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 can give us great feedback. Nearly all of the reader reviews for my  Marina Martindale contemporary romance novel, The Reunion, commented on how well the flashback scenes were done.

If used properly, flashbacks can greatly enhance the story. They’re 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 and when to use flashbacks 
  • 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. The Reunion is a story of 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. However, I didn’t include their original break up as a flashback. It’s told in the dialogue. Dialogue is another great tool for telling the backstory.
  • Watch where you place a flashback. Never drop a flashback in the middle of a scene, especially if it’s cliffhanger. This will greatly upset your reader. I set up to the flashback at the ending of a present day chapter. This prepares the reader for the flashback in the next chapter.
How to place a flashback

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

* * *

Gillian looked a good ten years younger than her actual age. Despite all the time which had passed, she still looked much the same. About the only noticeable difference between then and now was her long blonde hair was now a shoulder-length pageboy. As she reminisced about the past 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 said to her reflection. “You’ve got to pull yourself together.” As she took a few more deep breaths 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.

TWO

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

“Damn it,” she said under her breath as she tried to work more white paint into the canvas. This particular painting simply wasn’t coming together, and the more she worked with it the worse it became. 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’ve not included them in any of my later Marina Martindale contemporary romances. They were only used in The Reunion because of the long interval between two characters’ interactions.

Use flashbacks sparingly, and then only use them when they are absolutely necessary to enhance the plot line.

Gayle Martin, aka Marina Martindale

The Best Search Engines for Novel Writers

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 may have to research the strangest things. For example, some of my Marina Martindale novels revolve around crime. When it comes to creating a good conflict, few subjects work better. Crime plotlines aren’t limited to mysteries. They work well in other genres too. I write contemporary romance, so having a character become a crime victim, or be accused of a crime he or she didn’t commit, works well for me.

Let’s use my contemporary romance novel, The Deception, as an example. I wanted my story to be believable. This is where research comes in. However, doing a Google search on how many years my antagonist could get for attempted capital murder could potentially 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 else, 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 DuckDuckGo

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

Startpage works with Google, but doesn’t record your IP address. You also have the option of visiting websites anonymously. Sometimes it works and other times it doesn’t as not all websites allow anonymous viewing. Nonetheless, it’s a nice option to have. 

Unfortunately, Startpage also has a distinct disadvantage. It only works with Google, and Google has become way too creepy. They’ve been very outspoken in their commitment to weed out websites with points of view they 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. We’re writers. We can think for ourselves.

Thankfully, there is another anonymous search engine out there. DuckDuckGo. Unlike Startpage, it’s not married to Google. However, it too has also a disadvantage. It doesn’t allow you the option of visiting a website anonymously.

So there you have it. Neither search engine stores your information, nor do they track you. If you’re a writer, I highly recommend using either, or both. 

Gayle Martin

Good vs Bad Villains

© Can Stock Photo / hjalmeida

Writing fiction is a lot of fun, and I have the best job in the world. I get to play a grown-up version of Let’s Pretend, and make money doing it. This includes creating a bunch of imaginary friends, otherwise known as characters. Some are good. They’re the protagonists. Others not so much. They’re the antagonists.

Fiction plot lines, regardless of genre, are conflict driven, and the antagonist creates the conflict. He is she is there to block whatever goal the protagonist is trying to achieve. Oftentimes antagonists are also villains. The more devious the villain, the more drama and intensity to the story.

Real life, however, isn’t always so black and white. People can and do make poor choices, and some learn from their mistakes. In fiction, they would be redeemable characters. Hal, an antagonist in my Marina Martindale novel, The Journey, isn’t malicious at all. He simply wants something he can’t have, and he’s standing in the way.  Josh, in 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. This made him likable, so I made him into a redeemable villain who does the right thing in the end.

Most of my villains, however, are unrepentant. Some, like Maggie in The Deception, remain defiant to the very end. Most however, are like Craig in The Stalker. They become their own undoing, and for them it never ends well. They’re unredeemable characters, and readers expect them to have their comeuppance. After all, karma is a bitch. Not only in fiction, but in real life as well.


Gayle Martin

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

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. This gets really old, really quick. However, I still get it. The author wants me to have a more intimate relationship with the lead character. The problem for me is that I want to know what other characters, particularly the antagonists, are up to.

I love reading fiction written in the third person narrative. When I read a novel I’m 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. Likewise, I want to experience the protagonist’s feeling of triumph when the bad guys get their comeuppance. I also want to see the antagonist’s moment of regret. 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 my own personal take. Other readers may like the first person narrative. To each their own. However, I prefer to write my own stories the same way I prefer to read them. This is why as a fiction author and writer, I only write in a third person narrative.

Gayle Martin

Why I Don’t Recommend Using the F-word

I’ll always remember clicking a link to see a sample chapter from another author’s novel. The title sounded interesting. Unfortunately, in the second sentence of the opening narrative, was the dreaded, F-word. That was it. I was done. The book may have had an intriguing title. However, once I saw that expletive, I was 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 suitable and expected. However, it’s not appropriate for my work. I write contemporary romance novels as Marina Martindale. 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, is a sign of a lazy, sloppy writer. A rank amateur. A good storyteller doesn’t need to use profanity. Plain and simple.

But 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. There may  be other times when a character, typically a villain, may call a female character a bitch. This happens when she didn’t do what the villain wanted her to do. However, I never use the F-word, 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.

The other thing I do not do is use the Lord’s name in vain. While I keep my books religiously neutral, I’m also aware that there are readers out there who will find this verbiage offensive as well. In fact, I don’t like it either. 

There may be an occasion when a stronger word may be expected. For example, I had a scene in one novel in which a character has just learned her husband had been kidnapped. She’s understandably upset. Her response is, “What the —?” Another character interrupts her before she completes 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 to the reader to decide.

It may be the twenty-first century, but there are still readers out there who find profanity, particularly the F-word, offensive. So why risk alienating someone who would have otherwise loved your book?


Gayle Martin aka Marina Martindale

Outline or Treatment?

© Can Stock Photo / katielittle25

It’s a perplexing question for authors, particularly newbies. Do you write an outline, or a treatment, before you begin writing your book? Or do you just sit down and start writing?

Outlines vs Treatments

Outlines are recommended for nonfiction books as they can be more precise. However, this blog is for fiction writers, so I’m going to talk about what is the best approach for us. When writing fiction, it’s best to write a treatment.

A treatment is a short summary of what your story will be about. The amount of detail you wish to include is entirely up to you. Some fiction authors may choose to write treatments summarizing each chapter. Others simply write a brief one or two paragraph description. It’s all a matter of personal preference. We’re creative writers, not technical writers, and the keyword is creativeFor us, writing is an art, not a science.

My treatments tend to be short; no more than a page to a page and a half. My objective is how I will begin my story, and how I will end it. I used to fret over what to include in the middle. However, experience has taught me to keep it brief. The details will come after I begin writing. In other words, my treatment is my launching point.

What about the characters?

Some fiction writers write bios for their characters, which is certainly okay. However, I don’t do it myself. My characters come to life rather quickly. Once it happens they have minds of their own, and they will define themselves. (It may sound freaky to non writers, but trust me, every fiction writer experiences this.)

Some authors like to refer back to their treatments as they write, which again is perfectly okay. I prefer to put my treatment aside once I begin my story. As your characters come to life you may want to go in a different direction than you originally planned. Other ideas may come to you as you delve deeper into your story. Again it’s okay. We’re creative writers. This is how creativity works. 

Once my manuscript is complete I like to go back and look at my treatment. My books never end up as described in the original treatment. They always turn out better. It happens because I let my creativity flow as I write, and many new ideas will pop into my head as I go. My favorite example would be my Marina Martindale novel, The Reunion.

One of my supporting characters, a young man named, Jeremy, was intended to be a rogue character. He would do his dirty deed and quickly exit the story. However, Jeremy was also Ian’s, the leading man’s, son. As I got into the story, I quickly realized Ian would never have such an evil son. So, Jeremy went from rogue villain to a rival, competing with his father to win Gillian’s affections. This made for a completely unexpected twist in the story which resonated with me, and my readers. 

In conclusion

As I’ve evolved as a writer, my treatments have also evolved. They’ve become less detailed and more generalized. However, as I’ve stated before, how you choose to write your treatment is entirely up to you. There is no right or wrong way to go about it. 


Gayle Martin

How to Write a Spicy Love Scene

© Can Stock Photo / prometeus
As I enjoyed my morning coffee I came across something hilarious on Facebook. A BuzzFeed article featuring snippets of so-called love scenes from male romance authors. Some men write romance and do it well. Then there are others who, frankly, have no business picking up a pen. Their work was nothing but poor syntax and descriptions that went way beyond any sense of believability. It resulted in some of the funniest stuff I’ve read in years. Unfortunately, I don’t think writing comedy was their intention. 

So, how you do write a spicy scene that won’t make your readers burst out laughing? Just like with any other writing, it’s all about the proper technique. In one of my other blogs, Marina Martindale’s Musings, I wrote an article called, Sweet, Sensual or Erotic Romance?  It discusses the different romance subgenres. I write sensual romance, which is probably the most common. However, the advice I’m giving would also apply to writing erotica.

Have a basic understanding of anatomy and physiology

Human beings come in two body types with two distinct sets of equipment. This equipment only functions in certain ways. When in doubt there are plenty of medical websites where you can get more information.

Handle euphemisms with care

While you can call body parts by name in erotica, they may be too graphic or harsh for sensual romance. Euphemisms can be substituted, but be careful. Certain words, such as manhood, tend to be overused. Others, such as butterfly, can be downright corny. If you’re new to this kind of writing I would recommend reading some erotica from established authors, such as Anais Nin. 

Use proper grammar, syntax and punctuation

Nothing screams amatuer louder than poor writing. No matter the genre, if your story is poorly written it won’t be read. This is why even the most well known authors use editors and proofreaders. 

