Sprinkle with Backstory to Finish

I recently discovered that I can write erotica. I’m as surprised as you are.

Here’s the thing about erotica. It’s not so much that nobody cares about the plot, as that it’s not the main reason your reader is there. It’s just that a good story along with your sexy times is a nice bonus, you know?

For my latest, I wrote what I think was a really nice story. Two lovers separated by a civil war reunite when one captures the other’s ship. The captured captain needs to distract his former lover long enough for an escape plan to work. Sexy times ensue. And then there’s a resolution. Boom. A story. A successful story, judging by the fact that it not only sold, but more stories have been requested.

Prior to writing this story, I opened up my timeline program and determined not just the birth dates of the two captains, but of the warring monarchs as well. I determined when the war broke out, why the war broke out, and why the lovers ended up on opposite sides. I knew when the two captains first became lovers, I knew the extent of their friendships with the monarchs, when the rightful queen was coronated, and when the usurper attacked. I even know what motivated the usurper to attack.

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And none of that information is sexy. If I’d included all the detail I had in my head, not only would the story have been bloated, it would have been boring.  That backstory that I’d worked so hard to create formed a base that allowed me to enrich the world, like a sprinkling of Kosher salt - enhancing without overwhelming.

Backstory is important to any story, sexy or otherwise. It’s what makes characters feel like people and your world feel like their home. Too many writers, particularly fantasy, want to not just include it, but begin the story with it. There’s a very good chance I will never care enough to want to read about your rich tapestry of 1000 years of history for your kingdom. I definitely do not in your first chapter.

We all have different writing processes. Maybe you don’t need a full-on timeline with births, deaths, and major events for the past few decades, but you do need to remember that these characters should feel as if they existed before you started writing them. They have parents and cousins and old friends they haven’t seen in 10 years. They have fears and hopes and dreams. They’ve probably had a bad breakup or suffered the death of someone close. You should know these things, even though the reader gets only a hint of them. Whether you’re world building a small town in Maine, an entire fantasy world, or an entire sci-fi universe, that world existed long before your story begins, and you need to make sure your readers can tell that history exists.

Take your story on a backstory slim-down. Leave enough of it there to flavor your story, to enhance it. And if you still want to tell that backstory, post it on your blog as bonus content after you get the main story published.


Donna A. Leahey

As a child in school, Donna Leahey turned her vocabulary homework into short stories. Years later, she is still crafting stories. Geek, gamer, writer, mother, procrastinator, and pet lover, Donna is a practicing veterinarian and free-lance writer as well as an active creator of podcasts. You can hear her and her friends on Beyond the Cabin in the Woods: A Good Ghouls Guide to Horror, Collective Snark, and Once More With Feeling: A 20th Anniversary Buffy Fancast as well as her 4th podcast, The Family Business: A Supernatural Fancast. You can follow her on Twitter.

Proceed at Your Own Risk


I was born into Generation X. Actually, there was recently a change in terminology for those, like me, born in 1976, but I don’t remember what that new term is, and I didn’t put any effort into finding it. Given how I was raised, there are times that my mindset tends to be closer to that of my Baby Boomer parents, and that may color how I look at the topic of this post, which is not about the various names for population demographics but actually trigger warnings. Trigger Warnings: those magical words that conjure up older people screaming about Millenials—who most people think range in age from newborn to whatever age the perceived offended person is—and how coddled and fragile they are. (Insert rolled eyes here.)

While I don’t agree that Millenials are what is wrong with the world today, I also don’t agree with trigger warnings when it comes to writing. “Why?” you may ask. Well, there are many reasons, and they are all wholly mine. That’s right, they’re my reasons, and you may or may not agree with them. And guess what? That’s okay. (And before I go further, let me say, I have my own mental health issues that I have to deal with. The most recent ones stem from working as a child abuse investigator.)

Publishers tend to stick to one specific genre, and if they want to publish other genres, they form imprints to focus on that. A Murder of Storytellers publishes horror and dark fiction. There are some light-hearted pieces thrown in here and there, but for the most part, you can expect murder/death/kill along with terror, blood, and horrific things that go bump in your brain. Basic internet research for any publisher or imprint will give you an idea of the types of works they publish. You owe it to yourself and to your mental health to do that research.

No one is responsible for my mental health but me. If I read—or watch, or hear—something that upsets me, it’s my responsibility to get away from it. The most recent example of this was an episode of Black Mirror. Now, I love this series. It’s sometimes way out there in terms of believability or concept. (That first episode of season one, am I right?!) However, I love the dark techno-dystopia feel of most of the episodes. The one that triggered me, though, was a little girl who wasn’t allowed to see anything upsetting or traumatizing, so she began self-harming. Well, as I mentioned above, as a child abuse investigator, I’ve seen more than my fair share of children harmed. When it was suddenly placed in front of me again, I started hyperventilating, becoming anxious, and could not turn it off fast enough. It took a while to recover, but I did.

I could have become upset that I wasn’t warned about what was going to happen, but I didn’t. It actually helped me look deeper into how the episode affected me. I already knew that I was experiencing secondary trauma related to my (thankfully) former profession, but this gave me further insight and helped me realize that I might also have PTSD because of it. The most important thing, though, is that it showed me that I had to step up and seek help for that. It’s my responsibility to take care of me. Others can help me with that process—for example, I can ask people not to recommend books that deal with children being abused—but it’s not on them to protect me. It’s on me to seek treatment and healing for myself.

