Historical fiction author Kathleen Kent spoke to me about her writing process.
Kathleen Kent is the author of three best-selling novels, The Heretic’s Daughter – recipient of the David J. Langum Sr. award for American historical fiction – The Traitor’s Wife, and The Outcasts (set in 1870 Texas), which was the recipient of the American Library Association’s 2014 top choice for Historical Fiction, as well as the recipient of a Will Rogers Medallion Award for Western fiction. She has completed a fourth book, a contemporary crime novel, based on the short story, “Coincidences Can Kill You”, (Dallas Noir) to be published in 2016. She resides in Dallas.
Kent grew up in a family of story-tellers, and remembers writing short stories from a very young age.
“I also read constantly, fiction, non-fiction, the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica, but my favorite books were usually historical fiction. Mary Renault, and her books about the ancient world, being some of my favorites. I went to college to study writing, but my father, being an imminently practical man, convinced me to change my course of study to business where I could, “always write on the side.” So for twenty years, after college, I pursued a career in New York, first in commodities and then as a contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense doing defense conversion work in the Former Soviet Union, converting military plants to civilian use. I loved my job, but the desire to write was always in the back of my mind. I was almost fifty years old before I decided to take an early retirement and begin writing. My first book, The Heretic’s Daughter, took five years to write, as I had to learn the craft of careful research as well as develop the art of writing in the long form. My family was very encouraging in this transition, and I couldn’t have imagined making the courage to begin writing a novel without their help.”
Her tips for aspiring writers include managing your expectations.
“I think many people have the desire to write, and have a story, or stories, that they want to commit to paper. The hardest thing for most people seems to be in just getting started. That, and the expectation that everything they write must be perfect, from inception to ending. It’s helpful, I believe, to shift that expectation to a certainty that the initial efforts, the first few drafts, are supposed to be bad. That’s how we improve in any endeavor. The other difficulty seems to be in waiting for the mood, or the Muse, to strike and create an effortless flow of beautiful, meaningful words. It does happen—but rarely. The author Ann Patchett once said in a book conference speech (one titled The Muse and The Marketplace), that there is no one, true Muse, just hard work. So hard work and being able to tolerate the day-to-day tedium, what I like to call facing The Tyranny Of The Blank Screen.”
Kent has just completed a book in a genre that’s completely new for her.
“It’s a contemporary crime novel (title yet to be named) that’s based loosely on my short story in the crime anthology, Dallas Noir. It was a scary thing making the leap into a whole new genre, but I think the creative fire thrives on risk. I’m thrilled to say that it will be published by Mulholland in the fall of 2016.”
During my fascination with the witch trials in early America, I stumbled across Kent, and instantly fell in love. One of the main characters in The Heretic’s Daughter and The Traitor’s Wife is Martha Carrier. I wanted to know why Kent chose to write about this fascinating woman.
“Martha Carrier, one of the 19 men and women hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692, is figure who loomed quite large in my life. I first heard of her when I was about 8 years old visiting my maternal grandmother. It was she who first told me of the Carrier family in 17th century New England, and of the hysteria that swept through the colonies. When I asked her if Martha had, in fact, been a witch, she told me, “Sweetheart, there are no such things as witches, just ferocious women.” From that moment on I was fascinated by Martha, and gathered research on the witch trials all through my childhood and into adulthood. I always knew that if I was to write a book, it would have Martha Carrier as the central character. She was courageous, standing up to her accusers, and going to her death rather than support the lie that she had contracted with the Devil to do ill in the world. I admire her bravery, her wit and dedication to her family.”
She’s currently reading Kate Atkinson’s new book, A God In Ruins.
“I love her writing and read everything that she publishes. I also read quite a bit of non-fiction as well, most recently the fascinating biography of the famous film director, Werner Herzog, A Guide For The Perplexed.”
After several years of author events, Kent has recently taken a break to finish her latest novel, but she imagines she’ll be doing more author talks when the novel is published next year. Keep an eye on her website for updates: www.kathleenkent.com
Kent’s novels are available on Lovereading.co.uk, the UK’s No1 book recommendation site.