Vintage WD: Decoding the Secrets to Selling Popular Fiction, Part 1

In this article about writing popular fiction like murder mysteries or regency romances, Roy Sorrels and Megan Daniel share some of their best tips.
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In this first part of a 1981 WD article about writing popular fiction like old-fashioned murder mysteries or regency romances, Roy Sorrels and Megan Daniel share some of their best tips for satisfying discerning readers.

Secrets of Writing Popular Fiction

By Roy Sorrels and Megan Daniel

Writer’s Digest, April 1981

The lesson about writing popular fiction that we value most was something Roy learned quite bychance, years ago, while cramming for a college French final. Early in the evening, knowing he would be up all night, he dropped by the supermarket to buy a sustaining treat to save for a midnight feast. He saw the perfect thing on the shelf: a can of luscious peaches. He lovespeaches. Roy took those peaches home and popped them into the fridge. Well, after several hours of verbs and vocabulary, sweat and study, he said to himself, just one more chapter, polish off the reflexive verbs and then heaven. With a trembling hand,he took out dish and spoon and can opener (the bulk of his kitchen supplies in those simpler days). He started to open his can of peaches—the pleasure would sustain him 'til dawn! And then he discovered that in his can, clearly labeled peaches, with a color photo yet, was tomato soup

The moral: in the canned food business, and in the writing of popular fiction, don't put tomato soup in a peach can!

The readers of old-fashioned murder mysteries, or international spy thrillers, or Regency romances (to name only a few) know exactly what they want to find when they open a book, and it's not tomato soup. If you want to write for, and sellto, the hundreds of thousands of American readers who read genre fiction for entertainment, you must first carefully analyze just what it is they doexpect to find. 

We have both recently written, and sold, book-length genre fiction: two Regency romances by Megan to Signet/New American Library (Amelia and The Reluctant Suitor) and two in a series of mysteries by Roy (under the name Sally Crisp) to Zebra Books (Dreams Come True, Inc. and Dreams of Loch Ness). We both have contracts for more. And we both scored with our first attempts at this kind of writing, both of us to the first publisher we sent them to. To our nonwriter friends, we humbly attribute our good fortune to unlimited talent and industriousness. But to you, our colleagues, we freely admit that the real secret of our success lies in the fact that we carefully researched each of our genres before we started writing.

We would like to share with you some of the tricks of analyzing any genre with an eye to writing, and selling, a book. We assume you have decided what type of book you want to write.

Genre-Iy Speaking

What's the first step? Very simply, read. You have been reading inyour chosen genre for pleasure already (or you should have been, because writing in a genre you don'tenjoy reading would be like going tothe dentist the day the Novocaine ran out.) Now begin to read more methodically, notebook in hand.

Before Megan touched a typewriter on Amelia, her first Regency romance, she read at least a hundred. As far as possible she concentrated on books of high quality (in this case Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, Clare Darcy), which were gone over carefully several times. But even the worst—and a few of them, sadly, were truly awful—taught her some things. After reading one of the real losers, answers to the questions "Why didn't this one make it for me? Why was I bored, angry, frustrated?" offered a wealth of information. The answer was nearly always that the books violated the genre in some way. The language didn't have the characteristic lilt and wit of a true Regency romance, or the characters acted in ways unacceptable in that period.

As you read, ask yourself this basic philosophical question: What moral view of the world is reflected in this genre? Sounds a little heavy, doesn't it? But remember, for example, that the moral view reflected in the "old-fashioned" whodunits of Agatha Christie largely accounts for her phenomenal popularity over the years. Her artful but formularized whodunits were avidly read in the bomb shelters of London during the Blitz because (along with being enormously entertaining) they provided momentary escape into a genteel world in which the murderer always knows the victim and has a clear motive for mayhem, where the killer is always brought to justice in a logical progression of cause and effect. With the real world around them being turned into powdered cement by faceless murderers high in the sky, curling up with Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple was comforting.

In Regency romances this moral view centers around the idea of a well-ordered world. Today, when change is fast and frantic, where no one seems to know the meaning of the word mannersand relationships crumble all around us, sending the divorce rate soaring, it is comforting to sink into a world of order, politeness and good breeding, a world where everyone knows his place and generally keeps it, elegance in all things reigns supreme and, above all, love always triumphs.

Whatever your genre, it is sure to have such underlying moral assumptions that can be violated only at your peril. Jot clues to that moral structure in your notebook, along with anything and everything that strikes you as giving the book the special "feel" of its genre: types of characters, typical settings, language, plot convolutions. 

For Megan, a good alternative to a notebook is a 3x5 card file. Every element of a book that strikes her fancy gets jotted onto a card and then filed under FashionDialectSlangDecor, or whatever. This method is perhaps most valuable to someone, like Megan, who works in the historical genre, since it is a wonderful means of noting all sorts of period detail. But it can also help you get a visual impression of the "ingredients" of your genre. For instance, in Megan's card file, she has more than 100 cards under Food, 200 for Fashion, more than 400 for Slang, but only a dozen under Politics, the same for Religion, and about half a dozen under Money. Obviously descriptions of luscious banquets and dialogue liberally sprinkled with period slang are more important than discussions of anything so vulgar as how those banquets get paid for.

