W is for Worry

Holy MultiplicationWorrying is a familiar pastime for most of us today and has been shared over the centuries by men and women alike. In my Women of the Bible series I incorporated this common human characteristic into each of the women. After she becomes a slave Rebekah worries that she will spend her whole life in bondage. Johanna worries that with the miscarriage of their child her husband, Simon Peter, will divorce her for being barren. Miriam worries that she cannot be both mother and father to her son, John Mark, after the death of her husband, Ezra. Mary worries for the safety of her son, Jesus, when they escape to Egypt.

Each woman, like us, worries and focuses on the events in front of her, not able to see beyond the present challenge. She broods about it. She only speaks about her heartache if those around her force the issue. Her worries become fears that control her thoughts and behavior until she finally encounters Jesus.

These meetings turn into what psychologists call “pattern interrupts” for each of them. He listens to them, seeking out and examining what concerns are driving each one in her own direction. When he speaks to them his words and his attitude of loving acceptance for all that is grant each one a perspective of timelessness. In the process they each surrender the quality of worry for some other quality that produces both inner peace and altered actions. Even Mary feels this from the young Jesus when she needs it the most.

In the four gospels, we read about Jesus’ life. They each tell us that when Jesus felt tired, when he was at a low ebb, when he worried about the future he faced, he prayed.

Each of my stories is an example of this transformative power of prayer. Our prayers may not remove the source of our worries, but they can, should and often do “reframe” that which we worry about to permit answers that may have eluded us before.

V is for Vanity

Vanity is generally defined as excessive pride in one’s appearance, achievements and qualities. As such, it can be viewed as an expression of one’s ego, that part of us that yearns to assert our uniqueness and our valu-Vanity - dog in the mirrore. Vanity might be considered as the triumph of image over substance. In Catholicism vanity is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, a quality so destructive as to condemn us to damnation unless we overcome it.

I chose to make vanity an essential characteristic of various characters in my “Women of the Bible” series. For example, in Rebekah Redeemed Rebekah’s aunt Mara, with whom Rebekah went to live, thought only of herself and her own needs and wants. In Mary’s Exile, Herod is known throughout his kingdom for his paranoid compulsion to eliminate any who would deprive him of his power or glory. History tells us that he was so focused on himself and his position that he ordered his own wife and son killed to protect his throne.

By using characters who are pictures of vanity in my stories I can show the great contrast between that kind of thinking and behavior and what Jesus reflected. He enters each story through what characters say about him when they hear him teach, and when my main characters meet him they have a universal experience of someone of divine carriage and poise. Through this I can begin to reveal his character as I see it. As each story unfolds I can then demonstrate Jesus’ impact through the subsequent behavior of and consequences to my main characters.

The message in every one of these stories is similar: That we are all bound to each other, that we are all accountable to God for what we do in spite of the forces we believe are “making us” do it, that life lived in service to others is the most reliable and enjoyable way of defeating vanity with spirit.

If my stories touch my readers this way then I am content.

U is for Unusual

bigstock_Fisherman_240621When I started writing my Women of the Bible series, it was unusual to find books about little-known women mentioned in the Bible. (I guess that’s why they were “little-known.”) The idea for The Fisherman’s Wife came from the gospels of  Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Each one mentions in one verse that Jesus went to Simon Peter’s house and that Simon’s mother-in-law was ill. Jesus healed her and she served them. Like many other people, I read this story for years before realizing the clear implication: Simon Peter had a wife.

I immediately realized that I knew nothing about her, not even her name. Nor could I find anything Roman roaddefinitive anywhere about who she was, where she came from or what her life was like. From studying Catholic sources of church history I found out only three things: that she and Simon Peter had a daughter, that she often accompanied Simon Peter when he travelled, and that she was crucified with her husband in Rome.

So I started by I asking myself these questions:

– Given how and where Simon Peter grew up, where was his wife most likely from?

– Knowing what I do about Peter from what I read in the scriptures and in other sources, what might it have been like to be married to a man like him?

– What kind of life events might most likely cause chronic and heartbreaking stress for a first-century Jewish woman and her husband?

