One of the things I like best about being a writer is getting the opportunity to talk to other authors. I’m the kind of reader who loves it when an author includes an author’s note in their book or dedicates a page on their website to the inspirations and influences that went into his or her book. It’s been an awesome experience this past year to get to know some authors from the UPPAA (Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association). They are a fun group and many of the members have a lot of expertise to share with other writers and readers.
Today’s blog entry is an interview with one of my author friends, Tyler Tichelaar, the person who introduced me to the UPPAA group last fall. Since meeting Tyler, I’ve read and enjoyed all of his fictional books set in Marquette: The Marquette Trilogy (a historical family saga), Narrow Lives, and The Only Thing That Lasts. A multi-dimensional author, Tyler has also delved into the nonfiction world with My Marquette, which is essentially a walking tour of the town in book format, as well as King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition. He is a seventh-generation Marquette resident, and his love for the town and the U.P. shines through in his writing.
Tyler is also the founder of Marquette Fiction and Superior Book Promotions, a professional book review, editing, and proofreading service, and he is the regular guest host on the Author’s Access Internet radio program. He’s always willing to talk to other writers about his experiences, and I thought that my readers would find his thoughts on writing interesting as well.
Tyler will have his books on display and for sale at the TV6 Christmas Craft Show the weekend of December 2 – 4 at the Superior Dome in Marquette, so if our discussion sparks your interest, you can meet him and check out his books there.
Jenifer: Welcome, Tyler. First, I’m curious to know how much and what sort of research goes into writing historical novels?
Tyler: Thanks for the interview, Jenifer. I’m not surprised your first question is about my research—I get asked that a lot. Only, I don’t know that my answer is all that standard—I didn’t spend hours in libraries or museums doing research—I did some of that but it was very little—largely because I was living downstate when I wrote most of The Marquette Trilogy so I didn’t have access to U.P. libraries and the Internet wasn’t available to me back then. The truth is that my main characters are loosely based on a lot of my ancestors who were early settlers in Marquette, and I had done a lot of genealogy research previously, so I drafted out my family tree, changed names, and then used family events to shape the storyline. In my non-fiction book My Marquette, I reveal some of the historical stories from my family behind the characters. That said, I made a lot up to fill in parts of their stories I didn’t know about or just for fun or to make the stories more interesting. I didn’t set out to do research for the historical parts of the novels. It wasn’t like I decided, “I’m going to write a historical novel set in Marquette so let’s research Marquette history.” It was more like I had grown up in Marquette, heard stories of Marquette history for years and years, heard stories from my grandparents and great-aunts and uncles, and gossip about old Marquette residents, and for years, had been collecting historical articles from the Mining Journal, the Marquette Monthly, and other publications, and all these facts and this information were in my head, so I kind of just knew all this stuff, and when I wrote the books, I mostly just had to go back and check dates. The stories from history just sort of flowed into the story. Two of my favorite historical novelists and big influences on my writing, Margaret Mitchell who wrote Gone with the Wind and Helen Hooven Santmyer who wrote …And Ladies of the Club, both wrote about their own hometowns in history and have said fairly the same thing about their research.
That may not be the conventional research answer, but I will say that I care a great deal about being accurate about the details to the point where I will map out the events using a calendar from the year I’m writing about—I don’t know that it snowed on a specific day in 1884 although I’ll say in my novels it did, but if I had had access at the time to the weather reports for that year, I would have made them match up. I do make sure my dates for Easter are correct, or I’ll find out, when it matters, what day of the week Christmas was on in 1912 or whatever year the story takes place. I’m sure there are small errors here and there, but I only know of one a person pointed out to me—that there isn’t a telephone line at the Huron Mountain Club—although I have a character in The Queen City make a phone call from there. Oh well, no one is perfect.
