Bette Lee Crosby: Creating Strong Characters In A Soft Southern Voice

Bette Lee CrosbyBette Lee Crosby is a USA Today bestselling author and winner of 15 Literary Awards. Specializing in Women’s Fiction, she has seven published novels plus two new releases scheduled for later this year.

Bette is best known for her strong character portrayals and the heartwarming Southern voice she claims as part of her heritage.

Previously Loved Treasures, her most recent release, turns the quirky characters of a boarding house into a family with a bit of magic and a feel-good pay it forward philosophy.

Here previous books include: Spare Change, Previously Loved, Life in the Land of IS, Cupid’s Christmas, What Matters Most, and The Wyattsville Series of southern stories.

Bette Lee Crosby Interview

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Books by Bette Lee Crosby

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Betty Lee Crosby Transcript

Tim Knox: Bette Lee Crosby is my guest today. Bette Lee is a USA Today bestselling author, winner of 15 literary awards, specializing in women’s fiction. She has seven published novels to her credit plus two releases coming later in the year.

Bette Lee is best known for her strong character portrayals and that’s one thing we talk about is how she develops these characters that are so real and so well-rounded they practically jump off the page. They just become real people to you. She also writes in a very heartwarming Southern voice and she speaks in a heartwarming Southern voice, so a really good interview from a lady with a very interesting backstory, which I’ll let Bette Lee tell you about.

Tim Knox: Bette Lee, welcome to the program.

Bette Lee Crosby: Thank you, Tim. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Tim Knox: It’s a pleasure having a nice Southern girl on the show today. Before we get into the work let’s talk a little about you. Give us some background.

Bette Lee Crosby: Well I write basically women’s fiction. I think it’s considered more literary fiction than anything else, very strong on character development. I believe that the story is in the heart, not as much probably in the actions. I don’t plot my stories out as well as some people do but I let the characters take me where they want to go.

Tim Knox: And you know what that’s one of the things I noticed in the research that I did about you. Everyone talks about what wonderful characters you come up with and I want to go into that a little bit but let’s go back to the beginning. When did you start writing?

Bette Lee Crosby: I didn’t discover that I was a writer until I was working at my first job. I studied to be an artist and I was doing packaging design and I was just a young kid. Some of the salesmen would come in and they’d give me a design to work on. I’d say, “Excuse me, sir, I need some copies of the back of this packaging.”

They’d say, “Oh just make something up, kid. Whatever you make up is okay with me.” I learned that I really loved to paint those pictures with words so I went on from there into marketing and then I wrote for most of my career for business.

Tim Knox: You were in advertising in the beginning?

Bette Lee Crosby: Yes I was.

Tim Knox: So you were writing basically things on the back of boxes and that spurred your interest. Did you ever think of writing when you were younger?

Bette Lee Crosby: No but I’ve always… storytelling is in my family. All Southerners are storytellers.

Tim Knox: I guess they are.

Bette Lee Crosby: I think it’s something that I come by very naturally and telling the stories is the important part I guess. The words are my tool to get me where I want to go with the story.

Tim Knox: Exactly. Now do you remember the first thing that you wrote? Were you writing short stories, novels? What were you writing?

Bette Lee Crosby: No I jumped in with both feet and started with novels. I had written many articles for business but the first fiction thing I wrote was a novel and that’s tucked away in a drawer which will never see the light of day.

Tim Knox: You know what? Ever author that I talk to has that novel in a drawer somewhere and they refuse to bring it out.

Bette Lee Crosby: I probably have about five or six of them.

Tim Knox: How long ago was that when you wrote the first one?

Bette Lee Crosby: That was about 12 years ago.

Tim Knox: Can I ask what it was about?

Bette Lee Crosby: It was so afield of what I write now but it’s hilarious. It was a very spooky mystery kind of story and I guess I had been reading a lot of Dean Koontz and Stephen King and it’s where it carried me at the moment but then I discovered that really was not my forte at all. My forte was delving into the soul of people and looking inside their heart.

In my stories I rarely describe the settings and the people in great detail. I mean, you know, give you enough to look at the picture but I think that understanding the inside of a person is more my forte than describing the outside of a person.

Tim Knox: I do like that because I think readers tend to come up with the vision of the person as they read and the more they learn, don’t you think?

Bette Lee Crosby: Yes I do, absolutely.

Tim Knox: Did you try at all to get that first book published?

