Thursday, December 8, 2011

Earl Staggs, my fellow Texan and last, but by NO means least, guest on this MYSTERY WE WRITE blog tour

BOOK GIVEAWAY! Earl will be giving away a print copy of Memory of a Murder and a copy of the Short Stories fo Earl Staggs (e-book version) to lucky commenters randomly picked at the conclusion of this tour. Don't wait to leave your comments, because this tour is rounding up!

Derringer Award winning author Earl Staggs has seen many of his short stories published in magazines and anthologies. He served as Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Magazine and as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. His novel MEMORY OF A MURDER earned thirteen Five Star reviews online at Amazon and B&N. His column “Write Tight” appears in the online magazine Apollo’s Lyre. He is also a contributing blog member of Murderous Musings and Make Mine Mystery. He hosts workshops for the Muse Online Writers Conference and the Catholic Writers Conference Online and is a frequent speaker at conferences and writers groups.  Email:  Website:

Today Earl shares with us: HERE’S WHAT HAPPENED

Once he’d figured it all out and knew whodunnit, Adrian Monk, everyone’s favorite OCD TV detective, would say, “Here’s what happened.”

Then he would tell how the crime occurred. As he described it, the audience viewing at home saw the event take place on the screen exactly as it happened in the past.

What better way to let an audience know what happened in the past than with both a narrative retelling AND a visual reenactment?  They can do that in movies and on TV.  Writers do not have that luxury, but we still have to tell our readers, “Here’s what happened.”  We call it backstory.

We have different ways of presenting backstory. We can have the narrator stop telling the current story and tell the backstory.  If it goes on for a long time, however, we run the risk of   boring readers and tempting them to skip over the “info dump” completely.  Imagine Monk telling what happened without the visual reenactment.  His show would never have lasted as long as it did.

One way to bring in backstory -- our version of a visual reenactment -- is to “show” what happened before, complete with dialogue and action exactly as it happened.  That requires, first of all, a clear transition to the past so readers aren’t confused about where they are in the story.  Once that’s done, the scene plays out just as it did before. Here’s an example, beginning with a transition:

Jane would never forget the day Dan left. She’d walked in the door and saw his bags packed in the foyer.  She’d hurried into the dining room to find him sitting at the table.

            “What’s going on, Dan?” she asked.
            “I can’t take it anymore.  I’m leaving.”

            Yada, yada, yada.

When the reenactment is finished, another clear transition is needed, of course, to bring readers back to the present without confusion. 

Another way to work in backstory, and a favorite of mine, is to bring it out in dialogue between two characters as part of the current story.  Like this:

            Jane knew Margie had something on her mind and waited for her to speak.

Margie took a sip of her wine and set her glass on the table, rotating it slowly with her hands. After several moments, she said, “Jane, you never did tell me why Dan left.”

            “I’m not sure myself. I came home and saw his bags packed and sitting in the foyer.”

            “Didn’t he say anything?”

Jane turned to the window and looked out. “I asked him what was going on.  He said he couldn’t take it anymore and he was leaving.”

            “Couldn’t take what anymore?”

            Yada, yada, yada.

Another method is a quick flashback.  Here’s how that might be done:

Dan had left two years ago.  She’d entered the house to see his bags packed and sitting in the foyer. When she asked him what was going on he said, “I can’t take it anymore. I’m leaving.” She still didn’t understand why.

A short flashback like that is not a major intrusion to the current story and chances are, you won’t lose the readers. It lacks the immediacy and drama of a reenactment, however.

In a story called, “That Night in Galveston,” I used a slightly different form of flashback. Amanda Barnes is kidnapped by a crippled, disfigured man with a gun and forced to drive to a vacant warehouse. She doesn’t remember the man and has no idea why he is doing this.  As she drives, little bits of information she’d wiped from her memory from twenty years before flash from her subconscious mind.  Here’s one of them:

Darkness. . .waves crashing against a pier. . .sounds of an amusement park in the distance. . .someone down on all fours. . .screaming. . .begging. . .

Shortly after that one, there’s this one:

Three men standing over him. . .yelling. . .kicking. . .swinging something. . .

And a little later, this one:
Gordie standing over her. . .pulling her to her feet…forcing a pipe into her hand…“Hit him, you little bitch, or I’ll hit you with it”. . .

Amanda is pulled into the past even further when something flashes from before she ran away from home and hitchhiked to Galveston.
A thick, burly man entering her bedroom. . . holding a finger to his lips to say, “Don’t wake your mother. We don’t want her to know our secret.”. . unable to breathe under his weight. . .biting her lip to keep from crying out from the pain he caused her inside. . .

This altered flashback method worked well in this particular story. It was a graphic, dramatic, and efficient way to bring out the backstory. I liked it so much I gave it a name:  “backflash.”

In many of our stories, we can’t get away from backstory. We have to tell our readers, “Here’s what happened.”  Part of our challenge is to do it in such a way that readers are not confused or bored and with minimal interruption to the current story.

By the way, if you’d like to know how Amanda escaped her fate, “That Night in Galveston” is one of the sixteen stories in my collection, SHORT STORIES OF EARL STAGGS.  You’ll find more information about it over on my website:

While you’re there, you can visit with my special guest for the day. 
You can also read Chapter One of MEMORY OF A MURDER, my first mystery novel, which earned thirteen Five Star reviews.
And please don't forget to sign up for the drawing on December 9. The first name drawn from those who leave a comment will receive a print copy of MEMORY OF A MURDER.  The second name drawn will have a choice of an ebook or print copy of SHORT STORIES OF EARL STAGGS, a collection of sixteen of my best short stories.


WS Gager said...

Earl: What a great way to talk about flashbacks. I'd never thought about the third one. Dang, learned something again. Will be recommending this post to my critic group. Thanks,
W.S. Gager on Writing

Jean Henry Mead said...

Very good post, Earl. It's cetainly food for thought.

J Q Rose said...

Thank goodness, WS told us about this post. I am working on just this problem in my current ms. Very helpful information. You inspired me to attack that chapter again! Thanks.

M.M. Gornell said...

Seems like I'm always taking a character back--usually to explain his motivation--your thoughts are excellent! Thanks for sharing.


marianne said...

Earl: Thanks much. I write literary fiction, but the problems with backstory are as vexing as they must be to a mystery writer. Your tips have given me some much needed ideas.

Tess Grant said...

Earl--this is very helpful. I'm working on the second book in a series right now and struggle with how much backstory to drop in about the first. Thanks for the tips.

Alice Duncan said...

Wow, Earl, what a great post. And you've given us some wonderful examples of how to get back-story into our books without being clumsy about it. Oh, and by the way, I loved WHERE BILLY DIED! And I still maintain the Kid's buried in Ft. Sumner, NM, but if Hico wants to pretend, it's okay by me :-)

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Good stuff...and how not to do it is the way Nevada Barr did it in her novel FLASHBACK.

Jackie King said...

Flashbacks are tricky and you've given us some good techniques for dealing with this necessity. Thanks,Earl.

Earl Staggs said...

I'm glad everyone seemed to enjoy my thoughts on flashbacks. They're a necessary evil in this writing thing we do, and we have to do them right. If my methods help anyone, I'll be very happy.

Anne K. Albert said...

Great advice, Earl. A super way to end the Mystery We Write Tour!

SandyG265 said...

This was an interesting post Earl.