I want to thank Michelle for having me here at her blog for two reasons: One, I love to reach out to readers; and two, I love the challenge of this particular blog. A chance to analyze and explain my own writing. It’s enough to make a literature student drool. Well, at least this one. So here’s a look at the first 250 words of my upcoming novel Wishful Thinking (release date is April 24, 2012). Wishful Thinking is a paranormal romance that features fairy godmothers.
Justin’s Guide for the Artist: Art, like life, is filled with choices.
Wishful Thinking is the third book in a trilogy, so my initial pages not only have to establish location, tone, mood, characters, etc, but they also have to give enough information to show the connection to the previous two books in the series—a difficult balancing act because I didn’t want to bog down the book with backstory and I also wanted this book to be able to stand on its own. So my first choice was using these opening aphorisms at the beginning of each chapter, little truism from a fictional book written by the main character’s father.
Each book in the trilogy has them—a connecting element—albeit from different sources. In the first book, The Wish List, the chapter openers are from a document called How to Be a Fairy Godmother, written by the three outgoing fairy godmothers. In the second book, As You Wish, the words of wisdom are Cordelia’s Rules for Her Daughters. Yes, these are all truisms I made up—although in As You Wish, the truisms have a hint of sarcasm. But they’re all things I believe. In Wishful Thinking, I had such fun thinking about the artistic life. These little snippets are insights to how I regard the creative life. The “book” they come from is referenced a little later in the chapter itself.
Ha! Tag line. A quick, easy way to tell you where we are at the start of the story.
Stormy Jones-Smythe winced as the floorboard squeaked under her footstep. Silence was essential.
She checked the archway to the kitchen. No one came through the opening, and the low murmur of conversation hadn’t ceased. Good.
Exhaling gently, she chanced another step. Her bare foot produced no sound. Just a few more yards and she would be on the rug, which would muffle her tread further, and then she could ease out through the front door. Of course, she still had to make it past the kitchen.
Here I’ve introduced my heroine, Stormy. Her physical description doesn’t come until later in the book because I’m in her point of view, and let’s face it, unless the character is looking in the mirror and thinking about how she looks, she wouldn’t describe herself. Stormy knows she has straight blond hair that is cut at her chinline, but she would never say her “blue eyes refracted stars when the light hit them,” so I leave that to my hero when he sees her for the first time.
I also wanted to give the reader a hint of tension here. I want the reader to realize Stormy wants to escape, but it becomes apparent in the next paragraph or so that she’s in no danger. It’s also homage to Teresa Medeiros and the opening of Charming the Prince, an author I admire and a book I loved.
And now we also know we’re in a house in Carlsbad.
A quick dash might work. On three. She held her breath and counted. One . . . two . . .
Short choppy sentences, fragments, anticipation, incomplete actions—all tension builders.
She stilled as she heard her name. Her fathers were talking about her. Again.
That’s right, her fathers, plural. She has two dads. Who love her. And each other. I believe happily-ever-afters belong to everybody. It also helps to establish her character. She grew up in a free-thinking, free-spirit environment. Her ability to think outside the conventional boundaries of society is crucial to her action later in the story. I don’t want to hit anyone over the head with the information. It just is.
“You’re not disappointed? I know you did the math.” Justin Jones’s usually booming bass voice held a note of softness.
“No. You know I love her just the way she is.” Ken Smythe sighed. “But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it.”
About what? Stormy leaned against the wall. Eavesdropping was wrong, but curiosity trumped manners. This time.
“She just turned twenty-seven a few days ago,” Justin said. “It might still happen.”
And what did turning twenty-seven have to do with it?
The first real question of the story arises: what is going on in this world? Why would her fathers expect something to happen when she turned twenty-seven? Clearly they have information she doesn’t have access to. I also wanted to show that Stormy was raised with manners. She acknowledges that she’d doing something wrong and feels guilty, but, really, they’re speaking about something that may happen to her (and does, of course). She is right about having the right to know. (Ooo, double use of “right.” Sorry. The writer in me cringes, but they have two different definitions.)
God, she hoped they weren’t talking about her getting married. Just because she’d recently broken up with a boyfriend, didn’t mean she would end up an old maid. Besides, there was nothing wrong with staying single. She didn’t need a man to be fulfilled. She twisted her mouth with impatience.
And at the end of my 250 word limit (actually 272, but you don’t care about that extra twenty-two, do you?) I have my first bit of outright characterization. Yes, you can infer a lot from the earlier lines (her age, her upbringing), but here is Stormy stating (okay, thinking) in her POV what she believes in. And my thoughts, too, for that matter. I came late to the dating game and my parents were from the Old World. For a while they worried that I’d never find anyone and then it turned out I was the first married of my generation in immediate circle of their friends (does that make sense?) To this day they fret over the children (read “girls”) of their friends who never got married. This attitude always frustrated me. As if a woman couldn’t live a fulfilled life without getting married. Mind you, I’m happily married, but I have my own identity. I guess my point is that we authors bring so much of our own lives to our writing—our opinions, our experiences, our beliefs. While Stormy isn’t me, a lot of her is.
