Small World

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

I looked at the many people asleep on the plane and wished I could join them. At the JFK airport I’d taken melatonin in hopes that I could sleep through the hours over the Atlantic. That vain imagination was soon shattered as the stewardess woke me four times to ask if I needed a drink. You would think the glare I gave her the first time would have conveyed the message.

So there I was, arms crossed, staring down the hours. I was horribly uncomfortable and my knees ached like mad. My earphones had long since wigged out, just getting me midway through The Eagle, a story about a Roman soldier braving his way past Hadrian’s Wall to recover his father’s honor.

I turned my face toward the window. The sun faded over the ocean, kissing the periwinkle waves in departure and turning them the color of ink. Those still awake and fortunate enough to have a window seat abruptly closed the shades, thinking there was nothing left to see.

Annoyance furrowed my brow. There’s always something to see. Even the black empyrean has tales to tell . . . Had they left the shade open . . . The beginnings of stories started to come to me, none worth anything. I rubbed my hands over my face thinking jet lag was setting in early and softening my mind.

I’ve long had a suspicion that timing is everything and although we can’t always see it, God is in the details. So there I sat, looking for His hand in my circumstances. My thoughts turned to the movie I’d watched earlier. Why that movie? Why this flight? A soldier against all odds braves certain death just for the sake of honor . . . Hadrian’s Wall . . . a place I’m going to see on this trip . . . Hmmm . . .

Frustrated because nothing profound was coming to me, I got up and wandered down the isle, just to walk. I drew my arms in close, not wanting to disturb those who were sleeping. I scanned their faces as I passed, wondering what their individual stories held. This journey had taken me decades. Was it as important for them?

By a wall in the middle of the plane, I saw a place where I could stand. There, in the dim artificial light, I scanned the backs of seats and the hints of movement from the people. A silver haired woman came to stand beside me. We didn’t speak for a few moments, we just let the movement of the plane rock us, both lost in our own thoughts.

Finally, our tired smiles met. After a few minutes I found out that she lived less than a half hour where my husband grew up—the very place where Bianca, the heroine of my novel, is from. Small world, I thought, passing over the information with a polite nod. We both laughed when I mentioned Hickies, a greasy spoon hamburger joint with quite a local reputation.

We must have stood there for two hours, holding court above the sea. Drawn together for just an epiphany of time, she and I had found a strange and unlikely common bond. I was coming from Colorado. She had been visiting her daughter in Florida before she boarded the plane to JFK and then England. We both fell into a companionable silence.

The light began to change in the few open windows. The hope of reaching England was turning into a euphoria heightened by my lack of sleep. The woman smiled at me before she turned to go back to her seat.

Now standing alone, I breathed deep and leaned against the wall. People began to wake and reach for the window shades, flooding the cabin with bright white light. Suddenly, Matthew 28:20 came into my mind: “ . . . lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” I looked out at the carpet of clouds, a peace spreading over me like the burnished glow of the new day sun.

It was then that I felt God clearly in the details I’d been trying to sort. It was like He saw me working so hard to decode whatever cryptic message I thought was in The Eagle and that made Him smile. All right, He might have said. You want to know that I’m here. Let me show you. And I’ll give you a reference to Bianca, just for fun.

I firmly believe that God cares about the little things in our life. Writers in general tend to agonize over their stories, wanting to entertain but also to make a difference too. There, on the border of my destination, I had a feeling that I'd made a difference already. Because He had seen me. And that makes all the difference in the world.

Such Things As Dreams Are Made On

Saturday, September 17, 2011

I have a reoccurring dream. I open a door in this world and stumble into a manor house in the 1800s. I’ve time traveled. Everywhere I look I see things resplendent—the molding upon the ceiling, the carvings on the wood paneling, the oriental carpets. A clock ticks somewhere, beating out the sounds of a simpler time. I look down and notice I’m wearing a Victorian bustle dress, the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Even the air is different; it speaks of adventure and things yet to come. There’s another thing too, I know I have absolute freedom.

I’m alone in the house and explore for hours, finding secret passages that end in the library. I can’t help the smile that comes unbidden. The books that surround me smell of old leather and secrets. I only have to reach for one to know the answers I’ve longed for. Just as I extend my hand I notice something else—there’s an open window shrouded by a lace curtain. It lifts as the wind reaches for me. I stand mesmerized, watching the lace flip and roll like the sea. 

