The Story Behind the Story: An Unexpected Frost

[SPOILER ALERT]

I’ve always thought of the Tucker series in these terms: Tucker’s Way is a challenging story; An Unexpected Frost is a sad story; April’s Rain is a forgiving story; March On is a dark story; and Who Will Hear Me When I Cry is a sweet story.

Tucker’s Way was about whether or not a character like Tucker could change and bond with a person who was the opposite of her; of course, she did that with Ella. In that book Tucker overcame so many obstacles and became a powerful heroin—the kind of person you would want as a friend.

If you have a friendship with someone, like Tucker and Ella had, what is the one thing that frightens you the most about it? It is that you will lose that friend. How will I survive without them?It is these kinds of relationships that make us feel secure, which is one of the basic needs of humans, and is why we fear losing it. Therefore, it seemed natural to me that the evolution of Tucker would have to involve how she would deal with such a loss.

I will admit that An Unexpected Frost was a most difficult story to write. I had grown to love Ella, just as Tucker had, and I loved seeing the bond that formed between them. Killing a character was something I had never done and had never thought about what that would feel like to me, especially if it was a character I cared about.

You see, a writer develops relationships with his characters, has conversations with them, asks them what they are thinking, quizzes them about their behaviors. It is a very personal and intimate process. And so, when I formulated the basic storyline for An Unexpected Frost, I dreaded writing it. Many readers have told me how much they cried when they read this book. What might might surprise you to learn is that I shed tears as I wrote it.

It was this book that taught me how passionately readers felt about my characters. They gave me an earful!

  • “Why did you let Ella die?”
  • “I can’t believe you killed Ella!”
  • “How could you do such a thing?”
  • “I didn’t like what happened to Ella.”

Those criticisms, however, made me smile because it let me know that I had created a character that people connected with and loved.

 

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The Story Behind the Story of August, March, and April

[SPOILER ALERT]

The worst thing you could say about how August, March, and April were raised is that it was both abusive and neglectful at times. Tucker was not equipped to be a parent; she was never given parenting tools for her toolbox by her parents. But the best thing you could say about the children’s raising is that Tucker did instill resiliency in them. As the Tucker series progresses, it is easy to see how all three of them overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles much like their grandmother, Tucker, did.

In this entry of “The Story Behind the Story” I’m going to focus on the children as they were in Tucker’s Wayand in An Unexpected Frost. How they were when they were older will be covered in future articles.

When I first began writing Tucker’s WayI didn’t intend on the children playing such a central role in the story, but I quickly realized that they could be a vehicle whereby people could get to know and understand Tucker. If you think about it, much of what you learned about Tucker was in observing her interactions with the children. No doubt you cringed at times over how rough she was toward them, yet you couldn’t help but be moved to tears over how tender she could be.

The struggles that the young children had were multifaceted. First of all, they all had different fathers and none knew who their fathers were, at least as the story begins. Secondly, they were abandoned by their mother, but not just abandoned; she played the cruel “game” of showing up and promising wonderful things for them which she never fulfilled. That is a particularly demoralizing thing to do to a child.

Looking at the children individually, August’s life was made more difficult because he was a bi-racial child growing up in the South in the early 1970’s, and as such never felt like he was accepted by whites or blacks. I thought it would be a touch of irony (and shock and surprise!) for him, Smiley Carter, and Tucker to learn that Smiley was August’s father. And Smiley was very helpful to him as he traversed that uneven landscape.

March was a classic middle child, feeling unimportant to anyone and that there was nothing special about him. He was also a very sensitive child who was attuned to the feelings of others around him and his own. That was why he was so often emotionally reactive to the uncertainty and changes in his world. And it also explains why he ran away, which was a particularly heartbreaking thing to write about. At the time I wrote it I wasn’t certain he would be brought back into the storyline.

April, of course, was the heartbreaker of the three children and the one who elicited the most empathy from readers. She suffered from what is known as selective mutism. In the first two books in the series she was seen as beginning to come out of her shell and flourish, but trouble was brewing inside her, and that is what April’s Rainis about.

And then there was the “secret” about what happened between the three children, a secret that burdened them deeply but unnecessarily. I included this in the storyline because parents sometimes overreact to young children who are becoming familiar with their bodies and are curious about the body parts of other children. There was no coercion nor physical harm done between August, March, and April, and it wasn’t something that happened over and over and evolved into an incestuous relationship. Unfortunately, they had no one they felt they could talk to about their feelings, and so their thoughts and feelings about what they’d done mushroomed into a heavy burden they didn’t know what to do with, a burden that led to March running away.

