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.

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.

Boats, Bikes, Beaches and Books

Wow, it’s hard to stay focused on my writing this time of the year! The weather has been beautiful—perfect for going to the beach, riding my bike, and watching the boats sail on Lake Michigan. Perfect for everything, it seems, except writing a novel. The only solution I’ve found is to plan carefully and not let myself get distracted. To get up early and get to work so I can play later on.
Yesterday we rode our bikes into town to visit the library for research, then rode home again after stopping at the lake. Eighteen miles later, I was so tired that it wasn’t hard to sit down and write. Tonight, we’re having a potluck supper on the beach with a group of our neighbors. Sometimes we ride our bikes to The General Store in the afternoon when I need a little break and have an ice cream cone. Or we’ll pack a lunch to eat as we watch the boats sail past the lighthouse. Or enjoy a corn dog at Dune Dogs. Little treats like these give me something to look forward to and help keep me at my desk.
If I need to do some reading research, I often take my books, my I-pad, and a folding chair to the beach and do it there. (And the lake is handy when I need to cool off.) Having family and friends visit actually helps, believe it or not. I’m able to concentrate and work extra hard beforehand, knowing that I’ll soon be relaxing with friends as my reward.
This part of Michigan has long been a favorite summer vacation destination. Anna’s story in my novel “Waves of Mercy” takes place at the Hotel Ottawa Resort, a large hotel that once stood near Ottawa Beach State Park. Boats carried wealthy passengers from Chicago and other cities across Lake Michigan to vacation here in the late 1800s. A fire destroyed the hotel in 1923, and all that remains is the brick pump house that once supplied electricity to the hotel and area beach cottages.
Today, the pump house is a small museum—where I’ll be a guest speaker on July 19 at 7:00 pm. New exhibits include one of the original hotel guest books from the 1890s. If you’re in the area this Thursday, please come join me! Afterwards, you can buy ice cream at the General Store and watch the sunset over the lake. This time of year, it doesn’t set until almost 9:30.
I’ve heard people say they admire writers and other artists because we’re so disciplined. But any worthwhile work we do requires discipline, especially if it’s what God called us to do. How can we do anything less than our best or give anything less than our all for Him? But God also gave us the much-needed rhythm of work balanced with rest. The Sabbath is God’s gift to us, a day to stop working and enjoy His creation—including bikes, beaches and boats.
It’s always a challenge to balance work with rest. What are some of the ways you’ve found to do it?

Life-Changing Books

I’ve been thinking about my spiritual journey lately, along with my journey as a writer. The two are closely entwined. And I realized what a powerful, life-changing effect books have had on those journeys. Space doesn’t allow me to list all the books that have influenced me, but four stand out.

The first is “The Hiding Place” by Corrie Ten Boom. Corrie and her family lived uneventful lives in The Netherlands until the Nazis invaded. Then their faith in God and deep love for Christ compelled them to hide Jews in their home, trying to save as many people as possible. Corrie, her sister Betsy, and their father were arrested and sent to prison camps. Only Corrie survived.

I read this book when my husband and I lived in Bogota, Colombia. We had everything a young couple could possibly want; we were newly-married, working our dream jobs, and our first child, Joshua, was born there. I had been raised in a Christian home with godly parents and grandparents, yet when I read “The Hiding Place,” I realized how weak my faith was. I wouldn’t have had the courage to risk my life as Corrie did. Her story convicted me, and I hungered for what she had. I began to seriously pursue a closer walk with God.

I read the second life-changing book shortly after we returned to the United States. “Anointed for Burial” by Todd and DeAnn Burke tells the true story of missionaries to Cambodia in the final, life-threatening years before the nation fell to the Communists. Again, I was impressed by their tremendous faith to endure fiery trials. For months, they lived in such perilous conditions that they needed to hear God speaking on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis. They developed the habit of reading scripture three times a day, and God miraculously spoke to them through the Bible, offering wisdom and guidance when they needed it most.

Jesus said, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” “Anointed for Burial” convicted me of my need to feed on the Word of God every day. I was faithful to feed my physical body three times a day, so why didn’t I see the greater need to feed my spirit with His Word? I found a daily scripture-reading plan that enabled me to read through the Bible in a year. I began that very day and have continued ever since.

