BookBug: As part of the Lightning Tree Book Blog Tour, I am so excited to be interviewing the author, Sarah Dunster. Welcome to The Book Bug, Sarah!
When and why did you begin writing?
Sarah: I have been writing since I was old enough to hold a pen. My earliest journals have more stories, pictures I’ve drawn for my stories, and poems (my own, and ones I liked copied out) than actual journal entries. And when I was in fourth grade I wrote a long, rambling novel on loose binder paper, sat my friends around me in my front yard, and forced them to listen to it. They’re still my friends, thankfully.
BookBug: What books or authors have influenced your life and writing?
Sarah: I guess I’m what you’d call an eclectic reader. I love the old classics: Dickens, Hemingway, Austen. Also classics from children’s literature, like the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Madeline L’engle. But I also love, and have a serious addiction to fantasy, (especially Harry Potter) and serial mysteries (my favorites are by Elizabeth Peters), and (I’m ashamed to admit) I collect and hugely enjoy old, pre-80’s era Harlequin romances (before they got gross.) And… Yes. I’ll admit it. I read chick lit.
BookBug: Ha ha!! I love chick lit! So, besides "pre-80's era Harlequin romances", what is your favorite genre to read?
Sarah: I don’t know that my tastes run to genre so much as author. When I’m drawn to a book, it’s usually because of the characters and the flow of the dialog and the author’s voice—if it’s fluent and has a touch of humor. I love narratives by strong female characters.
BookBug: What book are you reading now?
Sarah: OK, you got me… I’m reading a Harlequin written by Betty Neels. I am fascinated with romance writers. The quality of writing varies widely from book to book, but every once in a while you get one in your hands that has such stunning quality of writing that you think, who was this really? Someone famous writing under an alias, in order to help fund their other writing, most likely. And one time I read this truly hilariously awful one, written in the ‘30’s. It was so bad I looked up the author’s name, and guess what? She’d written over 40 books in her life. And she used the money to fund her participation in the resistance during World War II. I feel so intrigued by the sort of undercurrent messages that “fluffy” writing will tell you about what society thought of women and their role over the decades (and even centuries, if you go back to 1800’s era penny novels with the yellow covers that women would buy and hide under their pillows.)
BookBug: That is so interesting and something I've never even thought of! (And by the way, my mom used to read those romance novels! I always thought that the covers were so hilarious!)
What is your writing process? Do you follow a regular routine?
Sarah: I write 1100 words every weekday, sometime during the day. My day’s not done until the 1100th word is on the page. Sometimes I write more, but never less… and honestly there is no time of day. With six children, it’s pretty much either “write when you have time” or “strike when the iron is hot.” Sometimes I’ll run out of the shower trailing soap to frantically type in several ideas that occurred to me while washing my hair. And I’ve run more than a few stop-signs scribbling plot ideas into the palm of my hand with a ballpoint pen.
BookBug: I can only imagine! I can't believe you even find the time to write with 7 kids! Do you ever suffer from writer’s block and not get to 1100 words? If so, what do you do about it?
Sarah: I don’t believe in writers’ block. I think you write every day no matter what… sometimes it does take a few paragraphs to get back into the flow. But the more consistently you write, the less you worry about things like writers’ block, because you know the next day will likely be better, and even if you delete almost every word from the previous day, you’re still practicing your skill. You know?
BookBug: That is great advice for any author. I have experienced that myself in my profession and that seems to be the best way to push past any type of "writer's block".
If it's not writer's block, then what was the hardest part of writing your book?
Sarah: Hardest and most fulfilling: the research. I took a lot of pains to make sure this story was historically accurate, not only in events and timelines, but in everyday behaviors, tools they would use, the buildings that actually stood in the town I’m depicting, and what the people were like. And I’ll admit that’s what frightens me most about the release of my book: that historians might read it and jump on things they think are inaccuracies. I’ll admit I’ve been kind of a snob about my sources. I’ve read the textbooks, but I looked whenever possible for firsthand accounts—journals, autobiographies, and ward histories. And when the two differentiated, I went with the personal accounts. I felt that was the way to go in writing a novel where characters are a big part of what moves my story along.
BookBug: I very much respect and admire authors who write historical fiction. I love to read it but would be daunted by the amount of research it takes to write accurately.
What do you think are the most important elements of good writing?
Sarah: Things like grammar problems and awkwardness in sentences and word echoes in a paragraph will make it very difficult for a reader to focus on what you’re actually writing. But also, be yourself. Find your own voice. I know everyone says that, and it makes new writers want to rip their hair out (I have) because what does that mean exactly? But think of your favorite authors and how they have a distinct flavor. Your voice is probably somewhat like what you most love to read, though you will be putting enough of your own unique style into your writing, without even realizing it, that you will sound unique to those who read what you write.
BookBug: You are full of amazing advice for new authors! I will be coming to you when I finally decide to write a novel!
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Sarah: Outdoorsy stuff. And reading, of course. I really, really want to learn how to fly fish. And every day is filled up with motherly tasks. I love my children—they bring a great deal of balance and peace to my life. I know that my role as mother is in the end the most important one, regardless of how well my book does or whether my writing career develops from here on out.
BookBug: I will have to teach you how to fly fish! I love outdoorsy stuff (and I usually bring a book to whatever activity I'm doing outside!) And it is so gratifying to talk to someone who views motherhood as a woman's most important role no matter what the outside world thinks.
What are you working on now?
Sarah: I finished a fantasy novel, and am actively submitting to agents right now. And lately I have started on a new story—narrative fiction, from the perspective of a character who is struggling to cope with loss. It’s a story that really gets to me… I’ve been wanting to write it for a while.
BookBug: Can't wait to read your next projects!
And lastly, do you have any more advice for someone who is pursuing being an author?
Sarah: 1: You are a writer no matter what. You write because you can’t help it. It took me five years and four manuscripts (not counting rewrites) to catch anyone’s attention. So don’t get discouraged if it takes a while to get your stories out there. Keep writing if only for the sake of writing.
2: Submit to contests. Any contests. There are so many of them out there! And if you win, your writing gets read by an audience—maybe even an audience with agents and publishers in it who might pick up your story and ask for more—and you have something to put in a cover letter that might attract an agent or publisher’s attention.
3: Join a writers’ league and a critique group. In the two years I’ve been going to critique group, my writing has improved so much more than when I was bumbling along on my own. And it is so much fun… being with other writers provides motivation to keep writing yourself.
BookBug: Thank you so much for being here on The Book Bug, Sarah! It was wonderful getting to know more about you and your life as a writer. Good luck with your book and all your future endeavors!
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