Tag Archives: chasing the devil

A little Rowling here, a little Twain there

If you ask a question often enough, you’re bound to eventually get the answer you want.

Today one of the members of the Columbia Missouri Novelists Facebook page posted what could be either the most instructive, inspiring link or the most vanity-laden, time-wasting link.

I Write Like … You paste a sample of your work into a box, click “analyze,” and within seconds you find out your word choice and writing style compares favorably with — which famous author. I quickly yielded to temptation, certain that I could embrace or reject any conclusion.

I encourage you to give it a try.

First I submitted two samples from my current work, “Dixieland,” the 2012 National Novel Writing Month project. Both analyses determined the word choice and style compared favorably with H.P. Lovecraft. That was baffling, because I neither read nor write science fiction or “weird fiction,” the genre that Lovecraft basically birthed. So I copied and pasted another “Dixieland” sample that compared favorably with Stephenie Meyer.

The Twilight Saga? What? Flattering as that was, I have to confess that I also don’t read — and really have zero interest in — paranormal romance, vampires and werewolves, and death-pale young men and women.

So I sought additional analysis. Next to copy-and-paste was a dialogue-heavy scene from “Chasing The Devil,” my 2011 NaNoWriMo project. (Still unfinished, still unpublished). The analysis reported: J.K. Rowling. (Here’s the link if you think I’m fibbing). Again — sorry. I’ve read maybe six pages of the Harry Potter series. Wizards, sorcery, Harry himself — just not my cup ‘o tea.

Or is it? Meyer has made a gazillion bucks with her Twilight series; Rowling has made a trilabilagazillion bucks from Harry Potter. Hmmm?

Let’s try some more. Two selections from “Gone” (2010, NaNoWriMo). Different conclusions but familiar results: Meyer for one, Rowling for the other.

Still not satisfied, I reached into the archives of Jackson’s Journal to one of my favorite blog posts, Aug. 17, 2012, the conclusion of a three-part story of the time I almost drowned in the Gasconade River. Surely this would break the Lovecraft-Meyer-Rowling spell?

I pasted the copy, hit “analyze,” and this time the answer didn’t come right away. I laughed out loud at the conclusion.

“Mark Twain.” Ahhh! A kindred spirit, a fellow journalist.

So I had to check one more time, pasting the copy of a news story from April 2009. (It’s a horribly tragic story if you care to read it). The story was awarded second place for spot news reporting in that year’s Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors annual competition.

The analytic conclusion? “Mark Twain.”

twain and friends

It was a fun exercise in vanity, but more than that, as I perused my unfinished, novel-length works, it was a stark reminder that I have too many unfinished, novel-length works screaming to get out of their desktop folders, out of my noggin and into the hands of readers.

And that’s where any real or imagined similarities with famous authors end. They’ve actually finished a book or two.

Excuse me, then. I have some work to do.

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Filed under "Dixieland", "Gone", A reporter's life, Chasing The Devil, Living Write, MIP: Memoir-in-progress, National Novel Writing Month 2012, WIPs

Real character or mannequin?

What’s the secret?

You know what I mean. Not the secret to your success (although I am interested to hear that, too) or the secret to your grilling technique (again … I am interested). I’m asking, “What’s your secret?”

Answering that is one of the beauties of writing fiction. You need to create a character, name the character, maybe even toss in a clever nickname. You’ve got hair color, hair length, hair type (wavy, straight, maybe no hair), height, body type, blah blah blah. Sure, that’s all important, but I’ve just described a mannequin, an empty form with a name. Add a favorite color. A quirk that you wouldn’t expect. (I sometimes symmetrically arrange the food on my plate; don’t even notice most of the time). Tell me your character’s best time of day: night owl, early bird, mid-day masher? Give me some background: middle child, only child, lost a finger in shop class, maybe a sixth toe? (Super cool!) Adopted? (Adoption and foster kids are a common link in most of what I write).

Now give your character a secret. Something she’s done that no one else (or only your wife/BFF) knows about. Give every character a secret, and suddenly you’ve got depth. Not that you’ll tell-all in your story or novel, but that character will be more real to YOU. And until that happens, the character is nothing but a mannequin on paper.
And who wants to read about a mannequin?

Not every secret needs to be dark or terrible, but there can be plenty of those, too. I once worked with a woman who told me that when she was a kid, she’d climb over the neighbor’s fence and pick an apple or two. The neighbor finally told her parents and she was punished.

So she burned the neighbor’s house down.

