October 2019 – DADDY’S GIRL

J.L. and I first drove through Bryson City, North Carolina, on the southern side of the Great Smoky Mountains, while hiking trails out of the Deep Creek Campground and working on our hiking guidebook. Charmed by the glimpses of Bryson City we spotted driving through, we stopped to explore on our return and fell in love with this quaint little North Carolina town. While many downtown areas are in decline today, due to suburban sprawl, Bryson City is still the hub of its community. Trees and  baskets and tubs of flowers and seasonal decorations line the downtown streets, and every shop and building oozes charm. Downtown Bryson is still where people gather, shop, and stop by the local diner or drug store. The gold-domed court house welcomes visitors into town with an American flag stirring on a flagpole in the breeze and the Tuckaseegee River flows right through the town, a scenic sight, as does an old time railroad line offering excursion rides. We loved hearing the woo-woo of the train as it headed into town and enjoyed eating a banana split in the 50s-60s Soda Pops café.

After our visit I told J.L. “I’m going to have to set one of my Smoky Mountain books here” … So later, when a wonderful new story idea began to bubble and develop we headed to Bryson City again to see more of the town and the area, to learn its history and talk to townspeople. My readers said they loved this small town book … and I love remembering how many of my fans planned road trips to visit Bryson City after DADDY’S GIRL published.

In psychology courses I taught in college, especially Developmental Psychology and Educational Psychology, my students often talked at length about peer pressure stereotypes that developed in the school years, especially in high school, and stereotypes that often lingered too long as labels in people’s lives. We also talked about  the increasing problems of bullying in our schools today, often linked to negative stereotypes. … So I decided in this book to explore some of these issues in my story line and what better way to do that than via a high school class reunion, bringing old school mates back together and reviving past peer identities all over again.

Both my main characters, Olivia Benton and Warner Zachery, grew up in Bryson City as neighbors on a quiet rural road outside of town. Behind Olivia’s home was a lavish formal garden created originally by Olivia’s great grandmother, a garden complete with winding trails, tinkling fountains, and lush flowers of all types and kinds. Here Olivia and Warner played as children—and later fell in love. But high school began to throw some curves into their relationship. Olivia, pretty and outgoing, soon became more and more popular with her peers, while Warner, a little odd and socially awkward, became one of the less popular kids, often ridiculed and soon nicknamed “Weird Warner.” Olivia and Warner’s school life and school friendships soon diverged, and although they remained friends at home, during school they ran with different crowds. In time, these differences created a wedge in their friendship and caused the breakup of their budding romance.

After high school, Warner left Bryson City to go far away to college. Olivia stayed. In time Warner found his way to his dreams, married, and then dropped into unexpected fame for his humorous children’s books about a social misfit boy he named Geeky Gilmore. …Olivia stayed in Bryson City, commuting to a nearby college, living at home with her widowed father, caring for him and the Fairchild Gardens. In time her work at a local florist led Olivia to open her own small floral shop in downtown Bryson City.

As the book begins, Olivia is working with her high school friends to plan their ten-year reunion. As she and three girlfriends share lunch in a downtown drugstore, Warner Zachery walks into the store and Olivia knows as soon as she sees him she still loves him, even after all these years. .. As for “Weird Warner,” he’s now become the famous and successful W. T. Zachery but still harbors old bitterness from his Bryson City past and he is quickly reminded of that past. In addition for Warner, two years ago, his wife was killed in a New York store robbery and he’s still working past that hard time, too. He’d hoped coming to Bryson to spend time with his family would prove restful but instead, Warner is soon thrown back into old problems and old feelings for Olivia Benton he thought he’d left behind .

Mixed into this ongoing drama of two old friends reuniting are the stories of several interesting side characters, each  packed with small joys and surprises. The book also features beautiful hikes and travels around the Bryson City and Smoky Mountain area. Continuing problems occur, too, with the community’s concern over a vandal defacing public property, leaving angry messages and frightening people. Mysteries and dilemmas seem to unfold on every corner throughout the plot while Warner and Olivia try to navigate their feelings and unresolved issues amid it all.

I loved writing this book—showing how old stereotypes from school years often follow long into adulthood—and how limiting and hurtful they can be. My past academic teaching experience came into play with this story, helping to show how people grow and change and yet still carry the past along, too. I worked to spotlight as well the dangers and problems of bullying and I worked to reveal through several other characters’ stories, how damaging hidden pasts and secrets can be. Admittedly, I also had a blast creating Warner’s zany Geeky Gilmore characters that peopled his books and I loved developing his journey to success as a writer and illustrator. I also enjoyed creating Olivia’s lavish family gardens, so cherished by the women of her family, and had fun developing her small downtown floral shop in Bryson City. I studied extensively to make the gardens and florist believable and even spent a day at one of my Lenoir City fan’s florist learning the business and observing her staff at work. Many scenes in Olivia’s floral shop reflect Pat McCarter’s store. …As a final thought, like Olivia, I grew up with a mother who loved flowers and the garden, and I drew from those warm memories often in writing this book. I’m sure mother would have loved it.

I hope you’ll have fun visiting my fictional Bryson City world in DADDY’S GIRL.

[Note: All photos my own, from royalty free sites, or used only as a part of my author repurposed storyboards shown only for educational and illustrative purposes, acc to the Fair Use Copyright law, Section 107 of the Copyright Act.]

September 2019 – WELCOME BACK

Because my husband J.L. and I had spent many happy days over in Western Carolina hiking trails and exploring the area, I decided to set one of my novels there. I decided on Maggie Valley for my primary setting—a quiet valley and resort town tucked up against the eastern boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Maggie Valley is a small, peaceful mountain community not far from nearby Waynesville and Asheville. The Western Carolina area is also “apple country” and home to many apple orchards like Barber’s Orchard that we’d often visited outside of Waynesville. So I decided to create a family apple orchard as a part of my Maggie Valley story. I called the orchard the Cunningham Farm Apple Orchard and enjoyed many happy hours reading about orchard farming and just the right apple varieties for the orchard to grow.

As a psychology professor, I’d often listened to my students talk about the problems caused in their family units by difficult family members. Many shared, in our class discussions, about a single individual that made every family get-together a nightmare and who often had torn an otherwise healthy and happy family apart. I decided to explore this idea in this novel and created Estelle Cunningham, a harsh, dominant, and authoritarian woman, who ruled the roost in her family with a demanding and unkind hand. Estelle was John Cunningham’s mother. His legacy in inheriting his family orchard, which had been in his family for several generations, included his widowed mother. He and his sister Holly had grown up with their mother’s controlling and dominating ways, each finding their own ways to cope with her. But when John brought his new bride Lydia into the family, things didn’t go so well. Lydia, a warm, friendly, and loving woman kept trying over and over again to win over the love and respect of her new mother-in-law, but to no avail. As the children came and when John and Lydia moved into the big home after John’s father’s death, things only seemed to grow worse. When John and Lydia’s three boys began to enter their teens, they developed their own interests and ideas for their life—none to Estelle’s pleasing—as she expected them to stay and work the farm. Lydia came under more attack from Estelle at that time, also, for going to work to help with the family’s debts. …In a turning point, with Lydia’s unhappiness growing, she decides to separate from John and take a job offer in Atlanta. Not long after, with increased pressure from Estelle and their mother’s support gone, the boys move to Atlanta to live with their mother. Now as the story begins, Lydia has a fine job opportunity back at home in North Carolina. Estelle has passed away and Lydia decides to take the job to see if she can patch up her relationship with her only daughter. Her sons accuse her of  going home to try to patch things up with John, too, but she denies it—even to herself.

The questions, of course, are: (1) Can Lydia and John reunite after all these years apart? (2) Are there still loving feelings remaining? (3) Can they work through the bitterness and anger they both hold about their relationship and the past? … And in addition, can their children—now grown—give up their old anger and resentments they’ve carried for so long? From these questions, you can see that  one of the book’s central themes revolves around the hurtful past of this family and whether they can ever recover, forgive, and love one another again.

Side characters and side plots also play a marvelous part in this story. The farm staff members, who live and work at the Cunningham Farm and have always been like family,  have their own lives and problems ongoing. Lydia’s daughter Mary Beth and her two twin sons had to come back home to the farm after Mary Beth’s husband deserted them. In addition, ongoing issues in her life with her husband thread throughout the story… along with fun, warm-hearted scenes with Mary Beth’s five-year old twin sons Bucky and Billy Ray. Readers will also enjoy meeting Lydia and John’s long-time friends Rebecca and Tolley Albright who are both cloggers—and who get Lydia and John back into clogging again, too. On a side note: Many national champion cloggers come from the Maggie Valley, North Carolina, area and the Stompin’ Ground theatre there still offers wonderful evenings of mountain clogging and music.

Along with the family dynamics in this story, problems with a ghost are troubling the valley and the Cunningham family. Several sightings of the ghost, and frightening scenes related to it, have happened all too close to the Cunningham Farm’s property. Speculation about the ghost are rampant—and of course there are mixed opinions as to whether it is a real ghost or someone posing as a ghost causing the problems. Before the book is out, some scary scenes unfold related to this elusive ghost until the mystery is finally solved. To further complicate matters, Mary Beth’s former husband, a troubled man, is causing problems for the family—leading to yet another menacing and suspenseful scene. You will not be bored with the events of this story in Welcome Back as one surprising event just seems to lead to another before the book finally ends.

I loved taking readers over to the Western Carolina area in this story … to scenes in downtown Waynesville, on hikes in the Cataloochee Valley, to nearby Balsam Mountain, and to visit the campus at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee where Lydia has taken her new job as career services director. To my joy, this book also was a finalist for the Selah Awards—a nice honor and a coveted one by authors of inspirational books. The Selahs are awarded annually by the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference for best books…. If you’ve missed reading Welcome Back, I hope you will look for it soon!

MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW:                                                                                                                                     “Welcome Back is another terrific Smoky Mountain novel from the pen of Lin Stepp and continues to underscore her master of the genre and her impressive attention to character development and background detail.”

[Note: All photos my own, from royalty free sites, or used only as a part of my author repurposed storyboards shown only for educational and illustrative purposes, acc to the Fair Use Copyright law, Section 107 of the Copyright Act.]