Welcome, and welcome back!
Today's author should be a familiar name to long-time readers of this column, as Arlene visited us last year and is the first returning author! But let's refresh our memories...
About a week before Arlene retired from a job in the healthcare field in December 2019, a coworker commented that she should do something from my bucket list. Arlene immediately replied that she would write a novel. She wondered why she had replied so quickly and with such conviction. Arlene considered college and a career in writing, but decided to go to nursing school instead. She hadn’t thought about writing a book since my adolescence, and didn't realize writing a novel was on her bucket list.
Beneath A Blanket Of Snow was her first novel. Due to the wonderful reviews from readers, she decided to keep writing. Arlene's second novel, If We Had Known, was released in April 2021, and she is working on a third novel for a 2022 release.
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
As an adolescent, I wanted to write, and I actually started a few pages of a book. I took some writing courses in high school and was considering going to college to study writing. I thought perhaps I’d work for a newspaper or magazine. But I had volunteered at a local hospital, and the work interested me. Ultimately, I went to nursing school instead.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? When did you write your first book and how old were you?
In December 2019, about a week before my retirement from a healthcare career of over 40 years, a coworker said I should start working on my bucket list. I immediately replied that I would write a novel. My response surprised me, because I hadn’t thought much about writing since high school. It got me thinking, as I wondered why I had given that response so quickly. Since I was going to have time on my hands (far more than I expected—due to COVID!) I decided to try writing a novel. I decided that if I wrote a book—even if it wasn’t good or I never published it—I could cross that item off of my bucket list. Ultimately I self-published. I was 63 years old.
Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?
I write fiction, but I have incorporated some of my feelings and experiences into my writing. When I wrote “Beneath A Blanket Of Snow” I drew on some of my emotions from a period of adversity in my own life. One of the characters considered drowning her sorrows in alcohol. I considered that too. Luckily for me, I decided not to open the bottle—and my character’s reaction echoed mine. When I wrote “If We Had Known” I realized how many times in my life I had said, “If only I had known what would happen…”
When I was younger, I thought I would fall at the first sign of adversity in my life. After surviving a divorce, single parenthood, and financial issues, I know differently now. That’s affected how my characters respond to adversity.
How many books have you written? Which is your favourite?
I followed “Beneath A Blanket Of Snow” with “If We Had Known”. I am proud of both books, but I suppose “Beneath A Blanket Of Snow” is my favorite because it was my first, and allowed me to call myself a writer and an author.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I am a perfectionist when I write, even during the first draft. Everything I have read about writing and editing says to just let the words flow, and edit them later. Although I do that, I generally read over what I have written and fix any obvious mistakes pretty quickly.
It’s said that first drafts, even from the best writers, are awful. I don’t feel that way about my writing.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
To my surprise, my mind doesn't always have control over the trajectory of the story. In “Beneath A Blanket Of Snow” the characters have secrets that their friends and spouses don’t know. But one of my characters actually knew of another’s secret—although I did not know this myself! When the character revealed the secret, my fingers typed the words, “I’ve known for five years.” I sat back and thought “Really? How could I not have known?”My character’s disclosure set the stage for other scenes in the book. It was totally unplanned!
I’ve spoken with other authors who have also experienced this—characters with their own agency, their own control. My friends who aren’t writers are always amazed when I relate this to them. It’s hard to fathom this happening if you haven’t experienced it yourself.
Do you like to create books for adults?
I like to write books about families. It’s not surprising, because that’s the type of stories I like to read. I also found that it’s what I’m best at writing.
I write what is in my mind and in my heart. I realize that other genres may be more popular now: fantasy or romance or young adult; but my heart isn’t into writing those at this time. I had an idea to write a series for teens and young adults. I finished the first story, but I wasn’t happy with it. I think my heart wasn’t into writing it. It might actually be decent, but I don’t feel enthusiastic about promoting it, or continuing the series. I’ll stick with what I do best.
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
I did not consider doing this. I’m proud of what I have written, and I want my name to be out there. Yes, I know my name is lengthy, and initially I wondered if I should use a shorter version, but I ultimately decided against it.
Ironically, when I first aspired to write as a twelve year old, I planned to use a pseudonym. It was a variation of my maiden name—Arlene Stelweck. I was planning to write as Stella Arlen.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Many people have a great imagination and can tell a great story, but they fail to get their work properly edited. Nearly every book has a typo or two, even those professionally published. But when there are lots of typos, misspellings, or formatting issues, many readers are turned off. That’s what often gives an indie writer a bad reputation.
