Showing posts with label backstory. Show all posts
Showing posts with label backstory. Show all posts

20 July 2020

Plot versus Character


When I conduct a writing workshop, one of the questions people frequent ask is about the importance of plot versus character. I tell them that it depends.
If you're writing a novel, or maybe even a series, you need to know your main characters very well. These imaginary friends and co-workers need a biography that's complete enough to flesh them out and show what makes them who they are. You need to understand their strengths, weaknesses, and the lines they won't cross well enough to know what they want enough to risk dying for it. If you write mysteries, you need to understand how your protagonist's mind works so he or she can solve your mystery, too. You probably won't bring all this information on stage immediately, and some of it may never show up, but you need to know it. It's how you give your character depth.

If you're writing a series, this bio is even more important because some stuff may not matter until the third or fourth book, or even later. Publishers and agents love, love, love a series.

Lately, I've been moving from novels to short stories, and my thinking is changing, too. Maybe my attention span is waning, or maybe I'm just trying to go faster, but for short stories, it's all about the plot.

Remember, instead of 80K words or more, my short stories average about 4K, roughly 15 pages. Get in, get dirty, get out again. There's less room to present a complex and fleshed-out character. Unless you're trying to sell a story featuring a character from your series--which I've only done two or three times--you rely more on your premise, and that's more apt to guide your plot.

You need a character who will logically find herself in a particular situation. For a short story, once I have a premise, I start typing with generic names and see where those given circumstances lead me. I characterize the protagonist with action and his or her goal instead of with lots of description and back-story (both of which I tell my writing workshop students to leave out). If I go quickly and don't censor or force things, they will lead to the detail I need, and that often provides a plot twist, and maybe even a solution.

Let's say you're writing about a woman who qualifies as a "crazy cat lady." She has eight cats and has hidden her will somewhere in her enormous house. Cats suggest certain ideas: mice, purring, dogs, people who like or dislike them, people who are allergic to them. What if a supporting character loathes cats? What if she likes them but is allergic? Can you use that as a plot point, or even a clue? Maybe. It's a character detail, but it steers your plot. More and more, I discover details that flesh out the plot at the same time they delineate character, and when you get two for the price of one, it's even better.

As I re-wire my brain for short stories, I find that I'm writing them more quickly and maybe having even more fun. I'm fond of a few stories that have rich and complex characters, but several of them have never found a home except on my hard drive. The newer plot-premise stories seem to have more potential markets, so I can send them out with higher hopes.

That's a happy ending.


31 July 2016

History behind the Story


(NOTE: this blog article is a re-post originally written for AHMM and posted at Trace Evidence on 07/12/2016.)

Out of history comes a story: "The Great Aul," AHMM July/August 2016 issue

The tomes of history are rich with strong characters whose actions influenced the future of nations, entire civilizations and even the course of world events. Much of known history is written by the winners, some accounts are retold by survivors of that same happening and some events are documented by independent observers who have no axe to grind concerning the facts or truth of those events. Often the perspective or alleged truth depends upon the teller of that history and many times there are gaps in what gets told. These gaps are fertile grounds for an author of fiction to create his own version of the story.

The Known History:


Imam Shamyl
For centuries, the Tsars of Russia had pushed their border southward into the Turkic lands. Their invasion vanguard usually consisted of freebooting Cossaks who lived in stockade villages along the frontier and raided their Muslim neighbors by horseback or by sea. Eventually, after many rebellions by the freedom loving Cossacks against their own Tsars, the Russian army quartered soldiers in each frontier village, made these Cossacks into subordinate military units and launched their own massive spring campaigns into Chechnya to subjugate the various hill tribes.

One of the opposition leaders was an Imam named Shamyl who led a group of religious Chechens and Daghestans known as Murids in the northern Caucasus. At one point, the Russians offered to broker a peace treaty with the Murids. In order to guarantee the safety of the Russian negotiators, Shamyl was forced to give up one of his sons as a temporary hostage. The Russians, acting in bad faith, promptly whisked the young boy off to Moscow, Russianized him over the years and made him a cavalry officer in one of their units.

During the summer of 1854, Shamyl put a plan in motion to recover his now grown son. On the morning of July 4th, a detachment of Murid horsemen clattered into the Tsinandali palace courtyard of King George XII, the last king of Georgia and an ally of the Tsar. They seized the two princesses, their children and their governesses. The women were tied to the horsemen's saddle frames and the small children were stuffed into large saddlebags. In short time, the entire group rode into the mountains headed for the Great Aul, a mountain fortress in the heart of Daghestan. Imam Shamyl had plans to trade the hostages for his son Jamal al-Din (various spellings depending upon the source). As a matter of history, the trade did take place, but there is a gap in the details..

Murid followers
Filling the Gap:

Constantly researching for more Russian history on their invasion of the Caucusus to use as story background, this event is a great find for me. I already have two story characters, the Armenian and his helper the Little Nogai Boy, trading goods with the Cossacks on the Terek River and with the Chechens south into the Wild Country. Since the Armenian is already trusted by people on both sides of the river (as shown in previous stories), who better to act as intermediary for the exchange of the hostages? These two fictional characters can fill the existing gap and write their own story as to their part in what happened.

It's now time to invoke the writer's famous What if...clause. What if the Armenian and the Little Nogai Boy are crossing a shallow river deep in the Wild Country when the raiders fleeing with their prisoners happen upon them?

The Story is Born:

     The young orphan boy, from the Nogai split out of the Great Mongol Horde after the death of Genghis Khan, tells "The Great Aul" story as he sees these hostage events through his own eyes. Using the young boy as the Point of View also allows for a more emotional impact upon the reader at the end. So let's get down to the bare bones.

Our two protagonists, all their trade goods, plus their string of pack animals are taken by the Murids and are forced to travel along with the hostages to The Great Aul high up on a mountain top. Here, the Armenian is offered freedom for himself and his helper if the Armenian takes a letter from the Imam to the Tsar, offering the Georgian hostages in exchange for his son Jamal. However, the Nogai boy must stay behind to ensure the Armenian's return.

It's a long trip to Moscow and back. Many things can happen to the Armenian along the route and the boy doesn't know if his master will even return to get him out of the aul. To pass time, the boy starts selling their trade goods in the local market and making his own plans for escape just in case things don't work out according to the plans of others. But, he has to be careful in his actions because he is closely watched by one of the Murids assigned to guard him, a Murid who has lost his entire family to earlier Russian incursions. Plus, it seems not all Murids are happy to have outsiders on the inside of their fortress.

Sorry, but that's all you get here. To find out what becomes of our young orphan after the Imam's son is returned, you'll have to read the story yourself. If you are female, you might want to have a tissue handy. It allegedly made the editor cry.



22 October 2013

A Back Story


       My article today is going to be a little on the lite side. Mea culpa, but let me explain.

       Once a year I teach a graduate course at the University of Denver on the history of transportation development and regulation in the United States. My wife refers to this this as my annual “teachapalooza.” What I do is deliver a 7 hour lecture on transportation development in the United States. This means I cover about 38 years and hour. 

       Even though I have done this for five years now, the task is still daunting and preparation consumes a large amount of my time for a week or so prior to the course. This year’s teachapalooza was last Wednesday, and I flew back to Washington D.C. last Thursday. This would normally have provided me with ample time to pull together an article for Tuesday except for one little fact -- my wife and I were scheduled to leave Saturday for a family reunion in Nags Head North Carolina. And our beach cottage there has (believe it or not) no internet. 

Available at news stands!
       Everything, therefore, came down to Friday. And what you, faithful (I hope) readers have is a shorter entry this time around. So, what I thought I would do, within the constraints outlined above, is tell a funny back story about writing pastiches and, specifically, about writing my recent Ellery Queen story, Literally Dead, which appears in the December edition of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine

        One of the hurdles involved in writing a pastiche -- at least a pastiche concerning a character, such as Ellery, who is still in copyright -- is that each story I write has to be cleared prior to publication by the heirs of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee.  Luckily for me submitting stories to the Dannay and Lee families is far from a burden -- they have always been accommodating and, more to the point, it has been great fun to get to know, and to exchange emails with, the likes of Richard Dannay and Rand Lee. This is something that, as an Ellery Queen fan for decades, makes my day. 

        But back to today's story.  As I have said on many occasions, I abhor spoilers. Nevertheless I’m going to tell you just a bit about what transpires in Literally Dead since the story that follows only makes sense if you have been forearmed. 

        To begin with, it hardy tells too much to point out that in every Ellery Queen story someone inevitably must bite the dust. No exception with mine. While that crucial (and lamented) central character takes a few pages in my story to be done in, if you have any background at all in reading “fair play” mysteries you will have seen it coming from the very beginning.  The story introduces a famous author, Jennifer Kaye Rothkopf, who has just completed the seventh, and (to the dismay of many) final, volume of a fantasy series that tells the story of a young man who has been educated in a famous sorcery school. As I said, you can easily guess what is going to happen to poor Jennifer. 

