Do You Want to Change The World?

signing declarationWriters can be agents of social change.

I was reminded of that truth after hearing a keynote address at a conference for animal humane workers. The speaker, Amy Mills, CEO of Emancipet, discussed the importance of social change to transform communities in order to improve our treatment of animals. But her words could also be applied to what traits writers need to cultivate to do their job well; in fact, I felt that Amy’s characteristics of social change makers accurately described many of the writers I know. Here are Amy’s six key traits; do you see yourself in any of them?

Social change makers:

  1. Collaborate across sectors. In my own writing, be it the fiction of the Birder Murder Mysteries or my best-selling memoir Saved by Gracie, I draw from many fields of expertise. My sources are birders, dog owners, psychologists, trainers, sociologists, scientific researchers, conservationists, biologists and historians, to name just a few. To be effective, writing has to draw from the world of knowledge.
  2. Are inclusive. Writers want their message to reach wide audiences. To do that, we keep an open mind about who might benefit from our work, and we rejoice when a new market presents itself as one that we might engage productively.
  3. Build empathy. For any piece of writing to succeed, it has to appeal to the heart of the reader. Having something meaningful to share is the first step of the writing process.
  4. Choose curiosity over judgment. The best writers try to see the world with fresh eyes to uncover what is true. Judgment can shut down avenues of investigation that might just lead to new revelations that will transform myself and my readers.
  5. Check assumptions. Writers make careers out of questioning assumptions. Sometimes, we even turn them upside down in the course of our creative process and/or production. The result is new perspectives and new ideas that can often improve readers’ personal or public lives.
  6. Learn from those they serve. Whether it’s hearing about new conservation efforts to protect bird habitat, or effective approaches to increasing animal adoption, or the need for more transparency about mental illness, every bit of research I’ve done for my books has not only taught me more about the world and the people and creatures in it, but how I myself can better connect with and serve my readers by passing along what I have learned. On a regular basis, I hear from readers about the ways my writing has affected them, and it guides me as I plan my next project. Without that feedback, my writing lacks focus, not to mention effectiveness.

Given these shared characteristics of writers and social change makers, I find myself considering my own work as a potential agent for change in the world; I won’t be the first author to do so, nor the last. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” may have come from the pen of English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839, but it expresses a timeless truth.

What will your pen accomplish today?  

Sharing Insights Through Stories

I first learned the value of stories in sharing insights through public speaking. A fascinating story can captivate an audience, build rapport, illustrate an important point, and make the speaker’s message memorable. In writing, an appropriate story can keep a nonfiction book from becoming dull, and teach truths about life in a work of fiction. So, what makes a good story?

Opened magic book with magic light

1. Vivid and Sufficient Details

In reading along with my daughters several children’s books awarded the Newbery Medal, I found myself transported to a different time and place by the skillful writing of the authors. In these books, the authors provided enough details to help the reader enter into the world described in the book. In describing a food foreign to most American readers, one author provided such vivid descriptions of the taste and smell that I felt as though I, too, was sitting down for dinner next to the characters in the story. In any story, too many extraneous details can cause the impatient reader to start skimming the page to the next section. These award-winning books had the proper balance of information and brevity.

2. Relevance

For a nonfiction writer seeking to illustrate a certain point with a story, relevance is vital. To illustrate the author’s message, the characters and plot must be relevant to the theme of the book, the intended audience, and the point to be made. In writing my nonfiction book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, I learned to edit out parts of a story that slowed down the reading of a passage without further elucidating the concept I was illustrating. In fiction, story lines that do not further the plot may be interesting, but they may also confuse the reader and become a distraction that takes away from the flow of the book.

3. A Story Arc

All stories, even short illustrations contained within one paragraph, need to have a story arc. We need to meet the character or characters in their everyday setting. Next, we learn of an event that brings a challenge to these characters and starts off the story. Then we must see the character(s) grow, learn something new, overcome a hardship, resolve a conflict, or make a difficult decision. Finally, we need a sense of closure as the changed character(s) resume everyday life in a new set of circumstances, perhaps a bit wiser for the experience.

Knowing what elements to include within each section of the story arc is an art. Timing makes the difference between a forgettable story and one that drives home the author’s message. Sometimes I find that reading a passage aloud can help me identify which words can be deleted and what sentences should be smoothed. Feedback from beta readers also can be useful for determining if a story succeeds in illustrating your point.

