Meet Donna Van Braswell. Before writing her debut novel, Daughter of the Ancients, which has been lauded as a “compelling adventure”, and “exciting and humorous”, Donna Van Braswell’s life included a few adventures of her own.
“I was incredibly proud to be a military brat, not because of my role, but because of the role my mother and father played, in my life and for this great country,” she said. “Having lived from Alaska to New England, to the deep South, to
Turkey, then traveling around the world, I have a deeply ingrained appreciation of America in my heart. Being a military dependent as a child and a wife, moving often was sometimesoverwhelming and isolating. I never got used to feeling lost. However, I have felt ‘found’ a few times. Holding my son, Nicholas, for the first time. Really, holding him every time, even 41 years later. Also, I’ll never forget the look of adoration in the eyes of my six-year-old daughter, Jessica, for no reason other than she loved me. It was simply humbling.”
“I worked for decades in the missile defense arena. If an ICBM or other type of missile launched and blew up an enemy’s missile, I might have had a tiny bit to do with it. Though I was exposed regularly to a variety of exquisite cultures, I was often unable to understand their nuances. With that said, working in a predominantly male industry was very natural for me. This straightforward gal fit right in!”
“All of these experiences played into the depth of the most recent sense of belonging—feeling like an author for the first time—when Daughter of the Ancients was selected to be published.” The multi-talented author was candid about the journey of getting there. “The hair-pulling years of learning to write a novel, while writing the novel, were immensely fulfilling. But I also wondered (at the time) if they were a huge waste of time. We want to believe that we write for the act of writing, but most of us have a not-so-secret hope that we will receive that amazing bit of recognition. I know I’m not alone when I admit this process has brought me to tears.”
“Going to Killer Nashville (International Writers’ Conference) for the first time, I read my pages to two agents. Nervous stomach. Shaking hands. Stammering voice. Dry mouth. All the words that we’re not supposed to use in our novels because they are so over-used, applied to me. When all participants were done, the agents handed out very short critiques. Some (submissions) were returned with the words ‘send additional pages to….” written at the top. I threw myself into the arms of a wonderful—if not startled—fellow writer and just cried. I read those very words, written at the top of my pages by one of the agents. Oh, the Success! That woman was just a tiny part of a wonderful community that writers create for themselves. I’m so grateful for being allowed to join in the fun.”
Donna is candid about some of the bumps along her path to being published. “To share a little about my writing journey, I spent a year researching queries and agent submittals. I thought that year was one of the toughest. Until I received a request for more pages from a well-known entity. A wonderful editor sent helpful notes with requests for rewrites. I was so excited and so nervous, I furiously addressed them and rushed the responses within twenty-four hours. Even when she practically begged me to slow down, take my time, and really think about it. I was so new, I had little understanding of what she was requesting. It did not go well. She finally advised me to take some time away from the situation and resubmit. I felt like such a nincompoop, I didn’t do it. I was such a newbie!”
“One editor responded to my query and my first ten pages, saying, ‘I don’t find your main character compelling’. I felt confused, then hurt, then I shrugged and moved on. Little did I know that her statement was code for, Tell me what is at stake for her and how she must act to resolve the crisis. As I progressed, it seemed there were many ‘codes’ in agent and editor responses.”
She cherished each step along the way. “I felt deep emotions at various times—getting the final copy after rounds of edits from folks who truly have my best interests at heart, hearing the narrator of the audio version bring my story to life, in a way I (previously) only heard in my head. Getting my first paycheck. And, of course, buying my first Mercedes with that paycheck…well, okay, I’m still waiting for that last part to happen,” Donna said, with a smile. The author also appreciates the value of the in-depth learning experience, including how to discuss or approach suggested manuscript changes, “You don’t have to agree with every comment or change request.” Adding to the challenges of a debut novel release, Daughter of the Ancients launched just before the COVID pandemic impacted the entire globe. Publishers and authors suddenly found themselves in a paradigm shift, changing the norms of promotions and sales.
Her protagonist is described in reviews as “adventurous and funny”, and having “…a love of mystery, history, friendship, love and just living”. And, Donna enjoyed creating her. “Daughter of the Ancients is a wonderful mystery that began in 1522 and ended in 2019, taking place in Greece and Scotland. The story follows a brilliant professor, whose abilities with ancient languages may allow her to crack the riddles and follow the clues, without being killed along the way, and find the Treasure of Rhodes.”
“We often hear ‘write what you know’. Many of the challenges I’ve encountered are reflected in the pages of my book. That’s not to say I used it for therapy, but my characters react and speak in ways that I understand. Maybe my main character is a bit on the autism spectrum. Maybe she lies to get out of trouble with her best friend because she doesn’t have the communication skills needed to wiggle her way into good graces. We all have wonderful twists in ourselves that will make our characters stand out. That may be the best part of writing, that and presenting our themes in as unique a way as our imaginations can.”
Donna’s desire to write has been strong since she was a teen. “I’ve composed poems since high school. However, I felt the thrill of being an author when my book was selected to be published.” Two well-known authors unknowingly influenced Donna’s decision to write. “My favorite author is James Lee Burke. The lyrical qualities of his prose are unmatched. His characters are crystal clear, virtuous, and sometimes intriguingly dangerous, as are his locations. I can only hope to bring my characters to life as well as he does one day. And, the prolific author, Carolyn Haines, read my idea for a book ‘she should write’ with a grin on her face. She said, ‘Donna, it’s a great idea. You should write it yourself.’ Well, a few years later I did. Thank you, Carolyn!”
Donna’s two newest projects are in the works. “I am working on the follow-up to Daughter of the Ancients. This novel brings Katina and Lexy to Ireland on the hunt for The Lost Pearl. I’m also working on an inverse mystery set in Nashville, Tennessee. There, Detective Manner Alice MacLaine may be the only one taking the odd deaths of seemingly random people seriously. Did the Irish butler do it?”
One of her passions is being part of the writing community. “I was on the Education Committee for the national Sisters in Crime organization, as a webinar host, and worked with the Past President this year on a large event scheduled for 2023. I’m also a regular in the Huntsville Writers Critique Groups. I share all this to say, I love Sisters in Crime and especially the Sisters in Crime Grand Canyon Writers chapter, and I feel so safe in telling you of my embarrassments. I know we share them to simply help each other. No shame. Lots of humor.”
Donna has a long history of community service. “I volunteered all my adult life at church, schools, jails, tornado relief, food for the sick, shelters… The list is very long. I work with a few new writers, too. My help is straightforward and not for the faint of heart.”
The author and her “wonderful husband, Jim” live in north Alabama most of the year, near her 90-year-old parents. After raising “two amazing children” she spends the rest of the year traveling Europe or in Florida, writing and walking the beaches.