Please give a warm welcome to debut novelist Linda Lucretia Shuler. Linda wrote her first story when she was six, Koko the Monkey, which she still has tucked into a drawer. Since then her stories and poems have appeared in anthologies and literary journals, and a handful of her plays have been produced in schools and community theatres.
Linda received a BFA in theatre from the University of Texas, and an MA in theatre from Trinity University while in residence at the Dallas Theatre Center. She taught theatre arts in college and high school for three decades, loving every moment and directing nearly a hundred plays in the process. She also wrote theatre arts curriculum K-12 for Houston ISD, conducted numerous workshops, and performed in community theatres.
Hidden Shadows, Linda’s debut novel, takes place in Willow City, a ruggedly beautiful section of the Texas Hill Country less than three hours from her home in San Antonio. Several other manuscripts are in the works, reaching across the genres. These include a prequel to Hidden Shadows, plays, and a collection of poems and a half-dozen different story ideas demanding attention.
Linda enjoys participating in Toastmasters, writer organizations, critique groups, and book clubs. She continues her love of theatre, delights in watching the birds flocking outside her office window, and is an enthusiastic fan of San Antonio’s championship basketball team, the Spurs.
Q: Congratulations on the release of your first novel, Hidden Shadows. To begin with, can you gives us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?
A: The story revolves around Cassie Brighton, a woman overwhelmed by loss. Devastated by the accidental death of her husband, she flees to a remote homestead deep in the rugged Texas Hill Country. Alone in a ramshackle farmhouse steeped in family secrets, Cassie wages a battle of mind and heart as she struggles to overcome the sorrows of her past, begin anew, and confront the possibility of finding love again.
What people are saying:
“Hidden Shadows is a wonderful novel of a women’s journey of self-discovery and search for purpose. The characters will win your heart (and sometimes break it) in this beautifully written and satisfying story of loss and renewal.”
Award-winning author of The King’s Daughter: A Novel of the First Tudor Queen.
My inspiration came, in part, from the remarkable women I’ve met who suffered incalculable loss, and yet somehow survived and lived each day with joy. I marveled at them, at their courage, their spirit. And I asked myself, “How?” What did they endure in private, what interior battles did they wage? What dwelled in their spirit that made them victorious over such sorrow? And I’ve met those who did not endure, those who forever walked in the shadows of grief. And I asked myself, “Why?” Why do some souls shatter under the weight of it, while others survive? Because I’ve experienced grief myself – who hasn’t as the years collect? It’s part and parcel of life – the need to write about it must have been there, lurking inside me, silent.
But the lure of landscape led me, too. I traveled through the thirteen-mile stretch of an isolated, rugged, glorious stretch of Texas Hill Country called Willow City Loop. And I fell in love with the place, with its craggy, impossible hills and winding country roads. And I fell in love with old houses, too – the sort that are scattered throughout the small towns of Texas, sporting wrap-around porches with swings or rocking chairs, and a weathered “come on in” look.
These elements were, in a small way, inspiration for Hidden Shadows. But there’s more, so much more. I could write pages. Some of it is unknown to me, odd as that may sound. That secret part of ourselves that reveals itself as we write.
A: Literary genre is character-driven – which means that the truer your character, the truer the story itself. To write effectively about a character, you must know her (or him), know everything about her inside and out – especially things she doesn’t know about herself. What motivates her? What are her dreams, her fears? What drives her nuts, or brings her joy? What life experiences has she had up to the moment the story begins, and how did they affect her? Know her physical self, too – every element of her face, the way she moves, the sound of her voice, her unconscious gestures, and so on. Then you must listen to her, and allow her to guide you.
Literary genre is a style that’s dependent upon character. But all other elements that form a fascinating, well-structured story are necessary, too: plot, action, theme, language, etc. It’s all a grand mix. Sometimes trying to apply a single genre to a work is like trying to force a round shape into a square hole. How does one decide? For example, Hidden Shadows also includes romance, mystery, and a touch of magical realism.
Perhaps it’s the style in which a book is written that helps determine a genre. If that’s so, then one would assume language would be a huge factor. But I’ve read “literary” works written in styles far different from mine, so who knows?
Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?
A: Because I let the characters lead the way, like an over-permissive mother, they had a tendency to wander, to explore this pathway or that, or just sit in a corner and pout. I had to ask myself many a time, especially in the beginning, “Where the heck is this story going?” I veered into side paths and bumped into dead ends before finally, at long last, settling us all on the right path.
I didn’t pre-plan; the plot was a vague, misty map in my mind. I knew the destination, but wasn’t exactly sure how to get there. As a result, I ended up tossing a lot into the trashcan, words upon words, page after page, bye-bye. The map finally came into focus, the direction clear, the steps taken. But I swear, cross my heart, that the next book (a prequel to Hidden Shadows) will be more carefully mapped before I begin the journey.
Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?
A: I saw Cassie clearly in my mind, as if I had glimpsed her in passing, or in a dream, or a photograph somewhere. I began by writing reams about her, developing a character study, exploring her past, asking her questions, discovering her inner life. Then I talked aloud to her, as I did to others in Hidden Shadows:
I visualized her sitting in the chair opposite me – green velvet, an armless antique I inherited – and asked questions about her feelings or actions, her fears and dreams. Sometimes I railed at her for being obtuse, or making bad decisions, or keeping her thoughts hidden. Or I just looked at her, at how she was sitting, or what she was wearing, the expression on her face. Once I changed places. I sat in that green chair and became Cassie for a short time, speaking as she would, responding to the questions. I had to laugh at myself, thinking if anyone were to suddenly appear and witness what I was doing, they’d swear I was crazy.
Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?
A: Guy Wilkins, a wild mix of good and bad, is a wounded soul I ended up loving. Sometimes I hated him, too. I felt for him, cried for him, dreaded what he became. But aren’t we all a mix of good and bad and everything in between?
I found a photo of him in a magazine somewhere. I knew it was Guy the moment I saw it: the dark gaze, the creased face, the lean-muscled stance. I kept that photo in front of me while I wrote, a constant reminder, as if he were truly there.
Guy was real to me from the very beginning. He still lives in my thoughts. I can see him, hear his voice, feel compassion for his troubled soul. If a character is real in the heart of a writer, surely it must be so for the reader, too.
Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?
A: If I’m excited about what I’m writing, the narrative is usually exciting. If I’m bored, uncertain, stressed, or otherwise in a rut, the narrative reflects that, too.
Each one of us must find the approach that works best for our nature and genre. For me, I try to immerse myself in the moment, to put myself into the scene – to experience sight, sound, smell, touch as if I were truly there, right there, that very second. Sometimes I view scenes behind my eyes as if I were watching a film, with my characters the actors (including close-ups) speaking and moving within a particular setting. I want to meld with these characters, to see through their eyes, to think and feel through the filter of their minds and hearts.
Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?
A: I visited the surroundings, snapped photographs, studied dozens of other photographs and paintings of the Texas Hill Country landscape. I did the same with rambling, old country houses – the sort with wrap-around porches and a weathered, welcoming feel. I strolled through surrounding towns like Fredericksburg and Bourne, and meandered among the limestone walls of a century-old German homestead. Eventually everything became a part of me.
I try to sink myself into the setting as I write, really see it in my mind, hear the sounds all about, sense the air and sun and wind and so on, hoping to bring each moment to life for the reader.
Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?
A: I hadn’t consciously thought about themes, to be honest. It was more of an inner feeling, a silent voice that propelled me onward. I vaguely knew it would include dealing with a sense of loss, of loneliness and sorrow, and finding a way through it all, renewed. What I hadn’t realized was that almost every single character would end up experiencing grief, and facing it in different ways.
Nor had I planned the other themes resonating in Hidden Shadows, themes of healing and connection to the land, to our ancestors, to others, to ourselves – and to the redemptive power of love. These came unbidden, unfolding as I wrote. Sometimes I felt as though another hand, another heart, somehow spoke through mine. It all came as a surprise to me after the first draft, as if I had discovered hidden parts of myself.
Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?
A: How are we to untangle the two? Craft and art are like conjoined twins, inseparable. Each may have a different function, but neither can exist without the other. For example, assume a writer is eloquent with words; they spill from his pen like pearls, shiny and beautiful. But unless he knows how to use them effectively, what good are they? Or what about the writer who thinks of a fascinating character or an action-filled plot and so on – but doesn’t have the skill to form them into shape?
Art and craft work together as a team. There may be times when one is dominate, but the other is always there. For example, many writers (such as myself) like to begin a chapter by writing writing writing without pausing for breath. For me, that’s the fun “art” part. Then I must go back and edit like crazy – the necessary “craft” part – for the work to be whole. Art and craft, craft and art – different functions, perhaps, but forever holding hands.
Can editing destroy the initial creative thrust? Sometimes, yes, if we’re over-enthusiastic. I’ve deleted many a thing, only to realize I killed something essential, and so put it back in again. But the reverse is true as well: I’ve left “as is,” like a mother refusing to toss out her baby, but in the end realized I had to edit. It’s akin to pruning a tree, cutting off the odd branches to help it thrive.
Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?
A: *Persistence, patience, perseverance – and determination, too. Writing a novel is a long, often demanding process.
*The ability to visualize the work as a unified whole – not as a series of slung-together segments – from beginning to end.
*Belief in oneself. (This isn’t as simple as it sounds, but it’s essential.)
Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?
A: In a way this is true. No matter how enjoyable writing may be, it requires discipline, sticking to a schedule, plunking yourself down in the chair and getting to work. An aching tummy, a headache, not enough sleep? Too bad, gotta sit down and write. Want to browse the internet, pull up Facebook, watch that TV show, yack on the phone? Nope, not `til later.
Yet when all is said and done, if writing isn’t a joy in spite of the homework ills, then why do it? Life is too short, the years pass in the blink of an eye. I write because I want to write, for whatever reason. It makes me happy. It also drives me nuts, but that’s part of parcel of creativity.
The yin and yang.
Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?
A: There are several terrific magazines for writers –such as “Writer’s Digest,” “ Writer’s Market,” and “Poets and Writers” – that I’ve found to be helpful. As for books on how to write, I’ve bought a bunch – but after a chapter or two usually put them down, never to return.
What has proven to be the most beneficial to me, and the most enjoyable, is reading the works of other writers. All genres, all styles. If I like a particular novel, I ask myself, What did the author do to make this story fascinating, or effective, or not-put-downable? How did she/he rev up the suspense? Develop the plot and characters? Employ dialogue, setting, the senses? And so on. If, on the other hand, I don’t respond to the book and find it a chore to finish, I once again ask why. What is it that didn’t work for me?
As for workshops, I’ve enjoyed professional writer organizations and conferences. I’ve found kindred souls as well as inspiration and information about the writing life. Networking is half the battle, so I’m told. I’ve met agents, editors, publishers, gifted writers via conferences.
Writer critique groups can be wonderful. I’m fortune to have found a terrific critique group. I can’t imagine a writing life without having these gifted people by my side. They were with me at the genesis of Hidden Shadows; their insightful comments helped me develop the story into what it is today. I’m happy to know they will continue to be with me as I begin the next project, a prequel.
I’ve also enjoyed book clubs. Not only have I ended up reading delightful works I may not have otherwise considered, I’ve learned a great deal about what readers respond to well, and what they don’t.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?
A: Shakespeare said it best: To thine own self be true. We should strive to write from our own unique mind and heart and muse, to find our own voice and trust it. If we write from an inner truth, it will be true to the reader, and so believable – no matter the genre, no matter the style.