Enlightenment (Lynn Kerstan)

Star of Wonder

A while back, when I was invited to write a Regency Christmas novella, I enthusiastically agreed.  Twenty thousand words. How hard could it be?

The story idea came to life in my imagination in early January, when Pat and I were travelling in Montenegro. There, Christmas was celebrated two weeks later than in most places, so we were surrounded by the holiday spirit. Okay, I was also inspired by the extremely beautiful Montenegran men. Like the Wise Men from the East who followed the star, my handsome hero would journey to the Yorkshire Moors in search of, well, I can’t give everything away.

What I failed to realize, until I tried to write the novella, was the cost of not having written a story, even a short one, for nearly five years. Cancer and Killer Chemo had sucked away a lot of focus, concentration, and awareness. In my head, the story played out vividly, but finding the words that would bring it to life on the page was far more of a challenge that I realized. Even as I wrote the story and was failing to rise to that challenge, I failed to see what I was missing.

Enter a brilliant editor and an equally brilliant “line” editor, both of them friends. Deb Dixon and Lynn Coddington had the dubious pleasure of making me aware of my failures and steering me back to a road I used to travel with great confidence. At first, it was scary. Did this mean I could no longer write to a standard I could be proud of? If so, what would I do with all the stories spinning around in my head?

In fact, as they helped me realize, the major problem was failing to live up to reader expectations for a Christmas story, and in particular, a fairly short Christmas story. I’d written only three novellas in my life, and two were written in the early 90s. The third was really a Prequel to a trilogy of novels. I was all off base when it came to plotting the story in a limited space or keeping the essential focus on the emotional development of the romance, which kept getting buried under my intricate plot.

How lucky I was to have their help when I needed it! Honestly, this was the first time any one of my books or novellas received any editorial guidance whatever. In the past, I wrote it, the  editor liked it, and the publisher printed it. Pretty much just that.

I hope those days are over. If I’m off my game, if something I write needs improvement, I’ll be more than glad to hear about it. Which is not to say that I’ll always agree with everything I hear. Sometimes a good idea will take a story in a whole different direction, which is not the story I’m writing. Not this time.

But one thing is certain. Any recommendation that makes my story better, whatever the source, I welcome it with open arms.  So thanks, DebD and LynnC, for helping me rediscover what it is to write a story that turns out to be what it was meant to be.

A Star is Borne (Lynn Kerstan)

As usual, Lynn’s Law of Simultaneous Occurrences is in full swing. You know, the law that dictates that all the things we really, really want to do will conflict with one another. I expect the December holiday season is like that for most people. But for me, it feels like the fun stuff of an entire year has gathered together and only just now gone into action.

Precisely when I felt utterly swamped, I got my first-in-a-long time deadline for a contracted story. It’s a Christmas novella. one of three or four to appear right around Christmas next year, so I reckoned there’d be plenty of time to mull, get inspired, write, edit, and submit. But these days, things are moving fast in publishing … faster than I am used to. On the other hand, I pretty much write to deadline, so early is good for the novella itself.

What I’m desperate for–and I need your help for this!–is a title. That is needed by the publisher straightaway. Also, I require a name for the hero. A somewhat exotic name.

The picture above is perhaps the most beautiful cover I ever had. A friend of the artist told me that said artist felt much the same about her painting. This was a Christmas Regency novel, though. I may be one of the few Regency authors who never wrote a Christmas novella. Back in the day, they were thick on the ground, and after a time, I began to feel every Regency-era Christmas custom had been recycled to death. So I’m doing something a little different this time. The publisher is fine with the concept. So am I.

But I’m also feeling a little scared. Maybe a lot. About this time in 1999, when I was enthralled with a story (The Golden Leopard) I was working on, I was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer. “We can maybe buy you three years,” I was told, “with major surgery and chemo.” All work on the book came to a halt as I was shuttled into surgery and stayed halted for a long time after. When months of chemo were completed, I tried to go on with the book, but I couldn’t focus. Back then, chemo-brain (aka chemo fog) was regarded as a myth by nearly everyone who hadn’t experienced it. Having never heard of it, I assumed my inability to focus was permanent. More than a year went by before I went back to the book, rewrote much of what I’d done, and sold it (as the first book of a trilogy, which I hadn’t envisioned at all!) on proposal. The writing came much easier after that.

Some of you know that nearly ten years later, in the autumn of 2008, I was diagnosed with another form of cancer (lymphoma) and given three months to live. No treatment possible. Except there was, which I discovered after an unpleasant occurrence that reminds me of a saying I’ve always loved: “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” I was treated with chemo, declared cancer-free, and feel more healthy and energetic now than ever before in my life. Not so sure, though, about the chemo-fog. The last time, I was able to write sooner than, well, now.

No, I don’t feel foggy. Of course, I didn’t feel foggy when I was. But I’m also thinking that this time, it may be “performance anxiety” I’m experiencing. I haven’t written fiction since before the lymphoma, and a deep-down part of me wonders if I can still write a story–even a short one–and make it come alive for readers. Yeah, I know. Pathetic. And just as I was in the middle of writing this, I remembered that my oncologist told me at our last appointment that chemo accumulates. After a second series of chemo piled on top of the first, it naturally takes longer to get that “zing” back. I ought not to worry.

Now, as I begin to develop my first small assignment, I can tell my imagination is in no way impaired. Maybe a little out of control, but I love challenging stories. They keep me alert. Force me to figure them out. But I also know that a Christmas story is rooted in beloved traditions, and those must be at the heart of what I write.

This tradition has to do with a fabulous jewel known as . . . well, that’s the problem. I need a name for the jewel that will also be the title of the novella, and it must be connected to the Christmas Star. But “Christmas” can’t be one of the words, because the jewel was stolen from an Ottoman and must be recovered by the hero or else. It’s in the possession of the heroine, but she doesn’t know it.

I’m looking for something redolent of the star that led the Magi to seek out the newborn king. “Star of Wonder” is the closest I’ve come so far, but I’m hoping one of you will come up with something that makes me sit up and yell, “That’s It!”

The last scene of the story will take place in Kotor, Montenegro (aka “Where’s That”), and Pat and I are already tingling with excitement about our small-ship adventure to the Dalmatian Coast a few weeks from now. Which reminds me: I meed a name for the hero of my Regency story. His mother was Italian, his father a Montenegran, and he was educated in England. But I suspect dad would have insisted on a Montenegran name, so I did some research and came up with these candidates: Andro. Davor. Kiro. Rako.

Which one sounds best to you? Please post name nominations, title ideas, and whatever else is on your mind in Comments.