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BILLINGS – Former Missoulian reporter Gwen Florio said it took her 20 years from the time she first published a short story to publish her first novel.

The gap apparently paid off because Florio won in the Best First Book category last weekend for the 2014 High Plains Book Festival with her novel “Montana.”

“To this day, I stumble a bit when I say I’m a writer,” Florio told an audience earlier Saturday at a panel discussion among First Book Award nominees.

Florio said that her greatest struggle as a fiction writer is to resist turning back into a journalist.

“It was tough transitioning from journalistic writing to fiction. You have to go much deeper in fiction,” Florio said.

Giano Cromley, whose book, “The Last Good Halloween,” was a finalist in the Best First Book Award category, said he traveled the back roads of Montana to research the setting for his book.

“The second half of my book is a road trip across Montana,” Cromley said. “Our honeymoon was a road trip across Montana.”

Cromley is a Billings native who now teaches in Chicago.

Alberta writer and 2013 High Plains Book Award finalist Jacqueline Guest was the keynote speaker at the awards banquet held Saturday at the Yellowstone Art Museum. Speaking to the crowd of about 200 people, Guest advised writers to celebrate the gift of storytelling.

“Long after you are dust in the wind, someone will be reading your stories,” she said.

Guest is a Metis writer whose award-winning books feature characters from different ethnic backgrounds, including First Nations, Inuit and Metis.

Lloyd Mickelson, a former teacher and longtime member of the Billings Public Library Board, was honored for founding the High Plains BookFest.

“Lloyd led an effort through his work with the library board to protect intellectual freedom at the library,” said Shari Nault, past president of the Billings Public Library Board.

Later, after one of the author’s tried on a Ukranian scarf to show what her grandmother looked like and another writer skipped to the podium to pick up her award, Mickelson noted, “the Academy Awards have nothing on us.”

Other winners announced Saturday night included Larry Watson, who in 2007 was the inaugural winner of the High Plains Book Awards Emeritus Award honoring a body of work. He received the 2014 Best Fiction Award for his novel “Let Him Go.”

In the two categories added this year, Best Children’s Book and Best Medicine & Science Award, Marion Mutala won for her children’s book “Baba’s Babushka,” and Doug Peacock won for “In the Shadow of the Sabertooth: A Renegade Naturalist Considers Global Warming, the First Americans and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene.”

Laurie Wagner Buyer won the Best Nonfiction category for “Rough Breaks: A Wyoming High Country Memoir” and 2012 Montana Poet Laureate Sheryl Noethe won Best Poetry for “Grey Dog Big Sky.”

Kim McCullough won the Best Woman Writer Award for the coming-of-age novel “Clearwater,” and W.R. Wood and R.M. Lindholm won the Best Art and Photography Award for “Karl Bodmer’s America Revisited: Landscape Views Across Time.” The Best Short Stories Award went to Nina McConigley for “Cowboys and East Indians” and Blythe Woolston’s chilling “Black Helicopters” won the Best Young Adult Book Award. Award winners each received a $500 cash prize.

Nominations for the 2014 High Plains Book Awards included 127 books in 10 categories from publishers in the United States and Canada. Finalists were selected after each nominated book was read and evaluated by community readers. Winners were selected by a panel of published writers with connections to the High Plains.

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