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Reinventing Myself: a Second-career Author

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The Cave: a creation corner

M.K. Tod, in her excellent blog, A Writer of History, recently posed a series of questions for those who “…think of yourself as being a second-career author…” Well, that is undoubtedly me. With my first book, The Scattering of Stones, debuting, along with a few more wrinkles, in early February 2018, I most certainly qualify. While Ms. Tod solicited guest posts, I decided to answer her questions here on my own blog. She’s welcome to use anything I have to say. I love her site and would be honored. So, here we go.

  • Question 1: “What sort of career did you have before becoming a writer?”

My life has been a series of reinventions. First, in my twenties, I was a dancer and artist. Next, in my thirties, I was a mother (still am). Then, in my forties and fifties I was an elementary school teacher and principal. When I retired, everyone asked me what I was going to do next, and I always replied, “I’m going to reinvent myself.” I did.

  • Question 2: “Was there a triggering event that prompted you to begin writing.”

The usual answer to this question is: “I’ve always written.” It’s not so different for me. As a preteen I wrote Little House on the Prairie knockoffs. A book of names that my parents owned is underlined in ink, a testament to my name research for the characters in my stories. I wrote in my Anais Nin style diaries incessantly during the college angst years. As a curriculum specialist, language arts and history were my specialties, and my career as an educator required extensive writing. But while reinventing myself in retirement, I delved deep into genealogy and wrote a history for my family. I kept wondering about the emotion behind the lives I discovered, beyond birth and death dates on a page. So I included my imaginings in the book, using italics to separate them from fact. When my son told me he liked those imaginings and thought I should write a book, I did. Then I wrote another and am writing another.

  • Question 3: “Do you now write full time or part time?”

I’m obsessive. With research, blog, fiction, and non-fiction, I “work” about 35 hours a week. My husband demands an equitable amount of attention.

  • Question 4: “What parts of the writing career do you enjoy the most/the least?”

Taking a few factoids about everyday humans, pulling them up from the reaches of the past, and depositing them in the world of my imagination? That fills me with joy. Having these characters take over my being and write their stories? How exciting is that! Researching a time and a place? Traveling to that place, and meeting people who have the same passion? I love learning. (I haven’t figured out the time travel thing yet, except in my mind.)

I’ve even come to appreciate the tedious: blocking out the story, editing, editing again, waiting for publication, editing again, and waiting some more. While “appreciate” might be too strong a word, I see the importance of these tasks. However, because I started writing late in life, waiting for query replies, editor timelines, and publishing opportunities is, well, frustrating.

The hardest thing, though, is promotion—selling both my book and myself. I was the mom who bought all the See’s Candy my child had to sell, a version of task avoidance. I just don’t have the hard-sell gene.

  • Question 5: “What parts of your former career do you miss/not miss?”

Which former career? Life is a journey. I love the place I hang my hat.

  • Question 6: “Do you have any regrets?”

Of course, but they have nothing to do with my various renditions of myself.

  • Question 7: “What advice would you offer other second career writers?”

Beyond watching out for too many ellipses and the corralling of commas, get feedback, listen to it, prepare yourself to be hurt by it, don’t take it too seriously (yeh, right), and then digest it and learn from it. If you are doing what you love, as with any reinvention of your life, you will grow into your dream.

(By the way, besides surveys such as these, M. K. Tod’s blog site includes historical fiction book reviews and writing tips. Check her out here.)

A New Book and an Old Postcard

xmas postcard 1frontMy own special Christmas gift just arrived! My historical fiction book, The Scattering of Stones, comes out in early February, 2018. I confess, working on this book, along with one in the wings and one in the works, has curtailed my genealogy investigations a bit. I’ll get back to that addiction soon.

Until then, and in honor of the season, I am posting some wonderful postcards my mother, Hattie Beatrice Schulz Croy, gave to me. Her mother, Susannah Johanna Meyer, saved them as a teenager[i] in the early 20th century when postcards were the equivalent of Facebook.

So what can we learn from a postcard? Let’s take a look.xmas card 1 back

  • Susie was thirteen years old.
  • She lived in Millston, Wisconsin as of November 15, 1909
  • Postage was one cent for a postcard
  • It had rained in early November 1909
  • Susie’s friend was Hattie S. (Check out my mother’s name!)

