“It’s tough to edit your own life story.” ~~Linda Strader
An Interview with Linda Strader by B. Lynn Goodwin
Remember when you graduated from high school, and it seemed like the whole world waited with bated breath even when reality reared its ugly head? Now imagine that you had to move across the country in your senior year. What issues would you face and who would it affect you? If you ever wanted to leave home, wherever that is for you, Linda Strader’s Uprooted: A New Life in the Arizona Sun will be right up your alley. Her narrator is on an impressive journey, literally and psychologically, as she moves forward with her life and adventures.
Since this is a prequel to her earlier memoir, Summers of Fire, we know where she’ll end up. This is the story of what led her to that career choice and influenced her next one. It’s a good book for those in the process of choosing a life’s path, even if the end results will be different. See what her journey of discovery can tell you about your own life.
It’s worth noting that Linda, who’s followed Writer Advice for a while, came to me with the idea that I might interview her. When people ask, I usually say yes. I’m glad I did. In the Q&A below, she shares some wise advice that’s well worth reading.
BLG: Tell us how you became an author.
LS: It certainly wasn’t a goal of mine; at least not at first.
It all began in 2005 after making a decision that I could financially afford to leave my troubled marriage. I filed for divorce. Just months later, unbelievably, I lost my job. I found a new one, only to find myself laid-off three years later when the economy collapsed, taking my field with it. I’m pretty sure anyone who has lost their job can relate what a tough time I had looking for work. At this point in time, no one was hiring.
When I wasn’t job hunting, I found myself reflecting on my former, exciting career as a wildland firefighter. Reliving the past was far more appealing than thinking about the future. I decided to write down some of my adventures and experiences. Ninety pages later, I shared what I wrote with friends. They encouraged me to expand the story. Four-hundred pages later, I had what looked like a book. Because I had no writing experience other than college papers and a Masters thesis, I had no clue if it was any good.
Then something HUGE happened. I met a woman while writing for an online magazine, where we composed 250-word articles for $2.50. We chatted, and I mentioned my book-in-progress and the topic. She thought my story sounded interesting. That’s when told me she was a retired English creative writing teacher, and offered to take a look at my story, no charge. We spent years working together to make my story the best it could be. The rest, as they say, is history.
BLG: Why did you decide to write a prequel?
LS: After I sent my first book, Summers of Fire, A Memoir of Adventure, Love, and Courage, off to my publisher, I found myself restless and in need of a writing project. I dug out my personal journals, and began to read the events leading up to my career as a wildland firefighter. I saw a story there…and began to write. Silly me. I actually thought the second book would be easier…which it was not! But at least I didn’t struggle with sentence structure or voice.
BLG: How do you determine what you should include and what you should leave out in a memoir?
LS: That question is half the battle of writing memoir! It’s tough to edit your own life story. That is where my beta readers, and my retired friend, were incredibly valuable. They could see repetition where I could not. It was still hard to cut back, even though I knew it had to be done. What did I remove? Anything repetitious, and anything that didn’t add depth to my story, or move the story forward.
BLG: How did the friends you wrote about react to your story?
LS: I’ve lost touch with almost everyone in my story, and a few have died since then. The death of one person I already knew about, but the other shook me terribly. They both died way too young. The ones that knew about my book had no objections to me writing about them. I did change some names, though, not that I worried about lawsuits. I just figured it would be best.
BLG: What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
LS: Stay true to yourself. I know that sounds trite, but it’s true. There were so many times that I could have given up, stayed with a job I didn’t like, or pursued a line of work just because it paid well. There were also romantic relationships that I had a hard time letting go of because I didn’t want to hurt someone, or because I thought things would improve. I have no regrets. The other take away? Don’t let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do. It’s not their life to live, it’s yours.
BLG: What advice would you give to anyone who wants to write a memoir?
LS: Don’t fret about structure or editing or much of anything as you begin. Just write. Once you get it all down, then you can delve in and polish. Some may say that’s the hard way, and that may be true, but I found I’m my most creative when I don’t feel pressured to make everything I put down perfect.
Another bit of advice is to ask yourself why you want to write a memoir, what your goals are. If it is to share it with friends and family and not publish for the world to read, that’s fine. If you want it out in the world, then you need to look for the ‘big picture’ in your story. The story needs to be universal to be relatable.
BLG: How did you find your publisher?
LS: Like many writers, I had hoped to land a literary agent. Using the online resource, Querytracker.com, I queried over 200. Once in a while, an agent would actually offer advice, which I took to heart. At one point, frustrated, I decided the beginning of my book had to change. I set the original manuscript aside, and rewrote the first three chapters. That did the trick. Agents started requesting full manuscripts. I had also, by this point, started querying small presses, where agent representation is not necessary. Three made offers. I had been querying for two years and did not want to wait any longer. I accepted one of the three offers from a small press.
BLG: Sounds like you made some wise decisions. What was your most successful marketing strategy?
LS: Pitching the news media! Not only did I land a TV interview, I had an excerpt from my first book published in Parade Magazine, and the PBS show, Arizona Illustrated, made a segment about me called, “Wildland Firefighter.” Also, I started applying for podcast interviews. There are so many opportunities, especially since the pandemic, and most of them are free. I have never paid for an interview.
BLG: Inspiring. I plan to follow your advice for my forthcoming book. What else would you like readers to know and how can they learn more about you?
LS: My blog, https://summersoffirebook.blogspot.com, has a wealth of information about my life as a wildland firefighter and strong women throughout history. I also have articles about publishing, writing, and book promotion.
Thanks for these great answers, Linda.
The Amazon link for Uprooted is and the book is available at a deeply discounted price there. You can find her earlier book, Summers of Fire also on Amazon. If you’re curious about the evolution of a talented woman, you don’t want to miss this book.
“Try things that appeal to you (most of which require time, money, energy, or all three) but manage your expectations, keep your eyes on your own paper, and don’t look for a Single Perfect Strategy that will make you a star!” ~~Barbara Probst
Spend A Lot of Time Learning By Doing
An Interview with Barbara Probst by B. Lynn Goodwin
Barbara Probst’s The Sound Between the Notes about where the music lies as well as the long silences pierced with meaning that can exist between husband and wife or an adoptee and her birth family. It’s about invisible barriers and the opportunities to break through them.
There’s a lot of impressive storytelling in this novel. The author digs deeply into her protagonist, Savannah’s, wants and needs, coming up with a 3-dimensional protagonist supported by a community of people with agendas of their own. As I watched her promotion online, I became impressed with her marketing skills as well as her writing. She shares information about both in the Q&A below.
BLG: Tell us what prompted you to write fiction after a successful career in other fields.
BP: I’ve been writing fiction on-and-off my whole life—I actually wrote my first “book” when I was seven years old! For many years, I focused on nonfiction: I wrote a book for parents of quirky kids, a textbook, and tons of articles. Then, when I decided to return to fiction, my first love, I had such a rich background to draw upon from my work as a therapist, teacher, researcher, and advocate. It helped me so much to have spent all that time learning about people—their yearnings and struggles, what makes them tick—and to have traveled to different places.
BLG: How did you acquire your writing skills. As far as you know, were they acquired or inherited?
BP: What an interesting question, since one of themes of The Sound Between the Notes is the weaving of nature and nurture, heredity and experience! In my own case, my parents were both highly educated, “people of words,” and in fact my mother published several books about aging when she was in her 70s. The interest was clearly there from the beginning, and the potential. But a lot of hard work is needed for that potential to develop. I took classes and workshops, studied with some very tough mentors, and learned by writing a terrible first novel that (fortunately) will never be seen by other eyes! The two essential things, in my experience, are to spend a lot of time learning-by-doing, and to find smart (and merciless) teachers who will push you to grow.
BLG: Were you a pianist before you wrote the book?
