Hospitality on Skye

Monday, July 24, 2017

As noted in the last two blog posts, Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell often found poor food and accommodations on their travels around the Inner Hebrides. But they were pleased with their reception at Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. The present castle, seen in the photo above, has surely been enlarged since then, but it still must have been impressive. More importantly for Dr. Johnson, it was a comfortable and elegant place to stay while waiting for the weather to become more favorable.

At Dunvegan, Johnson and Boswell were wined and dined and entertained. The host engaged them in intelligent discussion, the hostess was extremely gracious, and Dr. Johnson was reminded of the refinement he felt he had mostly left behind in London. As he put it:

At Dunvegan I had tasted lotus, and was in danger of forgetting that I was ever to depart, till Mr. Boswell sagely reproached me with my sluggishness and softness. I had no very forcible defence to make; and we agreed to pursue our journey.

Roland, Donald, and I also felt the hospitality on Skye. We had been received with equal hospitality on Mull, but it is always pleasant to be treated as an honored guest.

Fernlea Bed and Breakfast is on the main road, not too far from the Skye Bridge. It was a convenient base from which to explore the rest of the island. After our white-knuckle drive from the ferry, we tried to find a tourist information center and were unsuccessful. So even though it was way too early to check in, we headed to Fernlea to see if they would have any suggestions for spending the day.

At first Iris seemed a little flustered to have us arrive early, but she soon got into her helpful mode and made some suggestions. By the time we returned from Armadale Castle, the rooms were ready and we moved right in. Iris and John were always eager to give us information and advice and to make reservations at nearby restaurants. And the breakfasts were excellent. That’s Fernlea in the second photo.

But one of the most interesting things about Skye is the (true) legend of Flora MacDonald. Tune in next week to learn about her.

Over the Sea to Skye

Monday, July 17, 2017

Donald, Roland, and I shared another experience with Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell when we spent the night at Glenelg on the way to the Isle of Skye.

Glenelg is just down the road from the closest point between the mainland and Skye. That’s probably why Johnson and Boswell close it. I chose it because it because I wanted to take the historic turn-table ferry that crossed there.

The eighteenth-century scholars had a dangerous trip to Glenelg. According to Dr. Johnson:

We left Auknasheals and the Macreas in the afternoon, and in the evening came to Ratiken, a high hill on which a road is cut, but so steep and narrow, that it is very difficult. There is now a design of making another way round the bottom. Upon one of the precipices, my horse, weary with the sharpness of the rise, staggered a little, and I called in haste to the highlander to hold him. This was the only moment of my journey, in which I thought myself endangered.

I can’t remember whether we went “another way round the bottom,” but it wasn’t this part of the journey that concerned us most. I’ll get to the part that did in a minute.

Unfortunately, Glenelg is small, and there is only one inn. When Johnson and Boswell arrived, they found that the inn served whiskey but no food, and the beds were occupied. Eventually they found some hay and settled down for the night, but they were not happy.

There is still only one inn, although it is a more modern one. The Glenelg Inn served food, but I found it bland and wasn’t happy with either dinner or breakfast. The TV didn’t work, people gathered and talked on the patio outside our room after we wanted to go to bed, and there was no good place to set up my laptop. But our room did have a nice sitting area where Roland enjoyed reading.

My disappointment with the inn was a minor problem compared with what was to come. Getting from the inn to the ferry was bad enough, but after we left the ferry we had about five miles of the most harrowing mountainous driving you can imagine. Like Dr. Johnson, we felt ourselves endangered. I’m not sure if the photo at the head of this post is the landing we left from or the one we arrived at, but you can see what the terrain was like.

Still, we made it safely through. And we, like Johnson and Boswell, found hospitality on Skye. That’s the subject of the next post.

Dr. Samuel Johnson's Tour of the Hebrides

Monday, July 10, 2017

In 1773 Dr. Samuel Johnson decided to take a research tour of the Highlands and the Inner Hebrides. He was accompanied by James Boswell, and they both wrote journals. Although separated by many years, our paths crossed theirs at several points during our Scotland trip. We did not visit places in the same order, so these next few posts will follow our itinerary rather than theirs.

Those early travelers crossed the Isle of Mull on their way from the Isle of Coll to the Isle of Iona. We did not visit Coll (although the ferry stopped there on our way to and from Tiree), but we did spend four nights on Mull and took a day trip to Iona while we were there.

Johnson and Boswell landed at Tobermory. We landed at Craignure and drove to Tobermory, which you can see in the photo. I’m sure it was not as colorful in 1773, although Dr. Johnson described it as having a very commercial appearance because of all the boats in the harbor.

Travelling around Mull in the 1770s was hard going. As Dr. Johnson described the trip across Mull on their way to Iona:

Having not any experience of a journey in Mull, we had no doubt of reaching the sea by day-light, and therefore had not left Dr. Maclean’s very early. We travelled diligently enough, but found the country, for road there was none, very difficult to pass. We were always struggling with some obstruction or other, and our vexation was not balanced by any gratification of the eye or mind. We were now long enough acquainted with hills and heath to have lost the emotion that they once raised, whether pleasing or painful, and had our mind employed only on our own fatigue.

It’s still hard going. There are roads now, but they are mostly single tracks winding through the mountains, with passing places for oncoming vehicles. My brother Gordon was leaving a day earlier than the rest of us and wanted a cheaper room, so he booked a hotel in Tobermory. I booked rooms at a “nearby” castle for Donald, Roland, and me. It was only four miles from Tobermory, but the first time we drove it in the fog, and it took us 40 minutes. We got that below 30 minutes by the time we left.

Traversing the best roads on Mull (a combination of dual lane and single track), it took us about two hours to make the 58 miles from Tobermory to the Iona ferry.

Iona is known as the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland. Johnson and Boswell were disappointed with the state of the ruins at the site. By the time we got there, the nunnery was still in ruins but restoration work had been done on the abbey. Here is a picture as the abbey looked to us.

As mentioned above, Gordon left us after three nights on Mull. Donald travelled on with Roland and me, staying one more night on Mull before heading to Glenelg and from there to Skye.

I’ll pick up the saga next week as I talk about the experiences we shared with the two scholars at Glenelg on our way to Skye.

Sir Walter Scott: Friend or Foe?

Monday, July 3, 2017

The lighthouse museum at Hynish includes a short biography of Sir Walter Scott. As a Commissioner of Northern Lights, Scott had visited the site of the future Skerryvore Lighthouse many years before it was built. Here is how he described it in his diary.

Having crept upon deck about four in the morning, I find we are beating to windward off the Isle of Tyree, with the determination, on the part of Mr. Stevenson, that his constituents should visit a reef of rocks called Skerry Vhor, where he thought it would be essential to have a Lighthouse. Loud remonstrances on the part of the Commissioners, who, one and all, declare they will subscribe to his opinion, whatever it may be, rather than continue the infernal buffeting. Quiet perseverance on the part of Mr. S., and great kicking, bouncing, and squabbling upon that of the yacht, who seems to like the idea of Skerry Vhor as little as the Commissioners. At length by dint of exertion, come in sight of this long ridge of rocks (chiefly under water) on which the tide breaks in a most tremendous style.*

My brother Gordon and I were standing on the pier at Hynish (shown in the photo) when Gordon told me more about Sir Walter Scott’s history. I had to laugh because it sounded just like Mark Twain’s history. And that’s funny because Twain was Scott’s nemesis. The two men would not have known each other (Scott died three years before Twain was born), but Twain hated Scott with a passion. In Chapter 46 of Life on the Mississippi, Twain blames Scott for giving people romantic notions that kept them living in the past.

Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinessses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual who ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South, they flourish pretty forcefully still.

And yet, the two men seemed to have the same faults and the same moral code. Both were easy prey for swindlers, or at least for people promoting bad business deals; each ended up bankrupt because of it; and each vowed to pay every last one of his debts—and did.

So maybe Twain should have respected Scott rather than despising him.


*  Quoted from Chapter 3 of Outer Isles by A. Goodrich-Freer (1902), as reprinted at

Robert Lewis Stevenson: Breaking with Tradition

Monday, June 26, 2017

The photo shows the signal tower at Hynish on the Isle of Tiree. In the 1800s, it was the only way to communicate with the keepers at the offshore Skerryvore lighthouse. But these blog posts are supposed to be about literary connections, and where is the literary connection here?

The lighthouse was designed and built by Alan Stevenson, who was the uncle of Robert Lewis Stevenson. Robert Lewis Stevenson’s father and grandfather were also lighthouse engineers, and he originally planned to follow them into the business. But he wanted to write for a living, and the law was an easier fallback if he couldn’t make it as an author. So he qualified in law rather than in engineering.

Stevenson was always proud of his heritage, however. This quote is printed in the exhibit at Hynish:

Whenever I smell salt water, I know I am not far from the works of my ancestors. The Bell Rock stands monument for my grandfather, the Skerry Vhor for my Uncle Alan and when the lights come on at sundown along the shores of Scotland, I am proud to think they burn more brightly for the genius of my father.

He also paid special tribute to Skerryvore (or Skerry Vhor), calling it “the noblest of all extant deep-sea lights.”

When Robert Lewis Stevenson changed course and broke with tradition, he may have deprived the world of another great lighthouse engineer. We’ll never know. Still, the world is happy with his choice.

Sometimes writers have to break with tradition.

Reading Fuels Imagination

Monday, June 19, 2017

Roland and I just returned from a literary vacation to Scotland. Well, it wasn’t really a literary vacation, but it did have some literary connections, and I’m going to share them with you over the next few weeks.

The main motive behind the trip was to meet up with my brothers on the Isle of Tiree and have a sort of family reunion there. When I was ten years old, Daddy took a sabbatical, packed up the family, and moved to Edinburgh for the school year. Over the Christmas holidays, he took an assignment preaching at the Church of Scotland parish churches on the Isle of Tiree. We have all visited Edinburgh since then, but none of us had been back to Tiree.

Tiree is one of the more remote islands in the Inner Hebrides. It took a four-hour ferry ride to get there, all the roads are one-track with passing places, and we saw more sheep than people. Still, my brothers and I had a good time reviving old memories.

The cottage where we stayed before had been torn down and replaced with a more modern residence, but we booked the cottage across the street to the west.

Balephetrish Bay was across the street to the north, and I spent many hours there fifty plus years ago. I must have recently read Little Women, because back then the bay was a department store where Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy Marsh did their Christmas shopping. The photo above was taken when the tide was coming in, so it is harder to see how easily I could go from one stand of rock to another while “shopping.” But with the tide out, my imagination had free rein.

The other book I associate with Tiree is Princess Prunella by Katharine L. Oldmeadow. Miss Johnson, who was Deaconess for the Tiree parish, gave it to me for Christmas, and I still have the now well-read copy. Unfortunately, it and the rest of Katherine Oldmeadow’s books are out of print. I have managed to find and read a couple of her others and they aren’t as good as Princess Prunella. Even so, it’s too bad that they aren’t readily available.

That December on Tiree I had no TV and few playmates, but I kept myself entertained. Whether it’s a hard copy or an electronic version, there is nothing like a good book to spark a child’s imagination.

Next week I’ll tell you about Tiree’s connection with Robert Lewis Stevenson.

First Lines: Telling the Whole Story

Monday, June 12, 2017

It’s time to give the plot away. Well, not completely. But some effective first lines do summarize the story.

Here is the opening paragraph from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

And what is the story about? Convincing rich single men that they want wives.

Or consider this paragraph that opens the story proper in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.*

Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her back. She didn’t like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes. Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere. To a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place, and preferably a beautiful place. And that’s why she decided upon the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Can you guess what this story is about? A girl runs away and hides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Telling the whole story can work for nonfiction as well. Here is the first paragraph of The Glass Castle, which is a memoir written by Jeannette Walls.

I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.

Here, you need only the first sentence to get the heart of the story. Jeannette grew up rooting through Dumpsters for her meals. She rose above that lifestyle, but her parents still embraced it.

So why do these openings work? They give the essence of the story without revealing the details. We know that Claudia is going to run away from home and hide at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but we don’t know how long she can stay hidden or why she is running away in the first place. We read on because we want to know exactly what happened.

As with other types of openings, however, this one also has its pitfalls. You may even recognize them since they are similar to the ones for foreshadowing. The opening may give away too much, or it may make promises that it doesn’t keep. I think it is also the hardest type of opening to write.

There are other types of opening lines besides the ones discussed in this series, but these are the five that, as a reader, I have found to be the most effective. Now it’s your turn to find the one that works best for your story.


*    Technically, this isn’t the beginning of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The book starts with a cover letter from Mrs. Frankweiler to her lawyer. However, the quote begins the actual story.

First Lines: Raising Questions

Monday, June 5, 2017

Pick up ten of your favorite books and read their opening paragraphs. What do they use to capture your attention? I’m guessing that most of them ask questions that interest you enough to keep reading. Sometimes this approach stands alone, and at other times it is combined with one of the other types of opening. When we were talking about introducing intriguing characters, I used this first line from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Part of the reason Eustace is an intriguing character is because of the question this sentence causes us to ask—what kind of boy almost deserves to be called Eustace Clarence Scrubb?

So what are some other examples? My May 8, 2017 blog post quoted the opening paragraphs from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and noted that they raised a simple question: why is it so important that Marley was dead?

Then there is Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which begins with this concise, one-sentence paragraph:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

What family or families is he talking about, and how is its or their unhappiness unique? Those questions are the hook that keeps you reading.

Or here’s a third example, taken from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

This opening raises two questions:

1.     What is a hobbit?

2.     How can a hole in the ground be comfortable?

Our interest is peaked, and we read on to find the answers.

Maybe the question-raising opening is the most common because it is the easiest to write. Or is it? It takes effort to avoid the natural pitfalls.

In my experience as a reader, openings that raise questions often ramble. That works if the tangents are both interesting and purposeful, as in A Christmas Carol. But many rambling openings are simply tedious and the questions get lost in the verbiage. I put those books down.

Openings that raise questions can also be vague. Most good openings identify characters and settings within the first page or two. When they don’t, readers may be discouraged from reading on.

Finally, some writers are so intent on raising questions that they set a tone that doesn’t match the rest of the novel. This is deceptive and unfair to the reader.

I’ll conclude this series next week by looking at the last type of opening line: telling the whole story.

First Lines: Foreshadowing

Monday, May 29, 2017

To foreshadow is to hint at what is to come. The hint can be either weak or strong, indirect or direct, veiled or obvious.

Consider these openings:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling)

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. (One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez)

What does the first paragraph of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone tell the reader? That something strange and mysterious is about to happen. It doesn’t tell us what, though, so we keep reading to find out. This is a mild hint, but it is enough to intrigue us.

The first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the reader exactly what is going to happen. No subtlety here. Unfortunately, the rest of the very long paragraph, while interesting, weakens the impact of the first sentence. But the opening is still strong enough to keep readers reading to discover what led to the firing squad.

Foreshadowing sounds easy, so why doesn’t everybody use it? It’s because of the pitfalls.

First, foreshadowing may give away too much. Take the classic puzzle mystery. In the spirit of fair play, the author gives the reader all the information he or she needs to figure out who did it. But the author also tries to outsmart the reader—often by hiding the clues in plain sight. Nobody wants it to be too easy, and the reader often prefers the surprise and pleasure of being outsmarted. So this is a bad first paragraph: “Karen smiled as she threw the gun into the pond. She had gotten away with it.” If you have a different kind of mystery and the question is why she did it, that opening may work fine. But for a puzzle mystery, it gives away too much.

The second pitfall is the danger of promising more than you deliver. The opening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone works because the book is filled with strange and mysterious happenings. And the protagonist in One Hundred Years of Solitude does face a firing squad, or so I’m told. (I haven’t read the book.) But if you can’t deliver, try a different approach.

Next week we’ll talk about what I believe is the most common type of opening—the one that raises questions in the reader’s mind.

First Lines: Introducing an Intriguing Character

Monday, May 22, 2017

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m not captured by the first sentence in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but the following sentences succeed where the first fails. Here is the entire beginning paragraph:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

I can’t help wondering what a highly educated and apparently intelligent man is doing as an ordinary seaman. I’m intrigued, so I keep reading. That’s why this type of opening works.

Then there is Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. The first paragraph is too long to quote in full, so here are the first two sentences.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.

Clearly, Holden has an “attitude,” and that attitude intrigues some readers. I’m not one of them, but that goes to a point in a previous post: no first line (or first paragraph) will appeal to everyone. In fact, no story will appeal to everyone. I can tell from the first paragraph that the book is filled with profanity, so I’ll pass. But for some readers, the opening has the opposite effect. And even though I choose not to read The Catcher in the Rye, maybe that’s also a function of a successful first line—to weed out the readers who won’t appreciate the book.

Like Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye, C.S. Lewis begins The Voyage of the Dawn Treader with the description of an intriguing youth and his parents.

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. His parents called him Eustace Clarence and masters called him Scrubb. I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none. He didn’t call his Father and Mother “Father” and “Mother,” but Harold and Alberta. They were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotalers and wore a special kind of underclothes. In their house there was very little furniture and very few clothes on the beds and the windows were always open.

What kind of boy almost deserves to be called Eustace Clarence Scrubb? Not a very likeable one, but intriguing none-the-less. And I have read and enjoyed this book. I originally bought it because I like the author, but I also appreciate the writing style.

As with any other opening, however, there are pitfalls to beginning a book by introducing an intriguing character. The first is self-evident: not making the character sufficiently intriguing to capture the reader’s attention. Just because I love my character doesn’t mean my readers will have the same feeling at the beginning of the book. By the time I finalize those opening paragraphs, I have been living with my protagonist for months and know both her quirks and her deepest secrets. When a new reader looks at the first pages to make a purchasing decision, he or she doesn’t know that character yet. The trick is to make the reader feel the same interest the author does but do it while the character is still a stranger to the reader. And that isn’t easy.

The other pitfall is maintaining the momentum. The character must fulfill the promise of the opening lines and remain intriguing throughout the story. If you empty your gun at the beginning and never reload, readers will cheer for you (as author) to die in the dust. And they won’t return for the next gunfight.

So if you want to begin with an intriguing character, make sure he or she fulfills that promise.

