How to Skillfully Use Flashbacks in Your Novels

A section of a clock placed in front of a starry sky.
© Can Stock Photo / Nikki24

Readers give us great feedback. Nearly all of the reader reviewers for my debut Marina Martindale novel, The Reunion, commented on how well the flashback scenes were done.

If used properly, flashback scenes can greatly enhance the story. They can be a terrific tool for telling the backstory. Poorly done, however, and they can become a distraction or even a hindrance. They block your story flow and annoy the reader.

How to use flashbacks in your novel

  • Use flashbacks sparinglyThe Reunion has fifty chapters, but only four include flashbacks. The story is set in the present time. Therefore I didn’t want to spend too much time with the flashbacks.
  • Your flashbacks should be relevant to the present time. The Reunion is about two lovers having a second chance many years later. The flashbacks were a tool to allow the reader to see the characters meet for the first time and get a general feel for their earlier relationship. I decided not to show their original break up as a flashback. That backstory is instead told in dialogue. Dialogue, by the way, is another great tool for telling the backstory.
  • Watch where you insert a flashback. Never drop a flashback in the middle of a scene, especially if it’s cliffhanger. This will greatly upset and annoy your reader. I lead up to the flashback at the ending of a present day chapter. This prepares the reader for the flashback.

how to place a flashback

This flashback from The Reunion includes the ending paragraphs from Chapter One, with the last paragraph setting up the flashback scene. The flashback begins with Chapter Two.

* * *

Gillian looked a good ten years younger than her actual age. Despite all the time that had passed, she still looked much the same. About the only noticeable difference between then and now was that her long blonde hair was now a shoulder length pageboy. She started to reminisce about the past and her mind suddenly filled with a whirlwind of images of all they had shared, the good times as well as the bad. It was like watching a movie, but the scenes were spliced together out of sequence.

“Calm down, Gillian,” she told her reflection. “You’ve got to pull yourself together.”

 She took a few more deep breaths, and as she did the events of one particular day began playing back in her mind with crystal clarity. It was the day she first laid eyes on Ian Palmer.

Chapter Two

Gillian jammed her paintbrush into her palette and glanced at the wall clock. It was almost four twenty-five. Class would be over at four-thirty.

“Damn it,” she muttered to herself as she tried to work more white paint into the canvas.

This particular painting was one of those projects that simply wasn’t coming together, and the more she worked with it the worse it got. It happened to every artist from time to time, but it was never good when it happened in a university art class the day before the project was due, and the painting in question would count toward the final grade.

In conclusion

As you can see, I’ve set the reader up for the flashback by referencing about how the events of one particular day played back in the character’s mind. The reader is well prepared, and expects, the next chapter to be a flashback.

And finally, I only used flashbacks in The Reunion. I only did so because of the long interval of time between two characters interactions. None of my other novels include flashbacks.

Gayle Martin, aka Marina Martindale

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Hey Google! I Can Think for Myself

A block of letters that read "Search Rank."
© Can Stock Photo / Curioso_Travel_Photo

As some of you may have already noticed, I recently migrated this blog from Blogger to WordPress. Part of me hated doing this. I loved Blogger because it was so easy to use. Unfortunately, there was a problem. Google owns Blogger, and, like Facebook, Google is getting much too creepy.

As I discussed in my previous post, The Best Search Engines for Novel Writers, no writer should ever use Google for their searches. Nor would I limit this suggestion to just writers. In my humble opinion, no one should be using Google. No one. Google has become too powerful. So much so that it’s now trying to tell us what to think.

How Google is trying to manipulate us

Last night, as I was listening to Coast to Coast AM, the host announced her guest, an expert on alternative medicine. She began her introduction by stating that Google has eliminated ALL alternative medicine websites from its search engine. All of them. It has replaced them with ANTI-alternative medicine websites. This means if you’re looking for alternative treatments for your allergies, because all conventional treatments have failed you, you won’t find any information on Google. Why? Because Google thinks you’re too stupid to decide which treatment would be best for you. They will decide the treatment you need, not you.

When my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the doctors told him there was nothing more that they could do, he took matters into his own hands. This happened in the late 1990s. The Internet was still in its infancy. There was no Google. So my father drove to the nearest health food store and purchased every book he could find on alternative treatments. He then followed up and sought those treatments. Guess what? His cancer went into remission. Alternative medicine gave him an extra year with a good quality of life, without any side effects. It was an extra year he would not have otherwise had. He and I both believed that had he used alternative medicine much sooner, he probably would have beaten the cancer. Assuming he would have even developed it in the first place.

Alternative medicine really can work. Unfortunately, this is but one example of how Google is trying to manipulate you and tell you how to think.

We have the right to live our lives as we see fit. Thankfully, there are other search engines that DON’T think they’re God. They will give you the information you are searching for, and they will allow you to think for yourself. These search engines include Bing and DogPile, as well as GoDuckGo, one of the search engines I discussed in my previous post.

Hey Google! We can think for ourselves. Stop using Google. Find a better search engine.

Gayle Martin

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The Best Search Engines for Novel Writers

Contrary to popular belief, writing fiction isn’t about making things up as we go along. Good fiction writers know their craft. They can easily spend as much time researching their subject matter as they do writing about it. And that can be problematic.

Novel writers sometimes have to research the strangest things. My plotlines, for example, often revolve around crime. That’s because when it comes to creating a good conflict, few subjects work better. Crime plotlines aren’t limited to just mystery stories. They work well in other genres too. I write contemporary romance, so having a character accused of a crime he or she didn’t commit works well for me.

Now let’s say I’m using a crime plotline for my story. I want it to be believable. This is where research comes in. However, doing a Google search on, for example, how many years would you get for armed robbery, could possibly raise some red flags. Google records your IP address and your searches. Google also tracks you around the web. And while police officers would probably enjoy a good read as much as anyone, we don’t anyone getting the wrong idea. After all, that unexpected knock at the door could really ruin your day. This is why we need to do our searches anonymously.

StartPage and GoDuckGo

There are two search engines which you can use for anonymous web searches. Startpage, and GoDuckGo. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

I’ve been using Startpage for years. Startpage works with Google, but it doesn’t record your IP address. It also gives you the option of visiting a website anonymously. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t as some websites do not allow anonymous viewing. However, it’s a nice option to have. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t like being tracked after I visit a website.

As much as I like Startpage, it’s far from perfect. Startpage only works with Google, and lately Google has become creepy. They’ve been very outspoken in their commitment to weed out websites whose points of view they happen to disagree with, which troubles me in many ways. However, I’m going to limit my comments and simply state that as writers, we can, and should, be able to see ALL points of view on a given subject; not those with whom Google happens to agree with. We’re writers. We can think for ourselves.

Thankfully, there is another anonymous search engine out there. GoDuckGo. I’ve not used it as much as Startpage, but I do like it. It also has one distinct advantage over Startpage. It’s not married to Google. However, there is also a disadvantage. GoDuckGo doesn’t allow you the option of visiting a website anonymously.

So there you have it. Neither search engine stores your information, nor do the track you. If you’re a writer, I highly recommend using either, or both. Whichever one you choose, however, is entirely up to you, as there is no wrong answer.

Gayle Martin

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So You Think You Don’t Need an Editor–Part Two

© Can Stock Photo/ swellphotography

In my previous article, So You Think You Don’t Need an Editor–Part One, I talked about how your editor is a fresh pair of eyes to go over your manuscript and give it the polish it needs to become a successful book.

I understand money is an issue for many of you. However, unless you are one of the very few lucky writers who lands a deal with a traditional publisher, you will probably have to invest your own money into producing your book. Typically, a good editor will charge one to two cents per word. So, for an 80,000 to 100,000 word manuscript, you could be spending $800 to $2000.

I know. It’s a lot of money. Therefore, you may be tempted to take some shortcuts. My advice? Don’t do it! Asking your friends, your cousin, your spouse or your mom to do your editing may seem like a good alternative. However, they would need to have experience in journalism, teaching English, or other professional writing experience in order to be qualified for the job. You would never your best friend to work on your car if he or she had no experience in auto repair. So why would you ask someone who isn’t qualified to edit your manuscript?

Nowadays anyone with a smartphone can write a manuscript and upload it to Amazon Kindle. As a result, the market has been inundated with poorly written books. So, do you want four and five star reviews? If so, then you need a  professional book editor, because nothing will end your writing career faster than a poorly-written book with bad reviews.

Gayle Martin

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Redeemable vs Non-redeemable Villains

© Can Stock Photo / hjalmeida

I enjoy streaming a syndicated radio talk show called, Ground Zero with Clyde Lewis. The show has interesting, offbeat topics, and listening helps me unwind at the end of a busy workday. The other night Clyde talked about the latest Godzilla movie. He described how the title character has evolved from an evil beast to a defender of the planet. That’s quite a leap indeed, and it was a fascinating discussion.

While I don’t write science fiction or horror myself, those genres do allow more leeway for using symbolism for political undertones. This may be the case with Godzilla. However, there are certain unwritten rules that fiction authors must follow because it’s what readers expect. High on the list is that good always triumphs over evil.

