Naughty or Nice?

Monday, December 29, 2014

For the past few weeks, I’ve been reading comics and listening to songs that imply we have to be nice if we want Santa to bring us gifts. If we’re naughty, we’ll get that lump of coal instead.
Some children may believe that, but parents know better. How many of us have actually withheld Christmas gifts just because our son or daughter was a terror all year?
The picture at the head of this post shows the Christmas I got my dollhouse. It was metal with a front door that opened, a doorbell that actually rang, and a stairway cut out at the top so that the dolls who lived there could move from one floor to the other without having to go through the open back. I also had plastic furniture sized just right. For my parents, it was an extravagance, as was the barn set given to one of my brothers. And we were not perfect children, so I’m sure we didn’t earn them.
That’s the point. The gifts we get from “Santa” are just that—gifts, not wages. Parents give their children gifts because they love them, not because the children earned them.
Our Father’s gift to us works the same way. We can’t earn our way into heaven. Salvation is a gift, given through the birth and death of God’s own Son.
That doesn’t mean the intended recipient always appreciates the gift. You may refuse those pink bunny pajamas from Aunt Clara even though they were given with love.* God allows us to reject His gift, too.
Don’t get me wrong. Just because there are no strings attached to a gift doesn’t mean it’s okay to be naughty. Children who know they are loved try to please their parents. Being children, they fail sometimes. Christians respond to God’s love by trying to serve him. Being sinners, we fail sometimes. But the act of trying is how we respond to the gift, not how we “earn” it.
This Christmas season, I pray that you will open the greatest gift of all.  

* This is a reference from A Christmas Story. The analogy isn’t perfect since Ralphie’s parents made him accept the gift, but you get the point.

