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.

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