Claire McEwen, hopeful romantic.

An Award for My Book, Home Free!

Every book I’ve written is special to me in some way. There’s the first book, the miracle book, my first attempt at fiction, ever, that got published almost as if by magic, by way of a Harlequin contest entry and one editor’s incredible faith in me. There’s the second and third books, where I had to wrestle with how to actually write a romance novel, since I still didn’t quite know what I was doing!

And then there’s the Sierra Legacy series. My first attempt at actually planning a series of connected books. Wild Horses, where I got to set the stage for the Hoffman family’s story and explore an issue so close to my heart, the plight of America’s wild horses. And the second book in the series, Return to Marker Ranch, where Wade and Lori’s story came pouring out of me in this gigantic torrent of emotion. And then there’s the third book in the series, Home Free.

When it was time to write this book I thought “Oh no, what have I gotten myself into?” Because the hero in Home Free had lurked in the background of the previous two stories, a dark and abusive memory. And now it was time to bring him into the light and give him his own story, and how in the world was I going to redeem this guy? When I looked at other romances where the hero had been in prison, it was usually because he’d taken the fall for a friend, been wrongfully accused, been in the wrong place at the wrong time. But my hero, Arch Hoffman, had actually been a pretty awful person!

I knew I had to redeem him step by step. He had to make amends with his family, his town, the specific people he’d wronged, the woman he’d loved and abandoned, and who he didn’t want to reunite with. But my first attempts at the story came out as one giant apology. And who wanted to read a story where the hero is just running around trying to apologize to everyone? That wasn’t the book I wanted to write.

So I decided to weave a tale where Arch made amends to people, showed them that he’d changed, but also went on a big journey of self discovery. Because I realized that ultimately, the most important person who had to believe he’d changed was himself.

I gave him some slip-ups along the way. Moments where he slid back into old patterns, bent the law, contemplated returning to the woman he’d loved, just out of habit and because it would be easy. And I wondered if readers would accept him with so many flaws and so many mistakes. Could they cheer him on when he was so clearly struggling?

And what about Mandy, the heroine, who was battling her own demons of anxiety and past trauma, who had retreated to a reclusive life? Could readers accept her, when she was so frozen and scared? I was worried when the book came out. I remember saying to my husband that I loved this story, but I had no idea if anyone else would love it too.

Since November, when Home Free was released, I’ve had my answer. Readers have embraced Arch and Mandy’s journey. They may not have loved Arch at first, but by the end they wanted him and Mandy to overcome their troubles and succeed. And now I’ve had even more evidence that the story resonates with readers. Home Free just won the Golden Quill Contest for category/series romance! And it’s been a finalist in two other contests, the Carolyn Awards, which it didn’t win, and just recently, the National Excellence in Romance Fiction Awards.

I took a big chance with this story and I agonized over each scene, trying to make sure every moment showed how Arch and Mandy were growing and changing. And I’m so happy that their story feels real to readers and has touched peoples’ hearts the way it touched mine. More than that, I’m so glad I took the risk and wrote the story that was in my heart, even if I wasn’t sure I was a skilled enough writer to pull it off. Even if I wasn’t sure I could figure out the journey these two troubled souls had to take.

Not every risk I’ve taken in my stories has worked out the way I hoped. But this time I feel like I came up with something that felt special to me, and to many readers, and that’s a really great feeling!

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