As a reader, I remember the insights I glean from stories more than those presented through statistics, lists of information, and persuasive language. When writing, I include stories for my readers to make it easier for them to process the insights I hope to share with them.

What do you think makes a good story?

I’m a Glutton for Information!

French bulldogSelling books and signing them is a happy experience for any author, but if I had to name my favorite part of the writing process that leads to publication, it would be doing the research that goes into my books.

I love doing research. In high school and college, I was the student who jumped for joy when the instructor assigned a research paper. I couldn’t wait to dig through the library for books, or hunt down obscure magazine articles. These days, research is even more expansive (unending, even!) thanks to the internet, but I love it, along with the hands-on research I encounter in the course of writing manuscripts. I’m just a glutton for information, I guess.

In celebration of that nerdy writerly trait, here are a few of my favorite research moments.

  1. I got a personal, private tour of a donut shop. Need I say more?
  2. I spent hours in the dark one night with some good friends checking nets for owls to band. We never got one, but I did get to wear a really cool headlamp while we strung up nets in the woods and told funny stories to pass the time.
  3. I took a firearms safety course and learned how to shoot a gun. I put 19 of 20 shots into the center of the target, so you can call me Eagle Eye from now on!
  4. I puckered up for a kiss from a French bulldog at a Pet Expo and posed with rabbits running an obstacle course. (Yup, that’s me and the bulldog above.)
  5. I spent a week in January at one of the world’s premier birdwatching areas in southern Texas. It was sub-zero and snowing back home in Minnesota at the time, which taught me the critical importance of timing when it comes to planning research trips.
  6. I took my husband on a very special summer date night to watch 300+ Chimney Swifts go to roost in an old chimney stack at dusk. It was a breathtaking aerial display and possibly a once-in-a-lifetime event as the populations of these birds dramatically decline.
  7. I met a World War II veteran who worked as an ordnance officer, which led to learning about camouflaging British air bases to hide them from Nazi bombing raids.
  8. I got to sit in the mixing booth of Prince’s Paisley Park Studio while interviewing a pre-eminent Christian composer as he completed mixing his musical tracks for a new CD.

Do you count your research as one of the best parts of your writing pursuit? What is your favorite research moment?

Finding the Fatal Flaw

It is the core of every struggle. The root cause of many reactions. It is a constant enemy lurking below the surface, waiting to rear its ugly head.

It’s the fatal flaw. Everyone has one. Every character has one, too.

I would argue that fatal flaws never completely go away. They just manifest in different ways as we grow and change and conquer certain circumstances. But what does this really look like?

Kariss Lynch Heart of a WarriorTake Superman. I would say his emotional fatal flaw, or one of them, is a deep desire to belong. It shapes his decisions and actions to blend in at the Daily Planet, settle down with Lois Lane, but still seek the true identity of his parents. We all know his physical flaw is kryptonite. Or Lois Lane, depending on how you look at it.

Choosing and shaping a fatal flaw proved an interesting challenge as I finished out my Heart of a Warrior series. I noticed there are multiple factors I need to account for as I select flaws for my characters.


All three of my books take place over the course of fifteen months, which made it a challenge to have a fatal flaw that never disappears but consistently morphs. Kaylan, my main character, struggles with fear. Since our fatal flaws never really go away, I had to figure out how to cause this kryptonite to reemerge as she grew. In Shaken, she fears letting people close to her because of the loss of people she loved in the Haiti earthquake. In Shadowed, she has to learn to love a man she could lose at any second, Navy SEAL Nick Carmichael. In Surrendered, she will learn to accept Nick’s career and the constant danger, and not only accept it but thrive in his absences. The root of every one of her struggles is fear of losing a loved one, but as she accepts growth, the flaw manifests differently. Still always fear.

Complementing Characters

If you are writing romance, what fatal flaw will most threaten the relationship and will cause the characters to have to fight together to overcome? In Shadowed, Nick struggles with anger and detachment. This creates a challenge when Kaylan needs reassurance in her fear and Nick needs her to get over it and let him deploy in peace. Both characters grow as they learn what it looks like to merge two lives into one.

Plot and Theme

Shadowed_AUG 1 (1)Each book in this series, had to capture the overall theme: Anyone can develop the heart of a warrior if they are willing to have courage and commitment in the face of insurmountable obstacles. My fatal flaw for each character needed to threaten accomplishing this goal. Kaylan’s fear has the potential to stunt the relationship. Nick’s anger prohibits him from being a strong leader in his home and confident and in control in war. My villain’s flaw causes her to sabotage others in an effort to obtain what she secretly desires most but also never wants to have.

