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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Getting from First Page to Last

LIZ CURTIS HIGGS is an author 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.

Anytime people ask what my typical writing day is like, I try hard not to burst into tears. Or laughter. When I’m deep into a book, I write from the time I get up until the time I go to bed, and even so, I seldom hit my word-count goal for the day.

Why? Because I am an absolute nut about research. I can get lost in books like Three Centuries of Scottish Posts or Scots Gardens in Old Times, and emerge an hour later without a word written, yet with ideas for three new novels spinning in my head.

Still, after 30 published books I’ve developed a few methods that help me get to The End—if not efficiently, at least eventually.

I’m a firm believer in having a workspace dedicated to writing, whether it’s a card table, a spare bedroom, or the old garage we have behind our farmhouse. Inside you’ll soon discover I have two desks. In my first-floor office I handle correspondence, chat with my publisher, create marketing pieces, update Facebook and Twitter—all that 21st-century stuff. On the second floor is a room lined with bookshelves, where I do nothing but write. No food, no phone calls, no kidding.

Surrounded by the Scottish mementos that inspire me, I can quickly immerse myself in another time and place. A cup of Earl Grey tea, a fragrant candle, and some Celtic instrumental music help usher in the proper mood. I have a fairly detailed plot outline in hand, but my goal is to climb inside my characters’ hearts and let them tell their story. I’d rather observe and listen, writing down what they say and do, instead of forcing them to follow my lead.

Each book takes me about a year to write. I have a daily target word count, which is quite low at the start of the book—750-1,000 words a day—and grows with each chapter until I’m hitting 2,000 words a day. Exactly once in my writing career I hit 5,000 words between breakfast and bed. The next day I couldn’t rub two words together. So, I try not to get too obsessive about how much I get done, and instead focus on the storytelling.

For my Scottish novels I comb through my historical resources for relevant customs, traditions, and folklore that suit both the story and the setting. I’ve visited Scotland fifteen times to date, tramping through the villages and over the hills and glens, snapping photos, asking questions, and taking copious notes. I’ve met the loveliest people since my first visit in 1996, and hope the cadence of their speech comes through in the voices of my characters.

I edit and rewrite as I go, printing off the day’s work, editing those pages before I go to bed, then making all my scribbled changes the next morning. I try never to quit at the end of a chapter, because it takes me forever to get the wheels turning again. Instead I quit mid-scene, with a few notes about what I imagine coming next. Then I can hit the ground running.

Anytime I think writing is hard work, I remind myself of the years I spent waiting on tables, cleaning houses, selling wigs, or changing diapers, and suddenly a day parked in front of a computer telling stories sounds like a piece of cake. With tea, please.

A Wreath of Snow

Christmas Eve 1894
All Margaret Campbell wants for Christmas is a safe journey home. When her plans for a festive holiday with her family in Stirling crumble beneath the weight of her brother’s bitterness, the young schoolteacher wants nothing more than to return to the students she loves and the Edinburgh town house she calls home.

Then an unexpected detour places her in the path of Gordon Shaw, a handsome newspaperman from Glasgow, who struggles under a burden of remorse and shame.

When the secret of their shared history is revealed, will it leave them tangled in a knot of regret? Or might their past hold the threads that will bind their future together?

As warm as a woolen scarf on a cold winter’s eve, A Wreath of Snow is a tender story of love and forgiveness, wrapped in a celebration of all things Scottish, all things Victorian, and especially, all things Christmas.

"A Wreath of Snow is a wonderful story of redemption and restoration that will warm your heart during the Christmas season—or any time of year!”—Francine Rivers, author of Redeeming Love


  1. After hearing you speak, I am always laughing until the sides ache. But, when I started reading that first Scotish novel, after only a few pages, I looked at the cover to make sure your name was there. Sure enough, it was you. Thank you for encouraging us with your humor and for inspiring us with your writing. God has blessed you with many talents - I'm glad you share them with us.

  2. So blessed to share my thoughts about writing on Novel Rocket today! Paula, I completely get what you are saying. My historical fiction comes from a very different side of my personality than my platform speaking/nonfiction writing. Both are "the real Liz" and I enjoy them equally...they just require different skills and draw from different corners of my heart. I'm very grateful for readers and a publisher who allow me to drive down both avenues with joy and abandon!

  3. Liz, I'm absolutely loving A Wreath of Snow!! It makes me nostalgic for an era I never lived in. :)

  4. Liz, thank you for sharing your tips. I'm motivated today...but first, I'm preparing some tea!

  5. I'm always fascinated to hear a favorite author's process! Your idea for having a separate space for the 21st century stuff is wonderful! I'm eyeing our house with rearranging in mind! Thanks for sharing, Liz!

  6. Yes, I love the idea for a separate space for FB, twitter and email stuff. I just have the one computer, however, so it takes DISCIPLINE to shut the online stuff off and just WRITE.

    I like to read the historical stuff first, then let it stew in my brain and translate into what my characters would be doing. But I do constantly have to refer back to my sources to stay true to the real-life plotlines (Icelandic sagas). I think, after all that research and story-building around it, it's so HARD to step out of that century and into our regular lives, don't you? I still imagine my Vikings walking out of the woods...

  7. Love Liz Curtis Higgs. I met her in Rome, GA one year when she was here for a Woman's Day. She had us all in stitches. I like that she is a real person who has been through real problems and is not afraid to use the experience to help others. Loved her first Scottish book and I'm looking forward to reading this one.
    Deborah Malone
    "Death in Dahlonega"

  8. I LOVE the idea of having two offices! That is such a brilliant idea. I'm sure it would be much less tempting for me to jump on facebook or other time wasting sites if I had to run up the stairs every time I wanted to take a peek. :)

  9. Fascinating, Lizzie, to hear your writing routine. 'Tis encouraging, also, to learn a routine so different from what I've usually heard held up as "the ideal" is used by a successful writer. Yea for individuality!

    With all your editing-as-you-go, do you find you revise much once the first draft is complete?

    Love the idea of stopping mid-scene & 2 separate writing spaces. You've given super ideas to help maximize use of time. And I totally agree with you about the pre-writing jobs! Great motivation on tough days. Thank you! Blessings, sis. Mary Kay

  10. Interesting post, Liz, about two work spaces, but I fear I soon would have everything hopelessly muddled--research books in the Facebook room, and my coffee cup hidden behind the shelves in the research office. I can't even keep up with two pairs of glasses. :) I have never succeeded in writing to music. I need total quiet, but the scented candle and the Earl Grey sound lovely indeed. Must try that. Thanks for sharing.


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