Once Upon a Basement

As a writer, I am often asked what inspired my trilogy. The truth is, it has taken most of my life to develop a story that has as many facets, characters, and plot twists as mine.

It’s not that I started out thinking I would write an intricate epic fantasy that would span three sizeable volumes. Rather, the inspiration for The Soultrekker Chronicles happened quite unexpectedly, stemming from an active childhood imagination and a basement where I was free to dream and be anyone I wanted.

As far back as my preschool years, my mother noted that I often made up stories, a proclivity that continued once I learned to write, taking the form of “lift-the-flap” tales that usually involved lonely monsters looking for a friend. As an older elementary school student enamored of Pippi Longstocking and her adventures, I wrote tales of a headstrong female, “Peggy White”, a young feminist who outsmarted all the boys in the neighborhood with her entourage of “girl power” followers.

Around that time, my family moved to a small town in southern Virginia, into a house with a sizeable basement in which I was given three quarters to do with what I wished, the fourth quarter reserved for my mom’s laundry area and our dog’s sleeping quarters. In that basement world, boxes became forts, houses, towns, and spaceships. Anything deemed junk became fair game for my imaginary play world. I put a Groucho Marx-style nose and glasses on a sled and called it “Fred”; an old foam surfboard topped with a red wig became “Gloria”, and a puppet head I attached to an old kite became “Georgie”. An only child has to get playmates wherever she can!

Then something happened that would forever change my life: my mother brought home from the library a copy of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I quickly devoured this and all the other books that made up The Chronicles of Narnia, completely enamored with the idea of children from this world magically popping into strange and wondrous alternate realities. Soon thereafter, a friend recommended I read The Lord of the Rings, and once more I fell in love with a book that transported me to a world filled with such marvelous creatures as elves, dwarves, dragons and hobbits.

It was not long afterwards that I fancied my basement world as truly another world, one that I could go to when the pressures of budding adolescence started to overwhelm. And so I retreated there, in secret, after school and on the weekends, and my play house morphed into a play castle, a mysterious forest “appeared” in the dark corner where we kept our sports gear, and Fred, Gloria, and Georgie were given new names: Frondamein, Loralon, and Amerigo. Sound familiar? If you have read my book, then you are very familiar with those names.

In my world a desk became a city called Maldimire. I had an invisible elf friend whose name I won’t recall here as it later had to be re-worked into something less weird. There was an archery range and a village I called “West Bend” in a country I called “Bensor” after a box sitting in the corner that had come with a West Bend brand popcorn popper inside. The village eventually evolved into what I now refer to as Baeren Ford, yet the description of the village retains that of a river with a sharp bend to the west.

My dad had fashioned a cardboard barrier between my part of the basement and that last quadrant that functioned as a laundry room, with an old fireplace screen that could be opened and closed without having to step over the cardboard. It was that old fireplace screen that served as the portal between the world of my imagination and the world of reality—of homework, of piano lessons, of middle-school angst. When I was on the other side of that barrier, I was free to be whoever I wanted, including a beautiful, mysterious young woman who was adored by all (except for the bad guys), who was courageous, and who had no difficulty relating to the opposite sex.

In the book version of The Lord of the Rings, there was an obscure character by the name of Arwen whose story was really only told in the appendixes. But she was beautiful. And she was loved by a king. And I wanted to be like her, so I called myself “Arwen”, too. But that Arwen and the character that would become my “Arwyn” each have very distinct stories.

But, alas, the reality of my developing body and mind and my growing sense that I dared not be caught dead playing “make-believe” prompted my retreat back into the world of reality, back across the cardboard barrier to face what remained of middle school with trepidation. The basement went back to being nothing more than a place to do laundry, where a box was simply a storage container, and old furniture went to die. My childhood was officially over.

And yet, deep in the corridors of my mind, my imagination would not allow itself to go out without a fight. A part of me longed to have that feeling again, of being another person in a world where anything could happen. I remembered my days as “Arwen”, and in moments of boredom: on the school bus, at the orthodontist, and sometimes while sitting in church, I expanded upon Arwen’s story. Somehow, having a creative outlet helped during my more lonely moments of high school, as if focusing on one woman’s strength in overcoming adversity empowered me to fight my own battles.

After a while, the story that began in my basement and then continued solely in my thoughts grew to the point that I realized I had the rudiments of an actual book. And so, for three summers straight, I locked myself away in my room during all available free time, and I pounded away on an old electric typewriter to put what was in my mind onto paper—184 single-spaced, typewritten pages to be exact. My parents speculated that I was writing my memoir, but at seventeen years old, I had hardly lived long enough to have much of a story of my own to tell.

