Oh say can you see…

At 29, Mary Young Pickersgill couldn’t have imagined the impact of the stitches she pulled through the stiff canvas fabric. She hadn’t been a widow long when she was commissioned with the overwhelming order from the United States armed forces, so she recruited help from her daughter, two nieces, and two free women of color. Together, feverishly and late into the evenings, their eyes must have burned with the strain of working by candlelight.

Pickersgill couldn’t have known the 50 pound, 30-foot by 42-foot, 15-starred and 15-striped garrison flag would take nine men…

Click here to read the rest of my column in this month’s Zionsville Current Newspaper!

And the winner of the first signed copy of #HowSweettheSoundNovel is……..

20140212-073817.jpgOn Wednesday, I opened up the first of a handful of opportunities for folks to win a signed copy of How Sweet the Sound here at my blog.

And the winner is….

Heather Day Gilbert!!!!!

Congratulations to Heather, a self-described, “a Southern/Appalachian gal,” who loves to be an influencer for books she enjoys. I sure hope she enjoys my Southern tale. Be sure to stop by her amazing blog some time.

And HUGE thanks to all who commented and asked questions. Here they are, along with the answers for you.


Q: Heather says, “I know I’ve read one of your posts about the wait to get picked up as an author. What did you do to get through that waiting time? And I’m so excited for your book, being a Southern/Appalachian gal myself.”

A: It took me approximately eight years from the time I decided to actively pursue traditional publication until now. I did a lot of things during that time, which I blogged about here. Querying agents and landing a publishing house require patience, because it can feel like all you’re doing is waiting. You get to the point where you’re even grateful for rejections, because at least you’ve heard SOMETHING. But I’d say by far the two most helpful things I did to get me through the waiting were: 1) I wrote a weekly newspaper column–for three years, and for no pay. Sometimes I spat the 500 word article out in an hour. Other times, it took me 3-4 grueling days. But it kept me writing, and kept me humble, and kept me aware of just how much work–albeit fabulous work–writing really is. The second thing I did was focus other hobbies. I believe “art feeds art,” not to mention keeps a dull writer a little more well-rounded, so painting and upcycling furniture on days when the waiting felt particularly painful were great helps to me.

Q:  Cynthia Herron asks, “I’m wondering, how much input were you allowed on the cover of How Sweet the Sound? (I love it BTW!)”

A: The cover design process is pretty fascinating to me, especially as someone who used to work as a graphic designer. First, I collected a bunch of images of currently published book covers I felt resembled the theme and feel of my story, and submitted those to the AMAZING designers at David C. Cook who took it from there. They presented me with three absolutely breathtaking–and completely different–cover options. Seriously, they were each impossibly, incredibly, out-of-this world exquisite. I asked close friends which they preferred, and talked to the design team about my thoughts about each one, and in the end, they chose the current cover from those three designs. I actually preferred a different one, but in the end, I am SOOOO glad they chose this one. I couldn’t have asked for or imagined a more beautiful visual representation of my words.

Q: Kathleen asks, “Will you consider taking up your column again?”

A: I so cherished the opportunity to write my weekly column, Life with a Twist, while it lasted! Finding the blessings and twists of hope in everyday life and finding ways to make social justice issues applicable to suburbanites was a great gift. However, creating and self-editing those seemingly brief, 500 words a week took a lot more time than it appeared. I stopped writing column to focus on my novels, and since my heart–and current workload–remain with novels, that’s where I continue to focus, too. Sometimes I do consider writing columns for a newspaper again, especially when there are down times in the editing process. And I did cut my teeth in journalism. Never say never, as they say!

Q: Alyssa Faith asks, “When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer?”

A: Great question, Alyssa. I wish I had a definite answer. The more I’m asked this question, and the more I read other author’s responses to it, the more I’m convinced no one really wants to become a writer–not exactly. I think perhaps when a child first learns that a crayon or a pencil can move along the surface of something … when certain souls learn that the images, then letters, then words of the heart can be pushed out through the hand and appear as tangible color and text … that for certain people, that means of expression becomes a need. Not a decision, but a need, something like breathing for the introvert who holds emotions so tightly within that only the gentle scratchings of a pen can free them to live.

Q: Molly asks, “Where you raised in Alabama? If not why a book set in the South? I will say it’s one of my favorite settings for a book!”

A: I was not raised in Alabama, nor anywhere close to the Mason-Dixon line or I-10. I have great insecurity and anxiety about this fact, that I am a Yankee writing a story about the South. I have vacationed in the area for over two decades, but I am aware this does not count. However, Alabama (the gulf coast, in particular) was where this story had to be told. Only in the ocean air, where the moon tugs relentless against the tide, and where the heat of the day blurs the hard and the concrete could such deep pain and redemption within a story like How Sweet the Sound occur. So, I hope true Southerners will forgive me for barging in to their neck of the woods. Y’all are welcome here in Indiana any time. 🙂

Q: Debbie asks, “Question, where did the unique names for characters come from?”

Oh, I’m so glad you asked about names! Naming characters is one of my favorite parts of writing fiction. I spend a lot of time researching the origins of names, looking at surname lists from setting regions, and discovering the ancient meanings of names. Sometimes a name on those lists immediately catches my eye, like “Princella.” Other times, I’m surprised when I like a name, and then learn by accident the meaning precisely fits the character, like “Anniston,” named after the town where the Freedom Riders stopped (a fact I learned well after I named her). Every single character I’ve ever named in this novel, and in my second (coming 2015), have deep and rich significance. Not everyone will know this or bother to look up the meanings of those names, but it helps me define and develop the characters as I write. I also believe names empower the characters as a story–and their role in it–unfolds. This reminds me of Isaiah 62:2-3,

“…And you will be called by a new name
Which the mouth of the Lord will designate.
You will also be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord…”


Thanks again to everyone who commented and asked these fabulous questions.

And again, CONGRATULATIONS to HEATHER DAY GILBERT for winning the very first signed copy of How Sweet the Sound!

Christmas Column: The Shattered Ornament

Published in special Christmas publication of the Zionsville Times Sentinel, 12/02/09

I cherish one ornament on my tree over all the others.

It’s not the one you’d expect.

It has no sparkles. No grandeur. Nothing to make it stand out among the glittering, glass balls and Sponge Bob Santas.

No, the ornament is a little girl made of porcelain. She has long dark hair and wears a pink nightgown. In her hands, she holds a Christmas stocking. Made by Joan Walsh Anglund, the ornament has beloved black dots for eyes, a sprinkling of freckles, and chubby, rosy cheeks.

Decades ago, the ornament was a gift.

A miracle, you might say.

I remember this ornament from my earliest Christmases. She was there when Dad put the Perry Como Christmas eight track in the player. She was watching from the tree as Donny and Marie hosted all their family Christmas specials.

And in the bustle of decorating on one of those Christmases long ago, the little dark-haired ornament was dropped. She shattered, and along with her shattered my heart.

See, I’d grown quite attached to the little porcelain girl. When you’re a child, you have the ability to gaze at inanimate objects and they take on life in the midst of that gaze. Whole worlds are created within and around those objects—dazzling worlds full of dancing (which I could never do) and singing (which I try to do) and where the outside world can’t reach in and do any harm.

Such was this little Joan Walsh Anglund ornament to me. The pink-gowned girl was me, untouched, and perfect.

I wept and begged my parents to make her whole. “Surely, Dad could fix her,” I remember thinking. Dad could fix anything.

But alas, she was shattered beyond repair.

So I did the only thing left to do: I turned to the magic and the miraculous.

I turned to Christmas.

If my parents couldn’t fix the broken ornament, then perhaps Jesus could. I concocted an idea to wrap the ornament in tissue and place it in the tower of my toy castle. Then I gathered my mom, dad and sisters together. I asked if we could all hold hands and pray. Surely after the prayer, when I grasped the tissue, the little girl in the pink nightgown would be whole.

I squeezed my eyes shut as tight as I could. I didn’t want Jesus or Santa or anyone to think I was peeking. That might break the magic. As soon as I said, “Amen,” I reached in and took hold of that tissue full of shattered pieces.

Only there were no pieces.

I peeled back the tissue to reveal a whole, new, ornament.

My sisters and I gazed at each other, astonished. We squealed with excitement and danced around the room in our flannel, flowered nightgowns. As the celebration continued, I stood still, clutching the ornament, searching for traces of evidence of pieces glued together. There were no marks. No lines indicating someone fixed her.

No. The ornament was brand new.

When I was much older, I learned my parents bought a new, identical ornament and replaced the broken one. But for years, I believed the magic occurred the moment we prayed.

Indeed, there was magic in that moment. It’s a magic that remains even today. Tears stream down my cheeks as I write this, knowing that in the top of that plastic castle tower, more was pieced together than an ornament.

Hope was restored.

Belief became real.

The possibility of wholeness was realized.

And isn’t Christmas just like that?

Christmas is when the least suspected thing becomes the greatest; when the biggest magic happens in the smallest gestures; when the world’s greatest nursery was a stable; when the world’s first ornament was a star in the eastern sky; when the world’s first present was a tiny cry that echoed hope and possibility across the world.

We walk the malls and sidewalks this holiday season not searching for gifts as much as we’re searching for hope.

We make purchases which morph into glistening music boxes which twirl for a few moments, wind down and die.

What we thought held the world only holds a moment.

So my Christmas wish for you, dear readers, is that you may find meaning in what others find meaningless.

May you find longevity in what others find fleeting.

May you find freedom in places others wouldn’t dare tread.

And when you hang your favorite ornament—no matter how old and tattered—may you find wholeness in your most broken places.