Lightning on a Quiet Night by Donn Taylor

Posted by on Feb 13, 2015 | 2 comments

Lightning on a Quiet Night by Donn Taylor

My guest this week is Donn Taylor, author of Lightning on a Quiet Night. I know you will enjoy what this very well-rounded and accomplished author has to say. You can enter to win a copy with the Rafflecopter at the end of the interview! 



Fabulous Fridays

Welcome, Donn! I have read some intriguing things about your new book, Lightning on a Quiet Night. I understand it is quite different from your other novels. How did you come up with the idea?

Long ago in college I thought of writing a western novel centered on a murder in a small town. The Cold War and Korean War stopped that project before it got started. But recently I saw I could use that same precipitating incident for a broader exploration of a Christian theme. For a setting in place I returned to Northeast Mississippi. My parents had moved there when I was seventeen, and I developed a deep appreciation of the region’s people, its forested hills and small, fertile valleys. The years following WWII seemed a good time setting. Mildred and I had both lived there then, and we expanded our knowledge through research.

I began with the idea of an outsider’s learning what made the local people tick, but as the novel progressed it became concerned with a universal problem: our self-images vs. reality. So all of the novel’s characters came to grapple with that problem in one way or another.

I’d like to think that the Lord took hold of the project, but that might be presumptuous.



Why did you choose the particular theme for the book? What were you trying to say Lightning on a Quiet Nightto your readers?

I don’t think I chose the theme so much as the theme chose me while the writing progressed. The novel’s theme is summarized in its two headnotes. From Shakespeare: “‘Tis mad idolatry/To make the service greater than the god.” We can get so focused on doing virtuous deeds that the deeds become more important to us than the God who created virtue. We lose perspective. And the second idea comes from Ezekiel 33:12: “The righteousness of the righteous man shall not deliver him in the day of his transgression.” No matter how virtuous we are in daily living, we all sooner or later fall into sin and need forgiveness through grace.

But golly, people don’t read novels for theme. They read for the story, and there’s plenty of that in the novel: interesting characters and situations, plenty of suspense and romance, comedy and pathos.



What is the target audience for Lightning on a Quiet Night?

It is aimed at adult readers, equally for both men and women, but it’s also readily accessible down through junior high level. I think ladies are special, so I always make sure their interests get equal recognition with those of the men. I have depended on Mildred’s judgment for that.



When did you first discover that you were a writer?

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t trying to create something. I began writing music at age 14. Two years later I entered college as a music major, studied piano with an instructor on leave from Cincinnati Conservatory and played some of my classical compositions in her recitals. But at age 18 I got interested in poetry—the Romantics, of course—and began writing poetry and some very bad short stories. Since then, writing is just something I have to do, though there have been long periods when professional and family requirements pushed it far into the background. I always wanted to write a novel, and finally realized that ambition with The Lazarus File, a story of spies and airplanes in the Caribbean, still available as an e-book.



Since Lightning on a Quiet Night is a historical, what is your favorite period in history?

I have two: First is the Cold War period that I participated in as well as studied. (The time setting of Lightning is right at the beginning of that period.) But my overall favorite is the transition from Renaissance to Enlightenment (c. 1550 – 1660), a period that brought modern methods of thought but retained much of the richness of Renaissance thought. C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image is a quick introduction.



You write more than one genre, why, and what do you find the most difficult about writing two very different genres?

All derive from the different situations that I lived in. I had two careers, the U.S. Army and college teaching. My suspense novels The Lazarus File and Deadly Additive derive from the Army experience plus research. My mystery Rhapsody in Red derives from the college experience with all its pretensions and contradictions. For my historical, I chiefly returned to the world in which I grew up. The greatest difficulty is deciding which part of me I want to work with. But once that’s decided, there’s no difficulty with maintaining focus.



What do you think makes your style of storytelling unique?

I’m not sure that it is. But if so, it’s probably the variety of content. Shakespeare taught me (not personally, you understand) about juxtaposing comic scenes with scenes of complete seriousness. From classic movies I learned to use humor to momentarily lighten tension. So my suspense novels have minor characters who talk in clichés but never get them right, and who accomplish serious tasks by Rube Goldberg means. The problem is finding the voice and tone appropriate to each situation. I’m not sure that always happens.



How do you see the importance of Christian fiction?

Secular fiction has gone off the deep end with gratuitous and graphic sex, detailed violence, and foul language. Further, it portrays a world limited to physical things and forces, and it rarely reaches beyond the psychological up to the spiritual.

At the minimum, Christian fiction provides a safe haven from those excesses. But at its best it goes beyond that. It can deal with any subject, no matter how terrible, while examining that subject within the Christian worldview that extends into the spiritual as well as the physical and psychological. Consequently, it can fill the vacuum created by the limitations of secular fiction.



Give us a brief introduction to your other books.

 Suspense first. The Lazarus File, set in Colombia in 1977, deals with Soviet cooperation with drug cartels and Communist guerrillas in Central and South America. A CIA agent working undercover as a drug pilot works with a distinguished Colombian woman to counter those efforts. The flight scenes are special. Deadly Additive begins in Colombia with a routine guerrilla kidnapping but expands to treat the international black market in weapons, including chemical weapons. A soldier of fortune and a determined lady journalist work against those plots.

Mystery next. Rhapsody in Red is set on the campus of a denominational college struggling with problems of education vs. indoctrination, academic standards vs. commercialism, and Christian heritage vs. secularism. A history professor with musical hallucinations and a strong-headed lady professor of comparative religion (hired as a Wiccan for the sake of “diversity”) combine to solve a campus murder before the police can convict them, the college can fire them, or the mob kill them.

I’ve also published a book of poems as part of my teaching crusade (at writers’ conferences) to bring poetry back to everyday readers, as it was in the days of Robert Frost.



What upcoming projects do you have planned?

I’m working on sequels to Rhapsody in Red. There’s a possibility of a suspense novel using characters from Deadly Additive, and I’m looking for (but haven’t found) a theme that might take characters from Lightning into the early years of the Korean War. All of that sounds great, but “If wishes were horses . . .”



Book Blurb:

In the years following World War II, a town too proud of its own virtues has to deal with its first murder. Despite the implications of this crime, the town of Beneficent, MS, population 479, tries desperately to hold onto its vain self-image. The young veteran Jack Davis holds that idyllic vision of the town and tries to share it with Lisa Kemper, newly arrived from Indiana. But she is repelled by everything in town. While the sheriff tries to find the murderer, Jack and Lisa’s contentious courtship reveals the town’s strange combination of astute perceptions and surprising blind spots. Then they stumble onto shocking discoveries about the true nature of the town. But where will these discoveries lead? To repentance? Or to denial and continuation in vanity?



Please give us the first chapter of your book.

Lightning on a Quiet Night, Chapter 1

The northeast Mississippi town of Beneficent, “A Town As Good As Its Name,” had never known a murder until Friday, January 9, 1948. Nor, in the oldest memory of its 479 citizens, had the town known a single felony.

Until the fatal moment, that January day progressed as hundreds had before. The winter dawn came late, struggling through clouds and fog to shed a dull gray light more kin to night than day. Cold rain fell to drench the thrush-brown land, and stolid hardwoods thrust black skeletal limbs upward against an iron-gray sky. Farmers revised work plans in deference to the rain, and storekeepers pondered its effect on weekend sales. But more than rain would be required that night to keep them from the Coosa County basketball tournament, an event as fundamental to their lives as seedtime and harvest. From all corners of the county they came in mud-spattered pickups, the less affluent in mule-drawn wagons, to converge on Beneficent. All brought good spirits to share an experience that came but once a year.

Yet among that cheerful crowd one stranger would come unwilling . . .

n her bedroom in the darkening evening, Lisa Kemper stared at the rain that drummed against her window. She did not want to be there at all.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? The psalmist’s words leaped unbidden into her mind, but she shut them out. She was not here in captivity, the puddles in her yard were not the waters of Babylon, and she would not sit down by them and weep.

Still, she hadn’t bargained for this. After her mother’s death, last August, she’d postponed graduate school for a year to help her father adjust to life as a widower. Then she would get on with her studies— that is, if she could ever decide what to study. But when she made that decision in August, she never dreamed Stephen Kemper would leave his position with an Indiana corporation to manage the small chemical plant the company was building in Beneficent.

From first sight, she detested this backward town. She abhorred the unkempt fields and unpainted barns nearby, so different from the well-tended farms of Indiana. Most of all, she abhorred the boastful motto “A Town As Good As Its Name” and the complacency of the townspeople who thought they made it that way.

But she would get through this year, somehow. She had promised.

A car’s headlights flashed across her window. That would be Hollis Wilson, the newly elected state senator who would escort her and her father to the basketball tournament. People expected them to attend, he said.

“Are you ready, Lisa?” Stephen Kemper’s voice carried from the living room.

“I’m coming, Father.”

A critical glance in the mirror confirmed that her new gray suit brought out the blue of her eyes and emphasized her trim figure. But not too much. And if the locals thought she was overdressed, that was their problem. With a final pat at her dark brown hair, she scooped up her raincoat and headed for the living room.

Miraculously, the rain suddenly stopped, though low clouds scudded by overhead. Maybe Senator Wilson had fixed the rain as he had so many things to help them fit into the community. Lisa wondered how an insignificant mud hill like Beneficent could produce someone like Wilson. He was handsome as a movie star—a war veteran, she’d heard, and people bragged that at age twenty-five, he was the youngest senator in the state’s history. She didn’t doubt that he was, but she did doubt that anyone had bothered to research it.

“You’ll enjoy the tournament,” Wilson said. “It’s one of the great events of the year.”

Lisa answered with a smile and followed him out the door, her father close behind. For her father’s sake, she’d make sure people thought she enjoyed the tournament.

At the wood-frame gymnasium beside the town school, mud-spattered pickups crowded the gravel parking lot and spilled out into the street. Wilson parked a block away, and they walked back through laughing, faceless crowds that drifted through the darkness.

The din heightened as they entered the gym. Before Stephen Kemper could protest, Wilson paid the sixty-cents admission for the three of them. He and Lisa proceeded into the stands while Kemper dropped off to talk about his plant’s security with a red-faced man who wore a badge. Lisa caught the words “… no real crime here, just kids’ pranks.” She found that hard to believe.

“Sheriff Rainwater isn’t kidding,” Wilson said. “In my lifetime Ican’t remember a single crime being committed here. Not one. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s a town of good Christian people trying to live good lives. That’s what makes it different.”

Lisa threw him a skeptical glance.

He laughed. “Iknow it’s hard to believe. Just give it a chance and you’ll see.”

When they found seats, a man in overalls came to belabor the senator about a tax problem. Lisa tried to interest herself in the game. Typical girls’ basketball, she thought—the Beneficent Pantherettes’ three forwards matched with Shady Creek’s three guards on one half of the court, the opposite situation at the other end. Whoever wrote the rules didn’t think girls could run full court.

One Beneficent forward, a short girl with chunky-muscled legs and a straw-colored ponytail, consistently got the best of her guards. The other players showed little skill.

Soon bored with the game, Lisa surveyed the crowd, composed mostly of men in overalls and tired-looking women who held small children. Mostly disreputable, she judged, or at best . . . just ordinary.

Like the sandy-haired man who stood watching the game from the corner of the end line. In his mid-twenties, she guessed. Moderate height, moderate build. He wore brogans, khaki work clothes and a dark waterproof jacket. Neat enough, but still thoroughly ordinary.

Then Miss Ponytail took her eyes off the game to wave at that man. He grimaced and pointed at the guards moving the ball toward her from the far court. Ponytail wasn’t ready and dropped their pass before recovering. Lucky not to lose it.

Her gaze followed the sandy-haired man to the refreshment stand. A darkly handsome, statuesque woman of perhaps thirty intercepted him there. Even at this distance she seemed to radiate an aura of sadness. The woman tried to hold the man in conversation, but he broke off and joined a male group that included Lisa’s father. Strange little mini-dramas . . . That ordinary man no sooner walked into the gym than two women tried to attract his attention. A redneck version of Frank Sinatra? But the woman at the refreshment stand was too old to swoon like a bobby-soxer. Or was she a case of arrested development? Such odd people! Lisa thought she would never understand them. But she had to try. Her father’s success here might depend upon it. She had to try, though the placid tempo of their lives dragged against the lively beating of her heart. It felt like running in mud.


The sudden word and a slap on Wilson’s back shook Lisa out of her thoughts. She found the senator locked in an odd handshake, with each man grasping the forearm of the other. The newcomer was a tall man wearing an olive-drab field jacket that sported the well-known brass eagle pin that signified honorable discharge from military service.

“Lisa,” Wilson said, “this is Jimmy Fletcher, the big gun from our 1942 team.”

He was certainly big enough—at least several inches above six feet. She wanted to ask about the handshake, but the bleariness in Jimmy’s eyes stopped her.

