December, 2016

Deck the Halls with Buon Natale!

By on December 24, 2016

It’s pretty obvious that one of my favorite creative endeavors is writing, but in recent years I’ve come to the conclusion that much of my creativity is visual in nature. In fact, I took one of those online intelligence tests several years ago, and it turns out I’m off the charts when it comes to visual/spatial smarts; which tells me I should’ve been an architect, or a designer. Even as a kid, I was always dreaming up fun, kid-friendly house floor plans, and I loved seeing how other people lived in and decorated their own spaces.

I do feel a rush of satisfaction when I create something with my hands that is a delight to the eyes. It’s the same rush I felt when I first discovered scrapbooking. There’s an artist inside me that has never quite accepted the fact that I draw stick figures at about the level of a third grader. With no talent when it comes to drawing, I’ve had to find creative outlets in other directions.

Decorating is one of those outlets, and doing so on a budget provides an added challenge. This time of year, as visions of twinkle lights dance in my head, I make multiple trips to Michael’s and Hobby Lobby for the best deal I can find on garland and ornaments. Every year I add a few more items, and over the years I have amassed quite a collection. Add this to the Christmas decor I inherited from my parents, and it takes an entire small storage room to house all of my Christmas decor.

I’d like to share some of my favorite decorating ideas in hopes that you will be inspired. After all, most of my ideas have come from others, with a few tweaks here and there to make them my own.

 

Dining Room Table Centerpiece

My dining room table centerpiece is one of my favorites, a combination of both new and re-purposed gold and

Dining Room Table Centerpiece

silver blingy decor I’ve collected from HomeGoods, Hobby Lobby, and Pier 1. Just spread it out along a table runner, add some battery-operated lights, a couple snowglobes with dreamy winter scenes and voila! you have a festive centerpiece. If your table centerpiece now makes the light fixture above the table look drab, dangle ornaments from a garland draped around the chandelier. And for added warmth, forego glaring chandelier lights for a strand of battery-operated lights strung throughout the garland

 

Festive Chandelier

 

“Garage Sale” Tree

You may have a tree that has collected all the kids’ homemade ornaments and all the other mismatched ornaments you’ve received over the years, the one that looks like a garage sale. Twist a big mesh ribbon around the tree from top to bottom, add a few floral picks, and your garage sale tree suddenly looks like it could be featured in the latest issue of “Good Housekeeping”.

 

Formal “No Touch” Tree

So, last year I did splurge and bought new ornaments for a more formal, coordinated tree, one that sits in a front window in the only room in my house that remains pristine due to my strict no food, no shoes, no dog policy. And, as it’s more a library and museum filled with all the nick-knacks I inherited from my parents, it’s also the quiet place I go to regain some sanity.

 

 

Snowman Scenescape

 

 

I’m a big fan of snowmen, and these particular ones I’ve had around for years in various spots all over my house. But I think they’ve found a permanent home in this kitchen window, framed by the splendor of a wintry outdoor scene. The candlesticks I inherited from the previous owner of our house and, adding the red candles and cool dangly white candle rings, along with a strand of battery-operated, snowflake-shaped lights tucked underneath some white Buffalo snow fluff, I’m ready to go walking in a winter wonderland. The sparse garland hanging in the window is decked out with red, green, and white clothespins, from which I hang Christmas cards. I just have to make sure the cards don’t get too close to the candle flames!

 

My “Memory” Tree

This little tree is simple, but it’s my favorite. It has been a tradition in our family to buy a souvenir Christmas ornament wherever we go during the year. With the exception of the year we spent in Europe, when we added at least two dozen new ornaments, most years  we’ve added two or three to the point that we are starting to run out of room on this little tree for additions. Most of the time we don’t want to waste our money on some junky souvenir that will just end up collecting dust on a shelf somewhere. The beauty of buying ornaments as souvenirs is that they typically cost very little, take up little room in your suitcase, and once a year provide a reminder of wonderful family memories. Even junky souvenirs can be turned into cute ornaments with a little string.

 

Christmas Village

I’ve been collecting pieces of the Department 56 “Christmas in the City” series Christmas village for years, and now I have the perfect place to display it- on the top of a bookshelf in front of my basement window. Above it, from an old, rustic, reclaimed wood ladder suspended from the ceiling dangles five lanterns lit with fairy lights and candles. (Are you seeing a theme here?) It’s magical. Sometimes I wish I could miniaturize myself and go hang out in the Christmas village, returning to a simpler time when people went caroling, rode in horse-drawn sleighs, and skated on frozen ponds.

