Monday, May 8, 2017

Interview with Sarah Angleton, the Practical Historian

For the past few years, Sarah Angleton has been a valued member of Coffee and Critique, where she has shared her stories, wit, and wisdom with her fellow writers.

Photo courtesy of
Sarah Angleton
Sarah is a storyteller and history buff who has degrees in both zoology and literature and still isn’t quite sure what she wants to be when she grows up. A Midwestern girl at heart, she spent a brief time living and writing in the beautiful Pacific Northwest before settling near St. Louis where she currently resides with her husband, two sons, and a very loyal dog. Her first work of historical fiction will be available soon from High Hill Press. You can find her online at

Here are my interview questions for Sarah.

1. How did degrees in zoology and literature prepare you to create “The Practical Historian” blog?

I think it was learning how to combine my two fields of study that led me toward an interest in history, something I didn’t particularly enjoy studying in school. As a grad student in literature and creative writing I started doing a lot of research into the voyage writings of naturalists of the 18th an 19th centuries. Because of my background, I was uniquely prepared to approach their works as both literary and scientific, and so I discovered that one field nicely informed the other. They are linked by their shared history. I love discovering links. It’s what I do on the blog as well, though not typically between zoology and literature. Instead I look for the connections I might make between the historical and the modern. It’s just how my mind likes to work.

2. Where do you get your ideas for topics for your blog posts?

Topics come to me from all over the place. Some are sparked by events related to the date I’ll be posting. Others come from my experiences through the week leading up to the post, including places I’ve traveled, events I’ve attended, or even documentaries or podcasts I’ve come across. Occasionally friends and family suggest topics that turn into interesting posts. I’m always on the lookout for potential topics, and I tend to jot down a lot of notes and take a lot of pictures. I am always aware that even if the stories I come across don’t fit well into a post at the moment, they still might come in handy later.

3. How did you come up with the title for your blog?

When I started the blog, I had recently finished writing the rough draft of my first historical novel, a project that required a great deal of careful, thorough research. I once heard the difference between writing history and writing historical fiction is that with history, you have to write around the gaps, and in fiction, you can feel free to fill them. I love history, but I love story more, and I’m a big fan of filling in the gaps. So when I started the blog, I was very aware of the fact that I could not claim to be an expert historian, that I couldn’t sustain the level of research required to write with real authority week after week, and that I couldn’t refrain from gap-filling. It was important to me to be honest with my audience about that. I decided I wouldn’t focus the overly important, highly analyzed historical moments. Instead, I’d stick to the tales that painted a picture of the sillier side of the human condition, add a few splashes of my own personal story, and just make it a fun space to share practically true history that might not seem all that important in the big picture, but that might add a little interest to my readers’ days.

4. What process do you use to conduct your blog research?

That can vary a lot by topic. I’ve stated on the blog that I rarely use a primary source, which isn’t exactly true. I do generally start with the best hearsay the Internet has to offer, but some of these stories are just lifted from one site to another with no verification whatsoever. If there’s a reference to be chased down, like to a historical work, I chase it down and read it from the source. Sometimes that means the post falls apart because (and I know this will come as a shock) not everything repeated again and again on the Internet is true. Now, there are many times when it’s not possible for me to consult with a primary source, so I look for the most reliable source I can find. Though I joke about Wikipedia, and I do use it, I always seek verification from expert sources. And I hedge what I don’t know. As I stated before, I never want to speak with an authority I can’t rightfully claim and I always try to be honest with my reader about that. But I am a storyteller, and the blog is as much humor as it is fact, so when all else fails, I make stuff up.

5. What process did you use to select the posts included in Launching Sheep and Other Stories?

First, I looked for posts that were not overly dependent on a single event that though probably was very much in the minds of my readers at the time, is now most likely forgotten. I also needed posts that don’t rely too heavily on photos. I use a lot of photos on the blog, but didn’t want to go through the process of attaining rights for their use in the book. And then of those, I looked for the ones I enjoyed the most, the ones I still liked to read, even though I wrote them and probably already read them at least a few dozen times.

6. In one post you mention your zeal for the board game Monopoly. Do you have a favorite token? And, how do you feel about the planned replacement of the thimble, the boot, and the wheelbarrow with a Tyrannosaurus rex, a penguin, and a rubber ducky?

I’m definitely not as angry about the change as some journalists seem to be, or as willing to assign broad cultural meanings to the change. The boot has always been a favorite of mine and I suppose I’m a little sad to see it go. But what really determines the quality of a Monopoly token is its height. My favorite tokens have always been the ones that are easiest to grasp with a quick pinch. It looks like the T. rex and the penguin might fit the bill. I’m not as sure about the ducky, but I’d be willing to take it for a spin past Go! Hasbro left the fates of the game tokens in the hands of the public, and who am I to question the results? I still have a classic copy of the game and can pull out the boot any time I want.

7. How has watching the movie The Princess Bride affected your writing?

The Princess Bride taught me all of the elements of a truly great story: “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles,” and maybe just a little bit of kissing. But on a more serious note, I fell in love with the movie as a young girl because the characters are memorable and the dialogue is witty. I think if a writer can pull that off, then she’s probably gone a long way toward producing something worth reading.

8. What can you tell us about your lessons learned from the start-to-finish process of publishing a book, from research, writing, editing, revising, cover design, marketing, etc?

I suppose the biggest lesson I learned is that it’s not easy. There’s still a stigma associated with self-published books and though it’s lessening as the industry changes, I think it will always be with us. As an author who has worked with both processes, I can say with certainty that neither is especially easy.

The options for self-publishing can be overwhelming. There are many publishing companies that offer services from start to finish, from editing to cover design to marketing. It’s really easy to spend a lot of money to produce a final product and going that route definitely means you also give up some creative control. On the other end of the spectrum, there are services out there that simply provide the tools for authors to do everything themselves. Most writers are probably not equipped to handle every aspect of publishing on their own, so I think the important thing is to strike the balance that feels most comfortable to the individual author.

I opted to hire a freelance editor whose work was already familiar to me and a brilliant cover designer I already knew I could work with well. I did the book formatting myself after a lot of research into the various services available, and I admit, also a great deal of frustration. Really, the research is the most important part. The great thing about writers is that we tend to love to share our experiences and so I listened and read and learned and probably avoided a lot of pitfalls because I took the time to do that.

For me the hardest part has simply been figuring out the business end of marketing and selling books. I kept discovering little details (and hidden expenses) I never considered before, like the need to purchase isbns, start up a personal imprint, and prepare to handle sales tax. It’s been a long road, but by going through this process of self-publishing, and viewing the industry from another angle, I know that I have come out of it better prepared for a successful career in traditional publishing.

9. On the topic of marketing, what can you tell us about upcoming events, including your book launch, author talks, and book signings?

My first event will be a signing at 6 North Café in Wentzville (next to B&B Theatre) on Saturday, May 13 from 10 am to 12 pm. Friday, June 2, I’ll be at Our Town Books on the Square in Jacksonville, Illinois, from 5 to 7 pm. You can also catch up with me at Gateway Con in St. Louis the weekend of June 16-18, where I’ll be selling books and meeting readers.

10. What advice do you have for bloggers and writers?

Keep at it. I’ve found that blogging is, more than anything else, a great way to find a worldwide community, one that is committed to sharing and interacting with one another’s art. That’s a pretty special thing. It encourages me to always be writing. Some weeks are hard, but I know that if I don’t produce something new, there are people all over the country and as far away as New Zealand who will notice and wonder why. Keeping to a blog schedule also encourages me to work really hard to schedule writing time. I have goals for my fiction, and because I have to work around researching and writing a blog post, I’m much better at protecting my time on all my projects. Building a writing career takes time and effort. The first step is to just keep on writing.

11. What project are you working on now?

My first historical novel, Smoke Rose to Heaven, the one that I began all those years ago, is tentatively scheduled for traditional publication this fall, so I am working through the final steps of that process. I’m also polishing a novel that is a companion to that one. In addition, I’m working through a revision of the first novel in a young adult series that I’m hoping to start pitching to agents and editors soon. And of course, I’m blogging every week.

12. What’s the best way for readers to contact you with questions or if they would like to purchase a copy of Launching Sheep and Other Stories?

Both print and e-formats of the book can be ordered through Amazon or anywhere books are sold. Readers can contact me through my website,, where they’ll have the opportunity to sign up for e-mail updates and will find links to my profiles on Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads, as well as the latest post from the Practical Historian.

13. In homage to your post on page 113, “The Completely Rational Fear of Triskaidekaphobia,” here’s your final question—number 13: Do you have any final thoughts or anything you’d like to add?

How lucky that post wound up on page 113! I think the only thing I might add is that as much hard work as goes into writing and producing books I could not do any of this without the support of so many amazing people. Writing can seem like a lonely profession, but I know for certain I could never be successful if I treated it that way. I have been blessed to be a part of several professional writers’ organizations, critique groups, and workshops. I’ve been involved in online writers’ forums, attended conferences, and had opportunities to interact with writers from all over the world. Without the amazing energy of the larger writing community, I’d honestly be too frozen in fear to ever let another human being read my work. I am so very grateful to be able to do this.

Thank you so much for the thoughtful questions, Donna!

And thank you, Sarah, for your thoughtful answers!

Sarah will have her first book signing event at 6 North Café in Wentzville (next to B & B Theatre) on Saturday, May 13 from 10 am to 12  pm.


  1. Terrific interview. I'm looking forward to the signing on May 13. Congrats, Sarah!


    P.S. Love the new look for your blog, Donna.

  2. Donna--Thanks for this interview. You always come up with such interesting questions.

    Congratulations, Sarah. Whenever a fellow writer enjoys some success, we should all celebrate and bask in the after-glow.

  3. Thanks for this great interview, Donna! I especially loved Sarah's quote: ". . .the difference between writing history and writing historical fiction is that with history, you have to write around the gaps, and in fiction, you can feel free to fill them." I'll definitely look for her books.

  4. Donna, great interview with Sarah, whose diligence is inspiring and makes me want to dust off my gem in a drawer.

  5. I have been reading Sarah for long while and could not remember how I found her! It must have been through you, Donna, and thanks. Love the essays and now will always have some handy for rereading.

  6. Hi Pat,
    Sarah's signing is the same time as my granddaughter's graduation, so I'll miss the book event. Hope there's a good turnout.

    Hi Sioux,
    It's so true we should all celebrate one another's success, and you always are one to do that for other writers.

    Hi Clara,
    Thanks for your kind words and for stopping by. I'm hopping over to your blog later to read your guest's post.

    Hi Linda,
    You should dust off that gem. I bet it's a great one!

    Hi Claudia,
    Sarah's blog is fun, and her book is too!

  7. Great interview, Donna. I checked out Sarah's blog, and it's one that I'll keep reading. Having a biology background, and never having been a fan of could I not?

    1. Thanks, Val. Your background is well suited for many things.

  8. Lovely interview, Donna! Thanks for the intro to Sarah. It was nice to learn more about her. The comment about the difference between history and historical fiction - I like that! Wishing you both well with your writing. :)

  9. Thx for the interview, Donna. Sarah is an interesting writer and person. She inspires me to keep at it, to just go for it and accomplish something! You and she have great blogs, totally different but both practical and insightful.

    1. Thanks, Marcia. I'm glad you enjoyed the interview.


Mysteries of the Ozarks, Volume V - Interviews with Lonnie Whitaker and Dr. Barri Bumgarner

Here is the second installment of interviews with contributors who have stories in Mysteries of the Ozarks, Volume V , from Ozark Writers, I...