1. Find a significant point of connection
As an English teacher, I was constantly telling my students to “write what you know.” By that, I didn’t mean that each one of their short stories, poems and screenplays needed to be autobiographical. What I was suggesting is something I’ve found to be true: if there’s a place, a character or an element of the plot line that links me to the story—so much so that I can write it out of intimate knowledge and personal identification—it will infuse the rest of the book with a sense of authority.
That’s exactly what I did in Of Stillness and Storm. My parents were missionaries to France for forty years, and I lived surrounded by devoted Christians whose hearts were in the right place, but whose priorities were sometimes obscured by their zeal to reach the unbelieving. Lauren and Sam—with their laudable strengths and deplorable flaws—are composites of the family friends who populated my childhood.
Did I have to do research into locations, lifestyles and medical details? Of course, I did. But ministry flows through my veins, and anchoring the book to that real-life knowledge helped me to write confidently and ultimately galvanized the creative process.
2. Look for “the spark” in unexpected places
To be honest, I’d wanted to write a story set on the mission field for some time, but lacked that illusive but crucial spark that becomes the impetus to sit down and start typing. I had bits and pieces floating around my mind—hints of personalities and shades of conflict—but it wasn’t until 2012, when I traveled to Kathmandu for the first time, the novel began to crystallize. I was struck by the beauty and brokenness of Nepal, and I saw in its desolate landscape and difficult living conditions a metaphor for the toll an honorable but reckless ministry can take on good people.
A story centered on a missionary couple’s personal journey from their first encounter to their moment of reckoning emerged from the geographical symbol I’d found while traveling for other reasons.
3. Let your characters teach you who they are
I’ve never been someone who carefully crafts characters before the writing begins, so for me much of the initial process is just waiting for them to reveal themselves. When Lauren first spirited her way into my mind, she carried with her the weight of a past I couldn’t wait to explore. Learning who she was and why she was became a powerful incentive to keep digging deeper.
Loving one’s characters, flawed and fallible as they may be, is also imperative. It empowers the writer to be courageous in exposing their struggles. Because I felt so devoted to Lauren, the evolution of her marriage to Sam was a story I strove to treat with unflinching honesty. The degradation of her bonds with a son she loved so fiercely was an aching exercise in resisting the urge to settle for happy endings. Aidan’s reappearance in her life was a complete surprise, even to me. But once he emerged with those four simple words—is it really you—he became someone I wanted to write boldly, a galvanizing presence in Lauren’s grappling with purpose and identity.
4. Step away, but don’t give up
Of the books I’ve had published so far (there’s one more coming in September 2017!), this is the one that was the hardest to write. Though the first drafts of other novels took me just three or four weeks to pour out, this one took me months. And here I’d thought familiarity with the context would simplify the process! There were times when I wanted to scratch it all and find another story to tell, but there was an intensity to Lauren’s “occupation” of my creative spaces that I couldn’t quell. So I powered through.
Once I found the courage to share what I’d written with select friends and critics, early feedback wasn’t all encouraging—though it was exactly right. When my college writing professor, who had volunteered to read an early draft, sent a rather bluntly-worded email to me, I realized my best intentions and efforts were not paying off. “I’m past chapter eight,” she wrote. “What will keep me reading? Is it coming soon?”
Oh, the temptation to throw in the towel—or throw out the Macbook! I set the manuscript aside for several weeks, perhaps hoping that leaving it unattended would cause a sort of literary fermentation to happen that would miraculously elevate the novel from boring to readable. Still, it tugged at my consciousness, the unfinished story crescendoing from a dull hum to an attention-grabbing screech. So when my period of pouting was over, I set to work deconstructing and reconstructing what I already had, shifting some scenes and deleting others, and generally distilling the book to its most basic, focused form.
Of Stillness and Storm was born.
5. Live around your writing
Writing is something I do. It is not the measure of my worth. Over the years, I’ve taught a handful of students who boldly declared, as Aidan does in the novel, that they—are—their—art. They were willing to rest their self-assessment and sense of value on an occupation that offers absolutely no guaranteed outcomes. How dangerous to base one’s identity on something as subjective and unpredictable as writing.
Though I’ve always loved the written word and fancied myself an author, I was fortunate enough to discover in my early adulthood that I have other strengths too—skills that have brought me a sense of purpose and productivity beyond the Russian Roulette of traditional publishing. Would my life still have meaning if Tyndale and Thomas Nelson had passed on my books? Absolutely—because there are other areas in it that motivate and fulfill me too.
Writing is important. It can be life-shaping and world-altering. So can kindness, investment in others and finding novel ways of using all one’s strengths for the betterment of self and others.
Loving one’s characters, flawed and fallible as they may be, is imperative~ Michèle Phoenix (Click to Tweet)
Born in France to a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle Phoenix is a consultant, writer and speaker with a heart for Third Culture Kids. She taught for 20 years at Black Forest Academy (Germany) before launching her own advocacy venture under Global Outreach Mission. Michèle travels globally to consult and teach on topics related to this unique people group. She loves good conversations, mischievous students, Marvel movies and paths to healing. Learn more at michelephoenix.com Twitter: @frenchphoenix
“I felt torn between two worlds. Each with its own mystery. One more captivating than the other, but the other more real and breathing.”
It took Lauren and her husband ten years to achieve their dream—reaching primitive tribes in remote regions of Nepal. But while Sam treks into the Himalayas for weeks at a time, finding passion and purpose in his work among the needy, Lauren and Ryan stay behind, their daily reality more taxing than inspiring. For them, what started as a calling begins to feel like the family’s undoing.
At the peak of her isolation and disillusion, a friend from Lauren’s past enters her life again. But as her communication with Aidan intensifies, so does the tension of coping with the present while reengaging with the past. It’s thirteen-year-old Ryan who most keenly bears the brunt of her distraction.
Intimate and bold, Of Stillness and Storm weaves profound dilemmas into a tale of troubled love and honorable intentions gone awry.