Backstory: The Most Important Sub-Plot You’ll Never Write

I suffer from one of the more visible ailments of the Florida tourist. While this particular malady can afflict anyone, regardless of age, race, or sex, a recent non-scientific study at [insert name of beach here] determined those most susceptible were white males over the age of 40.

While I am a match for three of the four descriptors of this largest group, I am no longer a tourist, having established Florida residency over a year ago.

The tragic, socially-alienating condition I am referring to is more colloquially known as “farmer’s tan.”

I am not a farmer, either, which makes my predicament that much more disturbing as both an embarrassment to my teenage daughter at the neighborhood pool and as a source of unwarranted conversation at the Flying J truck stop about how the drought is really screwing with the yield of crops I don’t grow.

So last week I made my first attempt to remedy the situation by doing yard work…without my shirt on.

Now I am dealing with the corollary condition to the farmer’s tan called “peeling”–the direct result of the sun baking my Nordic-white skin too long. And as anyone who’s experienced the same problem knows, with the peeling comes the itching.

Luckily I have a ready arsenal to deal with the irritation.

Backstory

A sunburned back can really affect the way you approach everyday situations. Showers are shorter and the pressure of washcloth (or that mesh “poof” thing) on skin is gentler. There’s no leaning back on the couch for a few days either…hmmm. So maybe sunburn can actually help your posture. Or not.

That’s my back story.

“Excuse me. What does that have to do with writing?”

I’ll tell you. Like a sunburn on your back helps shape the choices you make–do you really want to bear-hug your buddy knowing the pain that’s coming?–your fictional character’s backstory helps shape the choices he/she makes in your novel.

See what I did there?–[smile]

“You’re lame.”

All right. That was a lame transition, but if the opening lines of this post amused you in any way, then I hope you will forgive me…because the next part really is important to discuss if you’re a writer or reader of books, and/or a watcher of movies, for that matter.

At least it’s important enough to my own project that I spent a whole week on it just to discover that most of what I’d written so far (outline and manuscript) has to reworked.

In my first three novels, Open Source, The Complicity Doctrine, and Truth in Hiding, the protagonist, Casey Shenk, shares a lot of my own backstory. You might say that Casey IS me, and to a large extent that’s true.

Remember, those novels were first attempts at learning the craft of writing–primarily through trial-and-error–and they served as proof (to me, especially) that I could see an entire book project through from start to finish.

By making Casey Shenk a fictional version of Matt Frick, I didn’t have to think too much about the main protagonist’s background, personality, or decision-making process, because they were essentially the same as mine.

Frank Torwood, the main character in my current project, is a different story, however. Frank is not me.

Before I started outlining, I determined Frank’s birthdate, birthplace, where he went to school, his occupation, how he chose that career, and some of the things he’d done or seen that put him in the predicament he finds himself in at the story’s open. I had his backstory…or so I thought.

As I discussed in Start from the Middle: How One Simple Idea Just Changed Everything, I took another look at the plotting I’d done through the lens of a “mirror moment.” This point in the story is where the main character takes a look at his life and decides if he’ll continue down that road or change as the situation dictates around the midpoint of the story. The decision he makes affects how he will respond to conflicts and tension in the remaining pages.

I did that. And all was well. Until I realized I only knew half of what I needed to know. I knew what Frank would choose to become and how this would drive the last act of the three-act play forward to the end, but I didn’t know the first part of the “mirror moment.” If Frank was going to look back at his life and who he was before that all-important decision, I needed to know what he saw in that mirror. And everything I knew about Frank to that point was as deep as a Wikipedia bio entry.

What was Frank’s childhood like? Was it cushy and filled with love, or was it traumatic and filled with strife? What were his parents’ childhoods like? Did their own difficult upbringings affect the way they treated Frank or the home life they were able to provide or not provide for him? Did Frank have any siblings?

I needed to answer those questions–at a minimum–before I truly began to understand Frank as a person.

We all know or know of people who have overcome diversity and hardship to become successful in life. We may even know folks who grew up with a silver spoon only to hit rock bottom when they got older. One thing each of them have in common is that their background invariably shaped the decisions they made which led to their rise or fall.

