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A Novel Approach: War and research

For me writing involves examining things with a magnifying glass of words.

J.M. Mirich

Currently Ethiopia is on my radar as I finish rewriting a WWII novel. Did the war actually begin with Germany’s invasion of Poland? Or was it when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and no one interfered. As a member of the League of Nations Ethiopia should have been protected by the signers of the Charter. However, the nation of Ethiopia was left to her own devises but an  embargo of arms was placed on her. So, a story winds through my brain.

I want readers to experience life with all its textures and cultural nuances. Writing of the thunder of Tisisat Falls as it cascades into the ravine, the gooey texture of a chocolate truffle, and the scent of jasmine wafting through a Kenyan garden gives me joy. I prefer to do my location research in situ. Sitting at a sidewalk café in Addis Ababa and indulging in the sour pancake injera with friends is how I learn. Experiencing the ripe scent of unwashed bodies in Mombasa harbor and the cough of a lion on the prowl infuses my work with reality.

In my imagination, I’m up to my eyeballs in and desert sand. Having lived on the end of the Mohave and experiencing a haboob or two I can draw on my familiarity of chasing sand around when cleaning and attempting to spit out grit in a lady-like manner.

I’ve dealt with a few things in life—a swat team on my roof firing at a kidnapping suspect, yes—bullets flying from a Regina Aeronautica’s Caproni Ca 101, no. I’ve never had to contend with bombs. I do not think I need to experience being a target of an air raid to write about it.   

They must be terrifying reading the accounts of the survivors of the London Blitz. What can I draw from to communicate the fear people had? The light slowly dawns. We live with fear from too much information about skullduggery, pandemics, and shortages. In a culture that has news at the touch of a finger we are riveted by the latest outrage. When our minds are whiplashed by irate opinion sharers, we become like the people Absalom chatted up at the city gate—easily troubled.

The Lord challenges me to think about, ‘What is true, what is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worth of praise, think on these things.’ Philippians 4:8-9. During this season I’m fleeing the whispers and seeking His peace that I glean from His word.

Revised

Revised is a plague on a writer’s house. Sometimes a do over is necessary but a rewrite is complicated. It resembles moving to a far country. What should I keep? Anything? Should I start from the beginning or where I am? I am not Sherlock Holmes type of person. No magnifying glass sits on my writing desk. I do not investigate life with microscopes. Jots and tittles are for scribes copying manuscripts in alpine monasteries, their hands incased in ink stained fingerless mittens.    

Adjustment has been my theme of 2020. We returned from Israel in February and quickly entered into the “close down our lives” mode with the rest of the world. What a great opportunity to clean up fabric to make into masks. I set to work.

The idea of organizing led to cutting fabric, hunting for elastic, finishing a third novel in my mystery series, cleaning closets, rethinking how we should live, what we should eat, and changing our plans over and over again.

September found me knee deep (don’t you love trite phrases) in a rewrite of a novel first published eight years ago. It is a Christmas novel that I had the temerity to think I could get out before the Christmas of 2020. Not a chance. Covid stealthily crept up and flattened us at the end of September.

Can you believe my eye lids still itch and are tender and my brain flits about like bees among pear blossoms? For weeks concentrating for more than a few minutes made my head hurt—literally.

When my husband developed double pneumonia and was in the Covid wing of our hospital, I got a bit compulsive and stormed through my sewing room drawers gathering supplies for a craft group. The errant OCD attack didn’t stop there because then I wrapped embroidery thread onto cardboard, finished a project or two, sorted magazines and sent many things to goodwill. I could still sew a straight seam with my eyes tearing so finished a few lap quilts but…the old novel lay on my desk as an accusation.

What did God want me to do with my days?

Between naps and prayers, I had a minute or two to weave sentences into something. The haunting word—revision raised its red ink pen and I began. The edited word tapestry became a stronger tale and the warp and weave still created the picture I wanted. Would the story of God’s love for a missionary, a jump jockey, and a reprobate shipping magnate impact lives for His kingdom? A do over, if only for my own heart, was satisfying.

We are in a season of gathering memories and examining our own hearts. For us it is a time of stopping, waiting, and prayer. As this troubling year slips into 2021 will the revisions God has asked for in my own life remain or will I delete and try to figure it out on my own?

Contemplating September 2020

Early fall days can be like the hot flashes of a temperamental old person—crusty, cantankerous, and unpredictable. September hiccups from summer to autumn like a car whose gears are not properly engaged. One moment it is furnace hot with humidity dripping from the sky and the next I’m grabbing a winter coat.

It doesn’t help that my husband and I change venues. Mid-spring until late September usually has us ensconced in our Oregon lake cottage then we journey to Kentucky with an overloaded car and laughter. This year we left the west earlier than usual in order to watch grandkids while our son-in-law and daughter wandered through Kentucky hiking trails and relaxed.

Oregon sweltered on September 1st. We wound through the McKenzie Pass, a favorite drive, had our picnic lunch in Sisters, enjoyed ice cream, and gathered fabric bits for a quilt before heading toward Bend. It was a beautiful day of sunlight with a mild breeze.

Lightning struck the tinder-dry forests and set them ablaze as we ventured east. Smoke plumes in Wyoming darkened the skies with dirt-brown clouds. The terrifying fires colored our thoughts as we read the news of decimated small Oregon towns hugging the edges of the rivers and forests.

Fires burn throughout our land. Man-made fires that leave carnage in their wake seem to be all around. Where is my heart in this summer of unrest? Is it still and listening to reason’s voice of love?

Summer’s flight
Dogwood leaves rust
While days shorten
In the meager autumn sunlight.
Shed grace on our sorrows
Lord,
As what we love
Becomes dust
In winds of change.

Hard Rain

When lakes fill
and June roses bloom,
gray days
etch my thoughts.

Where is summer?

Has it fled as
grass kneels
at the onslaught
from hard rain?

Or is summer’s
warm breath
hiding
amid the sorrow
of anguish filled days?

Our son, his wife, and five children have repatriated to the U.S. from Kenya. It took four tries. Four sets of itinerary kept them adjusting, repacking, and waiting. And grace bathed them as the rains of uncertainty fell around them.

This is a season when a torrent of emotion sweeps across our landscape. The hard rains of change can fill us with gratitude and, like water overflowing vessels, that grace can bring sustenance as dry days desiccate the land. Too much water can also cause flooding, uproot, and destroy. So, I’m examining my heart as news deluges the internet. Where do I put my trust? Am I allowing the news to steal my joy and destroy what God has built in my life?

Or, do I look to the hills where God has placed His army or as some interpret, where the enemy stands in full battle array. Where does my help come from? Psalm 121. From Him. He is my sustainer, my fortress, my hope. So, a new story rises from the uncertainty and turmoil.

Perhaps it is a story of our time in Thailand during the Vietnam war, a time and place I’ve been reluctant to reexamine. Maybe it will be Josephine in the D.B. Burns series. As she prepares for marriage, facing the pain of her single parent life and the advantages of her independence, Josephine may conclude to continue life alone. But, I’m in the midst of my fictional account of Rebecca Boone’s life. Do these times echo hers where she fled Indian attacks, the British army, and endured long separations from her explorer husband?

The list could go on and on. The emotions wound up in trauma and seeking the place of healing reminds me of a wonderful book I’m reading by Kim Meeder. Encountering Our Wild God. Her devotional book is breathing reason into my days as she helps me examine my heart and look to Him for peace, healing, and divine protection.

Origins

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Blame it on my father, this compulsion to pin words to a page. As a child I hear him typing away in his attic office, creating magic with rhyme.
People laughed at Dad’s humor, repeated his lines or embraced them like long lost friends. Dad blessed others with words of affirmation and encouragement scrawled on whatever was handy. He only resorted to his Remington typewriter when the words were distilled enough to merit fiddling with keys.
The syncopation of words was the soundtrack of my childhood. Dad was a poet and musician at heart. Earning a salary was another matter.
Do you have memories of written words floating through your childhood?
Perhaps your mother read to you as you snuggled, or you father read Shakespeare at the dinner table as mine did.

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Carrying the magic of language into my writing life is a useful tool. The sound of words fitting together is why I still read aloud. I cuddle with words. But now, instead of Thurber or Dickens who graced my early years, I also read my own writing. Hearing them helps me edit and groom my thoughts. Poetry, a short story, or the two thousand words a day I added on my newest novel, has me reciting as light fades to shadows.
And I have a willing accomplice. My stalwart husband who laughs at the appropriate times and raises a sculpted eyebrow for a misplaced modifier.

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Boundaries

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Boundaries intrigue me. In Kentucky, stone fences built by settlers that designated the edges of land ownership still line the serpentine roads. The stacked limestone walls are climbable. You can tunnel under them or walk through the gates. But they continue to keep out predators and confine the livestock. And a family and its neighbors know what they possessed.
Personal limits, placed to keep ourselves confined or others away from our presence challenge me. Why, I ask. Is it fear? Or, is it a sign of ownership? Perhaps love of the familiar and the peace it brings is why I and others restrict access to our hearts.
Personally, I like challenges. Peering down a steep slope with two skinny boards attached to my boots made me smile in the past. A race driving course equipped me with insight and assurance when I drove on icy Michigan roads. Living as a minority in Asia or Africa, packing a bag to last for a year didn’t faze me. However, discovering I shut emotional doors that God wants to pry open stops me flat.

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As I analyze my feelings and responses, they are translated into prose. WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW is written in capital letters in my mind. Consequently, I create characters with well entrenched boundaries that are challenged by circumstances as well as by others. In the D.B. Burns mystery series, heroine Delilah Burns Morgan faces rebuilding her life after her husband dies, then juggling the attentions of the man her husband wished her to consider marrying. In my novella, Happy Christmas, Miss Lawrence, circumstances alter Alexandra Lawrence’s journey home. Can she trust strangers to protect her in a foreign country and still maintain her peace?

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Boundaries, I have a few. When I write down my emotional fences, I see them more clearly. Occasionally Jesus limited access to his heart by withdrawing to spend time with His Father. It seems the better way.
Luke 5:16, Luke 22:41, Matthew 26:39, 42.