The Family Tree

family treeCharting a family tree provides a record for future generations, but sketching the leafy branches in story form is far more revealing. At first glance, your tree may appear to be a uniform sample of its species, but move your gaze though its branches and you will likely find broken limbs and odd grafts.

Unless it is a well researched biography (non-fiction), a family saga is an intriguing mix of fact and fiction. To tell a good story, historical fiction writers have to make up what they don’t know.

Careful research can raise facts that help shape the story so that what it lacks in accuracy is compensated by truth.

What’s in a name?

I am writing about the role black sheep play in a family. The book is based on the adventures of my great grandmother Nellie Belle Scott. Family legend has it that she left her husband and children for a career as the first female court reporter in the Pacific Northwest. At a time in history when women stayed married and stayed in the kitchen, she ran around the circuit providing stenographic services in makeshift courtrooms and amusing conversation to judges and attorneys.

Viewing Nellie through the eyes of my mother and grandmother painted a negative picture. But in researching her girlhood, I stumbled upon an interesting fact. Her younger sister Jessie named her daughter Nellie. Obviously there’s another side to my great grandmother. My job as a novelist is to discover what in Nellie’s character inspired such high regard from those who knew her growing up.

Namesakes and monikers

In one afternoon I traced my family history straight back to Plymouth Colony. I saw how some names were passed down through generations: Francis Carter, son Frank, great granddaughter Frances, who died in infancy. If you are looking to name a baby or a fictional character, check your family tree.

My favorite moniker goes way back in history. I could write a book about a woman named Submit Talman, a misnomer I’m thinking. Pair the Biblical character trait of her first name with the phonetic spelling of her last name — tall man — and you have enough tension and conflict for a lively plot line.

Have a litter of kittens or puppies that need names? Nineteenth century people had large families. My maternal great grandfather was one of ten children. Choice names from that list? Zenas, Enos, and Hiram, fit for a bevy of bulldogs.

Is there an intriguing name in your family tree?
photo credit: Snapped strength via photopin (license)

Rabbit Holes

rabbitholeBecause I’m off my feet now recovering from foot surgery, I have lots of time to go down rabbit holes. The terrain is so full of holes, I’m beginning to wonder how the ground under our feet holds together.

I clicked on an article that sounded an alarm over the demise of sardines (my husband will be glad to hear that) and declared that the domino effect will be the loss of huge populations of sea creatures. Makes sense.

Pondering that, I scrolled down to a meme that screamed at me, Now do you believe in climate change you #$@*!!!? (Insert a long list of angry invectives branding non believers as evil people of questionable parentage.)

As a writer I spend a lot of time attempting to craft intelligent responses to difficult, complex issues. Given that my brain scatters in multiple directions before it forms a complete and hopefully rational thought, it takes me awhile to get clear on things.

I am not going to address the issues involved in climate change in a public forum. I will freely admit that I don’t know enough about the science that supports the conclusions people draw to discuss the topic in any meaningful way. I do have some thoughts on temperature of the discussion, though.

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Five-Year Diary

Q&A JournalI finished my five-year diary last year. Keeping that diary let me look back at events, spot trends, recall moments, and notice patterns in my life.

The diary reveals the timeline of the two books I’ve published, a history of my travels, sweet times spent with friends, and also the mundane. Recording my weight and daily (or not) exercise routine helped me stay on track. It has been interesting to note weather patterns; it’s not so unusual that it snows at Easter in the Sierra.

When it came time to buy a new Five-Year Diary, I decided to shake it up a bit. No “more of the same” recording what I do; instead I chose the Q&A a Day 5 Year Journal. For the next five years, I will record what I think instead of what I do. Two sentences a day to respond to  provocative questions like:

  • “What is your mission?”
  • “How do you describe home?”,
  • “What new activity have you tried?”

Crystallizing thought is, of course, good practice for a writer. More than that, it adjusts my focus to “what has changed?”

Seasons of Life

Every season of life brings new realities that require changes in perspective and priorities. Life can get uncomfortable if we don’t adjust to our new normal and make choices based on what we see in our present and future rather than what we experienced in the past.

Case in point: We bought our house at a time when we envisioned housing older parents, hosting family holidays, entertaining crowds, and putting up visitors. We did all that. Now, home is my writing studio in my mountain house or desert retreat, or the places where my family gathers, or the gatherings where my communities work, worship, and play. Respite and solitude, cultural activities that inspire, and intimate dinners with friends that refresh my soul; these are the activities that support my priorities.


broomThese days, I attend writing conferences instead of town meetings. I drop a news magazine subscription that reinforces a familiar point of view and choose instead to support an Indie publisher with a subscription to a poetry journal. (Rattle, that’s appropriate!) I look at pretty table cloths and don’t buy them. Town meetings, table cloths, news talk, all have had their day in my life.

