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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Three Keys to Writing Memorable Fiction

This week Ruth Harris discusses one of the major elements that separates ho-hum storytelling from bestselling fiction: details. 

Yes, we know you're often told to keep details to a minimum, and that's a good rule, but like the judicious use of seasonings in cooking, choosing the right ones will make the difference between a bland, generic dish and memorable cuisine.

As Ruth says below,"writers don't have to know everything, but they need to be interested in everything." We need to be on the lookout for just the right detail that will add the most punch to a story. Living in the Internet Age, we don't have to spend endless hours in libraries to find them.

What sort of details should you choose? Ruth tells us they're the ones that put your story in a 1) social, 2) cultural and 3) political context. I love the examples Ruth has chosenthey're some of my favorite books, films and TV shows of the past few decades. (There's a reason we work so well together as blog partners!) 

Would Downton Abbey or Mad Men have the same impact if they were set in the present? Could Homeland be set in any other period? Could the AbFab duo exist without the legacy of 1960s Swinging London? 

We are constantly told that story is alland yes, story is the engine that drives your bookbut it won't have the impact you want without a powerful sense of time, place, and cultural context. 


Social, cultural, and political history are powerful tools no writer should ignore.
  • John Le Carré used the Cold War, the Berlin Wall and the real-life unmasking of a double agent to create a compelling setting in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.
  • Isabel Allende’s The House Of The Spirits, a family saga partially inspired by the PInochet dictatorship, is set against decades of political and social upheaval in post-colonial Chile.
  • Alexander Solzhenitsyn drew on his experiences in the forced-labor camps of the Soviet prison system to create world wide bestsellers in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago.
However, writers do not need vast cultural and political disruptions to write powerful fiction readers can relate to. Ordinary, everyday details add enormous power to fiction and bring your story to life.

Whether your book is set in the conservative Eisenhower Fifties, the stylish Kennedy Sixties, Nixon’s Watergate and the gloomy Carter Seventies, the glitzy Reagan Eighties, or the Anxious-Age-of-the-Present, each period offers the writer its own specific backdrop and sound track. Trudeau’s Canada, Thatcher’s England, de Gaulle’s France, Ho Chi Minh’s China, Mubarak’s Egypt, Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany—all evoke powerful memories and feelings years after the events took place.

Characters need to be firmly anchored in a specific time and place. Even sci-fi and fantasy need social, cultural and political specifics to engage the reader. George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter draw their power from their authors’ ability to create credible details of an invented world.

If you research and then judiciously set up the specifics of time and place, you will expand and enrich your fiction. Invoking the relevant cultural, political and social details will draw your reader into recognizable settings against which your characters can act out their dilemmas, frustrations and successes.

You shouldn’t give your reader a history lesson—that’s Doris Kearns Goodwin’s job—but you do want to give your characters a relatable world in which to live. Your characters can be—and should be—shaped by the attitudes of whatever period you choose to write about.
  • Peggy and Joan in Mad Men deal with the casual sexism of the 1960’s.
  • The characters in Downton Abbey are caught up in a long-gone post-Edwardian upstairs-downstairs world.
  • Patsy and Edina, the fashion victims in Ab Fab, booze it up, get high and keep up with nutty trends as they attempt to recreate their younger, glory days in Swinging London.
  • Carrie and Brody in Homeland are enmeshed in a paranoid present complete with bi-polar disorder, psycho-active drugs and a hero who might also be a terrorist.
  • Elizabeth Moss’s character in Top Of The Lake searches for a missing and pregnant twelve-year-old in a remote, misogynistic area of contemporary New Zealand.
The writers’ skillful use of these various eras bring the fictional characters who inhabit them vividly to life.
By using cultural history, high or low, past or current, your characters will become dimensional as they reflect the world around them. They can be limited by it—or they can rebel against it. Some will choose to drop out, some will learn to manipulate it, others will challenge it, some will be defeated and still others will triumph despite the barriers they face. 

Are you writing about a period in which people feel positive about the future and confident about their prospects? Or are your characters coping with the Depression of the Thirties or the financial crisis or downsizing of the recent past and present? How they think and feel and what they do to deal with opportunity (or lack thereof) offers a potent way to explore and expand the inner and outer lives of the people you’re writing about. 

Early Elvis, swinging Sinatra, Abbey Road Beatles, Motown Soul, Latino Salsa, Madonna’s Material Girl, Gangsta Rap, Lady Gaga’s and/or Rihanna’s latest immediately evoke times and places your reader will find familiar.
  • Did your heroine’s first serious romance—maybe with her tweedy, pipe-smoking Literature Professor—begin and end to Mozart?
  • Did your MC come of age when Michael Jackson was moon-walking?
  • Did that bad-boy rascal of a boyfriend give your heroine heartache only Patsy Cline could express?
Selecting just the right song and just the right singer can illuminate the emotional life of a character in a memorable way. (Anne here: Just remember to use the title, not the actual lyric--unless you're prepared to pay. Here's a recent blogpost on how to do that.) 

Then there’s wardrobe:
  • Garter belts or Spanx?
  • Turtlenecks or bustiers?
  • Lip gloss or va-va-voom Marilyn Monroe red lipstick?
  • A natural Fro, an old-fashioned perm, a blow dry bob or a Gwyneth dead straight ‘do?
  • Punky pink streaks, Bergdorf’s blonde or let-it-all-hang-out grey?
  • A hedge fund titan in a five-thousand-dollar suit?
  • A dude in jeans and a pack of cigarettes in the rolled-up sleeve of a T-shirt?
  • A genius techie billionaire in hoodie and sneakers?
  • Are their clothes worn ironically? Or un-? 
Choices in clothing, makeup and hairstyles telegraph different personalities and different attitudes. A wise writer will make use of each telling detail as s/he creates characters readers will relate to.

Writers don’t need to know everything but they do need to be interested in everything from the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s to today’s California surfers. 

Research used to mean trips to the library, flipping through card catalogs and then waiting for the books to be pulled from the stacks. Research once meant slogging through microfilm, piles of old newspapers and magazines. It was time-consuming and often frustrating. Now, thanks to the web and Google, just about anything we want to know is instantly available.

Our world—past and present—is rich in incident, personality and conflict. It’s an oyster with a different pearl for every book, each character and every writer. An open mind and lively curiosity, a habit of reading widely, your own unique memories, passions and interests, plus basic research are your friends.

Embrace them and use them thoughtfully. Your readers will love you for it.

What about you, scriveners? What details do you use to anchor your book in time and place? Are there books that have more detail than you'd like? Do you read for setting as well as story?


1) Literary Upstart Short Fiction Contest for writers in the New York area. You can submit your short fiction until May 28th; submissions must be no longer than 1,300-words. Semi-finalists, fifteen in total, will be invited to participate in one of three readings, in front of a live, lively audience, and a panel of judges comprised of members of the local literati. The grand prize winner will get a $500 award and be published in the annual Summer Fiction Issue of The L. Magazine. 

2) FREE book advertising to British readers from EbookBargainsUK Lots of authors and publishers have had huge successes with their free or sale books by advertising on BookBub, ENT, KND, POI, etc. But none of those target the UK, and their links go to US sites Brits can't use. But now there’s a newsletter for UK readers only. It links to all the big UK retailers like Apple UK, Waterstones and Foyles as well as Amazon UK. They don’t sell books direct or get paid for clickthroughs, so they don't have any restrictions on how many free books they can spotlight like BookBub and the others. So it's THE place to tell Brits about your book when it goes free or on sale in the UK. Since Brits have the highest number of readers per capita of any country in the world, this looks like a great idea to me: Plus: the site will be offering FREE book ads until May 31st, on a first come, first served basis. But note: BE SURE TO READ THE DIRECTIONS. I've had complaints that a number of people are just leaving notes to "pick up the details and cover on my website." DO not do this. Just because this service is free right now does not mean you don't have to be professional. 

You can see the nice ads they gave Ruth and Anne in this weekend's newsletter.

And if you're in the UK, do sign up for their newsletter. It brings links to free and bargain ebooks—at the UK bookstore of your choice—in your inbox every morning. You can subscribe here.

3) The Saturday Evening Post’s Second Annual Great American Fiction Contest—yes, THAT Saturday Evening Post—is holding a short fiction contest. Could you join the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald; William Faulkner; Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.; Ray Bradbury; Louis L’Amour; Sinclair Lewis; Jack London; and Edgar Allan Poe? $10 entry fee Deadline July 1, 2013

4) Find a Writing Group through Galley CatOne of the most reliable and popular news outlets in publishing is creating a directory for writers to network to get critiques of their work You can sign up here. 

