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Interview with Historical Fiction Author M.M. Bennetts: ‘I start with a plot then let it grow organically’

We have a special guest today!  M.M. Bennetts is here with us to talk about the new historical fiction  novel, Of Honest Fame (Diiarts).  Enjoy!

Educated at Boston University and St Andrews, M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in the economic, social and military history of Napoleonic Europe. The author is a keen cross-country and dressage rider, as well as an accomplished pianist, regularly performing music of the era as both a soloist and accompanist. Bennetts is a long-standing book critic for The Christian Science Monitor.

The author is married and lives in England.

Bennetts’ latest book is Of Honest Fame.

You can visit the author’s website at www.mmbennetts.com.

Q: Thank you for this interview, MM. Can you tell us what your latest book, Of Honest Fame, is all about?

It’s a war of espionage, set in Britain and Continental Europe against a backdrop of Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia in 1812.

Q:  Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?

There are three main characters:  Thomas Jesuadon, a disgraced gentleman and a gambler who runs his own network of watchers and spies in London, Georgie Shuster who is on secondment to the Foreign Office from the Peninsula, and a boy named Boy Tirrell, who spends much of his time out gathering information, anywhere from Paris to Berlin to Vienna.

Jesuadon’s muscle is in the form of an ex-farrier called Barnet.  There’s also the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, and a Scotsman called Dunphail who doesn’t want anything to do with any of them, but unfortunately was a witness to a rather important event.

Together they epitomize the fact that in this period, there was no such thing as a proper intelligence agency.  They were all amateurs, they came to work as and when they chose, they risked their lives daily without recognition, and their existence has, until recently, been wholly denied by generations of politicians and historians.

Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?

Well, in the case of actual historical figures, I base those characters upon a great deal of research—I read biographies, I read their letters, journals, speeches and memoranda—so I build up not just an understanding of what made them tick, but how they spoke, who their friends were, what were their habits.

However, for the fictional characters whom I’ve introduced into the narrative, they’re usually composites of historical figures, plus bits from people I’ve known or observed, plus a bit of imagination synthesizing the whole together.  I very often will have listened to the speech patterns of people around the country so that I can write ‘character’, if you will.

Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?

I start with an idea of a plot, if by that you mean, a general idea of what I want to write about and where I trust the story will go, but after about the first four or five chapters, I’m afraid I step back and let the thing grow organically, building on itself.  Fortunately, I have the history there to keep me from running too far afield.  So certain people have to die at certain points in the narrative, or be somewhere specific, and that does dictate a certain structure.

Q: Your book is set in London.  Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?

The book is set mainly in London, because that’s the capital and seat of Government of Britain, so there wasn’t much of a choice.  But the marvelous thing for me was discovering how very different was the London of 1812 from even Victorian London, and it provided me with such a background of ancient districts and slums—perfect for a spy thriller—places with names like the Devil’s Acre or the Rookery.  I don’t have to say anything more—these names are just so evocative.

Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?

Well, because the action of the novel is shared between London, Paris and Eastern Europe—places like northern Germany, Silesia, Poland, the Sudeten, and Czechoslovakia—where Napoleon’s forces had been gathering prior to the invasion, having a character there, on the ground as it were, made for some pretty stark comparisons between peaceful, unoccupied Britain and the devastation that the French army left in their wake.

Q: Open the book to page 69.  What is happening?

We’re in a chamber in the barracks at Edinburgh Castle, where Georgie Shuster is attempting to learn from the commanding officer what happened to an escaped prisoner-of-war, who is, the more he hears, sounding like the man who attempted to kill Boy Tirrell.  And this, together with the commanding officer’s obvious incompetence, is causing Shuster to be more than a little nervous.

Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?

“Lady Wilmot had not been outside the walls of Sparrowhawk’s rambling Inn in over a month. Indeed, she had not once been outside of the locked garret chamber in all that time. Not since that first night when Sparrowhawk had escorted her, exhausted and trembling, up the narrow staircase and through the maze of passages and hidden doors to the room under the eaves. And during the past of those lost days and nights, what she had seen of the sky and its changeable, London fog-bound moods had been framed always within the borders of the upper casement window, near which she was not permitted to stand. Not even to look out upon the moon and the never silent city. Not to feel the sun warm and strong upon her cheek.

