Yesterday I introduced you to a new summer read, Finding Eliza by Stephanie Pitcher Fishman. Don’t miss out on a chance to win a copy of Finding Eliza, you'll find the details at the end of this interview.
1. Stephanie, welcome to The Armchair Genealogist. I’m thrilled to have you here not only as a fellow genealogist and blogger but as a debut novelist. Like myself, most of our audience today know you as a genealogist and blogger. You’ve written a number of Quick Guides for Legacy Family Tree and you are one of the lovely ladies behind the digital magazine The In-Depth Genealogist. Your writing has been very much centred in the non-fiction world. However, your book Finding Eliza is fictional, what inspired you to make the jump into the world of fiction?
We all have those things that we do but aren’t brave enough to share with the world. Fiction was mine. I’ve always dreamed up stories and characters, but I stopped writing fiction years ago when life moved into a new phase (family, kids, etc.) Last year, my daughter – also a writer – decided to take the NaNoWriMo challenge. She challenged me to break out of my fear and write along with her. I did, and the result is Finding Eliza.
2. How did you find writing fiction different from non-fiction? What did you find the easiest about the transition, what was the hardest?
I love that I get to be myself when I write fiction. It makes me more vulnerable, but it is fun to interject bits of my personality or life into the story. With non-fiction, the focus is on fact and leaving that trail of sources that we depend on. The idea that I could research and write something without inserting a footnote was very difficult at first. I had to remind myself that it wasn’t necessary.
3. Finding Eliza is your debut novel and it is very much centred on your passion for genealogy. There are a lot of readers today, who are family historians and will be seeing this post and identifying with you as a fellow genealogist. Help them to understand how you came up with the idea for Finding Eliza? What did that process look like? Is the storyline for Finding Eliza pulled from your family history or is it a complete work of fiction?
Our family stories can always influence our writing whether directly as a story line or as the inspiration and motivation to tell a story. I have a history of social activism in my family, even if it happened in small steps such as my great grandmother taking care of the former slaves in the area of a South Georgia county. The line in the story where Gertrude explains that her family believed, “everyone has a name,” came straight from my great-grandmother’s lips. The equality and value of human life was instilled in me at a very young age. I was blessed to grow up in diverse schools, so my friends spanned different ethnic and economic ranges. Growing up in Atlanta, we were surrounded by the history of the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. It always held a great fascination for me. I remember learning about slavery and Jim Crow laws in school, and thinking of how it affected the families of my friends. As a genealogist, I dreaded the day that I would inevitably find a slave owner in my family tree. (It wasn’t where I expected it!) Once I did, it got me thinking of those days in class. When the person involved in a tragic act is connected to your family, do you see evil or pain? How do you process that information? The story line in Finding Eliza is influenced partly by unproven stories and lore in the areas surrounding where my ancestors lived as well as the questions that I had as I came to terms with finding dark shadows in my ancestors. However, a large part of it was fictional.
4. I think many people, but particularly family historians look at their family history stories and think it might make a good book but doubt themselves. Self-doubt is an ongoing battle in a writer’s world. How did you know you had something worthy of a book? How did you beat down your own self-doubt to forge ahead and complete Finding Eliza?
How did I know? I didn’t. I asked my friends and family multiple times to tell me if I was writing something that shouldn’t be shared. I battled self-doubt and my internal editor at every turn – and I still do! I asked for feedback from those that I trusted, not for accolades but for the encouragement that I needed to go forward on the hard days. I looked at the different books and stories that people consider their favorites. There is a reader out there for your story, fiction or non-fiction. You just have to take a chance on yourself and put it out there so that they can find it. You never know what will happen until you make the jump into the project.
My favorite writing quote is by Louis L’amour: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
5. Stephanie, can you tell us little bit about how you developed your storyline? Are you a plotter or a pantser? If you plot, what kind of plotting tools do you like to use?
I’d love to be a legitimate plotter, but it’s not in my DNA. With Finding Eliza, I started with an idea, jotted down a few points, and just wrote. My mantra was, “It doesn’t have to be good; it just has to be written.” Once I had the first draft down, I went over it again looking at plot points and making sure that I had the right rise and fall of action in the correct places. I outlined the story as it was on my whiteboard (complete with different colors and arrows!) and made my changes.
