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Interview with Jennifer Uhlarik

Jennifer Uhlarik fell in love with Westerns as a child and now writes them with the tagline, “Where Grit Meets Grace.” A multi-award winning author, Jennifer has been published in many novella collections with themes ranging from first loves to mail order brides. Sand Creek Serenade is her first full-length novel. As a perfectionist, she found the idea of writing a story about a well-known and terrible event in American history a scary prospect. Jennifer fought past her fears of getting some facts wrong to write the story she knew had to be told. She mixes romance, history, and tragedy while weaving in her ultimate message of hope.

Congratulations on the release of your first full-length novel! How has the publishing process been different than your novellas?
Thank you so much for having me today! The publishing experience between my novellas and a full-length novel has been quite different. For one thing, with the novellas, I’ve been able to sell the ideas based on just a synopsis and perhaps a sample chapter, but with my novel, I had to complete the manuscript first. (The latter is becoming more and more the standard, for those who might not know. LOL)

Another difference was the editing process. My novellas have never taken more than a couple of weeks to edit. The novel’s editing process was deep and lengthy—lasting a couple of months. My editors at Smitten did a fantastic job of fact-checking my history and other aspects of the story, pushing me to deepen my POV and clean up other aspects of my writing craft. It was a fantastic experience, and I learned a bunch of great stuff.

And the third place where I’d say I had a much different experience in the publishing process between the novella and novel is in the cover design. Since the novellas are in collections with several stories/authors, I’ve had little or no input on the covers for those. But with Sand Creek Serenade, I had the great experience of getting to describe my vision for the cover, find pictures and photographs for the artist.

When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
I think I must have been bitten by the writing bug when I was very young because there was rarely a time I was without paper and pencil, even when I was a toddler and didn’t know how to write. That said, I don’t think I really understood that the writing bug had bitten until I was about twelve. It was then that a close friend told me she was writing a novel, and my competitive streak came out. If she could do it, I could do it better! And so I started writing, and I’ve not really stopped since.

What is the funniest thing that has happened to you in your writing journey?
Well…this one’s really pretty embarrassing to me, but everyone else gets a good belly laugh when I tell it. Back when my son was still a toddler (he’s going on 22 now), I awakened and rolled out of bed, then got breakfast for myself and my child. Still wearing the paint-stained t-shirt and ratty old shorts I’d slept in, I wandered into my writing room, I fired up my computer, and started reading through what I’d written the night before. At the time, my habit was to put on a cowboy hat anytime I worked on my writing, so as I sat down, on went the hat, right over my terrible case of bedhead. My son was playing contentedly with our Border Collie, Cody, and all was right with the world. Until…I didn’t hear the dog anymore, and I realized I hadn’t heard him for a good 10 minutes. So, barefooted, I got up to check on things.

My son was playing with his blocks, but the dog was nowhere in the house. I went out back to see if he’d gone out the dog door into our yard. Just as I rounded the corner at the side of our house, I see my almost completely white dog slide out the hole he’d just dug under the fence into the neighbor’s yard! The same neighbor whose gate was broken and always stood open to their front yard.

Oh no! Houdini had escaped again!

So without much thought, I raced back through the house to the front door, flung it open, and bolted out into the yard. There was Cody, all white on one side, completely muddy and black on the other!

“Cody! Want a bone?” I hollered. “Bone! C’mon, boy. Bone!”

Of course, my toddler son, wearing only a diaper and t-shirt, followed me out and started “helping” by shouting, “Cody, BONE!” with me.

For the next ten minutes, I’d chase the dog, get within about 3-6 feet of him, and just before I could grab him, he’d dash into the next yard. With every round of cat and mouse he subjected me to down our street, I was growing more and more angry. We finally reached the very last house, and I was praying like crazy the dog would not round the corner and drag me and my child even further from home. As he started to round the corner, the garage door went up, and out stepped my brand-new neighbor who I’d not had the opportunity to meet yet. Of course, he was dressed in suit and tie!

My crazy dog saw his opportunity. He bolted into the promised land of that garage, right past the new neighbor—and straight through the open door into the house! Mud and all! I was mortified! Thank God, I didn’t have time to think about it then. I simply acted.

