Yes, it is NaNoWriMo month and there is the usual flurry of activity. Pre-planning, devising ideas, questioning if you should do it or not and the encouragement of the writing community. As I said before this year’s NaNo, for me, has me delving into an unknown genre and the start of a trilogy.
I have booked every Monday off work in November to allow myself extra time to write. This doesn’t normally happen but without the option of taking vacations, this year due to COVID19, I thought my best use of my days would be short writing retreats and extra time in November.
My first writing day, Sunday, was a super day. I had the house to myself, apart from the dogs, so indulged in writing for most of the day. Apart from several dog walks, and the occasional snack! My total for the day was 14,558. And at the time, I was super happy with that.
However, the next day doubts began to creep in. Had I given too many clues or sited too many suspects within those 14K words? This halted my writing. Should I re-start or continue? As we all know NaNo writing is just the first draft of a manuscript, so I shook off the doubts and returned to the story. Last night’s total was 16,951.
I may have to dissect this novel in the New Year, but for now I will enjoy the journey my characters are taking me on.
Are your participating in NaNoWriMo? What is your project?
Through many years of genealogy work, I’ve learned that every family has that one person—the one nobody will talk about, the one with the aura of taboo around him or her. Three generations back, Analiese Rushton (not her real name) was that person in our family tree.
It took a lot of digging and a grain of luck to find out why—she faced recurring perinatal and postpartum psychosis at a time when neither medicine or society understood it. Given the intense social stigma of mental illness in Annie’s day, aggravated by stark gender bias in both courts of law and courts of public opinion, what we now know to be a bona fide and treatable medical condition threatened to cost Annie nearly everything that matters to most of us—family, home, health, safety, the right to self-determination. I also learned that maternal mental health was the rarest of subjects in historical fiction; it almost felt like publishing too was infected with that zipped-lips taboo. I wanted to tell Annie’s story in a way that would heal ills and injustices, and topple that taboo.
How did you come up with the title?
That’s a fun chicken-egg question I can’t fully answer. When I started writing, I had a working title that I knew wouldn’t be the final title. One of the things I love about novels is that Aha! moment when you’re reading along and come upon the title of the book. To Kill a Mockingbird and The Color Purple are a couple of potent examples. So as I was writing, I had my “third ear” open, listening for possible titles. I considered several that didn’t feel quite right. Then up popped “The River by Starlight” and there it was. Readers will know from the first page of the book that it’s from a journal entry by Henry David Thoreau. But they have to read some chapters in to find out how it impacts the story and why it’s a thread that carries throughout the book.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Although The River by Starlight confronts loss and grief in many shape-shifting forms, it’s not a tale of depth-less terror and tragedy. I would not and could not have written a book like that. Edmonton historian Tony Cashman is a dear friend of mine, and in his testimonial, he described the book as “a story told with deep understanding of the human heart, which won’t abandon hope.” That refusal to abandon hope—Annie’s astonishing resilience and tenacity in the face of devastating events, is a tribute to the luminescence of the human spirit that lives in all of us. That’s why I wrote the book. I didn’t think she should be the one nobody talks about. I wanted her to be the one everybody talks about.
How much of the book is realistic?
100%. I put in over a decade of research, including six trips to Montana, Edmonton, and North Dakota. Much of the book describes events that did take place, and most of what I made up was also based on that research. I consulted more than 40 libraries and archives, read more than 1,000 homestead accounts, close to 100 books, and several miles of microfilmed newspapers.
Where can readers find you on social media and do you have a blog?
You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Instagram. I have two blogs on my website, for fiction and nonfiction. My Facebook page is a very interactive community of readers from more than 40 countries.
Do you have plans or ideas for your next book? Is it a sequel or a stand alone?
I’m percolating an idea based on another long-ago real person, whose early life was a dramatic brew of siblings lost to an epidemic, the Civil War, and historic upheaval within her faith community. She eventually landed in Dayton, Ohio, in the same neighborhood as an interesting pair of brothers who claimed to be building a flying machine. Once I start writing a bit, I’ll know if she wants to tell me her story.
Of the characters you have created or envisioned, which is your favorite & why?
