Honoring the Backstory

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Our first page reviews often bring up the issue of backstory and how to incorporate it successfully (and judiciously) into a novel.  

In mysteries and thrillers we often have protagonists with a military or law enforcement background and, given that many of our readers will have similar backgrounds, we need to get the details right. As writers we have an obligation to do our research and try and paint as accurate a picture as possible. This can be a challenge for someone like me who has never been in the armed forces, trained in law enforcement, or (thankfully) had any exposure to war or its aftermath. I have to rely solely on research and my imagination. 

So far in my novels, I’ve focused primarily on the years prior to and during the First World War and  have the advantage of being able to access a huge array of first hand accounts, books, film footage and audio recordings dealing with the horrors associated with trench warfare. There are, however, only a minute number of veterans still alive from this war which means I cannot directly speak to them about their experiences as part of my research. In some ways though, this also makes my job a little easier, as there aren’t going to be many World War One veterans alive to challenge the experiences as I present them. 

For more recent theatres of conflict, authors need to be ever vigilant regarding their research as there are many more veterans alive who will demand we get the details correct (and who will complain if we fail to do them justice). When it comes to developing a character with a recent military backstory, authors need to also be aware of the sensitivities involved – whether you’re dealing with a character who served in Afghanistan, a character involved in one side or the other during the Northern Ireland Troubles, or, perhaps, a CIA operative who had exposure to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…whatever the backstory is you have to get it right. 

As we’ve also discussed in our first page reviews, when presenting a character’s  backstory you also have to be careful not to slow down the narrative pace of the book. All the details you have researched cannot be presented in huge, long-winded chunks, or your readers’ eyes will glaze over. 

Here are a few tips when it comes to developing and presenting a compelling backstory:

When developing the backstory (particularly a military or law enforcement one):

  • Do your research thoroughly. I cannot emphasize this too much. Read books. Talk to people currently in the field or veterans who have experienced the same conflict/trauma that your character has experienced. 
  • Make sure you understand the impact their training and experiences have had on their characters. 
  • Know how they would react in a certain situation (it would, for instance be unlikely that an ex-Marine would turn tail and run when confronted with a mugger – not unless you have created an appropriate backstory that would make this behavior entirely believable).

When presenting the details of your protagonist’s backstory, remember:

  • Show only the tip of the iceberg at the start (even though you know everything, don’t foist it all on the reader at once)
  • Use key, tantalizing, references at first to get the reader intrigued (e.g. rather than providing a long-winded paragraph listing all the protagonist’s experiences during the civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, you could just say: “After what happened in Bosnia, he wasn’t sure who to trust any more”…that way the reader wants to know what happened as it impacts the story).
  • Make sure the backstory is relevant to the main story you are telling. There’s no point having an elaborate backstory if none of the elements come into play in the main story. The backstory needs to have a direct impact on how your character thinks, feels and acts (and in a way that rings true and is compelling to the reader).
  • Use action and dialogue to draw out the backstory rather than narrative exposition. This will keep the pace and tension going. 

So do you tend to have protagonists with a military or law enforcement background in your stories? If so, how do you go about researching this and what pitfalls do you try to avoid when presenting your character’s backstory?

26 thoughts on “Honoring the Backstory

  1. Probably 60% of my readers have military pasts and many are more than willing to point out issues. Getting the technical details is crucial, and ensuring the back story is accurate or at least believable within historical context even moreso.

    While I have several years of military experience myself (USMC, civilian contractor and Alaska State Defense Force) I have no combat experience. I therefore always try to get input from folks with actual combat experience, and have cultivated relationships with several retired spec ops veterans as well as some fellow Marines who are willing to talk about their experiences in battle. I always have a few of them do a beta read of my books as well to verify I’ve got details right.

    For those without that past or connections, I’d suggest go down to your local VFW or American Legion post and chat with folks. Or look up contacts at the various military association websites. You’d be surprised who you might meet in those contexts and what they’d be willing to share.

    • Great idea, Basil. I’m sure they would love to chat about their experiences and nothing beats getting the facts straight from the source.

