Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Into the Free and Giveaway with Julie Cantrell- Leave a comment below to enter!

"A long black train scrapes across Mr. Sutton's fields."

This is one of those unforgettable first lines that pulls a reader into another world. These ominous words begin Julie Cantrell's debut novel Into the Free, which has rocketed to both the New York Times and the USA TODAY bestseller lists.  This lush story is set in Depression-era Mississippi, and is told from the viewpoint of ten-year-old Millie Reynolds at first, then skips ahead to sixteen-year-old Millie. Here's a quick synopsis:
Millie Reynolds knows firsthand the shame of family secrets. With an abusive father and a “nothing mama,” she craves a place of true belonging. Over time, the gypsies that travel through town each spring offer acceptance. Then tragedy strikes and Millie leaves her world of poverty to join a prominent family on the other side of town. There, with the help of unlikely sources, Millie uncovers painful truths about her family’s past as she struggles to face a God she believes has abandoned her. When unconditional love is offered, Millie learns the power of forgiveness and finally discovers where she belongs.

So with that summary, I must tell you there is much, much more to the story. This was truly a book that I read late into the night. Millie is a character who endures a lot of heartbreak in her life, as well as some happier times, and I was along for the journey with her. Every character she encounters has some impact on her life, and they were all amazingly real. I felt I knew pieces of each one. 
The author, Julie Cantrell, has quickly become a huge inspiration to me. I am so honored that she would answer my questions and take time to meet my readers. 

Welcome, Julie, to A Story Club! 

Was there one incident that sparked the idea for this book?

Yes. When my family moved to Mississippi from Colorado eight years ago, I discovered a tiny blurb about Kelly Mitchell, the “Queen of the Gypsies” whose gravesite was located in Meridian, MS. I was fascinated by this and began researching the history of the Romany Travelers across the southeastern US. The story emerged from that idea, but the Travelers are now a small thread within an entire fictional world where my main character, Millie Reynolds, shares her life with us.

How did you discover Millie's "voice?"

I honestly have to say, Millie just spoke to me. I have always had a big imagination, and working with young children enables me to tap into that pretend world. I simply gave in to the power of fiction and let Millie tell me her tale.

There were so many aspects to research for this book. Did you do this before you sat down to write, or as you wrote along?

I had done a little research before, and I thought I was going to write about the Travelers. However, that’s not the story that came to me when I started to write. So, I just let the story unfold organically, without editing or researching or worrying one bit about any of the formalities that limit creativity. I had no plans to ever show anyone the book, so I was completely free to pretend. It was a joyful experience. One I will always treasure.

After that original draft was complete, I conducted extensive research to fill in the historical details and make sure the story was authentic to the setting. That was equally fun for me, because I love to learn new things and I certainly learned a lot by writing about the early American Rodeo, the Romany Travelers, the 1920s-30s, and the role of religion in the Depression-era South.

I completely loved how you wove in the theme of "why does God seem to let bad things happen?" I think so many people also ask this question. At what point did you know this would be a major message in the novel?

The ironic thing is that I didn’t write the book with any specific moral message in mind. I just told Millie’s story as she wanted it to be told, and in the end, she left me with a beautiful, inspirational message of survival and faith. That’s when I realized this book was never mine to keep. I took a deep breath and dared to show my agent, Greg Johnson (WordServe Literary). The rest has been an incredible journey.

Whose story surprised you the most as you were writing?

Everything about this story was a surprise to me. I did not outline, and I had no idea what any of the characters were going to do until they did it. So, in the parts that make you cry, I cried. And in the parts that make you laugh, I laughed. And in the parts where you want to shake Millie and tell her to wake up and make a better decision, I definitely did that too. But I resisted my personal desires to control her character. Instead, I let Millie be Millie, and in the end, I loved her so much I wanted to share her with others. I’m glad readers seem to love her too.

What do you like to do when you are NOT writing?

