Figuring Out the World, One Character at a Time

How Lauren K. Denton learned to love writing.

Written by Rosalind Fournier

Like a lot of would-be writers, Lauren K. Denton once had a crowded cemetery of abandoned novel beginnings typed out on her computer and scribbled in notebooks. “I’d write those 20, 30, 40 pages, and then I’d quit,” says Denton, today the published author of three books, with more on the way. “I would just get a new, bright, shiny idea that sounded better and move to that.”

Then in 2011, Denton, who lives in Homewood with her husband and two elementary-school-aged daughters, had a breakthrough. “I had an idea, and it felt like the first one that I thought had legs, and I could write the whole story. It wasn’t just a beginning portion or an idea of one character; I knew where I was going. That’s what helped me get to the end of the manuscript.”

It did not turn out to be her first published book—if it even has a name, she does not share it. Instead she refers to it as simply “this bad book that I wrote.”

“I realized it wasn’t very good and I still needed more practice,” she says. “I think I just threw in all the things I ever wanted to write in a story, and it didn’t work, but it was a complete novel. I also really loved the process of writing and crafting those characters, even though it was very stereotypical, and it was good practice for when I got excited about another idea. I knew I could do it again.”

That next idea became The Hideaway, a USA Today bestseller that transformed the onetime consumer marketing writer (“the nice way to say it is I wrote junk mail,” she demurs, speaking of four years in her early career) into a bona fide novelist. Of course, it took time. Once Denton had finished writing The Hideaway and spent another six months editing it—with the help of a writers’ group she had joined as part of Samford University’s Samford After Sunset program (“that was like therapy,” she says)—she made a spreadsheet of agents she thought could be good prospects for her book. Then Denton sent out query letters over a series of months…purposefully parsing them out to avoid what she feared could be an avalanche of “no thank you” responses. But as time went on with no bites, she started seeking out fellow writers who might have advice. One of these was Patti Callahan Henry, a New York Times bestseller (Becoming Mrs. Lewis and The Favorite Daughter)  who lives in Mountain Brook. “She had an editor friend whom she thought might be interested, and one thing led to another.” That editor passed it along to another one, who was in fact very interested, leaving Denton scrambling again to find an agent—which proved much easier now that she had already caught the attention of a publisher, who eventually made an offer not only to publish The Hideaway but also the next manuscript Denton was working on, Hurricane Season.

The Hideaway spans generations and tells the story of a young woman, Sara, who unexpectedly inherits an old bed and breakfast—the Hideaway—that belonged to her grandmother in Sweet Bay, Ala. Charged with refurbishing the old place, Sara reluctantly leaves her home in New Orleans to take on the project, in the process discovering things about the past that upend everything she thought she knew about her grandmother.

Interestingly to Denton—and to many of her readers—the publisher that picked up The Hideaway was Thomas Nelson, a division of HarperCollins which specializes in Christian content. Denton does not consider her books to be Christian themed—certainly not in any conspicuous way. “That always trips people up,” Denton says. “Most of Thomas Nelson’s titles are traditional Christian fiction, and there’s nothing wrong with that—I just don’t read it and I don’t write it.

“People drink wine in my stories, and there’s a sort of flamboyant character in my first novel,” she continues. “Yet I feel like I write ‘safe’ books that you can hand to whomever and not have to say, ‘I’m sorry about what’s on page 50.’ There aren’t adult situations, and there’s not bad language. I just am not hitting anybody over the head with a faith message, and sometimes that causes confusion.”

She remembers after the release of The Hideaway, some readers even sent angry emails. “I heard a lot from readers who said, ‘Your characters would have been so much happier if they had found Jesus by the end of the book.’ That’s just not the book I’m writing, y’all. There are so many authors where all of the characters are going to find Jesus, and their lives are going to be perfect for it. That’s just not my story. I like to think there are hints of redemption and hope and forgiveness and reconciliation in my books without being overt and without being heavy handed or saccharine.”

Denton’s third book, Glory Road, came out in March. She tries to limit her author appearances and book signings to places within day-trip range, though she’ll also meet with book clubs further out via Skype. (She also has a book signing for Glory Road coming up at Little Professor in Homewood on May 9.)

Denton loves these interactions. “It’s fun to meet people and hear them tell me things they get out of the books that I didn’t know I was putting in,” she says. “Or they read the book through the filter of their own life, so they’ll say, ‘This reminded me of my grandparents, or my childhood,’ and it’s totally different from my experience. But it helped trigger memories or made them feel nostalgic about good things, and that’s a big honor.”

She says groups sometimes ask what led her to writing, and she’s quick to point out that although she’s an avid reader and has always written in journals, she didn’t grow up with a grand ambition of becoming a novelist. “My first experience with writing was just writing my own stories down—it became a way of kind of figuring out the world and what I thought. It continued to where I now do that in my books. I’m still trying to figure out the world through the characters.”

The hardest thing Denton has had to figure out—though she says she’s getting better—is how to survive the anxiety that often sets in if she reaches a sticking point in a novel. “I always get to some point where I feel like I have no idea where I’m going,” she says. “I panic and say, ‘I don’t think I know how to do this anymore. I can’t write another story.’ And then things settle down and I feel better and continue on my way.

“It’s slow and steady and remembering that at this point I know how to do it, and it’s still hard, but I know where I’m going.”

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