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Vintage WD: Decoding the Secrets to Selling Popular Fiction, Part 2

Part 2 of this April 1981 WD article by Roy Sorrels and Megan Daniel about writing and selling popular fiction picks up where part 1 left off.

Part 2 of this April 1981 WD article by Roy Sorrels and Megan Daniel about writing and selling popular fiction picks up where part 1 left off: analyzing both good and bad examples in your chosen genre to see what works and what doesn't.

By Roy Sorrels and Megan Daniel

Writer's Digest, April 1981

Read part 1 of this post about writing and selling popular fiction here.

Selling popular fiction

Playing Marples 

So much for plot. What about character?

You will find that the central character is almost always someone the reader can identify with or a quirky, eccentric person in whose company it's enormously enjoyable to be. For example, in a Regency romance there is always a heroine who is young and clever, usually beautiful (or at least "handsome"), independent, and adventurous. She is an idealized version of the reader herself.

In the whodunit the most important character is always the detective. This is especially important if, as Roy was, you are aiming at writing a series. One reason you hope your readers will want to come back for more is that they enjoy spending time in the company of your sleuth. Since it was an "old fashioned" whodunit that he wanted to write, Roy reread his Christie paperbacks to see just what ingredients the old master murder-souffle chef dropped into the pot. Miss Marple was a delightfully perfect example of what Roy wanted to aim for. With her angelic, wrinkled face, her sharp eyes and occasionally sharp tongue, her love of knitting and a good murder, and her delicious mix of ordinariness and quirks, she seemed to be the quintessential solver of murders. The reader can easily identify with her or at least be utterly charmed by her company. She has concerns not unlike our own, but murders just seem to happen when she is in the neighborhood. And which of us does not suspect that, if confronted with a body in the boudoir, we too could solve the mystery? She's nice, Roy noted, but not too nice; ordinary, yes, but with some very special quirks.

So Roy patterned Jane Avery after what he learned from Christie. Jane is young, attractive, with an adventuresome spirit, a bit of a feminist but with her own personal advancement much more on her mind than politics. Easy for a woman to identify with, and perhaps someone a male reader would like to get to know. But she is far from perfect because, just as with Miss Marple, the reader wouldn't believe a too-perfect heroine. Jane is a bit of a grandstander, she enjoys showing off her powers of observation and deduction, working center-stage under the lights. Modesty is not one of her virtues. She is also drawn to risks that are really unnecessary because of an almost neurotic attraction to danger.

In studying character, Roy also noted that Christie always introduces all of her suspects early in the book, usually very early. A good, and typical, example is Funerals Are Fatal, in which 11 of the 13 candidates for killer are on stage by page 21. And Roy noted that they are always introduced vividly, in some colorful action or dialogue exchange that makes them come alive in the reader's imagination. They are strong physical types, speak in their own unique way, dress as no other character does, and even have names that stick, like burrs, in the memory.

So, in his first book, Roy introduced the reader to Harvey Snit, a pudgy little gnome of a man with a pink egg for a head who is an avant-garde interior designer and who dresses himself in puce silk shirts ballooning over WWI Belgian flier's pants and, on the slightest provocation, indulges in petulant emotional “snits.” The reader has no trouble distinguishing Snit from the bluff, cheerful, tweedy, least-likely-suspect Angus McDougall. the thing that Christie does so well, and that Roy tried to emulate, is to bring the whole cast of suspects on very early, in vivid form, so the reader can get on with the game of whodunit?

Sardines on Toast

The next important question to ask is: where are all these fascinating characters and this complicated plot found? Pay careful attention to setting. There are certain settings your reader will expect and be disappointed without.

The spy thriller addict loves colorful descriptions of great European capitals, written from the point of view of one who knows his way around and doesn't have to rely on the tour guide saying, "And on your right…” Police procedural fans are hooked on the ambience, the bustle and activity, of a precinct house and the sights of a world seen through the grimy windows of a patrol car.

In Regency romances the story must take place in a world of richly furnished houses, elegant balls, shopping expeditions to chic shops, carriage rides, etc. Once again, Megan's card file points up the importance of this. Under Travel and Transport, for instance, she has listed 22 different types of carriages, from curricle to stanhope. Under Food are the names of some 75 fish and seafood dishes, from collared eel to matelote of tench, plus other quaint delicacies like cockscombs in wine sauce and pigeons a la Craupaudine. Obviously, these are the sorts of telling details of setting Megan's readers require, and she had better not give them plain old sardines on toast.

