Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Coming Up With A Story

One question people like to ask writers is this: How do you come up with a story?

For me, it's not that hard.  Most of my stories are describe one of two things:
Modern day people finding evidence relating to the New Testament narrative; or else I imagine the stories of the Bible we are familiar with through the eyes of someone mentioned in Scripture, but whose perspective has not been explored before.

I have three novels complete, and one more over half done.  Yet another is bouncing around in the back of my brain at the moment, waiting its opportunity to find its way to the printed page. Here is a brief description of how I came up with each of them:

THE TESTIMONIUM - a number of years back I did an Easter monologue, describing the Passion from the perspective of Pontius Pilate, who was skeptical yet unable to explain the events of the first Easter. Then, in my readings, I discovered that there was apparently a letter from Pilate to Rome at one point, describing the trial of Jesus.  Justin Martyr actually referred to it in a letter he addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius about a century after the crucifixion.  That got me thinking . . . what if a copy of that letter survived?  And what if a modern archeological dig uncovered it?  And thus THE TESTIMONIUM was born.

Several months after I completed THE TESTIMONIUM, I found myself increasingly obsessed with the character of Pilate.  Who was he?  How on earth did he anger Tiberius Caesar so badly as to be posted to Judea, despised by the Romans as the armpit of the Empire?  I had read the relevant passages in Philo and Josephus, as well as the Gospel accounts.  Suddenly Pilate's life story, interwoven with the career of Tiberius Caesar, sprang into my head - his military career, his political rise, his catastrophic encounter with young Caligula, and his exile to Judea.  Then I played it forward, imagining how the beginnings of the Christian movement must have appeared to him - and I wondered how he fared when his nemesis, Caligula, finally came to the throne.  Thus THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE came to be, and you will be able to read it in May.

Not long after I finished Pilate's life story, I found myself anxious to begin writing again - and also very curious as to what happened to "the Capri team" after the events of THE TESTIMONIUM.  I remembered a line from a New Testament commentary that I read - how the original manuscripts of each Gospel were referred to as the "Autographs," all of which were lost long ago.  Then I got to thinking - what if one of my friends from Capri were to discover the original manuscript of one of our Gospels - but it didn't match up to what we have today?  Hence, I wrote MATTHEW'S AUTOGRAPH.  It's due out in December.

That brings me to my current work - inspired by a commentary I read on the Gospel of Luke long ago.  The author of this commentary said that many people believe that Luke was written while Paul was awaiting trial in Rome, in order to explain the Christian movement to the Roman aristocracy who would hear his case before it went to Caesar.  The author referred to Luke and Acts as a "defense brief" for Paul, and said that perhaps "Theophilus", whom both books were dedicated to, was a high ranking Roman official who would be aiding  in Paul's defense.  That got me thinking - who was Theophilus?  And why would he defend the controversial leader of an obscure religious movement?  I gave him a name - Marcus Quintus Publius - and then began to write his story, which is entitled LOVER OF GOD. I hope to finish it by the end of this school year.

What does the future hold?  I intend to return to the adventures of the Capri team at least one more time - especially to my dear friend Father Duncan MacDonald, the Vatican archeologist, who is going to go to Egypt to excavate a newly discovered Gnostic library with a fellow scholar from England.  Unfortunately, the dig lies in territory threatened by an ISIS-like terror group.  What happens when a priest becomes a hostage?  I honestly have no idea where this one is going - but I know that I will be along for the ride!!!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

"So What's Your Book About, Anyway?"

How on earth am I supposed to answer that question?  Or any author, for that matter - how do you explain something that took months of your life to create in a two-minute conversation, hoping to persuade a curious reader to spend his money on your magnum opus?  I call THE TESTIMONIUM "my baby," because it took me nine months to write.  So how to sum that up?

On my posters, I wrote this little blurb:  "A tale of faith, archeology, romance, and terrorism."  It's accurate - those are the four main story arcs - and I like to think it's just enough to arouse some curiosity about how one story can contain those four elements. But it's still a single line about a 450 page novel!

I thought about subtitling it: "A Novel of the Resurrection."  That's also true - the main question I seek to answer is: "What if Pilate's version of events actually confirmed the New Testament accounts of the empty tomb?"  But that subtitle doesn't really explain much either.

