You never know whom God will send to answer your prayer…
In 1950, my mother, Mary Lula Edwards, traveled by train with her two children from Plattsburgh, NY, to visit her mother in Montgomery, Alabama, and then back again. We were on our way back home when catastrophe struck.
I was three and my baby brother Andrew was about 2 months old. Along with having to hold my hand, my mother had to carry the baby on a kind of heavy blue cotton pillowcase equipped with straps, keep track of her purse, a diaper bag and our luggage, all at once. It’s probably no wonder that, when alighting from a taxicab, she forgot to retrieve her purse and was left standing on a New York City sidewalk in front of Grand Central Station, holding tightly to two small children without train tickets or a penny to her name.
My memories of the situation are fuzzy, but the story has been repeated so often, I can see her standing on the pavement with tears in her eyes, murmuring a prayer. The baby was crying and I was tugging on her hand, whimpering. My father was in Plattsburgh, almost 300 miles north. It was dusk, and the train home had already left. The crowd surged around her. She had no idea what to do.
Just as she was at the end of her rope, she heard a voice. “Hello, Mrs. Edwards!” It was Mr. Mose Ginsberg, owner of Ginsberg’s Department Store in our home town. She had only met Mr. Ginsberg when she and Daddy bought furniture at the store, but at that moment, he was home and family and safe harbor, all rolled into one.
She explained our situation and Mr. Ginsberg, even though he was in a hurry, loaned her $100 in cash (a princely sum in those days) to get home. Out of all the thousands of people on the sidewalks of New York that evening, to have kindly Mr. Ginsberg appear is, in my opinion, a true miracle.
That night, we stayed at a very modest NYC hotel—I remember being fascinated because the bathtub was right there in the room—and took the train to Plattsburgh in the morning.
Upon our arrival, my dad went downtown to Ginsberg’s Furniture to repay the loan and extend his fervent thanks.
Many people would say, "What are the odds of meeting a friend among millions of people in downtown New York City?" But odds have nothing to do with it when God is involved.
The story of how Mr. Ginsberg was our answer to prayer became firmly fixed in the Edwards family lore.
(In my research, I learned that ours was not the only story of Mr. Ginsberg’s kindness. He was a revered Adirondack institution until his death in 1974 at the age of 95.)
God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. Hebrews 6:10
As a child, I like to tell my children, I really did walk to grade school through hip-deep snow. (The fact that the school was only a block away and the sidewalks were usually well-shoveled is beside the point.)
In graduate school, the terrible hardship continued: I didn’t have a car. (Very few students did.) I was on a careful budget and worked as a dormitory counselor for my room, board and tuition.
I had a good friend, Susan Gillespie, a fellow counselor in the same dorm. We quickly became friends, dining together, sharing our life stories, commiserating over our jobs and discussing our respective Christian walks. Susan was one of the first people I told when I learned that my precious grandmother, the first person ever to share the Gospel with me, was seriously ill in the hospital. My mother had flown in to care for her, I learned, and she told me that Grandmother needed a good bed jacket. Would I buy one and bring it when I came to visit this weekend?
As soon as she heard, Susan insisted I use her car to go to the Mall. She knew how important Grandmother was to me. It was an extremely generous gesture. My friend was the proud owner of a lovely little blue Ford Thunderbird hardtop, back when they were really cool.
Don’t worry, I’m fully insured,” Susan had assured me casually, but I was determined to justify her trust in me. So it was carefully, carefully that I backed the little car out of the parking spot. I was a model driver as I made my way to the nearby shopping center. It was located on a fairly steep hill, so when I found a parking place, I carefully engaged the parking brake before climbing out of the car.
Bed jackets aren’t common items, and it took me quite a while to find a suitable one. All the while, my mind went over the last time I’d seen my grandmother, out on her sidewalk, sweeping vigorously, humming a hymn. It was hard to think of her as anything but strong and busy, laughing and praying.
I was wondering if my choice would please her eye as I left the Mall and proceeded to the shiny blue Thunderbird not far away. Slipping into the seat, I put the key into the ignition, but it wouldn’t turn, no matter how hard I tried. “Oh, no,” I thought, “maybe I left the door ajar or the headlights on or something. Maybe the battery is dead. Oh, no!” What to do?
I had noticed a service station on the edge of the Mall parking lot. Could I limp the car over there? Maybe they could help me get it going. I only hoped it didn’t cost too much.
I disengaged the brake and managed to force the wheel in the direction of the gas station.
As it rolled slowly down the hill, I glanced at the empty passenger seat. It contained two thick geology books and an umbrella. Susan was a speech and hearing major. Why would she have these books in her car? Come to think of it, I didn’t remember seeing an umbrella before…
Uh, oh, maybe I had made a mistake…
I braked to a stop, pulled out the key and began hastily gathering my belongings when a frowning young woman pulled the door open. “Um,” I said. Quickly, I exchanged places with her. “I got in the wrong car,” I called meekly after her as she started the car and drove hastily away without giving me a backward glance.
I was shaking as I looked around and spotted the car’s blue twin, parked where I left it.
