Author Interview: Rosemary Nichols

Welcome to TRB Lounge. Today, I’d like to welcome author Rosemary Nichols, from Atmosphere Press, for an author interview with The Reading Bud.

About The Author

Rosemary Nichols

Rosemary Nichols practiced land use law for 50 years before she was able to write historical fiction full time. Nurturing an abiding fascination with America’s Civil War years, with this book Rosemary begins a series on the impact of that extraordinary conflict upon residents of the United States, particularly New York.

She has previously published three books of Nineteenth Century historical fiction. The two co-authored volumes earned significant writing awards. Her third published book begins a planned series on building the Erie Canal. Each book highlights a different place on the canal and a different newly invented technology that aided construction. Rosemary has lived for 35 years in a small city (Watervliet) on the banks of the Hudson River in upstate New York with her son and a collection of terriers. These days when she is not writing Rosemary restores her 140 year old house, gardens, makes jewelry and old-fashioned hats, watches birds at the feeders, and volunteers for a variety of organizations celebrating history. Please contact Rosemary at rosemarygailnichols@gmail.com

You can find author Nichols here:
Website


Interview

Welcome to TRB! Please give our readers a brief introduction about yourself before we begin. 

I love to read. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t read. My five sisters and brothers and I lived for many years on a relatively remote ranch in central Arizona. The configuration of the ranch at the bottom of a canyon meant telecommunication of any kind in the 1950s was challenging. There was no television, and only one country radio station, and that was late at night. Our indoor entertainment came from reading. Both my father and mother were avid readers when time allowed from the challenge of managing a small cattle ranch, so reading was normal to me as a child. We all read so the books got well-used, being passed from hand to hand.

Please tell us something about your book other than what we have read in the blurb?

I have been studying the American Civil War since I was a high school student. I set out the summer between my junior and senior years in high school to write ‘the great American Civil War novel’. Fortunately, I got distracted. At that time I would have written a derivative, cliché-ridden story. But the Civil War kept nagging at the back of my head through undergraduate and graduate school.

In the part of upstate New York where I have lived since June of 1972, the original European settlers were the Dutch, who came in 1624. After New York was taken over by the English in 1664, many of the Dutch families stayed. New York was their home. Why leave? The colonial Dutch heritage of New York has always been a theme in the history of upstate. Since the Knickerbockers are an original settler minority in the rich mosaic of New York’s population, and culturally very distinct from the early English settlers, I thought it would be fun to create a large family derived from the original Dutch settlers and learn what their experience might have been in 19th-century New York.

What is that one message that you’re trying to get across to the readers in this book?

I wanted to share the insight that for black citizens in the North during the entire 19th century pre-war period, even coming from a monied family did not necessarily protect you. Lately there has been good work done by Civil War Era scholars writing about kidnapping of black Northerners into the South. See Jonathan Daniel Wells, The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War. Solomon Northup was a Saratoga Springs man who was kidnapped and held for more than a decade as a field hand in Louisiana before his family learned where he was and how to obtain his freedom. Solomon’s story, Twelve Years a Slave, has always fascinated me. Only lately have New York museums and Civil War study groups begun to acknowledge the ugly history of slavery in the Empire State. I think that is useful information to highlight in our current culture.

Who is your favorite character in this book and why?

That’s a tough question because I ended up liking or being intrigued by almost all the characters, including the villain. I started the book from the perspective of 13-year-old Amaranda Van der Peyster, so I have known her longest. I do remember being invisible to the larger world by virtue of my sex and age. No one ever asked me to do a brave series of actions as Ama was called upon to perform, but I hope I would have found the same kind of courage she summoned to help rescue Carl and Hannah.

What inspired you to write this book? An idea, some anecdote, a dream or something else?

To my eyes, the period immediately before the shooting part of the Civil War is intriguing. Everything is in flux. Loyalties are being tested in all ways. Small acts can have large consequences. That is certainly grist for a novelist’s imagination. This book and the series of which it is first has been in my mind for so long that if there was a single triggering element, I have forgotten it.

