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The Writer's Mailbag: Installment #342

Happy New Year, of Course

During one of my frequent reflections, I was thinking back to my history regarding New Year’s Eve, and I discovered I really don’t have much of a history to relate.

My parents were not big on celebrating. They never went to parties. As best as I can remember, as a kid, this holiday was spent staying up late and clanging pots and pans together at midnight, followed by a good night’s sleep, and football on television all day New Year’s Day.

It didn’t change much as an adult. I rarely went to parties, rarely as in maybe four or five total. I don’t like being on the road when the amateur drinkers are out and about, and I know this is going to sound odd, coming from an alcoholic, but I really don’t like to be around people when they are liquored up. I find people who have been drinking too much annoy the hell out of me. LOL I’m only laughing because I can just imagine how much I annoyed people when I was drinking.

Anyway, I hope you made it through the holiday safe and sound. Now, join me in hoping for a much better, prosperous, and Happier New Year! Come on, 2021, give us something to cheer about.

It’s time for the Mailbag!

The Mail Room!

The Mail Room!

Too Much Backstory

From Peter: “What do you think? Is there such a thing as giving the reader too much backstory?”

Yessir, there is. You didn’t specify whether you are talking about a short story or a novel, but the answer is the same for both of them.

For a short story, maybe a couple thousand words, the backstory is going to be limited to a handful of sentences. Any more than that and you will cripple the action and ruin the pace/rhythm. For a novel, say in the 60,000 word range, you obviously have much more to play with, but you still have to be careful. Too much backstory has a tendency to drag a story down to a sloggy mess. And what I’ve really noticed is that many writers feel they need to give all the backstory early on in the first couple chapters. It turns out slow, awkward, and boring.

For a novel, sprinkle backstory throughout the novel, and do so in a way which does not make the novel all about backstory and not about the actual story you are telling.

Practice may not actually make a perfect writer, but it sure can improve one.

Pros and Cons of Real-Life Settings Vs Made-up Settings

From Andrea: “Do you have a preference between real-life or made-up settings, and why?”

I prefer real-life because I’m familiar with the settings I’m writing about. Most of my novels take place in Olympia, the city I live in, or in other places I have lived or spent a great deal of time in. For me it’s just easier to do that, but I say that with this warning: you have to be very accurate when doing this. Those people who read my books are very quick to point out when I got a street name wrong, or said a business was in one section of the city when in fact it was somewhere else.

You have a lot of freedom when using made-up settings, but I also think they add to your workload. Personally, I can’t imagine writing about a fictional land like the creator of Game of Thrones did. I would have such a hard time keeping track of the locations. I’m sure I would mess up constantly.

Anyway, you asked for my preference, so there you have it.

Real life settings are the easiest for this writer.

Real life settings are the easiest for this writer.

Some Writers

From Zulma: “Some writers write about how things should be. Some to figure out how things are. I'm curious. Which do you consider yourself to be? Or do you have a third option?”

What a fascinating question, Zulma. I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about it, but I will now.

I guess I’m a combination of the two. I am a reflective writer. I sort out life’s stuff when I’m writing. It’s like a literary therapy session for me. I sort out my past, my present, and my future. I hold my actions, and the actions of my fellow man (and woman) under a microscope when I write. I love heavy topics. Small talk annoys me. My characters are always reflecting, which is to say they are giving voice to my thoughts.

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I think it’s safe to say that my main characters are very much me. When Eli Baker reflects about good vs evil, that’s me doing the reflecting. When Tobias reflects about poverty and homelessness and trafficking, that’s me reflecting. I don’t think it’s possible to separate me from my characters.

I think that answered your question.

Interviewing Question

From Joel: “I have the opportunity to interview a local celebrity, no one you’ve heard of, but a big deal in our city. Anyway, I don’t want to ask the same old tired questions everyone else asks. Any suggestions on what I should ask her?”

I love this question, Joel, for this simple reason: your goal is to find a new way to interview someone. You are trying to be unique in our approach, and I applaud that. I am so tired of interviews which feature the same old tired questions. “When did you know you wanted to be an actor?” “What was your first acting gig?” “Do you come from an artistic family?” And blah, blah, and more blah.

I love questions which get down to the marrow or a person. In other words, I want to know who that person really is and not who the public persona is. If you can get that local celebrity to drop his/her mask, to lower the protective shield, and really talk about some nitty gritty, you will have conducted one hell of an interview.