Sure enough, the key worked. I drove back to the dorm even more carefully than before, but as I drove, the humor of the situation dawned on me, and I couldn’t wait to tell Grandmother all about it.
She would certainly laugh, but she, of all people, would also notice the personal spiritual parallel, because she knew all about what I had recently learned, only a few months before.
For most of my young life, I’d been trying to drive around under my own steam and be a good person by my own virtue and well-intentioned efforts. It was a kind of religion, a pale, ineffective version of Christianity. I believed who Christ was and revered God, but somehow I just couldn’t see the point. As time went by, I became more self-seeking, more selfish, and definitely more miserable.
Not until a friend explained to me certain concepts (the same ones that my grandmother had been telling me for years) did it sink in: nothing I could do would make me good enough for Heaven, nothing.
There was a huge gap between me and God, cause by my lack of perfection. The only, the absolutely only, way I could bridge that gap was through Jesus. His death paid the debt I owed for my sin and His rising again proved who He was.
I’d been coasting along in the wrong car. Even though the two cars closely resembled one another, only one car would really work.
Once I embraced Christ’s sacrifice for me, the first person I told was my Grandmother.
First, the good news: if you’ve written a book that is really good and is well-edited and you are determined to get published, chances are you will.
The bad news is: it might take you a long time.
Publishers, those shadowy, god-like creatures with the power to grant your ultimate goal--putting your book in the hands of the readers--have long been, as the King of Siam might put it, a puzzlementto us writers.
Here are a few things I’ve learned from my experiences in being published:
1) There is probably a publisher out there for every kind of book. The trick is to find the one that fits yours. The Internet is making this job of matchmaking much easier than in the past. I got the name of the folks who published my first full-length novel from an online writer’s list, where we shared experiences with each other via email. A woman who wrote stuff like mine said she was about to be published by a small publisher I hadn’t heard of. I sought out their website, took down the relevant info, and made the contact.
2) Read your contract carefully and don’t hesitate to ask for changes that you deem important. Now, nobody actually pulled the wool over my eyes, but I did find that there were a few things I hadn’t thought about before signing on the dotted line. For instance, my book contract specified that publication would take place within one year of receipt of the fully corrected and approved manuscript. Hey, no problem, I thought, I’ll get it back to them in minutes. I forgot that they had possession of the manuscript and I couldn’t make any suggested corrections until they sent the suggestions and the manuscript back to me. That took a year, which was frustrating.
3) Sometimes, it pays to take advice. I had obeyed the number one rule of submission and made sure my book was exactly as the books tell you (double-spaced, spelling checked, etc.) and edited as well as possible before I submitted, and the publisher complimented me on that. However, they had a couple of corrections that they considered necessary.
Initially, I bristled, but since I was a first-timer, decided to bow to their advice. The first item was a slang reference they thought might be offensive. (I had a character say, “Chinese fire drill,” which I had never, ever thought of as racist.) Okay, I thought, that’s easily changed.
The other problem was that Lily, one of my secondary characters, was a smoker.
“Oh, come on,” I said to their letter on the computer screen, “It’s part of her personality! If she stops smoking, she won’t be Lily. Or maybe she will…” My imagination started percolating, and brewed up a much better idea: Lily would be quitting smoking, using jelly beans, carrot sticks, toothpicks, anything to put down her cravings. It turned out to be a much more amusing personality quirk. I was glad I listened to the editor.
4) Okay, you’ve signed a contract and are waiting for your book to be born. Don’t waste time twiddling your thumbs; apply those digits to your keyboard and write something else.
In the two years before my mystery finally appeared in print, I wrote a novella in a totally different genre that was published and went into its second printing. (“The Applesauce War,” in the anthology Harvest Home, published by Barbour Books.) Time is precious in the writing biz.
5) Be prepared to do your own promotion. These days, not even the big publishing houses are spending much on promotion (except, of course, if you’re Steven King) so it’s up to you.
If you can afford it, go to every book convention on the planet. If you are so disposed and can swing it, get a slot on a panel, or give a talk and entice the potential readers by your personality and charm. (Handy hint: use humor and lots of gossipy anecdotes. Authors, as speakers, are notorious for being self-important and dull.)
Offer to speak to local schools, clubs and retirement homes, which are always looking for programs to entertain their residents. Use your computer to print up business cards describing your book and including the ISBN number. Include every bit of information necessary to locate the book.
This can run into money, but cheer up and hang on to your receipts: it’s tax-deductible!
6) Don’t close your mind to self-publication. This used to be the kiss of death for an author, but in recent years, it has gained stature. I recently judged a contest for self-published authors for Writer’s Digest and learned that while there are a vast number of terrible self-published books, there are also a few real gems. A friend of mine, Rosey Dow, already a well-known inspirational romance writer, wanted the publication of her mystery about the famed Scopes “Monkey Trial” to coincide with the trial’s 75th anniversary. Conventional publishers just weren’t able to oblige, so she self-published and Reaping the Whirlwind won the 2000 Christy Award for Christian fiction.