In Amelia, the romance between Lady Amelia Clerville and Justin, Marquis of Tyrone, unfolds amid the glittering world of London during "The Season." They insult each other outside a Bond Street shop, they waltz at Almack's, eat lobster patties and drink champagne, grow jealous during the daily "promenade" in Hyde Park. The settings are attractive, elegant, pleasant—the sort of places readers would love to visit.

In Roy's analysis of Christie, he noticed that the settings contribute to the effective workings of the whodunit in a couple of major ways. They are intrinsically interesting places, settings where things can happen, most often different from the everyday setting of the reader’s life. And they provide some kind of isolation. If only a dozen or so characters can qualify as suspects, setting can help provide a reason why the number is limited. In And Then There Were None it's an island; in Murder on the Orient Express, a train; in The Mousetrap, a snowbound house.

In Roy's first book, he made it easy for himself and used an island off the coast of Connecticut. In Dreams of Loch Ness, the setting is Drumnadrochit, a tiny village on the shores of the loch. Both settings are isolated and they are both' places that a reader might like to go, at least in imagination.

If you have decided to write a police procedural and you are studying the work of Ed McBain, you will discover that his readers expect the opposite effect. McBain's detectives—Hawes, Carella, et al—roam the city and suspect everyone, as real cops do. They stick their noses into places the reader would love to (vicariously) explore: the squad room at the precinct house, narcotic addicts' "shooting galleries," backstage at a burlesque house, Central Park at midnight.

Your readers, whatever your genre, will expect setting to be handled in certain ways. Be creative, of course, but don't disappoint them.

Making a Marker

Just as important is how plot, character, setting relate to each other. What's the relative importance of each? In a whodunit the plot is critical, and the more convoluted the better. A western addict craves action, preferably with both barrels blasting. In a romance of any kind the characters are nearly always the prime element, coming right after the; dictum, “She always gets her man.”

In judging the relative importance of these elements we have even gone to the extreme (which seems faintly ridiculous in the telling but was, honestly, very helpful) of underlining action in red, character development in blue, setting in green, dialogue in purple, etc. We ended up with a vividly colorful picture of just what elements, and how much of each, went into making a workable, entertaining book. You can add as many colors as you can find Magic Markers.

This method showed Megan that, oddly enough, good Regency romance writers always rely on a lot of descriptions of facial expressions such as "A telltale muscle quivered at the corner of his mouth" or "Her dimples were in full play." The fact jumped off the page at Megan when she saw how many chartreuse underlinings were trailing across the page.

As you read, underline and make notes, don't forget the invisible. Take careful note of what must not appear in your genre, the taboos.

In Regency romance, for example, there is no overt sex. A few vague longings, couched in appropriate language, and a thrilling kiss somewhere in the final chapter, but, almost without exception, no sex please.

[For a more contemporary take, read this article about writing BDSM romance.]

Watch, too, for how the rules can be broken. For example, let's take Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. (Important note for mystery fans: I'm about to break a cardinal rule and reveal the very special gimmick of this very special book. If you haven't read it yet, skip this paragraph! OK, you've been warned.) In Ackroyd the murder is committed by the narrator of the story. As simple as that, but a brilliant breaking of the rules, for who would suspect him? Therein lies Christie's genius, for she obeys all the other rules, and we're still tricked.

In your own analysis, do the same—learn the rules, watch for how they are followed and broken, then feel free (but not compelled) to break them yourself, judiciously, cleverly, effectively.

Remember especially that you aspire to be an "escape artist" escapist entertainment is your trade. Decide what your particular genre provides escape from—and to. The secretary who can't find elegance in making the boss's coffee and whose boyfriend or husband has one or two tiny faults, can escape in a Regency romance to a world of cultured ease where a titled young woman, whose maid presses and perfumes her hankies, is adored by an impetuous, witty, attentive man who doesn't snore and never forgets to send flowers, even when it's not her birthday. The man who wields a briefcase all day can bury himself in a world where the hero wields a six-shooter.

You can add a human dimension to all this underlining and note taking by "people browsing" in your local bookstore. Get a feel for the real people who buy and read the kind of books you want to write, then write for them. You are a storyteller, after all, and it's always easier and more fun to tell stories to real people.

And, above all, love them, those real people whose book purchases will pay your royalties. You are doing it for them. Tacked up on our wall is this quote from writer Morris L. West: "Writing is like lovemaking. You have to practice to be good at it. Like the best love-making, it has to be done in private and with great consideration for your partner in the enterprise, who in this case is the reader.”

Or, in other words, don’t slip tomato soup into a peach can.

writing popular fiction | mystery
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