Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Found Families, Conflict, And The Road To Hell

Of all her family members, my protagonist Tara’s stepdad, Pete, struggles the most with her supernatural pregnancy.

When I was writing early drafts, though, Pete was so supportive that it made for dull reading.

One suggestion I got to heighten the conflict was to show Pete feeling frustrated that he was raising this child who was not “his own.”

This view would lead to him to be more impatient and disbelieving when Tara claimed to not know how she became pregnant.

That would’ve been an easy place to go for conflict, but it didn’t appeal to me.

It struck me as too expected and unrealistic at the same time. It also didn’t interest me as much as the type of internal conflict Pete ultimately faces between his faith and his love for his daughter.

Great Expectations

The idea that Pete would see Tara as not really his daughter despite having raised her from when she was three, and so would feel more impatient with her or angry at her, seemed to me to be the expected conflict and also, ironically, contrary to reality.

As far as expected goes, it fit too well with the trope of the evil stepparent (though usually that’s the stepmother). I wanted a more complex reason than that, and I also wanted Pete to be a genuinely good person and good dad, not a stereotypical type of villain.

At the same time, the cultural view that biological or blood relations are closer and have better relationships than do people not connected by biology is often not true.

Some biological families are close and supportive, and if you have that, that’s terrific. Others, though, create far more stress and pain for one another than do the friends and families people choose and create on their own.

Finding Your Family

I feel lucky to have grown up in the family I did, though particularly as a teenager and a twenty-something, I saw mainly its flaws. I took for granted the very open definition of family that my parents had and only later realized how wonderful it was.

My brothers and I were close with many of our cousins, and our extended family frequently got together. Included in that family were several longtime friends of my parents. Those people often gave me the best advice I got when I was growing up and also served as cheerleaders for me when I was struggling.

Likewise, my mom, often quite critical of her own kids and so not necessarily the first person we went to with problems, offered help and support to some of my cousins. Sometimes it’s easier to play those roles with people who are not your own parents or children.

In creating my main character Tara’s family, I wanted to reflect those complexities and reflect the fact that you won’t always connect with your family of origin. 

Also, as is often the case in real life, Tara’s parents don’t have the knowledge or expertise to help her deal with what she needs to face. She must seek that elsewhere.

I liked exploring those other relationships Tara forms.

I also liked showing that her parents could grow and change when challenged with a difficult — actually, an unbelievable — situation, and that the parent/child relationships could evolve.

The Road To Hell

The saying about the road to hell being paved with good intentions stuck in my mind as I created Pete, though I don’t see him as going to hell by any means. (I also always remember an Ernest Hemingway character saying the road to hell was paved with unbought stuffed dogs, but that’s an entirely different article.)

In Pete, I created a character with deep faith in the Catholic Church. Pete grew up all over the world because his father was in the military. Catholicism was an anchor in his life. When he went to mass, no matter what language was spoken, he understood went to sit or stand or kneel and what was happening.

(I drew that part of Pete’s background from a visit to a church in Florence when I was traveling alone. I went in to see the architecture but stayed for a mass. Despite not knowing Italian, I could follow everything because it was the same pattern, prayers, and even songs that I had grown up with. Though no longer religious, I found it comforting to take part in the familiar ritual while in another country.)

As the possible meanings of Tara’s pregnancy are explored, it raises huge questions, fears, and doubts for Pete. He fears that there is some evil component to it that will hurt his daughter and challenge his faith, and he fears the child is meant to overturn the current order and undermine the Church. He also fears that his daughter has been gripped by some type of mental illness characterized by religious mania.

Pete struggles with all those fears, but what he’s really struggling with are two strong and opposing values that mean a great deal to him.

The first is supporting his child and trusting her judgment, and the second is being true to his faith and the church.

That’s exactly the type of conflict I find most compelling for a character.

Of course, I couldn’t have Pete simply sit around and think about these things, so in Book 2, The Unbelievers, he is forced to go on a quest with Cyril, whom he doesn’t trust and who behaved terribly toward Tara, to try to recover part of an ancient prophecy that may help both Tara and Pete figure out what’s going on. (Now there’s a run-on sentence.)

If you haven’t checked it out yet, you can find TheUnbelievers here in paperback, ebook, and audiobook editions.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Snakes, Trees, And Former Nuns: Creating The Cloister For The Awakening Series

I use a lot of real places—like the St. Louis Arch and a student hotel in Yerevan, Armenia—as settings in the Awakening Series.

My favorite setting, though, is one I created: a former chapel known as the cloister. 

Danger looms there in Books 2 and 3 (no worries, no major spoilers below).

A news report about snake handling, a visit to Pennsylvania, my family history, and a garden near the Art Institute in Chicago inspired it.

Hidden Places

My dad grew up in Pennsylvania. One of my favorite things to do as a kid, despite that it was a 12 hour drive, was to visit my aunts, uncles, and cousins there. 

