Stealing from Life: Don’t Forget the Prankster

I will admit that I’m writing this post as a not-so-gentle nudge to get back to work on the 2nd book in the David and Saul series — my lack of alone time in summer wreaks havoc on my concentration. Also, I’ve told a story from my Hart side that influenced a scene in It Is You (the 1st book), and it’s time my Steenwyk side got a little glory.

The book series takes place around 1,000 BCE. Things were not luxurious for most of my characters. Theirs was a survival economy and survival was tough. So I’ve tended to make everyone focused on survival all the time, with very little lightheartedness once they reach early teen years.

But I forget about my grandfather, John Steenwyk. He was born in 1915 in Chicago, but moved to Byron Center (when it was all celery farms) soon after. They were, apparently, impressively poor. Even other poor people remember thinking, “At least we aren’t as bad up as the Steenwyks.”

And there were a lot of them — seven kids to feed and put to work to survive.

Yet Grandpa, the oldest, was a lively and curious kid who loved building things, messing around with electricity and chemistry, and playing pranks. The quotes below are in his own words.

Four of us boys all slept in one bedroom in two beds. My brother Herm slept with me and brother Joe slept with Lou in the other bed. Sometimes Herm and I would talk together about some scary things, like falling stars, to get Joe and Lou in a scary mood. One night I started telling a scary story about the stars falling down, and the boys, Joe and Lou, asked questions, you know. “Does it make a big noise when they fall?” They fired all kinds of questions at me. So I said, “Yes, sometimes they do.” Well, finally I said, “Well, let’s go to sleep now.”

Herm and I had made up a plan together. I gave him a very heavy book and I said, “You bang this book together when I give you a nudge.” Now, I had about 4 or 5 dry cell batteries under the bed with wires connected going up the window to a light I rigged outside the window. When the boys were just about nodding off, I gave Herm a nudge with my elbow so that he would bang that book together. Meantime, I snapped that switch off and on and that bulb shone and flashed in that dark room real bright. Those boys were so scared, especially Lou. He thought the house was on fire.   They were scared stiff! They thought sure that a star had fallen. 

Herm told me the same story at Grandpa’s funeral; it was a great memory of his boyhood. He said that the book closing was as loud as a gunshot and Joe and Lou thought the world was ending.

What did I learn from this? Even in desperate situations, people like to mess with each other, especially boys. Given that this David story is mostly about male persons, I can’t forget this.

Grandpa didn’t grow out of pranking, either. During the Depression, when he was 18, he joined/was drafted into the Civilian Conservation Corps, and cut down the forest to build roads in northern Michigan. He wound up with a group of only guys, living in barracks, doing hard, physical work all day.

Another story of the CCC Camp: On Saturdays we didn’t have to work all day. We could take the afternoons off and if you wanted to go to town and they would take you in the truck. Some of the guys would go and get some booze to drink. One Saturday evening, there were some fellows who had come back from town. They had been drunk and had gotten in a fight in town. Then me and a couple of pals and another fellow who liked to fix radios too, Joe Hamilton from Detroit, decided to play a hoax using my radio.
Joe had given me some parts so I could fix my old radio. Way out there in the sticks my old radio didn’t get the best reception but by adding a tube in there, I made my radio more powerful so I could get reception none of the other radios could get. We could even get police broadcasts on my radio and pretty plain too. So we made up together with a guy, Bucky O’Connor, who had a big voice like a truckdriver, a plan to pull off a hoax on those guys who had gotten drunk and in a fight.
Bucky was the broadcaster. I had run a fine wire over the ceiling from my bed towards Bucky’s bed, connected to an earphone which he was going to use as a microphone. He was going to pretend to be sleeping in his bed with the comforters thrown over his head. I had the radio. The plan was that when I gave the signal, three taps on the floor, he would begin his broadcasting.
So first I turned my radio on and got some regular police calls and the guys who had gotten drunk were playing cards at a table and they didn’t pay much attention. Then I gave the signal and there was a call about “a drunken brawl in Nigawni, Michigan, and the perpetrator alleged to be in the CCC Camp” and that sort of thing. So then those guys pricked up their ears and started to get really worried. Then, to tease them a little, I would turn on the regular police broadcast for a while, and then a bit later, give the signal for Bucky to do his broadcast again. Now I had about 30 of those guys going; they stopped playing cards and said, “Now, listen! Listen!” And then they all looked at the guy who had been involved in the fight and he said there were others who had been involved too.
Pretty soon, Bucky accidentally disconnected the wire to his earphone microphone and didn’t know it. My radio went dead and there was a muffled mumbling coming out from under Bucky’s comforter: “Calling all cars! Calling all cars!” Someone ran over to Bucky’s bed and pulled off the comforter and there was Bucky with that microphone, trying to broadcast.
All we had to do was connect that wire and we were in business again. The fellow who had been so scared from our hoax wanted to pull that same hoax on two other guys that were involved too. So we could continue the hoax when those guys came in.

Then everyone wanted to broadcast too. Half of the guys wanted to broadcast. Some had guitars; some had mouth organs and other things. The other half would go outside and stand in the cold snow listening. So that was some excitement there that they had never experienced before.

I have to add a prankster to this manuscript. Of course, there was no electricity to aid in mischief, but I’ll think of something. I’m at the point in the story when David is first living in the caves in Judah. He’s hiding out, but more and more men escape their desperate situations and come to him. And wind up in an even more desperate situation. It’s not like he has giant reserves of food for them, yet, as their leader, he has to figure out how to provide for them and (in my version) to do it as honestly as possible. Even so, there’s got to be some nonsense happening, just to blow off steam, and to make David frustrated.

J.K. Rowling used the Prankster to great effect, with Peeves and the Weasley twins. So today, while I go about my business, I instruct my imagination to get to work on some first century BCE pranks.

Apt Analogies

When an analogy works, it’s a beautiful thing. The reader has both a richer and more precise understanding of the situation being described.

This is my new favorite, from The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements.

The author, Sam Kean, is talking about the element gadolinium and its many unpaired electrons (he credits this brilliant analogy to Wolfgang Pauli in 1925):

Despite the willingness of electrons to bond with other atoms, within their own atoms, they stay maximally far apart. Remember that electrons live in shells, and shells further break down into bunks called orbital, each of which can accommodate two electrons. Curiously, electrons fill orbitals like patrons find seats on a bus: each electron sites by itself in an orbital until another electron is absolutely forced to double up (p.170).

It’s rare that a book on science manages to make me laugh out loud, but this is so perfect, even a humanities person (and ex-public transportation rider) like myself can instantly picture what’s going on. I totally get it. And can probably even remember it.

Following are three of my analogical attempts. The first one occurs when Saul is first introduced to David. David has just walked into Saul’s receiving room. The place is unusually crowded because people want to see whether this kid will be able to do anything to help the king, which makes Saul feel self-conscious and paranoid and angry that all these people are speculating so freely about his problems.

The whispering in the room that had started up as soon as Saul returned to his throne got louder, worming into Saul’s ears, swirling in his head like dry leaves.

Looking at it all by itself, naked there on the page, I realize that I’m mixing metaphors, with both worming and swirling. It might still work, because there’s a circularity to both motions, but I think I’ll have to decide which I like better and only keep one. It’ll be the dry leaves. But it’s still too wordy. I’ve got a little more work to do there.

The next one comes courtesy of Jonathan, reminiscing with his father about a particularly satisfying defeat of the Philistines:

“And then the Lord made the rest of their army panic until they were swinging their swords like blind men trying to kill bees.”

That’s a pretty good one, although it reminds me a bit too much of me standing at my open screen door yesterday and waving to my neighbor, but the wave turned into wild swiping when a bug flew too close to my face. If I looked even half as stupid as I felt, it had to be pretty funny.

The next one might be my favorite analogy in the entire manuscript. It’s certainly one of the earliest ones. I had this image in my head long before I started writing the Goliath scene.

Goliath was closer to the other end of the Israelite front line with his back to David. “I’m getting bored,” he shouted. “Maybe I should choose my own challenger. Someone from here.” He took a few running steps towards the army. “Or here.”

Wherever he aimed his body, the Israelite soldiers faded away and shifted like a flock of birds in the sky.

