Yes, much is missing. If there’s a question you’d like to see risen from the ether, or a new question, please use the form below to ask me. I’ll do the best I can.
I have been working on a novel for quite a while now and I would so much appreciate input. Could you possibly find time…?
I get mail now and then from readers who are working very hard on their own stories. These are people who are struggling with the very issues and questions and doubts I faced some years ago, and that I still face, in a different way, today. I understand very well what they are experiencing but the help I can offer is limited.
It is a great responsibility to read the work of aspiring authors, and it is also a delicate, involved, and time consuming one. When I have a piece of work in front of me, I hold a person’s hopes and dreams in my hands. The wrong word or approach could crush those aspirations.
This is true no matter what the relationship. I exchange work with my best friend, and we both step carefully even though we give each other honest criticism. Over tea I can say to her “This just doesn’t work for me,” or “The transition here falls short” and she will not be crushed, because she knows that I respect her and her work. She can say to me “You just can’t use that name, it evokes too many associations to X” or “You’ve used this image before” or “huh?” and I’ll just nod, because she’s right and I know she is.
But an author who is just starting out may need commentary on many levels. From how to open a story to where to end a paragraph, from word choice to dialog, from story to character. When I teach introduction to creative writing I don’t let my students write a whole story to start with, simply because they will give me ten pages that require so much commentary it would take me longer to comment than it did for them to write it.
I once had a graduate student in creative writing who was very talented. She was writing her master’s thesis — a collection of short stories — under my direction. She had a whole file of stories she said were “junk”, but I asked to see them anyway. She believed that they were junk because a previous teacher had handed them back to her with the words “not worth the effort” written on them. But in that pile of rejected stories (about seven of them) I found four that had wonderful promise. Strong characters in interesting conflicts, but the rest of the story was in poor shape and needed extensive work. Over a summer I worked with her on those four stories. Each went through ten or even fifteen revisions, and she worked them into something wonderful. But it took tremendous effort.
The moral of that story is that the wrong reader can do a great deal of damage; the right reader is just the beginning of a long writing process.
I am sure that some or even many of the people who ask me to read their work are talented. They may need direction and help, and need it very sincerely. If I am not the person to provide it, what other choices do they have?
My strongest suggestion is to make connections to other writers around you. Community colleges often have classes in creative writing. Even if a new writer feels they are beyond the “introduction” stage, this can be a great way to make contact to others with the same interests and concerns. I found my first writing group (an excellent one) through a creative writing class. The other real advantage of taking such a course is this: it teaches you to accept constructive criticism gracefully, something that is often very hard for beginning writers, but absolutely necessary.
If for whatever reason it isn’t possible to take a course, then there are very good writing communities on-line. I highly recommend the authors’ forum at CompuServe, which includes sections where people submit and critique each other’s work, according to genre. CompuServe was very helpful to me when I was in the early stages of writing Into the Wilderness. Finally, I am always happy to suggest two books which were (and still are) helpful to me. The first one because it looks at the nuts-and bolts of putting together fiction with great insight, wonderful examples, and most of all, common sense; the second one because it is hopeful and wise and funny.
Jane Burroway. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. (new editions come out every two years or so) Addison-Wesley Pub Co.
Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird. October 1995. Anchor Books/Doubleday. ISBN: 0385480016
Writing is a demanding business, but a rewarding one. It’s hard for everybody; take comfort in that. And then get down to work.
What’s with the pen name?
I write more than one kind of fiction. Two of my novels sold within a few months of each other, and one of the publishers was worried about “confounding reader expectation”. Thus was Sara born.
What are the laws in regard to using another author’s characters? This question came up on a discussion board that I visit and your books were mentioned.
Any work published before 1928 is in the “public domain”. A good summary of copyright and domain facts can be found at: http://www.unc.edu/~unclng/public-d.htm. Anybody can use the characters, retell the story, etc etc. if a work is in the public domain. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and James Fenimore Cooper fall into this category. So I am completely within the law by retelling Cooper’s The Pioneers and using some of his characters. There are hundreds and hundreds of books in the public domain that you can get for free over the web. A good list is maintained at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ Works that are still in copyright: no, you can’t just borrow the characters. You can’t write a novel about Captain Kirk and Spock on the Enterprise unless you first get written permission from the owner of that copyright — I think it’s Paramount that owns it. So technically fan fiction is illegal, though I don’t think anybody has ever sued over it. I used Diana Gabaldon’s characters with her permission, both oral and written. Anybody else who wanted to publish a novel using my characters or hers would have to ask first — with the exception, of course, of those characters already in the public domain. So you wouldn’t have to ask me to have Hawkeye tramping through your novel, but you would have to ask me if he had a son called Nathaniel with a wife Elizabeth Middleton who lived in Paradise on the Sacandaga.
The Wilderness Series
How did you come to write the Wilderness novels?
Into the Wilderness came into being because I wanted to read stories of the women on the New York frontier in the post-revolutionary period. Since no one else seemed inclined to write those stories, I began to consider writing one after re-reading James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers. While I was pondering how such a story might be approached, I saw Michael Mann’s 1992 film adaptation of Last of the Mohicans, and that provided the spark: what if (as Mann implies at the end of his film) Hawkeye and Cora actually married and made a home for themselves in the wilderness? This was contrary to Cooper’s storyline for the Leatherstocking Tales, in which Hawkeye ends his days sad and disillusioned.
So I gave Hawkeye and Cora a son, Nathaniel, and I opened the story almost forty years after the fall of Fort William Henry. But I needed a female character to challenge Nathaniel and the wilderness both, a woman who would come to see the endless forest with new eyes. I was re-reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion (I try to reread all of Jane Austen every year) when I began to wonder about her characters. What would Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice have done, how would she have acted, if Darcy had decided to pursue his future in the wilderness of the newly formed United States? What if Captain Wentworth, upon marrying Anne Elliot and taking her away from her obnoxious Kellynch family, had said “let’s see what adventures await, let’s get out of this genteel country neighborhood setting?” What about Jane herself, if she hadn’t come down with the disease that killed her at such a terribly young age, what if she had been given the opportunity to travel away?
Of course, Jane Austen probably would not have given up her quiet home and family. But her characters, there was another issue. Thinking about them, eventually my Elizabeth Middleton took shape: a woman aware of the world and her role in it, and never quite resigned to either. She has some of Elizabeth Bennett’s insight, Anne Elliot’s curiosity about the world, Elinor Dashwood’s extreme rationality, her sister Marianne’s passion. But there is also a dash of Mary Bennett in Elizabeth: the book-obsessed young woman understood by none of her family. Mary Bennett has always seemed to me the one female character in Pride and Prejudice who gives away some of Jane Austen’s own weaknesses. Austen is unable to show any kindness towards Mary, and I have always wondered why. So this was my opportunity to take these women out of England, and to see them make their way in a different kind of world. Thus Elizabeth Middleton slowly took shape.
Q: How would you classify your novels?
I suppose I would call them (in fact, I have called them, when forced) historical fiction or historical adventure. That is, a lot of research goes into each one and a prime concern is making the era come to life. Beyond that, I hope to keep the reader turning the pages, interested in the characters and the plot. There is a lot of plot; some of it has to do with a love story. Various bookstores and reviewers have called these novels ‘romance’. Sometimes they seem to expect me to be put out or angry about that, but in fact I don’t mind. A love story is a love story, after all. I’d consider Pride and Prejudice and Taming of the Shrew romances, too. One label I do not like is ‘bodice ripper’ because it is disrespectful to me, to my characters, and to the readers. Not to mention that it’s factually incorrect: no bodices are ripped, torn, or damaged in any way in my work. That is, I don’t write gratuitous sex scenes.
What is the relationship of the Wilderness novels to James Fenimore Cooper’s work and the movie, Last of the Mohicans?
How much creative license did you take in writing about the Mohawk culture and overall day-day life back then?
Isn’t Elizabeth Middleton too much ahead of her time?
Why did you decide to bring Scotland into the story rather than keep them in America for Dawn on a Distant Shore?
How do you know Diana Gabaldon,and how is it that her characters wandered into Into the Wilderness?
