As much as I enjoyed the movie – the books are some of my favorite books ever. They are mysteries with clever, riveting plots, great atmosphere, codes the readers can work on, and the deeply appealing Enola herself.
I thought the series was complete, with the very satisfying (and more than a little moving) The Case of the Gypsy Goodbye. So my surprise at another book is exceeded only by my delight.
On top of all this, last weekend I had the great pleasure to attend an online workshop with Nancy Springer as part of the online Pennwriters Conference. She was such fun! And had so much good advice for writing. I intend to share some highlights of the conference and what Nancy had to say.
Meanwhile, I have seven projects I’m working on, only one of which is my fantasy novel in progress, so it may be a while before I emerge. Back into my Cave of Projects! (Ok, it’s sunlit and infused with fresh spring air, but still – I’m trying to work on several of these things at once, so it’s a little hectic in here…)
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?
I have exciting news – my next publication is coming out soon! My fiction is included in Running Wild Anthology of Stories Vol. 3, due on or around Sept. 15th, 2019. My contribution is a bit of flash fiction, “The One that Got Away,” which won an award at a recent Pennwriters Conference. It’s about a bunch of fisherman swapping stories and the tale that tops them all.
My story joins Aud Supplee’s “Monkey in the Middle.” I’ve read a lot of Aud’s fine fiction, but not this one and I’m excited to read it.
As I continue this series of interviews with my Running Wild Anthology colleagues, I’m particularly pleased to welcome Laura Selinsky; she and I have been members of the same critique group for many years. Her story, “Sea Wall,” touched me with its bittersweet poignancy.
Our Anthology’s cover has gotten comments that it evokes a sense of many varied stories inside.
Does any part of the cover remind you of your story?
I’m not sure the cover reminds me of my specific story, but it does remind me of a library. There is no place where I feel more at home than a library…except maybe the library of my childhood. My hometown library was over the fire station and when the alarms went off- Phew!
Would you add anything to the cover to hint at your story?
I’d add a sifting of sand across the cover. Nothing hints at slow passing time like the imperceptible movement of a sand dune; that’s why the protagonist crosses a sand dune in my story.
What do you like best to write?
I love writing YA high fantasy, so much flexibility in writing magic, alternate species, new cultures, etc. Conversely, all that world-building requires many self-generated rules, and a passion for consistent application of the rules from page to page.
What’s the biggest stretch for you to write?
The hardest thing for me to write is a contemporary teenager; I am excruciatingly careful not to pirate my high school students’ lives. I used to teach adjudicated teens, and I have a novel that considers the juvenile justice system. When I work on that particular novel, I have to be cautious to limit what I know to generalizations, not specific experiences.
Where do your stories fall on the plot-driven vs. character-driven spectrum?
Character-driven! I love tossing two characters in a room and seeing what happens. In the anthology, the story is actually “Image-driven.” I started from the image of a seawall and wondered how it affected or reflected the people who pass it each day.
What authors did you love most as a kid? Now? What authors have influenced your writing most?
When I was read-aloud aged, I loved Kipling because my mom read me the original JUNGLE BOOKS. Later I loved the mythology that I found in my school library, and I still teach elective mythology to high school students. My adult fantasy writing is influenced by the usual suspects, Tolkien, Kay, Mallory… In a practical sense, my writing is influenced by my critique group, which calls me to account for my nonsense and encourages me through my discouragement.
Is there a place that you’ve lived or visited that most influences your writing?
We used to camp in Maine when I was a girl, so I have to watch myself or I’ll write endless cool misty mornings.
What’s the first piece you wrote that you’re still proud of/happy with?
Of my adult writing, I’m proudest of a magazine article about working with high-functioning autistic students. Advise magazine, where the article appeared, has a run of 50,000. I loved the idea of seeing my students fairly portrayed and offered every option for fulfillment in their school lives in a magazine that landed on the desks of 50,000 teachers.
What have you been up to since the Anthology came out? Any other news?
Since the Anthology came out, I signed my first contract for a novel with Anaiah Press. Very exciting!
What do you plan to work on next?
I’m editing the contracted novel under the supervision of my publisher. I am always editing some portion of my fantasy trilogy. I’m also goddess of grammar on my son’s doctoral dissertation…the only part of that I understand is whether the commas are in the right place.
How can readers connect with you?
Twitter- Laura Nelson Selinsky, @huzzahlns
Facebook- Laura Nelson Selinsky
Anything else you’d like to add?
At my first writing conference, I was advised to find a good critique group and stick with it. Best. Advice. Ever. Nothing has contributed more toward making me a thoughtful writer than the critique group I’ve attended for the last eight years. Gemma Brook, the owner of this website, is also the leader of that critique group under the auspices of Pennwriters. Kudos for your leadership, Gemma!
Thank you for the kind words, Laura! Our critique group is really a co-operative effort, and I’ll vouche for you as being not only a goddess of grammar, but a most beneficent one!
Congratulations on your upcoming novel! And thank you for taking part in my blog (and for all your excellent critiquing).
