Thursday, June 12, 2008

Guest Blogger ~ Terry Odell

Happy Summer All. Grab those special books you love to escape with, and head out to the pool or to your backyard lounging chair, and indulge your reader's appetite. Terry Odell's romantic suspense novels are a perfect fit for summer. Her clear descriptive writing style will carry you away effortlessly into a story packed with hang-onto-your-teeth twists and turns. But, most importantly, ends with the triumph of love.
For all of us authors and aspiring authors Terry discusses a topic that is vitally important to a successful novel, how to use backstory. What does your reader need and want to know about the main characters? How much is too much? And when is there too little backstory?
Welcome Terry, thanks for joining us today. And thanks for all of your insightful comments on Title Magic.

When Savanna invited me to guest on Title Magic, I was thrilled. Then I panicked. What could I possibly add that hasn't been done before (and probably better)? What to blog about? She suggested a craft topic. Not a specific topic, mind you, just "some kind of how to" column. She also said to be sure to include cover art. Since I can't possibly play favorites with my 'babies', I sent her to my website and begged her to pick a cover she liked. She selected Starting Over, so that's my jumping off point.
After typing "The End" on my first novel, Finding Sarah, I went through a period of post-partum depression. Eventually, I came out of my funk and it was time to start over. I created a folder in my computer, named it "Starting Over" and plunged in, literally 'starting over' to write another book. Colleen McDonald, one of the secondary characters in Finding Sarah demanded her own story.
Which leads me to the real topic, which is back story, and where to start the book. Now, where to start the book is not the same as where to start the story. (See, everything up to this point has been back story, and the post might be better off if I'd omitted it, but I figured show, don't tell, right?)
When I wrote Finding Sarah, I didn't know a lot about Colleen McDonald because I didn't have to. I created enough of a past for her so she could deliver her lines properly, but not much more. For her book, though, I needed to get inside her head—find out everything about her. And because I was feeling guilty for bugging my sister-in-law for all the details about Oregon, where Finding Sarah was set, I decided my cop, Colleen, would move to Orlando, to a neighborhood where all I had to do was look out my window. But why would she move? And thus, the back story began.
The first draft of Starting Over began with Colleen in Pine Hills, Oregon, relating (at great length) the after-effects of the "inciting incident", a domestic call gone south. From there, we followed Colleen to Orlando, where I showed in great detail my familiarity with the airport and what it's like to travel to my town. Then we watched her explore her new home (establish setting), with a few demonstrations that she still didn't have her act together (her inner conflict), a call to her mother (dutiful daughter), and on and on.
This was all very necessary information. But I was the only one who needed it. For the reader, it was one big, long … "all right, but where's the STORY?" So, the opening Oregon scene was written as a prologue and cut to two pages. Content of the first eight chapters became condensed into three.
The result? Chapter One's opening, as published:
In the steamy cocoon of the shower, Colleen’s fingers found the dimpled scar the bullet had left on her thigh and the long, straight one where they’d repaired her femoral artery. She knew they were no longer a garish red, but she refused to look at them. Thankfully, the exit wound on the back of her leg was out of sight unless she really worked at seeing it. The ugly reminders that screamed "failure" remained, long after the physical pain had gone.
She watched the sudsy water swirl down the drain, willing it to take her memories along.
Get a grip. It’s over. Forget Pine Hills. You made your choice, so get on with your life.
She declared yesterday a do-over. Hell, as long as she was changing the rules of time, the last three months never happened. But then, she’d still be a cop in Pine Hills, Oregon, instead of a basket case in Orlando, Florida.
Consider back story as cocktail party conversation, especially in the opening chapters. When you meet someone new, do you pour out your entire life, how you broke your arm ice skating when you were six, so you're afraid of winter; or how your brother's an alcoholic, so you only drink club soda; or that your cleaning lady broke your favorite platter which you inherited from Great Aunt Matilda who had a big mole on her chin, with three hairs sprouting out of it and smelled like rosewater so you can't abide the scent of roses? If you answered 'yes', do you watch your new acquaintance's eyes glaze over?
Look at the Indiana Jones movies. We knew in the opening gambit of Raiders of the Lost Ark that Indy was afraid of snakes. This was good foreshadowing, because of course, there had to be a scene where he would confront the slithery rascals. But … wasn't it movie number three before we learned why he was afraid of snakes? Did not knowing in any way diminish the enjoyment of movie number one? When he freaked at the snake in the plane, did anyone want the movie to go back and show why he was afraid? I doubt it. Likewise the scar on his chin. You might have wondered how he got it, but did it impact the story if you knew or didn't know?
In reality, the opening of the third movie was all back story, but it worked because it wasn't the true beginning of the series. It laid foundation for Indy's character, but by now, everyone loved him and was happy to learn more about his childhood. And there was that feeling of being an "insider" because we knew what would happen years later. Although this was the movie's opening, it was really more like chapter twenty in a full-length novel.
Think of back story as an IV drip, not forced gastric tube feeding. Before you write a scene, ask yourself: 1) Does the reader need to know this? And 2) Does the reader need to know this now? This is, of course, after you've decided that the scene addresses sufficient plot points to advance the story, which is another topic altogether.
Your characters have pasts, which helped make them who they are on page one. Just don't feel obligated to tell the reader every single detail. Let the characters discover each other as the relationship develops.
And, as a follow up, there's another kind of back story. If you've got connected books, how much of Book One do you re-tell in Book Two? On the one hand, it's fun to give returning readers that 'insider' moment when they know who the characters are, and what's happened before. On the other hand, you risk pulling readers out of the story if you stop to explain who everyone is, and how they got to where they are. But that's a topic for another day.
Available from Terry Odell:
Finding Sarah (digital and print) – 2nd Place: The Lories, Published, Romantic Suspense
What's in a Name? (digital and print) – Finalist: Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence;
The Daphne du Maurier Award of Excellence
Starting Over (digital)
Hidden Fire (digital)
Get some behind the scenes peeks at the writing process on my website,
Details, first chapter reads and buy links at
And check out my romance short stories (digital) with
The Wild Rose Press.
Terry Odell was born in Los Angeles and now makes her home in central Florida. An avid reader (her parents tell everyone they had to move from their first home because she finished the local library), she always wanted to "fix" stories so the characters did what she wanted, in books, television and the movies. Once she began writing, she found this wasn't always possible, as evidenced when the mystery she intended to write rapidly became a romance. With her degree in Psychology from UCLA, she loves getting into the minds of her characters. When she's not writing, she's reading. She also volunteers for the Adult Literacy League, training new tutors, and spent ten years as the administrative assistant for a scientific organization devoted to the study of marine mammals.
Prior to publication, her manuscripts won several awards, including the Suzannah, the Gotcha, and the IGO. Her published romantic suspense novel, What's in a Name? was a finalist in the 2008 Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence contest and also is a finalist in the prestigious Daphne du Maurier Award contest. Finding Sarah is a second place winner in The Lories, Published Romantic Suspense division.
Terry lives in Orlando, where you can probably find her reading when she's not creating new dilemmas for her characters. Look for her newest book, When Danger Calls, from Five Star Expressions in December. Drop by her website,, or her blog,


Terry Odell said...

Thanks for having me, Savannah and all the TM gang. The post is timely for me, too, as I just sliced two chapters out of my WIP as unnecessary back story!

If anyone has questions or comments, I'll be around to answer.

Neil Plakcy said...

Very interesting, Terry. I think we all have to go through this sort of thing when we start working with new characters-- we have to tell the story to ourselves first, then figure out just what the reader needs to know.

Terry Odell said...

Thanks for dropping by, Neil. Knowing what belongs on the page and what needs to stay on the hard drive is one of those "tricks of the trade". And there's no easy way to learn it. Brutal crit parnters can help!

Nancy said...

Hi Title Magic friends, and darlin' Terry!

Great post about backstory, Terry! You're so right about knowing your characters, sometimes by writing material that you end up tossing or condensing. And the continuing character books? Absolutely, we need to give enough background to acquaint or reacquaint readers with the players without overdoing it.

Congratulations on your awesome successes, and a toast to many more!

Nancy Haddock
La Vida Vampire

Theresa Ragan said...

Great blog, Terry. Love the scene from your book, too! You did a great job of explaining why we don't need to know all that stuff up front...although I am one of those people who probably wanted to know why Indiana Jones didn't like snakes right from the was much better to find out later. :)


Susan Shay said...

Great blog, Terry. It's one of those articles that should be saved for writing groups everywhere.
How do I get permission to copy it for our chapter newsletter?

Terry Odell said...

I'm glad my post is helpful. I don't think there's any 'easy' way to learn this. I admire those who can do all this in their heads, or in simple outlines. (Those would be plotters, I'll bet!) Me, I have to write it and see.

Susan - email me (contact email is on my website

Katie Reus said...

Great blog Terry! I like to do that too, write too much backstory which inevitably gets cut and snipped by my wonderful editor :)

Terry Odell said...

Hi, Katie --
I'm always trying to give my editors as little work to do as possible, so I try to be ruthless before they see it. And somehow, it seems to hurt less when I cut it rather than see them doing it.

Elaine Viets said...

Good blog, Terry, and important issues for novelists with series. I can't tell you how many I've read where I can spot the "stock explanation" that's dropped early on in Chapter 1 or 2. Keeping the explanation for the back story fresh is hard work.
Elaine Viets

Terry Odell said...

Elaine -
Thanks SO much for dropping by and for your kind words.

