Friday, April 25, 2014


I've been thinking about doors this week.

Not {necessarily} the wooden kind.

Here's why:

I've been reading a novel - a good novel, actually one of the more creative and well-written novels I've read recently - this past week. About halfway through it, as we rumbled our way to our church's Good Friday service, my husband asked me what I thought of the book so far. In silence, I ruminated, wishing for a cup of coffee to help my thoughts percolate. ;-)

"I like it," I finally replied, my words drawn out like caramel on a candy apple. "I like it. A lot. I think." And I went on to detail the many ways the book delighted me: multi-dimensional, fleshed-out characters; interesting plot twists I hadn't seen coming; historical bits I hadn't known before; internal struggles.

My husband said, "So what don't you like about it? You said, you think you like it."

I paused, unsure, then the realization dawned on me even as I spoke: "I don't think there was a door."

That was what had caused me to hesitate giving my utter approval to the book. You see, for years, I had wondered what separates good stories from great stories OR great stories from ones that leave you feeling like something was just a little bit lacking, the way you feel after ingesting too many Palmer's chocolates. :-) Obviously, there can be a lot of things that bring the story up a notch or two. But I've been thinking about this for a while, as this is at least the third book this winter that I've read lacking this entryway. Here's what I think.:

The door is what separates.

"What in the world is she talking about?" you might be thinking just around now. "What is this mysterious element, 'the door?'"

The door is, quite simply, the early-on decision {by the main character/s} to step away from their normal existence.  In most cases, it won't be a real door ... though in some, it may be! {See The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as one example, and The Hobbit as another.}  And the rule is: the main character has to step through that door willingly, or we'll start to feel like he or she is just a victim of Fate.

Can a really great story not have any {obvious} door? Possibly, but I'd like to examine that story and see if I can't find the door, hidden though it may be. Initially, I thought that the well-known novella A Christmas Carol might be a good example of a story without any door ... After all, the Christmas ghosts seem to drag him along without his inclination or desire. BUT then I remembered his brief response to the ghost: "If you have anything to teach me, let me profit by it." And so they fly out the window and set the story going.

What are some other well-known doors, some of which are hidden behind layers of disguises?
In The Secret Garden, Mary uncovers a door and walks through it, thus beginning the real plot. All of the book up to this point? Just set-up so that she could, in fact, be driven to open that door.

Or in Pilgrim's Progress? Christian walks through the wicket gate.

Take Hamlet. Where is the door in that play?  When Hamlet swears to remember/exact revenge on behalf of his father.

And a plot that wavers, that seems to be going nowhere? I wonder if the problem was simply this: there was no door. Or there one does exist, but the writer doesn't know it and so cannot ornament it aright?

I'm curious... Have you noticed the "door" in novels? Or, if you read mostly nonfiction, what about in that? Because my theory {as of right now!} is that EVERY good book has a door. {And now, like Mary in The Secret Garden, I'm on the lookout for them!}

Friday, April 18, 2014

How Much is Too Much? Thinking about Historical Fiction

This will come as no surprise to those who know me personally, but I read A LOT of fiction. Very little of it is so-called contemporary - actually, I can't think of the last book I read that was contemporary unless you count C.S. Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet, which I would count more as "vintage literature." :-) I read both historical fiction and "classic literature," as well as the odd fantasy book thrown in for good measure. And the last few historical fiction/classic lit books that I've read have made me start to consider a question that's important for me as a writer:

How much is too much?

In other words, how much "history" - from everyday life details to background events to popular movements - overwhelms the storyline, makes me as a reader start skipping, turns the "plot" into a glorified dry-as-dust history lesson?
I've come across at least two books during this past winter that have done this. The funny thing is, I love history ... but, if I'm reading a story, that history must be worked into the storyline so deftly that I barely notice its presence. Otherwise, I feel like the writer just calls attention to their extensive research which otherwise wouldn't be used explicitly {which temptation I understand - when you spend hours researching a topic, only to use a scrap of the info in the book, it can be a little disgruntling!}. Indeed, there is one particular author whose work I love - His storylines soar with truth - but I usually skip entire chapters in his books because he devotes so much space to background history - history that I don't need to understand the story.

And that brings me to "classic lit"...

Upon the recommendation of a couple of friends, I recently read Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. {I love the film version of this, and the book equaled that version in strength, a happy finding!} The interesting thing about North and South, as well as other classic literature choices, is: the author doesn't feel the need to fill you in on all the background historical info, the exact clothing designs of that era, how streets were built, etc., interesting as those snippets might be. Because classic writers are usually writing approximately-contemporary stories, they don't let the reader know every little detail of daily life or national history. What the reader needs to know comes out through story for the most part. 

