Best First Lines of Novels

Elizabeth Camden Musings on Life, Recommended Reading Leave a Comment

Do you have a favorite first line of a novel?  I certainly do.  I am afraid it is not terribly original, it has been overly quoted, but it still grabs me whenever I hear it.  I can’t even read these words out loud without getting choked up. (Yeah, I’m a nerd).

My favorite first line from a novel, courtesy of Charles Dickens: 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.”

The folks over at The American Book Review have compiled their picks for the 100 best first lines from novels.  The quote above ranked #9.  Check out the complete list here.

The Law Library at the University of Michigan

Elizabeth Camden Splendid Libraries Leave a Comment

Okay, so this one is going to be hard for me to admit, because I grew up in Ohio and spent a considerable portion of my working career at Ohio State University, but the U of Michigan campus is gorgeous, and their Law library is staggering.  In terms of library architecture, Michigan has OSU trounced.  (Football is still thankfully another story!)


I was at a library conference last week where the keynote speaker bemoaned this type of gothic, sacred space in libraries.  His attitude was that libraries should be a place of laughter, public performances, coffee, and community-building.  I actually agree with him on all those points…..but I am convinced libraries must retain a substantial portion of their buildings as quiet places for reading and reflection.  If librarians don’t fight for these spectacular spaces, who will?


Many of the great libraries that were built in the late 19th and early 20th century contained these immense reading rooms.  Such spaces naturally inspire a quiet awe which is not condusive to coffee shops or group study, which is why they are seldom built in new libraries.  Community building has evolved to become an important part of modern librarianship, so I heartily concur with the inclusion of coffee shops and informal space, but I hope there will always be room for such spectacular reading rooms in at least some of our major libraries.


Photos courtesy of Dan Germony and Julie Falk.

Never, never, never, never give up

Elizabeth Camden Musings on Life, What Inspires You? Leave a Comment

I have no interest in wrestling, but a few weeks ago as I was doing yard work, my husband ran outside and grabbed me. He insisted I had to come inside to watch an amazing wrestling match in progress. You can imagine my unbridled joy, but I can tell when Bill is really keyed up about something, so I was willing to play along. 

What I saw was so staggering, so life-affirming, I am asking the rest of you non-wrestling fans to watch. Anthony Robles was born with only one leg. Refusing to let that stand in the way of his ambitions, he proceeded to become a world-class athlete and chose to compete in mainstream sporting leagues. Ignored by many of the powerhouse wrestling schools, he enrolled at Arizona State University where he embarked on a rigorous training regimen. In order to compensate for his lower body weakness, he focused on what he could do well, which was grapple, develop amazing upper body strength, and simply refuse to quit.

Last month he won first place in the nation. As I watch the video as he wins the NCAA title, I cannot help but think of Winston Churchill’s famous line, “Never, never, never give up.” This kid is awe-inspiring. Here are some clips of Anthony in action on the road to the championship.

On Conquering Anxiety

Elizabeth Camden All about Me!, The Lady of Bolton Hill 2 Comments

Somehow, the book-signing has evolved into a right of passage for authors.  Frankly, I’d rather have a tooth pulled than talk about myself, hawk my books, or in any other way draw attention to myself.  When I first landed the contract for The Lady of Bolton Hill, I assumed I would be one of those writers who quietly published her books without telling friends, co-workers, or neighbors.  I simply dread the attention or the perception that I might be trying to foist my books on them.  Revealing myself online is easy for me, but in real life? 

Anxiety is a strange thing.  The logical portion of my brain, normally so dominate in my life, collapses in the face of mild provocations like meeting someone new or attending a book signing.  I can marshal a dozen perfectly logical reasons to quell the anxiety, but I’ve been living with this long enough to know that these techniques will be useless in the face of a social interaction. 

So along comes an opportunity to participate in a book signing at a nearby LifeWay Christian Store.  My instinctive reaction was to run and hide.  I know that unless you are a superstar (hello, Tim Tebow, Nora Roberts, Ken Follett), the likelihood of sitting alone at a table while listening to crickets chirp in the background is pretty high.  Still, LifeWay has been generous in helping me promote my debut novel, and I simply could not repay that sort of kindness by letting anxiety get the better of me and refusing to come.

How fortunate I was to have two other seasoned authors sitting at the table with me.  Mark Mynheir is a homicide detective who writes suspense novels, and Dan Walsh is a pastor and author of historical novels.  Not only were these guys terrific company who helped show me the ropes, they both had plenty of experience in dealing with the public and book signings.  There was also a lovely young lady named Rebekah who did a wonderful job as a greeter for the event.

As is often the case with these irrational anxieties, within about five minutes of entering the store I was perfectly fine.  I have learned the only thing that works to defeat an attack of The Nerves is to meet it head on in a frontal assault.  I am always fine once I get to an event (a party, business meeting, etc.) but the run-up is awful.

So my first book signing turned out to be a thrilling event.  I moved a respectable number of books, met some terrific fellow-authors, and felt much better about not letting my amorphous anxieties get the better of me.

Still… to this day not a single one of my neighbors or co-workers know that I’ve written a novel, nor are they likely to in the near future.  I suppose I need to take this sort of thing one day at a time!

C.S. Lewis and Sehnsucht

Elizabeth Camden Musings on Life 3 Comments

One of the things I adore about C.S. Lewis is his ability to express concepts for which the English language has no words.  “Sehnsucht” is a German word that roughly translates as longing….but Lewis does a brilliant job of fleshing this rather bland translation out in a way that I think most people of faith can relate to.   

Lewis described Sehnsucht as an inconsolable longing in the human heart “for which we know not what.”  It is a haunting sense of longing which Lewis said touched him throughout his life.  It has elements of nostalgia and joy, but also an intense awareness of missing something.  “A golden echo.”  These stabs of joy and longing were pointing us toward something, and Lewis posits that this sense of longing is harkening toward a deeper spiritual world. 

