It is my great pleasure to host author Marsha Ward on my blog today! And, she’s giving away a paperback copy of her book to one lucky commenter, so be sure to leave a comment at the end!
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 girlfriends with my latest story. That 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 outgrown that, due to our present-day computers and flush toilets.
I always envied my cousins who lived on a ranch, but the ranch envy turned into writing about people who settled the West and lived on ranches.
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 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 my most recent, 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 that information in when I have finished the first draft.
What is the best comment you ever received from a reader? The worst or weirdest?
I try not to read reviews, but I’ve received some nice comments from readers over the years. One told me she so admired a female character in my first novel that she wanted to be like her.
I did read a review once that praised my very real characters and well told story, but wished I had stayed with the storyline when I, according to them, veered off on a tangent for about a fourth of the book to tell about the religious beliefs of a group of people the characters met. Apparently, they missed the part where some of my characters were deeply affected by what they learned, which eased hidden sorrows and guilt enough that they could climb out of their holes and make changes for the better.
Tell us a little about your writing style? Do you plan and plot your stories, or do you just plow through them?
Despite the way I do research, I’m very much a discovery writer, also known as a pantser. I start out with my characters(s) getting a jolt that will change his or her life, and I know more or less where I want to end the story. 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 go until I write it. I learn fascinating things about my characters that way.
Can you tell us a little about your most recent work, Gone for a Soldier? Is there a story behind the story?
Yes, and yes. I started telling the story of the Owen family with what I thought would be one novel and done. 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. It was published a long time later, at which time I learned the saga wasn’t over. When 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. Thus, I began at the beginning of the war and plowed through to the end, with surprises to me, as well as to my readers. Gone for a Soldier is the epic romance of Rulon Owen and Mary Hilbrands, set in a time of epic change. Here’s the description:
Rulon Owen loves two things more than life—his country and Mary Hilbrands.
When Virginia secedes from the Union, Rulon enlists, and finds himself fighting foes both in battle and in his own camp. He struggles to stay alive against all odds, with a knife-wielding tent-mate and a Union army that seems impossible to defeat. It will take every ounce of vigilance he has to survive and, with a little luck, he might make it home to his wife and the son he's never seen.
Forced to live with her parents for the duration, Mary faces a battle for independence. With a mother whispering that her husband won't come home to her and a son who needs her to be both father and mother, Mary has to dig deep for strength to overcome her overwhelming loneliness and the unknown future ahead.
Separated by war and circumstance, Rulon and Mary discover that not all enemies wear the Union blue.
What sets Mary apart from all the other women in Rulon’s life? Why is she perfect for him?
Ever since Rulon first noticed her, Mary Hilbrands has always been able to turn his insides to jelly. There is a look in her eyes that attracts him like a bear to a bee tree. Despite her youth, Mary has a strength she doesn’t suspect, and it comes out during the awful war that keeps them apart.
Have you ever had writer’s block? How do you deal with it?
Yes. I eat chocolate and work on something else until I clear my head.
Can you give us a little background on your hero, Rulon, that’s only in your author notes, and not found in your story? What inspired you to create this character?
Because I’ve written a series of novels and Gone for a Soldier is a prequel, so to speak, Rulon has been around for a long time as a calming influence on his younger brothers and sisters. But I suspected that he wasn’t always that way, and I wanted to explore who he was as a youth. I discovered that, had he not been reared by the mother who bore him, he could have been a bit of a reprobate, let us say. His intense yearning to wed Mary before he leaves to fight supports that discovery. The war knocked rough edges off and good sense into him.
Describe a favorite scene in Gone for a Soldier?
Mary is obliged to assist at the birth of her mother’s baby. Pregnant with her own child, Mary has an epiphany when she realizes that her parents had engaged in the same marital behavior that she and her husband had—although she doubts they could have enjoyed it as much as she. Remember, the Civil War occurred during the Victorian age, when hardly anyone in Mary’s society thought about sex. Or rather, didn’t admit to thinking about sex. In this book, there’s a fair amount of such thinking going on, but it’s not written in a graphic manner.
What else do you have in store for your readers?
I’m writing a Mormon migration story. This is quite a departure from my series novels. For one thing, it’s written in first person. For another, it explores how early Mormon history affects the lives of the Marshall family. But it’s still a story of a family on the move. I seem to like journeys.
Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Gone for a Soldier:
Rulon — April 19, 1861
Rulon Owen hadn’t intended that crisp Friday in April to be momentous.
In fact, when he’d saddled his horse in order to do an errand in Mount Jackson for his ma, he hadn’t given much thought to anything but stealing a few moments to see Mary Hilbrands.
She was only a little bit of a thing, a girl with dark hair and eyes that shone like... well, they kind of smoldered nowadays whenever she looked his way. Those smoky dark eyes gave him a shaky feeling that spun his head in circles and tied his gut into knots that...
“Whew.” Rulon realized he’d let the horse slow to a walk while he’d been off in a reverie, somewhere not in Shenandoah County, as far as he could tell. He got the horse loping again, and wished it was already a year from now. Mayhap folks wouldn’t get their tails in a twist about them keeping company once Mary turned sixteen in May next year. He was almighty tired of Ben and Peter, and especially of Pa, accusing him of trying to rob the cradle because he’d taken such a shine to the girl. Yes. He’d concede that she was young, but when she spoke his name, his knees felt like they was composed of apple jelly.
Ma sides with me, he thought. Pa was the true cradle-robber of the family when the two of them wed. Him twenty-four. Ma barely sixteen.
He wasn’t likely to throw his opinion on that subject in his father’s face any day soon. Firm. Formidable. The entire county used those words to describe his father. Rulon shook his head. Receiving back-sass from his offspring did not sit well with Roderick Owen. But at age twenty, Rulon hadn’t taken a lickin’ for a long spell. Maybe Pa’s gone soft in his old age. That’s likely, now that he has nigh onto forty-five years pressing him down.
Rulon rode on, wondering what to do to get his father off his back on the subject of Mary Hilbrands. It’s time I ask Ma to say a word to Pa, he determined at last. She won’t let him ride me once I begin to court Mary in earnest.
He slowed the horse to a walk as he entered the town. Ahead, he spotted his brother Ben pulling sacks of grain out of a wagon parked in front of the mill where he’d taken employment over the winter. Glancing up, Ben saw Rulon, and stopped to raise his hand in greeting, a big grin splitting his face.
Rulon drew rein and halted. “Brother Ben.” He clasped the outstretched hand. “What makes you so happy today?”
“I am put in a smilin’ mood from seein’ you with that enraptured look on your face. Can’t wait to thrust your hand into the cookie jar, huh?”
Rulon snorted at Ben’s fancy.
Ben kept on talking his nonsense. “Oh yes, indeed. You’re an enchanted man, spellbound and smitten, ready to do that girl’s bidding.”
“Speak for yourself, brother.”
Ben laughed and said, “Give my best to Miss Mary,” then smacked Rulon’s horse on the rump, which caused it first to shy and then to run.
After a block atop the runaway, Rulon regained control of the animal. “Heartless boy,” he grumbled, his face hot with humiliation. He settled the horse down to a sedate walk once again as he proceeded on his errand.
As he came in view of Mr. Hilbrands’ store, he saw a crowd of excited men, some coming, and some going. Some were running. Running! What was amiss?
He drew up and dismounted. As soon as he had his feet on the ground, a friend of Pa’s shoved the newspaper from Harrisonburg into his hands and bid him take it home. Slapping him on the back, the man ran down the street.
Rulon watched the man’s hasty departure, then looked at the immense black headlines of the special edition. WAR. He read the subtitles interspersed with the text on the front page. Ft. Sumter surrenders. Lincoln calls for troops. Via. Conv. votes to secede. Ratification vote in May. Counties raising Companies. Defend the Homeland. His heart went cold at the urgency of the words. It soon rebounded, and began to beat at a rate he’d not experienced many times in his life. He looked up from the paper, his breath as quick as his heart rate, and made a decision. Feeling the cogs of his life shuddering to a halt and then changing direction, he strode into the store to put his plan into action.
The e-book of Gone for a Soldier will be on sale for $.99 for a week (Oct 5-12).
Here are purchase links:
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One lucky commenter will win a paperback book (e-book for international) in the U.S. or Canada.