I’m a long-time fan of Nora Roberts. I’m continually amazed not only by the sheer volume of her work, but by how well she handles relationships between her characters and the enormous amount of research that must go into the setting of some of her novels. (One book that comes to mind is the firefighting background in her book Chasing Fire featuring Rowan Tripp, but there are dozens of others.)
This author also has a talent for opening her first chapter in a way that draws you into the novel and makes you want to keep turning pages. She usually does a great job of introducing just enough information to establish the character and background without weighing down the narrative with too much back story.
Here is an example from her novel Chesapeake Blue:
He was coming home.
Maryland’s eastern shore was a world of marshes and mudflats, of wide fields with row crops straight as soldiers. It was flatland rivers with sharp shoulders, and secret tidal creeks where the heron fed.
It was blue crab and the Bay, and the watermen who harvested them.
No matter where he believed, in the first miserable decade of his life, or in the last few years as he approached the end of his third decade, only the Shore had ever meant home.
There were countless aspects, countless memories of that home, and everyone was as bright and brilliant in his mind as the sun that sparkled off the water of the Chesapeake.
As he drove across the bridge, his artists I wanted to capture that moment – the rich blue water and the boats that skimmed its surface, the quick white waves and the swoop of greedy goals. The way the land skimmed its age, and spilled back with its browns and greens. All the thickening leaves of the gum and oak trees, with those flashes of color that were flowers basking in the warmth of spring.
He wanted to remember this moment justice he remembered the first time he crossed the Bay to the Eastern Shore, a surly, frightened boy beside a man who’d promised him a life.
In the excerpt above, notice how Roberts first gives the important information: someone is coming home. She then goes on to describe Maryland’s eastern shore, through the eyes of the main character so we can tell how much it means to him. We learned that the first decade of his life was miserable; we learned how old he is now and that he is an artist. We also get the first hint of the family that means so much to him. (Notice, too, how he is looking at the landscape that is so familiar to him through the eyes of an artist.)
After reading this, I was certainly keen to read on to find out more about his early life, and why he had decided to return. This opening is a good example for any writer.
NOTE: Reading on, I found another ‘how to’ example for writers that demonstrates beautifully how to show the setting through the perspective of the viewpoint character. I thought it was worth a separate blog post. You can read it here.