When someone asks me what the story is about, I generally start by saying: "Well, it's a Biblical archeology thriller."  That gives a bit of an idea, and links it to some very popular recent works, like THE DA VINCI CODE, and James Rollins' many enjoyable novels like THE BLOOD GOSPEL that link Biblical and archeological themes with modern day political and philosophical conundrums.

But none of those phrases really explain what my novel, THE TESTIMONIUM, is about.  So let me give you, hopefully, enough details to answer the question I started this entry with - while still leaving you thirsty for the actual story!  Here goes:

THE TESTIMONIUM is about faith.  There are five members of the "Capri Team" - the archeologists called in to excavate a long-sealed chamber on the Isle of Capri. Dr. Joshua Parker is an evangelical Christian and the son of a Baptist minister, but he also has a PhD in Biblical archeology.  He is young, and has a strong goofy side, but also has a very deep and serious faith in Jesus.  The dig's supervisor, Isabella Sforza, is a lapsed Catholic/agnostic, who is too busy trying to make a name for herself in the crowded field of classical archeology to think about matters of faith.  The discoverer of the chamber, Giuseppe Rossini, is a Catholic Christian who doesn't talk much about his faith, but holds it dear.  The expert on ancient papyrus, Duncan MacDonald, is a Catholic priest and the Vatican's official archeological consultant.  The paleobotanist, Dr. Simone Apriceno, is Catholic, like most Italians, but generally keeps her faith to herself.  All five will see their beliefs challenged, and then confirmed, by the remarkable discovery on Capri.

THE TESTIMONIUM is about archeology.  The sealed chamber hidden in the Villa Jovis contains a treasure trove of artifacts from the time of Tiberius Caesar - a sword that once belonged to Julius Caesar himself, the original will of Caesar Augustus, some ancient coins and jewelry, and, most remarkably, the original report filed to Rome by Pontius Pilate about the crucifixion of Jesus and the events that followed.  The excavation, preservation, opening, and translation of the scrolls - and the attendant hubbub over the discovery - is a major part of the story.

THE TESTIMONIUM is about romance.  Josh is still a virgin in his early thirties, hoping to find someone that he can share his life and faith with.  Isabella is a grieving widow, whose husband Marc is five years in his grave.  The attraction between Josh and Isabella is strong and immediate; but he hesitates to give his heart to someone who does not share his love of God, while she is not sure that she can share his faith until a shattering moment at the story's end, when she is forced to make an agonizing decision while staring down the barrel of a gun.

THE TESTIMONIUM is about terrorism.  We all know that most Muslims are peace-loving and harmless people, but we also know that when some of them ascribe to the most radical interpretations of Islam, horrible acts have been done in the name of Allah.  Since I wrote THE TESTIMONIUM, the rise of ISIS has shown the pathological hatred jihadists have for professing Christians, with Iraqi and Syrian children crucified and beheaded for their faith.  Is it so hard to believe that a fanatic who buys into this ideology would want to destroy a discovery that might confirm the most important claim of the Christian faith? 

Throw these elements together, add a couple of militant atheist critics, a media rabid for sensationalism, and a scientific community that is automatically inclined to skepticism, and you can see that the Capri Team has their work cut out for them - to prove that their discovery is authentic, to avoid the attempts on their life, to present their finds to the world, and - perhaps - to find the keys to love and faith along  the way.

That is what my novel, THE TESTIMONIUM, is all about.  Now go out there and buy yourself a copy!!!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Pointy Things . . . . Why I Collect Indian Arrowheads