A Lasting Impression

Monday, December 22, 2014

As a writer, I want to make a lasting impression. I’m not in it for the fame (although I wouldn’t object to it), but I do want people to remember my stories fifty years after they first read them.
I want to be Raymond MacDonald Alden.
That name probably doesn’t mean anything to you. I had forgotten the author’s name, but I’ll never forget the book he wrote.
The writing style and long paragraphs are not popular today, but the story is timeless. I’m reprinting it as my Christmas present to you.
Why the Chimes Rang
by Raymond MacDonald Alden
            There was once, in a faraway country where few people have ever traveled, a wonderful church. It stood on a high hill in the midst of a great city; and every Sunday, as well as sacred days like Christmas, thousands of people climbed the hill to its great archways, looking like lines of ants all moving in the same direction.
            When you came to the building itself, you found stone columns and dark passages, and a grand entrance leading to the main room of the church. This room was so long that one standing in the doorway could scarecly see the other end, where the choir stood by the marble altar. In the farthest corner was the organ; and this organ was so loud, that sometimes when it played, the people for miles around closed their shutters and prepared for a great thunderstorm. Altogether, no such chuch as this was ever seen before, especially when it was lighted up for some festival, and crowded with people, young and old. But the strangest thing about the whole building was the wonderful chime of bells.
            At one corner of the church was a great gray tower, with ivy growing over it as far as one could see. I say as far as one could see, because the tower was quite great enough to fit the great church, and it rose so far into the sky that it was only in very fair weather that any one claimed to be able to see the top. Even then one could not be certain that it was in sight. Up, and up, and up climbed the ivy; and, as the men who built the church had been dead for hundreds of years, every one had forgotten how high the tower was supposed to be.
            Now all the people knew that at the top of the tower was a chime of Christmas bells. They had hung there ever since the church had been built, and were the most beautiful bells in the world. Some thought it was because a great musician had cast them in their place; others said it was because of the great height, which reached up where the air was clearest and purest: however that might be, no one who had ever heard the chimes denied that they were the sweetest in the world. Some described them as sounding like angels far up in the sky; others, as sounding like strange winds singing through the trees.
            But the fact was that no one had heard them for years and years. There was an old man living not far from the church, who said that his mother had spoken of hearing them when she was a little girl, and he was the only one who was sure of as much as that. They were Christmas chimes, you see, and were not meant to be played by men or on common days. It was the custom on Christmas Eve for all the people to bring to the church their offerings to the Christ-child; and when the greatest and best offering was laid on the altar, there used to come sounding through the music of the choir the Christmas chimes far up in the tower. Some said that the wind rang them, and others that they were so high that the angels could set them swinging. But for many long years they had never been heard. It was said that people had been growing less careful of their gifts for the Christ-child, and that no offering was brought, great enough to deserve the music of the chimes.
            Every Christmas Eve the rich people still crowded to the altar, each one trying to bring some better gift than any other, without giving anything that he wanted for himself, and the church was crowded with those who thought that perhaps the wonderful bells might be heard again. But although the service was splendid, and the offerings plenty, only the roar of the wind could be heard, far up in the stone tower.
            Now, a number of miles from the city, in a little country village, where nothing could be seen of the great church but glimpses of the tower when the weather was fine, lived a boy named Pedro, and his little brother. They knew very little about the Christmas chimes, but they had heard of the service in the church on Christmas Eve, and had a secret plan, which they had often talked over when by themselves, to go see the beautiful celebration.
            “Nobody can guess, Little Brother,” Pedro would say, “all the fine things there are to see and hear; and I have even heard it said that the Christ-child sometimes comes down to bless the service. What if we could see Him?”
            The day before Christmas was bitterly cold, with a few lonely snowflakes flying in the air, and a hard white crust on the ground. Sure enough, Pedro and Little Brother were able to slip quietly away early in the afternoon; and although the walking was hard in the frosty air, before nightfall they had trudged so far, hand in hand, that they saw the lights of the big city just ahead of them. Indeed, they were about to enter one of the great gates in the wall that surrounded it, when they saw something dark on the snow near their path, and stepped aside to look at it.
            It was a poor woman, who had fallen just outside the city, too sick and tired to get in where she might have found shelter. The soft snow made of a drift a sort of a pillow for her, and she would soon be so sound asleep, in the wintry air, that no one could ever waken her again. All this Pedro saw in a moment, and he knelt down beside her and tried to rouse her, even tugging at her arm a little, as though he would have tried to carry her away. He turned her face toward him, so he could rub some of the snow on it, and when he had looked at her silently for a moment he stood up again, and said:
            “It’s no use, Little Brother. You will have to go on alone.”
            “Alone?” cried little Brother. “And you not see the festival?”
            “No,” said Pedro, and he could not keep back a bit of a choking sound in his throat. “See this poor woman? Her face looks like the Madonna in the chapel window, and she will freeze to death if nobody cares for her. Every one has gone to the church now, but when you come back you can bring some one to help her. I will rub her to keep her from freezing, and perhaps get her to eat the bun that is left in my pocket.”
            “But I can not bear to leave you, and go on alone,” said Little Brother.
            “Both of us need not miss the service,” said Pedro, “and it had better be I than you. You can easily find your way to the church; and you must see and hear everything twice, Little Brother—once for you and once for me. I am sure the Christ-child must know how I should love to come with you and worship Him; and oh! if you get a chance, Little Brother, to slip up to the altar without getting in any one’s way, take this little piece of silver of mine, and lay it down for my offering, when no one is looking. Do not forget where you have left me, and forgive me for not going with you.”
            In this way he hurried Little Brother off to the city, and winked hard to keep back the tears, as he heard the crunching footsteps sounding farther and farther away in the twilight. It was pretty hard to lose the music and splendor of the Christmas celebration that he had been planning for so long, and spend the time instead in that lonely place in the snow.
            The great church was a wonderful place that night. Every one said that it had never looked so bright and beautiful before. When the organ played and the thousands of people sang, the walls shook with the sound, and little Pedro, away outside the city wall, felt the earth tremble around him.
            At the close of the service came the procession with the offerings to be laid on the altar. Rich men and great men marched proudly up to lay down their gifts to the Christ-child. Some brought wonderful jewels, some baskets of gold so heavy they could scarcely carry them down the aisle. A great writer laid down a book that he had been making for years and years. And last of all walked the king of the country, hoping with all the rest to win for himself the chime of the Christmas bells. There went a great murmur through the church, as the people saw the king take from his head the royal crown, all set with precious stones and lay it gleaming on the altar, as his offering to the holy Child. “Surely,” everyone said, “we shall hear the bells now, for nothing like this has ever happened before.”
            But still only the cold old wind was heard in the tower, and the people shook their heads; and some of them said, as they had before, that they never really believed the story of the chimes, and doubted if they ever rang at all.
            The procession was over, and the choir began the closing hymn. Suddenly the organist stopped playing as though he had been shot, and every one looked at the old minister, who was standing by the altar, holding up his hand for silence. Not a sound could be heard from any one in the church, but as all the people strained their ears to listen, there came distinctly, swinging through the air, the sound of the chimes in the tower. So far away, and yet so clear the music seemed—so much sweeter were the notes than anything that had ever been heard before, rising and falling away up there in the sky, that the people in the church sat there for a moment as still as though something held each of them by the shoulders. Then they all stood up together and stared at the altar, to see what great gift had awakened the long-silent bells.
            But all that the nearest of them saw was the childish figure of Little Brother, who had crept softly down the aisle when no one was looking, and had laid Pedro’s little piece of silver on the altar.

