January 2018 – “Creating a Book”

In 2009 I published my first novel and now have ten published books set in the Smoky Mountains with another—LOST INHERITANCE—publishing in April 2018. I’ve also published a novella in one of Kensington’s Christmas anthologies and, with my husband, a Smoky Mountain hiking guidebook. When speaking for events, I am often asked how I create a book, so in this post I’m going to talk about the method and process I use as I work on each new book. No author works in exactly the same way and the creative process varies greatly according to the individuality of the author and the book type or genre. But this is the process I use in working with each of my novels.

STEP 1- CONCEPT: Every one of my books starts with a concept or idea. Whenever I get a good book idea I try to write it down so the concept won’t slip away. I’ve written ideas on napkins in restaurants or on the back of deposit slips. Once I get a new idea or concept, I entertain it, think about it, and play with it creatively in my mind—starting to imagine the characters, setting, and conflicts that might be a part of that book. If I decide my idea has good book potential, I create a manila folder for it and tentatively title the book. I put whatever notes or writings I have about that idea into the folder and as more ideas come later, I keep adding them to my folder. When it is time to begin the book, I already have a big head start on the novel.

STEP 2 –CHARACTERS: The next step after forming the general concept for a book is to create story characters. I start with my main characters, which in a romance are the main male character, or hero, and the main female character, or heroine. I plan in detail who they are, what they look like, what age they are, what their personalities are like, where they come from, and how their backgrounds shaped them. As I work on main characters, I also create all of the secondary characters whose lives will interact and intertwine with my main characters. For every book, I develop all my book characters to such depth that I know them like a best friend or close family member. I get into their skin, learn their past hurts and conflicts, how they’ve grown and still need to grow. I “see” my characters in my mind as I think about, plan, and name them. As a highly visual author, I flip through magazines or internet sites to find pictures that look like how I envision each of my characters. These pictures help me solidify and flesh out the characters in my books and bring them to life. Before starting a new book, I choose a selection of pictures and create an inspirational bulletin board to prop near my desktop computer.

STEP 3 – SETTING:  Often I flip back and forth between creating characters and developing setting. I research my settings extensively, studying maps and reading up on area history. I usually collect more information than I can ever use … but it is there and at hand if I need it while writing. My Smoky Mountain novels are all set in different places around the Smokies not far from my home, so I visit each area and “map out” where my book will be set. While there, I rough out my setting maps … plotting actual place names, stores, tourist attractions, and other highlights I might include within my story. Later I draw detailed maps of my story areas, including the black-and-white drawing always used by my publisher in the front of each book. The setting in a book is a constant backdrop for the story … and weaving in just the right amount of descriptive content around the ongoing action makes a book come alive for the readers.

STEP 4 – PLOT: Once concept, characters, and setting are researched and established, I am ready to play with plot and conflict. Plotting, by definition, is taking all one’s ideas, characters, and setting and fleshing them out into a full-length story that will capture readers’ attention and hold it throughout the book. It is a writer’s job to create a story for their main characters that readers will want to read and follow, with characters wrestling with difficult problems, situations, or individuals, feeling torn about what to do. All these ongoing conflicts hold readers’ interest. I personally outline the plot and story of my books in extensive detail before ever starting any book. Then as I write, I let the novel develop within that structure. After my plot is formed, I create a brief chapter-by-chapter outline on a single sheet of paper so I can see the whole book story laid out at a glance. Having a sound outline strengthens my overall writing and causes me to need less editing and re-writing after my book is done.

The whole process of plotting, planning characters and setting, researching, and outlining a book takes me approximately three months. Like being pregnant, there’s a point when I finally feel ready to “deliver” and then begin to write. But it’s a work process to get there.

