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

The Appeal of Historical Fiction for author Mike Torreano

author Mike TorreanoMike Torreano is a relatively new author with two novels in the works. Like many others, he trolled the halls and workshops at this June’s Historical Novel Society conference and we chatted about our writing and the challenges of breaking into the market. Recently, I asked Mike to add his thoughts to the Inside Historical Fiction discussion.

What makes HF unforgettable/irresistible?

For authors, the irresistible part is easy. For whatever reason, history resonates with us. Perhaps it was a childhood experience where we were first exposed to signature events, or a family history which opened up a peek at the past.

For me, it was a fifth grade teacher who made us read a book a week and make a written report. We never knew who she was going to call on to give the report, so we had to be ready. I read every Zane Gray novel I could get my hands on, which started my fascination with the American West and history in general.

As for unforgettable, the characters we write about tend to be the lions of their age. They are people who rose to prominence in circumstances that we can relate to. Even stories without a famous figure bring to life events we’re familiar with-captivated by. Who doesn’t want to know about the intrigue that led to this or that royal’s demise?

As we read, we can relate to their motivations, worries, and lives in many ways. We’re reminded that what we are experiencing today has been played out so many times before. Sometimes that’s a comfort, sometimes it’s alarming, but it’s always interesting.

What do the best writers do to get it right?

Simply put, they put us in the scene. Whether it’s a tryst, a trial or a tribulation, the great authors invite us in to witness what’s happening. We’re the mouse in the corner, the barkeep washing up, the lady-in-waiting with the frown on her face. We can SEE what’s going on. The character’s emotions become our emotions. The story’s tension is our tension.

Are historicals inherently different than contemporary novels? If so, how so?

Certainly there are many stylistic differences between the two, but I think those are trumped by the overriding similarities. In historical fiction, we write about the problems that our ancestors faced, but grief, romance, greed, and pride know no era. The human condition has remained basically the same over the centuries. History bears that out. The everyday struggles and triumphs we experience today are the same things our historical characters experienced.

Even so, there’s a tendency to think that today’s issues are somehow new, or unique. Granted, technology today is light years different than the past, but we imperfect humans remain much the same.

What aspects do you specifically try to highlight in your novel/s?

Every historical author wants to be accurate, wants to describe the times and the surroundings vividly. What I enjoy crafting in particular though, are tightly drawn dialogue and physical descriptions. Revealing motivation through what my characters say-and sometimes don’t say-intrigues me. Often, with dialogue, less is more.

I also like to emphasize my character’s physical actions and reactions-like a throaty voice, a turn of the head, a shaking hand, a brush at an eye, all accompanied by silence for impact.

In HF, what resources do you use in researching conflict, plot, etc, so they are true to the time period?

I almost feel guilty in confessing that I have a researcher who uncovers many wonderful historical nuggets for me. I give her general guidance about what I’m looking for and the time period involved and she comes up with reams of material that I then pick and choose from.

I also do my own research, mostly electronically. What I find though is that my research tends to be more laser-like, which is fine to a point, but sometimes I miss broader aspects of the period which my researcher brings to light. So it’s a complementary relationship.

What aspects need to be included when building a past world for your readers?

Perhaps the most important aspect is to give the reader a vibrant sense of the times. What did a typical day look like? Who did what? What was acceptable in society then, and what wasn’t? We do that through our characters’ actions and reactions.

In today’s culture, it can feel uncomfortable at times to paint historically accurate, but politically incorrect scenes. But to change history, to change our writing to reflect today’s mores distorts the mirror we see the past through.

Do you see any particular trends in HF?

One trend I see is a gradual movement toward less dialogue and greater description, particularly in the Royal novels, where narrative about motivations and desires dominates storytelling. It’s very effective.

As far as the marketplace, HF remains a healthy genre and will always have a solid core of readers. Not as big perhaps as YA or fantasy, but large and stable nonetheless, always ready to devour the next well-crafted, well-researched HF novel, regardless of period or place.

My latest novel.

I have a short story set during the Yukon Gold Rush, titled The Trade, recently published in an anthology. I also have two novels currently under consideration, one by a publisher, and one by an editor.

Fireflies at Dusk is a coming of age tale set against the backdrop of the Civil War. A young man rejects his family’s pacifism and joins the Union Army after college. In his desire to separate from his father, he drives everyone he ever cared for away. As the War unfolds, he’s faced with a gritty journey to reclaim his self-respect.

The Reckoning is a western, set in Colorado in 1868. It’s a story of how revenge can have unintended consequences. After his folks are killed by Quantrill’s Raiders during the Civil War, a former soldier tracks the culprits to Colorado. Just as he’s about to spring a deadly trap on the murderers, his sister suddenly disappears. Now, he has to choose between running the killers to ground or finding out what happened to her.

Many thanks for contributing, Mike. Wishing you good luck with your novels!

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 and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.