Michelle Shocklee is the author of several historical novels, including Under the Tulip Tree, a Christy Award finalist. Her work has been included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about.
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If someone asked you to describe yourself with one word, what word would that be?
Adaptable. My husband and I work as estate caretakers, which means we’ve got to be ready and willing to do just about anything and everything the property owners ask of us. Over the years that has included taking care of llamas, sheep, horses, cattle, donkeys, and chickens. We’ve been cooks, chauffeurs, traveling companions, and provided guest services for dozens and dozens of visitors from around the world. We’ve stocked wine cellars, moved insanely valuable artwork, and hunted wild hogs, coyotes, and rattlesnakes. Our job occasionally requires moving to new locations when the need arises, which we’ve done five times in the past ten years. But we’re empty nesters, so we’re enjoying the adventure. I’m sure I’ll write a book about it all someday!
What started you on your writing journey? What has kept you on your writing journey?
My parents instilled a love of reading in me from an early age. Mom was an elementary school teacher and Dad loved history. It wasn’t a surprise to anyone when I discovered I enjoyed creating my own stories. Knowing that God gives each of us gifts to use for his purposes is what has kept me on the writing journey, especially during the years before any of my books were published. I remember working on my stories, wondering if anyone would ever read them besides me. I’ve completed at least six novels that will never be published and that’s okay. God used them to help me learn the craft of writing. Nothing is wasted when we give it over to Him.
Let’s talk about your new book, Count the Nights by Stars (Tyndale, March 2022). Please tell us about it.
Count the Nights by Stars is a time-slip novel set in 1961 and 1897 Nashville. Both storylines take place at the famed Maxwell House in downtown Nashville, and I had great fun researching the historic hotel and bringing it to life for readers.
In 1961, Audrey Whitfield finds an old scrapbook among the possessions of reclusive resident Priscilla Nichols, a woman who’s lived at the hotel for decades but who has recently suffered a stroke and is hospitalized. Throughout the colorful pages of the scrapbook, Audrey discovers unmailed postcards from the Tennessee Centennial Exposition with love notes written on the backs describing a forbidden romance. She also finds old newspaper clippings with troubling stories about human trafficking during the 1897 expo. With the help of handsome law student Jason Sumner, Audrey will not only learn more about Priscilla and the secrets hidden in the pages of the memory book, but she’ll also come away with a new perspective on her own fears and regrets.
Priscilla’s story takes readers back to 1897 Nashville when the Tennessee Centennial Exposition took place. My research into the expo was fascinating, and I tried to bring the excitement, sounds, and tastes of this world’s-fair type event to life. Many of the exhibits featured advancements in the technology of the day, women’s accomplishments, and even offered a glimpse into the first kindergarten class. Vanity Fair, the amusement section of the expo, presented visitors with experiences from around the world, including a Chinese Village, the Streets of Cairo, and authentic Italian gondola rides.
Library Journal gave Count the Nights by Stars a starred review, saying “Shocklee’s novel is like the coffee at the Maxwell House: good to the last drop.” I hope readers agree!
Those who “create” usually tap into a personal “toolbox” of elements to define their style. For example, a painter might use color, light, and/or shadows in a certain way to “sign” his work. A musician might use syncopation, key changes, and/or vocal intonation to set herself apart. What two or three elements most define who you are as a storyteller?
As an author of historical fiction, I know that research breathes life into my books. So for me, taking what could be boring facts from a history book and turning them into a story filled with love, mystery, and adventure is very much like an artist painting a picture. The “colors” I use are little details about places and people from long ago, sprinkling them throughout the book as I go. For instance, while attempting to bring the Maxwell House Hotel to life through the pages of my novel, I studied pictures and read countless descriptions—personal and historical—in order to get it right. But what makes the hotel become a real place to readers (at least I hope so!) is when the characters experience the setting. Priscilla takes us through the grand lobby, the elegant ballroom, and the cozy confectionary where she enjoys a certain dessert that gets the attention of a handsome Italian man. Including various foods, scents, and even music in the story also adds “colors” to the portrait I’m trying to create.
As a Nashville resident, I’m excited to read the book! What contemporary and historical settings do your characters “visit” in this story?
The most famous building from the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition—the full-scale replica of the Parthenon—still exists. When the expo buildings were constructed, temporary materials were used. After the six-month run of the expo, nearly all the buildings were torn down or moved to other locations. Only the Parthenon was left standing. In 1920, the city took measures to permanently preserve the awe-inspiring building, replacing deteriorating temporary materials with concrete. Today, it is the magnificent centerpiece of Centennial Park, right in the heart of Nashville. Readers of Count the Nights by Stars can stroll around Lake Watauga just as Priscilla and Luca did on that fateful starry night in 1897.
Although the Maxwell House Hotel is no longer there, the Noel Hotel—or Noelle, as it is now called—stands in the same place it did when Audrey and her family lived at the Maxwell. Most of the downtown Nashville shops and businesses from 1961 are long gone, but visitors to the city can still walk down the streets and along Printer’s Alley and imagine how it might have looked a week before Christmas, with colorful lights crisscrossing overhead.
Thanks, Michelle! It’s great to have you back at Divine Detour.
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For more information about Michelle, visit her website and follow her on Facebook.
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