How long did it take you to write this particular book?

I write relatively quickly once I have my research in hand. In one sense I have been researching and writing this book for more than 50 years. In terms of putting text to paper in the present incarnation, I had been engaged in that work for less than a year before the book was submitted to publisher Atmosphere Press and its talented staff.

What are your writing ambitions? Where do you see yourself 5 years from today? 

I want to become a better, more skilled storyteller with each year. Stolen is the initial volume in an open-ended series about New Yorkers in the Civil War. There are so many stories that can be told from a broader perspective than soldiers serving. On the other hand, I also want to make room for additional volumes in my Building the Erie Canal series. That series has a finite end, 1826, with the initial volume set in 1817. 

In five years, I would hope to have six additional books published to complement the four, of which Stolen is the most recent. 

Are you working on any other story presently?

Like lots of writers, I have plots circling around in my head. I am trying not to distract myself from the Civil War series and the Building the Erie Canal books. The first volume on the Erie Canal, Murder in Rome, came out in 2017. The second, Missing from Utica, got delayed with the closing of the archives of three places where I need to do research to learn more about one of the major characters, a famous Erie Canal engineer, Canvass White. Now that the archives are open for the fully-vaccinated, I have no more excuses to procrastinate. 

Why have you chosen this genre? Or do you write in multiple genres?

I write historical fiction because that is my favorite subject to read. I enjoy reading in lots of different eras and locales but for my own work, I like 19th-century America. It is an era on which I have focused my learning and I think I have an affinity for the history.

Several years ago, I wrote a three volume series of fantasy about nation building on a previously uninhabited Earth-like planet. The series garnered some agent interest but I have not pursued it because I think I should focus on the books I have in hand in a genre where I feel competent.

My family is both very old and comparatively new immigrants to what became North America. Two branches of my father’s family settled respectively in Quebec and Tidewater Virginia in the 1640s. My mother’s parents came to the United States from Norway in 1915. Along the way several of the ancestors had some interesting adventures. Two of my 19th-century ancestors wrote well-regarded memoirs that are still in print. When I can I do some genealogical and other research on who the family members were and where they were with an eye toward doing something with the material. It may end up being nothing more than a series of short pieces for my siblings and our children so it is easier for them to remember where we came from.

I think I had an unusual childhood. A number of people, with whom I have workshopped my memoir about a dramatic family incident related to our departure from our ranch home, have agreed. The memoir is almost finished. It just needs polishing and a good editor. I will find both of those essential elements someday. A good story doesn’t spoil over time.

When did you decide to become a writer? Was it easy for you follow your passion or did you have to make some sacrifices along the way? (feel free to give us your story, we love hearing author stories!)

My stepdaughter, Michaela MacColl, is a well-regarded writer of historical fiction usually aimed at young adults. She recognized before I did a decade ago it was time for me to give up the practice of law and embark on my long-held wish to write historical fiction full-time. 

I was always too engrossed in my cases and projects to successfully carve out time to pursue a writer’s life part-time as a number of successful lawyers such as Steve Berry, Scott Turow and John Grisham have done. For me it was all or nothing. I had to stop being a lawyer in order in my own mind to satisfactorily become a writer.

Michaela was approached by a friend who had just become the managing editor of a young people’s imprint owned by Boyds Mill Press. Michaela was invited to submit a proposal for a series with the imprint. She had contractual responsibilities to another publisher that raised questions in her mind whether she would have the time to fill both publishers’ expectations as she would wish. She asked if I would like to join her in coauthoring a series we called Hidden Histories. It was an opportunity to bring to light some of the many stories that have gotten lost in the mists of time, with a focus on young people. I was to carry the laboring oar on the history part. Michaela would, at least initially, handle more of the writing duties. We published two books together, Freedom’s Price and The Lost Ones, both of which were commercial successes and won writing awards. 

