Getting By With a Little Help From My Friends

I completed my first manuscript in six weeks, spurred by the ability to have laser-focus when I have a goal. I think that comes from my half-German side. (My half-Italian side tells me to slow down, take a sip of vino and relax a bit.)

I knew nothing about the craft of writing. Not a thing. But I had an enormous love of reading and felt strongly that I had a story in me that was ready to be told.

Fast forward six years, and that manuscript became my bestselling novel, THE MEMORY OF US. But back then, it was a sorry first draft. I just didn’t realize it.

When I typed THE END, I thought, “I did it! I wrote a book!” Countless rejections later, I realized that I needed help.

Sitting in my house in Texas, exhausted by having just given birth to my fourth child, I had dreams of going to New York – the center of the publishing world – and learning how to make my writing better.

Enter a Google search and a saintly husband, and weeks later, I was on a plane to the Big Apple to a conference called Backspace.

Backspace was ideal for what I as was writing and the access to publishers, agents, and teachers – frankly – made me feel like I’d died and gone to Heaven. That is a whole other blog post.

But I walked away with a bonus that I didn’t expect – new, lifelong friends.

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Eileen, Melissa R., a second Melissa R. and Jeanette were all aspiring writers like myself. Eileen says it perfectly: “Next thing I knew, I was spending the lunch break with women who understood why the compulsion to write can keep you up at night, how finding time to write is always at odds with the day job or car pool, and how it always feels like something’s missing when you’ve gone a few days without touching your manuscript. Little did I know when we exchanged contact info and social media handles, that we would one day be attending each other’s book parties, cheering each other to the finish lines of big writing deadlines, offering up prayers for each other, and exchanging publishing business advice.”

Eileen Palma published first, a wonderful book called WORTH THE WEIGHT. It was a different one than she’d brought to Backspace, but speaking for myself, she set the bar high and motivated me to see my own project through to completion. I learned from her that sticking with the goal will make it happen.

Melissa Roske came to Backspace writing self-described “chic lit”, but was later inspired to write a middle grade book. In her words: “I wrote the first draft of KAT GREENE COMES CLEAN in 2011. It was only 100 pages long, but I knew I had something I could work with, so I did another draft. And another. And another. A billion and twenty-five-thousand drafts later (a slight exaggeration), I started querying agents. Within a year I had representation.”

Melissa’s agency is Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. So when I had serious interest in my manuscript from Jill Marsal at that same company, it was Melissa whom I turned to with questions. She was so encouraging and forthcoming with her advice, and I signed with Jill – who is still my agent – a few days later.

Like me, Melissa Romo writes historical fiction. I was immediately enchanted with her experiences of living in Europe and her fascination with a little-known part of Polish history that definitely made for great storytelling. With much marketing experience under her belt, she chose to publish BLUE-EYED SON independently, hiring an editor on her own and even holding a contest among artists to pick a winning – and gorgeous – cover for her novel. She is currently working on its sequel.

Jeanette Schneider had the most magnificent start to a book about a barista, and I hope that one day she will revisit that story. But she had bigger plans, like saving the world in her spare time, so her writing took a turn toward creating a successful website/movement called Lore and Little Things. She writes compelling and honest pieces about women’s issues and started a popular segment called Love Letters – where women write letters to their younger selves and tell them what they wish they’d known then. Her soon-to-be-released book, LORE: HARNESSING THE PAST TO CREATE THE FUTURE, is a work of non-fiction, and I’m certain it’s going to be huge.

We all took such different paths to publishing, and while I’m certain that they would have all gone and done big things regardless, I know how their friendship through this process (and beyond) continues to be so meaningful to me. Thanks to social media and travel schedules that sometimes put us in the same city, we’ve been able to keep in touch.

This is my way of saying that you must find your tribe. Surround yourself with other authors who will lift you up, teach you something, cry with you in your failures, celebrate with you in your successes. Writing can be such a solitary path, but it doesn’t have to be that way. And I would suggest that it is immeasurably better if you walk it with friends.

