King Eider’s Pub, Damariscotta: a dozen Dodge Cove oysters in front of us. Hundreds of large-scale, numbered-on-the-bottom beer mugs hang from the rafters (the manager tells us it’s a couple hundred dollars for a one-time buy of the mug, the buyer gets a special hook on the ceiling and discounted beer for life). The sun’s coming in the picture window, our booth has a nice warm feel to it. We started the day moving, cleaning up dirt, grime, and mice droppings and then, I began painting and continued for eight hours, so I welcome my martini with gusto.

Clear, most of the day was painting –  funky fiber-board walls in a recently-purchased, sixty-year-old, well-loved but amateur-built, lopsided camp fifteen miles from the Pub. I decided to paint everything white – to cover up the tired, streaked, banana yellow color that, over decades, had experienced coffee sprays, detritus from a leaky roof, dog scratches and what I think must have been a few nacho fests or salsa food fights? Or was it a crazy crayon battle? Magic Marker mayhem? Catsup catastrophe?

There are these random streaks along the baseboard in the mini-sunroom. They’re reddish. They cluster in and around a corner where the wiring for an old cable hook-up still lives.

The inexpensive one-coat primer/paint I bought from the cute and efficient hardware sales guy was supposed to do the trick. He’d told me he’d been in the Navy and tasked with painting and repainting ships’ interiors for his entire years of service, so, of course he was knowledgeable about paint. He recommended this hardware-store-brand paint; said he’d painted his whole house with it, had no problems at all.

But maybe he’d never encountered this STUBBORN RED. A red that refuses to be subdued.

I painted. Let the wall dry. Painted it again. Let the wall dry. The STUBBORN RED streaks and splatters were momentarily covered and – seconds later – they rose to the surface again like corpses – the ones that float to the top of a river if they haven’t been properly weighted down.

Is it blood? I know our brains are all going there.

I don’t know.

Wikipedia tells me I can get blood off walls using Clean Magic Erasers or Scotch-Brite Eraser pads.

It also tells me that an artist in New York named Vincent Castiglia uses his own blood as paint because he wants to connect on an “intimate level” with his work and his patrons.  And since, he says, human blood contains iron oxide (a pigment found in many traditional paints) he figured “what a perfect substance to create that intimacy”. Castiglia’s work is not cheap, and it does sell, so I guess his “body-fluid presence” graces a lot of people’s homes.

Quick research also tells me that I can paint over blood. Experts say it may take one coat – at the most two coats. It should be able to be forced to disappear into the walls.

But, after four coats of paint, my STUBBORN RED has not disappeared. It does a teasing disappearance act, then keeps appearing on the surface again with a “can’t get rid of me” smirk.

The painting dilemma led me to thinking about another problem I’m facing: How much backstory should go into a book series? When should it appear and when should it disappear? I’m into the third book of my Dee Rommel Mystery series, and this question is consuming me.

I’m not a disciplined “read-in-the-order-the-author-hoped-for” person. I prefer to do that, but sometimes it’s not convenient – or I make a mistake and pick up the wrong book.

How much backstory/history does the reader want or need? Louise Penny has given us 17 (so far) books featuring great main characters. Each book sets up (reminds us) of Chief Inspector of Surete du Quebec Armand Gamache and his intense love of his wife, his pride in his children, and his worry about his right-hand man’s (Jean-Guy) former drug addiction. Also, she provides the histories of the odd assortment of villagers and the reasons for their quirky attitudes. And sometimes (sometimes not) quick re-caps of past investigations. She does remind us of the current state of mind of the characters and the current political/personal climates of their work. As the series progresses, the characters go through changes and, for me, I appreciate Penny awakening my memories of what has gone on before.

I also appreciate how Penny manages to fill these memories swiftly. But how does she decide what to include in each of the books? She’s judicious, it’s not the same in each one. I would love to be schooled in how she decides what’s to be included.

Michael Connelly’s got 20 books (so far) featuring Bosch. Connelly doesn’t linger in backstory or in catching the reader up with Harry Bosch’s life. The books focus on the current crime. Harry’s personality (prickly, smart, a loner) is front and center, but, for the most part, not his past loves, friendships or living situations.

Patricia Cornwell (her Kay Scarpetta series) and Sue Grafton (in the Kinsey Malone series) do more. The exposition is woven in, sometimes overtly, sometimes elegantly.

I love Anne Perry’s various crime/mystery series (Charlotte and Thomas Pitt (30+ books), William Monk (20+ books), Daniel Pitt (6 books) and Elena Standish (4 books), but I do find myself wanting more backstory/history for each of her characters – it would make it easier for me to jump on board the story train. I don’t want to spend time, as a reader, googling past synopses or trying to remind myself of past plots and relationship timelines, I want to be subtly fed what I need to remember.

M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series keeps the reader informed of the “why” the character is in the state she’s in (relationships, career, state of mind) and then moves forward with the crime/mystery. Beaton gets the backstories “out of the way” early, and moves on.

Janet Evanovich, in most of her 27 books in the Stephanie Plum series, holds the reader’s hand a bit and provides a catch-up.  The character, Plum, has  aged and grown and changed.  If I’ve missed a book in the “proper” sequence, she fills me in.

I haven’t read Joe Nesbo for a few years, and I could be wrong, but I think Harry Hole does not get a big backstory fill-in. Let me know if I am falsely remembering the stories.

Back to my STUBBORN RED. After the fifth coat of paint, and watching the red disappear and then rise again to the surface, I figure that – in a way – the RED is telling me  there might be some interesting history or backstory to this funky cottage that I am now calling “mine”.

Now to the questions that concerns my dilemma: how much history and backstory is too much (or too little)? How do I make sure readers can jump on board the Dee Rommel series’ story train with going down the exposition rabbit hole?

Would love to know how other people handle it.

About jselbo

Jule Selbo's latest book, 10 DAYS, A Dee Rommel Mystery, the first in a mystery/crime series, received a starred review on Kirkus and just landed on Kirkus Top Five List of Crime/Mystery books from independent publishers. It's also a finalist in the best of Foreword Review and Maine Literary Award. She absconded from Hollywood (and her work there as a produced screenwriter)to Portland Maine to write novels. Other books include Find Me in Florence, Dreams of Discovery -The John Cabot Story and Breaking Barriers - Based on the Life of Laura Bassi. She's just completed the next book in the Dee Rommel series: 9 DAYS, A Dee Rommel Mystery; release date was September 2022. She's currently working on 8 DAYS...
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  1. John Clark says:

    It would seem that your ‘blood’ problems most likely stems from the ritual killing of an alien being from planet Mongo. Research suggests that painting is ineffective until the room has been blessed by an itinerant shaman from one of the fringe planets. The best place to find one, I’m told, is by visiting the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. On a slightly more serious note, I prefer just enough refresher so I’m not wasting time trying to remember who was/did what in the previous book. A delicate balance, that.

    • jselbo says:

      I plan to sleep in the funky little cottage for the first time on Friday. If an alien crawls into bed with me – I’ll let you know

  2. Maureen Milliken says:

    I’ve painted over blood! I like Behr brand for that. But in any case… as a reader, I find it annoying when an author basically cuts and pasts the same background into every book. It’s great for new readers, but boring and distracting for those who have read the series. So, as a writer, I tried to avoid that. I try to weave whatever backstory is necessary in naturally rather than plunk a block of exposition in. Another reader peeve has always been that these people went through life-threatening trauma in the last book, so in the current one, it shouldn’t be like it never happened. i try to give enough so that new readers will get the gist of what happened before, without giving away the events of the previous book and spoiling it for them. It’s one of those writing challenges I enjoy — trying to keep returning readers fully engaged without making new readers feel they’re missing something essential to the plot, and more importantly, character development. My aim is always just to make it a natural part of the story.

    • jselbo says:

      Maureen – yes – a challenge to enjoy. How many times do I ask. -mmmm. can I make this work? Sometimes I can – sometimes I’m not sure for months – and then – hopefully – when going back to work it again – something falls into place. BEHR paint for over blood – mmmm

  3. Julianne Spreng says:

    For stubborn stains Kilz or just plain old clear urethane. Then paint. Red is hard, but blood does cover pretty easily. Like Maureen, been there. Done that. As far as back story, I prefer a quick review at the beginning as per Evanovich or pertinent bits dropped at necessary passages as per many authors. The sprinkling doesn’t bog down, but enhances your connection to the character.

    • jselbo says:

      I am gonna go for the dropping of info when it becomes necessary to move current story forward – and/or character. Maybe a broad stroke here or there at the top

  4. kaitcarson says:

    I second Julianne’s Kilz recommendation. It’s a miracle worker. I haven’t covered blood, but now I want to know why so many of you have! Inquiring minds….

    My books usually have dribbles of backstory scattered throughout the book in places where they would naturally arise in real life (I hope – that’s the plan, only readers can tell me if I succeeded).

    • jselbo says:

      Scatter is the way I am gonna approach this – I have always felt that doing flashbacks (when I was a screenwriter) the best thing was to avoid them avoid them avoid them until they were needed to push the story forward. So I was thinking, after reading your comment – that I might think of it that way…

  5. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    Maybe the house is trying to tell you something…plot bunny!

  6. Amber Foxx says:

    I liked the King Eider setting of the opening of this post. Have not been to Damariscotta for years. Now, as to backstory: I always get at least one beta reader for each new book who has not read the rest of my series and ask for their feedback on that issue. I dislike long chunks of backstory and expository dialogue, so I start with as little as possible and fill in where any of these readers say I need to. It’s usually just a line or two needed here and there. They also find material I can cut, even though I thought I kept backstory to a minimum. Hope you get that red out.

    • jselbo says:

      Thanks – and I too have a great dislike of heavy exposition. It’d ruin a nice martini at King Eider for sure.


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