Story history

Before I start – Caitlyn posted this link early this morning, which you may miss:, which may be of interest to many of you, so I don’t want you to miss it.

On May 26, 2012, Inkling wrote, …I’ve almost kinda decided to start on my book, but I’m having issues. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic version of the southern U.S., but I’m having trouble working on the time period. I want enough time to pass (after the disaster) for everyone to forget what happened, but I still want houses standing from when the disaster happened. Then, when I try to write the beginning (which I thought I had planned out), the wording doesn’t sound right! I can’t figure out how to put the backstory in, and I’m pretty sure it needs to be told fairly early on. I would be EXTREMELY grateful for any help!!!!

In response, carpelibris wrote, Inkling, what are the houses made of? From this list, it looks like the oldest houses standing in the US are from around the 1600s:

How long it takes everyone to forget will depend on if you have electronic communications, newspapers, books, widespread literacy, professional lore-keepers or storytellers, etc.

What doesn’t sound right about the wording?

And Inkling answered, I’m not really sure what the houses are made of (the thought never occurred to me!), but probably about the same as the houses today, since that’s what they look like. No electronics, whatever happened knocked everything back about 200 years from now. There’s still books, but literacy is considered useless for the most part. My MC can read, though, and has read several books she’s found. Most of the people are pretty much nomads, and just wander around to different houses. There are still some “towns” but they’re more like old west towns.

I’m trying to fit all the info about my MC’s family into the first few paragraphs since she leaves at the beginning of the book and you never actually meet them. I’m having trouble figuring out how to do this without it seeming all shoved in there.

When I followed carpelibris’s link, I noticed with pride that my house falls into the time line on Wikipedia’s list, although it certainly isn’t anywhere near the oldest continuously occupied home in the U. S. It was built in 1790, a simple wooden farmhouse, and it’s probably good for another few centuries, as long as it’s kept up. If it hadn’t been lived in and maintained, it probably would have rotted and collapsed long ago. We also still have the outhouse (just for historical value). It’s wooden too, and the effects of weather are obvious; it gets eaten away bottom up. If we don’t deal with it every few years, it will be a goner. So upkeep would be another factor for Inkling to factor in.

carpelibris suggests several areas to think about: composition of houses and other buildings, communications infrastructure, historical records, storytellers, interest in the past, education, possibly degree of civilization. I’d add that if people are nomads, you’ll probably need to know what the roads are like and how people are getting around, whether by car or mule or bicycle, whatever.

Usually I work this background info out in my notes. I don’t have to know everything at the outset, just as much as I need to get going. I can figure out the rest as I move along.

Inkling is asking several questions: how to figure out the world; how to drop in the backdrop while still moving the action along; how to find the right voice.

For the first, carpelibris and I have raised some topics to consider. More may come up as Inkling continues. But there was another part to the question. Everybody in this post-apocalyptic world has forgotten the disaster, which worries me a little.

One of my greatest challenges as a writer is my tendency to over-complicate my stories. I put in elements that strain credulity and then I have to explain them. Sometimes the explanations introduce new complexities that demand further explanation until I’ve erected such a tall, wobbly structure that it all comes crashing down, and I have to build fresh out of the rubble, and if it’s going to work, the next assemblage has to be much simpler.

An entire population forgetting the disaster that destroyed their civilization sets off alarm bells for me. How could they forget? How did they fall into general illiteracy? What happened?

The collective amnesia does tie into the question about the houses. How much time would be necessary for such forgetting to happen? Would all the artifacts of the earlier civilization have to have disappeared, been buried, been obliterated?

It’s interesting to consider. The classical world was all but forgotten, I think, in the Dark Ages and then gradually rediscovered during the Renaissance. How that happened might be worth some research.

I confess that my knowledge of events before I was born is spotty. I know only the high points that I was taught in school, those that I remember. And I’ve forgotten a lot that’s happened during my life. But many people do know. The knowledge is available.

Anyway, maybe Inkling has an answer. Whatever it is, probably simplest is best.

If Inkling hasn’t come up with an answer, I’d suggest reconsidering the forgetting. Is it necessary? And for everyone else (and me!), I warn us all of the dangers of basing our stories on a premise that’s hard to explain.

On to the second question, how to drop the info in. I’ve written posts on this, which you can find by clicking on the labels back story, backstory (sorry about that!), fantasy world introduced, and flashbacks. A Tale of Two Castles begins similarly to Inkling’s story. Elodie leaves her family and doesn’t see any of them again for the rest of the book. But she thinks about them and brings them to life for the reader with her thoughts and without interfering with the forward action. So I’d say that background can be dropped in in short bursts at quiet moments in a story, generally in thoughts and narrative, sometimes in dialogue.

