At Books and Writers, this month’s writing exercises was flashbacks and backstory. I had a bit from The Rain Crow, my new novel under construction, that was backstory and I decided to make it more immediate by switching to a flashback. This is first draft stuff, so there are still places that need to be smoothed, but I am getting the bones of the story down.
Lorena lives in Luray, Virginia on a small plantation her father left her. She runs a boarding school for young ladies, is engaged to one of the most eligible bachelors in the south (or would be if her mother would give permission), is trying to solve the mysterious death of their school master, and in her spare time is a Confederate spy, The Rain Crow.
The thing I like about flashbacks in moderation as opposed to backstory is it makes the action more immediate. Backstory can be woven in through the story in small, digestible bits whereas flashbacks become another scene. C.C. Humphreys used flashbacks to great effect in The French Executioner. Speaking of which, that will be the next post. I’m working on a review of that wonderful book. Janet Reid has exhorted writers to have active blogs among other things, so I’ll be posting more regularly and doing book reviews once or twice a month.
In this scene, her mother has come from Baltimore for a visit, but is preparing to leave.
Back at Rosemount at last, I returned to the grim task at hand. I had tried to buy Mr. Stossel a suit many times, but he refused, saying clothes don’t make the man. Papa would have disagreed. I, having listened many times to his story about borrowing money to rent a suit and make a good impression on banker Tidwell to buy his first piece of land, knew full well how he felt about good clothes. The rented suit, Irish charm, a lumber contract on land he didn’t even own yet, that bank loan, and back-breaking labor had been the cornerstone of Papa’s wealth, but to hear him tell it, it was all due to a good suit.
The great suit debate had led to Mother’s last departure from Rosemount in an offended huff. She had been planning to leave after a two-week visit, but she hadn’t planned on leaving mad. I’m not sure why. We cannot be around each other for any length of time before battle breaks out. This one had started in the great hall.
I had returned from the kitchen with a basket of food for her journey to find George and Jackson dragging Papa’s trunk down the steps. Thunk Thunk Thunk
I watched in astonished silence, wondering who or what was going to come tumbling down the steps first. It was the trunk. George lost his footing and plopped down, tearing Jackson’s grip loose. The trunk came careening down the marble stairs like a green leather sleigh hurtling down a steep snowy hill. It slid across the floor, until the crumpling rug finally proved too much.
“What on earth are you men doing?” I should have known better than to ask. The empress stood near her pile of luggage overseeing the operation.
“Miz Mac– er Dobbs, wanted us to pack up your daddy’s suits,” George said, hobbling down the stairs and rubbing his butt. Maisy and Della followed him, loaded with more suits.
“Well, you can just pack them all right back up to his room. They’re not leaving this house.”
“Now you see here, Lorena,” Mother said in her best little-lady-you better-listen-up voice. She pointed to the girls who had started back up the stairs. “You bring those suits right back down here.”
I spun to face them. “You better not! I’m the mistress of Rosemount now.” It was bad enough Mother had divorced Papa, though he was probably grateful, but what irked me even more was her changing back to her maiden name. If she didn’t even want Papa’s name, she didn’t need his blamed suits.
“Stop being such an ungrateful, miserly whelp,” Mother snapped. “These suits can go to the Lady’s Aid there where they will help some poor, destitute man.”
There was the guilt, but I was mostly immune after twenty-two years of it. “No.”
“Oh, dear heavens. Someone help me to the parlor.” She whipped out her fan and waved it about as if directing an orchestra. Everyone looked at each other, unsure what to do, until George stepped forward to hold her arm.
Father in heaven, Mother. Please don’t faint on that frail old man. You’ll break something.
Not that I cared if she broke something in one of her scenes, but I did care about George. Once settled on the fainting couch, she drew in a heavy breath, as if it might be her last. I should be so lucky.
“Dear Lord,” she began dramatically, “forgive me for bringing this selfish child into the world. This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein. John 12:6.”
“Mother, you only want Papa’s suits so everyone will swoon over how generous you are to donate Beason and Switzers to the poor. He earned those suits in Virginia and here they shall stay.”
“He coveteth greedily all the day long: but the righteous giveth and spareth not. Proverbs 21:26.”
“And Baltimore, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Baltimorian’s excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. Isaiah 13:19.”
“That’s Babylon not Baltimore, Lorena. Stop being a heathen.”
“I’m sorry. I always get them confused.”
“I refuse to speak to you. Wallow in your greed. I’m going home. I just came to visit because Dr. Frain said I should pay my respects to those I care for . . . just in case. Not that you should be bothered.”
I kissed her goodbye and promised to come visit in a few weeks.
For now, what better purpose should Papa’s suit serve than to send off poor Mr. Stossel in a style he’d never been able to afford in life? Not that St. Peter put much store in things I was sure, but at the least our late school master would look passing fine at the viewing.