By Amber Bell
How do you answer the question, “Oh, you’re an author? What do you write?”
I write about people, their personalities, their character and their secrets. I try to utilize diverse backgrounds to create a story that blends life and humor. Then I add some twists and let the ideas simmer to see where they’ll take me.
How would you describe your writing to someone not familiar with your work?
I would say that writing is a voyage. It takes place on many levels. I try to keep readers so involved that they eagerly turn pages in anticipation of what’s going to happen next.
I’ve written touching and compassionate books like Lasso the Stars and amusing stories that put the focus on family values like Because I’m Worth It.
Many readers have a visceral dislike of your character Terri Sue Ellen from Because I’m Worth It. What’s it like writing a character like that?
Terri Sue Ellen received lots of attention. As an individual she packed a wallop. While many readers found her to be absurdly funny, others hated her. In any event, the reader didn’t walk away without an opinion.
Here was a character that had to be reined in but when I’d limit her words, she’d jump up and say something unpleasant and wouldn’t realize it was nasty. She was the result of her upbringing . . . self-centered and overly indulged. We’ve all met people like that and had to deal with them. She gave the story-line a jolt, refused to blend in, cut her own path and remained confused about the quality of her education. The reader was offered an opportunity for reflection, mostly about what people say when they’re not thinking. In short, building the personality of Terri Sue Ellen was an entertaining challenge.
Which of your characters has been the most difficult to write and why?
I’m not sure that any of the characters in Because I’m Worth It were difficult to write. I created separate outlines for each one so they all had a purpose and could work together by adding depth and continuity to the story.
I was sad to write out Harm but he had to leave so that I could introduce Pete as Melissa’s new love. If Harm would have stayed, it was in his character, as Skye’s father, to try to set him straight and then the story would have followed a different path.
Which of your characters would you like to have as a best friend and why?
Well, that would be Melissa because she was sincere and friendly and had a sense of humor. I would enjoy sitting in a rocking chair on her front porch and talking with her.
Angie was another character I liked. She was honest, didn’t take any crap from Skye and was basically a happy person. But, if I wrote a story about only sincere, happy people, it wouldn’t work. A good story needs a villain and a problem to hold the reader’s attention.
Even though they played a minor role, I enjoyed the reality that came from the grandparents, Evelyn and Robert Covington. They were annoyed with the relationship of their son and Terri Sue Ellen but understood there was nothing they could do about it. Their son didn’t listen because he didn’t care what they thought. They solved their issues by moving to Key West where they were happy. Their brief, private conversations, throughout the story, expressed their feelings with clarity mixed with their own sense of dry wit. They knew what was going on but wisely came to the understanding they couldn’t fix it. Often, such is life and we all approach it differently.
If you had to switch places with one of your characters for a week who would you choose and why?
Again, it would be Melissa because she truly enjoyed her lifestyle in Big Sur. How lucky she was to have found love twice and discovered a granddaughter she didn’t know existed!
Would you say your writing style is more character driven or plot driven?
I use a story board and bullet points to navigate the plot. Stick-em notes can be moved around easily to keep the characters on-point. With this book, I think it was plot driven until the characters fully developed and they took the story in-hand and made it work.
Which of your books did you have to do the most research for? What does your research process look like?
Research for Big Sur was done on-line and from memory as many years ago I lived close to Big Sur. More detailed notes like the kind of flowers that grew in the spring, the traits of a six month old baby and her early development, researching how to throw pots and learning about the art of wine tasting and cheese sampling were interesting. I’d get a start on-line and then ask people numerous questions.
I had no idea some folks were so serious about certain things while other folks laughed at the same things. Wine tasting was a great example of that. Some people really analyze a glass of wine as they drink it while others just enjoy the experience. My goal was to find a middle-of-the-road approach for Melissa and Pete when they shared a bottle of wine.
Do you have any set rules for yourself about how or when to write?
I try to write in the early morning and again late at night. During the day there are too many distractions. I have my computer in the laundry room and usually a couple of cats will join me. I discuss plots and characters with them. They’re good listeners and seldom steer me wrong.
What helps spark your imagination when writer’s block hits or you’re just looking for a new idea?
My imagination is sparked when I take a walk on the mountain road. Often an idea will form in my head way before it’s put in the computer. Sometimes I figure out an entire story-line and then jot down the ideas and put them on a story board so I can work on organization. Many of my original ideas are eliminated because, as I write, I find my first thoughts no longer fit in because the story has developed beyond the original concept. Being open to those changes is important.
If writer’s block hits, I do some deep breathing, a bit of meditation (I live in California so meditation can be a catch-all for many situations) and then I’ll go to the mall and people watch. Or I’ll go outside and watch the blue jays and squirrels work the peanut feeder. In other words, I let the computer gather dust while I get away.
What have you learned about yourself from your writing?
I enjoy writing when it flows and worry about it when it’s difficult to get it to an idea to work. I’ll give it a few tries but I‘ve learned when to let go and that’s really important. Actually, it’s a good lesson in life.
What do you hope readers will take away from Because I’m Worth It?
Hopefully, they’ll find the humor in the characters as well as understand their deep emotions. Perhaps they’ll be able to laugh at themselves more readily, sympathize with each other and think more seriously about the values they choose to embrace.
What advice would you give an aspiring writer?
Be true to yourself. Have fun with what you do. Show, don’t tell. Research your facts and plan on lots of edits. Ohh, lots of edits! Keep many puzzle pieces around and know when and how to slide them into place. When you feel a “pop” you’ll know you’re on to something.
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer and how different is the reality from what you had expected?
I started writing stories in the sixth grade and would read them to anyone who would listen. As I think back, people were kind to me . . . maybe, because I was tall and skinny and wore huge glasses. But truth was I must have been a royal pain.
My mother encouraged me to write as she was a “closet” writer. Her stories, which I never knew she wrote, would be about garden faires who rode on butterflies and frogs who sang country western songs. I think that writing about such frivolous ideas was considered silly in a hard-working, mid-west family, back in the day. So my mother kept her work a secret but she remained true to herself because she continued to write. As a child, I loved to listen to her read from an old cardboard bound book.
When my mother passed, I had to go back to Illinois to clean out the family home. I found that book of stories in a bottom drawer in her bedroom and was amazed to see they were written in her own hand and she had signed each story.
To me, the idea of writing a book is a creative endeavor; it’s an emotional high like reaching for the stars. However, the reality of writing is found in the amount of dedication, intensity and hard work that goes into a book.
With self-publishing being an option, what made you choose to publish with TouchPoint Press?
A publisher is a guide who keeps a writer focused. They interact with their writers by sharing valuable experience and keeping reality in sight.
What are you currently working on?
I’m outlining a sequel to Because I’m Worth It and yes, Terri Sue Ellen is still obnoxious, poorly informed and has no idea that people laugh at her. She’s the character you love to hate. Her life faces annoying changes as she makes a shocking discovery about her southern roots. Current problems reach dramatic heights and new characters enter the pages.
Delaney, though married, has an affair with a man who hoards an “unusual collection” in an old mansion. Skye moves on, making new life decisions that show him evolving into a wiser man. Angie learns her boyfriend is related to the Covington family while Melissa and Pete discover new joys as grandparents. Duane and Sandy, the gay couple who adopted Monique, play bigger roles in the sequel. Humor, as well as high drama, abounds in the plot and rewarding twists add new dimensions to the story line.
When can we expect your next release?
I’m hoping for the release to be next year. It’s a huge amount of work to get a story ready for a publisher and, if they accept it, they may have suggestions so more rewrites need to be taken into consideration. Writing and publishing is not a one-person job. It takes a team of people to get a book introduced into the market place.
What amazes you the most about your life?
That I still wake up every day and find something beautiful. It may often be the same thing like my flower garden in full autumn boom or the morning sun sparkling on the ice in the pine trees. I’ve got to get up early to see that because it melts really fast. But usually the amazement comes from something simple and I always appreciate it.
Tell me a random fact about yourself.
Halloween is my favorite holiday. Even though I live on top of a mountain and don’t have trick-or-treaters, I still decorate the family room with witches, spider webs, pumpkins, goblins and scarecrows.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
The cat that helped me with this interview is Fine Fellow, my eighteen pound white boy kitty with a black tail and black tips on his ears. He was an abandoned stray who moved in with us about twelve years ago and takes his commitment to writing very seriously. He sits in a drawer next to me and when he taps my arm with a large white paw it means it’s time for me to stand up, stretch and take a break.
Usually my big black and white reformed feral cat, Romeo Randolf, is my assistant but he’s getting up in age and prefers his soft bed, however, he’s still close enough to the computer to remain available for consultation.
Books by Linda Nielsen