Part II: Louise Lenahan Wallace

My guest this week is Louise Lenahan Wallace, award-winning author of four novels and many short stories and articles. Her newest novel is Day Unto Day.

How important is research in writing your historical novels?

Another of my writing goals is to make the time and place of my novels as accurate as possible. If one of my characters uses Gold Medal flour in 1870, and the reader happens to know it wasn’t sold under that name until “Superior Flour” won a gold medal at a flour exhibition in 1880, my story loses historical credibility, in spite of all my research. A small detail? Yes, but rest assured, if there is an error, someone, somewhere, will find it. In my reading, I have come across such mistakes; they leave me feeling deflated. Having discovered inaccuracies, how can the reader believe in the rest of the story?

 Where do you find your characters?

I actually have to smile at this question because of the profound—and unexpected —influence research has had on creating my fictional characters. Having decided early on that I wanted to include historical background in my writing, I formulated my research requirements. I decided that I would not include any fact as historical unless I found two references that agreed. If I found two differing opinions, I searched until I found a third one that verified one of the first two. If I was unable to find a third reference, I did not include it in the story.

As I was checking the historical details for my first book, The Longing of the Day, I stumbled across the fact that, during the Civil War, the Sixth Ohio Volunteer Cavalry was sent west to Fort Laramie in Nebraska Territory. The troopers’ duties included erecting additional forts and protecting the Overland Stage Road from increasing Indian harassment resulting from the transfer of the regular soldiers east to fight in the larger war. Even as I sat looking at those few lines of information, a blurry picture formed. Quiet, peace-loving man… joins Ohio Volunteer Cavalry… finds himself in far-off Nebraska Territory, fighting Indians….As with all my research, I sought a second notation to verify the initial information.

After an extensive, fingers and toes crossed search, I found one further, short reference to this apparently little-known incident. Even as I breathed a heartfelt thank you, my blurry picture leaped to vivid life. What would he see, how would he participate in the day-to-day events of the war? How would his wife and children, left behind to keep the family farm going as best they could, conduct their daily lives? How would they fare emotionally as they waited for weeks at a time for news? From a few lines in a book, come upon so unexpectedly, that speculation became my third novel, Days of Eternity, published in 2007, which led to its sequel, Day Unto Day, published in 2010. Serendipity—such a lilting word!—in a very large way.

You’ve done some non-fiction writing as well. Which do you prefer, and do you find one easier than the other?

I enjoy writing fiction—novels and short stories—and non-fiction articles and essays. One makes a pleasant break from the other when I reach a spot that just refuses to say what I want it to, no matter how many times I revise it. (It happens, even after so many years of writing!) My short fiction story Night Shadows won a commendation in Aesthetica Magazine’s International Competition last year. I have written several non-fiction articles, including A Faded Card, which was published in Chicken Soup for the Single’s Soul. My biographical stories, Chris’s Legacy of Laughter and Eight Letters received finalist awards at the Pacific Northwest Writers Competition. The Windows of His Heart: Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce won a second place award in the Wyoming Writers Competition. I research the historical details for my fiction books as well as for my non-fiction writing. I’m definitely a “trivia” person, and take special delight in those “aha!” moments of discovering some new fact or date. Maybe that’s why, for me, research is fun. Like a squirrel, I store nuggets of information that don’t fit my current project but, surprisingly often, come in handy later on.

You’ve been fortunate to find publication acceptance with small publishers. How has that experience been as opposed to possibly self-publishing or trying for the larger publishing houses?

At the time of my early attempts to find a market for The Longing of the Day, self publishing was considered a pitiable, last-ditch solution by authors who were unable to find a company that would accept their manuscript. “Vanity Press” or “Published by Author” credentials were an all but certain guarantee that the “real” publishing world would turn up its nose at any such work. This included tacking “self-published entries not accepted” onto virtually every list of contest rules. The burden of such restrictions was, of course, added to by the fact that snail mail was the system of the day. There was no e-mail to speed up the process of sending out a manuscript, with a return envelope included, and then having to wait, sometimes for two or three months, for a “does not suit our publishing needs” mimeographed response. Fortunately, much has changed since then.

