Welcome to the two hundred and eleventh of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with historical mystery, suspense, fantasy and short story author Nancy Adams. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate the author further.
Morgen: Hello, Nancy. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Nancy: I’ve always been an avid reader. One of my few pre-literate memories is of scribbling with crayons on a big piece of paper, pretending to “write,” and later on, in grade school I wrote and illustrated a little mystery called “The Creepy Paw.” The main character was a cat and I suppose the mystery genre was inspired by Nancy Drew. But writing fell by the wayside as I went through high school and college, where I concentrated on music. It wasn’t until years later that follow-up reading to a course in theology introduced me to the world of late antiquity, and I found that I wanted to write fiction about the historical characters and environment of fourth-century Rome. That turned into a historical mystery that I’m hoping will eventually be published. During this period I found a wonderfully supportive group, the Guppies, which is an online chapter of the mystery organization Sisters in Crime. “Guppies” stand for “Great Unpublished,” although many members since have gone on to successful publication and have stayed around to pass on their wisdom to the rest of us. It’s a very giving group, and it was through them that my short story “The Secret of the Red Mullet,” which features younger versions of my Roman characters, was published in the first Guppy anthology.
Morgen: The Guppies have been mentioned here before and do sound wonderful. 🙂 You’ve mentioned mystery and historical, what genre do you generally write?
Nancy: Mystery and fantasy are my favorite types of reading, so I gravitate naturally to those genres. Fantasy isn’t something that comes easily to me as a writer, so I am delighted whenever an idea for something in that genre comes along. My Christmas story, “Saint Nick and the Fir Tree”, is a bit of a mix, with Saint Nick and the talking Tree as fantasy elements, obviously, but there’s a little bit of mystery and suspense at the end.
Morgen: It sounds (and looks) delightful. 🙂 How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Nancy: I’m still pretty new to this. The Guppy anthology, FISH TALES, came out last March and “St. Nick” has only been available for a week or so. I work full-time as a librarian to pay the bills, so all of my promotional endeavors thus far are online. The lists for Guppies and Sisters in Crime are a good way to get out the word and I have also become active on Twitter and Goodreads. By the time this interview comes out, I should (if all goes according to plan), have a Facebook page up as well featuring the story’s Fir Tree. I also put up a website on WordPress, which was great fun to do, though it had its moments of frustration. But it’s a great feeling to be able to manage the website myself and I enjoy the graphic aspect; it’s creative but also very different from working with words, so it makes a nice change.
Morgen: WordPress is great, I’d heartily recommend to anyone. Like anything the technology takes a bit of getting used to but trial and error (rejections) is how we learn. 🙂 What are you working on at the moment / next?
Nancy: I have several irons in the fire. At the moment I’m revising a stand-alone historical mystery that takes place in the 7th century during Byzantium’s iconoclastic crisis, a time when the emperor banned icons and icon making. My main character is an icon painter who flees to a monastery near Jerusalem, in Muslim-held territory beyond the emperor’s control. There he meets an old rival and murder ensues. I’m pleased with the way the plot’s turned out (plotting is very difficult for me), but I want to add several layers to the story, to make it about the painter’s personal journey as well as the murder plot, and it’s not always easy to meet my own expectations, so the rewriting is going more slowly than I would like. I also have an urban fantasy / suspense novel set in modern-day Paris in the works, but it’s still in the very early stages and I need to do more background reading to fuel the fantasy part of it. I was very excited when the initial idea came to me, but as with any novel I’ve written, the middle is the hardest part of the first draft to plot and write. Plus, I have a completed draft of the sequel to my Roman novel, also in need of revision. So there are plenty of choices when I sit down to write! It’s great to have all these ideas, but there are days when I also feel rather scattered.
Morgen: Very ambitious plots you have there (no wonder you find it hard, you certainly aim high). 🙂 Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Nancy: I commute to work by train, so I try to write every morning, mostly revising what I’ve written over the weekend. That said, there are times when I simply need to take a break for a few weeks and then come back fresh. It’s challenging, trying to work it in around the full-time job and other necessities of life. I’ve also started freelance editing during the past year and I find that really spills over into my work as a writer, enabling me to self-edit more effectively. So even during the breaks I take from writing, I’m still usually working on something for a client, which keeps my writing skills fresh.
