The Story Behind the Story

I am so pleased to announce that this week, Tyndale House is offering a special ebook sale of my novel, Fly Away. The story takes place in 1987—a time period too recent to be a historical novel like my other books, but too far in the past to be a contemporary novel. That’s because Fly Away was one of the very first books I wrote—and the year really was 1987. I was just starting to dream of being a writer back then, and my first published book was eight years in the future. The story came to me so effortlessly that I remember writing it out longhand on a yellow legal pad in my living room. Later, I typed it into my Atari computer and saved it on several 3½-inch floppy discs. It was published by Beacon Hill Press in 1996 and has been out of print until this year.

 

I remember very well the genesis of the story. Within a short period of time, our family struggled with a series of losses. My father, a World War II veteran like the main character in Fly Away, was hospitalized with a stroke and died a few months later at the age of 62. Dad had been helping to care for my grandmother, so without his help, she had to be moved to a nursing home. My father-in-law also had a stroke and was moved to a nursing home where he later died. And then my mother-in-law was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer.

Mom Austin wanted to spend her final weeks of life in her own home rather than in a hospital.  My husband and I and our three children lived in Canada at the time, but when we learned that Mom had only a few weeks to live, we drove down to Michigan to take care of her. We had just welcomed our daughter, Maya, into the world, and she was less than two weeks old when we arrived in Michigan. For the next month, we took care of Mom and Maya simultaneously, one at the very beginning of her life, the other at the end; one growing stronger each day, the other weaker. Both were being nurtured and comforted by the presence and love of our family.

People had asked if we were concerned that our children would be traumatized by watching their grandmother die. I had never been present when someone died, so I confess I was a little worried about what the experience would be like when the moment of death arrived. Then I recalled that I had been just as worried about what it would be like to give birth for the first time, yet giving birth turned out to be a beautiful, miraculous part of life. Thanks to a wonderful hospice nurse, we were coached in what we needed to do to care for Mom, just as our birth coach had helped us when giving birth. Still, I wondered what Mom’s final moments would be like.

One night at about 3:00 AM, the baby woke up crying. While I checked to see what she needed, my husband went to check on his mother. He came out of her room saying, “Lynn—she’s gone.” Mom had passed away peacefully in her sleep. Almost immediately, the baby fell back to sleep as if she had awakened only to let us know her grandmother had passed away. Our oldest son, Joshua, who was nine, wanted to go into Grandma’s bedroom to say goodbye. He was able to see and understand that she was no longer in her body, but was now in heaven. It was a tender, holy moment for all of us. After so recently experiencing the miracle of birth, we all learned that death is also one of God’s holy moments.

With so many losses in less than a year’s time, writing Fly Away became part of my grieving process. As you read the novel, you’ll probably see how my own thoughts and emotions became intertwined with my plot and characters. The book deals with dying and loss, but I didn’t want it to be a sad book. All of my beloved family members had loved life and had lived it well. They taught me that our faith in Christ gives us the strength and courage we need to face whatever plans He has for us—even when it means saying good-bye. I learned that death is also an important part of life. We will all lose loved ones to it. We will experience it ourselves. So why not explore the mystery of it by making it a theme of a novel? Writers like to ask “What if?” and “Why?” As I wrestled with my own grief, I began to ask those questions.

Telephones still had cords when I wrote Fly Away, and hung on kitchen walls. Shag carpeting and Star Wars figures were all the rage. I was in my thirties, and my two main characters, who are 65, seemed “old” to me. Now I’m a senior citizen like those “old” main characters. But like Wilhelmina Brewster, I don’t believe in retirement. And like Mike Dolan, I want to keep living life to the fullest, right up until the moment when Jesus calls me home.

Sightings

I am thrilled to announce the release of my newest book, Sightings—Discovering God’s Presence in our Everyday Moments. This non-fiction devotional is a collection of my thoughts and ponderings as I’ve learned to look for “God sightings” in the simple moments of life.


