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Interview with Carla Stewart

Carla's passion for her readers is to take them to a place called home. Her words convey that passion. She says, "I’m a child of the fifties and sixties. It was a glorious time to grow up. Lazy summers. Carefree and careless days of youth. This is the lens through which I view the world. Memories are powerful. They take us to times when we knew we were loved. The world was familiar and warm. Colors were brighter, and music filled our hearts. I still go back there in my dreams, and my desire is to take you, my readers, to that place in your heart called “home.” Check out her books and take a trip to the place in your heart called home.

Carla, tell us how your latest novel accomplishes your desire to take your readers to a "time gone by?"
I ventured a bit further back in time with this new book, so while most readers won’t remember the Roaring Twenties, some things remain the same: the bonds of family, the integrity of friendship, and young heroines who face tough decisions and trying circumstances as they try to make their way in the world.

The 1920s were a glorious, yet turbulent age before radio and television and color movies or even talking movies. It was a time of cultural change and some rather avant-garde fashions. I’ve always been drawn to the time when people traveled by train and on ships rather than by automobile and airplanes and people communicated by letters and telegrams more often than by phone. My hope is that readers will feel enmeshed in a time that’s not so distant in the past but one in which their parents or grandparents came of age,and in doing so, may ponder what it might have been like for them. And the fashions are really fun!

Because your stories are set in the past, can you tell us a little about how you begin to research the time period in which you set your stories?
It’s pretty broad spectrum when I begin and varies for each story, but if at all possible, I plan a research trip to get a feel for the setting. I generally find books written by locals and take lots of photos. I buy books that are either about the era or the topic of the novel and begin reading them (with a highlighter!). For this book, I bought a vintage book on how to make hats—everything from design concepts to facial structure to materials and the actual how-to steps. I watch movies from the time period and take notes about the fashions, hairstyles, and words and phrases that are markers of the era. Music always inspires me, so I listen to music of the day and make a playlist.

A lot of the research is online, and I keep a folder of sites I’ve bookmarked for reference while I’m writing. I’ve discovered that YouTube videos are a gold mine when it comes to researching sounds and visuals which I can use in description. For three books now, I’ve created a Pinterest board and started capturing images of household items, clothing, settings, and anything that might tie in to the story.

I start a physical folder with odd bits that I’ve printed off, notes I’ve jotted down at random times, slang dictionaries of the day, a printed calendar for the time span of the novel (good to know for holidays, moon phases, etc.), character lists. Getting organized in the beginning pays off when the deadline looms and I need something in particular, as it can get quite cumbersome before a book is finished.

Please share with us how you came to write The Hatmaker's Heart.
A couple of years ago at a writing conference, I was waffling about trying to figure out what writing project I would tackle next. None of my suggestions made my agent or my editor’s eyes light up, and truthfully, I was plucking ideas out of the air. I wanted to write in a more historical vein than I had previously, but what? On the last evening of the conference, right before the start of the gala, my agent whispered two words to me: Kentucky Derby.

I could hardly sit still during the gala and Googled Kentucky Derby on my phone. I knew immediately my brilliant agent was on to something.

I did have a bit of trouble with the concept of writing about an industry that glorified gambling and had its own signature alcoholic beverage, but I knew enough about the derby to know that it was also known for its magnificent hats. The idea for The Hatmaker’s Heart was hatched, and I knew at once I would set it in the Roaring Twenties. This proposal did make my editor’s eyes light up, and I’ve had a marvelous time researching and learning who Nell Marchwold, the hatmaker in my story, is and how she was discovered at . . . of all places, the Kentucky Derby.

What do you consider the greatest moment of your writing/publishing career?
Since I’m a rather late bloomer when it comes to writing, I’d have to say there are several smaller moments that were life-affirming. The first was when I entered my first contest with a short story. The prizes were awarded at a conference, and while I knew I was a finalist, when my name was called as the winner, I felt as if I’d won an academy award. The same euphoric feeling came when I won the Genesis award in historical fiction with my 1958 novel (which became my first published book). The final moment was when my superb agent, Sandra Bishop, offered me representation after a period of communicating back and forth. I knew I’d found someone who not only understood my writing but would be a driving force in my career. These defining moments still stand out as being priceless . . . and precious, and all the kudos since then wouldn’t have been possible without the way God ordered my steps in those early days.

If you weren't a writer, what would be another dream job?
I’ve always enjoyed live theater and being in stage plays in high school and college (and much later, church musicals), so I’d love to be a character actor. Someone like Kathy Bates.

What one bit of advice can you give to writers who are having difficulty finishing a novel?
If it’s the story that’s giving the problem, then step back and explore new possibilities or twists for scenes (Donald Maass Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook is stellar for help with this). If it’s getting motivated or finding time, make writing a priority and schedule it into your day as if it’s an appointment. Be persistent! (Sorry, that was two things.)

Briefly describe one of your typical writing days.
Coffee. Quiet time. Check my to-do list. I delay checking email and social media until I’ve read what I’ve written the day before and done a light edit. I’m not terribly creative in the morning, so most of my new writing is after lunch or late at night. The dinner hour and a couple of hours in the evening are reserved for my husband, but I’m back at the computer after that for a couple of late evening hours.

What are some of your pet peeves when reading a book?
Telling me the same thing over and over and telling in general. Sagging middles. Endings that seem contrived or too neatly tied up.

What do you think makes your style of storytelling unique?
Readers tell me they hear the characters when they read my stories and feel like they’ve met them. It’s a huge compliment because that’s what I strive for—making the characters unique and genuine and putting them in situations where there are no easy answers.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?
Reading. Gardening. Traveling. Spending time with my grandchildren and creating special memories with them.

Finish this statement: If I can go back in time, I would love to live... the Roaring Twenties time period, preferably in a city like Chicago or New York, London or Paris. In some ways, it feels like I have done that in writing The Hatmaker’s Heart.

Any parting words?
It’s a huge honor to be featured on ACFW since I credit the Genesis contest for jump-starting my novel writing career. My life is richer because of the ACFW community. Thanks to you all, and God bless!

Thanks for sharing with us, Carla!

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