Shonna Slayton is a prolific writer of young adult historical fiction and fairytale reimaginings. Her books include Cinderella’s Dress (2014), Cinderella’s Shoes (2015), Liz and Nellie (2016), Spindle (2016), Snow White’s Mirror (2018), The Tower Princess (2018), Beauty’s Rose (2019), Cinderella’s Legacy (2019), Sleeping Beauty’s Spindle (2020), The Little Mermaid’s Voice (2021), Lessons from Grimm: How to Write a Fairy Tale (2020), and its companion volumes, the workbook (2020), the high school workbook (2020), the middle school workbook (2020), the elementary workbook (2020), Prompts from Grimm (Grades 7-12) and Prompts from Grimm (Grades 3-6). I am delighted that she agreed to be interviewed for ARHtistic License–she has so much to share with us.
ARHtistic License:Many of your books are YA historical novels and/or fairy tale sequels. Where do you get your inspiration?
Shonna Slayton: I’ve long been interested in writing historicals and in particular telling women’s stories. But I also have a bent toward fantasy. Why not combine genres? With fairy tales, the inspiration is already there in the original story, giving me plenty to riff from. Once I’ve picked a fairy tale and paired it with a historical time period, the boundaries are set, and I’m free to imagine how to merge these two ideas.
AL: How long does it take you to finish writing a book? What is your favorite part of writing a book? What is the hardest part of writing a book for you?
SS: Each book is different. My favorite part of writing a book is the part I’m not currently working on (!) At least, that’s what it feels like right now. I’m deep in the weeds of Act 2 right now, pushing toward Act 3 and the words are coming ever so slowly.
AL: Are you a plotter or pantser?
SS: As much as I would like to be a plotter, I’m more of a discovery writer. I know many of the plot points going in, but not how I’m going to get there. I rely on the characters to make those decisions, but the characters are not fully formed in the first draft…kind of the chicken or the egg scenario. I write in a spiral, moving forward, but often swooping back to earlier chapters to add more information as I learn it.
AL: Your first few novels were published by a publishing house. Did you have an agent? What was your submission process like?
SS: Yes, I was originally published through Entangled Teen. I’ve never had an agent. I went to a writing conference with plans of what classes I was going to take, but when Entangled publisher Liz Pelletier stood up to introduce herself and the sessions she was giving, I changed all my plans and went to her talks. At the time, she was working off of a different publishing model which fascinated me, and I wanted to be in on the experiment. I simply submitted my work directly to her a few days after the conference. She’s a smart business woman, and I was thrilled to work with her company for as long as I did.
AL: Now you mostly self-publish. Sometimes readers assume authors choose to self-publish because they’re not good enough to get a book deal. That’s certainly not true in your case. Why did you decide to abandon traditional publishing?
SS: To be honest, traditional publishing abandoned me. My fourth book got cancelled, and while the company was willing to keep working with me if I changed what I was writing, I wanted to finish what I started. Fortunately, when self-publishing started to take off, I thought it would be a good idea to have a foot in both publishing models. My first attempt at self-publishing (Liz and Nellie, about Nellie Bly’s race around the world) came out between my second and third traditional book. So, when my contract was cancelled, it wasn’t much of a leap to turn to self-publishing.
Looking back, knowing what I know now, cancelling my book was a smart business decision for Entangled and, it turned out, for me, too. My books didn’t generate enough revenue to keep a publisher’s interest, but when all the royalties come to me, I can make it work. Under a trad publisher, my books would have slowly died, but with the tools available to indie authors (such as paid advertising, newsletters, control over pricing, and a bit of courage to put yourself out there), I can keep a steady stream of readers finding my books.
AL: What’s up next?
SS: I’m working on an original fairy tale trilogy based on kelpie mythology. While set in a fantasy land, it’s got a Scottish flair.
I’m also in the process of producing audiobooks for my Fairy-tale Inheritance Series. The first audiobook, Cinderella’s Dress is out now. It’s been fun to work with a voice actor to bring the story to life.
AL:It’s been great to hear about your writing and publication journey. Thank you for sharing with us. I’ve read most of your books and enjoyed them immensely.
SS: Thanks for inviting me onto your blog, Andrea! I love how you focus on creativity in a variety of ways here.
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When I was a high school student, research papers were my downfall. For weeks I’d diligently scour the reference shelves at the library and take copious notes by hand on index cards (these were the days before photocopiers), and long before I ever exhausted my sources, I’d realize I only had a day or two left to actually write the paper—and no idea how to distill all my notes into a cohesive narrative.
Research is one of the trickiest activities for fiction writers. It’s necessary, because if your details are inaccurate, it will tick off your readers-in-the-know, and give them a reason to dislike your work. (I know there are a lot of stupid people out there, but people who read are smart, mostly.) This is not an exhaustive list, but you might need to do research if:
You’re writing historical fiction. You’ll want to understand what the world was like during the period you’re writing about—the political climate, the fashions, popular culture, common names, what the setting would have looked like, etc.
You’re writing science fiction. Even though it’s fiction, it’s based on science. You have to know how the science works. Even if you’re creating your own world, in order to be believable, it will have to submit to the laws of physics, or you may have to provide an explanation of why it doesn’t or else risk losing your knowledgeable readership.
Your characters are using technology, current, future, or antique. Your readers will expect your characters to use instruments, devices, and terminology properly.
You haven’t lived in your story’s setting. Ideally, you should travel there and spend some time. If your situation won’t allow you to do that, you’re forced to depend on other persons’ descriptions and photographs, or create a fictitious but believable setting of your own.
Your characters have an occupation or belong to a specific organization. An FBI agent will have a different sort of workday and responsibilities than an elementary school media specialist. Don’t give them authority they do not have.
In order for your research to be successful, though, you will have to avoid these research pitfalls:
Over-researching. Do too much, and you’re just wasting time that could be spent working on your story.
Under-researching. Do too little, and your writing will lack authenticity.
Researching the wrong angles. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. You expect your research will uncover certain things, but it seems no one has ever documented them. And you’re in danger of bypassing the whole forest while hunting for the elusive tree.
Looking in all the wrong places. We are accustomed to depending on search engines online to find answers to our questions. Sometimes that’s all we need to do. But sometimes research demands we leave the comfort of our homes and travel to a destination. When that’s not possible, it might be necessary to interview, remotely or in person, someone who is familiar with the location or the issue we need to learn more about.
Getting side-tracked. Ah, this is the pit I fall into most often. While looking for background information about one thing, I often discover an equally interesting side-topic, one that spawns lots of what-if ideas that beg to be developed into the next shiny new story. This leads to huge detours where I read just one more article and just one more article until I’ve squandered my writing time and haven’t made any progress at the task at hand.
How to keep your research on track:
Set a limit. This can be either a time limit or a page limit. You might devote two weeks, or two months, or even a year or more, depending on the project. Or you might decide that as soon as you have 50 pages of notes, you will get on with it.
Make a list of specific items you need to find out about. Important events in the lives of prominent people who directly or indirectly impact your story. The year the trolley first ran down Main Street. What the temperature in your setting was during the winter of 1963. Headlines from the area newspaper during the timespan of your story. Write down everything that you think you might need to know. You won’t use everything you uncover (nor should you), but the more you know, the better prepared you will be to write. And if you do miss an important detail, you can always look it up later.
Where and how will you be most likely to find out what you need to know? I always start with a Google search. Choose your search terms carefully. If your search doesn’t yield fruitful results, tweak the terms. Also, if your local library has a research librarian, she can steer you to possible resources. Think about people you know who have knowledge about people, places, and things related to your story. They may be able to direct you to authorities on certain topics. Also, movie documentaries and even dramas and novels with elements in common with your story can reveal information you need to know.
Think about how your research will inform your writing. What path will your story take, depending on what learn? Maybe the ending you were planning won’t work, based on what you found out. You may need to re-map your idea. Maybe different complications will yield a more realistic outcome.
What to do with the interesting but unrelated stuff you unearth. If you find information that is sparking your imagination with ideas for new projects, by all means, write yourself some notes (or take a picture with your phone). But then put that information someplace else. Don’t keep it with the notes for your current project; it will be a constant distraction.
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Since my children were small, there’s been a basket in the corner of our living room filled with Christmas books. Some are children’s books, some are grownups’, some are fiction, some are non-fiction. They’ve been collected over decades, and I reread a few every year. I’ve even reviewed a few of my favorites.
I’ve always wanted to write a Christmas story of my own. About a year ago I came up with an idea of a retelling of a classic Christmas tale—and that’s all I’m going to tell you about it, because I’m working hard at finishing it, and I’d really be bummed if you took my idea and did a better and quicker job of it than me.
Writing Christmas books is much like writing any other kind of book, but with a few slight differences. The same expectations for all fiction also apply to Christmas fiction: a vivid setting, a conflict, a main character who grows through time; a beginning, middle, and end; an arc with escalating action that leads to a satisfying conclusion. Christmas fiction also needs to evoke the feelings of the holidays, awakening associations through the senses: the twinkling lights, the smell of pine, the flavor of gingerbread, the sound of jingle bells. Christmas stories can be shorter than other novels, like 50,000 to 65,000 words rather than 90,000 to 300,000.
Christmas books generally sell from October through December. New Christmas books typically appear on shelves the first Tuesday in October. If you self-publish, you’ll want to launch in early October as well. Your book will languish from January through September, but you’ll be wise to self-promote it again starting each October.
Are you thinking of writing a Christmas book of your own? These articles may help you: