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Never Too Early Never Too Late
Category: Writing
Tags: writing publication success

Never Too Early Never Too Late

In just about everything, I fall into the latter category, starting everything late in life. I got married at 47, started writing at 50, and only felt any desire to have children when being a grandmother was more appropriate. Luckily with writing it is never too early, or too late.

Alexander Pope penned his first poem ‘Ode to Solitude’ when he was 12, although his real fame came when ‘Pastorals’ was published in 1709, when he was 21. He suffered childhood illnesses: asthma, a curved spine and headaches. Was this the reason he began writing?

Dorothy Straight holds the record for the ‘youngest published author ever’. At four years old she wrote a story for her grandmother, which pleased Pantheon Books so much they published it when she was six – an extraordinary achievement. The story was in response to her mother’s question: ‘How did the world begin?’

The Guinness Book of Records cites Christopher Beale as the youngest-ever male author. His five-chapter story about his favourite stuffed animals was published in 2006, when he was exactly six years and 118 days old.

The youngest author to reach the New York Times best-seller list is Christopher Paolini who had the first book of his ‘Inheritance Cycle’ published in 2002, when he was 19. His success continues.

And we must not forget Mary Shelley, who completed ‘Frankenstein’ at the age of 20.

I imagine most published authors – including successful self-published authors as well as those taking the traditional route – start writing in their 20s or 30s, with or without a university degree or a creative writing certificate. Kazuo Ishiguro once said that writers were at their peak in their 30s. Others disagree, saying older authors have a wider life experience to draw on.

It’s interesting to note how many find success somewhat older. Raymond Chandler was 51 when he was first published with ‘The Big Sleep’. Frank McCourt didn’t become a published author until the age of 66 with ‘Angela’s Ashes’, going on to become a best seller and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

The oldest author to have her first book published was Bertha Wood. At 100 years old, ‘Fresh Air and Fun; The Story of a Blackpool Holiday Camp’ was published just before her 105th birthday. She began writing this memoir at the age of 90.

On par with that record, the world’s ‘oldest-ever published author’ was Ida Pollock, who died at 105 in 2013, just before her 125th book was published. Makes me tired just thinking about it.

I suspect elderly authors are less sought-after by publishers due to their assumed slower output and lack of social media skills (by no means always the case) and the simple fact that time is running out to keep more books coming. But it’s good to see it’s far from hopeless. Self-publishing can also help.

I wonder what prompted you to write. Perhaps being an expat? Or was it something going back to your childhood? Or retirement? Early or late, something triggered it. And as you can see, there is no particular age for success.

My biggest dread as a late starter (tongue very much in cheek) is to become a best-selling author posthumously, which means I may need to live to well over 100!



This Week on WA 9th October
Category: Site News
Tags: news updates progress

It seems to have been a week of quiet contemplation, mutual support and feedback, and general-behind-the-scenes writerly stuff here on WA this week.


But first of all the great news that Crilly has come through and is now recovering from her surgery with great aplomb. We’ve all been thinking of you Crilly and wish you a hasty comeback to your writing too.


The minutes for the meeting late September mention a number of issues that need further exploration - so check them out and input if you can. Especially the point about low meeting attendance.


But there’s great stuff going on too. The ‘hands’ Monday Muse brought forth a super piece from Jill, now looking for (and getting some great) feedback and a market.


As for the poetry project: Bruce is posting some thought provoking poems for all to enjoy.


And just look at the Chapters thread; getting a workout for sure. It is good to see such activity. 


October’s challenges and opportunities thread has some super possibilities for all. But the thread is open to more submission openings if you know of any.


Deadline for submissions to the next edition of WA Magazine is now closed. Any stragglers?


On the bragging stool this week are the usual culprits of Ad Hoccers (as Angela has aptly named us.) Going great guns as always.


Maggie's blog on research is filled with intrigue, and the Monday Muse from Vanessa crammed with ideas to inspire and get the juices flowing. How about the proverbs then?


There have been a few tweaks to the planner. Please check your dates up to Christmas again and let yours truly know if you need to make any changes.  Still looking for a blogger for November 6th.


If I've forgotten anything, please shout.


It is Thanksgiving here in Canada today. So wishing a very happy Thanksgiving to all, from me over here.


The Joy of Primary Source Research Tags: research writing primary and secondary research


Japanese-American students dressed up as American Indians.  East San Pedro Grammar School, Terminal Island, Ca. Circa 1930, Courtesy of the of the Archives and Special Collection Department of the Los Angeles Unified School District


Fifteen years ago my mother took my siblings and me on a trip through Eastern Germany.  There we visited the estates and farms, townhouses and churches of her ancestors.  Relatives showed us documents their parents had carried declaring them “pure” and “uncontaminated” by non-Aryan blood.  We heard tales of harrowing attempts to cross over the wall and of the bleak, hopeless days when their wealth was confiscated and their children were denied an education due to their upper class background.

I returned home charged up with a zeal to research the past.  I discovered my husband’s lines had never been traced and I volunteered to do it.

The morning I stepped into the National Archives I tumbled into a world that would consume me for nearly a year.  The archives were located in the basement of a seven-story government building not far from my home in California.

I remember how I felt that first day.  After passing through the security check I stopped and surveyed the enormous room full of file cabinets, tables, and research stations. Muffled voices drifted toward me, muted by the industrial carpet and the solid earth pressing against the basement walls.  The tables were populated by people, their heads bent over the work in front of them, or sitting in front of the magnifying screens for the census records, slowly turning the crank to survey the rolls of microfilm.  The warm and musty fragrance of old paper, dry with age and full of promise engulfed me.  I felt cradled with the reassurance I was safe in this place, like a nurturing classroom full of kind teachers and endless days of discovery.  At the same time my pulse quickened with the promise of unearthing treasure.  Maybe I’d sort out the mystery of my husband’s bloodlines, a mystery created by his grandmother, who told her children they were Russian, then German, then Slavic, depending on which immigrants were most popular at the time.  Perhaps, like my father’s ancestors, I’d find some outlaws, trail blazers or cowboys. 

I did solve that mystery, and many others, including one which concerned his great-grandfather from Texas. A sharecropper and father of two, he’d mysteriously disappeared after the birth of his second son, never to be seen again.  After weeks of research and speculation, I followed up on a hunch and found him in the Iowa census records twenty years after he'd left Texas.  He’d re-married, raised two children, and was a respectable officer of the law.  I was so excited when I discovered him I exclaimed, “there you are, you son-of-a-bitch!” Then I looked up guiltily at the quiet researchers. But they just smiled and nodded their heads knowingly.   

It wasn’t until some years later that I understood the unfiltered joy and excitement I experienced that year was the result of doing primary source research. There's an element of magic stored in the old letters, photos and records; an energy I felt even through my white archival gloves. Sometimes I felt I consumed their stories, perhaps absorbed them is a better word. I absorbed their lives until they walked beside me in my world and I in theirs.  

Sometimes I even spoke to them, in admiration or surprise, or occasionally, in deep sympathy. 

Some years later my mother handed me a box given to her by my father's mother. It was full of photos taken and journals written by my grandmother during her teaching years in the nineteen twenties, thirties and forties. When World War II began the school and the town were bulldozed and the families put into concentration camps.  The contents of the box were the only school records that survived.

It took me another year to research and write a book about the school and its community of Japanese-Americans.  The research took me to glorious places that set my blood pumping and my hands shaking with anticipation.  One of my favorite places was the Los Angeles School District Archives, three floors crammed with books and photos, carousal horses from playgrounds and carved desks and pianos.  Barely visited, according to the overworked archivist.  I spent weeks there, seated on the floor, reading my way through the past and using all of my change on the copy machine.

I also traveled to the homes of the children who’d attended the school and had known my grandmother.  Now in their eighties and nineties, they were delighted to share their few photos and many memories with me, watching with fascination as I hooked up my computer and scanner and made copies.

I derived much satisfaction when I connected the dots between my archive research and their stories.  One of the more curious mysteries was solved one day as I played my telephone messages.  I’d been puzzled over old letters written between the school and the town’s fire station.  With polite but firm words, the school requested the station to move locations from several blocks down to somewhere more distant.  In equally polite terms, the station replied they would not.  I understood the sirens might be distracting to the students, but surely it could not warrant the persistence of the school to relocate it.  Then one day I got a phone message from an eighty-nine year old who had been a previous student.  I’d visited him the day before for an interview, and he’d shared wonderful stories of living on the island.

His quavering voice was full of amusement when I played his message.  “Mrs. Shelton, I forgot to tell you about something we did that used to drive your grandmother crazy.  Whenever the fire truck came by the school, us boys would jump out of the classroom window and run after it.  Sometimes we wouldn’t be back until lunch time!”

My happy place is doing primary research.  The only reason I have not returned to it is because once I begin, everything else fades away, and the research requires my full-time attention. It is a place of such joy and anticipation that it teeters on that precarious line between innocent happiness and addiction.

An addiction I hope to indulge in again, once I have the time to feed it!


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