Sometime in the past decade, the Sahne Nuss tin pictured above came home with me in a green-and-white shopping bag from our Jumbo supermarket in Santiago. Everybody, myself included, loves classic Sahne Nuss milk-chocolate-and-almond bars, but mostly I fell in love with the image on the lid. It perfectly pictures our life in the Chiloé Islands of southern Chile where I wrote Destiny at Dolphin Bay.
You can tell it’s Chiloé by the slow-combustion Bosca stove and the view of palafitos—houses-on-stilts—out the window. Of course, not all Chilotes owned a wonderful wood-burning Bosca in those old days, but almost everybody had a huge cast-iron stove they lounged around during the long winter evenings. And they’d have been drinking mate—an herbal tea—through a metal straw rather than dainty cups of tea.
Thirty years ago, few Chilotes actually lived in palafitos at the ocean’s edge, either. But a carpenter character in my Legacy of the Linnebrink Light has his workshop in one. And in Destiny at Dolphin Bay, a palafito housing schoolchildren collapses in the earthquake… Check it out! After my husband and I stayed in a boutique palafito in 2013, I discovered that the iconic structure has regained popularity.
And the guy wearing a wool hat inside the house offers a dead-giveaway to place identification. Even though he’s devouring chocolate instead of nursing a gourd of mate, he could pass as the character Ramón in Destiny at Dolphin Bay. Though back then, a Sahne Nuss bar carried a splurge-only price tag reserved for special occasions, such as the character Valeria’s birthday.
When I Wrote in Chiloé
But other than a few details, the tin’s lid could show Diana Delacruz scribbling Destiny at Dolphin Bay, huddled by the fire—or under my blankets—over months of winter evenings. I rarely wrote in the daylight hours those first years. Instead, I got up at dawn with the baby (which, admittedly, wasn’t early in the winter), shivered into my clothes, and carried our breakfast oatmeal upstairs because it felt a little less frigid than the icebox downstairs.
During the short—yet endlessly rainy—days, we split wood, served guests, prepped lessons, and practiced our Spanish. We did camps, classes, and construction projects. We dealt with drifters pursued by the police and drunks that collapsed at the church door. A thief we thought was our friend. A stray flock of sheep that regularly consumed our entire garden…
“The secret is Christ in me, not me in a different set of circumstances.” –Elisabeth Elliot
But after dark, the children tucked in bed, I wrote. And journeyed along the road to Mrs. Elliot’s secret. God had brought me to this difficult place—and I’ll never deny it was that. Chiloé held everything from the very good to the very bad…to the very ugly. There we experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows of our missionary lives.
But I’m equally sure I was appointed to that undeniably beautiful island by God’s design. I hope I learned a balanced perspective. Rather than relishing the tourist’s romantic vision of a rustic paradise, I came to cherish a more realistic sense of the dark tragedies, woven with bright ribbons of hope.
That’s how it was and where I wrote.
What I learned in Chiloé set the tone for the rest of my career in Chile—and fine-tuned my storyteller’s voice.
You know how a scent and a memory swirl together? Or a book becomes intertwined with the music you listened to while you read it? Just so, the threads of inspiration from my surroundings, my encounters, the big and small events of the years and days, stitched together into my stories.
“The surroundings are part of the project.” –David Kadavy, Mind Management
The tales of mythology, history, and legend—past and present mysteries—scraps of news—all wound up in Destiny at Dolphin Bay. My enchantment with the ambience of the landscape where I wrote crept in and filled the background of the book. Almost unawares, the setting itself became a character.
Ironically for a body of works grounded in Chiloé, that first book turned out to be the only one I wrote there. Though five books followed in a double trilogy (Desert Island Diaries and First Mate’s Log) and two other series stemmed from those, only Destiny at Dolphin Bay was conceived and born in Chiloé.
The Road North…
Then I developed, tweaked, edited, and rewrote it for the next 30 years, in every stop along the journey of our ministry odyssey. Finally it’s published. And beneath the surface of its pages, it holds the strands of my life experiences all the way from Chiloé to Coquimbo.
Sometimes, when I read it now, I can taste the clambake-in-a-pot cooked in our backyard in Linares. I hear the roar of the twenty-year rat race in Santiago and smell the strong, sweet rain of a six-month sojourn in Florida.
“When you leave a beautiful place, you carry it with you wherever you go.” –Alexandra Stoddard
The places where I wrote became part of the story as they became part of me. And as I’ve continued my writer journey, the circumstances over the course of each project often burrow their way into the books. Just as I can tell tales about tins, or recall memories by books read, I see my life in books written too.
When I think of my second book, for example, I remember the blissfully ignorant teenage girl from the Desertores island group that I met at the home of a teacher in the hamlet of Achao. She wandered into Legacy of the Linnebrink Light as we rolled across the Canadian prairies on a furlough from Chile.
I scratched that draft out in record time. On the road, on planes, in my husband’s black/Irish grandma’s basement… Perhaps even the sense of discrimination and inferiority that godly, loving woman felt all her life turned into my passion for the disadvantaged children of Chiloé.
In Cowboy Country
Our next home, the quaint agricultural city of Linares, where I wrote Pursuit of the Pudú Deer, always seemed like a Mexican-western set out of Hollywood. Nothing like Chiloé, and never a dull moment, but it ended up one of the happiest—and most productive—periods of my writing life.
Though it took me two or three years to finish Pudú, I honed my raw gift into better skills as I wrote. And wrote, once again into the night, between 10 and 12 p.m., at the desk in my husband’s tiny study. The days were stuffed with schoolwork and church work, meals and meetings, friends, family, visitors in streams.
Even so, my mind soared back to Chiloé so often, Linares seemed to exist only in my exterior life at the time. But you’ll catch fleeting glimpses in Pudú of when and where I wrote: In the winning junior soccer team, the new character “from the north” working at the salmon farm, the round-up of local terrorists.
“Above all, watch with glittering eyes the world around you, because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.” –Roald Dahl
Despite losing a portion of the manuscript en route to my youngest sister’s wedding—stolen from our van along with my carry-on—I managed to write The End on Christmas Eve, 1995. I started #4, The Seahorse Patrol, the next day. Obviously, I knew where my story was going. And this time, a quiet cowboy from Chile’s fruitful Central Valley turned up managing a forestry operation in Chiloé.
Good-bye, Daddy… and Diana Delacruz
But two events changed my writing life abruptly in 1997. First, I flew to Maine to spend a few weeks with my dad before he passed away. At his bedside, I wrung out the last words I penned on The Seagull Operation for the following fifteen-plus years. It didn’t matter where I wrote, the stress of the situation had blocked the focused flow I’d always enjoyed.
Then, the day I landed back in Chile, I had to start packing for an immediate transfer to the capital, Santiago. We moved to a new world, job, atmosphere… If I’d imagined I was busy before, I had no concept of the distractions awaiting me in the Big City.
In the meantime, as an entertainment for my now-homeschooled daughters, I played around with an off-shoot story, Swan Island Secrets, about Marcos, a secondary character from the Chiloé trilogies. Though I drew on my personal loss of a parent for that series, it gave me the most fun I’d ever had as a writer.
Soon after, the girls handed me the first chapter of another story of their own invention. (I raised a family of writers, apparently.) So I had another project in the inkwell, as they say in Chile. Then my brother asked me to create a fictionalized memoir about of our family heritage. Fountains of ideas bubbled in my brain.
“Be a collector of good ideas, but don’t trust your memory. The best collecting place for all of the ideas and information that come your way is your journal.” –Jim Rohn
Where I Wrote…
…in those whirlwind days? Anywhere I could in a crowded house. I never journaled much, but I incubated all those ideas and more. And, little by little, they’ve shown up in my books.
Perhaps I needed, at that point, to stop taking it all so seriously. A talent for writing and even a desire to write will never add up to just doing it. And keeping on doing it. Even that passionate heart to write will burn out in finish-line fever.
My quest to study and improve my craft, as well as the long journey to publication, should be a road trip to enjoy, connected to the creativity of God. It’s about the process, not just the product.
By the time I completed the Swan trilogy in 2013, I’d reached a state of steady flow again. My girls had long departed the nest. Gradually the pace slowed. And suddenly, I had time…and a place.
A miniscule bedroom, once my daughter’s hideout, was now available for my own office. A gigantic antique desk occupied most of the glorified closet’s space, but there I reigned as the Story Queen. Paradoxical, but in our neighborhood’s glory days, that space was intended for the “maid’s room.” Where I wrote, I looked ahead and learned about the four walls of the character Angie De la Cruz’s life as teenaged domestic servant.
In 2015 I finally finished #6, The Sea-Silk Banner, and drew Melissa’s story from Destiny at Dolphin Bay to its conclusion. Of course, I can’t abandon her character entirely, so she makes cameo appearances regularly.
I celebrated that grand finale by starting another book and participating in my first NaNoWriMo event that November. (National Novel Writing Month is an online marathon to generate 50,000 words.) Chile was celebrating their Golden Generation then too, so soccer naturally came into the saga—the good, the bad, and the ugly racquet of vice and addictions associated with the victories of the sport.
Partway through the Winds of Andalucía, I took a break and then went back at it for two more rounds in our dining room in Coquimbo. Finishing that two-book series became my “gift to self” for our 40th wedding anniversary in 2019.
Bless him, my husband has always been a good sport about my writing nooks and exploring trips. We fit in a couple of drives to the coast each summer, always a mood booster for me. We returned to Chiloé in 2014, and I took scads of photos and notes to bookend First Mate’s Log. Then I made a research trip to northern Patagonia in late 2019, a “miracle” a few weeks into the Chilean social uprising and just months before the worldwide pandemic hit.
In between, my life passed under some heavy clouds. Where I was—where I wrote—shows in what I wrote. Darker stuff, you might say. But I felt I must confront the shadowy side of life: How does anyone face the unthinkable, let alone deal? Yet after the character Valeria’s story was written and done, I found God spoke in the dark clouds too.
“There are so many magical places in books that you can’t go to, like Hogwarts and Middle Earth, so I wanted to set a story in a place where children can actually go.” –Cornelia Funke
I agree with Ms. Funke. I love fantasy, I really do. But I write about life among ordinary mortals on God’s emerald earth and sapphire seas.
So where next? Again, I believe I need to face what I’m afraid of. Trek back in time to the dark tales of the disastrous ’70’s in Chile. Stir the coup and its fallout into my own adolescent past.
But here the pandemic intervened, and I invented a series of Seaglass Blog posts called The Quarantine Tales. Those brief sketches about the “next generation” have nudged me to nurture a project called Only in Chile. All I can tell you thus far is that they’re mysteries for young adults.
If anyone asks where I wrote, I’ll claim to burn no candles for any one place. I loved and grew in them all. Every book whispers memories to me. Wherever I wrote, I always sat under the banner of Jesus’s love (S. S. 2:4).
So now I’ll settle at my desk by the Bosca stove in our latest home in coastal Chile and write some more. As I gaze out the window, I see a concrete-block wall. But I don’t get blocked any longer. My Lord leans over my shoulder, and I have a chocolate stash in the drawer.