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For the past year, I’ve been living in a fantasy world. The scene is Loch Awe, Scotland, at a magical place called St. Conan’s Kirk.
It’s a very real place, one that really exists – and not just in my mind.
It’s made of stones and timbers, spires and cloisters, flying buttresses and secret abbeys with curved staircases carved in stone.
The water on the loch is glassy smooth, so still that clouds float in the water and the stray rhododendron petals gliding over the surface never sink.
Bad things happen in my fantasy world, just like they do in the real world, but something good always comes out of them, and not twenty years later, when you’ve forgotten all about the inciting incident and are too old to care, but in short order.
Because in my fantasy world, there are only happy endings. And they occur in a reasonable amount of time – less than 400 pages.
I should know – I’ve been living there for months. It’s a bit like slipping off on a vacation. You can sleep until noon if you want to, and you get to decide what it is you want to do every morning – which can be whatever in the world you want it to be. You can eat whatever it is that you want to, because you’re on vacation. There are no restrictive diets or rules or deadlines or obligations. Anything goes. Anything can happen, and usually does. Whatever yer fancy.
You see, in my fantasy world, I’m the Captain of the Starship Enterprise, and when I say, “Make it so,” it is.
So a day ago, when I wrote the last page of Wild Rose, the first in my Scottish Wildflower Trilogy, I felt like I was sinking into the bottomless abyss of Nothing. The story ended and now, I’ve got nothing to do (well, really I do, but nothing I want to).
I miss Rose already, and Ian MacCraig, and their dilemmas, and wondering what they’re going to do, and how they’re going to feel. I even have a hankering to see Digby again, and Torey MacDougal, and the church ladies. How I’m going to get on without them, I really don’t know.
It’s a magical place – a book, that is – and once you’ve been to a good one, you never want to leave. At least I don’t.
So I’ll tell you a secret… Wild Rose has a surprise ending, and it happens in Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull, off the west coast of Scotland – another favorite place of mine.
I can’t tell you exactly how, because I’ve only just gone there, but the story will live on, and I’ll get to see Rose and Ian again. So will you, if you take the ferry and come to visit.
You see, there’s a bonny lass called Isabelle, and a gent who calls himself Michael St. Dawndalyn, and an evil, evil man named Damien who’s about to cause all kinds of trouble for them. And they’re going to need Rose and Ian’s help.
There’s also a castle, and an old Celtic cemetery, and a keep that’s in ruins, and so many secrets… deep, dark secrets that are bound to come to light…
And the story lives on.
(Watch for Wild Rose by Sherrie Hansen, coming in April 2013 from Second Wind Publishing, Blue Belle by Sherrie Hansen, coming in November 2013?, and Shy Violet by Sherrie Hansen, coming in… nobody knows…)
My husband and I were driving home from seeing the movie “Lincoln” last night when we drove over the rise that leads to our home and saw Zion Lutheran Church silhouetted behind the stand of pine trees – a sight that has become very familiar- and realized that it was almost exactly a year ago that we saw this beautiful view for the first time.
Since many of you were kind enough to listen to the tales of angst that proceeded our move and the grieving process that surrounded it, I thought I would offer a State of the Union address of sorts and catch you up on what’s been happening in my life since then. And although it’s a very “un-writerly” thing to do, I’m going to start with today’s news and go backwards.
I’m so excited to be nearly finished with a book called Wild Rose of Scotland. I set out to finish it for NaNoWriMo, and have almost met my goal. I love the way the characters and storyline have developed and think my readers will, too. It takes place at St. Conan’s Kirk on Loch Awe, in Scotland. Ted is a pastor and Rose is a bit of a wild woman with a questionable past. The church ladies are aghast! There’s even a jilted ex-fiancé who Rose left standing at the altar in his kilt. And I think you’ll love them all. I have only 3712 words left to write to make my goal of 50,000 words written in the month of November.
It’s been a good month – getting up early every morning and writing has been a good discipline for me at a time in my life when I’ve moved from being a night owl to falling asleep at my desk before ten o’clock. If I can keep up this new habit throughout the winter, you can expect two new releases in short order – Wild Rose of Scotland,and then, Blue Belle of Scotland – with the possibility of a third Celtic tale called – Sweet William of Scotland or Shy Violet of Scotland or… who knows?
After vacillating between publishing books meant for mainstream romance readers and inspirational fiction readers, RWA and ACFW, Sherrie Hansen (Night and Day, and my Maple Valley Trilogy – Stormy Weather, Water Lily and Merry Go Round) and Sherrie Hansen Decker (Love Notes), steamy scenes or no steamy scenes, I’ve decided to go back to being Sherrie Hansen and let my books be what they will be.
I’ve always felt that my books are very character driven. They also have a “slice of life” quality that includes characters who are good and evil, meek and bossy, nice and nasty, Christian and non-Christians (sometimes, to confuse matters, it’s the Christians who are nasty and the non-Christians who are nice), and so on. There are committed Christians whose faith means everything to them, as well as lukewarm and occasionally rebellious Christians. There are people who don’t know what they want – or believe. They live their lives and interact in a very real, sometimes gritty, occasionally very painful world, where there are conflicts, temptations, joys and struggles.
As a writer, I believe my faith and values come into play when a character has to confront the conflicts life throws in their paths. How they deal with the conflicts and how they interact with the other people in their world depends on how deep their faith is and where they’re at in their spiritual walk. As a Christian writer, I feel strongly that there are always consequences to actions, and that sin or evil should not be glorified. But even the Bible does not sugarcoat the actions and failings of its central characters as the stories are told of how they lived out their lives in their contemporary cultures. I don’t feel it’s my job to censure or shield my readers, only to let God’s grace shine through in the way the conflicts in my books are resolved.
So I’m done trying to label my books as one thing or another. Part of the reason I love my publishers and working with a mid-sized, independent press is that they’re supportive of me and what I write even when it’s something unique or a little outside the conventional boxes. In Wild Rose of Scotland, you can expect some faith talk, some Bible verses, and some heated discussions on topics like grace and forgiveness – Ted is a pastor, after all. You can also expect some steam. I think you’ll find that it’s a very candid, real, and refreshing mix.
Some other changes in my life – we love our new home, our new church family, and the group of folks our church has chosen to affiliate with (the LCMC – Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ). When I think of all the wonders God has brought about in our lives in the last 12 months, I’m amazed. On a very personal note, I’ve lost 80 pounds since the day after Mother’s Day – I think, an awesome reflection of the new, positive outlook these changes have brought about.
That’s where I’m at today. I hope you’ll watch for Wild Rose come spring! In the meantime, if you haven’t read Love Notes, this is a wonderful time of year to start. Hope Anderson and Tommy Love’s story – Love Notes – starts just as fall in turning to winter and ends on Christmas Eve with a very special Christmas song, “Hope, Joy, Peace, Love”.
You can get your copy here.
One of the first things I saw on Facebook this morning was a photo of 6 or 7 women of every shape and size (including some who are quite large) lined up in a row, part of the “Real is Perfect” campaign presented by SKORCH and Lane Bryant. I pressed like. When I was growing up, if you didn’t look like the excessively thin model, Twiggy, or have a figure like Barbie, you weren’t considered to be pretty, say nothing about perfect. I’m glad that I (and evidently others) have learned that beauty comes in all different shapes, colors, and sizes.
Part of the reason I chose to accept the contract that Second Wind Publishing offered me for my novel, “Night and Day”, a few years ago is that it seemed like bigger publishers were looking for a more standardized idea of “beauty” in the books they published, and that an independent press was more likely to be open to unique stories that didn’t fit the current mold embraced by the masses.
I felt that my books were “different” in two major respects – one, that my stories were about what the publishing industry considers to be older characters (30′s and 40′s as opposed to 20′s), and two, that my books contained aspects of both faith and a conservative Christian world-view, and some fairly lusty, what I call steamy, scenes.
My characters are real. They’re not perfect people living in an evangelical Christian bubble. They are touched by evil. Their temptations are much more than superficial , and sometimes they give in to them. When they do, they feel pleasure. When they do things that are opposed to what they believe is right, and when they do things in the wrong order, or at the wrong time, they also feel pain. There are consequences to actions, whether having sex before marriage or eating or drinking too much, or simply having the wrong focus and priorities in life. Because my characters and situations are real, you see both. Diversity often brings dichotomies, and conflict, and I believe that makes for a good story.
Much to my delight, my books have been well-received, and garnered good reviews. Readers have been enthusiastic. My publishers were supportive. I was thrilled that I was able to write the books of my heart without feeling pressure to color totally inside the lines. And then I tried to write a book for the Christian fiction market. “Love Notes” has no steamy scenes. Hope’s faith has remained strong even in the face of losing her husband, and almost losing her home. Tommy Love grows more and more convicted of his selfish ambitions and turns back to God. There is a clear Christian message.
In a review of “Love Notes”, Sheila Deeth says “Sherrie Hansen Decker’s Love Notes is Christian romance where fiction is lifted up, not bogged down by faith. Genuine hope kindles slowly in human hearts. Beautiful music soars. Trials come, not because the characters are sinners but because they’re human and the world around us is wounded. The bad guys are drawn with space awaiting healing grace, and the scenery, towns and countryside are vivid with beauty and darkness side by side, hope hiding in the shadows.” And, “This story kept me glued to the page, never knowing how I wanted the tale to end, but always sure the author would end it well. After all, she’s very clearly listening to the author of our lives as she writes these lives—Christian fiction indeed, where honest humanity meets heavenly hope.”
In the Timberjay newspaper out of Tower, Minnesota, a recent reviewer said “Anderson is struggling to reopen the resort owned by her late husband, who died in a car accident. Tommy Love is a local boy who found national fame in the music business, who is now looking for a peaceful spot to call home. Their two paths collide when a local banker tries to foreclose on the resort in order to sell the property to his old friend, Tommy Love. The book is an inspirational Christian romance, with plenty of intrigue and adventure. It is also a novel that explores the complications and hurdles when two middle-aged adults, with very different histories, fall in love. The weather, as in any novel set in northeastern Minnesota, also plays a significant role in the story. In an interview with author Pat Bertram earlier this year, Decker said “I hope each reader will have their faith in miracles renewed. I’m a firm believer in second chances. I know from personal experience that God can take the most adverse scenario and make something beautiful out of it – in His time.”