Next week we will move on to openings that foreshadow the story.

First Lines: Starting with a Bang

Monday, May 15, 2017

I stared at the gun in my hand before transferring my gaze to the dead author on the floor. She deserved to die. It was the only way to stop her from beginning her next romance with yet another car chase.

One approach to first lines is to begin with a bang—a startling event that captures a reader’s or viewer’s attention—such as an abduction or a car chase. Or it can be the literal bang of a gunshot. This type of opening is often used with action adventures, but it isn’t limited to that genre.

For an example from literary fiction, consider the opening paragraph from The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (as translated by David Wyllie).

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked.

If waking up to discover you’ve been changed into a giant insect isn’t a startling event, then nothing is. The bang in The Metamorphosis is both unexpected and gigantic.

But the bang doesn’t have to be big to work. Here is the beginning of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring—I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen-house. Though even that isn’t a very good poem. I have decided my poetry is so bad that I mustn’t write any more of it.

In these two examples, the first line is the one that creates the bang. And fortunately for the reader, the rest of the paragraph keeps the interest going.

So why doesn’t every story start with a bang? Because it doesn’t always work. Like every other type of opening, this approach has its pitfalls.

First, it’s too easy to start with an event that has nothing to do with the story. I’ve read many manuscripts and even some published books that fall into this trap. Somebody told the writer to start with a thrilling adventure, so the writer forces a car chase or a murder into the opening of a gentle romance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit.

But, you may ask, what about Raiders of the Lost Ark? Doesn’t that start with an unrelated adventure? Yes and no. The action sequence that begins the movie is not part of the actual story line, but it is related. First, it tells us something about Indiana Jones’ character. Second, it is consistent with and sets the mood for what follows. For these reasons and possibly others, it works. The car chase or murder that begins the gentle romance can’t claim those connections.

The second pitfall of opening with a bang is the temptation to begin the story in the wrong place. I was writing a women’s fiction novel about a woman who idolized her father until she discovered that he was a swindler. She doesn’t forgive him until she thinks he was killed in a car crash. The accident was the most dramatic event in the story, so I tried to start there. Unfortunately, I would have had to tell most of the story as a flashback. A few writers can pull it off, but I’m not one of them.

If your story allows you to start with a bang naturally, then do it. But if not, there are plenty of other choices.

Next week we’ll talk about using the first lines to introduce an intriguing character.

First Lines: You Can't Please Everyone

Monday, May 8, 2017

No first line will appeal to everyone. If that’s your aim as a writer, you will never stop fiddling and start submitting. So find something you like and go with it.

Although I’m a Dickens fan, I have personally never seen the attraction in “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . .” The entire paragraph is a single run-on sentence that goes on and on in the same vein, and I just want it to stop. Yet this is often quoted as an example of a good first line.

I also can’t see the attraction in “Call me Ishmael” from Moby Dick, which is probably the most quoted example of a good first line. Like most of the readers from Herman Melville’s time, I know who Ishmael was: a Biblical figure (Abraham’s oldest son) who was sent into exile because Abraham’s wife was jealous that Ishmael would take first place over her own son, Isaac. So yes, maybe the Ishmael of Moby Dick was cast out too, and that probably isn’t his real name since he says “Call me Ishmael.” But although it creates some mystery, it doesn’t make me curious enough to keep reading.

Fortunately, it isn’t just the first sentence that counts. “Call me Ishmael” doesn’t grab my attention, but the rest of the paragraph does. It shows the narrator as a highly-educated man who is working as a common sailor. Now Ishmael intrigues me, so I want to learn more about him.

Then there is A Christmas Carol. Again, the first sentence is mildly interesting, but it is the narrator’s continued rambling that sets the tone of the book and makes me want to read on. Here is the entire first paragraph.

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

This passage tells me repeatedly that Marley is dead, but it doesn’t tell me why that matters. The first paragraph leaves me with a question that won’t get answered unless I continue reading.

The next paragraph doesn’t provide the answer, but it keeps my attention because the detour is interesting and has its own purpose. Here’s the second paragraph.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefor permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

This paragraph sets the tone (informal and conversational) and introduces me to the omniscient narrator. That last point is important because now I won’t be thrown out of the story when the narrator adds something that the characters themselves can’t know.

But I still don’t understand why it matters that Marley is dead. Will the next paragraphs answer my question?

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnized it with an undoubted bargain.

The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.

Now I’m even more curious. What remarkable thing is going to happen because Marley is dead? If I wasn’t hooked after the first paragraph, I am by the fourth. And that allows Dickens to take six more pages to fill in Scrooge’s character before answering the question that peaked my interest in the first place. Six pages where I keep reading even though I don’t yet know how those events relate to Marley’s death.

So how do you get a reader to keep reading? Grab the reader’s attention in the first few paragraphs and clue the reader in to the style and narrator of the book. If everything comes together, you may have a new fan.

Over the next five weeks I’ll cover the main types of effective openings as identified in last week’s post. Next week I’ll start with a bang.

First Lines: Dispelling the Myth

Monday, May 1, 2017

It’s a commonly held belief that first lines sell books, but it’s a myth.

First lines don’t sell books. Good writing sells books.

I’m not arguing that first lines aren’t important. Of course they are. But a good first line is not enough if the writing that follows is weak.

Even so, the first line is one of the most crucial parts of the book. I spend hours trying to come up with the right first line and am never satisfied. As a writer, I’m not the best person to tell you how to craft one. But as a reader, I know what captures me and what doesn’t. So in this post and the ones that follow, I’ll give you my thoughts as a reader.

Technically, “line” and “sentence” are not synonyms, but that’s how most writers use them when talking about opening lines. I will do the same and use them interchangeably to mean “sentence.”

Every article or blog post or lecture on writing the opening line starts by stating that the purpose of that line is to hook the reader and make him or her want to read on. Most also acknowledge that it isn’t quite that simple. You also need to clue the reader in to the style of the book and provide information on characters and settings. Very few authors and books can do that in one sentence or even one paragraph. So yes, start strong. But the first line doesn’t stand alone.

In my experience, there are five main types of effective openings. They are:

·       Starting with a bang (e.g., the car chase opening);

·       Introducing an intriguing character;

·       Foreshadowing;

·       Raising questions in the reader’s mind; and

·       Telling the whole story.

Each approach has pitfalls, and none works in all instances. A good writer will match the opening to the story. So how does he or she do that?

Stay tuned.

I Give In

Monday, April 24, 2017

Once upon a time, I queried agents for an early chapter book. They all rejected it, and they should have.

Later, I tried with Christian women’s fiction. I happen to think that these novels were and are as good as many (although far from all) of the ones published by Christian publishers, and hopefully that isn’t all hubris. But again I found nothing but rejection.

My writing has continued to improve, and I have now found my true passion in middle grade historical fiction. So is it time to try again?

My past experience looking for agents and the wisdom gleaned from other writers has taught me two things.

(1)   First, it’s almost as hard to find a good agent as it is to find a traditional publisher and, as a corrolary, those agents that are easy to find don’t have the necessary connections.
(2)   Second, author and agent need to click together like puzzle pieces. An effective author-agent relationship is also a close one, and personality matters.
Since I don’t need an agent to review my publishing contract and tell me what to negotiate, I was hoping to get away without one. But there is more to an agent’s job than just understanding and negotiating a contract. I’m not a good salesperson, and the larger, more-established publishing houses don’t take unagented submissions. They make exceptions for people who attend conferences where they appear and I take advantage of those opportunities, but that still leaves a number of closed doors. So I have given in and am searching for an agent again.

Let’s hope it goes better this time.

The True Meaning of Chistmas

Monday, April 17, 2017

“Wait a second,” you say. “The true meaning of Christmas? Aren’t you getting your holidays mixed up?”

No. I wrote what I wrote, and I’m sticking to it.

Christmas isn’t about gifts or decorations or family dinners. It is about the birth of a baby who was fully God and yet fully man—about God’s only Son humbling Himself and becoming like me (except without sin, which is a HUGE difference).

But the baby we celebrate at Christmas came with a special mission. Although He came to live among us for a while, His ultimate purpose was to die a painful and dishonorable death. A death He didn’t deserve—but we do. A death followed by a resurrection that He deserved—but we don’t. Or, to put it in Sunday School terms, Jesus died on the cross to save us (me and you) from our sins. But death wasn’t the end. It couldn’t hold Him, and it won’t hold us. Jesus’ resurrection is proof that He is God, and it assures me that I will live eternally with Him.

I don’t understand why God chose to do things this way, but I’m grateful He did.

If Christ had not come to earth as a baby, we would have no reason to celebrate Easter.

That’s why the true meaning of Christmas is Easter.





This is a reprint from April 5, 2010.

A Shadow of His Image

Monday, April 10, 2017

Sometimes my mind wanders while I’m in church, but it isn’t always a bad thing. This Lenten season I noticed the shadows cast by the altar cross during Wednesday evening services, and they preached their own sermon.  

If you look at the physical cross in the center of the picture, you will notice that it stands up straight and perfectly formed, while the images created by its shadows are bent and distorted. Here is a closer look.

