These are things people have asked me over the years:
Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
In a word, yes! I love stories and always seem to have either characters or plot bubbling in the back of my head — even when I was really little. I started ‘writing’ down in scribbles before I knew the alphabet then would ‘read’ them back to my mother. (This later became an educational theory used in the early stages of teaching children to read and write. Who knew?)
I read and scribbled all through grade school, junior high, and high school. I wrote an historical novel called FOREVER AND ALWAYS when I was fifteen. Then the guidance counselor took me aside and pointed out that I needed to prepare myself to do something practical ‘like teaching’ which proved to be good advice. I hold both a BS and am MS in Education and discovered after a rough first year that I love teaching.
I spent twelve years in elementary art in New York State, and nine working with children’s classes at the St. Louis Art Museum. I went back to writing for fun, and sold my first three novels while I was still working at the museum. Though I’m writing full time now, I adore getting up in front of a group of students and still speak at schools and writers groups, and do occasional writing courses at the local community college.
Q: What was it like writing your first book? How did you sell it?
I started one afternoon after a particularly trying day as an art teacher. (We were probably finger painting.) I’d been reading historical romances for years, so it felt natural for me to pick up a pen and write a love story. I began the story at a critical point and with history I was familiar with, the War of 1812 on the Niagara Frontier. I grew up in Niagara Falls and our family was actually on the frontier during the war, but we were Mennonites and could not fight.
Even back then I knew I had to start the story with a hook: ‘It was coming. The thing he dreaded most in the world was going to come to pass. Seth Porterfield’s head buzzed with the certainty that the two countries to which he owed allegiance would soon be at war.’
Once I started, writing the book that became LOVE, HONOR AND BETRAY (published as Elizabeth Kary) became an obsession. I wrote at night, on my breaks at school, and during summer vacation. It took me four and a half years to finish the novel, time well-spent learning the craft of writing. (Not that I have mastered it.)
Ifound an agent in the city where I was living who read my work and took me on. She sent the book out. It garnered some rejections and gave it back, saying she thought it would never sell. She went on to market another book I had written, and I took advantage of an offer from a friend who worked at Waldenbooks Corporate to pass the manuscript to a sales rep friend at Berkley Books. When Berkley bought the book about three weeks later, it was the rep who made the first call. ‘Are you ready for fame and fortune?’ he asked me. ‘We want to buy your book.
Q: How long does it take you to write a book?
A long time. The fastest book I ever wrote, start to finish, took fourteen months. The research and development phase often takes three or four months in itself. Since the first three to five chapters set up the entire book, those take at least a couple of months, too. Then I write the rest of the book whatever time is that’s left. There are starts and stops in the process. Sometimes you paint yourself into a corner and have to figure out how to get out. Sometimes the real world intrudes on fiction and you need to take time off. About eighteen months is what is about ideal for me, and I thank all of you for your patience the times I’ve taken more than that.
Q: What is your typical writing day like?
That all depends on how close I am to a deadline and whether I’m in our house in Missouri or California. Most days I get up, feed the cat, make coffee, and head for my desk. When I am working on the early phases of the book I work pretty much straight through until I run out of steam somewhere between 2:30 and 4:00. In this phase I remember to exercise, meet friends for lunch or late-afternoon coffee, and steal a day away here or there to play.
Once I reach the middle of the manuscript, the hours at the computer get longer. I often edit in the evening. My ‘process’ requires numerous rewrites, so I am always ‘upgrading’ something I’d written earlier, while pushing ahead to write something new.
Then comes what we here call ‘Deadline Hell,’ when I don’t do anything but work on the book. It’s an important phase because you need the tight focus so you can hold the whole story in your head and really see the connections that need to be made, the things that are unnecessary and the ones that need to be added. I hibernate during this phase, don’t cook, don’t clean, don’t go anywhere, watch TV, or read until the manuscript goes in the mail. This phase takes anywhere from a month to six weeks. Afterwards I collapse.
Q: Why have you recently moved from writing historical novels to publishing women’s fiction? Why have you changed names from Elizabeth Grayson to Karyn Witmer?
