Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Breathing Life Into Your Heroine

Today we focus on creativity. I asked author Johnnie Alexander Donley the following regarding idea sparks:

"The idea for your debut novel began with the line, 'My name is Alison Schuyler.' We've all received a similar tiny seed when it comes to creating a story. What was your process in taking that one sentence and building a character that would become the heroine of your new novel?" - Sandy

Johnnie: The heroine for Where Treasure Hides came to life when I opened a blank book and wrote the words: My name is Alison Schuyler. 

As my pen flowed across the lines, Alison revealed things to me about her life that I didn’t know. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that her father, grief-stricken over the death of his wife, took her to Europe to live with the grandfather she’d never met before. 

Alison’s backstory and personality began to shine during that free-writing system. But she didn’t come to life out of nothing. Before I wrote that first line, I knew a few things about her that had to be true. 

Her initial plot purpose From the first, I wanted to write a novel about the massive looting of art during World War II and the amazing stories of children who were hidden from the Nazis. My protagonist needed to be someone who could realistically be involved in both the hiding of art and children. Alison is a talented artist whose family has owned an art gallery in the same European city for centuries. 

Her nationality I had been told by an editor and read on various blog posts that a first time novelist’s story should be set in the United States with American characters. That proposed a problem since the Nazis weren’t looting art from the U.S. Nor were we hiding our children from them. 

Solution: Alison’s European father married an American woman, and Alison was born and lived the first twelve years of her life in Chicago. This way, any “Americanisms” could be easily explained. I chose Holland for Alison’s paternal ancestry because of the country’s renowned artistic legacy and my research into how the Dutch people courageously hid many Jewish children during the war. 

Surprise: About two-thirds through my second or third draft, I found out that Alison’s mother wasn’t as American as I believed her to be. You just never know what’s going to happen in the creative process. (I love that!) 

Her hero The novel’s male protagonist is British Army officer Ian Devlin who first appeared as a secondary character in a previous (and yet unpublished) manuscript. Friends who read the manuscript wanted a sequel. So in addition to looting art and hiding children, the novel had to be about Ian’s love story. And why he’s a widower raising a German orphan in 1944. 

Which naturally led to a difficult plot problem since it was impossible for Alison to die. (You’ll have to read the novel to see how that was resolved.) 

A heroine comes to life Alison’s initial purpose, her nationality, and her romantic lead had been on my mind (and in my heart) for months before I opened that blank book. In a way, she had shape, but no breath – not until I started to write in her voice. After just a few pages, she was ready to take center stage in my novel. While writing the manuscript, I learned more about her fears and her courage. 

I don’t rely much on character worksheets and massive backstory. Instead I envision the protagonist I need for the requirements of a specific story, and then I allow her to grow into herself both on the pages of a blank book and a computer screen.


Artist Alison Schuyler spends her time working in her family’s renowned art gallery, determined to avoid the curse that has followed the Schuyler clan from the Netherlands to America and back again. She’s certain that true love will only lead to tragedy—that is, until a chance meeting at Waterloo station brings Ian Devlin into her life. Drawn to the bold and compassionate British Army captain, Alison begins to question her fear of love as World War II breaks out, separating the two and drawing each into their own battles. While Ian fights for freedom on the battlefield, Alison works with the Dutch Underground to find a safe haven for Jewish children and priceless pieces of art alike. But safety is a luxury war does not allow. As time, war, and human will struggle to keep them apart, will Alison and Ian have the faith to fight for their love, or is it their fate to be separated forever?

Author Johnnie Alexander Donley writes stories of suspense, intrigue, and romance set in World War II. Her debut novel, Where Treasure Hides, won the American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis contest for Historical Fiction in 2011. A history enthusiast, Johnnie has also edited nonfiction manuscripts and textbooks. She is a founding member and current president of the ACFW Central Florida chapter. A longtime Florida resident, Johnnie treasures family memories, classic movies, road trips, stacks of books, and her papillon Rugby.

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What is something that has sparked an idea for your hero or heroine? Do you have a particular method for bringing a character to life?


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