A superhero disguised as a copy editor and keeping the grammar police at bay! Read on and find out more…
If you were to write the ‘origin’s episode’ of your writing what would be the most important scenes?
Thanks for this opportunity, Grace. I started creating stories when I was in high school and would sketch cartoonish scenes kind of like a comic book, so this question is apropos. I was and still am a fan of The Lord of the Rings series, and my earliest efforts were knock-off fantasies. I left them behind when I went to college and don’t know where those efforts reside now.
All super heroes have their mild-mannered secret identity, what is yours? I promise we won’t tell.
My alter ego protects my employer from the grammar police. That’s right. I’m a copy editor in a university marketing and public relations office. I doubt my colleagues would call me mild-mannered when my notes in the margins say “Death to all caps!” and “Only one exclamation point!”
Who are your partners in crime? What are their superpowers?
My husband cooks for me and does a lot of things to give me more time to write. I also owe a lot to my critique partners in Lafayette, Indiana, whose insights brought The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar closer to publication. Many thanks also to my friend and fellow novelist Jessica Knauss.
Where do you get your superpowers from?
Of course, there is the original inspiration, the story that latches onto you and just won’t leave you alone until you place yourself in front of a computer and write – never mind you know very little about the Middle Ages. Sustaining those powers enough to produce a novel that is publishable, however, takes a willingness to do the research, to revise and revise and revise yet again, and to be open to criticism.
Where is your secret lair and what does it look like?
My lair is a bedroom in my house converted into my study. To the untrained eye, it is quite ordinary: laptop with docking station, bookshelves, a comfy couch, and many to-do lists on scrap paper. Sometimes a spoiled cat will stop by wanting attention. Or food. Or is meowing at me to get off the Facebook and come to bed.
What kind of training do you do to keep your superpowers in world saving form? How do you ensure they are used only for good?
I read a lot. My research is mostly reading primary sources in translation and academic papers. (Historical novelist’s disclaimer: Any goofs are mine and no one else’s.) I often consult Google maps and Google Earth to estimate how long a trip took or prompt my imagination for what a city might have looked like 1,200 years ago. I also enjoy other authors’ novels. And a newly formed critique group will help me stay on track.
As I write I sometimes must remind myself that I am telling the story from my medieval characters’ points of view, not that of a tolerant 21st century American, and I must let them do things I don’t like and believe in ideas I disagree with. In other words, I must trust the reader to understand.
Granted, you probably don’t’ get to wear your superhero costume a lot, but if you did, what would it look like?
Does that mean khakis and a comfy top don’t count? It’s hard to say what costume I’d choose, but nothing skin tight or midriff baring. And definitely no high heels.
What is your kryptonite? What are the biggest challenges faced with in your writing?
Lack of time and distractions. How’d it get so late? And where did all this laundry come from? And what do these cats want now?
What was the supervillain that threatened to stop your latest project and how did you vanquish it?
In this line of work, writers face rejection multiple times as we try to get the attention of an editor or agent – so many in fact, we have the term “good rejections,” although I prefer to call them useful. It is a frustrating process and can lead to self-doubt and asking oneself, “Am I really one of those people who only thinks she’s a good writer like the ones I encountered in my newspaper days?” The encouragement from my friends, critique partners, and family helped me persist, along with a dose of optimism present in all writers.
What important lessons have you learned along the way?
If you get a useful rejection – one that speicifies why the book did not work for an editor – take what they say seriously. I can recall two such letters, and addressing the editors’ concerns made the novel better, even though neither of them took on the book later. I will admit that lopping off two chapters in my first book to introduce tension felt a bit like murdering the proverbial babies, but the story was better for it.
“Never give up” also comes to mind, but I would add “if you’re heading nowhere, take a different direction.” I spent several years trying to get published with what is now the Big 5 before contacting my current publisher, Fireship Press. I am glad I went this route. Small presses like Fireship are willing to take a chance on a story that has a different premise such as a pagan, peasant mother protecting her children, and the author has more control over the finished book.
What have been the best/most memorable experiences along the way?
One of the most pleasant surprises came while I was promoting my first book. During interviews, I mentioned that I was working on The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar and one day I got a note from Fireship saying that they were interested in the manuscript. Thrilled does not begin to describe how I felt.
If you did this again what would you do differently and what would you not change?
I would tell my past self to quit trying to prove how intelligent she is, stop trying to jam in so much backstory at the beginning, and above all, trust the reader. What I would not change is having a critique group review the story. This group of wonderful writers told me things I did not want to hear but absolutely needed to hear, and that got the manuscript closer to publication.
What is the best (writing or otherwise) advice you have ever gotten and why.
During the first Historical Novel Society conference in North America, the guest of honor told the crowd that the First Commandment of Writing is “Thou shalt not bore the reader.”
If you are a storehouse of historical knowledge and have perfect grammar and spelling, it won’t matter if you cannot tell an interesting story in an interesting way.
Tell us about you new book and why we need to drop everything and get it now.
In The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, Leova must grapple with why her gods let a holy monument burn and how to protect her children when she’s lost everything—her husband, her home, her faith, even her freedom.
This novel gives readers a little told side of the early Middle Ages. When source documents depict pagans as brutes, treat war captives like war booty, and rarely mention peasants at all, historical fiction such as The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar fills a gap. In fact, it might be the only way to see historical events, including Charlemagne’s destruction of a pillar sacred to the Continental Saxon peoples, through the eyes of pagans and peasants.
Although separated from Leova by more than 1,200 years, modern readers will identify with her as she sacrifices her own honor for the sake of her children. They will grieve with her at the pyres of her loved ones, understand her desire for justice against the relatives who betrayed her, and agonize with her as she tries to determine who is friend and who is foe.
What’s in store for you in the future? Do you have any other big projects on the horizon?
I am working on my third novel, which I’m now calling Fastrada. The title character was Charlemagne’s influential fourth wife, whose supposed cruelty was the cause of a rebellion by Pepin, Charles’s son by his first wife. Never mind that Pepin probably felt cheated that he was not going to inherit a kingdom like his three younger brothers by wife No. 3. Never mind the resentment of the divorced first wife and her aristocratic family.
So who was Fastrada, really? Was she so awful that she inspired a rebellion, or was she a strong-willed woman used as an excuse by a son angry to be cut out of the succession?
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