About Me

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I have discovered that walking a very narrow path leads to broad places of peace, contentment, and provision. Besides being a serious writer (writing is my retirement income plan), I currently work with Glorious Praise World Outreach to promote its Christian Eden Haus Retreat in Millersville, Missouri. Previously I was the executive director of the Bolduc House Museum in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, an eighteenth century French colonial historic site and National Historic Landmark.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Oh where, oh where has this writer been?

Work happens to the best of us sometimes. Hopefully the next several months will be less grueling and I'll have time to myself to finish "Stuck in the Mud" and write "Isabel" - which is based on a series of letters written to Isabel Woods by Ben Edwards in the 1890s. Meanwhile, don't think I have not been writing! It's a main component of my work as director of the Bolduc House Museum in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. It just doesn't get included here. Sorry. More to come in the next few days because if I do not get these items finished and if I do not manage to market what I have already written there is no retirement plan for me other than what I have threatened for the past 14 years: to live with the richest kid.

Monday, July 30, 2012

When Art Succeeds by Lesley Barker

When Art Succeeds

You see me
framed
in bone and skin
hanging
in this time
this where

Not so

I'm swirling in some distant space
The entrance is 
This word
That picture

By Lesley Barker
7/27/2012

I need more energy at the end of every day to progress on Stuck in the Mud. But sometimes, poems just happen.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Purple Prompt

Our writer's club met yesterday evening. We shared prompts for 10 minute writing exercises. I wrote this in response to the prompt: "Write about something that makes you think of purple."

Three year old purple mischief on foot, Audrey, able to scale the cherry wood mantel in the 30 seconds it takes me to check the bread in the oven and return to the living room. Even her flip-flops are purple as is every shirt, skirt, and accessory. Why then did she, ten years later, dye her hair green, and twenty years later, live in a yellow house? When she is old will she again wear purple?

Are you looking for prompts to motivate you to write spontaneously? Check out this blog.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Talley Ho!

There's a new writer's club in town that meets twice a month hosted by our museum so I attend every meeting. The first monthly meeting is for critiques. The second monthly meeting is for practice - where each of us brings a five minute writing challenge. Last week was for critiques so I read the first section of the first chapter of Stuck in the Mud and asked the others whether what they heard would make them want to keep reading. It did. The best thing about this is that it is motivating me to keep writing. Talley Ho!

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Monkey in the Middle

Yesterday one of my sons called to tell me that the pastor of the church he has been attending with his girlfriend announced that he was stepping down because of a year-long affair. This man's messages have been the topic of many other conversations between us. My son has spent the past several years re-evaluating a faith in God damaged by the divorce his father and I experienced.

Yesterday I also learned that another pastor who recently stepped down from his senior pastor role is now a full time counselor. This man's message caused my other son to walk out of his father's church as a junior in high school when this pastor's sermon asserted that children of divorced parents will always become "statistics." Except for the occasional wedding, he has not attended church since that day. Now this son claims to believe in no God. When I advise him to pray about some challenge or other his response is, "Why should I pray - I don't believe there is a God!" "Good point, I forgot," is my typical retort.

Yesterday this same son posted a link on his Face Book wall to an article from chicagoist.com about the Wisconsin state senator, Glenn Grothman, whose new bill connects "nonmarital parents" i.e. single ones with child abuse and neglect. My son's comment, also on Face Book, is: "Well, that's offensive."

When God is the rope in a divorce tug of war the children end up at the frayed edges when the rope finally breaks. When God is the ball some "monkey in the middle" frequently keeps the kids from catching it.

Both of my books touch this wound - Terry's children, in Pastor's Ex-Wife, believed their father who demonized her. Much of the story deals with how Terry coped or caved with the absence or silence of her children. Stuck in the Mud, the one I am slowly not getting done now, is told from the point of view of a child whose disappointment with her father resulted in a faith-less life.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Hijacking the church

Sometimes the church is the victim. Even though my fiction is about spiritual abuse as it is expressed within the American Protestant context, I recognize that the church is not always to blame. Truth, integrity, and civil discourse are better than pride, personal agendas, and vindictiveness hijacking otherwise good motives. In my opinion we all default to sin whether we believe in God or not. So why am I so constantly surprised by the failings of our flawed fellow humans? ...churched or unchurched...Yesterday I attended an event at which bad motives twisted around a good purpose and ended up leaving a bad taste in everybody's mouths. The unfortunate target was a small-town's church.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

There.....

On CNN this morning I saw an interview with a female Methodist pastor who has decided to become an atheist and has left the pastorate. She plugged some online support groups for clergy who are struggling with issues of faith as well as for laity who are leaving their faith. I understand the horrendous emotional and philosophic trauma that faith crises provoke - the more costly the stakes, the more isolated the struggle tends to be.

My fiction pushes the envelope for such struggles - when abusive Christians control and diminish other Christians in the name of God such struggles intensify with the twist being self-imposed by the victim due to her (largely it is a her) issues of conscience and naivete....

My fiction exposes what happens in the heart's inner space and behind closed doors and doctrinal confines.

My fiction demands huge levels of honesty and intellectual integrity and if it pushes someone to question the very foundations of their own faith, so be it.

God is big enough to defend His own faithfulness and as with the woman I heard on tv this morning, may He pursue us all in the midst of our storms and tantrums with His relentless mercy.

I find God where T.S. Eliot found Him: "at the still point of the still turning world...there the Dance is" ....

