Debra’s historical novel, A Voice for Kanzas, was published by Kane Miller Books in 2012. It was recently selected for this year’s Kansas Notable Books list and was named a 2013 Bank Street College of Education’s Best Children’s Books of the Year! Debra lives and writes in Kansas City, Missouri.
Please describe the book in under 50 words.
When Lucy Catherine Thomkins’ family moves to Lawrence, Kansas Territory, in the winter of 1855, Lucy struggles to find her place in this strange world of border ruffians, mysterious night travelers, and dangerous secrets. Armed only with her pen and her belief in freedom, Lucy must dare to become A Voice for
Would you tell us a bit about the story’s development?
I began working on the book in 2004, but stalled out because I didn’t have the skills I needed to develop it. When I began the Hamline program in 2008, my primary goal was to finish the book before I graduated. I did finish the draft of the book with the last packet of my final semester. I did a full revision of the book in the first three months after graduation. After I sold the book to Kane Miller, I did one revision responding to the editor’s comments about plot and character development, making sure the characters’ motivation was clear. The second pass revision was one of tightening language. The third revision was still more tightening and subtle sentence-level changes.
How did it come to the attention of its editor?
I did not have an agent, so I submitted a query letter, a synopsis, and two chapters, according to the author guidelines on the publisher’s website. I received a response in about two months, with a request for the full manuscript. I was offered a contract about two months later.
What research was involved?
I had already published a history book on this period of history, so I went in the project thinking I was pretty well prepared. But every writing day brought the need for more research. Besides the traditional research in books and websites, I did a lot of research in newspapers of the period and primary documents, both for actual events and for the flavor of the language of the time. I also went to several historical sites and museums to see household articles of the era and get a better idea of daily life.
Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline?
Yes, I workshopped sections of the book every term except one.
What was your critical thesis on?
My book includes characters of different ethnicities, so I explored the difficulties writers face when writing about characters which are outside the writer’s ethnicity.
What was your creative thesis?
A Voice for Kanzas was my creative thesis.
Did you discover and fall in love with any books while in the MFAC program?
I read The Book Thief my first term, and I think it was one of my favorites. The history is woven so seamlessly into the story that the reader learns a lot about the setting and period without even realizing it. I wanted to be able to do that.
Without naming names, tell us who your first readers are (e.g., live-action writing group; online writing group; editor; agent). When do you share a piece of writing?
I am part of a long-standing group that meets annually at a retreat in Maine. In addition to our annual retreat, some members of this group are regular readers, and we hold live critique sessions online with webcams. I also belong to an online group of Hamline alumni. We share our writing and respond by email. Both groups have been great help to me.
Can you briefly describe your writing life? How has it changed since you graduated?
I work full-time, so my writing time is weeknights and weekends. I work more consistently with regular goals and deadlines, so I have to set those for myself in order to avoid procrastinating. I participated in NaNoWriMo last fall. Although I didn’t reach the 50,000 word goals of NaNoWriMo, I did add 25,000 words to my work-in-progress during that month. I set a similar goal in January and wrote another 20,000 words that month.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on another Kansas novel now. It’s not really a sequel, but some of the same characters from A Voice for Kanzas appear in this one. It’s completely different in tone and style from the first book, and I’ve enjoyed trying something new.
What would you like to say to current or prospective students?
Recognize the incredible opportunity for learning that comes with being part of the Hamline MFAC program. Leave your ego at the door, and be ready to accept and appreciate feedback from your peers and instructors. It’s the only way to really grow.
To learn more about Debra and her writing:
Facebook Author Page
Facebook Author Page
Yay Deb! Don't forget to mention how a local Civil War re-enactment group did a book trailer for this book and it was AWESOME.