LIZ CURTIS HIGGS is the author of twenty-seven books with three million copies in print, including: her best-selling historical novels, Thorn in My Heart, Fair Is the Rose, Christy Award-winner Whence Came a Prince, and Grace in Thine Eyes, a Christy Award finalist; My Heart’s in the Lowlands: Ten Days in Bonny Scotland, an armchair travel guide to Galloway; and her contemporary novels, Mixed Signals, a Rita Award finalist, and Bookends, a Christy Award finalist. Visit the author’s extensive website at to view her complete bio.
Doing the Work, Loving the Labor
Those of us who write fiction have not taken an easy path. W. B. Yeats called writing, “The fascination of what’s difficult.” Isn’t that the truth? However challenging the process, however long the hours and meager the royalties, weaving stories is simply what we do. When we were “made in the secret place,” when we were “woven together in the depths of the earth” (Psalm 139:15), our love of narrative was born. We didn’t decide to become storytellers one bright, sunny afternoon; storytelling was part of our cellular structure from the very beginning. Kinda scary, when you think about it; thrilling too.
For me, the actual writing process itself is the reward. The intense research, the time spent on character development, the crafting of the story, the fine-tuning of each scene—those are the elements that make my heart sing. Holding a finished book in our hands is wonderful, and receiving letters from readers can be very encouraging. But unless we enjoy the work itself, done in the solitude of our writing places, we’ll be hard-pressed to finish a single novel, let alone a stack of them. As Katherine Mansfield said, “Once one has thought out a story nothing remains but the labour.” We gotta love the labor, the actual work of writing.
One of the joys along the way is having the Lord teach us an important truth when we least expect it. While we’re busily spinning a tale about a young woman giving birth to her first child or a middle-aged father facing the loss of his job, the Lord is demonstrating the timelessness of his Truth and the complex workings of the human heart. I plot extensively before I start writing and follow that plan quite closely at first, but invariably the characters start living and breathing and going about their own, messy lives and I have to start following them instead of my plot. In most cases my characters haven’t led my astray; rather, they’ve taken me to the core of their issues, and therefore to the heart of the novel.
The real work of writing is, of course, rewriting. Robert Burns confessed, “All my poetry is the effect of easy composition, but of laborious correction.” Some of my favorite books on self-editing include Revising Fiction by David Madden, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White, and Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. While editing, I also consult my list of clichés and pet phrases that invariably creep into my writing and banish them to the winds.
Sometimes cutting a word here and there isn’t enough, and we must eliminate full paragraphs, whole pages, or even (gulp) entire chapters. Samuel Johnson advised, “Where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” Ouch. Because it’s so painful to toss out those hard-earned sentences, I move them to a file called Save This, so I won’t feel the time and effort were wasted. Those words are still on my computer; they’re just not in my story.
Every now and then I’ll realize some piece of dialogue or turn of phrase that didn’t work in Chapter 5 is a perfect fit for Chapter 25. But most of those deleted words never see the light of day. For my latest novel, Here Burns My Candle, I have 16,000 words of unused material sitting in Save This. I edited those words for the sake of the book, yet hung on to them for my sake. Henry Miller is right: “Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.”
One way to improve the quality of our words before we write them is to read the very best fiction in our genre. Since I write historical novels, I often reach for stories written and published in my time period. For example, Here Burns My Candle was set in 1745, so I immersed myself in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, originally published in 1740, not only to examine his literary style, but also to absorb a 1740’s mindset. What did folk think about, worry about? What topics were never broached? How did people express themselves? What words were commonly used? How did men and women interact? How did they spend their days? It’s particularly heartening to see what a huge role faith in God and a knowledge of the Scriptures played in the lives of people three centuries ago.
On days when the words seem stuck inside my head, I remind myself that God has already written every story I’ll ever write: “Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD” (Psalm 139:4). Our job is to listen for the Spirit’s leading through the process. I keep QuickVerse open in Windows so I can go to the Bible for encouragement or direction with the click of a mouse. If, while I’m writing, the characters don’t sound authentic to me, if I can’t hear them breathing, if I don’t taste their tears and feel their sorrow, then something is not right, and I start the scene over, listening for that still, small voice.
God has placed in our hearts very particular stories that we alone can tell. Our labor of love is to sit down at our computers, take a deep breath, and write.
A mother who cannot face her future. A daughter who cannot escape her past.
Lady Elisabeth Kerr is a keeper of secrets. A Highlander by birth and a Lowlander by marriage, she honors the auld ways, even as doubts and fears stir deep within her.
Her husband, Lord Donald, has secrets of his own, well hidden from the household, yet whispered among the town gossips.
His mother, the dowager Lady Marjory, hides gold beneath her floor and guilt inside her heart. Though her two abiding passions are maintaining her place in society and coddling her grown sons, Marjory’s many regrets, buried in Greyfriars Churchyard, continue to plague her.
One by one the Kerr family secrets begin to surface, even as bonny Prince Charlie and his rebel army ride into Edinburgh in September 1745, intent on capturing the crown.
A timeless story of love and betrayal, loss and redemption, flickering against the vivid backdrop of eighteenth-century Scotland, Here Burns My Candle illumines the dark side of human nature, even as hope, the brightest of tapers, lights the way home.