My twelfth book in The Smoky Mountain series publishes this year. To celebrate this series of stand-alone novels, all set around the Great Smoky Mountains, I’m going to dedicate each blog for this coming year to one of my titles.
THE FOSTER GIRLS was my first book published in the Smoky Mountain series. In 2008, I signed the book contract, with excitement, for it to become a reality. In April of 2009, THE FOSTER GIRLS published with Parkway Publishing, then an imprint of John F. Blair Publishing. John Blair was a wonderful, reputable old publishing company in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, headed by CEO Carolyn Sakowski, with distribution all around the United States. It was a happy moment to see my first novel in print. All authors hold a special love for their first book published and I am no exception.
People often ask me where the idea for THE FOSTER GIRLS and later Smoky Mountain novels came from. Back in that time, with our children grown and gone, my husband J.L. and I were hiking Smoky Mountain trails, working on a new hiking guidebook. At bookstores and shops near the trails we explored, I couldn’t find any rich contemporary novels set in the Smoky Mountains like I wanted to read. One day when I asked yet another shop owner if he had any, he replied, “No, I don’t. People ask for them all the time, too. This is the most visited national park in America. I really wish someone would write some.” Those words lingered in my thoughts afterward, and one day the idea for THE FOSTER GIRLS, along with several other titles, simply floated into my mind. I was working near the Smokies in Vonore, Tennessee, calling on schools as Huntington Learning Center’s Educational Coordinator—one of my part-time jobs then around my college teaching for Tusculum. After finishing work that day, I raced home and scribbled down my thoughts, already loving the idea of a series of novels with each new story set in a new and different place around the mountains.
How do specific book ideas begin? … For THE FOSTER GIRLS I saw in my mind a young woman coming to the mountains to escape unexpected life problems. People often head to the mountains or the sea for a healing space in their lives, but it is the individual reasons for their escapes that create really interesting stories…. And from the beginning I decided to let Vivian’s reasons at first be a mystery. Why had Vivian Delaney come all the way from California to the Smoky Mountains? Why did she tell her employer early in the book ‘Keep me hidden …’ Hidden from what? For what reasons? Throughout the book I enjoyed letting the reader in on the answers bit by bit as the story progressed. Vivian is a complex character whose background and secrets heavily impact her actions, feelings, and beliefs.
Scott Jamison is a much more laid-back, easy-going character. His past is warmer, more comfortable, and far more normal than Vivian’s. A happy, extroverted individual—even a little cocky—Scott has found his niche in life, running the Buckeye Knob Camp in Wears Valley. He lives in a home on the campground and rents out his grandparents old farmhouse on the adjoining property. It is here at the farmhouse—through a network of coincidences—where Vivian comes to stay. It is also here where Vivian and Scott meet, in a rather unexpected and alarming scene. Vivian arrives early, without first contacting the realtor. Scott, seeing lights through the trees on that dark rainy night thinks Vivian is an intruder, causing them to meet over the barrel of Scott’s rifle. So begins this journey of two very different people—and how their lives begin to intertwine.
For me, every book begins as an idea or story concept, reading somewhat like the synopsis on the back of a book. The back cover of THE FOSTER GIRLS states the book’s concept very well: “The deep secrets—that restrict us and limit our lives—are at the heart of this first, engaging novel in the new Smoky Mountain series … Vivian Delaney—in The Foster Girls—arrives in the quiet Wears Valley on the backside of the Smoky Mountains, carrying a heavy load of hidden problems and eager to find a quiet place to escape the recent troubles of her past. However, secrets are hard to keep, and right away Vivian encounters unexpected challenges with her landlord, Scott Jamison. From Vivian’s first meeting with Scott—at the end of a rifle barrel—Scott seems purposed to push past all Vivian’s defenses and to find a way to her heart.”
With every book I write I know how the story begins and how the story will end… and I soon begin to picture the characters, setting, and all the details and conflicts of the storyline. Often I “see” a character’s appearance strongly in my mind. Many times, while looking through magazines or online pictures, a photo will jump out at me and I’ll think, “That’s her” … or “That’s him.” Then I clip out those photos to represent my characters… like the ones you see on this page. I’m a very visual writer when I work on a new story idea. I never begin a book until I have visual illustrations for every character in a story—and often several.
As I flesh out my main characters, the secondary characters–their friends, family, and work colleagues—begin to emerge, too. No one lives in isolation in life, even in books. We all need people to talk to, interact with, argue with, lean to, and run to in trouble…. Working on THE FOSTER GIRLS, I spent a lot of time planning Vivian’s family, friends, and work associates. The more these different characters and their interactions came to life, the more they informed Vivian’s story. The same was true with Scott. As I developed his family, friends, neighbors and camp colleagues his story began to take shape in brighter detail, too. I could almost hear the characters in the story interacting together as I developed them, saw their faces and personalities, felt them coming to life in my mind, laughing, working, becoming more than book characters.
