Nov 30. Nancy Swing – Writing Wrongs
There seems to be a strong consensus among experts on aging that pursuing a new creative passion or project is one of the best ways for a senior to sustain alertness, curiosity and productivity. And this fresh start can be most stimulating when it’s distinctively different from a retiree’s professional career. I’m hoping that blog followers will indulge me in profiling my spouse as an example. I believe Nancy’s senior pivot is informative and instructive.
Nancy Swing grew up in West Virginia and pursued a successful career as an international development consultant, working in Africa, Asia and Europe. After retiring in California, she turned serious attention to writing and publishing mysteries. THE SILVER FOXES, the final volume in her Lewiston, West Virginia trilogy, has just been published. Here are highlights from our breakfast interview at Pacific Grove’s Point Pinos Grill.
Inspiration and Impetus
Could you get our conversation started by saying where your new senior project sprang from? Creative writing seems a world away from international consulting: artistic instead of analytical, solitary instead of interactive, sedentary instead of mobile. I’d always enjoyed the act of writing, whether letters or even professional reports. High-school teachers and university professors encouraged me to become a writer. But I was a member of the ’60s generation – “Ask what you can do for your country.” Undergrad and after-graduation experiences in Asia confirmed my vocation for a service career in developing countries.
Decades later, at the end of that career, I returned to writing, initially to capture expatriate life, especially the lives of dependent spouses (usually women) following their partners to overseas posts and struggling to make do.
Why fiction, and why mysteries? I’ve heard you say you write novels with mysteries inside. How is that different from a mystery per se? I’d written non-fiction all my life. Fiction seemed more personal and creative. I’d also always enjoyed reading mysteries and came from a family that shared my enthusiasm. An additional attraction was that mysteries invite readers to solve puzzles.
By aspiring to write “a mystery within a novel,” I try to interweave character development, setting, plot, conflict, dialogue and other structural elements that combine to make a good novel work, regardless of genre.
What were your main goals as you got ready to launch this senior initiative? Did you envision a mere hobby or a second career? Personal pleasure or income-generation? None of the above. I just wanted to make a fresh beginning, devoting myself to a serious effort to write well.
How did you actually start? Tapping a keyboard or investing in skill-building? I started by writing a first draft of an expatriate mystery set in Vientiane, Laos, which I knew first-hand from our two years in residence. I realized my draft wasn’t very good but didn’t know how to make it better. I showed it to respected readers for critiques but didn’t get back the targeted specifics I’d hoped for. So I researched and signed up for writing workshops. Three were most helpful: the Winchester Writers Conference at the University of Winchester in UK; a summer program at the University of Iowa; and an eight-week advanced course for novel writers at UCLA.
What were some practical mystery-writing tips you got out of your workshops? Each workshop contributed different lessons. For example, the importance of setting (including weather, birds, plants, furniture, etc.) to create a credible place for my novel to unfold. And the need to do lots of work developing my characters before starting to write. Getting to know my characters intimately, in three dimensions, even if I wouldn’t ultimately use all of those traits.
I expect our blog followers who are would-be writers might be interested in learning how you do what you do. What about plot? Do you fill a wall with 3×5 cards to outline a narrative arc? I literally tried that with my first mystery, structuring every detail in advance. It was a disaster. As confining and creativity-deadening as my PhD dissertation.
With my West Virginia mystery trilogy, I wanted to be more spontaneous in the creative process. I deliberately limited advance planning to forming a general idea of the story, sketching my main characters’ profiles, and developing the crucial opening scene in each book. I didn’t know “who dunnit?” until I was two-thirds through the telling. I trusted my subconscious to figure out where the story would lead. Then I relaxed and let ’er rip!
What about your fictional characters? Where do they come from? From multiple sources. My psyche. My life. People I have known. However, I am always careful that no character is based on only one actual person.
Do you find some elements – plot, character, dialogue – easier and harder than others? If so, did you try to work on relative weaknesses in workshops? Yes and yes. I used different workshops to plug different gaps in my skill set.
