No Ordinary Bible Translator

Monday, June 27, 2016

Roland and I recently returned from a Reformation Tour. We had a German tour guide who didn’t believe in free time or lunch, but we were with a fun group of people, so overall it was a good trip. We also learned a lot about Martin Luther and the Reformation.

The picture shows the study at Wartburg Castle where Luther translated the New Testament into German in just eleven weeks.. He translated the Old Testament as well, but he did that at a more leisurely pace while in his own home.

I always thought that Luther was the first to translate the Bible into German. That would have been a big accomplishment, but there are many skilled translators around today, and there probably were then, too. Still, it would have taken courage to stand up to a church hierarchy that didn’t want laypeople to know what the Bible actually said, and Luther had plenty of courage. So maybe that was what made him stand out. That was my thinking before this trip.

It turns out that Luther was not the first to translate the Bible into German after all. He was the first to translate it directly from the Hebrew and the Greek rather than from the Latin, which increased the accuracy of the translation. But that wasn’t what made his translation so awesome.

Germany was not unified at the time. Each region had its own dialect, and people from different regions had trouble understanding each other, so the earlier German translations were of little use outside their own regions. Luther’s primary contribution was to study the different dialects and figure out how to standardize them into a universal German language. In other words, he wasn’t the first to translate the Bible into German, but he was the first to translate it into a form that all German-speaking people could understand. Not read, of course, since most people couldn’t read, but that they could understand when it was read to them.

I call that genius, but Luther wouldn’t have agreed. He would have said, “Ad Dei gloriam” (Latin),” or “Zu Gott die Ehre“ (German).

To God be the glory.

Getting History Right

Monday, June 20, 2016

You’ve probably heard that the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was started by a cow. Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, to be exact.

The rumor was apparently begun by a reporter who wanted a colorful story to tell in his newspaper. It spread as quickly as the fire and had equally disastrous results—at least for the O’Leary family. Mrs. O’Leary never lived it down, even after the rumors were shown to be false. After all, people thought, every rumor has some truth to it.

And there was a germ of truth in this one. The fire did start in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn. But it started long after Mrs. O’Leary had finished her milking, taken away the lamp, and retired to bed in the nearby house.

One plausible theory is that a careless neighbor was smoking in the hay-filled barn. Another report speculated that men were gambling there and one of them knocked over a lamp. While the cause is still unknown, it is unlikely that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow did it.

I have started researching my next middle-grade historical novel, which takes place during the Great Chicago Fire. So how historically accurate do I need to be? Should I include the story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow?

Personally, I believe that historical fiction should be as accurate as possible. That doesn’t require me to ignore the story, but I need to place it after the fact and treat it as the rumor it was. I’m not far enough along to know whether I’ll even use it, but it can be done without portraying the contents of the rumor as fact.

With her back against the church wall, Julia pulled her legs up and hugged them. To her left, a woman held a squirming toddler and watched an older child rock back and forth.

“One of those Irish immigrants started it,” the woman told Julia. “She was milking a cow and left the lantern too close to his hoofs.” The mother moaned. “One kick, and now my children are homeless and the entire city is gone.”

“Did you see the cow do it?” Julia asked.

“No, but everybody’s saying it, so it must be true.”

The rumor of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow started within a day or two after the fire, and the existence of the rumor is factual even if the contents aren’t. The trick in writing historical fiction is to find a way to incorporate them without validating them.

Because false rumors have their role in history, too.

Chasing Perfection

Monday, June 13, 2016

One of the hardest parts of writing a book is knowing when to stop. Not where to end the story—which I covered in last week’s post—but when to stop working on it.

No writer has ever achieved perfection, and no writer ever will. If that was my goal, I would never finish a book. So when is it time to stop working on one manuscript and move on to the next?

I try to write the best book I can at the time, then get it edited and make a few final changes before moving from the production to the submission stage. But once I start submitting, my practice has been to keep my hands off the text and concentrate my writing skills on the next book. If a publisher accepts the manuscript and wants changes, I would do that, but the initial writing process is done.

Years ago, a publisher rejected a children’s chapter book but gave me a great critique and suggestions for improvement. I agreed with everything she said and decided that the manuscript needed major revisions before being submitted elsewhere. But it wasn’t my priority at the time, so I set it aside for later. It is still waiting.

That is the only book I have considered revising based on rejections or my knowledge that the book isn’t perfect. Sometimes you just have to accept what you have done and either keep submitting or move on to the next story. If I didn’t follow that rule, I would be stuck in an unending loop searching for an unattainable perfection.

But most rules have an exception.

I recently received this rejection letter for Desert Jewels:

You have written a sensitive novel that combines an important and difficult topic with a warm family story.

However, I’m afraid that [publisher] will be passing. Ultimately, we felt that the delivery of historical information was slightly too didactic, and that the story itself was a little too spare. For these reasons, we are declining the manuscript.

The letter confirmed my own unease about the adequacy of the plot, but I didn’t know how to fix it. Even though I still think it’s a good book as it is, I also know it could be better. But should I make revisions at this point?

I’m going to try. A week or two after receiving the rejection letter, I was in the shower when inspiration struck and I thought of some ways to improve the plot. So I’m going back to work on Desert Jewels before making any further submissions.

But I’m still not seeking perfection.


The photograph at the head of this post shows a Japanese-American grocery store in Oakland, California. Dorthea Lange took the picture in March 1942 as part of her official duties as an employee of the United States Government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain.

End There

Monday, June 6, 2016

As I mentioned in last week’s post, one lesson from the SCBWI Wild Wild Midwest Conference told me where to begin.
Another told me where to end.
If the action climaxes halfway through the book, something is wrong. Either I haven’t added enough obstacles, or I have a multiple-book series. No author should drag a story on simply because it is too short or the writer has more to say.
Actually, this lesson reinforced what I already knew. It was a lesson originally learned while writing Desert Jewels.
Regular readers to this blog know that Desert Jewels tells the story of a Japanese American girl who lives in California when Japan bombs Pearl Harbor. My early outlines split the story into four parts: (1) Berkeley, California before Emi was incarcerated, (2) Tanforan Assembly Center, (3) Topaz Relocation Center, and (4) Chicago, Illinois after Emi’s release.
As I reached Part IV in the drafting process, I had two problems. First, I was already at the maximum word count for middle grade fiction—at least for authors who weren’t named J.K. Rowling. Second, I had trouble coming up with ideas to make it more exciting than what had come before.
That’s when I realized that I didn’t need Part IV. Why not end it as Emi was heading toward freedom in Chicago? So I saved work for myself and boredom for my readers by cutting Part IV out. I did add a short epilogue, but it was a single chapter.
So if your story drags on, ask yourself if you need that material. If not, cut back to the story climax and add a resolution.
Then end there.