Bucket Lists

What’s on your Bucket List—you know, that list of all the interesting things you would love to do someday before you “kick the bucket?” I had the privilege of crossing off one of my bucket list items several years ago when I worked on an archaeological dig in Israel for a month. Our team excavated the ancient city of Timnah, which is mentioned in the Bible as the town where Samson fell in love with a Philistine woman (see Judges 14). Things ended badly for Samson when she gave away his riddle and he called off the wedding. I worked in the area of the main city gate, and we uncovered the cobblestone street from Samson’s time. What a thrill to think that his feet once walked on those very stones!
My oldest son Joshua, who was 14 at the time, went on the dig with me. His wish was to find a skull (of course!) He was excavating a different section of the city and his group ended up finding a complete skeleton! He could happily cross that off his bucket list.
We started work before dawn to avoid the summer heat and finished by noon. We were on level ground when we began digging, and by the last day, we were standing in a pit that was several feet above our heads. We moved a lot of dirt! But what fun to discover buried treasures. The experience was everything I’d hoped for, and I would definitely go on a dig again if I had the chance.
A few weeks ago I was able to cross off one item on my list. Ken and I toured in Europe by bicycle with a group of friends from our church. We flew to Zurich, Switzerland to begin our bike journey around Lake Constance. We cycled 25-35 miles a day on this ten-day trip, and traveled through parts of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, which all border the lake.
Along the way, we visited Medieval cities, saw a zeppelin museum, and toured the oldest castle in Germany. We stayed in lovely hotels at night and sampled fine cuisine (and slept like the dead!) I kept a journal and will be posting my story and pictures on a future blog.
We’ve been preparing for this trip since January when we logged 120 miles while vacationing in Florida. The weather in Michigan this spring has been so cold and rainy (and snowy!) that we’ve only been able to log 115 miles in preparation.
But I love to bike! I feel so alive and happy as I pedal away, absorbing all the sights and sounds and smells. Riding my bike was one of my happiest pastimes as a child, which is why I feel like a kid again whenever I ride (aside from the aches and pains that now come with age). I have a feeling that I’ll be planning our next bike trip as soon as I return from this one.
So, what things have you checked off your bucket list? What’s on your list to do next?

Spring Fever

Everyone I know has Spring Fever, including me. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, and the last few piles of dirty snow are melting at last. The steady drip of snowmelt from the eaves outside my office sounds like a drumbeat, summoning me to come outside and play. The season of new beginnings is here.

And it’s a new beginning for my next writing project, too. My contract schedule has me handing in my manuscript in February then completing any changes my editor asks for by May. I’m just finishing that process now, and getting ready to turn in all of my final changes and edits. That means I’ll soon be ready to start the process all over again with a new book.

But where will my ideas come from? How will the next story begin to form in my mind? Every author is different, but I begin by replenishing my supply of words. That means reading lots and lots of books. I choose authors who not only know how to tell a great story but also have an extraordinary love of language. One of my favorite writers, Rosamunde Pilcher, can not only tell a gripping tale, but she paints word-pictures that are so vivid they make me shiver: “Antony opened the front door, and the cold wind flowed in like a sluice of icy water.” Brr!

At the same time, I start reading lots of non-fiction books about the historical time period I’ve chosen. This includes first-person accounts such as diaries or memoirs written by people who might have lived alongside my fictional characters. Whenever possible, I visit the setting for my new novel to absorb all the sights and sounds and smells, keeping track of them in a notebook for future use. I also love to ask people to tell me their love stories, or their God-stories, or their family’s story. (Warning: don’t ever tell me a story unless you’re not afraid to see it in one of my books!) I’ll be creating what I call “story soup,” tossing images and ideas and historical facts into a huge pot and letting it all simmer together in the back of my mind until I’m ready to start writing.

One of the things I love to do while these ideas and images are simmering is to go outside in the gorgeous spring sunshine and sample God’s creative handiwork. I want the theme of His redemption to flow through all of my novels—how he takes what is broken and cold and dying and fills it with renewed life. And seeing the beauty of rebirth in nature as the snow melts and the new grass and spring leaves began to peek through, inspires me to tell of His goodness and grace all over again.

After the overwhelming destruction and judgment of the flood, God promised Noah—and all of us—that “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Genesis 8:22). We will always have seasons in life that feel like a long, dark, frigid winters—those times when life hits us in the face like “a sluice of icy water.” But He is the God of Springtime and new beginnings and second chances. He breathes life into the cold, dark corners of our hearts and we begin to find joy again. “Behold! I make all things new!”

No wonder we have Spring Fever. Let’s go dance in the snow-puddles!

Celebrating Community

I’ve done a lot of odd and interesting things in my life as an author, but being auctioned off at a fundraiser last week was a first! Happily, it was for a very good cause—the 90th annual Tulip Time Festival—and it turned out to be a lot of fun. The evening included a gala dinner, entertainment, and lots of other prizes to bid on besides me.
Each May since 1929, the town where I live—Holland, Michigan—has celebrated their Dutch cultural heritage with nine days of festivities known as Tulip Time. The festival draws more than 500,000 people, who come to see klompen dancers perform in wooden shoes; parades with marching bands and floats; and more than 5 million tulips blooming in every color of the rainbow. Reader’s Digest magazine named it America’s Best Small-Town Festival.
Today Holland’s population is culturally diverse, but everyone loves to participate in Tulip Time whether they are Dutch or not. Area high school students dress in authentic costumes and wooden shoes to perform traditional Dutch folk dances, but the highly-detailed costumes cost a lot of money to create. That’s what the gala fund-raiser was for. I agreed to be auctioned-off to raise funds so that everyone who wanted to participate as a klompen dancer could afford an authentic costume. And soon I will join the winning bidder and her book club to talk about my novel “Waves of Mercy.” I’m very excited!
“Waves of Mercy” tells the story of the original settlers from the Netherlands who founded the village of Holland in 1846, seeking religious freedom. I purchased an authentic Dutch costume to wear for the novel’s debut. The wooden shoes I’m wearing in the picture were once my husband’s. He grew up here in Holland, and his high school band wore wooden shoes when they marched in the Tulip Time parades. If you look closely, you’ll see I’m actually wearing two left shoes—and it’s not because I dance as though I have two left feet! (Although that’s probably true.)
It’s because band members’ wooden shoes often fly off and get broken during their marching routine, so by the time my husband graduated, all he had left were two left shoes. The Holland band still performs the same routine to the same tune, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” and their wooden shoes still go flying. Be ready to duck if you visit Tulip Time!
My husband is half Dutch. His mother’s ancestors immigrated to Holland from the Netherlands in 1872. I don’t have a Dutch bone in my body. Ken and I met at Hope College, right here in Holland, Michigan, and I remember being intrigued by the flood of tourists who came to see the tulips every year. As I was crossing the campus with an armful of books one spring, a pair of tourists loaded down with camera equipment stopped me to ask if I was a Hope student. When I told them I was, they asked if they could please take my picture beside Hope College’s iconic anchor. I agreed, and struck a pose. Suddenly, the wife shouted, “Wait a minute! Are you Dutch?” When I told her I wasn’t, she said, “Never mind.

I think it’s wonderful that participants don’t have to be Dutch in order to be klompen dancers or to march in the parades. And I love the fact that my community can celebrate its cultural origins while still enjoying its modern diversity. From their earliest days, Holland’s founders never sought to be an exclusive enclave, closing its doors to “outsiders” who didn’t share their ethnicity or their strong, Christian faith. They must have done something right because faith remains a very strong component in our community. This diverse city of approximately 33,000 has more than 70 churches. And the Tulip Time Gala Dinner and auction began with a prayer of thanks to our Heavenly Father, acknowledging that our faith in Christ makes us one. To paraphrase scripture, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, Dutch nor non-Dutch, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Now, that’s something to celebrate!

