The Key Ingredients of Successful Popular Fiction

I’ve been reading a lot of popular fiction recently. For two reasons: there are loads of cracking new books out by some of my favourite writers, and also I’ve been quite tired and a bit run down and there’s nothing like curling up in bed with a comforting book when you’re feeling under the weather. I’m also reading a biography of Emily Dickinson, but it’s dense (if fascinating), and I can’t always rustle up the energy to tackle it. Does this make me any less of a reader? No. It means I am a normal, busy mother of three who needs some time out at the end of the day. And as a writer I love the idea that another tired mother, or lawyer, or nurse, or teacher, or bookseller is looking forward to a few pages of one of my books after their busy day.

Two books have really stood out:

I adored The Last Letter from Your Lover by Jojo Moyles. It’s a stunning book, swooningly romantic, beautifully written, seamlessly plotted. It’s the story of two women, one the discontented 1950s wife of a rich business man, the other a young modern journalist who is having an affair with a famous middle-aged crime writer. The characters are flawed and at times you want to give both of them a good shake, but they are hugely likable, real women.

I also loved Summer of Love by Katie Fforde. Katie’s books are sheer pleasure. You know she’s going to cleverly keep the main character and her love interest apart until the very last chapter, and her leading women are the epitome of warmth. I’ve fallen for every one of her heroines.

I read another book recently and nearly threw it at with wall in frustration. I wanted to like the book – it was by a new author and the premise was spot on – but the characters. Mamma mia! There were nine main characters (far too many to keep proper track of – I’d recommend no more than five or six tops), none of whom where all that nice or interesting. There was no humour, no warmth, a lot of ‘poor me’, and I did well to finish it at all. I won’t be recommending it to anyone. It’s a shame, I always like to see new blood in the popular fiction genre, it keeps both readers and the book trade interested.

If the characters do not win us over (I’m speaking as a reader here), if in some way they remain unredeemed at the end of the book, if we wonder why we’ve wasted hours of our reading life with such unpleasant (fictional) people, then the writer has a problem. And they clearly haven’t read enough popular fiction to know better. I think some people think it’s ‘easy’ to write popular fiction. But as Nathaniel Hawthorne once said ‘Easy reading is damn hard writing’, and not everyone is suited to it.

Marian and Cathy and Sheila and Maeve and Cecelia are well suited to it, along with other Irish writers who are blazing the trail world wide. Irish popular fiction is renowned for its warmth and its realistic, likable characters. International readers talk about the humour of the dialogue, the close knit family units, the steadfast, lifelong friendships in the books. The two words that appear over and over again are warmth and humour. Jojo and Katie nail this too - do they have Irish ancestors I wonder – only kidding ;).

If you’re writing popular fiction, reading some of the best books in the genre is a must. I’d highly recommend both Katie and Jojo’s latest novels to anyone.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX