I’ve been critiquing some novels and found myself asking again and again, “Where are the characters?” Both writers had good dialogue and interesting problems, but I couldn’t place myself with the characters.
By contrast, I think back to the first novelist I fell in love with—Mary Stewart. She made me see the flowers glow under the street lights, hear the swish of the tires on pavement, taste what her character was eating. The locations were all very real. I’ve had similar experiences with fantasy authors whose writing made a place so tangible I wanted to visit places that didn’t even exist! We want our writing to feel that true, as well.
One fellow writer explained it this way, “Don’t have your characters standing in front of a white board.” That’s what happens when a conversation is all dialogue. Specific details of what’s around the characters help ground the reader. So, how do we add these details of setting in in a meaningful way? Here are some steps:
Think about how your character(s) react to the setting. That’s much more interesting than simply stating a fact.
For example, instead of a flat statement:
It was a windy day.
Or including the character in a distancing way with saw, heard, watched, etc.:
Lila looked out and saw it was a windy day.
Show how the wind affects Lila.
Lila stepped out the front door of the apartment building. The wind tossed her long black hair around her face and she shivered.
See how there’s a bit of setting now? Plus, we have one small action. We’ve also learned two new things. It’s cold enough for her to shiver and we have a description of her hair. Combine such details with her dialogue and she’ll feel more real.
Another way to say it is “don’t tell the reader about the setting, show it.”
For example, a spoken flat statement:
“This apartment is too small,” Adam said.
Adam side-stepped to the stove so his wife could open the fridge. She grabbed the mayo and mustard and he reached in and picked up the lunchmeat. They bumped into each other getting bread and silverware, and a table knife fell to the floor with a dull thud. At the kitchen table, Mary scooted in her chair so Adam could squeeze past.
When this is mixed in with their conversation, a reader won’t have to guess at where these characters are.
Setting often includes weather as my Lila example did above. Heat, cold, rain, dry, humidity, snow, sleet, ice, etc. Whatever it is, whenever your character is outside or even checking the temperature on her phone, she’ll probably react in some way. A bright sunny day makes me feel cheerful, but a character might prefer cloudy days that remind him of home. A gardener might be grateful for the rain falling on the freshly planted garden—even if it means he gets wet dashing to the mailbox. A skier might be glad for predicted snow, while someone preparing for a long trip could be saddened, and go dig out the tire chains. A house might be unappealing in a rainstorm but look like a picture for a postcard when surrounded by white snow.
The weather also affects how a character dresses. At 30 degrees I’m wearing a coat and gloves. At 60, short sleeve shirt and jeans usually work outside. It’s not yet warm enough for a swimsuit at 70, but I might pull out capris to wear. How does temperatures affect your character?
These details of weather and temperature can help with the overall mood of the story as well. I remember a writer talking about how her character’s story was set during a drought. The dry empty landscape helped emphasize the lack in the character’s personal life.
I hope you’ll dig in and ground your characters in their setting. I think you’ll find it helps your story bloom.
Now for this very reason
…in your writing…
…apply all diligence
…supply moral excellence
Diligence – steady application to one’s occupation or studies, persistent effort
Excellence – state of going beyond a standard, performing at a higher level
Knowledge – familiarity, awareness, or understanding gained through experience or study
Self-control – control of one’s emotions, desires, or actions by one’s own will
Perseverance – the holding to a course of action, belief, or purpose without giving way; steadfastness
Godliness – resembling or of the nature of God
Brotherly kindness – being generous, warmhearted, charitable, helpful, showing sympathy or understanding, considerate
Christian love – intense concern for another person
“For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful …”
…in using your writing for our Lord Jesus Christ.
"All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose" . . . and . . . for the fiction writer. Or at least they can, if you're willing. I’m not being flippant here. Let me show you what I mean.
Your child has just come home from school and confessed she cheated in class and got caught. After you deal with her situation, start thinking about a story for a church take home paper dealing with this or a similar issue. I did and the resulting short story sold to a girl's magazine.
Your pastor asks you to step outside your comfort zone in a ministry area at church. Your friend asks for prayer for her participation in a ministry that fills her with fear. Use both your discomfort and her fear, plus how God came through when you each trusted Him, for a character struggling through a similar problem.
Remember how shy you were? How someone might overcome shyness in a specific situation can become part of a story. Remember feeling so average that you had nothing special to offer? Later, you probably realized how God gifted you in areas that weren't so obvious. I wrote a short story showing a teenager coming to the same realization which has sold twice.
God teaches you a lesson. A story about someone in a similar situation could help others learn the lesson in a less painful manner. A friend shares how she is caught in sin and asks for help in keeping her accountable. Imagining how that could be on the inside got me writing a story that might help others in the same sin, and the story sold to a magazine for young adults.
Remember being really angry at someone? And peer pressure and how you caved in and did what you knew was wrong? I've had at least two short stories come out of this. One, my character did what I wished I'd done. The other, my character learned that caving into peer pressure isn't a good idea. The former story has been in print three times.
What ministry areas have you gotten involved in? Feeding homeless, greeting, missions, worship team, youth, nursery, prison ministry, teaching special education children, Vacation Bible School, and prayer are all ministries I've participated in at one time or another and have all made it into fiction stories in one form or another. I've used the setting, I've used problems I've seen, I've used my feelings and feelings of others, I've gotten ideas for a character's personality and more for numerous stories.
What experiences have you had? What are your hobbies? How about your family? Your friends? Acquaintances? Things happen: moving, losing a loved one, job changes, failure, temptation, frustration, success, etc. We all have highs and lows. You may not be able to solve a problem in real life, but you might be able to solve it in fiction or show how someone else survived. In my novel I used my fear of heights, my love of baking, a snowmobiling experience, things I’d learned about my sister’s small town to create my own small town, my family’s move, and more.
How about all those times we think, "I wish I'd said . . ." in response to someone else. It could be we failed to share God's word or his values. It could be we responded impatiently or with hasty words. Or perhaps we even wish we'd kept our mouth shut. The magic of fiction is that my characters can do what I wish I'd done.
This doesn't mean fiction characters are perfect and never make mistakes. We want them to be believable. They might even have some of my flaws as well as flaws of their own. I help round them out by using my own experiences, both good and bad.
Isn't it great that "All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose"? Even for the fiction writer?
Other writers have asked me how I get so much writing, blogging, etc. done. This often makes me feel like a fraud—I don’t feel like I’m doing very well. Comparison can be a dangerous thing. Someone is always more successful or less so than we are, at whatever we think of as success.
But I am committed to writing. Whether I sell it or not is a different subject. However, let’s discuss what works for me.
First, set aside time. I’m very blessed to not have to work full time. That means I get up in the morning and write, or do writing related business. Let me explain the latter since it comes in many forms. It could be research for a project or for finding an agent or editor, catching up on reading newsletters or blogs focused on writing, working on a student lesson, submitting or querying projects, updating spreadsheets, critiquing for a client or work to find a client, etc. It often includes time spent on social media, although it’s easy to get sidetracked with that so I try to limit it. I also volunteer for a writing organization and may spend some time on that.
The writing part can be fiction or short nonfiction and is 99% of the time done on a keyboard. If I’m in the midst of a novel, that’s usually the most compelling project for me to approach. Nonfiction usually includes blog posts for both of my sites, plus occasional articles for pay. On my writing for children site, I also do book recommendations. Of course, writing any of these can require me stopping to research a needed fact or two. This is another place I can get sidetracked... Whatever I’m writing, I may be at the getting words down part or revising what I already wrote.
After lunch I return to the computer to do one or more of the above. This schedule is normal five days a week. Saturdays, I may write, or I may do family things. Sundays, we meet with our local church and usually rest and relax the rest of the day.
However, I know many others who write after their full-time job is done for the day. They write in the evening and on weekends. Maybe on lunch breaks. So, if you’re working another job, don’t despair that you can’t also make progress on your writing. If you only writes 1000 words a week, that’s 50,000+ words in a year.
Second, I’ve given up other things. I used to sew and do a few handcrafts. I haven’t done them in many, many years. Instead, I write. I used to do scrapbooking—I’d like to say I do it occasionally but can’t remember the last time I did so. Yes, of course, I read books—mainly in the genres I write. I even watch TV via Netflix or watch a movie in the evening. I spend time with friends—mainly my fellow writers—and family. And of course, I cook, clean, do laundry, pay bills in partnership with my husband. (Our children are grown.)
Third, I’ve made a commitment to myself to write. What helps me stay committed? Love of the written word. Habit. Meeting with other writers. A regular critique group motivates to bring something to share. A scheduled writing time makes me show up with computer in hand and usually a project in mind. As Tony Fahkry says, “Success requires discipline, hard work, perseverance, tenacity, will, courage and faith.” Until I read that quote, I hadn’t thought much about the faith part. Yes, I believe I’m doing what God would have me do. But I have faith that my writing is worth something as well.
Here is another writer’s story on being committed: “Three powerful lessons from my 2017 Writing Challenge.”
Your path won’t look like mine or hers. But it’s amazing how deciding to commit to writing makes being committed to writing easier.
Where did the idea for this book come from?