Quite Right

One of the first things you should be looking for, or rather listening for, is the voice of your genre, for each has one distinctly its own. Take a favorite book in your field and read a part of it aloud, especially dialogue. Almost at once you will notice a characteristic rhythm to the language. 

For example, in Jane Austen's Emmais the following quote: "Indeed you injure me if you suppose me unconvinced. Your reasonings carry my judgment with them entirely." Agatha Christie would probably have written that sentence, "Oh, I quite agree with you," while Raymond Chandler might well have written, "Right."

Your next step is to carefully analyze the plot and general structure. It's a bit like learning to make a salad by dumping the contents of a bowl out on the table and counting the radishes, tomatoes, and lettuce leaves. Do the same thing with your genre. Dump it out on the table and start counting. How much elapsed time is there? A generational saga may cover centuries; a thriller, perhaps only hours. Count the pages. Count the chapters. Estimate the number of words. If fat “bodice rippers" are selling, you won't want to write one in only 40,000 Words. 

Roy discovered that the kind of whodunit he wanted to write usuallycontains about 20 chapters, each roughly ten pages long. Each chapter forwards the plot with one main action, a dash of character development, a soupcon of atmosphere. 

In the historical romance, Megan noted that the virginal Lucinda must overcome about four major obstacles to learn that she really loves the dark, handsome, but vaguely mysterious Lord Errol de Flynn. Each chapter contributes in some way to overcoming these obstacles, along with a multitude of small problems that Lucinda must deal with along the way: What will she wear to the Marquis's ball? Will she win a witty duel of words with the caustic Lady Acidity? 

An element of plot development intrinsic to the whodunit is the traditional wrap-up scene in which the detective calls everyone into the drawing room to reveal how diabolically clever the murderer really was, and how much more clever he is. In reading Christie, Roy felt these scenes were usually the least successful in the book. When they were effective, a review of his notes tells him, they usually combined other elements—action or humor of some sort—rather than just parading the clues. So Roy built his scenes around action, and highlighted the reactions of the characters who could lend a laugh to the proceedings. He also noted that a standard (and usually effective) Christie trick was to have the detective make a false accusation just before the real one, so that the reader is kept guessing until the very end. 

Megan, on the other hand, quickly found that in the successful Regency romance the hero and heroine almost never acknowledge their love for each other until the last chapter, or even the last page. When these big scenes came too soon, she quickly began to lose interest, since the romance is thecentral plot development toward which everything else builds. 

[Read more about writing mystery novels here.]

Miss Marple, Misdirection 

Every genre has a central plot device without which it would not be a card-carrying member of its club, and the trade name will often give you the clue: a whodunit, a historical romance, a police procedural, a suspense thriller, etc. Find the essence of that central plot device and be faithful to it. 

Let’s get inside that a bit and see how it pertains to our books. In analyzing the whodunit, Roy was particularly interested in how clues are handled, since this is what makes up the bulk of the plot. In reading Christie, he quickly realized that the reader’s pleasure came from trying to solve the mystery along with the detective. The writer must play fair. Allthe suspects are vividly developed characters, and thedetective knows nothingthat the reader isn’t allowed to know and see. His notebooks are crammed with instances of Christie casually introducing a clue, for example, as part of a series of facts, none apparently more important that the others, or of dropping a clue into the midst of a spectacular action sequence. Or the misdirection can involve humor: when the readers are laughing they are likely to miss a clue that is there for them to see. It was like a magician—the hand is quicker than the eye when the eye is cleverly directed away from the crucial thing to be seen.

In his own whodunit, Roy was careful to let readers see everything, but to allow them to draw the wrong conclusion. In one case his heroine, Jane Avery, notes a large number of commonplace articles on top of the dresser of a potential suspect. One of them shouldn’t be there, buy Roy doesn’t let the reader know that Jane realizes that. If readers are paying attention, they will notice it, too. In another moment, Roy reveals a clue in the midst of a scene in which Jane has just burned her hand, and apply first aid. Later, when her hand stops hurting, she reflects and remembers the clue, something the reader, too, is free to do.

Megan realized that in a Regency romance the young lovers always have problems getting together, usually generated by misunderstandings, jealousy, and general wrong-headedness. In Amelia, the heroine takes it into her head that the hero is a spy for the French (you know, the Napoleonic Wars and all). Having once made up her mind, she simply twists all the available evidence to support her theory. The hero, on the other hand, decides that she is in league with the spies. It isn’t until nearly the final page that they realize the surprising and delightful truth and are free to give into their love for each other.

As important as this central device is, don’t neglect to look at how the details of plot are handled. A lot of the fun of reading a good caper novel, for instance, is in really getting inside the workings of a very complex crime. If you set out to write such a tale, you will note that the central character always spends hours, or even days, carefully noting the comings and goings of the guards who watch over the crown jewels or whatever. So when the time comes to write such a scene in your own caper novel, don’t give it short shrift. “He spent the next week constructing a timetable of the arrivals and departures of the armored truck” will not do. The reader will be disappointed–that much they can imagine without your help, but the details (one guard who can’t keep his eyes off the blonde teller, the other who stops the truck like clockwork to pick up a pastrami on rye, etc.), the kinds of details that the really good caper writers use, these are the things that the genre addict demands.

Read Part 2 of the April 1981 article about writing popular fiction.

writing popular fiction | mystery