Do things pile up in the cupboards of your house or the closets of your mind that are lovely but no longer useful? Have you lost your zest for an activity that used to fulfill you? Would your feel lighter if you swept it away to to make room for what you really love?

Try this: Go on a sweeping spree. Make room for something new. Prayerfully indulge the passion you feel right now. It’s not a selfish thing to do. God can use your renewed joy in ways that will delight.

L’Chaim, To Life: Freedom and Healthy Debate

medium_4110421350In France, Europeans marched in the streets, a solemn display of their intent to defend their right to express their opinions. In the Middle East, Muslims rioted over the public ridicule of their prophet and vowed revenge. A great divide exists between people who now live and work shoulder to shoulder.

While researching a minor character in a book I’m writing, I came across this quote by Senator William Borah.

“No more fatuous chimera has ever infested the brain than that you can control opinions by law or direct belief by statute, and no more pernicious sentiment ever tormented the heart than the barbarous desire to do so. The field of inquiry should remain open, and the right of debate must be regarded as a sacred right.”

The Senator said this in 1917.

Islam extremists despise the freedoms we hold dear. They fear losing control of the hearts and minds of their people.

The editors of Charlie Hebdo had the courage of their convictions. They believed that all religions need to be called out for the harm their leaders do in the name of their prophets. In their zeal, they satirized Islam’s prophet, using his image as a symbol for the radical action of his followers.

Satire, by its nature, is provocative. Is it art? I am using literary critic John Gardner’s definition of art as an expression of Beauty, Truth and Goodness that that seeks to improve life, not debase it. By that definition, there is likely some truth in what Charlie’s artists portray (I have not seen the cartoons). More to the point, liberty improves life. Thought control debases life. That said, satirical cartoons have their purpose, but they are not great art.

A stronger affirmation of the value of life might be a ground swell of response in all the artistic disciplines, a campaign to champion works of art that display universal values of Beauty, Truth and Goodness, a movement to produce great works that elevate the human spirit. 

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May I have a word?

A trendy bar in San Francisco's Mission District makes a space for art

A trendy bar in San Francisco’s Mission District makes a space for art


Sis asked me about my word for 2015. Each year we choose a word to focus on, one that embodies a concept we wish to understand on a deeper level. This year she is focusing on the goodness of God. My word is beauty.

We do a word study to define the term, and we read Scripture and books on our chosen topic to expand our understanding, This year, we will spend a year looking for goodness and beauty in the ugly and mundane.

I suspect she has chosen goodness because she is marginally involved in a situation that is not good. How did my pick happen? Through a confluence of two unrelated events, I chose to focus on beauty this year.

Beauty and the Arts

The first event: Describing her creative process at a recent Poets & Writers Live event, an artist suggested that when we stop pursuing perfection and begin to explore what is ugly, that is the place where art begins. I was mulling that over when I moved to the next chapter in my morning read, True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World, by David Skeel. The chapter title was “Beauty and the Arts.”

The author maintains that a Christian’s sense of beauty helps us see the true nature of the universe, “a glimpse that is both temporary and real, and which suggests that the world is not as it should be. To idealize beauty is to deny a central part of our experience, the author contends. So in that sense the artist is right.

Art that is true to the reality we experience will portray the dynamic tension between what we long for and what we suffer. I don’t think she means to say that art begins with ugliness, but that it doesn’t happen without exploration of corruption. No wonder art is so provocative!

Beauty in the sacred spaces

The panel of artists also discussed the concept of leaving space in a work of art to make room for contemplation or conversation. This was on my mind as I was planning for a totally unrelated second event.

I’m helping a friend deal with clutter. I needed a strategy. A friend suggested I read Psalm 31. As is typical, David is feeling besieged. He says, “You have not given me into the hands of the enemy but have set my feet in spacious places.” And that is where it all came together. If I can help my friend create space, the result will be beautiful.

Beauty appears in sacred spaces. Art acknowledges the tension between our longing for beauty and the reality of life in an imperfect world. Moments of beauty connect us with God, in appreciation, contemplation or conversation.

Is there a word you would like to adopt this year?

I have more to say about what I heard at Poets & Writers Live in my January newsletter. If you are interested and aren’t a subscriber, sign up in the box at the top right of this blog.

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