Back Story: An Example in Progress

We were talking about back story a couple of days ago at the same time I was working out some back story on something I’m writing.

Here’s the back story, as I explained it to somebody else:

Maggie (not her real name), the woman who runs Maggie’s Ear, the tavern/inn on the docks in the Edge where Cat and Krissie’s stable girl work, was an underage prostitute in 1860.  She worked in the building she owns now, the Ear, for a madam named Madame Avarice, and the house was called The Inn of the Seven Sins. It was a fairly high class bordello with a lot of role-playing with devils and angels and an S&M room in the basement called Hell.  So drinking, gambling, screwing, guys thinking they’re real men, bored girls, etc.  Lots of wealthy clients that Madame Avarice catered to.

So Maggie (not her real name) is seventeen, already street smart, looking for money because to her money means security, and Madame Avarice comes to her with an offer.  Seven of their wealthiest clients want to have a black mass orgy in the crypt of the nearby church, The Church of the Seven Saints.  (It’s been there for a couple of centuries, Madame Avarice chose the name of her house because of it.)  Each girl will represent one of the seven deadly sins, and there’s been a special request for Maggie to play Lust, Maggie being a healthy girl with good lungs and staying power.  Maggie, seeing how important it is that she say yes, says she will on one condition: Madame Avarice makes a will leaving the House to Maggie.  Madame Avarice, knowing that she’ll probably outlive a prostitute (the average age for death for London prostitutes in the mid-century was seventeen), agrees and they go to a lawyer and get it all drawn up, absolutely legal.  Maggie even brings her own lawyer, but Madame Avarice for once is on the level.  So the orgy is arranged, they all sneak into the crypt—seven men, seven girls, and Madame Avarice—and the place is dressed like a stage play because Madame Avarice knows what she’s doing.  Lots of arcane symbols drawn on the wall (she got them out of a book), lots of skulls and daggers and chalices (she hit the flea markets), and seven mattresses on the seven stone coffins of the seven saints.  They start the orgy and everybody’s getting into it as Madame Avarice does some mumbo jumbo over the altar she rigged up, and then Things start to happen, and Maggie realizes that Avarice has managed to actually raise something Awful, and she drops behind the nearest coffin, the coffin of St. Margaret the Strong, and as the dust starts to swirl into symbols and the walls of the crypt glow red, she prays to St. Margaret to save her, the first and last prayer of her life, and then everything goes red and black.

When she wakes up, there’s been a magic implosion, the church’s first floor is destroyed, the roof and five of its seven gargoyles gone, windows blown out, and a gaping hole in the floor above the crypt.  Maggie’s the only one left alive, and she’s feeling odd.  She hears voices, realizes the law is approaching, and after giving St. Margaret’s coffin a pat, she crawls out through the wreckage and makes her way back to the House of Seven Sins where she goes to her room and thinks.  And what she mostly thinks is that Madame Avarice is dead and she owns the House.  So after a respectable amount of time (fifteen minutes), she washes up, puts on a dress that shows no cleavage, ties her hair in a demure bun above her head and goes to see the lawyers.  Then she goes back to the house, throws everybody out, finds where Madame Avarice kept her money—lots of it—takes down the flocked the wallpaper and all the Seven Sin’s stuff, and reinvents herself as Margaret Strong, later Maggie, the proprietor of a respectable tavern and inn.  The place is in the Edge, so “respectable” is a matter of degree, but it gradually establishes itself as a place where both criminals and coppers can drink without hassling each other because Maggie does not put up with That Sort of Thing.  Also, anybody who touches a waitress is thrown out and barred for life.  This works because there’s something odd about Maggie and her dark eyes and her cheeks that get more sunken every year, and her voice like a lead dagger.  Also, the fact that she’s in her sixties and in most lights doesn’t look a day over thirty has some people wondering, not that they’d ask.  They don’t want to know that badly.  Something happened to Maggie in that crypt the night, and not even she knows what it is, but she never takes off her St. Margaret’s medal, and she makes sure that all her waitresses light a candle under the portrait of St Margaret before they go home for the night.   Something the girls have noticed but are not saying: With every year, Maggie looks more and more like St. Margaret.

So how much of that is going into the story I’m writing? None of it.