So, I'm thinking...

What I as a reader prefer is the classic literature approach, where the "history" part is more organic, even assumed, shall I say? I am better able to lose myself as a reader in such a story, in general.


I have come across a couple of historical fiction books recently that seemed to be doing just that - not switching focus back and forth from official "history" to the main storyline but trying to integrate the two seamlessly - and they didn't work well. Rather than being transported back to a definite time and place, I felt lost. Curious because the storyline and character interested me. But still lost. {And no red shoes to get me home.} There wasn't enough history to provide structure. And a historical fiction book without enough appropriate history is like a chocolate cake with too little frosting. {Unacceptable, to say the least!} So what would I have loved to have with these stories?
  1. Footnotes or brief descriptions in the text. Personally, I don't mind footnotes, but I know a lot of readers dislike them, feeling like they are reading a history book. {Well, they are, but it is a fictional history. :-)} So a simple description of the weapon/clothing item/household tool within the story serves the same purpose. If done deftly, the storytelling spell will remain unbroken, and the reader will continue to follow along. Annotated versions of classic lit books do this very well. I particularly appreciated this with North and South and, less recently, with Daniel Deronda, as both stories weave current-events movements deeply into their stories. Glancing down at the footnotes to understand a comment one of the characters made, etc., furthered my enjoyment of the books. It would have worked equally as well to incorporate that info into the story, for a modern-day writer of historical fiction.
  2. A short historical note at the beginning of the book. For a time period with which most readers have little familiarity, the same kind of short blurb that occurs at the beginning of historically-based films {such as Gladiator - no, I'm not vouching for the accuracy of that film!} helps a great deal.
  3. A map - though this is the one I could let go most easily.
Hopefully, thinking this through will reap benefits for me in my own writing. You see, as a writer, I have lots of research in my head when I sit down to write, and I can get into "trouble" one of two ways - one, by assuming the reader has the background research that I do and so including very little to shape the world I'm creating for them; or two, deciding that the reader must know everything I've researched to enjoy the story.

What about you? Do you agree or do you see this differently? What authors make the past come alive for you - classic or contemporary historical fiction writers?

Friday, April 11, 2014

What's in a Name? Part 3: The VILLAINS!!!

Alright, so you can probably tell I'm a just a smidgen excited about this post.

Dear reader, I will tell you a not-so-very-secret secret: I love villains... They are, to quote Henry Higgins, "so deliciously low;" there are so many horrible qualities I can attach to them. Imagine you are me: You can single-handedly bring to life a character with the worst and most-cultivated faults, sins, and modes of thinking, and THEN you can set him or her loose to prey upon your protagonists. Yet, YOU control how far the villains' reach extends... until the moment he or she runs away from you and you have to chase them through the plot. {Yes, this does happen. I have sat writing a scene, completely absorbed in it, and suddenly a thrill ran down my spine as I realized, "HE [the villain] was listening in all the while to this conversation!? It's rather frightening to find a character hiding where you didn't expect him, I assure you.}

One of my favorite parts about writing The House of Mercy was switching viewpoints so frequently, trying to really get inside the heads and hearts of the various threads {i.e. characters} that made up the tapestry of the story. I did this with some of the villains, notably Lancelot, not because I wanted you as the reader to sympathize with an "evil character" or to think, as in the lyrics of Into the Woods, that "witches can be good," but because I see stories as a way of conveying Truth. Stories help us look into our own hearts and minds... When I, as a reader, hear what Lancelot is thinking and feeling, my own heart and mind will respond in some way {if the portrayal is done well}. The question is, what way do I respond, not to what the villain does, necessarily - most of us won't do "villainous" things because we can't get away with it unbesmirched - but to what the villain thinks and feels. For out of the heart we live our life, don't we? {Proverbs 4:23}

At any rate, the antagonists in The House of Mercy received their names with all due attention given to the meanings:


{pronunciation: DRUS-ten or DRUS-tawn} Of ancient Celtic origin, the name "Drustan" is an older form of the more commonly-known "Tristan" {as in the story of Tristan and Iseult/Isolde}. It has two possible root meanings: the Latin word tristis, or "sad," {but this meaning is unlikely since the "Drustan" version of the name came before the "Tristan" version}; and a Proto-Celtic word meaning, "riot, din, upheaval." In The House of Mercy, Drustan brings both sadness and also unrest into his own family through the choices he makes for evil and not for good.  Interestingly, Drustan is a different public man in some ways than a private one.



{pronunciation: WEY-len} A Celtic name, "Weylin" means "son of a wolf." And the son of a wolf he is. Ravenous, destructive, incalculable, unworthy of trust. Weylin certainly earned his name through the part he chose to play.


