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TITLE: Before the Climb
By C.M. Erickson

I am starting my first novel. I just finished my first chapter. My target audience is the Christian singles crowd. I'm concerned about proper character development, shifting between characters, and maintaining reader interest as I set the stage for the rest of the book. I am well aware that I need to do a lot to "tighten up my shotgroup" if you will.
Susan eyed her luminescent orange backpack dubiously. The pack seemed awfully small for a three day, two night hike in the Alps, and it was packed to overflowing with everything she anticipated she would need. She glanced over at her friend, Ruth, who was cramming more snack items into the outside pockets of her pack. Susan had been on a few hikes before, and even backpacked once, but she had never been on an alpine hut hike, and neither had Ruth.

“So, do you think we’ve got everything?” Susan queried Ruth.

“Well, if we don’t we’ll just have to figure it out at 1,000 meters” Ruth replied ruefully, her choice of measurements belying her German nationality. Ruth had never gone on an overnight hike before, and as a typical German, she had made a list, checked it twice, and had bought, organized, and arranged everything at least three times in preparation. She was using an old external frame backpack the Hospitality House had lent her for the trip.

“It’s going to be great seeing everyone again,” Susan said excitedly. “It felt so strange leaving Germany last month and heading home to the States for good. While it felt great to get out of the Army and move back home to Georgia, I have no clue what to do with my life, and it’s so lonely to leave your friends behind on another continent. I know it’s just a few weeks, but this trip back over has been exactly what I needed.”

Ruth smiled. She and Susan had become good friends in the months before Susan left Germany. They had met through the Hospitality House, a Christian outreach ministry to soldiers in particular and Americans in general in their town of Bamberg. There weren’t a lot of single English-speaking women in Bamberg, so Ruth and Susan had become friends by default.

“So how are you going to handle Jake on this trip?” Ruth asked, direct as always.

“I’m not,” Susan replied firmly, “Listen, I don’t like him, and he’s told me several times that he just likes me as a friend. Besides, I think he’s quasi seeing some other girl. It’s a non-issue. I’m just going for the awesome experience and a chance to recover from the last two weeks of youth ministry.”

“Youth ministry? Is that what you call your two weeks down there on the beach in Italy?” Ruth teased.

“Don’t you even try it!” Susan bantered right back, “I’ve helped Club Beyond for four years now and never got to go on the outreach trip. I had to fly back across an ocean after getting out of the Army to do this! You chase around a bunch of teenagers and middle schoolers and try to share the Good News. Besides, who wouldn’t want to go lay on a beach for Jesus?”

They both laughed. Beach Break was a great way to spend two weeks in the sun, but it was also downright exhausting. Susan was looking forward to a trip where she wasn’t responsible for five or more girls and their eternal and temporal welfare. She was also looking forward to getting one last “Alp fix.” She had fallen in love with the Alps in her four years stationed in Germany and was going to miss them. For some reason, she felt God’s power much more when she was in the Alps. She figured it had to be their imposing size.

“It’s time to head down to the corner,” Ruth stated firmly, looking at her watch, “Kim will be here soon to pick us up.”

Ruth worked as a home cleaner and house sitter, and had no car. The house they were in currently was a residence she was house-sitting. Susan had flown over to Germany from the States a few weeks ago for a long visit, so both were car-less and in need of a lift. They hefted their packs, looked around to make sure they weren’t forgetting anything, and walked out the back door and down the hill.

As they made their way down the country road, Susan mulled over her history with Jake. Their relationship went back years, having met as platoon leaders in the same company, and crossing paths occasionally over the years to follow. Jake had even taken over for her at her staff job when she left the Army. They had really gotten to catch up over the month of cross-training for the job, and Jake had mentioned that he liked her as more than a friend, making things rather awkward for a few days. Susan had finally rallied her courage enough to quietly tell him that she respected him as a friend and valued his friendship, but was getting out of the Army and wasn’t looking for a romantic relationship. Jake had seemed to take it well, and had become even more of a friend to her, helping her out when many other folks wouldn’t have found the time. They had gone on working lunches, he had helped her move things out of her apartment to mail home, and had even shared a new romantic interest that he was e-mailing. She had thought they were over that minor love-interest episode and had moved on to being “good Christian friends.” That was one of the reasons it puzzled her that he hadn’t even written her one tiny e-mail after she flew home to Georgia.
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