Monthly Archives: October 2018
Elizabeth Black writes in a wide variety of genres including erotica, erotic romance, horror, and dark fiction. She lives on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and her two cats.
Web site: http://elizabethablack.blogspot.com
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/author/elizabethblack
A Facebook friend of mine made a post where she asked for names of non-scary movies for Halloween. She wanted nothing super scary, no slashers, and no gore. I thought that was the perfect idea for this month’s ERWA post – The Halloween Edition.
I love a good horror movie, but my husband doesn’t so I try to find movies I think he’d like, especially this time of year when I find classics on TV that we both can watch. I also like paranormal romances which are perfect for the Halloween season. We both enjoyed Shaun of the Dead and Army of Darkness which are comedies. Ghost is another favorite and that one is a paranormal romance popular with romance lovers. Romance and paranormal lovers don’t have to feel left out this season just because they don’t like slasher movies and the like. There is plenty out there to enjoy.
Here is a list of Halloween movies for people who don’t like gory movies full of jump scares. There are romances here, some comedies and some black and white classics.
- The Nightmare Before Christmas – The King of Christmas wants that holiday to be like Halloween. Animated. Jack, the male lead, also likes Sally, the female lead.
- The Witches Of Eastwick – Three women stand up to Jack Nicholson. A fun film.
- The Haunting – This is the 1963 black and white movie, not the new Netflix TV series although the series is excellent. The TV series is entitled The Haunting of Hill House so that you don’t get confused. Based on the novel by Shirley Jackson. Could be scary but it’s atmospheric and psychological. Avoid the 1999 remake. It’s abysmal.
- The Sixth Sense – Tear jerker of a paranormal.
- Practical Magic – A witch movie that is about love and family.
- Shaun of the Dead – British laugh out loud zombie comedy.
- What We Do In The Shadows – New Zealand laugh out loud vampire comedy.
- Young Frankenstein – The ultimate American horror comedy. Frau Blucher! Whinny! LOL
- E. T. – Takes place at Halloween. E. T. phone home!
- Gremlins – Don’t get them wet, keep them out of the light, and don’t feed them after midnight. Has a few genuinely scary moments but overall a fantasy with comic elements.
- Topper – Constance Bennett and Cary Grant as a married, ghostly couple. Another comedy. Black and white from the 1930s.
- Arsenic and Old Lace – Another Cary Grant vehicle. Yet another comedy. Black and white from the 1940s. Based on the play by Joseph Kesselring.
- Blithe Spirit – Husband calls back dead wife’s spirit during a séance. He’s since remarried. Hilarity ensues. Yes, another comedy. Black and white from the 1940s and based on the play by Noel Coward.
- The Ghost and Mrs. Muir – A lovely paranormal romance. Black and white from the 1940s.
- The Innocents – Based on Henry James’s novel The Turn Of The Screw. Very atmospheric, moody, and psychological. Standout performance by Deborah Kerr. Black and white from the 1960s.
So now you have plenty of movies to choose from to watch in the days approaching Halloween and Halloween itself. Whether you want a horror comedy or a black and white classic, there are plenty of movies to watch around Halloween that don’t involve buckets of blood. There is even romance! So pop some popcorn, get the bags of candy ready for the trick or treaters, turn down the lights, and enjoy your movie night.
While I’ve understood the appeal of Kindle Unlimited (KU), up until now I’ve rejected it for a couple of reasons. First is narrow versus wide. With KU, you cannot publish your story anywhere but at Amazon. I think you can do print versions, but most of that stays with Amazon.
Going wide, you can publish at all the other sites such as SmashWords, Apple, Kobo, B&N, and others, in addition to Amazon. Another drawback to wide is that you can’t publish in ePub or other formats that are native to Windows, Mac, most tablets and phones.
Certainly, nowadays there are apps which allow you to read Kindle books on other types of devices besides a Kindle. But to me, it is aggravating that Amazon restricts you in an effort to keep you corralled into the Kindle World.
Publishing on Amazon and allowing your smut to be in the Kindle Unlimited section, allows people who cough up $10 a month to read all they can stomach. For an avid reader like myself, I like KU except the nonconformist side resents being told I can’t publish a story anywhere except on Amazon.
Amazon pays about one-half cent per page for every page someone reads of your masterpiece. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but when there are millions of people out there, it adds up.
I decided what the hell, I’ll try it again and published my latest story, House Party, both narrow and in Kindle Unlimited. This 85,000-word novel is my biggest yet, and I have to admit that I was a little hesitant about committing for the next 90-days before I could go wide.
I was floored when in the three weeks since release it has sold 31 copies, and almost 18,000 page reads, which translates into 74 complete story reads of the 243-page novel. This one story in three weeks has earned basically one and a half times my normal Amazon income for a typical month!
That’s all the bragging I’m going to do, and I apologize for it but what I’m trying to say is consider using Kindle Unlimited to see if it helps your book sales.
Normally I don’t pay a lot of attention to my Amazon sales as I’m too lazy to read all the reports but using Book Report (GetBookReport.com) makes it so easy to see your best selling stories and how much money you are making. Book Report also breaks out your sales per day, week, month, etc. so it’s a lot easier to see if you’re doing any good.
I’d had always read that Amazon has a 30-day cliff and will start throwing your story under the bus in a month. Since I’ve been using Book Report since May or June, I’ve confirmed to myself that is true.
If you release a story, it will bump your author’s rank for about a month, then you’ll see your rank start to fall. Publish a new book, and it’ll immediately jump up for another month.
So, the old saying “Publish or Perish,” is definitely a truism with Amazon. This does not seem to be true with SmashWords. From what I can see, SmashWords only goes by best sells or most popular, without considering age.
I have two books in SmashWords Men’s Erotica Best Sellers that are in the top 60, and one of the stories was published in 2014 and is ranked higher than a story published this year.
While certainly, you can argue that one story is better than the other, but the bottom line is that a story published four years ago is ranked about the same as a story published in the last few months.
This tells me that when you publish at SmashWords, your story doesn’t get forgotten in a month and continues to be ranked on its merits, without being penalized for age.
Up until recently, I’ve always made more money at SmashWords than I have with Amazon but the last couple of months have been just the opposite.
The thing I really like at SmashWords is that they automatically push out to Apple and others such as Kobo and B&N. My sales through SmashWords are typically split four ways between SmashWords, Apple, Kobo, and B&N.
Sales and marketing are the things I hate to do. I’d druther pound away at my keyboard than try to figure out how to market a story but I’m becoming convinced that I need to pay attention to things like sales figures, advertising, etc.
I’m not naive enough to think I’ll ever quit my day job and write smut but I am covering expenses and being able to buy a nice laptop every year or two.
That’s all for this month folks. Go out and VOTE on November 8th. Until next month, if it’s the 24th, it’s time for smut from the dirty mind of Larry Archer. LarryArcher.blog
“This book had a great variety of terrific sex scenes, but the author cannot write dialogue to save her life. They all end up sounding like wooden Indians.” ~ J. Mullally
The quote above comes from an Amazon review of my second novel, Incognito, published in 2002. Needless to say, the comment made me cringe, but I have to admit that when I started publishing, dialogue was definitely a weak spot for me.
Before diving into fiction, I’d written a lot of technical material: research papers, product specifications, user manuals, and a five-hundred page dissertation. I knew how to convey ideas in an articulate and logical manner, but I really had very little experience capturing the nuances of human conversation. Read some of my early dialogue and you’ll see the effects of my formal background.
* * *
“Miranda, I would like to present Mark Anderson, our new lecturer. Mark will be handling the Dickens course for the summer session.”
“Mark, this is Miranda Cahill, my most promising graduate student.” Miranda blushed, and Dr. Scofield’s eyes twinkled. “Miranda has chosen a rather controversial topic for her thesis: a new interpretation of the corpus of Victorian erotica.”
The newcomer’s polite smile expanded to a grin. “Really! That’s fascinating. Sounds far more—stimulating—than my dissertation on the metaphorical significance of orphans in Dickens and his contemporaries.”
Miranda’s blush deepened as she noted the double entendre. She met his teasing gaze, almost defiantly. “Yes, it is an intriguing topic, and I believe one of considerable literary and social significance, as well.” He had thick, dark hair, slightly tousled. His eyes behind the glasses were velvety brown with glints of gold. In his face, she saw intelligence, energy, and humor.
“Miranda has championed an unusual theory: that the explosion of sexually-oriented writing during the latter half of the nineteenth century was a reflection of actual practices, rather than a reaction against repressive public morals.” Her advisor appeared to be enjoying the role of agent provocateur. “She believes that the detailed accounts of sexual adventure and aberration published during the era chronicled real experiences, not merely fantasies.”
“Hmm.” Their bespectacled companion looked both amused and interested. “What evidence do you have to support this proposition?”
“Well, to begin with,” said Miranda, automatically adopting an academic tone, “a significant fraction of these writings are first person accounts. And a surprising number are related from a woman’s perspective. If this were primarily a literature of fantasy and titillation, I would expect a male point-of-view to dominate, as it does in modern pornography.” Miranda was encouraged to see that her audience listened attentively and gave due consideration to her points.
“Secondly, these tales are full of real-world details and commentary that would be superfluous and even distracting in fictional erotica. The protagonists discuss social issues such as poverty, child abuse, oppression of the lower classes, things that can only detract from a work intended as escapist fantasy. Even a hack pornographer knows better than to mention the unpleasant or the mundane: illegitimate pregnancies, unpaid bills, rising damp. Yet references to such items are common in the corpus.”
“Finally, I find in many of these writings a thoughtfulness that conflicts with the conventions of the pornographic genre. The narrators are engaged in a wide variety of sexual activities, which are described in vivid and provocative detail. At the same time, in many cases, they reflect on their own desires and behaviors, sometimes justifying themselves in the face of the official morality, sometimes castigating themselves for weakness and sinfulness. Either way, there is a psychological depth that would be redundant in fictional erotica.”
“So, what you are saying,” interposed Mark with a grin, “is that a fictional character would simply go ahead and bugger his maid, whereas an individual writing a clandestine diary would spend some time and effort wondering why he wanted to bugger his maid, before he got around to actually doing it?”
“No, no, that’s not it at all!” Miranda, embarrassed and flustered, wondered if the new instructor had been reading her manuscript over her shoulder. Her eyes flashed. “You’re not willing to take me seriously, any more than the submission review committee for the Association for Modern Literature!”
“Now, Miranda,” soothed her advisor. “Mark was just teasing you.” Looking again at the attractive stranger, Miranda saw that Scofield was telling the truth.
“Sorry, I really didn’t mean to offend you, Miranda.” Mark held out his hand like a peace offering. “I really am delighted to meet you. I think your theory is unconventional and provocative, but who knows, it might actually be true.”
* * *
As it happens, these characters are all academics (as I had been for such a long time), but still, their formality sounds artificial.
In my first books, people spoke in full sentences most of the time. They didn’t use contractions. They never interrupted one another. Furthermore, they used each other’s names so frequently that one might wonder whether they were trying to reinforce their faulty memories.
Fortunately I was more adept at writing sex scenes than dialogue, or I might never have found any readers!
The problem is that dialogue can play multiple, critical roles in a narrative. It reveals character— immediate emotions and concerns as well as more persistent aspects such as class and ethnicity. Dialogue also advances the action; indeed, speech is action, and an entire plot can turn on a conversation. Conversations can also inform the reader about history or backstory, in a more subtle and less disruptive manner than unadorned exposition. Thus, poor dialogue can be more than just an annoyance. It can ruin an entire book.
I joined ERWA in 2000, not long before I wrote this novel. Since then, I’ve participated in Storytime and Writers, written nearly a hundred stories and edited a number of anthologies. ERWA has exposed me to authors who are true doyens of dialogue, especially Bob Buckley, Daddy X, and more recently, Belinda LaPage.
My characters’ conversations still can’t begin to match some of what I read, but I know I’ve improved quite a bit. I now understand that in order to write dialogue successfully, you have to hear the characters in your head. How can you get to the point where your characters talk to you? By reading effective dialogue by other people, and by listening to people actually talking.
If you listen to real world conversations, you’ll recognize that they’re very “messy”. People rarely speak in full sentences. They sprinkle their dialogue with exclamations, “ums” and “ohs”, filling the space while they thing about what to say next. They start one utterance then interrupt themselves to express a totally different thought. They interrupt the other speakers too. Because the partners in a conversation have a shared context, one or two words can convey meaning without ambiguity. Of course, one partner can easily misunderstand this sort of abbreviated utterance, also.
People make grammar errors, too. You have no idea how hard it has been for me to let my characters do that! Between my education and my experience editing, I have finely tuned detectors for faux pas like dangling participles, tense errors, incorrect pronouns and word misuse. Sometimes, though, that’s exactly what dialogue needs, to make a character seem real.
