Category Archives: Themes and Issues in My Writing

You Can’t Go Home Again; Home Goes With You

The writers’ conference was in North Carolina, in the foothills of the Appalachians. My husband and I rented a car at the airport in Knoxville, Tennessee, and drove across the mountains. From place names to bends in the highway, the times of my childhood floated back to me.

My parents, my brother, and I spent summer vacations hiking these hills, exploring small mountain towns in our car, stopping to spend nights in motels on different sides of the Great Smokies. As a teenager, I attended youth conferences at the center where I now gathered with other writers.

Strange how the going and coming, from childhood to adulthood, finds its way into the series of stories I’m writing now, stories I submitted for critiques and class discussion at the conference. The feedback suggested a green light to continue.

The series follows a young man raised in Appalachia who leaves home, first for university, then for an appointment as a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. State Department. Throughout his adulthood he will fit pieces together from old and new. He discards, keeps, and adds as he matures. He creates a mosaic, as we all do, hopefully with increasing wisdom and discernment.

 

Time and Setting as Characters

My stories usually unfold in a definite time and setting. Like other characters, time and setting influence the other actors. Their experiences pinpoint changes that began then and influence us today.

Quiet Deception takes place in Pennsylvania and Tennessee following World War II. Changes like the growth of suburbia and later the entry of the United States into the Vietnamese conflict drastically altered the lives of many Americans. Urban neighborhoods declined, encouraging a growing underclass. Antiwar sentiment divided the nation.

Tender Shadows CoverTender Shadows happens within the first decade of the twenty-first century. Places of action include London; Washington, D.C.; Memphis, Tennessee; and a Persian Gulf emirate. Global terrorism changed habits, from the way we pass through airports to how we think about religion. The digital revolution sped new ideas around the globe, sometimes to those not ready for them.

None of my stories take place in the immediate “now.” Indeed, even a story classed as contemporary leaves the contemporary realm as soon as it is written, since the future constantly replaces the “now.”

Are my stories historical? “Near history” is a term I prefer. I believe the time and setting of a story are as important as the characters. Peering back into the near past, we can see how it has influenced the present. Why? Why do some values endure and others pass away? Why do others seem to die, then return in another era?

Our answers may guide us to better understand the “now” and suggest wiser present choices.

 

A Left-Handed Christian in the Religiously Right-Handed World

A Sense of MissionI have difficulty pinpointing where the ideas for my stories come from. A Sense of Mission, my favorite, is the only one written in first person.

At one point, Kaitlin, the main character, says “I felt as if I were a left-handed Christian in the world of the religiously right-handed.”

Maybe that was the germ for the story. I often feel like a left-handed Christian. I suppose most of us, Christian or not, feel out of synch with the drummer at times. For one thing, I’m too serious. My mother was always encouraging me to “get out and have some fun.” To this day, “getting out” requires effort. Sometimes I should exert the effort. Too easy for a writer to stay stuck in solitude.

But sometimes solitude is what I need. I no longer apologize for that. The choice is not cut and dried. Whether we crave solitude or the next party, we strive for the right balance.

Kaitlin, whose life circumstances were far different from mine, found her way. She took wrong turns, for all the best reasons, but finally discovered how to live as she was meant to live.

I doubt any of us has a perfect life, though some seem more blessed than others. Regardless, write with the hand given you.

 

Why We Enjoy Stories Set in Small Communities

The village is an ideal setting for character development, especially a mystery. Even some of the detectives in the hard boiled genre chase their suspects in locales far from New York or London. The Simon Serrailler series by Susan Hill is set in the cathedral town of Lafferton, England, an idyllic seeming town. Yet crimes happen there, and the small town setting emphasizes them.

Character-driven mysteries (my favorites) typically involve a small number of characters. Time is required to develop each character, including, of course, suspects. Thus, small communities are ideal, since the inhabitants are more likely to be known to each other (supposedly). Characters can easily be introduced through other characters.

Quiet DeceptionOne of my novels (Quiet Deception) is set in a small college town and is my only straight mystery. The others contain a twist of mystery, but I’m more interested in how the characters evolve and the moral dilemmas they face.

Several of my novels are set in diplomatic communities. Having experienced these, I know how ideal this setting is for character development. A few Americans are assigned to work together and live in a foreign country for the common purpose of representing the United States through various tasks. Normally, they will include ambitious, work driven types as well as those highly motivated to serve their country. Sprinkle in a few significant others in close proximity and add a complex character with an enigmatic past. Then mix in problems from the foreign surroundings, such as hostility toward Americans. You have a ready-made setting for conflict.

 

A Little Fiction: Why Democracy Is Hard to Sell

Joe Harlan, a character in my novel Tender Shadows, is a middle-aged political officer at the U.S. embassy in a Middle Eastern country. He tries to adjust to changes in his career world. He struggles with the technical challenges that his younger officers take for granted. Problems with his daughter, also serving at the embassy, bother him more.

He finds a kindred spirit in a man his age of a different culture, the middle-aged uncle of the country’s ruler. They talk one day in the villa of his Arab friend. One of Joe’s duties as an American diplomat is to encourage democracy. He finds it a hard task.

The uncle comments about his fellow citizens: “They have television and many have computers and the internet. Certainly, if they have businesses, they know what goes on in your world. The movies, the divorces, the living together without marriage, the children born to unmarried mothers. Do you think they want this for their daughters?”

The passage is, of course, fictitious. But it is based on my experiences in an area of the world that has imploded in a dozen different ways since the Cold War ended, including the most recent threat: ISIS.

Instant communication tosses our violence, our quest for personal pleasure, and our polarized government into everyone’s front room. As we rightly speak out against brutality and injustice, the way we live sometimes obscures the message.

 

Enjoying the Good Times, a Faith Thing

 “I fancy I still hear the call to prayer from the mosque beside the U.S. embassy compound, though I’m a grown woman now.”

So begins the week that will change the life of nine-year-old Kaitlin Sadler in A Sense of Mission. So far, it is the only novel I have written that came to me in first person.

Kaitlin was not me. I did not experience her type of childhood. I certainly didn’t lose my parents at the age of nine in a terrorist attack.

I think her story came to me while I tried to deal with the realization that good times, like all times in this life, will end. We are, so they say, the only creatures who know we will die.

Joshua, a family friend, asks the teenage Kaitlin, “Is it because of your parents that you always expect bad news?”

“Good times never last,” Kaitlin says.

The friend replies, “True. Neither do bad times.”

Kaitlin explains that enjoying the good times is like feasting at a banquet when some monster from Lord of the Rings stares at you through a half open door.” She asks, “You think it takes faith to enjoy good times?”

Joshua considers and replies in the affirmative “especially for those who’ve gone through suffering.”

When we suffer, we decide which road to take. If we decide to enter life again, to open ourselves to the possibility of joy, it remains a faith thing until we find our way in better times.

 

Fruitcakes and Novels

Fruitcake

 

My high school band sold fruitcakes to raise money for band trips. We went door to door in our neighborhood (wearing our band uniforms on a Saturday morning) extolling the merits of those creations from the south Georgia pecan belt. I hated every minute of it.

 

 

 

Tender-Shadows-Cover-200x300

 

 

Now the publisher of my novels has gifted me with a promotion (a priceless gem these days when most books are self-promoted). Friday, June 13, the first day of the promotion, you can buy the Kindle edition of my latest novel, Tender Shadows, for $1.99. The next day, Saturday, June 14, Tender Shadows sells for $2.99. Sunday, June 15, the price is $3.99. Then it goes back to the still reasonable price of $4.99.

Buy from Amazon.com

 

I’m trying, am I not? But I still cringe when faced with marketing. Marketing asks people to give up something, usually money, but also time, perhaps even more precious.

Why would someone choose to expend these precious commodities to read my novels or write reviews of them or even read my blogs? Given the new world created by the internet, novels proliferate like eighteenth century political tracts. Blogs are as prevalent as misty droplets in a Seattle winter.

Nevertheless, unless you are as famous as Stephen King, you do it. Authors write. Authors sell.

One thing in my favor: I don’t like fruitcake, but I love to read. And write.

Tender Shadows: Risking Community in a World Falling Apart

 

As in most of my writing, I don’t know how Tender Shadows began. Writing for me is a bit like breathing, I just do it.

I seem to remember questioning our throw-away society: how we throw away more than plastic bottles and last year’s iPads. Politicians ride a crest of popularity, then fade. Celebrities become our idols until some scandal does them in. Sometimes we throw away families.

Tender Shadows CoverThe characters in Tender Shadows differ in background and purpose and choices. They mirror society in the early twenty-first century. They include the digitally adept and the digitally challenged, the athletic and those who struggle to keep off extra pounds, the confident and the searchers.

Beth, staring at middle age in a few years time, hopes to grab what she can from a life first of loss and then of aimless wandering. Joe, widowed, doesn’t want any other woman competing with memories of his beloved wife. Joe’s daughter, Annie, recovers from a past mistake—only was it a mistake? David, a young Palestinian-American, ignores his growing affection for Annie because he’s not worthy of tenderness after what he did in Iraq.

Thrown together at a U.S. embassy in what is supposed to be a peaceful assignment in a country friendly to the United States, they creep toward community. They share but constantly bump up against barriers which impede that sharing.

They watch increasing signs that not all citizens of this prosperous Gulf nation are pleased with their young ruler’s American ideas. Many fear the erosion of traditional values. The Americans wonder how threatened are their own values.

Why We Read Coming-of-Age Novels

 

Response spring-2014-coverThe fancy name for coming-of-age stories is Bildungsroman (loosely translated: growth novel). This word is featured in a column by Christine Chaney, a professor of English at Seattle Pacific University, in the 2014 spring issue of Response (SPU) magazine.

According to Dr. Chaney, the early Victorian novel Jane Eyre by Charolotte Bronte is a Bildungsroman. So is the entire Harry Potter series. A single character “often grows from childhood to adulthood, gaining wisdom through life experiences—while often making mistakes and suffering loss along the way.”

I was drawn to the article because I have begun a series which does just that—traces the growth of an Appalachian young man leaving his roots and entering the changing world of the nation’s capital at the end of the twentieth century. The protagonist must travel both geographically and culturally into the digital age. How does he adjust his childhood views within this new world?

All of us are characters in our own growth novel, only our growth does not end when we leave young adulthood.

How Do We Find the Thin Place Where Faith Meets Mind?

 

I grew up in a working class neighborhood and attended an evangelical Christian church. I generally hid my academic achievements because I sensed a prevailing opinion that intellectual activity was too removed from practical issues and might even lead one astray. I loved learning for its own sake. Was that chasing after forbidden fruit, like clandestine passion?  Of what use was it?

This attitude reflected our social and economic status more than any religious teaching. The missionaries I met during my growing up years were among the most intelligent, compassionate people I knew, a far cry from the stereotypical images often portrayed in fiction. Nevertheless, practical learning and revelation were prized over intellectual pursuit in my childhood community.

The novels that I write as an adult continue to grapple with a fish/fowl schizophrenia. I don’t think I write “Christian” fiction or at least not what is termed “inspirational” fiction. Many of my characters belong to the Christian fold, but their problems reflect a different level of struggle—searching for vocation, for purpose, or for meaning.

Evangelical MindIn grappling with the place of the mind, that is the use of the mind, in the Christian pursuit, I read a book written by Mark Noll, now history professor at the University of Notre Dame. His book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, was first published in 1994. He sets out a challenge for evangelical Christians in the use of the mind. He describes the evangelical life of the mind as: ” . . . to think within a specifically Christian framework—across the whole spectrum of modern learning, including economics and political science, literary criticism and imaginative writing, historical inquiry and philosophical studies, linguistics and the history of science, social theory and the arts.”

For Christians to neglect the use of the intellect is to ignore a gift. One uses the gift in scientific inquiry, in searching for economic and political solutions, and other fitting pursuits. I explore this thin place where faith meets mind in my writing.

Happy Clowns and Literary Fiction

 

Brett Lott, a Christian who writes highly successful literary fiction, suggests in his book, Letters and Life, that Christians reclaim this category. Lott reflected on a keynote speech he gave to authors and publishers in an award ceremony for Christian novelists: “I’m afraid I may have made more enemies than anything else. . . . I don’t write what most Christians would call ‘Christian fiction.’ I felt myself the odd man out the whole evening long.”

As I read those lines, I thought, Bingo, Mr. Lott.

Further in in his speech, he said, “. . .unless we make room inside the Christian writing industrial complex to create worthy work—art—that in its craftsmanship and vision challenges the heart and soul and mind of our readers—then we will be nothing more than happy clowns juggling for one another.”

Years ago I created curriculum material for a conservative Christian denomination, one I had grown up in. I wrote my first novel with the same audience in mind. However, it dealt with a divorced Christian woman, a rare subject for that audience at the time.

Later, after many changes in my life, including several years working in the Middle East, my Christian beliefs, like Bret Lott’s, have strengthened. My immersion in cultures different from those I grew up in (and not only in other countries) have, however, given me deeper insights. In my fiction, I have struggled and struggle still to represent what I believe to be a more mature view. But I continue to write.

 

 

Not Even the British?

 

The leader of the writers’ symposium shook her head. “In pitches for your stories, you must compare your work to American authors.”

“Not even the British?” I asked. I had compared the current story I’m writing, part of a mystery series, to the novels of a couple of English mystery authors.

“Not even the British. Has to be American.”

The British, who practically invented the cozy mystery, who birthed Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, were not be mentioned in a pitch for a story? I guess not.

I should have been forewarned. Other times when I’ve pitched stories to editors or agents, I’ve seen them shake their heads. “The market for stories other than those with a domestic setting is slim.”

“Even with American characters?”

“Even with American characters.”

Growing up, I loved Kate Seredy’s stories of Hungarians. Others stories with Russian, French, German, Mexican, and of course British characters inhabited my childhood years. Granted, stories based in Africa or South America were rarely available in the public library of my childhood, but the global stories it held were favorites.

The United States is a large country. Like other large countries, such as India and Russia, we tend toward strong nationalism, toward an us and them outlook. Such nations develop strong creative impulses in literature, music, and art.

Yet, our ignorance of other countries and their cultures can lead to poor decisions in our relations with the world. The last war with Iraq is now considered a mistake by many Americans of both political parties.

To study other countries and read stories with international settings does not reflect poorly on the loyalty we have for our own accomplishments. In fact, one of the reasons for our country’s vitality is the stream of immigrants that flow into it from other cultures.

Most of us enjoy geography in music: a Polish polka, a German symphony, a Mexican dance, an African hymn. What about geography through fiction?