Monday, June 13, 2011

Guest Author - Janet Oakley

Today I’m introducing the 2nd in my series of Authors who are taking advantage of their 'seniorhood' to write the novels that have been germinating in their minds for years. Janet Oakley is a historian who lives in the beautiful town of Bellingham, Washington. She just barely makes my “senior” list and has only recently retired.

The daughter of north westerners, Janet spent her childhood on the east coast, but since then, has lived most of her life in the west, including the Hawaiian Islands. While attending university in Honolulu, she met the man who became her husband. They lived for a time in Hilo before moving to Bellingham, where they raised three sons. Her husband passed away in 2001.

Janet’s writing appears in various magazines, anthologies, and other media including the Cup of Comfort series and She has written social studies a curriculum for schools and historical organizations, and, in her spare time, demonstrates 19th century folkways. Her historical novel, “The Tree Soldier,” now available on is set specifically in the Pacific Northwest during the depression of the 1930s.

Betty: I gather you’ve been writing pretty much all your life, but this is your first published novel. When did you get the idea you wanted to write a historical novel?

Janet: I have loved history since I was in elementary school. Perhaps having a grandmother who was born in 1875 and lived to nearly 100 or maybe reading the pocket journals of my Civil War surgeon great-grandfather stirred up historical stories even then. I wrote a 125 page thesis in college so maybe the leap to big pages started there. But I had no idea of novel structure. I only read historical fiction. Once I began the opening scene, I just kept going.

Betty: You and I both have a great love for the Pacific Northwest, whether it’s in Canada or the U.S.A. And I note your book “The Tree Soldier” is set in our beautiful region. What gave you the idea to write this particular book?

Janet: My mom is a native of Idaho and grew up in Boise. During the summers she often went up to her uncle's ranch in Lowman. One summer in the early 1930s, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp appeared upstream. I heard the stories of the boys from New 'Joisey' that lived in those camps. I was looking for an idea for my second novel as well as write a term paper while I was working on my Master's in Elementary Education. My mom's stories came back to me when I learned that some of the campgrounds up at Mount Baker were made by the CCCs. I began to look at government publications to get background. Little scenes began to develop in my head and on paper. At the time I was working out in the woods for a local school district and had opportunities to talk to foresters. I learned some wood skills like handling a two man saw, splitting shakes. One of the foresters was Hank Reasoner, already in his 70s. He introdued me to a list of friends who were in the CCCs.

Betty: There must have been considerably research to do. How long did this novel take you to finish?

Janet: The research and writing went on for about two years. I gave a couple of talks to high schools during this time and ended up turning my term paper into an article which was published in the Journal of Whatcom County Historical Society. I began to pitch it and in 2001 it was a finalist at the Pacific Northwest Writer Association Lit Contest.

Doing historical research is very rewarding and you are always learning something new. I'm very glad I kept all my notes. It helps when giving talks.

Betty: I agree, Janet. I love the research for a historical novel almost as much as writing it. But your enthusiasm for history goes further than writing historical fiction. What are some of the other activities, which center around the past, that you are involved with?

Janet: I love teaching hands-on history to young students and have done so for over 30 years. You just don't read about butter making (like in Farmer Boy) but actually churn cream in a churn and then wash the butter when it's formed. I like to research local history and bring that research to life in activities that will help students understand the past from a people point of view, not dates.

I've written social studies curriculum for three school districts and wrote one on the Pig War for the national parks. I demonstrate 19h century folkways for San Juan Island Nautioal Historic Park on San Juan Island every year. And I've written 30 historical essays for

I work closely with a group restoring the Whatcom County Territorial Courthouse in Bellingham, WA, the oldest brick building in the state. When we won a Save Our History grant from the History Channel in 2006, I fell into maritime history surrounding the building which was built during the Frazer River Gold Rush. At this juncture I'm pretty besotted with the Ann Parry, a coastal trader with a colorful history. She brought the bricks. I'm working on an article and a book on her.

Betty: I know you are also working on two other books. Can you tell us a little about them and when we can look forward to them being on the market.

Janet: "The Jossing Affair" is actually my first novel. It's set in Norway during WW II and a favorite. It finaled twice at PNWA and came close to publication once. I have an agent interested in it, but I'll have to consider about self-publishing it. "Mist-shi-mus," my ABNA entry this year, is set in 1860, the year after the Pig War in the Pacific NW. I'm querying that now. Another completed novel is "Timber Rose," a prequel to Tree Soldier. I'm getting that ready for publication in November. They seem like a good project to do together. The world of publishing is in such a state of flux. Why not?

Betty: Why not, indeed. This is an exciting time for writers. We are basically now the masters of our own destiny in many ways. So good for you, Janet. You are definitely not going to sit around and dream away your retirement years, and I wish you much success with all these endeavors.


  1. Very good interview. Tree Soldier is an excellent read--I recommend it. It shows all the hard work and research Janet has done. Congrats!

  2. It's interesting that her next novel is actually the first one she wrote. My first novel will (hopefully) be the third I will publish.

    I wonder if this is common among writers...

  3. Doug, I decided to self-publish this novel. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about with all the changes in publishing. The first one is still out there being queried. It came close to being published a couple of years ago with a small press.