STEP 5- WRITING: Once all the research and planning stages are complete, I am ready to write. Because of the preparation I do ahead, I can usually write the book I’ve plotted and outlined in three months, just as it took three months to plan it. Normally, I write two books a year when life doesn’t throw me too many curve balls. Ongoing consistency in writing is critical to getting a book completed. I schedule a bare minimum of 20 hours a week for writing. When I write regularly on a schedule, I stay immersed in my story and characters. As I move along with the book, I follow my outline and let the story flow and develop as I write. Sometimes the planned pattern I laid out ahead of time follows true; other times there are detours and turns. Generally, as I write, I become a part of the story, the characters, the settings, and the ongoing conflicts. Some days I find writing is simply work while other days I get lost in the writing in a joyous way, termed “flow,” and lose all track of time. These are the best of moments. The most important thing to remember in the writing stage is to keep writing and to keep the story moving.

As I work day to day, I edit small spelling or grammatical errors I see but avoid any major editing that knocks me out of my creative mode. Editing and writing are like wearing different hats and it took me time to learn this. Editing is a detached, analytical “professor” hat and there is time enough to wear that hat after all the creative effort is done. Then I can return to the finished work to critique, tighten, revise, and strengthen it. The mental process of writing is totally free and creative while the mental process of editing is analytical, logical, and structured. They are not compatible efforts. When a book is completed, I lay it aside for a month or so and then return to it to begin the editing process.

Just because a book is completed doesn’t mean it’s finished. An author will probably need to do several edits of his or her book before it is at its best … and it is often good to put a space between each manuscript edit … so the author can return to it with fresh eyes. Few books come out right in every way the first time – and working hard to self-edit a book is an important part of the writing process. More editing stages with outside eyes will be completed with a publisher before the book goes to press.  A writer’s life can be very challenging, but like in all the arts, there is great joy in sharing your work – and in seeing that first rough draft of your new book cover when it arrives. But remember, no book happens without work and effort. And no dreamed about idea or book, remaining unwritten, ever gets published.


December 2017 – “The Christmas Tree”

Beyond the Christmas Story and the true meaning of Christmas—my greatest pleasure in the holidays has always been the Christmas tree. Naturally the gifts from Santa on Christmas morning were exciting as a child … but everything revolved around the tree.

In my childhood our trees were always cedar trees. As an engineer, working often out of doors, my dad knew many rural sites where he could cut a tree to bring home. He always set it up and strung the lights, while my mother, brother, and I decorated it. I still remember the colorful bulb lights and bubble lights on our tree, the shiny glass balls, some with tinsel inside, plus the special ornaments of Santa and Mrs. Claus, reindeer, stars, little drummer boys, and angels that made the tree more fun.  Draped over all were
silver icicles that shimmered in the tree lights. Most all of our early ornaments are gone now, but I still have one or two that survived the years that I treasure like a Santa in his sleigh and a small gingerbread man.

My husband J.L.’s family also put up cedar trees cut from the woods, so we continued this tradition in our early years of marriage. J.L.’s mother was very crafty—and artistic—and one of my most precious tree ornaments is one she made for us using the bride and groom from the top of our wedding cake.  She made many other lovely ornaments for us over the years—Santas, bears, decorated hats, and lacy crocheted snowflakes. All have special places on our tree every year.

I made ornaments, too, in our early married years. Few remain except some I sewed, wooden ornaments I painted, and a few glass balls I decorated. The children made lots of ornaments, too, most of paper or craft materials that didn’t last the years, except for a few hardy ones, including one the kids called “pipe cleaner man.” Often neighbors and friends gave us handmade ornaments we still have and love, also. Two special ones I cherish have my children Matt and Kate’s names on them.

My love of Christmas trees draws me to the Knoxville Fantasy of Trees event every year, held around the Thanksgiving holidays. I love to wander around the darkened convention center to see the hundreds of trees elaborately decorated, many with unique themes, and all twinkling and sparkling with lights. This is an annual event I always attend to help me get me in the mood for Christmas. There is such dazzle and diversity in the lavishly decorated trees, whether with rustic, country ornaments, beautifully hand-embroidered ones, or with arrays of candy canes and sweets—all in a dazzle of clear gold or multi-colored lights.

At home, our family tree is not as spectacular as any of  these but is covered instead with memories—the ornaments we’ve gathered over the years or the ones  others we love have made for us. Many of our decorations have special stories attached to them we love to tell again and again. Every few years I add a few special ornaments to our collection, like a group of glittery purple sequined balls, recently, and a set of shiny redbirds with feather tails.

