Journey to publication began with NANOWRIMO

Writer at work

Writer at work

Writers worldwide recently passed the half-way mark of National Novel Writing Month. By today, a writer who is on the NANOWRIMO track will have logged at least 30,000 words on their work in progress. Each year when NANOWRIMO rolls around, I itch to join in. There’s something about the sweet smell of a challenge and a deadline that calls me.

In 2006, I was there. With the finish line for my memoir in sight, I joined the tens of thousands of writers worldwide who signed up for NANOWRIMO to try my hand at fiction. At the end of the month, I had 55,000 words, a few characters I liked, and some scenes I thought I could use.

Though it took a couple of years before I returned to that first draft, this year I published Go Away Home, my novel that got its start in 2006.

In celebration of novel-writing month, Webucator asked authors to answer a few questions about their writing careers. I am participating because of the good fortune that led me to NANOWRIMO eight years ago. Here are my answers:

What were your goals when you started writing?

My first goal was to write about my parents’ lives. In the course of interviewing them – about life during The Great Depression, jobs they held, military service, and life on the farm – stories of my own childhood kept coming to my mind. Eventually those stories took center stage and became my memoir Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl.

What are your goals now?

Regardless of what I write, my goal is always the same: to tell the stories as well as I am able. To that end, I regularly take classes that add to my writing tool kit. I hope the result is that each subsequent work is better than the one before. Now that I’ve written both memoir and fiction, I feel I could go in either direction for my next book. The idea that’s got the most traction at the moment is a contemporary novel. Though a sequel to Go Away Home is getting legs, too.

What pays the bills now?

Years of saving accumulated a nest egg that allows me to indulge my interest in writing. That nest egg is augmented by freelance writing and consulting projects and royalties from my books.

Assuming writing doesn’t pay the bills, what motivates you to keep writing?

I enjoy the process of writing, and when I have an idea, I’m inspired to puzzle out the story arc, the characters, the place and time, and see how well I can tell it. Writing is hard work, so I’m inspired to complete projects by deadlines and my writing group partners. Also, I buy butt glue by the gallon to keep me in my writing chair.

What advice would you give young authors hoping to make a career out of writing?

Keep writing. Keep reading. Keep learning. Don’t give up.

So there you have it, friends. It is with delight and gratitude that I lift a glass to NANOWRIMO, encouraging others to realize their writing dreams.

Write On!

‘You got game, white girl’ – Home Sweet Hardwood

Mo’ne Davis pitches like a girl. A thirteen-year-old girl who throws a 70 mph fastball. The star of The Little League World Series may not even realize sports wasn’t always an option for girls like her.

Preston High School didn’t offer girls basketball in the 1960s. Or baseball. Or softball. The rumored reason was that a girl had died during a basketball game. That death proved to those who decided such things that girls weren’t constitutionally suited to strenuous physical activity. As a result, basketball for girls in anything more competitive than gym class was banned at my high school.

I wanted to play basketball. I practiced dribbling, doing layups, running no more than the two steps allowed in the six-on-six-girl, half-court version of the game played at Iowa schools. Actually playing a game competitively would remain a dream for me.

What I didn’t know in the 1960s, as I dutifully took my place on the sidelines as a cheerleader, was that the nation was on the verge of changing the game for all women with Title IX legislation, requiring that schools offer equal playing opportunities to women and men. Other women were not going quietly to the sidelines. Other women were fighting for the right to play. And winning.

Home Sweet HardwoodOne of those women, Pat McKinzie, had basketball in her blood. Her grandfather was nationally recognized college coach Ralph McKinzie “Coach Mac”; her father Jim Mckinzie was a championship team-leading high school coach. As soon as Pat could walk – probably even before – they were teaching her the game that became her passion.

McKinzie’s memoir Home Sweet Hardwood details her relentless pursuit to fulfill that passion. In high school when she had to give up hardwood time to boys who couldn’t beat her when she challenged them one-on-one. In college where she was the first woman to play in Illinois with a scholarship under Title IX. After college when she continued to push to play on professional teams in the U.S. and Europe.

“Before recruiters and TV highlights, women played ball, not to impress college scouts or become media darlings, but for our own entertainment. The only glory we needed was the game itself,” McKinzie says. When she played in the zone, men who played the game could not help but appreciate her skill and passion. She recalls a night when a player slapped her hand in front of his “brothers,” and said, “Give me five, white girl! Can’t jump, but you got game.”

