When the Past is Present

My novel is a “historic urban fantasy.”  In it, my main characters have flashbacks into the 1960’s and ’70’s.  It is important that the reader can differentiate between past and present in my story.  I think I have it nailed because people who are looking at my novel comment on the technique that takes them from past to present and vice versa. I haven’t really analyzed it to see how I am doing it, but maybe I will try now.

I read some comments online that various authors made about flashbacks.  Some say to avoid using flashbacks altogether.  Others say to use them sparingly.  Most recommend only using flashbacks to move the story along.  I hope I am doing that.

My novel has many flashbacks so I am breaking the first rule–avoid using flashbacks.  The flashbacks in my story are triggered by a memory.  For example, Jake, my protagonist is sitting in his enclosed luxury car, waiting to die.  He hears a song on the car radio that reminds him of his childhood.

Jake hit the buttons, “Damn!  I hate 80’s music.  It’s 1995. You’d think disco would be dead by now.” Finding a “Golden Oldie’s” station, Jake settled into the car seat. “That’s more like it.”

Anybody here seen my old friend, John? Can you tell me where he’s gone? He saved a lot of people, but it seems the good, they die young,” the balladeer crooned over the radio.  It was an old classic.  He remembered it well.  “It was a safe time then,” he thought.  It seemed like a safe time.  John and Bobby Kennedy would not agree, nor would Martin Luther King.  It seemed safe to a ten-year-old Midwestern boy.

Jake was at the city pool that afternoon in 1960.  His shoulders and neck tingled after two hours in the sun.  His skin felt hot as it started to glow darker pink with time.  His mother warned him about using suntan lotion, but Jake was too busy laughing with his friends, splashing, diving from the low board and doing belly flops.  He could almost smell the white, cool cream his mom would gently apply to his scorched back when he returned home.  He didn’t mind the medicinal smell because he knew the burning would cool when the cream coated the sunburn.  As Jake walked in the unlocked front door of the small bungalow on Pepperdine Street, he called, “Mom, I’m home.”

The song from the past causes Jake to remember a particular summer.  The transition from thinking about the safe Midwestern boy to the scene at the city pool pulls the reader into the flashback.  Other flashbacks in the book are triggered by sight, smell, touch.  The senses are good triggers to lead into a flashback.

I don’t think a flashback should be the first thing a reader sees in a story.  I have seen that done and it is confusing.  The reader needs to know what is happening “now” in the book before reading about what has happened in the past.  Flashbacks are events that have already happened..  A flashback should follow a strong scene.

The above example doesn’t show the entire scene I wrote.  My first sentence of the novel is “Carbon monoxide filled the enclosed luxury vehicle in the garage.”  Right away, the reader knows something is wrong.  “He ran his hand across the smooth leather as he sat in the car with the windows up. He had planned it this way.  He would come home from work, connect a hose to the exhaust and sit in the car.”  The charater has planned to commit suicide and is in the act of doing so.   Flashbacks come after the scene and are used as a way to do a life review and eventually (possibly) explain why the character is doing this.

Another way to segue flashback smoothly is verb tense usage.  Using past tense and past perfect can signal the beginning or end of a flashback.  If done correctly, the reader won’t even notice the tense, but will understand that the time has changed and the story is now happening in the past.  “He recalled his father coming home from the factory smelling of oregano.  His dad would bellow as he tossed the newspaper on his easy chair, “Is your homework done?”

“Recalled” is what the character is doing while he sits in the running car.  The memory triggers the flashback and the verb tense is changed. The use of “would” puts the reader in the past.

So, what do you think about flashbacks?  Do you put flashbacks in your stories?  Let me know.  I appreciate any tips you might have for me.



What if…?


“What if I could catch that little white hand that is moving around?” —My curious cat, Daisy

Where do you get your story ideas? How do you develop your characters? What plot(s) do you choose?

At a recent writers’ group meeting, we worked on a prompt inspired by what someone read about Stephen King. Apparently, some or most of his novels started with the thought, “What if?” What if a dog terrorized people? What if an outcast girl had telekinetic abilities?

As I think about it, my current novel started out as a “what if?” What if a man commits suicide and can redeem himself somehow? What if Hell is other people like Jean-Paul Sartre proposed in his play ‘No Exit’?”

The prompts the writers in our group came up with were very interesting. Some were simple:
What if I took a wrong turn while driving in an unfamiliar neighborhood?
What if I found a blue pine cone?
What if my clock started to rewind on its own?

All of these “what if’s” could lead to an interesting story if we use our imaginations. We would come up with different scenarios and characters using the same “what if.”

It is interesting to think about.

Slaying the Editing Monster


“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” William James


Do you sometimes feel like you are just rearranging your writing?  Constantly editing?  Revising?

We edit for spelling, grammar, word usage, structure, consistent verb tense and content.

At a critique group session last evening, I mentioned some verb issues to a novice writer.  She went from past to present tense several times in a paragraph.  When I pointed it out, she said, “But I did that in the past and now I’m doing this in the present.”  It made her story very confusing to read.  When the tenses were congruent, it was easier to read and rather interesting.  The rhythm of her story (which was about running) was excellent. The sentence structure became shorter and shorter as the story progressed, showing the runner working and breathing harder.  It was a great technique, but her verb tenses disrupted the pace.

Verbs   When I edit my works, one of the first things I do is underline all the verbs in my sentences.  Are they in the same tense?  Are they action or passive verbs?  I change the passive verbs and revise the tense to match the paragraph.  If I find I need to use past tense in a sentence with present tense, I determine if I need a new paragraph in past tense.

Structure   One editing technique that works for me is to read my story backwards.  Start with the very last sentence and read it.  Does it make sense?  Does the sentence read well alone?  Then I read the second to the last sentence and so on and so on.  If a sentence can stand alone, it is probably in correct form.  I usually use this technique when I have already checked grammar and verb usage.

As in many things in life, prevention is the best “treatment” for a healthy manuscript.

Content editing  

“Just the facts, ma’am.”

We have all read books that have made us scratch our heads when we run across a fact or image that doesn’t fit.  I remember the first time I noticed that was in a Michael Crichton book where he described a baby that had meconium-aspiration.  As an NICU nurse for many years, I have taken care of babies with meconium aspiration pneumonia and what he described in his book didn’t make sense to me.

I was surprised that Crichton had made such a blatant error.  He already had several books out and must have had a group of editors read his manuscripts, but somehow that error was missed and it made a difference to me as a reader.  It made me stop trusting his story.

There are things in various fields that we may insert into our books.  We want to make sure we have the facts right.  If in doubt, have an expert read the sections of your book that contain medical or technologic or legal issues that you “kinda” know but maybe don’t have entirely correct.

With a novel, I found that it is useful to have a timeline.

A friend pointed that fact out to me as I was floundering and getting lost in my novel.  He suggested I make a timeline for my characters so that the characters are where they should be in the story.  Prior to developing the timeline, I had difficulty bringing my characters together when they needed to be together. He helped me create a linear chart with scenes on it.  (Unfortunately, I am not techno-savvy enough to insert it into this post.  Tried and failed.)  It contained scenes like:

  1. Jake in the car ready to commit suicide
  2. Flashbacks to childhood and parents
  3. Flashback to delivering newspapers
  4. Flashback to Kennedy election

Each scene in the book is mapped out so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

I recently found another excellent tool that I wished I had had at the beginning.

It is a character chart.  The author lists characteristics of each character, even though most of the information will not be used in the novel.  It is a way for the author to know the character.

  • What is the character’s full name?  What is his or her nickname?  How did the nickname come about?
  • Where is your character’s hometown? What year was he or she born?  How old is the character now? (Your story may take place in a different era, so age can become confusing at times, so write it down so you remember.)
  • What color are his or her eyes?  Hair? Type of body build? Skin type and tone?  Distinguishing marks such as scars, birthmarks, freckles? Predominant feature–what do people notice when they first look at your character?  Is your character healthy?  If not, what condition does he or she have?
  • What was the character’s first memory?  What was his or her childhood like? Was there an important event in childhood that continues to haunt your character now?
  • List of favorites–what is your character’s favorite color, food, music, book?  How does your character travel–car, bus, bicycle, airplane?  Is he or she a careless or cautious driver?
  • Does your character use any expletives or common expressions a lot?
  • What are your character’s vices? Does your character smoke or drink?  If so, how much?
  • Name your character’s hobbies and interests.  What does he or she do during the winter months, summer months, when it’s raining or snowing?  Does your character go on regular vacations?  If so, where?