When I took up this writing thing, my kindly husband said, “Don’t worry so much about getting published; you enjoy writing, that’s enough.” What he didn’t understand—though he was quickly informed—was that the writing part is only the first half of it. It’s like a football player who throws the ball with no quarterback to make the catch. It’s like putting on a play for an empty theatre. You get the drift.
Most of us have no illusion about quitting our day job; we just love to write.
However, the first half is getting your story on paper. The other half is getting read.
And it’s worth the effort.
My mother and father were at Oneonta, NY, for my dad's fortieth college reunion. His memories of Hartwick College were happy ones, even though he attended in the midst of the Great Depression. As the first of his immediate family to attend college, he'd made the most of his opportunity. He liked to recount how he'd stayed in shape by hiking up steep hill to class. He had been active in many campus activities, especially ones involving music. His senior year, he'd been elected Student Body President. And he had paid for his education by playing the trumpet and piano in dance bands at night.
Reunions aren't always what we hope they'll be. Present-day students have little interest in the memories of the alumni. Nonetheless, Daddy's fraternity sponsored a campus tour and sumptuous luncheon. And as they sang the fraternity song, he sang along, getting both the tune and the words exactly right.
"Wow," remarked the present-day fraternity president, "it's been forty years, and you still remember the song?"
"I should," Daddy remarked, "I wrote it."
Sure enough, a little research revealed that he was both the composer and lyricist of the song, back in the late 1930's. The fraternity was pleased to add his name to their annals and to hang a framed copy of the song on their wall, giving Donald Edwards full recognition. He was so very pleased.
"It's nice to be recognized," I thought to myself as I read a thank you note. I'd thrown a party that I enjoyed as much as anybody else, but it was still nice to hear how it please somebody. "It feels good."
Yes, it does, came a thought into my head.
The implication was unmistakable. Who deserves recognition more than anyone else? Who has given me everything and has--as the old hymn says--showered me with blessings? I had lost sight of the personal aspect of my relationship with God. He is a Person. He lived on earth. He laughs, He smiles, He grieves and He relates to us on the most personal of levels. And He is pleased when we relate back.
And yet, how often do we recognize Him for what he has done? How often do we really, truly give credit where credit is due? Certainly, on a theological level, there is the staid recognition of Great Truths, but when and how often do we turn to Him and say, "You did this, didn't You? Oh, thank You, Father!"
I have always wanted to find ways to please God.
I think I know of one way: recognizing the Composer and Lyricist of my life.
Citing His name in my annals constantly and framing His Name in my heart to be seen by everyone.
“Are your characters based on real people?”
Almost every writer is asked this at one time or another, and usually the answer is, “Yes… and no.” Obviously, when writing fiction, one has to draw on life experience, but there’s more to it than that. Quite a bit more.
Some characters in my stories are clearly fictional. The slightly cartoonish principal I put at the helm of Amelia Prentice’s high school is like nobody I’ve ever known (except perhaps a mustachioed character in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty). It’s clear from the beginning that Amelia doesn’t much like her boss, but she always accords him the respect his position deserves. In book two of the series, we find that Principal Berghauser definitely has feet of clay, but I didn’t know this when I first created him.
That’s another thing about characters. They tend to drift, or perhaps develop is a better word. In my mysteryIrregardless of Murder, Vern Thomas was introduced as a young cab driver, placed in the story only because my character Amelia needed a ride home.
Intentionally, I made him the direct opposite of the taciturn cab drivers I had frequently encountered in the past. This kid is gregarious, with a genius IQ and a smart-alecky attitude. I began to enjoy writing the exchange between the weary and headachy Amelia and the cab driver. As they bantered, I was surprised to find myself writing that Vern has a connection to Amelia: he's the nephew of her old beau, Gil Dickensen. Uh, oh. Now I had yet anothercharacter to deal with.
But Vern more than justified his existence. He became conscience, confidante and ultimately cupid for Amelia. What’s more, his appearance on the page was always good for a smile, if not an outright laugh.
Vern would chase suspects at the drop of a hint. When Nurse Dee is attacked by a violent student, Vern hurries to the rescue. He protectively shadows Amelia on the Lake Champlain ferryboat. He emotionally filibusters Amelia for a reunion with her old love, Gil Dickensen. He becomes Amelia’s fast friend. All from a chance encounter.
I had thought Vern was created out of whole cloth, totally a figment of my fevered imagination until my sister-in-law informed me that he was the very image of my nephew John, at least in personality. Upon examination of the evidence, I realized that she was right. No wonder I was so very fond of Vern.
In book three of Amelia’s stories, Geoffrey Jamison (only a working name) is loosely based on a real person, Tommy Finnan, who produced and directed a summer theatre for several summers in my home town. He imported talented performers from New York up to the wilds of the Adirondacks to play the leads in classic musicals (Brigadoon, Carousel, Oklahoma, etc.) and recruited local people to be what I called “the basket-swingers.” (Members of the chorus.) Tommy was a true professional and dealt very kindly with the excited amateurs who wanted to be part of his productions.
For Geoffrey, I drew from what I remembered of Tommy. His dry wit, his dancing talent, his loyalty to his family and his strict adherence to a list of well-crafted rules that helped keep the theatre running efficiently.
But beyond these traits, I was obligated to change the man considerably. In my story, Tommy’s loyalty becomes Geoffrey’s fierce determination to avenge the murder of a helpless girl. In the course of the story, Geoffrey learns that revenge is a bitter calling and he redeems himself heroically by saving Amelia in a unique and comic way.
While some writers like to have a detailed outline of their plot, I prefer to take my fairly vague idea of what’s going to happen and just start telling the story. It is in this way that the characters I have in mind start to take shape and their unique quirks are revealed. It's rather like watching a portrait being painted as the details begin to emerge. I knew Gil Dickensen would be a newspaper editor, but I didn't have a clear idea what he was like until he began to interact with Amelia.
His personality seems off-handed and dry, but I came to realize that this was a protective covering for a sensitive, compassionate man. When Amelia initially rejects his proposal of marriage, he is deeply hurt, though he is careful not to show it. He exacts a sort of emotional revenge when she finally decides to accept, throwing her own words back at her. It's a painful scene until they both realize what they might lose. Then it's a love scene. This incident wasn't in the first version of the book, but my editor wanted to see what happened at this moment, and I believe it's a better book for it. Somewhere in the course of this, I realized that he had thick, steel-gray hair and an intelligent-looking face, not classically handsome. But it had to come up in the course of the story.
To me, character construction is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing.
So the answer to the question "Are your characters based on real people?" is yes...and no.
I started early. This is me, trying to make my cousin Griffin keep his coat on at our aunt's wedding.
New ailments raise their ugly heads every day, and the one I have is a doozy. OICFI Syndrome has the potential to crush me under its weight, causing digestive problems, headaches, rashes and most likely, creating social rifts that can be difficult, if not impossible to remedy.
Psychologist Dr. Kevin Lehman would probably tell me it’s because I’m an eldest child. Others would say that it’s because I’m on the periphery of the Baby Boomers. Or because my parents were of the Greatest Generation.
I’m not sure if it’s contagious. Certainly not everyone has it. I believe it is partly congenital and partly a product of environment. Treatment is difficult and sometimes painful.
OICFI Syndrome usually presents early, as the doctors express it. It certainly did with me, and I can remember well:
--Plunging in the middle of a sibling dispute, breaking the cookie in half.
--Telling my mother the best way to approach my toddler sister who was in a tantrum.
--Running for the Band-aids when someone got a sidewalk burn.
All classic symptoms.
It’s irritating enough when the affected child is young, but when she achieves adulthood, it can become unbearable, especially for the sufferer.
OICFI stands for “Only I Can Fix It,” and unless you have it, you have no idea what a cruel master it is. In the worst stages of the syndrome, you are compelled to be umpire, doctor, psychologist, seamstress, cook, chauffeur, babysitter, diagnostician, physical therapist, newswoman and a host of other things to fit the problem before you.
You are compelled to be…God.
(Or think you are.)
Only this last realization gave me the impetus to get help.
Make that…get Help.
Recovering from OICFI Syndrome is a lot like trying to lose a huge amount of weight. You must eat, of course, and in a parallel way, there are still valid ways you can help people. You can’t give up helping altogether, the same way you can’t totally give up eating. Also as with eating, it must be controlled and moderated. This, of course, is not easy.
The first step, as always, is admitting you have a problem. Lord, I confess I am often trying to do Your job. I haven’t trusted You. I have forgotten that Your ways are higher than mine, and in most cases, I must step back and let You handle things, though I am itching to get involved. I apologize for the implied criticism that entails.
Then you must ask for Help. Please remind me to consult You before I act. Remind me to keep my mouth shut and my interference to myself, unless You give permission.
Then, you must learn to relax. I turn my worrying over to You. I place each worry in a little basket, attach it to a balloon and let it float to Heaven. I let go of the steering wheel and let You drive.
This is surprisingly freeing.
Of course, there are some things you can’t fix, and for some reason, God chooses to act in a way you don’t agree with. That’s when the trust comes in. Don’t forget, you’re trusting in the most trustworthy Person who ever existed. And then, let go.
(If you’d like to contribute to the OICFI Syndrome Foundation, I’ll gladly accept checks made out to “Cash.”)
Lake Champlain Ferryboat Dock at Cumberland Head, NY.
There is a school of thought that tells the fiction writer to forget about research until a question arises, such as: “What songs were they playing on the radio in the summer of 1980?” or “How much did it cost to rent scripts from Samuel French (a drama publisher) for a play in that same year?” These are both issues that have arisen as I work on Murder in the Past Tense, the third mystery in my series. The first question was easy to answer. I just went to one of those online almanac pages. (Answer:“Another One Bites the Dust,” “We Are Family,” “My Sharona.”)
The second, not so much. You see, my teenaged characters are in a play and the director warns the kids not to lose their scripts, because they cost $___. I can find out how much ol’ Sam charges today, but it looks like I’m going to have to rely on memory and guesstimates in order to come up with a figure for back then.
