Dear Reader, What do you do with the unexpected?

IMG_7413Saturday morning I was moseying along when something jostled me, and my daily cup of morning coffee sloshed over the back of my hand.

I tried to hold on and salvage it–I mean, it was my COFFEE! My friend! My muse! My EVERYTHING!–before finally letting the cup drop to the ground.

But the damage was done. That coffee was hot. So hot, it melted off a full layer of skin without even bothering to blister it first.

And now I’m sidelined.

I can’t do anything with my hand that involves dirt or water, including gardening and the dishes (***wink, wink, dear husband!***). I’m feeling a bit like The Fugitive in my own home. Although laundry, unfortunately, can be done quite well with one arm.  Otherwise, it turns out that there’s a lot of daily activities that involve dirt and water. And even more in my work as a nurse.

Oh, it’ll heal in a week or two, but in the meantime, it’s annoying. In short…

…it’s throwing off my groove.

Has something like that ever happened to you? Something unexpected that forces you to slow down? To pause? To take a deep breath and be still?

Last evening, I wanted to spread mulch and pull weeds and get stuff done, but I couldn’t.

So I sat on our patio swing.

I took a deep breath.

Before long, my dog was swinging with me.

Then one son.

Then another.

The sun fell below the trees and the paper lamps began to glow. We lit a few torches to keep the mosquitoes away. I noticed lightning bugs. I heard the long, rhythmed sigh of cicadas. And I remembered:

It is good to be still.

Especially with the ones I love.

With all the busy-ness of back-to-school and life in general, finding time to savor the here-and-now feels counterculture. Unnerving. Weird.

But oh the peace of realizing not everything has to happen right. this. very. minute!

If I’ve learned anything about writing novels, it’s that the story will get written in its time. I struggled for a long time feeling like my words had to be perfect when I turn them in to my editors. Not that I want to give them crap, of course. But you see, I’ve been amazed time and time again as my manuscripts go through the editing process how–just when I think I’m either done or at my wit’s end–precisely the perfect anecdote or bit of factual setting information or visual that I need to make a section of the story shine “lands in my lap” at the very last minute. This even happened with the stone which appears on the cover of Then Sings My Soul.

These small gifts of thoughts and phrases happen in unforced spaces and unpredictable moments.

In the grace of the empty.

In the elusiveness of now.

Sometimes the predicaments we find ourselves in are precisely the quenching solutions God offers for places within us we haven’t even realized are parched.

Speaking of parched, here’s my injured hand and my ICE COLD DIET DR. PEPPER. It’s a poor substitute for my morning mud, but I’m still a little panicky over the thought of holding a hot cup of joe, so it’ll have to do… 

***  ***


What do you do with the unexpected, Dear Reader?

If you’ve been forced to the sidelines or to be still, what have you learned there?


Dear Reader is a series I post on every week. If you’re a reader and have an idea or question you’d like me to write about, relating to books or writing or editing, etc., jot me a note and I’d be much obliged to take a stab at your request. Also, if you’d like to read all the Dear Reader posts, click here. If you like insider information into my books or writing life, be sure to sign up for my author newsletter by clicking here.

Dear Reader: Tell me something I don’t know.

IMG_7413Last week, the local librarian raised her eyebrows as I approached the circulation desk with a stack of books up to my chin.

“Can I leave these here for a few?” I asked. “I gotta run downstairs to get some more.”

Thankfully, they have baskets to borrow too, for people like me.

My third novel, Lead Me Home, is in the thick of the editing process, which frees up my time to 1) get my teenagers back to school and 2) start my fourth book.

I’m not precisely sure what this fourth novel will be about–at least not enough to talk much about it yet. But I do know a few things, like setting (somewhere in Appalachia) and time (late 1940’s-50s).

The other day I was talking to a friend about this story.

“Have you ever been to Appalachia?”

I hesitated.

“I’ve driven through it on the way to the beach,” I replied.

To date, all of my books are set in vastly different times and locations. How Sweet the Sound was in rural, southwest coast Alabama. Then Sings My Soul had dual locations of Ukraine and South Haven, Michigan. Lead Me Home is set in my home state of Indiana. Some of these places I’ve been to, but (except for Lead Me Home), I’ve never spent more than a few days in any of them.

So no, I’ve never been to Appalachia.

And I wasn’t even a twinkle in anyone’s eye in the 1940’s/50s.

Sometimes I have a lot of fear and angst about writing about places I’ve never really lived. My greatest apprehension is that I won’t be able to do a place or a people justice, or that I’ll misrepresent them. When that happens, I rely on a lot of prayer…and my beloved editors.

