Interview with C.H. Armstrong

c-h-armstrongWhat was the funniest mistake you’ve made as a writer?

I’ve made so many mistakes it’s embarrassing!  Sometimes I get so focused on the story that my fingers work faster than my brain.  In the manuscript for my YA novel, I talk about a character using a microphone on stage.  For some reason, I substituted the word “microwave” for “microphone” so that the character “sang into the microwave.”  Another time – with The Edge of Nowhere – I was again so focused that I used the word “anecdote” in place of “antidote.”  I think the actual line was: “I don’t think you can afford it and, even if you could—and if they could provide an antidote—his chances of survival aren’t great.”  You can see where using the wrong word would be funny.   My mother-in-law was one of my beta readers on that manuscript, and she’s given me no end of ribbing, saying that I think my storytelling is it’s own medicine.

Who’s your favorite character you’ve written so far and why?

Most of the main characters in The Edge of Nowhere were inspired by my own family members.  With that in mind, my favorite character is definitely Will Harrison – Victoria’s first husband.  His character was inspired by my own grandfather, who died when my father was only four.  As a result, I know almost nothing about him and my grandmother very rarely spoke of him.  I wrote his character in the way I imagined (hoped) he would’ve been.  During the revision process, I had a long conversation with my Aunt Shirley (my dad’s sister).  In that conversation, she relayed to me details of a conversation she’d had with my grandmother before her death when she talked – for one of the very few times ever – about my grandfather.  What she told my aunt indicated that I’d nailed my grandfather’s character, and there’s a line in the book where Victoria refers to Will as “the finest man she’s ever known.”  I added that part in the revision process because it was a direct quote from my grandmother, passed down through my aunt, and it was exactly how I saw the character.

Who are your writing heroes and why?

Oh gosh!  I have so many.  Probably my top two writing heroes, though, are Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell.  Until very recently, both women released a single epic novel and then never felt the need to publish another thing. And yet, their novels are known by just about every reader, if not by content then at least by title.

Harper Lee, maybe more than any other writer, has inspired me and “formed” me into the person I am today. I just love the lessons in To Kill a Mockingbird, and I think it’s maybe the single most important novel of the 20th Century.  It’s just beautiful and is filled with so many life lessons.

As for Margaret Mitchell – whether you like her story or not – I don’t think anyone can deny that her characters just jumped right out of the pages of her book, and that’s what I love about Gone With the Wind. That’s what I want to do as a writer.

How do you develop your characters?

 I’m not sure that I develop my characters so much as they develop themselves. They evolve from my mental image in my head, and then they seem to take on their own personalities as the novel progresses until I’m sometimes shocked at who they’ve become.

The Edge of NowhereI started The Edge of Nowhere a little jaded. I never intended to publish this book – it was strictly intended to be an exercise in trying to understand the woman my grandmother had been.  She passed when I was 22 and, though I loved her dearly, we were never close.  She wasn’t demonstrative in her affection, and that sometimes led to my own confusion regarding whether I was “valued” as one of her grandchildren.  So when I sat down to write her character, I was deeply conflicted – and maybe a little angry.  It’s hard to separate in my mind the character (Victoria) from my own grandmother; but, while I loved my grandmother, I didn’t start out loving Victoria.  By the mid-way point, though, Victoria came alive for me.  I found myself truly loving her and hoping for her success.  Interestingly, the evolution of Victoria completely healed for me the “hurts” I’d felt at my own grandmother’s seeming lack of interest in me and, for the first time in my 45 years, I finally feel like I understood her – and more, I respect her!  I think readers will notice this in the writing.  If you read the Prologue of the novel, and then read the last chapter, you’ll notice a definite shift from the writer’s perspective regarding the main character.

Where do you come up with ideas for new characters or stories?

Almost always from personal experience or a story I’ve heard told, either through a newspaper article or just conversation.  The Edge of Nowhere was inspired by my own family’s struggle during the 1930s Oklahoma Dust Bowl, so I “knew” the main characters before I ever wrote my first words.  For the YA novel I’ve recently completed, the main characters were inspired by a story I wrote for Rochester Women magazine about a local soup kitchen that provides meals to the homeless.  So the characters and story for In My Shoes evolved very naturally from conversations with the homeless people I spoke to that day – in particular, a teenage girl and her family.

 How do you decide where to set a story?

In all cases, my stories dictate the location. My family lived in El Reno, Oklahoma during the 1930s Dust Bowl so there was no other place in my mind that could reasonably host The Edge of Nowhere.  For In My Shoes, the homeless people I met – and the soup kitchen in particular, which becomes a character in its own right – is in Rochester, Minnesota. So that book is set in Minnesota.

How much do you structure your stories before you write them?

Very little.  I wish I was more structured in all aspects of my life, but I’m just not.  I usually start with a main character and a major plot point.  Then, I’ll sit down and make a bullet-list of major elements I want to include, in the order I’d like them to happen.  I keep that on my computer and add to it – and move things around – as necessary.  It never looks like the outlines we were assigned to write in our high school English classes, but it gives me structure.  Sometimes, as my characters evolve, plot points disappear entirely because they no longer make sense; but, in most cases, the major plot points survive the final revisions.

 Do you have any revision tips to share?

YES – and it’s because it’s the best thing I’ve learned in this process.

  1. Don’t take yourself too seriously. If you’re offered revision advice, take it under serious consideration before becoming offended.  Not all revision advice is great advice, but a lot of it has something worthy to recommend itself.
  2. When reading for revisions, ask yourself these questions:- Have I said this somewhere else in the manuscript, either in dialogue between two characters or in description? If so, cut it.

    – Does this move the story along, or is it just because I enjoy my own writing?  If it’s not moving the story along, cut it.

    – Is there a better way to write this lengthy paragraph that would say the same thing with fewer words?  If so, revise.

    – In large descriptive passages, is there a way to “show” the reader through action and dialogue, rather than “telling” them through written description?  If yes, then revise.

  3. When you’re all done with your writing and revisions, put the manuscript aside for a couple of weeks then return to it with fresh eyes. You’ll be surprised at what you find.
  4. Very few authors have a completely “done” first pass on a manuscript, so don’t feel defeated if you need revisions. Harper Lee was sent back to her typewriter by her publisher, and told to start all over and tell the story through a child’s perspective rather than through the lens of an adult.  I imagine she felt frustrated and defeated, but she did as directed and completed the best novel I’ve ever read in the form of To Kill a Mockingbird.

What’s the best part about being a writer?

Without any doubt, the people I’ve met and the friendships I’ve made.  In the last eight months, I’ve met some of the best friends I’ve ever had – and none of them have I met face-to-face.  Many are going through the same process for the first time, so we have the commonality of a shared experience.
What do you do when you get stuck writing your story?

Walk away.  Seriously – this makes me sound schizophrenic, but my characters hate to be ignored.  If I walk away long enough, they’ll start talking to me again and won’t stop until I sit down and write their stories.

 What is the most memorable writing comment you’ve ever gotten? 

I’ve received two very recently from early readers, and those two comments have delighted me beyond imagination.  The first was from a reader who said, “It ranks right up there with To Kill a Mockingbird which is a true classic,” and the second from a reader who compared my main character to Scarlet O’Hara saying, “Victoria is tough, smart, and resourceful, and is reminiscent of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.”  As you can tell by reading the question about my heroes, there can be no doubt these were the biggest compliments I could ever have received from readers.

If your writing suddenly made you rich and famous, what would you do with your success?

This is easy!  I’d move back to Oklahoma (I’m terribly homesick), hire a publicist (the publicity part of publishing a book is a full time job and what I really want to do is write!), pay off the college tuitions for both of my children, donate money to a charity focused on finding a cure for dementia and Alzheimer’s, make sure my house is paid off, put aside some money for retirement, write tons more books, and book tickets to every Garth Brooks concert across the nation (huge Garth Brooks fan!).

Best book to movie?

Pride and Prejudice, BBC version.  Colin Firth – need I say more?

 Do you have a favorite quote you’d like to share?

Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”  I love this quote because it speaks to the importance of the quality behind a job well done. I’m really an all-or-nothing kind of person. I either do the job exceptionally well, or I don’t do it at all.  There is no in-between for me.  If I can’t do the job well, then I try to pass it on to someone else who can.

 

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Avid writer and reader, especially of fantasy. Learning about social networking and always interested in honing my writing skills. Contact me at cathleentownsend.com.

Posted in Author Interviews
One comment on “Interview with C.H. Armstrong
  1. Fun and informative interview, C.H. I enjoyed meeting you! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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