Women’s Fiction Writers has been named one of Writer’s Digest’s 101 Best Websites for Writers AGAIN! Women’s Fiction Writers is a place for writers of women’s fiction to connect.The Women's Fiction Writers Association is a community of career-focused women's fiction writers providing networking, education, and continuing support in their career growth.
I’ve known Kelly Simmons since 2007, I think. Which means, Kelly and I have known each other like 77 dog years, which I think is even more in Internet years. When I moved back to Philadelphia a year and a half ago, one of my bonuses was that a group of my Tall Poppy Writer pals are also Philly based, Kelly included. And she showed up to my new home, before the furniture did! And Kelly brought pizza.
Today Kelly’s here on my well-furnished online home to share some gems about query writing.
She knows wha she’s talking about, so read, bookmark, share with your writer pals.
Then maybe they’ll bring you pizza!
PS Check out Kelly’s books and links below!
by Kelly Simmons
Some people call me the Query Queen, but I draw the line at a tiara.
Through my seminars at writer’s conferences, and mentoring via the Liars Club Writers Coffeehouses, I’ve helped thousands of writers through the query process. I’ve seen firsthand the crazy mistakes made by perfectly sane people. Here’s how to avoid becoming one of them.
Why is the shortest document a novelist writes also one of the hardest?
Because there’s so much at stake. Yet, most authors spend about 20 minutes crafting their query letter. Crazy, right? Allow yourself a few days of thinking, writing, editing.
A query letter is not a letter.
A query is a piece of direct marketing advertising, designed for the recipient to take notice and take action. Fortunately, I’m an advertising executive by trade, so I know how to do this. (And it’s waaaayyy easier than writing a new novel cuz everyone rejected your first one due to a crummy query.) Let me break it down for you — into a few Sections, and a few Rules.
The email subject line.
The all-important opening.
The book description. (Everyone makes the same mistake here, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)
The why me.
The why you.
The call to action.
The P.S. (Trust me, you need one. Don’t make me arm wrestle you, just keep listening.)
Keep it short
Don’t sound like an asshole
Don’t become an automatic no
That’s it! Let me elaborate.
Subject line: This has to be something related to your all important opening or your P.S. It should not contain words like ‘free’ or ‘virus’ or ‘penis’ because you will go straight to spam. I advise writing this last, yet most people write it first. Silly people.
Opening: Agents get hundreds of queries a day. They don’t read most of them past the first paragraph. SO THE FIRST PARAGRAPH IS CRITICAL. For the opening, just choose which of the other sections is the most important. Simple, right? Where do you shine or appear to be unique? IS IT . . . your brilliant original book synopsis? Or is it the ‘why me’ – an interesting reason you wrote the book, a connection to the material or the person you’re querying. Often the most important section is the ‘why you’ paragraph, an interesting way you met or learned about the agent, an introduction from a friend (which is GOLD. So Gold it will become your subject line, too.)
Book Description: Did I mention they get hundreds of queries per day? Don’t make the mistake everyone makes, which is to drone on for an entire freaking page. “And then he and then she and then.” Write only one paragraph. Emphasize main plot over subplot. Show character desire, roadblocks, growth. Mention genre. Give 1-2 comparable titles, no more, or I will have to hunt you down and give you a cardboard paper cut.
Why Me: Do you have a job related to your book? Have you done fascinating research? Are you an expert in your topic? Do you have a knowledge platform – a podcast, a column? Are you a community leader with a built in base? Did your best friend go to college with the agent? Have your short stories been published in two prestigious literary journals? Do you have a blurb already from a famous author on your manuscript? (If you do, that’s the opening my friend.)
Why You: If you do your research, you’ll know enough about every agent to say something admiring of their work or their clients. Agents are human and like to be flattered. This is a lovely way to wind things down — by sucking up.
Call to action: Don’t just say “look forward to hearing from you.” That’s so mushy and general. Be concrete and detailed (like your prose). Say “I’d like to send you a few chapters. I’ll follow up in two weeks to see if I can persuade you.”
The P.S. Think it’s silly? Think it’s for kids? Well, consider this — THE P.S. IS THE SECOND MOST READ part of any letter, after the opening! So pull out a fun fact, think of something you want them to remember, and PUT IT IN a P.S.