The fatal flaws is one of simplest yet most complex aspects of your character. Which flaws will create complicated conflict? How does that flaw force your character to respond? How will your character grow through the flaw?

One of my favorite ways to identify character growth and a consistent flaw is to follow a specific television series. Over time, you will notice a core struggle emerge. This helps me understand how to develop a character over the course of a book and over the course of a series. I’m still learning, but this is becoming one of my favorite parts of creating characters.

How do you identify your character’s fatal flaw?

Lessons I Learned From My Editor

From conception to finish, I spent a couple of years on my first novel, Shaken. I had a mentor who coached me, a professor who professionally edited the manuscript, and an internationally acclaimed novelist who provided a critique. But nothing affected my story quite as much as signing with my publisher and beginning work with my editor.

Writing is difficult. You are bleeding your emotional artery on the page, complete with life experiences, beliefs, and creativity. But editing? That became another playing field entirely. In my military-romance-driven brain, it could be described as surgery to remove shrapnel. Each piece of metal must be plucked for an individual to get back to full health. In a similar way, editing requires painful digging to remove everything that does not add value to the character. After the shrapnel of your story is removed, you are freed to enhance and improve your story until it’s as close to perfection as you can get it this side of heaven.

KarissLynch Kill Your Darlings

Working with an editor is refining, a true process of iron sharpening iron (just don’t throw the sword at them if you don’t like what they say), but ultimately, it is a beautiful journey. The longer I work with my editor, the more I am thankful that God gifted her to look at stories differently than I do. She makes me better, and she is constantly teaching me and reminding me of craft tips that just haven’t taken root yet. Over the course of writing The Heart of a Warrior series, here is what my editor has taught me:

  1. Timeline is everything.

By the time my first novel went to my editor, the timeline needed major surgery, something I hadn’t thought about in great detail during crafting. I am a pantser and only use a bullet point outline to guide the major points of my scenes. Everything else just spills out on the page. This can make editing much harder for me. When it came time to edit Shadowed, I had a better timeline in place. Lesson learned? Don’t make the same mistakes on the second novel as you did on the first.

  1. Ground your character. Ground your scene.

Ever heard of floating head syndrome? No? Well, that’s probably because I just made it up. But I have it. Bad. Especially when I am writing in a steady stream of consciousness. Characters speak but you don’t know what they look like or what is going on around them. Thankfully, I am now aware of this ailment and am working to correct it before the manuscript goes to my editor. Each character needs to be firmly grounded in whatever is going on, each person in the scene accounted for, even if only briefly. Your scene also needs to be grounded within the larger story. Your reader should have no question where the character is, what is going on, who the character is with, and what drama is unfolding.

  1. Provide concrete details. Paint the canvas.

I actually love this part of writing, but I also struggle with fear. What if people think that a place or person doesn’t look that way? What if I get a detail wrong? What if, what if, what if? The “what if” game keeps me paralyzed from simply using my imagination and the beautiful tools of my eyes and the Internet to ground a scene exactly as I see it. I use research to make sure I didn’t get a basic detail wrong, but otherwise, I craft exactly what I want the reader to see. They are less likely to question what I paint in great detail than they are a canvas where I leave glaring holes due to my own people-pleasing and insecurity. No fear. Write boldly. Paint that canvas, and give the readers a scene they don’t have to try to imagine. Let it unfold in all of its beautiful detail. And then make that process even better in the next book.

Time for surgery on your manuscript. What weaknesses do you notice that you could improve on next time? What lessons have you learned from your editor (or critique partner)?

Making It Real

Hoh River Cascading Through RainforestWhen I first started writing my Birder Murder Mystery series, I wanted readers to feel like they were actually walking in the footsteps of my protagonist, so it was a logical choice for me to use real locations for book settings. What I didn’t realize at the time was how much readers enjoy books that take place in areas they know and how much those real places can shape what I write. Once I figured out that my real locations were one of the more powerful means of attracting readers, I began using real places as much as possible, not only for marketing later, but to provide me with inspiration for other pieces of my story.