One of my favorite ventures into the world of research came up when I was writing Death Dangles a Participle, the second book in my series. In it, two teenaged brothers try to drive an old VW beetle across a frozen Lake Champlain.
First of all, I needed to find out how thick the ice needed to be for the ice to support a small car; or maybe how cold the temperature needed to be. I found it on a handy ice-fishing website that gave all kinds of handy advice, some of it ominous. I also learned a lot about the kind of equipment a person would need to go ice fishing. Apparently, there are many, many ways to fish on the ice, from out in the open to a tent to being safely ensconced in a little portable house.
SPOILER ALERT: In the course of their adventures, the two brothers are shot at, and find a bullet hole in their back windshield. Because they were up to mischief, they smash and replace the windshield and try to otherwise obscure the evidence until they are accused of murder and finding that bullet becomes extremely important to them. But where is it? The police, and later my main character, Amelia Prentice, search the car carefully to try to find said bullet, but no luck. Where could it have gone? Why didn’t the bullet hit one of the boys? After having written this, I found that I needed to actually solve this mystery myself.
My question was: where can I find a cross-section of an old-style VW beetle? I can tell you from experience, it’s not easy. I finally found it in an online catalog of rare spare parts for this classic vehicle, but it didn’t show the glove compartment. I absolutely had to know what a glove compartment would look like, or if there even was one in this basic car. Hooray for eBay! Someone was selling their classic VW and posted photos of the car, beautifully restored, inside and out. There WAS a glove compartment! There were other details, unique to VW’s that helped me frame the solution to the mystery in a fun way. That’s all I’ll say about that…
Research can be frightening. A few years ago, I was honored to join a group, Carolina Crime Writers. It was made up of mystery writers and would-be mystery writers and met monthly at a restaurant’s private meeting room for dinner. There was always an enlightening speaker intended to help us with our research. One time, we had an FBI agent tell us about his work, another time, a woman who handled search dogs. One of the most memorable speakers was a female prison guard who brought visual aids. It was interesting to watch our waiter’s reaction each time he returned to the meeting room.
The first time, the prison guard was telling us about the ways prisoners tried to escape. The waiter looked sideways at her as he poured water into our glasses. The second time he came in, she was showing us the terrible weapons that can be made from toothbrushes, broken plates and even combs. He clearly shuddered. You could see what he was thinking: “What kind of weirdos are these?”
The third time, when he came to distribute our checks, the prison guard was demonstrating the chains and shackles used to restrain prisoners. The waiter arrived just in time to see one of our male members, all chained up. “That does it,” he said aloud as he practically threw our checks at us and ran out of the room. Who could blame him?
Fortunately for me, I specialize in cozy mysteries, which generally skirt such a grim topic as prison.
I had lots of fun researching the “man overboard” procedures on the Lake Champlain ferryboat, up close and personal. I imagine some people thought I was pretty weird, ignoring the beautiful view from the observation deck and staring at the emergency information posted on the wall instead, taking notes. Later, I used this information for a pretty exciting scene in Irregardless of Murder.
Sometimes, you go to the experts. In northern New York State, there are quite a few people of French Canadian heritage and so it was necessary that I pepper Irregardless with occasional terms. I had taken four years of the language in high school and figured I could handle it, but when I ran the story by my niece, a brilliant natural linguist, she pointed out some flaws. Allons-y, which I had learned meant, “let’s go,” was as antiquated as “groovy, man.” She suggested On y va instead. I’m sure glad I asked.
My novella, “The Applesauce War,” appeared in an anthology called Harvest Home published by Barbour Books. It was set in the apple orchards of northern New York State, and I wanted to make sure I had the elements of apple growing correct. Online, I found the name and address of an agricultural professor at the University of Vermont. I wrote her a letter, telling her what I was doing and giving her my questions. Her gracious answer was a practically a textbook on apples, especially Macintosh. It really helped make the story ring true as I set a Romeo and Juliet romance among the apple trees.
Also in my books is a continuing theme of the hunt for Champ, the fabled Lake Champlain monster. Some characters are total skeptics and another, Professor Alec Alexander, has devoted his life’s work to the search. I did research on this big ol’ creature before I was familiar with the Internet and its wonders. I had to use actual books!
The term cryptozoology, I learned, is from the Greek, literally translated, “the study of strange animals.” That is, undiscovered animals, and it’s surprising how many animals have been discovered in the 20th Century alone. In my story, I had the Professor give a talk at a high school assembly on the subject, and even give a slide presentation. In the course of studying this topic, I made a common writer’s mistake: I fell in love with the subject. I wrote about ittoo much! In the academic world, there’s almost no such thing as too much information. In the fiction writing world, the old expression, less is more, still holds.
Originally, I had Alec talking for at least 2 ½ pages about his field, but later realized that the reader would become bored, so I pared it down to less than a page, only a few paragraphs, really. Below is the edited scene:
“Let’s all give him our best red and black welcome!” Beckoning like a latter-day Ed Sullivan, Berghauser invited applause, joined it, and then took his seat.
