I first encountered Eugenia Lovett West when her most recent novel – Sarah’s War – was released. As someone who began writing after a thirty-year career in business, I was fascinated to learn that Eugenia West is well into her nineties. She says that her goal is to keep on waking up every morning with the urge to create. Amen to that!
What was the inspiration for writing your first novel, The Ancestors Cry Out?
Thanks so much for inviting me to be on your blog, What was my inspiration for writing my first novel, The Ancestor’s Cry Out? I fell in love with the island of Jamaica when visiting family there—and this was in the 1960’s before it became a popular resort. Women still walked along the road with baskets on heads and there were few cars. The beauty of sea and sky was dramatic, the people were warm and friendly. As well, there was great contrast between the shore and the higher elevation. A trip into the hills and a visit to a sugar plantation introduced me to a wilder landscape and sense of a strong sub-culture, sometimes voodoo. I read a number of journals written by wives of British governors with tales of uprisings and tragedy. The combination of beauty and the undercurrents of danger led me to invent a cast of characters and to send a young woman from Boston on a mission to find a lost inheritance.
What keeps you writing?
I believe strongly in the value of escape reading. For me, it started when I had little children and nap time was a chance to read and regain sanity. These days, the need for escape reading may be stronger than ever, and my aim is to give readers total immersion into another world. I come from a long line of preachers and teachers and I may have inherited a love of playing with words. As well, the euphoria when a manuscript is accepted does overcome the pain of rejection. And—at age 96, it’s a gift to wake up in the morning with the urge to create.
Do you begin with plot or character?
For writing history, I’m apt to begin with plot. Sarah’s War evolved after reading about the winter of 1777 in Philadelphia, the contrast between General Washington’s disintegrating militia at Valley Forge, the sickness, the bleeding feet in the snow. Now picture British officers living the high life in winter quarters in Philadelphia. There were weekly balls at Mr. Smith’s City Tavern, sports, musicales. This culminated in a farewell party for General Sir William Howe modeled after an old fashioned jousting tournament and ending with a grand ball and fireworks costing thousands of pounds. An extravaganza—nothing like this had ever happened in the colonies. The contrast led me to start years of research. I spent four days reliving the Battle at the Brandywine River. I knew where every regiment in both armies was standing, and how the British general, Lord Cornwallis, made a fearful mistake by allowing his troops fall out for a leisurely lunch, giving Washington’s men a chance to avoid a trap and escape. The first version of Sarah’s War was far longer, with three main characters. In the end, to make the story move faster, I concentrated on one character, Sarah. It caused me great pain to cut out many pages of careful research, but I tried hard to maintain a sense of what it was like to live in that dangerous time. Loyalists and fence sitters outnumbered patriots. The streets were filled with informers and spies. There was no structure of governance, just thirteen states each with their own demands. We owe a great deal to those first patriots who might well have been hung if the war for independence was lost.
You’ve written novels since the 1970s. What changes to the industry do you think are most significant?
My sense is that changes in the last few decades are giving writers far more opportunities to see their manuscripts become books that you can hold in your hand. When I started writing novels, it was almost essential to have an agent with connections to editors. The alternative was expensive vanity publishing. Now many books are self-published and profitable. There are more small presses, and there’s also a new game in town—hybrid publishing. The author pays up front and the hybrid publisher produces a presentable book—cover, ISBN, links to distributers etc. Depending on the success of the print run, the author gets a high percentage of earnings. There have been other major changes. I used to work on an electric typewriter and mistakes had to be covered with white ink. Then came computers. Unlike children who seem to be born hardwired with technical skills, my generation struggled with the learning process—I still treat my computer with wary respect. In fact, when I started writing there was no internet and no social media like Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, giving writers the chance to build up lists of fans and followers.
What lessons have you learned from your long career writing fiction?
The answer is many—and often the hard way through trial and error. Readers and writers are starting off on a journey together. It’s up to the writer to create a bond—and that bond must be created as soon as possible. I learned that it takes many hours and many thousands of words to find one’s “voice” or particular style—my theory is that writing is 10% talent and 90% applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. I discovered that I don’t have a gift for clever metaphors, but I do have an ear for dialogue that can move a story along without lengthy descriptions. It helped that when my youngest child was in school all day, I became a freelance reporter for a number of weeklies in New Jersey. Journalism teaches one to check facts and to cut down on adverbs and adjectives that detract from strong writing. Feeling important, I rushed around with my Nikkon camera covering everything from sewage disposal meetings to national conventions. Then, instead of 300 words, why not 300 pages? My first novel was sheer trash, but the second, The Ancestors Cry Out, was picked up by Doubleday. I learned that, for me, suspense is essential. I want the reader to be compelled to turn the page.
You’ve written both historical fiction and contemporary. What appeals to you about each genre?
As a story teller, not a bone fide historian, I owe a great deal to non-fiction writers like McCullough and Ellis and Philbrick. History can be flexible, accounts handed down are subject to change. For example, Malcolm Gladwell writes that it wasn’t Boston patriots dressed as Indians that boarded ships and threw tea overboard. It was tea smugglers, concerned that imported tea would eat into their profits. Historical fiction demands that you balance facts and imagination. Great care must be taken when introducing actual figures like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. On the other hand, for mysteries, there are rules to follow like planting red herrings, valid clues, surprise endings. The villain is always caught and justice must triumph. Mysteries come in many shapes and sizes, but for me a husband killing his wife in a bathtub is not an option. Mine have global sub-plots like advanced weaponry, illegal viruses, and cybercrime. To sum up, I think there is a special dimension to writing history because both reader and writer gain insights from expanding our knowledge of the past and of the people who changed the world. It’s a never ending source of interest.
Many thanks for sharing your perspective, Eugenia. Readers will be fascinated with your experience and inspired by your career.
Sarah’s War by Eugenia Lovett West ~~ 1777 is a pivotal year in the United States. The Revolutionary War has long since begun, with no end in sight. George Washington and his untrained militia struggle to survive. The thirteen states are torn apart by politics. Amidst all this chaos, Sarah Champion—a beautiful young Patriot and parson’s daughter whose twin brother was killed in the Battle of Long Island—is sent from rural Connecticut to live with a rich Loyalist aunt in Philadelphia. There, she is plunged into a world of intrigue and treachery. She spies on British officers enjoying festivities in winter quarters. She goes to Valley Forge with information about a plot to kill Washington.
As the war drags on, Sarah digs deep for the strength, courage, and wits to overcome the numerous deadly threats she faces, driven on by her determination to realize one dream: being part of the efforts to form a new and independent country.
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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, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.