The Writer’s Life, 1977-1984

1985: my first author copies

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here. Recently I was rearranging some of the books in my office, including old record and day books, and randomly opened one of the earliest, the ledger I kept for the years 1977-1984. I started writing seriously—with the goal of being published and paid for it—when I finished my first and only year as a teacher of seventh and eighth grade English. It may have been called “Language Arts.” Whatever it was called, I was the newcomer. That meant I didn’t get to teach any of the top students. Although there were a few who were willing to learn, the vast majority were more interested in the opposite sex, sports, and goofing off. Worse, that year’s seventh grade class was disproportionately male, making it even harder for a twenty-something female teacher with not a single education course in her background to maintain control. How, you ask, did I even get hired? There had been a secondary baby boom (I was part of the first one) and the administration was desperate for warm bodies. Anyone with a college education was considered qualified to teach.

My husband and I had bought a house on twenty-five rural acres in 1975. Newly unemployed and with no particular job prospects on the horizon in the fall of 1976, I decided it was finally time to stop talking about wanting to write a novel and actually do it. The fact that I didn’t know anything about what I was doing didn’t stop me. In fact, that was probably a good thing.

That first year I wrote two long historical novels and started a third, all set in sixteenth-century England, and completed the rough draft of a nonfiction book about Tudor women. Since I recorded mileage as a business expense, I know that in 1977 I made many trips to libraries (Wilton Public, University of Maine at Farmington, Bates, Colby, and the Maine State Library) to do research. 331 miles in all. This was long before the Internet, although Inter-library loans were available. I was also running up a healthy postage bill sending queries to publishers. First class postage was thirteen cents, but it still mounted up. Sending an entire manuscript of 560 or so pages cost $2.90.

My biggest expense in 1977 was a new typewriter, replacing my old portable with an Adler model 200. It cost $320 plus $16 sales tax. I was using medium white erasable typing paper ($8.40 a ream) with carbon paper. The only other option for making copies was the Xerox machine at the library, but that was even more expensive. Carbon paper cost sixty-nine cents a package. Typewriter ribbons went for $1.39 each. A note at the end of the year indicates I used seven reams of typing paper, seven ribbons, and five packages of carbon paper in 1977. I also spent $117.77 on buying books. My home library consisted of forty-two reference books and twenty “pertinent novels” at the end of 1977.

1978 was more of the same. More big historical novels, revisions of what I’d already written, and a few short stories. Nothing sold, although I did occasionally get personalized feedback in rejection letters. This was before most writers’ groups were founded. It was still pre-computer. Just as an example, typing the final draft of one of the historicals (I don’t have a page count) took me sixteen days. Just typing. With a carbon copy. On a manual typewriter. And if I did any revising, the whole thing would have to be retyped. I kept the “good copies” in a fireproof safe when they weren’t being submitted.

In 1979, the final draft of my longest effort, a 785 page historical novel set in Colonial New England, took the longest time to type. I started on May 16 and didn’t finish until July 3. That was just typing. I wasn’t experienced enough yet as a writer to be doing much revising as I typed. I probably thought my deathless prose didn’t need any more tweaking.

By 1980, postage had gone up to fifteen cents for a first class letter. That was the year I actually sold something. It was my nonfiction book about Tudor Women, but there was no advance and it wouldn’t be in print until 1984. My current e-book original, A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, is the much revised, expanded, and updated version of that book. It wasn’t until July of 1982 that I finally earned my “professional writer” credentials by selling a short story, “How Chester Greenwood Invented Earmuffs,” to Highlights for Children for a whopping $80.00. It was published in the January 1984 issue. In 1983 I sold my first novel, not one of those big historical stories, but a contemporary mystery for children ages 8-12. Again, there was no advance, and it was 1985 before it was in print from Down East Books. As with the nonfiction, I’ve recently reissued The Mystery of Hilliard’s Castle as an e-book (and in trade paperback).

1984 was a banner year, with my first paid publication and my first published book coming out from a traditional (small, scholarly, but still . . . ) publisher. I also did my first paid gig as a writer, receiving an honorarium of $50 for leading a workshop at a local Young Author’s Conference. I edited my grandfather’s memoirs that year, but only for the family. It wouldn’t be until last year that I’d issue The Life of a Plodder as an e-book and trade paperback.

Looking back, it’s a wonder I persevered, but during those years I couldn’t not write. By the time the first book came out. I was still honing my skills, but I was also working as a library assistant at the University of Maine at Farmington’s Mantor Library to make ends meet. My husband, who never wavered in his support as a “patron of the artist” was a deputy sheriff, one of the most underpaid jobs around. It would have been nice to have written and sold a bestselling novel, but I can’t regret the way things have gone. I’m just glad technology soon advanced to the point where I didn’t have to pound out drafts on a manual typewriter anymore.

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-three books traditionally published and has self published several children’s books and three works of nonfiction. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Her next publication (as Kaitlyn) is the fourth book in the contemporary “Deadly Edits” series (Murder, She Edited), in stores in August 2021. As Kathy, her most recent novel is a standalone historical mystery, The Finder of Lost Things. She maintains websites at and A third, at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, is the gateway to over 2300 mini-biographies of sixteenth-century Englishwomen, now available in e-book format.


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6 Responses to The Writer’s Life, 1977-1984

  1. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    I am in awe of your record keeping and perseverance. I don’t think I would ever have been published if I had to use a typewriter, since I can’t really type. I am actually a typing class drop out (sung to Beauty School Dropout from Grease around the house). The computer and internet changed everything. What fun to look back!

  2. itslorrie says:

    Hello Kathy, I enjoyed reading about your beginning as a writer. I can only imagine how tedious all of that typing was for you. So much easier now. You already know how much I enjoy your books so it is no surprise that I am very glad that you stuck with it and happy for you too.

    • kaitlynkathy says:

      Thanks, Lorrie. It didn’t seem that bad at the time, since there wasn’t any alternative.

  3. John Clark says:

    Just thinking about writing/editing pre-computer makes me cringe. Glad you’ve stuck with it.

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