Posted On April 27, 2012 by Print This Post

The Beauty is in the Details, by Sherry Thomas

Good morning, RU!! I have a special treat for you today. I’m so pleased to have author Sherry Thomas join us. The first time I heard about Sherry was at an RWA conference a few years ago. Such a buzz going around about her debut novel, Private Arrangements–for a very good reason. Fast forward five years and two time RITA winner Ms. Thomas is still creating a buzz! Sherry’s generously giving away a copy of her latest release, Beguiling the Beauty. Such a beautiful cover!

Welcome to RU, Sherry!!

Some people say the devil is in the details. I say the divine is in the details, especially when it comes to a story. It’s funny because in real life I don’t notice a whole lot of details, but in books details jump out at me. And I carry them with me years later. So here are a few things I want to say about details:

1) Details are wonderful for world-building. I’ve forgotten most of the plot of the first Harry Potter book, but I will always remember that the great hall at Hogwarts was lit by thousands of candles floating in the air. And no matter how you feel about it, the sparkling vampire is memorable. It distinguishes Stephenie Meyers’ vampires from all those who’ve come before.

If you write historicals, like me, you are also required to world-build, to recreate a vanished time. There is nothing like a good detail to take your readers back a century or few.

In Meredith Duran’s 1880s-set historical romance Written on Your Skin, the hero is poisoned. The heroine helps him by giving him an antidote.

“It’s only vin Mariani,” she said. “They call it the French tonic, sometimes.”
He knew the wine. He’d told Collins he wanted to create a brand of it for American distribution. Its main ingredient was not alcohol, but syrup of—“Coca.” The word was his, the voice unrecognizable. Hoarse, as though he’d been screaming.
“Yes. And the powder you inhaled—also from coca.” Her lips quirked into a strange smile that made her appear much older. “Mr. Monroe, you will be so full of coca by the time you leave, you won’t even feel a bullet.”

Holy smoke. She is giving him a diluted form of cocaine. And he talks about selling it! (It would have been good business too. The word coca in Coca-Cola was truth in advertising: Until it became frowned upon to consume cocaine, cocaine was present in minute amounts in Coca-Cola.)

We are taught from kindergarten to say no to drugs, but many of today’s forbidden substances were legitimate medicine 130 years ago. By using this detail, right away Meredith takes us to a different era.

2) Details are also wonderful for character-building. Going back again to the Harry Potter books. Let’s take one of its most beloved characters, Hagrid. We can spend gigabytes talking about Hagrid, but you know what I always remember from the books?

Hagrid’s domestic activities. He knits, he darns socks, and he cooks really terrible food—rock cakes that will chip your teeth and a beef stew in which Hermione finds a talon.

Kids devouring HP books might just cackle at these little descriptions. But what J. K. Rowling has vividly portrayed is the life of a middle-aged bachelor of limited means. He does these things because he has no one else to do them for him—no wife, no house elf. Hagrid never complains, but his is at times a lonely lot.

3) Details are wonderful for character description.

From Laura Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart:

She felt herself strangely daunted by him, overpowered by his greater size, the black line of his legs, the heavy square links of the belt that hung at his hips. He wore it as if it had no weight at all, though each joint, ornate and thick, studded with the silvery sable of marcasite crystals, would have balanced a cobblestone on the measuring scale.

This passage comes late in the book. The hero has been established as a thoroughly wonderful knight. But until this point, I haven’t really thought of him as sexy. The belt, however, clinches it for me. Can you imagine the magnificent physique it takes to wear such a tremendous belt? I can and someone please pour a bucket of cold water on me.

4) Details are wonderful for regular description.

From The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood, here is the heroine imagining leaving her asshole of a husband to live by herself and wait for her lover to come back from the war:

She’ll sew curtains for the windows, yellow curtains, the color of canaries or the yolks of eggs. Cheerful curtains, like sunshine. Never mind that she doesn’t know how to sew. She’ll starch the curtains and hang them up. She’ll get down on her knees with a whisk and clean out the mouse droppings and dead flies under the kitchen sink. She’ll repaint a set of canisters she’ll find in a junk store, and stencil on them: Tea, Coffee, Sugar, Flour. She will hum to herself while doing this. She’ll buy a new towel, a whole set of new towels. Also sheets, these are important, and pillowcases. She’ll brush her hair a lot.

Everything here is detail after detail after detail. You can feel how much and with what intensity the heroine has imagined this scenario.

5) The iteration of details become important motifs in your book.

In my recent RITA-winning historical romance, His at Night, the heroine lives under her malevolent uncle’s thumb. Her only escape is a book of travelogue. Whenever she is anxious, frightened, or wakes up from a nightmare, she reads about Capri and dreams of freedom.

