Last weekend showed our Ontario winter to tremendous advantage, and my husband and I took a (safe) drive to St. Jacob’s on the Saturday and another to soak up the sun along Lake Huron at Goderich on the Sunday. The brilliant blue sky with a few wispy white clouds showed off the snow at its best. My favourite time–snow on all the fields and bare roads. I didn’t even wear my boots!
Life is often like that. You have to search out the best parts. My father used to say he never turned down a wrong road without finding something amazing at the end of it. Of course, the glint in his eye usually led his adult children to wonder just what he had done on those isolated roads!
Now, in our writing we have to help our readers get hooked right from the beginning. How do we mimic the appeal of the photo above in our first lines?
Dickens was a master with his opening to A Tale of Two Cities. So much so that almost everyone remembers the first words of his first line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”
I love a great opening to a book and have worked hard on the openings to all of my books, even my creative non-fiction book, The Man Behind the Marathons. I hone the words until readers will be hooked with the first words and fully engaged by the bottom of the first page. I worked so hard on The Loyalist’s Wife, first in the Loyalist series, that I still have the opening on the edge of my tongue. “John watched his smiling Lucinda carry the pail of water into the cabin and thought how lucky he was to have fallen for her.”
What did I achieve in that sentence?
I gave her an old-fashioned name to suit the period.
I set the scene. They live in a cabin and she is carrying water.
I touched on character. Lucinda is a happy person. John appreciates her.
I set the tone as positive and upbeat.
I allowed the reader to wonder. Why does John think he is lucky to have found Lucinda?
After I described Lucy in the second paragraph I ended that paragraph with “He longed to stretch out the happy moment.” The suggestion is that something unhappy is coming.
These are some of the ways that writers use to grab our interest and to hang on to it. I am currently almost finished rereading Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour which novel I wrote about some weeks ago. Here is Sharon’s first line: “Richard did not become frightened until darkness began to settle over the woods.“This is our introduction to the child who became the Yorkist king, Richard III, and who has been so maligned because of Shakespeare’s imaginative but not factual rendering of him.
Penman uses the word ‘frightened’ and immediately we know something is up. Then ‘darkness’ appears. Next ‘woods’. She builds the emotion in us bit by bit. “In the fading light, the trees began to take on unfamiliar and menacing shapes.”
Like bricklayers piling up one row after another to create a finished wall, good authors use their words to elicit emotion and interest. It’s how we humans are wired and ties directly to our innate sense of danger. Should we take flight? Should the main character run? What is happening?
So the next time you are wearing your author hat, think of what one of my beta readers said about her reading habits: “I’m an impatient reader. If my interest isn’t piqued right from the get-go, I simply don’t continue reading the book…” Elaine B You’ll be glad you did.
“Elaine, I enjoyed reading your story about growing up in Oxford County. (My Story, My Song) As I read along I kept saying to myself …yes, I remember that. I knew/ know some of the people you mentioned as well. Your river story reminded me of our three season farm ponds which were so massive we felt sorry for the poor kids in town who had to skate in a circle and could only change direction when the whistle blew. I was not impressed with that when I first skated in an arena and yes I also started out with second hand black skates.” Bernice
“Elaine, I just finished your book, The Loyalist’s Daughter. It was a great read and is hard to imagine how someone can put together such a book. Well done!”
Terry and Sally
“We both loved The Loyalist’s Daughter. So happy we have a ‘signed’ copy. Thanks for doing that.” Carol and Dennis.
“What a remarkable book! I just finished yesterday….It is one of those books that, at the end of each chapter, the urge is to ‘just read one more chapter’ before turning out the light….I had no idea what is involved in organizing such a fund raising venture and ventures across Canada and you explained it so well….[This] book that you wrote on his life and huge contributions needed to be written….Thanks for putting your writing skills to work into the life of Ron Calhoun.” John Snoddy
“Just finished your first book in your Loyalist trilogy – really, really enjoyed it. Those folks sure were hardy types in those days – I don’t think I could even survive a walk to the outhouse – hahaha. Looking forward to reading the next one.” Lisa Hutchison
“I loved the book. [The Man Behind the Marathons] So glad for the way you set it up. It kept me reading. And then the section on Ron came just as I was about headed to Google to see what led Ron to be the guy he was. The quality of the paper was a real asset. Top quality for a top quality story about a top quality guy. Congratulations. I felt your heart in every page. Thanks for letting me have an early look at the book. Very cherished.” Sue Hilborn
“Just finished your book. [The Man Behind the Marathons] It is great – so many interesting things about Terry and Steve (whom I had forgotten about). Ron’s story is, if possible, even more interesting. I can see why you were drawn into his life as a suitable subject for your first nonfiction. I did wonder how Ron’s one set of clothes washed by his mother every night were dry for school the next morning . . . and which race your ‘young daughter’ beat you in.” Wayne C.
“Just finished all three and enjoyed the stories as they were woven into the history of that area. Congratulations!” Lorrie Miller on Facebook, reacting to The Loyalist Legacy‘s Chill With a Book Award.
“It was a pleasure to be at the LWS meeting last night. Great information shared. Love your books and writing style. I will give them as gifts. They bring this time in history to life in a way that one will never forget. Thank you!” Rosemary
“Elaine Cougler has written a page-turning novel of the American Revolution through the eyes of a conflicted loyalist soldier and his indomitable wife. You’ll feel the hardship of homesteading, the fear of the enemy, the blows of battle, and the pain of separation. You’ll be transported through history. This is not just a novel written about another time, it seems written in another time.” Terry Fallis, author of The Best Laid Plans, Stephen Leacock medal winner
“I bought all three books at Probus club meeting in London. I loved the stories. I am now a student reading more about the war of 1812. Thank you for your stories. Love your writing style.” Gwen Moore
“I was delighted with the way you handled the Norwich Rebellion in the last Loyalist book, Elaine, and have heard many positive comments about it.” Marie A.
“I’m an impatient reader. If my interest isn’t piqued right from the get-go, I simply don’t continue reading the book. Both of the Loyalist books drew me in immediately!” Elaine B
“The Loyalist’s Luck is one of the best sequels I’ve read in a long time. It picks up right where The Loyalist’s Wife left off and takes the reader to Canada with a group of Loyalists escaping the American Revolution.” Denise F