A. Victoria Mixon, Editor
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Writer's Digest presents an excerpt from my webinar for them, 'Three Secrets of the Greats: Structure Your Story for Ultimate Reader Addiction.'

Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers, interviews me about storytelling, writing, independent editing, and the difference between literary fiction and genre, with an impromptu exercise on her own Work-in-Progress.

Editing client Stu Wakefield, author of the Kindle #1 Best Seller Body of Water, talks about our work together on Memory of Water, the second novel of his Water trilogy.
  • By Victoria Mixon

    My novel is historical fiction. Its setting is almost unrecognizable nowadays. From the animals that once lived there to what the people wore, it almost seems like a fantasy. I feel like I have to over compensate with details to explain that it was once real. How do I establish a proper setting without drowning the first few chapters with facts, facts, facts?—Kathryn Estrada

    Yeah, this can be daunting. Fortunately, there’s a fact about writing great fiction that plays right into your hands here:


    Raymond Chandler. J.R.R. Tolkien. Amy Tan. Zane Grey. Joseph Conrad. Dashiell Hammett. Anne Rice. Thrillers, thrillers, thrillers, thrillers. What do they all have in common? The detailed subject matter is unfamiliar to the reader.

    Readers very commonly read just to learn something they didn’t know. That’s why technical thrillers are so unbelievably popular. Are espionage thrillers only read by spies? No. They’re read by people who feel super-smart if they think they know the truth about how spies really operate. It’s cool stuff. It adds an aspect to the reader’s life they didn’t have before.

    The problem is that most aspiring writers come to fiction thinking you have to describe everything, even stuff the reader already knows exists. You don’t. You need to pick out those telling details the reader can’t see for themself and use them to snap a reasonably familiar scene into sharp, unique focus.

    Is your scene in an ordinary San Francisco apartment where a freaky guy is deciding whether or not to give the detective who’s caught him stealing a priceless heirloom a fall-guy to keep him quiet? Don’t worry about the apartment. Your reader knows what they look like. Describe anything in it that’s unusual or eye-catching or—most definitely—forwards the plot. And take careful note of the characters themselves. The freaky guy is a huge pale character with elaborate rings on his round, white fingers. He moves his body in a certain way. He looks at the detective in a certain way. He considers his options, weighing the detective and the fall-guy and the noisy Peter Lorre character at his elbow. . .in a certain way.

    Is your scene around a campfire? It’s nice to get a good, fresh image of how fire looks in the dark. But it’s even more important to catch those details that place this particular campfire in this particular place and this particular time. Is the wood myrtle? Eucalyptus? Pine? Oak? Does it throw off a lot of sparks? A dull glow? A fierce heat? Is the fire huge? Small? In a pit with stones? In a sandy depression? Framed by fired bricks? What sounds can you hear around it in the dark, what animals would come near for comfort (in Australia the wallabies love campfires), what animals would creep toward the sound of voices, what would object (birds get annoyed about being woken), what would prowl the limit of the firelight hoping to catch a tasty morsel on its bumbling human way to take a whizz? Use the things about those animals that are different from what the reader expects to snap them into focus. If I had saber-toothed tigers in my story, I might use a detail about how the muscles of a big cat move under the fur, but I’d definitely mention the way the light catches the edge of a unique crack in the foot-long left tooth.

    How would your characters respond to this campfire that is so utterly and intrinsically familiar to their lives? How would they respond to their knowledge or lack of knowledge of the animals or lack of animals? What kinds of gestures and mannerisms develop in people who typically spend their lives around campfires? What’s perfectly normal to them that would be a telling detail to your reader?

    On and on and on. . .

    All of these tiny elements add up, in the reader’s mind, to an experience. And whether your characters are someplace quite similar to or quite different from the reader’s daily life, the vividness of that experience is what makes your story.


    “The freshest and most relevant
    advice you’ll find.”

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories


2 Responses to “Setting an unfamiliar scene”

  1. Kathryn said on

    Interesting. I was thinking I needed more subtlety when I actually needed more detail.

    Thank you.

  2. Victoria Mixon said on

    Well, detail is subtle. When Dasheill Hammett says a drunk character is waving a gun casually around, and Nick Charles’ neck goes cold while his wife makes a noise with her breath, that’s detail.

    Put on a wolf-skin cape or something with a similar texture and heft. Sit on something low by a campfire. Talk awhile, turn to address a little kid who’s jumped up unexpectedly, lean over and stoke the fire. Keep your ears open for sounds outside the cast of light. Chances are pretty good you’re going to notice some things you wouldn’t have guessed about that experience.

    Those are your telling details.


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MILLLICENT G. DILLON, represented by Harold Ober Associates, is the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles. She has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb. Read more. . .

BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s best-selling debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers, published by PanMacmillan. Read more. . .

LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth. Read more. . .

SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway. Read more. . .

STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited Wakefield's second novel, Memory of Water, and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water. Read more. . .

ANIA VESENNY, represented by Beverly Slopen Literary Agency, is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights, and her second novel, Sandara. Read more. . .

TERISA GREEN, represented by Dystel and Goderich Literary Management, is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series. Read more. . .

GERALDINE EVANS is a best-selling British author. Her historical novel, Reluctant Queen, is a Category No 1 Best Seller on Amazon UK. I edited Death Dues, #11 in Evans' fifteen popular Rafferty and Llewellyn cozy police procedurals, which received a glowing review from the Midwest Book Review. Read more. . .

SCOTT WILBANKS, represented by Barbara Poelle of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, is the author of the debut novel, The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster, forthcoming from Sourcebooks in August, 2015. I'm working with Wilbanks on his sophomore novel, Easy Pickens, the story of the world’s only medically-diagnosed case of chronic naiveté. Read more. . .

LISA MERCADO-FERNANDEZ writes literary novels of love, loss, and friendship set in the small coastal towns of New England. I edited Mercado-Fernandez' debut novel, The Shoebox, and her up-coming The Eighth Summer. Read more. . .

JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with Dunn to develop and line edit her memoir of reconciling liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland. Read more. . .

LEN JOY is the author of the debut novel, American Past Time. I worked with Len to develop his novel from its core: a short story about the self-destructive ambitions of a Minor League baseball star, which agents had told him to throw away. Read more. . .

JEFF RUSSELL is the author of the debut novel, The Rules of Love and Law, based upon Jeff's abiding passions for legal history and justice. Read more. . .

In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.