This month’s Jen’s Jewels Shelley Shepard Gray touches upon this very topic in MISSING, the first book in her new Amish series The Secrets of Crittenden County. It’s the story of a local boy who goes missing from an Amish community and winds up being found dead in an abandoned well. As the local townsfolk and Amish people come together to bring his killer to justice, best-kept secrets are revealed, changing this quiet Kentucky community forever.
As part of this interview, Avon Inspire, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, has generously donated five copies for you, my favorite readers to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question at the end of the column. As always, thanks for making Jen’s Jewels a part of your reading adventure.
Jen: A New York Times bestselling author, your writing career has been quite extraordinary. So that my readers may catch a glimpse into the life of the woman behind the words, please share with us your educational and professional background.
Shelley: Well, let’s see. I grew up in Houston, Texas, then went to the University of Colorado for my Bachelor’s degree. I had a double major, elementary education and English literature. I then taught school for eleven years. We moved around a bit, so I taught fifth and sixth grade in Arizona, Texas, and Colorado. Along the way, I went to college at night and got my Masters in Educational Administration. Soon after I earned my masters degree, we moved to Ohio. I decided I needed a short break from teaching sixth grade…and started writing full time. Never did I imagine I would have a writing career! It’s really amazing how it all turned out.
Jen: Please describe for us your ‘Aha!” moment when you decided to take the plunge and pursue a career as an author.
Shelley: I actually started writing during one of my lunch hours, when I was teaching 6th grade! I never imagined I would ever show anyone what I wrote, let alone sell a book! I started writing in earnest after my first visit to an Ohio Valley Romance Writers of America chapter meeting. There, I met lots of women who were a lot like me~they loved books and had a dream of one day seeing their name on the cover of a book!
Jen: In terms of nuts and bolts, approximately how long does it take for you to complete a book? And, do you plot first, or simply allow the novel to take on a life of its own?
Shelley: Because I don’t have another job, I usually can complete a book in three months. I do plot first, but a lot of times the novels really do take on lives of their own! I’m forever writing little notes to my editor when I turn in my manuscripts… (I know we didn’t plan on this, but…)
Jen: Like many authors, you have written in more than one genre including historical, western inspirational and currently Amish romances using more than one name. What attracted you to these particular genres? And, why did you choose to use a pseudonym?
Shelley: I’m a voracious reader. I will sometimes read a book a day. Because of that, I enjoy all kinds of novels. I think that has transferred to the novels I write. I like researching and imagining different story lines. The pseudonyms have always been the publishers’ ideas. As long as I’m always ‘Shelley’ I’ve been happy to follow their lead on what name they want on the covers. : )
Jen: In order to have the plot ring true with your readers across the different genres, how much research is needed to sustain the various storylines?
Shelley: Quite a bit of research is involved, especially with the Amish novels. I’m lucky that I know several Amish ladies who have been so helpful to me. That said, a lot of the storylines in my books are universal. They can happen to anyone, such as Mattie, my cancer survivor in the Families of Honor series. For Mattie, I was able to speak to several close friends about their experiences with cancer. For the Crittenden County series, I called up a police detective friend of my husband’s in Denver, and asked him all kinds of questions-poor guy!
Jen: Your latest release MISSING is the first book in your remarkable new series The Secrets of Crittenden County. How did you arrive at the premise?
Shelley: While researching locations for the Families of Honor series, I came across Crittenden County, KY on the Internet. Later I visited it, and it was so different than the Amish community near my house or the ones in northern Ohio that I knew I wanted to set a series there.
I remember the first time I visited Crittenden County. My husband and I were driving around, the day was kind of overcast, and the road was really narrow. A white clapboard Amish home was directly across from an old, abandoned single-wide trailer. The woods were really thick, and we could hear the water rushing through the creek nearby. I looked at my husband and told him that it would be a perfect place to find a body! I meant it as a joke…but then the idea kind of stuck.
