Finding the Reader’s Hook

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by Cathy Gohlke

Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received came from the editor of a small town newspaper: “Discover what’s going on in world or national news, then find that story on a local level.”

The problem was that the hottest story in world news at the time was a widespread accusation that trusted clergy had molested children, especially young boys, placed under their care.

How could I possibly write about that on a local level when no such thing had been alleged in my community and the area clergy were known as caring men and women of good repute?

It gradually dawned on me that I didn’t need to mirror the horrific details of the world news story to gain readers’ interest; I needed to make my story relevant to things my readers were concerned about-I needed to find the reader’s hook.

That realization led to my first investigative piece, part of a three part series covering issues of incest, molestation and rape-the viewpoints of victims, the responses of their alleged perpetrators, and the medical and social service workers who participated in the immediate response and long term healing process.

When I began writing historical fiction, I rephrased my editor’s advice: “Discover what’s going on in world or national news, or what is most important-then find that story in history.”

In every past age we can find a story that mirrors the issues and/or needed lessons of our day. That’s the beauty and universality of storytelling. It’s the reason Jesus’ stories are as to-the-point for us today as they were to his followers 2,000 years ago.

And that is why the setting and story of Titanic at this time of the ship’s 100th Anniversary made the perfect reader’s hook for Promise Me This and was the perfect vehicle for conveying Christ’s love story to the world-the story that is always headline news.

Titanic contained the “upper crust” of this world traveling alongside the working class and poor-all setting sail together-all facing imminent disaster that few could have imagined. That sounds like us.

In the midst of that story a man provides rescue-salvation in an imperfect picture, to be sure-but life, hope, and a future for someone undeserving-the very thing Christ does for us.

And what about our response to that unmerited gift? The story’s characters play out our good intentions, amid imperfection, and are ultimately changed by love, and by grace.

Was Promise Me This that intentional from its inception? Not clearly. But, like you, I’m praying to be an instrument for God in the world, the hands and feet of Christ to write the stories He would have me write, to tell the stories He would have me tell for reasons known only to Him. It’s the beauty of having a story laid on our hearts, a story that grows, then using the best this world offers-like finding the reader’s hook-to tell it.

Cathy Gohlke is the two-time Christy Award-winning author of William Henry is a Fine Name and I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires. Her second novel also won the Carol Award and was one of Library Journal’s picks for Best Books of 2008. Cathy and her husband live in Elkton, Maryland.

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