2015 A to Z Challenge: B is for BACKDROP and BACK STORY

A-ZChallenge2015In any novel there will be some back story. Most characters haven’t just been born. They had a life before the novel began. And even one who has just been born has parents with back stories that will impact on the newborn. Some of that previous life will be relevant to the current story and needs to be told. It is also important to set the scene, whether indoors or out, to give readers a feeling for the setting (or settings) of the novel in place and time.

Even more so for a historical novel. Most readers will be unaware of the norms, limitations and customs that shaped everyday life in the specific time period. They won’t know what places looked like before the advent of cars, fridges and electricity wires.

Somewhere in India
Somewhere in India

It is the job of the writer to tell them what life was like in those days.


Readers don’t want information dumped on them. The backdrop doesn’t have to be described at once and the back story, however interesting, doesn’t move the current story along. Whatever can be shown during the story shouldn’t be told upfront. This is true of all fiction; in historical fiction there are more unknowns, making the avoidance of infomation dumping more difficult.

P.S. I’m looking forward to reading your comments. It might take me three days to reply, but reply I will.


The Value of Life

To individual people, lives are not equal. Some are much more important to us than others. The lives of those closest to us are the most important. Then perhaps the lives of those less close to us. Then public figures. Of the people we don’t know, we tend to worry more about those who have some connection to us. When some major disaster happens in the world, my local news tells me how many Israelis were involved. If I turn on BBC news, I hear the number of British people involved.

Does each country value the lives of all its citizens equally? Israel does. Britain does. India, as I discovered recently, doesn’t. I’m going to describe the incident that brought this home to me.

During our recent tour of the states of Odisha and Chhattisgarh, our group was driven in six cars. All six drivers were excellent at their job, but that didn’t stop us being scared. The drivers drove fast on bad roads full of obstacles. We passed buses, tuk-tuks and motorbikes carrying a lot more people than they should have done. We skirted round cows wandering around freely. In fact one time, our driver hooted at a cow in the road. (They all hooted a lot.) The cow appeared to be moving to the side but then changed its mind and the driver, still going quite fast, had to swerve to avoid it. We thought we were going to turn over but somehow the car remained upright.

Our cars in IndiaDriving at night was particularly scary. They overtook on bends where they couldn’t have seen what was coming, especially as not all motorbikes there have lights, and bicycles, pedestrians and cows certainly don’t.

Another time, I was sitting in the back with one other, while a third member of our group sat at the front beside the driver. For a change, we were on a dual carriageway with two lanes on each side. Our driver was just overtaking a bus when a motorbike shot out from behind the bus, crossing our path. The driver braked sharply, but couldn’t avoid hitting the motorbike, on which were four people. A crowd gathered and we saw one of the motorbike passengers, who looked to be a teenager, being carried to the side of the road. If he was alive, he was certainly unconscious.

What happened next shocked us. We knew what would happen in our country and in other western countries. At the very least, we would have to wait for the police to come to take statements and note down particulars. In our naiveté, we imagined the same would happen here.

As soon as all the passengers and the motorbike had been moved to the side of the road, the people waved us on and the driver moved off, driving even faster than usual. He said something to us about the car being from a different state and he spoke in Hindi on the phone. There had been contact between the drivers throughout the trip.

Afterwards, our guide, who had been in a car in front of us, tried to hush everything up. He sounded surprised to hear that anything had happened, although I’m sure he must have been told by phone. Then, after supposedly finding out, he told us that the injured boy was drunk and not hurt at all. No one asked if we were all right. As it happened, two of us hit our heads on the seats in front, but we were OK.

The way the accident was handled shocked us. It is known that the accident rate in India is bad, but this was an accident that probably didn’t enter into the statistics. Probably someone died in it. But what’s one life amongst so many?


People of India

I want to tell you about a few of the people we met in India, starting with Sarat Acharya of Discover Tours, who made our stay in India so pleasant. He arranged our three-week tour of Orissa and Chhattisgahr perfectly. We travelled in comfortable cars with excellent drivers and stayed in some special places, including three palaces. Sarat accompanied us for the whole trip, sharing with us his extensive knowledge. He also brought along two other excellent guides for different parts of the trip.


On top of that, he knew how to handle the noisy members of the group. He did his best to accomodate all requests, but was able to stand up to those whose requests were impossible to meet.

Sarat told stories. No, he didn’t just tell the stories. He acted them out, using volunteers. The story for which I volunteered involved Sarat pulling my hair hard. It hurt! But I’ve got over it now. All in all, Sarat provided a wonderful tour and gave me a taste for more. (But I might not volunteer again so readily!)

In the many tribal villages we visited, we were introduced to the residents, who seemed content and happy.

Village peopleSome of them danced for us.

DancersInChhattisgarhAnd some of us joined in.

Then there were all the people who wanted to take our photos together with them.

05GroupPhotoAnd the maharajas and maharanis, whose palaces we stayed in.

IMG_1119Last but not least, the friendly drivers, who also cooked several delicious meals for us.




I have a guest post on the lovely and unique blog of Seumas Gallacher. It may be humorous, but it also poses a serious question: do I need a brand? Any answers?

My next post will, I think, be about the good things of India. Because I prefer to remember them, and I also need to think about these for a forthcoming speech (see below). The less good things will appear in a later post.

That speech. Oh dear. When I agreed to do it, I expected to have more time to prepare. I expected to write it at least a week ahead, giving me plenty of time to practise it. It’s now Friday and it’s due to be given on Tuesday evening, and I haven’t started writing it. I’m getting worried. If I leave it any later, the only thing that can save me is if the snow forecast for Wednesday comes a bit earlier. Any chance of that, powers that be?


Photo Opportunity

Welcome back to my blog, all you wonderful readers! I hope you’ve been having fun without me. I have been away on a very special trip – my third to India.

Our three-week trip was packed full of experiences and included no time for reflection. Now that I’m back – despite my time here being limited, too – I want to go over my notes and photos carefully, and try to make sense of all that I saw, heard, smelled, tasted and felt.

The one point I will mention now is about photos. As always, we visitors took photos. We photographed places and people (with their agreement). As before, children asked to have their photos taken, because they wanted to see their faces on our screens. That cheeky-looking boy in the middle requested several photos.

VillageChildrenBut this time there was a new phenomenon. People approached us to ask if they could take pictures of them together with us. More than ever, we became attractions. Probably we seemed more strange to them than they did to us.

This change came about, of course, because there are now so many mobile phones. In the old days, even those who had cameras wouldn’t have carried them around with them. Nowadays, anyone can whip out a mobile phone and snap away. Even in remote villages that have never had telephone lines, mobile phones are coming into use.

Dancing together.

The world is changing. Some of the changes are good.