Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Guest Blogger, Sylvia Dickey Smith

It's my pleasure to welcome award-winning author Sylvia Dickey Smith as the special guest blogger here today at Thoughts in Progress.

Sylvia’s World War II historical novel, A WAR OF HER OWN, was just released the first of this month. The book focuses on a Texas version of Rosie the Riveter and her search for happiness during the early 1940s.

With that in mind, Sylvia stopped by to answer some questions for me.

What inspired you to write this story?

Life, I suppose. I grew up in the 40s, coming out of what my husband calls the amnesia stage around the time the war ended. So much of my childhood memories have to do with life during that decade. The war had a serious impact on the small town of Orange. Before the war, the population was around 7,000. By the end of the war, the population had soared to near 70,000. Can you imagine what that kind of growth does to a small town?

When I was 6 years old (just after the war ended) we moved into the war housing called Riverside Addition and lived there until I was 12. So I know of what I describe in the book! Streets perennially flooded with stinky rainwater. Dull, ugly houses. But for those people who came to town still starving to death from the Great Depression because of plentiful jobs—paradise—running water, electricity, flush toilets, refrigerators, natural gas stoves. And SAND—everywhere, sand, pumped in from the river bottom as a foundation for the cheap duplexes.
I remember my mother working nights at the shipyard because my father had left her for another woman—common during that time. I recall sitting in the lap of my maternal grandmother on the screened in front porch late one night waiting for Mother to walk home from the shipyard. While a couple house down, on the corner, a house burned. I still remember Granny and my older cousin talking about how glad they were that our house had a tin roof.

And of course, family secrets my sister and I have talked about all these years, often coming up with our own answers to questions left unanswered. These are the roots of this story.

Very impressionable years—years I’ve longed to write about—powerful stories worthy to be told, stories waiting for someone to write them.

How did you go about doing research for your book?

Personal interviews with people whose family members lived and worked there during those years. Also, there are several historical non-fiction books written about those years in Orange. They were of tremendous help in grasping a reflection
of the times and what life was like for those living and working there.  

One such book is an oral history called, They Called It The War Effort by Louis Fairchild. I inhaled that book and the stories in them, many of them told by people who were parents of my childhood friends growing up.
Then there is the book Picturing Orange, which has fantastic photographs. Another publication was Gateway to Texas, by local historian Dr. Howard C. Block. Then, the fabulous website of historian W. T. Block, now deceased.

Do you have a writing schedule that you follow or a particular place you write?

I wish I could say yes to both of these questions. I did, but life tends to bend back in on us sometimes doesn’t it?

I used to get up early, say 5 or 6 a.m., sometimes even earlier. I love writing while the house is quiet and my mind is fresh. Then, guess what. My husband decided he wanted to get up when I did. So now, it doesn’t matter what time I get up, he just gets up when I do. If I sleep in late, so does he! I’ve tried asking him to stay in bed, but… (LOL) So now, I do as much work as I can in the mornings like posting on my blogs, emails, marketing, and such. Then, while he’s taking his nap in the afternoon, I put on my ear buds, turn on soft music and write—UNDISTURBED!

As far as a particular space—I now create my own space with those same ear buds and music! I move all over the house, bringing my “space” with me. You do what you can, eh?

What has been the greatest impact on your writing?

The greatest? That’s a tough question. I guess I would have to say my education and training as a licensed professional counselor, along with my undergraduate degree in Sociology. I learned how to observe, how to watch, how to interpret, how to identify perceived differences, moods, opinions, gestures. I learned personality disorders and the symptoms of each. Varying mood disorders, hair cuts, fingernail chewing, nervous tics. I also learned cultural differences and also those of subcultures. How to identify influences in a person’s background such as family, work, stress, pressures. All of these help, I think, as I build and reveal character.

Any advice you would give a novice writer?

I have two:
One, find and become part of a good critique group. These groups teach us so much. We get their feedback, and we also learn from the feedback we give them. As in life, it is so much easier to see the mistakes of others than it is our own.

The other, I advise, is to read your work out loud—all of it! That’s where the power is. That is where you can identify problems in flow, in cadence, in awkward sentence structure and the over use of certain words. With my last book, I used my computer to read the whole thing, chapter by chapter, out loud to myself. After that, I sat on my bed and read the whole manuscript out loud, all the way through again, chapter by chapter. You will be surprised at what you learn.

