Kersten Hamilton adapted my favorite series growing up, the A Life of Faith — Millie Keith series. Kersten graciously agreed to let me interview her. This appeared originally on my writing blog several years ago, but I’m reposting it here so Millie fans can still access it. Enjoy.
Last week several girls of all ages shared about how they have loved the Millie Keith series. Today the author of the books, Kersten Hamilton, will give us a glimpse into the journey she took to bring these endearing characters to us.
Was there a specific book you read or event in your life that inspired you to be a writer?
I have wanted to be a writer as long as I can remember – even though I am dyslexic/dysgraphic and had a very hard time learning to read. I just had a few more hurdles to clear than the average person.
What did you think when Mission City Press approached you with the project of writing a series of books on Martha Finley’s characters?
I was surprised and delighted. I was only asked because another writer had dropped out of the project without turning in the first Millie book. Mission City Press said that all they needed was for someone to update the language, but they needed it done in a very short amount of time—one month if I remember correctly. Of course I said I could do it before I did any research at all, because I was familiar with Elsie. One of my best–and much older–friends was named after Elsie Dinsmore! And how hard could updating language be, right?
Then I received a copy of the original Mildred Keith. I was shocked to my socks. There were the seeds of some good ideas. There were. But the poor people were portrayed not only as ignorant and dirty, but as beneath the Keiths. It is hard to explain how harsh it was, so I won’t. I’ll show you.
Here is an example taken from the end of Chapter 10 and the beginning of Chapter 11 of the first Mildred Keith book. This is the scene in which the Lightcaps first visit the Keiths. They interrupt Mildred reading to the younger children. Viny, the girl the Rhoda Jane asks after, is the Keiths’ maid:
“Our names is Lightcap; this here’s my daughter Rhoda Jane and she says to me, ‘mother,’ says she, ‘we’d ought to be sociable with them new neighbors of ourn; let’s go over and set a bit.’ No, now what am I talkin’ about?’ ‘twan’t her nuther, ’twas Gote that spoke of it first, but my gal here was more’n willing to come…. (I have cut some paragraphs here)
….At length they rose to go.
“How’s Viny?” queried Rhoda Jane, addressing Mildred.
“Quite well, I believe,” replied Mildred in a freezing tone, and drawing herself up with dignity.
“Tell her we come to see her too,” laughed the girl, as she stepped from the door, “Good-bye. Hope you won’t be ceremonious, but run in sociable any time o’ day.”
“The impudent thing!” exclaimed Mildred to her mother with a flushed and angry face; “putting us and our maid of all work on the same level! Visit her? Not I, indeed, and I do hope, mother, that neither you nor Aunt Wealthy will ever cross their threshold.”
“My dear, she probably did not mean it,” said Mrs. Keith. “And now let us go on with our story. You have all waited quietly and politely like good children.”
“Gotobed Lightcap! Lightcap! Gotobed Nightcap!” sang Cyril, tumbling about on the carpet. “O Don, don’t you wish you had such a pretty name?”
“No, I wouldna; I just be Don.”
“There, dears, don’t talk now; sister’s going to read,” said their mother. “If you don’t want to be still and listen you may run out and play in the yard.”
This was the tone of the books—they did, as I said, have some good things in them—but in large part they revolved around how much better the Keiths were than other people, especially poor people. Having been a poor person myself, this did not sit well with me.
I finished reading them, and then I set them down and did the research I should have done before I agreed to the project.
The Elsie Dinsmore books had been a smash hit for Martha Finley. The Mildred Keith books were quite different and had…not. In fact, they flopped massively when they were first published. In reading the two original series the reasons seemed clear to me.
There are people who love the Mildred books in their original, historical form. But I was so unsettled by them that I could not in good conscience give them to readers in ‘updated language’. I felt terrible about this not only because the Mildred books were based on Martha Finley’s life, but also because I had signed a contract with Mission City Press saying I would do the work.
After much prayer and soul searching, I told Mission City Press that I could not do it. I could not update them. If they wanted a series, however, I could use the names and settings and completely re-invent the characters and the story. And, I could do it the first book on the very short deadline they had presented. 60k words in one month. When they agreed to let me try, I was elated. I knew right away that I wanted a heroine with more of a playful Anne of Green Gables sensibility about her. Fortunately, my editor Mission City Press loved the new Millie, and readers seem to love her too. ☺
What is your favorite part about the writing process?
I enjoy it all, but creating characters is probably my favorite.
What sources did you use for research?
I wanted to be true to history in the new stories so I went to original sources. I read hundreds of pages which included abolitionist papers and diaries of incredible women like Isabella Bird, the daughter of an English clergyman who as a teen traveled alone to America. She wrote ‘The Englishwoman in America’ about her experiences. I also relied heavily on the lives of Angelina and Sarah Grimke, courageous abolitionists who were legends in their own lifetimes.
How did you develop this loveable cast of characters and the intricate plot?
I’m a pantster. That means I just sit and write. I don’t even know how plot happens. But I do pray a lot as I go along….
How long did it take to write the entire series?
After the first book I was given four months per book, and I basically wrote them back-to-back. It was exhausting. I had to put in twelve hour writing days seven days a week.
Any fun “deleted scenes” you could tell us about? 🙂
Gosh, I didn’t have time to write any scenes that could be deleted—wait! I did write a scene where Millie was traveling through Kentucky by stagecoach. I had it pull up at a station were someone handed a red and white bucket of fried chicken out through the window while the horses where changed….but I deleted that before I sent it to the editor. I just wrote it because I was in a very silly mood. Kentucky Fried Chicken drive-through windows did not exist in Millie’s day. ☺
I did leave in a scene where Millie saves a two-year-old named Sammy Clemens on a riverboat just as the pilot calls out ‘mark’ and the leadsman (the man who measures the depth of the water) calls back ‘twain’ (which means two fathoms). It was another silly mood, but the dates all worked out perfectly…so, there you go. Millie saved Mark Twain.
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything about the Millie books?
Not about the books, but I would definitely be more careful with the contract, and I mention this as a cautionary tale for young writers. I should have read the Mildred books so that I understood the full scope of the work I would have to do beforeI signed anything. I would still have written the Millie books, but I would have made sure my name was on them as the author of a new series ‘based on the works of Martha Finley’ rather than simply an adapter. I am very proud of the Millie books, and would love for more people to know that I wrote them!
Did any specific books/authors inspire you in the process of writing?
George McDonald has always been my greatest inspiration. He wrote to baptize imaginations. I write to tune my reader’s hearts to the heart of God.
Was it your idea to use those amazing and frustrating cliffhangers at the end of the books? 🙂
Yes, it was me. Sorry about that. It was my way of motivating myself to jump right into the next part of the story. And I had to jump fast!
Who is your favorite character in the Millie Keith series? It’s a toss up between Gavi, Gordon and Aunt Wealthy for me.
Great Aunt Wealthy. The way I conceived the character mightbe a little bit autobiographical….
Do you have a favorite book in the series?
I have favorite scenes in each and every book of the series. I especially love Millie and Charles’ courtship scenes, and anything with the twins.
I love how you made Millie’s family such a huge part of the plot and what Millie was learning. It’s such a rare thing in today’s fiction. Is this based off your own life in any way?
The family I grew up in was a bit of a mess. I wrote the Keith’s as a light allegory of the way the family of God works. ☺
I appreciate how the series has touches of humor. Are you a humorous person in real life?
I’m terribly funny. I come up with no end of witty things to say at parties. Sadly, I come up with them long after everyone has gone home.
What advice would you give to young writers who wish to improve their craft of fiction?
Read classics as well as modern books. Read quality books, not pabulum. Read Dickens. And Twain. Millie saved him for a reason, people!
Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you get past it?
Do I ever. ☺ You just have to write through it. The words go on the page, no matter how hard it is.
How can readers discover more about you and your work?
I’m not much for social media, but I suppose they could read my books. I tuck my heart and soul into them after all. If someone really wanted to know me, I would suggest reading Tyger Tyger, In the Forests of the Night, and When the Stars Threw Down Their Spears, the three books in my YA trilogy which was inspired by George MacDonald’s Curdie and the Princess.
Thank you for interviewing me, Abigail!
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