Sonia Gensler is the award-winning author of Ghostlight, a contemporary middle grade novel, as well as The Dark Between and The Revenant, both young adult historical novels. She is obsessed with Gothic horror and loves to write ghostly mysteries.
Sonia grew up in a small Tennessee town and ran with a dangerous pack of band and drama geeks. As an adult she experimented with a variety of impractical professions—museum interpreter, historic home director, bookseller, and perpetual graduate student—before finally deciding to share her passion for stories through teaching. She taught literature and writing to young adults for ten years and still thinks fondly of her days in the classroom. Sonia currently lives in Oklahoma with her husband and cat.
Describe your workspace.
It was a long time coming, but I finally have a home office with several bookcases. I write best with my reference books and favorite novels near to hand. My workspace is usually untidy, particularly when I’m in the middle of a project—papers and books all over the place, cups of cold tea, bills and random bits of mail, and at least two pairs of shoes under the desk. Every other week I try to tidy up, which often means shoving things in the closet. Once a year or so I have to tackle that closet—always an ordeal!
Describe a typical workday.
If I’m in the drafting phase, I procrastinate. There’s lots of staring and heavy sighing, if not actual swearing. I take frequent TV breaks. To be honest, I am more efficient with drafting when I leave my house entirely. I go to a coffee shop and encourage myself to feel publicly shamed into being productive (even though no one around me actually gives a hoot). If I’m researching or revising, I sit at my own desk and work until my thighs go numb or it’s time for food.
List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.
Three symbolic items that inspire me: 1) my framed poster of the Brontë sisters, purchased at the Brontë Parsonage Museum (which makes it somewhat of a holy relic to me), 2) My Emily Dickinson finger puppet (doesn’t she look as though she’s floating?), and 3) My dragonfly ornament that brings to mind my writing group and our times spent on retreat at Lake Tenkiller in NE Oklahoma. I love being surrounding by symbols of passionate female creativity!
Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.
The only ritual I can think of is making a cup of tea. For a while I tried to do a quick meditation before starting work (there’s an app for that!), but this never developed into a habit. I love the notion of rituals, and I think I need to further explore the possibilities.
What do you listen to while you work?
I make a playlist for each book that I write (ooh, a ritual!), and listening to that always helps me focus. For my most recent manuscript, a Victorian Gothic thriller, I chose songs from the soundtracks for Penny Dreadful and the most recent Far From the Madding Crowd adaptation, along with instrumental songs from various Olafur Arnalds albums.
What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?
TEA. Always and forever. I might sip tea all day, but I try to hold off on snacks until my official afternoon tea break—usually around 3pm—when I give the cat his wet food and then watch a bit of TV with tea and a cookie, or something like that.
What keeps you focused while you’re working?
I can stay pretty focused when researching or revising, but it’s a constant struggle when drafting. To get actual pages written, I have to set a daily word count goal, bribe myself with chocolate, use the Freedom app, and/or apply any other sorcery I can find.
Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?
When I’m in the research phase, I take longhand notes in a journal chosen for that project. I always feel inspired by Paperblanks journals. When drafting, I type on the computer. However, when I’m feeling especially blocked with a scene it often helps to write it out longhand.
How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?
Usually, the process starts with my fascination for a particular place and time. Once I have a vague idea of a conflict, I begin reading research materials and taking notes. More specific character and plot ideas come to me during this process, and in my research notes you’ll find facts from books written in one color, and story/character ideas in another color. (Or sometimes I write story notes on stickies, as in the photo above.) Once I have a better sense of what I’m writing about, I start outlining. Recently I found inspiration from Libbie Hawker’s Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing.Full disclosure: I have a fetish for books on outlining.
If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?
I already share it with my cat, Cedric. He usually prefers to sit in my lap as I type, but sometimes he valiantly holds down my research materials.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?
Something that helped me think more deeply about my characters came from Cheryl Klein of Arthur A. Levine Books. In a workshop about character she suggested that we should think not only about what our characters want, but also what they need. The want, or desire line, is what throws a character into the external conflict, but the need—which isn’t even a conscious thought at the opening of the story—is what will help her change and grow so that she can achieve her true desire.