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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

On Christmas Past and Present - A Love for Writing Christmas Stories: Author Interview with Barbara Briggs Ward

You’ve now written several Christmas themed books? What draws you to this theme?
 I love winter. To me it's the most beautiful time of the year. I've always felt there's nothing more wondrous than snow falling and a field covered in untouched snow-combine that with the feelings of home and family stirred by Christmas and the story lines, to me, are endless. When I sat down to write my first Christmas-themed book for adults I knew I wanted the story to be about real people with normal lives, going through the ups and downs we all do. I didn't want to write a fairy tale story about Christmas. 

I wanted readers to be able to identify with the characters while at the same time I wanted to weave in the absolute wonder we felt as children at that magical time of the year. I feel we all reflect back on our lives-our families at Christmas so while I wanted the story to be real, I also wanted it to  inspire. I wanted readers to think about the characters and story long after reading the book. I still love watching the original version of, "Miracle on 34th Street." I still get goose bumps when Santa's cane is discovered leaning by the fireplace.

Aren’t you concerned that your books might have a shorter life span for readers because they are holiday driven?
It never crossed my mind that my books might have a shorter life span for readers because they are holiday driven. A writer has to be true to their craft. After years of writing in various genres I believe I am meant to write Christmas-themed stories for adults. And from the response of readers, they feel that way too. I've discovered there's a huge market for this type of fiction. But that's not why I write Christmas stories. I write them because it feels right. It fits me. I love the characters. They are like family to me-and that's what Christmas is all about.

What are some of your favorite Christmas traditions?
After Christmas dinner, my family enjoyed taking part in a tradition we called, 'Table Tree Gifts.' It started on Thanksgiving. The name of each family member was written on an individual slip of paper. Each was folded and put into a ceramic Santa. After the table was cleared-and before the pies were enjoyed-a few of the younger ones would go around the table with the ceramic Santa. Everyone would pull a name. The person pulling the name was responsible for buying that person on the slip of paper a small gift. Some would tell who they'd pulled. But most would keep it a secret. The small gifts would be opened after Christmas dinner-thus the tradition of 'Table Tree Gifts.' It always brought lots of laughs. Since the family has evolved, that tradition is no longer-but the memories remain. Now we have a tradition of going to the woods for our Christmas trees-and gathering on Christmas Eve after mass-with traditional dishes.

One of your recent books, The Reindeer Keeper: Believe Again, has been “optioned” for TV or screen? What exactly does that mean?
Opted for TV or screen' means that particular agent has chosen to represent 'The Reindeer Keeper' in seeking an interested party to turn the book into a screenplay for a made-for-TV movie.

Are you close to getting a contract?
While "it" hasn't happened yet, the book is receiving valuable exposure to people I would never get in front of on my own. I've learned the value of networking. My goal was to write the best possible story I could-and to keep on writing. That's what I am doing. Anything else that might happen is a bonus.

Prior to writing your books, what was the first piece that you had published?
Back in 1976, I submitted an essay on my grandmother in response to a contest in Ladies' Home Journal seeking written submissions of women who represent the Spirit of America. Five were selected. Mine was one of them.

My first actually paid piece was a short story for children in Highlights for Children. I'd submitted it to their annual short story contest. While it didn't win the contest, they did publish it. But after that I was rejected so many times I lost count before finding a publisher interested in another one of my stories for children. I could have wallpapered a house with rejection slips.

I see you’ve been published in the Chicken Soup books. How many times did you actually submit stories to them?
Chicken Soup for the Soul is a great place to get published. The stories are short, non-fiction. To say you've been published by Chicken Soup is a plus. I've submitted material to 8 possible book topics. Two were actually published. One was in the running but cut. Two were rejected. Three are still pending. I always checking their website to see what possible titles are in the works.

Your first books were childen’s books. What drew you to writing for that genre?
I'd wanted to be a writer since I was seven years old. Once I had children, the storylines were constant. I would tell my children stories. Then I started writing them down. It felt natural to be writing for children since my audience was at my fingertips and ideas were everywhere.

How did you go about finding a publisher?
This was prior to the internet so I would do research in the library for publishers-agents-anyone I could find. I was pushing one particular story at the beginning. After getting endless rejections I decided I'd have a better chance of getting published if I could find an illustrator. So I went searching. While I found some talented artists none of what they sent me was what I imagined.

So how did you proceed from there?
My children told me I should do the illustrating. I'd never considered doing the illustrating. I never had the training nor taken any courses in illustrating. But I went back to the library and slowly did the research. It took about two years. My children were young and my time was limited. It was through trial and error of various mediums that I discovered a comfort with markers and colored pencils and another two years or so to feel comfortable illustrating. Once I got into it-I loved it. And because of my illustrating I found a publisher.

By the time that happened my oldest child was grown and living in Denver. She was exhibiting some of my artwork in a mall when it caught the attention of a gentleman whose wife had connections to a publisher in search of material for a children's division they were developing. They loved my stories and artwork. I signed a contract, starting with two picture books. But the publisher changed the focus of her company due to my first book's release paralleling the date of the tragedy of 9/11. While the two books under contract were published they were never marketed. It was all left to me as the publisher turned her focus on publishing home arts and crafts books.

You are now writing books for adults. Why the change?
While I started writing for children, way down deep inside me I felt I really wanted to write for adults. But I kept pushing that feeling away because of fear. I didn't think I'd be able to write a story that would catch a reader's attention at the beginning of a story and keep it all the way to the end. I didn't think I'd be able to make the story flow. I didn't think I'd be able to connect the dots and have it all make sense while developing characters and interesting plots.

One day-while at an event with my children's books, I met a writer of adult books who told me getting children's books published is harder than getting material for adults published so it got me thinking. And when the idea for a Christmas story involving my grandfather's old barn hit me one snowy January afternoon, the idea was so strong that I had to sit down and start writing it. All I knew was something wondrous was happening inside that barn-something that had to do with a 'reindeer keeper.' Once I got into the storyline, the characters took over and out it came.

Will you also continue to write for children?
I feel I am meant to write Christmas fiction for adults. However, I do have a Christmas story for children written and at some point, I would like to revisit it and see what happens.

How do you write? Did you do an outline first? Individual character development first?
I write without doing an outline or any character development. My characters develop as I am writing. They take over and write the story. I have the title in my head and sit down and see where that takes me. I'm often surprised when going back and reading what I wrote. A few times I've cried and have had to take a break. I become close to my characters as they develop and grow through the storyline. I react-which I consider a good thing.

I have no clue where the story will go-and that works for me. It mirrors life. You can plan and plan but often, it's all out of our control. I think that comes from being the daughter of a funeral director and hearing about so and so who died at such a young age or so and so who died so unexpectedly.

How much does social media play in your promotion of your books? 
I remember when the library was my only source of information. Now anything I want to know is at my fingertips whenever I want it. Social media has been a lifeline-an invaluable tool in promoting my books. The trick is not to spend so much time on the internet that it steals time from one's writing. There are so many sites out there for writers. You have to remain diligent in choosing the ones that can best serve your needs and watch out for those who will promote you for a fee. Make sure you know what they are offering.

What suggestions do you have for enhancing a writer’s social media platform?
Through trial and error I've learned that a well-presented website is a necessity. And the website must include a blog and you must blog as often as possible. Make sure it makes a statement as to who you are as a writer. My website used to be the name of my first Christmas story but I learned I am much more than one book title so now my website is my full name. I love Twitter-Linked In-Goodreads and I have a Facebook page for The Reindeer Keeper. Seek out websites where you can submit material. This gives you exposure as a writer. To do this you must know your target audience. I contribute monthly to boomer-living. com. My target audience is baby boomers.

What type of publicity do you do to promote your book?
I use Goodreads Giveaways to promote my books. I use Twitter and Linked In. I seek out similar works and see who has reviewed them-and then seek those reviewers out for my books. I buy ads on sites that reach my target audience. I also place ads in actual physical publications and do online radio shows and have a video book trailer produced and up online anywhere I can post it. I keep my Amazon Author Central page up-to-date and make sure my books are available on all electronic mediums.

What do you know now about writing, that you wished you had known sooner?
I was so naïve. All I knew was that I wanted to write. It's been a learning process. I wish I'd had more confidence in my abilities and listened to my gut and dared to sit down and write what I felt way down deep inside me. But I'm a believer in the process so I feel I am where I am supposed to be at the moment.

What is the best advice you’re been given about writing?
Listen to that voice inside you. The best advice I can pass on is less is best when writing. Keep your writing clean and concise and enjoy the journey.

Looking for some fun Christmas reads? Try one or two from Barbara.

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