For my current WIP, I’m trying a slightly more organized version of loose plotting using a format that the guys on the Self Publishing Podcast call “beats.” I love using Jami Gold’s resources. I plot out my basic ideas using her Basic Beat Sheet, and then I start writing in Scrivener.The beats give me a loose outline to follow while still giving me the freedom to free write. I write by scene, not chapter, so that I can rearrange and expand on sections as necessary. For Finding Eliza, several chapters are far from their original placement. It makes it easier for me to write if I let the story go where it likes rather than keeping it fenced in under tight constraints.
I am a very visual person, so I use Pinterest to save images that inspire me for characters or action. I’ve even started “casting” the parts so that I can picture someone while I write. It has been a lot of fun!
6. Are you a Southern Belle, Stephanie? You manage to capture the look and feeling of the south so well, from the red clay to the sweet tea and lemon bars. Did your setting emerge from a personal connection to the south or did it materialize out of good research?
My genealogy business name is Corn and Cotton because I’m part both… the only child married to a Yankee and a Southern Belle. I grew up in Ohio and West Virginia through the age of 10, but I spent time every summer with cousins on farms around the South Georgia town that my grandmother was born and lived until she started her own family. We were rooted in our Southern heritage. After age 10, I lived in Atlanta, Georgia, still spending vacations and holidays with family in the southern part of the state. I live in Ohio now, but my heart is still in Georgia which is why I’m so romantic about the red Georgia clay. I wasn’t that in love with it when I was washing it out of my daughter’s clothes! Distance makes the heart grow fonder, especially with kudzu and humidity.
7. Stephanie, as I mentioned in my review, Finding Eliza is part genealogical mystery and part historical fiction, which I think is the ideal marriage for telling any family history story. A segment of Finding Eliza is set in a very disorderly and troublesome time in American history and particularly in the south. Can you tell us a little bit about the research you put into the historical and social history aspect of Finding Eliza?
I wanted to tell it in a way that would cause the reader to ask questions about people who may have been forgotten as well as looking at history in a different view. Social history holds a fascination for me, so I researched the social history of the period quite heavily. I spent time digging into the miscegenation laws that were still on the books across the United States until the 1960s, and that led me to research harder topics such as lynchings and mob violence in the South. I looked at projects such as the Mary Turner Project in Valdosta, Georgia. I also read through historic newspapers, which I love to do anyway. While the character of Eldridge is fictional, he could represent any number of people. I spent time learning the stories of those who were lost through violence during this time period. There’s a Russian proverb that I love that says, “You live as long as you are remembered.” Though the character is fictional, I wanted to find a way to remember the experiences that many may have lived through. It was hard to research and hard to write, but hopefully it will open up others to the stories of people who should not be forgotten.
8. I believe what sets Finding Eliza apart is the characters of Lizzie, Gran and The Gals. You’ve developed likeable, charming characters that anyone could find in their local archives and genealogical society. I think many readers will identify with at least one of these characters, making it a very relatable story and you’ve done a great job of bringing them to life on the page. Can you tell us a little bit about Lizzie and The Gals and your inspiration for them?
I love The Gals! They are one of a kind and completely unique, though they have roots from some very real places. I have always been in love with the group of friends that my mother in law was blessed with. Many of them were friends long before their children were born and have been since the loss of spouses and family. My oldest and dearest friend has been like a sister to me for 25 years. It’s a special relationship. I knew that I wanted to pay homage to that love that comes from friends who are chosen family, so I had to build a group. I also have had a mountain of support from my own Gals: Jennifer Holik, Terri O’Connell, and Jennifer Alford. Together, I picture us digging in repositories and drinking coffee together even if it’s more virtual than others since we’re spread over two states – Jennifer H. and Terri are local to each other while Jennifer A. and I are local to each other. The combination of the two ended up inspiring the gals!
In Finding Eliza, the group nicknamed by Lizzie as “The Gals” is made up of four life-long friends: Gertrude, Lizzie’s grandmother; Abi and Blue, Gertrude’s childhood friends; and Claud, Abi’s sister in law. The four women are funny, loveable, and distinct personalities that blend together to compliment (and sometimes irritate!) each other.
9. Stephanie, which of the “Gals” in Finding Eliza do you most identify with? Why?
I see myself in Abi. I don’t have the style of Gertrude or the hostess skills of Claud. I’m quietly in the group, encouraging and wanting to love on everyone just like Abi. However, I long to be Blue! I’d love to say what I want without a care in the world and have her quick wit that commands a room. She’s the type of lady I long to be as I age.
10. Your main character in Finding Eliza, Lizzie Clydell finds more than just answers to her family’s secret. Her family history journey teaches her about forgiveness. Stephanie, as a family historian, what lessons have you personally learned from your family history research?
I believe that we have so much to learn from our ancestors. My own research has taught me how to be resilient and how to move beyond tragedy and hurts. I’ve learned that one event, even something like being a slave owner, cannot define a person. We must look at the situations in which someone lives to really understand their decisions. We can’t isolate an individual and box them in based on one year of their life. It’s the sum of the parts that makes us who we are. Most times when I learn about an ancestor I find something that I can apply to my life. I think that can be said about all of our families!
11. Many writers struggle to meet their goal of writing a book and time is cited as the number one obstacle. I like to always ask authors about their writing process and daily habits. With so many tasks to juggle as a mother, wife, genealogist, and writer with multiple projects, how did you find the time to write a novel?
I joke that I respond to the pressure of public humiliation. I made sure that I told a lot of people around me that I was working on the book. But doing that, not only did I get the support that I knew that I would need but I also had the accountability. People were asking me about my writing, so I had to write in order to tell them about it!
I’m a night owl by nature, but I’m trying to teach myself to get up and write earlier in the day. I have a rough goal of the number of words I’d like to write each day (2000), and I try to get as close to that as possible. However, my bottom line is that I’d like to write more than 500 words. I’ve joined a group of writers that have committed to that. It helps me stay focused on the goal each day. Some days you just have to be okay with getting the minimum done.
I’ve also realized that by following my dreams I’m happier. Writing is my “me” time. It’s also a way that I can keep showing my girls that we need to never lose our passions.
12. Bringing your first self-published book to fruition is a tall task and requires much more than writing a great story. What kind of support and guidance did you seek out to achieve your goal of publishing Finding Eliza? Is there one thing you needed to learn that came as a complete surprise or as larger obstacle than you expected?
I’m part of a great group of fiction writers that came together through Jeff Goins’ writing group, Tribe Writers. They have been an immense support to me. I’m also blessed by the friendship of several best-selling authors, including Andrea Johnson Beck, who have guided me through the process and given me encouragement on the days when I wasn’t sure I could make it through. We’re blessed to be in a time where indie authors are given all of the advantages of traditional authors. Yes, we have to do our own marketing and funding, but even traditionally published authors are doing many of the same tasks as indies (they just don’t have the same creative control!)
The hardest part of self-publishing for me has been learning that everyone makes mistakes. There is a reason that books have multiple editions: editorial changes. When I find an error, I’ve had to retrain myself to remember that even traditionally published authors have errors in their books. It just makes me one of the gang. The tendency to be hard on myself is something that I’m learning to avoid.
13. For family historians reading this today and wanting to write either a fictional or non-fictional book, what one piece of advice would you offer them, something that you learned the hard way?
Treat every day as an experiment. You will never know how to do everything, so don’t set yourself up for failure by expecting to learn it all in one day. You can’t let the things you don’t know stop you. Just as we had to learn each step of the research and documentation process, we have to learn the steps in the process of writing and publishing. Your story deserves to be told. Your ancestors deserve to be remembered. Whether you are writing for a family audience of five or the mass market, you have something to contribute.
14. I know there has been some buzz on your Facebook page for Finding Eliza about sequels centred on Gran and The Gals. Stephanie, please feel free to share a little bit about your future writing projects.
I’m actually working on a few things! I’m participating in Camp NaNoWriMo with some writing friends during the month of July. The schedule and daily practice of writing toward a goal in November worked so well with Finding Eliza that I’m trying it again. My WIP isn’t based around family history but will hopefully be loved by the same people who enjoyed the characters and conversation of Lizzie and The Gals. My main character, Jerrica Teal, is a widow who discovers that her “dead” husband had some secrets that just might cause some problems in her life when she uncovers them. Her teenager, Cat, is spunky and full of attitude, much like my youngest daughter. And, her “dead” husband, Harrison… he’s got quite a past.
You can get a peek at her adventures on Pinterest:
As for Lizzie, I’m currently knee-deep in researching the rum runners and bootleggers of Prohibition. The Gals will play prominently in the story line, specifically Abi and Blue. They are going to dive into research and might even take a trip out to the coast! I’m still playing with a few ideas, but those in my reader group are getting sneak peeks as well as the chance to help me make some decisions. For example, one reader won a trivia contest recently and has gotten to help name a new character. We have fun chatting on Facebook. Anyone is welcome to join me if they’d like the inside scoop!
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