How Much is Too Much? The Art of Backstory

Stack of old books

Backstory is one of those things that can drive any writer nuts. How much is too much? When do you reveal more? When do you hold back? Too much backstory can sink a story—because you’re not moving the story forward. You’re giving background, and while that can be interesting, readers really want the story to keep moving forward not backward. Too little backstory and you run the risk that character motivations may not make sense—or the reader may not care enough to keep going.

There are no right answers about how to handle backstory, but there are some tips to help you with the art of backstory.

Does the reader really need to know this? This is the first thing to ask. Does the reader really need to know the heroine’s puppy was stolen when she was six? Is this just a cool background fact, or is it a vital plot point? (As in the puppy comes back in the next chapter and he’s magical now.) This is a tough question to answer because you usually want to think, “Of course the reader has to know this.” Be brutally honest with yourself. It is quite possible that you—the writer—needs to know this information, but the reader doesn’t. When in doubt, save the backstory for later.

Can you show the reader instead of telling? What you tell a reader doesn’t have the same impact as showing. Instead of telling the reader the hero is a great guy, show him being great. Instead of telling the reader the heroine knows how to knit, show her doing. Look for places where backstory can be revealed to the reader instead of being told to the reader—it will make the story and backstory more interesting.

Does the reader really need to know this now? Sometimes you need to set the scene or the world for the reader. This is very important when dealing with history or alternate worlds. The reader may need to know how magic works in your fictional world. Or the reader may need to know the importance of manners in another age. These may be vital to making the very premise of your story work—and so the reader needs that information right away. But there really is an art to backstory, which brings us to…

Can you weave in the backstory with a just sentence or two? Go ahead and write those three pages of backstory. Go wild with it. Have fun. Then cut it down to just a sentence here or there. Think of backstory as colorful threads that you want to weave in—not as big chunks. Tease the reader with some information without doing a dump.

How long can you leave the reader waiting? This is a great device that requires foreshadowing. If you HINT at your protagonist having some history or issues from the past, the reader is going to start wanting to know more. Drop enough hints and the reader will then wade through any amount of backstory because now the reader is dying to know more. The good news is you can weave this stuff in after your first draft is done—or cut down on it as you edit the second draft.

Can you add the backstory with something else going on? Readers want conflict—they want the story to keep moving forward. Look at some of your backstory and see if you can have it come out at the worst time possible for your character. Instead of finding out in chapter one that your hero hates heights, have him find out in chapter ten when he’s standing on the edge of a cliff and it’s jump or die. If your heroine has some issues with her mother, maybe they can come out every time the two of them are on the phone and the sniping starts over long dead family issues that neither of them can resolve. Look to add conflict by bringing in the character’s past to that scene. The caution here is don’t overdo this…and do foreshadow with hints (and hints means hints—trust your readers and do not beat them over the head with the same information over and over again because you worry ‘they might not get it’.

Is less more, or is more more? When you’re in the middle of any story and writing madly away it’s very easy to lose all perspective. Get the book—the story—done. Set it aside for a couple of week. Then come back with fresh eyes. Now you’ll be able to look at it to see if you need to add a touch more backstory—or if you need to cut back on the backstory. If the scene is dragging pull out some of that backstory. Is the scene a little confusing, time to add a touch more backstory. Another reader can be a great help here.

Can you use dialogue to add backstory? This can be a great device—or a deadly one. Sometimes you need characters to add to the backstory—but this must be done in character and true to the character’s voice. The last thing you want is a character talking in plot exposition—that’s deadly. Nothing flattens dialogue more than making it all about exposition. Layer in emotion to that dialogue. If you have two sisters who are arguing about something that happened ten years ago, let them use the kind of shorthand siblings would use—in other words, Theresa wouldn’t tell her sister, “Remember when you stole my beau from me and asked him to the dance.” That’s too “on the nose.” Maybe Theresa says, “I remember what happened at the last dance—do you think I’m going to ever let you forget what you did!” Now the reader is also wondering what happened and wants to hear more. But here’s another place to go back to the earlier questions of does the reader really need this information—and does the reader need this now?

Is less skimping on detail? Details are what create the world for the reader and put the reader into that world. It is possible to be so worried about pacing—and a slow story—that you end up robbing the reader of a rich and vivid world. This is where the reader needs to see, smell, hear, taste and touch the world—this is where you can weave in a character’s backstory by how that character experiences the world and their emotions. An artist has a different experience than a soldier—someone who gardens sees the world differently than someone who is city born and bred and couldn’t care less about the outdoors. Use the details to show the world to the reader through a character—it is a great place to use bits of backstory to enrich the story.

Is the backstory missing? It’s quite possible that an idea has carried you away—it’s a great setup, or scene, or concept, but is that all it is? Did you flesh out the characters—or did you dump them into an idea? This is where a character won’t really make sense because the motivations are missing due to not having any backstory. If you don’t know your characters, the reader won’t either. This is where you want to know WHY do the characters act as they do—and why a character might act ‘out of character’ as well. This is particularly important for antagonists. It’s not enough to have the bad guy kidnap the heroine—you need to know WHY he would think this is a good idea, and why he is a good guy in his own mind. It’s not enough to have the ex-girlfriend cause problems just because you need that story idea to work—there needs to be backstory here for her about WHY she would do it (and it needs to be more than ‘to get her boyfriend back’—why would she want the guy back? What’s her deeper reasons and motivations? What’s her backstory?) A lot of times, you as the writer need to know this—then you can figure out if it belongs on the page of the story or just as background you’ve developed so that the characters have strong motivations for what they want.