Keep it short. If you think it’s short enough, it’s not.
Don’t sound like an a–hole. Don’t compare yourself to Hemingway even if it’s true. Don’t list a million publication credits. Don’t blather on and on about your MFA and all the famous teachers who liked your work. Toot your horn with humility!
Don’t be an automatic no. Don’t query a romance agent with a sci-fi thriller – read their guidelines! Don’t write to someone named Amy and say Dear Becca. Don’t misspell words. Don’t lie. Agents know each other and agents gossip!
Also, remember to stay positive. Agents need writers and manuscripts. Without you, they are nothing. So don’t make it easy for them to turn you down by dashing off a long, meandering, braggy letter!
P.S. Did I mention I have snagged four different agents by sending letters with no personal connection? And that one of those letters had a 90% success rate of asking for the full manuscript? Impressive, isn’t it? Which is why I saved it for the PS.
Good luck and happy querying!
Kelly Simmons is a former journalist and advertising creative director and the author of the novels Standing Still, The Bird House, One More Day, and her latest, The Fifth of July. She’s a member of WFWA, Tall Poppy Writers and The Liars Club, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping fledgling novelists.
Let me introduce Jennifer Haupt, a debut novelist and a prolific essayist with an esteemed blog on Psychology Today (link below).
Here’s a bit about Jen’s new novel:
In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills deftly weaves together the journeys of three women from vastly diverse backgrounds who are searching for family and personal peace in post-genocide Rwanda. At the heart of this novel that bestselling author Wally Lamb calls “an evocative page turner” and bestselling author Caroline Leavitt calls “blazingly original” is the discovery of grace when there can be no forgiveness.
Because I’m fascinated with writers (I love our tribe) I went off script with Jen and wanted to pry into her process. I hope you get as much out of it as I did.
Please follow Jen on social media and support her any way you can!
In The Shadow of 10,000 Hills by Jennifer Haupt
Amy: Jen, you, like many many writers, want to transform their personal experiences into fiction. What was your biggest challenge in separating yourself from your characters?
Jen: What a great question! It’s funny, the character I had the hardest time connecting with was Rachel, who I originally imagined to be the most like me. It was only when I truly separated from her and listened to who she wanted to be that I “got” her — and was able to fully write her story.
I have a process journal where I write pages and pages of details about each character — from their favorite color and beverage, to the ghost that haunts them, to what they desire and what they learn that they truly need. So even Rachel, who started out as me, evolved into her own person rather quickly.
I started out thinking I was most like Rachel because she has unresolved grief that leads her to believe she doesn’t know how to love fully, like a mother should. She believes that when her father abandoned her family when she was a child, he took with him a piece of her heart. My unresolved grief was about my big sister’s death when I was two and she was three. This novel was Rachel’s journey to Rwanda to find her father and take back that piece of her heart. My journey, throughout the eleven years I wrote this novel, was also to discover more of my heart; love more. But in the end, I wound up thinking I was more like Henry, Rachel’s father, than Rachel. That was a huge surprise!
Amy: Do you have any tips for writers struggling to do this in their own work?
Jen: Yes. Listen to your characters. I know, that sounds weird but the more you know about them, the more you write down in a notebook all of the details of their life, their likes and dislikes, the clearer you will see who they really are. They’ll probably surprise you, and definitely teach you some things about yourself!
The process journal is my bible. It’s where I go when I’m lost and need to get grounded in my characters and their stories. Look at your family of characters, how they are related to each other, how what they want and what they (eventually) discover they need relates to the plot and the overarching themes of the book. The more time you invest in your process journal, the bigger the payoff will be on the pages of your novel.
Amy: A worry for many writers is how people who know them will react to their writing that was in some way derived from their own lives. Did you worry about this? If so, how did you overcome it to write the book?
Jen: Well, that’s why I wrote fiction instead of memoir! The beauty of fiction is that even if you begin basing your characters on real people, they grow into quite different people.
When I began writing this book I did worry that my mom would see herself in Rachel’s mercurial mother. But when my mom read the book, she related to Rachel who had a miscarriage that colored the way she loved her husband. I didn’t realize that through the process of writing this book, I was working on finding empathy and compassion for my mom.
