The usefulness of backstories

I’ve just read the latest edition of the SCBWI bulletin and there was an article which really resonated with me – Penelope Stowell’s comments about her love of creating backstories.

Amongst the top advice from agents and publishers, you’ll definitely find mention of backstories and the usefulness and importance of creating them.

What is a backstory?

A backstory is essentially everything that you use to help you write your book, but which you don’t actually put in it. The current MG book that I’m writing is about a 13-year old girl called Izzy. There’s a lot that happens in the story, but one of the plotlines involves Izzy’s interaction with her dad who’s an alcoholic. In order to get the relationship right, I felt that I needed to know everything about her dad’s history, even if none of it was mentioned in the story itself. Consequently I have reems and reems of writing on his relationship with Izzy’s mum, his job, even his early life. There are factors within each area of his life that together would have resulted in his addiction.  

I previously wrote a draft of a historical YA novel and did lots of background research on the lives of everyday people living in Poland during the Second World War. Again I’ve weaved this into my characters’ backstories – tricky as I had to think back to what their early childhood would have been like in the 1900s. A lot of it ended up being based on anecdotes from the lives of my grandma and her friends, all of which were amazing, but wouldn’t fit in with the narrative of the story.

How can you put a backstory to good use?

I was intrigued about what Penelope Stowell wrote about ‘recycling’ a backstory – i.e. actually using the reems of research that you’ve done for purposes other than strengthening your narrative. She is writing a series based around Iranigami – a society of children on a mission to preserve imaginary creatures – sounds amazing. What’s even more amazing is that she’s used all her backstories to create which is a fictional website referred to throughout her stories. She launched the site back in April and her web presence is rising with very little marketing.

It’s really made me think about the possibilities of what I could do with my backstories…



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