So, if you’re ready for a good belly laugh, I’ve posted a link to the article below. Be sure to put your coffee down first as an unexpected burst of laughter while you’re swallowing may result in the coffee coming out of your nose and splattering your screen. 


Gayle Martin

And here’s the article. 
I’m So Sorry, But Here’s How Some Male Authors For Really Real Described Women In Books

Storytelling 101

Fundamental plot development

All stories, whether it’s a play, a short story, or Anna Karenina, revolve around conflict and basic plot structure. I call it The Four Cs of Storytelling, although other writers may call it something different. It’s the same timeless formula that Shakespeare and Homer used. I first learned from my high school drama teacher, and I use with each and every story I write.

The four C’s of storytelling
  • Characters
  • Conflict 
  • Climax
  • Conclusion
Characters

Who is your story about? Without characters there is no story to tell. I typically begin my stories by introducing my lead protagonist(s). However, I don’t consider this a hard and fast rule. Sometimes my opening line will be about a supporting character, who happens to be with the lead protagonist. He or she will then introduce the lead character to the reader. You may wish to begin your story with a minor character. I’ve read novels where the first few paragraphs, or even the entire first chapter, are written to set up the lead character’s introduction. Some authors may begin by introducing the antagonist, which to me is always an interesting twist. Whichever way you go, the plot revolves around the characters and the things they do.

Conflict

This is the meat and bones of the story. The conflict creates the drama which drives the story. Imagine a story about a happy couple who never argue or disagree. Nothing bad ever happens to them. They live long, happy, charmed lives where nothing ever goes wrong. The end. 

Now let’s take that same couple. He tells her he has to work late that night, but he arrives home in the wee hours of the morning. She smells another woman’s perfume on his clothing and sees lipstick on his collar. Care to guess what’s coming next? So, which story would make the most compelling reading? The one about the perfect couple whose lives never go wrong? Or the one where the husband is about to get his butt kicked? Again, the plotline revolves around conflict, and how the characters react to it.

Climax

The high point of the story. The punch line. They argue. She grabs a lamp off the nightstand, and in a fit of blinding rage, she coldcocks him over the head. He falls to the floor, unconscious and bleeding. Meanwhile the neighbors heard them fighting and called the cops. The police soon arrive and bust down the door. He’s lying dead on the floor while his blood, and her fingerprints, are all over the lamp. 

Conclusion

This is when loose ends are tied up and you end the story. She’s hauled off to jail, goes on trial, is convicted and goes to prison. I write stand alone novels, so I leave the readers with a definitive, satisfying ending. However, this isn’t a hard and fast rule either. Some authors may prefer a more ambiguous ending. Perhaps some compelling evidence was presented during the trial which resulted in a hung jury, so they’ll leave it up to the reader decide. Those authors who are writing a series will certainly want to leave something unresolved to continue into the next book.

So there you have it. The four basic components of plot development and storytelling. What you put into them is up to you, and the possibilities are endless.

Gayle Martin

Knowing When to Quit, Part Two


© CanStockPhoto/rustyphil

In my earlier post, Knowing When to Quit, Part One, I talked about redundancy. This time I’ll discuss another way to overwork a story. Creating over the top scenarios or plot lines which don’t connect well with the earlier story. This can be especially problematic when you’re writing a series. There simply comes a point when your story, even if it’s a series, has to end. Otherwise it may become absurd or even bizarre.

I’ll use an example familiar to most of us. Star Trek.

I grew up watching the original Star Trek. The characters, human and alien, were compelling and believable; so much so that they became iconic. However, by the third season, the writers seemed to be running out of ideas. The ridiculous storylines in some of the later episodes hurt the integrity of the series. NBC then cancelled the show. Afterward it went into syndication where its following grew.

The movies started ten years later. The original characters were back. However, they were older and they’d changed over time. This kept them interesting. The final original cast film, Star Trek The Undiscovered Country, completed their storyline with a well thought out ending. In the meantime, three new television series, Star Trek the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, created a plethora of interesting new characters with plenty of potential for exciting new stories. They were followed by a series of movies featuring the Next Generation cast.

Sadly, it was all lost for me with Star Trek Enterprise, and the most recent movie series. Enterprise, the fifth TV serieswas a prequel. And prequels, regardless of the genre, can be problematic. To me, it was lackluster, and I soon lost interest. The movie series, also prequels, featured younger versions of the original characters. They too were disappointing. The stories took place in a parallel universe, so all of the interesting back-stories established in the original NBC TV series were gone. I found it way too confusing, and it certainly wasn’t the Star Trek I’d known and loved for decades. Sadly, the last movie series ended after the untimely death of one of the actors.

This is what happens when you run out of ideas. You lose the integrity of your story, and you risk losing your following as well. As storytellers, the two hardest words for us to write  are, “The End,” but write them we must, as all stories must end. Otherwise, in the words on my college painting professor, you really do turn your work into mud.


Gayle Martin