Frequently Asked Questions
What inspired you to write Essie’s Roses?
I developed the story of Essie’s Roses first as a screenplay. Essie’s Roses the novel has taken an usually long journey. An interview I saw with Halle Berry after she won an Oscar for Best Actress for her role in Monster’s Ball initially inspired me. During the interview, I heard this statement, "It took seventy-four years for an African-American to win an Oscar for Best Actress." This statement really affected me.
A few minutes later, the first scene for Essie’s Roses popped into my head. I was working on other projects at the time, so I said aloud, "I’m not paying attention to you." The way I am and how I work, I knew if I did, it would be dedicated hours of getting it out on the page…and I had never written a novel!
Next, I heard the first line, "This be the day Evie set me free." It was one of those strange moments where I had no idea where the line had come from. I saw a scene play in my head, hashed it out, and instantly decided to switch gears. The story I wanted to write focused on an intelligent, intriguing African-American woman as the lead set during a period in history where this point of view is often missed.
I put the screenplay in a drawer for several years while I worked on other projects until it was time to pick it up again. The novel was my desire to tell more of the story, introduce unique tidbits of the history of slavery to the reader, and provoke thought toward a different relationship present during such a horrific time: the family relationship between whites and slaves.
How does your acting background help you write?
I love having the experience I do in the arts. I think it gives me a unique perspective on character development, voice, dialogue, and those emotional moments and transitions between characters. I think every writer should take an acting class and read plays. It will give you a different approach on how to craft characters and write dialogue… and you’ll have some fun!
Have you acted in any blockbuster movies?
No. My acting career was a career of almosts, life interruptions, and mostly consisted of theater, commercial work, and voice-overs. And that was fine with me! It was a marvelous passion for me for a very long time… still is…every aspect of it. All I ever wanted was to make a living at what I loved and studied, and I did.
It’s an insane profession, as 90% of the time you hear ‘no’. Most people don’t realize that when you study acting, there’s so much more to it than being a size 0, smiling, and saying a line. You learn about all of the wonderful playwrights, the stunning language of Shakespeare, how to research history, observe people, and recapture emotional experiences to create interesting, honest characters. You get this wonderful, odd opportunity to perform for audiences that come to see you on their day off, to present stories that entertain, and hopefully, make people think. Fascinating stuff!
What inspired you to start writing?
I’ve been writing stories, songs, and poetry since I was a kid. I’ve always loved writing, but acting came first. I took creative writing courses in college, and though my major was acting, those courses ignited something in me. I’m a St. Louis suburban girl with parents born and raised in NYC, and I chose to go to a private college in a small town in the middle of Missouri…it was in the middle of nowhere. I think I fell in love with writing in that small town. The countryside captivated me. I would jog through farmlands and near cornfields, stop, breathe, watch sunsets, and write. I had never been anywhere so serene.
I considered graduate school but wanted to focus on my acting career. I met my husband, and five or so years after college, I was in a car accident and hurt my back. It took me away from acting for a long time. One day, I decided maybe telling stories was a way I could still use my acting experience. After all, instead of playing one character, I could play them all!
What drew you to writing historical fiction?
Research! I love it. Ironically, I didn’t appreciate my history classes in college. But I absolutely loved researching periods and characters in history for the roles I played on stage. A true passion and appreciation for historical research came later in my life while writing Essie’s Roses. It’s an interesting process to research a historical period, person, or event in history, with its traditions, slang, customs, and dress, and to retain it all while you’re creating worlds and characters. When I’m steeped in research on my next book, sometimes remembering all of those historical tidbits I knew backward and forward for a previous title is a little fuzzy. Thank God for OCD notes!
Will there be an Essie’s Roses sequel?
Hmmmm. Would you like one? Let me hear from you! I actually have three stories in mind. It’s up to my readers. I certainly love these characters. I think they have more to say.
Who is your favorite character in Essie’s Roses?
I love Delly. Out of all the women at Westland, I think she is the one who is free. Her lot in life isn’t mighty, but she’s mighty in it. She knows who she is.
What are you working on next?
I am researching and working on my next book, an art-related historical novel. I’m very excited about it and think it will be another unique historical novel for my readers. Check out my News page often for details. Sign up for my newsletter for the inside scoop! Fill out the form in the sidebar, on my contact page or below! You can also follow me on Facebook, Goodreads, and Amazon. I can't wait to share this next read with you!!
I want to write a book, how do I start?
First, give yourself a chance and just start writing. Don’t kill your inspiration before it begins by thinking because you don’t have a certain degree or platform, who are you to write a book. Write… whatever it may be. Be open on what you’ll write. Maybe novels aren’t your thing, but you have heart to encourage people or expert advice to share. Ever thought of a blog? Writing a newsletter for your friends and family? Do you write song lyrics? Maybe those lyrics are actually a book of poetry in the making! A play? Explore them all. The only way you’ll know if you’ll like this journey of writing is to start.
If you get an interesting story idea, go with it. Try not to hold back because you’re afraid people might think it’s about you. Sounds silly, but that judgment voice always tries to barge in to derail something unique.
