Writing Dialogue

Allison McKowen recently asked this question below one of the blog pieces at my web site after commenting that she admired the dialogue I wrote in THE SECRET MISTRESS: “I have, several times, started to write a story, but get bogged down when it comes to the dialog. How did you learn to write dialog, if such a talent can be condensed into a reasonably succinct answer?”

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I must say that writing dialogue is my favorite part of writing. Fortunately, I think most readers like a lot of dialogue in the books they read. I know I do. So I try to include as much as possible in the books I write. I learned how to do it, I suppose, by doing it! It is only recently that I realized many writers actually study and learn the various arts of writing. Maybe I am just one of the lucky (or cheeky) ones. I have always just written and have never even thought of looking at any how-to books or attending any how-to workshops.

I like to set up a scene before I begin dialogue in such a way that the two characters involved have something to say to each other. Perhaps they are gearing up to argue about something, or perhaps one of them needs to unburden him/herself to the other. Perhaps they have something important to discuss or decide. Or perhaps they have been thrown together and really don’t know what to say to each other but cannot avoid saying something. Whatever the situation happens to be, when my characters start talking, I let them go to it. Much of the time it feels as though I am not directing the conversation at all, but merely listening in and writing it down as quickly as I can. Often they surprise me–in fact, they almost always do. I learn about my characters when they are speaking and interacting. My plot is often determined and carried forward by what they say.

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One thing I have learned about dialogue as I have gone along  is that as the two characters speak, the reader needs to be able to picture the scene as well as to listen to what is being said. I am careful to include details about their facial expressions and body language, as well as the thoughts and emotional responses of the character from whose point of view that particular scene is being told (my scenes are almost always written from the point of view of either the hero or the heroine). I will include a few details about their surroundings–a dying fire, rain lashing a window, one of them getting up to pour a fresh drink, etc. And another thing I have learned from the books I read: I find it hugely annoying if I can’t keep track of who is speaking and have to keep going back to work it out. Even if it may sometimes seem unnecessary always to have the “he said,” “she said,” labels, I still think it preferable to not having them at all.

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I would be interested to read your comments on dialogue. To two randomly chosen people who leave a comment below before the end of Saturday, February 28, I will send a signed copy of LONGING, my March republication.

The Regency/Historical Question

Way back in prehistoric times, when I was first published (it will be 30 years in April of this year–ouch! See the cover of my first book below), my books were called Regency Romances, and though they were historical fiction in the sense that they were set in Regency England between the years 1811 and 1820, they were not known as historicals. Everything else was if it was set before World War II, but Regencies were in a category of their own. When anyone tried to explain why this was so, there were vague answers like the fact that Regencies were gentle comedies of manners–as though no other type of historical novel could be that. Actually they were fun to write and I wrote close to forty of them before deciding that it was time to try my hand at the larger market of the historical.

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I immediately thought that the book needed to be different, larger, more action-driven, more obviously linked to some of the better known events of history. Eventually, a few years later, I was told by a new editor that no, no, I could and should write the sort of books that had made me known, though now they would be called historicals. I wrote MORE THAN A MISTRESS  after I was told that and have been writing the old-style Regencies ever since, except that they are no longer small-market items. But, in the meantime I started writing historicals with BEYOND THE SUNRISE in 1992.

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BEYOND THE SUNRISE is set during the Regency period, and it tells a love story as passionate as any I had written before or have written since. It is also perhaps the most action-packed of any of my books. It is set during the Napoleonic Wars. Although it begins in England, when the hero and heroine as still young teenagers enjoying a sweet but doomed romance, it soon moves ahead eleven years and to Portugal where the wars are raging. Robert Blake is now an infantry captain who is also an occasional spy for Wellington. Jeanne Morisette, now known as Joana da Fonte, the widowed Marquesa das Minas, with her French father, English mother, and Poeruguese late husband, is also a spy–but for whom? Robert Blake certainly does not know the answer. I am not a plotter, but I certainly had to plot that book! I also researched the whole of the Peninsula Wars in great detail even though I ended up using only a fraction of what I knew. I loved writing the story, and I still love it more than twenty years later.

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BEYOND THE SUNRISE will be republished on February 3 in a lovely new trade paperback edition. You can preorder it through any of the buy links shown on Home Page of my web site, or purchase it outright after Feb. 3. BUT, in the meanwhile, you have a chance to win one of three copies of the book by leaving a comment below before the end of Thursday, January 29. Good luck!

The Winners:

The grand winner of a set of the first four Survivors’ Club books (THE PROPOSAL THE ARRANGEMENT, THE ESCAPE, and ONLY ENCHANTING) in the blog contest below is Ellen Solensky. The winners of ONLY ENCHANTING are Jennie Coon and J Tang. Congratulations to all three, and many thanks to all of you who left such great comments.

Finite or Infinite?