“Hi! I’m your neighbor from the other end of the street! I’m sooooo sorry about my dog! Cody, get out here!!!” I shouted as I ran up, ready to barrel past him in pursuit of the mutt. The man stopped me, said he’d get the dog, and within a moment, was dragging Cody out of his house by his collar. I thanked him profusely for his help, took Cody from him, and dragged him back toward the sidewalk and home.

With the squirming dog now held by a vice grip, young son toddling along after, I began to realize what a sight I must be. I’d put anything but my best foot forward, in my rumpled, stained clothes, mass of long, bed-head curls under a cowboy hat, barefooted, with my muddy dog and diaper-clad kid. I looked like a nightmare straight out of Hicksville, I’m sure!

To this day—some 20ish years later—I still haven’t been able to bring myself to speak another word to that neighbor!

What drew you to the Western genre?
Like so many girls, I loved horses as a child. I couldn’t get enough of them! I would read any book that had a horse on the cover. The Black Stallion books, Misty of Chincoteague, Black Beauty, you name it, I read it! But as I got older, I’d read them all and was running out of “horse” books. On my way out the door to go to school one morning, I swiped the only “horse” book on my oldest brother’s bookshelf. It happened to be a Louis L’Amour western. As I opened the cover on the school bus that morning, I discovered that the horse in that book was cool, but the guy on the horse was even cooler! I quickly fell in love with the genre and began frequenting a wonderful used bookstore in my town to pick up other copies of Louis L’Amour’s works, most of which were $.25. At one point, I had almost the entire collection!

What message do you hope readers take away from Sand Creek Serenade?
I want readers to know that there is always hope, even in the worst of circumstances. The characters in Sand Creek Serenade experience the worst that humankind can dish out, and yet they survived and love (both romantic and the broader caring-for-others type love) shined through.

Where do your story and character ideas come from?
Oh, gosh! Anywhere and everywhere. Sometimes, ideas come to me while I visit historic locales and I envision things that might have happened there back in the day, or the people who might have walked on the spot where I am standing. Sometimes, they come from something I’ve read that sends my imagination spinning down a random path. Still other times, a dream triggers a story idea or character. Once, my (now ex-) sister-in-law said she’d “jumped ship at the last minute” (she worked on a cruise ship at the time), and while I knew the meaning of the phrase “jumped ship” the words took on a very literal meaning in my writerly brain, and I knew I would have to write a story to find out why someone would actually jump off a perfectly good boat. (Yes, that’s one of many stories I’ve yet to tell—but it’s in the works! LOL)

What is your writing routine?
What is the meaning of this word, routine? Hahaha! (I wish I was kidding).

I’ve never been one who had a super-structured writing routine. When I was a single mom some 15-20 years ago, I did most of my writing late at night after my son went to bed, and that’s still my most productive time. However, I have tried to get better about structuring my daytime hours so I am able to produce words before nightfall. But I share my home with my retired husband, so depending on what we need to get done on a given day, my writing routine might begin at 8 A.M., just after I’ve had breakfast, and last until midnight. Other days, I don’t get into my routine until 8 P.M. after a full day of running errands and putting out fires elsewhere.

When I can make it happen, my ideal day is the one where I wake up in a rather leisurely manner, have a spot of breakfast and read a bit, then get to my desk by 10 AM. I work for a couple of hours, step out of my writing room to have a bit of lunch with my hubby, and get back to work soon after for several more hours. I’ll break to make dinner (or go out) with my husband, watch a bit of the Tampa Bay Rays baseball game or a movie with him, and if I still feel the need to get more accomplished, return to my desk for a tiny bit more evening writing.

The Sand Creek Massacre was a real event in American history. Did you find it difficult to portray historical people as characters? Did you struggle to portray such a devastating event?
I’ve written a story or two where a historical event was one small part of a much larger plot, but Sand Creek Serenade was the first book I’ve written that dealt so heavily with a well-documented historical event. In this story, the massacre and the events leading up to it were the story. In telling this tale from the viewpoints of two fictionalized characters, I found it necessary to write about several historical figures—namely Colonel John Chivington, Major Scott Anthony, Major Ned Wynkoop, Captain Silas Soule, Chief Black Kettle, and Chief Left Hand. I’ll admit, that was a nerve-wracking experience for me at first. It was hard to settle myself down and just write, for fear I was going to misrepresent someone who’d really lived. Some of these men were heroes, others villains, and still others were victims in a terrible tragedy. I wanted to be sure to show them as they were, to the best of my ability. So I researched a lot and did the best I could to write them as true to life as I found them in my reference materials.

