Hey all! Thanks to the lovely folks at Meryl L. Moss, Harlequin, and Sarah Morgan, I have a Q&A with Sarah about her latest book, First Time in Forever, to share with you as a part of the blog tour today. Later today will be a review of the book (spoiler alert: it's one of her best). I adore Sarah and the work she brings into the romance field, so I hope you enjoy this Q&A as much as I did!
1. First Time in Forever is the opening book in your brand new Puffin Island series. What inspired you to write this series?
I knew from the start that I wanted the link between the characters and stories to be a strong friendship. I write romance, but I also love exploring the other relationships in my characters’ lives, including family and friends. I had finished my O’Neil Brothers series, which was set in the beautiful mountains of Vermont, and I wanted a completely different setting for my new series. I decided on an island, a coastal retreat where three friends could escape when life was hard. I want readers to dive in, breathe in the sea air, taste the fresh blueberries and the smooth chill of ice cream and take a beach holiday while they read.
2. What is the title in reference to?
The title was chosen by my publisher but it’s perfect for the story because for my heroine, Emily, it is a summer of firsts. Like many of us, she lives her life well within her comfort zone. She thinks she has control of everything but life has a way of shaking up that theory and overnight her life changes. Suddenly she’s forced to do all the things she has been avoiding and by pushing herself she discovers she is capable of more than she thought. For Emily, it really is ‘First Time in Forever’.
3. Can you tell us a little about best friends Emily, Brittany and Skylar?
I love these characters, and their friendship is a constant theme flowing through all three books. They met in college and formed an instant bond that has deepened over the years. Theirs is a deep, authentic friendship. They know each other, accept each other without judgment and they’re always there for one another. In a crisis, they’ll be on the phone – they may not always agree, but they always support. They encourage, laugh, listen and forgive. They share history, secrets, and they always want the best for each other. All three girls are very different. Emily is the more cautious of the three. She’s guarded, but very loyal to her friends. After a difficult childhood, she protects herself emotionally by keeping tight control over her life. She lives well within her comfort zone, avoiding responsibility for anyone but herself. When she finds herself responsible for a child, everything changes for her. Brittany is an archaeologist, a cross between Lara Croft and Indiana Jones (but nothing annoys her more than being asked if she owns a whip!). She is smart, adventurous and given to impulse. At the age of eighteen she married island bad boy, Zachary Flynn. It lasted all of ten days. Since then she has travelled the world and put that relationship behind her. Brittany’s story, Some Kind of Wonderful, will be out in September in the US, but readers who would like to meet her early can find her in Playing by the Greek’s Rules, a story I wrote for Harlequin Presents, which is out now. Skylar is a jewelry designer, an artist with a dreamy streak and a wicked sense of humor. She’s a free spirit, a trait that causes conflict with her family who are continually hoping she will choose a more conventional career path. Skylar is romantic but she doesn’t dream of weddings, she dreams of love.
4. How do you decide which character to write about first?
I’d had Emily’s story in my head for a while, and she was my starting point for the whole series. What I didn’t have was the setting or the other characters. I started to think about what had happened to her (finding herself guardian to her half sister’s child when she’d made a life decision never to have children) and how she’d react. Even though it was never her choice to have Lizzy, she is a very responsible person so I knew she’d do anything and everything within her power to keep the child safe. I’d already decided that she would have close friends, so I decided the three women would have somewhere they always went in times of trouble. Castaway Cottage is owned by Brittany, and all three women treat it as a sanctuary. Once I had the friends and the island, all I had to do was build a warm, wonderful community who would gradually ease Emily out of her shell. And populate it with hot men of course!
5. What is the central theme of First Time in Forever?
The central theme is courage. We all have a tendency to avoid the things that scare us, and that is what Emily has done. Her whole life has been constructed to avoid her biggest fears and suddenly she is forced to meet them head on. She is determined to protect herself and not make herself vulnerable so taking that leap with Ryan is huge for her. She’s known loss, so now she chooses to keep people at a safe distance. In the end Emily faces her fears and triumphs. Love and making yourself vulnerable, requires courage.
