For insight into her research and writing process, Brandy recently answered a few questions about her newest book.
It’s both social history and biography about women’s lives in 17th and 18th century British America. There is a bit of everything —from basic survival, to work, marriage, childbirth, education, women’s roles in religion and society, slavery, indentured servants, the Salem witch hysteria and colonial fashion. I’ve included a variety of stories that help tell the tale of European women, African women and Native American women.
What research was necessary to write this book?
First, I did general research into the time period. Then I focused on the stories of individual women who appear within the chapters and in the featured biographies. I read tons of books! You try to find things that women of the period wrote themselves but a lot of the time you have to use what men wrote about women.
Luckily, so much more is available now online than when I started writing. Many universities and historic sites have primary materials online as well as other great resources. For instance, the Records of the Virginia Company and the Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia 1622-1632 are online so I found references to Cecily Jordan Farrar’s breach of promise case. Many documents related to the Salem Witch trials are online, including the ones I used to write about Martha Corey. But I also traveled to places like Historic Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg and the Byrd plantation in Virginia. I’ve visited other places in the past that also provided research for the book like Plimoth Plantation, Boston, and Salem, Massachusetts. And of course I have a replica of an 18th century corset so I could see what that feels like to wear!
How long did you research this project? How long did it take to compile the information and write it after that?
Portions of this book appeared in a previous book, so that cut my research time down a bit. Typically, I research the bulk of the book for about 6 months. Then I need about 3-4 months to write and revise book. There is a lot of double-checking as I go. Where do I need more research? What specific questions have arisen during the writing? I try to keep my research organized to make everything run smoothly, but as the process goes on that usually falls apart and papers and books end up all over.
When in the process did you decide on the format to have general historical information followed by the specific women?
I knew that from the start. It made more sense than having large sections on an individual woman tucked within the general history chapter. But the women featured in the biographies at the end of the chapters are usually mentioned within the chapter and then you get to learn more about their stories.
How did you decide which women to include? Were there others you wanted to include but had to leave out for some reason?
I wanted to have an inclusive book and that was hard because there is so little known about individual Native American women or enslaved women. Really, that is true for most white women, too. Pocahontas seemed a given, but I wanted to separate her from John Smith’s legends. It was important to show that Pocahontas was kidnapped and held captive by the English for over a year, show that she was brave and curious and strong. The story of Eve was pieced together through wills and a runaway slave advertisement. The Puritans were a literate bunch, so it was easy to pick Anne Hutchinson, Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson and Sarah Kemble Knight. I picked Cecily Jordan Farrar because she is one of my ancestors! I also had to find women who lived outside Virginia and Massachusetts so that led me to Eliza Pinckney, Margaret Hardenbroeck Philipse and Elizabeth Ashbridge.
I think the stories about Anne Hutchinson (who I’d heard of) and Elizabeth Ashbridge (who I had not) intrigued me the most. Who is yours and why?
I loved those stories, too. I was so glad Elizabeth Ashbridge came through such dark times to find her place. It’s hard to pick favorites. Martha Corey certainly stayed with me—she must have felt so helpless and terrified faced with the girls’ accusations and the courtroom dramatics. All she could do was protest her innocence, but it wasn’t enough to save her from hanging as a witch. I also loved both Eliza Pinckney and Sarah Kemble Knight’s senses of humor. Their personalities really shine through their writings. You just wish you could sit down and talk to them all! There are so many things we just can’t know after so many centuries.
Which woman was the hardest to research and why?
Eve was hard, because so much is speculation. I wrote in generalities about what an enslaved woman, who served as a lady’s maid, would do. But in terms of real facts about Eve, we know so few! She and her son George were bequeathed as property in several wills, she ran away after the British surrender at Yorktown, an advertisement (complete with Eve’s description) offered a twenty dollar reward for her return, and she must have been found and returned to her mistress because a will codicil states Eve was then sold for her “bad behavior.” That’s it for concrete information. I wish I could have found out more about her.
What was your road to publication for this book?
I had already done four books for Chicago Review Press, so I didn’t have to submit a formal book proposal. I sent the editor a copy of my previous book--now out-of-print-- on women in Colonial America. The old book was for middle grade (about 16,000 words) and I needed to write a book that fit into CRP’s Women of Action series, so the book expanded to YA and 50,000 words. I was offered a contract basically based on the idea and my track record.
Talk a little bit about the photographs and other visuals included in the book. Where do you find them and what permissions do you need to use them?
Oh, boy-- photo research is a huge part of the job and takes a lot of time! My main goal is to find great images for reasonable prices. Free is my favorite price, by the way. Some images can be downloaded for free from places like the Library of Congress. Most of the images in WOMEN OF COLONIAL AMERICA, however, came from museums or historical societies. I have to request permission to use the image and pay a fee which can run from $25.00 to over $100.00. I’ve learned to beg. The people I’ve worked with are really wonderful, though, and often offer me a deal. I love having lots of images so the money and paperwork really adds up!
Who will this book appeal to? What age range would you recommend it for?
The book is aimed at readers ages 12 and up and is considered a YA book. Many adults read it, too, however, and I think a good reader of nine or ten, could enjoy the book also. I hope it appeals to anyone who is interested in early American history or women’s history.
Is this a book teachers can use in the classroom?
Absolutely. The book contains information on so many topics of colonial life and society as well as the featured biographies. It offers a clear look at how women’s lives have changed over time, changes that occurred even from the 17th century to the 18th century. As often as possible I tried to use primary source materials so both men and women of the time might speak in their own words. And the book has source notes and a lengthy bibliography that is great to use with older students.
Have you written other books for the “Women of Action” series?
