Sunday, January 31, 2016

Back in the Old Days

The first two books that I released, Finding Father and Kerry's Calling, were contemporary novels with modern American characters. Kerry's Calling involved research about the South Pacific, Bible translation, and various dialects, but the lifestyles, social situations, and habits of thought were pretty easy to write about. Both of these stories were set in evangelical church situations where I have spent my whole life and so I felt right at home in these stories. But my most recent novel, The Rebel's Return, as well as the next two that I plan to release are set in Colonial America. Of course, these involved a whole different level of research!

For The Rebel's Return I had to research the course of the Revolutionary battles so that I understood the timeline of that year, the end of 1776. Along the way I learned some fun tidbits, like about spying during the Revolution and George Washington's possible mistress. But just as important as the battles themselves were the lifestyles and social situations of the characters themselves. I needed to be able to get inside my characters' minds. For writing The Rebel's Return, I needed to understand how the people of the time felt about the great political upheaval taking place around them. For Johanna's Journey, the story of a young indentured servant in New England, it was really important to understand social class in colonial society, how the different classes related to each other and felt about each other. In the sequel, Ellen encounters the Huguenots, French Protestants who have fled religious persecution in France. For Ellen's story, I needed to research their dramatic history and flight from France and the challenges they encountered along the way.

One thing that all these books share is that they are all romances, and all involve weddings of some kind or another. So for writing these books I had the fun job of researching colonial weddings. I learned that weddings during that time were pretty different from modern American weddings. The elaborate white wedding gown was unheard of back then. (It actually came into use during the Victorian age.) Instead, brides wore their best dress. If they could afford it, they had a new dress for the occasion, but they planned to wear it again for other special events. Weddings in the South were bigger events, but in New England they were usually just vows spoken in front of a magistrate. The Puritans considered marriage to be a civil, not a religious, ceremony, so magistrates instead of ministers performed the weddings in those colonies. I wanted Justin's niece in Johanna's Journey to have a big wedding, and it seemed likely that with her mother growing up in New York, she would have been exposed to the fancier Dutch affairs in that colony and would want a large wedding for her daughter. Bridesmaids were in style, but I found no evidence that they all wore matching dresses!

Events leading up to the wedding were similar in some respects to our own but different in others. Girls generally married in their early twenties and young men in their middle or late twenties. If a young man wanted to court a woman, he was expected to go to her father and ask permission. Then the couple were allowed to spend time together without being chaperoned too closely. Among wealthier families, the parents would sit down and agree on a marriage settlement: the property that each partner would bring to the marriage. Marriages weren't usually arranged, but the parents had more say in choosing a partner than they do in modern times. However, during the course of the eighteenth century the influence of the parents began to wane, and it became more common for a young woman to get pregnant before marriage in order to force her parents' hand.

We like to think that premarital sex was a rare occurrence in the old days, but the statistics show that a quarter of all brides were pregnant when they married. Those who were caught in this condition were expected to confess in church, but the situation was so common that some churches had preprinted "confessions" for the couples to sign. A custom that seems odd to us was bundling: allowing a courting couple to spend the night together with a board down the middle of the bed, or with the young people tied into bags. With customs like this, it's probably not surprising that pregnancy was so common, but the advantage was that the parents were witnesses to the situation and the young man would be obligated to marry the girl if she became pregnant. Unlike today, both partners faced strong pressure to marry when pregnancy occurred.

Those who have read The Rebel's Return may ask, "But where was the wedding that story? Phoebe's story ended before the actual wedding!" The good news is that I am adding an epilogue about Phoebe's Revolutionary War wedding, and would be happy to send it to anyone who would like to read it!




Friday, February 27, 2015

Kerry's Calling

Another excerpt from Kerry's Calling - to be released in March!

Luke was silent a moment, sipping his drink, then he spoke with a thoughtful wrinkle between his brows. “I wouldn’t say that I prefer celibacy. I don’t know many people who do. It’s a sacrifice, like so many of the other sacrifices we both make to be here. Like being separated from our families, or catching malaria,” he smiled, “or having my truck break down every time I come into town and trying to repair it from my tool kit in the back. This time it was just a flat tire, but once I was stranded on the side of the mountain with an overheated engine for two hours before another vehicle came along and rescued me.”

The conversation moved on then to the trials of operating a motor vehicle in rugged mountainous terrain, but it was the first part of their exchange that Meg recalled off and on throughout the day, and in greater detail before she fell asleep that night. It was the first time they had spoken openly of the question that had recurred to her many times in her acquaintance with Brother Luke. What would make any man, and Luke in particular, take vows of celibacy? In his case at least, it didn’t appear to be an aversion to women. She admired his single-minded devotion to God, if that was his true motivation. She was devoted to God too, of course, but not in the same way— at least, not single-mindedly. Luke probably thought of her as a nun, a sort of Protestant nun, and he would be shocked if he guessed what unspiritual ideas sometimes crossed her mind. Did he guess? She hoped she had not given herself away in her remarks today.



Friday, February 6, 2015

Kerry's Calling

An except from Kerry's Calling, to be released in March:

          “You’re thinking about leaving? You mean, quitting? But, Chad, why? What’s wrong?”
          “Oh, there are a lot of reasons,” he sighed. “Any one by itself probably wouldn’t be enough, but...”
            He was silent for a long time, while she watched his face. Finally he glanced at her and realized that she was still waiting for an answer.
            “I guess it all started a year ago, when I was home on furlough,” he began. “You know about the girl I was going to marry—Laura. We had a rather whirlwind courtship, and before I came back we got engaged. The plan was for her to apply to Harvest and then I would go home this summer and we would get married. She seemed really happy about it at the time.” His voice trailed off. “Then in February I got an e-mail from her. She wasn’t sure she wanted to leave home and move halfway around the world to a strange country. She wasn’t sure she wanted to live in poverty when she had a proper job making good money in England. She wasn’t sure she loved me enough. And that was that.”
            “I’m sorry, Chad,” Kerry said softly. She knew there was no easy answer that would take away that pain. She could only listen.
            He shrugged. “I told myself all the things that people do in a situation like that. I would get over it. It wasn’t meant to be. It was God’s will. All those things. But right after that I fell ill with malaria. I couldn’t work; I couldn’t do anything but lie around burning up with fever and shivering with chills and wanting to die. I felt so dreadful. And—well, I know this sounds idiotic, but I kept wishing my mum was there to take care of me, but she was so far away and I felt so alone, like the whole world had forgotten about me.”

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Tale of Two Missions Trips

What do Bulgaria and the Solomon Islands have in common?  They are on opposite sides of the world and contain different racial and ethnic groups who speak different languages.  The one thing that they share is that they were the locations of the two missions trips that I have participated in.

In 1981 after my junior year in college I participated in a 6-week summer internship with Wycliffe in the Solomon Islands, southeast of Australia.  I loved the Solomon Islands.  I loved the beautiful tropical scenery, the warm friendly people, the food, and the language.  The most common language spoken in the town was Pijin, an English-based creole, and our task was to learn as much Pijin as possible and help teach the Pijin literacy classes. After six weeks I was proud that I could easily understand sermons in Pijin, and at the end of this summer I began to think seriously about becoming a Bible translator with Wycliffe.

The team of American college students consisted of 6 girls and 2 good-looking young men, who for me were the icing on the cake that summer.  Although I never thought I was terribly popular with the opposite sex, for some reason, with that particular mix of girls, I was the Scarlett O'Hara of the group. I was more extroverted than most of them, I liked to flirt with the guys, and I liked dressing in frilly girlish clothes. As the summer progressed I developed a closer friendship with one of the guys on the team. We had a "date" attending a soccer game and would often stay up late, sitting out on the front porch and talking. The team had strict no-touching rules between the guys and girls, partly because of the local culture, and we would push these rules by squeezing each other when we thought no one was looking or playing footsie under the table.

I should have been more sensitive to how this appeared to the others in the group, but I was pretty oblivious. During the last week the situation came to a head. One of the other girls sat me down and told me that everyone thought my behavior with the guys was obnoxious and they were all sick of it.  I was crushed.  I had been having such a wonderful summer, only to learn that everyone hated me! My great experience was ruined!

I had the blessing to be able to talk the experience over with one of the older women on the team, who was able to help me put it in perspective and tell me that no one hated me, but that I needed to be more sensitive to the other girls. In retrospect, I figured out that some of the girls were probably interested in the guy that I liked, and so our behavior was especially irritating for them in stirring up jealousy.

Fast forward 33 years to the summer of 2014 and my second official missions trip. Our church was sending a team of 16 adults and teens, including me and my son Jonathan, to Bulgaria for 12 days to lead Vacation Bible Schools in several small churches there.  I loved Bulgaria.  The weather was perfect, the people were warm and friendly and happy to see us, the food was delicious and just unusual enough to be interesting. Although I didn't speak the language, enough Bulgarians spoke English that this wasn't a serious difficulty.

Our work proceeded smoothly with no serious mishaps.  It was tiring at times, but the churches seemed grateful for our help. But for me, the trip was often lonely. I knew everyone on the team casually, but not well enough to talk about anything that was important to me. Small annoyances bothered me more than I knew they should, and I found it hard to shrug them off and move on. When I got upset, I felt that I had to put on a happy face so that I didn't bring anyone down or sound like a complainer. And I've never been good at putting on a happy face when I'm upset, so this made me feel like a failure as well.

