When not teaching chemistry or building Lego sets, Julie C. Gilbert writes in several genres, including middle grade fantasy, YA scifi, nonfiction, Christian mystery/ thriller, and general thrillers. She enjoys hot tea, creamy coffee, walks on sunny days, and listening to audiobooks.
You teach high school chemistry. That seems such a contrast to writing. How do you reconcile this seeming disparity? Which came first? Chemistry or writing?
Writing came first, just before and throughout college. By the time I finished college, I knew I didn’t want to do research, so the most logical thing to do with a biology degree was to grab a Masters of Arts in Teaching and do that. So, I did. I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would, and ended up teaching chemistry at my old high school for a few years. So I returned to college to get the rest of the chem credits and the rest is history.
Having both keeps me fed, watered, and sane. The day job satisfies the very ordered half of me that enjoys knowledge, pays the bills, and lets me interact almost daily with an intriguing bunch of people. You really can’t predict the things teenagers think or say. That keeps life interesting and a smidge terrifying. The writing lets me exercise the creative side of me that also enjoys peace, quiet, and solitude. Besides, what other job gives you a legit excuse to talk to yourself and research cool things like high end Italian shoes and how many bullets fit in various types of gun?
How did you become a writer and then get published?
I wrote several stories at a rate of one major project per summer from just before college through to just a few years ago. By then, I trusted myself to start writing mid-year.
The path to publishing was murkier. I tried the traditional road and almost got caught in some flat-out major scams. That kind of scared me off that path. Before Amazon, Draft to Digital, and a few other sites made the process extremely easy, I used a print-on-demand self-publisher called iUniverse. They were pretty straightforward about what their costs were, and ignoring all their upgrade options was pretty easy. These days, I do most things myself. You live and learn from almost any experience, even the bad ones.
The day job also allows for some experimenting in the writing and publishing realm.
Tell us about your writing process. How do you develop your plots and books?
I started out as a pantser – somebody who just sits down and throws words into a doc. This works because once you write something, there’s a natural flow to what should happen next, so the story can unfold itself. Heartfelt Cases 1-3 were done in that style. But my outlines have grown more extensive over time. How it unfolds depends on three major points: genre, narrative voice, and place in a series. They’re kind of intertwined.
Genre dictates quite a bit like how you name people, places, and things. It also might lend itself more readily to a certain length of manuscript or a narrative point of view. Middle grade works are generally shorter than epic fantasy. Science fiction and fantasy end up longer than most mysteries because there’s a lot more world-building to do. Prequels are fun because there are set points in the main series that need to be addressed or alluded to. Sequels likewise are fun because you get the next phase of the action. There are four books in Devya’s Children, but I’d like to finish that series someday. The kids have come far, but there’s still a sense that things are unresolved.
The process these days goes something like this: idea, outline, refine outline, expand. For the first time, I’m working on three major, very distinct works in progress. One is about a school shooting, one is a longer prequel to Redeemer Chronicles, and the third is a very short fairy tale. The short story sprang out of a throw away line in the school shooting story, which is set in the real world. For ages, I’d kept myself away from writing about schools, but it’s time. It’s also a super dark topic so I write other stuff at the same time.
You have written books from such a wide range of genres: young adult science fiction, children’s, fantasy, poetry, Christian mystery, mystery/suspense, mystery/thriller, and traditional science fiction. What makes you choose so many genres? How does your approach to each genre differ?
I like telling stories. Genres are just a fabricated convenience used to categorize them. Most worthwhile stories have characters you can relate to and events you can follow. Something’s gone wrong or isn’t right and it’s up to the main character and company to set things right. Confession: my first story was solely based around the idea that I wanted to write about a kidnapping. At the heart of such a thing, there might be an innate desire to control a type of event that’s terrifying and usually heartbreaking in real life. Okay, so that’s how Devya’s Children started too, but I have a strange mind that really loves science too. Therefore, the kidnapping story featuring Jillian turned into a series about genetically Gifted children.
