Christmas Day and Joseph

An Excerpt from my novel, The Substance Hoped For:

Joseph had never before witnessed a birth. All he really knew about it was that it hurt a lot, unpleasant things could happen, and sometimes women died in the process.

Mary gasped, trying to save every ounce of strength for the next contraction. “Just hold my hand! Please!”

Hold her hand? Sure! He could do that. If a little hand-holding was all he could do for her right now, then hand-holding it would be. Simple enough!

These thoughts, of course, only lasted until the next contraction. At that time Mary would bear down with more than her powerful abdominal muscles. The whole body of a woman in labor contributes to the process of squeezing out a new life. Some were directly involved in the process. Other muscle groups fired into action in what might be called a sympathy contraction. Like the hands, for instance.

Eventually, the Baby was born. A boy. A SON! What to call him? Joseph then remembered what Mary had told him about the angel’s visit, the nature of this child, and what His name was to be. This son was not his and not his to name.

Not his son! The frustration of it angered him. His wife had had a son who was not his! Whose son? The Son of God. Well, he was sure that God must be very happy right now. Good for You, God. Cute Kid You’ve got there. Bring Him over any time. Always glad to see You and the Family.

But he couldn’t stay angry. The baby was beautiful. He couldn’t have imagined a lovelier child. Why was that? Because this was the Son of God? No. He had to admit that this particular little Boy wasn’t all that distinguishable from any other baby. He didn’t look especially holy or anything. What was it that stirred his soul?

It was fatherhood. That lucky little Kid would just have to get used to the idea that He had two fathers. One is up there, and the other is this carpenter down here. Ok, He wasn’t the issue of Joseph’s own body, but Joseph had helped bring Him into this world, cradling Him as He arrived. He would provide for Him, and do all of those things that earthly fathers did for their sons. He would be a good father to this Boy, one that…Yes! He would be the father that God Himself had intended for His Son!

Until this moment he had felt like an outsider, gamely struggling to put his doubts and fears away somewhere. He had not been able to outrun them, and they continually returned to plague him. Now that he had opened his mind to God, those fears were completely obliterated by God. His mind was swept clean of the debris of doubt.

The relief was so great that Joseph could scarcely keep from laughing out loud. As he drank in the sight of his new family in the straw, he imagined that someday this Boy would tell him what all sons tell their fathers at some point in time. He fully intended to literally live up to that often subjective appellation; Best Dad on Earth.

The Substance Hoped For

Christmas Eve and The Shepherds

An excerpt from my novel, The Substance Hoped For:

Through the accidents of history come the customs of holidays. Some parallels between 20th Century observances and original events are based upon centuries of repeated lore. Others are the result of mere happenstance, not thought of by modern day revelers.

Christmas is indeed the celebration of Christ’s birth, even if the original date is unknown. There are the manger scenes. Some are life size with real animals and people, trying to recreate the original as truly as possible. Others would be an embarrassment were it not for the fact that the resident nine-year-old made it at school. Gifts are given, whether an unwanted tie in bright paper or the ultimate gift from God wrapped in straw. There are the anxieties of not feeling ready enough and being overwhelmed with the demands of the season, whether it’s trying to get all the cookies made or finding a room at an inn. There is the joy over what lies at the core of the event, however.

There is one other element of Christmas which the original event shares with all of its subsequent remembrances and no one ever knew about; having company that is welcome but keeps you up past your bedtime. The shepherds were an unexpected surprise at the stable. Their infectious joy was a boon to the lonely family. Mary and Joseph had no one there to celebrate the birth of their Son with them.

Oh, they were more than happy about the birth of Jesus. There was nothing about this evening that they would now change even though they had despaired over their predicament within the last twenty-four hours. No, they were quite pleased with the outcome. This would be a night to tell their Son about someday…over and over again. This was virtually the stuff of legends, the kind of event that would survive generations in the family oral history. They couldn’t help smiling at the thought of their children’s children relating the tense tale of how Jesus’ birth unfolded.

But there was a sense of disappointment all the same. There was the exultation of the moment but no roar of the crowd. Then these wild hill men came to rejoice with them at this most opportune moment. They were all as a family for this night.

Many of the things the shepherds had to tell Mary and Joseph caused the new parents a certain amount of discomfort. Just when life was starting to look normal again, these guys came along to remind them that this special Baby is God’s Messiah. Ultimately, that contained comfort. It confirmed their dreams, which had made them doubt their sanity at times.

So, in keeping with the Christmas tradition of centuries to come, the shepherds stayed late, keeping the Holy Family from their sleep. Oh, well. Joseph and Mary had taken a nap earlier. And how often do they ever entertain, really? They didn’t know a lot of people in town and might as well take advantage of this impromptu Welcome Wagon. They’d just sleep in a bit tomorrow. It’s not like they did this every night.

Eventually the shepherds left. It had been fun, but in the end Mary and Joseph were glad to see them go. They could now act out the final stage of this particular holiday tradition. The vacuum of the departure of one’s guests leaves the hosts tired and without direction for a while. Fortunately, the mundane tasks of living press upon us at these times. We clear the dishes, put back the chairs, put the cow back in her stall, and fluff up the straw bed. Mary and Joseph moved about in that post-company daze that we all know so well.

The only member of the family who seemed unaffected was Jesus. Oddly enough, He was pretty calm despite all of the excitement of being born and handed around by strange people, late company, and all the rest. Usually kids get cranky with all of the disruption of a holiday, but this was one Kid who managed to take it all in stride. His parents couldn’t have been more proud of Him.

The Substance Hoped For

The Substance Hoped For – Path of Discovery

When you go on vacation, do you know your starting point? That is probably home, right? Do you know where you are going to go? I hope so. You might have spent some time deciding on your destination, but you eventually picked a target.

You then packed your bags according to your destination and planned what you want to do there. You also decided which roads you will take to get there. In fact, virtually everything you do to get ready depends on your destination. Likewise, your execution of your novel-to-be depends on the chosen destination.

If you just pack stuff because you like it, and you turn out of your drive with no idea where you’re going, you are likely not going to get much of anywhere. What you packed may or may not be of help depending on what destination you blunder into.

Would you read a book that had that lack of focus? Would you want to read chapter after chapter of items in the luggage of that book with no apparent point to them? Would you be fascinated by the path the story takes if the writer doesn’t know where she’s going?

The last writing blog discussed the Point of Attack, your starting place. Once that’s decided, you do NOT start writing the story. You need to write the end. Without having a clear idea where you want to end up, you won’t know what tone to give your writing. You won’t know what needs to happen to get there. You won’t know what street signs to give your reader to help him follow the path that you’ve chosen. You won’t know whether to use signs or breadcrumbs, interstates with ramps or a wooded trail with barely noticeable broken twigs and bent grass.

Do you remember the example I gave for a story of World War II? Is the Nazi on trial sympathetic or not? Should the reader feel good about his hanging or disturbed? These decisions – made prior to writing the story – should affect your tone. It will affect whether you want a clear path or make your reader struggle through the gloom of uncertainty.

For me, a good story is something like a treasure hunt. You lay out clues and rewards for your reader to discover and keep themselves moving through the story. The story that connects the Point of Attack to the end is what I call the Path of Discovery.

That is a very important concept to maintain throughout your writing. Your reader won’t finish your book and certainly won’t buy another unless they are intrigued and satisfied by their accomplishments of discovering the clues and sometimes faint paths you give them to work through.

Sometimes you’ll put your reader on a superhighway, blowing away the speed limits. Other times you’ll want them off the expressway and searching for the path in a woods. People like to be challenged, they like to be made to think.

Don’t believe me? You are, I assume, familiar with the phrase “Spoiler Alert.” People don’t want to know what’s going to happen out of order. They want to be surprised. They want to try to figure out the mystery on their own. Ever tell your date what happens next in the movie you’re watching? Ever get a positive response?

Create a Path of Discovery that will lead your reader toward the conclusion you’ve already laid out. And you can’t know how to lay it out until you know where you are going first!

So how did I decide to end The Substance Hoped for? Did I write one ending…or more? Do you really think I’m going to tell you HERE?


The Substance Hoped For by Jeffrey H. King

Available on line at Authorhouse in hard and soft cover: . Look for the orange cover.

The Substance Hoped For – Point of Attack

Just in case you aren’t familiar with this concept, let’s a have discussion of Point of Attack. Think of a timeline that stretches from the earliest point in the story to the end. Where you decide to start your telling of it is your Point of Attack.

Let’s say you’re going to tell the story of World War II in Europe. The beginning is when Hitler is elected. The end is the Nuremburg trials. Where do you jump in? And part of that decision will rest on whose point of view you want to use: Allied or Axis?

Let’s choose the Axis POV. You could start at the beginning. You could also start at the end. How? Well, I’d be tempted to choose a single German on trial at Nuremburg and start at his first day in court. Testimony could be the catalyst for telling the story through flashbacks. Each time you come back from a flashback, you find our Nazi a bit further along in the trial.

You can spend time in the “present” in talks with his lawyer, internal dialogue, whatever. Just keep going back and forth until you reach the point where he’s hung and the rope snaps tight. The end. And who you choose to follow can leave you pumping your fist or shaking your head. Do you use Goering or maybe a fictional character who was a dupe?

Hopefully, in this very simple example, you can see how deciding on your point of attack will have a huge effect on what sort of literary devices you use to tell the story. It can influence pace, tone, and other factors. What I described here is probably better for something that you want to be more thoughtful.

If you want fast-paced, start at the beginning. For example, the Point of Attack for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was actually before the beginning. That movie started out in overdrive, because it was the climax of Indie’s LAST adventure. The plane literally flies into the sunset at the start of the movie. Then we pick up the story that THIS movie is about a few minutes later.

The point of attack for The Substance Hoped For is, arguably, the very beginning. No, I don’t start with the visitations received by Joseph and Mary. I start with the Three Wise Men. From there I jump forward 2000 years to the present day, Tom’s time. As I established each subplot, I went from past to present and back until Tom bridged that gap for us. His – and our – anchor remains current day, thanks to relationships he has before getting zapped back to A.D.0001.

I could arguably say that I used the same Point of Attack as Raiders of the Lost Ark above. If the story is about Tom, then starting with the Wise Men starts BEFORE the actual story line. He then provides the connection in a loop when he goes back in time.

And he actually meets the Wise Men and becomes friends with them. DON’T WORRY. That’s not a spoiler. I’m not telling how that happens!

Again, deciding point of attack strongly influences, if not dictates, the structure and feel of your story-telling.

NEXT: The Path of Discovery.

The Substance Hoped For by Jeffrey H. King

Available on line at Authorhouse in hard and soft cover:  Look for the orange cover.

The Substance Hoped For – Framing the Story

If you want to be a sculptor, you study the works of Bernini, Michelangelo, and other sculptors. If you want to be a story-teller, read or watch the stories of those good enough to get produced or published.

I read a LOT! Fiction, histories, biographies, and whatever else I can get my hands on. All genres depend upon good story-telling to be successful, whether telling a true story or a fiction. DO NOT be a slave to one genre! You become a one-note samba: no variety, no contrast. Think of your head as an orchestra. If there’s only one instrument, you’re not going to have much of a concert. If, however, you have a full complement of instruments, you’ll have a much richer offering.

It is not about just style, either. It’s about information. The more information you possess, the more you have to work with when you start writing your own tome.

I don’t just read a lot. I watch movies. Over the course of our marriage, my wife and I have collected hundreds of movies in VHS and DVD. We often punctuate our conversations with our many favorite lines from movies.

I’m a huge Tom Clancy fan going all the way back. He’s known for his intricate weaving of multiple plot lines. He’s considered the master at explaining weapons tech in a way that’s entertaining and very understandable. In one book, he spends several pages describing a nuclear bomb going off by slowing time down and explaining each step as it happens. No, really. It works!

When you read The Substance Hoped For, you may notice some similarities between my writing and Clancy’s. I chose to structure my novel something like a Clancy techno-thriller. I have multiple plot lines that gradually weave together into a climax. I also used my experience as a fight choreographer to describe a few fights, from hand-to-hand to a sword fight. I slow the action down like Clancy to show what goes into a combat scene. And the book is a respectable length, like a Clancy novel; over 400 pages.

Depending on which theory of literary criticism you read, there are anywhere from a handful to a bit over 100 possible basic plots. Every good story will have more than one to increase the complexity and hence the engagement of the reader.

I needed to figure out how many real plot lines are in the Christmas story and how many fictional plots I would add to advance the story and create the world I wanted to convey. Here’s what I came up with:

  • The Three Wise Men
  • Joseph, Mary, and Jesus
  • Tom and his guardian angel
  • Simeon at the temple
  • A church Christmas party
  • King Herod and the Star
  • The fight for influence in Jerusalem between a particular priest and an evil sorcerer
  • A troupe of soldiers from Herod’s army

All of these start in very different places, but they come crashing together at the end. I call it the “Lazy Susan” approach. Instead of putting together a novel in a linear fashion, it’s as if different pieces of each plot are on a Lazy Susan that keeps turning. You keep taking pieces off as they come around, working your way to the center.

The pleasure for the reader is a matter of trying to foresee how all of the pieces will fit together in the end. Readers always want to try and figure it out, and the more they have to work for it, the more fun it is, as long as your story is tight, and everything ends up making sense with no loose ends.

Oops! Almost forgot! Never hesitate to kill one or more people for the sake of the story. It can have a significant effect on the reader. Recall the movie “Scream.” Drew Barrymore was prominent in the previews and promotions. Her character got killed right out of the gate. The audience was blown away, because the movie just obliterated a major expectation in movies: the star doesn’t die! The gloves were off and for the rest of the movie, no one could be sure of what would happen next. Surprise is a key to entertainment and engagement

Clancy offs people pretty easily. In one novel, he kills off both houses of congress and the president of the United State by bringing down the capitol building on the whole lot of them. OK. Stop cheering and give me some comments. And don’t get any ideas.

NEXT: The Point of Attack

The Substance Hoped For by Jeffrey H. King

Available on line at Authorhouse in hard and soft cover: . Look for the orange cover.

The Substance Hoped For – “Why?” and Tight Stories

Inspiration can come from the mundane that you instill with excitement, danger, or anything else that is NOT mundane. What if I were to ask you to come up with a story about a Frisbee? You could start asking yourself “Who plays with Frisbees?” What do they do in life? Where do they play it?

How about a public phone thriller? Phone Booth in 2002, starring Colin Ferrell, Kiefer Sutherland, Forest Whitaker, and Katie Holmes, directed by Joel Schumacher.

Phone Booth has teams for visual effects and special effects. They even had a complement of stunt people! Almost the entire movie was at the phone booth or within a block of it. It was a real nail-biter! All because writer Larry Cohen asked himself what sort of a major motion picture he could make out of a phone booth.

Tom Stoppard found a very unique inspiration from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There are two very minor characters who are introduced and killed off in very short order. Nothing more than a couple schleps to move the plot along. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. Their names are virtually longer than their parts!

Stoppard apparently asked the question, “What would it look like if they were the stars and Hamlet was the extra?” The result was Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, which he staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1966 and turned into a hit 2002 movie starring Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, and Richard Dreyfuss.

When I left you after talking about the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album being the inspiration for The Substance Hoped For, the first idea was something that sounded too much like a National Geographic special. That didn’t sound very sellable as a feature length movie (remember I was thinking screenplay at the time).

By the way, Dolly Parton’s Sandollar Productions read the finished script. They declined. That and $5 will get you a decent latte’, but believe me – getting read is a big deal!

I just knew I wanted a story that was set against Christmas and had something to do with time travel; Christmas celebrations over time, or something like that. The big question that I kept asking myself was “Why?” Why would anyone care about the story I wrote? Why would anyone care about the protagonist? While I might have fun writing it, I might not be able to get anyone else to give a good pile o’ poop.

I worked at keeping the basic idea of one guy, time, and Christmas as the most basic ingredients for a good story. If I don’t want a National Geographic survey of Christmas over the centuries, how do I create interest in that basic premise? In other words, why would anyone care?

Well, instead of travelling to multiple Christmas celebrations over time, how about going back to the original Christmas instead? As in historical research, primary sources are the best. That struck me as having a little juice to it. But, other than witnessing the Christmas story first-hand, who cares if this guy goes back in time? What’s the mechanism and why?

One big technique I learned for creating tension or breaking a log-jam in acting a scene was the idea of Opposites. Going against expectation is a great way to get attention. For example, which is more intimidating, someone throwing a fit or someone standing before you, completely unperturbed and just growling quietly, “Go ahead. Make my day”?

So I started thinking, let’s not have this guy just go back because he wins some cosmic lottery. It’s no big deal if someone who believes gets to see this. But if we make him the OPPOSITE of that, there’s some tension. Let’s make him someone who doesn’t give a rip about Christmas and even hates the holiday. He gets sent back to experience something he detests.

Getting there, but I still don’t know why I should care.

Let’s up the stakes. Let’s make his life depend on it. NO, let’s make his eternal life depend on it! OK! Now we’re cooking. In addition, let’s make him a really nice, cool guy who doesn’t seem to need religion.

So why does he go back to the first Christmas? God calls him to it, just like He called the evil, murderous Saul to become the apostle Paul. No real reason, just an “executive decision.”

So our hero gets plopped back in Bethlehem on the first Christmas night. But since he doesn’t believe in God, how does he know WHY he’s there? Ah, his guardian angel meets him there to deliver God’s message: “You get this one chance to see for yourself and believe. Blow, it, you die and go to hell. Believe, and you get to go back home and use this experience to change your life.”

In a way, he becomes both protagonist and antagonist. He has to fight with himself over whether or not he’s going to buy into this whole thing or toss it off as a delusion.

I suddenly realized I cast him as a one man Greek chorus. The job of the Greek chorus was to tell the ancient Greek audience what they were to think and how they should react to what they were watching (amongst other functions like exposition). The Greek chorus was the doorway through which the audience effectively entered the play and became a part of it.

The main character, Tom, would see the whole of the Christmas story, and we would see it through his eyes. Real people, real problems, real emotions, real doubts, real struggles and real danger. I wanted to leave the primary color cartoons of my Sunday School days behind and make a Holy Family that was approachable. I wanted Tom to be that door we could walk through. Hear his doubts as our own. Struggle with faith, the substance hoped for from Hebrews 11:1, as he does. WE are Tom.

Hopefully, if you ask “Why” enough, your readers will be absorbed, and there are no loose ends at the end, and your story is tight. It won’t have a “What the Heck Just Happened?” ending, like The Abyss. None will scratch their head at the end and feel like they missed something.

NEXT: Framing the story. Where do I start the story in the entire timeline of the Christmas story? What is the Christmas story? What are the parameters that I will write within? The envelope, if you will. And how did Tom Clancy’s work affect my approach?

Next: Framing the Story

The Substance Hoped For by Jeffrey H. King

Available on line at Authorhouse in hard and soft cover: . Look for the orange cover.

The Substance Hoped For – Inspiration

The next few posts will be about my novel, “The Substance Hoped For.” It’s a work of Christian fiction, coming in at a bit over 400 pages. The title is taken from Hebrews 11:1 – “Now faith is the substance of things hope for, the essence of things not seen.” Think of the upcoming posts like a “Making of” feature on a DVD. Here’s how the book got written, how I think as I write.

By the way, it is definitely a story about faith. However, it is set at Christmas, so people keep telling me “What a nice Christmas story!”

Ok. It’s a Christmas story.

Many people want to be published authors; fame, fortune, etc. The biggest, most basic problem is not too different from high school and college when you had to write something for a class: What do I write ABOUT?

Inspiration is hard to find. I guess that’s why they call it “inspiration.” There’s no formula to get you there. If I had to boil it down to one thing, it’s “Pay attention!” Pay attention to what’s happening around you. Do you see something that makes you say, “Huh?’ Or something that makes you say, “Cool!” What moves you? What is happening or has happened to you – ever?

Take that nugget and start playing make-believe. What happened before the nugget caught your attention? What do you think will happen next?