Read books in the genre in which you’re interested. I swallow non-fiction, love the classics, but really have to make time to read fiction. I don’t always have dedicated time especially when I’m writing my own book, but it’s essential. I’m a library advocate! Yes, we can find tons of info online, but there’s something about going to the library. The quiet helps you think. All that’s in front of you at a library is the subject you want to explore.
Take a creative writing class or join a writer’s group. There are resources available to help you get started, but only you can create that unique idea, put it on the page, and see it to the end.
What are the names of your two quirky Border collies?
Chance and Lulu: our homage to John Wayne. Chance is a character he played a few times. The Duke was a pretty serious cowboy in his movies, so when he called someone a lulu in one of his films, it stuck.
What is your writing process?
Because I love writing historical fiction, I have to be passionate about the subject. It takes a lot of time and dedication researching history for a book I write, so it better be something that interests me!
I usually see a scene or two in my head. Characters reveal themselves, their names, quirks, the rhythm of their voice. I flesh out a premise, narrow down themes, and sum up the book in a sentence or two. A title comes. I’m a musically driven person, so often I find inspiration from a song. Listen to music from the period. Because of my entertainment background, I visualize books like movies. Once I’m ready to type, I’m a locomotive. Often I have to make myself stop. Get quiet. I play the piano. Walk my dogs. Something other than writing, especially when I’m stuck on polishing a character or direction for the story. Often, I toss the polishing out and just let it go. The rhythm of the language is important to me. I do what I can to get out of the way. It’s hard, but I try. And to me, when I do, that’s the magic of writing.
Most days I write all day, sometimes into the wee hours. Other times, I may tweak a chapter or two before I move on. I do my best to keep it going, get it out on the page. Then I go back to edit; that’s when fun and unexpected things happen. You have to be open to slashing chapters, putting scenes back in; changing directions; layering characters. It’s wonderful to see where a story might end up…if you let it. I’m surprised every time!
Usually the research is first, and that also happens throughout the writing process. I live at libraries, online, museums, and read many books and articles on the subject I’m writing about. I love visiting other places to write, especially locations from the book. I enjoy chatting with historians and experts for unexpected inspiration.
Two of my favorite places to write in St. Louis are Forest Park and the Missouri Botanical Garden. There’s something about putting a pen to my notebook surrounded by towering trees and flowers that’s different from typing in my office. Scenes and dialogue always pop up no matter what I’m doing, so I like to record things into a recorder or my phone. Napkins work too.
Interestingly enough, it seems climatic or unfinished scenes pop into my head when I’m at the gym. I have to stop my workout, go into the locker room, find a receipt, my iPhone notes (kills my thumbs though), something to write on (because I’ve usually forgotten my notebook, recorder, etc.) and write down chapter notes, full scenes, and dialogue. Great moments and scribbles I get mad at as I have to decipher later because I was so excited it came, I wrote manically to get it down. And yes, I think it’s the perfect excuse to avoid my workout.
What is your favorite thing about writing?
I love meeting new people and hearing what readers have to say about the story. Writing is such a solitary process, so at this stage it is exciting when you see people are enjoying your book and connecting with you. I’m always amazed how stories come. How pages get filled. How characters magically appear on the page. How they speak. And the stories they tell. I love being surprised by the direction a story takes. I love when the characters teach me something.
One of my favorite, most memorable, and humbling experiences came about while doing research in Richmond, Virginia for Essie’s Roses. I went to the Richmond Valentine History Center to see authentic antebellum ball gowns in person. I wanted to take some photos and study the details of the fabric and styles. There was a mix-up with my appointment, and the curator wasn’t there to show me the gowns. I was devastated. I had flown in from St. Louis, and though I had plenty to do, I really wanted to see those gowns.
The curator at the time said if I wanted to I could look at some nineteenth-century documents in the document room. I was curious. I remembered seeing a slave receipt in one of the museums, and on a whim asked him if they had any. A few minutes later, he came out wearing a pair of white gloves. He handed me a pair and said, "Please put them on… just a moment."
Meanwhile, sitting across from me, an older African-American gentleman was looking through a box of antique photos. I didn’t really pay attention because I was wondering what the curator was going to bring me that I needed to wear these museum style white gloves for.
The curator came back into the room and handed me a few small thin pieces of papers. I held one gently in my hand. As I read it, I cried. I was reading a slave receipt that read:
"Received of Thomas E. Brown Eleven Hundred Dollars for a Negro boy named Lewis aged about twenty four years for which I warrant to be sound in body and mind and slave for life March the 6th, 1858. C.A. Heilig."
At the same moment the African-American gentleman, the curator was now helping, found a photo and said, "Well, I’ll be. There he is right there. That’s my great (great) granddaddy." I believe he was looking at a photo of former slaves. It was a moment I’ll never forget. Here he was searching for his family history, and here I sat looking at this history in my hand.
As I held this historical document, a receipt for the purchase of a human being, I couldn’t help feeling the weight of that period on my shoulders. I can’t think about it without being touched deeply. It changed me.
This is why I love writing. You hope to have fun, entertain your readers, but to me, it’s always about learning… learning about history, myself, and others. And it’s special when something as this unexpectedly touches your life and changes you forever.