Writing to Answer Your Central Question

My new book, The Garden of Happy Endings, has just hit the shelves.  It began with a single question:  how can a benevolent being/Universe/Higher Power/etc allow young teenage girls to get kidnapped and murdered?

It’s the thing that bugs us the most, right? If there is a God, what the heck is s/he doing when a little girl is kidnapped out of her bedroom? When a boy is snatched from the bus stop? When a jogging teenager is snatched and then tortured and murdered?

I didn’t exactly set out to try answering this question.  You’d have to be insane, right? If all the sages and mages and masters have been wrestling with such a question over the centuries, what chance do I, a commercial novelist, have of creating meaningful material out of it?

But I didn’t know the question at first. No, no, as always, the girls in the basement hid it from me.  I thought I was writing about a woman who was furious at the anti-woman bias of the Catholic church.  A devout Catholic  woman, actually, who had to leave the church to find a way to serve her calling.  I’m very interested in vocations—not just the churchy kind, but all of them.  I feel very lucky to have known from a very young age that I wanted to be a writer. My sister was called to be a nurse and she’s doing that work.  I strongly believe every single one of us has some work we are meant to do, and if we can find it and carry it out, the world heals.  We heal.  We are happy.

But what happens when things get in the way of a vocation?  Like a woman who wants to be a priest?

That’s what I thought I was writing about.  But really, I was back to my same old subject: why do bad things happen and how can we get through them. The extra layer on that question this time was, “What if the thing that usually gets you through, like your faith or your husband or your work, lets you down at the exact moment you need it the most?”

All of us have those central questions in our work.  Someone said that we write to answer that question, whatever it is.

Because I’ve written a lot of novels over 25 years,  the permutations of my central question keep getting thornier.  I remember sitting in a Panera Bread, working on the structure of the book over a bowl of black bean soup, when I realized what a big question I’d set up for it.  Really, I wanted to cry.  It was already sold and halfway written and what I was going to have to do was go back and rip up the structure in the first half and redo it all.

A lot of work.  And I knew it was only the beginning.

Like Elsa and Joaquin, who undertook their walk on the Camino de Santiago as a lark before graduate school—and instead discovered that it turned their lives upside down—I thought I’d write a larkish book about a woman who was mad.

Yeah.  She’s mad all right.

And I was half mad with writing it by the end.  It was a very challenging tale.  I’d write a draft, send it to my editor, and she’d read it and send it back with suggestions to take it deeper.  Three times I did this, three times she sent it back.  By the final draft, however, I knew I’d finally moved my ego out of the way enough to let the girls in the basement (and my editor) to do the work.  It is a dark story in ways, but it’s also enormously hopeful, spiritual and earthy and maybe even a tiny bit wise.

What it took was not shirking away from taking another step into my central question, allowing the writing to carry me deeper.

Now I’m up to my neck in the new book, which pretends to be a story about the power of work to transform us, and four women on a journey….but I’m sure it will be about surviving bad things.  So far, it is not torturing me, but that will change at any moment.

What is the central question at the core of your work? Do you know?  Share it with us. Where do these ideas come from? Can you identify the central question in your favorite writer’s work? 







About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.


  1. Maree Kimberley says

    Great post, Barbara. Such a huge central question to ask! Just came back from walking my dog where I was thinking about the central question for the stories I’m working on at the moment, which is: are we just our brains? There is a lot of focus these days on neuroscience, and neuroscientific thinking is ‘competing’ with philosophy on some of the big questions around consciousness and mind. I find that fascinating, and while I know I’ll never answer my central question as such, it gives me lots to explore.

  2. Cyd Madsen says

    Hi, Barbara. Newbie here and finally getting up the gumption to comment. I had to because this is an excellent post. I’m new to this strange world of digital and self publishing, but I’ve always known I’d better write or end up leaving this world missing the point. There’s a lot being written and talked about our work having a central question, and this clarifies it a great deal for me. Is it the new way of saying we’re exploring and exposing the human condition, a very important and central one? It certainly sharpens focus.