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unnamed Camille Di Maio recently left and award-winning real estate career to be a full-time writer. She’s been married to her husband Rob for twenty years, and they enjoy raising their four children. She has a bucket list that is never-ending, and uses her adventures to inspire her writing. She loves finding goodies at farmers markets (justifying them by her support for local bakeries) and belts out Broadway tunes whenever the moment strikes. There’s almost nothing she wouldn’t try, so long as it doesn’t involve heights, roller skates, or anything illegal. Her debut novel THE MEMORY OF US became a bestseller, and was followed by BEFORE THE RAIN FALLS. Her third book, THE WAY OF BEAUTY will be released on May 1.

Hide a Book Day

Good books, great friends, beautiful town, perfect weather. Is there a better recipe for a fantastic day?

When I learned about Hide a Book Day and its corresponding hashtag, I knew

I had to participate. The idea was to spread the love of reading by hiding books in unexpected places. Surprise presents for an unsuspecting public.

When I get a notion in my head, I like to run with it. Instead of one book, two books, I wanted to give away a whole lot of books. So I reached out to a group of authors that I knew would be enthusiastic about participating – the Lake Union authors – my publishing family.

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They loved it. Within days, I had sixteen books in my mailbox, and I got to work.
I’d ordered official stickers, but they never arrived, as I’d accidentally listed the state on my mailing address as Texas instead of Virginia. Sixteen years in Texas, six months in Virginia. Honest mistake.

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Instead, I wrote out homemade ones, asking the finder of the book to post a picture online, use the hashtag, and to review it when they were finished with it.

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The mechanics were finished. The next step – decide where to place everything. For this feat, I leaned on a new friend of mine – the kind I hoped to find when we made this cross-country move. She knew everything about everything in our town and was the perfect resource. When the day came, we packed my eight-passenger mini-van to the max with our collective six kids (minus my two teens) and set out for a day of book-giving adventure.IMG_5953

There may or may not have been a Starbucks drive-through side trip.

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All fueled up, we thought it would be fun to do this thematically.

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Where We Fall, by Rochelle Weinstein has strong football themes, so we left it at Tribe Stadium at the College of William and Mary. Saturday Evening Girls Club by Jane Healey centers around a pottery guild, so we left it at an eighty-year-old pottery store. Our favorite was At Wave’s End by Patricia Perry Donovan. With its beautiful seashell cover, we drove to the beach and set it on a bench for a lucky reader to find.

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The adventure took us to a building erected in 1695, a garden with a white picket fence, a Christmas store, a museum, a farm-to-market restaurant, a diner, a church, and more.
I’ve walked by those places several times since then, and I wonder every time about the people who discovered the books. Did they wonder at the unusual places the books had been left? Did they smile when they read the note and realize that it was a gift? Did they crack open the spines and did they enjoy the stories?

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I hope they got half as much joy finding them as we did placing them. Because Hide a Book Day 2018 will definitely see us hiding treasure once again.

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unnamed Camille Di Maio is an award-winning real estate agent in San Antonio who, along with her husband of 20 years, enjoys raising their four children. She has a bucket list that is never-ending, and uses her adventures to inspire her writing. She loves finding goodies at farmers markets (justifying them by her support for local bakeries) and belts out Broadway tunes whenever the moment strikes. There’s almost nothing she wouldn’t try, so long as it doesn’t involve heights, roller skates, or anything illegal. “The Memory of Us” is Camille’s debut novel. Her second, “Before the Rain Falls” released in 2017, and her third, “The Way of Beauty” will come out on May 1, 2018.

What’s the Future of Historical Fiction?

An editor recently told me, and I’m paraphrasing here, that anyone who sets out to be a writer is “crazy”, and anyone who sets out to write historical fiction is even “crazier.”

And she is a champion of both.