  I've used this blog to talk about some of the things I love - my God, my family, my profession, and my Cowboys thus far.  But everyone who knows me also knows that I have another great passion in my life, one that has consumed and fascinated me since I was a small boy.  That is my love of finding Indian arrowheads and other artifacts.
  My Dad picked up arrowheads when I was a boy - as far back as I can remember, I can visualize his four or five picture frames, backed with red velvet from an old set of curtains, each with a few dozen points grouped in simple geometric patterns.  One day when I was five or six, I was playing in a pile of fill dirt our neighbor had dumped in his yard and I found a single squarebased point while digging a hole with my toy dump truck.  I ran in and showed it to my Dad, who promptly took it away from me (it was a nice point and he knew that I would lose it or trade it for some Hot Wheels; he gave it back when I was old enough to appreciate it!).  That find didn't really spark a lasting interest in me; as a matter of fact, as a boy I loved fishing with my Dad and always complained when he got out of the boat to look for arrowheads.
   But one day when I was about twelve or thirteen, we'd been fishing awhile and caught nothing, so Dad and Hershel, his fishing and point hunting partner, decided to check the shoreline for arrowheads.  I didn't want to join them, but I was bored and figured why not?  Herschel sat me down on an old stump hole that had washed full of flint chips and said "If you clean all the flint out of that hole there should be an arrowhead or two in it."
  Well, I dug all the flint out of the hole and there were FIVE washed in there.  I was hooked.  It was pretty much the end of my fishing career; I've scarcely wet a hook in the last decade!  But every time I get near a place where I see high ground near water, and earth that has been disturbed, my eyes are on the ground.  I've found arrowheads in creeks, rivers, and along lake shores, in dirt roads, in piles of fill dirt at construction sites, and even in the middle of a convenience story parking lot one time!  My total collection, after a very good year of hunting last year, is over 8700.  I have a relic room whose walls are full of frames of flint artifacts; I can tell you when and where I found most of them without even looking in my logbook.
   So why do I do it?  What is the appeal?  A lot of it is from my sense of history.  When I pick up a perfect spear point and realize that my hand is most likely the first one to touch it in three or four thousand years, I think of all the human history that has transpired in that time - the rise and fall of Rome, the writing of the Old and New Testament, the Middle Ages and the Black Death, the Renaissance and Reformation - through all of that, this sharpened bit of flint was lying in the ground. left there by its maker, waiting for someone to come along and pick it up.  Holding it in my hand is like reaching across forty centuries of time and brushing fingers with a person who lived in a world I will never know, when mankind's possibilities had only begun to be reached.  It's a thrill that most people won't understand and many don't want to.  Yet I feel it every time I look down and see one of these little treasures poking up from the dirt!   When I was about fourteen, I found a book about arrowhead collecting by Virgil Russell, one of the old time Colorado artifact hunters.  In the flyleaf was this poem - it expresses how I feel about this hobby better than anything else I have read:
O’er fields of new turned sod
Communing with my God,
I tramped alone.

And in a furrow bed
I found an arrowhead
Chiseled from stone.

Then fancy fled on wings
Back to primeval things
Seeking the light.

What warrior drew the bow,
Sighted and let it go
On its last flight.

How oft this flinten head
On deadly errand sped
I do not know.

Nor will the silent flint
Reveal the slightest hint
How long ago.

Were its grim story told
What tales would it unfold,
Tales that would chill!

I know but this one thing
Beyond all questioning,
“Twas meant to kill”.

Ages have worn away,
Warriors have gone their way,
Their bones are dust.

Proof of a craftsman’s skill
Survives the ages still
Left in my trust.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

WHY I TEACH (But not in a public school!)

   Teaching is one of the great joys of my life.  I don't make much money, but the chance to go to work every day and talk about a subject I love deeply with multiple groups of teenagers is something I truly enjoy.  From my funny little seventh graders to my quirky and eclectic Dual Credit U.S. History class full of Juniors, I have fun with each and every one of them.  Teaching them every year from the time they enter Junior High until they graduate, I get to watch my students grow up.
  I teach at a private Christian school, and I write my own curriculum guides and lesson plans.  I choose my textbooks, and having chosen them, I use or ignore them at my own discretion.  While I am periodically evaluated by my administrators, I am given a great amount of academic freedom.  If I want to spend a few extra days discussing the glories of Rome, and maybe a bit less time on the Byzantine Empire - or vice versa - I am free to do that. If I want to make the observation that Abraham Lincoln was a great and compassionate human being and that Andrew Johnson was a total tool, I can do that too.  Best of all, I can talk about my faith openly with my students, and encourage their own spiritual growth in the process.  If a "teachable moment" happens and we get to spend an entire class day talking about something that's not part of the lesson plan because someone asked a really good question and created that opportunity, I can roll with it and seize the moment.   Best of all, I do not have to spend an entire school year grooming and prepping children for a state-administered standardized test which our school's entire funding for the year will be based on.  We do voluntarily administer the PSAT test to our high school students, but we don't shape our curriculum to the test questions.  And you know what?  95% of our graduates go on to college.  Not only that, colleges fight over them!  Our remarkable class of 2014 had around a million dollars in scholarship offers - for a total of 13 students!
    I have enormous respect for those who teach in public schools.  My wife is one of them, and my hat is off to them every day for the work they do, and for the horrific levels of bureaucracy and micromanagement they put up with.  Here in Texas, it's all about the STARR test.  Every class, every grade, every subject spends the year grilling the students over this state-designed test.  If a class is lagging behind, they may be required to abandon the curriculum altogether to spend six weeks boning up for one section of the test - I saw this happen to a friend of mine, who was informed in mid-unit that her sophomore world history class would be studying U.S. TEAKS (Texas Educational Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) for the next eight weeks - even though U.S. history is supposed to be taught in eighth and eleventh grades!  Uniformity is demanded; academic liberty virtually non-existent, and virtually every classroom activity is scripted by someone other than the teacher.  All teachers of the same grade level are expected to teach the same lesson, on the same day, and give the same homework!  One of my friends, a high school world history teacher, was told by her administrator a few years back that the principal should be able to walk from one classroom to the other and hear the teacher's finishing each other's sentences!  If this is what the State of Texas wants education to look like, why not just eliminate classroom teachers altogether and put a bunch of robots in front of the room, spouting cookie-cutter lessons generated by a committee of bureaucrats in Austin?  Then pesky things like teacher specialization, life experience, compassion, enthusiasm, and "teachable moments" can be eliminated and the apparent goal of universal student boredom can be achieved!