My life is insanely hectic. First, and top priority for me, is my family. I am lucky to have married my best friend from childhood. We have two amazing children who are both very active. We operate a sustainable farm, which means we raise our own eggs, milk, veggies, fruit, and meat. We also board horses and welcome a ton of pets who enjoy calling this place home. We also have a very busy house, full of friends nearly 24/7 because we are loud and we love to laugh, we always have something to feed everyone, and we have a slight obsession with games, especially Just Dance on the Xbox. I am old and fat and look ridiculously pathetic trying to keep up with the younger, hipper dancers, but I do try. This makes for insanely cruel video footage that will someday be used to blackmail me, I’m afraid.

On top of that, I also am a speech-language pathologist and I teach English as a Second Language to elementary students. Plus, I am an active volunteer in our community where I am particularly devoted to our local Literacy Council.

I love writing, and I will always write, but it has not become the main focus of my life. It’s just one small part of who I am, and something I tend to do in the dark, quiet hours when no one is watching. I guess you could say, it’s my dirty little secret.

What is your advice for aspiring authors?

Go for it! I assure you, if I can do it, anyone can.

Here’s the thing. I never took a single writing class. I have no clue what I’m doing, and I’m probably breaking all the rules without even being aware I am doing so. I was told by my high school English teacher that I’d never succeed at writing, and a bestselling author refused to endorse Into the Free, warning me instead that readers would throw it across the room and that it would never sell.    (Christina here: Gasp! What! They must have been insane!)

I don’t know how Into the Free ended up with a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and a place on both the New York Times and USA TODAY Bestsellers lists, but I sure do count my blessings daily and thank God for allowing me to share Millie’s story with readers everywhere. I’ll say again, this story was never about me, and the power of this entire journey has been the reaction from readers who tell me every single day how much this book has inspired them, renewed their faith, or helped them heal old wounds.

Have I learned a lot through this process? Absolutely. Do I feel better prepared to write the sequel? Yes, I think so. Would I do it all again? Without a doubt. And I sure hope anyone out there with a story to tell will do the same.

But ultimately, my big advice is this: Write because you love to write. Write because it’s the way you process the world around you. Write because it makes you happy, and because you’d rather spend your time writing than almost anything else. Write because it’s part of who you are, and how you think, and who you are meant to be. Write because you write for YOU, not for anyone else. Not for fame, or money, or awards, or recognition. Not even for publication. Write because without it, you are less of yourself than God intended you to be. Write. Simply write. And let the words fall where they may.

Thank you, Julie! I get chills every time I read this last paragraph. I am so glad to have met you and hosted you here. Come again when the sequel is out!

Readers, leave a comment, and you'll be entered into a random drawing for a SIGNED COPY of INTO THE FREE! Also, if you go like Julie Cantrell on Facebook, she is having an incredible giveaway opportunity right now. If you don't win a book here, there are more chances on her Facebook page! You can also find out more about Julie at her website. Thanks for visiting A Story Club! (Drawing on 6/30 for US/Canada only).
Winners: Lisa P. and Kyla H. both win copies of Into the Free. Thanks for participating!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Name a Character Contest with Lisa Potocar

Do you often wonder how authors come up with the names for their characters? Sometimes readers get the opportunity to help name characters, and Lisa Potocar is giving away a chance to do this! Take it away, Lisa!

Contest Time! I’m giving away a signed copy of Sweet Glory and a mention in my “Acknowledgments” for the sequel to Sweet Glory to the person who comes up with the best name for one of the characters in Sweet Glory’s sequel. Without giving too much away, the character is a wealthy but shady business man with an ax to grind. NOTE: His name should be in keeping with the time period for the sequel, which picks up where Sweet Glory left off. To get an idea of the time period, read a description of Sweet Glory’s storyline at my Amazon author page or find out more HERE at A Story Club.

1. E-mail your answers to: or post them on my Facebook page! You can now enter more than one name!
2. I’ll choose the winner, unless there's more than one good name, in which case, I’ll ask all followers of my FB Page to vote for the best.
3. If at the end of the 2 weeks, no name that I feel really passionate about using results, I’ll extend the contest for another two weeks. Otherwise, the winner will be announced on Monday, July 2, 2012.

READY? SET? GO! Stay up-to-date by following Lisa on FacebookGood luck to all!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Bride of the High Country & Giveaway with Kaki Warner

If it weren't for award-winning author Kaki Warner, I wouldn't be here.

Not here on this Earth, but here on this blog. Writing. Interviewing amazing people, and learning about how they wrote their books. Her books lit a spark in me, which started up a writing journey I had veered from a long time ago.
Kaki Warner has not only written some great books, she has also been an inspiring and encouraging force behind many writers. She's a friend to many, and is a hoot and a half on social media. She takes the time to get to know her readers, and really invests in them. I don't know how she balances everything she does, but she does it with style and grace.

Her take on historical romantic fiction has drawn in numerous adoring readers, some of whom have actually become addicted and think the characters are real (Michelle has dibs on Brady). These female readers just can't seem to get enough and will go to any lengths to get their hands on her books. She has fans as far away as England and as close as her backyard. That's assuming her hound dog reads her books. By the way, I checked all these statistics against Facebook and they are correct.

Bride of the High Country, the third in the "Runaway Brides" trilogy, just launched on June 5, the same day as the spectacular Venus Transit. I think she planned it that way. (Read my review of BOTHC). If readers are new to Kaki's stories, a good place to start would be Heartbreak Creek (the first in this trilogy) or Pieces of Sky. POS was her first book published, and it has one of the best openings of any book I've read. Plus, there's Brady. If you think these phrases are funny: "Her chins quivered in outrage" and "sputter of intestinal wind" you should definitely check it out. Not only do her characters get into some tense situations, they also have some incredibly romantic moments. By tense, I mean that they hit every possible obstacle along the way to their destination. Kaki makes sure it happens that way, although she claims that her characters are just telling their story.

So now, friends, I am honored and beyond excited to interview Kaki here at A Story Club. So grab a glass of iced tea, settle back, and prepare to be happier'n a tick on a fat dog. (That's Texan for happy- just for you, Kaki).

Hey, Christina! Thanks so much for inviting me here today. It’s always fun to pimp my books and meet new folks. I appreciate the opportunity to talk to your readers.

I have heard you mention that it took a long time for you to publish your first book. What is your story behind this?

I started PIECES OF SKY over 25 years ago. After reading a crummy book, I decided if they wanted crummy, I could do that. So I did. In fact, it was so crummy, I didn’t want to put my name on it. So I re-wrote it…over and over, off and on for the next quarter century. Then when my husband and I retired and moved to our mountain cabin, I got inspired again. After that re-write, I sent it out. Three months later I gained my lovely agent (Nancy Coffey) and discerning editor (Wendy McCurdy), and was a writer for Berkley/US Penguin group. I’ve hardly taken a breath since.

What changed after you became a published author?

Not much. Except now I’m on deadline, and complete strangers write me the most wonderful and supportive emails. The contacts I’ve made over the last few years are the second best part of being published. The first best is holding in your hands that first finished copy of the book you slaved over. You can’t beat that feeling.

What made you choose the genre of historical fiction?

Photo by K.W.
Familiarity…with both the geography and mindset of the people. Westerners have always been tough, individualistic, self-sufficient people. They lived by “codes” (a la Zane Grey in CODE OF THE WEST) rather than laws. They were pragmatic, courageous, and tough as whang leather. I grew up on the myth of the cowboy, and as a horse owner, have ridden many a trail that John Wayne would have loved. The West is an inspiring place, even now. As for the “romance” genre, my editor decided to put me there, even though my books contain no graphic sex scenes. Since most book buyers are women, and most of those buy romance books, it’s a sound marketing strategy. But I still think of myself as more of a storyteller than a romance writer.

Aspiring writers are interested-- what is your writing routine?

Photo by K.W.
Again, I’m lucky because I’m retired and can write when I want to. I admire authors who struggle to follow their dream by stealing an hour here and there away from work and family demands. I’m also lucky that my husband is so supportive and has taken over the cooking chores so I can stay at the computer for up to 12 hours a day. (If I could only get him to do the housekeeping and gardening chores, it would be perfect.)  As for my routine:  I’m usually at the computer by 7 AM and off by 9 PM, with several bathroom and food breaks in between. It’s a hard schedule, but nobody said writing was easy. I try to work in a walk here and there, but my knees are shot, so until I have them replaced, that’s an ordeal. But I’ll persevere because I’m a Westerner, too, and that’s what we do.  Mostly.

How long does it take you to write a book, start to finish?

As I said earlier, the first one took twenty-five years, off and on. The second one three months. But the rest have run from six to eight months each. My current contract gives me eight months per book. It’s the research that slows me down. I don’t know how some authors can turn out four books a year. They must have great assistants or ghost writers. 

Once your book is written, what is your editing process?

Photo by K.W.
I edit as I go, since I can’t stand leaving a mess behind me. I try for twenty polished pages a week. I also read every word aloud to find redundancies, dropped words, and to keep the dialogue and action sequences tight. I highly recommend it to any aspiring writer—and yeah, you might feel stupid, but it works. Plus, the dog likes it. Every hundred pages or so, I go back and read it in a block to check for continuity and to be sure all the info is in there. Then about that time, the characters decide to throw in some back story they hadn’t bothered to mention earlier (like Declan being afraid of heights, or Ash being dyslexic) and I’ll have to go back and add the groundwork for that.    

We all have our favorites; who is your favorite character in your books?

Every one of them for a variety of reasons. I love Brady because he’s such a doofus, but thinks he has all the answers. I admire Hank’s brilliant and inventive mind, and Jack’s adventuresome spirit. Declan is such a sweetie, and so bound by a code of honor he makes it even harder on himself, and Ash is such a guy…even though he’s faced some ordeals, there’s a part of him that will always be that playful boy. And then there’s Tait…how can you not love a man that smart, that compassionate, and who has such integrity? The fact that he dresses well and has such nice manners helps, too. As for the women, I love every one of them, too…and see a bit of myself and my friends in each of them. But then I expect more from the women, because I know what they’re capable of. I admire them all.  

What has been the most exciting or surprising thing you have researched?

I come across interesting facts all the time. The most recent is that in grizzly country, trappers would leave nails poking out of their shutters so the bears wouldn’t push their windows in. And I had no idea condoms were invented in the 1850s by Charles Goodyear, or that they had multi-storied “horse hotels” in urban areas (which made the spread of equine influenza that much easier), or that twenty-five million horses died in three weeks when the Great Epizootic of 1872 swept the country. And then there were the awful traders who sold Indians blankets infected with small pox just to wipe out entire villages, and the Galveston hurricane of 1900 that killed thousands—and with no way to dispose of the bodies, they were dumped out at sea, only to have the tide bring them back. Good stuff and bad stuff. It’s fun trying to put some of each into every book.
Do you have plans for a new series? What can we expect next?

I just signed a contract with Berkley for three more books set in Heartbreak Creek.  Even though the previous characters will weave in and out of each story, there will be a new set of characters and a new romance in each book. Besides, the town still has to be saved, the water and railroad issues settled, Ed can’t stay pregnant forever, and Thomas and Pru have a long road ahead of them. Hopefully, I’ll be able to blend the old with the new as the family at Heartbreak Creek grows.

Have you always been this funny?

I don’t know how funny I am, but I have an irrelevant, irreverent, goofy sense of humor. And admittedly, on road trips with my lady friends, I strive to make at least one of them suffer bladder malfunction or shoot coffee out their nose. I’m a blast at funerals, too. The problem is, it’s really hard for me to take things seriously (which is probably evident in my “love scenes” as you’ll see in the condom episode in Lucinda’s story). Come on, admit it. It’s all kinda funny. 

. . .And when you are not writing?

Travel.  Visit my grandkids.  Sleep.  Watch historical movies (BBC is a favorite).  Garden when I have time.  Walk when I can.  Listen to music.  Think up things for my husband to do.  The usual.
K.W.'s Garden in full bloom

You are so supportive and encouraging to so many. Who encouraged you along the way?

A lot of people. But writing is a lonely business, and in the end, the writer has to do it on his/her own. I’m blessed with dear friends and a supportive family who keep me going when I feel discouraged or burned out. And one special lady, who died several years ago before I was published, always believed. She’s in the dedication of my first book—poor thanks for all the encouragement she gave me. But probably
the most encouraging are the readers who write to me. I doubt any of them know how much it means to an author to hear from satisfied readers. 