[i] Susie was born on July 12, 1896 in Shelby, La Crosse, Wisconsin to John Meyer and Mary Herman Ancestry.com. Wisconsin, Births and Christenings Index, 1801-1928 [accessed December 2017]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

 

The Ghosts in Place

 

firey sky

Claiming our land by its view

I walked through my garden and then to the top of our hill. The autumn tinged world blanketed me, holding me close. And I disappeared—a ghost in place—a place that’s enveloped me for 45 years.

 

In this way, I was reminded.

I go seeking my ancestors often, mostly in my mind and on the computer. But every once in a long while, I seek them out by place. Not their place on Google Earth or a historic map (though they help in my echo-location). I seek them out on land.

So far no house has marked their lifeline—no barn, no mill, no crumbled remains.

 

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On Gladen Run in Londonderry Township, Bedford County, PA

I’ve met their ghosts on the edge of Gladen Run, amongst a host of autumn saplings; was introduced to them as I bumped along on a quad with someone who knew the land—there on that rise is where I think they built their sawmill.

 

I’ve felt them, knew they worked a mill above that dip in a road in Rose Township, so I took a picture. Sure enough, the woman at the historical center confirmed it. She lived nearby.

They pointed me toward them, by either serendipity or otherworldly intervention, to Tick Ridge Road. I drove the hill, drawn by its magnificent view. Did the Croy family settle in that place because of the view, same as us when we claimed our land?

Most recently I traveled New England—wet, wonderful New England—the place where the Payne part of me began. I zipped into the little park on the Green River where Samuel Payne built his first family home. I knew it had been there, but where? It didn’t matter. The specter of him and Abby Graham Payne danced there.

green river

At the little park on the Green River in Williamstown, MA

 

 

riparian sunderland

A riparian jungle on the Batten Kill in Sunderland, VT

In Vermont, they hid in the riparian scrub that conceals the little Batten Kill and its tributary, Mill Brook. I tried to find their spirit. But, after three times driving back and forth along the railroad, stopping and going to the workmen’s demands, head jerking back and forth (there? No there?), after crossing the river and sloshing through the grass for a picture, not of river but of the overgrowth hiding it, I nodded to their stealth and said goodbye.

 

 

new haven

A shot of New Haven Harbor from East Rock

Down in New Haven, Connecticut, I wandered the future their world had wrought. An industrial malaise—the smell, the poverty, the sprawl—crowned by East Rock Park. The ghosts who walked the harbor in the 1600’s had retreated there—out of self-preservation, I think, if such a think exists in phantom beings.

 

Mostly my ancestor’s human efforts, their marks on the land, are gone: no house, no fence, no garden rose. Repossessed by nature, the reseeding of any human claim to ownership. At times their efforts were erased by progress: railroads, drainage basins, and industrial zones.

Only their ghosts remain.

This week we poured cement to make our aging easier: less weeding, hoeing, back-bending effort. We’ve spent most of our lives improving our land. And yet—in two hundred, three hundred years—what will exist? The ghost of me, imagining the crush of acorns under foot as I walk an autumn road, taking in the crisp air, the buckeye bulbs hanging from the trees, smiling to a human form (a descendent perhaps?) in a place without a trace of me.

Ohio Genealogical Society Thank You

My article—The Croy Boys:Seven Sons Serving in the Civil War—is in the just-published OGSQ. Have ancestors from Ohio? Join the Ohio Genealogical Society! It is a fabulous organization, and you get access to so much—including all the Quarterly publications. Go to “Civil War” in blog categories in the right-hand column and find out more about these boys.

On Research, Vermont, and a Vacation Announcement

 

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Find the details of people’s lives, including specific ancestors, in records of the time.

 

Pinch time! After this posting, I retire for one month to work on the upcoming publication of The Scattering of Stone. Taking a book to publication takes time, and the time is near (exact date not yet known). I just received the completed edits for Scattering, my multi-period American historical fiction novel set in Pennsylvania and Ohio at the end of the eighteenth century. Editing takes careful, line-by-line, word-by-word attention, so I’ll be (happily) busy for a while.

