Ian Smith

The Devil’s In The Detail

Ian Smith, ERWA Flasher Gallery editor


I recently read an entertaining-enough adult romance story which provides a good example of the need to do some research, even in fiction.

No, I won’t name the book or author, as I don’t think that would be fair, but I did e-mail some constructive comments to the author.

Firstly, let me say I thought it was a perfectly reasonable adult romance, a variation on the “bad-start-to-happy-ever-after” theme. The main male character was British, the main female was American. They were both actors who met while working on a production in the UK, and a large proportion of the story took place in London. It had all the usual elements, a bad start on first meeting, then becoming friendlier, working through misunderstandings, nearly splitting up and then their happy ending. The steamy bits were nicely done, and came at a perfectly reasonable point in the development of their relationship.

But it struck me that the (American) author hadn’t thought about the setting. There were a number of things which made me think “not the Brtain I know”, and these rather irritated me. As the saying goes, the devil’s in the details.

The American character was described using what sounded like a modern smart phone at the same time that the British character was using a “brick-like” one. No matter how tempting it might be to make a joke about “backward Brits”, we’ve always had much the same range of mobile phones as the US. And they’ve NEVER been “cellular phones” in the UK, always “mobile phones”.

A passing reference was made to “foggy London streets”. London hasn’t been notably foggy for decades. The Clean Air Act 1956 was a response to London’s “Great Smog” of 1952, and fog is now rare in major cities. The popular idea of a foggy London in fiction probably dates back to the Sherlock Holmes stories, which were set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

At one point, the female character was looking at all the unfamiliar pound notes in her purse. Being pedantic, we’ve not had pound notes since 1988. If you want to bemuse a contemporary character with unfamiliar British money, we have dual-colour £1 and £2 coins, and have had plastic £5 notes since 2016 and plastic £10 notes since 2017. These are a bit annoying, as they slide past each other very readily. Paper pound notes are still legal tender in Scotland and the Isle of Man, but these wouldn’t be recognised in England and Wales. As in the US, card payments are about as common as cash ones.

The script used the word “chippie” as a slang term for a young woman. For most Brits, that’s where we buy our take-away fish and chips, but it’s also used as an informal reference to a carpenter. Female bus conductors and ticket collectors were sometimes referred to as “clippies” in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and I suppose that could easily be mispronounced.

The characters referred to each other as “dear” in conversations. We don’t generally do that, outside some regional and/or social groups, and many Brits would actually find it pretty patronising. We have quite a range of regional accents and dialects across the UK, and these can be a minefield to British writers, let alone ones from other countries. Quite a lot of people in Britain are puzzled by dialogue from time to time when watching episodes of “Shetland” or “Vera”, TV drama shows where the characters have strong regional accents.

When the two main characters were making friends, he took her to a pub and bought her a pint of Guinness, his favourite tipple. Guinness is certainly a popular drink in Britain, but I thought it highly unlikely that a British man would buy an American woman a pint of it by default, even if it’s his drink of choice. Maybe a half-pint, but he’d be far more likely to offer her wine or lager. She might taste his, out of curiosity, and probably pull a face. Most pubs will offer a range of beers, lagers and ciders, often ranging from mass-produced brews to craft beers. Women typically drink half-pints, but plenty now drink pints, and, if they try to match the guys drink-for-drink, probably spend a fair proportion of their evening visiting the ladies loo.

See how I snuck in some genuine British slang, “loo” for toilet? Sneaky, eh? It’s also commonly used in Australia and New Zealand, according to wikipedia.

The character also referred to Guinness being better direct from the brewery, which is widely accepted as a fact. But the brewery is in Dublin, the capital of Ireland, so not exactly convenient for anyone in London to pop out for a quick pint.

The male character was “throwing darts” in the pub with his mates. We “play darts”, not “throw darts”. Yes, we obviously throw darts, but that’s the verb, not the expression for the game.

He stopped off at a liqor store for some alcoholic drinks. We don’t have retail outlets called “liqor stores”, and rarely refer to it as “liquor” in everyday English. We usually buy alcoholic drinks from supermarkets or “off-licences”, shops which sell alcohol for consumption off the premises. The term relates to our licencing law for alcoholic drinks. Some off-licences are essentially supermarkets for wine.

He also ordered some food to take away from a pub. It’s pretty unusual for pubs to do take-away food, especially in towns and cities with lots of fast-food outlets. They often make a better profit on the drinks customers have with food they eat in the pub than on the food itself. If he wanted to pre-order take-away food, he’d contact a particular outlet. In reality, I guess he’d be likely to use one of the popular app-based services to order food to be delivered to his home.

There are some differences between UK and US English which can trip up writers from both sides of the Atlantic. For example, Brits would not say they were pushing things “off of” or taking things from “inside of” something. We push things off, or take things out. Little details, yes, but silly mistakes can make a reader pause and mentally leave the story for a second or two.

So, what can we do?

Research, that’s what!

Google really is the writer’s friend, so get stuck in and use it.

Social media is such an easy way for writers to ask their “friends” in other countries for information, facts or advice. Recruit a few as beta-readers and pay close attention to their feedback, especially about details. You could join an international constructive critiquing group for more private sharing of drafts and comments.

Watch British productions on TV or British films (movies in the US) for research purposes, and pay attention to the props, the locations, the way the characters talk. It isn’t always “accurate”, but it’s usually pretty reasonable. Read books or listen to audiobooks written by British authors set in modern-day Britain.

Want to look around the real, modern-day Britain from the comfort of your own home? Just use streetview.

If an American was reading a story I’d written in which an American character didn’t ring true for them, or I described something “American” which struck them as incongruous or even plain wrong, I’d appreciate being told about it, ideally politely.

How else can I learn to write better?


Revise, Revise… Then Revise Again

Two of the questions I see frequently posted in some Facebook groups for writers run along the lines of:

1 – I’ve written my story, now what?

2 – How will I know when I’ve finished editing?

My answers, which are much the same as those offered by many others, are:

1 – Revise it.

2 – You never do – you get to an “it’ll do” stage.

Questions like these are far more common in the groups for those with less experience of writing, and I phrase my responses in what I hope is an encouraging way. Let’s face it, every writer appreciates motivation to revise a story they’ve just spent weeks, months or even years working on. And are quite possibly a little fed up with…

I like the quote “the first draft is just you telling yourself the story”, attributed to the late Terry Pratchett, a writer notable for producing rather a lot of very popular books. When I’m working on a story, it certainly feels like that to me, as if I’m trying to write out something I already know, but can’t quite remember.

The participants in the ERWA “storytime” workshop have probably got used to my way of working on longer stories, typically writing and posting one chapter a week for comments anyone is willing to offer. I’m more of a pantser than a plotter, and I find it really helpful to have the discipline of a self-imposed target. Yes, sometimes I realise I really needed to have introduced something in one of the earlier chapters. I recently finished the first draft of a 57,000-word story and only realised something important about my two main characters while writing the final chapter. So, something to work on during revision.

Once I’ve finished, I find it useful to wait a few weeks before starting on revisions. It’s always provided me with a slight “detachment” from the story, which seems to help me be rather more objective about it. For me, revision is about trying to tell the story to readers as well as possible. I pay attention to things like the time frame and chronology; consistency of locations, descriptions and characters (“continuity issues”); trying to make action scenes clear; clarifying who “her” and “she” are in scenes involving two or more women, and so on.

For me, character development is important; how do my main characters change as a result of their experiences, and how do I show that in my telling of their story?

My working practice is to work away and frequently save the new versions with different file names. There’s little issue with disc space these days – my current draft of a 49,000 word story is only 3.5 MBytes. And once I reach the end, I’ll review and revise it again, usually three or four times in total. Eventually, I reach a point where I feel I’ve done as much as I can, even though I’m sure it could be better. Or maybe I just reach the point where I’ve simply had enough of the story?

Before I submit a story, I want it to be in a good shape. I’d like the editors to think I’ve adopted a “professional” approach to my writing, as that might help them feel confident I’ll have the same attitude while working with them.

When a story’s been accepted, every editor I’ve worked with has helped me tell it better than I could have done on my own. Yes, of course I feel anxious when I got the first e-mail from an editor with their annotated copy of my story. But every time, the comments and suggestions were helpful and constructive.

Self-editing (or revising) is one thing, but editing someone else’s work is quite another. I’ve offered detailed constructive comments as a beta-reader, but never tried to edit even a short story. I think that anyone willing to invest that much time and effort into helping another writer develop their own story deserves our gratitude and admiration, as well as fair payment.

Even when the editor and I have agreed that it’s “done”, there are still things we could have changed. I don’t suppose many writers are ever completely happy with their published stories. As their experience grows, no doubt they realise they could have written things differently, added a few more scenes to give more depth to the story, and so on.

As my publisher recently gave up the struggle and returned my rights, I’m revising the three novellas involved to submit to another publisher. These were the first three in a planned series of five, and the first draft of the fourth is ready for revision, too. It’s interesting to look back on stories I wrote three or four years ago, now that these characters and their stories have developed in my own mind. It’s a chance for me to think how they and their relationships develop across the series, how things move on from one book to the next, and address anything I think isn’t as good as I can make it.

So, you’ve written your story? Great, that’s an achievement in itself – most people don’t finish books they set out to write.

You’ve told yourself the story.

Now revise it.

And revise the revision.

And maybe revise that revision.

Then you’re ready to let other people read your story.

If they’re beta-readers, you may find it helpful to ask for comments on specific things, like characters, dialogue, or the development of relations, as well as general feedback. Read and think about their comments, and revise the story as you think is necessary.

If an editor’s the next person to read it, you can expect to produce another revision or two… But at the end, you’ll have a better telling of your story.

As an aside, I’ve not tracked down the source of Terry’s quote, but I found this interesting article, a transcript of Terry Pratchett and Gerald Seymour in conversation with David Freeman at the 2001 Cheltenham Literary Festival. Clearly, Terry’s way of writing wasn’t quite what you might guess from the quote, and it neatly illustrates the contrasting ways these two authors found worked for them.


Ian Smith

ERWA Flasher and Quickie Editor

Verily Setting Ye Scene, Forsooth…

I recently tried writing something new for me, a historical story. In fact, an early medieval story, set in the twelfth century.

In all my writing, I try hard to set the scene in my readers’ minds (yes, revealing my naked ambition by aspiring to multiple readers) by “painting” in what I hope is enough detail for their imaginations to fill in everything else they need to see the scene in their mind.

I blame being exposed to Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File at an impressionable age. But it’s a style I like for being economical and usually engaging.

But how can I imagine being there, watching my characters do their twelfth century … stuff?

Research? As a leisure-time writer with no access to academic libraries, opportunities for “proper” research are a bit restricted.

Yes, of course I used google for some things, but you need to have a good idea of what your real question is before you can figure out which hits are helpful answers.

Some answers are just pretty simple, of course, assuming we remember to ask ourselves “is this right?”

Not long ago, I read a novel set in the 1920’s, in which the main character produced a Glock pistol. A fine choice of weapon for self defence, I’m sure, but an implausible one… Glock wasn’t founded until 1963.

Want to set a scene in a fast-food restaurant in London in say 1970? McDonalds won’t open their first branch there for another four years.

Sometimes it’s kind of convenient to rely on other people’s research, particularly if you’re confident it’s reliable enough, and it looks pretty good.

I found a lot of helpful information in Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England. He’s a professional academic historian as well as an historical fiction writer, so has access to the right resources, and can probably even read Latin and Middle English. He wrote this book to help readers see the past as real rather than as history, describing what you might see and experience as a visitor to the period. It gave me some insight into how people lived, what they ate and wore, and about their world. He’s since written two similar books, covering the Elizabethan and Restoration periods.

And of course Dr Mortimer isn’t the only writer whose work we can benefit from, if only for some ideas and scene-dressing.

A few examples? Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose paints a vivid picture of a 14th century Italian monastery. Edith Pargeter (aka Ellis Peters) set her well-known Brother Cadfael murder mysteries in early 12th century Shrewsbury, in western England. Sarah Woodbury’s Gareth and Gwen mysteries are set in 12th century Wales, when it was still a separate country from Norman-ruled England, and Dublin was a Viking city. Or there are the Stanton and Barling mysteries, by EM Powell, again set in the 12th century, where the two main characters were the nearest thing the English justice system had to detectives.

There are factual TV shows and series which can help us “see” the past a little more clearly as a real time and place, particularly the “re-enacting” ones. There were several excellent British TV series about agricultural life in the past – the Tudor Monastery Farm, the Victorian Farm, the Edwardian Farm and the Wartime Farm (ie 1939-1945). The “supersizers” series by Giles Coren and Sue Perkins were factual entertainment about the history of food, including the two of them trying out things from the period, like clothing and historically accurate meals. It’s worth remembering our ancestors ate a far wider range of animals, birds and fish than we do. That wasn’t because these were notably tasty, more of an “eat it or go hungry” choice. I’ve read that swan tastes pretty awful.

I’ve read plenty of books (or listened to the audiobooks) which conveyed the period nicely for me. The Sherlock Holmes stories, written between 1887 and 1927, mentioned telegrams, daily postal services, messenger services, the introduction of telephones, and using frequent train services. The unrestricted access to opium and cocaine is surprising to modern readers, but both were readily available at the time, when it’s been estimated that a quarter of doctors were addicted to opium.

Other books I’ve enjoyed which were set in the early 1950’s in Britain described a time of post-war austerity, limited private car ownership, commonplace use of trains with helpful station staff (including porters), and, in some areas, telephone calls still connected via operators who might just be listening in.

On the other hand, books actually written in earlier periods may not be that helpful, as the authors expected their readers to at least be familiar with the world the characters lived in (eg Fielding, Austen, Hardy or Dickens).

What about old TV shows and films, from the 1920’s on? These might show regular life in the US before air conditioning – wiping the back of your neck with a handkerchief in summer – everyone wearing hats and other period fashions, steam engines in widespread use on the railways, horses and steam traction engines being used on farms, manual typewriters, rotary dial telephones, telex machines, card index systems, hot metal newspaper printing…

Some modern shows and movies made a big effort to create realistic-looking settings, and I thought Versailles, The Musketeers, Taboo, and Poldark certainly gave the impression of being true to period. The 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice with Matthew Macfadeyn and Keira Knightly was a notable hatchet job of the book which had some fabulous background details about life for the rural “comfortably-off” around 1800.

Although it’s primarily fantasy, there’s a lot of historical accuracy in the Game of Thrones world. Not the dragons, obviously, but the background details of life in a castle and so on.

The TV series Britannia ran rings around historical accuracy and even plausibility. But what the heck, it’s only a story.

I watched Die Hard the other night (my go-to Christmas film), made in 1988 complete with women’s “big hair” styles, clumsy-looking computer systems, CB radios, but no mobile phones. Richard Gere’s character in Pretty Woman (1990) had a mobile phone, which looks hilariously clunky today, like two house bricks. Even Dirty Dancing had a wealth of background detail you could study – the idea of annual month-long stays at the same stuffy resort centre, the entertainment, fashions, and manners.

