All the Sorrows of the World

Content Warning: Magical Philosophy

I’m very happy to report that I am finally nearing the completion of the third of the Abby Renshaw Adventures, which will be titled Ghosts of Lock Tower. This book’s been over a year in the making and was originally planned as a novella. It took on a life of its own, as stories often do.

Bok Tower, a real building in central Florida on which the fictional Lock Tower is based.

This month’s post is inspired by a phrase that appears in the novel. Midway through the story, something terrible happens. Abby, our protagonist, is devastated by horror and grief. She is also racked by guilt. She had a premonition something bad was going to happen, and feels she should have found a way to prevent it, or at least to warn someone.

Kevin, one of her mentors and an initiate of the same magical order as Abby, tells her this:

“You had a vision, Abby. But you didn’t have enough information to act on it. Or the power to stop what happened. I understand how you feel. But there’s a lesson in the Circle of Harmony that says ‘you can’t carry all the sorrows of the world.’ A true magician is prone to see many things. Sometimes that can include terrible evil. You cannot let yourself be crushed by it—not if you want to keep any hope of doing good.”

 

When I wrote that speech, the phrase carry all the sorrows of the world strongly resonated with me. I was dimly aware that it’s source was something I had read years ago, in Israel Regardie’s The Golden Dawn.

As you may know, the Golden Dawn was a magical society of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Its members included prominent occultists A.E. Waite, Dion Fortune, and Paul Foster Case, as well as artists, authors, and poets, such as Arthur Conan Doyle and W.B. Yeats. (See this article on Wikipedia for more.)  The Circle of Harmony, the secret magical society in the Abby Renshaw stories, is loosely based on the Golden Dawn.

As revealed by Regardie’s book, initiates in the Golden Dawn advanced through a series of grades. Each advancement was marked by a ritual, in which the candidate was given new knowledge. The system of grades and the paths of advancement had correspondences both to the Qabala and the Tarot.

In some rituals, paths would be shown to the candidate but were not yet “open”—until the candidate had attained a higher grade. This was the case with the particular ritual I remembered. The path in question is named for the Hebrew Letter Mem, and corresponds to the Tarot Card, The Hanged Man. It is a path of sacrifice.

Image of the Hanged Man; By Pamela Coleman Smith – a 1909 card scanned by Holly Voley (http://home.comcast.net/~vilex/) for the public domain, and retrieved from http://www.sacred-texts.com/tarot (see note on that page regarding source of images)., PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17299698

In this ritual, the candidate is told:

“The Portal of Mem is barred. Yet it is well to be willing for the Sacrifice itself, is as yet, not fully prepared. For in the Path of Mem rules the Hanged Man, the power of the Great Waters. Can your tears prevail against the Tide of the Sea, your might against the waves of the storm, your love against the sorrows of all the world?”

From The Golden Dawn, as revealed by Israel Regardie, Llewellyn Publications, 1990,  page 212).

 

Surely, in the way of poetry, there are many meanings we could unwrap here. To me, an important one is this: No matter how awful the evil we witness in the world (and these days, if your eyes are open at all, you’re witnessing plenty), we must not let it destroy us.

As Kevin tells Abby, we are not required to carry all the sorrows of the world. We are only required to do the good that we can.

I think this quote from the Talmud gives the same message:

Internet meme, source: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/3b/ce/44/3bce445d6f971d4ff592b27cea1f32c0.jpg

At least, that’s how I see it.

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Ghosts of Lock Tower is scheduled for publication Summer of 2019

Meantime, you can check out the first two Abby Renshaw adventures here.

 

World-Building for Fantasy – Three Tips

Creating worlds for fantasy and science fiction is a topic beloved by many. And, of course, there is plenty of excellent advice available online. Two of my favorites are Brandon Sanderson’s “Rules for Magic”  and this series by the excellent Brenda Clough.   There are even dedicated tools you can use, such as the highly-regarded World Anvil.

But imagining an entire world is no easy task. For all the great resources available, writers often struggle. In this post, drawing on examples from expert authors, I’ll provide three tips for setting up a fantasy world that is both imaginative and unique.

1. Story Before World

World-building can be great fun. It can also be a rabbit hole. Many people spend endless hours defining every nook and nuance of their world—history, climate, geography, sentient races, religions, magic, technology.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But if you want to write fantasy stories, you need to put the story first. Put your focus on the primary elements of story.   Who are your characters? What are their goals? What are the obstacles to those goals? How will they seek to overcome those obstacles? Let all your world building efforts be driven by those questions.

Take for example The Queen’s Poisoner by popular author Jeff Wheeler. The story takes place in a pretty standard medieval-style world (with a few unique and intriguing elements). But the focus is first and foremost on the characters—as we follow our young hero Owen through the tribulations of being held hostage in the castle of a tyrant king. The history, politics, and other background information are revealed gradually and always in terms of how they relate to the dramatic story.

Or consider the massive and massively popular The Name of the Wind. Patrick Rothfuss constructs a complex and richly-detailed fantasy world. But again, the setting is only gradually revealed in the midst of dramatic action. In this case, we are presented with multiple narratives—the first, a framing device that introduces the hero, then multiple sequential stories as the protagonist relates his history to the “Chronicler.” This is also a truly epic example of story construction.

