Award winning author Timothy Best talks about his characters, writing, and what he learned from Jane Austen.

By Amber Bell

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How do you answer the question, “Oh, you’re an author? What do you write?”

I always answer “romance novels” because that’s what I write. When people occasionally ask: “Aren’t most romantic novelists women?” I say, yes, but then remind them of Nicholas Sparks’ career. Twenty novels, millions of books sold, eleven of his novels have been turned into movies. Not too shabby. I’d settle for one-tenth of his success. Well, okay, maybe one-fourth.

How would you describe your writing to someone not familiar with your work?

Besides calling my books romance novels, I’d also say they’re intelligently written. I never talk down to an audience. I’ve never done that in my advertising writing career, either. At least, I’ve tried not to. I’d also say that my books are a lot more than just romance. They’re funny. Some are very action-packed. Some take on big questions like the existence of God (Substitute Angel), or breaking society’s norms (A Farm In Pennsylvania). And I’d also say they’re spicy. Not in bad taste. But pretty hot sometimes. My wife’s a good barometer of what works and doesn’t with a predominately female audience. She’s my best supporter and harshest critic. Another thing I tell people who don’t know my work is look for the twist – the thing that’s right there on the page but you don’t see it until it’s revealed later in the story. The big ah-ha moment. Learned that one from Jane Austen.

Which of your characters would you like to have as a best friend and why?

That’s a tough question. My characters are kind of like my children. I love ‘em all. Even the really bad ones. But I’d probably have to go with the character of Clair Sinclair from Substitute Angel and The Intended Ones. Especially the angel version of Clair. Who wouldn’t like to have the opportunity to be friends with an angel? If Clair were my best friend, I wouldn’t make so many dumb choices.

Which of your characters has been the most difficult to write and why?

I can actually think of two: Maria Angelina Alvarez Samuels from A Farm In Pennsylvania and Margot Laurent from The Thing With Margot. Both heroines were difficult for different reasons. In Maria’s case, she’s Hispanic, lived in the 1800’s, came from a very impoverished background in Mexico, and then basically became a slave to an abusive husband. She’s also a mother. I’m none of those things. I’m a middle-aged white guy from an upper middle-class midwestern background. Maria was a challenge to create and read as authentic. I was also really cognizant about the arc of her character: To go from an enslaved person, to a woman whose heart is opened, finds her dignity, then finds the courage to defy her religion, obligations, and basically her whole life up to the point she decides to love John Dorian, my hero. That’s very delicate stuff.
With Margot, it was a different challenge. She’s almost two people in one body. On the one hand, she’s an accomplished assassin, martial arts expert, sharpshooter, and aviator. On the other, she’s crazy about baking, decorating, wearing skirts, hanging frilly curtains, and listening to chirpy love songs by Joni Mitchell and Colbie Caillat. Every man at some point in his life wants to marry a Disney girl while fancying himself as James Bond. Margot is both in one person. Too much one way or the other and the character doesn’t work. So I really worked on her a lot. But, I totally buy Margot. In the end, aren’t we all different people at different times?

In Substitute Angel and The Intended Ones you had an angel as a character and in The Ambassador’s Daughter you have an alien. Is there any other supernatural creature or element that you’d like to write about?

Well, first, let me clarify something. My new book, which I was going to call The Ambassador’s Daughter, isn’t going to be called that. There was apparently another book—a Christian romance called The Ambassador’s Daughter—that came out a couple of years ago. So, that kind of killed my title. My editor and I are kicking around new titles now, so it’s going to be called something else. But, second, yes, I’m writing about a new supernatural element right now.
I like the supernatural because it’s obviously something special. True love is something special, too. So, the two intermix well. In the book I just started, The Foresight of Miriam Asquith, my heroine is a member of the British royal family who can, on occasion and without warning, predict the future. It’s also set in 1936. So, I’ve got history, a royal lineage, an impending world war, and the English countryside going for me. All terrific ingredients for a good love story with that previously mentioned twist.

You’ve written both contemporary fiction and historical fiction. Did you find one more difficult to write and is the process different?

As you might suspect, historical fiction is much more difficult because I’m constantly stopping the writing process and looking something up, then cross-referencing it because my first source might be wrong. The joke I used to tell about writing A Farm In Pennsylvania was: “I’d write a paragraph describing what my heroine was wearing and doing, then I’d have to research that paragraph for an hour to see if the clothes she was wearing and what she was doing was historically accurate.” This was especially true when writing about Gettysburg. That’s hallowed ground, even if I’m simply using it as a springboard to tell a love story. So yes, writing historical material demands a lot more work.
I want to put the reader in the timeframe of the story, but at the end of the day, I’m writing a piece of fiction, not a textbook. Of course I want to be historically correct, but I don’t want to write about history to the point of where I get lost in the weeds. I want to keep the story moving. I also ignore history when it doesn’t suit me. For instance, in A Farm In Pennsylvania, there’s a scene where my heroine, Maria, is giving herself a sponge bath and I’m describing her nakedness. It’s supposed to be an enticing scene, but in reality, she would’ve had very hairy legs because women didn’t shave in the 1860’s. So I conveniently omitted that fact because most modern readers wouldn’t find that appealing.

In The Thing With Margot you have your characters traveling all over the world. Were you able to go to any of the destinations yourself for research?