6. What made you choose the Puffin as the island bird?
I spent a long time researching the various islands around Penobscot Bay, Maine. Although I prefer to have a fictitious setting, it’s important to me to make it as authentic as possible so I was focusing on the national park and the wildlife of the area. I discovered that although Puffins are not an endangered species, they are rare in Maine and there are projects to reintroduce them to the islands. I first saw Puffins in the north of England and they are the most amazing sea birds. As I was researching, one of the facts that stayed with me was that although they spend most of their lives at sea, they usually return to breed on the same island where they were hatched. This fitted well with my idea that Puffin Island would be a sanctuary for the three friends. Emily, Brittany and Skylar each live busy independent lives but when they need a safe retreat, they return to the island. In the books, the Puffins actually live on Puffin Rock, which is a small rocky outcrop to the north of the island. They don’t like humans to get too close!
7. The names that you chose for the island and the cottage are so lovely - how do you come up with them?
Picking the setting for a new series is very important because I’m going to be spending so much time there myself during the writing process. It has to be somewhere that captures my imagination, and I need to fall in love with it myself before I create a word that hopefully the reader will love too. I knew I wanted to set the series in Maine, but I am lucky enough to have readers all around the world, so the place I chose had to work for them too. As part of my research, I was looking at seabirds in the area and decided that calling it Puffin Island would work for readers all over the globe. The cottage is a sanctuary for all three women and I wanted the name to reflect that. It’s somewhere they can escape to when life is difficult, so ‘Castaway’ seemed like the perfect name. I wanted it to be secluded but also warm and welcoming and in the end I fell in love with the cottage. I’d move there tomorrow!
8. Were you involved in the cover design process?
I’m very lucky because the team in the art department at HQN do a wonderful job with my covers. My editor and I make sure they have as much information about characters and setting as possible, to help them design a cover that reflects the feel and tone of the story. My agent and I do see early concepts, and feedback our ideas too. I love the cover for First Time in Forever. It conveys that warm, summery, beach feeling that matches the tone of the book.
9. Without revealing too much, what is your favorite scene in the book?
That’s a tough question. I enjoyed writing the beach picnic scene because it represents a real challenge for Emily, but also for Ryan who is equally out of his comfort zone. A woman with a child isn’t on his wish list and this is the scene where he realizes he isn’t as in control of his feelings as he’d like to be.
10. What first attracts Ryan to Emily and vice versa?
Ryan first meets Emily because he is asked by their friend Brittany to check on her. At first he is simply fulfilling a duty, but he senses that she has secrets and he’s intrigued. Ryan loves a mystery and, of course, he’s very attracted to her. Once he finds out more about her, he wants to help her. Ryan pushes her out of her comfort zone and with him she starts to do things she hasn’t done before. In helping her, he is forced to take a long hard look at his own life. Emily has been playing it safe for most of her life, but now she is right out of her comfort zone, not only because of the responsibility for Lizzy, but also because of her feelings for Ryan. He makes no secret of the way he feels about her. He is strong, persuasive and insanely hot! The relationship is very sexually charged, and she isn’t used to that. She doesn’t know how to handle it. At first she resists but gradually he nudges her out of her shell and persuades her to open up to him. Also, he has experience in the area she feels most vulnerable – caring for a child. It’s through his dealings with Lizzy that she sees his true character.
11. Your character Emily has a terrible fear of the ocean. Why did you choose to include this in the book?
Overcoming fear is a theme of the book, and Emily’s fear of the ocean mirrors her fear of emotions. She is afraid of being swamped, of losing everything. She is torn because on the one hand Puffin Island is the perfect place to hide away, but it also means confronting her worst fears. When she visited the island with her friends she was able to stay indoors and inland and think only of herself, but now she has Lizzy, who wants to play in the sand and swim in the sea. She is forced out of her comfort zone and it’s difficult for her. I love challenging my characters and watching them grow, and that’s the case for Emily.
