Books and Writing

 

I’m here to bare my sole … no, that should be soul — well, not really, but I thought you might want to know who I am and how I got to this writing life.

First off, I don’t think of myself as a wordsmith and my drafts go through a lot of editing — my own and Leigh Carter’s – my professional editor’s. So keep that in mind as you read through these posts or ‘hen-scratches’ as I like to call them. I’m somewhat of a late bloomer as an author but my passion for writing and storytelling goes back to my teens. As a teenager, I once wrote ‘a book’ while working as a ‘pin-chaser’ behind the pin setting machines (yes it was loud) at our local bowling establishment. That was about 1968. Fast forward to 2007 and I wrote — this time on a notebook computer — my first novel while I watched Red Sox games on television with my later to become husband.

We moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico in 2010 and I immediately became engrossed in the local history, which eventually led to “The Two Valleys Saga” and my play, “It is Blood.”

Yes, my real name is Mary Armstrong — I didn’t want anyone else to get credit when I get on the NYT’s bestseller list *wink* *wink*. However, it hasn’t always been my name and I’ll let you in on why my name changed toward the end of my post.

I grew up in Ottumwa, Iowa in a family that was middle class in just about every way. Both my parents were active – as a fourteen-year-old, my mother once held the state AAU record for the fastest time for the breaststroke (I think that was the one). My father was a Korean War Marine veteran and good at nearly every sport. He was known locally as an excellent golfer and fast-pitch softball pitcher. He also boxed in Golden Gloves as a youth. I was fairly good in many sports as well but I was also something of a bookworm and curiosity propelled me into lots of alone time reading and writing. I actually sent handwritten articles to magazines as a teenager!

I have lived in the Midwest, New England, and now in the Southwest. I won’t rule out moving to the Northwest or even out of the country at some point. I’m a fan of researching our family history, through which I discovered my mother’s ancestor, George Soule, came to America on the Mayflower and my father’s ancestor was once successfully defended in a murder case by Abe Lincoln. My revolutionary war ancestors were awarded vast amounts of land in what would become Tennessee and Kentucky and had to defend their land rights in a Supreme Court case, which they won.

Now for the big reveal! LOL. Seriously, its not that big a deal. I had gender reassignment surgery in Montreal in February of 2005. I have been living as Mary since 2003. In late 2005, I met my husband and we have been together since. We finally married in 2014. That’s us in the photo booth picture. On the left is a photo (circa 1964) of me in my band uniform, my younger brother – who died in a car accident in 1976 – and my little sis. I feel my transgender experience gives my writing a unique voice. By no means can I speak for biological women – I can’t have babies and there are other biological things that I’m rather happy I can’t experience – but there is a lot about being a woman that I can speak to and I try to do that.

Mary Armstrong Author Las Cruces
Me and my Honey!
Authors in Las Cruces - Mary Armstrong and siblings
Me, my younger brother and little sister ~ 1964

 

My Rather Circuitous Route to my Writing Career

I gave you a taste of what brought me to writing, but I thought I’d dive into that a little more.

Those early writing experiences weren’t very good – either in the quality of my prose or in the responses I got. I had no one to mentor me and despite having done well in school previously, I somehow found myself outside of the ‘college prep’ path classes in high school. I didn’t like high school and apparently, it didn’t like me because I didn’t do well. My other interests were in plants and gardening, and golf. I discovered that a Landscape Architecture degree was a good fit for both and so, hoping to eventually get into golf course design, I went first to a local junior college to prove myself – grade-wise — and then to Iowa State University where I graduate in 1974. 

A Landscape Architecture degree provides many career paths and I tried most. My first job was in a city planning department in Fort Dodge Iowa. Before I had finished a year in that job I moved to Kansas City Missouri where I worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I planned and designed parks for them on their many lake projects around the Midwest. There was more writing involved than I expected and I wasn’t very good at it.

Mary Armstrong author in Las Cruces
Sorry to disappoint – I don’t use these.

After a few years, I moved on to a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Northeast Regional Office in Newton Corner, Massachusetts. Again I was involved in planning and design, but this time for our National Wildlife Refuges and the first National Environmental Center in the country. I prepared the first master plan for the facility and outlined the proposed habitat improvement projects for a property that had been largely a borrow pit for the construction of the nearby I-95 interstate highway. I wrote master plans and environmental impact documents for many refuges throughout the Northeast and designed visitor facilities at Rachel Carson, Brigantine, Great Swamp, Erie, and other refuges.

Again, my writing was ‘not-so-hot-so’ and my boss (a Columbia biology graduate) was a relentless red-liner. My writing came back to bleeding to death! But, we worked at it and I credit him for improving my writing. I took Federal employee mail-order writing and grammar classes and took other writing classes.

I left the Federal government in the early ‘80s and went to work at a civil engineering company and later became vice president of a well-known land planning firm where I designed and planned all types of land development from city streetscapes and parks to subdivisions. Late in 1989, amid the recession, I left my vice president’s job because I hadn’t been paid for six weeks. It was my big break! With the only two hundred dollars I had in my bank account, I started my own consulting business with the hope of being able to design golf courses — which was another passion of mine at a young age. By 1992, I was designing new courses and renovations full-time. My business grew to a staff of four and by the time 2000 came along I had worked on more than one hundred courses worldwide. How does that include writing you ask? Well, there are the technical specifications for construction and then there is also a master plan report that I introduced to the business that was generally over one hundred pages. 

So, throughout my professional planning and design career, I had thousands and thousands of pages of writing experience. When you have written several Environmental Impact Statements, a novel doesn’t seem quite so daunting.

About 2005, a friend told me, “When I read something you write, I feel like you are talking to me. I think you should publish something.”

The Mesilla paper back book in Barnes and Noble store
Top shelf at the Barnes and Noble at the Mesilla Valley Mall!

Not long after, I started the novel I mentioned in an earlier post, but it got shelved when I decided the only way to finish it was to write the ending while traveling the same route that my characters would have. At the time, my business had collapsed with the economic downturn and I couldn’t afford such a trip.

In 2010 we moved to Las Cruces and I enrolled at New Mexico State University as a graduate student and received a teaching assistant position. I also got the opportunity to write a paid weekly column in the local newspaper. I did that for about two years as I tried to resurrect my golf design business here. You can find my golf-related articles on my WordPress page — https://roadholeshorts17.wordpress.com/.

So, that is the rather lengthy and meandering path that my writing career has taken to my first published book. It’s by no means my last. I’ve got another in the series ‘in the oven,’ and two or three more after that, and then several other ideas for new series.

 

Organ Mountain Las Cruces, NM.
The Organ Mountains as seen from the south

 

Why I Chose to Self-Publish.

Many people seem to want to know why I choose to self-publish over the traditional path. I would have preferred the traditional path because it comes with some instantaneous credibility. However, it commonly means submittals upon submittals followed by months or even years of waiting, and then if your manuscript is accepted it can take more months or years until you hold your book in your hands.

Mary Armstrong's Mum
This is ‘me mum!’

I didn’t feel I had that much time. You see, I wrote most of “The Mesilla” during the pandemic, and of course, we were fairly isolated. For a few years now — since my father died in 2018 — I have called my mother in Iowa at 4:15 pm every day. When she found out that I was finally actually writing the book I had talked about all of those years, she asked if I would read her what I had written.

She became a great source of inspiration and encouragement. (The cover with the boy on the burro was her idea!) The routine of daily writing and reading put me in a groove of writing at least a couple thousand words each day. Mom kept saying how she couldn’t wait to hold that book in her hands! I knew the prospects weren’t great for that happening anytime soon. In about February of this year, as I after sending my book to my editor, I decided to go the independent route.

When Mom got the book in May of this year she was thrilled! As she read the final version we talked every day about what she had read. It was truly a special time with Mom.

I won’t rule out the traditional path in the future – self-publishing isn’t for the poor, the internet inept, or the computer challenged. I’m none of those and it was still very difficult, expensive, and frustrating. However, I don’t regret taking the shortcut because it provided Mom and I a wonderful sharing experience.

Not all those who wander are lost.

J. R. R. TOLKIEN

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