Montana Memories — a guest post by Janet Fisher

Here at Montana Women Writers, we love celebrating new books by old friends! This book is particularly special, as it explores an unusual historical event — a homestead farm in Oregon, settled by a woman in the 1860s and still run by a woman, the homesteader’s great-great-granddaughter and a dear friend of ours.   

MONTANA MEMORIES

Janet Fisher  Author Photo-croppedby Janet Fisher

Montana seems to nurture writers, whether from the spectacular landscapes or the long winters or the ruggedness of nature that challenges people to go deep inside themselves, then reach out to each other, ready to help.

I understand the link Montanans feel for their beautiful homeland, from roots that may be long grown or just started. For several years I lived in Kalispell, Montana, and shared the wonder of Montana’s beauty and the friendliness of its people. But Oregon ultimately called me back. That’s my own place of roots, which gave me my first published book, A Place of Her Own: The Legacy of Oregon Pioneer Martha Poindexter Maupin. The book just came out (published by Globe Pequot Press/TwoDot imprint, and available now – links here).

Book cover - A Place of Her OwnWhen I moved to Kalispell in the late 1990s, I didn’t consider myself a novice as a writer. I had a master’s in journalism, had been writing novels for several years, and had honed the skills enough to attract a few agents. But no publishers.

Then I started attending meetings of the Authors of the Flathead. I had never met so many dedicated writers who were so willing to help other struggling authors. The group met every week, offering open mike several times a month (great experience for doing readings at later book signings). Before long, I got into two critique groups, which also met weekly.

I recall many an evening, three nights a week, driving through snowy streets to meetings. I lived and breathed writing there. My prose became tighter, smoother, crisper. I learned how to write a battle scene after the men in one group threw up their hands upon reading my first attempt. So many people helped me improve the work.

And when I finally a got a book published, I named names. I had to acknowledge those in my critique groups who had cheerfully offered both criticism and encouragement. That’s what I took away from Montana, and I will always have a warm spot for that beautiful place with all its beautiful people. Several kept helping, even after I left.

When I returned to the family farm in Oregon, I began thinking about the woman who came before me on that property. It turns out I had the winning combination for a publishable book in my own family. A Place of Her Own is the story of my great-great-grandmother Martha, who came west over the Oregon Trail in 1850, lost her husband, and had to care for their many children alone. She made a daring choice to set down roots in this wilderness and bought the piece of land I own and operate today—now one of the few Century Farms in Oregon named for a woman.

Janet in cathedralThis photo shows me in one of my favorite spots on the farm, a patch of woods we call “the cathedral.” Some of you Montanans may remember the photographer, my son-in-law Robin Loznak, who used to be the photographer for the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell. He also lives on the farm now with my daughter Carisa and their son, Alex. The book contains several of his pictures taken on the property.

They’re why I made that move to Montana, in fact. My grandson, Alex, was very young when they lived in Kalispell, and I wanted to be close to him during his early years. I didn’t realize my time there would offer the added advantage of enriching my writing.

Thank you, Montana, for all you taught me.

Photos of Janet by Robin Loznak. Read more about Janet and follow her blog on her website

Thank you, Janet, for all you taught us!

Leslie, for the MT WW crew

Mentorship and Me – a guest post from Rebecca Miller

Today, we welcome our neighbor Rebecca Miller, on discovering the joys of mentorship from both sides. This summer, Rebecca is leading writing camps for incoming 7th-10th graders, in Bigfork.  

Mentorship and Me

Rebeccasmallby Rebecca Miller

I really can’t remember a time when I didn’t write. Whether I was filling Big Chief notebooks with illustrated stories or weaving a romantic saga in a flowered journal, I was a kid who wrote. I had a difficult childhood and stories (read or written) were always one of the ways that I was able to escape into another world.

In college, I met incredible mentors who encouraged me in my writing. I was awfully earnest—and awfully cliché—but they still believed in me. Recently, I dug out some of my old creative writing folders from that time and cringed a little at some of my early stories. First of all, I hadn’t lived much life to speak of. This naturally left my characters and stories one-dimensional. Secondly, I was uncomfortable with the grey areas of life and literature. I felt that everything needed to be tied up neatly with a bow. So, naturally every story seemed to move toward some sort of Christian conversion experience, even though real life isn’t usually so tidy. My teachers didn’t discourage my faith, but they gently pointed out the need for more nuance.

I remember spending hours in my teachers’ offices, being fed by their love of literature and writing. I remember the freedom of someone believing in me and calling forth something from me. By the end of my college experience, I was a much better writer than when I started. I became much more open to the way targeted, specific language could dig our toes down deep into the dirt of earth and even—from a faith perspective—help us experience a God who came near. I have continued to grow in this knowledge and in a knowledge of a grace and power that is bigger than me. No longer do I feel I must hover over the real story of life and control it, patch it up, slap thick coats of make-up on it. Beauty is found in the ordinary.

