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Sunday, 1 September 2013

Interview with Judith Redline Coopey

There is nothing more delightful than discovering a book with a page-turning plot, memorable characters and a setting that transports you to another time and place.  Judith Redline Coopey's Redfield Farm is such a book.  We are lucky to have her answering a few questions for us about writing compelling historical fiction and her journey as a writer.
Your book, Redfield Farm, is page-turning historical fiction - not an easy feat.  How do you incorporate historical facts from your research into a readable work that doesn't feel contrived?  How do you keep a plot going along a trajectory when the time period is set in the past and the author must also think about this during the plot progression?  Many authors find this a real challenge and find the plot becoming a slave to the setting.

I do exhaustive research into my topic (the Underground Railroad, Quaker religious beliefs, practices and customs).  I choose these topics because they are interesting to me, so that I won't get tired of reading about them, and that the information will become a part of me, not something I have to refer to all the time.  As for plotting, I try to ask myself 'what if' questions, like: what if a young woman helping with the Underground Railroad were to fall in love with or establish an intimate relationship with one of the fugitives. That question in the back of my mind guides my research.  It is always there, making me keep it on mind as I learn about the times and events.  If my question doesn't seem plausible, I'll know it not very far into the research

My plot for Redfield Farm was basically a chronology of a life.  I found that easy to follow, and, since it was my first novel, I felt comfortable with that approach.  I find that my plots are derived from the research.  They grow out of my study of the times and events, and they almost form themselves.  Certain things are inevitable, given certain circumstances.  I don't outline my plot ahead of time.  I have a general idea of where things are going, and I write a chapter at a time without looking back so that my story grows out of itself.

I don't take notes on my research.  I just read and read and read about my topic until I feel very familiar with it and the times and places where it occurred.  That way I think my writing feels more natural, not contrived. I'm sure you've heard writers say that their characters can take over the story and lead the writer in the direction he/she should go.  I believe this.  Ann Redfield wrote the story.  I was just the conduit.

What is your process for writing historical fiction?  How do you take all the research about a time and place and create a plot-driven book?  In other words, do you research for months and then throw much of that research out to write something from a more natural place?  Or do you meticulously outline how your book will proceed?
My second book, Waterproof, a Novel of the Johnstown Flood, is a good example for this question.  I read about 25 books on the Johnstown Flood, to the point that all of the accounts were starting to sound the same.  By then, I thought I knew how people would feel after such a disaster -- in a huge variety of ways.  I knew there would be bitterness, depression, the desire to get on with one's life, the need to talk endlessly about it.  I tried to incorporate many ways of coping into my story. Once again the story grew out of the research.  Once I had done the research, I put it away in my mind and started to write, and the story came to me through the characters.  I think I start to know my characters very early in the process and I can let them lead the way.

I don't outline anything.  Not that I have any aversion to outlining, planning or organization.  It's just not the way it happens for me, and I just let the process happen with a general idea of where the story is going and a vague idea of who my characters are.

When you were mothering small children, how did you find the time to write?  If you didn't write, then how did you manage to keep that part of yourself open for future writing?  In other words, did you prepare by being a critical reader, did you write shorter stories, etc.?

When my children were very small I barely wrote at all.  When they were in elementary school I tried my hand at magazine articles with  some success.  Then when they were in junior high I collaborated on a non-fiction book and wrote a local history at the behest of a patron.  Just little bits here and there, but the flame never went out.  I am a very linear kind of person.  One thing at a time and one focus at a time.  So when I was a teacher, teaching took all of my energy, but the need to write was always there.  I thought I would write for young adults, and did two books for them before I realized that it was adults I wanted to write for (with, hopefully, a crossover here and there).  I retired from teaching at 62 so that I could devote myself to writing full time, and it has certainly paid off.  So don't despair if you can't find time to write.  Keep the flame alive.  Your time will come.

What is next for you?

What is next is very exciting:  a three volume family saga about the iron industry in 19th century Pennsylvania.  That may sound boring, but trust me.  It'll curl your hair!  I have so many projects in the fire, I just hope my brain keeps functioning long enough to get them all written.  This is the most exciting time of my life, and I am enjoying it to the fullest.

What is your advice for writers looking to write compelling historical fiction?  Should they be aware of upcoming trends and trends on the decline?  For example, many agents now state they are not looking for historical fiction set during the Depression, because this area is saturated.  Should an author pay attention to this or write what they need to write?

I think the best writing comes from the heart and a sincere interest in one's topic.  Trends come and go, and agents and editors hope they can predict them but I think a writer is best advised to follow her heart and write what interests her.  I've been told many times that historical fiction doesn't sell, but Redfield Farm has put that to rest, and I hope my readers continue to find my writing interesting and compelling.  Write what you know!

Judith Redline Coopey's, Redfield Farm, as well as her other books, can be found on Amazon.