Later on in the book, when the hero suffers from his own nightmares, she tells him about her beautiful Capri. And when the hero screws things up, to woo her back again, he finds a copy of the travelogue, memorizes the section on Capri, and recites it to her.

Reviewers often single out this last scene for praise.

It doesn’t need to be Capri—I chose Capri since I’d happened upon a 19th century travel guide to Southern Italy when I was researching another book. She could have been reading about the Wild West or even horticulture. The important thing is the layering, the repetition. Setup and payoff, in film parlance.

6) The questions:

a) How many details constitute the correct quantity of details?

The answer does not lie in the numbers, but in the results. What you want is to banish generic-ness and hone specificity in your writing. That’s what the details are for. When you have achieved specificity, you have the right quantity of details.

b) How do I know my details aren’t just more words?

Tough question. You’ll have to be the judge. But this simple rule of thumb can help you. Ask yourself, are your details doing double—or even better, triple—duty? In the example above from Meredith Duran’s book, the quick three paragraphs involving coca not only give you a flavor just how different the 1880s are from the 2010s, they also move the plot along and demonstrate the heroine’s cool-under-pressure character.

Giveaway information

Sherry will be happy to give away a copy of her latest release, BEGUILING THE BEAUTY.

When the Duke of Lexington meets the mysterious Baroness von Seidlitz-Hardenberg aboard a transatlantic ocean liner, he is fascinated. She is exactly what he has been searching for—a beautiful woman who interests and entices him. He falls hard and fast—and soon proposes marriage.

And then she disappears without a trace…

For in reality, the “baroness” is Venetia Easterbrook—a proper young widow who had her own vengeful reasons for instigating an affair with the duke. But the plan has backfired. Venetia has fallen in love with the man she despised—and there’s no telling what might happen when she is finally unmasked…


Venetia froze. Striding down the street toward her, tall, haughty, and impeccably turned out, was none other than the Duke of Lexington. He cast a cursory glance at the automobile and headed inside the hotel.

Her hotel. What was he doing here?

Her first instinct was to run. But a perverse pride refused to let her. If anyone ought to run in the opposite direction, it was he, not she. She had not slandered anyone. She had not spread malicious rumors. She had not spoken without regard to consequences.

Not until she was crossing the onyx-and-marble rotunda of the hotel did she realize she was still fully veiled. The hotel clerk blinked once at her appearance. “Good afternoon, ma’am. May I help you?”

Before she could reply, another clerk several feet down the counter offered a greeting of his own.

“Good afternoon, Your Grace.”

She froze again.

“Any news on my passage?” came Lexington’s cool voice.

“Indeed, sir. We have secured you a Victoria suite on the Rhodesia. There are only two such suites on the liner, and you will be assured of the greatest comfort, privacy, and luxury for your crossing.”

“Departure time?”

“Tomorrow morning at ten, sir.”

“Very good,” said Lexington.

“Ma’am, may I help you?” Venetia’s clerk asked again.

Unless she abruptly abandoned the counter, she must speak and, at some point, give her name. She cleared her throat—and out came a string of German. “Ich hätte gerne Ihre besten Zimmer.”

She was running away after all. She balled her fingers, the chaos inside her igniting into anger.

“Beg your pardon, ma’am?”

Through gritted teeth, she repeated herself.

The clerk looked flustered. Without turning, without ever having appeared to pay attention, Lexington said, “The lady would like your best rooms.”

“Ah yes, of course. Your name, please, ma’am.”

She swallowed and reached randomly. “Baronesse von Seidlitz-Hardenberg.”

* * *

Sherry, thanks again for joining us today! Such a terrific workshop. Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win Sherry’s newest release, Beguiling the Beauty!

RU Readers, what about you? Do you key in on the details of a story? What types of things jump out at you as a reader?

Please stop back on Monday for a great lecture by award-winning historical romance author Monica Burns. Monica reveals details about  Rock*It Reads and gives us her take on self-publishing.

* * *


Sherry Thomas burst onto the scene with PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS, a Publisher Weekly Best Book of 2008. Her sophomore book, DELICIOUS, is a Library Journal Best Romance of 2008. Her next two books, NOT QUITE A HUSBAND and HIS AT NIGHT, are back-to-back winners of Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA® Award for Best Historical Romance in 2010 and 2011. Lisa Kleypas calls her “the most powerfully original historical romance author working today.”

Her story is all the more interesting given that English is Sherry’s second language—she has come a long way from the days when she made her laborious way through Rosemary Roger’s SWEET SAVAGE LOVE with an English-Chinese dictionary. She enjoys digging down to the emotional core of stories. And when she is not writing, she thinks about the zen and zaniness of her profession, plays computer games with her sons, and reads as many fabulous books as she can find.