One of the most amazing and comforting promises that Jesus gives us is this: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). But in the busyness of our daily lives, in the challenges and surprises we often face, we don’t always have a sense of Christ’s nearness. We forget to notice all of the little messages He sends to remind us that He is right beside us, watching over us, weaving all things together into a glorious tapestry for our good and for His glory.

Instead of leaving God behind after our Sunday morning worship or our daily devotions, what if we tried to cultivate that sense of His presence in our ordinary moments? What if we watched for Him at home and at work and everywhere we went? This book is a product of my attempt to do just that. I’m learning to see patterns of His redemption everywhere! And to see myself as He sees me—precious and worthy of His love. It’s my hope that readers will learn from Sightings, so that they too, will begin to notice all of the times and places where Jesus shows up in their everyday lives.

Of course, there’s a story behind this book. Earlier this year, my publisher in the Netherlands asked if they could create a devotional from a selection of my blog posts from the past few years. Many of my Dutch readers can’t easily read my posts in English. I said “Yes!” and went to work with their editors to add extra material, creating a devotional entitled “Altijd in God’s Hand” (Always in God’s Hand).

I was so pleased with the final result that I asked my Digital Marketing Assistant, Christine Bierma, to help me publish a version of the book in English. The beautiful cover was designed by Ken Raney at Raney Day Creative (who happens to be author Deb Raney’s husband). Here is the result of our combined efforts.

 

Each chapter in this ten-week devotional includes a daily scripture reading and closing prayer. The Something More section at the end of each week provides an extra challenge or activity to encourage readers to dig deeper. Together, I hope these readings will make an inspiring addition to a daily quiet time with God.

Sightings is now available in print, and the pre-sale e-book format will be released on October 29. Click here to order your copy of Sightings—Discovering God’s Presence in our Everyday Moments today.

If you would like to be part of my launch team, please use this link to apply. The application link will be closed on Friday, October 25, 2019.

Numbering Our Days

I’ve been working from breakfast until bedtime this past week, juggling three important writing projects. This blog is project #4. I feel like a circus performer spinning plates, trying not to let any of them fall. Besides my writing deadlines, I also spoke at a women’s retreat last Saturday. And I have a husband and children who I love spending time with. And grandchildren who are growing up much too fast. I don’t want to miss a single moment of their lives. And aren’t I supposed to exercise every day, and cook healthy meals, too? Not to mention find time to see the new “Downton Abbey” movie.

No matter what kind of work we do, we all have weeks like this, when the pressure is on and there’s not enough time in a day to get everything done. If I’m not careful, my life can get so overcrowded that I live each day in crisis mode. The weeks go by in a hectic blur as I try to keep all the plates spinning, and I end up not really enjoying my work or my life very much. Is there a solution?

One of my favorite passages of scripture is Psalm 90—written by none other than Moses, who certainly had a lot of plates to spin. In his prayer, he asked God to “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” In other words, help me learn how to align my priorities with God’s. One of the lessons God taught me is to go to Him with my list of urgent tasks at the start of each busy day and make the list a matter of prayer. When I do, God has sometimes shown me that I’ve said “yes” to things I didn’t pray about, first. I’ve agreed to do them from wrong motives like guilt and not because God asked me to. Hopefully, I can “gain a heart of wisdom” and do things differently in the future.

So, I pray about my day, and set priorities, and just when I think I have everything organized, along comes an unplanned interruption that throws my schedule out of whack! Now what? Jesus was on his way to save a dying girl, a true matter of life and death. But He was interrupted along the way by a needy woman who touched the hem of His robe. He obviously saw this as a divine interruption, so He took time to minister to her. And He was still able to accomplish His goal of healing the little girl. How did He know it was a divine interruption? Easy, He’s Divine! It’s a little harder for us.

