The story of Michael Kent, cyclist and priest, and Sarah Hughes, artist. All four books in the Dancing Priest series are available as a package on Amazon Kindle (or individually).
A Light Shining
Scott knelt before Sarah in the emergency room.
“Sarah,” he said, “Michael’s going into surgery. It’s likely to take a long time. His injuries are serious but he’s hanging on. And I’m not going to mislead you. It’s bad. He’s been shot near his heart and in his shoulder, near where it joins with his arm. His left lung collapsed, and they almost caught it too late. But they caught it. He’s lost a lot of blood.”
“Scott,” Sarah said to her brother, “please save Mike.” She began to cry in great sobbing breaths.
– From A Light Shining
Photograph by Piron Guillaume via Unsplash. Used with permission.
That evening at dinner, Michael raised the issue. “We have a sixth family, Jason.”
“Yes?” he said, his eyes hopeful but wary.
“Sarah, why don’t you tell him?” Michael said.
“I’ll tell him,” said Jim. “It’s us. We want you to live with use.”
Jason looked at the three of them. “Are you doing this because no one else will?”
“No,” said Michael, “we’re doing this because it took God this long to make us open our eyes and see the obvious. You’re already part of our family. We want you to stay part of our family, if you’re willing to have us.”
- From A Light Shining
Photograph by Warren Wong via Unsplash. Used with permission.
My wife has said, more than once, that the main character in my Dancing Priest novels is an idealized version of me. The first time she said it, I disagreed. There were some things I shared with that character, but I never planned to write about making an idealized version of me.
After considering it, I thought, well, maybe. I thought about it some more, and I reverted to my original thought. Nope, he’s not me.
Not one of the characters across my four novels are disguised versions of real people. Instead, they are composites of people and experiences.
In Dancing Priest, Sarah Hughes has a conversion experience that is almost exactly taken from my own.
In A Light Shining, the political operative Josh Gittings is based on several people I’ve known from the political world.
The communications man in Dancing King is based on many of my career experiences, especially in crisis communications. His uncanny ability to spot what’s happening and ferret out what’s behind a crisis is based on too many of my own experiences. (I say “too many” because sometimes I was heeded, and sometimes I was not.)
And certainly the speechwriter in Dancing Prophet comes from my own career background, including sitting with an executive for an entire day to write an emergency speech while he did other work.
I can say my characters come from experiences, but where do their personalities come from? Likely our families, our friends, people who’ve influenced us or protected us, mentors, people we’ve have bad experiences with, even casual acquaintances.
For example, the villain in Dancing King, the PR operative Geoffrey Venneman, is a composite of several people I’ve known over the years. He serves his clients, yes, but he is all about serving himself. He looks for the main chance. He has no qualms about hurting others and that, in fact, is part of the game. He can affect a wounded innocence when it’s helpful to do so. His anger becomes uncontrollable when he’s thwarted. Yes, I knew people like this and had to work with them. It was not a pleasant experience, because you always had to be on guard.
In the writing process, however, I don’t consciously create characters. They seem to emerge as the story develops or when this kind of character is needed. Sometimes I know what kind of character is needed at a particular point, but the birth is an agonizing labor, requiring rewrite after rewrite.
I’ve had one exception to my “no real people” guideline. In Dancing Prophet, one character is based on me, less his experiences and more his personality. I admit it. Almost all of his actions and reactions in the book track with mine (that’s almost all, not all). I didn’t realize this until I was in the middle of rewrite #2 or #3, and then I saw it. The character had emerged, unconsciously, from my own life. He’s not an idealized version of me. In many ways, he is me.
It was a shock. For a time, it stopped all progress on writing the book. I had to take stock. What was I trying to say here, or understand? Was I trying to tell myself something? I had to try to answer these questions and others before I could continue.
The answer I came to was this: this character feels broken. It doesn’t stop him from having a successful career and a loving marriage. But it shapes him in obvious and less-than-obvious ways. And sometimes, in the midst of that brokenness, a character has to step forward and do something courageous.
No one ever said that writing would be this hard. No one ever said it would be this revealing.
Photograph by Hudson Hintze via Unsplash. Used with permission.
My introduction to series fiction happened in college. I was checking the sale table at a B. Dalton’s Bookstore and found God is an Englishman by R.F. Delderfield, a novel about the Swann family set in mid-19thcentury England. Not long after, I realized there was a second volume, entitled Theirs Was the Kingdom. And a couple of years later, the third and final volume, Give Us This Day, in the series was published.
I loved those stories. Delderfield had created an entire world built around the coming of the railroads and how one man realized that there was opportunity in the routes not connected by the railroads. He builds a business empire upon that realization. It was (and is) good, old-fashioned storytelling at its best. I still have those three books.
Writing a fiction series seems to have become popular in the 19thcentury. It’s not the same thing as serial publication, which is how Charles Dickens published his novels – a chapter per issue of a periodical. One of the best-known series in the 19thcentury was the Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope, comprised of six related novels. Trollope also write the six-volume Palliser series.
The currently popular Poldark television program on PBS is based on the 12 novels written by Winston Graham, written in two periods, four from 1945 to 1953 and the rest from 1973 to 2002. And a beloved series still being published are the Mitford novels of Jan Karon.
Fiction series are not limited to adults; in anything, they’re even more popular among children. I grew up on the Hardy Boys. Other popular children’s series at the time were Nancy Drew, The Dana Sisters, the Bobbsey Twins, Trixie Belden, and others. Today, my 8-year-old grandson is deep into the Boxcar Children series.
Having written three novels in a series, with the fourth now in editorial production, I can explain why fiction authors tend to write related books. Dancing Priest began its manuscript life as some 250,000 words, almost enough for three novels. (For a word-count comparison, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is 587,000 words.) (Tolstoy could get away with that. Few if any novelists could get away with that today.) I ended up splicing it into a novel of 92,000 words, a manuscript of 70,000 words that was eventually expanded to become A Light Shining, a manuscript (a really rough manuscript) of 45,000 that grew to become Dancing King, and some 35,000 words that eventually made their way into the fourth novel in the series, tentatively entitled Dancing Prophet.
What happened was this: as I constructed what became the world of Michael and Sarah Kent-Hughes, the construction grew, it expanded over time, it became more elaborate and detailed, and it became too big to be contained in only a single book. What was one rather large manuscript was transformed into four novels.
There are potentially more. I have story ideas and even extended fragments and outlines for additional books. I’m not sure if I will go there, although it’s difficult to resist when you’ve connected with a character who won’t appear for another two or three books. Perhaps what will happen, or what should happen, is that these fragments and outlines will make it into a story collection.
But I know what it is for an author to publish a series. You come to inhabit a fictional world, one of your own creation. It becomes incredibly familiar. You see things in the real world and almost without thinking apply them to your fictional world. You read a newspaper story and translate it to your fictional world. Sometimes you get surprised and discover that something you wrote becomes reality. That’s happened to me at least three times during the writing of the Dancing Priest novels.
Little did I know when I picked up that copy of God is an Englishman.
Top photograph by Jake Hills via Unsplash. Used with permission.
For roughly 14 months, from September 2005 to November 2006, a story idea that had been in my head for four years began to pour out on the computer screen. Once it came, it gushed, some 250,000 words of the roughest sort of rough draft. It would be spliced, diced, rewritten, divided into three parts, added to, and subtracted from, eventually published as Dancing Priest (2011), A Light Shining (2012), and Dancing King (2017), the three novels in the Dancing Priest series.
In November 2006, I stopped, and rested. Two months later, a story from my small suburban town of Kirkwood in metropolitan St. Louis became international headlines. A boy kidnapped in nearby Franklin County had been found by police in Kirkwood. With him was found a boy kidnapped in 2002.
The kidnapper was a man named Michael Devlin, a manager at a local pizza parlor. He had kept both boys at his apartment, on the far east side of Kirkwood and across the street from the town of Oakland. The apartment complex was just north of the trailhead for Grant’s Trail, which I had ridden hundreds of times. Which meant I had ridden past that apartment hundreds of times. I likely had seen the older boy, who after a couple of years had been allowed outside to ride his bike.
This was, and is, every parent’s nightmare. Your child is taken, and you don’t know if the child is dead, abused, or raised as someone else’s child.
I didn’t feel personal responsibility. I felt something else: a deep sense of horror at a great evil happening a few yards away from where I regularly rode my bicycle.
I did the only thing I knew to do. My writing rest came to an end.
I didn’t write the story of Michael Devlin. Instead, I poured the horror of that story into fiction. Some 40,000 words later, I felt I could stop. I had dropped any reference to Devlin or even a character like him. I had moved the story to England. I moved the crime within the Church of England, most likely being influenced by all of the revelations from the Catholic Church in the United States. I added seminary connections.
And then I set the story aside. It had done what it needed to do. It was a kind of exorcism of the horror represented by Michael Devlin and what he had done.
In 2012, in a conversation with my publisher about writing life after A Light Shining, I mentioned this story. A few days later, he sent me a press story from England. A small pedophile ring had been uncovered within the Church of England. He wanted to know if I had “pre-written history.”
In late 2017, I returned to the story and began to work it over. It grew; new elements and characters were added. The abuse story remained at the center; two additional story lines were added – one about a city government collapse and the other about a mother showing up after eight years. Only when the draft was done in early July did I realize that this had become a story about the collapse of institutional authority – family, church, government. It was exactly the institutions that Michael Kent-Hughes, the hero of Dancing King, had committed himself to during his coronation ceremony.
I’m not sure why I chose to develop the original manuscript into a full-blown novel. But I did. It was a story that was never intended or imagined to be written, but it was, because of the shock of a hometown horror.
The manuscript is now in the hands of the publisher for consideration.
Top photograph by Warren Wong via Unsplash. Used with permission.