Back to School: Two Authors Talk History and Homeschooling

Hello, dear readers! As we head into the fall, I thought it might be fun to talk about the crossover between historical fiction and teaching history to students. Many of our authors homeschool, but I chose two with recent releases, Kimberly Duffy and Jody Hedlund, to share a bit more about how their writing and teaching worlds intersect. And if you are (or know) a homeschooler, there are a few reading guide resources linked at the bottom of the post if you’re interested in teaching your teens through Christian fiction!

Tell us about your homeschooling background, including when in your homeschool journey you started writing fiction.

Jody: I have five children and have been homeschooling for close to twenty years. My oldest three are now college age and beyond. And I have two left in high school. I’ve been writing for most of my adult life, but I got really serious about pursuing publication when I was in the thick of homeschooling. My youngest was only six months old when I started writing The Preacher’s Bride (my debut book).

Kimberly: I began writing fiction long before I had children. I finished my first book right before getting pregnant with my oldest daughter. But I didn’t begin seriously pursuing publication until my third was born, and by that time I was homeschooling two. I grew up in New York where homeschooling laws are fairly strict, so I didn’t know anyone who homeschooled. I didn’t even know it was a thing. But when I married and moved to Ohio, I became good friends with a young mom who encouraged me from the moment my daughter was born. She insisted I’d be a fantastic homeschooler (which I’ve since learned isn’t at all the truth). When my oldest was ready for kindergarten, I wasn’t ready to release her, so I decided to homeschool her for kindergarten, except by the end of the year, she was reading at a third grade level. So I just continued since it seemed like a great way to instill in my kids a love for reading and learning that wouldn’t be hampered by tests, social pressure, and a tearing down of their natural giftings and inclinations.

What’s the hardest thing about balancing your career as a novelist with teaching and parenting? What about the most surprising?

Jody: The hardest thing is carving out time for writing. When my kids were younger, I spent the majority of my day teaching them and had to relegate writing to when they were napping, resting, or in bed at night. As my kids got older and more independent, I wrote in the afternoons while they did chores or played.

Once my writing career began to take off, I solicited help from other people. My husband’s work schedule allowed him the flexibility to homeschool the kids a couple of mornings a week, which provided me with more writing time. My mom also helped by teaching the kids music, cooking, history, and other fun subjects on Fridays, freeing up more time.

Most surprising was how much I could accomplish in the midst of my busy life. I realized I couldn’t wait for perfect conditions before I began writing and that I needed to grab what I could. I learned to work amidst noise, chaos, and a zillion interruptions. I had to develop strong self-control to keep writing even with so many other things demanding my attention.

Kim: The hardest thing about balancing my career and teaching is that I’m not any good at it. I’m very disciplined, but I also have tunnel vision on whatever it is I’m working on. That means each April, right before homeschool conference season, I spend hours and hours a day organizing and planning and purchasing and developing (I really like creating my own curriculum because I have a lack of awareness when it comes to how much time I actually have). Nothing else gets done—even the laundry. And when I’m writing a first draft, I’m ONLY writing a first draft. Kids? What kids? Thankfully, my older two are fairly independent with their work and rarely need me, and my third grader only requires an hour or so of direct instruction a day.

I used to try so hard to be more balanced, but I’m just not made that way and I’ve since learned there are benefits to being 100% in.

Either now or in the past, what role has fiction played in your homeschooling curriculum?

Jody: I’m a huge proponent of kids learning through “living books” (and not just textbooks). As a result, I read a TON of fiction to my kids when they were younger. I also took advantage of audio books during our lunch time. Also, for many years we were a part of a book group (with other homeschooling families), one that challenged us to read outside our normal interests. All of that helped facilitate a love of reading among my kids.

Kimberly: Fiction has always played a HUGE role in our homeschooling choices. From the kindergarten days of read alouds with Little House on the Prairie to helping one of my children overcome her serious aversion to math by using Life of Fred (a story based math program) to creating and teaching a creative writing program to middle schoolers, fiction is the cornerstone of our day. Reading widely is the very best way to teach grammar and history and the beauty of language. It’s the best way to expose children to other cultures and places and people. It’s the best way to instill in them compassion and empathy. Jesus used story to teach great lessons. I don’t think I need to reinvent the wheel.

What do you think are some effective ways to get kids excited about history?

Jody: I always enjoyed finding books that corresponded to whatever we were learning in history. For example, when we studied Ancient Egypt we read The Golden Goblet, and when we studied the Roman era, we read The Bronze Bow. Reading about real people having real experiences brought history to life and made it more interesting and easier to learn.

Kimberly: I have a secret weapon—a high school experience that taught me the best way to learn history. I dropped out of my AP history class because of bullying (sometimes the meanest kids are the smart ones) but I still wanted to take the exam. I couldn’t open that textbook without some serious anxiety, so I just decided to sign up. And I got a perfect score. Because I read extensively—historical novels, classic literature, autobiographies. Multiple books a week. Over a broad range of topics (but usually historical in nature because, even then, it was my passion). Charlotte Mason, a 19th century British educator, believed the best way to teach history was through what she called “living books,” and I agree. Kids will remember what sparked the Reformation if they read about it in a wonderfully-written novel. They will remember the day the Revolutionary War was won if they read a biography on Washington. They will remember how the Salem witch hunts happened if they read The Witch of Blackbird Pond.

