Sometimes the mere hint of a secret can spark an entire series of books—which happened for me when I began my Simple Gifts series! My editor and I knew we wanted to return to Willow Ridge, and we knew we wanted Nora Hooley and her Simple Gifts shop to be the focus of these stories, but it’s the undercurrent of “something fishy” that sets the stage for a major revelation—a major meltdown—that will change Willow Ridge forever. And it begins in A SIMPLE VOW.
This idea came to me when I was talking with my former assistant, Jim, who lived in Jamesport, MO where I do my research. Jim (who died of cancer last year) was English but he grew up with the Amish in Jamesport and they trusted him with information most of us can’t access. He told me about a “secret bank” Amish communities have—which is no secret to the Amish, of course, but only a few know where the money is kept. He didn’t give me a figure, but Jim said that since the Jamesport community began in 1952, a HUGE amount of money has accumulated. This is money that’s collected in church twice yearly as offering, along with large donations from members who prefer to keep their money in this fund rather than in a regular bank. This money is also the basis for the Amish Aid fund shared with folks who have major medical bills, burned-down houses, and other emergencies to pay for. The Amish don’t believe in insurance, so this is the fund they fall back on in tough times, taking care of their own.
“Does anybody ever dip into that fund without telling the bishop?” I asked Jim. “What would happen if a large portion of that money disappeared and nobody found out—until it was too late—that most of it was gone?”
Jim smiled at the way my mind worked. He told me that if that kind of thievery occurred, no one outside the colony would ever know—it would never make the papers, and the police or other investigators would never be called in, because the Amish don’t allow English outsiders to meddle in their church or financial matters.
My devious mind went into high gear. I’m not saying that such a deception has ever occurred in an Amish community . . . but it could, because human nature kicks in for even the most honorable, faithful members of any church. Under the right (or wrong) circumstances, even the best of us fall prey to temptation.
So when the Riehl family moves to Willow Ridge, we are immediately caught up in the drama when Edith agrees to care for the adorable six-month-old twins a grief-stricken Will Gingerich begs her to take. We meet her sisters, Loretta and Rosalyn, and we wonder if we can trust handsome Asa Detweiler, who has been accused of fathering those twins under dubious circumstances. The story starts at a wedding, where Ira Hooley is marrying Nora’s daughter, Millie, and it quickly spirals into a quest for the real father of those six-month-old twins—
But you’d better keep an eye on the girls’ father, Cornelius.
A funny thing often happens when you begin writing a new book: even though you had all the characters in your head and all the major story points plotted out, the ending can be quite a lot different than you’d originally pictured it. I love when that happens! And in the case of HARVEST OF BLESSINGS, the fifth book in my Seasons of the Heart series, Nora Glick Landwehr’s story becomes a turning point for the town of Willow Ridge—and a springboard for a new series!
Nora has a tough row to hoe. After sixteen years and a failed marriage to an Englisch man, she returns to Willow Ridge to reconcile with the family who cast her out when, at sixteen, she became pregnant out of wedlock. Almost out of spite, Nora left that baby on her brother’s doorstep and pursued the only life she believed she had open to her.
Well, it didn’t work out. Her handsome Englisch husband left her for “someone more interesting and sophisticated” but Nora was smart enough to press for a large, lucrative divorce settlement. So when she shows up in the Old Order Amish town she grew up in, she’s got a lot of black marks on her record . . . a lot of people to ask forgiveness of . . . a sixteen-year-old daughter who has no idea that Nora is her mother. It doesn’t help that she buys the biggest house in town—which immediately links her to Hiram Knepp, the deceptive excommunicated bishop—and that she shows up in a red sports car wearing short shorts and a sparkly blue ball cap.
I knew going in that Luke Hooley, Nora’s commit-a-phobe neighbor, was going to chase after her from the get-go. I did not expect Luke to evolve into Nora’s biggest supporter and best friend when it seemed that no one in her family would welcome her home. And while I also knew she was going to convert the big horse barn on her property into a consignment store for Plain crafts and gift items, I had no idea that she was a crafter herself (she creates 3-D banners of Plain people and farm scenes) nor did I anticipate the store’s immediate success and the overwhelming support Nora gets from the characters we’ve met earlier in the series.
I also knew that Millie Glick, whom we’d met in earlier books, would be in for the shock of her young lifetime when she finds out that this flashy redheaded woman in the red sportscar is her mother. Millie experiences my own feelings of betrayal and disbelief, which I so vividly recalled from learning that the dad who raised me was not my birth father—except Millie was only 16 and I was 40 when we made this life-changing discovery. When you invest your own very personal experience into a story, you risk dredging up all the muck again and perhaps getting people in your family upset again, as well.
But in this case, my investment paid off not only in an emotionally authentic story—but also in a spin-off series! My editor and I didn’t want the Seasons series to get too long (off-putting to readers who’ve not discovered me until the fifth or sixth book), but we didn’t want to leave the town of Willow Ridge, either. So starting in 2016, Simple Gifts will continue this homey little town’s story and Nora Hooley will be the anchor character in a series that centers around her shop of the same name. It was a payoff I’d never anticipated—an ending even happier than the one I’d planned to write in the first place!
