'Big Sky River: The Bridal Path' (Hallmark)

'Big Sky River' Author Linda Lael Miller Talks Hallmark's New Sequel + Crafting a Western Romance

The romance maven revealed the secret to writing a great love story, and dished on her friendships with fellow authors Nora Roberts and Debbie Macomber.

Linda Lael Miller, the New York Times bestselling author behind Hallmark's 2022 hit Big Sky River is dubbed The First Lady of the West for good reason. Having grown up in rural Washington with a town marshal for a father, Miller's love for the American West and its trappings—noble cowboys, small-town gossips and people's inherent goodness—has provided the ultimate fodder for her delectable and richly-detailed romance series. In 2022, a whole new audience was introduced to Miller's work when Hallmark adapted her 2012 novel Big Sky River for the screen. The sequel film, Big Sky River: The Bridal Path, premieres Friday, August 11 at 9/8c on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. Original stars Emmanuelle Vaugier (Supergirl) and Kavan Smith (When Calls the Heart), whom Miller describes as the "perfect" cast, will reprise their roles as city-slicker Tara Kendall and cowboy-sheriff Boone Taylor, whose unlikely romance unfolds in the small town of Parable, Montana. With director Peter Benson and screenwriter J.B. White also returning, Big Sky River: The Bridal Path promises the same storybook romance and touching family drama as the first film.

Here's an exclusive clip from the new film:

But it's not all wedding bells and sunny days for Miller, who's written nearly 200 novels over the course of her decades-spanning career. Wide Open Country sat down with the author to talk all things Western romance, including how she crafts vast, interconnected narratives and the surprising secret to any worthwhile love story. Plus, Miller dished on her friendships with fellow romance mavens Nora Roberts and Debbie Macomber, her strange connection with legendary outlaw Jesse James and what makes Hallmark movies perennial favorites, year after year.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

'Big Sky River: The Bridal Path' (Hallmark)

Wide Open Country: When I read Big Sky River, I was a little surprised at the edge that it had. Boone is living in a ramshackle trailer and hasn't been a father to his boys for some time. 

Linda Lael Miller: That's real life. You can't have a story where there's nothing at stake. Otherwise, the reader is not committed to it. The really big challenge with writing any kind of romance is that you've got to convince a lot of intelligent women — educated women, very often, and they read a lot of these books, so they're experts — that this might be the one time when the hero and heroine don't get together, when something goes wrong. You have to have something that matters and that could be taken away. I try very hard to be inclusive so that the reader is not just watching the story from my perspective, but is actually engaged in it. And Hallmark does that so beautifully with their movies. The story reaches out, and you care so much that you're part of the story. That is more than just sitting in front of a box or just reading a book, and Hallmark's very good at that. This world is so polarized and and there's so much trouble and fear and anger and argument and everything. And we need things that unite us. And that's what I tried to do. And I sincerely believe that that's also what Hallmark are doing with their movies. They counter that constant negativity.

WOC: I'd imagine it's pretty special to see your novels on screen. 

Miller: Kavan and Emmanuelle...gosh, they were just perfect for those roles. I was just so impressed. They were pretty much exactly as I saw the characters. A lot of my heroes look just like Kavan, and I actually had not been familiar with him until the movie. And Emmanuelle is really a skilled horseperson. She can ride like crazy. I admire them so much. This whole thing is a gift to me. It's so amazing to see 'Based on a novel by Linda Lael Miller' come up on screen. I was like, 'Wow, that's me!' (Laughs.)

WOC: What did your involvement in the adaptation process look like? At what point did you see a first cut of Big Sky River: The Bridal Path?

Miller: I've read the script. It's brilliant. But I haven't seen the movie, and I like it that way. I like to see it when everybody else sees it. The screenwriter, J.B. White, did a really nice job. I was amazed, actually, at how closely it follows the book. It feels like my work, but seeing what they have done with it is really a thrill for me. And the sense of these characters [remains] — who they are, how they behave and how they're both just really good, strong people. That's important to me to convey my own values in my characters, and I think a lot of writers would say that. 

'Big Sky River: The Bridal Path' (Hallmark)

WOC: What makes you return to the Western genre time and again in your novels?

