Meet Julie Houston – winner of the RNA’s 2021 Sapere Books Popular Romantic Fiction Award

Hi Julie

In your shortlist interview you wrote:

I was inspired to write SING ME A SECRET after taking part in a musical production of Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar in Leeds Town Hall several years ago. In the actual book, a family secret held between four sisters is played out, and eventually revealed, while rehearsing and performing in their village’s own production of this fabulous musical. I’d loved every minute of taking part in the show, especially as we all fell in love with Jesus. And what a Jesus…

You revealed the source of this novel was a musical – how did this come about?

I’ve sung in a choir for the past twenty-five years or so and, on one occasion, we were lucky enough to be given permission to perform JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR by Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Really Useful Group. This was performed in Leeds Town Hall and it was one of the best things I’ve ever been involved in. We all fell in love with Jesus, who was an extremely talented – as well as rather good looking – young man, and taking part in the production was really fantastic. Our choirmaster, Gary, who I’ve acknowledged in the book, Sing Me A Secret, surprised us all by donning a yellow suit and purple wig and taking on the part of Herod. This was my inspiration for Juno’s love object – Dr Scott Butler – when he took on the part of Herod in his own yellow suit and purple wig.

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Can you share some of your journey from unpublished to published author with us?

I’ve always read, as surely all authors must have done in order to write a novel themselves, and really wish – again as all authors probably wish – I’d started writing much earlier. However, I started writing Goodness Grace and Me when my children were small and I suppose it took me many years to not only write it but have the confidence to submit to agents. Then came the usual rejections. I joined the RNA and submitted this first book into their New Writers’ Scheme which was extremely helpful in pointing out where I was going wrong. (As well as going right, thank goodness). Eventually my lovely agent, Anne Williams at KHLA, took me on and we did the round of submissions. This was back in 2014 when publishing was still all about paperbacks and the Romantic Comedy genre seemed to be losing popularity As such, the main publishing houses rejected it. I decided to go independent and worked with Ebook Publishing to get Goodness Grace and Me up as an e-book with Amazon Kindle. The book did well, reaching 64 in the UK charts. I then wrote The One Saving Grace and Looking for Lucy and was taken on by White Glove which was an arm of Amazon publishing for agented writers. I don’t think it exists any more. They were brilliant at promoting and Looking for Lucy reached Number 1 in Australia. Anne submitted A Village Affair to a round of publishers and I was taken on by Sarah Ritherdon who was then with Aria. Aria took all my back numbers as well as offering a new three-book deal and then, with Hannah Smith as editorial director, was given another three-book deal. The team at HeadOfZeus/Aria have been fabulous to work with. Sing Me A Secret won the Sapere Books Popular Fiction prize in March this year. A Family Affair will be published in June and I’m just about to complete my tenth novel, A Better Life.

What advice would you give to your younger unpublished self?

Write that book now!! Don’t leave it until you think you have time. Read everything, even books outside the genre in which you want to write. Also, go with your gut instinct: if you really think people will enjoy reading what you’ve written, don’t listen to anyone who might try and put you off. Persevere, don’t give up. Plod on. You’ll get there if you really want to.

Are you a very organised plotter or do you write from a specific starting point and then let the characters evolve and take you on a journey?

By the time I was writing my fifth book and had been taken on by Aria, I knew this was a serious business and I had to see this as a job, rather than a hobby! I’ve never been asked to write a certain plot – sometimes I think it might be interesting to be given an idea – so it’s now a matter of sitting down with a brand-new exercise book and creating characters, time lines and family trees. I hate that first page of writing a new novel. In fact, I probably hate the first few chapters as I am homesick for my old characters and not yet in love with the new ones. Once I’m in love with them, I let them write themselves. I know this sound utterly daft, and I’ve certainly ridiculed the idea that characters can write the stories themselves, but give them their head and they will. I love writing dialogue – I’d love to do some script writing – so I suppose my books are very much character, as opposed to plot, driven.

How have you coped to keep yourself mentally and physically fit during lockdown?

I’ve just got on and written two books: A Family Affair which comes out in June and A Better Life (title might change.) I started the first last March as Lockdown started and am on the point of finishing the second. If anyone had suggested, when I first started this writing lark, I’d be writing two books a year, I’d have laughed out loud. Lockdown has given me the opportunity to do that. My children are in their early twenties and have basically left home, giving me all the time I need to write. Physically, I run most days as well as walking the dog. (Sometimes I combine the two, much to the dog’s dismay who doesn’t like being on a lead). I was swimming most days until the gym closed for Lockdown and we’ve now just been informed this one isn’t going to be reopening at all. Who needs yet another retail park which, I believe, is going to be there instead? I’m livid!!

