Deaf Representation in Fiction: A Conversation with Sarah Loudin Thomas

Hello, readers! It’s Rachael, and I’m here to share the conversation I had with Sarah Loudin Thomas about her new release, The Right Kind of Fool. As someone who has studied American Sign Language and Deaf culture over the years, I was thrilled when I found out Sarah would be writing this book, and I really wanted to learn more about her background and what went into her research process! I even got to model signs for her postcard—how exciting is that?

I hope you enjoy learning more about Sarah and her hero, Loyal!

About the Book:

When deaf teen Loyal Raines stumbles upon a dead body in the nearby river, his absentee father, Creed, is shocked the boy runs to him first. Pulled into the investigation, Creed discovers that it is the boy’s courage, not his inability to hear, that sets him apart, and he will have to do more than solve a murder if he wants to win his family’s hearts again.

Rachael: Thanks for chatting with me, Sarah! I’m curious, what inspired you to write The Right Kind of Fool?

Sarah: I was researching a completely different story about the unsolved murder of Mamie Thurman who was killed near Logan, WV, in 1932. As I was reading about it, I found an account that said her body was discovered by “a deaf, mute boy.” And my imagination was off and running! Who was he? What was it like to be deaf in a rural community where sign language wouldn’t have been commonly known? How did he tell the news and did he testify? I eventually found information about the trial that said he used “hand signs” in court. So I abandoned poor Mamie and made a thirteen-year-old deaf boy who is the hero of my story!

Rachael: I love how Loyal’s story drew you in! You’ve said before that the most remarkable thing about Loyal as a character isn’t his deafness. What would you say it is?

Sarah: Loyal is courageous, kind, and . . . well . . . loyal! He doesn’t think of himself as less than or handicapped because he’s deaf. He’s pretty confident about his abilities which just happen to be slightly different. And his goal is to demonstrate just how capable he is to the people he loves the most. And, I think, he’s pretty successful at it in the end!

Rachael: Loyal is amazing. It made me so happy to see you feature a deaf hero in your story! Why do you think deaf representation in fiction is important?

Sarah: If humans experience it, I think it’s fair game for representation in fiction. So much of storytelling is transporting the reader into another time or place or experience. It’s why we tell stories isn’t it? How many of us as kids tried walking around with our eyes closed to see what it’s like to be blind. Or with our hands over our ears to see what it’s like to be deaf. We have innate curiosity that I think can lead to understanding, empathy, and a deeper appreciation for each other. I love writing characters who are different from me so I can walk around in their shoes for a while! 

Rachael: That’s so true! Had you studied American Sign Language before writing this book? What inspired you to study it?

Sarah: I’d learned the basics thanks to my second grade teacher, Mrs. Lashley, back in grade school. I still knew the alphabet and a handful of signs. I’ve long thought it’s an incredibly beautiful way of communicating, and I love how facial expressions and body language are tied up in it. I’ve always had a terrible poker face so it’s nice to learn a little bit of a language where that’s part of the goal!

Rachael: I agree—it’s a fascinating language! What did your research process look like? Did you learn anything intriguing about the language while researching?

Sarah: I spent time on websites targeting the deaf community and I highly recommend a book called Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks. That notion of SEEING language really resonated with me. I learned that it’s kind of annoying when hearing people do things like yell or talk really slowly. Neither of which helps in the least. And how reading lips is challenging and requires a great deal of focus and energy. Especially when hearing people do things like turn their heads or put their hands in front of their mouths. And while many deaf people CAN talk, they may prefer not to—Loyal expresses that at one point in the story.

Rachael: How did you go about weaving in sign language—a very visual practice—into a written story?

Sarah: I described key signs in a step-by-step way. Often, the signs are seen from the perspective of a hearing person. Like when Loyal’s father, Creed, sees that the sign for yes—a fisted hand moving up and down—looks like a head nodding. So many signs are pretty intuitive. For “hungry” you make a C-shape and touch the open side of the C to your chest, dragging it down toward your stomach, following the path food would go! I was also careful to include signs that could be described pretty simply—I’ll leave the more complex stuff to the experts!

Rachael: It was easy for me to visualize the signs while reading. You did a great job! How would you describe the way that communication is different between spoken and sign language?

Sarah: Wow—that’s a thinker! I can only share my observations since I really don’t use ASL to communicate. But I think sign is more visceral. It’s full-body communication so what a speaking person would put into tone and inflection comes through in facial expressions and body language. And I think when you’re expressing yourself with your whole body it’s just naturally going to be felt more deeply.

Rachael: Yes, it’s so powerful! Do you have any other books to recommend that involve deaf characters?

Sarah: Sons of Blackbird Mountain by Joanne Bischof features a deaf hero—plus, it’s set in Appalachia! And Jan Karon’s Light from Heaven includes a deaf woodworker named Clarence. I’m sure there are many more, but those two come to mind . . . 

Readers, do you have any favorite books that involve deaf characters?

Inside BHP: Book Tours!

This week, I’m with Beverly Lewis, traveling around North and South Carolina at libraries and bookstores to meet and greet some wonderful readers! (You can see where we’ve been and the few stops still to go here.) Despite some storms and rain from Hurricane Irma, the signings have all been full of amazing people excited to get a copy of The Proving.

For more tour pictures, take a look at the album on Beverly’s Facebook page!

Beverly loves chatting with readers, speaking at library events, and giving hugs. It’s always so fun for longtime fans in particular who are meeting her for the first time.

And what’s my job on the tour, you ask? Anything that needs to be done, from handing out bookmarks to taking pictures to explaining what the reading level of Beverly’s kids and youth books. With three events a day, it’s a lot to do, but also a delight. Thanks to all the readers who prayed for this tour, and we’d love it if you continue to pray for safe travel over the next few days.

I’ll be back to regular blogging next week, but enjoy this sneak peek inside the life of an author and publishing team.

Have you ever met an author in person? If so, who, and at what sort of event?

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?

Advice for Perfecting Your Contest Entry

One fun thing about working at a publishing company are the connections I have with what goes on “behind the scenes,” including writing contests. Since I know many writers follow this blog, I decided to interview three judges who have experience evaluating first chapters, synopses, and other entries. Their comments are kept anonymous (to keep their mystique of course…and so if you happened to enter a contest where they were judges, you wouldn’t worry that all of their comments here were talking about your entry). I hope you learn a lot from them!

Amy: What’s a common mistake (or a few) you saw in the manuscripts you judged?

Judge One: The most common problem I saw was when writers would tell me what was going on with their character instead of showing me. One example of this would be an author telling me how a character felt about a significant event in his/her life instead of showing me how he/she reacted to said event (e.g. a wife narrates her angst over an argument with her husband instead of showing me the argument itself). Another common example would be an author trying to fit too much backstory in the first couple pages of a novel. I fall into this trap too, so I get it—it’s hard to find the balance between confusing your readers and keeping them in suspense. But too often, authors would tell me everything that had happened to a character to bring him to this point in the story (lost his job, became an alcoholic, wife divorced him) instead of leaving me with a little mystery and letting me find out those things one by one while I read.

Judge Two: Some entries did a lot of telling instead of showing—outright stating characters’ emotions or motivations instead of showing what they looked like. But other entries made the more subtle mistake of showing and telling. They did a great job of using dialogue, body language, and vivid verbs so I understood what was happening…and then tacked on a totally unnecessary explanation of it in case I missed all of that. As a reader, I feel cheated, like the author didn’t trust me. It’s also a waste of words, because it says the same thing twice. Other mistakes that are a bit more obvious include a slow start to the story with lots of backstory or info-dumps, unrealistic dialogue, and too-perfect characters, all of which brand a manuscript as a beginner.

Judge Three: Because I was only able to see the very first part of the book, a strong beginning was crucial, as it was all I had to focus on. Several of the submissions could have had much snappier starts. I would also advise entrants to be very careful about their synopsis and not skipping necessary details or assuming knowledge. Several times I came away confused on things like timeline and certain plot points

Amy: When an entry caught your attention in a good way, what were some characteristics of that entry that made it stand out?

Judge One: Last month I watched the women’s gymnastics at the Olympics, and one thing the announcers keep saying over and over is that these young women have to do the hardest things in the world and make them look easy. The entries that caught my attention did the same thing—they worked in historic details without losing the story’s momentum, dropped in the occasional foreign word to provide a sense of place, or added an accent to a character’s speech without making it cheesy. The plot, dialogue, and character development were all there too, but these authors had gone the extra mile and made the world of their imagination into a world I could picture visiting. They had paid attention to the details without letting the details overwhelm the point of the story.

Judge Two: One huge thing is that in the best entries, a scene accomplished more than one thing. For example, it didn’t just give information…it also advanced the plot, showcased the personalities of the main characters, and foreshadowed something still to come. Or it didn’t just raise the stakes of the suspense, it also hinted at the hero’s backstory, introduced a minor character, and reinforced the spiritual theme. These are just a few examples of what a scene can accomplish. If you read a chapter in your manuscript and realize that if it disappeared, you wouldn’t be missing much, or it could be easily replaced with any generic obstacle, it’s not doing enough work.

Judge Three: It’s hard to quantify, but simply the fact that I wanted to keep reading and was bummed I wasn’t given the whole manuscript. The other aspect is that I didn’t notice the writing, I just became so engrossed in the story and really bought into the character’s voice and perspective. Heavy use of adjectives or stilted dialogue can make you notice the words over the story and pull you completely out of it.

Amy: If you could give one piece of advice to someone editing a contest submission, what would it be?

Judge One: Get someone to edit your submission for you first. (Seriously. I know this is mentioned in every piece of writing advice ever, but it was clear that the better entries I read had already benefited from detailed and constructive editing—and that the not-so-great ones still needed more help than I could give in a simple scoring sheet.) Ideally, you’ll have three or four editors, or better yet, a whole critique group of them. And these can’t be friends or family members who will love your writing no matter what. You want your first readers to be people a little bit distanced from your work so that they’ll be honest with you, and you also want them to have enough writing experience to be able to kindly point out potential trouble areas. After you get this first hurdle out of the way, go ahead and bring in those friends and family members for another go-around. They’ll be able to give you a reader’s point-of-view, warning you of any confusing sections and telling you where the action could be sped up a bit. Plus, they’ll give your confidence a great boost!

Judge Two: Read your entry out loud. Not only will you catch small mistakes like typos or missing words, but you’ll also notice when you’re using the same sentence pattern over and over to the point of monotony. And nothing points out a bit of cliché or boring dialogue like hearing your characters say it out loud in your own voice.

Judge Three: Make sure you get someone to read and edit the entry who knows nothing about the story. This will help you eliminate any missed details or loopholes that someone familiar with it will naturally fill in. Good writing won’t overcome a confusing story.

Readers, what would make you lose patience with a book if you encountered it in the first few chapters? Writers, tell us about a mistake you made early on in your writing career that now makes you cringe.

Inside the Writing Process: Critique Partners

I’ve written a few posts that deal with the behind-the-scenes of what goes on at Bethany House, but I know many of you are also interested in a sneak peek at the actual writing process. For that, I have to turn to my authors, and this month we have something extra-special: two critique partners with novels releasing the same month! I asked Roseanna White and Dina Sleiman to share a bit of their revising process with us.

That's Roseanna on the left, Dina on the right. Thanks so much for joining us, ladies!

That’s Roseanna on the left, Dina on the right. Thanks so much for joining us, ladies!

Amy: What does being a critique partner involve? How do you and Dina manage the process?

Roseanna: Critiquing is the process of giving advice on your partner’s work—sometimes feedback on the overall concept, brainstorming, what works and doesn’t, lines that are confusing, and so on. Our critiquing has varied over the years based on what we need at a given time. Recently, we’ve sent each other complete manuscripts; we then read and provide comments in the document, replying via email. Dina and I don’t critique every book for each other, but we’ve done quite a few together over the years.

Amy: When did you and Roseanna become critique partners, and how did that happen?

Dina: I didn’t get involved in writers’ circles until 2009, and I quickly discovered that many writers had these wonderful people in their lives called critique partners. For a while I kind of sat back and checked out a number of women in my European historical writers group. Roseanna was one of the writers who I admired and thought might be a good fit for me. Then in early 2010 we were both working on projects with Muslim characters, and we decided to try critiquing for each other. As I suspected, it was an awesome arrangement! And since Roseanna was a little further ahead in her writing journey than me, I learned so much just by studying how she did things.

Amy: Why would you say having a critique partner or group is valuable?

Roseanna: Oh my—sometimes we just need that step-removed perspective! Often we know something’s off in our story but can’t quite identify what. Other times we think it’s right on, but we want to make sure…and there’s usually something that doesn’t strike readers quite the way we hoped. Plus when you add in another writer’s take on everything from craft to plot to fine points of history, they always catch things you’ve missed or that you just didn’t know.

Dina: Critique partners catch so many problems that a writer just doesn’t have the perspective to see. For example, often a writer knows some pertinent information, but they don’t remember to put it down on the page or they don’t describe it in a way that is clear to the reader. I now have a variety of critiquers that have different fortes. Some are good at big picture elements, some are good at scene development, and some focus on details. And of course now I have my wonderful Bethany House editors as well.


And their September releases, The Lost Heiress and Chivalrous.

Continue reading