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Backstory: TMI (Too Much Information)

by Sarah Baker

OnlyAmelia169Some of you may have come into this fantastic world of writing by a logical path; you aced junior high grammar, paid close attention to high school composition instructors, earned degrees in creative writing, and then wrote your first novel. For the rest of us, the whole experience has more closely resembled a headfirst dive into Alice’s rabbit hole.

I started writing fiction on the internet in the mid-’90s, and went to work on my first novel a few years later. Between the time I saved chapter one of “Book One” on my laptop in 1997 and this past year when I signed my twentieth book contract, I learned lessons in ways I wouldn’t want to repeat. I’m still learning lessons daily, but few of them leave as many bruises as those first dozen or so.

One thing I discovered is that we, as writers, tend to share too much information. I don’t mean about ourselves, necessarily, but about our works. When someone asks what you’re working on, they are rarely looking for a detailed outline of your novel. They expect a sentence or two. A paragraph at most. This is especially important to know when the person asking is an editor or agent.

In the same way that you’d never start a pitch to an editor with, “My main character, George, was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he had a normal childhood, even though his father was a little strict, and when he was eighteen, he left for college…,” you don’t want to start your book with everything there is to know about your characters. One of the joys of reading is discovering the hidden parts of a story, the delicious history that motivates characters to do what they’re doing. If you reveal all up front, there are no surprises left, and readers will quickly lose interest.

But loading a manuscript with backstory is natural. We’re excited about our new story; we want to explain everything right away. The tough part—the part that comes with experience—is recognizing backstory and knowing what to remove. Was George convicted of killing his college roommate because he was framed by another student who thought George had witnessed a major drug deal? Don’t tell me in chapter one that George is innocent. Maybe you don’t even want to tell me that George was in prison. Let me guess why he won’t answer questions about his past. Make me worry about Susan when she’s alone with him. You’ll keep me interested.

Equally as important as knowing that you must sprinkle backstory throughout your book, is understanding how to do it. Less is better, and showing is better than telling. Are you ready to divulge that George was in prison? (Disclaimer: I’m not saying this is great writing. These are only examples.) “Metal bars clanged into place. George bolted out of bed, his hands clenched into fists and his heart racing,” will be more effective than telling me, “George had spent fifteen long years in San Quentin. Even after all this time, he still woke to the horror of the door sliding shut on his cell.” While there’s nothing technically wrong with the second excerpt, it lacks the feel of action of the first one.

We, as writers, not only want to tell you everything about our characters, we also want to use all our wonderful research. If George grew up in Albuquerque, would he really be thinking about the fact that Sandia Crest is 10,678 feet high as he’s driving around town? Or that the population was 535,239 in 2010? That would be a little absurd, wouldn’t it? But maybe he would tell Susan, a newcomer, that Sandia is always on the east side of downtown, or that the city is home to about a half-million people. If your character doesn’t have a reason to consider something, don’t force it on your readers. They won’t appreciate it.

The first editor I spoke to about my first manuscript told me my story started in chapter eight. I was hurt and horrified, but realized before long that she was right. I had way too much backstory and no action in the beginning of the book. I feel better now when my own first edit is full of red ink where I’ve sliced away all that extra information.

My advice to relatively new writers? Question every line; be brutal with the red pen. There’s nothing more wonderful than putting together a page turner. And practice a one-paragraph pitch. You never know when you’re going to run into an editor or agent who is looking for your book.

Good luck out there, and enjoy the next Mad Hatter’s tea party.

ReturnToMarshallsBayou3_200Sarah H. Baker is the author of more than 20 novels, with publishers ranging from Kensington to Harlequin to small presses. She holds an MS in engineering and works full time, but also writes fiction under three pen names: S. H. Baker, Sarah Storme, and Lydia Parks. The first book in her Dassas Cormier Mystery series, Murder in Marshall’s Bayou (Zumaya Publications, 2009), was recommended for an Edgar Award. Return to Marshall’s Bayou (Siren Audio Studios, 2010) is the full-cast audio version of this first mystery and was a finalist in the Audie Awards. Sarah enjoys sharing her experience with other writers and teaches courses for the University of New Mexico’s Continuing Education Department. Visit her at

This article was originally published in the September 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Interview With Author Sarah H. Baker

Sarah H. Baker is the author of more than 20 novels, with publishers ranging from Kensington to Harlequin to small presses. She holds an MS in engineering and works full time, but also writes fiction under three pen names: S. H. Baker, Sarah Storme, and Lydia Parks. The first book in her Dassas Cormier Mystery series, Murder in Marshall’s Bayou (Zumaya Publications, 2009), was recommended for an Edgar Award. Return to Marshall’s Bayou (Siren Audio Studios, 2010) is the full-cast audio version of this first mystery and was a finalist in the Audie Awards. Sarah enjoys sharing her experience with other writers and teaches courses through University of New Mexico’s Continuing Education Department. Visit her on Facebook and her Amazon author page.

Tell us about your newest work.
Angel in My Arms is a full-cast audio romance set in 1920s Louisiana. Captain Joshua Wakefield lost his wife and child seven years ago in a Gulf storm. Lydia Wakefield, a young woman wise beyond her years, offers the love and joy he never expected to find again.

What do you hope readers will take away from Angel in My Arms?
I hope readers will be reminded that there is always hope for a better tomorrow, no matter how bad things are, and that love is the one thing we must give away in order to find.