Yes. Sort of. Hemingway said: “Write what you know.” So it’s important to experience as much as you can in person. For Substitute Angel and The Intended Ones, I went to Michigan and filmed a lot of places with my camcorder, knowing I was going to refer to the footage when writing the books in Tennessee, where I was living at the time. For A Farm In Pennsylvania, I drew upon my knowledge of Gettysburg which I have visited several times. I’m a bit of a Civil War enthusiast.
For The Thing With Margot, it was sort of half and half. I drew upon personal experiences having been to London, England, Ottawa and Stratford Canada, islands in the south seas, locations in the Florida Keys, and of course, I taught at the University of Alabama. Other locations like Cuba, Moscow, Paris and Iraq were from research. I agree with what Hemingway said and long for the day when I’m a successful enough writer to personally explore all the places I write about. Until then, the internet is awfully convenient.

Which of your books did you have to do the most research for? What does your research process look like?

A Farm In Pennsylvania required the most research. As I said in my previous answer, I drew upon personal experiences from having visited the town and battlefield numerous times. But I also did research from books, the internet, fellow Civil War enthusiasts, and I even called the Gettysburg National Park to speak with tour guides. Those guides go through extensive training and testing before they can lead a guided tour through the park. I also kept a file of my research for over a year in case someone wanted to challenge me about something. As I say, Gettysburg is hallowed ground. It’s the most written about battlefield in American history, so it was very important to me to try and get things right.
For Substitute Angel, the process was less research by reading and more boots-on-the-ground. As I mentioned earlier, I went to Charlevoix where the story was set and filmed tons of stuff; everything from the “mushroom house” where my heroine, Farren Malone, lived, to downtown Charlevoix, to the dirt roads that led to cottages and the shoreline of Lake Charlevoix. I also talked with locals. Waitresses, cops, real estate salesmen, people at the city council, and so on. I also interviewed a priest about the classifications of angels, then cross-referenced what he said on-line. I additionally interviewed paramedics and surgical nurses regarding what my paramedic hero, Doc Reynolds, would do in emergency situations and how his actions would be different from his partner EMT. So, the research for each book varies depending upon the subject matter.

Do you have any set rules about how or when to write?

Great question. Going back to Hemingway, he used to dedicate five or six hours to writing everyday. I can’t do that with my novels because I have a full-time job as a Creative Director-Writer in the advertising business. I don’t try to force a story. I don’t say to myself: “Time to write a new book.” I know the ideas will come. Keith Richards said: “Songs are everywhere. All you’ve got to do is pluck them out of the air.” I agree with that. An idea will strike me, then I’ll pluck it out of the air and think about it for a while. And by a while, that could mean months. Then, once I get going, I first write a several page outline. They’re very helpful. That outline may even go through a few drafts. Then, I begin the actual book. The only hard and fast rule I have is, once you start the book, don’t waste time. For example, this past week, I found myself at the Tucson International Airport for a couple of hours waiting for a flight. So, instead of reading a magazine, or playing a game on my phone, I wrote nearly the entire second chapter of The Foresight of Miriam Asquith. If my wife and I are driving somewhere down the highway on a long road trip, I might ask her to drive while I write. Or, instead of watching TV in the evening, I may write. You wouldn’t believe how much I’ve written on planes. The point is, when I find myself with spare time, I use it. I also don’t consider anything I write precious. I’m always reworking things until the last minute. That includes the final editing process. My publisher may have accepted a draft I submitted, but if I see a way to improve something, I’ll make changes until the last possible moment. I want the reader to have my best work.

What helps spark your imagination when writer’s block hits or you’re looking for a new idea?

Patience. As I said in my previous answer, ideas are out there and I know they’ll come. You just have to wait for them then recognize within yourself when inspiration strikes that it’s a good idea and something you want to write about. The idea, incidentally, might be half baked. But the more you think about it, the more developed it’ll become in your mind. Being in the advertising business also helps because I’m constantly exposed to information about what resonates with mass audiences. So, I take that into consideration as well. With that said, I don’t really have trouble with writer’s block.
But I have written myself into a corner from time to time where something doesn’t work within the parameters of the story, or it doesn’t ring as true with one of my characters. When this happens, I just stop and be patient. Eventually, I’ll work it out in my mind. And if that means I’m rewriting 100 pages—that’s what it means. As I say, I don’t consider the work precious. Important, yes. But it’s never a lock.

What advice would you give an aspiring writer?

The two biggest pieces of advice I can give others is to read the work of authors in the genre you aspire to, then write. Try to write everyday, even if it’s a poem, or in a journal, or a letter. In the advertising business, I have to write daily to make a living and that really keeps the writing muscle strong. Mark Twain began as a copywriter. So did comedian Bob Newhart. So did Lawrence Kadson who co-wrote Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. So write. Read. Write. Read. Repeat. I know really good writers who think about books or screenplays but never actually take the time to write, and that’s a pity. You’ve got to be disciplined about it. Both the reading and writing.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer and how different is the reality from what you had expected?

I knew I loved writing back in high school. That was a long time ago. I was inspired by Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan and songwriters like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. So the desire to be published—and I mean traditionally published—had been with me for 25 years before I actually got published. I didn’t think it would take so long. I also had dreams of being a lot more successful as a novelist. But I’m very grateful for the publisher and audience I have, and I honestly believe that being discovered by a mass audience will still happen. If it does, I’ve already got a catalog of books for that audience to enjoy. I’ve also written and produced hundreds of TV commercials and videos in the advertising business, so I tend to think of everything in scenes. Readers often say to me: “Man, this book would make a great movie,” I thank them and say: “I agree.” I love being a novelist, but having one of my books get optioned for screenplay development is never far from my mind.

 

Books by Timothy Best

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