Today’s post is a Q&A interview with Sarah Natale, the author of The Kiss of Death. Enjoy!
Q: Introduce yourself
A: Hi! I’m Sarah. Thanks for hosting me on your blog today, Chey! By day I’m a book publishing professional, and by night I’m an award-winning novelist. I launched my author career as a teen when a high school assignment, written at 17 years old, received a book deal from a publisher. I have always held a fascination for the tragedy that devastated 1/3 of Europe’s population and was excited to craft a story around the historical event in my senior creative writing class. That story, The Kiss of Death, received a fine arts literary award prior to publication. My book is used at the middle school and university levels.
A shameless word nerd, I have been called an L.A. Gal (Language Arts Girl) given my passion for words ever since I could hold a pencil. Over 150 of my works (stories, essays, poems, and articles) have appeared in various publications (books, magazines, and newspapers). I love playing classical piano and believe figure skating is the closest thing to flying (yes, it’s a sport!), though roller skates will suffice when ice isn’t an option. I dream every night in vivid detail. It’s terrifying and exhilarating, and I wouldn’t have it any other way! I can be found surrounded by books with an open notebook, pen in hand. Sarah Natale, literally translated, means the Princess of Christmas.
I’m a Summa Cum Laude graduate of Drake University, where I studied Writing, Public Relations, and Graphic Design. A trusted industry leader, I receive frequent public speaking invitations to teach “narrative writing” for students and “publishing 101” for adults of all ages. When I’m not presenting, writing, or collecting the out-of-print 1980s Sweet Valley series, I work as an editor in the Chicago area.
Q: What made you want to write about the bubonic plague?
A: Growing up, I never thought of myself as a historical fiction writer. I’ve always been fascinated by history, but I gravitated toward contemporary fiction when it came to my writing. So, how did The Kiss of Death happen? I actually started the tale as a high school assignment that was meant to be a short story but quickly took on a life of its own. In my excitement, I dived a little too deep into the research, got a little carried away, and found a publisher for the book-length work shortly after graduation. I’ve been a medieval history buff ever since!
For the historical fiction genre requirement, I chose to write about the medieval plague era because I was intrigued by the ability of an infectious disease to cause so much destruction and ultimately decimate 1/3 of Europe’s population. Of the two major outbreaks in history (14th and 17th centuries, medieval and Renaissance), I found that the medieval era—the dark ages of Europe—had more avenues for story conflict than the bustling ingenuity of the Renaissance. I loved the challenge of excavating history and incorporating the medical knowledge of the time into my story, much of which was primitive and counterproductive. For example, people didn’t bathe often because it was believed to be dangerous. Can you imagine living in such an era? If you’re a nerd like me and want to learn more about the plague, I’ve written extensively about its origins, its types, and the devastation it caused in this one-stop-shop article.
Q: What is your very first step when you get an idea for a new book?
A: Write it down! Whether it’s the middle of the night and all you have within reach is a ratty scrap of paper and pencil on your bedside table, or you’re in the shower and have to keep repeating it to yourself over and over (and over!) until you can reach dry land, do whatever it takes to preserve those ideas! It sounds silly, but so many great ideas have been lost to the fallibility of memory and well-meaning promises to yourself to “write it down later.” Trust me: by the time later comes, the details are long forgotten. At least the ones that matter. Don’t leave it up to chance—write when the inspiration strikes!
One of my favorite memories is the origin of the prologue to The Kiss of Death. I was getting ready for school in the morning, about to leave, when I was hit with a brainstorm. I grabbed a piece of paper so I wouldn’t forget and quickly jotted it down before I had to dash outside to catch the bus. It went through several rounds of revision before inclusion in the final publication, but the majority of the text remains largely intact from that fateful morning. You never know where the muse will take you. Don’t let her get away without a fight!
Q: How do you organize your notes?
A: Outlines, outlines, OUTLINES. I was vehemently opposed to them while growing up, preferring to plot it out as I went along—and subsequently running out of steam partway through. (Cue writer’s block!) It wasn’t until my senior year of high school, when my creative writing teacher required the use of outlines for our final project (which was, ironically, The Kiss of Death), that I discovered their merits. Yes, it’s a lot of work up front, but it makes the writing process so much faster and more efficient. And you don’t have to plot out everything. You can leave blanks, or “holes,” in the story to fill in later, which allows room for creativity. I’m forever thankful to Mr. Jerry Thiel for fostering my lifelong respect for outlines!
Q: How important is research to you? How do you go about your research?
A: I learned the value of research through writing historical fiction, but it’s a tool in the writer’s arsenal that’s not just limited to history. If you read the Acknowledgements section of contemporary fiction, writers often thank the experts they interviewed about modern-day subjects they had known little about. Studying folklore is a gold mine for writers, too. Fantasy writers frequently draw on mythology—just look at the Percy Jackson, Vampire Academy, and Harry Potter empires!
For historical fiction, though, it’s definitely a fun challenge infusing fact with fiction! While I compile the majority of my research up front, the writing process points out areas for expansion. Just like with outlines, sometimes I need to leave temporary gaps in my research when I discover new concepts to explore, in order to move the story forward. I write the first draft with my outline in hand and let my creativity run its course, leaving “holes” in the story wherever I’m uncertain about a historical fact or piece of information. Rather than stopping to look things up, prioritizing the narrative in the first draft allows for uninterrupted creative flow, and later drafts allow for extra research time to fill in the remaining details.
For The Kiss of Death, some historical elements on which I had based entire scenes were extremely difficult to find. For example, the opening chapter takes place at a morality play that main characters and childhood friends Elizabeth Chauncey and Matthias de Bourgueville are attending. It was hard enough to uncover entertainment practices of the 14th century, let alone the name of a play from the era. Discovering the title, The Pride of Life, was one of the last pieces of research I needed to fill outstanding “holes” in the story—and only a portion of the play survives! I toiled over this detail for ages, and once I found it, I rewrote the scene to incorporate elements from the play for the characters to engage in. With any kind of research, it’s incredibly rewarding when everything finally falls into place!
Q: Are there any resources or applications that you use for writing that you would want to recommend?
A: This is sort of an anti-answer, but here goes: go old school! Sometimes you just need to pick up a pencil and paper and write it out the old-fashioned way. While computers undoubtedly allow for faster and more efficient writing and editing, there’s something to be said about a connection to the page you just don’t get with digital technology. It’s a funny phenomenon, but when it’s just you and the paper, the scene might flow a bit easier. You can always type it up later. Plus, as with changing up your writing location, switching the medium can help battle writer’s block! That leads me to the next question…
Q: What do you do to get yourself to write when you don’t feel like it? Any tips to stay motivated?
A: I tried various word count goals for years and ultimately found the quality of writing they produced was subpar and required extra editing time. Time goals are paradoxically so much more efficient and effective. Quality > quantity!
While incentives like NaNoWriMo are great for churning out a vast number of words in a short amount of time, one of the biggest drawbacks to word count goals is unfocused writing that often necessitates excessive editing. For those who aren’t aware, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) takes place every November, where writers all over the world challenge themselves to produce a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. That’s nearly 2,000 words per day! While word count goals generally prioritize quantity, you may not have to sacrifice quality. With a well-developed outline and plan for the project prior to November 1st, NaNoWriMo may provide the best of both worlds: the motivation to whip out a decent novel in a month!
I recommend word count writing goals to beginners so they can practice getting into the habit of writing every day. It’s something I especially encourage when I visit schools and speak to students, many of whom could benefit from motivation- and discipline-building exercises. A daily word count goal is a great way to do that! But I recommend time writing goals to experienced writers because it takes some of the pressure off meeting an arbitrary word count and frees your brain to focus on telling the best story, while still meeting a writing goal. Again: quality over quantity!
Since making the switch from word count to time goals, I’ve found it to be an invaluable tool in the writer’s arsenal! That said, I don’t think it’s necessary or healthy to maintain a daily writing goal 365 days a year. I like to alternate periods of intense writing with periods of rest. And sometimes, life gets crazy, and it’s okay to have skip days without feeling guilty. I find that flexible daily writing goals keep me on track without making me feel overwhelmed, because it’s when you’re overwhelmed that the pleasure of writing turns into a chore.
Q: What is one tip you wish you had heard when you first started writing?
A: I started writing in childhood, literally as soon as I could hold a pencil. I looked up to my favorite authors; they were my role models. Each time I flipped open a book, I thought those beautiful sentences on the page came out just like that, the words strung together in perfect order. I imagined them flowing from pen to page like music, that a writer’s skill level was based on their ability to churn out flawless paragraphs, a perfect first draft masquerading as a final draft. I didn’t know that even the most experienced writers write multiple drafts, revise prolifically, and employ the critiques of writing partners, agents, and editors to get to that “final” version you hold in your hands.
In reality, the majority of what you write will stink. Royally. No matter how seasoned you are. Believe it or not, the measure of a good writer is not their ability to instantly produce good writing, but their ability to revise and, correspondingly, implement feedback. The best books are borne out of a writer’s ability to edit, and it wasn’t until much later in life that I learned the beauty and freedom of the “messy first draft,” along with the value of revision.
Q: Are you working on a new book?
A: Yes! I currently have several irons in the fire. I didn’t originally plan to continue Elizabeth’s story, but reader response has convinced me otherwise! Readers have strong emotional reactions to the ending (no spoilers!), which is awesome—it means I’m doing my job as a writer! I’m working on a sequel called The Kiss of Life, with potential for a trilogy—the third installment titled The Kiss of Faith. I’m really excited to continue Elizabeth and Matthias’s journey! Life will be a full-length novel told in Matthias’s point of view, eclipsing Death and continuing where Death left off. Life will become the “main” story, with Death serving as a prequel “teaser.”
I love love stories, so in addition to continuing my romantic romp through the plague era, I decided to go back to my roots and work on something a little more light-hearted: contemporary rom-coms. I have several of these in various stages of progress, as well!
I’m frequently asked for the release dates of these projects, so here’s my response: It’s a slow process, but that’s intentional. I was so young when I shepherded my first book into the world. As I often say during public speaking engagements, I’ve come a long way from the shy 17-year-old sitting in class, quietly penning a love story set during the tragedy of the medieval plague pandemic. I have learned a great deal since that time about writing, publishing, and life. Now a college graduate, there are some things I would have done differently in the publication of that first book. I would like my future releases to reflect that growth!
Q: Tell us about your book and where people can find it
A: The Kiss of Death encompasses a struggle for survival amidst a backdrop of deadly plague in medieval London, with a hint of romance. You can watch the trailer, read the first chapter, peruse the Educator Guide, check out Chey’s review, and pick up a copy on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. If you enjoy reading, I hope you’ll consider leaving a review on Goodreads. It means a lot, and every single one helps!
Elizabeth Chauncey is a well-off young woman in 14th century London. Though she is considered nobility due to a distant relative, she refuses to think of herself as such. She is close to a childhood friend, Matthias de Bourgueville, with whom she spends much of her time. They have just returned from an outing at the theatre when her world is shaken up.
Suddenly the servants have taken sick, and soon everyone in London is becoming ill with a mysterious disease. People are dying rapidly and the physicians can do little to halt the spread of disease. Elizabeth and Matthias begin to lose family members, causing a rift in their relationship as love and religion come between them. For what kind of God would inflict such pain and cruelty?
Finally, when her home is bolted shut and she and her sick and dying family are trapped inside a Plague House with no escape, Elizabeth is faced with a choice: remain and die, or flee and take cover in the faith that God will protect her. But time is running out, and she is losing hope. To top things off, Matthias has professed his undying love for her and a proposal of marriage. But if they’re all to die anyway, what is the point of going on?
In short, this is a story of a young woman faced with the pain of loss and decision to stay strong in a world that’s destined to destroy her and everything she loves. It is the tale of looking death in the eye and turning the other cheek. But when faith is lost and death is omnipresent, will she refuse its kiss?