Sunday, January 2, 2011

Welcome Guest Blogger Winnie Griggs

Hi everyone. I’m so excited to be back here at Seekerville - always a fun place to visit. Last time I was here I got a few requests for more information on a backstory tracker tool I mentioned, so I thought I’d focus on that today.

I developed the chart below when I received one of those ‘loved your story, but...’ emails from a reader, pointing out a timeline glitch I’d made. I was determined to do everything I could to see that that didn’t happen again.

{Insert Template chart}

The tracking chart should be fairly self-explanatory, but I’m going to take you through a real life example. We’ll use the one I developed for an earlier work of mine, A Will Of Her Own.

When I’m just getting started, I sometimes develop the hero and heroine’s charts separately until I feel I have a pretty good handle on things. In this book I started with the idea of a hero who was part of the English aristocracy and, at a fairly idealistic stage of his life, was betrayed and rejected by people he loved and trusted and exiled himself to America. So I started with Will. I gave thought to how old I wanted him to be when the story opened, what the family milestones might have been and what the life-impact events would have been. And I came up with the chart below.

{Insert Will’s chart}

If you notice, there are several references to Maggie on Will’s chart. Maggie is, of course, the heroine of this book. At the same time I was developing Will’s chart, I was giving some thought to what kind of heroine would work in this story and starting to work on her chart as well. Maggie is an American who has had her own issues to deal with. Orphaned and left to make her own way at the age of 16, she has been struggling to find her place in life. I decided that her and Will’s life collided shortly after Will arrived in America. Will has been attacked by highwaymen and left on the roadside to die. Maggie is serving as companion to a snobby woman and they come upon him. The woman wants to move on and perhaps send help back from the next town, Maggie insists on getting out and seeing what can be done. She loses her job over the incident and thus Will feels an ongoing obligation to her. Her chart eventually looked like this:

{Insert Maggie’s chart}

While I was playing around with Will and Maggie’s charts, I was also giving some thought as to what time period I wanted to set this in. Since I’ve always enjoyed the Regency period in English-set historicals (as a reader at any rate) I decided I’d open the story in 1820 - the end of the Regency period. That decided, I quickly backtracked through the charts and added all my dates.

Once I had my dates in place, it was time to undertake the last step. Before I get too caught up in immersing myself into the book itself I’ll focus on that last column. Here I’ll do some research and list information about political leaders, wars, innovations/inventions, popular music, literature, entertainment, fashions/fads, scandals, climatic events, etc that shaped the environment the characters grew up in. You might be surprised what kind of additional story ideas this can spark for you, as well as adding another layer of richness to your characters and an additional flavor of authenticity to your writing. What I ended up with on my first pass was the chart below.

A couple of notes here:

I usually have a row for every year between birth and story opening - if for no other reason than that there may be something of note to place in the Socio-political event column. For purposes of this example, however, I deleted several non-impact rows to try to keep this as short as possible.

Also, this can include years before the character’s birth if there were events that have a story impact, such as the birth of an older sibling or the origins of a recent feud, or some such.

{Insert Combined chart}

Once I have my charts combined and fairly complete, I step back and take a look at the grid as a whole. Do the various pieces fit together properly? Often times I’ll find I need to do a bit of tweaking here and there. In the case of this particular chart, I only got as far as looking at the political events that paralleled my story to see I had a problem. Did you spot it? The US and England were neck deep in the throes of the War of 1812 just about the time I had my hero starting his new life in America. Even though I might have been able to make that work, I didn’t want to further complicate this already complicated plot with the political issues of that period. So I rethought my approach, moved the story forward in time 10 years and had it open in 1830 rather than 1820.

Keep in mind, this doesn’t happen as linearly as I described here. I go back and forth between the hero and heroine’s charts as things come to me. I also rearrange, insert and delete as I learn more about my characters and my story needs. If I don’t know exactly when a backstory event takes place I’ll slot it at a ‘best guess’ spot so I don’t lose it. Eventually I’ll figure out where it goes and get it slotted properly.

It’s important that every time you unearth some tidbit about your character’s history, even if you don’t think that particular footnote will ever make its way into your book, that you record it on the chart. It doesn’t take much effort to do, and you never know when it might come into play.

And when you’re making your final pass through the book, keep this little chart at your elbow so that you can check your facts. That will go a long way toward keeping your timeline straight so you don’t make the same mistake I did.

One last note: If you’re like me, you have loads of ideas for projects you want to work on either very soon or “someday”. I have an Idea File that I keep track of these in, a place where I jot down notes and tidbits about these ‘someday stories’ so I don’t lose the gems as they come to me. I’ve now added this backstory tracking document to each of these files and it provides a handy one page view of my characters as they begin to take shape.

So there’s my method. I know it won’t work for everyone but it helps me work through and keep track of all those backstory issues that help me figure out what makes my characters tick.

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