Colleen Steffen shares journey behind researching for Catherine Winters book
The Daily News
On March 20, 1913, a 9-year-old girl named Catherine Winters was abducted in New Castle, Ind. Never seen again, she became one of the most talked about missing girls in America at the time.
In 2007, as a way to relax after her daughter was born, Colleen Steffen began researching the Winters story. Soon the Ball State journalism instructor’s hobby turned into an obsession, and Steffen was spending hours in libraries going through archives of newspapers.
Sitting in a corner of the library, threading microfilm through a machine, she read years of coverage from four different newspapers. She scanned headlines for trigger words such as “Catherine,” “women” or “gypsy.”
“There was a point about three years in, when I didn’t find a single article for five months,” Steffen said. “Laundry was piling up, my house was a mess and I was spending my time in a dark library. I kept asking myself why.”
Eventually she found an article related to Winters, and her obsession set back in.
After five years of research, Steffen finally began writing. The four off-white walls of Art and Journalism Building room 382 provided sanctuary as she typed. The windowless box disconnected her from the world.
She had six months to finish writing. The first month, Steffen didn’t type a single word. She sat sweating, knowing her June 1 deadline was approaching.
Panicking, she skipped the first chapter and started in the middle. At first she wrote 20 pages a month, but soon the process became easier and she was writing 100 pages a week.
“I haunted this place,” Steffen said. “It was kind of creepy, but I have a bathroom, a microwave and a locked door. That’s all I need.”
After five years of researching and six months of writing, Steffen is playing the waiting game.
With a literary agent trying to get her book published, Steffen is patiently waiting for her lifetime dream to be fulfilled.
“It’s a neat experience, and whether I’m on the bestsellers list or standing in line at Kinko’s, I’m glad I did it,” Steffen said. “Maybe I will get to try it again someday.”
Q: How did you choose a topic that you would end up spending six years of your life working on?
A: You know it when you see it. It’s like getting married, like when your person shows up, you recognize the person. If you have a doubt in your head like ‘Is this the person?’ then it is not the person.
It is the same with subjects, you just know it when you see and if you are not sure when you are looking, then you haven’t found it yet.
As far as time goes, it’s a mistake I made that I felt like I needed giant chunks of time and I felt like if I didn’t have an entire day to write I wouldn’t write at all. So I felt like I need my life to be cleared away to do this writing. That’s not it at all, you chink away at it little by little and you start small. It’s how Catherine Winters started. I started a few hours a week and it progressed from there. Wait until you feel moved on a subject, but otherwise just get started.
Q: How did you stay dedicated to Catherine Winters for so long?
A: I don’t know. You just keep doing, I don’t think there is a secret. I think it helps when you are so into your subject that you just want to keep doing it. It doesn’t mean that it is a ball of fun everyday.
Part of you just wants to do it because you are obsessed with getting to an answer or getting to the end of a chapter or making something good, and then the other part is the fun.
I’m like a dog with a bone sometimes: I don’t like to put things down. Some days I made myself come in against my will. Other days I couldn’t wait to come in and finish this cool part I was on, so I did different tactics for different days.
Q: Do you have any advice to overcoming writer’s block, other than starting in the middle of the book?
A: I changed it up. I think that always helps if you are stuck; to change something. You can change your routine, the time of day or where you write.
Sometimes something logistical will get you out of it. For me it was a self-esteem crisis. I had built it up a lot in my head. When you want to do something for so long and then you get the opportunity to do it you think, ‘holy crap, am I able to do this?’ I had told a bunch of people that I could, I signed a contract with this lady saying I would, but could I really do it? I had never done it before.
I think writers psych themselves out a lot. The more you can block other people’s opinions, other people’s work out of your head, the better you’ll be. Sometimes you just need to simmer, I wasted a whole month because I needed to simmer.
Q: What was the best advice you were given as a young author that has stuck with you?
A: Oh gosh, I got so much help over the years. I had so many awesome teachers that have helped me.
Gosh, I had this guy who worked with my dad, and he was a former English teacher, and he always used to give me writing books in grade school, and he’d have me do the assignments at the end and give them to him. It wasn’t for school, it was just him encouraging me and to get me to do it and practice. He never came out and said that I just had to do it, but I learned it very early from him that I had to try it.
At first it would be hard, but it gets easier the more you do it. So you just have to do it. People can only take you so far and you just have to keep doing it.
Q: What is some advice you would give students today who are pursuing a career in writing?
A: You guys are growing up in the coolest time because you have so many more opportunities to just write and put it out there for people to see. Whether that’s the three people who read your blog or Twitter or whatever, it’s such a neat opportunity to practice and hone in your voice, build an audience and to see what works and what doesn’t work.
I would say literally write for everything. Don’t be so concerned about who’s going to pay me or if it’s going to be important. Kids will skip little opportunities because they have their eyes on the big ones. The big ones are awesome but don’t overlook the immediate ones. You get a lot out of those.
With the Internet the things you write go into the garbage bin tomorrow. No one is going to remember it tomorrow. Don’t be scared to take risks or suck at something. Embrace the youth, see what happens.