Our summer conference keynoter Liz Curtis Higgs is not only one of the most sought-after speakers in America, she has also won multiple awards for her fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books. Last year Liz launched her popular online Bible study, led two tours to Scotland, and began speaking with Women of Faith. She is a wife and the mother of two college grads as well. I caught up with Liz one morning as she was packing for one of her many speaking engagements.
Most writers develop one niche, but you write successfully in fiction and nonfiction. How are you able to do both?
I always say: The only thing fiction and nonfiction have in common is punctuation—and even that’s debatable! The research, the preparation, and the writing process all feel entirely different to me. In both cases, I’m writing for and about women, whether biblical or fictional, hoping to glean truths from their journeys. But that’s where the resemblance ends.
With biblical nonfiction, I do 99 percent of the research up front and develop the table of contents as I go. Then I begin to write the book itself, using the large research document I’ve created (typically 50–60,000 words) as my starting point. So, the screen is full, as it were, and I’m carving away and adding to the nonfiction narrative as I walk through the particular biblical character’s story, folding in my own observations, personal stories, application points, and so forth. The voice is very much mine—first person, if you will. Ideally, Liz on the page should sound very much like Liz on the stage. I also do tons of research, as the many columns of endnotes in my latest nonfiction, The Girl’s Still Got It, shows. I always want to handle the Word of God with care. Yet I still want to create a book that’s accessible and enjoyable. Only my readers can tell you how I’m doing on that score!
With historical fiction, my approach is almost the opposite of my nonfiction. I do enough early research to point me in the right direction, but all that information lives in my books, in my files, and in my head. I write on a blank screen, listening for the characters—and even more, for the Holy Spirit!—to guide me from scene to scene. My plot is scaffolding at most. It gives me something to climb around on as the story takes shape. I do additional research as I write, wanting to make sure I’m creating scenarios that suit the time and place—more often than not, 18th-century Scotland. The storytelling voice is not at all the Liz Curtis Higgs you’ll hear on the platform, and rightly so. I hope you hear my characters speaking, not me! Once I’m done with the first draft, I do more detailed research, now that I’ve learned what I truly need to know.
Honestly, I can’t imagine not writing both fiction and nonfiction. Each one requires listening closely to the heart of God. And the writing itself draws me closer to His Word and His will. Though I have some generous readers who like both kinds of books, most people prefer either my biblical nonfiction or my historical fiction. So, to accommodate my readers’ needs and wants, I have two completely separate websites, blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts. More on that below!
With your busy schedule, you must be extremely disciplined. Do you have a writing routine?
Disciplined, you ask? A routine, you say? Well . . . um . . . life’s not really like that at the Higgs’s house! I travel 30 weekends a year to speak at various women’s conferences. I need Mondays to recover, regroup, catch up with people, do laundry, all that. Writing is a Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday proposition.
I’m at my computer by 8:00 a.m., Earl Grey tea in hand. Other than breaks for lunch and dinner, I stick with it until about 10:00 p.m. Sometimes I run out of steam before that. Other times, I’m on a roll until midnight. I have all the usual interruptions and distractions that we all must face, but I try to stay on task. I hate deadlines, but would never get a book completed without one.
When I finish the first draft—which takes anywhere from six to 12 months, depending on the length and complexity of the manuscript—my first readers are my son and my husband. Matt provides a 20-something perspective, which is hugely helpful. Bill has a Ph.D. in Hebrew and a grammar teacher for a mother, so his input is invaluable as well. Then it’s time to put the manuscript in the hands of my editors at WaterBrook Press. Laura Barker, Carol Bartley, and I have done more than 20 projects together, so you can imagine how much I cherish their direction!
What powers you?
The Lord comes first in all things. Reading His Word drives me straight to my knees, and, soon thereafter, straight to my computer, hoping to capture what He’s teaching me. My readers keep me going as well. I love all the ways we can stay in touch! Connecting with sisters in Christ via my online Bible study is a highlight of the week for me. My favorite scripture is 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (NASB). It’s my own journey in a nutshell. God is so faithful!
When did you know you had to be a writer? Were you a reader as a child?
Definitely a reader as a child. Going to the public library was a weekly treat. At age 10 I started writing full-length—and truly amateurish—Nancy Drew-style mysteries. Of course, no one read those marble-cover notebooks except my friends and teachers, but even at that age I was encouraged to pursue writing as a future career. I learned two early lessons that have served me well: 1) Write what you love, and 2) Seek the counsel of wise advisors.
A few years later I was the editor of my high school newspaper, and eventually earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, so both literature and creative writing have always been an important part of my life. When I meet children who tell me they want to be a writer, I believe them, and encourage their parents to believe them as well. The love of words is a precious gift.
You’re known as an encourager as you speak at Women of Faith conferences and writing conferences around the country. Do you think of encouraging your reader as you write as well?
Absolutely. It’s such a privilege to offer a healing salve, to listen to their hurts in person or online, then respond through the pages of a book with a full measure of hope, of good news.
Do you begin a new novel with a theme in mind—or does a full-blown character like Ruth tap you on the shoulder and say, “Hey, follow me”?
I seldom think in terms of a theme when I begin a new novel. Exactly as you say, I follow my characters around and write down what they say and do. By the end of the first draft, a theme has usually surfaced. If it rings true, I’ll write the second draft with that message in mind, though I never want it to show in my writing—at least, not overtly. Theme should be a subtle thing, a soft soundtrack playing in the background while your story unfolds.
Do you share your own story of salvation with your readers? Do any of your characters reflect your own journey?
Definitely. Bits of my testimony are scattered throughout my Bad Girls of the Bible series, as well as in Embrace Grace and Rise and Shine. As for my fictional characters, I’ve drawn deeply from the well of my own weaknesses and foolish choices, my own heartaches and disappointments. The readers aren’t likely to pick up on that, which is best. P. D. James said, “All fiction is largely autobiographical.” So true.
What advice do you have for a new writer today?
1) Pray constantly, seeking God’s direction and wisdom.
2) Read the Word like it was the only book you owned.
3) Write, write, write until you discover what you are most passionate about communicating.
4) Read widely and regularly in the genre that most appeals to you.
5) Attend every writing conference you can, beginning at the regional level, than at the national.
6) Care more about writing well than about getting published.
7) Create an online presence thoughtfully, then blog only when you are truly ready to be read.
8) See # 1.
You have a fabulous conference planned, Lindy. Many thanks for inviting me to participate!
Liz, we thank you taking this time to share with Oregon Christian Writers. We look forward to our time together at summer conference in August.
P.S. Here are a few links that might be of interest to OCW members and friends. This is a virtual tour of Liz’s writing study, including a list of “10 Things Every Novelist Needs.”
Liz is the best-selling author of the 2013 Christian Retailing’s Best Award finalist,
The Girl’s Still Got It: Take a Walk with Ruth and the God Who Rocked Her World.
“A perfect blend of humor, extensive research, descriptive language, and insightful commentary.” Publishers Weekly Starred Review
Liz is the best-selling author of the 2013 Christy Award finalist, A Wreath of Snow:
“Tender, touching and sweetly Victorian, A Wreath of Snow is a story of the importance of finding your way to peace through truth, a tale imbued with the romance of the times.” USAToday.com