Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Getting into the Game: a guest blog by Sara J. Henry

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMINGIt won't come as a surprise to anyone who reads my writing to find out I;m always on the look-out for a good book set in the Adirondacks. Which is how I stumbled across Sara J. Henry. I had read some excellent reviews of her debut novel, Learning to Swim, and upon realizing it took place in the Adirondacks, I snatched it up. 

Reader, I loved it. I wasn't the only one, either; Learning to Swim was nominated for the Barry and Macavity awards and won the Anthony, Agatha and Mary Higgins Clark awards. Hoping to ride on her coattails, I asked if I could blurb the sequel, A Cold and Lonely Place. (When it, too, picks up a bunch of award nominations, I figure Sara will be good to stand me a few drinks.)

Sara's here today to answer the one question I didn't get a chance to ask her when we met at Bouchercon: how does a nice girl from Tennessee wind up writing about the North Country?

It took exactly twelve weeks to decide I wanted to make a living writing – the twelve weeks I spent working as a soil scientist in Gainesville, Florida. I was twenty, with a boss who told me every Friday, “Only thirty-five years to retirement.” Maybe that was his way of hinting that this was not the career for me (kids, the career that seems fun in college may not be anything close to fun when you’re doing it forty hours a week, in a hot Florida town where the clay layer doesn’t kick in until eighty inches, which is how deep you have to dig to map soils.)

Time for a new plan.

I got a column in the local paper, and started journalism graduate school. After a series of part-time newspaper jobs, I turned to the ads in the back of Editor & Publisher. One week I applied for jobs as farm editor, religion editor, and sports editor – all of which I was equally unqualified for.

One editor responded, from a tiny newspaper in a tiny town in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. I arrived for my interview in what seemed the dead of winter, stepping off the small plane at a tiny airport into a world that was white as far as the eye could see. It was cold in a way I’d never experienced.

They offered me the job as sports editor.

I took it.

Never mind that this was an area where sports were big – with three high schools, two community colleges, softball teams, three-day sled dog races, canoe races, Winter Carnival competitions, rugby tournaments. With the Olympic Center nearby, there was luge, bobsled, biathlon, ski jumping, horse show competition, boxing, triathlon. And more.

It was my job to cover them all.

Never mind that my sports experience was limited to competing in bicycle and running races, and writing a string of sports features. I’d been to exactly one college football game.

I worked the way you can work only when you’re in your twenties and have already flubbed one career and don’t want to flub another. I bought a book that detailed the rules of various sports. I went from event to event, shooting hockey from the penalty box, basketball from under the hoop, football from the sidelines. With this many sports to cover, understanding the nuances of game play was neither possible nor necessary. I took a lot of photos, got quotes from coaches, and spelled names right. I worked nearly around the clock, coming in at 3 am on Monday morning to write features and develop film and lay out my pages. Nearing deadline, the press room guys would stare at me through the window in the door while I hustled through my last page.
Winters were brutal. Bit by bit I assembled an essential wardrobe – wool-lined Sorel boots, long johns, insulated gloves, head warmer, wool hat, thick coat. I learned to carry cardboard to stand on at outside events for insulation. I kept a sleeping bag in the car in case I got stranded. I put a lot of miles on my car and shot a lot of film. I discovered coffee. I ate on the run. I was thinner than I’d ever been.

I loved it.

Toward the end of my second year someone sent one of my bobsled articles to a magazine that reprinted it and sent me a check that was more than I earned in a week. Light dawned. I couldn’t keep up this pace and didn’t want to cut corners, so not too much later I resigned to write freelance write. Then after a few years, I went off to other places, to work at magazines, at other papers, as a book editor.

But I never forgot this place I loved, and the people who made me feel I belonged for the first time in my life.

So when I sat down to write a novel, years later, this was where it had to be set.

Location, location, location. It's as important for a novel as it is for real estate. What are your stand-out settings in fiction, dear Readers? What sort of settings do you love to read about? And has a new place ever made itself home in your own life? One lucky commenter will win a copy of A Cold and Lonely Place!

Sara’s first novel, Learning to Swim, won the Anthony and Agatha awards for best first novel and the Mary Higgins Clark award. Its sequel is A Cold and Lonely Place (Crown, Feb. 5, 2013), which Howard Frank Mosher describes as “a character-driven thriller set in one of the coldest and loneliest places in the United States: the Adirondack Mountains in mid-winter.” (Publishers Weekly refers to “Henry's bone-deep sense of this terribly beautiful place,” and Booklist says the book “perfectly conjures the lure of living in a small and beautiful mountain town during a bitterly cold winter.” Which makes the author very happy.)

You can read excerpts of Sara's books at her website, friend her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter as @SaraJHenry. She blogs at Sara in Vermont.


  1. I must admit to not having any one particular setting that I most enjoy reading about, but I do get annoyed when the setting is a place I know from personal experience and the writer doesn’t describe it accurately . . . that tends to spoil the entire book for me.

    Sara, I am in awe of anyone who succeeds under the conditions you have described . . . and I’m smiling at your “I discovered coffee” comment; discovering coffee is one of the joys of life. I thoroughly enjoyed your “how I got there from here” story . . . thanks for sharing it with us. “Learning to Swim” was a great read; best of luck with “A Cold and Lonely Place” . . . .

  2. I loved Learning to Swim and can't wait to read the next one. Thanks, Sara, for sharing your story of how you created the character and setting.

  3. I will always have a soft spot for stories set in Baltimore. Born and raised here, it will always be in my blood. Even for the 6 years I lived in San Diego, I always knew I would return to Baltimore at some point. (Though I wonder why every year when winter rolls around).

    Sara - Thanks for another great post on how you came to write your wonderful books.

    Any Jungle Red readers who are interested, you might check out an interview I did with Sara over at BOLO Books:

    Julia, please leave me out of the drawing, as I have read and enjoyed A Cold and Lonely Place already. The winner is in for a treat!

  4. I loved "Learning to Swim" although I live in the South. I have adored all of Julia's Millers Kill books and I was crazy about all of Tony Hillerman's books. I like books that put you completely in the setting, be it South, North, West , East or Paris for that matter. I love it when the setting is also a character.

  5. Oh, these books look great. With any luck I've found another series to devour.

    Settings? Giles Blunt's John Cardinal series, taking place in Algonquin Bay, Ontario (apparently North Bay in disguise). Definitely a sense of place.

    (keep me out of the draw, please. I've won 2 draws already)

  6. Another author to discover! Thank you. I can't wait to read your books, Sara.

    I've become enchanted by London. Deb Crombie's books have me searching the locations on google maps. I feel each book is a tour. I love them.

    And, of course, Millers Kill is a perfect location.

  7. I should have said all of the UK - not just London.

  8. Welcome Sara! and congrats on the new book. I spent four wonderful years in graduate school in Gainesville, FL, though not as a soil scientist:). You made such an interesting transition--most people would want to go the other direction...

  9. Thanks everyone!

    The photo up top is me a few weeks ago in Saranac Lake, at the building of the Ice Palace for the Winter Carnival that just ended.

    The hockey, rugby, and basketball photos are ones I took during my days as sports editor.

    And the biking photo is me back, doing the biking leg of a team triathlon with other newspaper staffers!

  10. I love books with settings that are integral to the plot! I really enjoyed LEARNING TO SWIM and have just finished the new one which is equally good. I recommend Tricia Fields to anyone who likes Henry's books.

  11. Joan, that was the tricky part - not so much for the parts on the Adirondacks, because I visit frequently and had people who could check things when I couldn't, but the first book also deals with Ottawa, where I hadn't lived for years. So I had Ottawa friends read before publication to make sure I hadn't missed things. Curiously, one Canadian reader thought I'd gotten something wrong, because where she lives the RCMP covers all crimes - but not in more populated areas, which she hadn't realized.

  12. Edith, thanks much.

    Kristopher, you rock - I think that was the best interview anyone has done with me since I got into this publishing game.

    Lucy, I did love Gainesville - it was where I began graduate school - but for cycling, especially, I missed hills ... And it was a tough area to be a soil scientist out digging holes - and then trying to fill them back up after most of the sand had blown away!

  13. Oh Sara, you are too kind. Thank you so much for the compliment.

    I have been reading Jungle Red for years and am happy to join them in the blogging world.

  14. I love books where the setting is as detailed a character as the protagonist. Besides the wonderful upstate New York books we are talking about here I am crazy for A Year in Provence. i can't wait to read your next book, Sarah!

  15. Sarah, congrats on the awards. Haven't read your book--yet--am looking forward to it after all the great recommendations.

    As for book settings, Tony Hillerman was a past master with his Chee/Leaphorn series. I also loved Dick Francis, of course our own JRW Deb. Another favorite is Lois McMaster Bujold, who manages to create such amazing settings for her multiple series that the reader can believe there truly are such places.

    I'm always amazed at how people can reinvent themselves. Sounds like you've done it in spades.

  16. Wow... love hearing the story behind how everything came to be! Thanks for sharing your story AND those shots!


  17. What a marvelous story.
    For me the location is mostly a matter of it being engaging and well presented. I do love Hawaii and the British Isles, but game for most anything.

  18. Welcome, Sarah! I'm someone who moved from warmer (Southern California) to colder climes (New England) and never looked back, either. Though with three feet of snow out there I'm mighty tempted.

    Looking forward to reading the new book!

  19. Trisha - I also loved A YEAR IN PROVENCE!

    Diane - Many thanks. Yep, and much later I reinvented myself as a book author!

    Jessica, Libby - thanks much. Though I've been told you need a hot beverage while reading parts of this book!

    Hallie - Yep, there are times the snow can be a bit much! Thanks, I hope you like it - I think it's better than the first ...

  20. Loved reading about how you reinvented yourself as a journalist and novelist, Sara. Don't we all wish we could have back the strength and energy we had in our twenties? I know I do--though I want nothing else from those days.

    I love stories set in England (Red Debs' are a treat), Scotland, and Ireland, as well as in New England and the Pacific Northwest. Above all, I love stories set in the Great Smokies and northeastern Oklahoma, ancestral stomping (or stomp-dance) grounds--and in Mexico, which has a rich variety of regions.

    The vast American Midwest, though, is a big favorite for me. There are so many microclimates and subcultures in Flyover Country. Most writers don't realize this and deal with the Midwest as if it were one big monolithic block. I love to find a writer who truly brings to life her (or his) particular section with all its local oddities and charms.

    And I won't even start on how I love visiting other times in books, as well. That would go on with examples forever. And the totally invented worlds of fantasy, urban fantasy, and science fiction. *sigh* I'm such a book slut.

  21. Learning to Swim was wonderful. Sara, I'm so glad soil scientist didn't work out for you.

  22. Great to see you here at Jungle Red, Sara. I'm looking forward to your new book!

  23. Linda, it didn't hurt that I was still 20 at the time I gave up being a soil scientist - but at the time, it seemed like consummate failure.

    Darlene, glad you loved LEARNING TO SWIM - hope you like the new book too.

    Brenda, thanks much, and hope you enjoy it!

  24. What a great post, Sara; it was interesting to learn what caused you to abandon the soil scientist gig! (I don't blame you a bit!)

    In LEARNING TO SWIM, you made the Adirondacks come alive for me, and I absolutely love it when an author has the gift of being able to do that.

    I agree with Diana Hale about Tony Hillerman; he introduced me to the desert southwest with such precision and affection that I felt very comfortable on my first trip there. After landing in Albuquerque, the drive from the airport to Santa Fe was delightful because I knew exactly where I was . . . the names of the mountains in the distance, where the road would take me, etc.

    My all-time favorite author for delivering a sense of place, however, is Pat Conroy. Long before my nostrils inhaled the unmistakeable scent of pluff mud, or I saw Spanish moss doing its graceful hula dance in a gentle breeze, I was in love with the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Conroy's adoration for the area, and his passionate efforts to preserve it, along with an Irish storyteller's gift, give me great joy - the books he writes - which I consider love letters to the Lowcountry.

    You asked if a new place ever made itself home in my own life. The answer is a resounding YES! Several years after reading my first Pat Conroy novel, my husband and I moved with our two elderly cats from northeastern Ohio to Hilton Head Island, SC. That was nine years ago, and I still can't believe we live here - that I can go to the beach every day; that I routinely see alligators and deer and pelicans and egrets as I ride my bike along that beach, or parked on a pier, or in the maritime forest. I know I am living a dream, and I never take it for granted.

    Sara, I am really looking forward to another great read when I pick up A COLD AND LONELY PLACE!

  25. Linda, I'm laughing. We're all, obviously, such book sluts:-)

    Sara, I loved Learning to Swim--talked it up to everyone for months after I finished it. Can't wait to read the new book!

  26. Debs, maybe we should go join the Vassar College "sluts" and demonstrate against the Westboro Baptist Church (known to those of us around here as the inbred Phelps family), which is picketing Vassar as an "Ivy League whorehouse following the gay agenda." Vassar's counter-demonstrating to raise money for suicide prevention services for LGBTQ teens.

    *shakes head in dismay* No wonder I live in books!

  27. You make being cold and freezing your tushy off sound really wonderful....and cold weather like that would not be my choice. You definitely have inspired a good read.

  28. Having grown up with Sara in Tennessee and heading out in different directions after high school graduation, I was surprised to see in her photos of sporting events she covered, my rugby team from Eugene Oregon in what must have been Nationals in the early 80's. Small world!

  29. I look forward to reading your books Sara! After I married, we lived in several regions in Texas, then N.E. Ohio, then Minnesota, and now back to the Gulf coast and Houston. Anyway I thoroughly enjoyed living in new places, discovering new foods and customs. And I even liked winter! Just not melting slush season. I like stories placed in the British Isles, in the South, in the mountains of Tennessee and the Carolinas, the Southwest, Wyoming, the Adirondacks, even Texas. As you can see I am a very discriminating reader!

  30. Snow! I'm so over it, after this weekend... But I haveto admit, being in the thick of it was gorgeous.

    Congratulations on your wild success..you have such a terrific story. I loved hearing about he cardboard to stand on..I know that trick!

    And yes, reinvention...I always wonder if that's what it is-or if its the real sculpture emerging from the marble. xooo

  31. Add me to the list of readers for whom setting as character is important. In no particular order, I love Hillerman's books-because of him I now try to read as many books about the southwest as possible. I love Deb Crombie's books. I do believe that I could find my way around any neighborhood she describes, solely relying on her descriptions. Julia, I started reading your books during the summer. I was so glad that it was hot out when I read the first one because your description of the Adirondack winter made me shiver in the heat! All the rest of you Reds have also written books that make me want to visit their settings. Your local Chambers of Commerce ought to consieder you all as ambassadors for your communities

    Edith and Linda, you also write descriptions that are so vivid that I can picture myself in your settings. I briefly visited Kansas City and the surrounding area back in the seventies, Linda,and your first mystery brought it all back to me.

  32. Consider...not consieder...I get so annoyed with myself when my fingers get tongue-tied:-)

  33. Hank, somehow I knew you would knw the cardboard trick!

    Lois, it blows me away that I ended up taking photos of your rugby team - this would have been around 1984 or '85 probably. I remember the paper ran this photo on the first page, I think.

    Pat, I hope you enjoy them.

    Annette, it is the feeezing eyelashes I will never forget - that was always a sign it had dropped below the teens.

    Deb and Bobbi, thanks so much.

  34. No... my post disappeared! I talked about Paul Smiths and Lake Saranac... :-( It was here, and now it's gone. Poo.

  35. See... from my email notification:

    3:08 PM (11 hours ago)

    to me
    Reine has left a new comment on the post "Getting into the Game: a guest blog by Sara J. Hen...":

    Love your spirit, Sara. I've made moves like that in career changes. Now find myself craving home in Salem and Marblehead, Massachusetts.

    I love Lake Saranac and the Adirondacks, where my husband's mother was a professor at Paul Smith's. He vividly describes the cold winter rides on the school bus before it was time for him to go away to school. He wrote home to his grandmother that, while he loved the Adirondacks, being at school in Pennsylvania wasn't too bad at all, especially in the winter!

  36. Reine, how odd that your post disappeared, but how clever of you to have email notifications!

    I don't think of myself as a particularly brave person, but there are times in life when you have to make a big leap ...

    This book references Paul Smiths (the town) and the cooy editor wanted to stick a comma in it - I had to point out that, no, that would be the college, not the town!

  37. Sara - I loved your book and was recommended it for in a staff reader's advisory column. Out of curioustiy, I went to your blog and then I REALLY indentified with you - I have 5 dogs!!!! I always say that 3 is the ideal number - how did I end up with 2 too many??????

  38. Thank you, Susan! There was a point when I was driving from Tennessee to Vermont with five (FIVE) dogs in the car, the largest of which weighs 100 pounds, and I realized I'd pushed the envelope a bit too far!

    Thanks so much for the recommendation - those go a long way!

  39. I know I'm late to the party again, but I had to tell Sara that I LOOOOVED "Learning to Swim" . SO excited to read "A Cold and Lonely Place".