February 02, 2011

Peg Herring, author of new mystery, The Dead Detective Agency, says Don't Slow Down Your Readers!

Today, I welcome Peg Herring, author of the new mystery, THE DEAD DETECTIVE AGENCY.

About the Book:

Secretary Tori Van Camp wakes one morning on a luxurious ocean liner where she is offered whatever a person might desire: food, clothes, recreation, and the companionship of congenial people. But Tori has no memory of booking a cruise. What she does have is a vivid recollection of being shot point blank in the chest.

With the help of the stunningly handsome Mike and the unnervingly serene Nancy, Tori soon learns the purpose of her voyage. Still, she is haunted by the image of the gun, the crack of the shot, and the malevolent face of the shooter. Who wanted her dead, and why?

* Contest: Comment here and on any of the blogs, or answer "The Poser" to be entered in the drawing. * See the next blog stop.

The Poser: Name three books/series with a female P.I. as protagonist.

The Prizes: Weekly prizes (your choice of THE DEAD DETECTIVE AGENCY in ebook or print format) will be drawn from the names of those who comment on the blogs as we go. Comment once daily, but the first commenter each day gets entered twice in the drawing on Saturday!

Slowing Readers = Bad Policy
By Peg Herring

In fiction, anything a writer does that slows down the reading experience is probably not good. We read fiction to escape and enjoy, and we should generally not have to stop and think—or stop at all. Reading a mystery novel should be like floating down a river, but sometimes authors make things difficult, and it’s more like slogging up a mountain.

Author intervention, those times when the writer’s attitudes and beliefs slip into the story, slows the flow of the narrative, and I always wonder how it slips past the editors. If in a novel I think, “This guy is trying to convince me that the government is evil,” the story becomes less enjoyable. Now, if I’m shown that the government is evil, okay. But if characters sit around and talk about how evil the government is, or if the main characters think a lot about how evil it is, I’m taken out of the story. And that’s bad.

Another way authors slow a reader down is by going over the emotional aspects of the story again and again, especially toward the end, when the action should pick up. If you’ve read a book where the author visited for the fourth time the protagonist’s doubts about whether his father really loved him, you might have wanted to shout, “There’s someone sneaking up behind you with a knife! Leave the angst for later!”

Avoid the Dump

Some writers describe every outfit worn by a character and every setting visited. Unless it is important to the plot, that information can be woven in or even left out. Most readers create their own images, so brief, simple descriptions, casually thrown in as the story progresses, are better than overkill. Even history or detail on a topic should be inserted carefully. I dislike the “Tell us what you know about the history of archery, Jane” that often precedes page after page of “info dump” in a way no real conversation would.

It’s true that great authors of the past introduced stories slowly, describing everything from rock formations to apparently unrelated action (think THE GRAPES OF WRATH-the turtle crossing the road). Most writers today, especially mystery writers, can’t get away with it (unless you’re a dead Swede).

Another noticeable slowdown is repetition, like overuse of characters’ names. At first it helps us get people straight, but later it isn’t necessary, particularly for major characters. As long as there is no confusion, pronouns work well, being such faint words as to be almost unnoticeable.

The same is true of dialogue tags, modifiers, and what I call “empty phrases”, those that don’t need to be there. “Alicia noticed that Tom seemed angry.” Why not just say, “Tom seemed angry?” For writers, I’ll offer a cure for repetition on the 18th at Bo Parker’s blog, but as a reader, I get irritated at the drag on my consciousness. If a story is moving well, I should not even notice individual words and phrases.

There are people who like a leisurely story, who don’t mind if a body doesn’t appear until page 71. I am one of them IF the writing is good and the characters are intriguing. Even then, readers don’t need to be slowed by unnecessary words, author intervention, obvious “teaching moments” or needless description.

The Perpetrator: Peg Herring writes historical and contemporary mysteries. She loves everything about publishing, even editing (most days). Peg’s historical series, The Simon and Elizabeth Mysteries, debuted in 2010. The second in the series will be available in November from Five Star.


  1. Such a great bit of information. I have just finished a novel that I am trying to get published and what you say rings true. I have had a critique that complained I did not describe enough - they wanted to know what the characters ate at each meal and more description of what they wore,etc. In my head I was thinking that it would bog down the story and it's nice to know I'm not the only one.

  2. Yes, Sara, opinions will vary on this one. I think it matters where you are in the story. If it's a "valley", a leisurely place where things are normal, the pace can slow. But when you're on a mountain and the action has things heading downhill fast, you'd better not stop to describe the vegetation!
    Thanks for your comment.

  3. Dear Peg, congratulations on Dead Detective Agency. What a great hook! I would love to be entered in your contest.
    I agree it's deadly to slow down the action for descriptions, but I do love well developed backgrounds. All a matter of balance, huh?

  4. I can't wait to get this book--Peg does such a wonderful job with Elizabethan mystery I'm sure this will be special too.

  5. I can't wait to read Peg's new book--she does such a wonderful job with the Elizabethan mysteries that I'm sure this will be a great read.

  6. Peg does such a wonderful job with the Elizabethan mystery--I can't wait to read this new book and look forward to her new Elizabethan one.

  7. My favorite books are the page-turners. I want enough description to set the picture, but then get on with the action.

  8. How about V.I. Warshawski by Sara Paretsky, Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley by Gladys Mitchell and Carlotta Carlyle by Linda Barnes, all very clever female P.I.s. Of course I think Queen Elizabeth would have made a great private investigator!

    Love The Dead Detective Agency!!!

  9. Sara is this week's winner of a free book! Please contact me by email (pherring@m33access.com) or through my website http://pegherring.com to choose print or e-book and arrange delivery.

  10. Good, Sara, glad you and Peg connected before I sent out a search party. ha! Congrats and thanks for coming by!


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