One such interruption happened to me recently in the middle of a very busy writing day. A woman stopped by to pick up a book, and I started to get the feeling that she needed to talk. Should I stick to my schedule or God’s? I invited her to stay and have coffee, and it turned out that God was asking me to do more than hand her a book. We talked, and prayed together, and when I returned to my writing, I was still able to reach my daily goal. Chatting on Facebook or checking Twitter and Instagram may very well be a divine interruption that God can use. Or, it can be a time waster.

The work we labor so hard to accomplish can have eternal results and bring glory to God, or it can simply fill up our days and sabotage our relationships and leave us stressed out. I’m still learning how to make those daily decisions, so I will keep on praying the way Moses did: “Teach me to number my days aright, that I may gain a heart of wisdom.”

Labor Day

I’ve learned over the more than 30 years that I’ve been writing, that I need to get away from my desk from time to time and refresh my creative juices. So, over the Labor Day weekend my husband and I decided to go on a short adventure in his little red sports car. It’s such a fun, liberating feeling to ride with the top down, with the view open to the vast, infinite sky! I not only have a new appreciation for the beauty of clouds, but it’s amazing how many different scents I smelled along the way—everything from cows and fresh hay, to campfires and the fishy aroma of the lake.

We traveled north in our own state of Michigan to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park and then on to the Leelanau Peninsula, stopping to visit three different Michigan lighthouses. They were all nice, but we decided we liked our own lighthouse here in Holland—affectionately known as “Big Red”—the best. What do you think?

The purpose of these lighthouses, of course, is to shine a beacon to prevent ships from running aground, especially during storms. But as we learned from the museum displays, even a warning beacon can’t prevent a ship from becoming wrecked during a storm. There have been hundreds of shipwrecks on the Great Lakes—some even in modern times. I used two of them in my novel, Waves of Mercy. And I’ve decided I’m glad I’m not a lighthouse keeper or the captain of a sailing vessel.

I returned from our trip eager to get back to work my manuscript. I love my job and wouldn’t trade it for any other. But as we celebrate Labor Day, I can’t help wondering how many people dislike their job and wish they had a different one. One of my favorite speaking topics at retreats and conferences is about finding God’s purpose. I believe the reason God created each of us so uniquely is because He has a unique purpose for each of our lives.

Sometimes, as in my case, my profession is also my calling. I’ve met people from a variety of occupations, such a teachers and nurses, who feel the same way. A friend of mine has had an amazing ministry through her work as a beautician.

For others, their daily 9 to 5 job isn’t necessarily the same as their calling but it opens up opportunities to serve God. An accountant friend, for instance, used his skills to help a missionary agency in South Africa upgrade to a new accounting program. And I have dozens of retired friends who are no longer working at full-time jobs but are still being called by God to serve in various ways.

I know that millions of people go to work every day at jobs they dislike because of financial obligations. When my husband was in graduate school, I worked as a secretary to support us until he received his degree. I also worked at various other jobs until my books began earning royalty checks. But even if we feel “stuck” in a job, I believe it’s important to ask God what His purpose for our life might be, and how we can begin to fulfill it. It’s the willingness to serve God that counts. We can do any job for His glory. And He blesses the work of our hands when we offer it to Him.

So, as we eat our hamburgers and celebrate our work today, remember what scripture says: “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God” (Ecclesiastes 2:24).

Happy Labor Day!

Re-living History

In case you can’t tell, I love history—both reading it and writing about it. I especially enjoy learning about local history. This beautiful resort, The Hotel Ottawa, once stood near the Lake Michigan beach where my husband and I walk every day. It was featured as a setting in my novel, “Waves of Mercy,” which takes place in 1897.

The hotel was a popular tourist destination in the late 1800s when steamships brought guests, like the heroine in my novel, across Lake Michigan from Chicago to vacation at the beach. Unfortunately, the hotel burned down in 1923 and wasn’t rebuilt. The only thing that’s left is the brick pumphouse that once generated electricity for the hotel and nearby cottages. The pumphouse is now a lovely little museum that features a display of the hotel’s guest book and other artifacts from that time period.