I met Diana through the Research and Craft section of CompuServe writers’ forum, where I used to visit regularly. R&C is a forum for discussion of matters having to do with technical issues (point of view, flashback, character motivation, etc) and research problems (how did a person light a fire in 1790? how long did it take a horse and buggy to travel ten miles on good road?). Diana and I had many of the same interests, as our characters were involved in some of the same historical events. One day the subject of the Battle of Saratoga came up and Diana mentioned that she had used the battle as a setting for a scene, and this happened just as I was writing a similar scene. I said (truly in jest) hey, I need a doctor over here for this boy with pneumonia, can I borrow Claire? To which Diana said, Why not? Diana is one of the most supportive and generous people I have ever known, but still I was taken by surprise. I did write the scene and send it to her, but said that I would drop it if she had not been serious. She liked it, and so it stayed. The idea was simply a bit of an inside joke — characters wandering from one novel to another — and was never meant to be anything else. I have been called a Diana Wannabe, which of course is silly — who would not want to write such wonderful stuff as her Outlander series? But there’s only one Diana. I have my own stories to tell, in my own voice.
More on this subject, excerpts from an interview I did with Linda Richards of January Magazine when Dawn on a Distant Shore was published.
I understand that you and Diana Gabaldon are friends.
Does that precede the books? Or is it through the books?
We met online and started conversing about our research and work. Then once in a while she’d show me something she was working on and I’d show her something I was working on. This was before Into the Wilderness sold. Diana was extremely supportive. I had an agent at the time that I wasn’t really happy with and she introduced me to the agent I have now.
The funny part is — and most of her readers will know — is that when I was doing the research [for Into the Wilderness] there’s a flashback to the battle of Saratoga which was a major battle in the Revolutionary War. I mentioned this to Diana and she said to me, “Hey my characters are in the battle of Saratoga too.” It was the first time our storylines intersected. And I said, “Well, I’ve got this sick boy over here and Nathaniel is looking for a doctor. Can I have Claire?” I was completely joking. And Diana said, “Sure. I’ll send her over.” So her characters show up briefly in my storyline.
Oh how fun!
And it’s just meant to be an inside joke — you know it’s very short, it’s in flashback. It’s like two paragraphs, there’s no dialog between the characters or anything — they come and they go.
Did readers catch it?
Oh yes! Did readers catch it? Yeah! In fact there was this persistent rumor that we were the same person. People were sometimes very insistent on that, and I know that Diana was sometimes irritated by the whole debate.
The periods you write in are close but your stories and your styles are very different.
My novels are not time travel and hers are; I write in third person, and she writes in first. The beauty of her books — and it was a really masterful stroke on her part — is that since Claire is from the 20th century she can observe what’s going on in the past from a modern sensibility. So mine is a very different kind of story in every way. It’s human nature to compare things, though, and there were some pretty heated discussions among readers about my work. Which was unfortunate, because I don’t consider myself in competition with Diana or with any other novelist. What we do is too idiosyncratic for that kind of comparison.
What is the order of the Wilderness novels? And what about Hidden Wolf??
1. Into the Wilderness
2. Dawn on a Distant Shore
3. Lake in the Clouds
4. Fire Along the Sky
5. Queen of Swords
6. The Endless Forest (working title: Hidden Wolf)
I loved/hated the epilogue at the end of The Endless Forests. Why did you do that?
People seem to feel strongly about the epilogue at the end of The Endless Forest: they love it, or they really, really do not love it.
I wrote it because I personally needed to have some closure, and to say goodbye to my characters. The idea that they were wandering around out there in the world and having adventures without me just did not sit well.
There are people who like surprises, and people who don’t. I do not like surprises. I prefer to know. And thus the epilogue.
As to how I decided about each character: I often flipped a coin. Is person x going to die in his sleep in a happy old age, or die in his forties, unhappily? Sometimes I just know — I know what happened to Simon, for example, but other times I need a push. This is one of those odd things about writing that is hard to explain.
Jennet & Luke and Why?
The most common question I get about The Endless Forest has to do with Jennet’s death and the aftermath. After Jennet died, Luke returned to Manhattan alone, leaving the children behind to be raised in Paradise. Many readers have trouble with this.
It was very common until not-so-long ago that families traded children around after the death of a parent or because of some other family disaster. Exactly why Luke chose to leave the children in Paradise is a question with dozens of possible answers, for example:
Jennet told him she wanted her children raised in Paradise, or
Luke’s business concerns were failing, and he didn’t know if he’d have the finances to provide the staff and resources the children would need, or
Luke fell into a depression so deep he was barely able to take care of himself, or
One or more of the children developed complications after the infection that killed Jennet, and needed the kind of medical care they could only get in Paradise,
I’m sure I could come up with a couple dozen reasonable scenarios, but my job is done. I have to sit back and let the readers decide what happened and why it happened. An author who tries to explain a character’s actions after the fact comes across as somebody unsure of the story. I am very sure of my story.
What about Natty Bumppo, and is this a sequel?
Every once in a while I get an email like this one from Larry:
In James F Coopers books, the original Hawkeye was Nathaniel
(Natty) Bumppo. Why did you rename him Daniel Bonner?
So here’s an explanation. Kinda.
James Fenimore Cooper wrote a series of books called the Leatherstocking Tales. His main character was Natty [Nathaniel] Bumppo (also called Hawkeye, and several other names), and seemed to be based on the legends that grew up around the real life character Daniel Boone. One of his novels was The Last of the Mohicans; another, set in Hawkeye’s later life, was The Pioneers. The Last of the Mohicans has been filmed a number of times, the last and most memorable by the director and producer Michael Mann. That is the movie staring Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeline Stowe. In Mann’s version of the story, Hawkeye’s real name was Nathaniel Po.
I wasn’t so much interested in retelling the story of The Last of the Mohicans — that has been done often enough — but I was interested in Hawkeye’s later life. So I set out to do a few things: first, write a very loose retelling of The Pioneers (keeping some of the plot, some of the characters, and some of the themes, especially the environmental ones); second, to tell the story from the female perspective (Cooper was a fine storyteller, but he didn’t write women very well — they come across as idealized and two-dimensional); third, to put my own spin on the legend of the frontiersmen who populated the New-York frontier; fourth, to try my best not to contribute to the stereotypes rampant in literature about the Mohawk. I hoped to portray them as a people who survived in spite of great hardship. Because I wanted to put my own version on paper, I changed Hawkeye’s name yet again. Not Bumppo or Po or Boone, but Bonner. So I have a Dan’l Bonner and his son, Nathaniel Bonner.
Something else I’d like to say, very clearly: when I wrote Into the Wilderness it was not conceived as any kind of sequel to Last of the Mohicans. I never, ever called it a sequel, and Bantam didn’t, either. However, some reviewers did call it a sequel, and that idea stuck in the minds of readers. Criticism of ITW as a sequel to Last of the Mohicans followed — and still follows.
You see how this would be frustrating.
So ITW is not a sequel. It’s my take on an older story, and as such, I changed things to suit my version. Think of West Side Story, where you get Maria and Tony instead of Juliet and Romeo. Think of A Thousand Acres, where you get Larry Cook instead of King Lear and his daughter Ginny instead of Cornelia. There are hundreds of examples of retold stories, and often the author shifts names and places and times, and then lets his or her own imagination go to work.
Ethan and Callie
This from a sleepy reader:
Midnight and I can’t get to sleep until I ask this question: what’s wrong with Callie? I understand that she’s been abandoned by everyone she’s ever loved, but I just can’t get at the core of her, and it’s keeping me up at night! She’s so shut down, emotionally. She’s a volcano ready to go off. Can you please speak plainly about her? Thanks. My tsecond or third time reading though the series and it’s new to me every time. Love, love, love these books.
I have tried to answer this question in a lot of different ways in the past but I think this might be the best effort. About Ethan and Callie.
The Gilded Hour
I am trying to figure out the relationship between the Savards in The Gilded Hour and the Wilderness series. Can you help me with that?
There’s a whole website dedicated to The Gilded Hour, and on that website are multiple pages dedicated to the genealogy of the Wilderness families. Please have a look over there, as there is a wealth of background and research material as well as a lot of maps and images that you may find of interest.
When is the sequel to The Gilded Hour coming out?
This is the zillion dollar question, one I hear every day. Of course it’s very gratifying to know that the novel is successful at drawing readers in, but I am not a fast writer and I fear many of them are less than understanding on that point.
But I am making progress. And we have a title: Where the Light Enters. I hope to finish it by the spring, and then it’s up to the publisher to get it out there into the readers’ hands.