Jennifer Hauptwent to Rwanda as a journalist in 2006, twelve years after the genocide that wiped out over one million people, to explore the connections between forgiveness and grief. She spent a month interviewing survivors and humanitarian aid workers, and returned to Seattle with something unexpected: the bones of a novel. Haupt’s essays and articles have been published in O, The Oprah Magazine, The Rumpus, Spirituality & Health, Psychology Today, Travel & Leisure, The Sun and many other publications. In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills is her first novel.
Ever wonder what it’s like to launch your book into the world? Wonder what it’s like for other authors? Today, my long-time friend and best-selling author, Barbara Claypole White, shares her honest account of what she’s thinking and feeling during a book launch. And that’s her thing! Barbara’s novels tackle mental health topics with honestly and compassion. Nothing is sugar-coated, but the facts are wrapped in stories that whisk you away, teach you, and leave you better than when you started.
What more can you ask for?
Six Book Launch Fears
By Barbara Claypole White
What’s the real moment of completion with a novel: When you return the page proofs, or when launch day propels your story into the public domain? Beats me, because I find both terrifying.
I love to excavate fear, digging until I unearth the seed that gave roots to a character’s darkest fear. Sadly, I learned this from dealing with my son’s obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD terrorizes you with intrusive thoughts, relentless what-ifs, and debilitating anxiety. A wily bastard, it generates fears that morph and grow in a heartbeat. With the right questions, however, an OCD coach can trace those fears back to one comment, one news story, one pinprick of an incident. In writing terms, it’s your aha moment. You have exposed the fear as a pesky unwanted thought; you have taken away its power.
When snowmaggedon derailed plans for my fifth book launch, it sparked self-reflective questions: Did cancelling events matter? Did I have any part to play in my book’s future? Hell, was my launch angst one big, fat irrational fear?
I struggle to let go of my characters. I’ve almost succeeded when book launch rolls around and threatens to push aside the new characters who’ve taken up prime real estate in my brain. I was dreading this launch because THE PROMISE BETWEEN US returns to OCD, which makes the book intensely personal. But when nature had me shoveling snow rather than preparing for my inaugural event, I realized I have as much control over my characters’ fate as I do over the weather. I’d done the work; I was proud of the result; I was ready to hand my story over to strangers.
Bad sales figures
I’m passionate about creating characters who challenge misconceptions of mental illness, but publishing’s a business, not group therapy. It’s all about the money—something else I can’t control. Shoveling snow stopped me from compulsively checking the book’s stats in an endless loop of worry. By the time I’d peeled off my thermal undies, I didn’t want to check. I’d accidentally quit cold turkey, and it was liberating.
I love chatting with readers, book clubs, and booksellers, but I’m an introvert. As a child, I spent hours playing in my bedroom, lost in my own world. (My mother routinely forgot I was in the house.) Fifty years later, when I hear my husband say, “I never see Barbara. She’s always upstairs in her office,” I realize little has changed. I still want to be alone with my imaginary friends, and any event that puts me on a stage is a private hell. At sixteen I had to be drugged with half a valium to perform a solo with the school jazz band. Now that I’m older and my thoughts implode midsentence, I have even less fondness for public presentations. However, one truth empowers me: I’m the expert on my books. How badly can I screw up in front of an audience if I’m the leading authority in the world?
I’m a has-been
With each launch, doubt whispers, “Do you have the energy or talent to repeat this process? Is it time to quit?” But with five traditionally published novels, I must be doing something right. If the new book tanks, am I going to stop writing? No, because I’ve been chasing this life since I was five years old, and no one else can tell my stories in my voice. I guess my agent’s stuck with me until one of us retires. (Sorry, Nalini.)
Want to know what was really driving my neurosis about this launch? My first negative review. The hero of my debut, THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, struggled with OCD. He also came from my darkest fear as a mother: What if, when my young son grew up, no one could see beyond his obsessive, anxious behavior to love him for the incredible person he is? In my first bad review, the reader stated I’d failed to educate her about OCD and clearly didn’t understand my subject matter. I was reading her words when my son stumbled into my office, collapsed on the floor, and told he couldn’t go on. OCD, he said, had won. That review haunted me for months, but it also motivated me to come back swinging. I wanted the last word; I wanted to tell this reviewer, “You’re wrong, and I’ll prove it.” THE PROMISE BETWEEN US is the result, and the heartfelt messages I’ve received from readers in the trenches with OCD suggest I know what I’m talking about with this chronic illness. (Although I wish I didn’t.)
