February 2019 – ORCHARD HOLLOW

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.

My second novel TELL ME ABOUT ORCHARD HOLLOW came out a year after my first in the spring of 2010. An interesting fact few people know is that this was actually the first Smoky Mountain novel I wrote, even through THE FOSTER GIRLS was the first book published. When I began querying agents and later publishers, I read most expected to see the hero and heroine meet in a compelling, memorable way in the first chapter or two of a book. Since this was definitely not the case with Orchard, I submitted Foster instead.

In TELL ME ABOUT ORCHARD HOLLOW the story begins in New York City and it takes some time before Jenna Howell comes to Townsend and meets Boyce Hart. Even then, she is still married, and it is hardly time for a sudden romance to begin for either of them.

Here is the hook and short synopsis for TELL ME ABOUT ORCHARD HOLLOW in case you haven’t read the book or forgot the story:

In this second novel in the beloved Smoky Mountain Series, a young woman, hurt by the one she loves most, finds healing and a new confidence in a rural cabin on the quiet side of the mountains. ….. 

New Yorker Jenna Howell has spent many pleasant hours listening to her older neighbor, Sam Oliver, spin stories about his beloved home place on Orchard Hollow Road in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. This rural world is far removed from Jenna’s life in downtown Manhattan, but when several shocking events and marital betrayal come her way, Jenna—a previously sheltered girl—decides to take Sam up on his offer to visit his cabin in the mountains……At Sam’s place in Townsend, Jenna meets many new friends, including her good-looking neighbor, artist Boyce Hart. A quick attraction sparks between Jenna and Boyce, proving to be both exciting and confusing at this time in Jenna’s life. It is not the right time for a new relationship for either Jenna or Boyce. However, as spring blooms in the Smokies, Jenna blooms. She gains a new appreciation for unselfish love and simple pleasures, develops confidence in herself and her talents, and begins to find new understandings about faith. Just as she is finding happiness and beginning to heal, an unexpected tragedy forces her to return to New York City. Here she has to test out her new-found strengths, resolve the problems in her life, and decide on the direction for her future. Choosing the right course proves to be more difficult than expected – as two very different lives vie with opposite allures for Jenna’s heart.

Having never traveled to New York City, I had to read extensively and look at a number of YouTubes to begin my story there. … I wanted to contrast city life with country life. I wanted to show the differences between people from both places and also the similarities. Since the earliest of times, people who live in the hustle and bustle of the city have retreated to quiet country places for vacation, for refreshment, for peace, and even for an escape in a time of hurt or sorrow. Jenna, having heard so many rich stories from her neighbor Sam Oliver about his mountain cabin, decided his place in quiet Townsend the perfect spot to run to when her life fell apart.

An overly sheltered girl, Jenna had found it hard to develop confidence or respect for herself and her abilities. As the story unfolds, the reader sees that Jenna’s husband Elliott and her parents encourage little independence, control Jenna’s life more than is healthy and limit her growth. Suppressed people often don’t see they are suppressed, and a part of this book’s story is about Jenna emerging into her own person. Around an entirely new set of good and wholesome people in Townsend, Jenna begins to change and bloom. I loved painting the picture of her growth and creating all the little scenes in which Jenna begins to “find herself.” Aristotle said “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom” and there is much truth in those words. Socrates also said ‘when you find yourself, you can think for yourself.’ Throughout the book Jenna comes to know herself more and more and to think for herself with more confidence.

In a lovely parallel, Jenna’s new friend in rural Townsend, Charlotte Bratcher, has experienced few of the privileges of education and wealth Jenna has known, yet the love and acceptance she’s had throughout her life from family and friends has built in her a strong sense of self and an easy comfortable wisdom. Charlotte proves a kind help to Jenna at a hard time in her life, and in many instances throughout the book Charlotte offers Jenna needed practical advice to live by. “My Granny Oliver says there is no shame in making mistakes in this life. It’s just a natural thing,” Charlotte tells Jenna in one scene. “But it’s what we do after we make them that’s really important.”

