Rosanne Bittner: Heart of the West
The Power of Passion
I am willing to bet that many of you were passionate blithering idiots when you first started writing. Some of you are right now. By that I mean that writing was all that mattered. Attention to husband and kids sometimes took a back seat.
Housework? Forget it! The hungry dog? Open a bag of dog food and just set it on the floor and let the family pet have at it. Hungry kids? Have them throw some TV dinners in the oven or open a package of lunch meat and a loaf of bread. It's Christmas? Oh, yeah, guess I'll throw some tinsel on a fake tree when I take a break between chapters.
I like to joke that I've written 57 books and have thus had 57 affairs! I have fallen passionately in love with every hero I've ever written about - and about four of them have stayed with me, in my thoughts, in my heart, even in my bed for years! But thank god I have an understanding husband who knows it's just the stories inside of me. He understands how attached I get to my characters. He's always been a big supporter of my writing, and caring about each other's dreams is the basic reason we've been together for nearly 47 years.
When I write my stories, I become the heroine, and most of the things she does and the decisions she makes are based on what I would do in that particular situation. So as a side thought, apart from my theme of passion here, remember that a primary ingredient of writing believable characters is to be those characters. Write from the inside-out - not from the outside looking in.
You have all heard that one primary rule for writing a good story is - show, don't tell. Writing from the inside will help you do that. I could teach an entire workshop on that subject, but I'll save that for next time. Let's get back to passion and how it can help your writing.
In my early days of writing - wow. I was a complete maniac. I was 34 years old and I'd read a book called The Proud Breed by Celeste De Blasis, a fabulous love story set in early California. I had always read historicals, most of them about pioneers and Indians, and for some reason that particular book finally put a burr in my butt and made me sit down and write a similar story. The actual desire to write a book about pioneers probably really started at the age of around 14, when I read A Lantern In Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich. What an impressive, touching, memorable story that was. But I was young and didn't believe I could really write a book, and I had a lot of living to do - got married at 20 - worked full time and had two babies by 25, two boys just one year apart. "life" took over, but I still read and dreamed.
By the time I was 34 the boys were old enough to not need constant watching, and as I said - something about The Proud Breed finally stirred that passion in me to write, and off I went! We had purchased 29 acres of wooded property that needed a tremendous amount of work, and I was working full time on top of that, drove close to a half hour each way to work and back (I was an administrative secretary to the manager of a nuclear power plant) - had a son who needed to go to the doctor every week for an allergy shot and with whom I spent many nights sleeping sitting up in a chair holding him because if he laid down he couldn't breathe - and well, here's how my day usually went:
Up at 5:00 a.m. - pack lunches (back then my husband carried a lunch to work and my sons ate sack lunches at school) - got my husband up and off to work - got myself ready for work - got the boys up and ready for school - made them breakfast - drove them to school - drove to work - put in an 8 hour day - drove home - did grocery shopping - one afternoon a week took the son for his allergy shot - made supper - did dishes - did whatever cleaning needed done - did laundry one or two days a week - helped my husband stack logs and pull brush on the property we were clearing - painted and helped maintain two rental cottages on the property - did a lot of the mowing and helped with a 40-acre asparagus farm - yet I almost always did some writing in the evening in a very small living room where the boys would be playing and wrestling and the husband would be watching TV five feet away. I would often write whole chapters in one sitting late into the night, sometimes until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, and then fall asleep with my head on the typewriter while everybody else slept - then up at 5:00 am to do it all over again. Even at work I often read or wrote on my lunch hour. I sure didn't sleep much back then!
I don't know how I did it - I just did it. I was incredibly passionate about my stories, my subject and my characters. Amid all of this I managed to read probably hundreds of research books about the American West. I have a huge personal library of research books, and I've read them all.
Today we have the internet, but not back then. I took notes - volumes and volumes of notes. I still have a four-drawer file full of hand-written notes and magazine articles I saved to use for story ideas. In those files are hundreds of manilla folders labeled "cities" "rivers" "buffalo" "civil war" "ranching" "western women" "Denver's history" "stagecoaches" "the pony express" "forts" "Custer" "Cheyenne" "Sioux" "Comanche" "mountain men" - on and on and on. You name the subject from the 1800's old west, and I have a folder full of notes on it as well as several research books. When I first started writing, the internet was a distant dream. I had to hunt down my information through books.
Most of my research books came from the University of Oklahoma and the University of Nebraska - great libraries filled with books you can order that cover everything you would ever want to know about the American West, Native Americans, the Civil War - whatever you want to know about America's history and Native Americans, and you can order books from them on-line. And to this day one of my most-used resources are the 26 volume Time-Life books about the Old West that were published about 30 years ago. Time Life also has a set of books about the Civil War and also about pirate ships and the history of shipping in general.
And the best source for Eastern history about the Eastern Indians, the revolution, the French and Indian War, the War of 1812 and all the amazing history of how this country was born and grew can be found in books by Alan Eckert, stories like That Dark and Bloody River. No one tells it better - real history written like a novel, with real characters and dialogue. When you are finished with an Alan Eckert book, you are left in awe of the courage and stamina our pioneers showed in the early growth of this country.
Through all the things I mentioned I also did my own advertising, I attended numerous conferences, conducted workshops and gave speeches at clubs and other organizations, anything to publicize my writing. At first I mailed out manuscripts like a mad man, doing multiple submissions with the hope that if book "x" didn't sell there, maybe the next publishing house would pick it up, and maybe that first publisher would buy book "y." I made sure publishers knew I was here to stay and that I was capable of writing more than one or two books. I went through nearly 100 rejections and wrote nine books before I finally sold that ninth book in 1982 to Kensington Publishing - Sweet Prairie Passion - the first book of what turned out to be a 7-book series called Savage Destiny.
To this day Savage Destiny remains popular. To this day I still get letters and e-mails about those books. And soon Amazon will reissue all the Savage Destiny books as e-books for Kindle after almost 30 years. What does that tell you about those stories - and me? I was passionate.
Those books and many of my other stories - many of which won awards and which are to this day being reissued - remain popular because of the passion that went into writing them - the passion that made me sit down to a manual typewriter and type my first books using carbon paper and using white-out to correct mistakes. The passion that through all the "business" of life made me write, write, write - three to five books a year - and not short stories these were 400 to 600 page books. Back then big fat books were acceptable. I wish they still were today because the fatter the book, the more tempted I am to read it because I know that most likely the writer was able to truly flesh out his or her characters and delve into a truly multi-dimensional story with multi-dimensional characters.
SWEET PRAIRIE PASSION, (l - r): Original 1983 edition, 1996 Zebra re-issue, 2012 Kindle edition, 2015 trade paperback Print on Demand edition
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