One useful exercise, I’ve found, is writing all-dialogue flashers. I learned how to do that from Daddy X, “the master of flash”. A flasher tells a complete story in 200 words or less. Trying to do this in dialogue is a fabulous challenge. You need to convey the characters, their relationships, and their actions, without any description at all (and ideally, without speak tags). I can’t begin to match Daddy’s expertise in the genre, but here’s an example that illustrates the technique:
By Lisabet Sarai
“Miss Meriweather. Increase the gain by another order of magnitude. Ah—oh, by Newton’s apples!—”
“Is that too much, Professor? Shall I dial it back?”
“No, no, we must continue. Another notch, please.”
“But your face is scarlet, sir. And your member—Oh, God, are those sparks?”
“To be expected when experimenting with electrical forces, Miss Meriweather. Adjust the rheostat as I’ve instructed. Argh—that’s good, excellent…Oh! More. More…!”
“Sir, the boiler will blow. The needle’s halfway into the red zone already.”
“We need more power—more steam—oh, incredible! Amazing! We shall be the first to chronicle the detailed response of the male organ to various levels of electrical stimulation—oh, by Aristotle, turn it up, girl! Don’t stop now!”
“I smell burning. And you’re drenched with sweat.”
“All—all the better—ah! Enhances conductivity—what? What are you doing?“
“Protecting you from excessive scientific curiosity. I don’t want you hurt.”
“But—I was so close to a breakthrough… Unstrap me immediately, Miss Meriweather. If you won’t assist me, I’ll have to man the controls myself.”
“Sorry, Professor. I can’t do that.”
“You disobedient little hussy! And where—oh, by Pythagoras, you’re not wearing knickers!”
“Before you research artificial sexual stimulation, sir, shouldn’t you investigate the real thing?”
* * *
Then there’s the question of dialect, that is, using speech characteristics to convey nationality, race, social class and so on. Robert Buckley does this incredibly well. Whether his setting is Irish Boston or the Civil War South, his characters talk like natives.
I’ve mostly avoided dialect in my work. It’s really easy to overdo, and can make your dialogue difficult to read and understand. Recently, though, for my novella More Brides in Vegas, I had to create a character who spoke with a very strong dialect – for the sake of my plot and for comic effect. I sought out a lot of help from ERWA folk on this one, in particular from a member whose father came from Glasgow:
* * *
A gruff, male, almost unintelligible voice interrupted her.
“I wannae see the hoatel manager. Where’s the fookin’ manager, you little eejit?”
A giant of a man with a barrel chest and legs like telephone poles strode into the courtyard from the direction of the hotel lobby, dragging a skinny college-age boy with him. The kid—Chantal remembered she’d seen him behind the hotel desk when she’d picked up her key—cringed and silently pointed in Nan’s direction.
“Gawn! D’ye think ahm buttoned up the back? That nekkid dyke?”
Cool as anything, as self-assured as if she’d been wearing a designer suit instead of a strap-on, Nan rose to her feet and confronted the newcomer. Though she was at least a foot shorter, the obviously angry man paused when confronted by her natural authority
“I’m Nan Anderson, general manager of the Holiday House,” she said. “I’ll thank you to let Michael go.”
He glared at her from under bushy ginger brows. Nan didn’t flinch in the slightest.
“Now, please. He’s just a part-time clerk. Whatever your difficulty, I’ll take care of it.”
He opened his ham-sized hand. Poor Michael almost crumpled to the floor.
“Get back to the desk, Mike. I’ll handle this.”
The young man scuttled away.
“Now, sir,” she continued, her voice cool and professional despite her nudity. “What’s the problem?”
“Thae gormless tool said yer fool for the weeken’.” The foreigner scowled and waved a sheet of paper in her face. “Me an’ me mates booked an’ paid. Ye dinnae think we’re gonnae come all thae way to America fer a ternamen’ but nae reserve our rooms, did ye?”
“Can I see that, please?” Nan scrutinized what was obviously a printout from some website. “I have to admit the dates match. But we’re closed for a private event this weekend. We blocked out the rooms more than three months ago. I don’t know why the booking site—”
“Ah dinnae ken an’ ah dinnae cerr. Me an’ me chaps need beds. Been on a fookin’ plane for ferteen hours.”
“Um—how many are in your group?”
The angry customer shook his head. “Aye, but yer stoopit, lass. Who doesnae know thae a rugby team’s fifteen men?”
“Rugby?” Nan looked him up and down, as if that explained his stature. “Oh!”
The guy broke into a grin. “Glassgow Gladiators. City champs.”
“And you are?”
He gave a little bow. “Ian Stuart, team captain. At yer service.”
* * *
I will admit, I’m quite proud of this bit. It’s encouraging to see I’ve learned something in more than fifteen years of writing.
At least he doesn’t sound like a wooden Indian.
Night has fallen, the gaslights are blazing, and pleasure inevitably calls a gentleman of carnal inclinations such as yourself to the part of town not spoken of in polite company. Shoulder your way through the drunken hoi polloi and step into the spacious receiving room of the town’s finest parlor house, quite like Madame Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall, pictured above, the most famous high-class brothel in the most famous of American red-light districts, Storyville, New Orleans.
The furnishings are expensive, if more than a touch ostentatious, but a man of standing in the community will feel right at home amidst the luxurious carpets, gilt-framed oil paintings, and fragrant fresh flowers.
The maid will lead you to Madame, arrayed in silk, diamonds, and pearls, a sign that her establishment is thriving. She will welcome you warmly, knowing that you are a trusted regular customer or a friend of the same. Have no worry that news of your visit will reach the wrong ears. Madame is always discreet. She makes sure to provide the local police with a weekly “consideration” and keeps a doctor on call to spirit you away to a respectable location should you fall ill on the premises from your exertions.
Enjoy a glass of champagne and the toe-tapping ragtime tunes, courtesy of the “Professor” at the upright piano in the corner. While you chat with the gentlemen in your party, you appraise the lovely young women in attendance this evening. There are always pretty new faces to tickle your fancy, and the girls are sure to find you fascinating and admirably virile whatever your age. Their tongues are as silky as their negligee-clad forms.
Perhaps you are fortunate enough to attend on the night of a “circus,” which is much too vulgar to describe in words, although you can be sure young women of undeniable natural talent will sing and dance in various states of undress and perhaps make love to one another. Every act is designed to warm your blood for a trip upstairs after the show. For enjoying such entertainments, you may spend as much as fifty dollars.
Add a half hour in a bedroom upstairs with a girl of your choosing for five to twenty-five dollars, depending on her beauty. New girls demand a higher price. If you spend the whole night, it will set you back another thirty-five to fifty greenbacks. This luxury is denied to men at the humbler houses that cater to the lusts of the middle class.
Of course, money is no object for you.
Perhaps you’ve chosen a house that specializes in young things fresh from the countryside or “French” services involving unmentionable oral skills. According to its souvenir guidebook, the famous Mahogany Hall offers the attentions of charming octoroons, young women with one black great-grandmother and a white father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
If you’re in San Francisco, you might indulge in a bit of voyeurism in one of the French resorts on Commercial Street. The maid will lead you to a secret closet, where, for a mere five dollars, you can gaze through peep-holes to enjoy the spectacle of a greenhorn fellow deflowering a “virgin” for triple the usual full-service fee. Although the comely lass might seem shy and inexperienced, be assured she will repeat the same performance tomorrow as she did last night.
When you leave the premises well after midnight—your wallet much lighter or your running account with Madame well-padded with extra charges—you won’t bother yourself with plebian daytime considerations like honesty or authenticity. You understand that such establishments are like Carnival or Halloween all year round, a chance to indulge yourself in make-believe and express your forbidden desires.
You straighten your tie and toss away the boutonniere the night’s temporary companion pinned to your lapel to mark you should you stop at a saloon for a nightcap. The girls in the quarter watch out for each other, and even a high-class parlor house girl might as well save her poorer “sister” the trouble of flirting with a gentleman who has already been satisfied.
Your manly desires are indeed sated and you’re headed to your comfortable home in the finest part of town. It’s 1910 and life is sweet for a man in your fine leather shoes, if, to be honest, even a fortunate fellow like you can feel a bit melancholy in the wee hours of the morning.
A man brushes past you—a shopkeeper perhaps or a clerk by the look of his clothes—intent on his own escape from reality. Where is he going? Which girl will wrap him in her soft arms within the hour?
Join me next month to find out!
(This sketch of a well-heeled gentleman’s evening in the best parlor house in town was inspired by descriptions in Al Rose’s Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District, Herbert Asbury’s The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld, and Ruth Rosen’s The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918.
The photographs are from Storyville, New Orleans. If you’re interested in red-light districts in the early twentieth century, check out this evocative reference of a time gone by!)