What's next for you and your writing?

My WIP is: The Swamp Whisperer, the tale of a strong woman of a different age.

Medicare recipient Boo Murphy is more at home in the swamps behind her house than she is on dry land.  One morning Boo paddles her pirogue through mosquito-infested swamp, the taste of stewed squirrel on her tongue when she maneuvers around a bend and discovers an Atakapa-Ishak settlement.

The Paleo-Indian tribe, believed to be extinct for centuries, not only survives but also thrives, and seeks to rebuild a lost civilization under questionable circumstances. But when Boo takes persnickety Sasha, her second-cousin-once-removed, out to the site the next day to prove what she’s seen, a storm comes up, marooning them in a deserted house along with a dead man, a strange woman, and a long-deceased Atakapa chief.

Is there anything you'd like readers to know about you or your work that we haven't covered?

One thing that many people are surprised to learn about me is that I lived on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, W.I. for six years, in the 1970s. This was one of the greatest, most eye-opening periods of time I’ve experienced. Living in another culture really opens up a person and causes one to question their own way of life, beliefs, morés. It made me more tolerant of people’s differences, less judgmental, more accepting of those with a way of life I didn’t understand.

Sylvia, thanks so much for answering these questions for me. Finding out background on a story is always interesting to me. I think A WAR OF HER OWN gives us a look at life around World War II that hasn’t been talked about much.

Now for a little background on Sylvia. She was born in Orange, Texas, and grew up in a colorful Scots-Irish family living in the midst of a Cajun culture. Her curiosity about the world took on a whole new dimension when at mid-life she lived on the Caribbean island of Trinidad & Tobago. Awed by the differences in customs and cultures, particularly as they related to the lives of Trinidadian women, set her on a journey of self-discovery.

At 40, she started college and didn’t stop until she achieved a degree in sociology with a concentration in women’s studies and a master’s in counseling. A strong advocate for women, her writing features women who recreate themselves into the persons they want to be.

Sylvia has written her way through life as a student, a pastor’s wife, a psychotherapist, an adjunct professor, regional director of long term care facilities—and now as an author of mystery and historical fiction, along with self-help non-fiction essays. For more information on Sylvia, drop by her site at


  1. Thank you Mason for hosting Sylvia.
    And Sylvia, I am ordering "A War of Her Own" right away. It will take a few weeks to reach me in India, but it is exactly the kind of book I love reading when I want to read something "meaningful".
    Your WiP sounds equally interesting.

  2. Sylvia, thanks again for stopping by today and answering questions for me. I think your book hits on a part of history that has been overlooked when we think of wars. There was a lot going on back on the homefront too.

    Rayna, thanks for stopping by. Hope your Wednesday is great.

  3. Love the interview Mason.

    Sylvia, thanks for the great advice. Your book sounds very interesting. I love how your husband sleeps in if you do, gets up when you do. Funny.

  4. Rayna, thanks so much for ordering my book--all the way from India! Love the Indian culture. Lived in it for six years in the 70s.

    Journaling woman, great, I hope the advice helps. Those little family tidbits are always fun to learn from someone. And isn't it nice to be wanted and to be around!?

    Mason, thanks so much for having me today. I look forward to stopping by and visiting with your readers. I agree, the homefront of WWII has been greatly overlooked in literature. Hopefully my book will spur folks interest enough to keep going.

  5. Mason - Thanks for hosting Sylvia.

    Sylvia - I'm very much enjoying following you on your tour. I happen to really enjoy historical fiction and other writing, so I'm interested in your novel. One of the things that I'm sure makes historical fiction a challenge is doing the research. So you were fortunate that you were able to do interviews. I think those personal interviews are so fascinating, too! They often are more interesting than reading what the history books say!

  6. Her book sounds fabulous - I think so many people forget that war affects those who do the fighting and those who are left at home.

  7. Mason & Sylvia, hi!
    Terrific piece, thank you!
    It's always fun to stop by and see who's here, and I was tickled pink to see Sylvia. A WAR OF HER OWN sounds fascinating.

  8. I really enjoyed reading A War of Her Own. Sylvia captures the time and struggles and she does it through the eyes of a woman who discovers she's stronger than she thought.

    Very interesting post, Sylvia. It's fun to learn a bit about the author behind the story.

  9. @ Margo, I agree. And since history books seem to be so much opinion, too, it's good to learn it first hand. And with an oral history -- you get the culture as well.

    @ bermuda, I think it is so important that people today know what happened on the homefront, the sacrifices required, the social impact the whole war had on people's lives. We read so much about war stories, but the homefront is also vital. Maybe war stories because men have done the writing of them--which makes sense. But women were the ones impacted at home. Stories vital to know.

    @Kaye, always great to hear from you. Had a great time at your place! And I was thrilled yesterday to learn that A WAR OF HER OWN made the top 10 reading list in Georgetown, Texas, where I live. Hey, I figure top 10 is a top 10! LOL

  10. Doesn't life itself provide the best research? Your childhood is rich with stories, what a great opportunity to bring these to the page. Thanks for sharing today.

  11. Joanne, yes, I agree. Our own personal journey is where the power is--for us, and for others with whom we share it. (You're talking to a counselor here! LOL)

    Our world is so full of story, it excites me just to think about it.Sylvia Dickey Smith

  12. Love learning the history behind the story an author tells. Thanks, Mason and Sylvia for a most interesting interview.

  13. I can see how seeing your town go from 7,000 to 70,000 people that fast could be a treasure trove of characters and conflict you could use for a story. I grew up in a town of 7,000 people and its still 7,000 people. Slim pickings to find much there.

    Stephen Tremp

  14. @Karen, yes, oh when these lives talk!! Powerful, funny, sad, and every other emotion!

    Stephen, I hear you! But in my hometown--and likely yours--there are still CHARACTERS!! LOL

  15. I loved learning all this about you, Sylvia. Your book sounds fascinating. Another addition to my list.

  16. This book sounds fascinating, but the life and research that went into its making sounds even more so! I've seen Dickey Smith on several blogs now, and am always impressed with the posts about or by her. This one, Mason, is a GREAT interview! Thanks.


  17. Carol, I'm excited about your interest in reading it! My list is topless and bottomless! I know yours is too! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    Michele, what a nice thing to say. Thank you. It took a long time (not to count pain and struggle, and heartache and wilderness wandering) for me to get where I am, and it was worth every minute.

    And then there's the process of learning to write--so much a metaphor for our lives, don't you think?

  18. A really interesting guest post.

    I agree that usually it is a good idea to read aloud one´s texts, but I rarely do it when I write in English. I don´t think my Danish accent is suitable for the British style I aim for :D

    I do read it inside my own head, though, and it seems to work for me.

  19. Sounds like a fascinating book. Thanks for the post about it.

  20. Wow, I bet your profession really did help with the writing!

  21. Dorte, as long as it works, don't try to fix it! LOL Thanks for stopping by.

    Lou, thanks for stopping by to comment. If you read the book, I'd love to hear what you think!

    Diane, yes, I think it has helped me get inside my characters--plus, all the years learning before that! I do have a broad, unusual past. Oh the things I've done! I haven't told ALL my secrets! LOL

  22. Are you saying your husband is a distraction?

  23. I so agree about reading your work out loud. I am amazed at what I only pick up when I hear the words spoken.

  24. Alex, well, yes, he is, but so sweet and loving at it!LOL

    Tabitha, yes, it is an amazing tool! I never send a manuscript without reading it out loud--as difficult as it is to take that time!

  25. What a story. That's great that you do so much research for your book. I applaud you.

    Great interview.


  26. Thanks, Clarissa. I am humbled by the comments on my visit at Mason's blog.

    And it is great to meet so many new bloggers. I'm having fun checking them out and putting links to them on mine!

    Sylvia Dickey Smith

  27. Hi Mason and Sylvia .. I loved hearing that your hubby gets up with you .. togetherness! Then you need to adjust later on ..

    Your advice for reading your work out loud makes so much sense ..

    Then your story about part family, part history - should make really interesting reading .. especially learning the social history of the time ..

    Thanks - lovely tips, interview and reviews .. Hilary

  28. Hilary, thanks for stopping by. Yes, I can't tell you how much it helps me to read my manuscript out loud. It helps the flow and the rhythm--the beat of the narration and the dialogue. It shows up any awkward sentence structure.

    Hope it works for you--or something better.Sylvia Dickey Smith


I'd love to hear your thoughts on today's post. Thanks for dropping by.