Cathy Answers Your Writing FAQs
Where do you find your ideas for characters, and for stories?
Characters are everywhere—in the faces of people I meet in town; in the way a man or woman might hunch over a grocery cart as they shuffle through the store; the teen with a cell phone glued to her ear, oblivious to the car and the world speeding past her; in the letters and diaries of my ancestors and of strangers that I come upon through the archives in historical societies and museums; in the people I’ve known and loved—or not.
Stories, too, are everywhere—but there are so many possibilities crowding my brain that I must listen for the still small voice that says, “This is the one for this moment in time, this is the reason for this story, this is the premise, and this is the way to tell it.” That doesn’t mean I see the full picture when I begin, know every conflict my characters will face, or understand the nuances or even layers my story will unfold. But that still, small voice is the Creator of my stories and life—the ultimate beginning and end. God works through my curiosity and natural desire for more of Him—for a better understanding, connection, and intimacy—and my passion to share that mystery and joy with others.
Those stories rise from a combination of my fascination with a historical event or time period coupled with a need the Lord lays on my heart—a need that will not let me go:
- William Henry is a Fine Name—The Underground Railroad, coupled with issues inherent in slavery, and the realization that we are not victims, but are free to choose what we believe and how we act on those beliefs.
- I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires—The American Civil War, coupled with the need to surrender our agenda and lives to Him, and the realization that such surrender is victory.
- Promise Me This—Titanic’s 100th Anniversary and WWI, coupled with the wonder and miracle of Christ’s love and sacrifice for us, and our response to that unmerited gift in loving one another.
- Band of Sisters—The plight of immigrants entering through Ellis Island and the question posed by Charles Sheldon, “What would Jesus do?” coupled with the response of Christians to modern-day slavery, including the freeing and healing of those who are bound.
What kind of research do you do?
I begin by reading widely about the time period from as many different viewpoints as possible, both histories and books that were released or popular during the era. I listen to the music of the day (what was popular and what was approved by the elders of the day)—often a window into the psyche of the populace. I haunt museums, historical societies, graveyards, old churches, and walk the land and streets where my story took place, even though the surroundings have changed dramatically. I compare maps—old and new, and read old letters, diaries, journals, old newspapers and magazines. I gain understanding of the political theories of the day (especially if they strongly impact the characters), learn what inventions were just coming on the scene and how things were made and used. I research fabrics and recipes common to the time and region, and experiment with some of those recipes on my good-natured husband. The bookstores/gift shops of historic sites are gold mines for research material, often selling books written by students or professors with unique research interests. I love living history museums. I’m a visual learner and am thrilled when I can see and touch—helping me to better understand.
The trick is always in knowing when to stop researching and begin writing. It’s easy to get lost in those treasure troves of the past.
What advice would you give to a new writer about learning the craft and pursuing publication?
“What is that in your hand?” It’s the question God asked Moses as he stood, trembling before the burning bush at the base of Mt. Horeb. God had just told Moses to go back to Egypt (where he was wanted for murder) and tell Pharaoh to let His people go.
No way, no how did Moses want that job. He thought of every reason in the book why he wasn’t the person qualified to confront Pharaoh—much as we, as writers, might list our excuses when God calls us to write for Him: I don’t have credentials. I don’t have a Masters in Fine Arts—or even a college degree. Nobody in my family ever did this. I have children, a husband, parents to care for, I work full time—with no time or energy to write, let alone pursue publication. I’m an introvert and can’t possibly talk to agents or editors. God gave me these words—how can I allow some agent or editor to change my story?
Excuses and our to-do lists are endless—because we live in a real world with real distractions.
But we must decide if we’re going to write or not, and for anyone called by God to write—or do anything—it is a question of obedience.
Once that’s decided, everything else falls into place—not through wishing, and not easily, but by forming a plan and placing one foot in front of the other. Let’s consider these issues:
- No Credentials: We might not have “credentials,” but through research and deliberate networking we can learn what we need to know and establish our presence in the pertinent community. If we don’t know where to begin, we can ask for guidance from someone who has achieved what we’re seeking or who is on the path we need to walk.
- No Formal or Inadequate Education: We might not have that MFA, but through diligent study of the craft we can gain the education needed. Think outside the traditional education box, knowing that if God has called us, He will also equip us. Like Moses, He expects us to step up to the plate and use the opportunities in our hands. It may not be easy, but little worth doing is easy. Consider enrolling in creative writing and/or English courses, as well as courses in a chosen genre or field of writing (formal courses through a community college or university, correspondence or on-line courses through a reputable company, or self-taught courses, classes at writing conferences or seminars. Read the masters, and practice, practice, practice—reading, writing, reading, writing, reading, writing . . . ) Understanding how we best learn, and what our time and budget allows for that learning, is an important step.
- No One in my Family Ever Did This: Don’t allow those around you, family or friends, to discourage or dissuade you, but realize that God knit you together in your mother’s womb for a purpose. If He has called you and you’ve answered in obedience, He will equip you—there are many voices of doom and gloom in life. If we want His best, we can’t confuse His call with our limited expectations or those of others. More often than not, He’s called me to do things completely outside the box of my own experience or expectation. When I’ve been obedient, the results have surpassed my imagination. When I’ve traveled my own way, I’ve missed the mark and who knows what opportunities.
- Family Responsibilities and Lack of Time: One thing we can always count on is change—our current family situation will change, our financial situation will change, our living situation will change as years go by. Work within the parameters that exist—today. Know that the pursuit and reward of publication is accomplished by putting one foot in front of the other—sometimes doggedly, always creatively—and that although we might not understand God’s timing, He is Sovereign. If we wait to write and/or pursue publication until we “have time,” we’ll be too old to hold a pen.
- I’m an Introvert and couldn’t possibly network to sell or promote my books: So am I. So are most writers—embrace that and feel the camaraderie. It will save lots of angst. We can work in solitude or isolation for years, or we can reach out enough to find someone happy to share the journey. Iron sharpens iron, and when we fall down, a good friend helps us up—there’s Scripture for both points. Social networking makes it easier than ever to “talk” with people. I’m not advocating the internet as a substitute for fellowship or gathering—just saying that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
- God gave me these words. How can I allow an agent or editor to change them? The first thing needed is to write a great book—the best book we can possibly write at this point in our journey. Then realize that there are others who have been gifted, called, and equipped by God to come alongside and help hone the work, others who (like writers) are fulfilling their unique purpose—mentors, critique partners and groups, agents, editors, marketing managers, publicists, and retailers.
Once I realized how God had uniquely gifted these team players, I understood that my book wasn’t just “my” book—it was the product of an enthusiastic team, all working to birth a story to the world—a story God had jointly called us to conceive, write, sell, edit, proofread, print, market, publicize, and through retailers and librarians, bring to readers.
If you could go back to the beginning of your writing career, is there anything you’d change or do differently?
I’ve discovered that our calling and/or writing is not about creating or publishing a book, but that God has called us to a process—a process that engages many. He prepares us, and the team, for that process through experiences over the course of our lives. With every book we write we learn more, not only about writing, but especially about listening more closely for His voice, and surrendering more fully to Him.
I learned that publishers are not looking for “one book wonders,” they’re looking for authors they can invest in. By the time I began to have a clue about this my first publisher wanted another book, and I felt overwhelmed by the timetable.
What I’d do differently is to believe in miracles, knowing that with God all things are possible. I’d realize that the end result is not up to me, but that since He called me, He would also equip me for every work He wants me to produce.
Based on that belief, I would work just as hard to learn the writing craft, but would not wait until the first book sold (as if that was the end goal) to begin another book. In faith, I would immediately begin researching and writing that next book.
Based on faith, I’d also begin networking and promoting books, understanding that God doesn’t mean for us to hide the stories and gifts He has asked us to share under a bushel. The lessons we learn while writing are for us, but the stories are gifts for others and are an honor and praise to Him.
Some people said I should have had more self-confidence as a writer in the first place—confidence that my work would sell. But I know I should have had more God-confidence that would have enabled me to forget about self and joyfully pursue the work He’d placed before me.
What resources do you recommend to new writers?
There are many wonderful books, DVDs and CDs on the mechanics and craft of writing available through your library, in bookstores, and on line. My two favorites are:
Do you recommend taking writing correspondence courses?
Although course quality depends on the teacher as well as the program, I’ve found that some writing correspondence courses are very much like working with an editor, which was beneficial to me.