Back story blues…

Finding the right approach to revealing a character’s back story is one of the bigger challenges in fiction writing, at least for me. What’s too much? Too little? I learned a lot introducing private eye Andy Hayes’s painful relationship with his parents in The Hunt, as I explain in a guest post in The Rap Sheet, reproduced in its entirely below…

One of the most important tasks when creating a mystery series from scratch is developing your protagonist’s back story. It’s safe to say you should have the basics down first: a straight, male ex-military police officer running a one-person investigative agency; a married gay cop overseeing a cold-case squad; a divorced female private eye with a background in insurance fraud and a black belt in Tae Kwan Do, etc. But where do you go from there? How much should you know about your character’s personal life when starting out? Maybe part of what makes her tick is that she’s widowed and averse to long-term relationships. But is that the whole story? And if there’s more, how do you provide the information without dragging down the narrative?

When I started writing about Andy Hayes, my fictional private eye in Columbus, Ohio, I knew three things for certain: he was an ex-Ohio State quarterback with a sullied reputation from his playing days; he was twice divorced with a son from each marriage; and he lived in German Village, a trendy neighborhood south of downtown, with his Labrador, Hopalong (named for the 1955 Ohio State Heisman Trophy winner, Howard Albert “Hopalong” Cassady).

Beyond these bare-bone details, there was a lot I didn’t know about Hayes. The fun has been in discovering new things as I went along, many of them unknown to me until the day they popped up on the screen as I wrote. For instance, at the end of the first Hayes book, Fourth Down and Out (2014), we learn exactly what led to my protagonist’s downfall as a player. In Slow Burn (2015), I explored the years Hayes spent battling his demons after his football burnout through the back story of an ex-fiancée whose help he must enlist to solve a triple-arson homicide. In both Slow Burn and Capitol Punishment (2016) I reveal more about Hayes’ life growing up in Homer, Ohio (a real town), including an episode with his pig-farming uncle who takes Hayes in after he hits rock bottom and clears his head by forcing him to work with the hogs over one long, hot summer.

By the time I started work on The Hunt (Swallow Press), I knew I was ready to parse out Hayes’ fractured relationship with his father. The early attempts didn’t go well, as I tried to chronicle their troubled relationship in flashback form with several overly long passages. Details about childhood, parents, and traumatic events of yore can paint a richer portrait of your character, but I knew that the line between explication and overload is razor thin. Less is almost always more. Here are examples of the right way to do it, from some of the best in the business:

“Dropping my ashes in my empty teacup, I noticed the arrangement of the leaves. My grandmother would have said it meant money and a dark stranger.” That’s Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, talking about his relative in The Way Some People Die (1951), one of many subtle references to a formative person in Archer’s life—his uncle being another—that Macdonald sprinkled through his short stories and novels. Consider how much it tells us is so few words: his grandmother drank tea and read the leaves afterward, with all that connotes about superstition and prognostication. She also had an eye for things that could mean trouble.

“[Harry] Bosch watched the squadron of helicopters, like dragonflies from this distance, dodging in and out of the smoke, dropping their payloads of water and pink fire retardant on burning homes and trees. It reminded him of the dustoffs in Vietnam. The noise …” So writes Michael Connelly in the opening of The Black Ice (1993). As Connelly observed in an essay for the 2002 book Writing Mysteries, “In a short eight-word sentence, I was able to deliver characterization through the past without disturbing the forward progress of the story.”

Or consider this snippet of dialogue from Bright Futures (2009), the sixth and final book in the late Stuart M. Kaminsky’s series about Sarasota, Florida, process server Lew Fonesca:

“Mind my asking who that is?” asked Greg.

“Victor Woo.”

“And what’s he doing sleeping on the floor of your office?”

“He walked in one afternoon,” I said.

“Why?”

“He killed my wife in Chicago. He feels guilty and depressed.”

“You’re kidding, right?” asked Greg.

“No,” I said.

After re-reading such examples (and more), I went back to the drawing board. I deleted several long flashback passages from The Hunt and with them hundreds of words that, in hindsight, were not just dragging down the narrative but grinding it to a halt at points. For instance: I shrank a three-paragraph-long description of the Parthenon, the bar in fictional Mount Alexandria, Ohio, where Hayes’ father used to drink, down to these four sentences: “I nodded. I knew it. A bar just off the main square. I’d pulled my father out of there more than once, back in the day.”

Relieved of the burden of writing history as opposed to hinting at it, I was free to focus on Hayes’ task at hand—finding a missing prostitute as a serial killer stalks human-trafficking victims. The result, I hope, is a faster-moving story with less baggage and more bang. As Laura Lippman, a genius at the slow unspooling of back story, put it in her 2007 standalone, What the Dead Know:

“A good liar survives by using as little truth as possible, because the truth trips you up far more often.”

