Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Mixin' Up A Story

By Debby Giusti

True confession: I’m a foodie, and I love to create new recipes, especially stir-fry meals where I add lots of ingredients to the mix. I start by sautéing garlic, onions and colorful peppers in extra virgin olive oil, then I add chicken, sliced steak or shrimp seasoned with sea salt and ground pepper as well as grated ginger and cayenne. If I want a South of the Border slant, I’ll include cumin, cilantro, chili powder and turmeric.

As the flavors meld, I add vegetables in various combinations depending on my mood and what’s in my refrigerator, such as carrots, tomatoes, fresh mushrooms, cauliflower and snow peas. A dash of Kikkoman’s soy sauce, a sprinkle of Italian salad dressing and a splash of wine provide an even more flavorful mix.

Chicken or beef stock adds volume and can be thickened with corn starch or flour. Lemon juice, or lime for Mexican dishes, awakens the flavors even more. Once the veggies are cooked, I add fresh spinach for color and serve the dish in a soup bowl or ladled over rice or pasta. Chopped parsley is a lovely finisher; chopped chives are as well, and no matter what’s in the mix, I cover the dish with grated Parmesan cheese.

Having a lot of ingredients from which to choose makes cooking an exciting adventure and ensures each meal is a delicious culinary delight. At least, that’s my hope.

That same process applies to writing. The writer takes various literary elements and mixes them together in a unique way to make her story come to life. The elements are the ingredients the writer uses as she creates her next bestseller, and the more “ingredients” she has at her disposal, the faster the words fly across the computer screen.

Every romance story has a hero and heroine. That’s a given. Adding secondary characters flavors the story and paints a clearer picture of the main characters and how they relate to others. A good friend can be a sounding board. She can offer insight into past mistakes or warn about impending danger, either physical or emotional and most especially about matters of the heart.

If that friend is also a mentor, he offers advice the hero can accept or reject. In either case, the reader learns more about the protagonist and how he handles various situations or tackles problems in relation to the way he reacts to the mentor’s counsel.

A foil reflects the lead character’s traits either in a positive or negative way. A nagging wife becomes the foil to her even-tempered, spinster sister protagonist who has given up on love. The heroine’s good qualities shine more brightly and are revealed more fully when compared to her abrasive sibling.

Children are delightful secondary characters who add levity and can either lighten the mood or enhance the angst. A petulant teen disrupts the status quo, whereas an adorable five-year-old can soften the hardest of hearts. When the main characters are forced into fish-out-of-water-situations, such as the Atlanta cop who becomes the guardian of three Amish children in my next book, the protagonist has a lot to learn about not only raising kids but also about himself.

Use canine or feline "characters" to up the salability of your story. If the hero or heroine lives alone, a dog can be a special friend and an empathetic listening ear. On the other hand, a frisky mutt can complicate a story by getting into trouble—or by getting the hero in trouble—such as when Fido overturns the pretty neighbor’s trash can or scares her beloved kitten up a tree. Think of how many Hallmark movies include a pet that brings the hero and heroine together, and you’ll realize that adding a furry friend to your story is a win-win. Readers love pets, and when pups and kittens are pictured on the cover, they sell books—a fact marketing knows so well.

Be sure to sprinkle a subplot into your mix. A favorite is when secondary characters fall in love. Giving an older character, perhaps a widowed parent or grandparent, a second chance at love brings a smile to readers lips and keeps them turning the page to ensure everyone finds their happily ever after.

Weather helps to set the tone, so depending on the season, allow Mother Nature to play a role in your story. Use scorching heat, torrential rain or gale force winds to up the tension, and conversely allow warm, ocean breezes and moonlight over the water to set the scene for romance. Blue skies brighten any story whereas freezing rain sends a chill down readers’ spines. Couple that cold with a heroine running for her life and you’ve added an extra adrenaline kick. Whether suspense or sweet romance, the sun always shines at the end when the hero and heroine declare their love or stand before an altar and boldly proclaim “I Do!”

