Author Interview: Dianne K. Salerni on The Caged Graves

Dianne Salerni at the real caged grave of Sarah Ann Boone. Photo credit: Robert Salerni
Dianne Salerni at the real caged grave of Sarah Ann Boone.
Photo credit: Robert Salerni

Last month I read and reviewed The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni. It was definitely a favorite book this year and a very fine work of historical fiction (and mystery to boot!). Because of the magic of Twitter, I also started “talking” to Dianne after the review posted and was lucky enough to set up this interview. Needless to say I’m delighted to have her answering questions about The Caged Graves on the blog today!

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Dianne Salerni (DS): I’ve been writing all my life, but I was too timid to seek publication. My husband is the one who started submitting my work to agents and editors. He had no success with anything I wrote in the early years of our marriage, and rightly so, because those works were NOT ready! But when I finished a historical novel in 2006 (my first attempt at that genre and my best book to-date), he suggested self-publishing it without even trying the traditional route. That book, High Spirits, was later picked up by Sourcebooks and re-published with the title We Hear the Dead. It also attracted the attention of an independent Hollywood producer. A movie option resulted in the production of a 10 minute short film, The Spirit Game, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Shortly after We Hear the Dead was published, I began looking for representation and after an 8 month search received an offer from Sara Crowe of Harvey Klinger, Inc. The Caged Graves is the first book Sara sold for me.

MP: What was the inspiration for The Caged Graves? (Trick question! We know the story started with the two real caged graves as explained on your website. But how did you decide what direction to use for your own story?)

DS: I briefly considered writing a novel about the two young women and how they ended up in the graves, but I wanted the graves to be the central mystery in the story – not how the story ends. So, I decided to focus on a daughter of one of the women. If the daughter had been sent away to be raised by relatives after her mother died – a common thing in the 1800s – it was plausible that she might not know the story behind her mother’s death and the graves.

Having decided that much, I started researching the history of the area. When I read about the Wyoming Massacre in the Revolutionary War and the Shades of Death swamp, I wanted to weave that history into the story. A plotline began to develop that tied together a legend of lost treasure, a deadly swamp, and a young woman’s search for answers about her mother’s death.

MP: The Caged Graves is about quite a few things including Verity’s reconnecting with her birthplace and her family. It’s also a bit of a mystery and a story of suspense. As a writer, how did you go about bringing these elements together in one story? Did you always know Verity’s familial relationships would play such a large part in the story?

DS: I am a hopeless pantster. So, no, I did not know her relationship with her father and other relatives would play such a big role. I had the solution to the mystery in mind when I started the book, but getting the clues presented in the right order and at the right time took multiple drafts and claimed most of my attention. Verity’s relationship with her family and her adjustment to living in the mountain town developed along the way. I credit my editor, Dinah Stevenson, for encouraging me to give more “screentime” to that part of the story. Sometimes, in an effort to get the word count down, I have a tendency to cut things that should not be cut. Dinah’s editorial comments encouraged me to make the family elements a priority in the story.

MP: Both The Caged Graves and your earlier novel We Hear the Dead are historical novels. What are some of the challenges or unique experiences of writing historical fiction?

DS: Getting the historical details right is always a challenge. One small thing that drove me nuts was figuring out where Verity would acquire ornamental plants to adorn her mother’s gravesite. Florists and nurseries would not have existed at that time and in this place. Ultimately, common sense prevailed, and I had her get cuttings from someone who already had the plants. (How that person got the plants was not my problem!)

Another issue is language – especially weeding out vocabulary, idioms, and turns of phrase that would not have been used in 1867.  I spent a lot of time on and other sites, tracking down the origin date for various phrases. If I could not prove the phrase dated to that time, I changed it.

MP: In some sense, this book starts with a choice as Verity has to decide between staying with relatives in Worcester or returning to the much smaller and less urbane town of Catawissa. If you were in Verity’s position, what choice do you think you would have made?

DS: Verity moves back to Catawissa to marry a young man she knows only through letters. This is not so different from meeting somebody online, having a virtual romance, and then meeting him in person. While I can imagine doing that part – I’m not so certain I would have the guts to move across the country and settle in a new place. I have lived in the same county of Pennsylvania all my life, surrounded by family. Of course, Verity was returning to family when she moved to Catawissa, but they were nearly strangers – even her father. Verity is a lot more bold and outgoing than I am. I think I would have been too timid and shy to do what she did.

MP: While a big part of the story is, of course, the caged graves I have to say what really stood out to me were the wonderful characters. Are any characters particularly close to your heart? (I was about to name my own favorites when I realized it would be all of them!) Was one character more fun to write than others? Was any character harder?

DS: I love all the minor characters as much as the major ones. I was particularly fond of Verity’s father, Ransloe, who had trouble re-connecting with a 17 year-old daughter he barely knew. I had a lot of fun with her fiancé’s sisters and Verity’s young, rambunctious cousins. Hadley Jones, the doctor’s assistant, turned out completely different than I’d planned him to be – a lot more playful and irreverent, with a rather unconventional doctoring style.

I’d have to say the character I worked on the most was Verity herself. I wanted her to learn something about herself during this book, which means that she starts out with some faults – she looks down on the country townspeople at times, she makes assumptions about everyone she meets, and she is sometimes tactless. But she’s also compassionate and kind at heart. I wanted her to realize her mistakes, while still holding true to her personality. And I wanted her to be likable, in spite of her faults.

MP: One of the interesting things about The Caged Graves is how the secret of the graves comes together and the book’s surprise ending. There are a lot of twists and turns in this story. How did you go about setting up the pace of the story? How did you decide what details to reveal when?

DS: It took several drafts for me to get the clues presented in the right order and at the right time. My beta readers helped me out with that. A couple of them pointed out I was holding secrets back too long. One person in particular mentioned that, in a mystery, the reader wants to feel as if s/he is making progress at figuring things out all along the book; otherwise it’s too frustrating.

I knew the story behind Verity’s mother’s death and the caged graves before I even started writing the first draft. However, I did not have a resolution planned out for the legendary treasure when I began writing. I was about two-thirds into the first draft when the idea for my climactic scenes came to me, and I changed what I had originally planned to happen. (This also required me to go back and snip out plot threads I had planted earlier for an ending that was no longer going to happen.)

MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?

DS: My next project is something completely different – a middle grade fantasy in a contemporary setting. The Eighth Day is about a boy who discovers an extra 24 hours between Wednesday and Thursday and a mysterious girl hiding in the house next door who exists only on that secret day. HarperCollins bought the story in a 3 book deal, with the first book expected to release in Summer 2014.

I am currently completing editorial revisions for Book 1 before it enters the copy-editing stage. A draft for Book 2 will have to be revised to match the changes I made in Book 1, and I am still planning Book 3. So, I am really looking for the school year to end so I can devote more time to those projects!

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

DS: Keep writing! When you complete a project and begin querying, start a new project – (not a sequel). Things don’t always happen in the order you expect. The Caged Graves is the first book my agent sold for me, but it’s the second book I sent her. The Eighth Day is the second book she sold, but it was the fourth one I gave her. That doesn’t mean the other manuscripts won’t eventually have their day, too, but it does mean that the more you have to offer, the more likely you are to get picked up by an agent, and ultimately, an editor.

Thanks again to Dianne Salerni for a great interview. You can also read my review of The Caged Graves here on the blog and visit Dianne Salerni’s website for more info about her and her books.