 

What’s the deal with Andy Hayes?? (3 questions from Lori Rader-Day…)

I got to meet Lori Rader-Day at Magna Cum Murder mystery writers conference last fall, which was exciting enough. Even more thrilling, I’ll be appearing with her on April 19 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati as she promotes her wonderful new book, The Day I Died. Please mark your calendars for what should be a great event. (To quote Lori, “We are going to have some fun, promise.”) In the meantime, here’s a Q&A I did with her (reproduced below) about private eye Andy Hayes and The Hunt, which arrives in stores and e-book readers this month from Ohio University Press. And as long as you’re taking Sharpie to calendar, remember that the Ohioana Book Festival is this Saturday, April 8, in downtown Columbus. In addition, I’ll be talking mystery writing and signing books at Main Street Books in Mansfield on April 14…

My interview with Lori:

Andrew’s new book is The Hunt, featuring private investigator Andy Hayes. It’s out April 15, just in time for that refund from Uncle Sam. Here’s what Booklist had to say about The Hunt: “The author has crafted a fine procedural based on human trafficking, and it’s a pleasure to watch his PI, Columbus, Ohio–based Andy Hayes, go to work. …Welsh-Huggins has a way with language…[He] is an Associated Press reporter, and the urge to bring the news is an unkillable one.”

Not too shabby, Andrew.

Tell us a bit about The Hunt and how Andy has grown or changed over the series so far.

The Hunt opens with a man hiring Andy to find his sister, a prostitute who’s missing just as a serial killer is stalking human trafficking victims on the streets of Columbus, Ohio. Andy soon realizes he’s not the only one looking for the woman, and the search becomes a race against time as he tries to unravel why so many people have taken an interest in finding her, not to mention doing her harm.

Andy has changed as I’ve gotten to know more about him and added to his back story. I’ve previously established that he’s an ex-Ohio State quarterback with a lot of baggage, which happens when you blow your team’s shot at a national championship by going to jail the week before the Michigan game. Now we’re seeing more of his relationship with his parents and his two sons by two different ex-wives, as well as his ongoing efforts to have positive romantic encounters given a history of not treating women very well.

What do you and Columbus private investigator Andy Hayes have in common?

Hopefully not our approach to relationships! Andy has had a string of women in his life, whereas I’ve been married to my college sweetheart for almost 33 years. That said, he is my alter ego in many ways. We’re both skeptical (but not cynical), we both want answers to the questions we’re posing, we both have a snarky sense of humor, we both like to read nonfiction and work out, and we both have an aversion to guns. I would never recommend naming a series character after yourself, but in this case, probably because we do think alike at times, he just had to be an Andy. Fittingly, I suppose, that’s a nickname I never go by, just as he never goes by Andrew—unless his mom is really mad at him.

How did you come to crime fiction and who are your influences today?

 The short answer is three series of books I read as a child: Encyclopedia Brown by Donald Sobol, the Happy Hollister mysteries by Andrew Svenson (published by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which also published the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy series), and my mom’s Erle Stanley Gardner Perry Mason books, which I snuck off the top shelf beginning when I was about eight. Those books inspired a lifelong love of mysteries that continued through high school, college, and beyond. These days, I try never to miss new books from Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin and Laura Lippman as well as J.K. Rowling in her new guise as private eye novelist, to mention a very few. Going back in time, I was heavily influenced by Rex Stout (the Nero Wolfe mysteries), Robert B. Parker and Spenser, several of Stuart Kaminsky’s series and Ohio’s own Les Roberts, with his Milan Jacovich books set in Cleveland. If I had to describe where Andy Hayes comes from, I’d say he’s a combination of Nero Wolfe’s sidekick, Archie Goodwin (who, at least fictionally, was from Ohio), and Spenser, with a dollop of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee thrown in for good measure. Ultimately, though, I have to credit my mom, Mary Anne, and my late father, Richard, for raising me in a house full of books where reading was encouraged, and for always championing my dream of being a writer.

No mystery why it’s a great store . . . #mysteries #bookstores #fridayinterview @agnewrobin

Columbus, Ohio, boosters, take note: Ann Arbor, Michigan (you’ve heard of it, right?) has eight bookstores just in its downtown area. If we’re geographically generous and stretch our definition of Columbus’s downtown to include German Village, we can add the inestimable Book Loft to our count. So, along with the Statehouse gift shop, that would be: two. (Sorry, I’m not conceding the books they sell in the Brewer’s Yard Kroger, as nice a store as that is.) With hundreds of people moving downtown, maybe this is a retail gap that should be addressed? Just a thought?

