The Penmen Review: Gold IPPY Winner Cynthia A. Graham

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

headshotAuthor Cynthia A. Graham is anticipating the release of her third book, “Beulah’s House of Prayer,” on the shelves this July. An avid writer of historical fiction, Graham has explored eras including The Great Depression and World War II in her writing.

“Beneath Still Waters,” Graham’s debut novel, achieved a Midwest Book Award and a Gold IPPY from Independent Publishers magazine. Her short stories have appeared in university and national literary publications.

Visit Graham’s website to read more in depth about this historical, mystery and literary fiction author and her novels.

Have you always written?
I have always been a storyteller. Even as a young child, there would constantly be a narrative running through my mind. I would think things like, “She dipped her toes into the chilly water and recoiled.” I think for some people, the way they understand the world around them is through story and I suppose that is how I began to process life and learn about the world. There was always a need to tell a story.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
Often it will begin with a thought. Perhaps I am intrigued by a period in history and I wonder what it would be like to live then. Sometimes it begins with confusion and the need to work things out through story. When I wrote my first mystery, “Beneath Still Waters,” I was pondering the notion of being at war (again) and how that affects soldiers and communities. I remembered stories of my uncles going to World War II and how that changed them and the story just began taking shape.

As far as developing characters, I have found the most important thing is to develop a person, not a caricature. I don’t like to have any of my characters there only to serve the purpose of propelling the plot forward. I tend to write a family tree out, even for minor characters. In reality, every single person has a history, things that have formed them and made them into who they are. Whether it is their family history or things they have experienced, these are the things that motivate us, that make us who we are, that form our decisions, our outlook and our understanding of the world. In order to create believable characters and give them depth, you need to understand your characters, even characters who do not share your own values and beliefs. Without this understanding, characters will behave and act in ways that will not be believable to the reader.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them? 
With writing historical fiction, the most challenging thing is to be true to the time period you are writing about. For example, in my second book, “Behind Every Door,” there is a scene where they are trying to discover who placed a phone call. Because telephoning in the 1950s was vastly different than telephoning now, I had to do several days of research just to find out how a person-to-person call would be billed and how and where the record of it would be stored. If you don’t do your research for minor details like that, the reader is immediately pulled out of the story and you, as an author, lose all credibility. It is imperative that you understand how things worked and the mindset of society during the story’s time period and that is always a challenge for historical fiction writers.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
I have always written novels but never did anything with them. My basement has many, many manuscripts because I have always been compelled to write. But I never knew what to do with them and I was really only writing for my own enjoyment. When my kids left home I decided to get more serious about writing and joined the St. Louis Writer’s Guild. The most important thing I ever did was get into a critique group. Four of us meet every Tuesday and with their help and support, I sent the manuscript of “Beneath Still Waters” to Blank Slate Press. I chose them because they are a St. Louis publisher and I appreciated the fact that they desired to work with St. Louis authors.

There is always that trepidation that the book is just not good enough or no one will like it. There will always be ups and downs. “Beneath Still Waters” recently won a gold IPPY from the Independent Publishers Association and it won a Midwest Book Award for mystery. Validation gives you confidence but, as a writer, you just continue to push yourself to write the next one. Blank Slate Press published my first book in March of 2015 and its sequel in March of 2016. One of my other manuscripts, “Beulah’s House of Prayer,” has found a home with Brick Mantel Books and is coming out in July. In spite of all this, there is still a lingering insecurity. A fear that you just aren’t any good. I think writers, in general, tend to be perfectionists when it comes to their stories and it is simply impossible. There is a constant need to work harder and write better.

How do you market your work?medals
Marketing is a constant challenge for a writer with a small press. I have spoken at universities, libraries and book clubs, entered contests, gone on a blog tour, done signings and have a social media platform. There is no single way to market that is a guarantee. You just have to keep plugging away at every single opportunity that arises.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I had no idea when I first was published how much work would be involved with the marketing aspect. I am, by nature, a shy person and there has been more travel, speaking and small talk than I would have imagined. There are plenty of times when this has been really difficult, but I have met some wonderful people and have really stretched myself as a person. Growth as an individual is often uncomfortable but necessary and I feel like I have really grown in the past few years.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
I love authors who can turn words into things of beauty and awe. Jane Austen’s dialogue and wit, Flannery O’Connor’s unflinching social commentary, Harper Lee’s voice, Willa Cather’s imagery. To take words and turn them into pictures and feelings, that is truly inspiring.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
“My Antonia” by Willa Cather is the kind of story I can read again and again and cry at the sheer pleasure of the words. “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, because I believe there is a little Boo Radley in all of us and Lee captures the essence of the marginalized perfectly. I think my last pick would be “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley. There is so much in there to think about. So many philosophical questions about humanity and what it means to be human packed within its pages that I never read it without finding something new to think about.