2. Make It Distinct

For all the efforts spend on world-building, many writers fall into the trap of imitation. All too often readers find themselves in worlds that seem like copies of Tolkien or Dungeons and Dragons: orcs, witches, werewolves, elves, dragons, shapeshifters, vampires…

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But the best fantasy worlds have something that makes them unique and special.

In The Name of the Wind, we find (among other things) a complex set of “arcanist arts” (including Sympathy, Sygaldry, Alchemy, and Naming) which function according to precise scientific laws.

Or take NK Jemison’s award-winning The Broken Earth Trilogy. In Book 1, The Fifth Season, we meet the orogenes, a unique kind of humans with the power to sense and tap the tectonic forces of the Earth. These books might best be called science-fantasy, since the orogenes’ powers are linked to a biological explanation. But the author’s depictions of how these powers feel and are experienced are nonetheless fantastic.

In world-building for my own novel, Cloak of the Two Winds, I tried to imagine one thing to make the setting unique. The world, Glimnodd, is a place where arcane arts have been practiced for ages. Part of the legacy of all this witchery is that magic winds blow over the seas, changing water to ice or ice to water. Yes, I came up with that on my own!

3. Make it Relevant

Fantasy is escapist literature, and I’m all for it. But unless a story is relevant to readers, they won’t care about it. And for a fantasy story to be relevant, the experience of the world and the characters must be relatable.

In other words: What about the current state of our world does this fantasy world portray?

I learned this lesson when a friend read an early draft of Cloak of the Two Winds. The freezewind and meltwind in the story were created in ancient times as a kind of pressure-release. So much magic and sorcery were practiced that their cumulative effects had plunged the world into chaos. To keep the world in balance, the two winds now bleed off excess magic energy.

In the story, the Cloak of the title can control these magic winds. But it has been stolen and is being misused by a mad sorcerer intent on bringing the world back to chaos.

What about all that is relatable to our world? I didn’t realize it myself until a friend referred to the story as involving a “climate emergency.” In our world, overpopulation and technology are threatening us with chaos. Perhaps technology, wisely applied, will help us restore the balance.

As another example, consider Jemison’s The Fifth Season. The treatment of the orogenes by the dominant humans is relentlessly horrible—and depicts how oppressed people are and have been treated throughout history. The depiction is powerful and brutal. Jemison herself discusses this in a thread on her Twitter feed.

Best of All Possible Worlds

So, if fantasy writing is your thing, consider these three tips to make your world-building and your story as great as they can be.

  1. Put the Story before the World
  2. Make the World Distinct
  3. Make the World Relevant

Let me know what you think.

Books mentioned in this post:

The Queen’s Poisoner by Jeff Wheeler

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Fifth Season by NK Jemison

The Cloak of the Two Winds by Jack Massa

A Priestess of Aphrodite, Part 2

In last month’s post, we introduced Berenicea, one of the main female characters in The Treasure of the Sun God. She is a prosperous hetaera (courtesan) and also a Priestess of Aphrodite.

As mentioned last time, because of the historical circumstances of the ancient world, I found it challenging to create women characters who are both realistic for their time and relatable for a contemporary audience.

The challenge was brought home to me in the reactions of some of my beta readers to Berenicea. One woman had a hard time understanding the character, and in particular thought the scene between her and Thalia (see last month’s post) added nothing of value to the story. Another reader, a man, found Berenicia “too good to be true” and said that she read too much like “a male fantasy.”

“Aphrodite of Rhodes”. Statue of the Goddess rising from her bath, copy of a work from the Hellenistic period. source https://www.theoi.com/Gallery/S10.16.html

 

Responding to Beta Readers

Of course, every reader is different, and it can be hard for a writer to know when to make changes based on beta feedback. But when more than one reader finds a similar problem with a character or plot point, it tells me I’d better examine the issue.

In this case, at least two readers were not finding my priestess understandable or sympathetic. When this happens, I think the writer needs to take a close look at the character and “imagine harder.”

Re-imagining the Priestess

Who was Berenicia in my mind?

Her type of character was based on historical sources: an accomplished hetaera, a mistress and companion to leading male citizens. But she is also more than that. As a teenager, she heard Korax sing of how he saw the Goddess of Love within her. That moment changed her life, and set her on the path to become a priestess. In her mind, being a priestess means embodying her ideal vision of the goddess she serves.

A theme of the whole Conjurer of Rhodes series is that the immortals can only act in our world through human vessels. Berenicea conceives of herself as a vessel for the Goddess of Love. She strives each day to embody that ideal and express love for everyone.

Aphrodite and Adonis. Attic red-figure squat lekythos, ca. 410 BC. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=530718

 

Rewriting the Scene

With these thoughts in mind, I rewrote the scene where Berenicia speaks with Thalia. Here is the revised scene, with the changes in bold. (You can compare this to the original scene in the previous post.)

Standing on the harbor quay, Berenicia pours a libation and speaks a prayer to Aphrodite. She asks that the goddess bless the men of the Rhodian navy who have just sailed off to war, and asks particular protection for two men she loves, Korax and Patrollos. She is overheard by Thalia, a young noblewoman who is the sister of Patrollos and betrothed to Korax.