In any case, I had the pleasure of participating in a mystery writers’ open house at one of those Ann Arbor stores recently. Jamie and Robin Agnew have run Aunt Agatha’s New & Used Mysteries, Detection & True Crime Books for the past twenty years. It a mystery lover’s heaven and worth a visit any time you’re, you know, in Ann Arbor for some reason. Afterward, I chatted briefly with Robin, and our conversation is this week’s #fridayinterview.

I’m from Mars and don’t know anything about Ann Arbor or bookstores. What’s Aunt Agatha’s?

RA: It’s an all-mystery bookstore, new and used books. You can probably find any kind of backlist title you ever want to find.

How did you come to run an all-mystery bookstore?

RA: When we opened the store my husband had worked at Borders, and he was tired of it, and I loved mysteries, so we were like, “Oh, let’s just open up a mystery book store.” And it’s also a genre you can specialize in. There’s so many books!

Why mysteries? 

RA: We lived in Minneapolis before we lived here and there’s a great store there called Uncle Edgar’s. We used to go there all the time. And it’s the same as us, all mysteries, new and used mixed together, and we kind of modeled it on that store.

How are independent bookstores doing?

RA: I think they’re in a little bit of a resurgence. … There’s been two that opened here in the last two years that seem to be doing fine. I don’t know about nationwide but here it seems pretty strong.

Conventional wisdom is that e-books have plateaued at about thirty percent of sales. Do you agree?

RA: I think people divide up their reading. You know, if they’re traveling, they read electronically, but a lot of people still want to own a book pretty much.

Will that be the status quo going ahead? 

RA: I don’t know. … A lot of my older customers don’t like reading electronically at all, and our customers certainly skew older. But my kids are in their twenties and they read actual books.

Favorite authors?

RA: I love Kent Krueger, Louise Penny, Steve Hamilton, Julia Keller. Julia Spencer-Fleming, although she’s not writing not now, but I love her books.

What’s the most fun thing about running Aunt Agatha’s?

RA: Meeting authors, for sure, by far the best part of it.

Back to the question above: Why mysteries?

RA: I think they’re the best books being written right now. They’ve got everything, they’ve got character, story, everything. The writing’s great, a lot of them have really deep themes in them. They can’t be beat. They’re the best.

A man walks into a bookstore . . . #tuesdaywritingtips #writing #mysteries @TheGinaBarreca

“You can’t call yourself a writer if you’re not a regular at your local independent bookstore.”

That gauntlet comes from Gina Barreca in a recent essay for Shelf Awareness, and it’s gotten me thinking about books, reading and my own rule for bookstores. I’m including the sentiment as a Tuesday Writing Tip as a reminder of the second-most important practice for writers after writing, namely reading. As Stephen King instructs us in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft): “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

So here’s my bookstore rule, which is pretty basic: if I enter a bookstore, I have to buy a book. Browsing is fine, dipping into a novel for a few chapters is acceptable, checking to see if they carry my own books is par for the course. But the visit must end with a purchase.

Why is this? I don’t have a similar rule with other stores, though truth to tell, I can’t remember the last time I walked into Kroger without walking out with something, and the same is true for just about every other place I shop with the possible exception of antique stores (though come to think of it, at the last antique shop I visited, I found a doorstop-sized collection of football journalism, which, naturally, I bought). You could argue that my bookstore rule ignores market forces in the pursuit of a semi-self-serving goal, supporting brick-and-mortar shops that sell books, that in turn supports my profession, and you would be correct. I’m going to do it anyway, since–speaking of rules–one of my many resolutions of New Years past is to do a better job putting my money where my mouth is. By the way, I’m not a literary Luddite. I regularly buy books online, for the same reason I buy a lot of things via the Internet: the convenience and savings. But those purchases are different than the times, sometimes intentionally, sometimes in passing, I find myself in a bookstore.

I began formulating my rule after hearing Jim Huang speak at the Magna Cum Murder mystery writers’ conference last year. Huang directs the Bryn Mawr College bookstore, and formerly ran the bookstore at Kenyon College (my alma mater). Before that he owned the Mystery Company bookshop in Indianapolis. At a Magna session on book-selling, Huang argued that supporting independent bookstores is often just a matter of people deciding to make a single purchase they might have made elsewhere. As he says, “It’s not that hard to make a difference for independent stores. Getting just a few people to each buy just one more book a day would be noticeable for most any local, independent store.”

This takes me back to Barreca and her essay, which is a concise paean to the importance of writers taking what they purport to do, and be, seriously. In an essay about writing and reading, she gets the last word:

“Writers read. Writers read promiscuously, aggressively and relentlessly. Have an open book in every room and an open mind towards every writer. Discover authors you haven’t yet read. Whether they’re doing a reading from the bookstore’s platform or their book is sitting gracefully on the shelf, they’re eager to tell you their stories. They’ll help you to create your own.”

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