Writing Advice from Christine Nolfi, Amazon-bestselling author of The Passing Storm

Called “tautly plotted, expertly characterized, and genuinely riveting” by Publishers Weekly, Christine Nolfi’s The Passing Storm, tells the story of Rae Langdon, a 30-ish woman who struggles to work through a grief she never anticipated. With her father, Connor, she is tending to their Ohio farm when Rae is forced to give shelter from a brutal winter to a teenager named Quinn Galecki, whose parents threw him out of the house. Rae and Connor form an unexpected kinship with Quinn when it becomes clear they share a past that has not yet come to light. To finally move forward, Rae must confront those memories and also fight for Quinn, whose troubled parents have other plans in mind for their son.

Here’s what Christine had to say about her new book, writing suspense, and her experience publishing with Amazon—and that’s just the beginning.

Mark: Your books are often described as ‘heart-warming,’ and I can tell from reading The Passing Storm, you try to give your characters the benefit of a doubt. Still, you don’t shy away from life’s difficulties, touching on such topics as alcoholism, wanted and unwanted pregnancies, child abuse, grief and loneliness. As a writer, you seem to make a point of showing the reader dark clouds as well as their silver linings.  What would you say is the goal of your fiction? What message do you want readers to take away from this story?

Christine: I strive to create an immersive reading experience. Put the reader deep enough beneath a character’s skin, and it becomes virtually impossible to set the book aside until reaching the satisfying conclusion. Laughter, tears, pity, sadness, and ultimately, joy—if the reader doesn’t experience the gamut of emotions, why pick up a book in the first place?

In The Passing Storm, I hope readers take away the message that life’s hardships offer us the chance to evolve and become better people.

In this novel, you discuss the White Hurricane, which was the name given to an awful blizzard that happened in Ohio when you were growing up there. How were you affected by that event, and how did that experience influence the writing of this book?

On January 25, 1978, residents in northeastern Ohio went to bed unaware that two low-pressure systems converging over the state would build into a blizzard for the record books. Ten-foot snowdrifts pummeled houses and buried cars. Wind chills plummeted to forty degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Fifty-one Ohioans died, many as they huddled trapped in their cars, or as they tried to walk to safety in whiteout conditions. Geauga County—where The Passing Storm takes place and where my parents and three younger sisters resided in 1978—came to a standstill for days after the storm hit.

At the time of the blizzard, I was a college student safely ensconced in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights. And while I didn’t experience the worst effects of the White Hurricane, the frightening stories my parents and younger sisters told for years to come were destined, one day, to find their way into one of my books.

You are the adoptive mother of four children, another experience you must have drawn on in writing the story of Quinn Galecki, the teenaged boy your protagonist, Rae, takes in. How did you use your experience as a mother of adopted kids in your writing?

My journey as an adoptive parent has impacted my fiction in countless ways. Raising children who had suffered severe abuse and neglect forced me to examine the darker side of human nature. What forces come into play to lead to abuse? How often does the abused grow up to become an abuser? In the case of Quinn Galecki, I wanted to depict a teenager who managed to survive—and blossom emotionally—despite the outsize influence of his damaged parents. This is true of many children raised in difficult homes. If they receive enough love and encouragement from members of the community, they will thrive.

The Passing Storm is suspenseful, with large questions that remain mysteries for many pages, but which kept me turning those pages to see those questions answered. Can you talk about your approach to creating suspense and any techniques you employ to keep the reader’s interest? 

Misdirection remains one of my favorite tools for creating suspense. It’s helpful for the writer to remember that every character enters the scene with her own agenda. Once those varying agendas collide, misdirection ensues. In the case of dialogue between Rae and her father Connor, it takes the reader time to understand which loss they’re discussing. The same is true during scenes with Griffin, Rae’s love interest from high school, as he interacts with other characters.

This book has a large cast of characters, and although Rae is your primary point of view character, you’re not averse to portraying your fictional world through other characters’ eyes, as well. How do you juggle all those characters and when do you decide it’s important to change up the POV?

My first rule of thumb for POV: In a given scene, who has the most to lose? The answer may not be immediately apparent and deserves careful thought. Once I decide to introduce a secondary POV, my second rule kicks in: How will this POV scene impact the protagonist? If there isn’t a strong impact, the POV remains with the protagonist.

