Tuesday, January 29, 2013

My One Square Inch of Alaska by Sharon Short

 LUCY BURDETTE: I find it hard to forget Sharon Short. Why? Because I have a magnetized set of cleaning tips from her Josie Toadfern mystery series stuck to my washing machine! But now she has a new book, just out today--a lovely story about a sister and brother and their dreams and hopes... How she came to write it is a wonderful story, too. She'll tell it much better than I can!
SHARON SHORT: After my cozy mystery series wrapped up, I wasn’t really planning the literary equivalent of a fashion makeover for my writing career.

Of course, that was before a Tim Gunn Bobblehead entered my life.

More on that in a moment…

Back to the days (weeks, months) after my cozy mystery series was, shall we say, all sewn up. Because I enjoy reading mysteries (and enjoyed writing them), the logical next project seemed to be another mystery. But… I couldn’t find an idea that clicked with my imagination.
Then, at a book club gathering, one of the women asked if anyone remembered the deeds to one square inch of Alaska that used to come in cereal boxes in the 1950s. (The question wasn’t related to the book we were discussing.) The 1950s were before I was born, but I was immediately taken with this compelling concept… the desire for a deed to one tiny bit of land in a vast frontier, and what that could symbolize. Almost immediately, the shadowy image of a young woman and her little brother, standing together and holding hands, appeared in my imagination. I couldn’t ‘see’ them yet in sharp detail, but I could ‘feel’ them saying, “tell our story.”

I had no idea what their story would or should be, but by the time I returned home, I’d written in my head one of the final scenes, which narrated itself in what would become the first person voice of my main character, Donna Lane. I went home, wrote down the scene in a journal, and then realized I had a lot of work ahead of me to discover the rest of her story.

I also realized fairly quickly that Donna’s story wasn’t a mystery. Frankly, this was unsettling at first. How could I plot without a mystery backbone?

But then I started thinking about all the novels I’ve loved reading that aren’t mysteries as well as the ones that are, and realized that in both cases, the best stories (and plots) emerge from character. And sure, mysteries focus on a protagonist solving a particular crime, but in a broader sense of the definition, don’t we all have a bit of mystery in our lives that we need to unravel? Pasts and relationships we need to understand, in order to come to an epiphany of some sort so that we can move on to stronger, wiser, healthier futures?

This is certainly the case for my characters Donna and Will, who leaved behind the strictures of their 1950s small Ohio town to go on the adventure of a lifetime, and in the process come to understand the power of embracing and following dreams.

Realizing this helped me make the transition from writing mysteries to writing my debut mainstream novel.

Well, that and my Tim Gunn Bobblehead.
You see, I’m a huge fan of Project Runway and Tim Gunn, and as it turns out my character Donna’s dream is to become a fashion designer. (This is because one of my childhood fantasies was to become a fashion designer.) During the Christmas after I’d started my novel, my family gave me a Tim Gunn Bobblehead, which quickly found a home on my desk. When I need a little writing encouragement, all I have to do is press the button to hear a recording of his voice saying his trademark lines, “Carry on!” “Make it Work!” “I can’t want you to succeed more than you do!” and “Fab-u-lous!”

And as for how I feel now about reading mysteries? “Fab-u-lous!”
Of course, I hope that’s how you feel if you get a chance to read MY ONE SQUARE INCH OF ALASKA. In any case, I’d love to hear from you!

LUCY: I loved this book and hope it takes off for you Sharon! JRW, Sharon will be stopping in all day to answer questions and comments. You can find out everything else you always wanted to know about Sharon, including how to buy her book, right here.


  1. What a great idea for a story! Do your stories always begin with “snippets” of ideas that grab your interest [like the square inch deeds to Alaska territory] or do you sometimes have a broader picture of what and who the story is about when you sit down to write? I look forward to reading your book . . . .

  2. Hi Joan! Usually my stories do begin with snippets of ideas or hazy images that just grab me and make me think, "I MUST explore this!" These 'snippets' can be anything from a random sentence or line of dialog that floats into my brain, a sound that strikes me a certain way, an image, a hazily defined character... and off I go in my imagination and to my computer/notebook. Broader concepts such as theme reveal themselves to me as I delve into the work. However, I think whatever motivates a writer to start delving into a story is fantastic! Thank you for your comments and question!

  3. Good morning Sharon! And congrats on the book launch! I was just going to email you and invite you over--but glad to see you're here already:).

    Joan, isn't it fun to hear where a story got started? And there's a long haul after that first spark, but so exciting to get the idea...

  4. I think it’s fascinating to explore how one little snippet of an idea becomes a whole book . . . exciting for sure!

  5. I meant to ask you, Sharon, to tell us more about how you plotted a book that didn't have the mystery structure--I'd love to try sometime but it seems daunting...

  6. Hullo, Sharon! I want a talking Tim Gunn, too - I'm a HUGE fan of Project Runway.

    I LOVE this book so much, the characters are fabulous, and I'm so happy you're here to talk about it. Can you tell us what it was like writing teenagers as your main characters? (Teenagers and a great dog.)

    Deeds to "one square inch of Alaska" reminds me of those offers to get a star named after you. But Marvel Puffs are made up, aren't they?

  7. Lucy a.k.a. Roberta--Well, I was certainly daunted, too! As both a reader and a writer, I love mysteries and the mystery structure and, while I love character driven books, I also want a plot that keeps beckoning... follow me, follow me!

    I decided to apply what I understand about plotting from my mystery writing experience. I thought about turning points in the characters' lives (e.g., Will wants that deed; Donna needs that job) and asked myself what are the five or six next choices they could possibly make? And then, frankly, I choice the ones that interested me the most. I plunged ahead until my characters reached another set of choices.

    It did help that I knew, from the very beginning, where they needed to end up, both physically and emotionally. I guess that's rather like knowing the detective must solve the crime at the end of the mystery!

  8. Good morning, Hallie! Yes, you must, must get a Tim Gunn bobblehead for your work desk. Nothing like hitting a snag, and hearing Tim Gunn's voice cheerily say, "Carry on!"

    Thank you for your great comments!

    Marvel Puffs are made up... but they are based on the actual Quaker Puffed Rice cereal that had the Yukon square inch giveaway, the basis for the contest in my novel. I just thought Marvel Puffs were a more humorous name. Marvelous? Hah! I remember the 'puffed' cereals of later decades! And yet, Will is determined to munch away on the cereal to reach his goal. (Making the fictional cereal tasty or nutritious wouldn't have been as poignant or as much fun.)

    As far as writing teenagers... it was actually easier than I would have guessed. For one thing, I didn't try to have a 'teenage' voice; I thought that would come off as patronizing. I remember quite clearly being a teen (although it has been, ahem, a few years) and so I tapped into the emotion of having big dreams... and at the same time, big doubts... for Donna's voice.

    In addition, it helped to have teen daughters at home as I started writing my novel to remind me of how that felt.

    And, I have to say, I think teenagers and "middle-agers" have a lot in common... both are transitional times in life, times of wondering, well, what do I want now? Can I do it? How will I do it?

    And simultaneously having dreams and doubts seems to be part of being a writer! Well, it's part of being human, but writers seem particularly aware of having both emotions at once. So, it wasn't a stretch to tap into that.

    And finally, I just made sure that Donna was the one making her own decisions and following up on them--no fair having a kindly adult make things OK for her and Will (although, thankfully, she has a few kindly adults giving an occasional helping hand.)

  9. Love it for the title alone! Congratulations!

  10. Hi Sharon! Seconding Leslie here. I'd love the book just for the title. And don't you love it when an idea just smacks you upside the head?

    I haven't written a novel that wasn't a mystery, but then I tend to think of my books as novels "containing" a mystery, and the things that move the plot are the same in any novel--characters the reader cares about who have goals.

    I seldom read mysteries for the solution to the puzzle, although I do like it to be believable when I get there.

    And I agree with you about teenagers and middle-agers. I like writing, and reading, from teenager's viewpoints. Looking forward to your book!

  11. Oh, this is wonderful..one of the magical things about writing is when you realize that one little moment in your life has become the IDEA. ANd we know when it happens, right?

    Hurray for your lovely story.. ANd yes, Leslie, you are so right!

  12. Hi Sharon,
    I read this post with great excitement. I am doing the same thing, only from mystery to historical, but it's basically the same problem - and I love your answer to Roberta here.. And the way you think about it.

    Thanks for the tips and the inspiration.


  13. Leslie--thank you for the comment re: the title!

    Deb--I like that view of your novels containing a mystery, and what a perfect summary of fiction: "characters the reader cares about who have goals." I believe I will be quoting you tonight in the fiction class I teach!

    Thank you Hank; it is quite a fun moment when an idea become THE idea.

    Jan--glad to be of any help at all!

  14. Beautiful, Sharon. I am trying to recall now who said (or wrote) that every novel is a mystery. I like that idea. Can't wait to read your book!

  15. Welcome, Sharon! I, too, love your title. Like Debs, I see myself as writing novels that have mysteries in them, something I think all good novels do have--a question to be answered or mystery to be solved.

    I'm not a Project Runway fan because I don't watch TV, but I think I'd like a Tim Gunn bobblehead doll just for the affirmations when things look bleak! I look forward to reading your book.

  16. Sharon… so mystical, the way you discovered your characters. That sounds like the best part of writing, when it happens like that.

    And yes, I have a foggy memory of those deeds to 1 square inch of Alaska!

  17. I actually ate puffed rice as a kid (with lots of sugar) -- gag. But I don't remember the deeds. What a great idea, though -- for a book. I look forward to finding this one.

    I also love the brother and sister as main characters together -- such an important relationship.

  18. Thank you, Rebecca and Linda! I like that, too... every novel is a mystery! "Story questions..." that's what really drives a novel (or short story).

    Reine, it was rather mystical. Which rather fits with mysterious. Hmmm....

    Denise Ann, it was fun to explore the sibling relationship, and see how Donna and Will related, and how that also drove the story!

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