Today it is my great pleasure to host not one, but two Class of 2k9 authors, Rosanne Parry (Heart of a Shepherd) and Suzanne Morgan Williams (Bull Rider). I am such a fan of both of their books. Read my reviews: Heart of a Shepherd, Bull Rider. You’re in for a treat with fabulous insider-info on two talented writers’ debut titles. Let’s get started!
Describe where you write.
Suzanne: Usually I write at my desk looking out at the Virginia Range in Nevada – where the Comstock silver was discovered in the 1850s. I also always carry a tablet or notebook when I travel and then I write longhand wherever I happen to be. Sometimes when I’m driving I pull off the road to write something down that I just thought of.
Rosanne: In a word—outside. Sitting still has never been a talent. I love to work outdoors. My tree house is my favorite place,
but I also write in Forest Park
Gabriel Park, Tryon Creek State Park and the Tualatin Hills Nature Park. Thank you fellow Portlanders for funding and maintaining my outdoor offices—just one of the 500 things I love about Portland!
Tell us about the initial inspiration for your debut novels.
Suzanne: The idea for Bull Rider came following a long day of storytelling about Nevada, cowboys, and Indian legends. Our SCBWI Region was hosting some speakers prior to an IRA meeting in Reno, and one of them suggested I write a series for young kids – maybe second grade – about rodeo and set it in Nevada. I had no idea then that it would turn into the book for older readers that it became.
Rosanne: My dad taught my son to play chess when he was in kindergarten—a task requiring heroic patience! It was quite hilarious to watch so I wrote a sonnet about them. Years later I wrote a short story about a boy and his grandpa playing chess on the back porch of a ranch house, but those characters were nothing like my family. I liked that short story very much and it won a Kay Snow Award from the Willamette Writers. I sent it to my editor, Jim Thomas, who I’d met a year before at the Oregon SCBWI fall retreat. He said, “This is great writing. Send me something else.” I put it aside and worked on other things but I really liked the boy and his grandpa so I kept thinking about how to integrate that chess game into a larger story. There are plenty of opportunities for conflict on a ranch, but it wasn’t until I added the military family aspect that I knew the story would work. Even so I got stuck just a few chapters in and was fortunate enough to get a critique from Wendy Lamb, another editor from Random House. She was very insightful and encouraging. I finished a first draft about nine months after that.
Both Heart of a Shepherd and Bull Rider demanded some serious knowledge of rural life – the worlds of ranching and rodeo. Describe your research process.
Suzanne: I’ve never lived on a ranch or ridden in a rodeo but I have some serious horse people in my family, a couple of farmers, and my husband’s family includes a group of orchardists who live in a small rural town. We’ve visited there a lot over the years and I’ve seen how things work when you know practically everyone in your community. I honestly can’t remember when I first went to a horse show or a rodeo – probably when I was about five or six. For the bull riding portion of my research, I was able to interview some professional bull riders, to get behind the scenes at the Event Center here in Reno, to see the bulls come off the trucks for the day’s rides – including one called Ugly. I visited a local bull riding ring and saw some kids take their first bull rides and talked to the guy who ran it. I was lucky enough to do an extensive interview with a local ranch family and they passed my manuscript on to a bull riding rancher. I did a LOT of research and checked and double checked. Oh, and I can ride a horse, and they used to brand calves across the street from my house until the land went to smaller horse properties.
Rosanne: I have been to eastern Oregon several times and it has never failed to impress.
Most of what I know about ranching comes from friends who grew up on ranches. The landscape and larger towns in Heart of a Shepherd are true places, but Brother’s hometown, the creek and the reservoir are fictional. I took a topographical map of Malheur (Mal’-yer) County and put the town in a spot that would work for my story.
I have no ranch skills to speak of. I am able to sit on top of a horse that is moving. People who know assure me that what I’m doing is not riding. I couldn’t rope a fence post from standing on the ground if my life depended on it, but I did bottle feed a lamb once. Fortunately there are agricultural colleges and many people willing to describe in detail their working life on a ranch.
I have lived in small towns in rural Washington, Arizona and what Germans think of as rural Bavaria. The small town spirit was strikingly similar in all those places. In fact my neighbors in the tiny town of Unterafferbach, Bavaria had more in common with small town Americans than they did with their urban-dwelling countrymen.
Writing Heart of a Shepherd and Bull Rider meant you had to think like teenage boys. How did you do that?
Suzanne: For the last several years our house has been full of our son’s friends, and the men from our neighborhood who gather to work on a car or weld a fender or set a toilet – whatever – there’s a group of them who call on each other for help. Most of the time they forget I’m around and I just absorb all that testosterone based dialogue.
Rosanne: Twelve is a great age—one I often teach. I volunteer every week in my local schools. I have a son and lots of nephews, so boys of this age are not an entirely foreign country.
Part of writing outside of your personal experience is being attentive to the things people at that age, of that gender, in that cultural group have in common. It’s the small details that tend to resonate most so getting them right matters. For example, at 12, lots of boys have a fascination with yet revulsion at the prospect of shaving. It’s a very small moment in the second chapter, but it feels familiar enough to boy readers that they buy into the character and are willing to go along when he does things that are less typical of a 12 year old boy but essential to the character of this particular boy. Continue reading