The Dames are pleased to welcome author Lin Stepp to our blog.
1. Tell us about your latest published book, For Six Good Reasons.
Each book is set in a different area around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The first novel, The Foster Girls, highlighted the picturesque Wear’s Valley while Tell Me About Orchard Hollow explored Townsend on the quiet side of the mountains. For Six Good Reasons is set in the Greenbrier area just above Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Other novels in the twelve book series will find homes in familiar locations such as Maggie Valley, Bryson City, Gatlinburg, and Cosby. My readers say they feel like they’ve visited the Smokies in each book and often write me from California, Texas, or New York wanting to know how to find places in my books when they come to visit. I’m becoming known as “The Smoky Mountain Writer” and I kind of like that title.
In all honesty, I’ve had a great time creating and writing my Smoky Mountain books. All my novels are warm-hearted contemporary romances—with a dash of suspense, a touch of inspiration, and a big dollop of Appalachian flavor. There are twelve books in the series – but rather than a continuing sequence following the same character, all the books in the Smoky Mountain Series have their own unique set of characters and their own unique story. However, just for fun … I often walk a side character from a past book into a new one to appeal to my ongoing readers.
In For Six Good Reasons, the main character—a young social worker named Alice Graham—takes on the care of six foster children under age twelve because she can’t bear to split up the young family. Cramped in her small Sevierville home, Alice moves the family to a big country house in Greenbrier—right next door to a riding stable. Now where do you suppose six kids would head with a stable practically in their back yard? Straight to the stable, of course – which is owned by Harrison Ramsey, a confirmed bachelor. Harrison was sent an engagement ring back through the mail by one woman and stood up at the altar by another. He wants nothing more to do with women, as you might expect …claiming all a man needs is a good dog and a good horse to be happy. Perhaps you can guess right away how much fun is in store from this brief glimpse!
Several readers have already called this the “best book yet” in the series, claiming it is “delightful and difficult to put down once you start.” I’ve been pleased with the positive endorsements for my first books, too. Best-selling author, Joan Medlicott, labeled me “a wonderful new Southern voice” and southern author Deborah Smith described my books as “warm hearted and satisfying novels of love, family and friendship … painting a charming portrait of the Smokies, their people, and a wonderful way of life.”
Even more exciting, Dolly Parton loves my books and has requested that every book in the series be mailed to her. She wrote: “Well, I’ve finally come across someone that believes in all the things that I do… love, family, faith, intrigue, mystery, loyalty, romance, and a great love for our beloved Smoky Mountains. Dr. Lin Stepp, I salute you.”
On the front cover of For Six Good Reasons you’ll see a beautiful painting by Jim Gray called “Spring Ablaze.” Jim allows me to use his stunning Smokies paintings on the front covers of all my books, and the Grays have become strong supporters of my work, keeping my books in their stores. I’ve been truly blessed with some wonderful favor … and I am thrilled readers like my books in the Smoky Mountain series so well.
2. Can you share a little bit about your current WIP?
My fourth book, Delia’s Place, set in Gatlinburg, is in the mill with my publisher at this time, and due for publication next spring. But I am actually working far ahead of my publisher in my writing and am in the middle of Book Nine at this time. This current novel, called Welcome Back, is set in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, and I had fun researching apple farming, clogging, Cataloochee elk, and area legends like Nance Dude, for this story set around an apple orchard called the Cunningham Farm.
Prior to Welcome Back, I completed Saving Laurel Springs, set in Cosby, Tennessee. This book follows the lives of two young people who grew up on a mountain resort and assembly grounds, called Laurel Springs, and dreamed of one day restoring it to its former glory. However, life intervened, taking them in different directions and creating angst between them. As the book begins they’re brought back together at Laurel Springs – spitting and snarling – forced to face each other, battle threats to the resort, and remember their early dreams.
