Something changed in the air the moment the wagon crossed the town’s border. Too early to be a supply train, and there was no way in hell it was visitors. Berner didn’t host town fairs, theatre troupes, peddlers, or bible thumpers.
Wystan Heckmaster slapped his battered Stetson on his head, collected the keys to the jail, then stepped out the door. The first thing he saw was a pretty woman with hair the color of maple sugar—a rich brownish-blonde. The frown on her face spoke volumes, and the air around her pronounced trouble. She made a straight path for him.
“Mr. Heckmaster. Or should I call you Sheriff? Or Mayor? I need to discuss the ad in the Lancaster County Republican with you. Someone placed an ad, but your brother tells me there is no school here. I’m sure there has to be a mistake. There’s only one Berner in New Mexico Territory. I’m very capable at reading maps. If I wasn’t, I would be ashamed to call myself a teacher.”
He doubted she had taken more than two or three breaths during the speech. If she made talking in rambling paragraphs a habit, no wonder she looked so peaked.
“Teacher?” He glanced along the street, but it was deserted as usual. “Lady, we don’t have a school here. Certainly no need of a teacher.”
Her hands balled into fists that settled on her hips. The dress she wore was patched—the egg yolk yellow faded into something even more disgusting. It had little flowers dotting the material, but they looked as worn as her scuffed black boots.
“Then what was the purpose of placing an ad in the Lancaster County Republican?”
She spoke with the fierceness of a mama bear warning predators away from her cubs.
Wystan reached into his shirt pocket and drew out a toothpick.
“I didn’t place any ad in any Lancaster County anything.” He looked past her, expecting Eban to saunter up the street. Eban had to be the brother she’d referred to since Tell was still on the trail.
“Someone did,” she insisted. She fished a crumpled and much-folded piece of newsprint out of the pocket hidden by the folds of her skirt. “See? Right here it says, ‘School teacher wanted for spring term at Berner Schoolhouse. Wages paid based on experience. Room and board provided. Apply in person at City Hall, Berner, New Mexico Territory.’ I’m sure my eyes don’t deceive me.”
Wystan stared at the clipping, then back at the woman. A galaxy of freckles spattered across her nose and cheekbones, making her look younger than her eyes said she was. Full figured and sure as shittin’ a grown woman. The wariness and worry darkening her hazel eyes gave her away as one with a lot of trouble on her plate.
“I can read.”
She pulled the ad away from his face, folded it, and returned it to her pocket. “Where would you suggest I look for an explanation, Mr. Heckmaster?”
Fussy little thing. “I assure you that no one in this town did. There’s been a mistake. Sorry to inconvenience you, Miss Schoolteacher. Now turn around and head home.”
A flush colored her cheeks. “I can’t head home! I have no home to return to. My little sister and my friend are waiting at the doctor’s office for me to straighten this mess out. The ad says that room and board will be provided. I’d expected to move into a room, sir.”
“You left them with Eban?” That explained his absence.
“Beryl is ill, Sheriff. This is the first town we’ve seen in days and it was past time for her to get some attention.” Despair crept into her voice.
Wystan shifted his weight and transferred the toothpick to the other side of his mouth.
“Eban’s not exactly trained in human medicine.”
The woman’s mouth opened into an O. She shook her head and seemed to regain her senses. “He’s a veterinarian? He seemed certain he could help Beryl.”
Wystan cleared his throat. “Sure, animal doctor. I’m sorry for your misfortune, lady, but as you can see, Berner’s about run into the ground. There’s nothing here for you or your friend. Might be best to move along.”
She seemed to deflate. “Move along.” Her lips moved, softly forming the words, but it was as though she didn’t comprehend them. “We’ll move along, right down the trail into the next town where there won’t be any teaching jobs either. Sylvie, Beryl, and I will starve to death on the side of the road with no one in the world to care.”
1. When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
My mom says I was telling stories from the time I learned most of my letters, but I don't think it really hit me that this was the thing I wanted most in the world until I started reading romance novels and after reading Harold Bell Wright's The Shepherd of the Hills. I would've been about 12 or 13 at the time and I knew from then on, writing was my thing.
2. How long does it take you to write a book?
Tough question. Last year, I was able to write super fast—I wrote about four novels from start to finish over the span of two to three months, and worked on two at the same time at one point and I finished two I had started earlier. This year (giant frowny face), I've completed one and a novella. It kind of depends on what life is throwing me, I guess.
3. What do you think makes a great story?
Characters. There has to be a plot of course, but I can't read anything that doesn't have characters I either love from sentence one or I grow to love because they turn weaknesses into strengths. I'm extremely character driven.
4. What is your work schedule like when you're writing?
I like to participate in NaNoWriMo, which is sometimes brutal with almost 1700 words a day, but even when I'm not pushing the limits, I always try for at least 1000 a day. Some days, I can't manage it and I take whatever I've gotten, grateful to have anything. I'm an evening person, I barely manage to brush my hair in the mornings so I can get to my day job looking like I'm awake. Evenings or nights have always been my favorite time for storytelling.
