The best writers are readers

I am thrilled to welcome my friend Rachel McMillian as a guest blogger this week. Ken and I are on a bike trip in Europe and I’m so thankful that Rachel was willing to help me on the blog. I hope you enjoy her writing, look for her books and add them to your “To Be Read” pile. Welcome Rachel!

As a writer, I use books as some people might a course or a workshop: studying structure, and dialogue. Noticing the way an author immerses me in a world, culture and moment in history that inspires me to read more.    But reading not only enhances my ability and confidence as a writer, it helps me strive to be a better human. For instance, several publications including the Washington Post and the New York Times have lately featured research suggesting a correlation between reading and empathy.  As a woman of faith, empathy is a natural extension of my Christian worldview.  As a writer and reader, empathy is a sure-fire way to ensure a created character is an extension of a fictional friend.

While I read to learn from authors who excel at their craft, I also read for encouragement: to find the characters who parallel my journey, who express my doubts and my fears, who I empathizewith.    When Christy Huddleston asks Miss Alice endless questions after she moves to Cutter Gap in Catherine Marshall’s masterpiece Christy, I see a bit of myself in her earnest desire to encounter God and His word on a deeper level.  One of the most powerful moments in my reading life occurred when I read a scene in Lynn Austin’s Fire by Night. Julia Hoffman, a nurse in the Civil War era, recognizes she has much to offer the world beyond her cushioned upbringing and wonders how she is supposed to follow her fiancé Nathaniel Greene without question– even as God nudges her to serve others and use her recently discovered gifts:

“But aren’t women allowed to hear from God?” she asks her friend Phoebe. “Are only our fathers or our husbands qualified to tell us what God wants? I thought’s Id heart God speaking to me.[…] So should I try to become the person he wants me to be or the person God wants me to be?”

This conversation in my copy of the novel is translucent with wear, underlined and highlighted.  It spoke so deeply into my own insecurities as a woman of faith and challenged me to seek out God’s voice beyond human expectation.

In Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, grace is incarnate in the character of Joe Gargery-a kind blacksmith and the protagonist’s brother in law who time and again pays ungrateful Pip’s debts and welcomes him home with open arms despite cruel and neglectful treatment. There is empathy here, sure. There is also Christ’s love. We are alwayswelcome with Him—no matter what we have done.

So, yes, I learn about structure and syntax, story and pace when I read a novel as a writer. But most importantly reading reaffirms who I am. It challenges and encourages me. It strengthens my empathy and my Christian faith. It allows me to step into another person’s shoes and walk around in them (to paraphrase Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird).

In my latest historical series, the catalyst that sends my hero Hamish DeLuca, a talented Toronto lawyer to Boston, is a panic attack.  Hamish, thus, flourishes in his adopted home: finding footing as an amateur sleuth. But, he still suffers from an anxiety and panic disorder in an era where his symptoms were heavily stigmatized and largely misunderstood. Hamish’s mental illness and his symptoms come by him honestly. I don’t impart anything on him that I have not experienced myself. In this vulnerable way, I am able to hopefully establish empathy in my relationship with my readers and combine my earnest love of writing with the hope and passion I have encountered through the fiction I re-read and cherish.

The best writers are readers.

So read on: those who read to inform their own scribblings and those who read to find themselves in other people’s pages. Read to help you become a better writer. Read because it will make you a better human. Read to ask questions and read because it asks the questions you might have been afraid to ask.  Read in every occasion. Given enough time and page I guaranteeyou will find yourself—again and again— read because empathy is alive and apparent in the well-worn pages of a favourite book.

Rachel McMillan is the author of the Herringford and Watts mysteries, the Three Quarter Time series of contemporary romances set in opulent Vienna, and the Van Buren and DeLuca mysteries praised for bringing an authentic 1930’s Boston world to life while normalizing the fictional conversation surrounding mental illness. Her first work of non-fiction, described as a romantic’s guide to independent travel, releases in 2020. Rachel lives in Toronto, Canada

Tell me when

I’m very happy to introduce my friend Christine Bierma as my guest blogger today. Besides being an excellent writer herself, Christine is the founder of Launch Right a social media boutique company that has been an invaluable resource to me and other authors. Welcome Christine!!