Just a few years ago in this space a much missed friend and extraordinary writer made her farewell to erotica. Remittance Girl wrote of vulnerable, sometimes wounded characters, mostly in Asian settings so startlingly sensual as to evoke in one’s mind all the aromas, tastes and even the feel of the air that set the place and the time. I used to tell RG that while she was a hell of a writer, she was an amazing cinematographer.
Her stores weren’t so much about sex as they were about how the sexual drive, a human’s sexual needs drove their lives and their choices, even if they themselves weren’t aware of it. Her stories did not have happy endings, and loose ends were never tied up. They were far removed from what one would consider a stroke piece or romance.
And about the time Fifty Shades of Gray was moving through the genre like a tsunami of crassness, she refused to give an inch and fall in line with many who were saying maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing for the genre and its writers, since a rising tide lifts everyone’s boat after all.
So she penned a final blog post here in which she said her kind of story had become irrelevant as the genre became inundated with romance, with all its expectations and requirements and never-stray-from-the-path structures. So she said goodbye to all that.
Like RG, I’m feeling a bit irrelevant these days, too, for reasons similar to those cited by RG, but also by a general sense of feeling passed by.
I’ve never written the sort of story one chose as a masturbatory aid. While sex was always important it was not the whole story. At the time I wrote them, though, they were well received by folks I respected who found them erotic nonetheless. The only time I was nominated for a genre honor (a Silver Clitoride – seriously, you can’t make this stuff up) it was for a story that didn’t have a single sex scene. Some three years since RG took her leave, I’m beginning to see such stories have lost what allure they had and are even dismissed as not erotica at all.
I used to think erotica was a big tent, but there seem to be so many more gatekeepers these days who insist if it isn’t aimed straight at the genitalia it doesn’t belong.
Well, that’s one thing. Another is that I’m afraid I’ve made myself irrelevant in another way, by remaining in place. I’ve never embraced social media. I have no Facebook page. I don’t tweet. Instagram? I’m not even sure what that is. The greatest thing since sliced bread for me was email; that should tell you something. I don’t own a smartphone, so have never downloaded an app. And though I have a simple cell phone I rely mainly on my land line.
I am so far behind the times, I don’t think I could accurately write a contemporary story. There is another language at work, a truncated language full of abbreviations and acronyms and I have no idea what they stand for.
This feeling really hit home for me recently while I was riding on a commuter train. I love mass transportation. I used to get a lot of my inspiration watching people on trains and buses, reading their faces, putting stories to their expressions.
Now people don’t have expressions. They stare trancelike at their gadgets, faces frozen. Being on that train was like being in a coma ward.
Still, I’m not lamenting the brave new world. It’s nobody’s fault but my own that I haven’t kept up with technology and all its benefits that even my four- and seven-year-old grandsons master as second nature. It’s just, at this stage, it’s just too tiring to catch up. Or maybe I’m just lazy.
But if I can’t accurately depict the world I live in, I wonder if I should even try.
First paragraphs demand a lot. Personality and clear perspective management. Unique visuals. A sense of setting and mood. A strong hook. Little wonder so many people either:
- Base their entire novel off a golden first paragraph that popped into their heads at 02:03am
- Bullet-point the first para and come back to it at the end of the chapter, or even when they’ve completed the first draft of the book.
Back in 2016, I wrote a short story called “The Way, the Truth and the Lifer”, which opens in a care home from which our intrepid hero, encumbered by early-onset Alzheimer’s, is trying to escape for the day. I posted it on our Storytime emailing list for feedback and I’m so glad I did, because my opening three paragraphs caused untold levels of bafflement. I thought I’d seeded multiple clues that Carlsbad House was a care home, but it was only my fellow Brit readers and writers who could visualise the opening scene without trouble. The feedback on the opening to my story gave me a golden opportunity to recast the order in which I presented the information about my hero’s environment, and to choose images which worked better for a transatlantic audience.
I think, up to a point, we all describe what we’re subconsciously familiar with when we’re deep in the flow of the story, or the perspective character’s mindset. As a professional editor, I have several US clients who base their stories in England, and find myself having to amend scenes where the perspective character performs all road manoeuvres as if in charge of a left-hand drive (but without all the conspicuous stress that this entails). I’ve made the same mistake, writing struggles with roundabouts (and other blatant Britishisms) into States-based stories. It’s extremely hard to avoid.
