World Building: It’s all in the details

Ask the Authors (Round 2)

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The world your story is is set in controls the possibilities for the characters and events in your story. This is more obvious in science fiction or fantasy perhaps, where magic or advanced technologies are the norm and are to be expected, but there is world building involved in others genres as well. every story has rules which may limit what can and can’t happen. And in every story, it is the author who creates the world and determines the rules, and it is the author’s job to clue readers in to what that world is like and what those rules are.

This may be easier with stories set in a reality that reflects the world we live in and are familiar with, because then readers may know most of the world, but it is still the author’s job to paint a picture with his or her words in order to allow reader’s a clear vision of their world. You would think in nonfiction this world we are familiar with, but it may be a setting we haven’t been to, or it might be from past times which are unfamiliar, so nonfiction authors must find ways to convey their story world clearly, too.

How exactly we, as authors, go about that may vary, but it is a task we are all faced with. Readers are allowed a glimpse into the story world through the details provided, including sensory details that make an unfamiliar world seem more real and help familiar worlds to ring more true. Dialog between characters is another tool that helps readers to buy in to the story and emerse themselves in the story world, but it’s one that may be difficult to get right.

Today, our Ask the Authors panel members will be discussing how they build and portray their story worlds, real or imagined. Our panel members this week include DeAnna Knippling, Lilly Rayman, Mark Shaw, Ashley Fontainne, RA Winter, Jordan Elizabeth, Tom Johnson, Cynthia Vespia and Amy Cecil. Let’s find out what works for them and what doesn’t.

Do you prefer to set your stories in the real world or one which you’ve created?

DeAnna Knippling
deannak I am generally terrible at creating entirely separate worlds, although I’ve had some really helpful tips lately, and I have a book planned pending more research into 18th-century Russia.  I’m much better at taking the real world, adding some odd element, and extrapolating from there.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman My main series – The Unexpected Trilogy is set in the real world, yet with paranormal characters. Yet I have a work in progress that is set in a world that I have created.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne Real world. Sometimes that requires an extensive amount of research yet using realistic settings gives the story a relatable connection to the readers.

RA Winter

RA Winter I love to write magical realism.  Taking the real world and bringing in those little details that take your breath away just gives me the chills as I write.  In my older series, I  brought in a realm we can’t see or touch but know are there.  The spirits who surround my MC’s with love or nefarious tendencies were fun to write. In my new series, I take the reader to the underworld and Olympus to meet the Greek gods.  I’ve read Dante’s Inferno, the Illiad, the Odyssey and I’ve read some Plato. They don’t all agree on the details so I rework characters for my own purpose.  You just have to stay consistent with your details.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I prefer worlds I’ve created.  There is more freedom to allow the story to take you where it will.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture One that I have created, but I want my world based on reality to some degree. Okay, SF really has no holds barred when we use telepathy, teleportation, time travel, and FTL because those have not been accomplished yet, and probably never will. But if I set my story in the 25th century I’m not going to have cell phones and iPads, either. Our technology will be far past those devices by then, and I get riled when I read a futuristic novel set a million years in the future and the main character pulls out a cell phone or iPad! Please, try to come up with something fresh.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy The real world is easier to write about, especially if I’ve actually been to the location. But creating worlds is half the fun. So I like to do both. Real world with fictional locations. For instance, in my novel Lucky Sevens it takes place in Las Vegas where I really grew up but the majority of the story is set within the fictional hotel/casino Saints & Sinners which I created specifically for the book.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I use a little of both.  I take real places, real locations and set my story there, adding to them to fit into the story.


In fiction, even this world we live in becomes a physical backdrop for your story. Whether created from this reality or from your author’s mind, we must still help readers to visualize our story world.
How do you paint a picture for the reader so they can visualize your character’s physical environment?
DeAnna Knippling
 A lot of opinionated sense detail from my POV characters. They don’t just see a library full of books, they’re like, “Shame about the old Victorian haunted house’s library, with its thousands of stinking, mold-spotted, water-logged, mouse-eaten tomes.”
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I drop small elements of the physical backdrop into the prose of my story, it’s another element of avoiding information overload or boring word filling. When the backdrop becomes a part of the story in a descriptive sense, it helps you avoid boring the reader, allowing them to paint the picture in their mind’s eye as to the backdrop. Here’s an example from one of my current works in progress – this is the opening sentences of the story “Miracle In The Dust” and Australian setting:

The track stretched out before them, disappearing into the horizon like a red thread cutting through the scrub that undulated either side of the dirt road. Travis sighed at the bull-dust cloud that bloomed behind their horse truck in the side-mirror. It had been a dry winter, and it was shaping up to be a long hot dry summer.