12. You have a strong connection to the ocean. What are your fondest seaside memories?
I love the ocean. I live close to London, so escaping to the sea is nothing more than a dream for most of the year. I have two sons and some of our happiest holidays have been spent by the beach. Every summer we hire a house near the ocean and like many families, we have our own routines and rituals that we often repeat each holiday. If we’re feeling energetic we brave the freezing waves to go body boarding and walk miles along the coast path. If we want a more leisurely day we explore the tide pools, delving beneath rocks and through fronds of seaweed to find hidden treasures. We build the most amazing sand sculptures and of course we eat! Beach picnics are always fun and sometimes we’ll take a fishing trip and cook what we catch. There’s nothing quite like the taste of freshly cooked fish eaten on the beach as the sun goes down. And no beach holiday would be complete without ice cream (my current favorite flavors are pistachio and vanilla). It’s no coincidence that ice cream plays a role in First Time in Forever. I had so much fun dreaming up Summer Scoop and the whole family (and my readers on facebook!) helped pick the flavors.
13. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I love spending time with family and friends. I’m a sociable person and people are the antidote to long hours spent in front of the computer. Having friends over is a favorite pastime, and I love cooking. I also try to spend time outdoors whenever I can. Writing is a mostly sedentary, indoor job so when I’m not tied to a deadline I like to walk and ride my mountain bike (but only in the summer I confess). When I want to flop, I read (of course!) and I’m addicted to various TV dramas (The Good Wife, Scandal, House of Cards, The Big Bang Theory are among my favorites).
14. Who would play Emily and Ryan in First Time in Forever, the movie?
Emily Blunt could be Emily, and Chris Pine would be Ryan.
15. Are you a seat of your pants writer or do you plan out the story idea beforehand?
I’m definitely seat of my pants, but I do have a rough idea of where I'm going before I start. I know the characters and the conflict, but the detail evolves as I write. I do find it helps to think hard about the ending right at the beginning of the process. If you know where your characters are going to end up and how they will change over the story, it forces you to think hard about what decisions they might make, and lessons they might learn, to affect that change.
16. What are you currently reading?
Sarah Addison Allen’s First Frost. I love her work. One of my favorite books is The Peach Keeper.
17. Are there any quirky rituals/habits you have during the writing process?
I use a lot of sticky notes and I don’t throw anything away until the book is finished. I make a playlist but I don’t usually write to it. Music is a wonderful way of evoking emotion, and finding exactly the right track can make a scene easier to write. It’s very personal. I’m not sure that a reader listening to a playlist would necessarily enjoy the music unless it was played in exactly the right place in the story, but it really helps the thinking process for me.
18. Who are some of your favorite authors?
This is such a difficult question because there are so many authors whose work I enjoy and I love discovering new authors. I read a lot. Among my top favorites would be Nora Roberts, Jill Shalvis and Sarah Addison Allen.
19. What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
Write every day
Stay off the internet
When you’re stuck, keep going
Make your characters as human and real as possible
Join a writing organization such as Romance Writers of America
Put your work aside and don’t be afraid to revise. Revisions are part of writing.
Read it aloud for rhythm
Find at least one good writing friend.
Every time you’re knocked down, get up again.
20. What are you working on next?
I’m in the middle of the third book in the Puffin Island series, Skylar and Alec’s story, called Christmas Ever After. Sky is a really fun character to write and the tension with Alec is electric. It’s one of those stories where life keeps throwing boulders at the characters (a bit like real life!) and it’s interesting to see them fighting their way out. I love this couple. Their relationship borders on adversarial but they have off the scale chemistry and plenty of humor so it’s fun to write. And it’s a Holiday story, so there is all the extra frosty sparkle I always enjoy.
Thanks again to Sarah, Harlequin, and Meryl L. Moss for allowing me to be a part of this stellar tour. If you love contemporary romance with sexiness, friendship, community, and puffins, First Time in Forever is a worthy book to sink your teeth into next. Check again later in the day for a review if your interest is piqued; the book is on sale now in both e-book and print.