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Exposition: Your Reader’s Need to Know File

I can’t speak for other writers, but I’ve found that placing exposition into my stories is either a pleasure or a giant pain. ‘Exposition’ is related to ‘expose’, and thus refers to unveiling information the reader must know in order to make sense of the story. One must have exposition, just not too much of it at one time.

The most common example of this kind of information is back story, or past events which influence the characters or plot of a book, but which do not take place during the length of time the book covers. In Nicole Jordan’s To Desire a Wicked Duke, the heroine’s loss of her fiancé in battle occurred well before the book opens, but it affects her decisions and her relationship with the hero. Her fiancé’s death is part of the back story.

Most new writers, including yours truly, often open their first manuscript with pages and pages explaining the hero or heroine’s home, or family of twelve, or college days, or…it really doesn’t matter, because your reader wants to know about the main characters, not their 500-year-old family pedigree, no matter how distinguished it is. These reams of exposition are the dreaded ‘info-dump’, guaranteed to put off agents, editors and readers alike.

For film it’s said that for every foot of film used in the final cut, there are two feet on the cutting room floor. I’ve come to think of exposition the same way. Yes, it is necessary to come up with detailed character biographies that do include birth year, birth place, family history (and probably their dates as well), education, favorite colors, the character’s particular talents and his or her greatest flaws, etc., etc. — even though this information may never appear in the actual book.

Some of you are probably throwing up your hands and asking, “Then why go to so much trouble?” Considering the research and effort that goes into creating this kind of detail, that is an excellent question!

The answer is that when we writers set down that much information about a character, it nails him or her down in our heads. This kind of detail helps us understand how characters respond to each other as well as to challenges, failures or successes. The writer knows how their hero or heroine will go about reaching their goals. And on a purely practical level, if all of this is written down beforehand, the writer has a reference any time a question about a character’s past comes up. That saves a lot of time all by itself.

As a historical romance writer, I also use exposition to explain aspects of life in past eras that modern readers wouldn’t necessarily be familiar with. For example, in Her Scottish Groom I used it to include details about life in Scotland during the late Victorian era. Trains, cruise ships, and telegrams had been around for years by then. The heroine is accustomed to indoor plumbing.

My debut, To be Seduced, presented even more of a challenge because it takes place during the Restoration. Even something as straightforward as attending the theater needed a little explanation. The experience differed significantly from seeing plays during the nineteenth century, which is heavily represented in historical romances. The trick in both cases was to create vivid scenes for readers to enjoy, not give them a history lesson!

Clues to characters and period or universe (in the case of fantasy or paranormal romance) are imperative to an authentic, well-rounded story. But exposition, like everything else in a well-written book, should be layered in carefully, and nothing should appear on the page that does not advance or enhance the story.

What are some of the most interesting or unexpected bits of information revealed about a character in a book you’ve read?

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Writing…and Reading

Some writers have had the urge to string words into stories from their earliest memories, while some of us don’t discover this passion until middle age or later.  Whether they first scribbled a story on the back of grade school homework or had to gather courage and read their first attempt to a room of people more experienced than they were, all the good writers I’ve ever met or heard of reads, and has read, enthusiastically from childhood on.

Well before I started writing seriously, I gave thanks that I was born into a family of book lovers. My parents possessed wildly different tastes in reading material, and both of them affected me. I got my love of historical romance from my mother. Her paperback books contrasted with my father’s volumes on geology, dog training, history and anthropology. Mom introduced me to Georgette Heyer, and the late historian Barbara Tuchman. Dad’s books were drier, but watching him devour volumes on a wide range of subjects encouraged me to explore the non-fiction shelves of the library.

They read to me and my sisters, everything from poems to comic books. I don’t really remember anything but pretty pictures, but the sense of security and comfort of being tucked beside them carried over into the act of reading itself. Once we could read for ourselves, we got books on most major occasions and often on smaller ones. Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott were found in my bookshelves, along with Swiss Family Robinson, fairy tales and myths. I saved my allowance to buy Nancy Drew books.  My dad attempted to get me interested in ‘Treasure Island‘, his favorite book as a boy, in vain. Ditto for Charles Dickens. (Sorry, Dad. I tried.) He succeeded wildly with ‘Lord of the Rings’, though.

High school lit classes introduced me to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and The Moon is Down, as well as the sly, wry humor of Mark Twain. I found Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein around then as well, thanks to my best friend who shared out her brother’s science fiction books.

My interest in Tolkien led me to explore other fantasy writers. The voice of Ursula LeGuin is more ambiguous and darker, but her haunting stories stay with you long after you finish them.

As an adult, I discovered Jane Austen (finally!) and Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, the histories and biographies written by Lady Antonia Fraser, and Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mysteries, among many, many others.

These days, I read Tolkien for comfort and inspiration, Heyer when I want to be charmed and amused, Fraser and Tuchman when I need more solid fare, C. J. Cherryh when I want to read science fiction, and Shakespeare and Homer when I’m in the mood for something classic. And I’ve read historical romance in one form or another for decades. There are so many wonderful authors out there to choose from.

Who are your go-to writers for comfort or inspiration?

Blogging at Authors by Moonlight!

An Irish invasion of Canada? From Buffalo, New York??? Yup, it happened. Read about it today at Authors by Moonlight.

Pleasure Me!

I am appearing as part of Monica Burns’ Pleasure Me Blog Event today, and hope some of you might want to stop by! Come by and read about why It’s the Little Things that Count! Leave a comment and you might get a free signed copy of HER SCOTTISH GROOM.

Hearts & Hunks

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and we all know what that means! Time to curl up with chocolate, champagne and a good romance.  Here is my completely subjective and unscientific list of new books for my TBR pile.

After dark with a Scoundrel, Alexandra Hawkins: The third book in the Lords of Vice series, this one centers around the Earl of Chillingsworth’s sister, who has spent several years in a respectable school for young ladies after she got caught snogging Lord Hugh Mondare. Lady Regan’s interest in her brother’s friend is unquenched after five years, and she returns to London determined to follow up on it.  I look forward to Frost as a protective older brother as well. This has been a wonderful series so far, and I am looking forward to Regan and Dare’s story. February 1, 2011

Invitation to Sin, Jo Beverly et al: This romance anthology includes stories by Beverly, Vanessa Kelly, Sally McKenzie and Kaithlin O’Riley.  Four stories abounding with disreputable neighbors, secret affairs, scandalous behavior, unconventional women and bold, sexy men. I enjoy comparing the voices of different writers in anthologies, and given the authors assembled for this one, it should be quite the Valentine’s Day treat. February 1, 2011

One Night is Never Enough, Anne Mallory: Charlotte Chatsworth is understandably horrified to find that her father has gambled her away to Roman Merrick, head of a criminal empire in 19th century London.  Papa didn’t even gamble away her hand in marriage, just her virtue. Roman expects to have his night with the exquisite lady and then leave her. Neither of them expect their one night to turn into love, but when that happens, they each face ruin. I’m especially intrigued by the hero here: Roman’s manipulations could cross the line into being a bit creepy, but I’m willing to see how he turns out. February 22, 2011

To Desire a Wicked Duke, Nicole Jordan: The last in the Courtship Wars series gives Tess Blanchard her own story. And it should be a good one, since she and ‘her’ Duke are caught in an extremely compromising (and hot) embrace within the first pages of the book. Ian Sutherland is interfering, possibly manipulative, undoubtedly handsome, and has loved Tess for years.  In other words, the perfect romantic hero. I really, really, really can’t wait for this one, but I have to until February 22, 2011.

Pleasure Me, Monica Burns: A courtesan who thinks she’s past her prime meets a younger man in need of deflowering. This premise could be a disaster in the wrong hands, but Burns’ erotic romances raise the bar for her genre, so this one is totally going into my TBR pile. Both Lady Ruth Attwood and Garrick Stratfield sound like well rounded, sympathetic characters. Who are going to engage in some very hot love scenes. March 1, 2011

What upcoming releases are you going to add to your TBR pile?

Thanksgiving Traditions!

Writing about family traditions and giving away a B&N gift card at Authors by Moonlight today. Stop by and tell us about your favorite things to do on Thanksgiving. I’d love to hear from you!

Thanksgiving at Authors by Moonlight!

My first post of this week’s Thanksgiving Blog Blitz is up at Authors by Moonlight! You know how we all have old family recipes? What happens when no one likes them?  Hop on over to ABM & leave a comment, and your name will be placed in a drawing for a Barnes & Noble gift card!

Free Book Winners Announced

Congratulations! MJ and Kelly have won signed copies of TO BE SEDUCED.  Ladies, you can send me your addresses at AnnStephensRomance@gmail.com and I’ll get them right out.

Dream On!

No one accomplishes anything in life without goals.  We hear this every day on talk shows and read it in newspapers and online.  This is because it is true.  Unless we establish reachable goals and stick to them, we are subject not only to what life throws at us, but to our own short-sightedness and bad habits.  Goals are proactive.  Goals are concrete, unlike wishy-washy dreams and ‘what-ifs’.

Of course, writers live with ‘what-if’.  That’s how we spin ideas into words on a page.  I’ve never heard a writer say “I just thought of some great goals to write about!”  For that matter, I’ve never heard a business person explain that “I started this business to sell my wonderful action plan.”  Goals tells how we’re going to achieve something.  But dreams remind us of why we should put in all that hard work.

I call them dreams.  Others refer to their vision, or their aspiration.  Under whatever name, they are unique as our DNA and just as necessary to our existence.  Show me someone without a dream and I’ll show you someone living in a form of poverty.  Dreams give us something to hope for.  Who wants to live without hope?  I don’t, because that is called despair.

“Ha,” you mutter.  “Dreams are fine for creative people.  But I’m just a banker.”  Or “a beautician.”  Or any other occupation.  If you think you’re out of dreams, as soon as you finish reading this, go find a copy of the book ‘Wishcraft’, by Barbara Sher.  Seriously.  Get to a bookstore, library or open a tab to search for it online.  I’m sure it’s at B&N.com or Borders.com.  Beg, borrow or buy it for yourself.

One of Sher’s exercises is to write down your ideal day.  Not a day in the life you have right now, but a day in the life you (probably secretly) have always wished for, be it as a movie star or a cabinet maker or a stay at home mom.  What we crave defines not only our wants, but our needs.  And when we know what we need, we can figure out the smaller, reachable goals to get it.

My own ideal day includes a large old house (and the staff to clean it!), writing in a garden and a glamorous red carpet event in the evening.  At this point, the day as a whole is achievable only on the holodeck of the USS Enterprise, but many elements are do-able by themselves.  Think I’ve gone off the deep end?  Maybe, but I used to dream of being a published author, too.

So dream on!  Dream big!  I told you a little of my wildest dreams…what are yours?

“What are you doing?”

People ask me this when they call or drop by during the day.  “What are you doing?”

“Writing” is my usual response.  Sometimes I’m revising, or working on a press release or reading for research.  If the caller or visitor is another writer, or someone who cares about me, I know the business will be concluded quickly, or I might have the pleasure of a mini brainstorming session when they say “How’s it going?” or “Where are you in the story?”

Then there are the people who Just Don’t Get It.

“Oh.”  Mr. or Ms. JDGI proceeds to present whatever induced them to call or come by, while I try to be polite and not betray my impatience to get back to work.  Most days are productive enough that I can deal with the occasional interruptions without turning into the Vulture Woman from Hell.  These aren’t salespeople who pop up, mind you, whom I just don’t speak to during my work time.   There are simply people in my life who refuse to respect my boundaries no matter how insistently I proclaim them.

The relationship experts will tell you to kick people who do this to you straight to the curb, but for a variety of reasons that is not always possible.  I remind myself to be thankful that none of the people I live with are so cavalier.  Sometimes my patience is rewarded with a good story or a decent conversation, but often as not I pass a fruitless half-hour trying to make chit-chat while worrying that I’ll lose the thread of my writing for the day.  I remind myself that all visitors leave eventually, especially if their presence is not responded to with more than is required by good manners.

I am getting a reputation in some quarters as being no fun anymore, or even downright rude.  I am okay with this.  People don’t just drop in someone working their day jobs to chat about trivia.  Please don’t do it to me.