By Laurel-Rain Snow
Welcome to Ruth Francisco, who is joining us today to talk about her latest book and her creative journey.
Title: Camp Sunshine
Author: Ruth Francisco
Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery
I tend to write novels that are a little controversial. I don’t intend to, but a question grabs hold of my mind—Do we have a right to say no to medical technology? What would it be like to be Jackie Kennedy? What would happen if you found out you were adopted as an adult? What would it be like to live with grizzly bears? Where is Islamic extremism taking us? What would it be like to live during WWII in America—and it won’t let go. I have to explore it, I have to write about it.I worked in the film industry for 15 years before selling my first novel “Confessions of a Deathmaiden” to Warner Books in 2003, followed by “Good Morning, Darkness,” which was selected by “Publishers’ Weekly” as one of the ten best mysteries of 2004, and “The Secret Memoirs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.” I now have nine novels, including the best-seller “Amsterdam 2012,” published as ebooks. Whenever I have a chance, I write a short story for “The Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.” I currently live in Florida, U.S.A.
I read and loved the book about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Tell us about your newest book.
“Camp Sunshine” is based on the true story of Camp Gordon Johnston, a WWII amphibious training camp on Florida’s desolate Gulf coast. It is a tale about young men on the brink of war and a country on the brink of civil rights, a tale of soldiers and officers, daughters and mothers, death and redemption, and a man unyielding in his compassion and struggle for justice.
As the United States enters World War II, military commanders send their best officers to set up an amphibious training camp on the Gulf coast of Florida. Major Occam Goodwin anticipates challenges—swamps, snakes, alligators, hurricanes—and the daunting task of turning twenty thousand green recruits into warriors. But when his surveyors discover a murdered black family deep in the forest, he must dance delicately around military politics, and a race war that threatens the entire war effort.
Here, young recruits test themselves to the limit in love and combat; politicos and tycoons offer aid with one eye to profit; women patrol the coast on horseback, looking for German subs; a postmaster’s daughter, the only child on base, inspires thousands with her radio broadcasts; and a determined woman bravely holds together her family and the emotional soul of the camp. Amid tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the soldiers and their country hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to find his destiny.
I worked five years on this novel, doing research, interviews with WWII veterans, listening to 1940s blues, and spinning tales. There’s lots of great stuff about jook joints, Southern race relations, military politics, WWII color….and a mystery, of course.
What a fascinating journey! How do your characters “come” to you? Are they based loosely or closely on people you know?
Since this book is based on fact, some of the characters are based on real people. The postmaster’s daughter is based on my interviews with Vivian Hess, who lived as a little girl at Camp Gordon Johnston. Yet, as I wrote about her, the character separated herself from the real person, becoming increasingly impish and inventive. I wanted Major Goodwin to be a man of absolute integrity, but as I wrote him, he took on depth, becoming a man of great sorrow and great compassion. Vivian’s mother was somewhat based on my own mother, but soon she became this incredibly strong woman who’d made great sacrifices, yet still yearned to be adventurous and free.
In my experience, you have a vision for your characters, but then, as the story unfolds, they become their own person. Some take on characteristics of friends and family. The imagination works from what it knows. It is a little odd. Like giving birth to children—you don’t really know how they’ll turn out. Inevitably, they turn out more interesting than you could possibly imagine.
I can relate to that….Can you share a little bit about what you’re working on now or what’s coming next?
This will make you laugh. I thought I should try my hand at comedy, some lighter fare, maybe boost my sales a bit. So I thought I’d write a spoof of James Bond—Jane Blond DD7. Well, I googled the title—turns out it’s a porno flick!!!
So, I don’t know what’s next. I originally envisioned “Camp Sunshine” as the first in a three-part series about the Florida Panhandle. I actually wrote and published Part 3 first, “Sunshine Highway,” about a corrupt sheriff in contemporary Florida. Now I have to write the middle volume about the “sixties.” It’s a stupid way to write a series, but that’s the way the stories came to me.
My readers of “Amsterdam 2012” also really want a sequel. I really want another trip to Europe. So perhaps that’s next.
I believe that the stories come to us in their own time. What is a typical writing day like for you? Describe your writing process once you sit down to write—or the preliminaries.
I have a set schedule. I write from 7AM to 12 or 1PM. I write in my office, which overlooks a canal in the Apalachee Bay.
I do several months of research for a book, develop a story, and start writing, turning out a first draft in four to eight months. I set it aside for a while, then do extensive editing. Well, in this book, I got hijacked by the research. It was like I was transported to another time for a few years.
But apart from the research, I wanted to use an authentic period voice. So I read a lot of fiction from the era, which was loads of fun—authors long forgotten. Their fiction is most interesting from a sociological viewpoint, picking up the way people talked, their clothes, apartments, etc. And I listened to a lot of WWII era radio, G.I. Jill, Command Performance, all those great WWII shows.
Great ways to research for a book. When you’re writing, who’s in control, you or the characters?
