Writing the West in Albuquerque

I just returned from the 18th annual Women Writing the West conference, held this year in Albuquerque, NM. This is always the highlight of my writing year, traveling to a new state each year, catching up with old friends and making new ones.

WWW is a great support group, a non-profit association of women and men writing and promoting the Women’s West. As our website states: “Our stories are set in the Western United States — past and present — but our organization considers the “West” as more than a geographic location. The West represents a way of thinking, a sense of adventure, a willingness to cross into a new frontier.”

Our organization gives the WILLA Literary Award in several categories, one that I’m proud to say I won last year in Young Adult fiction. If you’ve published a book featuring a woman or girl set in the west in 2012, you are eligible to enter this prestigious contest.

As I left home last week to catch a plane to NM, I was greeted by the most beautiful sunrise. Unfortunately, I was driving on the freeway and wasn’t able to stop to take a picture. As the sun painted the horizon with burnt-orange brush strokes, a low-lying sea of fog hung over the water, indigo trees and mountains rising from it. It was a good omen for a good conference weekend.

I landed in Albuquerque to an equally spectacular sunset, which I was able to capture through the plane window.

At the conference, I heard a moving, inspirational keynote presentation by Susan Tweit on “Writing from the Heart” and met Anne Hillerman, daughter of novelist Tony Hillerman, and best-selling author Sandra Dallas (a WILLA Award winner). I also did a practice interview in front of the camera with Laureen Pepersack, which turned out not as terrifying as I thought it might!

After the conference, I had enough time to browse Old Town Albuquerque.

Our conference location, the Hotel Albuquerque:

A lovely weekend, filled with sunshine, friendship, information and support! We’re already planning next year’s event in Kansas City, MO!

Women Writing the West

Alice Trego, Arletta Dawdy, Randi Platt, Mary Trimble at registration

This year’s Women Writing the West conference is once again history. And once again, I come away with an uplifted spirit after meeting old friends and making new ones, creative encouragement, and many new tidbits of information to digest and use in my writing and marketing endeavors.

Heidi, Randi Platt, Mary Trimble

The conference was in Washington state, where I live, and I had the honor of helping our Conference VP, Mary Trimble, plan this event. We started more than a year ago lining up speakers, workshop presenters, and looking at hotel venues. The year progressed, with a new deadline nearly every month, until the last 3-4 weeks turned into an all-consuming, nearly 24-7 effort to weave all our efforts together and tie off the loose ends.

Highlights included the luncheon honoring the WILLA finalist recipients and a humorous, entertaining keynote speech by Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl. The Saturday evening banquet for WILLA winners was also a special highlight for me, as I received my lovely trophy for Follow the Dream. Author and poet Ellen Waterston was our keynote speaker that evening.

Another highlight was having my publisher, Lee Emory of Treble Heart Books, family and friends there to see the awards ceremony.

Lee Emory, Marylou Thomas, Heidi and Janet Oakley


Mary and I are now breathing sighs of relief and contentment after a successful endeavor. Thanks to all the members who made this possible. I look forward to seeing you all again next year in Albuquerque, NM!

Follow the Dream Wins WILLA Award

I am excited and honored to announce that my second novel, Follow the Dream, sequel to EPIC-award winning Cowgirl Dreams, has won the national WILLA award.

Both novels are based on my grandmother who rode bucking stock in Montana rodeos during the 1920s and ’30s.

Named for Pulitzer prize-winning Willa Cather, one of our country’s foremost authors, the WILLA is awarded by the Women Writing the West organization. It is given annually for outstanding literature featuring women’s stories set in the west. Awards are chosen by a distinguished panel of librarians and presented at the annual WWW Conference.

This year’s conference will be held Oct. 14-16 at the Embassy Suites in Lynnwood, WA. Keynote speakers are Nancy Pearl and Ellen Waterston. The conference features workshops on writing, publishing, and marketing, panel discussions, a bookstore, and agent/publisher appointments. All writers are welcome. For information and to register, go to the WWW website.

Follow the Dream synopsis:

Nettie Moser’s dreams are coming true. She’s married to her cowboy, Jake, they have plans for a busy rodeo season, and she has a once in a lifetime opportunity to rodeo in London with the Tex Austin Wild West Troupe.

But life during the Great Depression brings unrelenting hardships and unexpected family responsibilities. Nettie must overcome challenges to her lifelong rodeo dreams, cope with personal tragedy, survive drought, and help Jake keep their horse herd from disaster.

Will these challenges break this strong woman?

To read an excerpt from Follow the Dream or Cowgirl Dreams, go to my website at Heidi M. Thomas.

Photos from WWW Conference

As a former journalist who forgot her camera, I’m relying on the photo-journalism of Joyce Lohse, fellow Women Writing the West author, to give a glimpse of our conference highlights in LA recently.

Our Dorm at UCLA. Joyce Lohse Photo

Our Dorm at UCLA. Joyce Lohse Photos

Social Hour with Linda Mocilnikar, Fern J. Hill, Me, Irene Bennett Brown

Social Hour with Linda Mocilnikar, Fern J. Hill, Me, Irene Bennett Brown

WILLA Winners: Michele Longo Eder, Ellen Waterston, Fern J. Hill, Barbara Linsley

WILLA Winners

WILLA Winners Michele Longo Eder, Salt in Our Blood: The Memoir of a Fisherman’s Wife (creative nonfiction); Ellen Waterston, Between Desert Seasons (poetry); Fern J. Hill, Charley’s Choice: The Life and Timjes of Charley Parkhurst (historical fiction), and Barbara Linsley, Dreams on the Oregon Trail (childrens/young adult).

The tour group at Getty Center

The tour group at Getty Center

Beautiful sculptured gardens at Getty Center drew most of our attention on our short tour. We were also able to take in a 1951 B&W photo exhibit by Irving Penn. I can see that one could spend several days at the Getty to see it all!

Getty Center Gardens

Getty Center Gardens

Foliage at UCLA Dorm

Foliage at UCLA Dorm

Carolyn Wing Greenleaf & service dog, Heddy

Carolyn Wing Greenleaf & service dog, Heddy

Fond memories and wonderful photos by Joyce Lohse.

Published in: on September 21, 2009 at 2:54 am  Comments (3)  
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Women Writing the West

WWW LogoI just returned from my annual Women Writing the West Conference, this year held on the UCLA campus. This was an out-of-the-ordinary venue with an emphasis on screenwriting, cultural presentations such as “Homelands: How Women Made the West,” from the Autry National Center Traveling Exhibit, and “Untapped Treasures: Tips From California’s Leading Archivists,” tours of Hollywood and the Getty Museum.

We also had opportunities to meet one-on-one with agents, publishers, and marketing coaches, attend workshops on marketing, boosting creativity and panels on what agents and publishers are looking for.

We honored the winners of our literary contest, the WILLA Awards, and listened to readings from their wonderful works.

All of these wonderful events aside, what I take away from these gatherings is the richness of friendship and the warm, supportive generosity of the women (and men too) in this organization. I’ve forged lasting relationships with fellow writers through the years and look forward each fall to making new friends.

I had the pleasure of meeting Bob Scott (B.J. Scott) who has written The Angel Trilogy, books about women of the Gold Rush, with enough action and adventure to satisfy men readers as well. WWW is “international” with our members from Canada, Hope Morritt and her daughter, Lynn. I was delighted to meet Marcia Meredith Hensley from Wyoming, WILLA Award-winning author of Staking Her Claim: Women Homesteading the West. And so many more–I could go on and on. Thank you all!