Crazy? Made up? There’s never been a moment that I doubted it. Her demeanor, body language, almost nonchalant recounting of the event all testified of a cold heart that probably suffered a great wound as a child – but a cold, dark heart that had no hint of remorse in telling the story the same way someone might say, “I got in trouble because the neighbor told my parents, so I snuck over to his house one night and stomped his marigolds.” Seriously. I remember it like this: “So I burned the SOB’s house down. Are you going out for lunch or eating in the office?”

The story came alive as a defining moment in the childhood of Hannah Abigail Lincoln, the main protagonist in my unfinished work, “Chasing the Devil.”

HERE’S THE EXCERPT

The moment the neighbors drive away, Hannah hopped the fence, emptied a can of lighter fluid on the refinished chest and wardrobe on the patio, and struck a match. The flash caught one of her sleeves on fire. She quickly dropped the can and plunged her arm into a nearby birdbath.

Hannah raced to her bedroom, changed her shirt and soothed the burn with aloe salve, something she knew to do to treat burns. She had experience.

The sirens were faint at first and then louder.

“Hannah, we need to talk,” her mother shouted as she came upstairs. Elizabeth Lincoln stepped into her daughter’s room. Hannah dropped the burned shirt.

“Um, sweety? Did you know the Bentley’s house is on fire?”

Hannah had no response.

“I saw you climbing over that fence.” Her mother paused. “Hannah, did you pick another apple?”

The little girl heard her mother’s admonitions echoing in her mind: Bravery, Hannah. Courage, Hannah. Don’t slouch like a whore, Hannah. Hannah clenched her teeth and stepped toward her mother.

“The Bentleys are just weak,” Hannah said. “Rednecks.”

Elizabeth Lincoln reached out and drew her daughter close.

“Yes, baby doll,” her mother said, giving her a firm hug. “I love you.”

(Ed. note: It’s the only memory Hannah has of her mother’s hug).

PRAYING FOR THE PLANE TO CRASH

Maybe the secret is less sinister. A stand-up sort of guy who, for some reason, once stole his neighbor’s mail. (I’m brainstorming here). A school teacher who, despite cheating in college to earn her bachelor’s degree, has turned out to be quite a teacher and is about to be promoted to principal – or superintendent. A hilarious secret? A shy man eats an entire pie that is about to be presented to the retiring superintendent – or the Queen of England. (“Who ate Her Majesty’s custard pie?”) Maybe not something all that BAD or illegal, but not something you’d want to admit. No matter how many years go by, YOU still remember.

When I was a kid, I had an uncle who flew radio-control, model airplanes. Cool, huh? Not really. I resented that we drove 700 miles to visit my grandparents only to see the neighboring cousins called right away to join us, where they continued to be the center of attention. I visited maybe once a year; they lived right … over … there. (Extend your arm, point your finger … yeah, right over there). Once we were whisked across the pasture to the cousin’s house – a huge home with a lake – where we had a cook-out and obligatory viewing of my uncle flying his radio-control airplane. I actually bowed my head and prayed that the plane would crash.

And it did.

Whew. I feel better. Up to now, only four or five people have heard this confession. Now, if I count Twitter, Facebook, email subscribers and anyone else who stumbles across Jackson’s Journal, that’s another 1,100 people.

Maybe you don’t want to share YOUR secret. But give me some ideas for future and existing characters. C’mon …

What’s the secret?

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Filed under Family, Living Write, MIP: Memoir-in-progress, WIPs

A lifetime of New Year’s Eve deja vu

Half-way through December, when it came time for me to resume my NaNoWriMo novel, to catch up on roughly 873 unread emails and blogs that I follow, and to breathe new, consistent life into Jackson’s Journal, I had a high-level meeting with myself and decided to extend my “down” time another 16 days.

Enough. I’m breaking the huddle, getting back in the game, shaking the dust off any other cliches that refer to getting the rust out of my routine. I’m pumped. In fact, I’m going to blog every single day of 2013. Or not.

First, I’m taking stock of the greatest blessing of my life. My bride (Kelly) and I did some calculating tonight and determined that since 1974, we’ve been together every single New Year’s Eve except one. Folks, that’s 38 NY Eves.

kelly-jodie

I love the story of Dec. 31, 1974. Kelly and her family and 36 other people — 41 in all — were at the green duplex in Belle, Mo., at Eighth and Shockley, a place that I prefer to remember as “Little Fenway,” on account of the house was the left field fence for the greatest Wiffle ball field ever known.

But it wasn’t wintertime Wiffle ball that drew a crowd.

It was a fish fry.

Dad was the pastor of the fledgling Faith Baptist Church, and as best I can remember, the evening started with a fine Southern Baptist tradition, the New Year’s Eve Watch-Night Service. Or maybe the evening didn’t start at the church, which was located in the former but brown recluse spider-infested Dahms Hardware Store in Main Street/Alvarado Avenue/Highway 28 in downtown Belle.

