Interview with Summer Stephens, Historical Researcher and Author of Fiction and Non-Fiction
I am scatterbrained and easily distracted, but I'm cute and have a good sense of humor. This year I will celebrate my twenty-ninth wedding anniversary with my husband Bob, who had the chance to run for his life in 1983 and didn't take it. We have no human children. Our family consists of close relatives and friends, four legged critters with manes, tails, paws, and hooves, and two leggeds with feathers and wings. In another life, I was an equine massage therapist and saddle fitter. I have owned a graphic design business, and worked with endangered Philippine red-vented cockatoos. I am wildly crazy about Duran Duran. I love contemporary jazz, and Sting. I read incessantly. I inhale French fries. And chocolate. Not necessarily in that order, and not necessarily at the same time. (Just sometimes.)
2. What inspired you to write?
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I'm good with words, I'm an amazingly good speller, and I like the way words look on the page. I can't paint, draw, dance, sculpt, or create anything "artistic," but I can arrange words on a page so they are pleasing to the eye and convey a message. Words are art to me. I don't read words as a series of letters, I see them as pictures and images of what they represent, and I love them for that. My eye absorbs the word and my mind fills with images, and I wish everyone could read that way. Some words are just beautiful - like "wisteria." I think that is the most beautiful word in the English language. And the word "chicken" always makes me laugh. It's just a funny word! I mean, look at it! "Chicken. Chicken, chicken, chicken." Hahahahahaaaaaa...
I like when words make me laugh, or think, or cry, or angry, or afraid. Words should always have the power to invoke those emotions, and if they are written, combined, and positioned properly, they do. This is part of what is called "reader experience."
3. What has been the biggest influence in your writing career and why?
I once saw a greeting card with this on it: "If you hear a voice within you saying 'you are not a painter,' then by all means, paint. And that voice will be silenced." ~ Vincent van Gogh. Of course, I bought the card and stuck it on my wall. I see it every day. I think that is the most powerful thing any artist can do, no matter the medium. It's hard to do, of course, when you think you suck, but first you write to please your ear. (Or in my case, my eye.) Then you have your "wow" moment when you realize you've thrown something down on the page that you can work with. I love that moment.
4. What is your current work-in-progress, and can you summarize it in a few lines?
My current WIP is a historical romance set in 1779 British St Augustine, between a wealthy Englishwoman and an impoverished indentured worker from the Mediterranean island of Minorca. It is fiction-based-on-fact, and gave me an outlet to use my twenty-some years' worth of research on the indentured workers who came to Florida in 1767 from Minorca, Greece, and Italy. They came here to populate a plantation that would later become the town of New Smyrna Beach. The real story is poignant, important, and a sadly-ignored part of American history.
5. As a historical researcher, how do you draw on the historical facts for your stories?
Historical researcher. Hmm. That's really kind of you. What I actually am is an insatiably curious information-addict who cannot pass by a historical marker, falling-down house, or sign that points to a "historical attraction." Or a cemetery. Good golly, I love old cemeteries. And research libraries. Basically, what happens is I "meet" someone who has been, well, dead, for many, many years, and I become fascinated with that person. As I research and get to know them, and complete the "big picture" that was their life, I use details I know about the time period to "fill in around the edges." I also create corresponding characters to tell the story. I use actual people very sparingly and try to portray them in context, the way I understand them from my reading and research. I wasn't in British St Augustine in 1779, so rather than overuse "real" people who were, I created characters to be "assistants" or "friends" to actual historic figures, and I let them tell the story. Gives me more freedom and also allows for interesting plot points to pop up. For instance, one of my "created" characters in my current WIP turned out to have an ugly secret, but I didn't know that until I was almost done with the book! (C'mon, say it with me: re-write...)
6. What is the most difficult part of writing for you?
Wow, that's a hard one. I enjoy the advantage of not having another "real" job so I don't worry about having time to write, or a place to write, or something to write about. I think what has been most difficult these past two years is that I went back to school to study historic preservation, thinking I could do school and write at the same time. I tried, and while I was great at school, I was atrocious at making time to write. I have overachiever tendencies, which my husband will tell you is like saying Noah experienced light rain and drizzle. Trying to maintain an A in school came at the price of having to set my book on the back burner. My incredibly supportive husband sat me down after finals last December and gently pointed out to me that the "write and go to school at the same time" thing just wasn't working out. He assured me he would remain supportive no matter what my decision, but he encouraged me to drop school, if only for spring semester, and focus on my book. So I sobbed for a while and then I took his suggestion. I miss school but I love being able to focus on my writing. It was the right thing to do. (Sob.)
