--A note for the reader by Lukas McCamden.
A seeming eternity has passed since I was last called on to write, and much has happened. Advent has come and gone. Celebrating it with Alynn was a joy. She set up holly everywhere and placed candles at every window. It has been years since St. Anne's Monastery has looked so joyous.
Most of those reading this, however, may have never heard of Advent, let alone celebrated it. The Author tells me that it is a dying art, celebrated by the Catholic church and some Protestants while being briefly acknowledged or even ignored by others. Since my childhood, I have loved the season of Advent. It spans the four weeks before Christmas and is symbolized by the Advent wreath. It is a circle of evergreen boughs with four candles, symbolizing Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace. The fifth candle, the Christ candle, is not lit until Christmas itself.
Hope is a curious thing, for it has two meanings. There is simple hope--hope for the rain to stop, hope for spring to come, hope for a successful harvest--and there is Christian hope. Christian hope is less desiring something to come and more expecting and waiting for what is promised. In this light, I with all the saints hope for heaven.
Love is another word with two meanings. Several of the monks who were here before me told stories of the women they loved before their conversions. Recalling those stories, much of that love was based on physical qualities. Appearances change--I had hair once--and the love of the world changes with it. Christ's love, not based on appearance, action, or intention, is a repeated choice to do what benefits the other rather than what benefits one's self. Love can be as simple as lending a cloak or as sacrificial as taking an arrow.
Joy is irrational. Paul, in the book of Philippians, exhorts others to rejoice more than he does in any other of his epistles. He wrote this book in prison. Joy, I have learned, does not depend on circumstances but rather on Christ and the Holy Spirit within us. We do not strive to be joyful; it is a fruit produced by walking with Christ. This joy causes laughter in the dark, and high spirits when all seems lost.
Peace, like joy, is not dependent on circumstance. I am a man, and I fear as all men do. I fear being alone, and being killed by the Norse, and for no discernable reason I fear swimming underwater. But in the midst of my fears, I call to God, and He answers with His peace which passes all understanding. I am safe in the peace of God.
Christ is all, and is in all. Without Christ, we would have no hope, no love, no joy or peace. Without Christ, there would be no Christmas. And without Christmas, I should have never known--among other things--the versatility of holly, or the beauty of stained-glass windows reflected on snow when lit within by candles.
Ah, Christmas...the music, the decorations, the food. But somehow, it's a little different each year.
Today, we baked our Christmas cookies. Black raspberry bars are everyone's favorite, but I never realized how labor-intensive they are to make until today. (Just one more reason I don't enjoy giving them away.) We also made oatmeal-Craisin-pecan cookies that are surprisingly good and baked to perfection with crunchy outsides and delicious, gooey oatmeal insides. We've never made them before, but they're extra healthy for my dad.
I know what I'm getting for Christmas. Well, at least I think I do. I have an early-December birthday, so every year towards the end of November, I make a list detailing what I want for both Christmas and my birthday. This year, I couldn't think of much. Nalbinding needles, books, a yarn bowl, and wool combs. I didn't get any of those things for my birthday, and I know for a fact that I'm getting books and wool combs on the 25th. With the exception of clothes, I don't think I've ever known for a fact what one of my gifts will be.
For the first year in a very long time, I thought of something imaginative to get my grandfather. Papa is a typical man in that he doesn't ask for much for Christmas. Last year, we got him ten boxes of peanut brittle, and he was happy as a lark. But this year, we're getting him the boxed DVD set of one of his favorite TV shows, Hogan's Heroes, which is no longer on regular TV. We've never had such a great gift-giving idea before.
No matter how many traditions we have, there's always going to be something different.
I remember the Christmas after we moved to Texas. After the ice storm that shut our whole town down the week of my birthday, there really wasn't much snow. Our living room layout was different, so we had to put the tree in my dad's office. I was thirteen and had recently lost interest in dolls. I think I asked for animation software.
Different can be hard, but different can be better. I've never worked so hard on the black raspberry bars before, but I'm sure they'll taste extra special. I know that I'll use and enjoy my presents. And when different is combined with tradition--the carols, the telling of the Christmas story with candles, my own little tree in my bedroom--something wonderful is born.