Mentors changed my life. They moved me from the raw clay of potentiality to a writer who is continually growing, learning more authenticity, learning craft instead of cliché.

This spring, I got a great opportunity to pass on the gifts that have been given to me. I write and edit now, and a mother approached me to ask if I would tutor her daughter in creative writing. Teaching about writing and literature was something I had done a little of in the past, so I was very excited to begin this new journey with an enthusiastic young student. As I spend time with her, my goal is to gently nudge her craft forward through encouraging her strengths and helping her find ways to improve. It is a joy to nurture and encourage the mind of a young artist. It is life-giving for both student and teacher.

This summer I will also be offering three creative writing “camps” for youth going into 7th-10th grades. They are classes in Fiction, Poetry, and Creative Nonfiction. Details can be found on my website and sign-ups need to be in place two weeks prior to each class. In these classes, my goal is to create a hunger for good literature, skills to help young people grow as writers, and lots of encouragement. The journey of creativity can be a lonely one and creative minds need all the encouragement they can get. Classes will be held at Bethany Lutheran Church in Bigfork.

I so am grateful for mentors. I hope I can give to other young writers some portion of all that has been given to me.

Rebecca Florence Miller is a freelance writer, editor, and writing tutor. She lives in the Flathead Valley with her husband and two kids. You can find her on her website: rebeccaflorencemiller.wordpress.com

Thanks, Rebecca!

Leslie, for the MT WW crew. 

Welcome, BJ Daniels — guest interview

BJ DanielsBy Leslie Budewitz

I first met B.J. “Barb” Daniels years ago, at Bouchercon, the international mystery convention, in Denver in 2000. Already a successful author of romance and romantic suspense, she was nothing but kind and encouraging to me, an unpublished but hopeful mystery writer. Part of that, I knew, was the special connection we Montanans share—and part was her generous spirit. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, and I was delighted when she came to Kalispell in the fall of 2011 to speak at the Flathead River Writers Conference. Now the author of more than 40 published short stories and 70 published books, she remains that generous, open-hearted writer who inspired me years ago.

Barb, thanks for joining us here at Montana Women Writers. Your latest book, Forsaken (HQN, October 2013), is part of your Beartooth, Montana series. Tell us about it.
Leslie, I’m honored to be here. Thank you for the kind words. bj - forsaken.htm

Forsaken is one of those books that I swear wrote itself. When I worked as a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, I did a feature story about a sheep ranch that took their flock deep into the Beartooths for the summer. I met the old sheepherder and his young tender as they came out of the mountains after those long three months in a wilderness. The sheepherder hardly said a word, but his young tender was very talkative, telling me about what they had endured from the harsh weather to grizzlies attacking the sheep at night to the remote, rugged landscape where they’d camped without seeing another soul.

The story appealed to me because for decades that part really happened. Then, like all writers, I thought, what if the sheep rancher was a widowed woman just hanging on by a thread? And what if her young tender came racing out of the mountain terrified and covered with blood and now the old sheepherder, who is like a grandfather to her, is missing. Bring in a greenhorn new deputy sheriff who is determined to go into the backcountry with her because he believes they are going to find a crime scene.

What I love about this book isn’t just that my widow, Maddie Conner, is incredibly strong and capable. She is also in her mid-forties like the deputy. They have both experienced losses in their life. Neither is looking for a relationship.

We’ve been talking lately about what inspires us, and why we write stories set in Montana. To me, those are the same question. Your thoughts?
Montana has such a rich, wonderful history. Not to mention its rugged beauty. But it can also be unforgiving. It’s a place where weather matters. Montana is the perfect character for a book as well as a setting. People have struggled to live here and tame this land since the beginning. It’s not just a backdrop for a story, it is the story. Who wouldn’t be inspired by that?

When I need inspiration, I drive out in the country. We have a lot of that up here in north central Montana.

Like me, you like good food. You said recently “Whenever I put food in my books, it makes me hungry. One time a character made my oatmeal cake. I actually started to take a bite…but was shocked that I didn’t have a piece next to my computer.” What is it about writers, stories, and food?
I hate books where the characters never eat. Who forgets to eat? Not me. I love heroes who love heroines who love to eat. I want my hero to have a healthy woman who doesn’t pick at her food. Also I equate a healthy appetite with a healthy passion for other things, including life, of course, and sex.

When you spoke at the Flathead River Writers Conference, you talked about openings and gave examples of how the same opening could be written various ways. Do you start at the very beginning, as Julie Andrews sang, or do you work and rework those openings?
I’m a seat of the pants writer so I just start typing. The characters know so much more than I do. I just have to get them to tell their story.

I try to open the story at a point where something big has happened, something that will affect all the characters. I believe that “hooking” the reader is very important. I know I decide whether to buy a book by reading the first paragraph. If it doesn’t grab me through what is happening or the writing or the promise of something to happen, then I will put it back.

