Back Back Story

Fri 08/19/05 at 10:21 am

I’ve never taken a creative writing course or read a book on how to write fiction. Thus, it wasn’t until I read Jasper Fforde’s series featuring Spec Op Literary Detective Thursday Next that I became acquainted with the term “back story.” Conducting a “define: backstory” search on Google brought up several definitions of the term. Among them, according to Wikipedia:

In narratology, a back-story (also back story or backstory) is the history behind the situation extant at the start of the main story. This literary device is often employed to lend the main story depth or verisimilitude. A back-story may include the history of characters, objects, countries, or other elements of the main story. Back-stories are usually revealed, sketchily or in full, chronologically or otherwise, as the main narrative unfolds. However, a story creator may also create portions of a back-story or even an entire back-story that is solely for his or her own use in writing the main story and is never revealed in the main story.

(And folks give attorneys a bad rap for failing to use plain, simple language.)

Of course, instead of reading the book, one could simply see the movie; i.e., another definition that came up during my initial search was a glossary entry found in the “Fundamentals” section of the website There, “backstory” is defined simply as the “action and events that took place in a character’s life before the present events of the story.” Okay, okay, it’s a stretch — or is that reach?

Getting back, while composing this entry I learned that altering the search term to “back-story” or “back story” generated different results. For instance, when I returned to writing this blog entry and re-searched (get it?) using Wikipedia’s preferred form of the term; i.e., “back-story,” I only got one result — Wikipedia’s definition. Taking out the dash but leaving a space between “back” and “story” yielded more definitions than the first time around, although the scriptsales definition set forth above got dropped. I’m too lazy to find one of Fforde’s volumes to see what version he uses. Accordingly, I’ll let the majority rule, and use “back story.” (Though if someone somewhere managed to use all his or her tiles by turning the word “or” into “backstory” in a Scrabble game, I probably wouldn’t challenge it.)

All that, just to set up an explanation for the title of this blog entry — and you wonder why it’s taking me so long to write the damn book. At any rate, if a “back story” relates the “history behind the situation extant at the start of the novel,” then by my use of the term “back back story,” I mean to relate some of the history behind the situation extant to the day I finally sat down at my computer and typed the opening sentence. I’ve never talked to anyone about what it was like for them to write a novel, so I don’t know if my experience mirrors that of other writers, but I have a pretty clear sense of the handful of occurrences that lead to my “let there be” moment.

My brother taught me to read before I started kindergarten. (I taught him to tie his shoes.) From then until I finished my master’s comps, I don’t remember a time when I was without a book. Given my passion for reading, I suppose it was only natural that I would have literary aspirations of my own. I’ve always wanted to write fiction, but this desire has been stymied by my absolute inability to come up with any sort of plot. I used to think it was became I was lacking in creativity, but I know now that’s not exactly it. Over the years I’ve come up with some fairly decent and original approaches to writing about the literature I read or the legal issues I faced. So what’s the problem? Those of you who know me are well aware that I failed to inherit my father’s “direction gene.” Well, maybe I also lack the “fiction gene.” And so the phrase, “[n]ever be daunted” once again springs to mind. See August 4, 2005 entry. [For this entry I took the time to (what else?) run a Google search of the phrase. Turns out the line is spoken by a fellow named Bill Gorton in one of my all time favorite works of literature, The Sun Also Rises by Earnest Hemingway. But, I digress.]

Over the years, I have compensated for my lack of any sense of direction by making a conscious effort to learn directions and orient myself to where Albuquerque’s Sandia Mountains would be in any given place I find myself. My direction mantra for the last twenty-some years has been, “Mountain’s East.” These days, if I’m familiar with a location, I can pretty much direct folks to it and even tell them whether it’s on the northwest or southeast side of the street. I take great pride in knowing how to get from one end of the island of Manhattan to the other, including by way of the uptown or downtown subway trains on either the east or west side (and, for that matter, knowing which stops have shuttles that will take me from one side of the island to the other).

Enter the notion of nature or nurture. (Trading Places, great movie.) It may not be in my nature to write fiction, but hopefully I’ve nurtured enough of whatever it takes along the way at least to be able to tell this one story. It’s by no means a sure thing, though. Despite being adept at maneuvering my way around Manhattan, one could still take me back to the old homestead at Madelia, Minnesota and tell me to find my way to Grandma’s house in Rake, Iowa, a place we drove to many, many times when I was growing up. I could probably make it to the general vicinity, but actually being able to find the town would still be hit or miss — and there can be those pesky windmills along the way.

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