Being from a small, midwestern town myself, your book brought back memories of how people in small towns can ‘get into each others’ business’ both for good or for ill. Writing about a community where everyone seems to know each other a little too well seems a challenge in itself. Can you tell us how you handle that? Does it make the writing easier or harder?

Mark, I suppose we both know that it’s impossible to keep secrets if you live in a small town! “Who knows what” becomes an issue during the writing. I keep voluminous notes for the entire cast. When did a character learn the secret? Has he revealed his knowledge to any other character? This is not the easiest part of story development. In The Passing Storm, Rae Langdon holds the most secrets; parceling out her knowledge to the reader was a painstaking task.

You started out as an indie author, but have made that very difficult but enviable transition to traditional publishing—and with an Amazon imprint no less, Lake Union. Kudos to you! How did you make that happen? Did you have an agent? What advice would you give to other indie authors hoping to make that transition?

I’d love to take credit for the transition from indie to trad publishing but in truth, luck played a large part. My indie Liberty series was well received—Second Chance Grill, Treasure Me, and the other three books repeatedly made it onto bestseller lists. This caught the eye of an editor at Lake Union. After receiving an offer, I signed with the fabulous Pamela Hardy at The Knight Agency.

My advice to other authors: Focus on producing your best work. Study the books in your genre that break through. Spend as much time reading great fiction as marketing your work. Connect with other authors—indie, trad, and hybrid. I’m still a member of The Alliance of Independent Authors and Novelists, Inc. Both groups have private Facebook groups I find invaluable.

Amazon is obviously a major force in the publishing industry, but its focus is on digital marketing and less so on printing books and getting them into bookstores (the vast majority of which compete with Amazon). Clearly, there must be trade-offs working Amazon? How has it been working with them and will you continue working with them in the future?

I love my entire team at Lake Union, from my editor to the marketing folks. I’ve worked with many of the same team members on six books now. While it would be a kick to see one of my releases featured at the front of a bookstore, readers can order my print books from virtually any retailer. I’ll begin developmental edits for my next Lake Union release soon; the book is slated for publication in September 2022.

Lake Union is described as focusing on ‘book club’ books, not only worthy of discussion by book groups but seemingly, as I gathered from reading your book, almost designed for that purpose. Is there a secret to writing a good ‘book club’ novel?

When mapping out a new project, I visualize members of a book club debating sections of my novel. How can I get a rise out of them? Will they have trouble pinning down some characters as admirable or loathsome? Will some passages evoke a deep emotional response, and lead to further discussion? All these considerations come into play.

Like you, I started out as a business writer, and I tried writing fiction while working but I could never finish anything until I wrote fiction full-time. On top of running a business, you cared for a large family, but you are quite prolific as a writer. How did you do it? Were you able to write fiction while attending to all these responsibilities or did you have to wait until you had more time to yourself? What is your writing day like now?

Mark, I wish I could pretend my writing career was the result of careful planning. The truth is that, in my forties, the bottom unexpectedly fell out of my marriage. I suddenly found myself raising four kids alone on a 12-acre farm quickly going to seed when I was struck with the thought: I’ll never get around to writing a novel. I’ve lost the chance.

The prospect of losing a lifelong dream became a galvanizing force. At odd hours, without the cash to launch a career, I wrote. And wrote. Joined a critique group in Cleveland and finished Second Chance Grill and Treasure Me in short order. Both books were under consideration for months at Random House and New American Library. A critique partner finally encouraged me to withdraw the books and try indie publishing.

Today, my writing day is much more tranquil. The kids are now grown, and I’ve remarried a wonderfully supportive man. I tend to write six days a week . . . although I have promised my husband I’ll slow down at some point. Thankfully, he isn’t holding me to the promise just yet.

Christine Nolfi is the author of The Road She Left Behind, an Amazon bestseller since its release in June 2019. She is also the author of three series of novels, twelve books in all, which have been reviewed in Redbook, USA Today and Kirkus Reviews and have been recognized by the International Book Awards, Royal Palm Literary Awards, Readers’ Favorite Awards, and Best Book Awards. Prior to writing fiction, Christine owned a small public relations firm in Cleveland, Ohio. Her articles and press releases have appeared regionally in The Plain Dealer, The Akron Beacon Journal, and Cleveland Magazine. Christine is also the proud mother of four adopted children and two stepchildren and resides with her husband in Charleston, South Carolina. Find out more at Christine Nolfi or on Twitter.

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