by Janet Oakley
I’ve been writing all my life, a myriad of stories from family history or my imagination brewing all the time. My first stab at storytelling came in second grade when after viewing a documentary about the first summit of Mount Everest, I was inspired to write my own tale, Funny Bunny Climbs Mount Everest. It was so successful that I did a sequel, Funny Bunny and the Prite. (I think that was Pirate.) There were many more tales and some good material in high school writing classes that was published in the school’s lit magazine, but serious writing came my senior year in college when I was required to write a thesis for my degree in history.
I had already begun the initial research in my sophomore year at Kalamazoo College when I was an intern at the Smithsonian Institute. John C. Ewers, head of the Anthropology Department sent me off to look for drawings and prints of Native Americans in 19th century magazines. I was placed in the Library of Congress annex building and had full range of the library and its tunnels. Calling up these valuable bits of Americana such as The Casket (edited by Edgar Allen Poe), Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News (with maps of where the Union Army was going next) and Harper’s Weekly (with its bull of the month centerfold), had already enriched the fiction stories going on in my head.
But I digress. My thesis was “Comanche Indians as Prisoners of War,” a very 1960s subject. As I poured over Indian scout saddle reports, 19th century memoirs of 1870s Indian Territory, agency reports, and letters unopened for 80 years, I discovered that 1) I didn’t want to look like the archivist who appeared not to have seen light his entire life. I loved the research, the hunt for material, but I wanted to talk about history, make the public understand. I wanted a tan. And 2) I wanted to tell this story encased in my research notes that would make the reader pause and think. I would tell my thesis in a way that a novel reveals. It would have footnotes as required, but it would make sense. In a way, I wanted to write literary non-fiction, something not done back then. I’m happy to say that I got honors.
Where is the title of this blog post? It’s in a dream that I had over 25 years ago. A dream of a man left for dead in the snow. Being found. WW II. And why did he end up there?
Up to that time, all I had written was lyrics to songs I performed and maybe some letters to the editor. This image sparked a long yearning to write a novel, but what the heck did I know about Norway in WW II? As I searched to expand the scene and story, my training for digging up history kicked in. I read books that presented a general history of Norway during the five year occupation, a wonderful book with WW II stories, 1950s memoirs of intelligence officers and SOE agents, poetry read over the BBC, literature, Newsweek and Time Magazine. I ordered books and papers inter-library, but my greatest find was on a shelf at my local university: two volumes on Norway once classified for field agents only. In them were maps, history, train schedules, location of oil refineries, and descriptions of towns and villages. These two volumes gave me the foundation to tell a historical thriller with facts that few readers knew about. It took three and half years to write, but in end ,my first novel, The Jøssing Affair, was done, all one million pages.
Of course, though finishing a novel is a great thing, but the next step is harder –getting it published. Truly, it has taken a quarter century to get this done. Over the years as I learned the art of synopsis writing and query letters, there were highs when The Jøssing Affair finaled at the Pacific Northwest Writers Contest –twice – ; when it won first place in a Barnes & Nobel contest that had author Elizabeth Bergman take a train from Oregon to take me out to dinner; when it got full reads of the manuscript and high praise. There were lows too with comments that “I can’t get into the characters.” “Not what we are looking for.” etc. I knew I had to cut the manuscript down, so I spent years and workshops doing that, but there came a point that cutting would hurt The Jøssing Affair, so I stopped and wrote three more novels.
Then in 2006, things started to change. There were places to put up your novel digitally and get feedback. I heard about Authonomy run by Harper Collins UK. I placed Tree Soldier and The Jøssing Affair there and got excellent feedback and wonderful international friends who support me today. The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest (I believe an early tester for Kindle ) opened in 2007. I put Tree Soldier there, made a slew more friends and made the quarter finals in 2013 out of 10,000 entries. With publishing changing so fast and my experiences with on-line interaction, I decided to try out Createspace (the group behind ABNA) using Tree Soldier as an experiment. Finally, I was a published author (with many more learning curves to come) but it won national awards including a grand prize from Chanticleer Book Reviews and its selection as a Everybody Reads tour of seven libraries in Eastern Washington and the Palouse. Timber Rose came next with a 2015 WILLA silver award win.
I am glad that I waited so long for The Jøssing Affair to come out. My 25 years plus of lolling in the writerly world has made this novel so true to my heart come out in the best way possible. It’s a top seller at Village Books and I’m selling books in the UK for the first time (because Createspace can do that). With the awards season beginning, I’ll be putting the novel in contests. When I go to Oxford, England this September for the Historical Novel Society’s Conference, I have an appointment with an agent there to explore foreign rights. I hope for more things to come.
So don’t’ give up on your writerly dream. Do your best work, get critiqued, learn more craft and enjoy writing for its own sake. This long slog to publication has been a journey well worth it.