The short answer is that Bantam Dell asked me to. They thought my writing and the kind of stories I tell would hold up as well in the contemporary arena as they do in the historicals. Luckily, I had the idea for A SIMPLE GIFT bubbling on a back burner when they made their request. As you can see when you read A SIMPLE GIFT, I haven’t abandoned historicals entirely behind. There are three vignettes that deal with how the prized McIntire Christmas cactus got passed down through the family.
The name change was also Bantam’s idea. They wanted a new and more contemporary name for my venture into ‘women’s fiction,’ so as not to confuse readers about what they were getting. We settled on Karyn Witmer because it was relatively short and snappy, even if it will be at ankle level in every bookstore in America.
Q: Do you have advice for aspiring writers?
The market has changed a great deal since I sold LOVE, HONOR AND BETRAY, but some things remain the same. Write the whole book before you start to submit. That way both you and your prospective publishing house know you can complete a project. It doesn’t hurt to have a second book either started or in mind when you start to submit.
Writing a first–or maybe even a second or third book–is a learning experience. Don’t rush the process and don’t get ahead of yourself. Write a whale of a good story before you start worrying about what the cover will look like or how you’re going to promote yourself.
Take classes–preferably from writers–who can speak from the writing experience. Join writers groups that specialize in the kind of work you want to do. Romance Writers of America is an organization that both teaches technique and prepares writers to deal with the business aspects of having a career in publishing. There are many RWA chapters across the country; check these out at www.rwanational.com. Sisters in Crime is also a national organization with local chapters for those specifically interested in writing mysteries.
Attend writer conferences — regional conferences are an easy way to get your feet wet — where you will meet editors, agents and other writers. If you don’t have anything to submit, talk to editors and agents; they don’t bite. Talk to writers whose work you admire; they have things to teach you. Spend time with other aspiring writers. When you sell, many of the people you meet will become your friends and confidantes as you climb the bumpy road to success.
Never forget that doing the work, writing the story and turning it in in a timely manner, is what’s most important. Protect that.
Q: You tend to write very strong women characters, especially in your historical novels. Is there a reason why this kind of character appeals to you?
Yes, I have written a number of women like that over the years: Cassie in SO WIDE THE SKY, was an Indian captive returned to the whites; Shea in PAINTED BY THE SUN gave up a child but never forgot him. Ann in MOON IN THE WATER, slowly developed the courage she needed to confront her personal devils. I think that women often have a kind of courage and resilience that even men may not possess, and I like depicting that.
I think that modern heroines like Avery Montgomery in A SIMPLE GIFT, posses that same kind of determination. Avery’s challenge is reuniting her shattered family, and while that isn’t as dramatic as facing down mountain lions or outlaws, it requires the same kind of personal courage.
I believe in writing stories with strong, self-sufficient heroines reinforces the things we want to believe about ourselves: that we are capable, that we are brave, that in a crisis we’ll do the right thing. Just as these heroines do. We cheer them on while they as they confront things that scare them. In return we borrow a bit of their courage when we have to address the school board, or speak up to a mechanic who means to rip us off.
I think it’s important to write and to read about heroines who fight and win against the odds. Even when our own victories are elusive, I think these women keep us believing in ourselves, believing that through our strength and perseverance we can triumph, too.
Q: PAINTED BY THE SUN tackles the subject of adoption. I understand you were adopted? This must have fueled that aspect of the storyline for you.
Adoption has always been a subject close to my heart, and I knew eventually I’d write about it. Putting PAINTED BY THE SUN together gave me the chance to write/see the adoption experience not just from my point of view, as an adopted child, but through the eyes of Shea Waterston , a birth mother forced to give a child up. As I wrote, I came to understand Cam and Lily, the adopted parents in the story. In many ways that multiplicity of vision made writing the book a liberating experience for me.
While I had a wonderful adopted family, I entertained all the questions and the doubts adoptees usually do. The biggest and most unsettling was: Do my mom and dad love me as much as if I were their biological child? In PAINTED BY THE SUN, I got to answer that question.
In the epilogue, Cameron comes to Shea with what he considers ‘proof’ that Ty, the orphan Shea has taken in, is her natural son. And Shea answers with what I believe is the essence of what every adopted parent should make a point of telling his/her adopted child. Shea says, ‘Of course (Ty) is my son. Just as Rand is my son. Just as any children you and I may have together will be our sons and daughters. Our family.’
I think I wrote the entire novel so I could see those words in print.