Finally, did you make it interesting? If the backstory is boring to you, it’s going to bore readers, too. Making it interesting means great writing—clean prose, cutting repetition, and really good editing. Making it interesting means compelling information that fascinates you—and the reader. Lean into your strengths here. If you do great dialogue, do more of that to weave in the backstory in an interesting scene with action. If you do great description, use that skill to make the backstory a compelling read.

The good news in all of this is the more you work on your writing—scene structure, story pacing, character development—the better you get at it. But you’ll also find yourself studying other writers and how they handle backstory, which can destroy your reading pleasure. You’ll end up reading like a writer. But you’ll get ideas on how to deal with the art of just enough backstory.

The Story’s in the Details

Every now and then I’ll help judge in a writing contest, and one of the things I often see is that details are wrong or missing. I’ll admit I am a little OCD—I like jigsaw puzzles, and I need the right details to even write a scene. Details matter—a lot in fiction. Why are they so important?

A woman who drives a restored 1963 VW bug is different from a woman driving this year’s BMW, and her attitude about each vehicle says something about her. Does she love her car, name it, curse it, treat it like a moving trash can? A man who owns and uses his grandfather’s pocket watch is different from one wearing a ten-dollar Timex. The details reveal the character to the reader, and specific details matter. If you just have a woman who drives a car, that doesn’t say much about her, other than that she lives in an era when most folks drive. Same goes for a man who has a watch—the lack of details means there’s a lack of characterization on the page.

Details need to show the reader how your characters are different from any others. Too often in romance the hero is tall, muscular with startling (or piercing or arresting) blue eyes. The heroine has strawberry-blonde or auburn or reddish hair with emerald green eyes. In other words, we’ve all read these descriptions so often the characters blur together into sameness. What details make your characters different. Details that could fit into a list (height, muscles or curves, hair color and eye color) are what I call a ‘laundry list’ that don’t help a reader to really see your character. Next time you’re watching a TV show or you’re out people watching, start really watching—you’ll find that what you  notice first are the details that are different. It’s the limp that old lady has that she’s working hard not to show. It’s the large, dark mole on the woman’s left arm, visible because of her sleeveless dress. It’s the chipped front tooth when the man next to you smiles, and you wonder if he got it from a bar fight or playing some kind of sport because he’s got both the attitude and the tan to go either way. The details give the reader a vivid, specific picture in mind.

The wrong details can also derail a reader. Too often I see things like a tall man who rides an Arabian stallion (why it’s always a stallion, I have no idea). But Arabian horses are typically not all that big—put a large guy on one and you might as well have him riding a pony. It’s a funny image, not at all sexy. Then there’s the use of reigns instead of reins—and spellchecker won’t help you with that one. Or the heroine who does a Cinderella and goes from wearing ugly dresses to beautiful ones, but we’re never really clear if it is a Victorian dress with hoops and bustles or a Regency empire gown.

Historical fiction brings its own issues with a need for research, and a tough time deciding what’s enough and what is too much—you can overwhelm the reader with too many details. But I think it’s easier to pull back on this and much harder to weave in enough. (The same actually holds true for emotion on the page—it’s easier to pull back on this with a little editing.)

The trick in all of this is to find the right detail, and that means you need to know what it is that the reader should understand about this character without explicitly telling the reader. An example of this is if you want the reader to understand that a character is understated on the surface, but a dangerous man underneath. This means you might put your character into a faded Yale sweatshirt and baggy Levi 501s that leave room to hide the .35 and holster on his hip—notice these are specific, too (it’s not just sweats and jeans and a gun). Or maybe you want the character to come across as high class and respectable, meaning instead of telling this to the reader, you show the character tugging on her gloves, tying the ribbon to her bonnet at the precise forty-five degree angle that both remains out of her way and yet is flattering, and she chooses a parasol to match her kid slippers in a fashionable shade of Pomona green, and which compliments the stripped gown delivered yesterday from her dressmaker. The reader has both images in mind and is also picking up the clues you are dropping that this woman has money to spend on fashion and is particular about how she wears things. This is not someone throwing on the nearest shawl to dash outside.

All this means you have to spend time thinking about the right details to use, and also some time researching those details. You can also use details you already know a lot about. I’ve written horses since I was a horse-craze kid, so writing about anyone who rides—or about those lovely animals—is easy for me. The details are familiar to me, but I do have to stop and think about making sure I don’t dip into jargon that will leave a non-horsey person scratching their head. Some terms like ‘a sweet-goer’ are self-explanator, but others such as a ‘bog spavin’ could throw a reader out of a story, so again it’s about thinking of the right details and being careful to choose the right ones.

