7 Common Dialogue Mistakes

We all know great dialogue when we read it—and the best dialogue seems effortless. But good dialogue takes work, sometimes needing multiple edits and thinking it over and totally revising a scene. It also takes a few key ingredients. There are a few things that can help you punch your dialogue into shape—and that means editing out these problems.

1) Chit-chat. We get plenty of this in real life. The “Hi, how are you?” stuff is boring in fiction. You want dialogue that’s better than real life—that means bigger, too. You need to dramatize without going over the top to melodrama. You want the dialogue to be sharp—meaning you may need to really look at the words coming out of your characters’ mouths and take an edit just to punch the dialogue.

2) Poor Punctuation. Nothing will throw a reader out of a story faster than poor technique. Commas go inside quote marks and are used when the tag is part of the same sentence (action modifies the dialogue). He said, “I know how to use a comma.” And not: He said. “I know how to use a comma.” Put in a period when the action is its own sentence. He gave a sigh. “I wish more folks knew how to use commas.” And not: He gave a sigh, “I wish more folks knew how to use commas.” Cut the double punctuation, too!? It’s the mark of a writer who is still learning. And get a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style so you know exactly how to write dialogue and internal dialogue so the reader gets into the story instead of being stopped by clumsy writing techniques.

3) Weird Paragraph Breaks. This is related to poor punctuation. Keep the action of a speaker with that person’s dialogue—use paragraph breaks when starting a new topic. In other words, you want your paragraphs to flow, as in:

        In a deliberate move, like slipping under a punch, Josh fixed his stare on Marion, wet his lips and asked, “Marion? As in librarian?”

            Marion’s mouth flattened and he lifted the Beretta higher. “Hey—gun here, Mr. Charming.”

            Josh didn’t look cowed by the threat, but that might have been due to the cool shades. “I thought you were interested in selling my skills, not shooting me.”

            “My line of work, it’s like a tightrope walker. You have to stay lean and flexible.”

            “That’s why you keep that name? You’re—?”

            “Nope. Not.”

            Marion didn’t look as if he’d say more, but Felix glanced at Josh. “He admires the late John Wayne, a man birthed with greatness and under such a name.”

4) Awkward Tags. Don’t trip a reader with awkward tags that clunk. Things like “he shouted miserably” and “she wailed” need cutting. This is a sure sign you’re trying to prop up weak dialogue with tags that hit the reader over the head. Make the dialogue stronger instead. Or give your characters stronger actions that contrast and highlight the dialogue. Show your characters expressing emotion through their words and their actions. Also, do remember that if you have three women in a conversation “she” is not going to be a clear pronoun, so use proper names. (Same goes for multiple of any gender.) If you only have two people speaking you need fewer tags, so you can use just action to better show what a character is feeling.

5) Obvious Clunkers. The worst offender here is dialogue that is there just for backstory or exposition. “Do you remember when we were ten and mom came after us with a butcher knife?” Why is this character saying this? Why bring up an obvious past? Is there a point to be made or are you (the author) looking to slip in backstory? Do you have the bad guy explaining her motivation in a monologue? Do you have the good guy explains the clever plot just to get it on the page (without any motivation for why he’s saying all this)? Are you forcing your characters to say things because the plot demands it? Instead of this, think about using dialogue to let your characters express emotion. Let your characters avoid answering questions, let them change topics, and let them meander. Let your characters be a little more real and not just be puppets pushed into saying things because the plot demands it.

6) Accents, Ye Olde English, and the Wrong Slang. While great dialogue has a flavor of an individual, too much of this can come across with as bad a taste as over-salted soup. One too many “mayhaps” can throw a reader right out of a story. Same goes for a cliché Scottish accent. When in doubt, go for telling the reader, “She had a lovely Scottish burr.” And leave it at that. Do your research for local dialect and slang but use it to just give a little flavor. A guy from Georgia will swear differently from a Jersey girl, and you want to nail this. You also want your slang to fit both the era and the person. A military man from 1940 will talk different than a lady from 1800. If you get that wrong, readers might not know what exactly is wrong, but they also might not believe your characters or your story. So look up words and phrases—etymology is your friend.

7) Overdone Internal Dialogue. Remember to give great lines to your characters to say and not just to think. Internal dialogue can be a wonderful thing. Writers like Mary Balogh are masters at it. But too much thinking can slow your story’s pace, particularly if a character thinks and thinks and thinks about the same thing. Know the type of story you’re writing and what works best for your characters and your story.

A Good Narrative

Narrative is one of those flexible words. The basic meaning is the same as a story, but narrative can be use as a noun or as an adjective. it is an account of events, experiences and details. But as an adjective, narrative describes the style of the story being told. A good narrative means in part a good style in the story and style matters.

I’m teaching my workshop on showing and telling in February for Outreach International Writers, and I’ve also been reading The Paper Magician, which is a wonderful book to illustrate great narrative, which relies on really excellent telling mixed with showing. That’s right–it’s not only show your characters to the reader.

Now, too much narrative can indeed slow the pace of any story–but it is also useful to set the pace. That includes the details that make up the style. Style is partly a matter of work choice, and also how do you structure your sentences, and how do the paragraphs connect and flow. What are the modifiers you use–are they fresh and specific? Do you vary sentence structure, using shorter sentences to speed action and longer to slow the reader? What words to you choose to set the mood for not just the scene but the entire story? All these details matter.

You may not be too concerned with style when you are just trying to get words on the page and get started, but it’s something to look at as you edit and revise. The style of the story is what pulls in a reader–this is your writer’s voice.

There is a danger here–too much style can become a burden to the reader. This is where the writing gets “writerly”–the writer is drunk on words and this can trip up readers, throwing the reader out of the story. Sometimes the right word is an unusual word–sometimes the unusual word is just the writer getting in the way of the story. This is where the phrase “kill your darlings” can be helpful. It’s a lot like choosing the style of your clothes. That extra watch or scarf or colorful hat may be the right touch–or it may just be one step too far over the edge. But we are back to style. There are writers who can take things far too far and still make it work.

Narrative is all about the details. Is the sky black or inky? Or purple edged? Or pale blue-white, dotted with fluffs of gray? Those are the details that put the reader into the world, and that’s all about telling the reader those exact details. Don’t forget to layer specific details that weave into the style–the sense of smell is one of the strongest to evoke an emotion. Sounds can also act to bring in mood and emotion onto the page. We all have good and bad connotations associated with sounds. Taste and touch are also often neglected as “telling” details that help put the reader into the world. Smells can connect to a taste, bringing in a a bitter taste or a anticipating taste of something delicious. Touch puts the reader in touch with the world–the air, the weather, the heat, the chill, and all the reactions to the setting.

Again, this goes back to style. Some writers have a sparse style–the focus is more on dialogue and action and more on showing. Others have a talent with description and can weave a spell that keeps the reader going. Part of this is about the genre of the work Stories set outside the normal world tend to need more details–and often a slower pace that appeals to the reader–to bring the reader into the world. While action-based stories usually put the action first. It’s all about knowing what is your writing style, and using what you’re good at.

That all starts with being able to know how to show the character to the reader, but also knowing how to use great telling to pull the reader into the fictional world. More on that in February.

Setting the Mood

An open iron gate leads to an enchanting secret garden surrounded by ivy covered trees.

Something what sets a good story apart from a great one is the use of setting as a character. A setting is not just description of a place—it gives the reader more emotion on the page. It uses mood and vivid details to put the reader into the story. Setting is also as much about theme and motifs as anything else.

Let’s take a look at one setting, but given two very different moods and themes. Let’s put the main character into a summer garden—or, actually, two different summer gardens:

She pushed open the gate. It groaned on rusted hinges, barely yielding to her shoves. Ivy dangled low from the wall, browned and gnarled, and a willow tree in the corner sagged against the bricks as if braced for her. A wind whispered, dry and cool, brushing through the leaves as if warning the garden against her presence. Sweat trickled down her back and gathered on her brow, and the bees swarmed to her right, the buzz an angry sting of noise to break the quiet.

That’s garden one—now, same time of year, but a very different mood for this garden:

She pushed open a gate that squeaked on rusted hinges, yielding to her shoves as if grateful for someone to come at last. Ivy curled down from the wall in splashes of green against the red bricks. The willow tree in the corner stirred, the long fronds of leaves beckoning with a luxurious shade away from the heat that pressed down on her. The breeze brushed her cheeks, dusting away her sweat, bringing a sweet tease of wild roses and lavender and honeysuckle. Bees hummed through the dazzling colors at her feet, their legs heavy-bright with pollen, wobbling like drunk sailors in a welcoming port.

This summer garden has gone from a touch ominous to a lush romantic spot through word choices—this lets the reader into the world through the character’s senses. Obviously, in the first garden description, the mood is one of danger and tension. We’re going to have a theme of danger and suspense. The second garden offers a lighter mood—this is going to be a fun story, possibly with some hints in the theme of magic or romance.

That’s what description can do for a story—that’s what setting can do. Setting can anchor the reader into the world. It draws the reader into a place and time and into sensations that make the world come to life. It becomes a vivid character if the writer takes the time to develop all the characters.

All this starts with asking a simple question—what is the mood here? You can follow this up with—what would my character notice? You can overwrite—that’s always possible. But by remember mood and what is important to the story, that will tell you what you need in your setting.

Theme will also help you in that it will tell you what motifs you want to use over and over to better weave theme into your story. Perhaps your theme is about the masks we all wear to protect our inner selves, and so masks and their collection or use, or things hidden with shadows and shading will be part of the settings to bring this theme to the reader without hitting the reader over the head. Or perhaps the theme is about rebirth of self, and you want setting to move from winter to spring several times over to bring that them into the story in subtle ways. All this means the writer must pay attention to the real world and the fictional world.

When thinking about setting, bring in something more than sight. We all lean too much on the physical description of things we see, but very often it’s the aroma floating in the air or the notes of music lingering that really capture our imaginations. A touch of jasmine incense could bring in the exotic, or the sour note from an out-of-tune piano clattering adds a jarring feeling to the reader’s mood. Maybe it’s the taste of something—a spice that goes from nose to tongue. Or maybe it’s the shiver of fog on the skin. Go for the very specific detail.

When you’re editing, look at the writing to remove clichés and look for fresh modifiers—and watch those weak verbs.

Notice that in the garden above, I never write: “The garden was overgrown.” That is flat telling and robs the description of the vivid touches the reader needs to be inside that garden. “Was” becomes a weak verb in such a case. Notice the fresh modifiers—a breeze that dusts away sweat, a sting of noise. You may not come up with these in the first draft, so as you edit, look for fresh ways to convey the mood you want the reader to get from that scene.

By vivid, I mean VERY specific. If you don’t have the specific in mind, go hunting in your experiences or in your imagination.

Never been to the Redwoods, but need them in the story? It’s time to get a really good travel guide, or watch a very detailed documentary. Do the same for any profession you might give a character, or for that character’s background. This is the truth in the phrase “write what you know.”

Whenever you can, pull from where you have been and use your own experiences to give you that perfect smell, that right feeling on your skin, the sounds you heard, and the taste in your mouth. A vivid imagination can help, but so can stepping outside—close your eyes and put your other senses to work. What birds do you hear? What about traffic, or the lack of it. If you’re near the ocean, that tang of salt in your mouth will be noticeable—and perhaps that sand itching under your swimsuit as it dries. Think about what details will best realize your setting as a character and a mood, and reveal something to the reader without “telling” the reader that information.

Maybe your protagonist is an artists and the world is vivid colors—teal, azure, verdant green. Or what if your antagonist has perfect pitch and the least dissonate voice is a screech to her? Be picky about word choices, particularly when editing. In a second or third draft, that is a great time to read your work aloud and write in the margin the emotion you want, and then decide if the words pile into the correct cadence and mood.

Look for overused words. Do you repeat the same phrase too often? Is there a “pet” word you fell in love with that starts to hammer on the reader?

Remember that each new scene needs to be “set” for the reader—the reader won’t be happy if left floating in a void. It doesn’t take much—look at the paragraphs above for the garden. Four or five sentence can do the job. If you have a character in that description and that character’s viewpoint to layer in tension, the reader is going to be caught up in the moment.

Above all, take the time—don’t feel that you have to worry about “oh, it’s a slow pace with too much description.” That description allows the reader to settle into the story and the scene. If your setting is a character, that character can bring forward so many more layers to your story that it can move from just okay to a book a reader can’t put down.

It Really is Just Cricket

The phrase “it’s just not cricket” applies to anything that’s just not fair—such as excluding women from a good number of entertaining sports. However, cricket was one sport where ladies did play. The print of a match held in 1779 and organized by Elizabeth Smith-Stanley, eldest daughter of the 6th Duke of Hamilton, and wife of the Earl of Derby, got me started down this rabbit path.

Cricket match, ladies in Georgian dresses and hats. Bowler kneels at right to bowl underhanded. Lady at left with bat. Wicket-keeper is ready behind the wicket, double rods stuck into the ground. and fielders are at the ready.

As noted by Naomi Clifford on her website, “Women’s cricket was not unknown, the first recorded match being between Bramley and Hambleton in Surrey,” in 1775. Held at Moulsey Hurst, near West Molesey, Surrey, “there was a match between teams of six married and unmarried women, with the singletons winning. Betting was ‘great’.” (The betting note comes from The Recreative Review, or Eccentricities of Literature and Life (1822). Vol 3. London: J. Wallis. Quoting Dodsley, 1774.) She also mentions a women’s match that took place in 1811 at Ball’s Bond, near Newington Green between teams from Hampshire and Surrey

As noted in Pierce Egan’s Book of Sports, and Mirror of Life Embracing the Turf, And Mirror of Life (1836), Ann Baker was ‘the best runner and bowler’ on the Surrey side. However, Hampshire won, after which the players went to the Angel, Islington for a what was accounted to be “slap-up entertainment.”

Back to the Countess of Derby and her match. According to The Pebble in My Shoe: An Anthology of Women’s Cricket, by Roy Case, the other women in the painting include “two teams drawn entirely from upper-class society”. Miss Elizabeth Ann Burrell was said to have ‘got in more notches (meaning a run) in the first and second inning than any other Lady’ which seems to have earned her the admiration of the 8th Duke of Hamilton who married her “before the next cricket season began” according to Case.

In Women’s Sports: A History, Allen Guttman notes that women’s cricket matches were not always  genteel—a match held in July, 1747 was interrupted by “crowd trouble”. Heavy betting might be involved—wasn’t it always for any game—and prizes for the winning team could range from pairs of lace gloves to money to barrels of ale.

A print at the British Museum by Thomas Rowlandson shows “rural sports” of a women’s match with skirts hiked up and flying and the crowd cheering:

“’On Wednesday October 3rd 1811 A Singular Cricket Match took place at Balls Pond Newington. The Players on both sides were 22 Women 11 Hampshire against 11 Surrey. The Match was made between Two Amateur Noblemen of the respective Counties for 500 Guineas a side. The Performers in the Contest were of all Ages and Sizes.’”

“The scene shows batswomen running hard, while one of the field leaps to attempt a high catch; the wicket-keeper crouches behind the wicket, hands on knees. The players have petticoats kilted above the knee, bare heads, necks, and arms; they wear flat slippers. All the fielders look or run towards the ball; one has fallen with great display of leg; another, running headlong, trips over a dog. Eleven are playing, including those batting.”

It does make sense that girls would grow up knowing how to play cricket. After all, if you need 11 players to make a full team, you’d want to draft every player around, regardless of age and sex (and yes, it is recorded that some women played into their 60s). Even for a less official team, the girls might well need to be drafted to play so there’d be enough for a batter and a bowler, and don’t forget the wicketkeeper, the slip, and all the fielding positions.

Back to the countess—she was a bit of a rebel for her era. By 1778, rumors were already going around of her affair with “the most notorious rake of the day” (to quote Alan Crosby’s book Stanley, Edward Smith, twelfth earl of Derby). That man was John Sackville, the Duke of Dorset, and the story went that he would disguise himself as a gardener at Knowsley Hall and climb into the window to visit the countess. That story is generally discounted, but what is true is that Elizabeth separated from her husband, and that was one scandal too many. She had to move abroad, and didn’t return until her husband kicked up a worse scandal by taking up with an actress.

Cricket remained cricket, however, and official women’s clubs would sprint up in later Victorian years.

Do More With Descriptions

Descriptions and narrative can be a wonderful tool for a writer. It is often overlooked by beginning writers—or those still learning their craft—in favor of going for scene after scene after scene. We’re all influenced by both the fast pace of modern life and the fast pace of movies and TV, but stories in print have advantages that the screen lacks. What can great description do for your stories?

"Use the right word, not its second cousin." -- Mark Twain

Set the World—Vivid, specific descriptions put the reader into the world you build. While you may be able to assume much if you’re writing in the modern world, you may still have unique places you want to bring to life. Don’t assume the reader knows what your fictional seaside small town looks like, or what the big city feels like—you may have readers who have never been and want to be transported. In a historical or fantasy setting, you have to build the world for the reader, and you don’t just want the reader to “see” the world, but to experience the sounds, the smells, to feel the weather, to have the touch of the wind on their skin and all of this takes vivid details. You want to layer in sensations for the characters, so they become the stand-in for the reader in that world.

