A couple of weeks ago, I sent out an offer to my newsletter subscribers.
“Ask me anything,” I told them.
Fortunately, no one asked anything too awkward or personal, and mostly they wanted to talk about writing, which happens to be my favorite topic.
So, to close out my recent blog tour, here are my responses to my readers’ burning questions:
Did anyone in your personal life inspire the Em character in The Smallest Thing? Or the father? Or mother?
I’ve never knowingly based a character directly on someone I know, but bits of my personal experience and the traits of people I’ve met often sneak in.
There is a bit of the teenage me in Em. I didn’t grow up in small village like Em. I grew in the suburbs of a major city, but I remember feeling like I didn’t belong, like I was destined for something else. I think it’s a universal part of growing up, whether you feel confined by a small town, or someone else’s expectations, or just that you don’t fit in somehow, there’s something in each of us that wants to push the boundaries set for us. Em isn’t a rebel, and nor was I, but she wants to test the limits of her upbringing and be her own person.
Em’s dad is the kind of dad he needed to be to push Em into action. He’s a good guy, but the boundaries of his world don’t match Em’s. His role in the story is to provide the initial obstacles for Em and then teach her how to become her own person within the boundaries imposed on her by the quarantine. He is loosely based on a someone I know who is very involved in the community in which I grew up. He’s a really nice guy and does a lot of great conservation work in the community, but I could imagine the challenges of growing up in his shadow and having to live up to his reputation. He provided the basis for the kind of dad that would create friction for Em.
As for Em’s mother, I’d like to state for the record that none of the terrible mothers I write are in the least bit based on my own mother. I’m sure people who’ve read my books look sideways at my poor mother now, but she couldn’t be more different to the characters I write. Em’s mother came out of a writing prompt. I wrote about a character who discovers a secret (always a good prompt for digging up juicy storylines) and realized that Em wasn’t the only person feeling stifled in the village. Em’s mother has an entire unwritten backstory of how she came to find herself in that awful predicament. I’m pretty certain she has a lot of regrets about the decisions she made by the end of Em’s story.
Has anyone relayed to you their own experience with meeting someone they knew in a prior life?
A few weeks ago I posted something about the research I did while writing A Strange Companion, including doing a past life regression. Someone commented that, as a three-year-old child, she had recalled memories of a place she had never visited before. She knew details of her family life and her role in the village, and even recalled some Native American words. It opened up a whole conversation and several women said their children had had similar experiences. I’m sure there are any number of scientific explanations for this, but I find the possibility of reincarnation fascinating.
Why is it important to you to write about young adults?
That period of life between age 16 and 25 is one of huge transitions. You’ve been inching toward adulthood all through your teens, and pushing the independence and self-discovery envelope. Then suddenly, you’re an adult and so many of the safety nets of school, parents, living at home, being supported financially, and being “just a kid” fall away.
I remember being 17 and feeling like I had this whole “adulting” business sorted out. Then I went away to college and my world blew wide open. I had to navigate new relationships with people from all different backgrounds, I had responsibilities, things weren’t handed to me on a plate anymore, and I had to deal with so many “adult” situations that I was totally unprepared for. That period is such a steep learning curve, which makes it fantastic grist for the fiction mill.
And even though I write stories about young people, they’re not solely stories for young people. The themes of letting go of a lost love, navigating grief, discovering who you really are, and figuring out what’s really important in life are universal themes that we have to figure out well into adulthood. As for the topic of navigating relationships, that is a never-ending program of study.
The Smallest Thing and A Strange Companion are richly set in the English countryside. Any plans to write a book set in SoCal? I’m an Anglophile so I’m happy with more village life.
They say “write what you know” and I seem to be mining my early life for stories at the moment. That said, I’ve now lived in Southern California for more than half my life, so a shift in venue is bound to happen at some point. When I come up with a new story idea, I do weigh the pros and cons of setting it in one place or another. I needed to set The Smallest Thing in Eyam, and I wanted to set A Strange Companion in my hometown of Sheffield. If a story would be better served being set in L.A., I’d certainly be open to the possibility.
Did you need an agent to get your story out, or did you choose the self-publishing route? Considering the route you took, what caveats do you have for new authors with no publishing experience?
I have published both my fiction and non-fiction books through my own publishing company, Steel Rose Press, so no, I didn’t need an agent for that. What’s wonderful about this current era in publishing is that there are many ways to get a story in front of readers. There are also countless authors willing to share their experiences online, and offer lots of great advice for new authors. My caveat would be that, no matter which publication path you choose, make sure your story is ready to be read. Work on your craft, find trusted beta readers, be willing to accept feedback, and do the work to make the book the best it can be. If you send out a half-baked story to an agent or publisher, you risk a rejection notice and potentially burning a bridge for future work. But if you self-publish a half-baked book, readers will send their rejection slips via bad reviews, word-of-mouth, and with their future purchasing decisions. The trick is finding the balance between getting your work into the world where it can be read, and not publishing in haste, just because you can.
What’s the next book you’re writing? When will that be out?
At the moment, I have several projects bubbling away. I have a couple of novels brewing and some shorter pieces. I keep stirring them and testing their worth. Eventually, one of them will bubble up and demand to be written.
The thing with writing a novel is that you have to live with the idea for a long time. Not just through that first draft, but through numerous revisions and editing, then through the publication process, and then you have to talk about it once it’s published. I’m waiting to see which of my ideas has the necessary heat. So, it might be a while before the next novel is ready.
A big thank you to everyone who submitted questions. I answered lots of other great questions during the blog tour. If you missed it, you can still catch up and visit the stops. Here is a rundown of all the sites I visited:
- July 18: Rebecca Lacko and I discuss researching and writing The Smallest Thing, why fathers figure so prominently in my stories, and how published authors can find effective book marketing techniques.
- July 19: At A New Look on Books I answer the question, “Could you be a hero?” Hint: the answer is “yes” but you’ll have to read the post to see why.
- July 20: Heather Sunseri had lots of great questions about favorite destinations and how travel has colored my writing.
- July 21: At Booked for Review, I chatted about being a late bloomer and how the wrong path can lead to the right destination.
- July 22: In a rooftop hotel lounge overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Michael Raymond and I discussed killing off beloved characters, tricks for finding a characters voice, and how a scratched record marked a turning point in my musical evolution.
- July 23: Farah Oomerbhoy asks about the one wish I have for my books, and pries a nugget of Aiden trivia out of me.
- July 24: Mixed Bag Mama reviews The Smallest Thing.
- July 25: I visit Pamela Toler at History in the Margins to tell the real-life story of the courageous villagers of Eyam.
- July 26: YA Book Divas weigh in on The Smallest Thing with their review.
- July 27: The Reading Wolf gushes in her review of The Smallest Thing.