From Celebrity to Criminal

Monday, March 19, 2018

This post is reprinted from April 2, 2012.


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.

Diaries, Diaries Everywhere, and Not a Drop of Ink

Monday, March 5, 2018

I apologize for the cutesy title, which isn’t even quite true. But it almost is.

Many Southern women kept diaries during the Civil War, and they ran into shortages of paper and ink. They improvised by writing on scrap paper and filling their quill pens with berry juice.

So when I decided to write a story about the Siege of Vicksburg, I considered using the diary format that has been successful for many middle-grade historical novels. Scholastic’s Dear America series, with books written by various authors, is the best-known. Then there is the American Diaries series written by Kathleen Duey, who is one of my favorite writers of middle-grade historical fiction. The first books in both series were published in 1996, so it is unlikely that one copied the other. (The time between conception and publication can take several years.) The two series ran in tandem until the early 2000s and faded almost in tandem, as well. Scholastic also issued a series for boys (My Name is America) and another for younger children (My America) published around the same time. The Dear America series recently saw a resurgence with both new offerings and re-releases of some of the original books.

But that’s part of the problem. Fashions come and go, and that is as true for writing styles and formats as it is for clothing. Not that all trends are fads, and a well-written diary story will never go out of style. But I prefer to write what works for me rather than chasing a trend.

The main reason I rejected the idea of writing my book in a diary format is simple: it limits my options for dramatizing the story. First, although some real-life diaries contain vivid descriptions, the writers rarely describe those places and events that are part of their everyday lives. Even the backstory is simply assumed. Second, real-life diaries rarely set up a scene or contain dialogue. To put it in literary terms, diaries tell rather than show.

Obviously, that isn’t always the case, and some authors have found ways around the limitations. Of the many Dear America books that I have read, a couple have made significant use of dialogue, but it only works with the right protagonist—one with a good memory or a strong dramatic sense. Or there is the way Kathleen Duey does it, where diary entries are fleshed out and accompanied by much longer sections written in a more traditional third-person style.

Still, not every Southern woman or girl wrote a diary, and I would rather have my protagonist spend her time reading. That gives me more freedom to write the story I want.

And I don’t have to worry that she’ll run out of ink.


The photo at the head of this post shows three of the Civil War diaries in my collection. From left to right, they are My Cave Life in Vicksburg (Mary Ann Webster Loughborough), The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman (Sarah Morgan), and Vicksburg, A City Under Siege (Emma Balfour). Emma Balfour’s entries end on June 2, 1863, a month before the siege ended. Her subsequent entries are probably just lost. But who knows—maybe she ran out of ink.

An Apology to Johann Sebastian Bach

Monday, February 26, 2018

My church choir has been practicing “Lord, Have Mercy,” by Johann Sebastian Bach as arranged by Hal Hopson. It’s a beautiful piece based on one of Bach’s most well-known compositions, commonly known as “Air on the G-String.” Many of you would recognize it if you heard it.

I love the music and enjoy singing it, but the choir really struggled with it. That was especially true for the sopranos, including me. We have the hardest and most moving part, and by moving I mean both emotionally and in movement of the notes. Even so, we had reached the point where we could perform it acceptably—as long as we had a separate accompanist so that our choir director could stand in front and direct.

The choir was all set to sing “Lord, Have Mercy” as yesterday’s introit. We had practiced and practiced and practiced, and the selection was identified in the bulletin. But 15 minutes before the service started, the accompanist still hadn’t arrived. Our director, Karen, was ready to scrap the music, but then one of the other choir members received a text that the accompanist had overslept but would be there in five minutes. So Karen—and the rest of us—breathed a sigh of relief.

When the service started, the accompanist still wasn’t there. And as the time for the introit drew near, I and others started watching the door to the choir loft. Karen was playing the organ looking the other way, so she may not have known the accompanist was missing until it was time to sing. At that point it was too late to clue the pastors in and substitute a different introit, so Karen played and the choir did its best without her direction. The untrained people in the congregation apparently didn’t notice that anything was amiss, but I heard every wrong note that the sopranos sang.

Should we have attempted “Lord, Have Mercy” or called it off? On the one hand, we always aim to present a beautiful piece of music beautifully. If that was the primary consideration, we would have scraped it. But the real purpose is to sing to the glory of God. From that point of view, mastery is second to intent, so I believe that Karen made the right choice.

And the Lord had mercy.


The portrait of Bach was painted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann in 1746. It is in the public domain because of its age.

Unrecognized Irony

Monday, February 19, 2018

Does irony count as irony when it isn’t intentional? What about a description of the “tyranny” imposed on the South by the North that sounds exactly like the bondage imposed by Southerners on their slaves?

I’m reading The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman by Sarah Morgan, which is research for a book about the Siege of Vicksburg. Sarah Morgan lived at Baton Rouge, not Vicksburg, but her thoughts and experiences provide insight into how a Southern female from that time viewed her society and the events happening around her.

Sarah’s diary abounds with intentional sarcasm, but she doesn’t seem to see the irony in her cry against the North. Here are some passages she wrote after Union forces occupied Baton Rouge.

