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Review: The New England Romance Collection

I hate to say it, but this collection of Christian Fiction romance stories was the straw that broke the camel’s back. (Although, I should really credit one of the Amish romance novelists with weighing down the camel in the first place.) I avoided sunburn and heatstroke by curling up indoors with The New England Romance Collection on my summer break. Let’s dive in to what I found.

What Worked

  • First and foremost, these five ladies wrote novellas, found agents, and published their manuscripts. Kudos to Susan Page Davis, Darlene Franklin, Pamela Griffin, Lisa Harris, and Lynette Sowell for that! It takes a lot of hard work, focus, and dedication to complete a work of this length.
  • The purpose of encouraging other Christian women in their faith clearly drove these five authors in their writing. Regardless of the execution, I believe these women wrote with pure hearts and an admirable goal.

What Could Improve

  • Unclear Settings: The book’s back cover provides the most clarity for the time and place where each story occurs. The stories themselves do not contain enough unique descriptions to differentiate this book from the thousands of others on the shelves. In addition, the descriptions in these books rely heavily on the visual sense. Unfortunately, the simple visuals actually prevent the reader from getting drawn into the story.
  • You Told Me Too Much: What is the first rule of writing? Show, don’t tell. Now, I find it easier to say that rule than to accomplish it, but that rule separates diaries from prestigious magazines. Unfortunately, The New England Romance Collection tells the reader setting, emotion, and character development far more often than it shows the reader. By telling instead of showing, the authors actually prevent readers from putting on the characters’ shoes and walking around.

Why Does Walking Around in the Character’s Shoes Matter?

When readers can’t immerse themselves in the story, they can’t learn the lessons the characters learn, either. Bringing readers along on a character’s emotional journey allows readers to learn the lessons for themselves. Don’t we usually learn better from experience than from rules and advice? If it’s true for a parent trying to keep their child from touching a hot stove, it’s true for the author trying to lead people in a deeper relationship with God.

Hope Exists for Romance

If Christian Fiction Romance authors focus on vivid sensory details, we can vastly improve the genre. (Of course, editors and publishers have a hand in promoting immersive books, and that’s a different issue.) I believe improving the quality of the writing would start bringing a wider audience into the genre. That wider audience means more people who can be shown Christ. A win-win!

If you are looking for a romance book that handles sensory details well, check out Jan Karon’s Mitford series. For a different take on The New England Romance Collection, the Goodreads reviewers note what they valued and liked in the book. How do you feel about immersive sensory details in books? Let me know in the comments!

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Review: At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon

I wanted to start this Friday’s review of Christian Fiction with first book in Jan Karon’s Mitford series, At Home in Mitford. The series is one of my favorites, as I mentioned in last week’s blog post. This week, we’re talking about what makes At Home in Mitford great.

The Characters

  • Father Tim: The main character of the Mitford series is Father Tim, an Episcopalian priest with a heart of gold and a stomach for a few too many sweets. He’s well rounded in more ways than one; he has a heart of gold that comes off as gruff under stress, and his affinity for sweets and concern for his parishioners’ feelings often leads him to neglect his own health. He is lovable and flawed. For someone in their sixties, Father Tim has a lot of growing left to do, and that makes for a fascinating book.
  • Cynthia: She draws cats and moles for her children’s books. She forgets to take the pink curlers out of her hair. She sits on the Gospel side of the Episcopalian church. Father Tim’s new neighbor is as interesting as she is a mess. Cynthia provides a lovely catalyst for Father Tim’s character development, but she also works through several deep issues of her own like divorce and barrenness.
  • Dooley: With whom do you foil a highly educated, very reserved, proper priest? You foil him with a red-haired, freckle-faced mountain boy with a penchant for fighting. Dooley is one of my favorite characters in all of literature. He has a deeply broken past for one so young, but he also runs around as an energetic promise of hope for the future. His story is a big part of my interest in adoption. Props to Mrs. Karon for discussing a complex topic in such a loving way.
  • Barnabus: A dog who responds to Scripture… can you get any more unique than that? (Side note: I tried this on my parents’ dog Teddy. I got mixed results. Chalk it up to little dog syndrome?) Any author who can so clearly articulate a dog’s personality should get major quality points, in my opinion.

The Setting

  • Mitford: Mrs. Karon created a town that might as well be a character in and of itself. The shops reflect their owners’ complex personalities with vivid, specific details. Consequently, it looks like a capsule of a perfect town, but its edges teem with the realities of life that often get swept under the rug. Thanks to Father Tim’s relationships with his parishioners, the readers get to see both the perfection and what it hides.

The Style

  • Humor: First, I love the ironic, sarcastic humor around Father Tim. Then, there’s Dooley’s hilarious childhood antics. Barnabus instigates some of the most outlandish predicaments that every dog owner will recognize as possible. All in all, this homey humor appeals to my desire to laugh at the ridiculousness of life and the characters we are all surrounded by.
  • Dialect: Despite hailing from Mississippi, Father Tim speaks with, and thus narrates with, a measured, educated dialect. In contrast, we meet Dooley, whose impoverished mountain relatives exacerbate his youthful grammar mistakes. The town residents’ individual dialects reflect their personal histories, which imparts a ton of information to the reader before the characters expressly discuss their backgrounds. I admire Mrs. Karon’s ability to dissect the tiniest differences in dialect. In addition, the text reads effortlessly.

If you are interested in reading At Home in Mitford, you can find the book for purchase here. I also purchased this audio version by using an Audible credit, and the narration reflected Father Tim’s essence well.

What do you think of these home-style reads? Do you prefer something fast-paced and hard-hitting? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

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Location Provides Identity

InductionI have a particular identity at home as my parents’ daughter. I am the peacemaker, the one who needs protecting. At school, I was the planning one, the one who made good grades. At work, I am the well-recommended one, the one for whom teal seems an appropriate color. Growing up in church, I was my mother’s daughter, the one who stood next to her mom on stage every week in choir. When the church began to change (or perhaps it was me changing,) I lost my home church and big chunk of my identity with it.

I don’t believe I am the only one who has aspects of her identity caught up in the places she lives and frequents. There is something about the protection of a building, or the vastness of an ocean, or the heights of a mountain, that provide stability to our souls.

When I started writing my book, I focused heavily on a hospital as the setting and identity-creator for my main characters. In fact, the hospital became a character who influenced their relationship as much as any other human in the story. As the story progressed, I added home as a change of scenery. However, as I reflect on how my identity is wrapped up in the places I inhabit, I see how important home is to the couple in the story. Home is just as much a character influencing their relationship as the hospital. The couple works together and lives together, but they possess very different identities.

Old HouseI think my brother substantiates my same-place, different-identities theory. We grew up in the same home and went to the same schools. Where I sought my family’s peace, my brother never feared to bring problems into the open. Where I was studious at school, he was the class clown who made good grades without trying. Where I was my mother’s daughter at church, he was the witty teenager who spent his free time teaching kindergarteners. To have always inhabited the same spaces, my brother and I are very different people.

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Thoughts upon finishing Stygo by Laurie Hendrie

  • Depending on chapter, it mixes 3rd person and 1st person narrators. The 3rd person sections, especially, have noticeable “you”s that stand out because of the seeming inconsistency of the perspective. However, the “you”s work colloquially to boost the voice of the town.
  • The language throughout the book is very colloquial, particularly in the metaphors people use. For instance, the narrator says, “you couldn’t get there if you didn’t own wheels,” rather than if you didn’t own a car (Hendrie 3).
  • Trouble is on every page. The first page of the book has, “it seemed to Lizzy that, with the exception of the rattler scare, the first year of her marriage to Jake Loper was passing just as smoothly as every other year of her life had,” (Hendrie 3).
  • The story sucks you in with the language and quirky characters.
  • Each chapter ends with nothing much seeming to have happened, yet the characters have clearly changed. One event in the story changes the speaker or lets out the events of the past. (Ex. Frank and Willa Moon)
  • The narrators are unreliable. (Ex. Billy claims he is not grieving the death of his twin brother, yet that is exactly what he does the whole story.)
  • There is a full picture of the town when the book is finished. Readers see everyone wanting to leave the town and everyone staying put in the end.
  • The employment record at the end of the book listing all the characters was helpful for explaining who’s who and where everyone ended up. It perhaps could have gone at the beginning for clarity (particularly for the ages, as many have characteristics that separate the tone of voice from the actual age of the speaker,) but Lizzy’s introduction of everyone in the first chapter sets up the discomfort that Frank resolves in the last chapter, as well as the conflict and characters for all of the stories in between.
  • There is a theme of danger tied to trying to get out of the town. There is also a motif of things being coated (by sugar dust, bugs, etc.)
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Unexpected Hospital Visit

This past weekend, I unexpectedly got to observe a hospital. A close relation had to go to the emergency room because they could not breathe. As their condition stabilized, I visited them in both the Critical Care Unit and a normal room. This gave me a chance to observe a hospital that was different from the one I grew up around.

In terms of the aesthetics of the hospital, the new hospital (B) felt darker than the hospital I grew up around (A). Perhaps it was the maroon color dominating the cabinets and walls, or it could have been fewer florescent lights overhead to brighten the hallway, but overall it gave hospital B a slightly gloomier look. I remember hospital A being so much brighter and covered with windows that let in light from all directions. Hospital B, at least for the rooms I saw, had windows looking out onto black roofs that did not reflect light, and the walls of the building prevented bright sunlight from entering the room half of the day. I do not recall the windows being anywhere other than patients’ rooms, either, in hospital B. However, though hospital B felt aesthetically older to me than hospital A, it did seem to have new equipment to take care of the patients.

The most shocking aspect of my visit to hospital B was the lack of activity and patients. While I suppose on the one hand this could imply that the residents of town are healthy and not in need of the hospital, I was much more inclined to believe that the hospital was so ineffective that everyone went north to the major hospitals instead. In my experience, if a family had money and ability to go to one of the major city hospitals like hospital A, they would never go to hospital B. In fact, if it hadn’t been a life or death situation, the patient I knew would not have gone to hospital B. Regardless, hospital B felt empty and quiet to me. The floor I walked through seemed to have only one other patient besides the one I was visiting. The nurses sat at the nurses’ station talking with nothing to do. Though technicians came in frequently to run tests or give treatments to the patient I was visiting, I only saw a floor nurse come in once, and she was completely unaware of what the previous nurse had told the patient in regard to her water intake. Overall, my visit to hospital B in many ways did not match the descriptions of at-capacity hospitals that I was familiar with.

In defense of hospital B, the nurses, technicians, and dietary service workers that I met were all very friendly. The lack of other patients made them much more relaxed in working with the patient I knew. Though communication could definitely have used an improvement, I found no other fault in the workers while I was there.

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Interview with a Nurse

1). What has been your most memorable experience working in a hospital? 
(Feel free to include more than one.)

When I delivered a baby in the elevator at [a local hospital]. I hadn’t even graduated nursing school yet (I had a year to go). That was terrifying.
Working the ER at [a local hospital] and being the first shift to call in a Lifeforce air medical for a critical transport. I still get chill bumps when a helo lands or launches. There’s always tragedy on board, yet a little bit of hope too.

2). What is the interaction like between nurses and environmental services, dietary, or transport workers? 
Do the different groups mingle, or do the jobs keep everyone relatively separated? 
In the cases where workers do interact, does everyone usually get along?
Nurses respect everyone; they can’t work without a symbiotic relationship. However, they will ‘cut you’ if you’re not doing your job.

3). What is the most unique aspect of working in a hospital?
It never, ever stops. Constant activity, like a bee hive. The level of crazy has constantly increased over the past 30 years. 

4). Do people usually have a sense of pride in their work as they help others, or does that tend to vary from person to person?
In general, yes. Burnout in the first 5 years is widespread. People are ‘Called’ into healthcare, much like ministers are. The problem comes when they answer the call for money, rather than edification.
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Interview 1

Interview with a former financial VP for a local hospital

What is the title for housekeepers/ cleaners in a hospital? Would they be assigned wings/ wards or be everywhere as needed?

Title: Environmental Services

Assigned a floor/ wing/ section; some quick cleaners are hired to speed up the turnover between patients in at-capacity hospitals such as this one

The General Medical floor would be where patients go after the ICU; patients often have severe infections, pneumonia, are recovering from cardiac ICU, etc. A homeless patient could be in the General Medical floor to recover from sunburn, dehydration, malnourishment, etc.

How was the hospital affected by the 2008 market crash? Did the patient’s needs change?

Volumes fell: patients with elective services (like knee surgery, etc.) put off the procedures.

More patients were unemployed, so more patients did self-pay or charity care. Charity Care: patients under certain poverty guidelines written by the government and the hospital corporation provide for the care of people who cannot pay. This hospital has a very generous charity care program.

A homeless patient brought in by someone willing to pay for his care would initially be set up as self-pay, then would have to give the other person access to his account to cover the bill. If the homeless patient had insurance but did not have the card with him and refused to sign for the other person to cover the bill, this could cause a problem.

For workers, jobs could easily be obtained in July 2008 before the crash. After the crash, retirees were trying to return because their spouses lost their retirement.

Were there any improvement plans for workers in 2008?

There was not a formalized plan from corporate at this time. However, every department was always looking for ways to be more efficient. They focused largely on clinical outcomes and services.

Did the election of Obama as president affect anything at HCA? Did the outrageous oil prices?

Obama’s later Healthcare Act had a small impact on decreasing bad debt and charity care, thus increasing volume. However, the Act increased deductibles/ co-insurance for everyone. By 2016, several insurance plans went bankrupt across the country. No real changes beyond his influence on the economy occurred until the Healthcare Act.

Gas prices had a much greater effect on the workplace. Employees were struggling to get to work. Because the hospital was open 24/7,  there were not many opportunities to rearrange shifts or to work from home. Further, there was no way to add the correct amount of money to a person’s paycheck to cover the extra cost of gas. Thus, the hospital tried to connect people for ride sharing and carpooling.

What is the general feel of hospital culture? Do patients and housekeeping see each other? Would security be roaming the halls?

Environmental Services and patients interact when Environmental Services come in to clean the rooms. Environmental Services also check with nurses for special needs among the patients.

Security would be stationed in Emergency Department, walk the main floors and hallways, and walk/ drive/ bike around the building. However, they would not walk patient hallways unless an incident occurred.

Other jobs where patients and workers interact include imaging technicians, transporters, dietary workers, phlebotomists, pharmacy workers, IT people, and materials management. Transporters, dietary, and materials management would not require a college degree. Transporters would take patients downstairs when they leave the hospital or move them between floors and units. Dietary workers would bring up meals and talk to patients to ensure that they have everything they need. Materials managements would be responsible for purchasing supplies and bringing them up to the correct floors.

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Prayer and Setting

My professor and Madeleine L’Engle talk a lot about praying for one’s work, that then one can serve the work and the work becomes bigger than the writer. I didn’t really understand what this meant. I had prayed for my stories in the past and that seemed like a natural idea to me, especially since I try to talk explicitly about faith in most of my writing. Serving the work was a little confusing, but it seemed to reminisce of those times when I would be writing and inspiration would strike and I would write for hours more. Thinking about my book idea, I knew it could be bigger than me, but I also knew it was nowhere near that stage yet.

Two nights ago, I realized that in the two years I had been turning this book idea over in my mind, I had never prayed about it. I was stuck with a main conflict, a connecting theme, a list of characters, and two introductory chapters that I hated. I could write a more convincing section on the father than on the two main characters, but I knew it wasn’t his story. Hence the reason I decided to work from the middle out for Practicum: if I knew how Dawson and Cadence acted in the hospital, I could reverse engineer their characters in the beginning. Even with all of that in my mind, though, the story was more hole than whole.

Two nights ago I wrote in my prayer journal for God to please use this work for His glory.

Yesterday, out of nowhere, I suddenly wondered if I should change the time period of the setting. Though this idea probably stemmed from an initial desire to avoid interviewing people (even if they were my boyfriend’s parents), I came up with two pages worth of ideas in about ten minutes. The economic recession and my firsthand knowledge of what the city was like in the late 2000s provided tension through the roof and brought the outside world in ten times better than the relative calm of the 80s. Changing the setting made the rest of the story make sense.

I know praying for God to use my writing for His glory will not magically work every time like it did yesterday. Even so, I believe that, over time, the work will be bigger than me. Thus, every baby step forward I make in this process is ultimately for His glory.