Flashbacks Vs. Backstory

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.


  1. Interesting take, Julie. I like the thought of a flashback coming as an immediate scene which makes it more palatable than backstory.

    I’ll always remember a line I hear credited to Patrick Lee: Backstory should arrive as bad news for your protagonist. I love the concept. Now, to put it into practice.

    Keep writing, Julie. I’ll see you over at the reef.

  2. Wish I had a fan like Lorena’s mom’s. Oh wait. I do. 🙂 Dahling, I feel a case of the vapors comin’ on!
    I do love this story so, Julie. Can’t wait to read more of it!

  3. And for what it’s worth, a flashback should illustrate some aspect of the plot, personality, emotion of the story. A pleasant reverie might serve to contrast with a horrible situation, providing a solution to the problem or emotional strength to go on; just as a bad memory might reinforce a person’s resolve for revenge.
    Just my two cents.

  4. “Backstory can be woven in through the story in small, digestible bits whereas flashbacks become another scene. ”

    This was very clarifying for me. I can see the difference now, more clearly. I’ve taken backstory in my current WIP and done just as you said, woven it into the beginning in bits and pieces. I seem to recall somewhere that a writer should write no more than three sentences at any given point to drop it in, so to speak. That’s what sticks out in my head anyway.

    Anyway! Your dialogue paints the perfect picture of your characters in this excerpt! I immediately saw all players – like they were on a stage. Even the green trunk making it’s epic voyage all the way down those stairs. LOL!

  5. Donna,

    Thanks so much for stopping by. I think backstory and flashbacks are important to stories when they are done right. As you said, weaving in a few sentences here and there is perfect.

    I’m glad this scene worked for you. This has been a fun story to work on.


    1. I forgot to mention this! Have you read NEVERHOME by Laird Hunt? I think you’d find a few similarities in the concept as to RAIN CROW – which btw, is a GREAT title and the idea of her as a Confederate spy. Anyway, my point is, NEVERHOME is about a young woman who goes off to fight as a Confederate soldier. I loved it, but didn’t think to mention it when I was here before. I also think Hunt did a superb job with regard to research and I know based on your comments etc., this is key for your work too. Might find some hints there for use in this book.


      1. Donna,

        Thanks for the heads up. I’ve been sticking to mostly non-fiction and even that I’ve been picky about as authors tend to have agendas. I’ll check this out, though. It sounds interesting.

        1. Sorry for reply bombing your site, but I needed to make a correction – she’s a Union soldier actually. I had Confederate on the mind b/c of Rain Crow!

          1. Ha, you’re fine. I did read a collection of letters from a woman who served as a Union soldier that was pretty interesting. Unfortunately, she didn’t survive the war, having died of dysentery as so many did. Disease claimed far more lives than battle.

  6. A back story that is not forced and that is delivered in the right doses is a form of art. I think (as many do) that you are an outstanding story-teller, and I learn so much from you. Plus the insights and information you share with us are always invaluable. I’m so grateful to you, my dear. <3

  7. Lilac,

    Thank you very much. That is very kind. You’re completely right about back story delivery. It takes a deft hand to do it seamlessly.

    I always enjoy the crew at the reef. How very blessed we are!


  8. Love your scenes with or without flashback. That great sense of humour threaded throughout is always a boon. Nice to see you picking up the blogging quill more frequently. It’ll pay off when RC flies. And, it will.

  9. This was so helpful, Julie. I have some flashbacks I am trying to tame in my R&R.

    And I love the horse in your profile picture. My aunt raises quarter horses as well. I also love the title Rain Crow. I can’t wait to read it.

  10. E.M.

    Thanks so much for stopping by and for the kind comments. Flashbacks and backstory can be powerful if we make them work for us. As I said in the post. Chris Humphreys, did a great job in The French Executioner.

    Thank you also regarding the horse. That’s a little mare we raised named WW Ryonstone Cowgirl.

    Congratulations on the R&R! That’s a big deal. I wish you much success.

  11. Julie, I loved this scene. In my coffeeless stupor I thought it was a scene from French Executioner, and went to go borrow the book immediately. Blast! I’ll have to wait til The Rain Crow is ready for me.

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