Craft Intensive: Building Backstory

As a couple of my fellow Pennies can tell you, I love to do a deep dive on characters’ feelings and motivations. In fact, one of my favorite things to do while writing and critiquing is to explore and uncover why the characters act the way they do.

I’m also a firm believer in that old adage that the easiest way to know what someone is going to do in the future is to look at what they’ve done in the past.

But until recently, I never managed to put those two ideas together in my writing! As much as I love the behavior analysis part of penning a novel, I have been leaving a huge chunk of motivation on the table: Backstory.

It’s not that I’ve been ignoring backstory. I actually like it quite a bit and enjoy imagining pre-novel scenes. But I haven’t always written down that backstory or given it much more than a cursory glance. It’s always been an under-developed, well-you-see-this-once-happened explanation available if someone asked.

But after Julie recommended Lisa Cron’s STORY GENIUS to me, I started paying a lot more attention to backstory in my books. And I’ve picked up some great new habits that — I hope! — are making my current WIP a much more emotionally engaging read.

  1. Write that backstory down. I used to be content to dream up a nice, somewhat vague backstory for my character — e.g./ “She’s watched her mom cut people out of their lives for little to no reason and she’s scared of that happening to her.” But with this draft, I’ve written out several scenes from her past that show her mom turning on their friends and family. The details that writing the scenes forced me to conjure up are helping me show my character’s fear so much more vividly, and they serve the dual purpose of propelling actions that are making my story zing.
  2. From STORY GENIUS: Find a moment that made your character believe something about the world that your novel’s story will prove wrong. Think Professor Snape. For almost the entire seven-book series, Harry believes that Professor Snape is evil. He has ample evidence for this belief — much of it circumstantial and misinterpreted — and for him, it is confirmed at nearly every turn. We even get to see memories of Snape’s boyhood that seem to confirm Harry’s suspicions. All of which makes it so deeply moving for us and for Harry when he learns the truth behind Snape’s actions late in the final book.
  3. Real people often take unexpected lessons from life events — so can your characters. A character whose mom died when he was thirteen could vow to remain a bachelor for life because he’s seen how painful it is to lose someone you love…or he could decide to become very religious because he believes his mom might have been saved if she had gone to church…or he could fervently wish to create his own family very young to make up for what he missed out on…or, or, or. Any one of a thousand reactions to that one event — losing his mother — is possible, which means you need to keep digging. What else was happening in his life at that time that shaped how he reacted? What kind of person was his mom, and how did she shape him while she was alive? What did he believe about the world before she died, and how did that death challenge that belief? Try to find the core belief that led your character to choose the specific lesson that makes him behave the way he does — and that belief will do a lot of heavy lifting to move your story forward.

As I’ve started incorporating backstory questions into my writing, I’ve found that not only does it mean I get to do more of what I love — exploring character motivation! — but it is also helping me improve my much weaker area of plot development.

Because if the truest predictor of future behavior is past behavior, then knowing your characters’ backstory backwards and forwards will help you know exactly what they’re going to do next.

Untangling Your Characters

I love character motivation! When done right, it gives stories depth and texture and makes the characters seem like real people.

I also hate character motivation! Sometimes I just want to get my characters from point A to point B in my story without having to worry about why. 

But if you want to write books with characters that people hate to part with, then you have to really get into your characters’ heads. As young as I feel, though, I’m pretty far removed from my teenage years, and those struggles and feelings that are so monumental to a 15-year-old can sometimes seem a little overblown when seen through an adult lens.


Using her own experiences as a psychologist at a girls’ school, a private practitioner, and a parent of girls, Damour explores the physical and psychological stages of development that girls ages 11-19 go through as they struggle to reach adulthood.

One of the most fascinating tidbits was about the teenage brain, and how it goes through a process of rewiring to become an adult brain. Those wild emotional swings we all attribute to hormones? That’s not so much hormones as the brain starting that process in the limbic system, where emotions begin!

As Damour explains, girls travel along seven strands of development, some sequentially, many simultaneously. They are…

  • Parting with childhood
  • Joining a new tribe
  • Harnessing emotions
  • Contending with adult authority
  • Planning for the future
  • Entering the romantic world
  • Caring for herself

Each strand comes with its own characteristic behaviors and challenges. And while many YA books focus a lot on Entering the Romantic World, Joining a New Tribe, and Contending with Adult Authority, each strand is incredibly important.

The book outlines what’s involved in the range of normal development, but it also devotes a section into what can happen when something gets off-track. Peppered with stories of real kids and parents facing the challenges that crop up, it gave me an incredible window into how different families and girls approach this critical time.

Reading UNTANGLED sparked several ideas for editing my YA WIP. I found scenes where my protagonist was working on Harnessing Emotions, and others where she was
having difficulty Caring for Herself. I could see that her ability to Plan for the Future was being compromised by her decisions, and I was able to ratchet that tension up even further.

