Mining My Own Backstory

This past month, my essay on “The Importance of Backstory” appeared on Hasty Book List. I discuss why I’ve found it so helpful to dig deeply into my characters’ backstories (everything that happened to them prior to the beginning of the novel) before I work on plotting.

But what about my own backstory? Interestingly, my two older sisters are each working on nonfiction projects, a memoir and an autobiography. In all honesty, I’ve never wanted to pursue writing either. Maybe it’s because there are chapters of my life that I find incredibly painful to dwell upon.

And yet, as a fiction writer, I’m mining my own backstory all the time. It’s not that my characters’ experiences precisely mirror my own but pieces of things I’ve gone through have helped me write about my characters’ feelings during tough times.   

For example, I do remember what it was like in junior high to have one of my first boyfriends dump me in favor of my much more glamorous girlfriend. It hurt. A lot. In WHILE I DANCED, I was able to draw on those feelings in writing about Cass’s experience of discovering that her boyfriend and best friend have fallen in love.

A more ongoing challenge for me growing up was that my oldest sister was an academic superstar in our family where intellectual accomplishments were prized above all. My other sister and I were no sludges but it was clear that our gifts were not nearly as valued. Needless to say, it didn’t do wonders for our self-esteem. In IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN YOU, Clara feels more like an afterthought in her musical family in which her twin, a piano prodigy, garners all the attention. Having experienced what it felt like to be the less favored child helped me tap into Clara’s feelings of living in her sister’s shadow.             

My father had scripts laid out for his three daughters, and his script for me did not include pursuing my passion for dance. One of my most painful memories was his refusing to allow me to take dance classes or apply to a college with a dance major during my senior year of high school. In LEISHA’S SONG, Leisha has a similar problem. Her grandfather has an entire script laid out for her life and vehemently opposes her pursuing music. When she learns that he has pulled her out of a major vocal competition she’d spent months preparing for, she is incredibly angry and resentful. Again, my own experience helped me write about Leisha’s sense of betrayal and hurt.           

So, it’s clear that although I’m neither writing a memoir nor an autobiography, I too am digging into my life for material. Confronting my own past, especially the painful parts, has helped me become much more empathetic toward my fictional characters and create authentic stories.

And for that, I am very grateful.



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