Did you always feel like you were meant to be a writer?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to write. When I was about five, something about a talk in church touched me and I came home and wrote a poem about it. I just naturally gravitated toward it. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties, though, than I began to realize I might actually be capable of writing something good—up until that point, I’d written depressing poetry (because that’s what teenagers do) and tried my hand at epic fantasy (which was an epic failure).
Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? Do you prefer to outline or write as the story comes to you?
I write by the seat of my pants most of the time. I really work best when the characters are “talking” to me and telling me what they’d like to see happen next, so I listen to them and we see where it goes.
When I’m writing historical fiction, I do have a timeline of historical events so I can be sure to hit those important milestones. If I’m writing a complex plot, I’ll take notes as I go so I don’t get too lost. And if I get called away from the computer and I haven’t finished writing down all the awesome stuff I’d imagined for that scene, I will jot down ideas for what I want to write next time. That’s about the extent of the outlining I do.
With four kids, how do you carve out time to concentrate on writing?
When I first started writing, my oldest was three and my second child was about eight months old. I’d put the baby down for his nap, settle my daughter in front of Dragon Tales, and I’d be able to write for an hour every afternoon. My kids don’t remember a time when I didn’t write, so this has always been part of our family dynamic as far as they’re concerned.
I do my “office” work—checking e-mails, communicating with editing clients, and marketing—during the day in between taking kids to seminary, homeschooling them, running to the grocery store, etc. Then around nine o’clock at night, I settle in to editing for clients and writing for myself. I’m typically awake until around 2 a.m., which suits me fine because I am absolutely not a morning person.
My husband is also a very key part of this—he runs errands, takes the kids to their various church activities in the evenings, brings me food when I don’t want to leave the computer, and cheers me on in everything I do. I wouldn’t be able to do any of it without his support and belief in me.
Your earlier books were mainly historical fiction—do you carry out a lot of research to get the time periods just right?
When I’m writing historical fiction, I really like to immerse myself in the era. I read books and watch movies set in that timeframe, I google and read articles and look at pictures, and that sets the tone for everything I do. It helps me get the voice right. Then I do quite a bit of research after that. Even after all that, I have missed a detail here and there, but I have very forgiving readers—and thank goodness for things like reprints!
With your contemporary novels, a lot of your books are written with LDS characters. Do you find that more challenging than writing a book with non-LDS characters, or does it come more naturally?
LDS characters do come very naturally for me because that’s how I think and it’s the culture I live in. At one time, I didn’t think I’d ever write anything but LDS fiction. I’ve since branched out and have begun writing books that maintain LDS values while being geared toward a more general audience and I enjoy that, but I’ll never stop writing LDS characters entirely. It’s what I know best, and I love writing for the LDS people.
With your Secret Sisters series, do you feel like you are still getting to know those characters as you continue to write them?
Those little ladies constantly surprise me. They did pop into my head as well-rounded characters, but they reveal new things to me all the time. For instance, in the first book, Secret Sisters, we learn that Ida Mae’s daughter left the Church because she became pregnant out of wedlock and felt ostracized because of it. I had no idea that had even happened until Ida Mae told Tansy about it. And just the other day, Ida Mae informed me that she wants to get her concealed carry permit. Okay, then!
Your newest book coming out, Tulips and Treason, is the start of another series. Can you tell us a bit about the book and where you see the series going?
When I finished writing Till Death Do Us Part, which is the last book in the Secret Sisters series, I almost started to cry. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Ida Mae, Arlette, and Tansy. Then I realized I didn’t have to. My new series, the Omni Orchids Mysteries, features Jack and Molly, a team of FBI agents sent to Utah to infiltrate a Mafia headquarters based out of Omni, and Ida Mae and her friends step in to give them Mormon lessons so they won’t blow their covers. In this way, I can begin a new plotline and explore new avenues, but I don’t have to say goodbye to my little blue-haired gumshoes just yet.
In this first book, we get to know Jack and Molly and see the Mormon culture through their eyes. Molly has to give up her coffee addiction and learn how to arrange flowers—another part of their cover—and Jack learns that he’ll be posing as an assassin for the mob. What they absolutely don’t expect is to find a dead body in the cooler at the floral shop.
There are five books in the series, and each is centered around a flower. Next is Marigolds and Murder, for instance. We’ll go with Jack and Molly as they delve deeper into the mob organization and also as they deliver flowers and make corsages. And of course, the Secret Sisters are there to lend a hand with it all.
Do you have any other books in the works you’re excited to share?
I do, in fact! I’ve just started a publishing company and in addition to publishing books by fantastic authors Jenni James, BC Sterrett, Laura Bingham, and Karen E. Hoover, I’m going to be releasing a contemporary YA of my own this fall. It’s called Take My Advice, and it’s about a girl who writes the advice column for her high school newspaper. She thinks she has the answers to everyone’s problems, but when she faces a crisis of her own, she lets go of her façade and comes to understand that when the chips are down, you’ve got to lean on those around you for support.
In addition to that, I’ve started publishing under a pen name, Sandra Norton Flynn, for a series of suspense novels. They’re along the same vein as Mary Higgins Clark—clean and thrilling, with a little more peril than you’ll find in my other novels.
I’m also currently writing a series of reference books for beginning authors called the Write It Right series—those have been a lot of fun. I have five out in that series now, with many more on the way.
You also work as a freelance editor. How different is it to be on the other end of the marking pen when you are also a writer?
It’s really different. You’ve got to put yourself in a different mindset entirely.
I think editing has made me a better writer because I’m correcting more of my own mistakes as soon as I write them, or sometimes even before I type them. I’ll think a sentence and then revise it in my head before it makes it to the keyboard. Being a writer has made me a better editor because I understand how hard it is to get those critiques and to see your beloved baby come back to you all covered in comments and suggestions. The two have built each other up and helped me improve in both fields. I still have so, so much to learn, though, and I’m excited every day to see what new discoveries I’ll make.
Some have asked me if I do all my own editing for my books and if I still need an outside editor. Let me tell ya, if it weren’t for my critique partners and other editors, I’d be sunk—all authors, whether they work as editors or not, need feedback. We become blind to our own work. So yeah, my manuscripts are pretty clean to start with, but I will always rely on others to point things out to me before I take them to press.
As both a writer and editor, how do you feel the gospel influences your work?
The gospel is a huge part of every aspect of my life because I’d be completely lost without it. It’s my roadmap—otherwise, I’d be stubbing my nose on brick walls all the time. Because of the gratitude I feel for having that guidance in my life, you’ll see threads of it interwoven in everything I write, whether it be outright or subtle.
In addition to that, I had an experience back when my first book was published that has acted as a measuring stick for me. I got to sign books at the BYU Women’s Conference seated right next to Brenton Yorgason. We chatted for a bit about the writing life, and then he said to me, “Don’t ever pollute your pen.” That resonated with me, and I’ve tried to live up to that advice throughout my career.
How do you think your work helps to build the kingdom?
I think every author hopes to create something truly meaningful. When I started writing, I knew it could become a missionary tool, but I didn’t dare hope for anything grand and glorious because it seemed a little too prideful to think about. But I’ve had some amazing experiences that have shown me that yes, I have made a difference.
The one foremost on my mind is a letter I received shortly after my third Secret Sisters novel, Hang ’Em High, came out. In that book, Ida Mae is trying to come to terms with the fact that two of her adult children have left the Church. She wants to be really forceful with them and demand that they come back, but recognizes that first, she needs to love them for who they are, and then remain open if they want to come back later on when they feel that desire for themselves. She’s not known for keeping her mouth shut, so this was really hard for her. In the end, she tells her son that she loves him, and she bears a simple testimony.
The letter I received was from a woman who had just finished reading the book when she got a phone call from her daughter, who was telling her of her own decision to leave the Church. This woman’s immediate reaction was much like Ida Mae’s—she wanted to tell her daughter what was what, but then she remembered what she had just read in the book and decided to reach out with love instead. Because of something I wrote, her relationship with her daughter was salvaged, and if that daughter ever chooses to come back, she’ll know her mother is there for her in that decision.
I have to say, when I read that letter, it was confirmation to me that we as authors can have a powerful influence for good in the lives of our readers. I had never dreamed that my little cozy mystery about poisoned horses would make such an impact, and yet it did. It was humbling and inspiring all at the same time. ❧