With the three books of The Living Water Series released in the past three years, I’ve fielded plenty of ask-the-author questions on blogs, on my acebook page, and at author events. I’ve developed standard answers to the some of most common queries:
How did you start writing?
What is your favorite part of being an author?
And even the hard-to-answer . . . So how many books have you sold?
But the one question that always gives me pause is the seemingly innocuous: Where do you get your ideas?
The easy answer is . . . everywhere. From the Bible, my favorite novels, an old lady I pass in the grocery store, historical research and sometimes completely from my imagination. But many authors will agree with me that some ideas—often the best ideas and foundations on which our stories rest—come from the deepest and most intensely personal experiences of our own lives.
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Writing is an imminently personal experience. Our stories—the ones with the most resonance and meaning—come from a place deep within us, experiences that we wouldn’t think to discuss with strangers, but will disguise as fiction and send out into the world. Sometimes we don’t even know what we’ve done until we look back on a book and realize how closely its themes parallel what we were experiencing in our personal life during the writing process.
But how could my own personal life transform a story about people who lived two thousand years ago and half a world away?
My most example comes from writing The Tomb, A Novel of Martha.
In it, the character of Lazarus, his relationship with Martha, and the scene in which he died come directly from a very personal and heartbreaking experience.
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For several years, my dearest friend’s son waged a fight against a rare form of bone cancer. In the spring of 2013, he was 18 years old and had only weeks to live. As his suffering increased, so did our prayers. Each day I begged the Lord for strength and peace for Zach and his mother, Laura, and their family. Laura suffered beside him, praying for more time with her beloved son, knowing she could do nothing more than be with him and love him up until his last moment. On May 20th, 2013, Zach died, surrounded by his family, who knew that he was entering into a life of unbelievable joy and yet were devastated by the loss of his bright light.
That summer, I began to write The Tomb, A Novel of Martha. In it, Lazarus is a young man of eighteen, ready to go out into the world and follow Jesus. Instead, he is stricken with a deadly illness. His sisters, Martha and Mary, stay by his bedside, praying for more time—time for Jesus to come and save him. But their prayers and their plea to Jesus seem to be unanswered.
Much like my friend Laura, Martha called on Jesus, but he didn’t come to save Lazarus as she knew he could. When the answer to her pleas for Lazarus’s life seemed to be ‘no’, Martha—just as my friend Laura—did not lose her hope or faith in Jesus. In fact, it was then that her faith grew stronger.
When Jesus finally did come to Bethany, Martha went to meet him. Her faith was so strong, that even with Lazarus in the grave for four days she trusted that whatever Jesus asked, God would give him. Laura and her family, although experiencing the worst grief imaginable, also stayed faithful to their belief in God’s goodness. Their faith gave them strength and peace on the worst days and continues to uphold them.
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Writing out of your own pain, or your best friend’s pain, is hard. Each chapter leaves you emotional drained. I sometimes wished I didn’t have Zach’s face in my mind as I wrote of Lazarus’s suffering. I wished I didn’t remember Laura’s grief when I thought of Martha. I didn’t want to reach into that place of sadness put it into the story. And yet each morning as I sat down to write, I knew that what I was reliving was nothing compared to my friend’s constant ache of loss, or to the pain Martha had experienced two thousand years ago.
I remember while in the midst of writing the ending of The Tomb, I talked briefly to fellow writer. She asked me how the book was coming along. After just a few words, I was choking up. She saw this and immediately stopped what she was doing, took my hands, and prayed for me. I needed that more than I had realized.
I’m currently working on a book mirroring the parable of the Lost Son. This has always been a favorite parable of mine, as it shows the absolute love and of the Father. It’s no coincidence that I was drawn to this story just months after the death of my own father, who was the most compassionate and loving mn I’ve ever known. The father figure in this book will reflect him, and I’m sure I’ll shed many tears again as I write.
It takes courage to bare our souls in print. But a writer has the unique opportunity—perhaps even a duty—to dig deep, to use our own intensely emotional experiences to make our stories resonate with truth. In the end, it is worth the emotional toll when we have crafted a story that will touch readers’ hearts in a true and authentic way about love and loss, forgiveness and faith.
How do your own very personal life experiences influence the stories you write? Do they influence what books you choose to read?
If you’d like to know more of Laura and Zach’s story, visit http://flyalittlehigher.com
Stephanie will be giving away a copy of The Tomb, A Novel of Martha, to one commenter.
Stephanie Landsem, author of The Living Water Series, writes historical fiction because she loves adventure in far-off times and places. In real life, she’s explored ancient ruins, medieval castles, and majestic cathedrals around the world. Stephanie is equally happy at home in Minnesota with her husband, four children, and three fat cats. When she’s not writing, she’s feeding the ravenous horde, avoiding housework, and dreaming about her next adventure—whether it be in person or on the page.