Thursday, August 22, 2013

Empathy, Imagination, and Deep Point of View

Inborn empathy, I believe, is a gift from God. Some people have it, and some people don’t.

But can you learn empathy if you don’t already have it? I think it’s safe to say most of us have imaginations. And if, as a writer, you can touch the surface of your imagination, then you can keep going deeper until you feel whatever it is you want your characters (and consequently your readers) to feel. 

That’s empathy.

Have you ever wondered how an actor cries on demand?
photo by djayo at
Some actors have drops squeezed into their eyes as soon as the camera pans away, so that on their next close-up they can squeeze the tears out. I’ve heard some pinch the inside of their leg. 

But other actors cry real tears that touch deep and very raw emotions. I heard one actress say that whenever she had to cry, she thought about her father and imagined what her life would be like if he died. Her imagination led her to empathy. Those are the scenes that reach out and grab the viewers by their heart-strings.

Because they’re real.

Writing, like acting, must touch something deep in the reader, whether it’s joy or sorrow, in order to give them a satisfying experience.

photo by rolve at
In my upcoming novel, True North, Joe and Lisa Kendall are grieving the loss of their son. Each is grieving in their own way; each in their own time. As a writer, it is my job to put the reader into either Joe or Lisa’s shoes – maybe both. But I’ve never lost a child that I’ve held in my arms. I did have the broken heart of a miscarriage followed shortly by a hysterectomy at a very young age, losing the dream of future children. I know what those feelings are like. But I don’t know the feeling of losing a child I’ve held close to my heart, and built memories with.

How then could I represent this in an honest and true way in my writing? It had to be more than thinking, “Oh, I’ll bet they feel this way and they’ll react in this other way.” No. I had to dig deep inside myself, hit a few nerves, then dig deeper still. I had to imagine the early years with my own child, and then imagine the unthinkable.
photo by buzzybee at
It wasn’t easy. It was beyond painful. Then, because my hero’s viewpoint is important to the story, I had to do it all over again through the eyes and heart of a father. I still get a little teary-eyed when I think about all I’d imagined. But if I didn’t bring a tear to my own eyes, how could I possibly bring one to the reader’s eyes?

This could, I think, also be referred to as deep point of view. I really never thought of it that way until recently. After the final edits and galley proofs were done on True North, I had a moment of panic when I realized my characters had a lot of internal thought. Maybe it was too much. Would that read as boring? I didn’t know what to do. But when I asked my editor about it, she said she and the publisher had a discussion about it when they first bought the book. They felt it was deep point of view and was necessary to the story because of the grieving process that became part of the conflict.

I had to think about this for a while. And I still wonder. Did my imagination lead me to empathy? Did I reach this deep point of view that will elicit a tear from my readers? I hope so. It made me cry, and – not that I want the reader to feel real pain – I hope it brings a tear or two to their eyes so they come away with a complete and satisfying experience from the book.

If you’re a writer and your manuscript doesn’t feel right, could it be that it isn’t touching your emotions? If so, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. Try deepening your imagination, dig a little deeper, and see if that changes your story up.

Do you think empathy and imagination are tied together?
What gives you a satisfying experience as a reader?
If you’re a writer, how far do you go to elicit emotion in your characters?

True North is Suzie Johnson’s second novel. Her first novel, No Substitute, a contemporary inspirational novel, is out now from White Rose Press of The Pelican Book Group. She is a regular contributor to the Inkwell Inspirations blog, a member of ACFW, RWA, and is the cancer registrar at her local hospital. Suzie and her husband live in the 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Strong Women in History: Violet Constance Jessop

When the White Star Line unveiled their plan for a trans-Atlantic ocean liner passenger service, they most assuredly couldn’t envision the tragedy that would befall all three of their ocean liners.

Knowing what we know about the way Titanic met her end; imagine what it would be like to be a young woman serving as a stewardess on the ship. But first we must go even further back into history.

October 1, 1887, and Irish couple living in Argentina welcomed their first of six children, a baby girl – Violet Constance Jessop. Even as a young child Violet was a survivor, winning a fight over tuberculosis even though doctors said she wouldn’t. Perhaps this was a foreshadowing of what was to come, but more likely it was the hand of God because Violet had important work ahead of her.

When Violet’s father died, her mother moved her family to England and went to work as a ship’s stewardess for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. Later, Violet herself would begin her eventful career on the same line. Research finds that this line served many purposes, among them delivering mail to the British West Indies and carrying passengers – immigrants especially – to places like New Zealand.

