How to Write a Novel for the Masses
Surefire advice for creating a runaway bestseller
The one thing necessary in a novel of romance is romance. The ordinary novel reader is a dull bird, who knows little, and cares less, about the facts of history, the cut of a cloak, or the geography of a particular country. To him anachronisms do not, exist, because he would not know one if he saw it in a cage. Of course I don't mean you, dear reader; but you must admit that the vast majority of the reading public is made up of dull, unthinking people, so why should writers spend so much time substantiating facts, studying costumes and scenery and other details that do not affect the real interest of the story, which is and must be the romantic portion of it?
Let me show you how it ought to be done:-
"It was dawn of a clear spring morning, Guy le Cormorant set forth from his father's castle with never a sou in his pocket, a large credit at his banker's, and the whole world before him."
Here chuck in some reference to the "'Provençal robins' that during the reign of the good Louis sang with such surpassing sweetness." If you wish to, run in a few Breton peasants, and dot the meadow with sheep, and fill the fields with Lyonnaise potatoes. The public won't know or care whether you are right or not.
Now it's time for your first adventure, for you are nearing the end of the second page, and a successful romantic novel should yield an adventure to every ten pages, and stop at the 300th page.
'Around the corner of the Louvre" (never mind what or where the Louvre is; the public will think it is a river or a field) "came the wicked seneschal, Vignon de Morimont. His fat horse jogged along lazily, and from the corners of his treacherous eyes he looked at the brave young Guy."
Now have Guy accuse him of having murdered his (Guy's) grandmother in 1560.
"When my father told me that my grandam" ("grandam" has a good sound always, like a great oath) "had been murdered by de Morimont of Morimont Castle, I swore that the murder should not go unavenged. All this morning have I sought thee; now have I found thee. Prepare for an awful doom."
Now let them draw their broadswords, and then say something about Richelieu having issued an edict against the carrying of broadswords by gentlemen. Start in as if you were going to be very dry over it, but cut it short quickly. That will make the reader like you. Then have Guy fly at the wicked seneschal, and spit him on the broadsword, and toss him into a plane tree. A plane tree is better than the most ornate tree that your reader is likely to know about. If a man thinks that you know something that he doesn't know, he suspects you of knowing other things of which he is ignorant, and his respect increases.
Having tossed the seneschal into the plane tree, let Guy mount his horse and continue on his way. Adventure number one is over, and he has won out easily, but it will be a mistake to let him win every round with as little effort. In a story, a dead-sure thing is not exciting.
It is now time to bring in more singing of birds, as a sort of contrast. If a shepherd is handy, let him pipe up a little, so as to put Guy into good spirits, as the stabbing of the seneschal is on his nerves a bit. Guy might toss the shepherd a sequin or a groat. The public has heard of both coins, but doesn't know where they grow.
Refer briefly to the clouds, and carry him on horseback past the place "where in 1493, the year after Columbus discovered America, two monks of St Bernard were murdered by Villon, the poet scamp. A shrine still marks the spot,—a shrine erected by Villon’s daughter." That will make the public say, "My, don't he know a lot!"
Now it is high time to bring Blanche de Boisgobey upon the scene. You may have her poor, but of good family, or you may make her a rich runaway, fleeing from the unpleasant attentions of Prince de Joinville; but have her family good, by all means, and she herself must be absolutely unspotted. The great public will not stand for a tarnished woman in the role of heroine of one of these romantic novels.
Describe her clothes, but in this you'll have to be careful; for while the men won't know anything about it, the women will catch on if you make any flagrant error. I guess you'll have to take the trouble to read up on the clothes, unless you have a sister who is up on garments. You might dress Blanche in the fashion of to-day, and say that she was fond of being ahead of her time.
But if you drop a hint of another adventure, not far off, you can draw it mild on the clothes business. Make her just as pretty as you know how, and that without describing her features; because no two persons agree on a woman's beauty, particularly no man and woman. Just say that she was as beautiful as "that fair queen of Greece whose husband swam the Hellespont to rescue her from the clutches of King Xerxes." There's more ancient history, and the dear public is left to its own imagination to conjure up proper features for her.
Now bring on your second adventure. People have a dim idea that wolves once overran France. You can speak of the great she-wolf that in 1343 ate up an entire village in the department of the Loire or the Soir; never mind how you spell it,—the public won't know the difference. Have that she-wolf, grown old and hungry, come out of a copse (by all means, a copse) and spring upon poor Blanche, who is on her way to a nunnery.
