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From a Newtown Literary contributor: Rayna White

Writer Rayna White's short fiction was featured in issue #18 of Newtown Literary. For our blog, she writes about the importance of backstory and how to make your characters come alive on the page.

Writing “Disaster Relief” was fun. This was the first time I’ve written a short story with a full cast of characters. My previous stories all center around one or two characters at most, but for this one, I couldn’t shake the idea of writing about a family. Initially, I had no idea what to do with all these people. I had some ideas, but I was completely surprised once I really got deeper into the storytelling. It was sort of like when you shake a gift box and think you can guess what’s inside and then when you take off all the wrapping it’s not even close to what you had guessed.

In my first draft, the opening line was “I can’t stop staring at my mother’s varicose veins.” I thought I was writing about Bee’s fear of becoming like her mother. Then that idea started to get away from me, and I thought I was writing about a family overcoming racial discrimination while on a volunteer mission. I could even picture and hear this passive aggressive racist character that would have effectively been an antagonist throughout their entire mission. But that’s not where this story wanted to go. And then I got stuck.

I had been watching the farewell special for Schitt’s Creek, Best Wishes, Warmest Regards. Dan Levy was giving an interview and shared that when he and his father had been gearing up to write the pilot episode, they had spent weeks working on backstory to the point that it had become tiresome. Obviously, it all paid off for them in the end. I remember balking at the idea of doing that much backstory. It was just way too tedious and time consuming. But there I was, looking at a bunch of words on a screen, stuck. So, I figured I’d give it a try.

It didn’t take week—a few days maybe. I’d love to say that the entire story opened before my eyes after that. It didn’t. But my time had not been wasted. The characters had become alive for me, and their dynamic as a family had begun to take shape. I had actual people to write about, people I could form ideas around, and I was slowly getting unstuck. And then came the brain tumor. It just popped up out of nowhere. I think I was doing something mundane like sweeping my kitchen floor when the idea came to me, and I ran and scribbled down some notes. In my experience, the muse likes to show up when story is the last thing on my mind; and she always comes with a big giant gift. But I’ll still give credit to the backstory process. I don’t think that the idea would have simply arrived if I hadn’t done the work. So now, extensive backstory is a regular part of my process. I have to know who I’m working with.

It was nerve-racking to write about brain tumors. I’m not a scientist, and most certainly not a neuroscientist by any stretch. I kept worrying that the topic was too big for me. I’d spent days researching articles about brain tumors on the hippocampus. Even after all the reading, I still didn’t think I was ready to write this story. I told myself that, short of interviewing a brain surgeon or neurologist, I probably wasn’t going to get the science exactly right, and so I stayed away. I worked on other projects. But the story was nagging, and finally I just told myself that it’s not my job to get this exactly right. It’s my job to make it real. So, I went for it.

I loved writing this story because family is such a fun concept to work with. There’s so much opportunity for emotional exploration. There are also so many variations of family, and the dynamics between each person can sometimes get tricky. I’d always wanted to write a family-centered story and I’m thrilled that these are the characters that showed up.

Thanks, Rayna!

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