Jenifer: One thing I really like about your books is that, even though you provide a rich and detailed view of history, you never lecture your readers. You always show what is happening in history through characters’ feelings about current events or political conversations they have or even something as simple as what they hear on the radio. Some of the most famous writers of historical family sagas spin fantastic tales, and then all of a sudden go on for five dull pages about Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, completely stalling the action and boring their non-history buff readers to death. I admit that I usually end up skimming in those cases and don’t get much out of those passages. But you don’t do that as a writer. How difficult do you find it to sprinkle those bits of history in and still give an accurate picture of the times? Do you purposely plan your scenes around historical things you want to talk about or do you fit the history in around the characters and plot?
Tyler: That’s a great question, Jenifer. When I was younger, I was a very dedicated reader. I read all of Les Miserables in high school. A few years ago, I tried to read it again and couldn’t because Victor Hugo would insert whole chapters of descriptive history. It was just boring. I’ve tried not to do that. When I was writing The Marquette Trilogy, I spent a lot of time reading about the history of iron ore and the process of mining and shipping, and I found it boring, so I realized, if I was bored with it, my readers would be too. I did write some boring things I trimmed out, and I resorted to “broad brush strokes” when it came to describing historical details. I also had a friend who pointed out to me that books were more interesting when things were not told by the narrator but through character’s eyes, so for instance, rather than say in the 1970s that efforts were made for U.P. Statehood, I had the characters slip in mentions of it in their conversations. I also wanted to show that what today we might accept as right or wrong or a good idea wasn’t accepted that way back then, so I would have characters who were not happy with Roosevelt’s policies or who argued about a war being right or wrong. I inserted these political things for historical flavor and to provide the thoughts of the characters without trying to preach any specific belief. If I felt it was important to the history of the area, then I tried to include at least a passing mention to it in conversation somewhere.
As for lecturing the reader on things other than history, my character, Roy Whitman, is an interesting example because he goes through a stage where he’s an atheist. I had a reader at a talk I gave actually quote back passages from my book and ask me if those were things I believed. I could only reply, “Those are things Roy believes.” I heard an author one time say something like, “We have a word for people who think what our characters think is what we think. We call those people, ‘stupid.’” When I first wrote my books I was surprised by how many people thought my main characters were real historical people I was writing about. At first I wondered how smart some of them were, but then I realized it was a compliment to how realistic I had made my historical fiction, so I think I did do a good job of not making the books boring, but hopefully, a bit of a time travel adventure for readers.
Jenifer: I must admit that while reading The Marquette Trilogy I thought your character author Robert O’Neill was a real historical person instead of a fictional character. I think it’s because you’ve done such an excellent job of blending history with the stories you create. Part of that has to do with putting in all the research effort so that the two naturally flow together. I know that you’ve done quite a bit of research into many different time periods. Is there any period of time in which you wished you lived or think it would be fun to be a part of?
Tyler: I’ve always felt like I was born about 100 years too late, which means I should have been born in 1871. I think that would have been a good time because a lot of modern innovations like the phonograph, the telephone, and electricity came along not long after that, so I wouldn’t have been completely a pioneer. All the great Victorian novels had been or would be written, so I wouldn’t be missing those, and it was the age of the great operettas and in my old age, probably the 1940s or so, I could still enjoy all the great musicals being written that I love and listen to all the time. As a side note, I think a lot of what I know about writing I learned from the great Broadway musicals like Showboat, and Oklahoma. Right now I’m listening to Carousel. And almost all my favorite writers were dead by World War II. Somehow 1950 and thereafter just doesn’t seem that attractive to me.
Jenifer: Many of your novels encompass the same world and cast of characters. What is it about these characters that keep drawing you back to them? Do you have plans for future novels about some of these characters?
Tyler: It wasn’t initially intentional that the same characters kept showing up in my books. I wrote The Only Thing That Lasts first. Then I started writing The Marquette Trilogy years later with no intention of connecting the books, but it just seemed to happen. When my books take place in the same town and at the same time, it’s hard not to envision the characters from one book going to the same church, or passing each other on the street, and wondering how all those characters’ lives overlap. If my books were set in New York City or Chicago or London, I probably wouldn’t have done that because the population is bigger and their lives wouldn’t be so connected.
