Writing a novel is challenging enough. But tackling issues that nobody likes to talk about can take that challenge to a whole new level. Especially when an author wants to give those topics a sensitive treatment, incurring empathy for the protagonist while conveying the difficulty—sometimes horrors—of what she has endured.
I’m talking about issues like rape, abuse, human trafficking, racism, and/or mental illness.
Here’s a sampling of tough-issue books I’ve featured on the blog:
- Stories That Bind Us, by Susie Finkbeiner — clinical depression & racism
- The Pink Bonnet, by Liz Tolsma — child abuse, human trafficking
- Afraid of the Light, by Cynthia Ruchti — mental illness & hoarding
- When Dignity Came to Harlan, by Rebecca Duvall Scott — sexual abuse
- Why They Call It Falling, by Christina Sinisi — depression & child born out of wedlock
- A Far Way To Run, by Lori Altebaumer — human trafficking
- Night Bird Calling, by Cathy Gohlke — domestic violence & racism
- The Bookshop of Secrets, by Mollie Rushmeyer — human trafficking
- Under the Magnolias, by T. I. Lowe — mental illness
The Choices She Made, a poignant novel by Felicia Ferguson, takes on the issue of rape, and how it impacts a teenage girl for the next thirteen years. This is Felicia’s debut novel.
In 1997, seventeen-year-old Madeline Williams is torn between continuing her family ranching legacy and accepting her Army-bound boyfriend’s marriage proposal.
But when an assault by John David Billings, the son of a wealthy rancher, leaves her pregnant, Madeline sacrifices both options, choosing to leave town and raise the child alone.
It’s been several years, and when she returns to her hometown to meet with her father, rumors circulate about John David’s trial–for assaulting other women. Madeline struggles with the secret she’s kept from her daughter–and everyone but her father–all of these years.
If she testifies, John David could be put away for good. Doesn’t help that he’s hired a killer lawyer, and it would take a testimony like hers just to put him behind bars. But if she unveils her past, that could have some dangerous repercussions for her daughter.
She has trusted God throughout her entire life, but can she trust him to carry her through this trial?
Seems like most dual timeline books I read are historical. They alternate between a contemporary timeline and one from decades earlier. Or a century earlier. But The Choices She Made is a dual timeline story depicting Madeline Williams in 1997 and 2011, age 17 in high school and age 31 as a single mom, respectively. This format was more powerful and effective than a straight chronological telling would be.
This story had me asking, “What would I do?” There’s no telling when you haven’t been in that situation. From the outside looking in, I found myself questioning Madeline’s choices. Should she have told her boyfriend about the rape? Should she have given up the baby for adoption? Should she have confronted her assaulter earlier?
Even though I sometimes disagreed, her choices made sense, too. That’s the power of a good story—many options, some are good, some are not, but any one of them comes with high stakes. Not just in 1997 as a teenager, but years down the road, impacting other people as well—her boyfriend, her father, her daughter, her rapist and his family, and other victims.
Another question is raised: How far will a mother go to protect her child? What if other people’s wellbeing are at stake?
Nothing is sugar-coated here. And everything is complicated. There are no easy choices, even for Christians. Decisions are made only after much wrestling. And still, there are far-reaching consequences whichever way it goes.
Add to that the multi-faceted questions: Is a person’s silence bravery or not? Who is more important to protect—your child or possible future victims? Who are you depriving by not speaking up sooner? It comes down to weighing the pros and cons of so many options. This book would elicit plenty of discussion.
This is no adventure story. But it’s a journey through Madeline’s choices, the consequences, and her emotional life—which is an adventure of its own. She’s a three-dimensional character. The pacing is good. The story is well-written. The natural flow of going back and forth between 1997 and 2012 keeps the tension going. A strong faith thread ties it together.
Sometimes her dad seems too perfect. But he has some regrets later on, regarding how he handled things. That made him more real.
I have to mention one thing that actually drove me crazy. I only mention this in case it might drive you crazy, too, and my advice is to let it go. The timing is off. The rape occurs in March, 1997. The story jumps to 2011 which is fourteen years later. Sometimes Georgia is 11, then 12, then 13 (not necessarily in that order), so the math doesn’t work either way. The trial is in March, 2012 which is 15 years after the rape. Georgia was born in December 1997, so she should be 14 then, not 12 or 13. I was reading this on a Kindle which made it harder to check back to previous dates, but I did anyhow, for fear I was missing something. I must have done over 20 calculations.
But here’s the bottom line: the wrong dates don’t hurt the storyline and they only become a distraction if you let them. So don’t worry about Georgia’s exact age.
The other bottom line is this: The Choices She Made is a novel of redemption, how God brings good from evil. Despite any confusing math.
Join me for some Q & A with author Felicia Ferguson.
Questions about The Choices She Made
What was your inspiration for writing this story and for choosing such a difficult topic? What is your personal connection to the setting?
I woke up one morning with the scene of Madeline walking back into the auction house as an adult as a vivid mental image. The auction house and several of the ranch scenes are inspired by my actual childhood experiences growing up on a horse and cattle farm. Also, my high school was the first in my county to add a day care for pregnant teenaged moms so they could finish their diplomas. So I pulled some of the details I included from that.
As I pondered the story, I knew I wanted to write about a woman who had experienced a devasting circumstance and then used her faith and biblical principles to help her walk through it. I really wanted believing and non-believing readers to see Romans 8:28 in action—how God can make every situation work for good, even the bad ones. A pregnancy from a sexual assault was the most devasting and life changing situation that I could create.
How did you decide on the specific circumstances of your heroine Madeline? Did she hijack the story or did you have full rein?
Madeline came to me in increments. Once I had settled on the pregnancy after a sexual assault as the devastating circumstance, I knew I wanted to show her in the days, weeks, and months after the assault but also a grown woman who had made a life for herself and her daughter. I also like to listen to my characters and have them tell the story they want told. I wouldn’t call it hijacking or free rein. I see it more as a partnership.
Madeline’s father is very kind, understanding, and supportive. Did you consider having different father-daughter dynamics before settling on this one?
No, I always saw Jim as supportive. They had already been through the trauma of losing his wife and Madeline’s mother. But in reality, as supportive as he is, he takes somewhat of a hands-off approach because he’s at sea trying to be both father and mother to Madeline—even before the assault—and he doesn’t want to make things worse than they already are.
What would Madeline have to say about you?
I would hope she would say thank you for handling my story, my life, with care and empathy and helping me to start down the road to complete healing.
What’s the most unusual thing you had to do, learn, or research to create this story?
This may sound odd, but I had to research pregnancy test results. How soon they could appear, how long they would take in total. And because I’ve never been pregnant, I talked with my critique group members who had been pregnant so I could accurately write what Madeline would be feeling and experiencing as her pregnancy progressed and at the birth of Georgia.
Why and how did you decide to tell this story in a dual timeline manner rather than purely chronological?
It actually started out as purely chronological. I had pitched it to 28 agents, and they all passed on it. But I knew this was a story that had a publishing home somewhere. So I researched developmental editors to help me figure out why (outside of the topic of sexual assault and pregnancy) agents kept passing on the book.
Julie Cantrell was recommended to me by one of my writing friends. I contacted her, and she was the one who suggested turning it into a dual timeline. And I think it works beautifully for the reader to follow Madeline as a teen and an adult in alternating chapters and see the outcome of her choices almost in real time.
Questions about Writing
Which books and/or authors have most inspired you in your writing journey?
I can’t say which has been the most inspiring but all of the ones below have impacted me and informed my writing. And without them, I wouldn’t be who I am as a writer.
Writing craft books: William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction, DiAnn Mills and her craft books, Steven James’s Story Trumps Structure, Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel.
Fiction books: David Baldacci’s Will Robie & Jessica Reel and King & Maxwell series, James Rollins’s Sigma Force, Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, Sidney Sheldon’s If Tomorrow Comes and Windmills of the Gods, Katherine Neville’s The Eight, Peter David’s Imzadi, and Kathy Tyers’s The Truce at Bakura.
Where do your story ideas usually originate from—character, plot, setting, theme, or a combination? Share an example of how another story grew from an initial idea, and whether you’re an outliner or a pantser.
My stories usually start with a character and their problem. Then on the heels of that, I start hearing two characters in a conversation in my head. That conversation could be the beginning, near the beginning, in the middle, or even the end of the book.
I sound like a pantser, but really I’m a plantser or what Steven James terms, an organic writer. I follow the characters and listen to them tell their stories how they want them told. But after I get into chapter three, I really need to have a very loose outline of where I’m going. Sometimes that looks like a full description of a chapter, other times, it’s simply a placeholder like, “this character does something here.”
How I write is changing with every book. Choices came together pretty much in the order of each timeline, although when development edits came, a few things were rearranged to improve the story flow and timeline.
In the book I finished last year, the characters were each in different cities for most of the story so I wrote each character’s full story first, then wove them together and added the transitions and group scenes needed.
But In my current work in progress, I had the female main character’s story for a long time before the male main character’s storyline took any shape beyond a general sense of what I wanted to happen. It’s now starting to come to me not in chapters or in any type of order, but in scenes. So I’m writing each scene as it comes and praying God will tie them together when the time comes.
Please share something about a current project or the direction you want to go as an author.
I learned in a class at Blue Ridge Mountain Writers Conference that I accidentally wrote a high concept novel with the last book. So this time, I want to do it on purpose, which is a wonderful challenge to me. That means learninghow to integrate many more twists and turns than my previous books and make the emotional stakes much higher.
I always want to continue to grow as a writer. To learn more about how to craft characters that stick with readers and plots that keep them hooked until the end. When Secrets Come Calling, a contemporary women’s fiction book, will release in 2024 with End Game Press.
Is there any writing advice you wish you had known ten years ago?
I’d known I wanted to be a writer when I was in the fifth grade. I wrote a regency romance novel back in the early 2000s and put it away. Then I tried writing a dual time-line biblical and present-day fiction book a few years later. I published my first novel using a hybrid publisher in 2015. So ten years ago would be a couple of years before that first publication even became an idea.
I don’t think I would change my writing path because of Romans 8:28. Every job and every educational opportunity I’ve had in spite of the dream of being a writer has given me a breadth of knowledge and experience that has gone into each of my books and stories. And that experience makes them all that much more authentic for the reader. But ten years ago, I think I would have just encouraged myself to keep the dream alive, keep believing that I could do it.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you like dual timeline fiction, you might enjoy my novel, A Hundred Magical Reasons (formerly Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum). This story spotlights L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Set in Holland, Michigan, this pre-published novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. Read more and watch the book trailer here.
If you like Southern fiction or stories about family secrets, you might enjoy my re-launched novel All That Is Hidden. Set near North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains in 1968, the story spotlights the bond of family and the connections of a tight-knit community. Northern exploitation threatens as a father’s hidden past catches up to him and tests family ties. Learn more and watch the trailer here.
All That Is Hidden awards:
- Winner of the Artisan Book Reviews Book Excellence Award
- Semifinalist in Serious Writer’s Book of the Decade contest
I invite you to join my monthly newsletter for writing updates, freebies, and giveaways. Sign up and I’ll send you a free gift: www.StandoutStoriesNewsletter.com
Felicia Ferguson Bio
Felicia achieved master’s degrees in Healthcare Administration and Speech-Language Pathology, but has written since childhood and dreamed of authoring books that teach and inspire others. An award-winning fiction and non-fiction freelance writer, she is the past president of the Destin chapter of Word Weavers International and a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers Association.
She has previously published devotions with Christian Devotions and Inkspirations. Her 2023 releases include two devotions in Ordinary People, Extraordinary God and three short stories in Sweet Romance for Every Season. Her radio devotional, Build Faith for the Journey, airs Saturdays on Christian Mix 106.
When she’s not glued to her laptop, Felicia enjoys hiking, meandering with her twelve-year-old Frenchie, and looking forward to the next story. Learn more on her website.
Join me next time for a visit with author Amanda Wen.
Meanwhile, have you read The Choices She Made or any books about sensitive issues like rape? Do you like dual timeline stories? Answer in the comments below.
Sign up for my monthly newsletter and receive the prequel for All That Is Hidden: www.StandoutStoriesNewsletter.com