The Bible is the third life-changing book. Like Todd and DeAnn Burke, I have found it to be a comfort and a source of wisdom. But best of all, the picture of God and His eternal plan that emerged as I read it, accomplished what I had longed for back in Bogota—to draw closer to Him, to get to know Him, and to strengthen my spiritual walk.

Next, my husband’s work took us to Canada. My plan had been to have a second child around the time Joshua turned two. But we celebrated his second birthday, then his third and fourth and fifth—and I still wasn’t pregnant. He turned six and started school, and God didn’t seem to hear my prayers. I read the fourth life-changing book, “The Chosen” by Chaim Potok as I wrestled with unanswered prayer. This beautifully-written novel tells the story of an Orthodox Jewish father who, for reasons that aren’t told until the end, stops speaking to his beloved son. When the father finally speaks, he tells how his heart broke the entire time he had kept silent, and how he feared his son would turn away from him forever. But he did it because of the son’s arrogance and self-sufficiency, which needed to be broken. The son needed a loving, compassionate heart so he could understand other people’s pain and accomplish the work God was calling him to do.

I saw in “The Chosen” an allegory of God’s inexplicable silences. And I realized that through my longing for a child, God had led me to become active in the Right-to-Life movement and to help start two crisis pregnancy centers. Through this novel, I discovered that God speaks powerfully through fiction. And it also created in me a longing to write novels like this from a Christian perspective. Christian fiction as we know it today had yet to be born, but I sensed that this was the calling God had for my life. I signed up for a creative writing course at a local college—and a month later, I learned I was pregnant with our son Benjamin. Twenty months after he arrived, our daughter Maya joined us.

My spiritual and writing journeys have been long and satisfying. I have published 25 books, now. Glowing reviews and royalty checks are great, but to me, the most gratifying rewards are letters from readers telling me how one of my stories has impacted their life.

So, how about you? What life-changing books have you read?

The Voyage

I once heard a speaker compare life to a kayak trip downriver. Sometimes the waters are smooth and we can enjoy a leisurely journey, admiring the beauty all around us. But every now and then we hit the rapids and we’re suddenly thrown into a mad scramble to stay afloat. As we navigate past rocks and other dangers, overwhelmed with fear, we wonder if life will ever be serene and peaceful again. Eventually the river smooths out and we sail back into calmer waters. And if we’re wise, we will have learned some valuable lessons that can prepare us for the next patch of rough water. Here’s what I learned on last year’s voyage:

Our family hit the rapids last June when my husband suffered a heart attack. He has fully recovered now, and we’re back to smooth sailing. But during those weeks of frantic paddling, I learned that life is fragile and precious. God can call us home to Himself at any time. More than ever, I want to hold my loved ones close in the coming year, and not squander a moment of time that I have with them. I need to remember which things in life are really important and which ones aren’t worth fussing about.
In my faith walk, I came into some challenging waters last year when our church hired a new lead pastor. He is a wonderful preacher, and our church has welcomed and embraced him. But he is challenging us to get out of our comfortable ruts so we can think more like Jesus and serve more like Him. I much prefer to float in a lagoon with people who are just like me—but Jesus longs for me to reach out to those who are different, those who may be drowning in the rapids, and offer them a helping hand. Yes, the comfortable ministries I’ve been involved with in the past have been good ones. But for the sake of the kingdom, it’s time for me to stop doing “church” and get involved with the world around me in the same way Jesus did.
My writing life has been mostly calm this past year. And yet . . . I have felt God challenging me not to settle for safe waters. As an act of trust, I need to take new risks and move out into deeper water. One way I’ve been doing that is by self-publishing an out-of-print novel of mine called “Fly Away.” It took a lot of work and required learning new things—and you know what they say about teaching old dogs new tricks! But a letter from a reader made it all worthwhile when she wrote to tell me how much “Fly Away” has blessed her. Why start a new venture when I’ve been successful with a traditional publisher? Why not stay in safe waters? Because sometimes complacency masks a lack of faith. I don’t like change—does anyone? Yet I know from experience that my faith grows the most during times of change.
I wish I could see around the bend in the river at what lies ahead for 2018—but I can’t. So, I’m choosing to sail forward into the unknown, comforted by one of my favorite verses from Isaiah: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you” (Isaiah 43:1-2). Bon Voyage!