Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: First lines of novels

Clockwise from upper left, book covers for “Nine Coaches Waiting,” “A Place to Call Home,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Real Men Knit,” and “Heroes Are My Weakness.”

Pickup Lines: How to Start a Romance

By G. S. Norwood

Good opening sentences are like pickup lines at a bar.  An author wants you to spend some pleasant time with her book.  Maybe develop a lasting relationship with her characters.  What can she say in that moment when your eye first meets her page?  How should she start a romance with her reader, as well as a romance between her characters?  Today I want to look at some of the pickup lines that helped me start a romance with some of my favorite books.

Universal Truth

Cover: Bookshop. Background: Kseniya Romazanova/Braxma, 123rf. Design: Jan S. Gephardt.

Romance is a genre created and shaped by female writers and female readers. With what is probably the most famous first line from any romance novel, Pride and Prejudice opened the door for authors like Georgette Heyer and Julia Quinn to write about the manners and morals of the Regency period. 

While today’s historical romance authors bend the past to suit their needs, Jane Austen herself wrote contemporary novels.  Hers was a society where women could not own property, vote, or have any real agency in the choices made about their lives. Society damsels needed husbands to get through life in a respectable manner. Good ones. Bad ones. It made little difference.

But Elizabeth Bennett, the main character in Pride and Prejudice was not some simpering maid.  Never mind that her family had no money and four other daughters to find husbands for.  Our Lizzie set the style for romance heroines right from the start.  By being independent enough to laugh at Mr. Darcy’s starchiness and turn Mr. Collins down cold, Ms. Bennett showed she was not looking for just any old husband.  She was looking for the right life partner. If she couldn’t find him, she was willing to take her chances as an old maid.

The Independent Woman

“I was thankful that nobody was there to meet me at the airport.”  Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting 1958
Cover: Bookshop. Background: Sergei Koshkarov, 123rf. Design: Jan S. Gephardt.

The romance heroine’s sense of independence only grew through the 145 years between Pride and Prejudice and Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting. In that time, women of Elizabeth Bennett’s class survived two world wars and the Great Depression, gained the vote, and entered the workforce.

The memory of all that shadows our heroine, Linda Martin, who comes to Paris to help a young boy from a wealthy family perfect his command of English. Aware that intrigue and betrayal might lurk beneath the sunniest of surfaces, Linda steps off her flight from London to launch a whole new genre: romantic suspense. 

Smart enough to spot a plot against her new pupil’s life, Linda is also resourceful enough to help him escape over the border into Switzerland. And capture the heart of her charge’s charming cousin in the process.

The Determined Woman

“I planned to be the kind of old Southern lady who talked to her tomato plants and bought sweaters for her cats.”  Deborah Smith, A Place to Call Home 1997

Cover: Bookshop. Background: Cristina Ionescu “cristionescu,” 123rf. Design: Jan S. Gephardt.

With one of my favorite pickup lines, Deborah Smith takes the scrappy, independent romance heroine a giant step forward. In A Place to Call Home, five-year-old Claire Maloney violates strict social divides to befriend ten-year-old Roan Sullivan. When family tragedy drives them apart, Claire’s heart is broken. As an adult, she builds a life for herself based on the notion that, if she can’t have the man she loves, she’d rather not start a romance at all.

Claire Maloney’s determination is a bit extreme.  But, when you think about it, your choice of partner is the most important choice you make as an adult.  It shapes your life in every way, from where you live to the jobs you take and the children you have. Isn’t that worth fighting for?


“Annie didn’t usually talk to her suitcase, but she wasn’t exactly herself these days.”  Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Heroes Are My Weakness 2014
Cover: Bookshop. Background: “linux87,” 123rf. Design: Jan S. Gephardt.

Most contemporary romance heroines, like Annie Hewitt, aren’t really looking for a man to marry. They’re looking for what any adult wants: respect, a career, a voice, and some agency in a world dominated by wealthier, more powerful people. 

In Heroes Are My Weakness, Susan Elizabeth Phillips uses Annie’s plight to spin the tropes of the classic gothic romance, as written by Daphne du Maurier and Victoria Holt, into a comedic delight.  Dark family secrets and a brooding Victorian mansion? Yep. Puppets, ventriloquism, and lots of witty repartee? You betcha. There’s even a haunted clock.  You need to read it.

New Voices, New Pickup Lines

“There was nothing cute about the first time Kerry Fuller met Jesse Strong.” Kwana Jackson, Real Men Knit 2020

Cover: Bookshop. Background: Robert Liptak, 123rf. Design: Jan S. Gephardt.

Jesse Strong has plenty of pickup lines, but none of them work to start a romance with Kerry Fuller in Kwana Jackson’s novel, Real Men Knit. Nor is the “meet cute” trope the only romance novel tradition Jackson overturns.  Jesse and Kerry have known each other since middle school, but form their romantic bond over their efforts to save a yarn store that has become a Harlem mainstay. 

Jackson tells their story with affection for a neighborhood that is far from the dysfunctional ghetto of White stereotypes.  Her characters are flawed but admirable people of color who learn that love—for family, community, and life partners—is the only thing that counts. A leader in the new wave of Black romance writers, Jackson is a vocal advocate for #WeNeedDiverseRomance. With Real Men Knit. she makes a strong case.

Ready to Start a Romance?

With so many great romance reads out there, I have to wonder. Why do people still sneer at RO-mance novels as if they are smut or trash? Are they are embarrassed by the things adults do, like fall in love and enjoy sex? Do they honestly believe the tales of war, carnage, and vigilante justice found in men’s adventure novels are intrinsically superior to stories about forming family bonds of mutual support? Why? Because they’re written by men?

Whatever the critics think, romance is the top-selling genre of adult fiction, earning $1.44 billion in 2019.  That’s almost twice as much as the second-place genre, crime and mystery. Roughly four times as much as science fiction and fantasy. If you haven’t read a romance novel lately, you should pick one up. You’ll be surprised by the wonderful stories women have to tell.


See individual cutlines for more specific credits, but in general: Many thanks to Bookshop for all of the cover images used in this post. Bookshop is a great way to support small, independently-owned booksellers. Started at the start of COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, it provides a way to shop local, online. Or, if you’d rather, IndieBound supports a similar niche. We’re also grateful to 123rf and their talented photographers, for the background images. The marriages of book covers with backgrounds was the result of Jan S. Gephardt’s graphic design “matchmaking”.

First Impressions

They say first impressions are important. As a writer, I’d say that goes for the first lines of stories, too. Lots of great books and stories open with ho-hum first lines. But I deeply admire a great opening line.

I often kick off a new month with a collection of illustrated quotations. This month, I’ve put my own spin on a related idea that I got from a friend, Lynette M. Burrows. Her excellent blog regularly features great opening lines from books she’s read.

This month is also Women’s History Month, when I like to focus on the creative work of women throughout the years. I’ve highlighted great women artists on my blog in the past, such as Artemisia Gentileschi and Rosa Bonheur. But today I’m featuring opening lines from five great women writers making creative history in the science fiction and fantasy field right now.

First Impressions from Rebecca Roanhorse’s Sixth World

The monster has been here. I can smell him.
--Rebecca Roanhorse, Trail of Lightning
Design by Jan S. Gephardt, with book cover from Simon and Schuster.

Trail of Lightning is the first of her “Sixth World” books, based on Navajo traditional stories. The second, Storm of Locusts, is near the top of my “to be read” pile, as is her most recent title, Black Sun. Roanhorse identifies as indigenous and African American, although her tribal membership is disputed. Her husband is Navajo. Trail of Lighting focuses on Navajo culture and characters.

FAIR WARNING: some Navajo groups have criticized the book as disrespectful, or as cultural appropriation. Certainly, the nature of the action in the book, if depicted of any cultural group, probably could be seen by conservative observers from that group to be “disrespectful.” Roanhorse herself has said that her goal was “accuracy and respect.”

I have chosen include this book in my collection because in my opinion Roanhorse consistently writes with respect and understanding about indigenous characters. She’s widely seen as an important rising voice in the science fiction field. And it’s an intriguing story with an arresting opening line.

Murderbot’s First Words

I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites.
--Martha Wells, All Systems Red
Design by Jan S. Gephardt, with book cover from Thrift Books.