I thought I knew what she meant. That you have to be a certain brand of risktaker to pursue a profession that is often solitary, thankless, frustrating, and costly. And that to add historical research to that is just the cherry on top.

Maybe that is what she intended to imply – I didn’t ask for an explanation. But recent events have led me to think that the pursuit of historical fiction is challenging for some additional reasons.

We’re killing history in our culture.

Let me explain. I recently moved to Williamsburg, Virginia. Founded in the early 1600s, it’s near the coast, has mild winters, and tree canopy roads. I feel like I’ve found paradise. I live only two miles from historical Colonial Williamsburg and have already enjoyed speeches by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, strolling the Governor’s Palace Gardens, sampling apple cider that tastes like liquid pie, and I think nothing of seeing horse-drawn carriages trot by as the noonday cannon shakes the earth.

It’s bliss.

But it might be ending.

A few weeks ago, Colonial Williamsburg went public with devastating financial news. Due to low attendance, they are laying off much of their staff and scrambling to reorganize or they will have to close in several years.

A bitter pill for a beloved American institution.

As you can imagine, much chatter is going on about what led to this decline, and while people talk about management, priorities, etc., there is one thing that everyone seems to agree on.

We’ve stopped valuing history.

In an effort to “teach to the test”, it’s been mentioned that English and math are god-like subjects and science is offered as important to keep us competitive in the world marketplace. All of which are fair and true statements. But it seems as if history may be going the way of the art and music concentrations.

In a recent article by Communities Digital News, they report on students who don’t know what the Bill of Rights is, who have heard of the Civil War but don’t know what it was fought for, who aren’t studying American history prior to the late 1800s.

What does this mean for historical fiction, which tries to eke out a presence among rising genres like domestic suspense?

A pessimist might say that it is doomed. But I’ve never been a pessimist. So, I offer these words of encouragement to those who, like me, read and write in this genre.

  1. Thank God for Lin Manuel Miranda, who helped make the Founding Fathers popular again. I hope, I hope, I hope that the popularity of “Hamilton” will encourage citizens young and old to dig deeper into the figures and issues that shaped our nation. (Which, if you study it, you will realize that we are discussing many of the same topics today.)
  2. Historical Fiction isn’t merely about facts. It’s about love, revenge, deceit, valor, struggle, bravery. These are everlasting human traits and a love of history and historical fiction connects our present with our past and our future. If we write compelling characters, we will engage the modern-day reader and open their minds to long ago worlds that they may never have considered.
  3. Despite many agents and publishers saying that WWII fiction is “saturated”, the fact is that readers are eating it up and want more. That era covers so many cultures, so many angles, that it won’t be going away any time soon. You have only to ask book clubs and reader groups what their recent favorites were, and you’ll find The Nightingale and The Lilac Girls and others like them topping the list. Readers love reading it. Writers love writing it.
  4. Dual time periods. This has been a popular writing structure as of late. (And as someone who recently released one, I can tell you that they are a bear to write.) Many dual time period books take place in both contemporary times and in some historical area – often linked by a letter, a journal, or some other artifact that intrigues a current character into connecting with the past. This structure gives me great hope for the solvency of historical fiction. It’s very nature – the connection of the present and the past – defines what we’re lacking in our Twitter and Snapchat focused world.

So what can you do? As a writer, you can mine the wonderful stories that our past has to offer. As a reader, you can read, share, review, and promote your favorite works of historical fiction. Go see movies that are set in a past era. Teach your children/grandchildren/neighbors anything they might be missing in school.

And, maybe instead of Disneyland – though I do love the Mouse! – consider a trip to a place like Colonial Williamsburg or other important historical sites. They’re a whole lot cheaper, and reap rewards that are longer-lasting than a Tigger-tail chocolate-dipped marshmallow stick.

