It’s always an honour to be asked to introduce a newly published writer’s work to the world, especially when that newly published writer is one of your dearest friends. So nothing makes me happier than introducing you to Runaway Sage by Heidi Norrod! If there’s one guest writer on Caffeine Addled Ramblings, it’s her, so let’s get right to it and find out more:
* * *
Let’s start off with an easy question: When did you realise you wanted to become a writer and what medium did you start with?
When? Well, my mother and my late father always said from the time I could start making squiggle lines that I swore was cursive writing and it was the bestest story. But me, I was a reader as a child. I still am, but when I was able to get my own library card I went every week and checked out as many books as I was allowed (it was ten) and I read all of them, sometimes more than once, every, single week. Author E.B. White was my first inspiration for actually becoming a writer, then Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. When I got a bit older it was Ann M. Martin. I wanted to be ‘like’ these authors. I wanted to write books that would make people start imagining things again. Of course, over the course of my life my inspiration authors have changed with me.
But these four were the first, and the ones responsible for me writing my very first full-length short story. It was titled The Rat King, and I still have it framed and hanging above my workstation today. I was eleven then, but when I got into high school I shifted to poetry. By the time I was 16, I had a couple of poems published in poetry collections. When I was twenty and divorced, I wrote my first novel.
Did you have any odd part time jobs while you were writing or did you dedicate your life to the written word from the onset?
Odd jobs… Ha! I’ve worked as a hostess in restaurants, daycare teacher, daycare cook, dental assistant, cashier at Walmart, jewelry sales for Kmart, front desk clerk for hotels, accounting assistant, receptionist, and even legal assistant. I even went to an interview once about selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door (I didn’t take the job, but it was offered to me). While I was still in high school, I took additional CNA classes one summer and worked as a CNA for a bit in a long-term care facility too. The thing was all of those were just jobs. Not even remotely career worthy to me (which don’t misunderstand, all of them are excellent careers if they fit you) but – I wanted to be an author and I darned well was going to be. So, even while I worked these jobs I wrote and queried. I wrote on my lunch breaks. I wrote while the kids were napping. I wrote at night and barely dragged myself to work the next day. I changed jobs almost as much as I did my undergarments.
The idea that writing can be taught is always being discussed and debated… I’m curious, what education do you have and what are your thoughts on education for writers?
I am one year shy of having a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science/International Relations and a double major in Foreign Language. I have, however, an entire bookshelf dedicated to how-to books about writing. I even secured a scholarship while in college for my writing, but never managed to graduate. You could say that I’m a self-taught writer to some degree. I once wrote an entire college essay on graffiti as a means of writing and communication. I got a top grade on that, by the way. The professor called it creative and out-of-the box. I still have that essay too.
Some authors find it easier and better to secure all the degrees and take all the writing workshops, too. Some authors find it easier to just sit down and write, thus figuring it out as they go. Personally, I think that the best education for writers is reading. Really though, you have to do what works best for you. No one can do it for you. No one path is going to work for every writer. For me it was trial and error. I recently chatted with a NYT and USA Today Bestselling author, who told me that they taught themselves to write by going to night classes. There is no right way – and there is no wrong way either. Just do what feels right for YOU.
Education aside, what about your personal life? How does your personal life affect your writing both in what you write and how you write?
My personal life is a disaster. No joke. I have been a divorced, single mother for seventeen years, and at least partly disabled for ten. But for the last five years, I’ve been told I’m unemployable and should seek disability payments from the government by my neurosurgeon and my personal doctor/rheumatologist. I tried, and they denied me, but through it all – I’ve written. If anything being told by the government that I could expect nothing from them, pushed me harder into finding a home for my book. My kids need me. So, no wasn’t acceptable. If I wouldn’t get help from the powers that be, then I would have to find a way to do it for myself. I’m stubborn like that.
What does your writing schedule look like? I’m guessing it’s not a conventional ‘9-to-5’ job?
My schedule is as nutty as I am crazy. Somedays it is a ‘9-to-5’ job, others not so much. I try to work at least five days a week, but I don’t always write every day (I know people think this is some sort of cardinal rule, but everyone needs breaks – brain surgeons don’t work seven days a week either). It really depends on my deadlines how hard I push myself. If I have a self-imposed deadline, I’m a bit more lenient with myself. Some days the words flow perfectly and I can write all day long. Some days I can barely squeeze out five hundred words a day. Then there are days when I can blast out twenty-five hundred words in a couple of hours and get sick of sitting inside, so I bolt. Other days I just sit and read. Remember what I said? Reading is the best training for writers anyway, so it’s fine to take what I call ‘reading days’ to catch up on my TBR pile.
The thing is with my ‘issues’ I can’t sit in one place for much more than an hour and a half to two hours. So, I have to arrange my schedule around these frequent breaks. Sometimes in nice weather I go for walks, or on yucky days I hop on my stairclimber. I can’t walk for much more than an hour at best, so these breaks are short. I also frequently have to have breaks to stretch out in bed to resolve the massive muscle spasms I deal with daily. So, I work in one to two hour sprees.
And what do you do on your days off?
Is napping an appropriate answer? Just in case you want more information than that, I also enjoying hiking and hanging out around water. Although, if I’m being honest, sometimes I work at the water’s edge too. I also spend all the time I can with my kids and my mom. I frequent arts and crafts stores, bookstores, gardening stores, hardware stores, and pet stores too. Those stores can pretty much sum me up.
Let’s move on a little to your book and the process of getting it out there: How long have you been trying to get published?
With this title?
Sorry, yes, with Runaway Sage.
About two years or so. RUNAWAY SAGE took me five years from beginning to querying. Two years for research. One year for writing and editing, and then two years for querying. I also shelved it for almost two years after querying it for a year. So, I guess really it’s been four years. I wrote two other novels in the space of this time too.
How did you get published? What was the process?
I was told about a website, author.me, from a writing friend. I had this manuscript that was just shelf sitting, so I decided I’d give it a try. After I uploaded it, the website offered me suggestions as to who may be interested in it, and I picked a couple and tried. What did I have to lose after all? My publisher, Black Rose Writing, was the third one I tried.
Okay so you’re no stranger to rejection: how did you deal with it?
At first, not well. I was like a lot of other beginning writers I encounter, and I thought my story was perfect and I’d be darned if I changed anything. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I would get a deal immediately, and I’d be an instant bestseller. But then – I wasn’t. It was a crushing blow to my self-confidence. Yeah, I’d read all the words about how hard it is, and how it’s all rather like a game of lots, but I didn’t believe that they meant me. Here’s a secret though, the RUNAWAY SAGE that was published looks nothing at all like that first absolutely perfect draft I wrote.
Over time, I think I just hardened to the rejections. Then, I got stubborn. It was like a never-ending cycle of ‘oh another rejection. perfect.’, *scratch agent’s name off list* then *search for another agent and send query*. Rejections hurts. Especially at the beginning when it’s a wake-up call that maybe all those articles and books I read that said it was hard, were right.
So you said you had this one shelved for quite a while. What made you dust it off and try again?
It was a whim. I’d had so many agent rejections – “I love the voice, but it’s not quite right for my list”, or “it’s beautifully written but I have to decline”. Someone, a writer friend, suggested that I try a small press instead. So, I tried one whose rejection actually berated me for not knowing my history and such. They were vicious, even though I had a history professor review my history AND I had done two years worth of research myself. So, I shelved it.
Then, I joined Wattpad, and figured that it would never find a home, so I was debating just sticking it up on Wattpad. At least someone would be able to read it that way, if they wanted and all of my hard work wouldn’t go to waste. But, I stumbled onto the small press during a random web search for my speculative fiction that would eventually give RUNAWAY SAGE a home, and decided to hold off and query them first.
What was it like to finally have your work out there for the world to see?
I’m terrified. What if everyone hates it? What if it’s attacked by trolls? There is a part of me that is hopeful though that it will be loved. I’m a writer and aren’t we all affected to some degree by self-loathing and second-guessing ourselves? Maybe I’m just weird though. I don’t have very high self-esteem either and I’m shy by nature, so this is a huge ordeal for me.
Onto the book itself, then: What’s the plot for your book? Is it a series?
Not a series. It could be, but I decided not to proceed with it after this title.
Tamar Athenos was born an undesirable in the Cretan society under the Roman Empire, as her mother was a rebel insurgent trying to dismantle the Romans that have taken over Crete. When her mother gets caught, they flee for Neapolis, Italy near the heart of the vicious Roman Empire using stolen drachmas for payment. However, Tamar’s mother dies not long after making the voyage. Lost and alone in a foreign place, Tamar tries to find her place in the rigid social hierarchy of Neapolis.
Being taken in by the local healer woman, The Sage, who some swear is a witch or worse, Tamar starts building her own network of friends and allies. Starting with the eldest son, Alesio, of the wealthy merchant that brought Tamar to Neapolis to begin with and including a rogue Roman soldier, General Gino. When the merchant’s youngest son, Callis, in his venomous hatred for Tamar accuses her of murder, The Sage, Alesio, and General Gino risk everything to break her out of prison with the help of a Senator’s son and Alesio’s sister as Vesuvius erupts.
What was the overall inspiration for this novel?
I’ve studied world religions for over 21 years and I’m working on a non-fiction title based on all of my religious research, and when I was working on Christianity I stumbled across the horrifying story of Tamar in the Old Testament. Well, to me it was horrifying. This girl was being repeatedly hurt by her brothers, who both wanted to marry her. So, I started writing, trying to make this story less horrifying. I decided since I had always been fascinated by the story of Vesuvius and the Roman Empire too, that would be the perfect backdrop.
What was it that inspired you to merge young adult fiction with historical fiction?
Initially, RUNAWAY SAGE wasn’t meant for teens. However, I queried an agent who thought that I should market it more for the young adult audience. She even went so far as to work with me for a year on revisions. In the end, she rejected it, but I had young adult-ized it so I just switched my query search to the YA agents and eventually publishers.
