“If you want something done,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “ask a busy person.” Unquestionably, the venerable statesman would apply this definition to Velda Brotherton, a whirling dervish author who – now in her seventh decade – shows no signs of setting aside her pen or moving away from her keyboard. If the books she has published to date are any indication of her prolific imagination, we’re in for a gloriously long ride with characters she is unabashedly pleased to bring to life. And hey, who among us can’t relate to her crush on Tom Selleck?
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
What ignited your passion for writing and what were the first steps you took toward that journey?
I wrote a lot when I was a young mother, but then as my children began to need more of my time and I went to work full time as well, I put away my novels and short stories. Then we moved to the Ozarks and I began to work with a Craft Outlet. They asked me if I would interview crafters and write a weekly column for three small newspapers. That reignited that lost love, and I began to write fiction again. It really took off when a young woman came into the shop while I was there and began to talk about her writing. We hooked up, spent one day a week working on our books and I realized that I might have something going for me. I’ve been at it ever since, 28 years.
Did you have a day-job prior to or while you were pursuing a career as a writer? What was it and were there any aspects of that employment which proved helpful in seeing the fictional world through different eyes?
While I was young I worked for a temp agency and one of my assignments was in New York City where I worked for the American Cancer Society. My boss was gone a lot, leaving me with idle time where I had to be present but with little to do but answer the phone. I began to write a novel there and learned that several people were also writing. We would get together and compare notes. I also saw the world through different eyes when we moved from Kansas to New York. I learned not to take what people said at face value, but to experience and see for myself. People there were nothing like what we heard living in the Heartland!
Some of the best writers are individuals who were voracious readers throughout their adolescence and into adulthood. Was that the case with you and, if so, what are some of the titles and authors that particularly resonated with you?
Funny story. My mother read a lot, and some of the books were considered, well today we’d call them MA. She’d hide what she was reading in her closet. My brother and I found one of the books and we read it. Of course, giggling at the sex and language, which I’m sure now would be PG. I wish I could remember the name of that book, but that kicked off my love of reading and I checked out books from the library at school every week. I remember reading The Robe and being enthralled. While working in NYC I took the train and subway everyday, and read Anna Karenina and loved it.
Did you have mentors who helped guide your career or did you embrace a DIY approach in learning the craft and navigating commercial publishing waters?
I’ve had a lot of supporters during my career, but it’s been mostly DIY as far as learning the craft itself. One friend is responsible for pushing me into pitching my first novel to an editor, and it later earned my first contract with Topaz through that editor. That sort of support has been invaluable to me, but I go my own way with the craft itself.
How does today’s publishing differ from when you first published?
It might as well be a million miles apart. Today I publish with small publishers and I know the editors personally, spend time on three-ways with cover designer and my editor, and become friends with them.
When I was with Topaz I had a marvelous editor, but she had no idea about western writing at all, so I had to educate her to the lingo. There was a wide gap between me and them, though. I had no say in my covers. However, in the beginning they did a lot of promotion and ran large ads for our books and the distribution was wide. Of course, today’s distribution is worldwide and as long as we put in hours on promotion, sales will happen. The biggest difference is advances and royalties. Without advances – such as we had with New York publishers – we have to rely on royalties for a paycheck and we never know what that will be.
To that end, what do you know now that you wished you had known at the start?
Patience and I learned not to take stuff personally. Especially rejection.
Tell us about Stone Heart’s Woman and your inspiration for its plots and characters.
I read a book called Cheyenne Autumn written by Mari Sandoz in 1953. She interviewed many of the people involved in this story of the Northern Cheyenne’s final break from the reservation to go home to the land of the Yellowstone. Many were still alive then. Their stories stuck with me and I couldn’t get them out of my mind.
When that happens to a fiction writer, the solution is usually to write a book, and so I created my characters and dropped them into the situation of that final breakout. It took me several years of working off and on before I had this book the way I wanted it – with just the right mix of history and a love story. I consider it not so much a romance as a cultural love story set amidst a tragic time in both the history of the whites and the American Indians. By the way, most prefer to be called that, rather than Native Americans.
How does the history of the time period you research affect your characters and story?
The effect is enormous. My heroine must live and love in the way of the time. The language must be carefully studied so words that weren’t in use don’t crop up. The hero, though he has to treat her properly for a romance, is influenced by the way men were then. Clothing, ideals, morals of the day have to be considered.
How much creative license do you take when you place your heroines and heroes against a historical backdrop?
My only creative license happens when I use real characters. I study as much as I can find about them, but can’t possibly know how they might think or talk. In Stone Heart’s Woman, Libby Custer plays a part in the story offstage. She writes a letter that impacts the final scene of the book. I knew only that Libby spent her lifetime trying to improve the reputation of her husband, George Armstrong Custer, so I used that knowledge to formulate the letter. Of course, she never wrote any such letter, so that’s creative license.
You have a new series – The Victorians – coming out in time for holiday reading. Tell us about it.
Wilda’s Outlaw is the first of the series from The Wild Rose Press. They have decided to issue the ebook to Kindle on December 5th free for five days, then $2.99 until the print book comes out February 13th. This story is a lot lighter than my previous book with them. It’s set in Victoria, Kansas where the English actually brought England with them to build the town and eschewed becoming Western or American. Two sisters and their younger cousin journey for a year to join Lord Blair Prescott who is bound to marry Wilda and become a guardian to the other two until they marry. She finds she can’t stand his Lordship and arranges with a young, handsome outlaw to be kidnapped so she won’t have to go through with the wedding. There are good reasons she can’t simply say no.
I plan two more books involving the other two women, then hope to link the final one to Victoria, Texas where I’ll continue the series.
Who is your favorite character in your books and why?
That’s almost as hard as picking a favorite child or grandchild! But I do like Allie Caine, the photographer in Images In Scarlet. She is strong, willful, intelligent and stubborn. She sets out to travel to Santa Fe in her late father’s “what’s it” wagon, taking pictures along the way to pay her expenses.
Might we find aspects of your own personality in your fictional casts?
Of course. I don’t think we writers can avoid sticking bits and pieces of ourselves in our books. My first serious novel, which has never been published, probably picked me up as a whole and set me down in the fictional story. I hope one day to do something more with that book, which earned me an agent early in my career. He never understood why he couldn’t sell the book, and neither did I.
As traditional publishing venues continue to downsize in the 21st century, it’s the midlist authors that have been abandoned and left to fend for themselves, a scenario that has prompted many of them to either pursue self-publishing routes or seek out the harbor of smaller houses that will welcome their talents. What was your own response when the midlist writers crisis hit?
Two or three days of moping, swearing I’d quit. The entire route. Left adrift when Topaz closed, I was unhappy with the house my agent sent me to for an additional two books. I finished up the last one and walked away. For a few years I worked with small regional publishers and did some nonfiction books. All the while I continued to write my books.
Then one day, at a conference, a friend came over to me and asked me if I’d pitched to the editor who was there from a small house. I said no, it hadn’t occurred to me. She told me that I should pitch one of the many fiction books I was sitting on, and so I did. That began my career with small publishers. They took Stone Heart’s Woman, another house took a paranormal I’d written and now I’ve approached yet another to take a mystery series. I feel like my career in fiction writing is back on track. I also converted the rights to my earlier books and published them all to Kindle, taking a few months off writing to learn how to do it myself.
What is your writing schedule these days and how do you stick to it?
Since the beginning I’ve written all afternoon six days a week. Now I’m so busy that every morning I handle emails and all requests there, then still write every afternoon six days a week. I’m never tempted to do anything else. Only doctor’s appointments or emergencies take me away from the schedule. I take a break at 3 p.m. and kick back in a recliner with a Pepsi Max, then at 3:15 I’m back in my office. I might as well have a boss.
Do you outline, take copious notes or just wing it?
I wing it, but do take a lot of notes as I write so I don’t forget stuff like eye color or minor characters’ names which I create as I go.
A lot of writers seek out critique groups for brainstorming and/or feedback. From your own experience, are these groups a help or a hindrance?
Since I’ve been a member and now co-chair of a critique group for over 20 years, I must think they are a help. Some can be a hindrance if they veer away from constructive critiquing. Some become a mutual admiration society. No help at all there. Others drift into gossiping or worse tearing down each other’s work. It all depends on those in charge whether things go well or not. Our motto is: Don’t put out the flame.
What’s your advice to new writers who are just starting out?
Persevere. Don’t give up unless you begin to hate what you’re doing. In that case do something else, but if you have a deep down love of writing and the voices won’t leave you alone, then you only have one choice. Don’t quit. Do it for the love of it, not that you imagine this romantic career with lots of fame and money.
What has writing meant to you in your life?
I tell my husband it keeps me off the streets. Truly, I can’t imagine a day without it. The dear friends I’ve made, the wonderful writers I’ve met, the conferences and yes, the parties, have all been such a joy in my life. I can’t imagine going through the days without sitting down at a keyboard and stepping into that fantasy world most of us writers live in a part of the time. Are we crazy? Well, yes, just enough to have a great deal of fun.
What are you currently reading?
Just finished Junk Yard Dogs by Craig Johnson and looking forward to another of his books, Hell Is Empty. Have read all of James Lee Burke’s books and waiting impatiently for his next one. I don’t read romances, I do enjoy writing them. I can’t explain that sufficiently.
What would most people be surprised to learn about you?
That I’m in love with Tom Selleck? No, that probably wouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me. That I enjoy watching schlock horror movies late at night. Once in a while.
What’s next on your plate?
Several more Victorian novels, hopefully a mystery series that’s with a publisher right now. Actually, I probably won’t live long enough to do everything. I want to self publish some women’s novels I haven’t sold, and hope to do that in 2013.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Yes, I feel that this is the best time for writers that has come along in years. Sure, things will have to sort themselves out. The bad stuff will have to drift away and the excellent come to the top like thick cream. What with so many small houses publishing excellent books and so many self-published writers making their great stuff available, times couldn’t be better for readers and writers.