Alas, the Last ACOW Interview: Gabriella Balcom

Today author Gabriella Balcom takes over my page whose short, “Bobby—You’d Never Guess,” was just published in the anthology “A Contract of Words,” which includes 28 authors from all over the world. Here is what she had to say about life, writing, and her story:

1. Besides writing, what is the one thing you couldn’t live without?

My children mean a great deal to me, as do my grandchildren, and I shudder at the thought of living without them.

Also, quiet, alone time is very important to me, and I need it regularly. Not only does it keep me grounded, but it helps me unwind, think, function, and recharge.

2. What was the inspiration for your story?

My background is in Psychology and Criminal Justice, and I work in a mental health field. I’ve dealt with families that epitomize the word “troubled,” abusive parents, abused children, substance abusers, and people in all types of crisis situations. Along the way, I’ve encountered individuals who’ve survived terrible things, others who’ve done terrible things, and some who fall in both categories.

I wanted to write this story for more than one reason. My main character, Bobby, popped into my head one day. He became very real to me from the moment I thought of him, and I wanted to tell his story. The more I delved into his life, the more intrigued and blown away I was, not only because of his choices, but because of his past and the forces propelling him along. I’ve always been fascinated by people, the things they’ve experienced and endured, and how they’ve coped and moved forward. Some people have trouble dealing with things that might seem tiny to you or me. Others survive and even thrive in spite of the worst issues imaginable.

Working on my story, a time or two I pursued directions I thought would be interesting. However, I realized what I was writing seemed off or wrong somehow. If I let myself relax and didn’t worry about it, I felt myself being guided into other scenarios and revelations which felt right. Here, I refer back to my previous “blown away” comment. To be truthful, I couldn’t NOT write this story.

3. If a genie could grant you 3 wishes, what would you wish for?

My first wish would be for money, because I’d like to have and be able to do certain things. I’d love to build a home, have a lot of editing done, pay off certain things, travel, etcetera. For my second wish, I would like to go back in time and see certain events, both in my own life and others’ lives. I don’t know if I would undo or change any of the things I experienced, but I’d certainly think about it. As my third wish, I’d like to speak with specific people who’ve died, including my father, both of my grandmothers and grandfathers, their parents and others on my ancestral lines, Jesus, famous heroes and heroines, scientists, artists, philosophers, and many others.

4. Has reading influenced your decision to be a writer? What book (s) made you want to write?

Those are good questions, but I’m not sure. Reading has always been a part of my life. My mother taught me when I was very little, and I was crazy about books. I began writing when I was little also. To me, it seemed like a natural extension of reading, and they went hand-in-hand. I stopped writing for several years as an adult, because I was taking care of my children, working, and living. Inspiration and ideas “called” to me off and on, but I remained too busy to do more than pen a few work-related articles. I began writing again a few years ago, primarily as a catharsis, and couldn’t believe how badly I’d missed it. I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to write. Ideas and characters kept floating around in my mind, and I had to write.

As far as which books inspired me, I’ve read numerous books which are wonderful. I admire several authors’ works and would love to express myself as well as they do.

5. Would you describe your writing process? For example, do you write in a specific place, have music playing or is that a no-no, lean toward outlining specifics, or are you a pantser?

I like to be by myself in my room. I sit on my bed, sometimes with notes or prompts nearby, and typically have music playing low. I don’t usually outline. When I get an idea or envision characters and their lives, I almost always start writing. Sometimes I just know specific things beforehand that I want to include or believe will enhance a story. I write them down on notepaper paper or index cards and put them up or close to me where I can’t miss them. After I finish a story, I go back through and sometimes add elements. From the time I began creating “Bobby – You’d Never Guess” to when I finished totaled about three weeks, I think. I couldn’t write everything in one sitting, because I work full-time and sometimes do additional projects on the side. Therefore, I fit in chunks of time before and after work.

A little more information about my writing process is listed under Questions 7, 9, 13, and 15.

6. When faced with the dreaded “writers block,” how do you push through and find inspiration? Is there a ritual or process you have to get yourself back on track?

I don’t experience writer’s block much, or at least I haven’t yet. In fact, I often have the opposite problem, with several ideas coming to me at the same time, making it hard for me to concentrate and focus on one.

Sometimes, I’m worn out from work and stressful situations. When I feel blah or overwhelmed, or can’t focus, think clearly, or move forward, I do things to help myself unwind. I put music on, focus on the words or rhythm for enjoyment or distraction, and let my mind relax. Or, I don’t focus at all and just crank the volume up and let my thoughts sort of float. I use movies the same way: for enjoyment or distraction. Of course, they also work well as far as being a background noise to drown out other sounds that could distract me.

Other things I do to get in the mood, per se, include reading, scrapbooking, going outside, walking around, singing, driving around or sitting in my car with music playing, spending time on social media, or doing things with my family.

7. Did you know how your story would end when you started writing it? If not, did plans change while writing or did you improvise when you arrived?

When I began writing, I had no idea how my story would end, and only knew certain things about my main character’s life and choices. However, as I wrote, he and my other characters prompted and directed me. Certain revelations about them caught me completely off guard. The ending was a surprise to me, too.

I’ve written more about Bobby since my short story was published. Honestly, I say the same process occurred as I wrote my sequel. It also is full of things which surprised me and blew me away.

8. If a movie were to be made of your story and you were in charge of casting, who would play your characters? Who would direct?

I would like to see actors audition for the part of Bobby, and I’d like to have time to consider who would best play him. I can’t think of anyone right now who epitomizes him for me. The same holds true for some of the other characters in my story, and I’d want to see actresses audition also. I can imagine Kathy Bates or someone similar as Wilson, Mark Wahlberg as the adult Tim, and maybe Pierce Brosnan as Bobby’s grandfather.

As far as directors, I’m not sure. I’d have to think about it. I admire the work of several, including Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, George Lucas, Ron Howard, Michael Bay, Quentin Tarentino, Tim Burton, Lynne Ramsey, M. Night Shyamalan, Peter Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Chris Heyward, and the directors of the Harry Potter movies.

9. How close did your story end up being to the original concept you had in your mind? What were the biggest changes? Why did you make them?

My story developed well beyond my original idea, because I felt my characters leading me along. I only knew portions of my characters’ personalities and lives when I began; I didn’t have a complete beginning-to-end concept in mind. I would write some of the story, then go back and reread it frequently. As I did, I added extra elements that popped into my head. Some things were hints for readers, and some were to build suspense. Most of the additional things I added, however, were revelations that came to me, not things I “plotted.” Mr. T’s appearance is a good example. Mark’s method of coping is another. A third is how Bobby spoke to Mark’s mother.

10. What book were you reading when you thought, This stuff sells??? Oh, hell, I can do that…

When the idea hit me, I wasn’t reading a book. I was writing while playing one movie after another. I’d seen parts of several: the Harry Potter set, The Sound of Music, the Lord of the Rings series, and one of the Tremors movies. As I saw the stories unfolding and watched favorite parts, I thought how wonderful it would be to write something that people loved, and to have a successful writing career.

At that point, I worked full time+ (still do), but dreamed of quitting someday (I do that still, too). I loved the idea of working out of my home, on my own schedule, and being successful at it. I thought of how much I loved books and reading. I believed I had some decent story ideas from time to time, and loved how I felt creating stories, improving them, and reading the finished versions. Portions of my stories shook and stunned me at times, and I wanted to make them even better and share them with others.

11. Did you have to do any odd research for your story? How did you conduct that research, and then how was it used in your story?

Early in my story, killers were mentioned. I did some research on them, sadistic tendencies, and more, and figured if anyone knew about my search history, they’d question my mental health. LOL! I didn’t do any other research, because I was familiar with various other things portrayed in my story. For my sequel, though, I had to do research on several subjects.

12. If you could pick one place to sit and write, where would it be?

I’d choose a secluded cabin in the woods, surrounded by trees, with a lake and mountains or tall hills nearby. Preferably, it would be fall or spring. I can envision several possible locations which I’d love including sites within national forests in Texas or other states, the mountains of Utah or other mountainous places, and secluded locations within countries like Slovenia and Austria. I’d have a refrigerator well-stocked with food, including some which wouldn’t have to be cooked, and would only require warming. I’d want a good stove and oven for when I wanted to cook, and a microwave for when I didn’t, a good TV/DVD player, a huge selection of movies or series for when I wanted to unwind or relax, and an excellent sound system with numerous choices of music. I’d like a large, comfy bed, a nice tub to soak in, a fireplace, etcetera.

13. How closely do you relate to/identify with your characters? What inspired them? Did they take over the story or did you direct them?

Sometimes I identify with my characters or certain aspects of their personalities or lives. Other times I don’t but feel compassion for them and an understanding of where they’re coming from, at least a little. In Bobby’s situation, I empathized over some of the events he’s lived through and which affected him, At the same time, I felt shock and horror over other things. While I could understand and relate to certain hurting and lonely parts of him and others in my story, I didn’t identify at all with how my characters chose to act or react.

I feel I was allowed a peek into Bobby’s psyche and life, as though I literally looked through a window and watched, and/or heard his thoughts and felt his feelings. The same holds true for my other characters. They took over the story and directed me.

14. What do you consider your all-time favorite novel? One that you would read over and over again?

I have many favorites which I love reading again and again: Lord of the Rings, C. L. Wilson’s Tairen Soul set, several of Thea Harrison, Luanne Rice, Kay Hooper, Nora Roberts, Heather Graham, Patricia Cornwell, Jonathan Kellerman, Faye Kellerman, Martha Grimes, and Carol O’Connell’s stories. I love Terry Brooks (Shannara books), Terry Goodkind (Sword of Truth series), David Weber (Honor Harrington books and the Lt. Leary/Adele Mundy series), Frank Herbert (Dune series), Robert Jordan, Anne McCaffrey (Pern series), Hardy Boy and Nancy Drew books for youth, Ruth Chew’s stories for children, Wind in the Willows, the Circle of Light series, Mercer Mayer’s Little Critter books, and many more.

15. How much of your writing is outlined from the beginning and how much of it is ‘pantsed’ or written on the fly?

I’d say 98% of my writing is pantsed, with no outline in sight or mind. However, from time to time I’m prompted to include certain elements, scenes, dialogue, etc., and I’ll write notes or put things up to remind myself to add them. During that process, I’ll sometimes write A), B), C), a), b), etc.

Recently, I tried something brand new. I went to a writer’s conference, and a New York publisher did a class about developing character arcs. He said it was important to get to know our main character and supporting characters very well and demonstrated plotting specific important events on a time line. Our whole class took part in describing characters, events, etc. That evening when I got back to my hotel, I was motivated to begin a new story, using some of the presenter’s ideas. I listed all sorts of things on the spur of the moment, choosing my character’s age, looks, life, supporting “cast,” and certain problems. I did this without first being prompted or inspired about these people. In other words, I didn’t automatically feel I knew them. I was sort of “planning” them. When I began writing the actual story, I felt strange. My words seemed stilted and forced to some degree. I just didn’t feel as if I knew my protagonist as well as I normally did. I felt I had to get to know her over time. Once I stopped and really focused on her––in this case, my main character was a young girl––I began “feeling” her and as if I knew her. After that, the more I wrote about her, the more my comfort level increased until I felt I knew her as much as any of my other characters. The main difference was that my knowledge and comfort had to grow over time rather than existing from the beginning.

16. What are your favorite snack-as-you-write or eat-as-you-write foods? How do they help with your creative flow or process?

I skip meals at times. Sometimes I get too busy at work to stop or have other responsibilities I have to attend to first. At home, I might be worried about one thing or another, or I might be writing. Sometimes I get on a roll and feel inspired, and eating isn’t on my mind. Therefore, I try to keep certain foods around to munch on.

Almonds, blueberries, strawberries, and oranges are good brain food for me. They give me energy, keep my head from hurting, or make pain go away (I have low blood sugar). Mini-Hershey’s and plain M&Ms serve as a pick-me-up when I’m feeling tired or stressed. I love breakfast food, lasagna, tacos, garlic bread, and other things, but don’t always have the time or make the time to fix them.

17. How is your ACOW story typical or atypical of your writing in general?

My first response is ‘LOL,’ because my writing doesn’t always follow a pattern, genre, or specific subject.
However, I will say that “Bobby – You’d Never Guess” is the first story I’ve written in journal format. Beyond that, my writing ranges all over the place. I may write about abuse, magic second, and then about a fantasy creature in a children’s story. Or, I might focus on horror, romance, sci-fi, memoir-type things, or back to one of the others. Some of my stories have longer, flowing sentences, whereas others feature a shorter, blunter style. I don’t usually plan that. It just depends on the story, my mood, how much sleep.

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