As for the book being published next … everyone loves Gatlinburg and will love the charming story of Delia Walker and Tanner Cross in Delia’s Place. Readers will delight in discovering the quaint resort homes at Mynatt Park and have fun exploring downtown Gatlinburg with the main characters. They’ll love hiking along with the story characters down mountain trails near Gatlinburg, learning mountain lore and hearing stories of past settlers like the Walker Sisters. But even more … they’ll get caught up in the book’s engaging story.
Delia Walker inherits her Aunt Dee’s little cottage behind Gatlinburg and flees there when she gets a FedEx from her fiancé announcing he has married someone else. Arriving in Gatlinburg, she immediately runs into Tanner Cross, a friend from childhood that she made a fool of herself with in the past. This reminder of yet another romantic failure is the last thing Delia needs at this time. Adding another complication, Delia soon finds a younger cousin she’s never met before hiding out in her aunt’s cottage, running from sorrows of her own. Love interests and suspense build as Delia and Hallie work through their list of problems … with readers along for the roller coaster ride.
Exploring Gatlinburg again and creating the setting and story for Delia’s Place was fun, and readers who haven’t visited the area often, will be charmed to learn new places to explore. Mynatt Park, just behind Gatlinburg, is a little-known city treasure with a charming picnic area along rushing LeConte Creek. The park is only a stone’s throw from downtown Gatlinburg’s shops and wonders, and the quiet road leading to it funnels straight into scenic Roaring Fork Nature Trail with its hikes and historical sites.
3. Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
Inspiration for the settings for my books comes directly from my hikes, visits, and readings about the Great Smoky Mountains. One of my fans calls me “one of the Smokies greatest ambassadors” and I hope that’s true. I truly love the Smoky Mountains.
My husband and I are big hikers and have trekked all over the Tennessee and North Carolina mountains hiking over 100 trails. While in the different mountain regions, we explore and visit historic sites, shops, and places of interest. Many of these explorations and regional visits find their way into my books … as do bits of the stories I’ve heard about relatives and ancestors who made their way down the Appalachian trail to settle this once wilderness region.
Readers often ask me where I get the ideas for my books. I tell them all my ideas for the characters and stories for my books rise out of my rich imagination. I don’t base any characters on people I know and the ideas for my books roll into my mind of their own accord. I have a vivid imagination and a rich fantasy life. But don’t let that lead you to believe that writing is easy. Because after the early flush of inspiration comes the hard work and long hours of fleshing out the characters, the setting, the conflicts, and the story for a book. It takes me about three months of research, planning, and outlining to get a book ready to write – and then another three months to write it. Like Truman Capote joked: “Writing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.”
4. What is a typical writing day like for you?
Like most authors, I’ve experimented with a variety of methods for managing my writing time. The most important tip to any potential author I can offer is to view your writing as a profession. That means you must structure and lay aside a set amount of hours in every week for your work. Early on, I decided that if I was going to be successful I’d have to at least give 20 hours of work time a week to my writing, viewing it—at the least—as a committed part-time job. Since I still hold other professional work responsibilities as a faculty member at Tusculum College and a part-time Educational Coordinator for Huntington Learning Center … I knew I’d have to be disciplined to make this work.
After trying out several writing schedules, I found that five hours a day on four days a week worked best for me. With my teaching schedule and other commitments, it didn’t work well for me to write every day. I work better in longer blocks. In my monthly calendar book, I pencil in my work hours and if I don’t fulfill them as planned, I have to reschedule them to another day. Writing down my hours helps me be accountable to my writing time, and usually, on those days when I write, I fill many more hours than five.
One thing I can tell you from experience is that when life and events intervene and get me off schedule for too many days at a time—the flow of the work is impeded. I lose touch with the characters and the story and have to work harder to “get back into the story” when I return to the writing.
5. Your current book, For Six Good Reasons, is the third in your Smoky Mountain Series. I find it amazing that you have twelve planned and even more amazing that you already have titles for all of them. Obviously you have some idea what each book will be about, but do you also have outlines for each one?
