I did nine school visits during the 2015-2016 school year, each visit consisting of from one talk to as many as five. The number of students at each talk varied from twenty-five to more than three hundred. I have spoken in classrooms, gymnasiums, and churches.
Many of these students had been aware of my novel, LIKE A RIVER, either reading it as an assignment or having it read aloud in class. For that reason, the majority of each talk focused on that novel, though I did always mention EMPTY PLACES. My talks always include a question-and-answer session. I thought I’d share here a few of the most-asked questions and their answers.
When did you become a writer? And why?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write. I began selecting words to put on pages at the age of five. My first writings were short poems, but the poems grew longer as I used them to tell stories. That’s when I knew I wanted to write novels. Creating characters and telling their stories gives me great satisfaction and joy. I have been a writer since I was five, and I do it because it’s what I love to do.
Why did you write about the Civil War?
The Civil War was an interesting and pivotal part of our nation’s history. It changed us as a country. I first became interested in it after reading biographies of Abraham Lincoln. Since Lincoln’s presidency and the Civil War occurred during the same time frame, they are impossible to separate. So my interest in Lincoln led me to an interest in the Civil War. The more I read about it, the more I wanted to learn. I studied it from both perspectives, Union and Confederate. The number of dead from both sides amounted to more Americans killed than in all our other wars added together. How could I not write about it?
How do you choose names for your characters?
Writing historical fiction requires learning everything I can about a certain time period and its settings. As I do that research, I am always on the lookout for names that are appropriate to the place and time. Often I find those names on tombstones or in old documents. Leander and Polly were names I ran across more than once. I saw the name Given only one time, a signature on a Civil-War era letter in a museum in Andersonville, Georgia. I knew immediately it was the right name for my character.
For EMPTY PLACES, I knew that an important aspect in naming offspring in areas like Harlan County is kin. Babies were usually named for parents or grandparents. Three of the children of Ray and Ada (Pickens) Cutler are Raynelle, Pickens, and Adabel.
How did you know the way people spoke back in the old days?
That is part of my research. Reading old letters, diaries, and newspapers is a good way to find out, not only how people spoke, but how they felt about their lives and the events happening around them. I also visited the areas I wrote about and listened to the way people in that place speak now. It helps me to “hear” my characters.
I will answer more of the questions I’ve been asked in future blog posts.