Every May, writers, editors, and agents gather in Pennsylvania for three days to share their knowledge, wisdom, and passion about the art and business of writing. I know I’ll always come home from the conference inspired and brimming with ideas; it’s reason enough alone to belong to Pennwriters, and there are many others.
One of the great delights is connecting with people who share this passion. This year, I had the pleasure of meeting my Running Wild Anthology colleague Suzanne Mattaboni, a gifted writer who is also a local Pennwriter representative.
She put together a beautiful raffle basket full of goodies and books by Pennwriters – among them the RW Anthology which features a trio of us Pennwriters, including Susan Helene Gottfried, another talented writer and an editor (I’ve really enjoyed emailing with her and wish she could’ve come so I could meet her).
I contributed a few items to the basket, clues to some of the RW Anthology stories. You can just spot them in the photo: seed packets for “Bee Heaven” and “Holy Basil” (for my story, “Last Memory”); a bag of pirate gold (for Cindy Cavett’s fun “Rehoboth Beach Break”); and a tiny Excalibur (for Amelia Kibbie’s touching “The Idylls of the King”). And the “Seaglass” candle (furnished by Suzanne) fits well with Laura Selinsky’s poignant “Seawall.” Curious how these mysterious things fit in with the stories? Look into the Anthology and find out!
Three of my critique group friends were there this year, and hanging out and comparing notes with them was excellent fun. It was thrilling to see E. Williams win second place in the Pennwriters Annual Contest for short fiction with her story “Cici Accepts the Facts” (find out more on her website). And my friends Katrina and Rowan got requests for their manuscripts from more than one agent. Congratulations, my friends!
I was so pleased that Suzanne won third place for her short, “A Trailer Full of Cadillacs,” in the “In Other Words” contest (and that her daughter won first place in the poetry division! A lot of talent in that family).
Though “In Other Words” is a small and informal contest, it’s judged by attendees, and it’s an honor to be voted for by your peers. I was delighted that my short story tied for third place (not with Suzanne, as it happens).
As always, the conference had so many great workshops, I had to make tough choices. Once I got home, it took me weeks to edit all my notes and distill the wisdom that I can use here, now, and soon. Here is a tiny sampling from just a handful of the excellent presenters.
Don Helin, award-winning writer of thrillers, presented a lively, good-humored workshop on “Writing a Marketing Plan.”
A few tidbits for my present use:
• Develop a press kit; if you were going to write an article on yourself, what would you need?
• Develop a non-fiction hook: some fact that ties into your stories, to catch the attention of people who might promote your work. It can even work with fantasy. (I’m still working on what to tie into my fantasy in progress; it might have to do with the legend of Deirdre of the Sorrows.)
• Keep your website up to date…good advice I’m working on right now!
• Keep writing! Publishers want the next book. And for me, none of this matters if I don’t get to keep putting my stories into words.
Intriguing title, isn’t it? First, she and an audience member defined just what jenga is for those of us ignorant: a game where you start with a short, solid tower of wooden blocks and take out one at a time to stack them on top, ending (before it falls) with a taller, airier tower.
Her key point: overwriting builds a wall between the author and the reader. So…make holes in the wall and beckon to the reader through them. She gave eloquent examples from excellent authors.
Things I found particularly useful have to do with setting:
• Save description until it counts and something interesting happens.
• Make details meaningful.
• Consider ways to make setting interactive.
• Give details that anchor the reader in your world.
• Use the setting to support the plot.
Hallie Ephron, NYT bestselling author, talked about “Parallel Tracks: From Back Story to Front Story.”
One of her many helpful ideas is to chart your characters in relationship to your protagonist:
• Draw arrows toward the protagonist if they’re helping and away from if they’re hindering.
• You need a mix of push and pull.
• Some characters may do both.
• If there aren’t many arrows pointing away from protagonist, there’s probably not enough conflict in your story.
• You may need more characters, or hidden goals in existing characters.
• The protagonist can be hindering themselves.
And she highlighted the concept of Parallax: where you’re standing determines what you see.
• Different people will believe different things.
• What lies do characters believe, what truths do they doubt?
• What really happened, vs. what people think happened?
In “World Building 101,” multi-talented fantasy writer Jack Hillman presented a treasure trove of things to consider.
Some essential points:
• Make sure you know the backstory for your world.
• Your world will determine, at least in part, your people.
• Build your society around your world, and your conflict around all these factors.
• BUT don’t tell the reader everything about the world backstory. Let them figure some out themselves.
With a great deal of humor and hard-won wisdom, Western writer R.G. Yoho shared “What NOT to do as an Author.”
Some key things that stuck with me:
• Remember: the manuscript you don’t finish can’t be improved.
• Don’t let others define success for you.
• Enjoy the successes along the way, and enjoy the ride.
• It’s amazing how many ‘yeses’ you’ll hear if you’re not afraid to hear ‘no.”
Finally, with great verve and energy, Donna Galanti shared much helpful, practical information about “School Visits 101.”
Having been to some of her workshops and read her excellently fun Joshua and the Lightning Road I only wish I were a kid lucky enough to have her visit MY school!
These are just hints and samplings of what these presenters, and many more, had to offer. I’m still digesting this feast of information. Now it’s time to put it into use, and get back to writing!