Bette Lee Crosby: Not really, no. I kind of used it as a learning curve. I think you know when your work is good enough to be published and when it’s not, and I really worked at my craft for probably a good five years before I started even trying to get out there and have things published.

Tim Knox: Do you remember the first thing that you wrote that you thought was good enough to be published or you wanted to publish?

Bette Lee Crosby: Yes.

Tim Knox: What was it?

Bette Lee Crosby: That was a story called Beneath the Snow. It was a novel and it’s still not published. I have it in the drawer upstairs but I sent it out and I had an agent accept it and represent me for about six months but they never sold it to a publisher. Looking back I’m not really surprised because I don’t think it’s anywhere near as good as the work I do now.

Tim Knox: Is that something you think you might pull out and dust off someday?

Bette Lee Crosby: Possibly but, you know, my voice has changed so much in the way I write. I think that with each novel I wrote I got deeper and deeper into the development of the characters and when I really got to the point where I could develop the character I would physically feel everything they’re feeling; I could run the gauntlet of emotions right along with them.

When I got to that point I had stories people would believe in, that they would love, that they would care. I’ve read books where I’m reading the book and I’ll get a third of a way through and I say I don’t really care what happens to these characters.

I guess I was fighting myself on that and it took that long to really get to the point where I could honestly say that it’s really, really good enough. This is as good as anything else that’s out there. Then I felt confident about it and I felt like I could go ahead.

Tim Knox: Did you go back with your agent on that and go traditionally published?

Bette Lee Crosby: No I didn’t. I went to a publisher, Publish America, and they accepted it and they published it but they priced it very, very high. I was such an ingénue at that point. I’d written to several agents before and had a whole packet of rejection letters. Actually they used to ask me, well I really like the story but you don’t have a platform. I didn’t even know what a platform was. I was just focused on the writing itself.

So when Publish America published the book they released it and I started doing some speaking engagements locally and the word started to spread a little bit and the book started to do reasonably well considering. I mean it was overpriced to start with. Luckily those were the days before eBooks were out.

When the book started to sell reasonably well they increased the price $5. It was high to start with. It was priced at $19.95 and for an unknown author that’s just way, way, way too high for a paperback. Then they raised the price to $24.95 so then I just quit promoting it. I had a seven year contract with them. I said, you know what, I’m just going to let it run its course and whatever they sell they sell.

So about two or three years into the contract I had quit publicizing it or working on it at all. I went back to writing again and about three years into the contract they wrote to me and said we’d like you to give us the rights to do the eBook.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice. So of course I said no way. I knew they’d overprice the eBook and when I wouldn’t give them the rights to the eBook they offered me the opportunity to buy the book back and I did.

Tim Knox: Good for you. What book was that?

Bette Lee Crosby: It was actually Twelfth Child but when I first went with them they changed the name. They said they felt it was a little bit of a conflict and they changed the name to Girl Child. So it’s been rereleased now under Twelfth Child.

Tim Knox: Well congratulations on getting those rights back.

Bette Lee Crosby: Yeah that was very lucky. I was very fortunate. I think it was only because of the advent of the eBook.

Tim Knox: What was the lesson you came away with from that experience?

Bette Lee Crosby: I knew to know more about the industry before I jump in. Back then I really didn’t know the questions to ask. I had no say in pricing and we struggled back and forth over cover but having come from an art background I stood my ground on the cover.

Tim Knox: You learn from every experience and obviously you’ve learned well because you’ve got, gosh, how many books are you in now – seven, eight, nine books an you also do a series, which we want to talk about because I think series is one of the things that a lot of our listeners are interested in. You got those rights back. Is that when you started writing and publishing on your own?

Bette Lee Crosby: Not exactly. My husband is my publisher. He was at the point where we had moved to Florida and he was looking around saying, you know, I think I’d like to do something else. He was looking around. He’s always been in the financial field and I said, “What do you think of the idea of being a publisher or an agent?”

He said, “I don’t think much of that idea.” So it took a little convincing but along the way he came to agree with me. The first one we published was Cracks in the Sidewalk and it started doing well but, you know, we still were not in the business of the business. That’s when everything changed. When he got into it he started looking at it as a business, where I looked at it as a creative endeavor. So that was the big difference and we ended up doing a KDP free day on Spare Change.

We published Cracks in the Sidewalk and that’s one of my few books that’s not written in a Southern voice because it’s based on a true story and when I envisioned that story I could not envision it in any other voice other than the one it belonged in.