For YA fiction, your novel deals with some really heavy themes (prostitution, crucifixion, murder). How did you deal with this?
Honestly, that’s how. These darker, heavier themes were a part of everyday life in Ancient Rome, and honestly still are today even for teens. People aren’t always nice, and sometimes their actions are even more unethical and immoral. I think that modern teens can appreciate that. Frequently we hear on the news about kids as young as 11 or 12 and teens murdering people. Not so long ago, a group of middle school girls murdered their friend as something of a sacrifice to a persona known as ‘The Skinny Man.’ There’s the so-called ‘Dark Web’ of child and teen pornography and child sex slaves. Even when I was in high school there was an 18 year old that murdered their mother and stabbed their sister and father repeatedly even in my sleepy, little town. Another teen in my school’s relative was accused of rape. Teens and even middle grade aged kids aren’t blind to the world, and as an author I think writers should recognize this.
We have a few quick questions from readers: Have you already organised publishing your next book? If so, is it with the same company and what’s it going to be about?
Not yet. I am currently querying a contemporary sweet romance, and a southern cozy mystery though. I also have an upper MG that I’ve got a few final queries out on, and then if it’s rejected it’ll go on the shelf.
Who’s your favourite character in the book and why?
The Sage, without question. I have even considered writing a spin-off book about her younger years.
Looking at the new releases this year in your genre, where would you situate this book?
This is difficult to answer as well, as my book skates several genres. It’s something of a rebel when it comes to classification. Yes, it’s historical. Yes, it’s romantic. Yes, it’s adventure. Yes, it has a bit of a literary fiction feel to it. Yes, it’s dark. Yes, it has humor too.
What’s the inspiration behind the names of your characters? E.G. Tamar Athenos, Alesio etc.
Tamar was just pulled directly from the biblical story that inspired the book. The other names just sort of won the character naming lottery. You see, I drew them out of a hat full of names I liked.
When we were talking, you said that your favourite scene always makes you giggle when you read through it. What’s your favourite scene and why?
After the eruption of Vesuvius in the book, I have a scene that involves five of the superior characters in the story, The Sage, Tamar, Dea, Luca, and Alesio, where Sage is ‘making the boys mind’ after they toss buckets of frigid water over her. It shows the Sage’s matronly habits well, and is a great scene for her character development. But it does this with humor even after such a trying time for the city of Neapolis.
Imagine you’re the casting director for the film adaptation of your book. Who would you hire to play your protagonists?
Tamar – Anna Sophia Robb, Alesio – Luke Arnold, Gino – Duane Johnson, Callis – Jamie Campbell Bower (assuming he didn’t mind having dark hair), but The Sage – I’m not sure. There is a full palate of characters in this title, so I could sit here all day and write on this.
And onto some quick fire questions, don’t think about these too long either: What book do you wish you could have written and why?
CHARLOTTE’S WEB. That story helped me to no end as a little girl understand the importance of different perspectives to a situation.
If you could meet any author, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Anton Chekhov. His stories and plays illuminate your world. I want to know how he managed to do that. If you haven’t read Chekhov – you should.
What do you do when you’re procrastinating?
Er, anything else… Ah, I’m bad to pull out my phone and play Cut the Rope or start playing with the Play-doh or silly putty that’s on my desk. I can roll out a mean looking bowling pin and a bowling ball. Still working on an elephant.
How do you beat writer’s block?
I switch to art. I draw, paint, embroider, crochet, play with Play-doh (What? Seriously that stuff is underrated), or sometimes just read or watch television. I’ve found taking walks helps too.
If you weren’t a writer, what career would you have?
I went to school in hopes of working with the United Nations in some diplomatic capacity. So, I’d probably go back to that. Of course, when I was a little girl I wanted to be a zoologist and work with the big cats too.
Pitch us your book. Why should people read it?
Who doesn’t love excitement, romance, hatred and double-crossing, adventure, and history?
Pitch it? Well… Lost and alone in an alien place Tamar must learn who to trust and who to surrender her heart to before she loses everything, possibly even her life.
And finally: What’s the one piece of advice you wish you had been given before you started writing? Is this the same piece of advice you would give others or is there something else?
I wish someone had told me that sometimes the best answer you can receive is no. I like to tell people that writing isn’t about emulating your favorite authors. You may love JK Rowling, James Patterson, or Stephen King (or whoever) but you will never BE them. You may love all the fantasy novels on the shelves, but your first book won’t BE one of them. You see, those people (and those books) are already past the hurdle of the first book query.
As a beginning author you HAVE to pay more attention to acceptable word counts, plot lines, and so on. After you and your debut book pass that first book query hurdle, then you can start breaking the rules. In truth, you may query a perfectly fine 55,000 word romance, but by the time your agent/editor/or both are finished with you and it, it’s not going to be the same book. The book you have ready to submit has to follow the rules, then after you snag your agent/editor they may even encourage you to break the rules.