For more details, please visit Sherry’s website at

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45 Responses to “The Beauty is in the Details, by Sherry Thomas”

  1. love sherry’s book. can’t wait to read this one 🙂

    Posted by eli yanti | April 27, 2012, 12:32 am
  2. Hi Sherry,

    Welcome to RU and congrats on your new release! When layering in details like Capri, do you plot it out ahead of time or does the layering come during revisions?

    Thanks again,

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | April 27, 2012, 4:52 am
    • Hi Tracey,

      Thank you for inviting me.

      I don’t plot out such things. When I write a romance, I try to introduce all the important characters and motifs by page 100 and nothing new afterwards. That way, later, I have to use something I’ve already brought up, which automatically creates the iteration.

      Posted by Sherry Thomas | April 27, 2012, 8:36 am
  3. Hi Sherry,

    Do you see description and details as the same thing? Are details more personal and description more place and things?

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | April 27, 2012, 6:00 am
    • Hi Mary Jo,

      I see details as what gives any kind of description, whether it’s of a person, or of places and things, that finishing touch and that distinguishing character.

      Kinda like walking into a house. Most houses nowadays sort of resemble each other. But if you walk in a house and you see a hand-painted mural, or a chair that the owner has upholstered in bright, custom fabric, those are the things that leap out at your and stuff you remember later on.

      For example, from Judith Ivory’s BEAST, she doesn’t just say, “A platter of black grapes, local, plumply fresh, the tiniest, sweetest she had ever put in her mouth.” She says, “A platter of black grapes, local, plumply fresh, the tiniest, sweetest she had ever put in her mouth, with a bitter, tart seed if she happened to catch it in her mouth.”

      You see how that last phrase finishes the description and makes it much more real?

      Posted by Sherry Thomas | April 27, 2012, 8:48 am
  4. Hi Sherry. Welcome to RU. Number 4 really smacked me upside the head! What a great use of details to show the character’s determination.

    Thanks so much for a great lesson in details!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | April 27, 2012, 6:33 am
  5. Morning Sherry!

    Wow, what an awesome list! My favorite is number 2…I can’t say I remembered the talon in the soup until you said that, but the visual of Hagrid is exactly as you say – a man who has to do it all by himself, for better or worse. Sometimes the minuteness of the details don’t always stick, the the overall feeling it brings to the character does.

    Thanks for a wonderful post!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | April 27, 2012, 7:11 am
    • “Sometimes the minuteness of the details don’t always stick, the the overall feeling it brings to the character does.”

      Well said, Carrie. It’s the individual brush strokes that together create the picture.

      Posted by Sherry Thomas | April 27, 2012, 8:50 am
  6. Hi Sherry! I’m a huge fan and I’ve always enjoyed the details in your novels. #5 – the motifs, setup and payoff – is something I like to include in my books but I struggle to come up with something meaningful. I wonder if I’m trying too hard. Your Capri example seems so simple yet so powerful. Hmm. Must ponder this further. 🙂 Thanks for this great post!

    Posted by Kat Cantrell | April 27, 2012, 7:19 am
    • Hi Kat,

      I talked about this a bit in my earlier reply to Tracey.

      I don’t try to come up with something meaningful. At least not at the beginning of the book. I’m just laying down the story. In fiction, it is the repetition that creates the meaning, not the other way around.

      Like when Orson Wells’s character says “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane, Rosebud could be anyone or anything, it is that he brought it up at one of the most crucial moments in the film and that the journalist searches for the significance of it throughout that gives it significance.

      Posted by Sherry Thomas | April 27, 2012, 8:58 am
  7. Can’t wait to devour BEGUILING THE BEAUTY. My copy is scheduled to arrive on release day.

    Wonderful post! When you’re drafting a book, do you keep a list of details you’ve used so you can go back and punch them up or weave them throughout? As you work, are you aware of setup and payoff, or do you refine that in late drafts?

    Posted by Jane Sevier | April 27, 2012, 7:40 am
    • Hello, Darling,

      So glad to see you here.

      I am definitely aware of payoff, but I try to let the setup happen organically.

      Sometimes it does happen that I feel I need something to happen in act three and have to therefore go back to act one and weave in certain details. But that never feels quite as satisfying as when I get to act three, I look back, and see that I’ve already built in the iteration in the narrative.

      P.S. No lists are ever kept. I’m not that organized a writer. 🙂

      Posted by Sherry Thomas | April 27, 2012, 9:00 am
  8. Sherry –

    We’re so happy to have you here at RU! I agree that details can make for an amazing reader experience. My question is along the same lines as Tracey’s. Do your details come to you fully formed in the draft (or before) or do you find something along the way and strengthen it during revisions.

    I also find it easier to establish details about secondary characters than my main characters. Strange, but true.

    Happy Friday!

    PS – Loved Not Quite a Husband!

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | April 27, 2012, 7:47 am
    • Hi Kelsey,

      So glad you enjoyed NQAH.

