Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Art of the Opening - A Guest Post by Catherine Underhill Fitzpatrick

This month, Fabulous Florida Writers is pleased to welcome guest blogger Catherine Underhill Fitzpatrick. She is the award-winning author of four books: A Matter of Happenstance, Eternal Day, Going on Nine, and Voyage:A Memoir of Love, War, and Ever After.  Her articles, stories and essays have appeared in magazines, newspapers, literary reviews, and anthologies. Fitzpatrick was our featured writer on July 2, 2016.

For many writers, structuring a riveting plot is the most difficult part of the job. For others, it’s finding their unique voice. Still others struggle to create memorable characters, realistic dialogue, or vivid scenes.  None of these matters of craft are easy, of course, but I think one of the most critical parts of writing is nailing the opening.

Leisure time is a precious commodity today and readers have endless options to fill it with good read books. If the first words, sentences, or paragraphs don’t interest or intrigue them, don’t pull them into whatever comes next, they don’t tend to stick with it.

My goal, whether I’m working on an essay, a novel, magazine article or memoir, is to write an opening that makes the reader want more. I try to make my first sentences either dramatic or humorous, shocking or in some way engaging. What I choose to say in those few lines must pique the reader’s interest, but also reveal something about what, and who, comes next.  And so, I struggle to find a way to make the reader chuckle, worry, be wistful or angry, hungry or exhausted, or feel as if they are right there in the scene I’ve chosen as my opener.

In the earliest days of my writing career, I was a cub reporter at a metro-daily newspaper. I sat at a desk in a long row of desks in a cavernous newsroom and hammered out the news of the day on a manual typewriter. There was neither the time nor the technology to sample multiple leads, perfecting the verbiage.  Later, computers and software were introduced into newsrooms, opening new and wondrous realms of revision, especially for feature writers with weekly, rather than daily, deadlines. When working on a lengthy feature, one that likely would encompass an entire page of the Sunday editions, I would go back to my lead sentence dozens of times. Often, many dozens.

Here’s one of the leads from my newspaper days, the start of a feature story in which a sense of place was paramount:

About an hour west of Waco, the mesquite-dotted infinity of central Texas is interrupted by a pin dot on the map. Gatesville. Population 11,492. On a good day.
Surrounded by sprawling ranches, Gatesville announces itself with a series of rickety shacks and corrugated metal feed depots. Nearer in, the Coryell County Courthouse towers over street corner churches. Pickups crawl the main drag. Barbecue joints roast meat on charred grills until it sweats itself into succulence.
The following excerpt is from a humorous first-person essay I wrote for a literary magazine. The piece is titled, “Authorwear” and the humor is derived as much from the author’s voice as it is from her dilemma.
The black, I think. The sleeveless LBD with a slightly scooped neck and cut-in armholes. The one that’s ruched front and back ― so clever, rows of shallow gathers that camouflage a waistline gone to pot. The hem hits a demure inch above my knee, a flirty but age-appropriate length.
So, the Little Black Dress with … what?  The black patent backless wedges, of course. Honestly, they’re more like dolled-up flip flops than author-talk pumps, but they make every cent I spent on a salon pedicure worth the money. Not to mention, the wedges are blessedly comfortable.  Well, that’s settled.
Cripes, what was I thinking? Black? In the middle of July? In Chicago?
I like writing humorous pieces, and I had a bit of fun with the opening of a coming-of-age essay published online that goes on to deal sensitively with girlhood angst. The title is “The Fence.”
First, I pouted. When that didn’t work, I went off solid food for a few hours. When that didn’t work, I trudged after my parents to Outer Mongolia. Or so I called it.
When writing longer works, book-length works, which have been my focus since “retiring” to gorgeous Southwest Florida, I have labored over opening lines as never before, trying out synonyms, braiding words into phrases, constructing sample sentences, culling and shuffling as I tried to build something memorable, something to grab readers by their ears and yank them into the story.
My debut novel, A Matter of Happenstance (2010, Plain View Press), opens with language that is lyric and picturesque, and then takes an ominous turn…
Levity, that blithe spirit. From daybreak to moonrise it scripted the story of Blenheim, as if scriveners had dipped quills in stardust and written on sheets of sky. For ten years the house seemed to float above harm’s reach, cheating misfortune of its due. Ten years, an eternity, an eye blink, there and gone. On a July afternoon, under a flaring sun that rinsed the world of color, stilled the verges of birdsong, and bowed the fevered heads of a thousand Old Garden roses, gravity slipped in through a door left ajar.
My next book, Going on Nine (2014, Familius) was a sweet, nostalgic novel about childhood in the 1950s. After sampling countless ways to get into the story, I chose to open it with a single, declarative sentence, wrenching in its simplicity.
I am grieved to the bone.
Although my family story, Voyage: A Memoir of Love, War, and Ever After (2016 eLectio), is based on World War II letters written by my father, I chose to open the narrative with a few poignant phrases that introduced readers to my mother, and to me.
Plastic bags stuffed with plastic bags. Easy. Pitch. Boxes of high heels, size nine. Donate. A silk lingerie sack embroidered with a spray of Japanese iris. Well now. I lift the sack and breathe in the scent of jasmine and ylang-ylang. Joy, her favorite perfume.

