October 6, 2022

Stephenia H. McGee Interviewing with Suite T

Stephenia H. McGee

Award-winning author Stephenia H. McGee brings her Southern charm to the forefront in her new tale that fuses together the world of horse racing with past secrets and hidden dangers. Set in the early 1900s, The Secrets of Emberwild delves into the life of a headstrong woman who is determined to save her struggling horse farm regardless of the obstacles or the people who
want to hold her back.

When did you start writing?

I remember writing a story about a pig traveling on the Mayflower using my first grade spelling list. I always loved reading and writing naturally came out of my attachment to stories.

Who were/are two of your favorite authors?

That’s a hard one! I have so many authors that I love. I was that fifth grade girl lugging around a massive copy of Jane Eyre. I read very widely, in pretty much every genre. Many of my readers are surprised to know I am a fantasy fan, and I really enjoy Brandon Sanderson books. My husband buys me a new Sanderson book every year for Christmas, and I devour those 1,400 page tomes during our two week break. Mostly I read Christian fiction, however, and two of my favorite books I have read so far this year are When the Time Comes by Gabrielle Meyer and Meet Me in the Margins by Melissa Ferguson.

Do you feel they influenced you? In what way?

I’m always inspired by good writing. Especially when the author has crafted the words in such a way that I want to go back and reread paragraphs simply to enjoy how beautifully they put images together. That is something I did with both Meyer’s and Ferguson’s books.

What point in your writing career did you feel like you had gone from amateur to pro?

When I bought a bathtub. I know, that sounds a little weird. Ha! But we had just closed on a new house and were remodeling our bathroom. I really wanted one of those old-fashioned claw foot tubs. Around that same time, I received what I considered my first “real” payment for book sales. I took that check and headed to the showroom! The Whistle Walk bought me a claw foot tub that year, and I felt like I had made it as a professional writer because I’d purchased something practical with my paycheck.

What do you look for in choosing a setting for your book?

History plays a huge part in where I place my books. I choose real events and places that heavily influence the story I am writing. For The Secrets of Emberwild, I wanted my horse farm to be in Neshoba County, Mississippi because of the Neshoba County Fair. A longstanding tradition in Mississippi, the Neshoba County Fair is quite fascinating. The grounds house a trotter track that has been operating for over a hundred years, and it was the perfect location for Nora and Arrow to take their first run.

What steps if any are involved in research for your book?

I love research. The first thing I do is order a ton of books and start there. I have copies of books dealing with everything from social etiquette to standards of horse training in the early nineteen hundreds. I also dig around in the National Archives and find newspapers from the time. Those are great resources for almost anything, and I found several advertisements for races and information on the fair from the Mississippi newspapers. Then finally, I always seem to end up stopping mid-chapter whenever I have to look up something like “was this word used in 1905?” or “what is the tire on a sulky called?”

In writing your new book, what do you feel makes it stand out?

The Secrets of Emberwild is unique with my female horse trainer and the trotting horse industry. There is an entire world that happens within the harness racing circuit, and a woman stepping into the role of trainer and jockey was unusual. Nora is a strong woman who is deeply connected to her horse and her farm, and that connection plays a vital role in the book.

In your new book, what would you like the reader to feel and walk away with?

I hope the reader feels swept away into a new and exciting setting and finishes the book feeling like they have learned a little about life, history, faith, and love during their adventure. Maybe they will feel the wind in their hair as they race through the fields with Arrow, the thrill of discovery as they unravel the secrets buried at Emberwild, and a tug on their heartstrings as Nora battles with both family and romantic relationships. When the final page closes, I hope they feel just a little closer to the God who weaves together a plan for each of us.

What is the best writing advice you have received so far?

Write to one reader. That sounded strange at first, but it is very true. Do you have a reader who loves your books (who is not related to you in any way)? Think about that reader. What is their age? The beliefs? Hobbies? Why do they read? When and where to they read? All of these things help you put an actual person in mind. Then as you are writing that book, you can think, “Oh, she’s going to love this scene!” It really helps.

What is the worst?

I’m not sure who first said it, but it seems the idea of “write what you know” is something that all writers hear. I disagree with this. If I only ever write what I know, then all of my characters would start to look like me. I believe writers should write what they learn.

Between plotting, character development, dialogue, scenes which is easiest for you, and which takes a lot of effort?

I struggle with plotting. I always try to put a plot down on paper, but I have a hard time coming up with anything before I start the story. Even when I do, that plot always changes during the writing process.

The easiest thing for me is probably character development. I have a lot of books on personalities and character traits, and I enjoy coming up with situations that will stretch and grow that type of personality.

What is your schedule for writing?

If I can stay on schedule, my typical day starts with writing and coffee as soon as my husband is off to work, and the boys are at school. I try for one chapter, or about 2,500 to 3,000 words. Then I go back and work on that chapter before sending it off to my critique partner. That’s usually the first half of the day. The second part of the day is for editing previous chapters when they come back from my critique partner, answering emails, other editing, and any other “writer job” things I need to do.

What do you do if you get stumped?

When I get stuck, I have to set the story aside and move around. I will go outside and go for a walk or run errands. Usually this gives my brain a chance to simmer on the issue and come up with a solution.

Did you or do you make any sacrifices to be a writer?

Like anything else, writing requires time. Depending on the season of life I’ve been in, that has meant giving up other hobbies or writing when I could have been doing any number of other things. It’s meant dedicating years to learning the craft and pushing through when it felt like I would never get anywhere.

Did you choose your genre, or did it choose you?

A bit of both. I love history and bygone eras, so historical fiction was a natural fit for me. After the first several books were historical romance, I had a niche. But I also write women’s fiction and time travel, so I’m not really the best at sticking to one thing.

What is the best way you found to market your book?

Connecting with readers. I am pretty active on Facebook and like to get to know my readers. When they get excited about a story, they share it with their book-loving friends. This kind of authentic kinship over story is the truest way to find and cultivate new readers.

Did you actively build a network of readers and if so, how?

I started with offering a free book to my newsletter subscribers. Then I invited those subscribers to be a part of my Facebook group. By being active with both, I continue to grow my readership.

Are you on the Social Media Highway and if so, do you schedule times to post?

My assistant helps me a lot with this. She helps me find fun and interesting things to post on my group, and once we have the post list put together, she schedules them for the group. Then I pop in an out all the time, talking to readers, answering questions, etc. I don’t really have a scheduled time for that, I just do it throughout the day when I’m not working on something else.

What advice would you like to give new authors that would help them?

Know your reader. Take time to cultivate reader relationships and ask them questions. What do they love about your writing? What topics/settings/troupes do they want to see? What trends in story are they loving or detesting? While the story itself should be what you are compelled to write, you can play up your strengths and put in elements your readers enjoy.

Stephenia H. McGee is the award-winning author of many stories of faith, hope, and healing set in the Deep South. When she’s not reading or sipping sweet tea on the front porch, she’s a writer, dreamer, husband spoiler, and busy mom of two rambunctious boys.

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