Welcome to the ninety-first of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, directors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with non-fiction and western historical romance author Velda Brotherton. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate the author further. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here.
Morgen: Hello, Velda. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Velda: It all began in earnest in 1983 when I decided to write a novel. Just like that. Well, not really, I’d been writing for newspapers for a while, mostly small stuff, but one rainy Sunday day, I picked up a notebook and began to write some of my feelings and thoughts. Once the beast bit, it hung on tenaciously, sort of like a snapping turtle. Just wouldn’t let go.
Velda: I wrote three novels after purchasing a small electric typewriter from Sears. Moving to a word processor helped immensely and I turned out more. In 1990 I was hired as a feature writer for a local newspaper, and four years later my first two books were published. Not at all as easy as it sounds, but you don’t have a lot of room here for all that.
Morgen: It doesn’t sound all that easy. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Velda: After writing whatever came to mind, my work did a U turn into western historical romance. I continued in that genre for a while because I was selling the books to publishers. Since the collapse of the mid-list market, I’ve written a lot of regional historical nonfiction including a biography that was a finalist in the WILLA Literary Awards in 2008. Recently, because of the E Book phenom, I returned to the romance genre and have dabbled a bit in paranormal and horror for the fun of it. Seems I like scaring myself.
Morgen: And hopefully other people. What have you had published to-date? If applicable, can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Velda: Let’s see. There were six western historical romances written under the pseudonym of Elizabeth Gregg for Topaz, a now defunct line with Penguin. In the interim I also had several local historical nonfiction books published, including two that came out last year. One, if you can believe it, is a cookbook. Two E Books are under contract and a third recently came out with Kindle. If I can remember rightly, I saw my first book on the shelves of Waldenbooks at the mall in Fayetteville, Arkansas. There was no Barnes & Noble in town at that time, and now Waldenbooks is long gone. I held a booksigning there and we sold 26 books, unheard of at the time for a new writer.
Morgen: How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Velda: Because of the wide variety of subjects I write about, I’ve done more promoting of myself than of individual books. I just throw those titles in occasionally to convince people I really am a writer.
Morgen: That’s the best way, I think. Don’t swamp people with what you have but get them to take an interest in you first then say “oh by the way, did you know that I have…”. I’m hoping that’ll work for me but I’m having fun doing what I’m doing and if I sell some books along the way (when they come out – hopefully this side of Christmas) then it’ll be a wonderful bonus. It’s always lovely when you find out that someone’s read something of yours and a real thrill when they take the effort to tell you.
Velda: I do a lot of marketing when a book comes out. Last summer I spent every week traveling four counties to sell copies of my book about the history of the people of those counties. I probably did three or four appearances every week all summer. Exhausting, but quite rewarding. With E Books comes the need to do mega promoting online and that’s tough because we have to walk a tightrope between posting everywhere with helpful ideas and promoting our books.
Morgen: Exactly but it sounds like you have a healthy balance (I’d recommend to anyone no more of 90% and 10% respectively). Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Velda: The very first award I won resulted in publication of my first novel. That was a first place in a western contest at a small conference here in Arkansas. Eventually that western went on to become a romance because it had a woman protagonist and it was my first book published by Topaz. The most important award, was a finalist in the WILLA Literary Awards. The best result of that was acquiring a publisher for my next book. I didn’t see a jump in sales though.
Morgen: I think it’s pot luck, you just have to keep doing what you’re doing and as you say you’re enjoying it so that’s go to be worth it. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Velda: I’ve had four agents, and no, they’re not vital to an author’s success, they can get a writer more money on a contract, and make sure contracts are fair to the author, but sometimes they’re more of a hindrance than helpful. I actually sold all of my books myself, though agents did get me some foreign rights and vetted my contracts.
