It’s Squib Saturday. Time to share the best, most interesting (or most entertaining, or most outrageous) tidbit of information I’ve gleaned from all the stuff I’ve read –or done. This week: I meet a first-time, award-winning author who was 80 years old when she decided to learn how to write a book.
Eleanor Caro just became one of my heroes. Newly-widowed at the age of 70, she decided she was “not going to sit in a grief counseling group for two years or more.” So, she upped and moved from her home in Madison, Wisconsin to Claviers, a village in France, population 604, 60 kilometres west of Cannes on the French Riviera.
There, she bought a house, ran it as a bed and breakfast, and had numerous adventures, including an affair. A decade later she returned to the United States, and decided to write a book about spending her 70s abroad. At 85 she self-published the book, aptly titled Still Time.
A couple of weeks ago, Eleanor, now 91, received the the Palm Beach Book Festival Special Honor Award for her memoir in the annual contest run by the Festival for unpublished works by authors of fiction and non-fiction.
How to Write a Book
When she sat down to write the memoir, Eleanor had not produced any creative writing since her “compositions” in high school. “But,” she said, “I wanted to leave something for my children that let them know that they can do [adventurous] things when they get older.”
Seeing information about a writers group at her local library in Madison, Wisconsin, she decided to join. She told me at the Festival that she quickly realized she had a lot to learn: The first time she read out her pages to the ten- or- so members of the group ” they told me they had no idea what I was talking about.”
A Writers Group
This week, when I followed up with Eleanor on the phone, she described a feeling that every writer (published or not), and if truly honest, experiences occasionally (or sometimes a lot):
“The pictures and words were in my head, but I couldn’t get them from my head to my fingers and onto the paper.”
As an example, she said there was a description in the book where she wrote about “walking upstairs to the terrace.” She added: “there was one young writer in the group who said, “you’ve got to do better than that. You don’t walk upstairs to a terrace; you walk out the back door.” But as Eleanor explained, in Claviers there was no property like patios or backyards attached to the row houses, so terraces were created by taking down roofs, and partial walls of the top floors. “I could see it in my head, but I hadn’t explained the idea to readers who couldn’t picture it like I could so it didn’t make sense. I learned I had to spell it out. ”
The writers group wasn’t enough for Eleanor. Over 2-3 years after she returned from France, she said she “kept going to different places” to learn how to write her book.
“What helped me most,” she said, “was going to writing classes.” She attended classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and at Edgewood College, Madison. “If I saw a course in writing, I’d take it. Among other things, she learned how to start a chapter, and how to end it and “leave something to keep readers guessing, so they’d want to turn to the next chapter.”
She also recalled an essay she was assigned for one of the classes. “I had to pretend to be an “inanimate object.” She chose to be “false teeth in a glass on a nightstand that began chattering away in the night. I enjoyed those classes, and then I’d come home and work on my book.”
At the university she also found her way into writer conferences which she said were attended by “real” writers. She attended several of those, as well as traveling to writer conferences in other states with friends from her writers group. She recalled signing up for a group session with a literary agent at one of the conferences.
“He told us that the opening sentence of a book is the most important sentence you write. That made quite an impression on me,” said Eleanor. As did the reaction of the group when she read out the first sentences of her memoir, which were:
“You did what?”
“I’ve decided to move to France.” I had lowered my voice. There I said it. My words hung out there.
“You’re going to up and move? And to France?”
Eleanor recalled that all the writers in the group and the literary agent “laughed as if it was the silliest thing they’d heard.” But, she added, ” I couldn’t think of anything else, and for me it was okay. I wasn’t aiming to become a big, bestselling writer.”
Eleanor said she wrote mostly from memory, but with some help from copies of letters she had sent to friends and family while she was living in Claviers. When she finished the book, she asked a published author in her writers group to edit her manuscript. Then, she sent it to one literary agent. “He said it wasn’t quite what he was looking for.”
Undaunted, Eleanor had 100 hardcover copies of the book printed by a printer friend of her daughter. For her 90th birthday, her daughter printed a further hundred paperback copies. Eleanor, now a West Palm Beach resident, said she has no idea how to self publish through Amazon. She is delighted with her Special Honor award, and happy with the reaction of family, friends and acquaintances who have read the book. “They ask for more copies so they can pass them on to their mothers.”
Photo credit: Top photo: Bigstock photos