Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Interview: Elaine Cougler, Author Of The Loyalist's Wife

Elaine Cougler, who interviewed me last year about No Brother of Mine, now has her very first book out!  It's called The Loyalist's Wife, and here's a brief description of it:

When American colonists resort to war against Britain and her colonial attitudes, a young couple caught in the crossfire must find a way to survive. Pioneers in the wilds of New York State, John and Lucy face a bitter separation and the fear of losing everything, even their lives, when he joins Butler’s Rangers to fight for the King and leaves her to care for their isolated farm. As the war in the Americas ramps up, ruffians roam the colonies looking to snap up Loyalist land. Alone, pregnant, and fearing John is dead, Lucy must fight with every weapon she has.

With vivid scenes of desperation, heroism, and personal angst, Elaine Cougler takes us back to the beginnings of one great country and the planting of Loyalist seeds for another. The Loyalist’s Wife transcends the fighting between nations to show us the individual cost of such battles.

After finishing The Loyalist's Wife on the weekend, I returned the favour she'd done me last fall and sent Elaine a handful of interview questions about it.  Those questions, along with her very interesting and insightful answers, are below:

1. I thought that all of the little details of life in the 1770s that you included in The Loyalist’s Wife really helped put the reader into the mindset of that time period. What kinds of research did you do for the book, and is that the sort of thing you naturally enjoy doing or did it feel more like work to you?

Matt, I spent a lot of time at my computer online and found amazing history right there. I also found places to go, such as forts, museums, and historic homes. My husband and I love to visit those types of places and doing research for my novels just always makes them come even more alive. Instead of just taking pictures of the buildings or the landscape, I catch images of soldiers’ uniforms, maps showing routes my characters might have taken and characters in costume for just what my own characters might have worn. Talk about an extra layer of enjoyment. And, of course, those pictures are valuable in helping me to remember for the next time I’m at my computer lost in the lives of the Loyalists and their times.

Various libraries and librarians have been helpful, as well. Those librarians know what kind of resources they have on their own shelves as well as what may be available to order in. Their knowledge has been very useful.

2. What thought processes went into your decision to construct your Loyalist saga as a trilogy, rather than, say, as a single book, or five books, or even as an ongoing, open-ended tale?

An interesting question, Matt, and I’d like to say that from the outset I knew exactly how this Loyalist thing would play out, but I didn’t. I was interested in the period because of my own Loyalist roots and in the people because I am always pondering just what might have been the effects of historic events on the ordinary people whose lives were thrown topsy-turvy through no fault of their own. As I got further into the project and concurrently learned more about my own Loyalist history, three stories gradually took shape in my mind. And further research turned up a few nuggets which did and will find their way into The Loyalist Trilogy. So the answer is I first thought of only one book which I first called Loyal to the Crown.  Just as that title changed (The Loyalist’s Wife) so did my plan.

As to why it is three and not more, I see three stories here, all interlocking with related characters and even some events, but once those three stories are told, the Loyalist theme will have played itself out.

3. As publisher (as well as author) of The Loyalist’s Wife, what steps have you taken to promote your product? And is there anything you’ve thought of doing but just haven’t quite been able to bring yourself to try it?

For over two years I have developed my writing blog, On Becoming a Wordsmith, and have met many lovers of historical fiction and as many or more writers who are doing what I am doing. It is a very supportive community and I have learned a lot about writing, marketing and the business of writing.
Promotion, then, is ongoing through online venues, guest posting, commenting on others’ blogs, writing book reviews, and trying to have something of value to say wherever I visit on the web. (sometimes easier said than done!)

As far as things I’ve thought of and not done, there are many but mostly it is time constraints that hold me back. I want to do a book trailer for The Loyalist’s Wife and post it on YouTube as well as my website and my blog. I’d love to do speaking/reading events and visit book clubs to discuss my writing with those reading it. And I will. I just need that 36-hour day and all will happen. Can you see that I can be a tad impatient?

4. It’s readily apparent in the pages of your book that you have a natural affinity for the Revolutionary War and especially the Loyalist side of it. What’s the origin of this connection for you?

I have always known that I come from Loyalist stock, a tidbit of knowledge which has sparked and flamed as I’ve gotten older and had more time to think of such things. A few years ago my brothers and I were in Niagara Falls for the funeral of my aunt, a situation which allowed us to travel the short distance to Niagara-on-the-Lake and visit Butler’s Burying Ground and see the vault where the famous Colonel John Butler was buried. My brother, Roger, knew much of the history and regaled us with tales of how our ancestor was a member of these same Butler’s Rangers.

Then my son brought me a copy of Cruickshank’s book about Butler’s Rangers and I found this same name listed in the back. I thought of the plight, then, of those loyal to the King who were living in the colonies when the American Revolutionary War broke out and my story was born.

5. You put your two lead characters in The Loyalist’s Wife through some fairly horrific experiences over the course of the book.  How do you, as an author, decide where to draw the line in such matters? Specifically, where’s that line in terms of, for example, testing the mettle of the characters versus simply being cruel to them and possibly alienating the reader? Were there any times in the early drafts when you thought you’d gone too far and had to pull back?

Without spoiling the story, I will say that I knew I had to make my readers care for my characters or they would stop reading. An author has to put his/her characters into danger and then make it worse. I knew I was writing something good when I was crying during the writing and later revising of certain sections. If I cared that much about my characters, my readers would as well. As far as just being cruel to them, I can’t do that. And readers would not like that. If neither I nor my readers have developed a feeling for the characters there is no story.

