Interview with Sharon Miller

Published 2015-04-09.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
I remember writing it, but not what it was about or what it said. I was in the second grade and I had truly discovered the written word. WORDS! Books were filled with words and that was exciting. I didn't just write a story; I wrote a BOOK. I came home from school every day and climbed into the window seat in the dining room and wrote and wrote and wrote. I filled a marble-backed composition book from the front to the back. Every page was covered with words. I remember writing the very last word that fit on the last page; it made me so proud: I had written a book! I don't know what happened to that precious book--I suspect it got discarded when we moved from that beautiful, large house to a very small, sad house. I wish I could read it today and enjoy what it was that I thought would make a book.
What is your writing process?
I'm mostly a seat-of-the-pants writer, although I do plan a general story arc, and I know where I want to go with the story. I spend a lot of time on building characters. I write their physical description, their back stories, and what it is they want from life and the other characters. I decide on the setting and what I need to know about it, and then I drop my characters into that place and watch what happens. I love it when my characters do something that totally surprises me. Sometimes they take me in directions I didn't know they would go. After I have the whole story drafted out, I go back and begin revising, recasting, filling in what's missing, throwing out what doesn't work. The latter often means "killing my darlings." It might have been Stephen King who said that about cutting out those clever turns of phrase that you think are wonderful, but which do nothing to push the plot forward or to demonstrate characters. I'm a relentless reviser, having been accused of wearing the "Scarlet R." Sometimes I don't know when to stop revising. My books and stories have multiple drafts before I can finally say they are finished.
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
I'm giving away my age here, but I remember the Dick and Jane books and some of the stories in them, but mostly I remember Ivanhoe because our teacher read it aloud to us. (I went to a one-room schoolhouse with grades 1-5 and even though she read the book for the fifth graders, I was able to listen, too.) Suddenly, I had discovered this amazing new world of historical fiction and adventure. Then, along came Black Beauty and My Friend Flicka to feed my love of horses. I was never without a book in my hand afterwards, even hiding under the covers with a flashlight to continue reading after bedtime.
How do you approach cover design?
For a while, I thought I was up to designing the cover myself, and I think I might have done a serviceable job at times, but I finally decided that the cover was too important to leave in my own hands. I'm very capable with Photoshop and InDesign, but I've had to admit I just don't have that talent for turning a concept into an image. I fortunately found a designer who was very attentive to my story content and its intent. I am delighted with his work.
What are your five favorite books, and why?
Ahhh. The first "grown-up" book I ever read was Anya Seton's The Turquoise (published in 1946). It was a book that triggered my passion for the Southwestern United States. I was probably ten or eleven when I read it. I found it on my mother's bookshelf, and, years later, I made sure that I ended up with that very same book, which is now on my own bookshelf. In more recent years, certain books have found a permanent home on my shelf, never to be contributed to the local library.

There is The Water and the Blood, by Nancy Turner. She's more famous for her other books, but I believe this one is her best.

Next is The Widow of the South, by Robert Hicks, historical fiction at its best. I've actually purchased five or six copies of this book just to give away to others. A civil war novel, it is based on events surrounding the battle of Franklin in Tennessee. I was fortunate to visit Franklin, Tennessee, last summer and toured Carnton Plantation, the cemetery, and the battlefield. Very moving.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Sloot, is an astonishing book. The cancer cells taken from Henrietta Lacks in 1951 are responsible for some of the most important medical advances in history: polio vaccine, gene mapping, cloning, among others. Her cells continue to live today and are used in medical research throughout the entire world, but Henrietta Lacks, the daughter of a poor, black, tobacco farmer, never got a penny of the millions of dollars that her cells have generated over more than half a century. Nor did her children inherit any of that money. Rebecca Sloot offers technical, medical, and scientific details in a well-wrought story. It is compelling and hard to put down.

Finally, Stephen King's On Writing wraps up my choices. It is an excellent treatise on the writing process as he experiences it, and it is filled with writing wisdom. It was he, in this book, who let me know that my failure to remember my childhood as one long panorama of events did not mean I was abnormal. He described his memories as a scrapbook of pictures from many years with lots of blank spaces between them. It was the first time anyone had described my own memories.

These five books are among those that will always be on my shelf.
What do you read for pleasure?
I read a lot of historical and women's fiction--if I can combine them, I'm happy. Recently, I have tried to concentrate on reading books by indie authors and writing reviews for them.
What is your e-reading device of choice?
I have a Nook and a Kindle, but I've found that I more often use my Samsung tablet to read epubs and Kindles on the same device. Since I do most of my pleasure reading in bed, it's convenient to have all of my ebooks handy on one device.
What book marketing techniques have been most effective for you?
I'm just trying to get started so I'm not really sure. I have been very deliberate in my preparation for publishing The Clay Remembers, trying not to rush into it. I've been promoting it, releasing a preview, tweeting, and facebooking as the release date gets closer.

One thing I did was create a small book preview, printed by MiniBuk, with the first two chapters, along with a brief excerpt from each of the other two books in the series. I have been giving that away for free, passing out several hundred at the Tucson Festival of Books. I managed to get some good spikes in web traffic after that.

