Award-winning novelist Lori Benton writes sweeping historical fiction with strong romantic elements. Her tales take readers to the 18th and early 19th century when the United States was a new nation experiencing growing pains.
Encouraged by an outstanding high school art teacher, Lori studied fine art at the Maryland College of Art & Design and pursued a career as a wildlife artist. She participated in shows alongside nationally known wildlife artists, sold some of her work, and had paintings accepted to hang in a Maryland gallery. However, writing called, and in 1991, she answered. She’s been focused on writing since, and her artistic bent works its way into her stories as she paints vivid scenes in her readers’ minds.
Lori lives in southern Oregon, near the wild and scenic Rogue River, with Brian, her computer tech hubby of 22 years (aka “Scoutmaster B”), and their furry child, Dargo, a rescued mutt who sheds hair liberally over the carpets and makes up for it with unconditional love and lots of conversation. (“It’s like living with Chewbacca . . . if Chewbacca chased squirrels.”)
When she’s not writing or removing fur from the furniture, Lori enjoys hiking and mountain climbing while listening to her characters have conversations in her head. Another of her passions is baking, and she says, “There’s something soothing about creating a cake, or a batch of cookies, a pie, or even a pan of brownies… all while listening to a good audio book.” She still “dabbles” at painting and has tried her hand at scrapbooking.
I invited Lori to provide a virtual treat for you. Here’s what she’s offering…
We’ll be indulging in my favorite scone recipe, Iced Cherry Scones, and a cup of hot tea with milk, no sugar. Plenty of that in the scones!
So, grab a scone (or two—nobody’s looking) and a cup of tea, sit back, and prepare to be inspired as you learn more about this extraordinary woman and her writing.
Lori’s Journey Begins
When did the dream of being a writer first plant itself in your heart? When did the seed sprout and lead you to take steps to turn that dream into reality?
Thanks for having me on your blog, Keli. You have the most unique interviews and it’s encouraging to read the early journeys of other writers. No two are alike, yet so often we writers took that first step at a very young age.
I wrote my first story when I was nine, and my interest in writing stories persisted in fits and starts throughout childhood and my teen years. But it wasn’t until 1991, when I was in my early twenties, that I realized the time had come to write the novel I’d always wanted to write. Just to see if I could do it.
I did. It was a Celtic fantasy, and it was very long (which has been a continuing theme in my writing experience). The next logical step seemed to be… could I find a Christian publisher interested in publishing a massive fantasy tome?
I never did, but I received enough positive feedback from editors who loved my writing but no way, no how, could take on such a massive manuscript, that I didn’t give up. I set the fantasy tome aside and moved on to the next story.
What type of training did you have when you began writing?
Aside from high school and basic college English courses, I learned to write by writing. I tend to come at creative pursuits organically, and learn by doing (admittedly a slow way of going about it). I figured the only way to find out whether I could write a novel was… try to write a novel. I knew I had at least slightly better than average writing skills, and I knew what I liked to read, so I thought if I wrote a book I’d like to read, it had a good chance of turning out okay. Even if it didn’t, the process would be fun and fulfilling.
After two years of serious work on that first novel I joined a local critique group and began to get feedback from those ahead of me in the process, and mega doses of encouragement. In 1994 I joined Oregon Christian Writers and began attending their summer conferences. I gained a much broader sense of the world of Christian publishing.
Ah, the joys of writing free of constraints. There’s nothing quite like it. And then we learn the “rules.” Gradually, we come to see them as “guidelines” and learn to balance craft issues with creativity. But the transition can be tough. How did you make yours?
I value writing craft books, but I’m glad I didn’t fill my head with too many “rules” before I had the chance to absorb them naturally by reading widely across many genres, and writing, writing, and writing some more. I would have been discouraged, or at least overwhelmed.
Even after gaining a fairly strong sense of who I was as a writer, and what sort of works I wanted to produce, I did start to take certain rules as law and on some days worried about breaking them, or even bending them when that’s what my “gut” was telling me to do. But those worries never eclipsed the passion of spilling out a story and watching the characters love each other and wound each other and make bad choices and be redeemed. My trust in the process of creating is stronger now.
Not too many years into your writing journey, you came close to getting a contract—very close, in fact. What was that experience like, and what did you learn from it?
I did get close to publication in the mid 1990s, with a couple of projects getting as far as committee meetings with a major CBA publisher, but ultimately they were passed on. Those experiences, far from frustrating me, were just the encouragement I needed to keep story-weaving. I was learning God has a time and season for everything, including publication—if that was His plan. I was re-learning what I’d known instinctively at the start: the most important thing about writing for me was not the getting published part, but the ‘joy in the journey’ part. The joy of co-creating something with God, of taking on a challenge (writing a novel) that seemed so beyond my meager skills that He had to be my partner.
It was a lesson I was soon to have driven home to me in a much more pointed way.
Lori’s High Points
Those familiar with American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) know how highly regarded their Genesis contest is. Each year entrants send in entries with some trepidation, spend weeks waiting for the finalist announcements, and listen for a call on the notification day. Your phone did ring on that special day in 2008. When did that memorable call come and how did you react to the news?
