Meet Novelist Mary Strand

Award-winning novelist and Golden Heart® winner Mary Strand practiced law for sixteen years, but eight years ago she set aside her pointy-toed shoes (well, most of them) and escaped the land of mergers and acquisitions to write novels. Her women’s fiction books are more serious, her young adult books more goofy, so if you put them together (and throw in some sports) they make up … Mary.

Mary is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire and Georgetown University Law Center, where she was executive editor of law review. Mary has published articles in Bench & Bar of Minnesota and other legal publications, Romance Writers Report, and the Midwest Muse. She is a member of several writers’ organizations, including (in Minneapolis) Midwest Fiction Writers and The Loft. She has also has served on six nonprofit boards, including the Romance Writers of America® Board of Directors, but she’d rather talk about writing. Or basketball. Or classic rock.  Or, actually, any number of things.

Mary lives on a lake in Minneapolis with her husband, two cute kidlets, and a stuffed monkey named Philip. When not writing, Mary loves traveling and playing sports with reckless abandon, and her injuries on the basketball court are the stuff of Facebook legend. If she has any vices—and she vigorously denies it—they might include (in no particular order) rock bands, dancing, triple-berry scones, Chipotle burritos, Cosmopolitans, her adorable little convertible, and Hugh Jackman. She’d rather not discuss exactly how many chocolate-banana crêpes she ate on her recent trip to Paris. Oh, and she’s learning to play guitar. Rather badly.

Join me as we learn more about Mary and her journey to publication.

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•In order to make Mary feel at home, I sent out for some cyber crêpes—chocolate-banana, of course. I tried to get Hugh Jackman to drop by and serve them, but he declined my offer. Thinking I was after a macho man with an accent, the Governator of my state offered to drop by, but I declined Arnie’s offer. So, I, your humble blog hostess, invite you to grab a crêpe, dig in, and enjoy learning more about Mary and her writing journey.

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Keli, thanks for the warm welcome (and the crêpes!) and for hosting your way-cool blog!

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Mary’s Journey Begins

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•How did your transition from high-powered corporate lawyer to novelist come about?

My husband, Tom, and I often talked about what we’d do when we eventually quit practicing law. (Fantasies like this are how lawyers get through their work day!) When I realized that scooping ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s wasn’t a viable long-term goal, my next thought was: “Well, I could be a writer.”

For my birthday 10 years ago, Tom surprised me with a software program called “Dramatica Pro,” which basically plays 20 Questions and, at the end of the questions, gives me the most basic, bare-bones set-up for a novel. It strongly plays to my left brain, and as a hyper-analytical lawyer, I was WAY more confident of my left brain than I was of my right brain. I started my first book a few months later, during the last couple weeks of my maternity leave for my second kidlet, and finished it four months later, in time for the Golden Heart deadline. Lawyers live for deadlines!

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•How do your background, education, and training aid you in your writing?

Don’t most writers draw on their love of reading as the fundamental basis of their writing? I come from a family of readers and am now raising a couple of readers as well! I wrote a lot of poetry in high school and college, was a typical liberal-arts major in college, and followed it with what’s often thought of as the best liberal-arts degree: my law degree. In law school, they teach you to read, write, speak, and think–but hopefully not in that order. After law school, I can’t say that drafting merger agreements taught me a lot about writing novels, but it helped make me a total grammar geek. I was also co-editor (in charge of copy) of my high school yearbook and executive editor of my law review, The Tax Lawyer, at Georgetown, and I do a lot of critiques for writer friends. Editing others improves my own writing!

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Mary’s Milestones

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•Although you’ve yet to see your name on the cover of a novel, you have seen your name in print numerous times. Please tell us about your published works.

My high-school poems were published in my high school’s annual poetry and creative writing magazine, and my poem for graduation was published on the last page of our yearbook for my senior year. (It didn’t hurt that I was co-editor of the yearbook. lol.) I’ve had nonfiction articles published in legal periodicals and in RWA’s magazine (Romance Writers Report) and my local writing chapter’s newsletter (Midwest Muse). In the Midwest Muse, I wrote a monthly president’s column on the struggles of a writer during the two years I was president of Midwest Fiction Writers. Not that I ever struggle or anything. Oh, no.