Last week I was asked to speak at the Pumphouse Museum as part of their summer lecture series. The warm, enthusiastic audience listened, on that beautiful summer evening, as I spoke about my book and my journey as a writer. The story of my writing career and how I got started is really the story of God’s faithfulness over the years. Each time I tell it, I’m reminded of all the hard times and all the little miracles along the way—as well as the lessons God taught me through each one. He used the ups and downs of my writing journey to draw me closer to Him, and so each time I tell my story, I’m really telling about His goodness and love.

My goal as I write about the past in my novels is to help readers grow in faith to face today’s challenges. The Bible says, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). It’s speaking about the written scriptures, but I think it’s also a good reason why we should read and study history. It gives us hope. History helps us see the bigger picture behind world events and God’s hand in them. And that helps us put the challenges we face in clearer perspective. We begin to see that, great or small, we all have a part to play in God’s plan.

When you look back at some of the events in your life, where do you see Gods hand at work? How does that give you faith for today’s challenges?

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!

The Gift

Last week at our Ladies’ Christmas Tea, a woman who enjoys reading my books said to me, “God has given you a wonderful gift.” Maybe it’s the season of the year, but instead of hearing “gift” the way I usually do, as a talent or ability, I immediately pictured a beautifully wrapped present.

A gift! I did nothing to earn it or deserve it. Unlike Santa Claus, God doesn’t give gifts to “nice” children, and lumps of coal to “naughty” ones. My delight in telling stories and any ability I have to do it well, came to me as a free, no-strings-attached gift from a loving Father who chose it especially for me. I’m not a member of some select group who was chosen to receive a gift while others were excluded. When explaining God’s gifts, scripture says God “gives them to each one, just as He determines” (1 Corinthians 12:11). No one is left off His list. And He has a huge variety of gifts to give besides the ability to write books.

As I’m doing my Christmas shopping this week, I love thinking of each individual person on my list and choosing something special for each one. I enjoy seeing my loved ones’ pleased reactions when they open them, and I especially enjoy seeing them use the gifts I’ve given. I hope they will think of me each time they do, the same way that I remember the people who gave me certain cherished gifts over the years. I would be so disappointed if the people I love kept their gifts wrapped up beneath the tree, unopened and unused.

Here’s the thing. I know many, many people who aren’t even aware that God has given a gift to each of us—the most important one being the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ. Sadly, their gifts remain unopened instead of being used and enjoyed. I’ve also met people who acknowledge that they may have been given a gift such as writing ability, but they choose to wait for the perfect set of circumstances to open and use it. “When I have more time,” they say. “When the kids are grown.” “After I retire.” Too often, that perfect time never comes.

I was the mother of a nine-year-old, a two-year-old and a newborn when I first sat down and started to write. If I had waited for ideal conditions, I would still be waiting! I took an important step in unwrapping my gift when I signed up to attend a Christian writers’ conference. That’s why I love to say “Yes!” whenever I’m now asked to teach at a conference. If you’re waiting to tear off the wrappings of your writing gift, I invite you to attend the Word Weavers’ Florida Christian Writers’ Conference (https://word-weavers.com/floridaconference) on March 6-10. I will be teaching the Fiction class, and the keynote speaker will be the fabulous Liz Curtis Higgs!

I especially love watching little children open their Christmas presents, don’t you? I love seeing their anticipation and enthusiasm, their sheer joy as they tear off the wrapping paper and pull out something special. Why not be like a child this year and tear into the gift that your loving Heavenly Father has delighted in giving you? Please don’t wait another day! Merry Christmas!

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?

