Setting the Setting

Have you ever been in a place where you didn’t want to be? Or how about being in a place that you loved, and that quickly became your happy place? I’ve experienced both, and each time, the setting always seems to affect my mood and my emotions. A dreary place brings me down, while a beautiful place lifts my spirits. That’s how I’ve learned the importance of choosing the settings for my novels very carefully, and then describing them in enough detail to transport my readers there—if only in their imaginations. I’ve also learned that the best way to get a feel for each setting is to travel there.

The first few novels I wrote took place in Israel, and the story didn’t come alive for me until I went there. Viewing all of the tourist sites on my first trip gave me a taste for the country, but living there for a month as I volunteered on an archaeological dig, really helped me absorb the country into my bones.

I visited Virginia and the Carolinas when writing my 3-book Civil War series, walking through alligator and mosquito-filled lowlands, and touring lovely period mansions. I also saw the slave quarters behind some of the mansions, and it helped me imagine the lives of those slaves.

I visited Ellis Island with my sister and we could picture our great grandparents landing there, confused and frightened by the babble of languages and the stern officials, yet moving forward courageously. I was able to describe that setting and those emotions in my novel “Until We Reach Home,” which featured three sisters who immigrated to America and landed on Ellis Island.

My husband and I had quite an adventure a few years ago as we made our way through London’s city streets and viewed its landmarks for my novel “If I Were You.” Our experiences traveling The Underground helped me imagine what it must have been like to huddle in those deep, subterranean subway tunnels with Nazi bombs falling above my head.

For my most recent novel, “Chasing Shadows,” we rode bicycles as we explored parts of the Netherlands. We were moved by our visit to Corrie Ten Boom’s home, author of “The Hiding Place.” We saw the impossibly small, secret room where she and her family hid Jews from the Nazis, and I imagined their heart-pounding terror as they heard Nazis thundering up the steep, wooden stairs, searching for them. We visited Westerbork, a Nazi concentration camp in the Netherlands, but I still struggle to describe the emotions I experienced there.

Last year, in the middle of the Covid epidemic, my publisher asked if I would be interested in writing a Christmas novella. I had no place to go because of the lockdown, and more free time than usual since everything was closed, so I happily agreed. That book, “The Wish Book Christmas,” was just published two weeks ago, and it continues the stories of friends Eve Dawson and Audrey Clarkson from “If I Were You.”

It seems much too early to be promoting a Christmas story! The leaves are still green! I’m still wearing summer clothes! But that was also the case when I was writing that novella. I was unable to travel to research the setting, so I had to rely on my imagination and LOTS of pictures. I pasted vintage snow scenes around my desk, and pages of toys from the 1951 Sears’ Wish Book, the year in which the novella takes place. I immersed myself in photos of what fashions and houses and Christmas trees looked like in those post-war years. I even played Christmas carols (in July!) to help set the mood.

And now, sitting here at my desk, looking out at the sunlight dappling through the trees, and at the bicycle trail that is beckoning me to take a ride, I’m in my happy place. I’m doing the work I love in a setting that I love. I hope that you’re as contented in your current setting as I am. So, where is your happy place? And how does being there—or not being there—effect your attitude?

First Book

Do you remember the first book you ever read? Not a book that someone else read to you—I heard hundreds of books read to me by my mom, grandparents, and my older sister, Bonnie, before I learned to read one myself. But what about the first book you actually read on your own? I think mine was this one:

I was introduced to Dick, Jane, and Sally in first grade, and their story intrigued me. I admired pretty, well-dressed Jane the same way I looked up to my older sister. Adorable little Sally reminded me of my baby sister, Peggy. Like them, our family also had a dog—theirs was named Spot, ours was Lady. I didn’t have any brothers, so I always had a bit of a crush on Dick—he was my first fictional, romantic hero. (Although, at the time, I was convinced he and his sisters were real people. I think all writers hope their characters will spring to life in readers’ minds.)

The book’s setting fascinated me. In the illustrations, the story’s background always seemed so much neater and more perfect than the setting of my life. I was a bit envious of it, to tell you the truth. (And I still love a novel that takes me to an exotic location or time period, don’t you?)  

In true 1950’s style, the children’s mother always wore a dress, their father usually wore a suit. The “plot” of the first few books were told mostly through the illustrations. Without them, the dialogue and narrative were pretty stilted, consisting mostly of simple words like “oh” and “look” and “see” repeated endlessly. (Today, I prefer reading novels with a rich, lush vocabulary and vivid descriptions.) Even so, I was hooked on that book!

I came across Dick, Jane and Sally and the memories they triggered while researching my newest novel, “The Wish Book Christmas.” I was looking up everything about life in the 1950’s—fashions, cars, toys, Christmas trees—and somehow I ran into my old friends. Instantly, I was a kid again, sitting at a splintery wooden desk, quietly flipping ahead to the next chapter in the lives of Dick, Jane, and Sally. (I had to flip ahead because the other kids in the class were reading much too slowly, and I needed to see how the story ended. That’s another great quality in a novel, isn’t it?)

It’s MUCH too soon to start blogging about Christmas, (even though I’m told “The Wish Book Christmas” can now be pre-ordered and will be out in September) but I wanted to show you the novella’s very 1950’s cover. I’m thrilled that it has such a nostalgic feel to it. (And the little boy admiring the tree could be Dick, right?)

We’ll talk more about that book and our Christmas memories as we get closer to the actual holiday season. But for now, I would love to know if you remember the first book you ever read—and how it affected you. What was it about the story that was most memorable to you—the plot? The characters? The setting? Or maybe it was the way it showed you something about yourself or your life? I would love to hear from you!

My older sister Bonnie reading to me.

Summer Reading Program

When I was a girl, our village library offered a summer reading program. We were each given a chart with colorful stickers to keep track of all the books we read over the summer. There were prizes for the kid in each age group who read the most books—usually a book, of course. How I loved to see that chart filled with stickers! But I couldn’t cheat—my mother was the librarian, so she knew if I was really reading or just collecting stickers. Nowadays, I don’t just collect stickers, I collect books. As you can see, my shelves are pretty full!

I still think of summertime as reading time and I look forward to long afternoons to just relax and “do nothing” and read. I’ve been very busy these past months, writing and launching “Chasing Shadows” along with a Christmas novella, “Wish Book Christmas,” which will be out this holiday season. So I have fallen behind on reading books for pleasure. But now summer is here, and it’s time to remedy that. Here are some of my favorite places to curl up with a book:

The best place is on our beach on Lake Michigan. I love the warm sand and sunshine and the sound of the waves. This is the best place to read happy, romantic stories that end “happily-ever-after.”

My second favorite is our front porch. It overlooks a bike-and-walking path, so it’s fun to watch people go by with their dogs and kids while I catch up on all my favorite magazines, (which I’ve been neglecting). The porch has rocking chairs and a swing, and is a favorite place to read books to my grandchildren when they visit.

In rainy weather, I sit inside by the front window for the same view of the bike path. This is where I pray and read and have my quiet time year-round.

We are also blessed to have a screened-in back porch with a green, leafy view of trees and the fragrance of newly-mown grass. It’s above our walk-out basement, so I feel like I’m in a treehouse. A ceiling fan adds a breeze on hot, summer nights—and this is my favorite place to read when there’s a thunderstorm.

One last place is beneath the screened porch, down by the backyard. There are lots of comfy chairs and also a hammock if I want to take a little nap. Party lights make it festive after sunset, which comes late here in Michigan in the summertime.

So now I need to take a trip to the library. Do you have any great summer reading recommendations? What are your recent favorites and the places where you like to relax and read them?

Teamwork

The excitement is building. My newest novel, “Chasing Shadows,” will be releasing in just a few weeks. I would love to travel around the country to make the announcement in person and meet readers who’ve been waiting for this book. Unfortunately, that just isn’t possible with the current COVID restrictions. Instead, it’s going to take teamwork to spread the word from coast to coast, and I’m relying on my readers more than ever before to help me.

 Some of the work falls to my fabulous Launch Team—more than 100 excited, motivated book lovers who will work with my team director, Christine Bierma, to pass the news to their friends and family members via social media, word-of-mouth, and every other means possible. These team members live all across America, and even in a few foreign countries. They’ll receive a preview copy of “Chasing Shadows” ahead of the publication date so they can read it and begin spreading the word. I’m so grateful to them for their enthusiasm and hard work. 

But even if you’ve never been on an author’s launch team, you can still help your favorite authors promote their books. In fact, we rely on our faithful readers every bit as much as on our launch teams. Here are a few simple things you can do to relieve us of the happy burden of letting the world know we have a new book coming out:

Authors find it hard, sometimes, to ask our readers for their help. But we aren’t asking because we’re greedy and hope to make a lot of money. Most people would be very surprised to learn how low the average author’s yearly income is. And when you divide that income by the huge number of hours spent writing…well, I doubt if it even adds up to the minimum hourly wage. We don’t write books to get rich. We write because we believe in the message of hope and faith that the Holy Spirit inspires us to offer our readers. And so, if a novel has inspired you, please consider helping the author spread her message to everyone you know. Thank you!

A Day of Filming

We’re getting closer! My newest novel, “Chasing Shadows,” will be released in just two more months, on June 8. So, a few days ago, my publisher, Tyndale House, sent a film crew to my home to interview me about the book. It was quite interesting to have my home transformed into a recording studio, with lights and cameras and complicated-looking equipment.

It seemed like there was a lot going on around me as I sat there smiling and talking and answering questions. It was hard not to get distracted as I described the novel, which takes place in The Netherlands during World War II. I talked about the inspiration for the book, and described my three main characters, Lena de Vries, her daughter Ans de Vries, and Miriam Jacobs, a Jewish refugee.

When the interview ended, we switched gears and moved to an outdoor setting. I live in Holland, Michigan, which originally was settled by Dutch immigrants, and our town just happens to have a beautiful park with a 250-year-old windmill imported from the real Holland. It’s the only authentic, working Dutch windmill in the United States. There’s a windmill in “Chasing Shadows” but you’ll have to read the book to find out more about it. My town of Holland also has millions of tulips, which are just beginning to bloom in time for the annual Tulip Time Festival in May.

I will announce the links to the finished interview when the film is completed and edited. But in the meantime, I’m giving away an autographed copy of my novel “Waves of Mercy,” which I wrote a few years ago. It tells the story of the Dutch immigrants who settled Holland, Michigan in 1857. The area was still a wilderness, but the settlers were escaping religious persecution in the Netherlands and were happy to be here. Simply leave a comment below and I will randomly choose a winner. Happy Springtime!

Bikes and More Bikes!

If you’ve read my blogs before, you’ll know that I’m an avid bicyclist. That’s why I’m thrilled with the cover of my newest book, “Chasing Shadows,” which releases June 8. The windmill reveals the novel’s setting in The Netherlands. The low-flying airplanes, the model’s clothing, and her concerned expression hint that it takes place during World War II when the Nazis invaded that peace-loving country. But best of all, in my opinion, is the bicycle!

I have loved cycling since I was a girl. I still remember my first bike, a clunky, secondhand single-speed with coaster brakes that I repainted red. My sisters and I would ride into the countryside in rural New York State where we grew up, or to the ice cream stand in a neighboring village, three miles away. And my love of biking has only increased with my age. One of the deciding factors in choosing our new house was the bike trail right at the end of our driveway. It goes for miles and miles in both directions. It’s an easy six-mile ride into town to go to the library or the farmer’s market or for lunch with friends. And only 1 ½ miles to the beach on Lake Michigan.

Our vacations are chosen with biking in mind. We spent the month of February in Florida where we accumulated 400 miles. Ken and I bought new bikes last August and already maxed-out the odometers at 1,000 miles. In 2019 we joined friends from church on a cycling tour around Lake Constance, traveling through Germany, Switzerland and Austria. My most memorable day was in the Austrian Alps where we ferried our bikes up Mt. Pfander in a gondola, then cycled back down the nearly 3,500-foot mountain. It was equal parts thrilling and terrifying! Of course, I want to do it again.

The Netherlands, where “Chasing Shadows” takes place, is filled with bike-loving people like me. The first time my Dutch publisher invited me on a book tour there, I was astonished to see how many bicycles there are in that tiny country. A huge tangle of them greeted me outside every bookstore, their owners all waiting inside to hear me speak.  Bicycles whizzed through every village and city, often at breakneck speed. Dutch bike paths even had traffic circles at busy intersections to keep people from crashing into each other.

I’m told that there are more bikes in Holland than people, and I believe it! It’s a common sight to see professional men and women commuting with briefcases strapped to their bikes. Thousands of bikes are parked at every train station, some perched in double-decker bike racks to conserve space. I can’t imagine how people ever find their own bike again at the end of the day.

Naturally, bicycles play an important role in “Chasing Shadows.” Lena de Vries relies on her bicycle to travel from her farm to the nearby village, often with children perched on the handlebars and rear fender in true Dutch fashion. Her daughter Ans rides home from her townhouse in Leiden to visit her family. Later, Ans uses her bike for her dangerous work with the Dutch Resistance. I traveled to The Netherlands to research this book, and my husband and I rented bikes in Leiden to ride out into the countryside like Ans would have done so I could research settings for the de Vries family farm.

Here’s a sneak-peek at the Dutch version of the cover. Naturally, it also features a bicycle.

I doubt if my bicycling hobby will ever coincide so perfectly with my novel-writing research again, but it certainly worked out nicely for this book. I hope you’ll enjoy journeying into the past in “Chasing Shadows” and visiting the bike-loving Netherlands. And watch for a great deal on pre-orders, coming very soon!

Companions for the Journey

A long time ago, before I had published a single word, a writer friend invited me to join a Christian writers’ group. Of course, I declined. I was much too uncertain of my calling or my future as a writer to accept. Eventually, my friend talked me into it, and I discovered the many blessings of partnering with other companions in the journey of faith. I grew a lot over the next few years, in confidence and in my writing ability. And then my husband’s work involved a job change, and we moved from Canada back to the United States.

At the first Christian Writers’ Conference I attended in our new area, the leaders encouraged participants to form a critique group with other attendees who lived nearby. I leaped at the chance. The group was large at first, but commitment and determination soon whittled us down to a faithful few. For more than twenty-five years now, Jane Rubietta and Cleo Lampos and I have been meeting to share our lives, encourage each other, and critique each other’s writing. When we began, none of us were published—and none of our children were married. Now we all have multiple books and publications to our credit—and multiple grandchildren!

We have cried with each other through our many disappointments, and joyfully celebrated each publishing milestone. We brainstorm plots and characters and titles together—and we laugh a lot. And eat a lot. Our writers’ meetings always involve great food. There were times when each one of us was ready to quit, but we always convinced each other to hang on to our calling as writers. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be where I am today without Jane and Cleo.

You’ll get to know them a little better next month because I have asked them to blog in my place during the month of February. I will be on a much-needed sabbatical from writing to recharge my batteries. I wrote a Christmas novella this year in addition to my usual, yearly novel, and I need a break. They will tell you a little about themselves and their work—which I’m always thrilled to endorse!

