A common misconception entwined with authors is that they are socially inept, how true is that?
It’s an interesting conception, but in my experience, it’s not accurate. I’m on the board of a writers’ guild and we have between 40-60 attendees at each of our meetings. Although there are a few quirky members, most are just regular people with all the foibles and positive attributes you’d find in any other population.
What makes this particular genre you are involved in so special?
I mostly write Women’s Fiction. I find it a privilege to portray women in unique ways that push against stereotypes.
How important is research to you when writing a book? How realistic are your books?
Other than a couple of fantasy short stories, I usually write contemporary settings. In my first novel, The Art of Healing, I used St. Louis and the surrounding area, as well as Estes Park, Colorado for my settings. Every St. Louis area location, with the exception of one, is an actual real place. Many I’ve been to at least once, but some I had to research. If I use a real setting, I want it to be completely accurate. And if I make up a setting, I want readers to believe it’s real.
In my current work in progress, The Things We Do Not Speak Of, I’m using a fictional town in South Carolina. Even though I’ve made up the town, I made sure that were I located it was a place where some of the scenes could have conceivably taken place. For instance, some of the characters are rock climbers, so I made sure the topography where I dropped this little town could support that.
Do you think writers have a normal life like others?
All the writers I know have pretty normal lives. I would imagine, for those who become famous, there might be aspects of their lives that are less than normal. But really, writing is about BIC (Butt In Chair) and you can’t get more normal than that.
Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea takes you?
I write character-driven fiction. I don’t plot it all out before I start. I usually get a spark of an idea and run with it. In my current WIP, that flash was of the pastor’s son going missing. When I asked what happened, a 14 year old Somali Muslim refugee began to tell me her story. Almost instantly I got chills when she revealed how the two seemingly unrelated stories were connected.
Do you read much and if so who are your favorite authors?
I don’t believe one can be a great writer without reading, and reading a lot. I am always reading one physical fiction book and listening to an audio book. And I’m also usually reading at least one, if not more, non-fiction books.
I will read anything by Jodi Picoult (Small Great Things is a MUST read), Lisa Scottoline, Liane Moriarty, and Joyce Maynard. These women are all amazing story tellers and someone wanting to write Women’s Fiction would do well to study them.
I also read across a wide variety of Indie authors and am constantly adding new favs. Just in the last few months I’ve added Katie O’Rourke (see my interview with her at: https://jeannefelfe.com/2018/08/14/chat-with-katie-orourke/; Camille Faye, Tricia Sanders, and Jean Gill.
Over the years, what would you say has improved significantly in your writing?
It’s almost laughable how much I’ve improved. I have a stack of story starts going back decades. When I look at some of those now, I cringe. Then I get over it and acknowledge how far I’ve come. And I’m always learning.
Do you proofread and edit your work on your own or pay someone to do it for you?
Yes. I’ve heard of (and frankly read some) authors who claim they can publish without needing an editor. I’ve yet to read one of those where that was a true statement. ALL writers need an editor—the eye of someone else who can provide feedback outside the cloistered environment of one’s own mind.
But for me, there are many eyes on my manuscripts long before I ever get to the professional editor stage. I belong to two in-person novel critique groups, and one online group. The men and women in these groups help me create exceptional work. I can’t imagine writing without that community.
Have you ever left any of your books stew for months on end or even a year?
As a matter of fact, my first novel began its life as a short story for a Writer’s Digest contest in 2003. Although it haunted me and wanted to be a novel, I didn’t pick it up again until 2013, when I was introduced to Camp Nanowrimo.
What is the most important thing about a book in your opinion?
Although I do read some books just for fun (Cozy Mysteries for instance) I usually want to walk away from reading changed in some way. I want to be touched down to the depth of my soul. If an author can do that for me, I am a fan for life.
What is your take on the importance of a good cover and title? Do you believe a book cover plays an important role in the selling process?
