About Me

My photo
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.

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?