Updated: May 27
Five techniques to make your novel extraordinary, too
The Success of Ordinary Grace
What makes Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger so good that it won multiple awards? The novel is a recipient of the Edgar Award, the Anthony Award, and the Barry award for the best novel of 2013. It also took home the Macavity Award for the best mystery novel and was chosen as the School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. It’s a New York Times bestseller. William Krueger obviously knows what he’s doing when it comes to crafting stories.
Aspiring writers can learn from the techniques used by Krueger in the acclaimed novel, Ordinary Grace.
William Kent Krueger
Until I read Ordinary Grace, I am sorry to say that I was not familiar with William Kent Krueger, the successful novelist who has written a whole series of books set in Minnesota based on a detective named Cork O’Connor. Nine of those books have been on the NYT bestseller list well before the stand-alone novel, Ordinary Grace, was even conceived, and two of those books won sequential Anthony awards in 2005 and 2006. William Krueger obviously knows what he’s doing when it comes to crafting stories.
As a child, Krueger’s family moved around a lot, to eleven different houses in six different states before he graduated from high school. Krueger says,
“The only real constant in my life was the dream of becoming a writer.”
To achieve his dream, he got up at 5:30 a.m. and was at the local coffee shop by 6:00 a.m. every day to write. Now an ultra-successful writer, he still follows this habit.
“Although I make my living from my writing now and don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn, I still do. I spend a couple of hours every morning in a local coffee shop, hunched over my notebook while the sun rises. For me, it’s still the most creative time of every day. Not only am I dreaming in those hours, I’m fulfilling a dream I’ve had since childhood.”
In addition to the literary techniques we can emulate from Ordinary Grace, aspiring writers can also model Krueger’s daily writing practice and years of hard work if they want their books to be successful, too.
When I first started reading Ordinary Grace, I expected a good murder mystery. What I didn’t expect was a compelling read and memorable story that touched my heart.
A coming-of-age-murder-mystery-relationship-primer-dealing-with-grief-finding-faith kind of book
The story centers around Frank Drum, the thirteen-year-old son of Nathan Drum, a Methodist minister in the town of New Bremen, Minnesota in the early 60s. Frank’s younger brother, Jake, has a severe stutter and rarely talks in front of other people. Frank’s mother, Ruth, is a gifted musician, who while she fulfills her duties as a pastor’s wife and conducts the musical activities in the three small churches that Nathan serves, riles against the constraints of the church and doubts God. Ariel is the beautiful 17-year-old daughter of Nathan and Ruth. Ariel has inherited all of her mother’s musical talent — plus some — and is being mentored by the well-known composer and musician, Emil Brandt, her mother’s ex-fiance. Emil is from the wealthiest family in town, but he is blind and disfigured from his service in WWII. Emil now lives with his deaf-mute sister, Lise, in an isolated cottage on the edge of town.
Lesser characters include Nathan’s best friend, Gus, a man with a drinking problem who served under Nathan’s leadership during the war; Karl Brandt, Ariel’s good-looking, blond, rich boyfriend, Warren Redstone, a fierce Native American with a bad reputation, and Doyle, a mean-spirited lawman.
A series of deaths take place in New Bremen that summer, and 13-year-old Frank is affected by each one. As the deaths grow more tragic, and Frank is closer to each one, we witness the devastating impact of grief and loss.
Follow Krueger’s strategy to make your book extraordinary
Make your story multi-layered. Ordinary Grace is not just about a series of murders and the search for killers. The plot is intertwined with connecting relationships and the back-stories of characters. It’s about anger and love. Despair and faith. Families, friends, enemies and strangers. It’s about growing up, dealing with grief, and surviving life. The power of the book is in the emotional impact…so much more than figuring out who killed who.
Fill your book with deep and interesting characters. Nathan Drum and his son, Frank, are reminiscent of Atticus Finch and Jem in the classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. Both stories involve principled, intelligent, loving fathers helping their teenaged-sons come to terms with the cruelties of the world. In Ordinary Grace, Nathan Drum is scarred by his past killing of men during World War II, just as Atticus Finch is scarred by the loss of his wife. Both Jem Finch and Frank Drum watch their fathers deal with the irrational actions of townspeople and search — with compassion — for answers. Ordinary Grace is populated with a dozen intriguing characters, not just one or two.Use beautiful language and powerful description. Krueger’s descriptions are evocative:
“Our shadows glided before us, black boats on a silver sea of moonlight.”
“Grain elevators rose beside the tracks on the Flats. Tall and white they were connected by catwalks and conveyor belts. There was a stark kind of beauty in the way they stood against the sky like sculptures made of bone.”
“The day was hot and windless and the sky a hard china blue and I lay alone on the railroad bridge and cried my heart out above a river that seemed to have none.”
4. Unify your book with a recurrent theme and a tie-in to the title. Throughout the novel, Krueger uses the phrase, “..the awful grace of God,” a phrase that captures much of the tension in the book. The title of “Ordinary Grace” refers to one redeeming incident, and the previously introduced theme of “awful grace of God” links the two ideas together into a cohesive whole.
5. Leave your readers with an emotional wallop. In Ordinary Grace, Krueger delves into the impact of grief and loss. Grief is a universal emotion that every person in the world will feel at some point in their life, with the exception of psychotics and sociopaths. We understand loss. We feel grief. We recognize the truth Krueger presents in the end:
“The dead are never far from us. They’re in our hearts and on our minds and in the end all that separates us from them is a single breath, one final puff of air.”
This Tender Land is Krueger’s next novel, a companion piece to Ordinary Grace.
“Over the course of one unforgettable summer, these four orphans will journey into the unknown and cross paths with others who are adrift, from struggling farmers and traveling faith healers to displaced families and lost souls of all kinds. With the feel of a modern classic, This Tender Land is an enthralling, big-hearted epic that shows how the magnificent American landscape connects us all, haunts our dreams, and makes us whole.”
It was released in September 2019 and was an instant New York Times bestseller.