Reveal Your Characters—What a character notices tells the reader a lot about that character. Is your main character a baker, and smells really matter? Does your character have an artistic bent and colors stand out right away? Is your character someone who pays a lot of attention to sounds, or to the clothes of others, or to cars, or to the status of others? Figure that out and weave that in. Maybe your main character is a little bit of a snob and the frayed cuff of a coat sleeve stands out. Or maybe your main character notices the laugh lines around a woman’s face before she sees the diamond and sapphire necklace around that woman’s neck. Again, vivid specific details matter the most. You don’t want to overwhelm the reader, but you want the right description to pull the reader into your character’s thoughts.

Control Pacing—A story can move too fast. If the reader doesn’t care about the characters, the action just becomes action without any emotional stake in the outcome. The reader also can use a breather between too much action—you can wear a reader out if it’s just one thing after another with no relief. Descriptions can help you slow the pace as much as you need by bringing in a change of scene where descriptions matter to put the reader into a time and place. It can help you slow the pace between scenes to give the main character time to regroup and make new plans. It can also help you weave in backstory.

Set the Mood—A great story has a theme and it has a tone or mood. Descriptions are a huge part of this, ranging from the storm battered coast with a leaden sky and a crumbling castle outlined in a brief flash of lightning to the rolling, endless prairie grass dancing in a breeze scented by a cascade of wildflowers that dot the landscape, to the crowded streets of a city with gleaming skyscrapers and the rush of buses and taxies and the blare of sirens in the background. The details you weave in can set an ominous mood or a romantic one, or can increase tension or layer in the details that make the reader want to cozy up on the couch with a tea and dive into your world. We are back again to needing vivid specific detail. If you don’t know your world you must invent or you must research so that you can bring this world to life. You need to know not just the sights, but the sounds, the aromas, the feel of the place.

Is a Vital Part of Voice—A writer’s voice is one of the most powerful tools to hook a reader into wanting more of your stories. You have to discover your voice and develop it—writing is a craft to learn, and then can become an art to practice. Is your voice best suited to sly comedy or to tense drama? Look at your bookshelf for what attracts you most. Do you have a voice better suited to the modern world or to a historical era? Is your voice best for the old west or for a pirate’s adventure on the high seas? Every writer has to figure this out, and then use description as part of that voice. This is how you phrase things, how you view the world, how your characters view the world. Do not be afraid if your voice works better with omniscient viewpoint instead of third person, or go for first person if that’s the voice where you feel comfortable. Beware following trends—if a voice isn’t right for you that story’s not going to work.

Description takes all your skill as a writer to make the writing disappear for the reader, to bring the reader into your fictional world and show the reader this world through your characters’ eyes and through the vivid details that you weave into your story. You have to choose the right descriptions for the place and time—not just the era, but the month, the week, the day, the hour. Vivid, specific description—not just yellow, but vibrant lemon—make the world come to life for the reader, and that’s one step closer to making your characters come to life.

A Regency Lady’s Work–Running a Household

Lady in a white dresswith a drawing pad, sitting in front of a window

Shopping. Parties. Fashion. Frivolity and pleasurable pastimes. Much of Regency fiction presents ladies indulging in such a life. But a married woman also had responsibilities–and the greater the household under her care, the greater her duties.

Maria Rundell in her book Domestic Cookery (1814 edition) recommends that the most important aspect of a girl’s education is the addition and subtraction of numbers. Without these, she cannot possibly keep the household finances, account for purchases by the staff, and budget her expenses. She also holds that March’s Family Book-keeper “is a very useful work, and saves much trouble in the various articles of expense–being printed with a column for every day of the year so that at one view the amount of expenditure on each, and the total sum, may be known.”

If married to a lord with multiple properties, a lady might be expected to manage all his estate households. She would be assisted by housekeepers, but it would fall to her to review accounts and hire the household servants, for while her lord might be concerned with properties, society dictated that the house was a lady’s domain.

The English class system extended not just through the upper ranks, but well into lower orders, which had its own complications of hierarchy. In the country, an estate needed the following, in order of their own precedent:

A land steward to manage the estate, collect rents, and settle disputes between tenants. His salary would be variable, based on his experience and his tasks—the land steward to a great estate such as a dukedom would have a handsome salary, even up to five hundred pounds a year.

A house steward or housekeeper to supervise indoor staff for two hundred pounds a year, and some houses might have both a house steward and a housekeeper who served under him.

A valet for the master of the house, and a lady’s maid for the lady of the house, whose wages might be anything from twenty to two hundred pounds a year, depending on if they were in demand in London, or stuck in the countryside without opportunity.

A master of horse or stable clerk to supervise the stables, including livery servants who worked outdoors, coachmen, and stable lads, for around sixty pounds a year in salary.

A butler, a cook, a head gardener, who earned twenty to forty pounds a year each. The house might also include a wine-butler, and also a porter or major domino who supervised the comings and goings at the house, and a groom of chambers, who looked after the furniture in the house.

Cook in  a Georgian household, turning  a spit for a roast and dealing with a kettle on an open fire. In the background a footman carries two dishes, heading to the dining room.

In the lower male ranks came other coachmen, footmen, running footmen, grooms, under-butlers, under-coachmen, park-keepers, game-keepers, yard boys, hall boys, and footboys.

In the lower female servant ranks came nannies, chambermaids, laundry maids, dairy maids, maids-of-all-work, and scullery maids.

In town lower ranking staff might earn as much as ten to twenty pounds a year each, with men being paid more. In the country, salaries were half that or could be even less.

