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.”

 

A few thoughts on Writing Mysteries and Living in Columbus …

Check out my interview with David Weaver, executive director of the Ohioana Library, out today on CiTYpulse, and reproduced below in full. And don’t forget to mark your calendars for the Ohioana Book Festival on April 8 in downtown Columbus!

David: You’ve had a very successful career as a reporter for the Associated Press in Columbus, covering everything from politics to the drug trade. What made you decide to turn to fiction, and particularly mystery?
Andrew:
I’ve been a mystery fan my entire life, dating back to the day when I was eight years old and pulled one of my mom’s Erle Stanley Gardner Perry Mason paperbacks off the top shelf. It had always been a goal of mine to write some of my own. It just took a lot of living, including getting married and becoming a parent, moving several times and establishing myself professionally, to reach a point where I was ready.

David: How did Andy Hayes come in to being? Was there a particular book or writer that served as an inspiration?
Andrew:
I’ve always been attracted to the private eye novel, and as a younger man inhaled the works of Rex Stout, Robert B. Parker, Loren Estleman, Stuart Kaminsky and Ohio’s own Les Roberts, all of whom created iconic fictional private eyes. More recently, I’ve been delving into the classic trio of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, with some of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee thrown in for fun. I knew I wanted my private eye to follow in that tradition: the wounded warrior with the world on his shoulders, trying against the odds to do his best. Since I was writing about Columbus, there was no question my character’s backstory would involve Ohio State. That’s why I made him an ex-OSU quarterback who disgraced himself and his team his senior year, and now two decades later is still trying to live that episode down in-between his investigative adventures.

David: Has your training and experience as a journalist been a help in writing fiction?
Andrew:
The discipline of writing for a living has helped enormously: there’s no such thing as writer’s block when your family’s depending on you. I also rip many plotlines from my own headlines, since much of what I cover involves criminal justice. The types of writing, though, are very different; the analogy I use is that working for the AP is like running track, with constant sprinting and stopping and starting, whereas writing novels is like training for a marathon.

David: When you’re not busy working, what do you do to relax? If Andy Hayes was taking you and your wife out for a night on the town – or vice versa – where would you go?
Andrew:
We relax by bike riding, seeing movies or plays, listening to jazz at Brothers Drake or just having a night of Netflix. We love places like Land-Grant in Franklinton or the Thurber Bar downtown, and any food truck festival. If Andy was buying it would probably be beers and sauerkraut balls at the Hey Hey Bar & Grille on Whittier, which is fine by us.

David: You’ve appeared at many of the past Ohioana Book Festivals and will do so again on April 8. What do you enjoy about this event? And what’s in it for the young professionals who may be interested in attending?
Andrew:
Ohioana is special because of what ties it together: writers who make Ohio their home or write about it, or both. That, plus the diversity of authors and genres, from poetry to literary fiction to cooking to sports to mysteries and beyond. It’s a wonderful place to meet and greet authors, with all of us happy to talk to visitors about their own interests, personal and professional.

David: What advice would you give someone thinking about writing her first mystery novel?
Andrew:
The most important thing you can do is develop a strategy for how you’re going to write, and then focus on what you’re writing. In other words, first commit to writing daily at a specific time—before work, on your lunch hour, after the kids are in bed—and stick to it as closely as possible. This is especially important if you’re also working full-time, but it’s true regardless of your schedule. Once you’ve given yourself permission to write every day, then you can start focusing on your characters and plot.

David: Finally, you’ve written so much about Columbus. How long have you lived here? What do you like most about the city? And what, if anything, would you change?
Andrew:
I’ve been visiting Columbus since my wife, Pam, and I attended Kenyon College in the early 1980s. After living elsewhere for several years, we moved here permanently in 1998. We like the city’s vibrancy, cultural diversity, affordability and growing reputation as a cool American city as demonstrated by Columbus’ appearance on just about every Top 10 list you can think of, from food to fashion to music to sports. As Pam says, Columbus now is “the edge of the middle.” If I could change anything it would be to put light rail back on the table; add some more independent bookstores (Ann Arbor clobbers us in this regard, though The Book Loft in German Village is great and Gramercy Books in Bexley is a fantastic newcomer); and bring in another pro sports franchise: a WNBA team, anyone?

Meet Andrew Welsh-Huggins at the The 2017 Ohioana Book Festival, taking place Saturday, April 8, from 10:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at the Sheraton Columbus at Capitol Square, 75 E. State St., in downtown Columbus. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.ohioana.org