Today I welcome historical fiction author Denitta Ward to answer “10 Questions” about her writing. Denitta’s books have received rave reviews from Kirkus, Historical Novel Society, and others. She writes about “young women discovering their own resilience in times of transition.”
Linda Covella: Welcome to my blog, Denitta!
When and why did you decide to become a writer?
Denitta Ward: About when I turned 50 I became a writer — so it’s never too late to start! The idea came to me as I sat on the back porch with my mom one day and then the story line sprung to life as I was standing in a line at DisneyWorld with my teenagers. At lunch I grabbed a napkin and sketched out the plot arc and key events — and Somewhere Still was born!
As an attorney, my job had been writing – briefs and contracts and I have to commend the legal education for teaching precision of language and a commitment to veracity and truth, qualities you must have, I feel, to be a good writer.
LC: Truth and veracity are especially important with historical fiction!
What is your writing process: where do you write, how often do you write, are you a full-time or part-time writer, do you outline or do you plot as you go, etc.?
DW: I write long-hand in a journal because I needed to write between gymnastics drop-offs and boy scout pick-ups or while waiting in the line at school to get the kids. I work full-time, and usually more than full-time, so I write in the small, dark hours of the morning, too. In my day job, I’m Assistant Vice Chancellor at a public university and run their office of Contracts & Grants. Supporting the university’s research and creative works enterprise is a real privilege and definitely uses a different part of my brain. Writing helps me rejuvenate myself for another workweek.
And, as for plotting – nope. The first question my agent asked is, “Are you a pantser or a plotter?” I’m definitely a pantser rather than a plotter. I fearlessly grab the seat of my pants and go! I’m trying to be better about plotting out key points because I’ve found that the seat of my pants can lead me into plot holes or leads me into giving voice to a character who really doesn’t need to have her story told at that moment. But, I save those pieces of writing in a file called “For Later” because…who knows when I’ll find a story that calls out for that very piece.
Also, for each book, the title come first. I know – most people say the title comes last. But, not me. After the title, then the general plot and the characters emerge and take over. The characters are vivid and lively to me – it’s as if they were always there, somewhere, waiting to be brought into this dimension. Maybe that’s where the title “Somewhere Series” came from.
LC: I’m a panster, too. But titles are very difficult for me—you’re lucky they come easily to you.
Where do you find your inspiration for your stories? Do you draw from your own experiences?
DW: I write historical fiction and non-fiction companion books so, for me, the inspiration comes from real historical events. I do days and days of research – reading newspapers and magazines of the era first, then researching all the details I can about the politics and culture. I take detailed notes that sometimes I never even look at again because I then set that all aside and begin the story.
In researching Somewhere Still, I learned that in 1921 there was an active women’s Consumer League in Kansas City and they really were out inspecting dairies to assure the city’s milk supply was clean and safe. I loved learning about the activists of that era and how they were changing their corner of the world. The hotel, department store, restaurant, parks, fountains – they were all real places you can go and see in Kansas City, which made my research a real joy. I took my daughter and mom to the city for a research trip and we got to see all of these lovely historic locations.
Once I do all that research, I can’t really let it go to waste so, for the first book, set in the Roaring ’20s, I wrote Prohibition Cocktails – a nonfiction companion to Somewhere Still. It has a brief history of Prohibition and 21 recipes of the most popular cocktails of the day with the origin story of each one. You can pair the books for a fun bookclub evening with a signature cocktail!
LC: That does sound fun.
Who is one of your favorite characters from your story(ies), one that you enjoyed creating and writing about, and why?
DW: I have two characters I adored – for totally different reasons. Mrs. Katherine Whitcomb is the social-climbing mother of the male protagonist. Oh, she is quite a handful and such an insecure, acerbic lush. I loved writing her because she felt like my 100% alter-ego, being raised politely and confidently Midwestern myself. The other character I adored is Mrs. Hayward Parker, who in Somewhere Still is the true heroine in the novel — and puts things into motion that one would never, ever predict. I valued her courage, kindness and vision.
LC: Do you incorporate (or inadvertently find) any of your own personality traits into your characters?
DW: My main female characters are always a young woman coming of age – somewhere between 17 and her early 20s, and I’m so distanced from those years that I think I write aspirationally – what I hope I would have done or thought in their circumstance. I tend to be directive and in control, traits my characters just don’t seem to have – at least so far.
LC: Do you find your stories are more plot driven or character driven? Please explain.
DW: I want to create relatable, complicated characters who will stay with you long after you turn the last page. I was thrilled when the Historical Novel Society saw that in Somewhere Still. In their review they said, “This is a deep and complex story with credible characters that pull at the heartstrings. Half way through, I began to wonder how it could end. Ward’s final pages did not disappoint.” Those words thrilled me. The people in my books just seem to real to me – they could walk in my front door tomorrow and I would instantly know them.
LC: What a great review.
Did you read much as a child?
DW: Reading was a huge part of my childhood. I grew up way out in the country and one of my first memories was of the county Bookmobile pulling up to our property line. That was a thrilling day and it led me to learning what a “chapter” was. When I bugged my mother for something, she would often say, “Yes, dear, as soon as I finish this chapter.” Well, you know that led to a detailed discussion of just what was this chapter thing that was standing between me and – say – ice cream.
Once I could read chapter books, I devoured The House at Pooh Corner, Little House on the Prairie, and my all time favorite – a little known book about the Pennsylvania Dutch called Willow Brook Farm by Katherine D. Christ. Long before the internet existed, I wrote to and paid a bookfinder out of New York City to find me a copy of that book. Unwrapping that package and holding that book again was magical. It sits in my writing room to this day. I absolutely cherish it.
LC: How important do you think reading is for writers?
DW: I read everything. Always. My nightstand may tip over one day from the stack of books there. When I’m in the novel-writing phase, though, I put all fiction aside. I don’t want to ever have my work be derivative of someone else’s. For me, that’s when I know a serious writing spell is upon me – I stop reading. I imagine, if I graphed it out, you would see my book reading decline and then see my chocolate-eating skyrocket. Everyone needs at least one vice.
LC: Who are some of your favorite authors and/or books? What draws you to them?
DW: Besides the children’s books I mentioned, I am a huge fan of everything by Elizabeth Berg. She is my all time favorite author. I had the privilege of sitting next to her on an airline flight and I DID NOT REALIZE IT. This statuesque blonde woman, at the very end of the flight as the seat belt light turned off, asked me, “What do you think of that book?” I was reading “We Are All Welcome Here” set in Tupelo, Mississippi and I gushed, “It’s wonderful. I read every book Elizabeth Berg writes. She’s my favorite author and she puts out about a book a year. You should read them.” And the woman blushed eight shades of red and just said, “Oh,” as she stood up to retrieve a brand new Brighton shopping bag she’d stowed overhead. Only that evening when I turned to the back of the book did I see her picture and I almost fell out of bed. Of course, at the airport we just went out different ways and I always wondered what she thought about her biggest fan in the world gushing over her, without having the sense to know it was her! And I would have asked her to sign my book, you know! Can you tell I am really bad at facial recognition?
LC: That’s quite a story. So cool that you got to “meet” her. 🙂
Anything new in the works?
DW: Somewhere Else is written and in edits right now – it’s the story of a young Cuban woman who comes to Havana in the weeks before the revolution. Here’s a sneak peek of Somewhere Else:
When innocent and naive becomes courageous and strong…
Escaping the brutality of Revolutionary forces and finding refuge in Havana is Isabella Rodriguez’s only hope for survival. Sent by her village priest to serve as a governess for the elite Romero family’s three innocent children, Izzie finds a perfect sanctuary.
But when Izzie is cast out in a hasty and jealous rage by the very woman she came to serve, she finds herself alone and desperate. As Castro’s forces approach, the threat of danger intensifies.
Encountering a seductive American, Thomas Whitcomb, just might be the salvation Izzie craves. But Thomas’ own secrets threaten to destroy everything.
With the revolution escalating and Thomas disappearing, Izzie seeks refuge in her faith and learns that nothing is as it seems. She must do all that she can to survive and save the innocent Romero children from a devastating fate. In a world of danger and mistrust, can Izzie find safety, love, and happiness anywhere?
LC: Bonus question 🙂 Do you have anything you’d like to add?
DW: I would be delighted to hear from readers! Please come find me on social media and let me know what you think about Somewhere Still. My website is http://www.denitta.com where you can sign up for my newsletter. On Instagram I post lots of pictures of my garden flowers and my sweet Belgian Tervuren and on Pinterest you’ll find pages dedicated to sites that inspire each book. And, thank you so much for hosting me here today!
LC: I enjoyed having you!
Other places to connect with Denitta: