by Kevin Lucia
Sharelen MacLaren Interview
"I write for the same reason that most people keep reading; I want to know what's going to happen next!" -- Sharlene MacLaren
Born and raised in west Michigan, Sharlene MacLaren attended Spring Arbor University. Upon graduating with an education degree way back in 1971, she traveled internationally for a year with a small singing ensemble, then came home and married one of her childhood friends. Together they raised two lovely daughters, both of which are happily married. Recently retired after teaching elementary school for 31 years, ‘Shar’ enjoys reading, writing, singing in the church choir and worship teams, traveling, and spending time with her family, which now includes her very wonderful, adorable, precious grandson.
A Christian for over forty years, and a lover of the English language, Shar has always enjoyed dabbling in writing—poetry, fiction, various essays, and freelancing for periodicals and newspapers. Her favored genre, however, has always been romance. She remembers well the short stories she wrote in high school and watching them circulate from girl to girl during government and civics classes. “Psst,” someone would whisper from two rows over, and always with the teacher’s back to the class, “Pass me the next page.”
Shar is a regular speaker for her local MOPS organization, is involved in KIDS’ HOPE USA, a mentoring program for at-risk children, counsels young women in the Apples of Gold program, and is active in two weekly Bible studies. She and her husband, Cecil, live in Spring Lake, Michigan with their lovable collie, Dakota, and Mocha, their lazy, fat cat.
Kevin: Thanks for the taking the time to chat with us today, Sharlene. Why don’t you give us a little background about yourself?
Sharlene: I’m a graduate of Spring Arbor University. I graduated about a hundred or so years ago. Ha ha. I have two married daughters and one grandchild. I’ve been married for 31 years and am a retired schoolteacher. Loving retirement, I might add!
According to your biography, you spent thirty-one years in elementary education. The protagonist in your soon to be released historical romance, Loving Liza Jane, is a school teacher in a one room schoolhouse. Did you find yourself drawing upon your experiences as a teacher to create Liza Jane?
Oh, yes! Actually, none of the events I portrayed in the story actually happened to me, but knowing children as I do, I easily imagined each one.
What was your first break into the writing world; was it a short story, a novel – some poetry online?
Ha-ha. My first break in the writing world came way back in high school. I filled spiral notebooks with silly, silly teenage romances, and those “books” went from girl to girl in Civics and Government classes—always with the teacher’s back to the class. Those books never amounted to anything, but my friends kept hounding me to write another story, and another story, and another story, so I knew even then that I was “onto something”. Much later in life, I picked up the writing bug again. Actually, I’d have to say God watered and fed that seed that had lain dormant for all those many years. In the year 2000, while experiencing the ‘empty nest’ for the first time, God urged me to give writing another try. In 2002, I published my first book titled Spring’s Promise with PublishAmerica. I continued writing more and more manuscripts, familiarized myself with the writing industry and how it worked, then started sending out one proposal after another—until I finally landed a contract with Whitaker House in early 2006. My first book with them, Through Every Storm, came out in January 2007. Loving Liza Jane, is the first in a three-book historical series.
As a historical romance, how much research went into Loving Liza Jane? Was there actual research involved, or long hours watching Little House On the Prairie? (One of my wife’s favorites, by the way).
Oh, I loved Little House on the Prairie, and actually one of the characters in Loving Liza Jane, Mrs. Winthrop, is a lot like the “old biddy” who owned the general store (can’t recall her name), although I think it’s purely by accident. Research? Yes, some. Little Hickman, Kentucky is an actual town, so I did have to do some research beforehand. I’ve been in contact with a town historian who has given me lots of ideas and suggestions. But I will admit that the entire story itself is a complete work of fiction, and I’ve taken lots of liberties with the town itself. It’s not nearly as thriving as I portray it to be in the book.
I see you’re involved with MOPS – Mothers of Preschoolers. Tell us a little about this ministry. How were you led to work with them?
MOPS is a national organization designed to help moms cope with the day-to-day rigors of motherhood. It’s meant to encourage, uplift, and guide. Each meeting involves a snack, interacting with other young moms, listening to a speaker, and participating in a craft. Older, experienced women also attend these meeting, acting as friends and mentors. Babysitting is always provided—a huge benefit. My involvement with MOPS has always been serving as a guest speaker.
Give us a little insight into the mind of a writer – how do you go about framing a story and putting it down on paper? Is it an organized, detailed process for you – or do you operate more on intuition and inspiration, visualizing the story like a movie?
Good question. Ever hear of a seat-of-the-pants writer? Ha! That’s me. I have an imagination that won’t quit, so I’m always envisioning stories, but as far as designing extensive outlines, doing chapter-by-chapter rundowns, preplanning every scene, etc., it just doesn’t happen. I generally fill out a character chart—listing personality traits (quirks, strong points), age, appearance, etc., so I can keep everybody straight—that much I do. I also have an excellent idea of the beginning, middle, and end of my story (and quite often I’ll type that up for reference sake and store it away), but from there, I just start filling in the blanks. Usually I don’t know myself what’s coming. I write for the same reason that most people keep reading; I want to know what’s going to happen next!
You walk into the local CD store – which section do you head to first?
Easy listening instrumental—Jim Brickman, Chris Botti, Kenny G—vocalist, Josh Grobin (what a voice!), and here’s one for ya’…Ella Fitzgerald. Love the big band era. (I’m showing my age, huh.)
You’re in the check-out line at Barnes & Noble – what book are you buying today?
Hmm. Definitely something in the romance category. My husband and I laugh. Picture this. We’re each on separate couches in the living room. He’s reading the deeply spiritual PhilipYancey, Charles Coleson, Oswald Chambers, or Charles Swindoll to name a few, and I’m cuddled up with something mindless like “Texas Hearts Afire” (made up title, but you get the idea). Don’t get me wrong … I love the Beth Moore Bible studies, read my Bible daily, use a daily devotional guide to keep me on target spiritually—but, oh, I do love a good romance! Right now, I’m entrenched in Jan Karon’s “The Mitford Series”.