Tim Knox: A lot of your books you do write in that Southern voice, the Southern fiction, that sort of thing. I assume that’s very easy for you to do because you are a Southern girl. Do you find the Southern voice method of storytelling just universally appealing? You don’t have to be from the South to love these books.

Bette Lee Crosby: I think it’s universally appealing because the characters are so honest and so warmhearted and the language that they use is so reader friendly.

Tim Knox: I’m a Southerner and we don’t use all of the vowels and all of the consonants. It’s endearing we’re told. So you really cross several genres. You do Southern fiction. You’ve done some romance and humor. Talk a little about crossing those genre boundaries and writing as you do in each one.

Bette Lee Crosby: I basically think of my work as one genre and it’s really almost a literary fiction or a life genre because all my stories have to do with some aspect of life and there’s always been some particular thing in my own life or someone that I’m close to in their life or a story that I heard that triggered the thought of that particular novel. Although some have a touch of romance in them, almost all have some kind of a mystery in them so even though there are different aspects to the books, the common theme throughout is dealing with the challenges of life.

Tim Knox: Let’s go back to character development really quickly because you’re one of the masters of this. How do you develop these characters so fully? How much time do you spend on things like back story and that sort of thing to develop these characters?

Bette Lee Crosby: Before I even start writing the book, before I put an outline on paper, anything I usually spend weeks or sometimes a month or more just getting to know the character. I think about them a lot. I think about people that they’re similar to and I think they’re kind of like Uncle Harry but they’re not exactly.

They’re a little like Uncle Harry and the man, Joe, who lives down the street. I give them characteristics like that but I almost come to know them as I would know a friend, just day by day.

I walk in the morning and I usually walk about three to five miles and the whole time I’m walking I’m thinking about those people and I’m thinking what they’re like, what they like to do, how they would respond to something and by the time I sit down to write the novel I can’t go wrong with the characters because the minute I do… a lot of times people ask about writer’s block. When I go wrong with my characters, when I have them do something that wouldn’t be the norm for them, I can’t move ahead and that’s writer’s block.

Tim Knox: I’ve had several authors, especially ones that do the character development at the level that you do, say that the characters write the story. Does that happen for you?

Bette Lee Crosby: Oh yes. Usually when I start I know the beginning of the story, I know the end of the story and I know the general pathway it’s going down but I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten to a crossroad and all of a sudden I can just feel the character wants to go the other way.

It’s funny because really they do bring a lot of interest into the story because it’s a lot of human nature. It’s the way a person would genuinely react to a situation. Spare Change is a great example of that. There’s an 11 year old boy in the story and he loses his mom and dad and goes in search of a grandpa that he’s never even met.

The way he looks at things and the incidents that happen as he’s making this trek, they just came along. He started down the road and then these things happened inside my head. Each morning I would think about what challenges he’d meet today.

That’s when it would come to me. I didn’t have a lot of those side trips planned ahead of time. I only had the beginning and the end.

Tim Knox: Have you developed characters that were maybe not such nice people that you ended up really not liking very much?

Bette Lee Crosby: Oh yeah. I have to tell you, sometimes they are the most colorful or the most fun to develop. Often in many reviews I will have people I just love these characters; I love them all except there was one really bad character and I didn’t like him at all.

Tim Knox: Do you ever try to change them, the bad people?

Bette Lee Crosby: No because I don’t make them totally bad. I don’t believe that in life everyone is totally good or totally bad. I think even the good people have chinks in their armor every now and then and the bad people have soft spots.

There’s the gangster who loves his mom or, you know, a bank robber who’s doing it because his kids are starving. I try to show that side of the bad person but not to the point where they become sympathetic. So the reader understands how they maybe got bad but doesn’t feel sympathy for them.

Tim Knox: Very few people are all bad I guess is the moral. I want to talk a little about Spare Change because this is a book that in 2012, in August it sold 18 copies and then a year later it was on the USA Today bestseller and Barnes & Noble Nook Book list. How did that book go from being an 18 copy seller to being a bestseller on USA Today?

Bette Lee Crosby: Well this was shortly after my husband came into the business and we started looking at it as a business. So we decided to do a KDP free day on it. At first we’re looking at this and we’re saying I don’t know; it’s $300 to advertise that you’re giving something away.

It’s always a big decision but we advertised it and I said oh I hope I get at least like 5,000 downloads. As the day went by it zoomed past 5,000 then past 10,000 then 20,000. I said I can’t believe it actually passed 20,000.