In answer, I never had opportunity to meet many writers before I got published … but since I have, all of them seem to find it unusual that multiple books float around in my head at once. It doesn’t seem odd to me that I have twelve stories and titles in my head—although it does to everyone else! I’ve decided it’s because I’m a multi-tasker, used to shuffling several work roles at once around all my other life responsibilities.
When the original idea for the Smoky Mountain books came to me, I was on the road doing marketing with Huntington … calling on school principals in a rural area not far from the base of the mountains. The ideas for the books—several ideas one after the other—just floated into my mind. By the time I got home at the end of the day I was ready to start writing them down and fleshing them out. Even after I began to write the first novel, more book ideas kept popping into mind. But after the twelfth no further Smoky Mountain books came to me, so I guess twelve will be the final number in this series. (However, other book ideas are creeping into my mind now, with other settings!…)
And, yes, Caitlyn … for each of the twelve books in the Smoky Mountain series, I already know who the main characters are, where the main setting will be, and what the main story will be about. I keep manila folders on all my books … and when ideas about any of them float into my thoughts, I write down those ideas and add them to my folders. Because I also see my characters and settings so visually in my mind, I clip out magazine photos or media pictures to represent all my story characters, along with pictures of houses and scenes that will be a part of my books. These I stuff in my folders, too. In addition, I create detailed character sketches, maps, and house plans for my books and do extensive research for my settings and scenes. By the time I’m ready to start a book, I already have a lot of material accumulated. I usually have a rough outline of the storyline and conflicts for each book, which after planning and more research, I expand to a detailed chapter-to-chapter outline before I begin to write a book. I am definitely a “planner” and not a “pantster” in my writing style.
6. How would you describe your writing: character driven or plot driven?
My writing is a strong mix of both. While character driven novels focus on the growth and change of the characters and plot driven novels tend to depend on actions and ongoing drama … a lack of either one can make a book lackluster and unmemorable. After reading a great book, I believe the reader has a warm remembrance of both the characters and the plot. For example, the plots in Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt novels, set in regency England, employ masterful plots and subplots but at the same time the main characters, Charlotte and Thomas—along with many of the charming secondary characters—linger in the mind. In the same way, Nora Roberts made the fiery Irish characters in her Irish Trilogy vibrate with lively personality while her story plots, set in the Irish village of Ardmore, enchanted her readers with equal action and conflict. One aspect without the other makes for a weak story, soon forgotten.
In all my books, I work hard to create both memorable main characters and enjoyable side characters, woven into a plot rich with conflicts and sub-conflicts, to keep my readers guessing about the exact outcome until the end. One of my Texas readers wrote: “Your characters quickly became real people for me and you kept me guessing about what would happen next with them.” That is exactly what I want to hear!
I want my readers to get so involved in my characters, as I do, that every character feels real and that the reader almost forgets the characters are purely fictitious. I also want the story and conflicts to be so compelling that readers get caught up in the drama and action and hate for the story to end. One fan said: “Your book had my attention from the beginning and kept it all the way through. When Scott found Sarah in the tree [in the Foster Girls], it actually made me cry! Now that is a great author! Those are the best books! The ones where you can get caught up in the story and see and feel the [characters and] imagery in the story.” A California reader finished her letter with these words: “I love the way you make a person feel they are living the part of the characters.”
7. Authors must promote. Tell us a little bit about how you promote and what has worked best for you.
I have to humorously admit I had no idea an author needed to actively promote their work and help build their readership after publication. Naively, I thought I’d be like John Boy Walton … that I’d write my book and sit back on the farm to write more while someone else did all the promotional aspects. The reality that I’d become my own book publicist, set all my book signings, and do most of my book marketing has been my biggest writing surprise!
