Our new Writer-in-Residence is local author Jessica Strawser and her first guest on the Inside the Writer’s Head podcast is Jess Montgomery Montgomery is the author of THE WIDOWS (Minotaur Books), a new historical mystery set in the 1920s, in which two women work together to solve a tragic murder and save their community. On the podcast, they discuss writing, storytelling, and writing history specifically. Loosely inspired by the true story of Ohio’s first female sheriff in 1925, Montgomery’s novel is set in Southeast Ohio’s Appalachian foothills and depicts coal mining, Prohibition, workers’ rights, women’s rights, and other issues that still resonate today. Early chapters of the novel earned Jess an Ohio Arts Council Individual Artist Award and the John E. Nance Writer in Residence at Thurber House in Columbus. She is already at work on the second book in the series, The Hollows, forthcoming in 2020. Listen in for some great insight!
Our 2019 Writer-in-Residence, Jessica Strawser, is no stranger to the writing community—whether on the national stage, through her work as editor-at-large for Writer’s Digest, or in her own Cincinnati backyard, where she has set much of her fiction.
A graduate of Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Strawser has been both writer and editor for her entire career, so brings to the position perspectives from both sides of the desk. Local readers might know her for her domestic suspense novels: The book club favorite Almost Missed You, bestselling Not That I Could Tell, and her latest, Forget You Know Me, released just this month (all from St. Martin’s Press). The mother of two lives with her family in Loveland.
In the year ahead, she’ll be sharing insights from her time as WIR here on the blog. But first, a Q&A, by way of introduction:
Why did you want to be the Writer-in-Residence for the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County?
This role combines so many of the passions that have fueled my literary career: outreach to fellow writers, real-life interactions with readers, and a chance to give back to the library community, which has enriched my mind and spirit since childhood. It’s an honor as well as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’m humbled and thrilled to have been selected.
What are some of your goals as the Library’s Writer-in-residence?
With my background at the helm of Writer’s Digest, which has been North America’s leading publication for writers since 1920, I’m bringing something unique to the program in the sheer scope of my experience working directly with aspiring and emerging writers across genres. I’m excited to take what I’ve learned on that national platform and share it with the writers and right here in my own backyard.
Likewise, readers and book clubs all over Cincinnati have so warmly received my novels, particularly with Almost Missed You and Forget You Know Me both set here in town, and Not That I Could Tell set nearby in Yellow Springs. I’ve loved my many visits with local reading circles, whether in cozy kitchens or wine bars or library reading rooms, and look forward to the chance to connect with even more of them through this program.
What advice would you give a writer who is just starting out, or one that is feeling discouraged?
In starting out, give yourself permission to take your writing seriously—even if no one around you seems to. Carve out the time and the space in your life; it isn’t easy, but it is worth it. And when the doubts and frustrations creep in, hold tight to what you loved about the craft in the first place. That is what will help you persevere.
What do you love most about being an author? What’s the most challenging thing about it?
There’s not much in the writerly life that beats the high of a good writing day, when the words are flowing and the pieces of the story you’ve been puzzling together start to fall at last into place. The biggest challenge, I think, is how lonely the work can sometimes be, particularly when it isn’t going quite so well.
Why do you think the Cincinnati writing community is unique?
Having been a staff writer and editor for various locally based publishing venues in addition to my authorial work, I know how few degrees of separation there seem to be between virtually anyone with a similar job title in town. Beyond those close-knit circles, we’re fortunate to have thriving independent bookstores, first-class libraries, and the annual Books by the Banks festival bringing a steady stream of visiting authors; those literary experiences are here and accessible for most anyone who wants them.
Which fictional book character would be the worst to meet in real life?
What an impossible question—fiction is full of characters who I can only hope are worse than anyone I’d actually encounter! And my answer will likely reflect the fact that I don’t read much in the horror genre. The husband in B.A. Paris’s Behind Closed Doors was one of the most disturbing, soulless psychopaths I’ve ever read. And who would want to cross paths with Amazing Amy from Gone Girl? There’s no escaping her.
To you, what’s a good piece of writing?
In the simplest terms, a good piece of writing pulls you in with a unique voice or hook, and compels you to keep reading until the end. Whenever something reads effortlessly, I can appreciate that it very likely required a great deal of effort and skill to get it there.
What are you currently reading, and would you recommend it?
I’m reading fellow Cincinnati novelist Leah Stewart’s latest, What You Don’t Know About Charlie Outlaw. I’ve read all of her previous novels, and this premise might be my favorite of all—I can’t wait to see how it ends.