When “Love Notes” was first published, I joked that if every one who had griped about the steamy scenes in my previous books bought a copy of “Love Notes”, it would be a best seller. But I’m not laughing any more, because certain Christians evidently feel that “Love Notes” is not Christian enough. First, an “influencer” from American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), declined to recommend the book to her friends because it contained the word bi-ch (uttered by the bad guy). Now, a Christian bookseller has declined to sell the book in her bookstore even though it has a “great story line”, because the main characters sleep under a shared blanket to stay warm in an ice storm after the power goes out, and the bad guy hopes to have sex with his ex-wife, and other characters have “sex thoughts”. Even more insulting was her assessment that “God is mentioned, but neither main character really knows God and who He is.”
So, what to do? I will not be writing any more books for the Christian market. I am going to write real books with real characters who struggle with issues of faith within a real world context. If their struggles lead to passion, some “steam” will be included. If that’s not where the story goes, you can join the ranks of those who were disappointed when I told them “Love Notes” didn’t have any steamy scenes. And as for the Christians who are so confident that their particular brand of Christianity is so perfect, I would remind you that there was not one perfect disciple, who said one perfect set of words when he came to Christ and who lived a perfect life thereafter. There were 12 different disciples, each one unique, each of whom came to Christ from a different place, and in a different way. Each had different weaknesses and strengths, their own personal doubts and struggles, a different style of writing, and a unique ministry. Yet God used them all. There are also prostitutes and murderers and adulterers and and sex thoughts in the Bible. It’s a real book about real people living in a real world. And I think it’s the perfect book.
As for “Love Notes”, I’m sure it is far from perfect. But it is real and I hope you will read it and decided for yourself if you agree.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the “old days” this week. My bed and breakfast, the Blue Belle Inn B&B and Tea House, in St. Ansgar, Iowa, has been open for 20 years as of February 1st, which was also my 55th birthday. It’s definitely a time to think back, to remember what things were like those many years ago.
Memories are a funny thing. I learned in Childhood Psych that 90% of a child’s brain and 85% of their social skills and personality develop before they are 5 years old. Yet most of us have very few memories of anything that happened to us in this time period.
Some of my earliest childhood memories are sleeping out under the stars with my dad and my sister Becky, on the farm where we lived in Grand Meadow, Minnesota, when we were little. I can remember Marty Hedstrom, a teenager who worked for my Dad one summer, singing “Sherry Baby” to me and rescuing me from the bumblebees who were after me in the haymow of the barn where I used to play. I can remember standing next to my Great Grandma Matilda Paulson and my Grandma Victoria at First Baptist Church singing “Holy Holy Holy”. I can remember climbing on the school bus on the first day I went to school, the day my baby brother and sister were born, and the day my Grandpa Hansen died. Some of these experiences have already ended up in or certainly may one day find themselves into books I’ve written – in one form or another.
My 25 year old nephew and his pretty wife, Kayla, sang “Sherry Baby” to me this weekend at my birthday / anniversary party. What a flood of memories it brought back! Because I don’t have children of my own, my nieces and nephews are very special to me. I hope that I have made an impact on their lives as well, and that they will carry memories of me and the fun times we’ve shared at the Blue Belle Inn and our family gatherings with them long after I’m gone.
My 5, 7 and 10 year old nieces and nephews were at my party, too. The girls helped get people registered for the door prizes. The two youngest were waitress and waiter and helped clear plates and take them to the kitchen. They were very intense about collecting the dirty plates (Will you please hurry up and finish eating your food so I can take your plate?) and did their jobs well.
I will have to give them some tips next time I see them. (They had to leave early because it was past their bedtime.) Right before they left, the girls entertained us by singing our favorite song, “He Knows My Name,” while I played the piano.
My hope is that they will retain their memories of the very special night they shared with their old Aunt Sherrie at the Blue Belle Inn. Maybe one of them will blog about it one day when they’ve heard “Sherry Baby” played on the radio… er… computer.
Maybe it’s because I don’t have children, but it’s important to me that someone remembers that I’m not just Blue Belle Sherrie (the main hat I’ve worn for the past 20 years). I want someone to know and remember that I climbed Pike’s Peak when I was younger, that I learned to disco dance when I lived in Germany back in the late seventies at the height of the Saturday Night Fever era. I want someone to remember that I went to Wheaton College, and saw Michael Jackson’s Thriller concert at Mile High Stadium in Denver and spent a night at a Benedictine Monastery in Bavaria. And that I made the best Jaeger Schnitzel and Spaetzle noodles this side of the great pond.
I hope you have some sweet memories, too – perhaps something you’ve read in one of my books has evoked a recollection or brought tears to your eyes. I also wish for each of you someone who knows you and loves you enough to remember unique things about you.
Thanks for letting me be nostalgic on the occasion of my big birthday and anniversary. Andrew Lloyd Webber says it well…
All alone in the moonlight
I can dream of the old days
Life was beautiful then
I remember the time I knew what happiness was
Let the memory live again.
And if you’re a child of the seventies like I am, I’m sure this song conjurers up the very thing it talks about…
Memories, pressed between the pages of my mind
Memories, sweetened through the ages just like wine
Quiet thoughts come floating down
And settle softly to the ground
Like golden autumn leaves around my feet
I touched them and they burst apart with sweet memories,
Of holding hands and red bouquets
And twilights trimmed in purple haze
And laughing eyes and simple ways
And quiet nights and gentle days with you.