Morgen: Absolutely. Variety keeps it (hopefully) interesting and enjoyable. What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Nancy: As I said above, there are times when I feel I just need to take a break. Working full-time and writing as well can feel like two jobs, and it’s easy to become fatigued and burn out. Taking some time off is helpful when that happens.
Morgen: You said that you find plotting hard, as a rule do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Nancy: I tend to start by just running with an idea, but I’m finding that there comes a point when I need to sit down and think about plotting. I took a fabulous online course about plotting from writer Kris Neri and I find that the tips from that class usually help me make it through. For historical fiction, doing some additional research can also kick-start ideas and sometimes get a flagging plot going. And for the urban fantasy I’ve started, I think it will be the same. I have some books on Paris that I need to sit down with and hopefully something in them will spark new ideas for the parallel world I’m developing in the novel.
Morgen: I think my next question is particularly relevant for your genres… do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Nancy: For me, it can’t be methodical. The character is part of what comes with the initial idea and he or she gets fleshed out as I write. And when I’m not writing, I’ll often be thinking about a new character in the back of my mind as I do other things, and then other traits or aspects of their personality will emerge and I’ll go jot those down.
Morgen: Do writers stop thinking about writing? 🙂 Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Nancy: For my historical novel, I have a very close friend from high school and I showed it to her, her mother, and her brother, who are all avid readers. They always had good suggestions and criticism. If it’s something short, like a story, I’ll often show it to my husband before anyone else. He has a very good BS odometer. 🙂
Morgen: <laughs> Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Nancy: It’s definitely more polished than when I started ten years ago, but I find that I still need to do a lot of revising after the first draft. I’m very picky about the way my prose should sound and will go through a passage innumerable times to get it just right. Unfortunately I really need to work from hard copy, so I print out pages more than I would like. The times when I get really stuck are when I’ve worked over a passage until it all sounds like meaningless gibberish no matter what. That happened with the sequel to my Roman novel, which is why it’s on the backburner now while I revise the Byzantine one.
Morgen: I’m the same, I prefer to read / edit from paper. What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Nancy: When I’m starting something new, there has to be an initial spark of some kind, usually an opening scene. If I’m lucky, the rest will flow from there. Once I’m into a book but still on the first draft, I will often begin by revising an earlier scene to get the juices going. After the first draft, it’s more a process of “butt-in-chair”, just taking the time and effort to get the prose just right, fill in descriptions, and research details that I ignored during the first draft.
Morgen: Research is my least favourite bit – I’d happily ignore it in every draft. 🙂 Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Nancy: Mostly I use the computer for first-draft composition, but for editing as I said above, I really need to see it on paper and mark it up with a pen to work effectively.
Morgen: Me too, especially a red pen. 🙂 Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Nancy: I have to have silence. I was a music major in college and graduate school, and I’m very sensitive to sound. If there’s music playing, it’s just as distracting to me as a conversation going on and I can’t hear my own thoughts.
Morgen: I’m OK with classical but even so, if a piece grabs me, it takes me away… What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Nancy: My first love was first person and I still think that’s the easiest for really conveying a distinct personality. Just think of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, or his successor Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole. Or Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody. More recently, though, in my urban fantasy, I’ve been writing in third, and that of course has lots of practical advantages as well in terms of being able to switch points of view. And third can have lots of personality, too, as in Sophie Littlefield’s Stella Hardesty series. I’ve never tried second person. I have to confess that I find the idea rather off-putting.
Morgen: A lot of people do but it’s my favourite – you could try to continue one of the 2ppov sentence starts on my sentence starts page and see how you get on. 🙂 What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Nancy: The least favourite is what I’ve already described, where you keep revising and reworking the same passage over and over but nothing ever sounds right and sometimes the more times you do it, the more it keeps reading like c—p. I think that’s even more frustrating than running out of plot momentum because it’s so demoralizing; you don’t even feel like you’re entitled to call yourself a writer anymore and wonder if the good stuff you wrote was really done by some bodysnatcher that took possession of you for a while.
