Please introduce yourself. Tell us a little about the person behind the pen.
I was born in Phoenix, Arizona, but now I live on a back road near a creek in a little valley hamlet beneath a mountain ridge. My children are all grown, and since I’m a widow, I have all the solitude I need for writing.
Phoenix was a small town when I was growing up with a chicken coop and an orange grove and lots of room to roam. After school, I would bake a pan or two of sugar cookies, take them across the street, and entertain my congregated girlfriends with my latest story. That storytelling inclination of mine probably came about because my father was such a good storyteller. His accounts of living in Old Mexico as a child, and then settling in the Tucson area, influenced my love of 19th Century Western history. Warner Brothers’ TV Westerns also factored into my love of Western stories. For years, I thought I’d been born in the wrong century. I think I’ve successfully outgrown that now, due to our present-day computers and flush toilets.
I always envied my cousins who lived on a ranch, but my ranch envy turned into writing about people who settled the West and lived on ranches.
How did you get involved with writing fiction and publishing it yourself?
I’ve been a writer all my life. My older sister tells me that when I was a toddler, I covered pages of notebook paper with scribbles and said it was my novel. I have no idea how I knew what a novel was. I do know I excelled at English and composition classes throughout my schooling. The teacher of the English class I took during my junior year of high school told me I should be teaching the class. That was interesting.
I began what became my first published novel, The Man from Shenandoah, in 1965. I was eighteen, and had suffered a brutal change of course in my life, so I started to write “The Great American Novel” as consolation. Soon I had a manuscript of twenty chapters. I carted that around with me for years, but didn’t seriously work on it again until the 1980s, when I began to consider sending work out to publishers. I’d been reading certain books and told myself I could write as well as any of their authors. I dusted off my “Great American Novel,” realized it was only a narrative summary, then began to study creative fiction writing with several teachers and through reading many instruction books.
After learning what commercial fiction writing really entailed, I began to hone the natural talent I had, and bit by bit, after throwing away a lot of chaff—such as too many characters—and adding the good stuff—like sensory details and emotions and actual plot—I had a manuscript to send out. I got good comments from editors, but no offers, because the market for Westerns was tight at that time.
Then I had a health crisis in 2002. The prognosis looked dire. I wanted to leave my work behind in fixed form so no one would throw it out upon my death, so I looked into self-publishing.
That was a risky choice, since self-publishing had a very bad reputation at the time. But after thinking about what form of self-publishing I wanted to engage in, and a period of intensive study of the possibilities, I chose the publishing assistance company that was my best option at the time. The Man from Shenandoah was published 38 years after I began to write it.
I sold many books at conventions and to friends, and was delighted with the great response from readers. By then I had learned the saga of the Owen Family wasn’t complete. I wrote a second book, Ride to Raton, for which I decided to use the same method of publishing.
When word leaked out that my third novel, Trail of Storms, was finished, I was invited to submit it to a couple of small publishers in the Mormon marketplace. I knew it wasn’t right for them, but did so anyway. When a reader came up to me in a grocery store and begged for the new book, I regretted that I was wasting months and months until I received the inevitable rejections. Why should I have delayed a book that clearly had a ready market? I went back for a third go-around at publishing myself.
By the time I was well into writing my fourth book about the Owens, I decided I needed to write sort of an origin book, wrapping up loose ends and letting my readers know why the family headed west at the close of the American Civil War. I began at the beginning of the war and plowed through to the end, finding a lot of surprises along the way.
I no longer use or recommend assisted publishing companies to writers. In fact, I strongly recommend against using them, since their business model is to sell new authors expensive editing and marketing packages instead of launching them into careers by focusing on selling books to readers. Now there are much better options for writers who wish to release their works independently.
My own company, WestWard Books, now publishes all my new projects. I format my books for ebook distribution to Amazon and other online vendors, and use CreateSpace to print and distribute my novels.
What do you love/enjoy most about what you do as a self-publishing writer?
I love being my own boss because I’m somewhat of a control freak. Because I self-publish, I don’t have a publisher controlling my schedule of publication, or most of my income. Of course the tasks of editing, cover design, marketing, and other aspects of the industry fall upon my head, but I contract out what is necessary.
The “origin story” novel I wrote for my series in 2014 bounced around from Book 5 to Book 0 on Amazon until I realized I had to rearrange the books in chronological order, which I did in 2016. Last year I began work on getting new covers for some of the novels so they will look more alike, be “branded” as one of “The Owen Family Saga” novels. What made all this possible is that I’m a self-published writer and have control of my own products.
