Tag Archives: Tender Shadows

Leaving Our Tribe

Whenever we leave a “tribe”—a group of people we’ve been closely associated with for a period of time—we may feel we’ve lost our identity on returning to “normal” society.

One combat veteran who suffered post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suggested that veterans of combat be sent back together when returning to civilian life. They had formed a unit. Perhaps return to society could be done together. They would confront “normal” life as a unit, just as they faced combat together. (What It Is Like to Go to War; Karl Marlantes)

In Saudi Arabia in 2003, where I served with U.S. embassy and consulate staffs during the second Gulf war against Iraq, we had experienced a prolonged period of increasing danger to Americans. Several terrorist incidents finally led to partial evacuation of staff.

As one of those sent “home,” I experienced a strange sense of loss. My disorientation was hardly worthy of the name when compared with someone returning from combat. Yet the sensation, half of sorrow for no longer having a “tribe” of fellow colleagues facing danger together, was real enough.

I incorporated them into one character’s feelings in Tender Shadows on her return to the States from a similar situation:

“ . . . she remembered last evening in her sterile apartment. Flipping through fifty television channels from sheer loneliness and finding nothing of worth. The country she’d come back to . . . offered twenty-four-hour food service, shop-‘til-you-drop malls, and movies filled with angst and black humor. Washington allowed no ready-made community like her foreign assignments.”

For this fictional character as with others in real life stressful situations, community is the missing ingredient.

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.


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 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.


Fruitcakes and Novels



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.







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.