Deborah Coates lives in Iowa and is a member of the Blue Heaven professional writers’ group. Her first novel, Wide Open, was published by Tor in March 2012 and she’s self-described as a writer “owned by dogs.” She grew up on a sometime dairy farm in western New York, has two degrees, lived in Indiana, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Iowa. She’s been a farmhand, a factory worker, a statistician, a researcher, an educator and an IT professional. Her short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Fantasy and Science Fiction and Strange Horizons, amongst others. She can be found online at Twitter as @debcoates via her website at http://www.deborah-coates.com/ and her blog.
Deb Coates: So glad you liked it! My dad was an avid Science Fiction reader so it’s always been around. I think I started with The Mushroom Planet books and never looked back.
SFFWRTCHT: Who were some of your favorite authors and books?
DC: Well, L’Engle for sure and Heinlein and anyone else I could get my hands on. Now, Lois McMaster Bujold. Awesome. Louise Penny. Terrific mysteries. Loved Cronin’s The Passage. Can’t wait for The Twelve.
SFFWRTCHT: When did you develop an interest in writing and how did you pursue that? Classes? Workshops? Learn on your own?
DC: I discovered revision in graduate school which convinced me that maybe I could actually write down all the stuff I cooked up in my head. Lots of time on my own, but made my best progress in workshops. Esp. the OWW, which I think helped me over the last hurdle.
SFFWRTCHT: How long did you write until making your first sale?
DC: Oh, gosh, a long time. I tend to write in fits and starts–I’m slow. Probably five or six years before I sold my first story. But I aimed big too!
SFFWRTCHT: You started with short fiction. What are the key elements of good short story for you?
DC: For me, the thematic core. Character and plot–yes–but it should all drive toward that ‘something’ that the story is about, although it can take a long time for me to figure out what that ‘something’ is.
DC: With novels, I tend to be more about character to start, but I do need to find a central something at some stage.
SFFWRTCHT: You describe Wide Open and the follow up Deep Down as contemporary fantasy. For me, it borders on horror and urban fantasy. At 1st the only specific aspect is ghosts but magic appears. Then again, the setting is rural like Harris’ Sookie books. Where’d the idea for the Wide Open come from?
DC: In many ways it’s a continuation of some of my short stories. Different characters and world, but similar sensibilities. I like interesting characters and flyover country and people that are–I hope–a little non-stereotypical. It’s stuff I know and I know it’s not something everyone sees a lot.
SFFWRTCHT: Since you started with short stories: does your process differ from shorts to novels?
DC: Actually quite a bit. Short stories are much more about a whole for me. I’m a lot more willing (and need) to rip at my novels.
SFFWRTCHT: The book was sent by your publicist with a request for this chat and I have to admit I wasn’t sure what I was getting. But it hooked me right away and I couldn’t put it down. You have captured small, Midwest farm life quite vividly. Wide Open is the story of Sgt. Hallie Michaels back from Afghanistan on leave for her sister Dell’s funeral. Hallie refuses to believe it’s suicide and begins uncovering a string of murders by a mysterious corporation. Tell us about Taylor County, your fiction setting. What inspirations did you use for creating that? Why South Dakota?
DC: A lot of the settings in Wide Open are liminal spaces which fits with Hallie because she’s in a liminal space too. But also because western South Dakota, which I think is beautiful, is so rarely used as a setting. I made up Taylor County because there wasn’t one county that was everything I wanted. I do use ‘real’ Rapid City and ‘real’ Iowa.
SFFWRTCHT: How long did the novel take you to write?
DC: A year and a half? I think? I think several of my short stories were part of the ‘fermenting’ process. Though not quite related.
SFFWRTCHT: Where (or how?) do you dig for your characters? especially for secondary characters?
DC: My novels almost always start with my main chars. Plot comes later. Secondary characters I discover along the way.
SFFWRTCHT: How did you wind up with Tor Books? What was your journey to publication like?
