Someone’s wise tweet – I think it may have been Nicole Valentine’s – commended a plan to buy all Christmas gifts from bookstores and museum shops. I love this idea for supporting great places hard-hit by the pandemic.
I have hopefully dogeared a museum shop catalog with a desire of my own. As for gifts to give – books are always top of my list, and I’ve been collecting a small hoard all year. Which is a good thing, because shopping is not as easy or as safe as last year. It’s very fortunate indeed that two of my local bookstores offer curbside delivery. You, too, can give a gift to your community and order books from your local bookstore if you have one, and stay safely at home while you do it. They may also be able to send them for you.*
Here are some books I am going to give this year (shhh, no telling).
For a middle-grader with a big heart, a middle-grade book with great heart: A Time Traveler’s Theory of Relativity by Nicole Valentine. This is another book I read and loved, though I am well out of the focus audience.
For more ideas of books to give, you can see my blog on this from last year.
Another suggestion for gift ideas: are there local artists and artisans who might have websites you could order gifts from?
How about a gift for yourself: a short collection of fine tales to take you back to the old West? My writing friend VT Dorchester has a great tale online in the December issue of Frontier Tales. I’ve read a number of these, and they are fine stories. So far, I’m particularly fond of VT’s, “Horseshoe Nail Stew”, a clever and deepened retelling of the Stone Soup folktale. I’m looking forward to taking a small break and reading more stories, then choosing and voting for my favorite. Well done, VT!
Whatever holidays you observe, may you find the light, and celebrate and share it.
*Yes, you could probably get most if not all of these books at Amazon, but Amazon has done extremely well during the pandemic. Why not support bookstores, museums, and artisans who have been hit hard?
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?
It’s my great pleasure to continue my series of Running Wild Anthology of Stories author interviews with VT Dorchester. VT’s story, “Under the Eye of the Crow,” is an unusual and rather haunting Western that left me eager to read more.
Gemma: Welcome, VT! Can you tell us a bit of what your story is about?
VT: “Under the Eye of the Crow” is a historic fiction in part about an outlaw (Gar Weeks) who is robbed and left on the lone prairie to die. He decides he won’t, despite his circumstance and his regrets, and we follow him as he tries to reach…well, I suppose we could call it a kind of salvation.
Gemma: Do you remember what the seed for this story was?
VT: I had written a first draft of a literary western novella in which Gar Weeks plays a significant role a few years before writing this short. When, as part of a local flash fiction group, I was assigned the prompt “torture your character,” I immediately thought of torturing Weeks! Much of his character was already established, including that he had taken part in a disaster of some kind during his service as a Union soldier.
I wrote a first few drafts of what became “Under the Eyes…” with almost the entire focus on this character dying of thirst. The story didn’t feel complete, and it sat rather unsatisfactorily for a while. After a time, I thought to specify the event during the U.S. Civil War which haunted the character and story. Doing a little research, I discovered the tragic historic incident at Ebenezer Creek, Georgia. I encourage anyone interested to search for information about The Abandonment at Ebenezer Creek. I knew immediately that I wanted to refer to that incident in this fiction.
It took several more revisions to get my story “right” enough for sending it out for possible publication, and then, when Running Wild accepted the story, I wrangled a bit, I hope politely, with the editor (Cecile Sarruf) until we finally agreed on the story as it now stands! I am glad it worked out eventually.
Gemma: And it worked out very well. Readers who want to know more about The Abandonment at Ebenezer Creek could start with Wikipedia. How did you find out about this anthology?
VT: I don’t remember. It is quite difficult to find venues which actively seek western stories, and as a result I tend to cast out my western short stories rather wildly. I’ll send them out to pretty much any publication which doesn’t specifically say “no westerns.” (I write and have published other literary and different genre stories under another name.)
Gemma: Westerns have such a long, venerable history I hadn’t thought how hard it might be to find places to publish them. I’m glad you found Running Wild Press! Do you remember when and why you started writing?
VT: The first story I remember writing “seriously” was a story about a stray cat. It was grey. I was in elementary school. I’ve played around a bit with writing ever since, but it is only in the past five years or so that I have become “serious” about writing fiction again. I don’t remember why, exactly, I decided to start writing about a cat, except that I must have felt I had an entertaining story to tell. I still feel that I have entertaining stories to tell, although I understand others may not agree.
