Guest Post: Anna Castle

Roads Not Taken

The theme this month is “mistakes.” This post is about my non-lineary path to becoming a writer. Sometimes I look back at the choices that led away from that goal and think, “Those were mistakes.” But they led me down some interesting trails.

black and white and dead all over
When the internet service provider in a small town in Texas blackmails one client too many, murder follows. Photographer Penelope Trigg has to rattle every skeleton in every closet in Lost Hat to find the killer and keep herself out of jail.

I first thought about writing fiction in college, but the whim never solidified into a goal. I hadn’t yet learned about setting goals and breaking them into achievable steps and stupidly, it never occurred to me to mention the idea to my professors. I majored in the Classics at the University of Texas at Austin in the 70s, focusing on Ancient Greek. For some dumb reason, I refused to study Latin. If I had, I might have met fellow student Steven Saylor, now a bestselling author of historical mysteries set in Ancient Rome. If we’d hung out in the Classics lounge, maybe my vague ambition would have found a shape.

More twists, a few sharp turns, and I found myself in the computer industry, working full time while studying for an MS in Computer Science at the University of Denver. Busy! The idea of writing sank under an ocean of code. I got the degree, then the company cancelled our project, so I moved from artifical intelligence to the next new thing, going back to Austin to build graphical user interfaces at a hot little software start-up.

That job came with a minimum work-week of seventy hours. Busy, squared! But I loved the on-fire attitude, the team work, and the respect. (Here again I was the only female programmer, so that respect was not easily earned.) One day we were yakking around the coffee pot and a technical writer told us he’d just published his first mystery novel. I was gobsmacked. “When on earth do you find time to write?” He said, “I get up at 5:00 and write for 2 hours.” I chewed on that for a minute — or maybe it was the sludge we called coffee — and said, “Then you must go to bed at 9:00.” “Uh-huh,” he said, with characteristic good cheer. That guy? His name is Jeff Abbott, best-selling thriller author.

That was a major revelation. You didn’t wait until the stars aligned and somebody left you a trust fund. You just squeezed a few hours out of your regular schedule and got to it. From that point on, my thoughts kept coming back around to writing. By then I had learned how to develop large, complex systems, like, uh, novels. When would I finally get started? What would I write?

That was a true fork in the road, at which I stood awhile and pondered. I could have done what Jeff did — stick it out at the software shop until I got fully vested and then retire to write novels. But the phone on my desk kept ringing and worse, Sun Microsystems introduced a complete revision of its operating system, which meant we would have to port every last line of code. I couldn’t face it. I bailed.

Never able to take the straight road, I veered into another demanding and fascinating career, going back to my alma mater for a Ph.D. in linguistics. That first semester was the hardest three months of my life, intellectually. When finals ended, my brain shut down. All I could was watch Star Trek. This was 1991; we didn’t have streaming video. I had to drive to video stores, scrounging for a fix. I even watched “Bill and Leonard Live;” that’s desperation. A sympathetic friend asked if I had read any of the novels. “There are novels?” I replied, hope blooming.

Yes, oh, yes, there are dozens of them, all numbered so you can read them in order. I scooped up an armful at Half-Priced Books and went on a binge. Fan fiction — who knew? Some of them were awful, but some of them were good, like Ishmael by Barbara Hambly, published in 1985. I started thinking, I could do this. Stories began to bloom in my head.

It took another decade to finish that degree and land a steady job as an archivist in the UT library system. Working only forty hours a week means you have time for a whole ‘nother thing. I started getting up at 5:00 and writing for 2 hours before work, slowly but surely writing a whole book. I never did write that Star Trek novel, but I did connect with the best writers’ group in town, the Austin chapter of the Romance Writers of America. My historical romance will never see the light of day, but it got the ball rolling. I’m about to finish my sixth book, I’ve published two and will bring out three more this year (one new, two from the drawer.)