– What would it feel like to have an unknown rabbi come to my village and take my husband away with him  and leaving us to fend for ourselves?

– What would I think when this rabbi unexpectedly came back with my husband, my brother-in-law and a dozen or so of their close friends and wanted to stay with us?

– What would I do when hundreds of people crowded inside and around our house trying to see Jesus and refused to leave?

– What might this rabbi do to convince me that he was the prophesied Messiah?

– What would I say when I met Jesus face to face?

– How would I come to terms with this new rabbi and his teachings?

I soon saw that there were a number of ways to answer these questions. Some were so “usual” as to be trite, even hackneyed, and those answers, I knew, would not tell the story that I felt squirming around in my head.

So I took a chance. I reached for something “UN-usual.”

The squirming stopped.

T is for Transcendence

first century homeI chose the subjects and circumstances for these stories to make them examples of transcendence. I illustrated this transcendence in two ways. The first was  transcendence in time – the sequence of act and consequence that defines the path of the story. The second was the transcendence in Jesus’ relationship with the women he encountered. Rebekah, Johanna, Miriam and Mary are all faced with challenges in their lives that they experience as too overwhelming to handle by themselves. There may be other characters in the stories trying to comfort and support them, but they each feel deserted, defeated and alone. Even when they cry out to Yahweh, His lack of immediate relief for their distress feels to them as if He doesn’t hear them.

It is when they cannot understand what to do next that Jesus comes to them. In each case he first listensLet the Children Come to MeCarl Vogel von Vogelstein, 1805 to them. He empathizes with their emotional stresses. He accepts their descriptions of their circumstances. He responds with compassion, with clarity, and with a point of view different from the one they each seized upon. He gives each one exactly what is necessary in the deepest part of her soul to continue with courage, strength and gentle joy.

To transcend anything is, for me, to rise above it, to climb to some higher vantage point that allows a person to see what was hidden from the lower vantage point of life’s daily travail.

The story is told of a small party of adventurers hacking their way through a dense jungle. Tired, hungry and blistered they come to a clearing. As they rest they hear a helicopter approach. It lands, and one of the party climbs aboard. When the helicopter rises the adventurer can see many things: hills, streams, villages and, in the distance, the mountain that he knows intuitively is their goal. He also sees, about one hundred yards from the trail they had been hacking and running parallel to it, an asphalt road. When the helicopter lands again, the adventurer takes his party, turns ninety degrees, and hacks the short distance to the roadway.

This, to me, is transcendence.

S is for Set-up

book - pencil writingI have a plan for the Women of the Bible series even though I’m not an outliner. Some writers never type a word without a completed outline. Others are what we call “pantsters” -writing by the seat of our pants – developing the story as it comes out on the screen in front of us.

I began writing as more of an organic/pantster writer, but as I’ve written more books I have developed an appreciation for what an outline can add. Now I have a combination that works for me, a little from both the structured and the unstructured worlds. I start out writing organizally first, as the story just flows out of me, and then I use a story board to keep myself organized. If I need to keep my timeline straight then I include a “work-in-progress” outline as part of the process.

Setting up my stories is more than just adapting a structure. I put my characters into situations where they face physical and spiritual crises in their lives, reach a point of realization that they cannot solve it themselves, arrive at the end of their rope, and then encounter Jesus. The whole story up to that point has been set up so that the reader experiences the character’s circumstances as they unfold, identifies with the character’s frustrations and disappointments, and then walks with the character through a change of heart after she talks one-on-one with Jesus.

My own point of view about Christianity is not particularly dogmatic. The value I have found in following a Christian path is that life events that might otherwise be enraging, defeating or terrifying become spiritual lessons which, when learned, make me a better person – to my family, to my friends, to my readers and to my God. But I also know that anyone can follow such a path, we only need to make the choice. Consequently, I write my stories from a Judeo/Christian perspective, but I try to do it in a way that will appeal to any reader of any conviction.

So when I set my stories up I’m not aiming at converting my readers to Christianity in any of its forms. It’s nice if that happens, but it isn’t my goal or purpose.

