“‘Mirrors and Smoke’ is Canada’s ‘Gone With the Wind.'”
–P. R. Isfeld (me)
Full disclosure: Adrienne Stevenson and I are both members of PaperBackWriters, a small-but-mighty critique group, so I have had the honour of seeing Mirrors and Smoke, her sweeping novel of the War of 1812, take shape over the last seven years. Its main character, Rebecca, is a heroine to rival any in literature, and deserves the same attention as her American cousin, Scarlett O’Hara, who also struggles to keep her family together in the face of war and upheaval. Although I don’t normally read much historical fiction, Mirrors and Smoke is compelling regardless of genre preference.
With all of this in mind, I asked Adrienne to answer a few questions about the genesis of her book, her path to publication, and her advice to other writers.
Q. Can you tell me about your book, where you got the idea, how it came about?
A. “Mirrors & Smoke” emerged from many years of family history research, which led me into more general examination of Upper Canada (1792-1841), now the province of Ontario. I was drawn to the circumstances and events of this part of Canadian history. When I was in school, we were exposed to very little Canadian history, so I was curious. Was our history really so dull or unimportant? Of course not, but the mindset of our education system 50 years ago was predominantly European and dealt with North America mainly in the context of the “explorers”.
Many of my father’s ancestors had arrived in Upper Canada, some directly from the British Isles and some as Loyalists after the American Revolution. At first, I thought to write the romance of one couple, and wrote a novella during the 3-day novel competition in 2012. I planned to work it up to novel length, but was unable to sustain their story. I asked myself if I had the right focus, the right protagonist. But I still wanted to write about that period, which encompassed the War of 1812.
After a lot of thought, additional writing, and some time away from the work, I decided I was too close to the subjects. I needed a protagonist at a little distance from them, who could have their own story and observe those of my direct ancestors. Lucky me, there was an ideal candidate, and one who I could mold to fit my needs. Rebecca Plummer was a distant cousin, of whom nothing was known but vital statistics. She was intimately involved with my family, although not a direct ancestor. She was a blank page begging to be written on.
It took me nearly 10 years to complete the novel. My writing focus was divided between fiction and poetry, with poetry at the forefront, but I never entirely abandoned Rebecca. Gradually, her story unfolded, interwoven with others as I had imagined.
Q. What was your path to self-publishing, i.e. what other things did you explore?
A. I attempted to locate a traditional publisher for my book, but after nearly a year of querying agents and small publishers I had no success. This is not necessarily to discourage others—my age had something to do with my abandoning the traditional route. After more than 10 years working on the book, I had told myself I would see it in print before I turned 70. I should note that before querying I had extensively workshopped the manuscript, and had it professionally edited, both of which I believe crucial for any book.
Even knowing I would have to shoulder all of the marketing for my novel, I decided to go minimalist. Nowadays, most traditional publishers lean heavily on writers to do marketing for their books, and I was unwilling to pay $5-10,000 up-front to a hybrid publisher, for questionable results. (It’s very hard to distinguish hybrid from vanity publishers, since they typically offer a fixed package that includes many things you don’t need along with what you do.) I chose to find my own web-site developer (via Reedsy), editor (word-of-mouth) and book designer (local writing colleague), all at reasonable prices. I chose to have print-on-demand paperback and e-book at Amazon, e-book on Kobo, and paperback distribution via Ingram Spark. At this point in my career, I did not choose hardcover, though I could later.
Q. Any advice for those of us following in your footsteps, i.e. in writing, looking for a publisher, and then self-publishing?wr
A. Writing is such an individual pursuit. What works for one writer may not suit another. While daily writing practice is an admirable goal, writers shouldn’t beat themselves up if they can’t manage it. But it’s important not to let things slip away through neglect. If over a week goes by without writing anything, I ask myself why. Legitimate reasons include illness or absence or family needs—we all have lives and demands on our time outside of writing. I do try to get back in the groove as soon as possible, whether it’s writing a poem, a story, a letter about an issue, or work on my current novel. As well, there’s a lot of time required in writing-related activities, including editing, submitting, and—my nemesis—marketing. Don’t forget critique groups, educational workshops, writers group meetings. All these count towards your writing life, and there’s so much to learn about writing as a business, which ultimately it is.
Web presence is compulsory. I’m here. Get yourself set up early—preparation for publication is part of the business. Another essential is joining writing organizations. General ones include the Canadian Authors Association and the Creative Academy for Writers. More specifically, I joined the Historical Novel Society. These offer networking possibilities invaluable to your growth as a writer. I have found other writers very generous with their time and guidance. And reciprocation is a must.
Once you’ve written and workshopped a book-length project—novel, creative non-fiction, poetry collection—it’s time to start thinking about publication. I strongly recommend hiring a professional editor, not least because they have no vested interest in your work. If you can’t find one by word-of-mouth, Reedsy is a good place to look. Once edited, you need to write a basic query letter and one-page synopsis (your editor may be able to help polish those, too). Next you start querying, locating agents who are seeking books like yours, and tailor your queries to them. Only agents have access to the big publishing houses. I simultaneously queried small publishers of historical fiction. Traditional publishers have very few spots on their list for new writers, so much luck is needed as well as good work. Only books they consider money-makers will be picked up.
Self-publishing is relatively easy. Marketing isn’t, as I’m still learning. But it can take years to get the attention of a big publisher, or even a small one. The important thing is not to give up, and to back yourself if nobody else will.