What has the RNA and winning this award meant to you?

The RNA has been fabulous. I’ve met so many friendly and talented writers happy to share their time, advice and expertise. Winning the RNA Sapere Popular Fiction award this year can only be described as a dream come true.

What next for Julie?

As we speak, I’m just about finishing book 10: A Better Life. Brand new characters apart from Cassie, Fiona and Clare from A Village Affair who, although featuring only briefly, I enjoyed bringing to life once again. I certainly can’t imagine stopping writing very soon yet. Who knows – in another five years, I may have written another ten books?

I certainly hope that you do and wish you every success in the future.

Please leave a comment or a question in the comments below!

Spring Offers!

Spring time has arrived at last and with it the chance to read a selection of my titles at only £0.99/$1.50 each! The selection of titles includes warm love stories set against mixed with adventure, mystery (or  a mixture of both!) set in the beautiful North Yorkshire countryside of the early nineteenth century.


Chloe's FriendChloe’s Friend: Miss Chloe Branton has been found a position as a laundry maid in a wealthy country house. The work is hard and she is slight, but she stays knowing the arrangement is to keep her away from her father’s enemies. Mr Thaddeus Poole, is an unlikely person to offer her help, but Chloe does not know if he will betray her or be a true friend.


The Baker’s Apprentice: Molly Mason dreams of escaping from the control of Mrs Cresswell, her step-mother, by becoming an apprentice to her friend who owns the local bakery. This ill thought-out plan is stopped when Juniper Cresswell’s fiancé, war hero Lt. Cherry, returns accompanied with a soldier who had been presumed dead. The soldier brings with him suspicions of murder, mystery and the key to Molly’s heart.


Truth, Love & LiesTruth, Love & Lies: Major Luke Stainbridge returns to his beloved estate in England after being held prisoner by Napoleon, to discover he has been replaced by an impostor. Meanwhile, Miss Florence Swan, naively, ventures out into the world alone to avoid the drudge of life in a cotton mill.  Two lives are in chaos. Two destinies combine: will the love of truth be enough to destroy a sinister network of lies?


Felicity Moon: Miss Felicity Moon jeopardises her position, her life and her future when she strikes the Lord of the manor in self-defence and is forced to leave his household. Squire Moon, her father, is in gaol charged with bank-rolling smugglers and the storing of contraband. She has one last chance to save herself from ruin in the form of a reference written for a Mr Lucas Packman, a man her father dislikes intensely. She has a stark choice to make: trust Packman or her obey her incarcerated father.


Dead to Sin (A Penn Mystery – Book 1): Nicholas Penn is summoned to Gorebeck Gaol to visit a man accused of the rape and murder of five wenches. Having been found holding the body of the last victim in his arms his plight seems sealed. Nicholas is torn between a sense of duty and his feelings of hurt and disgust when being in the presence of the accused. The tables turn abruptly, and Nicholas becomes the incarcerated, duped and incensed he is sworn to find the man, Wilson, before another victim dies.


Betrayal of Innocence: Lydia works desperately hard at Bagby Hall in order to keep her ailing father from the poorhouse. She is a loyal person, but is racked with guilt as she knows her friend, Miss Georgette, is being cruelly used by Lord and Lady Bagby. It is only when she fears Miss Georgette’s life may be in danger that she acts  – but how?

An Interview with Cindy A. Christiansen

Photo - Cindy A. Christiansen (1)

My first guest of 2014 is Cindy A Christiansen. To work as an author takes dedication and determination. Cindy appreciates this more than most as she has had to overcome life-changing illness to achieve her ambitions. She has kindly taken time out of her busy schedule to share her experiences with us.

How dramatic was the illness that caused you to change from your original profession to becoming an author?

It was devastating and confusing. I had no idea what was wrong with me. I got sick all the time and was missing way too much work. I kept falling asleep at my desk. I was a programmer/analyst and I soon found that I couldn’t follow the logic of a simple piece of code. I was sick for my bridal shower and during my honeymoon. I finally ended up in the ER with an enlarged liver and spleen, Mononucleosis and Epstein-Barr virus. The doctor said I had to make a life-changing decision about my future. He said I needed total bed rest.

