Wednesday, December 29, 2010

This Writer's Prayer

Dear Heavenly Father,

First, I come before Your throne to worship You, for You alone are worthy of my worship. You are holy. You are sovereign. You are Creator God in Whose image I am made.

I thank You for Your mercy and grace and for the many gifts You bestowed this year, in both my personal life and my professional life.

Now I pray that You will continue to lead in 2011. This time next year may I be able to look back and see Your hand in every aspect of my life, including my writing, storytelling, and teaching. Be Thou my vision! Guide my words, my steps, my attitudes, my imaginings, my encounters.

Life in You is a great adventure! I look forward to the next leg of this journey Heavenward. Be glorified!

In Jesus' precious Name . . . amen.

Dear gentle reader, may you, too, have a very blessed New Year.

I invite you to stop over at Hoosier Ink, where I just posted a related article. Thank you. And thank you for visiting Sharon Kirk Clifton, Writer and Raconteur. I hope you'll continue to do so.

Write on!
Because of Christ,

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Reflections: Five

The Christ of Christmas
[First appeared December 2009 on this blog]
The house is quiet in this predawn hour. Soon my grandsons will come bounding down the stairs and into my room. "It's Christmas, Gran'ma! Merry Christmas," they'll shout. The day will get busier from that moment, so I am snatching this brief time to write the final entry in the "Christmas Reflections" series.

This posting should have been finished by now, but I couldn't find direction. As a writer and storyteller, I had no trouble putting myself in Mary's place. I could imagine her, propped up against the rough boards of a stall, still perspiring from the labor of giving birth, cradling her newborn son in her arms while she examined every wrinkle and pore of His face--the face of God. I could see her bending to drink in His sweet scent and kiss the hollow at the bridge of His nose. I envisioned her slipping aside her robe just enough to put Him to her breast, giving sustenance to the One Who had created her. No doubt she pondered the words of the angel Gabriel, who told her, "He shall be great."

But this was no ordinary baby. With the conception of Jesus, Almighty God condescended from His position to take on human flesh and enter the world of man. The details of His coming were foretold by God Himself, as He escorted Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and through His prophets throughout the Old Testament. I love Luke 4:16-22, which says:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. and as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
The Christ did not come to be a cute, giggling, wriggling baby for everyone to coo over. The manger stood in the shadow of the cross. The captives? The blind? The oppressed? That's mankind. Me. You. We are held captive by sin. We are willfully blind to His truth. We are oppressed by our own wickedness. Jesus was born to die on the cross to take away the sin of all who repent and believe in Him. He then conquered Death and Hell by resurrecting from the tomb.

Two millennia ago, a baby was born under humble circumstances to a peasant girl, a virgin until after His birth. That baby is the King of kings, and his prophesied return is imminent. Indeed, the King is coming!


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Reflections: Four

  Nylons for Lunch

I always knew that Santa Claus was a wonderful fantasy. Mama never took me to sit on his lap, at least not that I can recall. Perhaps she wanted to protect me from the disappointment of a nearly giftlessgiftless," because I usually got something practical--a new pair of oxfords from Schiff's Shoes, a cozy flannel nightgown from Grant's, or a blouse from Kresge's dimestore. It was never anything frivolous such as a transistor radio from Sears'. Christmas morning. I say "nearly

My gifts to Mama were handmade in the early years. After all, one would have to collect a ton of empty bottles to get anything really nice. I was in junior high when I decided that she deserved something better than a potholder woven on a borrowed toy loom or a boot-scraper crafted from pop bottle lids nailed to a small square of plywood. (After all, we lived in the heart of downtown New Castle, Indiana, so we seldom had mud on our shoes, and any snow that might be on them would melt away long before we had trudged up the three flights of stairs to our apartment.) But what could I get her, and how could I pay for it?

I began to walk the aisles of the stores looking for just the right present. One day I decided to go into Mary Woodbury's, the finest ladies' apparel shop in town. How brazen of me to even walk through the heavy brass and plate-glass door! The floor was carpeted in some plush stuff. My oxfords sank in up to the laces. Soft music played in the background. An intoxicating fragrance filled the air. I inhaled deeply, trying my best to be quiet about it. It would never do to sniff loudly in Mary Woodbury's.

I couldn't stand there and take root in the rug, so I forced myself forward to the perfume counter. Mama liked perfume, though I'd never known her to wear anything but Coty's L'Oreal, which was sold at the corner drugstore.

"May I help you?"

I turned to see a well-dressed sales clerk with meticulously coiffed hair. At least, I assumed she was a sales clerk. Could it be Mary Woodbury herself? Suddenly I felt like a ragamuffin who had wandered in off the street . . .which was exactly what I was.

"I . . .uhm . . ." Quickly, I picked up one of the perfume bottles. "Can you please tell me how much this is?"

"Yes, miss. That would be eight dollars." I gulped and hoped she hadn't heard. "Shall I wrap it for you?"

"Uh . . .no, thank you. I think I'll keep looking."

Next to the perfume was the hosiery counter. I walked over to take a look. The clerk stayed right with me. She showed me a pair of Van Raalte nylons that came in a box with tissue paper. How elegant! How perfect for Mama! And they were . . .possible . . .if I really saved. A mere two dollars and ninety-nine cents.

The junior high had no cafeteria, so Mama gave me a quarter everyday for lunch at one of the numerous hamburger joints within walking distance of the school. Doug's, with it's killer hamburgers and steaming chili, was my favorite. Both the burgers and the chili were fifteen cents apiece. During this parsimonious time, I got one or the other and drank water. Thus I was able to stash a dime per day for the Van Raaltes. As Christmas drew closer, I skipped lunch all together. The thought of Mama's getting all dressed up to go somewhere, slipping on those luxurious stockings, and asking me to fasten the clasp of her double-strand graduated pearls (a remnant of more prosperous years) helped me forget my growling stomach.