“But standing now just without the kitchen’s threshold, she paused and looked up to regard the great expanse of London sky, blue and spectacularly cloudless. And caught her breath. And holding that intake of breath within her as a secret, she gazed upon the sky with a kind of wonder, looking up and glorying in this bright moment of freedom, upon the rooks wheeling overhead, and the street sparrows perched upon the gutters’ edges, gazed with unparalleled pleasure and an awe which made her heart quail. And she would have stood thus the whole morning, emptied of thought or expectation, just watching in open wonder and private contentment the threading drifts of cloud and paling blue and the unfettered birds which flew as winnowed meal. But then, a touch on her shoulder reminded her that she could not linger, that she was not safe…”

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, MM.  We wish you much success!

It’s been a pleasure.  Thank you for having me.

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‘The Sixth Surrender’ Hana Samek Norton on virtual book tour November 2010

Hana Samek Norton 1Join Hana Samek Norton, author of the historical fiction novel, The Sixth Surrender (Penguin/Plume) as she virtually tours the blogosphere in November ‘10 on her first virtual book tour with Pump Up Your Book!

Hana’s passion for the Middle Ages dates to a childhood exploring the ruins of castles and cloisters in the (now) Czech Republic. She also developed that “lurid taste in fiction,” by reading dog-eared novels full of the drama and melodrama of history. She graduated with an MA from the University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada, and a Ph. D. (both in history, of course), from the University of New Mexico where she currently resides. She is married to an Englishman, teaches part-time, and works as a historical consultant.

The Sixth SurrenderHer latest book is The Sixth Surrender. It’s Anno Domini 1200. King Richard the Lionheart is dead. And in the final years of her own eventful life, queen-duchess Aliénor of Aquitaine launches a deadly dynastic chess game to safeguard the crowns of Normandy and England for John Plantagenet, her only surviving son.

To that end, Aliénor coerces into matrimony her two pawns: Juliana de Charnais, a plain and pious novice determined to regain her inheritance, and Guérin de Lasalle, a cynical and profligate captain of a band of Richard’s mercenaries, equally resolved to renounce his. But Aliénor wants their marriage to save Jonn’s patrimony from the plots of Philip, the king of France, and her own vassals, the traitorous lords of Lusignan, descendants of the legendary half-serpent Mélusine.

Preferring the company of his routiers, bawds, and barrel houses, Lasalle does not intend to be a husband to the shy young woman, nor to become entangled in John’s own matrimonial mire, but at the heart of Aliénor’s scheme is the mystery of his own past that could cost John his thrones—and Juliana her life.

You can find out more about her book at http://www.thesixthsurrender.com.

If you’d like to follow along with Hana as she tours the blogosphere in November, visit her official tour page at Pump Up Your Book. Lots of fun in store as you learn more about this gifted author as well as win prizes, too!

Join us for Hana Samek Norton’s The Sixth Surrender Virtual Book Tour ‘10!

Pump Up Your Book is an innovative public relations agency specializing in virtual book tours. You can visit our website at www.pumpupyourbook.com.

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Why I Love (and Write) Historical Fiction

We have a special guest today!  Laura Vosika, author of the historical fiction novel, Blue Bells of Scotland, is here to talk about why she loves to write historical fiction!

WHY I LOVE (AND WRITE) HISTORICAL FICTION

by Laura Vosika

“There was no better way to understand life than to live it—if not through your own life, then through another’s.”

I recently read this quote in a Ted Dekker book.  This, to me, says it well. I have long been fascinated by people, personalities, and human nature, how and why people interact, and how they live the lives they are given. History and fiction are two great ways to watch these things in action, and combining them makes it even better.

I find history fascinating now. It’s a bit like fiction coming to life, hearing wonderful stories of dramatic events and powerful characters, and knowing it’s all real. Unfortunately, many people—including me—found history a dull collection of facts and dates in school. Even in college, I remember only one professor who really pushed beyond the facts to see the humanity and personalities of the historical actors.  And this, to me, is the beauty of historical fiction: it brings history to life.  Few people are interested in facts and dates. Most people are interested in stories, fascinating people, and great adventures, and these elements are common to both history and fiction.

A typical history class says: Robert Bruce led the Scottish troops against the English at Bannockburn on the 23rd and 24th of June, 1314. Do you care? Will you remember the name, battle, or date in two hours, let alone two years?

Instead, add sights, sounds, emotions, smells—these bring the man to life, as he should be, as he was, not as a dry fact.  Put yourself in Bruce’s place on the hot, summer day of June 23, 1314: in the last 10 years, you have gone from your own noble castles, high status, and royal positions under Edward Longshanks, king of England, to hunted fugitive-king living in the wilderness; from fugitive to guerrilla fighter casting off the traditions of ‘chivalrous’ warfare which certainly would have cost your life and those of your friends and countrymen. You have lived hard and fought hard, and spent years trying to calm the brash hand of your own brother, who has now forced you into the one thing you rigorously avoided—pitched battle against a much greater army. Your wife, daughter, and sister are all imprisoned in England. You have not seen them in years, and they may die as a result of your actions today.  How do you feel so far?

Now, feel the weight of your chain mail, and the heat of the sun blistering through it. Feel the sweat dripping down your back. Look at your men, few in number and ill-equipped compared to the coming behemoth; your close friends who may die: Clansmen from the Highlands and lowlands; Angus Og, Lord of the Isles, with his Islemen in their saffron tunics, who have fought so loyally on their galleys in the western Isles; James Douglas, soft spoken and gentle with his friends, but known to the English these last 8 years as a bogeyman with whom to frighten their children.

Look out across the land you have chosen for battle. Its narrow entrance and spit of dry land will limit Edward II’s ability to throw the whole weight of his great army against you. The marshy ground will slow the fearsome charge of England’s mighty warhorses—against which you have only ponies. You arrived early; you prepared the ground well with murder pits and four-pointed caltrops. You have spent weeks drilling your men to fight in schiltrons—circles of hundreds of spears all pointing outward—that will allow your foot soldiers to take on mounted cavalry. You have carried the relics of Scotland’s greatest saints and implored their prayers to God on your behalf.  You have done everything you can to even the odds against an army three, even four times the size of your own.

But will it be enough?

What is Robert Bruce feeling as the midsummer sun beats down on his chain mail? Is he thinking of the men behind him, the army before him, his wife and daughter far away, whether he’ll be alive or dead tomorrow? This is a real man. He hurt and bled like any of us; he felt love and fear like any of us. What would you do in his place? What would you say to the men waiting behind you, willing to die at your side, on your word? What does Bruce say?

The sights, sounds, smells, and emotions of real stories: they help us to experience it as it was, and to learn from it, in a way we don’t learn from a list of facts.

It was through historical fiction that I first began to understand and appreciate history, to discover the exciting stories in it, and learn something about the way the world and people work, from those who have gone before. It is through the human faces and emotions that I best continue to understand history. This is why I also love to write historical fiction. As a writer, I go even deeper, digging into the layers of causes, reasons, personalities, and how the smallest actions lead to defining moments, to change the course of nations and lives.

When we learn these things, we become wiser, and live our lives better, and that, to me, is the fascination of historical fiction.

Laura Vosika grew up in the military, visiting castles in England, pig fests in Germany, and the historic sites of America’s east coast.

She earned a degree in music, and worked for many years as a freelance musician, music teacher, band director, and instructor in private music lessons on harp, piano, winds, and brass.

Laura is the mother of 7 boys and 2 girls, and lives in Minnesota.

Her latest book is Blue Bells of Scotland: The Trilogy.

You can visit her website at www.bluebellstrilogy.com.

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Guest Blogger: Castle in the Forest by Historical Fiction Author Laura Vosika


We have a special guest today. Laura Voskia, author of the historical fiction novel, Blue Bells of Scotland: The Trilogy (Gabriel’s Horn Publishing) , is here to tell us about one of the many castles she has visited. Enjoy!

Castle in the Forest

by Laura Vosika

With over 3,000 castles in Scotland—that’s one for about every hundred square miles—it is unlikely I’ll ever be able to visit them all. But during my two week trip to Scotland in 2008, I visited 13, a castle almost every day. Several of those stand out as favorites, ones I hope to go back to, but one in particular captured my heart and imagination.

It is isn’t the oldest or largest. It has nothing as fascinating as Dunvegan’s Fairy Flag. It lacks the history of Stirling. In fact, very little is written about its history. Even with detailed descriptions of its structure, articles on it are a scant few paragraphs, at best. Still, if I could fly back to Scotland today, I would go straight to Finlarig Castle in Killin.