I was given a copy of the very first Mannheim Steamroller Christmas Album years ago. I was blown away by it. If you’ve never heard one of these albums, you absolutely must. Chip Davis is a musical genius who takes Christmas melodies and does incredible arrangements based solely on what the music says to him; forget the lyrics.

Imagine Good King Wenceslas arranged like a soundtrack for a high octane chase scene in a movie. The next cut might be arranged as a medieval ballad with lutes. Trust me – get any Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album, and you’ll understand. Remember Home Alone? The Carol of the Bells that played as the kid booby-trapped the house is a Chip Davis arrangement.

So, with an insane mix of styles from classic rock to ballads to who knows what else, it dawned on me that it had the feel of a movie soundtrack. I saw a chase scene for Good King Wenceslas, a tender love scene for Bring a Torch Jeanette Isabella, and more.

I had a series of scene types, but no story. I thought it would be a very interesting exercise to do a movie kind of backwards. Instead of composing a soundtrack for a movie, how about writing a movie for a sound track?

I knew it had to be set against Christmas, whatever the story turned out to be, right? I mean, with all those Christmas carols, it wasn’t going to be a western. I had to listen carefully to the music and hear what it told me. With a lot of different styles from very modern to very, very old, I started thinking about Christmas over the centuries. We could watch a character travel through time to the different Christmas celebrations over the centuries, and then… Naw. Too National Geographic.

But with the different styles of arrangement and the Christmas Carol genre, I knew it has to be a Christmas story that involved time travel. Hey, I’m huge Star Trek fan. You go with what you know.

So Chip Davis’ first Christmas album was the impetus for The Substance Hoped For. And I have to say he’s my home boy – kinda. He’s from Sylvania, OH, a suburb north of Toledo, where I was born and raised. OK. Never met him, but it makes me feel a little cool.


NEXT: “Why?” and writing tight stories

The Substance Hoped For by Jeffrey H. King

Available on line at Authorhouse in hard and soft cover: . Look for the orange cover.

The Substance Hoped For

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the essence of things not seen.    Hebrews 11:1

The Substance Hoped For is my novel of Christian Fiction, based on the verse from Hebrews above. It comes in at a bit over 400 pages. I first wrote the story as a screenplay, and I was fortunate to have had it read by Dolly Parton’s Sandollar Productions. They declined on it, but getting read is a big deal. I’m proud of that, even if I still have to pony up the $5 for a decent latte’!

The inspiration came from a Christmas album that struck me as a movie soundtrack, even though it wasn’t. The album was simply a fantastic piece of arrangements and styles I’d never experienced before. Once I had a story fleshed out in my mind, I started clacking away on the ol’ keyboard. Even though I’d written a master’s thesis in graduate school, this was the first time I’d tried something of any appreciable length; 120 pages for a full-length movie, the rule of thumb being 1 minute per page.

After Sandollar reading and declining, I tried several other studios with no luck at all. I started thinking that, due to the material being set in mostly in biblical times, the inherent production costs and the fact that it’s unabashedly Christian, my chances were not very good of ever seeing it produced.

That’s when I decided to re-write it as a novel. Production costs for period pieces are the same as current day, sci-fi, or anything else: ink and paper. Plus the fact that you don’t have the time constraints of a 2 hour movie. You can say everything you want to in a novel. As long as it’s quality material, people generally prefer longer novels to get their money’s worth! Look at Steven King’s works, especially The Stand! And I wanted it to keep going when I reached the end. Tom Clancy? There’s no such thing as a short Clancy thriller. Thankfully!!

So The Substance Hoped For was redone as a novel, where I was able to expand and really tell the entire story the way it should be. I was able to add characters and plot lines that made it all the more compelling.

The next five posts will be about how The Substance Hoped For was written, from inspiration to execution. Think of these next installments as the literary equivalent of a DVD extra: The Making of The Substance Hoped For! I’ll write about general writing principles I use and how I applied them. No spoilers – I promise!!

In the meantime, you can check it out at Authorhouse. There’s a synopsis and a sample page available for you to look at. Give it a look!

The Substance Hoped For by Jeffrey H. King
Available on line at Authorhouse in hard and soft cover. Look for the orange cover.