For those of us who love Martha Wells’ prickly cyborg Security Unit, each new installment of its adventures is a new joy (yes, Murderbot’s pronouns are it/its). The first impressions offered in the opening of its debut appearance provide an important (if incomplete) angle on its approach to life.

The “Murderbot Diaries” stories are set in a distinctly dystopian universe where opportunistic corporations seem largely unrestricted by inconvenient morality. What makes them such as joy to read Murderbot’s personality and perspective.

Whenever our favorite “SecUnit” teams up with the flawed but well-intentioned humans who accept it into their society, we get a new opportunity to see how these well-written stories play out. Not all of them begin with such a marvelous “characteristic statement” as the first line offered here. But in my opinion all are well worth a read.

This is not Wells’ first series. Until All Systems Red, the award-winning first novella was published, she was best known for her fantasy novels and media tie-ins. She writes prolifically in many lengths and several genres/subgenres.

An earlier voice than the others

As soon as he entered the room, Baines blurted out, "We want you to find us a viable human heart, fast."
--Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring
Design by Jan S. Gephardt, with book cover from Amazon.

I’ll confess that when I first began contemplating this blog post, Nalo Hopkinson’s 1998 novel Brown Girl in the Ring was the first book I knew I wanted to include. I picked it up at a science fiction convention not long after it was first published. Once I read that first line I was hooked. Talk about compelling first impressions!

After Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney, Hopkinson was the first Black science fiction author I knew about, or whose work I read. She is in fact a Jamaican-born Canadian Back when I started reading sf, the field was dominated by old, white, imperialistic misogynists. Not all were—but enough.

When I read the work of authors such as Hopkinson, I got a whole new viewpoint. Their unique and intriguing takes on the field stretched my imagination and opened my eyes. Their visions became part of the broader worldview I’ve tried to develop ever since.

The inimitable wit of T. Kingfisher

She was going to die because of the rutabagas.
--T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon), Bryony and Roses
Design by Jan S. Gephardt, with book cover from Barnes & Noble, and rutabaga photo from The Land Connection.

You might know Ursula Vernon’s artwork—indeed, I first met her as an artist, when she was an Artist Guest of Honor at ConQuesT 43 (2012). It was only later that I realized she also writes under the name of T. Kingfisher.

Her small gem of a story Bryony and Roses is a distinctly different take on the old story of Beauty and the Beast, and indeed the rutabagas do play an important part. If you enjoy her humor and unique approach, I think you’ll be well rewarded by this tale. And look! She has more books!

First impressions for a jewel-like novella of polished words

"Something wants to eat you," called Almost Brilliant from her perch in a nearby tree, "and I shall not be sorry if it does."
--Nghi Vo, The Empress of Salt and Fortune
Design by Jan S. Gephardt, with book cover from Goodreads.

From the very start to the very end of this acclaimed novella, I had a sense that the author had particularly chosen, placed, and polished each word to perfection. The opening line offers a great foretaste. Seanan McGuire called it a “puzzle box,” and it’s a good description. This story unwinds in its own nonlinear fashion, yet it moves inexorably to its devastating conclusion.

Nghi Vo has so far published two novellas, a novel, and a whole raft of short fiction. I imagine we have only begun to hear her remarkable voice. If you’re curious how to pronounce her Vietnamese name, this might help.

I hope you enjoyed these “first impressions” first lines, and the stories that go with them (and proceed from them). Next week we’ll present another collection: G. S. Norwood has some great first lines to share, too. Please leave a comment about your favorites. Suggest more great first lines. Or maybe you’d like to offer other observations. Please share your thoughts!


All of the design work on the first-line quote-images is mine, for well or ill, other than the book covers. For those, I have several sources to thank. I’d like to thank Simon & Schuster for the Trail of Lightning cover. I’m grateful to Thrift Books for the All Systems Red cover. Same to Amazon for Brown Girl in the Ring. I appreciate Barnes & Noble for the cover of Bryony and Roses (Also The Land Institute for the photo of the rutabagas!). And I’m grateful to Goodreads for the cover of The Empress of Salt and Fortune. Many thanks to all of you!

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