My Little Black Book of Great Adventures — aka, my childhood diary — recounts the important details, including the reference to brown recluse spider-infestation, but also the party in the house at Little Fenway. At one point earlier in the evening, someone — either my dad, Robert Thompson or Clifford McDaniel — had a wild-hair idea about having a fish fry. Robert had a freezer full of gigged Gasconade River fish and Clifford possessed the world’s all-time greatest hush puppy recipe. (It might have been the other way around; the Little Black Book of Great Adventures doesn’t provide clarification).

Someone brought a massive iron kettle and a grand fire was sparked on the bare spot normally reserved for second base. There was fish, hush puppies, drinks (absolutely non-intoxicating beverages, of course), pie, slaw, and, for the younger set, an unofficial yet also traditional activity of Southern Baptist teens and pre-teens: spin-the-bottle. (Not sure if it was this event or a future gathering where the spin-the-bottle experience came to an abrupt end when the bottle pointed to me and my sister, Kathy).

At the height of the NY Eve Fish Fry of ’74, we had 55 people in our house. At one point I retreated to my room — a chemistry lab and railroad-killed mammal dissection facility — to jot down my thoughts. I refer now to the Little Black Book of Great Adventures:

“It is 10:40 PM, Dec. 31, 1974. New Year’s Eve. It was a good year to me and I especially wan to thank God for leading me to a good year in science. He led me to all my specimens and stuff.” (Ed. note: living less than 100 feet from the Rock Island rail line also provided me an ample supply of biological diversity).

More about the year, recapping my thanks to my parents for letting me collect so much “stuff” and thanking my friends for helping me collec the “stuff.” (Ed. note: we had most of an entire but unassembled adult deer skeleton hauled into my room/lab before my mom drew a line on the amount of “stuff” I could have in my room/lab).

Finally, this:

“I joined a taxidermy school and I have come to a greater scientific knowledge. I am going out now to join the rest of the party. There are still 41 people hear at our house.” (Ed. note: Correctly spelled “knowledge,” but misspelled “hear.”)

Now let me fast-forward three years to New Year’s Eve 1977, back in the green duplex at Eighth and Shockley after moving back from Jefferson City, where I spent THE loneliest, saddest year of my life the previous year. My year-end recap included, “In mid-October, my parents got a divorce” and my sister, Sharon, visiting from Japan where she and bro-in-law Navy man Michael were stationed, had lost her babies (twin boys). And then this: “I am very much in love with Kelly Drewel, who I’ve been going with for 13 months.”

Finally, follow me back to (or is it “forward to?”) NY Eve 2012, where I’m making the resolution to finish the novels “Dixieland” and “Chasing the Devil” in 2013, with at least one of them published by year’s end.

And then I laugh as I glance again at the Little Black Book of Great Adventures and find this:

“Lately, I’ve been writing quite a bit. In the past I’ve started a few books that I never have finished, and I’ve got several ideas for books, stories and songs. I have written about 25 stories, 15 songs and started about 5 books. It takes time to write, so I think I’ll put aside more time to write.”

And then I listed some belated resolutions for getting that done: limit television; get my homework done at school; stick with something.

The date: Feb. 8, 1978.

The more things change …

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Filed under Family, Inspiration, Kelly, MIP: Memoir-in-progress, National Novel Writing Month 2012, Nature & Animals, Old Time Religion, WIPs

NaNoWriMo Day #10: The joy of creating

Word count through the first 10 days of National Novel Writing Month: 26,159. Just over halfway to the “winning” goal of 50,000 words. And it occurs to me — as I’ve suspected all along — that 50,000 words will not tell the entire story of “Dixieland.” At this rate I’m on pace to hit 50K on Nov. 19, two weeks from Monday, and that’s the goal that I have now adopted. I’ll need to do that if I’m going to meet or exceed the 64,000 mark I hit in 2011 with “Chasing The Devil.” (Which, sadly, is still unfinished, yet it’s waiting patiently, like a loyal puppy, for some loving attention. Soon. It will be soon.)

Today I encountered that chaos that typically comes much sooner than this. My chronology has come unraveled, and I’m no longer writing in order in keeping with my chapters and outline. Part B requires me to go back to Part A to plug in some foreshadowing, which creates another layer for a major character, which means making sure Part F connects the dots from A, B, and D, but waiting to connect C and E later.