Included in the month hiatus is a trip to New England to research my third book set in 1775-1778, Bennington, Vermont. (And, yes, it’s a pleasure trip, too.) I’ll write about my adventures when I return.

But, for now, let’s talk research! Namely, out-of-print books on line! Genealogy, history, or historical fiction researchers alike, this is an amazing tool. If you’ve read my blog, you’ve heard it me say it before, but REALLY—.

Here’s one more example: the details of the ill will, distrust, fear, and chaos in the midst of war. The document? The Records of the Council of Safety and Governor and Council of the State of Vermont, Vol. I edited by E.P. Walton, Montpelier: Steam Press, 1873. (The bold in these quotes is mine.)

Ill will? Or what do you do with a strong-willed woman?

Arlington, 28 May 1778 “Whereas it has been represented to this Council that the wife of Jeremiah French late of Manchester (now in armes with the Enemy) is very turbulent & Troublesome where she now is, & refuses to obey orders…You are hereby Commanded to Take said Woman and her children…& Transport them to Head-quarters at Rutland & there diliver them to the commanding officer who will order a party of the men…[so] she can go to the enemy in order to git to her husband…” Records, pg. 260

Distrust? September 1777 (after the Battle of Bennington) through early 1778 the council recorded entry after entry dealing with local “enemies” who sided with England, imposing deportations to enemy lines, fines, confiscation of property, passes of travel, or oaths of allegiance. These matters so encumbered the docket that a March 1778 council resolution gave the majority of these duties to the captains guarding Tory jails. An example:

Vermont Council of Safety, 3d September 1777 “Francis Breakenridge is permitted to Return home, & Remain on his father’s home farm, and if found off to expect 39 Lashes of the Beach Seal, until further orders from this Council.” Records, pg. 155

Fear and chaos?

Vermont Council of Safety, Bennington, 28 July 1777 “Whereas the inhabitants of the northwesterly part of this State have been necessitated to remove their families by the encroachment of the enemy, and some are removed to the states of Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut:…request such men to return and assist in defending this and the United States of America from the ravages of the enemy…” Records, pg. 138

Oh! And an ancestor in the mix!

Bennington, 6 October 1777 “We are informed that Mr. S. Payne of Sunderland has in his Custody one yoke of oxen the Property of this State which we desire youd Take into Custody immediately.” Addressed to Commissioners of Sequestration Records, pg. 186

Go deep! It’s worth the dig!

And look for great blogs like A Writer of History by MK Todd. (Okay, you can include my blog, as well.) I remember reading the Bernard Cornwell quote she used in her most recent post (found here), and I thank her for reminding me of it. I love Bernard Cornwell’s rousing stories! No matter your research, in fiction, the story’s the thing.

“The most important thing, the all important thing, is to get the story right. Write, rewrite, rewrite again, and do not worry about anything except story. It is story, story, story. That is your business. Your job is not to educate readers on the finer points of Elizabethan diplomacy or Napoleonic warfare, your job is to divert and amuse people who have had a hard day at work. What will get you published? Not style, not research, but story. Once the story is right, everything else will follow.” B. Cornwell

Historical Novel Society Conference 2017, Portland, Oregon

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IMG_1286No question: I’m exhausted. I’ve spent the last three days at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Portland, Oregon. I’ve been encouraged and discouraged; invigorated and inebriated; enthused and confused; and bolstered by a wealth of like-minded, amazing human beings. At every turn, this band of normally introverted writers and readers broke from their shells to share. Not much small talk, thank goodness, aside from “Where are you from?” (which included Australia, New York, Shanghai, and Hawaii). We got “write” to the point.

My self-assigned task, to distil everything I’ve learned into a post or maybe two, has proved too daunting. So, I’ve decided to hit the highlights with a series of quotes.

Thursday, June 22nd: A Day with Kate Forsyth

“I’ve never written a book without throwing up my hands and say ‘What made you think you could write a book?’”

“Characters travel on a journey of transformation but so does the writer.”

Then there is my distillation of her big don’ts.

