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Author Spotlight with Tina deBellegarde

Hi all! Welcome back to my Author Spotlight series, where you, as a reader, get an inside look at how a book gets published and how an author becomes an author. After a long hiatus on my part, we are meeting debut author, Tina deBellegarde, and learning about the writing process that lead her to her debut book.

Winter Witness is the first book in the "Batavia-on-Hudson" series and will be released on September 29th, 2020. When a beloved nun is murdered in a small Catskill Mountain town, a young widow finds herself in the center of the drama. Through talking to other residents of the town, Bianca St. Denis must unravel the mysteries surrounding the nun’s death while dealing with the suspicions of her eccentric neighbors.

Tina deBellegarde lives in Catskill, New York, with her husband, Denis Jean, and their cat, Shelby. Hofstra students may know her husband as a professor in the French department on campus. Her next two books in the series will be released in September 2021 and September 2022.

For deBellegarde, inspiration struck when her husband and herself bought a house in the Hudson Valley, outside the village of Catskill. On her walks around the neighborhood, she discovered the town was “inhabited by interesting characters because you have a lot of these transplants from the city. Artsy, very unusual people from the city - and then we have all these locals that have been here forever that are also very colorful in their own way.” Though her inspiration is shown through the characters, she also drew inspiration from the town itself, stating, “It’s such a beautiful place to set a story. And there are characters around me that are just dying to be developed.” She described her series to me as “a murder mystery, but it’s a traditional mystery. So, most of the blood and violence happens off the page.” She added, “It’s not about the violence. It’s about the motivating factors behind the characters.”

In terms of her writing style, deBellegarde finds herself somewhere in between a plotter and a pantser. Though she will plot and outline, she said her one caveat is that she’ll “let the characters kind of do whatever it is that they want to do.” She also remarked how strange it was because she didn’t believe that was something that happened when authors would tell her “a character makes the story, I don’t make the story.” But now with her own novel completed, deBellegarde said, “Once I put the character down on the paper in a scene, they often do kind of make their own decisions."

 

"Well starting is half the battle and finishing is the other half."

 

deBellegarde’s journey to publishing is not something one hears about every day, but she was also the first to add that “it is rather unusual, but it can be duplicated.” After she finished editing what she believed to be the final draft of the book, she turned her head towards writing short stories and flash fiction for competitions. It was here that she realized prompts and deadlines was how she could remain productive in her writing and in talking about forty-eight-hour competitions, that “being forced to just come up with something, it really stretches your muscles and as a result, it makes you kind of break out of those very rigid plans… that you might have.” When one of her short fiction pieces was picked up for an anthology by Level Best Books, she learned that the publishing house also takes unsolicited manuscript requests. With her name at the forefront of their minds after having chosen her short story, she thought “this is really good timing. I’m going to send them my manuscript right now.” And everything went according to plan. They reached out to her a few days before a conference that both she and the publisher would be attending, asking to meet and discuss her manuscript. Out of that meeting came a three-book deal.

Most of the time, you hear of authors having an agent that represents them as the traditional route of publishing. While deBellegarde queried to agents she met at different writer’s conferences, she didn’t join together with any of them. Instead, she collected their feedback and stated that “with that feedback, I revised and then revised again.” In telling her story of how she gained her contract with Level Best Books, she said, “So I did do both,” about querying agents and going without an agent, a fact that she states she is “perfectly happy with,” though she may change her mind at a later date. Overall, she is “really happy with the direction [she] went in.” In giving background on Level Best Books, she also said that “it’s kind of fun to be on the cutting edge of this little publishing house, making its way in the world.” As of late, Level Best Books has started two imprints, after originally only publishing anthologies. Their imprint, Historia, focuses on historical mysteries, pre-1970, and their other imprint, New Arc Books, focuses on a larger range of fiction, such as Romantic Suspense, Literary Fiction, and Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Level Best Books as a whole is committed to publishing crime fiction and “bring new voices and stories to a wide audience of readers.”

Her favorite part of Winter Witness to write was a section that she personally calls “The Longest Night.” She describes it as “a night where I jump from character to character, and I get into their head and kind of visit with them.” Though this was her favorite scene to write, she let it slip that she almost cut it from the book, but decided to keep it in the final version. She also hinted at her plans for her third book, though she’s still in the process of writing the second and promoting her first for its September release date. “The third book is going to take place in Japan,” she said and told me that she had plans to travel to Japan in November. She gave her reasoning, stating, “I was going to go for November in Japan so that I could be there in the fall, at the same time that I’m setting the book.”

When asked what books have changed the way she writes, deBellegarde gave two sets of answers. For the authors that influenced her as a reader, and by relation, a writer, she said it was Anne Tyler, Gail Godwin, Elizabeth Strout, Alice Adams, Mary Gordon and Marilyn French who she finds herself going back to. “These are all women who write about women’s lives. It kind of helped me dig deeper, think harder and realize that a woman’s story has value.” She attributed her original thinking to the generation she was brought up in, likening it to Hollywood, where “it’s still waking up to the idea that women stories matter and that women directors have something to say.” She added that in reading these books, “they helped me make myself, who I am as a person and as a writer. I didn’t know they were making me a writer at the time because I was never confident enough to suggest to myself that I could be a writer when I was younger.” When asked about a more recent book that has affected her writing, she spoke about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, saying, “I found that there were scenes in there that were very brief that actually prompted me to start writing flash fiction.” She also added Haruki Murakami to her list, stating that “he’s influenced me a lot” even though his style of writing isn’t “well suited for genre fiction because genre fiction needs to move a little bit faster” whereas Marukami has “a style that’s very slow-burning, slice of life.” In talking about her favorite genres, she said “I will read any and everything, but I go back to women’s fiction. Those women’s stories are still really important to me and I’m still a lover of the traditional mystery.”

During quarantine, deBellegarde has been “doing what most people are doing - cooking and eating more.” She did tell me that at the beginning of quarantine, she “didn’t do any writing because [she] was very unfocused, very concerned and very anxious.” But even in quarantine, her favorite place to write is a writing cottage built by her husband and brother-in-law.

In describing what being an author meant for her, she said “I was very nervous about calling myself a writer. The legitimizing process of being published was so important to me. I kind of always felt like the tree in the woods, if nobody’s there to hear it fall. Like, if I write and nobody reads it and nobody likes it, am I really a writer and an author? So when I got my contract for my book, they had just picked up my short story, I had another flash fiction picked up, I got my three-book contract, I got second place in another contest and everything literally happened all within a week. And all of a sudden, I was an author, I was a writer. I had things published, I had won some things, and I had a contract for three books. All of a sudden, I went from aspiring to author.”

 

"The hardest part to me is creating a daily structure… If you just leave it too open ended, sitting down is the hard part. but if you sit down, you'll write more."

 

Last but not least, in terms of giving advice to aspiring writers, she offered three important pieces of advice. “Just show up. Once you get into the chair, momentum goes with you. I think that submitting and competing… I think that keeps you sharp and gives you momentum. The whole positive feedback, it feeds on itself. So, submit, whether it’s short fiction, whatever you can do, any opportunity you can get. And an important piece of advice is to make sure people are reading and critiquing your work. But, you have to be the final decider, put your thumb on the scale to decide what works for you and what doesn’t. Because in my experience, you will hear so much, but you can only go with what works for you and what you think enhances your writing.”

I'm so grateful that Tina let me interview her, and I think she gave some really valuable insight on a different track of publishing that not many people know about.

Make sure to visit Tina deBellegarde’s website at tinadebellegarde.com and check out the video of how her book cover was created by the artist Sachi Mulkey, as well as to see the final product. You can preorder her book before September 29th on AmazonBarnes & NobleApple Books, or preorder signed copies at Oblong Books.