DC: I have a terrific editor at Tor, Stacy Hill, who really ‘got’ Wide Open and what the story was trying to be and offered right away. It is nice when the first editor response is an acceptance. But still…It was a long time getting there. Seriously, if the first editor accepts any later rejections just aren’t quite as painful. I don’t think it ever really goes away, but yeah, it gets better.
SFFWRTCHT: Rejection is just part of the process of success really.
DC: True! I do appreciate when I learn something from them, which is often.
SFFWRTCHT: Had you always envisioned Wide Open as the first in a series, or did that idea come later?
DC: I always saw it as stand-alone but had a couple of stories I wanted to tell if someone gave me the chance.
DC: Three books total. I’m working on the third one now. Tentatively called Over Home.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you outline or pants it?
DC: Totally pants it. But I try to be a little more structured with every draft and every book because I’d like to be more efficient. Because I spend a lot of time fixing and rearranging and taking things out and adding them in. In my dreams, plotters never have that problem.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you use Scrivener or other “writing software tools”? Write to music? Any rituals?
DC: Scrivener is a life-saver for me! It takes my messy desk syndrome and makes it manageable. I think ‘wasting time on the internet’ is my most consistent ritual. I also do a lot of thinking while walking dogs.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you research the war in Afghanistan much to get into the main character’s head? Her voice really sings.
DC: I did! Though there’s surprisingly little on women soldiers especially in Afghanistan.
SFFWRTCHT: Have you written short stories set in Taylor County or do you have plans to do so?
DC: Not yet, but I’d like to. I have a few ideas. Now I just have to find the time!
DC: Yes. It’s something most magic wielders in the world of Wide Open would never do, but there’s a lot of power in it. I’ll also say that a lot of magic & the supernatural in WO center around death and the dead which is part of Hallie’s connection.
SFFWRTCHT: It’s powered by blood and grows over time and involves control of weather, that much I’ll say. Interesting. How does where you live (Iowa) inform and influence your writing?
DC: Definitely why I use some of the settings I use. Love the Midwest and think it’s largely misunderstood. Also, I majored in Animal Science and Agronomy in college so I finally get to use it!
SFFWRTCHT: My dogs are wondering why the dog had so few lines in Wide Open.
DC: Wait until book 2. There’s a reason there’s a dog on the cover. I was sort of disappointed I couldn’t work more dogs into WO But they were scared off by the ghosts.
SFFWRTCHT: Speaking of which, what can you tell us about book 2′s story and when to expect it?
DC: More Hallie. More Boyd. More South Dakota. But also moving forward from Wide Open and dealing with consequences. The girl and the gun and the dog on the cover? That’s all really important. It will be coming in March, 2013.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look like-specific block? Write till you reach word count? Grab it when you can?
DC: Mostly catch as catch can. A lot of evenings and weekends with occasional chances for longer sessions
DC: Best writing advice–Never give up! Never surrender!
SFFWRTCHT: Wow. That would be a great tagline for a movie…
DC: (laughs) Worst–hmm…maybe I blanked it out it was so bad .
SFFWRTCHT: Do you keep a diary or journal of ideas?
DC: I do! But it’s pretty disorganized and I often surprise myself later when I stumble over things I wrote. What I hate the most is when I come across a note and I’m sure it was brilliant, but I can’t remember what it means.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you get an agent for the novel or have one before from other work?
DC: I got an agent for the novel.
SFFWRTCHT: Any plans to explore Hallie, Dell, etc in younger years?
DC: It would be so much fun to write about Dell as someone other than a ghost. Hmm…
SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?
DC: Well, book 3 right now. But I’ve also got a couple of YA projects–one about a shapeshifter and one about hellhounds. And I just got an idea the other day for one about weird modern dragons but it’ll be awhile before I get there. I’ve got a couple of stories that are straight science fiction and at least one that’s YA.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Lost In A Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on World Encounters and Space & Shadows: SpecNoir with coeditor John Helfers, both forthcoming and Beyond The Sun, an anthology of space colonist stories. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.