Interview with Erin Rainwater

When did you first start writing?
Considering I wrote a form of my novella, “Blind Courage,” as an English assignment in the eighth grade, I guess you could say I started then. I got an A on that, and never did get the story of this little girl out of my mind. But there was a gap of about twenty years before I started writing for real, and waaay longer before I got around to rewriting "Blind Courage" for publication.
Do any of your real-life experiences factor in to your plots?
They sure do. Clare Canterbury in Refining Fires is a former Army nurse, as am I. Cassie Golden in True Colors is also a nurse, who works for the government during the Civil War. I have incorporated some of my military experiences into theirs.
Why historical fiction, and not comtemporaries?
Ever since I was very young I’ve always been fascinated by American history, by how those who came before us lived. And loved.

I think the reason some people don’t like history all that much is because they see it as a boring record of wars and dates and outdated societies. I’ve always seen it as people, how they must’ve lived their live, and how they reacted to and were shaped by the world into which they were assigned. Anyone can research and report on subject matter, but the author of historicals lives vicariously in that era when they’re writing. At least I do. Good storytelling places the reader in the moment, makes them feel the danger, the meaning of consequences. With historical fiction you get all of that plus a telescopic view of a time and place with the customs, culture, dress, vernacular, attitudes, prejudices, and beliefs (including false beliefs) of a different time. Yet you still experience those timeless issues, like separation during war, grieving the loss of a child, or dealing with a traumatically-acquired handicap. Historical fiction set in America, when done well, not only makes a story more fascinating than contemporaies (in my humble opinion) but can help shed light on our identity as a nation and its values. This makes historical accuracy a must. My goal is to incorporate all these things into my stories.
So, do you do your own research? How do you like that part of writing?
I absolutely love the research. The hard element is sorting through what can be used and what simply doesn’t work. There are so many fascinating (to me, anyway) historical facts I always want to include, but you won’t see them because I couldn’t work them into the story without it seeming forced or contrived. For Refining Fires, I had to look no further than my own memory for some of the facts. It takes place in the late 1950s when I was very young. But to ensure accuracy I had to research types of cars, dress styles, helicopters used in the Korean War…things like that. As a nurse I’m aware of how to treat certain wounds and burns nowadays, but I had to research what treatments were used back then. For my other historicals, set in 1860s Colorado and Civil War Virginia, the research was even more intense but just as much fun.
Tell us a little about your heroes and heroines.
The only relatable hero (or any character) is an imperfect one. Flawed in some way, the hero simply must have an inner strength of character, even if he is unaware of it or isn’t manifesting it all the time. A couple of my heroes either have or come to have a physical disability, and it’s only by that inner spirit—brought out in full with the help of the women who love them--that they survive.

I choose to write about heroines who are strong women without being those types of alpha females who can ride, shoot and chaw tobacco better than any man. Ugh! My "heroines" are just like my readers, living their lives as best they can in the times in which they were born. Only with more drama, which is what hooks us, and with grace, which makes us admire them and root for them. As for heroes, same thing: strong and honest but not godlike.

In The Arrow That Flieth by Day, Dakota is a half-breed Arapaho who has learned to fit well in both white and Indian societies, unlike many of his kind who can’t seem to find their place in either. When he undergoes some crushing trials, he must find his way back to his woman and his God. Mandy undergoes trials of her own, and their search for each other leads them on separate journeys into new tests of faith and enduring love.

In True Colors, Michael Byron is a Union intelligence officer whose secrets are not limited to his job at the War Department. Cassie becomes unwittingly enmeshed in his mosaic of espionage, kidnapping, imprisonment and murder, testing her ability to survive her inner battles during this terrible war.

In Refining Fires, Peter Cochran is a once-handsome war veteran whose heroic rescue efforts cost him severe burns. When the latest in a long line of nurses comes to work for him, her determined efforts elicit renewed life from his body while evoking a raw yearning in his soul. Clare not only manages to help heal his physical hurts but resurrect the courage he once knew as a soldier and now needs to define himself as a man. For the first time in his life, Peter learns what it means to love sacrificially.
How about your “bad guys”?
Some authors insist that even the Villain has to have some element of virtue, like the serial killer who helps the crying child who skinned her knee. Personally, I like the villain to be pure evil. For example:

In The Arrow That Flieth by Day, Headless Jack is reputed by Indians and whites alike to be the most vicious of all men. His head is hairless except for a long, wiry moustache. He has steel gray eyes and calloused hands. His name comes from the fact he decapitates his victims. And his next victim is Mandy.

In True Colors, Sergeant Powers (aptly named) is swarthy, muscular, and eerily menacing. He is hailed as a war hero. Cassie is the only living soul who knows his secret. He means to make sure she can never tell anyone else. One reader told me every time this guy entered the scene it made her skin crawl. Now THAT'S the kind of effect you want to give your readers!

Villains should meet the definition of the word: a cruel, malicious person. Not a cruel person with a soft side. But that's just me.

In Refining Fires, the "villain" is a stunningly beautiful, blue-eyed blonde, a parasite who lives off other people. She spews her venom into the hero's veins making it nearly impossible for him to recover. But...could she turn out to be the exception to my rule?
What do you read for pleasure?
The same as I write--historical fiction.
Which authors who came before you have helped in your writing?
John D. MacDonald, who wrote the Travis McGee series, said: “First, there has to be a strong sense of story. I want to be intrigued by wondering what is going to happen next. I want the people that I read about to be in difficulties—[physical,] emotional, moral, spiritual, [environmental,] whatever, and I want to live with them while they’re finding their way out of these difficulties.” Notice what he meant by story. The reader has to wonder what is going to happen next. To PEOPLE. That creates the page turning effect. All the wondrous prose in the world, without bonding the character to me, will only engage me for two or three pages. Then I start to wonder if the effort is going to be worth it.

Then there is Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes): “Instead of rewriting, you RELIVE your story. If you try to rewrite, which is a cold exercise, you'll wind up with all kinds of Band-Aids on your story, which people can see.” And I found that reLIVING the story is so much more fun!

And then there's Alfred Hitchcock's axiom: “A great story is life, with the dull parts taken out.” That's what I always tried to achieve.

And last but not least, there's God, Who wrote the Bible. It is not accidental that Jesus used story as a vehicle to speak the truth in a way that was both disarming and inescapable. Ex., the prophet Nathan with King David (2 Samuel 12: 1-7). And Simon the Pharisee with the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears (she was the one who was forgiven a greater debt and therefore loved Jesus more [Luke 7: 36-50). Both of these men (David and Simon) walked right into the story and saw themselves in it.
Is there a common theme in your books?
In a word: Redemption. From fear. From self-destruction. From sin. From oneself.
Keeping in mind that authors say that choosing a favorite among their novels is like choosing a favorite there a scene in any of your novels that you'd consider a favorite?
First, a little historical background. Many years ago, I dared to enter a very dark and very dusty corner of my mom's basement where angels feared to tread. I shined a flashlight around and saw some boxes, covered in ancient, heavy dust, and was afraid to open them for fear of what might crawl out. But curiosity got the best of me, so I carefully reached out and slowly opened the lid on the top box with one finger. It was full of envelopes all packed in a row like you’d see in a file cabinet. Some were regular white envelopes, but many had red and blue lines around the edges, like the kind they used to use way back when. I got a little closer and lifted one out and could see it was addressed to my mom. I thought, “OK, I’ve got to see what these are.” So I pulled out the boxes—there were four of them—and brushed the layers of dust off and brought them upstairs. Inside those boxes were the most precious treasure anyone could ever find--letters my parents had written to each other during WW II! I read, in my father’s own handwriting, how my mom had given her consent for him to join the Army Air Corps. He was a successful attorney, and was not drafted, but felt a calling to go. He referred to it as a “tic,” something inside telling him HE was the one meant to do this job. Problem was, mom was pregnant with their first child, and he’d be leaving them behind. He wrote of how torn he’d been in “that heart-rending period preceding the acceptance of my commission, the mental confusion that harassed me when the time arrived to decide between home and country.” In another letter, Daddy wrote: “Sure, I could say ‘let the other fellow do the fighting. I’ll slip out of it some way.’ But I am not constitutionally constructed that way. The hypocrisy of it would make me uneasy and unhappy.” He loved my mom all the more for making it easy for him to do what she knew he wanted to do. “You indeed have been my inspiration and I know shall always be. Many, many times I have wondered what my position and mental attitude would be if I didn’t have you. But I do, and for that I shall be eternally grateful to the Almighty.” Has there ever been a more passionate love letter?

Having already completed my novel, True Colors, when I found these letters, I knew I had to go back and rewrite one particular scene. My protagonists, Michael and Cassie, faced this exact same situation (except for the issue of expecting a child). My father’s written words became part of Michael’s dialogue. Cassie, like my mother, faces subjecting her heart to her man’s destiny.Cassie eventually sees that keeping her man close may destroy something in him that she loves.

That scene is my tribute to my parents’ situation back then, and their love for each other. What a blessed child I am to have been born of that love.
Published 2013-08-30.
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