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Interview with Amanda Cabot

Intelligently written and skillfully plotted, the Texas Dreams trilogy follows the lives of three young women in the Hill Country of Texas. Each stand-alone yet connected book features vivid characters who overcome difficult circumstances to build a satisfying life in Ladreville.

Your well-received Texas Dreams series concludes this spring with the publication of Tomorrow’s Garden, which introduces schoolteacher Harriet Kirk both to Ladreville, Texas, and to the handsome Lawrence Wood. Who turned out to be your favorite character from this trilogy? Your favorite romance? Or is that like asking a mother which of her children is her favorite?

Oh, my, what difficult questions to answer. You’re right that books are like children, and each is special in its own way, so choosing among them is almost impossible. I loved the premise of Paper Roses, which I refer to as my “mail-order bride meets Cyrano de Bergerac” story, and as the oldest of four children, I felt a special affinity for Harriet, the heroine of Tomorrow’s Garden. As for Scattered Petals, although it was a difficult story to write, I’ve always been drawn to stories of healing, so it was deeply satisfying to write about two characters who needed a great deal of healing.

If I had to pick a favorite story or heroine, I couldn’t. But I can tell you that my favorite secondary character was Isabelle. I knew she’d play a role in both of the first two books, but I hadn’t expected her to be a key part of Tomorrow’s Garden. She had other ideas!

Each of the main characters in the Texas Dreams series must fulfill heavy family responsibilities or bear heavy emotional burdens from the past. How does this theme help form a bridge between these historical characters and your contemporary readers?
One of the things I love about historical novels is that, although they give readers a chance to visit different eras and learn about different ways of life, they also provide the comforting message that people are fundamentally the same, whether they cook over a wood-burning stove or in a microwave. I believe that what’s important to us is both universal and timeless. Admittedly, there aren’t too many mail order brides today, but I’m sure many readers can identify with Sarah’s need to learn to forgive, and while I doubt any of my readers has traveled cross-country in a stagecoach as Priscilla did, some have found comfort and healing in her story of surviving a brutal attack. As for Harriet, she may have lived over 150 years ago when the term wasn’t invented, but she’s part of a dysfunctional family, and that colors her view of life. And, of course, falling in love is wonderful, whether it happens in the nineteenth or the twenty-first century.

I understand that the Texas Dreams trilogy is your debut series in the Christian fiction market, though you’ve published often in the ABA. What made you decide to try Christian fiction? What did you find challenging about making that change? What was rewarding? Will continue to write for both markets?
I never thought I’d write for the Christian market. “Too preachy,” I told the readers who suggested I write inspirational romances. But then a dear friend entered the final stages of leukemia, and everything changed. Sharing her last months and seeing how her faith strengthened her made me realize how wrong I’d been. It was time for me to write about God’s love. And now that I have, there’s no turning back. Although there were definitely some challenges in the change, notably finding the right agent and the right publisher, the rewards have been greater than I thought possible. When a reader tells me that my stories have changed her life or helped her deal with a problem, I know that this is what God has intended for me.

Your reviewers frequently comment on the authentic nature of the “faith talk” of your characters. How does your own faith come into your fiction? How do you make sure the faith talk in your novels comes across as sincere, rather than awkward and preachy?
I had to smile when you asked me that question, because as you know from my previous answer, I don’t like preachy books, and yet Sarah’s turning point in Paper Roses comes as the result of a sermon. Ironic, isn’t it? The reason I think that scene works is that churches were the center of the community in the middle 19th century. Most readers know that and don’t feel that I tacked on a faith message, since they expect ministers to preach. In general, I try to avoid having my characters (unless they’re pastors) deliver sermons or even paragraph-long discussions of faith, since that doesn’t ring true to me. Instead, I try to blend the faith elements into other dialogue.