Will readers understand?
I don’t tackle easy subjects, and my style is quirky. When the PR person referred to ECHOES OF FAMILY—my fourth novel—as a hard read, I agreed. Not everyone wants to be in the head of my heroine while she’s battling manic-depression off her meds. Marianne’s thought process was exhausting and confusing; I was filled with self-doubt as I struggled to bring her to life. Finding her true voice—the one constant in the yo-yo of her mood swings—was my reward, because this cliché is true: the good stuff happens outside your comfort zone. Creating characters like Marianne, who battle invisible disabilities with extraordinary courage, is what I do.
So, cheers—I guess I’ll see you at my next book launch.
Bestselling author Barbara Claypole White creates hopeful family drama with a healthy dose of mental illness. Originally from England, she writes and gardens in the forests of North Carolina, where she lives with her beloved OCD family. Her novels include The Unfinished Garden, The In-Between Hour, The Perfect Son, and Echoes of Family. The Promise Between Us, which shines a light on postpartum OCD, launched in January 2018. She is also an OCD Advocate for the A2A Alliance, a nonprofit group that promotes advocacy over adversity. To connect with Barbara, please visit www.barbaraclaypolewhite.com, or follow her on Facebook. She’s always on Facebook.
NanoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) ended on November 30th. This was the first year I tagged along to see what the fuss was about. I participated on my own terms, with a small “unofficial” group on Facebook that disbanded as soon as the clock tolled December.
I promised myself, and my friends, I’d write 1,000 words per day. This would not allow me to achieve WINNER status in the official Nano groups, because the goal is 50K in November, not 30K. But I knew I wouldn’t even get that far. With Left to Chance launching on November 21, I knew I had fewer than three weeks to dedicate myself to my WIP before all promo hell and fun broke loose. Note, I didn’t start a new project with Nano, I jumped in where I was with the intent to head toward finishing.
I lasted until mid-November, and came away with over 13K new words that catapulted me toward The End of my first draft. Honestly, I’ve never written 13K in two weeks before.
And, this is what happened yesterday:
I believe this happened for two reasons. First, whenever possible, I stuck to my (meager) word count. I wrote out of order, late at night, early in the morning. Second, I kept it going after Nano because I WASN’T FINISHED. I realized that the word count thing (that’s the technical term for you non-writers) was working for me. I had never written with a word count goal before. I connected with a writer friend on deadline (Hi Pamela!) and we are emailing every morning with our daily goals, and every night with an honest assessment of our day. As we knew it would, the emails immediately became a place to chat as well as to plan. We don’t dillydally, because, you know, deadlines. But Pamela did reply to my emergency midday tofu email yesterday.
Because that’s what friends are for.
Of course, I would never show anyone else the dreck that is the last 20K or so of my WIP, but it’s my dreck, and I’m fine with that.
Now it’s time to rearrange, revise, rewrite, and make a molehill out of this mountain.
The best compliment I’ve been given about Left to Chance is that readers want to go there. Yes, to Chance, Ohio. To a fictional town in the corner of a state I lived in once for ten months (and in real live Cleveland, not charming Chance).
Readers want to go to Perk for coffee, and most of them want to meet Beck. He’s my favorite too although my agent and I agree to disagree on whether he looks like Luke Wilson or Blake Shelton.
I don’t mind discuss the virtues of Beck’s appearance, but between you and me, it’s also the worst question someone can ask.
If you’re familiar with my m.o., I don’t see the faces of my characters when I write. Therefore, when people want to know who I *see* in the roles of the characters should it ever become a movie, I head straight to Google. Because NO CLUE.
And that’s not because I don’t watch movies or TV. I watch way too much of all of it. But it’s things like mannerisms and inflections and style that captivate me. Not faces.
