Interview with Cynthia D. Toliver

 

This month, I am featuring writers of historical fiction. There are many sub-genres of historical fiction, but the key seems to be that although the story itself is fiction, many of the persona and events are not.  One such sub-genre is the family saga. This is a genre I am particularly fond of as most of my work also falls into this category (http://amazon.com/author/wandapyle).

The family saga chronicles the lives and doings of a family or a number of related or interconnected families over a period of time. This is often a “thematic device used to portray particular historical events, changes of social circumstances, or the ebb and flow of fortunes from a multiple of perspectives.”  These are mostly gentle narratives, although some may be darker in nature. Sometimes the action is melodramatic and there may be a murder and several deaths – but that is not the center of the story. One or several love stories take place in a family saga, but again that is not the main focus.  The focus is the family as a unit, and the changes that occur over time.

This week, my guest is Cynthia D. Toliver, author of Sedahlia, a historical romance that follows star-crossed interracial lovers from an isolated ranch in Texas back to Georgia and the Jim Crow south.

Hello, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

  • Tell us a little about yourself and your background?

I grew up in Waco, Texas with my mom, an elementary school teacher, two brothers and a sister, on a dead-end street with great neighbors. My favorite place was the library. My favorite thing was a book. Extended family softened the pain of an absent dad. A graduate of Rice University, I initially chose engineering over literature, but found the love of stories too strong to ignore. I took a year off work to be a full-time mother and write the first draft of Sedahlia. At the end of my sabbatical, I took up teaching mathematics and writing, fueling my love for children and my passion for great books.

  • Discuss your newest book.

I published Sedahlia in the summer of 2015, but it was a journey that started some 20 years earlier beginning with a Writer’s Digest Novel Writing course and a great instructor. I would publish a debut novel, Crown’s Jewel and an inspirational book, Come See a Man while I nursed Sedahlia from inspiration, to novella to the family saga it is today.

Growing up in the turbulent sixties, I was intrigued by the intricate relationship between my grandmother and the family she had served before I knew her. They never failed to visit and remember her at birthdays and holidays, an unwanted intrusion in my youthful eyes. Yet my grandmother never had a disparaging word for them; rather she welcomed their visits and spoke of them fondly. That enigma and a dream of disparate lovers formed the seed for Sedahlia.

Sedahlia explores the human cords that bind and the racial lines that divide two families, the Masters and the Lindseys. Three generations live and love in this post-Civil War family saga where personal needs and mores collide, rumbling through the families and the communities in which they live.

  • Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love books and writing. I took up writing from the time I learned to string letters into words, words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. I was a quiet, introspective, stuttering child, but writing was the outlet that let my voice sing.

  • What are your current projects?

I am working on a children’s book on self-esteem and bullying. My talented niece is illustrating. I am also revising and editing a contemporary novel dealing with an ambitious young woman forced to take responsibility for raising her own child.

  • What books have most influenced your life?

The Bible and the classics have most influenced my life. As my faith has grown, so has my love and study of this book that shapes my spiritual and moral foundation. My favorite books are Wuthering Heights and Of Human Bondage because they deal with the depth of human despair, our frailties, and our ability and sometimes failure to overcome them. I love writers and books that tug at my conscience and my heart.

  • What inspired you to write your first book?

In middle school, my friend and I shared a dream to someday write a book. At school, if given a choice for a project, I would always choose to write something. I started writing poetry, then lyrics, and short stories, before I began spinning my first novel. From the moment I envisioned the characters, they took hold of my imagination and their story took flight.

  • Give us an insight into your main character. What does he/she do that is so special?

Sedahlia is a family saga and as such has a host of dynamic characters each fully developed and unique. Jessie is the one character who binds everyone in the story. She is also the one character who sets the conflicts in motion. Proud, black, beautiful, loyal, distant, physically free, but emotionally bound to a heartbreaking affair, Jessie will navigate the world of servant with a carriage that proclaims she is so much more.

  • Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

More than a story, Sedahlia is a call to examine our actions versus our beliefs. Do they line up? We are quick to look at others, but how often do we look at ourselves? As you read Sedahlia, I invite you to ask some probing questions. It is easy to look back at history and think that was them, that was then. If we are honest, especially in light of our current climate, we have our own issues, moral dilemmas and personal biases. Look at the past as a mirror to the present. What do you see?

  • Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from your most recent book?

If I could bring back Dorothy Dandridge, I would cast her as Jessie.

  • When did you decide to become a writer?

Writing was never a decision. It is simply what I am and what I do. I write because I have to.

  • Why do you write?

I am a full-blown end of the scale introvert. I write because it gives me the time and space I need to think things through before I say them. Writing is very forgiving. Before the delete key, there was white out, correction tape and erasers. I can cover up my mistakes before anyone has to see them.

  • What made you decide to sit down and actually start something?

I had written short things, shared a few poems, but really wanted to try something longer. I didn’t know I had enough story for a novel, but I had to try. There is an internal urge that drives me. There is a need to create something and see it in print.

  • Do you write full-time or part-time?

I write part-time with the goal to write full-time in the near future.

  • What is the hardest thing about writing?

The hardest thing for me is summarizing that 300 plus page book into a snippet for a book blurb.

  • What was the hardest thing about writing your latest book?

Sedahlia started as one story and just continued to grow. I debated breaking it into smaller novels, but the thread didn’t seem to support that. These families go through a lot and the plot just couldn’t be easily divided into nice little segments of happy endings.

  • What is the easiest thing about writing?

I love the creative process, from the seed that forms a story, to fleshing out the characters, to writing that first draft. I even love revising and editing. If I have a problem, it is knowing when to let go or at least let someone else take a peek.

  • What book are you reading now?

I am currently reading The Last Ship by William Brinkley. Published in 1988, I found it for a bargain at Half Price Books. The writing is erudite, the characters atypical and the stakes intense.

  • What is one random thing about you?

I always wanted to play the piano. I am the only person in my immediate family who never studied an instrument. I own a keyboard and may yet take lessons, someday.

  • What is your preferred medium of writing? Pen and paper or strictly tablet and computer?

I strictly use my laptop. I would hate to write something using pen and paper only to have to type it all over again.  I only use paper to jot down ideas.

  • What does your writing process look like?

Although my debut novel, Crown’s Jewel developed a bit more organically, I typically use two main tools to help me flesh out my story before I start writing. I start with my characters – who are they, what do they look like, what are their habits, what motivates them, what is their background, what happens to them, etc. I then write an outline, a sort of timeline including backstory, that I can edit and add to as the story progresses. When I have the characters and outline, I can start to write the story.

  • Do you have any strange writing habits (like standing on your head or writing in the shower)?

I would think I am like many authors. When an idea strikes me, I will stop what I am doing to get it recorded. The words will burn in my brain until I can write them down. Once begun, the inspiration strong, the writing impassioned, it is next to impossible to tear myself away.

  • How important are names to you in your books?

Names are important to the point I will pour through books of names for meanings and inspiration. Names must also be appropriate for the characters, fictional society and times. I will break some rules, allowing characters whose names are the same or start with the same letter, if the names lend reality to my fiction. After all, George Foreman named his five sons George and who doesn’t know a daughter who carries a bit of her father’s and mother’s monikers in her first name.

  • Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

With a full-time job, the hardest thing is finding the time to write. Harder even than writing is marketing myself and my work.

  • Did you make any marketing mistakes or is there anything you would avoid in future?

Everything is an opportunity to learn. In the beginning, I was very optimistic and not well versed in marketing. I still have a lot to learn, but I am more cautious about throwing money at hollow promises. I also know that I don’t do well in a crowd of authors, but shine when the spotlight is on me and my writing. I believe persistence pays. I am in this journey for the long haul and I am learning how to better use networking and social media to build my platform. Books Go Social is a network for indie authors that has helped me tremendously in growing my network and promoting my work through social media marketing.

  • What is your favorite motivational phrase?

To thine own self be true.

  • What is your favorite book and why?

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte is my favorite book. Heathcliff is my favorite character. I always wanted to save him. In writing Crown McGee, the protagonist in my debut novel, Crown’s Jewel, I finally managed to do so.

  • Do you have any advice for other writers?

Study the craft and write what you love.

  • What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I work full-time teaching secondary mathematics. In my leisure, I read.

  • From where do you gain your inspiration?

I am an observer. I gain inspiration just from being in the world and from watching people. I am also a dreamer. Dreams by night and by day can become inspiration for my stories.

  • What would you say are the main advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing against being published or the other way around?

The main advantages of self-publishing are the freedom to write and market what inspires you. The disadvantages are the stigmas associated with self-publication. I believe that stigma exists less so with readers and more so with the established literary community. That’s why I believe indies with presence and great stories can penetrate the market.

  • How do you market your books?

My primary venues are word of mouth and social media marketing. I have had mixed results with book signings. Signings work well when I have connections; not so well when I don’t. That is why I am spending more time weaving those connections.

  • Why did you choose this route?

I tried the traditional route. I placed my first novel with a small press. When that opportunity fell through, I obtained an agent. Although I didn’t secure a book deal, the positive response to my book from multiple parties encouraged me to move forward.

  • Would you or do you use a PR agency?

I do not use a PR agency. I had a good friend who helped me garner some local press for my first book and I used my local connections to get press from my hometown. At this point a PR agency is cost prohibitive, but I would not rule it out in the future.

  • Do you have any advice for other authors on how to market their books?

There are a lot of services out there courting the money of indie authors. I read reviews, consult my fellow authors and approach all offers with caution.

  • What part of your writing time do you devote to marketing your book?

I have two contemporary novels in draft and a children’s book near publication. Currently I am devoting more time to marketing than to writing.

  • What do you do to get book reviews?

Social media marketing, blog tours, and networking are helping me reach out to potential reviewers. If you write Christian fiction or non-fiction, I would highly recommend The Book Club Network. I also recommend that authors get involved with Books Go Social.

  • How successful has your quest for reviews been so far?

I have had great feedback on my books, but not all sales end in ratings or the coveted review. I had some initial success then hit a standstill. Since joining Books Go Social and expanding my reach to book lovers and authors, I am beginning to connect with more readers and that leads to potential reviews.

  • Do you have a strategy for finding reviewers?

Currently I am networking through book bloggers, Facebook and Twitter.

  • What are your thoughts on good/bad reviews?

My books have primarily received 4 and 5 star reviews. My one bad review seems to have a life of its own in twitterverse, and I am pretty sure I paid for the privilege. I know every book is not for everyone so I don’t take it personally. I appreciate anyone who takes the time to read my book and offer constructive feedback.

  • Any amusing story about marketing books that happened to you?

I don’t know that it is amusing as much as it is a bit unnerving to accept an event invite, pack your books, prepare your spiel only to arrive and find out you are far from the main attraction.

  • What’s your views on social media for marketing?

I am still trying to master social media marketing. An introvert online is still an introvert. I like the ability to think about and edit my responses, making sure what I post is actually what I want to say. I also get to vet the people I interact with to make sure our likes and interests are a good match. Most of all, I am connecting to people all over the world I might never meet otherwise.

  • Which social network worked best for you?

Currently Facebook and Twitter are working best for me. I would put Facebook before Twitter. It’s a bit more personal and the connections more real.

  • Any tips on what to do and what not to do?

Be safe. Ask other authors. Reciprocate. Be helpful and polite. Check out the links on the sites and blogs you follow. You never know where they might lead. If you are unsure, ask.

  • Which famous person, living or dead would you like to meet and why?

I gave this a lot of thought and ultimately, I would rather meet my dead ancestors than any famous person living or dead. I would love to hear all their stories, down through the ages, to learn how they wove together so intricately to start the story of me.

  • If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?

That would have to be Wuthering Heights. I just found Heathcliff’s’ story so tragic. I would love to save him, but then if his story had ended otherwise, it might not have struck me so poignantly.

  • What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Write what you love. Believe in yourself. Study the craft. Edit. Don’t give up.

  • How can readers discover more about you and you work?

I am a 1980 graduate of Rice University and a native Texan. I have enjoyed a varied career as an engineer, environmental consultant, educator and author. Sedahlia is my second novel and third book. I have two previously published works, Crown’s Jewel, a historical novel and Come See a Man, an inspirational book. I also host a Christian blog, Back to Eden at cynthiatoliver.blogspot.com. Readers can follow me at www.cynthiatoliver.net My website and other links are listed below.

 

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