Open the Curtain with a Hook!
Where you choose to start your story is paramount.
Friends and family might sit still for hearing about baby Sally’s first steps (uninteresting, everyday information) or even hearing the details of the baby’s birth and her childhood (back-story), but the words on page one are being read by total strangers—not friends yet!
Open the curtain with a hook; it’s imperative! Choose words that make the reader want to keep going, turn the page.
(More on this and other like topics in Caryl’s STORY & STYLE The Craft of Writing Creative Fiction written in an easy-to-understand conversational format with lots of examples.)
Think of a personal trip to the bookstore. What do you do? Find the genre you like then peruse the spines. If a title stands out, you pull it off the shelf. Then what? Turn it over to read the jacket copy, right? If you’re still interested, if the story sounds appealing, you open to that first page. Am I right?
The time allotted to entice the readers can be measured in seconds.
All total, maybe the writer has thirty precious tics, half a minute, with that prospective fan. Again, think drama. I’ve found a good place to raise the curtain is with a crisis that leads to a decision (most always a bad one) or a decision that leads to a crisis (told you it was a bad one).
Bad decisions are precursors to drama.
Crises—difficult or dangerous situations that require immediate attention—and bad decisions are proven good openings for stories.
Unlike movie trailers, a juicy, chosen snippet from the car chase in act two can’t be the tease to lure readers in, any more than the long, yearning gaze from the love scene a hundred pages in.
The book shopper—especially one considering a new author—is looking for a story where they can live vicariously through the character and enjoy the journey.
When the jacket copy interests them, then they turn to the first page. Both should propel heroes and heroines to action.
My historical Christian romance, TEXAS TROUBLES, opens like this:
Cass strolled toward the big red oak on the barn’s north side. Momma carried the box of food inside while Poppa saw to the mules. She hoped JoJo would be there waiting under the meeting tree where she and her friend spent so much time together.
Once under the shade, she worked her fan double time, but stirring hot air didn’t do much good other than cool the new beads of perspiration popping out on her forehead.
Never ever in her eighteen years could she remember a hotter or drier summer.
Land that usually produced two or two and a half bales of cotton per acre barely made a quarter or less.
A body couldn’t draw enough water to keep a garden growing. Other than okra—and who liked the slimy stuff?—there’d not be much of anything worth heating up the kitchen to fill the new batch of Mason jars that Poppa ordered in the mail last fall.
Worst though, no one talked about the heat or what it was doing to the crops.
All she’d been hearing the whole week centered around the slaves’ revolt. How they’d set the fires that burned down almost all of downtown Dallas, plus a lot of Denton on the same day, and reports of other cities burning around the area kept coming in.
Her kin tended to lean toward those phosphorus matches spontaneously igniting, but they were certainly in the minority.
To hear folks tell it, that new man who’d thrown his stovetop hat into the ring, bidding for the office of President was the devil incarnate.
Our crisis is partly the terrible heat wave and the slave revolt. Downtown Dallas, Denton, and Pilot Point all near burned to the ground on the same day.
A crisis calls your hero or heroine to action, to make a decision.
In essence, I’ve raised my curtain in TEXAS TROUBLES in the middle of a scene, because everything else so far that busy morning and afternoon prepared Cassandra to get to the barn with her family for the big barn dance, and something even bigger on the horizon is hinted at due to accusations that black men were to blame.
That’s all the readers need to know at that point. Limit boring backstory!
Writing creative genre fiction, there are proven techniques—some might call them rules, but there truly are no rules in writing creative fiction. They’re all made to be broken anyway. But adhering to recognized methodology…that’s smart! With that in mind, for the most part, books start in the protagonist’s point of view.
Because I write romance and women comprise the lion’s share of my audience, I almost always open with a heroine, in her point of view (POV). Pulling the curtain up on a Civil War love story, the author might want to start in the heroine’s POV because she has the most emotion at risk. Her sweetheart is about to leave her.
TEXAS TROUBLES, book five in the Cross Timbers Romance Family Saga and book two in the Thanksgiving Books & Blessings Collection Three, is more the story of the heroines left behind than the men who go off to war. It the struggles of waiting and not knowing, of keeping businesses, crops, and harvest going without the strength of their men, always wondering if they are safe.
Linda Brooks Davis
For writers and readers both, inspiration can rise from unexpected quarters.
Take, for example, the day I rifled through drawers for visual aids for a Bible lesson …
While I was teaching an elementary-age lesson on Mark 12: 41-43, the account of a poor widow’s offering of all she possessed, I found unexpected inspiration. In the vernacular of my growing-up days, this destitute widow gave her last red cent. I reasoned my young Bible students who dropped pennies from their parents’ pockets into the collection basket would benefit from this lesson.
In search of supplies to make money bags for the children, I browsed through drawers of old sewing materials from my and my mother’s 75-year sewing pasts. And found a pattern not for the bags … but for stewardship, even as a writer.
My mother was certain about her faith, principles, and what she needed to teach her children. Much like Betsy in my 2015 debut novel, The Calling of Ella McFarland, Mother believed negligence in caring for hard-earned possessions ranked close to the unforgivable sin.
As I rummaged through a drawer she would have labeled a mess but I call easy going, her philosophy returned to me. Amid a jumbled array of my own purchases–still in their wrappers—I found Mother’s button box, an old container for Singer parts that sported dents, rust, and wear.
Inside lay ’30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s-era buttons Mother had removed from clothing that had served its purpose. A dented fruit cake tin contained metal zippers she had clipped from garments bound for the rag basket.
Alongside her repurposed tins sat my handy-dandy, snap-together, see-through, color-coded odds-and-ends contraption I had purchased on a whim. Inside, never-been-used, still-attached-to-the-cards, bright-and-shiny buttons galore. Not a single used button. While Mother had saved old buttons, I had tossed them out with old clothing.
Although a widow for many years, Mother learned stewardship in a 1920’s cotton field in South Texas where her mother understood each handful of raw cotton meant another spoonful in her children’s mouths. My mother learned stewardship during the Great Depression when she and her mother called a corner of a barn home. She refined her skills as the wife of a farm hand earning $5/week. They lived on $2.50/week until the money Daddy borrowed for their wedding clothing was paid back. (These conditions inspired me to write A Christmas Measure of Love, by the way.)
Even in widowhood, Mother never reached for her last red cent, but she came close. Had she not learned stewardship alongside her mother, she would have faced the same dilemma as the widow in the Gospel of Mark.
I’m neither a widow nor destitute. I give from my abundance, not from poverty or even want. I have yet to be called to give my last penny. But if I were, would I? Was the jumbled array in my sewing drawer a call to better stewardship? Perhaps stewardship of time and talent as a writer? And above all, trust in God’s provision?
Might I repurpose a few hours a week to the task to which the Lord has called me?
I gathered materials fit for the worthy steward who reared me: a skein of yarn from twenty years back; playtime coins from five years ago; a decade-old jewelry gift bag; scraps of fabric of indeterminate age; a four-decades-old thimble; and a 1940s packet of heavy-duty needles Mother used to patch canvas cotton sacks.
As it turned out, my students took home more than plastic coins. They carried with them a bit of long-ago when times were simpler but harder and more faith filled. Tucked into the recesses of their drawstring bags, my students found the prayer of their teacher: May they never know a time when they are down to their last red cent, Lord. But should that time come, I pray they hold their pennies in hands outstretched and open wide. For Jesus’ sake.
This is also the prayer I pray for myself as a writer. When I’m depleted … aching … wondering from where the next chapter will come, I pray the Lord’s strength will overshadow me so I can give the last measure of myself for a story that glorifies the name of Jesus to readers everywhere. And that readers will find strength for their times of depletion in every walk of life.
For Jesus’ sake.
Marguerite Martin Gray
Last month, I shared about the birth of my first novel, Hold Me Close. It will always hold a special place in my heart, returning me to a whirlwind of newness. But the process must continue. I have more to explore with an unfinished journey. Enters Book Two, Surround Me. The original title hovered as Let Your Love Surround Me. A bit wordy for this series so I shortened it.
As I mapped out the series, I latched on to the thread of God as the center of each life, wrapping Himself in the struggles, joys, cares of His people. The titles have dual meanings. With Hold Me Close, the title depicts a desire for God to hold the characters in His arms of love and protection and a desire for the characters to live with human love and relationships. In Surround Me through the struggles and decisions of the pending battles, the protagonists need to let God’s purpose and love surround and penetrate their lives as well as allowing physical and emotional love of family sustain them.
The back-cover text of Surround Me gives input to the continuing saga of a family and friends thriving in tumultuous circumstances:
Battles rage in Elizabeth Elliott’s heart as the threat of war invades her hometown.
Charles Town, South Carolina, 1773—The dark curtain of the rumors of revolution threatens to descend as Louis Lestarjette makes a permanent break from his homeland and pursues his relationship with Elizabeth. Somehow, he must find a way to manage all aspects of his life amid the political and financial difficulties this turbulent time throws at him. Never has his heart been at the center of his life decisions, challenging what he really wants, if he cannot have it all.
Elizabeth Elliott must find unwavering courage, choosing to allow God’s love to surround her with strength. A marriage during a time of confusion seems impossible as a Patriot from a Loyalist family who loves a Frenchman. She wonders how a faithful daughter can marry without her father’s permission. After a summer apart from Louis, she begins to fear that the uncertain times might delay their life together.
I hope you find Elizabeth’s journey rewarding. I invite you to let God’s love surround you.
Misty M. Beller
Interview with Misty M. Beller about her latest release, Love’s Mountain Quest
Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
Sure. I’m a wife, mom of four kids, and full-time writer. I was raised on the family farm in South Carolina and trained horses professionally for a few years. As much as I loved working with animals, for multiple reasons, I knew it couldn’t be a career for me. I took a job in the corporate world and worked there for about 13 years. It was during that time that I began writing fiction.
How did you become interested in writing?
I was putting together my bucket list, and realized that I really did want to write a novel. So, “Write a novel that’s published” made it near the top!
I decided, it’s now or never, and made the commitment to do it. So, I had a general idea that I wanted it to be a Christian western romance. But where to start? I finally decided I needed to find a good book to help me plan. I stumbled upon (a.k.a. God led me to) the best possible book to help me get started with a great plan: Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. For all you writers out there, I can’t recommend it highly enough!
From there, I’ve soaked in every bit of writing instruction I can from some amazing groups and individuals. And I’ve spent countless hours sitting with my laptop pouring out words onto the screen.
What compelled you to write this book?
My favorite books to write are set in the majestic Rocky Mountains and full of adventure. Love’s Mountain Quest is the story of a mother’s journey to saver her 5-year-old son who’s been kidnapped by a gang of thieves. Can you imagine how that must feel as a mother? The terror of not knowing what your child might be facing. The horror of the situation being so far out of your control.
She enlists the help of Isaac Bowen, a mountain man who’s helped her once before. Together they set of to recover her son and the friend who was stolen with him. I love Joanna’s tenacity to take action in the face of fear. Ever heard the phrase, “Cowgirl up?” This woman knew what that meant!
What is the main theme or point that you want readers to understand from reading your book? Are there any other themes present in the book?
One of my favorite themes to write about is God’s love, and the way He guides us in His plan if we’re intentional about seeking His will in each decision. An underlying (and connected) theme in this book is that God’s forgiveness is real. He’s the God of second chances!
Are there some specific lessons you hope readers will learn and apply to their lives after reading your book?
I pray this story draws readers closer to God. I pray they seek His will for their life each step of the way, and aren’t afraid to accept God’s grace and the fresh slate He offers when we seek His forgiveness.
What makes your book different than any other books similar to yours that are in circulation today?
Aren’t there so many amazing books these days?! I’ve been loving all the great new releases this year, not to mention all the fabulous older titles. My brand is very much adventurous historical Christian romance set in the Rocky Mountains. Readers of my stories know they’re in for an exciting story and strong characters. A few swoon-worthy mountain men are always a nice addition.
How does the book intertwine with God’s call on your life and how you are currently serving Him?
Great question! I guess the theme about God’s love and following his leading is a consistent theme in my books because it’s been so vital in my own life. I NEVER would have dreamed God would lead me to become a full-time writer, but I’m so grateful He has! I pray daily that He would give me the story and words He wants me to me to write, and that He would use them for His work in the lives of readers.
Do you have a favorite Scripture verse?
That’s like asking which of my kids I like best.
One of my favorites is Matthew 6:33, which has been my year verse for the past couple of years: But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. (NKJV)
When you are not writing, what do you like to do? Do you have any hobbies?
My four kiddos keep me busy! They range in age from 1 year to 13 years, so they always have things going on, it seems.
As we close, is there anything else you would like to add?
Readers, I know this year has been hard for so many, but please know I’m praying for you! I pray that God would strengthen and protect you and your loved ones, and give you peace. Hugs and blessings to you!
Wild Heart Book featuring Renae Brumbaugh Green
Behind the Scenes of Ranger to the Rescue by Renae Brumbaugh Green
Every once in a while, when writing a character, I become vaguely aware that in many respects, I am that character. In those moments, I also become aware that God is the author, and he’s teaching me something through this particular character’s journey. After all, it’s a lot easier to learn through someone else’s mistakes than to recognize our own mistakes – especially if that someone else is a fictional character.
Amelia’s journey is one of fear and anxiety, which is something I’ve dealt with a lot. Like Amelia, I appear composed and confident on the surface. Like Amelia, I’m often a mess on the inside, scared to death of what will come, scared to death of how it will all turn out.
While writing this story, while dealing with Amelia’s anxiety, I (all-knowing author that I am) wrote that fear is the opposite of hope. Fear is the belief that something bad will happen, while hope is the belief that something good will happen. The Bible tells us that ours is a God of hope (Romans 15:13). When we truly trust Him, we can let go of fear, knowing He has good things in store for us.
At one point in the book, Amelia has this revelation:
“And suddenly, it was as if a haze lifted and she saw herself clearly for the first time. She’d let herself be ruled by fear, and in so doing had confined herself and clipped her own wings.”
Those words, disguised on the page as Amelia’s thoughts, were actually my thoughts. I hope you enjoy Amelia’s journey. And as you read, I hope you’ll remember these words from Isaiah 41:10: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
God bless, and happy reading!
—Renae Brumbaugh Green