Category Archives: Themes and Issues in My Writing

Using Story to Explore Questions

When I was young, so young I barely remember those times, my father told me stories. I don’t remember that he ever told me fairy tales. He told me stories from history, from the books he was constantly reading. I grew up on stories of middle Tennessee, where we lived, and others from American history, including World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War.

If he had the chance, he would have been, I’m sure, a marvelous teacher of history to young people. Unfortunately, his formal schooling ended two years into high school after he dropped out to support parents and younger siblings.

I never heard him complain about it. He enjoyed the opportunities that came to him. He loved working with young people in our church. He read widely, from history and sometimes novels.

When our family visited historic sites on family vacations, he told us stories that encouraged our imagination about the events that happened there. And he passed his penchant for history to me.

I didn’t become a history teacher, either. I turned to journalism, then other circumstances intervened. My years of working overseas in U.S. embassies and consulates fed that love of history, of exploring how and why countries were different or alike.

As the world changed dramatically in those years, I wanted to know what led to those changes. I explored the events and processes happening years, decades, even centuries ago leading to today’s current events.

I write novels to explore what happened to the people in the midst of those changes. Fiction frees our imagination to see beyond the facts and encourages flashes of insight.

Midnight Wanderings Led to New Novel

Terrorists attacked a residential compound in Saudi Arabia in May, 2004, where Americans and other expatriates lived. I was working in the U.S. State Department’s “watch” or operations center in Washington at the time.

On my last overseas assignment before returning to the U.S. to work on the watch, I lived near the attacked compound. I visited for meals in restaurants there. I attended meetings of American women, one of whom was wounded in the attack. Because I knew the area, I was able to provide a summary of the compound’s layout to the watch team as we kept up with events and provided input to State Department officials.

The State Department operations center is staffed with career U.S. Foreign Service officers taking a Washington assignment between appointments overseas, as I was. Some hours on weekends or nights were dull, but worth it for the privilege of those adrenalin laced moments when we had a front row seat to a crisis erupting on the world scene.

Coming to work for midnight shifts on the watch, walking down empty, echoing hallways in the State Department, my overactive imagination pictured lurking spies waiting for the opportunity to steal classified documents, perhaps to kill if they were thwarted.

It seemed natural to center my third novel in the Mark Pacer mystery/family relationship series around those evenings loaded with my imaginings . . .

He reached the nearest elevator and punched the button. The elevator hummed as it descended from an upper level, then shuddered to an opening. He began his first step inside, his hand instinctively held out in case the elevator door started to close prematurely.
Then Mark halted, one foot in the doorway, his hand remaining out as he saw a man’s contorted face staring back at him. . . .
The man collapsed with his knees bent. Was he aware of his tall frame and the small space of the elevator floor? He turned slightly, resting on his left shoulder, his face toward Mark.
Mark forced the elevator door open as it tried to close, his mind noting further details; a part of him frozen in shock, another part of him driven to analyze. The man forced a groan, as though it was pulled involuntarily from him, and his right arm stretched to within inches of Mark’s foot. Finally, a dark stain puddled on the floor from the man’s right shoulder. His expensive suit would be ruined . . .

Thankfully, this experience never happened during my tenure on the watch. During those nighttime hours, however, with their aura of haunting, I could easily imagine it.

Between Literary and Commercial, Religious and Secular, Plot and Character, and Other Conundrums

In “Literary Lust vs Commercial Cash” (Writer’s Digest, December 2006), the successful author, Jodi Picoult, commented on her struggle between writing commercial or literary fiction.

“At some point in your career, you’ll be forced to choose either the commercial path or the literary one.” The reason, she said, has less to do with writing and more to do with marketing.

Similar to Picoult’s dilemma between literary and commercial (she manages to write books that are both) is my dilemma between marketing myself as a “religious” writer or as a writer of international mysteries and family relationships. My books aren’t what are termed “inspirational” even though religious choices exert influence on the main characters, if only made in a distant past.

My intended audience is the “spiritually engaged news junkie” as well as the reader who just prefers fiction with an international element.

Some of the audiences I’m aiming for are Christians who don’t normally read “Christian” books. They prefer certain secular books that, to them, present deep truths in a more subtle fashion.

I also write for tolerant unbelievers who don’t mind a character wrestling with life’s perplexities within a faith context.

In terms of character and plot, I enjoy the type of hybrid novels written by Charles Todd, writer of the Inspector Ian Rutledge series. These novels are not strictly a detective series. They are character mysteries about a British detective afflicted with post traumatic stress disorder due to service in World War I.

For myself, I’m still searching for that hybrid connection between authentic faith and a messy world, one that doesn’t always color between the lines.

Revisiting the Melungeons, Spur to a Story

When I was growing up in Tennessee, I was fascinated by legends about the Melungeons. The legends told of a mysterious people, with European practices, already in the Appalachians when the earliest white settlers arrived.

