Is That a Rattlesnake? – Writing From A Sense of Place

Welcome to my neighborhood. I live in a city, but I like to hike in the surrounding mountains in the Sonoran Desert.

Will you walk with me? 

a pair of cholla

prickly pear

Before we go, I recommend packing the following things:

  1. A small journal and two pens for writing simple notes that can be tidied later. One fast pen. And one slow pen. Just in case.
  2. A phone and a pocket-size camera for taking photos of things to remember, including plants, lizards, insects, and birds that need identifying. And occasionally rattlesnakes.
  3. Water. Plenty of water.
  4. A snack. Writing and walking is always better with something delicious. I recommend a bagel with cream cheese, an orange, and a package of fruit snacks. Shaped like dinosaurs.

I like to leave early in the morning for a hike in South Mountain. We will walk until we find a flat rock with an unobstructed view in the middle of a cholla forest. We wait here for the dawning.

What sentences will you use to describe the horizon? What colors do you see? Orange? Yellow? How can you write about those colors without using those words?

I scribble in my journal:

I look for the planets that are visible this month in the pre-rising light, but only a fingernail moon shines down. The eastern sky is anthemed by the birds as peach caresses the low layer of clouds, veiling the sun until it bursts in a single golden shot. 

A nearby ant hill is a scurry of activity, the residents in a hurry to harvest food before the rising of the molten heat.

A lime green bandaid emblazoned with super heroes lies in the dust.

What is blooming? What is distinct about this season? How will your reader know it is spring without you having to tell them?

The hillside flowers are monochromatic in hue. Lemon-gold poppies. The ditzy-blonde brittlebush that arrives early and stays late. The five-petaled blossoms on the creosote bush are no larger than a penny. No buds adorn the head of the gentleman saguaro, the giant cactus that waits to bloom last every year.

Who shares the morning? What do you hear?

A pack of coyotes join the morning bird song with yips and howls. I smile at the Sonoran Desert chorus but my rust-colored mutt unfurls her tail as she listens, warily, close to my legs.

A dad with three young sons shuffle by.

“How far are ya goin’?” we ask.

“As far as we can get,” the dad answers. They pass us full of adventure and youth-filled zeal, a single water bottle between them.

What do you touch?

A layer of dust coats my shoes. My hands. My khakis. My dog is a four-legged dust mop as she flops at my feet.

To our left is a vein of pink quartz that juts up from time to time throughout the mountain like the backbone of a dinosaur skeleton.

The fruit snacks!! Would you like a red one?

red dinosaur fruit snacks

As I pull out the fruit snacks, I place my foot on a medium-sized boulder. A six-inch black tail disappears under the stone below my shoe. I jump back. A lizard? A snake? I feel no need to investigate.

What would I see in your neighborhood? What is unique about the place where you live? How would you set the scene with a strong sense of place?

Can I walk with you?

 

Lynne Hartke is under contract with Revell for a 2017 release of a nonfiction book about her experience with cancer. The Sonoran Desert in Arizona serves as a background for much of her writing.

 

 

4 Tips for Writing About Sensitive Topics

I write about sex in marriage. Talk about a sensitive and potentially controversial topic. Even the idea of publicly discussing sex in Christian circles can trigger everything from raised eyebrows to scathing rebukes.

4 Tips for Writing about Sensitive Topics

Yet I’ve always believed that if God is willing to bring up sensitive issues, so should His people. How can you address sensitive topics responsibly? Here are four quick tips.

1. It’s not merely what you say, it’s how you say it. Christians can be entirely right about the content of what they teach, and entirely wrong in how they treat others in getting their point across. Presenting truth doesn’t excuse us from commands to be loving, kind, gentle, patient, and self-controlled.

Ask how you’re presenting your points. Are you solely concerned about the issue, or do you consider the people affected? Do you invite conversation or lambaste anyone who doesn’t agree?

If your readers see you as caring about them, they’re far more likely to listen to what you have to say. Keep them in mind as you write.

2. Some react negatively because you poked a personal wound. Sometimes a reader’s hostile reaction isn’t personal. Rather, you unintentionally touched a raw wound.

For example, if I address how most husbands need the emotional connection of sex, I’ll get angry reactions from higher-drive wives whose husbands don’t seem to want sex, from wives whose husbands have been demanding or abusive, from husbands who’ve been refused for years and rant about how I’m too soft on wives, etc. Rather than feeling attacked, I try to show compassion for their difficult situation.