It’s probably wise to resist overdoing your scene-setting. While you might be tempted to include things in the narrative like books or albums popular at the time, unless these are subjects discussed by the characters, it might come across as “telling”. Perfect incidental visual details in a TV show or film, though.

We may be fortunate in Britain with our long history, as we have some great places to visit which can help our imaginations. Neolithic constructions, iron-age hill forts, Roman forts and buildings, assorted castles and historic houses, and some decent museums…

The Weald and Downland Museum has more than forty historic buildings representing a thousand years of history. Blists Hill Victorian Town, operated by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, recreates a Victorian town for visitors, complete with a cast of re-enactors. The Beamish Open-Air Museum lets you glimpse industrial life in the northeast of England during the 19th and 20th centuries. I know the US has something similar at Colonial Williamsburg.

A lot of historic buildings and sites in Britain run events where visitors can meet re-enactors and get a brief glimpse of a version of the past, such as a medieval camp, or a Victorian mill or kitchen.

And then there are jousting displays and re-enacted battles and skirmishes, typically Viking or English Civil War. There are groups of enthiasts who do Roman, Napoleonic, Victorian and WW1 or WW2 military displays.

How about the large-scale annual Battle of Hastings rematch? Somehow, the bloody Normans always win, but maybe one year…

One thing we can’t get from these museums are some of the grim realities of even our recent past, which can be invaluable for the historical fiction writer. Dreadful poverty. The feudal system. Insanitary living conditions. A monotonous and limited diet. Frequent poor years for farming, with not infrequent famines. Thousands of people affected by ergotism. Half of children dying before the age of twenty-one. Huge numbers dying and suffering from disease, with no health or dental care, aggravated by malnutrition. Lives ruled by superstition and religion. The acceptance that the rich and noble were more important simply by right of birth. An almost matter-of-fact indifference to cruelty and suffering. Crusades, literal witch-hunts, wars, revolts and uprisings. The high death toll on long sea-journeys from disease, including an expected 50% from scurvy.

Or how about a disaster story set during one of the many fires which destroyed or severely damaged largely-wooden medieval European cities and towns? London had three great fires (1135, 1212 and 1666) and twelve major ones (two in Roman times, then in 675, 798, 892, 1087, 1130, 1132, 1220, 1227, 1299 and 1633). Lots of other towns and cities had similar incidents: google “list of town and city fires” and feel relief for modern building codes and well-equipped professional firefighters.

The past has all sorts of “detail” things which can help or hinder a writer, too. These are often overlooked for convenience in fiction.


Between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, various European countries and the Massachusetts Bay Colony in America had “sumptuary laws”, restricting people’s choice of clothing. And fashions changed in the past almost as rapidly as today.

Religion and religious practices

In England, until the fifteenth century reformation, fast days (or meat-free days) occupied almost half the year – including every Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and all of Lent. Vegetables, or if you were lucky, fish. The selection of vegetables available was surprisingly limited, too. And don’t forget that people then were generally incredibly devout and very superstitious compared to us.


As an example, for 200 years after the Norman Conquest of England, the general population spoke English, the ruling classes spoke Anglo-Norman and French, and very few of either group spoke the other’s language. Church services were conducted in Latin, of course. Legal cases could only be conducted in English from 1362, and the court switched to English by the end of the fourteenth century. By English I mean Middle English – check out Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” in the original text for a written form in the modern alphabet. And language use changed as fast in the past as it does today. There were also a wealth of local accents and dialects in all languages, some even more strikingly different from the norm than we have now.

Actually, language raises another question – dialogue. How closely do we follow what we think the speech styles would be in that period? It might sound perfect to someone from that time, but seems at best flowery and roundabout to us. How “realistic” does it need to be in order to convey a sense of the period? At the time, it was everyday language, after all.

Inevitably, there are a few books available to help those keen to write historical fiction.

Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders caught my attention when I perused Amazon, if only for the title. Historical Fiction Writing – A Practical Guide and Tool-Kit by Myfanwy Cook and Bernard Knight looks like a useful book, based on popular workshops Myfanwy has run. She’s a successful writer herself.

As with all other aspects of writing, there are no hard rules, only conventions. Even spelling’s just a convention, after all.

Readers who enjoy lots of historical fiction may well have expectations, so it’s probably worth becoming familiar with the genre or sub-genre you’re writing in.

Unless you’re writing an alternative history or steampunk, if you include significant factual details, do check them as best you can.

Other than that, well, have fun developing your ideas and writing your stories.

Oh, and do keep an eye open for intriguing historical discoveries. Spotting a mention of medieval underpants in a story might not actually be something to snigger about…

Oh, by the way, the comments I had back on my story from some of my collaborative critiquing group certainly left me feeling I’d got the “feel” right, which was rather nice to know. I’ve got some revisions to do, then I’ll see if I can get the story published.

What’s all this “show, don’t tell” stuff about?

Ian Smith, ERWA Flasher Gallery Editor

Having a twice-daily commute of around fifty minutes, I’m in the habit of listening to audiobooks. I think I listen to more books than I read.

Given my other options of (a) road noise, (b) talking to myself, (c) overly-enthusiastic breakfast show presenters, or (d) politicians trying not to answer questions, audiobooks are a pleasant default choice.