I often think this is similar to constructing a painting. If you work in oils, you have to think about shapes, colors, and contrasts. You have to look at light and shadow, and what to put on the canvas to convey the images you see either in font of you or in your mind’s eye. You have to choose details to put in or leave out with the brush strokes you put onto the canvas. Too much and the painting can become a muddy mess. Too little and the canvas ends with blank spaces, leaving the image unfinished to anyone who views it.

This is where layering can help. It’s difficult to get all the details you want into one pass, or one revision or edit. You may have to do one that is just about putting in the right touches for the setting, and another that is about putting in the right details for just one main character. And yet another edit to put in the right touches for the mood of the scene with weather, scents, the feel of the air, and other details that make the world vivid to the reader. Sometimes you may need to get out in the world to get that right detail. It’s hard to know that a barn smells of leather, hay and horse—a wonderful musky mix—if you’ve never been inside a barn, with the soft nickers of horses asking for some grain as you pass by, or shifting in their stalls, straw crunching under their hooves. It’s tough to know that if you slam a poker down on a wooden box, the vibration is going to travel up your arm unless you do this (yes, I did this for a scene in A Much Compromised Lady because I needed that ‘right’ detail). You might not think about the vibrancy of wildflowers in a pasture—bright yellow, softer pinks, pale purples—breaking like a wave under a summer breeze unless you’ve seen this. Experience—writing what you know—helps a lot. So does enough immersion in research.

Immersion in your fictional world comes from thinking about it, from delving into books about the subject you need to know (there always seems to be something new for a story that you have to find out about—I needed to know the weather in 1815 Paris, and I was happy enough to have been there to know spring can be miserable and wet, with splashes of sudden sunlight between fast-scudding clouds). The right details can also come from talking to people who know an area or a subject, so you can get those specific details that will realize the world for you and for the reader.  

You want to keep looking for those right details—the vivid ones, the perfect touch. It is that one dab of titanium white against aquamarine that makes those colors into a wave. It is the specs of umber against strokes of green that reveal seeds sprouting from grass. It is the right detail that makes your character suddenly different from all other characters, and shows your character to the reader because you got the details onto the page and into your story.

Positive Proofing

When writing, there is one thing you can never do enough of and that’s proofing. I find it takes several passes—and several sets of eyes—to catch all the typos, find the awkward sentences, punch the dialogue, trip over the things that clunk, and sharpen the descriptions. A great book to help you learn to be a good editor on your own work is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Brown & King. In the meantime, these tips can help.

First off, do multiple edits, looking for different things in each pass. It is hard to catch everything in just one edit.

Do an edit on dialogue. This is the time to cut every extra word—what doesn’t improve the writing will detract. Double-check your punctuation. Keep a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style handy to look up anything you’re not sure about. Know your weaknesses—if you’re bad with knowing when to capitalize a proper noun, or have a hard time with commas, or don’t know when to hyphenate, Strunk & White can help you

Do an edit just on descriptions. Are you weaving in the senses, or just leaning on visuals? Can you be more vivid and detailed without being overly wordy? Are you showing enough, or telling too much? Look for those “writerly” phrases that may stand out too much—those darlings that don’t really belong. You may have a lyrical passage that throws the reader out of the story and back into “reading” instead of being caught up deep in the story.

Do an edit just on each main character. Is the viewpoint slipping in spots? Does that character’s voice stay consistent to that character? Does the protagonist have a strong arc?

Do an edit just on each scene. Do you have conflict in every scene? Is it building to an outcome?

Do an edit just on pacing—does the story flow and does tension build? foreshadow the ending?

Do an edit just on theme. Do you realize the theme? Do you weave in theme with metaphor and really explore your theme?

Once you think you’ve got all your edits in, rest the story. Give it a couple of weeks or more to become fresh again.

Print out your work for proofing. The brain wants to put in things that it thinks go into place, breezing right past the missing word, the misspelling, and the wrong punctuation. To trick the brain into giving you new eyes, a different perspective is needed. A couple of more things to do is change the color of the paper—go from white to pink or to green—and change fonts. Anything to make the page look fresh to your eyes.

Read your work aloud, and try to get through as much of the book in one sitting as possible. This is very important. If you trip over something, the reader will as well. Mark stumbling places and come back to them later for revisions.

Mark anything that might need a fact check. It might be just checking that you got the setting right, or the historical details, or maybe you got the streets in a city wrong or the wrong kinds of plants for your setting.

Remember that if you rewrite anything, that work needs revision so it doesn’t stand out as “first draft” when everything else looks more like polished third or fourth draft.

When you think everything is perfect, that’s the time to bring in a beta reader or two. This is again about getting those fresh eyes. Have the beta reader mark up where the pacing drags, or where something isn’t clear, or where there’s a plot mistake, or anything else.

Once those corrections are in, you’re now ready for a copy editor to go through it and again flag typos, mistakes of punctuation, and plot holes. And, yes, they’ll be there.

Depending on how many issues a copy editor finds, you may want a clean revision to go through yet another copy editor for fresh eyes to make sure you caught everything.