In 1910, Violet left Red Mail to work for White Line. She did it somewhat reluctantly, due to rumors of the passengers’ treatment of staff and the fact that White Line traveled the North Atlantic. She didn’t care for the weather conditions they would surely encounter. More foreshadowing? Or the hand of God?

On September 20, 1911, White Line’s RMS Olympic left port and Violet was aboard as one of its stewardesses. Almost right away, the navy cruiser HMS Hawke rammed the Olympic and left a forty-foot gash in her side. The propellers were damaged, but the ship made it back to port without sinking.

When the RMS Titanic, the Olympic’s sister ship, was ready for her maiden voyage, Violet was in place as one of the stewardesses – as she’d been talked in to switching ships by one of her friends. The night the ship hit the iceberg, Violet was “drowsy” in her bunk after having read a translated Hebrew prayer she brought along on her journey. The prayer was for protection against fire and water.

Violet stood at the bulkhead with the other stewardesses while women said tearful goodbyes to their husbands before stepping into the lifeboats with their children. In order to ease the fears of some of the female passengers, Violet and other stewardesses were asked to get into a lifeboat. While sitting there, a bundle was, as she described it, dropped in her lap with orders to take care of it. The bundle turned out to be a baby that Violet guarded with her life. Later, while on the rescue ship Carpathia, a woman claiming to be the baby’s mother snatched the baby out of Violet’s arms.

Surviving the ordeal that was the Titanic would have been enough for most women to walk away from anything to do with boats and water. But not Violet. She eventually ended up on the HMHS Britannic – which was originally named the Gigantic because, as hard as it is to believe, the Titanic’s other sister ship was much larger.

The Britannic wasn’t in service as an ocean liner for very long before WWI began and it was put in to use as a hospital ship. By then Violet was a Red Cross nurse, taking care of the war’s injured and sick men on the Britannic.

But surely Violet’s time aboard the Britannic would be uneventful? Unfortunately, no.

In 1916, just over four years after her Titanic sister sank, the Britannic struck a German mine in the Aegean Sea – with Violet aboard.

Accounts differ on how Violet ended up in the water. Some state she jumped overboard because there was no time for lifeboats. Others state she jumped out of the lifeboat to avoid being sucked into the propellers. However she ended up in the water, Violet hit her head on the ship’s hull and was knocked unconscious.

Thankfully she was rescued and amazingly, once again, remained undeterred by tragedy on the water. After the war, Violet went back to the White Line and the Olympic. Later she joined the Red Star line and spent the rest of her career cruising the world.

Three sister ships, the Olympic, the Titanic, and the Britannic, all involved in disaster of different proportions; one woman of faith who survived all three. Coincidence? Providence? Whichever it was, Violet’s is an incredible story of survival.

Do you think Violet was placed on the Titanic for the purpose of saving the baby?

What about the Hebrew prayer? Do you think Violet was saved by faith?

If you experienced a tragedy like the Titanic hitting the iceberg, would you go to work on an even larger ship? Or would you even go on a boat at all?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Celebrating Books and Friends

Today I want to celebrate the good news of one of my critique partners, and two of my Inkwell Inspirations blog-sisters. These are all ladies I consider dear friends. 

My critique partner, Narelle Atkins, has just signed a six-book contract with Heartsong. I'm so excited for her, and know each book will be great. 

Congratulations, Narelle! 

Lisa Karon Richardson's book, The Magistrate's Folly, is available now from Heartsong. It's a historical novel set in one of my favorite places: Colonial Williamsburg. Check out the Inkwell Inspirations's posts celebrating this book.

I loved everything about this book: the characters, the setting, the plot, but mostly I loved Lisa's voice and I look forward to many more of her books.

An Interview with Lisa
Experience the Setting of The Magistrate's Folly

CJ Chase's newest Love Inspired Historical novel, The Reluctant Earl, is the sequel to Redeeming the Rogue. While I haven't had the chance to read The Reluctant Earl, it is most definitely on my TBR list. Especially since I loved Redeeming the Rogue.

An Interview with CJ
History Behind The Reluctant Earl
Review of The Reluctant Earl

Some of my other Inkwell Inspirations blog-sisters will have books coming soon:
Gina Marie Welborn
Jennifer AlLee
Lisa Karon Richardson (she has an upcoming historical novel co-written with Jen AlLee)
Barbara Early
DeAnna Julie Dodson

Susan Diane Johnson - yes, I know that's me!
I sold another novel to Pelican Book Group's White Rose line!

