Monday, January 30, 2017

Amazing Grace and This Novelist

I'm reading Jonathan Aitken's biography of John Newton--a gift given me years ago by a woman I admire and respect. I came to this biography knowing very little about Newton beyond what everyone knows--he wrote "Amazing Grace," and he captained slave ships. Learning more has been a moving and encouraging personal experience. 

This morning, learning about his hymn-writing spoke to me on a personal level about my writing. Why? Well. Because, over my 20 years as a published novelist, there have been times when I was painfully aware of the number of people who look down their noses at "popular fiction." 
Once, I attended a lecture on a favorite writer. Afterwards, I introduced myself to the English professor who had just given the lecture, offering to visit her class if she ever wanted to give her students a chance to talk to a "working writer." When the professor learned what I write, she actually turned her back on me to begin a different conversation with someone standing nearby. 
Now, that's an extreme version of the kind of thing novelists sometimes encounter. Still, though, it can be challenging to maintain a healthy appreciation for the ministry of popular fiction. After all, the Enemy of our Souls is really, really good at discouragement. 
Below, I've excerpted what encouraged me most from the chapter about the "most sung, most recorded, and most loved hymn in the world," "Amazing Grace." (Here's a purchase link for the book: https://www.amazon.com/John-Newton-Disgrace-Amazing-Grace/dp/1433541815)
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Newton's writing "People's Hymns" was highly unusual for his day. But his congregation were tradespeople, and he knew that the principal religious books of the established church (the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer) were replete with phrases uneducated people found difficult to understand. "Newton thought he could help them to understand the Scriptures if he amplified his sermons by writing simply worded hymns that illustrated the biblical passages on which he was preaching."
"Newton saw himself as a simple wordsmith who could hammer out verses that would appeal to the ordinary folk of Olney."
"This concept of serving God and his parishioners was Newton's primary objective in writing hymns. He had no interest in pleasing persons of superior social status or literary taste. He made this clear when he wrote in the preface to Olney Hymns:
'Though I would not offend readers of taste by willful coarseness and negligence, I do not write professedly for them. If the Lord whom I serve has been pleased to favor me with that mediocrity of talent that may qualify me for usefulness to the weak and the poor of his flock without quite disgusting [displeasing] persons of superior discernment I have reason to be satisfied.'
Newton was therefore consciously avoiding highfalutin language and poetic phrases in his hymnody. He was an unashamedly middlebrow lyricist writing for a lowbrow congregation. He wanted every line of his hymns to be easy for his parishioners to sing, understand and commit to memory. Clarity and simplicity were therefore the cornerstones of Newton's hymn-writing technique. On these foundations he built his rhyme, rhythm, syntax, and choice of words. 'Amazing Grace' passes these Newtonian requirements for hymnody with flying colors. The rhymes and rhythms of its verses are so clear and so well-known that they require no further comment, but a less well noticed strength of the hymns is that of the 146 words in 'Amazing Grace,' no fewer than 125 are words of one syllable."
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I share this with you, just in case you, too, have been tempted to feel "less than." While simplicity should never be a synonym for lazy writing, I find comfort in the notion that ministry to readers who are attracted to my simple stories is not something I need feel apologetic about---ever. Sign me Stephanie Grace Whitson, "unshamedly middlebrow." 



Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Christmas memory that became a novella

http://bit.ly/2g6IPh1
What follows is excerpted from a book of sod house memories published by the Sod House Society. Many years after I first read it, it inspired my novella titled "A Patchwork Love" for A Patchwork Christmas. I hope you enjoy reading "the rest of the story" (as Paul Harvey would say).

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It was Christmas Eve! I was seven years old during World War I. My father was in Los Angeles. My mother worked as a satin lady in a big store in North Platte, Nebraska. On Christmas eve when the store closed, we took the seven o'clock train to go out to Ogallala way out in the sandhills of Nebraska where her brother lived on a farm with seven children.


We were the only passengers going to Ogallala as the train headed into a terrible snowstorm. The heavy snowstorm increased the depth of the snow until the train was forced to stop. 

My mother hadn't brought any food because it was supposed to be only a two-hour journey. We were snowbound on the train. The drifts of snow were up to the tops of the windows. The only people on that train (five passenger cars and a mail car) were the engineer, the fireman, the conductor, the brakeman, and us. 

My mother was very tired and emotional. She began to cry and sat quietly crying the whole evening--how terrible it was! But the conductor and brakeman were very good to me, giving me a nickel and some candy, and tried to cheer up my mother.

About twelve o'clock midnight I was awakened, as we heard some jingling bells outside the train. The conductor came into our car and said, "You'd better put your coats and boots on, because a nearby farmer has come to get you in his sleigh." 

We went to the door of the train with our suitcase and my doll and looked out. There were two great big black horses with bells all over the harness. They took us out and put us in the sleigh and covered us with fur lap robes. I recall how wonderful it was for me to ride behind the bells through a white world.

The man could not speak English and neither could his wife. They were Norwegian. She gave us hot coffee and some kind of wonderful bread. I can just remember that good bread because we were so hungry.

It was a two-story homestead house--two rooms downstairs and two rooms upstairs. We went upstairs and there was a featherbed. It was cold--oh, my land, but it was cold! It must have been 40 degrees below zero and no heat upstairs. We got into bed and the lady put another feather tick on top of us.

In the morning, I dressed by the big cookstove in the kitchen. The lady had made a Christmas tree for me. She had taken this beautiful handmade lace and wrapped it around and around a chair with ribbon bows, and right on the seat bottom of the chair was a dish with an apple, an orange, and some hard candy. Another plate had some beautiful cutout cookies. She didn't have anything else to give me but I thought it was wonderful. My mother had a sewing box for me. Inside was a blue satin lining with needles and thimbles, scissors, and some satin scraps. 

I was happy.


--from "Pioneering--My Story" by Florence May Callihan Noble May

Here is a link to the book of Sod House Memories in which Mrs. May's original ten-page memoir first appeared. The book is out of print, but used copies can occasionally be found.  http://bit.ly/2hGCfy3

Have a blessed Christmas.


Sunday, June 19, 2016

My Dad

Cecil Grayson Irvin graduated to heaven in 1996. 
I wrote this tribute as a Father's Day gift to him in about 1983.
Just before he died, he promised to meet me just inside the gate.
The older I get, the more I look forward to that day
I know he'll be there. 
Daddy was a man of honor. 
He always kept his word. 

            My Dad is a tall, slender man (“Slim” the guys at work used to call him) with gentle blue eyes and slightly rounded shoulder caused, I am sure, by years of bending his 6’5” frame to catch the words of those shorter than he.
            Of course I can’t remember it, but the family tells of Dad teaching me to walk by standing me on the toes of his shoes as he walked backwards.
            I remember as a child waiting excitedly for the car to pull up in the drive when he returned from his over-the-road trucking job. He would unfold his tall frame from the driver’s seat and put on the brown cap that matched his driver’s uniform. Dad took pride in his well-pressed uniforms with the company badge embroidered on the shoulder. We often laughed to see other motorists slow noticeably when we passed, thinking they were being monitored by a policeman in an unmarked car.
            When I was little, he was often “on the road.” But when he was home, I climbed onto his lap after meals, just for the feeling of being sheltered by his arms while he visited with Mother or read the evening paper. When I grew older, and Tuesday and Thursday nights were Dad’s nights home, Mother would cook corn bread with ham and beans or round steak with biscuits, and we would bask in his presence, just glad that he would be there to share our supper, coffee, and late night popcorn.
            On Sundays, Dad read me the comics and then entertained me by taking out pen and paper and drawing Dick Tracy and Brenda Starr. I still love to read the comic strips, enduring considerable chiding from my husband for the habit. I can’t copy the characters like Dad, but I occasionally clip one to slip into Bob’s lunch sack. He enjoys it in spite of himself.
            When childhood terrors over starting school after the summer overtook me, Dad was there to help relax the wrenching knot in my stomach. With his quiet voice he reassured me that everything would be all right. I believed him, and the knot loosened, and it was all right.
            I don’t remember him ever spanking me. Mother says he didn’t. He never had to. There was just something in his quiet love for me that motivated me to obey.
            In the days before seat belts and car seats, Dad used to sit me on his lap and let me think I was guiding the car.
            On summer nights when I was in junior high, we went to baseball games, sitting high in stadium seats provided by the St. Louis Cardinals to students with the right grade point average. Dad bought me soda pop and peanuts and we cheered Orlando Cepeda, Bob Gibson, and Lou Brock. I knew every player’s batting average and skipped classes once to watch the World Series on T.V. Without Dad in the next seat, baseball just isn’t much fun anymore.
            He taught me to drive defensively—and then trusted me with his car on a weekend away with other students. I would have done anything to keep from betraying his trust, and we all drove carefully that weekend. Dad must have spent a couple of sleepless nights wondering if his daughter would become another highway statistic. But he trusted me. He understood my need for independence.
            I remember my first car. Dad drove it home, parked it in the driveway, and ordered me to change an imaginary flat tire.
            He spoiled me. On snowy mornings I would go outside to find my car cleaned off, the driveway shoveled so that I could drive off to classes at the university.
            I remember tears in his eyes as he walked me down the aisle to become Mrs. Robert Whitson. Those tears still shine every time we have to say goodbye after a visit that spans the miles between Nebraska and Illinois.
            When my first child was born, the familiar knots returned to my stomach over the responsibility of motherhood. Dad reassured me. He drove me to the grocery store and patiently experimented until he found a way to fit the infant seat securely in a grocery cart while still leaving room for groceries. He couldn’t have known how much it meant to have him there, his frame towering over me, protecting his “little girl”—and a new granddaughter.
            Dad loves the Lord. He serves in quiet ways that people often don’t notice. For years, he and mother visited widows of fellow drivers killed on the road, providing help with business details, organizing a fund to provide cash in the early days of widowhood. He still chauffeurs “the elderly” around town and on trips to the airport.
            Dad taught me how to walk. He taught me to love baseball and comic strip characters and molasses-and-butter on bread. He taught me to obey authority. He proved that things would be all right next year in school, and that I could be an efficient mother, after all. He taught me about my heavenly Father, too. Oh, not with many words, but by being there, by loving, by listening—by being so very much like Him.
            I’m over thirty now, and much too old to call my Father “Daddy,” but he will always be “Daddy” in my heart … in my thoughts … in my prayers … because part of me will always be a little girl when he’s around.

            I love you, Daddy … Happy Father’s Day.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Sermon Notes, Psalm 3

Does life seem to be just one huge trial after another? Are you tempted to think God isn't paying attention? That He doesn't care? 

I was so encouraged by my pastor's sermon this past Sunday morning, I want to share my notes. A few comments are mine (a result of my mind whirling as our pastor taught), but most are those of my pastor, Dr. Gil Rugh. 

We studied Psalm 3, titled "Morning Prayer of Trust in God" 
with the ancient note added, 
"A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom, his son."

David fled ... from his own son. A son who had used his position as the king's son to foment rebellion. A son who managed to "steal away the hearts of the men of Israel" to such a degree that David had to run for his life. 

But Absalom's betrayal wasn't the only thing David had just experienced. His most trusted counselor, Ahithophel, had turned against him, too. 

On David's way out of town, someone threw rocks at him, screaming that God now favored Absalom. He was essentially saying, "God has cursed you, David, and it's your own fault!"

Lord, how my adversaries have increased!
Many are rising up against me.
Many are saying of my soul,
"There is no deliverance for him in God."

Have you ever felt like you can almost hear the Accuser of the Brethren saying things like that? "God's done with you. He doesn't really care about you. He won't rescue you. God has abandoned you. Why would God deliver you?"

Certainly David had reason to think God might turn His back on him. After all, David had sinned. A lot. Remember Bathsheba? Remember David's arranging things so her husband was killed in battle? This is the man who writes:

But you, oh Lord, are a shield about me,
My Glory, and the One who lifts my head.

What can I learn from David? He failed. God doesn't. David could have wallowed in his mistakes and in his sins, but he didn't. He gloried in the God who does not change. The God who gives grace. The God whose mercies are new every morning. 

I was crying to the Lord with my voice

David had great faith in God, but that doesn't mean he didn't cry to the Lord with his voice. Where should I go first when things look really, really, bad? TO THE ONE WHO IS THE REFUGE FOR MY SOUL.

I was crying the Lord with my voice
And He answered me from His holy mountain. 
I lay down and slept.
I awoke, for the Lord sustains me.


David is fully confident in God ... even though he still has to keep hiding. Even though he is running for his life. The Lord has cared for me to this point. He has brought me to this moment to hear His Word and to be reminded of His provision. Take heart. Lay down and sleep, for God is a shield about me.

I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people 
Who have set themselves against me round about. 

The magnitude of trouble shouldn't matter. The Lord will sustain me. He is the anchor for my soul. "Sometimes He brings His strength to me through others."

NOTE: The fact that David is experiencing part of God's discipline (he was told after he sinned with Bathsheba that he would experience ongoing conflict see 2 Samuel 12) DOES NOT CHANGE DAVID'S RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD. God is still David's refuge and David's deliverer. God has NOT abandoned David. 

Even in times of discipline, God is present. He is God with us

Arise, O Lord, save me, O my God!
For you have smitten my enemies on the cheek;
You have shattered the teeth of the wicked.
Salvation belongs to the Lord;
Your blessing be upon Your people!

David doesn't fall back on his past conquests (remember Goliath). He looks to God. 

Applying Psalm 3 to 2016:

  • Sometimes the problems in our lives can be overwhelming.
  • It may seem to some that God has abandoned me.
  • First, I should go to GOD and TO HIS WORD (not to others)
  • God meets us where we are. David doesn't wallow in his past mistakes and neither should we. We belong to Him and that will NEVER not be true.
  • In overwhelming trials, remember it is the Lord who protects us.
  • Earnestly seek the Lord. Cry to him with your voice in prayer. Claim his promises (like Romans 8:28). I may not see the "good" but He has promised good. His love is the same every day. His mercies are new every morning.
  • WE DO KNOW HOW IT ALL TURNS OUT. Remember what Jesus said the night before his crucifixion? "Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world."
If you would like to listen to the sermon yourself, here's the link:


God give you peace today. 
He loves you. So much.
  



Saturday, January 2, 2016

Just one year to live? Part II

In Part I of this blog post (scroll down to read "Just One Year to Live? Part I" to see it), I told you all about re-reading an essay my first husband, Bob Whitson, had included in his funeral brochure back in 2001. I had re-read that essay as I pondered the brand near year being handed me on the eve of 2016. Re-reading it challenged me to think in terms of "If this is my last year ... last month ... last week ... last day ... last night ... then what?"

I shared my musings with a few writing friends, and they encouraged me to share it with my readers. So ... it is, with my wishes for you to have a joyous 2016.

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"If this is my last year ... last month ... last week ... last day ... last night ... then what?

The first thing that came to mind to answer the "then what?" question was this: "be faithful to the call." And as often happens for me when thinking big thoughts (for me), I remembered a line from a song: "We will abandon it all, for the sake of the call ... " 

What am I called to?  FAITHFULNESS
  • as a child of God
  • as a wife
  • as a mother/grandmother
  • as a writer
  • as a citizen
  • as a friend

Those are the areas of life that poured onto the page as I wrote. I also jotted down brief ways that I can "do" faithfulness in each of those areas. Interestingly enough, the "doing" that was most common in regards to faithfulness in these areas of my life was one word: pray.

I ended my scribbles with these thoughts/goals/resolutions:
  • be light
  • share hope
  • live Christ
  • trust & obey (for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey)

This page of "resolutions" is like nothing I have ever written before. I'm almost always about making lists. Finish this. Write that. Change this. Sort that. Fix this. Make that. 

This year, the resolutions seem less focused ... but then they aren't, really, because being a writer is one of the main ways I can "be light," "share hope," and "live Christ." Writing every single day is one of the main ways I can "trust and obey." 

So that's my resolution for 2016: 

I will WRITE every single day of 2016. 
A poem.
A paragraph.
A chapter.
Every. Single. Day.

Steph Whitson (who wishes each one of you a WONDERMOUS 2016)


Thursday, December 31, 2015

Just One Year to Live? Part I

New Year's Eve is a time to not only reflect on the past but to also look ahead. We aren't really promised next year, but we can rest in the knowledge that  
the God who was faithful in 2015 will still be faithful in 2016. 

Facing impending death, Bob Whitson planned his funeral. He spoke personally with the men he wanted to be pall bearers, talked to the pastor who would deliver the funeral sermon, chose funeral music, etc. He also requested (and received) permission to have this essay by A.W. Tozer printed in his funeral program.

If I Had Just One Year to Live ...

Suppose that I were to learn that I had just one year to live. The number of my days were to be only 365. What should I do with the precious few days that remained to me?

The first thing is that I would have to arrive at some plan of action in conformity with known facts. I mean the facts of life and death and what God has to say about them in the Bible. However much I might ignore them while the hope of long life lay before me, with that hope shrunk to a brief year, these facts would take on tremendous proportions. With death stalking me, I would have little interest in trivial subjects and would instead be concerned with the essentials. 

Getting Down to Realities

I would stop hoping vaguely that somehow things would come out all right, and I would get down to realities. After all, the Bible says, "We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags" (Is. 64:6). And "For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all" (James 2:10). Knowing that "it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment" (Hebrews 9:27), I would take not rest until I had absolute assurance on these vital matters.