Nourishing Your Dream

Last week, I had the pleasure and honor of teaching at the Florida Christian Writers Conference, hosted by an organization called Word Weavers. Writers from several states and even Canada came to hear speakers, meet with editors and literary agents, get inspired, and learn how to get published. As I talked with other writers about their hopes and dreams, I remembered my very first conference and my own journey to publication—and it was a long one! From the time I first put a sheet of paper into my typewriter (yes, a manual typewriter!) until my first book was finally published, the journey took eleven years.

Not everyone dreams of being a writer, but I firmly believe that God has planted a dream in each person’s soul that fits them perfectly. You are created for a purpose, something only you can accomplish for His kingdom and His glory. One of the biggest obstacles I faced in becoming a published author was the same one that many of us face: FEAR. What if I wrote for years and never got published? What if I was no good? What if people laughed? I was so afraid of failing and of being criticized that I didn’t tell anyone but my husband that I wanted to be writer.

One day during my quiet time, I realized that my fear was killing my dream. If I really trusted God and His plan for me, I needed to bring the seeds of my dream into the sunlight and nourish them so they could grow. I had to risk calling myself a writer.

Not long afterwards, I was busy writing one Saturday morning while my children played nearby and my husband taught music lessons to a parade of students. As one young student waited for his turn, he wandered up to me and asked what I was doing. I hesitated. Should I admit to this 16-year-old stranger that I wanted to be a writer? I decided to set aside my fear and trust God, so I replied, “I’m writing a novel. I’m a writer.”

“That’s really cool,” he said with a huge grin. “My mom is a writer, too. You should meet her sometime.”

I was speechless! When I finally could talk, I asked, “What does she write?”

“We’re Christians,” he said. “She writes devotional books for Moody Press in Chicago.”

The following week, the student’s mother came to his music lesson with him. And from that day on, this gifted Christian writer, Alma Barkman, took me under her wing and mentored me. I lived in a city of more than 300,000 people, yet God had brought a published Christian author right to my doorstep and into my life. I wonder where I would be today if I had been too fearful to call myself a writer?

One of the first things Alma did was invite me to her writers’ critique group. Again, fear nearly defeated me. How could I possibly read my feeble work to other writers and risk criticism? No way! But when I set aside my fear, I quickly discovered how helpful it was to have unbiased readers critique my work. Alma also told me about writers’ conferences like the one where I taught last week, and she accompanied me to my very first one. Twenty-seven published books later, I am still grateful to Alma, and very glad that I didn’t let fear stop me from pursuing God’s dream for me.

If your dream is to write, I urge you to look into the Word Weavers organization and find a local group of fellow writers near you. (www.word-weavers.com) We all need companions and mentors for this journey. But whatever your God-given dream is, (and I know it’s one that fits you perfectly!) please don’t let fear hold you back a single day longer. Ask God to give you the courage to bring your dream into the sunlight where it can grow. I promise you, God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20)

Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I was seven or eight years old, growing up in a village in rural New York State, when I learned my first lesson about racism. My mom, my two sisters, and I had traveled to a nearby city on a shopping trip. For a treat, we went to the lunch counter at the dime store for grilled cheese sandwiches and French fries. That’s where I saw the two signs, one labeled ‘Whites Only,’ the other ‘Coloreds.’ I asked Mom about them. Her impassioned explanation made it clear to my young heart that discrimination on the basis of race was a terrible injustice.

As I grew older, news of the Civil Rights Movement appeared on the front pages of the newspapers and in nightly newscasts. I knew that a great war was being fought, with soldiers and guns and the deaths of innocent civilians. The battle divided our nation. I was a teenager when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, his death the result of hatred and racism. In spite of all the laws and amendments our government had passed, the injustice I had glimpsed as a child continued. Sadly, some fifty years later, it still continues.

I recently read an eye-opening book entitled “I Will Not Fear” by Melba Pattillo Beals. It details her lifelong battle against racism and how it shaped her deep faith in God. In 1957, fifteen-year-old Melba was one of nine African American students chosen to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her account of the abuse and torture she suffered at the hands of her fellow students and their parents is chilling. It required faith and enormous courage for Melba and her family to endure harassment, violence, and death threats on a daily basis, simply for the right to attend school.

