Over Coffee primarily focuses on the authors: "SHARING THE LAUGHTER AND THE TEARS, THE GLITCHES AND THE TRIUMPHS, AUTHORS FACE IN THE PURSUIT OF THEIR AMBITION TO WRITE."
So this time around we get to do that with Amanda Forester. Her topic is one that many writers struggle with in today's writing market. Where's the beginning of the book and the problems with backstory.
When I started to write my novel, THE HIGHLANDER’S SWORD, I thought I would begin at the beginning. I know… rookie mistake. My historical adventure romance tells the story of a Lady Aila Graham who finds herself an heiress after the death of her brothers in battle. In order to gain needed warriors to defend her clan against attack, Aila is married off to a Highland warrior who is poor in material wealth but has a large fighting force. The Highlander, MacLaren, is filled with bitterness because his fiancé betrayed him, so he agrees to marry an heiress he doesn’t know in order to provide for his clan.
I thought I’d begin the story where I thought it started, when MacLaren learns that the woman he loves has betrayed him to the English. I wrote the scene, polished it up, and sent it off to the Emerald City Opener Contest feeling rather proud of my literary masterpiece. When I got back my score sheets, any sense of accomplishment evaporated. The comments were kindly meant, but to the point. I had started in the wrong place. I had started with… backstory.
Backstory came to be the bane of my writing existence.
Backstory is all the stuff that happened to the characters leading up to the main event, the primary conflict in the story. Books of yesteryear commonly began with what is now considered backstory. I’ve enjoyed reading Georgette Heyer lately, but if an editor got a hold of those romance books now, huge sections in the beginning would be chucked. For myself, I am content with a slower paced book, a book that creeps up to the primary plot slowly, so as not to scare it too awful much. I actually like backstory (there, I said it). But if you want to get published in the 21st century, backstory is a big no-no.
So I revised. I cut out some things and this time started with Aila. I showed her daily routine, her difficult relationship with her mother, her shyness around others... and, yeah, you guessed it – more backstory. So I began with Aila’s father on the walls of the castle looking over his fields which had been set ablaze. More backstory. Next I wrote a scene where MacLaren receives the message from Aila’s father and MacLaren debates whether or not to enter into the marriage contract. And yes, that was more backstory too.
By this point I had written about four chapters, none of which made the final cut. As a writer this is hard. Some of the chapters I loved… loved like a comfortable old bra whose elastic is all stretched out and only has one remaining hook in back. It doesn’t really do a good job anymore, but it’s so comfy. Well, these chapters became comfy too. But no matter how much I liked them, it was still backstory.
So where to begin? I think this is one of the hardest questions for a writer, or maybe just a novice writer (or maybe just me!). I had to really stop and consider where the primary plot began for my characters. I struggled for a long while, wrote the rest of the manuscript, and then came back to the beginning. Eventually I little light bulb clicked on in my brain. My primary plot is a love story about two very different people who have every reason to distrust each other, but fall in love instead. Chapter one in my published novel begins with the relationship – at the moment Aila met MacLaren and discovered she had been given to him in marriage.
Since I have all these “deleted” scenes taking up space in my computer I thought I’d share one with you (kind of like the extended DVD offerings). So here is a scene from my original beginning, where MacLaren is betrayed by Marguerite, his French fiancé.
“I bring you good tidings of the defeat of your enemy.”
Marguerite smiled at Maclaren’s declaration, radiating her beauty, drawing him toward her. “You have done very well.”
“But it came at a high cost,” MacLaren continued though the words caught like ash in his throat. “Sir James Patrick is counted among the dead.”
Marguerite looked blankly at MacLaren before recalling the name. “Oh, your cousin, what a shame.” Quickly closing the distance between them MacLaren reached out to take her in his arms as he had long ached to do, but she put up a hand to stop him. “Oh, no sir. Perhaps you do not care for your appearance but I do not wish my gown to be bloodied.”
“Shall I have this person removed?” Gerard de Marsan, a neighboring lord, strode through the door. He was dressed in velvet of scarlet, a jeweled dagger hung from his belt, and his shoes had the exaggerated pointed toe that was the latest fashion. Gerard gave MacLaren a quick glance then snorted in disgust.
MacLaren returned the favor and turned back to Marguerite. “Margot, what is he doing here?”
“It is customary for a man to visit his betrothed,” Gerard said with a malicious grin.
“You are daft Gerard. Marguerite is betrothed to me.” MacLaren held out his hand to Marguerite, but she laughed and turned away.
“Oh dear. You didn’t really believe that did you? I could not actually marry you.” She turned her violet eyes back to MacLaren. “You’re a Scot,” she said with a shrug as if that explained it all. MacLaren felt like he had been knocked in the gut with a mace. He looked at his feet on the floor surprised to see them still standing there. Cold realization began to dawn.
“You deceived me,” he said softly to Marguerite. “You feigned love to win my defense of your lands.” He waited for her to contradict his words. The lady simply looked away.
“We have no need for your defense, barbarian. While you needlessly fight the English we have simply allied with them,” Gerard sneered with open contempt.
“No!” MacLaren refused to look at Gerard and watched Marguerite as she carefully smoothed her gown with a delicate hand. The truth became clear in her silence.
“But why?” asked MacLaren, his voice hoarse.
“You really must not upset me with your impertinent questions.” Marguerite’s tone was impetuous, but she could not quite meet MacLaren’s eye. “The English were too many, too strong. Submission was inevitable, but their conditions were unlivable.” Marguerite gave him a slight pout. The effect would have been more endearing if her words had not been so chilling. “When you marched against them it made our alliance more valuable and the terms became much more to our liking.”
MacLaren stared at her. His heart that had been pounding in his ears suddenly seemed to stop, his breath caught in his throat.
MacLaren grabbed Marguerite’s shoulders. “My cousin died so you could better your terms of submission?” He choked on the words. She tried to look away but he turned her face with his hand to force her to look him in the eye. All he saw was the glint of the knife.
Ah that lovely backstory.
- What is your preference when you read a book?
- Do you like a slow build so you really understand the characters at the beginning, or do you like to jump right into the action?
Amanda Forester holds a PhD in clinical psychology and a Masters degree in theology. As a psychologist, she has worked as a clinical researcher and a university instructor (what they call you when they don’t want to give you tenure). None of which has anything to do with writing romance novels. After trying for many years to stop the internal storylines floating around her head, she finally gave up and wrote one down. Now when she is caught daydreaming and talking to herself she can just say, “I’m plotting a scene for my next novel,” which sounds so much better than, “I’m hallucinating and responding to internal stimuli.”
Amanda lives in the Pacific Northwest with her officer and a gentleman husband and their two remarkably active, naturally brilliant children. They share their home with two fiendishly destructive cats and one lazy dog.