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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Finding Your Historical Niche: Author Interview with A.L. Sowards

You’ve been one busy lady in publishing 4 books since 2012. Are you that quick a writer or were these novels started a long time ago? How and when did you decide to write your first novel?
I started my first book (published as Espionage) in high school. My high school English class was assigned a creative project, so I wrote a short story. I’d always wanted to be an author, and the main character from that story stuck around in my head and I thought of more adventures for him. When I finished college and had more free time, I turned the short story into the first chapter of full-length novel. That first book took a while to write (two years for an initial draft then another few years of editing). Since then, I’ve written about a book a year.

Why did you choose WWII as your historical setting? What type of research do you do to keep your story true to the time frame?
I’ve been interested in WWII for a long time. In sixth grade we did a special unit on WWII and I’ve been hooked ever since. It helped that some of my favorite authors (Alistair MacLean and Jack Higgins) frequently wrote WWII novels.

How do you go about doing research for your historical fiction? Have you personally traveled to Europe to do any research?
Most of my research is through reading—a lot of reading. I haven’t been to Europe yet (unless you count the Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris during a layover), but I certainly wouldn’t discourage any aspiring authors who want to check out the location of their story in person. Good historical fiction requires extensive research.

What advice would you give authors in doing research for historical fiction?
My advice to other authors: you don’t have to know everything about a specific time period, but make sure you’re checked everything that ends up in your story. It only takes one error to lose a reader. Information from places like Wikipedia and History Channel documentaries can be fun places to start, but they shouldn’t be your only source.

How much “artistic license” do you use in creating locations for your stories?
My books are fiction, but I try to keep “big-picture” items accurate, especially locations. Most often, smaller locations, such as a character’s house, are made up. In The Rules in Rome, I give the true address for Gestapo headquarters in Rome, and most of the descriptions for that building (the exterior paint color and barbed wire barriers) are from research. Same with famous landmarks and battle sites.

On the other hand, Ottavia’s apartment, Gracie’s flat, and Bastien’s hotel room aren’t based on a real building (although Bastien’s hotel is located on the Via Veneto because during that time, a lot of German officers were billeted in hotels on the Via Veneto).

I have taken a bit of artistic license with spelling. For example, I use Romania and Yugoslavia instead of Rumania and Jugoslavia, even though the latter were more common among English speakers in WWII.

Give me an example of a difficult plot line that you needed to research?
In Deadly Alliance, I have a character in a prison camp on an island in the Adriatic. The first source I found (and the one that brought the camp to my attention) stated the camp was on the island of Vis. I looked and looked for a different source and couldn’t find anything else about the camp on Vis. I finally found a book that clarified that the camp was on Bisevo, a smaller island off the coast of Vis. Vis had an airstrip. Bisevo didn’t. Not having an airstrip near the camp meant I had to change a few things in my story, but it was worth it to make the novel into something that could have really happened.

Have your readers ever complained that your descriptions of areas aren’t correct or don't fit?
Like most authors, I have had a few bad reviews, but I haven’t seen any that complain about my description of the location. I normally read all reviews, even the bad ones, but I never reply to the bad ones—readers are entitled to their opinions. Some negative reviews are a result of a bad fit as far as my books and the reader’s genre preferences. But when reviewers point out legitimate weaknesses in my writing, I just try to do better with the next book.

How did you go about finding a publisher? Did you pitch agents?
I pitched to a few agents without success. My current publisher is a smaller company called Covenant, and they’re open to authors without agents. I followed the submission guidelines on their website and made a few changes to my initial manuscript based on their feedback before the novel was officially accepted.

Who encouraged you along the way?
My husband has been great with letting me chase my dream. I had a first draft of Espionage done before we began dating, so he kind of knew what he was getting into, but I’m sure he’s been surprised a few times on this journey. My siblings and parents have been supportive too. My earliest fan was probably one of my sisters. She’s taken French and German classes and she helped brainstorm character names for me. Plus, she’s read all of my books at least once before they were published. She had a master’s degree in military history, so she’s a useful test reader.

Are you active in any writing groups?
I am involved in a writer’s group and I trade manuscript evaluations with other writers and get input from test readers. Their feedback is incredibly helpful. I highly recommend getting thoughtful feedback from careful readers before looking for an agent or turning a manuscript over to a publisher.

What type of publicity do you do to promote your book? What has worked best for you in generating sales?
I normally have bloggers review my books (sometimes as part of a blog tour), but ultimately, most of my sales come from people walking into bookstores and buying my book there. My publisher focuses on books for the LDS/Christian market and they have good distribution in stores that cater to that same audience. Since my publisher handles most of the publicity, I probably can’t give you as good an answer as an Indy author could.

What do you know now about writing/publishing now that you wished you had known sooner?
I think it’s common for new authors to want and expect everyone to like their story. But I realize more and more the importance of writing to a specific market and then trying to get them to buy your book. If you want to write romance, don’t worry about attracting readers who just like mysteries. A lot of readers enjoy many types of books, but don’t expect universal cross-over.

I wish I would have known more about the typical sales pattern for series. Normally, each subsequent book in a series sales only 50-75% of the previous volume. Of course, 50-75% of a bestseller is still pretty great, but it’s important to realize that for the most part, you’re limiting your audience to people who have read your previous book. That’s true even if you write them so readers can pick any of the books up and read them as stand-alone novels, like I did. Going back in time, I probably wouldn’t have started out with a trilogy (Espionage, Sworn Enemy, and Deadly Alliance).

What advice would you give new writers who want to write historical fiction?
Develop at least a small obsession with the time period (or periods) you want to focus on. Try to interact with other people who are knowledgeable about that time. For me, I’m part of the Goodreads WWII readers group and I get great tips from the other members. Seeing how knowledgeable the other members are is good motivation for me to be accurate.

If you're a history buff and like reading about the WWII era, here's some links to learn more about A.L Sowards books and her future writing.

facebook page:
goodreads page:

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