I’m extremely excited to welcome author Karen Witemeyer to Modern Jo March. I’m so thankful that she took time out from her busy schedule to do an interview with me. I have been a big fan of her books for several years now and I’ve always said that my bucket list for this blog would be to get an interview with her… And now it’s happening! So thank you, Karen!
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Karen Witemeyer, her books have consistently hit bestseller lists and have garnered awards such as the ACFW Carol Award, the Holt Medallion, and the Inspirational Reader's Choice Award. On top of that, she is a multiple RITA and National Reader's Choice finalist. She has penned the Archer Brothers series, A Worthy Pursuit, Full Steam Ahead, and the Ladies of Harper’s Station series, among many other wonderful stories. So, without further ado, here is my interview with the very talented Karen Witemeyer.
MJM: Hi Karen! Welcome to Modern Jo March! I always like to start off by asking authors where they are from. I know you currently live in Texas, were you born and raised there, or are you a transplant?
Karen: I'm a transplant from California. I came to Texas in 1989 to attend Abilene Christian University, met my husband, and not only did we never leave Texas, we never left Abilene. We both work for ACU now, and my daughter is a junior here. My oldest son will be a freshman here in the fall, as well. Our blood runs purple.
MJM: Awe, that’s cool! Having lived there for so long, do you have a favorite spot/area in Texas?
Karen: Does home count? Ha! Being home with my family is my favorite place. After coming from California with mountains on the horizon, ocean views, and real trees, the scenery is not what keeps me in Texas. It's the people. Southern hospitality, godly values, frontier spirit—all of these wonderful elements still pervade the culture here. That's what I love most about Texas. Although the sunsets are pretty spectacular.
MJM: Ha! Yes, home most definitely counts, after all, “Home is the nicest place there is.” I’m based in Upstate NY, so I’m also used to mountains, hills, woods, and trees. Was it a bit of a “culture shock” moving to Texas?
Karen: Yes. Being so far from home was difficult at first as an 18-year-old, but it challenged me to become independent, introduced me to a great group of friends (my future husband among them), and gave me plenty of school work to keep me distracted. Although, even after more than 25 years, on the rare occasion we get a low-hanging fog bank, I imagine the clouds are actually mountains on the horizon.
MJM: All of your books take place either solely or mostly in Texas, so it’s safe to say that Texas has had an influence on you. Do you find it more interesting, fulfilling to write stories set in a place that you are so familiar with?
Karen: Even though I'm not a native, Texas is my home. It's where my children were born and raised. It's where my heart resides. And because it's such a large place, there is no shortage of settings to utilize for my stories. Being here does make it easier to research. Even though the majority of my research is done online, there have been times when I've driven to the place where I am setting my story to take pictures and get a feel for the landscape. I'll never forget when I was writing Head in the Clouds and decided to take a detour through Menard County on my way home from a conference. I had imagined Gideon Wescott's sheep ranch to be about 10 miles outside of town, so I took a little Farm & Market road and drove 10 miles. I pulled over and couldn't believe my eyes. There, behind the barbed wire fence were sheep! It was meant to be.
MJM: Oh my goodness, that’s truly providence for you!
One thing that I love about your whole body of work is the fact that the stories are diverse and unique. They may all take place in Texas, but each novel and novella has their own unique plot and characters. Has it been challenging to come up with new plot ideas, or does that come more naturally to you?
Karen: YES! The more books I write, the harder it is to come up with ideas that feel fresh. I pray a lot. I am not a naturally creative person. I don't have a dozen ideas running around in my brain at a time. I have one. And I cling to that one with all my might and pray that when the end of that story comes, the Lord will provide another. Thankfully, he continues to do so, like he did for the widow who kept pouring oil until all the vessels she found were filled. There may come a day when my last vessel will be filled and the oil will stop, but for now, I'll keep on pouring and thank him for his provision.
MJM: That’s so interesting. Most people immediately assume that authors are naturally creative and therefore find it easy to come up with stories, but for some it’s more of a developed habit rather than an instinctual impulse. I like you’re likening it to the widow and the oil! That’s such a beautiful way to look at it.
A question I always like to ask authors is, have you always had a passion for writing or did it develop over time?