No, I don’t think I ever felt I had gone too far. Rather, I hadn’t gone far enough. I always want to be kind so drew my characters a little too one-sided—good—and had to go back and give a more balanced view of John and Lucy. They had to have flaws. Giving them those flaws allowed for more interesting plot developments as well.

6. Given that you called it The Loyalist’s Wife, did you ever consider telling the story entirely from Lucy’s perspective, possibly even in the first person narrative form?

The story is about the Loyalist and his wife, which, I think, is implicit in the title but I can see how you might think the title leans a little more toward the wife. That being said, I always wanted to tell both sides of the story. Imagine the plight of a woman left alone in a warring wilderness while her husband may be killed as he fights for his King. And the idea that soldiers have their families to worry about and their own personal characteristics to deal with was very intriguing to me. I wanted to delve into why John left Lucy alone and fought for the British. And I wanted to know just what this decision cost him. The answer to your question is that I never considered just telling the story from Lucy’s point of view.

As for first person, the historicals which I have read and loved for many years are almost all in third person, so much so that when I started to write that is what came out.

7. You’ve told me previously that you spent several years writing The Loyalist’s Wife, including some periods in which not much progress was being made for a variety of reasons. Was there ever a time when you’d convinced yourself that TLW just wasn’t ever going to become a finished book, and if so, what got you past that feeling?

Never. I always wanted to keep going. Even when the learning process was frustrating and demoralizing. Even when my husband, seeing what stress I was under during some of those times, suggested I didn’t HAVE to finish. What kept me going was the thought of my book or books on the shelf for my children and grandchildren to have after I am gone. I wanted to leave a legacy of something I loved.

8. What were the best and worst aspects of self-publishing for you? Now that you’re well along in that process, how happy (or unhappy) are you that you went that route for your first book?

One of the bumps along the way was joining an online author group where my work was viewed by agents and publishers. At first I thought this was wonderful and I did learn a lot of things about the writing business but I also learned other things. Suffice it to say that, in spite of interest from agents and editors, I eventually found the courage to go my own way, follow my own heart, and publish the book I wanted. And starting my own publishing company gave me control in so many ways. Of course the learning curve was not a curve at all but a bloody uphill battle at times. I am pretty computer savvy, having taught the subject (along with English) but each platform to which I submitted my work had wrinkles. Patience, something I am usually short of, became absolutely necessary. Thank goodness for the Help panels most of the platforms offered.

And, yes, I am happy I took control.

9. And finally, what pieces of advice would you give to any aspiring authors out there, based on your own experiences, that you feel would help her or him get their first book over the finish line?

My best advice would be to write the kind of book you love to read. From there, read lots of books on writing but eventually just trust yourself. Writing, more writing and more writing will get you where you want to go. And if you self-publish, find excellent editors, cover designers, printers and other professionals. The money you pay them will make your book look great.

Thanks so much, Matt, for posing these thoughtful and sometimes difficult questions. Your intelligent probing is not surprising as you are a competent author yourself. I am very grateful for this interview.

As mentioned in the interview, Elaine has a writing blog called On Becoming a Wordsmith. She's also on Twitter (@ElaineCougler), Facebook (ElaineCouglerAuthor), and LinkedIn author groups. You can buy her debut book on Amazon, the Kindle store or at the Kobo store, or if you'd like a signed, paper copy (for $20), let me know and I'm sure Elaine will be able to accommodate your request.

Thanks to Elaine for taking part in this, and for continuing to support me in my own writing career!


Elaine Cougler said...

My very deep appreciation to you, Matt, for interviewing me on your excellent blog. Getting to know you and sharing in your particular insights into writing continues to be a pleasure in my life. Thank you so much!

Melissa Bowersock said...

Elaine, great interview; nice to see such thoughtful questions and well-reasoned answers. Very interesting to know how your own family history mirrors the book, too. I've also considered writing family history into a fictional account. Maybe I'll have to pick up TLW for "research."

Brinda said...

I totally agree with you on writitng the type of book you love to read. I think that's where some authors go astray if they are trying to chase a popular genre. Also, I think you are so right that paying professionals for cover work and other pieces of the self-publishing puzzle are good investments.

Elaine Cougler said...

Melissa, thanks for your comments and especially for your idea of meshing family history with fiction. How this has all come together for me is quite amazing as I didn't know when I started that this would happen. Perhaps the universe had its own idea.

Elaine Cougler said...

Thanks, Brinda. I appreciate your stamp of approval very much, as you are an accomplished author yourself. :-)

jessicaaspen.com said...

I'd love to see your pictures that you used for research, maybe in a series of blogs? They sound fascinating. My family were on the other side and we have stories of one of them who would go fight in the winter, then would desert to come home to work the farm in the summer so his family could survive. Needless to say he was demoted in the fall when he returned to the army, but they kept taking him back! I'm looking forward to reading John and Lucy's story to see what other routes my ancestors might have gone.

Sharon Clare said...

Elaine, I have always appreciated your knowledge, but I also admire your persistence. How wonderful to see your book in print and to know it will be there for your grandchildren to read one day. I think this is such a wonderful legacy to leave.

Marg Kitchen said...

Hi, Elaine: What a pleasure to read of your hard work and accomplishment in writing 'The Loyalist's Wife'. For some time now, it has been my hope to work on something similar, for very like reasons, except that the descendant is my husband. However, with family background stretching to both sides of the Atlantic, as with so many people, and some of the more recent imports being in the 1900's, I am overwhelmed with the starting point, and various directions I could go. Again. thanks for blogging, and the very good interviews. Regards, and hope to be able to comment back and forth in future. Marg. Kitchen