Today, all writers must help to promote and publicize their books. Unless they begin their career as a well-known celebrity like Mike Huckabee (or have a publicity budget like Mike Huckabee’s), they will be expected by their publisher—small, regional, or large—to promote their book. Few publishers want to spend money on an author who doesn’t want to work to help their book become a success.
A first important step for all new authors is to establish a good website. Through this they can connect with their public and keep them informed of their signing events and speaking engagements. (You can see mine at: http://www.linstepp.com)
For me, the first steps in promoting were getting out on the road, meeting-and-greeting and shaking hands with booksellers and librarians. I told them about my books, encouraged them to carry my work, dropped off materials, and offered to do book-signings if they became a venue for my publications.
I also developed marketing media to accompany my visits and calls, beyond those my publisher provided to me, which I could give out in print or email. When I set a signing event, I went to work several weeks prior to that event promoting it—calling newspapers, area book clubs, libraries, and any other organizations I could think of. I created author presentations I could give to civic groups, libraries, and book clubs and marketed my availability. To enhance my image at any event, I created unique Smoky-flavored signage, bookmarks, business cards, and table decorations.
An old saying says: You learn by doing, and I gained most of my best promotional skills by trial and error. One tip I learned quickly is be friendly, positive, and grateful. Show up early for your book signings and stay late, speak to everyone in the store staff, greet store customers as they come in, smile and be gracious, and think of yourself as an employee of the store at every book signing.
In promoting your work as an author you can do a little, with a lot of whining and excuses, or you can do a lot. However, I believe, if you will give your best with a good attitude that you’ll see that the best comes back to you over time.
8. What is the single most satisfying aspect of writing for you?
Absolutely the joy of creating my own worlds and the joy of sharing them. I wrote what I most loved to read when I started my Smoky Mountain novels … and the single most satisfying aspect beyond that has been in learning how much readers love my work, too. I’ll never forget the thrill I got when I opened a random email to find my first fan letter. I’m still humbled and awed to think a reader would go to my website, search through it to find the contact page, and then take time to write me a note or letter about how much they love my books. How can anything be more satisfying and rewarding than that?
Also, tucked within all my novels are spiritual “seeds”, a few nuggets about how to grow and develop in one’s walk of faith. Never preachy, as one of my readers wrote, they are presented in a subtle, natural way through the lives of one or more characters. By genre, my books are not inspirational books from beginning to end but they do have aspects of faith within them. I love it when someone writes to tell me they’ve been impacted by the faith-development of a character or by an aspect of faith in one of my novels. In this way, I feel like my books are ministry tools.
9. Who or what has been the biggest influence in your writing career and why?
The hint for the answer to this question is in my response to the question above. I doubt I’d have started writing seriously at all if it hadn’t been through prayer and leading from the Lord. I actually had a writing vision, or epiphany, encouraging me to be an author when I was young. But the busyness of life kept me from responding to it fully until I came to my middle years of life. Perhaps that’s why one of my favorite sayings is: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”
In addition, I cannot give enough credit and thanks to my husband, J.L., for his constant encouragement and help to me as a writer. He is the first reader of all my books. And he was the first to rejoice with me as the books found publication. J.L.’s skills as a publisher of regional fishing and hunting guide magazines came in very handy as multitudes of fliers, business cards, and bookmarks needed to be created. He and I designed the concept for my book covers … and he was the first to whoop and holler when we received an endorsement from Dolly Parton on her distinctive butterfly stationery and when we received a letter from Jim Gray’s studio saying they loved my books and would be delighted to have Jim’s beautiful paintings on every cover.
J.L. helps me in marketing and promoting my books and travels with me enthusiastically to book signings, events, and festivals whenever he can around his own work schedule. When I am lost in writing and the dinner hour slips by, he goes into the kitchen and fixes dinner. He’s the best.
10. What part of the craft of writing has improved most since your first book?
In a word, editing. I think few novice, first-time writers know how to self-edit their books with skill. Even as a professor, who has graded papers for over 12 years, taught a research class, and guided students through the preparation of theses, I still had limited knowledge of the expectations of a book publisher. For every type of writing and print venue, there are rules and expectations, and I have really grown in knowing what these are in the fictional, romance area. I offer tremendous praise and thanks to the patience of my wonderful editor, Sandy Horton, for her artful and diplomatic methods of helping me to strengthen every one of my works, and in her words ‘for making my books sing’.
Now I automatically hear Sandy’s instructions in my ear as I write, so that my books continually grow stronger and need less editing. I can also better self-edit my books before submission.
In any art or craft, you strengthen with doing … and I know my writing continues to improve with each book.
11. I know you’re a Southerner, born and bred, as they say around here, and I’m familiar with where you live since I grew up in the area, but can you share a little bit with our readers about the place you call home?
I grew up in South Knoxville, Tennessee, toward the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. My home was in a rural suburban area of town where I could easily take off on foot to be in the country in a few minutes—to climb up the twisty paths to the top of Brown’s Mountain, to swing off old grapevines along the local railroad tracks, to explore through the woods or lie in a field of wildflowers and dream. Half tomboy and half girly-girl, I played horses, roamed through the fields, and read Hardy Boy books but still found time to play dolls, build an extensive dollhouse in my brother’s and my playhouse, create paperdolls, and read all the Anne of Green Gables novels.
It was a gentler time when I grew up and I know that time shaped me. Children had so much more freedom then. Even in elementary school, I rode the city bus downtown with my young friends without adult supervision, went to the movies, to shop, and to eat lunch before we returned home. I walked or rode my bicycle all over our neighborhood and roamed the fields and woods. Entertainments were simpler—picnics, wading in the creek, badminton in the back yard, making flower chains with wildflowers. Sunday afternoons were usually spent with relatives, listening to the tales and stories of the old folks. In the summer months, Mother and Daddy were too busy in the yard or garden to run us around to entertainments. Instead, we created our own fun and created our dramas and games. I’m still doing so.
12. I have to believe from your books and your bio on your website that family is a very important part of your life. Can you tell us a little bit about yours, including any pets you may have?
My father was an engineer, a solid, stable man, and a mister fix-it. My mother was a home-economics teacher who brought all those skills home full-time when the children came. She sewed, cooked, gardened, put up food, and did all of it artfully. My brother was eight years my senior so my play was mostly with my neighborhood and school friends. I count myself blessed to have grown up in a loving family in a warm, congenial neighborhood. I still have friends I’ve known since school days and we’re still close.
In high school, my father was transferred to Arkansas. We moved to Little Rock, but I didn’t like it there. I swore I’d come back to Tennessee to college and marry a Tennessee boy and stay here. I did. J.L. and I have been married over 30 years. Our two children are gone and live too far away to see often. Max is a high school art teacher in New Orleans, and Kate is a media librarian in Hope Mills, North Carolina, below Fayetteville. I envisioned them married and living nearby by this time, with several grandchildren for us to enjoy. Instead, they are happy career-oriented individuals.
I have always had cats. A favorite story in my family is about the kitten that showed up at our house when I was a baby. While my brother searched for its possible owners in the neighborhood, the kitten found my crib, curled up with me, settled in, and never left. Mother said it was a sign. I’ve had—or attracted—cats ever since. J.L. and I currently have two—Tucker, a tuxedo, and Sophie, a tortoise shell. My husband, J.L., who prior to our marriage didn’t think he cared much for cats, has now become a converted cat lover. Perhaps too much so. I think he is the softie with the cats as he was with the kids.
My cats are great fans of my writing, loving to watch me on the computer or sleep on top of my papers. One of the best things about cats is that you can take off for the weekend, set up access to the outdoors, leave food, and know they will be fine until you get back. Cats are independent, like I am, and we have always suited each other. Too bad they can’t read and buy books!
To find out more about Lin and her books, visit her website at www.linstepp.com