Blogging Westercon – Thursday Night, Part 1

Westercon doesn’t really get underway until today–the opening ceremonies are at noon–but there was some “pre-convention” programming last night, and I took in a couple of panels.

I didn’t take complete notes–I was using my Harrier and although I’m pretty fast with a stylus on a virtual keyboard, I’m not fast enough to catch everything that’s said. Also, I had Alice on my lap for part of the first panel.

But here are a few tidbits from the first panel I attended, on Backstory. Panelists were Dave Duncan, Diane Walton, Leslie Carmichael and S. M. Stirling. The panelists said pretty much what I expected: don’t try to cram everything you know about your world and characters into your novel or short story, and especially don’t try to do that in the first few pages–that’s deadly. (Interestingly, Dave Duncan says he sends his assembled “bible” about any world he creates to the editor along with the manuscript.)

In historical fiction, Dave noted, there are some things you simply cannot know, no matter how much research you do–in which case, you have to extrapolate. If someone out there does know the truth, and catches you in extrapolating something that doesn’t match historical fact, you will hear about it.

S.M. Stirling concurred, although he noted, it isn’t what you don’t know that usually gets you–you can research that–it’s the things you think you know that are actually wrong. He gave the example of a Rudyard Kipling short story that features a beautiful description of life as a Roman galley slave. Alas, the Romans never had galley slaves, and even in the 19th century, Kipling could have found that out–he just assumed he knew the truth instead of checking.

Stirling’s rule for presenting backstory is that it’s only as important as its effects on the people in the story.

Everyone agreed its easier to do backstory for fantasy, where you can make more stuff up, than it is for science fiction.

Presenting backstory in the second, third, fourth, etc., books of a series was also discussed, since in the ongoing books of a series, what happened in previous books is backstory.

It’s a challenge, everyone agreed; you simply have to treat that backstory like you would any other and present it along with the story.

Dave made an excellent suggestion: bringing in the backstory by presenting it from the viewpoint of a different character than the first time around. That keeps regular readers entertained while educating new readers about the world and history.

There was much more, but that gives you some of the flavour.

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