As mentioned previously, genre dictates a lot right off the bat from projected project length to whether I’ll be doing first person or third person or a mix. Redeemer Chronicles has a bit of a mix because the Lady is an immortal. She’s not quite omniscient, but her sections have a lot more of a third-person vibe to them.
The amount of work I have to do to name stuff greatly differs depending on genre, but the approach to the story is pretty similar. I start with a blank document and throw down a short overview of the story context and a list of things that should happen. If it’s a prequel or sequel, this might be controlled by stuff that needs to happen or already happened. That list gets beaten into a chapter list with little paragraph blurbs about what unfolds in the chapter.
You write Christian mystery/ thrillers. Some people would consider Christian material to be incompatible with thrillers. How do you respond to such comments?
Thriller’s a very expansive genre; so is mystery. Thrillers are meant to evoke a certain kind of emotion from the reader, specifically heightened suspense or mild anxiety. Christian literature is probably even broader still since it includes anything that has the Christian worldview or themes. From the widest possible definition, since I am a Christian and therefore everything I write comes through my worldview, one might say I only write in that genre. But widening up genres that far renders them pretty much useless for categorizing purposes.
I suppose it comes down to how one describes the events and which words are chosen. While I might write something like “he muttered a string of curses,” I have specifically chosen to never include actual curse words in my stories. There are Christian authors who do for a variety of reasons, but I’m a teacher. There’s a chance these books could be picked up by one of my students. While I’ve probably heard worse from them on a regular basis, that’s not an excuse to further their exposure to invectives. Likewise, I can talk about certain events like a murder in a tactful or clinical way, or I could get into some gory details. I tend to lean toward cleaner descriptions. Let’s face it, there are different yuck factors when it comes to things like murder. Knives are so much more personal than guns.
Scratched Off comes closest to a traditional thriller. Heartfelt Cases is a closer cousin to cozy mystery. Heartfelt Cases is billed as Christian mystery. Scratched Off is not. The key difference I can see is that the main characters in Heartfelt Cases are Christians, while those in the other are not. Both books are considered clean in terms of language, though Scratched Off certainly has a darker vibe to it.
You run a set of Facebook groups as well as a monthly email called Audiobook Edge. Tell us about that.
The main goal of Audiobook Edge is to connect authors and narrators with readers who appreciate audiobooks. I review books that the authors or narrators submit to make sure they’re clean and kid-friendly. If they pass, they eventually end up on the newsletter that comes out the first Sunday of every month. Readers can request any book they want off that list. They’re encouraged to leave reviews and build relationships with the authors/narrators.
The author/narrator group is pretty active, but the reader group is still in a building phase. Eventually, the goal is to use the reader group as a place where people can discuss the books they’ve experienced from the list. I love audiobooks, but I get that many people do not. Like you, I’d like to be able to convince a few on the fence to give audios a try in a nice, safe environment.
You have been a strong advocate of audiobooks. What draws you to that medium?
With the amount of time I spend writing, teaching, or preparing to teach, audiobooks are about the only way I get to experience stories for pure entertainment these days. I’ve always enjoyed them. I used to have a decently long commute, so I would get books on CD from the library and catch up on things that way.
Audiobooks are an entirely different story experience. Some are full-blown dramas, but even others that only have one narrator give a new kind of experience. If the narrator has any skill at all, you should be able to distinguish between the various characters of a fiction novel. Audiobooks can be tough if you don’t fall in love with a narrator’s voice, but on the other hand, if you immediately connect with a person’s voice, the journey through the book can be even more enjoyable than reading the words on a page.
I can picture the character voices in my head, so it’s a joy to be able to search for a live voice that can bring a different kind of life to that character. As of this writing, I’m about to embark on the narrator search for The Holy War (female) and Scratched Off (male).
I’m interested in how authors select the names of their characters. How do you choose what to name your people and animals?
I have a thing for names and a rule that they must be pronounceable. How I generate names largely depends on the genre. If the story’s set in the normal world (a modern mystery like Heartfelt Cases or Scratched Off, a YA scifi like Devya’s Children, or a fantasy like Spirit’s Bane), I look names up on baby name sites. Sometimes, I need a certain meaning for a name. For Deyva’s Children and Spirit’s Bane, the name meanings became especially important.
