In the season of holy holidays, I’m delighted to feature my friend, Nancy Schoellkopf, as December Author of the Month.
Q: Ghost Owl: Sacred Path into Darkness is the third book in your Avian series. What inspired you to write it?
I’m very proud of Ghost Owl because it takes me deeper into the realm of Magical Realism, a genre I love. Plus the book is a bit of a thriller: as the story opens, my protagonist, Mariah Easter, is missing. Her family is upset. Her friend Rafa is desperately poring through her journals, looking for clues to her whereabouts. The plot has surprising twists, and yet the story was inspired by a single image.
One night, I awoke at 3 am and couldn’t go back to sleep. Light was seeping through my bedroom curtains. I got up and peeked outside. Although it was dark, there was a brightness that allowed me to see everything in my yard and on the street. It was all shrouded in gray, but as clear as day. I realized street lights were reflecting off the clouds. No big mystery. But it got me thinking up a story of a girl or young woman who sees into the dark. She can see everything that would ordinarily be hidden. What would she discover? Where would this talent lead her? So I sat down, started writing, and Ghost Owl was born.
Q: Sounds like you’re more of a “pantser,” that the story comes to you as you go along. Or do you outline the story ahead, what we call “plotters?”
Everything in my upbringing, my schooling, my temperament has geared me to be a plotter! I’m such a girl scout: always prepared. But I’ve finally learned that the best stuff—the most striking plot points, the outrageously beautiful metaphors—come to me when I’m riffing in my notebook. This realization represents a great surrender, and explains why writing is an important spiritual practice for me. I revel in it now: it’s so much fun to take an image or two and stretch it like spun sugar into a story, be it a single paragraph of flash fiction or a 300-page novel.
Q: What about your characters? Do you make them up as you go along too?
When I first started writing decades ago, like many novice writers, I based characters on people in my life. Most of that got edited out along the way. But I do want to credit my late friend Craig. We met when I was a first-year elementary school teacher and he was night custodian. He was a Spiritual Master with clairvoyant abilities, living a quiet life. He inspired a lot of stories for me.
Now I try to be patient as I create characters. The more I write about them, the more they begin to trust me and tell me about themselves. I try to give them lots of space so they’ll feel safe with me. After they’ve told me a lot of stories, I sometimes check out the Meyers Briggs Types or the Enneagram Profiles, to see if those give me some insight into who they might be. That helps me add a bit of color. And maybe then, I’ll realize I’ve just been exploring another aspect of myself all along.
Q: I know that in addition to your novels, you write poetry and short stories plus a blog. Can you share a bit about your journey to becoming a published author?
I’ve been very blessed to have had the right mentors come into my life at just the right time. In high school, there was Sister Mary who told me I had a writing talent beyond that of my peers. As Natalie Goldberg would say, she gave me permission to be a writer.
After college I had the amazing synchronous good fortune to befriend poet Mary Moore when we were both working for a local nonprofit, toiling away at non-poetry labor. She became a great mentor for me. She gave me permission to be a poet.
Around that same time, I discovered the Feminist Writers’ Guild, and met you, June! That was my first experience of a writers’ circle, and it shaped my writing in many ways. But more than that it gave me the confidence to pursue publication and publicity. I felt both grateful and honored to be able to call myself a member of the Writing Community.
Now I must give a shout out to John Crandall of the Sacramento Chapter of Amherst Writers and Artists. More than anyone I know, he is able to create a safe and supportive environment for writers at his workshops. I am very grateful for his friendship.
Q: What do you enjoy most about the writing process? What feels like a chore?
What I love most is my writing practice.
What feels most like a chore is my writing practice.
Seriously, some days it’s tedious, and I procrastinate, and feel discouraged. Other days I can’t wait to get started, and I have personally groundbreaking insights, or I write fabulous lines of poetry, or BAM!—a huge rush of words will tumble onto the page, and for an hour or two I’ll feel brilliant. But like any other daily activity, there are ups and downs, frustration and contentment. I have more to say about it in this blog post.
Q: Any advice for beginning writers?
For decades I have had a daily writing practice. Well, most of the time. I used to get up early in the morning and write a bit for 45 to 60 minutes before I went to work. But to be honest, there were times when life intervened and I’d go for days or weeks, even months, without writing. But I’d always start again. That’s the advantage of having a practice like this: you know you can do it. So you know you can do it again. If you have to stop for a while, it’s okay. You can start again.
Anyway, that’s my biggest piece of advice: develop a practice. Three to five days a week is ideal. Or look at your calendar every week, and schedule times to write. I feel strongly about this. Athletes and musicians practice. Writers need to practice too. You can’t just wait till you “feel inspired.” When you have a regular routine, the muse knows when to show up.
My second piece of advice is to find a writing community. Take a class, join a writing group, go to open readings. If you’re just starting, you don’t necessarily want to go to a critiquing group. Not yet. Join a group where you all write together. It’s much more supportive, and a lot of fun.
Q: What else would you like people to know about your books and you as a writer?
My stories do not fit easily into most of the popular genres like mystery, sci fi, or romance, though sometimes they may contain aspects of all of them. Usually the main characters are on the spiritual path, so my writing appeals to folks who find themselves on similar journeys.
I have published three novels, Yellow-billed Magpie, Redtail Hawk, and Ghost Owl, and a small collection of short stories, Rover. For more information, please check out my Amazon page.
I’ve also been having a lot of fun publishing roughly edited flash fiction and everyday ordinary musings on my blog. Finally, I’ve recently become enamored with Goodreads. I’ve had fun writing book reviews and posting them on my page there. Folks may reach me at my website.
Thanks so much, June!