My true goal is to tell stories that define and resolve spiritual dilemmas in ways that parallel what we know about the words and the message of Jesus.

R is for Respect

Christ with Mary and Martha Henryk SemiradskyIn some ways the women’s world of the first-century hasn’t changed. I know that some of you who read this will disagree, and I never expect universal agreement with any of my views, but when it comes to “respect for women” it’s hard to deny the truth of the proposition that women today must still put up with a lot of disrespect from men, from governments, even from other women.

For me, respect is a lynchpin of relationships, whether it is between me and a friend, me and my husband, me and my children, or between me and my God. Without getting into etymology or philosophy, I will put it simply like this: If I feel heard then I can assume there is respect for me in another person. A lack of respect between and among people is the fountain from which injustice springs.

The first-century women I write about lived in a world where women were little more than property. The Fishermans Wife - full coverUnder Jewish law, the marriage contract at that time did commit a husband to provide food and shelter for his wife. However, he could divorce her if she could not give him children. Her family was expected to provide a dowry to “sweeten the deal.” In some cases a woman could inherit, but it was usually tied to a minor son. A woman had some rights under Jewish law that women in the surrounding cultures did not have, but that should not be confused with whether they received actual respect. Much like today, some men had great respect for their women, most did not, and the penalties for exhibiting contempt for a woman were episodic and capricious. It was generally regarded as a greater crime for a man to come between another man and his wife than it was for the other man to do to his wife whatever required such an intervention.

When Jesus began teaching he included women in his inner circle, which was counter to his culture and religion. He spoke directly to women; and, just as important, he listened to them and gave weight to their words. In short, he treated them as equals. He made no differentiation between men and women when it came to his message of how to live with one other.

It is subtle, and it actually takes up very little of each storyline, but Jesus’ respect for women is a central message of every story I write.

Q is for Qualities

Jesus Preaching the Sermon on the Mount Gustave DoreI have favorite characters that I admire in the bible. What makes me admire them is the qualities of their personalities. Writing Christian and historical fiction gives me access to real people, some with admirable qualities and some with twisted and sinister qualities, but the characters that I develop from small clues offer a chance to use each person as an example of  the qualities that I want represented in my stories.

Jesus possessed certain qualities that are both well-known and common to almost all characterizations: compassion, forgiveness and self-sacrifice. What I want to do in my stories is focus on qualities that aren’t usually mentioned.

I focus on two qualities that I believe Jesus must have had in order to perform the miracles that he did: intelligence and insight.

As a human being, Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a small village of craftsmen in Galilee. He was not highly educated in a contemporary sense, but he was a rabbi, a teacher, so he was educated in Judaism – the Torah and the Law of Moses. On the other hand we tend to take it for granted that the “God” dimension of him created the universe. We can’t be sure how much the “human” dimension consciously knew or when he knew it, but in the nature of what he accomplished we see that he must have been extraordinarily intelligent.

We see his insightfulness by how he perceives and interacts with other people in the scriptures. Often with just a word, and sometimes with just a look into their eyes, he captures the essence of individuals with whom he comes in contact, reading their hearts, capturing their pain, defining their turmoil, liberating their unique holiness.

In his encounters with my main characters, Jesus talks to them empathetically about whatever disturbs, limits or incapacitates them. He blesses them not only with physical healing but also with a change of heart – a change of viewpoint and a change in how they live their lives.

These qualities have grown and expanded to fill many people in the world, and it’s interesting to me how many of us can spot them by the words they speak, by the examples they set, and by the hearts they touch.

P is for Power

Dianne 2In previous blogs I’ve discussed the development of my series main characters. In each case Rebekah, Johanna, Miriam, and Mary underwent a metamorphosis. While Mary’s was somewhat different from the other women because her experience with Jesus was daily from the time he was born, she learned from being with him and observing him with Joseph and those they encountered. My other characters were touched in more subtle ways and in briefer contacts.

Each woman was portrayed in life circumstances that left her feeling powerless and out of control. She wanted answers. She wanted certainty. She wanted relief from the agony of the present.