Why the Chimes Rang was first published in 1909, and the picture at the top of this post is one of the original illustrations by Mayo Bunker. Both the story and the illustration are in the public domain because of their age.

Too Many Ideas

Monday, December 15, 2014

Writers can be classified in a number of ways. One is to separate those with not enough ideas from those with too many. I fall in the later camp, and it isn’t always a good thing.

Now that my current work is in the final stages, I’m looking for my next book. I have six ideas for novels: three for contemporary women’s fiction and three for middle grade historicals. I’ve also got other ideas percolating farther back in the cue. So how do I choose?
First, there is the genre: should I go for contemporary women’s fiction or a middle grade historical novel? Writing for the middle grades is harder than writing for adults, but I also enjoy it more. So that’s the way I’m leaning right now.
But selecting the genre is only the beginning. As I said, I have three ideas for middle grade historicals, and they are represented in the pictures above. The top picture shows the students at Carlisle Indian Industrial School around 1990. Although I probably would set the book at a fictitious boarding school, it would tell the story of the Native American students who were taken from their homes to be “Americanized,” or, as Captain Richard Henry Pratt put it, to “kill the Indian and save the man.”
The picture at the bottom left shows the first class dining saloon aboard the RMS Lusitania before the ship was sunk by the Germans in World War I. The story would be about a girl on a sinking ocean liner. It might be the Lusitania, or it might be the Andrea Doria. Not the Titanic, though. That’s been done more than enough times.
The final picture shows the corner of Dearborn and Monroe streets after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The story would show the protagonist’s life before, during, and after the fire, with the bulk of it centering on her escape from the flames.
All three of these historical events have potential because there is sufficient information on them to create a realistic story. And that’s important to me. Research is my middle name and accuracy is my claim to fame.
Too many ideas can cause complications. But I’d rather have that problem than the opposite one.

The pictures at the head of this post are in the public domain because of their age.

Writing is Hard Work

Monday, December 8, 2014

Good writing is hard work. Sometimes the words flow easily, and sometimes they don’t. But even when they do, they usually require a lot of editing. Here are a few quotes from established writers.
“Writing is the hardest work in the world. I have been a bricklayer and a truck driver, and I tell you – as if you haven’t been told a million times already – that writing is harder. Lonelier. And nobler and more enriching.” Harlan Ellison 

“I would never encourage anyone to be a writer. It’s too hard.” Eudora Welty 

“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades, 1947 

My church holds a women’s Advent Tea every two years, and each table has a hostess who decorates it and provides the dishes. One of the fun things about the event is the table viewing before lunch is served. Some of the tables are elegant and others are whimsical, but all have either an Advent, a Christmas, or a winter theme.
The first time I acted as a hostess, I used children’s books about Christmas for my theme. Last time I used lighthouses, inspired by a poem I had already written. The tie-in there was easy, because Jesus is the light who came at Christmas.
I’m a serious amateur photographer, and I looked through my pictures to see what I could use this year. Although I have photos of Christmas displays and family dinners, none of them struck a chord. I’m not sure why, but it was my seasonal photography that caught my attention. So I decided to use the four seasons as my theme.

But how could I tie that to Advent? I knew how it fit, but would the people viewing the table figure it out? I wasn’t sure, so I decided to spell it out in a poem.

That’s where the hard work began.

At first it flowed well enough. And after I got a couple of verses to a point where I was happy with them, I realized that each one had a 5-7-4 pattern: five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and four in the third.*

But then I started writing the verse about winter, and nothing seemed to work. Either the wording was clunky or dull or the syllable count was off. After a lot of reflection, thesaurus work, and wording changes, I finally came up with a winter stanza that I thought I could live with. It went like this:

He comes in winter
Among barren gray branches
Appearing dead.

Then I sent the poem off to my online critique partner. She though that stanza was too negative to fit the general tone of the poem. She made a similar comment about one of the words in the autumn verse, but the reference to blood was intended to remind us of Christ’s sacrifice, so I left it.

I had never been happy with my winter verse, however, so I went back to work trying to come up with something better.

Here is the finished poem. It isn’t a masterpiece, but it served its purpose. You can decide for yourself whether my hard work paid off.

He Comes 

He comes in summer
In thunderstorms and showers
Cleansing the earth. 

He comes in autumn
When trees proclaim his glory
With blood-red leaves. 

He comes in winter
As white blankets cover seeds
Soon to awake. 

He comes in spring
When a tiny robin’s egg
Brings forth new life. 

Jesus comes all year
Into the hearts of Christians
Saved by His grace. 


* There is one exception to the 5-7-4 pattern. Each stanza starts with “Jesus comes in [season].” Since “spring” has only one syllable, that line has four instead of five. I chose to sacrifice the syllable count to retain the wording repetition.

A Writer to Emulate

Monday, December 1, 2014

I usually avoid the quizzes that appear on my Facebook feed, but once in a while I give in. On Wednesday, I took a quiz to determine which classic literary character I resembled most. The answer? Jo March.
Jo March was Louisa May Alcott’s depiction of herself in Little Women. Both the character and her model were independent women who loved to write. They could also be outspoken at times. Those characteristics apply to me, too. So yes, I’m honored to be identified with Jo March.

But you don’t have to be independent or outspoken to emulate Louisa May Alcott. You don’t even have to be a woman. Louisa is a model for all writers.
The main thing I want to emulate is Louisa’s ability to teach without preaching. I hate it when a novelist lectures me. Sometimes I finish the book and sometimes I don’t, but even if I read it through to the end, I’m less likely to pick up something else by that author.

Louisa took a different approach. She taught, but she wrapped the lesson inside the story. Her approach was analogous to hiding healthy vegetables in children’s food.
Yes, Louisa did sometimes use narrative to summarize her teachings. That was the style of the day, and most writers can’t get away with it now. But Little Women and other books by Louisa May Alcott are still popular in spite of those narrative summaries. Why? I think it is because the narrative flows with the story, much like a leaf attached to a branch floating down a river. If the story hadn’t attracted and retained the reader’s attention, the lesson would have gone unnoticed as well.

Louisa described this phenomenon in one of her narrative summaries. In this passage from An Old-Fashioned Girl, Polly doesn’t like the way her friend Tom treats his sisters. So Polly invites Tom to her house, where he sees how Polly’s brother treats her.
[E]veryone knows that persuasive influences are better than any amount of moralizing. Neither Polly nor Will tried to do anything of the sort, and that was the charm of it. Nobody likes to be talked to, but nobody can resist the eloquence of unconscious preaching. With all his thoughtlessness, Tom was quick to see and feel these things, and was not spoilt enough yet to laugh at them. The sight of Will and Polly’s simple affection for one another reminded him of a neglected duty so pleasantly that he could not forget it. [Emphasis in original.]

So learn your own lesson from Louisa May Alcott. Don’t preach a sermon.
Tell a story instead.


The picture at the head of this post shows Jo March busy writing. It was drawn by Frank T. Merrill and was included in the original edition of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. First published in 1868, the illustration is in the public domain because of its age.