Christ was born and died as perfect Man, while those originally created in His image have been bent and distorted by sin. You could argue that Christ became bent and distorted as well (temporarily) when He took on our sin and paid for it by His death, but He would not have been a worthy substitute if He had not been sinless in His own thoughts and actions.

That wasn’t the case for the two thieves who were crucified on either side. When one of them hurled insults at Christ, the other reminded him, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:41, NIV) And yet, in the most important sense, only one of the thieves got what his deeds deserved. Both deserved hell, but one received heaven.

Sin has distorted my image, too. Even so, God sees me as straight and as perfectly formed as the Man on that middle cross. Because He took on my punishment, I won’t get what I deserve, either.

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20, NIV.)

Praise be to God.


Monday, April 3, 2017

As we get ready to enter Holy Week, I am reprinting a poem that I wrote many years ago. It isn’t great poetry, but it responds to the uncertainty I was going through at the time and that we all experience now and then.


I often wonder if God understands
When I feel deserted and all alone;
Then I remember three sleeping men
As Jesus knelt on the garden’s stone.

Or does God understand my anguish
When from life’s cares I want relief?
“Let this cup pass” were my Savior’s words
As He voiced His anguish and His grief.

Sometimes it’s hard to follow God’s will
When He asks for a sacrifice from me;
Yet Christ was giving so much more
When He followed God’s will to Calvary.

Whenever I wonder if God understands,
I remember Christ’s love for me;
How, because of that love, He has felt what I feel,
As He had His own Gethsemane.

As Hebrews 5:17-18 says, “For we do not have a high priest [Jesus] who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (NIV)

Thanks be to God.


The picture shows the Garden of Gethsemane as it looked in 1998 when Roland, the children, and I took a trip to the Middle East with my mother, my brothers, my niece, and my nephew. The photo is © 1998 by Roland E. Camp and the poem is © 1974 by Kathryn Page (Camp).

Who is Who?

Monday, March 27, 2017

One of the hardest things about writing characters is giving them distinctive identities that stand out on the page. All primary characters and many secondary ones should have identifiable personalities. Still, readers sometimes forgive lapses for less-important role. They don’t forgive the writer if the protagonists are too alike.

My current work-in-progress has two protagonists, and both are point-of-view characters. Julia and Fannie are 12-year-old cousins. They have very different personalities, and that must come through in my writing.

Both girls are upper-middle-class, intelligent, and have good vocabularies, so I can’t use any of those characteristics to distinguish them. But Julia has an imagination while Fannie is practical and has a literal mind. As a result, Julia’s chapters incorporate metaphors and similes and vivid images, while Fannie’s tend to be straight-forward.

That raises another issue. Julia’s chapters are fun to write, and hopefully that will make readers enjoy them as much as I do. But it’s harder to add interest when metaphors and other creative figures of speech are unavailable. So what can I do?

One way to create interest is to fill the Fannie chapters with heart-stopping scenes. Interesting events also occur in the Julia chapters, of course, but Fannie’s experiences are more intense. Another strategy is to make Fannie an unreliable narrator of her own and Julia’s motives. She reports the facts accurately but doesn’t always interpret them correctly, especially when they involve her own feelings. Since the reader has a more objective view, Fannie’s misperceptions produce an occasional laugh.

But however characters are written, it isn’t enough to make them interesting.

They must also be distinctive.


The picture at the head of this post does not represent my image of Julia and Fannie, but it does show two women from that approximate time. The drawing is in the public domain because of its age.

Don't Change My Voice!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Being an effective critiquer isn’t easy, and few people do it well. The first problem is that a good critiquer can’t worry about hurting the writer’s feelings. Yes, the critiquer should be sensitive and respectful, but the point of the exercise is to help the writer improve. That means pointing out what is wrong as well as what is right.

The second problem is distinguishing between craft and voice. The line between the two is thin, but it’s also crucial. When critiquing someone else’s work, craft is fair game. Voice is not.

So what does it mean when we talk about a writer’s voice? I’ve heard many definitions, but the one I like best comes from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th Edition), which says voice is:

The distinctive style or manner of expression of an author or of a character in a book.

As I see it, voice is a combination of tone and style and something even harder to grasp. It’s what makes it easy to distinguish Mark Twain from Jane Austin from Stephen King. Or, to modify the well-known adage, it’s what makes it possible to say “I know the writer when I see his or her work.”

A couple of weeks ago, a fellow writer mentioned that her new critique group has been telling her to use more deep POV. As far as I know, there is no rule that says a writer must use deep POV. In fact, conventions over the type of POV to use change with the times. Just look at Charles Dickens or George Elliot or most of those classic writers who used omnipresent POV with a narrator who knew everything the characters didn’t. That practice is no longer in fashion, although a few writers do still use it. Using a particular type of POV correctly is important if you want to keep your readers immersed in the story, so that’s craft. In my opinion, however, what type of POV you use and whether it is near or far is a matter of voice.