So many writers begin books but never finish them. Do you have any advice for them?
I’m so glad you asked me about this. One of the workshops I give for writers is called “Getting to ‘The End’: Techniques for Finishing the Book of Your Dreams”, and as you might guess from the title, it’s designed to help writers get from those initial days of euphoria when writing is easy through the middle of the book doldrums and then on to ‘the end.’ One technique I recommend is having a picture – not just a mental but a physical picture – of your goal. If it’s to become a published author, create a book cover with your title and name on it. If it’s to make a best-seller list, take the New York Times list and put your name and title in the number one slot. Once you have that picture, put it everywhere – on your TV, next to your car keys and certainly on the side of your computer monitor. The point is to be constantly reminded of how important this book is to you. That way when you’re faced with a choice, you’ll choose to write rather than watch TV, surf the Web or visit the mall.

Do you have a critique group or writing partner to provide feedback as you take your books from idea to published novels?
I’m no longer part of a critique group, but I think they can be extremely valuable. The key is to be part of a group that (1) loves to read the genre you’re writing and (2) understands the difference between constructive criticism and rewriting someone’s work. Too often I’ve seen critique groups with one or two dominant personalities who try to mold everyone to their own idea of what a book should be rather than helping each author develop his or her unique voice.

Two of your recommendations for writers of historical fiction seemed very useful to me. One was to begin research in the children’s section of the library, and the other was to use a dictionary that includes the date of the first recorded use of a word or phrase to avoid anachronisms. Great ideas! Please tell us a little more about them.
I’m glad you found those ideas useful. The children’s library has saved me untold hours, because the books there distill history to its essence. For example, when I was researching my World War One books, I could have spent days reading the adult histories and their detailed descriptions of every battle. Instead, the children’s section gave me the key information – why the war started, who fought it, when and how it ended. Later when I knew exactly when the books were taking place, I used the “grown-up” books to fill in the details that make a story come to life.

For me, it’s very distracting to see a word used before its time, which is why I use my dictionary’s date of first usage to help me avoid those mistakes. The hero of my first Westward Winds book is an Army officer, so he thinks in military terms. Unfortunately, though I wanted him to mention camouflage, a quick check revealed that that came into use during World War One. Same thing with barrage. I suspect these French words made their way into English vocabulary because American soldiers fought alongside the French during the war, but that’s another story.

The dictionary has one limitation, though, and that’s that it doesn’t identify dates of many phrases. For example, birth mother, which is a distinctly twentieth century phrase, doesn’t appear in my dictionary. That’s where a good critique group can be invaluable, helping to point out phrases and dialogue that sound modern.

And just one more craft question…from your own experience as a teacher and speaker on writing, what are some mistakes or unhelpful choices new writers often make?
The two biggest mistakes I’ve seen new writers make are to try to write what’s currently popular rather than what they really love and to let their critique group change their voices. There are some writers who are very successful writing to trends, but for most of us, writing about a location or theme that doesn’t resonate deep inside us results in a book that comes across as either flat or insincere. For example, although Amish books are extremely popular, unless you love to read them and feel an affinity to the Amish, I would not advise trying to write one.

As for critique groups, as I mentioned before, some can be destructive. If you feel that your critique partners are rewriting your book, particularly if they’re changing your sentence structures and vocabulary, I’d advise stepping back and asking whether or not that rewrite makes the book stronger. In many cases, all the changes are doing is make it different, not better. Each of us has a unique voice. That’s what editors and readers look for, so don’t let someone dilute it.

What’s ahead for you, Amanda? I know there is a Wyoming series coming up, but are there any other eras or locations that are calling to you for future books?
When I tell friends that I have books scheduled through 2017, their reaction is that that’s either insanity or job security. I think it’s exciting. The Wyoming trilogy, now officially called Westward Winds, will be released starting next January, and I have a stand-alone Christmas novella also set in Wyoming that’s due out during the fall of 2012. After that, I’m making a major shift in both location and timeframe, because I’m contracted to write three books set in New Jersey during World War One. And then I think I’ll return to Wyoming. You see, I discovered this gold mining town and …

Thanks, Amanda!

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