Hopefully the reader can see what I can see, an arid landscape of red dust across the Australian outback with scrubby bushes that dot the rolling plains of a large stretch of land, and a bumpy dirt road.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne One of my favorite techniques is to just close my eyes and let my imagination immerse me inside the story, taking in all the smells, sounds, visuals and emotional responses of the characters in a particular scene.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I like to drop in descriptions here and there.  I try not to overwhelm the reader with thick paragraphs.  I’ve found it flows more smoothly if I add tidbits as the story progresses

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Hopefully, we will always have forests, oceans, and mountains. We can just give them different names and locations. The same for cities. Maybe moving sidewalks, dining tables in restaurants that float above the floor. Music that enchants instead of rocks. There is so much the author can do to build his world.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy That’s part of being a good writer. Its your job to take the image you see in your mind and paint it on the page with your verbiage so that the reader sees the same picture. It’s like coloring a picture. I used to really like to do the central image in the coloring books when I was little and I often left the background unfinished. But when I took the time to color in the rest of the picture it made it pop so much better. It was alot more visual.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil With using a real location to start with, I have real locations that I can work with to make my descriptions.  For example, in one of my books, it’s set in a town in Pennsylvania called Edinboro.  This town has a small resort community around a lake.  The house are not relatively large, but my main character has a mansion on this lake.  I found pictures on the internet of the house I was looking for and described the house from those pictures.


When creating fictional worlds, anything is possible, but only if you, the author make it so. The author controls what is and isn’t possible in their fictional world, and it is our job to clue the readers into these things.
How do you portray the rules of the world, beliefs and preferences of characters?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak Ah! The rules!  A lot of writers give me the “are you insane?” look when I tell them that they have to set out the story’s rules at the beginning of a story.  I’ve done this multiple ways, including literally writing out the rules.  A good, practical, low-key way to set out the rules is to tell the reader the POV character’s goals and expectations, noting the rules as things to be wary of as they attempt to achieve their goals.  “I knew I had to overcome the wizard, but the way my magic didn’t work from sunset to dawn was going to be a problem.”  Another way is to tuck the rules into the description of the setting.  “The gas lamps flickered and the heavy fog erased everything more than a hundred feet away.  Mocking voices called out, ‘Two shillings for a love-potion, only lasts until dawn! Two more shillings for a girl to stare at while you drink it!'”  There’s your magic system, embedded right into the world as part of the setting.
Understanding the world helps readers to buy into the story, allowing them to suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in the story. The events in the story don’t have to be possible in real life, but they do have to be possible in the world of the story in order to be believable. Have you ever had a reader catch an inconsistency in your story because a character did something that violated the rules of the world which you created?
My errors tend to be of a different nature!  I almost always forget that readers bring assumptions to stories, especially ones based on Earthly settings, and that if I’m not going to use that assumption, I’m going to have to stress that I’m not using it.  I had an orphan chimneysweep in a Victorian story who was a teenager, and a reader was upset that they weren’t, like, six.  Because Victorian orphan chimneysweeps should be six.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman In my only experience of world building I actually have an overlapping of the real world with my new world, via magic allowing for the main character to hop through the realms. The information that a reader needs about what my world and how it operates is provided in conversation when the main character first learns about the extra realm, and then when she finds herself in the new realm and has a conversation with a resident of the new realm who explains in conversation about the realm. Of course, this dialogue is broken up with some action and movement between the characters so that it doesn’t become an overload of static dialogue.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan Again, I add in little bits.  The hardest thing can be keeping true to your rules and not bending them as the story continues.  I keep a notebook next to me of rules and beliefs to make sure I stick to them throughout.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Usually this has something to do with the plot. A world of telepaths, and the necessary laws that might govern invading someone else’s mind. Or a world where one race has this ability and another doesn’t. This could cause conflicts between races.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I set those rules in my initial outline of the story and then I may or may not follow them depending on the direction the story is going in. I’m a big believer in breaking rules but not without a good reason.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I normally go with what’s acceptable in that time period.  I write historical and contemporary, so I usually don’t veer away from the beliefs and preferences of that time.


Understanding the world helps readers to buy into the story, allowing them to suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in the story. The events in the story don’t have to be possible in real life, but they do have to be possible in the world of the story in order to be believable.

Have you ever had a reader catch an inconsistency in your story because a character did something that violated the rules of the world which you created?

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman No, I haven’t had anyone complain about anything that has happened in any of my stories. So far, all my published stories are built in this world with the supernatural being an element of the story, but I always try not to get too crazy with what my characters can or cannot do, to provide that element of “this could really happen!”

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan It has happened once or twice.  I’ve wanted to hug the reader.  “Thank you for catching that!  I’m going to make a note for the next release.  Also – why aren’t you my critique partner?!”

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture In my novel, Three Go Back, the mode of transportation is teleportation machines. Fossil fuel vehicles have long been replaced by these machines, and there is no longer need for fossil fuel. However, one of my characters is an old man, a professor of astronomy, who maintains a small jet. I left myself open with this, but no one seemed to question it. If fossil fuels are no longer needed, how does the professor keep fuel for his jet? I would have questioned it in someone else’s novel (LOL).

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy No, I’m very good at keeping my characters in check. I’ve had readers point out some elements that didn’t fit in some of my earlier work. For instance, I wrote about stainless steel in a historical and they noted it would not have been invented yet in the time period I was writing about. We all make mistakes. I’ve read alot of very well known authors who don’t remain consistent to the story or their characters and it becomes a let down. I try my best not to do that because it can ruin the story.


Some authors draw maps of the fictional worlds they create to help readers follow the events of the story.
Have you ever used this technique? What other techniques have you used to help readers visualize your world?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak Ech, as I’ve said, I’m terrible at creating other worlds, so I don’t usually need to draw maps–although I do tend to use a lot of map research, so I can keep things clear for myself.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I haven’t drawn any maps since I played at writing when I was 14 years old, and that was more for my own use to remember where my world was based. In my writing now, as a published author, I try to use descriptive prose to help the reader to visualise backdrop, whether it be here on earth or in a world of my own creation.

Ashley Fontainne
Ashley Fontainne I have not, yet think it is a magnificent idea!
Jordan Elizabeth
Jordan I did have official maps for my original stories, but the publisher chose not to use them.  Now I just use a notebook and sketch a layout.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture I’ve never drawn a map of my worlds, but they would have probably helped in many cases. Usually the setting is a jungle or desert, and the characters must avoid a volcano or keep from getting lost in a desert. But would a map really help. Perhaps they can merely guide themselves by reading the stars and travelling north or south, east or west. However, when authors include a map, I do refer to it when following the adventure.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I drew a map once for a fantasy I was working on but I never actually used it. I use description to set the table of the scene and trust that my readers can visualize it from the cues I am giving them.


One of the questions in part 1 had to do with creating setting for places we’ve never been, which of course, encompasses all science fiction or fantasy worlds, as well as most speculative fiction worlds. Some panel members said they do a lot of online research of real settings they’ve never been to, but how many of you have explored real places which are similar to your fictional world, experiencing the sensory details in order to write them down?
Anyone explore physical locations in the flesh in order to get the details right when writing about a real location?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak When I can do this, I love it, but I can’t often afford to do so.  I’ll sometimes write stories set somewhere I’ve gone or planned to go, just because I can get deeper into the location.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman My Australiana setting is based off personal experience. My husband and I have travelled through Outback Queensland, and I intimately know the smell of the dry earth, or the smell of burning sap of a Eucalyptus gum tree in the scorching temperatures of Australia. And there is nothing more beautiful than the smell of rain hitting the dirt after an extended long period of dry. Having that sensory understanding helps an author to provide a detailed description that can pull the reader into the story for themselves. For other stories where the setting isn’t a location I have experienced, I scroll through the internet, researching the flora and fauna, going through images to get an idea of where my story is set.

Ashley Fontainne
Ashley Fontainne Once. When researching the real life mystery of the disappearance of famed Arkansas attorney Maude Crawford for Blood Loss, I went to her home in Camden, Arkansas, along with my mother (and co-author). The current owners of the home graciously allowed us to tour the residence and even take pictures. It was an amazing experience and allowed us to convey minute, specific details in the story we otherwise would have to invent.
RA Winter
RA Winter For locations, I use google maps while on the treadmill.  It’s a wonderful resource, as if the internet.  I’ve lived in five different countries, visited many others and have lived all over the US.  If I’m writing about someplace I’ve never been, I’ll ask people who’ve been there to read over my work before I publish it.  In one series, I wrote about a fictional city in Kansas.  It was a farm, which I grew up on one of those, so it was easy putting it in another state that I thought was beautiful driving through.
Jordan Elizabeth
Jordan Unfortunately, no, but I love to travel.  I haven’t done much traveling since my son was born.  I’m hoping to start back up in a few years.  I love to write about places I’ve been to.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture I’ve been all over the world so can usually describe the places I’ve been in good detail – at least during the period I was there. And I can tell when an author has never been where s/he is writing about. Encyclopedias and postcards give you the colorful aspects of a foreign locale, but if you don’t know the culture or customs you’ll get it all wrong. During the pulp era authors usually wrote about areas they had travelled – China, Japan, Europe, etc. But the men’s adventure writers of the 1970s and later seldom left their home town, and were writing about Africa, Turkey, and Cairo, as well as other foreign lands with no real knowledge of the places, and most of it was terrible. But publishers were publishing, and readers were eating it up. How many western writers have actually rode a horse? Or could saddle a horse if necessary? Writing about a location is the same thing, you need to know what you’re writing about. Someone once said that if you read about a mesa in Louis L’Amour’s novel, you can go there and find it.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I don’t have the liberty to go traveling about like some of the big name authors do. But if I could I would because it lends more realism to the story if you know the secrets of a place because you’ve actually been there, not just from reading about it or seeing pictures and video. For instance I remember every bit of trips to Hawaii and Italy so I may set some future novels in these locales.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil Yes, absolutely.  I would have to say that the majority of my books are set in locations that I have been to.


Do you plan out your world or build as you go and see what happens?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak See what happens, with a stack of books and maps at my side!
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I generally find that my world builds for me as I write.

Jordan Elizabeth
Jordan I have a general idea, but I build as I go. The story takes me where it takes me.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture I build as I go

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I write as I go. Particularly when I’m writing an adventure fantasy piece I just move the story along to where it needs to go and then clean it up later in editing. The only time I really kept track of locations in my world was writing the sequels to Demon Hunter titled Demon Huntress. Because I was revisiting this world I already created I wanted to have my characters revisit places that I had written about in great detail during the original trilogy. That meant going back in to my previous work and finding out all I needed to know about these places.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil Build as I go, with the actual place as a start.


What tools or methods do you use to keep track of all the details of your world?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak I have a details sheet with names, dates, and locations.  I keep it pretty simple.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I read back through what I need to. I’m terrible at keeping notes, I lose anything I do make, so it’s easier to simply read back if I need to confirm a minor detail.

RA Winter

RA Winter I keep a series bible.  Every character’s physical, mental, plot bits, etc are kept tucked safely inside.  I also use it for descriptions and will keep house plans, pictures of objects, models and the descriptions I’ve used.  It’s essential in any story for keeping your facts straight.
Jordan Elizabeth
Jordan I have a notebook full of information.  I used to create a PowerPoint for each story because I am obsessed with using PowerPoint.  That meant a lot of slides to click through.  A notebook is easier…but less fun.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Notes are very important.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I don’t do anything special to keep track. If I need to know what I said about a place before I just go back into the novel and reread what I wrote already.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil All those are kept in my story boards, where I outline the story by chapter.  Locations are put in there so that everything stays consistent.


Sensory Details

How do you pick the right sensory details for your story?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak I slip into character.  Almost every character can see things, but different people have different experiences of how their senses interact with the world.  I have a musician character who hears things more than I do.  I have a character with synaethesia who tastes colors and auras.  Some characters are texture characters, they feel things with their hands.  Others do a lot of smell.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I just want to say before I start answering, that I found these sensory questions the hardest to answer. For me, this sort of detail comes instinctively to me, and to answer these questions I had to think very hard about what I actually do in my writing to provide the answers to these questions.

