Selected among Booklist’s Top 10 for two consecutive years, Lisa skillfully weaves lyrical writing and unforgettable settings with elements of traditional Southern storytelling, history, and mystery to create novels that Publisher’s Weekly calls “Masterful” and Library Journal refers to as “A good option for fans of Nicholas Sparks and Mary Alice Monroe.”
Lisa is a seven-time ACFW Carol Award nominee, a multiple Christy Award nominee, a two-time Carol Award winner, and a 2015 RT Booklovers Magazine Reviewer’s Choice Award Winner for mystery/suspense. Booklist summed up her work by saying, “Lisa Wingate is, quite simply, a master storyteller.”
The following is a Q&A interview with Lisa about her latest release, The Sea Keeper's Daughters.
Will you tell us about the inspiration for The Sea Keeper’s Daughters?
I never know where my stories will come from. While working on my first Carolina book, set on the Outer Banks, I became fascinated with the mystery of the Lost Colonists of Roanoke Island. You can’t spend time on the Carolina Coast without realizing that theories abound as to the fate of the 117 people who vanished from Sir Walter Raleigh’s ill-fated colony over thirty years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. While writing my second Carolina book, The Story Keeper, I delved into the mystery of what early explorers deemed to be “blue-eyed Indians,” who were found to have been living in the Appalachia decades before other Europeans pressed in. I knew that the third Carolina book would somehow bring these two fascinating bits of history together.
An interesting thing happened when The Story Keeper hit the bookstores. Because the novel is about the discovery of an untold story, readers began sharing their own family stories with me. One reader mentioned that she’d traveled through the mountains many times as a child and one day had noticed that there were doors in the mountainside. When she asked about the doors, her father told her that during the Depression, families who lost their farms or had no place to live would often move into a nearby cave. Many people salvaged doors, windows, and furniture from their repossessed homes before leaving. They used those to outfit their new cave houses. I couldn’t resist researching that tale, but I found very little about Americans living in caves during the Depression. What I did come across were life history interviews written by participants in a little-known WPA program called the Federal Writers’ Project. The Project hired impoverished writers, academics, housewives, and reporters, and turned them into Federal Writers. The Field Interviewers of the FWP were tasked with traveling the hidden corners of America and recording the stories of the common man. The narratives they wrote were fascinating, but what I really wondered about were the lives behind the pen. What was it like to be a Federal Writer, literally wandering the dusty back roads, looking to scare up stories?
The Sea Keeper’s Daughters was born from that process of researching and imagining the experiences of a Federal Writer. In the novel, a modern woman, Whitney Monroe, finds herself tasked with cleaning out a turn-of-the-century hotel once owned by her grandmother. Inside, she discovers the letters of Alice, a great-aunt she never knew, who left behind her wealthy family to become one of Roosevelt’s Federal Writers during the Depression. What does Whitney find among Alice’s field notes? Possibly, among mountain stories handed down by oral tradition, not only her own family history, but a clue to one of America’s oldest mysteries.
The Appalachian setting is a character of its own in the book. Why did you set the historical portion of the book there?
Appalachia is a place where the air fairly whispers with stories. So much of the world has become too fast-paced these days, too busy for sitting and listening, too preoccupied with the future to devote effort to retelling the past. But in Appalachian culture, there’s still a reverence for it.
There are still storytellers who can entertain a crowd at a ramshackle café, on a back porch, or at the kitchen table over coffee. That tradition of the importance of story is at the heart of Alice’s journey as a Federal Writer in the historical portion of The Sea Keeper’s Daughters.
Appalachia is filled with mist and mystery. It lends mood to a story. The mountains are dotted with isolated communities where people can live differently, undisturbed by outsiders. It’s also the place where mysterious “little races” like the Melungeons lived historically, and in some cases still do. Even today, the heritage of “blue-eyed Indians” discovered in the Appalachians by the first English and French explorers remains a mystery. What were the origins of their Caucasian blood? Were they descendants of shipwrecked sailors? Journeying Norsemen or Turks? The progeny of the Lost Colonists who vanished from Roanoke Island without a trace, decades before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock? The mystery fascinated me, and it pulled the story from me, and yes, both Roanoke Island and the Blue Ridge Mountains became characters in themselves as the dual storylines developed.
The Sea Keeper’s Daughters tells a story within a story. Was this a challenge to write?
It’s always a challenge to balance dual time frames and a story within a story. It falls in the category of double-the-work and double-the-risk, but also double-the-fascination and double-the-reward. There’s twice as much research, but in doubling the research, you also discover twice as many interesting historical facts, unanswered questions, and nearly-forgotten true stories. Those things weave new threads into the story loom. For me, the biggest challenge was balancing the two stories, ensuring that both the narratives of both Whitney and Alice would be fully satisfying, and that the historical story would serve a purpose in modern-day characters’ lives.
What inspired you to become a writer?
A special first grade teacher, Mrs. Krackhardt, put the idea of being a real writer into my head. She found me writing a story one day at indoor recess, and she took the time to stop and read it. When she was finished, she tapped the pages on the desk to straighten them, looked at me over the top and said, “You are a wonderful writer!” That was a defining moment for me. In my mind, I was a writer. When your first grade teacher tells you that you can do something, you believe it.
I was only in her class for a few months before we moved again, but during that time, she left an indelible mark on my life. It’s funny how we have defining moments in our lives, and that time in Mrs. Krackhardt’s class was one of mine. For years, I couldn’t have told you what she looked like, or whether she was a young teacher or an old teacher, but I could have told you that she said I was a wonderful writer. When I left her class, she wrote on my report card, “Keep that pencil working with that wonderful imagination, Lisa!” and “I expect to see your name in a magazine one day.” I still have that report card, and I never forgot those words, or the way her confidence in me gave me confidence. Publishing is a difficult business, but I always believe I could do it, because my first grade teacher told me so.
What’s on your reading stack?
Endorsement books, usually! One of the best things about being an author is having the chance to read and discover new books before they travel out into the world. Aside from early read copies, there’s usually some research material on my nightstand for other books I’m planning. Also on the stack is a journal given to me by a reader, where I write down quotes and story ideas I don’t want to forget.
How did you write 25 books in 14 years with a family to take care of?
I’ve always loved to write, but I didn’t get serious about freelance writing and selling until after I’d graduated college, married, and started a family. I wrote and sold various smaller projects between naps, diapers, and playgroups. And when the boys were older, during soccer practices, in carpool lines, while helping with homework, and in all sorts of other situations.
People often ask me if I need quiet in order to write. With boys in the house, if I’d waited for quiet, the writing would never have happened. I learned to lose myself in a story amid the noise of life and I loved it that way.
I asked myself what makes a story last, what really makes a story worth telling and worth reading? I wanted to write books that meant something, that explore the human soul.
One day, I came across a notebook in which I’d written some of my grandmother’s stories. I’d never known quite what to do with those stories, but I knew they were significant in my life. When I rediscovered the notebook, I had the idea of combining my grandmother’s real stories with a fictional family who is like and unlike my own family. That little germ of an idea became my first women’s fiction novel, Tending Roses.
Now that the boys are grown and the house is quiet, I’m redefining the writing routine again. Just as in books, life is a series of scenes and sequels, beginnings and endings, and new discoveries.
If you could only tell aspiring novelists one thing, what would it be?
Enjoy the time of writing “just for you.” There’s something magical about the purity of writing just because you have a story inside you and you want to put it on paper. The story and the characters are the only things in your head as you work. After you sell your first book, that state of being alone with your story doesn’t exist anymore. Along with the story in your head, there are editors, deadlines, book reviewers, readers, financial considerations, agents, contracts, and so forth. All of those are wonderful things. They’re part of our end goal of being published and sharing our stories with the world, but it’s so worthwhile to be cognizant of the gifts of each part of the journey and the purity of its beginning.
Tell us about some of your favorite authors and how have they influenced you?
In terms of classics, I have so many. I love the rhythm of the prose and the wisdom of Eudora Welty and Zora Neal Hurston (who incidentally were involved in the Federal Writers Project). I love the sense of place and the intermingling of both the humorous and the profound that is so present in Mark Twain's works. What I have learned, sitting at the knee of these and other timeless writers, is exactly this – the stories that drive deepest into us are those that tell us things we already knew, that crystallize truths we’ve felt but not yet framed into words in our own minds. When a story pulls something from within the reader, it is a kidnapping, in a way. A piece of personal truth is forever tied to that story.
I think that's what we all want as writers. It’s what we seek to create on the deepest levels beyond just entertainment. The best stories both draw on life experience and expand it to deliver meaning.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given?
Probably the most beneficial thing I ever learn about the craft of writing came completely by accident. I stumbled into the wrong room at a conference ten years ago or so, and ended up in a class on Three Act Story Structure, as it applies to screenwriting. I had already wandered my way through the writing of my first few novels by then, one of which got that editorial letter – the you never want to get. The book ended up being a total rewrite.
When I attended that first course on Three Act Structure, and then began to study various outlines, it helped to gel so many things that I knew from reading, hearing, and watching stories all my life, even those oral stories and jokes told among family members at the old farm. Most stories follow Three Act, which was first identified by Aristotle. I'm still a very organic type of writer, but understanding the outline of story structure gives me just enough bones to hang the flesh of the story on.
Since then, I’ve taught the course many times, and it's always amazing to watch that light turn on for other people the way it did for me. There are various forms of the Three Act Structure outline. I think people often make it more complicated than it needs to be, in terms of novel writing. The simple version I use is on my website under the writers tips for anyone who is curious. Using the outline and analyzing some movies is a great way to begin to understand the arrangement of the story bones.
What’s the worst writing advice you have ever been given?
This might seem to contradict my “best advice” answer, but probably the worst advice I’ve received was advice that trended more toward analytical and prescriptive. Do A, B, C, and D, and you’ll create a best seller. While there are certainly technical things to be learned, I don't think there is any certain way to put a novel together or to assure bestseller status. So many factors, including some amount of luck and timing determine the eventual sales of a book.
Aside from that, every writer’s process is different. There is no wrong way to go about building a novel. What’s right is what works for you, and every writer’s process is different. I think you can get so caught up in following every new method out there that you can lose the magic of your own innate style. Ultimately, great writing is about living your story as you write, finding your own voice, and letting it seep into your story. It's hard to do that if you have too much mental algebra going on in your head.
How long does it typically take for you to write a book?
It takes about two or three months to complete a rough draft and about a month on the second pass. Then my beta readers take about two weeks editing and commenting. Cleaning up the rough draft may take from one to three weeks and then it’s ready for the editor. Usually the whole writing process takes about six months. Some stories are like Jiffy Pop and some stories are like a slow-boiling pot of gumbo. However it goes, the actual writing is always a journey of discovery.
How important is it to you to be active in writing organizations?
Working with other authors is very important to me. I have friends I meet with regularly and typically I attend and/or speak at several writing conferences each year. Some of my best opportunities have happened because I’ve come to know other writers. As writers we need support, advice, and help with everything from publicity to plotlines. Many brains are better than one.
Since you’re being published regularly, what new avenues will your future books take?
My last few books have been dual time frame novels. The historical threads were based on real historical events. I love doing the research, finding little-known events and building on those. I imagine the people who were involved, what issues they may have faced, how they might have learned from their challenges.
I love having present day characters discover some historical mystery and telling a time-slip story allows the modern characters to learn life lessons from the past. I have at least one more book coming up along those lines. My lips are sealed at this point about the topic, title, and theme, but that book will be upcoming in hardcover from Ballantine in late 2016 or early 2017 and foreign rights have already been sold in several languages. I can’t wait for it to hit the shelves!
Where can our readers find you on the Internet?
My website: www.Lisawingate.com
Blogging Mondays at: www.SouthernBelleViewDaily.com
The Untold Story Guru: http://theuntoldstory.guru
The Sisterhood Of the Traveling Books: https://www.facebook.com/groups/SisterhoodOfTheTravelingBooks/
Tyndale Media Center Link http://mediacenter.tyndale.com/1_products/details.asp?isbn=978-1-4143-8827-4
ELLIE WHYTE is a long-time supporter of Christian fiction and is the founder and owner/operator of Soul Inspirationz // The Christian Fiction Site which relaunched after a 5-year hiatus in January 2013. Ellie also has aspirations for her own writing career, and has begun working on a project set in New Zealand in the 1850s.
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