Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Stick in the Forest of Life

Today I heard a sermon that really spoke to my heart about my life. Be a stick. Don't forget to be a stick. While somewhat unusual a topic, I identified with it right away, because of it being about God calling us all sticks so that we do something amazing, but then we go back to being just a stick.

When I think about my life, how much of it did I spend wanting to be more than a stick? Tons. I wasted so much time not wanting to look back, but still found myself doing just that anyway. What if that very action of looking back was what was supposed to happen? Instead of seeing it as the curse of rumination, it's a call to not get full of myself and to live in between the "great" moments of my life, because those are the majority of my days.

There's also the connotation that a stick is dead. Truly, without Christ, that is what we all are. Thankfully, Jesus says we are branches, not sticks - while He is the vine. Only those who don't live and do in Christ are cursed to be sticks, which are fit only for the fire. It's a powerful visual that drives an even bigger point home: we can't let ourselves ever grow tired of whatever God has called us to do with our lives, as branches, but at the same time, we must die to self (embracing the stick within us) to put on Christ and have His power of restoration flowing through us. He is the Healer and Giver of Life; all we can ever do is plant seeds. Jesus is the gardener who waters, prunes, and protects.

In essence, we are all just sticks at heart. At least some days, right? We feel isolated, depressed, afraid - all human emotions, which lead to acting out. I know I do my fair share of this on a regular basis, which is why feeding my mind with the Word and spending time with other believers in Christ is vital to my regrowth, so that I can go back to being a branch.

I say all this to link my calling with my Savior. Do you know Him? Do you see Him in the pages I write? I hope so. I truly do! He is why I can write and share my thoughts with you. I write so that you can have hope, see that your experiences mirror that of others, and recognize the path you can take that leads to putting your best foot forward.

As you consider all of what I'm saying, please know that I am just me - a mere mortal with limitations I don't always want to admit. You may like what I have to share, or you may not - but at the end of the day, I'm an average person, just like YOU. I'm not above any hardship, difficulty, or loss. Today, I am who I am because of how I got through some tough times and kept going. It's why I have hope, and why I put that hope in Jesus!

Let's Meet in Person!
If you're lucky enough to live in the Indianapolis, IN area, and have read The Ellises Book 1: A Place to Call Home, and want to have your copy autographed, or if you'd like to buy a signed copy, then I have good news for you! I'll be participating in a Vendors Sunday for Local Authors event at the Quirky Feather Confectionery in Carmel, IN on Sunday, October 29th from 2-5 p.m. I'd love to meet you and hear what's on your heart - including any questions you may have about faith, the book, or even writing in general!

The Quirky Feather Confectionery is located at 890 E. 116th Street, Suite 125, Carmel, IN 46032. See you there!

Monday, July 31, 2017

14 Questions with Natasha Polak

Tell us about your current title…
A Place to Call Home is the first in a series of three novels set in the early 1900’s, in the sleepy little town of Laurel Heights where readers follow the lives of the Ellis family. Elaina Ellis is the oldest of six daughters who has recently fled to Philadelphia to escape a secret that she tries to keep from her family. Convinced that no man or God should dictate how she ought to live her life or what her future ought to be, she lives life on her own terms. With the sudden death of her father, however, Elaina is forced to return to Laurel Heights and face the secret she has been trying to hide and reencounters her family’s religiosity, which she mildly tolerates. It is here where she is introduced to the handsome and yet bothersome new shop keeper John Stanton. Suspicious of him, as well as every other man in town, she hurries back to the safe distance of Philadelphia, only to find that she can’t return to her life there as it was. Something is missing in her life now. Dissatisfied and disillusioned, Elaina is ultimately faced with a decision that will change the course of her life forever.

Where is your novel set and why did you make this specific choice?
Laurel Heights is a fictitious town near Columbia, Pennsylvania and Lancaster County. Growing up on the East Coast, I had traveled all over New England, and when I moved to the Midwest as a teen, the forested landscapes I passed stuck with me as reminders of where I’d been, and I knew that when I wrote this series, I wanted to incorporate the sights of the East Coast, just not all the cities and towns which had already been written about countless times. I spent a great deal of time researching which State would be the most likely choice that would not only fit my story line, but also make sense with the historical setting. I placed Laurel Heights in its vicinity based on climate conditions and the proximity to places the characters would frequent such as the Pennsylvania Railroad lines and the Millersville Normal School (known today as Millersville University of Pennsylvania).

How did you come to write this particular book?

Originally, the story line for this book was completely different than it is now, and was at the time I had first envisioned it (when I was a teen), a whimsical tale of nine orphaned sisters who banded together to overcome the odds and be successful with the life they were given as is. But over the years, I was influenced by a plethora of experiences, particularly as I became a Christian writer. Before then, I’d written fiction, poetry, and articles, never anything religious, until my youth group leader challenged me to write about my experience about being a Christian in a public high school – which resulted in my first published article in a Christian magazine. Even so, for years I kept my Christian devotional content completely separate from my fiction, until I started reading inspirational fiction for the first time. That’s when something clicked for me in turning my story line into something redemptive, yet entertaining, and true-to-life. I love that I can relate to a little of each of the characters in myself, and even some of the things that happened to them were because of things I had happen, too. Writing A Place to Call Home was, at times, both torturous and cathartic for me.

What are your writing habits?

I’ve always been told I’m a very inquisitive person, bent on asking the deeper questions of “why?” things are the way they are, rather than settling for the norm. My love for research, culture, human behavior, and abstract reasoning comes out in my writing, and I find it fun to portray experiences I’ve had or have observed in others as I weave tales about issues to which readers can relate. I also live for learning new facts everywhere I go, because you just never know when that information can be useful! In childhood, I did a lot of traveling to other U.S. States and countries, all of which made an impression on my faith and how I viewed the world at large, and in my teens I spent a lot of my time babysitting and mentoring peers. In adulthood, I found that customer service is where I excelled, because I loved helping people. So for a lot of years, the writing I did in my spare time consisted of self-help articles and how-to’s based on what people wanted. Writing fiction took a backseat, so that when the opportunity for my current book came to light, I had to relearn how to practice the craft! It’s so different from writing articles, because those you can write last-minute, following a hard set of facts to produce content. I’d become accustomed to cranking out handfuls of articles on a daily and weekly basis. But with writing fiction, I have to become my characters in order to write about them – which sometimes can take me a while. Some days I can write several pages, and on others I can write only a few pages but spend hours writing them. Then there’s the constant struggle of trying to fit the rest of life in while I write. I’ve had to become creative in how I beat things like writer’s block, interruptions from my family, and meeting deadlines. Since then, not only have I honed my skills, but I’ve even learned new ones, all of which have found their way into my fiction and non-fiction works.

Please tell us about yourself (family, hobbies, education, etc…)

I’m married to my high school sweetheart whom I met and started dating over 20 years ago, and our most recent wedding anniversary was our “baker’s dozen.” We have one daughter who will be turning the big 1-3 later this year, at the same time our loveable cat will be 10. While I was still in high school, I took a correspondence course to obtain certification in freelance writing, and then one to become a teacher’s aide. Instead of college, I threw convention to the wind and worked whatever jobs I could find, obtained another correspondence course certification in desktop publishing and design, and wrote articles based on the industries from which I gained my experiences. Then, thanks to marriage, motherhood, and two health crises, I added those topics to my repertoire. In my down time, I love to make memories with my family, conduct genealogy research for my diverse work-in-progress family tree, read, knit, cook, binge-watch shows on Netflix, surf the Internet, attend church online with Life.Church, play various interactive and puzzle games, and listen to music for fun or while exercising. I play guitar, with my biggest inspiration being Sir Paul McCartney and other legends from his era, I’m an advocate for Breast Cancer health and awareness, and I enjoy looking for ways to help my local community through an initiative I call The Barbie Girls Project.

Do you have support, either from family and friends or a writing group?

From day one, my mom has been my biggest supporter. She has read just about everything I’ve ever written, while the rest of my family – my husband and daughter included – remain supportive in that they encourage me, and provide me with tools I’ve needed along the way, but they don’t necessarily read what I produce. But that’s ok, because I also have some really great friends who have been my former teachers, colleagues, classmates, and friends from church who do. Some of them are also writers themselves, who’ve been able to be my sounding board, and they rein me in when I get too wordy.

What are your thoughts on love scenes in romance novels, do you find them difficult to write?

I tend to think of love and romance as two separate things, with the kind of content I like to write about being where two people have more of an emotional connection for readers to experience, rather than anything overtly physical. Because I prefer to write Christian fiction and romance, you won’t find me writing sex scenes, but that’s not to say my characters don’t have passionate moments that elude to intimacy left unsaid.

Who are some of your other favorite authors and genres to read?

The authors I read today are a result of the strong heroines found in my childhood favorites from Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, LM Montgomery, Janette Oke, Ann M. Martin, Mary Downing Hahn, Carolyn Keene, and Joan Aiken – so that’s everything from historical and general fiction, to supernatural, suspense, autobiographies, and even mystery! These days you’ll find me reading Colleen Coble, Melody Carlson, Hannah Alexander, Kristin Billerbeck, Tracey Bateman, Julie Carobini, Denise Hunter, Tracie Peterson, or Kacy Barnett Gramckow, and an ongoing list of whoever else strikes my fancy within the realm of inspirational fiction, historical fiction, suspense, Amish fiction, and chic lit genres.

Among your own books, have you a favorite? A favorite hero or heroine?

Between stories I’ve written but never published, my current book, and those yet to be completed, I have to say that the character of Elaina Ellis has grown on me. We share some similar traits – we both have black hair, are the firstborn child, and we have lost a sibling – but she also possesses many more differences – such as her taller stature! When I first wrote about her, she was not exactly the same sort of personality I envisioned, so to see her evolve into who she is now and will eventually become has been a real thrill for me to write so far.

Which of your books has been the easiest to write? The hardest? The most fun?

Hands-down, the second book is already so much easier to write, because a lot of my struggles came from kicking off the series. Once I got the proverbial monkey off my back, ideas have been so much easier to come by. I do have fun with planning out what will happen down the road in other books for the series, so I will have to say that the most fun book to write will have to be determined at a later date!

Which comes first, the story, the characters, or the setting?

The characters definitely come to mind for me first, with their stories following close behind. Once I determine what they are up against, then I can start to place them in the most appropriate setting. Coming up with new names always somehow triggers me to establish a plot.

Are you in control of the characters or do they control you?

They definitely have a way of getting under my skin! Their mannerisms can also rub off on me, which is why I think I’ve come to develop new hobbies and interests thanks to them!

What is the most rewarding thing about being a writer?

Being able to provide a voice of validation to my readers, where they can identify with something I’ve described or provided for information that helps them in some way, is why I write. Where there’s a need, I look to fill it. I feel rewarded when someone shares how what I wrote was useful or enlightening to them. Of course, being a Christian also means that when I write anything spiritual, I do want to give God glory, but I try hard to avoid being preachy. Additionally, anything I’ve ever written – be it mainstream or spiritual – often comes in a burst of sudden inspiration, sometimes as ideas and phrases I wouldn’t have thought to say, but feel burdened to jot down. The only way I can explain it is to say that it in itself is a spiritual experience for me, directed by God, who gives me the words to write. So many times I don’t have a clue in advance for what I will write, and then suddenly next thing I know – I’ve written an entire paragraph, thought, or page that isn’t just a bunch of babblings or unfinished musings.

Fill in the blank favorites – Dessert. City. Season. Type of hero. Type of heroine.
Chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting. Anywhere with a good view of nature or water. Summer. Physically and mentally strong, with a compassionate side. Physically and mentally strong, with a heart for following her dreams.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Unlocking Purpose for Beating Depression



Depression and anxiety cloak the heart with a blackness so deep it washes out anything good and leaves a person feeling nothing. Reminds me of the evil force in The Never-Ending Story. Like a monster with no body, it sweeps you up in a helpless cloud you see coming, but can't avoid. It leaves you unable to think past your current mood.

To see someone you love suffer so is at times unbearable, that the very thought of their despair and pain brings you to your knees and keeps you up at night. You worry about them being alone, being with others, and whether they are ever really enjoying themselves. You wonder if you have to be worried about when they are quiet - if it's a bad thing - or if it's actually their way of unwinding and processing their day so they can achieve calm.

It's torture to not be able to truly "fix" what's wrong. But then, don't we all have something a little "off" in ourselves? All it takes is that ONE THING to trigger an emotion, and it can send us to that deep dark place we never thought was even there, waiting to consume us, if we let it.

The question becomes, do we medicate, educate, advocate, or something else to turn depression and anxiety around? Is there a real way? Or will we always have to see people struggle and end their battles, dropping off like soldiers on an intense battlefield to our left and right? These are the questions that plague me every time I hear about another statistic. Famous personalities who couldn't cope anymore and checked out. Average citizens who carried out some vendetta against someone whom they felt wronged them and then they take their own lives. Psychological problems can run so deep they are passed down through genes or by way of constant influence, lifestyle, and habit. And with the free-manner of entertainment and the anything-goes mentality of our society, it's scary how easy it can be to become unhinged and deranged at any point in life.

Some of the most brilliant minds in history have been depressive. Through their struggles, they've painted - literally and figuratively - a picture so vivid and soul-reaching that we can all identify with the fog of depression in varying degrees relative to our own existence. We're left in perverse awe over their contributions, and yet there's a note of sadness and regret in how we view them...if only they could have found true relief, if only they didn't feel so alone, if only...

There is something to be said about the arts, really. It's often the key to creativity and penetrating the fog, if only for moments at a time. But those precious moments, how beautiful they are! They are a healing balm that can produce the same manner of effectiveness as medication, and the same euphoria found in the drugs and alcohol so many covet. Only, instead of destroying or negatively altering the mind or body, they draw a person outside of who they are or what they are going through, so that then they remain focused on what they can do for others and/or with the world.

It's not enough to say "have faith" or to "pray about it" when you know someone is depressed. While those do have healing powers, even that can only go so far - and I truly believe that is why in the Bible itself there were no two people who perfected their faith and avoided depression, nor were their remedies ever the same. Yes, they "walked with God," but if you look closely they also had talents which they used to express themselves. Some were musical, others were poetic. Some tended to animals, built structures, and had ornate gardens. Faith and talents do go hand-in-hand though - you have to believe in something to get you through life. No crutch, but more a purpose. It transcends whatever faith you are, and makes up who you are to the core. The problem is, society says you have to have one or the other, and choosing one over the other either makes you selfish or a saint. Everyone wants to know: Do you fall onto the spiritual side, or the anti-establishment side where talents and brains override faith? Why does there HAVE to be a choice?

Is it possible that when trying to win souls to heaven, we are instead trapping depressive minds into a state of confusion and guilt? I say, whatever helps you achieve balance, penetrates the depressive fog, and makes you a better, more unselfish person who looks to the needs or interests of others, then that should be celebrated and accepted in whatever form you take! It's a different journey for everyone, and just like the Bible cast of characters, there will always be highs and lows. Depressive is as depressive does, and no force this side of heaven can ever fully change that. It all comes down to how alert we all are to what others are going through, and what we are really teaching others to think and become. What are schools and employers doing to foster stable and well-rounded members of society? How can we be more effective parents, coaches and mentors? By unlocking talents!

They say do something you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life. And yet, why do we often stop dreaming and achieving past a certain childhood age itself? Therein lies the crux of our woes, when we lose focus on what can be possible. That's why so many who are of the church are just as badly beaten down as people who aren't part of any faith establishment, and yet there are many faiths out there who avoid addressing mental health issues because they are of the thought that if you have faith that's all you need, and to say otherwise makes you a heretic!

Let's face it. We ALL know someone with depression or are the one depressed. The odds are great that we will know at least one person per decade who will give up living because they can't take it anymore. It DOES take a village to raise a child when you think about the influence we each possess to lead everyone we meet either further away or closer to his or her purpose. What are we doing to encourage their strengths and support their dreams? Or are we going to constantly squash them down, hide them away, or keep them feeling inferior the rest of their lives, so that the gnawing blackness can eventually win? It's not enough to say we support mental health wholeness - we have to be in the thick of it. Learning, teaching, modeling, loving - it takes acts of love, not words of a dictator to change lives.

In the words of Jesus: "Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid."
‭‭John‬ ‭14:27‬.

Have peace so you can share it, and you'll do the world some good.





Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Writer's Life


Some days, you just can't shut off your brain. Literally every little thing gives you moments of inspiration, and you have to be quick enough to jot down those ideas before the next one interrupts. Then there are days where inspiration is so dry that you can't even put a single sentence together. Who's with me????

When I'm really, really stuck, I default to one of the following:

*Mindless entertainment in the form of tv, movies, books, or games on my Ipad
*A stroll down the street or at the park
*Cooking
*Talking to friends and family
*Brainstorming with my writing buddy to map out a plan to continue from where I got stuck

In the 2 years it took for me to complete the final round of The Ellises, Book #1 A Place to Call Home, I definitely took lots of walks, became a better cook, came to appreciate different forms of humor and writing, had a lot of ups and downs with my health in terms of weight and agility/stamina, enjoyed ample conversations and made memories with my loved ones, and grew closer to my writing buddy. All good things! It makes having writer's block a little easier to bear, knowing that in the midst of it, I am still productive IN LIFE, even if I'm not writing. It's something I have to keep reminding myself, so I don't beat myself up when I don't adhere to my self-imposed deadlines for my next novel.

However, that doesn't keep me from still getting irked about the element of time. I know every writer is different, but in any other arena (i.e. non-fiction) I can crank out content on a deadline - even if I have an hour. But with fiction...it just takes me longer! Mainly due to dialogue. The whys and hows of characters can be tricky for me, and sometimes I have to keep asking the same journalistic questions that frame an interview to put together a conversation. So, 9 times out of 10, that's my hangup. If I can picture what my characters will say, why they say it, and if it makes sense, only then can I keep going. I know everything I want to do AFTER that conversation, but until it's written out in its entirety, "fahgeddaboudit."

So if you ever are around me, know that although I may seem in a daze, I'm talking to myself, or I lose track of time, it's probably because I'm working out dialogues in my head. I may look eccentric, but I'm really hard at work. I may act depressed, but that's just part of being creative. And since genius is next to crazy, well, I suppose it all ties in...

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Author's Nemesis: Typos Run Amok


Let's talk about proofreading for a moment. We've all had that happen, right? Where you're reading something, and suddenly a typo jumps out at you, and you are left wondering if the writer was even aware of such a glaring mistake. Believe me, I understand, and as much as I worried about how things would go when editing my own work, apparently all the eyes in the world don't necessarily make a difference, and I'm here to tell you that mistakes still do happen!

I humbly admit that there have been some typos that went completely past me in A Place to Call Home, as well as with my publisher and editor, and the few other people who all had to review my book before it went to print. Someone, we ALL missed the few errors that have been called to my attention NOW, and all I can say is the errors were by no means something we thought were correct, we just overlooked them. I knew as soon as they were pointed out to me what they should have been, and it shocked me to think that all of us missed them. Even in doing the final editing and reading of the manuscript from start to finish MYSELF I didn't even read those words as they appeared, but saw them as what I THOUGHT they were. Talk about embarrassing!

It's an ever-humbling experience, and even though it's a matter of a handful of words, I'm working on getting them all cleaned up from the story so that a new revision can go to print. It just goes to show that no matter how much preparation you do, mistakes can still happen! So on that note, I hope that you all can overlook the glaring errors (for now) and still enjoy a good read!

One other thought. You wouldn't believe the crazy things I read after Googling this subject. I saw someone's rant directed to self-published authors being sub-par writers, and although my work isn't self-published, I feel I ought to stick up for all those indie writers because many of them are far from amateurs. In fact, many of them have also been published by traditional means, and are considered "hybrids" because of how they chose to dabble with self-publishing. The thing is, book typos happen, no matter how big or how small the publisher is. Poor writing, on the other hand, is an entirely different subject. And unfortunately, there are some duds out there who still get published who ought not to be, while others who are brilliant get denied. It's not easy being creative, and it's tough when you are having to compete with a sea of other talents. We don't need people adding to it by making incorrect assumptions that then ruin it for those who work hard just to be heard. All it takes is one opinion to make or break you or me. So I ask, dear readers, consider that while reading and reviewing my work or any other author's.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

About the Blog

This blog is designed to give you, the reader, a look at what my life entails, and to discuss the world of writing. If you would like more information about my writing career, feel free to visit my writing biography page.

Hello Readers

Thank you to all who have helped to make this new experience an exciting time for me and my family! Although I've been writing for years and have been published in magazines and other periodicals, as well as websites, The Ellises series marks my debut into the world of being a novelist! I've already learned so much in the short space of time since A Place to Call Home was released. I look forward to sharing my insights with you!

Blessings,

Natasha