I’ve done one other book for the series, WOMEN OF THE FRONTIER, 16 Tales of Trailblazing Homesteaders, Entrepreneurs and Rabble-Rousers (Chicago Review Press, 2013). The book was named a YALSA Nonfiction Award Nominee, A National Council of the Social Studies-Children’s Book Council Notable Trade Book, and A Choose To Read Ohio title.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on several NF book proposals that are taking some time to research and write.
Can you talk a little bit about your writing process/writing routine?
The good thing about writing NF is you always have your research to fall back on when things get tricky. When I’m actively writing a book, I write every day, usually in the morning when my poor old brain is still fresh. I look things over and tidy up the writing in the afternoon, then maybe write a bit more. Some days, I might only get 500 good words written, while other days everything flows and I might get a few thousand words done. I write by breaking down what I have to do into “scenes,” adding new ones until I’ve finished the chapter. The best part is finishing the first draft—what a weight off the shoulders! Now I have something I can go back and really work with. Revision is my favorite part of the process. I also like summing up and writing endings, but figuring out how to start is always elusive for me. Writing takes a lot of thinking. It seems like you are wasting time, but you need this. Many days are just a slog, just getting words down that I know I can fix later.
Where do you write?
I have a room devoted to writing—a desk littered with pens, sticky notes, and scraps of paper, my computer, two monitors, a table stacked with printouts and books, printer and copier. My study is usually a mess which isn’t good for my concentration. I have bins to store everything for all my different projects. I face a window so I can stare up at the sky and treetops, which I do a lot and find this necessary for my thought process.
Pen and paper, or computer?
Both. I write on the computer and do early revisions on the computer. But when I really need to think, move stuff around, and polish, I print the chapters out and sit down with an eraser and a bunch of sharpened pencils. Hand, arm, brain seem to make a good connection!
How do you organize your research? Do you use any programs like Scrivener or Evernote?
I use One Note. I type in notes from research books and it’s great for storing and highlighting articles off the internet. I can later take whole quotes and move them into the manuscript, which is easy to do with the two monitors—one for the manuscript and one for the research stuff. I also print off important articles I need to cover in a chapter.
Are you part of a critique group or do you depend solely on your editor/publisher for feedback?
I am part of a critique group, but I rarely submit my nonfiction. I mostly use them for fiction, and for love and support!
Do you send in a proposal for the books you write, or are you assigned the topic?
Mostly I’ve just discussed an idea with my editor and if it is something he or she likes I’ll write up a pretty basic proposal. Right now, though, I’m working on several book proposals that include the whole shebang—annotated outlines, sample chapters, market study, promotions, competing titles. It is a lot of hard work that I don’t enjoy so you keep your fingers crossed it will pay off with a contract someday!
It seems you write mainly historical and biographical books. How did you get into that area?
History was always my favorite subject in school and my college major. My parents were both teachers so we spent time traveling in the summers to National Parks, battlefields, museums and historic sites. I loved the story of history. And as a kid, biographies were one of my favorite types of books to read.
Why do you write non-fiction for children?
It’s an extension of what I enjoy myself. And kids are fascinated by information, gory details, personalities and the stories of history, especially how people lived in the past. You also hope to shed light on events or people not covered in text books. And even when I’ve written about famous people like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, I seek out those details that make them human and relatable to modern readers, and use their own words as much as possible.
Talk a little bit about yourself. What is your background? What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I’ve always been a reader and a talker! I grew up south of Chicago and studied history and art history at Purdue University. I have a long-term husband, two daughters, and several grandchildren who crack me up. People would be surprised to know I once took tap dancing lessons and rode dressage on my horse Gin Fizz.
What other things do you do to fill your time? Any hobbies?
I read, I garden, I cook and I love to play all sorts of games. I love old movies from the 1930s and 1940s, chocolate and pizza. I will also come over and organize your house.
What is your favorite snack?
No doubt—potato chips and homemade cream cheese dip.
If you could live anywhere, where would that be?
I think I’d stay right where I am, only with a cleaner house, a gardener, and bigger closets. But I’d have fabulous vacations in Great Britain and Italy, the coast of Maine and the Rocky Mountains.
Do you have a favorite book – fiction or non-fiction? How about one of your own?
As to my own, that is like picking a favorite child! I guess I’d have to go with my very first book, Buffalo Gals, Women of the Old West, which came out in 1995 and is long out-of-print. One of my favorite NF books is Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. I also just read Bomb by Steve Sheinkin which was amazing. I enjoy reading murder mysteries by Agatha Christie, P.D. James and Elizabeth George. I love the Harry Potter books and recently enjoyed Splendors and Glooms by Amy Laura Schlitz. Oldie- but- goody favorites include The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Charlotte’s Web and Little Women.
What is the first story you remember writing?
I wrote a play in sixth grade called The Young Patriots about a girl who was a spy during the American Revolution! My best friend had the lead role.
What writing advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Stick with it. There is no easy path or secret code—it takes hard work. Read as much as you can-- both the type of book you want to write and information about writing and the publishing industry. You really can improve your craft. Find a good critique group to help you grow and offer support and encouragement. There are also on-line critique groups you can join. There is always more to work on, always more you can improve. I know I’m still learning and probably always will be. Also, today it is so much easier to network with authors, agents and editors via social media. A connection might come in handy one day.
Do you have an author website or other platform where readers can find more information about you and your books?
My website is www.brandonmariemiller.com and I blog with Mary Kay Carson and Kerrie Hollihan at http://hands-on-books.blogspot.com. I’m on Facebook and twitter-- @brandonmariemil
Is there anything I have neglected to ask that you would like to add?
You have been really thorough and made me work! Thank you so much, Jennifer. I appreciate the opportunity!
Thank you for your time!