When I began writing EMMA BLOOMS AT LAST, the fourth book in my Home At Cedar Creek/One Big Happy Family series, major story pieces were already in play. I’d created the world of Cedar Creek, Missouri, and I’d also kept readers wondering if Abby Lambright and James Graber would ever marry! In AMANDA WEDS A GOOD MAN, I’d also introduced the extended Brubaker family. One element of the writing process was different, however: I knew EMMA would be the final book in this series. I had to say goodbye, so I could say yes to other things—and that’s exactly what Emma Graber must do in this book, as well!
Poor Emma, however, deals with a very tough goodbye when her mother dies. Eunice Graber simply doesn’t wake up one morning—and if you’ve lost your mom, you realize Emma’s sense of loss will never totally go away. Already a homebody, Emma will use her mother’s passing as an excuse for not going out when flashy, confident Jerome Lambright invites her to have some fun.
An unexpected job offer from Sam Lambright turns the tide, however: Sam insists that Abby will no longer work in the mercantile now that she’s married. Everyone in Cedar Creek knows Sam will have a lot of trouble replacing Abby, and some folks doubt Emma’s ability to work in the busy store during the Christmas season.
But Emma gives it a shot. She’s kept the books for her brother’s carriage shop, so she eagerly tackles Sam’s bookkeeping—a task she can perform in the workroom, because she’s in mourning and isn’t permitted to work among the customers. Then an emotional melt-down shows Emma and her family that she hasn’t allowed herself time to grieve her mother’s passing. Even so, Emma’s dat Merle tells her to get a life—doing something besides hovering over him. As Jerome finds ways to spend time with the Graber family, Emma comes to appreciate his enthusiastic nature. She even confronts the ex-fiancee who tries to win Jerome back. Now that’s a funny chapter!
Jerome has changed his ways, as well, coaxing Emma from her cocoon instead of coming on like a fire truck. He takes her on a moonlit sleigh ride and bares his soul, allowing Emma to see that he, too, has his share of doubts. As a man who’s backed out of two previous engagements, Jerome doesn’t want to become a three-time loser nor does he want to hurt Emma by rushing into another bad match.
And in the end, EMMA BLOOMS AT LAST. She says goodbye to the shy, retiring young woman she’d been and says yes to a future as Jerome’s wife and helpmate. For me, saying goodbye to this series has provided a chance to write two new Amish series for the publisher of my Seasons of the Heart books. So I get a happy ending from making a major change, just as Emma does!
The cover of a book is supposed to lure potential readers to take your book from the store shelf—or click it, online—and read more about what’s inside. The typical path is: you like the cover, you read the back cover copy, you open the book to read inside a bit, and—hopefully—you proceed to the checkout. Cover art does these things mostly by revealing the genre of the story, telling the reader what awaits her inside, and conveying the setting and the general mood of the story.
For instance, you can see at a glance that this is an Amish story because the young woman on the front is wearing a kapp, and there’s a horse-drawn vehicle on it, and a picturesque snow-covered countryside sets the scene. Even if you didn’t see the title, AN AMISH CHRISTMAS QUILT, you’d know it was a Christmas book because of that red and green quilt on the young lady’s lap. Most of the readers and reviewers in the Amish-interest Facebook groups I belong to have raved about this cover and can’t wait to read this anthology, so this cover is doing its job. It helps that Christmas anthologies sell very well, and that Amish Christmas anthologies are a huge draw for readers who enjoy those simple, homespun, faith-based stories. In all humility, while I think my fans (not to mention fans of Kelly and Jennifer) will flock to this anthology, this book would sell pretty well no matter whose name was on the front.
Yet when I saw this cover the first time, I snorted iced tea through my nose! Why was that?
Well, think about it! Ask yourself why this attractive young woman is seated on an unhitched wagon in the middle of a snowy field—yet she’s smiling as though there’s nowhere on earth she’d rather be. Where’s the horse? Why’s she off the road?
I have no idea.
The scene has nothing to do with my story, “A Willow Ridge Christmas Pageant,” and reading the other two blurbs doesn’t suggest a connection, either. Had I gotten a preview peek at this cover—and usually I do—I would’ve pointed out the perceived discrepancies immediately.
Do I like this cover? You bet I do—the colors and the mood it conveys are perfect for this genre and holiday. I’m also pleased that in the inspirational market, we get to call it a Christmas anthology rather than a holiday book. And I will say that the cover art for my Seasons of the Heart series for Kensington have been awesome—and that the cover of my upcoming HARVEST OF BLESSINGS is the loveliest, most spot-on cover I’ve ever had on a book.
But sometimes you just have to say huh? and chuckle at New York’s renditions of country life. If the young lady on the cover is sitting in the snow, with no apparent place to go and no horse to take her there—and she’s smiling—then I will smile, too. Maybe she knows a lot more than I do!