I sat down on a cold January afternoon with Vicki Lane, a writer whose books are set in Western North Carolina, to talk about how she had accomplished so much exceptional work. Since 2005, she has published five books and captured a loyal following of fans while providing helpful writing information on her daily blog, teaching courses through the Great Smokies Writing Program, and helping her family run a farm a half-hour north of Asheville in Madison County. Vicki is an inspiration to writers of all ages, but for me, a sixty-something with more pages to write than those already written, she is a role model of major proportions.
My first question for her was about her journey: the steps along the way to becoming a successfully published author.
“I’ve always been a reader,” Vicki said.” In high school she won a creative writing prize, and then, after majoring in English in college, she began her working life as an English teacher, a position that lasted for nine years. In 1975, Vicki and her husband relocated from Florida to Madison County. In 1999, she and a friend wrote a book on quilting, which was published by Asheville-based Lark Books. In September 2000, both women signed up for a fiction writing course at a community college. When the teacher suggested to Vicki that she lacked the passion to be a writer, she took this as a challenge.
Vicki set out to write a mystery novel, which she hoped would be the first in a series. So she wrote, was critiqued by a group of other writers, and submitted her completed novel to over sixty agents, some of whom provided feedback that she used while revising the book. An agent offered representation and tried to sell the book but finally advised Vicki to shelve it and write a second one. This second attempt was bought by an editor at Random House and published by Dell Books in 2005. If anyone still questioned Vicki’s passion for being a writer, she had, in only five years, proved them patently wrong.
Her aim was not to pen the great American novel but to produce popular fiction that was also well-written. She credits the community college teacher with providing the fundamentals of plot, setting, characters, dialogue, etc., as well as stressing the importance of creating a good query letter to use in hunting for an agent.
And how, exactly, did the “hunt” play out? Vicki sent out numerous batches of twenty letters to appropriate targets selected from the publication titled Guide to Literary Agents. She was careful to write a top-drawer query letter, and she resisted submitting the queries until she had finished writing her novel. She emphasized the importance of submitting a completed, thoroughly proofed work of fiction, because an unfinished product would not be “worth the money” to an agent who might otherwise want to find you a publisher.
“Agents are like filters,” Vicki explained. “They save the publishers from having to wade through a lot of material that may not be ready for publication.”
Once Vicki had an agent in her corner, she was careful to read any feedback, positive and negative, that came from her, and to follow through on what she had suggested. Vicki told me that, during the process of re-working your first novel, you should have your second one underway. Many editors, especially in the mystery genre, expect a second book to be forthcoming.
Vicki’s first four books are all mysteries, with Elizabeth Goodweather, who lives on a farm in the Appalachian Mountains, as the protagonist. The latest novel, The Day of Small Things, is a departure from this formula. Vicki has taken a minor character from past books, Miss Birdie Gentry, and placed her at the heart of a novel that captures the reader on the first page. And this novel keeps the reader captive, to which I can attest, having spent several snowy days reading every word.
After that intense, and enjoyable, reading experience, I was eager to find out how the author developed a story line that encompasses such a variety of elements: suspense, the supernatural, a snake-handling fundamentalist sect, Cherokee lore, discrimination, and the dichotomy of the Great Depression versus the rapid mountain land development of recent years.
Vicki traced for me the source of some of these themes. The supernatural element derives partly from the proliferation of new age ideas in the Asheville area and has always interested her. The snake handlers’ churches are still found in the rural coves and mountainsides not far from Vicki’s farm. “I’ve attended revivals,” she said. “I am acquainted with Free Will Baptists and listen to local preachers on the radio to get a feel for the religious climate. In some form, this finds its way into my book.”
The Cherokee element includes a story about a family being driven out of the mountains along the “Trail of Tears,” which is as moving as it is believable. Vicki explained her deft hand at writing about the Cherokee: “I’ve researched the tribe and their history online and in books. I’ve also visited the nearby Cherokee museum and talked to people on the reservation to make sure I get it right.”
