An Interview with Historical Fiction Author Ann Griffin

Q. What makes this particular genre (Historical Fiction) so special for you?

A. We all have a history, and ancestors. Over the years, I’ve learned so many fascinating things about people in my own family whom I never knew, whose stories beg to be told. Although I don’t write biography, I take real life situations and recreate them fictionally, so readers will be drawn into the world as it was at the time of the story.

Q. How important is research to you when writing a book?

A. I suppose there might be such a thing as too much research, but I don’t know how much that would be. Any credible writer, regardless of genre, must do research, even if you’re writing about the present day. For example, the thriller writer must know something about police procedure, weapons, martial arts. The women’s drama writer must know some psychology. The historical writer, such as myself, must know what happened in the time period: clothing, food, housing, politics, art, religion, even music, manners and customs. This applies to those writing about a culture other than their own, as well.
I enjoy research. A favorite place I discovered in Canada when I’m in Toronto over the summer, is the City of Toronto Reference Library, which has an amazing rare book collection. Old photos online can tell me a lot about not only the subject but the background. Non-fiction books about the subject are a great place to start. Solid research will make or break a book.

Q. What works best for you: Typewriters, fountain pen, dictate, computer or longhand?

A. Seriously? Writers are not dinosaurs, you know. A laptop is fast, you can correct your work instantly, and you can take it with you anywhere. I do write in a journal from time to time, mostly short pieces or ideas for longer works. A journal is great on public transit, in a restaurant, anywhere you want a little more privacy than your screen up there for the world to see.
I could go for an expensive fountain pen to sign my books, but I don’t even own one any longer.

Q. When did it dawn upon you that you wanted to be a writer?

A. In 2002, my last living uncle died. In his safety deposit box was a letter from a daughter no-one else in the family knew existed. When I eventually met my previously unknown cousin, the story she told of her mother and my uncle was so outrageous and unique, that I decided it needed to be written. Seeing no-one else ready to tackle the job, I decided to write it.
All my previous jobs had involved writing, but it was work-oriented: reports, requests for proposals, advertising, and so on. I’d never anticipated writing fiction, and was unsure if I could do it, but I persevered, and my debut novel is the result.

Q. Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea takes you?

A.There are two main styles of writing: seat-of-the-pants or “pantsers” as we like to call them, and those who outline. Most writers, myself included, amalgamate the two. I prefer a written outline, but it is not extremely detailed. I write character descriptions for each main character and some of the minor characters. When I begin writing, I follow my outline, but at some point, if an enticing tangent suggests itself, I may follow that tangent and see where it leads. Sometimes that’s nowhere, and I return to my original plot line. But other times, I get some of my best ideas this way.

Q. Do you proofread and edit your work on your own or pay someone to do it for you?

A. Although it is important for every writer to proofread and edit their own work, at some point you must involve another professional. I have a developmental editor who looks over the plot lines, character arcs and so on. The first time she got my manuscript, she sent back thirty-six single spaced pages of notes! The money I paid her was well worth it. I also have a copy editor, whom I use shortly before the book goes to press. She picks up any grammatical errors, punctuation errors, bits that don’t make sense. It’s a lighter edit, and much faster, but vitally important.
Any writer who claims she or he doesn’t need an outside editor is kidding themselves.

Q. Do you believe a book cover plays an important role in the selling process?

A.Think about going to the bookstore to browse. What’s the first thing that gets your attention? It might be the name of a favorite author, but after that, it is the cover. The cover is the first thing the reader sees, and it must be attractive or engaging enough that the reader picks it up and turns it over to read the blurb on the back.
So the cover is absolutely vital. Just think, if celebrities looked like the rest of us all the time, would we pay any attention?

Q. Do you attend literary lunches or events?

A. I belong to several writer organizations: Womens’ Fiction Writers Association and Historical Writers of America are two. I was one of the featured writers at an online happy hour for newly published writers, on the WFWA website. I regularly attend writer meetings of my Historical Writers group, and attend author signings whenever possible.

