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Character In Action: A close reading exercise

So I did a class on character building for a writing conference recently, which was an interesting experience, especially since it forced me to think about what I do instead of just doing it. (Which, as regular readers will know, ends up being the root of all my advice anyway. Think harder, look deeper.)

As one exercise, I took the opening of a book I wrote and did a deep dive into analysing how it builds character. (I don’t use my own work for examples because I think I’m all that as a writer, by the way. I do it because I’m lazy and can’t be bothered to type long passages out from scratch when I could just copy paste my MSS.)

Anyway, it was a really useful exercise (for me at least), so I’m going to reproduce it here.

Okay. So the thing is, people often think of character as a collection of traits. (“My hero is a recovering alcoholic who has tragically lost his wife. He’s half Swedish and collects Ottoman pottery.”) But that isn’t character. Character is how that person behaves, including how they speak because speech is an action, and how they think in a book where we have access to their thoughts. That behaviour/speech/thought is influenced by their past, their traits etc.

And therefore, when we’re trying to convey character, it has to influence, and thus seep into, every aspect of the book—dialogue and narrative. You can’t just reserve chapter 4 for character development. Every sentence in a character’s POV is an opportunity to show character, and so is every sentence about them.

To demonstrate what I mean, I’m going to reproduce the opening of Slippery Creatures here. I’m then going to break it down line by line with what I think is pretty much every piece of character work in the passage.

And then, for your delectation, I will provide you with a version from which I have stripped out all the character work, so you can compare and contrast.

Note: this is very far from the only way to build character, and this example is specific to writing in deep 3rd person (that is, where we are inside the character’s head). This is incredibly far from a be-all and end-all. But it is a close work exercise that I found useful even though I’d written the damn thing in the first place, so I’m sharing it for what that’s worth.

OK. Here’s the passage. You might, if keen, want to write down any character notes you pick up as you go along. I found 16.

Will Darling was outnumbered by books.

It hadn’t always felt this way. When he’d first visited his uncle at Darling’s Used & Antiquarian, he’d simply thought, That’s a lot of books, and when he’d started helping here, they were just work. As he took over the running of the place in his uncle’s last illness, though, he became increasingly aware of them looming around him, full of knowledge and secrets and lies. So much that, when Uncle William had died, Will remembered an ancient piece of lore about bees, and he’d cleared his throat and told the books, “He’s gone.”

He was dead, and Will, his sole heir, had inherited Darling’s Used & Antiquarian: the premises on May’s Buildings off St. Martin’s Lane, the goodwill such as it was, and the stock. He was master of an entire building with a shop floor, two upstairs rooms, and a cubbyhole at the ground floor back which was all the space his uncle had allowed for human life. He’d have Uncle William’s savings too, once probate had been sorted out. And he owned a lot of books, although just now and then, when it got dark and the shelves loomed over him, he got the feeling that they owned him.

He occupied some of the extremely long periods when nobody came into the shop by trying to calculate how many volumes his uncle had stuck him with, and had concluded it could easily be forty thousand. He had yet to find an inventory, and was increasingly convinced the old bugger had kept his records in his head. So here he was, at the shop desk with books double stacked in the floor-to-ceiling shelves that turned the room into a maze, books piled on every flat surface and against every vertical one, books half-obscuring the windows. Bloody books.

The place reeked of old paper over the fainter odours of damp, dust, and rodents. He’d put down traps, checked the walls, and taken a broom to what floor was visible as well as to the accumulating cobwebs on the fog-stained ceiling. It had had very little effect. He’d probably get used to the smell of second-hand books one day, just stop noticing it, and then he’d be doomed.

On that gloomy thought, he swung his feet up onto his desk and leaned back in his chair. Uncle William had spent good money on this chair once, and though the red leather was cracked, it was still comfortable. That was good enough for Will.

He was damned lucky to be here, even if he lived in danger of being crushed by a book landslide. Will had gone to the War at eighteen, and come back five years later to find himself useless and unwanted. In Flanders he’d been a grizzled veteran, a fount of professional expertise who knew the ropes and had seen it all. Back in Blighty he’d become a young man again, one with little training and no experience. He’d been apprenticed to a joiner before the war, but that felt like decades ago: all he was good at now was killing people, which was discouraged.

OK? Right. I shall insert a separator in case you need a moment to think and then give my breakdown.


Here we go.

Will Darling was outnumbered by books.

‘Outnumbered’ is an odd word choice for books. It’s adversarial: we gather Will is an ‘us and them’ kind of guy. But obviously he’s not at war with books, so there’s a suggestion of humour in his response.

looming around him, full of knowledge and secrets and lies

This isn’t the response of a bibliophile. ‘Looming’ feels slightly threatening. We deduce Will isn’t an intellectual: he’s no Belle whizzing happily around on her rolly ladder. (We might also suspect foreshadowing in the books full of ‘secrets and lies’.)

Will remembered an ancient piece of lore about bees

Why does he know obscure folklore? It hints that he’s not a modern city type.  

he’d cleared his throat and told the books, “He’s gone.”

There’s a sense here of Will doing the ‘proper’ thing with the throat-clearing. Ceremony, a sense of doing the right thing, or superstition?

goodwill such as it was

A dryly amused thought: along with ‘outnumbered’ we’re building a picture of his sense of humour.

a cubbyhole at the ground floor back which was all the space his uncle had allowed for human life

We get a sense of the uncle living in a hole among the books, and deduce that Will is not of his ilk.

he owned a lot of books, although just now and then, when it got dark and the shelves loomed over him, he got the feeling that they owned him

Will has an imagination which tends to the sinister. ‘Loomed’ again, which might be a deliberate echo to amplify the sense of oppression, or might be an unconscious repetition the author failed to pick up before now, who can say. 

He occupied some of the extremely long periods when nobody came into the shop by trying to calculate how many volumes his uncle had stuck him with, and had concluded it could easily be forty thousand. He had yet to find an inventory, and was increasingly convinced the old bugger had kept his records in his head. So here he was, at the shop desk with books double stacked in the floor-to-ceiling shelves that turned the room into a maze, books piled on every flat surface and against every vertical one, books half-obscuring the windows. Bloody books.

Will is a man very much out of his depth, aware of it, and perhaps slightly worried about the viability of his new business.

He’d put down traps, checked the walls, and taken a broom to what floor was visible

He’s practical, doing the necessary stuff.

then he’d be doomed.

Dark imagination again, and the same half-joking sense of ‘us and them’ as in the first line: Will in battle with life.  

On that gloomy thought, he swung his feet up onto his desk and leaned back in his chair

The casual action doesn’t match ‘doomed’ or ‘gloomy’. Despite the preceding paragraphs, Will isn’t letting the oppression of books get him down.

and though the red leather was cracked, it was still comfortable. That was good enough for Will.

Not a man of exacting standards as long as things work.

He was damned lucky to be here

He does in fact have a sense of proportion about his situation. He has also sworn twice in a short passage of thought, which may or may not be noteworthy.

even if he lived in danger of being crushed by a book landslide

His sardonic/gloomy sense of humour again, which we may now be seeing as characteristic

Will had gone to the War at eighteen, and come back five years later to find himself useless and unwanted. In Flanders he’d been a grizzled veteran, a fount of professional expertise who knew the ropes and had seen it all. Back in Blighty he’d become a young man again, one with little training and no experience.

And here we see what his dark humour is characteristic of, as well as his adversarial cast of mind. He’s survived the First World War (quite possibly in the trenches because Flanders) and had his entire adult life shaped by it; he’s now adrift and disconcerted by his experiences, not quite fitting in with peacetime life or normality.

all he was good at now was killing people, which was discouraged.

An important piece of information about Will’s particular skill set, which you may suspect is likely to come up in the plot. Also another touch of his sense of humour in the sardonic word choice ‘discouraged’.


Now, obviously nobody reads the opening of a romantic suspense novel that closely. The reader isn’t scribbling down character notes. The vast majority of people, asked what they have learned from that passage, will say, “Well, he’s an ex soldier who owns a bookshop,” and a few more will add “and he’s not super happy about it”. Some people will be more like, “I don’t know, is he a beekeeper?”

But. But.

But readers do take this stuff in, even if they don’t realise they’re taking this stuff in. (That’s not a snark. Critical analysis is a learned skill: we can be affected by things without knowing how.) And it works by accumulation: you keep on drip feeding the information, infusing it through the book. When we see him stubbornly going toe to toe with a criminal gang and the War Office even though he’s completely outnumbered, we won’t find his attitude surprising.

We can show that people take this stuff in by seeing the response when we take it out.

I now present the opening of Slippery Creatures with exactly the same information and text but without the character notes. Read carefully. See what you think.

Will Darling had a lot of books.

He hadn’t always noticed. When he’d first visited his uncle at Darling’s Used & Antiquarian, he’d simply thought, That’s a lot of books, and when he’d started helping here, they were just work. As he took over the running of the place in his uncle’s last illness, though, he became increasingly aware of just how many there were.

Now his uncle was dead, and Will, his sole heir, had inherited Darling’s Used & Antiquarian: the premises on May’s Buildings off St. Martin’s Lane, the goodwill, and the stock. He was master of an entire building with a shop floor, two upstairs rooms, and a cubbyhole at the ground floor back where his uncle had lived. He’d have Uncle William’s savings too, once probate had been sorted out. And he owned a lot of books.

He occupied some of the periods when nobody came into the shop by trying to calculate how many volumes his uncle had left him, and had concluded it could easily be forty thousand. He had yet to find an inventory: he doubted his uncle had made one. So here he was, at the shop desk with books double stacked in the floor-to-ceiling shelves that turned the room into a maze, books piled on every flat surface and against every vertical one, books half-obscuring the windows.

The place smelled of old paper over the fainter odours of damp, dust, and rodents. He’d put down traps, checked the walls, and taken a broom to what floor was visible as well as to the accumulating cobwebs on the fog-stained ceiling. It had had very little effect. He’d probably just get used to the smell of second-hand books one day, and not notice it any more.

He put his feet up onto his desk and leaned back in his chair. Uncle William had spent good money on this chair once, and though the red leather was cracked, it was still comfortable.

Will had gone to the War at eighteen, and come back five years later to find himself useless and unwanted. He’d been an experienced soldier, but back in England he was starting again, with little training and no experience. He’d been apprenticed to a joiner before the war, but that was a long time ago: all he knew how to do now was kill people, which was illegal.

I mean, that could have been written by AI. We learn that Will is a soldier turned bookseller and that he’s practical but inexperienced, and that’s your lot. There is very little in the writing to interest or detain us, no depth of personality. It has, in fact, no character.

(It is possible to write entire books like this on purpose, of course, giving the reader only surface facts and letting them infer the character from the actions. Don’t let me stop you. It’s not going to fly in romance, though.)

But if you’re actively trying to build character? Remember it’s there all the time, and let it percolate throughout the whole book—action, speech, infodumps, description, to build up to a whole.


Slippery Creatures is available from all the usual places. Note for romance readers that it’s the first in a trilogy and you don’t get the HEA till book 3.

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Loose Ends and Razor Cuts

I just finished a book (writing one, not reading one, that would be less impressive) and while on the scrounge for anything to do except start my new one, I asked for blog post ideas. This one is from Lis Paice, who always brings the good questions.

How do you approach tying up loose ends at the end of a book?

Let’s talk about loose ends!

Just to get it out of the way: Sometimes we leave things unresolved on purpose. In a romance series, a major secondary character’s problems may well just have to fester through two or three novels until it’s their turn to be the MC. I left a whacking great unsolved mystery at the end of Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen because it’s a plot driver for the second book of the duology. However, I did so with a big neon signpost indicating FUTURE MYSTERY-INVESTIGATION HERE, giving the reader the clear nod that it isn’t forgotten about. And, crucially, the lack of resolution there doesn’t impact the MCs’ happy ending at all. Those things are dangling threads left for future works rather than loose ends.

What constitutes an actual loose end? I would say it’s a character whose fate the reader feels they have been set up to expect (someone we like left without resolution, someone we hate left unpunished), or a mystery that will be forever unexplained, or a problem that’s been set up with no solution offered. It is something that makes us say, ‘Hang on, what about…?’ It’s unsatisfactory because the author has brought something to our attention, and not dealt with it.

So what to do about loose ends?

First, identify them. I will here deploy one of the two big weapons in the editing arsenal: Chekhov’s Gun. Chekhov’s Gun is the law of loose ends, and it says, basically, if you dress your set with a gun hanging over the mantelpiece, someone had better bloody fire it.

But KJ, you say, some houses just have decorative firearms! Is every gun hanging over a fireplace fired in reality? Of course not. This is why fiction is more satisfying than life: it’s not full of unnecessary clutter. Of course, novels can afford more stage dressing than, er, stages, but even so, if you specifically draw the reader’s attention to a gun over the fireplace—well, you don’t actually have to fire it. You can hide the missing will in the muzzle, have a massive row over who’s going to inherit it, use it as the springboard for a really good joke / violent row, or stab someone with the dagger hanging below it that you slipped in to the description in a casual manner so the reader thinks, Ha, you totally got me there, I thought he’d be shot!

You can do any of those or much more. But if you’ve specifically drawn the reader’s attention to something (gun on wall, secondary character in need of help, stolen ring, heroine’s uncanny ability to memorise long strings of numbers, the hero’s father’s mysterious death) you need to use it in some way, or the reader will think Hang on, what about…?

Let’s talk about how!

***

Stop here. Go back three paragraphs to ‘First identify them.’ Reread. Tell me what I’m going to discuss next.

***

Seriously, imagine that I didn’t move on to the second big weapon in the editing arsenal. How annoying would that be? If you set it up, knock it down.

***

The second weapon is of course Occam’s Razor. This is the principle of parsimony: do not put in more elements than you can help. It can be phrased as, Find the simplest solution that works. If you require a minor character who does X thing, and later you need a character to dispense Y information, see if the same guy can do both X and Y. If Q is the solution to one problem, see if you can make it solve another problem as well. That saves the reader’s brain space and, if well executed, makes you look like a genius with your cunningly converging plotlines.

As I said in the first paragraph (did you really think it would be irrelevant?) I’ve just finished a novel. I struggled with this one because it’s a road-trip romance, which made my first draft feel very much like a sequence of stuff happening (because it, er, was). The hero, a duke travelling incognito because of a bet, meets the other hero, a disgraced layabout. They get in a fight. They meet a runaway and help them. They go somewhere else. The plot was a series of event, event, event, each of them satisfactory in itself and propelling the romance along, but not actually contributing to an overall story shape. Believe it or not, this was intentional (I did the synopsis while in Covid recovery, apparently I wasn’t entirely well yet), and I planned to tie it all up with one hero helping the other win his bet. Wooop. The romance actually developed very nicely in the first draft, but the plot…was not.

So I looked for my loose ends/Chekhov’s guns.

  • Minor characters for whom the reader would want resolution (people in need of help or love, villains in need of comeuppance)
  • Events that just happened and had no further significance

I specifically looked at the unresolved problems that had to be dealt with to get my MCs to a HEA.

  • They are a duke and a disgraced layabout and thus cannot associate
  • They need a way to be together safely in 1820ish

And I sharpened Occam’s razor.

  • I took an early plot event that just happened, and brought our heroes back to face the consequences of their actions then, provoking a key turning point in the relationship, and also dealing with a minor character who had previously got away with things.
  • I wove the story of the runaway and the disgraced layabout together so they had the same villain. Then I realised the villain could also be the motivator of the Duke’s plotline. Suddenly, instead of three separate storylines, I had three interweaving ones with a common external factor, which could then all work together to a single mutually satisfactory conclusion. And because they were interweaving, that led me to a far better climax, not just winning the bet, but also dealing with the villain–in a way that fixed one of the couple’s problems while they were at it. Motherlode.
  • I took a character who desperately needed an ending, and made him into the solution for the MCs’ other problem. I had originally envisaged him as a completely different person who would have his ending in his own book, so this change required some substantial rewriting. But once I saw the shape of the hole that had to be filled, I could see what shape the character should be. It meant jettisoning a future (theoretical) book for the sake of the current one, but sometimes Occam’s razor is cut-throat.

The process of identifying my loose ends and applying Occam’s razor to them allowed me to pull the book together to be a much tighter, cohesive whole. Check your draft for them, weave them in, and make them work for you.


As it happens, I have just tied up some other loose ends. In my The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting (to be re-released by Orion next year!) the hero Robin mentions his long lost brother Toby. I doubt anybody was surprised by Toby getting his own book (A Thief in the Night, out in e and audio now). It was absolutely necessary, loose end-wise, that the brothers should be reunited, but there was nowhere to do that in either book.

Luckily, we have the internet. ‘A Rose By Any Name’ is the epilogue to both Robin and Toby’s stories with their reunion. It will be available in my newsletter and in my Facebook group tomorrow (that’s Wednesday 18th April if you’re reading this in the future). For people who are allergic to both newsletters and Facebook, I’ll put it in the Free Reads section in due course but not immediately because marketing, sorry.

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What do you do when your book is too long? (Would you stand up and walk out on me?)

Oh God I’ve earwormed myself for a week, and probably you too. Sorry about that.

I was spurred to write this by a) my MS starting to runneth over, and b) a thread on Twitter where someone commented on the need to cut her 140K romance novel (gaaak). The advice given included:

  • Don’t cut it! Every word is precious!
  • Divide it into two books.
  • Cut ‘really’ and ‘very’ and the odd speech tag, that’ll definitely take out 60K.

(Let me just say, if you’re going to take writing advice off the internet, and you probably are because you’re reading this, in the name of God don’t take it off Twitter.)

So what do we do with an over-long book? Well, the first question is:

Does my book need to be this long?

I haven’t read it, but I’m happy to say no anyway. Very, very few long books need to be that long. OK, A Suitable Boy or Middlemarch or Sacred Games or London Belongs to Me, but what you need to ask yourself is, am I in fact a Dickensian level genius depicting entire inner and outer worlds with the sweep of my pen, or did I just go on a bit?

If you can maintain your vibrant narrative drive and pacing, plot interest, characterisation and energy levels, doubtless the reader will be carried along. If, however, you have sufficient plot for an average romance novel, but you feel like you need twice as many words to tell it, ask yourself why.

But KJ, it’s necessary character development and the careful delineation of their growing relationship!

OK but 140K of ‘twenty-eight times they went to the coffee shop and talked’ belongs at AO3 or Wattpad. (That isn’t a criticism: I think it is glorious that there are people who want to write 140K character studies, and people who want to read them, and a place where both sets of people can meet.) If you want to try for romance trad publication, you need your book to fall within the pretty wide parameters of the genre. A modern category romance is maybe 50-60K, a contemporary tradpub is more like 70-90K. Historicals tend to run a bit longer. The publisher will have guidelines.

If you’re planning to self pub you can of course do what you want. But if you’re charging people money, you still need to be honest with yourself as to whether you have a big book or just a bloated book.

So how do we deal with an oversized book? Well, the best advice I have is:

Don’t write one.

The best point to prevent yourself being stuck with a wildly overlong book is before you’ve typed out all those words. As you write, check in on where you are in the wordcount vs where you are in the story. If you’re writing a contemporary romance and you’re at 70K but only a quarter into your plot, you’ve messed up.

We have all found ourselves trapped in a Scene That Never Ends. (Yes it goes on and on, my friend. Some people started writing it not knowing what it was, but people keep writing it just because…) I recall a writer friend screaming, “Help, I’m trapped in a sequence of Two Men Having a Curry and I can’t get out!” The trick is to realise you aren’t going anywhere before you’ve spent a month in there.

(It would doubtless be possible to write an entire romance novel of Two Men Having a Curry as a single scene in which they fall in love over the meal. Actually that sounds brilliant, someone do it. But if it’s a scene in a book, it needs to be scene length, not book length.)

***

OK. Suppose you didn’t listen to me and you’ve accidentally written a 140K romance. What to do?

Divide it

Sometimes you do indeed need more than one standard book’s worth of words. My Will Darling Adventures is a trilogy because I could never have got Will and Kim to a HEA in a single 80K book. That said, it was planned as a trilogy from the start and each part has a clearly defined romance arc that comes to a satisfactory-for-now conclusion plus a separate external plot with an ending. It’s three books. That’s not the same as one book in three parts.

If your story is genuinely tightly constructed, and every scene contributes, and the relationship is moving forward all the time, dividing it into two may be a sensible choice. But each should have a real break point, and a real ending. Nobody likes a two-part story where the first part simply stops, rather than actually finishing. Moreover, if part 1 stops at a cliffhanger or a breakup, you are liable to annoy romance readers something chronic. The promise of romance is a satisfactory ending and if you don’t deliver without warning, some readers will happily click ‘next book’, but many others will click ‘one star’. So think very hard about how you’re going to work this. And if you do decide to sell a single story in two halves, make it clear in your marketing. Readers are open to all sorts of things as long as they are given fair warning.

Cut it!

Right. /cracks knuckles/

For a start, you are not going to lose 60K of bloat by trimming adverbs and speech tags. You are going to need garden shears, not thinning scissors. Here’s what to look for.

Losable characters

Do you have three sassy best friends where one could fulfil all the necessary plot function? Do we need to meet the heroine’s whole extended family? What is the cute kid or the guest appearance by the last book’s hero actually for?

In an ideal world, every aspect of your novel serves multiple functions. It keeps a story tight and makes it feel woven together and satisfying. If a character in your novel serves only one plot function, that sounds to me like a character whose job could be given to someone else.  (That is, if you have a neighbourly auntie who gives wise advice and an office lady who helps cover for the heroine’s boardroom sex sessions, give the office lady the advice role and lose the auntie.) Make every character earn their place.

If you have sequel bait characters for the next book who aren’t earning their keep as secondary characters in this book, rethink. I recently read a romance novel (first of a different-MCs trilogy) where all four MCs from the next two books hung around the plot like leather-jacketed extras in Grease, offering comic banter and moral support from the sidelines. They could all have been cut without affecting the story in the slightest, losing an easy 15K and allowing us to actually get into the romance without the constant interruption slowing it to a glacial pace. Sequel bait characters should make you want the next book. Do I sound like I want the next book?

Ask yourself: Would this character’s removal materially affect the development of the plot or character arcs? What role does this person play? (If the answer is “comic relief”, do us all a solid and get the axe.) (Yes, I’m grumpy.)

Losable scenes

If you cut this scene, would the book still work? If not, just how much of this scene would you have to keep? If it’s five lines, cut the scene and find another place for those five lines to go.

Every scene needs to earn its keep, and as above, ideally it needs to do multiple jobs. If you have a scene in which the MCs are discussing the break-in at the cupcake factory, and a scene where they trade sexy banter over cupcakes, how about amping up the discussion scene with sexual tension instead, thus doing both at once?

Beware multiple endings. If you’ve seen the final Lord of the Rings film with its SIX ENDINGS ACROSS FORTY-FIVE MINUTES MOTHER OF GOD you will know what I mean, but books do this too. Granted it can be hard to say goodbye to your characters, but believe me, you find it a lot harder than the reader will. Do you actually need an epilogue where they’ve got a baby? How about saving it for a newsletter bonus scene?

Stuckness

One characteristic of very long romance novels is often a sense of, for want of a better word, stuckness. The MCs spend chapter after chapter circling over the same thoughts about how they can’t imagine the other one would ever fancy them/can’t possibly fancy their best friend’s little sister, or repeating the same pattern of interaction (they go out, they get on, one of them says something snarky, they go off in a huff…). If your MCs are in a loop of that kind, break it. Each scene needs to advance the relationship, not just tell us more about the same thing.

I will here, once again, quote the best editorial comment I have ever received: “This passage feels like you are explaining the plot to yourself.” Watch out for this, it’s an incredibly common cause of bloat (especially in my first drafts). Here ‘plot’ also applies to conflict. If the heroine is repeatedly explaining to herself or others how she Can Never Trust Again because of her ex, make sure you’ve established that properly in the first place and then demonstrate how it works and changes, rather than filling the page with perseverating thoughts.

Repeated elements

I recently read a SF novel which is over 900 pages long, and of which the last half is, basically, the same two scenes played out in different forms over and over and over again. Could we not.

Want to show one MC standing up for the other? Do it—once. If you feel the need to do it more often, why? How do you differentiate the scenes—not just superficially, but what they achieve and the effects on the other MC/the relationship/the antagonists? Does the second time have a meaningfully different outcome? Could you get the same effect by writing the one scene a bit better?

See above for losable characters, watching out for multiple best friends, multiple antagonists, multiple amusing customers or relatives. Also, please have an entire post on various forms of repetition to look out for.

***

It is of course hard to let go words you’ve laboured over. If it makes you feel better to put them into a folder with a promise you’ll use them later, by all means do (and then forget about it). But it is worth considering which you’d rather read in a review:

I wish this book had been twice as long!

I wish this book had been half as long.

Just saying.


The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen comes out 7th March and is definitely exactly as long as it needs to be. Probably. Argh.

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What Is He Thinking? (or, how to make non POV characters show themselves)

On one of my regular forays onto Twitter begging for blog post ideas, Sarah Drew asked “How do you subtly suggest what a non POV character is thinking?”

That is an excellent question, and one that looms large in the minds of anyone writing single POV romance: how do we ensure we know what the other MC thinks and feels? I think the difficulties with that are an excellent reason for the popularity of dual POV romance.

Here I will note that it’s not unknown to do scenes from one POV and then repeat them from the second person’s point of view to give the reader full information. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a terrible idea. I can imagine good reasons to do it and when it might work. But I cannot currently think of a romance where it is anything other than a terrible idea in practice, so, you know, there’s a rec challenge.

Right. So, how do you get into the feelz of a non-viewpoint (NVP) character?

Well, the first question is: do you want to? Presumably you picked your POV character for a reason, if it’s single POV, or if you’re alternating, you decided that this scene had to be played from A’s perspective. So it’s worth considering how much of B’s feelings you actually want to give away, either to A or to the reader.

This can vary dramatically. My book Any Old Diamonds is narrated entirely from the POV of Alec, who hires jewel thief Jerry to rob his father. Jerry is presented as very hard for Alec to read, and because he is very deliberately excluding Alec from his feelings, we the reader are excluded too. They have sex, and Jerry teases out Alec’s wants and also listens to him, but we’re in chapter six (of 14) before they kiss. This is very much a book where, like the hapless viewpoint character, the reader can only look at the moments of consideration or tenderness on Jerry’s part and hope they add up to something. And thus, this is very much a book where you can’t skip the sex scenes.

Are you hard now?” Alec grunted affirmatively. “Good. Don’t touch yourself. Christ, you’re beautiful.”

Alec looked up sharply. Jerry’s eyes were wide and startled, as if he was shocked by his own words, then his lips curled deliberately. “With a cock in your mouth, I meant to say.”

I did it this way for three reasons.

  • Alec is carrying a huge amount of damage and insecurity. We go deep into that. If I’d also dug directly into what the hell is wrong with Jerry (a lot) it would have been 500 pages and glacially paced.  
  • This book is very much about how hard it is to know the truth of people. So it’s important thematically that the only head we’re in is Alec’s, and all we see of Jerry is what Alec sees (from which we can draw our own conclusions).
  • Let’s be real, Jerry the enigmatic, sexually dominating jewel thief is just more fun than “Jerry Gets In Touch with His Feelings”.

Of course, you have to make up for this sort of thing. Jerry eventually comes up with a multi-page grovel/declaration of feelings, plus a massive Grand Gesture. It felt the least I could do.

So: you might not want to clue the reader in with more than direct visuals of how the NVP character looks. Or, you may. Let’s now look at how we might do that.

My latest book Masters In This Hall is a single viewpoint. John (VP) is a hotel detective who lost his job when Barnaby seduced him to distract him from a jewel theft. (I do actually write books that aren’t about jewel thieves occasionally but this one is in the same series as Any Old Diamonds.) Masters is single viewpoint because the main plotline is John starting off devastated by Barnaby’s betrayal (they were just starting a relationship), and the mystery / gradual reveal of why Barnaby did it. If I’d done Barnaby POV I’d have had to spend a lot of the time in Barnaby’s head while deliberately holding back that information from the reader and it’s possible for that to get annoying.

So I went for single POV. But honestly, it’s a Christmas romance novel, we all know Barnaby must have had a good reason, so let’s see how we know what he’s feeling. Deep dive ahoy!

(They are both in Abel Garland’s country house where Barnaby Littimer is master of ceremonies for the medieval-style Christmas celebrations and John Garland is the uninvited poor relation.)

Littimer leapt lightly onto a chair like the hero in a pantomime, tossing his over-long hair back. The arrant ponce. … Littimer’s grin glittered in the candlelight. “A programme of festivities with roles for all who wish them, and enjoyment for everyone. As your Lord of Misrule, I shall direct the house, and I must implore the fullest obedience. All will be revealed, lords, ladies—”

His gaze swept the room, and snagged on John at the back. Their eyes locked. The smile died on Littimer’s face for a full half second.

Then it returned in full force as though he’d never stopped. “And gentlemen!” he concluded, and swept a dramatic bow.

Here we see John”s mere existence shake Barnaby’s confidence and polished persona. This guy is no Jerry, able to control his emotional display, but he’s very good at performing and John nevertheless puts him off his stride.

That sets the tone. We have a couple of exchanges where Barnaby is being irritatingly mysterious and trying to get John to leave. Is he trying to clear the decks for a robbery, or something else?

Littimer made a strangled noise. “If I swear to you that I don’t want to rob your uncle, or your cousin, if I promise on my life not to do anything that will harm you or your family—”

“As if I’d believe you.”

“—is there any chance you’d go away?”

John struggled to form words. Finally he managed, “You actually think I’m that gullible?”

“I’m not trying to gull you. But I really do promise it would be better if you just go home and let events take their course.”

“Why?”

Littimer gave a mirthless smile. “Because I’m trying to keep several balls in the air at the moment, most of them made of nitro-glycerine, and I’d prefer you to be somewhere else when I drop them.”

“What do you mean?”

“That I’m facing the immediate and unpleasant consequences of my own stupidity. If you think you fell into a trap and brought trouble on yourself, I can only say you are speaking to a master of that art. I’ve bollocksed things up so badly that all I can hope to do now is limit the damage. I think I owe you that.”

That had come out in a raw-voiced rush. John had no idea what to make of it. “Are you in trouble?”

Littimer swallowed, hard; John saw his throat move, and remembered how he’d kissed it, how it had convulsed when Barnaby spent. “A quite remarkable amount.”

His words say he’s sorry and cares about John still. He could be lying. But we’ve also got some clear physical indications of Barnaby’s distress (strangled noise, mirthless smile, rushed speech, swallow) along with the dialogue to support the idea that he’s telling the truth. Also, that he’s actually not very good at this stuff and not coping very well. He’s visibly frustrated and unhappy, which allows us to believe that he’s telling the truth with his indiscreet confession. The final para gives us a physical movement that emphasises the desire between them, but also gently nudges the reader to believe Barnaby is telling the truth: we’re being specifically shown it was an involuntary reaction that betrays his feelings.

Small touches, but they set John, and us, up to believe that Barnaby is yearning to tell John the truth, that he’s every bit as unhappy as John, that they are on their way back together. And thus, when he does confess all, we’re primed for belief and reunion.

The physical underpins the dialogue. Even showing an absence of reaction does something. Here’s Jerry again, looking through Alec’s sketchbook when they’ve had a massive break-up because of a terrible thing Alec did.

Jerry leafed through the book, page after page, unspeaking. There were the face studies, various sketches of eyes and eyebrows, and then he turned the page to reveal that accursed full-face drawing, and Alec decided he really did now want to die. He’d tried to catch Jerry’s expression in that long moment after they’d made love kissing—that intent look, the tenderness—and he’d put so much of his own yearning on the page that he didn’t believe any viewer could miss it.

Jerry looked at that picture for what seemed hours, face unreadable. He didn’t speak, he didn’t move, and Alec watched him, throat as constricted as though Jerry’s hand was gripping it tight.

At last he closed the sketchbook, though he still didn’t look up. “You’ll have to take a few of those out.”

The absence of reaction is a reaction, and the reader can draw their own conclusions onto that blankness. Here it’s crucial to show not tell (a maxim for which I have little time otherwise) because this passage would really not be improved by a detailed explanation of his probable feelings. Jerry is hanging on to his emotional coolth by his fingernails, as we see from the fact that he doesn’t look up: we may well conclude he can’t control his features.

Which leads to an important point: if you want the reader to know what the NVP character is thinking, you have to know what they’re thinking. I knew what was going on in Jerry and Barnaby’s heads throughout, and one of the things I looked for in editing was making sure their (offpage) motivations and thoughts were as sharply defined and consistent as any onpage ones. If you have a NVP character come in being offensive because the plot requires it, rather than because you know what put them in that place, it won’t convince.

That’s MCs. What about showing other, minor characters’ feelings? I’m going to cherrypick a few more examples from Masters In This Hall. Here’s Lord Sidney Box talking about his host (Abel Garland who is an industrial millionaire), whose daughter is to marry Lord Dombey, Lord Sidney’s best friend.

“Garland’s a fool as well as a vulgarian. But, a rich fool. And to be just, he is lavish to his daughter. One cannot fault Miss Garland’s dress, whatever one might think of her breeding, or looks.” They both chuckled again. “Well, Dombey’s not much of a judge of horseflesh, so it scarcely matters, and I trust her to forget her origins once she has her coronet. The ironmonger will have to celebrate his pagan festivities alone next year, and one can only hope he ceases to make a mockery of a house that deserves to be treated with a little more dignity.”

The bite in his voice was startling. The other man said, “Yes, this was your place, wasn’t it? I say, Box—”

“I really don’t care,” Lord Sidney drawled. “I regret seeing it in such ludicrous hands, or course—like witnessing a lady of whom one was once fond plying her trade on the street with a painted face. But it was always inconvenient and really, we barely used it. My father was lucky to get it off his hands, and Garland paid through the nose for it. I won’t deny that it stings to see part of our family history lost in such a way and to such a vulgarian, but it’s all of a piece.”

What do we know now about Lord Sidney from these two paragraphs? He will sneer at a man while living off his lavish hospitality. He’s got a pretty grim attitude to women, and a strong belief in the superiority of the upper classes. And he is trying to sound sophisticated and blasé with all his drawling, but we see the flash of uncontrolled temper when he reflects that his old family home has been sold to an industrialist. You are unlikely to be surprised when he turns out to be the villain.

