THE CRAFT OF WRITING – OCTOBER 2020
THE CRAFT OF WRITING – OCTOBER 2020
This month I’m happy to welcome Daniel Overdorf to the blog. Although Daniel has previously published non-fiction titles, A Death Well Lived is his first novel and is a 2020 Illumination Awards Winner! It was published and released in January 2020 by CrossLink Christian Publishers. The book description on Amazon is so compelling that I’m including a portion of it here:
Lucius Valerius Galeo personifies the Roman Empire’s ambition and dominance. An egotistical centurion, his swagger betrays his arrogance and his blood-stained fists evidence his quick temper. He serves in Judea, quelling Jewish riots in Caesarea’s hippodrome and doing the bidding of the governor, Pontius Pilate, from Jerusalem’s fortress of Antonia. The Jewish people repulse him.
A Death Well Lived is a captivating tale set in first century Judea that offers hope for the worst among us and the worst within us.
Daniel Overdorf grew up in the mountains of eastern Tennessee and southern West Virginia, where he experienced the value of the blue-collar work ethic, the wonder of Appalachian storytelling, and the joy of being raised in the home of a preacher who loves the church with all his heart.
These early influences continue to shape his perspectives of life and faith. He graduated from Johnson University, then spent the next ten years ministering with churches in Illinois and Georgia. In the meantime, he earned a Master of Divinity from Lincoln Christian Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He currently serves as Professor of Pastoral Ministries with Johnson University in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Prior to A Death Well Lived, he published four books related to the church and preaching.
Welcome, Daniel! Congratulations on your Illumination Award and thank you for joining us!
Thank you so much. I appreciate the kind introduction and I’m honored to join you.
Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get interested in writing?
I remember going to the library as a boy and coming back with my arms full of books. I read all the Hardy Boys series, and later Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie novels. Stories have always captured me.
Through high school and college, teachers encouraged my writing. I appreciate that they saw potential in me. It wasn’t until after college, though, that I considered writing for publishing. At this time, I began writing longer papers for grad school, articles for church newsletters, and lessons and sermons on a regular basis. I enjoyed the process, both the research and the creative side of it.
After having written non-fiction, what made you decide to write this novel?
My previous books grew out of what I was learning in grad school and later as a professor. I enjoyed sharing with readers what I had researched and wrestled with.
A few years ago, I decided to write this novel for several reasons. I have long felt that pastors could learn much from novelists about communication. Since my primary role is to teach pastors, I decided that learning to write fiction would add value to what and how I teach. Also, I wanted to tell this particular story. There are a couple of Roman centurions who show up in the New Testament, but we know very little about them. I wanted to imagine what a centurion’s life may’ve been like before and after encountering Jesus. Finally, I just wanted to learn how to do something new. It was time in my life and development to stretch myself, and since I’ve always loved story, I felt this would be a fun adventure.
I included part of the book description above. Can you fill us in with a short synopsis of A Death Well Lived?
When the book opens, the main character, Lucius, isn’t the most likable fellow. He’s selfish and violent, especially toward the Jewish people in his jurisdiction. As the story unfolds, though, he encounters courage, warmth, and generosity among the Jews that begins to soften his heart. Then, when he crosses paths with a rabbi from Galilee, his whole worldview is called into question.
As a historical novel, the book carefully weaves in historical research about the culture, geography, and events of first century Judea. While writing the novel, I was able to make three trips to Israel to walk the countryside and see the sites where my story would unfold.
What was the most difficult thing about writing a novel?
For me, the most difficult aspect was to let the story drive the book. I so enjoyed the research, and I found myself, time and again, including too much data and too little story. My original draft had paragraph after paragraph of description. It was good description (if I don’t say so myself!), but it muddled the story.
With the help of gracious and wise a writing mentor, Cindy Sproles, I learned to bring the story front and center (you can read about Cindy’s perspective of this process at this link). I was still able to include much of the description, but I learned to use it in a way that furthered the story rather than distracting from it.
Describe your path to publication.
Though I was a published author, I was not a published novelist. So, in essence, I was starting from scratch. Christian fiction and non-fiction are two different worlds. I spoke with a couple of agents who offered helpful guidance. I had worked once in the past with CrossLink Publishing, a small, Christian, trade publisher out of South Dakota. I contacted the editor there, and after a few conversations we decided to move forward with the project. I appreciate the opportunity to work with CrossLink.
What one message do you want readers to take away from your book?
I want readers to turn the last page and feel hope—hope that people can change (including ourselves), and hope that our sovereign God is stronger than even the most difficult circumstances we may face.
What single piece of advice would you give to new authors?
Find a mentor. Some join writing groups, where members encourage each other and critique their work. Others are able to develop relationships with established writers. However you accomplish it, don’t write alone. Invite others to speak into your process.
What do you do when you want to get away from work?
I have a couple of teenagers still living at home who keep us busy with concerts, school plays, ballgames, and similar activities. So, I spend much of my time away from work cheering for my kids. I also enjoy exercising, playing golf, and watching college sports.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a book tentatively titled Preaching: A Simple Approach to the Sacred Task. It will be a basic textbook for first-year preaching students and a refresher for experienced pastors. I’m working with Kregel Publishers. It will be another year or two before it’s completed and released.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
Thank you, Daniel, for sharing your expertise with us!
You’re more than welcome!
Good morning, Kay and Daniel! Daniel, last night I had a chance to read the first few pages of A Death Well Lived and I love the conflict you get going right from the start. These centurions are convincing!
I, too, believe fiction is one of the most effective ways to communicate truth (ironically). I always cite Jesus’s use of parables to describe things that almost defy description, such as the Kingdom of Heaven. My question to you this morning is have you figured out ways to reach those pastors you mentioned as part of your target audience? Especially the ones who may think reading novels is a waste of time? We all struggle with finding our novels’ audiences and get our books in front of them. Any insights you’ve gained would be much appreciated!
Good morning, Lisa!
I have also found that fiction is a powerful way to communicate. Creating a world, populating it with characters, having them experience life and drawing conclusions is a lot to be responsible for.
You raise a great point about finding audiences for your books. I look forward to hearing Daniel’s response to that one.
I’m glad you’re enjoying it, Lisa! I’ve been able to bring some of what I learned to pastors through conferences and speaking engagements (though those have slowed in Covid world, of course), and in the classroom with my students. Some of them have read the book, and others I just talk with about things I learned from writing fiction that can help them become better preachers/teachers.
Thank you, Daniel. What strikes me most about your answer is there are no shortcuts to reaching potential readers, not just for our books, but for fiction in general. It’s always word of mouth, and that seems to start with the author’s words. Thanks again, and Godspeed with your work!
I’m reading this book right now; the title alone was intriguing. How did you come up with that title? I know it’s a play on “A life well lived,” but somehow that one vital word change would never have occurred to me.
I know you said you visited Israel multiple times, but what other research did you do? I’ve ghost-written a few historical novels, and edited a few others, and the further back you go, the more difficult it can be to find information–especially on day-to-day living. I’d be interested, especially, in your sources for the Romans.
The character of Lucius comes off very much as a bully who enjoys inflicting pain on others at the beginning of the book. I’ll be interested to see what changes he undergoes, and how his character arc is handled. Thanks for letting us know about this book. Do you have any other novels in mind?
Hi Mel. It’s interesting that you ask about the title. I knew I wanted a title that indicated the book would deal with matters of live and death. During the whole time I was writing, I had a working title of “And I No Longer Live” (from Galatians 2:20). As we got closer to publication, though, the other title came to mind, A Death Well Lived (I honestly can’t remember how). I did a quick Facebook poll among friends and an overwhelming majority liked that title.
As far as other research, I’m fortunate to work on a Christian college campus with a good library. I learned much from the writings of Josephus. The novel tells about 2 riots, for example–one in Caesarea and one in Jerusalem–both of which Josephus described. I also used several books about ancient Rome, the Roman military, the daily life of first century Jews, etc. The Jews Under Roman Rule by Mary Smallwood was particularly helpful, and Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Florence Dupont.
I have a couple of ideas for other novels, but it’ll be next year before I get to them. I have a non-fiction book due in the spring that’s taking my writing time for now. I look forward to getting back to fiction, though.
Good morning, Daniel! It’s great to have you on the blog today.
I enjoy reading about how authors decide the subject matter of books they want to write and how they proceed to get to publication.
I’m interested in your trips to Israel. Were you already working on the book before you took that first trip, or were your trips to the Holy Land instrumental in leading you to write this book?
Hi Kay! On my first trip, I had the book in the back of my mind, but hadn’t put anything on paper yet. So, the visit helped spark ideas (especially at the hippodrome in Caesarea). The second trip was during the midst of the writing, and the third trip was while I was polishing the manuscript. The trips were connected with a program we do through our university, so they weren’t exclusively for research purposes, but they sure helped!
Thanks for sharing your writing journey with us!
Your comment about how going to the library ignited your interest in writing really resonated with me. Like you, I’d walk out with a tall stack of books—including novels by Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes. But I opted for Nancy Drew instead of the Hardy Boys (unless they appeared in a crossover novel *smile*).
I thought your experience with balancing story with research was very interesting. I plan to read the article by Cindy Sproles that you mentioned. Thanks for recommending it!
There must be so many research tidbits that you had to leave out—and rightly so. Have you thought of packaging them together in a mini-ebook that you could use as an incentive to get readers to sign up for your author newsletter? Or even write them as blog posts that you could use to attract readers who are looking for books in your genre?
Just a thought!
Hello HRD! Great ideas in your comment. Thanks for stopping by.
Good ideas! Thanks for mentioning them. I had not thought about packaging the research tidbits…but I will think about it now :).