This is where I discover parts of the story that I didn’t know were there. My main character didn’t just show up in central Kentucky and start working for the Silverdale Sentinel, as my outline notes. (Silly outline. You tease, you). No, my main female protagonist, Edna Mae Ferguson, showed up for her first day of work for Carl Smith Stenographer Contracting Company (yeah, pretty lame, but it works for now), only to find out that he’s got something else in mind. The local newspaper publisher called for a stenographer, so crotchety old Carl Smith, who calls publisher Steven Kennedy a “muckraker,” instead sends Edna Mae, hoping the young, unproven steno might cause the publisher some grief, and hoping to get out of paying Edna Mae a $20 sign-on fee and a booklet of coupons for bologna sandwiches from Ore Run Grocery.

(When you think of crotchety old Carl Smith, think “Ed Asner as Lou Grant.” Hey, it’s okay to embrace a stereotype or two).

Until two hours ago, Carl Smith had never crossed my mind. In fact, there’s an entire staff of stenographers in the office at the poorly named company, and one of them — don’t know who just yet — will reappear later as an advocate. Or, in keeping with the perpetual fiction writing mantra of conflict-rising tension-resolution-more conflict again, this still unnamed, uncreated character could be a mini protagonist of sorts.

I love this!

With that in mind, I’m going to share here a post that I made today on the Columbia NaNoWriMo forum in response to another WriMo who lamented that she was falling behind in her word count. Not suprisingly, she is discouraged. Even if she does not complete the 50,000 words in 30 days, however, she found solace in this: “I am writing again.”

Here was my response, and it’s meant for all my fellow WriMos, whether we are on a crazy, blistering pace to finish ahead of schedule or on a slow, cumbersome trek, still waiting to shift from first to fifth gear.

“I am writing again.”

Those words inspired ME. Thank you. Because I know that feeling.

My wife and I were in Hobby Lobby and Michael’s this evening looking for something unrelated to writing, but when I see all those blank canvasses and all the writing, art, coloring, stenciling, etc. materials I really get pumped, because I imagine the sheer glee that someone experiences when they turn those blank canvasses and sheets into beauty.

That’s what WE do. This computer screen is our blank canvass. And any time you’ve written, you’ve done something with that canvass. Is it a Picasso or a Monet? Of course not. Is it Hemingway, Faulkner, Steven King, Michael Crichton? Nope. But we’ve created, and we do it for ourselves first and foremost, because we must. It’s in our DNA somewhere. And the more we do it, the better we get, and the more we realize that the greatest joy isn’t simply staring at the masterpiece, but the process of creating it.

Carry on, my friend. You are CREATING!

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NaNoWriMo: “Dixieland” Day 1

Putting a wrap on Day 1 of National Novel Writing Month, the daily word-count goal is 1,667, which will produce just over 50,000 words for the 30-day NaNoWriMo. Two years ago I hit 50,014 words — whew! — just enough to be considered a “winner” of the month of literary abandon. Unfortunately, “Gone” remains unfinished, a work-in-progress. (Most novels — the ones that are actually published — are typically between 80,000 and 100,000 words, although I’m told that some Harry Potter books are about a million words. Or something like that). Last year I cranked out 64,000 words on “Chasing The Devil,” which also remains a WIP.

That brings us to “Dixieland” — already at 4,695 words. This story is actually the first in the series with the other two unfinished novels. I’ll share this scene from the opening pages of the story where I’m trying to establish the pervasive, yet mostly unacknowledged tones of racial tension through the words of little boys who have come to tell Billy Blanchard’s Uncle Alvie — a soon-to-be-deployed World War II airman — that his nephew is “fixin’ to get tore up” by the local bully. The dialogue picks up here where Ladd Miller, whose daddy is a school teacher and head of the local KKK, expresses complete disdain for black people.

Unedited, of course. (My inner editor is under a strict gag order, which will lifted on Dec. 1, except for work release for my day job at the Columbia Daily Tribune).

Dixie walked past the little boy on the sidewalk and stepped into the yard to speak to Edna Mae. The little imp snorted loudly, spat a nasty wad of phlegm near Dixie’s feet, and announced, “Daddy says coloreds are s’posed to halt to the white folks.”

Alvie made one long stride, squatted in front of Ladd Miller, and hovered over the boy even in a catcher’s crouch. “Tell you what, buddy, you need to step over there and run your foot through that snot, and apologize to Miss Dixie.” His firm voice was just above a whisper.

Ladd stepped back, shrinking. “And if I don’t?”

“If you don’t mop your foot through the snot, I’ll use your shirt collar to sop it up.”

The little boy tugged at his collar with balled-up fists. “You not gettin’ my shirt off me.”

“I won’t take your shirt off,” Alvie said, leaning toward the cowering boy. “I’ll sop up that snot with you still wearin’ the shirt.”