Given Michaela’s importance in my successful introduction to writing and publishing, I think I was able through her good offices to slide relatively easily into the business of being a full-time writer. Having heard the heart-rending horror stories of the challenges that have confronted people who are now successful published writers only because of amazing perseverance, I feel my path as a writer was made much smoother by initially traveling it with Michaela.

What is your writing ritual? How do you do it?

I am a morning person. I do my best work before noon, so that is a characteristic I try to accommodate. 

I reconfigured my office so it now says ‘writer,’ not ‘lawyer.’ I changed the art on the walls. I changed the books in the shelves. I liked my desk, my lighting and my chair so I kept them but instead of being the command center of a busy office, they now face an interior wall on which I have installed a large display board where I put relevant elements of what I am presently working on. For example, all the time I was writing Stolen, I had two large calendars, one showing 1860, the other 1861. Though I didn’t end up writing beyond January 1, 1861 as the end of Stolen, I left that 1861 calendar to remind myself there needed to be some clues in the story that looked forward beyond the end I was presently writing. I also displayed a variety of images of the places I was writing about, since I chose to use actual geography and existing buildings in support of the story.  This visual display obviously changes with each book.

One of the ways I plot is by telling myself a story every night as I go to sleep. It is my goal to write all or part of that story the next day. Sometimes that works; sometimes not. In any event, come the morning I edit whatever I have written in the past couple of days. This has two benefits. It reminds me where I am in the story, useful because my stories are factually dense. It also cleans up glitches I may not have noticed as I was writing or editing the day before. I may be excessively sensitive, but I would rather catch my factual hiccups or plotting overlooks before my editor does.

I write fairly fast though I edit slowly. I learn a lot about editing from each of the editors with whom I work. I hope that makes me a better client for the editor and a better writer as I incorporate more of the wisdom of people other than myself into the structure and execution of the stories.

Once I finish my edits I then turn my attention to my day’s writing. I expect to produce at least a chapter every day. Since my chapters are between 2000 and 5000 words, that daily writing diet requires between one and three hours. If I come to a natural stopping point as at the end of a chapter, I stop writing. I am confident that if I am short on words on Monday, I will make up the deficit on Tuesday.

From then on, the afternoon is devoted to more of my life. If I am not doing research, I garden, play with my dogs, read or exercise. I also have been doing more organized promotion of my books, which is something I enjoy.

How do you prefer to write – computer/laptop, typewriter, dictation or longhand with a pen?

I have terrible penmanship. There was a flawed concept in the training of early 20th century elementary school teachers that said if a child picks up a pencil or pen with the left hand, you will be doing him or her a favor if you press them to use the right hand as the majority of the population does. I was one of those instinctive lefties. When my beloved first/second/third grade teacher Mrs. Potter (it was a one-room schoolhouse) urged me to learn to write with my right hand, I tried to comply. The price of that obedience was terrible, almost illegible, handwriting all my life. My penmanship is so bad that not only almost everyone I have ever worked with, but also myself, find it difficult to decipher my written notes a few days after they were created. Not a good formula for writing longhand with a pencil or pen.

From the earliest days of commercially available computers, I have sought them out. In the beginning it was word processing equipment. Then came true computers, which I have used faithfully since the early 1980s. If I didn’t have access to a computer, I don’t know that I could write legibly enough to produce any meaningful text. 

The one difference I find, which I view as a plus, is that having produced the bulk of the words in a chapter by a process where I type as fast as I can talk (which is pretty fast), on the many edits that follow I can work hard to refine the elegance of the language. Since that kind of language is a hallmark of 19th-century writing, I view that as a positive though I never feel constrained to imitate 19th-century novels. Readers today, myself included, have no patience for all those words.

What are your 5 favourite books? (You can share 5 favourite authors too.)

That is a hard question for me to answer. Having been in the habit of reading an average of 5 fiction books and 1 to 3 nonfiction books a week for almost 75 years, I’ve read a lot of books. I love books. I love the way they feel in my hands, the way they look, the way books smell, the graphics on the cover and inside, the fonts. I feel privileged to live in a time when so many books are available in so many formats. [I do read on the computer, both my office and laptop as well as my phone.]