Or how about Abel’s daughter Ivy? She is a formidable woman making an exceedingly calculated marriage to an earl:

The Earl of Dombey was not a very impressive specimen, being of no more than medium height, with rounded shoulders, limited conversational horizons, and a tendency to let his mouth hang open. On the other hand, he was the Earl of Dombey, and thus a remarkably good catch for Miss Ivy Garland, who had no claim to noble birth and brought to the marriage nothing but shrewd intelligence, superb dress sense, and a massive amount of money.

She manages her father ruthlessly, and she will clearly manage Dombey ruthlessly. He is without question an inbred idiot and she’s marrying him to become a Countess. But she’s on John’s side (ish) and it’s a Christmas book. So I put in this tiny sequence at the Christmas table:

“That footman’s got a nerve.”

It was Barnaby Littimer. John ought to have told him to find another seat, clear off, go to the devil. Since all his energies were being spent on digestion, leaving very little for thought, and his general mood was of befuddled benevolence, he said, “Which?”

“The one who just offered Lady Jarndyce gin-punch. I bet she’s never touched gin in her life. No, you fool, don’t offer it to Box. Argh.”

At the far end of the table, Lord Sidney Box recoiled from the steaming jug with a pantomime of dismay. “He could just say no,” John remarked. “You’d think they were giving him horse piss.”

“If only,” Barnaby said. “Look, Dombey’s having some. I didn’t expect that.”

John watched the peer take a glass of gin-punch and raise it to Abel. “Good for him. Though he’d probably drink horse piss if you gave it to him. Jolly good vintage, eh what?”

Ostensibly this is showing us John and Barnaby ganging up to mock the toffs, enjoying one another’s company, the start of a reconciliation. But we also see that Lord Sidney deliberately make a point of his contempt for the working-class gin punch favoured by their host, whereas Lord Dombey shows fellowship and courtesy.

And then at the end, when Lord Sidney is exposed as the villain, we see Dombey’s reaction.

Dombey nodded slowly. “Yes. I beg your pardon, Garland: I believed him. My friend, you see.”

Ivy squeezed his arm. “I’m so very sorry, my dear. This is dreadful for you.”

He put his hand over hers, and their fingers linked. “Well. Box. Very poor show. Not sure what to think. Dare say you can tell me, eh?”

He may be thick as mince, but he’s decent, and he recognises that Ivy is the brains of their outfit, and that plus the moment of mutual linking fingers—comfort, allegiance, relying on one another—tells the reader that in fact there’s more to this marriage than exchanging money for title.

I didn’t want to make a big deal of it; it’s not their story. I absolutely did not want to hammer the point home because urgh.

He put his hand over hers, and their fingers linked. “Well. Box. Very poor show. Not sure what to think. Dare say you can tell me, eh?”

John sighed with relief. It looked as though his cousin might even be making a love match in her own way after all.

There’s no need to explain everything. As with any lie, fiction becomes less plausible if you overdo the supporting details. Just drop the hint and let the reader pick it up.

And that, I think, is the key to clueing us in to NVP characters’ thoughts. Don’t over-egg it. Trust the reader, show us words and reactions, and let us draw our conclusions even if we’re not in their heads. After all, that’s how we understand people every day.


Any Old Diamonds and Masters In This Hall are both in the Lilywhite Boys series. Get your Victorian jewel thieves here.

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Let’s talk about sex (scenes)

Sex scenes tend to loom large in romance. So let me first note that they don’t have to. Romances can be closed-door (sex happens off page) or entirely sex-free (asexual romances, books that lead up to a marriage with no shenanigans in advance) and work brilliantly.

Don’t believe anyone who says you have to have on-page sex. Don’t believe anyone who says it has to happen at certain “beats” in the story, or by a certain percentage of the MS. Don’t believe anyone who says that sex has to follow a progression of escalating acts in a particular order. Ignore everyone. Listen to me, and only me. Send your credit card details to—

Sorry, got carried away there.

Okay. Let’s assume you want sex scenes. So, how to go about it?

The received wisdom is that in romance (not erotica or erotic romance, which are separate beasts to which this blog post does not apply), every sex scene needs to advance the plot on some level. A sex scene should not be skippable.  Remember here that plot is character in action. A sex scene might have any of the following effects:

  • MCs who don’t know each other well create a tentative connection, so MC 1 feels able to flee to MC 2’s home when disaster strikes
  • MCs who click/laugh/otherwise develop their emotional relationship in a way they have not before now
  • MCs reveal insecurities, fears, vulnerabilities, or past trauma
  • MCs reveal a quality that hasn’t been apparent before, whether unexpected kindness and consideration, humour, passion, or a more alarming side
  • MC says something stupid in the aftermath and borks everything
  • MCs are seen shagging, setting off plot repercussions
  • MC1 develops trust and feelings that will be catastrophically let down when they learn that MC2 is a lying liar
  • MC lets something slip in the throes of passion that alters their partner’s opinion of things, whether “I love you” or “[ex girlfriend’s name]” or “okay, the double agent is…”
  • Bonking sets off magical effects eg moving tattoos, prophecy, visions, portals to other universe
  • The desk on which they’re shagging breaks, and MCs discover the long lost will in the wreckage.

I have written most of those, if not the last one, though I am keeping it in my back pocket.

You will note I’m not including “MCs fall deeper in love”, although that is perhaps the most popular sex-scene outcome. That’s because it’s not enough to say “they bonked and the rush of endorphins did its thing.” I want to see them falling more in love, not because the sex was good, but because of exactly why it was good, and how that springs from and affects character.  

A few questions to ask yourself:

Are they going to end the sex scene in a different place to where they started?

Not physically (unless you’re doing the portal thing), but mentally/emotionally. Who’s going to regret it? Feel stupid? Wish they’d clarified relationship terms beforehand? Blurt out I love you? Fail to say I love you when it’s called for? Has this moved their relationship forward, or sent it off in a different direction? Have they had a useful conversation? If they are in exactly the same mental/emotional place at the end except sweatier, what have you added to the romance or the plot? Possibly they broke the desk and found the will, and that’s fine. But make it something.

What are we learning about the MCs by what they do in bed?

In some books, an MC’s sexual urges are plot drivers. A Seditious Affair has an upstanding Conservative government official who is secretly a gay submissive with a pretty extreme humiliation kink, and has been fairly badly traumatised by a previous lover’s inability to understand his desires. The sex scenes in this book are numerous because that’s initially the lovers’ only means of connection, and because we the reader have to understand quite how poorly matched his desires are to the rest of his life, and how wretched and ashamed he feels about it, and the extremity of those desires, and the kindness and consideration shown by his lover, and their growing mutual understanding/trust, and the fact that their idea of post-coital pillow talk is arguing about books. The conflict, internal and external, of this book boils down to sex and politics, so there’s a lot of sex on page (and also a lot of politics, sorry).

In other books, the MCs’ conflicts have nothing to do with sex, and all of the plot and relationship progression happens elsewhere. That’s absolutely fine: it’s not all about bonking. But in that case, you’ll want to consider writing fewer/less detailed/no sex scenes. Or if you feel you need explicit scenes on page, identify why that is, and see if you can, eg, shift some of the emotional progression to within a sex scene. Don’t just stick one in because romances have to have sex: a) they do not and b) it will be skippable.

Let me here beg you not to have the MCs do super-sexy things just because it’s a sex scene. The kind of sex they have and things they say will still be rooted in character. Some people don’t like to talk, are perfectly happy with affectionate vanilla sex, don’t enjoy penetration, have no idea what they’re doing, or are otherwise not classic Romance Sex Gods in any of a million ways. They are entitled to that, and those scenes can be just as hot and satisfying as any other.

What happens if it’s lousy sex?

Most romance sex is orgasms all the way, as it should be, but why not try negotiating failures, not liking stuff, when someone asks to stop, or the need for improvement? If a hero who comes in thirty seconds and rolls over to go to sleep is good enough for the great Beverly Jenkins, it’s good enough for you. (A Chance at Love, and obviously he gets better, but this scene is magnificent.)

One of my most important sex scenes comes in Subtle Blood, a m/m romance and book 3 of a trilogy. So far Will has always been on top in penetrative sex. He asks his lover Kim to switch things around. It goes super badly and Will hates it, so they stop. This triggers a conversation where he’s forced to explain himself (a thing he is also incredibly bad at) and thus leads to the big love declaration.

Will took a deep breath. “I wanted to give it up to you, the way you do to me. The way you make me feel when I have you, the things you say when I do it. I wanted to do that for you. I thought I could show you that way.”

Kim’s eyes widened. “Oh.”

“I wanted to,” Will said, wretchedly. “Only, it didn’t feel—”

“Hold on a moment. I would also like to have you give yourself to me. I would like that more than anything. I’m not sure why you think it needs to be physical.”

Physical would be easier, or at least he’d assumed it would be. “Doesn’t it?” he said, knowing he was stalling.

Kim brushed a thumb over his eyebrow, down the side of his face. “I love you, Will. I’ve told you that, knowing you weren’t ready or able to answer. But it isn’t the easiest thing to repeat I love you and I want you to a man whose idea of the future is ‘we’ll see where we go’.”

“Kim—”

“You were always welcome to my body,” Kim went on steadily. “Making you free of my soul was a great deal harder. I am unsure of your intentions, and unsure I have any right to ask for them, and I told you how I felt anyway because I promised not to lie any more. That’s giving it up to you, and it’s really not the same thing as a spot of recreational sodomy.” He gave Will a half-smile that wasn’t happy. “You’re confusing truth with acts, my love. If you’re offering, I’d rather have truth.”

I wrote it this way because we already know they’re terrific in bed, so another great shag wouldn’t actually move the dial on their relationship at all. Whereas the awkward failure to launch forces Will to confront and vocalise the feelings he was trying to avoid talking about.

How much detail and at what point?

You don’t need to make every scene blow-by-blow-job. It may be that you concentrate on the dancing around, heated glances, slow undressing, discussion of what they both want, and then pretty much skim over the actual Insert Tab A Into Slot B. Or perhaps you want to make it super physical which means getting down quick to the nitty-gritty of thrusting. You might need just a few lines of lovemaking to establish that they’re clinging to one another, or an extended X-rated sequence, or an entire chapter that’s mostly negotiation and discussion. You can play it any way you like, as long as you consider what you’re trying to convey. But don’t feel compelled to write any more detail than the scene actually needs.

***

I was considering writing about the mechanics of writing sex scenes here but this is already too long plus I have reached a conclusion on my way, which is: once you work out what a sex scene is for, in the plot, you’ll know what sort of sex should be on the page. If it’s an intense exploration of kink, then there’s going to be issues of power and vulnerability and trust and a lot of physicality. If it’s hatesex in an enemies to lovers, you’ll need to make it wild. If it’s about making an emotional connection, you’ll need to focus on dialogue and feelings–the warm fuzzy kind as well as the knickers kind. If the sex is just underpinning how great everything is, there may not be a lot more to say than that it happened.

A few mechanics

  • Do think about your characters’ actual bodies, relative heights, number of limbs (unlikely to be more than four each except in certain subgenres), etc, and make sure whatever’s happening is physically possible. You don’t want the reader breaking off to find a couple of Barbie and/or Ken dolls in order to check if something works.
  • Use the level of language suitable for the people and their experience (and, in a historical, the time period. Here I highly recommend the work of Jonathon Green whose Dictionary of Slang gives dates of first use.)
  • Silken sheaths, quivering cores, pebbled nubbins etc are so last century. “His manhood” and “her feminine core” are uncomfortably gender essentialist as terms for body parts and also somewhat ew. There is nothing wrong with the word ‘cock’.

The interesting part isn’t what MCs do with their genitals: it’s how the people involved feel about it. Smells, shudders, sensations, touch and taste. Emotional needs and responses along with (or at odds to) physical ones. Something in the world shifting, a little or a lot, because of what they do. That’s what makes an impact on the reader, which is what it’s all about.  

Thanks to Iona for the inspiration for this one!

Know Your Place

I have taken to soliciting on Twitter for blog post ideas, and today’s is an excellent one from @kilerkki.

Your books often have a really strong sense of place—how do you build the setting? (How do you keep yourself from getting lost in blueprints while your characters are wandering London’s back alleys/some fancy manor’s corridors?)

First things first: if you want the reader to feel a sense of place, you have to have it yourself. Seems obvious, but it’s very easy to plonk your characters into Generic Village or Generic Stately Home without really thinking about it beyond “there were some houses” or “there were some rooms”.

The easiest way to get your own sense of place is of course to visit a real location, so you actually understand what the landscape looks like, how much sky there is, how it feels. I like to steal stately homes from reality because it means I have mental and actual pictures, a ready-made floor plan to adapt, and a general sense of “this is the right age, right sort of place for this area”, plus there’s usually some delightful quirk that triggers a plot idea. Peakholme in Think of England is based on Cragside, an incredibly technologically advanced house for its time, and its special phone system and electric wiring were plot crucial. Crowmarsh in An Unsuitable Heir is based on Baddesley Clinton because it has a moat, dammit.

Of course, it’s not always feasible to make a trip. If you’re an American writing Tudor England, that’s a long way to travel in time as well as place. So use maps and, importantly pictures. There are a quite staggering number of resources online with searchable collections of watercolours and engravings, and loads of old maps available online/as reproductions.

These things are important because they will give you a sense of place which you can then convey to the reader. This does not mean you should write paragraphs of detailed setting: nobody cares about your research. You need to know because that means you’ll write with confidence, and also there won’t be snafus of the kind that readers inevitably pick up. But accuracy is worthless if it’s not conveyed in good, effective writing, and nobody’s romance-reading experience was ever enhanced by a paraphrase of the Wiki entry on Chatsworth House.

Obviously you can make up a fictional town, or house, or battleship. But you do need to make it up in enough detail that your characters aren’t just walking through a vague indeterminate fog.

So how to create a sense of place without fly-tipping your notes onto the page?

Practical details: what do you need?

Consider what the reader actually needs to know about the place on a practical level, and think very hard before supplying much in excess of that. Take stately homes. In Proper English, the layout of the house is crucial to the murder mystery and the reader’s understanding. In Any Old Diamonds, the actual layout is almost completely irrelevant. I’d hazard that a reader could sketch much of the floorplan from Proper English accurately because of the level of detail I put in, whereas for Any Old Diamonds the most you could say is “there’s a dining room, a drawing room, a billiard room, and several bedrooms.” I knew what the house layout was, at least enough to ensure that the billiard room doesn’t migrate around the building, but I couldn’t find a reason to trouble the reader with those specifics. (We do however know a lot about how the Any Old Diamonds house is decorated, and also about the exterior, because those were important.)

Descriptive detail: where the devil is

I mentioned needing a reason to tell the reader stuff. Practical information is one reason to put information in. Atmosphere—the sense of place—is another. So let’s look at that.

In my 1920s Will Darling Adventures, Will owns an antiquarian and second-hand bookshop in an easily ignored side street off Charing Cross Road called May’s Buildings. Here’s more or less everything we learn about May’s Buildings across three books:

  • It’s only accessible to cars at one end and it’s not yet lit with electric (important practical details for plot)
  • There’s a pub at the Charing Cross end (practical detail for plot) called the Black Horse (actual historical fact, which matters to literally nobody but me)
  • The next-door shop sells umbrellas and walking sticks.

This last point is not plot relevant (though I am now kind of wishing I’d done a fight in a walking stick shop). We learn it in the following sentence:

Will went next door, demanding, “Can I use your telephone?” His neighbour, Norris, purveyor of umbrellas and walking sticks, waved an uninterested hand.

I could have said “the shop next door” to the same practical effect (it’s just there to give Will access to a phone). What do walking sticks and umbrellas add? Why put that in?

Well, a walking-stick-and-brolly shop is very niche. It’s not going to have high footfall or attract customers from miles around: people buy them, but they don’t buy many, or often. It’s exceedingly British, with a rather musty and dusty feel and there’s a delightful class marker in ‘purveyor’ rather than ‘seller’.

“A little alley with an antiquarian bookshop next to a purveyor of walking sticks and umbrellas” gives you a vibe. You know what it feels like, if not exactly what it looks like. If asked what the shop on the other side might be, you might speculate a very old-fashioned toyshop, or a place that sells clocks, or a specialist in cake pans. You would not say a fishmonger, or a trendy dress shop buzzing with Bright Young Things.

That’s a fair bit of atmosphere, dropped in not as part of a descriptive paragraph (face it, people skip descriptive paragraphs unless you make them read), but on the fly. It keeps the reader conscious of Will’s surroundings without labouring the point. We don’t get an actual description of Norris’s shop; we don’t need one. But its existence adds to the sense of place.

Because sense of place is more than physical description of geographical features. You can build it up with references to much more—smells, how crowded/empty it is, what people wear or do, how they look, the food you can buy.

Here’s another from Slippery Creatures, since I’m on a shop roll.

Maisie worked at a milliner’s on Lexington Street, which had a fancy French name and served women who, she said, needed to look at exciting hats while they bought boring ones.

I could have gone into detail about what sort of street Lexington Street is, what’s the nearest Tube, what the shop looks like—the rows of hats, how the exciting and boring ones are displayed, the way the staff dress, the level of snootiness. I didn’t, for three reasons:

  • The reader doesn’t need to know. (Crucial)
  • Will, our viewpoint, doesn’t know anything about hats. (Important for character)
  • I don’t know anything about hats. (And am too lazy to learn)

But you can tell the kind of shop it is—expensive, fancy but not with cutting edge clientele. You don’t have to know where Lexington Street is to guess that it’s in the right area, but not on the really fashionable circuit. It’s a little detail that lightly sketches in a bit of Will Darling’s London. But frankly, what we really learn here is that Maisie is a shrewd woman who has more to offer than her current employer is using. I’m just slipping a bit of place in with that.

This is important. Because remember how I said that readers skim description? Well, they really do, unless you make them need to read it. And a great way to do that is to couple your descriptive parts with other things–character-building, or plot-establishment, or building atmosphere in a way that snags the attention.

God, That’s Pathetic

The pathetic fallacy is a literary term for the attribution of human feeling to things found in nature. Mountains are cruelly indifferent, summer rain is kindly, an old house frowns. (Pathetic here means ‘having to do with feelings’ as in sympathy or empathy, not ‘pitiful and ridiculous’, btw.)

Here’s Piper, the house in The Magpie Lord.

Piper was a substantial Jacobean building in grey stone, with small panelled windows sitting in the thick walls like deep-set eyes. The front was covered with ivy, and the woods encroached too closely on what had once been elegant gardens. The gravelled drive was pierced by weeds. Magpies screeched and cawed in the trees, and a trio of the birds strutted in front of the three men.

Practically speaking, it’s an old house in poor repair. But emotionally speaking, what do we get?

  • The scary house is looking at us in a sinister fashion
  • The scary plants are surrounding us and pushing in (‘encroaching’, ‘pierced’)
  • The scary birds are pushy, even aggressive (‘screeched’, ‘strutted’).

The description gives us a strong sense something is wrong with the house, and it’s wrong in a menacing way.

The sense of place here comes as much from the pathetic fallacy as from the practical description. Let’s try it without.

Piper was a substantial Jacobean building in grey stone, with small panelled windows sitting in the thick walls. The front was covered with ivy, and the woods were growing up around what had once been elegant gardens. The gravelled drive was full of weeds. Magpies called in the trees, and a trio of the birds hopped in front of the three men.

That’s a perfectly adequate description, but it doesn’t have what I’d call the sense of place. You could skim that without missing anything.

(For a laugh, let’s run it again with a different set of feelz.

Piper was a substantial Jacobean building in grey stone, with small panelled windows sitting in the thick walls, catching the sunlight in friendly winks. The front was lush with ivy, and the vibrant sprawl of the woods was reclaiming what had once been strict formal gardens. The gravelled drive sang with wild flowers. Magpies called greetings from the trees, and a trio of the birds danced in front of the three men.

Aw. Let’s hire it for a holiday home!)

The pathetic fallacy—loading your description with your character’s feelings—can do a ton of work in character development, and is more engaging to read as description than purely factual. It can however be overdone very easily so watch yourself.

Figures in a Landscape

As noted, it’s ideal if your writing is trying to do two for the price of one. If your description both conveys the surroundings/place and reflects the viewpoint character’s mood, you’ve got a better chance of keeping the description-skippers engaged while saying what you need to convey.

Here’s a longish bit from The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen (the first of my Doomsday Books duo, coming from Sourcebooks in 2023). It’s the opening chapter after a somewhat turbulent prologue that’s established Gareth is both highly strung and very wound up.

Gareth arrived on Romney Marsh four days after that. It was bleak beyond words.

The stage stopped at a coaching inn, the Walnut Tree, high on a ridge. The land stretched out before them, grey-green, blotched with black scrubby trees, and cut with silvery lines that looked for all the world like streams except that many were unnervingly straight. He couldn’t see much in the way of houses on the flat land below, or of anything except the sea beyond. An icy wind whipped up the ridge. He shivered.

The road from the ridge took a steep descent to the unfathomably flat land of the Marsh. There were a lot of sheep, Gareth noticed. And there was a lot of water, because the straight lines were indeed streams, except they had to be man-made. Canals? The channels looked steel grey as he passed, like blades cutting through scrubby grass, and scrubby trees, and scrub.

Why had his father wanted to live here? Why would anyone?

The coach traversed a wearisome six miles through nothing, emptiness dotted with sheep and the occasional flurry of cottages huddled against the wind. At last it came to a halt at Dymchurch, his destination. This was a town, though only just, with a squat Norman church and a long high street. The stage passed an alehouse called the Ship and then stopped at a public house halfway down, one that was adorned with a ship’s figurehead on its wall but was called the City of London. Someone should have thought harder about that, in Gareth’s opinion.

He got out, stretched his aching legs, and looked around. It didn’t take long: there wasn’t much to see. He was used to bustling crowds, dotted with bright bonnets and smart coats. Here there was just a handful of drably-clad people who looked like they had hunched up against the weather at birth and never quite uncurled again. Farmers and shopkeepers, he vaguely supposed. An elderly gentleman wearing an old-fashioned periwig was speaking to a pretty young woman in a brown skirt and mannish black coat.

What have we got here?

Well, we’ve got factual description of Romney Marsh including your actual pubs and town, and the important fact that this isn’t wild or waste land: it’s a man-made working environment. We establish that it’s very flat and not highly populated, and the people it does have are provincial, a bit old-fashioned, not rich or visibly exciting.

But it all comes with feelings. Everything is dismally low: flat, hunched, squat, huddled, scrubby (for trees). It’s featureless: bleak, drab, nothing, emptiness, scrub again. It’s miserable.

Or is it? Because we’ve also established that Gareth is uncertain, even fearful (unnervingly, shivered, unfathomably). He’s tired (wearisome, aching). He’s snarky, too, with very much a city-boy-comes-to-the-country vibe. All of this description of Romney Marsh is coming through the eyes of a nervous exhausted man with a tendency to snipe. We’ve learned about the place, but we’ve learned a fair bit about Gareth from how he views the place.

Which (I hope) means that later in the book, when Gareth finds his feet and indeed his love interest in the Marsh, the change in tenor of the descriptions will give the reader an entirely new view, both of who he is and of where he is. We learn about Gareth by seeing him as a figure interacting with his landscape.


Don’t think about sense of place as requiring detailed on-page description for its own sake. Think about a place’s vibe, and about how your characters interact with their world. Because if you can convey that, your settings will be, not background, but a living part of the book.

Characters, Politics, Fish, and You

Let’s talk about politics. Specifically, your characters’ politics, how you position them, and how they/you express them.

If your immediate thought was “My characters don’t have politics”, you’re wrong. Your character, if in a contemporary, votes, and if they don’t vote, they’re making a decision not to participate. They will have a view on how much tax they want to pay and what it should go to. They will have an opinion on gun control or Brexit or parking restrictions on their street or how much they pay for health care. As for historicals…well, the Regency was one of the most turbulent political periods of Britain’s history, a prime minister got assassinated, there was ongoing popular revolt and incredibly severe laws against sedition, and absolutely everyone had Views about the Prince Regent. No politics? Don’t kid yourself.

 And I haven’t even touched on issues of race, class, gender, religious freedom, disability, and sexuality. Name me a human society in which those aren’t relevant.  

All of that is politics. Everyone has politics. If you think you “don’t have politics” that probably means the politics happening around you are the sort that suit you, in which case you’re a fish not noticing water.

“Okay, my characters probably have politics, but I don’t want to get into that,” you might say. Fine, but politics are a facet of character just like everything else. They might not be at the forefront of your plot, or a topic of conversation. But you’d struggle to write an entire novel about fish in which water played no part at all in informing the plot, character, or setting.

Politics can affect character implicitly or explicitly. You can show us what the MCs think and how their histories inform their attitudes which inform their personalities. You can show us how they interact, especially from positions of difference: how ready they are to challenge themselves or hear new views.

This can be explicit. My Society of Gentlemen Regency series is exceedingly and overtly political, in settings and dialogue and plot. But the reason it worked as a romance series rather than a lecture tour is that the politics made for some hellacious conflicts.

In A Seditious Affair, Silas Mason is a working class seditionist while Dominic Frey is a committed Tory who works for the Home Office, and their book is set around a (real) conspiracy to assassinate the Cabinet, because let’s not muck about. Dominic and Silas in particular are about as impossible a pair to get to the HEA as I have written. Because of the huge political gulf between them, I had to dive deep into their personalities to show what did work between them, what brought and held them together. I used the politics to drive the love story and the external plot together: you could not take out the political bits because the political bits are all about the romance.

But that’s far from the only approach. Compare, say, this from Band Sinister. Guy, a fearful and sheltered country gentleman, has just been introduced the Murder, a hellfire club.

Raven opened his mouth. Penn said, mildly, “Every man is entitled to his beliefs.”

“Yes, any man has a right to his beliefs, and a duty to question them too,” Raven retorted. “If you don’t take out your beliefs for washing now and again, they’re just bad habits.”

That started a discussion among the company in general, greatly to Guy’s relief. He ate and drank and watched his tablemates as the conversation swerved like a drunkard in the road. They went from the need to abolish the offence of blasphemous libel and separate church from State into a discussion on the system of elections. Martelo and Salcombe argued that every man over the age of twenty-one should be entitled to a vote and representation in the House; Raven and Street suggested women’s opinions should be canvassed equally; and Corvin spoke, with languid wit that might even have been seriously meant, about the desirability of abolishing the House of Lords. “After all,” he said, “I have a seat and a voice there, and you wouldn’t put me in charge of the country, would you?”

It was beyond argument, for Guy: he couldn’t begin to formulate answers to questions he’d never even considered asking. He just listened, in a slightly wine-flown haze, to a debate that felt like some sort of lengthy hallucination, each proposition more destructive and extreme and simply not done than the last.

This, then, was a hellfire club: a debating society for alarming ideas. Guy could well understand why one would need a private room; a zealous magistrate could prosecute some of these opinions if aired at a public meeting. But this was Rookwood’s home and thus, since he was an Englishman, his castle. The Murder could say what they wanted in their own company, and Guy, who hardly ever said what he wanted, had nothing at all to offer this meeting of lively, informed, well-travelled people saying unimaginably bizarre things. He simply watched and listened, with the sense of being caught in one of those fiery upheavals that Salcombe said had made the world.

The point here isn’t what Guy or indeed his love interest Philip Rookwood think about any of these specific propositions: we don’t find out. The point is that he’s being submerged in a tsunami of new information and thought and also ways of thinking that he finds at first terrifying and them world-expanding. Which is a foreshadowing of the sexual awakening he’s about to have (albeit in rather more detail because romance, ahaha). The political discussion here serves to tell us the kind of person Guy is at the start of the book, and hint to us that he’s yearning for more; it also indicates the deep divide between him and Philip in terms of attitude to life, experience, willingness to conform. Guy is unthinkingly conservative; Philip is consciously (self-consciously) radical. Their romance is among other things a process by which Guy opens his mind, and Philip comes to understand and respect the values Guy does hold on to.  

Politics, like everything else, is character. But it’s also potentially a wonderful source of worldbuilding. I set my Will Darling Adventures in the early 1920s. You can populate that world with flappers and nightclubs and Bright Young People, and indeed I put in a lot of that. But it gets a lot chewier if you put in the context too. (The Bright Young People were unquestionably a bunch of privileged twats who should have been first against the wall at the revolution, but they were also a specific reaction to a political situation: an entire generation of young people with heroically dead older siblings they couldn’t live up to, facing a world their elders had made a bloody mess of and opting out.)

The politics of the time inform the world and the characters, main and minor. The upper classes have been hit by death duties, often several times in a few years, and their power is slipping, which drives a lot of the plot. The country is full of resentfully jobless demobbed soldiers like Will, who would probably be quite small-c conservative if people didn’t keep pushing him into extreme situations (whistles innocently). Women are holding on to the opportunities they had in the war and looking for new ones: Maisie, a black working class Welshwoman, is doggedly claiming a place in a white privileged men’s world, while Phoebe, a Bright Young Person, is solidly upper class but probably the most radical character in the book as she skips gaily over boundaries of class and gender that Will smacks into face first. And the extreme politics of the time leave real scars: Kim, an aristocrat, had a catastrophic flirtation with Bolshevism followed by a ghastly disillusionment post Revolution, all of which is character and plot crucial.


A delve into politics—which we could also call ‘what’s going on and what the characters think about it’—provides huge opportunity for building character and world alike. It doesn’t mean MCs delivering lectures or undigested infodumps. It just means thinking about how your characters exist in the context of their place and time, and showing that.

Consider the water your fish swim in. Then you can decide how clear or turbulent you want it to be.

No, *You’re* Wrong: writing arguments

I wrote a while ago about conflict in romance. My main point was that ‘conflict’ doesn’t have to mean ‘argument’. The MCs can be in deep conflict with a situation or third party, or even profound disagreement with each other, without ever raising their voices or even having an angry feeling. This set-up can produce some of the most heart-wrenching romances precisely because the conflict isn’t about argument or clashing.

Which is great. But today, we’re forgetting about lovers who are star-crossed, and concentrating on ones who are just plain cross. Let’s talk about blazing rows!

I love a good blazing row in a romance. People in a temper blurt out truths or, even worse, real subjective feelings and resentments that Calm Them would never have voiced. They say things that are grossly unfair and just accurate enough to get under the skin and stick there; things that hurt, and have to be apologised for and discussed. This can be a fantastic way to raise the stakes of a story, put a whacking obstacle in our lovers’ path, and dig right into the heart of the problems.

That’s argument done right. Done wrong, it’s one of the quickest ways to get readers to hurl the book across the room. You can torpedo your entire book with a badly done argument, for reasons we’ll cover.

Before we start, it’s as well to note that a well-written blazing row is liable to be raw, stressful, and even potentially painful for many readers. Some people may consider that a MC who raises their voice in anger is abusive. There is certainly no compulsory requirement for a romance to contain an argument, and if your story doesn’t need one, don’t have one. A lot of people will actively seek that out.

With that said, and assuming you’re going for Full Metal Racket, let’s start with the obvious ways to do this badly.

Insert Row Here: the third act break-up

We’ve all seen this one. The synopsis or “beat list” or whatever demands that there should be a row, so the author writes a row. All too often, this is done to provoke the dreaded Third Act Break-Up. Eyeroll emoji.

Two problems with that. First, a good blazing row needs to come from somewhere. Hurt; fear; a sense that the other person is treating you badly; a deep-seated resentment. These are very real emotions, but they are not positive ones, and if your couple feel like that about one another even temporarily, you’ll need to put in the work to show us how they fix it. Do it in the third act of a romance, and you’ve got a mountain to climb for a plausible HEA. You will have to persuade the reader that these difficult issues—very often coming down to lack of trust—can be resolved, and you’ve only got a couple of chapters to do it.

(Here I observe that Adriana Herrera’s American Love Story has two characters who have a lot of very big, serious arguments which are deeply rooted in their characters and situations, and the book ends with them together in couples therapy. It’s absolutely spot on: they clearly have a shedload more work to do on their relationship, and we’re left believing they’re both profoundly committed to making it happen. It’s a lot more convincing than a glib declaration of love would have been.)

This brings us to the alternative problem, when the author doesn’t dig into deep-rooted issues, but instead goes for that old favourite, the completely manufactured nonsense row. Extra points if it could have been resolved in two lines with basic communication.

“I saw you kissing a man on the street! I will never speak to you again and have blocked you on all channels to prevent you explaining yourself!”

[three chapters later]

“Oh, it was your brother, my bad.”

Toxic Avenger

The thing about blazing rows is, they are not the pinnacle of good human behaviour. When we argue, we are all liable to display anger, resentment, defensiveness, lashing out, irrationality, spite. I am bang alongside realistic characters who behave badly on occasion and say things they regret—up to a point. The tricky part is judging that point.

For me, a blazing row has an in vino veritas quality: people lose their inhibitions temporarily and speak their truth (which is not the same as the truth, or indeed their only truth). It’s a moment for the character to be their authentically worst self. But think carefully how bad that worst self should be. There are countless m/f romances where the hero is provoked by rage into misogynist slurs, for example, and as far as I’m concerned, that hero can get in the bin immediately because he’s shown his true colours.

It’s not necessary. You can work up a fantastic row based on someone’s actions, and what those actions reveal/imply about their character. Specificity is what you want, not some generic insult, and especially not a personal one, still less a slur. I love swearing as much as the next foul-mouthed Brit, but if ever there’s a time to watch your swearing, it’s in a blazing row.

Let’s say the heroine’s father owns a dinosaur-meat company that’s planning a takeover of the hero’s cupcake factory. She doesn’t tell the hero because she knows he’ll want nothing to do with her. When he finds out, well into their love affair, he incorrectly concludes that she was manipulating him to fish for information about cupcake production methods. (What, I could totally write this.)

If the enraged hero calls the heroine a bitch, the reader’s misogyny klaxon may well go off. If he uses sexual insults (slut, etc), that’s a level of intended insult and misogynist attitude that many readers will find repugnant. And on a technical level it will completely muddy the waters, because I’m now siding with the heroine even if she behaved appallingly, plus I hope his cupcake factory gets bulldozed.

Whereas suppose he calls her a conniving shit? Well, the reader will have to admit he’s got a point. If his angry language is accurate and specific, the reader can sympathise with his sense of betrayal as well as the heroine’s hurt at his misjudgement. The focus of the argument stays where it should be, on what someone actually did wrong. It remains an argument, not a tirade of abuse. And if you want to keep the reader on side with the eventual HEA, that makes a difference.

