J. Kasper Kramer on Blending Folklore With Real World History

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today’s guest for the WHAT is J. Kasper Kramer, author of The Story That Cannot Be Told. She is an author and English professor in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She has a master’s degree in creative writing and once upon a time lived in Japan, where she taught at an international school.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

I can pinpoint the exact night The Story That Cannot Be Told took root! So for about five years, I lived in Japan, where I taught at an international school. Some of my coworkers (and very best friends) were Romanian women, and since I was working on another novel with influences from Romania, one of them came over to help with research. The plan was that she would tell me some fairytales and folklore, but after we’d been talking for a while, she started telling me other stories, too—stories about growing up under Ceausescu and Communist reign. Sitting there listening, taking notes as fast as I could, I realized I had a very different book to write. 

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

Well, I knew from the start I wanted to write this strange little book with retold folklore and fairytales somehow mixed into a serious, real-world story about a girl growing up in Communist Romania. In the end, I did what all academics do—I dove headfirst into research. It wasn’t long before I realized that the book had to be set during the year of the Romanian Revolution, and that it had to have something to do with the danger of telling stories in a country where speaking the wrong words could literally get you killed. Historical events, along with true family histories told to me by my friends, really helped pull the plot together. 

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

Most of the time, I expect this to happen! I often spend a good year or so “thinking” about a book before I even start research, much less any drafting. This means that usually, when I finally sit down to write, I have a pretty solid mental outline of events. However, those events rarely all make it to the page. One scene leads to another, and then suddenly I’m traveling in a different direction. And that’s ok! I earnestly believe that nothing good can come from forcing a story to follow a script. If characters or obstacles seem to be leading the plot elsewhere, I always let the story evolve. I just like to make myself feel better by pretending I know where I’m headed.

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Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

I guess I’m pretty lucky, because I always have more stories in my head than I have time to write. Besides my current work-in-progress—another folklore-inspired novel, this time set in 1800s Poland—I’m in the “thinking” stage for two other books and the research stage for a third. Most of my free time—time spent not writing, editing, or teaching—is spent consuming art. My husband is a producer and film collector, so we watch tons of movies. I’m always reading a dozen or more books at once. And I play lots of video games and tabletop RPGs—all of which are, unquestionably, art. With so many stories coming in all the time, it’s no surprise to me that I have so many needing to come out.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

In the past, I always just worked on what seemed like the most fun. Now, though, I run ideas past my agent before really barreling into a project. At the moment, I’m actually working on some loose outlines just for that purpose—even though outlining on paper wasn’t part of my process in the past. 

I have 5 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

I have three cats and a big dumb dog, and that is not nearly enough pets for me. The cats are lovely writing companions, meaning mostly they just leave me alone or sit nearby waiting for occasional chin scratches. But Indy—who’s technically still a puppy—is in a “demand barking” phase...so currently he’s not the best writing buddy. We’re working on it, though.

Author Talia Carner on Stories Finding the Author

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always included in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewee’s mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well. 

Today’s guest for the WHAT is Talia Carner, whose first novel, Puppet Child launched a nationwide legislation–The Protective Parent Reform Act. China Doll made Amazon’s bestsellers list and served as the platform for Ms. Carner’s presentation at the U.N. in 2007 about infanticide in China. Her novel, Jerusalem Maiden, (HarperCollins 2011,) won the Forward National Literature Award in the Historical Fiction category. Her latest novel, Hotel Moscow, (HarperCollins 2015) won USA Book News award in the Multicultural category. Her upcoming novel, The Third Daughter, (HarperCollins September 2019,) is a daring exposé of sex trafficking.

Inspired by Sholem Aleichem’s story, “The Man from Buenos Aires,” author Talia Carner’s novel, The Third Daughter (HarperCollins, September 2019) breaks the silence on the trafficking of Jewish women from Eastern Europe to Buenos Aires in the late 1800s. For historical background, book tour schedule, reviews, and contact for book group participation, please check her website.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your books?

Stories find me. I don’t seek them out. Each time I am far along with a novel and think that maybe it’s my last one, the next one presents itself. Each takes hold of my head and heart and compelled me to sit down to what turns out to be three to six years’ work at a time. I’ve long realized that the seeds of every story had sprouted in my psyche years earlier, where they fermented…. All it takes is a passing comment, a line in a newspaper, or a road sign, and the idea blooms, takes hold on me and doesn’t let go until I crawl under the skin of a new protagonist. I rise and fall with her spirit as she struggles—and prevails against—the forces that shape her life, be they psychological, political, social, geographical, legal, economic, or religious.

Once the original concept exists, how do you build a plot around it?