Finally, my gaze is drawn out further. Across the lawn, there’s a garden outside, full of color that blushes and glows. Hollyhocks sway with the voice of the wind. Foxglove bow their head in reverie. Between the trembling leaves of trees and the long late summer shadows, I see a man walking. His head is down, lost in his own thoughts. I narrow my eyes, trying to see if his burden is mine to bear.

Something is urgent now, something I can’t explain. I run through the house and push open another door. I’m in an ancient courtyard running toward a stone fountain filled with doves. My shoes echo on the cobblestones and the doves take flight, the sound of their wings like the greatest mystery.


I always wake up then. It’s one of my favorite dreams. One day perhaps I'll dream longer and get to see what’s on the other side of the courtyard.

In the background of my imagination there has always been things like this. Questions. Secrets yet to uncovered. A great adventure to be called into.  A place where my heart was desperately needed. These things linger in our childhoods, told to us in stories we’ve tried to forget. We’ve written them off as a child’s fancies. The monotony of the day steals our sense of wonder away. Duty and obligation replace what we once had—a sense of knowing that anything was possible. Sometimes these old things call to us in the quiet hours when our guard is down. There is something more, it whispers. More is possible. You were made for more . . .

I’m on a journey to rediscover this romance, this deeper thing. And when I say romance, I take the Victorian definition of the word. It’s not just the romance between a man and a woman, although that is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, our society has cheapened the word. True romance is a way of living—seeing colors in a more vibrant light, seeing relationships for what they could be and not what they are, walking through the day as if something needs to be discovered. As if something can be discovered. Enjoying the laughter of a child. Doing something ridiculous just because. Hearing deep longing in a piece of music. Crying at inopportune times and not caring who sees. Fighting for your family. Getting back to who you really are. Feeling truly alive.

For me, there’s something else too. For me, this romance involves getting to know the true personality of God, not just the one or two attributes that are talked about all the time. You see, most people don’t know the God of the Bible. Most people just go on opinions formed in hurt or fear. I’m learning how to listen, really listen, and am surprised at the many ways He’s calling me. The things that He’s saying are beautiful and passionate, tremendous, and wild. He’s comforting and funny, and sometimes jealous too.

I hope you’ll come along on this journey with me. Something amazing happened to me in June. I realized a lifelong dream and went to England, Scotland, and Wales. I decided to stop dreaming and start living. I’ve got a lot of stories from those nineteen days. Perhaps I'll share some of them on this blog. 

Handfuls of Purpose

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

We've had house guests for the past two weeks so I haven't been on Facebook much or the Internet. I received the following email with this press release on Thursday, but didn't read it until yesterday. Wow. All I can say is wow.

A little backstory first:

On April 8th, I received the phone call from ACFW that I was a semi-finalist in the Genesis Contest. Just writing that sentence makes me giddy! Since our esteemed house guests were on their way (as well as my husband who's been out of town for two months), I'd actually been cleaning the toilet at the time. So there I was, toilet brush in one hand and my phone in the other. I almost didn't answer the call because I didn't recognize the number. Imagine! 

Ane Mulligan's voice greeted me. I heard the words "American Christian Fiction Writer's" and "semi-finalist." 

My senses heightened. The air around me shifted, just like crazy novelists like myself always say it does when something really important happens. "Really?" The word came out as a half-breath.

"Yes." There was happiness in her voice, and excitement too.

Tears welled in my eyes and spilled over. I tried to say something but couldn't. Finally I choked out a few words, "That's . . . so . . . wonderful." Unbridled joy welled up inside of me. You know how sometimes it seems like the tears you're crying are coming from a different place and not yourself? That's what it was like. Uncontrollable weeping for joy.

Ane told me a few other things, wished me well, and I hung up the phone. I kept on crying. I stared at myself in the mirror and I smiled. I saw my eyes widen and my brows furrowed in disbelief--two other body language tags we novelists are fond of. 

I started cleaning the toilet again, because that's what sensible people do, right? I moved on to the sink, but by that time I could hardly see. I thought to myself, If I ever had any doubts about writing or that this was what I'm meant to do, they've all been washed away. And my tears kept washing, just like I was washing the floor. 

I felt fully alive. There's a quote: "Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away." On April 8th, that's what happened for me. 

I don't know what God's ultimate plan is for my writing. All I know is that my hope is to be an instrument for Him. A scribe. That's what I try to be. And I do love to write. I love the places it takes me, and the things I discover about myself. 

Even if I don't receive the phone call from ACFW on May 13th, saying that I've made it to the finals, I sure am thankful. I'm thankful that God looked down and paid a little extra attention to me, typing away. I imagine one corner of His lips tipping up in a smile. And then a little favor floated down in my direction. 

From the ACFW email: "The attached press release has been forwarded to one of your local newspapers, The Gazette, on your behalf. Additionally, a specialized release has been sent to every major CBA literary agency and publishing house."



April 2011Colorado Springs, CO writer Brandy Vallance received the honor of semi-finalist in the prestigious Genesis Contest, American Christian Fiction Writers' respected contest for unpublished writers. Since its inception in 2002, the Genesis Contest (originally named the Noble Theme) has been the leading fiction contest for unpublished Christian writers. “The Genesis is the premier contest in the Christian Booksellers Association for the unpublished. It's THE place to get noticed by a publisher.” – Colleen Coble, CEO of ACFW. 

With over 550 entries in this year’s contest, making the 117 semi-finalists list is a noteworthy
accomplishment. Vallance is a semi-finalist in the Historical Romance category. Winners will be announced on September 24, 2011 during the awards event at the ACFW Annual Conference in St Louis, Missouri.

ACFW notes that over the life of the contest, a significant number of Genesis finalists have gone on to publication. "Among them are authors who are now multi-published, and whose books appear consistently on CBA and ECPA bestseller lists, and those whose published works receive recognition through readers' choice and industry-awarded honors. That speaks highly of the role of the Genesis Contest in helping launch author careers."

"Writers looking to break into publishing need every advantage they can gain in the pursuit of a contract. When an agent sees 'Genesis finalist' or 'Genesis winner' in a writer's proposal, it means something: This is a manuscript that deserves a closer look." – Rachelle Gardner, WordServe Literary Group

“ACFW's Genesis Contest is a springboard to a writing career in Christian fiction, and winning the Genesis Award against such an impressive pool of talented writers is, in my opinion, a great accomplishment. I can't think of a better way to jumpstart a writing career than to be a finalist in the Genesis Contest.” – Julie Gwinn, Fiction Manager, B&H Publishing Group

"We've watched the Genesis Contest grow from being a start-up operation to the well-respected event it is today. We think the Genesis Contest is a good place for beginning authors to dive in and get started." – Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary Agency

For More Information Contact: Camy Tang, ACFW Genesis Contest Coordinator                              

The Weight of Words

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

My grandmother and grandfather raised me. After my grandfather died of cancer, I remember a great sadness descending. I missed his stories, and I missed going out onto our flat back roof so he could tell them to me. By the light of the Northern Ohio stars, he’d spin tales for hours. And I was his biggest fan. Sometimes he’d have me so scared that I’d hide under the blanket I’d brought. Other times we’d laugh until we’d cry.

I was ten-years-old when he died. And I didn’t realize it, but that event became the third pathway stone on my journey as a writer. Often, during those days I’d just lay in my bed and stare at the wall. I could hear my friends playing baseball outside in the street, but I didn’t care. The cooing of the pigeons that plagued our neighborhood marked the passing of the time. Minutes. Hours. It all blended together in a sad song of Woodbine Avenue.

On one of those occasions, my grandmother came to check on me. She sat on the edge of my bed, and for a while, we both said nothing. Then she unfolded a white paper. “The hospice nurse stopped by today to see how we’re doing. She left this. I liked it and thought that maybe you would too.”

My grandmother read the poem, and we both cried for a long time. “If you want, we could tape it on your wall,” she said. I agreed and that’s what we did.

You can see what she read here.

Over the next few days and weeks, that poem was the first thing I saw when I woke up, and the last thing I saw before I went to bed. Often, I’d run my hand over the paper and then I’d trace the words with my fingertip. Little by little, the pain lessened. God allowed those words to seep into my soul and comfort me like a friend.

It was shortly after this, that I began to write seriously for the first time. I had a cassette tape of the sonnets of Shakespeare set to music. I would write for hours with the Bard’s great words in the background. It wasn’t until I started getting published many years later that my grandmother said out of the blue, “You, know, Paul was a writer too. I guess that's where you get your talent.” She handed me a manila envelope. It was stuffed full with my grandfather's poems, songs, and musings on life.

I was amazed. Here was a connection with my grandfather that I hadn’t known existed. Not only did I get my green eyes from him, but he was a writer! The very thing that I had come to love so much. I poured through the pages and scraps of paper. And there I found his voice again, telling me story after story. I laughed, and I cried. Just like all those years ago on the rooftop.

Sometimes I go back to that envelope and look at the rejection slips that my grandfather received from song companies and kept. And I think that although he never got published, I’m sure glad that he took the time to write down the words. Because to me, those words made a difference.

You never know how your words--spoken or written--will affect another soul. Or at what time God will choose to use those words. So, here I am, still writing away, leaving that decision up to Him.
        My grandfather, Paul Emerson Cole.

Another favorite picture.
 Probably spinning a yarn for his friends . . . or whoever else would listen. :-)

How It Progressed

Thursday, February 24, 2011

In the first grade I had an assignment to write three sentences about the stairs in my home. Pretty cut and dry, right? Well . . . not for me. Because the stairs weren’t just stairs. And they weren’t made of just boring old wood, either. They were made of golden fish scales. If you stepped on the third stair, a secret slot opened. And in that slot, there was a key . . .

Of course a story this grand needed illustrations. But not just pencil drawings, oh no. Color. This required lots and lots of color. Happiness spread over me, like the taste of the perfect pb&j. This feeling was euphoric, even much better than when I got to tie the pretend cardboard shoes! The world faded away, like I had my own rectangular eraser.

Until Mrs. Winowitch happened by.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Although the name Winowitch sounds about as welcoming as rickets on a pirate ship in June, this was a teacher who was exemplary. I always think of her with the greatest fondness and know without a doubt that she cared a great deal for me.

However, the way she looked down her nose at me that day is forever brandished in my mind. Surprise crossed her features as she stood beside my desk. And then a look that bordered on constipation. I was being very naughty. Very naughty, indeed. She promptly snatched my paper away and held it in front of the class as an example of what not to do.

I’ve often thought about this incident, and what I would say to Mrs. Winowitch if I could. It might go a little something like this:

Dear Mrs. Winowitch,

I’m still very naughty. Very naughty, indeed. I’m afraid “the incident” all those years ago had the reverse affect. Allow me to confess—I tell lies for fun and profit. That’s right. I write fiction. And it’s so much fun. You see, when I’m bored I use this clever instrument called imagination. It’s so helpful at times. Like when I’m standing in the post office line and I imagine everyone’s hair spontaneously falling out. And how that would look, all those different colors on the floor. But the best part would be the cries of outrage. And when the guy who used to have the mullet slipped on the poodle-permed fro. Tee-hee . . . I digress.

This thing called imagination usually serves me well, except those times when I’m the only one laughing in the room. I do tend to have the oddest black-outs sometimes. The rectangular eraser comes back and suddenly I’m in England or Jerusalem or Abu Dhabi. Yes, people do grow weary with me. Especially when they’ve been talking to me for five minutes and I have no idea what they’ve said. But, hey! That’s just the hazards of the profession. Regardless, my sincerest thanks are due to you. You inadvertently set me on the writer’s path.

Kind regards,

What about you? What’s been your weirdest flash of imagination?

How It Began

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

When I was five years old, I would ask my grandmother to read a picture dictionary to me. Every time she would get to the “writer” entry, my gaze would always linger a tad bit longer. What was it about the picture that fascinated me? The disheveled looking guy in a robe? The antiquated typewriter? The coffee cups, obviously empty? Or was it the papers lying all around him, crumpled on the floor? Maybe it was his fingers flying frantically over the keys (or so I imagined). Or maybe, just maybe, what attracted me most were the things that I saw as I rested my hand on his tired shoulder, stood on my tip-toes, and dared to peek at the half-written page. Things like joy, and pain, and the way the wind turns a leaf just before it falls. And people, such people . . .

Whatever it was, it obviously stuck. Because most likely at two a.m. that’s where you’ll find me—sitting at my laptop, wearing an old ratty robe I really should throw away, but can’t . . . just because we’ve been through so many words together. We’ve obsessed about the color of the light over old Jerusalem. We've wandered through the British Museum by candlelight, searching for Bianca's soul mate. We've studied the pattern of the rain on a window, just before he said the unthinkable and ripped her world apart.

So here I am, giving you a window into the oddities of one particular novelist. I hope you enjoy this journey, come along beside me, and we'll find our way together. And in those still, magic hours just before the sun breathes deep, I'll lift one of my tea cups—one of the many scattered around—and I'll be thinking of you, my readers, and how I can’t wait to share my imaginary world with you all.