An avid writer from a young age — as well as a former A.P. English teacher and photo journalist — author Dellani Oakes grew up writing songs and poems in elementary school and short stories in high school. In college, where she majored in theatre, she developed an interest in play writing and fell in love with dialogue-heavy, character-driven scripts. These influences are evident in her published works, as she uses verbal exchanges as a tool for revealing both plot and characterization.
When her youngest son started kindergarten in 2002, Oakes was able to write full-time, and her first novel, Indian Summer, was published in 2008 by Second Wind Publishing. A touching story of historical romance, Indian Summer tells the tale of Gabriella Deza, a young woman who unwittingly stumbles into a world of love, betrayal and adventure.
With her subsequent books, Oakes has explored the world of sci-fi romance with Lone Wolf and Shakazhan and released a pair of novels with Tirgearr Publishing, The Ninja Tattoo and Under the Western Sky. In September of 2014, Oakes revisited the world of The Ninja Tattoo‘s protagonist, Army veteran Teague McMurtry, with an action-packed sequel, Conduct Unbecoming.
To learn more about Oakes and her writing, visit her online at dellanioakes.wordpress.com.
As you look back on your childhood, what events or experiences most shaped who you are today?
Since my father attended Harvard, I was around adults and children from all over the world. I listened avidly to their accents and ways of expressing themselves. As I grew older, I collected stories and experiences, of my own and others, putting in that author’s warehouse. I didn’t realize then that I would one day dust them off and make them into stories. More than anything, the early adventures with my mother and sister, exploring the historical sites in Boston and surrounding areas, gave me the drive to put these experiences into words.
Who have been your biggest creative influences?
My greatest creative influences were decidedly my parents. My father was a college English professor and my mother an elementary school teacher. They both read to my sister and me as we were growing up. My mother encouraged me to be creative, while my father forced me to express myself well in both written and verbal form. I was always around creative people: musicians, artists and writers. Looking back, I really don’t think I could have become anything else.
What inspired the story of Indian Summer? How much research went into accurately recreating 1739 St. Augustine?
Indian Summer was inspired by a fieldtrip I took with my eldest son’s fourth grade class. We were exploring the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida, and were climbing the stairs to the gun deck. I put my hand on the wall and thought, “What if these walls could talk? What would they say?” I heard Gabriella’s voice and it wouldn’t shut up until I wrote her words down.
I did extensive research to make Indian Summer as accurate as possible. I did take a few small liberties, simply because the reality of the town and time wasn’t exactly what I wanted. One such liberty was making the houses two stories. They didn’t build two stories until the British came in many years later. I studied books and maps, even went on several trips to St. Augustine and talked to park rangers, re-enactors and historians in order to give as accurate a picture of the town.
How have your travels influenced you and your approach to story-telling?
As a child, I lived a nomadic sort of life. I don’t think we lived anywhere longer than two years, until I reached the age of nine. Between the ages of two and nine, I had lived in Tennessee, Ohio, Massachusetts, Texas and Nebraska. I grew up in western Nebraska and have lived, since then, in Mississippi and Florida. All this relocating has given me an interesting variety of settings to choose from. With the exception of Massachusetts, I have set books in each of the states I’ve lived in.
In the movie version of The Ninja Tattoo and/or Conduct Unbecoming, who plays Teague McMurtry?
Teague has changed from time to time, because I couldn’t find the exact face. However, I believe that now I have. I finally decided that Jensen Ackles would make the definitive Teague. He’s ruggedly handsome and has the look of a man who could take on superior forces and win.
His female counterpart, Vivica Rambo, would be played by Sarah Shahi, because she is lovely, and she also looks like she could handle herself in a fight.
How have you evolved as a writer over the years?
When I first started writing, I felt as if I had to tell everything. If I had a character who had to leave the room, I would describe him walking to the door, opening the door and leaving. That isn’t necessary and it slows down the story. That action can be summed up in a few words, not a few sentences.
I have learned to describe setting and actions better, though I am decidedly more dialogue-heavy. I love listening to my characters speak. They are all different and have unique ways of expressing themselves.
I have learned to be precise when I write, rather than trusting that I will catch mistakes later. That doesn’t work for me. I try to make my first draft as close to a finished draft as possible.
Do you read reviews of your own work? If so, how do they affect your approach to writing?
I read my reviews from time to time, and try to thank the people for them. I try not to engage people who have written negative reviews. I made that mistake early on, when I got a ridiculous review that Barnes and Noble has yet to take down. I put up a short piece for free and someone posted a 1 star review saying, “It’s too short. Don’t bother.” Yes, I know it’s short, which is why it’s free! I asked that B&N remove it, because it was quite pointless. I asked the author to take it down, but they made a bunch of anonymous accounts and kept writing bad reviews. Then other readers, people I didn’t even know, started posting in support of me. Otherwise, I have had good luck with reviews and I always try to be gracious and thank people for reading my books.
What aspects of being a full-time English teacher do you miss the most?
I miss watching the light come on when the kids get the concept I’m trying to get across. I can remember teaching Romeo and Juliet to my ninth graders. We read bits aloud and I would go through each passage and put it into language they could understand. I loved watching the understanding dawn on them as the mysterious Elizabethan words were translated into language they could understand.
What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
Boy, that’s a tough one. I’ve read so many great books. I just re-read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, for probably the tenth time. It still makes me laugh. I would have to say that it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.
If you could offer one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Don’t get discouraged. Keep writing. Some people have said to me, “I wonder if I should keep writing?” Yes! If you’ve got that burning in your belly to tell stories, tell them. Listen to the story in your head and write it down. If you can seriously tell me that the stories have stopped coming, you don’t hear the words anymore, then it’s time to quit. Until then, keep writing.
What are you working on next?
My next project is to do the edits for my fourth sci-fi book in the Lone Wolf series, The Kahlea. It won’t be as big a pain as The Maker, Book 3, but it’s still kind of a bear. I wrote the Lone Wolf series before I had really honed my edit-as-you-go skill, so they need trimming.
As far as writing, I hop around from book to book so much, I am never sure what I’ll be working on from one day to the next. I have an extensive backlog of unfinished novels (53) and short stories (18) that keep me very busy. I am also getting new ideas all the time.