    After writing several novels and screenplays, I noticed what could be called an “issue” (there’s got to be a new word for that–puh-lease) I never felt was part of my life. So why was it always in my work? Having realized this, when I was at a Q&A session with Robert Stone (back when he was at the top of his game), I asked if there was anything surprising about himself he’d discovered through his work. His reaction was physical, as if he’d been punched in the stomach. He backed away from the podium, took a moment as he looked down at his feet, then finally raised his head and said, “Yes. Next question.” It seemed to have hit a sensitive spot within him. Is that the spot we should all strive to write from? The greats of the past, no matter what their subject matter, write from the common soul we all share, and they expand it, fascinate it, romance it. We can’t resist. We’re hungry for words and stories that explain our riddle. And what is a riddle but the central question of how we get out of a maze. Lots of them. Every day.

    This is a delicious post, and I’ll betcha dimes to dollars today’s writing will take on a new energy for me. And I love, love, love what you say about the act of finding and following your purpose as work that heals. Wow! If that doesn’t put some oomph into the daily grind, then nothing will.

    Thoroughly enjoyable post. Thanks for the road signs, and great good luck (ha! as if there’s any luck involved) with your book’s reception. I’ll certainly be reading it.


  3. says

    Wonderfully insightful post. And I’m glad I’m not the only person who found out during the course of writing my book that it wasn’t necessarily about what I *thought* it was going to be about.

    But isn’t that the magic of writing a novel? Ideally it takes both the reader *and* the author on a journey. Good stuff.

  4. says

    Thanks for sharing such an interesting and thought-provoking post. For me the central question changes with each new work. I am toying with a story idea built around the concept of moral relativism or situational ethics. The MC does something wrong but for the right reason and it has disastrous consequences. Rather than a central question I like to come up with a premise and work from there. As for ideas these come from a variety of sources, but the ones that stick in my brain are the ideas I have to write about.

    I will give some thought to your question about identifying the central question in other writers’ work. Thanks again.

  5. says

    So cool that you went deeper and darker in the telling of the tale. As Robin LaFevers pointed out in a post here a few weeks ago, the ‘crunchiest stuff’ comes when we peel back the layers of self and ego. A difficult process, but rewarding in so many ways. Sounds like it happened here.

    I’m embarrassed to admit, Barbara, as much as I’ve loved your posts over the years, I’ve never read one of your novels. That ends now. I’m ordering this book as soon as I hit submit on this comment. I must see the ‘crunchiest stuff’ of one of my favorite blogging voices.

  6. says

    The central question at the core of my current WIP is the one we all spend a lifetime answering: Identity, in all its forms. What is it, how is it created, how is it developed, what goes into it, who has it, who determines it, and how does one’s experience shape, alter, define, characterize, and classify it – and then, what happens when the identity you thought was yours turns out to be completely fabricated, a false construction?

    An ever- fascinating topic, at least for me. :o)

  7. says

    Thank you, Barbara. I think that’s one of the greatest joys of writing a novel: discovering what we are actually trying to discover.

    I wonder if the topic I am currently obsessed with–motherhood, how we love the children we are given, what happens when we find it difficult to love our children, etc.–will change or evolve as my young kids grow up. I’ve always thought so, or, maybe they will just evolve into issues that arise from parenting older children.

    Your posts are always so eloquent. Thank you for sharing your insights.

  8. says

    Thank you, Barbara. I think all great work carries a central question inside of it, so I really enjoyed hearing your take on that.
    I’m looking forward to reading your book and thank you — and kudos to you — for taking on such an important and difficult subject.
    I recently read a fantastic debut novel, So Much Pretty, by Cara Hoffman, about violence against women and our collective complicity in it. Powerful work. It happens, not because a higher power has failed us, but because we accept it.

  9. says

    I think you’re right. As I look back over my novels–even the one about a vampire kitty-cat narrated by, who else, the cat–I’ve realized that a central theme/question in my work is about people who are on the “outside,” and what they do to deal with a world that they don’t really belong to.

    A condition, I suspect, occupied in some way by many writers. So thanks for bring this home, Barbara.

  10. says

    One of the age-old “big questions”. That’s what writing is all about, new permutations with the same old struggles because we never get them answered but the search for the answers is an kind of answer in itself. And then when you’re writing, you find all these subsidiary questions cropping up like weeds in one’s carefully imagined garden. Sometimes those weedy questions are the best of all.