After Dad died, Mom went downhill. In the end, two of my brothers kept vigil with me at St. John’s Mercy Hospital. It was early December. I sang Christmas carols at her bedside, book-ending the lullabies she sang to me decades earlier. Beneath the sheet, she tapped her foot to “Silent Night.” When I got to the part about heavenly hosts, she drew her last breath.

The point is, there is no single way to write a perfect lead, but there are many ways to write a really good one.

I’ll leave you with two of my favorites. The first uses drama and pathos to grab the reader’s attention. The second uses surprise and juxtaposition.

I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. --The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls (2005, Charles Scribner’s Sons)

Having just died, I shouldn’t be starting my afterlife with a chicken sandwich, no matter what, especially one served up by nuns. --Learning to Die in Miami by Carlos Eire (2010, Free Press)

For more information, visit the author's website at or her Amazon Author Page at

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Susan Fischer - Connecting Faith and Fiction

Faith has always played a major role in the life of Bradenton author Susan Fischer. She is a Christian mediator and a speaker with several ministries, leads a Bible Study group, and is a member of the Order of Daughters of the King. So it should come as no surprise that her faith would spill over into her writing as well.
A native of Michigan, Fischer received a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Michigan University and went on to earn her Juris Doctor degree. She practiced personal injury law in the Detroit area until 1988. “I was tired of winter and burned out where I was working,” she recalls. “I wanted an adventure, so I moved to Florida.” This turned out to be a decision that set her on the road to writing.

Although she had spent some time teaching high school English and journalism while living in Michigan, Fischer’s actual writing experience had been limited to poetry and some short stories. It was after joining a Christian writer’s group in Bradenton that she decided to try her hand at a novel. “I enjoyed the creativity involved in dreaming up a title, characters, plot and conflicts,” she says, though she found the editing process more of a challenge. “Revising the first draft was the most difficult and time-consuming part,” she admits. “It takes more concentration and perseverance to keep going over the same paragraph, making it better, more active, less passive, more showing and less telling.” She credits the members of the Oasis Writing Group with helping her achieve her dream of completing her first book: a Christian romance titled Her Next Dance.

Fischer describes Her Next Dance as “a passionate romance which also touches on current topics such as sexual discrimination and harassment in the workplace, the MeToo movement, the opioid crisis, and ranch land preservation issues.” The main character, Lauren Miller, is a 30-something attorney juggling the demands of a full-time career and the challenges of being a single mother to a teenage son.  Lauren’s main source of solace is ballroom dancing. When she meets Marco Gonzalez, an attractive dance instructor, sparks fly.

Fischer drew inspiration for the character and the story from her personal experiences as an attorney and mediator, as well as her love of dancing.  “What I like best about the book is that if you follow the steps and directions given by Marco, you can learn how to do some popular dances such as the Salsa, cha-cha, swing, and waltz,” she explains.

Fischer is currently hard at work on the second of what she plans to be the “Dancing into Romance” series – Dancing with a Cowboy, another Christian romance novel scheduled for release in the fall.  The story centers around Elaine MacDonald, a young paralegal who moves to Florida to escape an abusive relationship. When she’s invited to a ballroom dance class, she meets a handsome ranch foreman who is attracted to her, but she is reluctant to begin a relationship because of the secret fear that still haunts her. 

Fischer hopes her books will help encourage and inspire her readers. “You can have love in your life even though you’ve been hurt in the past,” she says. “Try new things. Open yourself up to new adventures. God has a plan or purpose for all of us. It’s up to us to discover what our purpose is. He wants to give us the desires of our hearts. All we have to do is ask Him.”

For more information, visit the author’s website: 

 Facebook page:  susanfischerbooks

Twitter @susanfischer.