[Next up: I’ll delve into the story behind the story of An Unexpected Frost.]

The Story Behind the Story of Tucker’s daughter, Maisy

[WARNING: There are story “spoilers” in this article.]

A common reaction I get from readers of Tucker’s Way is how unbelievable a character her daughter, Maisy, is. “Nobody acts like that” is their comment.

So, let’s jump in and look more closely Maisy to see if we can “analyze” her and make sense of her behavior.

To understand Maisy we have to start with Tucker. As amazing a person as Tucker was we have to agree that she was also terribly flawed, especially when it came to parenting skills. Neither of Tucker’s parents equipped her to know how to be a good parent; quite the opposite is true. Between abuse and neglect Tucker essentially raised herself. So, when she became the parent of her father’s child, Maisy, when she was a teenager she for certain knew how not to parent but didn’t have a clue how to parent in a positive manner.

We have to assume that there were times that Tucker was both abusive and neglectful toward Maisy, hopefully not to the extent her parents were, but still she acted in a way that was familiar to her, however unhealthy it might have been. And it was in that environment that the seeds for Maisy’s personality were planted.

Maisy grew up to be what people often refer to as a “crazy maker.” But the proper designation for that type person is they have a Borderline Personality Disorder.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition is the “bible” that mental health practitioners go to to find the diagnoses and symptoms of every type of mental illness. Here is the definition for Borderline Personality Disorder:

“A pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

  1. Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.

  2. A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.

  3. Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.

  4. Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating).

  5. Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior.

  6. Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days.).

  7. Chronic feelings of emptiness.

  8. Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights).

  9. Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms”

I think you’ll have to agree that Maisy had nearly all nine of the criteria, and within that context her behavior in the book was predictable.

And while some might judge her harshly for abandoning her three children to Tucker, I think they were better off than if they’d been raised by Maisy.

[Next up: The Story Behind the Story of “An Unexpected Frost”]

The Story Behind the Story: Tucker’s Way

Tucker's Way

She’s one of the most forceful and unforgettable characters you will ever meet—she’s the main character in my best-selling Tucker series, Tucker. But how did Tucker come into existence, and where did the storyline for Tucker’s Way come from?

A number of years ago I completed an online writing course with Long Ridge Writers Group (now known as Institute For Writers https://www.instituteforwriters.com). My instructor throughout the course was Sylvie Kurtz, herself a well-established and published author. One of my assignments was to create a character that would be so striking that readers would have difficulty forgetting them. So, I described this large, older woman with short-cropped hair, scratched-up eyeglasses, dressed in overalls the cuffs of which did not quite meet the tops of her worn, leather work boots. She had a broad back, thick arms and large, calloused hands.

The problem for me with this character was that I couldn’t quit thinking about her and wondering what kind of life experiences would produce such a person. That turned out to be the seed, or perhaps earworm, that prompted me to delve into Tucker and write her story.

But simply telling a story of why she was the way she was wasn’t enough. There had to be some sort of conflict, which triggered the idea, “What would Tucker do if she met someone who was her polar opposite and was forced to interact with that person?” And so was born the character, Ella McDade.

Ella was easy for me to draw because I had the portrait of Tucker “setting on an easel,” and all I had to do was find the opposite of all of Tucker’s traits. Grasping Tucker’s story in one hand and Ella’s in the other, I felt like I was ready to tell a story. I just needed a setting.

The late 1960’s and early 1970’s and a rural setting were perfect because I was so familiar with both. My fear had been that if I chose something I was unfamiliar with and began doing research on another time and place, that I would become consumed with the research and not return to the surface for a year or more. You could say I chose the late 60’s and 70’s because I was lazy, and perhaps you’d be correct, but I was getting more and more eager to start writing Tucker’s story.

One question I cannot answer is, why did I choose the name Tucker? I simply wanted a name that worked as both as a first name and a last name. The name is sort of an enigma just like Tucker herself.

“Is Tucker a real person?” is one question I’m often asked that makes me very happy because it means that the character I created seems real to people. Everything about her is real in the sense that how she acts, thinks, and feels are examples of things that I have seen and heard, but the truth is, she is completely fictitious.

Most people are not aware that the first version of Tucker’s Way began as a chapter a week on my blog, similar to the old radio serials. I did it as lark and was shocked when people told me how much they loved it and asked me, “What happened next?” THAT was a question I was unprepared for and had to spend time thinking about. The result, though, was “An Unexpected Frost.”

I will relate the story behind the story of that book, but up next will be the story behind the story of Tucker’s daughter, Maisy.

 

 

He Refused to Stand for The Pledge of Allegiance

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IT WAS THE MOST UNBELIEVABLE THING I’D EVER SEEN. I was twelve years old, the year was 1964. Every morning in school we stood, faced the American flag, put our hand over our heart and recited The Pledge of Allegiance.

But one morning, halfway through the pledge, my buddy nudged me and motioned with his head for me to look behind us. Sure, that would be the wrong thing to do and risked raising the ire of my teacher, a former Marine who was pretty insistent on things being done his way, but hey, I was twelve years old. So I glanced backward and saw the new kid sitting in his chair looking down at his hands in his lap. To say that I was stunned would be a gross understatement.

I thought that perhaps he just didn’t know what the drill was in Mr. Traylor class, so I tried to get his attention so I could motion for him to at least stand up. I’m sure I looked like a gecko with one eye focused on the flag and Mr. Traylor and the other focused on the new kid.

For an unknown reason to me, Mr. Traylor looked over his shoulder in my direction. (Maybe it’s true that teachers have eyes in the back of their heads.) He gave me a look that made my blood freeze. Not knowing what else to do, I leaned a bit to the left to give him a line of sight to the boy behind me. (Yes, I gave up the usurper for the sake of saving my own hide.)

As soon as the pledge ended, we all sat down and stared as Mr. Traylor marched toward the boy behind me. I heard the three words that no student EVER wanted to hear, “Come with me.”

The “prisoner of war” was escorted by Mr. Traylor to the cloak room, a small room in the back where we all hung our jackets and coats AND where Mr. Traylor kept his paddle (a cruel looking piece of wood with holes drilled in the middle so that he could swing it faster). I cringed at the thought of what was going to happen next.

Everyone in class strained to hear what was being said behind the closed door or at least hear the “whack” off the paddle. Several moments passed without a sound of any kind passing through the thin walls. Then suddenly, Mr. Traylor and the student exited the room. The new kid resumed his seat behind me as Mr. Traylor proceeded to the front of the room.

All of us had our eyes glued on the most feared teacher in the school as he turned to face us.

“Students,” he said, “the newest member of our class, Master Jennings, chose not to recite the pledge because the religion that his family practices forbids it. While I might disagree with that position, I fought for his right to practice it.”

That was it. That’s all he said or ever said about it. It made an impression on me and a memory that I’ve never forgotten.

The Woodcutter’s Wife – chapter 1

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Chapter One

Struggling to catch her breath and with her face glistening with sweat, Mary finally made it to the top of the hill that formed one side of the hollow that she and William’s cabin lay nestled in. The top of the hill was no peak, rather it looked as if the top had been sliced off with a large knife, leaving a small, flat, half-acre area. In the valley to her right she saw an autumn fog lying over the flowing waters of Chickamauga Creek as it wound its way toward Chattanooga where it emptied into the Tennessee River. She watched in silence for a few minutes, then turned to face her final destination – a large, spreading American chestnut tree standing in the center of the clearing, with low-hanging limbs that seemed to bid her to enter their embrace.

The leaves crunched underneath her knees as she knelt underneath the tree and stared at four small, wooden boards sticking out of the ground. From a pocket on the front of her dress she withdrew a small book: In Memorium, A.H.H. by Alfred Tennyson. The book had become her constant companion ever since she purchased it a month ago. She’d never read anything that grasped the depth to which grief can take a person like Tennyson did.

She flipped through pages until she found the passage she was looking for and read it aloud:

Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the under-lying dead,
Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones.

After returning the book to her pocket, she placed a goldenrod bloom at the base of each of the boards, then, slowly, she read the engraving on each of them, starting with the one to her left:

Elizabeth Thomson

Born January 23, 1854

Died January 27, 1854

 

Alexander Thomson

Born April 30 , 1857

Died April 30, 1857

 

Naomi Thomson

Born May 28, 1860

Died August 20, 1860

 

X Thomson

Born July 3, 1862

Died July 3, 1862

After reading the last one, she said, “You are the one I feel the most pity for because we didn’t even give you a name. I should have insisted, but your father, William, had decided that maybe it was bad luck for us to name a child before it was born and that was why none of your siblings survived. But I know the truth. The truth is that I am cursed by God. For reasons that I don’t understand, he has decided that grief will be my constant companion and that loss will follow me everywhere I go.”

She laid down on her back so that some part of her body was on top of each of the tiny graves of her children. Her long, thick, flaxen hair, tucked inside her cap, provided a pillow for the back of her head and framed her smooth-skinned face as she looked up through the branches of the chestnut tree. A single tear, a small reminder of the untold number of tears she had shed under this tree, slipped from one of her blue eyes and dampened the hair on her temple.