Alec stepped forward and adjusted the height of the microphone. In his pleasant lilting tenor voice, he declared himself thankful for the introduction, and requested that the lights be lowered. Directing our attention to the movie screen, he pressed a clicker at the end of a thick electrical cord.
There was a collective gasp. I, too, started uncontrollably in my seat at the hideous picture on the screen.
“Megachasma pelagios,” announced Alec dramatically, “better known as ‘Megamouth,’ because of its four-foot wide mouth.”
There were scattered nervous giggles. J.T. leaned forward in his seat.
We were staring at an amateur black-and-white photo of a large, gaping dead fish. I was reminded of the whale in Disney’s Pinocchio.
“Before ‘76,” Alec continued, gently rolling his r’s in the Scottish manner, “we didn’t even know this creature existed. He’s a kind of shark, found off the coast of Hawaii, just about a year too late to appear in the movie Jaws.”
Some students laughed.
He’s good at this, I thought. He’s already got them on his side.
He clicked the changer again. “Recently, in Papua, New Guinea, scientists found an undiscovered mammal, the golden mantled tree kangaroo.” The next slide showed a smiling young man cradling a creature the size of my cat Sam with a long banded tail and a sweet-looking, narrow face. The girls in the auditorium responded, “Awww.”
“You see, cryptozoology means the science of ‘hidden animals,’ the ones we haven’t discovered yet.”
Another slide appeared.
“Someday, many of us hope to add another one to this list. His Latin name is Champtanystropheus, but we call him Champ, the Lake Champlain Monster.”
“Cool,” whispered J.T. under his breath.
I’d seen this photo before: an expanse of choppy lake, a row of thick forest on the shore beyond and a fuzzy something in lower foreground. It appeared to be a long neck and head of a dinosaur-like creature. It had been taken in 1977 by a couple as they frantically scrambled to pull their wading children to shore.
“Five minutes!” Lily Burns had said when she showed me the New York Post article about the incident. “Those people supposedly watched that thing for five full minutes and the only picture they got of it was that? Hah!” Lily contended that it was nothing more than a man with a dark tan, skinny arms and a pot belly, doing the Australian crawl.
There was a time when I’d have agreed with her, but no longer. I had experienced something Champ-like, up close and personal, the night I almost drowned.
Had it been Champ? Alec seemed to think so, and had added my account to his eyewitness file. “Almost the very same thing happened to a woman in British Columbia in ‘74,” he’d assured me.
Alec was continuing his talk. There was another slide, with a larger shadow superimposed over a map of the lake. “Eight to ten thousand years ago, we would’ve called it the Champlain Sea, because it was part of the Atlantic Ocean. As the glaciers...”
While Alec continued explaining the geological history of the lake, my thoughts wandered. I mentally rearranged my lesson plans. Members of the first period class had, unbeknownst to them, dodged a bullet and escaped a pop quiz. I’d have to postpone second period’s vocabulary assignment, but the rest of the day would be relatively unchanged.
Well then, that was all right. I looked up again.
“Ye’ve all heard of the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland,” Alec was saying, “Compared to that creature, our study is in its infancy, but evidence is mounting. There are Native American legends and the explorer Samuel de Champlain described seeing a large creature...”
The famous Mansi photo of Champ as described above. Monster or "man with a pot belly, doing the Australian crawl?"
It's a really nice pan. It's shiny, silver and oven-proof. You can fry things in it or bake cornbread in it, which was what I was trying to do when I grabbed the searingly hot handle and screamed. I had absent-mindedly--stupidly--set down the hot pad and tried to move the pan across the stovetop. Dinner preparation was temporarily halted.
Quickly, I ran to the nearby sink and began running cool water over my left hand. My husband joined me in the kitchen and prepared a bowl of ice water for me to soak the hand in. He picked up the phone and called our dear friend Nancy from across the street, who is an RN. "Just ask her advice," I instructed, "She still has that hurt foot." Nancy was recovering from a serious break in her foot, and had only recently removed the large boot she was required to wear.
Within minutes, Nancy had pulled up in her car--safer for her foot--and was sitting at our kitchen table, armed with aloe, something-sporin and bandages, just in case. "Soaking is the best thing," she advised. She drew in her breath sharply when she saw the extent of the burns. White, seared patches of skin were on my palm, alongside each finger and down my thumb. It hurt to keep it in the frigid water, but both she and my husband insisted. Eventually, I became accustomed to the cold, or perhaps numb is a better word.
Though I hadn't wanted to disturb her, it really helped to have Nancy there. My husband had an important community meeting that evening, so Nancy babysat me and my hand for the next two hours. After a while, we switched to ice packs, so the hand could dry out. Whenever we took away the cold, the burning pain came back. To divert me, I'm sure, Nancy talked about any and everything with me. We compared childhoods, remembered a trip we'd been on together with our husbands, commiserated over current politics, and laughed at our own wit. We promised to pray for each other.
It was late, and my friend needed to leave. I watched as she carefully navigated our front steps and backed her car out of the driveway. My husband helped me get ready for bed, prayed for my hand and brought me pain medication, because the hand really, really hurt. Amazingly, in a very short time, I was asleep.
