KSDK-TV, Channel 5 NBC affiliate in ST. Louis, posted an interview today with me about my Dancing Priest novels and the upcoming royal wedding. You can watch the report here.
KSDK-TV, Channel 5 NBC affiliate in ST. Louis, posted an interview today with me about my Dancing Priest novels and the upcoming royal wedding. You can watch the report here.
This is the first in a series of profiles of some of the main characters in the novel Dancing King. Every character has a story, one that is much larger and more detailed than what can be included in the narrative.
In Dancing King, Jay Lanham becomes the communications director for Michael Kent-Hughes and the monarchy. He is all of 29, but he already has considerable communications experience behind him. He was graduated from the University of Northumberland, receiving a communications degree (with honours). He had had internships with The Guardian and The Telegraph and was hired by The Daily Mail right after graduation (from an editorial perspective, The Guardian would be considered on the left side of the political spectrum, The Telegraph slightly more toward the center, and The Daily Mail on the right side of the spectrum).
He worked for The Daily Mail for three years, and he then joined the communications staff of Britrail. He quickly gained a reputation for crisis communications following two train accidents, but what put him on the map in the communications industry was his adroit handling of a threatened strike by rail workers. Lanham didn’t know it at the time, but he effectively countered the plans of the would-be strikers whose unions had hired Geoffrey Venneman of the FBL public affairs firm. Two years younger than Venneman, Lanham had successfully anticipated almost every move by the unions.
After three years with Britrail, he set up his own consultancy, Lanham & Associates, which, as Josh Gittings, Michael’s chief of staff wryly noted, was likely more Lanham than Associates. He shared an office with other creatives in a small Whitechapel office building, and while his firm wasn’t an overnight success, he was managing to grow his client base. Single, he lives in a small flat in the Southwark area of London, about three blocks from the Borough Market and London Bridge Station.
He applied for the job of palace communications director almost as a lark. While Gittings had been soliciting resumes, he hadn’t talked to Lanham, so the application was what’s called “over the transom.” It arrives at a propitious moment; Michael has interviewed several candidates, including the faux candidate Geoffrey Venneman, and not found anyone to his liking.
With his application, Lanham proposes a communications plan for Michael, based on what’s read about the new king and after reviewing the text and video versions of Michael’s sermons when he served as a priest at St. Anselm’s Church in San Francisco. Michael responds enthusiastically; he asks his wife Sarah to read the application as well, and she responds just as enthusiastically.
During the actual job interview, which begins at breakfast with the family at the palace and continues as Michael brings their adopted sons Jason and Jim to school, Lanham essentially starts doing the job – a large number of reporters are waiting at the school to film scenes of the boys’ arrival and toss questions at the king. Lanham handles the media so well that Michael hires him on the spot.
During the next six months after his hiring, Lanham will discover what it means to be Michael’s communications man. The king will be undertaking a series of sermons in London churches, and Lanham will help plan those communications. At the same time, the king will find himself the target of Geoffrey Venneman, hired by the Archbishop of Canterbury to stop Michael’s plans for the reformation of the church.
While Dancing King is a work of fiction, Lanham’s hiring and his crises experiences during the first six months of Michael’s reign are taken from real life and my own experiences in both corporate and crisis communications.
How Lanham is hired is based on an experience I had some years ago, when I was considered for a speechwriting job with a very large defense contractor. The CEO wanted a 20-something, savvy about social media. The recruiter saw that a 50-something candidate knew more about social media than the two 20-somethings being considered. All three of us were given an assignment of writing an article about a speech by the CEO for an employee publication. The other two wrote articles. I wrote the article, and then embedded it in a mocked-up newsletter with other stories, using pictures and charts I found on the company’s web site. As it turned out, none of us got the job (it wasn’t filled), but I did visit corporate HQ as one of the two final candidates.