Friday, May 04, 2012

Business Comes First

Unfortunately it takes a certain amount of leisure - or at least breathing room - to write especially when writing takes up a chunk of ones everyday work day. Today, for example, I wrote two business letters, a speech for a member of my Board of Directors, several emails, and a proposal for a presentation I hope to be selected to do in November. But this week I became reacquainted with a woman whose career may provide key information for Stuck in the Mud so that's awesome. By the way, I just created an author page on librarything.com, a social network site that connects individuals by means of the books they list as being in their personal libraries. Check it out.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Coincidence?

I was talking about Stuck in the Mud with a volunteer at our museum yesterday. When I mentioned that one of the three corpses washed up at the Ste. Genevieve marina, he became very animated. "I found a floater once," he said. "I was working on a barge and we saw this guy - he was falling apart in the water." Then he described how the body was removed from the river with a crane and a body board to keep the corpse intact. Do you think this is just a coincident, some serendipitous interchange that just happened to take place when I was working on the discovery and removal of a floater. I am definitely incorporating what he told me into this story

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Missing the Clam Juice

I do not enjoy gratuitous sex scenes in novels. In fact, I see very little reason for there ever to be explicit descriptions of such activity. Nuance and innuendo works just fine for me as a reader. But, now that I have moved on to writing the second chapter of Stuck in the Mud, I find myself wondering how essential it is to make the protagonist - Aileen, in this case- the victim of some violent targeted effort to get her off the track of the killer or killers. Perhaps it is expected. But is it a must-have ingredient for a successful mystery novel?

I resist following patterns, recipes, or the usual procedures when there is obvious space for creativity.

People who have known me for a long time understand that they will never get exactly the same recipe twice when they eat at my house. I may knit dozens of Christmas stockings but I'll never use the same design twice. I love to read cookbooks but I don't make the meals described. I read them for the ideas - this spice goes with that set of ingredients, this technique makes that effect, this tool produces that result... If I eat something at a restaurant that I like I'll try to duplicate it at home and usually succeed on the first try.

The longest it ever took me to figure out a recipe was for the pasta con broccoli at the Rich & Charlie's restaurant in St. Louis. The ingredient that nearly stumped me was clam juice.

So writing this first mystery novel - hopefully this first of a series of mystery novels- feels a lot like recreating that pasta recipe. I'm trying to identify and properly incorporate the essential ingredients and I hope I'm not missing the clam juice.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Small Town Gossip

The first chapter of Stuck in the Mud has been written and rewritten several times and I feel that I can move on to the next chapter especially now that I understand the role that several of the characters will have - not in terms of the plot but as vehicles to reveal mood and emotions to the readers.

I am astounded by how challenging it is to write a murder mystery especially because they are my default recreational reading. Chapter two will probe the character of Mat and introduce the town's cast of eclectic real people...I think.

Mat serves as the emotive person whose over the top reactions accentuate the stoic that is Aileen. The townspeople are the information spreaders as is true here like in every small town that has a bar and a coffee shop. By noon everyone already knows what washed up at the marina and is prepared to commiserate to hear the details from Mat and Aileen's own mouths...

Friday, April 06, 2012

Wisdom of a fiction writer

"Note by what fragile and unknown threads the destinies of nations and the lives of men are suspended." - Alexander Dumas in Three Musketeers.

Exactly what I want to demonstrate in my writing.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Inevitable Unexpected

According to Aristotle, cited by Hallie and Whit Burnett in Fiction Writer's Handbook, "We keep reading in hopes of coming to a conclusion both 'inevitable and unexpected'".

I think this is right - but that more than just applying to our motivation for reading could it be a description of any authentic truth: inevitable and unexpected? Like when Solomon concluded that the resolution to the dispute about which mother's baby was the live son was to slice the child in two or when resurrection forced the grave open to deny Satan the crucifixion's booty and any legitimate power over us earthlings...

The issue for me now is how to craft Stuck in the Mud so that it leads readers to such an inevitable unexpected resolution .... I think Pastor's Ex-Wife does that - you'll have to read it and let me know if you agree.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Writer's Block & Funny Bone

Stuck in the Mud isn't stuck any more. Writing Pastor's Ex-Wife I discovered the imperative of humor as a way to make a serious subject palatable. After all, don't most people read for fun? At least when they pick up a novel.

I'm a nerd who finds reading nearly anything fun when I have the energy ....otherwise it really does have to grab me in the imagination without scaring or depressing me from the first few pages....

I'd left out the fun in the early chapters of Stuck in the Mud and got stuck myself...I committed to make the story go faster and make the reader smile and now it's writing itself...at least for the past two days.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Deconstructing the first chapters...

Mrs. Vesey, was my first writing critic and she was a harsh one. I resented every paper that she demanded me to rewrite but I was determined to get A's so as my sophomore English teacher in highschool she had the power to keep pushing me in spite of my teenage ego and entitlement mentality. I already knew I wanted to be a writer and I wrote for fun even then. At least Mrs.Vesey credited me with some writing ability which is why she pushed me and I am grateful for it.

My next critic was harsher, more judgmental, and less relational. She was another English teacher, a Scottish woman at the girls boarding school I attended in England as a high school exchange student during my senior year. I've forgotten her name. Her opinion was that no American high school student could write. It pained her to admit that "for an American...." I wrote pretty well.

Today I value people who are willing to read and ruthlessly critique what I write. Too many are overly impressed to know someone who is a writer to contribute meaningful criticism. I think my ego has been somewhat mitigated  with age and rejection slips....

Today I decided to reread the first several chapters of Stuck in the Mud now that I have done surgery on the plan for the murder mystery. I thought I could refine a few sentences and move on. But I discovered that the story moves too slowly and does not provide the quirky particulars that will make the characters live in our imaginations long after the book is finished. So I am my own critic.

Here's what I am going to try to do. I think that the manuscript to date is fine but that each paragraph needs to become several pages or a chapter in its own right. I need to deconstruct what I have written, add humor, dialogue, and incorporate the character's backstories. Adding action and making it much more fast-paced. 

Ok, so I totally changed the beginning. It feels more like a murder mystery - the beginning has to be like jumping off the cliff into a deep swimming hole. Then you have to figure out how to get out of the water safely.... Here's the first sentence:
"Aileen's shoes and the two feet inside them were stuck in deep mud leftover after the Mississippi River reclaimed its flood waters." 
 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Sketching Aileen

Not fat but she thinks she is
Long dark hair that comes down below her waist, worn in a single braid
Thick unmanageable dark eyebrows
Fat toes and fingers, bites her fingernails
Does not disclose much personal information to anyone
Resents her father's religion and blames it for her mother's death
Very very intelligent
Reads avariciously but doesn't like watching movies
Uses FaceBook but rarely posts anything
Mimics other peoples' gestures
Likes wild foods, flowers, and birdwatching but is terrified of spiders and snakes
Has a border collie named Buzzard who secretly lived in the Wash U dorms and attended class during the last semester of her senior year along with her 
Graduated with honors in history from Washington University in St. Louis
But could not get a job and now the student loans are due
Doesn't have a home to go home to: father abandoned family; mother died; grandmother is in a retirement community; uncle has made no attempt to reach out to her; no cousins; no aunts
Has been camping out on some classmates' couch for six months - in exchange for cooking and groceries - with Buzzard - it's been time to move out for a long time
Keeps in touch with grandmother but doesn't like her intrusiveness
Did like the private girls preparatory high school her grandmother paid for even though she could never participate in any of the social events not having the funds nor the wardrobe
Didn't see any other options after her grandmother got her a fabulous job - in fact the position of children's programing director at the museum was created for her and her grandmother rented an apartment six months in advance, utilities paid before even asking if she wanted to move to Ste. Genevieve
Likes Gary - if only he wasn't so religious and, it is awkward that he goes to church where Uncle John does; knows Gary has an evangelistic target on her back and thinks if she'd go through the motions then he'd ask her out but she won't because that would violate her conscience and disrespect her mother's memory

This is a sketch of Aileen. Until last weekend I had intended her to be the central character in Stuck in the Mud. Now, while she is the main character, she is not central to the core story. Her father, Dan, is.


Friday, March 23, 2012

Curiosity does not kill my cats

I first heard people praise layering as an aesthetic concept when my daughter was learning to paint in high school. That would have been about 10 years ago - at least that is when the concept of layers penetrated my imagination. And my analysis. But I have discovered that it is a semantic description of something I already understood - that it is efficient and powerful to accomplish multiple objectives at once. And that sometimes I still benefit from the many Marxist professors who made up my undergraduate experience as a sociology major....because layering is synergy applied to art.

But layering does not happen without a foundational canvas or concept. And Voila! I believe I have identified a key obstacle that has been hindering my momentum in writing Stuck in the Mud. I have invented many layers but I had not chosen a base upon which to apply them.

The aha moment came when I was mapping the characters' relationships between each other. I discovered that the person I thought should be at the center of the map did not fit there. I have been attempting to fit the story around the wrong character. The central character is not Aileen. It is her father, Dan, whose floating corpse floated washed up at the Ste. Genevieve marina.

But that makes the story philosophically an exercise in the passive voice. And that makes me curious. And curiosity, for me, is an essential ingredient - a core commitment. Curiosity does not kill my cats. It makes them interesting.

So now I know that Stuck in the Mud will use the format of a murder mystery to profile a spiritually abusive contemporary Christian leader in the same was that Pastor's Ex-Wife narrates the road to recovery of a woman who had been married to a spiritually abusive Protestant pastor. Both are built around the victim's story.

If I write Stuck in the Mud well, the reader may end up with an unresolved question as to who the victim really is.....

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Life in other people's mind-movies

Some of my favorite people are:
Nero Wolf
Temperance Brennan
Kay Scarpetta
Nancy Drew
Cherry Ames
Olivia Paras
Miss Marple
Hercule Poirot
Ruby Rothman
Hardy Boys
Peter Whimsey
Brother Cadfael
Encyclopedia Brown
Suzanna Appleton
Sherlock Holmes
Each is terribly predictable and totally compelling. They don't take a lot of my time ever but when I get into a conversation with any of them it usually lasts several hours during which I prefer not to be interrupted. I'm sure there are others whom I should have included on the list. Of course, some of them I have outgrown but they are fond memories of Saturday and evening adventures from decades ago.

I wonder if my imagination will proliferate so contagiously....Will my characters live in other people's mind-movies? Have I mentioned that I do not tend to watch or even enjoy watching movies - I prefer the ones that play in my own mind between the covers of certain books.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Meta-cognition and Story Structure

When I write a poem I usually impose a stringent structure on myself - it may be a rhyme scheme, a recurring pattern of syllables, or some other combinations of devices that make it necessary to craft and recraft the piece before it is finished. This has assisted me in some mysterious, serendipitous fashion, to discover my true intent, pushed as I am to make the piece work - as with solving a Sudoku, there is one right set of answers even though the building blocks rearrange themselves forever.

I had a similar set of rules, a template, if you will, for each chapter when I wrote Pastor's Ex-Wife. Each chapter had to advance the plot and also contain:
  • A church service - using a fictitious construct which was a composite of a different church building, congregation, pastor, and service
  • An anecdote from when I taught music in an inner city elementary school district
  • A metaphor or symbol that carried the psychological/emotional impact of the chapter
  • Dialogue
I have a similar set of rules for a historical novel - the working title is Isabel -that is based on a series of letters written in 1894 between Benjamin Edwards and Isabel Woods. Most of the research for that book is done but I am not ready to write it yet. However, I can watch it unfold in my mind as though the book were a dance choreographed for the stage - each chapter is one day in the week before Isabel dies. When I do write it, I think it will flow fairly freely - at least for the first draft.

My current struggle is with Stuck in the Mud. It is a murder mystery - think "cozy", not "thriller." But I want to incorporate big issues into the story - the pain that spiritually abusive marriages cause the children, how gender issues play out in today's American Protestant churches, and how the issues of class, philanthropy, and status intertwine in the context of a nonprofit organization. The setting is contemporary Ste. Genevieve, Missouri - the Bolduc House Museum, in fact, so at some level I hope that the novel will be a marketing device for both the museum and the town. There are three corpses: one in St. Louis, one washing up at the Mississippi River marina in Ste. Genevieve, and one accidentally plowed up behind one of the houses at the museum. The requisite but uncertain romantic sub-theme is there.

I'm thinking that the plot itself has to be the driver of Stuck in the Mud....unlike the shifting settings and symbols of Pastor's Ex-Wife, or the character-driven Strindberg-like expose of Isabel. So for me, the task of planning Stuck in the Mud is unexpectedly the most difficult writing task I have undertaken to date.

So much for a writer's meta-cognitive process, right?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Backstories & Character Development

"Mildred" with Zuts, the Bolduc House Museum's mascot at the MOMCC workshop on first person interpretation, March 10, 2010 in Madison, Indiana
I attended a wonderful workshop last weekend on first person interpretation that was conducted by Mike Fallin, who is in charge of interpretive services at the Ohio Historical Society. We also spent time at lunch during which I probed his process of creating solo skits designed to involve museum visitors in experiencing aspects of social history. I watched one of his actors present her skit, "Mildred", whose husband lost his job in the 1930s and nearly killed himself because he could no longer support her per his marriage vows.

Mike's process is a lot like that of developing a novel. He spends at least a month researching, looking for documentation to support each anecdote. His goal is to identify 3 big ideas that the audience will go away remembering. Then he spends a week or so writing the script before he involves the actor. This is for a 30 minute show.

His three musts are accurate costuming, appropriate usage of language and gesture, and documentation to back up everything. Then his actors are responsible to draw the audience into the scene through dialogue and eye contact within the first 30 seconds. The sterile classroom immediately transfixed to Mildred's kitchen and we were all there- each of us believed we had come back to visit an old neighbor after having been gone for many years. It felt like being consumed by a good book.

Mike and "Mildred" answered some key questions about how to move my staff at the Bolduc House Museum towards adopting first person interpretation as part of our transition to living history. They also influenced how I will think about developing fictional characters for my novels from now on. I am so glad to have met them both.

I am still working on the backstories for each of the characters in Stuck in the Mud. I think I added another one over the weekend - not sure.

I am beginning to believe that writing each book is as different an experience as raising each child. Not one moment is the same and I speak from experience! I raised seven children.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Multitasking to Make the Book Richer

Some of my time as the director of the Bolduc House Museum is spent researching various aspects of life in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, during the late 18th century. Because I decided to set Stuck in the Mud at this museum and in this town, it seems efficient and fun to incorporate what I am researching and discovering now into the story. Hence the 500 year old Native American female corpse that got unearthed in the story. No such thing happened on our site - you would definitely have heard about it in the media if that were to have happened. But I learned of a similar discovery plowed up by accident long ago in a farmer's field across the river nearby as the crow flies and then a colleague explained that some tribes, Chickasaw was one, sometimes buried bodies and skulls in separate graves. Another scholar claimed that this kind of burial indicated that the woman was a slave. So when Aileen, the new fictional museum professional in Stuck in the Mud, is assigned the task of liaison between the museum and the various entities that must respond to the discovery of a corpse buried in the lawn for centuries, she will need to know even more than I have begun to find out. It will add a sub-plot. Equally relevant to the story is an exhibit I have on display right now of ten significant engravings and mezzotints from our collection. Aileen's uncle, John, a professor of art history at Webster University in St. Louis, will be a valuable consultant to the museum in the book. This provides a natural way to link the characters from St. Louis to the ones in Ste. Genevieve and, at the same time, incorporate nerdy information to make the book much richer, I think.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Planning a novel

My dining room wall is beginning to look striped with long adding machine tape strips filled with notes hastily written in black ink. One describes Hans, the pastor-murderer who killed himself before his congregation would learn of his flaws. Another strip profiles Gary, a member of Hans' congregation, an artist doing an MFA degree at the university where Aileen's uncle, John, teaches art history. A third is for Uncle John who was secretly in a relationship with the pastor for many years while serving his church as an elder. Another strip lists the events that are important to relate: a wedding that happened 25 years ago; a funeral; a concert - which of the characters were in attendance and how their paths crossed over time resulting in the discovery and investigation of three dead bodies. More strips to come are for Lillian, Mat, and Aileen herself - I thought I had the book planned until I started writing and discovered that this is a very different process than Pastor's Ex-Wife. That first novel is organized more like a bead necklace is made - each bead is complete in itself and the string binds them to each other. Stuck in the Mud depends more on the careful interplay of people over time so I have to really concentrate on the back stories and motivations. I did decide that Gary will be the sort of person who doesn't get anyone's joke at the same time that he becomes the brunt of many people's jokes even when he is sitting on the same couch at a party. His character will provide some measure of comic relief I think.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Discount

If you click on the 50% off coupon to the right you can purchase Pastor's Ex-Wife at a serious steal beginning tomorrow - just for one week then the discount disappears.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

What's the Big Idea?

Pastor's Ex-Wife has several big ideas winding through each chapter. One of them is the diversity of contemporary American Protestantism as it is expressed by congregations on Sunday mornings in church. In fact one of the earliest concepts that emerged as I was writing the novel was the character who is an anonymous church critic - modeled after restaurant reviews written by diner/journalists who pretended to be regular guests. An anonymous church critic who wrote up reviews for the religion section of a newspaper who would serve to preview what a particular church had to offer a visitor because (and you do not know this unless you have been shopping for a new church "home") it can be extremely uncomfortable to visit a church for the first time. Pastor's Ex-Wife really is a romp through contemporary American Protestantism which is a large umbrella over these and likely many more types of churches.
  • Liturgical Churches like Episcopal, Lutheran, Orthodox, and Anglican are examples of denominations in which the services follow a written format that is nearly identical from week to week and the year is organized by a series of liturgical "seasons" - Lent is the season as I write this. These churches tend to offer communion weekly and involve a wide spectrum of liberal and conservative members. Visitors can be intimidated because the congregation responds to the routine of standing, responsive reading/singing, kneeling, sitting without needing to use the book and the newcomer feels that everyone is aware of his awkward attempt to blend in
  • Liberal Churches like some Presbyterian, Methodist, and Church of Christ, etc. are examples of denominations in which hymns are usually sung, sometimes contemporary Christian songs are added. There tends to be three songs, special music, an offering, a children's sermon, and a sermon directed to the adults which connects some biblical passage to a social or ethical challenge or world event.
  • Evangelical Churches like most Baptist, Nazarene,some Presbyterian, and Churches of God etc are examples of denominations where the members must prove that they have personally experienced salvation and that they adhere to a specific theology and life style before they can officially join. Their services tend to be very similar to the one I described for the liberal churches but the sermon directed to the adults typically interprets a biblical passage's requirement on the believer and is often followed by an altar call that invites people to pray at the front of the church as a sign that the sermon persuaded them to some change. Billy Graham is an example of an evangelical preacher. 
  • Pentecostal, Charismatic, Assembly of God, and Church of God in Christ are examples of denominations which share the evangelical view that the Bible is inerrant and to be rigorously followed by the believers today. In addition these churches practice the "Baptism of the Holy Spirit", the "gifts of the Spirit", and "speaking in tongues." They tend to have longer services with extended times of singing and physically demonstrative worship  during which members of the congregation may interrupt the planned agenda with prophetic messages, prayers, or personal "testimonies" as they are prompted by God. 
There are many more variations on the same basic four types of Protestant church. In my opinion God is present in some measure at every service that convenes in the name of Jesus Christ the risen son of God.

Pastor's Ex-Wife dedicates each chapter to portray a different church where Terry Soldan and her friend William go as first time visitors. Terry takes notes and then writes the experience in her column at the newspaper where she works as the religion editor.

Pastor's Ex-Wife inserts an extra twist - by disguising themselves as people of color Terry and William investigate what Barack Obama (and he is far from the originator of this comment) claims to be "the most segregated hour in America".

I think the book makes good use of humor in the telling....

Stuck in the Mud relies on the juxtaposition of faith and abusive Christians in positions of authority which is similar to Pastor's Ex-Wife but one of the big ideas in Stuck in the Mud is gender in mid-America. I started hanging my story-wall graphic organizer for Stuck in the Mud today.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Laying out a story's bones

I have been thinking a lot about my writing process lately. My conclusion - at least for now- is that mine is not easily described. It matches how I approach any large creative project. As soon as I can envision the finished product it is easy to define the detailed steps that it will take to arrive at the goal. The other imperative for me is to conceptualize it graphically or physically but always visually. It doesn't matter what the genre is either.

I wrote lots of serious papers in college and graduate school. Before computers or word processors when only the elite among us owned electric typewriters, I typically wrote quotes from research documents longhand on single index cards with the citation information on the back of the same card. Then I assigned a category to the quote, arranged the categories by sequencing the cards in a logical order. I didn't usually bother writing a formal outline. Instead I hand-wrote text to connect the quotes on pieces of paper to which I taped the cards where they went in the narrative. To rearrange the paper I did not rewrite sections; I used scissors to cut the document and taped it back together.

The place that best worked to do this was the Asian studies library at Washington University. It had very large tables and very few students ever used it. So I could spread out. Sometimes my paper looked like a badly designed very long kite damaged after too many collisions with trees. When I was happy with the end product I typed it in triplicate with the requisite carbon paper between the copies. It was a messy task that inevitably also required the use of those little white correction strips - also in triplicate - and don't even remind me of the agony of spacing footnotes so they displayed properly at the bottom of the same page that contained the information discussed or cited below.

The other day my office manager watched me organizing a complex set of project tasks for an important staff meeting at the museum. She described me as a visual thinker. I never would have said the same about myself but in retrospect upon reflection I think she is correct and therein lies the key to what is slowing down my progress with Stuck in the Mud. I lack both the place and the mechanism to lay out the story's bones - the cut out pages to tape back together before writing the actual story.