My mom used to proudly foist an article I wrote for Bench & Bar of Minnesota on anyone foolish enough to stop by my parents’ house, which always cracked me up. Really, how many (normal) people want to know how to structure a tax-free acquisition? But that’s a mom for you!

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•Many writers enter RWA® chapter-level contests hoping for helpful feedback and move on to final. You began by entering—and winning—the 2001 Golden Heart, which is way cool. Although nine years have passed, I’m sure you remember the thrill. How did you react when you received the call from the RWA board member? And what went through your mind when you were called to the stage in New Orleans?

When I got my Golden Heart call, I was over-the-top stunned–and thrilled! But the combination of being a lawyer, a Midwesterner, and Norwegian doesn’t easily allow me to express emotions like that except to my closest friends. (Or, okay, except when drinking Cosmos!) I think I politely thanked the board member…then went wild telling my family and friends and basically anyone who would listen. Two writer friends who’d read my first draft (before, um, I learned that you don’t change point of view EVERY SINGLE PARAGRAPH!) secretly called each other up after I told them and agreed I had to be crazy. They didn’t believe I’d finaled!

That conference in New Orleans was my first RWA conference, and I won the Golden Heart in the Traditional category, which was the first category announced at the awards ceremony. In short, I didn’t have a clue! Being an on-the-fly kinda girl, I also hadn’t given a single thought to an acceptance speech. A good friend, Rosemary Heim, sat next to me in the finalists’ section and calmly told me whom to thank; I nodded as I hyperventilated. When they called my name, what went through my mind? “Holy crap! I don’t have a SPEECH!”

A few years ago at the awards ceremony, RWA ran a montage of video clips from past award winners–both weepy ones and hilarious. In the hilarious group, they showed a clip of me accepting my award. Oh, man, the crazy things I say when unprepared!

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•You went on to final in the Golden Heart the following year, but that was just the beginning of many finals and wins. Which of these subsequent accolades meant the most to you, and why?

Two different types of contest successes meant the most to me, for different reasons. With both the 2007 Gotcha! contest and the 2009 Cleveland Rocks Romance contest, finaling or winning came with a request from a top-notch editor at a big publishing house to see my full manuscript, and the opportunity is fantastic. I’m still working with one of those editors.

A very different honor came at the 2006 Santa Barbara Writers Conference, when I won the top prize for women’s fiction among conference attendees. That was really important to me personally, because it was the first time I was recognized for the women’s fiction books I write. They’re pretty complex, feature some hard-hitting issues, and sometimes leave contest judges unsure what to do with me. Welcome to my world!

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Mary Changes Direction

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•Your contest finals and wins represent a number of categories, including traditional, romantic suspense, novel with strong romantic elements, and young adult. What brought about your shifts from romance to women’s fiction and women’s fiction to young adult?

When I started writing, I didn’t know what I wanted to write! I decided it’d be easiest to start in genre fiction because genre provides a basic framework for a novel, regardless of the genre. Lawyers like frameworks! I researched writers’ organizations and found the two largest: Romance Writers of America and Mystery Writers of America. I enjoy all types of fiction except horror, and somewhat arbitrarily, I chose RWA. It was a great choice!

For my first book, I chose the simplest format: traditional romance. For my second book, I was ready to add something more, so I put a murder mystery into the romance. Thus, romantic suspense. But…as much as I adore the romance novels my friends write, I wanted to write a book in which the heroine doesn’t have a “perfect” ending but a hopeful one. (Well, after I slam her on the head a few times!) I also think romance is just one aspect of life, and I wanted my books to hit a woman’s whole (messy) world–which, if we’re lucky, includes romance. That, and Kristin Hannah’s wonderful On Mystic Lake, launched me into the world of women’s fiction.

I haven’t quit writing women’s fiction, but I took a fab online voice class from Barbara Samuel a few years ago, and it sent me on a detour. We had to answer all these questions about various aspects of our lives, and all of my answers were funny. As in, not taking anything seriously whatsoever. Rather than slap me, Barbara and some of my classmates asked if my books sounded the way I did–as in, funny. I said no: I was writing serious fiction. Everyone told me to get over it and write the way I sounded in person. (I’m no longer speaking to any of them. Kidding!) So, based on a particular exercise we did in that class, in which we took a few paragraphs of a book we loved and put them into “our” voice, I started Pride, Prejudice, and Push-Up Bras, my first young adult (YA) book in what is now a four-book series I’m writing.