7. What is your writing schedule like? For example, do you write any time of the day or do you prefer a specific time of day? Do you write for a specific amount of hours or pages?
I write all the time. I have a Kindle Fire, and I use My Writing Spot (a Google program), which allows me to put whatever I am working on on my Fire, and work on it anytime, anywhere. My "workday" ends around 5:30 or 6 pm, so I take my Fire into the living room and squeeze in some editing or revising or writing while we are watching TV or whatever. I also take my Fire with me wherever I go, so if I find myself with some free minutes, I have something to do.
8. Do you ever experience writer’s block? If so, how do you cope with it?
I can't think of an answer for this. Hang on a minute while I think it over. Okay, so far, no. But the day is still young.
9. Are you a plotter or a panster? If you’re a plotter, do you have any plotting tips?
Am I a plotter or a pantser? Yes. (I'll bet that wasn't what you were going for, was it?) I plot. Then I throw it all out, and pants. You should have seen the outline for my current WIP. It was a work of art, a thing of beauty. It was perfectly formatted with multileveled, numbered lists, a different color type for each main character, character bios, genealogy charts...heck, I even checked the phases of the moon in Florida in 1779 so I'd know for sure whether my action was taking place under a full moon or a quarter one. And halfway through the first draft. I tossed it. (Well, I didn't actually toss it. I just stuck it in a drawer so I could refer back if I needed to and refresh my memory if necessary.)
See, my characters don't care. They are supremely unimpressed with my plotting and my outlines and my efforts to run their lives. Of course, as the author, I can make them do whatever I want. If I want a character to do a certain thing, I can write him doing that thing but it's just so much less annoying to shut up, let him tell his own story, and try to keep up as he goes along.
In other words, it's their world. I just live in it. Trying to make them do things they don't want to do is like pushing a chain uphill with my nose. Possible, but far more trouble than it's worth. I prefer to lay the chain in place and see who tugs it up the hill for me.
10. What is your personal writing goal?
To assemble eighty thousand words (give or take a few) that please my eye, then have someone I will never meet read those words and be glad they spent some time in my twisted but fun little world. Then, do it again. And again. As many times as I can.
11. What is the strangest thing that ever happened to you?
Well...I had to think this one over because I am incident-prone, so strange things happen to me all the time. Probably the strangest (and in a twisted way, the funniest) was in 2003 when I had a little "health issue." My stomach had felt strange for several months but it was nothing I could put my finger on so I didn't think much of it. In June of that year, I was booked to do some traveling and "horse work" in Indiana and Michigan. The night before I left, this grinding pain started in my belly and just got worse and worse until I thought I might explode, and then it went away. Just like that. So I'm thinking, "All RIGHT! I'm FINE!" and I headed out the next morning for my two-week working trip.
I did great for about a week and a half, and then started feeling icky again. By then I knew there was "something" going on, so I promised my husband I'd see my doctor when I got home. But I didn't make it to the doctor. As soon as I hit the driveway, Bob hauled me to the ER.
Seems the night before I left two weeks earlier, the "relief" from the pain I'd been experiencing was actually my appendix rupturing. I spent four hours in surgery, two weeks in hospital, and another three months on IV antibiotics at home. I nearly died, but when I look back on it now, it's funny. I had the best care in the world and my nurses really enjoyed me but it was because I made them laugh. I figured we could either cry about it or laugh about it, and whenever possible, I choose to laugh. Bob says if I were a superhero, my superpower would be the ability to ignore pain until it nearly kills me.
12. What is the funniest?
I actually have two, and both are so funny I decided to include them both.
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A friend of mine was trying to breed a mare to a stallion in another state, using shipped semen. This is a very common practice in horse breeding now, but back then it was still fairly new. My friend had called me at the shop complaining that the stallion owner had failed, for the third time, to ship the semen at the proper time to inseminate the mare and get her pregnant. Artificial insemination is expensive for the mare owner and an annoyance for the mare, because you have to use hormones to prepare her, ultrasound her to make sure things are progressing, and you have to catch her at exactly the right time for the process to "take." So the stallion owner needs to be on the ball, so to speak, and do his or her part to get the job done right the first time.
My friend was new to the horse business, and asked me what she should do about the situation. I was frustrated, because I knew the stallion owner and had arranged the breeding. Keep in mind, I was having this conversation in the yogurt shop, the compressors in the machines were running, and my voice was raised enough that my friend could hear me over the compressors, but the customers out front could not.
So I said (okay, yelled): "You call her up right now, and you tell her three times is too many, and tell her..."
The compressors shut off.