I will end with this wonderful statement from Woody Allen.  To me, it represents editing at its worst.  It is a delightful paragraph and I enjoy the imagery, but it is confusing.  Basically, he asks if he should be a writer and Gertrude Stein says, “No.”  He ignores her.  Woody uses over 50 words to tell us that.

“In the afternoons, Gertrude Stein and I used to go antique hunting in the local shops, and I remember once asking her if she thought I should become a writer. In the typically cryptic way we were all so enchanted with, she  said, “No.” I took that to mean yes and sailed for Italy the next day.”  — Woody Allen

How would you edit Woody’s paragraph to “cut to the chase?”  Post your reply on my blog.


What’s in a Name?

Steph and Joe leaving church

When my son got married this past summer, we chose the song “Forever Young” to be played for the mother-son dance at the wedding reception.  As the date for the big event approached, friends asked about the music.  When I said the name of our song, I was met with perplexed looks and pauses.

“Hmm.  I know that song.  Really? That’s an interesting choice.”

Again and again, baffled looks followed the answer to the question.  I thought it was because people were under the impression that we had chosen a song sung by Bob Dylan.  “Oh, it’s very pretty.” I said, “Joan Boaz sings it.”  Still, that seemed to baffle people more.  Some people had never heard of Joan Boaz.

“Forever Young is a beautiful song.  Written by Bob Dylan in 1974, the song reflects my wishes for my son and his bride.

The mystery was finally solved one day when yet another friend asked.  She said, “Oh, I heard Rod Stewart do that song at a concert once.”

“Rod Stewart?  Really?”  I couldn’t imagine the song being sung by Rod Stewart.

She hummed a bit of it and I said, “Oh, that is not the song.  There must be more than one.”

I went home and pulled up Spotify on the computer.  Sure enough, there was another “Forever Young.”  In fact, I found three different songs with the same title (and there may be more).  Our friends from the 1980’s were unfamiliar with Dylan’s song so they assumed I was talking about the Rod Stewart song.

The soft lyrical words sung by Joan Boaz are much different than Rod Stewart’s raspy version.  The sentiments are very similar in the two songs, but the music and lyrics are different.  Yet other friends may have been thinking of the 1984 song by Alphaville, a version of which I was totally unfamiliar.

Take a listen–

Joan Baez – Forever Young

Rod Stewart – Forever Young

Alphaville – Forever YoungMotrher son dance

It made me think about book titles.  Long ago, I learned that there are no copyrights on titles,  No one “owns” a book title. I also read that book titles are very important.

How does one decide on a book title?  How can your book title stand out from other similar titles?   Some recommend looking for an important scene or part of your book and name it.  Make it intriguing so the reader will be curious and want to find out more about the book.  Some say make the title intriguing and ambiguous.

Five steps to a title:

1. Determine the gist of your story.

2. Brainstorm.  Make a list of words that might fit the gist of your story.

3. Refine. Select the word(s) that are strongest.

4. Research competition.  Do an internet search of the potential titles you have chosen.

5. Solicit opinions.  Ask your friends and colleagues.

Searching the internet, I discovered there is actually a “Book Title Generator” out there.  The site combines two or three nouns and/or adjectives to create titles such as “The Truth of Obsession,” “Waves of Ice,” “The Dreamer of Streams,” “The Unwilling Rose,” “The Silent Rainbow” and “Shores of Vision.”  What do any of these mean?  Personally, I doubt I would use a “title generator.”

My novel deals with a ghost and Hell.  “Hell Hath No Fury” seems to capture the plot.  Do I want a Shakespearean quote for my title?

I am not going to worry about it.  It will be my working title for now.  The undercurrent of my story is that “Hell is other people,” the premise for Jean Paul Sartre’s play, “No Exit.”  (I didn’t realize this until I was well into the story and my son, a philosophy major, pointed it out to me.)  So, should I call my story something to do with an exit or a play?

I am not convinced a book title is as important as some claim.  I think we obsess over the title too much when we should be writing our stories.  There are some wonderful book titles such as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “the Agony and the Ecstasy” and “Gone with the Wind” but many books have nondescript titles.  And like the songs “Forever Young,” it’s the substance that matters in the long run.

“May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung.  And may you stay forever young.”

