Why did you become a writer? When did the writing bug first bite you?
When I was a kid, I wrote stories to entertain myself and my siblings. I loved to read, and it seemed very romantic to write novels and get them published. Then I put aside fiction writing for many, many years, thinking how unlikely it was that I’d ever get published. (Besides, I was very good at beginning stories, but not at ending them!) But all of my jobs since college have required some sort of non-fiction writing, so I kept on writing—not always exciting stuff, but it was still writing.
I didn’t return to writing fiction until I was in my thirties, when I was working as a costumed historical interpreter at Old Sturbridge Village. That job allowed lots of time for musing in between talking to visitors and working on projects, so I began to get story ideas and write them down. This time, I wasn’t thinking so much about getting published as just writing as a hobby. I took some classes and joined a writing group just for the fun of it. Then a combination of the social history I’d learned at Sturbridge Village and an 18th-century document I discovered while working in the Springfield History Museum archives inspired my historical novel A DIFFICULT BOY. With lots of encouragement from friends and family, I turned my unwieldy (and very scary!) 700-page manuscript into a manageable—and eventually publishable—novel.
What’s your writing process like?
It’s pretty random. I’ve been in various free-writing groups that used Pat Schneider’s Amherst Writers & Artists technique. I often use the free-writing exercises to play with characters and situations—that’s how my first novel evolved. I tend to be a seat-of-the-pants kind of writer. I don’t really know where a story is going (or even if there’s a story at all!) until I have several dozen pages stacked up. I don’t write in a linear way, but tend to hop around a lot from one part of a story to another as I go. My characters tend to lead me, rather than the other way around, so I have to follow them for quite a bit before I know what they’re going to do!
What are you trying to accomplish as a writer?
Good question! I think mostly I’m just trying to figure out who my characters are and how their stories end. I don’t sit down at the beginning of a story with a plan to explore a theme or teach a lesson—I just kind of throw things against the wall and see what sticks.
As a writer of historical fiction, I enjoy exploring the lives of ordinary people in daily life situations, rather than major historical figures and events. I like learning about both the differences and similarities between past and present and sharing what I find, so that the past doesn’t feel like such a foreign and distant place to readers. I hope readers will come away from my books feeling they’ve lived in and can better understand the era they’ve visited in the story.
I hope readers will be able to identify with my characters while seeing that those characters aren’t just modern people wearing funny clothes and living without indoor plumbing. While my character’s thoughts and beliefs might be very different from ours, they grapple with many of the same problems and cherish many of the same things that we do today.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Persistence pays off—sometimes even more than talent!–whether it comes to research, writing, revising, or getting published.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a historical novel that involves a sea captain’s wife and daughter during the 1840s and 1850s, after the captain is lost at sea. In the wife and daughter’s journey to self-sufficiency, they blossom as artists and question their roles as women in Victorian society.
You’ll be a part of the historical fiction panel this year. Can you tell us a little about what you’re planning?
I’m intrigued by the idea of “alternative truth”—not in the sense that there are conflicting “truths,” but in the sense that there are a lot of levels or facets to the truth that we rarely get to see. For me, exploring alternative truths is a good way to describe the sort of stories I write. When studying history, we may forget or ignore the stories of ordinary people, whose experience can be quite different from that of the famous people who star in our history books. Those ordinary, daily-life stories—those “truths”—deserve to be told and can show us how “big-picture” historical events affected folks who were much like us, and can make it easier for us to picture what our own life might have been like in the past.
Also, the idea of “alternative truth” kind of captures the way we sometimes think history is fixed and unchanging, but in reality what we know (or think we know) about the past constantly changes as new research unearths new information. Think, for example, about the way King Richard III has been reassessed, thanks to the efforts of persistent researchers and also of historical novels like Josephine Tey’s THE DAUGHTER OF TIME and Sharon Kay Penman’s THE SUNNE IN SPLENDOUR. So many of the things we once thought were “truths” about the past have been supplanted—and will continue to be–by newer, (hopefully!) more accurate truths