"...if I do not have semen in my hand by noon tomorrow, the deal is off and I want a full refund of all fees!"
Needless to say, the shop had filled up with customers during the time I had been on the phone. Among the customers were the local OB-GYN and his family of five children. I, of course, slunk out the back door in wretched humiliation. My dad pretended he hadn't heard a thing.
The next day, the doctor asked my mother, who was a nurse at the local hospital, "Exactly what is it your daughter does with horses, anyway?" My mother called me up. "What did you DO??!!"
Funny Thing #2: In 1991, my beloved grandfather died. My grandfather came from a large family of deep south Georgia dirt farmers. He grew up very poor but very dedicated to his family, his church, and the Masons. He was also very, very bullheaded, much like his entire family. So when he died, my grandmother went straight to his desk for the list of instructions he had carefully hand-written out for "when it was needed."
He was to be buried in the family cemetery in south Georgia (which, until that moment, I did not know existed.) His nephew, Stewart, (a mortician, who I also did not know existed until then) was to handle the transport from Atlanta to the south Georgia funeral home, and all funeral arrangements. The funeral was to be a short graveside service, immediate family only, which meant a very small group.
Apparently Stewart wasn't able to come pick up my grandfather himself, so he had the body "shuttled" south to him through a number of funeral homes. We ended up losing track of exactly where my grandfather was at any given moment, and when someone asked where to send flowers, I threw up my hands in exasperation and said, "I don't think it matters. Just send them anywhere between here and the funeral home in south Georgia where he is headed. He'll pick them up on his way through."
Eventually my grandfather ended up at the correct funeral home in a town I had never heard of. Bob and I were given directions to the funeral home and told Stewart would lead us to the family cemetery, which no one knew how to get to but him. Bob and I were the last to arrive at the funeral home, and there we found my grandmother tapping her foot. She'd been inpatient for me to get there because she wanted photos, and everyone knew I was the one who always had a camera with me.
Photos. Of my dead grandfather in his casket. Ick. But...my grandmother would not be denied. Click, click, click.
After I'd taken a few photos, Stewart stepped up. "Is everyone ready to go?" Not waiting for an answer, he slammed the casket shut--BAM!--locked it, and nearly ran us over pushing it out of the viewing room and racing down the hall where the hearse waited. SHOOMP! He shot the casket into the hearse, slammed it shut, jumped into the driver's seat, and scratched off, spraying gravel all over the place. We, of course, were standing there wondering what the heck just happened!
My dad yelled, "We gotta go! We don't know where it is!" By that time, Stewart was several blocks away, rocketing through traffic lights and screaming around corners. We raced madly to our cars and desperately fought through traffic, trying to keep each other in sight. My dad got out first, so he was in charge of not losing sight of Stewart. The rest of us just had to keep sight of each other.
Eventually, we all found each other again, and we left the fairly busy town in a "procession," ending up on long stretches of south Georgia blacktop in some obscure county whose name I can't even remember now. We drove and drove, following Stewart, who kept the hearse at a steady 65 mph. We kept up by not talking, never taking our eyes off the road, and following Stewart's two-wheeled turns deeper into places I had never heard of, much less seen. I held my breath, hoping Stewart had closed up that hearse tightly so my poor grandfather wouldn't come flying out and go bouncing off down the road. (Having to chase down an escaping body is just not a good way to start a funeral, in my opinion.)
At one point, a large white Cadillac passed us. Passed the entire procession that was traveling at 65 mph. It was starting to feel uncomfortably like we needed to dispose of the body as quickly as possible, but none of us knew why. Suddenly Stewart stopped. I don't mean he slowed to a stop. I mean, he was traveling at 65 mph and then he was stopped cold. -Insert sound of eight sets of screeching brakes here.- Finally able to take our eyes off the road, we realized we'd arrived at the cemetery. By the time we'd collected ourselves and shaken off the horror of the trip, Stewart had my grandfather out of the hearse, up the hill, and in place for burial. The minister was waiting, and by the time we all made it to the graveside, he was well into his service. We'd barely gotten in place when the minister said "Amen."
At that point, Stewart became solicitous and very attentive, speaking to each of us, holding up flowers for photos, and in general, being very funeral-director-esque. About twenty minutes after the minister finished, Stewart turned to my grandmother. "Do you need anything else?" When she replied that everything was fine, he waved, and jumped back in the hearse. (This time we all ducked to avoid the spray of gravel.) The minister took off after him as though only they knew the sooper seekrit location where free barbecue was being served, and we were left standing there without a clue where we were or how to get back to civilization. Fortunately, the guys who were in charge of burying my grandfather told us how to get back to a highway we recognized.
At the time, we were all staring at each other and saying, "What the...???" but in retrospect, it's funny. My grandfather would have loved it.
13. If you could choose anywhere in the world to write, where would it be?
Well, anyone who knows me knows I am obsessed with St Augustine, so if I could choose anywhere in the world it would be in a certain house in the historic district there. My second choice would be anywhere on the Georgia or northeast Florida coast where I could have ancient oak trees, Spanish moss, and super cool English and Spanish ghosts in my life all the time. Third choice: Italy.
14. What are you most proud of accomplishing in your life?
My marriage, hands down. Bob and I were separated for three years of our marriage, and looking back, I don't even remember what the original fight was about. And my husband is such an incredible guy that he reminds me constantly that it doesn't matter. We got back together after The Great Ruptured Appendix Incident of 2003, when he moved back in to take care of me and we have been inseparable ever since.
I regret that I lost three years with the most loving, supportive, and unselfish man in the world, but I am grateful for the almost 26 we have had. If I can be married to him for two hundred more years, it won't be long enough. I marvel every day that he picked me and stuck by me even when I hurt him. Or, as my Gator-Girlfriend (You know who you are!) has told me many times, I don't deserve him. My mother even said that once...
15. What writing advice or tips would you like to give to other writers?
That's an easy one: "If you hear a voice within you saying 'you are not a painter,' then by all means, paint. And that voice will be silenced." ~ Vincent van Gogh.
That's the first thing I would say to other writers. You don't have to be "good" at it, you don't have to do it for money. You don't have to have a college degree to do it, you don't have to even have a story in mind before you start. Just dig into your mind and find some words and put them on a blank screen. Then keep doing it. Do it until you have thousands of words and people start showing up in your head and talking to you. Then...THEN...you will have what you need to make a beautiful piece of art that pleases your eye
The second thing: don't be alone. Find a writer's group to belong to; find a home. It may take a few tries to find the right group for you, but you need this. You need the support of a clan you fit into well, that is made up of other writers with various levels of expertise and experience. You need to develop relationships with other writers, and the trust that comes with those relationships. You need people with whom you can feel comfortable enough to let them peek at your naked soul (or nekkid, as we say it in the South) because that's how it feels when someone else reads your writing and you're not used to it. Your group will help you strengthen not only your writing but also your ability to allow someone to read your work without breaking into a cold sweat. Your group, if it's the right group for you, will also help you learn to accept honest evaluation of your work and will make suggestions to help you make it better.
Third: If you plan to sell your writing, treat it like a business and know your industry. If you plan to submit your work to a publisher, research publishers. Find the ones that publish what you write. If you plan to seek an agent, research agents. Read their blogs, get to know them. If you plan to self-publish, seek out people who've done it, successfully and unsuccessfully, read their blogs, get to know them. Follow trends in your industry: know who is working where, know who is publishing what, know what genres or tropes are hot and which are over.
Stay on top of it. It's work, but you have to do it. If you were a hairdresser, you'd be reading industry guides and magazines, attending shows, and networking to learn the hot trends and what people want their hair to look like. Writing is no different. Read industry blogs, go to conferences, and talk to as many people as you can to keep yourself tuned up and your writing fresh.
And lastly: never forget that no matter how long the publishing chain is or who is in it, the two most important parts of the chain are the very ends: the author and the reader. Whether your reader ordered your book from Amazon, bought it at a Barnes & Noble, picked it up at an indie bookstore (may God forever bless the indie bookstores!) or downloaded it to their e-reader, the bottom line is still author-to-reader. Always remember that. Because, if writing is your business and your career, writing a darned good story that sinks its claws into the reader, and hangs on, is the most important part of the process.
Summer Stephens is obsessed with northeast Florida and coastal Georgia history, and uses her 25+ years of gathered stories and research in her writing. Watch for her upcoming historical romance set in 1779 St Augustine, Florida.
Her work has appeared in numerous horse and parrot-related magazines, including Equus, The Chronicle of the Horse, The Morgan Horse, Birds USA, Bird Talk, and others. Her short story, Surviving Foaling Season, is available in the Amazon Kindle store.
In another life, she worked with horses as a behaviorist, equine massage therapist, saddle fitter, and breeder. She has also worked in parrot conservation with Philippine Red-Vented Cockatoos, a threatened species. She and her husband live in the sticks in central Georgia with their small herd of retired horses, several goofy dogs, and a flock of impossibly silly parrots. She currently serves the RWA chapter Ancient City Romance Authors as Social Media Chair.
Visit Summer on the web.
Summer, thank you for a great interview.