What Makes a Great Story?

Coming off of our BHP Book Banter, I’m wading into the gridded, graphed, somewhat-unfamiliar world of data analysis. I like to imagine myself hacking through a dense jungle of spreadsheet rows and columns with a machete of clarity, because that sounds significantly more interesting than organizing survey responses.

Armed with that particular brand of melodrama, I found that while some of the sorting and graphing is a bit tedious, there are so many interesting comments and conclusions that it’s hard to be bored. I’m going to share one in particular that I think readers and writers alike will appreciate.

When readers were asked “What elements make a great story?” I noticed the feedback often clumped up in contrasting pairs.

Characters should be “flawed” but still “likeable.” Plots that are both “believable” and “surprising” make the best stories. Novels that “make you laugh” and “make you cry” were listed as favorites, often by the same person. The two most common adjectives applied to everything from setting to structure to and dialogue were “realistic/familiar” and “unique.”

HOpeAnd it made me think: good stories hold opposites in tension because The Story does too.

It doesn’t have to be Christian fiction, or even fiction written from the point of view of a Christian, for this to come through, although one thing that I think sets Christian fiction apart is seen in another comment made by several readers: “It’s not necessarily that the ending needs to be happy…but it needs to be hopeful.”

A special note for you writers—seeing these comments, I realized again that what you do is hard work. No other way around it. To write the novel described in these surveys you have to…

  • Give us characters who are better than us in some way so we look up to them…but also just like us so we can relate to them.
  • Portray a beautiful romance (which in real life can be a little dramatic, because lovebirds aren’t necessarily the most rational beings) without being cheesy, cloying, or over-the-top.
  • Maintain tension and suspense without slipping into melodrama or crossing the line into the improbability.
  • Make the heroes or heroines people with admirable qualities so we cheer them on the whole way, while still giving them deep flaws and weaknesses.
  • Plan a storyline that is complex enough to engage readers and keep them turning pages, but not so intricate that it becomes confusing.
  • Create an ending that has some element of unexpectedness, while still being nicely foreshadowed so it doesn’t feel like it dropped out of the sky.

Here’s the thing, though: you have everything you need to do this.

As a person of faith, you hold these contrasts together all the time. You believe that people are both made in the image of God and deeply broken by sin. You pray in the name of Jesus who was fully God and fully man. You listen every Easter to the greatest example of a surprising yet inevitable ending.

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Another contrast from C.S. Lewis, who liked writing about paradoxes.

Keep telling your stories, Christian writers. The world needs them because the world needs more hope.

Readers, which of the bullet points above do you think would be hardest to balance? (Writers, if you want to chime in with which one is most difficult for you, you’re welcome to do so!)

Maundy Thursday

If you talk to our authors, they’ll tell you about a term in fiction known as the “black moment.” It’s the point where the main characters are at their lowest mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. When you as a reader just have to keep turning pages to find out what happens next. When you start to wonder: How will they ever get together? Will this last blow crush them for good?  Don’t they have anyone who will stick with them?

Think of the last novel you read, and you can probably point to this moment. It’s the time when the characters feel most betrayed or lonely or fearful, with all odds stacked against them, and everything seems very dark. The mark of a really good story is when you as a reader feel along with the character at this moment.

I love Christian fiction and always say that Christians should be the best storytellers, because the romance of God giving up everything for the ones he loves is the story that all good and true stories remind us of. Just like a novel, this story has a black moment, too.

Tomorrow is Good Friday, the day where we remember Jesus’ sacrificial death for us. On this day, we remember a God who was betrayed and lonely and even fearful—for us.

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Just as any good novel needs conflict and suffering to make the happy ending really feel worth it, we need to feel the impact of Good Friday—really feel it—in order to celebrate Easter.

We know the ending of the story, but let’s not jump there too quickly. Let’s take a little time to mourn. Easter is a beautiful, blessed thing…but it came at a great cost.

This is the story of our faith: a separation that brought reconciliation. God suffering to save his enemies. Hope out of darkness.

And it’s the best story of all.

Does your family or church do anything special to remember Good Friday? If so, what is it?

The Blessing of Story

Next Thursday is Thanksgiving, and in my family, that means counting off our blessings with kernels of corn. We toss them into a basket that we pass around the table, letting the pile collect as we listen to friends and family tell snippets of stories from the past year.

When my sister and I were young, my parents would have to remind us to reach beyond the immediate physical “stuff” around us—to give thanks for friendship instead of just our new dolls, to think about what it means to live in a free country instead of just what it means to go on a field trip to the zoo.

In later years, almost all of the blessings we named were the more abstract sort: family, health, a sense of belonging, the ability to dream about the future.

