THE JOY OF STORY
John M. Daniel’s Blog
April 23, 2016
Welcome. This is the spot for writers and readers of stories, where we discuss what makes stories work and play, as well as what makes them sink or stall. This week my essay is about back story, which is usually thought of as secondary to the forward movement of a story’s plot. I happen to think back story—when there is back story—is hardly secondary. After all, it came first. To illustrate what I have to say on this subject, I’ll refer to my novel Behind the Redwood Door, which is also the book I’m showing off this week.
I’m writing about Behind the Redwood Door this week for a number of reasons. First, to promote what I consider a highly entertaining and suspenseful, even meaningful, work of fiction. Second, because April is National Poetry Month, and the hero of my story is Guy Mallon, who is not a poet but a poetry collector and a former publisher and bookseller specializing in poetry. Behind the Redwood Door is the third and final volume of the Guy Mallon Mysteries, but it can stand alone and deliver. One reason the novel works well as a standalone is that it is strongly supported by a strong back story. I’ll say more about that in a minute.
First, here’s an announcement for all writers who enjoy writing super-compact fiction, complete stories of 99 words each.
For those who don’t already know it, every month I invite writers—any writers and all writers—to send me 99-word stories, which I then present on the second Saturday of the following month. Full details on this feature, including submission guidelines, appear at the end of this post.
Well, here it is, with only one week left until the end of April, and so far I’ve received only one story to post the second Saturday in May. It's a good story, but we really need more material to keep this feature alive and well. I’ve been wondering why response has been so slow this month, and I’ve come to a hunch that the prompt I assigned was uninspiring. I think everyone would agree that moments of epiphany are important turning points in a life; but I tried the exercise out, and I couldn’t come up with a story complete with conflict. And we all know a story without conflict is like a meal without food.
So I’ve added another prompt you may use instead, if it works for you. Either prompt is fine with me. You’ll find both prompts at the end of this post. Check them out and start writing!
Back Story Moves a Story Forward
Faulkner said, or is said to have said, “The past is not dead. It isn’t even past.” Back story is there for one reason: to explain the motives and actions of the characters who think and do things in the present plot. Hamlet makes his hesitant choices to clean up the mess that made something rotten in the state of Denmark before the first act of the play. The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is the result of generations of hatred between two families. Oedipus blinds himself when he finds out what he did in his younger days. Scrooge is forced to face his stingy nature when he revisits his past. Captain Ahab is chasing after revenge.
In each of these classic tales, and the countless novels and plays and movies inspired by them, things happen because of the things that have already happened. The narrator of “A Cask of Amontillado” says in his opening line, “…when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.” Revenge. Google it and you’ll find it’s in the top three in most lists of motives for murder. Back story rules, even when the details of what happened are not spelled out on the page.
My novel Behind the Redwood Door, is driven by back story, and it is spelled out on the page. Plenty happens in the “present,” but most of what happens up front has its origins in what happened back yonder in time. This is a novel about a feud between two families, the Websters and the Connollys, descendants of two men, Brian Connolly and Jonathan Webster. Brian and Jonathan were business partners, and they founded Jefferson City on a patch of wilderness on California’s rugged redwood coast, back in the 1860s. In time the crafty Brian and his brothers stole Jonathan’s half of the lumber business, and the Connollys took over Jefferson City and Jefferson County.
Now the only Connollys still living in Jefferson City are Seamus and his teenage son, Charles (Chunky). The only Websters left are Dorothy (aka River) and her teenage son, Freddy (nee Freedom). But the feud lives on, because Seamus and River are the publishers of the town’s rival newspapers. Their sons act like friends, but Chunky is a bully and Freddy is a victim. River’s lover, Pete, is stabbed to death behind a tavern, and River knows Seamus did it.
Well, Seamus didn’t do it, and is able to prove it. So who did? That’s up to Guy Mallon to figure out. Guy’s a gentle, short, retired publisher, who has promised his wife Carol to quit putting his life in danger by solving murder mysteries. There’s some back story there, too.
There’s also back story about how the Connollys stole the land from the native Steelhead Tribe. And a long-festering hatred between two brothers that brings this back-story-driven plot right up to the present action and into its white-knuckle climax.
No, the past isn’t dead. Back story isn’t secondary. This novel, Behind the Redwood Door, wouldn’t have gotten off the ground, had the ground not been so ripe with wrongs that needed to be made right.
BEHIND THE REDWOOD DOOR
A Guy Mallon Mystery
Trade paperback, $14.95
Who knows what secrets lurk… BEHIND THE REDWOOD DOOR?
Guy and Carol Mallon own a used bookstore on the north coast of California, a land of rocky shores and redwood forests, with a rich history of gold, lumber, Native Americans, and hardy entrepreneurs. They are content with their small-town life until Pete Thayer, their friend and the publisher of the local alternative newspaper, is stabbed to death behind their favorite tavern.
Urged on by Pete’s girlfriend, River Webster, Guy begins to poke around, uncovering a past festering with power politics, a newspaper war, a multigenerational family feud, marijuana traffic—and murder. Guy’s investigation takes him from the town square to the harbor to the forests and into the mountains, where he must confront evil in the form of a bully nearly twice his size.
“This novel, rich with history and small-town secrets, is peopled by swindlers and fishermen, Rotarians and dope-growers, prim Presbyterians and floozies, and a small but feisty, curious bookseller addicted to getting into trouble and other people’s business. Author John M. Daniel’s style is by turns witty and elegant, serving up fear and laughter in generous helpings. Behind the Redwood Door is a complex mystery with a colorful rustic background. The exciting story line will keep readers on the edge of their seats with wonder as they try to figure out who is the evil serpent is who is destroying paradise and why. John M. Daniel writes an enthralling whodunit within a vivid setting.”
—Genre Go Round Reviews
—Genre Go Round Reviews
Read more reviews of this book:
Buy or order Behind the Redwood Door from your local bookstore, from one of the online booksellers, or direct from the publisher: Oak Tree Press 217-825-4489
To order an autographed copy from the author, send a check for $15.00 to:
John M. Daniel, PO Box 2790, McKinleyville, CA 95519
or call 800-662-8351 to place a credit card order.
Calling all authors—
I feature a guest author the third Saturday (and week following) of each month. If you’re interested in posting an essay on my blog—it’s also a chance to promote a published book—email me directly at email@example.com.
Call for submissions: Your 99-Word Stories
The deadline for May’s 99-word story submissions is May 1. The stories will appear on my blog post for the week beginning Saturday, May 14.
note: this 99-word story feature is a game, not a contest. Obey the rules and I’ll include your story. I may edit the story to make it stronger, and it’s understood that you will submit to my editing willingly. That’s an unwritten rule.
Rules for the 99-word story feature are as follows:
1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot (something or somebody has to change), characters, and conflict.
4. The story must be inspired by the prompt I assign.
5. The deadline: the first of the month. Stories will appear on this blog the second Saturday of the month.
6. I will copy edit the story. The author of the story retains all rights.
7. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to: firstname.lastname@example.org
THIS MONTH’S PROMPT FOR NEXT MONTH’S 99-WORD STORY: Think of something you feel strongly about, an opinion that defines who you are—or who you are not—politically, spiritually, economically, professionally, or any other important way. Why is it important? When did this self-knowledge come to you, and how did it change your life? Show (don't tell) this in the context of a story. Hint: if you don’t want to share the details of your own life, write fiction.
or be inspired by this alternate prompt for May:
“That gravy boat belonged to my great-grandmother.”
or: “That gravy boat belonged to your great-grandmother.”
Adios, amigos. Till next time. Meanwhile listen to your own back stories. Lots of material there, I'm sure.