At last, she turned to leave. But along with her servants, someone else watched her, a small young woman with golden hair and eyes red from crying.

“That was beautiful,” she murmured. “I am Thalia.”

“I know who you are, my lady.”

“I knew that Patrollos and Korax both love you. But I did not realize how you also love them.”

Berenicea smiled. “You did not think a woman like me capable of such love?”

“No … Please forgive me, I meant no insult.” Thalia started to withdraw.

“Wait.” Berenicea approached her. “I took no offense.”

Thalia peered into the hetaera’s eyes. “May I ask you a question, priestess?”

“Of course.”

“Mistress Thalia! Your parents sent me to find you.” One of the woman servants from the House of Philophron called from a few yards away. “It is time to go home now.”

“Tell them I will be there in a moment,” Thalia said.

“Mistress, you should not be speaking with … that woman.”

“I will come in a moment. Go!”

The servant scowled but turned and bustled off.

“What is your question?” Berenicea asked.

“Why are they both so in love with you? You are very beautiful, of course. But so are many other women. I feel there must be more to it.”

“They are my friends, but they are not in love with me, not in the way you mean. Patrollos responds to the goddess, because she loves him so much, loves his weakness as well as his strength. And Korax—Well, he just needs a place to rest his head.” She ended with a fond smile.

But Thalia frowned in confusion. “I do not understand you.”

Berenicea sighed. “They do not love me, but the goddess within me. I am simply her vessel. She is what most men seek in women. Because, whatever love men bring, she blesses it and makes them feel it is wonderful, and that it is enough.”

“But, then … is there nothing for you?”

“Oh, yes.” Berenicea said. “There is service and sacrifice, but also much joy. Because I feel Aphrodite’s love inside me every day. And she loves the whole world.”

Thalia blinked and shook her head. “I am no priestess, and I could never be so selfless. I fear no one will ever love me the way Korax loves you.”

Berenicea stared at her, as if listening to a whisper. “I suggest you pray to the goddess. Ask her to fill your heart. I feel that … First she must teach you to love yourself. After that, well, you may be surprised.” Smiling kindly, she caressed the girl’s hair with both hands, then bent and kissed her forehead. “I give you her blessing, dear child.”

The priestess straightened, to find Thalia’s eyes shining with fresh tears.

Excerpt from The Treasure of the Sun God (c) 2019 by Jack Massa


Results

I sent the revised scene to the two beta readers mentioned above. Both of them felt it was an improvement, and that it gave them a clearer picture of Berenicia.

What do you think, gentle reader? In the context of an historical novel, can you relate to a priestess who strives to live the ideal of loving the whole world?

Aprhodite with Swan, from Rhodes. Source https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0d/Aphrodite_swan_BM_D2.jpg

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Learn more about the Conjurer of Rhodes books

Find The Treasure of the Sun God on Amazon.

A Priestess of Aphrodite, Part 1

In the Conjurer of Rhodes books, I tried to create characters who are not only well-rounded and interesting to a modern reader, but realistic for the times in which they lived. This is a challenge for every historical novelist.

Women in Antiquity

When writing about the ancient world, it’s especially challenging with women characters. Greece in particular, was notoriously patriarchal. Wives were essentially treated as chattel, and women for the most part were either wives, slaves, or prostitutes. (See Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves – Women in Classical Antiquity by Sarah B. Pomeroy.)

Yet free women did have certain legal rights, and wives had considerable power within the home. Prostitutes (hetaera) might be educated and independent, and could rise to social prominence. It was not uncommon for hetaerae who began their lives as slaves to earn their freedom and become quite wealthy.

Hetaera at a Symposium, source https://www.ancient.eu/article/927/women-in-ancient-greece/


From Slave Girl to Priestess

Berenicia, one of the main women characters, fits into that category. When we first meet her (in flashbacks in Book 1) she is a flute girl, of Celtic heritage, red-haired and lovely. A slave in the house of a well-known courtesan, she has just come of age and become a prostitute.

When our hero Korax sings a hymn to Aphrodite and makes it plain that Berenicea has inspired him, the girl feels the stirring of the goddess within her. She begins to believe she can become more than simply a slave girl, and thereafter asks her mistress to train her as a priestess.

The degree to which sacred prostitution existed in Greece is controversial, although it seems to have been well-established in other ancient cultures. (See “Sex in the Service of Aphrodite, Did Prostitution Really Exist in the Temples of Antiquity?” and also “Ancient Greek Temples of Sex.”)

We also don’t know a lot about the priestesses of Aphrodite and their position in society. However, given the evidence we do have for Greece (especially Corinth) and the fact that during the Hellenistic period— when the Conjurer of Rhodes books are set— there was considerable influence from Eastern cultures, it seems plausible that a young courtesan in Rhodes might also become a priestess of the Goddess of Love.

A few of the books used to research the Conjurer of Rhodes series.

 

Courtesan Meets Future Wife

What would such a woman be like?

