When I was a kid, and vacation trips meant a few hours in a car to somewhere within driving distance, there were basically two options—the beach and the mountains. Gulf Shores was a five-hour drive from my family home in Birmingham, Alabama. Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains to the north were a little bit farther.
Everybody I knew was drawn to the sugar white beaches and warm turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the gaudy gift shops on the strip and the cheap, plentiful seafood. But my vacation preference was settled at age eleven when I joined a school friend on a trip to Lake Junaluska in North Carolina. My first glimpse of the Smoky Mountains felt like finding myself.
The Smokies were massive and ancient. Mist-shrouded and mysterious. There were secrets in those mountains. Stories old and new, there for the excavation if I was willing to make the effort. The Smoky Mountains spoke to the storyteller in my soul.
I grew up surrounded by mountains in Birmingham, Alabama. Out my bedroom window, I once watched a forest fire on Ruffner Mountain light up the night. A trip south of town meant driving through the very heart of Red Mountain, where the Red Mountain Expressway had been chiseled through red fossil ore. To the northeast, Sand Mountain and Lookout Mountain provide lush and lovely landmarks for any trip in that direction.
My first two big series for Harlequin Intrigue, Cooper Justice and Cooper Security, were set in fictional Chickasaw County, Alabama, an area loosely based on an amalgamation of Guntersville and Ft. Payne, Alabama. Lakes, mountains and other lovely woods and rural vistas, combined in a way that pleased my mountain-loving soul. In a lot of ways, the rural people of northern and eastern Alabama have much in common with their mountain brethren to the north. My folks come from that part of Alabama. My own accent isn't far removed from the mountain twang of the Appalachians.
So when it was time to come up with a new series, I knew immediately where I wanted to set them—in those misty blue mountains of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. And I wanted most of my characters to be natives, people who'd lived in all that beauty and harshness, the richness of mountain culture and the poverty that came with trying to carve out a life in the sometimes unforgiving hills.
MURDER IN THE SMOKIES, my June Intrigue, is set in Bitterwood, Tennessee, a fictional small town in the foothills of the Smokies, a place that Smoky Mountain tourism bypassed somewhere along the way. Both the hero, Sutton Calhoun, and the heroine, Ivy Hawkins, grew up poor on Smoky Ridge, a place where dreams go to die. Sutton got out as soon as he could, but Ivy stayed in Bitterwood, becoming a detective with the town's police department. It's murder that brings Sutton back to Bitterwood, even though he once swore he'd never return. Sutton has a lot of unfinished business in Bitterwood, starting with his estranged father and an old boyhood friend turned adversary. And there's his old pal Ivy, who's no longer an awkward teenager but an attractive, capable woman. Her feet are firmly planted in the Smoky Mountain soil, while his are already halfway out of town again. Will their growing attraction be enough to make him stay?
Writing this series has been a ton of fun for this mountain person. But what about you? Are you a beach person? A mountain person? Or something else altogether? Leave a comment and I'll pick a winner at random for a free signed copy of MURDER IN THE SMOKIES.