Are You a ‘Pantser’

Steven James is a pantser. He is the critically acclaimed author of thirteen novels and and has a master’s degree in storytelling. Publishers Weekly calls him “master storyteller at the peak of his game.” Steven’s groundbreaking book Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules won a Storytelling World award as one of the best resources for storytellers in 2015. When he’s not working on his next novel, Steven teaches Novel Writing Intensive retreats across the country with New York Times Bestselling author Robert Dugoni.

Steven James
Steven James

In his October 15, 2015 article in Writer’s Digest, He says, “I can’t think of a single time I’ve received instruction on writing a story without an outline. You’ll hear the importance of plotting out your story trumpeted at writing conferences nationwide, and if you don’t follow those formulas you’ll be labeled an SOPer (that is, a “seat-of-the-pantser,” or sometimes just a “pantser”—and no, I’m not making this up).

“Lots of outliners teach that a story should have three acts. That’s simply not true. Regardless of how many acts or scenes your story has, this is what it needs to have in order to be effective and complete: an orientation to the world of the characters, an origination of conflict, an escalation of tension, rising stakes, a moment at which everything seems lost, a climactic encounter, a satisfying conclusion, and a transformation of a character or situation (usually both).

“Popular outline and structure “formulas” are filled with misconceptions about what makes a story work. Rather than straightjacketing your story by forcing it into three acts, or trying to map it out as “character-driven” or “plot-driven,” take the organic approach by first simply asking yourself what is truly at the heart of your story.

“Remember: What your story really needs is an orientation, a crisis or calling that disrupts normal life, relentless escalation of tension, and a satisfying climax. Along the way, you’ll need to make sure readers are compelled to empathize and connect with the main character(s), feel enough emotion to stay intrigued by the story, and gain enough insight to see the world with new eyes when they’re done.

“Focus all of your attention at the heart of your story, keeping these essential elements and goals in mind, and you’ll begin to intuitively understand what needs to happen to drive the story forward.

“When you’re informed about what makes a story work, you’re never writing from the seat of your pants. By letting your story develop organically, you’re delving deeper and deeper into the essence of what storytelling is all about.

“Forget all that rubbish you’ve heard about staying on track and not following rabbit trails. Of course you should follow them. It’s inherent to the creative process. Who knows? What you at first thought was just a rabbit trail leading nowhere in particular might take you to a breathtaking overlook that eclipses everything you previously had in mind.

“Without serendipitous discoveries, your story runs the risk of feeling artificial and prepackaged. Give yourself the freedom to explore the terrain of your story. Wander daily through your idea field and unreservedly embrace the adventure.

“Think of your story as a contract with your readers, an agreement that you will entertain, surprise and satisfy them. Every choice that your characters make has an implication; every promise you make needs to be fulfilled. The more promises you break, the less readers will trust you. And often, when readers put a book down, that’s exactly why—they’ve stopped trusting that you’re going to fulfill the promises you’ve made.

“Organic writers are well-equipped to make big promises and then keep them. We’re never directionless, because we can always work on scenes that fulfill promises we’ve made earlier, or go back and foreshadow the fulfillment of promises we think of as the story takes shape.

“In storytelling, what will happen informs what is happening, and what is happening informs what did. You cannot know where a story needs to go until you know where it’s been, but you cannot know where it needs to have been until you know where it’s going.

“It’s a paradox.

“So, in practice, how does this work? When you sit down at the keyboard each day, what do you do if you don’t have an outline to work from?

“Reorient yourself to the context. Print out the previous 50 or 100 pages (once a week I find it helpful to do the whole novel) and read it through the eyes of a reader, not an editor. Remember, readers aren’t looking for what’s wrong with the story; they’re looking for what’s right with it. Continually ask yourself, What are readers wondering about, hoping for and expecting at this moment in the story? Then give it to them.

“Draft the scene that would naturally come next. The length and breadth of the scene needs to be shaped by the narrative forces I mentioned earlier.

“Go back and rework earlier scenes as needed. What you write organically will often have implications on the story you’ve already written.

“Keep track of unanswered questions and unresolved problems. Review them before each read- through of your manuscript.

“Come up with a system to organize your ideas as they develop. In addition to files of character descriptions, phrases, clues and so on, I have four word processing files I use to organize my thoughts: 1) Plot Questions, 2) Reminders, 3) Discarded Ideas and 4) Notes.

“If you find yourself at a loss for what to write next, come up with a way to make things worse, let the characters respond naturally to what’s happening, write a scene that fulfills a promise you made earlier in the book, or work on a scene you know readers will expect based on your genre and the story you’ve told so far. When you understand the principles of good storytelling, you always have a place to start.

“Move into and out of the story, big picture, small picture, focusing one day on the forest and the next day on the trees. Follow these ideas, and stories will unfold before you.

“Leave outlining to English teachers.”

Enhancing the Sense of Place

There is a n article in the Writer’s Digest by Jonelle Patrick of November 3 last year, which has some good ideas on how writers can make their descriptions of place more powerful to the reader. One of her ideas, in particular, is quite good.

Jonelle Patrick is the author of five novels set in Japan. Her newest mystery, The Last Tea Bowl Thief, was published by Seventh Street Books in October 2020. She’s a graduate of Stanford University and the Sendagaya Japanese Language Institute, and also a member of the Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and Sisters in Crime. She divides her time between Tokyo and San Francisco.

Jonelle Patrick
Jonelle Patrick

Ms Patrick says: “Creating a sense of place can be so much more than a painterly description of the sea, or the comforting smell of coffee in the kitchen. Places aren’t just sets to be described. They exist in time. They have a history. The same place can be comforting or menacing, depending on who’s experiencing it, when they’re experiencing it, and what else is happening while they’re experiencing it.

“Let’s start easy: What’s the weather like? A chapter that takes place in a thunderstorm will feel very different from one that takes place in a heatwave. Extreme weather—like a blizzard or a hurricane—creates tension that can amplify what your characters are feeling, spur them to action, or cause them to make decisions they’re either proud of or regret. What’s the temperature like? Heat and cold can slow down your characters’ ability to make decisions and act on them. Tempers flare with discomfort, characters relax and are lulled into complacency when the temperature is balmy. Does your character suddenly go cold, even though the room is hot? Do they flush with shame, even in a snowstorm?