Two days before Christmas, I walked into Mary Woodbury's and up to the hosiery counter with cash in hand. The same clerk came up to me.

"I would like one pair of the Van Raalte hose, size 9, in taupe, please."

I could have sworn the clerk was pinching back a smile, but she may have just stifled a burp. "Would you like that gift-wrapped, miss?"

I stood on tiptoe and leaned over the counter so that only she could hear me. "Is that extra?"

"No, miss."

"Then, yes, please."

On Christmas morning, Mama ever so delicately loosened the tape of the silver-wrapped Van Raalte box, pausing only to notice the embossed Mary Woodbury's sticker near the bow. Memories of those afternoon hunger pangs vanished in the light of her smile. It was absolutely delicious.

Merry Christmas, Mama. I love you.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Snow Day...

Photo by Brian Tang

Dear God,

I just got the call. School is canceled for today because of snow. But Lord, it's the last week before Christmas break. It's also semester's end. We have so much to accompli . . .

 Be still and know that I am God.
Yes, Lord, I do know that, but today the seventh- and eighth-graders were to plan their homecoming float, and I'm . . . well, I'm the faculty sponsor for that, and . . .
 Have fun in the snow I have sent. It is a gift of the season.
Oh, it is beautiful, Lord, but my students were to recite their Poetry Out Loud poems today, so they'll be ready to . . .
 Today, be at peace. Meditate on My Word. 
I love to do that, Father. So often it seems I'm too busy to spend the time I want and need in Your Word, but I have one novel and one play I'll be teaching second semester, and I've never read the nov . . .
  Photo by Brian Tang

Creation pauses on days like this to take notice. My child, take notice!
Oh, and I need to talk with my tenth-grade honors class about . . .  Finals are this week!
Take a walk in the snow with your grandchildren, more gifts from Me. Write. Read. Watch a good movie.
Thank You Lord, for this wonderful snow day. This truly is the day that Thee, Lord, has made! Amen.

Dear gentle readers, what are you doing on this fine "snow day"? I'd love it if you'd tell us about it in the "Comments" section. 

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Christmas Reflections: Three

A Birth Most Imminent

Just hear those sleigh bells jinglin', a ring-ting-tinglin', too. Come on, it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you.

It was a cherished ritual with us--myself and my two daughters. At least once a Christmas season, we would bundle up against the cold, get in the car, and take a grand light tour, stopping off first at a gas station for tall, steaming cups of some specialty holiday coffee or cappuccino. Then, with music of the season playing in the background and us joining in, we'd head for the most spectacular displays we could find, the ones where folks stopped their cars, dimmed their lights, and sat for awhile to take it all in.

You know the spot. You have one in your town, most likely. Perhaps it is a neighborhood where on a special night the streets and walkways are lined with luminarios. Or maybe it's the home of a retired man whose hobby is converting his garage into Santa's workshop and his lawn into a quiet Bethlehem scene once a year.

Giddy-yap, giddy-yap, giddy-yap! Let's go! Let's look at the show. We're ridin' in a wonderland of snow.

We usually visited the flashiest displays first, before wandering onto quiet streets. One night, colored lights shone through a fresh layer of snow, turning neighborhoods into a surrealistic winter wonderland. We rolled the car windows down, willing to endure the cold in order to hear the sound of our tires crunching snow. The icy glow of a nearly-full moon added to the mystery of the scene. We were in an upscale suburb, and most of the properties were decorated to some degree. Brightly-lit Christmas trees stood where they could be seen from the street, electric candles glowed in each window, and wreaths of fresh evergreenery hung on heavy doors of wood and brass.

Let's take the road before us and sing a chorus or two. Come on, it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you.

One house stood out for its lack of adornment.

"Stop," I said to my older daughter who was driving. "Let's go back to that house."

Both daughters asked why. "I can't explain it, but I just think that we should carol the people who live there."

My younger daughter who was sitting in back leaned forward. "Do you know them?"

"No. That doesn't matter."

We went back, parked the car, and walked up to the door. I knocked firmly, and, without waiting for an answer, we began to sing in three-part harmony, as we often did at church.

Silent night. Holy night.

The door opened, and there stood a young man and his wife. He had his arm around her to warm her.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed. The little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head.

The young woman looked up at her husband and smiled.

We wish you a merry Christmas! We wish you a merry Christmas! We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!

"Thank you. Thank you so very much," said the woman. "I'm in labor. We're on our way to the hospital. And I was not looking forward to the ordeal ahead of me. But I know I can make it, now. I really needed to hear your lovely caroling."

"Yes," the man said. "Thank you. And merry Christmas to you, also."

On our way out of that neighborhood, God gave us another blessing. A family of deer numbering seven or eight wandered onto a broad, snow-covered lawn just as we were about to pass. Again we stopped the car and dimmed the lights. The deer lingered, watching us watching them. For several minutes we sat there, sipping the last of our drinks, cold by now, before heading for home.

There's a birthday party at the home of Farmer Gray. It will be the perfect ending of a perfect day.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Christmas Reflections: Two

The Candies of Christmas
These are a few of my favorite Christmas recipes.

Martha Washington Creams
2 lbs. sifted confectioners' sugar
1 can sweetened condensed milk
2 cups flaked coconut
1 stick butter (not margarine)
3 cups chopped pecans
1 jar drained maraschino cherries (pat dry with paper towel), snipped or chopped finely
Dipping chocolate
Mix all ingredients together; shape into balls; chill until hard. Dip chilled balls in dipping chocolate and let cool. Store in airtight container in refrigerator.

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup chunky natural peanut butter
2 cups chow mein noodles
Microwave the chocolate chips and peanut butter just until melted. Stir together. Add chow mein noodles and toss to coat. Drop by spoonfuls onto waxed paper or parchment. Chill in refrigerator. Story in airtight container.