And those situations aren’t just about monetary stability or social status. More often than not, it could be as simple as, “that person’s (an asshole, racist, saint, killer…whatever) because of (how their mommy/daddy raised them, the gang violence in their neighborhood, the time they spent going to church, their drug addiction, etc.).”

And that’s just part of the backstory.

There was likely a “mirror moment” at some point early on in these people’s lives that led to their rise or fall decision. Maybe they killed someone and went to prison. Perhaps they drank too much one night, hit a pedestrian–crippling that poor soul for life–and fled the scene. They might have jumped into a fast-moving river during a flood-rain and saved the dog of a billionaire widower who rewarded them with five-million dollars.

Or maybe they got married.

Whatever happened, however a person was raised, all of this defines who your main character is at the start of the book. As an author, I not only have to show the reader a believable and interesting/entertaining character arc through the pages of the book, I have to know why a character takes a certain action or makes a specific choice to get the story moving in the first place.

That’s backstory. And it’s the most important sub-plot you’ve got to have for your story to work. Your character won’t feel alive without it.

You may reveal some of that backstory to the reader (through dialogue, flashback, etc.), but you’ll never put the whole thing in your book–or at least I wouldn’t.

It is called back story, after all. And who wants to show off all that red, painful, itchy, peeling mess, anyway?

“You’re still lame.”

I know.

Rebalancing the Scale When Life’s Boot Is On Your Throat

The subtitle of Better Strangers is “A Writer’s Life in the Balance.” (That might not show up on your smart phone, but it’s there…on the front page…I promise.)

The idea behind this weblog was to have a platform where I could share my own experiences trying to break into the world of the hybrid author (self-published [check] and traditionally published [working on that one]) while filling the roles of:

1) husband and

2) father to two kids, a bluetick coonhound, and a box turtle.

Okay, the turtle–King Bob–isn’t much of a burden.

Some of you might not think that’s very much of a challenge, me being “retired,” and all. And if I’m being honest with myself, I guess it’s not…especially with the kids in school all day long.

But shit just got real, y’all!

A few weeks ago I started a part-time job at the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum working an average of five hours a day, four times a week. With a half-hour commute each way, that means I’m out of the house at least 24 hours every seven days.

Driving to and from the Ancient City, I can still work on my book thanks to the soundtrack I put together [How I Use “Soundtracks” To Help Me Write When I’m Not Writing], but there’s definitely no chance for putting pen to paper during the other 20 hours, so things are slow-going on the manuscript completion front. And soon I’ll also be giving tours at the museum which means I’ll likely be working more than just four days a week.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m NOT complaining. The extra money is something we certainly need, and working at the Pirate Museum is a dream come true. I haven’t had this much fun on a job since living at sea in the Nasty Nic (USS Nicholson) and Sammy B. (USS Samuel B. Roberts)!

Plus, while a tour guide at the museum has to know a lot about pirates, I would argue–after working there for a month now–the bloke working the floor in Ye Olde Treasure Shoppe selling tickets, t-shirts, and shot glasses has to know just as much as (more than?) the pirate “captains” giving tours.

Since 80% (just guessing) of the visitors are going through the museum sans guide, who do you think they ask when they have questions about what they just viewed when they come through the door at the end, back into Ye Olde Treasure Shoppe (it’s actually called that–more fitting than just calling it a “gift shop”)? That’s right. They ask the same person who sold them the ticket to get in, that’s who. And that means research.

Now, I know quite a bit about pirates from years of reading and occasionally writing about them [Yo-Ho-Ho and a Bottle of Rum], but my new job has forced me to revisit those old books and delve into some new ones, as well…and that means more time away from my true occupation of being an author.

“So that’s the boot on your throat?”

Not exactly. I imagine literally having someone’s boot…or shoe…or even a bare foot crushing your windpipe would be immensely painful. But working at the museum and rekindling my inner-student–especially studying something I love–puts a little more weight on the “life” side of the scale.

WritersLife

Now, add my yard to that side.

“What?”

This time last year, we reshuffled the deck and moved to Florida [Matt Frick]. We found a great house in a great area, and all was well. Except, along with the fantastic house in the fantastic community, we bought a not-so-fantastic yard. It could be described, with no arguing on my part, as the worst yard in the neighborhood.