As a result, I now take detailed notes of places I visit in the course of my book research. Fat Daddy's BBQ in WeslacoFor instance, last January, I was researching McAllen, Texas, for my next murder mystery. Since friends had recommended I try the barbeque at Fat Daddy’s, I made sure I had lunch there one day. As I ate, I observed that large groups of National Guardsmen sat at many of the tables, which I also noted in my daily travel journal, along with descriptions of the patriotic posters and flags adorning the walls. When I developed my plot, I found that the soldiers I’d seen could play into my story in a critical juncture, so I wrote them in – something I never would have come up with if I hadn’t personally visited Fat Daddy’s. Now, when anyone from the area reads the book, they’ll immediately be able to say, “this author really was here!” and it gives me the instant credibility which every fiction writer craves to lure readers into the story.

diner open signAnother big benefit of writing real places into your books is that some readers identify so much with a favorite place, they tend to talk about your book simply because of the setting. In one of my books, I used a small diner where one of my daughters waitressed years ago. Not only did it give the story a strong local connection, but once it was published, the diner owners prominently displayed the book, which delighted all their customers, who then told their friends that their favorite diner was in a book. By using the diner as a piece of my story, I also didn’t have to think twice about what that setting would look like, because all I had to do was describe what I saw.

Perhaps the best guideline I can provide about using real places in your fiction is the rule my publisher gave me: If you say nice things about a place, use the real name; if you want to be negative, make up a place. That should give you more readers and happier business owners (who will become your friends if they aren’t already!), and much less chance of getting sued.

Who knows? You might even get a sandwich named after you…

Six Keys to Writing a Story with Spiritual Content


1. Hook the reader. Every good story neceltic crosseds a hook, including the spiritual story. Set up the spiritual story with an intriguing question and a clear goal. In The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, we are first introduced to Father Emilio as a man who narrowly missed sainthood. He now lies in a hospital bed, sullen, uncommunicative and suspected of a terrible crime. The reader is left wondering how a godly man came to be in such a place and what his future holds now.

2. Lay the foundation for the spiritual resolution. Miracles and sudden moments of salvation may happen in real life, but will feel contrived in fiction. Not only that, but they can also be hurtful to those with unanswered prayers or who have had to work through long, hard years of healing. Build the steps toward a satisfying spiritual conclusion into the structure of the novel at every turn. The story has to earn its ending, so that when it comes, the reader will feel as if it couldn’t have worked out any other way.

3. Dig for deeper themes. As important as it is to show characters accepting the gospel or to ask where God is when it hurts, those themes are common. Most likely, your novel is preaching largely to the choir, so you need to find themes that speak to the deeper struggles and goals Christians are working on as well. What does it mean to live in the light of eternity? How does prayer shape us? How do you love your enemy? How do you love your neighbor as yourself? What does a character look like who has lived out the gospel daily? And so on. When you get those rare non-Christian readers, those themes might just speak more deeply to them about the gospel than the message they’ve likely heard before.

4. Be fair and truthful. I once heard a theologian say that we needed to compare the best of Christianity with the best of other religions, and if you’re going to look at the worst of, say, Islam or atheism, you need to be willing to look at the worst of Christianity. In the movie God’s Not Dead, when the atheist professor breaks down and admits that he’s a bitter atheist because God let his mother die, it didn’t ring true. The fact is, there are many atheists who have arrived at their worldview based on careful thought, however misguided we may believe them to be. They may also happen to make decent citizens and neighbors. And we’ve all found our share of gossips and control freaks in church. Don’t be afraid to mix it up. If you dig deeply, the light of Christ will show through all the more clearly because you’ve been honest.

5. Show the Sacrifice. From A Tale of Two Cities to Titanic, audiences have always stuck by a story that involves a heartfelt sacrifice. But it’s the core of a Christian story. Whether it’s an act of utter courage such as Hadassah going willingly to the Roman arena in Voice in the Wind or something more ordinary like Will laying down his pride to admit the ways he wronged his Amish relatives in Levi’s Will, it’s the sacrifice that makes the story work.

6. Show the Beauty. Sometimes writers take for granted that the resolution is what the readers want. Don’t forget to show them why they want it. Davis Bunn shows how a prayer that has been prayed for over two thousand years comes alive when his modern character prays it in Book of Dreams, as if the leaves overhead were chanting the prayer with the character. Stephen Lawhead describes an old saint lit from the inside out with God’s love in Merlin. These little moments that show the beauty of God’s ways clarify the spiritual goal all the way through the book.