Writing

Dear Readers

I woke up this morning to a text from my dad with surprising news: I Shall Be Near To You had gotten enough write-in votes to be among the semi-finalists for the Goodreads Choice Awards 2014. As the news sunk in (and as more official notice came–see that snazzy badge below?), I’ve felt such gratitude, over and over.

GCA badge low res

**Sappiness Alert!**

When I was writing I Shall Be Near To You, I dreamed about the book finding readers. As I cried over *certain parts* and laughed over others, I wondered if anyone would come to love Rosetta and Jeremiah (and Will) as much as I do. When the book was really going to be a book and not just a collection of pages binder-clipped together, I wondered who you all would be.

And then the book appeared on bookshelves (another dream!) and you started reaching out to me in emails and tweets, on Facebook and Goodreads and in blog posts. You showed up at bookstores and events, you met me for coffee and sent me book recs (and books!). You shared parts of your lives with me and we discovered we had lots of other things in common (goats, for one).

Today reminded me of what a marvel it is, how books bring people together, how dreams turn into reality. I’ve felt warm and fuzzy all day, just thinking about it. Just thinking about you.

So, I wanted to thank you for your votes. But really, thank you for reading my book and letting me know you love these characters just as much as I do. I feel so honored– such amazing company I get to keep because of this book! Thank you, dear readers for enriching my life in ways I never dreamed. You’re the best, and I am so very grateful.

An Invitation, Dear Readers

Earlier this summer, fellow Crown author Miranda Beverly-Whittemore invited me to participate in two TwitterChats about beach reads and her novel Bittersweet. It was a blast chatting about books with readers, bloggers, booksellers, authors… When I started thinking about ways to celebrate the paperback release of I Shall Be Near To You, ways that would include as many of the people who have championed Rosetta and Jeremiah as possible and also feel really fun, a TwitterChat rose to the top of my list.

And so, I’m thrilled to announce and invite you to a TwitterChat about all things historical fiction:

When:
Tuesday, September 2nd
6:00-7:00 p.m. PST (9:00-10:00 p.m. EST)

Where:
#IShall

Who:
Eagerly and enthusiastically co-hosted by book bloggers extraordinaire Cassie (Cass With Books), Hannah (So Obsessed With), Kelly (Belle of the Literati), and Ellice (Paper Riot), there’s NO WAY we won’t have tons of fun with these four gals on board. Seriously. They are the best!

I’m also beyond humbled to announce that five (5!!) historical fiction authors have agreed to lend their knowledge and talents to the discussion. Ariel Lawhon (The Wife, The Maid, The Mistress), Lois Leveen (Juliet’s Nurse, forthcoming 9/26/14; The Secrets of Mary Bowswer), Ariel MacArran (Another Man’s Bride), Alex Myers (Revolutionary), and Mary Volmer (Crown of Dust), have all written books that I love to recommend because they embody so many of the qualities that I enjoy most in reading historical fiction (What to know what I think those qualities are? That’s one of the things we’ll chat about on Tuesday!).

I hope you’ll find your way over to Twitter–or better yet, use TweetChat; it’s a super simple way to organize the chat and make sure you get that all-important hash tag (#IShall) added onto every tweet (which is truly the hardest part)– and join us for the discussion. Feel free to invite anyone you know who might enjoy participating– because in addition to stimulating conversation, there will be giveaways! Five paperback copies of I Shall Be Near To You up for grabs during the course of the hour, and copies of Mary Volmer’s Crown of Dust too!

paperback cover

Speaking of Characters

My agent is brilliant. He knows how stories work because he reads a ton (as in, he recently tweeted that he was reading 67 books at once), and he is great at wading through the murk and honing in on what is most important in a story.

In our recent conversation about my novel in progress, he made the point that every character needs to have a want or a desire that is separate from the story. Meaning, each character needs something she would go after, whether the events of the story happen or not. That’s what gives each character her own life and makes her multi-dimensional.

For Rosetta, in I Shall Be Near To You, that want was her own farm. She would have pursued and dreamt of that farm whether she ever met Jeremiah or whether the Civil War happened or not.

It seems like an obvious point when I write it here, but it felt a bit like an epiphany to me– the missing piece of the puzzle, despite all the outlining and drive lines and strengths and weaknesses I had brainstormed for the characters in my new project.

Meet My Main Character Blog Tour

MaryLee MacDonald, author of the forthcoming Montpelier Tomorrow, asked me to participate in this blog tour. In her new novel, she writes about the challenges Colleen faces when her daughter’s husband takes ill. Wanting to help and support her daughter, Colleen must make the difficult decision to put her own life on hold (again) and become a caregiver for her daughter’s family. To read her post, click here.

And now, here’s more about my main character…

Question: What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?

Rosetta Wakefield is the main character in my historical novel, I Shall Be Near To You. She is a fictional character, but she’s inspired by the letters Civil War soldier Sarah Rosetta Wakeman wrote home to her family, and accounts of the 250 documented women who are known to have disguised as men and fought in the Civil War.

Question: When and where is the story set?

The story is set in 1862– from late January to just after the battle of Antietam. It begins in Rosetta’s home town of Flat Creek, New York, and then as Rosetta’s regiment receives orders, the setting moves to Washington D.C., Virginia, and Maryland.

Question: What should we know about him/her?

What you should know about Rosetta is that she is strong-willed, determined, and brave, but also tender and loving.

Question: What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

Rosetta and her new husband Jeremiah dream of having their own farm, where, as Rosetta puts it, they can do as they please. But they don’t have the money to start off on their own. When Jeremiah gets the idea to enlist in the Union Army to take advantage of the signing bonus and good monthly wages, he leaves Rosetta behind on his parents’ farm, where he thinks she’ll be safe until he returns. But Rosetta increasingly feels alienated, attacked, and alone. She decides her place is at Jeremiah’s side, and so she dons Jeremiah’s old clothes and sets out in search of him.

Question: What is the personal goal of the character?

When the book begins, Rosetta’s goal is to get her dream farm and get Jeremiah to marry her.

Question: Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

There were two working titles for I Shall Be Near To You. The very first title was Daughter of the Regiment. The title it had when I landed my agent was There Will I Be Buried. You can read reviews and blurbs for the novel and also find events, radio interviews, articles, Q&A’s and all kinds of fun stuff on my website.

Question: When can we expect the book to be published?

The book was published in January 2014, and is available in hardback, ebook, and audio formats. The paperback is currently slated for release in September 2014.

And now, I’ve tagged these fabulous authors who have agreed to join the blog tour. Their Meet My Main Character blog posts will be online June 2nd.

M. Garzon knows horses and in her Blaze of Glory series she writes movingly about a young woman, Tea, whose dream is to ride professionally. In a story that touches on grief, domestic violence, and loyalty, Tea struggles to pursue her passion while balancing her family responsibilities and her developing attraction to a young man she has been forbidden to date.

M. Allen Cunningham‘s debut historical novel, The Green Age of Asher Witherow, is a lyrical portrait of a young man coming of age in a Northern California mining town where tragedy strikes. Cunningham’s second novel Lost Son is an exploration of poet Rilke’s life and work. His short stories have appeared in The Alaskan Quarterly Review, Glimmer Train, The Kenyon Review, Poets & Writers, Tin House, and many other journals. Two of his stories (“Gentle Knives” and “Highway”) have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. You can also read more about his work on his blog.

Ariel MacArran writes historical and futuristic romances, with a flair for strong female characters, witty dialog, and blisteringly-fast pacing. She is currently at work on the fourth book in her Tellaran Realm series.

Liz Silver‘s debut novel, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton centers on a young woman who is six months away from being put to death for committing first degree murder. When the mother of Noa’s victim has a change of heart and begins working to have Noa’s sentence commuted, Noa is forced to confront the motives behind her crime. In addition to her novel, Liz’s stories and non-fiction have appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Huffington Post, The Millions, and others.

And finally, I want to give a last shout out to MaryLee MacDonald for kindly inviting me to participate in this blog tour! Check out her post about Colleen from her forthcoming novel Montpelier Tomorrow.

Writing Tips that Work for Me

The most important tip I have is do what works for you. That said, I have learned what works for me by reading about what works for other authors. So, in case my method might serve as an inspiration, here goes!

1. Have a regular writing schedule. I think pretty much every writer says this, but it’s because it really helps! When I was drafting I Shall Be Near To You, I shot for writing 5 days a week–like a job. Often I wrote more than that. Having a set schedule helps the ideas start and keep flowing. It’s much easier to get back into a scene I was working on the day before than one I haven’t touched for a week (or more).

2. Have a writing routine. I think of this as a gentle warm-up– a way to ease into the work and get ready to write. My routine when I was drafting my “practice” novel (and the beginning of I Shall Be Near To You), was to walk my dog and then immediately write as soon as we got home. Invariably inspiration would hit at about the time we turned for home. Now my routine is different–usually I make a cup of tea and then as I sit down to work, I turn on the playlist for the project I’m working on. I love working to music that helps set the mood and tone for the project.

3. Set a word count goal for each session I only do this when I’m writing my first draft. My goal is 1000 words. Though, at the beginning of a project, I often set my goal lower, say at 500 words. The idea is to make it something that feels manageable and then, once that gets too easy, increase it. Usually I find that once I get going, I hit my stride and it’s pretty easy to routinely hit 1000 words (and often more). This tip came from Anne Lamott.

4. Research just enough to get going. I start by researching my characters. Since they are always inspired by real people, finding out more about those real women–what their lives were like, what their childhoods were like–almost always gives me ideas for the events of the novel. Then, as I write, I discover other things I need to know, so I’m sort of constantly writing and researching; the two feed each other.

5. Follow the inspiration. If I have a scene that’s begging to be written, I write it! I take inspiration any time I can find it, even though it means I often write out of order (and curse myself for it later). I find it incredibly freeing (and fun) to write a scene I’m feeling driven to set down. Then, on days when nothing is begging to be written, I work on connecting the scenes I already have. It was an interview with Diana Gabaldon that first gave me the idea that it was OK not to write chronologically.

6. Quit when you know what’s next. I try to stop for the day when I’ve got two things: 1000 words AND a good idea for what comes next. That way I can sleep on the “what’s next” and my subconscious can work on it (and be ready to go) the next day. I can’t take credit for this idea–it came from Hemingway.

So there you have it! I hope something on this list will work for you too.

Swearing

When I wrote the first draft of I Shall Be Near To You, there was almost no swearing in the book at all. But over the course of the many rounds of revision, one of my editors pointed out that the men seemed awfully “tame” for soldiers.

It became clear to me that one of the major adjustments a woman disguising as a man might have to make was getting used to the way a group of men might talk to each other when they thought there were no ladies present. It was also clear from my research about the women that many of them adopted “male” mannerisms (chewing tobacco, drinking, playing cards, spitting, and swearing) in attempt to create a more convincing disguise. In fact, the real Rosetta wrote home on two separate occasions about what we might consider “vices”– once she reveals to her mother that “I use all the tobacco I want. I think it will keep off from catching diseases.” Later she mentions that “there is a good many temptations in the army. I got led away into this world So bad that I sinned a good deal. But I now believe that God Spirit has been aworking with me and ’til that I was aComing back to Him again and I hope and pray that I shall never be led away like it again.” I wanted to show what some of these tensions might be as I wrote about the fictional Rosetta.

I also consulted the book The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War. There I learned about the pornagraphic postcards (carte de visites) that soldiers often received in their mail–the inspiration for the one Edward’s brother sends in the novel. That same book also includes stories soldiers wrote in their letters (to friends, usually) about visiting brothels. It was from these accounts that I gleaned some of the popular (and vulgar) phrases used to describe various sexual activities, and from which all of the vulgarities in the book were inspired. I basically compiled a list of all the phrases which would make your ears burn and then, like the Shakespearean insult game, I mixed and matched. And while many people think of “the f-bomb” as a fairly modern word, it has been in existence (in publication!) since the 1500’s, according to Meriam-Webster; while there are no documented uses of the word in any Civil War correspondence, it is almost certain that it was a word the soldiers would have used.

Query Letters

Quite a few people ask me how to go about getting published. My first piece of advice is to finish your manuscript. Then, while you’re letting it sit before your next round of revisions, you can work on your query letter.

Before I wrote my query letter, I spent quite a bit of time tooling around on The Query Shark blog. It’s a FABULOUS resource! Reading it is an education.

Then I wrote at least 6 drafts of my query letter. It was hard. The first versions were terrible, just terrible! So I revised and revised and had MFA friends and family read drafts and revised some more.

Here’s the query letter I ended up with, and that landed me my agent, the amazing Dan Lazar, who has also written this (which I read before querying him) and this about what he looks for in a query.

Dear Mr. Lazar:

Throughout the summer of 1861, Jeremiah Wakefield courts farm-girl Rosetta Edwards, his childhood friend. But when he comes to church one morning with a Union Army recruiting handbill, Rosetta is mad enough to kick shins. Instead, she demands he make her his widow if he plans to go off and die. After their honeymoon, Rosetta lights on an idea to stay together and earn more money to buy their dream farm. Ignoring Jeremiah’s objections and her own fears, Rosetta does a fool-headed thing, something no woman she knows would dare: she becomes Ross Stone. Marching alongside Jeremiah in the 97th New York State Volunteers, Rosetta struggles with being wife and soldier, liar and straight-shooter, daughter and disappointment. Then the battle of Antietam forces grief-stricken Rosetta to decide whether there is more freedom in remaining secret or becoming known, whether going home would sacrifice everything she’s dreamed or be the only way to hold onto it.

Inspired by true accounts of the more than 400 women who disguised as men and fought in the Civil War, There Will I Be Buried is 138,239 words of voice-driven historical fiction that is both tender love story and hard examination of war. While Rosetta would keep company with the likes of Mattie from Charles Portis’ True Grit, Ellen from Kaye Gibbons’ Ellen Foster, and Lydia from Molly Gloss’ The Jump-off Creek, she must answer for herself whether freedom can be gained through disguise and bloodshed, and if the resulting stain can ever be washed clean.

I completed an MFA at Saint Mary’s College of California in May 2010. In March 2010, I read an excerpt of There Will I Be Buried for the monthly San Francisco reading series Quiet Lightning. My short story “Interview with a Union Soldier, Recently Dead” was published in the September 2009 online issue of Hobart. There Will I Be Buried is my first novel. I have pasted the first five pages below. Upon your request I will happily send the complete manuscript.

I am querying you because I think my novel straddles several genres you are interested in: historical, literary, commercial, and women’s fiction. Also, I too, loved the book Middlesex. Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Erin Lindsay McCabe

Finding an Agent

Here’s what worked for me:

Start with agents who have represented books you love that have something in common with your own. Usually authors will thank their agents in their acknowledgments, and if they don’t, well, you probably don’t want to work with that agent anyway. (If you don’t have a copy of the book in question, you can almost always get access to the acknowledgements page via Google Books.)

Research about every agent on your list. You can try a simple google search (which often turns up interviews or blog posts that feature the agent–very helpful). Or go straight to websites like Publishers Marketplace, Poets and Writers, AgentQuery, and Writer’s Digest where you can get contact info., submission guidelines, and lists of interests or genres the agent represents. What you’re looking for is not just how to get in touch with the agent, but also what this person likes and whether those are things you also like or qualities that your book possesses. You are searching for someone who will be a good fit for you and your book. Kind of like dating.

Add more agents. Once I had my list of “dream agents” who had represented books I loved and who were accepting queries, I started researching other agents by genre (I looked for agents who represented historical fiction, women’s fiction, literary fiction, and commercial fiction, or who wanted “upmarket” fiction). I started with a list of about 20 agents.

I only added agents to my list who seemed like they might really like my book. You want an agent who falls PASSIONATELY IN LOVE with your book. Plenty of agents rejected my book even as they said nice things about it. They just hadn’t fallen in love. It was hard to hear at the time, but in retrospect, I’m really glad that they turned it down. It makes a HUGE difference having an agent who has been smitten.

Tailor each query you send to the agent you are querying. Tell the agent why you chose him/her. Be specific!

Make sure your manuscript is ready. Have the first 3 chapters in a separate document in case someone wants a partial manuscript. Have the full manuscript ready to go. Have a synopsis too (it seems like few agents want one anymore, but if someone asks, it’s really awful to have to scramble to pull one together–trust me, I know!).

Send out small batches of queries. This is important. If your query is good and you’re sending it to the right kinds of agents, you should get immediate interest (requests for partial or full manuscripts or for a synopsis). If you get nothing but rejections, then something is wrong with your query letter. So send the query out to just a few agents at a time and gauge the response you get. If you send it to everyone all at once and your query isn’t good enough, you’ll get nothing but rejections and then you’ll be back to square one. While you’re anxiously waiting to hear back from those first few agents, you can be researching new agents to query.

Repeat. But use the feedback you get to guide you. For instance, once I had queried those 20 agents, getting requests for partials and fulls, it seemed like people were getting to the same place and passing. Had I not gotten the email from my now-agent Dan telling me he wanted to talk, I had decided to quit querying and revise again (those pesky flashbacks!).