Meet Shirley Kennedy, author of The Last of Lady Lansdown and Heartbreak Trail

AuthorpicgifWhat are your latest projects?

I am currently writing a three-book “Women of the West” series for Kensington Lyrical Press. All three books are set in the days of the California Gold Rush. Wagon Train Cinderella and Wagon Train Sisters are the first two. In the third, which I’m working on now, my heroine travels to California via ship from Boston to Panama, then sixty miles across the treacherous Isthmus of Panama. The thick rainforest full of Anacondas, crocodiles, scorpions and other icky creatures gives me lots to write about.

Is there any advice you can give other authors?

My advice to beginning writers is: Don’t start out by ignoring established genres and writing the “book of your heart.” Conduct your writing career as you would a business. Begin by studying the different genres; decide which one you’d like to write in, then read, read, read all the books in that genre you can get your hands on. Only when you’re sure you know what the publishers want and don’t want should you plot your story and type “Chapter 1.” After that, stick to your genre until you’re an established writer. When your readers clamor for anything you write, that’s the time to return to that book of your heart.

lansdown_medalWhat is your writing process?

I use a computer and MS Word. Since lately I’ve been writing to a deadline, I use a simple formula to calculate my daily word count. If I have a 75,000-word book to write in six months, that’s approximately 180 days minus maybe 30 days for Sundays, holidays, etc. 75,000 ÷ 150 gives me a reasonable 500 words per day that I make myself write even when the juices aren’t flowing. On a good day I exceed my goal, so that gives me time at the end for tweaking and polishing.

How do you get your inspiration?

It’s all in the books I use for research. Once, when I was doing my research for the Last of lady Lansdown, I came across a book that described the network of canals that existed during the Regency period. That information inspired me to make Douglas, my hero, a renowned canal engineer. Many of the incidents I use in my books are based on fact. In Heartbreak Trail, an Indian steals a hoopskirt from a wagon and wears it while strutting around the evening campfire. That really happened and is described in one of the priceless and inspiring diaries written by those brave women who crossed the prairies in a covered wagon.

heartbreak_trailHow do you do your research? Do you pretty much stick to the Internet or consult experts or librarians?

Books are my main resource, and I spend a lot of time browsing through my library’s on-line catalog. Of course, the Internet is also a wonderful source, especially for information you just can’t find in a book. I once had a Regency heroine who was a bird watcher. So what kinds of birds would she see if she was strolling through the woods near York, England, in 1815? That’s not information I’d likely find in a book, so I searched online and found the York Ornithological Society. What luck! A very nice man sent me all the information I needed and even some pictures.

Have your reading tastes changed since you became an author?

Not really, but I’ve done so much editing of my own books that I often find myself mentally editing whatever book I’m reading. This is not a good habit, and I’m trying to break it.

Are there any bestselling authors you hope to emulate?

I most admire Herman Wouk, who wrote The Winds of War, War and Remembrance, The Caine Mutiny (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) and many more. I will never find better characterization, more interesting plots, more beautiful prose than what this man writes. Not only that, but he’s nearly 101 years old and still writing!

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned since you started publishing?

Since I started writing in the 1990s, there have been so many drastic changes in the publishing industry that many valuable lessons I learned are obsolete by now. However, there’s one valuable lesson I learned that remains as significant as ever: It’s the characters that count! You can have the cleverest, trickiest plot in the world, but if you don’t make the reader care about your characters, your book won’t sell.

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