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.

Top Ten Tips On How NOT To Become a Mystery Writer…

 Becoming a mystery writer? I’m still working out the kinks. NOT becoming a mystery writer? Boy, do I have some experience there, which I lay out in this blog in The Strand Magazine, and reproduced below.

Top Ten Tips On How NOT To Become a Mystery Writer…

Are you a mystery lover with a yen to write your own novel but unsure how or where to start? Do you have a great character or winning plot in mind but just can’t get past an opening chapter or two? Rest easy: banishing such dreams is easier than you think. Over the years, I’ve developed several tried-and-true tips to keep from ever putting pen to paper or fingertips to keys. Follow these suggestions and I guarantee that your book, no matter how surefire the idea, will never see the light of day. Without further ado, I present my Top Ten Tips On How NOT To Become a Mystery Writer.

No. 10: Do NOT read and read and read for enjoyment and edification but also to study the techniques of other writers. Do NOT delve into not only mysteries but a myriad of other arenas such as science fiction, westerns, fantasy, literary fiction, romance, young adult, poetry and—don’t even get me started—the universe of nonfiction. Much better just to see what’s on Netflix tonight.

No. 9: Do NOT haunt your local library, weekly if not daily, to check out reams and reams of

books on all the above topics and more, books with which to fill your bookshelves, coffee tables, nightstands, kitchen counters, piano benches, living room chairs, and tops of the toilet tank (not to mention your e-reader, CD player, and phone). Spend your time noodling around on the Internet instead.

No. 8: Similarly, Do NOT frequent bookstores, especially independently owned shops, and whatever you do, NEVER pledge not to leave such an institution without having purchased a book. Doing so will only serve to remind you of the value of the written word while allowing these stores to insinuate themselves into the fabric of a community as mainstays of writerly fellowship and intellection conversation, not to mention fun places to get coffee and talk favorite authors.

No. 7: Do NOT make a practice of reading books about writing, and especially books about the craft of detective and mystery fiction, since there’s no better way to learn the traditions of the genre, develop your own style, and absorb tips for writing efficiently and creatively. Good examples of books you should NEVER read include Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir; Writing Mysteries by the Mystery Writers’ Association of America; Lawrence Block’s Writing the Novel from Plot To Print to Pixel; P.D. James’s Talking About Detective Fiction; and Books To Die For, edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke.

No. 6: Do NOT attend readings by authors, writing workshops or crime fiction conferences where you can hear from professionals in person, not to mention have the chance to ask them questions at breakfast, in the elevator, or hanging around the bar—and often all three—and then suffer through their responding with compassion, good humor, and heartfelt hopes for your success. Never, EVER attend events such as Magna Cum Murder in Indianapolis; Killer Nashville in, well, take a guess; and any event hosted by a Sisters in Crime chapter.

No. 5: Do NOT read mystery blogs and subscribe to mystery magazines (especially, for goodness’ sake, The Strand Magazine); do NOT follow writers you admire on Twitter; and do NOT join listservs, Facebook groups, and other online communities dedicated to mystery writing. Doing so will only make you feel part of a greater conversation, give you multiple sources of support, and lead to a sense of shared solidarity when the going gets tough. Please—just say no.

No. 4: Do NOT, when you finally start writing, dedicate a goodly and consistent amount of time every day to your efforts, whether it be early in the morning, late at night, in the middle of the night, on your lunch hour, or riding the bus, Uber, or train. Instead, take a casual and erratic approach to “jotting down some ideas” from time to time. This is a proven method to avoid making headway; I recommend it highly, and from experience.

No. 3: Do NOT hesitate to tell your partner, spouse, friends, parents, workmates, second cousins, and persons you meet at cocktail parties about your work in progress. Since nothing drains the life out of an unfinished piece of fiction faster than talking about it at length, this is the perfect way to ensure you never complete your first piece of crime writing. (Did I mention also talking to the mail carrier and your favorite bartender?)

No. 2: Do NOT make writing a priority in your life after family, work, and friends. Whenever possible, add commitments to keep you from composing, including but not limited to: sending a record number of Christmas cards; hosting this year’s family reunion; volunteering to keep the neighbors’ elderly dog while they’re in Europe; eradicating every gosh-darn dandelion from your yard; and coaching in the underprivileged kids’ polo league. The more, the merrier!

And finally, my No. 1 tip for on how NOT to write a mystery noTop Ten Tips On How NOT To Become a Mystery Writer...vel: Do NOT devote not just months but years to honing your craft, developing a style and working and reworking manuscripts. Growing a thick skin and adopting the mindset that you’re involved in a life-long creative endeavor is one of the best ways I know to achieve success. Avoid this at all costs. The alternative, after all, could well be publication.

Andrew Welsh-Huggins has been trying not to be a mystery writer since he accidentally pulled one of his mother’s Erle Stanley Gardner paperbacks off the top shelf at age eight. Despite his most sincere efforts, The Hunt, his fourth novel about an ex-Ohio State quarterback turned private eye, will be published April 15.

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