None of this includes a development edit—meaning having someone look at the story early on to catch issues of characterization or plot or pacing that need major revisions. All this proofing work is done long after you know you have a solid story, with good pacing and a great character arc.

A word of warning here—you can polish and edit the emotion out of a scene. If a scene is working, and the emotion is on the page, be careful with your edits. Do light revisions just to smooth out any mistakes or typos and don’t overwork the scene.

You want to also make sure any revisions do improve the original. It is easy to end up with just pushing mashed potatoes around on the plate instead of making everything more palatable. This is where having that printed version of an early draft can help you—you can compare the two and really see which is better.

All this sounds like a lot of work—and it is. But it will give you a much stronger story if you take the time to do your best to get the story in you head onto the page in a way that flows and make the writing invisible to the reader.

Critique or Plotting Session for RFW Fundraiser

I’ve donated to the Regency Fiction Writer’s annual Silent Auction–it’s online, and easy to bid on (and there’s some great stuff there).

The annual fundraiser is part of the RFW’s Conference, and can be found online.

From me, on offer is a critique of the first chapter and a synopsis for a book in progress or a completed novel. Given that this is a writing organization, I’d rather a novel with a historical setting in the years of late 1700s to about 1840, but I read just about any period of time and so I’d be happy to look at anything that might be giving a fiction writer trouble (a synopsis can be a real pain).

As an added attraction, for the winning bidders for the critique and the plotting session, I’ll throw in a free copy (electronic or hard copy) of my novella Davina’s Duke, which one the Booksellers’ Best for best novella, and also won the Indy BRAG Gold Medal.

Davinia's Duke

I’m also offering an online plotting session. The way that would work is a back-and-forth via email on either firming up a story idea (again with a historical setting, preferred), and sorting out some structure so that conflict is strong and focused on the characters, and there’s a good spine to the story. This is the sort of thing it is often difficult to work out on your own, so it is useful to be able to bounce ideas around.

Regency Fiction Writers formed to advance the professional interests of writers of the extended Regency period of England (1780 to 1840) through inclusion, networking, advocacy, and education–it is a wonderfully inclusive organization, so there are mystery writers, romance writers, historical novelists, and settings can be anywhere in the world. The conference is looking great, and it is online, so there’s easy access and the presentations are recorded (meaning you go view them on your own schedule–a plus for me). The silent auction is a great way to get some terrific research books that are out of print–I can’t believe no one’s bid on Priestley’s The Prince of Pleasure yet, which is an awesome book, and I have my eye on a couple of things (love that tea set!).

So if you’re an interest in the Regency era–or if you’re a writing struggling with a book–head on over to see all the goodies available. And take a look at the great lineup of speakers for the conference, too.

Voice–Your Character & Yours

VoiceI’m linking to an excellent post on Deep POV at Live, Write, Thrive that got me thinking about voice. Writers need to do more to guard their voices–too often I see writers looking for outside validation or trying to write like someone else. Now it’s fine to have those experimental phases–I certainly did. I had my Edgar Allen Poe phase and my Ray Bradbury phase and my Dorothy Sayer phase and my Georgette Heyer phase. I finally wrote enough to start developing my own voice, and I can now look back at my past work and think “at last” because it all sounds like my voice. And like my characters voices.

Character voice can be tough. Some characters show up right away, others have to be coaxed into revealing their voice. Character voice can be there on page one or may not be there until page one hundred. A common mistake I see as well is a writer inserting the writer’s voice into what should be the middle of the character’s thoughts or dialogue–that’s an interruption that can throw the reader. That’s where editing comes into play–and developing the writer’s ear.

This is where I think writers can develop their own voice–in editing. Voice comes out through word choice and through structure of sentences and paragraphs. All that is best tuned in editing. I will often to an edit just on one character to make sure that character’s voice is there on the page–and that I haven’t stepped on that voice with my own. I’ll save my voice for places where narrative is more important, as in transitions, setting up scenes, or places where I may need to slow the pace a touch or weave in vital plot exposition. Character voices need to show up in their dialogue and their thoughts–and that’s where I need to make certain I am not putting in that very clever phrase that I thought up, which doesn’t match the character’s personality, mood, or step on what their attention should be focused on.

An example of this is where the writer says something like “she never noticed the gum stuck to the bottom of her shoe”. Well, if she’s not noticing this and we’re in her POV why is this here? Much more effective to write, “she heard the snick of the gum sticking the sole of her shoe to the polished wood floor–with every step, her face heated, but she couldn’t stop to scrape it off.” Now we’re in the character’s POV.

This is where the phrase “kill your darlings” comes into play as well. We all come up with those oh so clever lines that just don’t fit a character. Wonderful descriptions are great–but they should be there to serve the character’s voice as well. They can be revealing–and not just darling lines that we fall in love with that really need to be cut. Again, we’re back to learning to edit your own work.

Self-Editing For Fiction WritersFor that, I recommend Browne & King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers–a wonderful book. The other thing I do recommend is protect your characters’ voices and your own–that means you want to be careful about how much advice you take in from others. Some folks will tell you how they would write a scene–that’s not going to help you. Others will tell you about not liking a character–and that’s actually good if that character is meant to be tough to like. That doesn’t mean you want to change the character. And this means a writer needs to learn what advice is useful and what should be accepted with grace and then thrown out.

