We are here again with another interview with Connilyn Cossette. It’s always such a privilege to have her with us. Today she’s here to talk about her Cities of Refuge series. I have to admit that I’m really excited about this interview. This series has become one of my favorites. Welcome back, Conni. Tell us Is there a favorite character or one you’ve felt connected with the most in this book or the series?
I think because Moriyah is really the core of the Cities of Refuge series, I’ve felt most connected to her character long term. It’s been interesting to follow a character from the age of thirteen all the way through her life journey until she is a great-grandmother and to explore how her life and witness has affected those around her. I hope that readers see Moriyah as an example of what it is to be a light to the world, even when your influence is relatively small.
What was your inspiration for starting this series?
I began this series because I wanted to explore what happened after Jericho and found myself fascinated with the Cities of Refuge and what life might have been like within the walls of such a unique place. I also just really fell in love with Moriyah in Wings of the Wind and felt that she was demanding that I tell her story.
How do you feel writing biblical fiction has affected your relationship with God?
I started writing biblical fiction not because I was all that invested in the genre but because I was so intrigued by my own personal research a story came out of it. I think what writing this type of fiction has done is forced me to place myself “within” the stories in the Word and to deepen my perspective about the people and places that are described within the pages of the Bible. The stories of Israel’s history no longer seem “far away” anymore; I feel like I am a part of them as if they are part of my own history as well which has given me a greater connectedness to Jesus in many ways. It has also just given me a deeper appreciation for his care and concern for me because I without him sustaining me on a daily basis none of this would even be possible.
What’s one thing you wish readers would take away from this book?
I hope that readers are reminded that our Father loves us with boundless, everlasting love and that no matter how far off we’ve wandered, He is always waiting for us, arms outstretched, and our names written on his scarred hands.
What do you find to be the most challenging when writing biblical fiction?
I would say the biggest challenge is the myriad opinions between scholars and archeologists and bible teachers. There are as many ideas and theories as there are people who study the Bible and the world in which its history takes place. There are times when the research is so conflicting and so confusing that I just have to pick a position that works with my plot and run with it, even if its not the most popular opinion. But since I am not writing history books and instead am telling a fictional story with history as the backdrop, if I can create a sense of verisimilitude hopefully readers will forgive any differing ideas or they’ll be so caught up in the tale they won’t even notice!
Can you share with us a book you have read recently, are currently reading, or hope to read soon?
I recently read A Curse so Dark and Lonely, which is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast that was quite well written and a fresh take on the familiar story. I am currently reading Finale, which is the third of the Caraval Series (kinda weird/unique fantasy but some really intriguing imagery and descriptive language), and I have a number of books up next on my TBR list such as Lori Benton’s The King’s Mercy, The Number of Love by Roseanna White, and Daughter of Northern Shores by Joanne Bischoff and lots and lots more. I’m kind of a moody reader both in genre and in style, so we’ll see what I feel up to reading first. It changes from day to day.
What’s your preference/describes you best:
Early bird or Night owl? Night owl for sure, although my sleep patterns have been shifting lately for some reason and I’ve been waking earlier and passing out before 1am most night which is really abnormal for me.
Pepsi or Coke? Coke if I only have the two, but I’m a Diet Dr. Pepper girl when I drink pop. (Yes, I said pop, I’m from the Pacific Northwest).
Dogs or Cats? Cats for sure. I enjoy dogs (unless they are slobbery/shedding/jumping on me) but in our family cats are people too and there are usually one or more on my desk at all times. (And yes, there is one here now).
Chocolate or Vanilla? Chocolate. No question. If there is peanut butter, coffee, or caramel involved with the chocolate, all the better.
Which part of Until the Mountains fall did you enjoy writing the most?
Without giving any spoilers, there is a very distinctive Part I and Part 2 within this story and during the interim, my characters do a lot of changing. Some of it for the better, and some of it for the worse. So it was an interesting challenge to work through who they started out as and how they transformed, and then it was fun discovering my hero and heroine all over again after the shift and working through how they ultimately come together in light of the changes within themselves and the circumstances within which they interact.
Any scripture verses jump out as you brought this biblically based story to life?
Oh, there are so many wonderful ones that speak to the Father’s love for our prodigal hearts, but here are a couple that are just perfect for Rivkah.
Isaiah 54:8 “In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord, your Redeemer.
And all of Psalms 103 is a great depiction of his mercy and grace, but this verse especially is applicable to UTMF—As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. Psalms 103:13
How do you go about creating a story based on Biblical figures?
Since my style of biblical is a little different from most, in that I tell stories of fictional people that interact with non-fictional people, history, and settings, I have a little bit more leeway when it comes to story-building. But I always start with the Word and use its timelines and details as the skeleton of my novels first. Once I have those essentials, I can begin to weave in the characters and plots that I create. If I do slip in actual historical figures my preference is to make those interchanges brief and focus on how my fictional characters might react to those people and their actions. All in all, I just do my best to stay as close to the Biblical narrative as I can while using any whitespace or unknowns to stir my imagination.
How do you achieve the characterization and how do you decide what the characters should be like?
Characters usually develop as I write the story. For the most part, I try to know what their general backstory is and what their wounds are before I begin, but sometimes those things shift as I get to know the person on the page. At times it takes me the writing of the entire manuscript before I truly understand the character’s motives and goals and then I have to go back before submission and layer those traits into the story so it flows well and makes a smooth and realistic character arc.
How do you decide what themes you will lift from the scriptures to place in your books?
With Until the Mountains Fall I’d decided from the beginning that Rivkah’s story would be inspired by the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke but usually, the themes of my stories develop as I write and sometimes it takes the entire book being nearly finished before I realize exactly which themes floated to the top. To me, that is how thematic elements develop the most organically and avoid being “preachy” in the telling because they are related to the growth within the characters and not because I am trying to teach some sort of moral lesson to the reader.
What percentage do you feel you are ancient historian, novelist, story teller, romance writer (or any other “hat” you wear as you write these books)?
What an intriguing question! I feel I am about 5% historian because really I am just someone who loves history and I have zero credentials to call myself anything other than a student. I am probably about equal parts novelist and storyteller, maybe 40% each? Then perhaps 15% romance writer because I do love a good love story but it’s not my main goal as I develop my stories, and then I am about 10% just having a great time playing around with imaginary friends and making up stuff to entertain my own crazy brain. Is that 100%? I certainly don’t know because I am 0% mathematician.
As a homeschool mom, how did you start and then balance homeschooling with your writing career?
I have homeschooled my kids all the way through (with the exception of one very stressful week of Kindergarten for my son) and now have a 9th grader and a 7th grader (yikes! Prayer appreciated). Balancing homeschool has become a lot easier in the past couple of years because my kids are increasingly independent in their studies, are really intellectually curious, and I have found awesome homeschool enrichment classes that have freed up some time and brainpower for me while giving my kids opportunities to meet new friends and expand their minds. This year my son is planning to write his own novel over the course of the year for a Creative Writing credit, since he has the perfect built in expert and we are looking forward to seeing how that develops. He’s already showing some intriguing talent for storytelling that I am hoping to encourage! For me the important thing is to schedule out my days well, keep to a reasonable word-count plan as much as possible, but also to be flexible and just know that some days school means spending the day (or a couple of weeks) exploring topics of passion instead of following a set curriculum. We love homeschooling and hope to continue it all the way through!
How detailed is your research for each of your books?
I spent five years writing Counted with the Stars in which I did a lot of detailed research into the ancient world of the Bible. So now with that base in mind, I do my best to mostly research the history, archeology, and the settings that pertain to each specific book as I go along looking at the broad view and then I concentrate on details that are pertinent to my character’s experiences as I write. If I am not careful I can get lost on historical rabbit trails while I am supposed to be writing, so if I have a question about something, in particular, I mark it with a $ sign in my manuscript and then research it later and plug it in. But I do my best to read as much as possible and spend lots of time on archeological and historical websites soaking it all in. Youtube videos can be super helpful, as can podcasts from great bible teachers and historians.
Did anything happen during the writing of this book that changed the trajectory of the story?
