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Interview with Susan Baganz

This week's interview with Susan Baganz showcases the fourth book in her contemporary romance Orchard Hill series. Set in the Northwest suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the books center around a viable community church, showing the struggles facing young college and career-oriented adults in today's world.

Susan, your writing is known for the way you handle the personal temptations and challenges facing your characters. For example, in Root Beer & Roadblocks, you bring back Johnny Marshall, a character fighting cancer in Book 3, Feta & Freeways. How important was it for you to tell Johnny's story?


When I finished Feta & Freeways and discovered Johnny’s cancer had returned, I knew I had to give him his own happily-ever-after. The two books were originally based of the real-life Johnny Philippidis from Burlap to Cashmere but I wrote about the lead singer – not his cousin – so now it was Johnny’s turn. I loved the interaction between him and his cousin Niko so it was fun to keep that relationship central to the story even though it is a romance.

Since I haven't read this series, I'm wondering about the significance of the titles. I know that the latter portion refers to the personal journey of the characters, but is there a significance to the food item? For example, in Root Beer & Roadblocks, is the root beer a favorite drink, or does it have a more symbolic meaning?

Great question! You’re correct that the road theme is a metaphor for the journey my characters take spiritually or emotionally (or both!) Initially the food part was a cultural thing. In Pesto & Potholes, Tony was an Italian chef. In Salsa & Speed Bumps, Roberto was Hispanic (and there was definitely a little more heat in that story!). In Feta & Freeways, Niko (and Johnny) have a Greek Heritage. But the stories all take place, primarily, in Wisconsin so this time I decided to go “all-American” with root beer. Some of the best, Sprecher, is made in Wisconsin—and yes—it is Johnny’s favorite beverage. The next books in the series are: Bratwurst & Bridges, Donuts & Detours and Truffles & Traffic.

Does it help or inhibit your story to have your characters as part of a church? Or are they merely part of the neighborhood?

They all attend Orchard Hill church. When I wrote the first book I wanted to show the importance of having a family if faith as we go through our struggles—whatever they are. And I could imagine if I were to sit down with each individual in my own church, I’d hear some amazing tales of faith and testing in their own walks with God and how the church was part of that process. I think our culture has lost some of that understanding of the body of Christ and wanted to make that real. The next book—has one of the pastors of the church who appears in previous books—as the central character. That was harder to write because the church can also be a place of pain as we are not all in the same place on our journey to sanctification. I didn’t want to sugar-coat church life, but I didn’t want to make it distasteful either.

How many books did you envision in the Orchard Hill series before you sold the first one?

I wrote one book, Pesto & Potholes. Never intended a series. But then someone challenged me to write a second book and call it Salsa & Speed Bumps and I thought, “Hey, I can do that…” and thus a series was born. The last book I’ve written, Truffles & Traffic, was because a woman in my ACFW group begged me to write one with truffles. So, I did! Now there’s a character from that book who needs his own story…just have to figure out what that title will be. I have a list and people give suggestions too… I have one friend who keeps begging me to write one called Ramen & Roadkill. Just not quite sure about that title yet, but who knows?

Do you have a tip for writing characters who are downtrodden without making them appear to be victims?

That’s tough, because there have been times when I think I’ve reacted more like a victim in my difficult circumstances as well. Sometimes we are truly victims and sometimes my characters are too, but God never intends for us to stay that way so the goal is to take the reader into that painful spot to relate to the character but to see that character grow past that to being an overcomer is rewarding. The fact is, during our darkest moments, we can’t see the future or know what’s coming. David in the psalms says “I know that God is for me.” And John Piper reminds us that God is doing thousands of things on our behalf that we don’t see. Hopefully, my readers walk away challenged to trust God more deeply, and not be afraid to lean on their church family when life gets hard. We were never meant to struggle alone.

Are you a plotter with your scenes, including all the challenges and blessings, worked out for each chapter before you begin writing?

I am a panster. I might have my two main characters and an inciting incident that brings them together. I might even have some of their backstory, but I’m often surprised along the way. I know they’ll get their happily-ever-after but I don’t know what it’s going to look like until I write the scene. It’s a roller-coaster ride when I write and I love that process. I’ve taken general concepts from people in real life and used them as a very loose skeleton of where I want them to go, but I never know how it’s going to play out. And sometimes my characters surprise me too which is always fun. I didn’t expect or plan the end of Feta & Freeways and tried to not write that Johnny’s cancer had returned, but I couldn’t do it. I never expected Johnny to experience all he did in his story either, but again, sometimes a conversation will spark and idea and something shows up in a story I wasn’t anticipating. I don’t want to give away any spoilers.

In the planning stage, what comes first – the physical character descriptions, or the challenge(s) they face?

I usually have a physical description. Often, I’ll find faces on line to use as a guide. I’ve done character interviews at times too. At some point the main conflict becomes clear. For Johnny, it was the return of the woman he loved, as he was facing his darkest hour.

Do you write long and struggle to cut back, or do you lengthen as you layer, filling in all the details that enhance the character's lives?

I have needed to add to some stories (but not in this series) but to do that requires a complete rewrite which is hard work. Usually in editing I lose words, not gain them. I’ve had to trim some stories down as well which is generally easier to do. None of that has happened in this series.

Your book list contains Regency, as well as Romantic Suspense. How do you distance yourself from one genre as you work on another? Or is there a secret to keeping them separate while working as an Acquisitions Editor at the same time?

Ah, my Regencies! I love Regencies and my first novel I ever wrote was a Regency, but then it became a series as well. I expect that first one, The Virtuous Viscount to release in May of this year, but it’s not your typical Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer style. We retitled the series to the The Black Diamond Gothic Regencies and, while each book stands on its own, there is a thread that weaves through them that culminates in the final book. Suspense increases with each book as they face their foe. The books have a darker flavor but they are also more evangelical in that characters come to Christ and are fighting a demonic force in a human enemy. Faith was expressed differently back then. I wrote a prequel to the series called The Baron’s Blunder which is probably the most light-hearted of them all. It was originally released as part of an anthology but it really is a prequel to the series. That e-book is available but will be getting a new cover to match the series. I have all the covers already for that and the five novels in the series and love them!

When I work on Regencies I usually go back and watch a little of Pride & Prejudice or Mansfield Park to get me grounded back in the language and style of the day. I will also write to classical music when to keep me grounded in the history. I also edit some Regencies and do the same thing to keep me away from more contemporary thoughts (and language!). You should never see an “okay” in a Regency! I did have a Regency-era phrase unintentionally show up in Salsa & Speedbumps. It’s in there three times but no one has found it yet. Sometimes language from that day is still in use!

What’s your biggest writing challenge?

When I write novels, I hit a wall of fear (I don’t call it a writer’s block). I begin to believe that this writing is crap, the story is stuck and it’s probably the worst story ever and no one will want to read it. Never happens with novellas—only full length novels. I’ve begun to recognize and name it as a wall of fear. I pray and keep writing in spite of how I’m feeling. I can’t tell you in any of my books where that spot was.

Any parting words?

First, no one is an expert at this so we shouldn’t idolize other authors. Not even me. Every story I write or edit, I’m learning new things and I hope I never stop. Also, the process in how anyone writes (fast or slow, panster or plotter) is how God equipped you – every author should be content with their process of writing. There is no need for envy of other authors. You don’t know the dark side of their life from social media. God has given us different stories and ways to tell them.

Secondly, I’m grateful for those who have gone before me and given me a hand up, offered feedback, and encouraged me to not just keep writing but to pursue publication. I never expected to become an editor, but I’m enjoying that work although sometimes I feel like a juggler. I love being able to now turn around to other, newer authors who where I once was and encourage them on their journey. When you’re scared or stuck—call another writer friend to brainstorm or pray. It really does help sometimes to even have a shoulder to cry on when the disappointments come (and they will, even in Christian publishing). I’m grateful for those authors in my life who have been there for me in that way. Community—whether in a church or a writer’s group like ACFW, is a beautiful thing.

Thank you for sharing with us, Susan!

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Anita Mae Draper is retired from the Canadian Armed Forces and lives on the prairie of southeast Saskatchewan, Canada with her hubby of 30 plus years and their youngest of 4 kids. She writes historical romance set in Canada and the United States.

Romantic Refinements, Novella 2 in the Austen in Austin Volume 1 collection by WhiteFire Publishing released in January 2016. This 4-novella collection of stories set in historic Austin, Texas is based on the novels of Jane Austen.






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