Let’s talk Devya’s Children for a moment. Ashlynn means “dream.” The title Ashlynn’s Dreams is therefore a tad redundant, but that is the project name given to Jillian. Shh, don’t tell anybody, but it was sort of an accident that I named her Jillian too because that means “Child of the gods.” She’s a genetically altered kid who happens to be able to shape dreams. The scientists who created her were at the time playing god. Another child, Nadia Elena Ayers has a full name meaning of “Hope,” “shining light” or “bright one,” and “heir to a fortune.” Her Gifts all deal with the mind. She’s also developed a very strong instinct for protecting and providing for others, including her siblings. She gives them hope and works very hard to maintain an optimistic view.
More traditional fantasy like Redeemer Chronicles (or science fiction set in space), requires a lot more creativity. But I generally stick to my pronounceable rule. Each word has a flow to it, even made up ones. It took me over an hour to name one of the Redeemer Chronicles baddies: Kitsarue. For one thing, I wanted something strong, dangerous, but also mysterious. And I didn’t want it to be a curse word in a different language, so I had to do some fast and furious Googling. In naming the main planet from Redeemer Chronicles, I came up with Aeris. My brute force method of planet generally works like this: take a blank page and write as many random names and letter combinations that come to mind, then read that list over and over, whittling down as I go.
I got kind of lucky with Victoria’s name because I hadn’t intended for it to be a deep series. I’d originally envisioned a short parody of fantasy. What I got was the seed of a much larger allegory-like epic story. Victoria means “victory” or “conquer.” Victoria mostly goes by the shortened version of her name, Vic. I liked that it could be the beginning of victor or victim.
One of the main tricks to writing relatable fiction is to have enough of a foundation that the reader finds things they recognize. For example, in Redeemer Chronicles there are blueberries and baydonberries, essentially corrupted versions of blueberries that can make people violently ill.
Places on Aeris developed a specific flavor based on which faction in control of that city or village. Bereft (those without magic) villages have idyllic or practical names: Coldhaven, Bright Hope, River’s Edge, Serene Hills. Arkonai (those who generally manifest “light” Gifts) have strong, noble names: Cardeth, Bastion, Fortitude, Resilience, Castleton. Saroth (those who gravitate to the “dark” magic Gifts) have names that are a bit more foreboding or powerful: Dominance, Jorash, Kaltan City. Neutral places have gentle or hopeful names: Temperance, Outreach, New Hope.
You have a love of legos. Tell us about what draws you to those.
I played with them as a kid, of course, but I’d actually sold off most of that collection on eBay. Boy, did I regret that over time. A few years ago, a rather unique opportunity dropped into my lap. A colleague from work literally inherited about 700 sets from the 70s and 80s. About 100 of those sets were sealed sets, so I looked into ways to sell them for her. I found a site called Bricklink, which is basically Amazon for Legos. She gave me a few of the boxes, and I listed the sets for her. In order to list them, I need to know if the opened sets are complete, so I get the chance to build a ton of excellent, rare, and ancient sets.
What authors have shaped your own writing career?
That’s hard to say. I can tell you some big-names that I love and admire: Dee Henderson and Brandon Sanderson. Henderson’s stories are formulaic, but her characters are amazing. Sanderson’s a master at world-building. Being a chemistry fan, I loved the magic system present in Mistborn. Toby Neal introduced me to Kindle Worlds, which I’ve enjoyed participating in.
But mostly, I’m probably influenced by whoever I’m listening to/ reading at the moment. For example, I have never (or very rarely) attempted writing fairy tales, but an anthology opportunity opened up and I happened to be listening to a fairy tale/ short story book by E. Nesbit. Never heard of her before. Had to look up if she was in fact a she because I couldn’t tell from the initial. Anyway, I decided to tackle the fairy tale short story now while I had about 8 examples of the tone stuck in my head thanks to The Book of Dragons.
Learn more about Julie at the following sites:
Amazon page (to see all the pretty covers)
Email (to request audio book codes): [email protected]
Newsletter (to get 3 free e-books)