Backstory: How Robin Brande’s DOGGIRL Got Me Thinking

I’ve talked plenty about backstory here, including this recent post. The thing to remember is that, while we don’t want to put a ton of unnecessary backstory in our manuscripts, we still need to know and understand what that backstory is.

Especially the backstory for our heroes.

Backstory in my YA historical has been a particular challenge, because I’m working hard to show (NOT tell!) the impact Caro’s mother has on her (Caro’s) present life. Bad things happened to her mother, bad things contributed to the person she is, to the mother she is…and that’s a big part of what Caro is fighting against. One of the things I’ve been trying to figure out is how much of her mother’s backstory Caro actually knows, at the beginning of the story, and what she has to find out along the way. I’ve been hunting for the right place to have the “reveal” happen–if there is to be one. And, along the way, there’s been another, different backstory idea poking at me, trying to get me to listen.

And then I read Robin Brande’s Doggirl.

I’ve read and loved both of Robin’s previous books—Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature and Fat Cat. Doggirl did not disappoint. It’s a wonderful story about Riley Case, a girl who has always felt more comfortable around animals (particularly dogs) than she does around people. Riley’s dream is to train dogs for the movies, and she gets a chance to put those dreams into action when the school’s theater group needs a dog trainer (“Must provide OWN DOG”).

The story is wonderfully written. The theater group is participating in the annual Thirteen-Day-Theater Trash, a crazy-making whirlwind of writing, directing, and acting in a play, the performance of which must be filmed and submitted for competition. The drama kids are wonderful, from the wonderfully bossy director to the fantastic costume “department” of one. Quirkiness rules, and Riley struggles with finding a place where she finally fits in and needing to back away from that place before it turns into another disaster.

There’s the backstory. No spoilers, but something happened to Riley, something to do with her connection with animals and the cruelty that humans can be. Something bad enough that her parents chose to uproot the whole family and move them to a new place, giving Riley a fresh start. In other words–and here’s the part that got me thinking–the backstory, the truly important backstory of Doggirl belongs to Riley.

Not to her mother.

Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!

Yes, when you’re in a puzzle about your own book, sometimes you do start seeing solutions everywhere. But, honestly, I think there’s something here to help me learn and to help me perhaps make my own book stronger. Brande does an absolutely wonderful job of trickling the backstory in, giving us just enough information that we are never confused and wandering about whatever it was that did happen, but tantalizing us enough to create that little anxiety in our stomachs: What did happen? How bad was it? Will Riley be able to take this fresh start and move forward, after all the pain from that other…thing?

Brande makes us care. Yes, definitely from her skill, but also because–it’s about Riley. Riley is the one who was hurt in the past. Riley is the one that has made some choices about how she’s going to live from now on. Riley is the one who’s being pushed to reconsider those choices. Riley is the one who risks more pain.

Sure, Riley’s parents are affected. They’re kind, supportive, and real. They hurt for their daughter in the past, they made a strong, active choice about how to help her, and they worry about how she’s doing now.

But the pain, the struggle, the choices—they’re Riley’s.

Now I’m not saying that doing it the other way–having a story in which someone else’s painful history seriously impacts the hero–can’t work. I’ve read books in which that happens, and I’ve seen that choice work beautifully.

But…

That other backstory idea that’s been hanging around my WIP? That one that’s been doing a “Hermoine”–jumping up and down, waving its hand, trying desperately to get my attention?

It’s Caro’s.

Yes, it’s tied to her mother’s history. It involves her mother, in a big way. But it specifically, directly, and harshly hit Caro.

Now don’t think I’ve found an immediate, clean, easy solution to my own struggle with how to deal with this backstory. In some ways, it’s gotten more complicated, because it’s bringing up more questions about how much Caro knows, when she found out about it, what choices she is making now…and why. But there’s a glimmer that’s coming along with all that complication–and that’s the feeling that I may have found something stronger, something that…yes, will make my reader care.

Here’s hoping.

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9 thoughts on “Backstory: How Robin Brande’s DOGGIRL Got Me Thinking

  1. Obviously you are on to something. At first I just resist this sort of drastic rewrite. At least if it does turn out to be drastic. I want a quick fix. But then, when I get into it – oh wow the story starts breathing again.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Well, I’ll make a call somewhere in revision and write with it in mind, but I don’t think I’ll do the big changes until the next draft…either way. Yeah, I think the idea IS making the story come back alive. Caro, too.

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  2. Becky, I love this post. Not because you said such nice things about DOGGIRL–although, of course, I appreciate that!–but because I always love to see another writer’s internal process as he or she figures out how to tell a particular story.

    This analysis of your thought process is so interesting! Really, I geek out at this sort of behind-the-scenes look at creativity. So thank you for sharing!

    And thanks again for your kind words about my book. I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Best of luck with your own work–sounds like you’re on the right road.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Robin, most of my “reviews” tend to be this way. If I JUST love a book, I can’t ever find much more to say about it than a lot of dramatic adjectives. But when it hits me as a writer, showing me something about the craft and how that might apply to one of my stories, then this stuff pours out. So thanks for getting the juices going!

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      • beckylevine says:

        Oh…and I think this is what I thought grad school would be like–talking about HOW the author got his story across, not just the meaning behind the story (or even outside the story!) Probably why I left a lot sooner than I’d planned. 🙂

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    • Robin: Haven’t seen DOGGIRL yet, but will definitely read it now to see how you handle the back story problems, and of course, who doesn’t love a good dog story? Am seriously thinking of publishing my family’s animal stories myself, but that will come later.

      When I read that you love to read behind the scenes of the creative writing process, I thought you might like to take a look at my blog, http://www.awritersconundrums.wordpress.com, as that is exactly what I do also. I just got it up and haven’t worked out the bugs yet, so please forgive the confusion; I’m much better at writing than I’ll ever be at decorating!

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  3. Becky: Isn’t it fun?!! And so satisfying. And frustrating. And…
    I have not one, but four, and kind of five, back stories to explain without simply doing an information dump. Yes, I definitely need to read anything that will help me do it well. Thanks much for the fresh thoughts and for Robin’s review.

    May I make a suggestion? Karen Wiesner of Savvy Writer fame, wrote two excellent books, “First Draft in 30 Days,” and “From First Draft to Finished Novel,” about outlining your novel that does talk about how to sprinkle back-story into your work once you’ve finished the outline. I’m nowhere near ready for that yet; am still in the brainstorming stage, but you might like to take a peek at it to give you some ideas.

    I’ve only been reading your blog for about a month now, and this is the first time I’ve seen you really analyze your story, and it kind of tickled me because that’s exactly why I write my conundrum blog. Hope you plan to do more, although don’t give up the other stuff; I’ve learned tons of things from you.
    Marly

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  4. beckylevine says:

    Marly, Thanks for stopping by. I’ve read Karen’s FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS and liked it. I’ll have to go back & look at the backstory info!

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