I also like to play “intertextual” games with the characters, and I was heavily influenced by Anthony Trollope’s Barchester and Palliser novels, which I was reading at the time I was writing The Marquette Trilogy. Trollope kept reintroducing his characters as minor characters in other novels. Plantagenet Palliser only briefly appears in a Barchester novel, but then Trollope decided to write a whole series surrounding him. Robert O’Neill, the main character of The Only Thing That Lasts, was my first main character, and since he’s an author himself, even in books I haven’t published that I’ve written and that aren’t set in Marquette, I will tend to have a character reading one of Robert O’Neill’s books, or he’ll visit characters in another state. It’s just fun to envision these characters as real people. They are real people to me considering how many hours I’ve spent with all of them. They talk to me all the time, arguing with me and telling me I better get their stories right. My next novel Spirit of the North, which I’ll publish next spring, will reintroduce a few of the characters from Iron Pioneers, notably Ben and Karl Bergmann, the loggers, and the Whitman family, although the story centers around two main characters who will be new to readers, and I definitely have plans for more novels with new stories tying in old characters. I try to make each book readable solely by itself so people can enter my world from any book they want, but also to please my longtime readers who keep coming back to find out what happened to my characters.
Jenifer: Do you have a sneak peak or excerpt from Spirit of the North that you would be willing to share for those of us who have been waiting to read more about some of our favorite Marquette Trilogy characters? And along those lines, do you share your work and ask for input from various editors or friends prior to publication or do you wait until official publication to share your books with anybody?
Tyler: I’ll answer the sharing question first. I share with just a few people before I publish, asking for input—we have a group that meets in Marquette called Writers Ink where we read passages from our work so I’ve been doing that, and I have a few friends I email chapters of my book to for feedback while they are in the process of being developed, but that is a recent development. I was always a closet writer until I published the first novel. A lot of people had no idea I’d been writing novels for nearly twenty years because I was afraid of negative feedback so I didn’t show them to anyone. As for editing, I do my own editing and proofreading, but—and it may be contradictory sounding—only because I had some editorial evaluations done for my first couple of novels and I felt that while the readers made some good suggestions, overall, I was a better editor than they were when it came to grammar and punctuation, and as an editor myself, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had authors come to me with books they claimed were edited that were just terrible, filled with errors that would have made the author look downright illiterate if the book had been published that way. I cannot stress the importance of finding a qualified editor for your books. Always get a few editing samples done of a few pages and compare them. Make sure you find someone who knows what he or she is doing. A lot of people claim to be editors, but a lot of them are really not qualified to do so. Just because you were an English major does not mean you are a book editor. Now I’ll get off my soapbox and answer your other question.
I won’t share a passage from the novel, but I will say that Spirit of the North has a “Gothic” feel to it, not in the horror sense, but in the spiritual sense and in its format. It contains stories within stories and begins with the discovery of a manuscript written decades before that claims to have been composed through an automated writing process where the person who wrote it channeled the message from someone beyond the grave, and some of the stories in the main story have appearances by ghosts. That said, it is not at all a scary book, but I hope a life affirming one. The “Spirit” of the title refers to the resilience of the characters’ spirits as well as supernatural spirits. As for old friends, as I said readers will meet the Whitmans and Karl and Ben again, all from Iron Pioneers, and yes, Sophia Henning, the woman everyone loves to hate, makes a cameo appearance as does Molly Montoni. But my main characters, Barbara and Adele Traugott are completely new. Oh, and my dedicated readers will remember in Iron Pioneers that a little girl named Annabella Stonegate died, and later in The Queen City, a ghost story is told about her. Well, her true story will be revealed in Spirit of the North, and interestingly enough, Annabella Stonegate was the main character in a short story I wrote in eighth grade called “The Ghost of Stonegate Woods,” my very first story set in the U.P. and written in 1985, so you can see, she has been haunting me for a long time to get her correct story told.
