Author and retired engineer Sarah H. Baker (writing as S. H. Baker, Sarah Storme, and Lydia Parks) has released 20 novels, numerous novellas and short stories, and three audio books. Her publishers include Kensington, Harlequin, Five Star, and Siren Audio. S. H. Baker’s Return to Marshall’s Bayou, a full-cast audio version of the first book in her Dassas Cormier Mystery series, was recommended for an Edgar Award. In 2018, Sarah released four books from her Sarah Storme backlist including the romance novel The Long Way Home. You’ll find Sarah on Facebook and her website at SarahHanberryBaker.com, as well as her Amazon author pages for S. H. Baker and Sarah Storme. Read more about Sarah in her 2015 interview for SouthWest Writers.
Who are the main characters in Return to Marshall’s Bayou, and how did you develop them?
The main character is Dassas Cormier, a young man whose father was Acadian and whose mother was European. Dassas returns to southwest Louisiana after a disastrous end to his law-enforcement career, only to find out the local chief of police has been murdered. The other main characters are Alcide (Dassas’ brother), Becky (Alcide’s wife), and Frank, the oldest of their children. Dassas formed organically and truly told me his story. His is the strongest voice I’ve ever heard when writing. And the family relationships grew out of his character. As an older sibling myself, I often identified with Alcide, but Dassas will always be close to my heart.
What would you like readers to know about the story?
The story is a mystery, but it’s also about coming home to the comfort and support of a family. Dassas has suffered a terrible emotional trauma that he likely wouldn’t have survived without the love of his brother and sister-in-law. Return to Marshall’s Bayou is the audio book based on the first in the Dassas Cormier mystery series, Murder in Marshall’s Bayou. When Siren Audio bought the audio rights to the first book, they changed the title because they wanted to focus on the homecoming. I’m thrilled with the result.
You’ve written four books in the Dassas Cormier Mystery series (with a fifth in the works). What sparked the original idea for the first novel?
My grandmother was born in 1901 in Johnsons Bayou, Louisiana. The area was as remote as an island; people traveled in and out on the mail boat. When my grandmother died, she left behind a dresser drawer of letters she and her family had exchanged. The letters were the equivalent of our phone calls and held all kinds of insights into daily life in the 20s in that area. I couldn’t help but use them as background. I pulled names from my grandfather’s Acadian family of twelve children—Dassas Broussard was the oldest. I never met the man, but I liked his name. I used Alcide for the same reason and put the two of them together. Ironically, I found out after writing the book that Dassas and Alcide had been close in real life and even worked together. And I also found out one of the sisters had married a Cormier. Life imitating art?
Return to Marshall’s Bayou takes place in 1920s Louisiana. What is it about this time and place that makes the perfect setting for the book?
The 1920s was one of the most exciting decades in US history. Women were getting the vote, automobiles were replacing the horse and buggy, and Prohibition sent people to speakeasies for fun. Southwest Louisiana was so remote, it still had some of the Victorian values, but the rest of the world was intruding. It was also the home of the Cajun cowboys and European Protestant settlers, which sometimes sparked societal friction. What could be more interesting?
You’ve done two full-cast audio books now. How did that experience affect your writing going forward?
Working on the full-cast audio books was the highlight of my writing career. I didn’t expect to hear the actors’ voices in place of the characters’ in my head, but I do. I pay more attention to the rhythm and sounds of my writing than I did before. I’ve also realized how important it is to get those sounds right. An added bonus to the whole experience is I ended up with some really great friends from the publishing house and the actors who participated.
The Long Way Home is one of four books you released from your Sarah Storme backlist in 2018. At its heart, what is this story about?
The Long Way Home is about finding a second chance for love, and understanding that home isn’t a house but a place where you truly belong.
Tell us a little about your main characters and why readers will connect with them.
Sam is a veterinarian in a remote area of Colorado. He’s dealing with a teenage daughter who spends the summers with him and always shows up carrying her mother’s anger. Although Sam has been burned by his ex, he still expects the best from those he meets, and that endears him to me and (I hope) to readers. I think readers will appreciate his kindness and tenderness, wrapped in strength of character.
Allie is a woman running from an emotionally abusive marriage. When Allie’s car breaks down in the Colorado mountains, she realizes her husband has so isolated her that she has no one to turn to. Sam gives her a place to stay until she can get back on her feet. Allie’s one true desire—having grown up an orphan—is to have a home. Although her wealthy husband provided her with a nice house, it was anything but a home. As she tries to repay Sam’s kindness by helping him connect with his daughter, Allie discovers that Sam’s place is the real home she seeks. Even if readers haven’t suffered the trials Allie has, I believe they’ll understand her desires and will cheer for her.
Why did you choose Colorado as the setting for the book?
I lived in a small town in western Colorado for a few years, and I appreciate the beauty of the state and the remoteness of the area. I based Sam’s office on the office of our local veterinarian, who even had a cat he’d found frozen to the sidewalk, like Popsicle in the book. The vet wasn’t exactly Sam (more like Doc from Gunsmoke), but he was a nice guy.
What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
I’d moved from Colorado before I started work on this project, so I had to spend time thinking back on the setting and reviewing photos. Other than that, the story flowed. When I was young, I wanted to be a veterinarian, so it was fairly easy to get into the role.
What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
My very favorite part of this project was Sam, the main character. He was so full of emotion and conflict, and yet so kind, it was easy to fall for him. After having more than a dozen romance novels published, he’s still my favorite hero.
Looking back to the beginning of your writing/publishing career, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
Everything I know now I wish I’d known then! I had no idea what I was doing when I started my first book. Still, I think I learn best by doing, so maybe I started at the right place for me. Because I had no illusions around my level of knowledge, I was open to learning from every editor with whom I had the opportunity to work.
What do many writers misunderstand about telling a story?
I think many writers who are just starting out do the same things I did at first: they don’t start in the middle of the action, and they feel the need to tell the reader all the backstory. I had the opportunity to work as an acquiring editor at a small press for a short time, and I learned just how quickly you have to grab the editor’s attention. If you can’t grab an editor’s attention, you won’t be able to grab a reader’s. Jumping into a story mid-stride isn’t natural. It takes practice, but it’s very important to do.
Are you working on any new writing projects?
I’m currently working on speculative fiction set in the future. Having recently retired, I’m anxious to share what I learned about how we’re changing our ecosystem. I think the best way to do that is to paint a realistic picture of the future through fiction. This is very different for me, so we’ll see how it goes.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy has a new speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.