When do you call it quits on being a paid writer?
What is your favorite exercise for overcoming rejection?
What do you do with “nibbles” but nonetheless rejected?
I sent my query letter to 60+ literary agents (following all their requirements as specified on their websites). No one asked me to send them the manuscript for consideration. Apparently no one liked my concept/plot. What do you suggest next?
Besides drinking hemlock? Just kidding, of course.
The above are questions written by participants in my September workshop and boy, do they touch the core of my heart. Rejection—every writer’s favorite topic. And one we can never escape. It’s part of the job! our friends remind us bracingly. Never stop sending your novel out! Never give up! Stephen King got 80 rejections! J.K. Rowling got 24,837! Tolkien got 3,626,304,726!
It’s a little hard to take, sometimes. I myself have a novel out on submissions at this very moment and I’ve received not one, not two, not three but four rejections so far, all from major editors, all carefully crafted and all identifying different areas of my work that really are just not quite right. One thinks the tone is spot-on, but she’s not had success with horse books recently. One just bought a horse book and can’t buy another. One thinks the tone is off. One thinks the protagonist is treacly. One thinks the protagonist is too angry.
“What it’s like,” I explained to my future sister-in-law recently, “is receiving a bad performance review at your job—but every two weeks. All year. Every single year. Each of these bad performance reviews will be different, mind. Each will identify a different area in which you need to improve. And you will read one, and digest it, and pep talk your way through it and resolve to stay strong. And then, just when you’re climbing out of your hellhole—bam! Another one will pop up in your in-box. And you’ll start all over. Did I mention that’s forever?”
Writerly rejection is, of course, part of the game. It goes with the territory. There’s no magic bullet. Just fill in your own cliché here. The best I can offer is that it’s here, it sucks, and it’s universal. Take some cold comfort in that. And know that your writer friends will commiserate endlessly—because they’re going through it too.
Today, I started a new project. Folks, it was hard. The bells of self-doubt were pealing in my mind. Self-loathing was knocking at the door. “Who the hell do you think you are, calling yourself a writer?” asked a scornful voice in my head. “Go back to kitchen and make me some lunch. That’s what you’re good for.”
Needless to say, I tried to ignore those voices. I tried to think about what I really wanted to write, what I really wanted to say. This is hard for me since after writing many years of commissioned stories, I have trouble figuring out what I want to say. I wanted to talk about girls and horses and fear and awkwardness and by God, I tried to do that.
In the spirit of forging ahead, here’s another chunk of our March 24 writer’s workshop, Killing the Mystery.
Don’t let those voices beat you down. Keep writing.
Setting: The Most Fun Ever
I freaking love setting. All of my favorite books are way overly-descriptive. Setting is the physical world that you create for your character—where they go, where they live, the food they eat, the books they read. I like a more limited setting myself, in which the characters inhabit a limited place, but your setting can be an entire world or multiple countries, of course. If you’re just starting out writing, my recommendation is that you consider limiting your setting. Better to do something small and do it really well, than try for big and leave it sketchy.
Setting Should Help You
Your setting should be a place you can picture so vividly that you’ll have no trouble showing that picture to your reader. You also should consider your setting to be a place that will further your plot. Setting should provide lots of opportunities for your protagonist to move around, get into trouble, meet other people. And don’t afraid to mine your own life. Where you been and lived that is interesting? It doesn’t have to be Istanbul—it can be your dorm room at the University of Michigan, 1968. What kind of posters did you have up? What did the music sound like that year and where did you hear it? What did the trays in the dining hall look like?
For instance, when I set out to write a psychological YA thriller that was eventually published as Never Let You Go, I knew starting out a few things I wanted for my setting. I wanted it to be mostly rural, because I love the outdoors and I’m most comfortable in a more natural setting. Urban would be hard for me. At time, I was working on two different farms, both of which fascinated me. It occurred to me—because I knew I was writing a scary book, that farm would be a great, potentially scary place. And this is where you get into manipulating your setting to suit your story. I needed a place I loved to be and a place with lots of potential for scary. A farm was both – people could move around freely, go in and out of buildings undetected, strangers could enter and leave with no one seeing them, there was lots of empty space with many hiding places, there were animals, there were potentially scary tools like hatchets and hooks and chains and old cultivators.
And don’t be afraid of grit and grimness or dullness. Let us see it, if your character is in a horribly dull place, like the post office. Make us feel how horribly dull it is. Let us see the flickering florescent lights and those corners of the linoleum that are never cleaned, where the stick dirt piles up. Take us with you.