Other issues are vanity publishers, or hybrid publishers. Some are good, and provide a valuable service to those writers who don’t want to, or can’t, do the legwork to self-publish. But I’ve heard horror stories of writers whose books aren’t being read because their publishers have priced them too high. The authors may question whether they are getting the royalties they deserve. The publishers need to earn the writers’ trust.
I believe the biggest issue is that authors think if they write a good book, the readers will come. They don’t realize how many books are published every day. I’ve read that approximately 7500 books are published on Kindle every day. A solitary book, no matter how good it is, won’t get noticed without some marketing, even if it’s to friends and family.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I know many other indie authors through social media. I think we all help each other. Giving encouragement, critiquing someone’s writing, or giving constructive criticism are all important. I may have taught someone how to write dialogue correctly, while I learn better marketing techniques.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you building a body of work with connections between each book?
I have written standalones, although I know that many writers and readers love a series. I like developing new characters and new situations. Although I like watching series from Netflix or other streaming services, I have never been one to read multiple books in a series.
Perhaps I’ll explore developing a series in the future.
How do your books get published?
I decided to self-publish, primarily because of my age. Being 63 when I finished the first one, I was concerned about potentially spending years trying to find an agent or publisher. I didn’t want to waste that time. If I had been younger, I might have tried the traditional publishing route. I still think about trying to find a traditional publisher for a future book. I’ll have to see what happens.
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
I write what is in my mind and in my heart. I realize that other genres may be more popular now: fantasy or romance or young adult; but my heart isn’t into writing those at this time. I’d rather write a good book than write a book that sells more copies but isn’t as good.
I flirted with writing a series of stories for young adults. I wrote one story, but I wasn’t happy with it, and I didn’t advertise it. I decided to continue writing in the contemporary fiction or women’s fiction genre.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I like to read, do crossword and jigsaw puzzles, play piano, practice yoga, ride my bicycle, and play Mah Jongg. I’ve found many of these hobbies, including writing, since age 50. I recently turned 65. I’ve started to dabble in drawing. My goal is 30 more good years. There’s so much more I’d like to learn!
What do you have coming next?
I am starting to write a third novel. It’s also a standalone. The backstory was inspired by an event in the news. There’s no title yet. I plan to release it in 2022.
Fantastic! I'm sure your readers are looking forward to it!
Let's see, how about your links?
BONUS! EXCERPT TIME! From If We Had Known
It should have been no surprise to Paul Brown that Carly didn't hear him call to her from the living room. She rarely did, although they disagreed on the reasons. She said the sound of his voice did not carry well through the acoustics of the wooden banister and the plush carpeted stairs. Paul thought the problem was with her auditory system—her inner ears could not completely and correctly process the tones and inflections of his baritone voice. It was better than assuming she was ignoring him, as happened so often with marriages of over three decades like theirs.
Over two or three years, Paul had realized that Carly liked the television louder than before. She occasionally misheard lines in the stories, and couldn't reconcile why the storylines took the turns they did. She blamed the problem on modern actors, who often spoke softly and mumbled. Carly had read that in previous times, the actors and actresses in films and television shows spoke in uniform tones and enunciated better, so the difficulty deciphering more recent dialogue was not entirely her fault. When she and Paul watched television together, the increased volume made his ears hurt and his head spin, and after repeated arguments she turned on the closed captioning option instead. While he agreed the volume was now more suited to his auditory system, he hated the language scrolled across the bottom of the screen. He could see and process the words quickly, often before the actors had spoken them, which eliminated the element of surprise when he read a character's confession before its utterance. Carly was happier though, and Paul supposed it was worth some minor discomfort to pacify his wife.
Now, feeling a bit unsteady climbing the stairway to the second floor, his right hand reached for the banister. He surmised the feeling of lightheadedness was related to lack of food. He and Carly had skipped their usual full lunch, settling for apples and yogurt. Carly had reasoned that they didn't want to arrive at the Grangers' party with full bellies. The party, to celebrate Nancy and Brad's wedding anniversary, was also a chance for the Grangers to unveil their new patio, which had taken contractors three months to construct.
Paul crossed the hallway and entered the master bedroom. He caught a glimpse of his wife admiring herself in the full-length mirror which framed her walk-in closet in the far corner of the room. Carly, clad in a black knee-length dress and black pumps, and wearing the onyx necklace they had purchased on a trip to Italy, turned to face him when his reflection appeared in the mirror. Her hair was still the same color of wheat as when he had first laid eyes on her decades before—although now the color was courtesy of a bottle. The skin around her eyes and mouth bore small wrinkles, a small price to pay for more than five decades of life. Carly smiled, pleased to see Paul had worn the clothing she had suggested. Although he had gained about twenty pounds in his torso and a few wrinkles in his face, she still considered her husband handsome. Perhaps not in the same way as love struck twenty-somethings, but marriage had a way of blurring the lines between internal and external beauty.
