I love learning about all things medieval, especially because I have a novel in the works set in early medieval times of 510 A.D. When I heard of Joyce DiPastena and her deep knowledge of medieval history, I was intrigued. She is not only a well-read (and humble) expert of that time period, but also a novelist. I think you’ll enjoy her thoughts!
C.S.: Joyce, thanks for visiting. Let’s start first about your work as a writer. When did you first know you wanted to be an author, especially of historical fiction?
JOYCE: I first started “dabbling” in writing historical fiction in high school, but I never thought of myself as wanting to be “an author”. I worshipped “authors”, and viewed them as creatures so far above me, that I would have viewed it as the highest form of impertinence to think I could aspire to join so elect a “club” of beings.
So, as I said, I viewed myself merely as a “dabbler” in the written word. After a number of false starts on stories I began but never finished, I finally began a story in college that captivated my interest enough to carry me through all the way to the words, “The End”. It came as rather a shock to me to realize that, at the end of the process, I had a serious novel-length story on my hands. Gradually I hesitantly started the process of shopping it around to editors and agents. I received a number of encouraging responses to that book, but it never quite made it over the line into consideration for publication.
I was disappointed then, but today I admit, I’m glad I didn’t find a publisher. My writing skills have improved light years since those long ago college days. Had my story been published then, I might have been content to rest on my laurels and never have developed into the much improved writer that I am today. And to be honest, I still have trouble with the title “author” being applied to me. I really am much more comfortable simply viewing myself as a “writer”.
C.S.: What is your process of brainstorming a story? Do you just sit down and write, waiting to see what happens next? Or do you outline first?
JOYCE: I’ve tried outlining my stories ahead of time, but I never stick to my outline, so I guess I’m more of a “sit down and write and wait to see what happens” kind of writer. I do start out with some ideas, of course, and a few main characters in mind, and I have a general idea of where I want the story to end up, but I don’t know exactly how I’m going to get there when I start writing. Usually, by the end of a writing session, some ideas for “where to go next” will have occurred to me. I type those notes in CAPS at the end of wherever my stopping point was that day, and that helps me to know where to pick up when I start writing again.
C.S.: Do you ever experience a snag in a story, a form of writer’s block? If so, how do you deal with it?
JOYCE: For “small” snags in a story, where I just can’t quite figure out how to get my characters from Point A to Point B, I’ve learned that instead of banging my head against a wall that I just can’t move, the answer is not to move the wall, but to go around the wall. In other words, if X won’t work, then try Y instead. I literally say to myself, “This isn’t working. It’s time to try something else to get where I want to go.” It took me a long time and a lot of useless head banging before I learned this lesson, but “going around it”, “doing something else” usually solves the problem.
C.S.: Do you need absolute quiet to write? Do you listen to music when you are writing?
JOYCE: I need absolute quiet to write. Apparently there’s just enough of the “musician” in me that if I have music playing in the background, I find my attention split between trying to write and trying to listen to the musical theme or words being played or sung in the background. So no, I can’t listen to music (or anything else but my brain) when I write.
C.S.: What kinds of inspiration do you use during your story creation periods?
JOYCE: Sometimes I find inspiration in other novels that I read. I may find a character in a book that stirs my interest, either positively or negatively, and I find myself thinking, “If I were to write a story about this character, what would I do differently?”
For example, shortly before I began that first book I wrote back in college, I read a Regency romance book where the hero was a total jerk and a bully, then completely inexplicably in the last few pages, suddenly changed his ways due to “the love of a good woman”. I was so completely infuriated that I took that “hero” and turned him into the “villain” of my first book. It wasn’t plagiarism. I changed his name, I planted him in the Middle Ages instead of the Regency period, I turned him into a powerfully important political figure for the time who just happened to want to marry my heroine for her inheritance. Although I patterned many of his character traits on that bullying Regency “hero”, he definitely evolved into his own “person” as my story progressed.