When I wrote Pastor's Ex-Wife the structure was clear from the start. The first and last chapters function as bookends. In the first chapter, Terry Soldan found the courage to revisit her ex-husband, Pastor Ed's church - incognito in the guise of an African American woman but really in her role as the anonymous church critic for a newspaper. The first chapter describes the service from her perspective. The last chapter is the text of the article she wrote about Abundant Love Church for the newspaper the following week. In between the first and last chapter is the chronological story of how she decided to leave Pastor Ed and how she gained the self-confidence and courage to go back (to the church for one Sunday service - not to the abusive marriage or the twisted braid of lies that had kept her trapped there for 24 years previously.)

Each chapter advances Terry's story, relies on a specific metaphor, profiles a church, a pastor, a Sunday service, and a congregation. Each chapter also contains an anecdote inspired by my work as a music teacher in an urban inner city public school system. So as soon as I decided on the particulars for a chapter I was ready to write it. I even created a chapter planning sheet for the book.

Stuck in the Mud does not rely on such symbolism. It is a murder mystery with three corpses to deal with. I have some serious themes to weave through the story and I know my cast of characters and the settings very well. I think I will get a few rolls of adding machine tape tomorrow. Then I'll visually arrange the story as it will be experienced by each character. Next I'll cut it up and rearrange it on a wall.

That should help a lot.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Courage and Camouflage

It is hard enough to honestly evaluate secret things in our deceitful hearts when we probe them through reflection, meditation, prayer, therapy. These means may allow us to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves but certainly no therapist or spiritual counselor expects us to install a window into our heart for the world's peeping Toms vicariously to peek through the slats of its blinds.

Fiction forces us to wash our windowpanes.

More than that: writing compelling fiction takes a mighty courage that tears the blinds down in the plain view of perfect strangers and long time friends.

Of course there is the camouflage of the story.

A friend of several decades called yesterday to say she had finally read Pastor's Ex-Wife. She admired what she called my courage and also enjoyed the story in its own right. Perhaps it takes even more courage to read what a friend writes. And, perhaps the mark of a true friend respects the boundaries between fact and fiction by refusing to risk asking where those boundaries are....

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Robert Louis Stevenson on Fiction's Transformative Power

I agree with Robert Louis Stevenson about the power of fiction. Do you? This is what he wrote:

"The most influential books and the truest in their influence are works of fiction. They do not pin the reader to a dogma, which he must afterward discover to be inexact; they do not teach him a lesson which he must afterward unlearn. They repeat, they rearrange, they clarify the lessons of life; they disengage us from ourselves, they constrain us to the acquaintance of others; they show us the web of experience, not as we can see it for ourselves, but with a singular change - that monstrous, conserving ego of our being, for the nonce, struck out."

If you have experienced this kind of transformative power of fiction, please post a comment that includes the book that most impacted you.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Historical Needles in Archival Haystacks

Yesterday I attended a women's club meeting at lunch and happened to mention that I am writing a mystery set in our town to a friend who was sitting across from me. So, rather than taking in the information and making it perhaps cause for a small conversation she shouted the information down the table. To my surprise, everyone seemed impressed and ready to read the finished product even though it truly is months away.

Rather than inspire me to write the next section, I came home tired after another meeting took care of dinner. I thought that today I would get back to it.

Grump grump grump. Today again, work turned frustrating and a bit overwhelming because a departing professional staff member leaves in three days so we spent the morning going over each of her tasks, responsibilities, and projects. To make my headache go away after I actually finished my must do list, I did something somewhat mindless.

I started an index card file of the specific dates, events, and decisions on record in the Ste. Genevieve Archive. The records are random. Deeds are with deeds and concessions with concessions but the file for 1765 can be next to one from 1800. For the past few years I have been reading through looking for historical needles in archival index haystacks. Today I invented a way to sort them that will allow anyone to meander in a more intuitive and chronological sequence.

Since my work always involves story and the work of the museum is to accurately interpret our 18th century site, taking the time to place each detail in the context of companion details is important and filled an afternoon that needed to be more low key than if I had started making a bunch of cold calls, for instance.

This is what actually happens in the planning phase of every story. Before I write the next section of Stuck in the Mud I will have figured out the sequence of the main details and then I'll improvise the dialog and sensory connections as I string the details in their sequence whether that is truly chronological or not. That's what happened as I wrote Pastor's Ex-Wife too. After knowing the big picture of the book, each chapter becomes, for me, its own project.

The missing ingredient for me today is energy....however, I can probably weave in some of the eighteenth century details as I write Stuck in the Mud and my adventure to Potosi tomorrow will definitely find its way into the story.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Mood, Setting, Graffiti & No Eagles

Today I met a friend in Festus for lunch. We chatted for a long time in a pair of easy chairs next to a fire at a Bread Company store. Then we roamed the aisles at a Walmart so I could replace a microwave and buy a block of cheese. Then I chose not to take the interstate home.

I followed a two lane road that somehow managed to made me feel like Sunday with me having been transported far from the city without a care in the world.

Black cows in one field wallowed close to a black bearded billy goat. A silver stream reflected back light dividing the scenic overlook briefly into two hazy blue-green equal parts south and north.

South of Bloomsdale a multicolored flock of chickens meandered up from the ditch just feet from the road. A blue heron in a pond stretched its neck distorting a graceful gesture so that it conjured images of lake monsters or dragons for a fraction of a moment. The toppling grey barn that I wish I could capture visually in paint or on film seemed less erect than it did last week.

