Lynn Austin talks to Marisa about how being a former teacher has influenced her writing, her favorite historical figure from the Bible, and her extensive research.
Marisa: You previously worked as a teacher before you chose to write full time. Teachers typically feel connected either to their chosen subject matter or to the particular group of students in whom they instruct. In what ways has your teaching background influenced your writing and your experiences with others?
Lynn: The connection between my teaching and my writing is probably a little unique. I taught a broad range of students over the years, covering everything from kindergarten to high school, along with special needs students of all ages. I even taught a fourth grade class of Spanish-speaking students while living in Bogota, Colombia. What I enjoyed the most about teaching was the variety of personalities among my students and discovering the story behind each individual’s life. My college major was psychology and it made me an avid student of human behavior, which carried over into the classroom. Why did people do the things they did? What motivated them? I also enjoyed observing human relationships—parents with their children; siblings with siblings; husbands and wives; friends and rivals. Every student’s story fascinated me. So by the time I retired from teaching and began to write full-time, I had acquired quite an education in human behavior to draw upon for my novels.
Marisa: March is Biblical fiction month here at Straight Off the Page. You are re-knowned in the CBA publishing industry as being a leading author of Biblical fiction. What do you like most about Biblical fiction and why? Which historical figures from Biblical times do you most identify with? What is your favorite story within the Bible?
Lynn: My love for Biblical fiction grew out of my passion for the Bible. Even though I’ve read it over and over, I always see new things. The stories seem to come to life for me and I see them in 3-D as I read them. When I discovered that not everyone is able to read the Bible this way, I decided to write Biblical fiction so I could bring my passion for the Bible to life. I want my readers to see that the people in the Bible are just like us, with the same doubts and fears and longings that we have. And most importantly, that God is unchanging and longs to be part of our lives just as He was part of theirs.
I think I identify most with the people in the Old Testament, probably because more of their stories are told in Scripture and cover a longer time period. My favorite character is still King Hezekiah, who I readily identify with. He had to grow in faith through his trials (just like me) and he made mistakes (just like me), yet he trusted God. I first read Hezekiah’s story when I was in high school and everything about it immediately captivated me: the tension of an enemy army surrounding Jerusalem; the seemingly hopeless situation he faced; the enemy’s taunts as they urged him to surrender. But Hezekiah prayed and asked God to intervene in order to show the world His power and glory. The story still thrills me.
Marisa: Your novels span a variety of time—from the Biblical period, to Civil War, to World War Two, to Victorian and the late 1800s. Do you feel drawn to one time period over another, or do you enjoy the variety? Why?
Lynn: I enjoy the variety. Admittedly, it would be much easier to focus on a single time period and re-cycle my research but I want each of my novels to be different. I don’t want to keep writing the same type of book over and over until it becomes predictable. I would find that very boring, and I think my readers would, too.
It often happens that while researching one book, I come upon some interesting tidbit from a different era—and it inevitably leads to another novel. To me, there is plenty of real-life drama to explore in every time period. My teachers always seemed to emphasize politics and warfare in history classes, but I wanted to know what real people were doing during that time. How did wives and mothers feel about sending their loved ones off to war? How did women cope all alone while their men were fighting battles? I eventually discovered that I could use original diaries and other first-person historical accounts to answer those questions—and that gave me plenty to write about.
Marisa: Along with the variety in time periods, your novels are also set all over the United States and in other countries. You have traveled far and wide, and in those travels have experienced many cultures and lifestyles. How do you feel your travels have influenced your fiction writing?
Lynn: They have influenced me tremendously! I don’t think I’d be the same writer if I hadn’t traveled or lived in so many interesting places. I love talking to new people and hearing their stories, and that has given me a variety of experiences to draw upon for each book. Many of my characters are loosely based on real people—Aunt Batty in Hidden Places, for example, is based on a woman I knew in Canada. Wings of Refuge contains stories I heard while living in Israel. A Swedish friend gave me the idea for the three immigrant Swedish sisters in Until We Reach Home, and a research trip to Ellis Island in New York City gave me plot ideas for that book. I met a real “Rosie the Riveter” in Texas who inspired Jean’s story in A Woman’s Place. And a Jewish friend from Hungary encouraged me to tell the true story of Raoul Wallenberg in Until We Reach Home. Everything in my travels, from the style of houses I see, to the food I eat, to the local geography, gives me something new to write about and helps bring my stories to life.
Marisa: I imagine that researching for historical fiction takes even more care than doing the same for contemporary novels. What was your research like for The Restoration Chronicles? Have you ever visited the Holy Land, the setting for this series?
Lynn: Historical fiction does require a great deal of reading and research in order to get the facts right. To research my first Biblical fiction series, “Chronicles of the Kings,” I volunteered on an archaeological dig in Israel for a month while taking a graduate course in Biblical Backgrounds. That experience gave me a good start in learning how to research Biblical fiction—plus I experienced Israel! For the “Restoration Chronicles” I was able to visit Israel several more times because my daughter and her husband were living in Jerusalem at the time. I explored Jerusalem, learned historical details at the many wonderful Israeli museums, saw what a typical home would have looked like, stood beside a section of Nehemiah’s wall, and also experienced the sights, smells and sounds of that country. Back home, I took classes with a rabbi in Chicago in order to learn how the Jewish people view these scriptures. And my son, who has a PhD in Biblical Studies, has also been an enormous help to me in finding the resources I need to get the details right.
Marisa: In your most recent blog post, you talked about visiting New York City with your sister to research for upcoming novels. What you do you enjoy most about researching and which parts are not quite so enjoyable? Have you ever been surprised by certain facts more than you expected when researching for one of your books?
Lynn: I enjoy the traveling part of research the most because I can get out of my office, meet new people, and experience new things. I keep a journal as I travel to record all of my impressions—the smells and sounds, the weather, even the insects and birds. And I take plenty of pictures so I’ll stay inspired once I return home. I really do enjoy all parts of the research process, even the hours and hours I spend reading source materials. Once I stop researching and finally start writing, I continue to look things up and make new discoveries as I write.
Yes, I’m constantly surprised by what I discover! It’s those surprising things that make the best stories. For example, I was taking notes at a southern plantation while researching my Civil War books and the guide asked me what the notes were for. I explained that I was writing about the Civil War and he said, “Oh, you mean the war for Southern Independence?” His question surprised me, but it made me realize that I needed to look at the historical “facts” from other points of view if I wanted to portray the events of the war and my southern characters accurately.
Marisa: In that same blog post, tenements and German immigration were discussed for a future novel. What do you find compelling about immigration history, especially in regards to the immigrants who lived in city tenements? Have you come any closer since writing that blog post to finalizing plans for an upcoming novel?
Lynn: I think I’ve always identified with immigrants who’ve uprooted their lives and left their families behind in order to move to a foreign country because my husband and I have lived and worked in two foreign countries—Canada and Colombia. Immigrating is a very daunting step to take! Learning a new language, adjusting to a different culture, making new friends, even finding housing and figuring out where to shop is overwhelming at times. When writing Louise’s story in Eve’s Daughters, I drew on my memories of moving to South America for my husband’s work, and also my great-grandparents’ experiences when they immigrated from Germany in the 1890s.
And while I can identify with some of the emotions these immigrants might have felt, I can’t even begin to imagine the hardships they faced! City tenements were overcrowded, filthy, disease-filled places. The people who left home for the promise of a better life must have been devastated to discover that America’s streets weren’t paved with gold after all. I find that nearly all of my readers can relate to my immigrant novels because they also have immigrant relatives with a story to tell.
I am still planning to write a novel about the tenement experience but it will have to wait for another year. I’m currently working on a novel about Dutch immigrants to the mid-west in the 1840s, and they made their home in the wilderness, not a tenement.
Marisa: Your upcoming release in The Restoration Chronicles, On This Foundation, will be published in late fall 2015 by Bethany House Publishers. Nehemiah’s story is the third book in this series. Can you share with us a little bit about this story and your inspiration for The Restoration Chronicles?
Lynn: I’ve always found the Biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah fascinating—and sadly overlooked. The men and women in these Bible stories left their settled lives behind, traveled nearly a thousand miles, and started all over again in order to follow God. Ezra and Nehemiah carefully studied God’s Word then tried their best to live according to it, and that inspires me to try to do the same. The theme of walking faithfully in a hostile culture is a very relevant one for today.
The first book, Return to Me, tells how the exiles returned to the Promised Land from captivity and rebuilt the Temple. The second book, Keepers of the Covenant, describes how Ezra inspired his people to live by the Scriptures. And the third book, On This Foundation, will tell how Nehemiah convinced the people to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah experienced God’s miraculous deliverance from Haman’s death sentence during Queen Esther’s time. He later served as a cupbearer to the King of Persia, a job that was similar to a modern Secret Service agent protecting the President. Nehemiah’s passion for “security” led him to return to Jerusalem to reconstruct the walls protecting the city. Everyone in Judea got involved in his project, and according to scripture, a man named Shallum rebuilt a section of the wall with the help of his daughters. Highly unusual, to say the least! I decided to feature Shallum’s remarkable daughters in my novel.