“A setting seen through the eyes of a child isn’t the same when seen through the eyes of a basketball player—a room looks different from three feet above the ground than it does from six. A small person (or someone who is sitting) will notice different details than a tall one (or someone who is standing). A space that dwarfs the viewer feels different from one where the viewer feels cramped. A character’s experience level also alters the feeling of a place—imagine how differently an alien from another planet would describe a church, compared to a vicar who preaches there every Sunday. If you describe a place from a position of long experience—making the reader take small leaps and guesses until they catch up to the character’s level of experience—you can make your reader feel like an insider. And the opposite technique—making a character guess wrong about what a familiar place is used for—can do the same.

“Knowing what happened in a place—either recently or in the distant past—changes how a character reacts to it and how a reader feels about it. A cave that was sacred to Native Americans feels different from one that harboured escaped slaves, even if it’s the same cave. And a room where a murder occurred feels very different from a room used to store copier paper, even if it’s the same room.

“A place where someone waits for their lover feels very different from a place where someone fears they’ll meet an accuser. A sense of place can be enhanced by describing it in terms of what the character expects to happen there.

And the most interesting idea: axe the adjectives and adverbs.

“Finally, I’m going to tell you to forget what you learned in school. Use adjectives sparingly, and insert adverbs only when nothing else will work. Your writing will instantly feel much more professional. Consider this paragraph that probably would have gotten you a solid “A” from your sainted high school English teacher:

The dark church is scary at night, with only two flickering candles on the shadowy altar. When the bell begins to toll at midnight, the candles go out, and the room grows colder. A ghostly blue cloud begins to gather near the peaked ceiling. As the phantom figure grows more distinct, I recognize its face as a long-ago vicar whose death had been blamed on my grandmother.

“A perfectly workmanlike description, right? You can picture the place, maybe even feel a shiver of apprehension. But look what happens when we deliver the same information without any adjectives or adverbs:

I shiver as the bell begins to toll. …nine…ten…eleven…midnight. As if on cue, the altar candles flicker and go out. He’s here. I can feel him. His presence sucks the warmth from the room, makes my hair stand on end. Before the shape even begins to swirl and coalesce between the rafters far overhead, I know it’s the vicar. The vicar who had died because of what my grandmother did.‘”

This is a very good example of effective writing which uses only the most effective nouns and verbs!

Most e-books harm children learning to read

Last week my post was about the benefits of Ebooks for boys. This week, I have excerpts from an article published by the same newspaper (The Telegraph) several years later (March 9, 2021), but this one focuses on the impediments that Ebooks place in the development of children’s reading skills.

Youngsters who listen to podcasts are more likely to enjoy reading and more likely to read every day compared to their peers

This more recent article is written by Dominic Penna, who is a journalist with The Telegraph. He says, “Most ebooks actually harm children in their efforts to learn to read because the added use of technology can be distracting, research has found.

In a comprehensive review of 39 different studies, researchers found that children aged one to eight-years-old were less likely to understand picture books when they read the digital version compared to the print.

This is because some digital books included games at the end of chapters and other resources which diverted attention from the story itself, which had a negative effect on learning in younger children in particular.

Overall, print books outperformed their technological alternatives by an average of seven per cent when children were assessed on their comprehension of what they had read, according to the research from the University of Stavanger in Norway.

‘In particular, the presence of short games embedded in story apps may explain children’s poor comprehension of digital books, as these distract young children’s attention from the story,’ the authors wrote.

They added: ‘Given that the human information processing system has a limited capacity, distributing cognitive resources across the story narrative, handling the device, and children’s expectations concerning an electronic device may be the reason for the reported negative effects.’

Professor Natalia Kucirkova, the co-author of the study and a professor at the Open University, said that added online tools such as dictionaries interfere with how well children can understand the story or text that they are trying to read.

However this was not the case for books which provided important context to their stories, which boosted comprehension more than their paperback counterparts.

Three of the studies that were featured in the analysis also found that reading on screens strongly correlates with lower reading ability levels across primary and secondary school children alike, something which continues into adulthood.

But while dictionaries embedded in digital books were often found to adversely affect children’s understanding of particular stories, they were cited as among the key reasons that digital reading improves their language skills.

In fact, the vocabulary of children who read ebooks improved by an average of 22 per cent when compared to printed texts across the studies analysed.

The findings come as children were increasingly forced to turn to ebooks as school libraries shut due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Reading among children had reached a 15-year low before the first coronavirus lockdown last year, but has since increased by more than eight per cent, with one in three young people saying they read more books between March and June last year.

Irene Picton, Research Manager at the National Literacy Trust, said: ‘We know many families enjoy sharing both print and digital books, and that both formats can support literacy,’ said ‘The findings of this fascinating meta-analysis highlight the importance of careful, evidence-led design of digital books to ensure children’s reading is supported most effectively.

‘It also provides valuable insight for educators and parents by identifying which digital enhancements do, and do not, support comprehension and vocabulary.’

Children and young people who have enjoyed podcasts during the pandemic are more likely to enjoy reading and read every day compared to their peers, the Trust claimed last year.”

My reaction is that the choice of eBook versus printed version will depend on the preference of the child and the characteristics of the book. Neither, in my opinion, has an inherent advantage.

Ebooks for Boys

There is an article in the Telegraph of 9 December 2015 by ‘Agency’. This article is interesting because it seems to be contradicted by and article in the same newspaper on 10 March 2021. I’ll post the latter article later in the week, so that you can decide where the truth lies.

The 2015 article says: “Reading on a tablet encourages boys to think it is “cool” and they are more likely to have their nose in a story for longer.

The study showed boys moved further ahead when reading on tablets

The study, published by the National Literary Trust is based on a survey of 468 pupils at 40 schools across the UK, who took part in an e-reading project.

Overall, youngsters taking part in the scheme saw their reading levels increase by an average of eight months – with boys improving by an average of 8.4 months, compared to 7.2 months for their female classmates.

And while just over half (51.8 per cent) of children saw reading as “cool” before the project, this rose to around two thirds (65.9 per cent) afterwards, with twice as many boys describing reading in this way (66.5 per cent compared to 34.4 per cent at the start of the initiative).

At the same time, the proportion of boys who described reading as difficult fell from 28 per cent to 15.9 per cent.

There was an 11 per cent increase in the number of boys who enjoyed reading using technology, a 25 per cent rise in the number who read daily using ebooks and a 22 per cent increase in those who read for an hour or longer.

