Lisa Wingate

How did you become a writer?

A special first grade teacher, Mrs. Krackhardt, put the idea of being a real writer into my head.  She found me writing a story one day at indoor recess, and she took the time to stop and read it.  When she was finished, she tapped the pages on the desk to straighten them, looked at me over the top and said, “You are a wonderful writer!” From that moment, in my mind, I was a writer. 

I was only in her class for a few months before we moved again, but during that time, she left an indelible mark on my life.  It’s funny how we have defining moments in our lives, and that time in Mrs. Krackhardt’s class was one of mine. For years, I couldn’t have told you what she looked like, or whether she was a young teacher or an old teacher, but I could have told you that she said I was a “wonderful writer”. When I left her class, she wrote on my report card, “Keep that pencil working with that wonderful imagination, Lisa!” and “I expect to open a magazine and see her name listed among the contributors.” I still have that report card, and I never forgot those words, or the way her confidence in me gave me confidence. Publishing is a difficult business, but I always believed I could do it, because my first grade teacher told me so, and first grade teachers don’t lie. 

And, how did I come to be a writer, one who a teacher would notice in the fall of my first grade year? My older brother came home from second grade a few years before that with a blue ribbon stapled to his little story, “The Bee Went Under the Sea”. My grandparents were visiting and everyone stopped to listen when he read his story with the blue ribbon flapping over the pages. I was thinking, “Everyone pays attention to you when you read a story,” and I also envied that blue ribbon. My brother taught me to print the letters and the sounds the letters make before I entered kindergarten. Once I knew the code, I was off and writing (phonetically) stories with illustrations. I always had a story going. My closet shelf had a stack of notebooks with books in progress. Many were unfinished because another story would come to mind and I’d be off writing that story. From age four on, I was a writer and never looked back. 

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

There was S.E. Hinton who visited my class when the movie of “The Outsiders” was being filmed in my area. I saw then that writers are real people and, like me, they dreamed of becoming a writer when they were children. 

There was Mark Twain. I adored his books and reread some of them many times over and played scenarios of drifting down the river and camping. 

There was Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of my favorite TV series and whose books I devoured. My friends and I play acted numerous scenes from her books, using the picnic table as a Conestoga wagon and we rode the benches as horses. 

And, there was my grandmother who all those years of my childhood, told of teams of horses raised, trained and sold; of wanting to be out in the fields helping with the crops instead of in the house caring for a baby, a deprived childhood where she wasn’t even sent to school, but kept home to help care for the younger children and clean house.

In her later years, we encouraged her to write down her stories in a journal we could save, but she never did and we couldn’t seem to catch her in the right mood to make a video of the stories. Now and then a story from her would pop up in her small-town newspaper or in a letter written to her niece, but it’s likely she thought it too frivolous to spend time “just writing” when there was volunteer work to do and gardens to weed and neighbors to visit and family across the miles waiting for a letter.  

Grandma came to visit me when my first child, her first great-grand was born. She told me stories of her childhood and life as a farm wife and mother…stories with life lessons for me. I scrambled to write those down in a notebook when she took a nap or after her early bedtime. Years later and with a second child still in the crib I pulled that notebook out from a drawer and had the idea to put Grandma’s stories into a novel with a family like and unlike mine. The book became the first of 30 published novels, Tending Roses. In the book, Grandma Rose leaves my real grandmother’s stories around in a notebook for her granddaughter Kate to find as she struggles about whether to return to her career after the birth of her first child. In reality, my Grandma told me the stories as she rocked my baby to sleep after we worked on the rose garden in my first house. Tending Roses and the four companion books are enjoying a great resurrection, new covers, e-books and audio book narrations as a result of the popularity of Before We Were Yours. Nearly every day, I receive a letter from some new reader who is finding my grandma’s wisdom through this book. I love sending Grandma’s stories going out to a whole new generation of grandmothers, moms, dad, sisters, brothers, and young people.

When and where do you write? 

In earlier days when someone asked me that I would say that I write in the carpool line delivering my boys at school, or on the bleachers as they were at ball practice. I could write at my desk in the middle of the house, with sons and friends going in and out and creating all manner of chaos. 

These days the boys are grown and the house is quiet. I move from place to place throughout the day. In good weather, I'm out on the porch or taking a walk, dictating my stories on the iPhone. Sometimes there is just a cup of tea, me, and the laptop, in my office or on the sofa with my faithful literary dog, Huckleberry Finn Wingate. You can see some Huckleberry posts by dropping in here.

One of my favorite rituals for getting into a writing mode is to plug into a holographic sound app on my phone called Naturespace and take a few minutes to meditate and drift deep into the story before beginning a writing session.

My daily goal for writing is always in mind. Sometimes on a busy day, I’m burning the midnight oil to meet that goal and if all else fails, there are the weekend days. But, I work hard to meet the goal so I can have the first draft in three months.

What are you working on now? 

It has been a race to publication for Before and After (releasing October 22). Co-author, Judy Christie and I had updates/edits/clarifications/picture files/cover suggestions, etc. to send in until August. This book is a non-fiction about our interviews with the real-life “survivors” of Georgia Tann’s adoption-for-profit practices, which were the genesis of Before We Were Yours.  But, that’s finished now and we’ll be touring to introduce the book in late October/early November. A schedule of tour stops will be here by the time this is read, or perhaps a week or two later. 