Some of my favorite memories – and ones that will almost certainly die with me, since all my friends from that era are my age or older – are of the 12 years I lived in Colorado Springs. During that time, I heard Amy Grant sing this song in concerts three or four times. From I Will Remember You…
When this fire is an ember
When the night’s not so tender
Though it’s hard to remember darlin’
I will be holding
I’ll still be holding to you
I will remember you
So many years come and gone
And yet the memory is strong
One word we never could learn
True love is frozen in time
I’ll be your champion and you will be mine
I will remember you
Being a writer, I’ve always thought that stories are the best way to share memories. I hope one day, you’ll read mine.
Happy Birthday to me. Cheers to 20 years at the Blue Belle Inn. And a toast to memories that live on forever in the minds of the those who love us.
(Sherrie Hansen is the author of 4 books: Night and Day, Stormy Weather, Water Lily, and Merry Go Round.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about love letters lately. For the last few weeks, I’ve been working on an inspirational novel I wrote a few years ago called Love Notes. This week, I started writing a sequel to Night and Day called Daybreak in Denmark.
Night and Day, my first book, contained some very special – and revealing – letters from Maren Jensen, who had recently immigrated to Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, written to her cousin, Sophie, back in Slagerup, Denmark. Night and Day also contains some beautiful love notes from Anders Westerlund, sent from Denmark to Minnesota to Jensen Marie Christiansen, via email. One of my favorite scenes in Night and Day is when Jensen changes the font of an email she received from Anders to one that looks like handwriting, prints his letter on parchment paper, and lays it and a rose she picked from her garden on her pillow.
This morning on Facebook, my second cousin, Marcia, mentioned some letters that she received years ago from her Aunt Vic (my Grandma Victoria, who died at age 93, about 7 years ago). Her comment brought back a flood of memories, as I too used to get letters from my Grandma, special notes in birthday cards, then full-fledged, rambling epistles full of vignettes from her life and stories about aunts and uncles and cousins, even a few relatives I didn’t even know. The letters started when, at age 18, I went off to Wheaton College in Illinois, and followed me when I moved to Bar Harbor, Maine, Augsburg, Germany, Lawton, Oklahoma, and finally, Colorado Springs, Colorado. She stopped writing only when I stopped wandering and came home to northern Iowa / southern Minnesota. From that time on, I saw her and talked to her face to face almost every week.
Letters are a very interesting form of communication. In them, people sometimes dare to say things they would never say to someone were they talking to in person. An expression of love, a passionate – or angry – response, an accusation, a confession — why is it that many of us can say with our pen what we can’t with our lips?
Sometimes letters are simply a matter of practicality. Much as we wish never to be separated from the ones we love, it’s impossible to be two places at once, and sometimes we have to resort to letter writing to communicate. While cell phones, Skype and live chats on Facebook may have eradicated some of the impetus we used to have for writing letters, there is still a time and a place for a thoughtfully written, old-fashioned letter.
When I was in 5th grade, Roy Anderson and I got into trouble for writing love notes in class. We had to sit in the hall – together, on a small bench, just the two of us – over recess. We were so embarrassed by the end of the lunch period that I don’t think we spoke to each other again until graduation day.
The summer between my 7th and 8th grade years I wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote and finally mailed a love letter to a boy I had a crush on. Nothing ever came of it – I honestly can’t remember if I even signed it, but there was something very significant about the fact that I admitted my feelings.
When I was going through First Presbyterian’s Divorce Recovery Workshop, we were asked to write a letter to our ex-spouse, saying whatever we wanted or needed to say. At the end of the exercise, the letters were destroyed. Over 25 years later, I have no idea what I wrote, but I do remember that it was a very therapeutic way to clear the air.
When computers became the rage and internet dating- internet everything - came of age, I had a good advantage in that I knew how to write. E-mails were suddenly key, and I excelled at them. I was lousy at flirting, and awkward as all get out when it came to first dates, job interviews and loan applications, but I knew how to write, and because of it, many doors opened to me that might not have. I’ve always been better with words written than words said, and that simple fact has helped to shape my life.
There are everyday, run of the mill letters, and there are famous, life-changing letters that are known worldwide. Thomas Jefferson’s letters helped shape the course of our country. The Apostle Paul’s letters to the Galatians, Ephesians, Corinthians, and Philippians and to a young Timothy, written in the first century, still deeply influence the way many of us live our lives today.
My Grandma’s Danish cousin, Boyda, still has the real letters in which Maren Jensen poured out her heart to her cousin back in Denmark. They’re written in an old-world handwriting and cadence, and we may never know exactly what is said in them. But the mystery of those letters, and the little bit I do know of them, has already inspired a love story whose legend will live on. What is a book, if not a love letter written to our readers?
I’m in St. Louis for the first time in almost 30 years.
There is no way Louis and Clark could have envisioned this city, arch racing up and over the sky, one skyscraper reflected in the windows of another for blocks and blocks on end. And what about the parking garages and interstate highways that crisscross the land like spider webs?
We can see the old courthouse from our room, and there is a white, horse-drawn carriage lingering at the corner, ready to take me down the cobblestone streets of Laclede’s Landing, a reminder of days gone by (except for the price tag should I want to go for a spin).
Being here is causing a jumble of memories to resurface. My ex is from Saint Louis – is here still – along with his mother and father, his new, pretty, skinny young wife and six children. Enough said. (Read Water Lily if you want to know the rest of the story – in fiction form, of course.)
