How a Fiction Anthology Is Made

Short Stories AnthologyHeather WebbI’m an avid reader of Writer Unboxed, which has been one of our 101 Best Websites for Writers for several years running now—and when I had the pleasure of moderating the WU panel at last year’s Writer’s Digest Conference, one of my personal highlights was the chance to chat at length afterward with regular WU contributor Heather Webb.

Author of the historical novels Becoming Josephine and Rodin’s Lover, Heather is also active in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (of which I’m also a member) and has always stood out to me as unfailingly generous to fellow writers in sharing advice and support. So I was thrilled to see all the great buzz building for Fall of Poppies, her historical fiction anthology collection of short stories in collaboration with other talents in her genre: Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, Jennifer Robson, Kate Kerrigan, Marci Jefferson, Evangeline Holland, Hazel Gaynor and Jessica Brockmole.

Anthologies can come together in so many different ways that I always turn the pages wondering how the book came about—and what we can all learn from it—particularly since this particular group of authors is even collaborating on a book tour! Heather was kind enough to take us behind the scenes of the proposing, writing, organizing and promoting of her anthology, and to offer her best advice for others looking to collaborate, particularly with short stories on a like theme.

1. Exactly how did Fall of Poppies come to be?

I noticed an upswing in anthologies and it got my wheels turning. Why couldn’t there be one based on a historical event or theme? As a big “Downton Abbey” fan, I kept thinking I’d like to read more set during the Edwardian era, so I began brainstorming ideas and eventually wrote the pitch, which is the cover copy you see now. After that point, I approached authors who have written books set during this time period already or who were actively researching it. The rest is history, as they say.

2. Some anthologies are tied together by a genre, and others by a theme. I love that this one—“Stories of Love and the Great War”—is both. Was there ever any concern that some of the contributions would be too similar to one another? Was there anything you did to be sure each writer was focused on distinctly different characters or themes?

I knew this might be an issue early on, so I sent all the co-authors the main pitch and set a deadline. Once they submitted their individual story pitches, I put them together and forwarded them to the group so we could ensure there wasn’t a lot of overlap. We did a little tweaking—there were two nurses at first—but surprisingly, each of our pitches was quite unique. The only other overlap is the Armistice Day theme, as intended, and also we included some sort of visual of poppies to tie in the title.

3. Everyone involved in Fall of Poppies writes book-length work as well. What are some things other writers should take into account when deciding whether or not to accept an invitation to contribute to (or answer a call of submissions for) an anthology?

I think I’m one of the industry’s few extroverts, so the thought of working on a group project really appealed to me. The other issue is topic and timing. We’re all stretched pretty thin and have a lot going on, but if the topic is appealing and you can work it into your schedule, it’s worth the effort. Plus, it’s been great fun promoting the anthology with the other authors, and we’re very excited about the tour. We’re all friends! I asked a few of the other featured authors if they had anything to add, and here are their perspectives, as well:

Lauren Willig: “Shorter doesn’t mean faster or easier! Short story writing is a very different art from that of the novel, from pacing to character development. So for a novelist, it can actually take longer and be more of a stretch to try her hand at writing a short story. A rewarding challenge, certainly, but definitely a challenge.”

Marci Jefferson: “One obvious consideration before jumping into an anthology is whether or not your participation might violate the terms of your regular publishing contract. Besides that, I viewed this opportunity as an invitation to stretch myself creatively while staying true to the brand I’ve built.”

Hazel Gaynor: “For me, it comes down to being excited about the subject matter of the anthology. I was really excited about the concept for FALL OF POPPIES, and although I hadn’t written directly about the Great War, I had touched on it in the novel I was writing at the time, so the fit was perfect. FALL OF POPPIES was an opportunity to stretch myself by focusing on a new part of history, whilst staying with my love of historical fiction.”

4. You’re doing a self-funded promotional tour for the book. How did you put a collective plan in place for that? Are there any dos and don’ts you’ve learned that you could share with other writers looking to group tour (whether for joint projects or for separate books)?

I chose a few stores on the East Coast—three of us are local to the Connecticut/New York City area, so that made sense—as well as a couple of signings in the Midwest where a couple of the others live.

I would recommend authors not travel to areas where they don’t have a solid connection to the community. It’s difficult to guarantee an audience even in your hometown, much less elsewhere. I’ve seen a lot of writers spend a fortune on tours only to have fairly weak turnout. Touring with one or more authors is usually better as fans of both authors may turn out to show support and you are introduced to new readers.

Editor’s Note: This tour’s latest stop is tonight in Cincinnati, where WD is based, and I’m excited to be able to attend and congratulate a trio of these writers in person on such a beautiful book. If any local writers are reading this, maybe I’ll see you there!

Learn more about Fall of Poppies here.

Yours in writing,
Jessica Strawser
Editor, Writer’s Digest magazine
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