A WRITER’S JOURNEY: Part 8 — History Class

Have you ever been out walking in the woods and come across the rusted out hulk of a car from a bygone era?

The trees surround you, a vast army division frozen at parade attention, with branches at arms ready to poke you in the eye if you should turn too fast to investigate the snapping sound that came from… the left, maybe. Decaying blanket of needles and leaves cushioning your steps. The smell of moss in the air dampening each breath with nature’s potpourri and the sunrays playing a light orchestra at the conduction of the breeze that plays in your sweat wet hair.

And there it is; the red raw leftovers of history.

If the tires have rotted away you can’t see them. Mud has swallowed everything below the wheel-wells and grass has grown high enough to poke through holes in the hood. Like shards stuck in the frames of eyeglasses, the dirty lenses of windshield and other windows stare blindly as you approach. The side-view mirror is dog-eared. Springs have torn free of their seats and the faded paint has lost all of its personality to rust and rain. Some other venturer has taken the hood ornament and steering wheel for souveniers. Souveniers of what, no one could know. If you peer through where time has perforated the car to reveal its inner workings you’ll see its guts are missing.

Look around and you’ll see a spot in the trees where a road might have been. The tracks have filled in and the ruts hold thin streams of run-off between the blades of grass. But who goes to all the work of pushing a junk car out into the woods? Or did they drive it out there, get stuck and then came back for the engine later? Did they stop using this old roadway after too many cars were lost or did the woods just take it back one day? What make is the car? You can’t even figure it out because time has stepped in, stolen the history of the men and women who manufactured it, owned it and drove it, made love in it, laughed and cried in it, hell, maybe died in it for all you know standing and wondering about it.

The car in the woods forgotten for you to discover it has a history but it doesn’t matter to your story. What matters is what happens when you find it.

The same goes for characters you’re writing about. The people, places and things central to your scenes. For the purpose of this entry to A Writer’s Journey this relic of a different time brought into the future in an unfortunate state is the character that sets the scene. You’re only a witness to the car’s story. Your will continue on after you’ve left the car behind but don’t be mistaken, it will affect you whether you forget about it or try to discover its mysteries.

Many times while writing I’ve been tempted to go deeply into the history of my characters only to realize in proof-reading that the story lags at these points. History is interesting. It is an entirely different creature than backstory though. And backstory works best when it is spread out in brief swallows over the course of the real story.

He scratched at the pale circlet of skin around a finger on his left hand as the woman with the cat fur covered blouse talked. The itch was a reminder of loving things unsaid, brought on by this stranger, who had bribed him with a drink in the hope he would listen to her and finish the conversation with a note on her pillow in the morning instead of his head.

Obviously this guy is a bitter divorcee and the woman has been single for a while. How can you tell? The mark on his ring finger from an absent wedding band that was there long enough to leave a tan-line. The things unsaid that he probably regrets and the tone he uses when assuming his companions motive for buying him a drink. What about the woman? Is she a long-time single woman? We can’t know for sure because our impression of her is actually filtered through our main character’s observations and tone which is tainted by his own history. He assumes she is lonely because she has cat hair all over her shirt and she bought a stranger a drink in a bar. She could be married for all he is really noticing about her. Plenty of couples have cats you know. The fact of the matter is, you’re a writer and your job is telling readers what to see and how to see it. If I had bogged my example down with the details of the guy’s marriage or what things were unsaid and how they lead to a divorce then I would probably bore you. I would also get side tracked from the real story. If the divorce is the real story then why is this character even in the bar? He should be at home in a marital spat or something.

I directed you in what to see with the car and I did the same thing with the guy from the example by filtering the information and giving you what would be necessary to the story. One over several paragraphs and the other during two sentences.

If you have a story that lags in a few places, the chances are that you’ve given your characters (people, places and things) too much history. Find a way to turn that info into backstory. These kind of changes don’t always mean cutting word count either. If a war happened to battle its way through the town square, instead of saying the Nazi army invading Nonametown in 1943 with tanks and blah, blah, too many facts, you could write about the walls of the shops with their patchwork of motley brick hastily laid after the onslaught of German munitions, crooked crosses and French bones buried in the mortar cementing them together. Or some such thing. You get the idea.

But I ramble. The point is you may wonder about that car, where it came from and who it belonged to but it only matters if it concerns the now. The same goes for your characters. Give them a backstory because people fall asleep in history class.

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2 Responses to “A WRITER’S JOURNEY: Part 8 — History Class”

  1. Excellent advice, Brandon. Honing the use of detail to further the story but also to reveal character is a skill earned through practice and thought. Your examples illustrate the idea clearly. Thanks for this.

    Mike H.

    • Hey thanks for stopping in to give it a read Mike. Being honest, trying to figure out if I’ve said too much or too little has hung me up more than a few times during editing. Being restricted by word counts is a huge help. Word counts can force you to re-evaluate what is important and for a few of those important things that there doesn’t seem to be room for, you have to find a way to say it in fewer words. Donald Maass’s book “The Fire in Fiction” taught me a great deal on this subject as well and I highly recommend it to all new and established writers. But I continue to find myself rambling out details even still, so I have more practicing to do before I get it right.

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