Margaret Brownley is a bestselling author of more than twenty novels, and her books have been published in fifteen languages. She’s currently writing historical novels for Thomas Nelson. A Lady Like Sarah was a Women of Faith selection and a 2010 Romance Writers of America RITA finalist. A Suitor for Jenny is her new release. Margaret and her husband live in Southern California and have three grown children.
Questions to Ask When Starting a Novel
I’m not much of a planner. I don’t even plan dinner and I certainly don’t do much in the way of planning my novels. All I need is an idea, a great opening line and I’m off and running. I do, however, ask some essential questions while writing those all important first chapters.
Question #1: What does my protagonist want and why does she want it?
The most important part of this question is why. Even a pair of shoes can be compelling if your heroine has a good reason for wanting them. It’s not what the protagonist wants that will touch a reader’s heart, it’s the “why.” Why is the motivating force behind a protagonist’s actions. It’s what keeps a character fighting impossible odds to reach his or her goal.
I once had a conversation with a four-year-old who was on a desperate quest to find a spider. When asked why, he replied “I want it to bite my grandmother.” Needless to say I was shocked until he explained that Spider Man got his super human powers from a spider bite. Since his grandmother was having trouble with her eyes, he figured that a spider bite would help her see again. The driving force behind that little boy’s actions was his love and concern for his grandmother and his desire to help her. His motivation was simple, yet compelling, and I admit it made me teary eyed. That’s the kind of response we want from readers.
Question #2: What is my character’s inner need?
My heroine in A Suitor for Jenny is determined to find husbands for her two sisters. Her outer motivation is to get them safely married so she can go far, far away and start anew. Her inner motivation is guilt. In caring for them, she made choices in her past she now regrets. By finding kind and loving husbands for her sisters, she hopes to justify the past. This inner and outer need clash when her sisters prefer men she deems unsuitable, rather than the ones she picks for them.
The battle between inner and outer needs builds tension and creates conflict. This is what keeps readers turning those pages.
Question #3: What does my protagonist have to learn before reaching his goal?
This one’s easy; we’re talking about character flaws. Perhaps your heroine has to learn tolerance or patience. Or maybe he has to learn trust. Character flaws demand some sort of change or growth which creates a character arc.
In A Suitor for Jenny, the heroine’s inner guilt is the driving force behind everything she does. Until she learns to forgive herself, she cannot find true happiness.
A character flaw will eventually lead to a moment of grace. This is the revealing scene in your story when your protagonist comes to realize the truth of Pogo’s statement: we have met the enemy and he is us. To change or not to change, that’s a choice your character then has to make. Of course unless he learns his lesson he will not get the girl, win the war or otherwise find his heart’s desire.
Once you’ve established character flaws you’re ready for the fourth and perhaps most important question:
Question #4: What is the moral premise of your story?
In his book The Moral Premise Stanley D. Williams tells us that the moral premise is a conflict of values: Love vs. hate, forgiveness vs. bitterness, trust vs. distrust. He writes “When a writer knows the moral premise, he knows the reasons for his story and the true psychological motivations of his characters.” According to Williams, the best defense against writers block is to know your story’s moral premise.
Williams offers this formula for coming up with a moral premise:
(Vice) leads to (defeat) but (virtue) leads to (success).
A moral premise for a romance novel, for example, might read something like this:
Mistrust leads to suspicion and misery, but trust leads to love and happiness.
Next comes the part that frankly took me many years to learn: the moral premise must be the basis for your story’s every sub-plot, character, scene, dialogue, turning point and, yes, even location.
The premise of my current WIP is that things aren’t always what they seem, and this can lead to injustice (This also happens to be the premise of To Kill a Mockingbird). I needed a location that met the requirements of my premise, and so I set my story in a small desert town. Nothing in the desert is what it seems at first glance. Lakes can be mirages, and what often looks like an arid wasteland actually teems with life. Even the thorny exterior of a cactus can hide a soft center.
The moral premise helps tie every aspect of your story, and this leave readers smiling at the end. That’s about as good a plan as any writer could want.
More Love and Laughter From the Old West…
When looking for a husband it’s best to go where the odds are in your favor.
After their parents died, Jenny Higgins felt responsible for taking care of her two younger sisters. Learning that Rocky Creek has the highest number of eligible bachelors per capita, Jenny rolls into this Texas town with a clear objective: find suitable husbands for her two younger sisters and then start fresh somewhere far, far away. Jenny believes that women, who fall in love at first sight, often wish they’d taken a second look, so she diligently begins to follow all the rules set forth in her handy manual on how to land a husband.
But while Jenny is interviewing the less-than-promising candidates, her sisters are falling in love the old fashioned way. Jenny is convinced she knows how to pick “perfect” men and it will take two rebellious sisters, a handsome marshal and a whole lot of faith to convince her otherwise.
As an added bonus from Margaret’s office … Some timely advice for landing a husband from A SUITOR FOR JENNY
Charm and composure must prevail at all times. If a gunfight erupts, exit the scene with grace and serenity.
If you don’t know whether or not to kiss a handsome man, give him the benefit of the doubt.
Never engage in boisterous laughter. If you must show mirth, a polite smile or titter will suffice.
Never criticize your beau. If it wasn’t for his faults he’d probably be courting someone else.
A woman more knowledgeable than a man is obliged to hold her tongue and feign ignorance in all matters except, of course, childbirth.
Never show affection in public. Love may be blind but the townspeople are not.
Once your vows are exchanged devote yourself to domestication—his.
Eschew secrets, for they are normally discovered at the worst possible time. If confronted, weep and deny everything.