As my year on the board comes to an end, I was asked to give a brief presentation on myself and my writing during our meeting yesterday. I’m a Toastmasters drop-out, and public speaking isn’t my favorite thing in the world, but I did my best to put together some remarks on my story as a writer and what I do.
So I thought I’d share it with all of you. Here’s the talk I wrote, and I (mostly) tried to stick to the script. (Though, I'm pretty proud to say I barely looked at my notes, so I probably paraphrased and shook up the word choice.)
Nebraska Literary Heritage Association Presentation
April 19, 2017 at 3:30 p.m.
Bennett Martin Public Library
Growing up here in Nebraska, I always knew I wanted to be a writer. That began with being a reader. At my house, we were always reading. My mom always had a mystery novel from Agatha Christie or a thriller from John Grisham with her as she took us kids to our various music, sports, and art classes. I remember spending Saturday mornings learning about space, history, animals, and fairy tales from the children’s encyclopedias we had. My dad was interested in everything, and those bound volumes helped us keep up with him.
When I graduated to picking out my own book, I raced through the Baby-Sitters Club and Little House series. And as a Nebraskan, I found great inspiration as a reader—and writer—from Bess Streeter Aldrich and Willa Cather.
(As an aside, I geeked out the first time I saw my books on the same shelf as Willa Cather right here in the Heritage Room.)
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a reader or when I didn’t want to be a story-teller. Even in elementary school, every time we did creative writing, I imagined a day when the stories I wrote would be published for others to read. In 8th grade I was even lucky enough to participate in the Writers Write Workshop. And somewhere in the Heritage Room archives, there is a badly written poem about softball thanks to that experience.
Fast forward to college. I earned a journalism degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and minored in English and history. Journalism seemed like a practical way to make a living as a writer, but it actually made me a better story-teller. I learned how to ask questions—the right ones—to dig deeper. I learned that subjects that didn’t seem interesting on the surface could be fascinating. And most importantly, I learned that everyone has a story to tell.
Journalism also gave me a ticket to see more of the world. In college, I spent a week in England studying international quilting traditions. (That week, incidentally, also helped prepare me for the job I have now working at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum.) I spent a summer in Carbondale, Illinois, as a news intern, covering everything from major flooding and the 2008 presidential election to a multimedia depth report on coal and its impact on the region. And I spent the first four years of my professional career traveling to more than 22 states interviewing and photographing people to tell their stories in corporate newsletters and websites.
This was an interesting job, but it came with a lot of challenges. Long days, longer weeks away from home. Uncooperative interviewees. Never having any idea of what to expect, which was tough for a planner like me. It was this chaotic time, though, that inspired me to write my first novel.
I was in a rental car somewhere in central Louisiana, on day four of a six-day trip along the Gulf Coast. I’d already logged more than 1,000 miles behind the wheel and I still had a lot of territory—and work—to cover. I was visiting two different railroad customers, which meant I had two different hard hats, plus the rest of the personal protective equipment I needed like steel-toed boots and a reflective vest. They littered the floor of my car along with road maps, notes, and empty water bottles. I looked at the mess I’d made and thought about the roller coaster I’d already experienced that week and I was struck with a thought. This was my life—hard hats and doormats. It made me laugh, and I thought it might make for a funny book. I spent the rest of the drive imagining how I’d write this as a story. I’d naturally work for a complicated industry I barely understood. I’d have difficult co-workers who added unnecessary drama. Of course, I’d have a love interest. Some handsome colleague I wasn’t allowed to date, because of corporate policy. I’d face a series of problems—some big, some small—but they could all be resolved somewhere between page one and “the end.” And while my life was pretty unhappy and lonely at the time, my story would be a romantic comedy with a happy ever after—or at least a happy for now.
I thought about that story for more than a year before I wrote it. In November 2010, I was hanging out on Facebook when a friend posted about National Novel Writing Month. For thirty days, she planned to work towards a goal of writing 50,000 words. It sounded impossible but perfect all at once. By this point in my life, I’d moved to and from Houston. I’d loved—or rather crushed hard—and lost. I felt like my life was lacking direction and like I had little to show for several years of hard work. I was also dealing with severe anxiety, though I didn’t understand what it was. I needed a lifeline—something to pull me in and hold me stead. NaNoWriMo was that for me. And while I didn’t exactly know what I was doing, I made myself write most days. Some of it was good. A lot of it was bad. But when I hit 50,000 words at 9 p.m. on November 30, none of that mattered. After feeling like I’d fallen short on so many goals I’d set for myself, I had accomplished one of them. One that had me working toward that dream I’d always had of writing.
Since that November, I’ve written and published six novels, two novellas, and two novelettes—with a third currently in editing and due for release this fall. I’ve participated in—and completed—six more NaNoWriMos. I’m now Lincoln’s local coordinator for the organization. I’ve published with small presses and independently. I’ve written stories about reality TV hosts, rock stars, professors, and car salesmen. I’ve experimented with my voice, style, and technique. I’ve come back to the Writers Write Workshop twice—this time as an author. I’ve had a book become a bestseller (briefly, but it was there). I’ve had days I’ve sold no books. I’ve been interviewed on USA Today. I’ve had my publisher go out of business. So still, a lot of highs and lows, but you get through that roller coaster better when it’s something you love.
My writing and I have changed a lot over time. But there are a few things you can usually expect when you pick up a romantic comedy by Laura Chapman.
1) There will be laughs. At least I hope people find them funny.
2) The characters will be people you recognize. Even if they’re a famous football coach, I strive to make them as real and relatable as possible.
3) Some of the characters will find love. The focus is usually on the romantic, but there’s a lot of love between friends and family, too.
4) There will be a happy ending. I’ll put my characters through some struggle and pain, but I like to leave them in a good, promising place.
My dad used to ask me why I wrote rom-coms. Given my background in news, he’d ask why I didn’t set out to write the Great American Novel. Being contrary, that would naturally set me off. I’d rant about the subjective definition and systemic biases and overlooked marginalized groups. The best argument I gave was that the Great American novel captures the spirit of a place, people, and time in America. My characters and places are real and reflect their times. They just happen to fall in love and get into silly situations along the way.
But the real reason I write rom-coms is because they’re an escape for me. Both as a writer and reader. After years of covering car accidents, railroad incidents, floods, and other disasters, when I write now, I like to write to make myself—and others—laugh and feel hopeful. There’s so much you can’t count on in this world, but I like being able to count on that happy ever after in my stories.
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