In their encounters with Jesus he not only spoke to them but he also listened to them. He felt what they felt, and they came away from those encounters feeling healed – physically, mentally, and spiritually. They felt full of life and powerful enough to live it.

To feel powerless is to feel victimized. We all feel victimized when we feel as if we have no choice, and all of my main characters start with this feeling. Instead of being “at cause” in their circumstances, they all felt “at effect” in them: that their actions were determined by the environemnts in which they lived.

In this sense they are like all of us today: products of the winds and whims that produce us and bring us hence. Very few of us seize our lives as products of our own making. It is easier, and it involves far less responsibility, if we can blame our plights on circumstances of others’ making.

One of the most crucial – and under-appreciated – of Jesus’ messages was that we are all responsible for our own beliefs and for our own experiences of life. We may not be responsible for what life hands us, but we are all responsible for what we do with it.

In my opinion Jesus didn’t promise a trouble-free life if we followed him and his path. What he did promise was that following his path would make this life worthwhile, and that in following his path our spirits would live forever.

O is for Omission

The Fishermans Wife - full coverTo continue along the same vein as yesterday’s blog about writing economically, there are times when fiction writers say too much about a subject. It’s actually easier to write a longer piece than a short one. Mark Twain once apologized for the length of a letter he’d written, saying, “If I’d had the time I would have written it shorter.”

The keys to writing a novella are:

– What to include

– What to exclude

– What really constitutes the story

About three years after my book The Fisherman’s Wife came out, another book with the same title appeared. It was written by a Catholic nun. In her first chapter she describes her main character as being the mother of the Messiah, in heaven, sitting on a throne of gold which was decorated with jewels. This kind of worldly wealth is common in Catholic depictions of heaven – at least according to my husband, who was raised in the Catholic church – and it is certainly the author’s prerogative to incorporate such imagery. However, from my viewpoint such worldly wealth is meaningless to God, and in this particular example the author’s use of this imagery added bulk to her book without adding readability or impact. In the process, her version of the story grew to over 260 pages.

Since my novellas are based on both Judaism and Christianity and the characters are initially placed in Jewish communities, I have a different take on their frames of mind. Research reveals that most first-century Jews didn’t believe in an afterlife. It also reveals that Jewish girls growing up, both then and now, do not spend a lot of time thinking about being chosen as the mother of the Messiah.

So there are at least two versions of The Fisherman’s Wife, one a novel and the other, my book, a novella. Both authors made choices on what to include and what to leave out. In both cases these choices defined the story and either illuminated or obfuscated the point.

I intentionally leave out controversial subjects and eliminate all the usual stories when I develop an idea. I want to create something new and look at what I see as more subtle facets of who and what Jesus was to women of his time and what he is to women today. By omitting what is in other stories and what has been told before, I am able to tell a story of what it might be like for me to encounter Jesus in my own garden.

N is for Novella vs Novel

ruins-in-capernaum-x1Why write a novella instead of a novel?

The facile answer is that telling a story in so short a space is a real challenge for a writer. For an author, writing a novella is to a novel what tatting lace is to weaving blankets: part of the telling is what’s not there.

Ironically, in writing about first-century topics we find either a wealth of information or a dearth of information. With that in mind, that leaves me developing novellas with a great deal to invent and a great deal deduced. I have to fit what I create into what is already known, and I have to do it in a way that says something new. Many novelists have told and retold familiar stories of well-known women of the Bible. My approach to writing novellas is to tell unusual stories about little-known women in the Bible that don’t ignore, retell, or reinterpret what is in scripture.

I choose for my main characters women who encounter Jesus personally. The challenge in developing them is keeping them consistent with Judaism in their initial attitudes, behavior and results and then shifting those attitudes, behaviors and results after they encounter Jesus. The shift I describe needs to be consistent with generally accepted Christian principles.

All of my main characters meet with frustration because what they believe influences what they do and creates results that they don’t want. They try to change what they have first and it doesn’t work. Even today – 2,000 years later – we, ourselves, try to change things we have thinking that it will make a difference in who we are. Jesus changes who they are first, and that makes all the difference in their lives.

The challenge of the novella is to illustrate this process in 120 pages.