        When the story was accepted for publication by Janet Hutchings I sent it off, as usual, to RIchard Dannay, himself an intellectual properties attorney in New York City, so that he could share it with the other Dannay and Lee heirs for their (hoped for!) approval. In due course I received the following email from Richard: 
Dale: Well done! I must say that your description of the murdered victim, author of the seven-book fantasy series involving a young sorcerer, led me to believe that you would be invoking the last two words of "The Adventure of the Seven Black Cats." Anyway, here's the agreement [allowing for the use of Ellery and other Queen-created characters]. If okay, just email back a signed and dated copy. Best. -- rd 
        Okay. Even as someone who is sort of known for his supposed in-depth knowledge of the works of Queen I was completely stumped. I had only the vaguest memory of the story to which Richard referred. I immediately went to my Ellery Queen library and found the story, one of the entries in The Adventures of Ellery Queen, published way back in 1934. My copy of the short story anthology was no spring chicken itself -- the volume still had the receipt in it. I had purchased it for ten cents at a used book fair in St. Louis in 1961, when I was all of 12 years old.  I remembered reading the stories at the time, but not since. No wonder it had faded from memory. 

       I resisted the temptation to turn to the last page in search of the two words to which Richard alluded. Instead I sat down to re-read the story for the first time in 50 years. (Gad, I hate being able to say that!) 

        Suffice it to say this story, sadly, was not Ellery at his best.  It also featured more gore than the reader of a golden age mystery usually anticipates, including the serial demise of those cats. But I persevered, all the way to the last page.  And right up until the bottom of that page I had absolutely no idea what Richard was talking about. And then all became clear. 

        The last two words in The Adventure of the Seven Black Cats are “Harry Potter.”

[Correction Note:  The original version of this article referred to the works of Ellery Queen as being "in the public domain."  The obvious error in that statement is that it should have said "Ellery Queen is NOT in the public domain."  Oops, and sorry about that!  Richard Dannay, in an email, called my attention to this error.  The Queen works are not in the public domain and are, in fact, as Richard points out, protected under copyright laws.  The article has been changed to reflect that fact.  

Also deleted from this version is a reference to Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes works as being in the public domain.  That reference has been omitted in light of the continuing (and very interesting) litigation relating to the literary protections that currently are to be accorded to the Sherlock Holmes stories.  

-- Dale C. Andrews, January 5, 2015]

28 August 2012

Ellery Queen's Backstory


    Two weeks ago I received one of those emails that everyone at SleuthSayers hopes for when their computer goes “Bing!”  The email was from Janet Hutchings accepting my latest story, Literally Dead, for publication in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

    The time period between a story’s acceptance and its publication – measured in months, usually measured in many, many, months – always reminds me of what it felt like as a child waiting for Christmas.  You know it’s coming and there is great joy in the anticipation.  Part of that also is because at that stage you know you have made it.  You came up with an idea, tinkered with it until you were pretty sure it would work, fleshed out the characters in your mind, drafted, edited, re-edited, circulated it to those around you and finally took a deep breath and sent it off.  And Lo:  It wasn’t rejected.

    When my younger son Colin (one of my tougher critics) read Literally Dead his first observation was that he was surprised at the detail I went into concerning the New England town that is the setting for the story.  Why, he asked, did I explain that the town square was in fact round?   Why did I mention the nearby Mahogany mountain range, or the fact that the next town down the road was Shinn Corners?  And why was it necessary to mention that the statute in the middle of the square (err, the round square) was the town’s founder, Jezreel Wright?  Colin knew that most of my short stories are, in fact, Ellery Queen pastiches.  But Colin (alas, like many of his generation) had not in fact read Queen.  So he did not know about Wrightsville.
Wrightsville -- As depicted on the inside coverplate of Double, Double

   If you have read Ellery Queen you will be very familiar with Wrightsville, the small upstate New York town that was created by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee back in the 1940s to get Ellery out of the city on occasion.  The Wrightsville mysteries begin with Calamity Town, published in 1942, and thereafter the little town with its recurring characters is the focal backdrop for a host of Queen mysteries, all the way through the penultimate Queen novel The Last Woman in his Life, published in 1970.

    During the almost 30 years that we see the town through Ellery’s eyes we watch it change.  Characters come and go; Police Chief Akins retires, only to be replaced by the flinty Anselm Newby, with whom Ellery will spar in “Literally Dead.”  In the Queen retrospective portion of Tragedy of Errors Richard and Stephen Dannay, sons of Frederic, have noted that the town itself was inspired by the poetry of Edgar Lee Masters in Spoon River Anthology.   One episode of the NBC Ellery Queen series was situated in Wrightsville, and Ed Hoch also chose the New England village for his final Ellery Queen pastiche, The Wrightsville Carnival (EQMM September/October 2005).  So I was not the first interloper to return to the town in search of the further adventures of Ellery.

    One of the more difficult tasks in writing an Ellery Queen story is dealing with the backstory that defines Ellery.  In all of the Ellery Queen stories there are virtually no descriptions of Ellery himself.  But boy, there sure is a lot of other background for a writer of pastiches to grapple with.  Some of the Queen backstory is easy – Wrightsville either stays the same or grows along predictable lines.  But Not so Mr. Queen himself.

    The Ellery Queen we first meet in The Roman Hat Mystery, published in 1929, is young, foppish, and at times rather insufferable.  He wears pince-nez glasses, carries a cane, tools around in a Dusenberg, and spouts erudite but hopelessly obscure references from the classics.  We are told by the mysterious “J.J. McC”, who provided the introductions to the early Queen novels, that Ellery eventually retired with his wife and son in Italy.  (By the way, anyone paying careful attention when reading Queen’s Face to Face, published decades later in 1967, can stumble upon the true identity of Mr. J.J. McC!) 

    In any event, all of this early Queen backstory changes abruptly and radically half way through the Queen library.  From the appropriately-named Halfway House, published in 1936, on Ellery, morphs into a young middle age man, and takes on a more vulnerable and likeable character.  He ditches the pince-nez and cane and discovers self-doubt.  The spouse, the son and the idyllic life in Northern Italy disappear like fingerprint dustings in the wind.  So unlike the previous Ellery is this incantation that the late Julian Symons, in his omnibus The Great Detectives, speculates that the Ellery of the second half of the series was in fact the son of the Ellery of the first half, a theory that Frederic Dannay scoffed at when he met with Symons at Dannay’s home in Larchmont, New York.

    In any event, having brought about this phoenix-like change, Ellery proceeds to stay basically exactly the same for the next thirty-five years.  This is true of Ellery’s father, Inspector Richard Queen, as well, who is almost always nearing retirement, but never getting there.  I had to say “almost” and “basically” because there are still rents in the Queen backstory fabric.  Thus, the Inspector does retire in Inspector Queen’s Own Case, published in 1956, the same volume in which he becomes engaged to Jessie Sherwood.  Further confusion ensues, however.  By The Player on the Other Side, published in 1963, the Inspector is not retired, and Jessie is nowhere to be seen.  And then in The House of Brass, published in 1968, Jessie is back, and Richard Queen is (again) retired.  Thereafter in the final books of the series – The Last Woman in his Life, (1970), and A Fine and Private Place, (1971) Richard Queen is back at work and, again, Jessie has disappeared like that pair of pince-nez.

    Which brings us back to Ellery,  As noted, from around 1936 on he is portrayed uniformly, and in fact appears almost not to age at all.  But with one notable exception:  The Finishing Stroke.  That mystery, (probably my favorite Queen novel) was published in 1958, and was reportedly planned as the final Ellery Queen mystery.  The story opens in 1905, jumps to 1929, where we find a slightly re-invented version of the early Ellery, and ends in then present-day 1958, where Ellery is portrayed as a man in his early 50s.  In fact we are explicitly told in The Finishing Stroke that Ellery was born in 1905 (the same year that both Dannay and Lee were born).  But after the careful construction of this backstory in The Finishing Stroke, the rug is again pulled out from under us:  With the exception of And on the Eighth Day, a 1964 throwback novel featuring a young Ellery, complete with his Dusenberg, set in 1942, all of the remaining Ellery Queen novels feature Ellery as a young man, in the year the novels were published. 

    My philosophy in writing pastiches, as I have mentioned before, is the same as the physician’s charge:  “first, do no harm.”  I think that if you are going to attempt to bring back the creation of others you must be as loyal as possible to the original.  But still, with Ellery, as we have seen, there are choices.  An author  attempting to recapture Ellery in a new story has some varying paths that can be followed.  Many Ellery Queen pastiches basically follow the majority of the works of Dannay and Lee and portray Ellery as a young man in a present-day world. This is how Ed Hoch and Jon Breen, for example, chose to portray Ellery in pastiches that they wrote.

The Mad Hatter's Riddle as illustrated in EQMM Sept./Oct. 2009
    Perhaps because The Finishing Stroke is a personal favorite, I have always followed the strictures of its time-line and have therefore set a course different from that of the majority of the Queen mysteries.  Thus, in my Ellery Queen pastiches Ellery has always been born in 1905, and is portrayed in any given time at the correct age.  Ellery therefore was 102 when he solved the mystery of the double murder in The Book Case, and he was 70 when the NBC Ellery Queen series was being filmed and the The Mad Hatter’s Riddle took place.  Ellery’s age is a little more difficult to discern in the upcoming Literally Dead, but those paying close attention should be able to approximate it from at least one clue in the story.

    But, in any event, when you set yourself the task of writing a Queen story this is the type of baggage that comes along with the project.  Some years back Leigh Lundin commented to me that the great thing for about writing new Ellery Queen stories was the fact that the detective came with a pre-packaged backstory.  Perhaps you will understand why my response was laughter.