Maybe the attraction, for me was in the way I found it. While my husband and I were staying at the hostel in Killin, the manager there—full of great stories and advice about places to see—told us to look for it on our walk around Loch Tay. He warned us to watch for a small path. I watched all too well, and discovered a dirt track six inches wide pushing through the foliage of a small copse. We followed it and burst into a clearing in the forest, in which rose the gray stone ruins of a castle and mausoleum, overgrown by ivy and woodland. We hadn’t seen anyone else on our walk. The clearing was empty and silent. It felt as mysterious and wonderful as the children discovering the ruins of Cair Paravel in The Chronicles of Narnia.

My husband and I spent a good long time exploring the castle ruins. The structure stands three stories high in places, while the walls are completely gone in others. We walked through the arched entrance, into a tower—and out the other side into what might have been the courtyard, now overgrown and with a tree springing up in the middle of it. We climbed the faint remains of stairs, to fragments of the second floor, and descended into dim recesses that, I later learned, had been cellars and kitchens. We never did find the beheading pit the manager told us to look for. (And I later read that the ‘beheading pit’ was really only a cistern to gather rain water!)

The grounds also feature a mausoleum, very complete on the outside, and with the entrance so overrun with years of dirt and debris that you must climb up and squeeze through what’s left of the opening, near the top of the arch. As a result, exploring the inside of the mausoleum means walking close to where the ceiling would have been. Nearby are a pair of lichen-covered Celtic crosses, the graves of Lord and Lady Campbell, that, though dating only to the 1920’s, give the place even more of an ancient and mysterious feel.

As we left Finlarig, the opposite way from which we entered, we discovered the ‘small’ road we were supposed to have found: a five foot wide tar-topped road, complete with large signs giving dire warnings about the danger of getting too near Castle Finlarig: Do not climb on the structure! Do not go near the structure! The structure may collapse!

I most likely would have heeded those signs. I’m comfortable in my un-extreme world of piano, harp and teaching music lessons to 8-year-olds. Which is why I’m really glad I didn’t see those signs! There was something wonderful about exploring these isolated and abandoned ruins.

Perhaps my attraction to Finlarig was that very isolation and abandonment. We were alone. I think had we stayed longer, we would have continued to be alone, a unique experience among the many castles we visited. It allowed us to feel the atmosphere in a way that’s not possible with hundreds of tourists crowding the place. There were no placards to explain or reveal. I think that left the imagination free to roam, to look at the place as it is now, and all the ways it might have once been, to create possible histories and lives.

Whatever the reason, as much as I loved the elegant beauty of Linlithgow, the wax statues of Eileen Donan, the twisting passages of Doune, as much as I would try to return to each of them and more, Finlarig holds a special place in my heart.

Laura Vosika grew up in the military, visiting castles in England, pig fests in Germany, and the historic sites of America’s east coast.

She earned a degree in music, and worked for many years as a freelance musician, music teacher, band director, and instructor in private music lessons on harp, piano, winds, and brass.

Laura is the mother of 7 boys and 2 girls, and lives in Minnesota.

Her latest book is Blue Bells of Scotland: The Trilogy.

You can visit her website at www.bluebellstrilogy.com.

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Interview with Laura Vosika, author of ‘Blue Bells of Scotland’

Laura Vosika grew up in the military, visiting castles in England, pig fests in Germany, and the historic sites of America’s east coast.

She earned a degree in music, and worked for many years as a freelance musician, music teacher, band director, and instructor in private music lessons on harp, piano, winds, and brass.

Laura is the mother of 7 boys and 2 girls, and lives in Minnesota.

Her latest book is Blue Bells of Scotland: The Trilogy.

You can visit her website at www.bluebellstrilogy.com.

Q: Thank you for this interview, Laura. Can you tell us what your latest book, Blue Bells of Scotland, is about?

Blue Bells of Scotland is a time travel and historic adventure, about two men, polar opposites but for their looks and love of music. When they both spend the night at the top of the same castle tower, they wake up in the wrong centuries, caught in one another’s lives.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?

Shawn is a modern-day musical phenomenon, who wears accusations of self-centeredness like a badge of honor. He drinks, gambles, lies, and cheats on his girlfriend. Niall is a sharp contrast, a devout medieval Highland warrior, the epitome of responsibility. The fate of Scotland rests on his shoulders.

Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?

I came across a character in a Diana Gabaldon book saying that writers are like cannibals: they take bits and pieces of all their friends and make a stew out of them. I pull characters out of my imagination, but often realize later that I have used parts of several people to make up one character. At other times, I ‘borrow’ traits from people: a certain way of laughing, a depth in the eyes, a turn of phrase, a combination of clothes.

Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?

I’m usually aware of the plot before I start, but I’m more aware of the themes. With Blue Bells of Scotland, I had a basic plot, which involved only Shawn. But Niall had other plans, and the book changed quite a bit from the original concept.

Q: Your book is set in Inverness and Bannockburn in Scotland. Can you tell us why you chose these cities in particular?

I chose Bannockburn because that’s the location of the battle which is the backdrop for the medieval half of the story. However, Niall needed to make a long journey prior to the battle, so I researched castles some ways away, from which he might travel. In addition, his castle had to be close enough to a city where an American orchestra might play, that its members might visit that castle on their days off. Inverness, with Castle Urquhart nearby, fit those requirements, so Inverness and Eden Court Theatre entered the story.

Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?

Yes and no. Niall’s life, into which Shawn steps, is governed by the war with England. Shawn’s physical discomfort as he hikes Scotland’s mountains, the dangers he faces from English soldiers, and the outrage of others at his behavior—all the things that lead to him changing—are things that could not have happened in his twenty-first century American life. But there are many times and places that have physical challenges, dangers, war, and different outlooks. I could have written a similar story in many settings. What really led me to Scotland was the title of the folk song, whose themes of noble banners and streaming deeds I wanted to include in the story.

Q: Open the book to page 69. What is happening?

Page 69 happens to be the last of a chapter, so there are only a couple of paragraphs! But Niall, the medieval warrior, has recently woken up in the 21st Century. He is suffering from severe infection, the result of an arrow wound, and thinks maybe he’s suffering delirium. From his chambers three stories up, he’s seen Shawn’s girlfriend and a man walking on the shore below. With his dagger drawn, he heads down to the shore to find out from them why his castle is deserted and half-broken down.

Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?

Crashing into a boulder at the foot of the hill, he leaned in, scooped the other man over his shoulder with strength he’d never had, and ran, jarring the monk with each step. The town appeared ahead. A more beautiful sight he’d never seen! Already, his chest heaved for air. His legs screamed for mercy. He couldn’t look back. A stitch ripped through his side. Shapes formed ahead as he closed in: crowds! His salvation!
The merry sounds of a festival reached out to him. He pushed himself, Brother David’s abused body slamming into his back, his moans filling his ears, and reached the edge of the throng.

Jugglers in harlequin clothing danced around him, spinning balls in the air. He gripped Brother David’s legs, batting at the jugglers with his free hand, fought his way through to a booth laden with vegetables.

“Turnips, tasty turnips!” bawled an old woman, grabbing his sleeve. He spun his head, searching for Allene. Now there were more stalls, musicians strolling the street, a man with a monkey. He reached the outlying buildings of the town, his head twisting side to side, hunting for a hiding place.

“Your fortune for a penny,” cried a scarved woman in front of a painted gypsy caravan.

“Breads, buns, rolls!” bellowed a fat man draped in white.

Shawn pushed through a gaggle of giggling children. Brother David grew heavier. Shawn’s legs trembled under the weight. Stone houses and merchants’ stalls rose around him.

“Fruits!” a young girl shrilled in his ear, snatching at his sleeve. “Five a penny!”

He took another step, twisted to peer down a dank alley for a hiding place.

An acrobatic team strolled by on their hands, pointy shoes waving in his face. A boy led a string of ponies, brushing against him, making him stumble. The smell of cheeses and fruits and meat and animals filled the air. Shawn spun, the weight of the monk on his shoulder growing; seeking sanctuary. People called and laughed. Colors spun in and out. His legs weakened under Brother David’s weight.

“Alms!” cried a toothless beggar, stretching a bony hand from among rags.

His knee buckled. He grabbed a stone wall to steady himself.

Something gripped his elbow. He spun, yanking his arm back….

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Laura. We wish you much success!

Thank you for having me! It’s been a pleasure!



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Christmas Memories: A Child’s Christmas Miracle by Dot Ryan

Holiday Memories is a month long series of heartwarming holiday stories from authors all over the world.  We at As the Pages Turn hope you will enjoy and have a happy holiday full of good and happy memories!


