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Friday, July 14, 2017

TOP 10 TIPS FOR WRITING LIKE MARY STEWART by Sheri Cobb South

Sheri Cobb South is our special guest blogger for Author Expressions. Be sure to check out her wonderful mystery novels on Amazon, B&N Online, and many other booksellers.  And now, here’s Sheri.


First of all, the title of this article is false advertising: No one else can write like Mary Stewart, any more than they can write like any other author. Still, her books do have certain elements in common, and these can be adopted in order to evoke the tone of that heyday of romantic suspense. So, without further ado, here are my Top 10:
#1. Be British. (Well, rats. Moving right along . . .)
#2. Give your book an exotic location, and describe it vividly. Mary Stewart took her readers on literary jaunts not only to her native Britain, but also to France, Austria, Greece, and Damascus. I credit her books with giving me a lifelong craving for travel, so it’s only fitting that my own book follows the itinerary of a Mediterranean cruise I took with my husband a couple of years ago, including stops in Italy, Greece, and Turkey.
#3. Set your book in the late 1950s or early to mid-1960s. This was when Mary Stewart and the romantic suspense novel were at the height of their popularity, so setting a book there is, in essence, returning to the genre’s roots.
#4. Give your book a young but intelligent heroine, who narrates the tale in the first person as it unfolds. I realize there are readers for whom the first-person point of view is a deal-breaker, but in a suspense novel, the almost claustrophobic constraints of this point of view give a greater sense of immediacy and danger, as it eliminates the “middle man” of a third-person narrator who stands between the heroine and the reader. And while young/ingenue heroines have fallen out of fashion in recent years, the heroine’s youth means we can forgive her for errors in judgment that would be eyeroll-inducing in a more mature woman.
#5 Plunge your heroine into danger through accidental, even random, circumstance: she sees something she’s not supposed to see, she’s inadvertently given something that belongs to someone else, etc., and at first she may not recognize the significance of the event. (It’s interesting that romantic suspense heroines seem to share this element with many of Alfred Hitchcock’s heroes—a plot device Hitchcock dubbed the “MacGuffin”; perhaps it’s no coincidence that there is a significant overlap in Stewart and Hitchcock’s peak years.)
#6 Give your book a hero with something to hide, preferably something that ties into the mystery. Perhaps the heroine isn’t sure if he’s a good guy or bad guy, but even if she never mistakes him for the villain (or, if she does, soon realizes her error), he may still be a bit of an enigma that she must “solve” along with the mystery.
#7 The developing relationship between the hero and heroine relies on sexual tension rather than sex. Granted, part of this is because of the time Stewart was writing, but I think it makes sense in this genre in a couple of other ways, as well. For one thing, there’s the matter of trust: If she things he might be the villain, or otherwise fears she can’t trust him, she would be stupid to go to bed with him. Later in the book, any trust issues may have been resolved, but by this time the sense of danger is heightened. If her life, and perhaps his too, is in danger, and they stop everything for five to ten pages of hot sex, they probably deserve whatever the villain has planned for them! (But at least they’ll die happy? Hmm…)
#8. Let glimpses of humor show through. Besides helping maintain sexual tension (especially in the absence of actual sex), humorous moments allow readers to catch their breath between dangerous/suspenseful incidents.
#9. Sprinkle literary references throughout your book. I think it is this, more than any other element, that lifts Stewart’s work over the other romantic suspense authors of her day. It’s also the one I found the most daunting. Fortunately, the fact that my heroine was an English teacher meant she would have a knowledge of literature at her command. Furthermore, my own background as a writer of Regencies meant I was familiar with the Elgin Marbles and Lord Byron’s vociferously stated opinion of Lord Elgin’s removing them from Greece, both of which made their way into my book.
#10. Begin each chapter with an apropos quotation. Three words: Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. This can be time-consuming, but I’ve found readers respond to it very well. It gives them a little “mystery” at the beginning of each chapter, as they form their own theories as to how the quotation will relate to the action, and then read on to see if they were right.
 And there you have it. Even if my tips won’t turn you into Mary Stewart overnight, I hope they will enhance your reading of romantic suspense novels, or assist you in writing your own.

Note: Sheri's latest novel is in the Mary Stewart tradition:

Comments for Sheri welcome here!

13 comments:

Susan said...

What a wonderful blog! Your comments are spot on. I cut my romance teeth on Mary Stewart (and Victoria Holt and some of the other giants of the period) and still love her today. Thank you for a great post. Susan, aka Janis

Susan Oleksiw said...

Your list is a lot of fun, and even mirrors some of Stewart's style--dry humor, pacing, surprises. I enjoyed it very much.

Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

Great advice, Sheri!
Love your cover.
Good luck and God's blessings with your new (and all) book(s) and to Jacquie for keeping this blog going with so many interesting posts!
PamT

Sheri Cobb South said...

Thanks, Susan/Janis! I read a lot (and I mean a LOT!) of Mary Stewart, etc. as a teenager--in fact, I credit her and others of that genre with giving me a lifelong craving for travel. So when I took a Mediterranean cruise, it seemed only fitting to write a book in that same vein as a tribute.

Sheri Cobb South said...

High praise, indeed! Thanks so much, Susan!

Sheri Cobb South said...

Thanks, Pam! The cover was done by Deirdre Wait, who did my Five Star covers, and continues to do the John Pickett covers even though I'm now publishing those books on my own.

Sharon Ervin said...

Very meaty stuff. Concise. Provocative. Wise. Thank you both, Sheri and Jacqui.

Maris said...

Love the list, but my P.J. Benson Mysteries failed on #1, #2, #3, #6, #9 and #10. Oh well.

Sheri Cobb South said...

Thanks, Sharon! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Sheri Cobb South said...

LOL, Maris! I hope they're selling anyway. Success gets to make its own rules.

Bonnie Tharp said...

Great post and advice. Mary Stewart's books are what really got me reading and wanting to write.

Maggie King said...

Great post. And I love the cover of your book.

koi seo said...

Thank you for a great post. Susan, aka Janis


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