Charlene Ann Baumbich is the author of the Dearest Dorothy series, Stray Affections, and Divine Appointments, as well as several nonfiction books of humor and inspiration. She is also a popular speaker, an award-winning journalist, and lives with her husband in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
Tell us a bit about your current project.
Finding Our Way Home is my sixteenth traditionally published book, ninth novel. It’s a story about grace, uncommon friendships, and small acts of love, a terrific threesome to “live in” during the writing.
Set in the fictional town of Wanonishaw, Minnesota, the book opens after Sasha Davis, a professional ballerina who suffered a career-ending injury, isolates herself in her recently deceased mother’s home. Unable to attend to all her necessities, she places an ad in the newspaper for a live-in assistant. Little does she know that the young woman she hires, Evelyn Burt, a precocious nineteen-year-old her opposite in every way, is about to turn her life upside down.
Writing about their friction—living in the minds of each of these women—and watching their friendship blossom, was a terrific, joy-filled learning experience. A good reminder as to how much we really do need each other here on planet earth.
But to be honest, at this moment, long after the book has been written, my “current project” is spending time talking about the novel, thinking of ways to publicize, engaging with readers and sharing my utter passion for the story.
We are all about journeys...unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.
Convoluted. Exactly! And a huge surprise.
It’s just crazy that I’m an author, that writing became not only my joy, but my labor, my hobby and my sanity. (Okay, also my angst, my aggravation, my stress and frustration.) I have only a few months of college under my belt. I received average English grades in high school. I didn’t start writing, seriously, if you can call it that, until my youngest son was in high school and I was in my 40s.
Only two things can explain my surprise career: God and the fact I’m mostly Irish, which makes me a natural-born storyteller.
After my mom died (I was 30), my doctor suggested I write things down. My first experience putting my emotions to paper was like taking a cork off a fizzed up bottle. A few words turned to many, turned to poetry, turned to, Wow! I LIKE this. Who knew?! I didn’t start writing more “for real” until my “baby” was in high school. I say “for real” because before that, I was still just noodling around, really, writing poetry (I still belong to a poetry club), humorous tidbits to read say at Cub Scout meetings, things I sometimes shared with friends.
My first published piece was a letter I wrote to our local newspaper, expressing, with a good dose of humor, what I’d witnessed my son learn about himself through wrestling. Although the piece was light-hearted, it was also passionate. I was passionate. Not about writing and being published, but about expressing something important I wanted people to know. Seeing those words in print and receiving awesome feedback spurred me on. Whoa! Maybe there’s something here!
After a series of misunderstandings (someone thought I was a professional writer, when all I said was that I was taking a community writing class), I was handed a newspaper clip stating the local paper was looking for a columnist. So, with one clip (the wrestling piece) and no college degree, I applied. (Duh!) Much to my surprise, I began writing a community column, then features, then features for a larger newspaper, then magazine articles.
After my newspaper/magazine work was in gear for two years, an editor at a publishing house saw my work, liked my storytelling voice and humor, and contacted me, asking if I had any ideas for a book. (WHAT?!) My youngest son had recently left for college. All I wanted to talk about was how quickly time goes, and how blessed I’d been to not miss my kids. That became my first book. Don’t Miss Your Kids, They’ll Be Gone Before You Know It. (InterVarsity Press, 1991, it’s still in print!)
Five nonfictions later, another editor I’d worked with asked me if I might have any ideas for senior citizens characters for a novel. I’d just lost three very important older folks within a three-week time span: my dad, my godmother and the real Dearest Dorothy, whom the eventual Penguin Books series was named after. The thought I could somehow keep their wisdom, humor and lust for life alive through fiction was so appealing, that after a few conversations and zero classes on how to write fiction, I embarked on novel writing—which “took.”
In each case along my writing journey, I said yes to something before I was ready. I always tell people, I have more guts than brains. If you wait until you’re ready, you’ll die waiting.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.
Well into my publishing career, I still tormented myself with the following question: When is someone going to discover I can’t write? But through time and ongoing contracts, it finally settled in that I could. Not that I’d ever be categorized as high literature, but I’m in love with a good story, and that, coupled with the humor, is my gift. Through hard work and much prayer, I deliver that gift as best as I can.
As for writer’s block, nah. I am completely unafraid to write garbage—off-topic garbage, terrible sentence structure, private rants, e-mails—until something fires my creative adrenalin. I’m a blatherer, even with my fingers, so I just keep blathering until I’m back to story again.
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
I didn’t know much of anything about publishing before I started, otherwise, I’m sure I’d have been too discouraged to begin. I did, however, and relatively early on, attend a few writers’ conferences. What a great way to learn and network. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! Crash courses, you might say, in things that are important about the industry.