I recently re-read my original manuscript. And I laughed. It was . . . well . . . bad. In fact, it was all I could do to keep from falling asleep while reading it. Now I shudder at the torture I put my parents through when I finally presented my work to them at the beginning of my junior year in college, right before heading off on a study abroad program in England for the term. If my plane were to crash somewhere in the Atlantic, I at least wanted them to know the secret I had kept for so long. And even though they were polite about it, I’m sure they were quietly relieved that I had decided to pursue another career path. Something other than writing.

Some very important elements of the story were missing from the original manuscript, among them being: no Kiril, no Hamloc, no Arnuin’s Hold, and most importantly, no Margaret Ann. “Arwen” simply appeared in Bensor and even the reader didn’t know where she had come from or who she had been before. And that early version of Arwyn didn’t even mind! I liken her now to some kind of squeaky-clean Snow White character “who loved everyone and who was adored by all”. Here’s a line from the original: “A bird alighted on the branch of a nearby tree and sang the most beautiful tune that Arwen had ever heard . . . welcoming her into her first morning in Bensor.” Can’t you just hear dwarves singing in the background? My characters were paper-thin—the good guys were good and the bad guys were bad.

The sickening sweetness got booted when I re-wrote the entire storyline years later, and now you have an Arwyn who’s mad as heck about being in Bensor and the fact that she remembers hardly anything of her life as Margaret Ann Shepherd. And she can kick some serious butt when she needs to.

One-hundred-eighty-four single-spaced pages later, my story was done. It was 1984, and I had completed one year of college. Coming home that summer to finally finish my “book” was a matter of principle—it went against the grain to not finish something I had started. And so it was that I wrapped up my manuscript and put it away in a box. Knowing I’d starve before I wrote a best-seller, I was ready to fully focus on a career in psychology instead. College and graduate school were before me, and I had other things on my mind than a story I had made up to help me get through high school. I didn’t need it anymore. I was done with it.

But it wasn’t done with me.


Just Another Political Blog Post

It has been less than a week since the most seismic election in U.S. history, and the dust is still far from settling. To half the country, the dust is more like nuclear fallout, and they are walking around like zombies, some out for blood. Then there is the other half, awakening like Dorothy in the land of Oz, blinking with bewilderment as she stares at a color-filled world and the beginnings of a yellow brick road that leads to the Emerald City, saying, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

To all the zombies and all the Dorothys out there, I have been where you have been, and even now I struggle daily between cautious optimism and grave misgiving. And that feeling would have been the same even if the outcome of the election had been different. Such is the nature of the choices we were given. Yet despite all the frustration, confusion and trepidation this election has elicited in me, there are certain truths I have discovered about politics that have taken shape over the past twelve or so years:

  1. My relationships mean far too much for me to jeopardize them over something like politics.

In the current frenzy to “unfriend” anyone with differing political views, I submit to you to remember that friend who brought you a meal and ran errands for you when you were eight months pregnant and on bedrest. Remember your crazy uncle who is the life of the party at family gatherings, the one who never fails to make your kids giggle uncontrollably. Remember the colleague who always brings donuts to your weekly staff meetings. Though they may have different views than you and may express them loudly, sometimes obnoxiously, they are still people, worthy of respect.

Despite the popular notion that differing viewpoints posted on Facebook never change anybody’s mind, sometimes a thoughtful post from a different perspective has challenged me to question how I see things. Sometimes I have even altered my way of thinking as a result. This is called growth. Let us, therefore, refuse to put ourselves in a bubble, filled only with people who agree with us. The alternative is to become more and more alienated and mistrustful of anyone we perceive as different, and that can’t lead to anything good.

  1. I am in general wary of throwing my endorsement behind a human being who, in all likelihood, will inevitably let me down.

Over the years, it has dismayed me to see many evangelical Christians, of which I am one, get in bed with the Republican Party. Even more dismaying was seeing prominent leaders of the evangelical church tout a candidate who often exhibits behavior antithetical to Christ as the new “savior” of our country.

Just as Dorothy discovered that the Wizard was not all he was cracked up to be, our political leaders are only human, which means they are flawed and have a propensity to sin. Church, you should know not to place your faith in humans and human institutions. Instead, focus on the reason why you were put in this world in the first place—to usher in the Kingdom of God by caring for the poor, the marginalized, the lonely, the grieving. Speak to the issues you care about, but don’t stake your reputation, our reputation, on humans and human institutions that are imperfect at best and at worse, corrupt. Because the world is watching.

