Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.
Today’s guest for the WHAT is Lyn-Miller Lachmann, the author of three novels for teens—
Gringolandia (Curbstone Press, 2009), Rogue (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen, 2013), and Surviving Santiago (Running Press, 2015)—and the translator of five picture books from Portuguese to English.
Both Gringolandia and Surviving Santiago were chosen as Best Children’s Books by the Bank Street College of Education; Gringolandia was also selected for the ALA/YALSA Best Books for Young Adults list and was an Américas Award Honor Book. Rogue was a Junior Library Guild selection. Her translations have been selected for lists by Kirkus, the Boston Globe, Fuse 8 Productions, USBBY, and CCBC Choices. She blogs about travel, diversity, and writing at her site.
Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?
I have a lot of books—published, unpublished, and self-published. My debut trad-published novel, Gringolandia, was inspired by a friend who’d become reacquainted with his teenage son after many years of forced separation due to a military coup and dictatorship. Other books have come from my travels and living in Portugal part of each year. I write a blog that touches on various topics, but most of my readers come to it seeking information on travel to Portugal and beyond. My YA novel currently on submission grew out of the year I was hired to cover the fortieth anniversary of the Carnation Revolution, which ended 48 years of dictatorship and brought about the country’s first stable democracy. My current work-in-progress was inspired by a TV miniseries that ran while I was living in Europe, which I reviewed on my blog. And a blog post about traveling through Austria in search of a cake that my grandmother made when I was young led to a write-for-hire assignment for a chapter book that’s coming out this year.
Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?
My typical approach to the historical fiction is to start with real people and to create fictional characters based on them. Because I write about ordinary people in history rather than the elite, not much is known about each individual. My goal is to breathe life into individuals who were not rich and famous—not the Chosen Ones—to show the dignity and heroism of their lives and how they in their own ways changed the course of history. For instance, Daniel, my protagonist in Gringolandia, is on the sidelines of the democracy struggle in Chile because he lives in exile with his mother and sister in the United States while his father is a political prisoner. But when his father is released and rejoins the family, Daniel has to choose whether to help his father, disabled with PTSD, adjust to life in his new home and build a relationship with his father, or to help smuggle his father back into Chile to continue the fight, even though it means he may never see his father again.
Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?
I’ve never had my plot firmly in place. I start with characters, their situations and wants, and as they develop, I build the story around them. Generally, in lieu of a plot, I have a general idea of the ending (which can often change, as it did in Gringolandia’s companion, Surviving Santiago), and the key plot points. But I like my characters to surprise me. If they don’t and I’m just marching along to the beat of an outline, I lose interest.
Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?
After my second novel, Rogue, came out in 2013, I had a huge drought of ideas masked by the fact that Surviving Santiago, which I wrote long before Rogue, sold the year after and came out in 2015. I stalled out trying to turn a short story I wrote ten years earlier into an entire novel only to realize after a few rejections and many more no responses from editors that the characters and plot were too thin for a novel despite some of the best dialogue I’ve ever written. At that point, I acknowledged to myself that I didn’t have the popular culture knowledge or interest to write contemporary YA, and history has always been my love anyway. I’m now working on a thematic series of historical novels that draw from personal connections like my friendship with the Chilean musician that inspired Gringolandia and the post on the Carnation Revolution. If you read my blog, you may guess what’s next, but it also may be like searching for a needle in a haystack because I blog a lot. It’s my #1 means of self-expression.
And that brings me to a point I’d like to make for aspiring authors. Sometimes the publishing gods smile on you, and sometimes they don’t. When you have one, two, three manuscripts out there that haven’t found an agent or a publisher, it’s easy to question your ideas or the quality of your writing. I’ve had a run of foul luck lately, mostly related to smaller publishers going out of business or selling to larger entities and changing their focus, so I’m in start-over mode right now. In the meantime, my blog gives my writing a robust public presence and, hopefully, a decent source of income when I publish my e-book travel guide to Portugal later this year.
I know blogging isn’t for everyone, but I recommend this approach—or a similar one like writing fanfiction on sites you enjoy or novellas to upload as e-books—to practice your craft, find your audience, and gauge their reaction to your work. Anything that helps you to develop your writing ability and range and connect with a community will help you through the long slog to the moment when it happens. And appreciate the freedom to explore ideas, because until you’re published, you’re not under any pressure. You can experiment with genre, timeline, and point of view. I’ve always wanted to write a novel with a collective protagonist, so I’m using my own exile from publishing to try this, knowing that if it doesn’t work, no one is going to pull my contract and demand their money back.
How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?
The characters call me.
I have 8 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?
I have my longtime canine companion, Charlie. For a long time, I didn’t write dogs into any of my books, which surprised me considering the important role Charlie has played over the years. However, the novel set in Portugal has two canine characters—a German shepherd named Capitão and a terrier mix named Flor. And my next project is a short story for adult readers in which the protagonist makes an unfortunate choice because of a dog.