Pamela Smith Hill isn’t one to forget her roots.
Born and raised in Missouri, Smith Hill set one of her novels, A Voice from the Border, in the Show-Me state, and another, Ghost Horses, in South Dakota, where she lived and worked for nearly a decade.
And her early training as a newspaper reporter-long ago in Springfield, Missouri-is part of the reason for her success today as a writer of award-winning books and short stories for young women and girls, she says. “As a reporter, I had the chance to listen to people, to the way they talk, and to observe details of their own worlds and their settings.”
Smith Hill is director of the Professional Writing Program at Washington State University Vancouver, where she has worked with scores of students since joining the faculty as an instructor in 1996.
Her students run the gamut from those seeking careers in communications to those interested simply in improving their writing. But to all of them, Smith Hill stresses the value of writing crisp, clean copy, accurate and precise in detail and description, such as this excerpt from her third novel, The Last Grail Keeper: “I moved so close I could feel the heat from the fire, smell the old man’s sweat. Then he turned sharply and spoke toward the corner where the fire cast no glow, just beyond the box of sparkles.”
Smith Hill says strong detail, particularly that which bolsters the historical authenticity of a piece, is key to successful writing. Whether she is crafting a story set in the Dark Ages, the Civil War, or 1969, Smith Hill anchors her readers with a resilient connection to a specific time.
“I have to get as close to the past as I can, even when writing fantasy. It is important for me to know what kind of fabric, for instance, the women used when they wore mourning gowns during the Civil War.”
Such detail, Smith Hill says, helps make fiction seem real. “Getting as close to the reality helps me break down the barriers for my readers,” she says.
Smith Hill’s appreciation for history is central to her literary success as well. In 2002, she was recognized for a Web history of South Dakota she coauthored, which has become required reading for fourth-graders in that state.
Her books have been chosen for an Oregon Book Award, as a Junior Library Guild selection, and as a finalist for a Mark Twain Award. Voice of Youth Advocates, a library journal devoted to young adult literature, picked The Last Grail Keeper for its selection of “Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror 2002,” along with titles by Ursula K. Le Guin, J.K. Rowling, Garth Nix, and David Almond. Smith Hill’s fourth novel, nearing completion, is a fantasy, set in the Dark Ages.
Enrollment in the professional writing program has grown from about a dozen students when Smith Hill became director in 1997 to 90-100 students this year. Study options include a variety of technical, creative, magazine, and professional writing and editing courses; multimedia authoring; and internships.
That an instructor teaches as well as writes is not novel. But Smith Hill brings a deep passion to the combination: “A handful of professors transformed the way I thought about the world. In part, I believe I teach to give back in some small way.”
Smith Hill has another, more practical motivation, too. “I teach writing because writing is such an important part of living, and whether it be for a profession or simply to be able to write on the job, I want to instill in my students the same passion for communicating.”
Smith Hill says she likes to write for pre-teen and teen-aged girls, because those are formative years in young women’s lives, times when they might be most receptive to the writer’s call for independent thought and self-empowerment.
“When we are that age, we make important decisions about our lives,” Smith Hill said. “When you write for adults, those readers can be touched by a book, but rarely are they changed by what you write.”
On Her Way, an anthology for young girls recently released by Dutton Children’s Books, includes Smith Hill’s “Where the Lilacs Grow,” a story about growing up in southern Missouri farm country.
You and your children can read Pamela Smith Hill’s “Where the
Lilacs Grow” (included in the anthology, On Her Way). Just