Between servant and master existed those creatures who might be of upper or lower class, but who did not quite fit either: the governess, tutor, and dancing master. Which is one good reason why these positions were often uncomfortable–you couldn’t be one of the servants and you weren’t quite one of the quality. (Any time you had to take a job you pretty much fell out of the ranks of the upper class.)

With such a social structure, an estate acted very much like its own village, with squabbles between servants, gossip, flirtations, jealousies, and structure. A large estate might require as many as fifty indoor servants, and twice that or more in outside labor to deal with the estate’s lawns, animals, produce, beer-making, dairy and so on. However, the world was changing.

New factories, new roads, and lower costs of transportation were making even the servant class more mobile. And keeping a good staff began to be an issue.

To hire staff, the lady of the house–or the housekeeper or house steward–might advertise in The London Times or the Morning Post. The custom of ‘Mop Fairs’ where servants might parade and find new positions also existed through the 1700’s and into the 1800’s. “Females of the domestic kind are distinguished by their aprons, vs. cooks in coloured, nursery maids in white linen and chamber and waiting maids in lawn or cambric,” writes Samuel Curwen of such a fair at Waltham Abbey in 1782. Such a fair included strolling, stalls, and full public houses, with a good bit of drinking. It was, for many servants, a holiday.

Dress very much told of a person’s status, both as in the world upstairs and below. The upper servants dressed in livery and uniforms provided by the house, while lower servants were expected to wear plain and ordinary.

Ladies and gentlemen outside the fashionable Clarendon Hotel and Jaquiers Coffee House & Tavern. The ladies are in fashionable dress with bonnets and pellises and parisols, one gentleman has a white and wears pantaloons, one is in military garb with a dog at his heels and another wears trousers. Two of the staff look out of the doors.

The cost to hire, feed, and dress an extensive staff could be considerable. Wages tended to be higher as well in a richer house. And servants could expect to be left tips–or vails–by visiting guests. A vail might be as much as a month’s wages left by a departing houseguest, the amount determined by the status of the guest and the rank of the servant.

Coupled with the expense of a staff came its management. While on many country estates, servants came from the local lower orders and might well be born on the estate and look to live and die there, in town, servants looked for opportunities to advance. Servants in town could register with agencies, but they would need to bring with them good references.

However, as noted by a Portuguese visitor to England in 1808, “servants are not to be corrected, or even spoken to, but they immediately threaten to leave their service.'”

As with any group, problems arose. Servants gossiped, stole from the pantry, and took items to sell from a careless master’s closet, and then there was the issue of upper class males taking too great an interest in lower class females.

“If you are in a great family, and my lady’s woman, my lord may probably like you, although you are not half so handsome as his own lady.” So wrote Jonathan Swift in his “Directions to Servants” in 1745. He went on to advise any lady’s maid to make certain she is paid for “the smallest liberty.”

Maria Rundell notes that, “Instances may be found of ladies in the higher walks of life, who condescend to examine the accounts of their house steward; and by overlooking and wisely directing the expenditure of that part of their husband’s income which falls under their own inspection, avoid the inconvenience of embarrassed circumstances.”

Frontpiece to 1810 Edition of Maria Rundell's Art of Cookery, showing various meats on a table, to be prepared, fish on the floor, dishes in a rack and a maid servant in the background

Of course, a lazy or ignorant woman might leave all management to her housekeeper, cook, and other servants, but she did so at the risk of being cheated by her staff or by merchants. For a woman dealing with great houses, all this jotting down of expenditures could be left to a house steward, a secretary, or a housekeeper. But there were numerous stories of servants who filled their pockets by padding the household account books, writing in more than was paid to the merchants and keeping the difference. A lack of knowledge in a very large household could easily lead the family into financial difficulties. The Duchess of Devonshire, with her fashionable excesses, her addiction to gambling, and her utter lack of any financial knowledge, constantly exceeded a generous allowance, borrowed heavily from everyone, and left behind debts of around twenty thousand pounds, which had to be settled from the family estate.

On the other end of the spectrum were ladies so thrifty that they watered the wine that they served at parties, underpaid their staff, and accounted for every half-penny spent.

A woman in ’embarrassed circumstances’ might need to know how to stretch her pence for food. In the city, she could buy meat scraps rather than full roasts, but there would be no funds for luxuries such as butter. The cheapest bread would be coarse, adulterated with alum, which cost less than flour. And she might be able to afford wool for knitting gloves and scarves and undergarments and fabric to make clothes, or she might have to make do with purchasing used clothing from a street fair. Shoes would need to be bought, and tinkers paid to mend pots and sharpen knives. With the added expense of rent, anything such as costly tea would be a luxury, as would any servants or services.

In the middle class, a woman could count on more luxuries. She would have staff to do the work, and could afford beeswax candles that did not drip (or smell of beef fat), and fine milled soap. There would also be funds to pay the washer woman, the school fees for her children, buy coal and wood to heat her house, pay servant’s wages, donate money for charity, and hand out coins as tips when she visited country houses.

For any lady of a great family, launching your children into the world could be rather like managing a small corporation. It’s no wonder parents expected such investments would pay off with alliances that brought influence and money back into the family. No wonder, too, at the appeal of living quietly in the country where such demands were not made upon the purse.

How Much is Too Much? The Art of Backstory

Stack of old books

Backstory is one of those things that can drive any writer nuts. How much is too much? When do you reveal more? When do you hold back? Too much backstory can sink a story—because you’re not moving the story forward. You’re giving background, and while that can be interesting, readers really want the story to keep moving forward not backward. Too little backstory and you run the risk that character motivations may not make sense—or the reader may not care enough to keep going.

There are no right answers about how to handle backstory, but there are some tips to help you with the art of backstory.