I’m no green-thumb, to be sure, but I can’t say that everything I touch that has roots in soil automatically dies. No, our yard was on its last legs when we moved in. It was gasping for breath and dying a slow death all on its own. Precisely because I did NOT touch it.

Sure, I mowed the grass a few times in the summer, but aside from a few weeks of watering in the past 12 months, I did nothing to help it come back to life…until about two weeks ago.

Following the guidance of a lawn care expert we hired to eradicate the chinch bugs killing our grass and the fungus/mold choking out our shrubbery, my wife and I proceeded to cut and plant sod throughout our entire front yard and 3/4 of the back and side yards. That translated to anywhere from 9 to 11 hours of our lives (each), four out of five days last week, consumed with back-breaking, fingernail and toenail-blackening (it’s Florida–even yard work is done in flip-flops), sweat-inducing, dirty work.

After digging countless holes with that damn post-hole digger, I felt as if my arms and shoulders were popping muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator. Alas, there is no visible evidence that such a transformation took place.

So add in completely unanticipated time-sucking manual labor, and the scale tips even further away from that writer’s life balance.

Yep. And the school year just ended yesterday.

“I’m bored,” has already started.

Time to rebalance the scale.

Rebalancing that scale between meeting life’s demands and realizing the dream of publishing a book is not an easy thing to do. But I think I know how to make it happen. More importantly, I believe I can find that balance again and actually make life more enjoyable–for me and my family.

King Bob (the box turtle) doesn’t care what I do, as long as he has clean water and meal worms.

The solution I came up with includes both internal and external elements, but each are really a matter of perspective and prioritizing to reduce stress and increase efficiency–and ultimately, balance the scale.

Internally, I’m trying to stop giving too much weight to the objects on the “life” side of the scale which I (and most folks) would consider a burden. (<==Note to wife: This does not include our family. I love y’all!)

Take the yard, for instance. Timing played a part in moving this project high on the priority list. When the company we ordered from dropped a whole palette of St. Augustine sod on our driveway, we were on the clock to get that stuff in the ground before it died.

I toiled like a madman Wednesday evening and Thursday morning before work…planting grass that had already started to shrivel on the palette. Then, while I was at the museum, my wife found out from the lawn care guy that we should water the pile of side…the giant pile in our driveway…at least three times a day. You know, to keep it alive before we cut it into plugs, dig holes, and plant it. (I told you I didn’t have a green thumb.)

When I got home from work, we proceeded to replace the dead sod plugs in half of our front yard. We only got half done because the sun called it a day, and it was too dark. *sigh*

But on Saturday, we had two soccer games in the morning, and I had to work at the Pirate Museum from 2 p.m. ’til closing. This is where the rebalancing started.

We decided our priorities did not include finishing the lawn that day (now that we knew the secret of watering the damn grass pile in front of the garage). Instead, we went to the kids’ games, and I went to work without a second thought about the worst yard in the neighborhood.

I had the next three days off, so we worked like a couple possessed, replacing the bad sod and finishing the rest of the yard. The whole yard. It was hard work, but I also counted that work as exercise (which it absolutely was), and I didn’t hit the gym (in our garage) for the whole three days. See a little change of perspective bought me some free time there?

Externally, I’ve focused more on practicing what I preach. I started this blog post while getting an oil change, and I’m finishing it while the kids are off taking a nap or playing with friends after my wife took them to the neighborhood pool.

Oh, I also went grocery shopping and returned 13 bags of unused top soil to Ace Hardware while they were swimming.

Efficiency.

My wife plays a HUGE part in this rebalancing, whether she realizes it or not. The whole “life” thing is definitely a team effort. She helps keeps the plates spinning when they start to wobble. And the show goes on.

Perhaps the most important part of trying to keep A Writer’s Life in the Balance is reminding myself how much I enjoy writing. I really do enjoy it.

And I also enjoy being a pirate…

work

…who does yard work.

Better Strangers?

Strangers- outlined with citation

Why did you choose “Better Strangers” as the name of your blog?

