Thursday, February 21, 2013

How I Decided to Write About What I Write About and Got It Published to Boot

Since I have been away from Type M for a year, allow me to refresh your memory, Dear Reader, about how I got into the authoring business. In 1999, after I closed my business and discovered I now had time to do research, I decided to write a family genealogy for my siblings as a Christmas present. In the course of the research I ran across stories and anecdotes about ancestors, which led me to remember stories my grandparents and parents had told me about their parents and grandparents, and life on the farm. I began questioning my mother, and then to write down my own memories. When I shared my stories with my husband he began to reminisce about his (extremely colorful) Oklahoma pioneering family. This led me to begin questioning his siblings. At the end of the process I had a book length genealogy packed with stories from the French and Indian wars, the Revolution, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, ambushes, murders, adoptions, divorces and adultery — settlers and Indians, massacres, poisonings, axings, shootings, drownings, and smashing people in the head with beer bottles. In the end, I said to myself, “Donis, you have enough material here for ten novels.” Using my own background as inspiration, I set out to write a mystery.  It took me a little less than a year to write my first Alafair Tucker novel, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming.

Though my series couldn’t be more different when it comes to time, place, and language, it is blatantly patterned after Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books. Just like Peters’ series, I wanted mine to be centered around a warm-hearted sleuth with a lot of insight into human nature. I wanted to have a very strong sense of place and time in my books, which is something that particularly impressed me about Peters’ books. I’m also very much influenced by Mark Twain’s use of language.

My sleuth, Alafair Tucker, is a woman in her early forties who lives with her husband Shaw and their ten children on a prosperous farm in Muskogee County Oklahoma, in the 1910s. She never sets out to solve murders, but all those pesky kids keep getting involved in unsavory situations and need their mother to get them out of trouble. Fortunately for me, Alafair is the kind of woman who will literally do anything, legal or not so legal, for her kids.

Alafair and her family are all based on relatives of mine, living and dead. One of my great-grandmothers was named Alafair Wilson. Another was called Selinda Tucker. I interviewed many relatives for the series. Many of the details of Alafair’s life on the farm, such as using kerosine-soaked corn cobs to start a fire, come from my mother, who grew up on a farm during the Depression. Many of the incidents related actually happened, both in my family and my husband’s (the less savory ones, he points out).

There is nothing that irritates me more in a historical novel than a character who has modern sensibilities. So, as best as I can make her, Alafair is a woman of her times. She leads a life that is so busy that it wouldn’t be realistic if she could easily drop everything on a whim and go off to gather clues. But she has her army of grown and half-grown children to snoop for her, as well as her web of women relatives and friends who are willing to help her. Her information network is better than the sheriff’s.

There’s a lot of humor inherent in raising a bunch of kids, like my sleuth is doing, so I do have quite a bit of humor in the books. But I don’t think of the series as being comic. Rural Oklahoma in the 1910s was a tough place. Alafair and her husband Shaw have had more than their share of trouble and heartache.

In my youth, I wrote a long book and got an agent who shopped it around for literally years.  She never sold it, but I did get a lot of useful feedback from editors.  Years later, after I finished Buzzard, I intended to find another agent, and was getting my query package together when I checked the Poisoned Pen Press website and saw that they would read unagented material.  Since they have a very good reputation, I thought what the heck, I'll send them a query while waiting for a response from an agent.  A week later I got an email from the press asking me for an outline and 3 chapters.Then in a few more weeks they asked for the entire MS.  Three or four months after that, before I had settled on an agent, Poisoned Pen made me an offer, which I accepted.  Almost exactly one year from that first query, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming was published. It was received very well, winning the Arizona Book Award, becoming a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award and the Benjamin Franklin Book Award, and being named an Oklahoma Centennial Book in 2007.

And now, six books later, Alafair is still going strong.

Believe me, the way Buzzard came to be published is not the normal author experience.  I expected the usual - many rejections before acceptance, and I was amazed that the very first place the book was submitted to accepted it.  All those years of practice paid off, I suppose.  And I also suppose that I finally wrote the book I was meant to write.


Charlotte Hinger said...

Donis--as a fellow PPP novelist-- you couldn't be more fortunate than being published by Poisoned Pen. The presses support for its authors is outstanding.

Donis Casey said...

I agree wholeheartedly, Charlotte

adeoe said...

Donis--as a fellow PPP novelist-- you couldn't be more fortunate than being published by Poisoned Pen
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