by Guest Blogger, Ester de Boer
I have, for a while, wanted to do an exercise in taking a very plain, unadorned text and bringing it to life. All of us share a Christian faith in common, so the Bible was an ideal choice of text, as we were familiar with the stories and their contexts.
As a source of inspiration (and yes, it has been stolen from and referenced time and time again for plots), it contains, within its 66 books stories of what it was like to live in the ancient world—brutal, tragic, sometimes touching but very human. It’s written, however, in a very matter-of-fact manner, without much adornment. “he went… she said… then they…” You have to read between the lines when it comes to expression and emotional response.
We each chose a different story (although it would, in retrospect, have been interesting to see three versions of the one passage).
I chose Daniel, when he is called before the Babylonian King Belshazzar (isn’t that the best name!!!- my next cat, perhaps…) to interpret the “writing on the wall” (and yes, that’s where the phrase comes from). I wanted to put myself in poor Daniel’s shoes. Ancient kings had power over life and death—often at whim—and it wasn’t uncommon to kill the messenger of bad news. He, of course, doesn’t know that this is what he has to do at this stage—he just knows that being summoned by the king suddenly can’t be good. The book of Daniel chapter 5.
The Writing on the Wall by Ester de Boer
The walk from the upper servant’s quarters to the king, on summons, in the darkest hours of the morning was the longest journey Daniel had ever made. He had been awoken by a militant banging on the door, and before he’d had time to respond, two palace guards bearing torches had pushed in and were shaking him violently. “Up! Get dressed! You are required by the king!”
These types of summons never ended well. Daniel’s sleep-addled mind stumbled over dread-filled thoughts as his fingers fumbled clumsily with his robe. One of the guards swore, and roughly took the edge of the garment, tossing it around Daniel’s shoulders in haste.
“We don’t have time, man! The king is frantic! Come now!”
He staggered out of his bedroom and followed the huge, mail-clad pairs of shoulders through the labyrinth of dark stone hallways, breaking into a trot to keep up.
The stone transformed to marble. Ornate silver lanterns illuminated intricate mosaics of lapis lazuli, beryl, turquoise… panoramic artworks that rhapsodised the might of the king and the glory of his gods. Daniel didn’t pause to admire them—his usually ordered mind was thrown into chaos, frantically running over the last few weeks—his every action and word.
Had he made a mistake in accounts? That senior satrap he’d had a disagreement with - had he found ammunition to get rid of him? His mouth filled with acid, and he was overwhelmed with a cold sense of unreality. This was it.
“Dear God have mercy on me… forgive me any sin, may I not deny you even in death… Mighty God, give me… help. Please help… ”
The guards came to an abrupt halt at the large ornate doors to the dining hall. They too looked nervous by now. They paused, exchanged a quick look and glanced at Daniel in something like pity, before hardening their features into an emotionless mask, and straightening their stance to a uniform formality. They pushed open the massive, wooden doors and stood like statues at each side “Your majesty—this is Daniel”
The scene that met him was one of chaos. Ladies of the court were huddled weeping… all the important people had been gathered in the one place—the administrators, the wise men, the sorcerers—their faces like wax, eyes like startled beasts. Standing in the centre of the room was the king—his body visibly shook, but not, as Daniel had anticipated, with rage. Of all the people gathered in that hall, his was the face that held the greatest expression of terror. He turned and stared at Daniel with the expression of a doomed man, waiting to hear his final judgement.
Megan chose Gideon, hiding in the winepress from murderous Midianite raiding parties.The book of Judges chapter 6:
The Mighty Warrior? by Megan Higginson
“Why God? Why? Why has this happened to us?” Sucking in his breath, Gideon quickly peaked over the edge of the wine-press, afraid that someone may have overheard him. Seeing no-one around, he turned back to threshing the wheat.
Sighing, his thoughts turned to the enjoyable times of the past when the men of the family and servants would gather on the threshing floor. At least when breezes flowed through they were able to cool off a little. Though the wine-press was shaded by the broad branches of the huge oak tree owned by his father, it was still hot and thirsty work...and lonely.
Sweat from heat and fear mingled together and dripped off the end of his nose. Sweat ran down his back and soaked his garments. Being the youngest, it was his job to thresh the wheat while his brothers guarded their flocks.
He paused in his work to wipe his face.
“Ahh! I feel like a scared rat, hiding away from the Midianites.” Gideon’s’ stomach clenched and his hands trembled as he thought of these evaders of their land that came like a swarm of locusts, driving everything before them; killing the thousands that got in their way, and slaughtering their flocks. They settled like a blanket of locusts over the land—smothering it, and leaving a desolate wasteland— a dust bowl--in their wake.
He was thankful that they hadn’t reached his town of Ophrah—yet.
Gideon adjusted his robes that were now miles too big for him. He looked up towards the heavens. “I do know why this has happened God,” he murmured to himself. “Your prophet said that it was because we have turned away from you and have worshiped other gods.”
His heart felt sick at the thought of his father’s own alter to the pagan god Baal, as well as the Asteroth pole that stood beside it.
Gideon peaked again over the side of the wine-press. His eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. A man was casually sitting under the tree, looking like he’d been there for ages. Before he could call out, the man was standing beside him, looking down at him hiding from the enemy.
Gideon’s mind was in a whirl. Who was this man? How could he move so fast? He must be an angel of the Lord. Before Gideon could utter a single word, the angel spoke.
“The Lord is with you mighty warrior.”
Jacqui (being the romantic of the group) is always interested in the relationships between the characters. She created a backstory—what was life like for Cain after his exile? — from the point of view of Cain’s wife—in love with a cursed man. From the book of Genesis chapter 4 and 5.
The Mark of Cain by Jacqui Johnson
Set scene – a beautiful young woman sits by a dressing table in grand house in the centre of the city. Thin purple died calico curtains swing in slight breeze as it whips around the lush open courtyard adjoining the main bed chamber.
Tansy watched little Enoch running in the courtyard by the small pool trying to catch the little sparrows, which hopped and skipped just out of grasp of the chubby little fingers which trailed their movements.
His foot caught on a tuft of grass. Falling, he let out a squeal, before a high pitched wail echoed around the space. This sound continued from the top of his lungs, as Enoch rolled onto his back knowing help would be forthcoming, as the sound of a number of sandaled feet pattered along the stone flooring.
“I will get him Misses, you just sit,” the maidservant called, as she rushed past Tansy who was in mid motion of pushing off the dressing table. All too often now Tansy needed the weight of this ornate table as an anchor for her heavily pregnant body. The midwife has said it could be any day now. She was hoping it would be a girl, despite her husband’s insistence they build the tribe with more males.
The door opening forcibly behind, caused Tansy to whip her head around as she stood. Knowing only one person opened doors in this house in such a way, she turned to watch Cain take off his headpiece, having returned home from the inspections.
He unwound the scarf from his neck which wound its way up the left side of his face before creating a turban. Many men who worked the fields wore scarves like this, although being the role he had and his importance within the community, Cain didn’t need to. He had a number of different ones he wore doing a variety of tasks. Many amongst the prominent families assumed it was to help him seem more connectable to his army and servants.
Yet as the last remnants of the cloth were removed and tossed on the dressing chair, Tansy couldn’t deny the truth, it hid his mark. The cursed mark of death he had borne since the first moment she had met him.
Thanks Ester. This was a fun activity that we all thoroughly enjoyed. It was really interesting finding a newness in stories that were so familiar. Many people think that the Bible is just a ‘dusty old book.’ But, as Ester pointed out, the Bible is ‘66 books stories of what it was like to live in the ancient world- brutal, tragic, sometimes touching but very human. It’s written, however, in a very matter-of-face manner, without much adornment.’ It is also filled with a huge plethora of ‘seeds’ for story ideas, and interesting characters.
So at when you are stuck wondering what to do at your next writer’s group, or you are suffering writers’ block, dust off a Bible and see if you can breathe new life into an old story.
Imagine that writing picture books was super easy. The story, the characters, the setting -- everything -- would come easily and you would end up in deep water, going with the flow.
In the Flow
I love writing. There are days that I can just sit down, either at the computer or with a notebook and I am in the flow. It’s all happening. And all I have to do is to follow that flow. However, I am finding that the life of a picture book author isn’t always smooth sailing. In fact, this week alone I have read a least two blog posts, a few Facebook posts and a couple of comments that show that no writer's journey is smooth. In fact often, the stream dries up—or at least hit some rapids.
Take for example one of my latest W.I.P. (Work In Progress).
Two dogs. One fox. One deep muddy hole. What could go wrong?
This is the original outline of one of my children’s picture books that I am working on. I start with the bare bones of the story. Then I have to flesh it out. Of course, it is a picture book and every word has to earn its place, as well as leave space for the illustrations to tell the story. It’s a balancing act.
Writing picture books is a balancing act
A Shallow Stream
Lately I’ve been re-working aforementioned dog story. It is one that I, late last year, got written in a week—rather than taking weeks to write—and have barely felt the need to tweak it. It was described by one publisher as 'lovely writing'. So I thought to myself, well, I don’t need to touch it much. I made the necessary suggested tweaks. Done! Ready to send out into the world again. Oh how wrong I was.
An author who mentors writers, and whose opinion I respect and value, had a look at it. She could see that my story had the potential to be so much more than it was. In other words it was a shallow stream. Pretty but it can be better—deeper. Was I willing to spend the necessary time to draw the real story out? You bet I was! I was so excited that I couldn’t wait to get started.
So I get out my dog story after this author has looked at it and given her feedback. I spent all morning looking at each verb. Is it active or passive? Spent ages scouring through my Active Verbs list to find the right one to describe what I want.
Could I put some rhyme in? Or not? Oh I can…just here and here. Spend another hour finding the right phrase to describe what is happening, making sure that it rhymes correctly.
Should I change the names? What names? Think of the dogs and what they are each like. What are their personalities like and their behaviour? Spend an hour making up a list of names before choosing one each. Will it make much difference? Oh! It does! How cool is that? It totally changes how people would perceive each dog, even before reading the story. Okay. I am in the flow and now that the characters are deeper, the story too, has more depth—I’m heading into deeper water. Lovely.
Changing names does make a difference.
The Ripple Effect
Oh no…the ripple effect. I made a few changes and now the story has changed and has a different rhythm. Is it good? Spend next half an hour reading it out loud. Then spend another hour deleting twenty words and adding ten different ones.
Does any of this sound familiar?
So, I’m still in the flow. Drifting now and letting the story sink in a bit before moving on again, before I am ready to have another look at it. The journey is not yet over. My two dogs are not ready to meet the world…yet. I love this process though, and I am looking forward to seeing where the story will go to from here. Very soon we will reach deep, tranquil water, and my story will be ready to be released into the world.
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