For example, Kiara leaves home while her family is sleeping so she doesn’t have to say goodbye. She pauses to look down on the form of her brother Bobo in his bed. He’s an imp when he’s awake, but, oh, how sweetly he sleeps, nose to nose with his stuffed toy chipmunk. On a hook by the door hangs her mother’s blue scarf, which smells of carnations, her mother’s scent. Kiara takes it and ties it around her own neck. She’s about to slip out when she notices her father’s umbrella with the broken rib. She takes this too, even though it’s the dry season. Her father never buys anything for himself, and this will force him to get a new umbrella. The tears are flowing when she closes the door behind her. As she walks through the silent streets she thinks more about her family. Later, at important moments, if we decide to go that way, she can be guided – or misguided – by what members of her family would advise or do in her place. She can be homesick sometimes and recall a memory in her thoughts. In A Tale of Two Castles Elodie now and then spouts her mother’s sayings.

As for voice, I suggest trying different ways until you find something that pleases you. Here are a few possibilities imagining the moment when Kiara stands over her brother’s bed.

Bobo, how chilled out and all innocent you look there with your silly toy. Do you want your big sister gone, no more Miss Bossy forever? No more me always knowing your secret mischief? You going to remember to keep safe against old bad Mr. Milton?


A shaft of moonlight illumined a curl in the center of Bobo’s forehead. How could I leave that curl?  And the rest of him, that knowing look when he caught me in a lie to Father. But he never told. I mouthed the words: “Take care, Bobo. Give Mr. Milton a wide berth.”


Leave, Kiara, I told myself. Ignore Bobo and his chipmunk. Harden your heart. Think of yourself for once.

And of course there’s the choice of POV and tense, both of which will influence the voice.

This has been a long post! Time for prompts.

∙ Write Kiara’s departure as told by an omniscient third-person narrator. Keep going with the story.

∙ Write it in the voice of Kiara’s older sister, who is pretending to be asleep. Keep going.

∙ Write a page of notes about how the disaster came about that destroyed a civilization. Explain how the descendants of the survivors have lost all knowledge of what went before.

∙ Write a scene in which Kiara discovers an artifact from the past. Her curiosity is aroused. She decides to find out the meaning of her discovery, but there are forces that don’t want her to succeed. Continue with the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Hi!
    I'm not sure if you've written a post about this, Mrs Levine–maybe I just couldn't find it– but I was wonder about middles.
    I always have some sort of ending in mind when I start writing and beginnings are usually easy for me, but its the middle that's the hardest. Getting from point A to point C is always rough for me, and I can't just skip point B. Some people have told me to take a while and outline everything, but I'm not a fan of outlines, and they don't seem to work for me.
    Does anyone have any tips for getting through sagging middles?

    • Unsocialized Homeschooler – I have the same problem! Well, I use summaries, which help me a lot, but I still always have a vivid picture of the beginning and the end and a foggy mess in the middle. I plan the basics out for the middle, but once I get there, I only have mostly have to stumble through and dream of the day I'll write the wonderful ending.

  2. Oh wow, I'm glad my reply was helpful! I hadn't questioned the forgetting too much, but it's true- people would still at least have stories about the disaster. Although I suppose they could get misinterpreted in interesting ways.

  3. Sometimes history just slips out of everybody's minds. I was born in 1996. I didn't know what the Berlin Wall was until I had to do a report on it in fifth grade. I did it overnight and barely knew what I was talking about, so my teacher ended up filling in all the important details.
    Inkling, maybe the elders in your society still have some idea of whow life used to be even if they've only heard stories of electricity and cars from their own parents and grandparents. But stories lose their potency as time passes, so the young people of your world may not care whether some ancient people got clean water out of their bathroom faucets. Or maybe some components of our modern world have faded into myth, so nobody's quite sure if airplanes were harmless or vicious birds of prey. Or nobody's quite sure airplanes existed in the first place. Or maybe older people will adamantly defend the existence of airplanes while the younger generation scoffs at the idea. "No, grandpa, people can't fly. Especially in metal contraptions the size of buildings."

  4. sort of bouncing off Eliza's Berlin Wall comment, I think it's also important to note that different things will be seen as important and in need of remembering by different groups of people. The example I'd give is that I'm Canadian, and so while I know all about Upper and Lower Canada and the rebellions of 1837-38 and when we became a country and everything (or at least I used to), they don't bother to teach us much about, say, US History. I couldn't tell you what the Gettysburg Address is, or what the Fifth Amendment is, or what year the USA became a country. I know the terms, but I don't know what they mean. Likewise, when they taught us about World War I and II, they mostly told us what the Canadians did. I think that while it's dubious whether absolutely everyone could forget the disaster, it is possible that some regions could interpret in different ways from others, eg. how it affected them without caring about what anyone else's experience was.

    Another possibility that comes to mind is that one generation could choose to have everyone forget the disaster by destroying all the records and never telling their children about it.