Assuming the narrator works for me, of course, but that’s a different matter.

I recently listened to Audible’s Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection, very nicely narrated by Stephen Fry, which runs for almost 72 hours. Four novels and five collections of short stories, with personal introductions by Mr Fry, a life-long Holmes enthusiast.

I’d never read any Sherlock Holmes, so I was curious to see what they were like.

All but one were written in the first person from Watson’s point of view, supposedly describing their escapades years after the events, reconstructed from memories, notes and records kept at the time. The other was written in the first person from Holme’s point of view.

Among the things which struck me was the way the stories reflect some of the changes in society over the time-span covered by the books, such as telegrams being replaced by telephones.

But most writers will know what I mean when I say that what struck me very clearly was that these stories can be described as “tell, don’t show”.

The earlier ones in particular seemed to follow this pattern:
1) someone turns up and presents them with a puzzle;
2) Holmes rushes off to solve it, leaving Watson to amuse himself;
3) Holmes returns to Baker Street and explains it all to Watson.

Although this approach results in snappy short stories, I didn’t exactly find them engaging.

Inevitably, there’s no shortage of books written (at least in part) to make money for authors telling other authors how to “show, don’t tell”. Attributed to Chekov, the idea was popularised by Percy Lubbock in his 1921 book The Craft of Fiction, which drew both criticism and praise from established writers.

I think the wikipedia entry for “Show, don’t tell” explains it rather well:
“Show, don’t tell is a technique used in various kinds of texts to allow the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description. It avoids adjectives describing the author’s analysis, but instead describes the scene in such a way that the reader can draw his or her own conclusions.”

Of course, Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories around a century ago, when writing styles were rather different. Although it’s a long while since I read HG Wells, I recall War of the Worlds and The Time Machine were rather heavy on the narrative story-telling and light on insights into the characters’ experiences.

I think Emma Darwin, in her thisitchofwriting blog, has captured the idea nicely:

SHOWING is for making the reader FEEL they’re in there: feel as in smell, touch, see, hear, believe the actual experience of the characters. … we persuade the reader to read the story we’re telling AS IF it really happened, even though we all know it didn’t. That means working with the immediate physical and emotional actions and experience of the characters: your rage beating in your ears, the wind whipping your cheeks, a beggar clutching at your coat.

TELLING is for covering the ground, when you need to, as a narrator … It’s supplying information: the storyteller saying “Once upon a time”, or “A volunteer army was gathered together”, … it’s a little more removed from the immediate experience of the moment.

Here’s a single example:

The parties were dazzling and opulent. They spilled out of the house, into the garden and even the beach.

In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. … The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing up-stairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive … floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside … the lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher.

Now, which one works better for you as a reader? The factual one, or the more colourful and descriptive one?

No points for guessing which one F Scott Fitzgerald used to describe the parties in The Great Gatsby.

I believe Hemingway was notable for his “show don’t tell” style, but I must admit I’ve not read any of his work. One of my mild rebellious tendencies is to avoid anything people tell me I “must” do.

The style relies on the reader being able to imagine the character’s experience. If the writer can get it right, they don’t need to include all the nitty-gritty details, as the reader will readily fill in the gaps using their own imagination.

I’ve only posted one review on Amazon for a book I didn’t actually finish. It’s also the worst review I’ve posted, and the headline was:
“The title is the best thing about this story. Interesting enough story idea, poorly written.”

No, I won’t share the title here… but feel free to ask privately.

The book is nominally 327 pages, but I only managed two chapters. There was one line of dialogue in those two chapters, short and wooden. The bits I read were all tell and no show. Straight “tell”, with no effort to even describe what the characters were thinking. As far as I could tell, the blurb summarised the entire storyline, so I had a good idea of what I missed out on.

Obviously, we can mix “show and tell” in our writing in a way to help us tell our story. Sometimes an infodump or a section of narrative keeps things ticking along, keeping your reader’s attention until the next scene, incident or event. But you can always use a character to help “show” your fictional world in science fiction, fantasy, or even historical stories, by persuading the reader to see this world through the character’s senses.

In the end, it’s something you can use in your writing as much or as little as you want.

It’s your story, after all.

Even today, this approach has its critics. In 2017, Cecilia Tan argued in Uncanny Magazine that the common writing advice to “show, don’t tell” is both a cliché and an inherently colonialist idea.

Or, if you enjoy an entertaining conspiracy theory, you might like to think about the suggestion that “show, don’t tell” was propaganda funded by the CIA during the Cold War.

Like all these writing rules, “show don’t tell” has its place.

You want to tell your story as well as possible, after all.

Let’s Get On With The Action

Ian Smith

ERWA Flasher Gallery Editor

  Pretty well every story has action scenes.

  Action scenes as in action and adventure stories?

  Well, yes, obviously. But I meant action scenes in their most general sense. Scenes in which the characters do things the writer needs to describe to the reader.

  It could be as simple as picking up a pen, or taking a sip from a drink. Or it could be a rather more complex act, like engaging in fisticuffs, enjoying an amorous engagement, or piloting a space craft which defies the laws of physics through a ludicrously busy asteroid belt.

  Think of a scene from a TV drama or a movie. How often do the actors just stand still and talk? They’re usually doing other things, even if that’s only sitting around a table. They might move around while sitting in a chair, turn towards each other, pull faces, pause for a second or two in a conversation. The actors show you more of the story with these actions than their words alone do. Hopefully, it makes the scene more believable to viewers, too.

  Actions can also help flesh out a character. A tough guy handling a weapon will seem rather more menacing than one just talking. And your readers already know about that weapon if you want to liven things up for your characters a little later.

  In an ideal world, your description of the action will include enough detail to convince your reader that the character did it (or is doing it, if you write in the present tense). It’s one of the times when “show not tell” can really work, even if it’s harder to write. You may have done some top-notch research, but think carefully. You don’t want to bog the story down, or tempt your reader to skip a bit, or worst of all, decide they’ve something else to read which will be far more lively.

  For simple things, you can use sneaky little “action tags” to describe what your characters are doing and show who’s talking. These may save you from the dreaded overuse of “said”…

  Inspector Jones pulled out a notebook and pen. “What did you see?”

  Sophie looked away. “Whatever.”

  Gregory turned to his computer. “Let’s see what the CCTV recordings show.”

  Where a scene requires more detail, you’ll have to rely on a more conventional mixture of narrative and dialogue to show the action unfolding.

  When thinking about a scene I want to write, I often try to imagine I’m watching it, as if it were a scene in a TV drama. Then I try to figure out the “choreography”.


  I mean what happens, who does what, when, how, and with which hand or foot, and so on. Then there’s clothing, furniture, other people and objects around them.

  Once I’ve got all this straight (or straight-ish), then I’ll try to describe it in writing. And usually realise I need to think about it a bit more…

  One thing I’ve come across not infrequently in romance and erotica are confusing descriptions of what the characters are doing.


  • If there are two women involved, which “she” or “her” does the writer mean?
  • If a couple are getting amorous while sitting in a booth in a diner, how much could they do without removing the table? Likewise cars and steering wheels, or the cramped seats in a typical passenger aircraft.
  • A guy cuddling a woman only has one hand free, and that has a limited range of movement.

  In any action scene, there’s obviously a balance to be struck between details and the big picture, and keeping the scene moving is an obvious way to go.

  One approach I’ve come across for dramatic action scenes is for the character or narrator to be quite matter-of-fact. Len Deighton and Lawrence Block narrate their violence in such a way. Admittedly, with Deighton, it’s more plausible and realistic.

  One thing you might find helpful is to remember that unless your character has been very carefully trained, anything sudden and dramatic will be pretty confusing and they’ll probably notice specific details far more clearly than the whole scene.

  I’ve read two books which described conventional action scenes in quite different ways. Actually, they were both audiobooks.

  Incidentally, if you’re wondering if audiobooks might be a new outlet for your fiction, you may be right. I feel that while the right narrator can really bring a book to life, the wrong one can totally ruin it. I found Rosario Dawson’s performance of Andy Weir’s “Artemis” utterly entrancing. And after getting wound up enough to shout at my car audio system, I’ll avoid anything narrated by the British actor Martin Jarvis like the plague.

  Back to my examples…

  One was a period story I will refrain from naming. It attempted to be light-hearted and jolly, and the writer appeared to be trying to use a style which “felt” 19th century. There was a particular scene where the main female character was the cause of a major punch-up between two gangs, one protecting her from the other. Despite the furious action, the writer described this character picking her way between the combatants in an almost leisurely fashion, as if the fighting around her was in slow motion. I very nearly gave up on it, but I didn’t have another audiobook to listen to at the time.

  The other was “Stay Cool” by Elmore Leonard. There’s a point in the story where the main character is having some difficulties with two lots of gangsters simultaneously. With each unaware of the other’s existence, he manages to engineer them into a well-populated shoot-out in a nightclub, with him right in the middle of it.

  So how did Mr Leonard show us this scene of death and mayhem?

  The character told his girlfriend about it afterwards.

  As first person dialogue, we only had what he chose to relate, and only from his point of view. Like almost any witness giving a statement to the police, he’d be an unreliable narrator. Let’s face it, a noisy, dirty fight like that is going to be really confusing and you’d really want to keep your head well down.

  So, say your character is riding a horse, flying an aircraft, driving a tank, involved in a high-speed car chase, parachuting, firing a bow and arrow, or a firearm, fighting, fencing, wearing armour… Not all at the same time, obviously. How can you make your more lively action scenes more engaging and believable to your readers? Or get them to imagine that’s how it feels?


  If you know of other people with suitable experiences, you could talk to them, read their accounts in books, watch interviews on TV, and so on.

  Or you could find out for yourself.

  Have a go at horse-riding, sailing, power-boating, flying, or driving a tank or fast car. Join a paintball game and find out how confusing a multi-party shoot-out can be. A fencing coach, martial arts or self-defence teacher can give you some pointers and hands-on experience. Archery or gun clubs may well let you shoot holes in targets (safely).

  So, think about what you want your characters to do, find someone willing to let you do something similar (at a reasonable cost, ideally), and go off and have some fun. Then you can use your experience to help convince the reader that your character’s doing it.