Dads birthday 1998




“Fifteen Minutes of Fame” and Other Adages


IMG_0972Most people know that the saying, “Fifteen minutes of fame” originated with Andy Warhol.  The expression was first used when a catalog of an exhibition of Warhol’s work was published in 1968,  In it, Warhol discussed the nature of celebrity and wrote, “In the future, everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes.”  The phrase caught on and was shorted to “fifteen minutes of fame.”

It is interesting to research the origin of common expressions.  Some expressions are so ingrained in our language that we don’t give them much thought.

After being out the night before, celebrating their birthdays, my adult son and his friend debated the practice of having a “hair of the dog” and it’s efficacy or lack thereof.

“Where did that expression ever come from?”  his friend asked.

In this world of SmartPhones and the internet, they found their answer in a flash.  It comes from ancient Rome where similia similibus curantura was common medical practice.  Back then, if one was bitten by a rabid dog (or even an uninfected dog), treatment was putting a hair from that dog onto the wound and bandaging it up.  The thinking was, that the very thing that caused the illness could cure the illness.  The practice of the dog hair on a bite wound was in use for nearly 200 years before it was called into question.Funny_dog (2)

In time, the popular saying came to mean taking an alcoholic drink in the morning cures a hangover.

What adages interest you?  Here are a few of my favorites:

“I’m on cloud nine.”  This expression means that a person is extremely happy.  The U.S. Weather Bureau is responsible for this one.  Clouds are classified by the Bureau into nine types. Cloud #9 is cumulonimbus, a cloud that becomes very large and high.


“Pass the buck”  Meaning to blame someone else, “passing the buck” originated as a poker phrase.  The “buck” was the token passed to the next person up to deal the cards.

Originally, the buck was a buckhorn knife.  The handle of the knife was made from the horn of a male deer or “buck.”  The phrase was written down by Mark Twain in 1872, the earliest recorded version.


“Sleep tight.”  There are a couple of theories of origin for this one.  The first explanation I ever heard was that it was a nautical phrase.  Since sailors slept in hammocks, they tightened the ropes at night.  Thus, “sleep tight.”

Another theory is that “tight” is old English for soundly, properly, efficiently.  Personally, I like the sailors’ version better.


“Snug as a bug in a rug.”   It is hard to pin down this expression, but it can be broken down word by word.  The origins may not have anything to do with bugs or rugs.  The expression means to sleep comfortably and soundly and is thought to be a whimsical adage from the 18th century.  “Snug” can be traced back to the 16th century when it meant a parlor inside of an inn or pub.  This form of “snug” is still used in Irish pubs where small walled off areas provide privacy for couples and small groups.

According to several sources, “snugge” meant “neat, trim, well-prepared” until 1630 when John Lane used the word “snugginge” to mean comfortable.  “Bugge” meant ghost or ghoul.  In 1642, Daniel Rogers used the word “bugge” to mean insect.

It is believed that the expression “Snug as a bug in a rug” was in full use in 1769, but rugs as we know them were not around.  At the time, a “rug” was a thick woolen cover for a bed–basically, a blanket.

So, the origins of “snug as a bug in a rug” could actually translate as “well-prepared as a ghost in a blanket.”

Benjamin Franklin is usually credited with the adage. However, evidence shows that the expression was around long before Poor Richard’s Almanac.  Benjamin Franklin used it as a epitaph in 1772 for a pet squirrel named Skug.  “Here Skug lies snug as a bug in a rug.”

In 1769, a Shakespeare  festival advertisement in the Stratford Jubilee printed, “If she has the mopus’s, I’ll have her, as snug as a bug in a rug.”thWH1180F4

Many adages are from the Bible.  Some are verbatim while others are based on words or stories in the Bible.  These include:

  • An apple of one’s eye (Psalms 17:8)
  • To the bitter end (Proverbs 5:4)
  • By the skin of your teeth (Job 19:20)
  • Cast the first stone (John 8:7)
  • The eleventh hour (Matthew 20)
  • An eye for an eye (Exodus 21:24)
  • Kiss of death (based on Judas’ kiss in Gethsemane)
  • Old as Methuselah
  • Pride goes before faith (Proverbs 16:18)
  • Wash one’s hands of it (based on Pilate’s washing of his hands)
  • Wolf in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15)open-bible-hi

Can you think of others?

Some adages are ancient while others are fairly new.  It is fascinating to look at our language and its roots, contemplating how we, as writers, create our stories.  Who knows?  A sentence you write may become the next popular adage.

Write your list of adages in “comments” below.