Yesterday I drove east over the levee past the burnt out marina to the end of the flat parking lot at the top of the muddy hill leading to the bank of the Mississippi River where the dog discovered a corpse in Stuck in the Mud. I wasn't doing research for the book, though.

I was hoping to see some eagles but there weren't any - not in the area where some were wading up to their knees fishing this time last year - not even a blue heron in the deeper pond west of where the tug boats and ferries moored during the high water last spring.

Where the road curves is pretty treacherous especially in the sections that are missing concrete. You have to slow down to less than a crawl to protect your tires and the underside of your car but if you don't know that the road has sharp hungry teeth you are probably in trouble.

The marina is not a place to go alone without at least a dog for company. Its wildness does not feel safe thanks not to the deep tracks made by heavy deer nor to the prospect of venomous snakes.

It feels dangerous to me because at my core I am a city girl. Graffiti, discarded piles of trash piles, and leftover fire rings make me worry about what human predators might possibly lurk there.

The mood created by the setting in Stuck in the Mud has everything to do with the emotional connections that each character brings to each place.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Weaving sans loom

The dog sniffed out the corpse wedged against the west bank of the Mississippi River and temporarily took possession away from a pair of vultures but Mat regained the leash, got violently sick and went to help Aileen get up from where she was stuck in the mud. Finally the friends got to a spot where there was cell phone reception and called the police - there's the summary of the next section of the book I'm writing now. I put out about 400 words this evening. Not a quota. Not something worth bragging about. But think about it! When I was writing Pastor's Ex-Wife it was the main priority of my work day. Stuck in the Mud is my current after-work evening pastime. It makes for a different energy- especially on a day when a key employee turned in her two week notice. Both books required me to weave several story threads together - I have always wanted to own a loom....

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why Fiction?

Have you ever analyzed what makes a speech or a sermon boring? In my opinion boredom often springs from the lack of a story to glue the speaker's ideas together. Even Jesus' preferred teaching style was to use short easy-to-grasp stories. Somehow a story has the power to sneak into a person's heart and penetrate through calluses to bring healing, a smile, a new strategy or perspective. Humor works the same way, right? So my fiction tackles big controversial topics hopefully in ways that make the readers smile and turn pages through bouts of tears. At least that's my plan....my readers need to say whether or not it works.

Btw: I have now reformatted Pastor's Ex-Wife several times and uploaded the hopefully really clean version to smashwords. If I succeeded it gets included in a catalog and made available to many ebook publishers. I also replaced the version on sale in Amazon's Kindle Store with the newly edited format.

Now for the dog to find that body.....

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Frustrating

I spent the last four or five hours reformatting the paragraph indents for Pastor's Ex-Wife so it could match the format for Smashwords and become included in their catalog. So, guess what? I did it wrong.

The frustrating conclusion must be that writing, like everything else worth doing, requires work.... So I'll try again another evening.

Meanwhile.....the dog is about to find a corpse in the river....but I have to get back to working on writing Stuck in the Mud.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Playing it safe - not this girl

It snowed tonight - a measly two inches finished with sleet. So that means I will not have tomorrow to keep writing. Instead, I will walk the three blocks to the museum and work. Perhaps the week will make it up to me. Who knows. Today was productive. I revised my personal website: www.teamlesley.com so that it acts like an author's site. I changed the template so it looks cleaner. I published another e-book - a group Bible study guide - to Smashwords.com at a seriously reduced price but the site has been having issues loading ever since so I have yet to review how it looks in epub.

And I worked on my murder mystery which now has a title: Stuck in the Mud. The first three chapters are finished. Two of the three bodies have been introduced. The third will be discovered in the next chapter. I made potato, cheese, onion soup with bacon bits and cilantro on top.

Pastor's Ex-Wife tackles the clergy sex abuse crisis from the Protestant side. Stuck in the Mud takes on the issue of homosexuality - not from the theological point of view where the book takes a position on the subject, but from the human point of view. I don't usually play it safe....

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Staying Motivated to Write & Accountable

I solved two problems related to my personal motivation to write - which is challenged by the energy it takes to do my full time responsibilities as a museum director well -not to mention that a chunk of every day at work is spent writing for work. My motivational problem deals with writing MY stuff!

This morning I realized that when I wrote Pastor's Ex-Wife I was assisted by Lisa and her husband, Gavin.
Whenever I finished a chapter, I emailed it to them. They read and responded and their issues and encouragement kept me enthused. So, my first task today was to identify an accountability partner a.k.a. reader/responder. Thanks Audrey.

My second task was to come up with a working title: Stuck in the Mud. Then I revisited the 5,000 words already written and integrated foreshadowing for the third corpse and also upgraded a character to a prospective boyfriend for Aileen.

That accomplished, I checked out and revised my website for the first time since last March. Now I'm waiting for homemade French onion soup to cook enough to put the bread and cheese on and throw the pot under the broiler for a few minutes. Yummmy.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

You wanted to know what else I'm writing....

Suppose Aileen, a young college graduate with a history degree, got hired to develop children's programming for a history museum thanks to the interference of her very pushy, very affluent grandmother who is acting out of guilt for the drop-out dad her only son proved to have been. As far as Grandmother is concerned, his first offense had been to side-step attending a respectable seminary and go traveling rogue as a contemporary Christian singer/preacher with charismatic tendencies. She might not have intruded so directly into Aileen's life had her mother not died just before the girl started college or if her son had been man enough to pick up any of the parenting obligations. 

Neither Aileen nor her Grandmother would ever have guessed that one spring morning the body of this same son and father would wash against the same bank of the Mississippi River where his daughter and her dog just happened to be walking. Amazingly his was not the only dead body to end up in Aileen's way....