Voice matters–it’s what makes a reader want your stories above all others. It’s worth the time to develop and to guard.

Regency England Winter Fare

In this modern era, we’re accustomed to a huge variety of foods year ’round—we have freezers for storage, air shipment to move food from one hemisphere to the other in any season so the usual fruits and the expected veg are always in stock, and we always have canned good. This was not the case in the Regency-era England.

While there was some cold storage in ice houses, and meat could be hung to be aged, the art of food storage was time consuming. It required skill, space, and money enough or land enough to purchase or grow the food. The most common means to store food were the age-old ways to pickle, salt, or dry. Canning food wouldn’t really take off until the mid 1800s—and would start off being an ordeal to get any sealed-with-lead can open. This meant the seasons mattered when it came to food.

For meats, besides beef and mutton which the English always seemed to have, there might be what was called “house-lamb” or lambs born late in the season and kept inside. Pork was a staple for many, as pigs were low cost to raise. Wild boar could also be had in the country-side. Venison might be served, if you had the land to hunt, and it was no longer held that all the deer belonged to the king. Goose was cooked for more than just the Christmas meal, and there would be turkey, pigeons, chicken, snipes, pheasant, duck, guinea-fowl, woodcock, larks, guinea-foul, and grouse to eat. Dotterals, or a type of plover, could be eaten (also came to mean an old fool), and widgeon, a fresh-water duck, another word with a double-meaning, coming to mean someone feather-brained.

Rabbit came into season in January, and in February there might be duckling, and chicken is noted as by Mrs Rundell in her book Domesty Cookery as “are to be bought in London , most, if not all, the year, but are very dear.”

domesticcookery

The months ending in “R” held that these were the months for shellfish, and cold months meant seafood would be kept cold as it was transported, so long as the roads weren’t blocked by snow or mud. Cod, turbot, soul, sturgeon, gurnets, dories, and eels joined the list of fish in season in December. Gudgeon might mean a person easily fooled, but it was a small whitefish often used for bait, and was eaten.

Lobster came into season in January, as did crayfish, flounder, plaice, perch,smelts, whiting, prawns, and crab. Oysters were very popular with the English, with oyster houses in London. Oysters were cheap, plentiful and even sold on the street.

Winter was the time for root vegetables such as: leaks, onions, shallots, carrots, turnips, parsnips, beets, and potatoes. Hardy vegetables—and those from hot houses—included cabbage, spinach, cress, chard, endive, cress, lettuces, and herbs. Herbs could also be dried. Some of the vegetables that are not so common now were in season in the winter, including: skirrits, a white root vegetable similar to a parsnip; scorzoneras or black salsify, which is said to taste similar to asparagus or to oysters; cardoons or artichoke thistle, which tastes like an artichoke but you eat the stems.

Nuts are another crop easily stored, and were gathered in September. Walnuts and chestnuts would be available in winter and are native nut trees in England, along with hazelnuts. Acorns from oaks were consider a food fit only for pigs. Beech trees also produced a nut, but they’re tough and more work than considered worth the time. Other non-native nuts were not as popular and are not noted in many recipes from the era, although they could always be imported by those with the money and interest.

Forced asparagus added a delicacy to the usual winter vegetables, and could start to arrive in later winter. Stored apples, pears, and preserved summer fruit appeared on the better, richer tables. Besides the dried or stored fruit, the rich might have hot houses that might produce oranges, grapes, and pineapples, which had arrived in England in the 1600s. There were also medlars and bullace. The medlar is a member of the rose family and produces a brownish fruit that appears in winter and which can be eaten raw like an apple or used in recipes. It has been cultivated since Roman times. The bullace is another member of the rose family and is also called a wild plum. It can be used to make bullace wine, or can be used for pies, but was out of season by December.

By late winter, preserved fruits would be running low in all but houses with large orchards or those with greenhouses that could force fruits. Stored apples and pears would have to serve for families and guests until the expensive forced strawberries of February appeared.

December was also the month when all events seem to lead up to Christmas. Around the third century there was an attempt to fix the day of Christ’s birth by tying it to a fesival of the Nativity kept in Rome in the time of Bishop Telesphorus (between 127 AD and 139 AD). While it was believed the Nativity took place on the 25th of the month, which month was uncertain and every month at one time or another has been assigned as Christ’s mass. During the time of Clement of Alexandria (before 220 AD) five dates in three different months of the Egyptian year were said to be the Nativity. One of those corresponds to the December 25th date. Although various dates were questioned for several generations by the Eastern Church, the Roman day became universal in the fifth century.

First reports of people bringing holly and pine branches into their homes at Christmas-time date from the late Middle Ages. Symbols of life in the dead of winter were placed on windows, mirrors, and in vases, and may have served to keep evil spirits away. Over time, this mythical function of the greens became simply decorative. Evergreen ropes (garlands) were draped over staircase railings, mantels, picture frames, and along ceilings. Fearful that dry branches would catch fire from oil lamps or sparks from the fireplace or heating stove, families waited until almost Christmas Eve to hang the garlands.