    • Basil, you are so right about having friends more than willing to correct you if you get it wrong and the combat situation as well. My husband has been enlisted for 17 years now and has never served in combat (thankfully so) but we have many friends and family who have. I asked my nephew, who has done 5 tours, if he would be willing to be one of my combat resources to keep me real and grounded. It helps he is not only special forces but is also a reader. πŸ™‚ I think it’s important to have more than one resource as well. Every soldier is going to have a slightly different perspective based on his or her own experience. I think it is really great advice to go to the VFW if someone does not have family or friend resources. BTW, Thanks for your service! πŸ™‚

  2. Good tips, Clare. Finding a good expert to interview is, for me, essential. I want those technical details right. Then, when it comes to backstory, the human part can take over and we can be free and imaginative as serves our story. I like to make this an iceberg in the first act….the character acts a certain way that tells us there a lot below the surface, but we don’t reveal it until later.

    • I try to speak to experts as much as I can – it’s often the only way I can find out the details I need. Email is also a wonderful thing – I’ve had many experts more than willing to give me their time and share their expertise.

    • James–
      Being able to interview experts is so important to me that this is what tends to determine the direction of my work. Interviews are by far the most time-saving resource I can think of. Especially for someone who’s lazy about other kinds of research. That would be me.

  3. For draft one it’s story, story, story. Then draft two, I go back and fix my howlers. My husband served in Iran, so he’s a good source of first-hand information. Especially in explaining the mystifying rank system in the Army.

    • Good point Kassie – the story should be paramount and sometimes I think I need to be careful I don’t get too bogged down in backstory. Often you can tweak details after the first draft is done.

  4. I’m going to brag a minute on Joe Moore’s and Lynn Shole’s book The Blade, which I just recently finished reading, so it’s fresh in my head. There were several times I was struck by how well they inserted backstory into their book. In fact, I went back and reread several passages just to see if I could see how they did it so seamlessly. Each time it was worked into the current plot, a thought that was very briefly triggered in the MC’s head, but because it was so related to current events of the story, it was hardly noticed and yet the reader learned what they needed to know for that moment.

    Not trying to be shmoozy, but it’s interesting that this post appeared, this was one of the strengths I really noticed about their book.

    • Wow, thanks so much, Julie. I’m humbled and glad you enjoyed THE BLADE. Back story is tough, and so easy to overdue. It’s like putting just the right amount of spices and seasoning into a stew. You never want to give your reader indigestion. Thanks again.

  5. By holding off on the backstory, you give yourself yet another great opportunity to create tension and draw it out. The mystery of who the heck this guy/gal/werewolf/(insert other paranormal creature) is can be as interesting as the front story. You can draw it out to place salient facts about the MC next to the analogous event in the main story. How good is that?

    Of course, if it is a series book, that only works well in the first installment. But then…a mysterious woman (The Big Sleep)…or…a man dying and why (the original D.O.A). You could drag out their background and how that relates to the MC. Cool! Nope it can even work in the other books in a series.

    • Brian, holding off on revealing too much backstory is indeed a great way of creating tension. In our first page critiques we often complain that too much is given up front rather than just enough to keep the reader intrigued.

  6. For those who are not comfortable wandering into the local VFW hall, there are other ways to familiarize yourself with militaria. First stop: The Military Channel on cable. Sometimes it feels as if it’s all-Hitler all the time, but they have several programs that involve interviews with military personnel who were involved in specific conflicts. Search YouTube for the key words you’re looking for. These latest conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have some amazing home movies that capture not only the drama of battle, but of the dialog of real people under fire. (If the F-bomb bothers you, skip that last bit of advice.)

    I believe that writers who want to depict the act of shooting need to take themselves to a range that rents weapons and shoot a few. If you’re a complete novice, no problem. Most shops would be delighted to have someone work with you. Guns rent for something like $25 and you typically have to buy your ammo at the shop, but you’ll get the feel of the recoil and the sound of the shooting.

    Most important of all, though, don’t depend on any dramatic TV presentation of attitudes or tactics. They always get huge amounts of stuff wrong.

    John Gilstrap

    • That’s excellent advice John. I forgot about Youtube and Mil Chan. Definitely excellent sources. One other word of warning with Toutube though, those videos of insurgents or terrorists shooting or beheading folks…those are usually real..proceed with caution.