Tell us about your writing system, location and schedule. I write half-a-day, six days a week. Usually in the afternoons, to give my metabolism time to fully fire up. I aim to produce 1,000 words a day, first reviewing the previous day’s output to pick up the narrative thread but also to do a cursory edit. On my 30-minute morning walks I ask myself “What happens next?” I follow a similar routine when falling asleep at night. I write at my desk, in a dedicated room within our home, door closed. I respect J.K. Rowling, but there’s no way I could write in a coffee shop.
How many drafts and what kind of help? I write three drafts. As you know, I ask you as a fellow writer to critique each one. While you’re marking up the text, I step away and take a break. I don’t look at the draft or at your critique for at least a week. When I come back to the text, it’s with fresh eyes. I do my own edit, followed by looking at your comments, to create the next draft.
When I’ve completed the third draft, I also circulate it to a small circle of trusted “Beta” readers, carefully assembled for a diversity of perspectives – age, gender, professional backgrounds, home base, reading tastes. I ask each to “show no mercy” in giving feedback. Since I’m self-publishing, I don’t have the luxury of a professional editor. But in Pacific Grove, I have asked Joyce Krieg for technical editing advice, and she has helped me greatly.
Your First Mystery: MALICE ON THE MEKONG
How and why did you choose to start your senior writing project with MALICE and Laos? I began thinking about this story while we were living there, from 1990-93. I kept detailed notes, especially about setting. I myself felt the challenges of being a “dependent spouse” and saw others similarly struggling. I was convinced our shared story was worth telling. These experiences and impressions were reinforced at our next long-term post in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
In a small expat community like Vientiane, how did you deal with roman-a-clef risks? I distanced myself by not writing MALICE until years after leaving Laos. This time-lapse also gave me fresh material from other postings to blend into my plot and characters. My imagination also contributed additional details. The result was that no depicted character or plot action was based on a single person or incident. I worked diligently to avoid depicting or caricaturing identifiable real-world contacts. Kiss-and-tell was never my aim.
The Lewiston Trilogy
How about your inspiration and motivation for this mystery series? What pointed you back towards West Virginia, 50 years after leaving? The “Aha!” moment came at a Winchester workshop conducted by author Sally Spedding. Sally created a fun mystery-plotting exercise in which each workshop participant drew a different character’s description from three different hats – one victim, one perp, one sleuth. For my three, I drew a 12-year-old girl, a middle-aged woman and a 13-year-old girl. “Whatever can I do with this?” I wondered. Then West Virginia voices began to speak to me. Years later, CHILD’S PLAY was the result.
Does writing about your geographical roots hold special appeal or risks? I’m thinking of Appalachians’ condemnation of HILLBILLY ELEGY. I never thought about risks. Reactions to my first two trilogy mysteries from fellow West Virginians have been mostly appreciative and supportive. A few West Virginian readers have resisted my telling stories with low-income characters speaking dialect, just as they reacted to J.D. Vance’s memoir. But these characters are based on kids I went to school with in Wetzel County. I knew them well, their lives and their voices. I fully realize they don’t represent all West Virginians. But they are an important segment of that population. I wanted to show that such people, despite how they might seem to outsiders, are bright, motivated and worthy of our respect. Another aim was to depict all the kinds of folks who live in the fictional town of Lewiston once all three books have been read. Perhaps THE SILVER FOXES, the trilogy’s third volume, may satisfy critics, since it is set in a middle-class retirement community.
Still thinking about West Virginia, did you draw on local expertise to bolster specialized details in your narratives? I always reach out to specialists who know what I don’t; e.g., criminal law, engineering, surveying or property development. For LAZARUS, featuring a rural male teen, I asked for help from three valued West Virginia male friends, to round out this character’s perspective and profile.
Did you always envision a trilogy or did the first volume expand into three? Originally I contemplated three stand-alone mysteries. But a close high-school friend encouraged me to link these stories into a series. I was intrigued by this integrated design and welcomed the challenge of continuing to develop characters over the span of several years.
How did you hit upon setting the third volume in a Continuous Care Retirement Community? I spent five months with my father during his final days in a seniors’ community, in addition to previous periodic visits. This gave me opportunity to observe dynamics, pastimes, interactions and character types within such elder “villages.” Later, and independently, while living in Italy I attended a funeral where the estranged husband of the deceased delivered a fulsome eulogy. That suspicious performance inspired my opening scene.
Why does THE SILVER FOXES have an ambiguous ending? I’m trying to write realistic, credible stories. In the real world, a lot of life is ambiguous. Neatly tying up all loose ends at the end of a mystery is too pat and contrived.
Publishing and Marketing
How did you choose between commercial publishing and self-publishing? Initially, with MALICE ON THE MEKONG, I went the commercial-publishing route and submitted my manuscript to multiple agents and publishers. They were complimentary about my writing but all had reservations about my choice of setting and protagonist. They thought that Vientiane, Laos was “too unfamiliar for Western readers” and Anjali Rao, a Hindu grandmother, compounded the problem. (Timing is everything. This rejection came just before Colin Cotterill’s mystery series, also set in Vientiane, hit the international bestseller lists.)
Retired back in the States, I learned about the increasing traction of independent authors and self-publishing. This seemed the best fit for me. Being over 70, I wasn’t willing to devote extensive time and frustration to long-odds commercial-publishing submissions. Thanks to Patricia Hamilton and Park Place Publications, self-publishing has been my chosen mode ever since.
How does this work? What’s the division of labor? I give Patricia a source for the cover photo that I’ve chosen and a flash stick with completed manuscript and back-cover blurb. She designs the internal pages and cover, based on our collaborative dialogue. I’m then responsible for submitting the electronic files to Amazon and for all subsequent publicity and marketing.
What marketing do you do and how has it worked out? I’m not very good at marketing and don’t enjoy self-promotion. I’d much rather be writing. That said, I recognize that, in today’s publishing industry, every author — even a successful, commercially published one — is responsible for the lion’s share of publicizing his/her own books.
My marketing campaigns have several components. I have a website and blog, set up with excellent professional assistance from Maryjo Moore and MJM Graphics. I’m active on Facebook. I maintain an Amazon author’s page. I do readings at independent bookstores and even embarked on a month-long book tour of West Virginia.
Are you satisfied with your sales? All authors would like to sell more. I’m no exception. Mass marketing is particularly daunting for indie authors, and I see no obvious solution.
Have you considered audiobooks? Could that be a promising spin-off? For sure, it’s a growth market and highly attractive. But audiobooks are tremendously expensive for an independent author to commission, including professional studio talent and production services.
I’ve been asking all my profiled peers to offer suggestions for fellow seniors. What are some lessons you’d care to share? For fellow seniors in general, I’d say find something that engages you and invest in it. In particular, think about reanimating dreams deferred. Did you used to paint? Or play the piano? Or bridge? Maybe you can pick it up again.
For would-be writers, I’d repeat what they teach in every workshop: “Just Write!” Write every day. Get in the habit. You’ll be surprised what comes out of your subconscious. It’s the source of most convincing fiction. As for the choice between commercial and self-publishing, this is a personal dilemma with painful trade-offs.
Nancy, where do you go from here, now that the trilogy is completed? THE SILVER FOXES is my last book, the fourth in four years. I’m ready to start a new chapter in my life. We’re moving into a Continuous Care Retirement Community, with lots of opportunities for exploration. I’m looking forward to finding out who I’m going to be next.
What title for this blog post springs to mind to capture the essence of your senior writing profile? I know you’ve used it before, but NEVERGIVEUP! (All one word.) That’s been my life.[To learn more about Nancy and her mysteries, check out nancyswing.com.]