To make matters worse, Jonathan was having difficulties of his own. At the last minute two good-looking young people had joined the team, completely altering the group dynamic. The girls followed this particular boy around, and certain teenagers were included in this nucleus while others were excluded.  I felt angry that these Christian young people were treating each other this way, which only fed my own discouragement.

In thinking over these two trips, it struck me how similar they were in one way.  In particular, my stress didn't come from the food, strange language, or hard living conditions, but from relationships on my own team. In the first case I was the "insider" who created resentment in the girls who felt left out. On the second trip, my son and I were the ones who felt left out, which led to discouragement and loneliness. Perhaps it is something about my personality which made these situations difficult - or perhaps the Wycliffe member hit the nail on the head when he told us, "One of the hardest things about being a missionary is getting along with other missionaries."

This second trip may have been providential for another reason. My first novel, Finding Father, was released in July, and now I am working on my next one, Kerry's Calling. It is the story of a young missionary woman on her first assignment and her relationships with her teammates. Maybe I needed this timely reminder of the real difficulties that can occur!







Thursday, March 27, 2014

God Is Not Dead

Last Sunday my husband and I went to see the new Christian movie God Is Not Dead.  The movie had been highly publicized at my church and the subject matter held particular interest for me, so I was looking forward to it.  At the same time, based on past experiences with Christian movies, I approached the experience with a dash of wariness.  My mixed feelings were justified, and the movie turned out to be very much as I might have predicted.

The movie was geared for a Christian audience and the message was directed toward Christians.  The main character, Josh, is given the daunting task of defending his faith in front of his philosophy class and his particularly hostile professor.  He takes on the challenge in spite of some discouragement from other Christians.  As the result of his stand, he influences other characters, both believers and unbelievers, some of whom come to faith. Several characters in the story needed to make very hard stands for their faith which were inspiring. The message of the movie seemed to be, "Don't be afraid to take a stand for your beliefs; you never know what influence you might have."  With this message for this limited audience, the movie was successful.

The movie had also been touted as an evangelistic tool, and in this way it mostly fell flat.  Josh barely scratched the surface of Christian apologetics in his philosophy class, and expecting more from a movie of this sort was probably unreasonable.  Unlike some Christians, I was not offended by his references to the Big Bang theory and macro-evolution.  I thought his arguments were fine as far as they went, but they certainly weren't strong enough to inspire the whole class to rise to their feet at the end of the movie declaring "God is not dead!"  I found this scene a bit ridiculous, and suspect that most unbelievers would have the same reaction.

The biggest weakness of the movie was in the portrayal of several of the characters, especially the unbelievers.  I was beginning to feel some sympathy for the professor until the scene portraying his inexplicable and unmotivated rudeness toward his girlfriend.  This behavior was also unnecessary for the plot: the girl already knew she should break up with him and didn't need that experience to tell her so.  The movie thus took a character that had the potential for sympathy and complexity and turned him into a caricature of an arrogant professor.

Even worse was Amy's boyfriend, whose name escapes me.  He was so heartless, cold, and selfish, and made so little effort to hide it, that he hardly seemed believable.  I don't understand why this character needed to be portrayed in such a way.  Almost as bad in a smaller way was Josh's supposedly Christian girlfriend.  She was so selfish and unsympathetic I couldn't understand why he had dated her for six years.  It seemed contrived and incredible that she would abruptly ditch a long-term relationship over a disagreement about a college class.

Overall I enjoyed the movie.  I thought the story line was interesting, the better characters engaging, and the acting much better than I've seen in some Christian films.  The Christian message was important, especially for young people on secular campuses.  However, I was rather glad I hadn't invited any unbelievers to attend with me.  The movie would have been far more effective as an evangelistic tool if the unbelievers had been portrayed as real people instead of heartless arrogant caricatures.




Sunday, October 27, 2013

The End of the Dream

My heart is broken today.

My son Michael, now 18, was two months old when I attended my first writer's conference in Philadelphia. I remembered pushing him around the college in his little umbrella stroller, nervously showing my first draft of my first novel, Johanna's Journey, to the few editors I had landed appointments with. A few years later at a Maryland conference, an editor for the first time wanted to show my proposal to his committee.  I was so excited - surely this was it! A few weeks later I received a rejection letter addressed to Dear Author.  I cried when I read the letter. They couldn't even use my name!  I knew the road to publishing might be harder than I had first thought, but had no idea how hard.