It’s surprising how characters do have a mind of their own. And the more latitude you give them, the more original and unique your story becomes.
This book is definitely character driven—told from the voices of an officer, a soldier, a little girl, and the wife of the postmaster. However, there were some factual events—like the drowning of dozens of soldiers in a training incident—that I had to include in the plot. And there were other historical elements I wanted to include, like the Black Regiments, and the pre-civil rights movement Double V.
I outline a story as I go, with a general idea of plot points I have to hit. I let the characters tell me how they want to get there. And if they have a better idea than me about where the story should go, I listen to them.
I like the idea of the characters leading the way. Who are your favorite authors, the ones you read when you should be doing something else? Why do they appeal to you?
Some of my favorites are Philip Roth, Anita Brookner, and Patricia Highsmith, as well as Ruth Rendell, Joyce Carol Oates, and Stephen King. I guess my tastes run to the dark side. Beyond being great storytellers, all of these writers have characters who yearn for something greater than themselves, who challenge standard ways of thinking and behaving. And they use language beautifully.
Promotion is a big—and usually the most hated—part of being a writer. Can you share a little bit about how you promote?
You want my secrets? Just kidding. I’ve been incredibly supportive of writers, and have posted a guideline for self-promotion on Kboards. http://www.kboards.com/index.php/topic,42600.0.html
Even traditional publishers insist their writers do a lot of self-promotion. For my last traditionally published book, “The Secret Memoirs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis,” my publisher asked me to hire a publicist, which would’ve cost around $20,000. I was astonished. So even if you have a big publisher, you have to do most of the self-promotion on your own.
Digital social media has made this easier. Twitter and Facebook. Start a blog. Do guest postings on other writers’ blogs. Find interest groups and pitch your book (e.g., if you have a book about dogs, pitching it to websites for dog lovers). Participate in various online writers groups and forums. Review other writers’ works. It’s very important to get reviews, and there are a lot of book review blogs out there. Do give aways. Blog tours.
Self promotion is extraordinarily time-consuming, time any writer would be rather writing. But if you do an hour a day, you can get a lot done. But do your writing first. Otherwise you risk getting sucked into the Internet.
I do enjoy the online world, and sometimes I get lost in it. Who or what has been the biggest influence in your writing career and why?
Since Roger Ebert died recently, I’ve been thinking how much he influenced me, which may seem strange because he was a film critic. But I remember listening as a child to his reviews, how he loved the story-telling aspect of film, how he explained the way technique enriched story telling. So naturally I wanted to write screenplays, which was my first love. Then I drifted into prose, where you have so much more control of the finished product. But even as I write prose, I see a movie in my head before I write. I think it makes my writing very visual.
What do you consider the single most satisfying aspect of being a writer?
I have to admit, I love the lifestyle of being a writer. Setting your own hours. Lots of time alone. I worked many years in the film business, which is wildly hectic—everything is an emergency. I think writers are very privileged to live lives of contemplatives, a rare thing in our culture. I am very grateful for it.
Tell us a little bit about where you live.
I moved to the Florida Panhandle from Los Angeles five years ago. I was smitten by the unspoiled beauty of the place. Thousands of monarch butterflies flitted around my car as I drove down to Alligator Point. The next morning I woke to mullet jumping in the canal and screeching great herons. I looked out the window and saw snowy egrets and bald eagles. White squirrels jumping between branches of the pine trees. I went for a bike ride and saw bob cat, deer, and boar. I went kayaking and saw turtles, and dolphin, and dozens of different fish. I felt like a guest in a land ruled by animals.
I knew then I had to write about this place.
Settings for a story are so important. Visualizing is what I enjoy most when I’m reading. Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
Soon after I moved to Florida, I met a fisherman throwing a cast net into the water and asked him to show me how to do it. We got to talking. When he heard I was a writer, he told me about several dozen soldiers who lost their lives during a training exercise while at Camp Gordon Johnston in WWII, and how the tragedy was covered up.
So a few weeks later I visited the WWII museum in Carrabelle, Florida and started doing research and interviewing people. I got completely sucked into the research, spending hours in the museum reading old newspapers on microfiche. Everything fascinated me—especially the newspaper advertisements—from girdles to hair tonic.
I started interviewing locals. Everyone had something to add.
What are major themes or motifs in your work?
I always explore identity, trying to reconcile the physical and non-physical worlds. What is honor? Betrayal and sacrifice. My characters respond sensually to the world as I do, they question and doubt. They try to do the right thing, but don’t always manage it.
Are you in a critique group? If so, how does it work and specifically how do the members help your writing?
I’ve never joined a writer’s group. I bounce around ideas with one or two friends. When I finish a first draft, I give it to a few others. I think a group might take some of the loneliness out of writing. But there’s no way around it—writing is a solitary endeavor.
Where can we go to buy your book?
Any other links or info you’d like to share?
I have a fun little cooking blog that I write for Mad Housewife Wine—little humorous essays with recipes attached.
and my author page is
Follow me on twitter: https://twitter.com/kayakruthie