Boyce Hart often plays the role of “homespun philosopher” too. He grew up in nearby Wears Valley, where his mother and brother still live. Life for Boyce’s family evolved around farming, faith, and family. Boyce’s father had been a preacher. The family lived on the land, loved it and worked hard with their hands. Boyce learned to paint early as a boy, helping out in his older brother’s craft and sign shop—painting signs and birdhouses, and eventually branching out to paint pictures of the things he loved around the valley. Self-taught, his art developed with practice until he became a well-known landscape artist and opened his own gallery, the Hart Gallery, in nearby Townsend.

As the story begins Boyce is happy and easy with his own life. He feels a little annoyed when asked to “be nice” to city girl Jenna Howell when she comes to stay at Sam’s cabin across the street from his place. He knows though this girl has been good to Sam in New York, and because Boyce loves Sam, he’s determined to reach out with kindness to Jenna. That he soon finds himself attracted to her surprises and upsets him. His strong principles would never let him take advantage of a friend of Sam’s or of a vulnerable girl running from betrayal and still a married woman.

Fate, however, seems to have decided that Boyce and Jenna have something to give each other. And fate continues to find ways to throw them together. Yet both know the timing is totally wrong for initiating a relationship and both are horrified they even feel attracted. So begins this story and this awkward match. Or will it ever be a match? And are these two different people ever meant to get together at all?

As an author, this was a fun story to weave. My heart went out to both main characters, so torn with an unexpected mess of problems and emotions. I loved, too, creating all the side characters in Townsend that Sam Oliver had always spun his magical stories to Jenna about….Sam’s sister Raydeen, Charlotte and Dean Bratcher, Una, Boyce’s neighbors the Hesters and the Lanskys, Boyce’s wise mother Ruth Hart, his brother Charles, and more.

As I researched and plotted this book, I made many trips to Townsend, on the quiet side of the Smoky Mountains. I revisited favorite places, little shops and stores, and drove down quiet back roads to find the perfect spot for “fictitious” Orchard Hollow Road where Sam Oliver’s cabin and Boyce’s home both lay. I searched through Townsend, too, for just the right place for the complex of businesses that held the Hart Gallery, the Apple Barn, and the Lemon Tree. The map here is an early one I hand-drew when working on my story, and a later similar black-and-white one was created to put in the front of the actual book.

One interest that main characters Boyce Hart and Jenna Howell do share is a love for art. Boyce’s skills as a painter are revealed from the first, but gradually as the story unfolds, the reader learns Jenna has skills in art of her own of a different type. Boyce encourages Jenna to appreciate her art more, helping her to see that art takes different forms and is expressed in different ways. “That is what art is,” he tells her at one point, “creating something from out of yourself that touches other people’s lives.”

Boyce also takes Jenna into the beauty of the outdoors for inspiration—and just for fun. He takes her hiking to see and sketch pictures of wildflowers. He points out beauty to her all around. Jenna also begins to see it more for herself. With the book set in the spring, I enjoyed letting Boyce and Jenna hike the Porter’s Creek Trail in Greenbrier, one of our favorite spring trails, to find flowers and to later hike in Cades Cove to the John Oliver cabin. Jenna also hikes up the Chestnut Top Trail outside of Townsend, another beautiful spot for wildflowers in the springtime.

Suspense mounts in the story when Elliott returns from his trip to Paris and finds Jenna gone, his anger flaring. He attacks Sam, a handicapped man, sending Jenna fleeing home early. At this point, Jenna, now stronger in herself, is purposed to get through her separation and divorce and find her own way. She does so, but not without difficulty. At this point in the book, you wonder what she will choose to do with her life. Her career takes off, her life is working out. She has good friends like Sam and her long-time friend Carla. She is finding her way. … Although she and Boyce are communicating through notes and drawings to each other, Boyce wants nothing to do with the city and Jenna has her life and work in New York. It is hard to say how things will work out. … and I hope the reader is wondering how all will resolve right up until the end. I admit I worked hard to hopefully keep you guessing!

Some fun extra notes about TELL ME ABOUT ORCHARD HOLLOW:

(1) As a teen, I drew many greeting card designs. I entered a set of card designs in an American Greetings contest at about fifteen and won. When the company rep came to our home to offer me a design job with the company, he was stunned to find me only a minor. He encouraged my parents to send me to an art college to major in illustration and told me a job would be waiting for me at American Greetings when I graduated. He gave my father his card but my parents did not take the visit seriously, nor did they keep the card. Even when I won scholarships to several art colleges with illustration majors, my parents wouldn’t let me accept them. So I understood many of Jenna’s art frustrations.

(2) I had to do extensive research about divorce proceedings and about legalities relating to it for the state of New York. I enjoyed creating attorney Maury Berkowitz to champion Jenna in her legal problems. I hope if I ever need an attorney for anything in life that I find an attorney like Maury.

(3) Sam’s red setter Dan and Boyce’s dog Patrick were based on the smart red Irish Setter that once belonged to one of our friends. We loved Patrick, an incredibly bright, loving, and well-trained animal … and I thought of him with fondness often every time “fictitious” Patrick came on the scene in this story.

(4) Sam Oliver was a major character in this story, even when not on the scene. I loved how he and Jenna bonded, even with Sam in his eighties and in a wheelchair and Jenna so young. And I loved how they both helped each other. I believe age doesn’t have to be a factor in friendship when two right hearts meet.(5) Another of nationally acclaimed artist Jim Gray’s beautiful paintings “Mountain Memories” was chosen for the cover of Orchard and I modeled my little Townsend art Gallery in part after Jim’s lovely gallery in Gatlinburg: http://www.jimgraygallery.com

(6) In Chapter 13 where Jenna talks Boyce into telling her about his first love, he tells her about falling in love with Audrey Bierman, an actress making a movie in Townsend one summer. He also talks about Celine Rosen, another actress a friend Jack Teague fell for and married. This little “hint” lays the groundwork for a later Townsend book starring Jack Teague called Down By The River. I enjoy dropping minor characters into books that will appear again in later stories or in bringing back a past character into a story later on.

(7) Boyce Hart has a strong faith Jenna admires. She struggles in the book to enlarge and grow in her faith, wanting a strong relationship with God like she’s seen in Boyce. The blossoming of this faith shows later in the story as Jenna learns how to pray, how to lean to God for help, and how to read and study her Bible to deepen her spiritual knowledge.

(8) At one point in the story, struggling on her own and lonely, trying to become a person in her own right, Jenna says, “You can do this Jenna … Let’s become someone that ‘s not just someone’s daughter or someone’s wife. Let’s become someone that’s her own person.” I felt so proud of Jenna before the book was over because she becomes exactly that.


[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.]

January 2019 – THE FOSTER GIRLS

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.

[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.]


December 2018 – “Christmas Letters”

From my earliest memories, I can vividly recall my mother sitting and writing Christmas letters and notes to tuck into the cards she sent to friends and family every year. She spent days picking out exactly the right card for each one on her list and penning each one a sweet personalized note. In her latter years, when writing so many personal letters by hand became hard, I typed up mother’s Christmas letter and duplicated it for her to put into her cards. But, still, she often added personal messages to each card anyway. Christmas, to my mother, was the time to make personal contact with all those she loved.

Coming from that legacy, it’s no surprise that I, too, began to create and send personal Christmas cards and letters after J.L. and I married, with each letter and card filled with handwritten notes, family news, and photos. Early cards I sent were often hand-drawn,  like the two cards duplicated here. The blue card at left with the black and white drawing shows J.L. and I rocking in two old rocking chairs—and as you can see by the bump on my belly, we were expecting our first child. I drew the happy sleigh on the right many years later—when our family had expanded to four. It shows J.L., Max, Kate, and myself tucked into the seats of the sleigh. Inside this card was a poem I wrote starting with these lines: “Dashing through the year … Where did the months all go? It seems like yesterday, I wrote to you before!” I guess that was my creative writing streak surfacing even then!!…ha,ha.

The “photo” years of the children and their news filled most all of our Christmas cards in the years when when they were growing up. I wrote personal letters in my cards through those years, too, tucking in photos of first Max, when small, and then of Max and Kate together over the years to follow. I get cards from our families and friends like these now every Christmas, with photos of children and grandchildren tucked inside. I think we all love our children and want to share the memories of their lives with others.

Growing busier with work and family as the years passed, I began to write a Christmas letter every year I could duplicate in quantity and tuck inside my cards. These letters chronicled the busy events and news of our lives and family during the year—graduations, new jobs, vacations, special events celebrated, and occasionally sorrows. I usually printed these Christmas letters on colorful holiday stationery but others I created in black and white, many with half-tone photos included.

After the children left home to begin lives of their own, J.L. and I began new hobbies and activities. We finally had more free time and more “back to the two of us” time again. We started hiking and wrote a hiking book. I fell in love with the Smoky Mountains in a new way and began to write novels set around the mountains. J.L., busy with his business publishing fishing and hunting guide magazines and selling sports products, and myself teaching college, often eight to nine classes a year, didn’t leave as much time for Christmas letters. Yet, most years I somehow found time to write them anyway. It just didn’t seem like Christmas without them. Christmas letters had become a tradition by then, and loved holiday traditions are hard to leave behind. Becoming more “computer savvy” in those years, I began to create photos cards for the holidays. I tucked these into every Christmas card or sometimes sent them instead of a Christmas card.

Yesterday and today, I addressed all my Christmas cards for 2018. They are stamped and ready to drop into the mail now. This year I didn’t write a lengthy Christmas letter or even a short one. Our lives, and the news of our 2018 year, are much the same as our news of last year … traveling to events and book signings, speaking to groups, attending regional festivals and literary conferences, and working on more books. J.L. said we should simply write: “Christmas Letter Ditto From Last Year.”…  I did, however, tuck a photo into each card as you see below. Somehow a Christmas card without a note or photo just didn’t seem complete.

Today, with so many new friends and fans all across the U.S. and abroad that J.L. and I have added to our lives as authors of fourteen books now … I decided that my old memories about Christmas letters and cards of the past would be my December blog post … and my Christmas letter to all of you. So I’m wishing every one of you a blessed and joyous Christmas season … and a prosperous and happy New Year. May God bless you … and keep you and yours in the palm of His Hand.

I also put this little holiday poem on my author Facebook page in case you missed it: ” Hello December, the last month of the year, …May you all savor holidays full of good cheer! … Hang up your wreaths, decorate your trees,… Address Christmas cards and send one to me!…  Wrap up your presents, offer them with love, …And remember all season the Gift from Above.


November 2018 – “The Art of Embroidery”

Embroidery is the art of decorating fabric with yarn or thread. It’s an old craft dating back to the Third Century BC and examples of embroidery work have been found in practically every culture and social class around the world. In times past, skills in embroidery, sewing, and quilting were more prized—and needed for practical reasons—but at regional arts and crafts fairs, like the one we attended this weekend, you can still see clever and artistic embroidery and needlework displayed.

My mother sewed, as did both my grandmothers who also made beautiful quilts, but none of my close family did what my grandmother termed “fancy work.” I can’t remember that anyone taught me to embroider although I learned to do so. I do recall, however, that when mother made her many trips to the fabric store for patterns, thread, and fabrics, I always headed to the sewing crafts section. I loved to study the framed embroidery examples of cross-stitch, crewel, and needlework on the walls. At some point I came home with my first simple cross-stitch kits to try out.

I learned to create those first cross-stitch and crewel embroidery projects by reading and following the instructions in the kits. The patterns stamped on tea-cloths, table-runners, pillows, handkerchiefs, and other items offered an easy way for even a child to learn. Later, I checked out books about the craft in my local library to learn more about embroidery techniques. Most of the items I made in those early years were given away as gifts, but a few years back—while cleaning out my mother’s sewing after she passed away—I found two samples of my childhood work Mother had saved, a toaster cover and a table runner. I laughed to find them. I doubt anyone would be caught dead with items like these in their homes today, but I couldn’t resist tucking them away in a drawer to keep, just as my mother did.

When I married, craft items for the home were much more popular than today. I returned to embroidery then, along with learning other craft skills of the time like tole painting, to make decorative items for my home and to give for gifts. Homemade gift items were lovingly appreciated at that time, cherished and used, and I gave away many embroidered and handcrafted items and framed paintings for holidays.

Before both my children were born, in addition to making crib blankets, baby pillows, toys, and some clothes, I stitched an embroidered sampler for each child’s room—one for Max of the ABC’s and one for Kate with her name on it. I’ve kept these for sentimental reasons like I’ve kept the children’s early drawings in their baby books.

In the continuing busy years of childrearing and working, I only occasionally did embroidery again. The projects I took on were often larger more ambitious ones like the framed rock garden I sewed one winter. I began drawing my own original pictures for embroidery projects in those years, too, making personalized Christmas stockings, pillows, or framed embroidered scenes for family members.

Looking through my old embroidery basket, while working on this blog, I found several items partially begun and unfinished, plus a set of cute kitchen items I worked in crewel, with a lot of French knots, that I always meant to frame. Also in the old basket were colorful embroidery floss and crewel yarn, my old embroidery hoop, linen fabrics, patterns, and a kit for a crewel pillow covered in pretty wildflowers I bought but never began.

I rarely have time to embroider anymore. Now my artistry skills and creativity go into writing and creating books. But I still admire the skill because I know how much time, talent, and patience it takes. I stood watching a quilter add lavish, detailed embroidery work to a lovely crazy quilt this weekend at the Mountain Makins’ Festival in Morristown, Tennessee. The old itch to pick up a needle resurfaced as I watched. I doubt, however, you’ll see me posting new embroidery pieces on my blog or Facebook pages any time soon … but my guess is you will soon encounter a new book character, skillful with a needle, who adds intricate embroidery work to her crazy quilts and crafts. Perhaps she’ll also make some colorful stitched home items like my old kitchen pieces to sell at arts and crafts festivals near her home.

October 2018 – “Autumn Glory”

In one of L.M. Montgomery’s beloved Anne of Green Gables books Anne Shirley said: “I’m so glad we live in a world where there are Octobers.” Here in Tennessee, October is an “expectant” month. We watch the trees, still green, knowing that sometime soon we will begin to see those first turning leaves and then – perhaps suddenly in late October – a rush of color … russet reds, rich oranges, and golden yellows. Oh, yes … we’re glad to live in a world where there are Octobers…. And in a world where there is the expectance of beauty and the expectance of change.

I hope that you will get out to savor the beauty of October near your home  – in whatever state you live in. In all our states, there are many beautiful city, state, and national parks to take you “up close” to nature. Don’t simply drive through a scenic park either, but get out of your car to take a walk, to smell the crisp fall air, to feel the leaves crunch under your feet, and to look up into the canopy of fall color. John Muir said: “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks” and this is so true. When on a walk, you will feel that touch of peace, refreshment, inspiration, and inner joy that only being in God’s glorious outdoor world brings.