  1. I am too complex a human being than to be defined by my political party.

I have been saying for years that extremes in either direction on the political spectrum are dangerous. Neither of our political parties holds the monopoly on truth. Each has its share of strengths, and each has its share of shortcomings. Neither gets it all right. There is no doubt that I have definite leanings in one direction over the other, but a lot of my views tend towards the middle and may even (gasp!) cross the line at times. I would like to think that I don’t blindly cast a vote for a party but that I vote based on the candidate’s or the issue’s merit.  I guess I’m coming to the realization that I’m one of those Independents that every politician wants to “court” each political season.  Wow, that kinda makes me feel special.

  1. The people who scream “tolerance!” the loudest are often the most intolerant.

Once I was yelled at, cursed at even, by someone who had the mere perception that I held a different political view. Now, I understood where it came from, that the person doing the yelling had been deeply wounded in the past and that all that baggage suddenly got projected onto me, but that didn’t stop me from crying buckets of tears for the rest of the day. I felt betrayed, humiliated, dehumanized—all from someone I considered a friend. It took every ounce of God’s grace I could muster to forgive and to love this person who had so hurt me, but somehow He helped me to seek reparation of the relationship. That experience made me look at whether or not I rush to tar and feather others in my heart, refusing to see them as something more than Democrat or Republican.

Contrast that experience to a conversation I had recently with a friend of mine from church (and how refreshing is it that we can differ politically and still worship together in the same place?). I knew she and I had differing political views, yet as we breached this sensitive subject over lunch, we discovered that, lo and behold, we had much more in common than we imagined! I think most of us want basically the same things: peace, prosperity, equality, a healthy environment—we just don’t always agree on how to get there. And let’s face it, the “how to get there” part can get really messy. Yet true tolerance is like marriage—you don’t always feel love towards your spouse, but you make a conscious decision, an act of will, to love and respect that person, to not be mean and call for their head on a platter, even when they drive you crazy.

And this leads to my next insight:

  1. We as a society have bought into the lie that to disagree with someone is the same thing as hating them.

I’m sure there are many out there who would disagree with some of the decisions I have made in my life: where I send my kids to school, who I cheered for in the last Super Bowl (Go Broncos!), and the fact that I choose plastic over paper in the grocery store (Don’t worry, I recycle religiously. I figure it takes less time to recycle plastic than to grow a tree). But if I assumed that all these people hated me because we don’t see eye-to-eye, then my list of friends would dwindle very rapidly, and I don’t even think my husband would be among them.

Back when I was going through graduate school, all of us future therapists had to go through group therapy ourselves. Through that process, I was confronted about my beliefs and attitudes. No one coddled me in order to spare my feelings. It was raw and it was hard and there were tears. But it also challenged me, and I am grateful for the enormous personal growth that came as a result. None of that would have happened if my fellow students hadn’t been willing to risk upsetting me. And not once did I see their confrontation as hateful. In fact, when later I was an actual psychotherapist and had to confront my adolescent patients and their families about a behavior or attitude that was concerning to me, I did so because I cared about them.

  1. The only person who has earned my full and complete endorsement is Jesus.

Far more important than any banner I may wave or any political party I belong to, my ultimate allegiance is to the one who died for me. He is the only one who always keeps His promises, has never lied to me, is always fair and just, and who truly desires what is for my good. He will never let me down.

  1. I can therefore trust Him with the results of this election and elections to come.

It is comforting for me to know that Donald Trump could not have won this election without God’s permission. Now, God may be using Donald Trump as a judgment upon our nation, like he used corrupt kings to bring judgment upon the ancient Israelites when they turned away from Him. Or maybe, something good will come of it, that Donald Trump is not the monster he has been made out to be, that God is going to use this new administration to bring about His purpose in the world. We as limited human beings can’t see the big picture, but we must trust that ultimately God is using whatever happens, good or ill, to bring the world closer to Him.

  1. If you want to make the world a better place, stop looking to our leaders to fix things and do something productive yourself.

One thing Dorothy learned when she finally made it to the Emerald City, it was not the Wizard who could ultimately provide her desires—she had possessed that ability all along. And so it must be with us. Ultimately our hope is not in any political leader. It is in the God of the universe who loves us and desires a relationship with us. If we want a better world, perhaps we need to look inwardly and let His love transform our hearts so that we will pray for our enemies, forgive those who have wronged us, and serve others who don’t look like us.

