Backstory: Keeping It Where It Belongs

Write a chapter.  Write a second chapter and realize that something in the first one needs to be changed.  Rewrite the first one.

Tired of this particular process and the limited progress that went along with it, I decided to outline the beats in my cozy before writing any more.  And that’s when I made a discovery.

I hadn’t started at the beginning. The three chapters I had so carefully crafted were all backstory.

This discovery came about when I paged through Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. I was having troubles figuring out some of my beats and needed to see how another mystery had done it.  Knowing that this would be a problem, Brody had included the outlines of several titles in her book.

As I looked at the outline in front of me, I saw where in the book the murder or other crime needs to occur.  What?  I was already to that point in my outline.  Then I realized that my outline started much earlier in the character’s story than it should have.   I had included all of the backstory that made her who she is at the outset of my mystery.


For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, backstory is what takes place before your story.  It might be the events that make your character judgmental or wishy-washy.  It could be why he isn’t trusting or why she doesn’t want to go to college with her friends.

As the author, you need to know all of this.  But your reader doesn’t want all that baggage even if they need to know some of it.  Instead of starting with it, you need to dole it out a bit at a time, fact by fact, throughout the story you’ve chosen to tell.

How?  Some people do it through flashbacks but flashbacks slow things down and can be confusing.

Other times you can do it by just dropping in a fact here and there.  “X is why I came back to town/missed prom/don’t have a license.” Backstory is like confetti – you should scatter these facts with a light hand because no one wants a face full all at once.

Which is why I am starting my new outline much, much later in the story.


A Writer’s Office: My Work Space

Recently someone asked writers on Twitter to share their office spaces.  Where do we work?  My space is hard to photograph because it is, according to real estate agents, a bedroom, approximately ten feet by eleven feet.  I have a desk that wraps around three walls of the room.  One leg is mine.  The other is my husbands.  The base of the U is where the printers sit.

I’ve been trying to clean it up a bit but I have an office mate.  My must is twenty which isn’t much in people years but is a bit ancient in cat years.  She sleeps here on my desk.  She also tends to stretch out and poke me with a claw every now and again.  I’m not sure if she’s telling me to write faster or quit clattering these keys.

This is one of two bookcases.  I can’t show the other because like the desk it wraps around the room and is near impossible to photograph.  This is only the bottom half of this particular case.  It is cherry salvaged by my grandfather. It was the floor of a cabin.  As you can see, one shelf is dedicated to library books.  The bottom shelf holds my author copies.

My husband and I love the Marvel movies so here and there are Marvel knick-knacks like the dancing Baby Groot sitting next to the okapi on the left end of the top shelf.  We are also animal loves so there is a bat I made hanging from this same shelf (right end).

As so often happens with writers and other book lovers, we are running low on shelf space.  So I’m going to go through the difficult job of culling my shelves.  Don’t feel too sorry for me. I probably have almost 60 feet of shelves in this room. If I can clear the equivalent of 8 feet, I’ll be in really good shape.

I know writers who work in coffee shops.  That doesn’t work for me because I distract too easily.  But when I get stuck on a project, I work with paper and pen in the dining room.  The change of location and technique works well.  This is also where I do the final rewrite, also on hard copy.

Where do you write?


Creating a Flowchart: Zen Flowchart

Monday when I wrote about receiving my author’s copies, I mentioned having to create a flowchart.  I used Illustrator which I realize not everyone has.  I got it as part of a package so it wasn’t cost prohibitive.

Fortunately, there is also a free online program called Zen Flowchart.  With it, I made the chart above in just under five minutes which included more or less figuring out the program.  My initial effort included a node with a black outline and white interior.  I fiddled with color options and discovered that blue made things more distinct. The only thing that bothered me was not being able to write “yes” or “no” on the actual arrow.

Certainly that is possible, I thought.  So I went back to the introduction and this time scrolled down a bit farther.  Oh, look!  A how-to article.  The how-to showed how to create arrows with and without text which meant that my mock flowchart now looked like this. See below.

I still think Illustrator is more versatile but that may only be because I’m not very familiar with Zen Flowchart.  Fiddling around with it, I figure out how to split an arrow so that the node on the left can lead to two right hand nodes.  Confusing?  See below.

I also figured out how to take the reader back to an earlier node with a longer arrow.  See below.


I suspect that this program will enable you to do most of what you need to do.  That said, you are going to have to look at their examples and devote some time to playing around with the program.  You would have to do the same thing with Illustrator and Zen Flowchart is free.  So unless you are going to get into some serious illustrating, I would pop on over and register to use Zen Flowchart.  I think you’ll be happy with the results you achieve.


Why We Need Diverse Books Matters

Frankly, I’m more than a little disappointed that this is something we still need to explain.  Studies have shown that it is important for young readers to see themselves mirrored in the books they read.  Yet other studies have shown that reading about characters unlike yourself helps promote empathy.

