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.

M is for Mark: John Mark

MiriamsRoom_ebook coverThe third book in my Women of the Bible series, Miriam’s Room, is a story not only about Miriam but also about her son, John Mark.

We don’t know much about Miriam, but from Josephus and early church records I found that her home was a gathering place for followers of Jesus. Some sources say that her home was the location of the “upper room” where Jesus and his disciples ate the last supper.Israel_0440-Jewish_Neighborhood_Jerusalem

What we know about John Mark is that he was the author of the gospel of Mark “as told to him by the apostle Peter.” Since Simon Peter was a fisherman, it makes sense that he probably didn’t have much education other than what was required by his religion. According to historical sources, John Mark spent some time with Peter and the disciples during Jesus’ ministry, but from what I could gather he would have only been there for some of the later events. In essence, Mark’s gospel tells Peter’s perspective of Jesus.

These were the clues on which I based Miriam’s Room and intertwined the lives of John Mark and his mother with Biblical and historical events. In this book, my main character is from a higher social class than Rebekah or Johanna, the main characters in books one and two of this series. I expanded Miriam’s character well beyond the skimpy reference in scripture to explain and dramatize how Jesus came to use her “upper room” for his last meal with the apostles. Miriam’s relationship with her husband and with John Mark allowed me to add depth to the story and to broaden the appeal to the reader.

Instead of just a women’s story, Miriam’s Room is a young man’s coming of age story, as well. When Jesus reaches Miriam, John Mark feels the touch.

L is for Love

christ_in_the_house_of_martha_and_maryOver the past several years I’ve studied Judaism and spent a lot of time thinking about the similarities to and differences with Christianity.

It is a matter of historical record that from the time of Jesus’ ministry until over 300 years into the early church those who believed in and followed Jesus’ teachings were considered a sect of Judaism. We both have the same roots.

When I write my Women of the Bible books, my stories take place in a Jewish society influenced by the Hellenistic world around them and ruled by the Roman Empire. Jesus and his disciples were practicing Jews. They studied the Torah. They went to the temple in Jerusalem for the required festivals and to make their sacrifices. They followed the laws, customs and traditions of Judaism. The God the Jews in the first-century worshiped was a jealous god who showed his anger to his people when they sinned. He was viewed as spiteful and vengeful, and he could and would strike them down individually or in groups even though the Israelites were his “chosen” people. God demanded obedience to his laws.

To keep from “angering” God, the priests of Judaism – mainly from the Levite tribe  – went well beyond the ten commandments handed down to Moses, contriving, writing down and enforcing 620 laws, or mitzvahs, that the Jewish people were expected to follow. These mitzvahs were like warning tracks in baseball, maintained so that the Jewish people would not approach the actual violation of the commandments. Judaism became very legalistic after Moses.

The teachings of Jesus essentially attempted to convince the Jewish people that this version of God was incorrect, that God was as loving to his creations as a (normal) earthly father was to his own children.

In my stories I attempt to show this love in a number of dimensions, such as:

– The love of a mother for her child

– The love of a wife for her husband

– The love of a woman for her God

When you read about Jesus and how he treated people in the scriptures, it is evident that he treated both men and women with equal compassion and love. Jesus taught the women along with his male followers.

My attempt to capture this sense of egalitarian love should, I hope, give all of us a hint about how to think of and treat each other in our contemporary world.

K is for Kinesthetic: Hitting the Heart

Jesus_Curses_Fig_Tree_JamesMy readers tell me that my stories create significant emotional impact. This is intentional. When I write historical fiction, it’s not just an exercise in relating facts and describing people. The ideas that grow into stories are based in history and in Biblical incidents, but they are about real people experiencing real life and doing real things with real consequences. The issues I raise in the telling are meant to be timeless. My self-imposed challenge is to make the situations and feelings that my characters experience as familiar as those of contemporary women.

Each book in the Women of the Bible series explores a key issue of faith for a woman of first-century Palestine and how it shaped her life. I chose to put each central character in different circumstances in which she could make choices and decisions for herself within her social, political and religious boundaries. These issues, I’m sorry to say, aren’t that much different for women today.

The issues and the things that are most important to me and other women I know are featured in my characters. I imagine my characters as real people who experience love, loss, loneliness, motherhood, anticipation and excitement for new life circumstances, disappointment, frustrated ambitions, despair, over-commitment and exhaustion, fear of change and hope for something better.

The biggest difference between the way I write historical novels and general Christian historical fiction is that in my novels each woman has a one-on-one conversation with Christ. While Jesus is not a main character in any of my books, he is the main message. His interactions may be subtle, but my overriding intention is to show how each woman is changed after the encounter.

This change is captured in a change of feeling – a change of heart – for both my character and, I hope, my reader.

J is for Jerusalem

* I was sick this weekend and missed posting on time yesterday. Therefore, my Saturday, April 11th post is appearing this evening and I will be back on track in the morning with “K”.

bigstock-Ancient-Jerusalem--40647358Continuing with how I research and write my stories, it’s a challenge to picture what first-century Jerusalem looked like. The city we see today has been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the centuries. Archeological sites that peel away the layers of history are found in and around Jerusalem, and each site leaves clues to its time period.

Churches and memorials have been built over traditional religious sites not only for Jews but also for Christians and Muslims. One well-known place we have access to today is the Western Wall – the Wailing Wall – which is part of Herod’s Temple foundation. This is all that is left of the Temple that stood during Jesus’ time but which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.  The Temple Mount is still there and is now dominated by the Dome of the Rock.

The Old City is surrounded by the ancient city wall which has been demolished and rebuilt over the centuries and roughly encloses what was King Harod’s city. Tourists visit Jerusalem and its Holy places for the three major religions, but it is very different from the streets that first-century Judeans walked.

These differences create an extra challenge when writing about Jerusalem of the first century so I didn’t contaminate the past with the present.

The research I relied on most were maps and drawings of the city of Jerusalem and the surrounding area at the time period 5 B.C. to 35A.D. which I found in various books and online resources. I studied drawings of Herod’s Temple as well as maps of the city showing important buildings and gates. Once again, I looked at hundreds of photographs, drawings and paintings of the city, the Kidron valley and the Mount of Olives. One of the most helpful resources was a collection of pictures of a model built for tourists showing first-century Jerusalem. I studied these pictures for hours and then made basic sketches of my own as I laid out parts of the storylines to be sure that I had everything right, including the compass directions.

After that comes the hard part, because then I have to remember where everything is on the map in the city as I develop the story.

Call me obsessed, but I believe that when any of us writes historical fiction it needs to be as accurate with the geographic, historic and climatic parts of the story as if we’re writing nonfiction or it isn’t believable. The Mediterranean Sea has to remain to the West of Jerusalem and the sun has to come up in the east

I is for Inspired Mother: Mary

Nativity-Scene-300x196     Before I wrote Mary’s Exile the idea of writing a story about the mother of Christ was intimidating. In Christendom she is considered a saint, sinless, and above all other women – qualities I obviously lack. It’s much easier for me to write stories about women like myself – full of flaws who grow through experiences and who find strength, wisdom and healing in the message of Christ.

It was Mary who was visited by an archangel with a message directly from God telling her that she would bear his son, the long-awaited Messiah. Scriptures tell us of her humble acceptance and the challenges she met in telling her parents, her betrothed (Joseph), the rabbi and others. Under the religious laws of the time she could have been stoned to death, but she avoids this fate through what was probably some level of divine intervention. Instead she goes on to bear and raise a child who is not exactly like everyone else’s little boy in the village of Nazareth.

As always, for me, the storyline began with questions:

– What might it be like for Mary when Joseph woke her in the middle of the night and said they had to leave right away to save their son’s life?

– How could they escape Bethlehem without being seen?

– Wouldn’t their neighbors with sons of their own realize that Joseph and Mary were missing?

– If I were trying to save the life of my own baby boy, wouldn’t I be tempted to offer the soldiers the real object of their search if they would let my own son live?

– If I did attempt such a bargain then how could Mary, Joseph and the baby avoid the trap?

Then there is the question of what comes next. The Sinai is vast. It could take weeks to reach Egypt traveling across it even if they rode the entire distance. What might have happened to Mary and her family on the way?

When I thought about what it was like raising a son of my own I remembered him and his friends as toddlers. Mary’s experience with Jesus as an infant and toddler could have been similar. On the other hand, Jesus the toddler might also show important differences from other children his age. What worked for me was to create a “toddler Jesus” who frolicked like other children, who was bright, inquisitive and carefree like other children, but who displayed a passive power that affected others without Jesus consciously intending to do it.

That decision affected how I should describe Mary. To create consistency between mother and child I decided to portray Mary as protective, determined, strong-willed, and brave, yet gentle, nurturing, and accepting. (I know: these qualities, alone, should make her a saint.) On a spiritual level she knew that she and Joseph were chosen to be the parents of God’s child, but this spiritual certainty did not completely erase her practical concerns as a mother. She occasionally doubts herself when problems seem insurmountable. She worries. She sacrifices. She protects. She considers the effects of her decisions on the well-being of her child. Through it all she can never completely free herself of the suspicion that her child knows a great deal more about why he is here and what his path should be than she does.

I developed her relationship with Joseph as affectionate and trusting, but I also thought it was important to have them share Joseph’s subtle sense of humor. When only one partner in a relationship has a sense of humor the frequent result is contempt from the other partner. By creating two people with similar outlooks I was free to explore how that humor might bond them together, and I was also able to weave it through the story to break up the tension of their pursuit.

The result is, I hope, a more captivating story.

Book Award Season

I know it’s been a long time since you’ve heard from me. Due to some medical challenges, I had to put books, blogs, and all things writing on hold for awhile. However, I’m doing much better and see that book awards are in the headlines. Writing contest deadlines loom close as others lure us into new competitions we may not have entered before. Good luck to all of you who are writers!

What that means to readers is lists of new award winning books to read. Always exciting! Especially if you’re snowed in like they were in Boston not long ago. Even in Texas, we’ve had our snow storms this year — waking up to 12″ of snow on the ground!

I have a favor to ask. My book, Miriam’s Room, is a nominee for Christian Fiction Book of the Year from Small Presses and Publishing for the Historical fiction category. I’d be grateful if you have time to vote for it at  http://www.christianpublishers.net/15votes/  Scroll down the page to the Historical fiction section. Thank you for your support and most of all for reading my books.