If you watched the “Murmuration” video about two young ladies kayaking and the flock of starlings that put on a spectacular shifting show, you know exactly what I had in mind. While googling about to find that video, I found out that murmuration isn’t just what they named that video, it’s the actual name for a flock of starlings. What a gorgeous term. It might tie with my usual favorite word, susurration (a soft rustling sound).

Then again, doing a search for “like,” so I could find all my analogies, I discovered yet another overused word in my manuscript. Will it ever end?

Hearing Their Story

According to this great TED talk by Andrew Stanton (of Toy Story and WALL-E fame), Mr. Rogers carried this quote around in his wallet: “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love, once you’ve heard they story.”

In the last twenty years, readers have definitely grown to love all kinds of characters who’ve traditionally been villains: vampires, thieves, werewolves, etc. I certainly found this to be true while writing the first David and Saul book: writing Saul, the “villain,” the “failure” of the piece, made me more sympathetic to him. In the first book, anyway, I find him a more interesting character than the upright David. (David gets more interesting in the 2nd book, when he has to compromise his very high principles in order to survive.)

Saul “fought against his enemies in every direction — against Moab, Ammon, Edom, the kings of Zobah, and the Philistines. And wherever he turned, he was victorious. He did great deeds and conquered the Amalekites, saving Israel from all those who had plundered them” (1 Sam. 14:47-48). Yet he’s remembered as a failure. The book of Chronicles (the point of which is to detail the reign of the kings of Israel) contains only the story of his death, nothing about the 42 years of his kingship.

The more I wrote in his point of view, the more compassion I felt for him. His main qualification for being king, other than God choosing him, was that he was tall, head and shoulders taller than everyone else. He seems to have been a good son and a hard-working farmer, but when he and his servant went out looking for some lost donkeys, the servant was the one who thought of seeking out a seer and who had silver to offer Samuel. After Samuel privately anointed Saul and told him the Lord was appointing him leader of all Israel, God had to change Saul’s heart (1 Sam. 10:9) to get him with the program.

Even after this and after all the signs Samuel predicted came true, after prophesying (and being made fun of for prophesying) and having the Spirit of God fill him, he didn’t tell his family what had really happened. The next time he’s anointed, it’s going to be at an official ceremony, but Saul hides in the baggage. And I don’t blame him. Who else gets to start his coronation by hearing how upset God is that the Israelites wanted a king, how God felt it was them rejecting him? Not exactly a rah-rah endorsement.

At first, Saul does the smart thing. “When Saul returned home to Gibeah, a band of men whose hearts God had touched became hi constant companions” (1 Sam. 10:29). There were some haters, but Saul ignored them. When there’s a threat to an Israelite town, he answers in dramatic fashion: cuts up the oxen he’s plowing his father’s field with and sends it around Israel as an incentive to get people to come and fight. They do. There’s a tremendous victory and another public ceremony to crown him king.

Depending on what the “then” in 1 Samuel 12:1 means, it could be that right after Samuel re-re-re-anoints Saul, Samuel gives a long speech detailing precisely what is wrong with the Israelites for the extreme offense of asking for a king. (Or it could take place at some unknown time later in Saul’s reign. Storytelling in the Old Testament is not necessarily linear.) Samuel gets the Lord to send thunder and rain and the people are terrified and cry out, “Pray to the Lord your God for us, or we will die!…For now we have added to our sins by asking for a king.”

No matter when the above scene happens, Saul is most likely standing right there. No matter what kind of character you bring to the situation, that’s a lousy position to be put in.

So I feel for the guy. He was given a job that he didn’t want, that he was unprepared for and that the people were unprepared for. No wonder he so often responded to situations out of fear and insecurity.

At the beginning of this post, I put quotes around “villain,” because I don’t think of Saul as a villain. I write him more as a foil for David because I have pity for him.

So the quote Mr. Rogers carried with him is true from the positive side, but also from the negative side. A couple of years ago, my book club read Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan. It takes place in post-WWII Mississippi, telling the story of a landowning white family and an African-American sharecropping family who each have a son who comes home from the war. There are a half-dozen points of view, half white, half black. It is a deep and gripping story. But there is a villain. The father of the landowner is evil. He isn’t given any redeeming characteristics that I can recall. He makes everyone’s lives miserable and sets into motion horrifying events. As we were discussing the book, one of us noted that the author had originally included some passages in that man’s point of view. My reaction was immediate and visceral: I was glad she took them out. I didn’t want his point of view, because that would make him human. I didn’t want to know his motivations or how his upbringing and experiences brought him to where he was at the time of the story. I just wanted to be free to hate him.

