I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer. Instead, I had lofty goals of being a lawyer or a politician, or someone who could change the world. It wasn’t until I got married in midlife, moved to Maui and couldn’t get a job, that the idea of writing came out of nowhere. My husband encouraged me to pursue writing and that’s all I needed. I took a writing course to remind me of all those things I’d learned years earlier in college, and when the instructor told me my name would look good on the front of a book, there was no turning back.
I decided to write the kind of books I like to read – fiction, yet real enough that the characters walk right off the page and into the reader’s life. I had always loved reading Tony Hillerman books. He was a master at weaving a mystery into Navajo culture, and when I closed the book I always felt like I’d learned something. If he could do that for the Navajo, why couldn’t I do something similar for my people – the Cherokee?
The concept was in place. My protagonist would be an amateur sleuth, a mixed-blood Cherokee, a thirty-something, single woman who was savvy and smart. All I had to do now was create believable characters and stories. There would be no generic Indians, no bare-back riding braves in breech cloths stealing blonde, blue-eyed girls. I would stick with current-day life in the Cherokee Nation where I grew up.
But how would I make it real? The first advice beginning writers get is to write what they know and that’s what I did. If I didn’t know it, I relied on research and personal interviews.
Before I ran off to paradise and became a writer, I spent twenty-one years as a banker. While I never had to stare down the barrel of a bank robber’s gun, one of my coworkers wasn’t so lucky. One morning she entered her branch without a security officer and ended up on the floor, bound with telephone cords, not sure if she was going to live or die. I used her story and the fear in her eyes to recreate a believable bank robbery in Deception on All Accounts. I relied not only on what I knew, but what I learned from my friend.
In The American Café, childhood memories of my aunt’s café in a small rural town brought my setting to life. All I had to do was add the murder plot which turned out to be much easier because of the comfortable surroundings I’d created.
Sinking Suspicions features a Cherokee man, a World War II veteran who was stationed on Maui with the Fourth Marine Division and fought in some of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific. Writing about Maui was easy; writing about the war took a lot of research. I spent hours in the local library reading history books and old newspapers, but my best information came from more than a dozen old-timers who were more than happy to share their personal experiences about what it was like to live on Maui during the war.
My philosophy of writing what I know and dedication to research paid off for me when I submitted my first manuscript. In a letter from the University of Arizona Press, the acquiring editor said she liked my writing because it didn’t have any mythical, stereotypical Indians that are so prevalent in books and movies today. My characters, she said, were real.
As a fiction writer, most of the scenes come straight from my imagination, but I always strive to make them real. I have received letters from readers all over the country thanking me for touching their lives with my stories. I guess I didn’t need to be a lawyer or a politician to make a difference, after all. I like being a writer much better.
Sara Sue Hoklotubbe is the author of the award-winning Sadie Walela Mystery Series set in the Cherokee Nation where she grew up. She is the winner of the WILLA Literary Award for Original Softcover Fiction, the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award for Best Mystery, and the Mystery of the Year Award given by Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers.
Sara’s latest release, Sinking Suspicions, (University of Arizona Press, 2014) debuted at the 2014 National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. where she was one of nine fiction authors invited to speak.
Sinking Suspicions has been named a finalist for two awards: The 2014 Foreword IndieFab Book of the Year and the 2015 Oklahoma Book Awards (winners will be announced on Saturday, April 11. Keep your fingers crossed). The book was also chosen as the March Book of the Month by Native America Calling, a nationwide live radio show broadcast from Albuquerque. The March 25 interview is available now for listening at www.nativeamericacalling.com.