Would you like to know how an author researches for upcoming novels?
I’m writing the third novel in the Single Again series. The cool thing is—my thirteen-year-old daughter is a brilliant writer for her age and is constructing her first novella at the same time. In March, we worked on character development and chapter summaries. In April, I wrote the story so I could submit the first draft to my critique group for May.
Polarized Love starts with a try-hard reporter, Bethany Michaels, who throws up on an American Navy chaplain during the Rottnest Island Ferry ride. That’s one way to create a love interest. Don’t you think?
Check out my quick YouTube video of our island trip and meet a Quokka.
Chapter One Sneak Peek
Bethany Michaels couldn’t believe she just threw up on the Navy officer’s polished shoes. She clung to the Rottnest ferry’s rail willing no more stomach convulsions. Thank goodness, she’d only had coffee that morning. Minimal damage to report.
Slowly, she raised her head to the smooth tones of an American voice.
“Y’all right, Miss?” Deep brown eyes found hers, offering consolation.
His Navy buddy behind him retrieved a handful of paper napkins from his backpack and handed them to his friend. Onlookers stared, some with empathy, others with disgusted frowns. One Japanese woman covered her mouth, cringed at the mess, and slunk to the back of the cabin.
It’s seasickness, not a disease, lady.
Bethany blinked in slow motion. If only she could lie down somewhere soft. The man before her came into focus again. He steadied her other arm. His aftershave and whispers of salted air swirled around her.
He handed her the napkins. As she wiped her lips, she mumbled, “Thank you—and I’m so sorry.” She pulled from his hold, kneeled to the fiberglass floor, and swiped the saliva concoction from his black steel cap boots.
“Ma’am. I’m fine.” He touched her shoulder. “Please, come sit down.”
As he helped her up, his gaze lowered from her eyes to her lips and onto her chest. Typical sleazebag. Like the friend behind him, who had checked her out earlier.
“That’s a lovely cross you have there.” The stranger’s drawn-out words sung in her ears.
Bethany clutched at her necklace. “Oh, yes. This is very special to me.”
He straightened to his full six-foot-frame. “For its spiritual significance or as a gift from someone special?”
She furrowed her brow. Asking questions was usually her role as a struggling reporter, longing for a break in the news industry. Despite the turn-off with retching on his shoes, this sailor must be desperate for female company. Bethany wouldn’t buy into anything—aware of his type.
“Yes. I’m a Christian—one that believes in the whole Bible. Including abstinence until marriage.” Her face heated. What had she said? Way too much information. Maybe he was only being friendly.
The man chuckled. “That’s admirable. Not many women I meet at port confess such moral standards.” His laugh lines relaxed. “I’m the Navy chaplain. And I hold the same beliefs.”
The flush on her face must be tomato red by now. “Oh my—I do apologize, sir. I thought you were—” She eyed past his shoulder to the sailor seated on the metal bench, tapping his phone screen.
“Unfortunately, our reputation in Fremantle isn’t that . . . upstanding. The American Navy sure finds Australian women desirable. I try to keep them in line, but usually there’s a few counseling sessions once we leave port. Married men, I mean—guilt-ridden.” A hint of sadness flickered in his expression.
A swish of waves from a passing speed boat had her clutching the rail again. He held her free arm. “Miss, you should sit. Let me get you some water.” He led her to the bench, near the other sailor, then strode away.
His friend glanced at her with a lop-sided grin. “Trouble with your sea legs, ma’am?”
She forced a smile. The acid in her throat still stung. Bethany turned toward the staircase. The chaplain’s stocky legs pounded the stairs and disappeared to the drink and snacks canteen on level one. She didn’t want to be left alone with his buddy too long.
“I’m Officer McKillip. But call me, Wally.” He offered a peppermint Tic Tac.
Bethany squinted at the offer. Did her breath stink? How embarrassing. She took two mints from the container and nodded. “Nice to meet you.”
Crunching on the candy, she scanned the cabin, relieved most people were preoccupied and had stopped staring—all except an old Italian woman wearing dark sunglasses. The lady probably thought the tint hid her eyes well enough. Or maybe she didn’t care and found the scene before her entertaining.
“And you are?” Wally interrupted her thoughts.
Why couldn’t she bring herself to have a basic conversation with this guy? Her father, the old-schooled pastor, had raised her with strict instruction on etiquette, and made her greet congregation members at their little fellowship in Fremantle. The code of conduct ingrained into her psyche like fingerprints. But, the high school memories flashed in her mind—the ones of the sailors coming into port, taking over the streets, hanging arms from the pub windows, and whistling at her, even in a school uniform. More bile rose to her throat. She wouldn’t throw up on this sailor too—would she?
Polarized Love will also feature Cassie and Chris from book one, More Than A Second Chance. They make a come back as Bethany becomes a volunteer at Youth Connect.
Dancing out of the ashes
In my last article, “Why Fiction?”, I mentioned that many of my stories are inspired by the people. Ordinary people who have endured hardship, overcome difficult life battles, or have had extraordinary things happen to them. They are brave in my eyes. Yes, they still wear the scars of their battles, but they keep moving on. Their faith is stronger and their relationships have a tighter bond. That is what makes them inspiring.
When the story began to form in my mind for “Dance and Be Glad”, a friend from high school was sharing on Facebook about her life as a widow. It was only her second or third year and in some of the posts, her pain was tangible. Then she would share about how the relationship she was in had become a healing balm. His tenderness for her hurting heart only drew her to him more. Their lives spurred the storyline to showcase that one can find love again and how it could bring forth more blessings than the lives they had before.
Around the same time, another friend who had been through the same loss had been posting about her previous husband who died in Afghanistan just months after they married. My heart for those who serve in the military and their families waiting back home made it easy to choose this path for Jillian in the story.
I messaged both women, shared with them how their stories of the loss and restoration inspired me. I told them my plan and asked if I could tell their stories in an “off the beaten path” way and they agreed without hesitation. “I am tired of reading the stereotypes,” one said to me. “Make me proud.” So I asked as many questions I could think of in an effort to get it right. Some of them where hard to answer, some of the things shred just stayed between us, but I stayed as true to these women. God had moved in a mighty way in the lives of my friends. He brought gladness out of their mourning and set their feet to dancing (yes, that is a song lyric.).
The thing I love about fiction is that it reflects real life. Our pains, our joys, our struggles, and our successes all can be viewed on the pages of the books we read. Some of it is raw and ugly, but I think it can soften our own rough edges and make us a little more compassionate.
Redemption, restoration, and rejoicing stories that give us hope that the Master wants the best for His creation. These are the kind of stories we enjoy.
Fiction in a time of COVID
I’m an introvert by nature. I love quiet days at home with a book and a cup of hot chocolate. But after fifty days of quarantine, even this introvert is getting a little restless.
A few days ago, I was struggling with my writing. I’m in the midst of revising book three in my Hollywood romance series, and I was stuck. I couldn’t find the motivation to keep going. With everything going on around us, with the world in lockdown, people struggling with illness, other people losing their jobs, why was I working on a fictional story? What good could it possibly do?
As I prayed about it, I remembered the story of the widow who brought an offering of two copper coins to the Temple. Next to the Pharisee who made a large donation, her small offering didn’t seem like much to the people watching. But Jesus saw it. Jesus saw this widow who brought all she had and offered it to God. Jesus wasn’t impressed with the Pharisee who gave out of his excess. He commended the widow who brought all she had and offered it to God.
We all have something to bring to God. The world may try to make our offerings feel insignificant, but there is nothing insignificant in the hands of God. It’s easy to feel like our small acts of kindness, our acts of service aren’t making a difference. What is sewing one mask, or bringing a can of corn to a food drive, or writing a book in the face of a global pandemic? How much of a difference will it make?
To God, it makes an eternal difference. We don’t know what God did with the widow’s two coins, and we don’t know what God will do with one can of corn, or one face mask, or one book. When we bring what we have to God and let Him use it, miracles happen.
I’m not a scientist. I’m not a doctor. I’m a writer. My words are what I have to bring. Maybe they are small, copper words about a fictional family in Hollywood, but that is my offering. In the midst of sadness, fear, and anxiety, my stories are what I have to give. It might be small, but for someone who needs a bit of good news, a dash of love, and a reminder of God’s unfailing love, it might be huge. My task is to bring what I have to God and let Him decide what to do with it.
No Plan B
For as long as I can remember, being a writer was the plan. I never imagined the outcome, or what it would look like to be “a writer,” but according to years of journaling, writing was my number one goal.
Besides being rich and famous, or maybe a teacher. Yeah, I know, one of those things is not like the others.