When we meet Berenicia again, in The Treasure of the Sun God, she is in her early twenties. Both a priestess and hetaera, she is beautiful, educated, and a patroness of the arts. She owns her own house and entertains a select group of clients. She is the lover of both Korax, who has returned to Rhodes, and his rival, Patrollos.

In a key scene, Korax and Patrollos have just sailed off to war. A crowd has gathered to watch the departure of the fleet. As the citizens disperse, Berenicia stands on the dock, pours a libation, and speaks aloud a prayer to Aphrodite, asking that the goddess may protect both of the men she loves. She is overheard by Thalia, who is the sister of Patrollos and betrothed to Korax.

Here is the beta version of that scene.

At last, she turned to leave. But along with her servants, someone else watched her, a small young woman with golden hair and eyes red from crying.

“That was beautiful,” she murmured. “I am Thalia.”

“I know who you are, my lady.”

“I know that Patrollos and Korax both love you. But I did not realize how you also love them.”

Berenicea smiled. “You did not think a woman like me capable of such love?”

“No … Please forgive me, I meant no insult.” Thalia started to withdraw.

“Wait.” Berenicea approached her. “I took no offense.”

Thalia peered into the hetaera’s eyes. “May I ask you a question, priestess?”

“Of course.”

“Mistress Thalia! Your parents sent me to find you.” One of the woman servants from the House of Philophron called from a few yards away. “It is time to go home now.”

“Tell them I will be there in a moment,” Thalia replied.

“Mistress, you should not be speaking with … that woman.”

“I will come in a moment. Go!”

The woman scowled but turned and bustled off.

“What is your question?” Berenicea asked kindly.

“Why are they both so in love with you? You are very beautiful, it is true, but is that the only reason.”

“They are my friends, but they are not in love with me, not in the way you mean. Patrollos adores Aphrodite through me, because she accepts his weaknesses as well as his strengths. And Korax—Well, he just needs a place to rest his head.”

Thalia frowned in confusion. “I do not understand you.”

Berenicea put a hand on her shoulder. “My dear, men adore me because I give them my adoration. Whatever love they bring, I bless it and make them feel it is wonderful, and that it is enough. That is the secret of Aphrodite; she welcomes all offerings with an open heart.”

Thalia’s face was solemn. “I understand your words. But is it really that simple?”

Berenicea lowered her eyes, amused. “Simple to say, less simple to do. But if every wife practiced this secret, even a little, there would be less work in the world for hetaeras.” She caressed the young woman’s hair. “May the Goddess bless you always, my lady.”

Excerpt from The Treasure of the Sun God (c) 2019 by Jack Massa

 

Readers’ Reactions

When I sent the novel to beta readers, their reaction to Berenicea, and to this scene in particular, convinced me I had a problem. What the readers had to say, and what I did about it, will be the subject of the next blog post.

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Check out the Conjurer of Rhodes series here.

Dionysus, Lord of Voices

When I first started writing the  Conjurer of Rhodes series , I renewed my acquaintance with the ancient Greek gods and goddesses. Early in the Conjurer books the protagonist Korax recklessly summons the god Dionysus to help him win a singing contest. This leads Korax to a world of trouble, and led me to research the god of wine and frenzy.

Dionysus 2. 0135: Roman copy of Greek original from 4C BC. Glyptothek, München. Source: : http://www.maicar.com/GML/Dionysus2.html
Origin Myth

Dionysus was the son of Zeus and a mortal princess, Semele. According to one version of the myth, the Goddess Hera, disguised as an old woman, paid a visit to Semele and convinced her to demand that her lover show himself in his true aspect. When Zeus swore an oath to give Semele anything she wished for, he was forced to comply. Unfortunately, mortals cannot gaze on the full glory of the gods, and poor Semele was incinerated.

Zeus rescued the unborn Dionysus and sewed the child into his thigh. Dionysus was born a few months later and is thus called “twice-born.” Oh, and no need to mourn for Semele. When Dionysus grew up, he took a journey to the Underworld, rescued the shade of his mother, and brought her to Olympus.

The Festival of Dionysis

The fact that Dionysus was incubated close to the generative organs of the King of the Gods doubtless reflects his later association with fertility and the generation of life. The Athenians celebrated his festival in the Spring, to mark the end of winter and the harvesting of new crops. This Great Dionysia was a time of singing, dancing, and theater, and Dionysus was considered the god of plays and players.

The Frenzy of the Bacchae

The most famous appearance of Dionysus in Greek literature is, of course, in Euripides’ The Bacchae.

In mythology the Bacchae, or maenads, were female worshippers of Dinoysus who followed the god through the hills, intoxicated and ecstatic.

But it wasn’t only the wine. According to scholar Walter Burkert (Greek Religion, English Translation 1985 by Harvard University Press, page 161):

“Intoxication as a change in consciousness is interpreted as the irruption of something divine … Everyone who surrenders to this god must risk abandoning his everyday identity and becoming mad; this is both divine and wholesome.”

The Fate of Pentheus

In Euripides’ play, the rulers of Thebes are not so welcoming to this divine madness. Pentheus the king outlaws the worship of Dionysius and actually imprisons the god, whom he takes for a mortal acolyte.

