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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Craft of Writing Historical Fiction: Author Interview with Susan F. Croft

What drew you to the idea of writing fiction?
I retired last October, I wrote professionally for over 45 years. Granted, some of it was, I told myself at the time, not what I really wanted to be writing—articles for agency publications, informational materials, speeches for the agency director. It was “my day job” that I couldn’t quit because I couldn’t get anyone interested in my novels.

Over the years, I realized that any writing hones your craft—the thought processes required to come up with an idea; the utilization of resources to research thoroughly; the time to learn correct grammar and spelling; the willingness to learn from the masters; the discipline to sit in the chair and work; the development of thick skin in order to learn from, and not resent, criticism; the humility that comes with rejection; and the absolute joy that comes when someone really likes what you’ve written and says those magic words, “I couldn’t put it down.”

What attracted you to writing historical suspense?
I’m a history nerd and love, love, love to immerse myself in it. I think I fell in love with the Revolutionary War era because of my seventh grade South Carolina History teacher, Ms. Lucia Daniel, who brought to life for me the famous Brigadier General Francis Marion.

Why the American Revolution as your topic?
Not many people know that more Revolutionary War battles occurred in South Carolina than in any other colony. Of course, the battles were more a civil war between Patriots and Tories – neighbor against neighbor. But, don’t get me started!

Was there a specific author that you read that made you think ”I could write that’?
As for a specific author, I read Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace when I was 14. I still remember the breath-taking feeling of being transported back in time.

What type of research do you do in writing something with a historical base?
I insist that the historical facts in my novels be right. I do extensive research and travel to the locations of my novels to absorb, to breathe in, everything I can: sights, sounds, smells. Thank goodness my husband navigates us, because I have no sense of direction and can get lost in my driveway.

Tell me about your on-site research process.
Our most fun trip was one we took to the North Carolina Outer Banks to research for my books—Laurel and its sequel, Cassia. In Laurel, which takes place in 1783, my characters are shipwrecked on Diamond Shoals (the Graveyard of the Atlantic). Cassia, which takes place in 1799, has pirates.

Between the two books, I knew I needed to learn more about the ships that sailed at that time, some of the nautical terms and seafaring jargon. In Beaufort, NC, I found a gem of a resource in the Maritime Museum where I spent hours in the library that still uses a card catalogue system (at my age, I felt right at home).

I learned about the wild ponies that have roamed Ocracoke Island for hundreds of years and I became fascinated by the pirate lore of the area... A local restaurant owner pointed out an area for us to visit that still looks the same today as it did in the late 1700s. Locals have turned out to be some of my priceless resources.

Have you ever had reader complaints that your descriptions of areas aren’t correct?
I guess that, because I take such care to be authentic, I’ve never had anyone complain about my descriptions. For me, thank goodness, it’s been the opposite; people letting me know how my books have picked them up and plunked them into places that felt very real to them.

Do you take an "artistic license" in your story telling?A funny story--in my novel The Chamomile, I did make up a place, a Cherokee Indian village hidden in valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I also made up a fairly unique way of getting there—via canoe through a hidden cave in the mountains. My editor was so excited after reading about it she wanted to know where it was. When I told her I had made it up, she was so disappointed. She told me I’d have to explain at the end of the book that the place isn’t real, to keep my readers from running all over the mountains and stopping locals to ask where the hidden cave is! If you look in the back of The Chamomile, the disclaimer is there.
Who helped you with your research?
I’d like to put in a good word for the SC Archives and History Department. One of their archivists, Marion Chandler, is my go-to person. He answers all my questions that run the gamut from “Greek landowners in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the late 1700s,” to “which colonies taxed men—and how much—for being bachelors.” He also read each of my novels for historical accuracy.

When did you publish your first book?
In 2006, I self-published my first novel, A Perfect Tempest, because I wasn’t patient enough after five rejections and I wanted to hurry up and hold the finished product in my hands.

Note to writers – persevere, hang in there. Although self-publishing doesn’t carry the same stigma it did years ago, take your time and try many, many publishers before self-publishing. It’s really tough to get your books “out there” unless you’re a marketing specialist or are willing to learn the marketing business, or if you’ve already established yourself as an author. (Self-publishers, please, don’t hate me.)

So the next book you went the traditional route?
Yes. In 2010, I pitched my first traditionally published book, The Chamomile, to Ingalls Publishing Group and was thrilled when they gave me a contract. Sadly four years later, the owner of Ingalls passed away, and the company dissolved.

What did you do after that?I decided that I needed an agent and queried several before my agent extraordinaire, Linda S. Glaz of Hartline Literary Agency, took me on.

How did you go about finding your current publisher?
Two years ago, I met my current publisher, Eddie Jones of Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, at a meeting of the SC Chapter of the American Christian Fiction Writers. I pitched my second novel, Laurel, to him. He liked it and asked that I send him the entire manuscript. (These are magic words to aspiring authors.) In the meantime, I was putting the finishing touches on Cassia, the third novel in the Xanthakos Family Trilogy. Eddie gave me a contract for both books, and, best news of all, he negotiated a contract for The Chamomile and re-released it this past April.

 You've been honored with a "Best Book" award from SIBA. Could you give me the details of how you were chosen and what it means?
The Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance is a group of people who own independent book stores in about 15 states. They are the “mom and pop” bookstores in your neighborhood. Each quarter, they select a handful of books to honor as “Okra Picks,” the best books of the season.

