What led you to write The 20th Christmas? I'd always wanted to write a Christmas-theme book. I enjoy reading them and watching holiday movies on Hallmark and Lifetime each year. I like Christmas music and, ever since I was thirteen and first heard Amy Grant's "Breath of Heaven," I was interested in writing a story with that as the theme song. I find the winter the most inspiring time to write, yet do my least amount of writing then due to the chaos of the season.
During the fall of 2013 my church had a service about how we each have a specific gift to be instruments of God. I was ashamed to admit I'd never written for God. I wanted to thank Him for not abandoning me throughout the years--to write a book about trusting Him--but after the holidays.
God said no, now is the time! when I awoke from a dream the first week of November. Throughout my life, my story ideas have come from a variety of inspirations: music, movies, photographs, paintings, conversations with others. . .but never have I related to writers who say their book was from a dream they had. My dreams don't make sense. People morph into other people. They flip between the past, present, and future. Maybe if I was a sci-fi writer. . .but that's not my genre! Still, I grabbed my notebook beside my bed and scribbled down as much as I could. I looked at my calendar and saw that it was NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), where writers are encouraged to write a book/50,000 words in thirty days.
I'd never participated because I'd always felt I had too much on my plate to write a book in a month. But, I wondered. . .what would it be like to allow myself nothing except to write? My first response was that I'm a very hands-on mother so I'd feel guilty if I didn't spend time with my children for five weeks—what if I missed something in their lives? Hmmm. . .I looked at my online photo albums and saw the number of pictures I take per month averages 600. I decided maybe it would be healthy if I took a break! :p
What about my husband, though? Was it fair to have him become a single parent, chef, housekeeper, and shopper for a month? There'd also be no conversations of substance between us or fun activities. I thought about our ten years of marriage by then with half of those as me being a stay at home mom, and as the one to cook all meals, and how he'd never done the laundry. . .I decided, yes, let's do it. :-)
I learned of a Christian publisher from a college friend and, before I was even finished, I submitted what I had. That is usually a no-no for unpublished authors but I didn't want to waste my time completing something that was unpublishable. They had no idea who I was but wrote back and said they were, in fact, interested.
So, I wrote my first published book during a time when I never thought I'd write one (Thanksgiving-Christmas), in an amount of time that I never thought possible (one month), by means that I never thought (a dream), in a way I never thought (submitting it to a publisher prior to completion), and it was a genre I'd never attempted before (inspirational). The entire process was different for me as well; I'm more of a plotter than a prancer, which means I try to write a summary and outline before I write a book. With that said, I don't always know what's going to happen from chapter to chapter, however with this book I knew nothing at all! I wasn't concerned with following "writing do's and don'ts;" I sat down at my computer and just let the words flow. It was as if God wrote the book and I typed it!
What message do you want readers to walk away with? The 20th Christmas turned out to be more than just a book about a toddler named Chase who is kidnapped from a coffee shop; it's a story about parents' love. . .and of a marriage dealing with grief over time. . .and of how tragedy can harden a previously soft person. It's about letting go of our ideas of how life should be, especially in our instant-gratification-quick-fix society, and see the whole picture in God's time and way. Much of the book is actually about overcoming bitterness.
Even though the book is fiction, these elements in our world are something we can relate to. If just one person can have renewed faith and hope in their own life, then I did what I was supposed to with this book. Of course since it's my first, there are things I'd do different (such as, expand on the Austin storyline), but it had to be a fast-paced story to stay under the 200 pages. Those who like quick reads will prefer that. I'd heard about NaNoWriMo for years and never thought I could do it. . .so The 20th Christmas was proof to myself that I could do it!
Since writing a novel in a month was a first for you, how long does it usually take you to write a book? For me, starting a novel is easy. But mid-way through I get frustrated, lose my inspiration, and most often stop because life happens. I'm a wife, a mother of two, I like hobbies, I treasure my friendships, I get tired and sick. . .and, a bigger deal than I'd prefer to admit: my house gets too messy for me to be able to concentrate. My ideal is to shut myself in a room somewhere and write from the minute I wake up until I go to bed, every single day. There is no concept of time when I write, and nothing I prefer doing more—it is invigorating and fun and therapeutic and fulfilling. However, I don't have a cabin in the mountains; there are interruptions, places I have to go, things I have to do, people I have to see. . .but, last year I was fed up with excuses holding me back so I'm glad I finally shut myself in my room!
I'll admit, a part of me was tempted to keep writing all to myself since it's always been an area of my life that I don't care what anyone else thinks and can just be free—but, I'd also had the goal since I was a child to be able to walk into a bookstore and see my work. To hold a hard copy in my hands. To know that I put forth the effort and was rewarded. There have been so many books that have touched my life (often non-best sellers) and I wanted to do the same for others—to write stories with a positive message. I owed it to the little girl inside of me who once told people that it was my purpose and what I was put on this earth to do. That fantasy became a reality on Oct 18, 2014 when I walked into Barnes & Noble and saw my book on the shelf. It had been distributed on October 1, 2014 to 10,000 retailers. I don't think I'll do the “one month” thing again though!
How long did it take you to be published? I was thirty-three when I signed the contract, although it almost happened when I was twenty-seven. The 20th Christmas is my first published book, but fourth completed manuscript (the other three have been buried in my closet and I don't plan to show the light of day). For my second manuscript, an editor at a new, unique line of Harlequin expressed interest, but then closed/discontinued publishing books for that line before I was given a contract. I was pregnant with my son so my priority switched to being a stay-at-home-mom (aside from writing online articles) until The 20th Christmas, which was written a couple of months after he started kindergarten.
The subject matter is every parent's nightmare—was writing this book an emotional experience for you? Absolutely. But I knew that if I wanted readers to connect on an emotional level as I did with the curly-haired blond boy in my dream, then I had to stay in that zone. The NaNoWriMo idea of shutting myself away for a month turned out to be perfect for this book because I can get snippy when I'm writing and have to get out of character to return to my daily life. So, writing an emotional book in a short amount of time was probably best for not only myself but everyone around me! At the same time, though, this book was fun to write. Even though my own son is dark complected, his toddler personality inspired the character of Chase, so it was special to be able to write down some of my own memories of him at that age and know that they are now recorded forever. Likewise, the character of CeCe was inspired by my bubbly daughter. My husband liked how the men in The 20th Christmas always seemed to be a voice of reason, but my husband is much more goofy and sporty compared to Alan and Daniel haha. I enjoyed following all of the characters through two decades (another rarity, as you're not going to find most short novels span twenty years).
How did your own children inspire the characters of this book? My son loved the song, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”--that stuff about it stopping his cries was from my own experience. My son also had a bear with I <3 U on its tummy. We experienced shoulder dystocia during his delivery and he was a sweet, compliant toddler, which made life happy and peaceful during those first couple of years. . .but my relationship with my husband would have been different with just one dramatic event which millions of families face every day. Thankfully, most of us never have to experience a child abduction, but we all go through our own set of circumstances which affect us forever. Maybe The 20th Christmas can give readers a new perspective to whatever they are facing in their own life.
How much research did you do about kidnapping and child abductions to write on this topic? It depends on what I consider to be my first research! My dad was a DCI special agent for 32 years so I grew up hearing a lot about stranger danger, especially the Johnny Gosch kidnapping in the 1980s which I reference in The 20th Christmas—and I watched TV programs, read, and even wrote back then about it, as my two favorite stories that I wrote as a child were titled Kidnapped (1991) and Abducted (1993). So, I guess it's not a surprise that my first published book is about this topic! While writing The 20th Christmas, I spent time on national missing persons websites (such as CFSI Iowa for Missing Children) and was saddened to see how many babies and toddlers had indeed disappeared twenty years ago. . .how would anyone know what they look like now? How can they be found? It made the story of the Tates and Fellers unfortunately realistic.
How did you first begin writing? It could have been genetics: my great uncle on my mom's side was a writer who worked for The Kansas City Star newspaper. Or, it could have been my environment: growing up as an only child, reading and writing were my first form of entertainment--my parents planted the first seeds when they used to sit next to me on the couch and read to me which was a comforting time since they separated when I was two years old; stories were my escape. Like most things in life, I'm sure it was a combination of both nature and nurture! Rarely has there been a day in my life that I haven't written something!!!
Will you stay in the Christian genre? If God tells me again that He wants me to write another inspirational book then I will! Writing is the only time in my life when I don't have to think. If I start feeling that I can only write about certain subjects, then my writing voice will be silenced. As of now, I've never experienced writer's block, but with pressure that could happen. In psychology, I'm a #4 enneagram which is the "creative lover--so what I can guarantee is that all of my books will have the element of love. Even in The 20th Christmas, which is not of the romance genre, we have Alan and Arianna's love story. It's so common for couples to overlook the importance of romance after they've been married for a decade; Arianna and Alan remind us to make it a priority in our marriages. (Or is it Officer Sparks who does that?!) :-) My husband was my only beta reader for this manuscript and asked why we'd never made thinking of you baskets like Alan and Arianna--I said that was a good point, haha, we should! Authors often learn from their characters as much as readers.
What was it like having your husband as a beta reader? I'll be using him each time! He tells me like it is and knows me better than anyone else so his feedback helped a lot with this book! The funniest moment was during another one of my manuscripts, I'd written that the main character was going through a divorce and her ex husband gave her a gun so that she'd be protected while living alone. My husband was like, “Um I think that a gun is the last thing someone is going to give their spouse when they're going through a divorce. That would be a very baddddd decision.” I burst out laughing because it was so obviously true. All of my books are on the serious side, but my husband always makes me laugh.
What was your favorite chapter of The 20th Christmas to write? Honestly, the chapter from Lacey's point of view! Alan and Arianna came from perfect backgrounds and strived to be their best selves—but Lacey was the opposite which helped break the book up as I was writing. The 20th Christmas is really two stories, so the book is two parts; we meet Lacey in the second half.
How did writing this book change you? The process itself didn't change me, but life afterward has been different. Even though I majored in journalism and mass communication in college, and worked in television and radio, I'm not comfortable being the center of attention. I chose that profession because I like telling other people's stories (whether they're real or imaginary)--and I had to have a job to pay the bills! But I prefer storytelling on paper. I like how hundreds of years ago writers got to stay reclusive; having to promote myself and give speeches is not my comfort zone, but that's what's great about knowing that God was behind this book—it's not about me, so I can relax and do it for Him.
Who are your favorite authors? Are there writers that your style is comparable to? This is the hardest question to answer because I adore books (I mainly read the genre of women's fiction, romance, chick-lit, and suspense/mystery) so to pick a favorite author is extremely hard. As a child, I attended a writers workshop by Iowa children's author Carol Gorman which was very inspiring to me because I loved her books and she was "a regular person" in my state who was successful. As an adult, I discovered there is another author from my hometown--a best selling romance novelist--Cindy Gerard. There aren't any authors that I can think of to have a similar writing style to The 20th Christmas, but two of my friends who also had their first books published within the year of me are Brooke Williams and Jennifer Ross. Although not of the Christian genre, I find a writing-style-connection to Iowa women's fiction authors Heather Gudenkauff and Tracey Garvis Graves.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors? Join a writers group! I'll never forget being twenty-five years old and emailing Best Selling Romance Novelist Pam Crooks, who lives in Omaha where I resided for eight years. She gave me the warmest invitation to join her chapter of The Romance Writers of America. After attending several meetings, she slipped me a note which said that I was talented and she was certain I would be a published author someday. That meant the world to me; I still have the note. Without the writers group, I never would have submitted my first manuscript to a publisher in 2006 when I was twenty-six years old. Even though I quit the group and moved back to Iowa where I was born and raised, I re-joined the RWA in October 2013. . .and now the next book that I'm writing is a love story, titled Caged Dove! :-)