Exchange Personalities presents an interview with Margaret L. Carter, author of horror, fantasy, and paranormal romance novels, including vampire romance Crimson Dreams, and co-author of the “Wild Sorceress” series. As of this writing, Mrs. Carter has published over twenty works of fiction as well as four books and numerous articles on vampirism in literature, including Different Blood: The Vampire as Alien. Her latest release is the horror novel with romantic elements titled From the Dark Places.
She received degrees in English from the College of William and Mary, the University of Hawaii, and the University of California (Irvine). Moving around the country as a Navy wife, she occasionally taught college English classes in various locations. Thereafter, she worked for over twenty years as a legislative editor for the Maryland General Assembly. Residing in the state of Maryland in the United States, Margaret has been a client of Writers Exchange since 2016.
Tell us about yourself and what led up to your first published work?
I learned to read at the age of four and, as an only child until my father got remarried to a woman with two daughters, I was always introverted and bookish. As a preteen, I discovered classic and vintage horror fiction, from which I expanded into fantasy and “soft” SF. After reading Dracula at the age of twelve, I became fascinated with vampires and started writing my own supernatural-themed stories. I read all the vampire fiction I could find (which wasn’t so easy in the mid-1960s) and began informally collecting it. Since I didn’t know of an anthology of vampire stories (a few did exist by the late 60s, but I wasn’t aware of them), I decided the world needed one. I assembled an anthology of classic tales, plus a few recent ones I especially liked, in chronological order. I knew nothing almost about publishing except to enclose a SASE. After a wait of about a year, the first publisher I had queried, Fawcett, accepted Curse of the Undead and published it in 1970. That would never happen nowadays! As I learned when I tried to market other vampire anthologies in later years, that form is very hard to sell unless one happens to have an extensive track record as an editor already.
What person or event do you feel shaped who you are today?
Reading Dracula! The resulting fascination with vampires, horror, and speculative fiction in general inspired me to become a writer and to major in English, eventually earning a PhD in that field. Mutual interest in fantasy and science fiction brought my future husband and me together when we first met in a church youth group. Neither of us had ever before met anybody else who wanted to be a writer. (We have collaborated on several short stories and the “Wild Sorceress” fantasy series.) Love for horror and fantasy had another major effect on my life when it led me to read C. S. Lewis, who became one of my all-time favorite authors. Reading Lewis drew me back into the habit of church attendance and eventually resulted in my joining the Episcopal Church along with my husband; we’ve been active in our local congregation for many years.
If you became omnipotent and could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
I’d be tempted to invoke a wish something like the one made by the protagonist of a “deal with the Devil” story I read a long time ago, which would increase the welfare and happiness of everybody in the world (well, except those who are already fabulously rich): “Without any change whatsoever in myself or my circumstances, I wish to become the most miserable, poor, unhealthy, immoral, selfish person on Earth.” Of course, I’d have to tweak the wording to prevent a trick such as fulfilling the conditions by making me the ONLY person on Earth.
Point of view is (unimportant, a convention, a critical part of narrative, a pain in your brain or over-rated) :
A critical part of narrative. The factor of seeing the action through a particular character’s eyes makes a vital difference in how the reader perceives the story. Is the viewpoint character likeable or unsympathetic, reliable or unreliable? I’m highly conscious of “head-hopping” in books I read, and it drives me crazy (even in the bestselling, otherwise meticulously crafted Eve Dallas mysteries of J. D. Robb). One scene, one viewpoint, please! A truly omniscient voice, in which an author takes a godlike perspective, entering the minds of various characters at will and providing information no one character could know–think of Charles Dickens or J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—is, of course, a valid technique but extremely hard to do well.
What element of writing (dialogue, plot, characterization, etc.) do you find the most difficult?
Plotting. I generally know how a story will begin and end, but I struggle with the proverbial “sagging middle”, coming up with plausible complications, and devising a way of solving the characters’ problems that won’t seem to let the protagonist off too easily. That’s one reason why I’m a dedicated outliner.
Of your published work, what is your favorite first line? What makes it your favorite?
The first line of “The Speaking Touch”, in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s anthology Leroni of Darkover: “The doorknob gibbered at her.” I think it’s the most unusual and intriguing first sentence I’ve ever written, and it foreshadows the story’s main plot device without giving anything away. Ms. Bradley, in her prefatory note to the tale, even remarks on how the opening line grabbed her attention.
What character of yours do you most identify with?
Eloise, romantic partner of one of my vampire recurring characters, Claude Darvell. Eloise is basically an idealized version of myself, a writer of horror and paranormal romance who’s better-looking, more confident, and more successful than I am. Also, she’s married to my fantasy of the ideal ravishingly handsome and sensual vampire (loosely inspired by Christopher Lee, my favorite Dracula, although not the star of my favorite Dracula movies–in my opinion, the scripts of the films in which he plays the Count leave much to be desired).
How do the words get from your head to a document? Do you pre-write and transcribe or write directly into the computer, or have some other approach?
I compose directly on the computer screen. The idea of essentially writing a first draft twice (first by hand and then by transcribing) or having to revert to the old-style practice of retyping a manuscript for every round of changes would plunge me into a paralysis of despair. Also, I find that in recent years writing by hand for any length of time makes my wrist and fingers hurt. It puzzled me when I discovered that some people believe the ease of composing on a computer has lowered the general quality of writing. Word processing has by far improved my prose, because I can revise to any extent with no worries about whether it’s worthwhile retyping a page or chapter to change one sentence.
Pantser or plotter?
Definitely a plotter. I discovered in my first attempts at writing novels that if I didn’t know where the story was going, I would get bogged down in the middle and lose interest. For a similar reason, I no longer succumb to the temptation of writing the “good parts” first. If I started with the scenes I found most exciting, I could lose the motivation to tackle the other ones. So I outline exhaustively and write linearly, although if a fragment of narrative or dialogue for a future scene occurs to me, I may type it at the bottom of the text so I won’t forget to include it when its time comes. I’m not one of those lucky writers who enjoy the act of writing. I love outlining and don’t mind proofreading or light revision. The first-draft process, however, is painfully slow, so the more details I can determine in advance, the more easily I can “trick” myself into writing.
If you didn’t have writing in your life, what would be doing with that time instead?
At this stage of life, retired with no day job anymore, probably reading even more than I already do (which amounts to at least three books per week on average).
Writing: labor of love, obsession or obligation?
Something between obligation and obsession. I feel like a slacker if I don’t have a current writing project, or at least some writing-related activity (e.g., revision or proofreading), to work at. As mentioned above, I don’t usually enjoy the act of first-draft writing; however, I enjoy outlining in anticipation of what I want to write and later polishing the work and contemplating the finished product. So writing affects me a bit like an addiction: Doing it isn’t always pleasant, but I feel as if something’s missing from my life when I don’t do it. I can’t see myself ever stopping, since new ideas for stories I want to create continue to occur to me. If only I could wave a wand to have my outline magically transformed into a complete piece of fiction. 🙂
Do you recommend any support groups, how-to books, or other resources?
The most helpful book about plotting I’ve ever read is Karen S. Wiesner‘s First Draft in 30 Days. I use an adaptation of her method for every novel I produce.
What advice or philosophy would you like to offer to people thinking about writing a novel?
Read extensively, both inside and outside your chosen genre. Find a critique partner or a writing group to give you feedback. Remember that if you wrote 1000 words per day, you would have a draft of a typical novel in three months. You’d reach the same goal in twice that time by writing 500 words per day. Develop a routine that works for you, but never give up!