So why am I bringing this up?  That image above is the Back to School reading list created by the Florida Department of Education.  When I saw the list, I expected to see that The Onion has put it together.  Or that it was a list from the olden days when I was in grade school.  I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with these books or that young readers shouldn’t know them but seriously?  The Black Stallion felt dated when I read it in the 70s.  Aesop?  Robert Louise Stevenson?  Excellent, but where are the new books?  See the School Library Journal article about the list and the response to it here.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, I saw this piece about an article published in The Federalist.  Executive editor Joy Pullmann is having fits at the Scholastic Book Club catalog that recently came out because it is GASP inclusive, created in partnership with We Need Diverse Books.  Okay, she doesn’t say inclusive.  I believe her phrase may have been immersed in identity politics.

She then goes on to complain about a book for middle schoolers with a bisexual character, another book with a Pakistani Muslim character, and Dan Brown’s The Unwanted.  That’s right.  A book about Syrian refugees is biased and unacceptable.

Again, I’m not saying that the books I read when I was a kid were bad, but they were certainly one sided.  And I would have loved to have had access to a greater variety of books. As it was, I read every “diverse” book I could get my hands on including adult titles that we far too old for me.  What I’m saying is that I read Roots when I was 11 because I couldn’t find a middle grade book on the topic.

Why not, instead, give young readers age appropriate diverse books?  They can work their way up to adult books.




Author Copies

It is like Christmas in August right now.  My son and I were making lunch when the doorbell rang.  I was expecting an order from Hanes and hurried to the door but instead of a mailer found a box.  A box with an Abdo sticker.  Author copies!   Woo hoo!

When I write a book, sometimes I get to suggest illustrations.  That was the case with Ancient Maya.  Then they had to see which photos they could get permission to use.

For Earning, Saving, and Investing, my husband and I created a number of bar graphs and a flow chart.  Yes, I had to pull in help because he is a pro with Excel while I only use it to log my income and expenses.  “You can use it to generate graphs,” says he.  What?  Really?

The flow chart demonstrates how to decide what investment is best to make under certain circumstances.  I tried to write it up without creating the chart but that quickly proved impossible.  So I opened Illustrator and got to work.

Although nothing we created was used as we submitted it, that’s fine by me.  Sometimes a graphic is the easiest way to communicate information whether your reader is in middle school or your editor.  At moments where this is the case, I find it easiest to create the graphic.

Now back to work.  I’ve got another book in the works for Abdo and this topic takes me back to high school.


Series Characters: What It Takes to Bring Your Reader Back

I’ve been thinking about series characters a lot as I get back to work on my cozy mystery. What is it that makes them appealing?

It isn’t that they grow and that’s a fact that until recently really bothered me.  Isn’t that how a character arc is supposed to work?  Character has a problem, solves the problem and changes her world.  Growth!   But then I read a series of posts by K.M. Weiland on character arcs.  In addition to the positive arc, you have the flat arc and the negative arc.

A mystery generally has a flat arc.  A crime is committed.  Your character believes that X person committed the crime.  The authorities (or someone else) believe that Y person did it.  Your character proves that she is right and thus her perspective does not change.  Zero growth so it is a flat arc.

So if readers aren’t coming back for all that nifty growth, what is it that brings them back to your story world time and time again?  Quite often, they come back because they like or connect with the character.

This might mean that they have a hobby or interest in common with the character.  Think about the number of cozies with a character who knits, cooks, works in a coffee shop, or a bookstore.  These are all locations that appeal to the cozy crowd.  I’ve also read stories with main characters who are librarians or restore art work.

Perhaps the character has a life problem in common with the reader.  For younger readers, this might mean competing to be on a sports team or dealing with siblings.  For adult readers, it could be trying to balance home and work or dealing with both kids and aging parents.

What all of this means is that if you are interested in writing a series, the first step is to identify your reader.  Then figure out what might appeal to these readers in a character.  Only then can you create a series character.


Inspiration: What Goes Into a Picture Book

I have to admit it.  I love getting to see videos about how different authors and illustrators work.  This video with Yuyi Morales, the creator of Dreamers, is a great companion piece for yesterday’s post on writing nonfiction today.

Dreamers is based, in part, on Morales own experiences as an immigrant and mother of an infant.  It also draws on her childhood, drawing beside her mother as the woman worked at the kitchen table.  Watch the video in its entirety and you’ll hear how, as the illustrator, she worked in migratory animals, images that resemble Mexican folk art and more.

The reason that I think this is such a good companion piece for yesterday’s post is that at first picture books often look relatively simple.  They are for young children who are pre-readers.  The texts are short.

But this apparent simplicity is deceptive.  If you’ve ever tried to write a picture book, you begin to see in this interview just how much goes into it.  And I don’t mean simply how much work goes into it but how much material as well. Morales could have written a piece about sitting next to her mother at the kitchen table or a piece about coming here with her son.  She could have added a monarch to numerous illustrations.  The illustrations could be based on folk art.

Instead of doing any one of these things, Morales draws on them all.  Where she could have created a simple, straight-forward story, she wove together a piece that is layered and complex.

This complexity will help keep readers coming back, a must if something is going to be published as a hard cover picture book.  Check out what Morales has to say and then look over your own picture book.  Do you need to find a way to spice it up?  How could you add another layer?



Children’s Nonfiction: Changing with the Times

The world is a rapidly changing place but this isn’t a post about trends.  Okay, I guess it is in a way.  But it isn’t a post about chasing trends in nonfiction.

Instead, it is a post about writing nonfiction for today’s young readers in today’s world.  What does this mean?  Keep the internet in mind as you develop your idea.

If you have an idea for a nonfiction article or book, the first thing that you should do is Google it.  And I don’t mean do a search on “horses” when your idea is to write a book about how the horse influenced plains culture.  Be specific.  Google “post contact plains culture” or “plains culture influenced by the horse.”

You want to get as close to your topic as you can because if you can.  Look through several pages of search results.  Do you see everything you were going to include?  Then don’t write the book.

Whoa!  What?

That’s right.  If a search online can turn up the information that would be in your book pretty much as you would present it, move on to another topic.  To sell an article or a book in today’s market, you need to go beyond the internet.  The problem is that if you could find the information quickly and easily, so can your reader or your reader’s parents and teachers.

To sell your idea, especially if it will be published as a hardcover book or a library bound book, you need to make it unique.  This means that it can’t have been published before as a book.  But it also means that it can’t be discovered in a simple search.  Otherwise, way pay for the book when you already pay for data and/or internet access?  It doesn’t make sense.

There are a variety of ways that you can do this.

Be creative.  Combine ideas that have never been combined before.

Be a good teacher. Explain complicated things in a way that young readers, their parents, and teachers can understand.  This is especially important when dealing with science.

Be yourself.  We each have a unique way of approaching the world.  Too often we try to fit when, as a nonfiction writer, it is time to make your own way into the publishing world.


Facts Matter: Accuracy Is Essential Even in Fiction, or Is It?

Recently, my book club read a book by a New York Times top ten author.  I had never read anything by this person and wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  I’m not going to name names because I still don’t get why her work is so popular.

When you write for children, you are taught that your work needs to be accurate.  Reviewers will point out when it isn’t.  And your readers?  They will often close the book and refuse to read on.  Games, movies and books.  I’ve heard young consumers complain about inaccuracies and inconsistencies in each of these forms.

Granted, the book we read for book club was fiction, but it touched on forensics.  If you are going to write about forensics, get the information right. There are enough television shows, movies and books that feature this field.  When you write something that feels off, a quick Google search will reveal your error.

And the errors weren’t even essential for the story.  Even that I might be able to forgive if something had been said in an author’s note.

But the part that really floored me?  About half of the members of our book club couldn’t have cared less.  “That’s not what the book is ABOUT.”  “It just doesn’t matter.”

If I wrote a book for teens about a forensic crazy kid, no, it isn’t his job, but it is his passion, and I got it wrong?  Reviewers would point it out. It would be tweeted.  People would gripe.

Do the same thing in a book for adults?  Pfft. It isn’t about forensics.  Who cares?  I have to wonder if this is why so many adult authors write a book or two for young readers and then seem to go back to their adult audiences.

Me?  I’d rather have my words matter.


Essay Writing: The Hermit Crab

Most of the writing that I do at this point in my career is children’s nonfiction.  But I’ve also written book reviews, done test writing, and created how-tos for both children and adults.  I read all types of writing and like to learn new techniques.  After all, you never know when something will come in handy.

Yesterday, I was reading an interview with Jessica Pace who won third place in the Women on Writing Q3 2019 Creative Nonfiction Contest.  Her piece is a hermit crab essay.  You can check out the interview here and the essay here.  I had never heard of a hermit crab essay and looked it up.

The term hermit crab essay was first used by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola.  They use this name for essays that take the form of something other than an essay.  It could be a how-to or some kind of written document.

In “Essays in Strange Forms and Peculiar Places,” Vivian Wagner explains that the hermit crab essay is a modern form that celebrates our distractibility. By using a wide variety of forms, these essays help us see that the form information takes shapes what we perceive as much as does the information itself.

Think about the many forms such an essay could take for writers — an acceptance letter, an agent’s profile on Manuscript Wish List, an online submission, a series of computer errors and more.  I have to admit that I have an idea but I’m not sure that mine is actually a hermit crab essay.  My plan is to combine a definition with narrative nonfiction.  Hermit crab essay?  I don’t know and probably won’t know even after I draft it.

I suspect it is more important for me to draft it than it is to worry about what it should be called.  Of course, isn’t that what you would expect someone to say who can’t quite figure out how to label it?