I must confess that until that valuable feedback on my “Lifer” story, setting had always been fairly low on my list of things to worry about when writing. Dialogue, POV management, choreography and emotional journeys seemed to fill my intellectual working space. I’d have to go back and fill in the details of where they were, and how that affected the atmosphere. Because I can’t hear, I often need help writing in the sound effects. I forget those, too.
These days, before sharing a story for critique, I add two more things to my self-editing list:
- How quickly have I shown where we are?
- Have I done this without presenting the reader with an info-dump?
With a little help from0 my peer editors, a collection of fine books, and a little personal experience, I thought I’d provide a wee list of techniques for setting up your environment while keeping the action moving. Towards the end (for a little light relief), I’ve provided a few examples of what to avoid.
If you’re not American, use your mother tongue conspicuously.
The little ‘s’ that I stuck on the end of ‘Towards’ in that last sentence would probably have made some of you flinch. This is how Brits say it, in the same way we say ‘sideways’. It’s not incorrect—just a case of using UK English.
If US English is not your mother tongue, then word choice can be a weapon in your setting arsenal, along with your Anglican spellings (organise, favour, dialogue, manoeuvre, and travelling). This provides thousands of opportunities to establish the use of UK English (and indeed dialect, where appropriate) into the perspective character’s or narrator’s opening lines. Establishing nationality can help to set location expectations. Here is a really handy link to summarise key US vs UK differences:
You won’t have this option with all publishers, of course, many of whom insist on US English being used, regardless of the characters’ nationalities. And this doesn’t help our Antipodean pals, whose spelling and punctuation rules have more in common with UK English than US English.
So, other means of establishing place (right down to country and continent), wherever you’re from, are:
- closeness to (or distance from) well-known cities/landmarks
- mentioning animal species
- using place-focused driving language
- socio-demographic terminology
- or any of the following options…
Often a nifty way of declaring a character’s location and his origins in one fell swoop:
They called Grab a ‘good-sized’ village, but you could’ve fitted four Grabs into the ‘one-horse town’ he called home.
Harking back to the past when describing an unmoving/unchanging environment can be a succinct way of giving away location:
The ruin loomed in all its Northumbrian glory, the stark landscape giving the impression that the surrounding lands hadn’t been tended any more vigilantly back in the dark ages than they were now.
Hyperbole, exaggeration and other satire
Deliberately creating the most extreme version of the environment, and allowing the reader to recognise sarcasm (and subconsciously turn things down a notch), can be an effective way of getting your setting across succinctly. This is done a great deal in fantasy comedy, but if you remove the surreal element of the humour, you can apply the strategy across genres:
Cosy corners and gorgeous beams aside, Regan doubted that any part of the castle had ever been welcoming. He could imagine an unenthused Scottish Monarch trailing from room to room after a latter-day estate agent, reassuring him that the hills and ramparts kept the smellier of the Picts away, and that the tiny, north-facing dungeons kept prisoners nicely cold over winter.
Use the gift of environmental interaction
Make the topographical detail relevant to what the character’s doing in the action of the scene:
The cold almost cut through the car. Regan’s left thigh and calf were beginning to punish him for making his getaway in Missy’s stick-shift instead of heading for a garage to hire an automatic with cruise control. He tried not to think about the many miles of I94 between him and the next bathroom stop, the endless fields that would provide no windbreak when he finally had to pull over and rest, or the expression on David’s face when Dave caught him balls-deep in Missy. It was official: Bismarck could now be added to the list of places he couldn’t go without being shot at.
From here, the reader can add a little more history, linking it with the weather, the relentlessness of the journey, and the destination. But there’s a hell of a lot of information already in the paragraph above.
Bind the environmental details into the character’s state of mind
You can get an awful lot of information across when your perspective character is in a temper. This is used to great effect in Peter Mayle’s ‘A Year in Provence’, and pretty much most of Bill Bryson’s travel diaries from ‘Down Under’ onwards. The following snippet has been bastardised (with kind permission) from a friend’s fairly long messenger rant about the joys of finding his way to London from ‘London Luton airport’:
I didn’t want to spend my first night bitching, but a little more travel information would’ve been good. Like, ‘London Luton’ is nowhere near f**king London. The airport’s barely in Luton. It’s like saying ‘San Diego, Hollywood’. Not accurate! So I dive on this train which goes to London via Tanzania, because a direct service at short notice apparently requires a second mortgage to be arranged, and then I get the Spanish Inquisition from the guards at the ticket gate about undershooting my stop. How is it a crime to not stay on the train as long as I’m entitled to remain on the f**king train?