Melba met Dr. King during that time and poured out her suffering and fear to him. He listened kindly, then told her that perhaps God had assigned this task to her. “You’re not doing this for yourself,” he said. “You are doing this for generations yet unborn.” His words were life-changing. Melba writes, “I had been waiting for white students to change, extend kindness, and welcome me, when maybe it was my task to change.” She became a warrior for God, setting aside her own comfort to serve Him.

After one year of forced integration, the Little Rock school board decided to close Central High School and open a private, all-white school rather than educate their children alongside African Americans. But Melba and the others had made history. In 1999, she and the other eight Little Rock students were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their role in the integration of Central High School.

Today, Dr. King’s words to Melba inspire me. What task requiring courage and faith might God be asking of me? Would I be willing to suffer injustice for the sake of generations yet unborn? The early Christians suffered much more than I will ever have to endure as they spread the Gospel throughout the world. Dr. King’s advice to Melba reminds me of God’s words of encouragement to the early Christians, and to me: “…let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus…who, for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, scorning its shame…” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

A Child is Born

Tomorrow is our oldest son, Joshua’s, birthday. My husband and I are looking forward to celebrating it with him and his wife, Vanessa. Joshua was born in Bogota, Colombia where we lived for two years while my husband performed in Colombia’s National Symphony Orchestra.

Those were interesting and memorable years—learning a new language and adjusting to a different culture far from home. When our friends and family learned that I was expecting our first baby, they invariably said, “But you’re coming home to the States to give birth, aren’t you?” I just laughed and assured them that babies were born in Bogota every day. It was no big deal.

Until I went into labor.

Those of you who have children can probably imagine that giving birth is not something you want to attempt to do in a foreign language. Especially when it’s your first child. But I was young and dumb—and by the time the labor pains started it was much too late to book a flight to America. I did my best to stumble through the ordeal in Spanish, and when they finally laid little Joshua in my arms, my first words to him came out in Spanish. My baffled husband said, “What are you doing? He speaks English!”

Twenty days later, it was Christmas Eve. We were far from home, far from family, with a tiny son who barely weighed 6 pounds, celebrating the holiday alone. Yet I will always remember it as one of the most beautiful, memorable ones of my life.

Christmas in Bogota is celebrated like our Fourth of July—with fireworks. You can forget about “Silent Night” with explosions of all kinds going off in the streets. At night the sky is lit up with globos, which are little parachutes fastened to cans of burning fuel. They look lovely as they rise up in the sky, but beware—when the fuels runs out, the cans drop to the ground, falling on unsuspecting pedestrians’ heads!

But what made that Christmas so memorable was that I was holding and nurturing a tiny, helpless baby—a beautiful reminder of how tiny and helpless Jesus was when He came to earth. Imagine! The Creator of the infinite universe was once as helpless and vulnerable as my son. From the moment I first held Joshua in my arms, I felt such a fierce love for him, stronger than any emotion I had ever known—and in that moment I finally caught a glimpse of God’s unfathomable love for me. For me! I knew that I would protect my son with every last ounce of strength I possessed. Yet God’s love for me was so great that He allowed His Son to suffer and die. For me.

That Christmas in Bogota was different from any other Christmas, before or since. We didn’t have a Christmas tree. There were no decorations, no lights, no frantic shopping trips. No carols, no cookies, no presents to wrap, no family gatherings. Yet in that simplicity, I found the true meaning of Christmas—a helpless child, a Father’s love.

I was reminded of Mary and all that she must have endured that first Christmas—a long journey from home, finding a place to stay, giving birth for the first time. Then all of the excitement as the shepherds paid a visit and spread the news about the Messiah’s birth. Yet in the midst of it, “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” In the simplicity of my first Christmas with a newborn, I had the luxury of doing the same.