Fiction plotlines, regardless of genre, are conflict driven. The antagonist creates the conflict when he or she interferes with the protagonist. The antagonist is there to block whatever goal the protagonist is trying to achieve. This is why most antagonists are villains. And the more devious and evil the villain, the more drama and intensity to the story.

In real life, however, people can and do make poor choices. Some learn from their mistakes. In fiction, they would be redeemable characters. For example, Josh, from my recent Marina Martindale novel, The Letter, is a con artist. He’s working a Ponzi scheme with two unseen characters. However, as the character took shape I noticed he had some redeeming qualities which made him quite likable. So, I did a rewrite and made him into a redeemable villain. I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’ll sum it up and say that things aren’t always as they appear.

Most of my villians, however, are unrepentant. Some, like Maggie in The Deception, remain defiant, even while they’re carted off to prison. Most however, are their own undoing. They police shoot them, or they’re killed in accidents while trying to escape. They’re the unredeemable villains. The Godzillas, who have to have their comeuppance, otherwise readers won’t accept it. After all, karma’s a bitch. Not only in fiction, but in real life as well.


GM

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Book Signing Etiquette

Whether it’s a bookstore, a book fair, or other special event, book signings can be a lot of fun. They’re a great way to engage one-on-one with potential readers. However, we authors sometimes let our enthusiasm get the best of us. So please, consider this a reminder to treat fellow authors respectfully.

The worst experience I ever had at a book signing was during a big event weekend in Tombstone, Arizona. The local bookstore had so many authors that they ran out of space inside the store. So, they seated me, along with another author, on the boardwalk in front of the store. This should have been a strategic advantage, as there was more foot traffic outside the store. Unfortunately, the other author was a non-stop talker

He talked and talked and talked about anything and everything. Yak, yak, yak, yak, yak. He wouldn’t shut up. Not even while I was trying to talk to potential readers, or trying to close a sale. And yes, his incessant talking actually killed some of my sales.

As if this weren’t bad enough, he started babbling about a controversial book he planned to write about his religious beliefs. So while I’m trying to talk to my customers, he’s now quoting Biblical scripture, chapter and verse, in a very loud voice. Not only were people no longer stopping at my table, they were literally running away.

I strongly believe in religious freedom. However, this was not the venue for a religious debate. I normally do well at Tombstone events. This time, however I had a disaster. I hardly sold any books, all because one very self-centered author couldn’t keep his stupid mouth shut.

A book signing is not a place to socialize

A book signing is where authors come to connect one on one with their readers. If there are other authors at the same venue, please show some respect and a little common courtesy. Keep your conversations with other authors brief. Try to limit those conversations to those times when there are no customers around. Most importantly, keep your mouth shut while other authors are talking to potential buyers. Nothing is more unprofessional than interfering with another author’s sale.

Gayle Martin

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Let’s Just Say No to Sensitivity Readers

and Other Forms of Censorship

© Can Stock Photo / alexandrum

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about a disturbing new trend, particularly in traditional publishing. The use of so-called, “sensitivity readers” to censor the author’s work. Their job is to ferret out any so-called trigger words from the authors’ manuscripts.

Here in the United States, our constitution guarantees our right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression. This would include artistic expression. Our constitution was never intended to protect anyone from being offended. In fact, it’s opposite. It insures our freedom to debate opposing points of view.

What is and isn’t offensive is oftentimes subjective. Let’s say, for example, that I write a scene in my book where two of my characters enjoy a burger together. If a vegan reads this, he or she might be offended. A chef, however, can read the very same scene and be inspired to create a gourmet burger for two.

I’m a woman who writes romance novels. Therefore, I include male characters in my books. I also write in the third person narrative. This means some of my chapters will be written from a male character’s point of view, even though I’ve never been a man. I’m not trying to make a political statement. I’m simply trying to tell a good story. However, to the so-called, “sensitivity expert,” I could be “stereotyping” men. And because I’m allegedly stereotyping men, I’m no longer allowed to write anything from a male point of view. This tramples on my right to freely express myself as an artist

Sensitivity is the new, politically correct word for CENSORSHIP. As a writer and and artist, censorship goes against everything I believe in. Well guess what? I’m a U.S. citizen, and I have a Constitutional right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Therefore, I will continue to write the stories I wish to write, and if the sensitivity thought police don’t like it then they can go straight to Hell. 

Gayle Martin

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The Problem with First Person Narratives

Graphic by Gayle Martin.

As fiction writers, we have two ways to present our story; a first or a third person narrative. This time, however, I’m going to speak as a fiction reader, and not an author.

