Tuesday, June 26, 2018

BACKSTORY AND CONTEXT #WesternFictioneers #Writing #history @renawomyn1

I've found, for me, the two pieces that fit both my fiction and non-fiction writing are the need for backstory and context. Whether I'm writing a historical piece of fiction or filling in pieces of history about an area, these two always play into the words on the page.

Some may wonder why backstory and context? Coming from a performance and sociology background it just made sense to me. When I am preparing for a performance, whether in a play or one of the historical characters I portray, I need to know where they come from, what made them do what they did.

Helen Hunt Falls, Colorado Springs, CO Photo (c) by the author
When I began preparing to portray Helen (Hunt) Jackson, I obviously needed to know who she was, where she came from and how she ended up being the writer and activist she was. This involved reading her works, which fortunately are many, and biographies. That built the foundation, but then to get a full picture, I needed to find out who those around her thought of her and her actions. There, letters and stories others told were invaluable. Many might think that would suffice, but time was different in the 1800s, so it became important to fit her life in the context of what was happening while she was alive. We tend to put history in the context of what we are dealing with in the present. While a worthwhile endeavor, the picture becomes less tainted when looked at through the lens of the time it was painted.

 Then of course you get those times when the person you're researching has little left of who they were, other than a few news reports. That has been the case with Ward, the man I've been 'hunting' for almost ten years. What makes his story interesting? There are more than a few Ward's with the same or similar name showing up in the same general area. I do feel by studying the time and events occurring in the numerous places he was or could have been, gives me a better understanding of what could have driven him to do the things he was accused of, whether verifiable or not.

Pikes Peak behind the clouds. Photo (c) by the author
The same holds true for my fiction writing. I research the area and people of the place I am writing about. Then I create the backstory for my main characters. Even if it never shows up in the story, the backstory gives me the parameters of what the characters would and wouldn't do in certain situations. Believe me, the let me know if I try to have them do something counter to who they are and what they believe.

Additionally, have a context of where they are and what is happening allows for a greater authenticity to their words and actions. I think the hardest thing for me as a reader is the disbelief of some action or event that doesn't fit the story. For me, having the backstories and context for the events helps me avoid those discordant notes a bit easier. Still, I am a modern person, writing in a time I didn't live in, so mistakes are made. I just try to set the stage so they aren't as likely to happen.

So for now, I'm finishing up the paper on Ward for the PPLD Symposium book based on the presentations of June 9, and a short story for WF submission about an incident in Colorado in the 'early' days. Lastly, I'm bound to finish the novel with the backdrop of the first Labor War in the Cripple Creek district.

Abandoned building in the Cripple Creek, CO area. Photo (c) by the author
Until the next fourth Tuesday of the month, happy reading and writing.

Doris Gardner-McCraw -
Author, Speaker, Historian-specializing in
Colorado and Women's History
Member of National League of American Pen Women,
Women Writing the West,
Pikes Peak Posse of the Westerners

Angela Raines - author: Where Love & History Meet
For a list of Angela Raines Books: Here 
Photo and Poem: Click Here 
Angela Raines FaceBook: Click Here


  1. Doris,

    I like to visit the actual locations of places in my stories, too. While that isn't always feasible, as long as I keep my settings within a couple hundred miles, it's doable. I agree wholeheartedly that it helps to have the characters' backstory, etc. in mind as we write (or as the story develops with the character), even if little to none of that research every shows up in the finished book. More times than not, my characters only have a name and their personal angst/goal/motivation when I begin writing. Who they are shows up as it comes to me. lol

    1. Sometimes my characters backstory shows up as I write and sometimes it's there before I start. Still, it is a wonderful journey. I'd heard Mr. L'Amour walked the areas he wrote about. It shows.

      Here's to writing and the joy of the journey. Doris