Ideally, I’ll keep writing both women’s fiction and YA. I love them both, and they help me express both my more serious, grown-up side and my goofier, younger side. I only wish the YA books let me be 17 again in reality!

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Mary’s Writing Process

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•Where do you craft your stories? Do you hole up in an office, hang out at a coffee house, or sit on a chair in your front yard gazing at the lake?

My writing life depends on an AlphaSmart, a place called Sebastian Joe’s, triple-berry scones, and an office where kidlets are allowed to trespass only once per day!

I write my first drafts on my AlphaSmart, a keyboard that’s light and unbreakable and easy to take anywhere, even to the beach. Unless I’m traveling, I typically write five or six days a week at a neighborhood ice cream parlor called Sebastian Joe’s, which has triple-berry scones to die for, a cozy fire in the winter, and just enough activity to keep my creative juices flowing. Each day after writing, I download the pages I wrote to my computer and print them out, but I don’t revise while doing the first draft.

When it’s revision time, I hole up in my office on the third floor of our house in complete silence (no music, no nothing) and do revisions on my PC. I’d much rather hang out at Sebastian Joe’s, so it helps propel me to finish my revisions sooner rather than later!

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•How do you begin a story? Do you just sit down with an idea in mind and start writing, or are you a person who wouldn’t dream of starting without a detailed outline, character sketches, and pages of research data?

Shockingly, I got over my left-brained lawyer tendencies in a hurry! I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer and don’t do an outline, character sketches, or research before writing. With most of my books, though, I’ve begun by doing a fairly quick zip through my “Dramatica Pro” software, just to figure out the utter basics of what I’m about to write. As a result, when I start, I know the title of the book, the names of the main two (or more) characters, and the basic conflict that propels the story. I don’t know much else, including the ending.

In the first few chapters, I let the characters “blather” all over the page, describing themselves to me more than to the reader, so I can get to know them. I delete most of the blather during revisions, but it’s a huge help. If I have to do any research, I usually do it after I’ve written the first draft of the book, unless I simply can’t write without it.

A huge exception is the third book in my current YA series, which features a teenage drummer. I pestered a drummer pal of mine the whole time I was writing the first draft of that book because, as much as I’ve listened to bands over the years, I couldn’t get a handle on the drummer in my book. In short, my drummer pal suffered mightily for my art. Sorry, Swave!

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Partners on Mary’s Journey

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•Many writers have a critique partner, plotting partner, mentors, and cheerleaders. Who are some of yours, and how have they helped you?

I’ve had so many mentors along the road, but two stand out: Jenny Crusie and Barbara Samuel. Jenny taught the very first writers’ workshop I attended, in September 2000, where she mentioned in passing that pesky rule about not changing point of view (POV) more than once per scene, and I realized I’d been changing POV every paragraph. (The first of many “holy crap!” moments in my writing career!) I also participated in Jenny’s four-day workshop at the 2004 Maui Writers Retreat, which was amazing. Barbara taught the fab voice class I mentioned, which literally sent me in a new direction, and she still checks in on me periodically with great advice.

I belong to invaluable writing groups, among them RWA, plus Midwest Fiction Writers (my local RWA chapter) and Washington Romance Writers (home of a great writers’ retreat). I’m in a small local writers’ study group, known as the Princess Club, that first introduced me to women’s fiction and the critical study of a novel, but which now mostly studies wine. That’s good, too! Two local writers, Connie Brockway and Susan Kay Law, have been utterly brilliant at helping me brainstorm through plot dilemmas when I’ve been lost at sea. I’m in an online group called JCW (Just Cherry Writers) which is super, especially with critiques. I’m also part of an online community called Romex (including its subgroup Pursuit), about which I can’t gush enough–except that I would be expelled for violating the secret-handshake rules and whapped with the salmon of correction.  No, you don’t want to know!

Besides writers, I have a great group of friends (and husband!) who tell me my writing is brilliant–without regard to the facts! My husband, Tom, and my friend Ann Burns are the only two people who’ve read every manuscript I’ve written. I’ve had a lot of writer friends critique all or part of my books, and I’m grateful to ALL my friends for putting up with me on my writer’s journey.

