Thanks for stepping into my spotlight this month. Let’s get right
down to business and talk about your own personal road to
Is there some individual, group or event that you can point to as the catalyst/impetus that set you on the road to becoming a writer? Explain.
JB: I was always a voracious reader and, like so many others, began experimenting with writing in my late teens. A few years later, I came across THE GAME OF KINGS, the first book in Dorothy Dunnet’s Lymond Chronicle. What a mesmerizing story! I was particularly fascinated by the multi-faceted character of the protagonist, Lymond, Master of Culter. My first book sold was written in a white heat of inspiration as I attempted to give my own hero a similar complication of personality. Without that impetus, I might never have written anything publishable.
WG: Tell us about your journey.
JB: Seven years passed between the time I
started scribbling and book publication. I tried a little of
everything along the way: poetry and short stories,
stream-of-consciousness pieces, gratis articles for the local
paper. I also read everything I could find on writing, teaching
myself the craft. Somewhere around the fourth year, I began sending
out manuscripts. My first sale was a poem, for which I was paid
$1. I also sold a short story to a farm magazine. On the strength
of these two sales, I was able to join The National League of
American Penwomen. The North Louisiana branch of Penwomen was
compiling a book on Louisiana Landmarks at the time, one later
published as VIGNETTES OF LOUISIANA HISTORY. Each member was
expected to choose two places of interest and write a short history
of them. I chose two old plantation houses within a couple of hours
of my home, the Smith House at Mount Lebanon and the Protho House at
St. Maurice. It was while visiting the Protho house, walking
through the echoing rooms with their lofty ceilings and sunlight
falling through tall, dust-grimed windows, that it occurred to me
what a wonderful setting such a house would make for a Gothic, or
mystery-suspense tale, in an historical time frame.
The book was written with a hero as described above. I was familiar with WRITER’S MARKET, so chose from it five publishing houses that published the popular Gothic genre. I wrapped the manuscript up and sent it to the first on the list. It came back unopened because I had not sent a query letter, something that was just beginning to be required. I had no idea how to write such a letter, so simply sent the book to the next publisher on my list. Two months later, I received a letter saying that if I could add 30 pages, they would buy the book. I did the work according the editor’s suggestions, and it was published in 1970 as THE SECRET OF MIRROR HOUSE. The first editor to read my first submitted book, then, actually bought it.
WG: How many books did you complete before you sold your first? Have all/any of them sold since?
JB: As with so many writers, I have an “under the bed” book, one written in longhand, laboriously typed -- and then hidden away. The story was too short, at 40,000 words, and had so much else wrong with it that it seemed easier to just try again. The thing turned up missing after a household move many years ago – and it was no great loss, I promise you!
WG: What changed most about your life as a direct result of selling that first book?
JB: Suddenly I had purpose and direction, a job to do that gave me an incredible sense of self-worth since writing is the only occupation which rewards you for something that springs solely from your mind. Too, the dream world that I’d been accused of living in had suddenly become profitable, therefore respectable. I immediately set up an office in a corner of the master bedroom and began turning out more stories. In a larger sense, however, nothing much changed. I was primarily a wife and mother with all the tasks and responsibilities that entails. I only thought of myself as a dedicated author after my first New York Times best seller some seven years later.
WG: What about your writing process: Do you maintain a set schedule? Is there such a thing as a typical day for you?
JB: When actively working on the rough draft of a book, I keep to a six-hour writing day, working from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days per week. That’s about the limit of my concentration. I do other things before or after that time, checking e-mail, responding to editor/publisher queries, writing promotional material, researching, answering questionnaires. Of course, the schedule goes out the window if I’m behind when a deadline looms.
WG: Do you have a ‘mood setter’, something (music, ritual, environment, etc.) you use to get you going when you sit down to write?
JB: I have a variety of methods, depending on what seems likely to work on any given day. These include music (instrumentals only since lyrics are distracting), lighted candles, warming up by writing in a journal, brainstorming on a yellow legal pad, changing back and forth between an my desktop computer and laptop, between an AlphaSmart and a Dictaphone -- or between my desk chair and a lounge chair before the fire in winter or on the screened porch in summer. No plan is involved; I keep trying things until something happens.
WG: Do you do a lot of up front plotting before you start or do you just dive in?
JB: My books are sold from proposals of five to seven pages which are then used to create the story blurb and cover. To make these useful to my editor and the art and sales departments, it’s necessary to know in advance the major plot points and something about the characters. I do most of the plotting up front then, and actually enjoy the mental puzzle of arranging events and character motivations to make the book work. Crafting this mini version of the eventual book, something complete in and of itself, helps me cut through the brain fog for a clearer picture.
WG: Do you normally start with storyline or with character or with some combination of the two?
JB: Normal? There’s no such thing! <g> Sometimes a book springs from the main character, sometimes the story situation, sometimes the two together. It can also begin with a setting or a modern or historical incident that I want to explore. Ideas have a way of creeping up on me, drifting into mind in pictured scenes, when I’m busy with other things.
WG: Do you find certain themes or character archetypes making recurring appearances in your stories?
JB: Interesting you should ask. I just recently realized The Protector as a hero is a constant with me, and so is obligations imposed on hero and heroine by responsibility. Most of my heroines seem to be Nurturers in one way or another. The answer, then, is yes.
WG: Is there anything else you'd like to tell us about your process?
JB: The longer I write, the more I agree with the truism that books are not written so much as rewritten. My rough drafts are rough indeed, and it’s during revision that I actually craft the story and refine the characters. This process can take as long, or longer, than the first draft.
WG: Do you have a favorite sub-genre as a writer? as a reader?