Another thing we love doing is visiting historical sites and living history museums. Study artists and then go see their paintings at a museum. Listen to classical music and learn about the people who created it. Read Farmer Boy and have popcorn and milk like Almanzo. It’s easy to bring history to life, and it’s life that kids remember and enjoy.

If you’re looking for a fantastic, already created history curriculum that is based on these ideals, check out Beautiful Feet Books—a Charlotte Mason inspired history curriculum. They have many grade levels and topics. My favorite is the Around the World with Picture Books (preschoolers), History of the Horse (middle elementary), and Medieval History (middle and high school).

Have you ever used your children’s curriculum to research for your next novel? If so, tell us about it!

Jody: Oh yeah! In fact, it was while reading biographies to my children during history lessons that I began to learn about some of the great heroes of the faith and the women who stood by their sides. I was so fascinated by those “forgotten” women, that I had the urge to bring them to life and tell their stories. That’s what inspired me to write The Preacher’s Bride (which is about the wife of John Bunyan, who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress).

Kimberly: I don’t think I’ve ever used a complete curriculum, but I have used children’s books. I read a few children’s books in preparation for writing A Mosaic of Wings. My favorite was Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian. I find that children’s books are great resources because they distill the essence of a story, person, or place into something easily accessible, to the point, and, because there is often a limit on words, beautifully poetic. There are also pictures!

Historical Fiction Curriculum Guides for Teens

If you homeschool, here’s a fun bonus resource: several Bethany House fiction authors have created curriculum guides, often including study questions related to history, science, and literature to use as a companion with a particular book. Enjoy learning while reading!

A Noble Masquerade by Kristi Ann Hunter

Wedded to War by Jocelyn Green

A Mosaic of Wings by Kimberly Duffy

What was a favorite historical fiction book of yours when you were a child or teenager?

The Thrill of Reading: A Suspense Author Roundtable

I don’t know about you, but I love a novel that will keep me turning pages with all of its twists and turns. And as the fiction publicist here at Bethany House, I get to work with several of the authors who create those types of books, and they’re joining us on the blog today!

Several of our Bethany House suspense writers are here to share details about their inspiration and research so you can learn more about what it takes to get those page-turning plots to you.

Amy: Why do you think readers enjoy reading about criminal investigations, perilous chase scenes, and high-stakes drama that they wouldn’t want to be involved with in real life? And why do you enjoy writing it?

Susan Sleeman: I think readers like these kinds of books for two reasons. One, they’d like to think of themselves as the hero or heroine, being brave enough to withstand the attacks and smart enough to outfox the bad guy. And two, they like the fast pace and excitement in these books. And they like to be a bit scared by the events, sort of like riding a roller coaster. You know you are safe, but the ride raises your adrenaline, and you like the feeling.

I write in this genre for the same reasons I think readers like to read them. I want to think of myself as being brave, but in reality, I’m a big chicken. I like the adrenaline rush too. But also, I’m fascinated with forensics and police procedures, so I love doing the research and learning new things in that area. Also, I attended the FBI’s citizens academy and several local police citizens academy, and when I saw the agents’ and officers’ hearts for helping people, I was hooked on writing in this genre to portray law enforcement officers as the genuine helpers that they are.

First Lines of Minutes to Die: “Exposed. Kiley felt exposed. Standing there. In the dark. Waiting. Waiting. The moon hunkered behind heavy clouds. The streetlights dim. The quiet Washington, D.C., suburban shopping area shrouded by foggy mist.”

Amy: Tell us a little bit about your main character in your most recent novel. Any desire to move into crime-fighting yourself?

Rachel: Layla Karam works at the CIA as a Middle East analyst, but those in charge at the Agency believe Layla would be a better asset if she was a CIA officer working in the field. Even though she resists, she takes on the challenges because she believes she is serving her country.

Fun fact, Layla got her undergraduate degree in Arab studies, and I got my Master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies. I poured a lot of myself into Layla’s character, but I could never take on dangerous field missions like her. I’m much better sitting behind my computer writing about them!

First Lines of Backlash: “The incessant knocking on her condo door made Layla Karam grumble as she threw off the covers. She had no idea who would be so insistent—especially at two in the morning. Over five years at the CIA had made her cautious, so she grabbed her gun from the nightstand and went to the door, ready for anything.”

Amy: Your latest series has a lot of complexity. What is something you think readers would find interesting about the challenges you faced in writing the Kaely Quinn Profiler novels?

Nancy Mehl: I’ve never worked with a character quite like Kaely before—the daughter of a serial killer who grows up to be a behavioral analyst for the FBI. She certainly comes with a boatload of emotional hang-ups!

But I’d also say it was extremely tough to write about the FBI. I’m so blessed to work with a retired FBI agent who actually worked in the BAU (Behavioral Analysis Unit). You would think that would make things easier. Uh, no. In my first drafts, I had so many things wrong. I actually rewrote the beginning of Mind Games, the first book in the series, three times because my FBI source told me my premise wouldn’t work. I’m sure I tried her patience more than once, but we got it done. I couldn’t have written the book without her.

First Lines of Dead End: “Norman Webber offered his wife a tight smile as he dealt with yet another one of her awful presents. He felt like a fool walking back and forth in this abandoned rail yard.”

Amy: Tell us a little bit about your latest series and what inspired you to chose the characters you did.

Dani Pettrey: The Coastal Guardians series features a team of Coast Guard Investigative Service agents. Each book features a different member of the team. Before I started researching, I had no idea the CGIS existed, but while researching the Coast Guard in general, I found cases the CGIS had worked and solved. I was fascinated and decided to write a series about the men and women who pursue justice for a living. I hope readers will enjoy getting to know the whole team.

First Line of The Crushing Depths: “Greg Barnes clinked along the grated metal steps, his boot heels rasping with each shuffle as he headed topside for a much-needed breath of smoke. Thrusting the door open with a resounding creak, he stepped out into the night air. A litany of protestors’ chants mimicked the shrill whining of cicadas.”

Amy: What do you feel like characterizes your series? Why do readers keep coming back for more?

Ronie Kendig: In the twenty-plus books I’ve written, I’ve found that readers—and I—really love the team dynamic, the camaraderie and the relationships. It takes a lot of effort, more than when I wrote a regular cast of characters, but I love it because it brings depth to the story that otherwise isn’t there. It also affords an opportunity for diversity, humor, and impact that I find easier to imbue in a story through that team dynamic.

I’ve also written interconnected threads across the series in several of my series to date. The most difficult thing is to pull all those moving parts together in the end to create a satisfying but not cliché, everyone-lives-happily-ever-after conclusion.

First Lines of Kings Falling: “Being hunted by the monsters she had created was a horrifying, well-deserved death. God forgive her for the terrible things she’d done, but it had been for good. For the good of all humankind. Only it hadn’t turned out … good.”

Amy: You mention on your website that you write “suspense stained by history’s secrets.” What does this mean?

Jaime Jo Wright: I created that phrase when I was repeatedly asked what I wrote, and when I answered “suspense,” I received questions about the FBI, police, murder investigations, and so on. So I wanted to define that my stories are far more vintage in nature, and that while there are present-day mysteries and suspense stories, they’re all very stained and saturated with the secrets of the past.

First Lines of The Haunting at Bonaventure Circus: “Life was not unlike the wisp of fog that curled around the base of a grave marker, softly caressing the marble before dissolving into the violet shadows of the night. There was a sweetness in its bitter that left an aftertaste, a vision, a moment of wonderment.”

What question would you like to ask your favorite suspense authors? We might use them in a future post.

Ask BHP: Humor in Fiction

Totally relate to the reader who submitted the question for this week: “I love books that make me laugh! I’d love to see a post where you (or authors?) tell us what goes into writing funny stories.”

Thankfully, we’ve got several author who fit that bill. I just grabbed a few of them who have recent releases and gave them some prompts so you can encounter the behind-the-scenes of writing comedic scenes or whole books. Here are some behind-the-scenes sneak peeks into the writing world from Karen Witemeyer, Nicole Deese, Jen Turano, and Mary Connealy. Enjoy!

Why do you think readers enjoy humorous scenes in a story?

Karen: Readers read to be entertained, and humor is hugely entertaining. Whether it’s witty dialogue, a madcap scene of misadventure, or a comedic one-liner, if it spawns a smile, it also spawns joy. And we all need more joy in our lives, don’t we?

Nicole: I think people enjoy taking a break from tension for a few minuteswhether it’s real-life tension or fictional tension from the story they’re reading, laughter provides a much-needed stress outlet for us all.

Jen: I think everyone loves to laugh, and humor in scenes provide readers with that amusing escape we especially need right now during these trying times.

Mary: The basic reason I write humor is because that’s what I love to read. I do not like books that make me cry. I can attest to the talent of the author when he/she makes me cry, dragging me through emotional agony. That writing has power. But I just don’t like it. Life has enough drama in it. I don’t want to add more by reading about it. I always say, “If they’re sassing each other and falling in love while they’re running for their lives, then I’m happy.” That’s what I read, and that’s what I write.

Have you ever used something funny that happened to you (or someone you know) as a basis for a scene in your book?

Karen: Every time I include a pun of some sort, I immediately think of my son, Wyatt. He and I love a good pun. Or even a bad one. While my other kids groan and roll their eyes, Wyatt always laughs. He’s my humor cheerleader.

Nicole: Absolutely–both! I mean, what’s the point of having relationships with people if you can’t write their most embarrassing moments into your books? Hahaha! Usually, I take a seedling of an idea from a true tale I’ve heard or experienced and then develop it further to suit the scene or the character I’m writing.

Jen: I pull a lot of fodder for my scenes from past experiences. Elmer the chicken being carried around like a football came from real-life, although I wasn’t the one carrying the chicken because chickens don’t seem to like me. Another example would be when peacocks attacked in one of my stories – that happened to me when I took my son to the zoo one day. He thought it was hilarious, whereas I thought I was going to be missing a limb after a particularly fierce peacock wouldn’t let go of my sleeve.

Mary: Absolutely. Much of the humor when men and women misunderstand each other is rooted in my own life. My husband is from a family of seven sons. We have four daughters. He spends plenty of time just absolutely confused at the way they behave. The way they chatter and laugh and (horrors) cry. All within the context of him adoring them. There’s a lot of comedy in the way women vs. men react, in my life and now…in my books.

Which recent character of yours made you laugh while writing?

Karen: Barnabas Ackerly is recent to me, though readers won’t meet him until this fall, but his novella in The Kissing Tree collection is one of the funniest stories I’ve written to date. At least to me. Ha! A self-proclaimed stodgy nag of practicality, he has a great tongue-in-cheek internal wit. He keeps dubbing the heroine’s Kissing Tree Inn with all sorts of silly names like the Inn of Smooching Shrubbery and the Inn of Osculating Topiaries. Made me laugh to write it.

Nicole: There were quite a few moments I laughed while writing Before I Called You Mine–one had to do with the meet-cute in chapter two and a certain character pretending to be a T-Rex, another was when I wrote about an alpaca farmer coming to a dysfunctional family’s Thanksgiving dinner as a blind date. I laughed at each of those scenes during the editing rounds, too.

Jen: Miss Daphne Beekman, a character in my new series, The Bleeker Street Inquiry Agency. She’s an unlikely inquiry agent because she has a tendency to swoon whenever danger is near, so she’s had me laughing quite a bit over the past few months.

Mary: The hero, Cam, in The Reluctant Warrior, book #2 in the High Sierra Sweethearts series. He was a tough, order-snapping, former cavalry officer. And his daughter, when he was reunited with her after a long, long time, is terrified of him and clinging to the heroine Gwen, who has been caring for her. Cam needs help. Gwen administers the ‘help’ by slapping him in the back of the head every time he barks at people. She’s enjoying herself a bit too much.

Let’s talk…talking. Does witty dialogue come to you in the first draft, or is it something you add in as you edit?

Karen: I don’t typically write in layers, so yes, witty dialogue comes to me in the first draft. Nothing feels better than getting on a roll with fun verbal sparing between the hero and heroine. My favorite thing about writing with humor is that here is no kicking myself for thinking of the perfect comeback after the moment passes, which is what usually happens to me in real life. In fiction, I can go back days later and add the perfect zinger to my heroine’s repertoire as if it had been there all along. Yes!

Nicole: For me, humorous dialogue usually comes the easiest in a new scene I’m drafting… it’s all the other stuff (setting, movement, dialogue cues, the five senses, etc.) that takes the most work.

Jen: I don’t get witty until around edit #5. I have the bones of scenes in place, but it’s not until I really know the characters extremely well that their sense of humor comes out.

Mary: Sassy heroines, clueless heroes, that’s dialogue made for humor right there. Usually some of that comes on the first pass, but every time you go through, it grows. So the funnier it is, very likely, the more revisions it’s been through.

Thanks, amazing ladies! Readers, let us know the latest book you read that made you laugh out loud.

Author Roundtable: Memories of Those Who Served in WWI

On November 11, 1918, Germany signed an armistice agreement with the Allies that ended World War I. That means that this Sunday, it will be 100 years since the end of the Great War. We asked our authors to share the stories of family members who served to commemorate the centennial.

For more stories, be sure to take a look at the Imperial War Museum’s website and the tribute video they have there.

“My great-grandfather, Ernest Richardson, was a POW in World War I. He was in the army and stationed out of St. Nazaire in France. When the war was over, he returned home to Georgia and became a sharecropper before marrying my great-grandmother. One of the mementos of his time in the war is a matchbook cover made from a soup can and engraved by a fellow prisoner to commemorate the war and his role in it.”—Kristi Ann Hunter, author of A Defense of Honor

 

“My great-grandfather, Homer Crownover, was drafted off his Oklahoma farm into WWI in early 1918, when he was twenty-three years old. He arrived in France in September of that year just as the war was winding down. Thus, he didn’t see any action. He returned home, was honorably discharged, and married in April of 1919. The wedding band he gave his bride, Mary, is the one I wear on my ring finger to this day. Nine months after their wedding, Homer and Mary welcomed their first child—my grandmother. He was a wonderful man! Mellow, quiet, kind. He once worked a full day splitting wood in order to buy my grandmother a coat.”—Becky Wade, author of Falling for You

 

“My maternal grandfather, Robert. B. Gerdts, was attending Washington & Jefferson College when his course work was interrupted because of the war. He entered service in the United States Army Air Force and was discharged after the war with the rank of Lieutenant. He then finished his degree at Washington & Jefferson and began studying law at the University of Pittsburgh, receiving his law degree in 1921. I don’t recall any stories about his time in the war, although I distinctly remember a picture of him, which I can’t find, where he’s standing in front of the biplane he flew, goggles on his head and wearing a leather bomber jacket. I think the reason I don’t know any stories is because, unfortunately, in 1934, when my mother was only four, he contracted a blood infection from a small cut on his head and was dead within a week. Penicillin was released to the public the next year, which would have saved his life, a circumstance I find tragic to this day.”—Jen Turano, author of Caught by Surprise

 

“My grandfather Joe worked at a bank in Milwaukee in 1917 when he and his brother John both volunteered for the draft. My grandfather got the lucky draw: he ended up serving as a typist in a North Carolina army training camp, but John went to France where he was badly gassed and sent back home. John recovered, but was never quite the same either physically or mentally. Joe looked after John the rest of his life, considering it a small price to pay.”—Elizabeth Camden, author of A Daring Venture

Do you have a WWI family story to share? Tell us in the comments!

Q&A with Tracie Peterson and Mary Connealy!

Welcome to the Wild West! In our releases this month, Tracie Peterson takes us to the real-life history of the Oregon Trail, and Mary Connealy brings us the second Boden sibling to find love. I asked Mary and Tracie to share a few inside details with readers so you can look forward to adding both of these to your TBR pile.

Amy: Describe your main characters for me.

Mary: Justin is the rancher. He’s especially in conflict with Cole, the older, more citified brother. For Justin, I wanted a heroine who really clashed with him. So I brought in a very dainty woman who’d been raised in elite, moneyed circles in Omaha, Nebraska. A rich father, a rich husband, and none of them kind and loving people. Justin is drawn to Angelique DuPree, but sees her as a woman who needs “civilization.” And who has no ranching skills, no kitchen skills. She is the worst possible choice to be a rancher’s wife in the rugged West. Angelique is driven by the notion that she has been a weakling all her life. She let her mother rule her, then later her husband, and it all led to poverty and hardship and a life without love. She is determined to stop obeying blindly and find the courage God expects of her.

Tracie: Grace is a healer who has learned the art from her mother and grandmother. She’s also rather prejudiced and opinionated. Her love interest, Alex Armistead, is running from the past and God. He’s determined to remain lost in the Oregon Country wilderness, but his heart has other ideas. As he and Grace clash, both come to learn that they have changes to face and that real love is there for them—if they are brave enough to accept it.

Amy: How did you pick your setting?

Mary: I took a trip to Chama, New Mexico, several years ago for a writers’ retreat, where we all rode a train on a narrow-gauge railroad. That train took us through the area I’m writing about. What amazed me were the desert-like conditions, and yet the grasslands, all brown and dead-looking, the tour guide said was lush and cattle got fat on it. It helped me to see that rocky soil for its real value—with the mountains rising up around us, covered in Aspen trees that seemed to grow right out of the rock. In fact, this has helped me see past the reputation of many places and understand how people can live, often comfortably, in what seems like a forbidding land, if they can just learn to live with the land instead of imposing the life they came from on a place that won’t support that.

Tracie: When I planned Treasured Grace, I wanted it to incorporate several actual historical events. The attack on the Whitman Mission was a fascinating one that played a big role in the way the government dealt with the Indians of the west for years to come. Frustrated and dealing with the deaths of loved ones, the Cayuse Indians of the area had reached their limit of cooperating with the whites—Dr. Marcus Whitman in particular. There were quite a few diary accounts of all that happened at the mission, making it nice for me as a writer to create as accurate a fiction novel as possible.

Amy: What themes come up in your novel?

Mary: The Boden family began for me with Jacob and Esau and this notion of how badly Jacob and Esau were treated by their parents, Isaac and Rebecca. The mom loved and favored Jacob. The father favored Esau. Deep differences in character between Jacob and Esau also put them naturally in conflict. That has always bothered me. I’ve known parents who had their favorites, bragged on one child and disparaged another, left more money to the favored child, things like that. So the seed of my story was: What if instead of spurring on the conflict between their sons, Isaac and Rebecca had done everything in their power to bring their sons together? Chance Boden is determined that his children will be close, will realize they love each other, and that the conflict between them is nothing compared to their loyalty to each other, as well as the connection they share as future owners of the ranch. Chance goes to some extreme measures to get his children to be friends. The conflict and the love between them continue to clash and grow in Long Time Gone.

Tracie: As with all of my books there was a desire to speak to the matter of forgiveness, but in this story there was also the element of trusting God when all seems lost—trusting Him even when bad and undeserved things happen. I also wanted to create a story where there were serious consequences for my characters—consequences for actions put upon them and not actions they chose for themselves. People so often struggle with the pain and life-changing situations that are thrust upon them because of things done to them. I wanted to present a story that would show the reader that even when those things are done, we can trust God to bring beauty from ashes.

Just for fun, let’s have a giveaway! I’ll pick one winner to receive Mary and Tracie’s new books on Monday, April 3. To enter, just respond to this question: Why do you think people are drawn to stories about the American frontier?

Author Roundtable: What We’re Thankful For

With Thanksgiving coming up next Thursday, I decided to ask our five authors who have books releasing in November and December a few questions about gratitude. Enjoy! (And be sure to pray for them…these months are especially crazy with a book release added to normal holiday busyness.)

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Amy: What is one “small thing” you’re thankful for, not necessarily the larger blessings like family or freedom?

Ronie Kendig: I’m really thankful for the many vibrant colors of fall, which reminds me of variety (people, foods, idiosyncrasies, flavors) and that everything has a season.

Patrick Carr: I’m thankful for my co-workers’ quirky senses of humor

Regina Jennings: I love my little creamer that I got as a wedding present. I use it every Saturday morning to hold the hot syrup when I’m having my coconut pancakes. It’s the perfect size and it feels genteel.

Nancy Mehl: I love to lie in bed at night and listen to my husband and my dog snore lightly. To know they’re there and I can reach out and touch them makes me feel safe and thankful.

Julie Klassen: With a deadline approaching, I’m thankful coffee doesn’t have calories!

Amy: What is a favorite verse that comes to mind regarding gratitude, thanksgiving, blessings, or the goodness of God?

Ronie Kendig: “Enter his gate with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name!”— Psalm 100:4

Patrick Carr: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”—Romans 8:28

Regina Jennings: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.” – James 1:17 (NKJV)

This verse reminds us that everything good is a gift from God, but the best gift is that He does not change. Other gifts might age and wear out, but God doesn’t grow old, weak, or out of date. His goodness is eternal.

Nancy Mehl: “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’”—Matthew 19:26.

It comforts me to know that no matter how dark things look, or how difficult a situation seems to be, God can deliver me and bring victory. Knowing this makes me want to jump and shout and praise my wonderful Heavenly Father!

Julie Klassen: As a mother of teenagers, I admit I sometimes worry. When I do, I am thankful for the reminder in Philippians 4:6 (NLT): “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.”

Amy: How do you remind yourself to take time to be thankful during the start of a busy holiday season?

Ronie Kendig:  I immediately lower my expectations—of myself and of others—about what should be done or given, and I focus on what’s important: friends and family.

Patrick Carr: I focus on the fact that being WITH is far more fun than buying FOR.

Regina Jennings: The one aspect of the holidays that I dread is shopping. How do I turn that around? While at the mall or the shops, I just look around at all the stuff and think how grateful I am that our needs are met. It’d be awful to actually need everything that crowds those shelves. Contentment is the gift that makes other gifts unnecessary.

Nancy Mehl: We try to find someone to bless during Christmas, and this helps to remind us what Christmas is all about. But honestly, since my husband and I moved to Missouri to be near our son, his wife and now our two grandsons, it isn’t hard to be thankful. Being around them makes us so grateful to God for His wonderful blessings!

Julie Klassen: I don’t always remember to, so this blog post is a good reminder to be thankful. Thanks!

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Your turn readers: what’s one “small thing” you’re thankful for?

Christmas Snapshots, Part Two

Christmas is almost here! Enjoy a quick break from your many activities (including last-minute shopping, anyone?) and read about some of our authors’ favorite Christmas memories and traditions.

“To help focus my children on the real meaning of Christmas, I put a slip of paper that lists an activity in each pocket of the advent calendar. The activities are things like Red and Green Day, Luke 2 day, Candy Cane Day, Wise Man Day, etc. We do fun activities that center around the theme of the day and focus on the meanings behind the traditions.

The Hedlund family on Wise Man Day.

The Hedlund family on Wise Man Day.

“For example, on Red and Green Day we eat red and green foods and wear red and green clothes, but we also talk about what red stands for (the blood of Jesus shed for our sins) and green (the new life he gives us). For Luke 2 day, we get out our nativity set along with reading Luke 2 (the birth of Jesus). The entire month of advent activities is something my kids look forward to every year and makes the Christmas season more about Jesus and less about us.”

Jody Hedlund, author of Love Unexpected

MateerCookies“One of our most treasured traditions is making Christmas cookies with all the cousins. My mother still hosts this event at her house, with the 10 grandchildren that live in the US all in attendance, even though four of them are now in their 20s! After rolling the dough, cutting out the shapes and baking the cookies, every kid decorates as many or few as they want. Nana and Papa get to keep one from each grandchild, but the rest are taken to their homes to enjoy. Such a fun time to gather with family in the midst of our busy lives!”

Anne Mateer, author of Playing by Heart

“When I was a child, my family always spent Christmas at my grandparents’ house. All the kids would wake up early and rush to the living room to see what was under the tree. However, we were never allowed to unwrap anything until the adults were up and breakfast was eaten. The one thing we were allowed to dig into was our stockings, where we discovered fun new toys and candy and activity books to keep us entertained. When my husband and I discussed which Christmas traditions to hand down to our own kids, stockings were at the top of my list. I love to cross-stitch, so I cross-stitched stockings for Wes and I and for each of our children before their first Christmas, making the tradition even more meaningful. I still get a thrill when I rush out to the living room and see what “Santa” put in my stocking. It’s my favorite part of Christmas morning.”

Karen Witemeyer, author of Full Steam Ahead

The Witemeyer mantle.

The Witemeyer mantle.

“Christmas of 1994 loomed as possibly my saddest holiday ever. Since my husband and I were expecting our first child in early January, we couldn’t travel home to see my family, and they had decided to wait and visit once the baby was born. Then on December 18th, when I saw a beautiful new baby girl at our church Christmas party, I declared, ‘I want my baby in time for Christmas.’

Christmasbaby

 

“My wonderful daughter, Christiana Rose, complied immediately, and I went into labor late that night. She was born three weeks early, perfect, and she made it home in plenty of time for Christmas.”

Dina Sleiman, author of Dauntless

Your turn: what is a Christmas that stands out in your mind because of something special that happened?