Ironically, I wrote a novella last year that is the true origin story of the Owen family, That Tender Light. The Owen Family Universe continues to expand, with more Owen stories, plus companion stories under the Shenandoah Neighbors label. I also write stand-alone novels, novellas, and stories that have nothing to do with the Owen Family Universe.
How much research goes into your books, and how do you tackle that?
If I know I’m doing a book where I need to do heavy research, I start figuring out what I need to know in the way of historical facts, and then either research on the Internet or start buying reference books on that period or place. I read 150 books for my first novel, The Man from Shenandoah, and researched for a year and a half for a more recent one, Gone for a Soldier.
Once I have a solid overview of my most likely needs, I start writing, and find out what I really need to know. I leave a marker in the text to note my need for more research, and go back and fill in that information sometime while I write the first draft.
Tell us a little about your writing style? Do you plan and plot your stories, or do you just, as you said earlier, plow through them?
Despite the way I do research, I’m very much a discovery writer, also known as a “pantser,” or “organic” writer. It means that I sit down and write as my creative voice and my characters tell me the story. This is immensely freeing. I start the story out with my characters getting a jolt that will change his or her life, and I know more or less where I want the story to end. I may even know a few of the things that are likely to happen along the way, but I don’t really know how the story will progress until I write it. I learn fascinating things about my characters as I go.
Tell us about your books and where we can find them.
Actor Tom Selleck once said there should be a shelf in bookstores labeled “Darn Good Reads.” I like to think my novels go there. My fiction works are historicals set in the 19th Century American West. That broadly classifies them as Westerns, but if you think all Westerns are about outlaws and lawmen, or cowhands and sheep-herders, guess again. The Western genre has grown and evolved into many sub-genres, including my action/adventure/romance novels dealing with Western Migration and post-Civil War angst.
I started telling the story of the Owen family with what I thought would be one novel and done. I had no notion I was going to write a series. Here is a bit about the origin story novella and each of the novels in the Saga.
* That Tender Light deals with the almost miraculous way Rod Owen and Julia Helm met, and how they married very soon thereafter.
* Gone for a Soldier is the epic romance of their son Rulon Owen and Mary Hilbrands, set in a time of epic change.
* The Man from Shenandoah starts the family moving west from post-Civil War Virginia and tells how son Carl won his bride.
* Spinster’s Folly recounts Marie Owen’s worry that she will never find a spouse, and the appalling circumstances she gets herself into because she trusted the wrong man.
* Ride to Raton tells the other side of the coin to Carl’s happiness, as it details his brother James’s travels to get away from an unhappy situation, and his growth through some really interesting events.
* Trail of Storms goes back to Virginia and brings neighbors of the Owen clan out of the beleaguered South. A stop on their trip to Albuquerque brings new turmoil into the life of Jessie Bingham when she encounters James Owen again.
I have twenty-seven projects available as electronic books at online vendors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and many of them are also in print. I try hard to keep my website at http://marshaward.com updated with all my books listed, with purchase links.
If you threw a party and invited all of the characters in your books, who would be the least likely to come, and why? Who would you really hope to see at the party, and why?
I would need a conference center to invite all my characters to a party, but I would not expect C. G. Thorne from Spinster’s Folly to make an appearance. He couldn’t bear the scrutiny of the rest of them, and he well knows it. He operates best in the shadows.
Julia Owen is the character I’d most like to chat with at the party. I find her fascinating, because she’s the power behind the throne. She’s married to a 19th Century autocratic head of household, and I’d love to talk about her secrets for managing him.
Why is writing so important to you?
Writing is my main expression of the creative urge, the divine within us all. I had ambitious plans to conquer many creative arts when I was young. Photography, painting, music, yarn crafts, writing: I was going to do them all well! I already had a very good handle on music, as it was a family and educational focus. I decided to take a year for each creative area and master it, while I lived my ordinary life. I began with writing. After fifty years of study and practice, I have yet to master it! I never went on to study the other areas, except for continuing with music.
I have to write, as others have to breathe. I have many good friends among the characters in my head, and I am compelled to discover and tell their stories.
What is one piece of advice you would give to new writers?
Do your homework and learn how to write well. Then don’t be afraid to check out the freedom and almost instant readership being an independent self-publisher can give you. If you are the kind of writer who wants to connect with readers, you may want to do an end run around the very time-intensive and very limited traditional publishing world and check out the electronic and print self-publishing arena. If you are the kind of writer who needs the validation of gatekeepers and has plenty of time to spend chasing down an agent or a publisher, not so much. Over all, have faith in a bright future!