If you’ve read a few Nicholas Sparks’ novels, you may have wondered whether the author has some type of magical formula for creating such compelling stories of romance.
(One part of the equation: Good people who fall in love despite their differences, usually in North Carolina.)
So how does he do it? Well, I had the chance to sit down with Sparks while touring the set of the “Safe Haven” in Southport, North Carolina. The film, based on one of his novels, tells the story of a woman who hesitantly falls in love with a widower, after she escapes an abusive relationship.
During the set visit, Sparks answered all of my burning questions about his writing process, and he even shared some tidbits about his own love life.
How does he get started? One thing is for certain, Sparks always knows exactly who is audience is and what they expect when they pick up one of his novels. In fact, he has a nearly scientific method when it comes to plotting out his stories. “The first decision I make is the age of the characters because my readers are so varied in age,” he said.
This drives the story, and all the stories that follow. If he has already written about the lives of teenagers, his next novel may feature older characters. But within novels novels written about characters of a certain age, he also includes strong relationships between other characters. For example, in “The Last Song,” the love story is between the teens, but there is also a father-daughter relationship to latch onto as well. That makes it accessible for teens as well as adults.
What else? “What you do when you’re among the many decisions you make in the creation of one of my novels is we all know it’s a love story, right? We all know that. It’s love and something. You can have love and mystery, love and forgiveness, love and loss, first love, right? You can have all these things. This [Safe Haven] was love and danger. I chose love and danger because it’d been a long time since I’d done one.”
Then he decides on forces meant to keep the two lead characters apart. “What’s the conflict?” he said, “Why can’t they be together if they love each other? Because, without conflict, you have no story.”
Take Safe Haven, for example, “She’s got secrets. That’s on her end. And then what about him? He’s got kids.”
But a love story is no good if the conflict cannot be resolved, and that’s what brings the high emotion to his novels. His characters are always devoted to making it work, and even his less than good characters are usually well-meaning. Sparks admitted to having a very positive perspective.
“Most of my characters are created with my own worldview I guess. And my own worldview goes something like this: I think that 80 percent of the people 80 percent of the time try to do the right thing.”
You’ll notice in Safe Haven, the “bad guy” (Kevin Tierney) is a cop with an alcohol problem and the tendency to punish his wife. This doesn’t sound like a man who is trying to do the right thing at all. In fact, you’re likely to first judge him as a corrupt policeman and wife-beater, but what Sparks insinuates is that Tierney is trying to do what he thinks is the right thing. He wants his wife to obey because the Bible says she should. All of his poor choices are referenced to a Bible quote that has been taken out of context, but in his mind, that justifies his behavior. He doesn’t want to beat her, but he feels like he has to.
So, then, what is it like for Nicholas Sparks to write about a battered woman? He carefully navigates this question with the disclaimer, “I don’t write messages at all, but I guess the message would be that it doesn’t define you entirely. It’s one part of your life. But most importantly, a part you can change.”
He proceeds with an example that he is an author, a fitness enthusiast, and a father… so which is he? Those are all parts of him that he is in control of. So, for him to write about a woman with a difficult home life, he felt that it was important for him to make the story about her changing that part of her life. He wanted to show that she was a strong woman, but it was still difficult for her to leave.
“Why doesn’t she leave?” he asked himself. “Maybe she did couple of times. Maybe he found her both times. So, why would he be able to do that? Because he’s a police officer. She went to the police. They’re covering it up. She’s got no family. She has nowhere to go. He keeps track of the money. He does all this. Okay. Now, you know why she can’t leave–and you know what? She still does anyway.”
This is Sparks’ main point – that Katie was in a bad relationship, but she did not let it define her. “She did everything in her power to get out, even with everything against her, and found a happier life.”
Being a man with such passion about writing strong women who do impossible things to find love and happiness, you would imagine Nicholas Sparks just spouts romantic words with ease. Not so, he says.
The author says he does his best when he only writes 2000 words per day, and then he tweaks that block until it is absolutely perfect.
“I type 40–let’s say I only type 40–I type about 60, but let’s say I type 40 words a minute. Okay? So, I’m typing for 10 minutes and then sitting there like this for 50 or tweaking for 50 minutes what I just wrote for 10. That’s the speed you go.”
Being curious, I asked if he was romantic in real life. “I will tell you,” he said. “I write my wife a letter for our anniversary every year, and it takes me about three days to write the letter.”
“I cover what we’ve done this year. So, it’s kind of like a living diary of our lives, the ups and downs, the struggles we’ve gone through, the fights we had when we weren’t getting along, and how that made me feel… and this and that and the recoveries and the downs and all of this. And it takes me two or three days to type it out. And I sit, and I evaluate it like it would go in a book. And then when I’m done, I handwrite it out for her so, she thinks it just flows.”
I have to say, if I got a letter like that, I would melt like Velveeta. So, to any guys out there looking for romantic gifts for their sweeties: take the time to write her a letter!
Safe Haven will be in theaters starting on Valentine’s Day, February 14th. Check out the trailer below: