The Long and the Short of it….by Rosemary Lord

Sometimes I want to read in a hurry: quickly turning pages to find out what’s coming, racing through an exciting mystery. Other times I enjoy lingering in the luxury of words – savoring the colorful, evocative descriptions. Immersing myself in the mood of the piece.
I became aware of this as I began to read the English Best Seller, The Girl On The Train, by Paula Hawkins. I saw a smart format that moved the story along quickly. Written diary-style. Staccato. Divided with headings into morning and evening. Sentences very, very short, each session about a page. Although the diary entries increase in length heavily deeper into the book.

It starts off with brief descriptions of what the girl in the title saw on her daily train journeys back and forth to work. She makes up her own stories about the people she observes daily. We’ve all been there. I did that, fresh out of school, following similar train routes when I worked in London years ago. Train journeys are an excellent opportunity for writers imagination to run wild.

But it was the quick, short approach that caught my attention. Short descriptions, simple words written in the first person. No luxuriating in similes. Nothing sentimental. ‘Just the facts, Ma’am.’ It’s hip and sharp. And it works. This book was #1 on the L.A. Times Bestseller List.

But my problem is that I write about the past. A slower, gentler past. I get steeped in creating a mood of a by-gone era. Admittedly, I sometimes get carried away with my sometimes verbose descriptions and my writer friends on this blog will reign me back in. But a short, staccato, present tense would not work for what I want to say in my 1920s-set novels. Although I am getting better. 

For the past 5 years I have been working to save an historic Hollywood building from being turned into a condo-resort-with-swimming-pool. And as there were elderly ladies involved, it led to me to write the historical aspects, their stories and why the Woman’s Club of Hollywood should be saved. My first submissions were red-penciled by the legal teams. The Court, they pointed out, just wants the facts, no flowery descriptions, no emotions, and few – if any – adjectives. I learned to cut the information to the bone, with no sidetracks. It was explained to me that with thousands of legal pages to read, one needs the court to understand the story – without getting bored. Keep it simple. A twelve-step program phrase that is very useful.

I used the ‘keep it simple and short’ theme consistently when I was writing the updated version of Los Angeles Then and Now last year. Although I find it much easier to keep things simple when writing non-fiction. I did that as a journalist for years. Editors give you very little space in which to tell the entire story.

So, when I returned to working on my Lottie Topaz novels (Yeah!) that are set in the world of silent movies and Prohibition in Hollywood, it was with a renewed enthusiasm and fresh approach. While my novels and character’s voice are not really the place for that 2015 staccato tone, I have divested my writing of some of its frippery. And some of the descriptions that I just loved – well, they had to go.( Although my fellow blogger GB Pool uses an excellent, Chandleresque staccato tone in her Johnny Casino books. But that’s a subject for a whole other blog…. )

So, the long and the short of it is that there is room for both styles. It depends on the nature of your writing. I will leave you and return to my dusty, dry days of sweet-smelling orange groves, endless blue skies and the clang of trolley cars in the distance and the world of Hollywood in the 1920s. 

16 thoughts on “The Long and the Short of it….by Rosemary Lord”

  1. You're so right, Rosie, that the story you're telling should dictate the style. I can't imagine “Gone with the Wind” written by Paula Hawkins; it would lose its magic. On the other hand, I share your angst at sometimes having to “kill my darlings” for the sake of story momentum. It's a challenge, but as we've often said, if it were easy, everyone could do it. Nice post–thanks!


  2. Rosemary, loved this post. I could identify with so much of it, starting with train rides and mental images flowing. Agree with you and Bonnie, the story you're telling should dictate the style. Unfortunately, I can only write one way, so I better write stories that fit that style!

    PS Love the word “frippery,” had to look it up–marvelous imagery. Actually marvelous imagery in your whole post. I'm smiling…


  3. Oh, my gosh, what a wonderful post. READERS! Can you see why we Writers in Residence urge our fellow British friend to finish her Lottie Topaz mystery? Can you just imagine that world of sweet-smelling orange groves, silent movies with those elaborate costumes, trolley cars, an occasional speakeasy, lost diaries, and murder under the Hollywoodland sign?
    Thanks, Rosemary, for being our inspiration too. PS: I just read the word “frippery” in a Victoria Thompson Gaslight Mystery book.
    Splendid, my dear!


  4. Let's hear a round of applause for different styles. How boring bookstores and libraries would be if we all wrote the same way. And fitting the tone of the book to its time and place is the only way to write that story. Let someone else write that other story. They all can be good. And look how much we learn from all those journeys through books. A great post, Rosie.


  5. What an interesting challenge, Bonnie – to write “Gone With The Wind” in today's staccato style. Not sure I would want to read it though. But maybe that's just me. I loved the evocative words and descriptions that Margaret Mitchell must have lost sleepless nights over. …


  6. And I'm so glad you do write in the style you do, Mad. Your own voice is what makes “Counsel of Ravens” such a satisfying read. Your opening line: “If a starlit night could be called beautiful…..” got me hooked. So I'm glad you can “only write one way”….


  7. Gee whiz!! (Is that American enough, Jackie?!) I'm so glad you enjoy the journey into my 1920s world of Old Hollywood. Fun, Isn't it? And frippery abounds in those fascinating days of yore….
    I love the Victoria Thompson Gaslight Mysteries, too: New York in 1900. And thanks for such encouragement…. now back to my umpteenth edit of Lottie's adventures.


  8. Thanks, Gayle. Yes, the tone needs to fit the time and place. Perhaps that's why sometimes we put down a book without finishing it. Because it doesn't fit. But what a wonderful array of such different books, different styles and different authors we have to choose from — whatever fits our mood. Hooray for writers, I say!


  9. Wonderful post, Rosemary. I couldn't agree with you more, especially when I recall my critique group's reaction to my sequel to 'A Petal In The Wind'. Many argued my character “would have known”, while others, including me, understood that she might have “known” in 2014, but not 1914. Still, writers always have to remind themselves, it's not about me, it's about them – the characters – who, what and 'when' they are. Thanks for the reminder.


  10. Great post, Rosemary. I don't always comment, but I do follow Writers in Residence with interest and often pick up helpful tips from your articles. Due to Rosemary's piece, I learned a new word. I thought it was just me – – English not being my mother language – – but now I notice that I am not the only one looking up “frippery” in the dictionary.


  11. Thanks, Miko. Good point: We have to really 'listen' to our characters and respect what pace works for them and the time/world they live in.


  12. Great to hear from you, Alice. I realize my characters inhabit me… and their vocabulary takes over. Didn't mean to send everyone looking for their dictionaries. But isn't it great to discover new words – even if my finds are from a century ago!


  13. Rosemary, a beautifully expressed, thoughtful post about writing in our own individual preferred style. As you point out, writers are too often swayed by trends. Please honor all of us by publishing Lottie's story ASAP, She has lingered in the shadows long enough!


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