“I called you from the living room. But I guess you didn't hear me.”
Carly's body tensed, and her smile fell. “You used to tell me how beautiful I looked. Now you insult me first.”
“I did not insult you. I simply made a statement.” Paul sighed, not wanting to revisit Carly’s denial of her hearing difficulties now. It was best to ignore her comment, or it would mar their entire evening. “You do look beautiful.” He kissed her on the cheek and gingerly lifted the onyx from her neck. “I remember when you bought this necklace, on our trip to Italy. What a wonderful trip that was.”
Carly's face brightened. “Yes, it was a fabulous trip. Perhaps the best one we've taken.” She adjusted the collar on Paul's gray pinstriped shirt, paired with black linen trousers and a gray sports coat. “I see you are wearing the shoes you bought last week. They look much better than the battered ones you’ve been wearing for several years.”
Paul glanced at his black leather Oxfords, purchased in a men's store where he rarely even window-shopped. He and Carly had been in a rut, sniping at each other over petty matters for reasons they could not explain. Neither had been in a mood to cook, and as often happened with empty nesters like themselves, they had dinner out. He and Carly had dined at a neighborhood restaurant, and she had berated him for wearing the same shoes nearly every day. He had held his tongue and didn't argue, hoping that the car ride home would mellow her mood. When she suggested perusing the selection of shoes in the shop visible from their table in the restaurant, he had nodded. Thirty years of marriage had taught him it was usually better to compromise than to risk further marital discord. He tried on the pricey shoes as a peace offering and had reluctantly handed over his credit card for a purchase he suspected he would regret. But he was more concerned with maintaining a harmonious marriage than spending an extra fifty dollars.
“Yes, I suppose you're right. I wore the shoes a few times this week to break them in. But they aren't stiff at all. They don't pinch my toes or my heel. They feel great. I guess it's better to buy more expensive shoes.”
Carly nodded. “For most of her life, my mother wore cheap clothing that rarely fit well. That's the way she was raised. Her father's job barely provided for the basics, so much of the family's clothing came from the local Goodwill. Even when my father earned more money, my mother didn't shop anywhere else.”
“Yes. I remember the argument you had with your mother about a dress for Greer.”
“I remember that well. She couldn't fathom that I allowed Greer to spend two hundred dollars on a dress for the prom. She said she could buy her entire wardrobe for a year with two hundred dollars.”
Carly was pensive. Memories of her mother were always bittersweet. Although they had disagreements like most mothers and daughters, even during their worst arguments, Carly would never have wished her mother a massive stroke. Luckily, Lucia Casperella had succumbed within a day of the cerebral hemorrhage, her physicians in agreement that she felt no pain during her last hours.
The ping of her cell phone interrupted Carly's remembrances. She glanced at the phone and turned towards Paul. “Thank goodness for alarms. We have to go. Nancy will be angry if we're late. I offered to help her set up the hors d'oeuvres. She's counting on me. It takes precise planning to get everything heated and arrayed at the same time. Nancy would never let the caterers manage this feat themselves.” She smiled and wondered why Nancy couldn't let go of a bit of autonomy and structure. Carly had hired the same catering company for their parties and events, and the staff always did a terrific job, without the constant nagging they got from Nancy.
“Then I'd better keep Brad company. I'm sure he needs help to set up the liquor and the other beverages. Besides, I'm thirsty. Perhaps I didn't drink enough today." Paul kissed Carly lightly on the lips and headed towards the stairs.
“Do you want to get something to drink now? We can take it in the car.”
“No, it's fine. I'll grab something to drink as soon as we get there. I'm hungry too. But I know they will have plenty of food and drink. Let's go eat and drink ourselves silly.”
Paul checked his reflection in the mirror in the foyer, set the house's alarm system, and opened the front door, motioning for Carly to proceed first. As he exited the house, his left foot brushed the Persian rug lining the hardwood floor. He lurched forward and grabbed the door frame to prevent falling. He glanced at Carly, who was descending the four outside stairs and hadn't noticed his misstep. Paul exited the house and pulled the sculpted wooden door behind him. He pulled on the doorknob, and assured he had locked the door, turned towards the stairs.
As he approached his car in the driveway, Paul was unaware that this would be the last time he would meander on his property independently, and on his own feet.