If you are happy with the results of the election, show humility. Don’t gloat. For the past eight years, you have known what it feels like to be on the losing team, so be kind to those who now feel like they are walking around with a target on their backs. And for those who are not happy with the results, may your deepest fears not be realized, and instead may they be replaced with a growing sense of peace and hope.

I would venture to say that God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. However, I think His heart is just as broken when an innocent baby’s life is taken in the womb as it is when we refuse to aid the downtrodden and oppressed, and when we hate others simply for the color of their skin. God has given us all certain sensitivities, and I think He expects for us to use those natural inclinations to help advance His Kingdom in this world. This is good news. And we could all use some of that.

Casting Pebbles: A Reflection on My First Book Signing

As I indicated in my first post, I am entering an unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable world of self-promotion with the publication of my first novel. Publishers these days don’t have the resources to sink a lot of money into promoting untested authors, so the majority of my book’s publicity therefore falls on my shoulders.

This is daunting in several ways. First of all, I have never taken anything remotely resembling a business or marketing course. Secondly, having to get out there and push a product, no matter how wonderful I think it is, goes against the grain. I don’t want to impose. I even hated selling Girls Scout cookies, and who doesn’t love thin mints?

But as my publisher explained to me, book marketing is like dropping pebbles in a pond and watching the ripples spread outward from the center until they cover the entire pond. It’s like that old shampoo commercial: “You tell two friends, and they’ll two friends, and so on, and so on . . .”

So, yesterday I took a deep breath and cast a pebble.  Packing up a box full of hardcovers, a box full of softcovers, my easel and book poster, a handful of postcards and bookmarks, I headed downtown to a little bookstore/bistro combo to set up shop. The manager had graciously agreed to let me do a book signing there, but I had grown increasingly apprehensive as the day approached and there was still no mention of my event on their website or Facebook page.

And when I walked in, it was obvious by the blank looks on their faces that they weren’t expecting me.

Me: “Hello, I’m here to do a book signing. Is the manager here?”

The girl behind the counter looked a little flustered. “No, she’s off today, but she did mention that you were coming.” (Big sigh of relief!) She went on to explain that a new owner had taken over only two days before, thus explaining the lack of publicity for my event. So far, things weren’t starting off very well.

Saturday book signing
A new adventure- feeling like a celebrity!

In between making crepes for customers, the girl behind the counter helped me set up a couple of tables near the entrance and there I camped out for a while. Right off the bat, someone came along and helped reduce my inventory—with the purchase of a hardcover, no less! Things were looking up!

After that came a dry spell. However, I did have a pleasant conversation with a lady who was chowing down on one of those crepes, and when she found out I was a former psychotherapist, proceeded to tell me all about her recurring dreams, to which I responded by telling her about my recurrent anxiety-driven tornado dream, experienced the previous night, no doubt in anticipation of the charm I would need to summon to sustain me through the day.

During another lull in the action, I spied two high school girls waiting in line to order their food. Ah, my target audience! Immediately, I zipped over to them and introduced myself. “Hey, I’ve written a book about a teenage girl who has an amazing adventure in another world,” I blurted out. Instead of looking at me like I had two heads, they were sweet enough to indulge me, checking out my book and then purchasing one! The success emboldened me.

It was a gorgeous fall day and unseasonably warm.  Right around noon the shopkeepers opened up the big sliding doors and let me sit in front so that I could accost not only their patrons but also anyone walking by on the sidewalk.  And there were a lot of people downtown on such a beautiful day. I felt like a broken record: “Hi! I’m having a book signing today!” I announced as people walked by, some of them muttering a polite “no thanks, not today” before hurrying off. Talk about stepping out of my comfort zone!

Enjoying the gorgeous fall day!

Yet some actually stopped to check out my book. I met a teacher in a Catholic school who loves to find books to recommend to her female students, book club members out looking for a new book to read, and other writers, both published and unpublished, who offered an understanding ear.

Somewhere along the way, the new owner of the bookstore/bistro, a man with a thick French accent, emerged from behind the counter to apologize for the mix-up about my book signing publicity and to offer me a crepe. It turned out to be the best crepe I’ve ever put in my mouth. I even put the shameless self-promotion on hold to devour it. Apology accepted!

Six hours later, I had sold 13 books. This might not seem like a lot, but in actuality I handed out many more postcards and bookmarks to people who had some degree of interest. If you cast your net into the water enough, eventually you’ll catch a fish.

Not that I’m comparing my fans to fish, mind you.

Or, to complete the “pebble” analogy, my ripple just got a little bigger.