What Does a Character Have to Do to Be a Protagonist Around Here?

Hoping to find representation for my Gannah series, I met with an agent at a writers’ conference a couple years ago.

The agent listened to my spiel about The Story in the Stars. Then, with an expression that made me wonder if her breakfast disagreed with her, informed me women don’t read science fiction; and since my protagonist was female, it wouldn’t appeal to the target market.

My first thought was that this was a ridiculous statement. She didn’t want to represent me for some reason she didn’t feel at liberty to share, and this was the first excuse that came to mind.

But, hey, she’s the professional, and I’m just a nobody. We should listen to people who know more than we, right? So I gave the idea some thought. Should Dr. Pik be the protagonist instead? Hmmm…. It was true, my crit partners and beta-readers seemed to like him better than Dassa. But make him the protagonist?

I asked her if the protagonist should be introduced first. That is, Stars opens with a chapter about Dassa. We don’t meet Pik until chapter 2. So if I were to rework the book to make Pik the protag, should I introduce him first?

The agent considered the question and answered something to the effect that there’s really no rule on that, but it might not be a bad idea.

I thanked her for her time and went to lunch thinking about what she’d said. After further consideration (and polling of a number of women to ask if they liked to read sci-fi), I decided my first thought was correct. That agent simply didn’t want to represent me, but wasn’t comfortable giving the real reason(s). I suppose that’s her prerogative.

Fast-forward to 2011.  The Story in the Stars is now available in print and ebook form — for both male and female readers. Both seem to enjoy it.

In July, my character Dassa was interviewed on Naomi Musch’s blog.

Not to be outdone, Dr. Pik scored an interview with blogger Laurie Jenkins.

I found it interesting that Pik agreed with the aforementioned agent. Not that women don’t read his genre (even fictional characters know better than that), but that he should have been the protagonist.

I figured that was just his vanity speaking. But then, when Elaine Stock offered to host a blog debate between Dassa and Pik on the subject, the doctor made a good argument.

I can’t find any hard-and-fast criteria for determining who your protagonist should be. But here are a few guidelines, widely accepted by writers, editors, and publishers:

  •  The protagonist is the character who drives the story. If you can remove him without undermining the plot, he’s not the protagonist.
  • The protagonist should be interesting enough that the reader will want to hang with him throughout the whole book. He doesn’t need to be likeable, exactly. He just needs to be compelling.
  • By the end of the book, the protagonist should have experienced change and/or growth of some kind.
  • How much does each character have to win or lose by the events unfolding in the story? The one with the most at stake should be the protagonist.

Got it? Good. Now, class, for your assignment:

1. Read the debate and weigh the evidence.  Make your decision as to whose argument carried the day.

2. Leave a comment on Elaine’s blog telling us who you believe should be the protagonist of The Story in the Stars: Dassa or Pik. Elaine will announce the results on her blog next week.

3. If you’d like a free print copy of the book, mention this in the comment on Elaine’s blog. She’ll announce the winner next week.

4. If you don’t win the drawing, buy the book yourself (or ask your local library to order a copy; if you live in Dover, New Philadelphia, Sugarcreek, or Bedford, Ohio, your local library already has it). Read it. Love it. Tingle with anticipation for the release of Book #2 in the Gateway to Gannah series, Words in the Wind, later this year.

5. If you haven’t already done so, subscribe to my blog.

6. Accept my thanks for doing the above!

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Rambling Along a Leprechaun Trail

I suspect leprechauns don’t make trails. They’re supposed to be magical, after all, and well-worn paths seem awfully mundane. Besides that, they’re just wee little things, and big bumbling folk like us probably couldn’t spot their footpaths if they made them.

However, whether it’s a meandering leprechaun road or a series of rabbit trails, I’m wandering on it today.