  5. Extremely interesting post! So far I haven’t had to worry much about history and things like that in my stories, but I do struggle with backstories.

    I also have a completely unrelated question that may be hard to explain, but I’m struggling with it a lot right now (possibly just because I’m being paranoid). My question: How do you avoid clichés? I don’t mean overused idioms; I mean clichéd situations. This is kind of hard to explain, but, for example, in one of my stories, my MC is a twelve year old girl who is very shy so I know she wouldn’t be a popular girl in school. But the whole “least popular girl in school” thing seems so overused! It seems like every girl in every book I’ve read is either 1) super unpopular and changes her fate so that at the end, she’s popular, or 2) Super popular and has to deal with a sudden disaster that messes it all up. Or, in my current book (the spy one) one of the MC’s hates one of the supervising agents, and she hates him. Then, as the book goes on, they both go from despising to adoring. That seems so overused, too! Or there are situations like the new guy/girl in town, or…actually, I’m drawing a blank suddenly, but I thought of some more earlier. How do you avoid writing “just another one of THOSE stories” and make something original?

    • I don't know if this would help, but here's my idea.
      How about you read a book with the same cliche`, then using the book as a helper, write down ALL of the plot points of the Cliche your afraid of, using the book to remind you. Then track your story against your timeline, and as you do that, at every point of the cliche,vary your story slightly from the timeline, going till the end.
      I hope this works!

    • Agnes – I hadn't thought of that. I'll have to try it!

      Gail – actually, I couldn't find that particular post before I posted this, but I found it afterward. Very helpful…as always:)

  6. I have a question similar to this- I wrote one historical novel (it was terrible) and I really want to write a GOOD novel for NaNoWriMo… and my idea is historical (1800's?). I was wondering if you have to get to the point that you know EVERYTHING about that time period to write a historical novel. Like if you woke up to find yourself in this time zone, you'd feel totally comfortable and no one would know you're from much later. How much should I know and how do I write it naturally (without making it textbook or like I'm flaunting all the knowledge I have).
    Any comments are welcome 🙂 Thank you!!

    • I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure I couldn't go back to last year without letting on I'm from the future. As to your question, I have two things to point out: A) it is impossible to know everything about any time period (especially as you go farther and farther back in time to when there were fewer records). That's like trying to know every thought that's ever passed through another person's head, or the names of every person in an entire country. Just not possible. But never fear, because B) you don't have to. Gosh, no. Find out what you can about where your MC lives, and what her job is, her social class, etc, but if what's happening on the other side of the world doesn't come into the story, then you don't need it. Research only what you need to know, and if you're halfway through and find you need to know something, look it up then. Don't do so much research that it kills your every desire to write the book.

    • I'm with Charlotte. However, while you're waiting and planning, you might take a look at a book about daily life during the period and read or reread a couple of novels that were written then.

  7. @writeforfun:
    I actually know of an awesome quote on your question, so I went off to my bookshelf to find it. This is from No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Chris Baty, one of the co-founders of NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month). And NaNoWriMo is what the book is about. Baty has this to say about hatching a plot:

    "Here are some time-tested plot-providers to consider: Can someone in your story get fired? Can a marriage or relationship implode? Can someone get a disease?" ….he lists a bunch of other examples–I'm not going to type all of them because the list is rather long…. "If all these questions sound suspiciously familiar, it's because one of them has driven the plot of nearly every movie you've ever watched and every book you've ever read. Some might bemoan the fact that the world's plots can be distilled into a quarter page's worth of cliches, but I see it as just further proof of the miraculous power of well-told stories. No matter how many times we hear tales of a pluckish underdog triumphing over an all-powerful foe, we still respond to it…..A goot plot is less a matter of innovation and invention as it is one of creative re-use; the most acclaimed books of the modern era have used the same building blocks as the worst soap operas and clumsiest cartoons. The main thing separating the mind-blowing, life-changing stories of a great novel from the treacly dreck of daytime TV is the manner in which the tale is told."

    Originality is tricky. As the Bible puts it (my, I'm quoting a lot today!), there is nothing new under the sun. And yet there is. People make new books every year, and although they're all based on the same tired plots, they don't feel that way. The key isn't to think of something totally new. It never has been. The key–I think–is taking what you've got–all the worst cliches you can possibly think of–and doing something different with it. Everyone knows war is bad. But if you can find a new way to tell it, then you're not unoriginal for talking about war. You're a superhero for explaining it through another lens, something no one has ever thought of before.

    I'm not going to lie; it's really hard to know whether you're writing "just another one of those stories" or if you've got something new. What I'd suggest is looking really closely at whatever blank cliche you've built off of. How have other people treated it? How is yours different from everyone else's? How is it similar (remembering that you don't want to be different in all respects anyway, unless you're writing a book only fictional blind aliens can read)?