As a reader, I simply hate the first person narrative. To me, it’s the narcissistic narrative. It’s all, me, me, me, I, I, I, me, me, me, I, I, I. That gets really old, really quick. However, I still get it. The author wants me to have a more intimate relationship with the lead character. Unfortunately, not only does the narcissistic tone turn me off, I also want to know what other characters, particularly the antagonists, are up to.

I love reading fiction written in the third person narrative. To me, and no doubt to many others as well, reading a novel is, essentially, watching a movie in my head. I want to see the bad guys cooking up their evil schemes. I want to be with them when they do their dastardly deeds. I want to experience the moment of shock and surprise when the protagonist gets caught their trap. Likewise, I want to experience the protagonist’s feeling of triumph when the bad guys get their comeuppance. This is why, as a reader, I only read third person narratives. I get to see multiple points of view, and I get to see scene changes with different characters, just like they do in the movies.

I realize this is a personal take, and that other readers may like the first person narrative. To each their own. However, I personally don’t care for it, which is why I always write my own stories in a third person narrative.

Gayle Martin

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Why I Don’t Recommend Using the F-bomb

I recall once looking at a sample chapter from another author’s novel, and there, in the second sentence of the opening narrative, was the dreaded, F-bomb. That was it. I was done. The book may have had an intriguing title, but once I saw that expletive I was immediately turned off. I had no reason to read any further.

I’m not saying I’m a total prude, and, for some genres, this kind of language may be both suitable and expected. However, it’s not appropriate for my work. I write contemporary sensual romance. In my genre there simply is no reason for profanity, and most romance authors don’t use it. To me, profanity, especially when used in the narrative, a sign of a lazy, sloppy writer. A rank amateur. A good storyteller doesn’t need to use profanity. Plain and simple.

What about the dialog?

There will be times when an, “Oh my goodness gracious me,” simply won’t cut it. That’s when I’ll use an occasional damn or hell, or similar verbiage. However, I never use the F-bomb, or any other vulgar synonym for human genitalia. And the keyword here is occasional. As in infrequently. My characters aren’t potty mouths. Even my villains have more class than that.

Sometimes there will be an occasion when a stronger word may be expected. For example, I had once had a scene where one of my characters had just found out that her husband had been kidnapped. She’s understandably upset, and her response is, “What the —?” Another character interrupts her before she could complete her sentence. Some readers may have interpreted it as, “What the hell?” Perfectly appropriate for the circumstances. Other readers, however, may have interpreted it differently and assumed she was about to say an entirely different word. Either way, I left it up to the reader to decide.

Sure, it may be the 21st century, but there are still plenty of people out there who find profanity, particularly the F-bomb, offensive. So why risk alienating potential readers who would have otherwise loved your book?


GM

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So You Think You Don’t Need an Editor–Part One

© Can Stock Photo/novelo

One comment I often hear from first time authors is, “I don’t need an editor because I do my own editing.”

Really?

Okay, I admit I resemble that remark. When I wrote my very first book, Anna’s Kitchen, I too thought I didn’t need an editor. In fact, I was such a smart aleck at the time that I thought I knew everything. Never mind the fact I had never written a book before in my life. As far as I was concerned, the spell checker in my word processing software was all I needed. So how did I do?  Well, you may want to refer to my post titled, Just Add Two Tablespoons of Fate. Sure, I can laugh about it now, but it’s a splendid example of why all authors, especially new authors, must have an editor.

Why every author needs an editor.

An editor is a fresh pair of eyes to go over your manuscript. They give it the added polish it needs to turn it into a great book. They’re not as much concerned about the content of your work as they are the structure. They look for things such as misspelled words, typos, and comma spliced sentences. They also look for dangling participles, incorrect homonyms, redundancy, and the dreaded passive voice. In other words, they fix all the gaffes that you, as a writer, may have overlooked. The reason why you’re not seeing them is because you’re too involved with your own work to see it objectively. This is normal. As human beings, we can’t be objective about ourselves. This is why it’s difficult for us to see our mistakes. It’s the same reason why doctors don’t treat themselves or members of their own families.

Some of you reading this may still be skeptical. Or you may even think your writing skills are so superior that you simply don’t need an editor. If that’s the case, then all I can tell you is writing can be a very humbling experience. There is nothing quite like having your readers point out all your errors for you, and then posting them on an Amazon review for the entire world to see. Once that happens, your credibility as an author is pretty much done, and you can kiss your writing career goodbye.

What do Danielle Steel, James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and Dean Koontz all have in common? They all have editors. So if these famous authors all have editors, then what makes you think that you don’t need one? Just asking.

Gayle Martin

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