Thursday’s Thoughts: Details, Details

I recently contemplated the contrast between two old adages: Don’t sweat the small stuff and The devil’s in the details.

It’s one of the apparent contradictions of life. Some small things aren’t worth worrying about; others might appear to be miniscule, but are of vital consequence. Knowing how to tell the difference is sometimes difficult, though vital. Which brings us to another wise saying: Choose your battles.

But instead of going off on a rampage on the subject, I’ve decided to share with you a portion of a chapter from one of my unpublished novels that illustrates how sometimes, a minor detail can become unexpectedly significant. There’s no moral to this story, it’s just a fact; something as small as a missing horseshoe nail can cause an army to lose a war.

This is from an early version of Mom’s Mirror. You’ll notice a lot of “telling” rather than “showing.” The protagonist, born in 1919, is speaking with her daughter, reminiscing about a childhood incident that changed her life forever. That’s why it’s so “telly:” I imagined the mother sitting down and telling the story to the daughter and thought of the story as dialog rather than action. I’m not saying this is the best way to do it, but I was a newbie when I wrote this, and it made sense at the time.

Okay, no more excuses/disclaimers; let’s get on with it! Sit back, listen, and enjoy hearing Mom tell her daughter about how, when she was ten years old, she went on a road trip with her family to visit her uncle in Virginia:

 

The trip took three days, during which my impatience grew. We spent our last night in Beckley, West Virginia, in a motor hotel. The boys had one room and I shared another with our parents.

We awoke in the morning to the sound of thunder—distant, but getting closer. Mom scurried about, urging us to leave before the storm hit.

My brothers took forever getting packed, so I went in to spur them along. Somewhere in my harangue, I commented that my suitcase was heavy, like a ton of bricks.

Gerald said his was heavier. I lifted his bag and scoffed. “That’s not a ton of bricks, it’s a ton of feathers!”

Thus ensued one of the stupidest debates you’ve ever heard: which is heavier? a ton of feathers, or a ton of bricks? How could those boys insist they weighed the same? Everyone knows bricks are heavier than feathers.

The discussion grew heated. Dad came in to see what the ruckus was all about, and we appealed to his authority in settling the argument. Once he got me to understand that a ton was two thousand pounds no matter what that ton was comprised of, I felt pretty foolish.

My brothers chortled with glee. “You lose! You’ve got to carry the suitcase!”

I sputtered my objections, and they brayed all the more until Dad broke in. “I don’t care who carries it. Just pack it up, and let’s get out of here. It’ll be pouring rain any minute.”

He was right. It was growing dark and the wind was gusting. I voted for everyone to carry his or her own suitcase, but with my brothers’ insistence and my parents’ prodding us to hurry, I relented. Generous brother that he was, Gerald crammed as many of Gregory’s things into his suitcase as he could in order to make it heavier. At a loud clap of thunder, everyone scurried out to the car. Gerald, of course, left his bag behind for me.

I couldn’t carry both my ton of bricks and Gerald’s ton of feathers at the same time, so I took my own out to the car first, threw it into the trunk, and ran back to the room to get Gerald’s just as the rain began. Then I thought I’d better use the facilities before we left, and the storm hit with a fury while I was in the bathroom.

Dad laid on the horn and I ran down to the car through the storm, forgetting about Gerald’s bag. We traveled for several minutes through the torrent, thinking of little but the violent storm. After that, all we could think about was breakfast. At breakfast, I remembered the suitcase.

The sensible thing would have been to confess my mistake before we got any farther down the road. But I knew my parents would be sore, and my brothers would be contemptuous, so I didn’t say a word. Just let us continue on our way with the suitcase falling farther behind.

I don’t mean to say I never said a word. I said plenty of words, but none of them were the right ones. After the storm ended, the sun broke through and it grew unbearably hot. No air conditioning in those days, of course, and even with the windows open it was a miserable, sticky ride.

But I was miserable for reasons other than the temperature. Gerald’s suitcase was back in Beckley, and no one knew it but me. The difficulties I’d caused compounded with every mile, and that secret knowledge made me even more irritable than the weather. I’m afraid I wasn’t a pleasant traveling companion.

By the time we pulled into Uncle Teddy’s tree-lined lane, we were a soggy, sorry lot, having spent the sweltering hours since our lunch break in hot close quarters and hot disagreement about everything. We were relieved to abandon the car for the relative coolness of Teddy’s spacious house and refresh ourselves with Mary’s iced lemonade.

“What do you say you folks freshen up, then we can have an early supper,” Teddy suggested. “After our food’s settled a bit, we can go for a nice evening swim. How’s that sound?”

Mom and Dad agreed, and my brothers and I clamored with excitement. We didn’t get to go swimming very often at home.

“Well then, good, it’s settled. But for now, I’m heading out to the barn to see to the horseshoeing. I left the farrier out there alone, and he might need my help. I’ll see you back here for supper at six.”

Teddy’s house was a veritable mansion. His servants had already carried the bags to the guest rooms, and we all trooped up the winding staircase to sort things out. I didn’t scamper up with my usual tomboy gusto, though, for I knew my hour of doom approached. The missing bag was about to be discovered.

As indeed it was. What a howl Gerald let out, and what a row ensued. A phone call confirmed the suitcase was left in the motel room, but Dad wasn’t about to drive back to get it that day. The proprietor agreed to hold it until we passed through on our way home later in the week. Meanwhile, Gerald could make do with what remained in Gregory’s suitcase. Except for swimsuits—both the boys’ suits were in Gerald’s bag in West Virginia. There was nothing for it but to drive to the nearest town and buy the boys new swim trunks.

My family was thoroughly disgusted with me. I felt bad about it, but being in the wrong made me angry, and I refused to apologize. I couldn’t bear the thought of getting back into that hot, smelly car with them again. I fumed and pouted, and they readily agreed to leave me at Teddy’s and go buy the swimsuits without me. They were no more eager for my company just then than I was for theirs.

I sat at the top of the front porch steps and watched the dust billow from the tires as our car sped down the lane. The engine’s rumble grew distant and the dust drifted in gentle swirls as I sat and scowled. I’d been so looking forward to coming here, but things sure had gone sour. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. Angry with myself for letting the suitcase get left behind, angry with my family for making such a big deal out of it, angry with the world for being so unfair.

From my private gloom, I observed the blacksmith leaving, raising another cloud of smoky dust as if the heat set his tires aflame. And then Uncle Teddy emerged from the barn.

He headed toward the house with a purposeful stride that I found acutely unsettling. Although he hadn’t witnessed the recent events, I knew Aunt Mary had promptly and dutifully apprised him, in painful detail, of everything that had transpired.

I was in awe of my uncle and considered him one of the greatest living Americans, but he was a no-nonsense kind of guy. He had definite ideas about discipline, and as I watched him approach, looming ever larger—and he was a big man—my worry grew in proportion.

Neither Mom nor Dad was strict with us, and that lapse of theirs was something my uncle made no bones about: he didn’t approve. It was possible that, since this problem had been quite literally set on his doorstep, he might desire to deal with the matter in his own way. Favorite uncle or not, my heart quailed at his approach. I was tempted to get up and run, but I had nowhere to go. So I sat tight and braced myself for whatever might come.

Rattling something absently in a loosely clasped hand, he stopped when he reached the porch and pinned me to the step with a riveting blue stare.

“Ghaaanevieve,” he said, drawing out the first syllable of my name.

[Blogger’s Note: her name is Genevieve, pronounced the French way, like Jahn-vee-EV.]

I felt I should jump to attention and salute with a sharp Yes sir! But instead, I tore my eyes away from that penetrating gaze, looked down at my feet, and returned, “Uuuuncle Teddy.” It was hardly the appropriate response, and I expected him to come up and belt me.

I waited, feeling his looming presence at the bottom of the steps. After an agonizing pause, he slowly mounted the stairs.

I tried not to wince.

But he merely settled himself on the step beside me. “So tell me, Miss Genevieve, why was it you who forgot your suitcase, but your brothers who are missing their swim trunks?”

Expecting wrath, I was surprised at the question. “Because it was Gerald’s suitcase, not mine.”

“But I thought you forgot the baggage?”

I explained about the argument. But I still didn’t look up. His boots looked positively enormous next to my little shoes on the step.

“And what was this fight about, may I ask?”

With considerable embarrassment, I told him about the ton of bricks versus the ton of feathers. He laughed, until he saw I was offended. Then, to my surprise, he put his long arm around my shoulders and hugged me to his side. I liked his horsey smell.

“Well, Miss Genevieve, it seems to me that if it was Gerald’s suitcase, Gerald should have seen to it that it got loaded. Don’t you agree?”

I nodded, relieved by his unexpected understanding but still burdened by the guilt of unconfessed sin. After all, I had remembered the bag early enough in the trip that we could have gone back for it, but I’d neglected to say anything.

“Sounds to me like a classic case of much ado about nothing,” Uncle Teddy said. “When your family gets back, I know you’ll apologize to all of them for your forgetfulness. And for being so pouty. The way I hear it, you haven’t exactly been a sweet little thing through all this, have you?”

I shrugged. “Mebbe not.”

“And that should settle the issue. Am I right?”

“Yes, sir.” I wasn’t too keen on the apology part, but I supposed I could muster something.

“Attention to detail, though,” he went on. “That’s something that can’t be neglected. Sometimes it’s the little things, the things that don’t seem so important, that can make all the difference.” He opened his hand to show me what he was holding. “Know what this is?”

“Looks like a nail.”

“That’s right. The kind that fastens the shoe to a horse’s foot. Do you know the rhyme about the horseshoe nail?”

“I don’t think so.”

He recited: “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of the shoe, the horse was lost. For want of the horse, the rider was lost. For want of the rider, the sword was lost. For want of the sword, the battle was lost. All for the want of a horseshoe nail.”

He put the nail in my hand. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with it, so I just looked at it.

“Do you understand what that means, little lady?”

I nodded. “A nail was missing so the horse threw a shoe, so the guy who was gonna ride it couldn’t, and the battle was lost ’cause that guy couldn’t fight in it. But couldn’t he have got another horse from somewhere? And how come they lost the whole battle just ’cause one guy wasn’t there?”

Uncle Teddy laughed. “You just might be too smart for your own good.” I’d been told that before, but the way Teddy said it, it sounded like a compliment. “The point is, you never can tell how one little thing out of place might affect the final outcome. Attention to detail is very important. As we found out with the suitcase. Right?”

I agreed.

“Well, no harm done this time. You just make a nice apology like a good girl, and by this time tomorrow, it’ll all be forgotten.”

But Uncle Teddy was mistaken about that.

Somewhere between his house and Lexington, there’s a place where the road winds down a hill, with a railroad crossing at the bottom. It just so happened that on that evening, a delivery truck lost its brakes while going down that hill. And it just so happened that my family’s car was stopped at the bottom, waiting for an approaching train. The truck plowed into the back of the car, ramming it onto the tracks just as the train reached the crossing. The car was flattened, along with everyone in it.

For want of the brakes, my family was lost. But as far as I was concerned, it was all for the want of a horseshoe nail—the suitcase—that I had left behind.

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Monday’s Musings: Approval

Sometimes we writers (and other artistic types) are annoyingly needy when it comes to affirmation. We create a work for our own pleasure, but aren’t content to keep it to ourselves; we want to share it with others. Not so much for the enjoyment of others, but so those others can tell us how much they love it. And if they don’t love it, we’re offended.

Well, la dee da! Not everyone likes the same thing, you know. There’s no reason to take it personally if someone doesn’t happen to appreciate the way I string words together.

That’s one dimension of the writing life. Another is related: book sales.  If we write for profit (and there’s nothing wrong with earning a living), we need people to like our writing enough to pay money for it. This brings us to the necessity of marketing and promotion.

Today, I’ll focus on one small aspect of that: reviews.

I recently received four new reviews of The Story in the Stars. All four readers liked the book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the first three raves – of course! Everybody loves praise! But when I got to the fourth, my grin faded a bit. Here’s what it said:

I was conflicted while reading this novel… On one hand the book was fantastic – terrific writing and a plot that pulled me in right from the start and didn’t let go until the very end. But on the other hand, there were times where I felt that the author’s attempt to push her religious manage spoke louder than the story, and I feel was a tad heavy handed at times. I would have preferred more subtlety – more nuances. Let the reader come to the conclusion ourselves without it constantly being spoon fed to us. But fortunately I only felt this is a few places, and other than that I really thought this to be an amazing book and I can’t wait to read the next one, “Words in the Wind”!

It’s a four-star rating (which is good!), and primarily positive. But (I say with my lip protruding in a pout) it’s not all positive!

I’m not sure, precisely, what the reviewer meant by “religious manage,” but I do get the point: (s)he didn’t like the gospel message being made so plain.

I’ve gone on record as saying the story should carry the message rather than vice versa; also, that subtlety can speak louder than shouting. Did I go against my own advice with this story? The reviewer might very well have a valid objection.

But the foundational premise of the book is that when God created the heavens and the earth, He “wrote” the gospel message in the constellations for ancient man to “read.” That’s the “story in the stars” the title refers to. So the book should, I’d think, specify the message the constellations are said to proclaim.

But you can’t please everybody. I won’t try to justify myself to the reviewer, or say (s)he is wrong, or feel persecuted because of his/her objections. I’ll just say that I wrote what I wrote, realizing not everyone will like it.

The apostle Paul, who met with far more vehemence against the message than I ever will, famously said (my paraphrase), I’m not ashamed of the gospel; it’s the power of God for the salvation of all who believe it.

Not everyone will believe it. But it’s a story worth telling. I should be ashamed if the message didn’t come through!

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Saturday Situation Report

Not much to report on the writing front; the slow forward progress has sputtered to a temporary halt. Hoping to get back into the swing of things next week.

HOWEVER: as you may have noticed, I am managing to maintain my new blogging schedule through thick and thin. So give me credit for that, at least.

See you Monday, when I’ll muse on something that I’m sure you’ll find scintillating. (Haven’t decided yet what that will be. But I expect it will be very edifying. Ha!)

Till then, have a great weekend!

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Thursday’s Thoughts: Stretching

We all know stretching is good for us.

Physically, we should stretch our muscles before taxing them with strenuous activity. Mentally, we should expose ourselves to new ideas and knowledge in order to grow our capacity. Emotionally, exposure to unfamiliar experiences helps us to mature. No need to elaborate further; you already know what I’m talking about.

In July, our five-year-old grandson Bennett participated in a pint-sized triathlon. He had so much fun he wanted to do it again, so Shelley found him another to participate in. She also encouraged Bennett’s seven-year-old sister Avery to join in the fun.

Avery had shown no interest in the first one. When Shelley asked what she didn’t like about it, her reply was: “The swimming, the biking, and the running.” But mostly, we knew, it was the biking.

For some reason, Avery doesn’t like bicycling. I can’t relate to that, because, except when I was four years old and just getting used to riding without training wheels, I don’t recall ever being afraid of it. But riding bikes around the neighborhood with Avery is more of an exercise in patience than physical exercise. All I hear is, “It’s too hard! I can’t do this! I can’t get up this hill. Help me! My legs are burning! I can’t do this!” And on and on, all the way around the block.

Bennett and Avery displaying their medals

But she agreed to do the second triathlon, and this past Sunday, she pulled it off! Go Avery! She did it!

She needed to stretch in order to gain confidence in herself. Sometimes we need to stretch in order to grow more confident in God.

Years ago, I had a weak right ankle and unconsciously favored it, relying on the left leg instead. To my surprise, the muscles atrophied over time until the circumference of my right calf measured almost three inches less than my left. The doctor showed me how to stretch and exercise the ankle in order to strengthen it so I could use both legs the way they’re intended to be used.

Psyching herself up before the event. Behind her, you can see Mom (Shelley), with the purse; little brother Everett; a snippet of me; and Craig. (Just noticed this — Shelley and I are standing in an identical like-mother-like-daughter stance.) Bennett is almost hidden behind Avery. You can’t see Daddy Scott, because he took the picture. And I don’t know the lady in the white top and red pants.

In a similar manner, if we rely on ourselves instead of God, our faith will either atrophy or never grow in the first place. Only by acting in faith can we grow in faith. A Christian who doesn’t use her faith “muscle” will become a weak, lopsided, and/or crippled Christian.

It’s easy to see how a child needs to be stretched by new experiences in order to gain courage and maturity. It’s not so easy to see the same need in ourselves. We tend to get comfortable and not realize our faith is wasting away.

When the Spirit urges us to step out into new ventures, we need to listen. Not merely because God is God and should be obeyed, but because it’s good for us!

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Monday’s Musings: Onions and Potatoes

While not working on my WIP last Wednesday, I went out to the back garden where I dug potatoes and carrots, harvested the last of the cabbages, and pulled the onions.

Not sure what there is about onions, but I love them. I like red ones best. Do they taste any different? I don’t know, but it seems like they do. And potatoes? When all four kids were at home and potatoes were about the only thing I could count on everyone in the family eating for dinner, we went through ten pounds of spuds a week.

But for some reason, I hadn’t yet figured out the best place to store the garden’s yield. Before we could finish the potatoes, they’d always be soft and mushy with sprouts a yard long. A few years ago, I discovered that they keep a lot better in the attic than the basement. Why didn’t I think of that sooner? Nowadays, I keep them in the basement until the weather gets cold, and then I’ll transfer them to the attic. They’ll stay fairly fresh there until they’re gone, even if we don’t finish them until spring. Awesome!

2-lb potato, August 2007

The growing year seems shorter every year. In the spring, we prepare the soil and plant, the wait eagerly for the seeds to sprout and the plants to grow and the produce to ripen. As I pulled the onions on Wednesday–big, fat bulbs, tops died off and skins already dry and papery–I felt as if I’d just planted those spindly little plants a week ago. Well, okay, three weeks ago. But it certainly didn’t seem like three months ago.

