Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Interview with non-fiction author, Cynthia Becker

Katie: I have the great pleasure today of introducing award winning children’s author, Cynthia Becker. Cynthia’s newest nonfiction release, “Chipeta: Ute Peacemaker,” is a part of Filter Press’s “Now You Know Bios” series. She is a member of SCBWI and has written several books. Her writing has appeared in “The New York Times,” “The Saturday Evening Post,” and other publications.

Cynthia, welcome to my blog. Please give us a little background about how you came to be a writer.

Cynthia: My parents were readers and I grew up with a love for books. I wrote stories as a child and took a few writing classes in high school and college. My working career as a Human Resources Manager developed my ability to write non-fiction—factual reports, newsletters, position papers. Genealogy built my research skills. I learned the importance of original sources in my effort to document my ancestor’s lives.

I began writing essays for pleasure after changing careers in 1995. My husband suggested I pitch an essay to the local National Public Radio affiliate. To my surprise, “The Day Dad Found Himself” aired March 6, 2001. It was a story about my father, who had no birth certificate, discovering his name in the 1910 census. He was nine months old when the census taker came. A year later I sold that same story to the New York Times—with a new introduction tying the story to the imminent public release of 1930 census records. (Again, my husband suggested the submission.) The day after my article ran, the Saturday Evening Post bought reprint rights.

Being published in those venues certainly boosted my confidence and I began more active writing and submission. I entered a contest and was selected a 2003 “Colorado Voices” writer for the Denver Post.

In 2002 I responded to an Internet ad seeking writers for books on current topics. My earlier business writing experience caught the editor’s attention. The non-fiction project was a library-market book about the American family. Subsequently, the company offered me more work. These are work-for-hire jobs—I receive a flat fee, I have author credit on the book, but I do not own the copyright. In January 2009 I completed my fifth book in the Information Plus series for the same publisher, Cengage Learning (formerly Thomson Gale).

My writing has expanded to fiction in recent years. I chose middle grade because I so enjoyed stories I read at that age. My middle grade manuscript about a Ute Indian girl taken captive by enemy Cheyenne is “marinating” (following the Stephen King concept of putting a completed manuscript on the shelf for six months before rereading and editing). My work in progress is historical fiction set in 1880 Leadville, Colorado.

Katie: “Chipeta: Ute Peacemaker,” is a middle grade, nonfiction book, and the second book you’ve written about the life of Chipeta. What drew you to become interested in and write about this woman?

Cynthia: Like most writers, I am first a reader. P. David Smith’s biography Ouray: Chief of the Utes (Western Reflections Publishing, 1990) introduced me to Chipeta. She was Ouray’s wife and his most trusted advisor, but the book did not tell me much about Chipeta the person. I began looking for other books about Chipeta and found none. Opportunity stared me in the face and I decided to write about her.

Katie: Tell us more about this book, why we, as readers, should care about this Indian woman.

Cynthia: Chipeta’s life (1843-1924) spanned a period of transformation in the West—changes that built the State of Colorado and nearly destroyed the traditional way of life for the Ute Indians who had lived for centuries in the Rocky Mountains. Chipeta’s husband, Ouray, forged influential contacts with early political leaders in Colorado Territory and Washington, D.C. His activities brought Chipeta unusual opportunities for a Ute woman. She found non-Indian female friends and mentors including Josefa Carson, wife of Ouray’s good friend Kit Carson. Chipeta became an advocate for peaceful coexistence between the Indians and the settlers. She prevented a major Ute war with the settlers in 1879, then went to Washington D.C. with a Ute peace delegation. I think readers will find her a woman of courage and a positive role model.

Katie: Have you written a teacher’s guide to this book? Why or why not?

Cynthia: No, but I have a file of materials on my desk for such a project. When the Chipeta manuscript was handed over to Filter Press, I moved to work that offered a needed paycheck.

Katie: Since you have written in several genres, which is your favorite genre, and why?

Cynthia: By the time I was an independent reader I loved biography. I especially remember reading the story of Harriet Tubman who escaped slavery and went back to lead others to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Her life was so different from mine. That story sparked my interest in history and biography. The current book on my night stand is Adam Schrager’s bio of Colorado Governor Ralph Carr, the only political leader who championed the rights of Japanese American’s during World War II.

Katie: Since “Chipeta: Ute Peacemaker” is nonfiction, tell us the process you went through to do the research, whether you sent out a book proposal, and how it came to be accepted for publication.

Cynthia: When I promoted my 2003 biography of Chipeta at the Colorado Library Association Conference, school librarians said, “I wish this was written for children.” A friend, Joyce Lohse, was working on her second book for the Now You Know Bio series of Colorado biographies and suggested Chipeta would be a good addition. I had recently met Doris Baker, Filter Press owner, at a writer’s conference so the time seemed perfect to send her a query letter and my writing resume. She offered me a contract based on her knowledge of my earlier Chipeta book and my resume of non-fiction publications.

Katie: We as writers are always fascinated to learn how you came to be published. Can you share what led up to the publication of your first book?

Cynthia: A series of “this was meant to be” (or divine intervention) experiences led to my first book, Chipeta: Queen of the Utes. About two years into my research I decided to contact P. David Smith for the source of one particular piece of information in his Ouray biography. He replied that he had started, but never finished, a biography of Chipeta. He asked if I would be interested in working as coauthors. Since writing the Ouray book he had retired from his law practice and started Western Reflection Publishing. What more could an unpublished writer want?

I was living in Fort Worth, Texas at the time. David Smith and his wife were headed to Dallas to visit relatives in a few weeks. We met, discussed the project, and sealed the deal with a contract. He loaned me the manuscript he had started, some wonderful out-of-print books from his collection, and an unpublished memoir by a newspaper man who knew Chipeta. Many of the photos that illustrate the book came from his collection.

As we make connections with people, we never know which ones will make the difference.

Katie: What advice would you give to those who are interested in writing nonfiction for young people?

Cynthia: There is definitely a market and magazines are a good place to start. Craft articles for Mary Beth’s Crafty Kids were among my first published work. Well written pieces can catch an editor’s interest even if the subject is not what she wants. One editor was not interested in the subject of my submission but contacted me a year later offering an assigned article. Since then she has offered one or two feature assignments annually. If your aim is a book, magazine articles build a resume that demonstrates to a prospective publisher your ability to work with editors, meet deadlines, and write well. Many magazines accept convenient and less expensive electronic submissions. You can find writing opportunities on the Internet at sites like The Write Jobs. My first assignment with Thomson Gale came through that site.

I highly recommend joining a critique group. I tried three before I found a group that is seriously interested in producing publishable work and able to give constructive feedback on content and writing style. Conferences for writers can be expensive but offer opportunities to meet editors and learn what types of work they are seeking. The other benefit is networking with writers. I met Joyce Lohse at a conference and she led me to the publisher for Chipeta: Ute Peacemaker.

Note: You can find out more about Cynthia at her blog and her publisher's website.


Mom said...

I enjoyed the interview and was pleased to read about Cindy. I have read Cindy's first book about Chipeta and am reading the second right now. She was a featured author at a library lecture where I was director of the library and I highly recommend her as a program for either libraries for adult programming or for a school for programs for young people. I used her in both settings and received high praise for her programs.

Katie Hines said...

Please understand that "mom" is not Cynthia's mom, but friend Lee Ann Nichols. I suppose there's a place to fix that, but I couldn't find it. Sorry for any confusion!


Shari Lyle-Soffe said...


Wonderful, informative interview.


scottclear said...

I always wondered about the tricks to how Cindy got started. Now I know: it's a combination of being gifted, being in the right place at the right time, and serendipity. But mostly, it's being gifted. Congratulations Cindy!!

Morgan Mandel said...

Great interview. It's always fun to see what led an author to where she or he is now. The Dad story sounds like it was really cute.

Morgan Mandel

Lea Schizas - Author/Editor said...

What a great interview. As a writer of middle grade and YA I truly enjoyed reading your thoughts and the why's. Thank you both.

Unknown said...

I like the idea of writing for children and it just struck me that I could write science and math for the middle graders. Something for me to look into.

Heidiwriter said...

Great interview! Congrats on your book, Cynthia. It is a good one!


Chester Campbell said...

Realy interesting interview, Katie. I enjoy reading how other authors got started. I'm writing an article for Kaye Barley's blog, Meanderings and Muses, about my circuitous entry into the writing field.

Deb Hockenberry said...

Hi Katie,
This was a great interview! Bringing out that Chipeta was a strong woman & is a role model is really great. I've never heard anything really positive about the American Indian women before. They were just there in the background. We need more of this!
Deb :-0

Martha Woosley(Marty) said...

I learned so much more about you and your writing. So enjoyed the interview. Thanks for letting me know about it. Hope to see you this fall? Hugs, Marty