To be honest, there’s usually ONE that pushes its way through with each book, so I start there. In The Glass Wives, Laney was always Andie Macdowell, yet to this day I’ve never seen the face of the main character, Evie Glass.
In The Good Neighbor, Mrs. Feldman was always a combination of Betty White, Bea Arthur, and some of my elementary school teachers who I used to think were old but were likely in their early sixties when they taught me in the early seventies.
In Left to Chance I always saw Beck as Blake Shelton, but maybe that was just a way for me to work Blake Shelton into my workday since I can’t write with music.
I’m grateful to the bloggers and readers who cast my novels for me. I don’t know if it’s easy for them or if they look at it as a challenge. Either way, it’s always fascinating to see faces attached to the characters I invented. Still, they never look “quite right” to me, though if someone wants to make a movie from one of my books, I promise I’ll come around quick! Strangely, aside from the financial aspect of a deal like that, it has never appealed to me much. I like the way each reader creates faces and places in her head, only helped along by what I’ve written. I learned when The Glass Wives was published that I cannot sit with every reader and tell her what I meant or was intended. Each reader brings her own history (baggage, if you will) into a reading experience and makes it her own.
So if you ask me Luke or Blake, the answer will always be: you decide. (And let me know!)
Full disclosure: Mom gushing below because today’s interview is brought to you by genetics.
It’s been a tradition here at Women’s Fiction Writers to have someone interview me to celebrate the publication of one of my novels. Eleanor Brown interviewed me for The Glass Wives. Patti Callahan Henry interviewed me for The Good Neighbor.
Today, I’m being interviewed by Zachary Gropper, my twenty-five-year-old son. (This is the gushing part) He lives in Manhattan, is the Brand Manager for a tech start-up, and is a graduate of Indiana University. Let’s add that he calls me on regular basis and comes to visit if I ask, and sometimes when I don’t. He remembers my birthday. He’s smarter and funnier than me. He answers my texts. I’m so proud of the man he has become I usually have to be told to shut up. (Okay, shutting up now.)
He also took my current author photo. You know, the one on the back of the book, as well as some of the more flattering photos you see online.
I hope you enjoy these bits of insight into Left to Chance, and my family. If we’ve piqued your interest, I hope you’ll add the novel to your shopping list! Here’s a link to Amazon: Left To Chance.
That Time My Son Interviewed Me About My Novel
Zachary & Zachary’s Mom in NYC, 2017
Zachary: At what point during the process of writing and publishing LTC did you first know you were on to something that felt really special?
Zachary’s Mom: I think I realized this story had a spark when I felt like I was Teddi, the main character, when I was writing. If it was so natural for me to slip into her shoes, I had a feeling she’d be very relatable to readers. Early readers seem to agree!
Zachary: Was there a point that stands out as the toughest or most challenging?
Zachary’s Mom: Well, you can ask your sister! I had a little problem with the pacing of the story, and at first had everything happening in the first two days, which took up half the manuscript. Chloe and I read the story aloud, wrote scenes on colored index cards, laid them out on the dining room table, and rearranged them until the story was balanced. It took HOURS.
Zachary: Are there lessons you’ve learned that could affect your writing in the future?
Zachary’s Mom: I’m making sure that my new book’s calendar (which I call book math) is set and organized ahead of time. In my new little apartment I don’t have room for all those index cards. My work-in-progress also has two timelines, so I think it’s even more crucial for me to have the pacing worked out ahead of time. I like to think I don’t make mistakes twice — I go ahead and make all new kinds of mistakes!!
Zachary: Overall as an author, how much do you think you’ve changed or evolved since each of TGW and TGN were published?
Zachary’s Mom: I think my expectations are more realistic when it comes to publicity, and that’s definitely something that has evolved.. It takes a lot of time and effort to get the word out about a book, because there are so many good books out there to choose from. Making mine stand out from the rest is part social media, part publisher marketing and publicity, and part pixie dust. With regard to writing, I think I’m more deliberate in my story telling, even though I allow things to evolve as I write. I know ahead what needs to be accomplished, and why, much more so than with my earlier books.
Zachary: If you were speaking to someone who hasn’t read your writing before, why should they want to read LTC?