Home Sweet Hardwood covers McKinzie’s entire sports career as she broke ground and broke barriers for herself and the girls who came after her. Girls like Mo’ne.

The story of how McKinzie continued to push to play, in the face of discrimination, broken bones, and a nearly life-ending auto accident is a story of heart and inspiration. Raised by people who believed and practiced gender and racial equity, McKinzie lived those qualities throughout her career and no matter where in the world she lived.

McKinzie’s writing style is as fast-paced, precise and fluid as she herself was when she took the ball down court and pulled up for a jump shot. The result is perfection: nothing but net.

If you played sports or wanted to, this book is worth reading. If you have a daughter or granddaughter who is playing sports, this book would make a great gift. It’s important for all of us to remember when we’re standing on the shoulders of women like McKinzie who had the passion to clear the path for the rest of us.

Her kind of historical fiction

girl-mountain.400x625.rev“I’m blown away.” That’s what I thought as I read The Girl on the Mountain, a novel set in the West Virginia mountains at the end of the 19th century.

The characters are vivid and likeable (except for the ones we shouldn’t like). The language precise and fresh. The plot engaging. Beyond that, author Carol Erwin knocked me out with the way she wove in historical details to make me feel as though I knew the people, place and time. There are no famous people in this story, no memorable historical events. Nonetheless, it’s terrific historical fiction.

I invited Carol to share how she came to write this story and how she looks at historical fiction. Her thoughts fit right into the “How much of historical fiction is history?” question I blogged about recently.

My kind of historical fiction – Carol Erwin

I like historical fiction that enlarges my sense of life in other eras. Though I’ve always liked history, in fiction I care less about the unfolding of actual events and more about what they meant to people of that time.

In other words, I’m interested in characters. They don’t have to be historical figures, but they do have to seem real. I’ve always been impressed by the capacities of ordinary people, especially women, and was privileged to know several who lived in my small corner of West Virginia in the late 1800s. These women aren’t the subjects of my historical series, but their qualities definitely inspired me.

Mt.Women450x601The Mountain Women series begins with The Girl on the Mountain, a novel about ordinary people in a time of no particular significance. I began imagining a story about two adventurous girls, one privileged and one homeless. Where and when did they live? I wanted a familiar setting, but one a bit wilder than the farm community where I live. I did not have to go far, for I live near a region of virgin forest that was cut down in the late 1800s. When I revisited a non-fiction account of logging and lumbering in West Virginia (with its hundreds of old photos) I found the setting for my story. Eventually my two girls became May Rose, the young wife of a logger, and Wanda, her stepdaughter.

Even in soft-core historical fiction (my term), some elements must be true. I believe the truest features in The Girl on the Mountain are the mountains and streams, the sawmill, logging operations, and the artifacts of daily life circa 1900.

Research helped me authenticate and populate the story with details, but I had personal experiences that made me comfortable with them. I know the look and sound of sawmills. I’ve ridden an old logging train, climbed steep hillsides to pick blackberries, dug potatoes, stepped through creeks, raised and chased pigs, participated in old-time hog butchering, and used pen and ink to keep account books.

I felt comfortable describing life in 1900 because it’s not too distant. As a child I sometimes visited outhouses where the pit was covered with lime and the seat worn smooth. I named many characters after grandparents, grand aunts and uncles, so I didn’t have to research to know if the names were valid for the period.

When forty years ago I moved to my present location, I felt like I’d stepped back in time. The whole valley was made up of farms that had descended through several generations, and many of my elderly neighbors still used implements and carried on practices from the 1800s. Because of them, I know about neighbors helping neighbors and details like the operation of wood cook stoves and the scrape of a shovel into a coal bucket.

I tried to substantiate every historical detail. In The Girl on the Mountain I included references to well-read books of the period, used calendars of 1899 and 1900, and researched to make sure certain items were in use then, like canned milk. I had such a good time researching that I found much more detail than I could use.

One funny story: a friend who read the first few pages told me I should have a hen instead of a rooster simmering in the pot, because people had many hens but one rooster. I didn’t refute her, but I’m the one who has raised chickens, and I know that from little chicks you get as many roosters as hens. Guess which ones go into the pot?

Finally, the historical detail I chose had to be important to May Rose, the main character. I tried to keep her in mind with every description – what she saw, understood or thought about and what those things meant to her.

How much history you put into your kind of historical fiction will depend on your purposes, plus how much history you know and care to research. If you want to dramatize well-known events and give historical persons a new breath of life, you will rely on your expertise as a historian or researcher. If you want to write realistic period fiction, you may need only to learn enough to feel like you’re living at your chosen time.

Thanks, Carol Bodensteiner, for asking the question: “How much of historical fiction is history?”

Thank you, Carol Erwin, for sharing your perspectives on historical fiction with my readers. I highly recommend Carol’s novels. Click to read my review of The Girl on the Mountain. Follow the links below to her books and to learn more about her.

Carol.Studio.web.sm.

Carol Erwin

Carol Ervin has been a teacher, business owner, and writer and designer of marketing materials. She lives with her husband on a hillside farm in West Virginia with a steep lane and a spectacular view of wooded mountains. She loves West Virginia’s rugged streams and foliage and the history and culture of the region’s hardy settlers. Her historical novels include The Girl on the Mountain, Cold Comfort, and Midwinter Sun. She recently published a science-fiction/dystopian, Dell Zero.

The Girl on the Mountain

Cold Comfort

Midwinter Sun

Dell Zero (science fiction)

Website

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Book marketing – It’s not always about sales

Photo by Larry Baker's wife, Ginger Russell, at an appearance in Cedar Falls in 2009.

Now what?

Author Larry Baker (The Flamingo Rising, A Good Man and others) posted this picture to his Facebook page this week, and I laughed. It captures a fear most authors harbor: ‘What if nobody comes?’

It’s not a groundless fear. It happened to me this week. I spend considerable time in advance of events to help ensure their success. But what I can’t do is guarantee people will come.

Over the past week I participated in six events to market my novel Go Away Home: a writing conference, two bookstores signings, a gift store signing, and two library book talks. The marketing side of the writing life.

Here’s an abbreviated look at how I promote and work events.

Bring my own audience - The event host isn’t the only one responsible for getting people to come. Authors need to work their own contacts, too. I use email marketing and social media to generate interest. A ‘save the date’ mailing three weeks in advance, and a reminder three days ahead of the event. I create Facebook events and invite. I tweet. Results of this effort reinforce the importance of using many ways of reaching people: At one book store event, all but one person came as a result of my email campaign. At one library event, none of my contacts came.

Alert media - I sent news releases to media in each town. To the best of my knowledge, none picked up the news for these events. I’ll keep doing this, though, because particularly in smaller towns, I’ve seen terrific pick up.

Stand and deliver - Even though I could sit down, I communicate enthusiasm by standing. I smile and make eye contact, then I ask anyone who meets my gaze if I can tell them about my books. Most will say yes. I pitch my book in 30 seconds or less. Once I’ve given the pitch, I ask questions to keep the person engaged. I put a book in their hands as we talk.

One of my events was in a gift store that also served lunch. The owner had me set up at a table at the edge of the lunch area. I took my books to the tables as guests waited for their food to be delivered. I kept this pitch very short and made sure not to overstay my welcome. An idea for next time: Create table tents to alert people I’m there and to keep my books in front of them as they eat.

Be flexible - I was on the road mainly to market my new novel, but at one library, the book discussion group had just read my memoir and that’s what they wanted to talk about. So we did. I included messages about my novel when it was relevant.

What if no one shows? In spite of all my efforts, at one library, that worst-case scenario happened. I was all set up and the audience didn’t show. I felt worse for the librarian than for myself. She’d done a lot to get the word out, but for who knows how many reasons, no one came.

I’d whiled away a half hour on my own, then a miracle. One young girl walked in the door. Turns out she was the librarian’s daughter. I learned she’d written a story and in that small town, she had found no writing support. We talked one-on-one about what she was writing. How she could get support from her teachers. How she might engage her classmates.

At that library, I didn’t sell any books. I didn’t share the story of my novel or my memoir. But I did something more important. I encouraged another writer.

Now that I’m back at home, feet up, glass of wine in hand, reflecting on the week, I count all the events a success. Everything that happened is part of the writing life. I reconnected with friends. I made new friends. I sold quite a few books. And I encouraged another writer.

That last achievement? Priceless.

* Photo by Larry Baker’s wife, Ginger Russell, at an appearance in Cedar Falls – 2009.