Women Writing the West is open to women and men who live and write in the west (members don’t necessarily have to write in the Western genre) or to authors who live anywhere in the U.S. and write about the West. The WILLA Award (named for Willa Cather) are open to any published book set in the West with a strong female protagonist. We are authors of contemporary as well as historical fiction, romance, mystery, and poetry. We also sponsor the LAURA Award for short fiction, named for Laura Ingalls Wilder.

It is a rich and diverse group, and I’m proud to be a member.

Published in: on September 16, 2009 at 9:15 pm  Comments (2)  
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author_photo_sml-cropMy author guest today is Carol Buchanan, descended from Montana pioneers and homesteaders. She is a longtime nonfiction writer and student of Montana history and has turned to historical fiction with her first novel God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana.

Carol, as a Montana native myself, I’ve always been fascinated by the Vigilante Justice era. What gave you the impetus to write about the Vigilantes?

When I was in junior high, my parents and I took a trip around Montana. We stayed in a motel (now defunct) in Virginia City, where much of the Vigilante activity took place. One evening after dinner I walked up the hill to the “Hangman’s Building” where the Vigilantes hanged five men at once. I went into the building, and as I stood there, I heard the ropes creak on the beam where the men were hanged. That moment is still with me. When we came home to Montana, I knew I had to write it.

What made you decide to write the book as fiction rather than nonfiction?

I needed more elbow room than a straight history would give me. I believe in historical fiction being as tight to the history as possible, but history doesn’t give a writer scope to imagine what it would feel like to put the noose around the neck of someone you knew. Wilbur Sanders, the actual Vigilante prosecutor and leader of the Bannack branch of the Vigilante organization, had been Henry Plummer’s guest at Thanksgiving dinner just six weeks before he helped to hang Plummer.

You’ve done a masterful job of building the characters, especially the protagonist, Dan Stark. I love how he carves as he thinks during difficult situations. Is this character closely modeled after a real person?

Dan Stark isn’t modeled after anyone in particular. He has Wilbur Sanders’s position with the Vigilantes because I don’t think it’s kosher to put thoughts in the heads of people who really lived. After all, how could I know 145 years later what they thought? It seems extremely disrespectful to do that. So I just elbowed Sanders aside and put Dan Stark there. And a former two-term County Attorney for Flathead County gave generously of his time and knowledge as a prosecutor to help with how an attorney might think and act during a trial. It was he who suggested the carving.

I know Henry Plummer was a real individual. How many of the book-cover_characters are based on real persons?

Either they are real people in the story or they are purely fictitious. The main fictitious characters are Martha and her family, Dan Stark, Jacob Himmelfarb, and Tobias Fitch. Others include Lydia Hudson, and Tabby and Albert Rose. Paris Pfouts was real and the Vigilante president. John Creighton was also real. He later went home to Omaha to build Creighton University, and eventually the Pope made him a Papal Count for his services to the Catholic Church.

These men were rough, crude individuals, yet with a spiritual side. Is that what you gleaned from research about them?

Yup. Walter Dance did kneel in the street to pray with and for the five as they were being led to their execution. While the sources give some of the comments, no one mentions the prayer, so I wrote one for Dance. Creighton was a devout Catholic.

You must have done an inordinate amount of research. How long did it take you to research and write this book?

Seven years.

Were you able to interview any of the Vigilantes’ descendents?

No. One wrote to me that his grandfather had burned a bunch of papers. Others mentioned that they were descended from Vigilantes, but I didn’t “interview” them. I did have plenty of reminiscences from some of the Vigilantes themselves, most never published and housed in the archives of the Montana Historical Society in Helena (our state capital).

Were they proud of their heritage?

They seemed to be.

The story includes quite accurate depictions of playing poker and characters who spoke German. Do you play poker? And speak German?

I studied German in Germany while I was in graduate school in 1969, and a lot of it has stayed with me, but I don’t speak it any more. The poker question is really funny, because I don’t even like card games and have never played poker although my father tried to teach me when I was a kid. My husband sought out a computer poker game that includes both 5-card and 7-card stud, and I learned to play from that. I thought of visiting casinos here in Montana, but my old red Jimmy is fairly noticeable and I could just imagine the talk there’d be in this small town if people saw it in casino parking lots. Besides, 5-card is almost never played any more, and 7-card is likewise an old game.

