Backstory – Real and Fictional

How are you all doing with your New Year’s Resolutions? Have you kept them, or have you already forgotten what you resolved to do in 2014? !

In late December I found pushed to the back of a living room cabinet a photo album filled with photos from the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. There are pictures of my parents, aunts, and uncles in their early twenties; my grandparents; my cousins in their christening gowns and bassinets; and family friends. I’ve been delighting in looking at these photos, seeing how playful the matriarchs and patriarchs of the family were in their youth. And good-looking. My mother looks like a supermodel in some shots; my father gives off a certain James Dean quality with his slicked-back hair and serious poses. The photos do stir up sadness; some in the frames did not have as blessed a life as others. A few passed on much too soon.

I made it my New Year’s project to scan the photos and email them to my siblings and cousins. The reaction to my Sunday mailings has been quite enthusiastic. As I scan a dozen or so photos each week, the pictures remind me of the biographical data-snapshots-I thread through All Things Murder. Cozy readers love both the murder mystery and the “personal” plots in their stories. However, I know readers are not happy when the personal becomes the main plot and the mystery plays second fiddle. I was careful, then, not to overload All Things with Veronica’s backstory.

One detail of Veronica’s personal history is very important to the plot; it is indeed why she becomes an amateur sleuth. Veronica learns early in the story that Tim Petersen, her high school boyfriend, had a romantic relationship with Anna Langdon, the eventual murder victim. Her fear that Tim is involved in Anna’s demise propels Veronica into the murder case. The flame of first love is eternal, isn’t it?

I thought it also important to provide backstory to explain Veronica’s affection for Barton and its main thoroughfare, Orchard Street. I love Main Street in my hometown, but I’m not as emotionally tied to its changes as Veronica is to Orchard’s potential transformation. Why is it so dear to her? Her parents’ bookstore, the aptly named Orchard Street Books (okay, not very original!), has been a mainstay of the street for decades. Veronica grew up in the shop, spending countless hours serving customers and assisting her parents in their business. Many of the shops are family owned, creating in Barton a wonderful sense of community that endured for years. Readers need to know that history to fully understand the characters’ fight against a mall that threatens everyone on Orchard. It’s not just about the money.

Finally, details of Veronica’s past inform her relationships. It’s not enough to state that Carol is Veronica’s best friend. I want readers to know the friendship dates back to the women’s kindergarten days. The pair has lived through a great deal together. This information not only reveals the depth of their friendship, but it also defines Veronica as a true friend, a woman who may have left Barton for the excitement of New York City and an acting career, but one who never let go of her dearest friend. The same holds true for her relationships with the characters of Mark and Sandy.

How much backstory do you like in a book? Enough to color in the lines and add depth to characters but not too much that it becomes boring exposition? Or do you want as many details as possible about a character’s history?

Here’s a photo I took yesterday of a backyard squirrel and a snow cone made by Mother Nature. Don’t worry if you can’t finish it, buddy. It will still be there tomorrow.

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