Fran Bush, owner of Booklovers Bookstore in Aiken, SC, read The Chamomile and loved it enough to nominate it for an Okra Pick. It won, and I was invited to be on a panel at their annual meeting. I was given opportunities to network with the bookstore owners, many of whom bought “baseball card” type cards of The Chamomile and displayed them in their stores. It’s quite an honor, as SIBA people are voracious readers and love to sell and acknowledge good writing.

How long did it take you to write The Chamomile? It took me three years, most of it researching, to write The Chamomile. I worked fulltime and took care of my family which comprised of a husband who travelled for his job, two children, and my mom, who lived with us. Sometimes, I wouldn’t get started writing until 11 p.m. and would write until one or two in the morning. It wasn’t easy, and I’m not telling you this because I want a pat on the back, but to say that you have to have such a passion for writing that you’re willing to overcome any obstacle to do it including lack of sleep. 

It took me a year each for Laurel and Cassia, mostly because I had already done the research and had established and knew and loved the characters as if they were my family.

I’m hoping, now that I’ve retired, that it won’t take me as long to write a book.

How do you write? Did you do an outline first? Did you do individual character development before doing the full plot?
I always establish a timeline outline of significant events that occur during my novels to keep me grounded in time and to give me ideas for the current events my characters might be involved in or have conversations about. This is the basic backbone around which I build the “flesh” of my books. I always know how my books will end, but my characters will surprise me by taking me on journeys and scurrying through rabbit warrens of subplots.

As for characters, for the major ones I create an entire life—description; favorite food, color, song, and Bible verse; heritage and family background; quirks; habits. Sometimes I’ll find a picture of an actor or someone from a magazine and post it on my bulletin board as a guide when I’m writing about that particular character.

Are there any books that you've put away?
I’ve written six books, two that are so awful they’ll never see the light of day.

What do you know now about writing/publishing now that you wished you had known sooner?
With the really big publishing houses (and some smaller ones) it’s not only about the quality of the writing anymore. It’s about marketing and if your book can be sold to a large audience. It’s about your “platform” – the number of social media you are active on, the number of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and LinkedIn friends and followers you have.

What type of publicity do you do to promote your book?
Unless you have a well-known name, which I don’t, signings at large chain bookstores don’t work well anymore. My publisher, Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, is great about finding advertising venues for their authors. I’m active on my social media sites, and I participate in blog interviews such as this one.

 What has worked best for you in generating sales?
As for generating sales, my talks/presentations to groups such as chapters of Daughters of the American Revolution are the most successful. I also enjoy meeting with small book clubs. The settings are more intimate and give me an opportunity to really talk to people who have read my books and are eager to ask questions about them.

What other books do you have in the works?
I’m in the last stages of researching The Great Wagon Road, a trail that spanned from Philadelphia, PA, to Savannah, GA, which many immigrants from Europe took and then settled in the Southeast. I want to write a series of “journeys” down that road.

What is the best advice you’ve been given about writing or that you’ve learned that you would like to pass along?
There are many things aspiring authors can do while they are persisting:
• Join a critique group, preferably with people who write in your genre. (Or find a critique partner.)

• Attend as many writers’ conference and workshops as you can. They can get expensive, so check them out for those that sound helpful to you and your level of writing. Most conferences offer 10 to 15-minute face-to-face meetings with publishers and/or agents. The networking is invaluable.

• Read – a lot, especially the great writers. You’ll soon come to recognize what excellent writing is.

• Enter writing contests; sometimes you get tremendous feedback from judges and you get name recognition, awards, and rewards if you win or place.

• Volunteer to work at your local Book Festivals. They are the ones who will invite you to speak once you’ve been published. You’ll meet some fine people and network with published authors who usually have good advice.

• Then there’s the responsibility of building your “platform”: creating a website; creating and consistently posting on a blog; regularly contributing to other blogs; having a presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. For example, on my Pinterest boards, I posted a picture of the dress and veil my character, Lilyan Xanthakos, would have worn at her wedding in 1780.

Are there any closing notes you’d like to add?
Many famous authors persisted in the face of rejections. Here are a few examples:

 F. Scott Fitzgerald once received a rejection letter for The Great Gatsby that read: "You'd have a decent book if you'd get rid of that Gatsby character."

Jack London’s estate “House of Happy Walls” has a collection of nearly 600 rejection letters from his early years.

Zane Grey had difficulties getting his first novel, Betty Zane (1903) published. When it was rejected by Harper & Brothers, he lapsed into despair. He finally self-published it.

Beatrix Potter sent her manuscript to six publishers, but was rejected by all of them. In September 1901, she decided to self-publish and distributed 250 copies of a renamed The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

Little Women would never have seen the light of day if Louisa May Alcott let rejection hold her back. The editor of Boston’s The Atlantic magazine, James T. Fields, told Alcott’s father, “Tell Louisa to stick to her teaching; she can never succeed as a writer.”

If writing is your passion, it will bring you joy in the doing of it. So, please, keep on keeping on dear friends.

Thank you so much for your time and your tips. If you'd like to learn more about Susan's writing an her upcoming books, here's how to do that.       (Colonial Quills, contributor) (Stitches Thru Time, contributor) (Heroes, Heroines and History, contributor) 

1 comment:

  1. Great interview! I love to see a writer of historical fiction so dedicated to factual content.