Growing up in Australia, Margaret Ann Spence never dreamed she one day would be a published author living in a place called Tempe, Arizona.
With a master’s degree in journalism, Spence worked for a magazine and later as a public-relations professional, always making her living as a wordsmith.
When she moved to Tempe 10 years ago, she joined a writers’ group when she turned to writing novels.
“I started to realize that I could actually write fiction, which I always felt committed internally to write,” Spence said.
So how does a trained journalist go from writing fact to fiction?
“I gave a talk just last week to the Society of Southwest Authors and it was on how to research your novel using journalistic techniques,” Spence said.
In journalism, she noted, it’s all about the who, what, when and where.
“You don’t need to necessarily know why, especially if it’s a murder or something like that,” she said. “You just report it. But in fiction, we’re always interested in the motivation of the characters.”
Well, at least in what’s known as “women’s fiction,” Spence clarified.
“I don’t write thrillers or true-crime. I write character-driven fiction.”
Spence’s 2017 novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, deals with a caterer who reunites with a first love. Her latest tome, Joyous Lies, showcases a 25-year-old botanist raised on a California commune by her 70-ish hippie grandmother, a one-time Vietnam-war protestor.
“So there’s a wide range of age groups who might be interested in this,” she said. “The young one is interested in plants and believes that plants communicate, which, actually, they do.”
Spence readily admits that she’s no scientist but she read up on the topic of plant communication.
“It’s just astonishing what plants are doing.”
Joyous Lies delves into the difficulties of life on a commune and the challenge of living off the land with no money and no equipment or tools.
“How do they do that? And how do they bring up their children? What compromises were made and who got hurt?” Spence asks rhetorically.
Spence said she admires the literary work of Jane Austen.
“She’s my favorite!”
In fact, Spence said that she joined the Jane Austen Society of North America last year.
“It was to get some calm in this frightful situation we were all in last year with the pandemic and the election which was endless,” she said. “Nothing seemed to matter except that and COVID. I was just emotionally whipped.”
But she also follows modern novelists like award-winning Barbara Samuel, a Colorado writer, who writes in the spirit of Kristin Hannah and Maeve Binchy.
“She writes about the natural world, which I love to write about, too, so that’s a big interest for me, her work,” Spence said.
And to those aspiring writers out there who dream of having their own books published, Spence offers words of encouragement tempered by a strong dose of reality.
“It’s very hard. It’s very tough. First of all, you have to keep on writing,” Spence said.
“That’s really important—keep doing it. It’s very discouraging because you can send your work out to hundreds of agents and you can get nothing. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good book.”
Joining writers’ groups and getting honest feedback are ways for writers to hone their storytelling skills and develop a novel that catches the eye of a publisher.
“After that, when your book is ready and you’ve rewritten it many times, try to get a professional editor, either a developmental editor if you need that, or a copy editor before it’s ready to go out to an agent,” she said.
Spence, herself, belongs to several writers groups. When all is said and done, the only way a book ever gets written is actually quite simple.
“Sit in that chair and write, then get out there and try and network.”
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