Yet another theme in the book is the suspicion of outsiders prevalent during the 1930’s, which impacts the life of Mr. Aaron, a Jewish peddler. I was curious about the source of Vicki’s inspiration for this sympathetic character. She knew, from her research, about the Jewish peddlers who immigrated to North Carolina during the early twentieth century and later became successful merchants in towns like Asheville. Mr. Aaron, like Birdie, has a previous history with Vicki’s readers, having appeared briefly in one of the Elizabeth Goodweather mysteries.
In The Day of Small Things, the sense of place, the two time periods (the 1930’s and the 2000’s), and the finely drawn characters add to the richness of plot that takes Birdie from a desolate younger life to present day. The desolation was born of the culture as well as circumstance and, of course, it was widespread in that era of hard times. In answer to my question about the omission of the word “Depression,” Vicki said, “Life in the rural North Carolina mountains had always been hard. In the ’30s, being poor was not very different from the life these folks had known. So the Depression wasn’t really an issue. ”
We also talked about the perfect-pitch dialect reflected in the voices of the book’s characters. I wondered if she had received any criticism about depictions of what some might consider to be stereotypical mountain speech.
“The characters in the book are of different ages,” she explained, “and they appear in different time periods. Naturally, the dialect is more pronounced in the older characters and in the past era than it is with younger ones in the present era. I think I capture the dialect because I’ve lived around these folks for over thirty years. Local people say they enjoy my use of the mountain dialect, and I’m conscious of trying to preserve it. If I get any complaints, and there aren’t many, it’s from those who live outside the region.”
Vicki’s most recent book, Under the Skin, comes out in October 2011 and is another Elizabeth Goodweather mystery. She’s already working on her next project, finishing up a proposal for her agent and editor on a novel that will be another departure from the Goodweather series.
As I was preparing for my interview with Vicki, I spent several hours perusing her visually attractive and writer-friendly website (www.vickilanemysteries.com). These days a writer doesn’t just write a book. She makes it a part of the social network. I asked her how she put together such an appealing online presence.
“A friend initially helped me get it up and running. Then I had a professional revamp it,” Vicki said. “Actually, there are two portions; the website part is fairly static. What changes is the blog, which I write and post pictures on daily. I’ve done this for the past several years. It keeps me current with my readers, and it’s just fun to do.”
Vicki gets close to two hundred hits a day on the site. Anyone wanting to know all about writing popular fiction and doing it successfully should go the FAQ (frequently asked questions) section of the website. In twenty plus pages, an aspiring writer can get a tutorial on writing, submitting to agents, working with editors, creating good plots and characters and much more.
Working “live” with Vicki is also possible. In July 2011, she will teach the Commercial Fiction Workshop at the Wildacres Writing Workshop in Little Switzerland, North Carolina. She is also a member of the faculty of The Great Smokies Writing Program of UNC Asheville, offering courses every fall and spring.
I was curious about Vicki’s desire to teach, given her full life of writing, farming, blogging and publicizing a new book. “I’m a good teacher,” she answered, “well-prepared and well-organized.” She added, “And I like to give something back as well as make some money.”
Her textbook of choice is Don’t Sabotage Your Submission by Chris Roerden, which she also uses as a checklist for her own work. Vicki calls the book a “nuts and bolts approach to fiction.” Her style of critique for students is “to advise, find the best in the submissions, give advice on how the writer can get better and not just be a cheerleader.”
As we finished talking, Vicki and I gazed out the window at a snow-covered meadow, dotted with barns and a meandering stream. I was reminded of the scenery that she so vividly describes in her books, and, perhaps sensing a dream forming in my own mind, she offered some final words of advice.
“Don’t quit your day job in the hopes of selling a book and watching the money roll in. That happens in very few instances. Finish writing your book—before you get a website, before you get your author’s photo taken. Finish the book and start the next one.
“There’s an overwhelming amount of writing and publishing information out there. Don’t try to read it all, don’t attend every conference and take every workshop. If you did, when would you have time to write your book?”