June 1, 1862

A gentleman tells me that no one is permitted to leave without a pass, and of these, only such as are separated from their families who may have left before. All families are prohibited to leave, and furniture, and other valuables also. Here is an agreeable arrangement! I saw the “pass” just such as we give our negroes, signed by a Wisconsin Colonel. Think of being obliged to ask permission from some low ploughman, to go in and out of our own homes!

June 29, 1862

We all feel so helpless, so powerless under the hand of our tyrant [Lincoln], the man who swore to uphold the Constitution and the laws, who is professedly only fighting to give us all Liberty, the birthright of every American, and who, neverless has ground us down to a state where we would not reduce our negroes, who tortures and sneers at us, and rules us with iron hand! Ah Liberty! what a humbug!

I would rather belong to England or France, than to the North! Bondage, woman that I am, I can never stand! Even now, the northern papers distributed among us, taunt us with our subjection, and tell us “how coolly Butler will grind them down, paying no regard to their writhing and torture beyond tightening the bands still more!” Ah truly! this is the bitterness of slavery, to be insulted and reviled by cowards who are safe at home, and enjoy the protection of the laws, while we, captive and overpowered, dare not raise our voices to throw back the insult, and are governed by the despotism of one man, whose word is our law!

I would like to think that I would never condone slavery or see life the way Sarah did, even if I was raised in her time and place. But that’s too self-righteous. None of us really knows how we would react to a situation until we are in it.

Still, I hope I recognize the irony in my writing.


The photo at the head of this page is in the public domain because of its age.

Trees in Winter

Monday, February 12, 2018

A foot of snow (or maybe 17 inches) within three days has turned our landscape into a winter wonderland. And because I didn’t have to go anywhere other than down the road to church, I had time to let my creativity roam through the world outside my window. Here is the result.

Trees in Winter 

Twigs wearing delicate lace scarves 

Sprouts caught in white cobweb 

Snow shower—
Sprays of snowdrops raining down 

Heavy snowfall—
Boughs resting under woolen blankets 

Branches transformed into ghosts 

Ice storm—
Limbs adorned with diamond bracelets 

Nature’s decorator

Planning (Way) Ahead

Monday, February 5, 2018

Everyone except my daughter (and maybe our husbands) probably thinks I’m crazy. I have my vacations planned through the winter of 2020/21. Caroline is as bad as I am (I wonder where she gets it from 😉), and Roland and Pete have learned to live with our fanaticism. This year Roland and I are going to Italy, next year to the Baltic Sea on a cruise that includes Russia and Scandinavia, and the year after that we want to go on another cruise that goes up the Amazon River.

So what does this have to do with writing? It affects the way I plan my future middle-grade novels. I can see the puzzled looks on your faces, so let me explain.

In addition to our annual vacations, I usually take a trip to research my next book. The one I am currently writing is about a riverboat accident, so this past September we went on a Mississippi Riverboat cruise. The next book will be about the Siege of Vicksburg during the Civil War. Although we were in Vicksburg on our cruise, I had just enough time at that stop to visit the two museums that discussed riverboat travel. So this summer I’d like to take a driving trip down there to see the battle ground and do some research among the city’s historical archives. Beyond that, I had thought about writing a story that takes place at a lighthouse, with a research trip along the New England coast in the summer of 2019.

That’s a year too early. The Baltic cruise is a summer trip, while the Amazon cruise will be a winter one approximately eighteen months later. My addiction won’t let me go that long without a multi-week trip, so I looked at the atlas to find another location in the northern part of the country that would be a good setting for historical fiction. And I found something. I’m going to write a story that takes place on the Erie Canal, so the research trip will take us along it’s entire length from Albany to Buffalo, New York. Then I did some more thinking and decided to write that book before the one that takes place in the lighthouse, which would leave the lighthouse trip for the summer of 2020.

So you may call me crazy, but here are the trips I have planned through the winter of 2020/21.

  • Summer 2018—vacation to Italy.
  • Summer/fall 2018—research trip to Vicksburg, Mississippi.
  • Summer 2019—Baltic cruise vacation.
  • Summer/fall 2019—research trip along the Erie Canal.
  • Summer 2020—lighthouse research trip along the coast of New England.
  • Winter 2020/21—vacation cruise to South America and up the Amazon River.

Those are the plans, anyway. Still, I need to remember one of my father’s favorite Bible passages:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15, ESV)

But if the Lord wills, I’ll be planning vacations and research trips for a very long time yet.


The pictures at the head of this post represent my next four books, including the one I am currently writing. I took the first and the last photos, and the other two images are in the public domain because of their age. The first picture shows the riverboat American Queen docked at Natchez during our trip this past September; the second is an idealized view of cave life during the Siege of Vicksburg and comes from Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History (Vol. 10) (1912); the third is a 1908 postcard of a boat being towed along the Erie Canal by mules or horses at Buffalo, New York; and the fourth is Wind Point Lighthouse in Racine, Wisconsin, from a trip with my mother in 2014.