Ladd’s lips trembled. “I’ll tell my daddy.” He was about to cry.

Alvie leaned closer and his shadow swallowed the boy. “Well, your daddy will already know, ‘cause I’m tellin’ him first.”

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Dixieland: Ready for NaNoWriMo launch

Monday afternoon on my way home from work at the Columbia Daily Tribune I stopped at the nearest grocer to pick up a few items. I hadn’t planned on buying a card. It was one of those “Pages of Time” booklets; the ones that have nostalgic news from the year you were born. In the last few days I’ve poured over reference books at My Favorite Non-Home/Non-Church/Non-Work Place in  Columbia — the Columbia Public Library — and checked out some books and DVDs simply to get “in touch” with daily life in 1944-45 in the U.S.A., and more specifically Natchez, Miss.

But when I stumbled onto the display rack of greeting cards and “Pages of Time” booklets, there it was: “Your Special Year: 1945.”

I think I might have squealed like a little school girl.

Ahem.

When I checked out, the checker scanned the  little booklet and asked — oh, you knew she’d ask, didn’t you? — “Are you getting this for someone special?” Instead of simply saying, “Yes,” and hoping she wouldn’t ask, “Who?,” I answered, “No. It’s for me.”

Awkward silence.

Then I added: “Long story. At least I hope it will be.” She just looked at me and blinked, unaware that the phrase “at least I hope it will be” was a clue — foreshadowing, if you will — of what the purchase would help produce: “Dixieland,” my project for National Novel Writing Month 2012.

Here’s a sampling of some other resource material that I’ve consulted or continue to consult: “Natchez,” by Harnett T. Kane; “Since You Went Away: World War II letters from American women on the home front”; “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” by Anne Moody; “The Girls That Went Away,” by Ann Fessler (you might recall that one of the “Dixieland” characters is named Doris Fessler); and correspondence with an elderly woman who was “incarcerated” — her words — at the King’s Daughters Maternity Home in Natchez, and with someone from the historical society down there in Dixie; and a couple of DVDs on the war that give insight into life on the home front.

And for my listening pleasure, to put me in the moment of the era, I checked out the CD “Your Hit Parade: 1944.” Any of these names ring a bell? Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters, Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra. Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest, “It Had To Be You.”

And I’m going to give away a secret that extends from “Dixieland” into “Chasing The  Devil,” the second part of this trilogy that doesn’t occur until 1990. The reason that Edna Mae Ferguson celebrates Christmas in July … well, you’ll have to wait to read “Dixieland.” Her husband, Alvie, is a POW and Edna Mae has fled to Kentucky when Christmas 1944 rolls around. And speaking of Christmas, Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” was recorded in 1943; “White Christmas” was recorded in 1942.

Imagine my characters hearing those songs on Dec. 24, 1944 — Alvie in a POW camp, Edna Mae away from home in the hills of central Kentucky. Oh, yes, the theme music for the creation of “Dixieland” is most appropriate.

So here’s a final reminder to myself and all other aspiring WriMos. As we plot, scheme, write and flow from scene to scene, these three things are essential — absolutely vital — to making sure that what we write is something that will connect with readers:

– Conflict. My outline and character sketches have the word CONFLICT somewhat randomly inserted, in ALL CAPS, as a constant reminder that without conflict, rising tension and a story arc that incorporates lots of conflict and tension, I might as well be writing a grocery list.

– Hopes, dreams, wants and fears. What do my characters want? What are their dreams? Ooh: What do they FEAR the most? (Being alone? Not measuring up to a demanding parent/teacher/friend?) What makes them hold out hope for … Racial equality? A lover’s reunion? Forgiveness?

– Breadcrumbs. As a reader, I want to feel like I’m part of a character’s voyage of discovery, and I can follow breadcrumbs that will lead me to AHA!, I saw that coming, and other breadcrumbs that … sort of … trail off — but not to the extent that I feel insulted by the writer, especially when I see the main source of the seemingly irrelevant crumbs in the climactic scene. As the writer, I need to deliberately drop breadcrumbs without making it look deliberate.

Big sigh.

Twenty-four hours from the big start. Thirty-one days from saying, “I did it.”

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Forgetting to get dressed lately …

Colossians 3:12 – “… you must therefore clothe yourselves with … gentleness …”

Finding myself homebound, ailing and recuperating from pneumonia last week, offered ample opportunity to consume a portion of the programming on our DVR, but there are still: 62 episodes of “M*A*S*H”; 30 episodes of “Wild Kingdom” (side note: I interviewed my boyhood idol, Jim Fowler, back in ’98); “Barbecue University” (21 episodes); “The War” (10); “Nova” (13); “Haunted Highway” (10); and “The Boys in the Hall” (7). That’s just a smattering of the clutter – I mean, “information” – that I have DVR’d. And you can never watch “Mermaid: The Body Found” too many times.

There was also time to take stock of the other things that interest me, and if I’d had the energy and adequate stretches of consciousness, I would have lost myself in origami, an art that I’ve tinkered with but not yet mastered. Organizing notes and outlining long-term projects for the Tribune would have been another wise use of time. Better yet, I could have worked on finishing “Chasing the Devil” (unfinished novel No. 1, book two of trilogy) or “Gone” (unfinished novel No. 2, third part of trilogy), before National Novel Writing Month comes in November and I begin “Dixieland,” the sequel for the trilogy.

Oh, the things I could have done. I certainly had the time.

Instead, I convalesced and reflected, and even before I re-encountered that No. 1 pet peeve of my life – the Creasy Springs/Business Loop/West Boulevard roundabout ‑ it dawned on me during that time of reflection that somehow it IS possible to survive without a constant infusion of Diet Coke, and also that lately I have not been a gentle person. It really didn’t take Phil Schaefer saying so on Sunday at Christian Fellowship to convince me, but apparently he WAS speaking only to me: “Clothe yourselves with gentleness.” There are some other clothing requirements in there, too, like “patience” and “tender mercy,” but the one that stabbed me Sunday – and again later this week – was “gentleness.”

I’ve even been “snarky” with people lately. And I hate snarky. Apparently I’m good at it, but not proud of it. One of my first lines of defense is sarcasm. It’s a trait that rarely leads to productive dialogue and consensus. While I wrestle with the insecurities that make me need to be right and clever, I need to nip “snarky” in the bud.

Can’t be that and gentle at the same time.

Back in 2000-01, I spent most of the school year substitute teaching in Jefferson City and Blair Oaks. I worked the 4-to-midnight shift most of the time at the Jefferson City News Tribune, so I usually worked two or three days a week making a little extra dough as a public school sub. Please, please, don’t EVER make me sub again for middle school students! High school was okay, but what I especially enjoyed was the special needs classroom or grades K through 2.

One of my best experiences was subbing for the music teacher at Callaway Hills Elementary School in Holts Summit, where just inside the classroom door was a sign that said: “Before I say it, ask: Is it true? Is it nice? Is it necessary?”

Lately I’ve needed that reminder, and not so much in how I speak, but how I respond non-verbally and how I want to respond to the incredible imbeci … – I mean, people – who simply can’t grasp that roundabouts are NOT four-way stops, and that you’re supposed to yield to traffic already in the circle to your left.

Gentle. I’m working on it. If I’ve been anything less, don’t excuse me, but please – in your most gentle spirit – please forgive me.

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Mountain-top moments

Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting is the mid-week topic for Jackson’s Journal, a memoir-in-progress of my life’s spiritual journey.

Are you sitting down? You might want to.

I’ll wait.

I’m actually an ordained Southern Baptist minister.

I’ll wait for you to pick yourself up off the floor. I told you it might be best to sit for that news.

Although I haven’t “practiced” my pulpit skills for more than 10 years now, I do try to practice my faith in home, work and play, because that’s who I am even though I no longer tread the pastoral waters.

I’ve been wondering what the 2012 Jodie would say to the 2001 fire-and-brimstone Jodie. Probably something like, “Wow, you talked a lot about grace. Ever try showing any?”

My sister, Kathy, and I “played house” when we were little tykes, and I’ve used that experience as an analogy when I’ve seen city councils, school boards and other official entities just kind of go through the motions when it’s painfully obvious they’re clueless. I’ve seen numerous public bodies “play” board of aldermen or board of education or even State Senate and House of Representatives.

And not only have I witnessed people “play church,” I’ve perfected that charade myself. I know what it is to go through the motions, to sing the hymns, to say the prayers, to give the right answers to Bible study questions and to give the appearance of a fine little Christian Baptist. I learned by example. My first pastor — my father — taught me the importance of image.

On the other hand, I’ve been to the mountain top, spiritually speaking. I’ve personally learned and experienced the reality — not just the doctrine — of grace, and I think I know when my beliefs and faith are real and when they are just empty motions and emotions.

I’ve had some Hank Busche moments. Hank is the fictional pastor of the Ashton Community Church, a seemingly insignificant and divided group of believers at the epicenter of Frank Peretti’s 1986  novel, “This Present Darkness.” The book begins with two very tall visitors — both seven feet tall — entering the town of Ashton. Eventually they come to the church where Pastor Busche is kneeling in prayer. Alone.

It’s quickly evident that the visitors are angels and the description of sulfur-breathing, demonic beasts unsuccessfully trying to enter the church is vivid and inspiring. The two visitors enter, locate Hank Busche and watch and listen to his heart-rending prayer. As they stand over the kneeling prayer warrior, the room fills with white light that reveals floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall angels, while sentries with flaming swords stood outside.

From “This Present Darkness”

“And now the two men were brilliantly white, their former clothing transfigured by garments that seemed to burn with intensity. Their faces were bronzed and glowing, their eyes shone like fire, and each man wore a glistening golden belt from which hung a flashing sword. They placed their hands upon the shoulders of the young man and then, like a gracefully spreading canopy, silken, shimmering, nearly transparent membranes began to unfurl from their backs and shoulders and rise to meet and overlap above their heads, gently undulating in a spiritual wind.

Together they ministered peace to their young charge, and his many tears began to subside.”

I love the picture those words paint. The story is fiction, but the description of angels comforting and protecting a prayer warrior is one I’m sure I would have witnessed many times throughout my life had my eyes been able to see the spiritual, angelic realm. Over time I’ll tell you about some of the prayer warriors I’ve known and some that I’ve created, including Edna Mae Ferguson, the spiritual matriarch of Faithful Servants Assembly. It’s the little church in my fictional town of Silverdale, Kentucky, the setting for Chasing The Devil. With apologies to Peretti, Devil shares a few similarities with This Present Darkness, although the angels are unseen.

Now, let’s do this right, and end with a couple of songs.

Victory In Jesus  a la Gaither Homecoming crowd. I gotta tell you, I love classic rock, I love anything a cappella, and I love 70s and 80s pop (apparently I stopped listening to “modern” music around 1988). But THIS is my kind of music. Try not to be put off by the sheer “whiteness” of the Gaither crowd and if watching Bill Gaither sing makes you chuckle (although I don’t think he’s in this video), keep this in mind: if you’ve ever been part of a group (writers, singers, cupcake-bakers, whatever) and knew everyone else was far more talented, but you loved it anyway, well … that’s sort of Bill Gaither. It’s kind of like being on the B team and suddenly the A team asks you to suit up.

I’m a Bill Gaither fan, what can I say? Besides, he’s written some of the all-time classics.

And now a sacred rendition of the sacred classic, Amazing Grace.

Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone),  live performance by Chris Tomlin. (Make sure your volume is turned up).

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Filed under Inspiration, MIP: Memoir-in-progress, Old Time Religion

The Write Life: Setting as character

It’s Saturday, time for The Write Life, an exploration of words and the nuts and bolts of the writing craft. Guest posts and comments are strongly encouraged.

Setting as character

I simply have to learn how to use Dropbox. I’m constantly emailing myself notes and reminders. This week I had an epiphany about viewing my fiction’s setting as characters: alive and organic. Give the setting weight, make it an integral part of the story, not just an element that fits a novel-writing formula

I thought I was really on to something until I found this buffet of thoughts on “setting as character.”

I was especially struck by the last line: “The only question will be whether you use your setting consciously, or it uses you.”

I’ve tried to put some of these ideas into practice this week as I’ve honed, revised and forged ahead on my unfinished first draft of Chasing The Devil. I know my characters intimately, yet I don’t watch them in the bathroom. Sounds a bit awkward, I know, but the point is there are unseen elements in their lives. And that’s okay. They aren’t automatons. Robots. (That’s an idea someone else can pursue; it’s not my genre).

In the same way, I want to know some of my settings so intimately that they are alive, yet retain the shadows, nooks and crannies that make them complete — and more life-like. In my tiny hometown of Belle, Mo., the damp, dank areas between the buildings on main street (Alvarado Avenue/Highway 89) always caught my eye. When we lived above Faith Baptist Church – the old Dahms Hardware building that was infested with brown recluse spiders – one of those shaded, shadowy walkways separated Faith Baptist from the local newspaper, Tri-County Publications. The street-side entrance was through a brick archway and I always felt as cool and tough as James Dean when I went between those buildings.

And I like thinking about the nooks and crannies in the lives of Cole Davenport and Jamie Light, the primary protagonists in Chasing The Devil. I know 99 percent of all there is to know about them. Somehow it’s nice to know that there’s 1 percent – probably more – of mystery. Besides, it leaves room for my fictional creations to grow and develop.

I suppose there are dark alleys and breezeways in both characters and settings.

Here’s one attempt to create a setting as vivid as the characters. In this example, from the chapter “Missing Pieces,” the old house of Cole’s childhood seems to literally breathe. At least that’s the movement and presence I’m trying to create. Cole’s mind is tortured by empty, shapeless memories of something his parents and sister refuse to acknowledge, much less talk about.