So just before we went to bed that evening my husband went up and checked the computer. He said, “You didn’t make 25,000; you made 35,000.” By the end of the sale it was at 42,000 downloads. From that point on it was word of mouth.

Tim Knox: So really it’s after you did that is where you really started to gain traction and build this fan base. That’s one common thing that I’m finding with a lot of the self-published authors who did exactly what you just talked about. They gave away the book, it got noticed and then the fans kept talking and that really built the base.

Bette Lee Crosby: Yes, absolutely and that really was the starting point. That book is a perfect example of falling in love with a character. People fell in love with the little boy in that story. That’s what made me turn it into a series. Everybody kept saying what’s going to happen to him now? Where’s he going from here? I never planned that book to be a series but it turned into one. The book I’m working on now is the third book in that series.

Tim Knox: Let’s talk a little about that because I think there are a lot of series going on now but I think a lot of authors have an issue with, gosh, I wrote one book; how do I make this a series? How do I carry this along? You’re a master at this. Talk a little about your strategy of turning a standalone novel into a series.

Bette Lee Crosby: Well I had a bestselling standalone novel and it ended. All of my stories seem to have a start and an end so it’s not open-ended where I can just slide right into the next book but what I did in that particular instance was the town became the series, the town of Wyattsville.

I turned it into the Wyattsville series. The common thread that runs from one book to the next book is the town. Something happens and you connect that to the characters that you knew in the first book.

Each story is very individual and each story is a standalone book in its own right. At some point in the book it connects back to some of the characters and they will be interwoven. They will come into the life of the new characters and be an important part of the story at that point.

Tim Knox: I think that’s very interesting because the characters are not necessarily the series. It’s the town and what goes on in the town and how those characters are interconnected. Another thing that you’ve done is you’ve actually written a memoir for someone else, Life in the Land of IS. Talk a little about that. What was that experience like?

Bette Lee Crosby: That was a tremendously interesting experience. The book was done for Lani Deauville. She is in the Guinness Book of World Records. She’s the world’s longest living quadriplegic. When I met her, the ad agency I was doing some freelance work with, introduced her to my work and she liked it and asked if I would write a sample and I did. Then she said can I meet her right away? Let’s get started.

So the only reason I did that because her story was so inspiring. Here she was when she was 17 years old she dove off the seawall in Jacksonville and ended up a quadriplegic. She was a diving champion at that point. She could use her arms but not her hands and not her legs. When I met her I spoke to her for 15 minutes and by that time I had forgotten she was a quadriplegic. She was such a fascinating woman.

She went on to get her GED diploma and then work her way through college and through graduate school. She worked for the Governor of Florida. She was instrumental in the legislation that mandated all public building have to have handicapped access. She did so much with her life and yet she lived her whole life in a wheelchair.

She adopted an infant and cared for him herself – got married, adopted a child, cared for him herself and she worked her whole life. She must have been probably in her 30’s or so when she was having nutrition problems. Quadriplegics are notorious for bad digestion because of the fact that they’re so sedentary.

She was working with her brother-in-law and they developed a food supplement formula. Ultimately they made that into a company and she became the president of the company. It’s called Greens Plus.

The thing that amazed me about Lani was she had a statement in that book that I wonder if there’s a half a dozen people who could say this – she said, “If I could change anything in my life, I would not change a thing.”

That from a woman who has spent 60 years in a wheelchair.

Tim Knox: Very powerful stuff.

Bette Lee Crosby: Isn’t it? She was an amazing woman.

Tim Knox: What was the experience of writing a memoir like? Would you want to write another memoir?

Bette Lee Crosby: No. As a matter of fact I’ve been asked to do it and I said no. In that case it was wonderful and I made a friend in her and we really enjoyed the time we spent together. I consider myself very fortunate having done it because it was an inspiring story. It was the kind of story I would personally like to read, like to hear about and like to write.

I wouldn’t do it again because it’s a tremendous amount of work; it’s a lot of back and forth. It took me longer to write that book than probably any other book that I have. It’s just a lot of editing and back and forth and when we met I would let her tell… it’s written in a style that’s almost akin to fiction because that’s my forte but it’s her true stories.

It’s just that I made them so personal when I wrote them that it was like you were right there living life with her. It was a great experience for both of us.

Tim Knox: Good, let’s talk a little about your process in the time we have left. When do you write? Do you write on a schedule? Do you try to write every day? Do you have a minimum page count? What is Betty Lee’s process?

Bette Lee Crosby: I don’t have a minimum page count or a set schedule but I do write every day. I usually write in the morning. I’ll go out and I’ll walk and I’ll think of what it is I want to write about and what I want to say that day.

Usually by then I have my characters in some kind of a quandary that I’m working through. I think about that when I’m walking and then I come back and I get dressed, have breakfast and sit down and write. Some days I only write 500 words because it just doesn’t sound right. It just isn’t the right words. Then other days I can write 4,000 or 5,000 words.

Tim Knox: You write them as it flows.

Bette Lee Crosby: Yes, exactly. I found that I cannot force it to happen. If I feel that it’s just not magical, I get up and go make myself a cup of tea or go for another walk or something like that. I think that it has to happen….

You feel it inside when it’s right. One of the things I do that I think… my goal is always to write a story that the reader can read straight through without ever having to say where did this guy come from or how did this happen, and have to go back and check or not understand the sentence before or the paragraph before.

So I like it to be very silky smooth almost and what I do is after I’ve written the day’s work I read it all out. If there are spots where I stumbled over the words, the words aren’t right.

Tim Knox: You’ve got a lot going on. You’ve got two more releases set for later this year. Is that right?

Bette Lee Crosby: The first one will be in July. That’s already in production. This last one is still being finalized and edited. The one in July is called Blueberry Hill and it’s a story of my sister. My sister died way, way too young because she was such a big smoker.

So it’s kind of a story of our childhood and the last years of her life. I guess I’m very adamant against smoking because I saw what it did to her and even when she was on oxygen she would park her oxygen tank outside the bathroom door and go in to have a cigarette.

It was very addictive and it was a very traumatic time. I wrote it. It’s not every little detail that happened; it’s a glimpse if you will at the life that we lived and how it affected her, myself and her daughter.

Tim Knox: So it’s almost a memoir.

Bette Lee Crosby: Oh it is almost a memoir but again it’s written in that fiction style I use so I call it a memoir of sorts.

Tim Knox: That’s a whole new genre. I like that. What’s the second book coming out later this year?

Bette Lee Crosby: The second one will be the third book in the Wyattsville series and that starts in Alabama and eventually the protagonist and his son make it to Wyattsville.

Tim Knox: Well if you need any background on Alabama and its people I’m your man. Bette Lee, before we close, if you had just one bit of advice for our audience which are primarily authors who are looking to get published or just starting on the craft and some that have been doing it for a long time, what’s your best advice?

Bette Lee Crosby: I would say love what you do. You have to really love your story yourself. Don’t settle. Don’t just hurry to get in on Amazon. Really fall in love with your story because if you love it that much and you believe in it that much, your audience will too. There’s no real shortcut. You have to give people quality work.

I think sometimes we get anxious to get something published and we put it up on Amazon and you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. You can give it away free but if they don’t fall in love with it when they read that free one, they won’t come back and buy the paid one.

Tim Knox: I think that is such a good point because a lot of the authors I talk to, their motive is I’ve got to sell books, I’ve got to make a million dollars, I’ve got to do this but really at the end of the day the best advice that I always get is it’s about the work. Do the work and everything else will follow.

Bette Lee Crosby: Absolutely. I think one of the strongest marketing tools that I have is the dialogue that I have with my readers. I have so many of them that write to me or they’ll hear that I have a fan club on Facebook and they’ll ask to join. That’s the most awesome. I get such honest critique from them and they come because they love the characters and they’ve committed to these stories. That doesn’t happen if you don’t put the work into doing it. Believe me, I have a lot of stories that are not published so I talk from experience.

Tim Knox: And your readers will call you on it too.

Bette Lee Crosby: Oh yeah.

Tim Knox: Bette Lee Crosby, USA Today bestselling author, winner of 15 literary awards, author of books like Spare Change, Cupid’s Christmas, What Matters Most, the Wyattsville series. Where can our folks find more information about you?

Bette Lee Crosby: I am easy to find. It’s BetteLeeCrosby.com.

Tim Knox: We’ll also put up links for folks to find you. This has been a joy. I want to talk to you again later in the year after you’ve got the next two books out. Let’s catch up.

Bette Lee Crosby: I’d love that.

Tim Knox: Alright Bette Lee, thank you.

Bette Lee Crosby: Thank you, Tim. It was a pleasure.

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  1. Pingback: Dr. Jack Mayer: Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project | Interviewing Authors with Tim Knox, Author, Talk Radio Host, Serial Entrepreneur, Small Business Expert

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