I get asked that question a lot. Okay, not really. I just started this blog on Tuesday, and pretty much my audience consists of my wife and my mom…and I’m not sure my wife actually read the first post. But since you asked (assuming you read this out loud), I’ll tell you.

I love Shakespeare.

Most people who are products of the American public school system have at least a cursory knowledge of one or more of the Bard’s great tragedies: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, etc. To a lesser extent, I imagine, they may even know some of the comedies: The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Whether categorized as comedy or tragedy, Shakespeare’s plays are great stories in their own right. But what makes them special is the language. Shakespeare’s plays are replete with fantastic wordplay that helped elevate the author to the master-status he so rightly deserves. An example from As You Like It (Act 3, Scene 2):

Enter ORLANDO and JAQUES

Jaq.     I thank you for your company; but, good faith, I had as leif have been myself alone,

Orl.     And so had I; but yet, for fashion’s sake, I thank you too for your society.

Jaq.     God be with you: let’s meet as little as we can.

Orl.     I do desire we may be better strangers.

Jaq.     I pray you, mar no more trees with writing love-songs in their bark.

Orl.     I pray you, mar no more of my verses with reading them ill-favouredly.

Jaq.     Rosalind is your love’s name?

Orl.     Yes, just.

Jaq.     I do not like her name.

Orl.     There was no thought of pleasing you when she was christened.

Jaq.     What stature is she of?

Orl.     Just as high as my heart.

Jaq.     You are full of pretty answers. Have you not been acquainted with goldsmith’s wives, and conned them out of rings?

Orl.     Not so; but I answer you right painted cloth, from whence you have studied your questions.

Jaq.     You have a nimble wit: I think it was made of Atalanta’s heels. Will you sit down with me? and we two will rail against our mistress the world, and all our misery.

Orl.     I will chide no breather in the world but myself, against whom I know most faults.

Jaq.     The worst fault you have is to be in love.

Orl.     ‘Tis a fault I will not change for your best virtue. I am weary of you.

Jaq.     By my troth, I was seeking for a fool when I found you.

Orl.     He is drowned in the brook; look but in, and you shall see him.

Jaq.     There I shall see mine own figure.

Orl.     Which I take to be either a fool or a cipher.

Jaq.     I’ll tarry no longer with you: farewell, good Signior Love.

Orl.     I am glad of your departure; adieu, good Monsieur Melancholy.

I hate Shakespeare.

Was this your response after reading the sample above? I bet some of you had that thought before you even got to that part. A natural reflex, probably, if your only exposure to Shakespeare was in your middle- or high-school days. But did you notice something different?….Okay, I’ll tell you. No footnotes!

And that’s how you have to read Shakespeare to really enjoy it. Don’t read the footnotes. Just the words. I learned a long time ago that the footnotes (which can be as much as half of the printed page in some texts) usually tell you 1) something you already knew or figured out from the context of the writing or 2) something you don’t need/care to know.

If you read that passage from As You Like It and had to stop every four or five lines and drop your eyes to the bottom of the page, the pace of the verbal exchange would be totally destroyed. And trust me, this exchange in particular was meant to be a rapid swapping of not-so-subtle insults between the two men. Any pause ruins the intended effect.

I do desire we may be better strangers.

Brilliant! This is one of my favorite lines from…well, from anything, really. Orlando and Jaques clearly dislike each other, but are compelled by the decorum of the day to refrain from blatant mudslinging. Instead, they mask their insults with wordplay. Orlando’s quip is a fine example.

In Shakespeare’s play, “better strangers” is used to mean the speaker wishes he and the other man never crossed paths in the first place, and he sincerely hopes they never meet again.

As the title of this blog, Better Strangers is meant to be an homage of sorts to perhaps the greatest playwright who ever lived, as well as a bit of humor. Unlike Orlando in his encounter with Jaques, I hope you (the reader) and I can become better strangers in the sense that we will likely remain strangers–a product of internet interaction (that’s just reality, folks)–but perhaps we may get to know each other better. Or you may get to know me better, at any rate.

(Unless I truly don’t like you. Then I refer you back to Shakespeare’s turn of the phrase.)

Fools