Check This Out: To Live Forever

Hello! Today, my guest on the blog is the awesome Andra Watkins. You may know her by her equally awesome blog, The Accidental Cootchie Mama.


Andra is here to chat about her novel, To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis, which is historical fiction/paranormal suspense (Word Hermit Press). Here is a synopsis:


Explorer Meriwether Lewis has been stuck in Nowhere since his mysterious death nearly two centuries ago. His last hope for redemption is helping nine-year-old Emmaline Cagney flee her madame mother in New Orleans and find her father in Nashville. To get there, Merry must cross his own grave along the Natchez Trace, where he duels the corrupt Judge, an old foe who has his own despicable plans for Em.

Cool huh? The cover and book illustrations were done by Helen Rice. Two of you will win a copy of that very novel. Even cooler, huh? Glad you agree. So, let’s talk to Andra.


Meriwether Lewis

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Andra: I don’t wear underwear. I detest cilantro. My most embarrassing moment was peeing my pants in front of my second grade class. I stood my husband up on our first date, and I’m lucky he married me anyway.

18633602El Space: All righty then! Your book has a very intriguing premise. Please walk us through the process of writing a ghost story involving the famed explorer. How did you first decide to write the book? You introduced part of it through a short story, “Bad Deal,” which was published last year in the book Echoes in Darkness.
Andra: When a ghost tells you to do something, you do it, right? I’ve always admired Lewis, and I wondered what might happen if he were given the chance to rewrite his life by erasing its last few unfortunate months. Would he be remembered differently? Would he take that chance? Would I? That’s what got me started.

El Space: How is Emmaline like you? Different from you?
Andra: Well, my mother didn’t try to sell my virginity to the highest bidder when I turned 10, so that’s different. Ha.

El Space: Glad to hear that!
Andra: Em is curious about the world, and she craves adventure, in spite of her restrictive home life. I remember devouring books at her age, because it was the only way I could see the world.

El Space: Although you’re here on the blog, right now you’re actually walking the Natchez Trace—the site of Lewis’s death. That’s a 444-mile walk from from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville! You’re walking fifteen miles a day! What do you hope to discover on this challenging hike?
Andra: That I can do it, and that I can spend five straight weeks with my father [Roy] without killing him. I came up with this idea to give my dad, who’s almost 80, something to look forward to. An adventure in the twilight of his life. A few interesting stories along the way would be a bonus.

                natcheztracemap  sunken_trace

Natchez Trace Map and Sunken Trace

El Space: As I’m sure you know, one of famed author Jack Kerouac’s well-known quotes from On the Road is this:

70401The ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.

Do you agree? Disagree? If you agree, how does your writing show this?
Andra: I don’t think that sentence would be published today. It’s incredible. I’ve loved it for a long time. I hope my writing shows how much I value living life, how important it is for every person to live life instead of letting life live them.

El Space: How have your travels been inspiring to you recently?
Andra: I was in Spain recently, and we were joking about this walk being my Camino de Santiago. Everyone was calling it the Camino de Andra with many laughs. Laughter is always inspiring to me. I hope it will get me through the hardest mile.


Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage Routes

El Space: You write fiction, maintain a popular blog, you’re well traveled, and you’re a CPA. Obviously you’re good at multitasking. What advice do you have for someone who needs to juggle several activities, but wishes to avoid stretching herself/himself too thin?
Andra: You didn’t realize I used to be a stage actress? I’m good at looking like I can juggle things. The reality is I’m no better at it than the next person. I’ve become much better at saying no, and that’s a real key to balance.

El Space: What writing project are you working on now?
Andra: I’m working on a sequel to my Meriwether Lewis story, and I hope to get a book out of my walk.

Thanks, Andra, for visiting the blog! Take care of your feet!

Check out Andra’s blog, Goodreads, Google Plus, Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. Andra is hosting a contest in honor of her novel’s release. Check that out here. For more information about Andra’s walk, go here. To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis is available here:

Barnes and Noble

Comment below to be entered in the drawing for a copy of To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis. Two winners will be revealed on March 7. When you comment, feel free to share something to encourage Andra as she walks the Natchez Trace. Or, describe a challenging hike you undertook recently. As always, thanks for visiting!  

Sunken Trace photo by Andra Watkins. To Live Forever cover and author photo also courtesy of Andra Watkins. Other covers from Goodreads. Camino de Santiago map from Wikipedia. Natchez Trace map from Meriwether Lewis painting from Wikipedia.

A Writer’s Process (9)

And now from the ridiculous (see last post) to the sublime. Today on the blog is the chic and sensational Sandra Nickel, another good friend from VCFA. Get out your magnifying glass and your deerstalker, ’cause we’re talking about mysteries and ghosts. Mwahahahahahaha!!!!

Sandra at Shakespeare & Co

Sandra at Shakespeare and Company in Paris

El Space: Please share a few facts about yourself.
Sandra: I like to think that my writing is the reason my husband fell in love with me. Friends wanted to set us up, but he was living in Moscow, and I was living in New York, so I sent him an email every other day for three months until he was so intrigued, he hopped on a plane to New York so we could meet and have dinner. We did have that dinner, and I have lived a surprisingly European life ever since—two-and-a-half years in Moscow, four years in Paris, and now Switzerland. All because of those notes I wrote. The power of writing. See what it can do?

El Space: Wow! You must have sent some amazing email! Where is your writing taking you now?
Sandra: I’m working on my first middle grade novel, Saving St. Martha’s, a mystery set in a Swiss boarding school. A sort of Nancy Drew meets the first Harry Potter. I just received my critique group’s last comments, so I’m revising.

El Space: Please tell us about it.
Sandra: The heart of the story revolves around two twelve-year-old girls. Lorna is all logic, and Jeannette all mystical ideas, but when their parents ship them off to St. Martha’s to get rid of them, they become best friends; the school, their sanctuary; and Martha, the ghost of the former headmistress, their protector.

But the school is in trouble. Its old abbey is falling apart and the school is in terrible debt. A prized painting—the last gift from the school’s patroness—was never found. And worse, the girls discover that the hard-hearted Corbett Rast and his bank are going to take the abbey and shut down the school unless St. Martha’s comes up with $1,000,000 in 10 days. The girls and Martha vow to find the long-lost painting. But Corbett Rast wants it too . . . and will stop at nothing to get his hands on it.

Martha, the ghost, is quite snarky, so the story is fun—part mystery/part boarding school story, and a lot about friendship. The great news is that Saving St. Martha‘s has had a nice reception so far. It was named as a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Prize and Hunger Mountain selected the first two chapters to be published in its upcoming “Mentors & Tormentors” issue.

El Space: That’s awesome! What inspired you to write Saving St. Martha’s?
Sandra: A couple of things, really. First came the setting. My daughter used to go to school in this truly amazing place—a Swiss chalet that had been built for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris and then taken apart and rebuilt piece by piece on a hill above Lake Geneva. The chalet is all dark wood and tall, sloping roofs, and inside there is this gorgeous staircase worn smooth and glossy from all the girls that have run up and down it. The moment I saw that chalet, I wished I had gone to school there and knew it would be the perfect setting for a middle grade story.

Sandra and Olivia with Chalet

Sandra and her daughter at the chalet that inspired Saving St. Martha’s

At this same time, my daughter and her best friend were so taken with mysteries and hidden treasures, they formed their own two-member club, a sort of private detective agency that solved the small and large mysteries around them. I put the school together with their private detective firm, a hidden treasure, a mystery, and came up with Saving St. Martha’s.

El Space: What drew you to write for the middle grade audience?
Sandra: Well . . . I wasn’t drawn to write middle grade. Not really. That whole story of what inspired me to write Saving St. Martha’s was a someday, down-the-road sort of inspiration. A long, long way down the road. I could imagine writing for young adults—and I did—and I could imagine trying my hand at picture books—and I did. But middle grade? There was something eminently frightening about it. My own middle grade years hadn’t been wildly happy, and I had clouded over my memories to the point of remembering very little. How was I to write for an audience living out the years I felt least connected to?

But then, I was accepted into the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and someone—I don’t remember exactly who—tossed down the gauntlet of: “Why don’t you try writing a middle grade?” So, I did, mostly because I like to pretend I’m not scared of anything, other than heights and mice. I went through hypnosis to reconnect to my middle grade years. I hung out with middle grade kids. I read any and every middle grade book recommended to me. I wrote. And what fun it all has been!

El Space: Sounds like you were well prepared. What was the most challenging aspect of writing a mystery?
Sandra: In a way, mysteries are easier to write than other stories, because the broad arc of the story is already there. You set up the mystery, and then the mystery must be solved. Easy, right? The problem is that the small arcs that make up that broader arc can be tricky. New mystery writers—and this was certainly true for me—often believe they must hide the hints and clues and truth from the reader. But the opposite is true.


Mystery writers must reveal every detail for the reader, but then use sleight of hand, distraction, or an unreliable character to make the truth difficult to discern. This is the tricky part, where mystery writers strive to hit the sweet spot of revealing enough, yet not too much. For this, having a critique group or beta readers is essential, since they are coming to the story for the first time. You want them intrigued, but not confused; you want them to have just enough information to keep reading, but not so much that they put down the book because they’ve already figured it all out.

El Space: What authors inspired you when you were growing up? Which inspire you now?
Sandra: There were so very many who inspired me. I was a big reader! But since we have been talking about middle grade, let me say: E. L. Konigsburg, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Roald Dahl, Louise Fitzhugh, Norton Juster, Madeleine L’Engle, and C.S. Lewis. As for now, this blog isn’t long enough to name them all. But I guess I can say: Ditto for all the above, and add a few of my “new” discoveries: Kate DiCamillo, Katherine Paterson, Louis Sachar, David Almond, and Grace Lin.

Some Middle Grade Books That Have Inspired Me

Books that inspire Sandra

El Space: Do you stick to one project or work on more than one? What tools are helpful?
Sandra: I’m an immersion writer. I absolutely love submersing myself completely in one story-world at a time. That’s not always practical, however. Right now, in addition to Saving St. Martha’s, I’m working on a young adult Gothic ghost story and a storyteller’s poem about a female Paul Revere. When I need to quickly switch from one story to another, the best tool I have found is to freewrite my way into a character’s world. I start by having the character dress herself, noting every detail from the scratch of her wool skirt, to the cut of her socks’ elastic into her calves, then move onto other details like the woody-lead smell of her pencil and the squeal of a violin in the room next door. Five minutes of these kinds of specifics are enough. The wormhole is created, and just like that, I’m pulled from one story-world into the other and am ready to write.

Sorry, that about wraps it up! Thanks, Sandra, for being such a great guest!

If you have questions for Sandra about her book or her process, please comment below.

Magnifying glass from