Using character mood to colour the experience of the surroundings is the inverse of the Thomas Hardy Principle/Malaise, where the landscape is relentlessly used as a mirror for character mood. Given that Thomas Hardy wasn’t famed for his light-hearted scenarios or uplifted characters, just a little of that technique went a very long way.
And on that note, some setting-relating phenomena to avoid
Countryfile Syndrome: wherein the author over-relies on lengthy strolls through the landscape while their hero mulls upon life’s little problems. There is a limit to which the perspective character’s life choices can be influenced by the pattern of bleak, chilly sheep gathering in the far field, whether or not that pattern is analogous to the cliquey behaviour of the perspective character’s family and friends.
Crap conversationalist syndrome: related to the issue above, except that the writer has forgotten that her perspective character was having a chat with a fellow character at the point where they lapsed into a moody silence in contemplation of the scenery whipping past the car window.
More IKEA, dear: scenes which take place in a relative vacuum, to the point that the reader has no idea if there’s even furniture in the room. This can make sexual choreography rather difficult to visualise.
The key point with setting is to keep the details as relevant to what’s going on within the action of the scene as possible. You can layer the details in those quiet, reactive moments where options are being reviewed and decisions made. So long as you don’t take your reader for too many detailed, brooding walks in the process.
by Ashley Lister
Rene Descartes said, “I think; therefore I am.” And, whilst he wasn’t talking about the construction of characters in fiction, it’s fair to say that describing a character through their thoughts is one of the most effective ways of letting your reader know all about a story’s protagonist.
For the past few months I’ve been looking at the different ways we can represent characters in fiction. We’ve looked at speech, action and physical description. This month we’re looking at thought. I’m going to start by sharing the opening page to a short story I’ve written called, ‘Here Comes Orgasm Girl.’
Betty Swolenski was startled by the faraway clatter of breaking glass. Immediately she knew a robbery was taking place. She stiffened in her chair and glanced toward the closed office door. A robbery? Here at Dildo & Son? Who in their right mind would rob a factory that met orders for sex toys and sundry adult novelties?
She supposed the answers to those questions were self-evident.
Here I’m allowing the main character to give narrative information, but I’m trying to constantly do it so the reader learns more about who she is and how she is motivated. Betty is startled by the noise. She stiffens in her chair. These are, in fairness, physical reactions. However, with the next sentence, we move directly into her thoughts. A robbery? Here…? Who in their right mind would…?
These three questions give the suggestion that Betty is panicked by her situation, which tells your reader that Betty is in a state of panic. This is not to suggest she is someone who is always in a state of panic. But it tells your reader that she is panicking in this situation – and with short fiction we only care about the character in that particular situation. The opening to, ‘Here Comes Orgasm Girl’ continues with:
Times were hard. On an industrial estate where most of the factories were boarded and abandoned, and the remaining warehouses were decorated with battered signs notifying creditors of liquidations and bankruptcy orders, the success of Dildo & Son was proving to be something of a local anomaly.
An enviable anomaly.
Again, this is from Betty’s perspective. This is her interpretation of the local economy. This is her paranoia colouring the interpretation of local business owners being envious. We’re already getting a sharp picture of Betty, and none of this has come from blatant exposition. All we’re reading are Betty’s thoughts. This passage concludes as follows:
The Dildo & Son workforce were only a small number. But they each took annual holidays and most of them met their personal bills and none of them, to the best of Betty’s knowledge, had to run a second job to cover life’s additional expenses. Big Eric, the owner, was currently driving a fairly new Mercedes. And although Betty figured this added to the truth of what she believed about Mercedes owners, she knew for a fact that he’d managed to acquire the car without having to employ some shyster accountant to fiddle figures or cook books.
As readers, we’re privy to Betty’s thoughts and get a shrewd understanding of who she is. There has been no physical description of her so far, but we already have some small sympathy for her and her plight (because we’ve all been in situations where we were a little bit scared). We’re aware of enough background for the story to begin, and this has been delivered through a nervous character’s iteration of facts, rather than narrative exposition. We’ve been given no dialogue up to this point but still, I think, we already feel as though we know Betty.
I’m not trying to suggest this is an exemplar for how quality fiction should be written. I’m not that arrogant. But I do think the opening to this story shows how easy it is develop a character by just using their thoughts.
As always, if you have examples of your own characters being portrayed through their thoughts, I’d love to see them in the comments box below.