According to History.com, St. Patrick was born in fifth-century Britain, during the time of Rome’s dominion there. At the age of sixteen, he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland as a slave. He later escaped but returned to Ireland, and is credited with bringing Christianity to that land. It’s believed that he died on March 17, 461. Subsequently, a mythology surrounding his life sprang up and became ingrained in the Irish culture. One of the most well known legends involves his having used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity.

The Irish have observed St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 for the past ten centuries or so, but the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in the United States, in 1762, when Irish soldiers serving in the British military marched through New York City.

Ever since, the holiday has grown in popularity to where now, people of all backgrounds (not just Irish) celebrate the day. This is particularly true in the US, Canada, and Australia, but, to a lesser degree, in such far-flung locales as Japan, Singapore, and Russia. It’s interesting to note that until the 1970s, Irish law required pubs to close in observance of St. Patrick’s Day, it being considered a religious holiday.

All the hype is inexplicable to me. Certainly, there’s reason to celebrate the bringing of the gospel of salvation to the Emerald Isle, but I’ve never gotten the impression that’s what this is about. It just seems to be an excuse to party. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that, and I don’t mind people having their fun. But as for me, I’m not a party person. I’d rather celebrate the season by digging in the dirt and planting something.

In this part of the world, gardeners like to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day (while their corned beef and cabbage cooks, and between draughts of green beer) by planting the spring garden. This usually includes peas, lettuce, and radishes, none of which mind cold soil.

Most years on March 17, our garden is either under snow, frozen solid, or too muddy to plant. On the rare occasions when we did plant on that date, it seemed to be a waste. Nothing germinated until the soil warmed, and our first plantings matured no sooner than the second.

This March, though, the weather’s more like May. Hard to believe that this time last year, Craig was still ice fishing. As I write, the outdoor thermometer registers 72 degrees (Fahrenheit). The weather man predicts temperatures in the mid-80s later in the week. So, thinking it might be worthwhile for once, we planted the early garden.

And speaking of gardens, what exactly is a shamrock? I’ve heard people use the term for a number of different plants, including the ordinary clover that frequently invades local lawns, and yellow wood sorrel (aka sour grass), a common weed. Wikipedia says the Irish shamrock is actually a three-leaved old white clover (trifolium repens). The name derives from the Irish word seamróg, which is the diminutive version of the Irish word for clover (seamair).

I didn’t research leprechauns.

Nor the origins of the corned-beef-and-cabbage tradition. I’d never eaten corned beef until I was an adult, but I liked it the first time I tried it. I’ve been cooking it for my family with cabbage, carrots, potatoes and onions since early in my marriage. For some reason, I never knew it was associated with St. Patrick’s Day until fairly recently. (That is, something like fifteen years ago. “Recently” is relative, don’t you know.)  I think I read about the background of that tradition a year ago or so, but I don’t remember the details. It sticks in my mind that it’s only in this country that people eat corned beef on St. Paddy’s Day, not in Ireland. But I might be wrong about that.

Corned beef is beef, but it has nothing to do with corn.

But there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, if you consider the rainbow to represent God’s promise of redemption, and gold, the eternal riches that are ours in Christ.

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A Bit of Local Color

When most people hear the name Goodyear, they think of tires. Maybe, depending on the situation, you might think of a high point in your life, a wine vintage, or an old Sinatra song.

If you like to watch football on TV, your mind might go to the Goodyear blimp, which gives fans an eagle’s-eye view of the games.

But few people hearing the word Goodyear would think of fishing.

Growing up in northeastern Ohio, I’ve always associated Goodyear with Akron. As a kid, I always associated Akron with the smell of burning rubber. If there was one place I didn’t want to go—or even drive through on the way to somewhere else—it was Akron, Ohio. My nose crinkled with distaste at the very word.

Thankfully, the stink is now gone and has been for years. Though still very much a going concern, Goodyear is no longer the powerhouse corporation it once was. Nevertheless, it’s made an indelible mark upon the community and on the world.

As a lifetime resident of this part of the state, I sometimes forget about Goodyear’s legacy. People in other parts of the world seldom have cause to think about it as they drive hither and yon on their Goodyear tires. So today, let’s talk a little bit about the corporation’s impact on local history and culture.