So by and far, most of the information about the setting and places of my novels is from research.



The internet.

Phone interviews with locals.

Video documentaries.

And more books.

By the time it’s all said and done, setting becomes a sort of character of its own within my books. 

One of the most unexpected places I’ve discovered for great research is the juvenile section of the library. Often, I just need a nugget of information to spin a chapter or a scene, and the in-depth, “grown-up” books have too much information to sift through. But books targeted to elementary aged kiddos often have the basics, explained in basic ways.

Perfect stuff for a novelist.

Here’s the stack I came away with last week.

***  ***

As I type, I’m watching a three-disc documentary about Appalachia. Johnny Cash is crooning in my ear. Time-lapsed video of mist rising over and above the Blue Ridge Mountains catches my eye. Old photographs with the black eyes of people who lived generations ago stare at me from the screen and haunt me and I know…

…I have to tell a story.

I’m sure not every novelist does so much research. I’m sure James Michener did reams and reams more. No doubt, the amount of research depends on what each individual writer feels called to write.

As for me, now I know why it was so hard for me to choose a college major. I loved–and still love–learning about everything…biology, geology, politics, sociology, psychology, food, music, history, and did I mention food? The world is an amazing place.

Writing is an amazing way I get to keep on learning.

And to write about it, to boot.



What about you, dear reader?

Do you like research?

Did you like to do research when you were in school?

Would you rather read a history book or travel guide, or would you rather read a novel based on those things?

newsletterthanksDear Reader is a series I post on every week. If you’re a reader and have an idea or question you’d like me to write about, relating to books or writing or editing, etc., jot me a note and I’d be much obliged to take a stab at your request. Also, if you’d like to read all the Dear Reader posts, click here. If you like insider information into my books or writing life, be sure to sign up for my author newsletter by clicking here.

Dear reader, what do you crave?

IMG_7413Dear reader,

I grew up on fiction like All of a Kind Family, and The Borrowers, and Little House on the Prairie. I was so captivated by Laura Ingalls that I used to wear a mop cap to bed and a long dress during the day. I imagined being like the Mouse and the Motorcycle, zooming in and out of holes in the baseboards, drinking from a thimble and sleeping in a matchbox. That love of story transferred into writing poems and peculiar little stories, and then bigger stories, and then term papers and essays.

Somewhere along the line–possibly when I started having children of my own and could only squeeze in a few seconds of reading at a time before someone needed fed or woke from a nap–I switched from reading primarily fiction to nonfiction. For awhile, I lost a desire to read anything more than a devotion or chapter-length piece. That’s all I had time for, really.

When my youngest went off to first grade, I picked up my pen and started writing again. Even though I found myself writing nonfiction, at the same time I studied story knowing that words did no good if they didn’t captivate. I began to use concepts of storytelling in my work as a nurse to help patients retain important information about caring for chronic health conditions. I used principles of story when I wrote for newspapers and magazines.

And I realized with renewed fervor that the world spins with the energy of story.

I started devouring fiction again…Francine Rivers. Catherine Marshall. Ron Rash and Kaye Gibbons. Kathyrn Stockett and Barbara Kingsolver and Billie Letts and many, many, many more.

I have novels on my nightstand and in my car, on my floor and in the kitchen.

I have a list of over 200 hundred novels I want to read, and another hundred to add to that.

I can’t get enough story.

There are times in our lives–like when I was busy with three precious toddlers–when it’s really hard to read. Even when we do find the time, we fall asleep mid-paragraph because we’re exhausted. But at the end of the day, I believe we all crave story.

Facts and soundbites, memoir and rhetoric, tweets and posts are all well and good.

But if we’re really looking for the freedom that comes from dreaming of faraway lands and faraway hope, for the sort of truth that comes from a walk and not just a talk, then what we’re really looking for is story.



Triumph over chaos.

Not to mention the characters–oh, the characters!--like Jay Gatsby and Holden Caulfield, Holly Golightly and Scarlett O’Hara, Scout and The Cat in the Hat, Frog and Toad, Dr. Zhivago and Peter Pan, Aslan and Anna Karenina and Charlotte the Spider and Wilbur the Pig and Winn Dixie and Skeeter and so many more who are each imagined by one and brought to life by the hundreds of thousands who read them.

What do you think about story, dear reader?

Do you prefer fiction over nonfiction?

Do you agree with what John Cheever says, below?

What’s your favorite story?