The Bliss of Ignorance (by Charlotte Hinger)

In EQMM’s current issue, author Charlotte Hinger returns after an absence of nearly thirty years. In the intervening time she’s had stories published in a number of anthologies, and she has just won the Gold Medallion at the Will Rogers Medallion Awards for her story “The Book Mama,” which was published in the Gale/Cengage (Five Star) anthology Librarians of the West. Her Christmas story “Lizzie Noel,” in EQMM November/December 2022, draws on knowledge she gained through her husband owning a livestock trucking business. The following post should be heartening to new and aspiring writers.  —Janet Hutchings

I had a tremendous advantage when I began my writing career. I was dumb and isolated, living on the Western Kansas prairie married to a truck-driving husband (a bull hauler) who was gone a good deal of the time.

No one told me it was hard to get published and almost impossible to get an agent. No one told me it was hard to write a book and even harder to write a short story. I never had heard a discouraging word

I learned all about writing and the business of writing through Writer’s Digest and books borrowed from Interlibrary Loan. Even though I had no formal training and had never had a creative writing course, I had this insane desire to become a writer. Writer’s Digest, of course, was irrationally encouraging. It was how they sold magazines.

My initial experience with writing was harsh. When I was in the fifth grade I wrote my first short story. My teacher called my parents.  My father lectured me about the sin of plagiarism. Despite being hurt and bewildered, my gut response was “gosh, I must be good,” because I certainly did write the story. That episode put the idea in my head that I could become a writer.

I had loved the journalism classes I took during my two years of college at Kansas State University. Nevertheless, becoming a fiction writer seemed as exotic as becoming a tight rope walker or a trapeze artist. It simply was out of the reach of mere mortals. There were no writers in Plainville, Kansas, nor did I know anyone who wanted to become a writer.

As is the case with most writers or wannabe writers, I was an avid reader. I read all of the time. Loving the written word is the most important foundation for publishing.

I picked up my first Writer’s Digest at the local public library. The articles therein assured me publishing was a snap. It was all a matter of perseverance. Then I discovered interlibrary loan and the plethora of books about writing. Through the magazine articles and books, I learned everything I needed to know about publishing and marketing books. The most valuable information was about submitting material.

The first short story I submitted, “Alone At Night” was accepted by Overdrive, a magazine for truckers who were owner-operators. They paid me $35.00. I will never ever forget the thrill of that first sale. The second story also was accepted.

However, the publisher called after receiving the first short story to make sure I had actually written it. This took place long before the internet existed and there was no way to easily determine if material had been copied. Somewhat miffed, and flashing back to the fifth grade, I assured him it was my own work. I enjoyed my fame in the trucking community and reveled in receiving substantial money for a story in published in Woman’s World.

Through the years, despite the demands of coping with three daughters while Don was on the road, slowly, tentatively, I tip-toed toward the possibility that I could write a book. Of course, you can Writer’s Digest assured me.

I developed a plan. I would write five pages a day, five days a week no matter what.

I finished that first novel. It was a semi-gothic and grounded in Kansas history. It wasn’t very good. Nevertheless, I finished it and by then I knew I didn’t want to write gothics, but historical novels. The process taught me a lot about constructing a book. Ironically, pathetic as that novel was, I received four responses from agents. Negative, but encouraging.

After twenty years of marriage, my husband bought the truckline. By that time I had finished a lengthy historical novel, Come Spring, and had published a number of historical articles and more short stories. I took the novel with me to Western Writers of America and was thrilled to meet professional writers for the first time.  A wonderful lady, Jeanne Williams, recommended me to her agent, Claire Smith, with Harold Ober Associates, who agreed to represent me.

Claire sold Come Spring to Simon & Schuster. Subsequently, there was a paperback sale to Warner Books and it was a selection of the Reader’s Digest Book Club.

I ascended to another level of ignorance. I didn’t understand how the publishing world worked. I didn’t promote well. I learned that by the time one understands marketing processes it’s too late.

I certainly didn’t understand the importance of writing the next book immediately or that it was better to stick with a genre. Thrilled when Poisoned Pen Press began publishing the Lottie Albright series I ended up writing mysteries, historical novels, and academic articles, with a number of short stories mixed in.

Then to complicate matters, I fell in love with the African American town of Nicodemus, Kansas and decided to finish my college degree and then to pursue a masters so that I could write an academic book. As usual, I knew nothing about that process either. Nevertheless, my thesis committee was enthusiastic about my work, then Oklahoma University Press published my book about Nicodemus, and Five Star published a historical novel about the founding of that town.

Now I’m facing a new challenge that is shared by everyone in publishing. The volume of books published every year has skyrocketed. Marketing by any means is overwhelming. It can also be very expensive. Every week, writers’ conferences beckon.

Sadly, beginners no longer have the luxury of thoughtfully developing their craft in isolation. They are bombarded with excessive and ruinous information. There’s a plethora of writing groups and scalpers all too eager to offer advice.

Everyone will start smarter than I was. But the learning curve will be shorter and less painful.

I hope neophytes leave groups that make them ashamed of their writing but accept criticism that will strengthen their work. Most of all, I wish them the joy of becoming a writer.

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