Go a step further than the norm. Take one of those questions above, “When did you know you wanted to be an actor?” Follow that up with a question about having doubts, or a question about “why do you think you want to put yourself out there for public scrutiny? Is it about adoration? Are you feeding some need inside of you?” Ask those questions and I’ll pay to read the interview.


From Jessica: “Come on, Bill, give a girl a prompt to wake up my muse. No, I’m going to be greedy: give me five writing prompts, please. PLEASE!”

You are being greedy, Jessica. Sheez, who am I, Mister Prompt?

Okay, here you go:

  • Look out the window. What’s the weather like? That’s the setting for your short story. Describe, in detail, the feelings that weather invokes.
  • Two strangers meet on a cruise ship. Both just broke off their engagements.
  • A five-year old child sits down at a piano for the first time and plays, perfectly, a song she heard on the radio. The parents are astounded. What happens next?
  • A family is homeless because of the pandemic. They now live in a shelter. Mom and Dad are desperate to find jobs.
  • Two ten-year old boys meet on the playground, play catch for an hour, and a lifelong friendship begins.
Prompts are all around us; open your eyes and see them! This is a story waiting to be written.

Prompts are all around us; open your eyes and see them! This is a story waiting to be written.

Any New Year Resolutions?

From Jackie: “Well, Bill, do you have any New Year resolutions for 2021?”

Sorry, Jackie, but I don’t do resolutions. I’m a goal-oriented person all year long, so your question is like asking me if I have a resolution for May, for June, for July . . . and the answer is yes for each of those.

Compassion in 2021

The deaths, the loss of income, the loss of small businesses, it is absolutely staggering to think about, this aftermath of 2020, and each of those losses radiates outward, affecting others. The death of a beloved teacher affects her family and hundreds of her students. The loss of a job cripples the family, hurts the economy, and on and on we go.

Bottom line: there are a lot of people hurting out there, and I, for one, plan on showing compassion as I move through my day. I don’t have money to give, but I do have empathy and compassion, and I believe those gifts are priceless.

I hope you all have a brilliantly happy 2021. I thank you for being a part of my 2020, and I look forward to improving upon our already wonderful friendship.

Peace and blessings to you all!

2021 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”


Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 07, 2021:

All true, Flourish! It's a hard lesson to teach some fledgling writers, but it's a lesson that needs to be learned.

FlourishAnyway from USA on January 07, 2021:

Too much backstory and you get totally lost in the weeds.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 06, 2021:

Thanks for checking in, MizB. We are having our bathroom remodeled as I speak, but one of our sons, a carpenter, is doing all the work. As you said, too hard on the old bones, and I'm more than willing to pass the torch to a new generation of carpenters. :)

Have a fabulous week, my friend!!!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 06, 2021:

Linda, call it "low tech" celebration. lol Have a good Wednesday, and thank you!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 06, 2021:

Nithya, I share your hope that 2021 is better for all of us. This last year was no fun at all, my friend.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on January 05, 2021:

Bill, I really like Joel’s question. I have a suggestion for him. Go at it like you are going to write a feature story on this person. Since this is a local celebrity, I’m sure that a bio is available. Procure one and study it because it should help to formulate some questions. For instance, such statements as “Raised by her grandmother after her parents’ death ….” Could bring up interesting questions about her values that pertain to her current celebrityship. (Spellcheck tells me that isn’t a word, but who cares?) If he doesn’t personally know this celebrity, it should be pleasing for her to know that he cared enough to learn about her. Going into an interview cold (and ignorant) is daunting and can end in failure.

I’ve been so busy that some days I forget about HubPages. I had to turn off notifications because Google was threatening to charge me for the gmail space I was using. Just checking in for a little while today because we are remodeling another house to put on the market. I so hope this is our last one. We’d hoped to finish before Christmas, but we had another run of bad luck, and it’s hard to get motivated in cold weather. Too hard on the old bones (both of us).

Have a safe happy winter and a good rest of the week, my friend.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on January 05, 2021:

Thank you for sharing the interesting and thought-provoking points in this article, Bill. I enjoyed reading about the tradition of clanging pots and pans at the start of the new year. I've never heard of that custom before.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on January 05, 2021:

Great questions and answers. We celebrate New Year with our family and friends at home. Better safe than sorry.

Love all your writing prompts. Year 2020 was terrible and I hope this year is kind to everyone.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 05, 2021:

Thank you Mary! What about you? When can I expect your next piece? I owe you some work, my friend, so put me to work!!!!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 05, 2021:

Lora, you are very kind. Thank you for your support throughout 2020. I hope 2021 is an excellent year for you, my friend. Good people deserve good things happening to them.

Take care, stay safe, and blessings to you always.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 05, 2021:

So do I, Jo! Thanks so much, and Happy 2021 to you!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 05, 2021:

Interesting, MG! It was a good year for me as well, and I almost feel guilty saying that. Hopefully more people will find more stable financial ground in 2021. Thank you sir!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 05, 2021:

All ready, Manatita, to sprint through 2021 without any hinderances. lol Like that will happen! Oh well, one can hope! Blessings to you always!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 05, 2021:

Thank you Brenda! It sounds like you had a very nice New Year's celebration. I can handle low-key like that, but crowds of extra-loud people drive me over the edge of sanity very quickly. :)

Have a wonderful week!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 05, 2021:

Thank you Ruby! We heard a lot of firecrackers this year, much more than normal. I wonder why that was? Our dogs were not happy at all. One of them jumped in my lap and would not leave all evening. lol

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 05, 2021:

Alyssa, Martin needs to kick it in gear and get busy. The nerve of him, making us all wait so long. :)

Thank you my friend, and a Happy Week to you!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 05, 2021:

Peggy, don't even get me started about our elected leaders. I am distinctly anti-government at this moment. Perhaps that will change after January 20th.

Happy New Year, Peggy! Have a great week!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 05, 2021:

I hadn't thought about that, Denise, but you are correct about that movie. Funny, really, how they got away with it that way and turned out a masterpiece in the process. I love that movie!

Thank you my friend, and Happy New Year to you!


Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 05, 2021:

Life does get in the way, Bill! Hopefully you can retire soon and make way for your dreams and plans. :) Happy New Year, my friend!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 05, 2021:

Mr. Happy, you had me laughing early on. Thanks for that gift.

D.C. as a state? I don't think it will happen, although it should, as should Puerto Rico. Those two additions would go Democratic, and the Republicans certainly don't want that to happen. If I'm not mistaken, it takes a two-thirds yes vote to add a state, and I don't see that happening...although it certainly should! D.C. has been screwed by the Federal Government for far too long, in my opinion.

Take care, my friend!

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on January 05, 2021:

Bill, you are right about the many people suffering out there, and whatever compassion we can share will certainly bring hope to some. There's so much to digest in this mailbag. I need to read it again. I like it when you hare more of your reflections.

Lora Hollings on January 04, 2021:

This was a very special mailbag, Bill. I loved what you had to say about backstory and how your reflections are mirrored in your characters. And your thoughts on compassion for so many who are hurting in the aftermath of this pandemic. And I absolutely love your suggestions for prompts, especially the one about the five-year old child who sits down to the piano and plays a piece, perfectly, that she heard on the radio to the astonishment of her parents. So many ways that you could go on that. You are so right when you say look around you, there are prompts everywhere. I love the photo of your dog standing by the empty chairs. One could think of quite an imaginative story to go with that one! Thanks Bill for your wonderful mailbag that makes us all think about things a little more deeply. And cheers to a much better New Year!

Jo Miller from Tennessee on January 04, 2021:

I hope this new year is better for all of us and we can put some of the stress behind.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on January 04, 2021:

I liked reading your article you have raised many interesting points. 2020 was a particularly profitable year for me as I could publish five books. Maybe the Covid has something to do with this.

manatita44 from london on January 04, 2021:

New Year, Bill ... obviously. We made it!! Whew!! Lol. An even better one has started. Ready, steady ... go!! Hit the ground running! Haha. Lovely intro and great mailbag! Who would have thought we'd get this far? Buen suerte!

BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on January 04, 2021:


I hope the New Year greeted you well.

I agree about drunk people being so annoying and I must confess I have probably been one of those people in the past.

We usually don't drive far on New Year's Eve. We always go out for dinner to a local restaurant & then sometimes to a local club to listen to a live band.

Last year we opted to stay at home after dinner.

This year we did decide to drive about 45 minutes to a Longhorn Steak house just to change things up a bit.

Our thinking was 2020 brought so much devastation we wanted to try something different...hoping for a better spin for 2021.

Then we toasted in the new year with a glass of wine as we watched the ball drop on television.