JB: After writing in several genres, I’ve discovered I prefer historicals because they allow more in the way of grand events and romantic gestures than do contemporary tales. As a reader, my tastes are eclectic, though I particularly enjoy mysteries of the cozy type.
WG: Is there a genre you haven't been published in yet that you'd like to try your hand at someday?
JB: I have this futuristic story that’s been in the back of my mind for ages…
WG: Do you have any advice to offer writers still striving toward publication?
JB: Write the story that you would like to read, especially if the story idea is one that won’t let go of your imagination. Once it’s in written form, never give up on it. Polish it. Refine it. Rewrite it if you must. Then send it out a thousand times if that’s what it takes.
WG: Is there some piece of advice you received or bit of ‘conventional wisdom’ that you wish you had ignored?
JB: When I signed with an agent in 1973, I had just read Woodiwiss’s THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER and was blown away by it. I told my agent that I’d like to try a historical romance, and asked what he thought of the idea. Though his office was in New York, he apparently had less knowledge of what was happening in the book world than I did, because he said, quote: “The historical romance is as dead as the do-do.” His idea of a historical romance was apparently based on stories from the forties and fifties such as THE SILVER CHALICE and THE BLACK SWAN. Being young and inexperienced, I accepted his judgment. If I had gone my own way, I would have had a historical romance on the market in 1974 -75 instead of waiting until 1977 when New York finally began to wake up to the future of the romance genre.
WG: What do you find to be the most rewarding thing about being a writer? What do you struggle with the most?
JB: The most rewarding thing is not only being allowed to live in my own fantasy world but encouraged to do it. The thing I struggle with most is emerging from it for the self-promotion that’s a requirement these days.
WG: When you’re not writing, what do you do for fun?
JB: Creative people are usually creative in several different directions. Most of what I do for fun has a creative angle then. I enjoy painting in watercolor and acrylics, quilting, knitting, and gardening. My favorite reward for finishing a book, however, is travel.
WG: I love to collect quotes, all kinds of quotes - inspirational, quirky, motivational, profound, etc. Do you have a personal favorite you'd like to share?
JB: I also love quotes and have a million of them, particularly those on writing and reading. One of the first that I tacked up on my bulletin board years ago was the venerable one by Samuel Johnson: “Sir, no one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” Sort of keeps everything down-to-earth, doesn’t it?
Another that I like because it expresses so exactly what I feel is this one by Robert Frost: “Talking is a hydrant in the yard and writing is a faucet in the house. Opening the first takes all the pressure off the second.” Enough said.
WG: Please tell us about your current project.
JB: ROGUE’S SALUTE, book three in my
Masters at Arms series, is the story of Nicholas, the Italian sword
master who first appeared in CHALLENGE TO HONOR. Creating him was a
pleasure since I have a special fondness for Italy and its people.
I really expected readers to prefer the Irish sword master also
introduced in that book, so was well into his story in book two, DAWN ENCOUNTER, when CHALLENGE was released. Imagine my bemusement
when most of the emails about future heroes wanted to know when they
could read Nicholas’s story! Of course, he had to be next. But
what could I do with such a Casanova? How about a real challenge, a
nun as his fiancée-of-convenience, one he reveres too much to
seduce. The story line for the book goes like this then:
Juliette Armant, promised to the church from birth, is called home on the eve of taking her vows as a nun. She must marry at once in order to inherit a precious family heirloom, but requires a husband of exceptional strength to help her keep it. She prays for heavenly intervention but is astounded when presented with the notorious swordsman, Nicholas Pasquale.
Nicholas, reared on the streets of Rome, has acquired a houseful of street boys who desperately need a home and a mother: a wife seems the sensible solution. How could he guess that he is also taking on the dangerous guardianship of a priceless treasure--or that his Madonna-like Juliette may yearn for the sensual pleasure at which he is the acknowledged master?
The Masters at Arms series was more than ten years in the planning – since I had just signed to write contemporary stories for Mira Books when the idea for it came to me. Much of that time was spent doing research, creating a comprehensive computer database for the eight-year period, 1840 – 1848, covered by the stories. It’s grand to finally see the books in print. I hope readers have as much fun reading them as I’ve had writing them.
WG: Tell us about plans for future books.
JB: The Masters at Arms contract calls for six books. Book four, GUARDED HEART, has been completed and is scheduled for publication in January 2008. The swordsman-hero of this book is Gavin Blackford, the renegade Englishman who appears first in DAWN ENCOUNTER – and the heroine is a lady who persuades him to teach her to fence so she can kill him. Great fun! At this point, I’m working on book five, with a tentative title of GALLANT MATCH, while researching the early days of the Mexican War and geography of the Mexican coast. If this book follows the pattern set by the others, it will be published in January, 2009.
WG: And before we close, tell us how your fans can get in touch with you.
JB: I truly enjoy reader comments and am often inspired for the day by them. I can be contacted via my Web site at: http://www.jenniferblake.com, or by email at: Jennifer@jenniferblake.com. I also have a Yahoo fan listserv where I post a regular monthly newsletter. Anyone is welcome to join. As added incentive, the winners of my monthly free book contest are drawn from the membership list. To join, just send a blank email to: JenniferBlakePlace@yahoogroups.com Or those who enter the book contest on my Web site will receive an email invitation to which you can reply.
WG: Thank you so much for participating in my spotlight interview this month. And I can’t wait to get my hands on the next books in your wonderful series.
JB: Many thanks for your invitation to talk to your fans here, Winnie. And a special thank you, as well, to all those who have been reading my books since the early days, and read them still.