There are two answers to that question. First, I’m very fortunate because my publisher allows me to have books in more than one genre. Currently I have both romance and crime/mystery titles in print. Coming up soon, I hope to have several mainstream novels in print as well. The second answer is that my books are all about believable characters facing believable issues, forming believable relationships and rising up in inspiring, creative but believable ways.
How long do the ideas for your books take to develop?
Beside my bed I keep a spiral notebook that has the outlines for two dozen books in it. Whenever I get an idea for a book, I write down a tentative title (you call the baby something when it’s born, although in the long run it creates its own true name), the basic plot and the key characters. Over time I, as I brood about the stories, I’ll go back to my notebook and add more detail, alter the plot, rename the characters, etc. The stories continue to grow. In a way they “become ripe” over time—that is, I get to a point where I can’t help but start the actual writing process. Each ripens at its own pace. Caddo Creek, the sequel to Lacey Took a Holiday, chronologically takes place ninety years after the original story and was actually conceived after the “first sequel,” Lacey’s Child. I guess the bottom line to the question for me is that a story is a living thing: it develops within the author’s being and emerges when the time is right for it.
Who are the main characters of your stories? Do you have a favorite? Is part of yourself hidden in them?
All the characters in my stories are based at least in part on people I’ve known or encountered. I embellish or diminish aspects of them as suits the need of the narrative. In The Medicine People, Ben Whitekiller, the catalytic figure whose return to the little town where he is wanted for murder sets off an unstoppable chain of events, and Robert Vessey, the detective who hated and wanted to kill Whitekiller for decades, were actually both based upon the same person: my uncle Herb, an Oklahoma peace officer and Native American who wrestled throughout his life with his own demons. Lacey, the beautiful and feisty main character in Lacey Took a Holiday, was based upon a very spirited artist I knew many years ago. Andy Warren, Lacey’s antagonist and eventual love interest, was based upon a fellow I knew who was everything I’m not: tall, quiet, confident and patient. I have not yet written myself into a novel as a character. I’m not sure I’d give myself an even break. Because I try to breathe life into all of them, I can’t say that one is my favorite. I am partial to strong-willed, bright, determined female characters like Lacey, Deena in The Medicine People, Elaine in Come Home to Me Child and Corral in Caddo Creek. I like creating male characters who are independent and will go their own way, yet care enough about others to make sacrifices: Dan Hook and Johnny Whitekiller in The Medicine People, Andy Warren and Curly the saloonkeeper in Lacey Took a Holiday.
Do your books have “takeaways,” goals you intend your readers to grasp? How do you know when you’ve finished a novel?
The course of my life has exposed me to a lot of good and bad experiences, a lot of admirable and wicked people and a lot of wisdom and stupidity. I think, as we age, we discover many of the same truths in life, which is to say that a story can be true or it can be false: true in the sense that it resonates with what we learn as live; false in that the action, dialogue or development of the characters violates our sense of real life. For example, at the conclusion of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, which is a great romance novel that breaks a lot of the genre’s rules, the reader is confronted with a huge irony: Scarlett discovers she loves Rhett just as Rhett decides he won’t squander anymore time trying to win her love. As melodramatic as the setting is, it’s a “true story”. So I would say my goals for my stories are 1) to write truth stuff (all the characters are believable, engaging and worth caring about) and 2) to end at a point where the specific themes of the story are resolved, but the reader is left wondering what happened to the characters next. At the end of The Medicine People, one of the characters has been shot, one jailed for attempted murder, one exonerated, a secret love has been revealed and two passionate but completely unconventional love affairs have begun. I want the end to be satisfying, but also compelling. Years ago I wrote a fantasy novella. It’s still the first piece of my fiction that I still consider worthwhile. I sent it to my mother who read it at one setting, called me up and demanded that I write a sequel. “Ah,” I thought, “I have arrived!”
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
When I was a child of four or five, Wednesday nights were “dollar nights” at the Riverside Drive In: a whole car load of people could see the movie for a buck. My parents and sister would sit in the front seat and I’d sit in the back. Periodically during the show, I would say what the character on the screen was about to say. Eventually my parents got really tired of that and forbade it. But something took root in me even back then. As an elementary school child I would constantly start stories that ended up being only a page or two long — and made me feel like a failure. When I was in sixth grade I lay awake one night and created a story that involved every child in my homeroom class. With the blessing of Miss Roach (and, no, I did not make up that name), I laboriously wrote the story down — probably thirty-five or forty pages — and was given permission on the last day of school to read it to the class. With about five pages left (I was just about to be machine gunned by the villains, having recovered the money they stole from the bank), the principal came in and said that we were free to go to the playground or to stay inside. The students immediately bolted — not one even asking how the story ended. I decided then to write the sort of stories that people would not be able to put down . . . and I’m still working on that.