Angered, Dionysus inspires Pentheus’ mother and aunts to rush off to the mountains and join the Bacchic rites. He then lures Pentheus out to spy on the women. The maenads discover the king and tear him limb from limb. (A clear lesson, I must say, to those who would scorn either the gods or the power of women.)

Pentheus torn apart by Ino and Agave, lekanis lid, ca. 450-450 BC, Louvre. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentheus
A Hymn to Dionysus

The following poem recounts the story of Dionysus and sees a glimmer of relevance to our own times.

Dionysus, Lord of Voices

Appearing in the city street,
Ivy-crowned and panther-coated,
Speaking many tongues together,
Teacher of intoxication,
Herald of his own religion:
Honor and revere the god,
You poets of the sacred songs.

Born of mortal, Theban princess.
To gaze on god she insisted.
Zeus revealed himself in lightning,
Burned her flesh and bones to ashes.
Green vines sprang to shield the unborn
Child, sewn into the thigh of Zeus,
Carried to the sacred mountain,
Nursed by nymphs, nourished on honey–
Immortal child born of death.

Come of age, the god departed,
Journeyed through the lands of Asia,
Taught the Mysteries to mortals,
Conquered countries with his revels,
Spread the culture of the vine–
Sweet the pleasure of the dancing,
Whirling to the many voices,
Ecstasy of knowing god.

Only Thebes refused him worship:
Rulers adamant with power,
Arrogant and frozen-hearted.
So he lashed the town with madness,
Roused the women to rebellion,
Cast them roaming on the mountain,
Freed their willful hearts with shouting,
Till they tore their lords to pieces,
Prideful men disdaining god.

Now our nation too is frozen:
Princes gluttonous with power,
People circling dumb with fear.
Dionysus, Lord of Voices,
Will your call awake our cities?
Singer of the wild places:
Blessed are those who know your secrets;
Bereft are they who scorn the gods.

Satyr and Dionysus, Athenian red-figure kylix C5th B.C., Antikensammlung Berlin source https://www.theoi.com/Olympios/Dionysos.html

 

You can learn more about the Conjurer of Rhodes Books here or find Book 1 on Amazon.

Five Ways to Show Backstory:
5. Sprinkling Exposition into a Scene

This month we wrap up our series on conveying backstory in fiction without losing dramatic momentum.

Review: What We’re Talking About

In the Introduction to the series, we discussed the elements of dramatic writing as described by Jerry Cleaver in his book Immediate Fiction. As illustrated, these essential elements are

  1. Conflict, defined as character want/goal plus obstacle
  2. Action by the character to deal with the obstacle.
  3. Resolution, success or failure, leaving the character closer or farther from their goal.

All of this is supported by

  1. Emotion. To identify with your characters, readers must feel for them.
  2. Showing, the crucial method of presenting the story.
Five Elements of Storytelling, adapted from Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver

Again, we’re defining backstory as all of the background information a writer needs to communicate so that readers will understand a scene. This might include descriptions of settings, the characters’ past experiences, motives and psychology, and past events that are not shown on stage.

The problem we’re exploring is how a writer can convey all of the backstory without losing the reader’s interest in the immediacy of the drama.

Technique #5: Start a Scene Then Drop in Sections of Backstory

This is a technique that is often employed but not often discussed. As a reader, once you start noticing it, you’ll see it is used often.

Basically, the author starts a scene in the present, ideally with an emotional hook to engage the reader. Then after a few lines, the narrative skips back to reveal backstory. This is not a flashback, just bits of exposition sprinkled in, usually from the point of view of the character that we are following in the scene.

Essentially, the writer drops a scene in the reader’s lap, gets them involved, then steps back here and there to explain the backstory.

Example from Kim Stanley Robinson

Science fiction and Fantasy typically require the author to cover a lot of backstory—specifically, details about the world in which the story is set and how it differs from our world.

This example is from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, an epic, award-winning novel about the colonization of the Mars. The scene takes place on one of the first colony ships, right after launching. One hundred carefully-selected colonists are celebrating.

In Torus D’s dining hall, they mingled in a kind of cocktail party, celebrating the departure … Maya wandered about, sipping freely from a mug of champagne, feeling slightly unreal and extremely happy, a mix that reminded her of her wedding reception many years before. Hopefully, this marriage would go better than that one had, she thought, because this one was going to last forever … Maya turned down an offered refill, feeling giddy enough. Besides, this was work. She was co-mayor of this village, so to speak, responsible for group dynamics, which were bound to get complex. Antarctic habits kicked in even at this moment of triumph, and she listened and watched like an anthropologist, or a spy.

“The shrinks have their reasons. We’ll end up fifty happy couples.”

“And they already know the match-ups.”

She watched them laugh. Smart, healthy, supremely well-educated—was this the rational society at last, the scientifically-designed community that had been the dream of the Enlightenment? But there was Arkady, Nadia, Vlad, Ivana. She knew the Russian contingency too well have to have many illusions on that score. They were just as likely to end up resembling an undergraduate dorm at a technical university, occupied by bizarre pranks and lurid affairs. Except, they looked kind of old for that sort of thing …

Excerpt (c) 1992 by Kim Stanley Robinson

What Do We Learn Here?