It was a rare treat to have no difficulty finding them. Usually, the weeds get away from us toward the end of summer, and when it’s time to harvest the onions and potatoes, I have to hunt for them. This year, though, the ground was bare and clean, and the dead tops were easy to spot in their nice neat rows. Thanks to a combination of a dry summer (weeds need moisture to grow too, you know) and Craig’s diligent efforts, harvesting the root crops was a pleasure this year.

Potato critter 2011

One year we had some really big potatoes. Two of them weighed just  over two pounds. I took a picture of one of them. (That’s a full-sized dinner plate, by the way.) Usually when the get big and fat like that, they have a hollow spot in the middle. But those didn’t; they were solid potato all the way through.

Last year, they were oddly shaped. I don’t know why, but it might have something to do with stress from all the potato beetles. This one ended up being part of Thanksgiving dinner, but I took a picture of it that morning before I butchered it.

Driving home from Virginia today. Have a great week!

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Saturday Situation Report

We’re in Virginia once again. Five-year-old grandson Bennett had so much fun participating in a triathlon in July, he wanted to do it again. So our daughter found another one for him on August 19 (tomorrow). She also talked his seven-year-old sister, Avery, into entering it with him. So that’s the occasion for our visit this weekend: to watch Bennett and Avery swim, run, and bike their way to a fun time.

Also noteworthy: we’ve said goodbye to Verizon Mi-Fi as our Internet provider. It’s about time, right? It was a little strange that we were satisfied with it for over a year, and then all of a sudden it became unusable. But, because they tried everything they could and were unable to provide dependable service for us, they let us out of the remainder of our two-year contract with no penalty.

As of Wednesday, we’re customers of Omnicity, which I believe is a new organization devoted to giving broadband access to us yokels in third-world counties who are out of range of DSL or cable. For now, this new service looks good. But being weary of things that don’t work, I’m not particularly excited at the prospects. Ask me about it in a year.

Writing? I’ve been busy with this and that and the other thing, but haven’t found the time to do the main thing, i.e., my WIP. Hanging my head in shame…

Heading home for Ohio on Monday. Hoping to find the time to share my musings that day too. If I don’t get to it, you’ll never notice. I’m sure you don’t rush to your Inbox every Monday, Thursday and Saturday to see what wise words Y’s posted.

Have a great weekend! I plan to do the same.

 

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Thursday’s Thoughts: The Story

As a fiction writer, I’ve learned that it’s all about the story.

Proper grammar is important, as is word choice, consistent point-of-view, and all those other things everybody’s always harping about. But if we don’t have a solid story to tell, it doesn’t matter how beautiful our words or now exquisite our technique. Nobody cares about that stuff. We want a good tale!

I recently read a discussion about Christian fiction. (I read a lot of discussions on that subject, for obvious reasons.) One of the commenters mentioned that nobody wants to read propaganda thinly disguised as a novel.  I completely agree. The story is the vehicle that delivers the message; the message can’t carry the story any more than the groceries can deliver the car.

Thinking about that, I found myself humming an old hymn. I haven’t heard it sung in church for decades, and that’s a shame, because it’s a great song. As a writer, I consider it (and/or its other persona–see my note at the end) my theme song.

Because I’m traveling today (going to visit the kids/grandkids in Virginia again) and don’t have time for a much of blog post, I’ll be lazy and reproduce the lyrics here for your edification and enjoyment. With any luck, if you’re old enough to know the tune, this will get the song in your head and you’ll sing it all day. (You can thank me later.)

Tell Me the Old, Old Story
Words: A. Katherine Hankey, 1866
Music: W. Howard Doane, 1867

Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.
Tell me the story simply, as to a little child,
For I am weak and weary, and helpless and defiled.

Refrain: Tell me the old, old story, tell me the old, old story,
Tell me the old, old story, of Jesus and His love.

Tell me the story slowly, that I may take it in,
That wonderful redemption, God’s remedy for sin.
Tell me the story often, for I forget so soon;
The early dew of morning has passed away at noon.

Refrain

Tell me the story softly, with earnest tones and grave;
Remember I’m the sinner whom Jesus came to save.
Tell me the story always, if you would really be,
In any time of trouble, a comforter to me.

Refrain

Tell me the same old story when you have cause to fear
That this world’s empty glory is costing me too dear.
Yes, and when that world’s glory is dawning on my soul,
Tell me the old, old story: “Christ Jesus makes thee whole.”

Refrain

NOTE: There’s another once-popular hymn based on the same poem by Miss Hankey. I can’t decide which I like better!

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