Miller: I absolutely love the West, and the reason is I grew up here. My dad was a town marshal and a rodeo cowboy at one point. My uncle was a champion rodeo rider. I grew up going to my honorary grandparents' ranch, where my grandmother told me stories about growing up in Coffeyville, Kansas. She actually remembered that Jesse James rode up to their place one night and slept in their barn. All kinds of things like that happened, so I just heard hundreds of these stories growing up. And from the very first, I was a big Bonanza fan. I took one look at Little Joe Cartwright, and I was in love. (Laughs.) I'm still not really over him.

Westerns are quintessentially American in that they're about what's good. They're about integrity. They're about strength in the face of adversity, they're about loyalty. Yes, it's an ideal. It's an icon, like John Wayne. But there's a lot of power behind these images and these ideas. I think they fundamentally celebrate the best things about America. 

WOC: How do you begin plotting out a book series with recurring characters and entire genealogies? Do you start with one character and build a world around them, or are you always thinking in terms of a generational saga? 

Miller: I usually start with a situation and a character, and then build out from there. It's organic with me. I have difficulty outlining for that reason, because if I make an extensive outline of what's going to happen in a book, it'll be different [when I write it]. I'm also very family-oriented, and I've always thought that [in] these series books, my goal is to have it enfold this character. For instance, I want [the reader] to know that if they came to this ranch, there'd be a stall for their horse and a place for them at the supper table. 

WOC: When you're crafting a book series, how do you keep track of family histories? I'm picturing a massive corkboard with family trees and timelines. 

Miller: That would be ideal, but what I really have are yellow legal pads with notes. Especially with the McKettricks and the Creeds, and the Parable series, there's a lot to keep track of — down to eye color and what [a character] said in a certain story. And if you forget it, you're going to hear about it because the readers are just absolutely amazing. They remember stuff I don't remember! (Laughs.) I have to pay attention, and sometimes that's a challenge. It's like it's going on around me in three dimensions and I'm sort of in the middle. It causes me to get distracted and miss things like the doorbell ringing or the dog running out. I don't think there's ever a time when I'm not writing. (Laughs.) I'm a shameless eavesdropper because I've heard people say the most fascinating things, and I've wanted to actually chase after them and question them. I listen in restaurants. I'm shameless, because this is where ideas come from.

'Big Sky River: The Bridal Path' (Hallmark)

WOC: You've said that coming up with story is "distinctively mystical" for you because your characters almost tell you where to go. Was that the case with Big Sky River?

Miller: This is true. I start with a character and a situation — usually any two characters. And then I work out from there. The author behind Midsomer Murders [Caroline Graham], which is one of my favorite series, said that you find your characters and they tell you the story. And that is my experience. I start out with a situation, but then a lot of really surprising things happen, which is both a good thing and a bad thing because it's spontaneous. And I think that keeps it fresher. Publishers like to have a pretty concrete outline upfront, which I always give them even though the book is likely to be different because the characters constantly surprise me. If you [write] just one thing that you didn't expect, that takes you in a whole different direction in the story. That's one of the things I love about [writing.] It's an adventure. My characters basically write the story, and then they give me the credit and the money. (Laughs.)

My best friend is Debbie Macomber. She wrote the Cedar Cove series [Hallmark's adaptation starred Andie MacDowell and spanned three seasons.] and has many, many Christmas movies on Hallmark. Debbie is a master storyteller. She can come up with a plot right off the top of her head. (Laughs.) I'm not like that. I go to Debbie and say, 'I have this idea. Could you help me go anywhere with this?' And she does. So it's definitely an adventure. 

WOC: I know that you've been acquainted with Nora Roberts for years. So many romance novel fans would die to have brunch with you and Debbie and Nora Roberts. 

Miller: (Laughs.) Nora Roberts is in a class by herself. She's a great writer, and she's a great person. She does a lot of kind things behind-the-scenes that people don't hear about because she doesn't go around bragging about it. But she, believe me, is a very kind and generous person. 

WOC: You've said in the past that you feel a responsibility to write independent female characters, like Tara in Big Sky River. Could you expand on that?

Miller: I really do because younger women may well decide what kind of person they want to be from the movies they watch or the books they read. And that is, to me, a formidable responsibility. Every book I write, it's my prayer that it'll bless or encourage someone who needs it. Oftentimes, the best thing they do is just offer refuge from your daily problems. And we've all got that stuff. I'm not saying that romantic books and movies are the only answer — I believe the Bible is the answer — but we do provide a service. I believe it's a way of setting an example for young people, and that's vital.

Big Sky River: The Bridal Path premieres Friday, August 11 at 9/8c on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. Prepare for the premiere with one more exclusive clip:

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