Description in Romance, by May Burnett

How Much?

Some writers naturally excel at description, others avoid it or struggle to find the right balance. Too much can be a drag on the book and modern readers are a lot less patient with description; too little can leave the characters floating without anchor in time and space, or lead the reader to imagine a setting that is later shown to be wrong – a subtly upsetting experience that can lead them to put the book aside.

My natural tendency is to include only a minimum. A regency novel typically takes place in a well-known setting, as far as the fan of the genre is concerned; no need to give yet another detailed description of Almack’s, of a society ball, of a young lady’s gown, unless it bears on the story and characters. But a little is still necessary. In the Urban Fantasy series I co-write with my writing partner, we need a bit more, so that readers can imagine our alternate world – luckily my partner is a deft hand at description and tends to include just enough to satisfy the readers, without impacting the pace.

Lately I have paid more attention to how much and what kind of description the books I read contain. It varies from lots of atmospheric, almost excessive setting description (typical for the historical mystery romance, and mysteries in general) to barely any (e.g. in a self-pubbed hugely successful SF series).

Best Practice

Here are some of the lessons I have learned:

  • The place where you really need a bit to anchor the reader is at the beginning of a scene, so we know where and when it takes place. But not more than a couple of sentences, if possible.
  • Less is more. In genre fiction, the readers want to get on with the story, so you need to use the telling detail, rather than long lists of things the characters notices.
  • In close third or first POV description does double duty by showing what kind of detail your character focuses on – e.g. an alpha male would not notice or care about the details of a girl’s sleeves and hems, though another lady would notice they are not according to the very latest fashion.
  • People notice things that are unusual for them – that gives you a chance to slip in a bit of backstory, or show a new side of your character. Cinderella at the ball contrasts this splendor with her own circumstances, the nouveau-riche character finds the style of old wealth too understated for his tastes, etc.
  • Even if your character would not normally notice anything much about his usual environment, at the start of the chapter you have a little leeway to slip in necessary information for the reader’s benefit. Just don’t use expressions too far from the POV character’s style and nobody will notice your sleight-of-hand and brief deviation from the strictest POV.
  • Short weather (or better, “changing light”) descriptions can be useful to demonstrate the passage of time.
  • Visual cues are important, but don’t forget to include odors, noises, and textures – try to involve all the senses, and not only in intimate scenes. To the falling darkness on a London street you can add the creeping fog, the cawing of a rook, the slithery wetness of the dirty cobblestones, the pungent smell of horse urine, the flicker of the gas light, etc. But only pile it on if you need to set a certain mood, e.g. to show your character’s fear or uneasiness. Otherwise, one or two telling details must do duty for all the rest of the scene.
  • Don’t use details that contradict the desired mood. If you want a foreboding effect, with a nervous character, don’t use cheerful details like daisies, sunshine, lilting melodies, etc. (Some writers can combine these with frightening details to heighten the effect, but that is tricky to pull off.)
  • Don’t include current cultural references to real people, companies, etc. if you can help it. It dates your story. To compare somee to a current pop star or singer, an actor etc. risks making the story incomprehensible if someone reads it in twenty years. Even now, someone from another generation, and large swathes of the world’s potential readers are not going to get it – remember that fame is ephemeral, today’s household word is tomorrow’s has-been.
  • Go for the concrete over general – instead of having the character arrange flowers on the mantelpiece, have her select and cut specific flowers that are appropriate for the country, season and social class of your character. No tulips or violets in autumn before we had airplanes, for instance, while roses (what size and color?) will do year-round in most places and periods (if it is plausible they had greenhouses nearby).
  • When people talk over a meal, include a bit of the typical fare, and what they drink. Who cooked and served it? Is the steak rare or well done? Are the flowers in the vase real or artificial? What is the tablecloth like? While you should not include all these details, you ought to be clear on them in your own mind.
  • Don’t forget that the right verb is also a part of description, often a crucial part. A young lady in a formal garden might amble, stride, rush, meander, kick the pebbles, etc. – each verb paints a very different picture. Choose carefully.
  • One-of-a-kind witty descriptions and quips can work wonderfully for people with a special talent, and in genres like humor. They can be essential for the unique voice all writers strive for, but can also look pretentious and stupid if you cannot properly pull it off. Such descriptions may also break the reader’s immersion. If you tend to do this, be sure to get honest beta readers to check that your originality truly achieves what you aim for.



In romance as in other genres, description is an important part of your story – like the furniture in your house. Too much creates a cluttered effect, but too little is cold and sterile. Readers should not particularly notice or stop to admire description as they follow your story, but must always feel they know where the characters are, what they look like (at least in general terms) and receive just enough clues to mentally picture the scenes you are writing. They will do the heavy lifting, as long as you give them something useful to work with.

Few writers get description exactly right as they set out on their learning curve, although some display a natural talent for it. Luckily, this is an area and technique that can be learned, and we have countless masters to learn from.


May Burnett is a writer and editor living in Vienna, Austria. Currently she is at work on the next sequel to her Amberley Chronicles, as well as the first volume of a co-written Fantasy Romance Trilogy.

Deadlines and Real Life, by May Burnett

Do self-publishers even have deadlines? 

One would suppose that a self-published author could complete and edit her books at leisure, free from the tyranny and pressure of deadlines. That may be true for the first stumbling attempts, for the complete amateur; but the moment a writer approaches the publication of her books with any seriousness and hopes to make it her day job, deadlines are almost inevitable. Continue reading

What makes a writer? by May Burnett


Inventing stories and scenes inside the mind is one of the hallmarks of the writer, a habit we share with many people who never bother to write their ephemeral creations down. However, not everyone does it. Quite a few simply cannot if they try. I have even met people who seemed unable to follow a simple “What would happen if…?” scenario, getting upset that I was wasting their time with something unreal, even though we were just chatting over lunch. Perhaps they were never told stories in their childhood, or discouraged from using their innate imagination, and I can only pity them. (It seemed more tactful to change the subject, than try to discover the origins of their inability.) Continue reading

Pets in Romance, by May Burnett

Many writers and artists keep or have owned pets; there seems to be a special affinity between cats and writers in particular.  They provide companionship in what can be a rather lonely profession. In this collection (under one of my other pen names) you can find some quotes from famous artists about their pets.


How a person feels about and treats animals is an excellent gauge of their character, a fact that has been exploited by fiction writers countless times. A responsible, nurturing person – the kind who will make a first-rate spouse and parent – is fond of, and looks after their pets. On the other hand, a single kick at an animal will signal, irrevocally, that readers are supposed to hate a new character.

In Georgette Heyer’s classic romance The Grand Sophy the heroine, Sophy, arrives at her aunt’s town residence not only with her Spanish stallion, but a dog, a monkey and a parrot (the latter two as gifts for the children). From her very first entrance you know this is no ordinary young lady.

In another book by the same author, Frederica, an unruly big mongrel named Lufra chases the cows in Green Park as Frederica walks him, and is only saved from the authorities by a noble marquis, who pretends that the animal is a rare “Beluchistan Hound” smuggled into the country at great expense.

In Arabella, the elegant Mr. Beaumaris accepts an ugly mongrel as his constant and incongruous companion, shocking society, because he did not want to disappoint the girl he is courting.

These incidents provide occasions for the future romantic interests to interact and show their mettle – they also remain in readers’ memory long after more generic romances have faded.

Perhaps conforming to a paticularly British prejudice, in Heyer’s works you can tell the good guys by their having dogs, while the villains tend to prefer cats.


Of course pets can be an interesting addition to any genre, not just romance. In J.D. Robb’s (aka Nora Roberts) In Death series,  Eve and Roarke have a tomcat. Cats and dogs feature prominently in “cozy” mysteries. Shifter romances on the other hand rarely feature pets, since the main character is half animal himself or herself.

In my own romances I have also used pets here and there, mostly dogs. In Margaret’s Turn, the hero gives Margaret a guard dog after a burglary, an early sign of his desire to protect her. In Catching a Rook, the hero’s unwanted fiancée dislikes dogs, so he sends for his favorite hound as one of several ploys to make her cry off. Here the animal serves to underscore their incompatibility.


While animal characters cannot talk,  depending on a writer’s skill they are excellent foils for the human characters, and can be highly memorable in their own right. Think of romance books and films you have enjoyed, where a pet has played an important part … why not include one in your own next story or novel, if it fits?

Before I say good-bye, here is a foto of my own dog Millie, who keeps me company while I write and edit, and ensures that I go out and get some fresh air every once in a while. She is a soothing and lovely dog, the best-behaved I have ever owned.


May Burnett writes historical romance series as well as fantasy and non-fiction (under other pen names.) She lives in Austria and loves animals.






Romantic Subplots, by May Burnett

One good thing about being a writer of romance is that it helps with most other genres, which are usually enhanced by a romantic subplot, no matter what the genre.