My favorite novel by C.S. Lewis has always been Till We Have Faces, a gorgeously bleak book in which the heroine wages a lifelong struggle with faith and has glimpses of joy that were never really fulfilled:

“It almost hurt me . . . like a bird in a cage when the other birds of its kind are flying home . . . to find the place where all the beauty came from—my country, the place where I ought to have been born. The longing for home.”

I spent decades feeling the same way, and still enjoy a good occasional bout of sehnsucht.  In an odd sort of way, I almost feel like Lewis’s writings on this topic give me permission to simply accept sehnsucht, rather than try to chase it down and pinpoint the source of this longing.  This is just one of the hundreds of reasons I will always adore the writings of C.S. Lewis.

Photo courtesy of Joisey Showa

Become Someone Else

Elizabeth Camden Musings on Life Leave a Comment

It has often been said that part of the appeal of reading fiction is the opportunity to become someone else. One day you can be a soldier in Napoleon’s army, and the next you are Jane Eyre.  Or Bridget Jones.  Or a hobbit. The ability to escape into another world is one of the many joys of reading, and I believe reading to be an endangered activity in this world of sound bites, video games, and 400 channels on cable TV.

I think this Lithuanian ad campaign is a wonderful expression of “becoming someone else.” In order to avoid copyright troubles, I’m just showing one picture, but there are many more at their website. Pass it on!

Splendid Libraries: Vassar

Elizabeth Camden Splendid Libraries Leave a Comment

Today’s entry is going to be a love letter to the Vassar College library, known as the Thompson Memorial Library.

The Thompson Memorial Library.  Was there ever a more commonplace name for such utter loveliness?  I think this may be the world’s most perfect library. 

I love the mix of natural light with warm wood.  I love the gothic splendor that has just the right mix of majesty and functionality.  It seems almost like a holy place.  Every line of the building, the shape of the windows, even the wrought-iron railings have a graceful, reverent tone.  Although I love a library that has comfort and coziness, there is room for those that have majesty, splendor, and awe.  This is it!

Photos are courtesy of Joseph A. and Laura Crossett






Does the Cover of a Romance Novel Matter?

Elizabeth Camden Ramblings about Romance, Writing Life Leave a Comment

We have all heard the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but come on... it is almost impossible not to make some snap judements based on a cover.  Besides, the cover is probably the most effective form of advertising and can convey in a split second a wealth of information about the tone, setting, and contents of a novel.  Take a look at the three covers below: 

I’ll bet you can tell which one you would prefer to read, simply based on the message conveyed by the cover illustration.  If you like the Amish genre, The Thorn is for you.  My One and Only implies a contemporary romance, probably a road trip, in which the emphasis is on a poignant relationship rather than a sexy thriller.  And finally, the campy tone of the third cover lets the reader know they should expect warlocks and probably a whole slew of other supernatural elements, but there will be no spooky or gothic tone typical of the genre.  Rather, the reader needs to brace herself for a fun ride. 

Getting the tone right is probably the most important thing the art department can do for launching a book.  Sometimes they miss in a big way.  Suzanne Brockmann was famously given a terrible cover for Get Lucky, the 9th book in her Tall Dark & Dangerous series.   Readers were dying to get their hands on the long-anticipated book about a smokin' hot Navy SEAL named Lucky O'Donlon, who had appeared in many of the earlier books.

As you can see from the cover, the artist seemed to have forgotten about the "smokin' hot" angle when she drew Lucky.  Instead of Get Lucky, some people said the book should be called Get the Pillsbury Doughboy.  Brockmann even had a “fix-it kit” she mailed to readers if they wished to cover up the hero’s picture with a smiley face.  Brockmann was not yet a nationally recognized author who had veto power over her cover illustration.  The only power she had was a sense of humor, and she weathered the storm of a disastrous cover with classic grace.

Personally, I was very pleased with the cover of my upcoming book.  I never understood how much work went into the design of a cover until I saw this article about the process over at the Lifeway Fiction blog.  I was thrilled when they used The Lady of Bolton Hill as the case study for how a cover is designed, so if you want to see a handful of the alternate covers for my book, click here

A fun website for evaluating romance covers is the Cover Café in which internet readers vote on their favorite and least favorite covers in a given year.  I love looking through all the gorgeous winning covers in the Historical, Contemporary, and Suspense categories.  Of course, it is hard not to cringe at the covers in the Worst Covers of the Year category. 

There is a rumor that the toe-curlingly awful covers of heaving bosoms and half-naked pirates so popular in the 1970s and 80s was a result of marketing ignorance of the salespeople who sold novels to the chain bookstores.  It has been said that most of these salespeople were men who believed women needed such covers to identify the romance books.  I have yet to read anything in the industry trade journals to verify that rumor, but there is no doubt that the quality of cover illustration for romance novels have improved drastically in the last decade.

Is This the First Photograph of a Human Being?

Elizabeth Camden Musings on Life Leave a Comment

A rather dull, boring picture isn’t it? 

Guess again.  In the lower left corner you will see two small figures, one standing, one sitting.  This is the first known photograph of a human being, taken by Louis Daguerre in Paris, 1838.  In these earliest years of photography it took upwards of ten minutes of exposure time to set the image on the surface of the silver plate.  As such, anything that was moving in this picture…the horses, pedestrians, leaves blowing down the street…simply vanished from view.  Those two figures in the lower left remained still long enough to have their picture taken. Speculation is that the standing person was getting his shoes shined and thus lingered long enough to be captured in the photograph, but we will never know for sure.

I love these little unexpected glimpses into the past.