Karen: I've always been passionate about story, but for most of my life that passion was focused on reading, not writing. I was a book worm as a kid, bringing stacks home from the library and hiding in my room to devour them. However, I never really considered writing my own. I would daydream stories, so I guess I had an element of that creative process lurking deep inside, but I was never one to keep a diary or journal. I didn't write stories except for the ones required in school. As I grew older, I started thinking that maybe someday I would try my hand at writing a book, but there were always other things to consume my time. College. Work. Kids. Then when I was a stay-at-home mom with three pre-school children, my husband found out that his job was being eliminated. Panic set in. I needed to help contribute to the family income, but I didn't want to leave my kids. I know, I'll write a book and make lots of money right away. Ha! Well, my estimate on both counts was off by a mile, but God used that crisis moment to awaken the dream he'd planted in me. Within a few months, both my husband and I were working full-time for the university, my in-laws were watching the kids, and I was learning the craft of fiction writing. Six years later, I signed my first book contract and the rest is history.
MJM: That’s interesting! I was the same way, a voracious reader and always daydreaming up stories in my head, but it never occurred to me to write them down until just recently. It’s truly amazing how God works, isn’t it?
As a writer myself, I’m always curious about how authors go about writing. Could you tell me a bit about your writing process? Do you outline your stories or do you just start writing? Do you model your characters after real-life people (either in your own life or maybe an actor?) Do you listen to certain music? Do you write at a certain time (like mornings or nights)?
Karen: My writing process is different from many authors. I write one very slow, careful draft. That's it. Just one. But I constantly edit and polish it as I go. I send chapters off to critique partners as I finish them and incorporate their feedback. At the outset, I need to have a firm grasp of who my characters are and what the main story problem is. I like to have an idea of about 3 major plot events that will help propel the story along, but I don't actually outline. I just carry it all in my head. Before I start writing, I send off a detailed synopsis to my editor for approval, and if he has feedback, I adapt accordingly. I keep a loose timeline document as I write to keep track of what happens when and how much time passes over the course of the story, and I have a few notes about character appearance and a listing of character names, but I don't use story boards or extensive worksheets. I just don't have the time. Since I write so slowly, I need all the time I can get for the actual book. Instead of daily word count goals, I have weekly chapter goals – one polished chapter a week. Since my books tend to be between 36-40 chapters long, I try to allow 40 weeks for a full-length novel and 10 weeks for a novella. With 52 weeks in a year, you can see that leaves very little time off. My characters live solely in my head, they aren't based off of real people, though sometimes I ask my Posse Facebook friends to submit images of people who they think would match my character descriptions. These photos don't help me a lot during the writing stage, but they are wonderful for passing on to my publisher when the time comes to select a cover model.
MJM: Through this interview feature, I have found that every author has their own, unique process. I find each one fascinating. I am a member of your Posse Facebook group and remember that time well. We had so much fun! Plus, it’s always a thrill when your favorite author lets you in on the process. It’s truly a delight.
Now, before I go any further, I HAVE to talk about A Worthy Pursuit, simply because it’s my absolute favorite book from your catalogue and one of my favorite books period. Can we talk about Stone?! My goodness is he swoon worthy. ;) How did he come to be? What was the inspiration behind his character?
Karen: With A Worthy Pursuit, I actually had the heroine figured out first and designed the hero to be her perfect man. After watching her father cheat on her mother and experiencing her own suitor's perfidy, Charlotte had lost all faith in men. So creating Stone was my gift to her. Someone who would be patient enough to pursue her as long as it took, someone steadfast and honorable. Yet at the same time, I needed conflict between them, so what could be better than making him the man sent to apprehend her after she abducts/rescues the children in her care? Oh, and I just couldn't resist making him a larger than life dime novel hero. Someone too good to be true, so she'd be even less likely to trust him.
MJM: It certainly was a brilliant bit of creativity! I know I certainly fell in love with him! ;) I grew up on John Wayne movies and old westerns, so the whole dime novel hero definitely appeals to me. Another aspect of the book that I particularly loved was the dialogue.
As is the case in all of your books, the dialogue is witty and funny. You have perfect timing with your injections of comedy, wit, and sarcasm. I literally laughed out loud at the “gnome” remarks (to himself) from Stone in the beginning of the book. Does writing dialogue come easily to you or do you actually have to work at it?
Karen: Sometimes it comes easily, and sometimes it's like pulling teeth. The key for me is to let myself get absorbed into the character whose head I am in, and let the dialogue flow from that place, not from me, the author. This is particularly tricky when writing the male POV. I'm a natural explainer and like to use lots of words (shocking, right?), but men, especially the rugged cowboys I write about, tend to be more of the strong, silent type. So, I have to fight the urge to be verbose and instead be concise and pithy with them. Where I would ramble, they'd grunt and be done. Ha!
MJM: That’s a good point! I’ve always wondered how female authors, like yourself, manage to write the male POV so realistically and believable, it definitely takes a certain talent.
