When Michelle Isenhoff isn't writing imaginary adventures, she’s probably off on one. She loves roller coasters and swimming in big waves. She’s an avid runner. She likes big dogs, high school football games, old graveyards, and wearing flip-flops all winter. Her dream vacation would include a lot of castle ruins. Once an elementary teacher, Michelle now homeschools two of her three kids and looks forward to summer break as much as they do.
Literary Juice: You have mentioned that your historical fiction series, the Divided Decade trilogy, is set in your home state of Michigan. In what ways has the state’s history, as well as your experience living in Michigan, influenced this series and its characters? Additionally, how has your role as both a former elementary teacher and homeschool teacher influenced the series?
I went into teaching because I love children’s literature. I started writing novels after I became a teacher, so education has played a very important role in the process. I write the book I’d want to read in my classroom, be it public school or homeschool. I put in all the literary elements I love—vivid imagery, dynamic characters, and layers of meaning—which often draw adults to my books. Kids probably read them more for the adventure. My aim, for my historical fiction as well as my other novels, has always been the classroom.
My Divided Decade series began because I spent a winter reading up on the Civil War in preparation for a family vacation to Gettysburg. In my reading, I discovered an account of a Detroit inn-keeper who often housed slave-catchers while harboring the runaways in his barn. That prompted me to dig further into Michigan’s role in the war, and the Divided Decade trilogy was born.
LJ: Not only have you written historical fiction, but fantasy, adventure/comedy, and an early chapter as well. Is there a set formula that you follow when writing different genres? If not, what is the writing process like when working with multiple genres?
While I still love historical fiction, it has some rigid parameters. After writing three HF novels, I wanted to explore some plots not dictated by historical fact. The Quill Pen and Song of the Mountain still contain a strong historical flavor, but their fantastical elements let me spread my wings. The only formula I followed is a very general one: conflict, bumps and bruises that mold and change a character, and resolution. The getting from one end to the other was simply freer.
Writing my Taylor Davis series, however, was a vastly different experience. This was a chance to stretch my writing, to experiment with a new style and method. I sacrificed some (not all) of the literary depth for humor, fast-moving action, and wild imagination. They are much more commercial in nature. They are also more structured. The first book was originally intended as a serial, so it was written in six “episodes”. Readers won’t recognize where they begin and end, but the divisions helped me pace each story during its creation. They've been very fun to write. The second book releases on January first.
LJ: Have you ever looked back on one of your published books and regretted anything about the story, whether it was the ending, something about a character, or a specific outcome in a chapter? If so, what would you change if you could?
Some of my books were written several times before I published. But Song of the Mountain was actually published and pulled within a week because it still didn't feel right. It underwent one more major revision and was republished several months later, to my complete satisfaction.
My biggest regret, however, is jumping in before I understood how to present a digital novel. While my books had all been critiqued by several quality beta readers and the stories were sound, I quickly realized I needed to hire an editor and learn how to create a more readable interior. Fortunately, digital publishing is very fluid. I simply re-uploaded the retouched files and the worst damage was fixed. Since then, I've also been replacing my cover images with professional ones as funds allow. The experience has prompted my commitment to publish only high quality products and to help other newbies arrive at that same conclusion a little sooner than I did.
LJ: What is the worst criticism you have ever received regarding any of your books? How did you overcome that criticism? Also, what is the best compliment you have received?
First, I evaluate the source of the criticism. If it comes from someone who routinely gives poor reviews or isn't’t interested in my genre but “read it anyway,” I take it with a grain of salt. When it comes from more knowledgeable sources, I learn all I can from the experience. Probably my most difficult criticism came from a peer who gave me a two-star rating. This was someone I admired as a writer, and her comments stung. But she had some valid points. My writing has grown stronger from her insights. I actually asked her to publish that review.
My greatest compliment comes every time a child emails me, whether to discuss part of a book, ask a question, find out when a sequel will be released, tell me he or she wants to become an author, or whatever. That contact means my book impacted a reader and that I did my job well.
I was also tickled when a 79-year-old man wrote to encourage me to “keep writing for us kids.”
LJ: What is the most surprising thing you have learned about yourself when writing?
That I can do it and do it well! I love to watch my skills improve. I've learned I can work under pressure, meet deadlines, and persevere when it gets tough. Writing a full-length novel and selling any copies at all is a huge accomplishment, and I’m thrilled to say I've done it eight times.
LJ: Your books have received fantastic praise on Amazon. What advice would you give aspiring authors looking to receive positive feedback for their own works as well? What can they do to captivate audiences and start building a fan base?
First, READ! You cannot be a good storyteller if you never come to understand the elements that make a story great. Second, don’t expect too much. There are hundreds of millions of digital books out there now, and it’s tough to make even a ripple. Keep in mind that if your Amazon sales rankings are in six figures, you’re still in the top 10% of books being sold on the site. But unless you write in the popular adult genres, you’re in for a tough slog. Do not expect to quit your day job. Third, don’t give up! Your books can gain a following.
Building a fan base is plain old hard work, but first you have to make sure your story is good (see above comment about READING). Get involved with an author group and take advantage of critiques. Learn the fundamentals and keep improving. Then invest in making your publication the best it can be. Hire help if you need it. At the very least, hire an editor. If you publish junk, any attempt at marketing is moot. Once you’re producing quality, network with others authors and with bloggers. Engage with your target audience. Ask for reviews. Use social media to your best advantage (which doesn't necessarily mean doing it all). Gaining a following is a long, slow crawl—one I’m still working at. I've met too many success stories to believe it can’t be done. But the first step, the very first step, is to give the readers something worth purchasing.
Historical Fiction by MICHELLE ISENHOFF
434pp; Kindle Price-$7.99
About this Trilogy: This set contains The Candle Star, Blood of Pioneers, and Beneath the Slashings.