After college, I landed a corporate job, traveling around the country, as well as internationally, installing computer systems for newspapers and training the staff. I was not a techie by any stretch of the imagination, but I loved seeing the world. (I don’t think we even used the term “techie” in the ‘80s.)
While on the road, I read and journaled, and still told people I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I just wasn’t sure I had anything to say yet.
I married in the early ‘90s and soon after felt a tug from God to quit my job. We bought a PC, very cutting-edge technology in those days, and I read a lot of the new Christian fiction.
One day a character walked across my imagination and a story was born.
I spent two years writing and rewriting an epic WWII novel that lives in my heart to this day. While the story and writing had many weaknesses, there is a magic in my first effort I’m not sure I’ve ever recreated.
But the path to fulfilling my dream was not straightforward. I ended up back in the corporate world. First part-time, then full-time, then as a project manager and product expert.
Working fifty hours a week, along with ministry obligations, didn’t leave a lot of time for writing. I loved the business world, I had a head for it, and I wondered if I wasn’t called to a more traditional career. If writing was nothing more than a pipe dream. Something to pursue once I retired from my “real” job.
To be honest, I didn’t believe in myself. I’d been encouraged by my parents, my college professors, and several published novelists, but I still didn’t believe I had what it took to break through my daydreams to do the real, hard work of becoming a published author.
Through a writer’s conference, I met an author who took me under her wing. When her publisher agreed to a co-write, with me doing all the work, I landed my first book contract.
It was small. Very little money. The book was part of a monthly book club with no shelf life.
But I was a published author.
I had lofty ideas about my start in publishing. Saw myself making a big splash, but God had a different beginning in mind.
Meanwhile, my corporate job was going well. I was making good money. Had insurance and a 401K.
Yet in the early 2000s as technology advanced, businesses began to refine their processes. Less people were needed to get the job done. Every time our little company lost an employee, they weren’t replaced.
Then we had a few lay-offs with whispers of more to come. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, I wondered what else I could do to “make a living.” Besides writing of course.
Basically, I wanted a Plan B. A regular paycheck with flexible hours. But I had a book contract. I was attending conferences, learning and networking. I had an agent. Why was I thinking of beauty school when writing was all I ever wanted? And it was knocking on my door.
In the summer of ’04, my husband and I took a leap of faith. I quit my job to write fulltime, cutting our household income by two-thirds.
We chose Plan A. For me to be a full-time writer. If this was my dream, why was I complicating it with a Plan B?
As long as there’s a backup plan, I’d have an excuse. A reason not to sit down and face the blank page. A reason not to give myself to the business of publishing and the craft of writing.
Plan B is good if you’re Indiana Jones trapped in a cave full of snakes. But as a way to achieve your dream, Plan B just might turn into Plan Never.
When I quit, I had two contracts worth a grand total of five thousand dollars. And I’ve never looked back.
Sixteen years later, I have over 1.3 million books in print. I’m a New York Times bestselling author. My books have landed on the USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly, EPCA, and CBA bestseller lists. I’ve won awards. Been given a Lifetime Achievement.
All because I tossed Plan B and gave everything to Plan A.
As with all jobs, there are days I’d love to do something else. But when I hold a book in my hand, or hear from a reader, or meet new characters, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt I’m doing exactly what I was made to do.
The Heart of Story
I love when authors say they always knew they wanted to be an author. It’s fascinating how some people know from an early age what they were meant to become. I was not one of those people, and I’m not the only one. Recently, I learned one of my favorite historical authors also had no idea she wanted to be an author. (Talking about you, Erica Vetsch.)
Finding interesting facts and coincidences is a favorite pastime. Hope you don’t mind if I share. With all the current craziness in our world, I’ve found myself reading more author interviews and even managing to catch a zoom chat with some of my favorite authors…like Rachel Hauck. I’ll mention her later. I found something she and I have in common too!
No matter where or when your writing journey begins, it’s a trek you’ll never forget.
And you’re never alone. Unless you want to be. Can’t say I recommend that. It’s terrible lonely.
When I first started writing, I was the only human involved in the process. I’d have given up a long time ago if I didn’t finally reach out to some writing groups and start building a small circle of author friends. I highly recommend having writing friends. And reading friends. Not only do you learn, but you have people you can go to when those frustrating days just won’t let up. I’m getting off track. Hang on, let me steer this train back toward the station.
Speaking of writers and authors, I’ve often wondered at the distinction. The words are synonymous, but there seems to be a difference. I was a writer even though I only recently became an author. My personal thought is that the moment you decide to create anything written, you become a writer. From that first word, you have entered a new world filled with possibilities.
I’ve been reading since a very young age, and I would look at all the marvelous books on my shelf, wondering how they did it.
Four years ago, all that changed. To take a line from How the Grinch Stole Christmas “It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags”. What I mean is, I didn’t have notebooks filled with stories, only a single idea that kept me awake at night and distracted during the day. Every spare minute was suddenly spent writing. Lunch break: writing. Late nights: writing. Trying to sleep: not writing, but the story kept playing in my head like a broken record.
It wasn’t until I’d published a few books that my dad said, “Well, in school, you were always writing something. Makes sense you’d be an author.”
I’d forgotten all about writing in school until he brought it up. Now, it all made sense. Those first few years, I thought maybe I’d gone off the deep end by deciding to write books. Admittedly, I still feel like I might have turned a rogue left somewhere on a twisty mountain passage and now I’m hanging on for dear life while trying to see where this road is taking me.
My favorite class, of course, was the one where my English teacher gave the class writing prompts and let us go wild writing stories. Most of the time, she would give us a title and leave the rest for our interpretation. Titles like The Sugar Bowl Spilled the Beans and An Oregon Trail Diary. Best assignments ever. Imagine my surprise the next year when a different English teacher only cared about having us diagram sentences. Yuck.
I even remember the first story I ever wrote that wasn’t part of a school assignment. In fact, I bet if you ask my mom, she still has it hidden away in a drawer somewhere. I found it once about ten years ago buried among years of hand-written birthday cards, report cards, and old school assignments.
It all started with a love for horses. Isn’t that the beginning of so many wonderful things? Here’s where I get to mention Rachel Hauck. While watching a Zoom meeting with her and David Rawlings, he asked something about the first book she wrote. Her answer: I wrote the required ten-year-old girl horse story. It’s a given. All little girls want horses, and this was my way of having a horse. This was a live Zoom meeting, y’all, and it was all I could do to keep from shouting, “I did the same thing!” I was doing some serious fangirling during that meeting. I should have showed up with a list of questions. Instead, I sat there with a goofy look on my face the entire time. And David Rawlings recorded the whole thing. I bet you could find it on his page. It was such a fun meeting.
So. Yeah. Horses.
One of my first memories is of being tossed into the saddle and handed the reins. I wasn’t even in school yet. I rode to the neighbor’s house and back again. The rest, as they say, is history. From that moment, I was hooked. I grew up reading every horse book I could get my hands on. Characters from The Saddle Club, Thoroughbred, Heartland, and anything else with a horse on the cover, would be devoured. I read charts on horse breeds, personalities, abilities. Anything. Everything.
I suppose it comes as no surprise that the first story I ever wrote was about a horse.
My sister loved it so much, she convinced me and a friend of hers to make it into a play. We practiced for a week or so, getting our parts just right. We even included one of our horses in the action. He was less than impressed, but he did his part.
I’ve never forgotten that story. Just the part where I had so much fun writing it. I’ve considered writing it again as a young adult novel. I can see the pitch now. The Boxcar Children meets The Black Stallion. Three young orphans rescue an abused racehorse, only to find out he’s been stolen from his rightful owners. It will take grit and fortitude for this trio to stay ahead of the thieves and return the hero of the races to his place among the rich and famous.
Needless to say, I never outgrew horses. They show up in almost every book I write.
There’s one that stands out among the rest. Macy’s Dream has horses left, right, and center. Writing it brought back so many memories. Times me and my dad rode our horses together were few and far between, and the memories are bittersweet as I never knew our last ride together would be our last ride together. Circumstances and illness forced us to sell our horses a few years ago, and we both keenly feel the loss.
What rose from the ashes of that loss, was the start of my writing career.
While cleaning out the barn, scrubbing tack so it could be sold, I stopped to take a few pictures (because I also harbor a photography obsession and I’m often taking pictures of things that seem meaningless). One specific photo stood out. As I lined our old saddles up on our empty stall doors, I knew it was the end of a legacy. The end of our era for riding and the closing of a door that might never open again.
Macy’s Dream is the result of that loss. Through story, I was able to keep alive some of the memories we’ve made as a family. The book is entirely fictional, but the heart of who we are as a family made its way onto the pages.
In this time of turmoil and strife, remember that beauty rises from the ashes, and you are never alone.