In general, there was also a drop in the percentage of schoolchildren who said they could not find things to read that interested them (down from 31.3 per cent to 19.7 per cent).

Irene Picton, research manager at the National Literary Trust, said the study showed the impact of ebooks on reading enjoyment “goes well beyond the novelty” of reading in a new format.

‘Children who enjoy reading are more likely to do better at school and beyond, so finding ways to help children enjoy reading and to do so more often is vital to increase their literacy,’ she said.

‘It is important to recognise the increased reading opportunities that technology offers pupils and how it can help children who struggle to read, for example by giving them the option of increasing the font size of the text. This study indicates that technology has most potential to engage children, particularly boys, who do not enjoy reading.’

A Trust spokesman said it wasn’t clear why young boys were particularly attracted to ebooks but speculated it could be because ‘they can change the size of text, are able to have less or more words on a page’.

The spokesman also said ‘boys feel more comfortable with technology, and it’s an image thing because they prefer to be seen reading an e-book’.

More research on the reasons behind the uptake by boys is expected next year.

Harry Bingham
Harry Bingham

I received an email yesterday from Harry of Jericho Writers in which he quoted from George Saunders’ book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, a book about reading and writing. Saunders wrote: “I’ve worked with so many wildly talented young writers over the years that I feel qualified to say that there are two things that separate writers who go on to publish from those who don’t.

First, a willingness to revise.

Second, the extent to which the writer has learned to make causality.”

Harry’s email is quite lengthy, so I’ll summarise the points that he and George Saunders make.

First, about revising. Harry says, “The most frustrating writers I’ve ever dealt with are ones who come to us with a really strong manuscript, which they then don’t revise. I remember one writer in particular who had a genuinely interesting and well-written manuscript. It needed a brisk haircut, three or four weeks in the workshop, and it would have been ready to meet some agents. And – it never did. It never got there.”

From my point of view, revision is essential. Painful, yes at times, but if there’ a good editor, if we’ve listened to him/her, and if we’ve taken on board her/his points it is just self-destructive not to follow the advice we’re given.

What about causality? Harry makes clear that he’s not talking about the causality that one can observe on a billiard table: predictable physics. He is talking about the events that are caused by humanity – by the characteristics, the values the hunches, the emotions, the values of individuals. This richness is what makes a story interesting. It’s when a character does something unexpected, but understandable, and that throws the plot off its expected course. Or perhaps it is the character’s surprise reaction to an expected development. This kind of causality is easy to say, but not so easy to bring to life. Our characters themselves must have real depth, uniqueness and some internal conflicts to make this kind of rich causality work.

While we’re on the subject of what differentiates writers who get published from those who don’t, there is an interesting lead article in the Spring 2021 issue of The Author entitled “Winner Take All” by Robert H Frank, who says, “Whether a book becomes a bestseller depends on many factors, perhaps the most important of which is whether it’s any good. But as millions of authors are painfully aware, many good books never achieve bestseller status. By far the strongest predictor of whether a book of given quality will become a bestseller is whether it was written by an author of earlier bestsellers. If an author’s book succeeds, they become a more attractive client for a high profile literary agent. That means their next cash advance will exceed the previous one by an even larger amount than it would have, which will create additional pressure on their publisher to publicise their new title more aggressively. And so on.”

Happy Easter

Four Types of Conflict

In an article in Reader’s Digest dated April 2, 2018, Karen Ann Lefkowitz wrote about the conflict which is necessary in a script, but her observations apply equally to fiction.

Reader’s Digest says of Ms Lefkowitz: “Karen Ann Lefkowitz received her master’s degree in communication management from the University of Southern California and works at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. As a freelance writer, she has written art and entertainment pieces for print and online publications.”

Unfortunately, I can’t find a picture of the lady, but in her article she says: “It goes by a variety of names—clash, quarrel or discord—and can take innumerable forms: a fierce dragon battle, verbally sparring with the opposite sex, or simply uncovering a mystery. Described and designed in whatever fashion the imagination can divine, conflict is at the heart of every great screenplay. Conflict is what drives the narrative and without it a tale may exist, but there will be nothing exciting to tell—drama rises out of conflict.

“A script is always about a protagonist with a problem. The key words are motivation, opposition and goal. The protagonist is motivated to overcome his problem and/or achieve some goal. On this quest there should always be opposition—without it, the story becomes lifeless. The opposing force created, the conflict within the story generally comes in four basic types: Conflict with the self, Conflict with others, Conflict with the environment and Conflict with the supernatural.

“Conflict with the self, the internal battle a lead character has within, is often the most powerful. To be one’s own antagonist is of great distress to most and can result in incredible storytelling if done correctly. In Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of The Sith, fans finally got to see Anakin Skywalker succumb to his dark side and become Darth Vader. Conflict with the self has always been featured in the Star Wars canon. Like his father, Luke struggles with his identity and destiny.

“Oscar®-winner American Beauty brilliantly employed conflict with the self. Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham is suffering from a mid-life crisis and must find a way out of his depression in order to discover who he really is and mend his relationships.

“Going mano a mano may seem a little boring, but when a superbly drawn protagonist and antagonist are pitted against one another it can be highly entertaining. Romantic comedies almost always employ this technique: WhenHarry Met SallyAnnie Hall, As Good As It GetsHitch—each has the love interests wrestling each other.

“Conflict with the environment is not limited to physical landscape. Environment encompasses society and every aspect of it. In 2005 a number of film releases featured society as a major oppositional force. In Cinderella Man, boxer James Braddock is at the mercy of his Depression-era unlucky circumstances. In Sundance Film Festival favorite Hustle & Flow, DJay struggles with his role in society as just a low-life pimp. He hopes to elevate himself through his musical talent by becoming a rapper. Pride & Prejudice centers on the injustice of the ruling class system and how it makes falling in love not just a matter of the heart, but of how deep an individual’s pocket or purse strings reaches.

“The documentary March of The Penguins represents a strong use of conflict with the natural world. The Emperor penguins must travel a great distance if they wish to procreate. Even after they have successfully mated, the father penguin must protect the delicate egg without the mother. If luck prevails and the egg actually hatches, the father is left with a baby who needs protection from the unforgiving frozen arctic terrain.