While I was searching for a publisher, I came to feel, after numerous rejections in which it was clear that the company had not even read my submission, that the larger eastern publishing houses had little interest in viewing submissions from writers “out west.” Spurred on by this awareness, I began to concentrate my efforts on the smaller, newer presses. Even this route was not without its bumps—and lumps. In response to my submitting The Longing of the Day, that had already won an unpublished novel finalist award at the Pacific Northwest Writers Competition, one small press publisher told me that my “setting is vividly real… characters are superbly crafted…plot is a real page-turner…but…it’s not good enough for my publishing house. I’m certain, however, that you’ll have no problem finding a publishing house with lower standards than mine, who will be glad to publish it.” A little daunted, and admittedly more than a little confused, I slogged on.

Eventually, I found Ogden Publications, a small press in Topeka, Kansas, that most happily published it. The first printing of 1500 copies sold out in six weeks and went into a second printing. They also published my second novel, Day Star Rising, in 2001, a year after the first one. Unfortunately, they downsized their publishing operations, and are no longer doing full-length novels.  Both earlier-published novels, however, are still selling, more than a decade later, as are my third and fourth novels, Days of Eternity, published by Treble Heart Books in Arizona, and Day Unto Day, published by All things That Matter Press in Maine.  I am currently working on my fifth book, Children of the Day. Like the Perils of Pauline movies of old, it clears up What happens next? curiosities from the earlier books, and poses a few more snags to be sorted out in my characters’ lives.

What advice do you have for new writers?

Write for yourself. Write what feels right to you and someone will be interested. Write what you know. In addition to careful research, I have woven incidents from my family history into these stories, just for fun. A name or date here, an aunt or uncle’s “I remember the time…” there, of no significance to others, but immediately recognizable to my relatives, who lost no time in assuring me and telling others (unintentional word-of-mouth publicity) how tickled they were at recognizing my selections. In Day Unto Day, I drew heavily upon my personal experience to shape the character of Rose and her physical, spiritual, and emotional reactions to the aftermath of her illness. And yes, the skunk story in The Longing of the Day really happened—to my mother and grandmother. (My apologies, Grandma, for letting the skunk out of the bag after all these years!) Above all, be persistent. In the twenty-five years before my first novel was accepted, I received enough rejection slips to paper two walls. One might say I’ve written the book on that. But that’s a story for another day. Perhaps Day By Day….

Louise’s books include Longing of the Day, Day Star Rising, Days of Eternity and Day Unto Day. These books are available through her website www.louiselenahanwallace.comand on Amazon.

Book 4: The farmhouse on the cover of Day Unto Day. is a copy of a picture that was actually taken during the Civil War. Website: www.allthingsthatmatterpress.com

Book 1.  The Longing of the Day.  The locket on the cover is an important tie-in to the story.  www.ogdenpublications.com

Book 2.  Day Star Rising.  My editor took this picture of her sister and brother-in-law, as well as the other pictures in the book.  www.ogdenpublications.com

Book 3. Days of Eternity.  Lee Emory found this picture, and I think it really captures the essence of the juxtaposed farm world and the Civil War.       www.trebleheartbooks.com

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Can’t have any lonely people over here! I enjoyed your post and share your love of the research behind historical fiction. The rule of three is what I was taught as an historian and I try to keep to that for major events and personalities. For lesser known incidents, I think the writer’s imagination can come in, just so it’s in the times and how a person might act.

  2. Very interesting interview. I enjoyed reading it and learned a few things for future reference. Thanks.

  3. Good on you Louise for persisting. I think it’s important to take rejection too personally as sometimes publishers refuse a title for reasons of their own. There is nothing to do with our writing.

    Chemical Fusion


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