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.

A Test of Creativity

Monday, February 27, 2017

What do a picket fence, a work boot, and a petticoat have in common? They can all be used as emergency medical supplies for characters fleeing from the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

I’ve always been a big fan of The Borrowers books by Mary Norton. The borrowers are a family (and a species) of people about as tall as pencils. They live in normal people’s homes, “borrow” household items, and transform them. Sheets of blotting paper become carpets, razor blades become chopping knives, cigar boxes become beds, and stamps become wall art.

It isn’t just The Borrowers books, either. I enjoy any author who takes ordinary objects and has his or her characters adapt them to a different purpose—like castaways who use turtle shells for bowls. So I’m excited that I finally have a chance to join the club, even if I only qualify for associate membership.

My current work-in-progress has two girls fleeing from the 1871 Chicago Fire. After they get separated, Julia wants something to wrap her sore wrists and rips a row of lace from her petticoat. So a petticoat becomes a bandage.

But Fannie has bigger problems. A cart runs over her foot, so she needs both a crutch and something to protect the foot from bumps and blows. In my story—as in real life—many people tried to save too much and ended up abandoning their possessions as they ran.* There are many types of debris littering Fannie’s escape route, but finding an actual crutch would be too much of a coincidence for my readers (and for me). It also deprives me of an opportunity to be creative, which is at least half the fun of writing. So here’s my solution: when Fannie passes a fence and spots a loose picket, she wrenches it off and turns it so that the point is down. Now a picket becomes a crutch. She also finds a man’s work boot and stuffs it with cloth, so a boot becomes a splint.

Those ideas don’t put me in the same league as Mary Norton (hence only associate membership), but at least they take some imagination.

And creativity is what feeds my writer’s soul.

  • The illustration at the top of this page appeared in Harper’s Weekly on November 4, 1871 and shows people fleeing through a cemetery on their way to Lincoln Park. If you look closely, you can see an abandoned desk, a chair, and other household goods in the lower-left-hand corner. The picture is in the public domain because of its age.

Describing Characters

Monday, February 20, 2017

As a mature reader, I want a minimum of description so that I can imagine the characters and settings for myself. But when I was younger, I enjoyed the extensive descriptions in classic literature, and my middle grade beta readers have told me that they want something in between.

Finding the right balance can be hard, especially since it must be the point-of-view character’s natural thoughts. Unless we are vain or dressing for a special event, most of us don’t think about how we look. Yes, we check to make sure our hair is brushed and our makeup is on correctly, but we don’t specifically think about our brown hair and green eyes and nondescript face. So when describing the two protagonists from my current work in progress, I struggled to make the description natural. This means that, first, I had to give my POV character a plausible reason to think about it, and, second, I had to put the description in her own words.

My two protagonists are twelve-year-old cousins who alternate point-of-view chapters. Julia has a rich imagination, and Fannie has none. I want to describe them in enough detail to make my readers happy, but the only feature truly important to the story is that Julia is slightly overweight and Fannie is not.

The physical description of the two characters seems to fit most easily in the second Julia chapter, where I can use the fathers’ similarity as a lead-in. However, Julia wouldn’t necessarily think of herself as overweight, so how do I get that across? Julia would probably make the comparison using metaphors or similes, but she is unlikely to think of her body shape in a negative way. To complicate matters further, the comparison I use must be to objects that were present in 1872 but can also be understood by today’s preteens.

Here are some of the comparisons I considered:

Fannie                        Julia

lamp post                    pillow (soft and comfortable)

clarinet                        violin

cattail (or lily)             lilac bush

green bean                  cucumber

For the moment, this is what I ended up with:

Gripping her hatbox, Julia followed her father and stepmother off the train. Then she spotted her Uncle Albert in the crowd. He was younger than her father, but anyone who looked at them could tell they were brothers.

Maybe that was why strangers who saw Julia and Fannie together thought they were sisters, although Julia couldn’t see the resemblance. Both had green eyes and chestnut brown hair, but Julia’s hair was straight while Fannie’s curled naturally, making it appear thicker and puffier. And they were both average height, but Fannie was as lean as a lamp post while Julia was shaped more like a Chinese vase.  

I’m still not happy with it, so if you have any better ideas, I’d love to hear them.

Writing Like a Gardener

Monday, February 13, 2017

My online critique partner recently considered setting a manuscript aside in the middle of the first draft and not picking it up again until she had a chance to travel to her story location. Here is the advice I gave her:

The first draft is for getting something down on paper, and the second and third drafts are for cleaning up the facts as well as everything else. The first draft may be garbage, but it becomes the fertilizer that eventually grows a healthy garden. I always try to get the first draft completed before I put it aside to breathe while I work on something else.

It wasn’t until I wrote those words that I realized how much writing has in common with gardening.

My father was an avid gardener. Every year he would turn over the soil, drop seeds in some furrows, and plant seedlings in others. For fertilizer, he would use compost or animal waste. Daddy would have been horrified at the very idea of stopping when the garden was only half planted. Instead, he kept going until everything was in the ground. (His first draft.)

He may have taken a slight break then, but soon he was back at work in the garden. He weeded, watered if there wasn’t enough rain, and added more fertilizer when necessary. (His second draft.)

When the vegetables were ready to pick, he harvested them. (His final draft.) Then he brought them to our table, much as a writer sends his or her story to publishers and agents.

Daddy was a tenacious gardener. He worked hard, and he never gave up. That’s why he succeeded at growing the healthy crops you can see in the picture.

So if you are tempted to set aside that first draft before it is finished, don’t give in. The first draft may be garbage, but it becomes the compost that grows a healthy garden.


The picture at the top of this post shows Daddy with the fruit of his garden in LaPrairie, Illinois. My mother took it when I was three years old. And yes, that little girl is me.

Shut down the boiler; I want to get off the boat!

Monday, February 6, 2017

I always have a list of possible subjects for my next book, and the one after that, and the one after that . . .

That’s fine, and even good, as long as those subjects know when to stay silent. But it’s bad when they decide to speak up at the wrong time.

After writing several books, I’ve come up with the routine that works best for me. It goes something like this (WIP stands for work in progress):

  1. Write the first draft of WIP #1.
  2. Put the first draft of WIP #1 aside to breathe while I catch up on various projects and/or research WIP #2.
  3. Do additional research for WIP #1, if necessary.
  4. Write the second draft of WIP #1.
  5. Make minor edits to WIP #1 and give it to my beta readers.
  6. Research and/or write the first draft of WIP #2.
  7. Go over beta reader comments on WIP #1 and rework it (the third draft).
  8. Polish WIP #1 and send it to a freelance editor.
  9. Write the first or second draft of WIP #2 (depending on how much I got done in step 6) and do additional research, if necessary.
  10. Make the edits in WIP #1 and submit it to publishers and/or agents.
  11. Continue the process with WIPs #2 and #3.

That’s the way it’s supposed to happen, although research can occur at any stage. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to keep the WIPs in their places. I begin to get excited about WIP #2 while I am working on a step dedicated to WIP #1. Right now, I am in the middle of Step 4 for my book about the Great Chicago Fire, and that’s what I should be concentrating on. But the other day my Great Courses lecture finished before my walk did, and I started thinking about ideas for fleshing out a story about a riverboat disaster, which was one of the subjects on my list for future books. And once ideas start flowing, I have to write them down or I’ll lose them.

But now I need to shut down the riverboat’s boiler and get back to the Great Chicago Fire.


The photograph was taken around 1860 and the author is unknown. It shows the riverboat America traveling down the Mississippi River on its way to Angola Prison in Louisiana. The photo is in the public domain because of its age, and you can find more information about it at

First or Third?

Monday, January 30, 2017

Several weeks ago, I read a chapter from my current work in progress to my writers’ group, and it sparked a discussion on point of view. Here is a sample from the manuscript.

     Fannie Stewart stabbed her fried chicken with a fork. “Why does Julia have to come here? Why can’t she stay with friends in St. Louis?”

     [The conversation continues for several paragraphs, and her mother reminds Fannie that it is only for six months.]

     Even one month with snobbish cousin Julia was too long. Julia, who thought she was so grown up. Julia, who looked down on Fannie.

     Six months would be unendurable.