If you have made it this far with me—even if you’re screaming at your monitor that I’m an idiot—I want to say one last thing. Only you know how deep and broad your trauma is. You may already be seeking treatment for it, and if you are, I’m proud of you. It’s not easy to do. I know from experience. Just remember that you are the most important person in your life, and it is up to you to protect and nurture yourself. No one else can do it as well as you can. So, do the research. Look into what you want to read before you read it.

Also, remember that the age of publishing we find ourselves in today, it is easier than ever to reach out to authors and engage them about their work. Authors love to talk about what they’ve written, and I think you’ll find most of them will be more than willing to give you brief details about a piece so that you can make an informed decision about whether it will be safe for you to read.

Shannon Iwanski - Editor

Shannon Iwanski - Editor

Shannon Iwanski is the former president of the Tulsa-based writing group Nevermore Edits, a member of Oklahoma Writers' Federation, Inc., and Editor-in-Chief of Inkubus Publishing, LLC. To learn more about him and his plans to turn the world into a dystopian society, check out shannoniwanski.com.

The Ultimate Diversity is Casual, but Getting There is Anything But

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I grew up on the United States-Mexico border, so I had seen as many shades of brown as there are grains of sand in the Chihuahuan Desert by the time I could speak. And when I learned to do that, I learned not just my “first” language, English, but also Spanish from my friends at school, who often spoke it exclusively at home and mixed it in on the playground. My own cultural upbringing was a combination of my maternal grandmother’s Mexican and my maternal grandfather’s “American.” For the most part, this blend of untameable tongues and the cultures they represented were simply aspects of my identity that I was proud to inherit but also not necessarily anything that set me apart in any special way. It was all I knew: people who happened to be Mexican (and lots of other things) going about their daily lives, all with our own hopes and dreams, fears and problems.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. It should be, but as it turns out diversity has different levels, including the “casual diversity” that graced the first 21 years of my life before I moved to Boston. My own role in it is further complicated by my mixed ethnicities as well as the various forms of privileges and marginalizations I happen to have been born with and acquired. Thanks to my grandfather, I can pass for white, especially after five New England winters. Thanks to my mom I received a great education, a solid roof, an always-full belly, and lots of love. Thanks to my dad, I’ve travelled the world and know how to interact with a variety of people. My fiance was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, so thanks to him I am learning and embracing a third language and culture; when we have one, our child will be able to speak at least four languages between us. I might be a nearsighted Latina woman with anxiety who has struggled with depression, but I’m also cisgender, heterosexual, and am able to (begrudgingly) pay for healthcare in a state with a world renowned healthcare infrastructure, even though I only work part time. I was born in a country that grants me the right to add “begrudgingly” as a qualifier of protest with little consequence, at least while the Constitution holds.

These are all important for me (and anyone trying to incorporate or advocate for diversity in their community) to hold when writing because while I do write about race, gender, class, and other “issues,” that my characters and I sometimes struggle with, that’s not the only thing I want to portray. Vulnerable groups aren’t just their vulnerabilities and because I have the authority to speak as a member of only some of those groups, I have the obligation to take extra care when I bring a character who is different than me to life, or even try to portray my own background. In other words, when someone reads one of my stories, even one that is explicitly about a Chicanx experience, I don’t want it to be exemplary of what that means for all Chicanx people (another very historied word for folks who specifically identify as Mexican-American), or as the case sometimes is all Latinx people at once (as in using Mexico as synonymous with all Central and South America). After all, no one watches a show like Friends, and thinks “Gee, every New Yorker must have a giant apartment like that, how cool!” or even more exaggeratedly “Wow! American people are so funny!” And yet, sometimes that’s what ends up happening with shows in particular, but in any media that have casts that are partly or entirely people of color: if the creators aren’t careful in the portrayal of the characters, they’ll end up getting lost in the stereotypes or reduced to their struggles. The idea of casual diversity, which makes it perhaps the ultimate form of diversity, is that it becomes another piece of the wide, varied normal. We need casual diversity in every kind of media because it helps viewers of every identity imagine a world that is accessible and possible for everyone, but the creation and process by which we achieve it must be anything but casual.

Zyanya Avila Louis received her MFA in Fiction from Emerson College and now teaches in their First Year Writing Program. In her time working with students at Emerson, she as developed a passion for working with international students, multilingual students, and other diverse student populations, which is born from being bilingual herself. She loves writing and reading fiction and non-fiction, and occasionally enjoys poetry. Zyanya was born and raised in El Paso, TX and now lives in Quincy, MA with her fiance and her growing library of books.

Zyanya Avila Louis

Zyanya Avila Louis

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat, Repeat...

Today — June 3rd — is National Repeat Day. While the origins of this celebration of repetition are less than clear, it is nonetheless an auspicious day to pick something to do and repeat it, ad nauseam. Send the same messages, watch the same movies, eat the same foods.

To celebrate, we're posting a story by one of our murderers, CJ Miles IV, about the horrifying repetition of death, featuring artwork by Krowjak Illustration. "Repeat After Me" was originally published in Happy Days, Sweetheart.

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What's the Opposite of a Horror Movie Buff?

I have a shocking confession to make: I don’t like horror movies. At this point, I’m assuming you’ve either picked yourself up from the floor, or else the confession isn’t really that shocking. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen plenty of horror movies. I just don’t go out of my way to watch them because I can’t shut off my overactive imagination. Whether it’s mirrors, the dark, looking through windows into the dark, open closet doors, or the thought of a monster ready to grab me by the ankles and drag me under the bed, seeing these things on the big screen only reinforces the real-life fears I have.

So, now that you know what you’re dealing with, I thought I would further humiliate myself and tell you about my top five embarrassing reactions to some horror movies I’ve seen.

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