Even without the visions of ex associations, joys and traumas, it’s an emotionally wrought weekend. Our church (where my husband is the pastor) is scheduled to vote to leaving the ELCA this Sunday. I will not be there, as unfortunately, I cannot be two places at once. If the vote fails by one vote, I fear I will feel eternally terrible. If it fails, it will be the end of life as I’ve known it for almost 8 years. My time at Bethany has been the honeymoon period in my life as a wife, and a pastor’s wife, and will always hold a special place in my heart. I’m not ready for it to end. I am trying to leave things in God’s hands, knowing that the God of the universe does not need my stress, anxiety or exhaustion to accomplish his plan in the world. But it is hard to let go and trust, to believe that after months of stress and worry, arguments, threats and political maneuvering by the ELCA and those in our church who are in bed with them, that this whole terrible mess will suddenly be all better. And the truth is, that although joy is promised at the end of the journey, some of the wounds caused by this battle may never heal.
I am trying not to let my general disillusionment with the world and the church color my experience at the American Christian Fiction Writers Conference (the reason I’m in St. Louis). I’m here with two multi-published authors and another aspiring author who have a great deal of wisdom to impart to me. I’m privileged to have the honor of getting to know them better. I will soon have the opportunity to sit in workshops, as well as meeting editors, agents and authors who can teach me much about how to reach my goals re: my writing career. I want to share with them the pride I feel for the books I have written for Second Wind (Night and Day, Stormy Weather, Water Lily, and Merry Go Round). I want to be filled with enthusiasm, overflowing with passion for my work, to impress them as a vibrant, high energy person who can write the next break-out novel. Can I do this when my back is aching from 8 hours in a car and a fitful night’s sleep on a hotel room cot? Can I come across in a positive manner when my heart is with my husband in Thompson? We won’t even talk about my worries that things won’t go well at the Blue Belle Inn while I’m gone, that I have left almost new staff-members in charge because my faithful employee of the past 4 years is off at college and too busy to help out in my absence as promised.
And then, there’s the fear that I shouldn’t be here. That I’m not good enough to write Christian fiction. Not “not good” enough – I have the talent, the gifts, the ideas, the track record –but “not GOOD” enough. That if they knew what I’d done and with who, they’d be so shocked that they’d forget the fact that I’m forgiven and run me out of town on a rail. Or maybe a riverboat.
St. Louis… one of many places in the world where I’ve done things that I’m not proud of. But that’s why I think I have the potential to be a Great Fiction Writer… and yes, a Great Christian Fiction Writer… because I’m living proof that God forgives, and gives second chances. I’m a walking Ode to Redemption – a testament to the fact that All Things Work Together For Good.
God would forgive the ELCA and lead them back to His ways, too, if they would let him. For the record, I hope one day they will.
In a few minutes, I’m going to wonder down to the river and walk along the banks of the Mississippi. Perhaps Old Man River will take my concerns and lazily float them down-river, never to be seen again. Perhaps God will respond to my prayers by giving me peace of mind about the events that will be transpiring in the next few days. Perhaps if I pray hard enough, God will even make the zit on my nose go away by morning so I don’t have to meet important people for the first time looking like a geek. Or, maybe God is trying to keep me humble. Or maybe, it’s better this way – to let people know I have a few quirks right from the start.
A girl can dream. Has to. And pray. Definitely pray.
UPDATE: My weekend in St. Louis was inspiring and as hoped, very beneficial. Turns out I am good enough. The zit never materialized. Thank you, God. My friend, Lyn Cote, won a prestigious Carol Award for her book, Her Healing Ways. I talked to a friend who had lunch at the Blue Belle while I was gone and she said the food and the service were excellent. Sadly, our church’s vote to leave the ELCA failed by 18 votes due to the fact that several people who haven’t attended church in at least 2 years showed up to vote. The honeymoon is over. I am reminded that when God closes a door, he opens a window. Think of us as we find (hopefully soon) the window and climb out into the sunshine.
My latest novel, and the conclusion of my Maple Valley Trilogy, has been out for two months now. I’ve had a brief rest from writing, in which I’ve been busy with high season at my bed and breakfast and tea house, the Blue Belle Inn, spending fun summer times with family, languishing on too hot, too humid days (and nights), stressing out over the latest goings-on at my husband’s church, and promoting “Merry Go Round”.
But now it’s time to get back to work. I’ve dusted off my electronic copy of Blue Belle of Scotland, a novel I first started about eight years ago. I was within a chapter of being done with the book soon after I married my husband. I remember trips in that first year of marriage when he would drive, and I would type into a laptop propped on pillows perched on the open glove compartment door. Life with a new husband, a 13 year old stepson and new people in a new town soon took on cyclonic properties and has been a whirlwind for the last 7 1/2 years.
Fast forward to the present, and three or four used laptops later – the last chapter of Blue Belle of Scotland is missing, and I am one blue belle. By the time I discovered the chapters were missing, it was far too late for benefit of instant recall. My husband eventually recovered a few pages of the missing text, but gone is the climactic, attempted murder at the top of the keep, the tender reunion of Alianna and her savior, Micheal’s heartbreaking downfall… and who knows what else…
It appears I am in good company. In “Love Me”, a short story written by Garrison Keillor for The Atlantic, Keillor writes about leaving a manuscript in the bathroom of a train. The bartender in the story, who tells the devastated Keillor that T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land fell into a hot bath, where the ink washed off, and that Robert Frost once wrote a poem that was eaten by a dog, advises him to “Take adversity as an opportunity! Pick yourself up and do better. That’s the American way. You lose your manuscript, you write a better one!”
Ernest Hemingway was devastated when his first wife, Hadley, lost a suitcase filled with his manuscripts at the train station as she was traveling to Switzerland to meet him in December 1922. She had packed all of his manuscripts – including the carbons – in a small valise, which was stolen (Never leave your bags unattended!). The material was never recovered and the marriage eventually failed. If found today, I suppose Hemingway’s missing works would be worth their weight in gold.
This is not the first time I’ve lost a precious creation. When I finished my sophomore year at Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL, I left Chicago directly, without first returning home to Minnesota, to drive to Bar Harbor, Maine to meet my friends Julia Swann and Katherine Anne Hutchins. I was told I could leave some of the personal belongings I had packed up from my room in a storage area in the dormitory. I labeled the boxes with my name and address and drove off to Maine with a light heart and a couple of suitcases filled with clothes. I soon had three or four jobs – playing an old piano and a pump organ at a tea house called the Crystal Palace, working as a chambermaid, and serving lobster to hungry tourists in the tiny town of Hull’s Cove. I also picked blueberries, made a lot of scrumptious pancakes and muffins, lived on my own for the first time ever, and got engaged. It was decided that I would drop out of college since my future husband and I would be heading off to live in Germany.
That fall, I returned to Wheaton to say good-bye to my friends and retrieve my belongings, only to find they had gone missing. One box included the work I had done for my creative writing class that spring. In it were short stories and poems I had labored over for hours. And I could not remember them, perhaps because my summer had been so full of new, first-time sights and experiences, perhaps because my memory is bad. Most of the poems were frivolous – one was about a tennis ball, and obviously wouldn’t have changed the world with it’s austere wisdom. But there was also an Easter sonnet that I had written on Good Friday of that same year that still haunts me. I remember only one line, in all it’s iambic pentameter glory: “We live as though the stone, unrolled, still lay across the door.” In my heart, I believe it was inspired, and was and still is the best thing I have written.
I will rewrite the final chapters of Blue Belle of Scotland. Perhaps the new ending will be better than the old one. Perhaps what was lost can never be found.
In the little town of Saint Ansgar, Iowa, where I’ve lived for 20 years, a conscientious Christian has posted a sign on the way into town that announces “The wages of sin is death.” Not exactly the greeting you might expect…
On the back of the sign, which you can’t possibly see until you leave town (unless you can spin your head around and drive at the same time – I can’t), is the rest of the story: “But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ Our Lord.”
The Bible verse (Romans 3:23) is one of my favorites. When read in its entirety, it has a beautiful message. But I hate the way the sign leaves me dangling. What if I don’t leave town for several days, two weeks, or a month? What if I leave town by a different route? What if it’s dark? I might never get to the good part. I might never know the rest of the story.
As a reader – of signs and books, I don’t like to be kept waiting too long. If the beginning of a book is too depressing or slow-paced, I might not keep reading long enough to get to the good part. If a climax builds too slowly or drags on for too long, I might stop caring before I get there. If a book contains too many cliff hangers, I’m going to be very frustrated, especially if I have to wait a year or two to finally find out what happens. Even in a series where each book comes to a complete end, with the next installment starting up with a new character or generation of the same family, I don’t like to be kept waiting too long. I forget pertinent details, names and relationships and connections between characters.
And what about those books that have multiple story lines about several different characters and so many sub-plots going all at once that by the time you get six chapters down the road and are finally taken back to the main storyline, you can’t even remember what was going on? Next time I pick one of them up, I’m going to read Chapters 1, 5, 9, 13, 17 and 21, then go back and hit Chapters 2, 6, 10, 14, 18, and 22… and so on. It’ll be much less irritating.
Am I the only one who gets impatient if I’m left dangling too long?
The third and final book in my Maple Valley Trilogy, Merry Go Round, was released about a month ago, and it’s been surprising to me how many people have bought all three books at once. “We’ve been waiting until the trilogy was complete”, they’ve claimed. “We hate having to wait between books, so we don’t even start a series until we can read the whole thing from start to finish.”
I wrote as fast as I could when I was working on Stormy Weather, Water Lily, and Merry Go Round, knowing that those who had started the series were clamoring for the next in line. My publisher worked with me as much as possible to get each subsequent book out quickly. I do understand where those readers were coming from, and am glad I could oblige without leaving anybody waiting for too long.
If the owner of the “Wages of Sin is Death” message is reading this, my advice is to get a second banner and post them like the old-fashioned Burma Shave signs… “The wages of sin is death,” and then a few yards up the road, a second sign with the hope-filled conclusion, “The gift of God is eternal life…” I don’t mind being left hanging for a few yards, but I don’t like to be left waiting for too terribly long, or the point is lost on me.
A little suspense is great, but don’t keep me on the edge of my seat forever. A nice, slow build up to a tender love scene is very sensual, but don’t dash my hopes too many times or I may not even enjoy the happy ending when it comes. As a reader and a writer, my opinion is that once you have the momentum going, it’s best to keep on climbing at as brisk a pace as you can manage.
And as for my neighbor, if you’re going to tell me the bad news, you’d better find a way to share the good news now – not later!
My husband, the pastor, has been working on a sermon this week about Peter walking on the water… and then, a few minutes later, sinking like a stone. I’m marveled with him at Peter’s exuberance, his willingness to get out of the boat and attempt something that seemed impossible. And I’ve been humbled right along with him when Peter’s enthusiasm turned to panic, when he took his eyes off Jesus and focused on the waves crashing all around, when he started to sink.