We should present our topic as fairly and lovingly as possible. But if someone freaks out about something you said, remember it may not be about you at all.

3. You don’t owe anything to false teachers. We bloggers know these commenters as “trolls”—meaning people who troll the Internet for articles on a particular topic and leave comments that promote lies and hate. At first, I tried to engage these readers, but nowadays I can spot a troll, or false teacher, pretty quickly. And I don’t put up with it.

It’s not that a writer’s skin isn’t tough. Challenges, debates, and discussion are fine, but if someone promotes false teaching or personally attacks other readers, it’s time to draw a line. Our readership relies on us to present truth and encouragement.

Adopt a comments policy explaining you’ll delete remarks with egregiously wrong or dangerous teaching. Don’t allow false teachers to soil your ministry by giving them a platform.

4. Find a supportive community. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to find a community who’ll support you when difficulties arise. My marriage author friends provide everything from encouragement to prayer to wisdom. And they laugh with me, which is healing in the face of trouble.

When it comes to writing, people who do what you do are not opponents; they are allies. Befriend them and gain strength from one another.

We can’t dismiss our obligation to share God’s Word boldly (Acts 4:31) and to help struggling people (Psalm 34:18) simply because it makes some in our midst uncomfortable. Your readers, many who’d never leave a comment or contact you, will appreciate your courage to address sensitive topics.

Starting Your Writing Project 

It’s a new year, so it is time to set some new goals. For many of us, one of those goals may be writing our next book. As with most goals, the hardest part is getting started. So, let’s consider some ways to overcome writing inertia.

Find your topic: Whether you are writing your first book, or your hundredth book, the first step is determining the focus of the book.

For your first book, your possibilities are the greatest. Of course, you are confined by your areas of knowledge and interest, but you have considerable freedom in choosing a genre, subject and style.

For your second and subsequent books, you are limited by your previous writing decisions. Of course, some authors successfully jump from nonfiction to fiction or children’s books to historical novels, but usually your literary agent will encourage you to write your next book in a category similar to your previous work. Your readers will be looking forward to a new book that builds on what they have read in your previous books.

Prepare a schedule: You are more likely to complete your writing project if you plan the time for the task in your schedule. If you have written a book already, you will have a good idea of how many hours it takes you to write a certain number of words. If you are writing your first book, you can estimate the time by using how long it takes you to write an article with a given word count.

Realistically determine how many times per week you can devote time to writing. Next, figure how long each writing session should last–one hour or half the day? How many words do you expect to write during a typical writing session? Given these calculations, you should have a good idea of how long you need to complete your writing project.

Factor in time for disruptions and delays so you do not become discouraged by an overly optimistic plan. You want to reach your goal, but writing is not a race.

Gather resources: Prepare for success by thinking ahead. What research materials will you need for your project? Will you need to spend time in a library or travel to a certain destination? Do you need to schedule interviews with people?

Add time for these tasks to your writing schedule. Contact people you need to interview well in advance of your writing deadline. Consider if you will want photos or illustrations in your book. If so, plan on acquiring the necessary permissions. As you gather your resources, your goal of completing your writing project will become real to you, increasing your likelihood of finishing the project.

Of course, each writer has a unique way of preparing to write a book. How do you get ready for your next writing project?

Walking Down Memory Lane: Recording Your Legacy Stories

Photo/KarenJordan

What memories do you recall of your hometown?

Christmas always brings back a lot of memories from my hometown, Silsbee, Texas.

My husband Dan and I grew up in the same town in Southeast Texas. So, even though he’s a few years older than me, we share a lot of memories of our hometown. Not only were we both born in that small Texas town, our parents grew up there, too. So, a lot of our relatives and friends still live there. And we still make trips back there when we can.

Fun times. Both of our children were born in Southeast Texas, too. But since we moved away when they were young, they only remember the holidays, summer vacations, and fun times with their relatives there.

Painful moments. Some memories are difficult to embrace–like the death of loved ones or mistakes from our past. But I’ve discovered the importance of recording some of my painful memories, especially since both of my parents are gone now.

Writing down some of those narratives brings healing to my soul. Plus, if I don’t write my family stories down, I know they will be lost forever.

Legacy stories. I should have written down the stories my mother and dad told me long ago. But at the time, I didn’t see any value of recording them.

I still hear those stories from my other relatives when I go back to Silsbee for holidays, weddings, reunions, and funerals. I’m trying to work out a plan for jotting down more of those stories as I remember them.

Certain songs also trigger memories for me. Although I moved from my childhood home several decades ago, Kenny Rogers‘ hit, “Twenty Years Ago,” always takes me back in time, reminding me of my past.

As you listen to the song below, I hope it helps you recall some of the stories from your hometown, too. But be sure to write them down. Someone you love might be blessed by your stories. I also hope you’ll share a story with our readers in the comments below.

YouTube/RareCountry2 (“Twenty Years Ago – Kenny Rogers)

Did this video remind you of a story from your hometown?

Should I Write Fiction or Non-Fiction?

When I was an aspiring writer, I had no idea whether I should pursue novels, (fictional stories using made-up characters, scenarios, and plots), or nonfiction, (themed projects using real-life examples). So before I signed with WordServe, I wrote a proposal for both.

Juggling a Writing Career and a Day JobWhen my literary agent steered me in the direction of nonfiction, I felt two distinctly different emotions. One part relief, because it’s easier for me encourage, inspire, teach, and motivate through true stories and practical application. But I also felt a twinge of disappointment. After all, it’s a little more fun to make stuff up. Besides, you can get away with things under the guise of imagination, where non-fiction holds you to a strict standard of authenticity.

Mark Twain once said, “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” He also said, “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.”

Today, I’m much more comfortable in my true writer’s skin. Occasionally, I still feel the old pull to write novels, and who knows, maybe someday I’ll do it for fun, but for now, I recognize that I am on the right path. I was made to inspire through nonfiction. But it doesn’t mean I have to give up story-telling…as a matter of fact, for me, stories enhance the topics I am drawn to write about.

Maybe you understand my dilemma. If so, perhaps these bullet points will provide clarity. After all, facts help us make informed decisions.

Fiction

  • Defined by Merriam-Webster as written stories about people and events that are not real. Literature that tells stories which are imagined by the writer; something that is not true.
  • Many readers are drawn to the escape of make-believe story, becoming passionate followers of characters.
  • You can hide truth in a fictional account.
  • There is an increased opportunity to sell two to three book deals as a fictional series.
  • There are fewer speaking platforms to engage with readers, and introduce them to your work.
  • There are fewer fiction publishers available to buy your books.
  • You must write the entire book before submitting it to publishers.

Nonfiction

  • Merriam-Webster describes nonfiction as writing that is about facts or real events. All writing that is not fiction.
  • Statistics show the greater majority of dedicated book buyers gravitate to nonfiction.
  • You can use fictional techniques to tell true stories.
  • On average, studies show nonfiction authors are paid more for their books.
  • With effort, you can find a place where groups gather for practically any true subject–and where they meet, a speaker is needed. Most publishers will require speaking platforms from nonfiction authors.
  • Tapping into felt needs sounds easy on the surface, but unearthing fresh subjects a publisher will buy, and a title that draws readers, is almost as tough as writing the book.
  • Though you need only write two to three chapters of your book, a thorough proposal including a solid marketing plan, comparative analysis of similar books, and complete outline with chapter blurbs is required.

Getting Through What You Can't Get Over Book CoverFor me, nonfiction is my natural fit, and reviewing these bullet points confirms my choice. I have a speaking platform. I prefer truth-telling over make-believe. I love to research facts, statistics, and the latest studies. I actually enjoy the challenge of coming up with a fresh approach to an existing issue, while pounding out a unique title.

There are readers for every genre, or those genres would fade away. Thankfully, there are writers to supply the demands. As an author, I must look at where I can do the greatest good, after all, the books I write ultimately belong to readers. I can’t pen it all, so wisdom says, write what I can pen best. In my case, this means nonfiction.

Are you writing fiction or nonfiction? Why is that your choice?

 

 

 

 

Writing about Thanksgiving and Food

Photo/Jordan

If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes … (Matthew 6:25 MSG).

Food, food, food! Why does everyone make such a big fuss about food during the holidays? I’m always focused on food! Either I’m overeating, dieting, or trying to feed someone else. I can’t remember one day of my life that I didn’t focus on food at some point.

So, how can my worries about food help my spiritual focus? Over the years, I’ve discovered that my hyperfocus on food is often a warning sign for a much deeper problem than just trying to meet my physical needs.

Needs. While we were seminary students, I first learned how my own worry about food could actually motivate me to seek deeper spiritual insights.

At seminary, we lived on a much lower income than most of our family and friends. Often we didn’t have enough money for the food we needed for our family.

Miracles. God used that problem to capture my attention, and I saw Him provide in miraculous ways for some of my friends. Groceries would be left on their doorsteps. Money for food would arrive in the mail. Or they would discover some random source of free food, like day-old bread or vegetables discarded from the grocery’s produce department.

Tips. Intrigued by my friends’ stories, I began to ask to God to help me find ways to deal with our food needs. And I discovered many tips for stretching my food budget with recipe ideas and coupons. My friends and I found that we could all stretch our food budgets by sharing our resources. When we gathered together for a meal, each family would bring their menu contributions.

Manna and quail. In Exodus 16:4, “God said to Moses, ‘I’m going to rain bread down from the skies for you. The people will go out and gather each day’s ration. I’m going to test them to see if they’ll live according to my Teaching or not’” (MSG).

I joked about identifying with the Israelites in the wilderness as God provided manna and quail for them to eat. But as I experienced God providing for my own family, like He did for His children in the Old Testament, I searched for more answers to my everyday problems in the Bible.

Traditions. Before my seminary days, I never thought about asking God to provide for my family’s needs, especially our food. Yes, we taught our children to express their thanks before our meals. But my prayer of thanks usually came after I had purchased groceries and prepared our meals.

So, I examined our mealtime prayers and Thanksgiving blessings. Could they simply be a family or religious tradition? Had I ever offered my mealtime prayers with a heartfelt gratitude for God’s blessings?

Diets. I still struggle with worry and my spiritual focus on food from time to time. Even now, as I try to eat a healthier diet, I realize that I must stop and ask God for direction every day–sometimes moment-by-moment–as I seek answers to my problems and needs.

As I prepare to enter into this season of Thanksgiving once again, I pray that I will remember this promise from God’s Word.

… The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:5-7 NIV)

What stories about food come to mind as you prepare for this Thanksgiving season? Have you recorded them?

Writing and Publishing for a Purpose

John Merritt: Writing and Publishing for a PurposeYEAH!!! There were times when I never thought my book would actually be on bookstore shelves or available online as it is today! It’s been a long and sometimes arduous journey to get Don’t Blink in print. Now that it is, I hope and pray that God will use this book for the purpose intended—to inspire Christians to live life to the fullest, and as a gift to our non-Christian friends who could use a different perspective on what the Christian life looks like.

It’s been said that there’s a book inside each one of us. And while this is no doubt true, the big question is: Will anybody read it? I wondered that of my own book. And how do you know if people are reading it and benefiting from it? Ah, this is where social media provides some answers.

I’ve been transparent about my lack of passion for social media—especially my own! And yet, I am finding that this is not only where you get honest feedback but also transparent testimony of the effectiveness (or not) of what you are putting out there. In fact, reading some comments about Don’t Blink on the internet has provided confirmation that God is using this in ways that I had hoped and prayed for.

Here’s an example: After reading the first five chapters of your book, I have to say thank you for rekindling my sense of adventure! I have been dreading writing my company mission statement and personal bio, etc, for my website. You reminded me of my passion for life and to just go for it, with Jesus by my side! What could be better? I think I was getting a little stagnant or complacent. What an invigorating breath of Christ-filled air! After reading “Don’t Blink” poolside this hot afternoon, I dove in for a swim and it was GOOD TO BE ALIVE! I plan on purchasing copies for my father and my friends. Thank you!

I’ve been asked why I wrote a book, and responses like this provide the answer. I knew going into this project that 80% of men don’t read books. While my book has both a female and male audience in mind, I wanted men to find the book readable. So each of the 23 chapter starts with a captivating short story followed by a down-to-earth, real-life application. Seems like the book is keeping the short male attention span engaged—and I love that!

To all of you who have read or plan to read Don’t Blink: The Life You Won’t Want to Miss I thank you. And remember, I wrote it with your non-Christian friend in mind—so please share it. Would make a nice gift for someone you care about this holiday season that is almost upon us.

God’s best to you!

John