I am a cover snob. There I said it. If I am unfamiliar with an author, my first impression of their work is their cover. If it doesn’t look professional, I most likely won’t even read the description.
Do you read and reply to the reviews and comments of your readers?
I know many authors don’t read them, but I’m still new enough that each one is special to me, and I read them all. I only rarely reply to them.
Any advice you would like to give to your younger self?
Sit down and write. And then sit down and write some more. Don’t wait.
Any advice you would like to give to aspiring writers?
Join a local writers group of some kind. Being part of a writing community is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. If there aren’t any close to you, start one; there are most likely other writers close by who also need one.
Read. Deeply and widely. What that means is to read a lot in the genre you want to write in, but also in other genres. Read big names and unknowns.
What did you want to become when you were a kid?
A veterinarian. That plan didn’t work out so well since I am quite allergic to cats and some dogs.
Did you ever think you would be unable to finish your first novel?
Yes, every time I sat down to write. It’s better now that I know I can finish one.
Do your novels carry a message?
Good question. I don’t intentionally put messages in them, but sometimes one appears.
How much of yourself do you put into your books? Do you often project your own habits onto your characters?
Perhaps a little of me—odd quirks and, of course, my curly hair. But I don’t generally write characters who are me. I am a watcher of human nature and therefore listen to others (ok, so I eavesdrop), and watch their little mannerisms. I often take those from multiple people and combine them into one character. Years ago I knew someone who ended every sentence with the word “so”, and there is a minor character in The Art of Healing who does that. He’s genuinely annoying.
Is there anything you are currently working on that may intrigue the interest of your readers?
My current WIP, The Things We Do Not Speak Of, contains many “ism’s” combined into the story of 14 year old Cadey Farmer, a Somali Muslim refugee living in (fictional) Savannah Falls, South Carolina. It’s written in Cadey’s first person POV, with alternating 3rd person POVs from several other major characters. After living in the Atlanta for six years, her family moves to this small, Southern Baptist town. Cadey makes a decision that changes not only her life, but the lives of many others in this town. In the end, the town undergoes a radical change.
It’s a little scary writing this story since Cadey is black, a Muslim, and a refugee—none of which describe me. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’m misappropriating the culture of someone else, but Cadey came to me, to my imagination. She doesn’t exist anywhere except in my thoughts until I put her on paper. Therefore, it is my story to tell and, in reality, much of fiction is just that—telling a story about people and situations unlike ourselves. This story is also the story of the mayor’s family, the pastor’s family, and the culture of the town itself. I recently read Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult about a black nurse, a white defender, and a white supremist. In her author’s notes, she addresses how she, a white woman, can write about racism. I admire the depth of her research into those unlike herself and strive to do the same justice to this story.
I’m also working on another novel with the working title of Beyond The Mist. This main character told me her name while I was in Africa during the summer of 2017. But she refused to tell me what the story was until two weeks after I returned. This one is still in its infancy, but it involves something I did on my trip. While in Rwanda, I went gorilla trekking up into the five volcanoes area. The story isn’t about trekking, but it does involve these magnificent mountain gorillas who cannot survive in zoos. If you’ve never trekked in this region (Rwanda, Uganda, The Congo) you’ve never seen one. The story is currently on hold while I try to finish The Things.
Another misconception is that all writers are independently wealthy, how true is that?
Hang on a second while I clean the tea I spewed onto my keyboard from laughing so hard. I wish it wasn’t a misconception, but the vast majority of authors don’t make a living at it. They still need jobs (or a spouse) to pay their bills. I waited until retiring from a corporate job to write full time and because I made some wise financial choices along the way, am not dependent on writing for an income. While I would love to make a living at it, I’m not there yet.
The moral of that story—don’t wait to start writing. Just start if it’s something you’re passionate about. The sooner the better. There will never be a perfect time.
Is it true that authors write word-perfect first drafts? What advice would you like to give writers who are struggling with their first novels?