    And if you still can't tell, ask someone who reads a lot of that kind of story. And ask someone who hates that kind of story. And ask anyone else who'll help.

    And if a cliche is really, really bothering you, they're not nailed down any more than anything else. If you don't want your spies to go from despising to adoring, if it doesn't serve the story in some way, then you don't have to do it. But if you want to take it out for the sole purpose of avoiding cliches, don't bother. The only way to avoid every cliches is to write nothing at all. And even then I'm sure there's a cliche for that somewhere.

    • Gail, I realize that I'm not a moderator here or anything, and I hope this post isn't out of line, but I couldn't find a more appropriate place to contact. If it is, I apologize to both you and Steph.

      Steph, are you aware that your hyperlink (which I did NOT click on) is for a rental car company, and that you've made this identical post on multiple unrelated websites?

      Gail, please feel free to delete this post as you consider appropriate. Thanks.

    • (I meant you can delete my post if you feel I'm out of line, BTW. I'm not trying to tell you what to do with Steph's. It's just that I used to be a moderator on another board, and this triggered my alarm bells.)

  8. From the website:

    a comment for the blog-

    One thing- houses might still be around from over 400 years ago in other parts of the world. No houses made of materials that could be considered long- lasting were built here until the Europeans started settling here in the 1600s ish.

  9. Mrs. Levine, I love your blog and find it very helpful, and I have a writing question of my own. I write historical fiction, and I usually start a story with tons of fire and energy (and very little research) as soon as the idea is developed enough. But by the time I've reached what seems to be the beginning of the middle, it flops. I just can't write anymore. Sometimes it's because I realize that I didn't research enough, but sometimes I just find that I have absolutely no workable plot (I'm definitely a character writer). To put this problem in perspective: I am sixteen in a month, but I haven't finished a draft of a story since I was nine! What can I do so that I don't keep stopping before the story actually gets started?

    • Flowerprincess – I'm sure Gail will have a better idea, but here's mine. And it only worked because I usually had fragments of ideas for what would happen after the part that stumped me. My method was this; I would write to those parts that I just couldn't get through, and then I would skip them. I'd move straight on to the next part that I had an idea of what would happen, and pick up writing there. By the time I got to the end of the story, it had some pretty big holes in it, but at least I got to the end! Obviously, this method makes revising become a pain in the neck, but it helped me write my first two long stories. And now that I've gotten myself going, I don't use that method anymore (except very occasionally when I'm really stuck). That's just my method. Hope it helps!

      You should also take a look at the blog comments on Courtney Aruzu's question from last week's post, "Fast Out of the Gate". It's not exactly your question, but there was some good advice about planning.

    • I tend to get really excited before I start too and a lot of times do little or no research. One thing I've found that helps is to jot down your ideas as soon as they come to you. (If you're like me and get ideas in the middle of the night, keep a notebook by your bed.) Then whenever you have time do some research. Take notes on this too (just on the stuff that's important to your story) and bookmark the websites for later. When you feel like you have enough of both the story and the research, start writing.

    • My method is a last resort, by the way. It's better to stumble through a scenes than to skip them, but it's better to skip scenes and have a story with holes than it is to write no story at all.

    • writeforfun, thanks for the advice. I'm afraid that that wouldn't work for me, because I'm such a perfectionist and I get a little OCD if I don't go in chronological order! But I like what you said about a story with holes being better than no story at all. Thanks, again!

  10. Flowerprincess, the fact that you wrote "and very little research" makes me wonder if doing more research ahead of time might help, because you won't lose your momentum from having to stop and look things up or work them out in your head.

    • Yes, this is often a big problem of mine, because I get so excited about the story and then I come to a wall of inaccuracy right in the middle! But this happens aside from the research, too – my story itself just stops "working", so to say.

      Thanks for the advice, though! (And I'm happy to inform you that I am now researching extensively for a story that I had started and stopped two years ago.)

  11. If I can add my thoughts on Inklings question of forgetting the past…. In a pinch it would only take 3-4 generations to forget an event completely. For instance, Generation 1, all persons above 40yrs, were killed in the distaster that wiped everything out. Generation 2, persons between, say, 15yrs to 40yrs, were so traumatized by the event that they don't, won't or can't talk about it. Generation 3, persons 0yrs to 15yrs, don't understand or remember what happend. Therefore, when Generation 4, all those born to Generation 3, have absolutely no knowledge of anything in the past. That would be 40yrs at the least since the distater happened; and you wouldn't need to worry too much about the houses–the way they're built now they would just be beginning to decay (if not kept up) at that time.

    Those are the thoughts that popped into my head when I read the question.

  12. I have read a few of the articles on your website now, and I really like your style. Thanks a million and please keep up the effective work

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