What's your favorite Christmas tradition? How much do you like Hogan's Heroes? Let me know in the comments below! Merry Christmas, dear readers--and don't forget to like us on Facebook!
All Alynn could see of him was a little bare foot. The rest was hidden in a fort he’d built, the perfect size for a five-year-old. Alynn waited for him to crawl out of his fort and smile at her, his hair tousled and his freckled cheeks red. But he never stirred.
Alynn’s heart skipped a beat. She crawled into the fort, ignoring the twigs that scratched her face. “Tarin!”
She shook his shoulder, and finally, he opened his eyes and stretched. “Look, Lynder!” he said. “I went campin’! Is it mornin’ yet?”
Alynn laughed. She held Tarin in her arms and kissed him and brushed the leaves out of his hair. “Was that a nap you were takin’?”
“It was. Buildin’ a fort is hard work.”
Alynn squeezed Tarin. She wished she could stay in his fort forever, with Tarin in her lap, feeling his tiny fingers stretch out a curl of her hair and hear his giggle as it bounced back. Instead, she put the memory inside her where time could not reach it, and she crawled carefully out of the fort.
When they got home, Alynn undressed Tarin and dried him and put him in his spare tunic, then took care of her own dripping clothes. She was just about to finish making that evening’s soup when the door burst open, and Rowan took Alynn and Tarin into his wiry arms.
“Tarin McNeil, don’t you dare run away like that again,” Rowan scolded, giving Tarin a slap on the rear. “Do you realize how much trouble you’ve caused?”
“I just wanted to go campin’,” Tarin said, his eyes as round as a puppy’s. “We haven’t moved in a long time. Is that normal?”
Rowan was silent for a while. He buried his face in Tarin’s hair and mussed it with his hands. “It should be.”
Alynn’s stomach gurgled with hunger, and she realized she hadn’t put the soup on. As much as she hated to, she left the wonderful group hug to fetch some water. Tarin was sure to be hungry after building his fort.
For a while, everything was alright. Rowan didn’t go back to work that evening. He stayed and told a tale of the legendary hero Cu Culain. He even asked Tarin to fetch his dusty timpan from its trunk. When he began to play, even the stars grew silent to listen. He played jigs and reels and songs that Alynn’s mother had written, and she fell asleep to the sound of a love song.
Alynn awoke to silence the next morning. The air was frigid. The fireplace had died down to embers, and Alynn poked it and blew on it and fed it with kindling until it was flaming gently. Then, she left to fetch the water Rowan had forgotten.
When she stepped outside, a light mist was falling, and she heard noises. It almost sounded like a brawl. She ran to the side of the house to see Rowan near the forest, driving his bleeding fists into an aspen tree.
Nothing good ever happened when Rowan punched trees.
Alynn almost didn’t want to venture over and ask what had happened, but she seemed caught up in a strange force that did it for her. Her voice came out in a squeak, hardly audible.
Rowan gave the aspen one more mighty swing before he turned to her. His eyes were absent and tortured, as if his soul was being dragged towards hell and his body hadn’t quite caught up with it yet. He fell to the ground, his knees pulled up to his chest. Alynn knelt awkwardly beside him.
“Lynder, we’re movin’ again.”
Alynn opened her mouth and shut it again. She tried to hug Rowan, but he stood up and took another angry swing at the aspen.
“I lost my job.” He swore and kicked the tree, then gave it a left hook that left a smear of blood on the white bark. “I left the gate open. The horses got out.” He swore and punched the aspen once more. Alynn wondered if he was crying. “Go pack yer things. We’ll be evicted if we stay past noon.”
Rowan squared his shoulders and went back to the hovel, leaving Alynn shivering at the forest’s edge. Moving. Again. To another house that had fallen into disrepair, most likely, to another church with more people. Different people. Strange people Alynn had never seen before, who wouldn’t bother to learn her name or whom she ‘belonged to.’
And Fiona. She’d be leaving Fiona, the first friend she’d made since Limerick City. Fiona was more like a sister than a friend. She’d always been there, always smiling, always bringing Alynn’s mind from her list of undone chores to a world of light and goodness.
Alynn wrapped the dishes in blankets and packed them in one trunk. Rowan’s timpan and Monika the rag doll went in the other trunk, along with their changes of clothes. Alynn finished in an hour, then asked Rowan if she could tell Fiona good-bye.
Alynn didn’t get more than two steps into the O’Shaugnessy’s spinnery when she realized she wouldn’t be able to do much speaking. She looked at Fiona and began to cry.
“What’s the matter, Alynn?”
Alynn expected a blizzard of sentences to follow, but there was only silence. Fiona was listening.
Taking a deep breath, Alynn was able to blurt out, “Father lost his job and we’re moving again and this is why I don’t make friends ever, because we always move and I can’t take you with me….”
Fiona was silent as she stood up from her spinning wheel and hugged Alynn. “Don’t worry,” she said. “The next town is close. Maybe we can visit!”
Alynn shook her head. “We won’t stay there for long. We always move.”
A scab-covered hand rested on her shoulder, and she jumped. Rowan stood behind her. She hadn’t heard him come in. “We’ll stop someday,” he promised her. “You’ll have friends again, dear heart. On my word.”
Lies. Tears pricked Alynn’s eyes again. It was all lies. They’d never stop moving.
Colum O’Shaughnessy stood from his spindle in the corner, and Kiva quickly stepped out the door. “We’ll miss yer children,” he said. “They’re hard workers, both of them. You’re a blessed man, Mr. Rowan.”
“What are you talkin’ about?”
Alynn pressed her eyes shut. “I told you I worked here, Father.”
Although she couldn’t see Rowan’s face, she knew it was twisted into a question mark.“When? For how long?”
“Every mornin’ for three months!” Colum said. He shook his head. “I wish ye luck in yer next home. Pay attention to yer children, Mr. Rowan. Work’s always there. Children aren’t.”
Rowan’s hand took Alynn’s, and he thanked the O’Shaugnessys again for all they’d done for them. Then they left, a trunk on each of Rowan’s shoulders. They couldn’t afford a pack horse this time.
Just before they left the town, a voice shouted after them. Alynn turned to see Kiva O’Shaughnessy, running towards them with a cloth bundle.
“Here’s a housewarmin’ gift, dear,” she said, giving Alynn the bundle and the wonderful hug of a mother. “Godspeed.”
It wasn’t until the McNeils were in the tiny town of Shanagolden, as snug as possible in the shelter Rowan had built in the woods, that Alynn opened Kiva’s package. There was enough fabric for a new dress for herself and a pair of trousers for Tarin. There were cheeses and dried meats and three apples.
Alynn began to cry again when she saw the brand-new belt, just for her.
Families and friends might be left behind, she decided, but at least she'd always have their memory.
The writer’s journey isn’t completely composed of making characters and places and worlds out of thin air. That’s a very big part of it. But to create a book—any book—a writer needs to research.
Typical research involves reading first- or secondhand accounts of things. Wikipedia is nice. So are books, but I’d rather pull up a website on the computer I’m already using than take a trek to the local library. (Especially since my local library is undergoing renovations. The temporary building has eight parking spaces and is about the size of a double-wide trailer.)
But I’m not here to tell you how to write a research report. We’re talking about novels here. We’re talking about life-altering, mind-consuming, soul-exciting books. I’m not basing all of my research on other peoples’ work. I’m sure as heck going to go overboard.
And looking back at my pair of nalbound mittens and my handmade spindles, I’m sure as heck I have gone overboard.
Let me explain.
Extreme research isn’t for everyone. Not all authors can visit the cities their books are set in, or learn their characters’ accents, or take up recreational woodworking because their protagonist is a carpenter. Not at all. But I’m pretty sure that most authors, at one point or another, have tried to do something their characters do on a regular basis.
And I’m not just talking about book writers. I’ve been told that the people who work for Pixar tried walking in tennis shoes nailed to boards while animating Toy Story to learn how the toy soldiers would walk. Disney animators also donned skirts and walked through knee-deep snow before making Frozen, and everyone who worked on How to Train Your Dragon got flying lessons. I’m pretty sure that some of the animators even went skydiving. I’m glad I’m not an animator.
And looking back at all those people, I’ve convinced myself I’m not crazy after all.
My own Extreme Research started with hopping down stairs. I wondered what it would be like to hop down stairs on one foot, and I tried it. For three steps. Then I almost missed one, and my life flashed before my eyes, and I decided to stop researching before I killed myself.
My next step in Extreme Research was a little more time-consuming, but a lot less dangerous. I wanted to know how to make oatmeal without oats. More specifically, how not to make oatmeal without oats. I tried grating potatoes and cooking them with garlic and onions, and it actually tasted pretty good. I still haven’t gotten a hold of parsnips yet, but when I do, I’m boiling them with yarrow and onion. I hope it tastes terrible.
And then came the nalbinding. See, I’ve always loved crafting. My grandmother taught me how to crochet when I was six, and I’ve been creating things out of yarn ever since then. In my research, I stumbled across an ancient Norse technique of yarn-crafting called nalbinding. It’s actually quite simple—easier than knitting in my opinion—and the only drawback is that you have to use wool yarn.
So guess what? After watching three or four different YouTube tutorials, I taught myself how to nalbind.
And now that I’ve come into possession of a bunch of wool, you can bet that I’m going to learn how to card and spin it.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve done in the name of research? Do you know how to wash, card, or spin wool? And do you want me to tell you how it turns out? Let me know in the comments below! God bless you, dear readers, and don’t forget to Like us on Facebook!
Someone rapped on the door. Alynn didn’t bother looking up from chopping vegetables for soup. “Tarin, will you open the door?” she asked.
Tarin didn’t answer. Alynn glanced up and, not seeing her brother in the house, opened the door herself. It was raining, but that often didn’t stop Tarin from playing outside. Alynn couldn’t blame him. It was raining inside, too.
Fiona was at the door when Alynn opened it, and she pranced inside, shivering and babbling. “How are you gettin’ on, Alynn? Faith, it’s fierce freezin’ outside! I suppose it’s October, and it’s some cold weather we’re due for. Anyway, I’ve brought you some milk. I’m feared it’s got rain in it.”
“No matter,” Alynn said. She smiled and took the pail of milk from Fiona. “Thank you.”
“Not a bother. Mum says you can bring the pail to work tomorrow. Where’s Tarin?”
Alynn shrugged as she dipped out three glasses of milk. “Probably playin’.”
“In this weather?”
Alynn bit her lip. She didn’t want Tarin to come inside with his wee fingers and toes red and swollen. But she didn’t want Tarin to scold her for telling him to stop playing, either.
“You’re right,” she decided. “I should call him in.”
Alynn took her plaid from her shoulder and put it over her head to block the rain. The wind was bitter and the sun was setting, and Tarin was nowhere to be found.
Alynn scanned the yard. She couldn’t see so much as a footprint in the yard. “Perchance he’s with Father,” she said. Surely he couldn't be anywhere else.
Fiona went with Alynn to find Rowan. The girls shivered as the wind whipped through their dresses. Finally, they found Rowan in the tiny smithy their landlord owned, hammering out horseshoes.
Rowan looked up.
"Is somethin' the matter, Alynn?" he asked, his voice sharp. Alynn knew how much he loved making horseshoes, and she almost wished she hadn't interrupted him. But she still couldn't see Tarin.
"Is Tarin with you?" she asked.
"I've not seen him all day. Why?"
Alynn shivered harder. "I lost him," she said. "It's not hard to watch him. I'm sorry, Father, I should have--"
Rowan set the horseshoe aside and took Alynn by the arm. "When's the last time you saw him?" he asked.
"A few hours ago. He was sittin' on the floor, playin' with Monika, and then he...disappeared."
"Stop cryin' and help me look for him," Rowan said. He threw his plaid around his shoulders. "Ye two stay together and look in all the outbuildings. Fiona, have you seen him in town?"
"I haven't, Mr. Rowan. But you can ask my Da. He's been in the shops all day."
"Keep yer head," Rowan told Alynn as he left. Alynn rubbed her face. She hadn't even realized she'd been crying. Suddenly, she was afraid--afraid of everything that could happen to Tarin, afraid of not knowing where he was, afraid of losing him just as she'd lost her mother.
Alynn looked up for a hug from Rowan, but he was already gone.
"You needn't worry, Alynn!" Fiona said cheerfully. "We'll find Tarin and everythin' will be grand again."
"Is he alright?" Alynn asked no one in particular.
"Sure he is. Boys take care of themselves. Come. He's probably lookin' at the horses."
Alynn clamped her mouth shut. Tarin had lived in fourteen houses during his five short years of life, and he'd always been careful not to wander where he wasn't welcome. The girls visited one outbuilding after another, calling Tarin's name and searching high and low for a glimpse of his red hair.
Finally, in the last outbuilding, the girls stopped.
"We can always ask St. Nicole to pray for us," Fiona suggested. "Da says she's the patron saint of lost family members. Or perchance St. Anthony. Or both. Do you want to pray, Alynn?"
Alynn looked around. The rain was pouring. If Tarin was wise, he'd have come back to the house by now. But then again, Rowan had made shelters in the woods that leaked less than the hovel.
Tarin had always loved going camping while the family was between houses. He hadn't been too upset to trade a drafty shelter for a warm house the night they'd moved to Barrigone, but that had been four months ago. Normally, they'd have moved again by now.
Alynn grabbed Fiona's hand and ran. The rain soaked them. Alynn's plaid stuck to her face, and her bare feet ached with wet and cold. Her hair was dripping. She kept blinking raindrops out of her eyes.
"Where are we going?" Fiona asked.
Alynn didn't spare breath to answer. She was running faster than Fiona, dragging her as she ran, hoping and praying but not daring to believe that she was right.
They shot past the hovel and ran into the nearby woods. Twigs and rocks cut Alynn's feet. She looked everywhere, shouting Tarin's name.
Fiona put her hands on her knees, gasping. "Where...where are we...."
Winter has finally arrived to Texas! I love long sleeves and cozy quilts, and the excuse to wear my handmade mittens. And then there's the fact that my birthday is in the second week of December. One of the sadder things about getting older is that you know what everyone is getting you, either because you don't want much or because you went shopping with them to buy it, and my mom flat-out asked me if I wanted a pair of skinny jeans to wear with my boots.
Everyone, or at least all writers, have heard the phrase "write what you know." And that can make for some pretty interesting stories. I mean, everyone, even if they live in the boring suburbs with quiet neighbors and an unchanging routine, has seen some unique things in their lives.
Everyone has strange skills and experiences. My dad can figure percentages in his head. He's also allergic to cats, dogs, and pine trees. My mom belongs in the vocal group Celtic Woman and my sister is the master of making faces. She can also make one side of her nose twitch in an adorable, bunny-rabbit way.
I've lived through some interesting experiences as well. I've thrown up at a church potluck, owned a dog-walking business, crocheted seven afghans (three of them were baby-sized), moved cross-country, and attended a homeschool co-op.
Think about it. Yes, our normal day-to-day lives might be boring. But when we think about it, we can find some pretty interesting things that we know and can therefore write about with excellence and authority.
Let's take the homeschool co-op I went to. Classical Conversations. History sentences, timeline cards, and skip-counting. I still hear the lady's voice on the "CC-CD" singing "two, four, six, eight, ten, twelve, fourteen...."
It gets better when you're up to squares and cubes. "One, eight, twenty-seven, sixty-four, one hundred twenty-five...."
And yes, everything was put to music. Several things had hand motions to them. Like the history sentences--and the time our teacher had to kick the air to "expel" Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, and her shoe flew off and hit the ceiling.
And then there was Latin. We never learned much actual Latin--we'd focus more on grammar and worry about vocabulary when we got to high school. That was important. You know how verbs conjugate in English? Latin does the same thing with their nouns. It's annoying, but it means that word order is much freer.
And with the little bit of Latin I knew from grade school, I was able to create a character fluent in it.
Obviously, I'm not fluent in Latin. I can't even piece together a sentence I haven't previously memorized. But with a basic background in how Latin works and my handy Collins-Gem pocket dictionary (which I found at a women's crisis center for $.25) I can generate a few things that really add to Lukas's character.
Let me rephrase that. I could make up things that add to Lukas's character, if I knew what being bilingual was like.
What's a funny experience you could write a book about? How many people do you know with birthdays in December? Let me know in the comments below! God bless you, dear readers, and don't forget to like us on Facebook!
Alynn didn’t want to get out of bed, but she didn’t want to be late to work. In a whole month of working for Colum O’Shaughnessy, she hadn’t been late once. Twice she’d caught herself racing through town as the church bells were tolling the hour of Terce, but every time, she’d ran through the door of the spinnery just as the last note sounded.
And even though she was cold all over and her wrists ached, and she felt as tired as if she hadn’t slept at all, she wasn’t about to be late for the first time.
She shivered as she made the morning stirabout, and she sliced the block of cheese unevenly. She’d take the smallest piece. She wasn’t hungry, anyway.
Rowan came inside with the bucket of wash-water. “There’s more wood in the woodpile outside,” he said. “Is the stirabout ready?”
“Five minutes.” Alynn’s voice was thin and tired, and Rowan seemed to take notice.
“Are you feelin’ alright, Lynder?” he asked.
Rowan took her pink face in his hands. “You should rest today,” he said. “Yer face is warm.”
“I’ve been in the kitchen. Of course it’s warm.”
“I’d still like for you to rest.” Rowan hugged her, and then woke Tarin up. Alynn stirred the stirabout and washed her face. The coolness of the water was wonderful.
As soon as breakfast was over, Alynn took Tarin’s hand and led him groggily through the town to the spinnery. Her wrist ached, and she kept changing her hold on Tarin’s wee hand to make it stop.
“Yer hands are warm, Lynder,” Tarin said.
Alynn said nothing. The church bells were beginning to toll, and she walked a little faster.
“Mind yer manners, Tarin,” Alynn murmured as they reached the spinnery. She sat at her spinning wheel and loaded the distaff. Her fingers didn’t want to work right.
“Morning, Alynn!” Fiona’s bright voice called. Alynn blinked and murmured a “morning” back. Fiona cocked her head and looked at her.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
“Mum, something’s wrong with Alynn!”
Alynn glared at Fiona, but then she felt Kiva’s deliciously cool hand on her forehead. “Go home, dear,” she said. “You should be in bed.”
Alynn slid off the seat of the spinning wheel. She felt too miserable to argue.
“Do you want me to come with you?” Fiona asked. “I can sweep and weed yer garden and—”
“You needn’t do that,” Alynn said, finding a smile somewhere within her. “Thank you.”
Once again, Alynn took Tarin’s hand and led him through the streets. “I can go in the woods and find some milfoil, Lynder,” Tarin said.
“Not by yerself.”
“Please don’t argue.”
The tiny hovel had never seemed more dirty or depressing. Alynn took her yarn and her shepherd’s-knitting hook and sat at the table. She was trying to make a quilt, but her wrists ached with every stitch she took. Tarin fascinated himself with Monika, the rag doll.
Suddenly, the door creaked open.
Alynn looked up, wondering why Rowan was home in the middle of the day, to see Kiva O’Shaughnessy. She stood in the doorway with her two-year-old daughter her hip, quietly staring at the buckets that caught the drips from the roof and the furniture that looked ready to fall apart.
“Good day, Miss Kiva,” Alynn said in a small voice. She began to stand up, but Kiva took her by the hand.
“I’m here to take care of things,” she said. “Go to bed.”
Alynn didn’t know what to say or think, but she gave Kiva a hug and, despite herself, began to cry. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Kiva’s hug was warm and wonderful, and almost as loving as Alynn’s mother’s had been. “What else are neighbors for, dear?”
Soon, Alynn was tucked snugly into Rowan’s big bed, sipping milfoil tea and watching Tarin play carefully with little Ceili. Kiva sat sewing next to a fireplace that had never seemed to glow more cheerfully.
And as Alynn slowly fell asleep, she knew that with neighbors as good as the O’Shaughnessy’s, she didn’t have a thing in the world to worry about.
M. J. Piazza is a Jesus-loving, dog-walking country girl who just so happens to write books.