I was publishing a satisfying string of nonfiction books for young readers, not thinking about writing fiction, when I stumbled on the story of a Byzantine princess named Anna Comnena while doing research for something to do with my day job. She haunted me.
I decided to write an entry from an imagined diary kept by Anna (in the Middle Ages, women were about as literate as men). I read that chapter to my critique group. They liked it and said, “What happened next?” So chapter by chapter, critique-group meeting by critique-group meeting, I wrote Anna of Byzantium.
In the meantime, I also tried my hand at a picture book and submitted it for critique at an SCBWI conference. My critiquer was Françoise Bui (now executive editor at Random House). I was her last critique of the day, so we left the room together, and being a polite person, she asked me what else I was working on. I mentioned Anna, and she said, “Sounds interesting.” It was an off-hand remark and clearly she was just making conversation. But when I finished the manuscript and had it thoroughly critiqued and polished, I sent it to her, starting my cover letter with, “Since you expressed interest in this manuscript . . . ”, trusting that she would check her records and think, yes, I was at the SCBWI-Midsouth conference last year, and yes, a Tracy Barrett was among my critiquees, so I must have said I wanted a look at this.
Of course, she had said no such thing, but I figured it was close enough that I wouldn’t burn in hell for stretching the truth!
She called me a few weeks later and we worked out a deal for my first fiction sale. Twelve years later, Anna of Byzantium is still going strong, and is closing in on 200,000 sales.