5. How do you balance family and writing?
This is where video games come in handy. It's just me, my husband and our rowdy Japanese chin. The dog naps a lot, he pretty much takes care of himself unless he decides I've been at the computer too long. Give the husband a video game and he's playing that thing for hours. Mostly, though, they're pretty good at letting me sit down in the evening to write.
6. Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?
Nine-tenths of everything I write is made up. The historicals, minus The Convict and the Cattleman, are based on places I've visited. There's something about standing in a spot where major history happened that gives me chills. The Wrong Brother's Bride is set in Wilson township in southwestern Missouri where I'm from. It was a major site of a Civil War battle and the house where the characters live is semi-modeled from an original house on the site. I wish I lived in it (even though I'm convinced it's haunted because it was used as a field hospital), because it practically thrums with history. Wildwood Spring is a sort of gothic romance set in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, which is home to over 100 springs. In the 19th century, people believe the springs had healing powers, which is the basis for the book. I love going there because, again, the history—and a lot of it is really creepy—is so rich and magical.
As for the steampunk and paranormal books, honestly, I have to research the settings pretty hard on the internet. I've never been to a lot of the places where they're set and for the steampunks, it's a lot of using my imagination to invent some of the items they use to make their lives easier—things that aren't conventional for our universe. In books like the Heckmasters series, I've done a lot of research on the occult and paranormal, even reading grimoires so I can get an idea of how my characters might summon demons—I feel really weirded out by some of the things I've read.
7. What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your book/s?
Sometimes the words flow so easily and it's really good stuff. I'm going, who wrote this? Did the magic writing fairies stop by? Other times, it's like pulling teeth. Crazy how it works.
8. How many books have you written? Which is your favourite?
I've finished 10 full-length novels and two novellas. They're all so different, it's hard to pin down one that is my absolute favorite. The first one is special, the first in a series is special, the one that's way out there weird is special. So hard. Right now, though, the one I'm most proud of is The Wrong Brother's Bride. It was the first one I wrote set in Missouri and the characters and plot are among my very favorite.
9. Are your characters based on anyone you know?
No outright. They have characteristics of people I know and love, but they never fully embody people I know.
10. Do you have a favourite place you love to write?
I'm not too picky. I've sat in libraries, write-ins with other authors, at home, at the lake. It's mostly about being focused enough to get into the story and not be distracted by other things.
11. How hard is it to get published?
I think it's kind of about what the house is looking for or what an editor is looking for and being able to fulfill their wishes. I started out in self-publishing after the house I submitted to closed its doors. I was happy self-publishing, but I wanted to know what the other side of publishing was like too. It was about two years before I got up the nerve to submit to another editor. I'm pretty sure it was dumb luck that got me through the doors, although I got offers for a contract from two houses the same day—choosing which one I wanted wasn't easy. Honestly, every time I've submitted, I've received an offer for a contract. I'm not sure if it's dumb luck or good timing. Hopefully talent figures in there somewhere.
12. What do your family and friends think about your books?
My family is wildly enthusiastic about them. Maybe not wildly, but they're always asking when the next one is coming out. I took a stack of paperbacks to a family reunion and they were all pretty fascinated by them. Most of my friends are writers as well and we all get excited about each others' books.
13. What do you like to do when you are not writing?
I'm a huge movie fan. I love comedy, action, adventure, drama. We watch a lot of movies at my house. I also like to explore. This year I've been places in my home state I've never been to before and it's been tons of fun. A nice break from the norm.
14. Do you have any suggestions to help aspiring writers better themselves and their craft? If so, what are they?
Read, read, read. I learned a lot about how to structure sentences by reading. Always, always get a critique partner—one who knows what he or she is doing. You can't go wrong with someone who will encourage you when you're having one of those days when you wonder why you keep writing when it doesn't seem to be going anywhere.
15. As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I wanted to be a ballerina, a cattle rancher, an oil baron, a doctor, a paleontologist, and obviously, a writer.
16. What are your favourite books and which authors inspire you?
I mentioned The Shepherds of the Hills earlier. Always one of my favorites. It has a little of everything in it from romance to a ghost story. I've loved Louis L'Amour since I was a teenager. He inspired my love of the Old West. Linda Lael Miller and Leigh Greenwood's historical romances are a huge influence on my writing as well.
17. For an aspiring writer what do you feel are certain do's and don’ts for getting their material published?
DO know the house (and if at all possible the editor) you're submitting to.
DO let others (preferably writers you can trust) beta read your manuscript.
DO keep writing while waiting to hear back after you submit.
DO search the web and sites like Absolute Write Water Cooler to learn about potential houses where your work will be appreciated.
DON'T be afraid to submit—fear kills dreams.
DON'T be afraid to query if you haven't heard back about your submission in a certain amount of time. Many editors will let you know a rough approximation.
18. What are you working on now?
I'm trying to finish up the third Heckmasters book, Tell. I'm dabbling with a couple of historical's as well.