What’s a cat food factory got to do with it? On research and novel writing and a sample of How Sweet the Sound

I must’ve switched majors at least twenty times when I was in college.

I wish I was exaggerating for my poor parents’ sake, but I just couldn’t settle on one subject.

I liked them all.

Politics and history, literature and poetry, pre-med and genetics and microbiology and plant biology and even organic chemistry. (Except math. I hated math.)

Eventually, I finished (!) with a bachelors in nursing (which I also love to this day). And while at the time all that major switching felt confusing and uncertain and even dizzying to my roommates and family (for the love, Amy, just PICK something!!!), now that I’m a novelist, I know why I had such a hard time settling in to one subject of study.

For every page of a book of mine you read, you can be sure there are at least ten pages of research behind it.

And I love every second of the research I do for my novels.

In fact, research might be my favorite part of novel writing. Take How Sweet the Sound. It’s set in 1979 and 1980. In one scene, the protagonist, Anni, is at the beauty parlor flipping through a Seventeen magazine. I had to research who was on the cover of Seventeen that month. That led me to eBay and vintage magazine web sites.

Moreover, the entire book is set on a pecan orchard, which I had no clue about except for driving past them on the highway on the way to the Alabama gulf coast. I bought books on pecan cultivation, watched YouTube videos on pecan harvesting, scoured agricultural websites and read tens of copies of newsletters published online by pecan growers all across the South.

I researched cars of that era, top ten song lists, foods, clothing, hair styles, cotillion rules, square dancing, the biology and weather patterns of Mobile Bay, plants of the region, birds, dialect, the history of the Freedom Riders, and so much more.

My second novel, Then Sings My Soul coming March 1, 2015, takes place partially in Ukraine before the Russian Revolution, and partially in 1990′s South Haven, Michigan. I won’t even begin to tell you how much research that one took!

As another example of novel research and a special treat, I thought I’d share the first few paragraphs of How Sweet the Sound with you, and in particular, I want you to notice the mention of the cat food factory. It was a real place, and it really did provide ice to folks back when Hurricane Frederic hit the area. You can click here to read the website from which I gleaned this information: Remembering Hurricane Frederic : The Alabama Weather Blog. (Make sure you read Tom’s comments on that page.)

So see, for those of you who suspected I was a great big nerd, now you know for sure!

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How Sweet the Sound

CHAPTER 1

I thought I’d lived through everything by the time I was thirteen. Hurricane Frederic nearly wiped the southern part of Alabama off the map that fall, and half of our family’s pecan orchards along with it. Daddy said we were lucky—that the Miller pecan farm down the road lost everything. The Puss ’n Boots Cat Food factory supplied our whole town of Bay Spring with ice and water for nearly a week until the power and phones came back on along the coast of Mobile Bay. Anyone who could hold a hammer or start up a chain saw spent weeks cutting up all the uprooted trees and azaleas, pounding down new shingles, and cleaning up all that God, in His infinite fury, blew through our land. Like most folks who lived along the coast, we’d find a way to build back up—if we weren’t fooled into thinking the passing calm of the eye meant the storm was over.

If I’d only known this about Hurricane Frederic—that the drudging months leading up to Thanksgiving would be the only peace we’d see for some time. Weren’t no weathermen or prophets with megaphones standing on top of the Piggly Wiggly Saturday mornings to shout warnings of storms and second comings to us.

The only warning was the twitch of my grandmother’s eye…

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Want to read more of How Sweet the Sound? Visit your local, independent book seller, or click one of the retailers on the sidebar here to get yourself a copy. I’d be much obliged. And besides that, you never know what else you might learn from all the research embedded in this little tale!

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P.S. Here’s a really old Puss ‘n Boots cat food commercial:

And the winner of the first signed copy of #HowSweettheSoundNovel is……..

20140212-073817.jpgOn Wednesday, I opened up the first of a handful of opportunities for folks to win a signed copy of How Sweet the Sound here at my blog.

And the winner is….

Heather Day Gilbert!!!!!

Congratulations to Heather, a self-described, “a Southern/Appalachian gal,” who loves to be an influencer for books she enjoys. I sure hope she enjoys my Southern tale. Be sure to stop by her amazing blog some time.

And HUGE thanks to all who commented and asked questions. Here they are, along with the answers for you.

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Q: Heather says, “I know I’ve read one of your posts about the wait to get picked up as an author. What did you do to get through that waiting time? And I’m so excited for your book, being a Southern/Appalachian gal myself.”

A: It took me approximately eight years from the time I decided to actively pursue traditional publication until now. I did a lot of things during that time, which I blogged about here. Querying agents and landing a publishing house require patience, because it can feel like all you’re doing is waiting. You get to the point where you’re even grateful for rejections, because at least you’ve heard SOMETHING. But I’d say by far the two most helpful things I did to get me through the waiting were: 1) I wrote a weekly newspaper column–for three years, and for no pay. Sometimes I spat the 500 word article out in an hour. Other times, it took me 3-4 grueling days. But it kept me writing, and kept me humble, and kept me aware of just how much work–albeit fabulous work–writing really is. The second thing I did was focus other hobbies. I believe “art feeds art,” not to mention keeps a dull writer a little more well-rounded, so painting and upcycling furniture on days when the waiting felt particularly painful were great helps to me.

Q:  Cynthia Herron asks, “I’m wondering, how much input were you allowed on the cover of How Sweet the Sound? (I love it BTW!)”

A: The cover design process is pretty fascinating to me, especially as someone who used to work as a graphic designer. First, I collected a bunch of images of currently published book covers I felt resembled the theme and feel of my story, and submitted those to the AMAZING designers at David C. Cook who took it from there. They presented me with three absolutely breathtaking–and completely different–cover options. Seriously, they were each impossibly, incredibly, out-of-this world exquisite. I asked close friends which they preferred, and talked to the design team about my thoughts about each one, and in the end, they chose the current cover from those three designs. I actually preferred a different one, but in the end, I am SOOOO glad they chose this one. I couldn’t have asked for or imagined a more beautiful visual representation of my words.

Q: Kathleen asks, “Will you consider taking up your column again?”

A: I so cherished the opportunity to write my weekly column, Life with a Twist, while it lasted! Finding the blessings and twists of hope in everyday life and finding ways to make social justice issues applicable to suburbanites was a great gift. However, creating and self-editing those seemingly brief, 500 words a week took a lot more time than it appeared. I stopped writing column to focus on my novels, and since my heart–and current workload–remain with novels, that’s where I continue to focus, too. Sometimes I do consider writing columns for a newspaper again, especially when there are down times in the editing process. And I did cut my teeth in journalism. Never say never, as they say!

Q: Alyssa Faith asks, “When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer?”

A: Great question, Alyssa. I wish I had a definite answer. The more I’m asked this question, and the more I read other author’s responses to it, the more I’m convinced no one really wants to become a writer–not exactly. I think perhaps when a child first learns that a crayon or a pencil can move along the surface of something … when certain souls learn that the images, then letters, then words of the heart can be pushed out through the hand and appear as tangible color and text … that for certain people, that means of expression becomes a need. Not a decision, but a need, something like breathing for the introvert who holds emotions so tightly within that only the gentle scratchings of a pen can free them to live.

Q: Molly asks, “Where you raised in Alabama? If not why a book set in the South? I will say it’s one of my favorite settings for a book!”

A: I was not raised in Alabama, nor anywhere close to the Mason-Dixon line or I-10. I have great insecurity and anxiety about this fact, that I am a Yankee writing a story about the South. I have vacationed in the area for over two decades, but I am aware this does not count. However, Alabama (the gulf coast, in particular) was where this story had to be told. Only in the ocean air, where the moon tugs relentless against the tide, and where the heat of the day blurs the hard and the concrete could such deep pain and redemption within a story like How Sweet the Sound occur. So, I hope true Southerners will forgive me for barging in to their neck of the woods. Y’all are welcome here in Indiana any time. :)

Q: Debbie asks, “Question, where did the unique names for characters come from?”

Oh, I’m so glad you asked about names! Naming characters is one of my favorite parts of writing fiction. I spend a lot of time researching the origins of names, looking at surname lists from setting regions, and discovering the ancient meanings of names. Sometimes a name on those lists immediately catches my eye, like “Princella.” Other times, I’m surprised when I like a name, and then learn by accident the meaning precisely fits the character, like “Anniston,” named after the town where the Freedom Riders stopped (a fact I learned well after I named her). Every single character I’ve ever named in this novel, and in my second (coming 2015), have deep and rich significance. Not everyone will know this or bother to look up the meanings of those names, but it helps me define and develop the characters as I write. I also believe names empower the characters as a story–and their role in it–unfolds. This reminds me of Isaiah 62:2-3,

“…And you will be called by a new name
Which the mouth of the Lord will designate.
You will also be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord…”

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Thanks again to everyone who commented and asked these fabulous questions.

And again, CONGRATULATIONS to HEATHER DAY GILBERT for winning the very first signed copy of How Sweet the Sound!

Character preview: Meet Anniston Harlan

Though the polar vortex threatens to bring down glaciers anew upon my already ice-age-flattened state, the excitement surrounding the release of my debut novel is warming up! If you haven’t already, be sure to sign up for my newsletter (on the right hand navigation bar of this page) to catch the latest news and information as the March 1 release date approaches. In the meantime, over the next few weeks, I want to introduce you to a few of the key characters in the novel.

As such, meet Anniston Harlan, the leading protagonist in How Sweet the Sound.

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“I thought I’d lived through everything by the time I was thirteen.”

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So says Anniston in the very first sentence of How Sweet the Sound. Thirteen years old and precocious, through her eyes we watch as crime and tragedy plays out in her family. We watch as she tries to make sense of folks who believe what other people think of them is more important than standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. We watch as she finds out how mean the world can be, and that often–too often–that meanness comes from family.

Thirteen.

She thought she’d lived through everything.

And she had, if you count hurricanes and tornadoes, riding the big yellow bus to school, playing in creeks, watching the growth and harvest, the budding and the fall of acres of pecans, and the steadfast love of a father.

She’s spunky and fearless, compliant and shy. She’s sheltered, but she’s a dreamer. She’s wise beyond her years, but young enough to hold on to hope.

This is Anniston, the girl I’ve played with, talked with, laughed with and wept with for the last few years as this story has formed.

She’s lived through everything but freedom…

 And I can’t wait for you to meet her.

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“Like a pecan farmer knows in his bones when his crops are destined for a storm, I always knew something was off-kilter about my family, even before the shootings. Life around here was like a hiccuping movie reel at school, one of those the teacher tries every which way to fiddle with, turning the projector knob back and forth to try to bring focus, glimpses of clarity skipping by, crooked frames never quite settling in.”

~Anniston

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spanish_painting._merello._april_girl

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Question for you:

If you’re a fan of coming-of-age and/or Southern fiction, who is your favorite protagonist?

Why?