Saturday, November 19, 2016


John M. Daniel’s Blog
November 19, 2016

One of the reasons we writers write is to teach, or even preach, in order to sell a point we want our readers to learn and agree with. But how do we get readers to sit still and pay attention to a lecture or a sermon? Especially in the modern age of sensory overload, the last thing we want to inspire is a snore. We want our readers to ask for more, or at least to pay attention. How do we do that?
We entertain. We illustrate the points we want to make. An illustration can come in the form of a visual image, or it can be made with a story full of enchanting language and attention-grabbing hooks. We once again slide into home plate by showing, not telling.
It’s been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. I don’t know who did the math on that one, but it stands to reason, then, that a picture plus a thousand-word story is a bargain, a two-fer. There’s no reason one form of illustration has to be “worth” more than the other, especially when we can have both.
That’s a point I want to sell to you. So far, I’ve done a pretty lame job by my own standards, because I haven’t illustrated my point with an entertaining story.
Please welcome John McKinney, a.k.a. The Trailmaster, who comes to my rescue, bringing a delightful story of how graphic art and a well-told tale work together. And play together. John is the author of more than thirty books on hiking—where to find the best trails, and how best to enjoy them—and he was for years the hiking columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He’s a spellbinding tale-teller, who also is inspired by graphic art. I’m not going to tell you about that. I’ll let John McKinney show you.


by John McKinney

“Every icon tells a story.…”
So begins my new book, Hiking the Holy Mountain: Tales of Monks and Miracles on the Trails of Mount Athos, Greece. Icons play a major role in the true story of an accidental pilgrimage I made back in time and faith to monasteries perched on a remote peninsula in Greece where no woman has set foot in a thousand years.

My story begins at the annual St. Barbara Day (December 4) ceremony at St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church in Santa Barbara California. After an hour or so of a special liturgy, with prayers and chanting as old as Byzantium, all of a sudden—and unaccountably—light shines through the east window of the church and illuminates the icon of St. Barbara. Only on St. Barbara Day, and only for a few moments, does the icon of St. Barbara receive such light.
As the story goes, bright and beautiful Barbara was locked in a tower by her father Dioscorus, who demanded she renounce her faith. When Barbara refused, he beheaded his daughter on the fourth day of December, 280 a.d. Not long thereafter Dioscorus was struck by lightning; his body ignited like a Roman candle and he was engulfed in flames.

When my son Daniel was a little guy, I explained that icons are paintings that tell the story of Christian faith through events that really happened and people who really lived. At the same time, icons are not painted in a realistic style—the people have flat faces, and the backgrounds are two-dimensional, shadowless. But this symbolic, unrealistic style appeals to kids, and my son liked looking at pictures of icons while I told him tales of the holy men and women they depicted.
Because the stilted accounts of the holy men and women available to me had scant biographical detail, I confess I embellished the stories of the saints and took certain artistic liberties to be sure they captured my child’s attention. Like many parents, I’ve found I can be more effective at enlightening kids if I’m at least a little entertaining.

These days when we think of icons we nearly always think of those little colored symbols on our digital devices. The most recognizable icons of our ages? Perhaps the iTunes icon or Facebook icon. Surely, nearly everyone, even the most devout Christians among us, think of icons in terms of apps, not apostles.
I didn’t spend much time thinking about icons of the ancient kind either, until my friend Spiro joined me on an odyssey to Mt. Athos. Truly we were the hiking odd couple: Spiro was a tenderfoot, and I the expert hiker. Spiro was devout and fluent in Greek, while my faith was shaky and my Greek was terrible. Spiro believed in the wonder-working powers of the saint and icons, while I was a skeptic who doubted all miracles.
That is until I encountered an icon, a monk, and a miracle that led to the adoption of my son. Quite a story.
One monk I met on the Holy Mountain was a leading iconographer, who explained that he and his fellow iconographers did not paint icons, they wrote them. In Greek, an ikonographos is an icon writer. When the wise monk learned I was writer, he suggested: “Perhaps you’ll write a story of the icons some day.”

He was right. That’s exactly what I have done.

John McKinney is the author of The Hiker’s Way and Hiking on the Edge, and a passionate advocate for hiking and our need to reconnect with nature. He lives and writes in Santa Barbara, California.

Buy links for Hiking the Holy Mountain:


Call for submissions: Your 99-Word Stories

The deadline for December’s 99-word story submissions is December 1. The stories will appear on my blog post for December 10, and will stay posted for a week.

note: this 99-word story feature is a game, not a contest. Obey the rules and I’ll include your story. I may edit the story to make it stronger, and it’s understood that you will submit to my editing willingly. That’s an unwritten rule.

Rules for the 99-word story feature are as follows:

1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot (something or somebody has to change), characters, and conflict.
4. The story must be inspired by the prompt I assign.
5. The deadline: the first of the month. Stories will appear on this blog the second Saturday of the month.
6. I will copy edit the story. The author of the story retains all rights.
7. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to:

THIS MONTH’S PROMPT FOR NEXT MONTH’S 99-WORD STORY: Write a story inspired by the following sentence: A fine romance this turned out to be.


Calling all published authors—

I try to feature a guest author the third Saturday (and week following) of each month. If you’re interested in posting an essay on my blog—it’s also a chance to promote a published book—email me directly at


Thank you for visiting. Please drop by next week.

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