      I actually struggle with details myself. They don’t come as easy as, say, dialogue. But I feel they strengthen the narrative and set the correct emotional tone–sometimes I don’t quite feel the resonance of a scene until all the details have been put in–so I’m willing to take the time to get them right.

      And they are always strengthened during revisions–that’s the great joy of revisions.

      Posted by Sherry Thomas | April 27, 2012, 9:04 am
  9. I love Private Arrangements. It’s one of my favorite books of all time! 🙂 Looking forward to reading your latest. 🙂

    Posted by May | April 27, 2012, 8:35 am
  10. Hi Sherry,

    Number 5 rang such a clarion call for me. While my WIP has a clear motif which satisfies the job I wanted it to do, I realised it could do so much more in the payoff.

    Thanks for the catalyst. And for Not Quite A Husband and Private Arrangements.


    Posted by Cia | April 27, 2012, 8:45 am
  11. Thanks for the lecture. Sometimes it is the little things that count the most.

    For me, the details that catch my attention are the unusual ones. The image I kept from Hogwarts was not the floating candles but that the ceiling of the great hall had been enchanted to look like the night sky.

    I have a hard time describing things, so instead of spending prose on excessive details I try to think what would catch a person’s eye when they walked into the room in my head. What would stand out and what makes that room different from any other room. Those are the details that go into my novel.

    Posted by Patchi | April 27, 2012, 9:23 am
  12. Great post!! Thanks Sherry!

    Posted by Bethany | April 27, 2012, 9:33 am
  13. Congratulations on the new release. It’s been awhile since His At Night.

    I like reading about details. In Julie Anne Long’s latest book, the hero could hear the heroine’s footsteps echo and fade across the parquet floor as she walked out of the room and his life. As a reader, I could easily envision that scene and the sense of sight and hearing.

    When you are working on the details, have you ever realized that you used something in a prior book and had to rewrite the scene?

    Posted by Kim | April 27, 2012, 11:16 am
  14. Hello Sherry!

    It’s the different or unusual descriptive details that stick with me. One that comes to mind is SEP’s description of the heroine’s eyes as seen by the hero, not purple or violet but grape lollipop eyes. One of my favorites is more of an analogy than a description is from the opening line of Peyton Place…Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe hotly passionate but yet fickle she comes and goes as she pleases…

    “How many details constitute the correct quantity of details?
    The answer does not lie in the numbers, but in the results.” We all need to remember this!

    Thanks so much for being with us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | April 27, 2012, 11:20 am
  15. Hi Sherry! The scene you mention from WRITTEN ON YOUR SKIN is one I’ll always remember, not only for the mention of coca, but Phin’s earlier thought that his face felt like “snow tigers with tongues of ice…lapping his skin.”

    I’m so very ready for BEGUILING THE BEAUTY. The excerpt immediately made me think of Sebastian and Marie in Ivory’s Dance.

    Posted by Karenmc | April 27, 2012, 1:54 pm
  16. I think details are important to set the tone of a story and setting. I can’t wait for your trilogy, especially Ravishing.

    Posted by Rosie | April 27, 2012, 2:49 pm
  17. Great post. I really enjoyed reading how authors use details.

    Posted by Mercy | April 27, 2012, 7:10 pm
  18. I absolutely agree that it is most often little details that set one book apart from others. Great post.

    And I adored the scenes about Capri!

    Posted by Ray | April 28, 2012, 11:11 am
  19. A detail that has always stayed with me is from Julie Anne Long’s The Perils of Pleasure. Her heroine is a widow, and one of the only details we’re ever told about her late husband is that he had a gun with a mermaid on the grip, that the heroine still carries. The hero thinks, “Of course you were married to the kind of man who had a mermaid on his gun.” I loved that she gave no backstory about the husband, but she managed to evoke a whole world and relationship with that one detail. Amazing.

    Posted by Anna Cowan | April 28, 2012, 5:55 pm
  20. I adore your work Sherry and cannot wait to get your latest work into my hot little hands. I, too, very much connect with the right details, and, like you, the right little ones can stay with me for years. I think for me it feels as if the right details–the ones that really stay with me–can make my own world seem richer once I’ve finished the story.

    Posted by Anna G. | April 28, 2012, 7:57 pm
  21. Sherry and All–

    Thanks for the great discussion!


    Anna Cowan

    Congrats, Anna, on winning a copy of Sherry’s BEGUILING THE BEAUTY!

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | April 29, 2012, 9:55 am
  22. As someone who tends to be a bit wordy, I often felt shame when a critique partner would cut so much of what I’d written. Reading this list has given me a different perspective on how to take those critiques and assess how to better use my words…or not use them!
    Thanks for an awesome post!

    Posted by Kelly Wolf | May 1, 2012, 8:47 am


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