This will be my first murder mystery. It's pretty well plotted. I'm done with the first chapter at least for this first draft. Right now it does not have a working title, though.

I started working on it last spring.

Then the tourism season took over followed by a huge turnover of my museum staff and truly this is the first time I have had to do anything but muse over the story since its beginning.

My plan is to spend about 10 hours each week writing it beginning immediately.

When it is finished, I'll let it percolate while I write another story which has been brewing for at least ten years...research is mostly done, plotting is done, it just needs to be written. I'll tell you about that one another day. In addition, there is one more pretty well developed novel and about five nonfiction books in my mind. Hopefully in the meantime I will recruit enough of an audience for Pastor's Ex-Wife that women who share Terry Soldan's story will be willing to contribute their own in the forms of letters to Terry.... which letters will become the sequel to Pastor's Ex-Wife.

I have a friend who recruited his readership by playing Mafia Wars on social media. It worked for him and now he has some traditional publishing contracts for his sci-fi fiction. It makes me jealous but not enough to emulate his strategy....I'll just blog along so you all can watch what happens......

Btw, today Pastor's Ex-Wife became available for sale on any ebook platform you like via smashwords.com. It's been for sale as a Kindle book for almost a year. If you haven't read it yet....there are links to the right on this blog....just saying.....:)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Shall I tell you......

A few days before my birthday I received at phone call at work from my childhood friend, William. He is one third of the inspiration for William in The Pastor's Ex-Wife - the bachelor retiring elementary school principal to whom Terry Soldan flees for refuge from her abusive husband and soon to be ex, Pastor Ed. We (the real William and I) chit chatted about our children - mine grown, his entering the teen years, and about friends from grade school. Our conversation refocused me on this blog, on my decision to really work on writing no matter how exhausting it is to lead the transition of a static historic house museum to a vibrant living history excursion that takes our visitors back to experience French colonial America in the mid-Mississippi valley as it was.
I identified my core or long-term aspirations recently. You see, I am also at a transition - the kids are grown and gone. I am being successful at what I do for a regular paycheck and I love my job which I hope to keep for a long time. But what I want as my legacy is to be known as a writer of compelling fiction. That is also my retirement plan so another birthday accentuates the reality that I am fewer than 10 years from retirement age. Ouch.
I have already proven that I can make a living as a freelance writer - I've been paid to write in many different genres, for different audiences and purposes. I write daily as part of my job at the museum too - web content, social media posts, articles, business letters, grant proposals, newsletters, brochures, curriculum, advertising - but my real goal is to build an audience for my fiction- which deals with the juxtaposition of authentic faith in abusive marriages. You already know about Pastor's Ex-Wife. Should I tell you about the other novels that are in various stages of completion?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Disciplined Writer

I wrote today - a one page promo for the historic sites in Ste. Genevieve for a group of us to pick apart and refine; rewrote parts of the edited draft of the quarterly newsletter for the Museum; wrote a bunch of emails; wrote website content; updated posts via Roost for social media sites; and created additional content in the persona of Zuts the Squirrel a.k.a (per one of my sisters) my alter ego and Museum mascot. Probably I wrote more things than that. It's a usual day so why do I think I haven't made any progress on my goal of becoming known as a writer of significant fiction? Hmmm.....

Friday, January 13, 2012

Rabbi David Small

I like (and have just recently discovered) Harry Kemelman's series of "cozy" mysteries solved by Rabbi David Small by applying the methodology of a talmudic scholar. I like them because the author is more concerned about issues of faith and what it means to be an authentic practicing Jew in the New England of the 1960s than about writing a murder mystery. The mystery, always tightly composed, is incidental to the impact of the story but it serves a sneaky device that keeps the reader engaged and provokes new questions of faith and conscience along the way.

If I succeed in my life-long ambition to become known as a writer of serious fiction I will have engaged my readers around the same types of issues as Kemelman. I aim to provoke honest faith by triggering deep questions in my readers all the while providing a compelling story that doesn't let them put the Kindle down until the last page has been swiped.

Hopefully my readers will respect my characters in spite of all of their flaws as much as I respect the Rabbi.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Selective Memory

I picked up an old book by Hallie and Whit Burnett, Fiction Writer's Handbook, at the library. It starts with a preface by Norman Mailer and it's been a while since I've read a book on the craft. It is very well done - more about the philosophy behind the writing process than most books with similar titles and goals. The authors take a wide view because as the editors of Story Magazine, they had a large and diverse number of examples to choose from.

One statement matches my process in writing Pastor's Ex-Wife well: "We absorb, we sympathize, we reject, we present, it all comes from our own selective memory in the end."

And so it does in my story of how one woman, Terry Soldan, achieved enough personal courage to return to the church pastored by her ex-husband, incognito, in order to shut the door on that abusive season so that she could step into a new place emotionally.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Who's William?

There were 13 students in my kindergarten class at a Lutheran school in New York City. William was the new kid in first grade who cried when his sister was born because he already had a sister and had wanted a brother. He also threw up on my desk. We became very close friends. He gave me permission to use his name for the William of my novel, Pastor's Ex-Wife. Now he is a successful ob-gyn. The fictitious William is an elementary principal in an inner city school district. In fact he, like most everything else in the book is a fictional construct made up of three men who have loved me well: William, Mike (a real principal), and my dad - the inspiration behind the fictitious William's passion for gourmet cooking. His passion for gardening is from me. In all, William represents all the positives in contrast to Pastor Ed who is the villain.