Jenifer: Besides Spirit of the North, do you have any other projects in the works?
Tyler: Yes, next year I’ll also be publishing The Gothic Wanderer, a non-fiction work that began as my doctoral dissertation. It is a study of nineteenth century Gothic novels, but it’s more than that. It’s about being human, about wandering through life searching for meaning, about guilt and redemption, and our relationship with God and with ourselves, about self-esteem and how we have played with all those concepts for the last two centuries. The main character in Spirit of the North, Barbara Traugott, might be considered a Gothic wanderer herself, and that novel was definitely influenced by the more positive aspects of the Gothic tradition. In The Gothic Wanderer, I talk about many well-known Gothic novels like Frankenstein and Dracula, but also some authors who introduce Gothic elements into their books who taught me a lot about what a great novel is, including Charles Dickens, Ann Radcliffe, Bram Stoker, and Fanny Burney. The Gothic Wanderer is hopefully more than a book for academics and lovers of literature, but also a book for anyone who wants a deeper look at what it means to be human.
Jenifer: I know you don’t define yourself as a Christian writer, but I’ve noticed many elements of faith in your books. Religion is obviously very important to many of your characters, and even some of the conflict in your Marquette Trilogy arises from newcomers to the central family being from different Christian denominations. What role would you say Christianity and faith have in your books?
Tyler: Well, I’d want to distinguish between faith and religion first. Religion is often a divider in my novels, such as Catholics and Protestants not getting along in The Marquette Trilogy, and how two characters, Henry and Beth, marry despite Henry being Baptist and Beth Catholic. Henry and Beth were based on my grandparents, who were the happiest married couple I probably ever knew, and they had to have loved each other because they went together eight years before they finally decided they weren’t going to let religion or their families stand in the way of their love. I’ve always admired them for that and felt telling their story was important, even if I fictionalized it some. My grandparents were brave back in the 1930s to do what they’ve done. I’ve never bought into religions that say they are the only way and that divide people as a result—probably because my grandparents’ story struck a chord in me at a young age that made me question religion, while I was nevertheless very religious, very Catholic—read the Bible, prayed the rosary, wanted to be a priest, at least got as far as being an altar boy. I aspired to sainthood but then realized that if you wanted to be a saint, you probably weren’t saint material.
But beyond religion, Faith I believe to be vitally important. I am skeptical when people are super religious. Like I’ve heard you say in creating your characters, I don’t want to read about perfect Christians. I want to read about people who struggle with their faith, who doubt, but strive to believe, who try to do the right thing against all odds and hope God is there guiding them. Roy Whitman in Superior Heritage is probably the best example. Roy has some experiences—unrequited love and experiencing the horrors of World War II—that make him reject God. He is basically an atheist for twenty-plus years. When he does return to God, it’s not through human words or religion but through an experience in Nature that makes him turn back. I think God is in the silent stillness of our hearts, always there willing to speak to us if we will listen. It is only when Roy is in a state where he quits worrying, quits fighting with God, and has his defenses down that God is able to enter his heart.
So yes, religion and Faith are important to me for various reasons. I am not a Christian novelist per se, but there is another scene in Superior Heritage where John decides at Bible Camp to give his life to God—he thinks of being a priest or missionary—later he realizes he can bring people to God through writing books. I’m more like John than any of my other characters, and I like to think in some way I am doing God’s work through my books. I do know that we can never know the full extent of the influence we have on people. I am far from perfect and my characters are far from perfect, but I hope my books give people a reason to carry on with hope in God that in the end, it will all be made right.
Jenifer: I love many of your characters and have a few I consider my personal favorites. I know that every book and character is special to its author, but do you have a favorite book or character that you’ve written?
Tyler: I’m always curious which characters are people’s favorites, so please tell me which ones are yours. When I published The Marquette Trilogy, most of my women readers either liked Molly or Clara the best, and they all loved to hate Sophia, but I think my overall favorite character in the books I’ve published so far is Margaret Dalrymple because she’s the real link in the trilogy, the only character who appears in all three books. She doesn’t start out as being very mature—a young girl with fantasies about marrying someone rich, which falls through for her—but over the course of the novels, she grows and changes. She has prejudices she overcomes, and in the end, I think she’s very endearing and realistic for readers.
Lately, I think my favorite character is John Vandelaare. He’s the main character at the end of Superior Heritage and the one most based on me. He ends up getting married at the end of Superior Heritage which ends in 1999. Lately I’ve been working on another novel told from my character Lyla Hopewell’s point of view set in 2005 and John is a minor character in that book—by this time he’s been married a few years and has kids—he’s kind of like my version of “What my life would have been like if I had gotten married and had kids.” I decided years ago I didn’t want children, and I still haven’t decided that I want to be married, but there’s always the “what if” question out there. I’m sure lots of married people wonder what life would have been like if they didn’t marry and have children. So I’m curious about making up this alternate life for myself and exploring who John, the married man and father, would be like—whom I might have been like if I’d gone down that road.
I will say I love all my characters and there’s a little bit of me in each one, except Lysander Blackmore in Narrow Lives. He’s one character I don’t understand; he’s definitely the most villainous of my characters and one I don’t think I ever completely wrapped my mind around; that’s partly why in that book where several characters tell their stories, he is never allowed a voice. I think the book is more interesting by showing how no one could understand him, but also, I think I was afraid to let him speak and see what he would say.
Jenifer: Something I loved about Narrow Lives is that you get to know more about many characters that aren’t explored as in depth in The Marquette Trilogy. It made me want to go back and reread the trilogy to see what I’d pick up on now having the “inside story” about some of the characters that I didn’t realize before. Something that I found interesting is that your Marquette Trilogy is written from a third person perspective, but The Only Thing That Lasts and Narrow Lives are first person perspectives. How is the writing process different with these two styles, and do you prefer one over the other?
Tyler: I think it depends on the kind of story a person wants to tell. When I wrote The Only Thing That Lasts, I decided to write it from Robert’s point-of-view, but I remember one day wanting to follow Grandma or Aunt Louisa May into the kitchen, but I couldn’t because Robert didn’t go in the kitchen. That might be why I switched to third person in writing my trilogy, along with the fact that the book covers seven generations of several different families, so first person would have been more difficult I think. Third person allowed me to step back and not get as involved in the characters emotionally so I didn’t come off being preachy or lecturing the reader—in the early versions of The Only Thing That Lasts, Robert was preachy, ranting about what was wrong with money, for example, scenes I later chopped out as I matured as a writer. I kept more distance by writing in third person. Narrow Lives, however, I chose to write in first person from several characters’ points of view because the characters are seedier and more colorful, and I thought letting them tell their own stories would make that come across better. I also think of The Marquette Trilogy as being more about history, while Narrow Lives and The Only Thing That Lasts is more about the characters. I think I’m more comfortable writing in first person, but I don’t have a real preference either way and I’ll often go back and forth between first and third person when I’m in the early stages of writing a book before I settle on the voice that will feel right for the book.
Jenifer: In My Marquette, you hit pretty much every noteworthy Marquette location, and in your novels, you often show your characters going to special/memorable places in town. What are a few of your favorite Marquette locations?
Tyler: Finally, an easy question. Or is it? The easy answers are yes, the Peter White Public Library and Presque Isle Park are my favorite places. Those are the two that first come to mind. The library is such a beautiful building and so full of great content and a place I’ve regularly visited since I was a kid. The same with Presque Isle Park—I remember feeding the deer at the Shiras Zoo with dandelion leaves as a kid and having family picnics and birthday parties there. But as I got older, Marquette was changing and as it changed, a lot of things got better, like the development in the Lower Harbor, but some things got worse, like the beautiful Marquette Mall becoming largely deserted, or the Bavarian Inn being torn down. Some of my favorite places in Marquette are no longer there anymore—they exist only in old photographs and in my memories. And then there are places like the Longyear Mansion and the Hotel Superior that were gone decades before I was born—but how I would have loved to have seen them—they are favorite “Old Marquette” places.
Jenifer: You’re always willing to help a fellow writer out or give advice when asked. What is one thing that you know now as a seasoned author that you wished you had known when you were publishing your first book?
Tyler: Don’t be shy. You’ll have to take some criticism but it’s okay—you will grow and be a stronger writer for that. Find one or two fellow writers you respect and trust and can learn from and help each other by reading and commenting on each other’s work to make it stronger. The biggest mistakes I made in my writing career probably centered around being afraid to tell people I was a writer. I remember—and this was at a Bible camp, Jenifer!—this one woman who every year at camp would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I told her I wanted to be a writer and she said, “Oh, writing is really hard to get into.” Because of her, I was determined, but also afraid to tell people I wrote. Only a very few people knew I was writing novels until I finally decided to publish them. I never let anyone read my books—I sent them to publishers and tried to get published and figured when the publisher decided the books were good enough to be published, then I would let friends and family read them. In some ways, that was the wrong approach. I wish I had had more writer friends and resources when I was younger because I think I’d be a better writer now, but in those days there weren’t the communication advantages or technology that there is now, so even if you live in a small town and don’t know anyone else who writes you can go online and find writer friends—today I have friends in the publishing business all over the world whom I’ve never met in person.
But that answer seems more about writing and you asked about publishing my first book—still, it’s the same answer. I made some mistakes in terms of self-publishing in relation to the company I hired that did print-on-demand books. If I had joined the U.P. Publishers and Authors Association (www.uppaa.org) and talked to other writers before I published the book, I could have done a better quality job, had more idea about how to market the book, and printed my books at a less expensive cost.
So overall my advice is, don’t be afraid to tell people you are a writer or are publishing a book. Tell lots of people—the ones who dismiss you, ignore. The ones who criticize you, use common sense to see where they are right and wrong—and the ones who offer to help you, do everything you can to forge strong relationships with them. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. Some people may be better writers than others, but no one is more qualified than you to tell your own story. And don’t view other writers as your competition; they are your biggest allies in this business. We can all help each other to promote our books, just like you and I are doing now by interviewing each other. We both write books set in the U.P. If someone likes my books, they’ll go looking for other U.P. books and discover yours and vice-versa.
Jenifer: I can relate to that because when I wrote my first book, I didn’t want anybody to see any part of it until it was finished and published. Unfortunately, it’s hard to be your own editor, and I think the book would have been stronger had I shared it with others prior to publication. I was just too shy to do so. Now I have several beta readers for each book, and I announce to pretty much everyone that I’m a writer. One important way to let the world know about you as an author and your books is a website. Will you tell us about your websites and what other information we can find there about your books?
Tyler: Sure, I have three websites, two of which include blogs. First there’s www.SuperiorBookPromotions.com which I use for my editing and proofreading and book review services. Then there’s www.MarquetteFiction.com which is for my Marquette books—it includes some neat things like a Timeline of Marquette History, a page showing the family trees of all the major characters in my novels, a page of links to other U.P. authors’ websites, a video for My Marquette, and of course, the ability to purchase my novels, and a link to my blog on all things Marquette and U.P. related. Then there’s www.ChildrenofArthur.com for my interest in the King Arthur legend, a blog on the Arthurian legend, photos of Arthurian places I’ve visited, Arthurian family trees, and information about my non-fiction book King Arthur’s Children, and my upcoming novel, hopefully novel series, King Arthur’s Legacy.
Jenifer: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me about your writing. I’m looking forward to catching up with you in the Superior Dome. Hope it’s a great weekend.
Tyler: Thanks for the interview, Jenifer. It’s been a real pleasure. I always enjoy going to the TV6 Craft Show at the Superior Dome and any other event I do. I love talking to my readers, not just when they say they like my books, but because they always have their own stories to share with me. I hope you and everyone has a wonderful holiday season!