"While the terrible wolf was yet in midair, Guy pushed his horse to a mad gallop, and raising his arms above his head, he caught the famished beast in his Herculean grasp, diverting her for a moment from her purpose'
Now you can give 'em a pretty good fight. Have the wolf and Guy and the horse go down together in a grand mixup. Let Blanche pinch the wolf's tail, and have that so anger the "vulpine beast" that she tears a hole in Guy's doublet. It is a little early in the game to spoil his face, but if you give the reader a hint that it will heal up before they are married, I think you are safe to scratch him pretty hard. Of course, as soon as Blanche sees the scratches she will fall in love with him, and then faint
Make the combat long, and have Guy pretty nearly done for, when, by an opportune stab he punctures the heart of the monster.
He can come in for the big bounty that is on the wolf, if you want; but as he is rich already, that won't amount to much, except as it gives him a chance to bestow it on a group of poor villagers who have been attracted to the scene of the fight. Be sure to call it "largess" if he scatters it among them.
Now you see why you have provided a stout horse. It is so that Blanche may sit behind Guy, and continue on her way to the nunnery, he having gallantly offered to set her down at her corner.
Now it is time for the real villain to appear. The seneschal Guy tried on the second page was only for early seasoning. The real villain is, of course, Prince Henri Milledieudetonnefleurs de Joinville, and you would do well to place him on a stallion, and have him ride for two days and two nights in pursuit of Blanche.
It's really necessary to bring in a little more scenery. A novel would seem bare without it. You might set out a double row of Lombardy poplars that were planted in honor of the victory of Magna Charta over Count de Blois in 1010. Never mind the public; they won't know. It'll look all right in type. Mention a dense flock of Marseillaise blackbirds that obscured the light of the sun, and let it be as a portent against the success of the wicked Henri. Mention other flights, casually, and speak of the Children's Crusade in search of the Northwest Passage, that was near to having been discontinued owing to a flight of sea gulls from John o' Groat's to Land's End. This last will establish you as a master of curious knowledge.
Let Guy go to sleep, weak from loss of blood, and while the horse crops at the grass and Blanche plucks ox-heart daisies, bring on the villain at an easy gallop, and have him pick up Blanche and ride off with her. Keep Guy asleep for a half hour, so that he will deserve the more credit when he, on his fat old horse, chases and overtakes the fleet stallion. For of course he overtakes the villain. The stallion has peculiarly shaped hoofs, having lost a portion of each one in the battle of Cressy or Sedan,—either one will do,—and Guy is able to track Henri in this way. Otherwise, the hero not being a woodsman, Henri would have escaped with his prey, and it would have caused a bad break in the story.
Let Guy come on Henri in a narrow defile,—a characteristically French one. If you don't happen to know any French defile, describe an American one, and it will go all right.
Of course this won't be the final fight, because you've got to fill at least three hundred pages, and Guy will have adventures with the pickpockets of Paris, and in the Bay of Biscay and the Swiss Alps; but I can't write the whole book for you, so we'll suppose it is the final fight
Let Henri have the advantage at the start, but give Guy great staying powers. Make hint fatigué Henri, and make Henri say, "Je suis fatigué." That's real French, and you can find a lot more like it where that came from. Make Henri in need of rest and refreshment, and then let Guy come some celebrated thrust on him. You can name the thrust, if you wish; invent it and describe it in detail out of your own head. No one will ever show you up; and if anyone does, it will advertise the book.
Make Guy smile at Blanche, who by this time is loving him tremendously, and then, "with a sudden turn of the wrist,—that wrist that ten years later was to save the life of the great Mirabeau,—Guy gave Henri the congé, and the wicked prince turned and reeled in his tracks."
Now make Guy say "Honi soit qui mal y pense," or "Dum vivimus, vivamus"; and then, to conclude the book, make the old seneschal of page 2 crawl up, filled with remorse. He had dropped out of the plane tree, and the fall had brought him to. Make him ask forgiveness of Guy; and then, "while little French birds were singing rondels, and as peasants bent over their hoes in clod-like attitudes, or leaned upon their spades to listen to the Angelus, the monk pronounced the words that made Blanche and Guy husband and wife,—or rather, wife and husband."
There you are. It's a seller.