I don’t plan the plot, but rather I get on the journey with the protagonist, and learn alongside her while she finds herself in a myriad of situations involving the central social issue or the historical truth of the novel. That said, on occasions I must stop and redirect her so she doesn’t lead me away from the main storyline into less relevant parts of her life. Most importantly, I ensure that the moral dilemma is strong, and does not wear out in the course of the book. Equally circuital is that when things go awry for her, she and I—as the author—don’t shy away from confronting the drama that such a situation entails. It takes guts to write the harrowing experience, and I put myself in a dreamlike trance to feel it fully and let the words spill onto the computer screen. In the editing phase, though, I might soften the scene to fit the readers’ tolerance, so they won’t throw my novel against the wall in horror…. This has been the case with my new novel, The Third Daughter, which deals with sex trafficking. The reader gets a strong reading experience, but also satisfaction from the emotional rides and the thrill, the way she might experience in a gut-wrenching film that stays with her afterward for days.

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Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

I don’t plot ahead of time. Each time the reader is surprised, I was surprised when the story took that dramatic turn. The most I do is follow the analogy that writing a novel is like setting out to drive at night from New York to California. You know the final destination, but you can see only as far as the headlights. In my case, I may keep in mind that those headlights should reveal, within two to five chapters, a hand that reaches down from the sky and yanks the story into a new orbit. I may or may not know where this short drive ahead will lead.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

I sit in front of my computer, close my eyes, and start typing. The right story moves to the forefront. That said, I’m two years into researching novel #6—including four trips to France, where the story is set—but have written very little of it. That story has the historical background in place; I know my protagonist well, but I still have no idea where her journey will take her. Luckily, by now I trust my instincts that, once I finish the bulk of my book tour for The Third Daughter and have time to devote to writing this new book, it will all fall into place.

I have 5 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

 Since I am in a dream-like state when I write fresh material or concentrate hard on revisions and editing, I can’t imagine being distracted by either cats or music. There were times I tried music, but I ended up getting up to dance…. I may sit at the computer for 10 hours at a stretch without eating, with only the occasional bathroom break. If you are in a dream, can you stop to be awakened by a phone call, and then return to the dream?

Katy Upperman on Letting Ideas Stew For Years

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today’s guest for the WHAT is Katy Upperman, author of contemporary YA romances Kissing Max Holden, The Impossibility of Us, and How the Light Gets In.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book? 

I started working on How the Light Gets In in 2010, and have returned to the story numerous times in the years it took to sell the manuscript. Way back in the beginning, the book had a different title, different characters, and a very different plot. But it’s always been a story about ghosts (literal and figurative) set on the Oregon coast. The point of origin was a combination of elements that inspire me: the beach, a run-down Victorian, a haunting, a decades-old mystery, swimming, and a layered romance.

I also found inspiration in themes that fascinate me: families moving forward after tragedy, the way some people can help us wade through grief while others hinder forward motion, and how sister relationships can grow and change and, sometimes, bend to the point of breaking. So, the point of origin for How the Light Gets In was really a whole bunch of different components that I eventually pieced together to form a story.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

I wanted to write about a girl who was sad, confused, and angry, but by the end of the story, I knew she’d need to have gained understanding and perspective, and that she should be taking steps to reclaim the parts of herself she lost along with her sister.

The plot of How the Light Gets In was built around moments that would challenge its main character, Callie, and help her grow. Those include interactions with her aunt, with whom she has a complicated relationship, interactions with Tucker, a local boy she meets on her first morning back in Bell Cove, and interactions with her sister, Chloe, in the past and the (ghostly) present. Additionally, I wanted Callie to discover a mystery within her aunt’s Victorian, one that would parallel her current situation in important ways, as well as keep the reader guessing. Because it was endlessly challenging to fit all of this into a cohesive, compelling narrative, I kept Callie’s character arc in mind while plotting, as it’s what brings the whole story together.

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

Yes—every single time! My process is this: Let a new idea stew. Map out characters’ goals, motivations, and the main conflicts. Write a detailed outline. Feel incredibly confident. Begin drafting. Flail. Flail some more. Revisit and revise the outline. Draft. Revisit and revise outline. Draft. Revisit and revise outline. Draft. Repeat, repeat, repeat, until the first draft is done.

For me, epiphanies come as first drafts grow. Characters surprise me. Seemingly brilliant plot twists start to seem cliché. New ideas—better ideas—burst forth as I get to know the story on a deeper level. So, while I outline, my outlines are flexible and always changing.

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Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

Fresh material is very hard to come by. I envy writers who have notebooks full of hooky ideas—that is so not me. I’m character-focused; interesting people pop up in my imagination all the time. Interesting circumstances do sometimes, too. But weaving a workable plot around those fragments of ideas is tough! It takes me months or even years to have an idea fully-formed enough to attempt a first draft.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

I work on whatever is inspiring me most. On the rare occasion I have more than one idea percolating, I choose the one that makes me want to write—the one that feels the least like “work”.

I have 5 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

I have two cats, and they’re most definitely my writing buddies. One or both of them almost always ends up on my lap when I’m writing, which is pretty perfect, actually, because they keep me pinned to my seat, forcing me to do nothing but work. I can’t imagine making a go at a manuscript without my furry officemates nearby. J