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unnamed Camille Di Maio just left an award-winning career as a real estate agent in San Antonio to pursue writing full time. Along with her husband of 20 years, enjoys raising their four children. She has a bucket list that is never-ending, and uses her adventures to inspire her writing. She loves finding goodies at farmers markets (justifying them by her support for local bakeries) and belts out Broadway tunes whenever the moment strikes. There’s almost nothing she wouldn’t try, so long as it doesn’t involve heights, roller skates, or anything illegal. “The Memory of Us” is Camille’s debut novel. Her second, “Before the Rain Falls” was released in May 2017, and her third, “The Way of Beauty” will be released in May 2018.

Being the Language Police

There is a cute cartoon I’ve seen that shows an old lady using spray paint to correct a billboard advertisement:

Got milk?

\She changes it. Have you got any milk?

An English teacher gone rogue. She’d had it with incorrect phrases like that.

But I feel her pain. I’m one of those people who winces when good and well are interchanged. Or when may and can get confused.

Case in point. One of my children will say, “Can I eat a cookie?”

My eyes grow wide and I speak in exaggerated tones. “Can you eat a cookie? Of course you can eat a cookie! You have muscles in your jaw and teeth in your mouth and if you chew it, you most certainly can eat a cookie.”

As you can imagine, I get an eye roll and an exasperated sigh.

May I have a cookie?” they say correctly.

“Oh, you are asking for permission? Yes. You may have a cookie. Thank you for asking.”

My husband has put up with this for twenty years, the poor man, and it might be cause for his canonization someday. He grew up in a home where English was a second language for each of his parents. His mom is from Germany and his dad is from Italy. Good and well are thrown about without distinction. I give them all a big pass, though. It’s infinitely easier to resort to good. Such a useful, all-around word.

He did good on his test.

Argh. Nails on the chalkboard to me.

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Early in our marriage, I’d correct him until I realized that there were bigger things to work on. Like who was going to do the dishes after dinner.

But two decades in, he knows me well. He can read my silence fluently. Apparently, as a mother knows the meanings of her infant’s different cries, he knows exactly what I’m thinking even as I keep my mouth shut.

He did well on his test, he’d correct, knowing that it was grating on me.

My proudest moments are when my family uses correct grammar. Really. My heart swells.

But I have an admission. I have my own trouble spots.

Lay and lie. I don’t know why, but for the life of me, these twist my brain into knots.

Did she lay on the bed or did she lie on the bed?

The axiom is People lie, things lay.

So I understand the rule, but I still have to think about it. Forty-one years into speaking the English language, I am repeatedly stopping myself and applying it so that I can say my sentences correctly.

My other nemesis is toward/towards. All my life, I have used the version with an “s” at the end. But after my edits on my last book, my overworked editor, who earned every cent she made on it, had a zillion corrections to point out about this very word. I was so embarrassed! I pride myself on having grammar down pat! I admire the book Eats Shoots and Leaves! I am a proponent of the Oxford comma! How could I have missed the boat so thoroughly on this one?

There is another rule in life. It says Pride goes before a fall.

All my years of correcting the grammar of my family caught up with me. I had pie on my face in front of my editor. My 7th grade English teacher was rolling over in her grave.

So the moral of the story?

If you’re going to sit on your high horse, you’ll have to make your bed and lay in it.

Lie in it.

Lay.

Lie.

Yea, lie.

Oh, and don’t overuse clichés. But that’s for another blog post on another day.

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unnamed Camille Di Maio is an award-winning real estate agent in San Antonio who, along with her husband of 19 years, enjoys raising their four children. She has a bucket list that is never-ending, and uses her adventures to inspire her writing. She loves finding goodies at farmers markets (justifying them by her support for local bakeries) and belts out Broadway tunes whenever the moment strikes. There’s almost nothing she wouldn’t try, so long as it doesn’t involve heights, roller skates, or anything illegal. “The Memory of Us” is Camille’s debut novel. Her second, “Before the Rain Falls” will be released on May 16, 2017.

