Patti Sherry-Crews lives outside of Chicago with her family. Sometimes she writes contemporary fiction and sometimes she travels back in time to write historical stories, but whatever century her story takes place, you can be sure there will be romance and adventure.
Q: Do you try to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
A: I try to be original. I’ve learned about myself as a writer that if I think too much about what the readers want, then I end up not enjoying the process. Ultimately, I have to please myself first, because what’s the point in being a writer if not to build an escape hatch for yourself by creating new worlds and characters whose heads you want to inhibit? The best writing advice I stick to is write for an audience of one: you! If you enjoy your own story, it’s likely other readers will too. Not everyone is going to like your writing, and I think you can wall yourself in if you’re thinking too much about what the readers want.
Q: How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
A: Oh, so many! I probably have more started and dropped projects that I can even remember. Sometimes stories that seemed like a good idea just don’t spring forth as you’d hoped.
I have a completed manuscript I want to do something with. It’s part Chic Lit, part women’s fiction, and part Rom Com. I don’t know why I’m sitting on it. Sometimes putting your babies out there is unnerving.
Then I have a finished project that was one of the first things I wrote. I wrote it during a NaNoWriMo challenge, which if you don’t know it, is a challenge to write 50k words in a month. Unfortunately that month is November with a major holiday right in the middle and just about every birthday in my family surrounding it. But, anyway, I sat down to write November 1 without much thought of where my characters and I were going. It turned out to be my first romance, which surprised me. I didn’t know I had that in me. I did complete my 50k words, but to be honest it’s a bit of a mess as I didn’t think it was in the romance genre while I was writing it. But there was so much I liked about it mixed in with the dead wood! So over the years I’ve gone back to it and tried to fix it to no avail. But a few months ago I decided to throw it out and start fresh with the same concept and characters only as a rom com.
At the start of the year I was simultaneously working on a historical western romance and a more literary novel with multiple points of view. Keeping it in context, this is during the chaos of 2020! I just couldn’t focus, and I discovered what I needed was a project I could escape into. Both these projects were too much work for different reasons (too much research in the HWR and too many moving parts in the other), so I went back to the above mentioned NaNoWriMo project because that is one that I can lose myself in—a contemporary Rom Com!
Q: What kind of research do you do and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
A: Hours and hours for days and days at least. Obviously an historical novel takes a lot of research whether writing historical western or medieval. What did people wear? What did they eat? I do much of my research online, but I also happen to live between two great libraries. I check the etymology of words so I’m not putting a 20th century oath in the mouth of a 13th century knight, for instance. I will Google Earth locations and walk around virtually as well as studying old maps. I also like to read books by other authors to see what others are up to. One of the most helpful books I read before I wrote Margarita and the Hired Gun was a nonfiction account of two Englishmen who were enamored of Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, who decided to get a couple of horses and ride the Outlaw Trail without knowing much about horses. This was invaluable to me...a girl living in the suburbs of Chicago...because guess who else doesn’t know much about horses? Me! My heroine, Margarita, was a pampered young lady who had to rough it on the trail. The trials and tribulations of the Englishmen helped me out. I learned how many hours a day you could reasonably travel on horseback, what was their daily routine, how they took care of the animals, etc. all through the eyes of newbies.
When I wrote His Unexpected Companion, along with the usual research, I watched YouTube videos people posted of themselves using 19th century tools to do ranch chores like mowing and storing hay or cutting shakes to replace a damaged roof.
Of course, when I write contemporary stories, it involves less research, but I still have to make characters believable, so I have to study different trades and learn career paths my characters may have taken. Writing about people who have such different lives than my own is a big challenge: I can’t make all my characters inverted writers who live in the Midwest.
Q: Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?
A: I do, I absolutely do! By a spiritual practice I mean there are times when I feel something outside of myself leading me.
The writing I enjoy the most is when I feel I have someone talking in my ear, writing their own dialogue. There are some characters who are so strong in my head, I can’t work on any other projects while I’m involved with them. Rafferty/Michael in Margarita and the Hired Gun was one such character. He shouts down everyone else. I honestly believe he was a real person channeling through me!
And one of my favorite things is to wake up from a vivid dream involving people I don’t know, who are in the midst of a scene I’ve been dropped into. The characters are so intriguing to me and the dialog so fresh, that I develop a story around that scene, starting some place of my own design and then following a path to my dream scene, and then going through to a happy conclusion. I wish this would happen more often, because these are my favorite experiences.
I think most writers feel it’s a spiritual practice. We’re creating worlds and characters and putting them out there. To be able to take a vision living inside your head and share it with others is a gift. I don’t take it lightly.
Q: What does your typical writing day look like?
A: I’ve really veered off of what is typical for some time! But when I am on track, I’m very disciplined about my routine. I’ve long been self-employed with a family to manage, and I learned to have a set schedule in order to get everything done. My kids are grown now, but having a predictable routine works for me. I start my day with a long, brisk walk (weather permitting). This is really important to me. To be in nature and observe seasonal changes is very centering going forward with the rest of my day. I often imagine scenes and dialog in my head while I walk, so when I sit down to write later in the day I don’t have to stare at a blank page wondering what to write. After my walk I run any errands I have to do or I attend to my day job, which is caning and rushing chair seats (I know, weird one. It’s a family business). After lunch is when I sit down to write until dinner time, and I always have music playing! I love to plan meals and cook different things, so that is a good wind-down activity for me. I usually take time at night to review what I wrote during the day and fine tune the narrative.
Q: What is your writing process?
A: I’m really not one to outline or make complicated charts. I do make Pinterest boards for my own reference. I make boards with images of people I base my characters on so I remember what they look like! I also have boards labeled things like Character Closet with examples of clothing from different time periods or occupations. I’m a visual person so capturing images helps me.
Other than that, I’m kind of a pantser versus a plotter. I have a general idea of a storyline but the characters often take me in unexpected directions. And probably like most writers, I have a storage shed in my head where I put little bits and pieces I want to use later: overheard conversations, strange occurrences, historical incidents, etc.A
My favorite part of writing is editing. The first draft can be laborious, especially when you don’t know where you’re going. So I love going through a finished product and polishing, polishing until I have something I’m satisfied with.
Q: Where did your love of writing come from?
A: I grew up with a large extended family on both sides living within a few blocks of each other. Sitting around someone’s big kitchen table, telling stories was what passed for entertainment in the family. I didn’t participate at the time, because I was shy and quiet, but I sat on the sidelines absorbing it all. I was lucky to have had many natural-born storytellers in my family.