Laura (Brandt) Miller was on a flight back to her home in Charleston, S.C., in 2008 when she made the decision to type up a story that had been swimming around in her head for years.
Her inspiration? The sights and sounds of Franklin County, Mo., where she grew up, first in the Berger river bottoms and then on a hog farm outside of New Haven.
Five novels later, and the feel of Miller’s hometown community is still feeding her creativity. Her newest book, “When Cicadas Cry,” is due out next month.
Writing, Writing, Writing
The daughter of Calvin and Donna Brandt and a 2002 graduate of New Haven High School, Miller had planned for a career in newspaper journalism and was well on her way until the Great Recession hit.
Miller had earned a bachelor’s degree from Mizzou and had worked at the Columbia Missourian during college and later at the Boone County Journal in Ashland. Then her husband landed a job in Charleston, S.C., but she wasn’t so lucky.
The city’s newspaper had just recently laid off a good number of staff, and the local business journal had a hiring freeze.
“That’s where my first novel was born,” said Miller, who now lives in Kansas City. “It was the first time in my life that I didn’t have an internship or a job or volunteer position in writing or specifically newspapers, and I was at a loss.
“I think a lot of people have stories like these in their heads, but they just don’t have the time to write them down. I had the time,” said Miller.
After a couple of weeks in South Carolina, Miller was able to land a part-time job, but she continued to keep writing her story.
“I probably didn’t talk to my husband for a whole month straight. It was day and night and even when I wasn’t at home, I wanted to be on my computer, so (the novel) was kind of definitely my baby at that time. It took about a solid two months of just writing, writing, writing,” said Miller.
Had Her First Writing Job at Age 12 or 13
Miller had known since she was very young that she wanted a career in writing. Her first books were made using construction paper and staples when she was 8.
“I always liked to make up stories. I went to Hermann Elementary and a lot of the teachers there had us write books, and then we had a chance to read them to any grade that we wanted. Of course, I always picked my sister’s class,” said Miller.
She credits her mom with instilling in her a love for reading and writing. On Miller’s website, www.lauramillerbooks.com, she points out that her mom even named her Laura after Laura Ingalls Wilder.
“My mom was a big fan of hers and of all of her books . . . Growing up, I read a lot of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ series.”
The “Anne of Green Gables” series by L.M. Montgomery was another favorite.
Miller accepted her first writing job when she was 12 or 13 years old. She wrote junior high sports articles, unpaid, for the New Haven Leader.
In high school, Miller worked as an intern at the paper.
“It all fell into place after that. I always knew I wanted to be in writing and specifically newspaper, and writing books just came out of that,” she said.
‘Small Town, Second Chance Romances’
Miller cringes a little when people describe her books as romance novels, mainly because that makes people think of Harlequin romances, which her books are most definitely not.
“I like to say they are small town, second chance romances. There is the nostalgia of a small town and the characters who come from that. They are clean romances,” said Miller.
For example, the plot of newest book, “When Cicadas Cry,” is about a small town Missouri boy who meets and falls in love with the new girl in town.
“She’s from the city, so people are talking. There are rumors about her. They fall in love and then one day she just leaves town,” said Miller. “She turns in her keys, closes her bank account and just leaves, and the whole town is wondering what happened between these two, but no one knows except the main characters.”
The book includes two perspectives — both the guy’s and girl’s — and alternates between chapters set in the past and present.
“You read how their love story unfolded, but you’re also reading the present when they are not together, so as the chapters go on, you learn a little more about why they are not together, until you finally find out in the end. There’s a little bit of a twist to it,” said Miller.
All of Miller’s books are between 200 and 300 pages and easy reads, the kind a fast reader can finish in a single day, she said.
Franklin County readers may recognize local details included in Miller’s novels, although she doesn’t identify the landmarks or other features by name.
“My first book was specifically inspired by New Haven, and the second book was a spinoff, so it was as well. My third book took place in more of the Berger river bottoms area. The fourth was more in the New Haven and Washington areas. In that one, you might notice some areas that sound like the Washington riverfront or the New Haven gazebo,” she said.
On her website Miller includes photos of settings that inspire her.
“These are the photos that are in my head while I’m writing the book,” she said.
“I’m really inspired by the places where I grew up — New Haven, Washington, small town areas . . . From those inspirations, the stories just sort of grow.”
Many people have asked Miller if the characters in her books are based on real people, but she assures them they are not.
“None of this is based on my real life. It’s inspired by my town, but it’s all fiction,” said Miller.
“I always feel like because we grew up in the country, I was a little removed from even my own time period, like I grew up 20 years behind my time,” she said. “I grew up driving tractors, baling hay, trying to find things to do in the summer when there wasn’t much to do. That’s how I grew up, and a lot of these characters, that’s their lives as well.”
As a child, Miller was active in 4-H and attended the local fairs, where she showed steers.
First Book Sold 8,000 Copies in Four Months
Writing comes easily for Miller, who completes a new book every eight to nine months. Just a couple of months of that is spent on the writing process, she said. The rest is devoted to editing and formatting.
Miller said she does experience moments of writer’s block, “days when I just sit at the computer and nothing comes.
“But I am fortunate enough to be able to write full time, which makes it a lot easier. When I was working part time and working in newspaper, it was tougher to do, but now I can just sit on the computer for eight or nine hours straight and get anywhere from two to 6,000 words down,” said Miller.
“Once the story starts going, the characters come to life and take on a life of their own, they kind of write the story themselves.”
The editing and formatting process takes the longest. Miller does that herself, since the books are self-published, and she takes extra time to make sure the copy and pages are exactly how she wants them. She also has family and friends, about four or five people whom she really trusts, read the manuscript to look for errors and problems.
Miller published her first novel, “Butterfly Weeds,” in June 2012, four years after she had written it. By that October she had already sold 8,000 copies, which warmed her heart.
“I had no idea what I was doing. I remember telling my husband, I just want one person to buy it. Then someone did, and then another and another,” said Miller.
She credits a couple of bloggers with boosting her book sales.
“I had done nothing beside put it out there on Amazon. It was really a couple of bloggers who had read the book and liked it, who blogged about it, and their tens of thousands of readers, some of them decided to buy it too . . . So I’m very thankful for those bloggers and readers,” she said.
Since that first novel, Miller has sold nearly 50,000 copies of her first four novels, earning her spots on the Amazon Top 100 and Amazon best-seller lists.
With the focus now on promoting her newest novel, Miller said she isn’t sure what her next book will be about. She has a couple started already and will wait to see what inspires her.
Miller has done book signings across the country for her novels. She did one at Scenic Regional Library in New Haven, and she has several scheduled into 2016.
Like all writers, Miller admits it would be nice to gain wider fame, but she isn’t chasing it.
“Sometimes I don’t know what the next book will be, but I’m so excited after I get one done and published to sit down and give all my focus to that next book, to see how the characters develop and the story falls in place. I just really love doing that every day, so if I can do that every day for the rest of my life, I’ll be happy,” she said.
“Of course, every writer wants to be a New York Times best-seller or a USA Today best-seller or have a movie made out of their book, and I wouldn’t be against that at all, but if that never happens, I’m OK with that too because I love writing, and I love that people come up to me and say, ‘Your book really touched me.’ That means something to me. If just one person comes up to me and says that it makes the book valid, it makes it worthwhile, in my opinion.”