I attended a program put on by the Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, PA, where I learned about hereditary diseases that affect only Amish and Mennonite children at birth. That might not seem like a very romantic start for a love story, but once I pictured an Amish midwife delivering a baby at home and added an Englisch (non-Amish) doctor who opposes home births and natural medicine, the story took off.
How long did it take you to write this book?
The Amish Midwife’s Secret is book 2 in the Love & Promises series, so my due dates were 6 months apart. I didn’t have the full time to write it because I took off on a 3-week mission trip to Africa in October and also had Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday travel during that time. Then in March, I spent two weeks in England and Scotland on a children’s literature tour. I tried to get some writing in, but with so many scheduled activities, I could only write late at night.
Tell us about your revisions…
I have to confess that I basically turned in a first draft to my editor after a quick read-through and making the corrections my Amish beta reader suggested.
When did you know your manuscript was ready for submission?
Actually, my agent sold this 3-book series on a proposal. I came up with three blurbs and wrote three sample chapters. My agent read it and made a few suggestions for changes.
Obviously, this isn’t the usual process for fiction when you’re starting out. When I sold my first series to a different publisher, it was a more involved process, so I’ll detail that below.
What happened along the way in your submission process?
Before I got my first fiction contract, I wrote several inspirational novels in what I hoped would be a series. I took the first 10 pages to the Oregon Christian Writers conference and signed up for editor appointments. Unfortunately, all three agents said the book I’d written was too dark and angsty for the inspirational market (I think that’s changed now).
One agent, Mary Sue Seymour said she really liked my voice, and we chatted about my life and goals as a writer. When she found out I lived near Lancaster, PA, and had spent time with the Amish, she asked if I’d ever considered writing Amish romances. She said if I ever decided to, I could send her a query and synopsis. Now most people who get an offer like that would jump on it right away, but I didn’t. I was busy writing educational books, mostly work for hire, and I had tight deadlines. Yet I still dreamed of writing fiction.
Five years later (Yes, 5!! So, if you get an opportunity or a revise/resubmit, don’t panic and rush through it.), I sent her the synopsis. She not only remembered me, she wrote back and gave me detailed suggestions for making the synopsis stronger.
Once again, she warned me that my ideas were too dark and had me cut out a death I thought was central to the story. I really struggled with that, but I followed her instructions. Now I’m glad I did, because that character became the heroine in the second book in the Sisters & Friends series (Buried Secrets), and many people have told me that’s their favorite story.
When I finally finished the synopsis to her satisfaction, she told me to go ahead and write the book. This is a rather backward process, but it worked. I’d send her several chapters, and she’d tell me if I was heading in the right direction. It took about 8 months until I turned in the 85,000 words she’d requested.
I sent it to her right before Christmas, and she asked for extra time to read it. In January, she sent it back with edits – 2 words changes and a 1-paragraph addition – BUT she thought it would work better for the category market. Would I be willing to cut it to around 60,000-65,000 words?
Gulp! Cutting 20,000 words was torture, but I did it and sent it back. A few days later, she emailed to say she’d sent it out on sub. I didn’t even have time to get nervous, but waiting was difficult.
When and how did you get the offer on your book?
The book went out in February, and we had our first interest in March. The book needed to go to committee, etc. and while that long process played out over almost two months, we got another offer. The advance was good for a first novel, and they wanted a 3-book deal, so I had to come up with two more book ideas right away. There was only one hitch.
They wanted the books to be 75,000 words. Acckk! You’d think I could just go back to the original manuscript and add some words back in, but no, I’d changed the story so much none of that would fit. And I couldn’t just shoehorn in extra description and pad the manuscript. I had to go back and write it again from the beginning. They also had a few things they wanted me to take out or change, so I worked on the story for a few months (along with attending grad school and working full time).
I turned it in to my agent in July and was thrilled when she emailed a deal memo for the Sisters & Friends series in early August. After we hammered out some details, I finally signed the contract in October.
Since then, I’ve been blessed to sign several other contracts for Amish novels and series, including a 6-book contract with Kensington.
Tell us about the editorial process…
I detailed the editorial process for my first novel in the previous question. After all that back-and-forth, it seemed strange to send my editor the first draft of The Amish Midwife’s Secret.
My editor emailed listing the changes she wanted:
In addition to sending a detailed email and Track Changes in the manuscript, my editor likes to follow up with phone call. I’m an introvert, so phone calls always make me nervous. I’d be happy to work from the emails and skip the call.
After the first round of big-picture edits, I often get second-pass edits to clean up a few things that need to be clarified. Then the book heads to the copyeditor, who picks up on little details and inconsistencies. Next, the proofreader does a final pass for typos. From there, it goes to galleys. I get a pdf version of the final book and need to read it for errors. Amazingly, I still find some.
Did you get to participate in the cover process? If yes, how?
Yes, I did, which I really appreciated. I was even invited to the photo shoots in New York, but unfortunately, I couldn’t attend any of them. My editor went and took snapshots for me.
For my other books, I just filled out a sheet with some basic information about the hero and heroine’s looks, and I included pictures of the clothing, hairstyles, and other details to be sure they were correct. After that I had no input; they just sent the final cover design. Although I love all my covers, not all the covers have authentic outfits or hairstyles.
With Hachette/Grand Central, though, I provided detailed directions about the clothing, and they followed it exactly. I even sent my Amish friend’s heart-shaped kapp (headcovering) for all 3 book covers in this series. It makes me so happy to see that all the major details are correct, and I think they created gorgeous covers.
How long did it take from offer to having the first copy in your hand or on screen (e-book)?
For this series, Grand Central made the offer in January 2017 (we also had another offer for the series, so my agent negotiated with both, and we went with the best deal). I signed the contract in March 2017, and the first book came out April 2018.
What marketing are you doing for this book?
I have an interview with USA Today, a brief TV appearance, and a radio show. My street team is reading the book and will review and help promote it. I have two blog tours scheduled, as well as quite a few guest blogs set up. I have 6 in-person book events coming up. Unfortunately, with this novel releasing so close to winter, I didn’t set up many book signings. I’ll do more when book 3, The Amish Widow’s Rescue, comes out in March 2019.
Instead, I’m doing a lot of online events. I have shared book parties with other inspirational authors. I’m part of a lot of book giveaways, especially for the holidays. I’m interacting with several online book clubs and will do some in-person and Skype book events.
For me, Facebook is where my target market can be found, so I try to interact a lot on there with my readers. Before each book releases, I hold an Amish Life series in a private Facebook group, Rachel J. Good’s Hitching Post. Anyone who’s interested in learning more about the Amish or wants to hear about the unusual things I discovered while researching for the book is welcome to join. I’ve talking about Amish herbal medicine, Amish pregnancies, babies and midwives, the Special Clinic for Children, and other fun details. The last session was held Monday, November 26 at 8 PM EST, but readers can stop by any time to read the posts.
Anything else you’d like to share about your book’s journey from inspiration to publication?
Persistence is the key in this business. Although I’m mainly talking about my triumphs here, these came after many years of struggle and discouragement. I’ve found over the years that it’s not necessarily the best writers who get published, but the ones who keep picking themselves up and moving on. And even after you get an agent and a book contract, it isn’t all an uphill climb.
Publishers close down lines, books get remaindered, and agents die. All of those have happened to me. At the time it seems all is dark, but I’ve discovered that if I keep plodding ahead and trusting God, I find new publishers (even ones willing to take on orphaned books), and a wonderful new agent. And here I want to give a shout-out to my agent, Nicole Resciniti, who’s done some amazing things for my career.
Where can you be found online?
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Where can your books be purchased? (Please include links.)
Other retailers: https://books2read.com/u/bWzJoY
*Walmart, Sam’s Club, Meier’s, and Barnes & Noble carry them. If they aren’t there, you can ask them to order them in.
I’ve known many people from different backgrounds, ethnic groups, skin color, languages, etc., but I’m not them. I can observe what it’s like for them from the outside, but will not have an accurate view of the inside. Since I’m of the dominate culture, I don’t KNOW what it’s like for them as non-dominate, and therefore, should not write from their viewpoint.
This is a concept that wasn’t even considered until recently. I know I hadn’t. When I was a child, we played “cowboys and Indians”—even my own children dressed up as both over twenty years ago. From my childhood, I remember the story of Little Black Sambo (and the restaurant) along with classics such as The Jungle Book. I was raised to believe prejudice was wrong, but was blind to see how people were still having their lives stolen in literature and TV and movies. That has changed for me. Here’s a great article on the topic: “Don’t dip your pen in someone else’s blood: writers and ‘the other’” by Kit de Waal.
A TV show I’ve been watching recently has shown me “the great white savior” concept is still alive and kicking. Even though I like the characters, I keep waiting for the nonwhites to solve the problem, not the white guy. Hasn’t happened. Sigh.
Conversations about this at conferences, in online groups, etc. have made me rethink. I have some stories I wrote 20-25 years ago that will remain in the drawer. I have some stories written as recently as a few years ago that need altering before I can sell them.
Does that mean I can’t have multicultural characters in my stories? Of course not. However, my main characters will be white like me. And I’ll want sensitivity readers for my nonwhite characters.
What are your thoughts?
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.