A Surprising Resource for Writers

One of the most common questions I get from readers is how I did research for my historical fiction novel.  My answer surprises them, and as I have never heard another writer mention it, I wanted to share.

Google Maps.

Did you raise your eyebrows?  Good.  You’re not the first.

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My debut novel is set in Liverpool and London, two places I had never been to when I set out to write The Memory of Us.  How was a girl to roam the streets and soak up the culture without a pricey ticket overseas?

In my day job, I am a real estate agent, so I often use Google Maps to preview neighborhoods for buyers and to plan my routes.  It occurred to me that it would be a great resource for my middle-of-the-night, or whenever-my-kids-are-asleep job.  Writing.

The first time I typed in L-i-v-e-r-p-o-o-l U-K into the search menu, I didn’t know what I’d find.  But it opened up the story in ways I couldn’t have imagined.  To the north of Liverpool is the Mersey River.  With the help of the little orange man that you can drag onto the streets, I “walked” along the banks of the river, discovering Albert Docks.  I needed the father of my main character to be a prominent businessman, so this discovery led to more research into Albert Docks and its role during the earlier part of the twentieth century and wartime.  A shipping business became the perfect field for Mr. Westcott, making him the influential person he needed to be.

Next, I wanted the family to live on an estate facing a park.  I was pleased to discover that Liverpool was home to many parks – different from the cold industrial town I’d envisioned.  I glanced over all of the green spaces on Google Maps and found one that had two small lakes.  Again, the little orange man and I took a stroll through the park and I determined that it was the perfect setting for the Westcott home.  I did further research into the little lakes at Newsham Park and discovered that in the last century, children would make toy boats and sail them on the water.

It was another snippet that I brought into the book.  My character, Julianne, looks wistfully at the children as they play with their homemade boats, wishing that her parents would let her do the same.  It enhanced the societal division that I wanted to create.

There were so many parts of my book that Google Maps helped me discover.  When I needed a honeymoon spot, my characters took a drive out to Wales and visited ancient ruins on the sometimes-island sometimes-peninsula of Llanddwyn.  When I needed an orphanage to become the recipient of charity money, I found one in Liverpool through the map search.  When I needed a church for Julianne to visit in the Kensington area of London, Google Maps helped me find the perfect one.

I cross-checked all of my findings with additional research, of course, but finding them in the first place was a simple process of traveling with my keyboard.

How did people write before the internet?

My subsequent books have benefited from this fantastic tool as well.  Before the Rain Falls takes place in a fictitious border town in Texas.  But the story takes the characters to Harlingen, where I discovered palm-tree lined streets, and to Port Isabel, where I added the detail of a store specializing in shrimp as the characters drive to an appointment.

My WIP is set in New York City, and while I do get to travel there frequently, I don’t have to pay taxi fare to take a walk with my little orange friend down 33rd street, scrolling up to see the architectural details of buildings.

The devil is in the details, they say, but so is the authenticity of a story.

Earlier this year, I had a chance to visit Liverpool for the first time.  It was like saying hello to an old friend.  The red brick façade of Albert Docks came as no surprise.  The lakes of Newsham Park were just as lovely as I’d known they would be.  The Lime Street Train Station, the bench by an old cemetery, the many places my characters visited, felt like places I’d always known.  It was surreal – an almost out-of-body experience – to see, touch, smell the city.  But very familiar at the same time.

And I have Google Maps to thank for that.

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unnamed Camille Di Maio is an award-winning real estate agent in San Antonio who, along with her husband of 19 years, enjoys raising their four children. She has a bucket list that is never-ending, and uses her adventures to inspire her writing. She loves finding goodies at farmers markets (justifying them by her support for local bakeries) and belts out Broadway tunes whenever the moment strikes. There’s almost nothing she wouldn’t try, so long as it doesn’t involve heights, roller skates, or anything illegal. “The Memory of Us” is Camille’s debut novel. Her second, “Before the Rain Falls” will be released on May 16, 2017.