Suzie's Short and Sweet Top Ten Books 2012

Many of the books on my list have been reviewed here, either by me or one of the other Inkies. So instead of recapping reviews, I’m simply giving the skinny on my top favorites reads of the year.

There are only a few rules for inclusion on my list, but they’re important rules if a book is to live long and prosper on my keeper shelf.
  • If a book is contemporary, I have to fall so deeply in love with the characters that I’m totally pulled into their lives. I tend to get bored easily, so this is vital to hold my attention. I have to be invested in the characters in order to keep reading.
  • If a book is historical, it must be so vivid that it sweeps me into the timeframe. I have to fall in love with the setting as well as the characters.
  • If the book is not women’s fiction or a romance, it needs to bring me to tears, split my sides with laughter, or keep me on the edge of my seat.
Each book on this list is a book I loved. They all had wonderful characterization, heart-tugging emotion, and an engaging style. I hope you'll find at least one book here that you'd like to read. This list likely would have ended up being longer, but my reading time was limited this past year and my 2012 TBR is still quite large.

Now that we have that out of the way, here is my list in order of category (for those who only read Christian fiction, please note that those marked with an asterisk* are not Christian fiction):

Historical Novels

Love in Three-Quarter Time by Dina Sleiman
Set in Virginia in 1817, a young woman with a heart for dancing sets out to use her talent to save her mother and sisters from poverty. A job teaching dance to two young women brings her face-to-face with her former beau. Getting to know each other again opens their eyes to new discoveries.

At Every Turn by Anne Mateer
It’s 1916 and Alyce Benson is the only woman in town with a car. With her sense of adventure and heart of gold, she ends up driving on a race track to try and win money she for children in Africa.
Glamorous Illusions by Lisa Bergren
After Cora Kensington’s parents die, she learns she’s really the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man. When he sends her on a trip to Europe with her newfound siblings, they shun her and Cora finds herself turning to their handsome tour guide.

Contemporary Novels

The Mother Road by Jennifer AlLee
Infertility, a cheating husband, and a parent with Alzheimer’s, send Natalie on a road trip she really doesn’t want to take – especially with her pregnant sister. Their journey down Route 66 is of sibling rivalry, deep emotions and the perfect balance of love and humor.

Navy Rules* by Geri Krotow
It was really a joy to discover this romance novel set on Whidbey Island. A wounded Navy pilot and a widowed mother of two have much more in common than her therapy dog. When Max learns he’s the father of Winnie’s youngest daughter, he has to put aside his feelings of betrayal so he and Winnie can find their way back together.

Angels at the Table* by Debbie Macomber
This Christmas novel features mischievous angels, Shirley, Goodness and Mercy as they train a new angel while trying to keep out of trouble. The last thing they want to do is stir up trouble in the budding romance between a struggling restaurant owner and a food critic.

My Stubborn Heart by Becky Wade
In need of a break from her job as a social worker, Kate decides to spend the summer helping her grandmother restore an old house. With the help of her grandmother and some quirky senior citizens, Kate tries to get to know a man who’s hiding from life and love.

Suspense Novels

Double-Blind by Brandilyn Collins
After Lisa agrees to enter a clinical trial for depression, she wakes up from surgery feeling great until she starts having visions of a murder – visions she sees through the murder’s eyes.

A Heartbeat Away by Harry Kraus
When she has an emergency heart transplant, Dr. Tori Taylor gets more than just a new heart. She starts having dreams and memories that send her on the trail of a murderer.

Submerged by Dani Pettrey
Bailey returns to her hometown to bury her aunt with plans to leave as soon as possible. She left town in shame, never intending to return. Now, she’s swept into a mystery along with her former boyfriend. Underwater secrets, murder, and Russian artifacts propel this novel set in Alaska.

Suzie Johnson’s debut novel, No Substitute, a contemporary inspirational novel, is out now from White Rose Press of The Pelican Book Group. She is a regular contributor to the Inkwell Inspirations blog, a member of ACFW, RWA, and is the cancer registrar at her local hospital. Suzie and her husband are the parents of a wonderful grown son who makes them proud every day – even though he lives way too far away. Suzie and her husband live in the Pacific Northwest with their naughty little cat on an island that is definitely not tropical. You can visit her at the following places: