On Writing caught up with author Ann Nolder Heinz to talk a little bit about what writing means to her.
What inspired you to start writing?
I grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, where life flowed as deep and tranquil as the Cedar River that divided east from west and the neighborhoods were safe for children to play outside until after dark. I was fortunate enough to be born into a family where books were collected and revered. My earliest memories are of the sublime pleasure to be had from reading, first cuddled next to my grandmother in her big stuffed rocking chair as she read the children’s classics aloud, then curled up on my own as I graduated from story collections and Little Golden Books to Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and finally to the contemporary and classic novels in my mother’s library. I was already a lifelong book junkie, the first step on the road to becoming a writer.
I discovered the allure of writing in the fourth grade. I was blessed with teachers who encouraged creativity in their students and required us to write several stories every year.
I enjoyed the process so much that I soon began writing stories for my own pleasure. I confess that in the early days I was better at conceiving and starting a story than I was at following it through to conclusion, as is proven by the numerous “Chapter 1’s” in the box of my juvenile writing stored in our attic. But the appeal was irresistible, and it found me again as an adult. Rather than a conscious choice, it was an itch I had to scratch regardless of whether the end result were judged as a success or failure by others. As it happened, I experienced much more of the latter than the former through the years, but I discovered that to feel truly happy and complete, I must soldier on.
What does your writing process look like?
Desire was just the catalyst for my writing career. Learning and perfecting the skill necessary to produce a publishable manuscript required years of hard work. Through trial and error, I have developed a process that involves three phases: concept and planning, first draft, and editing and polishing. Once I have settled on an overarching idea for a book, I begin fleshing it out with the main characters. I give each one physical and emotional attributes and backgrounds that are interesting and fraught with possibilities for conflict. I do whatever initial research is necessary. When my internal instincts tell me it is time to move past the theoretical, I begin writing. I allow my characters to determine the scope and direction of the plot, adding in minor characters and subplots as they occur to me. When all threads have been tied up in a satisfying conclusion, I move on to the difficult task of being my own worst critic. I pore over the writing with the goal of tightening the prose until it is crisp yet effective, looking for redundancies, awkward phrasing, loquaciousness, overuse of “telling” rather than “showing,” and anything else that interferes with the readers’ willingness to suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in the story.
This process is very much like riding a virtual rollercoaster. Conceiving an idea and carrying it through into the book’s initial chapters provides an emotional high that is impossible to describe. There comes a time in every manuscript, however, when my momentum slows and I must grind out the progression of the plot. This is the work’s most vulnerable time, and I must call on sheer determination and persistence to continue on. Excitement returns when the final climax and denouement are clear to me, and I often cannot write fast enough to get it all down. This energy carries me into the editing phase, and I am usually able to sustain a steady pace through several read-throughs until I am satisfied the manuscript is as good as I can make it. Although the process is grueling, I can say without hesitation that I never fail to find joy and immense satisfaction when I finally make it to those final words: The End.
What is your favorite genre and why?
I began writing what I most like to read: mystery and psychological suspense. I wrote in these two genres for many years, my last four novels being set in the delightful little river town where I live. A few years ago, a fortuitous happenstance pulled me away from this genre and into historical fiction. I participated in a tour of Underground Railroad sites in the small town of Jacksonville, Illinois and was deeply impacted by the narrative of our guide, a young black journalist who had made a study of this subject. By the end of the day, I had conceived the idea for a novel about the Underground Railroad entitled Last Stop Freedom with two female protagonists, one a black slave, the other a white woman oppressed by the men in her life. Thus began a writing adventure such as I had never experienced.
I discovered that much has been written about the Civil War but very little about the decade preceding it when the seeds of that horrific war were planted and grew. It was a period of time vital to fulfilling the values and ideals set forth by our founding fathers but left only half realized by them. My research took me into every facet of mid-nineteenth century American life: social, political, religious, and economic. I ended up writing three books spanning this period, each one taking a minor female character from the previous book and developing her story in a different direction. All three spotlighted the themes of oppression, rebellion and the freedom to determine one’s own destiny.
Do you model characters after real people? Do you have favorite characters?
The role of a character is to advance the storyline. If a character is modeled on a real person, the plot must fit that character rather than the other way around, which raises boundaries that restrict the scope of the story. On the other hand, creating characters out of the author’s imagination gives him or her delicious power. I am able to give my protagonists qualities that make them the women I would like to be or the men I would most like to befriend or love. Likewise, my antagonists can be every bit as conflicted and wrong-headed as most flawed human beings are. Then I have the ability to manipulate events so the outcome reflects my ideal world. Great fun!
That is not to say that real people cannot play a part in a story, particularly one set in a historical context. But that person’s presence in the story must coincide with the overarching reach of the plot. It is also important to adhere to historical truth. Using a historical character incorrectly will only interfere with the readers’ ability to fully immerse themselves in the story.
As for my favorite characters, I truly enjoy them all and am always sad to leave them when the story is done. That being said, Julia and Fanny from Last Stop Freedom are far and away my most beloved. Julia has the gift of faith and the tenderhearted capacity to love unconditionally. Fanny has the stoic wisdom to accept what she cannot change and the courage to risk everything to find a better life. I admire them both.
What would be your advice for aspiring authors?
WRITE BECAUSE YOU CAN’T NOT WRITE.
It is that simple. For me, the lure of writing is an itch I have to scratch regardless of whether the end result is judged as success or failure by others. I have experienced much more of the latter than the former through the years, but I discovered long ago that in order to feel happy and complete, I must soldier on.
That said, I acknowledge it is not always easy. For me, the most challenging aspect is managing the emotional fluctuations I experience when I write. The highs come when an idea is blossoming and the plot path forward is clear. The lows come when the writing does not flow and I am uncertain of the mission I have set for myself. The trick is to keep working regardless. Then there is the dreaded “writer’s block,” which is a common malady from which I am not immune. My cure is to place myself in a situation of total relaxation in order to allow my subconscious to work on the problem and come up with a solution. My favorite setting is a deep hot bath. Another big hurdle is managing the rejection letters once the work is complete. Nothing is more depressing for a writer than receiving this kind of news ─ and I have received more of it than I care to remember. My policy has always been to permit myself to mourn for a short time then force myself back to work. Recovery is easiest when there is a new project in the pipeline.
Bottom line, get to it. Decide on a project, let the words flow, then dissect and analyze what you have written. Take a class, join a writers’ group, read any advice you can get your hands on. My own contribution is a set of writing tips on my website www.fictionbookmates.com. Regardless, the best idea in the world is useless until it is communicated to others. So write it! You will never regret that decision.
To learn more about the author click here.
To purchase "A Light Within" click here.