Now that I have a few additional stories under my belt, I’ll often find myself intrigued by a secondary character I’ve created and want to know what happens to him after I type “The End” on my current hero and heroine. So I’ll start another story to find out the answer.
I guess you could say that most of my “inspiration” is character-oriented, rather than event-oriented.
C.S.: What, then, was the pathway like for you to get your most recent book published?
JOYCE: The pathway? How far back to you want me to go? My recently published book, Loyalty’s Web, is actually the third book in my medieval “series” that began back in college (though I wrote Loyalty’s Web itself long after college). It’s been through many, many different drafts since I wrote the original version.
I had a few close calls with it in the national market. An editor at Bantam said she loved it and wanted to publish it, but before we could move to the contract stage, Bantam merged with another publishing house. As a result, all the Bantam editors, including mine, were let go, and the new editors felt differently about my novel and dropped it like a stone. (Okay, let’s just say it felt that way to me.)
I had an agent actually telephone me to tell me how much she loved the story, but said she didn’t know how to market it, because “It had too much plot to be a romance, and not enough pageantry to be an historical”. To this day, I don’t know what she meant by the “pageantry” line. She did add, however, that if I would add just one sex scene, even a short one, she thought she might be able to sell it. That was a non-starter for me, so I took my book, sans sex scene, back to square one.
Later, after several proddings by friends, I tried submitting it to an LDS publisher, but of course, was turned down due to lack of LDS content. LDS “standards” were insufficient, but of course it was impossible to impose an LDS theme on a book set in the Middle Ages, centuries before the Restoration of the Gospel, in any sort of a believable manner and still retain the historical integrity of the book I had written. So again, that project came to naught. Thus my book continued to lay neglected in my drawer (or, to be more accurate, on a computer disk) for several more years.
Then in 2007, I decided to test the waters with my book on my own by self-publishing it through a print-on-demand program. Shortly thereafter, I learned about the Whitney Awards, and on a lark, rounded up enough friends who had read my book to nominate it for a Whitney. I was floored in early 2008 to learn that Loyalty’s Web had actually finaled in the Women’s/Romance category. Loyalty’s Web didn’t win the award, but it attracted the attention of an editor at Leatherwood Press, a small publishing company in Sandy, Utah, who was open to looking at fiction that adhered to LDS standards, without actually containing any LDS content. The editor contacted me and asked me to send her a copy of Loyalty’s Web. I did so, the company picked it up and republished it in October 2008.
And that was the very long and convoluted pathway to publishing my first novel!
C.S.: An excellent path indeed. Readers may nominate many books, but it is a committee of professionals that make the final Whitney selections. So you can know you’ve done well! Now, on to one of my favorite subjects. You have been called an expert in medieval history. Tell us about this.
JOYCE: I wish you could hear my hysterical laughter every time someone says this about me! I am NOT an “expert” in medieval history. I simply have a lot of books on the Middle Ages and I know how to look things up.
Here’s a secret: A good index is a researcher’s best friend. If a book has a good index, you can zero in on all kinds of specialized information for your particular novel, without having to read an entire research book from cover to cover. Not that I’m discouraging the reading of research books. There are often fascinating bits of information tucked away in the pages that escaped the index, so don’t short change yourself there.
But here’s another hint: Don’t be afraid to make notes in the margins of your research books when you read them, so you can look back quickly to “rediscover” desired information, rather than having to re-read books over and over trying to track down information you’ve forgotten. Because I promise you, unless you’ve got a better memory than mine, it is impossible to remember every bit of research you’ve ever read and have it at your fingertips for every book you will ever write.
In my opinion, knowing how to look things up and incorporate what you learn naturally into your novels is more important than having a photographic memory of everything you’ve ever read.
C.S.: Have you ever been discouraged as a writer? If so, how did you deal with it?
