Making history: Mapleton teacher creating the storyline for his writing career | Lifestyles

Jason Lee Willis has been spinning tales for many years. Many of them took the form of lessons presented in his English classroom at Mapleton High School. Now, however, they are ending up in book form.

After self-publishing a few books, he has gotten more serious about honing his craft and is working with Fox Pointe Publishing to help distinguish himself from the self-publishers out there.

“Part of it is knowing what you’re looking for (in your writing),” he said. “From the feedback of my editors, I’ve started to realize where my weak spots are as a writer and just stop including that stuff in it.”

Willis has two series of stories that he’s working on right now. The first grew out of his love of the Indiana Jones adventures, books like “The DaVinci Code” by Dan Brown, and his realization that there are “some really fun historical nuggets in this area.” This is the Alchemist’s Chronicles.

While he hesitates in calling what he writes “historical fiction,” he does use local characters and stories and incidents from their lives as the jumping off point. When he comes across a mystery, he digs for historical hints that may help explain what happens. Then he applies his creative writing skills to presenting those possibilities.







His other series is very different, including a cast of teen-aged characters that he likes to Stephen King’s “It” or “Stranger Things.” Set in the north woods of Minnesota, this one has a contemporary timeline and has fun with mythologies, legends and Native American folklore.

“It’s kind of a combination of all the Native American folklore that I’ve studied with some other folklore kind of thrown in,” Willis said.

His editor at Fox Pointe, Chelsea Farr, gives Willis lots of credit for refining his own writing.

“Jason has put a lot of time and effort into honing his craft, so he usually sidesteps the typical pitfalls like bad dialogue, underdeveloped characters, and boring plots. He reviews, takes feedback seriously, and reads his work aloud to catch hiccups in the flow of his writing, which is a really easy way to greatly improve a manuscript, ”she said.

Some of that comes from spending more time writing.

Willis gets up and aims to write 1,500 to 2,000 words each day before school. In fact, he said doing so is easier during the school year as opposed to summertime when he has all day to write. It focuses his writing on him by forcing him to concentrate harder.

“And that’s what I had to learn to be a better editor as well. Crafting a story, that was a piece of cake. Learning what needs to be done in the revision process took some growing up,” he admitted.

Being so familiar with your topic can have its downfalls, especially when including bits of information that must be put together by the reader in order to make the pieces of a story fit together.

“His understanding of the history and cultures behind his stories is impressive, and sometimes in early drafts, connections he wants to make are too subtle for the average reader to pick up on,” Farr said.

As an editor, Farr makes suggestions to him and said he always remedies those situations. She is also responsible for some fact-checking, though it can be difficult when fantasy is built into the story.

If something is not factually exact, she knows he has deliberately made the change for the sake of the story. Other factual items are corrected for the history-savvy reader, she said.

“(It would take them) out of the story for a moment thinking, ‘But the word “sandwich” didn’t exist yet.’ These details don’t make or break the book, but all together they make the story seem more real, and as a result, make the fantasy more exciting by bringing it further into the realm of possibility,” Farr said.

As his stories become better, he works with Fox Pointe to make connections that will get his books in front of more readers. Author appearances, placement on panels or with people who interview writers, or as part of events such as the Deep Valley Book Festival are team efforts put together between authors and publishers.

This variety of exposure can be seen on his website at jasonleewillis.wixsite.com/novels. Willis lists several events taking place this summer, beginning with being hosted at Fair Trade Books in Red Wing on Saturday, May 7, followed by the Fort Sisseton Historical Festival in Lake City on June 3. Then there are a couple of readings at Full Circle Book Co-op in Sioux Falls on June 16 and Wild Deadwood Reads at Deadwood, South Dakota, on June 18.

Currently, events run out through the Blue Earth County Fair in September.

“For Jason, it’s mainly been sharing events with him that he didn’t know about prior to working together,” said Kiersten Hall of Fox Pointe. “If more historical societies would be open to a presentation in the genre of ‘historical fiction,’ though, Jason’s calendar would be booked.”

Stories like Joseph Nicollet’s could keep Willis writing nearly full-time, he said. His recent experiences of him with the local publisher have him looking to approach his superintendent about cutting down to teaching half-time in a year or so, he said, as he continues to see how he fits in the publishing world.

“I think over the next year I’ll have a much better understanding as to where things are going to be, as far as career-wise.” He’s working on building momentum to determine just when he can make that leap.

It’s a story he’s still writing.

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