I always ask myself what the main aim of the story is. The whole feel I want from the story influences which sensory details that I would concentrate on. Referencing back to my Australiana story Miracle In The Dust, the weather in itself is a main driving force behind some of the story. The sensory details I concentrate on is not only the weather itself, but the effects of the weather on the landscape. There needs to be a sense of desperation to the beginning of the story that allows for the miracle that I have planned to shine through.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I think about somewhere I’ve been in real life that is similar.  What did I smell?  Could I taste the air?  What did I feel?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Knowledge helps. Imaginations also helps. Knowing which way water flows from the Great Lakes if your story is set in that area. What is the best fish to eat in Canada. Hint, they don’t eat mud cat.


What kind of sight details might be important in a story?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak Ones that are almost painfully specific, rather than generalized.  You can’t write every visual detail, but the ones you pick should lean toward the specific.  A shirt isn’t “red,” it’s “fire-engine red.”  A tree isn’t a “tree,” it’s a “contentedly conical Douglas fir.”
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Again, anything that helps to emphasis the main goal of the story, details that help building the right tension or feeling that will only improve the story and help to immerse the reader into the story. Moving back to my earlier answer where I shared with you the opening lines of Miracle In The Dust, and I referenced the cloud of bull-dust that billowed behind the truck. It’s a visual element that anyone who lives in outback or regional Australia takes for granted as being an every day element of life, yet it’s an integral visual element that helps me create depth into my story.


What methods do you use to add sound details to your stories?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak I have the sound occur and make sure characters react to it.  That whole thing where you read, “Susan heard the sound of a pin drop” is for the birds.  “A pin dropped on the wood floor, bouncing several times.  Susan flinched, pulling up her feet” is much better.  Likewise any other sense.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Descriptive words. Adding the sound in as a tension builder or a climax to a scene, for example when there is a gun shot is it a short sharp crack in a bar, or a long drawn out echo across the land. Here is an example of how I used sound within my writing in An Unexpected Bonding:

Rance watched in disbelief as the young man turned and watched the approach of the wolf. He must be stunned to stand there as the wolf launched in the air.

He squeezed his finger.

CRACK-K-K-k-k-k-k-k.

The shot resounded across the land.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I try not to write out the sounds.  That seems too much like a comic book to me.  (I love comic books, by the way, but its not the feel I want for my novels.)

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Let me show you instead: From Pangaea: Eden’s Planet:

The outer wave struck the giant ship with incredible force.
Suddenly, they could see nothing but ebony blackness in the view screen, and then the ship began to shake and vibrate violently as waves of immense energy tossed the Galileo Two from side to side like a small boat in a hurricane. The controls fought them, and the machinery whined like a screaming Banshee on a dark, moonless night. Warning lights flickered, dimmed, went out, came back on with a flash, and then repeated the sequence like a floundering fish out of water.

Someone screamed, but it was impossible to tell whether it had been a man or a woman. The safety harnesses held everyone safely in their seats, but a few loose objects had been lying near some of the computers, and these went flying through the small cabin, colliding with seats, computer panels, and sometimes—an unprotected hand or head.

Lightning bolts of pure energy sparked and crisscrossed the tornado-like funnel in a spider-web of violent beauty, at the far end appeared to be a gaping monster’s mouth. But the plasma would not let them go, tossing them around like the prey of some monstrous space creature.


In what ways have you incorporated touch details into your writing?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak At first I had characters look at textures and note them, or touch things, but lately I’ve been adding elements that the character really has a reaction to, like the feeling that it’s cold and one’s sweater isn’t warm enough, or the touch of a spiderwebs that you’ve brushed off but can’t stop checking to make sure.  Someone who has to clean a milkshake off a barnwood door is going to have a distinct opinion about the texture!
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman As a romance writer touch is such an important factor in creating a sensory moment for the readers to feel as if they are as intimately a part of the scene themselves.
Touch isn’t just about a intimate moment, but something as simple as providing more descriptive imagery for a wolf, such as when a character sinks their fingers into the soft thickness of the wolf’s neck.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I enjoy describing the ground or clothes.  Usually I’m describing the ground because the character just fell!  I tend to abuse my characters.


How do you factor in taste and smell details?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak My characters are always eating something, for one, maybe because I’m often at the computer writing and wondering when it’s time for lunch. Sometimes I have to have them smell things with a strong taste associated with them, like “chocolate chip cookies.”  Smell is easier.  I always wonder how people can write without it; people have such emotional reactions to smell that smell is almost a writer shortcut that you can abuse at will.  You don’t even have to be specific with smell details.  All you have to do is say, “the smell of sewage” and people the world over will be like, “Got it.”
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Where ever it has an impact on the depth of the story, such as during a meal, providing a description that is “mouth-watering” and makes the reader want to actually be eating that meal as well. Of course, taste and smell doesn’t have to be pleasant. If you think about a thriller or a murder mystery story, discovering a crime scene can be filled with smells that are so offensive they end up having a taste element as well.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I write about smell a lot, but taste not so much.  I’m going to make a note here to work on that.

I love adding in scents.  You don’t get a lot of that in stories.  Even if the reader can’t actually smell it (because its a paper book or e-reader), they can remember what a flower smells like…or a field after a rain storm.


Many of your readers have been to or even lived in locations where your stories are set, so they are able to relate when you get the details right, but if you get something wrong, it’s almost guaranteed that somebody will catch it and let you know about it.
Have you ever had a reader tell you that you missed the mark with a certain detail?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak Not yet!  Fingers crossed.
Lilly Rayman
L Rayman Nope, I haven’t. I’ve been fairly lucky that I have been able to create stories the evoke memories of being there for readers that do have experience of my locations.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne One reviewer mentioned no one from California would ever refer to the state as “Cali” as one of the characters in Blood Ties did, which I found humorous. I grew up in Orange County, as did my mother, and we still have relatives there who use the expression. Another reviewer gave low marks for Whispered Pain because the story takes place in Arkansas, in the winter, during a freak snow storm. The person actually wrote they “researched weather patterns” online and it “never snows in Arkansas” which still makes me laugh. I have lived in Arkansas for over thirty years and experienced many snow and ice storms. I am sure the folks working for insurance companies processing thousands upon thousands of storm damage claims would agree with me!

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan Yes!  They usually do it nicely, but I have had some people rip me to shreds over the setting of COGLING.  The setting is a fantasy kingdom.  The main character is living in a dusty, dirty city, and she must travel through the woods into the swamp to save her brother.  I’ve had people send me the rudest emails about how I missed the mark on describing London or England in general.  Um, it isn’t London or England.  I’m not sure why I get so much hate mail about that because I clearly state the names of the city and country in the text.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture No, but I do it all the time, so get it right and you won’t hear from me.


Effective Dialog

Dialog tags can be helpful in identifying who is speaking in the story. Good dialog tags should be almost invisible, so the reader brushes right over them, but still knows who is talking.
Do you prefer to use dialog tags, or do you find them a hindrance? If you don’t use dialog tags, how do you let the reader know who the speaker is?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak I use dialog tags.  I’ll use a more distinct dialog tag when I want to bring the reader’s attention to something–usually when the character is lying or there some other subtext but that’s really rare; I’ll usually handle it in the dialog itself.  Generally I stick with the “he said” pattern.  I would like to note that putting a dialog tag at the end of a sentence if the reader will really not be clear on who is speaking is lame.  Put it at the beginning.  The reader should have zero words of going, “But who is talking?!?” in a normal scene.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture If your characterization is good, you don’t need a lot of dialog tags. But when you have four or five people speaking, you’d best use tags.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy That’s tricky. I hate alot of “he said” and “she said” type of stuff. Writing dialogue is one of my strongest attributes as a writer so I just let it flow naturally using tags if I find I need to.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I use too many dialog tags and have diligently working to replace them with an action.


Do you feel that dialog tags beyond the basic ones like ‘said’ and ‘asked’ can be distracting and draw away from the story?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak “Which is sometimes exactly what you want,” the dowager countess snapped.  “Some stories ought to be drawn away from, they are so terribly written.”
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I tried to avoid the basic he said / she said dialogue tags. I do like to use some sort of description to identify the speaker, even if it is as simple as an action that someone does as they speak. It makes for a scene that moves along without being static and identifies the speaker.

RA Winter

RA Winter Action tags work well and serve a dual purpose of bringing the action closer to the reader.  A write just has to be careful that the action tag dedicated to the person speaking.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I use some dialogue tags.  I like to describe what’s going on instead.  Its a great opportunity to add in a smell or texture, or something the speaker is seeing.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture I’ve only known a few authors who are good with dialog. The rest of us struggle with it, and I don’t think tags that go beyond “said” and “asked” are all that distracting.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I do. That is why I try to avoid them.


Dialog should be believable, in that it is realistic of something that not only a real person might say, but something that your character would say. I’ve found though, that if you use a piece of dialog that occurred in real life, many feel it is not realistic.
How do you write believable dialog which reads smoothly?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak The same way you write an accent:  accurately like 20% of the time, suggestive of accuracy rather than actually, um, like, accurate.  But I’d like to note that the process of learning to write believable dialog generally starts with sitting down at a coffee shop and writing down what people actually say.  Writers tend to start out with a problem of forcing characters to say useful things in a direct fashion that sounds stilted.  In real life, people talk around what they want and feel and replace it with small talk.  High fantasy writers and hard sci-fi writers are the worst!  I’ve judged some contests, and I’m always coming across writers who have Big Things to Say and who can’t handle the polite nothings that are required in order to get to the point of communicating.  I want to see a high fantasy novel where the heroes talk to the villagers about the weather and they come away knowing that that Evil Sorcerer has been there because the wheat looks scraggly from all the damp.  Or a sci-fi epic where people are like, “So how about them Bears?”  Of course in the future people will still follow professional sports, duh.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I try to write dialogue as I would speak, and ensure that all speech is contracted, meaning people doing in real life don’t say “do not” they say “don’t”. I also try and write appropriate slang into my dialogue for the characters background.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne As I mentioned before, when I am in full writing mode, I try to close my eyes and watch the story unfold as though viewing a movie. From there, I write what I see, which includes the dialog between the characters.

RA Winter

RA Winter Cut anything that isn’t necessary, it slows down the reader.  Don’t do the phone conversation of “Hello?”  “Hi, is so-and-so there?”  “Who’s calling please?”  “Oh, it’s Mr. Jones.”  Why?  Don’t.  It’s boring.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I repeat it out loud to myself.  If it sounds good, I leave it.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Again, I’ve only known a few writers that could write good dialog, Warren Murphy and Dan Cushman. The rest o us struggle.

Cynthia Vespia
colorheadshot - Copy I disagree. As a writer I spend alot of time listening to people talk and I pick up subtle nuances that stick with me so when I go to write I deliver a more realistic aspect to a character because of those bits and pieces. When it gets forced is when you start trying to write in accents. I say just mention that someone has a specific accent and write the dialogue as you would for anyone else. Alot of choppy words will just get confusing. I know it worked in alot of classic novels but hey…I’m not in that caliber yet!
Amy Cecil
Amy Cecil I act out the dialog as I’m writing it.

Nonfiction
You write about real people and places. How do you assure that the cultural and physical settings are true to the story? 
Mark Shaw
MarkAtSFTS (1) Don’t mess with that much. More interested in primary source information about my main subject and those who make the story compelling.
Do you ever actually visit the places you write about?
Mark Shaw
MarkAtSFTS (1) Yes, for both The Reporter Who Knew Too Much and the upcoming Denial of Justice, I visited New York City. Actually went to locations where Dorothy Kilgallen frequented including my sitting next to the table at P. J. Clarke’s where she sat on the last night of her life.
Much of the writing you do is about people and places of the past.
When writing about historical places, how do you find and work in the details to make it authentic?
Mark Shaw
MarkAtSFTS (1) Use only primary sources but again, the subject is the story, not so much the historical places.
As you can see, there are many approaches to drawing readers into our worlds, whether real or imagined. At times the approach may depend on what genre we are writing in. Certainly, my approach to creating and portraying Delilah, which is a western and required historical research for accuracy and visiting certain locations to get the details right, is quite different from my approach in portraying my science fantasy world for my Playground for the Gods series, which explored myths and legends of old using landscapes mostly created in my head. But even when writing about real places, such as in nonfiction, the author must find ways to draw readers into the story, and add those special touches which bring the setting to life is one way to do that. This information can be conveyed by using dialog between characters to help readers learn what we need them to know, or through sensory details that make the setting seem more real.
I want to thank our author panel members for sharing their ideas and techniques with us. I hope you’ll pick and choose the ideas that work for you. And I hope you’ll join us next Monday, when our author panel will discuss writing action scenes and pacing.

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