 

 

 

Woodland Scenescape

As I mentioned in a previous post, we recently remodeled our basement, giving it a more Tuscan/Italian flair (Italy being another passion of ours), along with some more practical renovations that actually keep us from shivering when we go downstairs to watch a movie or play games. One of the additions was a peninsula fireplace with a large shelf, a space on which to unleash even more creative energy. And, as our basement tends to be rustic, it made sense to continue the theme on the mantle with a cute woodland scene, complete with creatures purchased from Pier 1 and, of course, more twinkle lights and faux birch candles.

Tuscan-themed light fixture

Christmas lights aren’t just for Christmas anymore. After all, why keep the magic for just one time of year? After a long deliberation on how to make our basement bar more cozy, nothing short of adding an expensive soffit over the counter would give it that warm pub feel. Even so, this was supposed to be an Italian-themed renovation, not English. It was then that I discovered the perfect solution on Pinterest: suspend an old ladder made of reclaimed wood from the ceiling, add to it some old rustic baskets I already had in my kitchen cabinets, some fake food from Hobby Lobby reminiscent of an Italian kitchen, some grape cluster lights also found at Hobby Lobby, and I had a perfect, yet inexpensive light fixture for over the bar! All my contractor had to do was add a plug-in for the lights in the ceiling, and it was good to go.

God’s Handiwork

Of course, no amount of my creativity could ever come close to God’s masterpiece I see all around me. As I stroll through God’s living room, decorated with ornaments of delicate white in an unfathomable array of intricate shapes floating dreamily down from the heavens, demure swans gliding gracefully along the surface of a lake, oblivious to the cold that nips at my nose, and evergreens arrayed in wintry white, I am reminded once more that my attempts to create something of beauty is simply a reflection of His creativity in me.

Buon Natale to you and yours!

 

Margaret Ann Shepherd: The Birth of a Heroine

By on December 15, 2016

Thirteen years had passed since I typed “The End” on the fantasy story I conjured during adolescence. I had since graduated from college with a degree in psychology, followed by a master’s degree in counseling. I was living in Atlanta, a young single woman working a thankless job in a psychiatric hospital, hoping to make a difference in the lives of the adolescents on my caseload. I often came home to my tiny apartment, discouraged, frustrated, exhausted. If it hadn’t been for my wonderful, supportive colleagues and for those glimmers of hope when my patients made breakthroughs in our therapy sessions, I don’t know how I could have survived my career as long as I did.

It was 1997. I had just emerged from one of the most difficult times of my life, a time I think of as my experiment in post-adolescent rebellion. For five years I had been floundering in the waters of my own bad choices. Now, mind you, these are not choices I necessarily regret as, without them, I would not have experienced the wonder of God’s grace as fully and as powerfully as I did. It was only His grace that buoyed me to the surface, where I found myself gasping for air. The girl I had been was lost, and I was desperate to find her again.

I was eating lunch with my colleagues in the hospital cafeteria, and the conversation around the table turned to what each of us would do if we weren’t battling in the trenches of mental health. One of my fellow therapists told us her dream of illustrating children’s books. Immediately, I piped in with, “Well, I’ve written a book. If I ever re-write it, I’ll let you be the illustrator!”

At that moment, the sky opened and I could hear angels singing.

Actually, it was more like being struck by a bolt of lightning! I left work that evening, mind bombarded with ideas about how to re-write that old, neglected story I had written as a teen, the one I had kept tucked away in a closet for all those years. But something else had also happened—the heart that had been beating just enough to keep me breathing started beating a little faster, as if that bolt of lightning had jolted it back to life.

Within the week, I went to Barnes & Noble and bought two books, one on how to write stories of fantasy and science fiction and the other on revising fiction. I devoured both.  And the ideas about how to make Arwen’s story more grown-up poured into my brain.

First off, I couldn’t call my heroine “Arwen” anymore. The connection to Tolkien’s Arwen was just too strong. But to completely do away with it would be like me deciding not to be called “Mary” anymore. I knew what I’d do! I’d spell it differently: “A-R-W-Y-N”. And if that wasn’t acceptable to a publisher . . . well, I’d cross that bridge later.

The second thing I realized was that I had to develop Arwyn’s character beyond what it had been in the original version. She couldn’t just appear in Bensor with no explanation of who she had been in this world. She needed some depth, some character development. That’s when Margaret Ann Shepherd was conceived. And since the whole idea of my story started with a pre-adolescent fantasy of me being able to pop into a different world at will, it seemed only natural that I base the life of Margaret Ann loosely on my own. Even as I wrote about my young, seventeen-year-old heroine, I could picture my high school, the house I lived in as a youth, and the small Southern town where I grew up.  Margaret Ann’s father, Reverend William Shepherd, honors my father, a Baptist minister, and my grandfather, William Calvert. And, I thought it quite clever to give her a last name indicative of one who herds sheep, being keenly aware of my own Anglo-Saxon surname, which means “calf herder”. Even the name Margaret Ann is a combination of my mother’s name, Margaret, and her sister’s name, Ann. Like these two important women in my life, Margaret Ann has the same reserved dignity and grace about her as did my mother, along with my aunt’s adventurous, feisty spirit. And while some of the characters in Margaret Ann’s life are based on real people in my own, most are a conglomeration of many different people I have known through the years.