Q. Do you read and reply to the reviews and comments of your readers?

A. I respond to comments on my website, Facebook page, and Twitter. I do not respond to reviews on Amazon or other book selling sites, as much as I would love to.

Q. Any advice you would like to give to aspiring writers?

A. There are two young women I know, still in high school, who want to be writers. One had created an elaborate world as the setting for her Fantasy book, and had sketched her main characters, but she had not written any of the actual book. The other girl has tried small projects but nothing big. My biggest advice is WRITE, WRITE, WRITE! My unconventional advice is, make friends with adult writers,  and look for a mentor. And remember, your English teacher may know plenty about writing book reports, grammar, and vocabulary, but may know nothing about writing a book or even a short story. So, do not necessarily believe what they tell you about your own writing.

Q. How realistic are your books?

A. My books are based on real life, so they must be realistic, or my readers will not read them. On the other hand, it is rare for a real human to endure all we writers throw at them. We must keep tension in the book, with characters hopping from disaster to disaster. It may be a physical disaster, as in the wartime in my book, or it may be emotional disaster, but as writing guru and publisher Donald Maass says, “there must be tension on every page.” The trick is to keep it believable.

Q. Writers are often believed to have a Muse, your thoughts on that?

A. I believe I have a Muse. When I get into the right frame of mind, the words just flow, and I refer to that as “the Muse is on me.” Whoever or whatever my Muse is, it (or she) keeps me up late at night, with the story pouring out of me through my fingers onto the screen. It’s exciting when it happens. But other times, there’s the steady slog of editing and putting one word after the other.

Q. Another misconception is that all writers are independently wealthy, how true is that?

A. This is complete nonsense. With over three million books in print, it is rare for a writer, even a good writer, to make a dent in a flooded market. Most writers do not make a basic living from their writing. Those who do are often journalists or non-fiction writers who have found a niche. As for me, if I make back the money I have sunk into writing, I will be satisfied. If I make more than that, I’ll be ecstatic!
Authors who are independently published have an even tougher time, and I’m one of them. Ninety percent of Indie authors never sell 100 copies of their books. I’m proud to have thoroughly crossed that barrier, but I’m a long way from the hundred thousand of a best-selling author.

Q. From all that we have been hearing and seeing in the movies, most writers are alcoholics. Your views on that?

A. Another misconception. I’ve no doubt some writers drink too much, some even believe it helps their writing, but of all the writers I know, I doubt any of them is anywhere close to alcoholic.

Q. Is it true that anyone can be a writer?

A. This is a common falsehood, just the same as saying anyone can be a professional athlete. It’s very hurtful to an author when a non-writer says it.
Often, when someone finds out I’m an author, the response is, “I’d like to write a book someday.” Yet very few do. Being a writer requires good facility with written language. Secondly, a story to tell. Thirdly, the passion and determination to push through, learn the skills, tell the story, refine it, and then keep plugging away to get the book published.

Q. People believe that being a published author is glamorous, is that true?

A. I’m smiling as I reply. It’s true that people look at me a little differently when they learn I am a published author. There’s a little awe and a little respect that wasn’t there before. But is it glamorous? Perhaps if you’re J.K. Rowling or John Grisham. For me, there’s no glamor. At least not yet. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

Q. Do you enjoy book signings?

A. Yes! Any opportunity I have, to interact with the reading public is fun. I’ve done six book signings so far and have two more scheduled for June 2018. I have a short slide show, technology permitting, that outlines some of the research that went into my WWII book. I do a reading, and answer questions, and my readers love it as much as I do.

Q. Have you ever marketed your own books yourself?

A. As an Indie author, I have no choice but to market my books myself. I did a great job with my sphere of influence, and I use Facebook and Twitter to promote my events and my book. It’s tough work and requires me to be outgoing almost to the point of brashness, asking for signings in bookstores and libraries.

