I so enjoyed reading Ginger Moran’s new book, American Queen. As a book coach and teacher of memoir and novel writing, Ginger is masterful. In today’s interview you’ll learn about Ginger’s inspirations, writing process, dialogue and plot tips, and some of the hard decisions she had to make to her self-imposed deadline.
Inspired by Personal Experience
Lisa: How did you get the idea for American Queen?
Ginger: I was inspired by politics. I come from a family that was steeped in politics—my father was a civil rights activist in the South. I was taken to sit-ins at segregated restaurants when I was six years old and heard Martin Luther King speak when I was eight. I was involved in the civil rights movement and the women’s movement right along. I have been taken aback by the swings the country has taken over the past 20 years—it seems to me like one irrational thing happens after another in this country, from the invasion of Iraq to the election of Donald Trump.
I was born and raised in Charlottesville, Virginia, so I take the white supremacist movement personally in every way. It might not have been as shocking to me as it was to some others—I had heard those very same people on the phone as a child when they called our house and called my father names. They had gotten his name and phone number from white supremacist meetings in the town and called anonymously, of course, saying expletives even when a six-year-old girl answered instead of her father. My father started answering the phone with his own name, which often shamed them into hanging up without saying anything—that he would claim his identity and they would not.
What the re-appearance of the movement said to me was that we had to look deeper than the surface, the election of one man, to see what the roots of the choice of fear and hatred are. It led me in some pretty strange directions!
Lisa: How much (or what aspects) of the novel did you plan ahead of time and what evolved as you wrote?
Ginger: I am the worst kind of “pantser.” I practically always write by the seat of my pants, just following the story. It means I have to re-write quite a lot. In the past I have tried to have more of a plan, but I find that, when I do have one, I deviate from it. I enjoy the discovery process and, luckily, I also enjoy revision.
Lisa: Wow, I’m impressed because everything comes together so well, and, yes, in surprising ways. So cool that you were surprised too! The dialogue In American Queen is brilliant, fast-paced, witty, layered and moves the plot along. It also does a great job of giving us a sense of the characters. What tips do you have for our readers for writing great dialogue?
Ginger: I am so honored that you say this because I have felt that dialogue is one of my weakest points. I love reading good dialogue but, as you know from reading The Algebra of Snow, my earlier books shy away from it. I decided somewhere along the line that I had to learn how to write dialogue and it has been a long process. It doesn’t work at all to just listen to what people say in real life—that never sounds right in a novel. So, I mostly give my characters a setting and a problem and let them loose, waiting to hear what they come up with.
Dialogue and Plot Tips
Lisa: I love that idea of how to write dialogue. At MIT, I studied with the late Frank Conroy before he became the Director of the Iowa Writers Workshop and he always said that good dialogue sounds more real than actual conversation. He also advised us to read popular screenplays and plays, which is a great way to learn tight dialogue.
You mentioned to me that you’re all about character and not as much about plot. And yet I found the plot to be fast-moving and super suspenseful. I couldn’t put the book down. So you must have some secrets for plot that you didn’t even realize. Please share them with us. Did you plan everything out ahead of time or let the characters lead you or some combination of the two? Did you have the end in mind from the very beginning? I was certainly surprised. I won’t say more than that but it was satisfying to be surprised like that.
Ginger: Once, again, I am super-honored. Like dialogue, I felt that plot was a weak point for me, but, if you struggle with plot and dialogue, it is hard to sustain a novelist’s career! So I studied that too—from Writers Digest books to Masterplots (a compendium of summaries of world literature) to Aristotle’s description of dramatic structure in The Poetics.
I find that the place to get the plot going is at the very beginning—getting the characters to deal with a problem that they don’t have an easy solution for—and neither do I. Then I let it get worse. I have a bone to pick with much of contemporary American literature that seems fairly plot-free.
That might be intellectually interesting, but it doesn’t have zing. I love the British mystery writers like Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers who managed to have great characters and also great plots. I aspire to come anywhere near their mastery.
Lisa: Were any of the characters in American Queen inspired by real people or how did they come to you?