  1. Don’t say panster (as in seat-of-the-pants writer) or plotter (as in hyper outliner) rather say analytic or intuitive. And know you are a little of both
  2. Don’t say show don’t tell. “Think ‘When do I show and when do I tell?’ and tell well.”
  3. Don’t be obvious or prescriptive with narrative. “If everyone writes like everyone else, there is no surprise. I hate the three act structure. I don’t teach The Heroes Journey, even though I love it. Any system that narrows the creative process is a poor choice.”

There was so much more in her session, from the nitty-gritty stuff writers need to be reminded of (check out her old-school whiteboard) to the inspirational like:

“When we get blocked it’s usually because of fear of failure or ridicule. But it isn’t about you, it’s about the story. So tell the story you are being asked to tell.”

Check her out here. http://www.kateforsyth.com.au

Friday, June 23rd: A Dose of Reality and Distilled Liquor

Session 1: Breaking In, Breaking Out, and Staying On Top with agent Irene Goodman and editor, Lucia Macro

“Don’t get too emotionally attached.” “Most people want encouragement and support, but sometimes it’s an A- book.”

Session 2: Things that Go “Bang!” in the Night with Gordon Frye

 “Where they fire, there’s smoke.”

Here’s his blog. http://historypundit.blogspot.com

Session 3: Buttons and Points and Pins, Oh My with Isobel Carr

Again, you’ve got to get those details right, and before buttons and zippers, they used a LOT of pins. She is authoritative. Find her here. http://www.isobelcarr.com

Lunch with Geraldine Brooks (I love, love, love her.)

I was mesmerized. Did I take a single note? No! But this I remember: She quoted one of my favorite Leonard Cohen poems.

“There is a crack in everything. That is how the light gets in.”

Session 4: Modern Tools to Tell Historical Fiction with Stephanie Dray

My big take away? While I’m still on the fence about Scribner (any thoughts anyone?), I am purchasing Aeon Timeline ASAP. A link here. http://www.stephaniedray.com

Then I did a pitch of my most recent book, The Forging of Frost, and went to a cold read—Debbie Downer. At the pitch I got

“It’s just not grabbing me, Where’s your female protagonist?”

At the cold read, while they didn’t read my two-page offering, the authors who were read were informed, quite tersely, “I didn’t know where or when the story is taking place or where it is going.” For those out there who heard those words, I heard some good writing. (See day three for support.)

Luckily, or unluckily, I went to the infamous “Hooch” event. Isobel Carr moderated—hilarious—while participants partook of six (yep, six) different examples of alcohol through the ages. While my head complained on the day following, the lubrication did create some great bonding. We commiserated over the death of the male protagonist, shared our triumphs and our emails.

Fast Forward to Saturday, June 24th: The Final Day

Session 1: State of the State of Historical Fiction: with a panel of agents and editors

They provided the same dire prognosis as the previous day, i.e. it’s a woman audience, 1850 forward with a woman protagonist sells better, the novel biography is dead, and

“Dusty, dark, grey clothes just aren’t that sexy.”

But the light snuck in through the cracks,

“All that said, in the end, we are looking for an extremely compelling story that is well-written.”

So—easy-peasy.

Session 2: New Sources for Researching the Historical Novel with Mary Malloy

Great information for one new to the research world. My background in genealogy prepared me well. She agrees—maps, maps, maps and writing from the period. http://www.marymalloy.net

Session 3: Two for One: Weaving the Twin-Stranded Storyline with Susanna Kearsley

Her presentation was professional, elegant, useful. I want to read her. Could it be that she writes twin-stranded stories just like me? Do check her out here. http://www.susannakearsley.com

Lunch with David Ebershoff (author of The Danish Girl, a wonderful book. I consider his 19th Wife a work of genius, but it’s a tome so be prepared.)

He was eloquent, and I again did not take notes, but he left me and many others with tear-rimmed eyes and all of us with his wisdom. To paraphrase:

“All any one of us wants is to be seen, as an individual, for who we really are.”

Lifted by his words, I decided to go to my next pitch. (I’d been vacillating.) I got:

“Send me a chapter and a synopsis.”

Then at the cold read? Some positive comments and some good suggestions. They were kind, supportive.

“I’m not that fond of Cold Reads. We don’t have any background on the story. That said, thank you for being so courageous.”

