Oh, this writing life….

By Carla Kelly

Confession: I’m not really good at timing sequels. Addendum to confession: Maybe
that’s a pity, because sometimes, just sometimes, the sequel is better than the first novel. Another
admission: Maybe I had to become a better writer before I could write that better book.
So why am I admitting this now? It’s all in that little dicho that’s at the front of One Good
Turn, the sequel to Libby’s London Merchant: “Patience, and shuffle the cards.” One Good Turn
will be out in print again (and ebook of course), in November.
I got a sequel out on time once, and that was Enduring Light, the sequel to Borrowed
Light, which was my first foray into writing a novel that is at least partially faith-based, as in the
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, perhaps better known as Mormons.
Enduring Light begins precisely where it should, which is about five days after the end of
Borrowed Light. That’s how I did it. I started the sequel promptly after I finished that first novel.
It flowed naturally and was equally readable.
Libby’s London Merchant, recently re-issued, was another matter. I wrote it in 1991, my
fifth novel but fourth novel for Signet, which began my Regency-writing career. It’s a charming
story about a bumbling country doctor, and the lovely but impecunious daughter of a British
Army officer, deceased, who married beneath himself, as in wisely but not too well.
There is a third member of this plot, a charming drunkard: war veteran and Brigade
Major Benedict Nesbitt, Duke of Knaresborough. Hopefully, this doesn’t need a spoiler alert –
it’s been 32 years, after all – but Libby chooses the bumbling doctor and not the charming duke,
who is a bit of a snake in the grass.

Many readers took exception to Libby’s choice, even though I have no regrets about how that
turned out. She married the right man. Some readers begged to differ. So, in a spare moment ten
years later, I wrote a sequel to LLM, just to satisfy those readers.
Granted, ten years is way too long between book one and book two. I knew that when I
wrote it. I also knew something else, though, which continues to guide me: I knew I needed to be
a better writer to tell the Duke of Knaresborough’s story. It’s not a book for a beginning novelist.
The result was One Good Turn, published first in 2001, which will be back in print in
November, 2023. I needed far more skill to write what turned out to be a powerful novel about
redemption, plus the beauty – and potential disaster – of second chances.
In looking at One Good Turn with an editor’s eye for this second time, I discovered it
needed no changes. I got it right the first time, and it was still right. I also realized that it just
might be that actual favorite novel.
I am often asked what is my favorite novel. My glib answer is that my favorite novel is
generally the one I am currently writing. There’s some truth to that. Writing is hard for me.
Maybe it comes easily to some novelists, but it doesn’t to me, perhaps because my brand of
historical fiction demands historical accuracy. I truly care that I get the details right. Some
novelists don’t care, and history is just plaster to slap onto a story with a trowel. I don’t see it that
way and never will, because history is more important to me than fiction.
One Good Turn is a rough story to tell, a story where people fail and die and suffer. This
serves to make that requisite happy ending in romance writing hard-earned but well-earned. I
think Thomas Hardy would have liked it. So many of his characters (far more memorable than
mine) are like the phoenix, and must rise from the ashes. Thank you, Thomas Hardy, for your
good example of impeccable writing.

Alas, though, and wouldn’t you know it, I did the same thing again when I wrote My
Loving Vigil Keeping, a story of the Scofield [Winter Quarters] mine disaster of May 1, 1900.
Published in 2012, it came out to real acclaim. The story of that tragedy, where 200 men and
boys perished, seemed to strike a chord with readers. I wrote of Parmleys, and Farishes, and
Joneses, and Wycherlys, and Gatherums, and Davises, who died in what for years was the worst
mine disaster in the United States.
I have two great memories of what happened because of that novel. I was speaking about
the book at a meeting of the Carbon County Historical Society, the county where that disaster
happened. When I finished, three or four burly guys came up to me. One of them said, “Mrs.
Kelly, we want you to know that we’re Farishes, and we still mine.” Silly me, I cried when they
told me. That book resonated with people who work hard and still mine. They don’t write novels;
they dig coal.
The second event came from a friend who worked at the elementary school in East
Carbon, Utah, a town formerly called Dragerton, a somewhat notorious coal mining camp. She
came into the main office and the secretary was reading My Loving Vigil Keeping and dabbing at
When asked why the tears, the secretary said, “I’m related to Annie Jones!” Annie Jones
was a powerful secondary character in the book. When my friend told me this, I realized – doh! –
that the book had given a voice to people whose voice isn’t usually heard. (And yes, many many
of the characters in my novels really lived. The few main characters are fictional, and the ones I
can play around with.)

I knew it needed a sequel to “Vigil.” Many readers wanted to know what happened to the
survivors. I had a general idea, but those readers had no idea how draining it was to kill off 200
real miners I had become fond of, too. I simply couldn’t begin yet.
It took me four years, again too long between a book and its sequel. What moved the
matter for me was the realization, finally, that I had to bury those miners before I could write
their sequel.
So I did. One Step Enough picks up where “Vigil” leaves off, as I buried those miners.
What happened next was to follow the sequel through Jesse Knight, mine owner and
entrepreneur who was probably Utah’s first millionaire. Jesse Knight took me to hard rock
mining in the Tintic Mining District, near disaster this time, then up to Alberta District, Canada,
where Jesse Knight staked a different sort of claim and Owen and Della Davis found peace. All
they needed was a better writer, and by then, I was.
Maybe I’m wising up, or maybe I’m becoming that better writer. Case in point this time
is my St. Brendan Series, which features the Unlikely Master Genius and his Gunwharf Rats.
Wouldn’t you know it, though – I miscalculated again, so you can decide if I’ve learned
This will show you just how poor I am at judging the matter. The St. Brendan Series
began life as a Christmas short story, “The Christmas Angle.” I wrote it for Heather Moore’s
Timeless Romance series, and it was such fun, um, except that halfway through it, I realized that
I had a series and not one mere Christmas story. That was never my intent when I began that
short story, but there you are.
What to do? I asked Heather if, after I finished that story for her, I could turn Master
Durable Six’s life into a series for another publisher. Heather kindly consented. I owe ya,

Heather. I hope I paid you back a bit with “Ellen Found,” a novella in Summer in Wyoming, an
anthology Heather is publishing in June.
The St. Brendan Series was supposed to be three books, with the story arc wrapping up
with The Unlikely Heroes, the third book that climaxes in the Battle of Trafalgar, a novel I have
always wanted to write. By this – ahem – concluding book, we know Able Six’s origin finally,
and the Rats acquit themselves admirably to the credit of the Royal Navy and St. Brendan the
Navigator School.
Ah, but again my readers told me no, it wasn’t the conclusion. I needed to write a
Gunwharf Rat novel. I resisted for a while, simply because in my mind, that series ended with
the Battle of Trafalgar. Silly me again. I hadn’t reckoned on my readers’ love for the Gunwharf
Rats, boys raised in the bleakness of Britain’s workhouses, taken out, and taught to hope that
they had a future.
What now? What thread to follow? This one: We know at the end of Book Three that
Davey Ten is on his way to medical school at the University of Edinburgh, then Europe’s finest
training ground for physicians. Perhaps it still is. I wrestled with the idea a bit, then found that
thread that has never failed me. The Unlikely Gunwharf Rats will be out sometime in 2024. Is
their story done? We’ll see.
What have I learned through this sequel business? I have learned to trust myself, to pace
myself, to bide my time until I am that better writer and can do a novel justice.
I earnestly hope I have begun to trust you readers more. This essay is a glimpse of how
this writer works. Whether you know it or not, I consider you responsible for my best writing. And so I thank you.