Gemma: I most definitely do agree! (And I think one of my first stories featured a cat, too; apparently a good genre for budding writers.) What’s the first piece you wrote that you’re still proud of/happy with?
VT: While I have one other western short story published, “Under the Eye of the Crow” is definitely the one with greater depth. The other also includes (a far more laid back) Gar Weeks in its cast, but focuses on a different character. It’s a Christmas story about a bank robbery. Plus hot cocoa. No one dies.
Gemma: That sounds intriguing! Can you tell me a bit more about it?
VT: The first stories I wrote when I returned to fiction five years ago were pretty rough and I had trouble incorporating ideas or themes. I feel I still struggle to translate what I ‘see’ or ‘hear’ in my mind on to the page, but I’m getting better at it. I feel that my ability to edit my work has also increased greatly, as has my confidence in my work.
Gemma: For what it’s worth, I struggle with those same issues, and I know we’re not alone. But getting more proficient at editing is an excellent thing, as it can overcome a lot of those problems. What’s the biggest challenge for you to write?
VT: The End. I have trouble completing writing projects. My best example is the novella I mentioned earlier. I would like to revise, edit and work towards having it published, but instead it’s been sitting for half a decade now as I work on shorter, easier to finish projects.
Gemma: I sympathize – I have a stack of unfinished projects, too. But working on finishable projects is a very worthwhile thing. Still, I hope you finish that novella, because I really want to read it some day! What do you like best to write?
VT: While it is not evident from “Under the Eye,” I am quite happy when a reader smiles or even laughs at something intentionally funny in my stories. I also like incorporating some science, history, or a sense of location.
Gemma: “Under the Eye” did an admirable job with its sense of place and history. I can still feel the grit and thirst from reading it. When you get an idea for a story, what comes to mind first, setting, plot or character? Or does it vary from story to story?
VT: It’s often a “scene” – a particular image or series of images I can see in my mind, usually with a character present. Other times, I can “hear” a character talking to me or with another character. I have lengthy, animated conversations, sometimes in public, with my characters.
Gemma: Oh, that’s excellent! I’ve had some conversations with characters while out on walks, and been kind of mortified when someone comes up from behind me and I wonder if they’ve overheard. On another subject, what authors have influenced your writing most?
VT: My western genre writing is most influenced by classic Hollywood western films. These were generally less concerned with historical truth and more concerned with characters, place and moral codes. And horses, songs, weird shirts and big hats.
Gemma: So true! I sense “Under the Eye” has more historical truth in it than some of those classic western movies, though it shares with them a strong sense of place.
VT: Thank you. While I do not pretend to have a great deal of historical knowledge, I did conduct more research for this story than I have for many others.
I believe there will always be room for new quasi-mythic western stories in the tradition of classic westerns, but there is also a demand from modern audiences for a greater incorporation of historical truth. Westerns have always, to a greater or lesser degree, reflected the concerns and demands of society contemporary to their creation. Today, a certain degree of “realism” is in demand. It is easier than ever for writers to research, and it’s easier than ever for readers to research, too. In the case of ‘Under the Eye’ I felt a particular need to take care and research due to it’s incorporation of historical tragedy. But first and foremost, when I write, I’m trying to tell a story. A fiction story. If I get some facts right along the way, I’m glad, but the facts aren’t the most important thing to a fiction story, if they were, the story would be creative non-fiction, or a non-fiction essay, instead.
Gemma: Good points and well put, VT. Is there a place that you’ve lived or visited that especially influences your writing?
VT: I live in a small valley town in British Columbia where I am mere minutes away from hiking trails. I am also lucky enough to travel with some regularity. I regularly feel inspired by new scenery or walks in closer-to-natural settings, and my stories often involve weather events and nature.
Gemma: What stories are you working on now?
VT: While I’m not working on writing a western story right now, I am seeking publication for a short story I completed earlier this year, about a modern state trooper in eastern Oregon who has an encounter with super-natural beings during a blizzard.
Gemma: That sounds enticing! I hope that gets published because you’ve hooked me with that description.
VT: I am also looking forward to the publication of a western flavoured re-telling of the stone soup folk tale late this year with Frontier Tales.
Gemma: I can’t wait to read that – I love folk tales, and that’s actually a childhood favorite of mine. How can I and other readers keep up to date on when that comes out, and otherwise connect with you?