Choose a setting that builds interest in your story. The historical relevance of a certain place or the significance of various local landmarks add authenticity and provide educational takeaways for the reader.

Conflict, both external and internal, is an important staple to any story. The main goal that seems impossible to achieve in the beginning moves the action forward, while other smaller problems bubble to the surface as the plot thickens.

Internal conflict should be life changing, at least in the hero’s or heroine’s mind. Readers have baggage, and they’ll identify with flawed characters who struggle with significant problems. The deeper the conflict, the more the readers will enjoy the resolution.

Throw in a secret—or two or three—to tweak your reader’s interest and build anticipation. If the hero and heroine both harbor secrets and perhaps carry guilt about the same incident that occurred in the past, all the better. Remember the two dogs/one bone technique for external conflict when the hero and heroine are vying for the same job or parcel of real estate can also apply to internal conflict when they’re both worried about the responsibility they bear for a tragic situation that occurred years earlier.

Creating a well-blended story with lots of exciting elements will keep the editor engaged and the readers eager to read the story. Whether you’re cooking dinner or writing a story, ensure you have lots of delicious ingredients to turn your meal—or your next book—into a culinary or literary masterpiece that’s sure to please.

What are you mixin’ up in your stories? Share the elements you add to spice up your writing. Let me know in the comment section if you would like to be entered in a drawing for a copy of HIDDEN AMISH SECRETS.

The coffee’s hot and tea is available along with a yummy chicken stir fry. I hope you enjoy the meal.

Happy writing! Happy reading!

Wishing you abundant blessings,

Debby Giusti


Her temporary Amish homecoming

could get her killed.

Julianne Graber left her Amish life behind after a family tragedy, but now she’s back to sell the family home— and someone’s dead set on getting rid of her. With her neighbor William Lavy by her side, Julianne must uncover dangerous secrets to make sense of the past and present. Can she find justice for her family—and a future with Will—before the killer hits his target?


Order on Amazon!


  1. Good morning! I'm mixin' up my stir fry and will have lunch ready in a few hours! Pour a cup of coffee and let's chat about the "ingredients" that go into our stories!

    It's sunny and warm in Georgia after days of rain! I hope the sun is shining in your area of the world. Tomorrow night, we'll see the largest moon of the year! Fingers crossed that there's not much cloud cover so we all have a good view of the lunar spectacle!

    Enjoy the day!

  2. What a great overview of what makes a story worth telling--and reading! I'm still learning how to balance all the pieces in the right way. I never have enough conflict, but I think I usually have interesting characters. Plot is a challenge, but I'm still working on it. You sound like my kind of cook. I never quite know what my finished product is going to look like but my family says I've never let them down :)

    1. Glynis, conflict is the key to a good story, IMHO. Try digging a little deeper and ensure you have a specific incident that your protagonist can struggle with...either he feels responsible for something or he made a mistake that harmed someone or he overheard a person he loved demean him...that type of thing adds to the conflict.

      The stir fry is ready! Dig in! :)

  3. Great post, Debby. You have presented an interesting look at how we can use our characters. The book looks good. Please put me in the drawing.

    1. Sandy, you're in the drawing!!!

      Those secondary characters can add a lot to a story. Children are especially fun to create, in my opinion!

  4. What a great POV - a story is like a delicious recipe. Totally makes sense. Finding the right balance of all the ingredients is tricky, but something I hope to master someday!

    1. Lee-Ann, you want to have enough "stuff" to add to your story when you start writing. It really helps to make the story flow.