I also purchased ten copies from Author2Market to serve as Advance Reading Copies and recruited readers to read and write advance reviews and provide "blurbs" about the book. The print quality was good and the price was very reasonable. I'll have to wait to see just how effective this has been.

I've got Mark's Marketing Guide and I'm finding it extremely useful.
Describe your desk
It's a MESS! Besides being an author, I'm also a freelance editor with multiple projects underway. I have stacks of papers, stacks of books, my tablet (open and on) next to the computer and piles of books about the Apaches that I need for research on the second book in the series, The Clay Endures.

Fortunately, I have a visual memory. I know where to find things in the stacks. If I try to clean up and file things, then I may never find them again.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up in Maryland, on the Eastern Shore, a largely rural, provincial (at least at that time) environment. We moved a lot and we didn't have a lot of money. My mother and father were both readers: Mom was a member of the People's Book Club (managing to collect a fair number of books for only a little money). My father read all the time at home, even propping a book up at the dinner table to keep reading (and perhaps avoid interacting with the family). He read Ellery Queen and other such paperbacks.

I suppose their reading influenced me, because there were always books on the shelves that were important to my mother--I don't think my father's paperbacks made it to the freestanding, revolving bookcase that held my mother's books.

Family life offered lots of material for writing. Ours was a family marked by domestic violence, a family that really didn't seem to like one another very much. I have written a number of stories about Nellie Quinn (my childhood alter ego) and Maggie Jean (my adolescent alter ego), stories that detail events during my formative years. Some of these stories are on my blog and I suspect that, once my Clay Series is finished and published, I will revisit those stories and decide whether to write a book about those experiences, but I'll need to decide whether to name my character Nellie or Maggie Jean.
When did you first start writing?
As I said in an earlier question, I wrote a book in the second grade.

As a thirty-year+ educator, I wrote with my students often, and, as a member of the National Writing Project, I often wrote in response to other teachers' prompts during workshops. Those efforts became important parts of my writing collection.

It was after retirement that I was able to spend more time concentrating on writing.
What's the story behind your latest book?
This story came about as a result of a question and an obsession.

Upon retirement, my husband and I moved to Tucson, Arizona. Down the road from us was a relatively new state park that included an interpretive trail that highlighted a prehistoric, Hohokam village where, in the nineteenth century, a local rancher established a homestead on the same site. In reading about the Romero's history at that site, I was consumed by the question of how the homesteader's wife dealt with living out there too far from Tucson to make an easy trip, with Apache raids constantly endangering them.

I kept asking questions about her for which there were no answers. The most important questions were: If her husband had to go into Tucson for supplies, could he do that in a single day? Did he leave her there all day, perhaps for two days, alone and in charge of protecting the homestead from Apache raids? What kind of woman was she that she could handle the loneliness of that ridge in spite of the Apaches? What kind of man was he who brought her out there with nothing but a rude, stone shelter? I was obsessed with knowing what life must have been like for her there.

Eventually, I wanted to write her story, but I thought I also needed to know about the prehistoric inhabitants of the ridge, the Hohokam. So I did research. I took some archaeology classes to learn more about the Hohokam. I experienced a magical moment when I held a piece of broken pottery and my thumb was resting in the thumb print of the ancient potter. At that moment, my character, Anna was born.

The Clay Remembers is Anna's story, a story that introduces Esperanza, the nineteenth-century homesteader's wife and Ha-wani, a Hohokam woman who made a pot that brings the three women together. Book 2 will tell Esperanza's story; book 3 will tell the story of Ha-wani and the decline of her village on that ridge.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
Traditional publishing is such a difficult journey to follow, and, even now, traditional publishing places so much responsibility on the author to produce the "perfect, final" draft and then to do their own marketing, I wondered if it was worth it.

I did submit some queries to agents and got some reasonably positive feedback, but not real "bites." I figured if I waited for traditional publishing, my books would not make it into print for years. Self-publishing has become more and more respectable, I believe, and I knew if I produced a well-formatted, well-edited, book, it would find more success. And I could do it with my own work.

As a freelance editor, I have helped others become self-published authors and have seen them gain some level of success. I don't expect to become a millionaire from my writing, but I will have the satisfaction of seeing my work in print.
How has Smashwords contributed to your success?
We shall see.

Quite honestly, I did not recommend Smashwords to prior clients, but I think it is time for me to look more closely at what Smashwords has to offer. There are many improvements over the last several years.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
Telling stories and producing a product that is well-written, well-edited, and ready for readers.
What do your fans mean to you?
Again, I must wait and see if I get any fans.
What are you working on next?
There are two more books in The Clay Series: the second book is The Clay Endures, which tells the story of Esperanza, the nineteenth-century homesteader's wife; the third book is The Clay Sustains, telling the story of Ha-wani, a Hohokam woman during the time when the Hohokam culture was declining in the Tucson Basin.

Both books are in progress, and I'm looking forward to getting them finished. I'm hoping to publish book two before the end of 2015 and book three early in 2016.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
I spend a lot of time editing and working with clients who want to publish their work and with my family.

For more than a few years, my time was spent riding my beautiful buckskin gelding through the desert. In The Clay Remembers, the buckskin that becomes so important to Anna is named for my Paco. Just about a year ago, I had to say goodbye to Paco, and I haven't felt compelled to replace him. I miss riding out in the desert along the trails that I described in the book, but I just haven't come to terms with losing him yet.
How do you discover the ebooks you read?
Recently, I have been looking for indie authors and following them on Twitter. I've picked up some excellent books that have been self-published, and I've also been posting reviews for those writers. I'm looking forward to what I might find available from Smashwords.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
This may sound silly, but it's frequently our dog, Hannah, a blue heeler-terrier mix. She starts the night out in bed with us, but generally moves into the closet to her own bed. In the morning, she comes in, puts her front feet up on the bed beside me and pokes me. Now most people would think that she wants to go out or wants something to eat. That's not the case with Hannah. She wants me to get out of bed so she can get in. I learned a long time ago that if I get out of bed, she jumps in and curls up in my warm spot. And she doesn't want to move if I want to get back into bed. The dog seems to have an iron-clad bladder. She rarely goes out to do her business until around nine when my husband and I take her for a walk.
Your book is called, "The Clay Remembers." That's a curious title; what is the origin of the title?
The main character, Anna, and others in the book are archaeologists, which means they dig into the earth to find its stories, so to speak. One of the most ubiquitous finds in the Tucson Basin is the broken remains of pottery. Pottery was very important to the prehistoric peoples who lived here, but pots were easily broken and left where they lay. Of course, the pottery was made from clay, which is an important resource of the earth.

As an archaeology student myself (for the purposes of research for this series), I had the experience of picking up a potsherd (a broken piece of pottery) and finding my thumb resting in the thumb print of the potter. The potsherd was at a minimum 900 years old, and I felt like I had touched her hand. I reached across the years and made contact with a Hohokam woman who had lived and walked and raised a family right there on that spot. It's an amazingly spiritual moment.

There is a children's book called, "When Clay Sings," written by a local, Arizona author named Byrd Baylor. She tells about how Indian children today find pieces of broken pottery in the desert and their parents tell them that "everything has its own spirit--even a broken pot. They say the clay remembers the hands that made it." That little book touched me deeply; I felt like Ms. Baylor had written it just for me.

In my book, Anna, experiences moments when touching the artifacts she uncovers opens her to sharing the experiences of those who came before her on the site. I created a single pot, though, that draws Anna into the lives of two women: of course, the Hohokam woman who made the pot, but also an eighteenth-century homesteader's wife who lived on the site and found the pot intact. She comes to know the two women intimately as she attempts to reconstruct the ancient pot, even while trying to reconstruct her life. The clay does remember the hands that made it.
Your series is called, "The Clay Series." How does that relate to this first book?
The first book, of course, is "The Clay Remembers," which introduces the two women from the past and is Anna's story. The second book is called, "The Clay Endures," and tells the story of Esperanza Ramirez, an eighteenth-century homesteader's wife. The third book is called, "The Clay Sustains," telling the story of Ha-wani, a twelfth-century Hohokam woman who made the pot that brings the three women together. In fact, the song that Ha-wani sings as she is making the pot--the song that Byrd Baylor says can still be heard if you listen--includes a tribute to the earth: "The earth is our mother . . . who sustains us . . ."

Each of these women struggled against odds that were stacked against them, but the pot--even the broken pot--unites them.
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Books by This Author

The Clay Sustains: Book 3 in The Clay Series
Price: $2.99 USD. Words: 97,070. Language: English. Published: September 23, 2017. Categories: Fiction » Historical » USA
When she marries the man her father chose for her, she learns the shaman in her new village is a man who had previously terrorized her. Because he is determined to control her and the village, she must learn to use her power by calling on the raven, her spirit, to resist. With the lives of her family and the future of the village at stake, she must confront his magic, but at what cost?
The Clay Endures: Book 2 in The Clay Series
Price: $2.99 USD. Words: 81,460. Language: English. Published: July 30, 2016. Categories: Fiction » Historical » USA
When her husband brings her to a lonely ridge north of the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson, Arizona, to start a cattle ranch in 1865, Esperanza Ramirez struggles to help him achieve his dream. Can she survive the desolation, the tragic loss of a child, her husband's indifference to her struggle, and an attack by outlaws? Will she know what to do when the Apache makes his move?
The Clay Remembers
Price: $2.99 USD. Words: 85,360. Language: English. Published: April 13, 2015. Categories: Fiction » Women's fiction » General
In the Arizona desert, hiding from her abusive husband, Anna Robinson sifts through layers of the past, bringing lost objects to the light of day, while preferring that her own past stays below ground. Voices of the past guide Anna in her quest to restore balance to the present—to find her place in a tradition she can see and hear, and happiness with a man whose past is as haunted as her own.