To relax, some people turn to yoga or tennis or knitting. When Judith Little’s three children were young, she tucked them into bed at night, fired up her laptop, and wrote. A Houston lawyer by day, she “retreated into a world of characters who did what I wanted them to do,” she laughs.
The pages of her first writing project, “a bad book she never finished,” lie buried under boxes in her bedroom closet. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” she says.
“I was a decent writer, but I needed to figure out how to tell a story.”
And learning that skill took a long time.
Through the nearby University of Houston, Judithe discovered a writing class. After the course ended, she continued to meet weekly with a handful of her classmates. In their writing group, they read stories aloud, critiqued chapters, and suggested plot improvements. Every Friday, Judithe came to the writing group with her allotted six pages. “It kept me on a schedule,” she says.
She also learned through failure.
With a large part of what would be her first novel completed, Judithe wrote to agents she hoped would represent her to the publishing world. “I’d send an agent a perfect letter describing what my book was about, why it was different,” she says. Some responded, some did not.
Most of those replies were rejections. Every so often, an agent asked to review the first fifty pages—or even the entire book. Of course, Judithe would get her hopes up. And then came the “no thank you” email.
But each time the rejection came, helpful feedback tagged along. And Judithe would head back to the drawing board. One successful agent suggested she change her novel from first to third person. Another commented her beginning was strong, and the ending was good. But the middle of the book didn’t work.
For a few years, Judithe revised, reviewed her changes with her writer’s group, and resubmitted. “Are you interested in seeing my novel again?” she asked agents who’d previously passed on her manuscript. “I’ve taken your feedback and reworked the story.” Many agreed to take a second look—and then rejected it again.
But that’s how she learned to tell a story.
And, after seven years of mistakes and struggles and criticism, Judithe got a “yes.” “We’d love to represent you,” said Kimberley Cameron, still her agent today. Wickwythe Hall entered the world in 2017. The award-winning historical fiction novel centers around a majestic English estate and a forgotten piece of World War II history.
“I learned a lot with the first novel,” says Judithe. And, like anything else we attempt the second time, The Chanel Sisters came together easier and faster. Published late last year, this beautiful story is told from the viewpoint of Antoinette Chanel, Coco’s lesser-known sister. (I ripped through it!)
When we hear Chanel, glamour comes to mind. The sisters’ poor and parentless childhoods, along with heartbreaking losses, make their success all the more impressive. Their constant search for “something better” led them to create a fashion empire that flourished, even, during the war.
Judithe loves to uncover “little nuggets” for a story. When researching The Chanel Sisters, she pored over French newspapers. She discovered Antoinette’s tiny notices, announcing her whereabouts, so her wealthy clients knew where to find her. “I didn’t understand why I couldn’t find anything else about Coco or Antoinette in the papers,” Judithe says. But, in the early 1900s, the sisters were tradespeople. They were something better, but not “good enough” for newspaper coverage.
To better describe the Moulins neighborhood where the sisters grew up, Judithe “walked up and down streets on Google Earth.” When she stumbled into a doorway marked Pensionnat Notre Dame, she knew she was in the right area.
“When writing historical fiction, it’s easy to fall into the trap where my characters watch what is happening around them,” says Judithe. She’s learned to make certain her characters remain active in the story, rather than observers. Readers may know war breaks out in 1914, but the characters don’t.
Nowadays, Judithe enjoys the flurry of attention from The Chanel Sisters’ success. She speaks with book clubs, podcast hosts, and bloggers. Responds to magazine writer inquiries. Does virtual author visits at independent bookstores. Fifteen years from its start, her writing group still meets every Friday. And she’s hard at work on her third novel.
Featured photo courtesy of Judithe Little
Tags: Books, fashion, Judithe Little, writer
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