A dear, sweet friend of mine wrote me a letter. In it she explained that not only did she enjoy reading Pedestal, but she had used it in her high school English class as a free reading assignment (with a project). She was writing to me to ask specific questions for a Book Adventure Badge for American Heritage Girls (a scouting program). I thought the answers might be interesting to more than just one reader, so I have published the results for you here.
What got you started as an author?
Did you have any specific education that you would suggest to a wanna-be writer?
What are some things that inspire your books?
Are the locations and characters based off real people and past experiences, or merely imagination?
Do you usually know the end of the story when you start the book, or do you write it as you go?
Have you always wanted to write?
Let’s start with last things first. Yes, I have always wanted to write. At least since I was in the 2nd grade. It all began with a Christmas gift. That year, my parents had a Christmas party at our house and Santa Claus himself arrived with a gift for each child. Mine was Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was one of those perfect gifts, one that the giver probably couldn’t know how life-changing it would be. I still remember the feel of the pages and the smell of it. I still have it on my bookshelf right now, in fact! At the time, Little House on the Prairie was a popular television series, so that book was an obvious choice for a little girl, but it was reading that story and knowing that it was written by someone who had kept journals of her life, that these were actual stories about her own life, something about that was intriguing and inspiring to me, and I began to announce that I was going to be an author when I grew up. A few years later I developed a love of history (probably from Agatha Christie, whose husband was an archaeologist, so archaeology was prominent in many of her stories), and from then on I wanted to be an author and an archaeologist. Although I never went into archaeology, I did major in English and minor in History, and I will have a hard time keeping history out of my books, so I guess we CAN know from an early age what our lifetime interests will be!
So from there, it seems logical to talk about education. I mentioned that I majored in English, specifically with a literature focus. I do think it is important to hone your skills. I took a creative writing class in college at Belmont, and of course, most of college involves writing papers, so I was always practicing! The creative writing class got me to think outside the box a little more, to take chances (because it was required!) that I otherwise wouldn’t have taken. I believe that was the first time I chose to write from a male perspective, and when that short story was read, the rest of the class assumed it was written by a man, so I guess I nailed it! As you know, Pedestal is written solely from Edwin Sterling’s perspective, so it was an important part of my growth as a writer. Writing education doesn’t have to be college only; there are many seminars, courses, and online programs that can help a beginning writer. Getting involved in a writers’ group is also helpful, somewhere where you can hear others’ perspectives on your work, and tips and tools of the trade. But just like with any other art or skill, practice, practice, practice!
Things that inspire my writing are other writers. And writing isn’t confined to just books. Movies and television shows are also written. I have certain favorites (Agatha Christie, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen), but I read as widely as I can without getting aggravated. Sometimes the world’s views are aggravating. Which is why I tend toward the 19th century. But I digress. Things that inspire me are stories that leave us with hope (“We don’t want to close a book with a sense that life is totally unfair and that there is no light in the darkness; we want to feel that we have been given illumination.” (L’Engle). Writing that paints a picture (“A coconut tree looks like a feather duster struck by lightning” (Twain). A turn of phrase that is new and different (“the bee-loud glade” (Yeats); “I admire machinery…and am as thankful to it as any man can be for what it does for us. But it will never be a substitute for the face of a man, with his soul in it, encouraging another man to be brave and true.” (Dickens).
As far as what inspires specific story ideas: essentially, everything. Eavesdropping on conversations (not kidding!), people-watching, observing. Paying attention to what is funny, or clever, or odd, or quirky. This includes people and situations. I keep a list of story ideas and character ideas (usually based on actual people). There are people you meet who are just asking to go into a book. It can’t be helped. They are going to find themselves there. My former neighbor, Phyllis, is one such character. It is impossible for her to not find herself in a book someday. She now resides on the 7th floor of a retirement home. One December, the entire retirement home was in quarantine because of pneumonia. “But Phyllis got out,” she told me, with a twinkle in her eye. “How did you do that?” I asked. Without hesitation she said, “I climbed down the balcony.” The true story was that she got special permission to go to her church’s Christmas concert because she had not contracted pneumonia, but any 90-year-old woman whose first response is “I climbed down the balcony” is definitely book-worthy.
What specifically inspired Pedestal was Benedict Cumberbatch. I was planning a trip to England, and it was rumored that he was going to be playing Hamlet on stage in London, so I was trying to find out if it would happen while I was there (it didn’t, but I did go back the next year to see it!). At the time (2014), all I could actually find about Benedict Cumberbatch was that he had a mystery girlfriend. I remember feeling sorry for a man who couldn’t have a normal relationship without it being on the news, and that led to my disdain for the way the media, fueled by our own society’s insatiable desire to worship other people, tends to put celebrities on pedestals, and then just as quickly kick them off. And how we do it in our every day relationships as well. Boyfriends, pastors, parents, friends. We only see the best until we only see the worst. We fail to recognize that we are all human beings, full of flaws and yet also full of glorious possibilities. So I wrote Pedestal. But, as always happens, even though Edwin Sterling was inspired by Benedict Cumberbatch, he very quickly became a real person himself. As did Adriana (which means dark), who was inspired by a young woman I knew a long time ago in my hometown. Living in Nashville, married to a musician, and being generally observant has brought me in contact with many stories and examples of fandom and the ways celebrities deal with it. Chloe, for example, while she is an amalgamation of several people, is very definitely true to type. I can unfortunately vouch that there are male and female Chloes walking among us.
And that leads us to intention. Do I intend the end of a story from the beginning. Yes and no. Yes, I start with an idea that needs to have a conclusion. Most of the time, I know what that conclusion will be, at least in outline form. But, I have found that your characters, and your story, really do come to life. They begin to make their own decisions. They say things you didn’t expect and go places you had no idea they would take you. According to Madeline L’Engle, it is best to follow them, not force them back into the framework you originally created. Because they know best. And the result will be that much more full, more potent, because it is basically your self-conscious or inspired self leaking out when you least expect it. When I began Pedestal, I had no idea of anyone ever going to Turkey. But what kept coming to mind is Helen of Troy, and the implications that brought into the story, and Troy is in modern-day Turkey. So to Turkey they had to go. Which required a whole lot more research and effort than I would have done otherwise, but I think it was worth it.
In the end, the answer to whether my stories are inspired primarily by real or imagined situations, I would say it is a combination of both. Real and amalgamized people; real and imagined situations. But ultimately, the story has to relate to the real people reading it, and if it does, then I’ve done my job.
And finally, what got me started as an author. Well, to put it simply, I decided to take a chance and publish something. You can write all day long, but if no one is actual reading it, you are not really an author. An author is someone who is willing to take the chance of someone else’s opinion. And that is hard. Really hard. But it has to be done. In my case, I attempted the traditional way of finding an agent who would land me a publishing deal. But I found that I was about a decade too late. Times they are a’changing. And that includes the publishing industry. So, after doing far more research on publishing than I ever wanted to know, I set about starting my own publishing company (Inkwell Literary Press) and with the help of IngramSpark (the printer), released my first novel, with a second coming soon. I took the chance. I pressed through the doubts and fears. Did I do it alone? No way. Inkwell Literary Press is actually three people. I had designated readers who read my work before it went before a more critical eye. I happen to be an excellent editor, but if I wasn’t, I would have sought that out as well. You have to surround yourself with the people who do what you can’t, or can’t do as well. Call in favors (my fabulous cover art). Think outside the box (my largest sales have come through a vintage furniture boutique in my hometown).
So, write your stories, get help finishing them well, and then trust that they were written for a reason and find your audience. I write what I would want to read. So I know there is at least one person in my audience! And I always suspect there are others like me out there in the world, needing this kind of story.