12 October 2009

Spotlight on . . . Mindy Withrow

Welcome to the Literary Road Trip and my Spotlight on . . . Mindy Withrow. I met Mindy on Twitter and found out that, although she is back in her home state of Ohio, she started writing her young adult series when she lived in Philadelphia. That makes her a (partial) Pennsylvania author in my mind. Plus, I always have a soft spot for a fellow Ohioan.

Mindy and her husband, Brandon, are the co-authors of the five-book History Lives Series, which brings the history of Christianity to life. Here are some of the guiding principals behind the books, taken from The History Lives Series website:

The history of the church does not belong to adults alone. Children have much to gain by learning about their Christian heritage. But most church history books for kids are either too textbook-ish to enjoy or too brief and sanitized to be accurate. Our desire for the History Lives series for children (ages 9–14) is to provide an engaging, accurate introduction to the true story of Christianity.

Sounds intriguing, doesn't it? I am so pleased that Mindy took the time to tell us how the series came into being and to give us some insight into the writing process.

The Birth of a Series to a Two-Author Family

I'm so honored to write this guest post for Beth's excellent blog. She gave me great freedom in deciding what to tell you about, so I thought I'd address the couple questions I most often get from readers. The two things most people ask are: 1) How did you come to write the History Lives series? and 2) You and your husband wrote 5 books together? And you're still married?! (That second one is more of a statement than a question, but you get the drift!) Well, here's what happened.

Ever since my husband and I finished college together, we had talked of doing a joint writing project. For several years we were both busy with our own things, working and writing articles and going to grad school. Two months before 9/11, we moved to Philadelphia, where Brandon started a PhD program in historical theology and I took a position directing the marketing communications for an international seminary. At night, I toyed with various book ideas, among them some historical vignettes I thought I might someday propose as children's books.

In one of those serendipitous, double-take moments, I received an email at work from a publisher that had worked with several of our faculty members in the past. She was wondering if I knew of anyone with an interest in writing kid-oriented books about the history of Christianity. Did I!

It turned out that their editorial team was planning a series of 4 books geared toward ages 9–14, with each one to be written by a different author. When I showed their tentative series outline to Brandon, he immediately began to re-draw it, suggesting that 5 books better fit the historical eras, and filling out the initial list of characters he thought should be featured for the most balanced approach. We cobbled together this new outline and sent in our feedback. They invited us to submit sample chapters and tell them which volume we were most interested in writing. So we did. A month later the children's editor emailed me to ask if we were interested in writing the whole series. And thus began a 7-year process we never could have anticipated, but through which we learned so much—about writing and about ourselves.

Brandon and I both had experience writing non-fiction—academic papers, book reviews, interviews, that sort of thing—but neither of us had seriously worked on getting into a character's perspective, or writing action scenes that would hold a child's interest, or crafting dialogue that was 1) believable, 2) accurate to the time period, and 3) age appropriate. But over the 7 years we spent midwifing our 5 books, we got a lot of practice in those areas—most of it across the table from each other at one Philadelphia coffee shop or another. (We joke that all the royalties went straight to the Philly java industry, but it's not really a joke—you're welcome, baristas!) Each of us would pick a character we wanted to feature, dive into the research, and crank out the shape of a chapter. Then we'd start emailing the text back and forth, cutting or adding scenes, revising each other's research, and filling in background details that would overlap with other chapters. We both have our strengths—Brandon is unbelievably good at research (he's an academic, so it figures), and my background is in editing—so the work fell into some natural patterns. But it's also true that by the time we finished a chapter, neither of us could remember who had written exactly what.

This is how we spent lunch hours, evenings, weekends. When we got stuck, we'd take long walks at the park or around our apartment complex, discussing the particular roadblock—a discrepancy in the historical record, or how to explain to a modern kid why a certain theological controversy could mean everything to the people involved, or even just a character who was giving us attitude. "Jerome is so contrary! You won't believe what he said about Ambrose." Anyone overhearing us must have thought we were talking about our kids. And in a way, we were. They were our characters, we were bringing them to life together, and we scheduled our days around them.

And so, among the lessons we learned (including growing more familiar with the publishing process, and having our eyes opened to the immense diversity in the Christian tradition), the most important lesson to us personally was that we could not only survive writing books together, but we actually thrive on it. When Rescue and Redeem, the final book of the series, released this spring, we heaved a sigh of relief. It had been a long project and we were anxious to move on to other things. But recently we've started talking about a new joint project, this time for adult readers. For the moment, we're both working on independent projects—he's writing an academic history and I'm trying my hand at short fiction—but I have a feeling it won't be long before the new idea demands our attention.

Thank you so much, Mindy. I can just picture the two of you—each in front of your own computer—furiously emailing chapters and websites and ideas back and forth. What an amazing experience. I also have to say that I love the covers to the books (click on the images to see them enlarged).

If you don't know already, Mindy is also a book blogger and a host of the Ohio edition of the Literary Road trip. Be sure to add her Mindy Withrow: Write.Read.Blog to your reader.

Mindy Rice Withrow is co-author of the five-volume History Lives series, a YA history of Christianity. An editor and marketing communications specialist, she runs a literary website and is currently working on short fiction and a novel. Born and raised in Northwest Ohio, she has lived in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Birmingham, AL, and has recently returned to her home state, where she lives with her husband, historian Brandon Withrow.

For more posts in the Literary Road Trip project, visit the LRT link page. Thanks to Michelle of GalleySmith for hosting this fabulous project.


Mindy Withrow 10/12/09, 1:38 PM  

Thanks so much, Beth! It was fun to write this guest post for you and I so appreciate all your thoughtful posts---and tweets!

Cara Powers 10/12/09, 1:52 PM  

What a fabulous story! I think I want to read them and I don't have kids.

bermudaonion 10/12/09, 3:26 PM  

They must have a strong marriage if it survived writing 5 books! This was a great guest post!

Michelle 10/12/09, 4:33 PM  

This sounds like an amazing series and I know from reading Mindy's blog she does amazing work. The fact that she had the opportunity to work with her husband on them makes it all the better!

Julie P. 10/12/09, 7:45 PM  

So interesting! She definitely counts as an honorary Pennsylvanian!

Veens 10/12/09, 8:39 PM  

wow... That was a great guest post.. 7 years of writing together!
The books sound goof too.. I am glad they really did get the opportunity to work together!

Margot 10/12/09, 9:32 PM  

Very good guest post. I want to read these books too - with or without children.

Alice 10/12/09, 10:38 PM  

Hi Beth, thanks for this great post and for hosting Mindy.

Hi Mindy! You're right. Beth's blog is excellent and it's a wonder it took me so long to discover hers. My biggest thanks to BBAW for that!

Carrie K. 10/12/09, 10:53 PM  

I can say first-hand that this series is wonderful - I have read books one and two aloud to my kids, and we all enjoyed them. We own the whole series, and will be reading the rest very soon.

Unknown 10/13/09, 12:25 PM  

While these books were written with children in mind, they are great for adults.I know of several adult Bible studies using these right now.I would encourage you all to take the time to catch a glimpse of our past. The diversity the drama the reality that in every generation people are at their best only people, flawed and in need of a savior.

Anonymous,  10/13/09, 8:48 PM  

I always like learning about new Ohio authors. sounds like a great series.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) 10/13/09, 9:49 PM  

This was a great guest post -- I didn't know Mindy and her husband worked so closely on the books. Very cool :)

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