At least I’ll never suffer the pain of losing another child, if what the doctor said is true. And I’m glad of it! I’m soul weary of getting my hopes up and having them repeatedly smashed.

She knew that her barrenness was a bitter disappointment to William, and while she appreciated his efforts to hide it, there were times when he said things that made it clear he still wished for children.

There was a time she had longed for the joy of seeing her and William’s children grow and thrive and work alongside them on the farm, but when she learned that that opportunity had ended, she became determined to fill the void in her and his life by being the perfect helpmeet, working the farm side by side with him and having him teach her how to make the chairs, baskets, and tables that he sold during the winter months. And she would be his partner in cutting and selling firewood to people who lived in the nearby city of Chattanooga.

After a few more minutes, she arose, said goodbye to her children, and headed back down the hill. Halfway down, she paused to catch her breath and sat down on a large limestone rock that jutted out from the hillside. From her vantage point she could look down and see the cabin and barn. There was no sign of William, but she knew he was busy, probably still feeding the livestock or out hunting for meat for their table. A thin trail of smoke from the chimney of their house snaked upward toward the top of the ridges on either side of their hollow. As she followed its journey she took note of the rust-colored leaves of the sycamore trees, the hickory trees’ deep gold color, the bright reds of the red maples (her favorite), dashes of crimson from poison sumac, and the earth tones of the oaks.

Suddenly she heard the sharp snap of a twig close by, and jumped, every nerve alert and heart pounding. She turned her head this way and that until she spotted the intruder coming through the thick foliage. She frowned. “You startled me.”

William strode toward her, his rifle hanging comfortably in one hand. The cheeks of his ruddy face glowed bright red. “You don’t need to walk off by yourself without letting me know where you’re going. You gave me a fright. I’ve told you you need to be more careful. There is war all around us. What if I had been a Yankee soldier or a Rebel deserter? What would you have done?” With concern etched on his face, he sat down beside her.

It was a familiar chastisement, one that rankled her. “If you’re really worried what might happen to me, then teach me to use a gun like you promised to!”

“Yes, yes, I know. I just never think of it at the right time.” His dark eyes slipped from her gaze, and he looked up the hill. “Why do you go up there so often?” he asked. “It always makes you melancholy.”

She pulled her knees to her chest. “I’m fully aware of my melancholia. I live with it every day and don’t need you to remind me of it. I try hard to fight against it, and sometimes I win, but other times it is too overpowering. What I don’t understand is why you don’t go up there at all.”

“I just try to keep it pushed out of my mind and focus on what’s going on today.”

“I wish I could do that,” she replied. “I can’t help feeling like they are lonely. I don’t know if they knew they were loved. So I go up there to tell them about you and about me and how much they meant to us.” Suddenly, sadness, pity, regret, anger, frustration all fill her chest, and she feels if it is about to burst. I thought I was past all this. Perhaps the grief of losing a child never completely leaves a mother’s heart.

William laid his hand against her cheek. “You know,” he began, “the doctor could be wrong. Perhaps we can still have a child.”

Mary slapped his hand away. “I’m still not enough for you, am I? Why must women always be measured by their ability to give birth, not just by men, but by other women, too? It’s always the first question I’m asked when I meet a women for the first time – ‘How many children do you have?’ they ask. What I’d like to tell them is that I have four children, and then I’d like to take them up this hill and show them the markers and see what they have to say. And if they gave even a hint that my four babies don’t count, or if they looked at me like they pitied me, I would – ” her hands ball into fists. “I don’t know what I would do, but they would for sure never do it again.”

She sees the hurt on William’s face and knows she should apologize for speaking so harshly, but at the same time didn’t mind that he felt some pain. She always loved him, but sometimes, like right now, she hated him – hated him for not feeling like she did, for being able to push the pain so far away from him that he seemed unaffected by it, and there were times she hated him for continuing to insist they try to have a child, even after they had lost the first two.

She took a deep breath and let it out, in an effort to let go of her hatred and to grab hold of love. Finally, she said, “I’m sorry for how I speak to you sometimes and how I treat you. In Tennyson’s poem that I am always talking about, he says, ‘I sometimes hold it half a sin To put in words the grief I feel; For words, like Nature, half reveal And half conceal the Soul within.’ That is exactly how I feel. I don’t even know how to talk about how I feel.

“But this I know, you will never know how sorry I am that I can’t give you children. I know you wanted a son more than anything on – ”

William reached over and covered her mouth with his hand. “Shush, Mary Elizabeth. Don’t say another word. I know you don’t always mean what you say, because I know you love me. Losing your babies has changed you, but I know that the woman I married is still in you and will live and breathe again some day. I should be apologizing to you. I shouldn’t have said what I said to you. It was thoughtless of me. To be blessed to have a wife like you, the most beautiful woman in the land, is more than I could have ever dreamed of. If it is God’s will that we have no more children, then it is my place to accept that and be content with it. And I promise you, I will.”

It was hard for Mary to appreciate William’s attempts at easing her burden, because all that she could hear him say was that he would accept her barrenness, not that he had accepted it.

(To order your copy of this heart stopping historical romance by best selling author David Johnson, click on this link  )

[Official release date is July 4.]

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How Long Does It Take to Write a Book?

Tired business man thinking about a concept

It’s a simple question. One that I’m often asked. But the answer is a bit more complicated.

Should I start the calculations from the time I first had the idea for the story? Or the time that I spent just thinking about it? Hmmmm, that’s hard to do.

If I use the beginning of the journey of a book as the first key stroke on my laptop, then my latest book, The Woodcutter’s Wife, took me nine months from the time I began typing it to the time I finished the story (word count:  149,612). (Hmmm, nine months from the beginning until finished. The same amount of time from conception to birth of a human. Interesting.)

But just because I finished writing the story doesn’t mean the book was finished, because then comes the editing and revisions. That process took another four months (words cut from original draft: 50,358).

Then the draft had to be resubmitted for review by an editorial board. (cue the sound of foot tapping while I waited – and waited – and waited). Two months later I was awarded a contract for the book. Yea, I’m done!

Nope, not yet. Next comes finding someone to design a cover. In terms of sales, the book cover is one of the most crucial elements. So there were design proposals, rejections, and revisions (another month). Finally finished!

Sorry, still not done. Now there’s the story teaser that is used to hook people into being curious enough to buy the book. It’s sort of like a summary of the story, but you can’t include any spoilers in it (which is always hard to do). That took about two weeks.

After ALL that, MY work is done. I package it all up and send it in to the publisher.

OOPS! Not so fast. The publisher does one more, FINAL edit, cleaning up any tiny items like punctuation, paragraph alignment, etc. After that, the book. is. FINISHED.

Whew!

(Now I’m waiting on the publisher to decide the date when the book will be released. Stay tuned.)

Caring for Your Baby BEFORE It is Born

pregnant-woman

Did you know that some cultures in East Asia consider their newborns as being one year old the instant they are born? I think that is a marvelous concept and actually a more accurate measure of how old a person is. Though unseen to the outside world (except by means of ultrasound), the infant is unbelievably busy, eating, growing, and becoming. The speed of brain development during this period is almost unimaginable, as 50,000 neurons are produced EVERY SECOND.

Much emphasis is placed on how a mother’s actions affect the child she is carrying, especially regarding the harmful effects of alcohol, smoking, and other drugs. But not enough attention is paid to the mother’s emotional/mental health.

In a study of over 4,000 mothers and their children, who were followed for over eighteen years, mothers with negative, pessimistic, depressive thinking patterns when pregnant increased the risk of their child being depressed eighteen years later. And women who were under significant stress while pregnant produced children who were more stress prone, irritable, and moody.

If you are pregnant and recognize any of those symptoms in yourself,

  • Find you a good counselor who can help you overcome your negative attitude and help alleviate the symptoms of depression
  • Talk with your OB provider and ask if they can help (with either medication or a referral to a counselor)
  • Force yourself to do some physical exercise, even (or especially) if you don’t feel like it, and even if it’s just going for a walk
  • Talk with an empathetic friend or family member
  • Start a daily Grateful Journal, listing three things per day that you are thankful for
  • Be sure you are paying attention to your spiritual life by means of prayer, meditation, Bible reading, and worshiping with a community of believers

If you know someone who is pregnant, don’t assume you know anything about what’s going on with her mental health. People are very adept at covering and hiding their true self from others. Go ahead and assume that she has days when she really struggles to maintain her equilibrium. Then you need to:

  • Send her a handwritten note or letter, letting her know you were thinking of her and offering to be a lifeline, if she needs one
  • Ask her out for coffee, or a meal, or a walk in the park
  • Go visit her and keep the conversation light
  • Or let her cry on your shoulder, if that’s what she seems to need
  • Fix a meal and take it to her
  • Show up unannounced and tell her you are going to take her laundry home and do it for her
  • If she has other children, take them to spend the night with you for a night
  • Or offer to watch her kids while she goes out to a movie

An unborn child is unable to make any choices or control any part of its environment. What it deserves is having a network of people that will do whatever they can to help the baby’s mother be as healthy as she can be – physical and mentally.