Did I say I was exhausted? I took refuge in a corner, waiting for the finally—the big banquet—and again found a comrade in the world of words.

Because, in the end, all we really want is to be seen for who we really are. It’s how the light gets in.

Preparing for Portland

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Preparing for the Historical Novel Society Conference @HNS-ConfUSA  so…a Thursday Throwback reminder: You are not the judgment you receive.  A discussion with an aspiring writer reminded me of this post. I thank him.

kyujutsu14With arms out, your heart exposed, you reveal yourself or your work to human scrutiny. Don Miguel Ruiz, Jr. calls it “standing in the target zone.” It’s not easy. You go for that interview; you take that test; you offer up your love; you ask for feedback on a draft of a book. And you get a response.

Sometimes the balloons fall, confetti rains down, and they place bouquets of flowering praise into your hands. You step right into the target zone; you win—the job, the A, the love, the accolades. You feel valued.

Other times they throw eggs: hard-boiled, rotten, or fresh and usable. Spritely and alert, you dodge them, and evaluate their worth. They aren’t about you; they are about what’s between you and the words. So you toss the rotten criticism, digest the hard-boiled truths, and set aside the freshest critiques for later. You step out of the target zone soiled but ready to move on.

But other times—wow—other times you step into arrows, sharp and fast. Some are aimed at the target. You’ll deal with those later. But your guard is down; maybe you were expecting balloons. Suddenly, before you can grab your shield, one heads right at you. You take it personally, in the chest. You think, “You weren’t good enough for the job; you’re stupid; no one loves you; you are not okay, or talented, or worthy.”

If you’re quick, you can pull loose the arrow, stave the wound, and recover. You remind yourself that the barb isn’t about you; it’s theirs—their perspective, their point of view, their wounds, their opinions. You can take the arrow, clean it off, and learn what you can from it.

Sometimes, though, the wound festers, especially if, while you were pulling out the first arrow, two more hit their mark, one in your Achilles’s heel. This poison courses through your body. It hollows out your gut, robs you of your voice, and leaves you weakened, with a vise grip on your head and heart. You want to quit. You know better. You should have been vigilant, should have stepped out of the target zone, should have thrown up your shield and protected yourself. Now what?

You heal. It isn’t quick, but you heal. You step back, take stock, and you forgive. Forgive the archers for their aim and yourself for being human, for assuming balloons and making it personal—the job, the test, the lover, the book. You did your best, and you will begin again.

We live in a world of the instant critique. Want a hotel, a dinner, a book? Search the internet and the opinionated masses provided listings of one to five-star judgments from which we can choose. Find an agreeable viewpoint on a website and we post it on our Facebook page, or just “like” what appeals to us as we scroll the home feed. Suddenly, Facebook (or Twitter, or the website we light on) reads our preferences and presents us with more of what we want or need or agree with. We get filtered faceless bursts. Not so, when we’re standing in the target zone.

Here is what I learned from the arrows. (And after some reflection, my attachment to the balloons.)

  • If I ask for feedback, if I put myself in the target zone, I need to be specific about what I want…and if I only want a bouquet, I’m not ready to put myself there.
  • If I think I am ready, I will request the information in small doses, step back when I sense my guard is down, and even walk away.
  • I will try to remember that I am not the judgment I receive.
  • I will listen, digest what I hear, and give myself time to evaluate
  • I will refrain from explaining myself, making excuses, or, if I am wounded, retaliating.
  • I will move on, make my choices, and enjoy where they take me.

And I will be judicious in my judgment. We are fragile souls. We want approval, love, and the kind attention of others. We want to be okay.

  • I will not give feedback unless it is requested (and believe me, I asked for it!).
  • I will offer my opinions up with genuine praise (and if I can’t find it, I’m not looking closely enough).
  • I will make all my comments specific and avoid advice, respecting the recipient’s ability to move forward in his or her own way.

It is called being constructive. It isn’t easy, but a bouquet opens the heart, a boiled egg nourishes the body and provides for growth—and an arrow can wound. My words are my words—I can’t guarantee how they’ll land, but if asked, I can shoot for the target, not the soul.