Sierra Views: Martin has the write stuff

By Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat April 04, 2013 10:58 am

Marylin Martin, of Columbia, holds her historical novel in front of photographs of her ancestors that are the characters in her book. Maggie Beck / Union Democrat, Copyright 2013.
When Marylin Martin decided in 2001 she wanted to write a book, there was an obstacle standing in her way. She wasn’t a writer.

The only writing she’d done up to that point was during school or in letters. And yet the Columbia resident knew that she had stories to tell. Storytelling is in her blood, but writing a novel without formal training would seem like a daunting task to some.

“I’ve always been very determined and motivated,” said Martin, 72.

Those stories focus on four generations of women in her family and make up the content in her historical novel “Common Thread — Uncommon Women.” Published by Authorhouse, the book will be released this month.

It’s a culmination of nine years of research and writing for the Arkansas native. But it’s also a look into a family history that she says shapes who she is today.

“I see some of them in myself, of course,” she said of her ancestors.

Martin was born and raised near the Ozarks in Arkansas and carries with her memories of evening family gatherings that featured music and family stories. There were plenty, considering a rich family history dating to the Civil War — from her American Indian great-grandmother to her family’s life in the Civil War and her mother’s Great Depression-era struggles to carry a family though tumult.

She was inspired by books like “Left Hand Turn,” an account of the women of the Donner Party, and “Cane River,” about a family history dating back to slavery. Martin decided her family’s stories should be documented, too. She just had to learn to write as a discipline. 

That’s where the Mother Lode writing community came in, she said.

She and her sister, Jill Klajic, founded the Sonora Writers Group in 2003 and started organizing meetings and workshops with other local writers. Martin said her time with the group helped lay the foundations for her book.

The group also became an endeavor on its own, spawning an anthology of stories in 2010 and a writers workshop last year. Martin said they plan on organizing another workshop this summer. She also worked with local literary figures like Bill Manville, who she says taught her that each sentence should build a character, advance the plot or provide a laugh.

“They really taught me to write,” Martin said of the group. “It was difficult at first. I was really afraid to read my first chapter in the group.”

Learning to be a novelist wasn’t the only artistic skill she picked up on the fly. Martin said she learned to paint in her 40s and has since become a proficient watercolor painter, with plans to start working with oils.

Martin said she recalls using watercolors with her granddaughter and offering to help her copy a flowery catalogue cover.

“She said ‘Grandma, you don’t know how to paint.’ And I said, I can try,” she said.

Martin then started using the watercolors herself. As she painted, she said, it was like “something exploded inside of me.” Soon after, Martin said, she started gathering art reference books and took private lessons.

Martin said learning to paint at a late age helped when she took on writing. She’s always been a determined person, she said, who believes “If someone is bored, they’re a boring person.”

Where she came from, the lack of technology forced her family to create their own entertainment. As a farmer in Arkansas and later Turlock, her father was also known for his ability to tell a story. She remembers sitting and listening to him recall moments and events  and sometimes even spooky tales, some of which she said inspired parts of her book.

He wasn’t the only storyteller in the family, either. Martin said her grandmother was known in and out of the family as being a premier storyteller, especially of spooky tales. One, which was called “Bloody Bones” was especially scary, she recalled.

“She could just scare you to death with that one,” she recalled of her grandmother, whose stories also helped inspire Martin’s writing. “She drew people to her.”

Even some of Martin’s own personal stories read like classic literature. When she was 11 in the early 1950s, her parents packed her, her two sisters and brother and their belongings into a pickup truck and drove out west to Turlock from Arkansas. She recalls stopping at one point along the way, her mother asking the kids to catch a chicken and plucking it for a fresh dinner that night.

“It was really like the ‘Grapes of Wrath,’” she said.

Martin’s family settled in Turlock. She ran a home for the elderly for 35 years before moving to Twain Harte. She and her husband, Frank, later moved to Columbia to escape the snow.

Today, she’s gearing up for a book release that will include readings and events in Sonora and the Central Valley in the coming weeks. But the storytelling doesn’t stop, and she said she’s already working on some new material. A fan of both historical fiction from writers like Irving Stone and true crime, Martin said she’s looking at writing a mystery.

“It’s never too late,” she said about trying something new. “I try to learn something every day.”


Marylin Martin will give a reading from her book at a special release event scheduled for 2 to 5 p.m.  April 27 at Legends on Washington Street in Sonora.