Sunday, May 04, 2008

One Writer's Process: Kathleen Ernst

History comes alive in the hands of Kathleen Ernst, the author of more than a dozen novels, including Hearts of Stone (Dutton, 2006), set in Tennessee during the Civil War, and her newest novel, The Runaway Friend, an American Girl Mystery, which takes place on the Minnesota frontier in 1854.

It was Ernst's love of history that led her to her first job after college at a living history museum in Wisconsin called Old World Wisconsin. Ernst says it was “the best training ground for an historical writer imaginable.”

While working at Old World Wisconsin, Ernst began to write historical fiction as a hobby. Soon her “hobby” grew into her first published novel, The Night Riders of Harpers Ferry, and then to a second, Retreat from Gettysburg, which received praise from School Library Journal for the way Ernst “masterfully combined factual events with a powerful plot,” as well as for her exemplary “research and attention to detail.”

Ernst admits she may take many years to research, write, and revise her novels.

“Some authors need to know exactly what is going to happen in their novels before they start writing,” says Ernst. “I can’t work that way. I start with a general idea and wade in.”

Both approaches, Ernst admits, have advantages and disadvantages.

“Sometimes outliners are reluctant to make changes because they have such a clear vision in their minds,” she says. “And waders like me sometimes end up writing themselves into a corner and have to delete sections that don’t work.”

Ernst relies on her friends in a monthly writing group, which she has participated in for more than a decade, to let her know when her work needs further revision, and she, in turn, helps them.

Recently, she was kind enough to take a moment to share her thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer.

Wordswimmer: If writing is like do you get into the water each day?

Ernst: Swimming is an interesting analogy because I've always described myself as a "wader." I do not outline. I've tried. Can't do it. Instead, I start with an image and wade right in. I've written entire novels (including mysteries) that way, never knowing exactly where I'm going. But for me that works.

Once a novel is underway I get into the water each day by reading and revising what I wrote the day before. That usually gets me going.

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?

Ernst: For the most part--passion! I love watching stories unfold, learning what happens. And as I tell my students, writers must enjoy the process. No, not every minute--we all have bad spots. But sometimes I meet people who hate writing but love the idea of holding their first book in their hands. That's a hard path to travel.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Ernst: I have a couple of tricks. I rarely get really stuck, but if I do, I get up and do something else. Sitting and staring at the computer screen doesn't help anything! I do laundry, go for a walk, run errands. Usually whatever problem I'm having continues to percolate on the back burner of my mind. The answer to whatever I've been struggling with will ultimately pop into my brain. Letting go, giving a project over to my subconscious, is part of the creative process.

Also, because I write historical fiction almost exclusively, I can turn back to research when I hit a dry spell. Usually by digging deeper, I come across some "aha" moment: Oh, that's what my character needs to do next!

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Ernst: For many years I wrote as a hobby. Now that I'm selling novels, I sometimes sign a contract for an unwritten book. When I'm getting started, that often causes a few moments of panic when I can't think of anything and can feel the deadline looming. My strategy--and this would work anytime--is to remind myself not to worry about writing the whole book. All I have to do is write the first sentence. That leads to the first scene, and the first chapter. Someone very smart (I think it was Doctorow) once said, "Writing a novel is like driving at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." That describes my process pretty well.

Also, it can be difficult to keep a novel focused when days get so busy with the business of writing--correspondence, phone calls, updating my website, writing teacher guides to accompany my novels, etc. For the past couple of years I've been taking occasional week-long retreats, where I hole up somewhere and simply write. I often work 12-15 hours a day, and make amazing progress that way.

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Ernst: I've been learning patience. My recent book, Hearts of Stone, took eight years to sell, with many revisions along the way. My best work often comes after years of writing, letting it rest, returning to it, letting it rest again. Taking a break from a manuscript draft--and I mean a break of at least several months--helps me come back to it with a fresh eye.

Also, I don't always swim alone. I have a few trusted writer-friends who critique my work before I send it out. We've been working together for years. They know me, and we speak the same language. They find problems I miss without ever trying to change my work into something it's not. Then, when it's the best I can make it, my agent usually has more suggestions.

Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?

Ernst: Hmmn, hard call! I love traveling to do research. I love meeting readers at libraries and schools--especially kids, who get so excited about books and writing! And I also truly love the process of discovering a story. I never have to drag myself to the keyboard; my problem is usually dragging myself away to cook supper.

For more information about Kathleen Ernst, visit her website:

And to read more interviews with Kathleen, visit:

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