Finishing Well

I’ve been contemplating endings, lately, as I near the conclusion of my current work-in-progress. After 330 manuscript pages and more than 100,000 words, the end is in sight. I’m still not exactly sure how the book will end, since I’m one of those crazy writers who makes up the story as I go along, rather than plotting it ahead of time. I figure if I can’t guess what’s going to happen (and I’m two-thirds of the way through writing it), then readers will be kept guessing, too. I hate predictable endings!

There are some important things that I do need to consider in order to finish well. Some of the essentials of a good ending that I’ve discovered over the years are:

1) The pace should be picking up, with the highest levels of emotion and drama.

2) There should be a sense of closure where I deliver on the “promise” that has kept readers engaged.

3) The end should bring a resolution and a release of built-up tension—the bomb is defused, the murderer discovered.

4) There should be a sense of accomplishment in the main characters’ lives. Even if some of their problems remain, the central conflict is resolved and the characters come away changed.

All of this must happen as the story reaches a climax. Author Anne Lamott explains the climax as, “that major event…that brings all the tunes you have been playing so far into one major chord.” As I lead up to that climax, I’ll re-read my novel to look for all of those “tunes” so I can decide what that major chord should be. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m getting close. I want to finish well.

At the same time that I’m working on the big build-up to “The End,” all of nature outside my office windows is doing the same thing. Everywhere I look, the trees and bushes are building up to a grand finale in dazzling technicolor before winter brings the end of another year. And from the looks of things, nature is finishing very well.

There is another ending that I don’t like to contemplate very often, and that’s my own end. A month from now, I’ll be another year older. It’s not one of those big decade birthdays but I’m getting close. It occurred to me that I’m also about 2/3 of the way through my life. Scary thought! And like my novel—and nature—I want to finish well.

All of my life, I’ve been making up my story as I’ve gone along. There have been plenty of surprises, a lot of drama, a lot of emotion. And just like writing a novel, there are a few things I want to consider before I reach “The End.”

1) The pace should be picking up. I want to be like the hero in my novel “Fly Away” who decided to live every day of his life to the fullest. He wanted to “die living.”

2) I pray that my life will have a sense of closure. That I will have used my talents and gifts well in serving God, fully investing them as His faithful servant.

3) I don’t want to leave any relationships in my life unresolved. I hope to live each day asking others for forgiveness, and extending forgiveness to them.

4) There will probably never come a time when every issue in my life is perfectly resolved, but I hope I can look back and see how God has been shaping me, using my struggles to make me more like Christ.

As I reflect on my life, I’m starting to see how all of the “tunes” God has given me have worked together to form a beautiful chord. Even those discordant melodies that seemed so unpleasant to me at the time, have worked together to accomplish God’s plan. And I’m looking forward to learning some new songs in the years ahead, too.

But now, back to my novel. I’m very excited about finishing well.

Balancing Act

I haven’t always done well in the balancing act between work and play. I’ve learned over the years that when I work too hard, my creativity shrivels up and the work I love becomes a chore. When I play too much when I should discipline myself to work, I end up at my computer bleary-eyed, late into night. Neither option is a good one. When my children were small, the words of Psalm 90 inspired me to never stop searching for that balance. It’s a prayer of Moses—who certainly had a LOT on his plate! After commenting on the brevity of life, his prayer is: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” And over the years, God has been helping me find that balance.

My newest novel, “Legacy of Mercy” launched October 2. With help from my social media assistant and good friend Christine Bierma, and a wonderful launch team (thanks everyone!) the book is off to a great start. After several speaking events and interviews, I felt a nudge that it was time for some play. So, my husband and I joined friends Becky and Tim for two days of hiking and biking in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park in northern Michigan. The leaves were changing, the salmon were swimming upstream to spawn, and the Lake Michigan scenery was breathtaking. Here are some of the highlights.



I’m home again, refreshed and renewed and eager to jump back into my work-in-progress. I’ve been reminded that “a thousand years in God’s sight are like a day that has just gone by.” And I’ll continue to pray that He will teach me to number my days aright.