Monday, January 5, 2015

Writing, Promoting, Writing, Promoting . . . .

   I always thought that being published was the be-all and end-all - that once my work was out there, critics would swoon, bookstores would line up to distribute it, and I would retire to a life of luxury where I could teach one or two days a week (purely for the fun of it), write novels, and hunt arrowheads whenever I darn well felt like it.
   The truth of the matter is somewhat different!  Getting published was a great feeling, don't get me wrong - the day that I first held a copy of THE TESTIMONIUM in my hands is one of the high points of my life, right up there with the day I got married, the day my daughters were born, seeing them graduate high school, and watching SUCKER PUNCH for the very first time.  But, in the day and age of self-publishing and vanity presses, there are so many books out there chasing so few dollars, I've discovered it doesn't matter if your story is good or bad - unless you are so famous you can publish your laundry list and have legions of fans pay $22 each for it (I'm talking to you, Stephen King!!! LOL), once you write and publish, you have to hustle your book.
   It means endless posts on Facebook and other social media, trying to get people interested in your work.  It means driving three hours to sit in an uncomfortable chair at the front door of a book store and ask every single person who comes in: "Would you like to take a look at my new book?"  It means sending pleading Emails to people you don't even know, hoping that they will review your book, or carry your book in their store, or give you a plug on their radio show.  It means constantly strategizing with your publisher, trying to find new ways to get your book's reputation out there.  It means joining every writer's group around, reading and reviewing their books in hopes that they will read and review yours in turn.  In short, it's more work than writing the book was in the first place!
  That being said, is it worth it?
   OH YEAH!!! Every time I get an Email from an old friend or former student or co-worker telling me how much they enjoyed THE TESTIMONIUM, or garner another five star rating on Amazon, or some random person comes up to you at a book signing and says "Hey, can I get my picture taken with you?"  You bet it's worth it.
   I'm not rich or famous yet.  But I'm a writer, doggone it!  Every time I walk in my local Hastings and see THE TESTIMONIUM sitting there on the shelf (especially when there are fewer copies than there were last time!), and every time I have to order another box of books because I've sold out the last set, every time I set my table up for another book signing - I get one step closer.  It's a marathon, not a sprint - but I'm still putting one foot in front of the other!
   Now let's talk about writing.  I am nine chapters into my current book (my fourth novel), and ready to start writing on the next one.  It's a Monday evening, my spring semester of teaching starts tomorrow, I have two little goats to bottle feed, daughters (plus one boyfriend) loudly playing MINECRAFT in the next room, and I just heard my wife's car pull up bringing her home from work.  There will be ten thousand distractions for the remainder of the evening - but, if I can manage it, I am going to open up that hole in the keyboard and fall through, leaving modern, rural Texas behind and emerging in the ancient Roman Empire, following Marcus Quintus Publius and his companions on a mad ride from ancient Galatia to Antioch, where they hope to find a mysterious healer named Paul of Tarsus, in order to save the life of their young companion . . .

Yup, it's time to write!