My novel, Kindred (under the title Trouble the Water) placed third in the 2008 ACFW Genesis Contest, historical category. I received a call when I was a finalist, which I missed. And I received a call when I placed third, which I also missed! But I had the messages to listen to over and over (and I did!).
You entered a blog contest and won. Please tell us about this experience.
There’s an outstanding group of authors, all represented by Books & Such Agency, who blog together on a site called Novel Matters. In 2009 they began holding their Audience with an Agent Contest, the agent in question being one of their own. I entered the first chapter of Kindred, and was chosen by these authors as one of six finalists. Those six entries were passed straight to agent Wendy Lawton, who chose mine as the winner. I was invited to submit the entire manuscript for her consideration.
What an important win that was! You got your work in front of a highly regarded agent. And Wendy loved it, so much so that you received The Agent Call. That’s a call unlike any other and has been known to send many a writer into joy overload. When did your call come? Did you laugh, cry, shriek, dance, or sit in a state of shock and stare at the phone afterward?
Wendy’s offer to represent me came by email because we had already entered into some dialogue via that means, so I had a little warning before The Call took place. I had a day to get over being too giddy to speak, get my thoughts together and settle my crazy nerves. I signed a contract with Books & Such in April of 2010. I’m now represented by Wendy and couldn’t be more pleased.
There is one highpoint in your life that brings tears to my eyes when I think about it. Please share your story of God’s grace as He led you through some dark days.
Turning 30 is a milestone for most women, but my 30th year was a bit more of a milestone than I bargained for. I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma (cancer of the lymph nodes) in March of 1999. I’d known something was wrong with me for months, but was waiting for our new health insurance to kick in before I got checked out. Three days after it did, I went to a GP picked from a list of names.
The doctor had me diagnosed in thirty minutes, and referred me to the one oncologist in our city who was an elder at our church (though she could not have known this). Not until I heard his name did I understand that what was wrong with me was cancer, yet when I heard his name I also understood God had me in His hands. I’ll never forget that moment of grace. Because of it I never struggled with why me? or the fear that something had gone terribly, horribly wrong. I was to experience the deepest peace and intimacy with the Lord during the following months of chemo and radiation that I’d then known.
Lori’s Dream Put on Hold . . . and Hope
My heart goes out to you, Lori, as I think about all you’ve been through. Battling cancer and dealing with chemotherapy had to have been a tremendous challenge in all areas of your life. How did the diagnosis affect your writing?
I decided to take those treatment months off from writing and focus on getting well. After the “all clear” in November of 1999, I intended to jump back into working on the novel I had set aside in March. An editor was interested in it and wanted to see it when I was finished. The chances of the cancer coming back were slim. I had every reason to press on and immerse myself again in the joy of writing. But that’s not what happened.
I’m sure everyone reading this knows chemotherapy has side effects. I experienced a number of them, but in the end I felt I’d gotten off easy… until the months started passing, and very little writing got done. And what did get done was joyless, frustrating. Concentration proved elusive. Plot threads frayed out of my grasp. I’d spend hours and hours researching and promptly forget everything I’d learned and have to do it over again.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was suffering from chemo fog.
I’m not familiar with chemo fog. What is it, how did you react to it, and what did you do to overcome it?
Chemo fog, or chemo brain, is a mild cognitive impairment that happens to some cancer patients during treatment and after. My symptoms included difficulty finding words in conversation or writing, short-term memory lapses, diminished ability to multitask, and a slower learning process. (For more about chemo fog, visit http://www.chemofog.net.)
I’ve since talked to other writers who have gone through chemotherapy only to find that their brains aren’t working like they used to, and their writing has suffered. Now I could tell them not to despair, not to give up, in time the condition improves, often much sooner than what I experienced. But back in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, and the first part of 2004, I thought this murky mental existence was how it was going to be for me, forever.
I felt diminished. I struggled. I prayed. I tried harder. When that didn’t work I asked God to take away the desire to write the kinds of books I used to write. I tried my hand at writing simpler stories. I gave up writing altogether more than once.
But I couldn’t not write for long. God didn’t change my desires. He simply had His time table for my healing, and I had to learn to rest in faith that if He wanted me to write again at the level where my passion lay, then He would enable me to do so. I gave the desire over to Him, and trusted that if it was also His desire for me, then somehow, someway, it would work out.
You emerged from the fog a changed person. What gave you hope during your darkest days? What lessons did you learn through the process in regards to life and your writing?
All through this period I never stopped reading. I never stopped filling that creative well that we all possess and draw from as writers or artists, until there came a day—I can’t say exactly when, but it was edging into spring of 2004—when I had an Idea. A tiny kernel of What If? The more I thought about it, the more it expanded, until I had a Story Situation. Then, lo and behold, a young man with blond hair came riding his horse down a Carolina red clay road, and I was pretty sure I heard the Lord say, at long last, “Now.” I was ready to try again.
I was still in touch with the editor who’d been interested in the book the cancer interrupted. In fact, it turned out she lived in the same town as I did, and over the years we’d become friends. As a friend, I ran my story idea by her. Would it fit in the CBA? She told me to go for it, and her encouragement was the last little push I needed. Trying not to look at the overwhelming big picture, but only what I meant to write or the research I meant to tackle on that day, I did.
And the fog began to lift. That story was Kindred.
Lori’s Writing Process
What does your current writing process look like, and how was it affected by the challenges you faced as you dealt with cancer and chemotherapy?
When I experienced a lifting of the chemo fog nearly five years after my treatment, I found my writing process was both rusty and radically changed from how I approached writing a novel before cancer. I used to write in a linear fashion, Chapter 1 thru to The End. When I began Kindred, I knew next to nothing about the time period I had chosen to set it in, the late 18th century south, and I couldn’t see where the story should start.
Having gained a healthy aversion to spinning my wheels in a mess of words that won’t behave, and knowing the importance of maintaining the joy of writing—joy in the process of sitting here and putting words on the screen—I decided to simply write what I could see. This turned out to be a chunk of scenes near the middle of the novel. I kept on that way, writing whatever scenes were speaking to me the loudest, the most beguiling, even if I wasn’t sure where they would fit, or if they would fit, doing whatever it took to keep me eager to come to the computer each day. I was reconditioning myself to daily work, and knew it was, for me, most important to find and maintain joy, not worry so much about what the end result might look like. I had to prove to myself that I could still finish a novel.
I did finish Kindred, four years later (and now know more about late 18th century America than any other time period in history!). But that was only the beginning. The one drawback to my new process was glaringly obvious. I had me another tome, 325,000 words long.
Partners on Lori’s Journey
•Who have been some of your biggest supporters, encouragers, and hands-on helpers as you’ve traveled the path to publication?
In a nearly twenty year journey there are so many people who come alongside for a step or two, or for longer distances. Some are new-to-me fellow sojourners (waves to Joan Shoup and Laura Frantz, my crit partners and fellow 18th century enthusiasts, the good folks at the Compuserve Books & Writers Forum, Wendy, my agent, and Karen Ball, the editor and friend who gave me the push I needed to begin writing Kindred). And then there was Lauri Klobas.
I consider Lauri my first editor, though I never expected more from her than the beta read of Kindred she volunteered to do for me. It was a brave thing to offer; the original draft of Kindred was outrageously overwritten, but Lauri taught me (by lots and lots of bleeding red on my pages) how to be ruthless in editing, how to see the story hidden in all those words, and she did so with humor and fearlessness. Were it not for Lauri I would never have edited Kindred down to a word count even remotely publishable in today’s CBA market. Lauri, a gifted writer who had her own dreams of becoming a published novelist, passed away after her third battle with cancer in March of this year. I pray she can read book dedications from heaven, because, God willing, she’s going to have one from me.
Lori’s Journey Continues
What are you working on now?
I’m writing the first draft of a novel which is a companion (not a sequel) to Kindred. Its working title is Willa, and it’s set in the same 18th century fictional world as Kindred. It’s a stand alone story, but if I ever have opportunity to write a sequel to Kindred, (one is bursting at the seams to be written) then it will also serve as a sequel of sorts for Willa, as the two sets of characters cross paths.
I may have given up writing fantasy long ago, but I’m still a world builder at heart.
Five Aspects of Writing that Bring Lori Joy
~ Getting that first glimmer of a story idea—seeing the face of a character, or hearing their voice, or imagining a situation rife with conflict. What a high!
~ When I make myself cry while writing a scene. It can be emotionally exhausting, but it’s still one of the best aspects of writing.
~ Falling in love with my characters. Even the secondary ones. Even the walk-ons that I’ve had to cut for the sake of word count. Oh, my squat little frog-faced ferryboat man, I will put you back into a book one day, I promise!
~ Line editing. I love it. From the moment I have a scene roughed in and can go back and dig deeper, peel away layers, find subtle and surprising details, play with language, that’s when I really sink into my story world and lose all track of time and place and physically feel what my characters are feeling.
~ Getting feedback from another writer who isn’t afraid to be constructively honest. I’m not sure Lauri ever believed how thrilled I was to see all that glorious red editor ink, but maybe now she knows.
Lori’s Question for You
If you had the opportunity to time travel and could choose your destination, when (and where) would you go?
Lori has generously offered to give away one copy each of her critique partner Laura Frantz’s books, The Frontiersman’s Daughter, and her brand-spanking new release, Courting Morrow Little, both set in Kentucky during the 18th century. (US and Canada addresses only please.)
To enter the drawing, just leave a comment for Lori by midnight June 30 (Pacific time) and enter your email address when prompted during the comment process. (You don’t have to leave it in the body of your comment this way.)
On July 1, I will hold the drawing and post the winner’s name here as well and will contact her/him via email to get a mailing address. (I don’t share your information with anyone, other than sending your mailing address to my guest, and I don’t add your name to any mailing lists.)
Congratulations to Doreen Frost, winner of Lori’s drawing!!
Note: Offer void where prohibited.
Odds of winning vary due to the number of entrants.
Learn More About Lori
Visit her personal blog ~ Past Perfect
Friend her on Facebook ~ Lori Benton