People often ask J.L. and I where to best enjoy the fall colors when visiting in the Great Smoky Mountains, and we have some favorite places. Although the popular Newfound Gap Road to the overlook on top of the Smokies is a lovely drive, the traffic is often so congested in the fall that we avoid it for lesser-known but equally beautiful spots. Near Gatlinburg, the Gatlinburg By-Pass offers lovely views and the Roaring Fork Nature Trail winds along a scenic one-way back-road, passing by old cabins, historic spots, and many pleasant trails. We like both of these places for color as much as the Newfound Gap Road.

To the west of the Smokies near Townsend we also avoid Cades Cove in the fall, because of the congestive traffic there, stalling constantly for tourists to take photos of any wildlife they spot along the way. Instead, we take to the back roads and love drives like the Rich Mountain Road behind Townsend that travels up to Rich Mountain Gap. It’s a winding, steep road but the foliage along the way is beautiful in fall and there are several trails you can enjoy at the top of the mountain.

Between Townsend and Maryville, Tennessee, is the 18 miles long Foothills Parkway, offering some of the most stunning autumn vistas you can find anywhere in the Smokies. On the highest point of the Parkway, a half-mile walk to Look Rock will take you to the Observation Tower for 360-degree panoramic views. Soon, too, the new extension of the Parkway will open across the mountains to Wears Valley,  bringing even more miles of scenic beauty. We love the Foothills Parkway drives. East of the Smokies, the far end of the Foothills Parkway climbs the mountain ridges between Cosby and Newport, with lovely pullovers and vistas. These Parkway roads are seldom overly crowded or congested with traffic—true treasures for Smoky Mountain visitors.

Still another beautiful spot for stunning fall color is the Cataloochee Valley on the east side of the Smokies near Maggie Valley and Waynesville, North Carolina. The road into the valley is always a glory in the fall and visitors can enjoy many fine hiking trails scattered throughout the valley. The scenic, winding Cataloochee trails, like Bradley Creek, the Cataloochee Divide, Pretty Hollow Gap, and the Boogerman Trail, offer quiet walks to enjoy the fall color up-close and personal. The Blue Ridge Parkway, rising behind Maggie Valley, and traveling across the mountain to Cherokee, NC, also has many beautiful vistas and overlooks. While on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we also like to drive the Balsam Mountain Road to the picnic area, where a short walk takes you out to the Heintooga Overlook with fabulous panoramas across the Smokies ranges.

While the Smoky Mountains offer stunning fall scenes every autumn, we often have seen equally beautiful color in Tennessee’s state parks. To find a state park near you, our new guidebook DISCOVERING TENNESSEE STATE PARKS might give you ideas for things to see and enjoy in the state parks. In town, we also have city parks with lovely fall color and nice outdoor trails. Our favorite is Ijams Nature Park. But we also enjoy simply walking the streets of pretty neighborhoods in Knoxville (like our own) where mature trees abound around old established yards. Often a few late fall flowers and mums add an extra touch of beauty to these landscapes.

So, yes, we are glad to live in a world where there are Octobers. Don’t let this beautiful month pass you by without getting out of doors to make good memories of your own.

September 2018 – “Things We Collect”

People like collecting things … from simple inexpensive things like postcards to more precious items like Faberge eggs or rare coins. There seems to be an innate part of us that likes to find, keep, and collect things we like. Small children pick up pretty stones, leaves, or pinecones  almost instinctively to take home and put on a shelf.  On trips to the beach kids love to collect shells, which I still like to find and bring home even now. As children grow older they often begin to collect other small items and toys they can purchase inexpensively like stickers, stamps, coins, bracelets, small cars, or stuffed animals. Amateur versus serious collectors may collect items of all different kinds simply because the subjects interest them. They may not care about the monetary value of the things they collect at all.

I’m not sure of all the reasons why people collect things but I seem to remember nearly everyone in my family collecting something at one time or another. My mother collected pitchers; she liked pretty colored glassware – and she collected Fiestaware, which I inherited. She also collected buttons because she liked to sew. I remember loving to get out the metal tin boxes filled with the buttons she’d collected to play with them. My father collected tools because he liked to fix and make things. I remember he collected National Geographic Magazines, too. As an engineer, they appealed to him and he enjoyed them. Dad also had a few carved birds. He liked to whittle. I inherited two of his birds and I later picked up a few beautifully carved and painted birds over time that I love, too.

My husband J.L’s mother had many collections. She collected baskets, roosters, dolls, Depression glassware, and quilts, among many other things. I inherited one of her butterfly quilts, which I really cherish. As a boy J.L. loved baseball and collected baseball cards. I know he wishes he still had some of those cards now.

Because I played outdoors so much, I’m sure I collected many outdoor treasures in my romps around the countryside. I remember making a “leaves” book with all the different leaves I collected one summer. I collected Betsy McCall paperdolls, too, from the back of Mother’s McCall’s magazines every month. Neither of these collections cost me anything but they were fun. I also collected small character dolls I received for birthdays and Christmas over the years…. Madame Alexander dolls, Ginny dolls, Betsy McCall dolls, a Miss Revlon and a Bob doll, and some Skipper dolls. I never really got into Barbies as my daughter Kate did later. But I created a fine fantasy family with my big collection of dolls. Dad built me a dollhouse for them and I spent many happy hours decorating and making furniture for that house and inventing play stories about that family.

I soon started other collections, as did most of my school friends. I collected Nancy Drew books and, along with my friend Paula, started a collection of glass and porcelain horses. Both of us were very “horse crazy” in those schoolgirl years. Like most teens, I collected records and Teen magazines and charms for my charm bracelets. The Nancy Drew books, records, and magazines are long gone but I still have many of the horses and my old charm bracelets.

One collection I inherited was of small teacups and saucers, which were my mother’s. She’d received them from the minister and his wife she lived with during her college years at Elon College. I kept these to honor the memory of that pastor and his wife who put my mother through school and let her live with them—very special in her time, when from a family of twelve children.

As an author and avid reader, I admittedly have always collected and still collect books. Many I treasure and re-read again and again. I like the idea of collecting books because you can enjoy them over and over, and I learn from them every time I re-read them … unlike so many items I collected but have now let go. I have many old books in my collection, passed down from others, many reference and academic books, novels by favorite authors, spiritual and devotional books. I’ve also started collecting a few glass paperweights. I admit I’m drawn to them when we’re traveling or when I see special ones at a crafts fair.

J.L. and my daughter Kate are not very avid collectors but my son Max likes to collect things. He has taken many of the old collections of his youth home with him to New Orleans from our house. Some he’s sold on eBay; some he’s kept. He likes comic books and always has. He also collects vinyl records and displays old toys, action figures, and Matchbox cars in his office.

There are a lot of interesting studies about why people collect and why people collect the things they do. Although collecting can have a dark side and can become obsessive and unhealthy, for most people collecting is normal and fun—like an adventurous hobby. One of my friends, Jayne, collected small bells all her life; she enjoyed finding new ones when she traveled, and she could tell special stories about each one she had. A lot of people say they don’t collect anything and yet their closet is filled with forty pairs of shoes, their hobby room overflows with fabrics or art supplies, or their garage is piled high with sports equipment. So, probably all of us collect one thing or another whether we realize it or not.

I am not the buyer and collector I once was in my youth. Today I look around and realize I need to get rid of excess things in my home rather than adding more. Although I recognize the personal value of the small things I’ve collected and kept over the years, they will probably have little sentimental value to my children someday.Now I am more of a collector of experiences, adventures, and stories. I tend to collect “moments” now more than things. … However, I think collections tell a lot about the individuals who have them. I also think homes with collections are always more interesting than homes without them. So, should people collect? My answer is yes, and I love this quote about collecting to close: “Collect things you love, that are authentic to you, and your house becomes your story.”