Monday, October 09, 2023

The Time It Takes, a guest post by Jessica McCann, author of Bitter Thaw (plus US giveaway)

Welcome to historical novelist Jessica McCann, who discusses the time involved in writing a historical novel, from the original concept to the completion of the manuscript. Her new novel Bitter Thaw will be published later this month. There's a giveaway opportunity (for US readers) for a signed ARC... details at the end.


The Time It Takes
By Jessica McCann

“How long does it take you to write a novel?” It’s one of the most frequent questions I’m asked. Yet, I struggle for the answer every time. When does the clock begin ticking? When research commences? When the first sentence is written? Or, perhaps, when the first blur of a story idea clicks into focus?

There’s a thick manila file folder in my office with bits and pieces that catch my eye from one day to the next – pages torn from magazines, quotes jotted down while watching TV or reading a book, articles printed from the Internet. Every so often I peruse the file and see how these random snippets may fit together or spark an idea with enough depth to become a novel. I can spend months, even years, ruminating before the final snippet falls into place and inspiration strikes.

Case in point: the conception of my historical novel, Bitter Thaw.

In 2013, I came across a news article about members of a prison work crew who dove into a cold, fast-moving river to rescue three young brothers whose canoe had capsized. When asked by the reporter why they’d risked their lives to save the boys, inmate Jon Fowler said, “You see three helpless kids in a river, you help. Just because we’re incarcerated, doesn’t mean we’re bad people.” That brief news piece – and Fowler’s quote in particular – grabbed me. I wanted to know more. What crimes had those men committed? Why was it the inmates who jumped in to rescue the boys, and not the correctional officers on the scene? I printed the article and tucked it into my idea folder.

About a year later, I read a news piece about authorities in California hoping to solve a 25-year-old murder. They shared a photo of the quilt found with the body of woman who had been strangled. The hope was that someone might be able to identify the owner or maker of the quilt and provide a break in the cold case.

Then, in 2017, I read a National Geographic article about the five coldest rivers on earth. Among them was the Rainy River, which runs through the rugged wilderness along the Canadian and U.S. border in Minnesota. I live in Phoenix, one of the hottest places on earth (our average daily temperature this summer was 100 degrees). So, I was intrigued by a place where the “warm season” of mid-May to mid-September has an average daily temperature of 65 degrees.

One afternoon, while flipping through these articles and other snippets in my idea folder, my mind suddenly clicked… on the ability and motivations of people who keep secrets for decades, the love represented by a handmade quilt, the primal instinct of a convicted criminal to risk his life to save a child, the way lives often intersect in unexpected ways, and the untold stories behind them all. In a matter of minutes – after years of thinking – the characters, setting, hook, and title of a novel snapped together in my mind.

Bitter Thaw: Fresh news of the cold case reopens old wounds for an Arizona family, from a time when gender stereotypes, racial bigotry, and small-town gossip led to tragedy. Now, three generations – a mother, son, and granddaughter – embark on a cross-country journey home, in a search for truth and a hope of redemption.

Then began the research – on Minnesota’s social and geological history, on the correctional system and small-town law enforcement, on the psychology of secrets and false memories, and so much more. Character sketches. Potential themes. Key plotlines. Creation of a fictional small town, Bitter Rapids, where the bulk of the story would take place.

I chose the year 1990 for the family to make their cross-country journey because, while it’s in the modern era, it was still a time before online maps, GPS, and smartphones became the norm. With 1990 as my starting point, I used my remedial math skills to move backward, calculating the ages of my characters and factoring in key historical events that would add context to their stories. Finally, sometime in 2018, I began to write. I wrote, revised, and researched some more – a circular process that spanned about three years. That’s when the serious revisions began on the completed manuscript.

Bitter Thaw will hit bookstore shelves on October 23, 2023 – roughly a decade after an article about a prison work crew first tickled my imagination. So, what’s the best answer to, “How long does it take you to write a novel?”

author Jessica McCann
About the Author:
Jessica McCann has worked for 35 years as a professional freelance writer, journalist, and creative nonfiction author. Her historical novels have won the Freedom in Fiction Prize and Arizona Book of the Year, as well as being shortlisted for numerous literary awards, including the international Rubery Book Award. Bitter Thaw is her third novel. Jessica enjoys connecting with readers and writers.

Find her online:, @JMcCannWriter (Twitter/X, Instagram, TikTok), @jessicamccannnovels (Facebook and YouTube)

Bitter Thaw

Minnesota, 1956: Unknown human remains are discovered deep within the mosaic of rugged forests and interconnected waterways once home to the native Ojibwe people.

More than 30 years later, fresh news of the cold case reopens old wounds for an Arizona family, from a time when gender stereotypes, racial bigotry, and small-town gossip led to tragedy. Now, three generations – a mother, son, and granddaughter – embark on a cross-country journey in a search for truth and a hope of redemption.

As long-buried secrets are unearthed, they each begin to question their memories, motives, and basic notions of good and evil.

You can pre-order your copy today:

Fill out the form below, and you’ll be entered in a giveaway for a signed advance reader copy of Bitter Thaw (US only).  Please share your thoughts in the blog comments for an additional entry.  Deadline Monday, October 16th.

Update: Congrats to Shelly!  Thanks to all who entered the giveaway.

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