Speculation abounded, even as the group was shunned, a dark people, looked down on by many of the newcomers. Were they descendants of whites married to native Americans? Descendants of shipwrecked Portuguese sailors off the coast of North Carolina? Descendants of free blacks married to native Americans? Descendants of the Lost Colony of Virginia, which vanished from history at the end of the 16th century? Or even descendants of European Jews escaping persecution?

Imagine my surprise when I picked up a copy of The Economist (August 27, 2016) to find an article on the Melungeons. The author had traveled to “Snake Hollow . . . between the ridge and Powell Mountain and hard on Tennessee’s northeastern border.” Stories from that neck of the woods don’t often make it into the pages of an international magazine. The article concludes with a quote from the president of the Melungeon Heritage Association: “The Melungeons . . . are part of the fabric of Appalachia. The fabric of America.”

A few years ago, I put the Melungeons into a story of mine, Quiet Deception, a hybird mystery/romance set on the mythical college campus of Adair in one of my favorite places, the Appalachians of east Tennessee. I called them the Painter Mountain people. One of the Painter Mountain people attends Adair, the first in her family to enter college. Her sympathetic understanding of the distraught main character gives this character an incentive to find answers to two mysteries, including a possible origin for some Painter Mountain people. . . .

If Winter Comes

“If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”
–Percy Bysshe Shelley; “Ode to the West Wind”

Many years ago, I watched a television interview with one of the American hostages of the 1979 Iranian takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The hostage, released with the others in 1981, spoke of her ordeal. She impressed me with her courage and resilience.

Later, after I joined the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service, I worked with another former hostage. I also served with one of the Americans who escaped capture, the basis for the fictionalized movie, Argo, winner of the Academy Award in 2013 for best motion picture.

In security seminars, required before we left for our foreign postings, other former hostages passed on to us the lessons they had learned during captivity. We were aware that, as embassy officers, we would probably be evacuated at least once or twice from a post threatened by terrorism or insurrection, if not worse, in our careers. (The magic number for me was two evacuations.)

No surprise, then, that Mark Pacer, the protagonist in my new series, beginning his State Department career in the late 1970’s, would be affected by the 1979 hostage crisis. If Winter Comes takes place from 1977 to 1981.

The hostage taking and its aftermath form a major part of the book. It’s a story of the crisis, but also of how one couple deals with the resulting threats to their marriage.

Don’t Straightjacket Fiction by Genre

The Grantchester books by James Runcie are a mystery series. Yet this designation alone straitjackets them. These stories of an English priest in the decades following World War II are also about relationships and cultural change.

How do you classify the Mitford series by Jan Karon? An American minister in his sixties falls in love with the divorced woman next door. A romance series? Small mysteries weave in and out, too. Are the books an example of the romance/mystery genre? Family relationships play an important role in the stories. In fact, for me, relationships are the key to the series. Family saga perhaps?

New designations for fiction like the Mitford series, the Grantchester series, and other novels of this type include the terms cross-genre and upmarket (a type of hybrid commercial/literary fiction).

My chief difficulty in marketing my novels is settling on a genre to place them in. Mystery? International intrigue? Love story? Family relationships?

In pitching fiction, writers are told, they must state the genre. Why? Because to market the book, a seller, whether owner of a physical bookstore or an ebook distributor, must know where to place the book—the shelf or category.

Genre is a marketing tool. It works well for novels like straight detective stories or romance or horror. It works less well for mixed stories. If they must be marketed by genre, at least the back cover copy can hint at a story beyond the genre straitjacket.

Where I Belong: a Novel About an Appalachian Non-Belonger

Yesterday I learned that my most recent novel, Where I Belong, is one of the 2016 finalists for the Selah Award.

Sometimes my stories begin in my head as a search for answers to questions. This novel began, as best I can remember, with the question: how does a young man from the southern Appalachians, raised by loving but imperfect parents, adjust to the outside world?

This age of refugees reminds us of the non-belonger. Refugees are those fleeing Syria’s brutal horror, but they are also the homeless in our cities.

Mark Pacer, the twenty-something young adult leaving tight-knit kinfolk behind to enter another era is, for a while, a non-belonger—to the older generation and sometimes to his new peers.

What do we owe our past tribes when we leave them, if anything?

What do we owe our families, if we are fortunate enough to have nurturing families? What do we not owe our families? What if we are drawn to different values?

When we leave one culture for another, whether as obvious refugees or less obvious ones, how do we handle our loneliness, the loneliness of the non-belonger? What values do we keep when entering a different culture, or when an alien culture threatens our own?

The Old Testament talks of the strangers and the aliens and calls us to treat them kindly.

Short as the Watch That Ends the Night

My father introduced me to history. For him, it wasn’t a collection of boring dates. History was people.

He enthralled me with fascinating tales of hillbilly ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War in lesser known battles like Kings Mountain. He told me stories of Winston Churchill and the Battle of Britain, when England stood firm against the Nazis after they conquered most of Europe.