Being a writer is a little like being Peter. One minute, you’re walking on air, a local celebrity. You can do anything you set your mind to! The creative juices are flowing. People can’t wait to get their hands on your new book, a woman you don’t even know drives miles to get you to sign a copy of your book, and the morning show on Channel 3 asks you to speak about your successful writing career on their next show. The next, the local grocery store doesn’t want to carry your books any more, and the library in the town were your book is set only wants your latest release on their shelves if you donate a copy, and a handful of family members conspire to disown you because your books are too steamy. I mean, what did you expect? Your publisher is small beans and your book is 300,000 millionth on Amazon.com. You’re not exactly Janet Evanovich.
And never will be, a little voice says.
I’m a lot more timid than Peter was. I’m the one that most likely stayed in the boat, clutching the gunwale, half envying Peter for having the guts to do what he did, the other half absolutely sure that Peter was going to die.
It’s not that I don’t trust. It’s not that I don’t have faith, but I’m also pretty practical and inclined to pessimism at times. I’m scared to death of stormy weather. Although there was that one time when I was a kid, when my sister talked me into climbing up on a ladder to the roof, to watch for tornadoes – in the middle of a tornado warning. I should have been in the basement. But it was so fun to take a chance and live on the wild side – just that once.
Every time I “let” you read one of my books, I’m taking a chance, stepping out of the boat, climbing up on the roof to look for tornadoes. You may like me. You may think I’m a loser who should have stuck with running a bed and breakfast. Although, come to think of it, I take a chance every time I open the doors of my tea house, dish up a meal that I’ve created, and invite you into my B&B. You may like my cooking. You may hate it. You may love my taste in art and covet my antiques. You may think my house is a cluttery mess.
Every day of my life, I have to make a choice. Do I listen to the voice that says, “Get out of the boat. Reach out and take Jesus’ hand. Have faith. Go for it.” Or, I can hunker down in the bottom of the boat and hang on for dear life, afraid to poke my head up and live.
Here’s to walking on water.
In closing, I’d like to share the words of a song called “Voice of Truth”. The Christian rock group Casting Crowns says what’s on my heart more perfectly than I ever could.
Oh,what I would do to have
the kind of faith it takes
To climb out of this boat I’m in
Onto the crashing waves
To step out of my comfort zone
Into the realm of the unknown
Where Jesus is,
And he’s holding out his hand
But the waves are calling out my name
and they laugh at me
Reminding me of all the times
I’ve tried before and failed
The waves they keep on telling me
time and time again
“Boy, you’ll never win,
You you’ll never win
But the Voice of truth tells me a different story
the Voice of truth says “do not be afraid!”
and the Voice of truth says “this is for My glory”
Out of all the voices calling out to me
I will choose to listen and believe the Voice of truth
Oh, what I would do
to have the kind of strength it takes
To stand before a giant
with just a sling and a stone
Surrounded by the sound
of a thousand warriors
shaking in their armor
Wishing they’d have had the strength to stand
But the giant’s calling out
my name and he laughs at me
Reminding me of all the times
I’ve tried before and failed
The giant keeps on telling me
time and time again
“Boy you’ll never win,
you’ll never win.”
But the voice of truth tells me a different story
the Voice of truth says “do not be afraid!”
and the Voice of truth says “this is for My glory”
Out of all the voices calling out to me
I will choose to listen and believe the Voice of truth
But the stone was just the right size
to put the giant on the ground
and the waves they don’t seem so high
from on top of them looking down
I will soar with the wings of eagles
when I stop and listen to the sound of Jesus
singing over me
But the Voice of truth tells me a different story
The Voice of truth says “do not be afraid!”
And the Voice of truth says “this is for my glory”
Out of all the voices calling out to me (calling out to me)
I will choose to listen and believe (I will choose to listen and believe)
I will choose to listen and believe the Voice of truth
I will listen and believe
I will listen and believe the Voice of truth
I will listen and believe
‘Cause Jesus you are the Voice of truth
And I will listen to you.. oh you are the Voice of truth
I might as well get it out there right away. I’m the author of four somewhat steamy, very sensual, sometimes gritty romance novels, AND I’m a pastor’s wife – a combination that more than occasionally calls me into question.
So for those who haven’t yet figured it out, I’ll admit it right off. I’m not perfect. In fact, I have a confession to make. I just turned the heat on. It’s May 26th and I’m from Minnesota. I’m supposed to be tough. I’m supposed to be hot-blooded. When I was attending Wheaton College, near Chicago, I made fun of the locals for being wimps when it came to 40 below zero temperatures and Illinois’ supposed lake chill effect. I have no business turning the heat on in what’s practically summer.
At least I’m not at the parsonage (which is a whole different story, and one I should evidently also be feeling great guilt about), or I’d feel even guiltier, since my husband’s congregation pays the utility bill. But I’m not. I’m in my own house, it’s 44 degrees outside, the sun hasn’t shown for at least 24 hours, I got soaked by a cold rain and 33 mph winds 3 times yesterday, my husband was hogging the covers when I woke up, and I’m freezing. Some women my age get hot flashes. I get easily chilled. So there. How’s that for justifying my actions?