Are there stories you can think of that got you to feel sympathy for the villain? How about villains you’re happy to be free to hate?




Wonderful: Holy Laughter

I don’t always appreciate puns, but I love this book title: Between Heaven and Mirth. Appropriately, given the title, it’s about Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. I requested this book after seeing the author on the Colbert Report. It’s wonderful: full of jokes, but also discussion of why Christians have often thought they needed to be dour, and analysis of Scripture to restore what would’ve been funny to the people at the time.

It also reminds me of one of the best prayers I’ve been part of. When we lived in New York City, we belonged to All Angel’s Episcopal Church and were part of a great small group that met once a week for talk, Bible study and prayer. This night, we’d broken up into smaller groups for prayer. I was with two friends in a little hallway by the washing machine. One friend was praising God for His sweetness, which was lovely, but when she went on, “for your sweetness, your gooeyness, your frothy goodness,” we cracked up. Our friend was trying to give up sugar and, momentarily related all goodness to desserts. We couldn’t stop giggling and ended up thanking God for laughter and calling it a night. That prayer makes me happy every time I think of it.

Several years ago, on a tough Sunday of children’s church, unstoppable laughter during prayer was exactly what I needed. It was the first Sunday for a new three-year-old. A sweet little girl who didn’t care at all about what we were doing. She just wanted to do her own thing and explore the room and talk constantly about what she was experiencing. Which would have been fine, except that I also had to deal with 9-year-olds in the same group, and try to tell the story and keep order. I also believe no teenagers were in church that Sunday, so I didn’t have a helper. By the end of the service, I was frazzled. And then, during our intercessory prayer time, that same little girl burped. It was such an adorable little noise that I laughed. And, of course, the kids laughed. It was a cleansing laugh. I thanked God for it at the time, and I still do.

More recently (and before I read Between Heaven and Mirth), I went against type in my portrayal of the prophets in the David and Saul book. The usual image of an Old Testament prophet is of an angry man yelling at people to repent. My prophets are lighthearted and quick to laugh, not out of frivolity, but out of security.

David has escaped out his back window in the middle of the night and run away from King Saul, straight to the prophet Samuel. Saul figures out where David is and sends soldiers to capture him, but things take a surprising turn:

Samuel and Caleb strode towards the well, gathering other men along the way. There were fourteen of them by the time they reached Ramah’s outskirts. As the soldiers got closer, all the prophets did was stand arm-in-arm in a circle and sing. David couldn’t tell what they were singing, but snatches of melody made their way back to him and raised the hair on his forearms.

The army commander gave the signal, and the soldiers spread out in formation and unsheathed their weapons. The bronze and iron glinted like lightning in the sunshine, but the prophets didn’t acknowledge the soldiers in any way. When Saul’s men were mere steps away, the prophets broke apart and formed a line, but it was like no defensive line David knew of. Some of them stood with their arms raised to the heavens, others fell on the ground, pounding the earth with their fists, and still others whirled in wild circles, the hems of their robes flashing above their knees.

David watched, slack-jawed, as, one by one, the soldiers dropped their weapons and joined the men of God in their worship. Tears fell unchecked as he watched these rough soldiers be overcome by the Spirit of the Lord.

And then he laughed – not because the soldiers were making fools of themselves, but out of utter security in the Lord’s protection.

Anyone got any funny church stories to share?



Stealing from Life

I’m a thief.

I’ve stolen one line from a famous family story and used it in the novel I’m working on. Here’s the story in its more accurate version (to be followed by the pithier version that’s usually told).

In the last year of World War II, my father’s family fled the city of Utrecht (in the Netherlands) to his Tante Nell’s house, where they were also joined by his Tante Uut’s family. There were 25 people living/being hidden in this country house and Nell ran the place with military precision. One night, it was one of the kid’s jobs to do the dishes. He preferred not to. When Nell found the dishes undone, she went all over the house looking for the culprit. When it was determined that he was hiding in the little bathroom under the stairs, she stood in front of the door and made a speech about how it was important for everyone to do their job when it was required of them, and if they had to use the bathroom, they should do that on their own time.