Nothing big...but our little town is under curfew. We must be inside by 10:00 pm everything was closed.

I enjoyed reading your article.

The prompts were quite inspiring and you are right...there are prompts everywhere if one looks around.

Take care & have a nice day.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on January 04, 2021:

I share your feelings about people hurting. The small businesses are really hurting, esp. the small restaurants, people are hurting, no paycheck, and now the spike of a new virus. I agree with your feeling's about drunk drivers. We stayed home and watched a movie, and our neighbors shot off firecrackers at midnight. Thanks again for helping us to better writers.

Alyssa from Ohio on January 04, 2021:

The perfect start to the New Year? Another installment of the mailbag. A lot of food for thought here, thank you Bill! By mentioning Game of Thrones, you've reminded me of my quest to get George R.R. Martin to finish the dang books. I think we've all waited long enough and 2020 presented him the perfect opportunity to get it done. Okay, rant over. haha!

Have a wonderful week!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 04, 2021:

Like you, we have attended New Year's Eve parties, perhaps four or five times ever. It is just too dangerous being out on the roads because of alcohol mixed with driving.

All the questions were good ones. A back story should be gradually mixed into the story, or it becomes boring if all crammed into the first chapter.

So many people are hurting due to the pandemic. We all must do our best to be kind and reach out to help others in any way that we are able. Let's also hope that our elected leaders put people first when deciding upon policies.

Have a good week, Bill!

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on January 04, 2021:

I think compassion and empathy should be the watchwords for this whole new year. There is so much loss and anger around me, how can I steel myself against it? I was fortunate to have a safety net of retirement under me but others are not as secure.

We recently watched "It's a Wonderful Life," of course, and it always amazed me that they could get away with so much backstory. Half the movie is backstory but every single piece of it is necessary for the plot. I guess they got away with it by breaking it up with dialog of the angels, right? It must be the exception to the rule about backstory.

Have a blessed and happy new year.



Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on January 04, 2021:

Great way to start the new year, Bill. I never make resolutions, it’s just not something I want to be tied to. Of course I have things I want to accomplish but as 2020 has proven, sometimes life gets in the way. Anyway, here’s hoping that 2021 is a heck of a lot better than 2020.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 04, 2021:

Wow, Mel, San Diego to Colorado? I hope you write about the impetus to that move. At least you are still delivering mail. Well best wishes with all of that. I look forward to hearing more about it.

Happy New Year, Mel, and thank you for the kind words.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 04, 2021:

I love your optimism, Miebakagh! Let's hope you are correct. Happy New Year, my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 04, 2021:

Mary, I was listening to NPR the other day, and there was an interview, and the questions were so elementary and predictable I found myself getting annoyed. And they are professionals!!!!!

Anyway, Happy New Year and thank you!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 04, 2021:

No friggin' way, Linda, I'm spending that amount of time on setting. I doubt I would have done it thirty years ago. I'm fine here in Olympia. lol

Happy Monday and Happy New Year!

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on January 04, 2021:

"Two strangers meet on a cruise ship." - No they don't because: Covid!!! Don't go on a cruise!! LOL

What's your resolution for May? I like May, that's why I ask.

"This is a story waiting to be written." - No again. That's a dog wanting to play with You!! Look at that look: adorable.

I don't have New Year resolutions either. Every day is a new beginning for me so, I could make-up resolutions every morning. I'm just happy every time I wake-up again.

Okay, I'm gonna get on with my day. You have yourself a great first week of 2021 and best of luck for what is to come - cheers!

Before I forget, what do You think about Washington becoming a state? Came across an article from June this year: "House passes bill to make DC the 51st state, but GOP opposition means bill unlikely to advance further"

If the Senate escapes the Moscow Mitch curse, it might happen.

Alrighty, You have yourself a good one! All the best!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 04, 2021:

Heidi, well done, one of the first on Monday morning to comment. Did you turn over a new leaf for 2021? Not likely, me thinks. Certainly I didn't. I get there when I get there and hope for the best when commenting.

Anyway, your advice is gold and I thank you for it.

Happy Monday, my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 04, 2021:

Thank you always, Chitrangada Sharan! May 2021 be a wonderful year for you and your family.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 04, 2021:

You and me both, Eric! It's too easy to pass those on the street by. I can come up with an excuse in a heartbeat, but that does no one any good. Thanks for the reminder, buddy!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 04, 2021:

It is good to be optimistic, Rosina. Thank you and Happy Monday to you, my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 04, 2021:

I think we all pray for that, Pamela, so thank you and Happy New Year to you!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 04, 2021:

Thanks for getting here so quickly, John! I appreciate your loyalty. Have a great week!

