Today, I’m delighted to welcome Betsy Talbot to Virtual Book Club, a series in which I put questions to authors about their latest releases. If there’s anything else you’d like to know, you’ll have the opportunity to post your questions at the end.
Betsy Talbot is a 40-something traveller and author. When she’s not travelling or penning books about love, adventure, and self-discovery, she is hiking, learning flamenco dancing, and drinking wine in a tiny whitewashed village in Spain.
Betsy is the co-author of four non-fiction books with her husband Warren Talbot, and they also co-host the popular weekly podcast, Married with Luggage.
Her latest project is The Late Bloomers Series, a five-book romance series about women in their forties – because women with experience make the best characters…in life and on the page.
Q: Betsy, can you start by telling us how you came to be a writer.
Like most writers, I always wanted to be one. And like most aspiring writers, I kept telling myself I’d do it someday when I had time, when I had something to say, or when inspiration struck. But how can you be even an aspiring writer without actually writing? Truth is, you can’t. It took me a long time to figure that out.
In 2007 my thirty-five-year-old brother had a heart attack. One year later, my thirty-five-year-old friend had a brain aneurysm. These two events caused me to question what I was going to do with my remaining time on this planet, and this is what spurred the two-year plan to sell everything I owned and travel the world with my husband, Warren.
I documented everything on our website, Married with Luggage, mainly to reassure our family and friends that we were at least being sensible about this crazy decision. The blog posts became popular outside our circle of family and friends, and people began asking us questions. How did we get to the point where we could make a decision like this? Where did the money come from? What would we do with all our stuff? What happens if we go on the trip and realise it was a mistake?
These were all good questions, and as I repeatedly responded and wrote blog posts about it, I began thinking I should just put them in a handy little e-book for people to download. That eventually expanded into a full-length book, and it just kept going.
That’s how the whole writing business started back in 2011, and since then I’ve co-written four non-fiction books with my husband and now have a contemporary romance series for women over forty of my own.
If I could go back in the past and give my aspiring writer self a piece of advice, I’d tell her to set a deadline and get to work.
When I stopped thinking about being a writer and just wrote, I became a writer, and the more I wrote, the more I improved. It’s not rocket science, but the logic of it escaped me for a long time.
Q: Who gave you your first encouragement as a writer?
I know some may argue, but I have the best mother on the planet. Her unwavering support is the greatest advantage I’ve ever been given in my life, and one I wish she had been given as a child herself. It’s the kind of gift you can’t really appreciate until you reach adulthood, and then you feel lucky as hell to have it.
She has supported every crazy thing I’ve ever done, from declaring myself to be a writer at age ten, to moving to a big city on my own, to selling everything to travel the world, and finally to settle down in Spain. It only took me thirty years to achieve the writer goal, but thankfully my mom is patient.
My parents are also productive and organised people, and they instilled in me a good work ethic. That’s a good combination to have if you want to work as a writer.
I still send her all my work. But like most moms, she is not very objective, so I don’t ask her to critique my work!Click on the link buy or look inside Wild Rose (The Late Bloomers Series Book 1)
Q: You’ve travelled the world and then settled in Spain. How does your home and its environment influence your writing?
I arrived in Spain as a traveller in 2013, and one week later I bought a house. This is a big endorsement for Spain, because before that I lived out of a backpack for four years. This village of whitewashed houses under the blue sky of Andalusia is the only place I’ve ever been that caused me to stop and say, “I could live here.”
The space I write in is a sunny landing outside my bedroom. My desk is made out of an old door with a glass top, and to my right is a window that overlooks the hill up to the school. I write every day until two o’clock, when I see the children in their multi-coloured backpacks walk down the hill with their parents.
The pace of life here is slow, the interactions genuine, and the community tight-knit. When I was travelling my writing reflected my disconnected state, a more individual perspective on my subjects. Now that I’m part of a community again, my writing has a connected feel. I’m also more aware of my surroundings because I have to adapt to this new country and language in a dozen little ways every day. This sensitivity makes me a better writer.
From my front door I can take several different walks around the countryside, and this daily walking meditation keeps me grounded.
It also doesn’t hurt that Spain reveres artists of all types, including writers. It feels more like a profession here than a hobby, at least in the minds of non-writers.
Q: There’s a rather glib saying: “All fiction is biography and all biography is fiction”. Do you agree?
