Turning Backstory into a Novel?

Every writer practices. If you don’t, you should. You–and your readers–will notice the difference. Long before I ever thought about submitting any of my espionage fiction anywhere, I wrote backstory: to develop the characters, to explore the types of things I wanted to write about, to discover secondary characters. I ended up with several hundred pages of this, and when I finally got a good feel for the characters and the world I’d built, I started writing “seriously.”

What Did I Learn About the Characters?

First, I wanted some romance, but I didn’t want that to be the focus of the story. I wanted a strong female character who wasn’t a stereotype; indeed, I didn’t want her to be a stereotype anything. She wasn’t going to be a femme fatale or a honey trap, and she was going to extricate herself from danger, not be rescued by the strong handsome man. So, the “strong handsome man” character was going to have to be, of course, strong and handsome but also accepting of a woman as his equal and maybe struggle a bit with his suppressed feelings for her and trying to protect her without her knowing it. There had to be physical attraction between them, but again, that wasn’t to be the focus.

The secondary characters had to have rich detail and be as three dimensional as the main characters. Even the bad guys had to have depth–no evil for the sake of evil; they had to have backstory, too. There had to be diversity and inclusion, because, hello, I’m writing about a fictional U.N. organization.

What Was to Be the Focus?

History. Realism. On occasion in my old government agency, we worked with intelligence offices and law enforcement, especially after 9/11 when the eyes of the world were on the U.S. aviation system. What struck me was none of the people working in intelligence were James Bond, not overtly handsome or charming; they didn’t drink martinis, much less shaken not stirred; and they had trouble with their marriages, with their kids, paying the bills, etc., like anyone else.

And thus I had the concept of “real spies, real lives.”

And since I’m a degreed history geek, dropping my two spies into actual events occurring during the Cold War and beyond was the perfect set-up for me. Also, I’d lived through the Cold War. I remembered quite well the fear that the Russians would strike first, and we’d have to survive in a post-nuclear dystopia. I remembered the duck and cover drills at school, having to bring a shoe box containing a change of underwear, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, a hair brush and a comb. All this even though I lived 70+ miles away from a potential target because fallout.

So, my two main characters work for a global, highly secretive intelligence organization, but they also have to contend with a child during her teen years, not particularly easy when you’re globe-trotting spies. They make it work. Most of the time, but that’s real life for you.

So, What Happened to the Backstory I Wrote?

Those vignettes I’d written to develop character backstory eventually made their way–rewritten–into short stories and the occasional scene in a novel.

This year for NaNoWriMo, backstory is becoming a standalone novel. Well, the rough draft of one.

My character Mai Fisher’s backstory is that her parents were spies and partners and that they were killed on a mission when Mai was five. She was raised by governesses and nannies and her guardian, also a spy. He recruited her when she was 15, relying on the fact that espionage was her “legacy” from her parents. She had the choice of being a privileged aristocrat or “making a difference.” She chose the latter to honor her parents’ sacrifice.

But even in the backstory, I wondered, “What if one of her parents didn’t die?”

The backstory for that was some notes, nothing well-fleshed out. I even dropped hints in a couple of short stories and scenes that perhaps it was Mai’s mother who survived but hid or was hidden for decades.

As NaNoWriMo 2021 approached, and I started thinking about a project, I decided it was time for that backstory to see the light of day–or the glow from the computer screen.

And How Did That Work Out?

In a way I didn’t expect. First, the working title is Mother – A Spy’s Legacy, which is catchy in a way and an homage to Le Carre’s A Legacy of Spies. Before I’d even reached the halfway point of 25,000 words I realized a better title would be Secrets, because every person in this story is keeping a secret, one they don’t want to be exposed.

That means the characters will do whatever is necessary to assure the secret–or in this case, secrets–doesn’t get out. From an archivist in the Directorate who doesn’t want his sexual practices to be exposed, to the head of the Directorate who hides his misogyny, to a woman who has to hide her sexual orientation because it’s the unenlightened 1950s, everyone wants to keep their secrets.

And yes, that’s what spies do; they keep secrets. Sometimes, though, the secret is personal and totally unrelated to national security.

Like assuring an experienced spy with post traumatic stress and her own insecurities and vulnerabilities doesn’t find out that her mother may have lived. Writing about the lengths Alexei Bukharin will go to to keep that from his wife–yes, he knows–has been revealing and cathartic. As usual, my writing has allowed me to deal with issues of my own.

What are they, you ask?

As with this novel, some secrets are meant to be kept.