September 1, 2020


Melody Carlson

For years I’ve dreamed of doing a house swap. You know—where you trade houses for an inexpensive vacation in a different locale. Since we live in the mountains with snow, winter sports and pine trees, I’ve imagined swapping for a warm sunbelt home with palm trees and a pool. But we’ve never actually done it. So . . . I thought . . . why not write a story about it? Especially since I’ve discovered that writing about things sometimes makes them happen.

So, when I sat down to write The Christmas Swap, I created two very different families who wanted to trade two very different spaces for the holidays. One house is in the Colorado Rockies and the other in Arizona. But the successful songwriter who owns the beautiful lodge-style Breckenridge house isn’t all that eager to trade it for Arizona sunshine. And when he meets one of the girls about to occupy his gorgeous home, he gets serious second thoughts. Something about this girl speaks to his heart. He wants to get to know her.

So, he decides, why not stick around, hole up in his studio/guest house and see what happens? Hopefully his family, already down in Arizona, will understand. But the misunderstandings break loose when he’s mistaken as the caretaker for the main house. To avoid the awkward situation and continue making the acquaintance of the young schoolteacher, he doesn’t straighten them out. Until things get messy. And they do! But isn’t that what makes story?

I’ve been writing Christmas novellas for about twenty years now so I’m familiar with the pacing and recognize the need to create an uplifting story in a limited amount of words. But I still want to make room for conflict and some surprises along the way. I realize the reader expects an encouraging tale and happy ending—and deserves as much in a Christmas novella—but I refuse to sugar-coat my story. To me, the best tales always include characters with some realistic problems. In fact, that is my definition of plot. Character plus challenge equals plot—and that makes a story.

Some writers might enjoy a more complicated process. And I completely respect that every author works differently. Even a bestselling author’s “secrets to success” won’t necessarily help everyone. Believe me, I’ve heard all kinds of theories and formulas and teachings on the art of writing in the past thirty years. I’ve even tried a few of these methods, only to discover that my ways are best for me. And my way is this—I prefer to keep it simple.

Whether you’re a beginner writer or have lots books under your belt, I believe the ‘rules’ remain fairly consistent. Create interesting relatable characters with tough conflicts, throw in an interesting setting, and your story is ready to roll. Let the fun begin! And even though I still hope to do a real house swap someday—I’m not going to swap writing styles anytime soon.

Melody Carlson is the award-winning author of over two hundred books with sales of more than seven million, including many bestselling Christmas novellas, young adult titles, and contemporary romances. She received a Romantic Times Career Achievement Award in the inspirational market for her many books, including Finding Alice. She and her husband live in central Oregon. 

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  1. Your way reminds me of what Donald Maass says: What's the worst thing that can happen to your character? Make it happen then find one worse.

  2. Character plus challenge equals plot—and that makes a story--
    Really good advice. Thanks for sharing.