I agree, there are books where you know you can just skim through the back story parts, and others where it seems new, fresh and different and you hang on every word.

I sweat trying to make it the latter, and I don't have that many connected/series books yet.

Mel Hiers said...

Heya, Terry! What a great post!

I'm struggling with the "how much of book 1 to put in book 2" thing. It's kind of tough to find a balance!

Savanna Kougar said...

Terry, thanks so much for blogging with us today. Your blog is outstanding and I especially love the section from your book. I alwasy appreciate learning from other authors. Yes, anything to make less work for the editors! I agree.

Hi all, so great to see everyone here, and to learn from your comments.

An apology to Terry. Blogger doesn't cooperate on paragraph breaks sometimes, so blame it on the cybernetics, not on Terry's blog crafting skill.

Savanna Kougar said...

Oops, I forgot to mention I have to do the shopping thing today. So, I'll check back in later.

Terry Odell said...

Mel, I feel your pain. As an anal reader, I don't like knowing much about what came before. As a matter of fact, I'll usually stop reading and go back to book 1 if I find out I'm not at the beginning of a series.

Writing sequels/connected series is something that flows out of the basic back story issue. (And I've done columns on that, too!)

It's tough to find the balance so you don't bore one set of readers while you're confusing another set.

Savannah - Blogger can be a trial sometimes. But thanks for posting, with our without paragraph breaks.

elliott610 said...

I like to develope my characters slowly over time. keep the character development in line with the flow of the narrative.

Evonne Wareham said...

A great topic for the blog. As you say - the author needs to know what went before, but the reader doesn't always. Although leading crime writer Elizabeth George got a whole book out of 'What Came Before He Shot Her.' And it was facinating to see the other side of the same story. The moral may be - never throw anything away.

jean hart stewart said...

Very interesting, Terry. I too do a lot of backstory before I start. I think when I started doing so was when I got published. I know my guys pretty well before I start to write. I think it's absolutely necessary

Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

Hi Terry! I'm so glad you blogged with us today so I could learn more about you and your books. I agree on the backstory--I know a lot about my characters but most of it never ends up in the story. I think it's important to really get in their head so you can write them in emotional detail, as your excerpt shows.

jeanhartstewart said...

Very interesting, Terry. I do a lot of backstory before I start. I think when I started doing so was when I got published. I know my guys pretty well before I start to write.

Magnolia said...

Great chapter opening for your story. Loved the basket case in Florida part LOL.


Terry Odell said...

Evonne: Agreed -- I have a folder called "cuts" for every manuscript. And every day I do a 'save as' with the day's date so if I cut stuff, it'll still be in the previous day's version.

Elliott/Bill, Jean, Anitra -- definitely. IV drip for the reader.

Magnolia -- Thanks. Hope you check out my website and my own blog.

And -- just because --- anyone who's interested in seeing the 'way back when' scene I wrote about Colleen's arrival in Orlando -- that back story that did nothing but show off what I know about the area -- let me know. Maybe I'll send it to one lucky commenter as a "don't do this" example of info dumping back story.

What do you think? Any takers? Only 'rule' -- no judging my writing of today based on the excerpt, which I wrote in 2003, I think. I've come a long way (I hope!)

Toni Anderson said...

Great post, Terry :)

Liz Falkner said...

Interesting post, Terry. I wrestle with this because I'm always wondering if the reader can identify with the characters as is or do I need to add more.

Thanks for giving us a peek into how you handle the process.

Lynnsplanet said...

Hi Terry,

I totally agree - give the editor little to do and you're helping yourself. They love to see growth in your writing, but from my perspective, it allows me more time to go back through and give it a bit more umph in areas where time has allowed me to see it was needed.


Trish Milburn said...

Hey, Terry! Fancy seeing you here. :) We're following each other around Blogland.

I like your analogies of backstory as cocktail conversation and an IV drip. I think that's one of the main things that new writers struggle with -- the balance of backstory.

Terry Odell said...

Liz - I think readers are patient. As long as you feed them little tidbits, offer interesting glimpses, they don't need to know the life history of the character.

And another issue is staying true to POV. Would your character REALLY be thinking about all that stuff in the circumstances. If it's author intrusion just to feed in back story, CUT IT!

Terry Odell said...

Right you are, Bekki. Editors are busy enough these days, and the less you give them to deal with, the better. I'd rather mine spend their energy making sure my characters didn't eat dinner twice in the same day, or open doors they never closed to begin with.

And with publishing being what it is, if your submitting, the story needs to be paced properly or it'll probably never get accepted. Too much back story slows the pace

Terry Odell said...

Hi yourself, Trish. Small world, I guess! I have to admit I heard the analogies at my first writer's conference, so I can't take full credit for thinking them up myself. However, I've also heard them more than once, so I think they're valid enough, even if I didn't coin them.

Savanna Kougar said...

Hey Terri, and everyone, finally got back from shopping. What a fantastic conversation. And I'm learning. as I go, from all of you.

Helen Scott Taylor said...

Hi Terry,

Thanks for being here with us on Title Magic. Great blog. I'm doing the follow on book thing for the first time at the moment and working out how much of the first story I need to rehash to make this book understandable. Hopefully, I'll work it out in revisions!

Holli Bertram said...


Thanks for the great blog. Good info to remember. The opening scene is Starting Over really grabs the reader!

Terry Odell said...

Thanks, Helen

Good luck with your connected books. It's especially tough if you don't have a 2 or 3 book contract, so you don't know if book 2 will be picked up.

Terry Odell said...

Holly, I'm glad you liked it That scene is a LOT better than my original back-story heavy one.

edipet2003 said...

A long, long time ago someone who's probably dead by now said to us in class: "There are two things a writer needs to write his book. A story - and a backstory. That's it."

Over the years I've learned that you need to not just work out but almost "live through" both -- you story and your backstory. You start writing your story, all the time on a lookout for "just the right place" to slip in bits of your characters' backstory.

You picked an excellent example there, Terry. The character is taking a shower - a perfectly natural place for her to "examine" her wound and divulge bit of her personal backstory with it.

It's what I find the hardest to do when zipping along in my story - slow down and find places where to introduce backstory such that it is natural and perfectly fitting to do so - best wishes, Terry and good luck with your writing. By the way, my first romantic suspense (contemporary/fantasy) is coming out with Cerridwen this July 8 so I was happy to see a fellow Cerridwen author. Edita

Terry Odell said...

Thanks for stopping by, and
congrats on your upcoming Cerridwen release, Edita. I'll have to check it out for sure. Sounds like you're doing some good gender-blending.

Savanna Kougar said...

Edita, congrats on your release with Cerridwen. That is so exciting.

jj said...

Excellent blog, Terry. We all need starting over points at some time in our lives.

Mai Christy Thao said...

Hi Terry,

I'm a little late posting, so please excuse the tardiness. Great post on characterization and backstory!

I've often heard that for most writers, the first draft is the get-it-out-of-your-system/backstory/getting-to-know-your-characters draft. It's the second draft that really shapes up the story. That's why a lot of writers caution to not edit on the first draft and just get your story down on paper.

Neil put it correctly: we have to tell the story to ourselves first, then figure out what the reader needs to know.

Again, great post and thanks for stopping by TM!!

edipet2003 said...

Thank you, Savanna - just wanted to say that I'm kind of numb about the new release right now because (I don't know how it was for Terry and I hope she had it easier) Carole Genz of Ellora's/Cerridwen is a very, very, very and I mean very tough editor. There were times in the editing process when I honestly didn't believe the book would EVER get OUT of the editorial process. And then Carole assured me that she was just aiming to strenghten what she said was already a strong eyes kind of crossed when I heard that - Sigh - and a smile - thanks again. Edita.

Terry Odell said...

Thanks for your comments, Mai. Once a writer knows that words on the page aren't precious and isn't afraid to cut, it's easier to deal with edits. I tend to be ruthless with the early chapters where I tend to dump in too much character back story, and once I get into the 'real' story, things move quickly. Or at least more quickly.

Terry Odell said...

Edita, I think it's really great (painful as it may seem) to have a tough editor. After all, once you're at that point, you know you've got a book. And help making it the BEST book is golden. Count your blessings for someone who cares that much and isn't just interested in getting the book out the door.

Lexie O'Neill said...

So sorry to be a latecomer! Thank you for the great post!
This is something I'm really working on right now--I think my tendency is to write more straight fantasy than romance and there is a lot more back story in those books. If you think of Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit is one big back story. Maybe.
Or maybe it depends on whose story you're telling as to what is back story and what is story. Lots to ponder,

Terry Odell said...

Lexie -
Hey, glad you made it. Being "late" only extends the fun I'm having.

Yes, back story IS part of the story. The question is always, "How much of it belongs in the BOOk?" And then, of course, how to get it in. And when. I cut two whole chapters in my current draft WIP. Of course, I'm still at the beginning of the book, and the characters and I are feeling our ways around.

But just because I cut these chapters doesn't mean I'm going to cut the plot points -- just find another way to dribble them in.

(That's another lesson -- making sure scenes have enough reasons to be on the page)

Lisa Logan said...

Excellent topic,Terry! When we get utterly intrigued with our characters it's hard to resist all the insight of backstory. As authors, we absolutely need to now such things...but readers don't need to know as much as we do.

I'm also not a wild fan of backstory up front (though ironically, both my current releases have a prologue of sorts). I prefer to see tidbits dropped here and there throughout the story, little bread crumbs that reveal the plot and character motivations more gradually. Better than an info dump in the first chapter to "get me up to speed."