One of the things I’ve found most helpful in coping with the Covid-19 pandemic is to learn something new. So I was very glad and grateful to participate in Kathy Otten’s online writing course hosted by Pennwriters, which frequently offers such courses. Kathy’s class, “Weaving History into the Historical Novel,” was of particular interest to me as I write some historical fiction. Her class was very interesting, practical, and helpful, and I got a lot of enjoyment from it.
Now I’m pleased to invite Kathy to join me on my blog for an interview.
Gemma: Tell me a little about your writing, and how you came to write historical fiction.
Kathy: Hi Gemma, Thanks for having me. I write mostly historical romance; a mix of short stories, novellas, and novels. My dad loved the old westerns from when he was a kid, so when they were popular in the seventies, we went to see every John Wayne picture that was released.
Gemma: Ah, the classic westerns! I’d like to refer you to VT Dorchester’s blog — VT posts reviews of westerns, both movies and books (along with writing western stories). Pardon my digression – please tell me more.
Kathy: My mom loved old houses and antiques. Our house was full of them, and each one had a story related to some passed family member.
Gemma: Oh, that’s wonderful. Is there any antique with a particular story that really stays with you?
Kathy: The house was filled with things like Limoges china, a spinning wheel, yarn winder, antique sewing table, dressers, hundred-year-old steamer trunks, cooking utensils, furniture, etc. However, it was the more personal things that were passed down, which to me have a deeper connection. I have a recipe book from my great, great grandfather who had come from Sweden to NYC, and all the recipes are in his handwriting. I had thought it would be fun to have his handwriting analyzed to find out about his personality. My mother gave me an old leather purse which had belonged to my great-grand mother and it still had old coins from the 1800’s in it, along with some old fractional currency, which was issued in the mid 1800’s in lieu of coins because of a coin shortage. Old money is cool to think about anyway, but she would have been the last one to handle it and it might even have her fingerprints on it.
Gemma: Those are some amazing family heirlooms. And the thought of having currency with your great-grandmother’s actual touch on it is enough to give me chills.
Kathy: Together Mom and Dad instilled a love of history for both my brothers and me. My writing melds the happily-ever-after of romance with the romantic myth of the old west and my personal love of exploring different eras and stories from history.
Gemma: What are some other eras you’ve written about?
Kathy: Contemporary is not my usual time period, though I did write a short contemporary romance years ago. Mostly I write out west during the open range cowboy era. I did write a middle-grade historical short story which took place in the 1850’s and I have a soon to be released World War I short story. Since my characters come to me first, I tend to write whatever time period they drop me into.
Gemma: That’s cool to follow the characters to their time period! Do you write in other genres?
Kathy: I’ve written some contemporary romance and a YA novel yet to be published.
Gemma: Tell us a bit more about the YA novel.
Kathy: The YA book is a contemporary story about a teenage boy dealing with past trauma and self-doubt. I’ve submitted it to over twenty agents and editors, but it has been rejected every time. For now, it’s on the back burner. I may go back and rewrite parts of it and try the process again someday when I have the time.
Gemma: It sounds like you have the persistence so vital to being an author. Do you remember when you realized or decided that you wanted to be a writer?
Kathy: I’ve always made up stories in my head, so I don’t really remember when I decided I wanted to be a writer. My mom tells the story that when we went grocery shopping, if she had enough money she’d by each of us one of those Little Golden Books. One day I wanted one, but she didn’t have enough money. When I became upset she told me to write my own and that’s when I started putting stories on paper.
Gemma: Oh, the Little Golden Books – I have some fond memories. What a great response from your mother – and from you, to take her up on it. Can you trace some of your writing history?
Kathy: I’m guessing when I say I must have been in about second grade when I remember writing “Lucky the Dog.” I wrote simple sentences on the lower half of the paper and colored pictures on the top half. The book had a paper cover and I had tied it together with yarn. My mother kept it, that’s why I remember it. I went on to write “The Lost Uranium Mine” and “The Mystery of the Old Yellow House.” When I was sixteen, I wrote “The Letter” for a contest and it won and was published in a Christian magazine for teens called The Young Ambassador. That was the first time I saw my name and my story in print. That really hooked me and I’ve been writing steadily ever since.
Gemma: That first time of seeing yourself in print is so exciting! What’s the first piece you wrote that you’re still proud of/happy with?
Kathy: Aside from that first short story in print, I’ve been happy with each story I’ve written. There are aspects to each one I’m proud of.
Gemma: That is excellent. What’s the hardest part of writing for you?
Kathy: Not procrastinating. Sitting my butt in the chair and doing the work. There are some days cleaning the bathroom seems preferable.
Gemma: You know the procrastination bug is bad when cleaning the bathroom looks better! I know the feeling well; and even when my butt is in the chair, I often feel compelled to straighten my pens and notebooks, and then wonder if I should dust the desk…What’s the best part of writing for you?
Kathy: Sometimes going back and reading a sentence or paragraph from an older work, and I read it and think, Wow, I can’t believe I wrote that.
Gemma: Oh, that is a wonderful feeling! Where does your writing fall on the plot-driven vs. character-driven spectrum?
Kathy: I used to say my stories were character driven, until I read something that James Scott Bell wrote in one of his books on writing. That without a good strong plot the characters have nothing to react to, and without that reaction there is no catalyst for change. I’ve read a lot of romance where the characters are flat and boring. Stepping back, now I can see that it’s the weak plot and lack of conflict that keep the characters, flat and one dimensional.
Gemma: That is an excellent insight; I’ve never thought of it, and it rings very true. What books and authors did you love growing up? Did any particularly influence you?
Kathy: I used to read a lot of books by naturalists, then I fell into the westerns of Louis L’Amour. I love his historical detail and sense of place. Elmore Leonard is another, either his westerns or contemporary police dramas. I love his characters and dialogue.
Gemma: What are you reading presently?
Kathy: I read mostly history on whatever topic I’m researching. If I ever have time I’ll read historical romance or some contemporary.
Gemma: What are you working on now?
Kathy: I’m working on another historical romance novel that touches a bit on the views of sexuality in the Victorian period.
Gemma: That sounds intriguing. I remember being surprised when I realized that the Old West and the Victorian Age overlapped – they seem so different. What is your next project you hope to do?
Kathy: Ideas and characters constantly tumble around in my head, who know which one will jump out at me next. I’m trying to stay focused on one project at a time. No more three novels at once.
Gemma: Wow! Three at once sounds daunting, to say the least. What were the three novels, and what brought you to write them at the same time?
Kathy: In hindsight, I wouldn’t recommend doing it. Because writing and researching one book is time consuming, doing multiple stories takes that much more time. It created a gap of years between release dates which in this day and age of search engine optimization and readers who binge read backlists, keeping a steady stream of product is important if you want people to remember your name. At the time I was working on the YA novel, my Civil War novel, A Place in Your Heart, and the rough draft for the novel I’m currently rewriting. I’m having to learn not to listen to the muse and work on the story I might feel like working on and focus on keeping in the zone and sticking to one story at a time.
Gemma: I’ve felt challenged by that, too, and it’s resulted in some stories left unfinished for long periods. For readers who want to see what you’ve been up to, how can they connect with you?
Gemma: Thank you for joining me on my blog, Kathy!