Recently, I’ve been fashioning back stories for the characters in my second mystery, Marry in Haste. [My first mystery won’t be published until next year.] Back stories are descriptions of what happened to main characters before the novel begins. I’m adding details to the back stories of people that appear in both of my mysteries, and devising back stories for new characters in mystery #2. Most of these details will never make it into my books, but they help me understand where the characters have been, what their dreams and motives are, and why they act the way they do.
Adding back story to a novel involves dribbling it in gently. Readers do not want to read page after page of something that happened in the past. Some writers wait forty to fifty pages to add any details of a character’s past because today’s readers want action now. However, if events in the present are tied to a back story, dropping in a few nuggets of that past helps readers understand the characters’ thoughts and justifications. Just do that sparingly.
A year ago I was intrigued by the opposite procedure because I watched a perfect example of seeing the “novel” first and then the “back story.” PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre ran a short series called Endeavour. It is the back story (or prequel) for Inspector Morse, a show that ran from 1987-2000, based on adaptations of Colin Dexter’s novels about Endeavour Morse, a detective in Oxford, England. The beloved Morse was played by John Thaw until Thaw’s untimely death.
Those of us who watched Morse wade through murders in Oxford were used to his many character traits and proclivities. He drove a red Jaguar, lived alone, treated his second in command—Lewis—badly at times, loved crosswords, had a penchant for solving crimes, sang in choirs, listened to opera, frequented pubs, and never got the management job because he was too prickly. Morse didn’t like to follow protocol. He also avoided autopsies since blood didn’t sit well with him.
The new series, Endeavour, follows the young Morse (played by Shaun Evans) in the mid-1960s, after he drops out of Oxford and joins the police as a uniformed constable. When he is transferred to CID to help investigate the disappearance of a teenager, his superior—DI Fred Thursday—takes him under his wing and admires the incorruptible Morse’s thirst for justice.
Many of Morse’s character traits, attitudes, motives, and actions can be traced back to their origin in this prequel. The young Endeavour is great at deduction, awkward with women, listens to opera and sings in a choir, is horrified by blood (he faints at an autopsy), and sees—in a shop window—the future red Jaguar he will buy. He also tries to help ladies in distress and, like the older Morse, he loves crossword puzzles. Sometimes DI Thursday has to defend his young protégé to upper management, just as the adult Morse is always tangling with authority. But no one can deny that the young Endeavour grew into a detective who thirsts for justice for the victims of crimes.
I’m taking the more typical direction by first writing the early days of my main characters and the various events that smoothed their edges and sometimes formed their attitudes. My plots always have a historical aspect because people and events in the present have a definite connection to the past. I use this theme because I have seen in my own life what happens when people cannot outrun their pasts or forgive themselves for something that happened long ago. I’m also intrigued by history, my long ago college major, so I rest my case about the past-present connection.
In Endeavour, this connection is achieved magnificently, if not in the opposite direction. At the end of the series, when DI Thursday is sitting in a car with the young Endeavour, he asks his apprentice how he sees himself in twenty years, and the twenty-something looks in the rear view mirror and sees the face of John Thaw.
Past. Future. Perfect.