Give thanks

This year, I have my list ready, and near the top is this: I am thankful for story.

And not just because I enjoy being entertained by happy endings. In fact, I think stories can sometimes be the opposite of cheery escapism.

In the psalms where the people of God are crying out for help, one thing they often do is trace back through their history, reminding God and themselves of those times when He was faithful, against all odds, in spite of their fears and weaknesses and failures (see Psalm 106 and Psalm 136 for good examples of this).

When thanksgiving was hard and lament seemed more fitting, they told stories.

It’s true that the books we talk about here on the blog are fiction. In a strict sense, they never happened. But in another sense, they happen all the time. They are memoirs of our struggles and triumphs, our heartbreaks and joys, because they describe people like us dealing with very real emotions and problems. Fiction stories may have different plots and settings, but we love them, at least in part, because they are our stories. And often, these stories portray both good times and hard ones.

It reminds me of this quote from Sarah Loudin Thomas’s Miracle in a Dry Season:

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On the bountiful years, when you have to prioritize your blessings to know which ones to mention, when you can laugh from someplace deep inside of you, when all the people gathered around the Thanksgiving table are happy to see each other, God is good.

And during the hard years, when there have been more hospital visits than weddings, when you have been hurt and have hurt others badly enough that you don’t know how to fix things, when there is an empty chair at the table, God is still good.

Or, as Psalm 43 says, “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

Welcome to the Bethany House family Thanksgiving table! Pull up a chair.

Table

If I were to pass you a few bits of corn, what blessings would you name with them?

Learning From Ezra: Devotional from Lynn Austin

And the winner is…

PilgrimageMarty, please email me, Amy, at agreen@bethanyhouse.com with your mailing address so I can send you a copy of Pilgrimage. Thanks to everyone for sharing your favorite Bible character!

Keepers of the Covenant

As I researched my novel Keepers of the Covenant, based on the biblical book of Ezra, I was struck by how similar his times were to ours. In Ezra’s day, God’s people seemed more interested in adapting to the society around them than in living His way. They had wandered so far from Him that they’d ended up in Babylon, slaves to an ungodly way of life. But God longed to restore His children, so He made a way for them to return to the Promised Land and to a relationship with Him. Sadly, most people chose to remain in captivity. Only a very small remnant accepted His offer of salvation. But for those who did, God had a leader in place—Ezra.

Many of us have loved ones who have wandered away from God, captured by the culture’s empty promises and enticements. Like Ezra, we long to lead our loved ones home and help restore them to God’s embrace, but how? What qualities did Ezra possess that made him able to be used for God’s purposes? A few things about his character and habits stand out.

Pictures are from Lynn's trip to Israel.

Pictures are from Lynn’s trip to Israel, which she writes about in Pilgrimage.

First, the Bible says, “Ezra was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6). In other words, he knew the scriptures. They provided him with the perspective to look beyond his daily life and see the bigger picture of God’s redemption plan. Ezra would have seen that the Almighty One is a God of salvation and restoration. He would have been waiting for it, longing for it. And when God said, “Now is the time,” Ezra was able to answer God’s call because he wasn’t entangled with his own busy agenda. Continue reading

Chatting Biblical Fiction with Lynn Austin

On the blog this week, I’m joined by the wonderful Lynn Austin!

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For more from Lynn, visit lynnaustin.org.

If you struggle with living out your faith in this culture, if you wonder about what all the buzz is about with recent and upcoming adaptations of Bible stories, if you (let’s be honest) have a hard time getting through the prophets without falling asleep, there’s something here for you. Pull up a chair, sip of cup of coffee, and listen in as we chat about ancient times, Sunday School stories, and stained glass windows.

Amy: What made you decide to write your series THE RESTORATION CHRONICLES?

I believe there is so much we can learn from studying Scripture, and that its truths have a great deal of relevance to our modern lives. In talking about Israel’s history, the apostle Paul wrote, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us” (1 Cor. 10:11). I’ve heard many people say that they find the Bible difficult to read, so it’s my prayer that Keepers of the Covenant and the other books in the series will bring the Bible to life for those readers. I hope they’ll begin to see that the men and women in scripture were very much like us, and that they will be inspired by the walk of faith of biblical people like Ezra.

Amy: Absolutely. I felt that way reading Keepers of the Covenant, especially since it deals with a lesser-known character from a less-preached-on portion of the Bible. But I’m not the only one paying attention to the Old Testament these days. There seems to be a lot of interest in Bible stories and times right now (The Bible miniseries, various recent movies, etc). Why do you think even people who aren’t Christians are still interested in stories from the Bible?