5)  Readwave: A showcase for short stories: ReadWave is a community of readers and writers who love to discover and share new stories from contemporary writers. Readers can access thousands of stories and read them for free on mobile or desktop--and writers can use ReadWave to build up a fanbase and market their stories online. ReadWave has created a new reading widget, that allows bloggers and website owners to embed stories online in a compact form. The ReadWave widget is the first reading widget to allow readers to "follow" the writer. When a reader follows a writer they are added to the writer’s fanbase and can receive updates on all of the writer’s future stories. ReadWave puts writers in touch with the readers that are right for them. This looks like a great innovative site. You know how I've been encouraging you to write more short fiction? This is where to put it to start building a fan base.

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Blogger Linda Adams said...

I'm bad at details -- I don't really see them. Where people connect emotionally to them, I connect emotionally to the big picture. The result is that I have to add them in later, using a series of checklists and research. It's sort of operating blind because, since I don't connect to them, I can't go for a specific reaction from the reader. Sometimes what people get out them surprise me, and sometimes I get it really, really wrong.

April 28, 2013 at 11:10 AM  
Blogger mark williams international said...

Very valuable advice from Ruth. Thanks.

It's tiresome reading writing advice from some blogs. It's either from genre-specific writers and doesn't have a wider application, or from authors whose claim to be a "best-seller" after making the top 100 in some obscure Amazon category with only one other book in it.

But Ruth delivers on all counts. A best-selling author back when books were made of paper, with telephone number sales the rest of us can only dream about, and someone who totally disregards genre boundaries.

It's precisely that "interest in everything" that makes Ruth's books so readable.

When I retsart my writing courses later this year I shall have to "borrow" some of these examples.

But were the Carter years really gloomy? I remember them as a time of hope.

April 28, 2013 at 12:00 PM  
OpenID paulfahey said...

Really great post, Ruth. I write short, novella length LGBT themed stories set during WWII in Britain. Time and place are very important to evoke the emotions of the period. I find doing research in the planning stages ahead of writing, in books and on the web, often suggests important events and plot points for the stories. I'm currently writing about the "enemy alien" internment camps in 1941 on the Isle of Man. I was half way thru the first act when I ran into a brick wall and realized I had to go back and do more research on setting before I could continue writing. Everything you said rang a bell loud and clear. Thanks so much. Research has saved my bacon on many a story.

April 28, 2013 at 12:16 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Linda—You might be too hard on yourself. Perhaps if you think of "specific" rather than "details," you might be able to deal with this aspect of writing more comfortably. "A cardinal red satin gown" versus "a creamy white lacy sun dress" immediately help convey specific differences in character, personality, emotion. Does that help?

Mark—Thank you for the very kind words. Many books (both indie & TradPubbed) seem to be written without any texture, dimension, context other than the immediate "plot." Would The Spy Who Came In From The Cold have the same power without the Cold War setting? Ditto the other titles I mentioned. And think of Alan Furst without the 1930s middle-European setting!

For me, the Carter presidency evokes memories of the energy crisis, gas lines, stagflation, the "malaise" speech, the Iranian hostage crisis. Do you bring another set of memories? Perhaps the Camp David Accord?

Please do feel free to "borrow." :-) I'm flattered!

April 28, 2013 at 12:24 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Paul—Thanks so much! Just the phrase "World War II in Britain" brings with it so many associations & shows how powerful the skillful use of setting can be.

Have you seen the excellent "The Bletchley Circle?" I believe it was originally a BBC production & is set at somewhat the same period. I've always been fascinated by the work at Bletchley & the terrible reward Alan Turing received for breaking the Enigma code.

I didn't know there were enemy alien internment camps on the Isle of Man. Certainly a fascinating setting to use in a novel and, yes, research is a diamond mine of ideas, plot turns, character. Good luck with it!

April 28, 2013 at 12:32 PM  
Blogger Alicia Street said...

Great post, Ruth! I love researching cultural details. Unfortunately, I sometimes I get lost in it as a way to avoid writing. But sinking into the texture of a well drawn time period or environment is definitely one of my favorite reading pleasures.

April 28, 2013 at 12:46 PM  
Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Excellent world building tips! The political aspect isn't something I really went into in depth until my third book and it required a bit of planning.

April 28, 2013 at 1:52 PM  
OpenID paulfahey said...

Thank you, Ruth, I didn't know there were internment camps on IOM either. That's what hooked me on using it for the setting. Will put Bletchley Circle on my wish list. My best, Paul

April 28, 2013 at 2:33 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Alicia—You're being too hard on yourself! At least I think so. :-) It's happened more than once to me that researching one thing leads me to something even better! Something that opens up a book/character in a way I could never have imagined. So let yourself wander sans guilt. You never know what you're gonna find!

Alex—Thanks. Delving into something--political or otherwise—often leads to new directions which is a good thing! Gives real texture to a book/character.

Paul—How did you find out about internment camps on IOM?

April 28, 2013 at 2:44 PM  
Blogger Anne Gallagher said...

Doris Kearns Goodwin *snort* lol

Sometimes I feel like her when I set to researching another book. Writing historicals isn't easy, but then I found writing contemporary romance isn't easy either.

When I handed my last contemp out to a friend, she said, "Why doesn't your mc have a cell phone? Everyone has a cell phone." Well, I don't. So I never thought to include one in the ms. I did make the change, and thanked her profusely for the advice.

Little details are sooo critical.

April 28, 2013 at 4:52 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Anne--Hi and thank you. Excellent point! Also opens the question of why the mc does NOT have a cell phone. Financial reasons? Philosophical? Rebellious and ain't gonna do what everyone else does? A Luddite who still uses a typewriter? Interesting possibilities!!

April 28, 2013 at 5:02 PM  
Blogger Roland D. Yeomans said...

Ernest Hemingway, famous for his lean prose, still brushed his prose canvas with details: short, swift, and nudging all the senses and evoking our mind into remembering our own lives.

Since I write in all time eras, I work hard to make the era stand out with details that would jar our modern eyes, nose, and ears. I put a modern teen into the slave-crowded New Orleans of 1834.

A great post, Ruth.

April 28, 2013 at 5:26 PM  
Blogger J. Fries said...

I stumbled across your blog a few weeks ago and have been enjoying your posts. You both give great advice!

As a new writer, I know I don't give as much detail as I should. Or I go to the other extreme and give so many details, the story is bogged down.

I believe language is also a huge part of storytelling, though, and it's one of my passions. I write fantasy and the stories (this is my belief, anyway) benefit from playing with words in English or other languages. Look at Tolkien, the currently popular Inheritance series. But other genres can benefit, too. Stories set in Los Angeles could have Spanish; if they're set in the UK, there's Welsh, Gaelic, Scots, Irish, English.

Language is a huge part of culture. We can learn so much through the language alone. Even the English spoken in the US shows our culture to an extent. We borrow words from dozens of languages around the world.

Language can give great detail to stories.

April 28, 2013 at 6:33 PM  
OpenID paulfahey said...

Ruth, I was doing an Internet search for the Isle of Man when I found a great UK link about the camps. I was totally blown away. Had never ever heard about them. Then as I did more research, the subject cropped up all over but in tiny bits and pieces. I found a great site recently on the BBC that displayed the artwork and talked about the music and scholarly events that the internees encouraged in the camps--mainly neighborhoods of homes that were evacuated by the government to make way for the internment. Barbed wire fences and patrolled by guards. Fascinating but scary stuff.

April 28, 2013 at 8:42 PM  
Blogger Claude Nougat said...

Thanks Ruth for the excellent advice and very comprehensive panoramic view across books and films about what makes the difference between good books and blah books!

I'd add that just one small thing: details about smell, food, colors. I'm very much into the world of eating good food, ha ha! And bad food too has its place in a book, even rotten smells in a vampire tale, argh!

April 29, 2013 at 12:03 AM  
Blogger Clare C. Greenstreet said...

I always thought I put a bit too much detail when it came to the music and clothes and cultural details to give a sense of when it was set. Probably still do but nice to know it's not all a bad thing.

April 29, 2013 at 1:45 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Roland—Thanks for the reminder about EH's skillful use of details. He accomplished so much with so little: as you say, "short, swift, nudging all the senses."

J. Fries—Thank you for the kind words. I couldn't agree more about the use of language. My Dad was a word freak so I grew up with an acute awareness of puns, word-play, original modes of expression and flexibility of usage. You're so right! Thanks for bringing up this point.

Paul—Thanks for your reply. I've been wondering how you found out about this. It's astonishing how a little nugget encountered in a search for something else can eventually open up into a whole new world. You're right: fascinating but scary. Evocative of so many dark images that come from our most primitive fears—and of course pure gold for a writer.