Christmas cakes, puddings and mince pies are traditional foods of the season. According to one variation, plum pudding—an old English holiday treat—gets its name not from plums, but from the process of “plumming” meaning raisins and currants are plumped up by warm brandy then molded with suet and a bit of batter.

According to the Oxford Companion to Food, “…Christmas pudding, the rich culmination of a long process of development of ‘plum puddings’ which can be traced back to the early 15th century. The first types were not specifically associated with Christmas. Like early mince pies, they contained meat, of which a token remains in the use of suet. The original form, plum pottage, were made from chopped beef or mutton, onions and perhaps other root vegetables, and dried fruit. As the name suggests, it was a fairly liquid preparation: this was before the invention of the pudding cloth made large puddings feasible. As was usual with such dishes, it was served at the beginning of the meal. When new kinds of dried fruit became available in Britain, first raisins, then prunes in the 16th century, they were added. The name ‘plum’ refers to a prune; but it came to mean any dried fruit. In the 16th century pudding variants were made with white meat…and gradually the meat came to be omitted, to be replaced by suet. The root vegetables disappeared, although even now Christmas pudding often still includes a token carrot…By the 1670s, it was particularly associated with Christmas and called ‘Christmas pottage’. The old plum pottage continued to be made into the 18th century, and both versions were still served as a filing first course rather than as a dessert…”

Mince pies made from mincemeat, which originally had meat in it but shifted from a savory to a sweet, were another traditional fare, with the tradition being that everyone in the household should stir for luck. From the Middle Ages and on it became common to stretch the meat in the pie or mincemeat by adding dried fruit. The reduction in meat continued until only beef suet was left in the mincemeat.

In The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy in the mid 1700s, Hannah Glasse gives this recipe:

“Take three Pounds of Suet shread very fine, and chopped as small as possible, two Pounds of Raisins stoned, and chopped as fine as possible, two Pounds of Currans, nicely picked, washed, rubbed, and dried at the Fire, half a hundred of fine Pippins, pared, cored, and chopped small, half a Pound of fine Sugar pounded fine, a quarter of an Ounce of Mace, a quarter of an Ounce of Cloves, a Pint of Brandy, and half a pint of Sack; put it down close in a Stone-pot, and it will keep good four Months. When you make your Pies, take a little Dish, something bigger than a Soop-plate, lay a very thin Crust all over it, lay a thin Layer of Meat, and then a thin Layer of Cittron cut very thin, then a Layer of Mince meat, and a thin Layer of Orange-peel cut think over that a little Meat; squeeze half the Juice of a fine Sevile Orange, or Lemon, and pour in three Spoonfuls of Red Wine; lay on your Crust, and bake it nicely. These Pies eat finely cold. If you make them in little Patties, mix your Meat and Sweet-meats accordingly: if you chuse Meat in your Pies, parboil a Neat’s Tongue, peel it, and chop the Meat as finely as possible, and mix with the rest; or two Pounds of the Inside of a Surloin or Beef Boiled.”

Gingerbread cakes were also a common holiday treat that had come to England from Germany. Seven Centuries of English Cooking gives this recipe adapted from Hannah Glasse’s book:

  • 1 lb. (3 1/3 cups) Flour
  • 1 Tsp. Salt
  • 1 Tbsp. Ground Ginger
  • 1 Tsp. Nutmeg
  • 6 oz. (3/4 cup) Butter
  • 6 oz. Caster (confectioner’s) Sugar
  • 3/4 lb. (1 cup) Treacle (or Corn Syrup)
  • 2 Tbsp. Cream

(Note: She gives tablespoon as Tabs, but this has been changed here to the more common tbsp.)

Eggnog possibly developed from a posset, or a hot drink in which the white and yolk of eggs were whipped with ale, cider, or wine. The nog in the name came from a noggin, or a small, wooden mug. It was also called an egg flip from the practice of rapidly pouring the drink to mix it, or flipping the drink. It was a rich drink with milk, egg, brandy, madeira or sherry and fit for any celebration but came to be associated with Christmas.

Trifles are also traditionally associated with Christmas, although they might be had for any special occasion in the Regency, or any elegant dinner. Elizabeth Raffald included a trifle recipe that is very modern sounding with macaroons, wine, cream, and sugar. The difference comes from adding cinnamon and “different coloured sweetmeats” which are not generally found in modern trifles.

Another English tradition were sugarplums, a confection traditionally made from sugar-coated seeds. The earliest mention dates to 1668. The Oxford Companion to Food also lists comfits as, “…an archaic English word for an item of confectionery consisting of a seed, or nut coated in several layers of sugar…In England these small, hard sugar sweets were often made with caraway seeds, known for sweetening the breath…”

Cakes of all shapes and sizes were included at festive holiday rituals long before Christmas. Ancient cooks prepared sweet baked goods to mark significant occasions. Many Christmas cookies we know today trace their roots to Medieval European cake recipes. According to foodtimeline.com, “By the 1500s, Christmas cookies had caught on all over Europe. German families baked up pans of Lebkuchen and buttery Spritz cookies. Papparkakor (spicy ginger and black-pepper delights) were favorites in Sweden; the Norwegians made krumkake (thin lemon and cardamom-scented wafers).”

