of the advantages of using the great city of Chicago, where I live, as
the setting for my novels is that I get to do “on site” research! I
mean, how else could I claim my first-ever manicure and pedicure as a
business expense? If one of my characters was getting her
first ever “mani-and-pedi” at a black-owned beauty shop, I had to know
what it was like, right?
Researching local restaurants,
cafés, and coffee shops my characters frequent is a lot of fun, too.
Décor, entrees, what the waitstaff wears … it all helps make my novels’
scenes come alive. (My husband really likes helping
me with this research—makes for a great date night!)
Oh, the things I’ve had to do
for research for my novels! Like learning how to ride a Segway along
Chicago’s magnificent lakefront. Hanging out at the walk-in clinic at
Cook County’s Stroger Hospital. Spending a day cheering on a
cross-country meet at the local high school. Going inside the Juvenile
Detention Center with my husband (he led Bible studies in one of the
units) and hanging out with these young teens, all of whom treated me
with utmost respect.
By far the most mind-blowing
research I’ve done for the House of Hope series has been getting
involved with the Joshua Center, an emergency homeless shelter for
women in Chicago. At first I asked permission just to hang out, make
friends with some of the women, talk to staff about resources offered,
play games on Christmas day. But pretty soon “research” slid off my
radar and I became a volunteer, sitting in on case management meetings.
And then—joy of joys—I was asked to interview and write up the stories
of some of the women who’d come off the streets through the Outreach
program and made remarkable progress.
Oh. My. The stories I heard. I
was surprised that some of these women talked so freely to me, a
virtual stranger. But as I listened (taking notes on my laptop as fast
as I could), I realized something: I never could have made
this stuff up! Some of their real-life stories were truly
“stranger than fiction.”
Like Sherri (not her real name),
who’d been in and out of the Joshua Center for several years, two steps
forward, one step back. But Sherri was finally getting her act together
and was excited to tell her story. It began two decades earlier as a
foster kid, bounced from one home to another in Michigan, until the
state dropped her at age eighteen. She was on her own—without a high
school diploma, without any ID, without any source of income to support
herself. So, like so many others in her shoes, she started turning
tricks to make money, just to eat.
One day, a guy in a red truck
picked her up, still finishing off a six-pack of beer. He seemed nice
enough, said he’d take her to his sister’s home out a ways in the
country. By this time, he was a little tipsy, and when he pulled into
the driveway, he said, “Wait here. I’ll see if she’s home. If not …” He
leered at her. And he tottered to the door.
Leaving the keys in the car.
Leaping into action, Sherri
scooted into the driver’s seat, put the car in gear, squealed the tires
as she backed out of the driveway, and shot down the country road. Had
she ever driven a car before? Nope. No driver’s license, nothing. But
she drove that truck clear to Chicago, abandoned it in an alley, and
walked away thinking, “No one knows me here. I’m going to start over!”
I must’ve stopped typing at some
point, my mouth hanging open. “You drove that truck all the way to
Chicago? A teenager behind the wheel? No one stopped you? And you’d
never ever driven a car before?” She nodded yes, yes, then shook her
head no, no.
I started to laugh. And she
started to laugh. And we both laughed until our sides ached.
Incredible! Like I said, I never could have made that up.
That was the day we became
friends, not just interviewer and interviewee. I was delighted to help
Sherri move into her first apartment—first ever—at
the age of forty-six. When I walked in the door and looked around at
the one-room apartment plus bathroom—single bed in one corner; hooks
for clothes; a
dresser; “kitchen” along one wall consisting
of a dormitory-type fridge, hot plate, and sink; one frayed easy chair
by the one window—I nearly fell over. My gut reaction: Ack!
Wouldn’t want to live here!
not Sherri. This was a home of her own, and she was so thankful to God
and all the Joshua Center staff who hadn’t given up on her over the
years. She couldn’t stop grinning.
And I couldn’t have made that up
either, the genuine joy of having a space to call one’s own for the
first time in her life.
I could tell lots of other
stories, but one stands out for me: the Outreach coordinator at the
Joshua Center who took me on as a volunteer. Evie (not her real name)
tells other women, “Been there, done that.” Meaning she was on the
streets herself at one time, doing everything—prostitution,
drugs, the whole gamut.
But God used the Joshua Center
to help turn her life around, and now her life’s passion is helping
other women get off the streets. Just going out with Evie in the
shelter’s Outreach RV, parking it in one of the rougher Chicago
neighborhoods, handing out snacks and toiletries, and listening to her
talk to the streetwalkers or addicts who knock on the door is an
eye-opening experience. Evie is real. She talks
straight. She asks the tough questions. She tells them about Jesus. She
hands out her cell phone number and tells each person they can call her
“twenty-four seven.” Sometimes she’ll jump out of the RV and chase down
a woman she hasn’t seen for several months—or a few years—and say,
“I’ve missed you! Where have you been? Come on in the RV, let’s talk.
Are you ready to let us come alongside and help you get off the
In my sheltered middle-class
life, I never could’ve made up somebody like Evie. I simply had no
What I’ve included in my novels
is pretty tame compared to some of the real stories I’ve been told. But
doing my “Chicago research” for the House of Hope series taught me
invaluable lessons about writing fiction:
Get my hands dirty.
Talk to real people.
Sit where they sit.
Do what they do.
Shut up and listen.
Because truth is oftentimes much
stranger than fiction—and will only make our fiction more believable.