When it comes to writing, who would you list as being your primary influences?
You’re just full of good questions. In the secular world of fiction, I’d have to say LaVyrle Spencer (now retired) played an integral part in my writing life. She wrote with such emotion, pulling her readers into the story, forcing them to use their five senses. I love when a writer does that. In Christian fiction I have enjoyed Jeanette Oke, Francine Rivers, Tracey Peterson, Robin Lee Hatcher, and a host of others too many to name.
Knowing my luck, this will go over like a lead balloon, and you’ll pick “neither”; but given the tenor of Loving Liza Jane, which frontier/colonial story/show would you pick as your favorite: Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, or Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman?
Probably “Little House”. Back in the late 70s, early 80s, my emotions ran like clockwork. Little House came on at 8 p.m. every Monday night, and usually by 8:53, tears were running down my cheeks. (I know, men don’t get it.)
I see you have another novel coming out called Through Every Storm. Give us a little inside peek on that.
“Storm” is about a young couple who have lost a child and the ensuing grief that follows. The story opens two years after the incident, so the reader is not in the grip of the worst of it, but there are the aftershocks that follow—a crippled marriage teetering on divorce, lack of communication, silent blaming, depression, etc. Through a set of circumstances a precocious seven-year old takes up temporary residence with the hurting couple. His presence, along with his coaxing them back to church and back to their faith, is what will ultimately start them on their journey to wholeness and healing. This book is now available in bookstores. If it’s not on the shelf, it is easily obtainable through special-order.
As you mentioned, you published your first book, Spring’s Promise, through PublishAmerica. Another Christian author, John Laurence Robinson – writer of the Joe Box Mysteries – also started with PA before being picked up by River Oak. Tell me what it was like working with PA, in contrast to working with Whitaker House.
No comparison, really. PublishAmerica was fine for getting that opportunity to see my book in print. They do a fine job with printing, cover design, and overall quality, etc. But they are strictly a print-on-demand operation with a very limited (if any) editing department. An author must be his/her own editor or hire it done. Also, PA does not in any way promote their published books. They do make them available through Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, etc., but if an author wants to see his/her work on a store shelf it will land there because of the author’s own marketing efforts. Another downfall is the exorbitant price. It’s my belief that in order to reclaim their investment, PA counts on its authors to purchase a quantity of books for resale to friends and family—although they in no way force, or even suggest, it. Big benefit to the author is that there is no upfront publishing fee, and if authors know they will have no trouble selling their book (maybe they are on a speaking circuit and already have an audience), then PA might be the route to take.
Most of your novels appear to fall into the “romance/drama” genre. What is it that pulls you to write in this genre, and would you ever consider taking a leap into another genre – perhaps suspense or mystery?
Actually, one of my works in progress is a sort of mystery/suspense (with romance included—of course!). It’s a first attempt for me, so I’m on rather shaky ground. But I’m having fun nonetheless.
The New York Times Online recently ran an article about Google’s massive attempt to scan all the books it can into its databases to be accessed online, and the article mused that perhaps it was the beginning of the end for the “physical book”. Do you see this happening anytime soon; will we all be reading books on “ereaders” eventually – or will the printed book endure?
BITE YOUR TONGUE! The physical book will always be with us. How could one cuddle up on a sofa in front of the fireplace with a laptop or an electronic book of any kind? And what about underlining your favorite portions or turning back the corners on the page, or sticking in a favorite, cherished and tattered bookmark? No, the physical book isn’t going anywhere. I’ll be the first to admit I NEED the internet. What an amazing tool—and right at our fingertips. But I’m not ready for a steady diet of E-books, and I don’t think the public is either.
What’s your advice to aspiring writers trying to break into the writing world?
If your dream involves seeing your manuscript in print, definitely follow your dream. Do NOT, I repeat, do NOT give up! Breaking into the publishing world requires lots of hard work and determination, but it can be done. You also have to be willing to learn, learn, learn. Find out what publishers/editors are looking for, then try to adapt to those trends. I’m not saying you can’t write from your heart, but you have to be realistic. If you want to publish, you have to write something publishable.
Here comes the fun question – Ron Howard has approached you to make a movie about Loving Liza Jane. Which actors would you chose to play the characters?
Okay, I’ve been scanning the internet for the past ten-minutes, trying to determine which actors might best fit the bill (Liza Jane is quite pure and proper—and who in Hollywood fits that description?), and now it’s just plain time to confess I can’t come up with a response. I will say I ran across a few I would not want representing my characters (smile). I’ll give it serious thought when Ron comes knocking. Ha-ha.
Thanks again for spending some time with us today.
You are so welcome. I had a great time!
Shar MacLaren – visit my Web site at www.sharlenemaclaren.com
Lucia Kevin Lucia writes for The Press & Sun
Bulletin and The
Journal. His short fiction has appeared in Coach’s
Midnight Diner, The Relief Journal, All Hallows, Darkened
Horizons Vol. 3 & 4,
NexGen Pulp Magazine Issues 1 & 4, From the Shadows, Morpheus
Bohemian-Alien, Shroud Publishing’s horror anthology, Abominations,
Tyndale House’s inspirational anthology Life Savors. He’s
writing a novella for Shroud Publishing’s upcoming novella series, The
Hiram Grange Chronicles. He resides in Castle Creek, New York, with his
wife Abby, daughter Madison and son Zackary. He teaches high school English at
Catholic Central High School
in Binghamton, New York; and is finishing his Masters of Arts in Creative Writing
at Binghamton University. Visit him at his website and