The truth is, I can feel the heat seeping out from the radiator under my desk even now. It’s warm. It’s wonderful. It’s creeping up my thighs. It’s making my toes tingle inside my soft pink slippers. It’s deliciously comforting. It’s decadent. It’s making me feel relaxed and warm and cozy…
But I regress. I’m not living up to the ideal of being the perfect pastor’s wife, and some of the ladies from church are in a snit. Advance readers are predicting that when the contents of my current release are made known, I’ll be in even bigger trouble.
It’s a sad situation when people can’t separate truth from fiction. But then, it comes as no surprise that I’m in trouble because of the words I’ve written.
I’ve always lived with a long list of expectations, some imposed by parents and other authority figures, some by my own finely-honed conscience and genetic tendency to perfectionism. I’ve always been rebellious, not so much in my actions, but with my words. Although I freely admit that I’ve done a couple of really bad things in my lifetime, my rebellion usually occurs not by deed but by thought.
I’m the sassy one, the very articulate one who isn’t afraid to speak up and say what she really thinks. The first time I got in trouble with the ladies at church because of certain words I’d written, I was 16 or 17 years old. I’d written a poem for creative writing class entitled Dear Pastor ____ (whose name I omit because I know he is on Facebook). My brutally honest, heartfelt, full of teenage passion poem railed against the hypocrisies of organized religion, and the failure of our prim, proper Sunday School class discussions to meet the needs of teenagers who acted perfect around their parents and the people from church but walked on the wild side (and I mean wild) the rest of the time. It contained the word “damn”. Several times. I thought the poem would only be seen by my teacher, a man I trusted with my private thoughts. But the next semester, it was selected by a group of students charged with picking out the best poems to be published in our school’s poetry and short story collection.
The ink was barely dry when a church lady spotted my poem in her son’s copy and ratted me out to the pastor, who called my parents, who said I wrote it, I had to bear the consequences. So I reluctantly trudged (well, drove really) into the pastor’s office and took my comeuppance like a man (well, a young woman, really).
I guess not much has changed in the last forty years. As a generation, we’re much more candid than we used to be. We can talk freely about all kinds of things that used to be “best left unspoken”. Unless you’re a pastor’s wife.
So here’s my disclaimer: Merry Go Round is about Tracy Jones Tomlinson, the youngest of three sisters in my Maple Valley trilogy. Tracy married her childhood sweetheart, is a minister’s wife, and has three lovely children. In the first two books, Rachael and Michelle’s mother brags about how perfect Tracy and her husband are. “Why can’t you be more like Tracy? Tracy never gives me this kind of trouble…” When Merry Go Round opens, it quickly becomes apparent that Tracy’s supposedly perfect life is anything but. When her husband leaves her for another man and she’s faced with moving out of the parsonage, she has no where to turn for help but to her older sisters.
Rachael, her oldest sister, from Stormy Weather, is none too eager to help, and frankly, feels that it’s about time that Tracy gets hers. Tender-hearted Michelle, from Water Lily, wants to help however she can and offers Tracy a job painting and wallpapering the home of Barclay Alexander III, the owner of the house she’s decorating. And so the plot thickens until Tracy has thought things and done things that a pastor’s wife should definitely not be thinking or doing. Everything Tracy has clung to is moving up and down and round and round and spinning out of control until all she can do is hang on for dear life.
So… Like Trevor, Tracy’s husband, who is gay, my husband of 7 years is a pastor. He is NOT gay. The first draft of this book was written before I even met Mark and became a pastor’s wife. So when I write about the drawbacks and privileges of being a pastor’s wife – specifically Trevor Tomlinson’s wife, I am speaking from Tracy’s point of view, NOT mine. I am NOT Tracy. Tracy is a fictional character. To any church ladies who might be reading this, please keep this in mind when Tracy meets Clay and things start to heat up. I am NOT Tracy. I repeat, Tracy is a fictional character. And give the poor girl a break. She’s at her sexual peak. She hasn’t had sex for 3 years. And before that, she’s been having sex with a man who wishes he were having sex with a man. She’s trying really hard to live up to her perfect pastor’s wife persona and her personal beliefs, but it’s hard, and she’s human, okay?
Which brings me to my next disclaimer. The subject of homosexuality and the church, nature or nurture, sin or absolutely okay, deviant or perfectly normal behavior, etc. is a touchy issue for many right now. I tried very hard NOT to let this book become a forum for my beliefs and thoughts on the issue, but to accurately reflect the feelings, emotions and conflicts my characters go through as they struggle through the implications of Trevor admitting he is gay, and dealing with the ramifications to his children, extended family, and church. I have been told by my advance readers, whose opinions on the subject probably vary from mine, that I was successful - that they finished the book not knowing what I, the author, thought about the subject. I took that as high praise and hope my readers agree.
I was raised in a very conservative Christian home. I am a Christian. My personal beliefs color everything I do and think. Although my books do not fit into the Inspirational Fiction category because they contain previously mentioned steamy scenes, they definitely have a Christian world view which includes characters honestly strugggling through issues of faith. While people I’ve loved, mistakes I’ve made and life lessons I’ve learned over the years have become fodder for many interesting characters and scenarios in my books, I am NOT Tracy. I am NOT perfect.
I almost deleted this daffodil photo yesterday because its pretty white petals were splattered with mud from a heavy rain storm we had a few days ago. But I saved it, because even though it was flawed, I thought I might find a use for it some day.