Books and Ambition

This is a guest post by Sara Dahmen, coppersmith, entrepreneur, and author of the Flats Junction Series of historical novels and the nonfiction book Copper, Iron, and Clay: A Smith’s Journey.

Sara Dahmen

When I wrote my first novel, I had no ego. No expectations. No ambition.

I was planning simply to write a book for fun and give myself a place to escape. I had nothing but a girl on a train and a wisp of a half-dream to guide me. I didn’t know where she was going or what would happen to her. I didn’t know who she was, or her name, or where she was going. I only knew she lived in the past, and she was pregnant.

That was the very beginning of my “serious” career as a writer and novelist. I say “serious” because I have always been a writer. I wrote stories before I could spell (like when I would say “She went to the vigge” and “vigge” meant “village”) and when they were primarily cartoon drawings with a sentence or two explaining the plot, but the dialogue in bubbles over the people’s heads. I wrote a lot of angst-y stories as a pre-teen. It got worse in high school and then peaked in college, when I’d write epic, 250+ page dramas instead of studying for philosophy class.

And then I stopped. I actually stopped writing for years. It wasn’t writer’s block—I don’t believe in writer’s block—but it was simply life. I fell in love and got married. (There went the angst.) I had children. (NO TIME TO WRITE!) I built businesses. (That time thing again . . . .) 

But then somewhere in the middle of running a household, cooking meals, running a company, and chasing babies (and having more babies!), I found my voice again. It was therapy of a sort, but it was also like discovering a long-lost skill. I am inherently a storyteller, and I pour all my heart, soul and gusto in telling any tale. Writing that first book was like coming back to my spirit and recognizing what I was capable of doing, once again. 

After several starts and stops between self-publishing and working with small presses, I eventually landed a mid-sized publisher based in Canada. They have published Tinsmith 1865 and Widow 1881, the first two novels in my Flats Junction Series. It was vindication that I could indeed do something with this storytelling skill I could apparently not stifle no matter how busy I stuffed my life with activities!

While these two fiction books were in the middle of the hairsplitting process of editing, re-editing, and more editing, I had previously started to research cookware. So much of what happens in my novels is either about the building or using of vintage cookware. The women characters either create it or use it, and I wondered how I could learn more about how such things were made and used in the 1800s. I also believed such wares should be made again in America; so without much thought or preparation, I started to build an American cookware company

This meant learning an entire new industry. Sales! Tax! Inventory! Cost of Goods Sold! Tooling! Metallurgy! It was one of the steepest learning curves I’ve ever had in my life. I’m horrible at math and chemistry, and this utilized both. I had to learn how to talk to engineers and fabricators. I had to research old cookware. I had to decide how much of my savings I’d push into this crazy venture. 

By serendipity I discovered that one of the top metalworking artisans in the country, master tinsmith Bob Bartelme, lived near me in Wisconsin. He took me under his wing to show me the original methods of building cookware. By spending time in his shop, I organically became his apprentice! (Now, four years later, I still go up several times a week to his shop and we work the tools from the 1700 and 1800s to build cookware.) 

Sara Dahmen tins one of her copper skillets in her Wisconsin garage. Photo by Christian Watson 1924.us.

Suddenly, I realized I could not only write about what I was learning, which I did in Tinsmith 1865, but I could actually build the cookware in my own line. Today, I am, as far as I can tell, the only female coppersmith in America who builds copper cookware, re-tins and restores vintage pieces, and custom-designs them. 

All the work that went into building cookware meant I learned way more than I had ever bargained for as a historical fiction writer and novelist. It became obvious that so much of my knowledge was oral, gleaned from tales of old tinsmiths, from Bob, from my research, from translating books out of German and French and talking to makers around the country. It was impossible to find such information about cookware in one place, so I wrote a non-fiction book about the history, science, use and care of traditional cookware—ironware, copperware, and pottery. That book has been bought by William Morrow/HarperCollins and will be released on April 28, 2020 as Copper, Iron, and Clay: A Smith’s Journey

So suddenly, I have a brand, and it’s very cohesive. I’m a fiction writer, who writes about 1800s women in the west who use and make cookware. I make the cookware using the tools from the 1800s. I wrote a non-fiction book about being a smith. And when people ask me how I became a smith, I point to the fiction books! Around and around it goes! 

