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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Author Interview: Valerie Patterson

The Long and the Short of It is very pleased to welcome Valerie J. Patterson. Valerie, as you may remember, was our grand prize winner of our first annual short story contest. You can read her story here. Valerie, along with her best friend and husband Steven, makes her home is southwestern Pennsylvania. Valerie stays very busy because she’s an adjunct lecturer for a local college and works part time for a law firm. She also teaches the pre-teen Sunday school class at her church where she’s also the drama director. And, she still finds time to write. She’s had a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, “Green and Red Trappings” published in Mad for a Mystery Publications; written “Tag You’re It” which won the Donard Publishing writing competition; and had “A Sharp Dressed Man” published in a compilation book, The Writings on the Wall by Writers Wall Publications. She has also has two novels currently released: The Lincoln Room and Montana Reins, both from Asylett Press.

Valerie told me she went through more than a year, after her father died unexpectedly, when she completely lost her desire to write. “He wasn’t here any longer to read my work or share in my success,” she said. “I went over a year without writing a single sentence. A friend of mine—a fellow writer—actually helped me through that extended period of writer’s block. She just kept after me to sit down and write. It really didn’t matter what I wrote--just that I wrote. I started with a piece about my dad, and that helped me both creatively and emotionally. Sometimes we're aware of the problem--of what's causing the writer's block. Other times, we're not. Either way, the best thing to do is to sit down and write something--anything. It could be pure crap, but at least you've written something. That--to me--is what matters most. That I've written something. Once I get over that hurdle, the next time I sit down to the computer, it's easier and more productive.”

In talking about the elements of good writing, Valerie says she concentrates the heaviest on the characters first. She told me that she wanted her characters to feel like real people. “I’m always impressed with a writer whose work I can read,” she told me, “and come away from the experience thinking I would want the main character as a friend. That's what I try to do with my characters. For instance, Alexaundra Jerdan--in The Lincoln Room is someone who's very down to earth, I think. She's intelligent, successful, and creative. However, she's not perfect. She's quick to draw conclusions that are not always correct. She has a temper that could get in the way. I think readers can relate to all aspects of Alex and hopefully come away thinking she'd be someone they'd like to know.”

Valerie also believes a writer needs to know her subject in order to write realistically. “If I'm reading a book about the FBI, I expect the writer to have knowledge of the FBI,” she said. “It can't all be speculation. I want some facts in there so that I can come away from the read thinking what I read--fiction--could have happened. That's also what I strive for in my own work. The Lincoln Room deals with ghosts and murders that have occurred for nearly a hundred years. Not only do I want my readers to feel the eeriness of the setting, but I want them to wonder if this sort of thing could have happened. Plot, setting, imagery, natural flowing dialog, these all go hand-in-hand to make a book whole. Without one, the readers will know something is lacking in the telling of the story.”

Even though she concentrates more on the characters, she told me that for her, plot and characters occur at the same time. “An idea will strike,” she said, “and at the same time I have in mind the main character. I usually develop the character first, the plot more in depth second. I like to think my books are character driven, meaning I tap into the thoughts and actions of my characters and allow 'them' to drive the story. I usually develop the main character and her counterpart first. Getting down features, characteristics of personality, motivations, quirks, etc. Then I can get a feel for how they'll react to certain elements of the plot, to secondary characters, to information as it's revealed throughout the story. Whenever I teach a creative writing class or help a novice writer with a piece, the advice I usually give first is that the writer listen to the characters. If you're in tune with your characters, the rest just seems to fall into place.”

Valerie told me that The Lincoln Room was easy for her to write. She had been kicking around the idea for a few years. She had the setting, the plot, the two main characters, and the ending. “I just needed to finish a couple other projects and get down to some serious writing,” she said. “When I was finally able to do that, the words just poured forth.”

Her other novel, Montana Reins, however, was a different story. She first wrote it in 2002, but then put it aside for a year. In 2004, she shared it with a group of writers who gave their honest opinions of the story. This time, she set it asked for more than two years. “In 2006, I opened it, read the entire thing again, read the notes I had from my critique group and sliced and diced it until I was satisfied with it.” She told me that much of Montana Reins were left on the editing room floor, but also added scenes that sealed the story together. Valerie said, “I submitted it to one publisher--Asylett Press--and the rest is history. Montana Reins is a contemporary western romance, which is not something I usually write. I think stepping outside my chosen genre of mystery-suspense is the reason I had such a hard time with this book. However, I never would have been satisfied writing it and never doing anything with it. It's taught me that sometimes it's best to just walk away and come back to it fresh. Everyone thinks romance is the easy genre to write. It's just as difficult as any other genre. No matter what, the plot has to be fresh, the characters realistic, the dialog natural, and the setting so rich you can become a part of it. That's my job as a writer--regardless of the genre.”

One thing Valerie does to insure her dialog is natural is she reads her work aloud. Not just the dialog, but everything. “When I'm done with a chapter and I'm going through the editing process--which I do with every chapter at its completion--I read it aloud,” she told me. “I have found that I catch more mistakes that way than sitting at my desk and reading it silently. When you read aloud, you stumble more on poor word choice, typos, etc. When you read silently, the brain seems to miss misspellings because we're trained to recognize words not on their correct spelling but on their core letters. But it seems to be different when you're reading aloud. For me it is. Do I catch every single mistake? Not usually, but I'd say I catch at least 90 percent of them. That's how I bulletproof my manuscripts before I submit them anywhere.”

Not only does Valerie live in Pennsylvania, but she’s originally from a small town just outside Pittsburgh. She told me about a wonderful restaurant called Vincent’s Pizza Place. “I teethed on this pizza as a baby!” she said. “It was my dad's favorite and it's mine and my sisters' as well. In fact, on the one-year anniversary of his death, we all met there for dinner and tributes to Dad. I think he would have been happy with that. There's no other pizza like a Vinnie's pie. It's huge! Their small is probably everyone else's large. So you can imagine how huge their large is! It's dripping with cheese. The sauce is the perfect blend of spiciness. Huge chunks of Italian sausage or thick slices of pepperoni. Man, that's the best pizza on the planet. I think when we're done here, I'm going for a long drive for some excellent pizza!” I wish she had taken me with her!

Valerie told me she’s a morning person. “I love the morning. It's quiet--not just peaceful, but quiet. I can walk through the house and hear my footfalls on the carpet. I can see the mist of fog rise off the mountains across the way and imagine it's actually mist off a lake even though I know there's no lake. I can hear nature coming awake.” She’s likes the nighttime as well, though. Even though she was always “early to bed” while growing up, she’s discovering changes since she’s been writing. “The more I write,” Valerie said, “the more I notice my writing can keep me from a good sleep any day of the week. I've been known to get up in the middle of the night and write a chapter simply because sleep freed my mind of the worries I was carrying, and creativity broke through, waking me up. If an idea wakes me, I never just table it until morning. It will not be the same if I do. I will have lost something--some element that makes the idea work--by going back to sleep.” She doesn’t even allow travelling or driving to interfere with the muse. She told me that if an idea strikes while she’s on the road “I pull over, get out the notebook, and write it down. I have to. It’s discipline. Great ideas strike only once. If you wait, it dwindles to a good idea or an idea that would have been better had I obeyed my muse and written it down when she gave it to me.”

On a personal note, Valerie shared with me that she’s never had a desire for a dog. “When I was ten years old, I was mauled by a dog. A dog I knew and was friendly with. Didn't seem to matter that nearly every day for several years I'd seen this dog. One night, he attacked me and that ended my interest in dogs.” She realized while she answered my question, “Do you really want a dog?” that none of her characters have dogs either. “I find that interesting,” she told me. “Obviously, a writer influences their characters, but I never fully realized until now that none--not a single one--of my characters are dog lovers. Gee, I hope that won't prevent the dog loving population from reading my books.”

I also asked Valerie if she liked thunderstorms. She has had some bad experiences with storms as well as dogs. “When I was in the third grade, I was walking home from school when suddenly the heavens unleashed a horrific storm that not only caught me by surprise, but made me certain I was not going to survive it without being struck by lightning. Of course, I survived, but I also came away with a healthy respect for storms. When it's raining outside, I find it's easier to get stuck into writing. There's something about the sound of rain on the roof and the driveway that creatively charges me. Rain can also be a setting for romance. My husband touches my heart tenderly when he dances with me outside in the rain.”

The strangest thing Valerie has ever eaten, she told me, is rattlesnake. Her family had a summer place in the mountains when she was growing up. The area was known for black snakes, rattlesnakes, bears, deer, and various other animals. The clubhouse there hosted dinners and barbecues. “The first time I ate rattlesnake,” she said, “I was probably twelve. They seemed far less dangerous on a plate slathered in sauce than coiled up beside the road ready to strike.”

You can keep up with Valerie on her website,

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