Only 20 days remain until Christmas Eve. I still haven’t put up my Christmas tree or decorated my house. There are no cookies baking in my oven, no hot chocolate simmering on the stove. I haven’t bought a single present or even made a list. But this year—every year—I pray that I can let go of all the trappings, all the stress and hassle for just a few moments, and remember how it felt to hold a helpless child in my arms, a child I loved with all that I am. Like Mary, I want to treasure up these things and ponder them in my heart. And then I can celebrate Christmas joyfully, thanking a Heavenly Father who loved me enough to give His Son for me.

The Final Judges

I had the honor and the privilege, recently, to serve as one of the final judges for a prestigious Christian book award. The judging criteria that I was given served as a great reminder to me of the qualities that I hope to include in my own novels. I’m nearing the final stages of my current work-in-progress, and it has been a great exercise for me as I edit my own novel to compare it to these award-winning criteria. Here are some of them:

Does the book tell an interesting, entertaining story? Is the writing excellent and picturesque, the story well-paced, the dialogue realistic? Are the characters complex and memorable? Does the book address significant issues with God at the center? Is there spiritual depth and a sense of greater meaning for the reader?

A lot of important balls for a writer to juggle!

Coincidentally, I was invited to be a guest at a local book club in Zeeland, Michigan the other night. They had all read my latest book, “Legacy of Mercy.” The ladies were very gracious and sweet, and I’m sure, if it so happened that they didn’t like the book, they would have followed my grandmother’s sage advice, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” They said some very nice things in fact, and were very encouraging and enthusiastic. They also gave me this beautiful planter to show their appreciation.

One of the most satisfying things for me was to hear the ladies talk about my characters. I keep a bulletin board next to my computer with pictures of my characters, and when I begin, they are flat and two-dimensional. It’s up to me to flesh them out and turn them into living, multi-faceted characters. I know that I’ve succeeded when I hear readers chatting about them as if they were real people who they had actually met and gotten to know. Thanks, ladies, for cheering for my heroes and booing my villains!

I enjoyed listening to their discussion with the award-winning criteria fresh in my mind. Yet these women were final judges in the sense that matters most—they were readers. They don’t know all the writerly buzz words like point-of-view and hooks and backstory and viewpoint characters. But they do know whether or not they enjoyed the book. Whether or not they found it so compelling that they stayed awake until after midnight to see how it ended. And they know if the author has given them something to think about after they finish the book.

Awards are nice. I’ve won a few over the years, and they were always an enormous source of encouragement to me. But knowing that my book has touched the heart of just one reader and made a difference in her life, is a reward that no contest can ever give me. Thank you, Zeeland Book Club!

What do you look for in a good book? Are there any criteria you would add to the book award list?

Hidden Treasure

Two of my favorite hobbies when I’m not writing are bicycling and hiking in the woods with my husband. Now we’ve added something new to these adventures—geocaching.

It’s a treasure hunt, of sorts. Avid fans of this sport hide thousands (if not millions!) of “caches” all around the world in out-of-the way places, then give GPS coordinates and clever hints for how to find them. We searched for some while vacationing in Florida, when visiting our son in California, and when we traveled to Germany. I found a few while hiking in New York State with my sister last week. They are everywhere!

A geocaching app on our phones locates them using GPS coordinates. The compass then takes us within a few feet of where it’s hidden. After that we use the hints that are provided and our powers of observation to find the hidden container. Some are hidden right along the trail; others require bush-whacking through underbrush or reaching into holes—not my favorite things to do.
Large caches are the size of a shoebox.
Medium ones the size of a sandwich container.
Small ones, a medicine bottle.
Micro caches are even tinier.

I’m pretty good at the larger ones. The micro-sized ones often defeat me. Some caches offer little trinkets inside as a reward. I found a dollar bill in one. All of them have some sort of log book to sign. But for me, the reward is in the pleasure of the hunt and the thrill of discovery.

Recently, I’ve been trying to apply my new treasure-hunting skills to my spiritual walk. Our pastor has been preaching about the Imago Dei—the image of God—which resides in every person on earth. The Bible says we were made in God’s image, so that spark is hidden there, whether we see it in someone or not. The key to loving our neighbor as Jesus taught, is to remember that even the most unlovable people are made in His image, although we may need to search hard to find it.