My husband and I went to out for dinner this past weekend to celebrate his birthday. I spent some time alone at our table and rather than whip out my phone and check Facebook or my email, I took those few moments to look around and observe the people sitting near me.

I watched two interactions that looked similar. A lady at the table to my right had ordered a salad and the waiter had come over to offer her fresh ground pepper. I watched as he slowly sprinkled the spice over her plate and quite quickly saw her hold up her hand and smile saying, “Thank you, that’s enough.”

Almost at the same time, a gentleman just beyond her was having parmesan cheese freshly grated over his pasta. He too was allowed to tell the waitress when she had given him “enough.” He smiled and watched her turn and turn and turn the crank on the cheese grater and laughed with the whole table when he finally held up his and and said, “Ok, thats enough!” His dinner guests were commenting loudly how they were afraid he was never going to stop, that he may have taken all of the cheese.

Both of these interactions were almost the same, and yet they weren’t at all. A little or a lot? It sort of depends on what is in the grater.

Have you ever felt like you were looking up at God saying, “That’s enough, thank you.” The pepper of life is falling down on you and you are quick to say, “No more please.” Or, have you ever looked at your life and had it feel like God was grating Parmesan cheese all over your days and you didn’t want to ever say, “Stop.” I’m not sure where this analogy goes but it makes me chuckle.

At dinner my husband and I discussed how blessed we were. “Beyond measure” is how the Bible puts describes God’s blessings. I could sit here and list all the amazing blessings I have been gifted with; a complete A-Z list with footnotes included. I’m overwhelmed when I drink in all that God has given me. The “cheese” of life is gooey and melted and makes me feel a little guilty because He has given me so much.

And yet, at the same table where Doug and I discussed how richly blessed we are, we shed tears. It’s was such a strange juxtaposition. We miss his dad who passed away a year ago, we know Emily is going away to college soon, there are prayers we’ve prayed for years that still feel unanswered. It’s the pepper of life.

King David wrote about pepper and cheese, although he didn’t exactly use those terms. Not every psalm but many start with praise and adoration. David gives voice to the many blessings of God. Then for some reason David also includes what he is struggling with and talks about the people or circumstances that plague him and cause his heart to ache. He then ends with an affirmation of who God is and testifies that God will never change.

Our lives can overflow with blessings and our hearts can ache all at the same time. Laughing through tears isn’t abnormal, in fact, it’s the most real any of us can be.

I encourage you to open up the Psalms today and see for yourself what King David has written. You may find a voice for the unspoken words of your heart. Laugh with Jesus about the blessings he has given you but also let him see your tears and allow him to speak to your pain, to your fear, to your longings.

Pepper and cheese may not be the deepest thing I’ve ever written about but I hope it does make you think…and maybe laugh a bit too.

If you’d like to read more from Christine you can find her at or if you need some social media help contact her at

Spiritual NICU

It is a pleasure to welcome my friend, Christine Bierma, as my guest on this week’s post. Christine is a talented young writer who posted this touching story on her blog, We both know Baby Lucy’s parents and continue in prayer for this precious little one who was born at only 28 weeks.

Lucys-feetRecently I’ve spent many days inside the halls of the Rush University NICU while a little girl, who has captured my heart, fights to grow strong in a world she wasn’t meant to be in yet. She is being required to do things her little body isn’t ready for and to excel at tasks she isn’t at all qualified to accomplish.

It’s unfair.

It’s hard to watch.

It’s miraculous.

Each day she amazes her parents and her doctors as she clears hurdles and learns to be more and more independent. How much her tiny body needs to grow before she can leave the NICU is overwhelming if you look at it as a checklist. Each day has ups and downs and sometimes, it feels safer to just live hour to hour, your heart could break with concern otherwise.

