Sneaky Flashbacks

Betty Webb is the author of the nationally best-selling Lena Jones mysteries (Desert Vengeance, Desert Wives, etc.) and the humorous Gunn Zoo mysteries (The Puffin of Death, The Koala of Death, etc.). Before beginning to write full time, Betty worked as a journalist, interviewing everyone from U.S. presidents, astronauts who walked on the moon, Nobel Prize-winners, and polygamy runaways. She has taught creative writing at Arizona State University and Phoenix College, and has been a nationally-syndicated literary critic for 30 years. In addition to other organizations, Betty is a member of the National Federation of Press Women, the Authors Guild, and Mystery Writers of America.

We series writers face a problem stand-alone writers don’t: how much should we tell our readers about what happened in our character’s earlier books?

Any writer who has been around long enough to learn a few things knows that too much backstory will derail an otherwise good plot. But sometimes new readers need to know the lead character’s history.

How to do that? Won’t new readers who inadvertently pick up Desert Vengeance, my ninth Lena Jones mystery, need to know what happened in books one (Desert Noir) through eight (Desert Rage)?

Sure, experienced Lena Jones fans already knew that Lena Jones was raised in a dozen foster homes, was shot three times (once when she was four years old), saw her office and apartment destroyed in an arson fire, was court-ordered into anger-management therapy because of her PTSD, and discarded at least two cheating boyfriends.

That’s a lot of angst for one woman, but Lena’s long-time fans have always stood solidly behind her. Those new readers, though…

So when I began writing Desert Vengeance, I knew I faced a big problem. What could I do to help readers new to the series learn enough about Lena’s battle-scarred past to understand her strange behavior? For instance, how could a new reader enjoy the ninth series book if he doesn’t even understand why Lena gets the shakes whenever she opens a closet?

Fortunately, I discovered that I had already solved that problem in book two (Desert Wives: Polygamy Can Be Murder), and that I had used the same solution in books three through eight. To catch new readers up on what had gone on in earlier books, I always utilized what I call the Sneaky Flashback.

Writers know full well that long flashbacks pull the reader out of the action, and therefore they needed to be handled with care and economy – emphasis on economy. I’m talking one-sentence flashbacks, flashbacks that are slipped in so stealthily the reader isn’t even aware they’re there.

Let’s take the “closet” scene, for example. To explain Lena’s lifetime fear of closets, I wrote something like this…

Lena wasn’t looking forward to her lunch with Carlton Brooks IV; the man was an irritant. But he was a powerful irritant and had the juice to make or break her client, so she knew she needed to dress well for the four-star restaurant he had chosen. Holding her breath, she approached the bedroom closet to fetch her one black dress, a Chanel bought at a Scottsdale resale shop. As her hand made contact with the closet door, she noticed it was trembling. No surprise there. After all, the foster father who had raped her when she was nine years old had hidden in a closet. Some day she’d get over it, but not today.

And that was it. A two-sentence flashback anchored in present-day action. In other scenes in other books, I was able to cut my Sneaky Flashback to one sentence. One Sneaky Flashback sentence for a childhood rape. One Sneaky Flashback sentence about being shot in the head at the age of four. One Sneaky Flashback sentence for the arson fire. On Sneaky Flashback sentence describing her PTSD. One Sneaky Flashback sentence for each of her cheating boyfriends.

These Sneaky Flashbacks – always sneaked into present-day action — helped my new readers understand Lena’s background, and also helped them sympathize with her determination to terrorize her childhood rapist the day he’s released from prison. The Sneaky Flashback kept my long-time readers from getting bored by the same old explanations again and again and again.

And most importantly, the Sneaky Flashback kept the action moving forward, right up to the page where Lena Jones takes her revenge.