Like the children’s book, I Love You the Purplest, my mother impressed upon me that her children were so different from each other, it meant that each was her favorite in their own way. It’s just that way for my characters in The River by Starlight, many of whom I love, but in ways that defy comparison. Nor do I have a favorite villain, and at least one reader agreed, in what is a favorite comment: “The characters are real and pop off the page. I have empathy, sorrow, joy, and want to choke a number of them!”
Do you favor one type of genre or do you dabble in more than one?
As writers, we’re often told to write what we know, but also told to write what scares us, or write what we want to know. I’d written four nonfiction books and countless essays and advice columns when I decided to write a historical novel. I can’t say enough about how expansive it’s been, in every way, to stretch myself into uncharted territory as a writer. I’m eager to both continue on with what I’m good at, and to push my pencil into forms and genres I haven’t before considered.
Do you plan your stories, or are you a seat of the pants style writer?
Pantser! I’ll start with a spark of an idea and see where the research takes me. When I start writing, the story will either bloom or fall flat. If it blooms, I go on, listening with my “third ear” and following the arc of the story as my research expands. It’s almost like a game where I’m given facts or leads or provocative questions, I work them into the story, then listen for how the characters are going to respond. I’m constantly judging the messages I’m portraying, whether I’m getting it right, and also gauging when it’s necessary for me to take literary license and depart from that.
What is your best marketing tip?
Find what you’re best at and focus on that. It’s good and appropriate to stretch yourself to do things that may be a bit beyond your comfort zone but none of us can be good at everything, let alone have the time or money to do it all. If you really hate, say, a particular social media platform or blogging or podcasts or live events or whatever, be unapologetic about saying no to it. I believe readers pick up on insincerity, so connect them with your best self.
Do you find social media a great tool or a hindrance?
In all things, balance. It’s every author’s choice whether to invest time and effort in a social media presence, but to forego it entirely is to greatly limit your ability to connect with readers and potential readers. Readers expect an internet presence, and other less immediate sources may not come to mind. At the same time, neither is an author obligated to spend untold hours on social media. How much presence, how much effort an author wants to devote to her digital platform is entirely individual, and there’s no “right” amount. I know authors who are only on Facebook, or only on Twitter, and post only when they feel they have something to say. Writers have to prioritize the writing, ruminating, and revising that make us writers in the first place.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
The magic of it. Watching words flow out of a pencil tip, watching words form sentences, sentences form paragraphs, paragraphs form whole stories. Sometimes it’s almost like I’m an observer.
Has your genre changed or stayed the same?
Genre is such a fluid thing to me. Though the writing of my fiction and nonfiction were vastly different experiences, there was enough crossover for me to loosen the boundaries in my mind of what “genre” means. My novel has been recognized with awards for historical fiction, regional fiction, literary fiction. My nonfiction books and historical articles have a strong storytelling element to them. I hope to cross a few more genre thresholds before I’m done.
What genre are you currently reading?
I’m usually reading several books at any given time; right now I’m reading a historical novel, a memoir, a creative nonfiction, and a classic.
Do you read for pleasure or research or both?
They’re inseparable, because research is one of my greatest pleasures. It’s entertaining, informational, emotionally and intellectually challenging. In a way, everything I read is research. It all lodges in my conscious or subconscious and finds its way into my writing in one way or another, either by what I include or what I choose not to include.
Where is your favorite writing space?
In my head, of course!
Do you see writing as a career?
Sure, because the definition of “career” is as broad as a writer’s mind allows it to be. I just internet-searched the definition, and the first one that came up was, “an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress.” Notice it doesn’t mention earning money? I’ve been blessed to have been able to earn a living as a writer, but I know countless writers who’ve been writing and publishing gloriously for years without earning a living. Their work is no less worthy than mine of being called a career. If we read only “career writers” as defined in the conventional sense (money-makers), the breadth and depth of what we read would be far poorer indeed.
Do you nibble as you write? If so what’s your favorite snack food?
When I’m “in the zone,” I have to remember to breathe, let alone eat. Although for a few blissful weeks in the summer, no day is complete until I’ve eaten my weight in blueberries.
What reward do you give yourself for making a deadline?
Making a deadline is its own reward. I’ve high-fived the wall more than a few times in my career.
An award-winning author in both nonfiction and fiction, Ellen Notbohm’s work has informed, inspired, and guided millions of readers in more than twenty languages. In addition to her acclaimed historical novel The River by Starlight and her globally renowned books on autism and, her articles and columns on such diverse subjects as history, genealogy, baseball, writing and community affairs have appeared in major publications and captured audiences on every continent.
The River by Starlight has been recognized with awards for historical, regional, and literary fiction. Its focus on maternal mental health and gender bias in the early 20th century explores a history rarely addressed in fiction.
Does writing energize or exhaust you? Depends on more easy the ideas and writing is flowing. If everything is flowing nicely and i’m forming an idea that makes me proud, writing gives me a powerful high that makes me super bubbly. If I’m having a hard time, like when you’re trying so hard just to write ANYTHING because you’re trying to power through a block. That digs at my soul.
What is your writing Kryptonite? Getting distracted by TV or movies.
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? Not at the moment.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer? I’ve connected with a lot of authors online but I haven’t connected to any of them outside of that. The ones I’ve met online have helped in so many ways. They have given me a like-minded community to bounce ideas off of and give feedback. Some of them were my beta readers for Beyond the Code.
Do you want each book to stand alone, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book? I have some book ideas that are going to develop into expansive series but for the most part they stand on their own.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer? I am still very new on the writer scene so I haven’t made much of any money yet. Fingers crossed.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power? From an early age, language and writing always gave me an outlet for my crazy imagination. It was a great way to bring my thoughts into the world and helped me sort out a lot of my feelings.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel? To Kill a Mockingbird. A lot of people I talk to don’t like it but I thought it was a very thought provoking read.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal? A fox. I love foxes
10. How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have? I have a bunch of story ideas and a couple of them I have started writing but Beyond the Code was actually the first book I wrote fully.
11. What does literary success look like to you? Seeing my book on the shelf at a bookstore.
12. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book? I am a thorough planner when it comes to my books. I plan out all the events in order for the book, do all the research necessary, and start writing. I try my best to make it as authentic as possible.
13. How many hours a day/week do you write? As much as I can but life gets in the way a bit more than I would prefer.
14. How do you select the names of your characters? Sometimes the name just comes to me when I’m making the character but most of the time I use a baby naming book.
15. What was your hardest scene to write? Emotionally, there’s a scene in the book I’m writing now that deals with a character letting go of a future that she can’t have. But there was another scene in Beyond the Code where there was a lot of characters involved in a fight scene and keeping track of all of them was pretty difficult.
16. Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre? If you write more than one, how do you balance them? So far, I’ve just been writing urban fantasy. I chose it because I love the idea of putting extraordinary things in the mundane world.
17. How long have you been writing? I started writing short stories when I was around 10 and have been doing that off and on throughout my teen years and started seriously putting myself into it when I move out.
18. What inspires you? Anime, comic books, and movies.
19. How do you find or make time to write? Sometimes you just have to put aside things you enjoy to get the words out. It can be hard but sometimes I have to be my own hard ass boss.
20. What projects are you working on at the present? Right now, I am working on a sequel to Beyond the Code.
21. What do your plans for future projects include? Trying to make Beyond the Code successful and get the sequel published.
Kelsey Rae Barthel grew up in the quiet town of Hay Lakes in Alberta, a sleepy place of only 500 people. Living in such a calm setting gave her a lot of spare time to imagine grand adventures of magic and danger, inspired by the comic books and anime she enjoyed. Upon graduating high school, Kelsey moved to Edmonton and eventually began working in the business of airline cargo, but she never stopped imagining those adventures. Beyond the Code is her first novel.
To have inspiration for our writing we must observe life, to avoid our family and friends abandoning us we need to engage with them, to pay the bills we must usually work a day job, to maintain our word count or deadline we must organize writing time. So the question is, how can we juggle all of these demands on our time with failing at each one?
Finding the ‘perfect’ balance between these is always a challenge. You may be in the depths of a scene when a small hand lands on your lap, a teenager ‘must’ be taken to a friends house, your husband needs help with a project or dare I say it your boss needs something from you? We inevitably crumble and leave the narrative in the hope you will remember the details later? We may scramble to jot down that idea, phrase or even paragraph before being torn away. I have looked to other writers, famous or not, and tried to delve beyond the obvious and gleam an insight into their methods of finding time. There are numerous hints and tips populating the internet but in the end you know your life and its limitations best. You may get up extra early, stay awake until the breaking dawn or cram a few paragraphs into your lunch hour – whatever works for you and your writing – is the right way to go. The trick is how to organize your time productively.
