Tell us about your new release:
Beyond All Measure is the first of the Hickory Ridge romances. Set in the foothills of the great Smoky Mountains in 1871 it’s the story of Ada Wentworth, a young Bostonian who, having lost everything—her family, fiancé, and fortune—journeys to Hickory Ridge for a position as a lady’s companion. Her plan is to stay only until she can save enough money to establish a millinery shop back east. But then she meets Texan Wyatt Caldwell, owner of the local lumber mill who has plans of his own. As their feelings for each other grow, Ada must let go of her bitter past in order to embrace God’s plans for her future, and to trust Wyatt with her heart.
How did you come up with this story? Was there a specific ‘what if’ moment?
Most of my stories start at an emotional level. What would it feel like to lose everything, and to feel that your father and your fiancé were to blame? How would you get past that, forgive them, and learn to trust again? I grew up a Southern girl in a storytelling tradition, and stories of the South that is long past resonate with me. I love and respect our history and I love telling stories about ordinary people who quietly accomplished remarkable things, and then slipped behind the veil of time. I want to afford readers a peek behind that veil. Ada, my protagonist, lived in my head for several years, whispering snippets of the story into my ear, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that the story firmed up in my mind. Then I was able to see and hear her and Wyatt awake and dreaming. Some days I woke up wondering where they were.
Did anything strange or funny happen while researching or writing your book?
The funniest thing happened during line edits. I read copiously before writing any book—journals, diaries, histories, and I try to cover all the bases with regard to historical accuracy. But sometimes the smallest of details will slip past. I had a line in which my hero, Wyatt, realizes his feelings for Ada are growing like kudzu—a Southern plant that can grow as much as a foot in a single day. I thought it was an apt description. But my wonderful line editor, Anne Christian Buchanan, discovered that kudzu didn’t come to Tennessee until 1900. Some thirty years after my story takes place. So of course I changed the line, with profuse thanks to Anne, but I sure hated giving up that perfect image.
Every novelist has a journey. How long was your road to publication? How did you find out and what went through your mind?
I began writing in earnest in the early 1990s. Back then I was writing for preteens and young adults. I came to writing from a background in education and followed the old advice to write what you know. What I knew were kids and teenagers—what they worried about, how they talked, what their dreams were. In 1994 I submitted my first ever historical novel for preteens to Holiday House, a small, independent New York -based publisher that specialized in children’s literature. Seven months went by without any word, and one day I got up enough nerve to call the editor, the fabulous Margery Cuyler, to ask if she had had a chance to read my novel yet. A long silence followed and I steeled myself for rejection, but Margery said, “I’ve been meaning to call you. We all love your wonderful book and we want to publish it.”
My brain fogged over. I could not speak. Margery said, “I’ll get the offer together and call you tomorrow.” I pulled myself together enough to say “Thank you, that’s lovely news.” Then I got off the phone with her, called my best friend and screamed. It was a magical moment. I went on to publish five more books at Holiday House and then moved to Simon and Schuster where I published several more YA novels. I came to the CBA in November of 2009, my new agent submitted the proposal for the Hickory Ridge series in December of 09, and I went to contract with Thomas Nelson in January of 2010. I’ve been working on this series nonstop every since and loving every minute of it. Southern historical fiction is my passion.
Do you ever bang your head against the wall from writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Some famous writer—I forget who—said that only rich writers can afford to have writer’s block. The rest of us can’t afford it. I’ve heard about it, but I’ve been lucky never to have experienced it. There are days in which the writing flows effortlessly and days when it comes hard, and getting each word onto the page is like pulling teeth. I find the work is harder when I am physically tired, or when I have too many family responsibilities on my plate. Getting some rest and checking a few items off my “to do” list helps me refocus.
Do you consider yourself a visual writer? If so, what visuals do you use?
I’ve made research trips to the locales of most of my novels, and I take photos to help me remember details. Sometimes I put up a couple of pictures to help with specifics, but mostly I go inside my head to write. Some of my friends have music going when they work, but that would make me crazy. I need to be in a cool, quiet place, and have at least two hours of uninterrupted time in order to turn out usable pages.
Novelists sometimes dig themselves into a hole over implausible plots, flat characters or a host of other problems. What’s the most difficult part of writing for you?
I’m a planner. I begin with the central premise of the novel in mind, and when possible, the title. I write a 5 to 7 page outline before I begin. So I mostly avoid those pitfalls. I worked as a journalist all through high school and my university undergrad days, so I learned to “write tight” as we say. No adjectives, no adverbs, just verbs and nouns. My first fiction writing teacher, Peggy Moss Fielding, used to write in purple ink on my manuscripts, “More! We need more!” I had to learn to add description to my work. That was probably the most difficult part of writing for me.
How do you overcome it?
Where do you write: In a cave, a coffeehouse, or a cozy attic nook?
I write in a second floor office in my house. It has a couple of big windows that overlook the street, my old oak trees, my neighbor’s palm trees, and my blooming crape myrtles. When I need a break I turn my chair around and there is always something beautiful to look at. This office is in a smaller space than in our previous house and my oversized desk takes up too much room. I need a smaller desk, or a bigger office.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Up at 5 am. Feed our two golden retrievers. Make breakfast for my husband. We have breakfast and read the morning papers. He leaves for his office around 7:15. I’m usually at my desk by 8 or 8:30. Most days I work till 5 or 5:30 with a break for lunch and sometimes a break for running errands. Most nights I make dinner and then we relax with a book, or TV if there is anything good to watch. To bed by 10 or 11. It’s a very disciplined, quiet life.
Some authors report writing 5-10 thousand words a day. Do scenes flow freely from your veins or do you have to tweeze each word out?
Depends on what scene I’m writing. Very emotional ones drain me and I have to take them slower. Other days the words flow faster. I am in awe of those writers who can consistently produce 5,000 words a day. A very good day for me is about half that. But I tend to edit and revise as I go. That’s the perfectionist in me.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve heard?
Don’t write about what you know, write about what you want to know.
My agent introduced me to Stanley Williams’ book, The Moral Premise. That has helped my writing tremendously. I’m looking forward to taking his class at a writers’ conference later this year.
Do you have any parting words of advice?
Read a dozen books for every one you write. Read with intent. The best book I know on this topic is Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer.