Getting Backstory in There!

I’ve survived (enjoyed) writing courses in the wilds of Dartmoor and I’ve read the ‘How to’ books on writing. One of the basic tenets from both is dealing with the backstory. The classical mistake newbies make is to have too much back story, too early. The advice ranges from ‘break it up’ to ‘weed it out’. The argument behind this is sound –

Agents read the magic first three chapters (if you’re lucky), and do not want to get bogged down in ‘why’ before they get engaged in ‘what’.

Readers need to be engaged in the ‘now’ story, not the ‘then’ story before they’ve gone far. The tense usually changes for backstory, and ‘I had gone’ rather than ‘I went’ or ‘I go’ feels less direct, less engaging.

So, I pared my backstory down. And down. And made two mistakes. The first HUGE mistake, was that there was some backstory which had just happened and was really exciting. I left it as backstory because, silly newbie, I wanted to open my book with my pre-conceived opening, which was Amber Farrell, PI, sitting in her office and the client coming in. Hey, worked for Raymond Chandler, how wrong can it be?

Lots wrong. Raymond Chandler didn’t create PIs, though he defined a genre of how to write about them. When he said (as Marlowe in The Big Sleep) “I was wearing my powder-blue suit… I was neat, clean, shaved and sober… I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be…” His readers knew what a PI was, and could immediately start to take the background information and fleshing out the ‘PI blank model’ in their head. They knew he’d be tough and sharp and he confirms this with his dialogue in the first chapter.

On the other hand, I was starting with a woman PI who’s been bitten by a vampire, but is human, and is kick ass, but is… and is.. etc. etc. The PI blank model doesn’t fit, and I can’t flesh her out in snippets of dialogue before getting down to some action. Yes, there are other female PI’s in Urban Fantasy, but they’re not well defined enough for me to call one up in a reader’s mind, and besides, this is Amber and she’s different.

So I eased in a little backstory to illustrate Amber – she’s bruised and sore because she got hit by a truck. She got hit by a truck because she was out busting a drug smuggling operation. She was out busting a drug smuggling operation because that’s way more fun than what PIs usually have to do to pay the bills.

You see? It’s all good stuff, and I hope it gives you a feel for Amber. But it’s backstory, and it only happened last night. Why, said my editor, in big red letters, why did you start in the office? Start at the point she’s about to break up the drug smuggling and gets hit by the truck. And she was right – I re-wrote and it gives the book a flying start while filling lots of Amber details in.

So, massive improvement by taking backstory and making it ‘now’, rather than using my pre-conceived traditional PI opening.

The other backstory problem was more subtle, and I’m not really saying it was a mistake.

How did Amber become so capable and where/when was she bitten by a vampire?

Amber is a very capable woman because she spent ten years in special forces, in the most covert battalion in the US Army. That ended when she was bitten by a vampire, and the army went from not believing in them to having their very own test subject.

OK, I’m not going to add ten years of following Amber through her special forces training and operations just to avoid back story, but I get away with this part. I can say ‘she was in special forces’ and the reader will know she’s tough and capable and have a good idea what that part of her life meant and what abilities it gives her.

But the vampire attack… what do I do with that? It’s two years ago at the start of the novel and involved an operation deep in the South American jungle and left Amber with some problems – she’s afraid she’s turning vampire, she’s guilty that only she survived from the squad (which she was leading – so the deaths are her fault), and she can’t talk to anyone about it, and the army want her to… etc. etc.

I thought I got away with giving the bare bones of this. After all, a vampire attack is a vampire attack, isn’t it? They leap out and bite your neck. They killed her team, but didn’t manage to kill her. She killed them. Enough already?

No. The majority of reviewers have said ‘I want to know what happened in South America’.

There will be a short story prequel called Hacha del Diablo (or probably, The Devil’s Axe). It will tell the story. It’s not Urban Fantasy – Amber’s about as far away from civilization as you can get when this happens – if it’s anything, it’s Military Horror (a genre I’ve invented for the purpose). Regardless, I’ll enjoy writing it, after finishing Hidden Trump. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it. It’ll be on Amazon for free.

And hopefully, that’ll be all that’s necessary for Amber’s back story!


About Mark Henwick

I was born in Africa and left out in the sun too often. An early interest in philosophy and psychology was adequately exorcised by tending bars. And while trying to enroll in a class to read Science Fiction full time, I ended up taking an engineering degree which splendidly qualified me to move into marketing. That in turn spawned a late onset career in creative writing. When not working, I get high by the slightly less conventional means of a small light aircraft. My first book, 'Sleight of Hand' is available on Amazon at

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