At the same time, I’ve been drafting my next historical fiction. A reader, having just read Before We Were Yours wrote and asked if I had ever come across a particular post-Civil War phenomenon of people connection. I hadn’t, but was fascinated with those few paragraphs from her. I starting researching to know more. I was immediately hooked and felt it would be the perfect book to follow Before We Were Yours. So, I’ve been working on two books at the same time for nearly a year. 

I can’t reveal the nugget of little-know history that my reader friend sent me, but there is a novel in the final stages of editing. It will likely be released in April. I also can’t reveal the title of the book just yet. Your readers can keep watching for it to pop up for preorders early in 2020. Or, they are welcome to go here and sign up for my (occasional) e-newsletter so I can email them with details about the title and pub date as soon as those are finalized. There is a link for signing up at top left on this Home page.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Writer’s block isn’t a big issue for me. Early on, I started thinking in terms of plodding forward to get the book drafted even if I needed to leave some difficult scenes to flesh out later, or research historical details. Often, I tell myself to write on through it. Then on the other side of that rough spot it often flows well. I just “flag” the bad spot and the next day, I look at that scene first. Sometimes I think, “I don’t know what I worried about. This works!” Other times what follows that scene has made it clear what needs to be in the rough spot. Sometimes I do the research right then to fill in correct details, or I might leave this to clear up when I read through the first draft. 

When writers ask me about “writers’ block,” I advise that they skip ahead, marking it for “rewrite,” then proceed on. Too many books are never finished because the writer keeps going back and making changes, perfecting, altering. The goal is to get a draft of the whole book. Then do rewrites, edit or have others read and comment and make indicated changes. Once it is the best you can make it, start submitting it. 

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Even though I'm not a big plotter and I will discover much of my story as I work, I write keeping three act story structure in mind. It gives me the skeleton on which to hang the flesh of the story. Every writer's process is different, but for years I taught a workshop featuring a very simplified Three Act Structure outline. While there is no "magic bean" for writing a great story, it's helpful to understand how the three acts of a story break down. I don't teach the workshop anymore, but the worksheets from the class are on my website here.

What’s your advice to new writers?

First, remember that everyone starts out as a yet-to-be-published author. I know it sounds elementary, but don’t attempt to set out into the publishing world until you’re fully ready. In other words, begin by finishing a novel. It’s almost impossible to sell a partial manuscript or idea if you’re unpublished. Polish it and send it out, because as much as we’d like them to, agents and editors won’t come looking in your desk drawer.  

Yes, showing your work to the world involves some risk. Don’t let rejections wash you up on the beach and keep you there. While you’re waiting for news, write another book. If the first one sells, you’ll be set for a two-book deal. If the first one doesn’t sell, you have eggs in another basket.

Don’t take a critique too seriously if you hear it from one person. Editors, agents, friends, and readers are individuals. What works for one may not work for another. If you receive the same comment from multiple sources, consider revising your manuscript before you send it elsewhere. Be tenacious, be as thick-skinned as possible, keep writing while you wait for news.

If there is a particular area of your writing that seems to be holding you back (action scenes, dialog, description, characterization, etc.) devote extensive study to this area. Seek out conference sessions and online workshops devoted to the topic. Study other authors’ techniques in this area. Don’t just read and admire—dissect, break down, make notes, keep a scrapbook of examples and notes-to-self. Read these notes-to-self when you’re stuck/struggling/editing something that isn’t working. Refer to my website Writers’ Helps (link above) pages for some good websites and books to help. 

Watch for overbalance of narrative in your writing. Nothing slows down the pace of a story like huge patches of narrative. Narrative produces pages with big, blocky paragraphs that read slowly, and that tend to “tell” rather than “show.” When possible, work story elements into dialog, action, reaction, and short thought sequences, rather than using narrative. For example, rather than describing the main street of your town, have your character walk down Main, greet a neighbor or two, and reflect on a few random childhood memories of people/places. Be careful that you don’t slide down the slippery slope of having characters engage in meaningless chatter designed only to dump information to the reader, but always seek opportunities to work details in naturally during character interactions. Remember that body language speaks volumes, too.

Lastly, never marry yourself to one project. Keep creating new material—that’s where the joy is, and if you keep the joy of this business, you keep the magic of it. If you have an innate desire to write and a story to tell, don’t let anything hold you back.

Lisa Wingate is a former journalist, inspirational speaker, and New York Times Bestselling Author of thirty novels. Her work has garnered or been nominated for many awards, including the Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize, the Oklahoma Book Award, The Carol Award, the Christy Award, and the RT Booklovers Reviewer’s Choice Award. Her blockbuster hit, Before We Were Yours remained on the New York Times Bestseller List for over a year, was Publishers Weekly’s #3 longest running bestseller of 2017, and was voted by readers as the 2017 Goodreads Choice Award winner for historical fiction. Before We Were Yours has been a book club favorite worldwide and to date has sold over 1.5 million copies.

Wingate’s novels have been translated into over thirty-five languages. Booklist summed up her work by saying, “Lisa Wingate is, quite simply, a master storyteller.”

Lisa was inspired to become a writer by a first-grade teacher who said she expected to see Lisa’s name in a magazine one day. Lisa also entertained childhood dreams of being an Olympic gymnast and winning the National Finals Rodeo but was stalled by a mental block against backflips on the balance beam and by parents who stubbornly refused to finance a rodeo career. She was lucky enough to marry into a big family of Southern tall tale enthusiasts who never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Lisa writes her novels at home in Texas where she is part of the Wingate clan of storytellers. Of all the things she treasures about being a writer, she enjoys connecting with people, both real and imaginary, the most. More about Lisa can be found here.