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Wow, people. I’m thrilled–and also humbled–by your response to Starlight on Willow Lake. The most frequently-asked question about this book is “How did you come up with a character like Faith?” (She’s the protagonist.)

Pleased to meet you!

Pleased to meet you!

It’s a good time for me to answer this question, because I’m meeting with a bunch of writers at a Seattle7Writers event on Bainbridge Island. Here is how to make a fictional character seem very real to the reader. Get her talking. Make sure she’s talking in her own voice, not your voice. If you want to write a lot of different characters, you don’t want them all to sound like you.

The key for me is to have her speak in first person–on paper. I’m quirky, as you know, so I write this out in longhand as a free-flowing conversation with my newly-invented character. If you’re a writer, give it a try. If you’re a reader, move on! Go read something wonderful! Then come back and tell us about it!

ANSWER IN THE CHARACTER’S VOICE:

My ordinary world looks like:
The first time the reader meets me, here’s what I’m doing:
My most relatable trait is:
The problem I’m facing right now is:
The thing in my head that’s holding me back is:
The thing in my world that holding me back is:
If I don’t figure out my problem, the consequences are:
Show the reader this image to suggest where the story is going:
My person history in three sentences:
At this moment, I look like:
In school, I was:
The people in my family origin are:
Here’s how I make a living:
Here’s the person I love most in the world:
My favorite thing is:
My least favorite thing is:
I’m aware that I have this personal problem or issue:
My friends and family would say I have this personal issue:
I would finally feel complete if:
The thing I need right now is:
My deepest desire is:
My biggest goal in life is:
I have an emotional wound that stems from:
My greatest regret is:
The way I defend myself is:
My weakness:
My strength:
The single characteristic that could destroy me is:
The single characteristic that could save me is:
What I want the reader to know about me right this moment is:
The one thing that is going to get me going on my journey is:
I’m reluctant to change my path because:
My biggest fear is:
I express that fear by:
If I don’t go on this journey, here’s what will happen:
If I do go on this journey, here’s what will happen:
The greatest danger to me right now is:
My mentor is:
I do have a code of ethics. Here is its, in one sentence:
Something that bothers my conscience is:
Here’s what it would be required to make me take a leap of faith:
My worst enemy is:
My greatest ally is:
In order to achieve my goal, I would be willing to sacrifice this:
The difficult choice he must make as my journey comes to an end is:
My emotional breakthrough would be:
I’ll know I’ve completed my journey and mastered my problem when I _______________________________________________________________________.

Happy Writing!

strengthen your premise; check this out.
Premise in fiction. Your undergrad English professor probably taught you a fancy definition for this concept, but every novelist will tell you this: The premise is the cool thing your book is about.
Simple, right? Like, a crazed fan holds an author hostage and forces him to write a novel (Misery by Stephen King). The lives and loves of best friends through the years (Light a Penny Candle by Maeve Binchy). A forbidden love that lasts a lifetime (The Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough). A Navy wife whose marriage is in crisis learns her husband is missing at sea (The Ocean Between Us by my favorite author).
In The Art of Dramatic Writing (1977), Lajos Egri (who seems to have been obsessed with the concept of premise) states:
“Everything has a purpose, or premise. Every second of our life has its own premise, whether or not we are conscious of it at the time. That premise may be as simple as breathing or as complex as a vital emotional decision, but it is always there…Every good play must have a well-formulated premise…No idea, and no situation, was ever strong enough to carry you through to its logical conclusion without a clear-cut premise.”
I envy the writer who comes up with fantastic ideas again and again, using the same method–listening to music, going for a drive, staring out the window, reading the paper, brainstorming with a friend.
For me, coming up with a premise is like going shopping without knowing what you’re looking for. “I’ll know it when I find it,” you tell yourself. Figuring out exactly what “it” is can be all-consuming. All I know is that “it” will be the driving force that sends me on the longest walk in the world, every day for the next six months to a year–that deathly commute from the couch to the blank page. So “it” had better be good.
The funny thing is, the harder I try, the more elusive “it” becomes. I think myself into a dither. I fiddle with things. I “what-if” myself into a state of confusion. I go on personal quests in search of the Cool Thing.
Sometimes I get lucky. I might discover it as I take my dog for a walk on the beach. Suddenly, I might think, “a child with Aspergers.” And I’ll think about a writer friend of mine and his sweet son, who has this condition, and its curiously gentling effect on the father. Or I’ll be digging in the garden or Windexing the kitchen, two activities that any writer will tell you have enormous appeal when confronted with a blank page. Maybe “it” will smack me upside the head as I stand at the refrigerator with the door propped open, contemplating the merits of leftover mac-and-cheese for breakfast.
Then I’ll have to test the idea in a thousand ways, figuring out what the most compelling elements are. Where will the tension come from? What will the reader see on the page and how will I make myself–and then the reader–happy to be reading it?
For most books, my story premise is cobbled together the way a magpie gathers things for its nest, with a shiny object here, a twisty thread there. At some point, maybe while making a story collage, these seemingly disparate pieces will coalesce into the Great Thing I’ve been seeking, the thing that will consume me through the next year: IT.
How serious am I about nailing the premise of my next book? So serious, we’re having a meeting about it. I’m not kidding. I have a brain trust coming to my house today and we’re going to brainstorm our book premises all day long.
What’s a brain trust? Well, it’s my writers’ group plus the world’s best story consultant, Michael Hauge. Some of you might remember he has a lifelong connection to the place where I live–and I have a rockin’ private guest house. He’s ours for the day. We’re rolling up our sleeves…I’ll report in on our progress. Stay tuned….
nice view, but whats the real story?

nice view, but what’s the real story?

Premise in fiction. Your undergrad English professor probably taught you a fancy definition for this concept, but every novelist will tell you this: The premise is the cool thing your book is about. Simple, right? Like, a crazed fan holds an author hostage and forces him to write a novel (Misery by Stephen King). The lives and loves of best friends through the years (Light a Penny Candle by Maeve Binchy). A forbidden love that lasts a lifetime (The Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough). A Navy wife whose marriage is in crisis learns her husband is missing at sea (The Ocean Between Us by my favorite author). In The Art of Dramatic Writing (1977), Lajos Egri (who seems to have been obsessed with the concept of premise) states:

“Everything has a purpose, or premise. Every second of our life has its own premise, whether or not we are conscious of it at the time. That premise may be as simple as breathing or as complex as a vital emotional decision, but it is always there…Every good play must have a well-formulated premise…No idea, and no situation, was ever strong enough to carry you through to its logical conclusion without a clear-cut premise.”

I envy the writer who comes up with fantastic ideas again and again, using the same method–listening to music, going for a drive, staring out the window, reading the paper, brainstorming with a friend. For me, coming up with a premise is like going shopping without knowing what you’re looking for.

“I’ll know it when I find it,” you tell yourself. Figuring out exactly what “it” is can be all-consuming. All I know is that “it” will be the driving force that sends me on the longest walk in the world, every day for the next six months to a year–that deathly commute from the couch to the blank page. So “it” had better be good. The funny thing is, the harder I try, the more elusive “it” becomes. I think myself into a dither. I fiddle with things. I “what-if” myself into a state of confusion. I go on personal quests in search of the Cool Thing.

Sometimes I get lucky. I might discover it as I take my dogs for a walk on the beach. Suddenly, I might think, “a lonely woman who runs a beachside restaurant.” And I’ll think about why she’s lonely, and what it feels like to own a place where marriage proposals happen on a regular basis. Or I’ll be digging in the garden or Windexing the kitchen, two activities that any writer will tell you have enormous appeal when confronted with a blank page. Maybe “it” will smack me upside the head as I stand at the refrigerator with the door propped open, contemplating the merits of leftover mac-and-cheese for breakfast. Aha, I’ll think. How about a struggling young widow and a bazillionaire?

Then I’ll have to test the idea in a thousand ways, figuring out what the most compelling elements are. Where will the tension come from? What will the reader see on the page and how will I make myself–and then the reader–happy to be reading it?

For most books, my story premise is cobbled together the way a magpie gathers things for its nest, with a shiny object here, a twisty thread there. At some point, maybe while making a story collage, these seemingly disparate pieces will coalesce into the Great Thing I’ve been seeking, the thing that will consume me through the next year: IT.

Do you have a favorite story premise to read or write about? Share below! My inquiring mind want to know.

I hear it from emerging writers all the time. I’ve got a great idea for a novel. I’m going to sit down and write it as soon as I…

  • …get my day job under control
  • …get my final kid into kindergarten
  • …into college …out of jail
  • …get my finances in order
  • …fix my marriage
  • …finish painting the house
  • …pay off the car
  • …clean the can opener
  • …clean the rain gutters
  • …get the puppy housebroken
  • …retire from my job
  • …finish watching the third season of “Weeds”
  • …get my Bachelor’s…Master’s…PhD…LLB…MD
  • …pay off my student loans
  • …read all the Outlander books
  • …check in with my nineteen thousand Facebook friends
  • …upgrade my computer
  • …make tenure
  • …landscape the yard
  • …take a vacation
  • …host my book group
  • …teach my teenager to drive
  • …finish knitting this sweater
  • …forgive my parents …forgive myself
  • …get over my fear of failure …get over my fear of success
  • …get permission from my parents/spouse/children/therapist
  • …hire an agent
  • …learn to use the subjunctive case
  • …quit worrying about what my family will think of my story, especially the dirty parts
  • …stop smoking/drinking/playing online games
  • …figure out the business of publishing
  • …lose 20 pounds so I look good in my author photo…

You name it, and a procrastinating writer has said it. Here’s a dirty little secret. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the cruel reality is this. There will never be a good time to write. Life will always intrude. That’s what life is. Be glad for that. If you have no life, you have nothing to write about.

The good news is, there’s a simple solution. Make time for the things that are important to you. If writing your story is important, make time for it. Simple as that. Turn off the TV, leave the dishes undone, close your e-mail, grab a notebook and pen, and tell your family, “Don’t interrupt me unless your eyes are bleeding.” You’ll be surprised by the respect they give you.

The way you spend your day is the way you spend your life. So quit being your own worst enemy and start being your own best friend. Make time to write, even if you don’t have time.

I have procrastinated my way through the writing of many books. Somehow, the story emerges. The Beekeeper’s Ball hits the shelves next week. There’s a lot of love and food in that book. Let me know what you think.

A writer’s friends wonder–or ask her outright–if she uses real people in her novels. Short answer–yes! You’re in all my novels!
Real answer–real people are way too messy for fiction. In a novel, everybody has to smoothly (and entertainingly) follow an arc from innocence to experience, loneliness to love, ignorance to enlightenment…you know the drill. It’s why we read.
And I always love it when a reader says to me, “That character was so real! You must be drawing on your experience as a Navy wife/survivor of infidelity/recovering alcoholic/practicing alcoholic/kidney donor/fallen woman/mother of twins/lonely librarian…”
Nope, I’m none of those things. If the characters in a novel ring true, it’s because I did my research. In the self-help section of the library or bookstore.
I live in a small town, so people at the library mostly know me. But every once in a while, there’s a new volunteer at the desk, and I can see her concern when I check out a stack of books with titles like Obsessive Love, Healing Your Asthmatic Child, Recovering from Organ Transplantation… And then the next week, I’m back for Forgiving the Unforgivable, My Husband is Gay!, Toxic Teenagers, Is Witness Protection Safe for YOU?….
The volunteers are always too professional to say anything, but I can see the
worry in their eyes.
The beauty of a great self-help book is that it gives you a roadmap to a character, starting with his or her problem, taking the reader through the steps and ending up in a better place. The trick in fiction is to make it look seamless. If the reader wanted a self-help book, she’d read a self-help book.
She’s reading a novel. She wants to be entertained.
So in the book, the goal is to put it in the context of a great story. For me, that’s the fun part. I’m a sucker for the librarian/bad-boy storyline, so I featured it in Lakeshore Christmas. You’ll know exactly what self-help books I read while creating Eddie, but that’s not what I hope you’ll remember about him. There’s that moment when he takes off her horn-rimmed glasses, plucks the hairpins out and her bun melts into a cascade of gorgeous hair, and he says, “Why, Miss Davenport, you’re beautiful!” I know, lame, right? But it gets me every time. Maureen and Eddie are bringing sexy back to the library. That’s what I hope readers will remember.

what’s on my mind right now:

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