And yes, Sand Creek Serenade was a difficult story to write due to the nature of the events. It’s never easy to write about prejudice and hatred, but when those feelings are taken to the extremes of massacring unsuspecting women and children…it was, at least in some scenes, a gut-wrenching story to tell. But at the same time, I experienced God’s presence in writing this story in ways I’ve never felt in any other story I’ve written. As I started writing this story, my husband and I also began attending a noon prayer service at our church each Wednesday. During those services, when I would close my eyes to pray and worship, God began giving me “downloads” of the story—vivid scenes that would play like a movie in my mind, showing me what to write on the upcoming parts of the story. I’d receive just enough to last me until the next service, and then I’d get a new download. While it was a hard book to write, covering a heartbreaking event in our nation’s history, I also felt God with me through each step of the process. I’m thankful for having done it, and I’m incredibly proud of the end product, especially since I tried to infuse the story with hope and healing that Christ can bring.

Your heroine is a doctor in a time that women were not widely accepted in that profession. How did that inspire her character?
I thought it would be interesting to write about a woman doctor during the Civil War era. From the start, I knew she would have to be spunky and have a deep strength of character in order to study, much less practice, medicine at such a time in history. Then came the questions of how she would learn medicine, given the feelings of most people at the time—that women were such delicate, wilting flowers that the couldn’t handle such topics or tasks. My heroine, Sadie, would have to talk someone into allowing her to read and apprentice under them, or fight for a way to attend medical school. After having studied Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (one of America’s earliest college-trained female doctors) and her fight to attend a medical college, I decided the former manner of study, apprenticeship, would be my heroine’s means to break into the field. As I explored her character, it became clear that she was from a long line of doctors and nurses, so the love of medicine and the healing arts was in her blood.

What does your research process look like?
It really depends on the story and how much I need to learn to tell it effectively. With Sand Creek Serenade, there was a huge learning curve! Before I ever started writing the story, I spent a lot of time reading parts, if not all, of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Ned Wynkoop and the Lonely Road from Sand Creek among other books to get the historical events leading to the massacre. I took copious notes on each chapter, boiled those notes down into the succession of events, and began trying to build my fictional characters and story into the actual history. I also spent many hours reading about female doctors. And then there was the Cheyenne culture and lifestyle, their myths, and learning much about their camps and tepees. I’d been to that area in Colorado some fifteen years earlier, so I also perused old pictures from my earlier trip and really tried to cement the landscape in my mind. All these things formed the basis for my story.

Once I began writing, I kept those books close at hand, often stopping to research minor details and fact-check myself as I went. I also had to stop to do other internet research—on various medical conditions and how they might be treated. I went so far as to watch some videos on the medical procedures my heroine might perform. Of course, her procedures would have been far more rudimentary, but between watching the videos of present-day procedures and reading about the history of the same techniques, I could get a close approximation of what Sadie might have done. Anyway, for this particular story, there was a heavy research period beforehand, and lots of research breaks all the way through. Thankfully, many stories I write don’t require anywhere near that level of study to tell a convincing story!

If you were not a writer, what would you be?
Something creative! When I was in college, I intended to double major in music and writing (I ended up with a minor in music instead), so maybe I would be a musician. However, I suspect it would be one of my many hobbies—paper quilling, sewing, photography, painting, crafting of some variety. These are things that make me happiest when I’m not writing, and with the internet and websites like Etsy, it’s becoming easier to make a living from such things! But then…I have too many stories to tell, so my alternate hobbies will have to wait a bit longer, I suppose.


Jody Stinson believes every story deserves a happy ending—even if she has to write one herself. After an international upbringing, she continues to travel whenever she can. Her goal is to take her readers somewhere new, make them smile, and give them hope through Christ. She currently writes freelance including articles, devotionals, commercials, and even a client's wedding toast.

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