My setting developed, too, as I worked on fleshing out my characters. I read extensively about Wears Valley where this book was set. I researched the valley’s history and gathered pictures to represent places, scenes, homes, businesses, and special spots to be included in the story. I visited the area and soaked up the locale—deciding on “real” sites, businesses, and places I could include to enhance my otherwise fictitious story. I drew houseplans and detailed maps—of Buckeye Knob Camp, Scott’s rustic home, Vivian’s rental farmhouse, and of the Wears Valley area where my story was set. At a marketing meeting in North Carolina, my publisher loved my hand-drawn maps so much that they asked me to create a black-and-white map to include in my book for my readers. That was the beginning of including “maps” in all my books afterward, as my readers simply loved them.
The more the characters and setting came to life as I planned THE FOSTER GIRLS, the more the ideas for the conflicts and problems in the story began to emerge. These came to me like “light bulbs” popping on sometimes, often unexpectedly while I worked on developing plot and storyline. It’s a fun process. … And eventually I began to lay all these ideas into a structured story outline to follow as I write. For me, a good outline is like a map. It reminds where I’m going, things I want the reader to see, learn, and experience along the journey, right up to the end. Like any good story, I layer in ups and downs, unexpected events and conflicts, little mysteries to unravel, warm moments and memorable scenes, along with a lot of twists and turns to keep the reader involved.
In real life, as we get to know people, we learn more about their past, their depths, their fears, their hurts and their hopes. As I weave readers into my stories, I let them slip more deeply into the lives of my characters with every chapter. In THE FOSTER GIRLS, I wanted my readers to care about Vivian Delaney and Scott Jamison—to want their happiness, to get annoyed with them sometimes, too, but to hope everything worked out for them.
One morning as I was developing Quint and Ellen Greene, Scott’s and Vivian’s closest friends in Wears Valley… into my mind walked Sarah Taylor, a foster child staying with the Greene’s. Sarah turned out to be a delightful and important character in the book. She soon worked her way into Vivian’s heart and life—and hopefully into the readers’ hearts, too. She certainly worked her way into my heart. The bond between Vivian and Sarah becomes a major part of the story … And that growing bond ties into a deep conflict between Vivian and Scott before the book ends.
Some fun extra notes about THE FOSTER GIRLS:
(1) Animals often make us all smile. Scott’s little dog Fritzi and his cat Dearie played sweet roles, creating humor and warmth. I was ready to adopt both!
(2) Extensive research had to be done on soap-making for Ellen Greene’s business as a soap-maker in the story, including watching soap-makers at mountain festivals .
(3) People often have a “special spot” in nature where they go to think about their problems, like the bench in the cemetery where Vivian went. I have a spot like that, too.
(4) Life is filled with humorous characters and I loved creating the McFee girls who worked at the camp and made me laugh many times.
(5) I went to camps much like Buckeye Knob as a girl and my son counseled several summers at a camp right in Wears Valley.
(6) I’m privileged that artist Jim Gray’s beautiful painting “I Look to the Hills” is on the cover of this book … and grateful for the support of the Gray family for my work.
(7) I must have made fictitious “Slippery Rock Falls” in the book sound especially “real” as many fans wrote to ask for directions to it.
Although this wasn’t the first book I wrote… it was the first book published. I was blessed and fortunate my readers loved Scott and Vivian’s story as much as I loved writing it… and then eagerly watched for the next book. Because this was my first published book, I especially treasured some of my readers’ comments and reviews. Here are three samples:….“I just read The Foster Girls in two days – not the norm for me. What a wonderful book. I loved the plot. I loved the dialogue. Your characters quickly became real people for me and you kept me guessing about what would happen next with them. I can’t wait for the next book, and I was thrilled to read on your website that there will be twelve books in the series. I will be buying every one! (T.H. Texas ) ….. “I can’t wait for the next book! Loved every page. Favorite parts: conversation with the minister on the bench and the violets. I cried reading the last chapter. What a super story! God has truly blessed you with a great talent.” –(S.B., Tennessee) ….. “Don’t pick up The Foster Girls to read until you know you have a lot of time. You won’t want to put it down!” …(R. G., California)
If you have missed reading this story, you can order it “in print” directly from me, using the order blank on the front page of my website at: www.linstepp.com … or you can pick it up in eBook online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. … If you read it and love it, let me know what you liked … and write a review for Amazon, too.
… See you next month talking about Book 2, TELL ME ABOUT ORCHARD HOLLOW.