Understanding character motivations is key for all writers. UNTANGLED cracked open that teenage world for me again. And I know my characters will be richer for it

Now to find a similar book on adolescent boys!


rm-picRICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon, often in the company of her husband and their three spirited children, mischievous beagle and long-suffering cat. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

Writing Historical Fiction, or, Notes from a Time Traveler

Writing Historical Fiction, or, Notes from a Time Traveler

For years I was haunted by a dream of a young woman walking through long grass. I couldn’t see her face, but I could hear her breathing hard, because she wore a corset and the hem of her brocade dress was damp and heavy. She carried a letter in her hand as she made her way toward a small building, a kind of folly, to read in private. The Belvedere, VersaillesThis person didn’t fit into the book I was working on at the time. At all! But then last fall, I happened to read about the invention of hot-air balloons and a real-life event in which a Parisian girl saved a balloon pilot from injury. This happened right before the French Revolution, which made me think about Versailles and its gardens and court dresses and then I knew: my protagonist would be the tough city girl who stopped the balloon from crashing—and fell in love with its pilot—and  she would be the girl with the letter, ruining her expensive dress as she strode through the gardens of Versailles.

My current project, Enchantée, is a YA historical fantasy, which means (at least to me) that it’s rooted in historical fact and touched by magic. The magic I get to invent, but the details of life in the 1780s—the settings, historical events, clothes, food, economy, transportation and more—I need to research. And all of that research is in pursuit of one thing: to make my readers feel that they are THERE, that they’ve traveled back in time and space.

But HOW?

When I started, I knew a bit about the eighteenth century from my grad school days, but not much. I’d listened to Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette. I’d visited Paris, a long time ago. I’d seen period films set in the 1780s. For me, this was enough to begin, to rough out a story arc. Then I starting researching. Then I wrote. Then I researched again, this time with more focus because I had a better idea of what I needed to know. And then I wrote more. And so on and so on.

Research, I’ve discovered, is a spiral process: you can’t possibly know what you need to know at the beginning, so inevitably you’ll go back to the source many times. Knowing this has helped me deal with the inevitable overwhelm that comes with trying to get a grasp on a historical moment.

I’ve read more about the period than will fit in my book; in fact, what shows up in the novel is only the tip of the iceberg. Will readers care about the difficulty of producing hydrogen gas for balloons? I highly doubt it! But understanding it added another layer of authenticity to the story and helped me see the challenges my balloonist would face, which in turn sparked changes in the plot. This wasn’t something I’d expected to happen, but I was thrilled when it did.

Yet as K.M. Weiland stresses in her great post on writing historical fiction, even more than getting the facts right (which you need to do), what counts is creating a feeling of authenticity.

But how do you do that? Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Tiny details can be time machines. Learning that the pomade used in hairstyles in the 1780s reeked after a week gave me a powerful sensory detail. Learning that Versailles crawled with rats and that anyone could wander its halls helped me see the glittering palace with fresh eyes—and devise a way in for my heroine.

Read what interests you. Try biographies, social and political histories. You don’t have to start with the most complex one, either, unless it speaks to you. Know that you’ll probably come back to whatever you read, so be sure to take notes and save links to websites. (I do this by importing links into Scrivener.)

Use historians’ bibliographies to track down Books to Read, September 2015documents from the period, many of which are available online or included in books. These primary sources are what historians use to write their accounts; they include letters and diaries, or things like a first-hand account of a balloon flight in 1783, and they are gold. Not only because they contain the priceless details you want, but they will be written in the language of a person from your period.

Which brings me to voice. Reading eighteenth-century letters as well as novels, histories, and poems helped me shape my protagonist’s voice. I wanted her voice and thoughts to feel contemporary enough for YA readers of today, but also to feel authentic to the time. I’ll admit that for me, balancing these two issues is an ongoing struggle.

If your chosen period isn’t too far in the past, you may find maps, old guidebooks, or travel writing useful. Even present-day guidebooks can contain helpful information, especially if aspects of your setting still exist—as they did for me in Paris and at Versailles.

Indulge in period films, your pen at the ready (next to the popcorn, of course). Surround yourself with photos of the places you’re writing about. Follow pinners on Pinterest who are fascinated by your setting and your time period and pin like crazy. Track down museums that feature objects important to your book—in my case, the Bata shoe museum and the Murtog D. Guiness Collection of Automata.

Seek out passionate experts of your period. They’re not all academics. I follow people on Pinterest who pin eighteenth-century clothes; their pins function as a virtual wardrobe when I’m dressing my characters. If, for example, you want to set your novel during the American Civil War, you might find a re-enactor’s blog useful. I was captivated by the work of a Finnish blogger who sews 18th century dresses. I also stumbled across an online agency that rents weapons to acting companies; one of its owners provided the best description I’d found of how to fight with a French small sword. Many of these experts will welcome questions—they love to share their passion.

