Jennifer Sienes

Take a born-and-raised California author, plop her into middle Tennessee, and what do you get? Southern fiction. Until recently, I didn’t even know it was a thing. This new chapter in my life gave birth to a fresh outlook. I went from the Apple Hill Series set in Northern California, to my new Bedford County Series.

This may not be true for other authors, but I have found the stories I write parallel the seasons in my life. For my readers, it may not track well since the books in my Apple Hill Series were not published in the order they were written. The last full-length novel in that series (Providence) was actually written first. It was inspired by my brother’s suicide, so the original version—conceived over twelve years ago—had a dark undertone that felt anything but hopeful. I rewrote it three times while I healed from that loss, and I believe the message it now invokes reflects the work the Lord did in my heart over time.

It was on my first walk around our new neighborhood that the ideas started formulating for Night Songs, which will be released next month. Every other house had a massive magnolia tree sitting in the front yard with waxy leaves as large as my face and round aromatic blooms I couldn’t contain within the palms of both hands. Mockingbirds chattered from tree limbs and rooftops while bright red cardinals flitted from branch to branch, serenaded by cicadas thrumming in the humid, sweet grass-scented summer air. If the days weren’t special enough, the nights were a little piece of heaven on earth with fireflies lighting up the trees and fields like miniature Christmas decorations. It was all so new and magical, and I wanted every book in this series to be infused with the flavor of Tennessee.

To top it all off, nothing beats the summer storms. While any precipitation in California was reason to celebrate, Tennessee residents claim we’re in a drought if it doesn’t rain for a straight week. The lightning flashes we watch from bed at night are mesmerizing, while thunder often claps loud enough to shake the house. I’d never experienced such a thing before, and I still rush outside when I can to try and capture it on video. Because of all the rain, the rolling hills we live amongst are green from March to November. So different from the “golden” state.

It’s a challenge to bring to life the colorful dialect of this region without giving everyone an uneducated twang. But I also wanted it to sound authentic, which may not always jive with my editors. I’ve heard many a southerner say “might could” instead of “may” and “get you some pie” instead of “get a piece of pie.” And I find myself using the term “fixin’ to” instead of “going to” on a regular basis. A few of our church friends have commented that we now sound more southern than when we first landed here—our California “accent” isn’t quite so strong anymore.

The easiest part of creating Night Songs were the characters. That’s true of every book I’ve written. I use The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr and Discovering Your Personality Type: The Essential Introduction to the Enneagram by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson in an attempt to keep the personalities unique among each of my novels and novellas. Having a background in psychology doesn’t hurt.

The tricky part of creating any story for me is the plot. I know authors who write by the seat of their pants (pantsers) and somehow manage to maintain their sanity. If I didn’t have an outline, I’d have a minor panic attack every time I sat down in front of my computer. But I also don’t want to be too set in my ideas, because the Holy Spirit always shows up with a surprise character or two who ends up being instrumental to the faith message. It helps to keep things in perspective when I remember God is the author, and I’m merely the typist.

As I was researching the farmhouse I wanted Charlotte (Charlie) Van Cleave’s nana to leave her, I stumbled upon a dilapidated place just outside the city limits of Shelbyville. It just so happens it’s in Bedford County, hence the title for the series. The house was for sale, but it was also abandoned, giving me the opportunity to snoop around its perimeter. I took a little creative license and cleaned it up some before I plopped Charlie into it with an unexpected (and unwanted) companion—and I’m not talking about the antagonist, Derek Daniels. This companion was one of those surprise God-choices who took central stage as if I’d planned him all along (which I didn’t).

My love for interior decorating and repurposing vintage items was a component to Charlie’s career as an interior designer. I must admit, I’m a Fixer-Upper fan. It is the only reality TV I’ve ever taken a shine to. I love the idea of tackling an old house with all the character and charm that comes with it and renovating it back to its glory days. Since that isn’t possible, the next best thing is creating characters who can. That’s the beauty of fiction; I can live another life if only during the time I’m writing the story.

Other elements of Night Songs came along a little more slowly, like a sweet southern drawl. I threw in some mystery by way of missionary parents whose death left a hole in Charlie’s life, and two neighboring brothers as different as night is to day. Derek wears duty like a badge of honor, and Nicky has charm and talent, but is often accused of having only one oar in the water. Throw in a couple other characters to round out the story, and there you have it.

I hope you enjoy reading Night Songs as much I did writing it. As with all my books, I pray the messages that God put on my heart sing from the pages—or tablet—whichever the case may be.