Morgen: That’s how I think of agents and so am going it alone for now – we shall see. Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Velda: Funny you should ask. That’s what I’m up to now. I just uploaded a book to Kindle. It’s a re-issue of one of my previously published romances. I also have two contracts with eBook publishers. Two of my print books are going to eBooks too. And yes, I have a Kindle and read eBooks a lot. I’ve found some wonderful new writers that would never have been published had it not been for this exciting new development.
Morgen: Isn’t it fantastic. What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Velda: My first was a little nonfiction essay/interview book by a small publisher. I’ve kept it in print though the publisher went out of business years ago. And it still sells rather well. It’s called Wandering In The Shadows of Time: An Ozark Odyssey. It was followed shortly afterward by a telephone call from New York, an editor at Topaz calling to tell me she wanted my book, which I’d pitched at Western Writers of America about a year earlier. I guess I didn’t react like she wanted me to. I was calmly discussing it with her and she paused and said, “Do you know who I am?” We laughed about it later. I was in shock and didn’t know how to react, but didn’t want to be unladylike and screech. Inside I was doing just that, though. It’s always a thrill to be published, and always will be, no matter how it comes about. Even the eBook route is a breathtaking experience.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Velda: I pout.
Velda: For at least an hour or two. I’ve had so many rejections I stopped counting and after I signed my first big contract, I threw them all away. It’s important to get that rejected work right out there again. Don’t doubt your abilities or start changing stuff in the hopes of making it better unless you get some positive feedback.
Morgen: I’m still counting but only because I’m still on 29. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Velda: I’m editing my second Kindle book now, the first of a three-book stand-alone series called Montana Gold. I also have three women’s fiction novels I hope to get out there within the next year or so.
Morgen: Wow that’s some going… so presumably you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Velda: Every day but Sunday except when I’m making appearances. A lot of writers keep track of how much they write at a time. I don’t. I’m happy to keep writing three or four hours at a time with a fifteen minute break in the middle. I do have a life other than writing and make sure I can enjoy time with my family and on some of my other interests.
Morgen: Life other than writing? I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean. What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Velda: I’ve never really had a full-fledged attack of writer’s block. If there’s a time when I can’t think of something to write, I usually put two of my characters in a scene and just write dialog between them until I break loose again. It doesn’t take long.
Morgen: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Velda: Just get an idea, a locale and/or a character and run with it. For me plotting kills the creative urge for that particular story. It’s as if I’ve written it and that’s the end of that.
Morgen: I’m exactly the same. I plotted for my first novel and it went out the window pretty quickly. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Velda: Research is the backbone of making characters come to life and be realistic. I pick names from a variety of places, never using the first and last name of any real character with the exception of historical figures. For a long time I used the first names of people I knew and added a last name taken from tales of the time. I once used a good friend’s unusual first name, for a young “lady of the evening.” When she found out about it she had sold more of my books than I did. Eventually I ran out of friend’s names and now use whatever I can find that I like. Historical names can come from cemeteries (again the rule don’t use the first and last name together) church membership lists, Civil War military records, etc. For Angel’s Gold, I was lucky enough to find an old telephone book from the small town where the story was set. What great names, and I used some for real characters, since they had all passed away.
Morgen: And there’s the great ‘any similarity to real persons whether living or dead is purely coincidental’. Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Velda: No rule here, it depends on what I’m writing. Sometimes I don’t even let anyone but my editor read it. Other times I’ll ask a member of our large writer’s critique group to read something over and give me an opinion. I don’t let anyone edit my work except professional editors.
Morgen: Good plan. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Velda: I do a lot of editing. My first work is usually pretty rough and needs a lot of work. It probably takes me longer to finish a book than it does most people because I do so much fiddling with it.
Morgen: What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Velda: Because most of my fiction is historical, what happens first after I decide the locale and time period, is several weeks of research until I feel as if I’ve stepped back into that setting. I check everything from clothing to housing to flora and fauna of the area. The more intense research on specific items, such as a steam engine or a rifle, etc., is left until I get into the story and see where I need stuff. I mark the ms where research is needed and keep writing. If I feel like doing some research on a particular day, rather than writing the next scene, I’ll go back to my marks and look up what I need and insert it.