Black Walnut Cream Cheese Fudge
1 six-ounce package semi-sweet chocolate chips
6 ounces original cream cheese (not low-fat) at room temperature
2 tablespoons milk or cream
4 cups sifted powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract and 1/2 teaspoon black walnut extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup coarsely chopped black walnuts (can substitute walnuts or pecans)
Butter a 9 x 9 x 2-inch baking pan well; set aside. Melt chocolate chips in double boiler over hot, not boiling, water. Cream the cream cheese and milk together. Gradually add powdered sugar. Blend in melted chocolate chips, vanilla, and salt. Stir in black walnuts. Press mixture into pan. Cover with plastic wrap, and chill overnight or until firm. Cut into squares.

Dale's Date Delight

1 cup chopped pecans
2 cups sugar
2 cup dates, snipped
3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
2 teaspoons baking powder
6 eggs, separated
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Beat egg yolks until light and lemon colored. Slowly beat sugar into the yolks. In medium bowl, mix other dry ingredients (pecans, dates, and graham cracker crumbs). Stir dry ingredients slowly into egg yolk mixture. Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. Add baking powder to the beaten whites. Fold gently into yolk mixture. Pour into an ungreased baking dish. Bake 30--45 minutes, depending on the size of the baking dish. Serve with whipped cream or hard sauce.
Special Note: Dale's Date Delight rises quite a bit, so use a baking dish or casserole that allows head room.

Hard sauce: In a medium-size bowl, using mixer set at medium high speed, beat one stick of unsalted butter (softened), with 1 cup confectioners' sugar until light and fluffy. Add 3 tablespoons dark rum. Serve on Dale's Date Delight or your favorite bread pudding recipe.

Bleu Cheese Ball
(What? You say a cheese ball isn't "candy"? It may depend on how one defines "candy."  :-)   )

1 eight-ounce pkg. regular cream cheese (not low fat)
1 eight-ounce pkg. "1/3 less fat" cream cheese
1 four-ounce pkg. bleu cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup finely chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts)
Bring cheeses to room temperature. Cream together in a medium mixing bowl. Form into a ball. Refrigerate until firm. Roll in nuts until well-covered. Gently press nuts into cheese ball. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve with assorted crackers. I prefer plain ol' whole-grain saltines, myself.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Christmas Reflections: The Dark Streets Shineth

The Dark Streets Shineth
When I was a child, the streets of New Castle, Indiana--my home town--became magic at Christmas time. "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" blared from bell-shaped speakers mounted atop some of the buildings. Shop windows sparkled with colored lights and tempting displays. Wide-eyed children pressed their noses against the window glass to get a closer view of the Terri Lee dolls, Lionel train sets, and mechanized elves. Other tots stood with their parents in the long queue to get inside the cramped little Santa Claus house on the courthouse lawn.

The stores extended their hours from Thanksgiving to Christmas, so the town streets bustled with shoppers in the evening, laughing and greeting friends. Uniformed Salvation Army workers, backs turned to the wind and collars flipped up, rang their silver bells at every intersection.

Since we lived in the Jennings Building, up over McShurley's Shoe Store and The Coffee Shop, I spent a lot of time wandering the stores and the downtown streets, drinking in the sights and sounds of the season like a mug of hot cocoa. Sometimes Mama would give me a quarter and a nickel so I could visit the candy counter at Murphy's dimestore. I would get a quarter's worth of French creme candy, available only at Christmas time, and five-cents' worth of warm Spanish peanuts, my favorite. With those two bags in my hand, I felt like a big spender.

I loved it. The busyness. The music, tinny though it was. The laughter. The candy. The lights. They all contributed to the magic.

But snow lent the real magic. As the air began to fill with large, cold, wet feathery flakes, I would turn down a side street, walk a block or so, and stand under one of the antiquated street lamps. Looking up into its aura, I watched the snow dance in the light. Softly, so that none could hear me save the lamp and the descending snow, I sang along with music from the speakers: "O, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the Everlasting Light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." Amen.

Dear reader, would you be so kind as to leave one of your own Christmas reflections as a comment? I'd love to hear it.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

One More Time

As Christmas draws near, I will reprise some posts from last year--some memories of Christmases past. I invite you to stop by, read mine, and share some of your own or link to your blog so we may read them there.

Write on!
Because of Christ

Writing Those Perplexing Proposals

If you're a serious writer, you've either written proposals or will have to do so eventually. Though I'm gaining experience in that area, I'm certainly no expert, so I look to those who are.

Rachel Kent is an agent with Books & Such Literary, specializing in books for teens, twenty-somethings, and thirty-somethings. On the agency blog, she provides four lessons in proposal writing. I snagged them and put them in a Word file so I can access the info quickly. Here's the link:  Books & Such Literary.

What are some of your favorite sites for writerly how-tos and information? Leave a comment, please and thank you.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Listening to Leah

I'm within about 15,000 words--three or four short chapters--of being finished with the first draft of The Second Cellar, my transitional novel about the adventures of Leah Bright Maxwell (pictured above) in two centuries. Her crises build in intensity. She already stepped squarely in harm's way--and was harmed as a result. I can see the climax in my mind. Hear the frenzied voices, the stomping of heavy boots on the frozen forest floor, the whimpering of a baby and its mama's coos. I smell the woodsmoke hanging like a blanket in the crisp early winter air. It's there.

But for right, I'm waiting. She's recuperating. So I need to talk with her again. We had a long talk before her adventures began. That got us started. But now, before we embark on this last leg, I need to be still and listen to her talk, so I'll know what she's feeling and thinking.

Dear fellow writer, do you do that? Do you carry on periodic dialogues with your characters? Do they influence the direction of your story--their story? To what degree do you allow them to dictate the course?

Please respond by leaving a comment. Thank you.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Case of the Vanishing Sheriff

Off to the right is old Robert Right Rea (pronounced "ray"), bidding us a faretheewell. His violent demise may never be accounted for, but one small mystery has been solved: that of why his name as sheriff of Jefferson County, Indiana, doesn't appear on the list of elected sheriffs that hangs on the wall of the current office.

According to Ron Grimes, archivist of the Jefferson County Historical Society Research Library:

The dates of his slave-hunting is not definitely known, but there is little record of his activities after Sept. 1854 when he lost in his bid to be elected Jefferson County Sheriff after a well publicized incident involving the arrest of abolitionist Delia Webster.  He owned and operated a hotel in Madison for some time after 1854 and died under suspicious circumstances in 1869.
We don't have the exact dates of his term as sheriff.  He was never elected to the office, but apparently replaced Sheriff William Wharton who resigned while in office in the early 1850's, and served until fall of 1854 when he lost the election.
 Case closed. For now.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Burying a Long-dead Corpse

He's a mystery man, a rogue sheriff who took the law in his hands and twisted it into what he wanted it to be.

"Could he be just a legend?" someone asked.

No. Reliable researchers swear there are newspapers on file that tell of his shenanigans. Another expert on local history told me how to get to his family burial site where his stone stands, proclaiming the reality of his existance. Yet, the large wall poster listing sheriffs of the county all the way back to 1815 makes no mention of the elusive man. But lists a younger man--perhaps a son or, more likely, a grandson--bearing the same name.

The newspaper journalist in me wants to check further into the story or Robert Right Rae Sr., but since time is short, having promised an agent that I'd complete this manuscript in five months, I've had to find another solution. After all, historians have been on his trail for years and discovered what I've shared here.

Several of you gentle readers shared your wisdom, and this is my solution.

History is a precious thing. It has suffered great harm at the hands of revisionists recently. I do not want to do further damage to the truth. Therefore, I have fictionalized the locations and the characters. In that way, I can base my scoundrel of a slave-hunting sheriff "loosely" on the man himself. I've renamed the towns and counties. To protect the guilty? No. To protect history.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Searching for a Dead Man

I know he lived. His tombstone stands among others of his family near the landfill. The report of his brutal murder appears in old newspapers. His corpse was found naked, with one sock on and one off. He had been bludgeoned on both sides of his head. The man inflicted violence on others all his life and died by violence. And he was supposedly the county sheriff in the mid-1800s.

Though the spelling of his name was a mystery to me for a long time, I finally managed to interview the right person who provided that: Robert Right Rae Sr.--not Wright Ray or Wray. But as for his holding the office of sheriff, I can find no evidence. I called the public library, the historical society, the Sheriff Department where he supposedly served more than a 150 years ago, and a local historical site, but to no avail. The Sheriff's office has on the wall a large poster that lists all sheriffs and their term years, but Rae is not listed, nor are there gaps in that record, according to the office staffer who looked. While he doesn't figure prominently in my work-in-progress, he is mentioned, so of course I want to be accurate.

What does a writer do when your research trail lands you flat up against a stone wall--a jail wall, at that? As I see it, I have two choices. I can keep searching for answers, squeezing in some time to travel to the location and pore over old newspapers for hours, or I can accept what I've gleaned from reliable sources and create a fictional character based on the elusive reality.

Brother and sister scribes, what would you do when faced with such a conundrum? Please leave a "Comment."

Friday, October 8, 2010

Reclaiming All Hallows' Eve

Reclaiming All Hallows'?

[Note: Whenever I refer to the Church, I mean the regenerated followers of Jesus Christ, not some brick-and-mortar structure.]

The Church has allowed Satan, the ancient enemy of Creator God, to steal, or at least taint, many of our celebrations. The man Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, who gave his all to follow the Savior, has morphed into a jolly, rotund, caricature we call Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny continues to try to usurp the position of the resurrected Savior. Children are taught erroneously that Thanksgiving was a time when the Pilgrims thanked the Indians for helping them to survive in the wilderness.

All Hallows' Eve also has suffered at the hands of the enemy, though not as much as the afore-mentioned, since it was never purely Christian and has clearly pagan origins. Most agrarian cultures celebrate significant events in the seasonal growing cycle: harvest time, solstices and equinoxes, and planting time, for example.

The origins of All Hallows' Eve--Hallowe'en (don't forget the apostrophe)--go back 2,000 years to the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The word means "end of summer." Pumpkins, apples, and various gourds were a significant part of that event. The Celtic new year began on November 1.

By 43 A.D., the Romans had conquered the Celts, and within the following 400 years, had integrated their own pagan festivals into Samhain, including Feralia, occurring in late October. Feralia was a day to commemorate the dead.

"Christianity" spread through the Celtic lands by the 800s. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III established that November 1 would be All Hallows' Day. According to Roman Catholic belief, All Hallows' Day was when souls were released from Purgatory and allowed to wander the Earth for 48 hours. Apparently, Pope Gregory was attempting to supplant Samhain with a Christianized version. That was Pope Gregory's M.O. He often claimed pagan celebrations and buildings and imposed a "Christian" significance on them. For example, he claimed the Pantheon (which was dedicated by the Romans to "all gods") for a Christian purpose. His All Saints' Eve was celebrated much as Samhain had been, with bonfires, parades, and people wearing costumes of saints, angels, and devils.

Today, many people claim that Hallowe'en is an innocent harvest festival, but a quick trot through the costume section of the local Wal-Mart tells a different story. With a glance backward to Samhain, Feralia, and, yes, All Hallows' Eve, one can see that the culture of death lives and thrives in today's celebration. It amazes me that many Christian parents continue to celebrate this time of ghosts, ghouls, goblins, and witches, labeling it "innocent fun." What is innocent about rubber masks that portray people who have been maimed, disfigured, frightened out of their minds, or murdered? Parents who encourage such "innocent fun" are opening the creaking door on the occult and nudging their wee ones over the threshold. Hallowe'en always has flirted with the macabre. May our All-wise God grant to those children the wisdom that their parents and grandparents lack.

Jesus says that He Is the Light of the World (John 8:12). As His followers, we are commissioned to reflect that light in today's dark world (Matthew 5:14).

