Friday, September 17, 2010

On Being a Writer in the Age of the Internet

Long gone are the days when writers scribbled away on clackety typewriters in self-imposed solitude. To be a writer today, you have to wear many hats. And to be a successful writer, it helps if you're not an anti-social, reclusive technophobe.

Earlier this week I discovered that my web host, in its zeal to 'update' everything, has somehow misdirected both the domain names I own: the one for my author site and the one for my Australian Shepherd kennel. One day, everything was there exactly as I had painstakingly designed it and the next . . . well, things are . . . missing. Attempts to communicate with tech support have resulted in them spewing back technical gibberish which may as well have been Swahili. And this during the week that I'm releasing the paperback edition of Isabeau, A Novel of Queen Isabella and Sir Roger Mortimer, and when a front page article about me and my books appeared in the local community paper.

Can you say 'bad timing'?

Thank goodness there are still other ways to stay in touch with and provide information for readers, like YouTube, Goodreads, Twitter, an Amazon author page and e-mail (please excuse the shameless links I've slipped in there while my web is on vacation). But this (hopefully) temporary crisis made me realize how reliant authors are on the internet these days. I, for one, did not realize when I first sat down to write stories over a decade ago that I would need to became a semi-expert in the arts of social media and web site building. While I love picking out artsy fonts and getting my page colors to be all matchy-matchy, if you start talking about things like 'file transfer protocol' you may notice me sticking my fingers in my ears and going 'la-la-la-la-la-la'.

The truth is: I learn enough to get by. Sometimes I need help. Bless husbands whose best friends are computer engineers. And writing buddies who mentor me in the etiquette and rituals of Tweeting and Blogging.

The internet provides numerous ways to reach potential readers and . . . the internet also takes time away from writing. Thus the dilemma. So hone your writing first; then find ways to get your name out there. You can't write or edit if you're tweeting all day long; but no one will know you exist if you don't have some kind of internet presence. Is it possible to sell lots of books while remaining incognito? Hmm, possibly, if you have a major publisher pumping $$$ into publicity or Oprah selects your book for her book club. Good luck with that.

One of my favorite blogger-writers (who I incidentally discovered on Twitter) is author Jody Hedlund. Her first book, The Preacher's Bride, is due out in October from Bethany House Publishers. Jody has created a substantial following through her informative posts. She talks candidly about everything from platform building to time management for writers. By serving as a filter for helpful information, Jody has succeeded in building a name for herself and consequently an audience that will be eagerly awaiting her book's release.

Still, blogging, tweeting or a slick web site are not the only ways to connect to potential readers. Many other writers simply interact with readers and other writers on a personal level on various forums, like Kindleboards, which is a closely moderated site that does not allow for obnoxious plugging that might alienate readers who are there purely to discuss books or their newest Kindle acquisition. At some point, a reader or book blogger tries their book, likes it and enthusiastically endorses it. Then, the proverbial snowball of success starts rolling as the book rises up through the ranks by word of mouth to compete with traditionally published bestselling authors. Some recent examples are Amanda Hocking, Karen McQuestion, David Dalglish and David McAfee, just to name a few. This isn't going to happen if the book doesn't strike a cord with certain readers. In other words, being social in itself doesn't lead to success, but paired with a well-written book, the potential is there for that to happen.

It has been said many times that "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity". Writers today can't neglect their writing (preparation), nor can they ignore the great equalizer of opportunity that the internet provides.

Happy writing,

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Interview with Ann Weisgarber

I first met author Ann Weisgarber at the Historical Novel Society conference in Chicago in June of 2009. Actually, I met her husband first when I sat down next to him at one of the many wonderful sessions offered at the conference. Somehow, Rob and I got to talking and it turned out he and his wife were originally from Kettering, Ohio, less than half an hour from where I live, and they had both graduated from Wright State University in Dayton, as I had. Afterwards, he introduced me to Ann. I think it was just serendipity that I bumped into them, because it led me to eventually read Ann's novel, which instantly became one of my all-time favorite works of historical fiction ever.

Ann's debut novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, has been named Best Work of Fiction by the Texas Institute of Letters, longlisted for the Orange Prize and shortlisted for The Orange Prize for New Writers. Quite a list of accolades for a novel that was originally passed over by several American publishers. Happily, the novel found a home with a U.K. publisher and has recently been released by Viking in the U.S.

Following is an interview Ann did for me which originally appeared over at the Historical Novel Review Blog:

How did you become interested in writing about African American ranchers in South Dakota?