The story is about Cat, a twenty-something waitress/pickpocket/cat burglar who works for Maggie but is living in the belltower of the old church. The things the reader needs to know to understand Cat’s story:

The belltower is the top three stories of the church, and Cat is living there illegally because the church is condemned, which is clear from the Condemned sign she climbs over to get into the place.

There’s magic fall-out in the crypt, which she can see sparking when she looks over the edge of the belltower through the broken roof below.

Maggie, her boss, is odd but is fiercely protective of the women who work for her as waitresses, something that’s made clear in the first scene.

In other words, I can show everything the reader needs to know without ever mentioning that back story. Cat’s goal is to keep her home safe and make it warm for winter without getting caught. That leads her to take on the crooks that are using the crypt for something nefarious. All of that is in the now.

Is the back story fun? Yes, I had a blast writing that in about fifteen minutes one night.

Is the back story interesting? A plucky heroine, sex, magic, wills, explosions, sure it’s interesting.

Is the back story necessary to tell the story I want to tell, Cat’s story? Nope.

So none of it goes in. At no point does anybody stop to tell the story of the Night the Crypt Exploded. First, it was forty years ago and the only person who really knows what happened is Maggie and she has no reason to tell it to anybody. Second, it was forty years ago and therefore has no impact on the story in the now.

When the project is done, if it ever is, and we set up a website, if we ever do, we can add a history section and put in a page about the Black Mass Avarice Orgy, but it’s never going into a story. I don’t even think I could write THAT story because Maggie isn’t really fighting an antagonist, she’s just making a plan and then something goes wrong that has nothing to do with her and she hides and survives. It’s an incident, not a plot.

Put the back story on the website as an extra. Write the story in the now.

20 thoughts on “Back Story: An Example in Progress

      1. Oh, the reference to London prostitutes was just for comparison. So your analog New York was settled by catholics. Interesting. Well, in fantasy you can change anything you want.

        1. It’s not really an analog NYC since it’s fantasy, it’s just the touchstone we’re using to keep ourselves honest. If you couldn’t tell before, it’s still very early in this game . . .

        1. Thank you. Me, too, especially since three other people are writing it with me.
          Of course, they don’t have Maggie in the background . . .

  1. Highly entertaining example. A what a fun way to exorcise any need the writer feels to place it in the actual novel. It would also make a fun, short – very short…”blink and you miss it” short – assignment for we Argh folks. A starter sentence can be posted – one sentence – and we each could write 3 paragraphs to close it out.

  2. This is great, and a perfect example of what not to put in the story. We must be channeling each other. My WIP, almost completed, is on the seven deadly sins, and the hero’s daughter is Kat. : ) However it is contemporary, and nothing at all like yours, but don’t you just love synchronicity?

  3. I’ve been struggling with backstory lately, and reading books, blogs, everything I can find about How To Use Backstory Well. In a three paragraphs, you taught me more than all the others put together. Thank you. Again.

    And Maggie’s story was fascinating. Thanks for sharing it with us. I can’t wait to see what you all come up with.

  4. This is a great example. It’s often hard for the author to separate out what SHE needs to know and what THE READER needs to know.

  5. Great post and an intriguing story. Sometimes, when I need to know back story myself, I write a short story about it. I have several short stories complementary to my novels, some of them about main characters, others about secondary characters. Such stories are fun to write.

    1. Oh, yes, I’ve done it too. And then, as Jenny says, found a use for them outside the novel. If anyone wants to see an example of how they can be used (and I think I post enough here that y’all know this isn’t a spam thing), you can see a flash story I wrote for Dru’s Book Musings (a site for readers of cozy mysteries, with a “Day in the Life” feature) here:

  6. This is one thing (among oh so many!) that I have problems with — follow the Girls, but also realize that a lot of it isn’t going into the eventual book. As long as it’s fun, it’s OK to write all the bits and pieces. Follow the Girls!

    (And speaking of synchronicity, I found a couple of interesting sources today. Ephemeral New York covers stuff from all over the time-space-continuum that is New York City. And then there’s the New York Historical Society — but I haven’t figured out how to make that site cough up anything interesting/useful to me. The library blogs look like a world-class time suck though. Wander into the archives and not come out until Tuesday sort of thing.)


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