The next morning, I realized that the double-bagged ice pack had fallen to the floor. Something felt strange. Or rather, DIDN'T feel strange. I pulled my left hand from beneath my pillow and looked at it. I compared it with the palm of my right hand. They were both the same color, no blisters, no peeling, and best of all, no pain at all.
Miraculous! An answer to prayer! I hurried to show my husband and couldn't wait to call Nancy. I have had no further trouble with my hand.
Of course, not everybody would call this a miracle. I do. I call it a compound miracle. A compound sentence is made up of two or more separate but related clauses. My compound miracle consisted of: part good medical advice; part a good true friend and a kind, thoughtful husband (miracles in themselves)...
and 100% God.
Who else would have brought together all these elements to bless me, even though I didn’t deserve it?
I had anticipated much difficulty for the next week: difficulty in typing, cooking, knitting, and even bathing and dressing. Instead, I only have to glance down at my two hands to receive assurance of my own personal miracle.
LORD my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me. Psalm 30:2
Ladies' Tea sponsored by the Cary, NC, Public Library.
Someone once did a survey to find out what people feared most.
The result? #1 Death and...#2 Public Speaking
Now, before Snopes.com calls me a liar, I’ll be the first to admit that this is probably apocryphal, but it does point to the fact that not many people are willing to get up there and possibly look foolish.
But I am.
If it will sell books.
When my book, IRREGARDLESS OF MURDER, was first published in 2001 I learned that these days, it’s not enough to slave over a hot keyboard for months, years, decades maybe and turn out a masterpiece. Today’s savvy author is responsible for much of his own advertising. You have to get out there and promote yourself as well as your book. This includes personal appearances, book signings, and especially public speaking.
As a card-carrying ham, I thought this sounded right up my alley. So I made use of a handy computer program to print out bookmarks, stickers and flyers all about my book and the fact that I was available to speak, free, gratis and without charge, to any group that would have me. The title of my program was a little (as my daddy would say) corny: “Taking the Mystery out of Mysteries.”
I contacted and gave flyers to everybody I could think of friends, relatives, acquaintances, bookstores, local clubs, community centers, and was thrilled when responses started coming in.
One of my earliest talks was given at a very well-appointed assisted living facility. It took place in a kind of large family room with the giant TV behind me muted, but playing “The Price is Right.” My entire audience of ten or twelve extremely elderly residents was wheeled in by uniformed staff, who told me that this was snack time and that I would need to “speak up nice and loud.”
I launched into my spiel cheerily enough, concentrating on one very eager-looking little white-haired lady in the front row, who leaned forward with her ear cupped to hear me. “I STARTED WRITING MYSTERIES,” I told her, “WHEN I COULDN’T FIND ANYTHING I WANTED TO READ…” She nodded encouragingly, and I continued. Within five minutes, my throat gave out and my diminutive friend—along with all of the others--had sunk gently into a nap. It was almost a relief when the staff returned and began distributing bags of fresh popcorn. I departed with a bag of popcorn and a friendly wave from the staff.
An organization having something to do with literacy called and requested my company, giving me detailed directions to a door “around back” in a virtually deserted office building in a virtually deserted and decrepit office park. It took a good bit of knocking to arouse the attention of my hostess, who opened the door, pulled me in and promptly locked the door again. I learned that I wasn’t there to give a speech, but to be interviewed as to my capacity for giving a speech to their annual picnic at a huge city park. Apparently I passed muster, and agreed to meet them a week hence.
The meeting took place at Raleigh's Pullen Park in a picnic shelter next to a small lake where families rode paddleboats and strolled by on the foot path. I cast wistful glances their way as I tried to capture the interest of about twenty individuals of varying ages, many of whom didn’t speak English. It was clear that they were just waiting for the hamburgers to finish cooking. So was I, if truth be told. My speech wasn’t much of a hit, but the burgers were great.
My first actual speech was given as the Christmas program, no less, at the women’s book club at a nearby posh country club. How cool was that? Before the program, the ladies of the club treated me to the club’s gorgeous Christmas buffet. I couldn’t eat a bite, due to nerves. After dinner, in my speech, I covered many of the writing-related subjects you see in previous columns in The Wordsmith Journal. I got in a few funny stories, and was gratified to notice that my humor went over really well.
Really, really well.
Really, really, really well.
So well, in fact, that a lady at the head table was literally pounding the table in glee as she roared her approval. Wow, I was good at this! As I was about the leave, a member of the club pulled me gently aside and murmured apologetically, “They always get a little rowdy when we have a long cocktail hour.”
I loved speaking to the fifth grade class in Alabama. They were a surprisingly attentive audience and the questions they asked were as thoughtful as any of the adults' questions I'd heard. "How long did it take you to write the book?" "Where do you get your ideas?" I donated a copy of my book to the library and discounted the price of books by 2/3, and several of the kids bought copies. The sweetest result of this talking engagement was the sheaf of hand-written thank you notes I received the following week. Thanks, Miss Kitty! I loved every minute of it.