“Big gun, big goon,” Jimmy said, his speech slurred. “This young senator and two, three others helped—only Beneficent team t’ play in the state tournament.”

Lisa nodded her response without comment. She’d already heard boasts about that team, always in the same words: We’ll never forget the team of ’forty-two. She’d bet that team was as dinky as everything else in town, and whoever heard of a team called Beneficent Panthers? Nevertheless, she filed the state tournament fact as something she and her father should remember.

But Jimmy Fletcher was speaking to her again. “Most folks said it was a good team.” He met Lisa’s eyes for a second, then dropped his gaze and shuffled away, slightly off balance.”

Mississippi is a dry state. So how did he manage to get tipsy? And what kind of a handshake was that?

“Sometime I’ll have to tell you about our team,” Wilson said. “Hey! There’s Jack Davis.” He pointed to the corner of the end line, where the same ordinary man had returned to watch the game. “He was a member of our team.”

Jack Davis, Lisa thought. The ordinary man has an ordinary name. While she’d been distracted, the girls’ game had ended and the boys’ game had begun. Beneficent had quickly gained the lead and someone had called time out. Then she saw that Miss Ponytail had lined up as a cheerleader. For some reason she felt drawn to the girl.

“Who is that cheerleader?” she asked. “The one with the ponytail.”

Wilson grinned. “That’s Callie Rakestraw. Her brother—”

Lisa lost the rest of his statement, for another mini-drama occurred. As the cheerleaders leaped and cheered, Callie Rakestraw twirled her pleated white skirt, displaying chunky legs and showing that she wore her basketball uniform beneath the skirt.

Lisa saw Jack Davis scowling at her from the end line. When he beckoned, Callie beamed and ran to him. His scowl deepened. They gestured and seemed to quarrel. Callie stalked away, hands on hips. She twirled her skirt again and threw Jack a glance that should have turned him into stone. The town might be filled with good people trying to live good lives, but that didn’t mean they were immune to anger. She filed the incident for future reference.

She watched in boredom until the game ended, then looked to see if more sparks would fly between Callie and Jack Davis. But he had disappeared. Callie appeared to make a point of seeking out a young player who wore the number four, and they walked away holding hands.

A second triangle. The first was Callie, Jack, and that older woman. The new one was Callie, Jack, and Number Four. Both could be catalysts for crimes of passion, and it looked like Beneficent might not be as virtuous as Senator Wilson claimed. She would have to wait and see.

On the ride home, she congratulated herself on learning things that might help her father with the locals. They liked talking about their team of ’forty-two, so she would draw them out about that. And they were always ready to sing the virtues of Beneficent. But if the state was dry and Beneficent so virtuous, how had Jimmy Fletcher found the liquor that made him unsteady? She wouldn’t ask that question. And she wouldn’t ask about the two Jack Davis triangles she’d observed. She’d just watch to see what came of them. Feeling a bit smug, she decided that a stiff upper lip would get her through the rest of this year. Then back to civilization and graduate school—that is, if she could ever decide what to study.

When the game ended, Jack Davis drove his 1938 Chevy pickup to his farm four miles west of town. Rain threatened, but none fell, and the clouds had lifted to a high overcast. Far to the southeast, lightning flickered, too distant to bring the sound of thunder.

Despite the cold, Jack lingered on his front porch to savor the quiet night, so different from the turbulent nights he’d known overseas during the war. Beneficent was a good town with good people, and he relived with pleasure each meeting he’d had with its citizens that night. Presently, he considered the striking brunette Hollis Wilson escorted to the tournament. Hollis would need a showcase wife when he ran for governor a few years from now. That woman would meet the requirement.

Jack himself had no time for the two women who’d complicated his life lately. Callie Rakestraw would outgrow her schoolgirl crush. But Vesta Childress, the school librarian who’d intercepted him at the refreshment stand, was another story.

Even if he’d felt inclined, though, he had no time. The mortgage on his new acres of choice bottom land hung above him like an anvil suspended by a thread. Farm work would never pay it off, so he labored extra hours at any construction job he could find. That left him scarcely time to sleep. But in three more years, if he could hold this pace, he’d have clear title.

Lightning flickered again in the southeast, followed by a faint rumble of thunder.

Somewhere out there, the evils of this world still strike like lightning. But here in this blessed place all things are quiet, the air washed cold and pure.

Later that evening in town, Sheriff Claiborne Rainwater parked beside his home. The tournament had brought no trouble except two genial visitors who’d drunk too much, and he’d found sober drivers to take them home. He thanked the Lord again for letting him be sheriff of a county where nothing ever happened. He could already taste the cup of coffee his wife would have waiting for him. It kept some people awake, but for him it acted like a sedative. He could use the sleep. He’d been on his feet since breakfast, and he wasn’t getting any younger.

Across town, Stephen Kemper brooded on his problems with building the new plant. All his life he’d worked with chemicals that behaved in predictable ways, and he felt out of his element dealing with unpredictable people. Like that difficult contractor out of Memphis, often absent from the job and full of excuses why work wasn’t done. If things didn’t get better quickly, Kemper’s company would send someone else to finish the project. He mustn’t worry Lisa about it though. Better to keep his troubles to himself.

And in Vesta Childress’s home that evening, blue flames burned low in the butane heaters. Their steady hiss was punctuated now and then by a faint popping sound from impurities in the gas, and the flame flickered yellow before subsiding into blue.

Vesta shivered as she entered the house, for the night had turned cold. She’d made a fool of herself again trying to attract Jack Davis’s attention. She should have remembered his love of basketball, remembered it from that magic year when the late William Bradley, the man she’d consented to marry, had coached the team of ’forty-two and she’d marveled at each tactical adjustment he made.

She moved through the few rooms she still occupied and turned the heaters to full high. They would hold back the cold darkness that seemed to press against the house from all sides.

The house itself stood isolated among trees, its rear entrance huddled against a wooded hill. A long, curved driveway formed its only connection to the main road in front. Vesta’s father had valued privacy to the point of obsession. The ivy he’d planted long ago now entwined on the trellised front porch as if to make sure the house could not run away. Even now, the furniture stood where it had when Vesta was a child.

dly, she moved to the oak secretary in one corner of the living room. A half-wall topped by dowels separated that room from the dining room. Shadows from the dowels formed a pattern of bars on the wall above her. On the secretary rested a photograph of Vesta and William Bradley, taken the day they announced their engagement in November 1941. He smiled forth from the picture, handsome and self-assured as he had been in life. She, too, smiled with the happiness she’d known in the radiance of newfound love. The photographer had caught her with one hand shyly fondling a wisp of her long brown hair.

For a long time she studied the photograph, then touched the tightly braided bun behind her head, tugged briefly at the collar of her blouse that lately felt a bit choking, and opened a well-marked book to Amy Lowell’s poem “Patterns.” Vesta knew it by heart, but she still traced its lines with her finger.

Her eyes moistened as she read about a lady in the distant past whose tragedy so resembled Vesta’s own. The stiffness of the lady’s clothing and the constraints of society denied fulfillment of her ripe woman’s body. Yet she dreamed of bathing in a wooded bower, unconstrained, each touch of the water intimate as a lover’s caress.

So like Vesta’s own dreams of fulfillment in marriage to William Bradley.

The gas heaters murmured and burned with a blue flame. Air in the room remained hot and dry. Out of Vesta’s mouth came an involuntary sound from beyond spoken language. Her vision now too blurred to read, she formed the remembered words with her lips. For in the poem, the lady’s dreams were shattered like her own, condemning her to a life unfulfilled, hedged in by societal constraints and the lady’s stiff, corseted clothing.

The gas heaters popped and flickered yellow, and the deep-lined shadows of dowels grew darker on the wall. Vesta’s fingers tugged again at her collar as her lips pronounced the poem’s climactic words:

For the man who should have loosed me is dead.

As she had done so many quiet nights before, Vesta Childress sank forward upon the book, rested her head upon her arms, and wept.


Chapter 2

Jack Davis went to sleep in peace but woke in terror . . .



Author Bio:

Donn Taylor portraits 12/7/07Donn Taylor led an Infantry rifle platoon in the Korean War, served with Army aviation in Vietnam, and worked with air reconnaissance in Europe and Asia. Afterwards, he completed a PhD degree at The University of Texas and taught English literature at two liberal arts colleges. His prior published works include two suspense novels, a mystery, and a book of poetry. He is a frequent speaker at writers’ conferences. He lives near Houston, TX, where he writes fiction, poetry, and essays on current topics.


How can readers find you on the Internet?

Web site:




Book Trailer: None for Lightning. One for Deadly Additive at

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  1. Sounds like a great book! Donn, your life has been so interesting too. I’m guessing Mildred had something to do with that 🙂

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