Morgen: So you’re busy all the time. Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Velda: A computer. Always. It was difficult to go from typing on paper to using a computer, but once I did, you couldn’t pay me to go back and do it the other way. I’m slow enough in the creative process without adding handwriting to the mix.
Morgen: What sort of music do you listen to when you write?
Velda: Depends. I like New age by Yanni and piano music, something soothing. Never anything that I know the words to, though. I get distracted and start singing along, losing my train of thought. When I wrote Fly With the Mourning Dove I listened to an original song written and performed by Mike Blakely which I had stolen a portion of as the title for the book. With his enthusiastic okay. The song is Fly With the Mourning Dove, Fly With the Angels. A beautiful southwestern story, sung in both English and Spanish, that put me totally in the mood for writing.
Morgen: I featured a book I was reading at the time in my third novel (Nocturne by Graham Hurley) and he said it was “like seeing someone on a train reading your book, except better” which was lovely. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Velda: I prefer third person and always write in more than one POV. No, I would never write in second person or present tense either, for that matter.
Morgen: Second person doesn’t suit everyone but I love it for shorter pieces. Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Velda: Depends on the story. I have used them where needed. I don’t like them for back story, but rather for something that puts the reader in the mood for what’s to come.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Velda: Oh, sure. I have three huge plastic storage bins with manuscripts in them. Some have been published, but five or six haven’t, and probably never will be. They were my practice pieces. What it took to teach me how I wanted to write and what would work the best. I don’t worry much about them. A couple I think someday I might drag out and resurrect.
Morgen: What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Velda: Favorite is the time I spend with my characters in another world apart from the one I live in. Least favorite is the time I have to spend promoting and marketing. If I could just write and visit with my readers occasionally, I’d be happy.
Morgen: So more hours in the day on your Christmas list then. If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Velda: The people I’ve met. Fantastic writers and readers who have made this writing life so enjoyable. And that I didn’t get rich. I always thought writers were rich. Big Surprise. We aren’t.
Morgen: Some are but yes, not many. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Velda: Love it, enjoy it, and when you no longer do, stop. As long as you like what you’re doing it will shine through in your work, but when you no longer enjoy your work, the quality of your writing will fade and die.
Morgen: Absolutely, when you’re bored your reader will be bored. What do you like to read?
Velda: This is going to surprise you, but I seldom read the genres I write in.
Morgen: It doesn’t surprise me at all. It would have done until one of my writing group (a 70-something lady called ‘Anna’) told me she’s never read a word of sci-fi / fantasy and yet she writes it… amazingly. A lot of people don’t actually; some to avoid the fear of plagiarism (which is difficult to do unless you copy write or have an exceedingly good memory… which I don’t).
Velda: I know that’s contrary to all advice writers get, but I like thrillers, horror like Stephen King and Dean Koontz, suspense and mysteries by Lee Child and James Lee Burke. I couldn’t write any one of those if I tried. I seldom read romance, but don’t tell anyone. I really enjoy writing historical romance. It must be the process.
Morgen: Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Velda: The best book for any writer, no matter the genre, is Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain. It’s still available and was published by University of Oklahoma Press where he taught creative writing for many years. http://www.authorsden.com; http://www.absolutewrite.com; http://www.romancestudio.com. There are also some really good blogs for writers http://www.rockyourwriting.com; http://www.warriorwriters.wordpress.com; http://kathleenkaskawrites.blogspot.com.
Morgen: Oh brilliant. I’ve heard of Absolute Write but not the others. I’ll go and check them out when we’ve finished. In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Velda: I’m in the United States, in the wilds of the Ozarks, which can be a hindrance on occasion, but it’s so peaceful and off the beaten track that I’m seldom interrupted in my work. Because of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, 20 miles to the north, there are a lot of writers living and working in the area. Our critique group has been in business for 25 years and we currently have about 35 members, many of whom are getting published.