I try hard to write an opening that makes a reader unable to do that.

What’s the best part of being a professional writer?
Not the hours. Or the vacation and sick pay.

The best part isn’t even the freedom or getting to be my own boss. The best part is that I get to tell stories. It’s all I ever wanted. So it’s my dream come true. That along with the writer friends I’ve made along the way. Other writers are what keep us sane.

What’s the hardest part?
Actually sitting down and getting the story told. It’s hard, emotionally exhausting work. I can often imagine a book. You hear about writer’s block. To me, it’s when I’m afraid I can’t write the book I see in my head.

After all these years, and all those stories and novels, do you feel nervous when you start a book—or confident?
LOL. I love starting a new book. You know, blank page, anything goes. But I have to start with the right voice. To me, it’s a sound. Finding that “sound” is the hard part. But, sure, I’m confident. I haven’t painted myself into a corner yet.

BJ - awardEarlier this year, you won the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery and Suspense. You won for both your category with Justice at Cardwell Ranch and for all categories overall. What a thrill that must have been! Tell us more about that.
I was out to dinner with my editor and walking back to the hotel when a friend texted me to say Justice at Cardwell Ranch had won. I was pretty excited. Then she emailed back and said I had just taken everything. I was stunned.

I reached the hotel in time to pick up my award. It is a great award. I put it next to my Career Achievement Award for series romance suspense.

Was there a book that got you thinking, as a child, “I want to write?” What books have you passed on to your children and grandchildren?
I was a lazy reader clear into high school. I just liked a good story. I loved mysteries and read all the Trixie Beldon books. My junior year in high school, my English teacher dragged me down to the library and made me check out Exodus. I think that was when I fell in love with books and writing.

My daughter wasn’t much of a reader when she was young. I took her to a bookstore and said, “Pick out anything you want to read.” She started with witches who had taken over the school. My friends weren’t sure she should be reading stuff like that. It got her reading, though, and she quickly moved on to more advanced books. Today her home is full of first edition literature. Now she has a daughter who I know will be reading two of her favorites, A Wrinkle in Time and Charlotte’s Web.

What books are on your nightstand now?
The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison and Profiler (investigations into the criminal mind) I recently cleaned off my nightstand. I always have a stack of books around.

You are amazingly prolific. You’ve said you write ten pages every day. What secrets can you share?
I treat writing like a real job. I get up in the morning, read my emails, do what social media I do, and then I go to my office and write. I don’t do anything else until lunch time. Then I come home, have lunch with my husband, and if I haven’t written my 10 pages yet that day, I go back and don’t come home again until about 4 or 5 p.m.

The secret is not letting anything interfere with your writing time. I know, you’re laughing right now. It is next to impossible some days. I hear you. But I learned that if you don’t take your writing seriously, no one else will either.

Also I don’t wait for the “muse.” I’ve found that if I sit down at my computer determined to write, something will come. If that doesn’t work, I hit the road. Something about driving… I head for the country. On the way, I will have to pull over and drag out my old AlphaSmart (now called Neo) because my characters are talking to me. If I’m really stuck, I go out in the boat. I’ve come up with a lot of plots trolling for walleye.

You also quilt and regularly go to quilting retreats and workshops. Do you think it’s important for writers to have another creative outlet or resource, to “fill the well”?  BJ - quilt
Boy howdy. I have found that I need another creative outlet as well as time with non-writers. I didn’t realize how important that was until I moved to a small Montana town where I am the only local writer. (That, after living in Bozeman where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a writer.)

I miss other writers, but quilters have filled that need for people who are creative and doing fun projects. I love my quilter friends. They take creativity to places I can’t even imagine. Plus I love putting the different colors of fabric together. It reminds of me writing.

What’s your next book—on the shelves, and on your desk?
I have another Cardwell Ranch book coming out at the end of the month. I started the series with Crime Scene at Cardwell Ranch. (That story definitely proves how huge a part luck plays in this profession. Crime Scene was picked to go to a review group. It did so well, my publisher ended up giving away two million copies of the book to promote the line.)

Which, of course, begged for a sequel. That sequel, Justice at Cardwell Ranch, has grown into five more Cardwell books. (Always be ready to take any book you write and make it into a series. Don’t kill off all your hero and heroine’s families.)

The new book, Christmas at Cardwell Ranch, brings back one of five brothers, who are cousins of an original character. Four more brothers will be returning over the next year.

Meanwhile I have another HQN for the Beartooth, Montana series, Atonement, coming out in March and another next fall, Mercy, the one I’m working on now. I just agreed to a contract for another six books in that series, featuring the Hamilton Sisters.

Right now, I have three series going. It keeps me out of trouble. Kinda.

Leslie, thank you so much for having me. This has been fun!

Thanks, Barb! Visit her online at http://www.BJDaniels.com