I hope you liked this brief insight into my writing mind. I sure enjoyed sharing it with you. I’d love to tell you more about the book—why is she living at home (yes, there’s a reason), what is the big deal with the age twenty-seven, where was she sneaking to (she is an adult after all)—but I’m afraid I’d just bore you if I broke the whole book down line by line. Although if you’re interested, you can get the book in April, contact me, and I’d be happy to let you in on all the little secrets.
Thank you so much to Gabi for her wonderful breakdown on her thoughts and processes with her opening scene of her latest novel. I’ve chosen to take the opening scene from DANGEROUS SANCTUARY, a short story my publisher is putting out in ebook format in a couple of months’ time. DANGEROUS SANCTUARY is a bridge between IN A TREACHEROUS COURT, my debut novel featuring Susanna Horenbout and John Parker, and KEEPER OF THE KING’S SECRETS, the second novel with the same main protagonists. DANGEROUS SANCTUARY fits between the two chronologically, and is really a part of the story I imaged in full, but wasn’t able to include in either book. So here goes my thoughts behind the opening scene:
Susanna came back to the world like a swimmer breaching the water’s surface to draw breath, pulling herself from the hold of her work.
I’ve used similar imagery before with Susanna, my main character. She’s an artist, and can be completely absorbed in her work. It’s imagery that comes naturally to me, because it’s how I feel myself when I’m completely absorbed in writing. I feel cocooned, like I’m deep underwater, with the real world only touching me from a distance.
She shifted on the hard church bench and set down her charcoal and parchment, stretching her legs and tipping back her head to ease her neck. As she straightened, she looked down the length of Paul’s walk, eyes burning with strain from sketching so long in the dim light.
I’m making this paragraph do double work. I’m giving the reader a sense of where we are. In a church, on a hard bench, with a long nave before us. In fact, I’m being specific, this is the old St. Paul’s Cathedral, with its long nave, called Paul’s walk. But I’m also showing the reader, rather than telling them, that she’s been sketching with charcoal and parchment, and she’s been at it long enough for her eyes to be strained and tired.
She’d arrived early in the morning, when there was almost no one else within St. Paul’s Cathedral, but now, as midday approached, it was becoming more crowded.
Usually, the booksellers would move in, taking over the nave to set up their tables, and the news-mongers would stroll up and down the length of the nave for the latest gossip and news in London, but not today.
I’m setting the scene a little more. Giving the time of day, and then letting the reader know this isn’t a usual day at St. Paul’s. There is something going on. Hopefully, they want to read on to find out what.
Today the King’s procession through London from Bridewell would end here, in a ceremony of thanks to God for the capture of the French king, Francis I, and the death of the Yorkist Pretender, Richard de la Pole.
More information on what is happening. Hopefully with this short paragraph, the reader is getting the picture of massive pomp and ceremony. A really big day is coming. The King is celebrating the capture of an enemy king and the death of a genuine rival for his own throne, and as he’s celebrating them in the largest cathedral in England, in a religious ceremony, the inference is that his successes are due to divine intervention. He’s proclaiming that God is on his side.
It had taken the King’s fancy — late last night, deep into making merry with his courtiers — to have a commemoration of today’s occasion. A painting of the ceremony.
A page had been sent to knock on her door, waking Susanna and her betrothed, Parker, in the early hours to inform her of her new commission.
And so she sat now, sketching the main altar from which the Cardinal Wolsey would say the Sarum rite. She had come as early as the light would allow, drawing the background so she could focus on the King and Wolsey when the ceremony began. Her fingers were stiff and cold from capturing the intricate, soaring interior of the church in the freezing March air.
This last part sets up, for new readers unfamiliar with my protagonist, Susanna, that she is the King’s painter, and at his disposal for any commission he may give her, no matter when he decides to give it to her, or how sober he is when he does so . It shows that she’s not sketching for fun, she’s there as a professional artist, and that’s another jolt for the reader. A woman artist working for Henry VIII? At the same time, I’m not telling anyone she’s the King’s painter, I’m showing it, which makes it less annoying for readers of In a Treacherous Court, because they already know that Susanna paints for the King. I try to do this as much as possible, weaving the information in through inference and action, so I’m grounding new readers but not losing loyal ones. We also learn that it’s March, and cold, and this ceremony did take place in March and there was a mini ice age going on at this time, and the weather was much colder than usual. I never mention this mini ice age in any of the books I’ve written set in this time – the protagonists are very unlikely to have realized what it was – but it has influenced the way I write about the weather in all of them. It satisfies me to have a fact like that correct, but not make a big fuss about it.
Thanks for coming with me on the first 250 word ride of DANGEROUS SANCTUARY . It’s my turn for a giveaway on Magical Musings, so I’m giving away two books today, my debut, IN A TREACHEROUS COURT, and either AS YOU WISH or THE WISH LIST by Gabi Stevens, winner’s choice. This is open worldwide. All you have to do to stand a chance of winning is comment and let us know your favorite book opening, ever. Okay, I know how hard that might be, so you can give us as many good openings as you like .
We have the winners for the giveaway with Gabi Stevens and myself. Gabi has very generously offered a book as well, so we have three winners! They are, thanks to the magic that is random.org:
We’ll be in touch for your addresses!