Timing is Everything

As I read an excerpt of my novel to my writers’ group at our last meeting, one of the writers said that she envisioned my main character as 65-years-old. Oops! He is supposed to be 45! Where did I go wrong?

It didn’t take long to discover that my flashbacks and my current setting were confusing the time. My character grew up in the 1960’s but my story takes place in 1995. I hadn’t given clear clues to help the reader know how old my character was. I had to come up with a solution, short of saying “Jake is a 45 year old white man.” (Not a good idea.)

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It seems that when people read (unless it is made clear that is it a period piece or science fiction or futuristic) they are in the present time. An author has to make it clear if the story is taking place at a different time. It is easier to write a period piece that is far in the past or far into the future than it is to write a story happening 20 years ago.

Thank goodness I have tgaminghe internet. I can’t imagine doing the research for this without it. I can google a year and find out current events, technology, fashion trends, music, movies and common slang. It helps remind me of what was going on back then.

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I am going think about specific things that identify the 1990’s such as CD-based gaming consoles, Windows 95, the dawn of email, portable CD players with earphones, digital cameras and the new use of the word “pixels.” Air Jordan tennis shoes, Hootie and the Blow Fish, the Goo Goo Dolls, Clinton as president, Newt Gingrich as speaker, the OJ trial, Bill Gates the richest man in the world at 12.98 million, Bosnia-Serbian war.

toy storySomehow I need to incorporate enough of these references in order for the reader to know that the story is taking place in 1995 and the main character is in his 40’s. He remembers things from the 1960’s but the reader needs to know that the current time is not 2014.

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I am disappointed that I hadn’t made the time frame clear. I was having such a good time writing my flashbacks but it only served to confuse my reader. I have spent a lot of time on my story and am disappointed that I must do a major rewrite. On the other hand, I think I will have as much fun adding the 1990’s hints as I did the others. Let’s hope!

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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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The Odyessy of Susan

This is an old post from my Xanga blog (which is now defunct.) I thought it was worth a repeat.

“Oh Goddess of Inspiration, help me sing of wily Odysseus, that master of schemes!”  Or, I should say “help me sing of clueless Susan, the master of confusion.”

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Last weekend, I had the opportunity to travel to Chicagoland with Maggie. We did this one other time and had an absolute blast. We were like two teen-aged girls, gabbing and laughing the entire seven hour drive, stopping to shop at the Amanas and taking our sweet time, enjoying the moment. So, I was looking forward to another fun trip with Maggie as well as seeing the kids and our baby girl (now 10 months old.)

We planned to leave Friday morning. I reserved a rental car in Rockford this time as my son was not going to be able to meet us in Rochelle like last time. Maggie was headed for Rockford again, but my destination was straight east, so she would turn north and head up highway 39.  With no way to continue on I-88, I opted to go up to Rockford with Maggie, then rent a car, driving down to the Wheaton area.  Hertz Rent-a-Car closed at 6:00 pm, so we couldn’t dilly dally.

We hustled across Iowa and western Illinois.  We had great weather, cold but sunny and clear. I must digress. (Homer often digresses while telling of Odysseus, having started his tale in the middle of the adventures when Odysseus was held by the nymph Calypso, having fought the Trojan War and being gone from his home, Ithaca, for 10 years.)

My birthday was February 2nd and it was my year to renew my driver’s license. I received the paperwork to do so in October, but suddenly, I realized that it still needed to be done. After all I only had 3 months prior to complete the task! And the only reason I IMG_3306“remembered” was that Dennis just received his renewal info in the mail since his birthday is in April.  Since I would be gone January 30-February 1st, I realized I better hustle over to the DMV and renew my license.

Now, if you have renewed lately, you know you don’t get an actual license for awhile. They take your expiring license away and, after doing the eye check and checking the documentation of your current address, they take your picture and give you a paper copy, a photocopy, of your new driver’s license. Basically, it’s a piece of paper with a grainy picture of you on your license. No laminated card or anything like that. The real license will arrive in the mail after 20 days.

So…when I went to Hertz to rent the car, the man behind the counter asked me to produce my credit card and driver’s license. When I gave him the temporary license (piece of paper) he was incredulous.

“What’s this?”

I explained that I had just renewed my license and it was a temporary license. Meanwhile, the four people behind me in line rolled their eyes at each other as if to say, “Yeah, right.” The man asked why I didn’t have a laminated license and I explained that Nebraska used to produce nice, laminated licenses the day you renewed, but now, because of identity theft, they give us a temporary license so they can check with the Social Security office and make sure we are who we say they are.  (Of course, it makes me wonder how safe the real licenses are in the mail when so many people get their mail stolen!  But that is another subject all together.) He asked me if I had any other forms of i.d. with my picture on it. I searched my billfold, pulling out my AAAcard, Blockbuster card, grocery store cards,  none with a photo on it. Finally, he decided since I was from Nebraska or admitted I was from Nebraska, I must be OK, and he accepted the temporary license. By then, it was dark outside.

