Barbara Samuel: From Romance to Women’s Fiction, Winning Awards All the Way

Barbara Samuel is a multiple RITA award-winning author with more than 38 books to her credit in a variety of genres. She has written historical and contemporary romances and a number of fantasy novellas with the likes of Susan Wiggs, Jo Beverley and Mary Jo Putney. She now writes women’s fiction about families, dogs, and food as Barbara O’Neal.

Her work has captured a plethora of awards, including six RITAs from the Romance Writers of America; the Colorado Center for the Book Award (twice); Favorite Book of the Year from Romance Writers of America, and the Library Journal’s list of Best Genre Fiction of the year, among many others. You can find a full list of all titles here.

Now living in her hometown of Colorado Springs, Barbara writes in a study overlooking Pikes Peak, a pin that draws her home from her travels. She shares her home with Christopher Robin, a British endurance athlete, a gorgeous and lovable chow mix named Jack; a very, very old Siamese named Esmerelda; a rescued street cat who has become the fattest silver tabby on the planet, and the wonder twins, two tuxedo kittens from a local shelter, whose names have changed several times. Yes, a lot of animals.

An avid photographer, cook, and traveler, Barbara keeps a log of travels, recipes, and photos at her blog, A Writer Afoot, where she also sometimes posts writing advice. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook, but she doesn’t promise to be particularly interesting there.

Q. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? 

A. I don’t remember ever wanting to do anything else.  When I was in the fifth grade, I was reading a novel and it occurred to me that someone wrote this book, that it hadn’t just appeared in the world.  Which meant writing novels was a job. And if that was a job, why would anyone do anything else? I started writing novels right then.

Q. What inspires you? 

A. Beauty, first of all.  Common and extraordinary beauties. Children’s hands, the sea, dandelions, music, the smell of the earth.  Food and cooking and the hearth where women gather.

And I am drawn to the way we survive things–or don’t. How one person faces a disaster and stays stuck in the moment for the rest of their life, while another finds a way through it.  Spirituality and physical endurance are parts of that quotient.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about your latest project?

A. Four food bloggers aged 24 to 85 come together at a lavender farm in the Pacific Northwest to celebrate the eldest’s birthday.  Lavender, wandering chickens, an Airstream trailer, a great dog and the odd ghosts all play a part.

Q. I’ve heard that writers often bond to their characters, what does it feel like to finish a story and let go of that bond a little?

A. At first, I’m the irritated mother of a just-graduated senior who knows everything. I can’t wait to pack them off to college and let them be somebody else’s problem.  But I experience empty nest syndrome when I actually ship the book off.  I miss the characters very much, and I know I won’t really see them again. It’s great to hear from readers when they’ve spent time with them.

Q. Do you have any advice/cure/ for the infamous “writer’s block”?

A. I don’t actually believe in writer’s block.  It just means something has taken a wrong turn.  Either fix it, start over on something else, or just keep showing up every day and plug away.   If the trouble is too many voices in your head, kindly ask them all to leave and write for yourself. That’s always the answer anyway: write first for yourself.

Q. How did you get started in the writing industry and what is your best piece of advice to people interested in pursuing writing as a career?

A. I started ages ago, writing category romances when there was a huge, sucking demand.  It was lucky timing.

But the same things still are true: study your genre. Know who the masters are and what their path is. Educate yourself to the business–agents, editors who love work like yours, which lines and houses publish the kind of work you write.  Read Publishers Lunch and all the industry rags. Pay attention to the changing markets, too.  At the moment, that’s the great unknown.  How will we be publishing books five years from now? Ten?

Q. What is one interesting thing about you that most people don’t know?

A. I don’t know how interesting it is, but I collect rosaries on my travels.  I have a wooden one from Chimayo, one of jet my son brought me from Barcelona, and one made of rosewood that I bought when I walked the Camino de Santiago de Compestela, among others.

Q. What is the best food you’ve eaten in the past week?

A. A pile of asparagus grilled with lemon juice, olive oil, and kosher salt.

Q. Is there anything new on your plate? What can we expect from you in the future?

A. I have a lot of irons in the fire at the moment.  Working on the ideas for the next book for Bantam, collecting material for a side project, and playing around with another genre I’m not ready to discuss.

Q. What is one thing you are really looking forward to with the Summer Writing Institute?

A. I love the immersion of being with a group of writers for a whole week.  Teaching renews me, and I always learn a tremendous amount.  I’m also looking forward to being in Santa Barbara, which is one of my favorite places on earth.  I have to go commune with my tree, for one thing (the giant Moreton Bay Fig). I met her cousins in New Zealand.  Just cannot get over those trees–they’re so ancient and enormous and enchanting.

Q: How important is networking and social media in the field of writing?

A. Ugh. A necessary evil, I’m afraid, if you want to sell books.  There’s a lot of pressure from the publishing industry to learn it and maximize your online presence, so it’s something we all have to learn.  That doesn’t mean you have to do everything. Pick a few things that suit you and try to be good at them.  I love Facebook, not so much Twitter, and love to blog, since I was a columnist in my journalism days.  It comes naturally.  Figure out where your strengths are.  I thought I’d love Pinterest and don’t, but one of my friends is great at it.

Q: Can you give us a rough breakdown of the process of writing a novel from the point of conception to having the book published and sitting on bookshelves?

A. For me, the point of conception can be a long time before the actual start of the book. I always have a bunch of possible stories rolling around in my head. They collect things, sort themselves into baskets, and at some point, I realize one is fully loaded and ready to go. I’ll play around with research, browse websites, think about the possibilities.

 At that point, I’ll write a sketch/synopsis, and character bios.  The first 100 pages are slow, far less word count than the rest of the book as I figure out what’s going on, what the story is really about, and what I might need to know.   The final 100 pages go very, very fast–sometimes a few days or a week.  I’m tired. I need to live in the book, and have no patience for the outside world. I like to hibernate, wild-haired and lost in the wilderness, and write.

Revisions are usually tackled as I go, so at the end, I’ll spend a week or two going through it before I send it out to editor and agent, who return with questions, clarifications, suggestions. I rewrite the most substantially here, and polish a lot.  Then it goes to line-editing, then copy editing, then galleys, then the book. The whole process takes about two years.

Q: What was the best piece of advice about writing or becoming a writer that someone has ever given you?

A. Remember that you are always writing your backlist. Every book has to be the very best you can muster.

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