If I’d been able to take my dreams seriously long ago, I might have started writing fresh out of college, like Steven Saylor. If I’d known about fan fiction, I probably would have started with a Star Trek novel, like Barbara Hambly. If I’d had a little more grit, I might have used my stock options to leap into novel-writing, like Jeff Abbott. I’d have a beautiful back list by now and might have earned a place on some other lists as well.

But then I wouldn’t have learned how to hold my own in a roomful of arrogant nerds or how to scale a steep learning curve after taking a job just beyond my actual qualifications. I wouldn’t know how to direct my own research, build complex, abstract structures, write successful proposals, or manage multi-faceted projects that take years to complete. Those are all valuable skills for an indie author. I would never have lived in a village where they still plow with oxen, worry about witches, and know gossip can cause a broken leg; useful knowledge for a writer of historical fiction. I wouldn’t have made my major contributions to the world: a grammar of an undocumented language and an archive that preserves indigenous languages and cultures.

Mistakes? Maybe not so much. Sometimes the winding road is the best path to take.

***

Anna Castle writes the Francis Bacon mysteries and the Lost Hat, Texas mysteries. She’s earned a series of degrees — BA Classics, MS Computer Science, and Ph.D Linguistics — and has had a corresponding series of careers — waitressing, software engineering, assistant professor, and archivist. Writing fiction combines her lifelong love of stories and learning. Find out more at www.annacastle.com.

Advertisements

16 thoughts on “Guest Post: Anna Castle”

  1. Thanks, y’all! And thanks for the theme. It made me rethink some twists I sometimes think were mistakes. But then I wouldn’t have done the other things, so it all comes out in the end.

    Like

  2. Anna, what a great story and wonderful perspective. Very inspiring! Thanks for visiting us.

    ps: How can gossip cause a broken leg?

    pps: I’m a DU grad school person, too (go, Pioneers)!

    Like

    1. Gossip is a powerful negative force in lots of cultures. It’s like a miasma in some ways. People would tell me the gossip was worse on the south side of town. The assumption is that gossip is negative, snarky, petty, ill-wishing. When someone gossips about you, they send those ill-wishes in your direction. That can cause you to fall off a roof at work, thereby breaking your leg. Or it might you sick. It’s a subtype of evil eye beliefs, which as far as I know, are and were everywhere in the world, in some cultures. Interesting, yah? And now I’m thinking, how can I turn that into a plot?

      Like

  3. Anna, as much as I think I know you from online writing groups, I feel like I know you even better after reading this post. You are so right: forks in the road and unexpected turns tend not to be mistakes, because they shaped you and prepped you for what lies ahead. Kudos to you for seeing that! And a small PS: I have the DVD of Bill and Leonard at home, a recent hand-me-down gift from my Trekkie mom 🙂

    Like

  4. Anna, this post really hit the spot for me. I too took the winding road to publication, but the lessons learned were invaluable. I think during the road trip, we are accumulating facts and lessons that eventually compel us to write that novel that’s been so long in coming. 🙂

    Like

  5. I often wonder how those with little life experience can write books that resonate with those of us who have been there and done that. You have shared what you bring to the party and it’s all good 🙂

    Like

  6. Everyone’s been somewhere and done something, even young people. And there’s this thing called imagination. I’ve always believed it’s more important to write what you want to know. It just depends which way your Muse takes you, I guess.

    Like

  7. I loved reading about your winding road. It’s great fodder for stories. With experience and imagination, just think of the places we can go!

    Like

  8. What a delightful post! Thank you for sharing your twisting and turning road to publication. Love the multiple degrees. I am curious – right brain/left brain how do you switch off the programmer process and get to the creative? You do it quite well, obviously, but I’m wondering if it is a conscience decision.

    Like

  9. Programs, like languages and the plots of novels, are big structures. In that light, the degrees follow logically one from the other. Most of a classics degree is the study of grammar. Program languages are regular grammars. Linguistics masters them all.
    Programming is creative too, in its way. I don’t have switches. I’m a plotter, so when I start the first draft, I know what happens in the scene du jour. Then my job is just to inhabit that scene and make it so!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s