Does the reader really need to know this? This is the first thing to ask. Does the reader really need to know the heroine’s puppy was stolen when she was six? Is this just a cool background fact, or is it a vital plot point? (As in the puppy comes back in the next chapter and he’s magical now.) This is a tough question to answer because you usually want to think, “Of course the reader has to know this.” Be brutally honest with yourself. It is quite possible that you—the writer—needs to know this information, but the reader doesn’t. When in doubt, save the backstory for later.

Can you show the reader instead of telling? What you tell a reader doesn’t have the same impact as showing. Instead of telling the reader the hero is a great guy, show him being great. Instead of telling the reader the heroine knows how to knit, show her doing. Look for places where backstory can be revealed to the reader instead of being told to the reader—it will make the story and backstory more interesting.

Does the reader really need to know this now? Sometimes you need to set the scene or the world for the reader. This is very important when dealing with history or alternate worlds. The reader may need to know how magic works in your fictional world. Or the reader may need to know the importance of manners in another age. These may be vital to making the very premise of your story work—and so the reader needs that information right away. But there really is an art to backstory, which brings us to…

Can you weave in the backstory with a just sentence or two? Go ahead and write those three pages of backstory. Go wild with it. Have fun. Then cut it down to just a sentence here or there. Think of backstory as colorful threads that you want to weave in—not as big chunks. Tease the reader with some information without doing a dump.

How long can you leave the reader waiting? This is a great device that requires foreshadowing. If you HINT at your protagonist having some history or issues from the past, the reader is going to start wanting to know more. Drop enough hints and the reader will then wade through any amount of backstory because now the reader is dying to know more. The good news is you can weave this stuff in after your first draft is done—or cut down on it as you edit the second draft.

Can you add the backstory with something else going on? Readers want conflict—they want the story to keep moving forward. Look at some of your backstory and see if you can have it come out at the worst time possible for your character. Instead of finding out in chapter one that your hero hates heights, have him find out in chapter ten when he’s standing on the edge of a cliff and it’s jump or die. If your heroine has some issues with her mother, maybe they can come out every time the two of them are on the phone and the sniping starts over long dead family issues that neither of them can resolve. Look to add conflict by bringing in the character’s past to that scene. The caution here is don’t overdo this…and do foreshadow with hints (and hints means hints—trust your readers and do not beat them over the head with the same information over and over again because you worry ‘they might not get it’.

Is less more, or is more more? When you’re in the middle of any story and writing madly away it’s very easy to lose all perspective. Get the book—the story—done. Set it aside for a couple of week. Then come back with fresh eyes. Now you’ll be able to look at it to see if you need to add a touch more backstory—or if you need to cut back on the backstory. If the scene is dragging pull out some of that backstory. Is the scene a little confusing, time to add a touch more backstory. Another reader can be a great help here.

Can you use dialogue to add backstory? This can be a great device—or a deadly one. Sometimes you need characters to add to the backstory—but this must be done in character and true to the character’s voice. The last thing you want is a character talking in plot exposition—that’s deadly. Nothing flattens dialogue more than making it all about exposition. Layer in emotion to that dialogue. If you have two sisters who are arguing about something that happened ten years ago, let them use the kind of shorthand siblings would use—in other words, Theresa wouldn’t tell her sister, “Remember when you stole my beau from me and asked him to the dance.” That’s too “on the nose.” Maybe Theresa says, “I remember what happened at the last dance—do you think I’m going to ever let you forget what you did!” Now the reader is also wondering what happened and wants to hear more. But here’s another place to go back to the earlier questions of does the reader really need this information—and does the reader need this now?

Is less skimping on detail? Details are what create the world for the reader and put the reader into that world. It is possible to be so worried about pacing—and a slow story—that you end up robbing the reader of a rich and vivid world. This is where the reader needs to see, smell, hear, taste and touch the world—this is where you can weave in a character’s backstory by how that character experiences the world and their emotions. An artist has a different experience than a soldier—someone who gardens sees the world differently than someone who is city born and bred and couldn’t care less about the outdoors. Use the details to show the world to the reader through a character—it is a great place to use bits of backstory to enrich the story.

Is the backstory missing? It’s quite possible that an idea has carried you away—it’s a great setup, or scene, or concept, but is that all it is? Did you flesh out the characters—or did you dump them into an idea? This is where a character won’t really make sense because the motivations are missing due to not having any backstory. If you don’t know your characters, the reader won’t either. This is where you want to know WHY do the characters act as they do—and why a character might act ‘out of character’ as well. This is particularly important for antagonists. It’s not enough to have the bad guy kidnap the heroine—you need to know WHY he would think this is a good idea, and why he is a good guy in his own mind. It’s not enough to have the ex-girlfriend cause problems just because you need that story idea to work—there needs to be backstory here for her about WHY she would do it (and it needs to be more than ‘to get her boyfriend back’—why would she want the guy back? What’s her deeper reasons and motivations? What’s her backstory?) A lot of times, you as the writer need to know this—then you can figure out if it belongs on the page of the story or just as background you’ve developed so that the characters have strong motivations for what they want.

Finally, did you make it interesting? If the backstory is boring to you, it’s going to bore readers, too. Making it interesting means great writing—clean prose, cutting repetition, and really good editing. Making it interesting means compelling information that fascinates you—and the reader. Lean into your strengths here. If you do great dialogue, do more of that to weave in the backstory in an interesting scene with action. If you do great description, use that skill to make the backstory a compelling read.

The good news in all of this is the more you work on your writing—scene structure, story pacing, character development—the better you get at it. But you’ll also find yourself studying other writers and how they handle backstory, which can destroy your reading pleasure. You’ll end up reading like a writer. But you’ll get ideas on how to deal with the art of just enough backstory.

