Last night I went to the Reading Group at my local library, clutching the book I'd read over the previous month, the name and author of which I shan't reveal, because almost everyone at the group hated it. I personally enjoyed it, not because it was great literature, which it wasn't, but because it was a cracking romp, with believable settings even though the characters were somewhat less fully explored. At the end was an author's note explaining how she had discovered many of the incidents in the novel, which were based on true stories, and how she had researched the field and period. Which brings me to my topic for today: research.
It may just be me, but it seems to me that every author these days is expected to do detailed research for her work, not just if it is historical fiction or non-fiction, but for almost anything she writes. A historical error will have readers rising from their armchairs in rebellion, and slating what may in other ways be a good book.
I really don't get this research thing. Jane Austen never did research: she wrote about what she knew, which used to be the advice given to all writers. George Eliot did research, into Jewish culture and history, but it resulted in her weakest novel, Daniel Deronda. And knowing that the author of my book club book had carefully researched her setting and based many of the episodes on history, did not enhance my enjoyment of the book at all - it just made me think less of the author, who had clearly not had enough imagination to make up stories of her own.
Do you, fellow Christian writer, do research for your work? I can understand the need if you are writing historical fiction - Hilary Mantel clearly did a lot of research into the Tudor period to write Wolf Hall and its sequel. But strangely enough, their most compelling aspect is not any careful evocation of the Tudor domestic or political scene, but the workings of Thomas Cromwell's mind, which are clearly invented and could not be found in any archives.
As I suggested last month, a good novel is a great deal more than its plot and setting - and beware above of all of trying to write a novel with a message, even if it's cunningly concealed in a different time and place. You may say that C S Lewis' Narnia series have a 'message' about salvation, but he never lets it dominate the story; I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as an agnostic child, and had no clue there were any Christian themes in it!
I hope you will forgive me, as a non-fiction writer (but a great reader of fiction) for giving advice to those who practice the noble art of storytelling, I just think 'research' is highly overrated as a part of the writer's process. And if your heart sinks at the idea of digging into 15th century or even 1950s history, there is always a solution: write fantasy or sci-fi. In other words, make it up!
Veronica Zundel is a freelance writer whose latest book is Everything
I know about God, I've learned from being a parent (BRF 2013). She also
writes a column for Woman Alive magazine, and Bible notes for BRF's New
Daylight. Veronica used to belong to what was, before it closed, the
only non-conservative, English
speaking Mennonite church in the UK, and is currently playing at being a
high Anglican. She also blogs (rather occasionally!) at
Thursday, 19 April 2018
Wednesday, 18 April 2018
I confess that I am a card-carrying member of Control-Freaks Anonymous. Planning and organising is in my blood. If there is a holiday imminent, I have lists that cover every conceivable possibility. I teach part time and, when I leave school on the last day the week, I like to have everything in place for the first day of the week that follows. On long journeys, I leave at least an hour extra to cover all possibilities relating to breakdown and deviation from my route (I have an innate distrust of Satellite Navigation, which, in my limited experience, has an irritating tendency to announce – albeit in dulcet, Irish tones - that I have reached my destination, whilst I find myself abandoned in the middle of an industrial estate in no way representing my destination at all). Fortunately, opposites attract, and my non-planning spontaneous-action husband keeps me on the right side of the organised-neurotic line – most of the time anyway.
I have the same approach to life. I try to look relaxed, feigning indifference if I am not in possession of all the re-assuring information I need for the next step on my life’s journey. But inside, my mind is framing possibilities and dangers, decisions and consequences, wishing I knew more clearly what my life might look like next month, next year, ten years from now. I am at my best when I have a plan and a contingency plan and a ‘back-up if the contingency plan doesn’t work’ plan. I confess to wishing that Jesus had cut short his high-altitude sermon in favour of storm-taming or something else urgent, before he uttered the words “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” (Matt 6 v 34). I don’t think I’m the only one who finds this a hard command to follow. Spontaneously stepping out of boats, Peter-style, either real or metaphorical just isn’t my style.
I’ve learnt enough from my not-quite-four-decades, however, to know that, sometimes, stepping out of boats is exactly what’s required. I have done this recently, handing in my resignation at work, after a month or so of procrastination and prayer, whilst still not being entirely clear about what comes next. Not being a natural ‘water-walker’ I am heartened by the gospel writer’s account of the Jesus-and-Peter aquatic incident. “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down.” Matthew 14 v 28-32 (NIV).
I like the text addition in the New King James Version – “O you of little faith.” I like to imagine Jesus uttering this, not in a cross and disappointed tone, but gently, with a knowing smile playing across his lips. Or that he deliberately chose the literary technique of apostrophe, conventionally used to address the absent or inanimate, thereby not expecting a reply. By implication, then, Jesus was not berating Peter or asking him for an explanation for his ‘failure’ – just watching and knowing and kindly lifting him from the precarious waters his step of faith had found him in. Is it a stretch to infer from this that, even if it all goes horribly wrong and the ‘what next’ doesn’t go as I hope it will, there is still a rescuing and a lifting and the possibility of a gentle smile that communicates a Fatherly joy that I tried at all?
What does this mean for our writing? It’s good to have a plan and a back up plan, vision and long-term goals, even if, like me at present, they simply consist of ‘make sure you write the monthly blog post,’ ‘find more time for writing,’ and ‘don’t chicken out of getting on the train to the Scargill Weekend.’ For others, the goals will be bigger and scarier and involve article pitches, publishers, marketing initiatives. Wherever you are on your journey, don’t lose sight, amongst the lists and plans, of the God who called you to step out of the boat in the first place. Remember, as you ride the waves of smudged ink and blank pages, to ignore the doubt and fear that crowds in and, instead, follow the voice of the One who smiles and watches, stretching out His hand, ready to catch and rescue, the moment they threaten to overwhelm.
Tuesday, 17 April 2018
|This photo of me with my mum was taken quite a few years ago, |
when she could still travel to stay with us.
My mum has been a member of ACW in the past – the first ACW day I went to I had my mum alongside me, and the committee were brilliant at ensuring we had a disabled parking space and looking after us generally throughout the day.
These days, my mum spends all her time sitting on her sofa, mainly attached to oxygen. Her life is slowly but surely ebbing away, and it is sad to recognise that she is no longer able to enjoy the creative outlets of writing and painting, which gave her so much pleasure (although she loves to see how her granddaughter – my daughter – has taken up both).
My mum wrote poetry – copious amounts of it. She never sat down to purposefully craft them – they just seemed to flow at certain times and she had to stop and get them down. I always encouraged her to try and do something with them – perhaps create collections or at least submit some to magazines – but that never happened.
I’ve just come back from spending a few days with her, and one of the things we had set aside time to do was get me to work through her poems, in order to find one suitable for her funeral. It was an excruciatingly painful – but also beautiful – process.
Afterwards, I reflected on the importance of honouring my mum’s creative side in her funeral, and it made me recognise how well we all support and honour one another within ACW. Here are just a few ways we do just that:
* Providing encouragement, banter – and excuses for cheesecake and other delightful delicacies – in the Facebook group
* Being part of launch groups and / or giving each other’s new projects a big shout out on social media
* Hosting and writing guest blogs for one another’s websites
* Buying, reading and posting reviews of one another’s books
* Attending book launches where possible
I also know that in smaller groups there are critiques of each other’s work going on. I try to call on ACW members when writing articles that I think some of you can contribute to.
It is such an encouragement and blessing to be part of a group that champions one another so well; people seem genuinely pleased when one member has a breakthrough with a project.
Can I say thanks – and encourage us all to keep going?
Is there a way you can honour someone else’s writing today?
I want to honour my mum, Sue Keir, today. I have been blown away by her talent yet again while reading through her work.
Here is a poem she wrote back in 2008:
More like Jesus
It’s too big;
It’s too big;
Can I really attain it?
Will I really become just like You?
All that I’ve strived for,
I’ll truly become?
Each day of my life,
I’ve longed to become
More like Jesus.
But each day of my life
I’ve failed, fallen down.
Joined in that gossip,
Said those words in anger.
Yet deep in my heart,
I have always longed
To be like my Saviour.
And now You’ve revealed
That’s what awaits me.
Your name on my forehead;
Your thoughts in my head.
I shall truly be like Him,
When I see Him face to face.
What a joy to anticipate,
What glory to reach out for.
To live for the rest of my life,
Knowing that my stumbles here,
Will one day be transformed.
And I will shine with glory too,
And reign with You forever.
Monday, 16 April 2018
I’m new to the More Than Writers blog, so I thought I would take the opportunity to tell a little of my writing story – which is very much part of my wider story.
I’ve always been drawn to words. When I was small, I wrote short stories on scrappy bits of paper I found lying round the house. At eight, I wrote a whole book in a notebook about a girl who defeated a terrifying group of goblins who lived, for some inexplicable reason, under the River Dove. I showed it to my teacher and she told me that one day I would be an author.
It took me a long time to come close to realising that goal, which has long been a desire in me, but lay dormant for many years. I stopped writing when I started a career in teaching, and when a chronic lung condition degenerated rapidly I stopped ‘doing’ much at all. For a long time, I struggled with my identity, which was so very bound up in stuff I did. God worked in me in such grace and I came to understand that my identity was firm in God, not in what I could offer or how I could be of use. As my condition worsened, my life became narrower.