Where would any of us be without our friends? I know my life would be much lonelier without them. But even more than keeping us company, we all need people in our lives who will help us discover our gifts, and challenge us to step out in faith, and hold us accountable to the ministries God has given us. We see Christ through these friends and experience His deep love for us, in spite of our faults and failures. If you have friends who are dear to you, I hope you’ll take a moment this week to tell them how much they mean to you, and to celebrate God’s gift of friendship with them. 

A Sneak Peek . . .

One of the most exciting moments for me as an author is when I first get to see the cover design for my newest novel. There have been some that I have loved, some that were so-so, and a few that I’ve really disliked. My publisher asks for my input and ideas, of course, but I never know what the final outcome will be. It’s up to the design team to choose an image and a “look” that best fits the characters, the story, the novel’s tone, and its theme. Not an easy thing to do! How do you capture the essence of a complex, 400-page novel with multiple characters and story lines in a single, compelling picture?

They say “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” but I’m not sure that’s true. I find myself doing it all the time. Some covers are so off-putting for a variety of reasons, that I’m not even tempted to read the back-cover copy to see what the book is about. Other covers look like books I’ve seen a hundred times before, making me wonder if the story is also one I’ve read a hundred times before. But then there are those very special covers that are so arresting that I want to turn to the first page of the book and start reading as quickly as I can. That’s the kind of cover I always want for my books!

Well, I may be slightly biased, but I think the design team at Tyndale House did an extraordinary job with the cover for my newest novel, “Chasing Shadows.” The book will be released next June, but in the meantime, here is a sneak peek, just for you . . .

What do you think? Do you spot any clues that tell you what the book is about, or when and where it takes place? The windmill and flat landscape will probably tell you the novel’s setting. And the three airplanes flying in formation across a stormy sky offer a hint of when it takes place. But what I love the most about this cover is the sense of movement and tension it portrays. This young woman looks like she has been on the move, and now something off to the side has captured her attention. She seems alert and perhaps a little uneasy, yet determined to push down on that pedal and continue her journey. I want to know her story, don’t you?

If you guessed that the novel is set in the Netherlands during World War II, you’re right. The young woman’s name is Ans DeVries, and when the Nazis invade and occupy her nation, her life will change drastically. Along with Ans, there are two other extraordinary women of faith and courage in this story, Lena and Miriam, who also will be forced to make life-and-death decisions. I won’t give away any more of the plot, for now, but you can read a preview of it on the final pages of my last novel, “If I Were You.”

In the meantime, I would love to hear your opinion of the cover of “Chasing Shadows”—and of book covers in general. Are there things you like seeing on the cover—the main character’s face, for instance? Or would you rather that her appearance be left to your imagination? Are there elements of a cover design that make you want to read the book? And anything that makes you decide to pass? I would love to know what you think about the saying, “you can’t judge a book by its cover.”

Book Club Picks

I love book clubs!

I joined my first one nearly twenty years ago, and it was such fun to read new books that other members had chosen, especially when their reading tastes differed from mine. I loved hearing the variety of opinions on our monthly selections and discovering themes or insights that I had completely missed. Several books were ones I never would have chosen on my own, but I was glad I read most of them. I can also remember a few books that our club unanimously disliked. I once struggled through 3 or 4 chapters of a William Faulkner novel and just couldn’t finish it in time for our meeting. I went to book club anyway—only to learn that I had made it through more pages than anyone else! 

When my own books began to be published and were being chosen by other book clubs, it dramatically changed the book club experience for me. I was a little nervous, at first, but soon learned that book lovers are very kind and encouraging people. The leader of one club asked if I’d like to come anonymously and listen to the discussion before she announced who I was. I said yes, but told her if they hated the book, just say I’m your cousin from Australia. It turned out they loved the book and I didn’t have to converse in my fake Australian accent.

Reader Insight

I really enjoy talking about my plots and hearing how my characters have “come alive” for readers. It’s very helpful to know what readers like or dislike about my books so I can write with future readers in mind. And I love to answer questions about the book or about my writing process. Most of all, book clubs are a wonderful way to socialize with other book lovers.