You were the winner of the Women Writing the West short story contest this year. Congratulations! Have you always been a writer?

Yes. I was writing stories and even a couple of novels before I got into high school, and got my first paid writing job for the local newspaper during high school. Later, after college and graduate school, and a recession or two, I joined a Seattle-based aerospace company as a technical writer and stayed with them until I retired in 2001. During the 1990s I wrote three nonfiction books, one of which, Wordsworth’s Gardens, was a finalist for the Washington State Book Awards in 2002.

What are you working on next?

The sequel to God’s Thunderbolt. It’s titled Gold Under Ice, and takes Dan back to New York where he gets involved in some heavy-duty gambling in gold futures.

Thank you, Carol. I’ll be looking forward to reading the sequel. Carol’s book can be purchased through Amazon.com. See her website at http://www.swanrange.com/

What Agents, Editors Want

“Do your research.” That is the primary advice from Mike Farris, Farris Literary Agency, who spoke on “Pitching” at the recent WWW conference in San Antonio. In other words, don’t send sci-fi to an agent or publisher who specializes in mysteries or romance.

“Complete your novel before you pitch it.” (This advice is for fiction, not for non-fiction, where a proposal is often requested before the work is completed.) A complete, polished novel ensures a timely response. If you pitch a book that is only partially written and the agent asks to see the whole manuscript, then you’re in an embarrassing situation of admitting it’s not finished. And if it takes another year to finish, the agent or editor most likely will not even remember it and may not be interested any more.

Brief is best. Boil your pitch down to one paragraph of three to four sentences. Practice your “elevator pitch” or “logline” for when you meet an agent or editor at a conference. This is one sentence on what your book is about, the essence of the story. For example, Farris says the logline of To Kill a Mockingbird is “A Southern lawyer defends a black man accused of raping a white woman.” It’s that simple. You can then follow it up with a three or four-sentence synopsis, if asked.

“Be Professional.” It’s a business meeting, Farris says, so sit or stand up straight and make eye contact. Don’t read your notes. Show confidence, but not arrogance. “Think of it as your work getting dressed up and going to a job interview.”

“Keep the three-act concept in mind.” To put it simply, Farris explains, start with the set-up, the story problem (your character is up a tree). Follow with complications (throw rocks at your character in the tree), and finish with the resolution (get character out of the tree).

Mention how many words your book is. Most agents and publishers now are looking for books under 100,000 words, usually around 80,000.

Women Writing the West

I just returned, on a grand high, from the annual WWW conference, held this year in San Antonio, Texas. Writing conferences are an excellent way to connect with fellow scribes–to network, to share, to learn, and to commiserate about the writing/publishing life.

I have made so many good friends through this group, not to mention meeting agents, editors, film-makers, and I made my connection to my publisher through WWW. Workshops give new information or reinforce ideas lurking in the back of one’s head. Speakers provide inspiration–“You can do it too!” And WWW is one of the most supportive, enthusiastic and caring groups I’ve been privileged to be a part of.

Books. Ah, books. There is so much truth to the saying, “So many books, so little time.” We always have a bookstore with members’ books for sale, and every year I have to rein myself in. I want to buy one of each. Next year mine, Cowgirl Dreams, will be there!

Women Writing the West was birthed in the early 1990s by Jerrie Hurd and Sybil Downing at an organizational meeting of the Women of the West Museum. It has since grown to more than 300 members and conducts a renowned writing contest, the WILLA Literary Awards, named for Willa Cather.

It is open to women and men writing about the west or in the west, and includes well-known western and historical authors, such as  Sandra Dallas, Molly Gloss, Louise Erdrich. and Jane Kirkpatrick.

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