The writing bug never left, and a few years ago it seized hold of me anew, filling me with passion and far too many late-night ideas. I scribbled them down and began writing a Young Adult trilogy which lies somewhere between The Hunger Games and Nothing to Envy. That one is still a work in progress – I sent the first book to a few agents, had some encouraging replies and requests for full manuscripts, but nothing further. I tried not to let the rejections get me down too much (let’s face it, rejections really do suck) and carried on.
That’s when I felt God was calling me to write a book for the Christian market. God spoke to me clearly (that doesn’t usually happen!) about putting the other stuff aside for a time and concentrating on this book. I wanted to write about contentment, because people told me I couldn’t possibly be contented in a life like mine, where some days I am confined to bed, weeping in pain. I’d read the apostle Paul’s statement that he’d learned the secret of being content in all circumstances, and wondered what that could mean, knowing he wrote this from a prison cell. I looked around and saw so many of us struggling in our lives – with pain, with fear, with anxiety, with grief. I longed to explore what it meant to ‘be content in Christ’ in the realities we live in. So the idea for Catching Contentment was born. It will be published later this year by IVP. My prayer is that it will encourage people who are living in the ambiguity of present suffering while knowing Jesus has come to bring life in all its fullness.
One of the best parts of my journey has been joining the Association of Christian Writers, as I have met people in this group who have been incredibly supportive, and discovered some wonderful reading material written by other writers here.
That’s a little of my writing story so far – I look forward to sharing more about writing, faith and life in general, and finding out more about you!
Saturday, 14 April 2018
We say that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. I have been trying to imagine what this is like…
I have always enjoyed watching the waxing and waning of the moon, and during Lent I have wondered what it was like for Jesus to watch the moon change from a new moon to the Passover moon, being fully aware of the cosmic countdown. I can imagine that he looked up at the moon, both when he said that his time had not yet come and when he finally announced that he was about to be betrayed and killed. The sun darkened for three hours during his crucifixion, but did Jesus see any signs of the rebirth of the cosmos when he looked up to heaven after his resurrection?
While sorting out my artwork this week, I came across a few pieces I had forgotten about – what a pleasant surprise to discover what my hands had made some years ago! I ask myself when and how Jesus first realized that he was the creator of the moon and the stars above and of the earth beneath his feet – and of the human beings who sometimes were his friends, at other times his enemies and often indifferent or unaware of his existence.
From the apostle John we learn that Jesus was actively involved in the creation of everything that exists in the universe – I like the way “The Voice” translation puts it: “His speech shaped the entire cosmos… all things that exist were birthed in Him.” (John 1, verse 3) Notice that Jesus did not have to get his hands dirty – Jesus just had to speak the word and it was done!
When I create anything, it is obvious. I used to joke that I did not expect my hands to ever look clean throughout the time I spent in art college… I imagine that when Jesus worked as a carpenter, he too got his hands dirty at times.
Even if I wanted to, I do not have the option to become part of my creations and try to fix anything I am concerned about from the inside. I also need raw materials to create anything in the first place, whereas Jesus can speak matter into existence.
My experience, power and comprehension are so limited – and I am not sure that I would make the same choices as Jesus if I had his abilities and capabilities. To protect myself from hurt and disappointment, I often step back or walk away.
Yet Jesus did not stay detached from his creation. He immersed himself fully in it, experiencing both the joys and pains of human existence. He allowed himself to be touched and tortured, both physically and emotionally.
Jesus, fully human, yet also fully divine. In my attempts to grasp some of the mystery, I have been left with more questions than answers…
About the author: Susanne Irving is the co-ordinator for the Creative Communicators in Petersfield. She has co-written a book with her husband John about their experiences when climbing Kilimanjaro. It is aimed at both trekkers and those who are going through a dark time in their lives. How to conquer a mountain: Kilimanjaro lessons is available as a paperback and an e-book on Amazon, with all proceeds going to charity. The German translation Wie man einen Berg bezwingt: Was der Kilimanjaro uns gelehrt hat was published in June 2017.
Thursday, 12 April 2018
By Rosemary Johnson, who, as ACW Competition Manager, reminds you of the ongoing ACW Journalism Competition, which is free to members. More information on the ACW website.
- I was going to share with you that writing the novel I'm writing at the moment is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life, and explain why.
