Almost everything I know I've learned from books. I discovered the public library as a very young child in Chicago, where I would try to read every book on the shelves, from A to Z. When I got interested in a topic, I studied it relentlessly. Once I tried to teach myself ballet in my driveway from library books, thinking I could become a ballerina. Another time, when I was 12, I became fascinated with anesthetics and poured over big medical texts. I also loved reading about everyday history, learning about what life was like for ordinary people in other times.
Yet it never occurred to me in my childhood to become a professional writer. I wanted to be a librarian, a movie star, or a tap dancer. I didn't know writing was a job, something real people did with their lives, something like being a secretary, or a salesman, or a school crossing guard, like my Grandpa. In fact, I didn't write my first book until I was 50! By then, I had taught museum studies to college students and raised a daughter.
Watching my daughter and her friends grow up and struggle, I became interested in knowing what girls in other times went through. I had been fascinated by the Middle Ages for a long time. I like the music, the costumes, the pageantry, and the color. So I started to wonder what it would be like for a girl at that time, with so little power and so few options, to rebel against her situation. And that became the idea for Catherine.
As I wrote, I unearthed everything I could about ordinary life in the Middle Ages: the holidays, celebrations, clothing, food, and language. I learned all about bee-keeping, sheep shearing, ointments and remedies, superstitions and fears, table manners, bathing habits, and privies. But just as important, if not more, I explored ideas, attitudes, and values. All the historical details in my books come from lots of research. The meals Catherine eats come from Medieval cookbooks. Thirteenth century people really used the expression “corpus bones.” It probably refers to the body of Christ, or perhaps means “good body.” (In Latin, “corpus” means “body” and “bonus” means “good.”)
While writing about Catherine, I got the idea for The Midwife's Apprentice. I had already done so much investigation that I knew the village and the people. But I didn't have a story until I thought of the homeless girl, sleeping on a dung heap, longing for a name, a full belly, and a place in the world. Then the story poured out of me.
If you would like to be an author, think of an idea or topic that is so strong within you that it's going to come out passionately as you write about it. Because that's what shines in a book. And then, do a lot of work — reading and research — to add layers of story to your idea. I wish you good luck. What happened to me could happen to you.