What’s a cat food factory got to do with it? On research and novel writing and a sample of How Sweet the Sound

I must’ve switched majors at least twenty times when I was in college.

I wish I was exaggerating for my poor parents’ sake, but I just couldn’t settle on one subject.

I liked them all.

Politics and history, literature and poetry, pre-med and genetics and microbiology and plant biology and even organic chemistry. (Except math. I hated math.)

Eventually, I finished (!) with a bachelors in nursing (which I also love to this day). And while at the time all that major switching felt confusing and uncertain and even dizzying to my roommates and family (for the love, Amy, just PICK something!!!), now that I’m a novelist, I know why I had such a hard time settling in to one subject of study.

For every page of a book of mine you read, you can be sure there are at least ten pages of research behind it.

And I love every second of the research I do for my novels.

In fact, research might be my favorite part of novel writing. Take How Sweet the Sound. It’s set in 1979 and 1980. In one scene, the protagonist, Anni, is at the beauty parlor flipping through a Seventeen magazine. I had to research who was on the cover of Seventeen that month. That led me to eBay and vintage magazine web sites.

Moreover, the entire book is set on a pecan orchard, which I had no clue about except for driving past them on the highway on the way to the Alabama gulf coast. I bought books on pecan cultivation, watched YouTube videos on pecan harvesting, scoured agricultural websites and read tens of copies of newsletters published online by pecan growers all across the South.

I researched cars of that era, top ten song lists, foods, clothing, hair styles, cotillion rules, square dancing, the biology and weather patterns of Mobile Bay, plants of the region, birds, dialect, the history of the Freedom Riders, and so much more.

My second novel, Then Sings My Soul coming March 1, 2015, takes place partially in Ukraine before the Russian Revolution, and partially in 1990’s South Haven, Michigan. I won’t even begin to tell you how much research that one took!

As another example of novel research and a special treat, I thought I’d share the first few paragraphs of How Sweet the Sound with you, and in particular, I want you to notice the mention of the cat food factory. It was a real place, and it really did provide ice to folks back when Hurricane Frederic hit the area. You can click here to read the website from which I gleaned this information: Remembering Hurricane Frederic : The Alabama Weather Blog. (Make sure you read Tom’s comments on that page.)

So see, for those of you who suspected I was a great big nerd, now you know for sure!

*****

How Sweet the Sound

CHAPTER 1

I thought I’d lived through everything by the time I was thirteen. Hurricane Frederic nearly wiped the southern part of Alabama off the map that fall, and half of our family’s pecan orchards along with it. Daddy said we were lucky—that the Miller pecan farm down the road lost everything. The Puss ’n Boots Cat Food factory supplied our whole town of Bay Spring with ice and water for nearly a week until the power and phones came back on along the coast of Mobile Bay. Anyone who could hold a hammer or start up a chain saw spent weeks cutting up all the uprooted trees and azaleas, pounding down new shingles, and cleaning up all that God, in His infinite fury, blew through our land. Like most folks who lived along the coast, we’d find a way to build back up—if we weren’t fooled into thinking the passing calm of the eye meant the storm was over.

If I’d only known this about Hurricane Frederic—that the drudging months leading up to Thanksgiving would be the only peace we’d see for some time. Weren’t no weathermen or prophets with megaphones standing on top of the Piggly Wiggly Saturday mornings to shout warnings of storms and second comings to us.

The only warning was the twitch of my grandmother’s eye…

*****

Want to read more of How Sweet the Sound? Visit your local, independent book seller, or click one of the retailers on the sidebar here to get yourself a copy. I’d be much obliged. And besides that, you never know what else you might learn from all the research embedded in this little tale!

 *****

P.S. Here’s a really old Puss ‘n Boots cat food commercial:

COVER REVEAL!!! Then Sings My Soul, my sophomore novel!

I’m BEYOND excited to share with you the cover of my second novel (coming March 1, 2015 from David C. Cook), Then Sings My Soul! In the coming weeks I’ll share more information about the history and inspiration behind this story.

But there’s one amazing thing I want to share with you about the cover today.

See the beautiful image of the stone? My paternal grandfather was a truly savant hobby lapidarist, meaning he cut and polished rocks and minerals…

… including the one you see below.

Yep. It’s something that the designers tell me rarely–if ever happen–in book designs, using something the author has on the cover.

The incredible Cook designers came up with the cover draft, but they didn’t know where they were going to find an accurate and usable image of a blue stone (which is part of a bit of a mystery subplot in the book). I happened to be looking through my grandfather’s stones, and the very week the designers showed me this, I found this stone in his collection! This was one of his favorite designs, and if you’ll notice, the crown is shaped like the Star of David.

Though this is not a story of my paternal ancestors, the plot was heavily influenced by their trek from Ukraine to America at the turn of the century. In the process of researching their journey, I discovered they were Jewish immigrants! They did not practice their faith once in America, but they were Ashkenazi Jews, just the same, a fact I find extremely moving and humbling.

So, enjoy this cover and stay tuned as the release date nears for details. In the meantime, here’s a synopsis about the story.

*****

His Memory is Being Stolen…But God Never Forgets.

With her father succumbing to dementia, Nel has little time to discover the decades-old secrets from his past that could forever alter both of their futures.

When Nel Stewart returns home due to the sudden death of her mother, she realizes her beloved father, Jakob is struggling with the loss of his memory.

With the reappearance of an old high-school sweetheart, deliveries from Ukraine, and the mysterious discovery of a vintage aquamarine gemstone, Nel senses God pulling her into the past to restore her and her father’s futures before it’s too late.

Told partially through Jakob’s flashbacks of fleeing the Jewish genocides of eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century, this novel reveals how even when mankind strips humans from their homeland and attempts to erase their faith – God will never leave his people.

 

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Peace and plenty are not the rule or the right

“. . . there in that pleasant corner of the world they plied their well-ordered business of living,
and they heeded less and less the world outside where dark things moved,
until they came to think that peace and plenty were the rule in Middle-earth
and the right of all sensible folk.
They forgot or ignored what little they had ever known of the Guardians,
and of the labourers of those that made possible the long peace of the Shire.
They were, in fact,
sheltered,
but they had ceased to remember it.”

The Fellowship of the Ring
J.R.R. Tolkien

*****

The times they are a-changin’.

So maybe that was the mantra forty years ago.

But it sure feels that way again today.

From the two police officers were shot and killed in the line of duty in Indiana yesterday, to the deserts overseas where our young men and women bled and died to keep peace but which are falling once again to terrorists, to our own backyards where choosing a craft store for my sons’ 4H project feels more like a political statement than…well…a trip to the craft store…

The times they are a-changin’.

And sometimes I don’t feel like I see any good.

That is, until I’m still.

And I listen.

And peace comes in a

whisper

in the eyes of my

smiling son

in the

braiding

of my 102-year-old patient’s long gray hair

in the thunder rolling across corn fields

green and thriving

in this long overdue damp, cool summer

in the

sun dappled

by the locust tree leaves pouring through my living room window in the evening

in the

whoops and hollers

of teenagers leaving by the bus full for Young Life Camp

Yes, the times they are a-changing.

Which means we just need to

look

for the good

fight

all the harder for the faith

and

drop to our knees

faster and than ever.

And the peace we find there–He promises it’s there–hunched and bent before the Lord will be all the sweeter.

 *****

But you, Timothy, man of God: Run for your life from all this. Pursue a righteous life—a life of wonder, faith, love, steadiness, courtesy. Run hard and fast in the faith. Seize the eternal life, the life you were called to, the life you so fervently embraced…

I Timothy 6:12 (TMV)

 *****

run