I met Heidi Thomas when she was wending her way through Montana on tour with her debut novel, Cowgirl Dreams, and have since enjoyed bandying thoughts with her on the craft of writing and seeing another print journalist break through in the fiction world. Her novel has received strong notices from critics and readers alike. Consider this from a reader on Amazon.com:
It takes the reader into Big Sky country on the back of a strong horse flying over the rugged terrain. I felt that I was there with Nettie experiencing her life and adventures. The descriptions are vivid, detailed, and heart breakingly real as evidenced in the story of little baby Esther. The rodeos and bronc busting found me holding my breath.
Below, Heidi talks about how the novel came to be.
Q: Walk us along the road to publication for Cowgirl Dreams. When did you start writing it? How long did it take get it published?
I started writing it in 1999. It took me about 2½ to 3 years to write and rewrite a few times, then it took until the end of 2008 to be published, so almost 10 years from start to finish. I collected 17 rejections, including two “yes, but it’s not in our budget right now” non-rejections, before Lee Emory at Treble Heart Books took on the project.
Q: The main character, Nettie, is based on your grandmother, and the book started as nonfiction. Why did you switch?
I didn’t really start the book as non-fiction. Before writing a book, I tried writing some scenes based on family history, and I found that I was apparently too close to the characters. I didn’t have the freedom to elaborate, to embellish, to create conflict and make a better story, so that’s why I chose the novel form. My grandmother was not a “famous” cowgirl — she wasn’t as flamboyant as Prairie Rose Henderson; she didn’t win competitions in Madison Square Garden; and for her time, she was just an “ordinary” horsewoman who happened to ride steers in local rodeos. Fiction allowed me to fill in the blanks and ask “what if?
Q: You published with Treble Heart Books. How has the support been? What have you learned about marketing?
Great editorial support, and the nice thing about being with a small publisher is that the author often has more “say” in how the book turns out, both in content and in cover design. I was able to give my ideas about what I’d like to see on the cover, whereas I know that in many cases with large publishing houses, you have no idea what they might come up with and it might not relate to the story at all as you see it.
Most publishers these days (even large New York houses) don’t put out much, if any financial support for marketing, so authors have to do most everything on their own. I’ve read books on marketing, studied the internet, and done my marketing on the “trial and error” basis. You have to get your name out there, so networking via the internet is important — having a website, writing a blog, joining social networking sites, building your “platform.” But it also takes pounding the pavement, talking it up, and driving many miles (as I did on my Montana book tour). It’s fun, though, and rewarding. I’m basically a shy person, but I do have a bit of “ham” in me, so I’m finding that I’m actually enjoying the public speaking, meeting people, and talking about my passion—my book and my writing.
Q: What is the role of the West in your writing?
The West (Montana) is my setting and becomes almost a character in the book. I didn’t set out to write a “Western,” but authors have to have a spot on the marketing bookshelf for a book, so because Cowgirl Dreams was about rodeo and took place in the West, it is labeled a Western.
Q: How do you work? What’s your approach to getting down a draft and then revising it?
The familiar litany “I should be more disciplined; I should have a set schedule for writing, etc” is my lament. With my marketing, teaching classes and editing for other authors, I sometimes put my own writing on the back burner. But I belong to two wonderful weekly critique groups, so that gives me a deadline. I know I have to have some pages to present, and that keeps me going. I guess that working against deadlines stems from my old newspaper days.
Q: What books lit your fuse and set you on a path toward becoming an author?
Oh, I’ve always been a voracious reader from a young age. Zane Grey and Nancy Drew were favorites, of course, and throughout elementary school, I wrote many stories. One teacher told me I had a “wild imagination.” But I read many genres, from classics and literary works to police procedurals and courtroom dramas. I greatly admire the writing of Ivan Doig, a fellow Montana author, and Jane Kirkpatrick, a western historical author.
Q: You do a lot of blogging on writing technique. Do you find that it helps you when you sit down to do your own work?
Yes, it does, actually. I also have taught community adult writing classes for several years. I’ve had many experiences where I’m telling my students about a technique and I suddenly realize that’s exactly what I should be doing in my writing. It solidifies an idea when you have to explain it to someone else.
Q: What are you working on now?
I just submitted my sequel, Follow the Dream, to my publisher, and I am working on an idea for a third Nettie novel. I’d originally planned that the third book in my series would be the next generation, based on my mother who came from Germany after WWII. But I found that the way I ended my second book left it open for another, and it may help me bridge a gap between the Nettie years and the next family story.
Heidi Thomas’ Web site: www.heidimthomas.com
Heidi Thomas’ blog: http://heidiwriter.wordpress.com
Heidi Thomas’ book at Treble Heart Books: www.trebleheartbooks.com/SDHeidiThomas.html