“In an age where special effect technology allows for limitless filmic expression, conflict with the supernatural has become quite popular. The world of the unknown is always titillating. The realm of the supernatural embraces all menacing meanies; the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, King Kong, ghosts—each fit the supernatural profile. Look directly to the highly successful Lord of The Rings trilogy for a terrific example of conflict with the supernatural. Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring are fighting a ring, a powerful ring hungry to return to its evil owner, Sauron, who isn’t really alive, or dead, but a frightening entity.

“Writers can concentrate on one, two or all four conflict types. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is a fine case of utilizing all four conflict types. The initial conflict is with the shark. Spielberg’s clever technique of not revealing the actual shark until the last reel of the movie makes the creature an almost paranormal predator (conflict with the supernatural). As the story progresses and the shark attacks mount up, a call to action becomes necessary. Sheriff Brody, enlisted to lead the charge to eliminate the shark, must grapple with his own fear of the water (conflict with the self). Big tourist location that it is, the town of Amity Island fights with Brody to not close the beaches during the busy holiday season (conflict with the environment/society).

“Now that the four types have been outlined, the question remains how to successfully weave conflict into the script. This can be accomplished through character and setting, to give two illustrations.

“The medium of movies has produced some of the greatest villains in popular culture: Darth Vader, The Wicked Witch of the West, Freddy Krueger, Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter, and even the Nazis from the Indiana Jones trilogy. Creating a living, breathing antagonist to butt heads with the hero is an easy way to invoke conflict. There can be one main antagonist or multiple characters causing trouble. In Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series, The Bride didn’t just go up against nasty Bill; she has the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad to smack down, too.

“Physical space can be converted into an aggressive element in a screenplay. A classic in the Jerry Bruckheimer oeuvre, 1996’s The Rock features a chemical weapons expert played by Nicolas Cage teaming up with ex-convict Sean Connery to break into, and then out of, Alcatraz. The prison itself, plus the fact that it is located on a remote island, creates obstacles for the heroes. Physical spaces in the prison, like the boiler room, laundry room and still-operational jail cells, all become sources of conflict.

“When looking for the next big idea why not brainstorm first for some kind of conflict? Write it down in one sentence. For example: A police officer has to catch a serial killer. Try to focus on this specific conflict and build outward—create the characters, give them something to say, pick a setting, and of course, keep that conflict coming scene after scene after scene.”

Writing a Synopsis

I have always struggled writing a synopsis for a book I have written. It always seems o come out as two single spaced pages, which I know is too much, and when I try to cut it back I feel like a child murderer. So, I was glad to take note of the advice from Courtney Carpenter of February 14, 2012 which was recently republished by Writer’ Digest.

I haven’t been able to find a biography of Ms Carpenter, but she has been a frequent contributor to Writer’ Digest, and this seems to be her photo.

In the article, she says: “Once you have finished writing your novel or book, it’s time to prepare your work for the submission process. While each literary agent has their own specific guidelines, it’s useful to know how to write a synopsis. 

“Here are 5 tips on how to write a synopsis like a pro.

  • Narrative Arc. A synopsis conveys the narrative arc, an explanation of the problem or plot, the characters, and how the book or novel ends. It ensures character actions and motivations are realistic and make sense. It summarizes what happens and who changes from beginning to end of the story. It gives agents a good and reliable preview of your writing skills.
  • Active Voice. Agents look for good writing skills. Let yours shine in your synopsis by using active voice and third person.
  • Unique Point of View. An agent is usually looking for an idea of fresh or unique elements. Is your plot cliche or predictable? Have elements that set your story apart from other things they have seen.
  • Story Advancement. A synopsis should include the characters’ feelings and emotions. Use these elements to advance your plot and story.
  • Write Clearly. Focus on clarity in your writing and avoid wordiness. Remember, less is more.

“While there is no universal standard for the length of a book or novel synopsis, agents usually favour one to two pages, single-spaced. Sometimes an agent might ask for a chapter outline instead, which is a synopsis of each chapter. Here are some tips on what to avoid when writing a synopsis:

  • Mentioning too many characters or events.
  • Including too much detail about plot twists and turns. You don’t want to tell the entire story. What you want to do is write a book summary with enough detail about the plot to intrigue the reader or agent.
  • Unnecessary detail, description, or explanation. Make each word in your synopsis count.
  • Editorializing your novel or book. Don’t use “…in a flashback,” or “…in a poignant scene.” If you have a confusing series of events and character interactions, not only will your reader be confused, but a potential agent will be too.
  • Writing back cover copy instead of a synopsis. Don’t go astray and write a hook to intrigue a reader to buy a book or an agent to request a manuscript. Focus on summarizing your novel or book.

“Jane Friedman gives some of the best tips for formatting a synopsis. She recommends beginning with a strong paragraph identifying your protagonist, problem or conflict, and setting. The next paragraph should convey any major plot turns or conflicts necessary and any characters that should be mentioned in order for your book summary to make sense to whomever is reading it.

“Lastly, she recommends indicating how major conflicts are resolved in the last paragraph. This ensures a clear presentation of your book or novel and doesn’t leave the reader confused.”

I actually like Jane Friedman’s advice best because it focuses the mind in what is really important to include in a synopsis, and keeps it brief which, I understand, is what agents want.

100 Greatest Novels

Today, The Daily Telegraph published their list of the hundred greatest novels (in English). I’m sharing the list below. It’s interesting to notice what one has read, what one would like to read, and what one would like to add (or delete) to the list.

100. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien (1954–55)

Hairy-toed hobbit Frodo leaves home to defend the world from dark forces by destroying a cursed ring, in Tolkien’s epic trilogy. WH Auden thought this tale of fantastic creatures looking for lost jewellery was a “masterpiece”.

99. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

This child’s-eye view of racial prejudice and freaky neighbours in Thirties Alabama was the only novel Lee published in her lifetime – until an early draft of it was released as a “new” book in 2015.

98. The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore (1916)

A rich Bengali noble lives happily until a radical revolutionary appears, in this Bengali tale of clashing cultures from the Nobel Prize-winning poet and novelist.

97. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)

Extra-terrestrial travel meets very English humour, as Earth is demolished to make way for a Hyperspatial Express Route. Don’t panic!

96. One Thousand and One Nights (anonymous)

A Persian king’s new bride tells tales to stall post-coital execution, in a tangled collection of Middle Eastern folk stories first translated into English in 1706.

95. The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1774)

Werther loves Charlotte, but she’s already engaged. Woe is he! Goethe was inspired by his own obsessive romance with a married woman to write this epistolary novel, which made him famous overnight.

94. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1980)

The children of poor Hindus and wealthy Muslims are switched at birth in this Booker Prize winner, which uses magical realism to question the legacy of Indian partition.

93. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré (1974)

The pseudonymous le Carré drew on his own work in the secret service to create fictional spymaster George Smiley. In his finest adventure, a nursery rhyme provides the code names for British spies suspected of treason.

92. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1932)

A hilarious satire on bleak rural romances. “Something nasty” has been observed in the woodshed, and elderly Ada Doom is perturbed.

91. The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki (c1000–20)

This is a coruscating story of the life and loves of an emperor’s son. And, according to some scholars, it may be the world’s first novel.

90. Under the Net by Iris Murdoch (1954)

A work of Murdoch gold in which a feckless writer has dealings with a canine movie star. Comedy and philosophy combined.

89. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (1962)

Writer Anna scribbles in her notebooks about communism and women’s liberation, in what Margaret Drabble calls “inner-space fiction”.

88. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (1825–32)

Passion, poetry and pistols vie in this verse novel of thwarted love, which inspired an opera by Tchaikovsky.

87. On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)

Beat-generation boys aim to “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles”, in a semi-autobiographical picaresque. Kerouac typed out the first draft in three near-sleepless weeks, on a single 120-foot scroll of paper.

86. Old Goriot by Honoré de Balzac (1835)

This disillusioning dose of Bourbon Restoration realism follows three characters: retired pasta-maker Goriot, mysterious felon Vautrin and ambitious student Rastingnac, an anti-hero whose name became a byword for ruthless social climbing.

85. The Red and the Black by Stendhal (1830)

A plebian hero struggles against the materialism and hypocrisy of French society with his “force d’ame”.

84. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (1844)

“One for all and all for one”: the eponymous swashbucklers battle the mysterious Milady in 17th-century France.

83. Germinal by Emile Zola (1885)

Written to “germinate” social change, Germinal unflinchingly documents the starvation of French miners.

82. The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942)

A Frenchman kills an Arab friend in Algiers and accepts “the gentle indifference of the world” in an existentialist fable championed by fellow philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

81. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (1980)

An illuminating historical whodunit set in a 14th-century Italian monastery. Eco, previously an obscure semantics professor, was baffled when his book became a bestseller.

80. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (1988)

An Australian heiress bets an Anglican priest he can’t move a glass church 400 kilometres, in a shaggy-dog story that won Carey the first of his two Booker Prizes (he scooped the award again in 2001 with True History of the Kelly Gang).

79. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)

Rhys’s post-colonial prequel to Jane Eyre gives moving, human voice to the “madwoman in the attic” (Mr Rochester’s first wife).

78. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)

The ludic logic of “Carroll” (the pen-name of mathematician Charles Dodgson) makes it possible to believe six impossible things before breakfast, as young Alice slips down the rabbit-hole into a world of talking animals. 

77. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

US Air Force pilot Yossarian drives himself crazy trying get out of active service in the Second World War. But trying to get out of a war is clear-cut proof of sanity, surely? So he’s stuck. The title of Heller’s satirical epic is still shorthand for inescapable lose-lose loopholes.

76. The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925)

K proclaims he’s innocent when unexpectedly arrested. But “innocent of what”? We never find out, but this posthumously published nightmare made “Kafkaesque” the go-to label for any instance of hellish bureaucracy.

75. Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee (1959)

The first part of a trilogy inspired by Lee’s Gloucester childhood; the protagonist’s first romantic encounter with the titular Rosie (that “first long secret drink of golden fire”) is under a hay wagon.

74. Waiting for the Mahatma by RK Narayan (1955)

A gentle comedy in which a Gandhi-inspired Indian youth becomes an anti-British extremist.

73. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque (1929)

The horror of the Great War as seen by a teenage German soldier. It became an Oscar-winning film in 1930, and was later banned – and burned – by Hitler’s regime.

72. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler (1982)

Three Baltimore siblings are differently affected by their parents’ unexplained separation. The best of Tyler’s many excellent books.

71. The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin (1791)

A profound and panoramic insight into 18th-century Chinese society.

70. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958)

In a historical page-turner, Garibaldi’s Redshirts sweep through Sicily, the “jackals” ousting the nobility, or “leopards”.

69. If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino (1979)

International book fraud is exposed in this playful postmodernist puzzle.

68. Crash by JG Ballard (1973)

A former TV scientist preaches “a new sexuality, born from a perverse technology” – more specifically, getting your kicks from car-crashes.

67. A Bend in the River by VS Naipaul (1979)

East African-Indian Salim travels to the heart of Africa and finds “the world is what it is”, in the Nobel-winner Naipaul’s most lauded work.

66. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866)

Boy meets pawnbroker. Boy kills pawnbroker with an axe. Guilt, breakdown, Siberia, redemption.

65. Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (1957)

A romantic young doctor’s idealism is trampled by the atrocities of the Russian Revolution.

64. The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz (1956-57)

This tale follows three generations of Cairenes from the First World War to the coup of 1952.

63. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

Stevenson’s “bogey tale” of a scientist who tries (unsuccessfully) to banish his dark side came to him in a dream.

62. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726) 

A scribulous riff on travellers’ tall tales. The Brobdingnag giants and Lilliput midgets Gulliver meets may seem far-fetched, but Swift’s satirical targets were closer to home (the Lilliputian Court is really that of George I).

61. My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk (1998)

A painter is murdered in Istanbul in 1591. Unusually, we hear from the corpse.

60. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967)

Myth and reality melt magically together in this Colombian family saga.

9. London Fields by Martin Amis (1989)

A failed novelist steals a woman’s trashed diaries, which reveal she’s plotting her own murder.

58. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño (1998)

A gang of South American poets travel the world, sleep around, challenge critics to duels. Who wouldn’t?

57. The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse (1943)

Intellectuals withdraw from life to play a game of musical and mathematical rules in an ivory tower, in this futuristic coming-of-age parable.

56. The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1951)

Madhouse memories of the Second World War are narrated by a drum-playing adult in a child’s body with a super-human shriek. It’s a key text of European magical realism.