The years passed with more novels, more conferences, more meetings with editors. I received some nice compliments and encouraging words, and more rejection letters. I completed Ellen's Intercession, The Return of the Rebel, and Kerry's Calling. After about eight years of writing, an editor requested the complete manuscript of The Return of the Rebel.  Again I was so excited - here was my big break!  I waited a year before following up, only to be told that the manuscript had been lost in a computer crash.  I resubmitted, waited another year, and then received a rejection letter. The publishing guidelines had changed in those two years, and my novel no longer fit the criteria, although "it was a pretty good story and we probably would have accepted it."

Finally, about three years ago, I told God I was done. I had one more conference to attend, and after that I wasn't going to try anymore. At that conference I met with three different editors who all requested that I submit my latest novel, Finding Father. So began another round of submissions, revisions, resubmissions.  One editors seemed genuinely excited about my idea and requested that I rework the entire manuscript so she could take it to her committee. I complied, spending many hours over several months revising the manuscript according her suggestions.  On Thursday I received an e-mail from her, saying that her committee felt my writing "isn't quite there."

So there I am. I hesitate to use the word "never," but at this moment I feel pretty certain that I will never submit a manuscript to a traditional publisher again. I have never gotten as close to publication as I did with this latest house and can't believe that I ever will again.  I have five novels that I would like to share with the world, but I seem to be hitting brick walls over and over again.

I am wrestling with this situation spiritually as well. If God didn't want me to write, why did I keep getting encouragement over the years, only to have doors slammed in my face? Why did he take me so far only to lead me to a dead end? Or maybe it wasn't God leading me at all, but my own wishful thinking, my own fantasy of being a writer? Does God want me to be happy writing novel after novel and not care if I have an audience or if anyone reads them? All these questions are circling through my mind, and I have no answers yet.

The one possibility still open to me is self-publishing. Up till now, I've hesitated to go that route for several reasons. The first, I suppose, is my own insecurity and need for validation. If the "professionals" don't think my books are worth their time and money, why should I spend family's money on something that isn't all that worthwhile? The other reason is a realistic knowledge of my own strengths and weaknesses. If I have a strength in this field, my strength is writing, not marketing. If I self-publish, the burden of marketing my own books is entirely on my shoulders, and that isn't something that I feel completely (or even slightly) comfortable with.

But at this point I don't have much to lose. I am at a crossroad, but I am going to think and pray and explore the possibility of self-publishing.  Maybe it will turn into another dead end. Maybe I will manage to sell a few hundred books through this method and my books will speak to someone or touch their lives or influence them in some way, and that will be worth it. Maybe I will even be one of the rare success stories. Only God knows.





Monday, June 24, 2013

Self-confidence or Presumption?

What is the difference between self-confidence and presumption?  How do I have true humility and also the confidence to promote my work?

As I wait to hear from another editor, this is the issue that again I wrestle with.  For some reason, when it come to my writing, I've always needed a lot of reinforcement from people around me.  If I don't have people telling me that they like my books, that they were meaningful to them, it's hard for me to believe that they are any good or that my writing is worthwhile.  Or maybe I feel that I'm wasting my time if no one is going to read my books anyway.

I suppose this is a personality issue, at least partly.  I've read books that I really didn't think were all that good, and yet clearly their authors had enough self-confidence to go through the painful process of publishing.  In the process, they found an audience:  a group of readers who enjoyed their books enough to shell out the money (or at least go to the library) and spend the time in the imaginary world the author had created. This seems like presumption to me, but maybe it's really just healthy confidence.  And, of course, different audiences enjoy different types of writing, and what seems like trash to me might be thoroughly enjoyable to someone else.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis talks about pride and humility, and the true purpose of humility:  "Let him think of [humility] not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character.  Some talents, I gather, he really has.  Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be.  No doubt they are in fact less valuable than he believes, but that is not the point....[God] wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour's talents."

Alas, I am not there yet.  I fear I am a long way from that true type of humility, and I wonder if I will ever get there.  I want to be told that my writing is good and meaningful, but even when I hear that (as I have, many times - one of the women in my writer's group told me I should look in the mirror every day and tell myself, "You have a really good book here!"), it never completely satisfies me.  Perhaps the reason that I want to be published so badly is that I see it as that final validation:  Some professional actually thought my writing was good enough to take a chance on.  But since I know that professionals often take a chance on writing that really isn't good at all, why should that matter so much?

I am bracing myself for another rejection and wondering how I should react to it.  I know my initial reaction will be that I will never want to try again.  I have never gotten this close before, I don't believe I will again.  But should I be happy to continue writing without any real audience except the circle of loyal friends who have been my readers for the last 18 years?  Or should I try the self-publishing route - which demands more self-confidence (or presumption) than I have ever yet managed to find in myself?

These are the questions that I wrestle with as I wonder and wait.