Claude—I'm with you on the pursuit and pleasures of good food! From haute to ethnic—I'm there!

Speaking of smell, I'm a perfume freak and have been since I was a child dipping into my mother's Nuit de Noël. I still have vivid memories of the spicy, opulent scent and its black bottle with the poison green tassel. Heady stuff for a kid but the kind of stuff that makes a lasting imprint. I used that long-time interest in my thriller, Brainwashed. Pay attention to the perfumer!

Clare—The fine balance between "too much" and "not enough" is the writer's dilemma . Too much will weigh down the story; not enough will result in a story with little to engage the reader. That's where your editing skills will serve you well!

April 29, 2013 at 4:54 AM  
Blogger Melanie Ting said...

A very interesting post, I hadn't thought too much about setting fiction in the recent past. I do think a lot about place though, and I've come to really enjoy writing about different cities. With Street View, you can even visualize events unfolding. I become so interested in the places I've researched, that I end up visiting them or adding them to my bucket list. So it's win/win!

April 29, 2013 at 6:37 AM  
Blogger Fi said...

Great post.

I've found that I instinctively write in social issues, or at least I have with the novel I'm working on, mainly homelessness and poverty.

Thanks for sharing.

April 29, 2013 at 6:54 AM  
Blogger Sophie Kersey said...

Thanks for the excellent advice. I am just beginning what I'm calling a 'detail pass' through my novel, Unspeakable Things, having been advised by a consultant to add good, apt detail. I now realise that the detail needs to be grounded in a particular social and cultural era as well as in the likely personal choices of the characters. This will really help. The consultant pointed out that modern readers are less tolerant of enormous amounts of background detail than for instance the Victorians, but that just makes it all the more essential to get the detail they will tolerate right.

April 29, 2013 at 7:26 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Melanie—I used the financial collapse of 2008 in The Chanel Caper. It made a fantastic setting: bankers in $5000 suits flying their private jets to Washington to scrounge for money; the stores empty so my heroine got to buy great clothes at huge reductions with sales staff falling all over themselves to help her. What's not to love?

And you're right: a definite win/win.

Fi—Thank you for your kind words. Writing what instinctively moves you is the motivating engine for many, many authors past & present.

Sophie—Thank you. The background setting and details must be used judiciously. The point is to engage the reader and give him/her something to relate to. Not to bore the crap out of them. We're authors, not list makers!

April 29, 2013 at 11:22 AM  
Blogger Kim (YA Asylum) said...

This is a really fabulous and thought-provoking post. This would be extremely helpful to anyone writing historical fiction, but every writer can also take something from it. I try to add small details to make a story stand out from all the others, but I've never been able to break it down to something like this.

Great post :)

April 29, 2013 at 6:42 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Kim—Thank you for the kind words. I'm glad to learn the post struck home with you. Every writer will apply these notions in his/her own way and—I hope—find original ways to create engaging, memorable worlds for their readers.

April 30, 2013 at 4:14 AM  
Blogger Charley Robson said...

Eee, thanks so much for this post Ruth! I've been chasing the issue of grouding the setting of my semi-historically based novel for eons, and this is just what I needed. Thank you!

Now, I'm off to find a few good books about 17th Century France . . .

April 30, 2013 at 7:24 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Charley—Yay! Glad to be so timely. 17th C France is such a rich (in many ways) era that you will have much to choose from. Enjoy it!

April 30, 2013 at 8:15 AM  
OpenID paulfahey said...

Ruth, This is so spot on. Great advice, especially for writers like myself who write within a specific historical period like WWII. I use a great resource, in addition to the Internet, that I may have talked about before. Without the BBC video I watched shedding light on the internment camps for people with suspected ties to Germany and the Axis Powers, on the Isle of Man, I never would have known this uncommon fact. I use a huge tome called "Timelines of History" as my main resource. There must be many reference books like this out there. Just a glance at the year I'm interested in gives me tons of info on types of art, clothing, historical events, movies, books, songs, etc.that reflect that time period. Plenty of little bits to sprinkle into my story. Hope others realize how important your post is today. I surely do. Thanks so much. Paul

April 27, 2014 at 2:57 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Paul—Thank you for the kind words—and for alerting us to such valuable resources. I'm a research-junkie and love having more sites to poke around in.

April 27, 2014 at 3:16 PM  

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