Weather as a Story Element

Monday, April 23, 2018



We’ve had some crazy weather lately, and it got me thinking about how writers use weather in their stories. Unfortunately, some writers throw it in as an afterthought or simply because they believe they should. The “rule” (although there are no real rules) is the same as the one for dialogue, where writers attempt to avoid the word “said” by using an action to identify the speaker. An action that conveys the character’s emotion or some other story element is a great substitute. But an action that is there merely to avoid a dialogue tag shouts “lazy attribution” and stands out much more than the simple word “said” does.

Weather is like that, too, even if it is only a bit player. It should be connected to the story. Don’t just put a storm in the story as background description. Make it the reason the protagonist seeks shelter in the store where she meets her true love. Or maybe you use weather to emphasize its opposite. It’s a sunny day outside but a dark day in the protagonist’s heart, so the protagonist feels as if the weather is laughing at her. But in that case its use isn’t obvious, so you need to have the protagonist note the connection for the reader.

Then there is the story where the weather is one of the characters. I’m currently working on a middle-grade novel about the Siege of Vicksburg during the Civil War. The Union forces weren’t the only enemy—the weather was, too. The sun was relentless, and one of my characters gets heat exhaustion. There was almost no rain, and the entire city was in danger of running out of water as well as food. (Yes, I know Vicksburg is on the Mississippi River, but you can’t use it if you can’t get to it.) And the one time that there was a significant rainfall, it made the caves they were living in almost uninhabitable. So I am using all of that in the story.

Don’t just throw weather into your story. Give it a reason to be there.

Or leave it out.

A Rose by Any Other Name

Monday, April 16, 2018


While it is true that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, names do matter. The wrong one can create all sorts of problems for a writer.

I am currently working on a story about the Civil War siege of Vicksburg, and I named my protagonist “Charlotte Warren.” I loved that last name. Unfortunately, she is now Charlotte Gibson. Why the change? Charlotte’s father is like mine, a man who rose from humble beginnings to become a professional man well-respected among his colleagues and within his geographical area but not generally known outside those circles, and one who is content to live a modest life. Unfortunately, as I was doing some research, I discovered that Vicksburg is in Warren County. That means anyone from that area might associate Charlotte’s father with whatever more influential, rich family the county is named after.

Actually, Shakespeare knew it, too, and Juliet’s famous speech from the balcony scene was wishful thinking. Here is her entire speech. [The following lines are spoken by Juliet in the balcony scene, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene I.

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;—
Thou art thyself though, not a Montague.
What is a Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name! that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title:—Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.

Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene I

Names had consequences for Romeo and Juliet, and they have consequences for writers, too.

And sometimes we get pricked by the thorns.

Journey into History

Monday, April 9, 2018


On March 14, 1958, I had the privilege of standing in Cave Four at Qumran, where most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. (The location is misspelled on the picture at the top of this post.) I was barely seven years old at the time, so I didn’t understand it’s significance then. And although the archeologists and Jewish and Biblical scholars of the time knew the Dead Sea Scrolls were an important discovery, most of the work on the scrolls came later, so even they probably didn’t know how big a find it was. If they had, would they have let a family with three children visit it?

Qumran was in Jordan at the time, and, according to a March 17, 1958 letter from my mother to her parents, “We had to go through an army camp to get there and had permission from the Jordanian Department of Antiquities for this purpose.” I don’t know how Daddy obtained permission, but I’m not surprised that he did. He taught at the Bishop’s School in Amman, Jordan in 1946 and 47 and was teaching there again during our sojourn in 1957–58. Many of the Bishop’s School’s students went on to hold influential governmental positions, so one of them may have secured the pass. In any event, Daddy was both shrewd and determined, and he knew how to get permission to visit the places he wanted to see.

Why am I thinking about this now? I just began listening to a series of Great Courses lectures on the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are taught by Dr. Gary Rendsburg. And it struck me again how much I owe Daddy for immersing me in history.

When I was a child, I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to be my father’s daughter. Daddy loved his family and could be very generous in the right circumstances, but he was also thrifty and strict and too much of a scholar for my tastes. Now, of course, I see things differently. We traveled the world because he loved traveling and learning, but he also because he wanted his children to have those experiences.

And I’m grateful.

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The picture at the top of this page is from a color slide taken by my father, Oliver S. Page, in 1958. The caption was added by my mother many years later when she had the slide turned into a print. Unfortunately, the digitized version looks better in black and white.

From Criminal to Conqueror

Monday, April 2, 2018


This post is reprinted from April 9, 2012.

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On Easter morning 1958, I attended the Easter service at the Garden Tomb. That’s when my father took this picture.

The service was in Arabic, so I didn’t understand any of it. Also, the tomb’s authenticity is questionable. Still, it was a great setting to celebrate a man who died as a criminal and rose as a conqueror.

To use Paul’s words from I Corinthians 15:54-57:

“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

In his rising, Jesus conquered death and sin.

That’s something I could never have done. I’m responsible for the sin, but not for the victory.

A victory he obtained for me and for you at great cost to himself.

And I’m grateful.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Alleluia!

Who Ever Heard of Maundy Thursday?

Monday, March 26, 2018


This post is reprinted from March 25, 2013.

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When I grew up, we always went to church on Maundy Thursday. It was an important day to my father, and it’s an important day in my current denomination.

But many Christians don’t even know what it is.

Maundy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper. That’s when Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Passover meal in an upper room and Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper (also called “Holy Communion” and “the Eucharist”). The same meal where Jesus told his disciples that they were to serve one another and washed their feet as an example to them.

The commonly accepted derivation of the term “Maundy” is that it comes from the Latin word “mandatum,” meaning mandate or commandment. After washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus told them, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34 ESV)

Jesus left the upper room with a heavy heart. He knew he would be crucified the next day, but he did it for us because he was our servant.

And our Lord.

That’s why I celebrate Maundy Thursday.

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The picture is called “Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples,” and the artist is Nicolas Bertin. The painting was created sometime around 1720 or 1730 as an oil on panel. It is in the public domain because of its age.

From Celebrity to Criminal

Monday, March 19, 2018


This post is reprinted from April 2, 2012.

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No, this post isn’t about Lindsay Lohan or Mike Tyson or Paris Hilton. A hundred years from now, they will have faded from the public memory.

That’s something they don’t share with the man who rode into town to cheering crowds on a Sunday, only to be mocked and executed as a criminal before the week was up. Events we are still talking about 2000 years later.

Talking about and celebrating. My father took this picture while my family was attending the Palm Sunday festivities in Jerusalem in 1958.

Lindsay and Mike and Paris didn’t lose their celebrity status when they were convicted of their crimes, and neither did Jesus of Nazareth.

But here is the crucial difference: Jesus was sinless. He had no guilt to convict him.

Well, that isn’t quite true.

He was guilty of love. A love so great that he paid the penalty for the sins of all humankind.

His heart was heavy and he died in anguish. But he did it by choice.

For me. For you.

And that’s something to remember not just during Holy Week but every day of the year.

The Importance of Sound Theology

Monday, March 12, 2018


I belonged to six Presbyterian churches as I grew up, but I had only one minister. And Daddy was a strong Christian whose sermons were firmly grounded in the Bible.

When I went to college, I visited several churches and ended up attending Third Reformed (in Holland, Michigan). Like the churches from my childhood, Third’s teaching was rooted in solid theology.

So when I moved to Chicago for graduate school, I expected to find more of the same. Unfortunately, not all churches and ministers are alike, even within the same denomination.

I visited two or three churches in Chicago looking for a place to belong. It was probably my second time at Fourth Presbyterian Church when I heard an announcement that they were still looking for Sunday School teachers. Although I hadn’t heard the senior minister preach yet, it was a Presbyterian church, so how could I go wrong? That’s what I thought at the time, anyway.

I’m not sure how long it was before I began having doubts. I remember taking an evening class from the senior minister and disagreeing with his Biblical analysis. The incident that stands out most was the day he said sins were always black and white, never gray. So I asked about 1 Corinthians 8, which talks about food offered to idols. According to Paul (as I read the passage), mature Christians who understand that the meat is just meat don’t sin when they eat it privately or with other equally mature Christians, but those who think that eating food offered to idols is a sin actually sin when they do so. I was willing to be persuaded that I had misinterpreted either the passage or the senior minister’s words. But he gave me a brusque “it doesn’t mean that” and moved on without explaining why not. If it was simply a matter of not liking his personality, however, I would have swallowed my pride and lived with it. But I had also heard several of his sermons by then, and they always made me uneasy.

The turning point came on Easter Sunday, when I sat through his entire sermon and didn’t hear him mention Jesus once. The next week I began visiting other churches and found one that was rooted in solid theology, although I didn’t join until I had attended long enough to be sure of that. Then I got married and joined my current church, which is also Biblically grounded.

Fast forward 45 years.

I went to a writers’ conference in Chicago over the weekend. I couldn’t attend services at my own church without missing some of the sessions. The conference was just down the block from Fourth Presbyterian, however, and its 8:00 a.m. service worked with the conference schedule. So although I had some trepidation, I went. The sermon was short on doctrine, but at least it included references to Jesus. The liturgy had a bigger impact, and it was uplifting. Fourth Presbyterian may still not be a church I want to belong to, but it sufficed for that one visit.

This isn’t a denominational issue. I’ve been to other Presbyterian churches in the last 45 years—either on vacation or while visiting family—and come away feeling satisfied. And every denomination has its renegades. In the end, it comes down to the individual churches and their pastors and whether they espouse solid Biblical teaching.

I believe in working from within when there are political or personal differences in a congregation. But if the teaching found there doesn’t feed my faith, I need to find a church that does.

I’m just glad I learned that lesson 45 years ago.