This passage, part of a longer scene, drops us into the middle of the action. We’re in the viewpoint of the psychologist Maya, and each action and snippet of dialog is followed with her reflections— which provide much backstory about Maya, her colleagues, and the mission.

  • We learn about the colonists and how they were selected.
  • There are different international contingents, and we learn something of the character and behaviors of the Russian contingent in particular.
  • We learn Maya’s role, and her concerns about it. Notice the comparison to a wedding reception. This skillfully connects a context with which the reader is totally unfamiliar (a spaceship community) with something very familiar (a wedding party) which has common emotional associations.
  • We also find out that Maya’s marriage did not last, and that this group community has to last forever. For these folks, there is no coming back from Mars.
  • Finally, the comment about ‘the rational society dreamed of by the Enlightenment’ links this story of a future time with an earlier period of human history. This reflection on big-picture philosophical/historical ideas is something that quality science fiction can do in a way no other kind of fiction can.
Using This Technique

Using this method in your writing takes some practice. Begin by searching out good examples in writers whom you admire, and analyze them carefully.

Some tips:

  • Start the scene with an emotional hook. Engage the reader on the feeling level.
  • Be clear who the viewpoint character is. See the scene from their point of view and note their responses to each bit. As these responses arise, describe them and link them to the necessary backstory that the reader needs to appreciate what is going on.
  • Keep the chunks of backstory small.
  • Finish the backstory exposition no later than halfway through the scene. Then write the rest of the scene—like all of your scenes—to show conflict, action and resolution.
Your Turn

This concludes the series on conveying backstory in fiction. I would love to know what you think about this and previous posts.

Five Ways to Show Backstory:
4. Characters Tell Each Other

Returning from our mermaid adventure last month, we are back to talking about the craft of fiction.

In previous posts in this series, we’ve examined different ways that successful fiction writers present backstory while maintaining dramatic momentum.

We’re defining backstory as all of the background information a writer needs to communicate so that the reader will understand a scene. This might include descriptions of settings, the characters’ past experiences, motives and psychology, and past events that are not shown on stage.

Technique #4: Characters Tell Each Other the Backstory

We’re all familiar with scenes where a character learns some backstory by hearing it from another character. When done well, this is a seamless and effective way to convey information.

But you have to be careful. Done poorly, this technique can easily seem contrived, the dialogue ‘stagy.’ In science fiction writing, we are warned to avoid the “As we all know, Jim” syndrome. Never, never start a speech with “As we all know.” If we all know it, why are you saying it!?

Example: From Robert B. Parker

In this example from Parker’s , Death in Paradise, Jesse Stone is chief of police for a small town in Massachusetts. He’s investigating the murder of a teenage girl, and it’s led him to meet Lily, the principal of the high school. They’ve covered the details of the case, and now the conversation turns personal.

Lily crossed her legs the other way. Jesse waited.
“How did you go from shortstop to policeman, Jesse?” 

“My father was a cop,” Jesse said. “In Tucson. When I couldn’t play ball anymore, it seemed like the other thing that I might know how to do.”

“And how did you end up in Paradise?”

“I was a cop in L.A. I got fired for being a drunk. And my marriage broke up. And I figured I’d try to start over as far from L.A. as I could.”

“Are you still drinking?”

“Mostly not,” Jesse said.

“Was that why your marriage broke up?”

“No,” Jesse said. “It didn’t help the marriage, and the marriage didn’t help it. But there were other things.”

“There always are. Aren’t there?”

“You’ve been divorced?”

“Twice.”

Excerpt © 2001 by Robert B. Parker

What We Learn in this Scene

In just 130 words here we get a lot of backstory. We learn not only about Jesse’s history (which readers who have read this far know some of already), but also a bit of Lily’s.

In terms of story-craft, notice how the exposition comes up in a scene that is mainly about something else. Suddenly, it shifts gears and moves the characters’ personal stories along.

Also, it not only tells some of Jesse’s history, but it shows us how he sees himself and presents himself to others: world weary, straight and direct, brutally honest about himself. Significantly, the prose style mirrors these characteristics, and is also extremely easy to read.

Tips for Using This Technique

Again, to disclose backstory in dialogue, you need to be crafty:

  • First, make sure the character would realistically learn the information from the other character. (Avoid the “As we all know” pitfall.)
  • Secondly, present the dialogue in short chunks, not long speeches.
  • Finally, make the disclosure part of an emotionally-engaging scene. Your readers must feel for the characters or they won’t care about the backstory.
Up Next

Next time, we will wrap up this series by discussing the last of our Five Techniques, one that is frequently used but rarely discussed: Sprinkling Backstory into a Scene.

The Real Mermaids of Weeki Wachee

This month we’re talking a Blog break from discussing the art of the backstory. Instead, we’re visiting one of the most magical places in offbeat Florida, Weeki Wachee, home of the live mermaids.

Where it’s at

Weeki Wachee Springs, now a Florida State Park, is located on Highway 19, about an hour north of Tampa.

Entrance to the park. Photo copyright by Jack Massa.