As an adult, after my parents died I traveled to Loretto, Pennsylvania, for an extended family reunion.

While there, we visited the gardens of a nearby church. I was particularly struck by a giant beautiful tree with branches that stretched everywhere. 

You can’t quite see its scale in this photo, but it stayed sharp in my memory. 

So much so that when I wrote The Unbelievers four years later, similar trees played a significant part in creating the atmosphere of the courtyard in the cloister.

Calling the former chapel "the cloister" also came from my family history.

One of my dad’s aunts was a nun, and as a kid I heard my mother talking about cloistered nuns. The word means hidden, and I was intrigued by this idea of a hidden place where people lived. 

When I needed a group of people, possibly foes but possibly allies, who would guard secret information passed down for thousands of years that my main character Tara needed, a place known as the cloister seemed like a perfect setting.

Trees At The Art Institute

How the tree I’d seen in Pennsylvania would play into my story didn’t become clear to me until four years after I'd seen it.

I was walking along Michigan Avenue in Chicago and passed the Art Institute, something I’ve done hundreds of times. For the first time, though, I wandered into the garden on the south side of it. 

That particular garden features hawthorn trees. In the photo above they have leaves, and their top branches wind into one another.

I created a courtyard for the cloister that was filled with hawthorn trees, which I learned do grow in the mountains in Pennsylvania. Because the cloister is in the mountains, and it's above the snow line, the tree branches look stark against the snow as they wind together in an eerie, foreboding way.

Snakes And Serpents

While I was plotting The Unbelievers, I happened to see a television news show about a preacher who died while engaging in the religiouspractice of snake handling

The concept is that someone with true faith can handle a poisonous snake without being bitten, or if the person is bitten, he will be healed through faith.

It’s based on New Testament verses in Mark saying that apostles will pick up snakes and that if they drink deadly poison it will not harm them. According to my research, the practice began in the Appalachian Mountains, so it fit with the location of my cloister.

I didn’t end up using snake handling directly in the books, but, fair warning, snakes play a role. 

A lot of snakes.
For more on The Awakening Series, stop back next Wednesday, or sign up for bonus materials for the series.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

How Stories About Mary Influenced The Awakening Series

Collyridians supposedly offered fresh-baked bread to Mary.
Last week I wrote about the inspiration for the fringe religious order that plagues my main character, Tara, throughout The Awakening Series.

Research and reading into traditional and controversial beliefs about the Virgin Mary also influenced The Awakening, though Tara's journey diverges widely from Mary's.

(For one thing, Tara's not religious, and the series is not a religious series. Also, so far as I know, there are no stories about an apocalyptic cult threatening Mary, which would have turned that part of the New Testament into a thriller, probably not the goal of its authors.)

Pure And Perfect?

In the Catholic Church in particular, Mary is viewed as "pure," "perfect," and "immaculate" because she's seen, paradoxically, as both a mother and a virgin. As a child, I assumed those beliefs stemmed from the New Testament, but there's relatively little there about Mary.

There was a lot to explore on those themes.

What if a young woman didn't see sex that way and had abstained for other reasons and found herself pregnant? What if she rejected people who tried to see her as "pure" and believed she'd give birth to a messiah?

Mother of God?

The Catholic Church granted Mary the title “Mother of God” about 430 years after Jesus was born.

The Church believed she deserved the title because she'd given birth to the human Jesus, whom the Church came to believe also was God.

This belief played into the next doctrine, that of Perpetual Virginity.

Perpetual Virgin?

Later, under a doctrine known as Perpetual Virginity, the Catholic Church decided that Mary not only was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, but she remained a virgin throughout her entire life.

This doctrine surprised me when I learned about it. The logical reason for those who see Jesus as God to believe Mary was a virgin before Jesus' birth was to show that his "father" was not human but divine. (A point Tara's mentor, a former nun and professor makes.)

But this doctrine makes a clear equation between sex and being impure--and equates perfection for a woman with abstaining from sex.

Contrary Views

Not all early Christians believed Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born, however, let alone that she remained one forever.

The Ebionites, a Jewish-Christian sect that believed in a non-divine messiah, believed that Jesus was conceived the usual way, through sexual intercourse. Later, they changed position to say that Jesus was conceived through the Holy Spirit, but still believed that after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary engaged in sexual relations and had many children.


The Catholic Church rejected both views.

The Church declared heretical any belief that Mary had sexual intercourse ever, including after Jesus was born. (A heresy is a belief at odds with what Catholics must believe to be considered Catholics. Heretics are barred from the Church.)

The early Church felt so strongly about Mary remaining a virgin forever that it labeled those who held the belief that she had sexual intercourse after the birth of Jesus “Antidicomarianites”—opponents of Mary.

Collyridians, another group the Church declared heretics, went too far the other direction from the Church's standpoint. They worshipped her as divine. Most of what's known about them comes from a Bishop who denounced them. The group, mostly women, offered bread to Mary. 

(I borrowed from this lore when I envisioned a former chapel where Tara seeks sanctuary in Books 2 and 3, The Unbelievers and The Conflagration. The table in the main room features baskets of homemade bread.) 

Tara's Allies

From what I could tell, the early Church viewed these two groups as opposites--one group that saw Mary as, perhaps, too human in that she had sexual intercourse, and the other that saw her as divine. I found that intriguing, as it suggested a lot about how that religion saw women.

I also found these groups intriguing because, as with the two Andrews of Crete I wrote about last week, there was little information out there. That gave me a lot of room to take poetic license with how and whether to fit them into my story.

In case you haven't yet read the series, I won't go into detail on what role the Antidicomarianites and Collyridians play, other than to say that references to them did make life more challenging for Shiromi Arserio, the producer/narrator of the audiobook editions.

I hope you'll stop back next Wednesday for more on The Awakening Series. You can get bonus materials for The Awakening Series, including deleted scenes, here.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

What's Real And What's Not: Creating The Brotherhood of Andrew (Antagonist For The Awakening Series)

When I started The Awakening Series I had two “What Ifs” in mind:

  • What if a (non-religious) young woman today claimed she was pregnant but had never had sex? 
  • What if a traditional religious group became convinced she would give birth to a messiah, but then learned the young woman's child would be a girl?

While each of the four books in The Awakening Series features a specific individual character as the antagonist, the real antagonist for the entire series is that religious group, the Brotherhood of Andrew of Crete.

The fourth and final book, The Illumination.
The Brotherhood needed to be traditional and Christian Order so its members would believe in the story of the Virgin Mary and would be shocked at the idea of a potential female messiah.

But I didn't want the Order to be part of an actual, specific branch of Christianity. 

As the antagonist, the Order would do things that from my main character’s perspective (and probably the reader's perspective) were evil. I didn’t want to associate that with a real religion or suggest any actual religious group was wrong or evil.
That’s why throughout the books, Brotherhood members refer to concepts that come from many different religious traditions. 
I also wanted The Brotherhood to have a saint around which to coalesce because that would make their beliefs more concrete.
My criteria for the saint included:

(1) being devoted to the Virgin Mary so that the saint was logically connected to The Brotherhood’s apparent mission of looking for signs of a new messiah

(2) dying as a martyr, as that foreshadowed danger and raised the stakes of the story

(3) having lived 600-800 years after Jesus Christ was reportedly born so that beliefs about Jesus were in flux and so the saint could not possibly have personally known Jesus or Mary

(4) not being well known so that I could take a lot of dramatic license in creating whatever back story I needed 

I found two saints who met these criteria and who conveniently shared a name – St. Andrew.

Interestingly, both were associated with Crete.
I liked having a saint from that part of the world because I planned to set some of the story in nearby Armenia, a place I’d traveled to and found fascinating because of its history as having become the first country to name Christianity as its official religion.
The martyr Andrew of Crete was executed around 767 A.D. (or C.E. for Common Era, as is more commonly used now in academia) because he defended the honoring of icons – religious images – of Jesus.

He also had a monastery dedicated to him, the Koca Mustafa Pasha Mosque in Istanbul. (That has an interesting history in itself which I’ll write about in a future post.)
While I didn’t find any particular connection between the martyr Andrew of Crete and the Virgin Mary, the other St. Andrew of Crete was known for composing and singing hymns to her. That St. Andrew was ordained a deacon at the Hagia Sophia (a location I also used in the series). In 692 he was made an archbishop on the island of Crete.

I combined these two St. Andrews into Brother Andrew, a saint to whom my fictional Brotherhood of Andrew of Crete is devoted. I added that Brother Andrew had visions about future women like the Virgin Mary and handed down a prophecy about such women and the danger to the world if events surrounding the prophecy went wrong.

Not all of this back story about Brother Andrew ended up in any of the books in the series, but I feel knowing it made my storytelling more layered.

If you’d like to know more about the two St. Andrews, you can check out the websites below.

(Fair warning if you're writing a paper on one of the Andrews and came across this article: Because I was writing fiction, I didn't make sure all my sources were well-researched and documented. I only needed enough to provide a jumping off point for my story.)


Catholic Online 

OCA (Orthodox Church in America)

Catholic News Agency


Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias

Orthodox Christian

As the story grew and changed with each book, I made tweaks to the structure of The Brotherhood, to who was in charge, and to how much each member knew about its goals. I did that both to keep it a formidable adversary and to leave room for the people within it to grow and change.

If you haven't yet finished (or started) The Awakening Series now's a great time to check it out, as the series is now complete and is available in ebook, audiobook, and paperback editions. Also, as I write this, the ebook editions of Book 1, The Awakening, are all free. 

Or read the entire series in the box set/omnibus edition.