This chapter is written from Fannie’s third person point of view. We know it is third person because the chapter identifies Fannie by name and uses third person pronouns—“her” in the example, but also “she” and “hers.” A first person point of view would use “I,” “me,” “my,” and “mine.”

But if you look at the last two paragraphs in the example, those are Fannie’s thoughts, not that of a neutral narrator. So shouldn’t I use first person or at least italicize Fannie’s thoughts?


Both first person and third person have the same major constraint—the reader can only know what the POV character knows. But it is easier to get around the disadvantages of that approach when using third person.

In first person, you are stuck in the character’s head. But third person is like a camera that can zoom in and out. It can zoom in on the person’s thoughts in a way that tells the reader that it’s a close-up shot. No italics required.

Or if you want to keep a secret, you zoom out. The reader still only sees what the character sees but doesn’t hear the chatter in the character’s head.

Large jumps are disconcerting, but small ones are barely noticeable. In the example above, the first paragraph is middle-distance or less. We are sitting at the dining room table with her, but we judge her feelings by her actions and her words rather than reading her thoughts. But just a few paragraphs later, we do. That lens adjustment is restrained enough that the change works. Or at least I think it does.

After our discussion, I did experiment with rewriting my manuscript in first person, but it sounded unnatural. Besides, I wanted my characters to have a few secrets from the readers until later in the story. If you are inside someone’s head, readers expect you to be honest with them and tell them what the character is thinking all the time. There are a few tricks a writer can use, but they wouldn’t work in my story.

I’m glad I tried first person, though, because now it’s not the right approach for this book.

But maybe my next one will be in first person.

Getting the Details Right

Monday, January 23, 2017

Sometimes I feel sorry for authors who write contemporary stories. Unless they generalize current trends (which some do very well), they run the risk that their stories will become as outdated as the technology and fads embraced by the characters. Who knows if Facebook or Twitter—or even cell phones—will still be around in two years?

Since I have been writing historical fiction, I don’t have that problem. People know that the story takes place in the past, and that’s part of the reason they read it. My technology doesn’t have to be up-to-date. In fact, it had better not be if I want to story to ring true.

So historical fiction solves one problem, but it creates another.

For the past week or two, I have been wrestling with fictional closets.

The story takes place in 1871 and has two protagonists, who are 12-year-old cousins. Julia has come to stay with Fannie’s family in Chicago for six months, and the girls share a room and limited storage space. When I wrote the first draft, Julia was upset at the size of the bedroom closet.

Then Roland and I took a short vacation to Savannah, Georgia, and toured a couple of historic houses. And I discovered that none of them had closets.

Instead, they had trunk rooms. Everyday wear may have been kept in dresser drawers in the bedrooms, but most clothes were neatly folded inside trunks. The trunks were stored in a room that was often reached by a door from the hall but not directly from the bedrooms. If a trunk room was attached to a bedroom, it was likely to belong to the parents but not the children.

Change #1 to my manuscript removed the closet from the bedroom and replaced it with a trunk room in the hall. But now I had another problem. When the Great Chicago Fire breaks out, Fannie throws on the dresses that are handy in her bedroom. For reasons I won’t go into here, I want to keep that scene.

Change #2 added back a closet but made it a very tiny space with a few hooks. (The hangers and clothes rods we are used to were mostly unknown at the time.)

But that didn’t seem right, either. Then someone from my critique group suggested a wardrobe (as shown at the top of this page). Unfortunately, wardrobes weren’t a common feature of children’s bedrooms in 1871, even among the well-to-do living in urban areas. I considered that solution but rejected it before making the next round of changes.

Change #3. I eliminated the closet again but added several pegs along one wall in Fannie’s bedroom. That’s where I’m at right now.

When writing historical fiction, authors don’t have to keep up with today’s technology and fads and hope they won’t pass too quickly. But we do have to get the historical details right.

And that isn’t easy.

Audience Matters

Monday, January 16, 2017

This year’s vacation will take me back to a place where my family spent several weeks when I was a child, so I pulled my father’s unpublished memoir off the shelf to look up his comments. From time to time I wonder about editing his memoir and getting it published, but it would take more work than I have time for. It isn’t that Daddy couldn’t write—he could. But some parts of the manuscript would appeal to one audience and others to another one. Unfortunately, they are often interwoven, and my opinion is that they would have to be separated before appealing to either audience.

Daddy loved to travel, and his travels are the focus of his memoir. However, he was also a Biblical historian and a theologian, and his account of his travels is both a story and a dissertation. The story is my favorite part and could be written to appeal to a wider audience, while the dissertation would appeal only to amateur or professional theologians and historians. Unfortunately, most readers would find the extended discussion dry and uninteresting, and they would either skim over it or, more likely, skip the entire memoir.

For instance, Daddy tells about an overnight walk he took during his first trip to the Middle East. He picked up a couple of unwanted “guides”—boys who were looking for adventure and possibly an excuse to skip school. The night-time hike along little-used paths and the boys’ attempts to find food along the way are interesting and even amusing. But Daddy keeps interrupting the story with Biblical references. For example:

     From this point the road became practically non-existent and the descent increasingly difficult until soon we found it almost impossible to climb down the rocks from level to level. We frightened up large numbers of partridge as we went along that rocky way—birds common even in those days when David was a fugitive from King Saul as I Samuel 26:20 bears witness: “The King of Israel is come out to seek a flea, as when one doth hunt a partridge in the mountains.”

A theologian or a Bible scholar might appreciate the diversion, but most readers would not.

If you had asked Daddy, I think he would have said that the theological and historical discussions were his favorite part of his memoir and the one he was most interested in publishing. I couldn’t do it justice, though. If that part ever gets reworked for publication, one of my brothers will have to do it.

But someday I might pull out the story and prepare it for a different audience.

Magic Bookshelves

Monday, January 9, 2017

I have magic bookshelves. Black magic, that is. They are like overgrown gardens. Every time I weed out the books that I’m not going to read again, others sprout up to take their places. It gets so bad that shelves break under the weight of the books, as happened Friday. Then there was the flood of 2008, when books that were above the water line fell off the shelves and were ruined because the books below them became waterlogged, expanded, and blew the bookcases apart.

Fortunately, I do have a white magic bookshelf. It’s called a Kindle, and it can hold an unlimited number of books. (That’s probably not technically true, but I haven’t reached the limit yet.) It also ensures that I don’t run out of reading material on vacation.

I love my Kindle.

Even so, there are times when I purchase good old-fashioned hard copies. Sometimes it’s because I buy the copy at a writer’s conference. Or maybe the book I want isn’t available on Kindle or the paperback is a lot cheaper than the electronic version.

At other times, I want to mark in the book and refer back to the marked passages from time to time, whether as research for my current work in progress or because the book inspires my writing. I can do the mark-up with the Kindle, but I find it easier with a hard copy book.

So what I really need is a magic bookcase for hard copies that expands when it gets full but doesn’t take up any additional room in my already crowded office. Preferably, the shelves would also strengthen themselves when loaded with heavy books.

Does anybody have one of those to sell?

Count Your Blessings

Monday, January 2, 2017

I don’t make New Years’ resolutions. I count my blessings, instead.

I’ve heard a lot of people expressing the hope that 2017 will be a better year than 2016, and some even say it can’t possibly be worse. But 2016 was actually a good year for me. As with any year, it wasn’t perfect. It was the first year without my mother, my older brother had some serious health issues, we had a presidential race where I didn’t like any of the final candidates and ended up voting against somebody instead of for somebody, and I’m still looking for a publisher for my middle grade novels. But on the positive side, Roland and I have been in good health, we have two great children and a wonderful son-in-law, we had the resources to take a trip to Germany and another to Savannah, Georgia, and I’ve been writing steadily. And, oh yes, the Cubs won the World Series.

More importantly, I know that God is in control. He lets us make mistakes, and sometimes they are pretty terrible, but He will have the last say. God is in control of the world, and He is also in control of my life. That’s the greatest blessing of all.

History tells us that presidential politics—and even World Series wins—tend to have a fleeting effect on most people’s everyday lives. So as you look back on 2016, ask yourself this question. Did you really have a bad year, or did you just forget to count your blessings?