Of course in a hard-boiled noir thriller the love interest may be killed off (a big no-no in actual romance) or turn out to be a bad guy or both; in science fiction or mysteries the romance, if it is there at all, may be very subtle and drawn out over several volumes. But no matter how much or little romance you add to the mix, how explicit or low-key the love or sex scenes, the experience of having written romance stories or novels can only help. Continue reading

The Joys of Editing by May Burnett

Lately , I find myself editing more frequently than writing new words.
To get a book ready for publication, both stages are of roughly equal importance. Some writers produce first drafts very fast and spend years on re-writes and editing, others write slowly and edit as they go. Prolific writers sometimes outsource the editing almost completely. Whatever the process, the author is ultimately responsible for putting a clean and easy read in front of the public, so outsourcing only goes so far: you still have to double-check everything yourself. Continue reading

Co-writing a Book or Series: How it Works, by May Burnett

How it started

Sometime in the fall of last year,  another member of Scribophile (my favorite writers’ site) was looking for a writing partner. There was a short discussion about the matter on the forums, in which I was skeptical. I had heard of co-writing teams, but imagined that such enterprises can easily end in quarrels or tears.
Nonetheless I was tempted to try the experiment, since one should never decry something without direct knowledge. Moreover, the other writer’s strengths complimented mine. She can write fast, and produce saleable copy with a distinctive voice; since she used to earn her living as a ghost writer, charging above average rates. I am better at plotting (when I bother) and have more experience at editing, after self-editing over a dozen regency romances.
The project she proposed – a first-person, Urban Fantasy series “with a kickass heroine” sounded appealing, a pleasant change from regency romance. It is very important that both writing partners are and remain enthusiastic about the project, and familiar with the chosen genre. We decided to give it a try.

Legal and organizational parameters

First, we discussed and agreed in writing (via email) the practical details. What pen name to use, how to share the hoped-for income and expenses, who would put be the one to put the book up on Amazon and/or other distributors, what was our budget for editing and promotion, and for the all-important cover?

If one of us had been too poor to devote even a bit of cash to the project, it would have made matters more difficult, but fortunately that was not the case. While I invested more in this joint project than I ever have in my own books, it was not a big deal for me, and has proved to be an excellent decision.
(Nonetheless, if I ever do this again with another partner, I would probably insist on having a written and signed contract spelling everything out at the start.)

Co-writing step by step

The next step was to do the world-building, since this was a fantasy set in an alternate world. (For a romance, that part would have been easier, we would merely have decided on location and era.)
We drew up fairly comprehensive descriptions of the world, its politics, history, species, magic, etc. and background info on our main characters, in a Word-building Document and a Character Sheet. I did most of that part, but my partner contributed additional ideas and feedback.
The next step was the outline. Since I was in charge of plotting, and my partner of the actual writing, the outline had to be a lot more detailed than I was used to. After a bit of back and forth, until we were both satisfied, it amounted to several thousand words, over 10% of the finished book. This was all much more time-consuming than I had reckoned on, but at the same time interesting and instructive; I learned quite a bit from the process.
From the outline, my partner produced a first draft literally within the week; she can write up to 10 000 words per day. Despite the long outline the first draft was only just over 60 000 words, but decidedly “fast-paced” – other writers would have made a book twice as long from my plot.
We sent the (unedited) book off to a dozen beta-readers and sat back to wait for their reactions.

Final Adjustments

Influenced by the many romances I had written over the past year, I had included a strong romantic sub-plot complete with a hot scene. From the beta feedback, we realized that the romantic arc would do better extended over the whole series, and replaced that erotic scene with something more ambiguous, that merely promised romance at some future point. Fans are now downloading the subsequent volumes to see if (and when, and how) the protagonists finally get together, and from several accounts, keeping the romance low-key made the series more interesting to our male readers.
The main female character has some flaws (too impulsive and reckless, prone to act without thinking matters through, can be aggressive and foul-mouthed) that not everyone likes, but many readers love her. We keep getting feedback from beta readers of later volumes that she should not use the “f-word” and so on, but it’s an important part of her character, and we are not going to change it.
After my partner had re-written several scenes on the basis of the beta feedback, the book was sent to a professional editor for line editing, followed by yet another editing pass plus proofreading.


On Christmas day 2015, the first book came out at last, exclusive to Amazon for the time being. Due in large part to the excellent cover contributed by my partner’s boyfriend and her marketing savvy, it immediately got on several bestseller lists, and remains among the first 1000 books sold by Amazon to this day, as does the second volume that came out in March. Both books have already garnered over 100 reviews, mostly favourable. The third volume is already written and will be out in May, and the outline for the fourth is finished as I write. We are looking into audiobooks and translations too.

Lessons Learned

• If two writers have a professional attitude, similar tastes and complementary talents and connections, co-writing with a clear division of work is an excellent way to leverage their respective input to a higher level.

• At least one partner should be good at marketing, and like doing it.

• Co-writing a book or series takes at least as much time as doing one by yourself. Time-wise, the bits the partner is doing are outweighed by the need to consult on everything.

• The co-writing process led me to take the business of self-publishing more seriously, not as a lucrative hobby but a professional challenge, that demands a well-presented and well-marketed product. The result amply justified our efforts. This was quite a learning experience, that I am planning to apply to my own books as well.

• In times of low motivation, the fact that your partner is relying on you is highly motivating. There were some recent months when for various reasons I neglected my own books and lost enthusiasm for writing and promotion, but I still completed my duties for the joint project, so as not to let my partner down. In consequence, my writing income has not suffered and even increased.

• All in all, as long as your partner is trustworthy, you are compatible as writers and have the same goals, I can definitely recommend the practice.

Writing Fast, by May Burnett

Some self-appointed experts claim you do not come into your own as a writer until after you’ve written at least a million words. Even the admired classic writers of any genre needed to develop their voice and skill over time. When you compare the first novel of Georgette Heyer to those she wrote ten or twenty years later, it is undeniable how the style and technique improved, though perhaps not the plotting. Yet by my count, unless she discarded a lot of pages, it did not take her anything like a million words until she produced one of my favorites, These Old Shades. Continue reading

I always love the new book best, by May Burnett

Today is a joyful date for me, as it marks the publication of my 11th historical romance since the first one appeared in June 2014.  A Priceless Gift is set in 1811/12, the time when Napoleon was preparing his ill-fated attack on Russia. My hero is a diplomat as well as a nobleman, and spends the middle part of the book on a confidential mission to the Czar’s court in St. Petersburg, while Amanda, his young and pregnant wife, stays at his principal seat in Hampshire. To celebrate this event I’ll indulge in a short author interview with my writing self.
Can one write so many books so quickly without sacrificing quality?
Yes and no. I would not have published any book if I were not happy with it, but I am coming to appreciate the editing and proofreading stages more than I did when I set out. I plan to re-edit some of my earlier works as I go along, to make sure that the Createspace versions I shall put out over the next few months are as perfect as I can manage. And I may insert a couple of additional scenes into one of my earlier works, to give greater stress to the love story.
Do you ever run out of ideas for new plots? After all the Regency category has a fairly rigid formula.
No, there is not the slightest danger of running out of ideas. If all else fails, I like to transpose present-day problems to the past, where the resolution would be rather different. Each of my books so far is quite different from the previous ones. The new one, for instance, has gothic elements (revenge, poison, superstition) not to be found in my previous works.
You like to use young lovers in every book. Don’t they tend to become similar types?
Not so far. I have a fairly clear idea of my characters’ background and priorities, their interests and values by the time I begin to write a book. Each of them is their own man (or woman). My most recent book is also different because the hero is rather older than in my previous books, in his late thirties.
You use alternating, close third POV. Do you prefer to write from the male or female POV?
The male one is marginally more fun because men had more liberty and possibilities in the period where I set my novels. I like to use interior monologues and self-deception, rationalisations, useless determination, and so on, for both men and women. This may add distance on occasion but in a Regency you don’t necessarily need one-hundred-percent identification with any one character.
What are your weak points?
I prefer to regard them as areas where I can still improve. I must strive to add more atmospheric description to my scenes. Since I tend to focus most on my character’s thoughts and dialogue, description is sometimes neglected. Also, I don’t always make as much out of their pain and anguish as I should, perhaps because I feel pity for their sufferings. And I need to work on action scenes, which don’t come so naturally to me.
What comes next, after this book? Is it part of a series?
No, A Priceless Gift is a standalone, though I am toying with the idea of writing a sequel about the heroine’s younger sister Eve. I already have a suitable cover and title, so all that is needed is to write her story… but that will have to wait. My next project is part of my longest ongoing series, the Amberley Chronicles. It is two-thirds written at this point, about an heiress fleeing from mysterious attacks with a young officer that she’ll be forced to marry later in the book to safeguard her reputation. By the end, of course, both will be reconciled to their situation.
After that comes the third and final volume of my Winthrop Trilogy. The heroine’s character and backstory are a special challenge, and I am still trying to think of a good title.

How profitable are these Regencies?

In the current year they have netted me between 1000 and 3000 dollars per month. I am planning to experiment with various marketing strategies, starting with the addition of Createspace versions. But the most important thing is to keep writing and publishing new books on a fairly quick schedule.

Anything else you would like to add?

The first volume of the Winthrop Trilogy, Lady Susan’s Bargain, will be free from August 1 to 5th  2015. Anyone reading this, I would appreciate if you downloaded a free copy! And for suscribers of Kindle Unlimited, all my historical novels are enrolled, so you can sample them at your leisure. Enjoy! 9 A Priceless Gift 3D large