A muskrat house

The temperatures yesterday were in the mid-70s, the skies sunny, and the breeze gentle. A rare—and unbeatable—combination for mid-March in Ohio! This time last year, my husband, Craig, was still ice fishing. But because Jack Frost avoided us this year, Craig never once had a chance to get out on the ice, so he’s been itching to fish since last fall. Besides that, we only have three packages of fish left in the freezer, so it’s time to replenish the supply.

You’re probably wanting to interrupt me at this point to say, I thought we were talking about Goodyear? Good observation. But you see, we are talking about Goodyear. Because, back in 1916 (the year my dad was born), the Goodyear corporation purchased 720 acres in Portage County just outside Akron, which property included a 444-acre lake. They named the lake Wingfoot in honor of the Goodyear logo.

In the 1960s, they built a park there for the exclusive use of company employees—and it was no shabby park. It included multiple picnic shelters with fireplaces, ball diamonds, volleyball and bocce ball courts, paved courts for basketball and tennis, playgrounds and boating facilities. In the 1980s, attendance at Wingfoot Lake Park peaked with more than 100,000 Goodyear employees and their families each year.

But all good things must come to an end. (Sidenote: so do all bad things, eventually. So take heart!) After the park fell into disuse, the State of Ohio purchased nearly 700 of the acres, including the lake, and turned it into a state park in 2009. The fishing there is good. And, since it’s only about an hour from home, that’s where we headed yesterday.

Because my presence frequently seems to act like a pox on the fish, no one was catching anything despite the perfect conditions. You could see them in the water—thousands of little crappie and bluegill, carp the size of dolphins—and based on past experience, we knew there were big bass and other fish there as well, lurking out of sight. But none were biting. Maybe they didn’t know how to react to the unaccustomed sunshine. Whatever the reason, we had an enjoyable day out on the lake, but all we came home with was a little fresh pink to our complexions (since we, like the fish, are unaccustomed to sunshine).

I also came home with some pictures on my memory card. In addition to a variety of fish, two turtles, a muskrat (lots of muskrat houses on one end of that lake), two deer making a racket in the cattails, a gazillion very-vocal Canada geese, two pairs of swans, some black-and-white ducks of a variety I don’t recall ever having seen before, and a whole lot of other birds, we also saw a sight few fishermen get to see: the flight of the Goodyear Blimp.

The acreage Goodyear retained when they sold the property holds the hangar home of the famous blimp. Craig says its keepers have taken it out and played with it almost every time he’s been to the lake, and yesterday was no exception.

In the early afternoon, the hangar doors opened, the blimp slowly emerged (powered by some sort of conveyor on rails), and eventually lifted off. It was gone for a while, came back, landed, and then took off again. I have no idea what the purpose of all this was, but it landed and took off so many times, we wondered if the pilot might not have been practicing landings and take-offs. We left the lake about 4 pm, and it was still in the air when we drove away.

A swan swims in Wingfoot lake, the blimp hanger in the background
The hangar doors open and the blimp emerges
At the blimp's nose, you can see the yellow framework of the apparatus that moves the blimp on the ground
Lifting off
Coming in to land

Wingfoot Lake Park is only one interesting legacy the folks at Goodyear have handed down for Akron and nearby residents to enjoy. Another site worth visiting is Stan Hywet Hall and Garden. I used to assume the name of the guy who built the place was Stan Hywet (pronounced like Hewett). But that’s not the case. The guy who built it was none other than Franklin Sieberling, the same guy who founded Goodyear. He named his company after Charles Goodyear, inventor of the vulcanization process for rubber (which, as I understand it, has absolutely nothing to do with the Vulcans of Star Trek fame). He named his home after the property’s prior use: stan hywet is ye Olde English rendering of stone quarry.

The Sieberling family lived in the home until 1957, when Sieberling’s heirs donated it to a non-profit organization created for the purpose of allowing the public to enjoy the house and grounds. A visit to Stan Hywet Hall is a delight. If you have the opportunity, do it on a nice day, because the gardens are fabulous, and you’ll want to spend some time there.

And here’s one more little-known Goodyear fact: the first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous was held in the gatehouse at Stan Hywet Hall. True story.




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Why I Grow Purple Beans, Part I (Or, Carrots Grow From Carrot Seeds)

Before I contemplated fiction writing, I considered doing a nonfiction collection of gardening tales called Why I Grow Purple Beans. I still may, someday. But in the meantime, I’ll write a series of posts on the subject.

I’ve finally come to grips with the fact that winter, such as it wasn’t, is limping offstage while spring bounds up to take its place. As much as I regret having missed out on winter, I do like spring — because it’s gardening time. (Rubbing hands with anticipation.)

I’ve already purchased my seeds. Yesterday, I disinfected my seed-starting equipment and planted the first of this year’s “babies:” cabbage, parsley, and black-eyed susan vine (Thunbergia). In another week or so, I’ll add tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant to the collection. Let the games begin!

I didn’t come by gardening naturally. Or maybe it was in my blood, but I didn’t realize it until relatively late in life.

My first experience with the adventure was the summer when I was probably four years old. My parents owned a duplex. We lived on the ground floor and rented out the upstairs. A walk ran beside the house, down one step and through a gate, then along the back of the house to the covered staircase that led to the rental apartment. We must have recently had some work done on that walkway, because that spring, there was a small wedge of bare ground between the sidewalk, the driveway, and the backyard fence. And for some reason, Mom suggested we (that is, she and I) plant it in radishes and carrots.

This was a tiny little triangle of rocky clay. To my knowledge, neither of my parents had ever had a vegetable garden. I have no idea what prompted her to suggest such a thing, but she seemed to think I wanted to do it, and I let her talk me into it.

Maybe it was the record. (Remember records?) My brother and I had a number of 78 rpm records with stories and songs for kids, and a little kid-sized record player to play them on. One of them told a great story called The Carrot Seed. The picture on the record jacket showed a little boy pushing a huge carrot—longer than he was tall—in a wheelbarrow.

In the story, a little boy found a carrot seed and wanted to plant it. His family gave him no encouragement. His mother said (I’d sing it for you, but you’d cover your ears and run away screaming):

Mothers know so many things little boys can’t know,
So don’t be disappointed if your carrot doesn’t grow.

His father said the same thing, but in a different tune and a deeper voice.

His big brother said (and you can imagine the tone of voice for this one): Nya, nya, it won’t come up! Nya, nya, it won’t come up! It won’t come up it won’t come up, your carrot won’t come up!

Undeterred, the little boy sang:
I’ll water it. I’ll pull the weeds. Carrots grow from carrot seeds.

And he did. Every day, he went out and tended that little carrot seed, singing his little ditty. But his family never cared enough to go out and look at it.

Then one day in late summer, he came up to the house pushing the wheelbarrow with the carrot hanging out of it. When his shocked family exclaimed over it, he answered:
I watered it. I pulled the weeds. Carrots grow from carrot seeds.

So maybe my mom had heard me playing the record and/or singing the song around the house and wanted to give me the opportunity to see that carrots do, in fact, grow from carrot seeds. And perhaps she thought it would be a good idea to plant radishes, too, so I wouldn’t have to wait so long to see results.

Whatever her motive, she showed me how to plant the seeds. I don’t recall using anything resembling fertilizer or compost or mulch. I think we just scratched some rows in the hard, stony ground and put in some seeds. We watered them, though I don’t think we did it on anything like a regular basis. I clearly remember being less than enthralled with the weed-pulling process. And I don’t think we ever got any carrots from that concrete-like soil.

