The second reason I write historical fiction is it satisfies my philosophical itch to resolve at the level of symbol the very real issues I see threatening today’s world. And while I don’t ever want to write a Book With A Message (ugh!), I find that if I keep a philosophical problem at a distance temporally and spatially—London 1875 is quite remote from us, after all—I can bring it close thematically, through plot and character. As a very simple example, if I think it would benefit us all to have more compassion in our world, I can experiment with what that looks like in my fiction. When Nell meets Jack’s father, Nick Drummond, she can only see what he is: sullen, vicious, and usually drunk. She cannot understand how Jack has any feelings of warmth toward him—until the end, when Jack tells her his backstory, and she at last understands him. (As Brené Brown says, it’s hard to hate someone up close.)
Third, and most important—and a reason hinted at in my last sentence, there—my whole narrative drive is toward the backstory, toward the forces that shape what we are today, and this structure is inherent in the mystery novel. By that I mean let's say a dead body appears on page 5. The entire rest of the book is about figuring out why and how there is a dead body on page 5, right? It’s the “before” that’s so interesting. I believe character is rooted in backstory the way I believe that real people have assumptions and behaviors that are rooted in childhood and adolescence. I care deeply about how those early acquired beliefs and ways of being shape who we are and how we behave as adults; and with their plot arcs heavily dependent on backstories, mysteries furnish a space for me to examine them.
I can trace my interest in backstory in part to two different jobs I had when I was in my early twenties. For two summers, I was a bartender at the airport in Rochester, New York. Truly—if you ever want to hear interesting backstories, be a bartender for a while. People’s tongues, loosened by a drink or three or five, depending on how long their flight was delayed, wagged mightily.
A few years later, I did door-to-door sales. Basically, I was a book peddler. One day, quite early on, I went into a store, was thrown out on my ear and told to never come back. I left, gathered up my shattered confidence, and went into the next store, where I was greeted more kindly. Then, as I went to leave she called after me: “Oh—don’t go next door. She’s going through a divorce and is in the process of losing her lease.” This operated on me like a tonic. It punctured the balloon of my narcissism, for I realized that just because I was the only one in the room, it didn’t mean her screaming had anything to do with me. But also it made me realize that she had a backstory that made her nasty screaming reasonable. And as a friend said to me once when confronting someone who was similarly unpleasant: “Happy people don’t act that way.” So whenever I encounter someone who behaves in a way that seems out of proportion to the circumstances, it raises the question: What’s the backstory? Where did all that emotion come from?
There you have it: quirky facts, symbolic resolutions, and backstories. They’re my jam.