I cringe every time I read a poem by e.e. cummings. I want to go through and add capital letters to make it grammatically correct. But that would be interfering with his voice. Or there is the poet in my local critique group who writes without punctuation. I love his poetry, but it took me a long time before I stopped itching to add commas and semi-colons and periods.

One “rule” says good writers should never begin a sentence with a conjunction. Or some people think that is a rule, anyway. If it is, it’s one I often break. When I edit my work, I eliminate some of the conjunctions that begin sentences, reword other sentences so they don’t need them, or change two sentences into one with the conjunction to join them. But sometimes starting a sentence with a conjunction creates a smoother transition while giving the sentence greater emphasis. Those sentences stay in, and they have become part of my voice.

Different people have different tastes. If I don’t like someone’s voice, I won’t read that person’s work. Or if the writer is a critique group member, I try to limit my comments to craft. When a particular use of voice creates unintended confusion, I mention that because there may be a craft way for the writer to revise it without changing the voice. But I’m not perfect. The line is a thin one, and I’ve crossed it from time to time. Still, I try not to.

Because craft is fair game, but voice is not.

Sell Your Books but Not Your Soul

Monday, March 13, 2017

I’m currently reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi as research for my next book. Although I’m enjoying it, I was finding the structure confusing.

There are many places in Life on the Mississippi where Twain appears to have thrown in material that doesn’t belong. In one instance he even admits it, stating at the end of Chapter 35 (as a lead-in to Chapter 36), that:

Here is a story which I picked up on board the boat that night. I insert it in this place merely because it is a good story, not because it belongs here—for it doesn’t.

At least he was right about it being a good story. But in Chapter 52, he tells a story that I didn’t even find interesting. Although he tried to connect it to the Mississippi River by placing some of it in St. Louis, the story itself had nothing to do with life on the Mississippi. As that example shows, Twain always manages to find a way to transition to the extra material, but the insertion is still jarring. This is especially disconcerting because Twain is contemptuous of writers who use what he sees as unnecessary words.

Almost by coincidence, I’m also listening to a Great Courses lecture series on Mark Twain with Dr. Stephen Railton from the University of Virginia as lecturer. My confusion cleared up when I listened to Lecture 4 on “Marketing Twain.” Now I know that he sacrificed creativity to make money.

According to Dr. Railton (and to other sources I’ve read in the past), Mark Twain loved making money more than he loved writing. Unfortunately, he was a terrible business man. But the one business decision that did bring in an extra profit was selling his books by subscription—using direct door-to-door sales to customers rather than selling through bookstores. He liked subscription sales because they brought in more money, but those customers also demanded longer books and lots of illustrations. The illustrations may have added lasting value, but I believe the padded material in the text detracts from it.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Mark Twain’s humor, and he deserves to be called the greatest American humorist. But imagine how much greater he could have been if he hadn’t sacrificed creativity for money.

I don’t have a problem with writing for a popular audience, and I’m glad Mark Twain’s writing was a commercial success. I wish my books would do a tenth as well.

But I won’t sell my soul for it.


The photograph at the head of this post was taken by A.F. Bradley in 1907. It is in the public domain because of its age.

The Secret to Forty Years

Monday, March 6, 2017

My brother was honored on Friday for his 40 years on the faculty at Tennessee State University. That’s 35 more years than he originally intended.

When Donald finished his PhD in Communications and accepted the job at Tennessee State, he told me he planned to teach for five years and then he’d try something different—perhaps producing documentary films—for the next five. He expected to change positions every five years or so because he wanted to be challenged and keep learning.

Thursday night I reminded him of his five-year plan, and he laughed. He said there was always something new to learn right where he was. He teaches television production classes, and the technology is constantly changing, so maybe that was what he meant. But it was clear from the reflections and comments from colleagues and former students that Donald couldn’t have stagnated if he had tried. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, he mentors new faculty and is everybody’s student advisor, whether assigned or not.  

I am going to use Donald’s experience to make a point about writing, but first I’ll take a short detour to post a picture of all the family members who attended. My children couldn’t make it, but my brother Gordon’s family were all there, as were my cousin Gail and her granddaughter and great-grandson.

Now back to the original itinerary.

I’ve never wanted to stagnate, either, and that’s as true of writing as it was of law. My original attempts at fiction were okay, and I wouldn’t be embarrassed if they were published. But every subsequent book has been better. And that’s the lesson for writers. There is always something new to learn.

So if the next book isn’t better than the last one, hit the refresh button.