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.

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.