Totally false. 99.9% unequivocally false. Most first drafts are totally garbage. Even an author as big as Steven King will tell you that. Now, is it possible that his first drafts don’t suck as much now as they did in the beginning? Absolutely. But when you’re starting out, the best thing you can do is to allow yourself to write totally drivel. The true magic happens in the editing, where you can fine-tune. The other advice I would give is one I’ve already mentioned—find a writing community and get feedback. Be willing to put your work out there to a few trusted critique partners and be willing to hear what they have to say.
Do you reply back to your fans and admirers personally?
Absolutely. It’s all me—no assistant (although I’d love to have one do all my marketing). I’m tickled every time a reader reaches out to me and I reply to each and every one. That’s a lesson I learned from Lisa Scottoline when I went to one of her book signings. There were hundreds of people present, yet she made each and every person feel as if they were the most important person in the room in the few minutes or seconds she spent with them. Authors are nothing without our readers and it’s my goal to treat them that way.
Have you ever marketed your own books yourself?
You mean there’s another way? Unfortunately, it isn’t true that if you write it, the readers will come. They won’t unless you have some way to let them know you exist. Every big authors do a huge amount of their own marketing (or they make enough they can hire an assistant.)
Do you believe it is more challenging to write about beliefs that conflict with the ones you hold yourself?
Being a Libra is going to show in this answer. I strive to be open-minded and I hold my own beliefs as I would a tiny bird—very loosely and gently. They are, after all, only my beliefs, and as such, have remained fluid and ever-changing. I’ve learned to see the world through the eyes of others. To attempt to understand why someone believes the way they do. When I encounter a situation that challenges my beliefs, I ask myself why. My current WIP will challenge a lot of beliefs—my own, as well as, hopefully, those of my readers.
Have you ever taken any help from other writers?
Taken and given. No one writes in a vacuum. It truly does take a village for most writers to produce something worth the time to read.
Are you a member of any writing organizations?
I’m nearing the end of my 2nd year as the Secretary for Saturday Writers, a chapter of The Missouri Writers Guild, located in St. Peters, Missouri. I am also the Membership Chair and Speaker Chair. One of my jobs is to find speakers for our nine regular monthly meetings, as well as presenters for our October Workshops. To be effective, I’ve had to reach out and connect with a wide variety of authors in and near the St. Louis area. I’ve even managed to bring in a speaker from New York, which was quite a coup. I also locate judges for our prose and poetry contests from all across the country, and even one from Canada. I’m always in search of qualified judges, so if anyone is interested, please email me at Jeanne.F@saturdaywriters.org.
I also served for one year as the Secretary of The Missouri Writers Guild.
What do you do in your free time?
I read and watch movies. In the spring, I am busy planting banana corms and elephant ears, along with canna lily bulbs. I’m constantly trying to grow tropical plants in the Midwest and am quite successful at it. I also like to play with my two dogs who think they are tiny humans.
What other genres do you enjoy reading?
I read a lot across many genres—pretty much anything except for horror and erotica. Horror because it gives me nightmares. Erotica, not because I have anything against it, it’s just not my thing.
I prefer love stories over pure romance because I don’t like predictable endings. I love a fantasy (I love dragons, but don’t give a flip about paranormal elements like vampires, werewolves, etc.), sci-fi, westerns, rom-coms, historical, literary (OMG – All The Light We Cannot See is a must read), YA, Suspense, Thrillers, etc, etc. There’s so much out there to choose from. Surprise me.
If you’re writing about a city/country/culture you haven’t physically visited, how much research do you conduct before you start writing?
Considering I’m writing a main character who is a Muslim from Somalia, I have to do a lot of research. I love learning about new cultures, so the research is fun. Although I’ve been to East Africa (Tanzania and Rwanda) I’ve never been to Somalia. The hardest part is learning the cadence of my characters for whom English is not a first language. Trying to capture that without sounding weird is a bit of a challenge.