Foodtimeline.com also notes, “The fruit cake as known today cannot date back much beyond the Middle Ages. It was only in the 13th century that dried fruits began to arrive in Britain…Early versions of the rich fruit cake, such as Scottish Black Bun dating from the Middle Ages, were luxuries for special occasions. Fruit cakes have been used for celebrations since at least the early 18th century when bride cakes and plumb cakes, descended from enriched bread recipes, became cookery standards…”

Households also celebrated not just according to the season, but also to the customs of the area. In the Regency, local customs in the countryside might well be used for the celebrations.

For one of my books, Under the Kissing Bough, I needed a Christmas wedding and customs that suited the countryside around London. In ancient days, a Christmas wedding would have been impossible for the English Church held a “closed season” on marriages from Advent in late November until St. Hilary’s Day in January. The Church of England gave up such a ban during Cromwell’s era, even though the Roman Catholic Church continued its enforcement. Oddly enough a custom I expected to be ancient—that of the bride having “something borrowed, something blue, and a sixpence in her shoe”—turned out to be a Victorian invention.

English Christmas customs are those carried down through the ages: the Yule log from Viking winter solstice celebrations, the ancient Saxon decorations of holy and ivy, and the Celtic use of mistletoe on holy days, which transformed itself into a kissing bough. The wassail bowl—a hot, spiced or mulled drink—was another tradition left over from the Norse Vikings.

Celebrations continued to mix tradition and religion when the Twelfth Night feast arrived on January 5, which combine the Roman Saturnalia with the Feast of the Epiphany, when the three wise men were said to have paid tribute to the Baby Jesus.

In Edinburgh, Scotland, Hogmanay is the special New Year’s celebration. But Twelfth Night celebrations for the Epiphany (when the wise men came to see the baby Jesus) are the big event. This is followed by Plough Monday, which is the traditional start to the new agricultural year. Since there’s not much work for a farmer in the winter, plough men would blacken their faces and drag a decorated plough through town asking, “Penny for the ploughboys.”

Molly dancers (a black faced Morris dancer) also came out in East Anglia on Plough Monday. And many towns, such as Whittlesey, had the tradition of men or boys dressing up as Straw Bears to add to the entertainment.

Shrove Tuesday fell in February (the last day before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday). Traditionally, Shrove Tuesday was the day to indulge, so pancakes were a traditional food as the butter, fat and eggs might all be things to give up for the forty days of Lent.

Why You Need a Theme in Fiction

Theme is perhaps one of the most neglected areas of any writing instruction. This may be because it’s highly personal–or because some writers instinctively know how to weave in theme, while others don’t. I had to learn about theme, and its importance to make a story resonate.

I learned about them when I learned about story structure. It’s a vital element. Theme is a writer’s touchstone. It not only makes a story resonate, it tells you want needs to be in a story, and what should be left out.

Using theme in all major turning points makes a story structure work. It creates the main character’s arc.  Think of the movie Casablanca where Rick has the papers of transit–and keeps getting hit with choices about who is he going to give these to–and he starts off all hard-nosed and making choices about selling them, not giving them to anyone who is desperate….but at the end he gives them to Ilsa and her husband so they can escape–those papers are used to SHOW Rick’s changing through the choices he makes and becoming the hero we really want him to be. That’s theme at work.

I’m going to be teaching a workshop on theme for Hearts Through History this October.

We’ll cover:

  • What is theme—a clear definition.
  • Why does a story need a theme?
  • What is too specific, and what is too vague?
  • How to find your theme.
  • Distilling your theme to one sentence.
  • Relating theme to characters.
  • Developing goals and motivations around your theme.
  • Weaving theme into turning points in your story structure.

A great theme can be explored over a lifetime of work—but if you’ve never thought about what theme can do for your stories, or if you struggle with keeping a story on track, this workshop can give you some new writing tools.

Dialogue–What Your Character Doesn’t Say

V for Vendetta QuoteI’m teaching my workshop on dialogue this September, and so it’s a good time to bring up some tips on dialogue. A story can live or die just on dialogue. Bad dialogue will make a character flat and uninteresting, and may even send the reader running from the story–no amount of great action or terrific plot twists will save a story with weak dialogue. But great dialogue can make a reader forget to look for plot holes or poor pacing. That’s because great dialogue is where you characters can shine.

Now, learning to write great dialogue is no easy task. It takes time to figure out how to make fictional dialogue sound better than how folks talk in real life but still sound possible. All of this starts with your characters.

The workshop will go into detail on dialogue–and exercises to improve dialogue skills–but here are a few tips.

1-Get to know your characters. I don’t mean charts or lists, and I mean beyond a few scenes. How does that character lie? What are the verbal habits? Is this person a talker or not? Spend some time away from the story just getting your character talking.

2. Become a habitual eavesdropper. Listen to how real people talk–and jot down notes. Notice how real conversations usually make for terrible dialogue–there are pauses, jumps, repeated phrases and words. It is still useful to pay attention to all this stuff because this is what fiction mimics. Notice how rarely people stick to one topic. Notice slang, and how words are used as leverage. Notice how one person will speak differently to the different people in that person’s life.

3-Close your eyes in the next movie and just listen to the words. Pay attention to how dialogue–and the pauses–are used to reveal character. Listen for the emotional words. Use just your ears to get a sense of rhythm, and so you won’t be distracted by flashy visuals or the actor.

4-Take apart your favorite writers’ works. Yes, this means getting out some markers and marking up the book–ebooks readers also let you mark up books. Pause over the really great dialogue moments and look at how the words are used. Look at word choice, at sentence structure, at paragraphs and how they link.

5-Write a lot of dialogue. Write pages of the stuff. Write just dialogue–fit in any description later. Nothing helps you learn faster than writing–a lot.

6-Get the technical stuff out of the way. Dialogue can clunk with periods in the wrong places, or commas that are missing, or with quote marks that don’t make sense. All of this can trip up the reader. Buy a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and nail the punctuation so it becomes invisible.

7-Look to give your characters great lines. Think about your favorite actor playing that role–wouldn’t you want him or her to come up to you and gush about having wonderful lines. Let your characters be more witty and better than anything in real life.

8-See how long you can have a character talk and not mention the real topic. This is the art of subtext. Make what the character doesn’t say important. Make the reader want to know what the character isn’t putting into dialogue.

9-Punch and polish, and then polish some more. Great dialogue often comes with revision, rewrites, edits, and then even more edits. Polish those words. Say them aloud to see how they sound. Fall in love with those words and make them wonderful.

10-Keep learning. Some links to help you with that:

http://fictionwriting.about.com/od/crafttechnique/tp/dialogue.htm

http://www.musik-therapie.at/PederHill/Dialogue&Detail.htm

Writing Emotionally Layered Dialogue

Got Subtext? Writing Better Dialogue

Dialogue: Don’t Let’Em Say What You Mean by Shannon Donnelly

 

OCC Book Buyer’s Best Finalist – Davinia’s Duke

Davinia's DukeI am so behind things–that’s what happens when you spent the summer teaching an EMT-Basic class (you end up reviewing lectures and tests, as if you were taking the class yourself). But that’s done–everyone passed (yeah!). And now I can catch up on new.

Some of the best news is that Davinia’s Duke is a finalist in the OCC RWA chapter’s Book Buyer’s Best contest for novellas. This is delightful not just because OCC was once my home chapter back when I lived in California, but because it’s a contest judged buy booksellers and readers.

So thank you, OCC, and thank you readers and book buyers!

The novella took longer to write than it ought to have–life interfered, and then the story stalled out, and shorter is always harder than longer. It’s also a quiet story–mostly just people on the page talking, which is one of my favorite kinds of stories, but not everyone thinks that in a world where if there’s not an explosion or a big fight scene it’s just not exciting. It is nice to know there are other readers looking for something a little quieter.

Point of View — The Value of Variety

InkyI finished Dean Koontz’s book Devoted not that long ago (wonderful book by the way–I highly recommend it), and it got me thinking about how omniscient point of view is sometimes a neglected art. The POV, by the way, is expertly handled by Koontz who uses the point of view–changing/shifting and swapping–as only a master can. (How lovely to have the dog’s POV–actually, several dog’s POV–as a main element in the story. The story wouldn’t have worked without that.) And that left me wondering if it really is a matter that omniscient POV can be tough to pull off gracefully.

Now…first person is easier in some respects. One person, one point of view, and that’s that. However, I’ve read really weak first person that gets stuck in too much I…I…I. The best Urban Fantasy pulls off great first person ( Rebecca Roanhorse springs to mind–fabulous books and great writing that pulls you in).

Then there’s third person, most commonly used for romance, since it lets you swap between characters but you can still do deep POV. This is my preferred way to write viewpoint. However, I’ve often dipped into first person for a scene and then switched it over to third person to get that deeper point of view. I find this lets me dig more into my characters’ emotions, which is important with any romance (or almost any novel).

But I’ve heard from young writers that they’ve been bashed when using omniscient, and accused of “head hopping” which is not really a valid critique if you’re using omniscient, which can be a powerful tool.

I think part of this is a stylistic choice. Urban Fantasy–first person. Thrillers or suspense–omniscient. Mystery–pretty much first person, but some will go for third person. And romance–third person, except for those break-out books that dare first person, but rare to find omniscient unless you step back in time. I’ve been enjoying the reissues of Elizabeth Cadell’s books which are a delight, and were written decades ago when a novel was a novel and she’s not shy about mixing up point of view, as well as putting in romance, suspense, mystery, a murder in some, and even paranormal if the story goes that way. A true story teller with a gift.

All of this boils down to what does the story need? What’s the writer’s preference? And how is the story best told. Thankfully, with self-publishing the world seem to be getting back to a good story well told, and “the rules” can be bent to suit the tale. It’s about the writer using their skills to the best purpose. Which is how it should be.