Christmas Snapshots, Part One

What says, “Christmas” to you? Is it the sound of the Salvation Army bell-ringers outside the grocery store? Maybe the smell of pine or a ham baking in the oven. Or maybe it’s the glow of candlelight inside the church for the Christmas Eve service. We all have certain memories associated with this time of year, and I asked our authors to share some of theirs, either an annual tradition that they look forward to every year or a particular Christmas that stood out to them. I hope you enjoy their stories!

Wade_Becky“My kids and I make Christmas cookies together every year. I typically let each of them pick a recipe that they’d like to make with me individually. Then we have a few (like gingerbread) that we either a) make together or b) I make alone if the kids have lost interest and wandered off. Once all the cookie baking is done, we divide the cookies up, attach a ‘Merry Christmas from the Wades’ note, and deliver the packages to our neighbors and friends.”
Becky Wade, author of Meant to Be Mine

The Wade family with cookies!

The Wade family with cookies!

Turano_Jen1“Before my parents passed away, it was my tradition, no matter where I lived, to travel back to my hometown of St. Clairsville, OH. Even after my son, Dominic, was born, we would fight the crowds at the airport and fly from Denver to Ohio, braving the weather and delayed flights, and even having the supreme enjoyment of flying out on Christmas Eve one year–something I would not recommend doing with a three-year-old. But, once arriving at my mom’s house, a sense of peace would wrap itself around me, and there was always a great sense of being home as I gathered with my brothers and sisters in the living room, a room that certainly seemed to shrink as all of us married and had children.

TurnaoChristmas2“Those children allowed us to share the traditions of our youth—ice-skating on the little pond, sledding down the hill behind my parents’ house on an aluminum toboggan (which was never very comfortable but always had to be done), or setting up the trains my mother loved as a child, and watching the awe on the children’s faces as the train smoked and chugged its way around the track.

My son Dom as a little guy--yes, I did have him wear this outfit on the plane to Ohio.

My son Dom as a little guy–yes, I did have him wear this outfit on the plane to Ohio.

My siblings, Dad, and I at my grandparents' house.

My siblings, Dad, and I at my grandparents’ house.

“After my parents died, I found it next to impossible to dwell on those memories, and Christmas changed for me, not for the worse, mind you, but it was just different as I started new traditions in Denver, having no reason to travel back to Ohio. I had not been able to pull out those memories, nor pull out the boxes and boxes of pictures until just this year. To my surprise, (and I must admit, relief), I was not sad in the least over what each box revealed, but thankful to have tangible proof of some of the fabulous Christmas memories that I’ll always have to cherish, even if my parents are no longer here on this earth to cherish them with me.”

Jen Turano, author of A Match of Wits

GOULD_Leslie1crop“The real meaning of Christmas comes in unexpected moments for me, no matter how hard I try to focus on it. Last year it came in a century-old, candlelit church I visited with my oldest daughter. After a sermon about Immanuel—’God with us’—it was time for communion. As I drank the symbolic wine, the image of Christ’s blood mixing with my own overwhelmed me, followed by the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit. I’d never felt the story of God—born as a babe, sacrificed as a man, risen as a savior, and always with me in spirit—so acutely. It was God’s best gift to me last Christmas and one I’ll always treasure.”

Leslie Gould, author of Becoming Bea

Bylin_Victoria1“It wouldn’t be Christmas without my grandmother’s almond crescents. Each year she made hundreds of them and gave them as gifts in special foil boxes. I remember being five years old and helping her. They’re delicious, but the best thing about these cookies is the fun of making them with people you love.”

Nana Bylin’s Almond Crescents

1 lb. butter or margarine
1 c. sugar
4 c. flour
2 tsp. vanilla
½ lb. whole raw almonds
Powdered sugar

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Cream butter and sugar. Use a food processor or blender to grind the almonds into a coarse powder. Add ground almonds and vanilla to the bowl with the butter and sugar. Mix well. Add flour. I usually start mixing with a spoon and end up mixing with my hands. Shape into small crescents.  Bake 25-30 minutes.

Bottoms are usually light brown. I let them cool on the cookie sheets, and the bottoms brown up a little bit more.  Let cool, then roll in powdered sugar.  This makes about 10 dozen, but it varies tremendously with “crescent” style.

Victoria Bylin, author of Until I Found You

And, if you’re looking for more Christmas recipes, Anne Mateer is sharing some quick-and-easy holiday bars on her website, and Dani Pettrey has some delicious-looking coffee drinks based on some of her characters’ favorites. Check them out!

Your turn: what first jumps to mind for you when someone asks for a holiday memory?

Advice for a Simpler Christmas, Part Two

Ever have the feeling that Christmas has gotten just a bit out of hand? If you’re like me, you have the best of intentions: this year, I will slow down and focus on the real meaning of Christmas. Sometimes, though, life just gets in the way.

To help you (and me!) out, some of our authors sent in practical tips for simplifying your Christmas. (Check out last week’s post on the same topic!)