How do you schedule your writing?
What time of day works best for you?
I have to admit my writing is not scheduled. I take advantage of any time I’m left alone and once absorbed find it difficult to let go. Weekend mornings are good for me as I get up early and have several hours while my daughter is still sleeping and my husband is playing about in the garage! Other times I can use are the evenings when I arrive early for writing group meetings and write until the allotted time. Other ‘escape’ opportunities do arise and I always take advantage of them: a cancelled appointment, the house to myself or the glory of a writing retreat! Obviously, I dream of the day I can shut myself away with my laptop and not have to answer to anyone…it will happen I just need to be patient.
With my freelance work increasingly demanding more of my time, I have to split my writing with that of clients. Maybe I am wrong but I tend to complete a client’s work prior to my own. Having a deadline for a paying job and completing it is, to my mind, more important and vital: a) for repeated work b) for remuneration. That is not to say I believe my own writing is secondary, far from it. Within my writing group, Writers Foundation of Strathcona County, I am fortunate to have other writers who engage in an annual novel workshop. At the beginning of the year, when several of us have participated in NaNoWriMo and others are ready to share their first draft, we meet every month until June (sometimes longer). We section our novels and email them to each other, then edit and comment on the narrative. Then at month’s end email our editing and meet to discuss the stories. It is beta reading within a ‘safe’ environment if you will. This mutual assistance enables me to edit my current manuscript with the views of several other authors and a ‘faster’ editing process too.
Care to share your writing schedule or tips you found useful?
My writing area expands a little each year! Where do you write?
Alice breathed in the fresh spring air and looked upward through the tree branches where the sun glistened and danced through the leaves. The lane to her Aunt and Uncle’s home was narrow and not suitable for vehicles. She wondered how her Aunt and Uncle managed to shop but maybe there was some sort of short cut she was unaware of; after all, she had only been with them for three days. The pain hit her in the chest unexpectedly and completely. Her legs gave way and she landed heavily on her knees on the gravel. Tears flowed and her sobbing filled the air startling several chattering birds into silence.
They’re gone…forever. Aunt and Uncle are so kind but I miss my parents so much. A rabbit hopped across the lane in front of Alice. She looked at its white tail bobbing up and down. Wiping her nose and wet cheeks with her sleeve, Alice stood up and brushed the debris from her knees. There were small pits in the flesh where small stones had pressed into her skin. I have to be brave, that’s what Uncle says. Wiping away a stray tear, Alice breathed in deeply and began walking toward the lane’s end again. Dwelling on it will stop you healing, Alice. Remember the good times with them, my dear. Her aunt wisdom echoed in her mind. She understood nothing would change the fact her parents were dead but it still hurt and the previous year with no-one to comfort her had taken its toll. When her Aunt and Uncle appeared at the care home, Alice felt saved.
A car’s horn sounding brought her out of her thoughts. She looked up to see Bernadette waving at her from the vehicle’s rear window.
“Hurry up, Alice. I want to get to the fair.”
Alice ran toward her friend, her only friend so far in this small town in the middle of a forested valley.
An hour later, Gregor joined Cattrine, complaining the pen’s inhabitants were too noisy and his ears hurt.
“Will you stop your complaining? They won’t be noisy for much longer, Gregor. Come and help me form the sausages.”
Given a much nicer task, Gregor cheered up and pushed the mince into the sausage machine, as Cattrine guided the sausage skin ensuring the meat encased evenly. She expertly twisted the skin without hindering the flow to form perfect sausages. When the machine was empty of meat, Cattrine laid the long string of sausages out along the counter.
“I suppose there’s no way we could have a couple now, is there, dear?”
Cattrine turned to Gregor with a smile.
“Well, maybe a couple each. We have worked hard after all.”
She gave Gregor a large rectangular pan and he began laying the sausage tube in lines back and forth. Cattrine cut four sausages off one end and took a frying pan from the shelf. While they sizzled in the pan, Gregor filled the tray and then put it into a large freezer hidden at the back of the pantry. After consuming the delicious morsels, they both licked their lips and giggled. Free meat was more delicious than bought meat.