Thursday, June 9, 2022

Bridging Careers, a guest post by Sharon Dean

 JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Here at JRW, we are all about celebrating the creativity that blossoms and continues as we grow older. We had a wonderful conversation about "third act creativity" with Amanda Le Rougetel this spring, and I'm delighted to welcome Sharon Dean, with her new mystery CALDERWOOD COVE, today. Sharon and I have a lot in common, including an Air Force husband, living in an old New England house (she's since mercifully escaped to beautiful Ashland, OR) and, most importantly, leaving another career behind to take up the mantle of author.  She explains how she did it - and what she brought with her - today.



Writing sustains us, but so does money. As Melville wrote to Hawthorne in 1851, “Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar. . . . What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, – it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot.”

 

Melville was most successful not when he was forced to make money to support his family, but when he drew on his experiences whaling to compose his early novels and later his magnificent Moby-Dick. In his novel Pierre, he imagines a writer locked in a back room trying to write despite the constant need for the damned dollar. But the idea of the solitary writer removed from world is more myth than reality. After all, Hawthorne came out of his garret room to marry Sophia Peabody. Without exiting the garret, he might never have produced anything except Fanshawe, a novel so imperfect he tried to burn all the copies.

 

A subset of writers seems to be emerging today. Some self-publish; others, like me, publish with independent presses. Many of us have retired, and though we’re not rich, dollars no longer damn us. We’re privileged to have had careers that bridge us into writing that sustains us emotionally even without the windfall of the best seller.

 

Because we write what we know, we draw on our past careers. Retired actor Clive Rosengren has created Eddie Collins, sometimes actor, sometimes PI. Rosengren sprinkles his deep knowledge of Hollywood like glitter throughout his Eddie Collins series. Toxicologist BJ Magnani fills her Lily Robinson series with poisons. S. Lee Manning’s international spy thrillers draw more on the writing skills Manning honed as lawyer than on any experience as an international spy.

 

I was an English professor for many years before I hung up my academic hat and began writing novels. My Susan Warner series features a retired English professor and reluctant sleuth and my Deborah Strong series features a much younger character who, widowed, returns to her hometown to become a librarian. Neither of these series puts me into a faculty meeting or a classroom, but I’ve been surprised at how much I draw on my knowledge of literature and my skills with researching as I write.

 

Much of my academic work was on the nineteenth-century writer Constance Fenimore Woolson. I re-imagined her as Abigail Brewster when I put my protagonist Susan Warner at a conference celebrating the fictional Brewster’s life and work. I reprised Brewster again when my librarian character Deborah Strong discovers a letter written to Brewster in the archives of a New England college. While I was writing these novels, I learned about an actual woman named Madame Restell, who in the nineteenth century was dubbed “The Wickedest Woman in New York” because she performed abortions. My habit of research often leads me to discoveries like these that I integrate into my work.

 

But therein lies the challenge I’ve faced as I’ve bridged the distance from academic writing to fiction. I’ve learned the fine art of omitting––how much research to use, how much becomes a mere “fact dump.” I’ve also had to learn to eliminate my analytical voice and to find ways to let characters and plot make the story come alive. I’ve learned to leave the analyzing to readers, but I hope that there’s room for analysis in what I write even though my novels will never be discussed in a college classroom.

 

I thank my former career for giving me not only the tools to write and research, but also the luxury of a retirement fund. Neither career has made me rich, but both have fed me.

 

Do you enjoy reading or writing novels that draw on your own or another author’s career?

 



When Deborah Strong accepts an invitation for a reunion with high school friends who will all be turning fifty, she anticipates a lovely Fourth of July weekend in Maine. But soon a murder disturbs the quiet of the summer homes that dot the isolated cove. Deborah's suspicions follow her like the Maine landscape--plenty of sunshine, plenty of fog, and plenty of evening mosquitoes that arrive like the sparks of fireworks. Where is Brenda's husband? Where have her caretaker and cook gone? Who is the anorectic young man who keeps appearing? Is one of them a murderer? Or is it the old woman who lives across the street, her son who runs an oyster farm in the face of global warming, her poet-tenant who lives in her apartment? Deborah even suspects each of the friends she grew up with. By the time she finds the answer, she is ready to leave Calderwood Cove where an idyllic summer retreat turned as deadly as contaminated shellfish.

