by Sandra de Helen
The moment I realized not all books were already written, I decided to become a writer. Maybe I thought that because I’d never seen a new book. I was born into a poor working class family. My parents had lived through the Great Depression. My dad was a painter/paper hanger, my mom stayed home and cooked, cleaned, gardened, sewed her and my clothes. We had no electricity, no running water.
She had a treadle sewing machine, and she created her own patterns. My dresses were made of flour sacks. My winter coat and hat were made from old woolen suits she cut up and repurposed.
We made weekly trips to the town dump where we found books. Mom and Dad read every night after supper until bedtime. When I was four years old I learned to read from A. A. Milne’s Now We Are Sixwith missing and torn pages, and crayon scribbles throughout. My dad taught me.
We had a bookcase filled with the strangest collection of books. One volume from the Encyclopedia Britannica, one book on etiquette, one book called Mathematics Made Easy, one called Reading is FUNdemental, The Well of Lonelinessby Radclyffe Hall, Black Beauty, Water Babies, a book on the Spanish War of the 1800s, several books by Zane Grey, science textbooks, how-to books, and the complete Sherlock Holmes. I read them all, most of them several times, each one as I was ready.
I started writing in earnest when I was eight. My dad had died the year before, and I was baby-sitting my two-year-old sister all summer while my mom worked two jobs: shoe factory and restaurant. I made up stories and wrote them down.
At twelve I won my first writing contest. The American Legion sponsored an essay competition. I won first prize of $3.00, and read my patriotic piece in front of their monthly meeting.
Sophomore year my English teacher entered my poem on abortion to a teacher’s magazine, and showed me my first publication. It was a surprise to me, but I’ve never forgotten Mrs. Janice Wallace for that gift.
For years I called myself a poet. Then I discovered live theater and became a playwright. I waited until I was middle-aged to begin writing novels because I believed a person needed years of life and experience in order to write books.
I still write poetry. I still write plays. And mysteries and thrillers, and essays. And a blog. For my next trick, I will write screenplays. I’m enrolled in a screenwriting class now.
My first two books in the Shirley Combs/Dr. Mary Watson mystery series, The Hounding and The Illustrious Client are available through any bookstore, and of course Amazon. The third Shirley Combs/Dr. Mary Watson book The Valley of Fear will be out later this year. My first thriller Till Darkness Comes will be out by September 2016. Check my website for exact publication dates.
I believe in life-long learning. I believe in practice. I write every day, usually for two to four hours, sometimes more. On days with other scheduled activities, I might write for a shorter time, but I always write. I’m getting better at it all the time. I can’t not write.
Sandra de Helen’s advice on How to Become a Writer:
- Be a reader
- Use your imagination
- Get a bit of instruction on grammar, spelling, formatting
- Write stories, essays, plays, novels, reference books, poetry
- Keep writing
- Get some exercise
- Keep reading
- Get more exercise
- Continue learning
- Write because you can’t not write
Sandra de Helen, author of the lesbian thriller Till Darkness Comesalso pens the Shirley Combs/Dr. Mary Watson series. She is a poet and a playwright. Her plays have been produced in the Philippines, Ireland and Canada, in thirteen of the United States, as well as Chicago and New York City. She is a member of Sisters-in-Crime and the Dramatists Guild. Her poetry chapbook All This Remains to be Discovered is available online and at Another Read Through Bookstore in Portland, Oregon. Samples of her work are available on her website.
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Sandra de Helen