Margaret Ann Shepherd: The Birth of a Heroine

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.

Once Upon a Basement

By on November 26, 2016

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

By on November 15, 2016

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.