First young man: “So I said to the waitress, who was dressed as a tuna, ‘What does that have to do with El Salvador’?”
Second young man: “Not that she would answer that, of course.”
Avant-garde play? Dream analysis? Flashback to Oliver North and the Contra scandal? Actually, it was a snatch of conversation I overheard years ago, blown to me across a university quadrangle, on a windy March afternoon.
This week I’m writing Chapter 3 of my fourth Elizabeth Pepperhawk/Avivah Rosen Vietnam veterans’ mystery series. Avivah and a lawyer meet with a woman who was abducted and, twenty-four hours later, turned up under mysterious circumstances. The abduction victim is a new character, who has lived a fascinating life. Her father was a bush pilot, and her mother a camp cook. She was born in a bush camp in Alaska. She took up welding at a time when women, if they worked at all, were supposed to be secretaries, nurses, or teachers. She helped build the Alaska Highway. Now a farmer and business partner, she’s been twice Missouri State Master of the Grange. She’s one tough broad, a feminist and a political activist. I’m eager to share all the details of her life with the readers.
It’s called back story. What happened in the characters’ lives before page one of this book. And according to both the romance writer, Jo Beverly, and the agent, Donald Maass, it’s a definite no-no.
Jo Beverly says, “Back story is for the author, not the reader. We want to show how much we planned, how hard we worked at research, now clever we are. In fact, the reader can get by with only skeleton hints. Back story is different from context. You must set the context. Do this in one or two sentences, which tell the reader why the action is significant to the character.”
Donald Maass advises even more ruthless action. What he teaches in his Writing the Breakout Novel workshop can be summarized as, “Is there back story in the first 50 pages of your book? Take it out, every single bit of it, leaving only one or two vital bits of information that are essential to ground the character. Back story is information only. It has no tension. It sits there like a lump. You can’t hide back story in prolog, dialog, or snippets of information. No matter how you try to sneak it through, it won’t work early in the book. Get over the idea that you can be so clever as a writer that you can disguise back story and an agent or editor won’t recognize it for what it is. Withhold it and, if you absolutely must bring in back story, write it as story, after the mid-point in your novel.”
For years, I’ve puzzled over the two men and the waitress, dressed as a tuna. Who were they? How did they know one another? Did the first man ever get an answer to his question? What was the conversation about, any way? If I had known that the first young man was named Henry and the second Paul and that they were room mates; that the waitress was named Heddy—after Heddy Lamar—and that she was a single mom, with a three-year-old daughter to raise; and that the tuna costume was part of a publicity stunt, would I still be thinking about this decades later. I think not. Sometimes, less may really be better.
As for introducing my character? I think it will read something like this:
“Who is he?”
“Where did you know him from?”
Avivah’s head jerked up. She’d never mentioned Alaska when she briefed John Ferguson. She couldn’t imagine it had any possible relevance.
“What were you doing in Alaska?”
“I was born there.”
“Were you really? I’ve always wanted to go there. I hear the fishing is beyond belief.”
Avivah cleared her throat. Mr. Ferguson looked down at his notes. “Ah, yes, sorry. What exactly was your relationship with Peter Taft?”