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.

 

Conclusion

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.

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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

Imagination

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

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

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

Cinderella in Reverse

The last post by Emily Cooper described annoying tropes in romance. Everyone hates them, and yet many readers lap up what others detest. There is a reason there are so many billionaires and dukes among romance heroes, while the female leads tend to come from far more modest backgrounds.

But how happy are such unions likely to be in the long run? Realistically, the bride is going to face resistance and disdain from her in-laws and her man’s social circle. Unless she is extremely adaptable and astute, she will be considered a social climber for a long time. For all we know, even Cinderella may have endured snubs by fellow royals after wedding her prince.

Looking back on the series of seven historical novels I have written over the past year (five published, the other two currently on pre-order), I find that I have played around quite a bit with variations of the Cinderella trope:

In The Impostor Debutante the hero’s social standing is far superior to that of Charlotte, even though James is is only the younger brother of an earl –  her birth is illegitimate. His mother’s outrage at this misalliance is still unabated six volumes and three children later in the series.

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In His Last Marchioness there are two couples – in one, the lady is of higher birth and elects to wed a man from the professional classes when she could have married a duke’s heir.  (How realistic is that? Well, sometimes love does win out.)

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The Sister Quest features the traditional rich man – poor woman trope, but my hero is a mere commoner, without even a baronet in his family tree. After amassing a large fortune Jonathan is hoping to marry up, into the aristocracy. It would have been logical, for in a class-ridden society, not only women harboured such ambitions. Cherry does not even know her parentage, she was adopted as a baby.  Jonathan renounces his social climbing for her sake, and finds himself richly rewarded.

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From the author’s perspective it is great fun to play around with social status, confounding both the reader’s expectations and my characters’ ambitions.

Catching a Rook presents a rare inversion – a duke’s heir is yoked against his will to a lady of yet higher rank, a foreign princess. The social gulf between the aristocracy and royalty was enormous in the 19th century. My story illustrates that matches across such large divides are inevitably problematic, especially when neither side feels  love or desire.  In the end, both find happiness with partners closer to their own status.

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Lady Susan’s Bargain returns to the theme of a rich, well-born lady marrying “down”. Nobody in her family can understand why she would want to do so. The reason is unusual, but she gets her way through daring manipulation.

As the cover shows, this book is not part of the Amberley series. It has more sex, and darker themes.

Some reviewers have objected to the mercenary motives of particular characters. I contend that such motives are highly realistic, especially in people who have known want and neglect, and crave security at any cost. (Remember how quickly Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice gets Charlotte Lucas to accept him, and how money and inheritance issues colour everyone’s attitudes and status in Emma.)

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The heroine of Lady Anthea’s Choice is also well-born and well dowered, but needs to learn to stand up to social and family pressure. Her choice is between a rich, handsome lord who is also a selfish bully, and a slightly less aristocratic but kind and supportive young man. Abysmal ignorance (euphemistically called “innocence” at the time) further complicates her situation.

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And after all that, in The Perils of Lord Pell, to be published at the end of February, I go back to the traditional Cinderella story – my young heroine marries through necessity, and her man turns out to be a fabulously rich marquis intent on spoiling her. What’s not to like? (I do show the reception she gets from his family, and her misgivings at this drastic change in status.)

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Yet wealth and social class are just one element of a good romance.  Mutual compatibility, sympathy, and especially a good measure of sexual attraction are also essential.

Most women consider wealth and power attractive attributes, but for my heroines honour, loyalty and kindness trump every other consideration when it comes to the crunch.  They learn to understand that rank without love and friendship can only be considered a consolation prize. Some lucky girls get it all – but the others still get what will make them happy in the long run.

Now, if only it worked like that in real life…

Creativity Postponed

When I was a schoolgirl, long ago, I prided myself on the ability to write an essay of any length required on any subject, no matter how obscure or silly, without having to think long about it. Not for me the agony of staring at a blank page and wondering what to put on it – my subconscious would supply words, almost as easily as water spouting out of a tap. Writing stories was just as easy, and more fun.

Sounds like I should have become a writer, right? Unfortunately there were serious obstacles. Family expectations urged me towards a supposedly more secure, prestigious career. I thought I could always come back to writing later. During the first years of full-time employment I wrote on the side, mostly stories and articles. When my career led me to Manhattan for three years, I submitted some of my works to editors. Like any other aspiring writer only just learning their craft, I received rejection letters – “would like to see more of your work” was the best I could do.  Meantime my job got ever more demanding, and then children came along.

But though there were years when I didn’t write fiction, except inside my head, I always kept reading. Thousands and thousands of books.

Now I have at last come to a point when I took a step back from the day job and bought two years of free time with my savings –  and finally settled down to write. Is it any wonder that all those repressed works now come shooting out at surprising speed? It turns out that you can postpone creation, but if you are lucky it is still there, patiently waiting.  Except that these are not exactly the same books I could or would have written decades ago; I look at my abandoned projects, for instance a  thriller parodying work inside the United Nations, and I could not for the life of me finish it in the spirit in which it began. On the other hand, what I write now draws on the experiences and insights of the past decades, and hopefully has gained some depth. I’m still working hard on improving the technical aspects.

Right now  I am completing a book I began in 1999 in Copenhagen, and find it is not easy to reconcile the older parts with the new. I have changed in fifteen years, and the characters I envisage today are not quite the same in consequence. While I am determined to rescue at least that favourite project from limbo,  it would be easier and faster to write something completely new.

Given the time pressure, self-publishing is the obvious choice for me. Receiving feedback from unknown readers all over the world within days of publication of an Ebook gives me a thrill, and to hear that someone enjoyed my writing is great motivation to carry on.  With traditional publishing, even in the best case, I would still be waiting for a release date of the first book.

Over the past few months I have concentrated on Regency Romance, and under the pen name of May Burnett have published three in June, August and September respectively. They form a series , the Amberley Chronicles, though each is self-contained. If all goes well, in the month of October two more will come out, the fourth of the series and a standalone regency, Lady Susan’s Bargain. When I have ten regencies under my belt, I may turn back to urban fantasy or YA, just as much fun to write but harder to sell. How long will I be able to keep up the pace of one short novel every month? Maybe with enough practice I can do even better…

The lesson, if any? Take your pick:  It’s never too late to make childhood dreams come true. When you have a gift, it should be used. If you wait long enough, the technology that will make your goals easier to achieve may come along.

Or simply, go and write NOW. Who knows if it will still be possible tomorrow.