I'm often surprised by how far it's possible to take a novel without really thinking through the backstory.
Say I've decided that before my protagonist, Daisy, started her successful chain of hot chocolate restaurants, she trained dolphins for an aquarium show. I probably have some excellent reasons for choosing this backstory. For example, Daisy always loved to drink hot chocolate after a training session, when she got out of the warm water into the cold North Dakota air. And in my novel, Daisy often compares her experiences with managing a restaurant chain to her past teaching dolphins to catch rings on their snouts.
So I tell myself that this is Daisy's backstory. I write the first draft of my novel, in which I tell readers that this is Daisy's backstory. I revise my manuscript to introduce the backstory more gradually, having Daisy think about her dolphin-training days at relevant emotional moments. I research, learning how trainers teach animals tricks and that a dolphin's nose is more properly called a "beak."
I bring my revised draft to my critique partners, an insightful, knowledgeable, and astute bunch. One says, "Daisy always yells at her employees for making mistakes. If she was any good at training dolphins, wouldn't she be more patient?" Another points out, "You make a big deal about how Daisy hates waking up early. I've read that dolphins are most receptive to training right after dawn, so you should have Daisy reflect on how this was a big problem in her last job." A third asks, "Even if it was cold in North Dakota, wouldn't training dolphins be such strenuous exercise that Daisy wouldn't want a hot drink afterwards?"
Back home after critique group, I cry into my pillow for a little while, and then I think about the questions my readers have raised. Each observation is valid and needs to be addressed in the novel. I'm going to have to make some changes to the story, and that will be hard, but the payoff is that the novel will grow richer and more complex as a result.
I turn over and stare at the ceiling, and then I start thinking about Daisy's backstory. Really thinking about it. When I began work on this novel, I'd defined a history for her and sketched out a few specific incidents that shaped her life. But I hadn't given her past much more thought than that. In the course of a couple of drafts, Daisy's character had evolved and deepened, and the backstory had remained as vague as ever.
I think about Daisy and how she behaves in the course of the novel. I imagine a younger, more naive version of my character during her aquarium days. I ask myself some very important questions that I should have asked earlier: Why did Daisy become a dolphin trainer in the first place? Was that her true dream, or perhaps a role she settled for because there were no openings in the cephalopod department? What aspects of dolphin training did Daisy excel at, and where did she struggle? What was her daily life as a trainer like? When did she realize she'd had enough and that her real ambitions lay in the hot beverage industry?
Lying there in bed, I tell myself all sorts of stories about Daisy's past. It's great fun, and so much easier than having to write stories down for the benefit of readers. I realize fascinating details about Daisy's character and come up with exciting new subplots. As a dolphin trainer, Daisy would have experience with scuba diving. What if the restaurant operations manager who betrays her in the novel was previously her diving buddy? They'd have a history of trusting each other with their lives, making his later treachery that much more painful.
I am bubbling with ideas. I can't wait to start revising again.
This example, of course, is unrelated to the novel I'm currently writing. (To read about Daisy's adventures, you'll have to wait for my next book.) But it's an experience I've gone through many times. Just this weekend, I realized how few specifics I knew about a backstory in which two characters meet online. I made that backstory decision when I first conceived of the novel and then worked on the manuscript for years without fleshing it out. I finally realized that I was going to have to know more about their online beginnings if I wanted the story events to be consistent and believable.
So I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, telling myself stories until I fell asleep.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ Jason Black offers great advice at #Amwriting about suspension of disbelief: "The reader will give you one freebie. They will suspend disbelief for you, no questions asked, exactly one time."