Earning a living from sensuality and swashbuckling

Gainesville may be better known for its football championships, but it’s also home to an award-winning historical romance novelist. Darlene Marshall recently snagged first place in the regional Beacon Awards competition in published historical work for The Bride and the Buccaneer.

“I’ve always been a writer,” Marshall says. But when she came to Gainesville in 1973, it was to get a degree in journalism. She spent 10 years working in radio and television, and at one time even owned WIND (WNDT) 92.5, a local radio station. Her career in fiction took off in 2001.

“It’s been a big change for me,” she says.

Even though her stories are usually placed in 19th century Florida, her move into fiction has been saturated with modern technology. On a lark, she entered an online writing competition with a short piece about pirates. The competition was on CompuServe, which then had a forum where readers and writers could interact.

The piece was so well received, “[The other readers] wanted to know the rest of the story,” she says.

That “snippet,” as Marshall calls it, became her first book, Pirate’s Price.

A New Path to Publishing

Marshall initially pursued the usual route to publishing by sending the book to print publishers. However, they all said it was a little bit too short.

Used to writing condensed, punchy news copy, Marshall found it a challenge to break into the holy grail of novel writing: a 90,000 word count. But instead of lengthening the novel to meet the publishers’ needs, she looked into the then-new industry of electronic book publishing and the growing market of e-readers, who actually prefer shorter works. Marshall published her pirate book online in 2001.

Soon, she realized that she could develop more stories from the characters in Pirate’s Price and started work on another book.

While she was at work on that, her first online publisher folded, which Marshall says is an industry hazard in the unstable world of small online publishers. However, this gave her the opportunity to revise Pirate’s Price into a longer e-book and also bring it out in print with a new publisher.

Tough Way to Make a Living

When Marshall started as a novelist, she was still working at the radio station during the day and wrote fiction in the evenings. Finally, she decided to sell the station and that allowed her to launch her writing career full time.

Marshall now has four novels full of swashbuckling and sensuality in digital editions and work available in Germany and Estonia.

“It was definitely a career move,” Marshall says. “Not just something to make me feel good.”

Yet, it’s also a career that demands lots of hard work and support. “A very successful published author in total seriousness said, ‘The best advice I can give you is to marry well.’

“His point was it’s difficult to live off your earnings when you’re just starting out,” she says. “Most authors have to write and work a regular job.”

She admits she followed that author’s advice.

“I married very well,” she says. “I don’t have to worry about the roof over my head or my health insurance.”

Still, she says, fiction writing is “a business with lot of ups and downs.”

“You have to treat it like a business,” she says, which includes marketing yourself, considering how to cut costs (Marshall uses interlibrary loan to do almost all her research), and writing, even when she doesn’t feel inspired.

“You write one word after the other until the end,” she says, and often promotion can get in the way of writing. For example, if she’s posting on Twitter or on a blog, it takes time away from book writing.

“But at the same time, if I’m always writing, I’m not going to sell any books,” she says. She decided on a balance, where she spends 30 percent of her time on promotional activities and 70 percent of her time writing and editing her work.

As far as advertising goes, “I have to be very careful where I spend my money to make sure I get the most bang for my buck,” she says.

Networking has also been key for Marshall, who tries to be involved in organizations that are focused on her target group: women.

“I want to go where women are,” she says.

Future Plans

As for the future, Marshall could consider going with a bigger publisher with more power to promote her books. But for 2011, she’s just focusing on getting out her two current projects, tentatively titled: Sea Change, a story about a woman disguised as a man who is taken captive by privateers, and Castaway Dreams, a story of an heiress and brainiac who ends up stranded on a deserted island after their ship goes down in a storm.

While she’s contemplating branching out of historical romance novels into science fiction at some point, she says her head is still full of romantic characters who lead interesting lives.

“There’s a lot of humor, a lot of people working outside the laws: heroes and heroines,” she says about her four published works. “And, there’s a lot of sex.”

“It’s about people on a journey of exploration,” she adds.

When she was in news writing, she was typically delivering bad news. Now, people come up to her and tell her how much they enjoyed her book.

“They closed it with a smile. I’m entertaining people,” she says. “It’s been a great success for me.”

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