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on January 04, 2021:

Hey Bill, I am happy you are still here doing your thing. I moved to Colorado a month ago, so I have been busy the last couple months, transferring my job and life over here. I am finally getting back in the writing game. Delivering the mail on snow and ice has proven to be a challenge for this Palm-tree Postman from sunny SoCal.

As far as backstory, I find that the most interesting of tales drill down slowly into the past history, unearthing bits and pieces of it as the plot moves along. I think this lends intrigue and a sense of mystery to the reader.

Great stuff. There have been changes here, but you are the immovable core of this place.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on January 04, 2021:

Hi Bill, thanks for sharing wour newest mail bag. The best is yet to come for 2021! Happy new 2021 to you and yours!

Mary Wickison from USA on January 04, 2021:

I agree with Joel about wanting to ask different questions. When I watch interviews, I almost know what the next question will be. I'm sure the writer will be pleased to answer something new.

I get a tad annoyed by reading the back story in a series. The back story keeps showing up. I have to remind myself that others might not have read earlier books and need to understand the details.

Have a wonderful week.

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on January 04, 2021:

What a great mailbag Bill (but they always are). Tolkien spent years creating Middle Earth before he wrote the stories. He even created maps and a language. I don't know about you, but I don't have the intellect or the TIME to do that (JRRT wasn't in his 70's). But to prove your point, the action in most of the stories by Stephen King is in Maine, his home.

Thank you for focusing on the positive--I'm hopefully optimistic about 2021. With a few more people like you on this earth we might just make it.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on January 04, 2021:

Happy 1st Mailbag of 2021! And I'm in it in the morning. Good start to the day, the week, and the year.

Re: Some Writers. Well, I think I'm a "how things are" writer. I've ranted on the state of self publishing and writing. So I'd put myself in that camp. Interesting question.

Re: Interviewing Questions. Agree that finding some unique questions to uncover some unique answers makes for a more interesting interview for everyone. However, I will say that for the sake of the interviewee, please send those unique questions to the interviewee ahead of the interview. I've been put in interview situations where I'll be asked a difficult question, or one I may not want to answer. Interviewees may shut down, get flustered, or stumble, making them feel embarrassed. Or maybe that was the interviewer's intent? How rude. Anyway, the heads up helps them answer more confidently.

Re: New Year's Resolutions? I never set them either. I prefer to concentrate on new habits that eventually lead to positive outcomes, whether that occurs within the year or not. A goal or resolution, when accomplished, sometimes feels like a letdown. If not accomplished, it's not only a letdown, but a failure.

Anyway, I'm glad we're all here after 2020. Looking forward to more of the Mailbag in 2021. Thank you for your service to our community!

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on January 04, 2021:

Hello Bill!

Good to read the first mailbag of the new year.

Such a wonderful mailbag, with various interesting questions and your answers. You have covered so many topics, and related useful information.

Yes, you are right that we must have empathy and show compassion for our fellow human beings.

May this year bring relief for everyone. Thank you for sharing this. Have a good day.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on January 04, 2021:

I like putting the back story and the characters reflection as part an parcel. No you did not say it just that way but that is what I got in the first two segments -- at least for me.

Great prompts. I could take off on any of them. But alas I am too behind on scheduled writings.

Something I need to start doing again is walking over to a street dweller and saying howdy. Instead of avoiding them like a virus.

Best intentions to you my friend.


Rosina S Khan on January 04, 2021:

A very good mailbag. I found it interesting and engaging to go through all of it. Hopefully 2021 will be a much better year for all of us. It's good to be optimistic. Happy Monday, Bill.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 04, 2021:

I am also happy to be here on time. This is an excellent mailbag, but they always are. I like the variety of questions today. I think your prompts were excellent, and I particularly like your possible interview questions, Bill.

I agree that we all need to show compassion and empathy as a lot of people are really hurting. I pray 2021 will be a better year.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on January 04, 2021:

Wow, I got in early this time. Excellent mailbag as always, Bill. The questions mostly seem to be one's not covered before, or that I hadn’t read. I think we all need to show empathy and compassion to each other this year and that will go along way to making it better for everyone.

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