JOYCE: Yes, I’ve frequently been discouraged with my writing, and I often haven’t dealt with it very well. I’ve stuck many a writing project away, swearing, “That’s it! I’m never going to write again!” But somehow, I always come back to it eventually. I honestly can only assume that, for whatever His own reasons, the Lord planted in me a desire to write, because I certainly never grew up thinking I wanted to be an author. It’s just something I kind of evolved into, without a lot of conscious thought as to where I was headed. And though I may bury my writing away for awhile, especially during periods of great stress, eventually the Lord seems to lead me back to it.
In many respects, I still feel like I’m evolving, not only with my talent, but with my faith in walking a path I can rarely see clearly, but which the Lord seems to continue to lead me along…often in spite of myself!
C.S.: What words of advice do you have for other writers who desire to have their manuscripts become books in print?
JOYCE: I may not be the best person to ask that question, because in all honesty, writing a story I love has always been more important to me than publishing. Don’t get me wrong, I always wanted to publish, too. I think every writer feels that undeniable “tug” that makes them want to share their words with others. But if the choice is between writing and publishing something I’m not enthused about just to see my name in print, or not writing the story I love because it might never be published, I’m afraid I’m just enough of a dreamer to stick with the story I love.
However, if there are any writers out there inclined to follow my example, I’d urge them to nevertheless write the very best story they can, with the very best writing techniques they can learn, and polish it up even if they think no one will ever see it but themselves. Because you just never know, you might eventually luck into a publisher that shares your vision for your book, like I did with Leatherwood Press. This would never have happened if I’d allowed myself sloppy writing, no matter how much I loved my story.
C.S.: Fascinating. Who has made the greatest difference for you as a writer?
JOYCE: It’s hard to pin down just one person. My mother always supported and encouraged me when my odd quirk-of-a-desire-to-write seemed to come out of nowhere. My college history professor, Dr. Thomas Parker, fed my love for the Middle Ages, which subsequently became so central to my writing. Regency author Georgette Heyer influenced me heavily in my early writings, as did an author named D.V.S. Jackson, who wrote a novel called Walk with Peril about Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt.
The editor at Bantam I mentioned earlier gave me a huge boost of confidence when she wanted to publish Loyalty’s Web. Her words: “You know I think you’re publishable” still ring in my ears as the first such words ever spoken to me by a “professional”. She gave me hope that I wasn’t just wasting my time, that maybe I really did have talent, and helped build up my faith to keep trying.
C.S.: Do you use a critique group during the writing process? Why or why not?
JOYCE: I don’t have anyone critique my manuscript until I consider myself very close to the final draft. The main reason for this is that, while I’d love to have other writers to brainstorm my novels with, I don’t live near any writing groups, and it’s difficult to brainstorm over the internet with people who are unfamiliar with what I’m currently writing. And I don’t want to wear people out with my story before I feel I have a fairly polished product, because I know how limited time is for everyone these days, and I don’t want to keep imposing on people over and over again with the same project.
So while I wish I had someone to share my writing process with “along the way”, that just hasn’t been a practical option for me. Thankfully, I belong to a wonderful writing group called ANWA (American Night Writers Association), an amazing group of LDS women writers who are always willing to help me out with critiques as I near the end of my writing projects.
C.S.: Any final words you would like to share?
JOYCE: Never give up. Don’t set yourselves deadlines for publication. That’s like saying you can control the publishing world and make them adapt to your timetable, and that’s something you simply don’t have power over. Some writers are lucky. They write and publish early in their careers. It took me over 20 years to publish my first novel. If I’d set myself the kind of deadlines I sometimes hear other writers setting for themselves, I’d have given up long ago.
We all want to be published, but ask yourself: Am I writing to be published, or am I writing because I love to write? If you write for the love of writing, I believe the rest will take care of itself. “In the Lord’s due time, when He knows it’s best for us”, he’ll turn that corner for us.
C.S.: Wise words indeed, Joyce. Where can our readers go to find your books and order them?
JOYCE: Loyalty’s Web is currently available in Deseret Bookstores, as well as in many independent LDS bookstores. It can also be ordered at DeseretBook.com and Amazon.com.