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.