  The action, not the fun.

  Unless they’re having fun too, of course…


Ian Smith

ERWA Gallery Flasher Editor


I’m always intrigued by the wide variety of ideas people come up with for stories. How do they think of them?

Yes, of course there are strong similarities in many genres. Where would a billionaire erotic romance be without (a) a kinky and implausibly young billionaire, and (b) an innocent young lady with an unsuspected taste for being spanked?

And let’s face it, most romance stories are broadly similar. Boy meets girl and they overcome hassles before finding true love. Hassles might be a love rival, abduction, being involved in a war, family or cultural hostilities, misunderstandings, being separated by cruel fate, or simply not liking each other to start with. But if they met, fell in love and lived happily ever after, who’d want to read it?

I’m sure you know how the modern detective is almost required to have some personal problems, like over-fondness for drink, sex or gambling, a missing limb or a personality fault. 

The classic crime thrillers actually had rules to be followed. SS Van Dine listed twenty in 1928, and Ronald Knox published ten in 1929. These are still broadly followed, for instance in the popular British “Midsomer Murders” TV series. Even though these are contemporary, they seem to be set sometime in the past, and often revolve around a rich but dysfunctional and mad family, or a village/community/club generously stuffed with slightly potty people.

But writers still need some inspiration for a story, whether it follows genre conventions or not. They need characters, events, and a story arc. Readers enjoy following the adventures as the characters experience things and develop, and hopefully feel satisfied when the story ends. 

Some of my stories are probably inspired by others I’ve read or watched, even if I can’t actually remember them. But some ideas seem to come completely out of the blue, or grow from an idea for character, a phrase, or even by writing the story to suit an ending I’ve thought of. I’ve even had an idea from my local paper’s “police report” column, about which I will say no more until I’ve written it!  

Many writers admit to using family, friends and acquaintances as the basis for characters. Real people are a great source of the sort of mannerisms and patterns of speech which could really bring a character to life for a reader. And thinking about how to briefly describe them in writing is an interesting exercise too.

I’ve created two characters based on real people. One was a former manager, whose literary alter-ego has an, er, colourful demise. But that’s nothing to do with our unhappy working relationship…

The other character appeared briefly in my third novella. About 20 years ago, I saw a report on my local TV news show about a second-world-war Spitfire which had just been converted to a two-seater. The team involved tracked down a delightful elderly gentleman who’d actually flown that very aircraft in the later stages of the war, and invited him to take a flight. The brief interview he gave afterwards has  stuck in my mind ever since. He said it was just like it had been when he was a young man, except it didn’t smell of fear.

I’ve not thought of a story where I can really explore how I feel about his comments. Well, not yet.

If you’ve seen the film “Shakespeare In Love”, you may recall a brief scene where Shakespeare walks through London and overhears snatches of conversation, all of which are well-known from his plays. A nice idea for an amusing short scene. I don’t believe for a second that the Bard “invented” all the words which appeared for the first known time in his writing, but he had an awesome knack for putting them together in ways which still work four hundred years later.

But that’s not a bad idea, keeping your ears open and making notes before you forget.

My wife was once given directions to a conference being hosted in a museum. The phrase “turn right at the elephant” certainly stuck in her mind. And I’ve used it in one of my own flash-fiction stories, too.

I’ve used another example in a draft novella I’m working on, inspired by a real-life conversation where someone said something which all-too-easily be taken to mean that her sister’s late husband had been put down by a vet. 

I noted a brief conversation a couple of years which I’d love to use, but it’s a challenging to find a suitable context. But I will. I walked past some burlesque dancers chatting during a break between performances and overheard one of them say, “He wanted her to ride in on a pony, bareback and only wearing a tangerine thong. I mean, you just can’t do it.”

Is it me?

What’s the problem with tangerine?

Musings on Flash Fiction

By Ian Smith

Most regular participants in the ERWA “storytime” workshop group will know I’m quite enthusiastic about writing flashers, our in-house term for flash fiction.

Broadly speaking, flash fiction can be a short story of up to 1200 words, but lower word counts are often set for competitions and calls for submission. Being the ERWA, and up for a challenge, we limit flashers to no more than 200 words, ideally including some form of character development and a complete story arc, so that they feel like a complete story.

No, telling a story in only 200 words isn’t easy!

Before I joined the ERWA, the word count was only 100, and I’ve been really impressed by how much story could be told in some of these older pieces.

Yes, I know there’s the familiar idea that you can tell a story in four words, typically something like “Wedding dress, never worn”. Personally, I don’t think that’s a story. It would be a great title or first line, but for me the story is why the wedding dress is unworn.

So, why write flash fiction at all?

I think it’s great fun. The challenge for me is to think about exactly what shows my story unfolding, and how economically I can share it with a reader.

Writing flash fiction has become an integral part of my development as a writer. On the rare occasions when I’m on-form, I can sit down and write two or three different stories in a couple of hours. I’ve found flash fiction to be a really handy way to sketch out an idea which can be developed into a longer story. Two of my flashers ended up being developed into longer scenes in my as-yet-unpublished novel. The characters in one 200-word flasher stuck in my mind and to date I’ve written three novellas about them, with others to follow.


