a blog by J.M. Cottle
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A chat with my author friend Danielle E. Shipley (and her characters)

Last November I went to NaNoWriMo’s Night of Writing Dangerously in San Francisco, and there I met many lovely writers, most of whom were just as weird as me — often weirder. Danielle was one of them. Now Danielle has published her first novella, The Swan Prince, Book 1 of the Wilderhark Tales (fairytale retellings! my favorite!), and she has a short story and another novel on the way. Here’s the conversation I got to have with her about where she’s come from as a writer and what it’s like living with a bunch of characters.


Me: So Danielle, this is really exciting for me because you are the first of my novel-writing friends to go from unpublished to published. Congratulations!

Danielle: Aww, thank you!

Me: When you first started writing, did you think you would get to this point?

Danielle: I was adorably optimistic in my early writing days. At age 12, I assumed my little stories would hit the shelves any time I gave the okay. I wised-up by age 17 or so, bracing myself for at least two or three rejections before a literary agent swooped in to usher me to authorial super-stardom. Fast-forward to the beginning of my 20s, when I started wondering if my dream would come to fruition before I died of old age at 23. The painful news: It didn’t. The good news: My gray 24-year-old head didn’t go down to the grave, either. So I decided to use my quarter-life crisis to start self-publishing some of the writing projects dearest to my heart.

Me: Good news, indeed! Continuing to be alive is a plus. It sounds like you began writing fairly early on. How did you get started? What’s the first story you remember writing?

Danielle: Ooh, this will be tough to get straight, because 5- or 6-year-old Me used to whip out a couple picture books a day! I remember an alphabet book about zoo animals. …plus a yeti for “Y”; ‘cause it’s not a zoo ‘til you’ve fenced in an abominable snowman, apparently. Another story chronicled a fictitious day in the life of me, my little sister, and the two cousins who came over for daycare most days of the week. In most cases, it was less about the having a plot and more about organizing the illustrations. I guess what I write has always mimicked what I read, in a way – starting with the picture books, going through a comic strip phase, then on to chapter books, and at last to novels. It makes sense; my goal to this day is to write books I would love to read.

Me: That does make sense, and it’s great advice for any writer, isn’t it? Now what I’ve really wanted to talk about with you is characters, because having met you in person, your interaction with your characters was one of the things that stood out the most (after your fabulous sense of humor, naturally). What’s it like having characters in your head, available for conversation?

Danielle: For me, it’s second nature. Roleplaying was the game of choice for me pretty much since my first sister was old enough to talk. I created my own versions of favorite cartoon characters and branched out to give them brand new family, friends, and enemies, bouncing between dozens of personalities on any given day. Once I started writing in earnest, I naturally slipped into the voices and mannerisms of the characters I created. It’s a symbiotic thing; as much they’re in my head, developing their lives, I’m also in theirs, giving me a chance to get to know them at their deepest level. I’ve jumped with their joy, sobbed their tears, quivered with the furious urge to do some other character violence. We keep very few secrets from each other, no matter how much they or I have sometimes wished to hold something back. We’ve been the best of friends and the bitterest of frenemies. They feel like my children and siblings and cousins and crushes. Ours is a tight, messy bond. It would probably make for a pretty good Sci-Fi movie. …Or a debut contemporary fantasy novel coming out in March, 2014, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, plug-plug.

Me: That sounds chaotic! But never boring. Where do your stories typically come from? Do characters make themselves known to you and tell you what you’ll be writing next, or do you go searching for them?

Danielle: I’ve only had two characters demand stories from me, following their incorporation into other projects where they didn’t feel I’d chronicled enough. I didn’t fight them too hard, since I do enjoy working with characters I’ve already come to know and love. It’s like in the movie business where you’ve got directors and actors who collaborate on film after film together, because they’ve got that rapport and inspire each other (…she says like she knows jack about the film industry). Meeting new characters for the first time will generally happen one of two ways: Either I’ll try to plan them out ahead of time to fit whatever story I’m hoping to weave, or I’ll just start writing whatever I feel like and see who shows up to the party. The former is far more typical of my novels of the last few years, the latter of short stories and books from my hobbyist days. Trying to figure out characters before I start their stories is a fun process, but no matter how well I think I know them going in, they’ll almost always surprise me by being bolder, funnier, stronger, deeper, and/or more screwed up than I ever saw coming.

Me: Using characters in more than one story is something I do all the time, though I usually change the plot and setting — it sounds like your characters just want more of their branch of the same story, which is totally understandable. How about writer’s block? Do you get it, and if you do, is it because your characters just won’t cooperate? How do you get rid of it?

Danielle: Oh, yes, I’ve been blocked, and it is on my list of the least fun things ever. I usually put more blame on myself than on my characters, though. It’s like Hopper says in “A Bug’s Life” – “First rule of leadership: Everything is your fault.” True, writing will go much more slowly for some characters than others, because some of them have to say and do everything *just so*, but I don’t consider that to be a road block, just a reduction in the speed limit. My real blocks aren’t a matter of the words not coming, but of the inspiration not coming; of an inability to get my head and heart in the game. When that happens, I need to find a reason to get excited about what I’m doing again. Sometimes I can rekindle the spark by coming up with a new scene or angle. Sometimes I just have to walk away for a while – days or weeks, months or even years – and work on other projects until the one that gave me trouble tugs at me again. The hard part of walking away from a story is knowing I’m disappointing its characters. While some of them are very patient and understanding about it, others feel betrayed, or beat themselves up as failures, which makes me feel horrible, like, “No, sweetie, it’s not you!” But characters can be very sensitive creatures. So much of their self-worth is wrapped up how I relate to them. I am kind of their God, after all; or a sub-god, at least. No one wants to feel rejected by their creator.

Me: Aww, poor characters! You’re making me pretty excited for your upcoming book about this subject, Inspired. But, of course, this is an interview to help get people interested in The Swan Prince. So my last questions are for any of the characters in that story who feel like jumping in: How was it, working with Danielle on this novella? Is there anything you’d like us to know that she didn’t tell us?

Characters:I’d say she told too much!” Sula sniffs. “Nobody asked her to go rooting around in my head and publishing my innermost thoughts for your whole world to see. The last I heard, a person had a right to mental privacy!”

“It would be a poor sort of book,” Villem Deere opines, “in which the thoughts and feelings of the characters are barred from the readers. An author strives for emotional connection, else why should the audience care?”

“So you’re all right with having your deepest secrets made public?”

“Unlike you, Sula,” says Villem, “I do not ascribe much value to secrecy.”

Sigmund mulls over the matter. “I think she told what she needed to,” he says slowly. “There is much that might yet have been told, but perhaps to tell it all would take away from what was said. Life doesn’t tell you everything.”

“Oh, joy.” Sula rolls her eyes. “Two philosophers. How lucky am I? As for working with Danielle on the book… I don’t know. It was all written a while ago. She didn’t talk to us much, back then.”

“True,” Villem agrees. “But she listened. I would call that far more essential.”

Me: And on that note, I’ll wrap up. Thank you very much Danielle (and Sula, Villem, and Sigmund)! I’m looking forward to seeing more from you all in the near future.

Danielle: On behalf of us all, thank you bunches, Jillian!


If you want more, go check out The Swan Prince on Amazon and Goodreads. Right now she’s doing a give-away of illustrations and commentaries and signed books and such on her blog, Ever On Word, and there’s always something happening on her Facebook page.

2 Responses to A chat with my author friend Danielle E. Shipley (and her characters)

  1. A lovely, fun interview! Wish I’d thought to ask half these questions when I spoke with you, Danielle, but guess if I had, I wouldn’t have enjoyed this post so much!

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