Q. Do you believe it is more challenging to write about beliefs that conflict with the ones you hold yourself?

A.If by this you mean, advocate through my characters for a belief contrary to my own beliefs, yes, I would find that difficult. But if you mean portraying an antagonistic character realistically, no, that’s not more challenging.

Q. Have you ever taken any help from other writers?

A. Of course! I doubt many writers become successful without the help and support of other writers.
From giving me the names of excellent books about writing, to critiquing my early attempts, to reviewing my manuscript for accuracy regarding certain religious practices, to writing reviews, my fellow writers have been an important part of my team.

Q. How did it feel when your first book got published?

A.Holding the first proof copy of my first book in my hands, I felt like I had given birth. (And I have given birth three times.) It was an astounding affirmation of my creativity and determination. I was so excited!
Then, at my book launch, when people lined up to buy it and the first reviews began trickling in, I likened the experience to your child leaving home for college.

Q. How did you celebrate the publishing of your first book?

A. I had a big launch party, complete with a cake shaped like a book, balloons, champagne, and book sales of course! About thirty-five people came to my home. It was an exciting, wonderful day.

Q. Do you see the ‘writing germs’ in any of your family members?

A. Interestingly, two of my adult daughters are writers, and they were writing before me, so they were part of my inspiration to write. One writes screenplays and poetry, the other writes poetry, short stories, a novel, and teaches at a small local university. My third daughter has written songs in the past. So, the writing gene is with all of us.

Q. How critical are you in your evaluation when you are reviewing someone’s work?

A.It depends on the purpose. If someone is paying me, or I volunteered to edit their book, I will be quite critical. They want the critique at that point, and I wouldn’t be fair to them if I didn’t share honestly (but kindly) what I really think.
But if I’m writing a review on a website for a published book, I am a little easier. If I can’t give the book at least three out of five stars, I don’t write a review. For three to five stars, I say as much positive as I can, and keep the criticism succinct and gentle. After all, the book’s already out there, as opposed to when the writer is still working on the book.
And, let’s be honest, I don’t want to unduly upset the writer, since perhaps he or she may someday review my book.

Q. All books say that all the characters in the book aren’t real or related, but are they really all fictional and made up?

A.I can only speak for myself here. I get some ideas for my characters from real people, but I make up their history and their personalities. Once in awhile, I hear a great quote that finds its way into my book, although not usually spoken by a character based on the real person who said it. For example, in Another Ocean to Cross, my main character, Renata, is talking with her flighty new sister-in-law, Catherine, about whether or not Catherine would consider moving to war-torn England to follow the man she has her eye on. Catherine’s response is, “well not right now, with all the bombs and death and stuff…” which paraphrases a quote from a well-known celebrity’s reaction to seeing starving children in Africa.
Another strategy I used to get to know my characters is to journal in their voices. I write as though they are speaking to me, telling me about their lives, ambitions, worries, etc. Many writers use this technique, and it is quite surprising, sometimes, what my characters say.

Q. What other genres do you enjoy reading?

A. I enjoy a good thriller, and good women’s fiction. Sometimes I read fantasy or sci-fi, but not often.

Q. Can you tell us about your current projects?

A.Yes, happy to. My next book is set in the 1880s to 1910. It’s about a young boy and his sister, who are separated from each other and from their impoverished birth family, shipped to Canada, where the boy becomes an indentured servant to an abusive farmer, and the girl is adopted by a family. When they reach adulthood, they set out to find each other. If you read the book, Orphan Train, it is something similar.

Q. Did you ever change sentences more than five times just because it didn’t hit the right notes?

A. Oh yes, all the time. This is a notorious writer thing.

Q. Did you have a lot of differences with your editors in the beginning while you were still becoming used to getting your work edited?

A. I decided heading into work with an editor, that I needed to keep a very open mind about whatever she might say, and I’m glad I did, because I learned so much. As a result, my book is far better than the drafts she struggled through.
When I realized I would have to do a serious revision of the entire book, I took a break. Three months later, I said to myself, “I can do this. I’m ready.” And I did.


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