A Child’s Christmas Miracle
by Dot Ryan

I ran toward our old house—a ramshackle relic of the past century’s ranch life—my heart pounding with the excitement of what had just happened. Should I tell my mother? Would she believe me? Or would she just smile and think I was making up another story, as I was prone to do from time to time, purely to entertain her and my siblings. They were adventuresome tales about run-away train rides, taming wild horses, getting lost in a secret cave and saved only by the intelligence of my tiny Boston terrier, Jeannie, who led me to safety through a maze of crumbling tunnels. Mother had liked those made-up stories of innocent adventure, and I proudly wrote them down on notebook paper and stashed them away in a big flowery hat box under my ancient iron bed. But this story was different from all the rest. Instead of smiling, Momma just may become furious with me and say that I had let my wild imagination stray too far this time…

For a child to believe in miracles is a good thing … a testament to one’s belief in God or Allah or in the Lord Jesus Christ … or whatever higher power or deity to which one subscribes. But to claim that a miracle was performed just for me, a seven-year old girl—and a mischievous one, at that—with no prior history of holiness that anyone could testify to, could get me a good spanking … at least, an hour in the corner with my nose pressed into a chalk ring!

Fidgeting, as if standing in a red ant bed on a cousin’s dare, I loitered in the kitchen doorway, watching Momma prepare our Christmas dinner, my mind going over the miraculous event just past … knowing in my heart that I would tell Momma all about it, after I figured out how to begin.

I watched her stuff the plump old Tom turkey that had spent his last days strutting around our backyard attacking anyone who dared enter, until Grandpa dropped by yesterday evening and chopped off his arrogant old head. Normally, I and my little brother and two sisters would have felt sorry for him and loudly protested his execution, but he had just about pecked all the sympathy out of us.

Momma had covered the stuffed bird with a wide strip of cheesecloth and then carefully slid him into the oven before I cleared my throat and…

But wait. For you to understand my Christmas miracle, you must first have privy to a bit of back-story, and then you can judge for yourself whether you believe in miracles or not—my miracle, anyway.

It happened in the year of 1945, all because the nuns at St. Joseph’s Parochial school worked so diligently at transforming me from an impish tomboy into a sweetly sanctimonious child of piety—a necessary chore if I was to receive my very first Holy Communion with the rest of the class. To a second grader, ever ready for the recess bell, the catechism class preceding recess each day was a long and tedious interruption to my normal thought processes. The empty swings and see-saws beckoned to me like the glittering Rialto Theatre sign downtown whenever a double feature Western was showing.  As I stared longingly out the window at the playground, I had thought more than once that Sister Margaret would actually jerk my waist-length pigtails out at the roots and wave them over her head like an Indian on the warpath. Once, when I was fed up with her “pigtail yanking” I wound my braids into tight little knots over my ears and used dozens of Grandma’s giant hairpins to stake them down. Let her try and yank them now! … I thought, as I slid into my desk that morning, grinning like my fat Aunt Hester after her second teacup of Grandpa’s homemade grape juice. It wasn’t long before I glanced away from my playground vigil and saw Sister Margaret coming at me; her wrinkled witches’ fingers coiled and ready to ensnare what? Staring down at me, her face grew redder and redder, but then one eye suddenly formed an evil squint and her thin mouth twitched into a tight-cheeked grin. Her raised claw began its descent and my wide stare following it until my eyes crossed and her palm landed on my forehead like a giant suction cup, her craggy fingers twisting mercilessly into my luxuriant little blanket of reddish brown bangs. I locked my jaws to keep my teeth from clattering as she yanked my little head up and down, backward and forward, to and fro  … until I cried out “Damn it! That hurts!” … which got me a trip to the office for a good switching, administered by the head disciplinarian, Mother Superior, a woman twice as bent on torturing St. Joseph’s defenseless little urchins as was Sister Margaret.

I’m telling you this so that you will know what I went through in order to receive my first Holy Communion, which is a blessed and colossal event in Catholicism and, despite Sister Margaret’s tormenting, was extremely important to me, too. For those of you who do not know, the process leading up to Communion can be somewhat confusing to a child, even frightening.  First, one must confess his/her sins to the priest.  I don’t know about other seven year-old girls, but I couldn’t think of a single sin that I had committed—other than the Venial sin of being born—that would cast me into purgatory much less condemn me to hell.

So, kneeling in the confessional, with the priest on one side of the wall and me on the other, I committed the sin of making up sins.  I stole a green crayon from my sister, when she had actually loaned it to me upon request.  I sassed my mother, when that is something kids in my family never dared do.  I had unkind thoughts about … I rattled off a slew of names … the only ones that actually needed absolution were my bad thoughts about Sister Margaret and Mother Superior.

Anyway, I was absolved of my sins, fasted after rising the next morning, donned my beautiful white communion dress and wispy organza veil and, along with my similarly attired peers, had my First Communion at Holy Mass—the Body and Blood of Christ, by way of the perfectly round and flat little wafer that the priest produced from a beautiful golden chalice and administered to those of us kneeling at the church’s railing in front of the altar.  I relished the feeling of peace and happiness that came over me immediately after Holy Communion—the miracle of faith doing its work, but my miracle was still to come.…

If you like this story, click on cover to purchase Dot Ryan's Corrigan's Pool!

In another week, school would let out for the long Christmas holidays and, despite my tendency to be a mischievous tom-boy, seemingly more interested in play than anything else, I was very much looking forward to Christmas Day when I could receive the blessed sacrament of Holy Communion on Jesus’ very own birthday.

So, on Christmas morning, I jumped from bed, dressed for church, grabbed a banana for breakfast, shot out the door ahead of my older sister, and headed for our little wood-framed church a mile or so down the road.  We had opened our presents (always sparse in those days) on Christmas Eve, a traditional family event we called Christmas Tree, when relatives gathered to exchange mostly gifts of clothing and food—most folks in our small, farm and ranch community were still wearing homemade clothes and eating out of their Victory Gardens, although World War II had all but ended with Japan’s surrender in August of that year.  Half way to church, I stumbled to a stop and stared at the partially eaten banana in my hand.  What had I done?!  Oh, No!  I had unwittingly put food in my stomach before I was to receive Holy Communion, and now I would not be able to partake of this holiest of blessings on Jesus’ very own birthday!  “A person who is to receive the Most Holy Eucharist is to abstain for at least one hour before Holy Communion from any food and drink, except for only water and medicine.”  That was the rule!

Sister Margaret had never been able to make me cry, but I did now, as my older sister overtook and passed me by, motioning for me to hurry. I lagged farther and farther behind, kicking at the deep sand of the road as I went, so dejected that I actually ignored a horned toad that scurried across my shoe. Normally, I would have poked lightly at him with a long stick until I had provoked him into spitting at me. But my day seemed so empty now that I couldn’t give him a second glance. I had never been so crushed. There would be other Holy Communions, but I would have to wait an entire year before I could receive Christ on His very own birthday! My heart seemed ready to burst with my unhappiness—a year was a lifetime to a seven year-old girl.

A block from church, I began to mop the tears from my face, dampening the sleeves of my heavy woolen sweater, shivering with the cold of the bleak, damp day.  I had the hiccups, something that always happened when I cried.  With my head still hung, I aimed the toe of my scuffed brown shoe at a little ridge of windblown sand but, instead of kicking it, I came to an abrupt halt, feeling my eyes literally bug at the object protruding from the sand—a thin, white wafer, perfectly round and flat and stamped with an emblem of a dove, wings open, and hovering over a chalice!

I only have bits and pieces of memory after that. Like in a dream, I saw myself go to my knees, take up the Miraculous Offering in the cold fingers of both my hands and place it on my tongue. “Jesus loves little children … knows their joy and their pain,” my mother often told me.

Then I’m in church, my head spinning with the miracle of the Holy Communion wafer melting on the roof of my mouth. Mass had begun and I tiptoed to the end of the very last pew and wedged myself next to Mrs. Sasson, a childless widow who lived in the oldest house in town and sold eggs and starter chicks for a living—Grandma bought starter chicks from Mrs. Sasson and when they had grown a few inches, turned them loose in the barnyard to peck and scratch and prance until they became either good laying hens or candidates for the dumpling pot.  I couldn’t see over the crowd to the altar and Father’s microphone was on the fritz again, as was the heating system, for the church was freezing cold; so I let Mrs. Sasson put her arm around me and I settled against the big comfortable cushion of her body. She continuously petted my shoulder and every now and then brushed my shabby bangs away from my eyes. I thought of the baby chicks basking in the warmth of the big round incubator in her kitchen, and felt just like them. When she shook me awake, the church was empty and my older sister was glaring down at me like I’d just set the place on fire. I jumped up and ran all the way home, well ahead of her.