{pronunciation: LAN-se-laht} Unfortunately, this is one for which I cannot give you an exact meaning! The name possibly comes from the Germanic/Old French word lanzo, or "land." This word was the short form of many name variations, and it had the connotation of "servant." Later on, the name "Lancelot" became associated with the Old French lance, meaning "spear, lance." Despite the legendary character already existing with this name, knowing the meaning of the name Lancelot brings an ironic twist to him, I think: This lordly man - meant to be a servant of others through his rule as a nobleman - instead becomes the precise and ludicrous opposite: sensuous, self-serving, self-centered. By the way, the character Lancelot {some background here} leaped into the storyline one day as I was writing. I knew the sort of man I needed, but suddenly I realized, Lord Drustan's nephew is the Arthurian Lancelot. Though Lancelot is usually depicted in a sympathetic, chivalric way, I peered at him without the romantic veil thrown on him by the legends... and the bare facts of his tale make him into a pretty unscrupulous rogue. And so we find out what Lancelot was like before he reached the court of the High King...

 There are other characters who are "antagonistic" but whom I wouldn't necessarily classify as antagonists/villains... at least not yet. :-) Mordred comes to mind, for example. {If anyone wants more background on Mordred, you can look here.}

This puts a question before us, dear reader: What really makes a character/person an antagonist or a protagonist? Take Deoradhan, for instance - throughout three-quarters of the novel, he is pretty much bent on doing evil {though he sees it differently} ... Does this make him an antagonist/villain? If so, who is the hero/protagonist/villain?

Friday, April 4, 2014

What's In a Name? Part 2: The Major Female Protagonists

[artist unknown]
Wow! It's been a busy week here writing! Lord willing, by tonight or tomorrow, I should be halfway through the first draft (which is always the tough part for me) of the current novel I'm working on. I must keep the storyline under wraps for now... but hints will be coming soon, I believe! Please continue to keep my writing in your prayers, dear reader! I am truly grateful for you lifting me up before our Father.

As promised, here is part two of this post series on the meanings of the names in The House of Mercy. The female characters seemed more difficult to name for a very simple reason: there were fewer female than male names in post-Roman Britain. Add to that this problem, too: Many female names are variations of one single root name, which normally isn't a problem in "real life." (For example, my own name, Alicia, is a variation of "Alice.") But when I'm trying to ensure that you, the reader, keeps all your characters straight in the story, I have to name the characters in a way that distinguishes them one from another fairly distinctly!

So, let's dig into the what, how, and why of naming the female protagonists in The House of Mercy.



Of course, I have to start with Bethan. You know, the novel originally revolved completely around her story; that was in the first draft, which was written in a journal-style many moons ago. ;-) Here is the shocking tidbit: I did not name her Bethan until the almost-final draft. And yet, now, I can't imagine her with another name and have to think a bit before remembering what her other names (there were several) were. Bethan is a mainly-Welsh form of the Hebrew name Elizabeth, meaning, "God has promised.'' (It's pronounced BEH-than.) In The House of Mercy, Bethan comes to understand her God's integrity and His trustworthiness to care for her, and to rely on Him alone.


Another Welsh name, Tarian means, "shield." I chose her name because of the connotation its meaning had for me, rather than the denotation. Her character reminds me of Tolkien's Shield-Maiden of Rohan - spirited, somewhat willful, sensitive, and frightened that she will be "locked in a cage" (as Eowyn says) by her own choices and those of others in control of her. Yet, the Lord Christ displays that He is her shield and her exceedingly great reward (see Genesis 15:1). By the way, Tarian walked into storyline herself; I didn't expect her, but I did find her intriguing! (There is more to her story, as well, I think...)


Pronounced EN-ya (a relief for those of you who have been pronouncing it to rhyme with "pain!"), the name Aine finds its root in the Irish goddess of prosperity, summer, and sovereignty. The meaning given differs depending on the source, from "white," to "lucky," to "splendor," and "desire." In The House of Mercy, Aine longs (or "desires") to be filled with happiness, romantic love, and security, as well as to rule her own destiny (much like a goddess). Yet, she finds that all her self-directing ways of fulfilling these desires end in heartache. Aine lays herself down at the foot of the mercy seat and is filled with Christ, made white by His blood, and becomes blessed indeed.

If you missed the first part of this series on the meanings of names in The House of Mercy, you can find that here. Next, we'll be tackling THE VILLAINS! :-) I love the villains ...


A question for you, dear reader: Did you have a favorite character is The House of Mercy? If so, what about that character made him/her your favorite?