I'm delighted today to host the Frances Hunter team. Welcome, I’m so glad to have this opportunity to chat with you. Can you share with my readers the essence of the story you’ve penned?
Liz: The Fairest Portion of the Globe is, we hope, an exciting rip-roaring ride through a portion of early American history that isn’t very well-known—but should be. George Washington is president, and the U.S. Army is occupying “the West” – that is, Ohio—and fighting Indians. But the country is weak, and European powers are swarming all over the continent, looking to destabilize the new nation and grab off huge portions of the continent.
Amidst this international intrigue is an adventure and a coming of age story. Meriwether Lewis, a hot-headed young Virginia officer, wants nothing more than to prove himself. All he’s proved is that he’s a troublemaker until he meets his match in another tough young rifleman, William Clark. But even as they match wits with each other—not to mention obtuse Army brass—they find themselves swept up in the violence, intrigue, and perils of the early frontier.
You’ve chosen a very interesting title. What inspired the title? What inspired the book?
Liz: The book’s title describes the Louisiana Territory, an epic and unexplored territory that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico north to Canada, from the Mississippi River in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west. It’s a land of beauty and riches beyond imagining—the soil, the rivers, the minerals, and of course, the furs.
But don’t take my word for it. “This immense river waters one of the fairest portions of the globe. Nor do I believe that there is in the universe a similar extent of country. As we passed on, it seemed as if those scenes of visionary enchantment would never have an end.” Meriwether Lewis wrote that—years later, when he and William Clark had become famous explorers.
Mary: Because it was so desirable, the Louisiana territory was a magnet for intrigue and adventure. Remember, this was ten years before the Louisiana Purchase. The United States was brand new. Nobody knew if we would survive, let alone prosper and grow. It was a time of enormous uncertainty—not unlike now.
Liz: At the time of our story, the world teeters on the brink of global war over Louisiana. That’s because whoever controls it will govern an empire. France wants it. That’s a problem, because Spain owns it. And a certain United States politico by the name of Thomas Jefferson will stop at nothing to get it for his new nation.
What makes this book special to you?
Liz: One reason this book is special to me is that it is our second novel. Writing a book is an almost unimaginable amount of work, and you have to be very self-motivated. It’s not as if the world is clamoring for more of your work, not with all of the great books that are published every week. I’m proud that we pulled it off a second time. And we faced a lot of adversity during the writing of this book. Our mom, whom we loved very much and who was our biggest fan, had a heart-breaking decline from Parkinson’s disease, and died a year ago this week. And our dad, who is in his 80s, broke his hip just three weeks after Mom died. A lot of last year was spent helping him with his rehab and getting him settled again. Sometimes I look at our book and I don’t know how we kept writing. I think that some days it was the only link to sanity that we had.
What makes this a book that people MUST read and WHY?
Liz: Do you like action? Do you like adventure? Do you like history? Do you like “bromance” (as they say in Hollywood)? Did you swoon for Sharpe? Go mad for Master and Commander?
The Fairest Portion of the Globe was a hell of a lot of fun to write, and our goal was to make it a lot of fun to read too. This period of the early American west is generally passed up in schools—I think because it’s so rich and complex, and so full of outlandish happenings that it can’t be reduced to the level of the 4th grade mind. So join us on a guided tour of the early American frontier, from its sordid international conspiracies to its squalid, filthy army forts. I promise you outrageous humor, suspense, and tremendous adventure, in a time and place that hasn’t been done to death.
Mary: We think of it as “Lewis & Clark meets M*A*S*H.” You won’t take “manifest destiny” for granted ever again.
What sparks your creativity? Any tips to help others spark their own creativity?
Mary: The best historians can make history come alive. Novelists can do that, too. I love the challenge of turning a stuffy portrait in a history book into a real, flesh and blood human being that comes alive on the page. Our characters dream, curse, joke around, make mistakes. Sometimes they’re lonely. Sometimes they get angry. I think one of the best ways to be creative is to quit thinking of historical figures as sacred heroes. They were as yearning, flawed, and fallible as you and me.
Liz: For me, the biggest creative spark seems to come from the blank pages in the history book. I adore reading history and biography as well as historical fiction. I love to learn. But the work of historians isn’t the received word of God. If I notice a passage that says, “Nothing is known of Joe Blow’s life prior to age 21,” then my creative juices start flowing. Take Lewis & Clark. No one knows why, how, or when they became such good friends. That’s the story historians can’t tell, but historical fiction authors can. My tip is read, read all the time, and think creatively about what you have read.
What has been the biggest stumbling block in your writing? Can you share some tips to help others get past similar problems?
Mary: I think one of the things that can be most daunting to a writer is reconciling what you want to write with the preconceived notions of what people want to read. Notions like, “America doesn’t have a rich enough history to make a good novel,” or “nobody reads historical fiction about men.” At the end of the day, you have to ignore the conventional wisdom and follow your passion. It’s your time, your book, and your sweat that’s going into it.
Though I have to admit, for a while we considered making Lewis & Clark vampires.
Liz: I think the biggest stumbling block for me and for a lot of people is time and energy. Mary and I both work full-time. If you work full-time or have young children, you will need to find some time you can carve out at least several days a week to write. You have to give up what you would normally be doing during those times – sleeping, reading, watching TV. We started working together on our first book back in 2003, and I don’t know any of the TV shows or stars that have come on the scene since then! I’m completely out of it about Lost.
Tell me about the most unusual things you have done to promote your book?
Liz: We do a lot of the usual things, but maybe the most unusual thing I can think of is that we left a dozen copies of our first book at different locations along the Lewis & Clark Trail as part of the Book Crossing “catch-and-release” book giveaway program. I still don’t know who “caught” our books. It was fun and I felt like an outlaw.
Mary: Speaking of outlaws, we also sent out a “Wanted” poster to bookstores with Lewis and Clark’s picture on it. “Lewis and Clark: Wanted for Treason.” I don’t know if it sold any books, but we sure enjoyed making it!
Each author is different in the way they create a work of fiction. Please describe for us how you plan or plot a story.
Mary: We are fortunate in that our writing styles are very simpatico. We are best friends as well as sisters. It makes the collaboration fun, instead of painful. I really can’t imagine writing that way with anyone else.
Liz: First we do tons of reading and research. We read some of the same books, and we also specialize in certain areas and then just summarize the findings for the other person. At first we just read to learn about the era and get ideas.
Then we brainstorm out ideas for scenes. This just starts to happen naturally. As more and more scenes take place, we work on an outline, character sketches, timelines, etc. I know some others don’t like to do these things, but I don’t know how you could do collaborative writing without them. You have to agree on what the story’s going to be and who the characters are. It’s also a good way to find giant holes in your plot. I don’t know how you could keep the history straight without doing a lot of work up front.
After we do all that, we just assign ourselves chapters. We work on each chapter (or sometimes just larger scenes) as individuals, and then trade them off for editing, rewriting, more ideas, etc. The actual writing part can sometimes go pretty quickly if you have thought a lot of it through up front.
Authors are very unique in the way they write, the tools they use, when they write, etc. Please describe a typical writing day for you? How do you organize your day?
Mary: I try to visualize a scene in its entirety before I start writing, almost like I’m watching a movie. I try to be very cinematic in my style. First I make notes on the scene—the setting, what people are wearing, important things I want to remember about what the characters see, hear, smell, and taste. From my notes, I then start to flesh out the scene with description, action, and dialogue. Sometimes when I’m “in the zone” I can write all day, with the pages just flowing out effortlessly. Other times, it feels like pulling teeth. That’s when I know I don’t yet have a clear mental and emotional picture of what’s going on in the scene.
Liz: When I get ready to write, I usually spend a little time reading over what I last wrote. I sometimes look at pictures of Lewis and Clark or whatever I’m writing about, or listen to a piece of music that reminds me of what the scene is going to be about. We write from limited third-person perspective, and I try to “become” the person I’m going to be writing about. It’s almost like acting. You can’t write or talk about anything that person wouldn’t know about, can’t think anything they wouldn’t think.
What is your current work in progress?
Liz: Our next book will be called Bloody Island. In 1838, the Mississippi River is moving away from St. Louis, leaving the town high and dry. The engineering challenge of saving St. Louis could make or break the career of young Army engineer Robert E. Lee. But he soon learns that powerful men on both sides of the river have their own agendas, and that the flow of corruption, conspiracy, and deception run even deeper than the mighty Mississippi. We’re hoping for a blend of historical mystery, romance, and suspense.
Mary: We’re especially looking forward to creating the character of Lee’s wife, Mary Lee. Mary was headstrong and smart as a whip. She was one of Virginia’s elite and a descendant of Martha Washington, and she did exactly as she pleased. You can imagine she’d stick out like a sore thumb in a rough-and-tumble river town.
Can you tell us where to find more information about you and your books and how readers can reach you?
Mary: Yes, please visit our website, Frances Hunter’s American Heroes Blog, at http://franceshunter.wordpress.com. You can contact us through the button at the top of the page or leave a comment in any of the posts. We love to chat with readers.
What would you like our readers to know about you and your writing?
Liz: We are just readers like yourself who somehow lost our senses and decided to write books. A book that it may take you a few hours or days to read took years to research and write. We love America and its history. It’s a privilege to write historical fiction and share the story of the fabulous, flawed human beings who rose above their limitations and lived largely. Thanks for letting us share it with you.
Mary: We love American history, but if we wanted to be deadly serious about history, we’d be academic historians. Instead, we decided to be novelists. Our goal is to tell a good story—rich, authentic, exciting, emotionally real. And above all, fun to read.