The most important thing I’ve learned is both humbling and inspiring. As Newberry winner Karen Hesse, author of Out of the Dust wrote, “Even after researching for a full year, after reading thousands of pages of material, both primary and secondary sources, I could never recreate an historical period with absolute confidence. I needed to make so many leaps of faith and asked the reader to leap with me.”

So yes, you need to research, but time travel happens through imagination—something you already have. Happy writing!

Looking to read some MG and YA historical fiction? Here are a few of my favorites:

Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity
Lois Lowry, Number the Stars
Laurie Halse Anderson, Chains
MT Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing
Christopher Paul Malone, The Watsons Go to Birmingham
Elizabeth George Speare, The Witch of Blackbird Pond

You can read interviews with MT Anderson here and Laurie Halse Anderson here.

Emma Darwin’s guide to writing historical fiction (not specifically for kidlit writers but useful nonetheless) is available May 25, 2016.

Do you have any tips on writing historical fiction? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

IMG_1617When GITA TRELEASE was little, she believed that if she squinted just right, she could see the glimmer of magic around certain things. She still believes it. As an English professor, she taught classes on Victorian criminals, monsters, and fairy tales. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and opinionated Maine Coon cat, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current YA project is a historical fantasy that takes place during the French Revolution—with a glimmer of magic. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram, where she often posts about her research.

Rooting for the Bad Guys

It’s been a long, rainy winter-turned-spring here in the Pacific Northwest. And I’m sick of it. Every day when I bundle up in my increasingly leaky raincoat to walk the dog, I try to remind myself that rain today means a glorious green summer. Three months from now. (Humph.)

Yeah, I’m cranky. Which might be why I’ve been so delighted to stumble across two books recently with characters who reflect my mood.

It’s not easy to write heroes who are crankpots, murderous villains, or downright unlikeable…but for whom the reader cheers to victory anyway. But Eliza Crewe’s CRACKED and Leigh Bardugo’s SIX OF CROWS both do it brilliantly.

So rather than wishing the rain away, I decided to get to work figuring out how Crewe and Bardugo conducted the magic of making me care about two of the most black-hearted characters I’ve read about recently.

FC9781908844675Eliza Crewe’s CRACKED opens with the main character, Meda, in a mental hospital. We’re not sure why she’s there, but we have the idea that she could leave whenever she wants. As the chapter continues, we watch as Meda kills a patient and eats his soul.

Gross, right? Not to mention criminal and morally questionable, even after we find out how evil the guy she killed was. Well, the fun is just starting. The book then tosses Meda into the midst of an ancient battle between demons and Knights Templar, and we’re never quite sure whose side she’s on until the climax of the book. A friend who read the book said, “I kept waiting for her to get all soft and mushy at the end. But nope. She pretty much just keeps wanting to kill people. It was awesome.”

But even though Meda is murderous to the end, Crewe does a few things that keep the reader rooting for instead of against her morally squishy protagonist. First, Meda has a dead mother who was good and kind and whom she misses deeply. Whenever she does something questionable, Meda invokes the memory of her mother and condemns herself. It’s a lot easier to forgive her for her murderous thoughts when we know how much they cost her.

Crewe also gives Meda her very first friends – interesting and deeply flawed characters in their own rights. And although Meda doesn’t always treat them well (and thinks about killing them way more often than – I hope! – my friends do) her growing affection for and loyalty to them warms us to Meda, even in the moments where we doubt she can overcome her villainous nature.

FC9781627792127Leigh Bardugo’s fantasy heist novel SIX OF CROWS features a whole team of criminals, all of whom have moments of unlikeability. But the heist crew boss, Kaz Brekker, goes out of his way to discourage readers and everyone else to dislike him. Not only does he not care about being liked, he actively pushes everyone away.

Except Inej. The deft cat-burglar is the one person in the world that Kaz allows himself to almost care about, and his struggles to keep her at arm’s length even as he wants to clutch her to him are so poignant that I kept rooting for him in spite of the fact that if I met him on the street, I’d give him a VERY wide berth.

Add in a horribly tragic backstory of loss, betrayal and unimaginable horror, and even if I was repulsed by most of his behavior, I couldn’t help but hope Kaz would come out of the impossible heist whole. I forgave him almost all of his failings because I understood just how deeply he was wounded, and how desperate he was to protect himself from ever being so wounded again.

Neither Kaz nor Meda were “cured” of their crankiness by their adventures. They both go into their respective sequels as almost as cantankerous as they started. But Crewe and Bardugo made me – cranky and water-logged as I am – care about them and their journeys.

And I think I’ll still like these crankpots even when the sun finally comes out.