The Story’s in the Details

Every now and then I’ll help judge in a writing contest, and one of the things I often see is that details are wrong or missing. I’ll admit I am a little OCD—I like jigsaw puzzles, and I need the right details to even write a scene. Details matter—a lot in fiction. Why are they so important?

A woman who drives a restored 1963 VW bug is different from a woman driving this year’s BMW, and her attitude about each vehicle says something about her. Does she love her car, name it, curse it, treat it like a moving trash can? A man who owns and uses his grandfather’s pocket watch is different from one wearing a ten-dollar Timex. The details reveal the character to the reader, and specific details matter. If you just have a woman who drives a car, that doesn’t say much about her, other than that she lives in an era when most folks drive. Same goes for a man who has a watch—the lack of details means there’s a lack of characterization on the page.

Details need to show the reader how your characters are different from any others. Too often in romance the hero is tall, muscular with startling (or piercing or arresting) blue eyes. The heroine has strawberry-blonde or auburn or reddish hair with emerald green eyes. In other words, we’ve all read these descriptions so often the characters blur together into sameness. What details make your characters different. Details that could fit into a list (height, muscles or curves, hair color and eye color) are what I call a ‘laundry list’ that don’t help a reader to really see your character. Next time you’re watching a TV show or you’re out people watching, start really watching—you’ll find that what you  notice first are the details that are different. It’s the limp that old lady has that she’s working hard not to show. It’s the large, dark mole on the woman’s left arm, visible because of her sleeveless dress. It’s the chipped front tooth when the man next to you smiles, and you wonder if he got it from a bar fight or playing some kind of sport because he’s got both the attitude and the tan to go either way. The details give the reader a vivid, specific picture in mind.

The wrong details can also derail a reader. Too often I see things like a tall man who rides an Arabian stallion (why it’s always a stallion, I have no idea). But Arabian horses are typically not all that big—put a large guy on one and you might as well have him riding a pony. It’s a funny image, not at all sexy. Then there’s the use of reigns instead of reins—and spellchecker won’t help you with that one. Or the heroine who does a Cinderella and goes from wearing ugly dresses to beautiful ones, but we’re never really clear if it is a Victorian dress with hoops and bustles or a Regency empire gown.

Historical fiction brings its own issues with a need for research, and a tough time deciding what’s enough and what is too much—you can overwhelm the reader with too many details. But I think it’s easier to pull back on this and much harder to weave in enough. (The same actually holds true for emotion on the page—it’s easier to pull back on this with a little editing.)

The trick in all of this is to find the right detail, and that means you need to know what it is that the reader should understand about this character without explicitly telling the reader. An example of this is if you want the reader to understand that a character is understated on the surface, but a dangerous man underneath. This means you might put your character into a faded Yale sweatshirt and baggy Levi 501s that leave room to hide the .35 and holster on his hip—notice these are specific, too (it’s not just sweats and jeans and a gun). Or maybe you want the character to come across as high class and respectable, meaning instead of telling this to the reader, you show the character tugging on her gloves, tying the ribbon to her bonnet at the precise forty-five degree angle that both remains out of her way and yet is flattering, and she chooses a parasol to match her kid slippers in a fashionable shade of Pomona green, and which compliments the stripped gown delivered yesterday from her dressmaker. The reader has both images in mind and is also picking up the clues you are dropping that this woman has money to spend on fashion and is particular about how she wears things. This is not someone throwing on the nearest shawl to dash outside.

All this means you have to spend time thinking about the right details to use, and also some time researching those details. You can also use details you already know a lot about. I’ve written horses since I was a horse-craze kid, so writing about anyone who rides—or about those lovely animals—is easy for me. The details are familiar to me, but I do have to stop and think about making sure I don’t dip into jargon that will leave a non-horsey person scratching their head. Some terms like ‘a sweet-goer’ are self-explanator, but others such as a ‘bog spavin’ could throw a reader out of a story, so again it’s about thinking of the right details and being careful to choose the right ones.

I often think this is similar to constructing a painting. If you work in oils, you have to think about shapes, colors, and contrasts. You have to look at light and shadow, and what to put on the canvas to convey the images you see either in font of you or in your mind’s eye. You have to choose details to put in or leave out with the brush strokes you put onto the canvas. Too much and the painting can become a muddy mess. Too little and the canvas ends with blank spaces, leaving the image unfinished to anyone who views it.

This is where layering can help. It’s difficult to get all the details you want into one pass, or one revision or edit. You may have to do one that is just about putting in the right touches for the setting, and another that is about putting in the right details for just one main character. And yet another edit to put in the right touches for the mood of the scene with weather, scents, the feel of the air, and other details that make the world vivid to the reader. Sometimes you may need to get out in the world to get that right detail. It’s hard to know that a barn smells of leather, hay and horse—a wonderful musky mix—if you’ve never been inside a barn, with the soft nickers of horses asking for some grain as you pass by, or shifting in their stalls, straw crunching under their hooves. It’s tough to know that if you slam a poker down on a wooden box, the vibration is going to travel up your arm unless you do this (yes, I did this for a scene in A Much Compromised Lady because I needed that ‘right’ detail). You might not think about the vibrancy of wildflowers in a pasture—bright yellow, softer pinks, pale purples—breaking like a wave under a summer breeze unless you’ve seen this. Experience—writing what you know—helps a lot. So does enough immersion in research.

Immersion in your fictional world comes from thinking about it, from delving into books about the subject you need to know (there always seems to be something new for a story that you have to find out about—I needed to know the weather in 1815 Paris, and I was happy enough to have been there to know spring can be miserable and wet, with splashes of sudden sunlight between fast-scudding clouds). The right details can also come from talking to people who know an area or a subject, so you can get those specific details that will realize the world for you and for the reader.  