The car was a Nissan Altima, very nice, but had a key-less system.  Nothing like getting into an unfamiliar car in the dark and have to figure out all the controls. I finally figured out how to start it, then I drove off with no lights on because I’m used to a vehicle with automatic headlights.

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I drove a few blocks heading to the toll-road, when I thought, “It sure is dark!”  Duh! Turn on the headlights!

The car reeked of perfume like someone had spilled a bottle in the car. Driving down the toll-road, in the dark, I started getting a headache. So, I rolled down the windows in 15 degree weather and turned up the heat. I was cruising along just fine, making the tolls without problem, turned to get off at Higway 59 and I was in the wrong lane! I ran the toll!  Now I was concerned I would have to pay a $25 fine for a 30-cent toll.  I reached for my cell phone to let Carlota know I was on my way.  My phone was dead. Great. Fortunately, I had emailed her that I would likely arrive around 7:00 pm. (But I also told her I would call!)

I arrived at their house and she just putting the baby down. Of course, now the baby was ready to play! I felt bad for disrupting their routine, but Carlota reassured me it was fine.

Dave was in Virginia for work and was suppose to arrive around 7:00, but then the mediation took 5 hours instead of 1 hours, so he missed his flight. He was now to arrive around 9:00. He called and said flights were being cancelled because of the ice storm down South, so he was trying to get out. He finally arrived around 11:00 pm. We were all pretty tired by then.

My visit with the kids was fantastic. The baby was great. The kids and I had time to visit while she napped. They helped me celebrate my birthday a little early by taking me out to dinner. I got to visit with Carlota’s family. All was well.

I decided to return to Rockford Sunday night and spend the night there so Maggie and I could take off early Monday morning.  I said my goodbyes and thanked the kids for a great weekend, got on the toll-road, making sure I didn’t miss any tolls this time, and headed to Rockford.

Digression:  I was glad to find out I wasn’t going to be fined for the missed toll because Dave and Carlota got online and helped me pay the toll online.  Apparently, you have a week or so to pay missed tolls online.  I noticed it was 50 cents instead of 30 cents, but I was willing to pay the extra to avoid a fine.  Do you think I made a wise financial decision?

I arrived at the motel.  Maggie had a suite, so I would just stay with her.  We rehashed our weekends and hit the sack.  The next morning, I got up but Maggie was still asleep.  I showered, watched TV, gathered my stuff, but Maggie was still asleep.  I left and went to McDonald’s to grab some breakfast and bring a latte back for Maggie, but she was still asleep.  I thought the smell of coffee would wake her. “Maggie, it’s past 9:00.”  Maggie flew out of bed and went into the bathroom.  Apparently, she had gotten sick during the night unbeknownst to me.  She had been throwing up all night.  After awhile, she said, “I can’t drive.”  I told her I could drive.  She said, “No, you don’t understand.  I can’t leave the room!  I am too sick.”  She told me to take her car back to Nebraska and she would catch a flight home in a day or so when she felt better.

I took the rental car back and asked if they would give me a ride back to motel so I could get Maggie’s car.  They were very nice about it and it worked out well.  I dreaded the thought of driving all the way back by myself, but I had to work Tuesday, so I had no choice.  Being unfamiliar with the Rockford area, but knowing the motel was close to I-90, I headed out.  The weather was good and traffic wasn’t too bad.  I was cruising along for awhile and I didn’t recognize any sights, but I passed it off as being unfamiliar.  Traveling along, I thought I should be seeing SOMETHING I recognized, but alas, no.  Then I started seeing signs for “Madison.”  Hmm.  I didn’t know there was a Madison, Illinois in this area.  Then I saw a sign for Milwaukee!  Oh, no!  I was in Wisconsin!  I missed my exit to go south!  I turned around, called Dennis on my now-charged cell phone and told him I had taken a little side trip, but at least I didn’t get to Canada.

The map shows my route. I took the pink route to and from Dave and Carlota’s (Rockford to Carol Stream.) The yellow route was the way I was supposed to go to get back to I-88 and head home. The blue route is the way I took! Had to turn around in Wisconsin and come back. The problem is, as you leave Rockford, the sign points towards Chicago. I thought, “I don’t want to go to Chicago” so I ignored that sign. So, if you are ever in Rockford and want to head southwest, take the route that says “To Chicago!” IMG_3312

(Commercial break.  Stay tuned for Part 2 of the saga. It gets better!)