- I was going to to draft this post last Sunday, in Chelmsford, while I was waiting for the Chelmsford Cathedral services to start. (My husband and the choir from our church in Earls Colne were leading the Cathedral services last Sunday, so I had a little time to kill while they rehearsed.) I took my iPad into Starbucks, but I have to confess I worked on The Novel instead. There were things I needed get in there, before I lost them. In Starbucks, I felt comfortable, relaxed and able concentrate very well, despite loud conversations going on all around me. I had access to toilets and wifi which worked and no members of staff hassled me, even though I purchased only one medium Americano and sat at my table for an hour and a half.
- I was going to report back on what was on sale on the Chelmsford Cathedral Bookshop, and, in fact, I took a few photos of it, showing how tiny children’s booklets had pride of place (on the bottom shelf, where, perhaps, little hands can reach?) One of my pics shows that our ACW president, Adrian Plass’s The Sacred Diary, as the most thumbed book. Is this a compliment or not? I was going to make a comment on how some customers use bookstalls as libraries, and to reference Lynda Alsford’s Facebook post about people expecting to receive a free copy of her book from her. I also made a mental note to read Catherine Fox, whose books, on display in Chelmsford, have been recommended to me by an ACW member.
As you can see, Dear Reader, I haven’t developed any of these ideas. Life has come in the way. Over the last few days, I’ve been babysitting my grandchildren. I was hoping for a quiet hour or two, during this week, to compose this post, but, here I am, writing it the day before my slot, while they’re at the swings… and we’re experiencing a power cut at home.
A few months ago, when I was whinging about not having enough time to write The Novel, a very good friend from ACW advised me to seize upon the short slots of time in my life – anywhere, anyhow - and use them to write. I’m trying very hard to do this, and I'm making slow progress, which is better than no progress. Baby steps. Baby everything at the moment.
…I'm here again, at twenty past nine, two and a half hours before this blog post is due. I tried to complete it immediately after lunch, when the power came back on, but my computer froze and refused to do anything, so I got my granddaughter up from her nap, played with her and made both children’s tea.
As John Lennon said, "Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans." The fact is the other things we do in our lives matter just as much. God’s plan is not necessarily our plan.
Rosemary Johnson has had many short stories published, in print and online, amongst other places, The Copperfield Review, Circa and Every Day Fiction. In real life, she is a part-time IT tutor, living in Suffolk with her husband and cat. Her cat supports her writing by sitting on her keyboard and deleting large portions of text.
What happens when I take the fact that God loves you seriously.
Once upon a time, I was in a church that was untidy. It was untidy in the sense that it wasn’t a slick operation. The PA didn’t always work, the worship team focused more on enthusiasm and willingness than musical ability, and there was usually something that happened in the service to remind everyone that this was not a performance or entertainment, but part of the community of God coming together.
It was a good church.
Churches, like families, have a way of forcing us into confronting the best and worst in ourselves, and others. We see all the weaknesses and failings in those around us, just as they see these things in us. This can be especially true when people have to work together in teams, serving on committees and organising events.
But even as we engage with people in the church we know very well that these are our brothers and sisters in Christ. These are people who Jesus died for, and we want to acknowledge that. These are our neighbours, who we are commanded to love as we love ourselves, and we want to acknowledge that as well. This high calling for the way we engage with each other creates a tension that I am sure God intended. We are required not just to work with the people around us and to put up with the things we don’t like about them, but also to value them, cherish them, bear with them, and love them. It’s not good enough to have a derisory or dismissive opinion of those around us. It won’t do to hide behind the tasks we do or the surface chatter of church. If we’re serious about this stuff we are forced to confront the issue of how we relate to those we naturally get on with, and those we don’t.
But doing this comes at a cost. We have to sacrifice our own opinions, viewpoints, and judgements in favour of the divine perspective. Something valuable, the critical faculty we apply to the world and the people around us, has to be subordinated to God’s view of things. It’s a painful process, but if we persevere and let something of ourselves die for God, he gives us something better. In this case that something is the ability to see those around us from God’s point of view. We are gifted with a new perception of the person, and we enter into a new relationship with those around us; as a result, all sorts of unlikely and wonderful friendships can spring up.
The nature of these relationships as they manifest across the church is beautifully expressed by the Psalmist:
How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!
It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore.
Psalm 133 vv1-4 (NIV)
For writers, there is an extra benefit to achieving this new perspective. We are not only blessed in life, we also gain an additional insight into our work. We can now present relationships that have reached this state with more authenticity. We have a blueprint from real life to show how the most unlikely characters can work through division and misunderstanding to a deeper place of peace. We can still present all of the struggles, and all of the challenges, but we now have an idea of what life on the other side of that struggle really looks like; and in presenting this we can give hope and encouragement to others who also working out how to get to that place of precious unity.