Why did you choose to write Southern historical fiction?
I was born in the south and spent my childhood there. Except for a few years living elsewhere, I’ve lived my life as a southern girl. I love the long heritage of Southern storytelling, the eccentricities, the pace of life here, the emphasis on family, the cadence of southern speech, and the extraordinary history that shaped the south. That’s what I hope to share with my readers.
You earned a PhD in administrative leadership and spent several years in higher education. Why did you choose to start a new career as a novelist?
I grew up surrounded by books, stories, and poems. My daddy loved poetry and could recite many poems from memory. From the time I learned to read, I devoured every book at hand. When I was twelve years old, I read To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time. Harper Lee’s book has been cited so often as “the book that changed my life” that is has become a cliche to say so, but as a young Southern girl reading it just as the first whispers of the Civil Rights movement were rippling across the south, I was profoundly moved and inspired. I enjoyed my years in academia, but, as Samuel Lover said, the itch of literature came over me, and nothing could cure it but the scratching of a pen. I am incredibly blessed to be able to work every day at telling stories I hope will lift readers up and inspire them. Perhaps a young girl somewhere will read my book and be motivated to carry on the rich tradition of storytelling that means so much to me.
Your Hickory Ridge novels take place more than a hundred years ago, in Victorian America. How do the stories relate to modern readers?
The characters in the novels struggle with the same questions of life and faith as do today’s readers. How do you forgive those who have wronged you? What is the price of holding onto blame? How do you learn to trust again after experiencing a great injustice? The societal challenges they faced –the role of women , questions of race and identity, are still in evidence today.
Is Hickory Ridge an actual place?
It’s a fictional composite of several small 19th century communities that sprang up in and around the Smoky Mountain region of eastern Tennessee. A number of farming communities produced corn, cotton, and vegetables. A logging operation at Little River, complete with its railroad was the basis for Wyatt Caldwell’s lumber mill. The small churches at Cades Cove and Cataloochee were models for the country church in Hickory Ridge.
How much research goes into your novels?
Quite a lot. For this series I had to know the types of trees growing in the region, the kinds of wildflowers that bloomed, and when. I needed to know what hymns were popular, how funerals were conducted, what styles of ladies’ hats were popular and how they were constructed. I needed to know about horse racing, newspapering, adoption laws in the state of Massachusetts and the history of the KKK and how to make blackberry cobbler. It was all fascinating.
What is your writing process?
For a series, I devise a time line and a very general story line, develop my major characters, figure out the moral premise for each book, then I invite them onto the page and see where the story takes me. I love being surprised by the unexpected turns a story might take. That’s what makes writing so much fun. I edit as I go, and typically write three to four drafts before my editor sees it for the first time. Then the collaboration begins, which I find so rewarding and exciting, tweaking the draft until the story takes on its shape. In that way, writing is like sculpting. Adding at bit here, taking away a bit there until the final form emerges.
What do you do to get away from it all?
My husband and I have always loved travel. Seeing new places stimulates my imagination like nothing else can. But when our schedules don’t allow for long get-aways, we take day trips to historical sites, to the beach, or go hiking with our two golden retrievers. We love old movies from the 20’s 30’s and 40’s as well as almost anything on Masterpiece Theater. Some nights we make popcorn and watch a double feature.
With your Hickory Ridge series completed, what’s next for you?
I’ve just completed work on CAROLINA GOLD, a single title historical novel inspired by the life of a woman rice planter in the South Carolina low country.
What books are currently on your night stand?
I’m beginning the research on my next book, to be set in Savannah, Georgia. I’m reading histories of everything from houses to cemeteries to steamship wrecks. I hope to take a break soon to catch up on some pleasure reading. At the top of my pile right now is Lynn Austin’s new book, All Things New.