As for Hallowe'en, we need not reclaim it; we never owned it.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Best First Lines Ever?

American Book Review's website lists what the editors consider the "100 Best First Lines from Novels." 

Your assignment, should you agree to accept it, is to peruse the list and then come back here and comment as to whether or not you agree with the list. Why or why not? Which ones would you toss off the list? With what would you replace, so that the list would still contain one-hundred? What great fist lines have you read lately or in contemporary works?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Write to the Power of Three"

Please visit the Hoosier Ink blog to read my article. While you're there, I hope you'll take time to read some of the other entries by Indiana ACFW writers. Thank you.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"Where Clean Teen Fiction Abounds"

I learned about Novel Teen at the American Christian Fiction Writers conference, held this weekend in Indianapolis, and thought it might be helpful for those who want to recommend good reading to the teens in their lives. While I don't necessarily recommend every book featured on the site, it's a good starting place. Don't neglect the classics, though. They're called classics for a reason; they cross over the generational lines to address issues common to mankind through the centuries. They're never dated. Novel Teen is sponsored by Word Press.

What books--classic or contemporary--would you recommend? Why?

Saturday, September 4, 2010


The trees play a symphony of color,
With the maples and the sweetgums
Filling the brass section,
The willows, the graceful, high-pitched strings,
The oaks, leather-headed drums.
It is September, that unsubtle month
That must be heard beating out the summer,
Heralding the fall,
Warning of winter to come.
"These crisp mornings put the sweetness
In the apples," Mama used to say.
And the symphony plays on,
Sometimes in the raucous sunlight that seems
Brighter because it is rarer than in July,
Sometimes under billowing clouds,
Sometimes softly muted in the early morning mists.
The song is as sweet as a golden delicious,
But with overtones of melancholy,
Foreshadowing a key change.

Copyright 1996 by Sharon Kirk Clifton

Friday, August 13, 2010

Some Poetry for a Summer Afternoon


Cicadas sing their late summer song
through thick air.
It's a time when skin sticks to plastic seats
and flies hover around eyes
and dart near noses.
Dogs bark intermittently,
pausing to scratch incessant itches,
marigolds yell in tones of orange,
and dahlias dally along garden borders.
Barefoot country boys
squeeze creek-bottom sand between brown toes.
And the Muses inspire poets to write sentimental verse about August.

Copyright 1998 by Sharon Kirk Clifton

Blessed Is the Father Who Fishes

Blessed is the father who fishes,
for he can teach his children patience,
that incredible waiting and watching
for bobbers to nod in affirmation of a hit,
to dive in confirmation of a bite.
Then, when life requires patience,
this father's child will know
to chew on a stalk of sourgrass and wait
until the time is right.

Blessed is the father who fishes,
for he can teach his children honesty,
even when bait swallows bait
and the stringer weighs more than the catch.
Then, when life offers temptations
to turn fingerlings into lunkers,
this father's child will know
that honor is worth more than transient praise.

Blessed is the father who fishes,
for he can teach his children to see,
not in the superficial sense,
but in a way that not only sees
but understands hidden lessons
of trout swimming against the current,
of geese winging toward warmer climes
before winter's chill sets in.
Then when this father's child faces storms of his own,
he'll recall lessons of wings against the wind
and will stay strong.

Blessed is the man who fishes,
for he can teach his children to listen
to quiet things,
like the plop! of a bullfrog into a lake of glass
or the sound of a smooth stone skipping over ripples,
the whir of a dragonfly's wings,
the buzzing of a cicada,
and his children will be quiet 
when the still, small voice of God speaks.

Blessed is the man who fishes--
and blessed are his children

Copyright 1987 by Sharon Kirk Clifton
[This poem won first place in the National Federation of State Poetry Society's Winner's Circle Award]

I must tell you the story of "Blessed Is the Father Who Fishes."
In 1987, I was concluding my first year of teaching. One of my colleagues in the English department had asked to read another of my poems, "Blessed Is the Woman Who Knows of Apples," for a Mothers' Day program at her church. The congregation loved it and asked her to read one dedicated to fathers for their special day the next month. She came up to me in the cafeteria, where I was on lunch duty.

"Do you have a poem for Fathers' Day?"

"Well . . . uh . . . I don't have one, yet, but give me time to work on it." She smiled and nodded as she walked away. As I walked around the cafeteria, trying to catch someone launching ripe olives at a classmate, I thought of Bob a dear, Godly man from my church.

Bob loved to do five things: tease my teen daughters, play harmonica (he had a whole suitcase full of them, and he won just about every competition he entered), roost and crow with his buddies over coffee at Richards' Restaurant every morning, fish daily (even when he had to use an auger to drill through thick ice), and eat the fish he caught. And everything he did was "as unto the Lord." 

Bob was the inspiration for this poem. By the time my duty sentence for that day was finished, so was the poem. I typed it up and handed it to the teacher to read on Fathers' Day. 

A few years later, I entered it in the national competition cited above. Shortly before Bob went off to go fishing with the Lord in Heaven, I visited him and his wife. Framed and hanging on the wall, right above where he would sit on the floor to clean his catch of the day, was the poem.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"But Crowds Make Me Nervous!"

Writer Karla Akins, pastor's wife and biker chick

We writers generally are a solitary lot. We like our scribe caves. Then once a year or so, we tentatively inch our way into the public, eyes squinting against the light of day, and make our various ways to a gathering place for the ACFW conference. And we're supposed to schmooze with several hundred of our kind as if we were socialists--I mean socialites. Well, it just isn't that easy. At least not for some.

Okay. I happen to be a professional raconteur. I've told to audiences of all sizes, from 1 to several hundred. But I still tend to get the jitters when I have to mingle among the masses. (It's easier when I'm in character.)

Several people new to the ACFW conference scene expressed their concerns on the newbie loop over the past couple days. They received excellent advice from more experienced colleagues. Karla Akins was one offering wise counsel. In fact, I liked it so much that I asked permission to post it here.

As a pastor's wife, I've learned a few tricks about handling crowds:

a. Be prayed up. If I face a crowd prayed up, it's so much easier. Ask God to give you an extra measure of grace for that moment/day/event.

b. Deep breaths, and keep water with you to sip on. Water lubricates the brain and keeps those neurons firing properly.

c. Keep the focus off myself. I'm not there just for myself. I'm also there to be a blessing. If I think more about blessing others than my comfort, it makes it much easier. It wasn't convenient for Jesus to go to the cross. Think of the anxiety he faced and overcame just for us!

d. Christ died for people, not writing caves. I see people as Jesus with skin on. (He gave me that idea, I take no credit for it whatsoever.)

e. Plan your exit path. Figure out where the doors are and how you can make a polite exit if you just have to get out of there.

f. As Cynthia said, sit on the edges. Again, the exit path needs to be considered.

g. Positive self-talk is important. Don't blow this event out of proportion in your mind. Very few people that I know of have died going to a banquet.  (I actually haven't met anyone personally whose banquet killed them.)

h. This is just another step in growing toward your career as a writer. People matter more than anything, and they are going to want to meet you when you're published! So, just pretend you're in boot camp for when it's time to meet all your fans and sign all those books! :-)

i. Again, I reiterate: be a blessing. So often we think it's all about us, and it's not. There is someone at conference that needs to meet you. God is sending us there to help one another and reach out to one another. Who knows whose life you will miss out on changing forever if you stay in your room?

j. HAVE FUN! :-) And don't forget to find me! Depending on how I'm feeling that day, I might just be the one sitting by a door! :-)

Karla Akins

Thank you so much, Karla, for graciously allowing me to post your advice.

Gentle reader, have you attended a major conference? What were your concerns? How did you deal with those? How did it turn out? Please click "Comments" to respond. Share your story and advice.

Write on!
Because of Christ,

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to Sleep

I had an epiphany! One of those miraculous "Aha!" moments. The kind that make you flip your eyelids open, sit bolt upright, and holler, "Eureka! Why didn't I think of that before?"

If you read yesterday's post, you saw that I swore off (that's off, not at) one-sentences. Given them up as a futile exercise. Thrown them under the truck. Declared them impossible. The pressure was relieved for me because I had decided to buck tradition and forgo them.

Then, just as I finished my evening Bible study and slipped the black satin ribbon between the pages, I knew exactly how the one-sentence for Up the Rutted Road should read. No more tinkering. No more tweaking. It's done.

NOTE:  Barbara Scott, senior acquisitions editor for fiction at Abingdon Press, wrote an excellent article about one-sentences, and that piece helped switch on the lightbulb. Hopefully, I'll get to try it out on her at the upcoming ACFW conference.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Winding up to Pitch

Everywhere you look these days, you see American Christian Fiction Writers practicing their elevator pitches on their family, friends--and enemies, for that matter.

Okay. Not really. But if you happen to wander across my path, I will buttonhole you to hear my pitches for Up the Rutted Road and The Second Cellar. Practice may not make perfect, but it sure can't hurt. The more familiar one is with the pitch, the easier (theoretically) it will be to deliver with confidence to agents and editors.

In just over five weeks (EEK!), hundreds of us, representing myriad genres, will gather at the Hyatt Regency in Indianapolis for the biggest event of the ACFW year. Hugs, squeals, and jitters will abound, as will clusters of writers practicing those pitches right up until the last minute. We've been testing our one-sentences and one-paragraphs online for nearly a month now.

Finally, my elevator pitches are honed and toned to where I can live with them. (I'm not sure that a writer ever is totally satisfied with his or her work.) It's nice to know that the editors and agents understand our angst, since many of them also write.

A multi-pubbed writer friend told me that she read her pitches. "I knew I'd be too nervous to do them justice," she said. "I'd forget something important." Makes sense to me.

I've given up on the one-sentence pitches. My first manuscript is essentially an episodic-narrative hybrid (think Little House on the Prairie, Mary Poppins, The Wind in the Willows, Huckleberry Finn, and many other classics of children's lit). The second has a plot and sub-plot. A paragraph pitch consisting of three or four sentences that can be presented in 15 - 25 seconds works well for me.

Gotta run! I see someone who . . .

Excuse me! Excuse me! Could I have a moment of your time? Sure. Go ahead and order your grande bold. Sugar? Two percent? Two pitches?

Why I Dislike Blogger

One of these days, I will take the time to move this blog to another site because I loathe Blogger. I can spend interminable hours trying to get the page to look the way I want, but Blogger will not submit to my wishes. Look to the right sidebar. You'll notice under the "About Me" section that some of the type is a nice, readable aqua while around it is navy type that doesn't show up against the charcoal background. I have just spent a half hour trying to get it all the same. (Later note: I just tried again, succeeding in part, but the Scripture remains navy. One can always hope that it will work on another day . . .)

Further, it leaves large, gaping spaces between paragraphs, spaces that cannot be deleted. What I'm left with is an amateurish blog. For that, I apologize to you, dear reader.

Are you considering starting a blog? I've heard good reports from some Wordpress people.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Funtastic Friday

Apparently, I write The Second Cellar in the style of James Joyce (left), but Up the Rutted Road like Stephen King (right). At least, those are the results of "I Write Like" analysis. Click on over there and try it out. I wouldn't take it too seriously, if I were you--I'm certainly not--but it's a fun diversion for a Friday.

Note to my critique partners: One of you also writes like James Joyce, while another favors Stephen King.

Fellow writers, what does the analysis reveal about your style? Do you agree with the results? Why or why not? How accurate do you think this tool is? Please respond by clicking "Comments."