Jen: The story begins with the mysterious murder of a local Amish young man Perry Borntrager. In what way does his religious background prove to be a hindrance for Deputy Sherriff Mose Kramer in conducting the investigation into the murder?
Shelley: I’ve found that a lot of people like to imagine that all Amish people are incapable of doing anything mean or hurtful or illegal. In that way, I think it was hard for the community to imagine that Perry had been murdered. The Amish community is usually rather closed, too. They typically don’t want outsiders to know everyone’s faults.
However, Deputy Sheriff Mose Kramer grew up Amish, and knows everyone in his jurisdiction rather well. Probably too well. He knows people are lying to him, and he worries that he’s letting his preconceived notions about people interfere with being objective.
That’s why he calls up his friend from the police academy, Luke Reynolds to help investigate. When Luke enters, he must not only push away his notions about country life versus city life, but also his ideas about what it’s like to be ‘Amish’ or ‘English’.
Jen: As in any small town, opinions and accusations are whispered among the townsfolk yet not shared with the authorities. How does Perry’s former Amish girlfriend Lydia Plank cope with the constant scrutiny by her peers and fellow members of the Amish community?
Shelley: At first, Lydia wants to hide from all of the scrutiny and whispers. After a time, however, she knows she has to learn to stand up for herself and learn to face her accusers.
Her journey towards independence is a difficult one, because along the way, she uncovers some secrets about herself, and falls in love with a man who is another suspect in the murder investigation.
Jen: Englisher Walker Anderson has his own secrets to hide having had issues with Perry prior to his death. How does Walker’s newfound friendship with Lydia bridge the gap between his feelings of guilt and sadness?
Shelley: Obviously, one of the themes in MISSING was that every character feels that something is ‘missing’ in his or her life. For Walker, Lydia provides that missing link. She makes him see that he’s not the only person with insecurities, or with feelings of guilt about Perry’s death. They have a lot in common, though at first it seems like don’t.
Jen: Let’s switch gears now and talk about your website. Please take us on a brief tour highlighting points of interest.
Shelley: My website is: www.shelleyshepardgray.com. I try to update it fairly regularly. In the ‘Book’ section, readers can find all my novels. All the novels are grouped by series name. I also write a blog one or two times a week. Sometimes I simply talk about what I’m working on, or what is going on in my life. Other times, I run a contest. I love hearing from readers, and enjoy when readers post comments. I also try to keep a pretty good calendar with scheduled book signings listed.
Jen: Are you involved with social media? What is the best way for your fans to keep up with your latest news and releases?
Shelley: I’m on Facebook, and I try to check in everyday. On my author page, readers can often read excerpts from my latest releases or hear news about giveaways. I love chatting with readers there, and discovering what they’ve been up to! I love to bake, and often we’re all posting pictures of our latest cake or batch of cookies.
Jen: Are you currently at work on the second novel in the series? If so, what may you share with us?
Shelley: I’m so pleased to share that the whole series has been written! I’m currently finishing up revisions for FOUND, the last book in the series. In THE SEARCH and in FOUND, the mystery surrounding Perry’s death continues. Readers will also get to know many of the characters better, and read about two more romances that bloom. One thing that is kind of special about these books is that they take place right after each other-THE SEARCH begins the day after MISSING ends. I guess you can tell I’m very excited about this series!
Jen: Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with my readers. I am looking forward to reading the next installment of The Secrets of Crittenden County. Best of luck with the series!
Shelley: Jen, thank you! I loved chatting with you about the newest series. Please let your readers know that I’ll be doing lots of book signings in Kentucky and Ohio for MISSING’S book launch. Dates are on my website.
I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Shelley. Please pick up (or download) a copy of MISSING today! Better yet, how would you like to win one instead?
Okay, be one of the first five readers to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the correct answer to the following trivia question and you’ll win!
What is the name of the second book in The Secrets of Crittenden County series?
Next month, I will be bringing to you my interview with New York Times bestselling author Phillip Margolin! You won’t want to miss it.
Until next time…