The version my uncles always told was more dramatic. In that one, Tante Nell pounded on the door of the bathroom, yelling [language cleaned up a bit], “Poop on your own time!”

I stole just the last bit for a scene between Saul and David. They’ve both just returned from the battle after David killed Goliath. Saul was unable to sleep that night, obsessing about the song the women of every village they passed sang: “Saul has killed his thousands, but David his ten thousands,” which was literally impossible at that time, so it really burned.

Near dawn, Saul demands David be fetched to see whether the boy’s music will calm him down like it always used to:

The sky was still mostly dark when David finally arrived.

“You’re across the courtyard. What took so long?”

David cleared his throat. “My morning, um, attentions, my lord.”

“Piss on your own time,” Saul said. “Now that you’re a great hero and the new hope of all Israel, are you too important to play the harp for your king?”

It’s such a tiny thing, just five words, but I love slipping family lore into my works in progress. There’ll be more of these in the future, some funny, some more dramatic.

Feel free to tell me some of your family lore in return.


Wonderful: Saul’s Fortress

One of the best things about writing this novelization of the story of David and Saul is the research.

The world was very different 3,000 years ago (duh). To try to accurately portray what life was like, physically as well as culturally, I’ve gotten to do a lot of reading, a lot of Googling various obscure issues, like where is the nearest spring to Bethlehem, how far could a person walk in a day, what was Philistine armor like. I’ve even managed to use the Calvin College library without incurring any late fees (unlike when I was a student there).

There isn’t a ton of archeological information for that location and time period (approx. 1,000 BCE), so I get to make stuff up. But I’m always alert to new snippets of data.

Here’s how Saul’s fortress changed over the various drafts of the novel.

Early in my research, I found an online photo of a ruin said to be Saul’s fortress. The author said it was probably plain, nothing fancy or very large — not at all like the medieval castle we might imagine. All commentators agree that Saul, as Israel’s first king, was more like the top tribal chief than what we think of as a king. So my first imaginings of the fortress had it as one large building, a first floor and a second floor. First floor for public functions, including his receiving room/throne room, and second floor for private.

But then I read The Great Armies of Antiquity, by Richard A Gabriel. It described a building with casemate walls (inner and outer wall with stone filler in between) and a tower on each corner. So the fortress got a little larger and gained fortifications. In my imagination, the towers weren’t just tall, but they had low walls and crenellations on top so archers could fire at the enemy and then take cover. This is not in either the biblical or archeological record for that location, although there were fortresses at the time that had them.

I also imagined the fortress as being built up over time, my thinking being that the job evolved over the 40 or so years of his reign. When Saul first became king, he had the plain broad house, larger than a regular person’s house, but not out of the ordinary for a wealthy person. Then, as time went on, and the Philistines were a continuing threat, coming to within ten miles of Gibeah, Saul would’ve had the place built up. So I imagined a compound in a U shape: original house, a connecting long hall in the back to a new building the same size as the original. The king kept the throne room and private family quarters in the original house, used the hall for storage of taxes and tributes, and put servants next to the food storage on the first floor of the new building, armor bearers and some soldiers on the second floor. The cooking courtyard leads off this secondary building. A wall built at the front of these two structures contains a gate, much like a city gate, so visitors go through the gate, and through the interior courtyard before getting to Saul’s receiving room.

But then, today, while Googling water supplies near Gibeah, I found a link to a book that claims that there is only sufficient archeological evidence to support the existence of a single tower during the time period I need. Which I find more interesting. So now the fortress is the same as above except for one lone tower at the rear corner of the newer building (so the soldiers can get up there quickly and easily) that rises way above the city walls. There are stairs that lead around it on the inside, but once you get above the second floor, there are stones that jut out like ladder rungs, and the lookouts have to climb up the rest of the way.

Yes, I find this fun. But it also serves a purpose: to provide the reader with a richly detailed, plausible world. Soon, it’ll be in the hands of my beta readers and I’ll find out whether I succeeded. (Fingers crossed.)