You want to keep looking for those right details—the vivid ones, the perfect touch. It is that one dab of titanium white against aquamarine that makes those colors into a wave. It is the specs of umber against strokes of green that reveal seeds sprouting from grass. It is the right detail that makes your character suddenly different from all other characters, and shows your character to the reader because you got the details onto the page and into your story.

Positive Proofing

When writing, there is one thing you can never do enough of and that’s proofing. I find it takes several passes—and several sets of eyes—to catch all the typos, find the awkward sentences, punch the dialogue, trip over the things that clunk, and sharpen the descriptions. A great book to help you learn to be a good editor on your own work is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Brown & King. In the meantime, these tips can help.

First off, do multiple edits, looking for different things in each pass. It is hard to catch everything in just one edit.

Do an edit on dialogue. This is the time to cut every extra word—what doesn’t improve the writing will detract. Double-check your punctuation. Keep a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style handy to look up anything you’re not sure about. Know your weaknesses—if you’re bad with knowing when to capitalize a proper noun, or have a hard time with commas, or don’t know when to hyphenate, Strunk & White can help you.

Do an edit just on descriptions. Are you weaving in the senses, or just leaning on visuals? Can you be more vivid and detailed without being overly wordy? Are you showing enough, or telling too much? Look for those “writerly” phrases that may stand out too much—those darlings that don’t really belong. You may have a lyrical passage that throws the reader out of the story and back into “reading” instead of being caught up deep in the story.

Do an edit just on each main character. Is the viewpoint slipping in spots? Does that character’s voice stay consistent to that character? Does the protagonist have a strong arc?

Do an edit just on each scene. Do you have conflict in every scene? Is it building to an outcome?

Do an edit just on pacing. Does the story flow and does tension build? Do you foreshadow the ending?

Do an edit just on theme. Do you realize the theme? Do you weave in theme with metaphor and really explore your theme?

Once you think you’ve got all your edits in, rest the story. Give it a couple of weeks or more to become fresh again.

Print out your work for proofing. The brain wants to put in things that it thinks go into place, breezing right past the missing word, the misspelling, and the wrong punctuation. To trick the brain into giving you new eyes, a different perspective is needed. A couple of more things to do is change the color of the paper—go from white to pink or to green—and change fonts. Anything to make the page look fresh to your eyes.

Read your work aloud, and try to get through as much of the book in one sitting as possible. This is very important. If you trip over something, the reader will as well. Mark stumbling places and come back to them later for revisions.

Mark anything that might need a fact check. It might be just checking that you got the setting right, or the historical details, or maybe you got the streets in a city wrong or the wrong kinds of plants for your setting.

Remember that if you rewrite anything, that work needs revision so it doesn’t stand out as “first draft” when everything else looks more like polished third or fourth draft.

When you think everything is perfect, that’s the time to bring in a beta reader or two. This is again about getting those fresh eyes. Have the beta reader mark up where the pacing drags, or where something isn’t clear, or where there’s a plot mistake, or anything else.

Once those corrections are in, you’re now ready for a copy editor to go through it and again flag typos, mistakes of punctuation, and plot holes. And, yes, they’ll be there.

Depending on how many issues a copy editor finds, you may want a clean revision to go through yet another copy editor for fresh eyes to make sure you caught everything.

None of this includes a development edit—meaning having someone look at the story early on to catch issues of characterization or plot or pacing that need major revisions. All this proofing work is done long after you know you have a solid story, with good pacing and a great character arc.

A word of warning here—you can polish and edit the emotion out of a scene. If a scene is working, and the emotion is on the page, be careful with your edits. Do light revisions just to smooth out any mistakes or typos and don’t overwork the scene.

You want to also make sure any revisions do improve the original. It is easy to end up with just pushing mashed potatoes around on the plate instead of making everything more palatable. This is where having that printed version of an early draft can help you—you can compare the two and really see which is better.

All this sounds like a lot of work—and it is. But it will give you a much stronger story if you take the time to do your best to get the story in you head onto the page in a way that flows and make the writing invisible to the reader.

Critique or Plotting Session for RFW Fundraiser

I’ve donated to the Regency Fiction Writer’s annual Silent Auction–it’s online, and easy to bid on (and there’s some great stuff there).

The annual fundraiser is part of the RFW’s Conference, and can be found online.

From me, on offer is a critique of the first chapter and a synopsis for a book in progress or a completed novel. Given that this is a writing organization, I’d rather a novel with a historical setting in the years of late 1700s to about 1840, but I read just about any period of time and so I’d be happy to look at anything that might be giving a fiction writer trouble (a synopsis can be a real pain).

As an added attraction, for the winning bidders for the critique and the plotting session, I’ll throw in a free copy (electronic or hard copy) of my novella Davina’s Duke, which one the Booksellers’ Best for best novella, and also won the Indy BRAG Gold Medal.

Davinia's Duke

I’m also offering an online plotting session. The way that would work is a back-and-forth via email on either firming up a story idea (again with a historical setting, preferred), and sorting out some structure so that conflict is strong and focused on the characters, and there’s a good spine to the story. This is the sort of thing it is often difficult to work out on your own, so it is useful to be able to bounce ideas around.

Regency Fiction Writers formed to advance the professional interests of writers of the extended Regency period of England (1780 to 1840) through inclusion, networking, advocacy, and education–it is a wonderfully inclusive organization, so there are mystery writers, romance writers, historical novelists, and settings can be anywhere in the world. The conference is looking great, and it is online, so there’s easy access and the presentations are recorded (meaning you go view them on your own schedule–a plus for me). The silent auction is a great way to get some terrific research books that are out of print–I can’t believe no one’s bid on Priestley’s The Prince of Pleasure yet, which is an awesome book, and I have my eye on a couple of things (love that tea set!).

So if you’re an interest in the Regency era–or if you’re a writing struggling with a book–head on over to see all the goodies available. And take a look at the great lineup of speakers for the conference, too.