To put it another way: if you call me a bitch, that merely tells me something about you. If you call me a conniving shit, there’s a chance you’ve nailed something about me.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

So what does a good blazing row look like?

It’s based at the root in character. A useful tip is to consider a character’s deep fears or hurts, and attack them there, because that’s what triggers the defensive reaction and the uncontrolled emotion. If an MC is used to being overlooked or ignored by their family, it will hurt disproportionately from their lover.

Specific and accurate language is by far the most effective. I’m not a fan of manufactured conflict and especially not the type where one person doesn’t say what they’re angry about (at least on the surface).  

That said, remember the surface reason for the row may well not be what (or all) the row is actually about. In my Will Darling Adventures, there are multiple rows based on Kim Secretan telling lies to his lover Will. Actually (and this is what I mean about rows being based in character), the problem is that Will is in unacknowledged love with Kim but feels on the back foot with Kim’s poise and superior class status, none of which he’d admit at gunpoint. “Why are you lying to me?” is a proxy for “Why can’t I be an equal and a partner?” which is not a conversation Will is ready to have. With that as the hidden emotional motor, the surface arguments about Kim being a conniving shit speed along nicely.

See both sides. It’s entirely possible that both participants in the row have a point, or a sincerely held belief (character again). Even if one has flagrantly wronged the other, they surely have a justification of why they needed to do it. The author needs to hold both those conflicting realities in mind in order to make the reader believe in the argument. AKA: the character needs to believe what they’re saying, even if only at the second they say it.

And, here’s the big one for me: Don’t lose sight of the other emotions. If you’re well into the relationship, a blazing row isn’t just angry. It’s hurtful (I love this person, why did she say that?) and scary (Christ, are we breaking up?) and there might be a frightening sense of things running out of control. Convey those and the reader will very much feel the argument.

Example time! I am going to include a long quote from one of my books, and I expect many of my readers will already have guessed which scene this is going to be. It’s from Flight of Magpies, the third of a same-couple trilogy, and it’s in chapter 5 of 13 because it needed a lot of dealing with.  There are various stressors on the lovers which I won’t bother to detail, but, looking at the points above:

  • Character. Stephen is torn between his love life and his duties, and terrified of failing at either. Crane is very much in love with him and finding it increasingly hurtful that he might come second in Stephen’s mind. Stephen feels his life is running out of his control; Crane verges on controlling. Stephen has very definitely let Crane down. All of this comes together as we kick off.
  • Specific language. Two whole pages before we degenerate into vulgar abuse! Go me. Note that many of the flying accusations aren’t entirely accurate or fair, but all have a grain of truth to make them hurt.  
  • Surface reasons: The passage is stuffed with ‘em, several of them pointed up as such. But this is actually about the fact that Stephen’s life is out of control and he’s terrified. He’s failing and flailing. Crane spells that out to him, and Stephen’s defensive response is to lash out, and that’s what’s really happening here.
  • Both sides: Stephen really is letting people down. Crane really is excessively demanding of someone who’s at breaking point. They both need the other to do better.
  • Other emotions: This is a big old row, one to which we’ve been building for a couple of chapters and indeed three books, but it’s rooted in love and fear for one another, even if those emotions aren’t coming out in a very therapist-approved manner.

Have a look and see what you’d do better:


“God damn you, Stephen.” Crane pushed himself to his feet so hard the chair toppled backwards. “When are you going to stop lying to me?”

“That was months ago,” Stephen protested. “I thought I’d get her. I put the word out among the justiciary—”

“Which has done precisely how much good?”

“Well, what should I have done?” Stephen demanded, jumping up in turn. “You know blasted well I can’t let the Council know you’re a source. I don’t trust them. I don’t trust practitioners, and nor should you.”

“Not on the evidence of this conversation, certainly.”

Stephen’s cheeks flamed. “That’s not fair. I was trying to protect you.”

“By lying to me. Again.”

“What good would it have done to tell you?” Stephen’s voice was rising. “Make you sick with worry, for what? I was going to go after her—”

“But you didn’t,” Crane said icily. “Because you were busy. With your job.”

Stephen apparently couldn’t find anything to say to that. Crane felt the anger pulsing savagely through him and made no effort at all to hold it back. He had been so fucking patient, he had put up with so much, let the twisting little bastard rule him in every way imaginable, but this was one more kick in the teeth than any man could stand. “I quite understand that you can barely spare the time for us, to see each other, or wake up together, or take a few days at Christmas. I understand that you’re too preoccupied with your daily agenda to deal with a murderer who wants me dead. However, I struggle to see how you were too busy to even mention a significant threat to my continued existence instead of letting me believe it was under control!”

“Well, what would you have done if I’d said anything?” Stephen demanded. “What do you imagine you can do? Do you really think your money, or your personal killer, would be any use against a practitioner who wanted you dead?”

“We’ll never know. Because I haven’t had the chance. Is this what being short is like?”

“What?”

“Having your loved ones treat you like a fucking child.”

“Don’t give me that,” Stephen said savagely. “I am trying my best to do everything I have to do—”

“And it’s not good enough. You’re not doing all these things, and nor is anyone else.”

“That’s not—”

“You haven’t got the ring back,” Crane said over him. “You’ve done nothing to help Miss Saint. There’s this murderer you’re supposed to be catching, Lady Bruton to deal with, let alone fitting me into your demanding schedule—”

“Stop it!”

“No, you stop it. Stop lying to me, and stop clutching on to every job that comes your way as if you’re the only man in the bloody world who can do anything.”

“Well, I’m quite sure you can find someone else to suck you off,” Stephen snarled. His face was patched red and white with angry misery. “You seemed to be doing a damned good job of that earlier.”

“What? Oh, go to the devil. I turned him down.”

“Your restraint is amazing. Congratulations. What a pity Mr. Merrick doesn’t have the same self-control.”

That transparent effort to change the subject made Crane angrier than anything yet, far too angry to prevent himself rising to the bait. “Don’t even start. We talked about that.”

“No, you talked about it. You told me that it was perfectly reasonable for your manservant to prey on my student, and I listened to you—”

Prey?” Crane repeated furiously.

“Oh, whatever you choose to call it. The fact is, she’s miserable, inexperienced and lonely. It’s amazingly easy to be seduced when you feel that way.”

“What did that mean?” Crane demanded, startled by how much it hurt. “Are you talking about us? What the fuck did that mean?”

Stephen looked slightly shocked by his own words. He hesitated for a second, then shook his head violently, taking refuge in anger. “I don’t have time for this.”

“You don’t have time for us?”

“I don’t have time to argue about what Mr. Merrick could possibly do that you wouldn’t defend, or who I’m supposed to let down out of the wide range of people who want something from me. I’m going.” He marched to the door, pushing past Crane. “Going to do some of those things that I haven’t done yet because I don’t work hard enough.”

“Oh, for— That is the precise opposite of what I was trying to point out to you.”

“Thank you for the insight.” Stephen stalked out of the room, into the hallway.

Crane thumped a furious fist against the wall. He had rarely wanted to hit anyone so much, the bloody stupid obstinate lying little shit, and the unhappiness boiling off Stephen’s set shoulders made everything ten times worse.

Stephen was shoving his feet into his boots. Crane stalked into the hall after him. “Stop this, for Christ’s sake. Have some sense.”

“Stop telling me what to do, blast you!” Stephen wrenched the front door open.

“Fine!” Crane shouted, exasperated beyond bearing. “Fine. Fuck off, then, fuck you, and fuck your ancestors.”

“And yours!” Stephen shouted back, and slammed the door behind him.


I have only one more thing to add, which is: If you make the mess, clean it up. A big argument needs a resolution. Not just an apology, or even a grovel, but the MCs realising where they went wrong, looking at what the problem was, and unpicking it so that we can believe it won’t fester. Even, that next time it comes up, they’ll behave differently because they’ve learned something.

It is very tempting to resolve a row by adding a dramatic event, where the MCs have to set aside their anger in order to cooperate on something bigger. I do this a lot because, frankly, it’s fun.

Hart stared into Robin’s face. “Why are you staying? Why haven’t you gone?”

“That was an argument. This is a crisis. When we’ve dealt with the crisis, we’ll go back to the argument.”

(The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting, on sale through March!)

But if you use this, don’t handwave the argument away with “When I saw you in the hospital, I realised none of that mattered.” If it mattered enough to have a blazing row about, it needs resolving. Otherwise both characters and readers will remain unsatisfied, and in a romance novel, that just won’t do.

Thanks to Kathleen Jennings for the spur to write this!

The Art of Fudge: when the devil’s in the detail

Follow 100 historical novelists on Twitter. Set a timer. Wait for one of them to post along the lines of “I spent an entire morning in a research rabbit hole that ended up giving me one lousy sentence in the MS, and I just cut it.” Check the timer. Less than 12 hours? Thought so.

A friend who’s writing a historical was wailing to me the other day:

My characters have gone to a new location and now I have to stop everything and research it, and I don’t even know how long they’ll stay there until I write it, but I can’t write it till I do the research! How do I know what I need?!

As it happens, I have just hit The End on the first in my forthcoming Doomsday Books duo (working title, books to come 2022) and I was going through my piles of research books, checking all those post-its and scribbled notes, and remarking sourly just how many of them I didn’t use. It’s a thing.

Say you decide your MCs are going on a long journey. You have two basic options.

  1. Research it. Spend days digging into means of transport, travel times, and the relevant ports or stations, squinting at bad PDFs of timetables, googling “how fast does a horse and carriage go”, and otherwise plotting the exact route.
  2. Fudge it. “Two days later they were in Berlin.” [XX check time later]

(Note: XX is a great way to annotate your unchecked details for future search as you write, so you don’t break your flow. It also has the great advantage of leaving all the boring hours with an etymology dictionary and an atlas to Future You. The disadvantage is that eventually Future You becomes you.)

You may need option 1. My book Subtle Blood has a long sequence set on a 1920s steam yacht. I spent hours finding a diagram of an appropriate yacht, pictures, looking up accounts of trips, badgering my endlessly patient sailor brother-in-law to make it make sense to me (sorry again, JP), and generally making the steam yacht a real solid moving thing in my head. In the finished book there’s not very much of this on page at all: enough for the reader to understand the action, but far, far less detail (like, 90% less) than I ended up knowing.

This was not wasted research because it didn’t end up on the top of the page. I say top because it was there, just not visible. Research informs your writing, and it shows through the text like a backlight. Readers can tell when you have a good sense of what you’re talking about. They don’t want the full facts about a steam yacht or rail routes from London to Berlin in 1920 themselves, but they need to feel like the book’s not winging it.

Or you may need option 2. If you need your MCs to be in (rather than get to) Berlin, put them in Berlin. Paragraphs of detail about how they get there are not going to grab anyone at all: the only reason we care is if something interesting happens on the journey.

Research it or fudge it. So far, so obvious. However, because writing books is always more complicated than that, we need to throw something else into the mix. Follow some more authors on Twitter and set a timer for this one:

I dropped in a casual reference to an obscure fact for no reason in book 1 and it’s become the cornerstone of the whole trilogy! Thank you subconscious! #WritingGods #Blessed

Then unfollow that #Person immediately, but you get my gist.

Every author has a ‘random detail changes everything’ story. I’ve just had one myself. My hero in Doomsday Book 1 has just moved to Romney Marsh, an isolated and sparsely populated area. I had an entire job for him in the synopsis that I had to jettison because let’s not talk about my inability to stick to a synopsis, so I was casting around for something for him to do all day. I decided he was an amateur naturalist because I’d read something that reminded me that was something gentlemen did in 1810, and frankly, I’ve already done heroes who are artists and classicists and merchants and I couldn’t think of anything else.