Most of all I believe our Christmas tree reminds me of “Love.” The ornaments and twinkling lights remind me of the Christmas story … Mary and Joseph among the animals in the stable with the bright star overhead, Jesus born in the manger, the shepherds coming from the fields in awe and wonder, and the wise men traveling from far away to bring their gifts to Jesus. Our Christmas tree also represents the love of our family and the many memories of our past Christmases together. A wise quote says: “The beauty of Christmas lies not just in the date but in the feeling it gives.” [anonymous]

November 2017 -“Fall in East Tennessee”

We are blessed in Tennessee to enjoy four distinct seasons, each with its own beauty and character. In fall, it’s a joy to crunch leaves underfoot and look up into the canopy of trees dressed in their autumn colors of russet red, vibrant orange, and rich gold. In  winter, the beauty of the bare trunks can be seen and with the leaves gone, vistas out over the mountains are more visible. As spring begins, lovely fresh yellow-green leaves pop out and flowers begin to appear in the neighborhoods and dot the mountain trail-sides. By summer, the neighborhood yards are verdant green, the forests and mountains a rich, lush wonderland of greens, too, with mountain laurel in early summer and later rhododendron, flame azalea, fire pinks and black-eyed Susans.

I often think Fall is the most dramatic of the seasons with the trees changing color and the weather growing cooler, but the milestone memories of autumn lie more in personal events. When I was a girl, the start of school after Labor Day always marked the beginning of fall in my mind. It was the time for new clothes, shoes, crayons, notebooks, and school supplies—and shortly after, I looked forward to the annual Tennessee Valley Fair at Chilhowee Park in Knoxville. Before the development of theme parks and entertainment venues like we know today, the Fair was an exciting event, anticipated with eagerness for the colorful rides, carnival atmosphere, shows, cotton candy, corn dogs, and agricultural buildings. J.L. and I still enjoy going to the fair and this photo was taken in one of the agricultural barns filled with prize-seeking chickens, sheep, goats, cows, rabbits and other farm animals.

Fall has always been Festival Time in Tennessee, too, and around the area colorful decorations start to pop up—pumpkins, scarecrows, fall signs, gourds, old wagons, and hay bales. As regional authors, J.L. and I travel to many festivals around the Smoky Mountains and Appalachian area. These fun-filled events—like the annual Townsend Festival, Mountaineer Festival in GA, Appalachian Museum Homecoming, and the Mountain Makins Festival, to name only a few—are full of bluegrass music, clogging, storytelling, local artisans and crafters, and fabulous food vendors. The colorful sights and sounds at every turn are always entertaining and reflective of the region, too—its history, culture, and people.

Amid all this, the fall days grow shorter and cooler—and the landscape gradually alters.
I see the changes as I walk the neighborhood and travel to events and as we hike in the Smoky Mountains nearby. In early October red sumac and a few changing leaf colors begin to hint of the splendor of color soon to come. Then, often suddenly, a few chilly days will trigger nature’s big show of color—usually in late October or early November. East Tennessee and the Smoky Mountains show off then with a gorgeous color display, as if nature is offering a final burst of beauty and a last hurrah before the start of winter’s bleaker season.

Many people drive through the Great Smoky Mountain roads to see the color, but the
finest way to enjoy it is on a hike up a mountain trail. All the senses get involved on a hike. You see the color all around you, feel the nip in the air, hear the trees rustling in the breeze, the birds twittering, watch the squirrels rushing to gather nuts for winter. You can kick up leaves underfoot as you walk or watch them swirl over cascades in the creek like colorful boats racing downstream. Overhead, you see the rich display of reds, oranges, golds, and yellows with color and beauty all around you. Seeing nature at its finest demands getting up close and personal with it, and that’s where my richest memories of fall have been made. So open your senses—and take a little time before the season passes—to make some autumn memories for yourself.



October 2017 -“The Impact of Books.”

Often in author interviews, or when answering questions after speaking, people ask if I read a lot or if I remember any particular books that impacted my life. Certain special books always seem to come to mind related to different stages of my life. Truly “My life would have been entirely and regrettably different if I didn’t learn to love books.” – anon

My love affair with books and the printed word started in early childhood. I was blessed to have a mother who loved books and read to me. My early books were storybooks—popular in my day—like Little People Who Became Great, about young people who grew up to make a difference. Many of the storybooks in our home included stories with good morals and virtues, others had poetry or Bible stories, and many offered a mix of literature. A favorite I still own is The Better Homes and Gardens Storybook … filled with classics like “The Little Red Hen,” “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” and my most loved story “Peter Pan” that I read in a longer book later, as well.
Peter and Wendy’s story fanned my imagination and I loved the bravery and resourcefulness of the children and the concept that by simply “believing” incredible things can happen.

Albert Einstein wrote: “The only thing you absolutely have to know is the location of the library.” Once I discovered the small library near my home as a girl, my reading list expanded greatly. My school age friends and I swapped books and we loved reading out on a big quilt under a shade tree in the yard. I loved Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, horse books of all kinds, animal stories like Bambi, and classics like The Secret Garden, Pollyanna, Alice in Wonderland, Little Women, and especially the Anne of Green Gables books – my favorites. I identified with Anne and her love of beauty, her ambitions, her warm affection for family and friends, and her heart to write and teach.

By the time I was a young teenager, my reading interests shifted to adult novels. I remember reading Michener books like Hawaii while still enjoying Madeleine L’Engle’s Meet The Austins, Darby’s Island Girl, and romance books for girls like Janet Lambert’s Star Spangled Summer. I loved British novels, too, and read the Jane Austen books, Susan Howatch’s novels like Penmarric, John Galsworthy’s Forsythe Saga books, and all the R.F. Delderfield novels including God Is An Englishman. All of these books are still on my bookshelves, too. These reads began to develop my vocabulary and expand my learning. My own writing skills improved from all my reading and started to show in school papers and in the poetry and stories I scribbled for pleasure. I didn’t just read books then, I climbed into them and escaped to other worlds. Joyce Carol Oates wrote: “Reading is the sole means by which we slip involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.” 

In my college years, I read extensively in my academic fields, but I still always found time for novels and also enjoyed self-help and inspirational books. I read Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, Agatha Christie, Eugenia Price and Marion Chesney novels and I loved Catherine Marshall’s book Christy – especially inspirational as I was majoring in education in undergrad school. In my masters work years I discovered Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique, Rollo May’s The Courage to Create, and others that broadened my thinking… and in the 80s, found Og Mandino’s University of Success, which proved to be a life-changing book to me, opening my eyes to new understandings about how to make the most of my abilities, insight into why people fail, and how to better reach for goals, visions, and success. I often reread this book and recommend it to students and friends.

When J.L. and I were in our early married years, we began to seek for a stronger faith and found the Lord in a deep way for the first time.  A book that helped us was Billy Graham’s Peace With God, and of course after we got saved and began to grow in faith we read the Bible and many other spiritual books – and still do.
We are still growing in the Lord. It is a journey that never ends and a glorious one. During that early season in the Lord, I worked in a bookstore [ loved that job!] and bought a “A Love Story” book cover to put on my Bible. I still have it, and it holds special meaning for me.

As the children came, reading to them became a part of J.L’s and my “reading time.”  I collected picture books and other children’s classics for them—many I still own. My personal reading interest shifted more to romances and mysteries in those years. Novels were a wonderful escape from my busy family days and work life. I read so much then, and still do, that it is hard to remember all the authors I loved the most at that time–or year to year today.. But in the 1990s I remember discovering Jan Karon’s Mitford books, starting with At Home in Mitford, and to this day these are some of my favorite books. I knew that if I ever had time to write books myself someday that I would want to write books like Jan Karon’s or L.M. Montgomery’s—sweet, heartwarming stories with a beautiful sense of place and rich memorable characters.

Now that life has moved on—children grown and gone—and I am an author myself, I write books that I love as well as still reading them. Seth Godin claimed: “The book that will most change your life is the book you write” and that has certainly been true for me. Since my first novel THE FOSTER GIRLS came our in 2009, and many more since, my life has taken on a whole new dimension. Today I still read about two books a week—romances, regencies and historicals, mysteries, biographies and autobiographies, spiritual books, devotionals, self-help books, and other titles linked to my academic teaching fields. In addition I’ve added a new type of book to my reading list—writing craft books. My favorites of these are ones written by authors whose work I enjoy, and it’s always fun to read about how they became authors, how they write and create their books, and tips they have for other writers. Two of my favorites of these are Debbie Macomber’s Knit Together and Janet Evanovich’s How I Write. Virginia Woolf said: “Read a thousand books and your words will flow like a river.” … I’ve read many more than a thousand over my life and my words are still flowing and pouring out on paper.

Books change you. If you read a lot, you know that, too. Everything I’ve read has impacted my life and shaped my life as an author. “Be careful of books and what is inside them, for words have the power to change us.” [Cassandra Clare]

[Note: book photos are of my own books]

September 2017 – “Remembering Edisto”

From the earliest days since my husband J.L. and I married we’ve taken our summer vacations at the beach. We are blessed to live near the Smoky Mountains and love visiting and hiking there often, but we also love the special beauty and peace of the ocean. Our first beach trips took us to beaches on the North Carolina coast like Myrtle Beach and Litchfield Beach and to panhandle spots like Panama City and Destin. But one summer in the 1980s, when our children Max and Kate were small, we discovered Edisto Island, a quiet little South Carolina place that quickly stole our hearts, calling us back summer after summer.

From a contest entry in the 1980s, I won a long weekend at Fairfield Glad in Crossville, TN, with the understanding that we’d look at property, of course. I told the man who called, “Look, if we wanted to consider buying vacation property it wouldn’t be in Tennessee, it would be at the beach.”  He answered, “We own a beach property at Edisto Island, South Carolina. I can send you there instead.” I thought, Why not? We were headed to the Carolinas for a summer vacation soon. An extra weekend not far away from our Myrtle Beach destination might be fun.

J.L. and I had never heard of Edisto at the time, a less developed barrier island nestled on the South Carolina coast about half way between Charleston and Beaufort. And later that summer, as we headed down rural Highway 17 to the island for the first time, with vast marshlands spreading on either side of the road, we worried we might be lost. But eventually we arrived at the island—only eleven miles in length and facing the beauty of the Atlantic Ocean.

We quickly found Edisto to be a place of hidden beauty dotted with charming beach homes and villas tucked under shady trees along quiet roads. The island, then and now, had no hotels or high-rise buildings and only colorful local restaurants and gift shops. Bike trails twined around delightful pathways, locals and visitors fished the inlets and creeks, and beach access points on nearly every block wound their way through sea oats and sandy dunes to the beach. It was simply lovely. We settled into a spacious villa, with two bedrooms, baths, a full kitchen, laundry, and a screened porch, on a picturesque street by a sleepy lagoon, the road lined with crepe myrtle in glorious bloom and live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. A cute tram, like the one at Dollywood, carried us down to the ocean and back if we didn’t want to drive the few blocks to it. The broad beach was serene and beautiful, without the noisy crowds at Myrtle, and we could leisurely cook many of our meals at the villa without dragging tired children to a crowded restaurant.

At the end of our “free” days on the island, the children begged to stay on—and with no upcoming guests scheduled at our villa—we were able to stay on another week at Edisto, for less than the motel at Myrtle. Every summer after, our little family returned to Edisto, staying in villas or beach homes, sharing happy times and building sweet memories before heading home to Tennessee relaxed and peaceful. Edisto is not the ideal vacation place for everyone. It’s remotely located and not close to a bustling city, entertainments, shopping malls, theatres, or elegant restaurants. Days at Edisto are spent reading or walking on the beach, splashing in the waves, biking around the bike trails, and playing games on the screened porch with a paddle fan drifting lazily overhead. It’s a place for folks who enjoy simple pleasures.