However after a month of following his instructions, I was even worse. Despite seeking the help of thirteen different doctors, no one could tell me what was wrong with me. I finally had to quit my job. The illness continued to progress. Six or seven years later, I was finally diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, and Chronic Epstein-Barr virus. Since that time, I’ve been diagnosed with over thirty other health-related illnesses that affect me physically and cognitively.

 

What inspired you to turn around the situation into a positive step by entering the world of fiction?

Having been raised on a farm with a strong work ethic, staying in bed was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. My self-esteem and self-worth plummeted and depression set in. My husband was working and pursuing hobbies. I felt alone, isolated and down-right bored to death. I needed something else with which to think of in my life.

I got a yellow writing tablet and started writing. Articles and stories soon turned into a book. Sometimes I could barely move my hand across the paper, but I felt such a rush of accomplishment. Then I rescued and adopted a Wire-haired Fox Terrier puppy and my life began to change in the most positive ways.

 

Did your childhood fuel your imagination and love for animals – especially dogs?

Absolutely! After twelve books, I still haven’t run out of life experiences to use in my books. Growing up on a farm but within a city, I’ve experienced the best of both worlds. Living in Utah, I have enjoyed the most beautiful diverse landscape that has made the setting for every book unique without leaving the state.

I haven’t begun to share all the wonderful experiences I have had living on our farm and loving and working with dogs. Just to give you an idea of my imagination as a kid, I’ll share that our old hay wagon made a very nice stagecoach and our two-horse trailer made an excellent jail for all those desperate outlaws of the west. Our mixed-breed dog, Poncho, quickly became Lassie or Rin-Tin-Tin on a whim.

When did you first break into publication?

Publication didn’t come quickly. I began taking classes, joining writing groups, and doing tons of rewrites on the same book. Although doctors said I would never have children, I found myself in a high-risk pregnancy. Motherhood took everything I had, and when my son was eighteen months he was diagnosed with learning disabilities and special needs. Another child followed three years later, and he was also special needs. My writing was on hold until one day when I read Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand and found out she had one of the illnesses I had. It totally inspired me to seek publication, and I began writing again and submitting to publishers.

I published three books with a publisher but later pulled my rights and published with Sweet Cravings Publishing. I have seven full-length books published with them, not including the two additional books in A Merchant Street Mystery series that will follow. I also have independently published three novellas, one novelette, and a non-fiction book on writing.

When starting a new novel do you begin with the title, plot outline or character profiles? Or just a blank page and the first word?

I start with a plot idea and have a whole batch of worksheets I fill out before actually beginning to write.

Could you describe what experience a reader can expect from one of your books?

I want readers to know exactly what they are going to get from one of my books, especially since I write outside the box. As part of my marketing plan, I developed a list and post it in as many places as I can. Here it is:

  • A clean read with no bedroom scenes or offensive language.
  • A tantalizing, fast-paced plot.
  • A story without a lot of boring description.
  • Down-to-earth heroes and heroines with everyday jobs.
  • A rollercoaster ride of emotions you face right along with the characters.
  • A special dog to steal your heart.
  • A few added facts, a good message, and that important happily-ever-after ending.

German shorthaired pointer posing in the field

What is next for Cindy?

I am right in the middle of my first series. Time Will Tell: A Merchant Street Mystery Book 1 came out in September 2013 and Hunting for Happenstance, the second book in the series, will be released January 6, 2014. It’s been exciting but also a challenging task with my health issues, my two autistic children, and an ill dog.

Hunting for Happenstance is about high-spirited Daniela Estrada. She is tired of waiting for life and love to come to her in her poppa’s butcher shop. She wants to open her own doggie grooming business on Merchant Street and get practical Duston “Buck” Cooper, who owns the Bird Dog Gun Shop, to step out of his shell and ask her out.

Instead, while her Uncle Benito is deer hunting, he ends up missing and the area is swarming with aggressive black bears which holds up the search party. Duston and his dog, Ruger, have helped the police on other cases, and he is training a Karelian Bear dog. Will he help Daniela find her uncle?

Duston adores Daniela but secrets about his brother prevent him from getting close to anyone. He believes that if something is meant to be, it will just happen. Is Daniela’s missing uncle just the shot in the dark the two need to find love and happiness?

I already have plot ideas for other books and plan to continue writing and helping abused and abandoned dogs.

More by Cindy:

Sweet Cravings Publishing – Amazon – Barnes and Noble