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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