Thursday, March 30, 2006

Joshua and Aisha

Everybody loves a love story.

When Joshua and Aisha meet, their eventual marriage seems unlikely. She's smart, very motivated and working to complete her college education. He's awkward, unsure and working as a dishwasher in a restaurant. To make matters worse, Aisha's protective older brother, who is her wali, or guardian, completely disapproves of Joshua.

But Aisha convinces her brother to give Joshua a chance. Their differences flair during their courtship, and occasionally after their marriage. Doesn't that happen in every marriage?

I am enjoying writing the story of Joshua and Aisha, which continues throughout the series. She is sharp, and sometimes sharp-tongued. He is generally easy-going, and sometimes maddeningly unconventional. He pushes the limits. She's an elementary school teacher who knows how to keep everyone--students and husband included--in line.

Joshua and Aisha face many challenges in their life together, beginning with their interracial marriage. But that, along with every other obstacle, fails to stop them.

When I first wrote the character of Aisha, I wasn't sure where she would take me. I respect her more with every sentence she utters. And she is just what Joshua needs to make his life complete.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Details, details, details

I've written before about research. Now I'm facing a new challenge.

I know what I want to write about. I can picture the scene. I ran it by a fellow writer who actually knows a little more about the subject. A few pointed questions later, I realized I really didn't know very much at all about it.

It's all in the details.

Time for me to get to work.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The strong silent type

One of my favorite characters in the entire Echoes Series is Umar. First of all, I like the name. (My second son is named Umar.) It denotes strength and resolution.

Umar presents himself as being strong and very determined. He's a man of few words, and his words are spoken carefully. He has high principles, which he strives to follow, and high expectations of those he loves.

There is another side to Umar too. A softer side. A vulnerable side. He rarely shows it, and only to the few whom he would trust with his life.

Umar is a man of strong faith who still needs reassurances. The face he presents is not who he is. Not because he's dishonest. Simply because he cannot bring himself to admit his own weaknesses.

I like all of my character, for different reasons. (Though some of them, if they were real, would drive me crazy.) But I truly have enjoyed developing the character of Umar. Tony Evans. A man who found the truth in the Qur'an at the age of twenty, and has never looked back.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Joshua and his brothers

His biological brothers, that is. I'll talk later about his brothers-in-faith.

Joshua is the youngest of three. Brad, the oldest brother, is professional and exact. Some might call him obsessive. He is a high-achiever who has trouble understanding or accepting failure. He is Joshua's mentor and confidante.

Chris, the middle brother, is also serious. Especially about his faith. He became a born-again Christian at the age of fourteen, and that decision has guided his life. He cares about Joshua, but he can't accept Joshua's conversion to Islam.

I've observed the real-life interactions of brothers for more than twenty years. My sons have their own dynamics. One thing I can say about life with brothers. It is rarely boring.

Brad, Chris and Joshua are not necessarily typical. But they are not very different either. They are brothers, held together by the bond of family and struggling to understand each other through their differences. And no matter what happens, no matter how great the conflict, in the end they are always brothers.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Joshua's conversion

People come to Islam in many different ways. Some through reading, some through personal contact. Most converts can name at least one influential person in their journeys to Islam.

Joshua came to Islam through his friends. Men who helped him when everyone else, even his own mother, turned him away.

Joshua's story is fiction, but his situation is not fictitious. I've seen Muslim men rally around one another. I've seen my own sons readily accept and assist those who need help.

At every critical point in Joshua's life, both before his conversion and after, he has someone who is there for him.

Can we say the same for real life?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006


Several years ago I taught a very nice young woman named Safa. She just contacted me. She's about to graduate from college.

She also referred me to her blog:

It is so satisfying to know that all those years of teaching haven't gone to waste!

Nice job, Safa.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

What did you say?

Different writers have different strengths.

I have read some books where the description of places is so vibrant that I think I am there. Objects take on lives of their own. I can see every character, every scene.

I'm not one of those writers. I attribute that shortcoming to my own inobservant nature. I'm not color-blind (though I usually can't tell the difference between navy and black), but I don't see color unless it is so bright that it cannot be ignored. (I grew up with black-and-white TV, and filled in my own colors.) I don't notice how people look. I notice their quirks. The way they speak. Little gestures. But ask me to describe someone's face, and I'm lost. I couldn't even describe my own husband, or my own mother, beyond the general characteristics--my husband has a beard, for instance, and my mother has black hair. When my editor pushes me to write description, it requires extraordinary effort. I do "see" my characters in my mind--in a general sense, the same way I see my mother or my husband. But describing demands a greater depth of vision.

What I can do is write dialogue. I thoroughly enjoy it. When I'm writing, I can often "hear" (no, I'm not schizophrenic) the voices of my characters. I hear their inflections, their emotions. When one character provokes another, I hear the response. I can even hear the differences among my different characters. I cannot write until each character has his or her own "voice." (When my editor suggests changes in dialogue, my response is often, "He wouldn't say that.")

I've heard of writers who are challenged on writing good dialogue. I know one writer who pours forth fantastic descriptive passages, but says she's uncomfortable with the conversations--though I think she does a good job.

Each of us has talents, and talents within talents. What we need to do is to maximize what we can do, and do it well.

Then maybe people won't mind so much if I can't tell them anything about the couch, except that it is green.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Writing Fiction Means Knowing Your Facts

Without getting too far ahead of my readers, I can reveal that I have some major plot twists coming up in the Echoes Series. Okay, I'll say it. One of my characters will become disabled.

When I decided on this story line, I knew I would have my work cut out for me. But I couldn't resist it. For the last year I have been conducting research for this part of my story.

People--non-writers--act surprised when I tell them I'm researching. You're writing fiction, not non-fiction. Why would you care about research?

Writers know the answer to that. Fiction can demand a great deal of research. I know of novelists who have spent years getting all their facts straight.

For my disabled character, I began by reading. First on-line, then at the library. I've read two or three memoirs written by people who have this particular disability. That gave me some insight, but I still felt I wasn't ready.

A few days ago, I had a serendipitous discovery. An online-newsletter for writers included an interview with Empish Thomas, who is both a writer and an outspoken advocate for the disabled. She also has a disability, and can speak from first-hand experience. I promptly emailed her.

I am grateful to Ms. Thomas for the long conversation and wealth of information she provided to me over the phone tonight. She is a wonderful person--determined, pleasant to talk with and very committed to her mission. Did I mention knowledgeable? I am sure we will be having more conversations, and I'm looking forward to it.

A novelist cannot be simply a weaver of fanciful stories. He or she must also be knowledgeable enough to make the characters live realistically in the world he or she has created. Even if that world is in a galaxy far, far away.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Focusing on my writing, or how to keep my train of thought even in a house of lively boys

I'm a mother. That alone was reason enough for me not to write for many years. Children demand so much--no matter what the age. When they're young, it's feeding, diapers and keeping them out of trouble. When they're older, it's grade, money and keeping them out of trouble.

I have found that music is a great way to help me concentrate. When I put in the right CD, the music somehow helps me tune out all the chaos around me and focus on what I want to write. It happens time and time again. For instance, right now the TV is blaring but I'm able to keep writing this.

Which CD to use is a matter of choice. It also depends on what I'm writing. I'm very partial to Native Deen, and I like to listen to them while I write. I haven't yet found any other Islamic CD that helps me--most of them are too soft, and I need something with an edge.

I do listen to a lot of Yusuf Islam, and Cat Stevens. The Cat Stevens songs are particulary helpful for the moods I hope to create.

I also listen to The Oldies. More specifically, I have chosen songs from the 60s and 70s which help me create the mood I want in my writing. Then I went a step further. I burned a CD for each character.

In my current project, I switch frequently among three different characters. Each time I switch, I simply put in a different CD. Each CD has about 15 songs which pertain to that character. Usually I just let the CD play in a loop. Sometimes I will target a certain song for a particular scene.

Anyone can find an excuse for not writing. Children, job, fatigue, distractions.

But if you are really a writer, you will not be satisfied unless you are writing.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Joshua's journey

When I finished writing Echoes, my writing buddy asked me what comes next. I had taken Joshua to a certain point in her life, and she got me thinking about where his life could go from there.

"What comes next" is answered in my newly published book, Rebounding. I just received my copies today. One of the nicest feelings is to hold your book in your hands for the very first time--not quite as nice as giving birth, but it ranks up there.

At the end of Echoes, Joshua's journey has just begun. His struggles continue in Rebounding where, among other things, he gets caught up in the war on terror.

Joshua's journey extends over five books. I expect the third book to come out early next year.

The path Joshua travels is not so much different than what we experience in our own lives. The details aren't the same, but the themes are. Marriage, children, love, loss, anger, joy. And faith. No matter what, Joshua always lets his faith be his guide.

Joshua is a simple man. That's one thing that has made him so fun to write. He is a Muslim Everyman. Struggling each day to keep up his prayers and take care of his family.

I'm currently working on the fourth book. When I finish the Echoes Series, I think I will be sad to leave Joshua behind.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


You have to have it. Preferably not in your life, but definitely in your story.

Man against man. Man against nature. Man against himself. Man against the supernatural. Or woman, of course.

I like writing conflict. I've done a couple of physical fight scenes. Those are challenging, but I turn to my boys for their expert advice (believe me, boys know fighting).

My favorite conflict, though, is the argument. Husband and wife. Current wife and ex-wife. Parent and child. I try to think of the most hurtful thing each character can say to the other, and let loose. It's very cathartic.

I have two sons who love to write. They're more into physical conflict or man against nature.

But I'll take a good argument any day. I can let my characters say all the things I wouldn't even dream of saying.

And you have to have one or two characters who stir things up no matter where they go, no matter who they're speaking with. That's what keeps things exciting.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Let it flow!

There are two basic theories of writing. Each writer belongs to one of two camps.

The first group believes in carefully planning out the story, each character and each twist of the plot. I've heard of writers who produce flow charts, or page after page of writing in a special notebook. This approach suits some writers very well, and has produced some good books.

But it's not me. I tried it once, and I became so bogged down in the details that I was completely unable to write the story.

I belong to the writing-by-the-seat-of-your-pants school of thought. Which is strange, because in every other aspect of my life I love planning, crave it actually, and feel uncomfortable with too much spontaneity. (Ask my husband, who by day functions efficiently as a well-organized administrator but by night becomes Mr. Spontaneous.)

When I write, I let it flow. Take Echoes, for instance. I started, as I said earlier, with a simple premise. A mother and a son. The son, who had a wild youth, becomes a Muslim. The mother cares very much about appearances. Put it all together and stand back to watch the fun.

I started with Joshua. I knew his character and how he would react in a given situtation. I established a "voice" for him. Then I let him go. The results were amazing. At times, Joshua put himself into situations which I heartily disapproved of. But Joshua is spontaneous, and he loves to surprise me.

(Okay, before anyone calls the men in the white coats, I don't hear voices and none of my characters has actually appeared to me, as in Secret Window. I do watch that movie periodically and take it as a cautionary tale.)

Recently I was stuck with a character who plays a major role in the fourth book of the Echoes Series, Ripples. I couldn't decide how he would react. Would he be mature and responsible, or would he go completely off the deep end? I wrote different versions of the story, and was never quite satisfied. Finally I just stepped aside and let the character take over his own fate. I have to say I am pleased with the results.

The neatest thing about my style is that it works, often beyond my wildest dreams. I am highly intuitive, and when I come to the end of the story I realize the different facets have pulled themselves together with very little conscious effort on my part. I knew what was happening, but I didn't need to think about it or agonize over it. It just worked.

For those writers who require organization, I say, Go for it.

But as for me, I say, Let it flow!

Friday, March 10, 2006

What a Character

I used to believe that the most important part of the story was the plot. If I could just come up with the most amazing, fantastic plot that no one had ever thought of before, I would write the Great American novel.

But then I read an article about character development. And I considered all the great works of literature, great plays, great movies. The best are the ones that develop great characters.

With this in mind, I created Joshua Adams. I gave him a name, an age, a family, a past. Then I added personal preferences and quirks. I got to know Joshua's favorite color, favorite food, favorite pastime and most over-used expression.

All the other characters developed around Joshua. He was the star, and they were there to for him. Later on, I've given many of these characters their own scenes. One has his own book--look for Number Three, tentatively titled Odyssey.

Of course, every story must have a plot. A beginning, a build-up, a climax and a satisfying ending. But I am convinced that the best story must also have at least one memorable character.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Making of a Series

I started the Echoes Series very simply.

I wanted to write a book but I didn't have a topic. I remembered the adage, Write what you know. So I sat down and brainstormed, writing down everything I know.

It took one-and-a-half pages. I didn't know I knew that much!

One of the things I know, almost more than anything else, is being a mother to sons. I've been doing it for over twenty-three years, and I still have a houseful of boys. They are very interesting. Noise and body noises. Crude jokes and joking around with their brothers. Physical contact practically every waking moment.

I also observe the emotional lives of boys. After the age of seven or eight they try to abide by the unwritten rule--boys don't cry. They love one another, but will hug only under coercion. They have a very different relationship with their father than they have with me. They need both of us.

So I sat down to write a story about a mother and a son. Evie Adams and her third-born, Joshua.

And that's how the Echoes Series began.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What is the Echoes Series?

When I was in high school, I was assigned to read some books about the Jewish holocaust. The stories were personal, and I felt sympathy for the characters.

After I became a Muslim, I decided to write personal stories about Muslims. Stories showing the struggles and the humanity.

I put off writing the stories for several years. I was a teacher, and had no time or energy to write. But on the morning of 9/11, I, along with millions of others, watched death and destruction. I decided life is too short to defer a dream.

My first novel, Innocent People, is about the impact of 9/11 on ordinary Muslims living in a midwestern town. In Innocent People, I showed how the events of the day affected a Muslim woman, her husband and her children, portraying both the positve and negative.

For my next novel, Echoes, I created the character of Joshua Adams. Joshua converts to Islam after a rough childhood and a disastrous marriage. Even while he tries to change, the echoes of his old life pursue him.

When a friend read the completed manuscript of Echoes, she asked me, "What comes next?" I thought about it, imagining Joshua ten years later. How would he have grown? What situations would he and his family be facing?

The book is called Rebounding. Rebounding, the second book in the Echoes Series, was published last month. Joshua Adams and his best friend, Tony Evans, face new challenges as they strive to live as Muslims in a society where Islam is not the norm.

There will be a total of five books in the Echoes Series, insha Allah. I have already written the third book, and I expect it to come out early next year. I'm currently working on the fourth book. I know how the Echoes Series will end, but that's something my readers will have to wait to see.