Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Background List

Sharon Wildwind

As much as I love DCI Tom Barnaby, both as played in Midsomer Murders by John Nettles, and as written by Caroline Graham, I love Graham’s stand-alone Murder at Madingley Grange even more.

A brother and sister who are in need of spare cash decide to take advantage of their aunt’s departure for the continent to raise capital. Simon Hannaford thinks a murder weekend will be a breeze. They have Aunt Maude’s imposing pile, Madingley Grange, complete with peacocks, as a backdrop. They have his sister, Laurie’s, cordon-bleu cooking skills to feed the guests. They have a trunk full of 1930s regalia for the guests to wear. What they don’t have is a group of hired actors and a plot for a murder weekend.

No problem, Simon says. He’ll whip up a little murder outline and the guests can do improv theater for the weekend.

The punters arrive—not as many as Simon had hoped for—but enough to anticipate a profit. Each comes for his/her own reason, not all of them having to do with murder. Derek, an obsessed Sherlockian arrives wearing a cape and deerstalker. The weekend is a bitter disappointment to him. He’d envisioned cozy evenings by the fire with fellow aficionados discussing blood spatter patterns, obscure South American poisons, and the Reichenbach Falls. Instead he’s awash in people who not only don’t read mysteries, but some may not have read a book at all.

One evening Derek holds forth with a convoluted discussion about Jane Marple and Maude Silver, finishing with, “And it must be noted that they constantly knit baby clothes. Now what do you think of that?” Half of the punters think Derek is a nutter, and none of them have the slightest idea what the deuce he’s talking about.

To tell the truth, I don’t either, and Graham never explains it, which makes it all the more fun.

At least Derek recognized the importance of the background list. A background list is a way to use tiny details to enhance a story.

Background lists work like this. All books have a theme, a global umbrella under which the author works. It might be is revenge any less deadly when served cold, or the consequences of not being able to let go, or—one of the romance genre standards—a second chance at love, as in the British TV series As Time Goes By. Two young lovers are separated by circumstances during the Korean War. Forty years later they meet again. Is it too late for love?

Second chance is great for a background list because you have three words to work with: second, chance, and love. Draw three columns and head each column with one of those words. Then think of as many related words as you can. Usually 10 or less per column is enough. For example: Second—two, twins, pair, second-place, second-class, runner-up, second-best. Chance—luck, gambling, chance meeting, no chance in hell, odds, dice, chancer, risk, opportunity. You can do love for yourself.

What you use the background list for is fine tuning a manuscript, the place where you can take advantage of eensy-bitsy-tiny details to reinforce your theme. A character has to stand in line at a bank. Put him second in line. She has to do an activity that the man doesn’t approve of. She goes out gambling with the girls. He refers to immigrants as, “Being treated like second-class citizens.” The woman’s daughter is upset because she was a runner-up in the school’s election.

What you’re doing is bombarding the reader with subtle references to second-chance-love. It’s called subliminal messaging, and it’s so powerful that it’s illegal in Australian and British broadcasting. Nothing has been said about books.

The way I see it is, he’s going to have to stand in that line anyway. Why not make that count for something? She has to have a conflict with the daughter. Why not make that count for something, too?

John Nettles, incidentally, is leaving Midsomer Murders after 13 seasons. You can read about the change here. I’ll miss him, and there’s nothing hidden or chancy about that.

Quote for the week:
I wanted to die in noble fashion in the service of my country and then be buried with full military honours in Westminster Abbey.
~John Nettles, actor

In fact, the producers assure us that Tom and Joyce will simply retire.


Sandra Parshall said...

Sharon, you're one of the best writing teachers I know. Thanks for this idea -- it's one I'll be using from now on.

Sharon Wildwind said...

Thanks, Sandy. Those are very kind words. I figure every little bit helps.

Lynn in Texas said...

Sharon, I *get* your idea of sublimnal messages in a background outline--just never thought of it that way before. Thanks for the tip!

Oh, I'll certainly miss John Nettles. I really enjoy Midsomer Murders, and will continue to watch the show to see how it works out.

Sharon Wildwind said...

Hi, Lynn,

They are apparently going to bring in the character's cousin to be the main detective, so there will still be an Inspector Barnaby.