Weeki Wachee is one of a large number of natural springs in Florida, and one of the deepest.  According to the park website, each day more than 117 million gallons of water gush out of the underground aquifer and form the source of the Weeki Wachee river, which flows 12 miles to empty into the Gulf of Mexico.

At the park, you can take a boat ride on the river, and you can also rent kayaks nearby.

View from the river cruise. Photo copyright 2018 by Jack Massa
History

The real attraction, of course, is the mermaids.

In all began in 1946 with a man named Newton Perry. Perry had trained Navy frogmen during World War II, and also invented a method of breathing underwater from a free-flowing air hose. At the time, the area was pretty much a wilderness and “the spring was full of old rusted refrigerators and abandoned cars.”

Newton Perry, having just helped save the world for democracy, decided that his next mission would be to clean up the natural springs and fill them with live mermaids. (Maybe there really is something to this greatest generation stuff!)

Perry recruited local young women who were good swimmers and trained them to use his breathing device, He also taught them to do water ballet, eat bananas, and drink soda underwater. And he trained them to cope with the very strong current and constantly chilly 74 degree temperature. He installed an 18-seat theater on the shore of the springs, with view windows under the surface.

Source: https://weekiwachee.com/about-us/history/

Newton’s mermaid attraction opened in 1947. In those days, traffic on Highway 19 was scarce. According to the legend, the mermaids would run out to the roadside in their bathing suits when they heard a car coming and beckon the drivers to come in and watch the show.

During the 1950s, Weeki Wachee grew in popularity, and more attractions were added. Celebrities visited, movies were filmed, TV commericals beckoned northerners to “come on down.”

Then, in 1959, the park was bought by media giant ABC (the American Broadcasting Company). More money and more tourists poured in. A new 400-seat theater was built. The Mermaids performed elaborate shows, including Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Snow White, and Peter Pan.

Souce: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7lmxhIKd2o

I remember seeing the TV ads as a kid in the early 1960s and dreaming of live mermaids. Then I watched a 1963 episode of the series , Route 66, called The Cruelest Sea. In this episode, our traveling heroes visit Weeki Wachee and meet a girl who might be a real mermaid. Or is she? You can watch the show on YouTube and decide for yourself.

Mermaids Today

Weeki Wachee became part of the Florida State Park system in 2008, and today the mermaids are still going strong.

Sitting in the theater and watching them is really fun and really magical.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jack Massa

So if you always thought mermaids are only a legend, now you know the truth.

Note: If you are planning to visit Weeki Wachee, the mermaids will NOT be performing November 26, 2018–March 15, 2019 due to scheduled renovations at the park.

Five Ways to Show Backstory: 3. Create a Scene where a Character Reflects

This is the fourth in a series of posts (beginning here) explaining five ways that successful fiction writers present backstory while maintaining dramatic momentum.

For our purposes, we’re defining backstory as all of the background information a writer needs to communicate so that the reader will understand a scene. This might include descriptions of settings, the characters’ past experiences, motives and psychology, and past events that are not shown on stage.

Technique #3: Create a Scene where a Character Reflects  on the Backstory

In real life, we all spend time thinking about our problems. Your characters can do the same.

In this method, the author writes a scene in which—rather than two or more characters interacting—a single character reflects. The scene might be written in first person (internal monologue) or third person, but it is an immediate scene. That is, we are present with the character, and the character takes some actions along the way. But the focus of the scene is on the character’s reflections: on where they are in the story, how they got here, what problems they face, what they might do about them.

This technique is a very efficient way to convey lots of backstory economically.

Example: from John Grisham

This passage is from Grisham’s best-selling crime thriller, The Client. Set in Chapter 2, the scene presents lots of backstory setting up the rest of the novel. We’re following a New Orleans criminal named Barry the Blade. Expecting to meet his lawyer (Jerome) for dinner, he’s just phoned the lawyer’s office and been told Jerome left the office at 9 AM and has not been seen since.

The Blade slammed the phone down and stormed through the hallway, then caught himself and began to strut as he neared the tables and the faces. The restaurant was beginning to fill. It was almost five.He just wanted a few drinks and then a nice dinner with his lawyer so they could talk about his mess. Just drinks and dinner, that’s all. The Feds were watching, and listening. Jerome was  paranoid, and just last week told Barry he thought they had wired his law office. So they would meet here and have a nice meal without worrying about eavesdroppers and bugging devices.

They needed to talk. Jerome Clifford had been defending prominent New Orleans thugs for fifteen years—gangsters, pushers, politicians—and his record was impressive. He was cunning and corrupt, completely willing to buy people who could be bought. He drank with the judges and slept with their girlfriends. He bribed cops and threatened the jurors. He schmoozed with the politicians and contributed when asked. Jerome knew what made the system tick, and when a sleazy defendant with money needed help in New Orleans, he invariably found his way to the law offices of W. Jerome Clifford…<

Barry’s case, however, was something different…

Excerpt © 1993 by John Grisham

What do we learn here?

The scene goes after on the above, but in just these 200 words we learn a lot.

We get a clear picture of Barry, conveyed both by how he acts in public and how he thinks. Notice in the first paragraph how he begins to “storm,” then catches himself and resumes his characteristic “strut.” He is emotional, but carefully controls what he shows to the world.

Notice also the rapid-fire summary of his thoughts in the second and third paragraphs. This conveys not only the information content of the backstory, but Barry’s emotional state in thinking about it.

The third paragraph is all about Jerome Clifford, and gives us a clear picture of him and his shady business dealings. While this might be characterized as an “info dump” it is kept interesting by the strong, direct writing. In that regard, note the colorful adjectives and action verbs: “cunning and corrupt”, “bribed”, “threatened”, “schmoozed.”

Tips for using this technique

To use this method in your fiction:

  1. Set up a scene where a character can think about their problems. This might be while taking a walk, working out, taking a shower, waiting for a bus—any situation where a person might spend time reflecting.
  2. Summarize the backstory from the character’s point of view. Why are they thinking about his? How will they be effected?
  3. Make it emotional. Why are they worried or tense about the situation? What’s the worst that could happen to them? (Bonus points: Can you raise the stakes and make it even worse?)
  4. Keep it short. Info dumps are only deleterious when they’re long. Then they interrupt narrative tension and cause readers to yawn. So break up the character’s reflections with present actions, keeping the reflective passages brief.

Again, this technique of building scenes where the characters are reflecting can be very effective in conveying a lot of backstory information in a short space.

Coming Next

Next time, we’ll look at the 4th of our 5 Ways to Show the Backstory, that tried and true technique where characters tell each other the backstory.

Five Ways to Show Backstory: 2. Using a Sequel Connecting Two Scenes

Following up on the previous two posts (see this post for the start), here is the second of five ways a writer can convey backstory while maintaining dramatic momentum.

Reminder: We’re defining backstory as all of the background information a writer needs to communicate so that the reader understands each scene. This information might include descriptions of settings, the characters’ past experiences, motives, and psychology, and past events that are not shown on stage.

2. Show the Backstory in a Sequel Connecting Two Scenes

This technique makes us of the Scene and Sequence model, which is frequently discussed in books on writing fiction and on screenwriting.

Scene and Sequel model, adapted from various sources

The basic idea is that a story is constructed of scenes and sequels, with rising tension as we go from beginning to end. In this model, a sequel shows a character’s response to the preceding scene and sets the stage for the next scene.

A sequel is also a great place to work in some backstory.

Example: From Jim Butcher’s Fool Moon

This example is from Fool Moon, the second of Jim Butcher’s famous Dresden Files urban fantasy novels. Harry Dresden is a private eye who also happens to be a wizard. He consults with the Chicago Police Department on supernatural cases. The following is part of the sequel to Chapter 1. In a bar, Dresden has met with Lieutenant Murphy, and she has asked him to come along to help investigate an unusual murder…

“Murphy declined to ride in the Blue Beetle, my old Volkswagen bug.

The Beetle wasn’t really blue, not anymore. One of the doors had been replaced with a green duplicate, the other one with white, when something with claws had shredded the originals. The hood had been slagged by fire, and my mechanic, Mike, had replaced it with the hood from a red vehicle. The important thing is that the Beetle runs, even if it doesn’t do it very fast, and I’m comfortable with the car. Mike has declared that the VW bug is the easiest car in the world to repair, and so that’s what I drive. He keeps it running eight or nine days in ten. That’s phenomenal.

Technology tends to foul up around wizards—flip on a light switch, and it’ll be the time the bulb burns out. Drive past a streetlight and it’ll pick just then to flicker and die. Whatever can go wrong will, automobiles included.

I didn’t think it made much sense for Murphy to risk her vehicle when she could have taken mine, but she said she’d take her chances.”
Excerpt (c)  2001 by Jim Butcher

What Backstory do we learn here?

On the surface, it seems simple. The main thing we learn is that Harry Dresden drives an old, beat up car. But this tells us several things about him:

  • In typical hard-boiled private eye fashion, he lives on the edge financially.
  • He’s not pretentious in the material sense. He doesn’t need a status symbol car to bolster his ego.
  • His car takes a beating from various monsters. He’s had some interesting cases.
  • And, he is nonchalant about dealings with these supernatural dangers.

We also learn that “Technology tends to foul up around wizards.” In Fantasy, the writer has to convey a lot of exposition, because the world is, at least to some degree, different from the everyday real world we all think we know and love. How does the magic work? What are its limitations, drawbacks, and consequences? This passage conveys some of this critical information while describing Harry’s car.

One thing more: We not only learn about Dresden’s character, but also Murphy’s—again, indirectly. We learn that, despite the hazards of exposure to a wizard, Murphy is “willing to take her chances” and use her own car. Why? Perhaps she not willing to be seen riding in a beat up old VW. But also—and we are shown this again and again about her character—Murphy is tough and wants to in charge. She wants to drive.

Principle

So, what looks at first glance like a simple bit of backstory about the character’s car, turns out to convey a lot of information.

This illustrates an important principle of good fiction: Everything in the story should be accomplishing several goals. Every passage does double or triple duty: moves the action forward, delineates character, perhaps describes the setting, or explains the background for what goes on.

The best-written stories are multi-layered in this way.

Up Next

Next time, we’ll look at the 3rd of our 5 Ways to Show the Backstory: Creating a Scene where a single character reflects.