Well, no one did backstory like Tolkien. If memory serves, he began constructing Middle-earth around 1919, and The Lord of the Ring wasn't published until the mid-50s. So, before he started thinking about writing LOTR, he already had several books worth of stories to populate the landscape, several languages, and much, much more. You could say that he had an unfair advantage, because all he was ever interested in from the beginning was backstory. When The Hobbit became a great success for him, he agreed to a sequel and decided to set it in Middle-earth, created LOTR, and we're all the better for it.
This was good reading for me to do because it is exactly what I'm doing right now, and what better reminder of how it should be done than to read the guy who did it best?
In The Council of Elrond--Chapter 2, Book 2 of The Fellowship of the Ring--humans, dwarves, elves, and Hobbits are sharing tales of their recent encounters with darkness (Sauron's ever-reaching hand), and that's all that happens. Nobody interacts with anyone else. Very little attention is paid to emotional reactions. It's essentially all dialogue. And yet I vividly remember when I first came across that chapter, that I was absolutely mesmerized. It's not easy to have nearly 30 pages in a novel be 100% dialogue/backstory and still engage the reader. Virtually nothing happens in this chapter to move the story forward; quite the opposite! The story has completely stopped. Yet I read as if spellbound.
So today when I get ready to continue with my backstory, I'll keep Tolkien in the back of my mind. The lesson to be learned is that backstory requires authenticity, and needs to be intoxicating. I'll never recreate what Tolkien has done, and won't even try. I'd sooner lose an arm than be accused of being a Tolkien imitator. But in a sense, it can't be helped. Tolkien created the template for this type of fiction, and while all good writers have later taken that template and shaped it to make it their own, more often than not the template is recognizable in their writings. (Imagine how noticeable it is in the bad writers...painful. Just painful.)
One more thing I'd like to share before I start writing.
Deanna Raybourn, author of Silent in the Grave, sent out this final week's "pep talk". She's a favorite of mine (well, I've only read one book, and am reading her second in the form of an ARC right now--which is ironic), and someone who I knew from reading her website had experienced many rejections. For those of you who enjoy late 19th century mystery novels, you'll do well to check her out. Silent in the Grave has the best opening salvo I've seen in a long time. Here's the opening line:
To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching on the floor.Anyway, here's the first paragraph of her pep talk. It paints as accurate a picture of my own difficulties with writing as could be. Interesting to note that these difficulties are shared by virtually all writers. It's nice, encouraging, and inspirational to know that.
By now, NaNoWriMo has taught you that writing is not for the faint of heart. You must be stalwart and brave, like pioneers of old, unafraid of uncharted lands or crossing vast frontiers. It was exciting at first, wasn’t it? Preparing for the journey, stocking supplies, counting down the days until the start of the great undertaking. That enthusiasm would have carried you through the first weeks, and even the pitfalls along the way might have seemed like thrilling opportunities for adventure. But now you have come to the bleak no-man’s land just before the last great push to the end. It is barren and empty and it seems as if no one has ever passed this way. Except for every other writer who has come before you. This place lurks along the journey of each book for all of us. Here we hate our characters, our plot is mundane, and our prose is as flat and unlovely as the landscape. Be watchful; it’s dangerous, this place. I have heard of writers who lacked courage and who turned back to safety, never to return. They simply stopped being writers because they could not find their way across this nothingness. That is not an option for me, and I don’t believe it is an option for you. You have come too far, weary travelers! And there is a way across, I promise.Now, I'm off to write. Thanks for following along, if you've made it this far!