Ginger: Yes, they all have antecedents of some kind in my life. Although, as usual, they took on lives of their own as I wrote them. The mother started out much like my own mother, but she definitely turned into something of a quiet Mata Hari and now I think she might have her own book, along with the British nanny and Jesuit priest dissertation advisor. Is everyone a spy? I had to start wondering! I am related to someone who is married to a CIA agent and I had a lot of fun interviewing her about what that was like. They have a lot of children too, so that inspired the population explosion. A friend of mine just said that the husband is so fictional (in a good way)—but he is actually based on a real person!
Research for your Novel
Lisa: I see you had lots of interesting people in your acknowledgements who helped you with things like what a Washington insider socialite’s party might look like. How much did you base the party on real information and how much was straight out of your imagination? Was it fun doing that party planning? Are you someone who throws wild parties or have you ever thrown a wild party? If not, did your character inspire you to try that when Covid-19 ends?
Ginger: The parties were the most fun. I come from a very social family, but we are not at all DC high society. I have two friends who know how to give parties very well and I used them both without mercy. Elizabeth Cating is a professional caterer and she made up the whole Halloween Party menu—one with a Moroccan flair. We are dying to have that party once the pandemic is over—the food sounds way too good.
My other friend, Jeb Bonner, knows DC society and the way politics and society mix, along with acres of information about ambassadors and history, so he steered me straight with those angles.
Then I also talked with a Georgetown event planner to be sure I had details down well enough. I have never asked anyone to help me with research who wasn’t really accommodating and helpful.
The novel I will be publishing later this year has a corpse in it and I had a pathologist give me all the details and review the scene, adding embellishments where my imagination failed me. It’s frighteningly realistic now.
I like to start with friends for my research—people know such amazing things and it is great fun taking them to lunch and asking them questions. I also leaned on friends for other research—my friend and colleague Ed Hutchison took me on a whole day tour of Georgetown, all of which landed in the book.
My dear friends Nancy Ford and Rebecca Foster have been the greatest beta readers ever for all of my books. My brother Chuck Moran did my website and book page. And my cousin KT Griffin did the proofreading for the new edition that is now up. My son Baird Lantry designed the collateral material that goes with the book: the Moroccan party menu, the Cheat sheet on Behavioral Economics, and the American Queen Reading List that people get if they sign up for the newsletter at Ginger Moran.
Getting the Character’s Voice Right
Lisa: Your heroine, Agatha Wells, has a strong and unique voice. She’s smart and witty yet also has a bit of mommy brain. and seems to be going in several directions at once. Was it challenging to achieve that and without confusing the reader? You really pull it off but it seems like a challenging feat.
Ginger: I love the “mommy brain” description! Yes, she is a bit of a puzzle—strong and accomplished, yet confused at this point in her life. She has taken several unexpected turns, starting with marrying a spy. She did complete her Ph.D. in Behavioral Economics at Georgetown University.
The next logical step in her career would have been to go into academia—but her spy husband can’t leave DC, they by then have five children under seven. Her parents very conveniently live right down to street to help with the kids and also with the métier Agatha takes up. Like her mother, she becomes a renowned DC hostess.
She loves her life, but is somewhat stunned by it. Her rebelliousness comes out in pursuing a friendship of which her husband disapproves and finally in being part of the unraveling of an international attempt to undermine the US government. So she does find a clear role, eventually.
Getting Playful with Genre
Lisa: There’s a striking contrast between the domestic scenes, the spying and intrigue, politics, large parties and thriller-oriented scenes in American Queen. And yet these diverse environments seem to mirror each other emotionally and interact in interesting ways emotionally—it’s quite sophisticated. Is there a genre for this?
Ginger: American Queen is something of a genre-bender. Political thrillers are almost invariably written by men or by women using a pen name. Although Agatha lives her whole life in the world of politics and political intrigue, she does not become a part of it until after she is married to a spy. She can hardly let go of her domestic life, however, as she has a thriving role as a DC hostess—and five children.
So the domestic life and the intrigue intertwine. DC politics and society have long been one, and the women have had an intriguing role throughout history. From Dolly Madison to Lady Bird Johnson, the wives of presidents are not merely ornamental. They are often themselves shapers.
Spouses of spies and agents have a powerful role to play, often unsung. I see Agatha as part of that tradition—a woman who has a complex, layered personal life, a curious and questioning intellect, and a drive to be part of the solution.
So the book is a bit of a cassoulet of genres—political thriller, psychological suspense, and mystery with a woman sleuth. There is a lot of thinking going on in it, a lot of reflection, that is usually more literary. I think it best fits in a genre I made up: literary mystery with a political twist.
Choosing a Publishing House
Lisa: How did you choose your publishing house and can you tell us a bit about the process of publishing with BlueBullseye Press?
Ginger: I came through a very traditional system of training in which the idea of publishing your own book was looked upon with horror as “vanity publishing.” I have had agents and I have been published by a small press.
This time around, I felt like I had a good story and it was timely. I could have taken the 1-3 years to get it published by the traditional route, maybe, or I could go ahead and get it out there. Somewhere in the time of COVID-19, when I have also been dealing with a series of eye surgeries, I started to examine what I want to spend time on and what I don’t.
Waiting for the traditional publishing world was definitely not on the “Things I Want to Spend Time On” list.
I have been working with John Matthews, the book designer and publisher, for many years in several different capacities, I knew he was a brilliant book designer, he had space for my book, and we were able to get it out before the election, which was my goal.
I think sometimes when you are outside the industry, you can romanticize the publishing process—for me, before, I didn’t realize I was thinking of the agents and editors as the arbiters of my worth as a writer. I was waiting for their blessing.
When you are inside the industry, and you examine it rationally, you can make very different decisions, based on the realities of the publishing world and your personal goals.
Lisa: I so agree. I am about to launch my self published book soon and it just felt like the right path for this particular book (a journal) and certainly much quicker than the traditional route. You published The Algebra of Snow in 2012. What has changed in the market since then and how has that impacted how you are marketing American Queen and reaching readers?
Ginger: I have so had to claim my ignorance in the area of book marketing! I thought I knew how to do it because I have a pretty healthy newsletter list and have been blogging for years. I have published before and done the rounds of book tours and festivals. But it has all changed!
Now I am studying how to do Amazon and Facebook ads with Kirsten Oliphant, how to do promo emails, the difference between publishing wide and Kindle Select, and SO much more! Good thing I like to learn new things!
I have hired Shayla Raquel to help me with pitching bloggers and podcasters and that has been super helpful. There is a bewildering array of methods to market a book I am finding my way through. I will know way more how to help my clients who are writing books when they get to this stage!
On Imagination and Writing
Lisa: Add any tips for our readers for writing a novel, publishing and marketing?
Ginger: I think what I have learned from this process is on the other end of the things: the initial impulse to imagine a story and tell it. I have begun to see, study, and teach the profundity of the uses of imagination to create a better everyday life. Who among us has not had to use our imaginations to pivot in this time, to get to a better place, or, sometimes, to plumb the depths of “how bad it could be?”
Interestingly enough, my study of Behavioral Economics helped me think through a way of pointing the imagination in the right direction, to keep it from going into the world of fear and conspiracy and dark fantasy—anarchy—and instead give it the structure to make better everyday choices. Choice happens, always, in the imagination.
Einstein said “the imagination is the intellect having fun.” I think that is true—and also an understatement of the magical and practical uses of the imagination. I have so loved living in the fictional worlds I have created.
For this one, I actually made a little list of things I was missing in life at the time and gave them all to Agatha. Although she had to deal with some pretty big challenges—and her story is far from over—she certainly did enjoy the things I gave her that I was missing—and, thus, I enjoyed them too!
Lisa: Oh, I love that you made that list and gave them to Agatha! So fun.
Read Lisa’s previous interview with Ginger Moran on how to write a novel.
About Ginger Moran
A teacher, published writer, and single mom of two boys, Ginger’s areas of expertise are in fiction, memoir, business books, and proposals. Ginger Moran holds a Ph.D. from the University of Houston in Literature and Creative Writing, and Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in English from the University of Virginia. She has published in Salon.com, Oxford American, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and Feminist Studies among other journals and magazines. Ginger’s first novel, The Algebra of Snow, was nominated for a Pushcart Editor’s Choice Award and was published in the spring of 2012. Ginger is a Certified Martha Beck Life Coach and a KMCC Creativity Coach.