I had a fairly firm grasp on this story from the beginning, when I was plotting it with my plotting group but I did find some fascinating research about Edrei, which is one of the cities in which a portion of the story takes place. I read about an amateur archeologist and explorer named Gottlieb Shumacher who claimed to have visited the historical site in current day Daraa, Syria well over a hundred years ago with the help of local guides and discovered a series of tunnels and caves below the city. There is, of course, no certainty that this site he explored is actually the city of Edrei but the description was compelling to me and stirred my imagination. So the scenes that take place in and below that city are because of this captivating bit of information I just happened to stumble across.
Did the story change at all during the writing of the book?
My stories always shift and transform in the writing because I am not a firm-structure plotter. I begin with an outline and a list of chapters but within that structure, I give myself plenty of room to explore. However without giving spoilers I can’t divulge too much of those changes within Until the Mountains Fall, except to say there was a secondary love story that I didn’t plan that just appeared on the page, along with a shift in the outcome for one of the secondary characters involved, and a resolution to a larger-arc thread that became much more prevalent as the writing progressed.
Will we see Rivkah and Malakhi again in future books?
We will definitely visit these two in Like Flames in the Night, which takes place eight years after the close of Until the Mountains Fall. There is more to tell about Moriyah and Darek’s family so fear not, I haven’t left you hanging without resolution to some of your burning questions.
What is your favorite children’s book?
My favorite children’s book is probably Anne of Green Gables, since I was fairly enthralled with it when I was young and absolutely wanted to be Anne. Although the Narnia series is of equal value to me, and in particular the Magician’s Nephew, which is my favorite of the bunch mostly due to the enthralling description of Aslan’s Creation of the world with song. To me those scenes had to have been divinely inspired and they give me chills whenever I read them, just as they did when I was a kid.
What advice would you give to a young person who wants to write books?
Read. Read. Read. Read books that challenge you, that are a little bit tough to get through or are outside the style you might gravitate toward. Explore different genres. Write down and hoard lovely words and lines that capture your imagination. Don’t allow any negative self-talk as you are learning or tell yourself that you aren’t good enough, just enjoy playing with language and write stories and poems and lyrics that you want to read and connect with your own emotions. And don’t limit yourself to writing what is “popular” at the moment. There’s always room for interesting, out-of-the-box writing that breaks the rules or crosses genres. But above all, just write words, every day and in whatever form strikes your fancy. You never know how God will use your passion for writing in the future! I’m proof of that!
Is there a secret to writing an emotional scene that makes the feelings jump off the page?
I think the most important thing to know about a character is their wounds. Understanding what hurts they harbor will affect how they perceive the world around them and how they will react in certain situations and if those things are explored effectively, the reader will feel the impact more deeply. Also, I draw on my own emotions as I write. Whether or not I’ve actually experienced a moment like the person on the page, I can always think back to a time I’ve felt pain or grief or joy or frustration or fear and remember the visceral reactions I’ve had to those emotions. Writing is much like acting in that way, so tapping into your own emotions and then applying them to whatever character you are embodying as you write is the best way to make your reader feel those things as they live out the story in their minds. Brain science has shown that we actually feel the emotions along with characters in well-written fiction, so if I find myself crying or laughing or sighing as I write out a scene, chances are my readers will too. And I’ll just tell you, I cried a lot during the writing of Until the Mountains Fall. Fair warning.
Do you get a say in the design of your book cover? What is the process?
The first part of the process for me is creating a secret Pinterest Board with all sorts of images that relate to the story I am building. Characters, settings, details etc. When my editor asks for inspiration I can then share that board with her and the cover designer at Bethany House and I also include notes about the story and characters and any pertinent details that might be helpful. And then, I wait. And wait. And wait. And then one day I get an email with the subject “We have a cover!” and I squeal and gasp and hold my breath as I open the attachment and then I spend hours and hours staring at it and thanking the Lord that Bethany House is my publisher. Each one has perfectly captured the emotion of the stories and my heroines and I have adored each one. If there are little details that perhaps don’t quite fit I can always let them know and see if they address it, but honestly I’ve only done that once and I was super pleased with the result afterward. You can tell how much I love my covers because I put them on photo canvas and decorate my office with them, where I will continue to stare at them for years to come.