With that upbringing, of course the stories I write now are rooted in time and place. The space that spoke to me and that I have put into my novels is the gray area that begins with the end of World War II. A schizophrenic time period—not historical fiction, but not contemporary either in its first decades.

I examine the times, asking why my country and the world changed so drastically during that time.

The Cold War with the Soviet Union descended almost immediately following World War II, when the United States accepted the mantle of world leadership.

Americans chose to enter the Vietnamese conflict, and it has haunted us ever since. Eventually, the world saw the miraculous end of the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust.

Spiritual changes were no less profound. The age of city-wide revivals passed into today’s age of the nones, the ones with no religious affiliation.

What did we do to the times and what did the times do to us? That’s what the characters in my novels seek to find out.

Why Write a Story?

In my “inspiration” folder, I keep articles by or about famous writers whom I admire.
Once in a while I review the obituary for Madeleine L’Engle, the author of the children’s classic A Wrinkle in Time, from The New York Times, September 8, 2007.

“Her writing transcended genre and generation,” Douglas Martin wrote in the obituary.

The series that included A Wrinkle in Time “combines elements of science fiction with insights into love and moral purpose . . .”

I ponder the concept of moral purpose.

L’Engle said of her most famous work: “It was only after it was written that I realized what some of it meant.”

I often write a story for no other reason than because the story is there. After I’ve written a draft or two, it dawns on me what are its reasons for being. It answers, I suppose, some question in my subconscious. The story is there, and I write it first.

In answer to the question, “Why does anybody tell a story?” L’Engle replied, “It does indeed have something to do with faith . . . faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.”

We divide into two camps: Life has meaning or it doesn’t. L’Engle came down on the side of purpose and blessed us with her insights.

Where I Belong

After working with a story over a long period, I develop an attachment to my characters. That’s probably why they reappear in later novels, often in cameo roles. Joe Harlan, an older Foreign Service officer, appears off and on as a kind of mentor to the younger characters. I finally made him a main character in Tender Shadows.

The author Wendell Berry, in his series of writings about the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, does much the same thing. Main actors in one novel become supporting actors in another.

His novels, like mine, are not a connected series featuring one main character.

After completing Tender Shadows, I began a story about Mark Pacer, a transplant from Mocking Bird, Georgia, to the Foreign Service in 1976. I decided to let Mark have his own series (Where I Belong). A series lets me enjoy Mark from youth to—who knows—old age?

Following Mark’s life through the years also allows me to indulge my love of near history. The seventy years from 1945 (the end of World War II) carried us from early television to smart phones, from daily print newspapers with occasional extra editions to news from the far corners of the globe at the flick of an iPad.

What did this warp speed journey do to us? How does a fairly conservative young man, raised in an Appalachian village in the fifties and sixties, react to the changes of the seventies and beyond? Where does he belong? Will he become a refugee from the past?

Mark is twenty-one when the series begins, just finishing college and accepting an appointment with the U.S. Foreign Service. His father objects. “Too dandified for people like us,” he says, and we’re off into the story, which I’ve almost finished.

 

Leaving Home, Loving Your Parents

The teacher at the writers’ conference offered helpful suggestions for my work in progress. However, he expressed puzzlement at the story’s relationship between the young man, my main character, and his father.

The protagonist was raised in Appalachia, had gone away to college, and was now in conflict with his father, a conflict that deeply troubled the young man. He is choosing a profession that the father disapproves of.

“Why,” the teacher asked, “would a man in his early twenties care what his father thought of his choices?”

I could not explain the importance of family, especially in more rural settings. I could not explain how love between some parents and children remains important to their relationship.

Adult children are obligated to act as adults. Men and women leave their birth homes and form homes of their own. Jesus said a man shouldn’t use a parent as an excuse for not following his own calling.

The young man in my story continues in his chosen vocation. Later, he and his father reconcile. They are able to do this because of their love for each other.

The independence that a healthy adult child assumes does not preclude a caring relationship with his birth family.

 

When Story Explores How We Became What We Are

I recently discovered two fictional series, one in the detective genre, the other in the mystery category. Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series and James Runcie’s Grantchester series begin in the mid-twentieth century, a decade or two after World War II.

Critics describe both, as going beyond their genres. They are immersed in the social and cultural changes of their eras as they follow the main characters through time. They appeal to me for that reason.

My own novels have changed. In the beginning they tended toward romance, then women’s fiction, but the characters were wedded to the time period of the seventies and eighties. They explored a time period not considered either historical or contemporary. The era of near history is my niche, because it lends clues for how we became what we are in the present. In addition, nobody writes truly “contemporary” fiction. As one is writing the words, the present becomes past.

Time features even more in the series I’m writing now, which follow a man’s life from the late 1970’s into whatever near present I’m able to reach. Few would deny the tremendous changes during this time period.

Why did the changes happen? How did they develop? What do the changes mean to us today? What do they mean to relationships and families? What do they mean to our belief systems?

Another change occurs, too. The novelist is changed as a result of considering the changes to his/her protagonists. It makes for an interesting journey.