I don't have any hard statistics to back this up; I only have an "in" basket on my desk spilling over with books by area authors and illustrators. Still, I stand by my latest pet theory. Minnesota is absolutely crawling with authors and book illustrators, be they part time or full time, self-published or under contract.
Book World and other area bookstores host more autograph sessions than the guy who played Chewbacca in the "Star Wars" films. Finding an author or book illustrator around here is like finding golf on the Golf Channel.
So in honor of our Fall Book Preview issue, I recently threw out a few questions that novice writers and artists might want answered before they dive into the shark-infested waters of literature. Our panel includes two authors and one illustrator who will be signing books Saturday at Bookin' It in Little Falls as part of the annual Arts & Crafts Fair: Ernest Francis Shanilec, a murder mystery writer from Vergas who has had two books published and several more in the pipeline; Nancy Packard Leasman, a Long Prairie artist who illustrated the children's book "A Kitty Named Indra," which was written in both English and Spanish by her daughter, Dawn Leasman Tanner; and Jennifer Chiaverini, the author of five "Elm Creek Quilts" novels, the most recent of which made the New York Times best sellers list. She lives in Madison, Wis.
First of all, why is Minnesota a literary hotbed?
"I have the same question," said Shanilec. "I meet so many of them, and there are some fairly famous authors from Minnesota like John Sandford and Jon Hassler. Maybe it's the long winters."
Leasman agreed, citing Minnesota's "long, cold winters," which give people time to write indoors. But clearly, the summer months are inspiring as well.
"Minnesota is easy to write about," Shanilec said. "The lakes create so many scenarios. It would be hard for me to be in the northern or southern part of the state, but the central part of the state with the lakes is very inspiring."
Leasman, who has written essays for the Lake Country Journal, said her rural location doesn't give her easy access to writers' groups, but she enjoys the advantage of living in a place where she can clear her head via walking, cross country skiing or pulling weeds in the garden. In her home studio, she said, "the ideas keep flowing, and I can get a lot of things done at one time."
How many real-life places and people find their way into your books?
Readers often marvel at the "imaginations" of their favorite authors, but they might be surprised to find out how much a fictional novel is based on real life. For example, Tanner's characters are based on herself, her husband and her sister (although the names were changed for the sake of easy Spanish translation).
Shanilec, who bases his supporting characters on people he meets, recently found himself eating breakfast at the Loon's Nest Caf in Vergas with one of his characters from his first novel, "Blue Darkness."
"I call him Henry. He knows he's in the novel and he's OK with it," Shanilec said.
One area where the author doesn't draw from reality is in the development of his murder suspects. But he's not shy about having a murder take place in your hometown.
Shanilec has borrowed a strategy from Hassler, who sets his stories in fictional Minnesota towns that are essentially re-named versions of existing towns (for example, Staggerford is a stand-in for Park Rapids). Shanilec uses the real names for Minneapolis and Fargo, N.D., but he renames the smaller towns. Vergas becomes New Dresden; Perham becomes Pine Lakes.
The author is currently working on a story about six murders in six towns. He's still deciding where the killings will take place. Brainerd is a tempting choice, Shanilec said, except that one of his favorite movies, "Fargo," beat him to it. He's now considering Little Falls.
If you go
What: Book signings
When: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bookin' It in Little Falls
Ernest Francis Shanilec (Tom Hastings mystery series), 9 a.m.-noon
Jennifer Chiaverini ("Elm Creek Quilts" series), noon-4 p.m.
Nancy Packard Leasman and Dawn Leasman Tanner ("A Kitty Named Indra"), noon-4 p.m.
If you are an author creating a fictional town, heed the advice of Chiaverini and be careful when naming your city. Chiaverini lived in Pennsylvania when she wrote her first novel, "The Quilter's Legacy," and decided to set it in fictional Waterford, a stand-in for State College. She checked an atlas and found no Waterford, Pa., listed.
But after the book came out, a resident of the real Waterford, Pa. (population: 1,492), wrote to Chiaverini, saying "Finally, someone has set a book in town where I grew up."
Chiaverini thanked the reader for the compliment, not bothering to explain that any similarities to the real town were completely accidental.
"Then I went out and got a better atlas," she said.
If you ask an author if they are a character in their book, they aren't likely to be as confessional as they are about their fictional locales. Friends have told Shanilec that he seems like his main character, Tom Hastings; the author contends that the character is completely made up.
Chiaverini admits to basing characters on her former students at Penn State, but the author insists she is not the basis for her protagonist, Sarah.
"If I would've known so many people would think she was me, I would've made her a nicer character," Chiaverini said with a laugh.
How do you find time to write in this overworked, speed-obsessed world?
Shanilec has a straightforward response to this one: "I live alone." Writing started off as a hobby for Shanilec, but now that he's retired from his Fargo dental practice, he makes it his top priority.
Leasman is a full-time artist and Chiaverini is a full-time writer, but here's a classic twist: Both are also full-time moms.
"I once wrote a short story at the beach where my daughter was taking swimming lessons," said Leasman, who has seven children. "But it all fits together. I've done it long enough that I've figured out how to balance everything."
Chiaverini cranked out her first five "Elm Creek" novels at the rate of about one per year. Now she is writing for the first time with two boys; one is 3 years old and the other is 8 months old. She said her kids come first, so her fans might have to wait a bit longer between books now.
"It's tough, I won't downplay that," Chiaverini said. "But it would be worse to give it up. Writing is what I've always wanted to do. When my kids grow up, I'll have all the time I could ever want to write, and that time will come too soon."
How in the world do you get people to choose your book out of the endless stacks in the bookstore?
This is where the plot thickens.
"When people start writing they have no idea how much marketing is needed," said Shanilec, who self-published his book at a Fargo press. "The marketing can get long and tedious."
Leasman, whose book is also self-published, agreed.
"Producing the product is the easy part, marketing it is the hard part," she said. "Dawn's been really good about that. She's gotten the book into 30 different stores. Dawn wrote the story in a half hour and it took two years for the final version to come out."
Chiaverini, under contract with Simon & Schuster through her ninth book, doesn't have to deal with the self-publishing headaches. After completing "The Quilter's Legacy," she sent manuscripts to agents and publishers all over the country. She received 20 rejection letters (a small number, actually, for a first-time novelist) before the editor at Simon & Schuster took her on.
Even Stephen King (as he reported in "On Writing") was swamped with rejection letters early in his career, so being turned down repeatedly is simply a step on the path to success.
"I kept telling myself not to take it personally," Chiaverini said. "That didn't always work because I don't have a thick skin, but finally I decided that it was entirely up to me: I could give up or I could keep doing it."
Chiaverini said she might still have those rejection letters in box somewhere, but she's not sure. She been too busy raising kids and writing best sellers to give them much thought.
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