MELANIE DOBSON is the author of six novels and the former publicity manager at Focus on the Family. Her novel The Black Cloister won the 2009 ForeWord Magazine Religious Fiction Book of the Year Award and was nominated for an ACFW Book of the Year Award. Melanie grew up in a small Ohio town but now lives with her husband and two daughters in Oregon.
What made you start writing?
I’ve been compelled to write ever since I began jotting down my thoughts into a bright red diary in second grade. During middle school, my fascination with Nancy Drew pushed me to start a number of “mysteries,” but I discovered early in life that endings are hard to write so I never finished these stories. After college, I pursued a career in public relations and journalism instead of fiction writing. I always thought I would start writing stories again when I was “older,” but it wasn’t until a few months before my thirtieth birthday that I realized I was indeed older. God renewed my passion for fiction, and a decade after the big 3-0, I’m still writing novels.
What’s the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your novel journey)?
The most difficult part for me is the actual writing. : ) I love creating the characters, dreaming up the storyline, and doing the research, but I often freeze when it’s time to actually write the novel. I have to force myself to get the story out of my mind and onto paper no matter how terrible the first version is.
Do you put yourself into your books/characters?
At some level, I try and identify with all my characters though sometimes this is extremely difficult (particularly in The Black Cloister where my antagonist is a very disturbed cult leader). Some of my characters are more like me than others, but no matter their motives or their backgrounds, I strive to understand each character before I write his or her story.
At what point did you stop juggling suggestions and critiques and trust yourself (as a writer)?
Critiques keep me accountable when my writing gets lazy and help me see things I may have missed so before each of my novels are published, I ask a core group of talented writing and reading friends to critique my manuscript. I still have to decide which suggestions I should implement, but if the majority of these readers recommend I change a certain character or plot line, I almost always rework it.
Tell us a little about your latest release:
Love Finds You in Homestead, Iowa is set in one of my favorite places in the world–the quaint and very peaceful Amana Colonies. The story is about a lively Amana woman who thrives in her community and a broken man from Chicago who longs for the security of a home for his daughter.
How did you come up with this story? Was there a specific ‘what if’ moment?
I’ve been intrigued by the Amana Colonies and culture since I lived in Iowa during my high school years. There is no place else in the world like the Amanas so it was an honor for me to visit and write a story of what life would have looked like in these communal villages during the late 1800s. As I worked on the story, I contrasted the contented Amana people with the stress and worry following the financial Panic of 1893. The collision of these two very different worlds is the premise of Love Finds You in Homestead, Iowa.
Tell us a little about your main character and how you developed him/her:
With Liesel Strauss, I’ve tried to capture the characteristics of many of the young women during the Amana’s communal era. Liesel thrives on her friendships and her faith, and she has a heart to help others. Everything is provided for her so she doesn’t concern herself with money or other worries of the world, but she loves to tell stories and sometimes gets herself into trouble for her childishness.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book? Least?
Spending five days in the Amanas was the highlight for me. I loved attending the Amana church service and learning about their heritage and unique history (and I really loved tasting the amazing pastries baked in a hearth oven). My least favorite part of writing any novel is testing and growing my characters. I never want anything bad to happen to them…
What message do you hope readers gain from your novel?
Even though most of us can’t live in the Amana Colonies, this story was a good reminder to me to take a step back from the never ending craziness found in the world and savor the peace and joy that Jesus offers all who choose to follow Him.
What does your writing space look like?
Most days I join several other writers at a local coffee shop to work, but when I’m not crashing the coffee shop, I have a dark blue home office that looks out onto a forest. I have a hard time focusing when it’s too quiet so I’m grateful whenever I can get out of the house to write.
What kind of activities to you like to do that help you relax and step away from your deadlines for a bit?
I enjoy reading, walking, and line dancing, but when our family really wants to escape, we enjoy traveling to Colorado so we can hike and explore ghost towns and relax in the hot springs pool in Little Switzerland (otherwise known as Ouray)
Briefly take us through your process of writing a novel—from conception to revision.
My novels are often sparked by a real-life story with either a sad ending or no resolution. This story haunts me, and I can’t stop wondering what would happen if… During my morning walks, I pray for direction and brainstorm until I have the skeleton of a novel. Then I flush out the details of my characters and the remaining plot at the coffee shop. Once I have my general story outline and characters, I begin writing. In the mornings, I edit work from the day before, and then I usually write about two thousand new words. Because I outline before I write and edit as I go, my rewrites usually take about a week.
What is the first book you remember reading and what made it special?
One of my favorite first books was Emily Climbs. Emily Starr loved to write, and I wanted to be just like her.
What are a few of your favorite books and why are they favorites?
The Mitford series is like comfort food for me. Jan Karon’s characters are both likeable and memorable, and I love escaping to this mountain (and sometimes beach) town over and over. I recently read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and it’s a new favorite for me. I was enthralled by how these authors told such a compelling story through letters.
How do you think reading the work of others helps you as a writer?
Reading authors like Angela Hunt and Kristen Heitzmann inspires me to work harder as I strive to create strong, likable characters and more lyrical writing. I love getting lost in a story, and when I do, I often go back and reread to figure out how the writer captured me by his or her words.
What do you wish you’d known early in your career that might have saved you some time and/or frustration in writing? In publishing?
I was really anxious in my earlier years, trying hard to find a publisher for my work. Looking back, I wish I had been less anxious about getting published and more focused on improving my craft. Because it took seven years for my first novel to be published, I eventually learned a lot about novel writing as I sought publication. Now I’m very thankful that I had those years to learn and practice because after I received my first contract, I’ve published at least one book a year (three are coming out this year).
How much marketing do you do? What have you found that particularly works well for you?
My publisher (Summerside Press) does an amazing job at marketing and distribution. Many of their “Love Finds You” books are set in small towns, and after writing Love Finds You in Liberty, Indiana for them, I discovered that readers across the country who were connected to Liberty were very interested in this story. Thankfully they also told their friends and family about it.
Tell us what we have to look forward to in the future. What new projects are you working on?
My next novel, Refuge on Crescent Hill, releases in April. This is a contemporary romantic suspense set in a dilapidated Ohio mansion—a mansion hiding a number of both past and present secrets. The Silent Order, my next romantic suspense novel through Summerside, releases this fall. This novel is about a Cleveland detective who hides out in Ohio’s Amish country during the late 1920s.
Do you have any parting words of advice?
A bestselling author once said in an interview that she was a horrible writer but a fabulous re-writer. When I watched this interview, I was thinking and talking about writing all the time but I wasn’t actually writing because I was terrified I would fail. And if I failed, my dream of becoming a writer would die.
Once I realized that my first draft would stink, I let go of my fears and began spewing random thoughts onto my computer. After I had my first draft on paper, I polished and reworked and rewrote until it was coherent. Even though I still get anxious each time I start a new book, I’m no longer as scared of the process.