Zachary’s Mom: I feel as if I’ve created a small town readers would want to visit with characters they’d like to be friends with. Plus I wrote in an adorable coffee shop I wish I could go to. You know how important my coffee is to me.
Zachary: At your last launch event, there were cupcakes with frosting matching the colors of TGN book cover. How much did cupcake planning impact cover art decisions this time around?
Zachary’s Mom: You know me well! It’s hard for me to pass up the opportunity to color coordinate or to embrace a good theme! This year we’re having wine and chocolate so I’d say the theme is DELICIOUS! Everyone’s invited!
7878 Spring Avenue, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania
Did you really think I wouldn’t post a picture of little Zachary?
Baby Zachary and our first of four family dogs, Einstein. Winter 1992, Maplewood, NJ
Oh, I am so sorry I’ve been MIA! I forgot how much work it is to get ready to launch a novel, to write another novel, and to be a freelance editor and book coach. Add in some nervousness and excitement and some things just fall to the side. Like laundry. Oh, the clothes are clean, but in a pile. Grab and go. That’s me.
I hope that’s you too, and that you’ll grab a copy of Left to Chance either with a pre-order or when it goes on sale on Tuesday! All the links are right here.
In addition to Left to Chance arriving in bookstores and online on Tuesday, my daughter will be arriving for Thanksgiving! I can’t think of a better way to celebrate.
And, if you’re in the Philadelphia area please help me celebrate Left to Chance by stopping by to say hi at one of these signings or events!
Between you and me, this is my favorite book of the three I’ve had published. Each one has a lot of meaning because of all the work that went into it, but Left to Chance ended up to be the most personal, which is odd considering it’s the first book I’ve written that does not have a morsel of my own life at its core. Weird, right? Teddi’s shoes were the easiest to slip into, and I felt like I was Teddi when I was writing. It was almost a virtual reality experience for me when she walked through her hometown, when she sat on the steps of her best friend’s childhood home, and when she stood outside the town’s cemetery, afraid to go in, even though in real life, I am not afraid, or even wary of, cemeteries.
I especially enjoyed writing what’s been deemed “the love square” not only by my literary agent but by Library Journal.
So, what’s a love square? It means that Teddi’s emotions are tangled up with three men. One she used to love, one she thinks she loves, and one she thinks she could love. That being said, this is not only a love square but squarely women’s fiction. Teddi gets into messes and out of them, on her own. She faces her fears, her misgivings, and makes decisions that are best for her. And she has some really cool women friends in the mix.
Hey, I guess that part is like me. I have some awesome women friends (and I count many of you among them).
I’ll be back to tell you more about Left to Chance!
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know I adore epistolary novels, and now I have a new one to share with you.
Last Christmas in Paris by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb has just hit bookshelves and it’s a don’t-miss historical novel set during World War I that follows Evie Elliot through her personal experiences and correspondences, mostly with her brother’s best friend, Thomas Harding. I’ll be honest, there were times I forget this was fiction and that I wasn’t just reading old letters someone had discovered in an attic.
It’s a layered story, deftly handled, and when I think it was written by two authors, not one I’m intrigued and impressed.
I think you will be too!
Please welcome Hazel and Heather to WFW!
Author Interview Heather Webb and Hazel Gaynor on LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS
Amy: Heather and Hazel, I’m so excited because this is truly a two-fer! One, I loved Last Christmas in Paris, and two, I get to interview two authors!!
H & H: Thank you for both, Amy! You’re very generous with other authors!
Amy: Let’s start at the very beginning. How did you meet?
H & H: We were first introduced through our mutual agent in 2013. She thought we’d hit it off and could help each other navigate the dangerous publishing waters together as debut authors. She was so right! We’ve become great friends.
Amy: Would you share with us the journey of deciding to write this novel together?
H & H: Sure! We were acquaintances for a couple of years before we collaborated in 2015 on the WWI anthology, Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War. In writing that book, we realized we shared not only a love of history and writing, but a sense of humor, family life, and a love of good food and wine. We also both felt there was more we wanted to write about WWI and a frantic brainstorming session quickly led to the idea of writing a book together. But how? Especially when you factor in the added complication of us living on different continents and working in different time zones. An impossible task? Perhaps on paper. But we were ready to take up the challenge.