I’ve always loved the West and admire the determined spirit of the people who call it home. I knew there were African-American cowboys, and I had visited a few historical forts where black troops had been posted during the late 1800’s. I didn’t know anything about African-American settlers, though, until I happened to see a photograph of a woman sitting in front of a sod dugout. The photo wasn’t labeled, but from the background the location could have been Nebraska or one of the Dakotas. I was intrigued for several reasons. This unnamed woman was alone, and she was an African-American. I did a little digging and found John Ravage’s Black Pioneers. His non-fiction book was filled with accounts of black settlers in the West.

This was new history for me, and that was exciting. But it was more than that. I couldn’t stop thinking about the woman in the photograph. She was alone in the middle of a wide open stretch of land. I didn’t know her name, and I didn’t know where she lived, but I knew this: she had a story that needed telling. I decided to do that for her.

How did you research this novel? Did you spend time in the locations you wrote about?

I did the research in bits and pieces. I’d write a scene and realize that I didn’t know anything about the details. For instance, Isaac was posted at Ft. Robinson, Nebraska. This meant I had to research the fort and the cavalry units. When I discovered that the Ninth Cavalry served as reinforcements at Wounded Knee Creek, I then had to research the massacre. From there, I researched the relationship between Buffalo Soldiers and Indians. After that, I read about Pine Ridge Reservation. One piece of information often led to a new idea. Many times the research shaped the book.

I did have a four-week writing residency at Badlands National Park, but I did very little writing while I was there. Instead, I talked to people who lived in the area, I visited Ft. Robinson, and I went to Lead to see the gold mine. I was in the Badlands during a three-day windstorm with gusts so strong that it was impossible to walk upright. There was an electrical storm where the night sky turned white and stayed white for seconds at a time. Best of all, the residency was an opportunity to experience the quiet beauty of the Badlands.

I returned to the Badlands one other time, but that was only for a few days. That was long enough to renew my commitment to finish the manuscript.

Rachel’s voice is so strong and clear in this story. Did you find it challenging to take on the voice of an African American woman from the early 20th century?

Thank you. It was a challenge and that was one reason why it took so long to write the book. I had to step back in time and imagine a point of view very different from my own. Reading about historical figures such as Ida B. Wells Barnett and Booker T. Washington helped. But it seems to me that assuming a different voice is nothing new for people who write historical fiction. Many writers put aside the “Can I?” and “Should I?” questions. It’s a matter of connecting with the characters on an emotional level. In my case, I was determined to give the unnamed woman in the photograph a story. I wanted to do the best I could. That was my focus.

Every author has a unique path to publication. Can you tell us a little about yours?

The book -- an American story -- was first published in the UK and then in France. Prior to any of that, I had an agent who did her best to find a U.S. publisher. No one was interested. Several editors said the story was too quiet, and I took that to mean the novel wasn’t ready. My agent lost interest, but we parted on good terms. I went back to page one and started another round of revisions.

Meanwhile, I read about Macmillan New Writing in Poets & Writers. The imprint, a division of Pan Macmillan in the UK, was willing to publish new writers who did not have agents. I sent the manuscript to MNW. It was a long shot. The imprint received thousands of manuscripts and printed twelve novels a year. Eleven weeks later, Will Atkins, the editor, sent an e-mail. He liked the novel.

Eight months after it was published in the UK, it was nominated for the Orange Prize, a literary prize for women writers. A month later, it was nominated for the Orange Award, a prize for new writers. In the States, the Texas Institute of Letters awarded it the Best Work of First Fiction prize.

The nominations in the UK and the prize in Texas opened the door for Rachel DuPree. Pan Macmillan sold the U.S. rights to Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group. It’s a great match for me. My editor, John Siciliano, and the team believe in the book.

The book came to the U.S. through the back door, but I wouldn’t change a thing about my process. This was how it was meant to be.

What’s next for you?

I'm currently working on a novel that takes place in 1900 in Galveston, Texas. The plot revolves around a college–educated woman who marries a dairy farmer. The story begins a month before the 1900 Storm, the historical hurricane that killed more than six thousand people.

Where can readers find out more about you and your book?

My website is There, readers will find my e-mail address and they are welcome to write me. They’ll also find the first few pages of The Personal History of Rachel DuPree as well as a few articles about the historical facts behind the book. Under Book Clubs, readers can find questions for book discussion groups.

Happy reading,

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, by Ann Weisgarber

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is a story best experienced firsthand with fingers pressed to the pages and an uninterrupted stretch of time. I found myself unwittingly drawn in by narrative that’s so direct and familiar in tone, it’s as if Rachel herself were speaking to me. Even the most subtle passages are deeply moving and the clarity of the simplest details brings Rachel’s world fully to life. But there’s far more to this book than time and setting. This is as much a story of race and the ambition to better one’s self, as it is about courage in the face of adversity.

Twenty-five year-old Rachel, a kitchen maid in a Chicago boarding house, agrees to marry Isaac DuPree, the son of a doctor’s widow. Although she barely knows Isaac, Rachel admires his ambition and believes that together they can build a better life. Newly wed, they leave to hew out a living on a ranch in the dusty wilderness that is the South Dakota Badlands. Negroes in the West are rare and Isaac is determined to build his wealth in land and earn the respect of others. Despite the toll inflicted on them by their harsh environment, Rachel bears a quiet fortitude as she tries to live up to Isaac’s expectations. But sometimes with sacrifice comes suffering and Rachel and her family are no exception. Hunger and thirst are all too familiar and death an often unwelcome guest. As their neighbors abandon their lands, Isaac clings ever more fiercely to his dream. Meanwhile, Rachel struggles to ensure her family’s survival, while alternately longing for the comforts of her old Chicago home. Without a doubt, Rachel DuPree will take her place among America’s literary heroines.

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree enlightens us to the tenacity of the pioneer spirit, the stark realities of life in an unforgiving land and the sometimes cruel truth about how the West was really won. Ann Weisgarber captures the otherworldly landscape and harsh climate expertly – so much so that you can feel the grit under your fingernails and the dryness in your mouth long after you close the book. This is a poignant tale that will move you in unexpected ways, as it pits hope and pride against reality and resourcefulness.

Not only did this shoot to the top of my list of all-time favorites in historical fiction, but it easily takes a spot among my favorites of any genre. If I’m asked to recommend one must-read book for the year, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is definitely it.

Happy reading,

Thursday, September 9, 2010

New news

In case you were all wondering (and I know you were, right?), I am still alive and kicking. The blog has been quiet for a couple of weeks, but all for a good cause. My next book, Isabeau, A Novel of Queen Isabella and Sir Roger Mortimer, is now on Kindle and Smashwords and I've just corrected the last pesky little typos and formatting errors for the print version. By early next week, the stamp of approval should be on the final, final proof and shortly thereafter, the paper book will be available online at Amazon, Barnes and Nobles and other retail web sites.

Originally, I balked at writing a historical story centered on a female protagonist. Why would that be the case when I myself am a woman? Hmm, the only explanation I can give is that I grew up a tomboy and the book that sent me down this path in the first place was The Three Musketeers. Clanging sword blades excite me for some inexplicable reason. The rustle of tafeta, not so much. If I were to dress up at the local Rennaisance Festival, I'd insist on armor, a lance and a caparisoned warhorse. I am NOT a fan of big flouncy dresses and wimples - at least not on me personally - it's impossible to run in the things and I am quite comfortable in my running shorts, Adidas and cotton T-shirts - although I must say Cate Blanchett looks fab in poofy dresses and a jeweled crown.

If you hadn't noticed, the majority of historicals selling in the U.S. do have female MCs, soooo... it was a career move initially, to be frank. Queen Isabella was a contemporary of Robert the Bruce, so I had run across her name frequently while researching her husband, Edward II of England. But as I began to plot out the chapters, something odd happened. This woman who I'd sat down to write about was . . . fascinating. Intelligent, strong and unbelievably bold. Was she perfect in every way? No, what human being is? But she defied her husband, King Edward, at a time when women did not openly speak out against their spouses and took a lover: Sir Roger Mortimer. If that isn't fodder for a rich historical, I'm not sure what is.

Queen Isabella's story is my own interpretation - as are those of the other historical figures in the book, such as Mortimer, Hugh Despenser and Edward II. If nothing else, I hope readers will learn something more about the time period and all its political entanglements while escaping the present. My intention was to step into Isabella's and Mortimer's shoes - and hopefully invite you, the reader, into their world. Like Robert the Bruce, this is one more figure who I'm surprised has been so overlooked in fiction.

Now, I'm going to celebrate one more step in publication by pulling weeds, going for a run and cheering my kids on at some races over the weekend. Then it's back to work, getting the second Bruce book ready for the world.

Until later,