With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer/blogger Cherise Hensley present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.
AUTHORNOMICS Interview with M.L. Gardner
M.L. Gardner is a best selling author currently living in Northern Utah after spending a decade in the Pacific Northwest. Having grown up a Navy brat, she’s lived everywhere and considers no one place home. Gardner is the author of The 1929 Series and currently blogs about her homecrafting adventures on her website. She collects cats and dreams of opening a no kill shelter in her backyard where she can be surrounded by her feline friends all the time, despite their love of sitting on her keyboard. She is married with three kids and three cats and writes full time, living on cheese and Bing energy drinks.
You are probably best known for your multi-book series, 1929. What attracts you to the historical fiction genre?
Historical fiction is my favorite to read, and having a love of the depression era for many years, it felt the most natural to write.
What drew you to focus on the 1929-1939 Stock Market Crash & Great Depression?
I didn’t so much decide to write in that era, it chose me. When our own market crashed in 2008, ideas started swirling. Originally, 1929 started out as a modern “how to” book for surviving hard times based on the lessons from the Great Depression. It evolved from there, wanting to be something more.
Writing historical fiction takes a lot of research. What are some of your strategies for compiling and organizing your research?
I started with what I already knew, stopping to research what I needed to know. Probably the most helpful books were Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940 by David E. Kyvig and Rainbows End by Maury Klein. They were very helpful with the technical side of things.
How long of a process is it to sketch out, research, and write a book in the 1929 Series? Can you walk us through your creative process?
My best friend, Lisa is a large part of the creative process. While I do all of the actual writing, I cannot take credit alone for the books. Lisa and I spend a lot of time working on book and plot ideas. She contributes some great ideas that either stand alone or blend perfectly with mine.
I started with the base characters. I got to know them and their personalities. I like to have a road map for a book. Working together from half way around the world, Lisa and I tried to hash out a storyline to follow which proved difficult. We ended up just flying by the seat of our pants and realized that there would be more books. When it came to something I needed to research I would stop, learn, take notes and write it in. So the writing and researching happened simultaneously. It took six months to finish the first book. With all the books since 1929 I have a road map. We start with a basic idea, write a blurb summary with beginning middle and end, then an expanded two page summary catching more details. After that we sit down and do a scene breakdown that is somewhere from five to six pages long. I make a note of all the things I’ll need to research along the way.
Some people think we are vulnerable to another major financial crisis like 1929 here in the USA, or possibly even worldwide. What do you think?
Based on research and history, everything is cyclic. I do believe we will, at some point, see another devastating crash. While I don’t think we will be thrust back to loincloths and starting fires with sticks, I expect it will bring hardships similar to the depression that most are not accustomed to. The better one can prepare for a dramatic economic shift through alternative incomes, homecraft skills and a circle of good friends, the better off they will be.
Is this part of why you went to the country in Northern Utah and practice homesteading?
We moved to Northern Utah for the economy. (We were on a path to complete homesteading in Alaska and realized we were not ready.) There is a lower cost of living here and it is very family friendly. Honestly, everywhere you go people are so nice! We pseudo-homestead. I garden, decorate on a shoestring, use oil lamps, build my own rustic furniture and cook a lot from scratch. In all honesty I have to say these are skills I keep up on, rather than live daily. When I’m compulsively writing, they take a backseat to modern conveniences that allow me to be more productive.
If something did happen, do you think we are better or worse prepared than in 1929?
I don’t think we are at all prepared to deal with what our grandparents and great grandparents dealt with. I think the thought of this generation going through a major economic crash scares me more than the crash itself. If you stop to think of how dependent people are on technology, rather than each other, it’s frightening. Previous generations seem hardier. They survived much and complained little, truly the greatest generation that ever lived.
What made you decide to write your Y.A. novel, Simply, Mine under the pseudonym Jane Carrington? Do you plan to use this pseudonym more in the future?
I cringe to admit this. I wrote Simply, Mine on a dare. A good friend and writer, Roberta Kagan, dared me to write a Y.A. romance in 30 days. Never being one to shy away from a double dog dare, I accepted. I was in the middle of The 1929 Series at the time so I stayed with the poverty theme to keep me in that same space. The pseudonym was not my best idea ever. If I had it to do over again, I would have kept it simple and published under M.L. Gardner. At the time I had a self-limiting belief that adult readers would shy away from a Y.A. book. I won’t use this name again, but should I create a line of romance or mystery, I might create another.
You have a terrific blend of marketing platforms, with your social media, website, blog, and weekly podcasts. What percentage of your typical week is spent in social media and marketing?
Since hiring Monica, I spend about ten hours a week working on the marketing end of things. She spends much more than that. Once a month we have a meeting to discuss trends, ideas and goals for the month and to look out over the season. We work very closely together and talk several times a day, nearly every day of the week.
What part of it brings you the best returns?
I would have to say, (despite its challenges) Facebook. It’s a sort of home base for us. We branch out from there.
What’s the essential starting point for a newly published author?
First, find a mentor. Someone who has been around for a few years and is willing to guide and teach.
Second, free is your friend. I used to believe that giving away free books was just a way to gain an initial following. However we still use free as part of our overall marketing strategy.
You have some of your content available as audio books. How has your experience with that been?
Most of the time I forget that the audio version is out there. Audible is very low maintenance once you get past finding and communicating with a narrator.
What are the pros and cons?
One pro is that it brings your book to an even wider audience. Some cons are a seven-year contract and if you make any revisions to the book, it’s difficult to get those changes made in the audio book.
Will you eventually bring out audio books for the whole 1929 Series?
I’m not sure that I will, for the cons listed above.
Readers describe your writing as “down to earth”. What are some of your tricks to maintaining a realistic feel in your narrative, and natural dialogue between your characters?
I listen. I learned through much frustration that characters, (the good ones anyway) come with their own personality and can be quite stubborn.
I think a lot of people, (initially myself included) try to emulate a favorite or famous author thinking that will bring them success. Writing and dialogue becomes stiff because you’re trying to force it into a preset mold. There is a great freedom that comes with letting the cast take control, reducing my job to mere transcriber. The caveat with this style of writing is that it’s a box of chocolates. You never really know what you’re going to get despite efforts to predefine a plot. I never expected or intended for the series to jump genres with each book.
Your blog features a variety of projects like canned cheese, sewing items, and woodworking. Do you find that having these creative outlets is a nice addition to writing?
It is a must. I am a homebody by nature and I stay connected to my home, family and reality with these things. Woodworking is what I do when the characters stop talking. Without fail, I will get deep into a wood project and they’ll start talking, the same as children love to talk to you when you’re on the phone.
Have these crafts ever found their way into a story?
Not particularly. In the series these home craft skills were just a way of life.
Actually, we also have to ask the obvious: if you are raising a house-full of teen boys, homesteading, blogging, doing a lot of creative marketing and podcasts…..uh, when do you write?
Compulsively and under pressure. My secret weapon is Monica. She handles so much of the behind the scenes business and helps me organize myself to keep things consistent. As for the rest of it: I’ll bake for two days. I’ll build the foundation to a new shed all day or a new set of bookshelves. I’ll can cheese and easy dinners for a few days and then I’ll sit down and write for ten days straight. I have always dreamed of organizing my day to get a little of everything done, but I just don’t work that way. In the end, it all gets done.
Can you tell us a little about your own journey to publication?
I always intended on self-publishing due to a lack of confidence. I was afraid to even try to query. I am also an impatient person and I was anxious to share this fictional world with others. Only in the last few years have I seen the beauty and amazing potential that self-publishing has as a proactive choice, not a limiting option.
Do you have any tips for new authors trying to get their work out there?
If a writer decides to self-publish, learn all you can about the industry. (Mentors come in handy here) It’s actually easier to get your work out now than it was five years ago when I got started (much head banging was involved).
Do your part to raise the reputation of self-published authors. We are still fighting a stigma.
What’s next on the writing horizon for you?
The summers are very hot in Utah and I plan on spending the better part of it under the air conditioner with iced tea, being as productive as humanly possible. I am working on three projects currently and it will be interesting to see which one is finished first. Now that the series is (for the most part) over, I’m looking forward to breaking into new genres. Plans later in the year include writing a title specifically to query. I’d love to become a hybrid author.
Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.
Cherise Hensley is currently pursuing her M.A. in English at the University of Idaho. She graduated from Whitworth University with a B.A. in English and marketing and also has a copy editing certification from UC San Diego. She has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management as well as the Rock & Sling literary journal and has been involved in the production of other print media such as newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks. Cherise is an editor and a writer, and loves discovering new books to distract her from everyday life.