LaDene Morton is the author of three nonfiction books on Kansas City history: The Brookside Story, The Waldo Story, and her latest book, The Country Club District of Kansas City. In 2009, she published her first novel, What Lies West, historical fiction set on the American frontier. The work was a finalist for the 2009 WILLA Literary Award, presented by Women Writing the West.
Born and raised in Lawrence, Kansas, LaDene's professional background is in community and economic development. She received her undergraduate degree in Speech & Drama and her Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Kansas. For fifteen years, she was a Senior Analyst for Midwest Research Institute, the Vice President of the Applied Urban Research Institute, as well as owner of her own consulting firm, I/O & Company. She currently lives in the Troostwood neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri, with her partner Roger.
TWP: What was your path to being published?
When I first decided to write a novel, I had no expectation of publication. I knew the book I was writing had virtually no chance of publication, particularly in the dwindling publishing environment of 2009. Frankly, I was just happy to write it for my own satisfaction. When I finished the writing, I was satisfied with that experience but found I still craved some sort of closure. Thankfully, it was at the time when self-publishing was coming into its own. So, just to keep myself from turning the tweaking into a permanent project, I self-published. Once I made that decision, I took the next step. I had a nonfiction, local history book I wanted to do and was fortunate to find a niche publisher with that interest. It turned out to be a pretty easy path to publication in that category, because of the publisher’s market focus and marketing strengths.
TWP: What has been your experience of traditional publishing vs. self-publishing?
Both were great experiences. Going the self-publishing route certainly taught me a lot about the book industry in a learn-by-doing way, and it taught me there was more to this than just the printing of the book. When I did it, there were nowhere near the options there are now, and so the downside was I felt constrained by the “template” the publish-on-demand companies were using at that time. As a new author, I didn’t do what I should have done in terms of marketing, and it showed in the sales. That’s unfortunate, because self-published books are shown to produce more per-book revenue than traditionally published volumes.
Traditional publishing has its own rewards and challenges. My publisher, The History Press, has been great about helping with marketing. And there’s no doubt that a publisher – even a small press – is more likely to get its books into retail outlets and into distributors’ hands, as well as seem more credible in setting up media spots. My publisher has also supplied me with some great materials – posters, mailers, things like that. Yet, while I love their support, enough things have changed in the self-publishing world that I'd like to revisit that option at least one more time.
TWP: How has your life and work experience influenced and shaped your writing career?
I think, like most writers, tremendously -- so much so that it’s hard to draw the distinctions or count all the connections. My fiction was about a historical period that captured my imagination back in childhood. But it wasn’t until I was an adult, and more aware of the history around me, that I got excited about writing that story. I realized the history I was interested in had happened right where I lived. That’s when the story started becoming “real” to me. My nonfiction has been influenced in the same way, but with the extra layer of thirty-five years of study in fields related to the local history I write about. It gives me – and hopefully allows me to give the reader – a different perspective on the subject.
TWP: How did you become interested in local history?
A child of the 1950's and '60's, I was surrounded by westerns on TV and film. That period and those stories seemed romantic and adventurous. I grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, and have lived in Kansas City most of my adult life. I knew about the 1850's westward expansion, but as I grew up I learned how the trails had actually run past many of the places I had lived. That’s what made me want to write about it, because I could see it from the perspective of someone at this end of those great adventures, and I could put myself in the place of someone who yearned to make that journey. My local history books were also influenced by places here in town where I’ve worked and lived. But what excited me about writing that history was knowing so many people who loved those areas and realizing that no one had actually dug down into documenting these “micro” histories. Serving that potential market ignited my interest there.
TWP: How would you describe your creative process?
I take a long time – sometimes years – to sniff around an idea for a story or subject, to see if there’s enough there to sustain my interest. I keep a journal of ideas and my efforts to flesh them out. Once I’ve hit on something, the research begins, but here’s where the paths diverge. For fiction, I start sketching out the story. If there’s enough in terms of character and plot that I’ve developed, I might start writing the story, putting mental pins in the areas I need to learn more about. What I usually end up with is something like a narrative outline, including scenes and character sketches, or a mapping out of the plot.
For nonfiction, it’s all about the research. I may have identified the subject I want to write about, but I have no idea what the story is behind that subject. That includes the story that I want to tell, and the format that I think will hook the reader. All that comes as a result of research. Luckily, I love research and I’ve done a ton of it, long before I ever decided to write.
TWP: As a non-fiction and historical fiction writer, what is your research process?
While there are some variations between the two, when I set off on the research path, I’m looking for one of three things, and I start where I’m the weakest in my body of knowledge. I have one set of questions about the broader historical context – how does this real or imagined history fit into the greater panorama of history? It’s subtext that might not directly affect my story, but a story without context seems not properly pinned down to me. My second set of questions is about the details, usually day-to-day details. How much did things cost? What did they wear, eat, read? What did the landscape look like? What was the weather like? These are the elements of verisimilitude. Nothing strikes as false as a story where those details aren’t lined up. Finally, I go in search of vignettes. I love the real stories that breathe life into the broader story. For my fiction novel, I found lots of real-life stories from pioneer women that I was able to tweak and add in. Those adapted vignettes make the writing more colorful. Similarly, the vignettes I find to include in the local history books make these stories from the past seem more real. And both can illustrate larger themes and issues I might be trying to work in, too.
TWP: What advice do you have for writers who are ready to try publication?
Do it. Absolutely. There’s really no excuse now. The big six publishers are, for most of us, relics of the past that we’ll probably only get interest from once we’ve done all the hard work to build a readership. Self-publishing options are plentiful, varied, and much cheaper than they were even five years ago. But it is important to remember that just because it’s easy to self-publish, writers aren’t off the hook for bringing good writing and a polished product to the marketplace. Readers are no less discerning than they have ever been.