Lanham handles a series of crises, all orchestrated by Venneman. All of them (including a protest) are based on my own experiences in crises communications, including figuring out who some of the hidden players are. And one section of story, involving one of the most important speeches Michael will make, mirrors almost exactly an experience I had writing a speech for a corporate executive.
Top photograph: An idea of what Jay Lanham might look like. Photo by Ali Morshedlou via Unsplash. Used with permission.
Three or four times a day, I receive email notices of conversations on discussion boards and Facebook groups, usually about Christian fiction. The subjects are all over the place, from a request for help for a software application to a question about Idaho state law governing autopsies.
One recent discussion stream caught my attention, but only after it had been underway for a few days. The question was about the use of the omniscient narrator, and whether it was something a fiction writer could do and not put off an agent or a publisher. (Like a lot of questions about writing, those who know will always say don’t do it – unless you can get away with it.)
As the discussion went along, one participant appealed to Stephen King, citing his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. That wasn’t so unusual in and of itself. But as soon as that comment was made, several others added their citations to King’s work. It was clear that King was seen as a significant authority on the subject.
A few days later, someone posted a short article on a blog about Christian fiction that asked what books on writing would readers recommend – and while there were the standard references to Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and a couple to Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, there are far, far more to Stephen King’s On Writing. (My own favorite books on writing are John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist.)
My own knowledge of King is limited mostly to his early works. The first novel of his that read was Salem’s Lot, and then I read Carrie, The Shining and The Stand. Of those I’ve read, I liked The Shining the best, and I still have vivid memories of one of the main characters driving up a mountain (in a big Cadillac, I think) in a fierce Colorado snowstorm.
He’s published a lot of books since then, and On Writing came out in 2000. It’s not exclusively a “how to write” book, but more of a combined personal memoir, writing manual, and how he recovered from serious injuries after being struck by an automobile while walking.
What is it about Stephen King in general and his On Writing in particular that makes him (and it) so appealing to Christian novelists and writers? And this appeal is broader than only to the writers of Christian horror, suspense and supernatural, a genre that’s developed only in recent years and by many writers who were directly influenced by King.
One is obvious. King is a terrific writer and storyteller. He’s a master of suspense, and even if you’re not interested in writing a suspense novel, there’s much to be learned from how he constructs his novels and stories in general and suspense scenes in particular. In other words, we can appreciate his writing for the same reasons anyone can appreciate his writing.
Second, despite the horror aspects of many of his works, his stories are “clean” – you don’t find gratuitous or obligatory sex thrown into the stories like you find is so much contemporary writing. (Not long ago, I read a buy-in-the-supermarket romance novel to see what it was like, not only were the “adult” scenes written really badly, the entire novel was written badly.) (Several weeks later, it showed up on the New York Times’ paperback bestseller list, so what do I know?)
A third aspect to King’s appeal is how accessible his writing is for Christians, even with all the blood, gore, plague, ghosts, stalkers and vampires (or perhaps because of them). His writing, as varied as it is, hews to the basic story format – setting, conflict, climax and resolution. This is a format, a structure, that is familiar to us from the story of the Bible overall and the story of Christ. One can’t call King a “Christian author” is the sense that the Christian Booksellers Association would use that term, but his stories are structured like “the story” we know and his themes – good vs. evil, redemption, and the darkness within each of us – are the themes we’re intimately familiar with.
They’re the story and the themes of The Book.
Photograph by Carl Cerstrand via Unsplash. Used with permission.
In the 1040s, King Edward of England (later St. Edward the Confessor) began to enlarge the church of a small Benedictine monastery near his palace. It was referred to as the “west minster,” to distinguish it from the “east minister,” aka St. Paul’s Cathedral. The large stone church was dedicated to St. Peter.
In 1066, William I invaded and conquered England. On Christmas Day, he was crowned in Edward’s church. Every English and British monarch since 1066 has been crowned in Edward’s church. The complex has grown over the tears, especially during the 13thto 16thcenturies. Today, Westminster Abbey is one of the most popular sites in Britain, visited by millions of tourists annually and a center of major worship activities.
It’s also a rather large cemetery. Some 3,300 people are buried here, including Queen Elizabeth I and her sister Queen Mary, King Edward (he was moved a century or so after his death), Henry V, Sir Isaac Newton, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Charles Dickens (he didn’t want to be buried in the Abbey, but no one paid attention to his wishes). Poet’s Corner is a veritable who’s who of British literary history, containing both graves and plaques (including a fairly recent one for C.S. Lewis).
The complex is soaked in British history, literature, science, government, and philosophy. The soaring Gothic architecture is overwhelming. The beauty of the Henry VII Lady Chapel is simply astounding. And the complex keeps growing, with a new Abbey museum, the Queen’s Jubilee Galleries, opening on June 11 this year.
A coronation of a monarch is a massive undertaking. The interior of the Abbey has to be remodeled to accommodate viewing stands, seating, platforms, and a number of other structures. Planning can go on for a year or more. The ceremony is plotted out to the smallest detail.
The last coronation in the Abbey was Queen Elizabeth II’s in 1953; consider that there had been three in the 36 years after Queen Victoria’s death in 1901.
In addition to quite a few YouTube videos (like this one), the primary resource for the coronation scene in Dancing King was Crown, Orb & Sceptre: The True Story of English Coronations by David Hilliam. It’s actually a fun read, full of odd things that have happened over the years and unusual events, like Richard III being crowned in his bare feet. Hilliam describes the processions to the Abbey and the ceremonies themselves.
The coronation scene in Dancing King follows Hilliam’s description of Queen Elizabeth’s ceremony very closely, with a few major exceptions. The Archbishop of Canterbury, as the lead official in the Church of England, usually crowns the monarch. A different official does it in the novel, largely because of the ongoing conflict between Michael Kent-Hughes and the Archbishop of Canterbury, a major narrative line in the novel that is not resolved by the end of the book. Michael also makes changes in how monarchs-to-be-crowned are usually dressed and adds a segment to the ceremony at the end.
It is a moving ceremony. The coronation follows the near destruction of the royal family in A Light Shining, the second novel in the Dancing Priest series. There almost wasn’t a coronation, or anyone left to crown. Like the real coronation event, that of Michael Kent-Hughes is meant to signify the continuance of family, faith, and tradition, even in the face of constant societal and cultural change, and, in the Dancing King story, near-annihilation.
One element of the coronation that Michael does not change is the singing of “Zadok the Priest” by George Frederic Handel, which has become the traditional coronation anthem.
In On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts, Ann Kroeker and Charity Craig ask this question: To what extant have you arranged your space and time to honor your writing?
I joke with my wife that only three poets in the United States make a living from writing poetry, and two of them are Billy Collins.
Expanding from poetry to writing in general, how many novelists actually support themselves by strictly writing? Likely more than you find in poetry, but it’s equally likely that the number can be counted – it’s not huge. James Patterson. Stephen King. Some romance writers.
The number is finite and knowable.
For the rest of us, we likely write whenever we can cram in a minute or 30 minutes or an hour. I write whenever I find a moment to write.
My first novel, Dancing Priest, spent the first four years of its existence as a story idea inside my head. Initially, I never intended to write it down. It started with a song I heard, and the image of a priest dancing on a beach. I developed the story as a mental narrative and delved deeper into it once I started biking. A number of scenes in the novel were created and elaborated while I rode the 10 miles (20-miles round trip) of Grant’s Trail in St. Louis.
I was also doing a lot of traveling, including a regular monthly trip (sometimes more frequently) to Alabama. Airline flights and nights in hotel rooms afforded the time for writing. Two hotels in Oxford, Alabama, provided the physical space for the writing of Dancing Priest from 2004 to 2007, the mental and physical narratives overlapping during this time.
I started writing the story down in the fall of 2005. Hurricane Katrina and getting my mother and aunt out of New Orleans had something to do with it. Perhaps it was seeing the destruction of the place I was born and grew up. Whatever it was, it was Katrina that spurred me to start writing the story down.
I immediately discovered that thinking a story in my head was infinitely easier than writing it down. The mental narrative included images – what the characters looked like, the settings, even the weather. The written narrative had to account for these things in words. The time required multiplied exponentially.
So, I crammed it in whenever and wherever I could – early mornings, late nights, and trips. There was no set time, because I was also a husband, a father (and soon a grandfather), a church deacon, an editor, an occasional freelancer – and I had a full-time job that, like most jobs, is something more than full-time.
To answer Ann’s and Charity’s question, I have no regular time to write. I have only what becomes available, or what time I can make available. Through 2015, that “schedule” allowed the creation of two published novels (Dancing Priest and its sequel, A Light Shining), the non-fiction book Poetry at Work, this blog, a weekly column at Tweetspeak Poetry, and occasional articles for other online sites.
In the late spring of 2015, the time available changed radically – I retired from the day job. With all the supposed free time, it took three years to write the third novel, Dancing King. Perhaps I did better with a demanding schedule.
But there’s a second consideration to that question asked by Ann and Charity – the idea of honoring your writing.
I could come up with a longwinded answer, but I believe it’s tied to the time devoted to writing – I honor my writing by making the time for it.
I’ll ask you the same question – how do you find the time to write, and how do you honor your writing?
Photograph by Jordan McQueen via Unsplash. Used with permission.
For almost a millennium, the Tower of London has stood watch over the city, a symbol of William the Conqueror who built it. Few buildings evoke such a mixture of emotions, The Tower has served as royal residence, prison, armory, mint, torture chamber, and even a menagerie of exotic animals presented to British monarchs.
In 2014, to mark the 100thanniversary of the start of World War I, the Tower was host to one of the most remarkable art installations ever – the planting of ceramic poppies in the moat, one for each casualty of the warm until almost 900,000 had been placed by that November.
From the time of William I to Charles II in 1660, the Tower served another purpose – the start of the coronation procession for each British monarch. Charles II was the last; his brother James II, something of a closet Catholic, was supposedly crowned privately in a Catholic ceremony and then proceeded from Whitehall Palace to Westminster Abbey for the “protestant coronation.” No monarch after that did the Tower to Westminster procession.
In my novel Dancing King, Michael and Sarah Kent-Hughes return to the earlier tradition, with a procession starting from the Tower and ending at Westminster Abbey. It’s a considerably longer route than what the real British monarchs do today, riding from Buckingham Palace to the Abbey.
Right as the procession begins, Sarah asks about how the street names will change. And they do – Tower Hill, Great Tower Street, Eastcheap, Cannon Street, St. Paul’s Churchyard, Ludgate Hill, Fleet Street, and the Strand are essentially the same thoroughfare. The change in names is a kind of record of a lot of London history.
Michael reminds Sarah of what they’re returning to the earlier tradition of leaving from the Tower, and he cites two reasons.
First, the longer route affords many more people to see the king and queen in the procession. The route stretches from the Tower, through the City of London (the business district), past St. Paul’s Cathedral and then Fleet Street, past the Royal Courts of Justice, then the Strand, just skirting London’s theatre district. It continues on the Strand past Charing Cross Station to Trafalgar Square, down Whitehall to the Parliament building, and then a short turn to Westminster Abbey.
Many a time have my wife and I ridden the iconic double-decker bus along that route.
Second, Michael explains that proceeding through the business district, the theatre district, and the center of legal practice shows that the Crown recognizes the importance of these industries and professions – business, banking, law, and the theatre – to British national life. The coronation of a new king isn’t only about a new monarch; it’s a celebration of what matters and what’s important to the British nation. It’s about history and tradition, yes, but it’s also about the future.
It’s never explicitly stated, but Michael Kent-Hughes is beginning the process of becoming the “People’s King.”
Top photograph: The Tower of London as seen from the Thames River, with the White Tower in the center. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.