in this genre are also in the same boat really helps. We have full personal lives, and more often than not the story has to take a back seat – but it’s good to celebrate the progress we are making. I for one am trying to find the positives in any advance. It’s a bit heartbreaking to be rewriting some of the earlier chapters (it took me a week to process having to rewrite chapter 2 because I knew the character dynamic wasn’t right) but knowing that the backwards or sideways is sharpening the story and ultimately will make it better helps. Enjoy the writing time you have knowing you aren’t the only one!

  2. Have you considered trying to craft some of these backstories into short stories? Just a thought. It’s something I’ve been doing lately, while still continuing on with the grand W.I.P.

    As for background… I’ve had the same universe in my brain since childhood and it’s continuously filled itself out during that time. Everything I write comes from that place and abides by its rules and nuances. Characters fill themselves out all the time, too, and volunteer details I never thought to look for. It’s addictive.

    1. I have thought (more so lately) about crafting up some of the backstory. The thing that scares me however is that Fall of the Kings started out as the backstory for Legend… which probabally says something about my ability to focus on the task at hand. The other part is that the backstories I have drafted up tend to be in note form. The few times I have written something approaching readable prose was more illustrative / insightful rather than following a short story format.

      I’m glad to hear you mine your story universe the same way. The thought of coming up with another one does my head in!

      1. I’d say, just keep the possibility tucked away in the back of your head as you keep writing. You never know when inspiration will strike or how it will manifest when it does. ^_^

        I think having more than one head-universe would have to mean that the universes are less complex. But comparison isn’t really easy when dealing with brainspace. 😉

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