From English teacher to author

Deb Peterson has been a Facebook friend for quite some time and has been on the blog before as Delaney Green (more about that in a moment). She is the author of the Jem books, about a girl with Second Sight who grows up in the years between the Seven Years’ War and the American War of Independence. Today she shares her path to becoming an author.

You asked why I write under a pseudonym.

I write under a pseudonym because, first, my given name is rather common, and I wanted it to be easier for readers to Google me. Second, I wanted a division between my public and private life, especially on social media, so I could keep writerly stuff on my writer sites and personal stuff on my personal site. Last—and how’s this for hubris?—I assumed I’d be so well known one day that crazy fans would seek me out, and I didn’t want to have to move to a secluded house in the country away from my current neighbors and a neighborhood I enjoy, especially after spending 20 years rehabbing my house until it’s just the way I like it.

What sort of career did you have before becoming a writer?

I’ve had a lot of jobs—newspaper reporter, copy editor, professional actress, Broadway theater concessions manager, adjunct professor, farm laborer—but my career for 25 years was high school English teacher. That job was a privilege. It was a marathon. I didn’t much care for all the grading I had to do (one year of work at home for every year I spent at school, and I’m not even kidding—I did the math), but you do what you have to do so kids learn. Teaching was excellent training for what I do now:

  • You have to be disciplined enough to do your work consistently and well, because you face people every single day who need you to be there for them with your A game.
  • As a teacher, you have to know where you’re going and plan, just as you do with a novel.
  • You have to figure out multiple ways to get a student from point A to point B, as a writer must do with both plot and character development.
  • Teachers have to be able to explain why they’re doing what they’re doing in the classroom to parents, principals, peers, and students—again, an aid to crafting plot.
  • A teacher experiences humans in triumph and in crisis, another aid to character development.
  • On top of that, I taught literature: Dante’s Inferno, The Iliad and The Odyssey, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, Shakespeare—it was a 25-year deep dive into classic literature. Invaluable.

Was there a triggering event that prompted you to begin writing?

Before I knew how to read and write, I was drawing pictures, and every picture had a story. As soon as I learned to read, I read every book on the shelf. I never thought a regular person like me could/would be allowed to write an actual story, but I wrote and illustrated one anyway in grade four. I had a poem published in a national magazine in grade seven. I wrote a ton in high school and started a creative writing magazine. I didn’t really have a triggering event. I have always invented stories. But I will say that I simply could not write when I was a single mom teaching full time, rehabbing our house, and directing the theater program at my school. I had to sleep in my spare time!

Do you now write full time or part time?

Normally, I get up every morning and write for four or five hours, so that’s only 30-ish hours a week—not really full time. I also coach writers at a local college about eight hours a week. And I still sub in the local schools once in a while because I still need a kid fix now and again. Right now, I have been waiting five months for my editor in London to finish editing my latest novel in the Jem series (Jem, a Foreigner in Philadelphia), so I have been working on a mystery novel, a novel about trolls, and on short stories. I’m delighted to report that I just had two stories accepted for publication, one by Black Dandy (New Zealand) and one by New A third story made the long list in an inaugural competition sponsored by The Woolf of Switzerland—I’ll hear about that one in early February.

What parts of the writing career do you enjoy the most/the least?

In the last two years before I retired, I got up two hours before work to write—but I always had to quit and get ready for school. Now, it’s an immense joy to be able to get up and go straight to my desk with a cup of coffee and work without having to stop. Honestly, I don’t dislike anything: I love the research, I love crafting a story, and I love editing. I feel so blessed to be able to do what I do.

What parts of your former career do you miss/not miss?

I miss the kids. As I said, I still sub now and again because kids are refreshing—and I fall right back into “I truly see and appreciate you” mode when I’m with them. Kids know if you really care about them or not. I do care. I always will.

I do not miss the incredible amounts of time I spent grading papers. I do not miss interacting with difficult parents who apparently birthed little gods and goddesses rather than human children. I do not miss being demonized in the press and the resultant political crippling of my profession.

Do you have any regrets?

I regret not getting up at 4 a.m. years earlier.

What advice would you offer other second career writers?

My advice is simple: START. Just start. Don’t spend weeks or months looking for the perfect pen, perfect office chair, perfect time of day, perfect routine, perfect time of life. Don’t say, “I’ll start tomorrow” because you may not get tomorrow. If you want to write, write NOW. I wonder what I might have produced if I had developed those hundreds of story ideas I had over the years that I jotted down on bits of paper I subsequently lost. Or the stories I made up for my son on the fly at bedtime; one year, I made up a 24-chapter story about an elf whose adventures led up to Christmas Day. Oh, how I wish I’d written down that story! What other marvelous stories never got written, and never will get written, because I didn’t put them down on paper? Please, dear reader, pick up one of your slips of paper and WRITE THAT STORY TODAY.

Many thanks, Deb. Wish I had the exposure to classics that you’ve had – although I doubt I could have handled a group of high school students! Wishing you success with your next Jem novel.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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3 Responses

  1. Thanks, MK! Your readers might be interested in knowing that the cover design for my last two books (including the one above) is by Dan Thiede, one of my former students.

  2. Deb Peterson’s story parallels mine. I love what she said about how teaching prepares you for the discipline of writing. As a teacher/administrator for 32 years, I only had time to write on breaks. It is so wonderful to be retired and be able to focus on a project. I also agree that parents and politics can grind you down. Only the kids kept me going all those years. Bravo for writing your stories today!

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