MJM: You have a true talent for writing/developing characters who are attractive, relatable, and approachable. Your male heroes are handsome and attractive, yet they aren’t fake and they don’t feel like fantasy. You make them feel approachable and relatable by giving them flaws and idiosyncrasies. Some examples that immediately come to mind would be Levi from To Win Her Heart and Malachi from No Other Will Do. They break the mold of the formula romance hero, which is refreshing. Speaking of breaking the mold, let’s talk about Amos from Heart on the Line. I feel like he broke the mold more than the others have. He could be classified as a “nerd” hero. He’s not the typical cowboy, but proves that you don’t need to be tall, outrageously handsome, and built in order to win the girl. Who or what was the inspiration behind this particular character and plotline?
Karen: The theme verse for this novel is 1 Samuel 16:7 – “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” I've been a romance reader since my teen years, and I love swoon-worthy, alpha-male heroes. Yet I think the romance genre as a whole skews the ideal man a little too much in that direction. I have a 19-year old daughter away at college, and when I think of what I want her to look for in a potential mate, good looks and swagger don't make the top of the list. It's so much more important to look for deeper character traits like godliness, kindness, a sense of humor, and steadfast dedication even when times get tough. So in this story, I turn the usual romance ingredients on their heads. The hero prefers bicycles to horses, wears spectacles, and is a 19th century technology nerd (hmmm…rather like my husband, come to think of it). He doesn't match the fantasy my heroine has built up in her mind about the man on the other end of the telegraph wire, but she soon learns that looks can be deceiving and that a mad of godly character is one to be treasured.
MJM: Now that I think back over all of the books that I’ve read within this genre, that’s very true. Up until I read your novel Full Steam Ahead, and then of course, Heart on the Line, I hadn’t come across a book featuring a male hero that didn’t follow that same formula. I agree that the genre needs some more balance between the macho, alpha male hero and the non-alpha hero. As much as I love a good alpha male, cowboy type, I’ve also enjoyed the other types as well! A good man is a good man, no matter the outer package.
I have enjoyed your Ladies of Harper’s Station series right from the beginning. I’ve always wondered, when writing a series, is there a point in the process when you figure out which characters will be more prominent than the others? Did you have an idea of how it would all end from the beginning? Or did you have to walk through the series yourself, in order to figure out how it would end?
Karen: Since I write so slowly, it is hard for me to carry a long series and maintain momentum with readers since they have to wait 6-12 months for the next story. In fact, when I first started writing, my publisher steered me away from series because books 2 and 3 rarely sell as well as book 1. So, most of my series have been short, usually just two full-length novels with one or two novellas thrown in the mix. The Archer Brothers were my first, and that was easy to know when to end. As soon as I ran out of brothers. Ha! The Ladies of Harper's Station had potential to offer many more stories since all the ladies in town were unattached, but I didn't want readers to lose interest. So, I picked the characters with the most compelling stories to tell and focused on them. I cheated a bit in Heart on the Line and worked in two romances instead of just one, but as that series comes to a close, I feel good about the ladies I highlighted.
MJM: I just recently finished reading the last installment of the series, The Love Knot, which is featured in the novella collection, Hearts Entwined. I have to say, I was sad to hear that it would be the last book in the series, but after reading it, I find I am happy and satisfied with the conclusion. How did the Hearts Entwined collaboration come to be? I know you have collaborated with Regina Jennings and Mary Connealy twice already with the novella collections, A Match Made in Texas and With This Ring?, and you’ve collaborated with Melissa Jagears twice with With This Ring? and With All My Heart. Did that history of collaboration have anything to do with this recent project?
Karen: Yes, we knew that we worked well together and that we had similar styles, so when I decided to write Claire's story, I immediately reached out to these ladies and asked if they would like to collaborate. We decided to link our stories by theme and not by geography or time period and had a lot of fun working in the entwined theme. Each of our stories has some kind of imagery dealing with tangles and knots. My story, The Love Knot, plays on that idea several ways—there are actual embroidery threads that become tangled when Claire and Pieter interact and later come to represent a bond between them that cannot be untangled or broken. There is also a tie-in to the Celtic love knot of Claire's heritage.
MJM: Can we talk about your upcoming projects? As I mentioned before, I am a member of your Facebook group, The Posse, so I do know that there are at least two upcoming novels. I’d like to talk a bit about the first one, More Than Meets the Eye, which is already up for pre-order. Can you tell us about More Than Meets The Eye? How did that story come about?
Karen: I wanted to bring together a set of siblings in an unusual way and use them as a base for a series. I remembered reading a series of books by Julie Garwood back in the 1990's based on the idea of a group of street boys who find a baby girl in the garbage that someone had thrown away. They take this baby under their wing and move out west for a fresh start. They change their last names to Clayborne and call themselves family. That sparked the idea behind the Hamiltons in More Than Meets the Eye. Evangeline, Seth, and Zacharias are all orphans on one of the orphan trains sent west to find homes for children. Each of them has been rejected for different reasons. Evie has mismatched eyes, Seth is sickly, and Zach wants no part of family, so he scares off any potential takers. When their train derails, tragedy binds them together and they decide to make it on their own. They take on a new name and leave the wreckage to become their own family. Life is hard, though, and choices made in desperation have consequences they couldn't have foreseen. And when the piper demands to be paid, the only thing that can save them is love.
MJM: That sounds like yet another not-to-be-missed story! I look forward to reading it when it comes out! I’ve already pre-ordered it, so I’ll be not so patiently waiting until June. ;)
This is the part in the interview where I like to ask you a few questions from your readers. I recently posted a query in The Posse group asking your readers what burning questions they had for you. I was pleasantly surprised to find so many interesting questions! So here are a few:
• Catherine would like to know, “Do your characters ever talk to you outside of writing? Like when you’re out and about and you see something, does a character’s voice/thoughts pop into your head? If so, do they talk to you even after you’ve finished the book?”
Karen: Unlike many authors, I don't actually hear character voices. I think it's because I'm a left-brained writer instead of a right-brained one. Or maybe it's just because I'm bossy and won't let them out of their box unless I'm working. I do sometimes get ideas for plot points when I'm not actively writing. Car rides and walks in the neighborhood can be great for generating ideas. I don't usually get inspired by someone or something specific I see, it's more of having the chance to quiet my mind that allows new ideas to take root.
• Megan would like to know, “How much say do you have in the cover art of your book and in the marketing of the book?”
Karen: My publisher always asks for input at the beginning of the process—physical descriptions of the hero and heroine, the setting, any images I have regarding clothing or actual people to represent my characters. They also take input from me about what might make a fun cover. The covers for Head in the Clouds and Short Straw Bride were based on my ideas, but most of the others came from the creativity of the Bethany House Art Department. Once I give my information, the Art Department takes over, and I rarely see anything until the publisher decides on the final result. Sales, marketing, design, and editorial all weigh in. Editorial makes sure the cover matches the story; sales makes sure it is a cover that will appeal to retailers; marketing makes sure the cover will appeal to readers; and design ensures the high artistic standards are maintained. Once they show me the finalized cover, I'm allowed to give feedback, but I rarely get to change anything. With the upcoming cover for More Than Meets the Eye, they actually gave me a choice between two covers, which was wonderful! I selected the one I preferred, and they went with that one. I felt so empowered. Ha!
• Stacy would like to know, “What advice would you give to aspiring authors?”
Karen: Work hard, be patient, and cultivate a tough skin. There is a lot to learn about the craft of fiction. Don't look for short cuts. Put in the work, and you'll eventually reap the rewards. Publishing is a very slow business, so learn to be productive while you wait. Send off your queries and proposals, but start working on your next book, too. Finally, be prepared for criticism. It hurts to have your work picked apart, whether by critique partners, contest judges, editors/agents--but if you learn to set aside the emotional defensiveness and absorb the comments with objectivity, your work will be stronger for it. Even as a multi-published author, I still have to deal will all these criticisms including the added level of reader reviews. The tougher your skin, the more likely you are to learn from past mistakes and become a better author.
• Darcy would like to know, “What’s your favorite of the books you’ve written?”
Karen: That's a tough one. It's like asking a mother to pick between her children. She can't! Each one is special in its own way, but if I were forced to pick, I think I would choose either To Win Her Heart (Levi Grant was just special, and the entire plot of that book came together in a way that could only be Providence) or Heart on the Line (since the hero was directly inspired by the delightful nerd heroes in my own life).
• Lynne would like to know, “Is there a historical period you’d like to write about that you haven’t touched yet?”
Karen: I really enjoy reading regency novels and might like to try writing one someday, but for now, my heart and my brand is late 1800s Texas, so I think I'll stay here.
MJM: Before I bring this interview to a close, I would like to thank you, Karen, for taking the time to chat with me and answer my questions. I have had such a blast with this interview. It was a dream come true to be able to pick your brain about your writing process and your books. So thank you so much for joining me!
Karen: Thank you for having me!
Liz Austin. Bibliophile. Writer. Book hoarder. I would rather be reading....