Writing Back-Stories

This isn’t about NaNo, but it could be. This is about preparing any story for the first draft, and a little technique that I like to use for pre-draft fodder.

In Finish the Damn Book, I gave a bunch of information on brainstorming, and I think I hinted at this quite a bit, but I didn’t really harp on it. Ideally, my little motivation book would be for those who are ready to start keying, or getting stuck with various blocks.

I’m talking about the story before the story actually happens. The character, the plot, the world-building, and all the little nitty-gritty details that never manage to find their way into the finished novel.

You’re Constructing a Whole World

One thing that is often a hot topic when talking to my non-writing friends: I mention something that I left out of a story intentionally. Like an iceberg, what you see in a story is typically about 10% of the stuff that the author actually dreamed up. At least, for me, and I’ll wager that other authors feel the same way. When I create a story, it’s often necessary to work out these little details without ever telling the reader.


When I come up with spaceship ideas for my stories (even if you haven’t seen those stories yet, wink), I calculate everything. I figure out the fuel source, the engine construction, fuel weight, dry weight, skin materials, window materials, life support systems, etc. I actually calculate delta-v and decide how long it will take the ship or rocket to get where it needs to go. This isn’t easy, especially when we are talking about future tech, and trying to stay realistic about what might be possible. I don’t cop out and jump 500 years in the future so that I won’t have to worry about it, most of the time. I want to know what my ships are using for fuel, and what kind of supplementary technology needs to be available to make such a ship possible. My NaNo novel has specially designed battery tech. In Endeavor, I scaled down a nuclear reactor that, while feasible, can only really exist in the geo-political climate of the story. For Viral Spark (releases Dec 14th woot woot!) I have pages and pages of unused theory on adaptive surfaces, side-stories, boring shorts about this person or that person in the story, I even have stories about the space station of the time period, which cameos as a glint in the sky during an early chapter. The point is, there’s a LOT that I don’t include in my books.

My friends ask why, and I have to explain how none of that stuff was really essential to make the plot work, but I need to have things in the background make sense together. Why bother writing it? Well, that tunnels toward today’s point.

Drafting Blocks and Research

One thing that I hate while drafting a novel is getting hung up on some mundane point that allows me to procrastinate for hours while researching. (I’m talking actual researching here, not “researching” what I’m going to eat for dinner, or how the laundry is doing) It’s a huge time waster, and it sucks me write out of storytelling mode. The more of that garbage I can work out ahead of time, the better.

Yesterday, I wrote almost 4000 words of story about my new main character. Specifically, about her late teenage years, which aren’t in the scope of the planned novel. This allowed me to see who she is, how she handles different situations, and also play with some of the tech in the story. My short about her is in the first person, revealing her thought process. It’s her, raw and unfiltered.

There’s a whole Martian city in the story that won’t appear in the book, and I spent some time there solely to take a peak into this new universe that I’m crafting. I examined the cryptocurrency that is used widely in the story (blockchain for life!). I tinkered with vehicle tech, which will be important on Earth as well. I established her bond with her parents (she’s a daddy’s girl) and brought out several of her personal ticks. Now, when I start writing about Keesha for my first draft, she won’t be a name on a piece of paper. She’s three-dimensional. I know her better. I know how she’ll react to different things, I won’t have to think about it. I plan on doing the same for every major character in the planned novel this month.

I’ve also done all of the research on my new battery tech, which is fucking amazing, plausible, and has a bi-product that will help with the plot. The engine tech on the spacecraft equally so. It’s an ion type drive that accelerates xenon way beyond the current available technology, but it doesn’t violate the laws of physics. Because I care about shit like that.

As if you needed another reason:

Writing all of this back-story before you start working on your first draft takes a bunch of the burden off your shoulders. The story flows easier. You can actually see your characters in your mind, and there’s less time lost to research.

You can also write these little mini-stories about your characters or world while you are drafting the novel. If you get stuck wondering what your character will do next, flash back (on another document) to a point in your character’s history that addresses the issue, or just noodle on for a while about something they did as a kid, or a favorite hobby of theirs. Characters on the page are only 10% of what we dream up about them, and I think that’s the way it should be.

Happy storying, and if you have any favorite pre-draft ideas, please share them in a comment. I love comments.

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Author: spottedgeckgo

Writer. Making my living on my pen, and working to turn a raw chunk of land into a future homestead.

3 thoughts

  1. Good advice, as always. I’ve been poking around at this kind of stuff on and off and it really helps make the story more solid. Just a few weeks ago, I sat down to draw out an apartment layout of an apartment in Intervention that will only be in the story for a few sentences but it helped me focus what the narrative should be right at that point.

  2. Good advice. I like doing backstory by writing scenes, plunging my character into different places and times with different characters just to see how they handle themselves and how they think.

    (Sorry to be late in reading … battling a bad case of strep)

    1. Oh man. Good luck with the strep. That’s a monster, and I think it’s going around with the school kids down here.
      That sounds like my strategy. I like looking at their adolescent years to bring out subtle character traits. I also like writing about the antagonist in the same way, and really getting their goals down solid.

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