When did you start writing stories and books?
I had a vivid imagination from my youngest years … and “imagined” elaborate stories for play with my friends. My mother was an avid storyteller and read a lot to me – which I loved. In the fourth grade, a teacher recognized that I had strong creative gifts in writing and art and encouraged me. In my junior high and high school years there were some opportunities for early writing – editing a school newspaper, scribbling off poetry and thoughts in journals, and writing a few early stories. By the end of high school, I had some dreams of writing and had a high school English teacher to encourage writing and teaching as a career … but was soon busy with college, marriage, family, career, and the business of life.
On the side, I wrote some picture books for my children, ran a small publication business in my home while my children were young, and wrote various pieces for businesses and organizations through this. I wrote some devotionals, a few academic pieces, and, one year, actually experimented with writing a first young adult novel – which I never tried to submit for publication. I was always writing something … simply because I had to. I‘ve always had a love affair with words. I loved putting words down on paper – loved creating characters, playing with settings, drawing out house plans and maps for my story ideas, and plotting out and weaving stories and ideas together. But writing was a calling and a dream I simply didn’t have disciplined time for over my early adult years.
It wasn’t until my children were grown and gone from the house that I had the idea for the Smoky Mountain series of novels. It was then that I began to seriously and committedly write fiction. I decided I would write, like any part-time job, diligently for 20 hours a week. I completed the first two novels in the Smokies series, The Foster Girls and Tell Me About Orchard Hollow, in 2006, the second two, For Six Good Reasons and Delia’s Place, in 2007, and the next two books, Second Hand Rose and Down By The River in 2008. I’m still at it.
How many agents and publishers did you submit your book to before you found the right one?
In 2007, when I had two books completed and was into the third and fourth … I sent out about 50 letters to agents. Since I didn’t know anything about the publishing industry, I thought getting a good agent would be the best way to proceed. I researched agents extensively for a month or two and selected those that I thought would be interested in my series – and my style of writing. I had no success with this venture whatsoever. Encouraging, polite notes and form letters dribbled into my home office for over six months. Some said I had a strong writing gift; many made positive comments … but the consensus voice was that they were not interested in working with a new unpublished author. Two suggested that I recontact them later when I was published.
I kept writing … and in 2008, a colleague in a civic group I belong to introduced me to another local writer. We began a friendship and she became interested in my books. Being well-published, she knew more about the publishing industry than I did and had some contacts and ties in the industry. She encouraged me to start submitting directly to publishers. She suggested that I submit my book to a smaller, regional publisher – since the books were a regional series. She said she thought I might like working with an area publisher – that was more like a “family.” That’s how I got connected to my current publisher. They were one of the publishers my friends thought would be a good fit for me. When I researched their publishing site they happened to be seeking an Appalachian based romance series – so I submitted my querry letter, synopsis, and sample chapters. They loved my work and offered me a great contract.
In 2013 I signed a new contract with Kensington Publishing of New York. This publishing change brought my books into wider distribution and to a broader audience. I published four more Smoky Mountain novels with Kensington: Down By The River (2014), Makin’ Miracles (2015), Saving Laurel Springs (2015), and Welcome Back (2016) plus a short novel “A Smoky Mountain Christmas” in Kensington’s 2014 Christmas anthology When the Snow Falls. My work hit the New York Times Best-Seller list, the USA Today and Publisher’s Weekly best seller lists, as well as Amazon.com’s best selling list, and my first 1st international contracts were signed. Kenginston has been very excited about my work and they have been wonderful to work with.
How do you think up the ideas for your books?
Stories have always floated around in my mind. As I mentioned earlier, I have always been an avid reader. I can’t imagine how anyone who doesn’t read a lot can write well. By reading, and savoring books for years and years … I believe the format for books becomes intrinsically absorbed into your system. You intuitively know how to sculpture rich characters and how to lay out a plot. You more readily recognize what makes a warm, compelling story and what makes a weak one.
Ideas have always just walked into my mind. Maybe that’s a creative gift. When I was younger, I just thought everyone was that way. I was always playing around with book and story plots long before I did anything serious with my ideas.
The idea for the Smoky Mountain books came to me in 2005 as a backlash concept. I had a deep heart’s desire to write romances that were warm, true, and real – a good read with characters you didn’t want to say goodbye to and a plot that kept your attention – without the blatant sexual content and immorality I had become so tired of in romance books and even in many mysteries. I wanted to write something different and wholesome.
I found that many Christian romance books never got out into the public – because they were a little too sweetly, moralistly contrived in nature. Also, few were contemporary. A number of the mainline Christian publishers won’t even accept books set after 1900 or 1920. To me the message there is that morality isn’t realistic after that! Certainly, being Amish, in Regency England, or in early America – with stricter mores – inhibited sexual involvement, but couldn’t we conceive of a moral relationship today? I believed so.
So I prayed and thought about what I might write … and the idea of the Smoky Mountain books came to me. I saw the first book plot clearly … the general story line and the characters … and then I began to “see” some of the others. I started folders on each book as the plots and characters formed in my mind. Soon, I began to research the first novel more intensely, to outline and plan it- and then started the writing. Even while I am writing on a current book, ideas for the others in the series may come to me on a car trip, in a dream, while hiking, or when idling working around the house. So I am always adding bits and pieces to my upcoming book folders – even while I am writing on a current book.
I think it’s important to jot down the inspirations and ideas for books as soon as you can. To record your ideas while they’re fresh – even if on a napkin in a restaurant or on the back of a grocery list in your purse. Fresh ideas are precious – and should be captured and kept.
Why did you choose the Smoky Mountains as the setting for your books?
The Smoky Mountains are one of the most visited national parks in America – and they are right here in my back door. I’ve grown up visiting the mountains, picnicking on the streams, hiking up the trails, seeing the seasons change in the mountains, visiting the tourist spots around the region.
Good advice for any writer is to write about what you know and love. So I chose the Smokies. Also … I noticed that there weren’t many contemporary romance books on the bookstore shelves that were set in the Smokies. So I felt I was also meeting a market need.
What are your daily writing habits like?
I write twenty hours a week minimum or more, depending on my time. I would write forty hours a week, like a full-time job but I still have another job as well as a college professor. In addition, I sometimes help in my husband’s and my business. I see writing as a job – a profession, if only a parttime one right now. Nicholas Sparks wrote: “All people who regard writing as a profession write consistently.” I think it’s a mind set you have to get into in order to be successful.
When I start a book, I write out the general idea first – who are the main characters, what conflicts and challenges are they going to face, how are they going to be resolved, and how is the book going to end. I start with the basic “who, what, when, where, how” aspects. Usually, then I start work on fleshing out the main characters – and sometimes the important secondary characters. I plan out their past family and life background in detail, collect pictures to represent them, as I see them in my mind, work out their personality aspects, their likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, their past failures and successes, goals and problems. By the time I am through, they are not characters anymore, they are “people.” I have come to know them. I feel their hurts and pains; I know their deepest innermost desires.
While I am working on the characters, I work on setting at the same time. I research this thoroughly – reading and finding interesting historical and local data I might use in the novel and drawing area maps where the book will be set. I sketch or find photos of main houses and buildings I will need in the book. I draw houseplans and roomplans. I don’t want to have to stop later to think out where the kitchen is or where the bedroom is when I am in the flow of writing. I can just pull out my sketches.
Because I’m writing about the Smokies, I go visit the area where my book is set. Each of my Smokies series novels is set in a different part of the Smoky Mountains. I go visit the area and walk around the streets. I look for ideas and get familiar with the setting for the book. I have the characters and the plot rolling in my mind by now, so I am usually looking for specific things I can use – or need to see more clearly. Often my husband goes with me. He fished in the Little River in Townsend one summer while I walked up and down the shady streets along the river plotting and taking notes, making sketches and visiting sites.
Finally, I make a detailed “chapter by chapter” outline of the book. I usually have 23-24 chapters on average. I like to alternate between the heroine and hero’s voice from chapter to chapter. It’s the style that is most comfortable to me, and this was always the style many of my favorite authors used. I had written three books before I learned this perspective, from which a writer shares a narrative, is called Point of View (POV).
When my outline is finished on notebook paper or note cards (I’ve tried both), I make my bulletin board to put up on the wall behind my computer work area. I make an artistic collage of collected pictures of my main characters, setting pictures, pets, or whatever other pieces I’ve found to “set my scene.” It is my inspiration as I write. My characters are there – like family photos – to inspire me. I have created my world.
This research and preparational time usually takes about three months. I work on this seriously at least twenty hours a week. I usually block out five hours a day on four days a week for research or writing. I’ve tried the goal of writing time blocks every day but I can’t keep the pace up. I have my teaching and other jobs. I also may want to hike a day or head to Dollywood to see the shows and ride the rides. Or J.L. and I might want to take a trip to visit family. Or to have friends over to share dinner and play games. With four days of writing a week … I can manage my time better. Usually, I write more than five hours on those scheduled days – especially if I get in flow. And if I miss a day I’ve penciled in on my calendar to write, then I have to make it up another day before the week is out. I’m a hard task master to myself.
Writing is hard work. It is lonely work. There is no one to praise you if you keep to your schedule. There is no ongoing encouragement for doing well. I can’t imagine that anyone would chose to write that didn’t passionately love it. Otherwise, there are just too many other pleasurable things to do in this world that aren’t so arduous. But for me …although writing is hard, it is a joy.
Does television inspire you? What do you like to watch on television or at the movies?
Television doesn’t inspire me, and I seldom watch it. It dulls my creativity and addictively absorbs my time. I write when other people are watching television.
In the occasional times when I do watch television, I might watch a good movie or a documentary or special on a subject that interests me. One sitcom I actually enjoy ( a rarity) is Monk. I like British television often better than American television – and love the Mystery Theatre series (Poirot, Morse, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes) and all the Jane Austen movies that BBC made. I also like British films. My favorite movies in the last several years were Miss Potter, Ballet Shoes, the Princess Diaries, and the Harry Potter series – especially the first one. My all-time favorite movies are the classic Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, like South Pacific, My Fair Lady, and Oklahoma, the Disney musicals, like Mary Poppins, and Streisand musicals like Hello Dolly and Funny Girl.
Where is your favorite place to vacation?
The beach … especially quiet islands. J.L. and I like to stay in rental villas or houses … not hotels. I’d rather cook in and sit on the screen porch enjoying the view and the quiet … than vie for a seat in a crowded restaurant.
Our favorite beach retreat is a quiet South Carolina island called Edisto. We rent a house or villa there, bike the bike trails, walk the beach, play in the ocean, read books under the umbrella, cook seafood, and enjoy the quiet. There are no high-rises, no hotels, few chain restaurants and entertainments, and no commercialism. It is forty-five minutes through the marshes to the nearest towns of Charleston or Beaufort … and that’s exactly the way we like it.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
Sue Monk Kidd