But I do recall the radishes. Tiny little things, like dirty red marbles. The reason I remember is because my mom suggested I share some with the people who lived upstairs. They had a little girl a bit younger than me, and we used to play together frequently, so I was on friendly enough terms with them. But I was too shy to offer them the radishes. My mom insisted, so I took a handful and went reluctantly to the door at the bottom of the stairs and knocked. Timidly. Hoping no one would hear me. Which, of course, they didn’t.

So I went back and told my mom there must be nobody home. She was surprised. “But I can hear them up there. Did you ring the bell?”

I don’t know what happened after that. I just remember thinking that ringing the bell and offering them the radishes seemed like the hardest thing in the world.

And my one experience with veggie gardening did nothing to whet my appetite for more.

Whether or not this has whetted your appetite for more gardening stories, they’ll be coming in the future. In the meantime, sing along with me:

I’ll water it. I’ll pull the weeds. Carrots grow from carrot seeds.

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Book Review: A Fountain Filled

I don’t do a lot of book reviews here. One reason: it takes a lot of time to read the book then do the review.  But I make exceptions in some cases — like now.

I met the author, Sarah Wells, through the Novel Rocket blog (then known as Novel Journey) when she submitted the story to the blog’s Out of the Slush Pile contest in 2010. Back then, she still had a lot of work to do on it. However, she’s not afraid of work. And despite major events going on in her personal life (such as, having a family and making a major move twice–or was it three moves? I lost count), she not only polished up this story, but she also recently published it through Amazon as an ebook.

I’m as proud and excited as a grandma at her grandkid’s high school commencement! So I’d like to share with you my review:

A Fountain Filled
by Sarah Wells MD
Kindle Edition
File Size: 570 KB
Available only on Amazon

Anne Knox, a Southern belle adopted from South Korea in infancy, dreams of becoming a missionary doctor. She starts her first year of medical school determined to make it through Gross Anatomy without passing out or puking. What she doesn’t expect is a plea for help from her brother in the jungles of Venezuela, who asks her to recruit a team of students to set up mobile clinics. But the desperate need, and a call from a surgeon friend who offers to help, make the request one she can’t refuse.

So, despite an overwhelming workload, unnerving clinical experiences, and her secret belief the med school made a mistake by admitting her, Anne sets out to build a team from her class. One by one they agree to join her: A handful of Christian classmates she meets during a prayer meeting on 9/11, both her bulimic and Hindu roommates, a scarred Gulf War veteran, and even legalistic Jonathan Church—a cutthroat student looking to pad his resume.

After a tumultuous first year, final exams complete, the splintered team travels into the Orinoco River Delta and camp amidst the Warao, a primitive jungle tribe. Each day in the clinic brings more difficulty. An ill child needs round-the-clock care, and tempers flare while the thermometer rises, with students quarreling over the complex needs. Then a terrible accident occurs, a massive thunderstorm hits, and they face a new question. Will they all get out alive?

In an era when it seems everyone contrives a plot to make the reader’s heart pound, Dr. Wells takes a different approach. Without sensationalizing, she lays it on the line with a breathtaking realism. You’ll feel like you’re beside the characters around the dissection table, struggling to concentrate in the lecture hall, or unwinding on a jog through Charleston. When the protagonist hears the shocking news on 9/11, you’ll remember how you first heard it and what consumed your thoughts and prayers throughout those uncertain days. When the team sees patients in the jungle, you sweat with them, scratch sympathetic insect itches, and grieve for the unfortunate patients the young doctors can’t help.

But best yet, if you’re a Christian, you’ll appreciate the honest reflection of the protagonist’s insecurities. You’ll relate to her reticence in talking about her faith and her struggle with judgmentalism. You’ll share her joy at seeing how God works out His plan for her life. And you’ll shout “hallelujah!” at the end.

This is a real snapshot of the Christian life, flaws and all. I’m at a loss for another adjective besides “real” to describe the characterizations, the setting, the situations, and the issues of faith portrayed here.

I recommend this book. It is, in my opinion, a graceful example of what Christian fiction ought to be.

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