The island has changed over the years since we first visited, of course. The old drawbridge was replaced with a long, arched causeway over the Intracoastal Waterway and more homes, villas, restaurants, and shops dot the island’s roads now. In the peak summer vacation weeks more tourists flock to the island, too, than before. Preferring the quiet, J.L. and I usually vacation off-season now but we find more things still the same than changed at Edisto. It will always be a special place to us, rich with the memories of the years.

I’m writing a new Edisto trilogy of novels now to bring others to the island, and to special places around Beaufort and Charleston, through my stories. The first, set in the 1980s, looks back to the island thirty years ago, while the next two will advance to more contemporary times. The first book, CLAIRE AT EDSITO is complete, and I am starting the second RETURN TO EDISTO now, with EDISTO SONG soon to follow. These novels are scheduled to publish starting in 2019. I hope you will love visiting at Edisto through my books … but don’t worry, there are many more Smoky Mountain novels to keep entertaining you, too.

August 2017 – “Growing Up With Flowers”

Henri Matisse once wrote: “There are always flowers for those who want to see them.” … I grew up with flowers. I was trained to see them and appreciate them, and I am grateful for that.

My mother and my father loved flowers and growing things. We lived in a rural suburban area and our property bordered empty lots owned by the railroad that my parents welcomed into their yard and gardening expansions. They planted a huge vegetable garden every year inside a fence with a gate, just like Mr. McGregor’s garden pictured in Peter Rabbit. Besides remembering fondly the big garden with its neat, long rows of corn and vegetables, I remember lettuce flats, green peas climbing the fences, beds of strawberries, fruit trees, and grapevines rich with warm grapes. But most of all I remember the flowers.

The flowers were particularly my mother’s domain. She did most of the planning for them and I think loved them best, although my father helped in planting, weeding and taking care of them. It was Mother, however, who smiled over them and delighted in them. It was Mother, too, who walked me around the yard and among the many flowers beds, beside flowering shrubs, under trees blooming with rich color, and told me the names of everything. Looking back, I think she always talked about her flowers with the fondness a mother uses to talk about beloved children. She always made the flowers seem much more than mere plants. They took on personalities with her stories and soon became far more than plants to me, too.

My young childhood years were spent playing among the flowers with my friends. We built dolls’ homes in the creeping phlox, made the snap dragons “talk” by squeezing the blooms in just the right spot, sipped from honeysuckle blooms, floated mimosa blossoms in water to make lily ponds, and named the pansies with their “faces” like people. Flowers were a part of my life and my play. Inside our home cut flowers in Mama’s vases usually decorated our tables, and my brother and I often rode to church with a tall vase of flowers wedged between our knees, intended for the church alters. When I close my eyes, I can still see my mother with her broad straw gardening hat working in the flowers.

Some people have a gift for working in the soil and for growing things. They dream of planting in the winter and can’t wait to begin to put our plants and seed in spring, to plow up the rich earth to put in their gardens. I am not so gifted. I love to put words to paper, to paint or draw, to craft and create. But I carry the love for flowers even through I am not much of a gardener myself as my mother was. When I take my walks in the neighborhood I notice every blooming thing, stop to look at it, to “smell the roses.” In the spring I watch for the dogwoods and flowering shrubs to bloom. I visit gardens. I walk the Dogwood Trails in our area. In deep summer I especially love the crepe myrtle, which seem to thrive in the heat. I love flowers, as my mother did. They find their way into my stories and books. They whisper beauty. They are long-time friends.

In hiking I’ve discovered new flowers—the wildflowers of the Great Smokies. There I look for trillium, bloodroot, and purple phlox in spring, for mountain laurel and rhododendron in summer. In exploring the parks and outdoor areas, I slow my steps to look at coneflowers, black-eyed Susan, goldenrod, and other treasures. If I am feeling down, flowers cheer me. They speak of hope, endurance, determination, and beauty. Okakura wrote: “In joy or sadness flowers are our constant friends.”

“Flowers always make people better, happier and more helpful; they are sunshine, food, and medicine to the soul.” [Burbank]