Friday, April 14, 2023

A Character's Backstory by Merrillee Whren


Most novels begin right in the middle of some kind of action. The characters are often confronted with a new situation in their lives, or the reader might catch a glimpse of the everyday life of a character. The reader learns something about the characters, but you don't know what has brought them to this place or this situation. That's where backstory comes in. 

When I first starting writing, I was told it is a no-no to have what is called an info dump about the character's backstory. This is so true. The backstory needs to be woven throughout the book. This way a reader will learn about the character's past a little at a time. Below is an excerpt from Annie's Hope, the first book in The Village of Hope series. In this excerpt, there is information about the hero and heroine's past, but the reader doesn't learn it all. 


      Doubts crowded Annie Payton’s mind as she paced in front of the windows looking out on The Village of Hope’s campus. Redbrick buildings with white Georgian columns formed a quadrangle around an expansive lawn. Tall pines and majestic oaks accented with maples and flowering dogwoods added to the beauty of the scenery.
She always loved early spring in Georgia, when the dogwoods dressed the landscape in lace. The pleasant warmth of a late March afternoon helped to take away some of her anxiety as she waited to meet with the lawyer who hopefully could help her get her kids back. Could this place really return hope to her life?
The scent of newly mowed grass wafted through the open window. Closing her eyes, she breathed deeply and wished she could mow down all the bad things in her life and make it fresh and new. But isn’t that what God had done when He’d covered her sins with His grace? Why did she doubt that God had forgiven her?
The click of the door on the far side of the room made Annie turn and look. A man, with his back to her, talked with someone in the hallway. Annie braced herself for this meeting and prayed that the decision to come here was a wise one.
When the man faced her, Annie gasped. What was Ian Montgomery doing here?
“Hello, Annie.” He looked as handsome as ever with his tobacco-brown hair and gray eyes that reminded her of a stormy sky. Those eyes held no welcome.
Her pulse thundered all over her body. She swallowed hard. “You’re the lawyer?”
“The one and only.” He motioned toward the chair in front of his desk. “Have a seat.”
Like an automaton, Annie sat on the black leather chair. Why did Ian have to be the one person who could help her get what she wanted most in life? Pastor John from the rehab facility often told her things happened for a reason. Could God use this meeting with Ian for good, too?
Annie sat there, not knowing what to say.
Ian broke the silence. “You’re looking good.”
Annie wanted to tell him he looked great in his dark pin-striped suit, but she thought better of it. “Thanks. I’m feeling good, too. I’ve been clean and sober for a year and twenty days. I intend to stay that way.”
“I’m glad for your sobriety, but I have to be honest, Annie. You told me that several times before, and you didn’t follow through.”
“I know.” Annie smiled halfheartedly. Everything he said was true, and he had the right to doubt her statement. She would show him that his doubts were unfounded this time.
Ian gave her a look that told her she would have to work hard to prove she had changed. “I understand Melody Hammond, our women’s ministry director, has explained our program and gotten you settled in an apartment.”
“She has. She said I have more paperwork to fill out.”
His gray eyes narrowed. “I hope Melody also told you I only have a few minutes with you today.”
“She did. She said you have an important meeting to attend.”
Nodding, Ian grimaced. “The quarterly board meeting.”
“You don’t look too excited.”
“Let’s just say it’s not one of my favorite things.” Ian tapped the file on his desk. “You want your kids back. That’s what we need to discuss.”
Annie nodded, a lump forming in her throat at the thought of Kara and Spencer. Her babies were nearly four and three—babies no longer, but she’d missed a whole year of their lives. She longed to hold them in her arms, kiss them, and tuck them into bed at night. Could she ever make it up to them? She promised herself she would get her kids back. She would.
“How long have Kara and Spencer been in foster care?”
“Over a year. DFCS took them away….” Annie stopped as her voice cracked. She pressed her lips together as she tried to regain her composure. She wouldn’t cry in front of Ian. “I was more messed up than ever, but losing the kids made me realize I had to get help and get it right this time. I want to reunite my family.”
“Annie, I don’t know whether I can help you. I have to be sure you’re going to stay sober before I can. Besides, I don’t feel comfortable being your attorney considering our past relationship.”
“But Melody said the lawyer here would help me. Since you’re the only one, doesn’t that mean you have to represent me?”
“Not necessarily. I have a friend who can probably take your case.”
“I can’t afford to pay someone.”
“He volunteers his services here from time to time.”
Annie breathed a sigh of relief, but her heart ached because Ian didn’t believe she could stay clean. Could she blame him? He’d seen her relapse too many times, but this time was different. “When will I get to talk with him?”
“I’ll arrange a meeting as soon as I can.” Ian stood as he picked up the file folder and headed for the door. “I’m sorry I have to go. We can talk again later after I contact Scott Bartlett, the other attorney. I’ll set up a time for the three of us to meet.”
“So this is it? Hi and goodbye?” Annie followed Ian to the door. He had a meeting, but his eagerness to be rid of her punched a hole in her heart.
“That’s the way it has to be today. Melody wanted me to talk to you, so I agreed.” He put his hand on the doorknob.
“She doesn’t know about us, does she? Does anyone here know?” Annie couldn’t believe she was confronting Ian this way. Was she trying to alienate him?
Staring at her, Ian took his hand from the doorknob. “That’s a fair question. Adam Bailey, the administrator here, knows everything, but no one else. I’m not going out of my way to talk about my former wild life.”
“Guess my presence is going to open up your past whether you like it or not.” Annie wondered why she continued to needle him. Maybe it was a defensive mechanism. She needed to keep him at an emotional distance because his presence aroused old feelings that were better buried and forgotten.
“You’re probably right, but I’ll deal with it in my own way. You don’t have to worry about it.” Ian opened the door and held out a hand. “After you.”
“Thanks.” Annie stepped into the hallway.
Ian closed the door behind him. “I’ll be in contact.”
“Okay.” Annie stood there, not knowing what to do now.
Ian looked as if he was going to dismiss her as he walked into the hallway, but then he turned back. “Walk with me.”
His request caught her off guard, but she was grateful he didn’t dismiss her as they headed toward the reception area. “Sure.”
“Do your parents know you’re out of rehab?”
So that’s what he wanted. More information. He didn’t really want to walk with her. “No. My parents haven’t spoken to me in over three years. For all they know I could be dead.”
“Are you sure about that?”
She nodded, not wanting to think about the parents who had abandoned her. They’d called it tough love, but Annie called it no love. Could she ever prove to them that she had changed? She had to show them all that she had. Ian. Her parents. The court.
“Annie, if you need help, talk to Melody. As the director of the women’s ministry, she’s here to give you advice while you settle in. This is a good place for you to find your way again.”
Annie forced a smile. “Thanks. I guess I’ll see you later. Hope your meeting goes well.”
“Thanks. Me, too.” He smiled in return.
Annie nodded and hurried away with the image of Ian’s smile filling her thoughts. She didn’t want that smile to make her think he might care about her on a personal level. That kind of thinking could only lead her to more heartache. She’d had more than her share, and she had no one to blame but herself.
Annie forced herself not to run or to look back at Ian. The whole meeting with him had been surreal. He’d been so matter-of-fact. He obviously didn’t have any remnants of those long-ago feelings they’d shared. To a casual observer, his demeanor would have given no hint that he’d been talking to his ex-wife.


 Right now Annie's Hope is on sale for 99 cents. You can find it at the retailers below. 




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What do you most like to learn about a character's past?

Merrillee Whren is the winner of the 2003 Golden Heart Award presented by Romance Writers of American. She is married to her own personal hero, her husband of forty-plus years, and has two grown daughters. Connect with her on her Facebook page and sign up for her newsletter.

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