Yes! It wasn’t until I started writing fiction that I felt so exposed. Really, you lay yourself bare when it comes to creating characters and motivations. My nonfiction books were a walk in the park compared to this, mainly because I was telling stories or experiences well set in my mind, repeated many times, and even written about on my blog. But when it came to writing fiction, everything was new, a product of my imagination but heavily influenced by who I am. I liken it to standing in the middle of the street in my granny panties and waving at passersby – a completely neutral example from a non-neurotic writer, of course!
Published August 2015 and available for pre-order now! English Ivy (The Late Bloomers Series Book 2): Contemporary Romance
Q: The protagonist in English Ivy is Ivy Cross. What five words best describe her?
Witty, Driven, Sexy, Devoted, Curious.
Q: Where does this story fit in with the rest of your work?
English Ivy is the second book in The Late Bloomers Series. I write contemporary romance for women over forty, and my latest character Ivy is an American living in London. When I introduced her briefly in book one of the series, Wild Rose, readers begged me to make her story the next book. She’s a firecracker!
The series is about five lifelong friends from America who each undergo a professional, personal, and romantic transformation in their forties. This age is when many people question where they are in life and what lies ahead, and my characters are no different. What is unusual about them is their strong bond of friendship despite having very different personalities and life paths. They are a joy to write, and most days I find myself amazed at what they reveal to me. These are all women I want to be friends with and stories I want my friends to enjoy reading.
Q: Why women over the age of 40? (Of which I’m one, I might add.)
I am a card-carrying member of the invisibility squad, the legion of women over 40 who often get overlooked in society, especially in entertainment. We celebrate when a movie with actresses over 40 comes out, especially if they are playing more than a wife or girlfriend role. As if that should be a special thing! I want to read books and see movies and sing songs about women who are complex – a variety of women of all ages, races, and sizes! – because that’s who we are in real life.
For a long time, I felt the same way about romance books. The heroine was always young and beautiful and rescued by a rich guy. She melded into his life – at the castle, the penthouse, or the mansion. That never resonated with me, and for years I didn’t read anything in the romance category except Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books, and you can’t call her heroine someone who melds into anyone’s life, even if you take her back in time!
It wasn’t until I read about the Bechdel Test that I realised why these books didn’t resonate with me: the women were often an extension of the man. I wanted more than that, which is why I read so many dystopian novels and thrillers with strong female leads. When the zombies take over and everyone has to work together to survive, it’s a pretty good equaliser for the sexes and races.
(The Bechdel Test was created as a standard for movies: the film must contain at least two women and they must talk to each other about something other than a man. When you apply this test, you’ll see how few movies pass.)
What is great for me now is dipping back into the romance genre and seeing how much it has changed since I first tried reading it twenty years ago. So many other authors are creating complex characters with career, family, and friendship at levels as important as their romantic relationships. This is what I strive to do in my writing, to acknowledge the invisible, to honor all the stages and aspects of our lives.
Books and music are getting better for women, but the movies still have a long way to go to win me back.
Q: Where do you get your inspiration from?
Much of my inspiration comes from real life. I cultivate relationships with interesting people, and my life is spent travelling and experiencing new things on a regular basis. I don’t know that I’ll ever run out of things to write about.
When I meet someone with an interesting job, like a singer in a band, a doctor with Médecins Sans Frontiéres, a vineyard owner, or a cheesemaker, I ask a lot of questions. Then I imagine all sorts of things happening to and around that person, and I wonder what it would be like on the pages of a book. And then I go to my trusty Evernote file and record my ideas. Sometimes they turn into something, and sometimes they don’t, but I think the real magic is in learning to think that way about everyday life.
There is a man in my village who feeds stray cats. He keeps the food in his pockets, and when he goes out for his evening stroll the cats follow him to his favourite bench, and they crawl all around him as he feeds them. It’s a sweet little vignette, and it inspired a similar scene in my book, Wild Rose, to help explain a character’s feelings. These mini inspirations happen frequently, and many small details from my life and travels make it into my books.
Q: Let’s talk about your writing life. Do you work to a set word-count?
Yes, before I start writing a new book or short story I know the word count goal, and I plug it into Scrivener. Then I add in the days of the week I want to write (usually six) and my deadline, and I have a word count to reach every single day. Some days progress bar fills up quickly, and some days it mocks me.
It helps to plot it out generally, do the character sketches and location descriptions first. I’m a combination plotter and pantser, preferring to generally outline but be open to change if it feels right.
Once my sketching is done, I can get a first draft out in a reasonable amount of time. But I’m not a one-draft wonder. I write in layers. It takes me at least three tries to get it fully fleshed out and ready for final copy editing, and I depend on beta readers and an editor to keep me on track.
So yes, I write to a set word count, but I also pad in the two other revision times so I can hit my deadlines. (And yes, I have a deadline set before I write the first word, or else it would never, ever get finished.)
Q: Some writers need silence, others like the buzz of a coffee shop, the rumble of a train or their favourite music. Which type are you?
In the past I would have shushed you! I’ve always done my best work in silence, though I am gracious enough to allow birds chirping outside.
But in the past year I’ve been using a service called Focus at Will. The music is designed to aid concentration and creativity, and the timer feature allows me to work in twenty-five minute sessions of concentration followed by five-minute breaks, which I’ve learned is best for my production. I used to listen to acoustical music, but lately I’ve been listening to a selection called Drums and Hums. When this music is on, it is easy for me to tune other things out.
For those that like the sound of a coffee shop but maybe not the interruption or uncomfortable seating, there is even a selection on Focus at Will with a coffee shop background.
Q: What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
I am currently taking flamenco dancing lessons. Living in the Andalusia region of Spain, it’s a rite of passage for all the little girls and boys. When a class opened for women, I jumped at the chance. Every Monday morning I go to the studio, help the instructor open up all the giant wooden shutters to let in the natural light, and put on my special shoes with the nail heads on the heel and toe. We stand on the wooden platform in front of the old standing mirrors and learn the steps, striking our heels and toes and trying to keep our arms in the right positions.
It’s such a challenge, and a welcome change to work my body instead of my brain. I’m also an avid walker, taking a one-hour stroll every morning at sunrise with my husband. A few times a year we take a complete digital detox and go on a long walk. We’ve walked the West Highland Way in Scotland, the Cordilleras Blancas in Peru, the steppes of Mongolia, as well as trekked the 500 km of the Lycian Way in Turkey. This year we’re planning to explore a lot of Spain on foot.
Q: I’m also a very keen walker. (I’ve also walked the West Highland Way, The Pembrokeshire Coastal Path and the Inca trail.) In fact, I find that I get some of my best ideas when walking.
Working my body always has a positive impact on my creativity, and I work out a lot of details and problems when I’m walking or dancing.
Q: Are there any books on writing that you find particularly useful and would recommend?
I treat my writing as a business, and I look for successful authors who work the same way. My favorite example is Sean Platt, who works with two writing partners to create both serialized fiction and standalone books in multiple genres. They have written a book titled Fiction Unboxed: Publishing and Writing a Novel in 30 Days, From Scratch, In Front of the World (The Smarter Artist Book 2), which showcases the behind-the-scenes process of how they wrote a book in thirty days. It’s a great learning tool, even if you have no desire to write a book in thirty days.
What I base much of my own process on is Platt’s previous work with Johnny B. Truant, Write. Publish. Repeat. (The No-Luck-Required Guide to Self-Publishing Success) (The Smarter Artist Book 1). This is a how-to guide for anyone who wants to create repeatable processes for writing and publishing. And they took it one step further by creating a course on Udemy on how to craft story beats in Scrivener, which is like the stepchild of Plotting and Pantsing. It’s a perfect fit for me.
On the craft of writing and creativity in general, I am a fan of Stephen King’s On Writing and Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life (Unabridged).
When I’m feeling stuck, I generally turn to the short and powerful read, Do the Work by Stephen J. Pressfield. Once you learn about resistance from him, you’ll be able to recognise the signs immediately and do the work to get around it.
I’m always more interested in authors who create a body of work rather than a single masterpiece. How do you capture that creativity and use it for the long haul? That’s the holy grail for me, and I’ll continue to watch and learn from other prolific authors like Chuck Wendig, Melissa Foster, and Sean Platt.
Wantt o find out more about Betsy?
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Written on June 3, 2015 at 9:52 am, by Jane Davis
Categories: A Day in the Life, Author Interviews, Blog, Homepage, In-depth, Virtual Book Club, Writing Life | Tags: author, Author Interviews, behind the book, Betsy Talbot, On reading, On writing, Over 40, Romantic fiction, Traveller, Virtual Book Club, Writing life
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