The childhood of Phyllis Still, whose book, Defiance at Indian Creek, won Story Circle Network’s Sarton Award for Young Adult Fiction, was full of clues that a writer lay in waiting. Born into a troubled family in Texas, her dad’s job had taken the family to seven different states by the time Phyllis was 11 years old.
“I grew up mostly a shy lonely tomboy, who spent a lot of time outside barefooted or in the tallest tree I could climb. My vivid imagination provided an escape from reality, and my curious nature led me into many adventures. I could readily allow myself to become a different person in another world,” she recalls.
When Phyllis was in middle school, her English teacher passed out a short story about an Eskimo family, from which the ending had been removed. The students’ assignment was to read the story and write their own ending.
“I immediately became the character, and writing the ending came easy for me,” says Phyllis. “After turning in my paper, the teacher picked it up and read. Suddenly, she leapt from her desk, stepped to the door, and waved a passing teacher over. They looked at me. I lowered my eyes, embarrassed. When the class ended, I stopped at her desk and asked what was wrong with my paper. She smiled and explained that my ending was better than the original. She encouraged me to become a writer someday.”
But that would have to wait a while.
Phyllis moved to the small East Texas town of Gilmer in her senior year of high school, where she married her best friend.
“My first and greatest passion was to have a happy family. My husband and I raised three awesome daughters, who are living good lives and raising our seven grandkids. I’m still married to my best and worthy friend. We went through rough years but are enjoying renewed passion for each other, and are championing each other’s goals for the future.”
Through the years, Phyllis’ work outside the home progressed from daycare worker, to nanny, to real estate agent, office assistant, and receptionist with multiple tasks. She retired early to become a writer, and is now living her dream, still in Gilmer.
“Through the years, I wrote a few silly poems, and a short story, but it wasn’t until my daughters were grown that writing a book came to mind. However, nothing spurred me into the process until I received a box of mixed-up family genealogy sheets from my uncle,” Phyllis recollects.
While organizing the documents into family groups, she discovered incomplete information about Mary Shirley McGuire, a Daughters of the American Revolution heroine, who is honored with a chapter bearing her name in Plano, Texas. Mary was a young wife with an 18-month-old son in 1780 Central Kentucky when Captain Henry Bird’s joint force of British, Canadian, and Northern Native American tribes attacked the frontier forts. She kept herself and son Bennie alive on the 600-mile death march to Fort Detroit.
“I marveled at the tenacity, faith, and survival skills that Mary must have acquired in her younger years that allowed her survival at the age of 18,” Phyllis says. “She and her family were sent to Montreal with other rebels, and worked as prisoners on a farm until the American Revolutionary War ended. And when I read about the tragedy they endured on their way back home, I cried. That’s when I knew her story came to me for a reason.”
Phyllis decided to write Mary’s story as fiction, beginning the story in 1775, just before the girl turned 13, so as to highlight how the American Revolution affected women and children on the frontier settlements. To achieve authenticity of the times, Phyllis did quite a bit of early West Virginia and Kentucky history research, jotting down notes about real events, people and places.
“I wanted readers to understand the significant role young adults had in history, and that they’re not too young to make a difference in today’s turmoil.”
Once the book was completed in 2013, Phyllis paid for a professional critique from author and editor C.S. Lakin. The results, she admits, showed it needed more work. “I didn’t have a plot, or know what a character arc was. I rewrote the 80,000-word manuscript, then paid the same professional for another critique a year later.” This time the editor was more encouraging, but suggested the story be developed into a series, with a separate plot for each book.
“For the next three years, I studied structure. Then I worked on an intriguing plot and a strong character arc for Mary. I also enlisted the help of free critique partners. When I was satisfied with my new attempt, I mustered the courage to send it to Lakin again. To my amazement, she raved about how wonderful my story turned out and sent it back professionally edited.
“By then I had met my publisher, Evelyn M. Byrne of White Bird Publications, which formatted the book and sent it on to Ingram Spark, a print-on-demand service.”
If she had it to do all over again, Phyllis says she would have joined a support group sooner, and learned early on how to develop purposeful scenes that placed the reader in the story.
“I wasted five years being a pantster. Now, I take the time to have a clear vision of what the story is about, and how it will end. However, I’m flexible with my plan. I allow my characters to have feedback and to experience unexpected plot twists, but I maintain control — like a good mommy should… I would advise new writers to read and study the craft. Join a writer’s support group and listen to advice from successful authors. Enjoy creating. I love all of C.S. Lakin’s Writer’s Toolbox series, and learned a lot of great scene-building techniques from them. Writing a fine novel is like developing a fine wine — both require skill, patience, and time.”
Phyllis mentions that the authors who influenced her early in life were J.R.R. Tolkien and Laura Ingalls Wilder. “Their well-developed characters drew me into their fascinating story worlds. I loved the way they placed readers in the scene and immediately caused sympathy for the main characters. I love any author who can make me care about the characters’ plight and allow them to be overcomers.”
The Defiance at Indian Creek author says she writes on a laptop computer so she can change locations. “I find a desktop in a confined location too stifling. I tried to have a secluded office once, but found it depressing. I need a peaceful, light-filled, spacious place. I love going outside when it’s not hot.”
Phyllis is currently working on book three of her Dangerous Loyalties series, which has Mary and her family dealing with the volatile conditions at Fort Boonesborough in Kentucky territory. The second in the series, Fleeing the Shadow, has already been published and is available on Amazon. And if the books have a message, the author suggests, it’s that “sometimes love and loyalty to people are more important than causes.”