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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Treading Lightly in the Character’s Heart ~ by Sarah Sundin

Sarah Sundin is the author of five historical novels set during World War II, including her latest release, On Distant Shores (Revell, August 2013). In 2011, Sarah received the Writer of the Year Award at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. When she isn’t ferrying kids to tennis and karate, she works on-call as a hospital pharmacist and teaches Sunday school and women’s Bible studies. You can find her at or on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest

What’s more exciting—and frightening—for a novelist than the blank page, the new document, a new set of characters?

In a recent blog post on the Books & Such Literary Agency blog, my agent, Rachel Kent, asked about the processes we go through when we start a new novel.

For me, there’s a certain hesitation. Not because I don’t know what to write. I’m an outline writer, and the whole story is plotted by the time I start my rough draft. My first chapter is sketched on a scene list, with key actions, dialogue, and emotions all listed.

But when I open that new document, I pause.

The hesitation comes from the reverence of entering the core of my character’s heart. For years I’ve gotten to know her. I’ve filled out character charts and given her a personality test and recorded important stories from her past. I know full well how she talks and thinks and reacts. If this is the second or third book in a series, I’ve already shown her as a side character. I know her.

Yet I only know her from the outside, like a dear friend. This knowledge comes from observation, from what she’s told me, and from asking probing questions to understand why she does what she does. But it’s still external knowledge.

Something about the actual writing changes the relationship, internalizes it. Now it feels real.

Starting the first chapter, I stand at the threshold to her heart. I don’t have the right to be there. After all, I’m going to record her story and spew it out for complete strangers to read. I ask her politely if I may enter. She eyes me warily. Can she trust me to record her thoughts and emotions with compassion and understanding? Can I trust her to reveal every bit of herself, the pretty and the ugly?

For the first few pages we both tread lightly. I look out from her eyes for the first time, perceive the
world as she does, and sense the depth of her thoughts and attitudes. It feels awkward and uncomfortable to me. And she acts awkward too, perhaps acting nice for company and tidying up the clutter.

As I begin to write, I feel like an imposter. Is this her voice—or mine—or the most recent character I wrote about?

Something shifts by the end of the first chapter. I’ve treated her with respect, and she decides I’m worthy of her trust. She grants me the right to live inside her head for the next several months.

And perhaps that isn’t wise of her. I’m going to put her through danger and heartbreak and loss and drama. I’m going to put her in situations where her own resources will not be enough. I’m going to challenge her to change and become a better person and turn her life over more completely to the Lord. But I do promise her—always—a happy ending.

How about you? Do you ever hesitate on that first page? Do you sense an awkwardness with your character? Or do you dive in, completely comfortable in your character’s head from the start?

On Distant Shores

Caught between the war raging around them and the battles within, two souls long for peace--and a love that remains true.
Lt. Georgiana Taylor has everything she could want. A boyfriend back home, a loving family, and a challenging job as a flight nurse. But in July 1943, Georgie's cozy life gets more complicated when she meets pharmacist Sgt. John Hutchinson. 

Hutch resents the lack of respect he gets as a noncommissioned serviceman and hates how the war keeps him from his fiancée. While Georgie and Hutch share a love of the starry night skies over Sicily, their lives back home are falling apart. Can they weather the hurt and betrayal? Or will the pressures of war destroy the fragile connection they've made?

With her signature attention to detail and her talent for bringing characters together, Sarah Sundin weaves an exciting tale of emotion, action, and romance that will leave you wanting more.


  1. Love this. Thanks for sharing this peek into your tender writer's heart, Sarah!

  2. Thanks, Kiersti! I'm glad you liked it.

  3. One of the best parts about writing is watching your characters come to life. It happens easy for me, but you're right. At first we don't want to "impose" on our character's privacy, but when they open the door, great things happen.

  4. Oh how I would like to be so organized. I know about my characters and the setting, where I begin and where I want to end, but the rest happens as I write. I love your books, so I'm glad you write like you do. Your books may be historical to many, but to me they bring back memories of a time in my childhood when our family had great concerns for our cousins, uncles, and fathers on distant shores protecting our country.

    I see now where the tender care with your characters comes from. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Linda - Isn't it funny? Especially since we created these characters in the first place?

    Martha - ironically, I admire those of you can just sit down and write without an outline. I can't even begin to imagine how you do it! I love how God made us all unique - even as novelists!


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