What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
This was the first piece I’d written specifically for full-cast audio. The producer — Linda of Siren Audio Studios — and I shared a vision of what audio could be, and worked hard to fulfill that vision with this book. We’ve done things in here never done before. For example, as Joshua and Lydia grow more intimate, their internal dialogues weave together, and when they move apart, their internals move apart. The effect is breathtaking! But there was quite a bit of trial and error involved before we were both happy. And, since there are a dozen actors in the book, the post-production took quite a while. I think readers will be happy with the result, too.

What was the most rewarding aspect of writing Angel in My Arms?
The most rewarding aspect of this project was working closely with Linda and the actors. Everyone participated in bringing the book to life. And having the opportunity to actually hear the characters’ voices has to be one of the most amazing things a writer can experience.

What are you most happy with, and what do you struggle with most, in your writing?
My struggles have evolved with my writing, as everyone’s do. At this point, I’m most happy with my dialogue, and tend to struggle with getting enough detail and use of senses into descriptions.

Of all the novels you’ve written, which one did you enjoy writing the most?
Beside the audio books, the book I most enjoyed writing was Death of a Dancer, part of the Dassas Cormier Mystery Series. The story takes place in New Orleans in 1925. Although I grew up there, I had no idea what the city was like in 1925. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed researching a book so much. I found amazing information including a city map from 1919 and a menu from Antoine’s in the early 1900s, and I even located an officer in the New Orleans Police Department who answered all my questions. I had a blast visiting the original police station in the French Quarter, long ago turned into an office building. When the book was released, I sent a signed copy to the officer who had helped me. Best I can tell, it ended up on his desk the day before Hurricane Katrina hit.

What is the hardest part of writing a series?
The only series I’ve written is the Dassas Cormier Mystery Series, but the hardest part for me is remembering details. It would be easier if I wrote all the books straight through (or if I had a younger brain), but, instead, I’ve written several books between each of those in the series. I did discover early on that I needed a map of Marshall’s Bayou and a list of all the secondary characters. If I were going for another dozen books in the series, I’d probably need to keep a detailed summary of each book. At this point, I just keep basic relationship notes. Before I get back to work on the next book (the last in the series), I plan to reread the other four.

You write under three pen names — what is your advice to writers considering the use of multiple pseudonyms?
I admit, I’ve signed the wrong name to a book at least twice! My advice is to be sure you need different names. In my case, I write in three genres and don’t want my romance readers picking up a mystery by mistake, or my mystery readers picking up erotica. Genre fiction is about reader expectation, so I want my readers to know what they’re getting. If you don’t write multiple genres and don’t need to write under other names, I wouldn’t advise it. Life is confusing enough!

Why do you write in the genres you’ve chosen?
I started out writing romance because I enjoyed writing about relationships, and I’m an optimist. With romance, the goal is to have the reader smile and sigh after reading the last page. What can be better? I also write mystery because I grew up reading everything from the Hardy Boys to Agatha Christie to James Lee Burke. I love the genre for the same reason I love romance: it’s full of optimism. The good guy or gal wins out in the end, and the evil-doer is punished. Erotica is a different situation in that I was asked to write it. I found out, however, that I really enjoyed it, too. The genre gave me a chance to write paranormal again (vampires and shape shifters), and to expand my boundaries as a writer.

What first inspired you to become a writer?
I’m one of those lucky people who stumbled onto writing. Although I’ve always been an avid reader, when I was young I didn’t know someone could just become a writer. I guess I thought people like Dickens and Mark Twain emerged into the world as writers. While living in Alaska, I discovered a fan fiction site on the still-new Internet for my favorite TV show and started writing short stories to share with others. It turned out one of those “others” was a NY editor who encouraged me to write a book. She said I had potential as a writer and should try my hand at writing romance. I had no idea what I was getting into!

Who do you wish you were more like in your own writing?
I would love to be more poetic like James Lee Burke, better at characterization like David L. Robbins, funnier like Carl Hiaasen, and better at writing outside the lines like Elmore Leonard. My goal is always to learn from every writer I enjoy reading.

What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on two pieces set in the distant future, one post-apocalyptic, and one not. This is a strange time in my life, however, as I’ve been away from writing for a while and am just getting back into the habit, so I also have several other ongoing projects including the last Dassas Cormier mystery and a mystery told by a ghost. Oh, and then there’s the YA mystery series I’m outlining. (Maybe I really need to work on focusing.)

What is the best encouragement or advice you’ve received in your writing journey?
The best encouragement I received from outside my family was from an editor who read my first manuscript and actually called me. She wanted me to know that she wasn’t going to buy my book, but that she thought I had potential as a writer. She gave me a list of writing books to read and told me to get started on my next book right away. Without that call, I doubt I would be published today.

Advice? Never give up, never surrender! (Yes, I stole that from Galaxy Quest.) But I don’t know anything for which persistence is more important than with writing. As soon as you finish one book, start on the next. Keep the creativity rolling. Another good piece of advice I received was to let a book rest before editing. Otherwise, you’ll still be inside the story and unable to read the words you’ve written.

Anything else you’d like to share?
The publishing world is competitive, but writing shouldn’t be. No two writers will ever tell a story exactly the same way. Don’t be afraid to help those around you, or to learn from others. If you’re not improving and having fun as a writer, you may as well move on to something else. One of my characters once told me, “If you ain’t havin’ fun, you’re just wastin’ space.” That has become my motto.

KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. KL has a new speculative fiction blog at and writes about memoir at


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