Bunn_Davis“For the first several years of our marriage, my wife and I were ‘required’ to spend our Christmases with family members who did not believe in God.  For them, the entire process revolved around a cultural event, and the holiday’s commercial side.  As a result of this, our desire to focus on something else has remained a core ingredient of the season.  And this ‘something else’ is the key.  What we have found is that to simply say, ‘no’ to commercialism isn’t enough.  There needs to be an alternative, some great and interesting project or date or event that is big enough, and fun enough, to make the absence of commercialism really not matter so much.  Each year now we plan on some big event that we can see as our Christmas.  This year, for the first time in twelve years, my mother has felt well enough to join us.  We are arranging for her and my sister and her husband and their two daughters to all come down and have a Christmas eve dinner in the Polish tradition.  My wife is first generation American, both her parents were Polish.  The Polish celebration is focused upon Wigilia, a twelve-course meal without meat.  It will take us two days, possibly three, to prepare.  And it is this preparation, as much as the event itself, that forms for us the Christmas season.”

Davis Bunn, author of The Patmos Deception

Nancy with little Aidan.

Nancy with little Aidan.

“On Christmas Day two years ago, our lives changed forever. God gave us the most wonderful Christmas gift, our first grandchild, Aidan Jackson Mehl. Almost a year later, my husband, Norman, and I sold our home in Wichita, Kansas and moved to Missouri so we could be near our son and daughter-in-law and be involved in Aidan’s life. Blending families has meant that many of our long-held Christmas traditions had to change. But we’ve discovered that traditions are all about family, so adjusting them so we can watch this wonderful little boy grow up isn’t painful at all. It’s a joy”

Nancy Mehl, author of Gathering Shadows

Austin_Lynn1“One holiday season when my children were young, I grew stressed as I saw Christmas and my book deadline rapidly approaching. I longed to create a perfect Hallmark Christmas with homemade cookies and gingerbread houses but I could see that I was going to have to simplify. I asked each family member to choose one holiday tradition that was special to them, and we would do it. Surprisingly, they chose simple, uncomplicated things like watching a favorite Christmas movie together or driving around to look at the neighbors’ lights. No one asked for cookies and gingerbread houses. It became our tradition to each choose one special activity to do—and they could choose a different one each year. In the end, keeping only a few special traditions made each one seem even more fun.”

Lynn Austin, author of Keepers of the Covenant

These blog posts are your official permission to stop. Slow down. Take a few moments to pray. Breathe a little. Cross a few things off your to-do list, not because you’ve completed them but because you don’t have to do everything.

I promise: Jesus will still feel sufficiently celebrated even if you don’t make all possible types of baked goods, attend every holiday party, or imitate each Advent tradition you’ve ever heard or read about.

At the end of the day, rehearsals and presents and decorations aside, the baby is still in the manger. And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Emmanuel. God with us. Let’s keep it simple, because there is a beauty in that simplicity, and it has the power to change the world.

What is one thing that helps you focus on Jesus at Christmas time? (A song, a tradition, a verse?)

The Music of Christmas

If you listen closely around this time of year, you can almost always hear faint jingle bells or distant strains of Irving Berlin. There’s just something about music that creates atmosphere, stirs emotion, and teaches deep truths in a way that nothing else can. Some of our authors are on the blog today to share how these songs have been a part of their Christmases.

Also, we love this idea: take a clear glass ornament, remove the top, and fill with lines from your favorite carol (print from the Internet so you don't have to shred a hymnal!).

Also, we love this idea: take a clear glass ornament, remove the top, and fill with lines from your favorite carol (print from the Internet so you don’t have to shred a hymnal!).

Peterson, TracieHands down, Handel’s Messiah has always been an important part of my Christmas celebration and memories.  I was born into a musical family, so music was always important, but there was something about Handel’s music set to Scripture that touched me deep inside.  We had a local church that would have a community singalong of Handel’s Messiah each Christmas, and there were a couple of occasions that my mother and I attended.  It was an amazing time, and though most of us weren’t trained vocalists, it was some of the most beautiful music I’ve even known…and a wondrous time of worship.

Tracie Peterson, author of Steadfast Heart

ThomasChristmas

Sarah and her father.

I have a weakness for Christmas carols. I’ve been known to sing them at the top of my lungs while hiking (alone!) at just about any time of year. I have favorites—”The Cherry Tree Carol,” “I Wonder as I Wander,” “The Ballad of the Christmas Donkey”—but my VERY favorite is “Up on the Rooftop.” When we were kids, Dad would lead us in sing-alongs whenever we traveled around Christmas, and he’d make up verses for each of us. Something like: “Here comes the stocking of little Sally (his pet name for me), oh dear Santa what a tally, give her a dress that whirls and twirls, and then you can give her hair some curls.” We’d beg for verse after verse, throwing out the names of family, friends, and made-up acquaintances. And Dad always came through with a rhyme.

Sarah Thomas, author of Miracle in a Dry Season

Jagears_Melissa1My favorite Christmas song is Downhere’s “How Many Kings,” and if I’m playing a Christmas album it’s likely to be this one. I’ve always been fascinated by the Wise Men, which may be part of the reason why I wanted to start a new tradition with my family and start celebrating Epiphany since the Christmas season has morphed into nothing much more than a get-together with presents. I also think the reason why I love this song is that it goes beyond the wise men to sing of the ultimate romance—a divine King’s love for the undeserving.

Melissa Jagears, author of A Bride in Store

And, finally, a song recommended by one of our readers in last Thursday’s blog post, “Carol of the Bells.” (This is one of my favorite versions.)

Do you attend a special musical event around Christmas? If so, what is it?