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Two Days + Two Days = Two One-Sheets

Like many of my colleagues in American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), I'm scrambling to get ready for the convention coming up in September. (See the ad in the right sidebar of this page.) Usually, it's held in places far away from the heartland, but this year it is in my backyard, making it accessible. I know of several Hoosier and Buckeye writers who are also ecstatic.

I'm making a list and checking it thrice to make sure everything is quite precise. After registering, I carefully chose sessions and agent appointments (praying all the while that I get the ones I need). I designed and ordered business cards.

The awards dinner, a semi-formal affair, had me in a quandary until I talked it over with fellow writers who have attended several conferences. They set my mind at ease by telling me that, yes, while some don formal gowns and tuxes, others wear their Sunday best, and our Anabaptist brothers and sisters maintain their usual simple, modest elegance.

Now that the preliminaries are out of the way, the real work of preparing for a conference of this magnitude commences. For the past four days, I have been fairly incommunicado, avoiding the telephone and time-gobblers like email, Facebook, and Twitter. I've huddled over my keyboard and written, re-written, and re-rewritten copy for one-sheets. When I began conference prep, they weren't even on my to-do list. It's something of a futile exercise, since, from what I've read, most editors and agents won't accept them at conferences, trying to keep their paper load to a minimum. They may peruse it briefly, but will likely hand it back. Nonetheless, we need to have a few on hand. Just in case.

Reader response: Are you attending the ACFW conference this year? What concerns you most about getting ready for it? Please click "Comments" to respond. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Racing through Summer

This has been one very busy summer. In late May, I began preparing Bible lessons for  a mission trip. In June, several from my church joined other 1Way Ministries team members in Arizona, where we held vacation Bible schools in various villages of the Tohono O'odham Indian Nation. What a great joy that was! Even the 113-degree days couldn't wilt the enthusiasm of the team or the kids. I'll confess to shedding more than a few tears when it was time to leave.

Once back in Indiana, I made ready for our own VBS, as well as for a few upcoming storytelling gigs. My original plan was to prepare the same set of biblical accounts for both VBSes, but God changed those plans. (Storytelling has taught me to be flexible, a skill that comes in handy when trying to follow the Lord's leading. He knows best the composition of each audience.)

The next big thing on my Summer 2010 list is the ACFW Conference, coming up in September. This will be my first time to attend, and I can hardly wait. But one doesn't sit idly by, checking off the days until the downtown Indianapolis Hyatt Regency throws open its doors to us. Judging from the emails on the ACFW loops, Christian writers around the world are working wildly to prepare. There are elevator pitches to be composed, one-sentences to be written, business cards to order, one-sheets and synopses to obsess over--and for crying out loud, what earrings should I wear to the awards dinner? [gasp for breath]

Expect to see at least a few blog entries related to the conference. It's cathartic, so please be patient. I've learned from seasoned writers--those who already have an agent and have multiple books published--that they too get nervous at the prospects of conference. It's key to focus that eager anticipation into productive enterprises. As for agents and editors, they really are "just folks." I keep telling myself that over and over.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Oh, the Places I Will Go

Read Teresa's story at Make Way Partners

When I begin a writing project, I seldom know where the research will lead me. I'm a hybrid plotter/pantser. In other words, I know the general path I will take, but I try to be open to the leading of the Lord to alter my course. He did that as I wrote my first novel manuscript, and He's doing it with this work-in-progress.

I write middle-grade novels primarily. Even in the case of fiction, for it to ring true, it must spring from truth. This work, The Second Cellar, does that. At its beginning, however, I did not imagine that my journey would take me to Darfur and beyond, albeit vicariously.

A friend involved with foreign and domestic missions, upon learning about my wip, is serving as a liaison between me and the founder of another ministry--this one involved in rescuing children and women from modern-day slavery in Islamic countries.  I look forward to talking with such a courageous woman. As any interviewer worth her ink knows to do, I will first thoroughly study her website and blog, so that I won't waste time asking questions she already has answered on those sites. Such perusal usually gives rise to other deeper, more probing questions.

Another likely stop on my research odyssey will be a visit to the immigration office in Indianapolis. Only the Lord knows where else I will travel in my quest.

Dear writing colleagues, what strange and unexpected turns has your research taken you? Please click "Comments" and tell of your experience.

Write on!

Because of Christ,

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Double O, No! Part 2

NPR's "Weekend Edition: Sunday" (July 3) presented an interesting segment about the children of the Russian spies. Just in case . . . just in case you happen to be the writer who is plotting a tale about this kerfuffle, I've posted it for you to hear here.

Write on!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Have a Blessed, Safe, Meaningful Independence Day!

Please take time to consider what this hard-won freedom has cost through the three centuries of our existence. Ponder also what our freedom in Christ cost the Savior.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Double O, No! What about the Kids?

Imagine what it would be like to wake up one morning to the news that your next door neighbor, the guy who borrowed your hedge trimmer last week and has yet to return it, has been arrested for being a Russian spy. Chances are pretty good you won't be getting the trimmer back. And isn't this the week his wife is supposed to drive the kids to soccer practice? Well, she's been arrested, too. What about the kiddos? Where are they? What's happening to them? Who are they? Apparently, they weren't born where they thought they were. If you think you're confused, try to imagine what it's like for them. It's challenging enough to be a teen without learning that you've been living a lie--one contrived by your very own parents. Or are they? Is that part of the lie?

As a mother, grandmother, educator, Sunday school teacher, former kid, and regular compassionate person, my heart cries out to those children. I wish I could somehow shelter them from all the flashing cameras, probing news reporters, and uncertainties they face.

But as a writer of middle-grade fiction, my imagination slammed into overdrive as soon as the story broke. What fuel for a series! I'm not the one to write that collection. I know that. But I'm absolutely certain that some writer out there already is drawing snowflakes and plotting scenes, fleshing out characters and developing minor and major crises.