      And second on the range, there is no replacement for actually putting rounds downrange. And if you can make friends with a licensed class 3 permit holder with machine guns and silencers…now there’s an eye opener.

    • And yes, I also second the ‘don’t rely on TV dramas’ – they usually get it wrong! Even in historical dramas…just look at the nit picking about Downton Abbey and The Great Gatsby!

    • Amen John. Don’t try to fake guns. Or forensics. Or military stuff. Or anything, for corn’s sake. It’s just too easy to get good advice today, even if it’s just the internet. If you’re not getting advice, you’re just plain lazy. And I second this advice others have said: DON’T RELY ON TV FOr YOUR RESEARCH!

    • And get thee to one of John’s presentations on stuff that goes bang and boom at a writers’ conference. It is superb. I’m still trying to figure out how to weave a propane tank BLEVE into one of my tales.

      And, yes, I got schooled in the difference between concussion explosives and incendiaries by a reader (I knew it, but was sloppy.) And, it was John that solved that problem for me as well.

      My current WIP has a huge scene where a high-tech steel-polymer shotgun takes center stage. Since I work with law enforcement and general all-around gun enthusiasts these days, I’m already hitting them up for advice on the right rounds.

      But above all, it has to have the tang of realism. I’ll forgive a writer a lot if he convinces me that that is exactly how soldiers/cops/firemen/nurses really talk. Make it feel real and I will roll with it.


    • Thanks for the plug, Terri. As luck would have it, I’m teaching an updated version of that class at the Midwest Writers Conference in July. Just sayin’ . . .


  7. I am fortunate in that I have a military background so know quite a bit already and have access to many people with the information I need. I have very little knowledge of police procedure but a friend who is a retired Chief Inspector and my local police force have been outstanding in their patience when I ask questions. I do indeed consider myself extremely fortunate. Thank you for all of this advice it has been helpful to me as a novice crime writer,

  8. You’re lucky to have some experts on hand but I’ve also found that people are just so helpful – Whenever I’ve contacted experts (who I don’t know at all) they have always been more than willing to help.

  9. John and Basil have good suggestions. Also, there are also a lot of interesting blogs online covering current and past conflicts. A few years ago, I discovered an East German air defense veteran’s site. It was an emotional experience to actually put a face on some of the guy’s on the other side of the barbed wire. A French mercenary pilot’s blog provided inspiration for a set of key incidents in my third book.

  10. I come from a strong military family background. My father, who just celebrated his 100 birthday on May 24th, is an ex-POW of WWII. My sister, my brother, two of my nephew’s (one currently serving who has high speed position where if he told you anything he’d have to kill you),my brother-in-law, and countless cousins have all been enlisted and or deployed at one point or another. But my expert that I always rely on is my husband. He is currently enlisted in the National Guard and served 10 years Active Duty Army. Every single scene I have ever worked into my writing he is right by my side, informing me of the never ending acronyms, procedures, and lifestyle of the Army grunt. Because I have so many loved ones that have military backgrounds my number one priority was to honor them and what they do, by getting it right. I’m a huge stickler for it. My co-author once told me, “It’s fiction, Jeanette, just work it in it doesn’t have to be believable in fiction.” I said, “No way. I have way too many friends and family members to answer to.”

  11. It’s interesting to bring up the military background. When I started work on Bastion (my end of the world web novel) I originally wanted to have one of the characters be on an aircraft that rode out the storms by being above them for extremely long periods of time. That steered me at one of a handful of military planes, one of which a good friend has served as an Air Commander on.

    And has been willing to read my chapters in advance and attack them with a red pen.

    The hardest thing for me, really, was to force myself out of my civilian mindset when writing that first character of Marie and make myself think like a Marine. My friend and I had more than a couple conversations on the military mindset alone. Then there were the technical coversations… I would write what I thought was ideal technobabble to communicate a plot point and I’d get back a note in all caps: WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?

    After a bit of give and take I still get the all caps, but I also get a “I see what you want do do here. Call it the BLahblahblah instead.”

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