Amy:You’re both historical fiction authors — well, I’m dipping in my toes with a historical element in my fourth novel. What about the time period of WWI drew you to it? What draws you to any particular time in history enough to write a novel about it? Is it a person, a place? (Feel free to share examples and name your other books)
Heather: I first became interested in WWI in my Early Twentieth Century French Literature class in college–sounds riveting, I know, but it really was! That interest festered somewhere in the background for me because there were so few books published set during that time and few television shows or films…it sort of faded away. Until Downton Abbey. That amazing show blazed onto center stage and it all flooded back for me. Its popularity spurred a whole new wave of novels set during this incredibly important period of history. An era filled with inventions and women’s rights and the complete dismantling of society’s structured class system. Oh, and the clothes! THE CLOTHES! I wish we still dressed like this. This wave of renewed interest sparked the idea for Fall of Poppies as mentioned above.
In terms of what draws me to a period in general? I have my favorites– French Revolution, and 1850s up through WWI (the Romantic era, followed by the Gilded Age and Edwardian era)—but I can be sold on any era if there’s a great story and a great character at hand. I’m a real sucker for interesting facts that stand out because of their oddity or beauty, or those that surprise modern readers.
Setting and a sense of place, or belonging (or not belonging!) is a huge theme in my novels. In my novel Becoming Josephine, we have a young woman who leaves her poor sugar plantation in the Caribbean for the erudite salons of Paris. Talk about a fish out of water! I really enjoyed depicting her rise to empress of France, and all the detailing that went into constructing the French Revolution on the page. In my second novel, Rodin’s Lover, we have a young sculptress who leaves her country home for Paris to make her way in the male-dominated art world. Paris was the place to be as an artist during the Gilded Age, or as the French call it, the Belle Époque. Again, I show a woman questioning her worth and identity in circles she doesn’t seem to be able to fit into. I guess you could say, I’m inspired both by location/era and also by ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the past that lay the groundwork for our present day. My current work in progress is set in 1900 U.S., and these themes—along with finding trust and love—are prevalent once again.
Hazel: It’s funny because WW1 had never really appealed to me as a writer, mostly because I associated it with military battles and trenches and a very male experience, but in writing my 1920s set novel The Girl From The Savoy, I had to research the war to understand how ordinary young women and men had been affected by it and to give my characters an authentic back story. At the same time, Heather approached me about Fall of Poppies so the two projects soon had me fully immersed in the war and I found it fascinating. So much so that I wanted to write about it in more depth – as did Heather. Cue, Last Christmas In Paris! WW1 was such a life-changing event and it offers a very powerful starting point for a novel.
I partly covered the war again in my other current release, The Cottingley Secret, because while the novel is about a famous hoax concerning photographs of fairies, the events of the novel take place in England during 1917-1921, so again, it was important to acknowledge the impact the war had on my characters.
My novels are mostly set within the past 100 years and it is always a real historic event, or place which first inspires me. For example, I’ve written about the Titanic (The Girl Who Came Home), flower sellers in Victorian London (A Memory of Violets) and the roaring ’20s (The Girl From The Savoy). Historical fiction requires a deep passion for the subject in order to do the necessary research to lend your writing authenticity. I absolutely love it!
Amy: I am a fool for epistolary novels. What was the biggest challenge in writing a novel in letters?
H & H: There were two big challenges. One, it was difficult to explain events happening around the characters in the midst of war without going off on a long jag of information that feels dumped and unnatural in the midst of the story. Two, pacing is crucial in any novel and we had to figure out how to build a climax without properly fleshed out scenes. We’re hoping we managed it well!
Amy: I’m sure you’ve answered this a gazillion times, but what was your process for writing his novel as a team?
H & H: Hazel would wake up in Ireland and pen a letter or two from her character. Several hours later, Heather would wake in the U.S. to find mail in her inbox, and write a reply from her character, and so on. We’ve often described it as waking up to a writing prompt each day. The process felt very organic, and the story flowed. Editing, on the other hand, was a more tricky operation. We used comment bubbles and colored fonts to track our changes, and somehow, with plenty of Skype chats and coffee, it all came together.
Amy: What’s your best advice for aspiring authors, or maybe sometime new to writing historical fiction (self-serving question, for sure).
Heather: My best advice for new writers is to take your time to get it right. We feel all of this pressure to rush and submit our work for validation. That rush short-changes us in the long run. Write, rewrite, work with critique partners. Get as many eyes on your work as possible. Read like crazy and STUDY what you read, Dissect it like a science experiment. Why does it work? How can you replicate this technique? Also, if you become frustrated with your work in progress, put it aside awhile and let it stew. Work on something new. You’ll find you learn best by working on more projects, over longer periods of time. Remember that writing is a skill, just like playing a guitar. Time and practice are key. You can’t rush it or it’ll sound like crap.
Hazel: My advice is to finish what you start. The world is littered with abandoned novels. We all struggle after that first flurry of excitement. You just have to push on through! Also, I encourage aspiring authors to understand that in the first draft you are telling yourself the story, so don’t worry about making it perfect. Subsequent drafts (of which there will be many!) are where you do the real writing, restructuring and polishing. Just get that first draft down so you have something to work with. And enjoy it. A debut novel is the only novel you will write without a deadline or distraction of other books to promote. Throw your heart and soul into it and it will shine through on the page.
Hazel Gaynor is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Girl Who Came Home and A Memory of Violets, and the recipient of the RNA Historical Novel of the Year award 2015. Her latest novel, The Cottingley Secret, released this summer. She lives in Ireland with her husband and two children. For more information, find her at: www.HazelGaynor.com, or @hazelgaynor on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Heather Webb is the nationally acclaimed author of historical novels Becoming Josephine and Rodin’s Lover. In 2015, Goodreads selected Rodin’s Lover as a Top Pick. To date, her novels have sold in multiple countries, worldwide. In addition to novel writing, Heather enjoys working with aspiring writers as a professional freelance editor. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and lives in New England with her children and husband, and one feisty rabbit. For more information, find her at: www.HeatherWebb.net, or @msheatherwebb on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
As I stared at the monitor I knew, in the deepest part of my writer’s heart, that the chapter I’d just written, sucked.
The writing didn’t suck, mind you. The insights were fresh, the main character was witty in the right places. I’d layered in the right amounts of atmosphere, backstory, and subplot, but not too much. The dialogue was well-paced. The cadence sounded right to my ear.
But none of it helped the story move forward.
No matter how many ways in however many days I rewrote that chapter, it didn’t work. It was as if I’d wrapped a string around my story and then pulled, and it and spun around and around and around like a top, and dropped in the same place it started. What I need was one of those toy guns that shoots suction cup darts.(And I am anti-gun, but drastic times, and all that.) I would just pull the trigger and the suction cup would fly forward and stick.
But I didn’t have a dart gun, I had a sucky chapter.
If I looked at this as a wall (or something like writer’s block, which I don’t buy into), there would be no way to move it, go under it, over it, or around it. So I chose to see it as a hurdle.
Hurdle: an upright frame, typically one of a series, that athletes in a race must jump over.
Just call me a fiction Olympian.
I followed advice from a friend and set up a new document so none of my changes would effect what I’d already done, just in case. Then I knew what I had to do. I wrote the next chapter all over again, from scratch, ditching notes, cards, and outlines. I swept my brain clean of preconceived ideas and notions (and oh, how I love my notions, and the word notions, but I digress…) And I wrote from another point of view. This was not an easy decision, as I felt as if I was cheating on my main character and our vision for the story. It took me days to have the guts to do it. I don’t even know if that will stay in the story but it worked to move the story forward. I have a dart that sticks. For now. (They fall eventually, you know that, even if you lick them. Don’t say eww, you know you were thinking it.)
The leap over the hurdle doesn’t have to be something you’d ever do again, it just has to work once, to get you to that other side.
If you have ever wondered if novel writing gets easier, the answer is no.
For me it has grown increasingly challenging, but I find that the higher the hurdle, the louder the cheers (in my own head) when I stick the landing.
How have you gotten over some of your writing and story hurdles? Did you turn any of them into walls and now wish you hadn’t?
In case you missed it, THE GOOD NEIGHBOR ebook is currently $1.99 across all platforms like Kindle and Nook!