The naturalist thing is now not just a detail. It’s a key element in developing his character and his relationships with two other people, it’s specifically plot-crucial in three separate ways, and it will be a nifty moment in book 2. I cannot overstate how much this decision unlocked for me.

I didn’t plan any of that ahead of time. I used it because it was there. It was there because I put it there. Why did I put it there? No idea.

And this is where starting with “Two days later they were in Berlin” falls down. Because maybe if you actually looked into getting there, it might turn out there was a night train perfect for sex, espionage, murder, or all of the above. Maybe there’s an amazing place they go through with an old town square or church or mountain range begging for an action sequence, or a secret meeting, or a bandit attack. Maybe there was absolutely no way to get to Berlin in two days, it’s a minimum of five, and now you’ve borked the timetable of another plot strand, you idiot. You’ll never know if you don’t look.

Which sounds great. But let us just refer back to the first tweet, and the hours of research that went absolutely nowhere or led to irrelevant detail that got binned in the second draft…

I was going through the MS the other day, and I came across a single line that needed filling in. Let’s say it was identifying a minor character.

John Bloggs was the Earl of Blankshire’s brother. XX CHECK LATER

When I wrote this I didn’t know or care how he fits into the Bloggs family. For book 1 it doesn’t matter.

However, book 2 is all about the sprawling, weird, Gothic, and possibly homicidal Bloggs family. I know this much, but have I done the family tree and synopsis? Have I hell. I am not ready to identify John, with his particular knowledge, presence at a certain crucial book 1 scene, age, and personal characteristics, as the old Earl’s brother and thus uncle to the new Earl, our hero. I might very well need him to have a very different position in the family–married in, say, or not in the line of inheritance at all.

And the stakes are high with linked books. If you’ve written a trilogy, you know the pain of that one damn line in the published book 1 that’s completely screwing the thing you now want to do in book 3. Because a detail might open the whole book up for you (my naturalist) or it might close it down (NOO I said he was the Earl’s brother, I’ve ruined everything!) This is why they say the devil is in the detail.

In this case, I can leave him as the brother, and have that as a fixed point, which might well act as a spur for me to develop the plot. I can sit down and work out the family tree and the synopsis of book 2 now (but see above for me and synopses). Or I can fudge it:

John Bloggs was one of the more eccentric members of the Earl’s highly eccentric family. (Two days later, he was in Berlin…)

Going for the fudge is the right thing in this instance, probably. I’ve chewed it over and I can’t see any book-enhancing reason to specify the relationship at this point. And the fudge will cover, I think, more or less any choice I make. I think. We’ll come back to this post when this bites me in the arse.

There’s an old saying that 90% of advertising spending is wasted, but nobody knows which 90%. You could say much the same of research. I wish I could tell you how to distinguish between the throwaway detail that will become the solution to all your plot woes, the throwaway detail that helps anchor the book in reality, and the throwaway detail you throw away. Sadly, I can’t. You’ll find out when you write it.

You Keep It All In: The Inner Monologue

There’s a common theme to my last four romance DNFs: the overuse of inner monologue.

Now, I like a good inner monologue as much as anyone. They can be superb ways of conveying character issues and emotional development, so nobody should take this blog post to mean “inner monologues are bad”.

But there are two things I see inner monologues doing that cause big problems: breaking up dialogue to the extent that we don’t get any sense of conversation, or replacing it altogether.

First off, let’s look at how to do it right. Here’s a terrific example from Jeannie Lin’s fantastic The Hidden Moon combining inner monologue and dialogue:

Gao looked exactly as she remembered, exactly as she’d imagined him whenever she’d closed her eyes. He was spare of build, whipcord-lean, and dressed in a dark tunic. In the dimness of the morning, he could have disappeared into the shadows. Barely there, yet ever so present.

“It’s been seven days,” she ventured, then bit her lip. That made it sound like she’d been keeping count. Which she had.

His dark gaze held hers for a long moment. “It has been.”

Gao wasn’t smiling, but the corner of his mouth twisted upward as if curiously pleased. For her part, Wei-wei couldn’t say what she was feeling. She’d considered that she might never see Gao again. Someone like Gao and someone like her. A desert and a stream — their paths were never meant to cross.

“My brother’s wife is having her baby.”

“Is that so?”

“Everyone else at home was occupied,” she explained, for lack of other things to say.

“Right.”

She searched for her next words. He seemed to be doing the same, brow furrowed. The last time they’d seen one another, there was tragedy and scandal involved. Gao had intervened in a potentially dangerous situation to help her and her brother. It seemed inadequate now to pleasantly inquire about his health.

We get a lot of information about the heroine’s feelings, backstory, attraction to hero etc conveyed in the monologue; the dialogue itself is unemotional and fist-chewingly stilted. And this is perfect, because the MCs are in a horrendously awkward situation. They ought not be talking; they aren’t supposed to know each other; they have no business being attracted. Gao is a street thug to Wei-wei’s lady, and the class difference isn’t just a theoretical obstacle: he doesn’t have her verbal fluency or social training, and boy does it show.

The verbal exchange is just a few lines but it reveals Wei-wei’s desire to connect, Gao’s inability to respond in kind to her conversational offer, and the effect that his terseness has in shutting down Wei-wei’s efforts to reach him, even though they both want this to go better. Dialogue and inner monologue—showing and telling—interact to outline the attraction, key points about both personalities, and a goodly chunk of the conflict in a very short stretch of text. It’s a huge amount of work done by and around a conversation you might have with a colleague while making office tea.  

Got it? Excellent. Go buy The Hidden Moon. Once you’ve done that, compare this, which I just made up but which is not far off a book I DNFd the hell out of.

“Hello,” Peter said.

He was as hot as ever, Jane reflected. She’d always wanted to climb him like a tree, with his firm thighs and visible abs—how did he keep so shredded while doing a 12-hour desk job as CEO of a multinational corporation that had made him a billionaire with its USP of delivering Christmas presents to underprivileged children?

“Hello,” Jane replied.

She could have kicked herself. Could she not have thought of a more arresting opening, something that would make her a bit more striking than the average impression given by her medium height and mid-brown hair? The many glamorous women Peter squired to the sort of parties that kept his photo in the magazines probably said far more interesting things than ‘Hello’. Like, Take me now, big boy. She wouldn’t mind saying that.

“Would you like coffee?” Peter asked.

Jane felt her stomach squirm at the very thought of putting anything into it. She’d skipped breakfast because of this meeting, which would, she hoped, determine the fate of her own tiny Christmas stocking manufacturing business, and if she was honest because the thought of getting this close to Peter’s delicious chiselled jawline gave her an appetite that had nothing to do with food. She probably ought to have something, but not coffee, since she’d given up caffeine six weeks ago due to her ongoing sleeping problems. Would it be too demanding to order her favourite decaf soy latte?

“No, thanks.”

Oh no! The words had come out far more brusquely than she’d meant. Had Peter’s caramel brown eyes hardened? She couldn’t tell as he flipped open his top of the range laptop…

Et cetera.

As before, the narrative is delivering lots of backstory and detail. But here (and obviously this is an exaggerated example) it’s doing it at the expense of two things: Peter’s character, and the MCs’ interaction.

Those go together. Dialogue tells us about both parties individually, and about the way they bounce off each other—how they mesh, or clash, understand each other or don’t. It shows us what both parties are prepared to reveal, what they hide, how they react to one another.

The dialogue in this scene is excruciatingly dull, but that doesn’t have to matter—see again The Hidden Moon extract’s far from scintillating surface conversation. The problem is that this scene is purely Jane, Jane, Jane, and the lines of dialogue are props for that. It might as well be unbroken monologue, because we haven’t learned anything meaningful about Peter, only about what Jane thinks of Peter, and we also haven’t learned how Jane and Peter work together as a pair. That’s the nature of inner monologue, the self, and that might well be fine in a chick-lit type novel that’s all about the narrator. In a romance—a book about people connecting with each other—it can be a kiss of death.

It’s also a kiss of death to anything interesting that might be happening in the dialogue. Try it again:

“I just recreated brontosaurus meat in my lab,” Peter said. “It’s delicious.”

He was as hot as ever, Jane reflected. She’d always wanted to climb him like a tree, with his firm thighs and visible abs—how did he keep so shredded while doing a 12-hour desk job as CEO of a multinational corporation that had made him a billionaire with its slogan of ‘Jurassic Park on your plate’?

“Well done!” Jane replied.

She could have kicked herself. Could she not have thought of a more arresting response, something that would make her a bit more striking than the average impression given by her medium height and mid-brown hair? The many glamorous women Peter squired to the sort of parties that kept his photo in the magazines probably said far more interesting things than ‘Hello’. Like, Take me now, you T-rex of a man. She wouldn’t mind saying that.

“Would you like some triceratops steak?” Peter asked.

Jane felt her stomach squirm at the very thought of putting anything into it. She’d skipped breakfast because of this meeting, which would, she hoped, determine the fate of her own tiny prehistoric ready-meal manufacturing business, and if she was honest because the thought of getting this close to Peter’s delicious chiselled jawline gave her an appetite that had nothing to do with food. She probably ought to have something, but not triceratops, since she’d given up meat six weeks ago due to her newfound commitment to veganism…

Nope, still awful, and in fact more awful because I don’t know about you but if he’s a dinosaur meat ready-meals merchant, that’s what I want to hear about. Subordinating the dialogue to the monologue in this way diminishes its impact, gives us no sense of a back and forth, makes it extremely hard to keep track of what the conversation is about, and takes a hell of a lot longer to convey useful information.

A dialogue passage doesn’t have to have sparkling conversation to work brilliantly. But if a conversation would interest the reader on its own terms, why not let it do so, rather than making it all about something else? And if it wouldn’t, consider why you’re making us read it at all. There may be an excellent reason, of course. Great things can be done with apparently boring conversations. But if what’s being said is purely a frame to hang an inner monologue on, that rarely makes for a satisfying scene.

This is not to say that an unbroken inner monologue is preferable. It is not unknown in romance for the conflict to be resolved by one or more MCs going over and over their problems in their head, until they come to a new opinion or understanding. That can do a lot of work, but, again, a romance is about both the people in the relationship. The conflict isn’t fixed by the hero realising after seven pages of hard thinking that his dead wife would have wanted him to love again. It gets fixed when he talks to the new love interest, listens to them, and offers a proper meaningful grovel for his previous 200 pages of jerkery. When, in fact, they interact successfully.

If one MC is doing the heavy lifting alone in their head, whether on the conflict or the resolution, that by itself will struggle to make for a satisfying read in a genre that’s about human interaction. The internal stuff needs to support and enhance the external (the behaviour, the dialogue).

Ask yourself: What happens if I cut all the interior monologue bits? If I chop this MS down to just the dialogue and interactions, do I still have the bones of a romance: the attraction, the enjoyment of each other’s company, the conflict, the desire, the bits that make readers swoon or cry or tweet that you’ve ruined their life? Am I building the characters (in action and dialogue) or just talking about them? Is there enough actually happening between the characters, on page, to support what the inner monologues say is happening between them?

There’s no perfect percentage of dialogue to inner monologue—if a book works, it works. But if inner monologue gets in the way of the reader seeing how the MCs work together…that’s not what they picked up a romance for.

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Slippery Creatures (Will Darling Adventures 1) is at 99p/99c everywhere in September.

The Sugared Game (Will Darling Adventures 2) is out now.

Or download files (including mobi for Kindle) directly from Gumroad.

If the title didn’t give you an earworm already, you can get it here.