55. Austerlitz by WG Sebald (2001)

In this paragraph-less novel, a Czech-born historian traces his own history back to the Holocaust.

54. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

A scholar’s sexual obsession with a prepubescent “nymphet” is complicated by her mother’s passion for him. The narrator may be a loathsome paedophile, but his gift for language is irresistible. First published in Paris, Nabokov’s darkly comic novel caused a scandal; the Home Office ordered customs guards to seize any copy entering the UK.

53. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

After nuclear war has rendered most of the United States sterile, fertile women are enslaved for breeding in a close-to-the-bone sci-fi tale. As Atwood has pointed out, every act of cruelty inflicted on women in this book has already happened somewhere in the world.

9. London Fields by Martin Amis (1989)

A failed novelist steals a woman’s trashed diaries, which reveal she’s plotting her own murder.

58. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño (1998)

A gang of South American poets travel the world, sleep around, challenge critics to duels. Who wouldn’t?

57. The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse (1943)

Intellectuals withdraw from life to play a game of musical and mathematical rules in an ivory tower, in this futuristic coming-of-age parable.

56. The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1951)

Madhouse memories of the Second World War are narrated by a drum-playing adult in a child’s body with a super-human shriek. It’s a key text of European magical realism.

55. Austerlitz by WG Sebald (2001)

In this paragraph-less novel, a Czech-born historian traces his own history back to the Holocaust.

54. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

A scholar’s sexual obsession with a prepubescent “nymphet” is complicated by her mother’s passion for him. The narrator may be a loathsome paedophile, but his gift for language is irresistible. First published in Paris, Nabokov’s darkly comic novel caused a scandal; the Home Office ordered customs guards to seize any copy entering the UK.

53. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

After nuclear war has rendered most of the United States sterile, fertile women are enslaved for breeding in a close-to-the-bone sci-fi tale. As Atwood has pointed out, every act of cruelty inflicted on women in this book has already happened somewhere in the world.

52. The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (1951)

Expelled from a “phony” prep school, an adolescent anti-hero goes through a difficult phase.

51. Underworld by Don DeLillo (1997)

From baseball to nuclear waste, all late-20th-century American life is here, in this non-linear epic narrated by a businessman in jail for murder.

50. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

A brutal, haunting, jazz-inflected journey down the darkest narrative rivers of American slavery. In Virginia, controversy over its graphic content led to the so-called “Beloved bill” – a draft law giving parents the right to ban books from schools – though the bill was vetoed by the state’s governor in 2016.

49. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1962)

“Okies” set out from the Depression dust-bowl seeking decent wages and dignity, in this realist masterpiece.

48. Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin (1953)

Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical novel explores the role of the Church in Harlem’s African-American community.

47. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1983)

Against the backdrop of the 1968 Prague Spring, a doctor’s infidelities distress his wife. But if life means nothing, Kundera muses, surely it can’t matter?

46. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961)

A meddling teacher is betrayed by a favourite pupil who becomes a nun.

Muriel Spark at work in Edinburgh, 1960
Muriel Spark

45. The Voyeur by Alain Robbe-Grillet (1955)

Did the watch salesman kill the girl on the beach. If so, who heard?

44. Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre (1938)

A historian becomes increasingly sickened by his existence, but decides to muddle on, in Sartre’s first novel – an existentialist touchstone.

43. The Rabbit books by John Updike (1960–2000)

A former high-school basketball star is unsatisfied by marriage, fatherhood and sales jobs, in four comic novels (and a later novella).

42. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)

A boy and a runaway slave set sail on the Mississippi, away from Antebellum “sivilisation”.

41. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (1902)

“Consulting detective” Sherlock Holmes chases a ghostly dog across the midnight moors.

40. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905) 

Lily Bart craves luxury too much to marry for love. Scandal and sleeping pills ensue, in what one critic called a savage attack on “an irresponsible, grasping and morally corrupt upper class”.

39. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)

A Nigerian yam farmer’s local leadership is shaken by accidental death and a missionary’s arrival.

38. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

A mysterious millionaire’s love for a woman with “a voice full of money” gets him in trouble.

37. The Warden by Anthony Trollope (1855)

“Of all novelists in any country, Trollope best understands the role of money,” said WH Auden. Here is the proof.

36. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1862)

An ex-convict (locked up for stealing a loaf of bread) struggles to become a force for good, but it ends badly. Better than the musical.

35. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954)

An uncommitted history lecturer clashes with his pompous boss, becomes drunk and gets the girl. The roguish anti-hero was modelled on the poet Philip Larkin.

34. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)

“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts” in a hardboiled crime noir with a plot so convoluted even Chandler claimed not to understand it.

33. Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1748)

One of the first English novels, an epistolary adventure whose heroine’s bodice is savagely unlaced by the brothel-keeping Robert Lovelace.

32. A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell (1951-1975)

A 12-book saga about upper-class life whose most celebrated character wears “the wrong kind of overcoat”.

31. Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky (2004)

Published 60 years after their author was gassed, these two novellas portray city and village life in Nazi-occupied France.

30. Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)

McEwan put the “c” word in the classic English country-house novel, following a lovelorn student from a stately home to prison to the Second World War.

29. Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec (1978)

We follow the jigsaw puzzle of lives in a Parisian apartment block, in a playful postmodern classic; each chapter is set in a different room of the building.

28. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749)

A thigh-thwacking yarn of a foundling boy sowing his wild oats before marrying the girl next door.

27. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

Human endeavours “to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world” have tragic consequences, as a scientist assembles a new body from bits of corpses – and brings it to life. Shelley was still a teenager when she wrote it, after Lord Byron challenged her to come up with a ghost story.

26. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell (1853)

Northern villagers turn their bonnets against the social changes accompanying the industrial revolution.

25. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868)

Hailed by TS Eliot as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels”, it retells the hunt for a missing jewel through a series of letters.

24. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)

A modernist masterpiece, reworking Homer with humour. Following a bored student and a middle-aged advertising salesman as they wander across Dublin, it contains one of the longest “sentences” in English literature: 4,391 words.

23. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1856)

Buying the lies of romance novels leads a provincial doctor’s wife to an agonising end. Julian Barnes has called it “the greatest novel” ever written.

22. A Passage to India by EM Forster (1924)

A false accusation exposes the racist oppression of British rule in India. It was inspired by Forster’s own time on the subcontinent, working as a secretary to a Maharajah.

21. 1984 by George Orwell (1949)

A totalitarian dystopia in which Big Brother is even more sinister than the TV series it inspired.

20. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1759)

Samuel Johnson thought Sterne’s bawdy, experimental novel was too odd to last. Pah! Centuries later, Tristram’s failed attempt to tell his life story – he keeps becoming distracted mid-sentence – still has readers cackling.

19. The War of the Worlds by HG Wells (1897)

Bloodsucking Martian invaders are wiped out by a dose of the sniffles. A radio adaptation by Orson Welles was so successful that American listeners really thought aliens were invading. (Or so the story goes.)

18. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (1938)

Waugh based the hapless junior-reporter hero of this journalistic farce on former Telegraph editor Bill Deedes.

17. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1892)

Sexual double standards are held up to the cold, Wessex light in this rural tragedy, which carries the subtitle “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented”.

16. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (1938)

A seaside sociopath mucks up murder and marriage in Greene’s literary Punch and Judy show.

15. The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse (1938)

Scrape-prone toff Bertie Wooster and his pals are suavely manipulated by his gentleman’s personal gentleman, Jeeves.

14. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)

Out on the winding, windy moors, Cathy and Heathcliff become each other’s “souls”. Then he storms off. Published under a pseudonym, it was Emily Brontë’s only novel; she died a year later.

13. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)

Debt and deception in Dickens’s semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman, crammed with cads, creeps and capital fellows.

12. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)

A slave trader is shipwrecked, but finds God – and a native to convert – on a desert island.

11. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

Spiky Elizabeth can’t stand aloof Mr Darcy, nor is he keen on her. Sure enough, they’re soon in love!

10. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605)

A picaresque tale about an elderly gent who has read too many romantic novels and decides to become a knight in shining armour. It has given us the word “quixotic”, for any over-idealistic boondoggle.

9. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)

While holding a party, our heroine hears about a stranger’s suicide – and finds it oddly inspirational – in a masterpiece of stream-of-consciousness. 

8. Disgrace by JM Coetzee (1999)

An English professor in post-apartheid South Africa loses everything after seducing a student, in this Booker-winning political allegory.

7. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)

Poor and obscure and plain as Jane is, Mr Rochester wants to marry her. Illegally. (He’s already married – see Wide Sargasso Sea, above.)

6. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (1871–1922) 

A seven-volume autobiographical meditation on memory, featuring literature’s most celebrated cake.

5. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1902)

“The conquest of the earth,” writes Conrad, “is not a pretty thing.” Steamboat captain Marlowe discovers this for himself, when he travels up the Congo for a rendezvous with a deranged ivory trader. Francis Ford Coppola shifted the plot to Sixties Vietnam for his film Apocalypse Now.

4. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (1881) 

An American heiress in Europe “affronts her destiny” by marrying an adulterous egoist. Nobody has the style of Henry James.

3. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1878) 

Tolstoy’s idea for this tale of a doomed adulteress’s affair with a rich count grew from a daydream of “a bare exquisite aristocratic elbow”. William Faulkner thought it was the finest novel ever written – and so did the none-too-modest Tolstoy.

2. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

Monomaniacal Captain Ahab seeks vengeance on the white whale that ate his leg, in a 900-page epic narrated by a sailor who calls himself Ishmael. The insights into human nature more than make up for the lengthy descriptions of harpooning.

1. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871-72)

“One of the few English novels written for grown-up people,” said Virginia Woolf, praising this richly detailed portrait of overlapping lives in a fictional Midlands town.

Is Writing Inspiration or Perspiration?

An article with this title was written by May E. Demuth on February 9, 2010 for Writer’s Digest and was re-published by WD last month. Unfortunately, I can’t find a May E Demuth. There are plenty of references to a Mary E Demuth, writer, speaker and literary agent, but I can’t find any evidence she’s also known as ‘May’.

So, sorry. No picture or bio of May, who wrote: “At the keyboard, we’ve all experienced those moments of divine creative intervention when our muse bursts forth—ideas flow into inspired sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Likewise, no writer is exempt from those times when each word we type feels like agony. So which is it: Is our best writing purely the product of inspiration, when we hurl beautiful phrases to the page or does our real brilliance come only through sheer perspiration? It’s the writer’s paradox—and it’s far more complicated than Thomas Edison’s oft-quoted figure that genius is 1 percent of the former, and 99 percent of the latter. Understanding the dynamics of each and how they relate to our finished written work can help us capitalize on our most inspired times and push through our most difficult moments.

Here are four ways to do just that.

I recently came across an interesting study of baseball clutch hitters. It turns out that players who seem to have a knack for coming through when the game is on the line actually have similar statistics whether it’s the bottom of the ninth or the top of the first. As author Dan Fox detailed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “What they’ve found is that while there may be a small clutch ability … that ability is dwarfed by the normal differences in overall performance. In other words, in the bigger scheme of things, it’s the best players who do best in the clutch.”

Taking that analogy from the diamond to the keyboard, it’s the writer’s patient, consistent dedication to the craft in the mundane (perspiration) that fosters moments of brilliance (inspiration) at bat. Freelance editor Andrew Meisenheimer puts it this way: “Perspiration leads to inspiration, even though that seems counterintuitive.”

Many of us, whether we realize it or not, dream of being “clutch writers.” When I speak at writing conferences around the nation, I always tell the story of my long journey to publication, including my 10 years of writing in obscurity, perspiring over hundreds of thousands of words before anyone ever expressed interest. But I find most people latch on to the latter half—in which I wrote a book, met an agent, and signed several contracts in the course of one year. My “clutch” story stands on the shoulders of miles of typed words.

Many writers I surveyed for this article had found that their best, least-edited work came from hard-won, perspiration-filled words. They might’ve felt each sentence lacked luster, but that feeling didn’t jibe with the reality of the final product.

When I wrote my first published novel, the story unfolded like magic. Detail upon detail came to me like a gift. But once I hit my third novel, each storyline felt like labor. The characters wouldn’t speak to me, wouldn’t tell me their plans in sweeping statements—just one terrible word at a time. And yet today, looking back at my body of work, I’m most satisfied with that book, and critical reviews confirm its merit.

Novelist Rene Gutteridge experienced something similar. “I wrote one book that was nearly all sweat. I kept thinking I’d made a horrible mistake—that this wasn’t ‘inspired.’ I turned it in, terrified. This is going to be the book that cancels my entire contract, I thought. When my editors read it, they loved it. I only had a half of a page of notes—the least rewriting I ever had to do. But each and every page in that book made me work for it. And about four times I was left bawling at my computer, believing I was, indeed, a hack.”

Initially, when we first get the urge to write, we do it for the sheer joy of penning stories, articles … whatever we feel driven toward. We’re happy to keep our derrieres there in the chair because inspiration looms. But as time goes by, that initial spark gives way to simple, plain work. Award-winning novelist Susan Meissner elaborates: “It’s like running uphill now. With a headwind. And rocks in my shoes. And a monkey on my back. And hecklers on the sidelines. And the top, if there is one, is shrouded in mist.”

What do you do when penning each phrase is like hauling water with a bucket full of holes? “I would say that most writing days for me are heavy on the perspiration side, far more than the inspiration,” RITA award-winning novelist Robin Lee Hatcher says. “But I believe, once you start writing, getting out the dross if you have to, that inspiration will follow.”

Sometimes the words do flow. Sometimes they don’t. Write them either way.

Seasons of inspiration come, weaving in and through long stretches of perspiration. As writers, we must embrace this paradox to go forward in our careers. One moment, we feel like we’re merely channeling words onto the page. The next, we might find ourselves wrangling each sentence to the ground, trying to tame it into submission. Don’t despise the perspiration needed to write your story. And welcome the inspiration when it comes.

Both will transform your writing.”

I think this is a very good commentary.


One might think that research isn’t necessary when you’re writing a novel – after all, it’s fictional. But my novel, Seeking Father Khaliq, is set in the Middle East, and while have been to a number of places in the region, I had never been to Mecca, Medina, (in Saudi Arabia) or Karbala (Iraq), where some of the greatest religious pilgrimages, including Arba’een, the Shia Muslim pilgrimage with about twenty million people take place. To make the novel come to life I spent as much time on research as I did on writing.

The February 10, 2021 issue of Writer’s Digest has an article by by Devon Daniels with the title, “How To Do Shadow Research for Your Novel” which i enjoyed and which I have included excerpts below.

Writer’s Digest says: “Devon Daniels is a born-and-bred California girl whose own love story found her transplanted to the Maryland shores of the Chesapeake Bay. She’s a graduate of the University of Southern California and in her past life worked in marketing, product design, and music. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her clinging to her sanity as mom, chef, chauffeur, and referee to four children, or sneaking off with her husband for date nights in Washington, DC. Meet You in the Middle is her first novel.”

Devon Daniels Author-web_edited.jpg
Devon Daniels

Me Daniels says: “When I first decided to write an enemies-to-lovers romance between rival Senate staffers, I knew I had my work cut out for me. I’d never worked on Capitol Hill before—or in politics at all—so I needed to research everything about the job, roles, and work environment from the ground up. It was important to me that the world I portrayed be as accurate as possible. In addition to an entertaining love story, I wanted to give the reader a peek behind the curtain of Washington politics in a way that felt both relatable and authentic. So, where do you start with this type of deep research?

First Stop: Hit the Internet

Research and read everything you can get your hands on about the industry or setting you’ve chosen for your novel. For me, that meant everything from articles detailing the day-to-day activities of Senate staffers to congressional calendars to “inside D.C.” gossip blogs to Yelp reviews of popular Capitol Hill hangouts. I watched a mind-numbing amount of C-SPAN. I even read Congress for Dummies, a joke that ended up in the novel. Once I felt comfortable with the basic rules and responsibilities governing legislative staffers, I moved on to the next step of my research: site visits.

Road Trip

Sure, you can “visit” anywhere in the world by watching YouTube videos, but it stands to reason that if you’re going to write about Ireland, you should probably have been to Ireland. Whenever possible, you should try to experience the sights, smells, and feel of a place firsthand. I live just outside Washington, D.C., so I was fortunate to have the benefit of proximity to my setting. I headed downtown to the Hart Senate building, one of three Senate buildings and the site of the political and professional power struggle between my main characters, Ben and Kate.

Now, here’s where introverted writers may have to step outside their comfort zones a bit: you’ll need to be confident, assertive, and outgoing—think “intrepid reporter”—to get the most out of your research trip. Armed with a list of interview questions, I strolled into a handful of senators’ offices, announced I was writing a romance novel, then began rattling off questions to the bemused staff assistants manning the front desks. While I got a few puzzled looks, I found most people were intrigued by my enthusiasm, happy to help, and flattered to be considered an “expert.”

I lingered on benches, watching and listening. I chatted up security guards. I ate lunch in the building’s popular coffee shop, Cups, then added the spot right into my draft. I snapped photos and video of the ornate gold elevators and elegant marble bathrooms—seemingly inconsequential details I ended up layering into pivotal scenes. Studying the Hart Building’s unique architecture and office layout inspired a critical plot twist I never would have dreamed up otherwise. Once I felt I’d learned all I could by eavesdropping observing, I moved on to stage three: shadowing.

Call in an Expert

It might sound simple, but if you don’t personally know someone in the industry you’re writing about, this can take some creativity. I began with family and friends, asking around to see if anyone had any Capitol Hill contacts, but came up short. I ended up finding someone in the most roundabout of ways: via a thread in a Facebook group, where members introduced themselves and (conveniently for me) listed their occupations. When one woman mentioned she was a staffer, I slid right into her DM’s. This staffer was kind enough to take me on a tour of her office, explain the duties of her job and career trajectory in finer detail, and answer my questions about how staffers from opposing parties work together. She read over my early chapters, providing feedback and suggestions. If I hit a snag while writing, she was just an email away.

I was also able to arrange a behind-the-scenes tour of the Capitol Building, an invaluable experience that literally allowed me to walk in my characters’ shoes and see the world through their eyes. Strolling the Senate floor, standing in the room where the President signs the legislation, and gripping the dais where the majority leaders hold their press conferences was not only awe-inspiring for this history buff but helped me visualize and bring my characters to life in a completely different way.

I’m tickled when I hear Washington insiders call out how “authentically D.C.” the book feels, or assume I must have been a congressional staffer myself. Details matter, whether it’s the color of the carpet in a committee room or the type of music that plays in a well-known bar. One of the best compliments I’ve received is that the reader felt they were truly “in the room” with my characters.”