BP: I’m what they call a “serious amateur” pianist—“serious” because I study with a teacher, and “amateur” because I do it for love and not for any professional reason or aim. I’m far from being an accomplished musician like Susannah, the protagonist of The Sound Between the Notes, yet there was no way I could have written the book without some direct understanding, from the heart and body and mind, of what it’s like to play. In fact, I had to become a deeper, more sensitive pianist before I could make the book what it needed to be.
BLG: I suspected you had firsthand knowledge of a pianist’s journey. Is your protagonist modeled on one or more people that you know, or did you invent her to meet the needs of the story?
BP: Like the protagonists of each of my novels, there’s something of me in Susannah (just as there’s something of me in her mother Dana), but she is a fictitious character who “came to me” through that wonderfully intuitive, immersive, and magical process of writing a novel! Just as I draw on what I know, emotionally, from direct experience, and then “translate” those emotional truths into invented situations—so too, my characters partake of “real people” but are not meant to represent them.
BLG: The marriage or career issues felt real and believable to me. Any hints for writing such good dialogue?
BP: I’m so glad that the characters’ struggles felt real and believable to you! That sense of resonance is so important. And yes, I find that I need to see and hear and feel each of the characters, since they have different ways of speaking. For example, Beryl, Hollis, Tyler, Aaron, James—each has a distinct voice in the novel. So it’s about a creative, open, and “authentic listening,” not simply “making something up.” Mozart said something similar, when he described his musical compositions as “taking dictation.” That said, it’s not passive. There’s a kind of rigor, a merciless deletion of lines that ring false. And yup, I do read scenes aloud sometimes, and even act them out!
BLG: You’ve done some fabulous promotion for both of your books. What resources did you use and who do you recommend to help with publicity?
BP: That’s a whole conversation, in itself! The short answer is that no one can do everything, so (in my opinion) one needs to choose the avenues that feel natural and fun, and let the other things go (even if “everyone else” seems to be doing them). Find your audience, and speak to them, specifically. Become part of a community of other authors and learn from each other. “Spend smart,” which will be different for each person. Try things that appeal to you (most of which require time, money, energy, or all three) but manage your expectations, keep your eyes on your own paper, and don’t look for a Single Perfect Strategy that will make you a star!
BLG: This makes a great deal of sense. No one can do everything. What pitfalls should a writer avoid when promoting her book?
BP: I’ll speak from my own mistakes here! In the early stages of launching Queen of the Owls, when I knew nothing about promotion (e.g., about timing), I was too aggressive and impatient, and ended up over-exposing the book long before it came out, thus wasting opportunities and goodwill. Many people also stress the importance of giving as well as asking, and that is so important—another thing I didn’t understand in the beginning. It can’t be all about “Look at me! Buy my book!” People tire of that quickly.
BLG: What’s the best tip you ever received from an editor?
BP: There have been many, but one that has been very important to me over the years came from Sandra Scofield, who told me I had to love my characters more, all of them—to find something in each of them that was noble and good and worthy of love.
BLG: Love that. Thank you for sharing an original tip. What are you working on now and where can people learn more about you?
BP: My third novel, The Color of Ice, will release on October 18, but is available for preorder now on Amazon, Bookshop, and all the other sites. This time, the story is framed around the magical art of glassblowing and set in Iceland, so I’m super excited about it! The best place to learn more about me and my work is on my website and the best place to connect with me is on Facebook where I’m very active. (I’m also on Instagram, but not nearly as active.)
BLG: You can never have too many followers, so if Probst’s wise answers make you curious, follow her. For that matter you can follow me too. Can’t find me? E-mail me through the contact box on the home page and I’ll give you all my handles.
Barbara Probst does great work and I’m impressed with all she’s accomplishing. Get to know her yourself through her books and her posts. She’s added to my knowledge and she can add to yours too.
“If your readers don’t relate to your characters, your books will have no suspense and no jeopardy.” ~~Elly Griffiths
Enticing Mystery Set During COVID-19
The Locked Room is the first book I’ve read in which our pandemic lockdown was an integral part of the plot. The book is the fourteenth in Griffith’s Ruth Galloway series, but you don’t need to have read the previous thirteen to appreciate Ruth’s skill as an archeologist and detective, her adversarial relationship with her –ex, her love for her daughter, her wariness around her new neighbor, or the nuances in her skilled storytelling.
In the Q & A below, she gives us insights into her process. Perk: She loves connecting to readers and gives us places to follow her.
Tell us about yourself. When did you become interested in writing, what was your road to publication like, and when did you start calling yourself an author?
Elly: I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I wrote my first murder mystery when I was 11. It was called The Hair of the Dog – which must have been something my parents talked about! When I was at secondary school, I was a big fan of Starsky and Hutch. I used to write stories about them and my friends would read them in class (when we were meant to be working). In one episode, I killed Starsky. This was a bit of a shock, even to me because Starsky was my favourite. I remember people reading the story and crying and I thought, ‘Maybe I know how to do this’.
How do you take an idea and organize it into a book?
Elly: I used to be more organised. I would write a chapter outline and plan the story to the end. Now I just start to write. I trust that the ideas will come along and, this way, I can even surprise myself.
Did you make separate plans for each story thread, and if so, how did you weave them together?
Elly: I hoped that they would weave together naturally and, in the end, this is what happened. I’ve learnt not to plan too much and to let things work themselves out. That doesn’t mean that I don’t get into terrible muddles sometimes…
What gave you the idea to blend the mysteries of COVID with the other mysteries facing the protagonist?
Elly: My previous book had ended in December 2019, so I knew, from the start of this book, that I had to make the decision about whether or not to cover Covid and lockdown. In the end I decided that, as I’d written a book about Ruth every year for the last 14 years, it would be wrong to miss out 2020. In March 2020, the whole country was one big, locked room mystery and this gave me the idea to include this thread.
Several themes and parallel threads appear in this book. When did you discover them, and how did you work them into your plot?
Elly: One thing often leads to another. I started researching Norwich during the plague outbreak in the 1600s and I came across the story of the Grey Lady, a plague victim who haunts Tombland, the area around the cathedral. I knew that she had to go into the book.
How and when did you find your agent? Do you have any tips for finding one in 2022?
Elly: With my first published novel, I sent a synopsis and the first three chapters to six agents. A couple asked to see the full manuscript and one offered to represent me. I was lucky – though I’d failed many times before. I would advise reading the acknowledgements of books you have enjoyed. If the author thanks the agent, it means they did a good job. Research the agent and follow their submission guidelines. Remember, if you are rejected it must means that your book wasn’t right for that particular agent. There are many more out there.
What are some tips for learning to write solid mysteries in addition to reading lots of them?
Elly: Characterization is key. If your readers don’t relate to your characters, your books will have no suspense and no jeopardy. Start with the characters and the plot will emerge from them.
What made you decide to use pen names? How has that helped your career?
Elly: My first four books were written under my real name, Domenica de Rosa (I know it sounds made up!). When I wrote a crime novel my agent advised me to get a ‘crime name’ as mine was too romantic. I picked Elly Griffiths because it was my grandmother’s name.
What else would you like us to know and how can readers learn more about you?
“A good query letter or synopsis goes a step further and describes a book strategically to appeal to a certain type of reader.” –Annie Mydla
Winning Writers Judge Reveals Insider Tips
BLG: What entices you when you read a query or synopsis?
AM: At Winning Writers, our focus is on providing free resources for writers and administering our four writer-first contests, and so we do not consider queries or synopses in the same way agents or publishers would. However, I am often asked about queries and synopses in my role as a manuscript critiquer for Winning Writers, so I have formed some opinions and will share them here for what they’re worth.
In my experience, a helpful thing to keep in mind can be that agents and publishers are not just readers themselves; they are also marketers. That means when they read a query letter or synopsis, they’re not only considering whether the book sounds “good” or what it’s about. They’re also thinking about whether and how the book could be marketed. In particular, they’re thinking about whether and how the book could be marketed to the readers that they and their company are in touch with.
So, when reading a query or synopsis, some of the first questions on my mind are:
- Does this query/synopsis demonstrate the marketability of the book?
- Does it show that the author has considered the demographics of a specific intended readership?
- Does the query/synopsis demonstrate a clear appeal to the readership connected to the particular agent or publisher to which it is addressed?
By no means am I saying that the query letter should simply be an essay outlining a marketing strategy! Instead, I’m suggesting that the way the book is described in the query should be done with an eye to creating a clear path in the agent or publisher’s mind to marketing success with their particular readership.
I get excited about a query letter or synopsis when it clearly shows that the author has spent time researching the agent or publisher they’re writing to, as well as the consumer constituency that the agent or publisher is already serving. If the book description in the query or synopsis highlights the aspects of the book most likely to appeal to the agent or publisher’s readership, that’s a great sign. Listing recent, relevant comps for your book (that are published within the past 4 years at the oldest) is another essential component of helping the agent or publisher start to form concrete ideas about the book’s marketability.
Of course, there are a lot of ways to think about query letters and synopses. One of my favorite resources is Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog, where real query letters are critiqued line by line by a literary agent in NYC. Check it out!
BLG:. What makes you stop reading a query or synopsis?
AM: I get bored if the author doesn’t show a strong knowledge of the needs and desires of their intended readership. Almost anyone can describe a book. A good query letter or synopsis goes a step further and describes a book strategically to appeal to a certain type of reader. If I’m not sensing strategy in the query letter or synopsis, that makes me lose faith in the book’s construction as well.
BLG: What are some of your favorite books?
AM: Right now, my favorite books are all works in progress! I have the privilege of writing developmental critiques for books and manuscripts with Winning Writers, and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had as a reader. Witnessing the creative process from the inside gives me a strong feeling of connection with a book, primarily because works in progress demand a special kind of reading that’s particularly active and dynamic. And, especially in the early stages of drafting, manuscripts tend to feel “closer to the author” than they do in their more finished stages, when they start to belong more to the public and to time. The resulting sense of “insider knowledge” of a book can get addictive!
I’ve worked with dozens of authors already this year, all with excellent and unique projects. Off the top of my head, Gerard DiLeo, A.C. Brogdon, Dawna Coutant, Kay Smith-Blum, Lisa Hewitt, Dennis Jung, Alexandra Saville, Greg Taylor, Mj Roe, Carolyn Banks, Joe Basara, and Michael Simon are all names I’d recommend readers to look out for in the future.
BLG: What are you most interested in seeing from unknown writers?
AM: The word that leaps to my mind in regards to this question is “specificity.” Today’s writers have amazing opportunities to share highly specific and unique realities. Our era is bursting with important topics and penetrating themes, and meanwhile there’s ever more diversity in literature, which is huge. I’m enthralled when authors can take a specific time, place, and character, one that may be not at all like the intended readership or like me, and call them to life before our eyes so vividly that I find myself living through them. I want to read books that bring me in contact with all the diverse truths of our world in concrete, specific ways.
BLG: How can interested readers learn more about you?
AM: Readers can visit winningwriters.com for more information about our huge library of writers’ resources, our poetry and fiction contests, and our critique services for books/manuscripts and poems/short stories.
BLG: What else would you like readers to know?
AM: As someone who professionally evaluates finished and unfinished works by emerging authors, the thought that constantly occurs to me is: “What this author needs at this moment is not success, but experience.” For nearly every author, it takes a lot of writing for the craft and ideas to start to gel into their true potential. Almost all of us underestimate how much. Fortunately, given enough time and hard work, we can reach the place where craft and ideas begin to complement each other to the point where the magic starts happening. From there, the process of growth remains never-ending.
For better or for worse, the responsibility to bring this magic gelling about belongs solely to the author. No amount of attention from agents, publishers, or readers can achieve the same result as time and work do. And so, regardless of the current size of your readership or the level of interest from literary professionals, why not take time to appreciate the quiet connection between yourself, your process, and your written work. The healthier and better it feels day-to-day, the greater the chance that the work, the career, and most importantly, the author themselves, will be able to go the distance.
Many thanks to both Elly Griffiths and Annie Mydla for sharing their wisdom with us.