How to become a ‘keeper shelf’ author

Part I

I don’t give negative book reviews. I will add someone to my own personal list of ‘not to buy again’, but reading is subjective. Unsolicited opinions are better kept behind sealed lips.

Black List – which authors not to buy again

Authors don’t always hit my Black List after one poor read – it depends. A newbie author’s first release is given more leeway. A successful author switching genres gets a pass.

But let’s face it – time is precious. Readers value their quiet moments to escape into a story. Authors must be diligent and dedicated to serving up their readers the tastiest story treats.

Recently, I read – and painfully finished a book – by an extremely well-known author. The character inaccuracies beg for a life-writing lesson.

Writers – learn these words of wisdom:

KNOW your material

Some fiction writers make the mistake of scanty or no research. Put in the time before you birth the book. A character who rides a certain equestrian breed needs to guarantee that the spelling, the description, and the origin of the breed are all thoroughly researched and correct. What type of saddle is used for your character’s specific riding style? Western riding or riding the range is vastly different from the discipline of show jumping or side saddle.

Historical accuracy is crucial if you choose to write in this genre.

Brown and tan Hope saddle, with curved seat reinforced with tempered wood, with buckles and straps used by Civil War soldiers from Texas.

If writing a period piece, what equipment would have been readily available during that era? Where would a saddle be purchased? Could the average farmer, rancher, yearning-to-learn rider afford the cost? What was the average cost? Don’t make assumptions based on today’s mass markets for product availability.

The picture above shows a Hope saddle, the precursor to the McClellan or Military saddle used today. I captured this image at the tiny Civil War Museum in Murfreesboro, TN. As a side note, this saddle was used most commonly by Civil War soldiers who hailed from Texas and was used by the Texas Rangers. Again, it’s the attention to detail. KNOW your facts so that they are historical and NOT hysterical.

Don’t cheat the reader; research is a vital part of the process.

Understand your character’s lifestyle choices

Cartoon image of man with question mark beside his head as the considers three closed doors.

A character, who embraces certain proclivities or lifestyles, needs to swim – convincingly and accurately – in the deep-end. Writers shouldn’t dip their toes into waters that are completely outside of their normal swimming areas. The character will drown with inaccuracies and readers will turn into sharks, chewing through an author’s work with biting reviews.

Think back on some of the most scathing reviews that you’ve read. How often is the author criticized for inaccurately portraying a character’s lifestyle?

Let’s be clear: – if you don’t know anything, for a FACT, about alternative sexual choices – AND you aren’t willing to do the research – do NOT write Erotica. If you know nothing about the world behind the Blue Line – AND you aren’t willing to do the research – then do NOT write cop stories. If you’re not, no one in your family, no one in your acquaintance has ever belonged to any military branch – AND you aren’t willing to do the research – then stay away from writing characters who are steeped in the military world.

Some of you are questioning how would fantasy or Sci-Fi writers be exempt from this mandate. They’re NOT! If an author isn’t willing to spend the time – sizeable that is – required to world-build, to push the physics barriers, to research the chemistry or alchemy or ancient magical processes, then that author needs to pick another genre.

Get the theme?

Three open hardback books on table. Top book is fanned opened. Writing: Either sign-on for the necessary research or . . .  Wait, there isn't an alternative.

Either sign-on for the necessary research or . . .

Wait, there isn’t an alternative.

Be true to the dialogue

Language references need to be accurate: historically, geographically, and culturally.

Front cover of the Oxford Dictionary of English Eytmology.

Etymology dictionaries exist for a reason. Use them. This reference source is vital when delving into a historical undertaking.

Historical authors must research specific phrases/words before weaving them in any story. Writers birth dialogue or introspection only to later fine-tune it. Make certain in your editing stage to double-check any catch phrases or words that have crept onto page. Verify that the language is historically ‘perfect’. Don’t be the author whose reviews are filled with negative hits about language that wasn’t used during that time-period.

This warning goes for current phrases dropped into historical works, as well. Do NOT use a phrase tossed out during a girls’ night out or the weekly poker party. If your writer’s voice is stronger with current dialogue, then consider contemporary novels as an alternative.

Confirm timeframes

I read a really great fantasy series. One of the main characters was a Djinn. But there was an oops. The timeframe for this Djinn was several centuries before their birth in folklore references. Trust me. There are readers who know that detail. However, and it’s a BIG one – if you, as the author, find substantive research to back-up your genie’s early existence, then give a nod to that research in the back of the book.

One my favorite authors highlights her historical research in the back of her novels. As her writing muse is sparked, research begins. Those specific and scientific details function as an afterword in her novels. This author outlines dates pertaining to the invention and/or common usage of everything from surgical instruments to mechanical devices; the specific lineage and reigns of royalty and the political current of an era; even the widely accepted rumors and gossip of historical times. These tidbits of research give credence to her stories and realism to her characters.

Use a simple design like this one from to track necessary research.

Readers depend on their favorite authors to get the details right. Become a beloved author, one whose stories always end up on the reader’s “keeper” shelf. Great storytelling includes solid research. Don’t cheat your readers on the realism; and don’t cheat yourself on the opportunity to weave golden research threads into your stories.

Part II – Coming up Next – Write a Better Alpha Character

Word Snafus – the funny & the not so funny.
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