At the beginning of Gerald Lund's new book, "Pillar of Light" (Bookcraft, $14.95, 435 pages) you'll find a chart. At first glance it looks like a genealogy group sheet or maybe a family tree to help readers keep track of the characters in a Russian novel.

In a way, it's both.Gerald Lund, author of "The Alliance," "The Trial" and other Mormon novels, is out to write the Mormon saga. And he has bitten off a lot to chew. His story is the story of the fictional Steed family, and the author follows them for four generations; from an 1820 encounter with Joseph Smith in New York to modern life in Utah.

The whole project goes by the title "The Work and Glory." It will take up to five books and 3,000 pages to complete.

It may also take up the rest of Gerald Lund's life.

"It involves research, travel - all kinds of things," says Lund. "Before beginning this I'd never been to any of the LDS Church history sites, for instance. So I decided to spend a day in the hills around Bountiful - what I call my `mountain time' - and think. I said: `You've reached an age now where you only have so many books left in you. Is this what you want to do?' I decided it was."

Lund credits a friend, Kenneth Moe, for getting him fired up, offering support and providing funds to hire researcher Rick Huchel. Lund's wife Lynn and friends Deena Nay, Calvin Stephens and others have helped. But every writer knows that writing, in the end, is a lonely, solitary, grueling business. Lund, for example, works late in his basement while everyone else sleeps. To really get into the flow of things he needs at least a two-hour chunk of time, he says, more if he can borrow it. And being an LDS bishop with a full-time job means there's precious little time to borrow.

Lund also knows the importance of being earnest.

It was William Faulkner who said writers don't need good minds, they need hard backsides. And Gerald Lund knows as much about plodding as plotting.

"Normally when I finish a book there's both a physical and psychological letdown," he says. "It usually takes me four or five months to recover. But this is different. With this, the story's never done. I feel anxious to get on with it."

So far, the story Lund is telling shows most of the elements found in pop fiction - what the critics call "bedside" reading. There's a strong love interest in the book, a father and son dispute, some sibling rivalry, some debauchery and some grace.

There are also some wonderful little pockets of description. This, for instance, is Mary Steed's impressions of Benjamin, her headstrong husband, and Joshua, her headstrong son:

Though strikingly similar in physical appearance, their temperaments couldn't have been much further apart. Joshua went at life like it was somekind of contest of pulling sticks or leg wrestling. He hurled himself at it with frightening intensity, battering at it, trying to pull it off balance enough so he could make it his. On the other hand, Benjamin Steed viewed any overt show of emotion as though it were indicative of some inner flaw. His approach to life was more like that of a careful builder. You selected your materials with care, then simply put things in their proper order, moving methodically from one task to another until the structure was complete.

There are many such moments in the book. Yet, as the novel hits the stands, critics will be lining up on each side of the aisle to pan and praise it.

Such is the life of an LDS writer.

The world of LDS publishing in 1990 is a complicated world. The traditional Mormon publishing firms - Bookcraft and Deseret Book - press ahead methodically and reliably - much like Benjamin in the quote above - while some of the newer houses experiment, show some defiance and try to press on the frontiers.

People who prefer the more conservative approach see the "new" Mormon fiction as irresponsible, untethered and self-indulgent. Some of the more avant garde Mormon writers see "establishment" novels as stodgy and compromised.

Lund is well aware of all that, of course, and he knows his treatment of LDS history will not be greeted with open arms by everyone. It's a sympathetic look at both historical figures and events.

"No question some people will be upset that I haven't explored more questions about LDS history," he says. "But this isn't so much a book about church history as an attempt to take a family and examine the personal impact that comes into a home when Joseph Smith comes into their lives. This is really a book about the Steeds."

As this first book in the series began inching its way toward the press, thousands of adjustments and changes had to be made. At first, Lund thought of titling each volume with phrases from "Come, Come Ye Saints" ("Fresh Courage Take," "And Should We Die" etc.). He scuttled that notion for more diverse titles, however. Sometimes he'd go back and change a detail, only to feel reverberations all the way through the project, much the way striking the root of a tree with an ax makes the branches shudder.

He ended up relying on inspiration and help from the muses.

"Sometimes just writing each word is painful," Lund says, "then other times you get writing and it just starts flowing. You want to write as fast as you can and come back and fix it up later."

Lund is well into volume two of the series now. He has also blocked out an outline for the other books, though nothing is set in lead. The process is - and will remain - a task that requires constant discipline and dedication.

It is also a task that requires a certain sensitivity.

"There are always sensitive areas," he says. "You have to learn where to draw the line between fiction and history. In `non-doctrinal' areas, for example, I've taken some real liberties here. At first I included some profanity. Bookcraft told me they'd let it go if I felt strongly about it, but I went back and took it all out. Perhaps some will see that as a cop-out, but I couldn't leave it in."

In the end, after the blood, sweat, tears, time and talent, Lund tries to find one word to describe the effort he's put into the project and will be putting in for years to come.

He looks at the ceiling for inspiration.

"Satisfying," he says. "The whole project has been very satisfying."