I can better talk about favorite authors. No surprise, almost all of them are historical fiction of one form or another. My current most favorite author is Louise Penny. I have read all of her books about the enchanting little Three Pines village in rural Quebec. When I read an interview where she said she had not expected to ever write again, having lost her beloved husband, I grieved not only for her loss but also for mine. When she published the Madness of Crowds, I was glad to see the author had not lost a step. Then when a few months later Louise Penny coauthored a thriller, State of Terror, with Hillary Rodham Clinton, I was confident her writing life will long endure. 

A longtime favorite author is Anne Perry. I very much enjoy her Thomas and Charlotte Pitt and William and Harriet Monk series as well as the five volumes of World War I historical fiction. Just when it seemed the author was finished with her writing life, she started two apparently open-ended new series. The Daniel Pitt books allow us to see inside the sometime messy practice of law (untidy in the 19th century; still that way) from the perspective of a bright but somewhat naive young man. The Elena Standish series, focused on the then newish profession of photography, allows the author to move into the World War II period. I have enjoyed the volumes I have read in these two series and look forward to others in the future. 

I am constantly charmed by Perry’s Christmas volumes. Both physically smaller and slimmer in subject matter, these novellas now number 19 with volume 20 at the publishers for Christmas 2021. They allow Perry to explore in more depth some of the interesting occasional characters she has created in the main series with a lighter touch and a guaranteed happy ending. Just right for reading after a nice Christmas dinner sitting in front of the fireplace with an appropriate holiday beverage close at hand.

One of the themes that always plays in the back of my mind when I read a Perry book is the amazing value of redemption. Most regular readers of 19th-century fiction know Perry and her beloved girlfriend joined together as 15-year-olds in 1954 to murder the other girl’s mother. No surprise, they were quickly apprehended. Sentenced to prison in New Zealand in an indeterminate sentence, Perry served 5 years. She moved to Scotland, took on a variety of different occupations, but started writing professionally in 1979 and never stopped. Talk about overcoming self-created adversity.

Moving to writers with American roots, I am especially fond of C. S. Harris, who writes the Viscount Devlin (Sebastian St. Cyr) early 19th-century series.  I always enjoy reading Charles Todd not only for the Inspector Ian Rutledge stories, which are great, but also for the puzzle the joint authors create. I always try, and usually fail, to figure out which author – mother or son – is responsible for which pieces of the story. My interest is probably stimulated by having been part of a joint writer team myself. Going back and trying to critically review Rory’s Promise and Freedom’s Price, after a few years I find it difficult to parse out which pieces of the books Michaela wrote and which pieces I contributed. No wonder I can’t decipher the separate contributions of the mother and son in the Charles Todd team.

Devlin and Rutledge served in two brutal wars, Devlin in the wars with Napoleon, Rutledge in the trenches in World War I. Since one of my major characters in my Erie Canal series also suffers from what we today call PTSD, I am always interested to see how other writers handle the symptoms and consequences of battle upon supposedly surviving soldiers. Having two Marine sons, each of whom served in one version or the other of the 20th-century Iraq wars, that is a topic of more than academic interest: how do soldiers, sailors and Marines find their way home from battle.

Finally, I would mention a writer who only gingerly put his foot into historical fiction in what became the United States. James McGee wrote a six-volume series about a very early Bow Street Runner, Matthew Hawkwood. Most of the last of the six books, The Reckoning, takes place in the wilderness of northern New York with Mohawk warriors as major characters. It seemed to be a successful series. There was no obvious reason why McGee had to stop with the 2017 volume, but he did. In one sense, I admire McGee who at least nonverbally says to his fans, “I don’t have anything else to say about this character.” He has stuck to his guns. Six books are it. I admire that, though I would love at least one more book.  I have a chronologically imposed deadline of ten books for my Erie Canal series. That is one for each year it took to build the original Erie Canal, starting in 1817, with the last book in 1826 for celebration of the success. Will I follow McGee’s example, get to the end of the story as history and stop, or will I be tempted to add just one more book to the pile?

How do you deal with Writer’s Block?

I have not yet suffered from Writer’s Block. I have reached places in books from which I cannot at the moment write forward. My solution for that is more research. My deficit is not characters or action. It is answering ‘what happens next’ in a way that is true to the history and engaging for my readers.  Picking a different angle to research, or re-reading a scholarly book usually solves my problem. I get ideas about moving the story forward, or a new character steps onto the stage who jars the story loose from its muddy trap, or just taking some self-imposed time to think through the writing problem I perceive has always pulled me out of the trap. But there is another trap waiting around the corner. Transportation in the 19th century was dreadful or worse. I’m not getting smug.

Another help for me is that, though I do not write it down as the formal outline many writers use, I know the arc of my story before I put fingers to keyboard. I know where the story is going. That is partly determined by the known history. I don’t do counterfactual history. Harry Turtledove’s alternate universe is not for me.

What advice would you give to aspiring non-fiction writers?

Read. Read as much and as broadly as your time and inclination allows. If you can, as you read run two tracks in your mind. The first track is the story. That’s why you are reading that book, essay, or poem. The second track is a learning track for you. How does the author do many things: engage your interest; sustain that interest; seem credible; create engaging characters; respect the genre or know you are violating its norms; tell the story in a reasonable number of pages.

If that double track is hard for you, don’t do it. Read the book for its pleasure. Then, if the book seems worth it, read it as a learning experience for you as a writer. Not every book will merit that level of your attention. As you read, you will become a more sophisticated reader. You may still love the books of your youth, but you are revisiting them as much for the memory they trigger as the books themselves. There is no reason why we should abandon our beloved book friends.

If everyone you trust is raving about a work and you despise it, consider why you are the reading outlier. You may learn a lot about yourself and your writing from that internal review. Self-knowledge is never wasted. I learned I am quite judgmental in the privacy of my own brain about what constitutes good writing. It isn’t always what sells. What I consider quality matters to me, in my own writing and in the work I choose to read for my education or recreation.

There is a well-published writer focused on digital books whose name on a promotion simply causes me to move to the next offering by someone else. I don’t even read the description. I read a book she wrote and I hated it. I thought it was derivative. The characters were cardboard. I had seen the plot before. Then I thought I was being too harsh, so I selected another of her books. I became even more set in my earlier negative opinion. In the second book the author had not even chosen to perform her own editing or engage a competent editor. There were factual inconsistencies between one chapter and the next. The book was rife with typos and grammatical mistakes. She got the names of the characters wrong from one place to the next. I felt disrespected as a reader. Why should I spend my precious time immersed in such an unsatisfactory product about which the author obviously did not care?

If the author does not merit your attention, using whatever criteria you impose, put the book back on the shelf or erase it from your computer. Life is short. Don’t waste your time. I used to feel a moral imperative to finish what I started. I don’t feel that way anymore. 

Thank you, Nichols, for your honest and insightful answers!

About the Book

Stolen (Civil War Series Volume #1)

“This is the first of what I hope will be a saga about the Van der Peysters, their family illustrating aspects of the Civil War other authors seldom consider.  Rosemary has ample experience with the Civil War historical community and knows her history very well indeed.”
– Robert E. Mulligan, Associate Curator of Military History New York State Museum

Fall of 1860. America lurches toward Civil War. Two students on their way to college are kidnapped into slavery. What is their family to do?
When Hannah and Carl vanish in Cleveland, it takes months to learn the two young people are prisoners in New Orleans, scheduled to be sold into slavery on January 5, 1861.
Lincoln has been elected. Southern states are seceding. For Northerners, the streets of New Orleans and its courts are now unfriendly places.
What is a family to do to prevent their cousins from vanishing into the horror of the seceding South?
Take their courage and baggage in hand, and travel to rescue them.

You can find Stolen here:
Amazon | Goodreads | Bookshop | Feathered Quill | Readers’ Favorite


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