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Success Story Interview - Samuel Thomas

An Interview with Samuel Thomas (airball on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Joshua Getzler of HG Literary.


QT: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
Samuel Thomas:
Sure. The book is The Midwife's Tale: A Mystery. It is a historical mystery set in 1644 York during the English civil war. My protagonist is a wealthy midwife named Bridget Hodgson. I'm a history professor, and have been writing about the history of midwifery for a number of years. I decided to make the jump to fiction in part because I was looking for a way of writing about a subject that fascinates me, but mostly because I thought it would be fun.
QT: How long have you been writing?
Samuel Thomas:
As a historian, since I started grad school in 1995! For my day job I've written history articles and one history book based on my doctoral dissertation, but this is my first foray into fiction. I started writing The Midwife's Story in May 2010.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Samuel Thomas:
No, I've been pretty lucky not to run into major roadblocks. I'm not the smartest or most creative guy you'll meet, but I'm pretty good about getting words on paper.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
Samuel Thomas:
Not in terms of fiction. But I found a lot of connections between writing a novel and writing history. In both cases, I'm trying to tell the reader something new about the past in a way that is both interesting and informative. Believe it or not, a history book has a narrative arc, characters you must develop, etc., just the way a novel does.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
Samuel Thomas:
Between work and my family, there aren't too many hours available, so my routine was to sit down and write once everyone else was in bed. I also spent three weeks alone in York doing research, and that gave me a couple hours every morning and evening to get some writing done.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Samuel Thomas:
Three times total. I finished a first draft last November, about six months after I started. I then rewrote it when we were on winter break, and sent it to Beta readers. Based on their feedback, I rewrote it again and started querying agents in May of this year. One agent (Anne Hawkins, bless her soul!) read the whole thing, and while she passed on it, she offered a brief critique that inspired a less drastic revision. A month later, I sent out another round of queries, and landed my current agent.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
Samuel Thomas:
Of course! My first reader was my wife, who offered great feedback and was very supportive. That was really important, especially early on, as I felt like a bit of a cliche for even trying to write a novel. How many academics have tried and failed? I didn't want to join those ranks.

I had four additional readers at the outset, including a historian friend, my dad (who was a history teacher), step-mother (a professional writer), and my step-sister (who used to work in publishing). I know it is risky to use friends and relatives, but I told them to be merciless, and they were. Oh, I also sent it to my mom, and she said there were a lot of typos.

After I rewrote it, I sent it to another historian friend and aspiring author, and that got me to the final version.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Samuel Thomas:
Because I wrote a mystery, I felt like I had to work from a pretty detailed outline, and event went so far as to write up a calendar so that events stayed in order. I also wanted to make sure that I didn't let any of my sub-plots disappear for too long.

I have also begun a second book - a paranormal thriller set in an alternate past - and for that one I'm writing without an outline. I think it was Stephen King who said that he writes by taking characters, putting them in sticky situations, and then seeing whether/how they find their way out. That's the approach I'm taking for that book.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
Samuel Thomas:
I sent my first query on May 6, and received an offer of representation six or seven weeks later. It is my first book.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Samuel Thomas:
I would guess around twenty, but I accidentally deleted some of my QT records.
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Samuel Thomas:
The first thing I did was track down authors who also wrote historical fiction/mysteries, and try to find out who their agents were. I then used the search functions in Query Tracker and another site (I can't remember which one) to find agents who did historical fiction and mysteries. I then gave each agent a ranking on QT so I could keep track of which ones seemed to be the best fit. Happily, I landed representation before I had to make much use of this function.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Samuel Thomas:
Usually I did. When appropriate, I identified works similar to my own that the agent had sold and mentioned those: "Because you represented _______, I think you might be interested in Bloody Newes from York." Failing that, I would dig up interviews, work off of an agent's website, etc. I don't think that it was a matter of finding the perfect agent, but not wasting my time with agents who weren't interested in my kind of book. If I couldn't find positive proof that an agent liked historical fiction, I didn't bother.

Query Letter:

Dear Agent,

Because you represent ______, I think you might be interested in my work of historical fiction, BLOODY NEWES FROM YORK. [This is the old title.]

It is 1644, and Parliament's armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York. Even as the city suffers at the rebels' hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion. One of Bridget's friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of murdering her husband and – like other mutinous women – is sentenced to be burnt alive. Esther proclaims her innocence and begs Bridget to help clear her name. Bridget believes that her friend has been wrongly convicted, and sets out to find the real killer.

Bridget is joined in her search by a new maidservant, Martha Hawkins, who has fled to York to start a new life. Martha proves a quick study in the delivery room, and Bridget has high hopes for her protégé. But when the two women are attacked in a dark alley, Bridget sees another side of Martha, as she shows herself far more skilled with a knife than any respectable woman ought to be.

To save Esther from the stake, Bridget and Martha must dodge rebel artillery, confront a murderous figure from Martha's past, and capture a brutal killer who will stop at nothing to cover his tracks. The investigation takes Bridget and Martha from the homes of the city's most powerful families to the alleyways and brothels of its poorest neighborhoods. As they delve into the life of Esther's murdered husband, they discover that his ostentatious Puritanism hid a multitude of sins, and that far too often tyranny and treason go hand in hand.

BLOODY NEWES FROM YORK is a 95,000-word historical mystery, and the first in a potential series set in Revolutionary England. I have a doctorate in history with a focus on early modern England, and have published articles on the history of midwifery in top historical journals including Social History of Medicine and Journal of Social History.

As a part of promoting the book, I would be happy to join in reading group discussions of the book. I can also give public presentations on the history of midwifery, and on the real Bridget Hodgson, who practiced midwifery in York during this period.