Whenever I’m able, I like to visit in person, especially if there’s food! Some clubs are very creative with decorations and treats that relate to the story in some way. But when distance (or Covid-19) makes it impossible for me to meet with a book club in person, I sometimes visit via Skype or FaceTime or Zoom to answer readers’ questions. Afterwards, I like to question them and ask which other books have been club favorites. It’s a great way to add to my personal reading list. 

If you belong to a book club and are compiling this year’s list of titles, I’m very excited to announce that my novel, “If I Were You” has been chosen by Books-A-Million to be a Book Club Pick for the month of August. My book will be sold in Books-A-Million stores and their online website. 

Here’s the link for the Books-A-Million Book Club group you can join on Facebook. I’ll be checking in this month to answer your questions and read your comments.

Book Club Kit Available!

And if your book club decides to read “If I Were You,” my publisher, Tyndale House, has put together a fun Book Club Kit with some special recipes and quizzes for your members to enjoy.

Do you belong to a book club? What are some creative things your group has done? Are you still “meeting” in new ways because of the virus restrictions? I’d love to hear your ideas and comments.

Be Prepared

There’s no escaping the news, the fear, the warnings. The Coronavirus is coming! Beware! Be ready! I understand that I should be worried—after all, I’m over sixty and that puts me at a greater risk of dying if I do contract the virus. But strangely, I’m not worried. While I would like to live another dozen years and watch my grandchildren grow up, my philosophy is the same as my heroines’ motto in my novel “Where We Belong.” Whenever their lives were at risk they would say, “God knows when the end of our days will be; we have nothing to fear.” The question that should concern me is not “how or when will I die,” but “how will I live in the meantime?” How well will I represent Jesus?

I keep wondering what Christians are doing in China, where the outbreak began. Or in Iran, another hard-hit country where Christians make up a tiny minority. Naturally, they must hope to survive this epidemic—we all do. But I’m guessing that believers in those hard-hit nations are reaching out to their sick and dying neighbors with the love of Christ in spite of the risk to themselves. I’m certain we’ll hear stories of their courage and faith in the days to come. And of the lives they saved.

The Apostle Peter urged us to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). And non-believers are never hungrier for the hope that we have in Christ than when they are facing death. Perhaps that’s why God allows Christians to suffer through the same plagues and wars and disasters as non-Christians, side by side—so we can proclaim His love and hope to the lost.

While this particular virus is unusual, the fear and uncertainty it brings to people around the world is not. Every generation has faced life-threatening disasters, natural or man-made. In my novel “If I Were You” (releasing June 2), the main characters live in London during World War II, and experience the relentless Nazi bombings known as The Blitz. In the passage below, Eve is worried for her mum’s safety, and tries to persuade her to quit her job in London as a maidservant to Lady Rosamunde and go to a safer place.

“I don’t understand why you’re so loyal to her, Mum. Lady Rosamunde demands so much from you, working all hours of the day and night, yet she doesn’t have an ounce of consideration for you.”

Mum sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed. “It isn’t easy to explain, Eve. I suppose . . . I suppose it’s because of what the vicar once said in one of his sermons. He read a Bible passage that said servants should do their work joyfully, as if serving the Lord. Jesus said if we’re ordered to go one mile, we should go two. And I feel sorry for Lady Rosamunde. For all her wealth, she is a sad, lonely woman . . . But she gave me a job at a time when I badly needed it to support you. So I’ve always thought that God must have a reason for wanting me to work for her.”

I don’t believe there are any “accidents” with God. Whatever disaster may strike us—a Nazi bomb, a deadly virus, or a heart attack—we can know that it is firmly under God’s control, and that it will serve His greater purpose. We already have eternal life, and so “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). We can face the end of our days with nothing to fear.

If you’d like to learn more about “If I Were You,”  follow this link to see a fun video with more information: http://bit.ly/3828FZS