Margaret Ann Shepherd: The Birth of a Heroine

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.

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