Think about your story idea as a TV commercial rather than as a show. Drop us right into the action and push us into running with your characters.

How little do you need to say about the setting, to describe your characters, or tell us what they’re doing? Every word has to count, to tell us something, so use really specific nouns and verbs to show us your story. People don’t use perfect grammar in speech, so you can get your characters to tell us something in dialogue in fewer words than you could in narrative.

Be ambiguous and invite your reader to create the details. The two words “threadbare sheets” may be enough for your reader to imagine a squeaky, worn-out bed in a cheap and grubby hotel. Maybe even a flashing neon light outside the window?

Think about the ending being like the punchline in a joke – hit us with a twist. Naughty, nice or nasty? Well, that’s up to you.

To save on words, use “action tags” to indicate who’s speaking a line of dialogue, and these can sort of imply more. For instance:

            Ella sat up. “My husband’s back.”

This only actually tells us Ella sat up. But as it’s in the same paragraph as the dialogue, it’s clear that she said those words. And, given the context, one could easily imagine her sitting up abruptly, looking alarmed and sounding worried, maybe even getting out of bed and grabbing some clothing. And she clearly has company, presumably someone she hopes her hubby doesn’t know is with her.

I think Malin James hit every nail on the head during her presentation on writing erotic flash fiction at Eroticon 2017. She generously posted a copy of both her slides and script on her blog, which are well-worth reading.

You can read some examples of flashers on the ERWA website, in the periodically-refreshed Gallery and in the Treasure Chest.

I’ve found the tricks I’ve learned writing flash fiction can be just as useful in longer stories. They can help keep the story moving by engaging the reader and leading them along. Using action tags really can help with this.

Writing economically can really show us your character’s experience. For instance, in a short, fast-moving action scene, how much would they be consciously aware of? I’ve read stories with action scenes described almost like step-by-step instructions for a dance move. Stopping to recreate it in my mind took me out of the story.

So why not think about a short story idea and see if you can whittle it down to its bare bones? If it’s no more than 200 words, please share it with us on a Sunday in the ERWA storytime workshop. 

Feedback – Nits, Crits and Reviews…

By Ian Smith

One of the great features of being a contributor to the ERWA
is the “storytime” mailing list, where we can post pieces of our work
for constructive feedback. Of course, reading this can sometimes be
disheartening, but I strongly believe that knowing what readers make of your
work is a key step to becoming a better writer. Once I started offering
feedback, I found it helped my own writing, particularly if I could mentally
“step back” and be fairly objective about my work.

I’m sure every writer feels insecure and hopes for
“wow, this is great”. Realistically, the best we’ll ever get is a
variation on “this is good, hope I can help you make it even better”.

So, if you want to give a writer some feedback, how can you
be helpful?

The first thing is to remember that the writer doesn’t have to
agree with you. It is their work, after all!

The simplest form of feedback is to tell them what you
thought or how you felt about the story as a whole. You don’t have to write a
lot. Simply knowing that it engaged and entertained a reader can make a big
difference to the writer’s confidence, especially if they’re having a rough
patch and doubting themselves. If you really liked something, maybe the
characters, dialogue or “action” scenes, say so. 

And why not make it your feedback? All you have to do is use “I” rather
than a generic “you” or “the reader”.

If you want to give more detailed feedback, this is typically
in the form of “nits” and “crits”.

Nits are details like punctuation, grammar, spelling,
misplaced name tags, confused descriptions of action and so on. These are
things an editor would look out for in a submitted manuscript. Remember that UK
and US English have differences in spelling, vocabulary and usage.

Ideally “crit” means a constructive critique, not
criticism in the everyday sense – someone put time and effort into writing that
piece and will feel anxious about how it’s received. Critiques may be fairly
general comments about how you found the style, plot, use of dialogue, or the
way characters are described, or they can be more in-depth, such as suggestions
on how to rephrase sections.

Reviews posted on book purchasing sites are what published
writers want. Positive reviews encourage potential purchasers to buy. Amazon’s
system means a book is more likely to be suggested to customers once a certain
number of reviews have been posted. Fake reviews can be purchased, but
thankfully Amazon is taking steps to minimise this. I’ve seen claims that
Amazon makes apparently arbitrary judgements about the reliability of some
reviews, especially where they consider the author and reviewer to be

Any Amazon customer can post a review, and if they got the
book from Amazon, they’re shown as a “verified purchaser”. Their
system doesn’t always share comments between the UK and US sites, so I have
accounts with both and post the same review on each. If I bought the book from
the UK site, I say so in the US review. If I was offered a free copy, I only
accept it on the basis that I’ll post my honest opinion, and I say so in the

I’m not a fan of structured reviews which summarise the
story, as these can unwittingly include “spoilers”. I try to say, in
general terms, what I enjoyed about a book and acknowledge anything I didn’t,
basically what I’d say to a friend who asked me about the book. If I read a
story to the end, I must have enjoyed it, so there are always things I can
write about.

Now and again, we’ll all come across a book we really don’t like,
either because it’s not our sort of story or because we didn’t like the way it
was written. Do you post a bad (honest) review, or just not bother? I’ll leave
that to you.

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


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