 

39 comments:

  1. Congratulations on your new book, Sharon . . . it sounds like quite a mystery for Deborah to solve. I’m looking forward to reading the story.

    I enjoy reading novels in which the author has the opportunity to draw on a career. There is, I think, a unique authenticity that comes with knowledge learned from “been there, done that” and incorporated into the telling of the tale . . . .

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    1. Thanks, Joan. I’m just returning from New England where I connected with my old life and my old career. Onward to a new novel.

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  2. SHARON: Congratulations on your second career as a novelist and your newest book!
    Kudos to you for being able to transition from your academic writing into writing fiction.
    As a retired federal public servant & researcher for most of my adult life, I can review/critique books but have not been able to turn off my analytical writing style.

    And yes, I do like it when authors use experiences from their (former) career to develop an interesting protagonist and a setting/situation for all of us to explore.

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    1. Thanks, Grace. My first career prepared me for my second, so it was a natural transition. You can do it!

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  3. So many congratulations, Sharon. I had several careers, including one in academia, behind me when my first mystery came out ten years ago - two months before I turned sixty (also with a small press). Now I have three series with a New York publisher. Anything is possible! I also have three I'm no longer writing, and I've drawn on past careers and jobs for all of them.

    I also loved learning about Madame Restell. I modeled my Madame Restante on her in my Agatha-winning Charity's Burden, set in 1889 with a theme of contraception and abortion.

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    1. Wow. Someone else who’s heard of Madame Restell. I’ll check out Charity’s Burden. A timely topic.

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    2. SHARON: You are in for a treat! Charity's Burden is one of my favorite books. Diana

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  4. Congratulations on your latest book and your new career, Sharon and welcome to JRW! It is very interesting to read about the different paths authors have taken to writing. I find it intriguing to learn about their inspiration for particular stories and also their processes for creating their books.

    I'd had many different types of jobs (never stayed long enough to call any one of them a career) prior to retiring. Occasionally there will be a character whose job I can relate to but the series I find myself most drawn to these days are extremely humorous (sometimes even silly) with quirky characters and reliable plots. There also are authors whose new books I positively crave until their release days, whose love of history, or Great Britain, etc. comes through to the reader without them having been a London police detective or a member of Ike's staff.

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    1. Thanks, Judy. I love it when a tidbit creeps into my writing. Now if I could only find some humorous ones!

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  5. I enjoy reading books where the author's knowledge, either through meticulous research or authentic experience shines through. As long as it isn't overdone. I don't want to read a book that's written like it's a 'follow your favorite character to work' story. I'm reminded of a book on writing that I read by authors who have an editing business. They talked about information overload and mentioned a client who wrote a story using his experience as an outdoor person / survivalist. It was good until they got to the point where there were four pages on how to skin a beaver. Accurate writing, but not a story. A good writer / storyteller knows when enough is enough.

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    1. My critique group calls those passages a “fact dump.”

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  6. Congratulations on your new release! I enjoy a "behind the scenes" look at things I know nothing about (art forgery, diamond cutting), but I don't need every detail. It's a fine balance.

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    1. Yes, it is a fine balance. I have to work at keeping it that way.

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  7. Interesting blog and an intriguing new series to start reading. Speaking as someone who had at least 3 different careers - depends on how you count -and is now retired into writing, my favorite of all of them.

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    1. Yes, writing is a favorite career, especially when you can ditch the footnotes.

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  8. Congratulations on the release! I do like it when a writer sprinkles personal experience throughout a story.

    The operative word is "sprinkles." I don't want to read an instructional tome on spying or whatever. Just give me enough for flavor.

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  9. Hank Phillippi RyanJune 9, 2022 at 9:30 AM

    This is absolutely fascinating! And congratulations on your career change – – of course, I did that too, and it is always so intriguing to discover the things that one uses from the first career in the second – – sometimes I almost feel that my first career turned out to be simply in preparation!
    I am currently reading several books about Edith Wharton, and they are life-changing. And there’s something about being part of a lineage, isn’t there, for all of us? Welcome welcome welcome!

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    1. I think I read all of Wharton when I was writing my book Constance Fenimore Woolson and Edith Wharton: Perspectives on Landscape and Art. I learned a huge amount about landscape architecture for that book. Thank you for the kind welcome.

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  10. Congratulations on your latest! Looking forward to a visit to the Maine coast with Deborah.

    I do enjoy glimpsing the author's profession in a novel, especially if it serves as a springboard to the resolution of the story.

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    1. I just got back from Maine. It was gorgeous. I ate lobster 5 different ways.

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  11. I'm happy to be introduced to you and your writing, Sharon. Congratulations on your latest career as a published writer. I'm off to find your books for my Kindle.

    I love to read a good story, created through a magical mix of skill, confidence, knowledge and imagination. Information is the foundation of knowledge, but please, dear Writer, don't hit me over the head with it!

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    1. I hope there are no head hits. My critique group keeps me honest about that.

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  12. SHARON: Congratulations on your new novel! Is it difficult to transition from an academic professor to a fiction novelist? As an academic, I can imagine you focusing on Facts, right? Look forward to reading your novel.

    Diana

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    1. Hardest part is to stop analyzing. And to shorten monster paragraphs!

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    2. Thanks for the reminder. I remember having to analyze for my University classes. And in order to get my Bachelor's, I had to write a Thesis paper (30 pages!).

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  13. JULIA: Thanks for introducing me to a new to me author.

    Diana

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  14. Welcome, Sharon, and congratulations on your new series and on your career change!

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  15. Sharon, congratulations on your new novel! I enjoyed reading your post here, with your literary allusions to needing money to eat and trying to reconcile the dreams with the reality. You hit upon one of the too often overlooked aspects of writing, the art of omitting. Even in my form of writing reviews, that can be a struggle. There have been times when I realize I need to omit an entire paragraph. Thanks for coming to the Jungle Reds and sharing your thoughts with us. I look forward to checking out your books.

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    1. About omitting: isn’t the phrase “Throw out your darlings?” I threw out the first hundred pages of my first novel.

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  16. Sharon, congratulations on a successful career change and the new book.

    I can relate to the change in style. I wanted to write my thesis in politiical theory as a story. It was not a successful strategy and I changed the approach. These days I would argue that political theory which is really just a story and in that writing one, I was producing theory, not just writing about it.

    On the other hand, it has become apparent that my professors did succeed in teaching me something since my takes on the world these days is critical and analytical. It is hard for me to write stories without preaching. I am always impressed by authors who can instill a point of view into a work without bludgeoning the reader with the moral.

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    1. CD, I came to fiction after a masters degree that was very historical-research oriented, and then law school. I found unlearning the ways I'd been trained to write for other fields to be a real challenge. I have several journalist-turned-novelist friends who would say the same.

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    2. One thing that saved me is that I never could use all the academic jargon. I get cautioned about vocabulary now and again.

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  17. Congratulations, Sharon, on your release. As a former librarian and English major, I love a librarian sleuth. Since I write a library based series, I most definitely draw only former profession for inspiration and facts.

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    1. A librarian here in Ashland gave me some interesting points on appropriate architecture for the inside of libraries. I wove that in to The Wicked Bible.

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  18. Congratulations, Sharon! Love the cover--that alone would make me pick up this book!

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  19. High Pines Creative and Encircle Publications do great covers.

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