Now what? I suppose I have more ambition than when I started. I want to share information about cookware. I want to teach about coppersmithing. I want people to fall in love with my characters, since they are no longer simply my own entertainment. I want people to learn from my non-fiction. I want them to stop filling landfills with cheap cookware and invest in a few pieces that will last generations. 

Ambition, it seems, is impossible to escape when one is an invested writer.

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I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse at the life and work of Sara Dahmen, Wisconsin’s leading female coppersmith/businesswoman/novelist.

Next Week: How I Became a Writer

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Writing a Historical Novel

Three and a half years ago, in January 2016, I retired from other pursuits so I could try to write fictional stories that other people would like to read. 

Coastal village in Norway. “Enligt AB Flygtrafik Bengtsfors: ‘Havstenssund’.” by G. AB Flygtrafik Bengtsfors / Bohusläns museum is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

After a few small success with short stories, I got the idea to write a historical novel based on my ancestors Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, who came to Illinois from Norway in the 1850s. We had scant information about their lives—a few dates,  places, and milestones—not much more. Not enough real knowledge to support a detailed, book-length factual account of their lives—even if I had wanted to write one. But what I actually wanted was to use the bare facts as a framework on which to hang a made-up story, through which we might discover the world in which they lived.

I spent more than six months on the trail of Anders and Maria. I struggled to imagine a plot around the known and unearthed events of their lives that would make a good fictional story, yet would not much distort the known facts. At last, early in 2017, I began to write text. 

Me writing.

The first draft of this novel, Freedom’s Purchase, took more than a year to write, at a steady rate of 1,500 to 2,000 words per week.This time also included research “on the fly” to support the detailed demands of particular scenes in the story.

My writing process is iterative. Contrary to what many great writers recommend, I invest a lot of time and effort, while laying down the first draft, in simultaneously revising passages already written. So by June 2018, when I finished the “first draft” of the novel, it was really anywhere between a fifth and a fifteenth draft, depending which part of the book you’re looking at. 

I loved my book so much that I started to query agents, seeking a traditional publication contract. After nine months, I felt a bit stymied. At the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute in April 2019, I asked Laurie Scheer about this. She said, “How many agents have you queried so far?” I said, “Thirty or forty.” She guffawed. “Try three hundred!” she said. 

Discouraged? On the contrary, I found myself reassured. The problem was not necessarily with my book; only that the literary market is tough to crack. However, that very reassurance gave me the freedom to consider the niggling little thought that if the manuscript itself were a bit better, that would make it easier for agents to see its merit. Perhaps a hundred fifty queries would be enough to do the trick!

My other friend in the UW Writers’ program, Christine DeSmet, read my first ten pages—the most important part of any book for making a first impression—and gave me very useful feedback. Her comments showed me how I could make the first chapter not a little better—rather, a whole lot better. So I did. But Christine also recommended dissecting the whole book scene by scene, then improving each scene as needed. I blanched at the thought. I decided to do it anyway.

Toward a Smashing Second Draft

I spent the whole next month just reading my book. I analyzed 159 separate scenes; I wrote down the overall purpose of each scene, its setting, its characters, their goals, their conflicts, the resolution of those conflicts, and the particular moments of dramatic change. This yielded an analytical document 54 pages long.

So now, I revisit each scene to fix the problems that have shown themselves through this process of analysis. A huge task. Yet, not enough.

After I work my way through a chapter of scenes, I do the next step, suggested by another friend, Tracey Gemmell, author of More or Less Annie, and other members of my Tuesday evening writers’ group. In Microsoft Word, I search for every “ly” in the chapter (many of these turn out to be adverbs); for every “ing” (present progressives, present participles, gerunds); for every “and,” “or,” and “but” (conjunctions); for every “is,” “are,”  “was,” and “were” (verbs of being); for every “saw,” “heard,” “knew,” “felt,” “smelled,” and “tasted” (“filter” words). Then, I re-read the chapter in search of introductory time phrases or other introductory adverbial constructions. 

That step is a lot of work, too.

Not that there is anything wrong with adverbs, a progressive verbs, passive constructions, conjunctions, or introductory adverbial expressions. All those things have their places in effective prose. But they can become crutches that allow us to write gimpy narrative, when overused. By considering each occurrence in isolation, one often finds a more vivid and robust way—a less distanced, less stand-offish way—to say what one meant to say. If you change even a quarter of those expressions to more powerful constructions, it’s worth the effort. 

By the end of this process, I’ll have a book more worthy of readers’ time and attention. And, perhaps, a traditional publishing contract.

Stay tuned, dear readers.  

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author