Lynn: I think there are a lot of people who have a basic knowledge of the “classic” Bible stories such as Noah or Jonah—maybe from bedtime stories or from attending Sunday school or vacation Bible School—so they are curious about seeing them dramatized. I also believe there is a deep longing for God in all our hearts, and for knowledge of the unseen spiritual realm. Maybe it’s this longing that is drawing them.

Pictures from Lynn's trip to Israel.

Pictures from Lynn’s trip to Israel.

Amy: Let me just play devil’s advocate here for a moment: regarding biblical fiction in general, what would you say to someone who worried that fictional accounts of Bible stories might be reading too much into scripture or even distorting it?

Lynn: I would tell them that I understand their concern and assure them that I do extensive research before I begin writing. My goal is to stay as close to the scriptural text as possible and not add to it, but merely to fill in some of the historical and cultural background. I hope that my novels will bring the Bible to life and not only help readers visualize the stories, but also to see biblical characters as real flesh-and-blood people. I don’t want to replace scripture with a novel, but to draw readers back to the Bible so they will read it for themselves and maybe understand it a bit better.

Keepers of the Covenant

Keepers of the Covenant releases in October. Read more about it here.

Amy: Keepers of the Covenant focuses on the scholar-turned-leader Ezra. Which of Ezra’s many challenges do you think readers will relate to the most?

Lynn: I think all of us struggle to find the balance between being a productive member of our society and culture, yet not compromising our faith or God’s principles. We’re taught to have “the mind of Christ,” yet we face so many competing voices, telling us what’s right and what’s wrong, what we should believe and how we should live. One of Ezra’s biggest challenges was confronting the mixed marriages, which were a threat to the Jewish community. We also face this “mixture” whenever we’re tempted to let the culture determine our choices instead of God’s Word.

Amy: If you could meet the real Ezra, what’s one question you’d like to ask him?

Lynn: I would ask him to describe his reaction when he first heard the King’s edict that all the Jews in the empire would be annihilated in a single day. What did that news do to his faith in God? Was he angry with God for allowing such a thing or did he continue to trust, no matter what? And if his faith did hold strong, how did he acquire such faith?

Amy: Wow. Those are great questions. (I wish we could get Ezra to guest post on the blog now, too.) Do you have any tips for readers who are inspired to study books like Ezra or Nehemiah after reading THE RESTORATION CHRONICLES?

Lynn: I really enjoy using a study Bible as I read scripture to help me understand the historical background and customs. For instance, I’ve used the NIV Study Bible, the ESV Study Bible, and the Archaeological Study Bible. When I read the Bible each day, I also keep a journal where I record what’s going on in my life and what I learned from scripture that particular day and how it applies to me.

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Amy: Finally, just for fun: if you had a stained glass window depicting one scene from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament that have been meaningful to you, which would they be?

Lynn: From the Old Testament, I would choose the story of Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. It’s such a clear picture to me of how we need to obey God’s word even when we don’t understand it or agree with it, trusting God for the outcome. From the New Testament, I would choose the boy who gave his loaves and fishes to Jesus. It would remind me to faithfully give what I have to Christ, even if it doesn’t seem like much, trusting that He is able to multiply my meager efforts to bless others.

Thanks so much, Lynn, for your thoughtful answers! And, readers, now I’ll put that last question to you: if you had a stained glass window depicting one scene from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament that have been meaningful to you, which would they be and why?

In Defense of Christian Romances

A few months ago, I got an email from a high school student writing a research paper on this question: Can even Christian romances be harmful to read?

heart of books

Now, before you react with an outraged, “Of course not!” think about why she might be asking this question. I know many wonderful Christians who find romances, even Christian romances, to be a complicated issue. For some, it’s because reading and dreaming about the oh-so-dashing protagonists makes them less content with their lives. For others, it’s more about setting their daughters up for disappointment with tales of conflicts that resolve happily by the last page.

That said, this was part of my response:

Here’s something to think about: God often uses the metaphor of romance to describe his relationship with us. Why? Because there is something uniquely powerful about romantic love and the sacrifice and unselfishness it should inspire. That’s why I think Christian romances can teach us deep and beautiful things about who God is and what our relationships with others should look like.

But also, there’s a fine line between recognizing and longing for something good, such as a romantic relationship centered on Christ, and being discontent with what God has for you right now. It’s the difference between attending a wedding and thinking, This is beautiful, and I hope my story turns out that way, and thinking, God can’t possibly be good if I’m not married/dating right now. The same problems that some people assign to romance novels: discontent, unrealistic expectations, the possibility of taking imagination too far . . . all of those can take place at a wedding as well, and no Christians are suggesting we get rid of those.

So there’s my opinion as a single twenty-something reader. But how about the perspective of a Christian romance author? I decided to pose this question to the one and only Becky Wade, who champions and celebrates Christian romance novels. Here’s her response:

Meant to be Mine

Becky’s newest release.

Passionate romance AND a Christian message can most definitely go together inside the pages of the same novel!

I should tell you that I’m a die-hard romantic. When I started My Stubborn Heart, my first contemporary romance for the Christian market, I knew I wanted to give my reader the same concentrated romantic storyline that I like best as a reader. I also knew that the Lord had called to write for the Christian market.

Thus, while writing and rewriting my novels, I spend a significant amount of time trying to figure out how to pen heart-pounding love stories that are ALSO clean and inspiring faith stories.

Wade_BeckyWhat I’ve discovered?  The things that make a God-honoring real-life relationship wonderful to experience are the very same things that make a Christian romance novel wonderful to read. The beauty of a dating relationship isn’t found in anything R-rated. The beauty and excitement is in the awe of discovering new love, the building emotions, the tension of facing obstacles that could tear the couple apart, the growing devotion of a hero to his heroine and vice versa.

After all, God is the foremost expert on great love!  His people can and do experience devoted love stories worth writing about.

Your turn: why do you read Christian romances? Can you name a Christian romance novel that has had an impact on your life?

For more from Becky, visit her website or watch the video below.

Visit Granite Springs: An Interview with Carol Cox

A good historical fiction novel will make you feel like you’ve been taken back in time, like you can experience events long in the past. But what creates that feeling for the reader is often a lot of hard work by the author! Amy Green (Bethany House’s fiction publicist) here, and today on the blog I’m interviewing Carol Cox, who loves the research process and bringing history to life through her novels. Her newest release is Truth Be Told, and she’ll share some behind-the-scenes information about it with us.Truth Be Told

Amy: Tell us a little about the setting of Truth Be Told.

Carol: Truth Be Told is set in the fictional town of Granite Springs, located in the highlands of central Arizona—one of my favorite places in the state. The variety seen in the landscape is stunning—everything from rolling ranchland to dense cedar thickets to pine-covered slopes. The area also has a rich history of mining, ranching, and lumber operations, all of which are woven into the tapestry of the story.

Since Amelia takes over running her father’s weekly newspaper upon his unexpected death, many of the scenes in the book take place in the printing office of the Granite Springs Gazette. Learning about operating a frontier newspaper in 19th century Arizona was a fascinating experience, and I loved being able to use that research to give the story authenticity.

Granite Springs

The landscape that inspired the setting of Granite Springs.

Amy: Speaking of research, as a writer of historical fiction, what would you say are your three most important resources?

The library—and my own collection of reference books—are often the first places I turn to when I begin my research. I also do a lot of searching online, being careful to make sure the sources I use are accurate. Sharlot Hall Museum, located in Prescott, is a treasure trove of information on Arizona history. And for Truth Be Told, I was thrilled to be able to learn about the operations of a 19th-century newspaper and the process of printing on a Washington Hand Press from Sky Shipley, owner of Skyline Type Foundry.

Amy: You are at a writers’ conference and an aspiring author sits down next to you and asks, “How can I make my historical setting come alive for modern readers?” How would you answer?

I try to gather as many details about the setting as I can from as many sources as I can locate. And if making a trip to the site is feasible, so much the better! I love being able to experience the “feel” of a place for myself. Onsite research lets me soak up the setting’s atmosphere and gives me a host of sensory details I can weave into a story to make the reading experience richer and more immediate for my readers.

Printing Press type

A type cabinet: note the number of pieces sorted in cases.

Whether I visit the setting in person or not, I’ll spend time putting myself in the minds of my characters, imagining what they would see and feel. Books or online research may tell me the streets would be illuminated by gaslight, for instance. But what kind of glow would my characters see from those gas lamps? Would there be pockets of darkness between the lamps (and if so, would danger lurk there)? What sounds would my character hear on an evening stroll through town—the clip-clop of horses’ hooves on a dusty Western street? The heels of cowboy boots thudding along a boardwalk? Digging for details like that not only make for a richer texture overall, but can open up exciting possibilities for story events!

Amy: Are any of the places and characters in Truth Be Told based on fact?

Most of the book is based purely on my imagination, but I enjoyed slipping in a few actual sites and people from Arizona history. The Eleventh Infantry Band, which performs for the citizens of Granite Springs, was stationed at nearby Fort Whipple, and was directed by Achille LaGuardia, just as we see in the story. If the name LaGuardia sounds familiar, you may be thinking of Achille’s son, Fiorello, who spent some of his childhood years at Fort Whipple before growing up to become the well-known mayor of New York City.

The Hotel Burke, where Ben Stone stays during his visit to Prescott, was the original name of the present-day Hotel St. Michael, which stands on the corner of Gurley and Montezuma, across the street from the Courthouse Plaza. I’ve enjoyed a number of meals in the hotel’s dining room, which offers a marvelous view of downtown Prescott.

Amy: Here are a few quick ones just for fun. Carol, fill in the blanks!

  • If I could travel in a time machine, the first place/time I’d visit is… sometime at the end of the 19th century or the very beginning of the 20th. Big changes were taking place in technology, and there was a surge of excitement about the future and the wonders it might hold, along with a sense of optimism and patriotism that often seems lacking today. I would love to witness that firsthand!
  • A style from the 1800s that I’d like to bring back is…those gored skirts with the fullness in the back and the full-sleeved, long-waisted bodices. Fashions for women were becoming less restrictive and far more practical. And bustles were a thing of the past, thank goodness!

    Printing Press

    A Washington Hand Press, just like the one Amelia used, from the Print Shop at Sharlot Hall Museum.

  • My least favorite part of the research process is…having to pull myself away from the research to start writing!
  • A “fun fact” I discovered while researching this novel is…before I started writing Truth Be Told, I was aware that all the type for the stories printed in a newspaper had to be set by hand, but I never took time to think about how many individual pieces of type would be involved in one issue of a four-page weekly. The sheer numbers were staggering! Thousands of pieces of type would have to be set in place each week. And it never occurred to me that every single one of those pieces would have to be sorted back into their places in the type case once the paper was printed. Distributing and redistributing the type was a never-ending process. May I just say how grateful I am for the word processing program on my laptop?

Cox_Carol1  To get to know Carol a little better, stop by her website or like her author Facebook page!

All right, readers, your turn to answer one of the questions I posed to Carol: what style from bygone days would you like to see make a comeback? (Men or women, from Bible times to the Middle Ages to the Civil War to the 1950s…anything goes!)

 

Alaska: a History of Adventure

Pettrey_DaniThis week, we have a guest on the blog: Dani Pettrey! Her ALASKAN COURAGE series takes place in a state most of us would love to visit. In case you can’t book a flight and head out there yourself, you can learn a little bit about Alaska as Dani shares some facts from her research for the books. Enjoy!

5 Fun Facts about the McKenna Family’s Home State

Alaska is a land of extremes. It’s the Northernmost, Westernmost (and Easternmost! Its string of islands stretches all the way into the Eastern Hemisphere) state in the US. It’s the biggest state, with the brightest summers, the darkest winters, and the most uninhabited land. With excitement written into the history of every river and mountain, it’s no surprise the adventure-loving McKennas feel so at home here.

Did you know…Submerged-TP_4color+DBoss+MKote.indd

  • In the middle of the Bering Strait off the coast of Alaska, you’ll find Russia’s Big Diomede Island, and the United States’s Little Diomede Island, less than 3 miles apart from each other. This puts the two countries not only within eyeshot of each other on a clear day, but also within (hypothetical) walking distance when the water freezes. No wonder Russia and Alaska have such a closely-tied history… something Bailey discovered first-hand in Submerged!

Continue reading

How to Avoid Spoilers

So, all of your friends have read the latest suspense release from your favorite author . . . except you. It’s been a busy month, or you’re on a library waiting list, or you have to finish another book first. Whatever the case, you’re likely to hear people talking about it. Here’s how to avoid hearing someone ruin the ending for you.

You're actually too late to pre-order Undetected. It released on 4/29!

You’re actually too late to preorder Undetected. It released on 4/29!

Preorder. This one is entirely preventive. If you’re the first one to order and read the book, no one can beat you to it, right?

Know the potential hazards. In case you missed out on preordering, here are some good Plan Bs. List your friends who are dedicated readers, the ones most likely to out-read you and get to the last chapter before you’ve even started. Feel free to communicate to them that no, you have not read the wonderful new release and would prefer that its plot not be discussed in detail when you’re around. If you practice, you can even say this in a nice way. Or just wear a T-shirt that says, “No one talk about [Title Name] for the next month!”

Have someone screen the Amazon reviews. Can’t stay away from those blurbs under the purchase button while you wait for the book to ship? Not all Internet consumers are sensitive to little etiquette details like the fact that the murderer’s name should not be written in all caps in the first sentence of the review. So if you have to look at reviews, have a disinterested third party scan them for you first. Continue reading