What is your advice for new writers?

Never give up. Love your characters, or no one else will. For every action there’s a reaction. People behave the way they do because it works—if you want them to change, show how that past behavior no longer works. Always stay true to the point of view of the gender you’re writing in. (Men speak in shorter sentences, avoid emotional words, are more direct in their confrontations, are less likely to notice a woman’s lovely sheath and stylish pumps, than the fact that she looks hot.) Passive voice distances the reader from your characters, so avoid it. Don’t over-use foreshadowing. Action sequences should be short, fragmented, devoid of adverbs or “ing” words. Cut extraneous chit-chat. If a scene doesn’t move the story forward or provide insights into the character, cut it. Great characters aren’t perfect, but they strive to be better. Join a critique group—then throw out half of what you hear. Honor your readers—they spent time and money reading what you wrote—they deserve your best. But mostly, if you love your story, NEVER give up.
So now I have a question for your readers:  What keeps you going when the road ahead seems daunting?  Do you get your energy from those around you, or dig deeper into yourself? 

Congrats to Fedora Chen, our randomly drawn winner!

To read excerpts of any of Kaki's books, stop by You can also find her author page on Facebook- Stay up-to-date on more chances to win! Thanks so much for coming by A Story Club, and to Kaki for answering all my questions! 
What keeps you going when the road ahead seems daunting?  Do you get your energy from those around you, or dig deeper into yourself? 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Redheads, Unite!

See, I just started this 15-Day Writing Challenge led by the amazing Jeff Goins. Day 2: Get up two hours early and then write about something you've been afraid to write. Doesn't sound like any kind of fun challenge I'd want to do. But then again, he's trying to make me ACT like a writer because after all, I am a Writer. (Declaration was Day 1).
Incidentally, I sort of suggested to my  husband that maybe we could do a 15-Day Love Challenge. He asked what that was, and I said I didn't really know, but maybe it would involve love notes. He gently pushed me back toward my computer, and said, "Why don't you go back to your writing?" He gets scared sometimes of my brain, I think.

We had a Diversity Training for work yesterday (nothing like The Office), and while the speaker was giving us some things to think about, I had a memory from childhood that popped up. Actually, it reared its ugly head and I was surprised by the thought of it. Now, I realize that there are far more serious disadvantages in life, and that some people have had terrible experiences because of those disadvantages. But I had an issue that kept me "different" in a time when no one wanted to be different: I was a redhead.

My hair was red, but it was not frizzy or orange, and for that I could be thankful. But I was conscious of it every day. Not only was I a redhead, but I was shy (until I was around my closest friends) and I was smart. I had a few freckles, but at least I wasn't covered in them, which would have made things worse. Of course, today I think they're beautiful, but I'll get to that in a minute. I had no role models to look up to, and the only redhead that my peers knew was Orphan Annie. Annie's cute and all, but with her red, frizzy hair and spunkiness, she just wasn't someone I aspired to be. 

You may have noticed my "forever heroine" picture on the right. My mom introduced me to the book "Anne of Green Gables," and maybe things turned around for me at that point. Just a little. Anne was of course, another orphan, but she had a different path. She was brought into a family who wanted a boy, but by mistake, came home with Anne. She used all her negotiating skills to make them keep her. Anne was brave, she was smart, she was talkative, she was pretty, she was funny, she was lovable, she was a good friend, and she was PROUD to be a redhead. When Gilbert, later the love of her life, called her "Carrots" in school, she broke a slate over his head. Who hasn't wished they could do that to someone?
Orphan Annie today- Aileen Quinn

Things all changed in Junior High. Suddenly, without reason, people wanted to be redheads. They were dying their hair. It was cool to be me. Actually, it was cool to be different because this was a time when we were trying to form some identities that didn't match the next person. I changed, and the world around me changed. It's almost impossible to even believe I felt that way today, when I look around and see all the diversity. That's why I was surprised to have those feelings creep up on me. Today, my hair is not as red, and I have added some highlights. Some people don't even think of me as a redhead, which is weird. I wish they would.  It's who I am.