I was remarking to someone yesterday, half jokingly, that as I close in upon the end of a series readers seem to be enjoying, I often wish I had made it larger. I have written six of the seven Survivors’ Club books and wonder why I didn’t invent twelve members of the club instead of seven. As I drew to the end of the Bedwyn series a number of years ago (the SLIGHTLY books) I wondered why I had not invented a family with twelve siblings instead of six. It is possible, of course, to begin a completely open-ended series in which, for example, the family concerned includes numerous cousins and perhaps several generations and can go on forever. But I have always chosen to write series that have a natural end. What do you think: finite or infinite? Which type of series do you prefer as a reader?

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Readers have suggested that I write stories for the Bedwyn children, but multi-generational  series have never appealed to me, either as a reader or as a writer–especially with love stories. When I finish a book, I want to leave the reader with the impression that this couple will live on happily (even though I try never to suggest a simple and unrealistic happily-ever-after). I want to leave them ever young, ever poised for the long and happy life they will have together. I don’t want to show them as older people, with adult children or even grandchildren. After loving Georgette Heyer’s THESE OLD SHADES, I did not like reading the story of Leonie and Avon’s granddaughter, in which book Leonie is widowed, I seem to remember.

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The risk with series that just go on and on because readers keep asking for more is that they can grow stale. And they stop the writer from moving on to a new creative project. I often find the later books in a long series not as entertaining as the earlier ones. Sometimes it is even hard to believe that this comes from the same writer as the ones that so delighted me at the beginning. And I can understand that. Once I have finished with a series and moved on, I would find it very difficult to come back and write another edition. If I were to discover a long-lost cousin or sibling of the Bedwyns, for example, I would not simply be able to write the story. I would have to think my way back into that world of the Bedwyns in which I was creatively immersed for several years, and it would not be easy–or even fully possible, perhaps. So for myself–as a writer and even as a reader–the finite, fairly short series are best, at least when the genre is romance. What do you think?

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To one person who leaves a comment below before the end of Saturday, October 25, I will send a signed set of the four Survivors’ Club books already published or about to be–The Proposal, The Arrangement, The Escape, and Only Enchanting. And to two other persons who leave a comment, I will send a signed copy of Only Enchanting. Good luck!

Choices, Choices, Choices…

If you are a reader, one thing you will know for certain: no matter how many hours you read each day or how fast you read or how long you live, you will never have time to read more than a mere fraction of all the books there are to be read or even of the ones you would like to read. So…how do you choose? I will be really interested in what you have to say below.

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How do I choose? There is no single answer, and sometimes I don’t even know quite why I read a certain book. But here are some criteria I follow:

–I read a great deal by author. Once I have discovered a writer whose books I enjoy, I will often buy on the name alone without having to see the cover or read the blurb or look at any reviews. I am rarely if ever let down by such writers as Georgette Heyer, Louise Penny, M. C. Beaton, Donna Leon, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, or Grace Burrowes, to name just a few.

–more and more lately, thanks largely to my author Facebook page, I read by recommendation. If a reader seems really taken by a particular book, I will look it up, read about it, and decide if it might appeal to me. I have made some really great discoveries this way–Jean Webster’s Daddy Long-Legs and Graeme Simonson’s The Rosie Project, for example, and the books of Ed McBain and Patricia Wentworth.

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–I have a Kindle (a museum piece which I love) and check the Kindle Daily Deal each day. I don’t buy many of the offerings, but there have been some that I have loved, most recently Kay Bratt’s The Scavenger’s Daughters. A bonus pleasure with that particular book, and, in fact, with many discoveries, is that there are sequels, which I will definitely be reading.

–It is said that we ought not to judge a book by its cover, and that can be very true, but I do get attracted by certain covers and/or titles and stop to investigate. A few days ago it was Claire Cook’s The Wildwater Walking Club, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and yesterday it was Karen McQuestion’s Hello Love, which I am loving. Both authors have other books and will be added to my automoatic-buy list. And there are the quirky titles, like The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (Jonas Jonasson) and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Rachel Joyce), both of which books are in my Kindle Favorites folder.

–and sometimes I will read a book only because I am hearing so much about it that finally I cave in to see if I can discover what all the fuss is about. I have discovered some real gems this way–the Harry Potter (J. K. Rowling) books (but only to Book 5–they were getting too long and unedited for my taste and had lost the sheer charm of the earlier offerings), The Book Thief (Marcus Zusak), The Hunger Games, to name a few.

–and then there are the books that the universe drops in my lap, not literally, perhaps, since they are books I somehow buy and read, though I can never remember afterward exactly why I did so. Why did I read Roland Merullo’s Breakfast with Buddha or Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind or Brad Willis’s Warrior Pose? I don’t know, but I am very glad I did!

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Please make your own comment below. I will love reading them. To two randomly chosen persons who comment before the end of Tuesday, Sept. 30, I will send my remaining two advance reading copies (with plain covers) of ONLY ENCHANTING, one month before its publication date on October 28.