I would come to God on His own terms. It was Jesus who said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me" (John 14:6). I would not stand on ceremony nor allow myself to be hindered by the niceties of religion. For the Bible says, "Not by works of righteousness with we have done, but according to God's mercy He saved us" (Titus 3:5).

Finding Forgiveness from Sins

I would want to know that my sins were forgiven, that I had passed from death unto life, and that Jesus Christ was my personal Savior. "Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

The Bible goes on to say, "Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God" (1 Peter 3:18). He was "delivered up to death for our offences, and was raised for our justification" (Romans 4:25).

I would put away apathy, come boldly to Christ, and throw myself at His feet. "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shall be saved," the Bible says, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (Acts 16:31, John 3:16). I would come believing that God's promise of forgiveness and eternal life includes me.

Facing the Future

Then, a new person in Christ, I would give the last remaining year to God. All the wreckage and loss of the years behind me would spur me on to make the one year before me a God-blessed success.

Now all this would seem to me to be the good and right things to do for one who had just a year to live. But since we do not know whether we have a year before us, or a day or ten days, and since that would be right for the last year would be right for the whole life -- even if its years were many -- then the conclusion is plain. Our cry to God should be, "Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom" (Psalm 90:12).

I do not know what others may want to do, but I want to get down to business and live as if this year were my last. Then, if God should spare me to a ripe old age, I can depart without regrets.

If you had just one year to live, what would you do?

--A.W. Tozer

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Daughter of the Regiment: A Cover Story

Daughter of the Regiment: A Cover Story

http://bit.ly/1GDs9UC
Order Daughter of the Regiment from
Christian Book Distributors at:
http://bit.ly/1GDs9UC

"He held up the blue blanket--which was not a blanket at all, but her blue wool cape, adorned with gold buttons and red braid ..." 


Lovers of historical fiction tend to share a fascination with historic costume. We spend time on Pinterest oohing and aahing over the gorgeous creations housed in costume collections around the world. Some of us even attend Civil War reenactments and Jane Austen balls in costumes we’ve made. While we do love our “women in costume,” I suspect we’ve secretly thankful we aren’t expected to lace up a corset and step into five petticoats every morning!

A great deal of thought and planning goes into cover design for any novel, and when a publisher takes extra care with selection and planning, it makes a writer’s heart sing. Sometimes publishers have access to theatrical costume warehouses. That gives them a wide range of options for a cover shoot. In the case of Daughter of the Regiment, FaithWords went the extra mile. They hired a designer to make a uniform inspired by an authentic Civil War vivandière costume housed in the National Museum of American History. (Vivandières were women who served the French army during the Crimean War. Their service inspired Daughters of the Regiment in the American Civil War.)  

Vivandière Uniform
Division of History of Technology,
National Museum of American History

          That’s Maggie Malone on the cover of Daughter of the Regiment. Maggie is a 6-foot-tall Irish immigrant who farms alongside her two brothers and her uncle. When the Civil War breaks out, she has very little interest in a conflict “the Americans” should solve. But when Maggie’s two brothers volunteer with the Irish Brigade, and when one of their names shows up on a list of wounded soldiers, war becomes personal. Worried about her brother, Maggie travels to where the Irish Brigade is encamped. Eventually, she begins to think of the soldiers as “her boys.” As the story unfolds, Maggie grows and changes, until she realizes that she doesn’t want to leave the regiment. In the end, Maggie follows in the footsteps of 19th century women like Kady Brownell of Rhode Island and Annie Etheridge of Michigan.
          Historic photographs of women who served as Daughters of the Regiment show various versions of uniforms. Soldiers who wrote about regimental“daughters” mention caps decorated with feathers, bloomers, and all manner of braid. Inspired by the Smithsonian’s vivandiere’s costume, designer Linda Coulter first sketched the design shown at left. Once FaithWords gave approval, she created this exquisite uniform of soft blue wool, complete with authentic Civil War era reproduction buttons and lace. The jacket is fully lined and boned. Maggie Malone would have been proud to wear it, and I’ve been excited to share it with readers who attend launch events this spring. If I could wear it, I would … but alas, it’s a size 0, and I am not.

          I hope you’ve enjoyed learning “the inside story” of this cover shoot. You can see more historic background on my Pinterest Board,  https://www.pinterest.com/stephgwhitson/daughter-of-the-regiment/