When Momma turned away from the stove and saw me staring at her from the kitchen door, I blurted everything out. Before Mamma could say a word, my sister burst into the room, pointing at me. “She did it again, Momma! She fell asleep in church the minute she got there—late, as usual, too!”

I was glad she hadn’t heard what I had just told Mamma. We were as close as two sisters could be, but not when she was mad at me.  Mamma immediately sent her to the dining room to set the table, then handed me a dishtowel and motioned toward the pots and pans draining on the rack. We stood side by side, drying. Finally she looped her towel over her shoulder and brushed my bangs out of my eyes.

“We’ll have to trim those a little before school starts, or else Sister Margaret will have a field day,” she said, smiling, then “Do you think you might have dreamed your miracle, Dot? Or maybe you were thinking of another story to write for me … and maybe you thought so hard about it that it seemed real. That happens sometimes, you know.”

“But Mamma, I couldn’t make up such a story! That would really be a sin, a bad one, if I said something about Jesus that wasn’t true.”  I was suddenly glad that I hadn’t told her the rest of my miracle—how not a grain of that cold, damp sand had clung to my Miracle as I lifted it up to gaze in awe at its shimmering whiteness … felt a soothing heat radiating from it, warming my cold fingers and then my lips as I touched it to my mouth.

The look on my face as I hung my head, must have affected Mamma, for she quickly hugged me to her.

“You know what, Dot? I do believe you. Why shouldn’t I, when I’ve experienced many miracles myself. You were one, your brother and sisters were others.  Were it not for miracles, your sister would have died of diphtheria, and then you, when you had pneumonia when you were just a month old.  You were so tiny and sick … the doctor came and said you would be gone by morning.  But I sat up all night, making mustard plasters to cover your little chest, praying, and applying hot towels over those plasters until your chest loosened and you coughed up the pneumonia that had slowly been drowning you.  That was a miracle, pure and true, and there were many more to follow.”  She bent and kissed my cheek.  “Miracles happen in everyone’s lives everyday, but sometimes we just don’t recognize them.  Maybe it’s only through the blessing of a child’s innocence that miracles such as yours happen.  Too bad we can’t hold on to that kind of purity of heart and soul as we grow into adults.” She hugged me again, and then sent me into the dining room to help my sister set our Christmas table.

Many, many, years have passed since then and, with that special child’s innocence that Momma spoke of having dissolved with the years, I often wonder if my miracle was simply the dream of an over imaginative child.  If so, it is one that is as real to me today as it way then.  Or could it be that the actual event contributes to my reoccurring dream of it?  I’m not sure anymore.  I only know that it continues to contribute to my everlasting faith in something much more important than me—dream or no dream.  Come to think of it, isn’t that what Christmas is really all about for all of us?

Dot Ryan, author of the historical novel, Corrigans’ Pool, attributes her lifelong interest in history to the diverse cultures and personalities of her Irish and German grandmothers, both of whom came from pioneering backgrounds and had many tales that had passed down from generation to generation.  Because of these two incredibly strong women, Dot’s ardor for writing and researching began early in her childhood, although neither love was validated until she had raised a family of her own and finally completed her first novel, Corrigans’ Pool.  Dot and her husband, Sam, make their home in “The Sparkling City by the Sea,” Corpus Christi, Texas near their sons and daughters and grandchildren.  She is busy writing her second and third works of historical fiction, one of which is the upcoming sequel to Corrigans’ Pool.  To learn more about Dot, and read Part One of the sequel, visit her website at dotryanbooks.com.

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Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays asks you to:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!
  • Please avoid spoilers!
  • My two (2) “teaser” sentences for today:

    “With my fingertip, I traced a drop of perspiration snaking down her neck. Even with an open window and the cool plaster of the thick palace walls, the room was still hot.”

    (from page 21 of The Lost Diary of Don Juan by Douglas Carlton Abrams)

    This book is the absolute bomb. I’ll have a formal review for it shortly, but this is a terrific read so far. Hey, did you know they’re turning this book into a movie? Stay tuned for more news on that.

    BTW, Douglas is on a virtual book tour with Pump Up Your Book Promotion and what better way to kick off his tour with a little taste of great things to come here! If you want to visit his tour stops, visit www.virtualbooktoursforauthors.wordpress.com. If you would like to find out more about Douglas, visit his website at www.lostdiaryofdonjuan.com.

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