  5. Debby, this is a keeper I'm at the "layering in" stage in one of my manuscripts, so this is extremely helpful
    I've never done a dog or a cat, that's something to aim for, but I do have an amazing horse, Rebel, who is in all three "Western Dreams" books. Rebel, eighteen hands high and shiny black, and almost able to read his riders' minds. I should do more dogs and cats Also mentors.
    I use the "internal conflict over something in the past" fairly often, because my characters have many scars. Good to know I'm doing it right.
    Can I come to your house for dinner?
    Other than that, it's been busy here I have been getting up at dawn and taking my walk and doing the plants before I get started on the rest of the day. Then I don't have to think about them. I also hung a wash this morning, don't know where THAT came from.
    Waiting for my edit letter for the third "Western Dreams" book, working on draft of another book in a completely different time period, 19 of the 23 planned chapters are done, and working on a proposal for my next nonfiction local history book. The first one, "Exeter New Hampshire, Past and Present," comes out Sept.. 20 with Arcadia Publishing. I Have A Pub Date! It is going to be a busy fall.
    Debby, cooking is a great metaphor, thanks for this post.
    Kathy Bailey
    Your Kaybee
    Coming back to life in New Hampshire

    1. KB, good for you with the early morning walk and plant care. Here in GA, my flowers need lots of water. Seems watering is about all I do! :)

      You're smokin' with your writing production. Good job! Congrats on the upcoming release of your Exeter NH book! What area are you planning to write about next? BTW, I love the Acadia books. So interesting. Lots of pics. Very nice.

      Rebel is your "furry character," and I'm sure readers love him! Although a dog or cat would be nice. I've done a number of books with dogs, but sometimes I don't want to include them for fear they'll alert the hero when the villin is in the area with their barking. Sometimes it's better if the bad guy sneaks around for a bit of time. :)

      I love using the wound in the past for internal conflict so we're seeing eye to eye on that element, for sure!

  6. Comparing cooking a delicious dinner to writing a novel is a great metaphor, Debby! The perfect blend of flavors/elements is the way to produce a winner.

    I have always enjoyed adding children to my cast of characters, and in my Amish stories, animals are a given. But in a cozy mystery, a cat or a dog is a necessary addition - part of the required background!

    In my cozy WIP, I have both a cat and a dog - the cat is my protagonist's fuzz therapy and confidant, but the dog (belonging to the main character's aunt) is the one who gets the action going. And yes, Tim (the cat) and Thatcher (the corgi) have become good friends.

    I also enjoy adding in the other various elements you mentioned. Older characters with a possible romance thrown in, a past that needs to be dealt with, weather creating havoc or beauty, and interesting settings - both geographical and historical.

    Thank you for the great post!

    1. Jan, isn't "layering" great? Because our lives are layered.

    2. Jan, Tim and Thatcher sound like a fun duo! :)

      Children add a lovely deminsion to a story, in my opinion. I'm always surprised by what they say--they often take over, and I'm no longer in control. :)

  7. What a great way to put all these, Debby. I love the foodie angle on writing!

    1. I love mixin' the ingredients, whether in a stir fry or a story! :)

      Care for a bite to eat?

  8. Hi Debby:

    I love the way you use weather in your stories. I like thunder storms causing flooding and washing the hero and heroine into a raging river. Have the bad weather cause other more dangerous situations. But, of course, always provide adequate foundation ahead of time for the bad weather. Otherwise it will be a 'dark and stormy night' whenever the plot calls for it. Cliche!

    I do fear that you may be 'une chef du panser' which might be fine for Mulligan stew; however, how do you prepare a proposal to your family on what they will be having for dinner tonight when you don't even know yourself until you've finished cooking?

    Even while you're cooking someone might ask, "What are you making?"

    "I don't know. Ask me when I'm finished."

    I also love the cooking analogy about adding lots of ingredients. But remember what Will Rogers said, "Don't bait the hook with what you like to eat; use what the fish like to eat."

    If you are writing 'to taste', make sure your target audience enjoys the same menu.

  9. I do cook like a pantser! You're so right, Vince! LOL!

    Of course, not all "ingredients" go into every story, but I enjoy having various elements to include as I'm writing my first draft. That helps to keep me moving forward, which means I'm never at a loss for words, so to speak. :)


If you have trouble leaving a comment, please "clear your internet cache" and try again. You can find this in your browser settings under "clear history."