Dietrich Kalteis, the Vancouver-based crime writer and author of Ride the Lightning and I have embarked upon a weekly conversation. This is the second week of freestyle conversation with no rules, no editing, and no net under us.
Our conversations are posted within 24 hours in our respective blogs (do check Dietrich’s blog right here http://dietrichkalteis.blogspot.ca/2014/08/off-cuff-2.html?m=1)
We discuss what we’re working on, writing in general and just whatever comes to mind – real off the cuff. And, as last week, please feel free to offer your comments and questions, and we’ll do our best to answer.
DK: First off, Martin, you pointed out that you live in Belfast, not Dublin, Dublin being 90 miles down the road. Sorry about being geographically challenged. Just so I’m clear, Belfast is C.S Lewis, and Dublin is James Joyce. How am I doing so far?
MF – Very well indeed Dietrich. A tale of two cities indeed. I often visit Dublin and the wonderful Irish Film Institute whose cinemas play host to hundreds of independent and foreign-language movies every year. I used to work as a cinema usher at the Queen Film Theatre in Belfast when I was a student back in the 1830’s J; it seems such a long time ago. Cinema is my first love of the visual arts, and this is why I try to infuse atmosphere and sense of place as much as I can in my writing, but only where appropriate.
DK: Okay, you mentioned something about how much detail is too much when you’re writing a story.
MF: Yes, I saw an interesting debate on one of my FB feeds about when to add detailed description or not. When should that table be oak, darkened with polish, standing ominously, menacing in the middle of the room like a spiteful relative, as opposed to just being a table? I can see both points of view. I dislike flowery language for the sake of it, but then again, if we take a reductionist view of narrative then stories become little more than an elongated report stating bare fact after bare fact. At the end of the day, writing is an art, and surely the artist should be allowed to demonstrate linguistic flourish, but I suppose its using good judgement when to describe something in detail and when not to do it.
DK: Yeah, every writer has his or her own linguistic flourish, but that can also be in minimalist terms. I personally avoid adverbs and adjectives and limit descriptions for the sake of a faster pace. That being said, I choose carefully what to describe in a scene, always aiming for a strong image. Often I try to describe through characters’ dialogue rather than narrative. And when I go back over my work, I’m always looking for things that I can cut or economical ways to phrase things. But, as you pointed out, it also boils down to an individual writer’s style and the type of story they’re writing. Maybe a fantasy story begs for more detail because the writer is building entire worlds, where someone writing crime fiction has a simpler task just setting the scene in an existing one. For me, describing something like a table might not warrant a lot of words, but in the end, I think you’re right, you’ve got to use your own good judgement, and stay true to your own voice and establish a way that works for you.
Do you feel the same about adding backstory. Does it tend to slow the pace, and does too much of it take you away from the story line?
MF: Good points, Dietrich. A modern setting in a familiar country/city may not need much description, but a setting that is less familiar may necessitate greater detail; in fact, I think the reader would demand it and rightly so e.g. a novel set in Nunavut or Kurdistan would allow the writer to describe less well-known landscapes, cultures, sights, sounds and smells that would take the reader on a journey in space as well as narrative.
There are two sides to the backstory argument, and I’m firmly in favour of the backstory, but it needs to be carefully choreographed into the main trajectory of the narrative. Pacing is important within fiction, of course, but backstory should both inform, yet tease. It should reveal a self-contained informative sliver of the past without revealing the totality in one go. Backstory should also be cleverly and seamlessly placed within the narrative, therefore should read naturally and not read or feel disjointed. For example, a memory could be triggered by a sight, sound or smell that could form the cue for the subject/hero/narrator to describe something from the past that came to the fore. Backstory should hint at something that has shaped the character in the present day that may explain why they act or think the way they do. In this regard, backstory should be economic and not contain too many red herrings.
Another form of backstory is when the trajectory of two timelines traveling at different speeds collide. In such novels, we could have one narrative linear timeline alternating with a different scenario set in the past only for that past timeline and characters to converge in a credible way. I could see the use of alternating chapters between the two timelines/scenarios, each of which could use characters that appear in both. The reader, if the story is well written, should be intrigued and be minded to guess how the two worlds collide.
What is your approach, Dietrich, to employing backstory, and do you have any rules you like to employ, any do’s or don’ts?
DK: You’ve already said it, and I agree with your approach. The main thing for me is to look at backstory as something that absolutely needs to be said. It’s really easy for me to stuff something into a story (like jamming a size twelve foot into a size nine shoe), an element that I really want to include. I often ask myself on a second pass whether that element really serves to move the story forward. And that’s always the tell for me, if it doesn’t move the story, I take it out no matter how much I like it.