Sometimes I meet strangers and feel an instant connection—and discover that they have a huge cache of faith and love of Christ in their hearts. Their treasures are easy to find. Then there are people who rub me the wrong way, or whose outward behavior is offensive, or who don’t seem to have any redeeming qualities at all. Those are the ones I want to turn away from and give up on without even bothering to search. It seems as difficult as finding a micro-cache in a forest. But they have been made in God’s image too, and deserve to be shown His love. Weren’t we all “lost” at one time?

Jesus was amazing at finding that spark of the Divine image in unlikely people such as tax collectors, prostitutes, and demoniacs. And I’m supposed to become more and more like Him, aren’t I? He taught us to “love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you,” but I never quite understood how to do it. Maybe the key is to search for that hidden treasure of God’s image. Jesus also tells us why we should bother to look: “that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous.” He doesn’t want anyone to remain lost—and so I shouldn’t, either.

I often wish I had a handy app to make it easier, but I do have the Word of God to guide me. If I’m faithful to follow it, that should be more than enough.

Once in a Lifetime

The August day, forty-eight years ago, was hot and sticky. I curled my long hair before leaving home but the humidity uncurled it by the time I reached the church. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except that I was about to marry my best friend.

It was a simple wedding. Ken was starting graduate studies at Yale so we didn’t have a lot of money. My sister Bonnie, my maid of honor, sewed my wedding gown and all of my bridesmaids’ dresses. My sister Peggy and girlfriend Ann were my bridesmaids. Ken’s fraternity brothers were his groomsmen.

My parents prayed for me before the ceremony began, and Mom nearly brought me to tears as she thanked God for “loaning” me to her for the past twenty years. Dad was teary-eyed and very nervous about giving me away. I was the first of his three daughters to marry, so this was new to him. But I saw Ken waiting for me at the end of the aisle and I couldn’t stop smiling.

It wasn’t a “picture-perfect” wedding by any means. The heel of Dad’s shoe got hooked on my veil, and as he walked back to his pew after kissing me goodbye, my veil went with him. I scrambled backwards down the aisle to keep it from tearing off my head, whispering, “Dad! Dad, stop!” He thought I was changing my mind.

Ken and I gazed at each other, holding hands, as we spoke our vows—the wonderful old-fashioned ones that promise “For better for worse, in sickness and in health, until death we part.” Then the pastor dropped Ken’s wedding ring and it made a lovely, pinging sound as it bounced down the three wooden steps from the altar to the aisle. Our best man chased after it.

We knelt down and the pastor laid his hands on our heads as he prayed for us. But my headpiece had real roses in it, and I could feel the thorns digging into my scalp as his hands pressed down. I envisioned trails of blood coursing down my brow, and wondered why on earth the florist had left the thorns in! But I remember what he said as he prayed for us—that God would bless our marriage and make it endure as an example of what a strong marriage in Christ can be. Forty-eight years later, I think his prayers have been answered—in spite of the thorns.

Our guests tossed rice as we left the church. My apologies to the environmentalists but that’s what we did in the 70s. The friend who drove us around town in his car, honking the horn, wasn’t familiar with the city and got hopelessly lost. We had to stop and ask some guy who was mowing his lawn for directions back to the church.

Our reception was in the church basement. My sisters and I had decorated the hall the night before with crepe paper streamers. Mom made the food, nothing fancy, just salads and buns and cold cuts. A woman we knew baked the wedding cake. I thought everything was perfect.

We were about to spend the next three years as poor, starving graduate students, so when Ken found a really great bargain package for our honeymoon, he decided to splurge. We soon learned why he had scored such a great deal when we landed in the Bahamas. No one goes there in August because it’s much too hot! We didn’t care. We had a nice room in a nice hotel and we were husband and wife at last! We also didn’t mind that Ken had cashed all our wedding gift checks to pay for it. Never mind that we couldn’t afford a toaster or a coffeemaker for a few more years.

We don’t have many photos of our wedding. The photographer we’d hired had a heart attack a few days before the wedding, and we called everyone in the phone book before finding a replacement. The man left town soon after giving us our photo proofs, and it was little wonder why. Most of the photos were horribly out of focus. It didn’t matter. The memories of that day are engraved on my heart.

When I see the time and effort and money that go into weddings nowadays, our simple little affair seems laughable. But it was all we could afford and we were thrilled with it. Ken and I had dated for two years in college before we married, and every night when we kissed goodnight outside my dormitory we would say, “We’re another day closer!” And on August 29, 1970, we had finally reached that day!

So, Happy 48th Anniversary, to us! If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing! (Except maybe the thorns.)

Fiction Tips From My Granddaughter

Last week our family welcomed a new grandbaby into the world. Mama and baby are both fine, thank the Lord. And I had the pleasure of taking care of Lyla, who is two and a half, while mama and papa were in the hospital. I thought I would be taking time off from writing, but it so happened that I learned a few lessons from my granddaughter about what makes a good story.

Lyla currently has two favorites—Moana and The Trolls. I became very familiar with them after reading the books over and over and watching the movie versions of both stories. So I asked myself, what makes the Trolls and Moana so compelling?

The trolls are tiny creatures with a big enemy—the Bergens. When a group of trolls is captured, their leader, Poppy, lays aside her fears and goes to the Bergens’ town to rescue her friends. It’s a story of friendship and courage against great odds that has a happy ending.

Moana is a young girl from a tropical island who also learns to set aside her fears and overcome great odds. Her people and her island are in trouble, so she crosses the vast ocean to try to help restore the balance of nature. Along the way, she befriends Maui and, in the end, discovers who she is really meant to be.

So, here’s what I learned about great fiction. Both stories feature villains, and my granddaughter took great delight in being scared half to death by lava monsters and fiendish Bergens, knowing it would all turn out okay in the end. Every great story needs an antagonist who the main characters have to overcome—even if it’s something intangible like hatred or unforgiveness. Like the trolls, when we struggle to overcome our difficulties, we become better people. And being a little scared is fun too, isn’t it?

Second, both stories have lessons on the importance of friendship, and the value of not trying to do everything alone. Relationships are very important, whether it’s a friendship, a marriage, or a family that’s featured. Moana and Poppy are both strong, courageous women but neither could have accomplished what she did without her friends.

A third theme of these stories is the need for courage to overcome our fears as we attempt to do what others say is impossible. Of course, God isn’t mentioned in Moana or The Trolls but good Christian fiction will always highlight what can be accomplished through faith. God is the source of our strength and courage. Someday my granddaughters will learn that He is the One who provides the courage to face impossible odds.

These are all great elements of good fiction but best of all, both stories provided a picture of redemption. In The Trolls, the power of love transforms the Bergens from enemies into friends. And in Moana, the lava monster is transformed into a beautiful, fruitful island by Moana’s act of courage. Enemies and people who seem unlovable may turn out to be good friends if we give them a chance. Redemption is at the heart of every great story, from Les Miserables to The Cat in the Hat (another of Lyla’s favorites). I hope I never tire of telling the redemption story in a dozen different ways in my novels.

And speaking of redemption, I now have a new chapter to add to the story of my daughter’s cat, Dexter. In earlier blogs, I told how Dexter, a wild, unlikeable, homeless cat from the streets of Chicago, was transformed into a loveable family pet through my daughter’s perseverance and love. He has watched over Lyla from the day she was born, bringing her little toys whenever she is upset. While I was alone with her, Lyla woke up in the night, crying for her mama and papa. I tried without success to calm her and get her back to sleep. Then Dexter came to the rescue, jumping onto her bed and curling up beside her, purring like a furry motorboat. Lyla settled down as she petted him, then curled up beside him and fell asleep, hugging him like a Teddy bear. If I hadn’t witnessed it, I would never have believed it!

That’s the power of redemptive love. It worked in Dexter’s life—and for Moana and the trolls, too. No wonder Jesus commanded us to love our enemies.