Nancy Turner still seems a little uncomfortable wearing the mantle she crafted from a rich family history, a roving imagination and a way with words.
"It took about 10 years, I guess, from when my first book came out before I could call myself a writer with a straight face," said a smiling Turner, who is working in her northwest-side home on rewrites of what will be her fifth published novel.
Turner started her first book—a sensitive yet gritty tale of Arizona pioneer life loosely based on her ancestors—in the mid-1990s as a Pima Community College fiction assignment. She decided to keep going, and These Is My Words was published in 1998. The book, written as the diary of a young pioneer woman, was a success here and in Europe. It has sold more than 120,000 copies and offered Turner a chance to travel across the U.S. and to Europe for speaking engagements and book-signings.
Since then, Turner has published two sequels—Sarah's Quilt and The Star Garden. All three books are fictional accounts of the life of Turner's great-grandmother Sarah Agnes Prine, who died in Texas in the 1960s. The series was inspired by a handwritten 1920s memoir of Sarah's brother, Henry Prine, who came to Arizona in the 1870s as a teen.
The Prines came from Oregon to trade horses and settled near Prescott after a journey of more than a year. In the 1880s, they moved to Texas. Then, some eventually returned to Arizona to settle between Benson and Douglas. She doesn't know exactly where they settled.
Turner herself was born near Dallas and grew up mostly in Santa Ana, Calif. She came to Tucson in 1992, for her husband's job with the state Department of Public Safety. Now 58, the former cake decorator didn't start writing until she was in her mid-40s.
"I was a late bloomer, but I bloomed. You know, Erma Bombeck didn't start writing until she was 40. There comes a time for everyone. For some, it's earlier, and for some, it's later," Turner said.
These Is My Words is her most-successful book by far. Although she has made money from her novels, there are no private jets for travel and no Ferrari in Turner's driveway.
"It's been a little sobering in that respect," she said with a chuckle.
But she is clearly doing OK—she has sold more than 150,000 books, all told, and sold the film rights to These Is My Words. She has a Hollywood agent, though no one has yet started to make the film. Ron Howard reportedly said it would be tough to make, because it is such an internal story. (A lot of it takes place in Sarah's head.) Turner thinks others might have declined to make the movie because of the cost of period films.
"I get approached by people all the time who say, 'Hey, I want to write your story into a screenplay,'" she said. But so far, no one has.
After These Is My Words, Turner didn't want to continue the Sarah Prine series. In 2001, The Water and the Blood, a coming-of-age story set in the 1940s, was published. Once that was out of her system, she penned the second Sarah Prine book.
"Once that came out, I almost couldn't stop," she said.
Turner's latest book is set during the American Revolution. The novel, with the working title My Name Is Resolute, is about a young woman in New England. Like her other period books, it's based loosely on her own family. That book is currently in rewrites—a process that usually takes at least five exchanges with publishers and editors. She isn't sure when it will come out.
For most writers, getting a novel out involves hard work tinged with pain. There is a lot of self-doubt, but also a lot of gratification. Turner doesn't attribute her success entirely to skills with grammar and the nuances of character development. With so many good writers out there, it's about timing as much as anything, she said.
"The humility is never very far from the pride," she said.
In any event, she has had a lot of fun connecting with distant relatives across the nation while researching her novels. She has many new Facebook friends.
Turner plans to keep writing—she has written seven of the 10 books on her bucket list. People have asked for more Sarah Prine books, but Turner hesitates to continue a series based on her own family too far into the 20th century, because "once you get into the 1920s, you start getting into people who are still alive." She has two unpublished manuscripts, including a mystery novel she spent two years crafting.
"They're still sitting in the piano bench, keeping warm," she said.