Morgen: Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
Velda: Yes, I’m on Facebook, LinkedIn, and recently signed on to Google+. I’m on several others where I gather good information, but these three I think are essential for social media soft sell promotion. Amazon has good forums and I’m thinking of taking part there. There’s only so much time in the day so it’s wise to pick a few, post on them at a scheduled time then get t work writing.
Morgen: Where can we find out about you and your work?
Velda: My website is http://www.veldabrotherton.com.
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Velda: We are living in times that offer the most opportunities for writers. But be very careful what you post on eBooks until you’ve had it edited and read and you’ve rewritten it till it shines. It doesn’t take but one bad book to kill a writer’s career, so make sure your best work is self-published. Times have never been better for new writers than today.
Morgen: Absolutely, hee hee. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Velda: It’s important to keep up with the trends in the publishing world. If you don’t learn all about E Books, then in a while, you’ll be behind the curve. Check out small publishers and E publishers because that’s where the excitement is today. After trying to get a book published in NY for a couple of years, I submitted it to a publisher of E Books and print and they took it immediately.
Morgen: Yay! Thank you Velda. Finally, do you have an extract of your writing to hand?
Velda: This is an excerpt from Dream Walker:
Daniel shouted himself up out of a hideous dream splashed with the gore and blood of war. Breathless he threw off the buffalo robes and scrambled outside into another day. The night terrors bled away, and he settled some, rubbed his eyes with stiff fingers, brushed back his hair, and shook himself like a great bear.
Last night’s whiskey coated his tongue with a disgusting fur. He found his canteen and drank the last of the water. The barrel on the side of the wagon needed filling as well.
If he didn’t get himself in hand he wouldn’t make it into the Indian Nation, let alone all the way to Oregon. Damn the whiskey… damn the memories.
A more recent one pricked at him. The girl in his wagon. He stood on the frame and peered in cautiously. He hadn’t forgotten her temper and didn’t want to get hit with a keg of crackers.
She lay on her stomach, tangled hair spread around her head, a streak of dried blood across the back of her torn shirt.
“That son of a bitch,” he muttered, then went to fetch some water. When he returned she was awake.
“Brought you some water and a rag. Thought we could clean that up.” He gestured toward her back.
“I am all right. Go away.”
She shot him a dark look.
He shrugged. “My place. The way it works is, I stay here, you go.”
“Inadu,” she spat out.
He knelt there looking at her, silver eyes almost opaque. She thought she saw something sorrowful deep in there, but he quickly disguised it with anger.
“If that means son of a bitch, you’re quite correct.” He slammed the pan of water down and started to back away.
“I can’t reach it,” she said in a voice softer than she had used to him so far. “Snake. It means snake.”
“Yea, well that too. You want me to wash . . . ?”
“Never mind, I will just leave. It will be all right, I am sure.”
“Oh, hell.” He moved toward her. “Turn around, take off the shirt.”
Morgen: I really liked that. Thank you Velda.
Velda is a member of Women Writing the West; Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc.; Ozark Writer’s League and is the co-chair of Northwest Arkansas Writers Workshop. She lives with her husband in a house she designed and helped build in the Ozark National Forest. They have two children, three grandchildren and a great grandchild.
Update June 2012: I’ve been quite busy since that interview and now have six back-list western historical romances on Kindle, plus an E book from Synergebooks, a paranormal titled Wolf Song, and a western romance Stone Heart’s Woman from The Wild Rose Press also available in print. I’m working on a new romance and doing a lot of promotion online.
Update January 2013: I have a book coming out Feb. 13 in print from The Wild Rose Press. It’s been out in ebook since Dec. 9 and has some great reviews on Amazon. Wilda’s Outlaw. Now I’m working on audio books. A great life.
Absolutely, Velda. I certainly wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.
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