Another memorable speaking gig was a ladies' tea, sponsored by the local public library where I shared the spotlight with a fascinating woman who was an expert on tea. (see the picture above) My daughter came along and took pictures. The picture I really like is of a teapot in the likeness of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. There, too, a friendly attendee gave me a photocopy of a rave review of my book she'd found at The Drood Review of Mystery. All in all, a lovely afternoon. It's a good idea, once your book is published, to make yourself known to your local librarians and donate a copy for their stacks. Librarians can be your very best friends.
Writer's conferences and conventions are fun, especially if you get yourself on a panel. Malice Domestic in Washington, DC, is devoted primarily to the cozy mystery genre (think Agatha Christie) and I was thrilled to be on the same panel with one of my favorite authors, Dorothy Cannell, author of the award-winning THE THIN WOMAN and a host of other best-sellers. On the panel, I got to voice my opinion that mysteries are meant to give people the closure and resolution that may not be found in real life.
As a rabid fan, however, be careful you don't scare the writers. Walking down a hall, I spotted another one of my favorite authors.
I stepped up to her and blurted, "You're, you're...Charlie Plato!" My mind had frozen and I couldn't think of her name, only the name of her main character.
"Yes, I am," she said pleasantly.
"I love your books!"
"Thank you so much, but I'm afraid I have a taxi waiting."
As she left, I kicked myself for my clumsiness. Later, we sat side by side at a book-signing, and I got the opportunity to apologize to Margaret Chittenden for accosting her in the hallway.
"Don't apologize," she said good-naturedly in her gentle British accent, "my only complaint is that you didn't say 'I love your books' louder." It was worth all the effort of writing and finding a publisher just to meet these gracious authors.
I learned early on that there are ways to give a talk and ways not to (pardon the infinitive). In Birmingham, I sat on a panel next to a mystery writer who was so uncomfortable in the role of speaker, she made everyone else uncomfortable, too. She read aloud in a halting monotone from her very well-written book and actually made it boring. That night, I was blessed with some close friends in the audience, so I gave my talk about the funny pitfalls of mystery writing straight to them, being as animated as I could manage. It went well, and I felt embarassed that virtually all the questions afterwards were directed at me. After all, this woman was a much bigger name and deserved great praise for her good work.
So if and when you do any public speaking, don’t be afraid. Remember what I told my daughters whenever they performed: “People want to be entertained. They want you to succeed. And they want to see you enjoy doing it. Most important of all, don’t let ‘em see that you’re scared. They can smell fear.”
It was lunchtime, and my four-year-old daughter Louise and I bowed our heads to say a blessing. At the end of the prayer, little Weezie tacked on a P.S. “And God, please let Laurie be in the play.”
I looked with alarm at my little girl as she started eating her sandwich.
She really put her heart out there, Lord. Please help!
For days, her big sister Laurie, now in first grade, had been talking about the drama troupe that was coming to her school to perform fairy tales. Her eyes shone as she said, “Mommy, they said they might bring somebody up on stage to be in the play, too!” No matter how much I cautioned her that the likelihood of her being picked was extremely remote, Laurie still lived in eager hope of making her stage debut Monday morning.
Louise knew how much this meant to her big sister. She had compliantly played “Little Red Riding Hood” to Laurie’s “Grandma/BigBadWolf,”and “Fairy Godmother” to her “Cinderella.” Certainly everybody in our little family hoped Laurie could get her wish, but it had never occurred to me that my little girl would actually pray about it.
What to do? I certainly wasn’t going to chide her for praying. Hadn’t we encouraged prayer about everything? But something this small, this…frivolous? I fretted about it inwardly all weekend.
Monday arrived, and Louise and I made a point to arrive early to get a good seat in the auditorium, in the front row, in fact. Laurie’s class filed in and sat behind us. I watched as the sisters waved excitedly to each other. Disappointment was part of life, I supposed, and they’d have to learn it sooner or later.
The drama troupe was made up of talented, extravagantly-costumed high school students. The first story to be presented, they announced, was “The Ugly Duckling.” I noticed Louise glancing back at her sister. Were they going to keep their promise? I sighed and stroked my little girl’s long brown curls.
Just before the curtain opened, the handsome young narrator stepped to the apron of the stage and said, “We’re going to need some ducks.” He waved his hand to the teacher. “Could this row of ducklings come up on stage?” Wide-eyed, Laurie’s entire first grade class trooped up the stairs to the empty stage.
The narrator looked down again, this time at my little Louise. “Would you like to come up, too?” Nodding eagerly, she joined Laurie and her classmates as they were instructed to portray ducks, quacking, flapping their wings and laughing at the poor ugly duckling, then expressing amazement as the duckling turned into a swan. No academy award winners tried harder than my little girls to express emotion. And nobody enjoyed a dramatic performance more than I did this one.
“Thank you, Jesus!” Louise said on our walk back home. Amen, I echoed inwardly. Not only had the Lord answered Louise’s prayer for her sister, but had given her a special bonus. I could only imagine His smile.
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.
Laurie as "Grandma" and Louise as "Little Red Riding Hood."