Each time this little miracle clears a developmental hurdle all of her monitors are green and the alarms attached to her are silent for awhile then a nurse or doctor comes in to change or tweak something. Inevitably they take something away from her that has allowed her to rest comfortably or adjust something that will require her to adapt and change. As soon as they do, her monitors start vacillating from green to yellow to red and back again. The alarms in her tiny hospital room beep loudly signally that she is dangerously close to needing help. This constant push by the medical staff is maddening to her young mom who wishes with all of her being to see her little one safe and content and happy. It breaks her parents hearts to see their new baby girl fight and struggle, gasping for air or fighting to keep infections at bay.

Lucy-and-Danielle“Why?” her mom cried to me, “Why do they keep doing that to her? Why can’t they just leave her alone for awhile? I can’t watch, it feels like torture!”

As an outsider, an observer, I can clearly see that the doctors are simply doing what is required of them. I also can see that mom and dad are clearly doing their job. I can see that everyone has the same goal: to get this baby girl to graduate from the NICU. And yet, everyone has a different role to play. The medical staff has to push and push so that development will continue, even if it means pain, discomfort, risk and failure. The old adage two steps forward, one step back is very much a way of life. Our baby girl needs them to push her in order for her to grow strong and some day be independent.

However, in the midst of this pushing to develop, “kangaroo care” is so vitally important. Kangaroo care is “a method of caring for premature babies which involves holding a baby skin to skin with a parent for as many hours as is allowed.” This close hold will help regulate the baby’s temperature, heart rate, breathing and allow her to bond with her mother or father. She needs this love, this cuddling, and closeness. She needs to feel the warmth of her mother, to hear her father’s voice or rest in the rhythm of her mother’s heartbeat. There is no needle poking or prodding or pushing for a developmental milestone. There is only love and oneness and warmth and acceptance.

She needs both her doctors and nurses pushing and her mom and dad’s love in order for her to grow to the very best of her ability.

Watching her makes me think about myself, listening to her mom makes me think about God and how he cares for me in my spiritual growth. As I examine both her physical growth and my spiritual growth I have come to realize that God has me in a sort of “spiritual incubator.”

lucy-incubatorGrowth is never easy. It looks easy I guess, but there is a lot of effort involved, and sometimes pain. My own boy grew 6 inches in the year between freshman and sophomore year. He had tremendous pain in his legs and has stretch marks on his skin as permanent scars to remind him of that year. What kind of spiritual stretch mark scars do I have?

I sometimes feel like the alarms of my spiritual incubator are deafening as they continue to ring. There are times in my life that I have felt very close to needing to be “intubated” and I wonder out loud why God continues to push me and allow so much stress, conflict or turmoil in my life. Why is everything so hard? Why doesn’t He love me?

There are times that I long for God to pull me close and give me some “kangaroo care” and he does. I love the times when God feels so close I can hear him. The times when the words of the Bible speak directly to my heart and I rest in his close embrace. Unfortunately, it seems I can’t stay there…there is more growing to do.

This spiritual incubator is a hard place to be…it doesn’t feel safe all the time even if it is exactly the only environment that I can survive in. You see, as children of God, we are not designed to survive or excel in this sinful world. We need God’s constant touch, his constant oversight, his prodding and poking so that we can grow. We need his kangaroo care so we can survive. Let to ourselves we would not survive, we need Him. His goal for us is not to stay in this world, this time, this place…his goal is that we will graduate to someday be with him, in eternity.

This world is not our home, it’s the NICU…a period of time spent in a place that will one day be ancient history, a piece of our story. I don’t completely understand how it all works, God’s ways are mysterious to me on a lot of things. One thing I am certain of however, is that God loves me unconditionally and more than I could ever understand; just like my little fighter is loved more than she knows or understands. Her parents would give their life to save hers in a heartbeat if they could. They would trade places with her and take on all of her struggles to save her from one day of pain.

God loves us like that. In John 3:16 the Bible says, “For God so loved the world that he gave is one and only son, Jesus, to die for us, to take our place. That whoever believes in him should not perish but would have eternal life.”

Jesus did give his life to save mine. One day he will take me home to be with him just like one day our rock star baby will go home to be with her family.

Until then…we grow.

To follow the story of the little fighter, Lucy, I have grown to love so much you can visit her CaringBridge site.

Written by Christine Bierma

It’s beginning to look a lot like…

unpackingI was in the mall the other day and Christmas had arrived. Already? I’m not ready! But this year I want to be. Not for all the glitter and trimmings and presents, but ready for Jesus to arrive in my heart in a deeper, more meaningful way. So while I haven’t bought a single present yet, I’ve begun to read a very special Advent book: Finding the Messiah: From Darkness to Dawn—the Birth of Our Savior by my good friend and fellow author, Jane Rubietta. Her book is exactly what I needed to read as I prepare for Christ’s advent, so I’ve invited her to be my guest blogger this morning.

Please welcome Jane Rubietta:

JRubietta high res 226We moved over the summer, and are still finding things that we”d lost. Still missing stuff. Still walking around boxes of not-yet-unpacked goods, still avoiding eye contact with cardboarded pictures and mirrors and anything remotely resembling decor. Only last week did I manage to put together the third bed, complete with sheets. We are missing one of the little wheels for the frame, so I found some blocks of wood. It should work. 🙂 Yesterday I found the pillows.

So even with the house in disarray, the beds are made. Even though to reach them, one must sidestep carefully the dresser in the middle of the floor, the upside-down tables waiting for a home, the baskets of extra bedding, the books begging for shelves.

MovingBoxesThe good news is that whether we can find our beds or not, God has made a way for us to find the Messiah. It’s hard to find Christmas in the middle of real life and all the holiday hubbub and marketing. All our wants and hopes rev their engines, dominating our calendars. Ordering (or disordering) our wallets, bulking up our credit card balances.

Seems like, every year, I get to December 25, exhausted, with a pile of dishes in the sink and wrapping paper jamming wastebaskets, and my heart crashes. “What just happened? I have missed it. I’ve missed Christmas, again.”

My grief at missing Christmas has overtaken all other pressures, including deadlines, the storage-state of our home, and everything on my to-do list. This year, more than any other, I hope to deeply seek the Savior.

One of the simple tools that I will use to prepare the resting place of my heart, is silence. Start out with only sixty seconds, maybe, where I still my heart and soul, and point my heart toward God. Want to try it with me?

Creche Holy FamilySet the timer on your phone, or your stovetop, for one minute, haul in a deep breath, and exhale all the words in your brain. Focus, then, on God. God’s love. God’s gift in Christ. Invite God into that place. No need for words. Just pointing your heart.

And then wait there. If your mind derails, downloading a bunch of worries and words, exhale again, reload with God”s presence, and wait some more.

The seconds flee, refilling us with a new sense of calm. Of peace. Silent Night? Silent Minute? Whatever it takes, snag a few and be still.

That level of deep silence is the kind of silence that changes us. Changes our attitude and direction. Changes our day, our relationships. Our hope. Today, and for the upcoming holidays. Just a minute a day, or two or ten…

Let me know how it goes. I”d love to hear from you about how you enter into this Advent season. May this be the year that the Promised One comes, scatters our shadows, shatters our fears, wraps us in the light that is night-splitting love and forgiveness.

Finding the M, Jane RubiettaFinding the Messiah: A 28-Day guide to deeper devotion during Advent!

Advent is for us all. The brokenhearted, the barren, the aged, the young, the disillusioned, the faithful, the doubting; people going through the motions of faith though faced with God’s silence.

Finding the Messiah: From Darkness to Dawn–the Birth of Our Savior is a unique look into the hearts and souls of the people who people the Advent narratives in Scripture.

Because we, too, are Advent people, and their lives inform our lives, and lead us into significance–because they lead us to the Messiah.

Tired of missing Christmas? Find the Messiah, and find both your greatest adventure and the fulfillment of your greatest desire.

Join me on a four-week daily Advent-ure, beginning the first Sunday in Advent, November 30, 2014.

Storing up Sunshine

I’ve asked my good friend and writing-critique partner, Cleo Lampos, to be a guest blogger for me today. Cleo has a brand-new historical novel, A Mother’s Song, from Oak Tara Publishers, detailing the true story of the Orphan Train. If you don’t know what the orphan train was, you’ll find out when you read her heartwarming book. Make sure you have a tissue handy! Cleo also has a fiction series with Oak Tara in which the main characters are teachers, like Cleo herself was for more than 30 years, as well as policemen, firefighters, and other “ordinary heroes.” Welcome Cleo!


“There is an opportune time to do things, a right time for everything on the earth.”

– Ecclesiastes 3:1 The Message


           The kitchen knife slides easily across the cooked beets, creating burgundy cross sections of summertime goodness slipping into sterilized jars. A cup of hot vinegar-sugar syrup tops the beets then the metal lid and ring are secured. Thirty minutes in a hot water bath and pickled beets are placed on the shelf. During the cold, snowy days of winter, a jar will be opened to tantalize the taste buds, waking up the flavors deep in the mouth. Companion jars of strawberry preserves invite thick slices of homemade bread to the toaster. A half pint of peach jam made from the tree outside the kitchen window reminds the taster that food mileage is measured in feet and inches, never in miles. Home canned green beans, carrots, tomatoes and salsa bypass winter’s icy windows to recapture bare feet in the soil. Food from the garden stored in glass jars at the peak of the season brings back the warmth of summer during winter’s frigid hibernation. Sunshine in a jar.

Writing words is a lot like canning a season’s produce from the garden. So many seasons of life bring unique perspectives and issues. When my children toddled around my ankles, I wrote sentimental articles about motherhood, the joys of nursing, the wonders of pregnancy. Precious memories translated into words. Several vignettes published about the exploits of my preschoolers fueled my desire to keep expressing myself with words. But the seasons changed and so did my life. The teenagers cohabiting with my husband and me became surly at times, causing tension and emotional outbursts. These events translated into teary entries in my journals. Fortunately, we moved to another season of memories to store with words. Empty nest, marriages and grandchildren. A time of regaining the innocence of life. Happy, joy-filled pages of resolution and contentment. Sunshine in a journal.


           Today my writing harvests the accumulation of my life as wife, mother and teacher to produce articles and books. With words, tragedy is stored as triumph when a teacher friend’s son is murdered and she begins a ministry with at-risk youth. With words, challenges are interpreted as potential when my experiences as a special education teacher demonstrate the value of every student. With words, despair is translated into dreams in the historical fiction of a boy who rode the orphan train. In the collection of words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters that all writers create, we store up hope for our readers. We want them to turn to these passages again and again in the dark dreariness of their lives to feed their souls. Sunshine in a book.



Cleo Lampos, preserver of produce and words, lives with her husband, Vernon, and two cats on an urban homestead in the Chicago area. During the summer she enjoys storing produce from their garden in the canning kitchen in the basement of their bungalow. In the winter, retired teacher Cleo writes articles and books. Teaching Diamonds in the Tough:Mining the Potential in Every Student was published by Lighthouse of the Carolinas (2012). Second Chances, Book 1 in the Teachers of Diamond Projects Series, was released in 2013 by Oak Tara. The next book in the series, Miss Bee and the Do Bees was released in the winter 2013. Also released in 2013 by Oak Tara is the historical fiction A Mother’s Song which chronicles the Orphan Train epic. Visit Cleo Lampos at Teachers and Other Everyday Heroes