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Mary’s Journey Continues

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•What story are you working on now?

I’m writing the fourth in my four-book young adult series based on a modern-day collision with Pride and Prejudice. This is Lydia Bennet’s book, currently called Livin’ La Vida Bennet, about a girl who is T-R-O-U-B-L-E. In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia got into trouble and ended up in a civilized shotgun marriage. In my series, she ended up in reform school. I find it shockingly easy to write about a girl like that. 🙂

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Five Fun Facts About Mary

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~ A lot of friends don’t know this (and some do!), but I’m psychic. I see ghosts, I see dead people, I talk to dead people. It’s just part of my life, but it doesn’t always make me popular at family gatherings. lol.

~ I grew up terrified of animals, especially dogs. I can fake it (somewhat) as an adult, but what’s funny is that my psychic abilities include being a sort of “animal whisperer,” so friends call me when their pets are lost. Friends who know this also love going with me to the zoo, where I amuse them by talking to animals telepathically and having them do cute things.

~ I love, love, love basketball but turned down a college basketball scholarship because I thought it would interfere with getting into law school. I now play in a women’s league, which makes me feel 17 again–during the game. After the game, I’m sore and bruised and feel like 96!

~ I’m fluent in Spanish…and speak it in a Mexican accent, which is pretty hilarious considering what I look like. I encountered a Mexican native in a store here in Minneapolis who refused to believe I wasn’t somehow from Mexico or at least married to a Mexican. She and her husband actually got into a fight about it!

~ I love to travel! I’m just home from a birthday trip to Paris, and I’m headed to Spain with a group of women in June to hike the last 100 kilometers of the Camino de Santiago Compostela in northern Spain. Next year’s family trip is Barcelona. I’d kill to go back to Mexico City, which I haven’t seen since I was 18, and another trip on the radar screen is Peru–as soon as the kidlets are old enough to handle such intense hiking.

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Mary’s Question for You

So many female writers claim their ideal romance hero is their husband, but let’s be honest: only women like Hugh Jackman’s wife can really mean it.

Who is your fave romance hero in books and/or movies?

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Learn More About Mary

Visit her (new!) website ~ www.marystrand.com

Friend her on Facebook ~ Mary Strand

Friend her on MySpace ~ Mary Strand

Follow her on Twitter ~ Mary_Strand

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About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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42 Responses to Meet Novelist Mary Strand

  1. Mmmm, John Hannah! He was in The Mummy movies too. Nice eyes-great “hooded” brows (if anyone wants to see an example of that cliche’).

    If you haven’t seen the Matt Ro and I are on about–I’ll send you some pics 🙂

    Have a great interview day — your FIRST fifteen minutes of fame!

  2. Lavinia says:

    Mary, I am always amazed at how many romance writers started as lawyers. I must confess that I only got my MBA instead of JD because the business school offered me lots of money and I married to a lawyer who would like to be a writer (and will be a great one if he ever stops billing so many hours).

    It’s funny I never get asked if he’s my inspiration, but other lawyers ask him the question all the time. He alway replies “only the chiseled jaw.”

    And I can’t say that I have a favorite hero because it changes all the time. At the moment I’d love a man who vacuums and washes the floors.

    Wishing you all the best on the rest of you journey.

  3. Mary – what a great interview! I love that you were able to leave the corporate world and pursue your dream.

    Here’s my secret crush – Cary Grant. I know, I know, he was born Archibald Leach, but we all have to start somewhere! So let’s see a story where the men wear suits and hats, always open the doors and are utterly charming.

    Your computer must be working well (or you’re not working hard ;)) because I haven’t seen you in a while.

    I hope you have a great summer filled with exotic and exciting discoveries.

  4. Mary Strand says:

    Sorry to be slow replying, Keli, but I was at Sebastian Joe’s writing and inhaling a triple-berry scone! lol. Man, we have SUCH similar taste in an ideal romance hero! Ciaran Hinds, Gerard Butler, Bill Pullman… If my heart starts fluttering any harder, I’ll have to head to the ER!

    Liz, thanks! John Hannah, yes!! SO adorable! I’ll look forward to the Matt pix. I’m loving the 15 minutes of fame but, despite my energy levels, finding them exhausting! 🙂

  5. Mary Strand says:

    Thanks, Lavinia! Smart move on choosing the school that offered you lots of money. My law school offered ME lots of loans! Oy!

    Morganna, thanks! I think I own almost every movie Cary Grant ever made, if that gives you a clue how I feel about him! He positively smoldered with Ingrid Bergmann in Notorious. My computer is working well, oh computer whiz you, BUT I’ll be calling you soon to help me figure out the puzzle that is Tom’s computer AND help me with the laptop I’m FINALLY getting for kidlet # 1. This might be a good time for you to hide!

  6. Hi, Mary! I’m impressed that you finished law school and actually went into practice. I dropped out after two years – deciding I was more interested in doing something with my degree in art.

    You’ll laugh, but my first crush was on the tv character, Rocky the Flying Squirrel. I was only six years old at the time, but I thought he was a terriffic hero. In college my big crush was on Kwai Chang Caine – another fictional character, but at least human. Very spiritual AND a great kung fu fighter. What more could I ask?

  7. Mary Strand says:

    hi Laramie! Once I survived the first year of law school, it was a snap. But, then, art is a good decision for you! You had your first crush at age six – and I did too. But mine was Bob Crane of Hogan’s Heroes: nice guy with (as it turned out) more than a little wicked in him!

  8. I like to watch Hogan’s Heroes a lot when I was young, but these days I’ve learned too much about the realities of Hitler’s Germany. Just another case of reality spoiling my fun. 🙂

  9. Had to pop in again since the topic turned to first heroes. My first crush was The Lone Ranger. Clayton Moore lived in Edina for two years and I used to beg my father to drive past his house. Problem? We had no idea which one his house was. My greatest wish was to see him without his mask. My second crush was President Kennedy. I was only seven, but I watched every speech because he was “handsome.”

  10. Keli Gwyn says:

    My first hero was Bobby Sherman. Yeah, I know that dates me. My next was John Boy Walton. I longed for him to become the writer he dreamed of being.

  11. Diane says:

    I have to honestly say, Hugh Jackman is my all-time favorite. Being a Sci-Fi dork, I could not have been happier to see him portray Wolverine and bring my favorite comic book hero to life. Great interview!

  12. Mary Strand says:

    Liz, the only famous person who lived near me when I was a kid was Harmon Killebrew, which impressed me, but he wasn’t cute enough for drive-bys. lol. JFK was a handsome dude, wasn’t he?

    Keli, we all loved Bobby Sherman! But I was more into David Cassidy. Alas, John Boy is the first crush you’ve lost me on. heh heh.

    Thanks, Diane! I’m always torn about Hugh as Wolverine because I adore him (in case no one realized this; lol) and his character Wolverine … but I don’t like facial hair. And, oh boy, does he have facial hair as Wolverine!

  13. T.Anne says:

    GREAT interview! I love that you include sports Mary! I loosely added basketball to my latest WIP and loved it.

  14. Mary Strand says:

    Thanks, T.Anne! There are sports in every one of my manuscripts – but none of my characters go running, because I don’t go running. lol.

  15. Mary Strand says:

    Hey, thanks to everyone who stopped by to check out my very first blog interview, whether or not you’ve left comments! Feel free to check out my website, friend me or follow me on the other social networking sites, or drop me an email directly or through my website.

    Keli, you are simply the greatest, and I look forward to hearing more news about your own path to publication! I can’t imagine an easier process interview or blogging experience; I’ve enjoyed every minute of it!

  16. Michele says:

    Mary, great interview and love the photo with the basketball. On point. Many of my favorite leading romantic men have been listed here by others. I have to say I’ve been a long-time fan of Antonio Banderas in The Mask of Zorro, Pierce Brosnan in all his James Bond adventures and The Thomas Crown Affair. The new guy from the Sex in the City sequel Max Ryan, caught my eye during the movie.

    • Mary Strand says:

      Thanks, Michele! Gotta love Antonio and Pierce! I saw the SITC sequel and now have to figure out which one Max Ryan was. The guy who hooked up with Samantha? Well, so much for writing today. Must now go research. lol.

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