  11. says

    Great post! I think it’s essential to have a central question or theme you are trying to explore at the theme of your work, even if it’s not immediately obvious, because it provides something to focus all the characters and events around. (One just has to be careful not to get preachy, didactic, etc.) My current WIP is centered around the idea of memory, or more specifically, who will remember us when we’re gone and why that matters. Like I said, not immediately obvious at first glance, since it’s a very SF story about a voyage to visit aliens. The other two novels I’ve written and still liked at the end were about when it’s acceptable to kill or forgive and dealing with one’s past and fulfilling one’s purpose/vocation. Again, both SF novels where those questions aren’t right at the surface. Novels I’ve tried to write without such a question haven’t fared as well, unfortunately. You’ve got to have something to explore.

  12. says

    Kristin, good point–a book doesn’t have to be mainstream or literary to have a central question. Genre novels and writers are also struggling with and posing questions all the time. One of my favorite novels of all time is Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury, which certainly deals with time and life in a beautiful, powerful way.

  13. Sarah E.A. Fusaro says

    Barbara, thank you for this post! :) I often struggle with wondering if I am posing/answering my question, or if it’s even the right one. Your article gave me motivation to write it out and the characters (and editors and muses) will end up hewing it out of the words. Often I’ve found that when a good story is crafted, the question is woven into the very fabric of the story.

    Anyway, inspiring post and congrats on your novel! I look forward to reading it.

    Grace & Peace,

  14. Sara Mikulic says

    Absolutely wonderful and inspiring post. I am especially heartened by the fact that when the question felt too big to answer, you went for it. I’m facing a similar situation in my manuscript and it’s fabulous to know that you faced down the scary big question and presented a case that a reader could relate to and perhaps walk away wiser for having read. Thank you so much.


  15. Allison says

    This is the perfect post to read before plunging into the day’s writing! In my WIP, the central questions is: how do you stand up and embrace your destiny–when all you want to do is escape it. Thanks for a great post.

  16. says

    Thanks, Barbara! For an eloquent post. Timely for me, as I recently sold a novel, and then, figured out The Central Question I must address on every page 60,000 words into it!!

    And I’m learning the answer as I go along, too.

    The question is: Are words powerful? Self-fulfilling? Do we have to watch the words we say, words we read, words we hear? Does spiritual warfare start with the words we believe and confess?

    Guess I’ve got a bit over 10,000 words to find out! :)

    I’m going to go Tweet about your post now!

    Truly, Julie

  17. says

    I’m struck by the truth of what you say: What you believe your novel is about can come from your head, but what it’s really about comes from your heart.

    The struggle between head and heart also leads to madness, just as you say.

    The cure, as you found, is to surrender to the story and find the courage to follow the story where it must go.

    I’m also struck by the diligence of your editor, who kept sending the manuscript back to you, urging “deeper”. There have been several posts here on WU recently like that. Writers please note.

    • says

      A great editor is one of the best thing that can happen to an author. I have worked with many, many, many who helped me see something about my work, but Shauna has worked with me on nearly all of my best books, and she never lets me settle.

  18. says

    Great post! Maybe writing the book made you half mad, but the results are great for the reader . My central questions tend to revolve around identity and purpose. Took me twenty books to figure that out. And it was a duh moment. Well, of course, because, hey, that’s what I’m trying to figure out, too.

  19. Robin Yaklin says

    Oh boy! Newbie here as well. This is a fantastic challenge, so…
    I want to explore courage. Where do we go inside ourselves to find it? What does it look like? Who can demonstrate it? What kind of people are they that can and cannot? What questions do they ask themselves or is it so innate that action comes then the questions?

    Man, ya got me going. I could ask dozens more questions about courage. Thanks for the challenge.

  20. says

    I just started THE GARDEN OF HAPPY ENDINGS last night expecting something light and charming. The charming aspect is definitely there, but this book holds so much truth and beauty that it kept me up much later than I expected. I literally couldn’t put it down! The observations about loss of faith and hope and love are so profound and deep. I googled you first thing this morning and stumbled upon this post. It’s wonderful to read about the internal journey you went on while writing this superb book. I’m so looking forward to finishing it…and then picking up your other books. You have a new fan!