Open wide the back door and kick out the vampires, pseudo-angels, wizards, zombies, and ghouls. Here come the spies!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Birth of a Book

~Gran'ma, where do books come from?~

~Well, my child, sit down and I'll tell you. First, the spark of an idea is conceived long, long before the book can be held in your hand. It could take months, years or even decades for the idea to germinate, incubate and grow. The idea might spring from a feeling in the air, a random memory sparked by the fragrance of wisteria or night-blooming jasmine, a child's giggle as he somersaults through a bed of spearmint, a random comment overheard in the grocery check-out line--or an old photograph such as these.~

Dear fellow writers, from whence come your ideas? Have you ever looked into the face of someone in an old photo and been inspired to write about that person, known or unknown? Please leave a comment describing that time.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Hot Bookish Summers

"No more pencils! No more books! No more teacher's dirty looks!"

We all chanted it as we erupted out of the school building, final grades clutched in our sweaty hands, and into the sunshine on the last day of school. Summer spread before us like an unsullied sheet of Goldenrod paper, an adventure story yet to be written. But reading, writing, and Goldenrod paper were far from our minds as we escaped the building.

I spent most of my elementary school days living in a cramped three-room apartment on the third floor of an old building at the corner of Broad and Fourteenth streets--one of the two main intersections of my hometown. The nearest other child lived two blocks away. We never had a telephone, and I was in fifth grade before we got a television set, a boxy Philco console--used, of course.

Hey, don't feel sorry for me. Two blocks from that little flat was the New Castle-Henry County Public Library. And I had my very own borrower's card. The library opened at 8 a.m., so at 7:45 on the first full day of summer vacation I showed up, waiting impatiently under the mulberry tree
 for that click that would indicate the unlocking of the door.

"I want to join the book club," I said to Miz Catherine Day, the children's librarian.

"Of course, you do, Sharon. Do you think you can read 20 books this summer?" She struggled to keep her round face from splitting into a grin. "That's how many segments are on the bookworm."

I think I rolled my eyes. Discreetly. Of course.

In those simpler days, they didn't have "summer reading programs" with lots of prizes, refreshments, jugglers, and face painting. No fancy themes, either. They had books, and that was enough. Miz Day handed me a sheet of paper on which was printed a smiling, cheesy-looking bookworm.

"Every time you read a book at or above your grade level, you get to lick and stick on a segment of the worm."

"I know."

"I know you know." She smiled ever so slightly. "Be sure you read them, because I'll question you about them."

"I know."

"I know you know. I just have to tell everyone that."

By week's end, scores of papers just like mine were displayed behind the circulation desk. Apparently there were a lot of kids from all over Henry County, Indiana, who liked to read. I was a competitive little cuss, so I kept a close eye on the other bookworms.

At least once a day throughout the summer, I went to the library, lugging towers of books--orange Bobbs-Merrill biographies, Andrew Lang's color fairytale books, The Black Stallion and its sequels, the Bobbsey Twins series, books about different countries and cultures, and more. I completed my bookworm quickly.

One summer, Miz Day departed from the bookworm idea. We collected author cards, instead. I liked that better than the larvae because once I had all the cards, I could play the game. Further, I learned about some of my favorite writers.

Miz Day has been in the presence of the Lord for many years now. (I hope she's not trying to categorize the glories of Heaven according to Dewey.) Those hot bookish summer days live as sweet memories to this writer and raconteur.

How I would love it if one of these days some child would walk up to a children's librarian somewhere and say, "I read Up the Rutted Road. Can I put a sticker on my sheet?"

I would hope that the librarian would ask some questions:

"Who is the author?"

"Sharon Kirk Clifton."

"Good. What terrible thing happens to the girl in the book that causes her to run off into the mountains?"

"Oh, that's easy. Her--" Shhhhhh, child. Don't give it away.

[Gentle reader, what are your memories about summer reading? What whetted your appetite for books? What were some of your favorites from childhood? How have the books you read then influenced your life now? Please click on "Comments" and share your answers.]

Monday, May 31, 2010

Synopsis: I Did It!

Well. At least I think I did it. Knowing me, I'll continue to peck at it, snipping out this word or that phrase.

I wrote the book. That was hard. I wrote the query letter. That was harder. I wrote the synopsis. That was the hardest.

Why makes synopsis writing so difficult? In the first place, it's a challenge to write tight, tight, tighter while retaining the essence of your style and the tone of the work. Throughout the writing of the novel, we are adjured, "Show; don't tell." Suddenly it becomes, "Tell; don't show," because there's no room for the latter. Beloved similies and images end up on the surgery room floor, bleeding and mangled. Even some alliteration is left lying lifeless alongside the other carnage.

Secondly, advice contradicts advice. Some say single space; others, double. (So I compromised with 1.5 line spacing.) Some say the synopsis should be written in present tense, regardless of the tense of the tale; others say past. (The former gets the most votes, and that's the way one normally writes about literature, so I went with present tense.) It seems that every "expert" has his own way of formatting the first page.

One thing that most agree on is the importance of the synopsis. The majority of editors and agents require one. A critique partner who makes a habit of placing highly in prestigious writing competitions says that the value of the synopsis is that it allows the powers that be to see if the writer has a strong plot line to hold the story together.

My conclusion, after perusing many articles and guidelines, is this:
  • If the agent or editor to whom one wishes to submit gives specific guidelines, follow them to the letter. Heed the jots and tittles.
  • Do your homework. Read guidelines and advice columns, realizing that they will contradict one another. Adapt what you learn to make it work for you.
  • Write tight. Then revise it to make it tighter. 
  • Format it so that it reflects the professionalism of the writer.
Here are some links to jump-start your research:
Visit the blogs I list in the right column, also, since several of them discuss synopses.

Fellow writers, editors, and agents, if you happen to do me the honor of a visit to this blog, would you be so kind as to click on "Comments" and leave some of your own advice for those of us who struggle with the dreaded synopsis writing? Have you gleaned some jewel from a conference, workshop, or article? Please share. (By the way, I've never heard anyone say, "Synopsis? Piece o' cake!")

Write on!