I want the creaking floor to become so familiar to my readers that the mere mention of that setting triggers sights and sounds in your mind. (Let me know how I’m doing).

MISSING PIECES

(Chasing The Devil)

Every floor board in the house announced each approaching footstep, each closing door, and every stiff breeze that frequently blew across the flat expanse of Cole’s hometown. His mother complained that something was always “settling.”  The house wasn’t as old as it sounded, and until recently the predictable vibrations of something settling took Cole’s mind to a different time, a nostalgic trip to a more peaceful time. A time before the night-long nightmares began.

He read the sounds vividly and depended on the rattling from the China cabinet to announce the next person coming down the stairs. The importance of that announcement was incalculable when the teen-age Cole sat on the sofa with his high school sweetheart – with the lights off.

The staccato, high-pitch “ping” of the cream-colored gravy boat was a dead giveaway for his sister, Penny. The cabinet doors emitted a low, prolonged growl of sorts, sometimes barely perceptible, when his dead approached the top of the stairs. Now even that sensation slipped further away with each nightmare seizure. The missing pieces of memories cried out for exposure from the fog and static in Cole’s mind, and the mental chaos blocked the signature rattling. Now Cole felt like a stranger in the creaking, noisy house, sitting on the sofa, more like an unannounced houseguest, waiting for his dad to summon his mom from her bedroom. This time, he said to himself for the thousandth time, she’s going to tell me the truth.

Cole missed the China cabinet’s high-pitched pinging announcement that Penny was on her way downstairs. A shadow on the wall below the off-key musical bird clock was the giveaway that Penny was finished having another whispered conversation with their mother upstairs. His sister’s tired eyes were full of disappointment. It was a stinging look that Cole knew well.

“Cole, you’re such a moron.” His sister shook her head slowly. “You just can’t let it go.”

Next time Cole’s childhood home comes into the picture, I’m hoping you’ll “see” the sounds, and feel that the creaking floors are as important to the scene as the cacophony of misfiring synapses in Cole’s mind.

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Filed under Living Write, WIPs

Kianna’s story: Day 3 …

Relax. I’m not starting a daily recap of The Life of Kianna Allene Brown, although I’m sure my digital Journal here will occasionally offer incredible tales and recaps of milestone moments of her life – at least until she figures out what’s going on here and she learns to say, “Now Grandpa, don’t quote me on that.”

I’m not changing my focus because I have something better to write about, but the inspiration this little princess has poured into my heart will now be channeled toward completing two other works-in-progress, my unfinished novels “Chasing the Devil” and “Gone.” Jackson’s Journal, of course, will continue to occupy this section of Cyberspace. Look for a guest blog on Saturday by my friend and fellow fictionista Lamar Henderson.

And speaking of focus, I’ve had none this week. In fact, I’m sure I’ve had conversations and encounters with co-workers, friends and sources on my news beats that I can’t even remember. Today is Friday? Huh. The only day I remember this week was Wednesday. I’m pretty sure I’ve had a couple of bylines in the Tribune this week, but don’t ask me which stories bore my name.

As far as telling Kianna’s story, I can’t really do that, because she will write it herself – with the direction of Kishia and Darnell, of course. That was the 7 pound, 3 ounce epiphany that came to me when I held Kianna Thursday afternoon at Boone Hospital. As she snoozed peacefully, I wished hard that her eyes would open. I whispered, “There’s so much I want you to see.” The random images flashed through my mind: Sunsets. Coots diving into the mud at Eagle Bluffs. Meteor showers at 3 a.m. The glow that has radiated from Grammy since Wednesday. Any Pixar movie. The tears that come from her daddy’s eyes every time Kianna sounds the least bit uncomfortable or hungry. The first leaf buds of spring.

My wish list for Kianna is incredibly long and maybe, probably at some point, I’ll help her see some of life’s most wonderful sights. Maybe I’ll be the one who helps her figure out something that gives her an “Aha!” moment. I’m going to support others to share those unique moments with her. She’ll see most things, for a while, through her mommy’s and daddy’s eyes. They’ll be the ones who show her the way. Along the way, Kianna will discover that the greatest discoveries are made on her own. And if I’m the kind of Grandpa that I know I’m going to be, I’ll be anxious for Kianna to show me the wonders of life as she figures them out or stumbles onto them.

“Grandpa, did you see this? Grammy, look at that?”

And whatever this or that is, when we look through her eyes, it will be as if we’re seeing it for the first time.

That will be Kianna’s story – not what she learns from Grandpa, but what she teaches Grandpa.

Not how the world changes her – but how she changes the world.

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Filed under Family, Kianna Allene Brown