Morgen: Now there’s a plot. 🙂
Nancy: The other frustrating thing for me specifically concerns historical fiction. It’s that dreadful fear that you’ve gotten it all wrong, no matter how many books you’ve read. The main character in my Roman series is a young, unmarried girl from a wealthy family, and I probably wouldn’t have given her that same set of demographics if I’d done more research because such young women were carefully protected and chaperoned. I feel good about her role in my short story because there she’s a couple of years younger and it’s more of a lightweight YA kind of plot where she’s always in the company of either her nursemaid or her older brother. That’s what I love about the forays I’ve made into fantasy, whether it’s the little town setting of St. Nick or modern-day Paris: I can combine settings that I know well with elements of fantasy that are totally mine to control: no one can say there’s something about the research that I got wrong. The best part is when the words just seem to flow under your fingers and everything—plot, characters, and setting—just jells. Even better is when something unexpected happens, a minor character suddenly takes over, a new situation or aspect of your main character appears. Then it really feels like your little fictional world has taken on a life of its own, and it’s a really exciting feeling.
Morgen: That’s my favourite bit – letting the character do what they like, as if we have any say in the matter. 🙂 What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Nancy: Never give up! When I look back at my earliest drafts, written ten years ago, when I first started writing seriously, the prose is just simply awful, and now, even when I’m frustrated I’d say everything I write, even in the first draft, is a cut above that. I also think it’s good to just spend a lot of time with it on your own for a few years, and really find your own voice, but after that it really helps to read some good books on writing, like Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages (I think that’s the title)…
Morgen: (it is, yes)
Nancy: …and then to hook up with a group of other aspiring writers. As I said earlier, the Guppies are absolutely great, and I would encourage anyone writing mystery or suspense to join.
Morgen: 🙂 What do you like to read?
Nancy: Mostly mystery and fantasy fiction. In mysteries, some of my favorites are historical writers like Steven Saylor, Sharan Newman, and Jeri Westerson. I generally prefer “medium-boiled” to either cozy or really dark noir. I love Louise Penny, Sandra Parshall, Tana French—there are so many talented writers out there that I could go on and on. For fantasy I’m pretty picky, but my favorite contemporary series there is Jim Butcher’s Dresden files. I also love the new Gail Carriger steampunk novels; they’re a hoot! I also like to re-read classics, ranging from Raymond Chandler to Dickens.
Morgen: A great mixture… so you don’t bored reading either by the sound of it. Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Nancy: For books, The First Five Pages is a great place for new writers to start. It really gets down to nitty-gritty concrete specifics and Lukeman does a great job of explaining the rationale behind all of his “don’ts”. Another good resource for this kind of check-list for self-editing are Chris Roerden’s books, Don’t Murder your Mystery and (for non-mystery fiction) Don’t Sabotage your Submission. For more general, philosophical approaches to the writing life Steven King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird are just wonderfully inspiring. For websites, the Sisters in Crime and Guppy sites have tons of great info and links: www.sistersincrime.org and www.sinc-guppies.org. For information on agents and publishing, the blogs of agents Jessica Faust and Janet Reid are really good, as is Janet Reid’s “Query Shark”, where writers can submit their queries (if they’re brave enough!) for a sharp-toothed critique. I have to admit that one of my guilty pleasures is reading her witty comments, which are often LOL funny. http://queryshark.blogspot.com, http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com, and http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com. A writer’s blog that has some wonderful info about deciding which publishing route to go (agent, small press, indie) as well as thoughtful musings on the writing life in general is Anne R. Allen’s blog: http://annerallen.blogspot.com.
Morgen: Wow, that’s great thank you. And now, where can we find out about you and your work?
Nancy: My website is: http://nancyadamsfiction.com. I’m also on Twitter (@Nancy_Adams_) and by the time this interview appears, I plan to be on Facebook as well, with a page for my character Fir Tree.
Morgen: Excellent, thank you Nancy.
I then invited Nancy to include an extract of her writing and she said…
“Just for a teaser, here is the opening line from ‘Saint Nick and the Fir Tree’”:
The fir tree had grown a punk haircut, as it did every summer.
Morgen: That’s funny. 🙂
Nancy Adams is a freelance editor and theological librarian who writes mysteries and fantasy. Her short story “Saint Nick and the Fir Tree” has just been released in both e-book and print formats and her short story “The Secret of the Red Mullet”, a historical mystery, was published in the collection FISH TALES: the Guppy Anthology by Wildside Press this past March. She is seeking an agent or publisher for her historical mystery WINDS FROM THE EAST.
Update August 2012: My latest news is the publication of a new short story, a historical “Gothic” tale set in 382 A.D. (via Amazon) and the start of a blog at http://saintsandtrees.wordpress.com.
Morgen: Congratulations, Nancy. 🙂
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