NORMAN — Sonia Gensler has long been haunted by the stories of heroines past, swept away by tales in history books and novels alike of women who transcend the limitations placed upon them.
Though the Norman resident dabbled in literature and history in various career capacities throughout her life, it wasn’t until recently that she followed her literary examples to chase after her dreams.
Gensler set aside her desire to become an author to teach others about the joys of literature. While teaching English at Norman North High School, Gensler said she was struck with how brave her students were with their writing.
“Some of them were terribly shy — just like I was — but they’d still share their writing,” she said. “And they took themselves seriously as writers. So it was when I was teaching that I thought, ‘I need to take myself more seriously as a writer.”
The following summer Gensler dove back into her own writing, managing to complete her first novel.
“And that novel is terrible,” she said, laughing. “It will never see the light of day again. But it at least got me on the path.”
When the school year started up again, Gensler began teaching part-time so she could commit more time to writing. She used “NaNoWriMo,” or National Novel Writing Month, to draft her next novel about an Arthurian legend minor female character cast as the heroin. And this one landed her an agent.
“So that made me think ‘I’m on my way now.’ I love my agent, she was passionate about it, it just didn’t sell to a publisher,” she said. “We sent it out, people were interested, we got some really lovely rejections — if you can imagine that — where they write a letter and say this is what I love but this is why it’s not going to work.
“As crushed as I was, the very fact that people wrote back — I think one editor took it to acquisition, it just wasn’t a commercial story. It was a quieter story. But that lit a fire under me, made me a little desperate.”
Lucky for Gensler, third time’s the charm. Gensler used NaNoWriMo again to draft her novel “The Revenant,” a Victorian ghost story inspired by a female Cherokee seminary in Tahlequah, Okla. The book sold to Knopf, a part of Random House publishing, as a part of a two-book deal.
The book earned her the Oklahoma Book Award and Parent’s Choice Silver Award.
Her most recent novel, a Young Adult paranormal murder mystery titled “The Dark Between,” was released in August, and was inspired from research for “The Revenant.” One of the books Gensler stumbled upon while researching was a non-fiction book called “Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death” by Deborah Blum. The book details the research of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research, a group of scholars and scientists associated with Cambridge University who applied the scientific method to paranormal activity.
When Gensler started asking “what if” questions about the real society, a plot and characters were born.
“I like to write about teens so my focus was going to be what if three children of some of these founders were thrown together and realized what their parents did?” Gensler said. “And what if one of them actually had some kind of paranormal ability that she’d been suppressing all these years? And what if they start to suspect that somebody in the society — which I call the Metaphysical Society in the book — has been murdering people as part of their research, including a dear friend of one of the teenager characters?”
The story, set in Cambridge, England, at the turn of the 20th century, follows three teenagers running from their shadowed pasts who take refuge within the walls of Summerfield College. The three join forces to solve a murder after it’s made clear there is something paranormal at play.
Gensler said her goal with “The Dark Between” is quite simply to entertain readers.
“I’m not trying to preach, I just want to have somebody be wrapped up in the story and be entertained,” she said. “At the same time, I think a writer wants to open new worlds to readers and say, maybe you’ve never wanted to go here before, but this is a really cool place and come visit it for a while.”
Finding inspiration for stories like “The Dark Between” comes naturally for Gensler whose imagination has always been sparked by literature, history and old ghost stories. Among her favorite topics are women in the 19th century — which explains the central characters of her two published novels. Gensler said she is fascinated with the often oppressed role women throughout history were forced to play in society. She enjoys playing with these social gender role stereotypes in her novels.
“I like to imagine situations where girls have to solve problems and maybe not save the world but take matters into their own hands and solve a mystery and triumph in the end — use their brains,” she said.
Assembling a story is no simple task for Gensler who plans and researches extensively to complete her stories. Gensler travels to research on location, reads plenty of books and of course, does her share of surfing the web.
“I do a lot of Google image searches and a lot of Google ‘what-if’ kind of searches. Including things as weird as, ‘What’s the rate of decay of a human body if left in a cool, enclosed area?’ The kind of things where if someone was looking at your Google search they’d think you were Dexter or something,” she said, laughing, referring to the crime drama TV show “Dexter.”
Gensler uses visual storyboards to map out stories in a three-act structure. As much planning as she does, though, Gensler said she still has to allow the story to unfold organically.
“I don’t always have the ending completely figured out, that’s a little bit of a gray area,” she said. “Even though I’m a planner I still have to be flexible to let certain things go that don’t seem natural and don’t fit. I am very in awe — there are lots of published, successful writers that start at the beginning and write and see where it takes them, but that’s terrifying to me. I have to have a roadmap.”
Though Gensler’s writing career for the future is uncertain, Gensler will continue to summon the inspiration her student’s provided her. In fact, she continues to wear a bracelet that reads “channel your brave” as a reminder.
She’s doing just that as she works on her next story, a novel for middle grade age children about a group of young filmmakers, set in her home state of Tennessee. Gensler is also hoping to develop a sequel for “The Dark Between.”
“I’ll just keep writing — writing the best that I can,” she said.
When she’s not immersed in writing, Gensler conducts area school, library and book club author visits. She also conducts visits via Skype for locations that are either out of the area or can’t afford the required honorarium.
During the visits Gensler holds writing workshops, discusses the inspiration behind her novels or conducts a Q&A. As a former teacher, Gensler enjoys connecting with aspiring authors, both young and old.
Gensler said she enjoys the visits the most when it is a group that is particularly engaged and interested in the writing process. Those are the groups that ask the most interesting questions and gain the most insight into the publishing industry.
Among the advice she imparts to other aspiring authors is to read often and read a variety of materials. She also encourages other writers to get into the habit of writing often and to finish all projects.
“Writing is very hard but you just have to gut your way through till the end. Then revise. And that’s something that my students were very resistant to when I was a teacher. They thought work was done after the first draft. We would have to kind of force ourselves to keep revising. That’s where all the real work gets done — with mine at least.”
For more information on Gensler visit soniagensler.com.