But Margaret Ann is not so much me as she is the teenager I would have hoped to have been. She’s smart, she’s compassionate, and she’s savvy, but she knows which battles to fight and which ones to let be. Of course, she has her share of insecurities, but underneath her reserved façade she’s tough. Unlike me, she can kick some serious butt. Also unlike me, an only child, Margaret Ann had a brother whose untimely death contributed to a grief and guilt that never fully healed, a facet of her psyche that will become much more evident later in the series.

With a few tweaks here and there, I was on my way to creating a portrait of a reluctant heroine with a strong sense of justice and a disdain for being in the spotlight. But how to introduce her in a way that would draw the reader in and make them want more? This was the bane of my burgeoning writing career. Once Margaret Ann made it to Bensor, the story would write itself, but introducing her in a way that was both informative and compelling I found vexing.

That’s when it dawned on me to use my background in psychotherapy to enrich my book and to introduce Margaret Ann after she has returned from her other life. And who wouldn’t seem a little whacko after they’ve just come back from living another life in another body in another world, and suffering from amnesia to boot? I started out my book with Dr. Susan dictating a psychological evaluation on Margaret Ann. It seemed ingenious at the time, but it was all wrong. As several rejection letters from potential agents pointed out, was this Margaret Ann’s story or Dr. Susan’s story? This point of view issue was a problem.

It was back to the drawing board. I then decided to begin at the end, the very moment when Margaret Ann wakes up in her bedroom after her adventure in Bensor—the moment it became clear that she was not normal. Psychotherapy would still play a role because, of course, her parents think she’s lost her mind. But it would be the means by which she would remember her life in Bensor, not as a way of introducing her character. And so, I wrote Margaret Ann waking up in her bedroom, disoriented, confused, and speaking as though she’d just come from a Renaissance fair.

But the beginning of the story still lacked Oompf! It would not be until I attended a writer’s conference as recently as 2015 when it was suggested that Margaret Ann’s “return” to this world needed to be more dramatic, like her waking up, not in her bed, but in the . . . well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out! But it worked, and the pieces of my confounding prologue were finally pieced together.

It was nineteen years ago when I knew my calling was to write The Soultrekker Chronicles. A year later, I found myself in a car with a guy named Rob who I had only recently met at my church singles’ group. We were with two other people from that same group, heading to a day camp for foster kids from the Fulton County, Georgia Department of Family and Children Services. At some point during the ride, I mentioned that I was taking archery lessons.

“Why?” Rob asked. “For self-defense?”

This guy’s dry humor made me laugh. “For your information, I am doing research for a book I’m writing,” I quipped.

That afternoon, I watched that same guy leading a band of orphaned kids from inner-city Atlanta around like he was the Pied Piper, and I was even more impressed when he patiently helped me pull a wayward nail out of a birdhouse I was helping one of those kids build and then nailed it in properly. This was a guy I needed to pay closer attention to.

No lightning bolt struck. No angels sang. And even though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was at that moment when I started loving him.

He saw something special in me, too. One thing led to another and eighteen months later, we were married. It turned out that having the love of a good man, in combination with a meaningful outlet for my God-given creativity and imagination, and ultimately the gifts of a gracious God who has given me way more than I ever deserved, brought this trampled heart back to life. And somewhere along the way, I re-discovered the girl I used to be, only now I was older, wiser, and beyond grateful for my redeemed life. And that meant that Arwyn had to grow up, too. She could no longer be the squeaky-clean Disney character who looked at the world through rose-colored glasses.  In actuality, Arwyn’s story is really my own.

Rob and I had our first child two years after we were married, followed by a move half-way across the country to Colorado. Three years later twins came along, and with aging parents who still lived in the South, I was beginning to learn what it meant to be in the “sandwich” generation. Still, somehow I managed to grasp fleeting moments of time to myself, steadily, persistently, until my writing was done. It was 2007. I had been working on my book for ten years. My “magnum opus” complete, Arwyn’s story was finally ready for the big time!

Only it really wasn’t.

You see, it was then that I hit a seemingly impenetrable wall that was the harsh reality of the publishing industry—and it turned out to the best thing that could have ever happened to me, and especially to Arwyn.