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
Living life. Story ideas are everywhere: rocks, friends, TV, newspapers, fast-foot restaurants, public restrooms, conversation, clouds… If you decide to lock yourself away and not LIVE, but just write all the time, how will you stay fresh and sane? Where will your most life-like ideas come from?
Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.
I’d been writing winter scenes all day, and was shocked—SHOCKED—to look over the top of my monitor, out the window to the cow pasture, and notice it was spring! My first conversation after that was spent trying to clarify—ground myself, you might say—in the correct season, let alone month.
With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?
Nothing different, really. Stop listening to negativity. Attend writers’ conferences for info and contacts. Stop talking about writing and do it. Do not glamorize “being” an author. Yes, it’s rewarding, but you can’t live the life of a published author without writing. Amen. And for goodness sake, entertain yourself!
Also, care about what you’re writing. Let the story lead. If you’re bored and just filling pages, that is how readers will receive it.
What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?
Reading author Madeleine L’Engle’s nonfiction books, especially when she talks about writing. Walking on Water: reflections on faith and art, was instrumental in giving me the courage I needed to trust that the stories were smarter than me. My job was to serve the story, to get out of my own way. Since I’m a person of Christian faith, she spoke my language.
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why? (Doesn't have to be one of your books or even published.)
Anything I’ve written in a personal letter or email that has encouraged someone, especially my sons.
Decades ago, I wrote a not-for-pay letter to the editor about watching, horrified, as a man’s lifeless body was pulled from the Chicago River. Many people around me acted as though it wasn’t real, as though someone’s son, someone’s brother or husband, wasn’t gone from this earth. That’s what I wrote about. A notable gentleman with a major Chicago radio show read it on the air and spoke of its power. The question in the end was, Are we becoming desensitized by watching things on TV, to the point that nothing seems real? People tracked me down to leave thank yous on my answering machine!
Share a dream or something you'd love to accomplish through your writing career.
Entertain, make people laugh, have them find themselves in the stories, peel back their layers, make them think, give them hope, believe they’re somehow at least a tad better/wiser/happer/hope-ier for having read what I’ve written. And to know that I have presented it with trust, integrity, honesty and passion.
What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?
This could be a number of things! I’m easily entertained and bolstered. Things that come to kneejerk mind: music (the right song for the right mood, with or without lyrics); an encouraging email from a reader; a nearby bowl of something to crunch; a nice view from my keyboard; an object that has whispered to me, There is a story here; a good laugh with a friend …
WAIT! I just reread the question. I think you’re asking about writing rewards! Reader feedback is wonderful, of course. But honestly, after I’ve written a scene that made me laugh or cry, sigh or yell at the character, or maybe even goosebumped me, I step away from the keyboard feeling rich and blessed and lucky and satisfied to do something I love.
What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?
Every moment of life is oomph worthy, depending on how you spin it.
Describe your special or favorite writing spot or send a picture if you'd like.
What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?
Any aspect can be difficult, especially if you’re tired, emotionally spent, or bored. In these cases, get some rest and/or walk away from writing until you’re refreshed. Or, just bang yourself in the head with a brick.
Having said that, some of the things that do NOT feel difficult, and in fact are FUN, end up groaners--after a smart editor weighs in. (I just groaned writing that. )
For instance, my characters occasionally take me “over there”, so I follow them, typing all the while, because I’m extremely curious about every aspect of their lives. (You ask this question later, but I’m a total pantser, which means I don’t outline. Curiosity drives me.) Then arrives the editorial question, What does this section have to do with the story, Charlene? Delete or condense. Um … But it was so interesting. Yes, but it really has nothing to do with moving the story forward.
But I never learn anything the easy way. Although I try to be better at recognizing my side excursions, and cut them before I submit (I must always write them!), I don’t always succeed. This is one of the main reasons I need an editor. Good editors are pure gold. We are too close to our stories to recognize these things.
Also, I suck at grammar and spelling, but I try.
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?
I don’t write every day. I sit in the same place, when I can, because I like a big screen and a giant ergonomic keyboard. Having said that, I’ve created some good stuff in a coffee shop on my laptop.
I usually don’t stop writing for the day until I run out of creative energy (not ideas, but energy), or if someone calls me to go play. I almost always choose play (breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, movie, run errands with them ….) I’ve never been sorry I’ve walked away from my keyboard. I do not desire the tormented life of a pale, isolated writer. I do, however, meet deadlines and sometimes put in late nights.
Interestingly, I am fed as an introvert. In other words, writing energizes me—until I’ve had enough for any given day, which could be anywhere from 100 to 3000 new words. However, around 1250-2000 words plus the editing of previous chapters is most typical, although some days I go backwards in total word count due to critical editing. I adore my friends, but as delicious as time with friends is, engaging drains me. I try to be deliberate and disciplined about the balance.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
Total pantser. Total. My energy comes from chasing the story.
Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?
Enjoy what you do, and find your characters interesting and intriguing. Otherwise, why write about them? Why write at all?