Eugenia Lovett West, who's still actively writing and publishing at age 96, takes perseverance to the next level.
What is it like to be writing and publishing at age 96? This is my story, and I hope it will give encouragement to writers of all ages. As a child, I loved to play with words, perhaps an inherited gene from a long line of teachers and preachers. Still, I didn’t write seriously until I was over forty and my youngest child was in school all day.
I started as a freelance reporter for local New Jersey papers. Feeling important, I rushed around covering everything from sewage disposal to state politics. Journalists must learn to write fast, check facts, avoid adjectives and adverbs, but soon came the nagging question. Instead of 300 words, why not 300 pages?
My first book was sheer trash, but the virus had taken hold. The second try, The Ancestors Cry Out, was a historical/suspense novel set in a sugar plantation in Jamaica, WI. Huge elation when it was published by Doubleday and Ballantine in 1979. At last I could write the word author in the blank that asks for occupation.
With hindsight, it might have been wiser to stick to one genre. but after collecting a pile of rejections, I decided to turn to cozy mysteries. In 2004 Stripped was self-published as a Christmas present for friends and family. They liked it, so I took a deep breath and entered St. Martin’s Press Malice Domestic contest for first unpublished mysteries. Months passed, but on one fine June morning I opened my computer and nearly levitated out of my chair. The renowned Ruth Cavin, the grande dame of mystery editors, was offering me a contract for two books. Believe me, it doesn’t get better than that. Suddenly I was a pro again, no longer the wannabe with my nose pressed against the glass.Without Warning was published in 2007, and Overkill in 2009.
Fast forward to 2019 and the publication of Sarah’s War, set in 1777 during the war for independence. For years the manuscript sat on a shelf, but it was always in the back of my mind. My interest in this war began with fascination about the contrast between the British officers living it up in Philadelphia and Washington’s desperate struggle in Valley Forge. To add to the bleak picture, the thirteen states were acting like separate principalities and a weak Congress was doing little to support the cause.
Research was key. I spent four days in Pennsylvania studying the battle at the Brandywine River. I knew where every regiment in both armies was standing. I learned that the British general Lord Cornwallis made a fearful mistake in letting his troops fall out and eat, delaying the fighting and giving Washington’s men a chance to escape in the dark. But to avoid the dreaded “info dump”, I decided to exert great will power, revise drastically, and make Sarah the centerpiece of the story.
Over time, Sarah became as close to me as my own daughters. I came to love her as she was forced to change from naïve country girl to clever spy. I suffered when she faced heartbreak, and held my breath every time her life was threatened. I applauded her determination to help form a new and independent country. It’s easy to forget the sacrifices those early patriots made as they faced divided loyalties, tried to create a lasting form of government, and ultimately forge a union that could survive hard tests and endure for generations.
It’s a given that writing at any age requires a major dedication of time. Young writers have the luxury of experimenting, but when the numbers are over ninety, there’s a slowing down, a sense that every day should count. Slip on the ice and in a nanosecond life changes. It was hard to know whether to be up front about my age and perhaps lose younger readers. I decided to be transparent and try to show that age and creativity can exist together. It’s a great blessing to wake up in the morning with work to do. Work that can be accomplished by sitting at a computer and letting the imagination soar.
Writers are often asked about the process of writing a book, as if it requires some form of magic. My feeling is that writing is 10% talent and 90% applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. Story is key. I like to think of myself as a story teller, and I try to give readers total immersion into another world. The “You are There” motivation goes back to when I had little children clinging around my ankles, and nap time was a chance to read and regain sanity. In these chaotic days, I think that the need for escape reads is stronger than ever.
In a way, writing a book is like making a stew. You throw in the ingredients, stir, and hope for the best. Accept the fact that it will take time, trial, and error to find your unique and special “voice”.
A major rule is “show, don’t tell.” I had to learn the hard way, that dialogue will move the action without endless descriptions. A few vivid details can get you over places that might strain a reader’s credibility. For me, it’s important to have a sub plot that affects people globally. Mine have included advanced weapons, viral epidemics, cybercrime, and the founding of this country. My plots aren’t set in concrete. I usually start with a general idea and let pictures run through my mind like watching a movie. Characters tend to be strong women who are working their way through disasters set in interesting backgrounds.
What is my routine? I’ve always been a morning person. I like to sit in bed eating breakfast and planning the next few pages. Once in a while there’s a log jam. At that point I write “What If” and conjure up several possible solutions. It usually works. And I go to bed at night with paper handy in case an idea should come to the surface.
One might say that being a writer is like being in two worlds. The one where you talk and laugh and eat, and the other where you are existing with a different cast of characters. They are on a long journey, and a writer’s job is to persevere and guide them to a satisfying destination.
Eugenia Lovett West was born in Boston, MA, attended Sarah Lawrence College, then worked for Harper’s Bazaar and the American Red Cross. In 1944 came marriage to a dashing Army Air Force fighter pilot. They had four children, traveled extensively, and were together for sixty years. After doing volunteer work, West started writing as a freelance journalist for local weeklies in New Jersey, then made the leap to novels. The first, The Ancestors Cry Out, was published by Doubleday and Ballantine. Without Warning and Overkill came from St. Martin’s Press; a third in the Emma Streat series is in the pipeline. West spends summers at Squam Lake in Holderness, New Hampshire, and winters in Essex, Connecticut. Her greatest joys are her children, grandchildren, and large, close, extended family. She values kindness and is doing her best to age with grace―and to keep writing.
Check out these upcoming online courses:
- Advanced Novel Writing with Mark Spencer
- Advanced Poetry with Elizabeth Huergo
- Character Development: Creating Memorable Characters with Gloria Kempton
- Introduction to Copyediting with Kim Catanzarite
- The Art of Storytelling 102: Showing vs. Telling with Terri Valentine
- Writing the Romance Novel with Elizabeth Delisi