Write what you know, the old adage goes. Susan Niz and Janet Graber -- two Dakota County authors to be featured at the Dakota County Library's first local author fair -- both drew upon difficult life experiences for their first novels.
Janet Graber's novel "Resistance," a nominee for the Minnesota Book Award, focuses on a 15-year-old girl whose mother joins the underground resistance movement during World War II. Graber, of Burnsville, grew up in Northumberland, England, during the conflict, and her father was off at war for the first four years of her life.
"It penetrated my growing-up years," she said. "Dealing with WWII was something that I had to write, to get it out of my system."
Susan Niz, of Eagan, spent six years writing about her experience running away as a teenager. "I thought that it would help me sort of work through how I felt about some of those experiences," she said. She intended to publish a memoir until a press convinced her to rework it into a young adult novel, "Kara, Lost," which came out last summer.
Graber said she chooses to write historical fiction over young adult novels set in contemporary America. "Because of my age, I could no longer keep up with their lifestyles and all those funny things they carry around," she joked.
She started writing at 50. "I wish I would have started earlier," she said. "Now I can't imagine not writing. It's a passion. Getting into the heads of other people and getting them to do what you want is kind of fun."
Her most recent novel, "The White Witch," set in 1665, involves young Gwendoline, who hides in a church's secret chamber to escape the Plague. Another of her books, "Muktar and the Camels," a 2009 Smithsonian Notable Book for Children, focuses on a young orphan, a former camel tender, living on the border between Kenya and Somalia. When a trio of camels carries loads of library books into the refugee camp, he finds a chance to help them.
Now in the works for Graber: a book set in 1600s London about the infamous "Gunpowder Plot" to blow up the House of Lords. "I wanted to explore terrorism in a way that children might understand," she said.
Up next for Niz: a book about a teenager with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Both writers got their start writing short stories. After finishing her book, Niz published stories in online literary journals to earn some writing credits. Graber, frustrated at marketing her first books, took a chapter out of one and reworked it into a short, which sold immediately.
"That sort of propelled me into the whole business," she said. "That was really gratifying."
Niz's advice to aspiring writers: classes, writing groups and finding a mentor. She got help from mystery writer David Housewright -- the keynote speaker at the author fair -- after taking his class and hiring him to critique her novel.
"That was so important in keeping with the long revision process," she said. "It just took so much persistence and such a big commitment of time and energy."
"For people who have a real interest," said Graber, "take writing classes, go to conferences. You couldn't learn to play the clarinet in a day. Keep working at it, even if you only scribble for 30 minutes a day. To hone your craft you have to do it every day."
Also, "You will never learn to write unless you read," she said, "... and come to the author fair."
Niz agreed. "Reading and writing can be such isolating experience," she said. "These kinds of social events can really boost your mood and your confidence."
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Minneapolis freelance writer.