Reading (or writing) a small town series is like going on a family vacation. You know how you load into the car, going back to the same spot year after year? It’s a getaway where you kind of know what you’re getting into: same beautiful setting, same favorite spots, at least a few familiar faces. Happy memories. An almost-guaranteed good time.

The thing is, you don’t want to settle for doing the same thing all the time.

When my husband and I were first married, I dragged the poor guy to New England every summer to spend a week with my family. Because what could be more romantic than vacationing with the in-laws on Cape Cod, where the water reaches a balmy 56 degrees in July?

My husband was game, but he didn’t really get the appeal. His dad, a career Sergeant Major stationed at Camp Lejeune, used to take him fishing on the North Carolina coast. After several years of freezing his, um, butt off, my husband finally talked me into trying the North Carolina shore. It’s warmer, my husband said. It’s less crowded, he promised. Just one week, he coaxed. Just this year.

He was right. (Hear that, honey?) This year became every year. We moved to North Carolina a few years later.

Carolina Dreaming, which comes out February 2nd, is the fifth book in my Dare Island series, set on a fictional barrier island along the North Carolina coast.

It’s an escape. And it’s a return to a place that I love.

There’s real pleasure in writing about places I’ve actually visited. You can find bits of Dare Island all along Highway 12 from Manteo to Ocracoke and Emerald Isle to Southport. Being a writer forces you to pay attention to things. (Also to take lots of pictures.) You have all those great sensory details to draw on: the flat fields and “fresh peaches” signs along the road, the cool shadow of the pines, the reflection of the sunlight on the water, the feeling you get crossing over the bridge.

Lying in his rack at night, Gabe used to dream of spring. Spring and women and the sea.

When he got out, winter had still lingered in North Dakota in the dirty piles of snow, in the biting cold. But here, the Carolina sun was warm against his face. The long bridge ahead arched like a gull’s wing, skimming between sea and sky.

His heart lifted. It had been eleven years since he first crossed this bridge from the marshy inlet over the flashing waters of the sound. Behind him, the highway was littered with fast food chains and beach shops, gas stations and marinas, but this view hadn’t changed.

Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

He’d read that somewhere, Afghanistan, maybe, or jail. His teachers used to complain he wasn’t much of a reader, but that line had stuck with him. Maybe because he’d never had a home. There wasn’t anybody who felt they had to take him in, no place he belonged.

Except the Marines.

He’d screwed that up. He had screwed up a lot of things.

But one lesson of the Corps stuck with him. When things didn’t go as planned, you could either shut down or you could improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

Gabe figured he’d been knocked down as low as he could go. All he needed was a chance to get on his feet again.

A tall white bird stood motionless in the reeds of a sandbar. The water shimmered to the horizon, reflecting back a wide blue sky painted with clouds.

Gabe breathed deep, smelling salt. Freedom.

–from Carolina Dreaming

But you can’t take your setting for granted. Sometimes it’s good to wander a little off the tourist paths. The barrier islands are constantly being shaped and changed by the sea, pounded by storms and rebuilt by the tides. There’s tension there, between the land and the sea, tourists and locals, newcomers and old timers. Part of the writing process for me is going to the coast in the off season, to talk to the people who live there. To really see the islands, not just through my eyes, but through their experience.

That’s what really good fiction does, I think. It lets us live in another person’s skin. Dare Island is more than a picturesque vacation spot populated by quirky stereotypes. Most of my characters are searching for something. An escape, sometimes, but more often they’re looking for a place to belong, a place to call home.

I hope readers will find a little of that on Dare Island, too.

Virginia is giving away a copy–your choice of formats–of any one of her Dare Island books. Enter a comment below to be considered!

virginiaVirginia Kantra has written over twenty-five books of contemporary romance, romantic suspense, and paranormal romance. Her deeply emotional stories have won numerous writing awards, including Romance Writers of America’s RITA Award and two National Readers’ Choice Awards. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of three kids, she is a firm believer in the strength of family, the importance of storytelling, and the power of love.

She lives in coastal North Carolina.

Her favorite thing to make for dinner? Reservations.

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