When I started writing Tipton, I didn’t know I had a novel on my hands. I thought I was writing a short story about a teenaged orphan named Ross Gentry who lived at the Tipton Home in Tipton, Oklahoma, in the late 1930s. At the time, I was working for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, which published a journal called Tough Times Companion. That’s where I planned to submit my story about Ross. The problem was, Ross was getting to know a young housemother at the orphanage named Alice Williams. He and a couple of the other orphan boys and Anna (another housemother) all had crushes on Alice.

After I wrote fifty or so pages about these people, I knew my story was way too long for the journal. I secretly hoped I was writing a novel, but I was afraid if I started thinking about it—let alone talking about it—like that, the whole world of Ross and David and Dennis and Alice and Anna would die off like an overwatered geranium. It was just a story, that was all.

In the midst of writing it, I changed jobs and began teaching at James Madison University, an hour away from my home in Charlottesville. The morning commute put me on I-64 West and then I-81 North. Those are busy, fast-moving highways, and there’s a gorgeous vista—all sky and trees and tumbling depths—near the top of Afton Mountain that terrified me. On clear days, I felt like I would sail right off that curve and into oblivion. On foggy days, I took Exit 99 and avoided the crisis altogether. The town of Waynesboro never looked so good as it did on those days when I dropped below the fog line and managed to see the road in front of me.

The point is, I now had a long drive to work. When I got more comfortable with the commute—and after about a month, I did—my thoughts returned to the people at the Tipton Home. Day after day, week after week, they accompanied me over Afton Mountain. I listened to them; I let them lead me along. When they laughed, I laughed. Once or twice, when Ross was in pain, I cried with him. As for Alice, I could only shake my head.

Then the story shifted to Orange County, Virginia, where my family roots are. I confess I was glad because I know a lot more about Virginia than I do about Oklahoma. But I still let my new friends lead the way. When Alice Williams decided she wanted to track down Macklin, the husband who’d left her, I wondered what on earth she would find when she got to Rapidan, the farming village where Macklin had gone to live with his great uncle. And what would happen to Anna Boyer, driving Alice to Virginia and still in love with her? And what of Ross, who’d chosen boot camp over college? I was excited for all of them but also apprehensive.

Week after week, in sun and sleet and fog and snow, I traversed the roads between Charlottesville and Harrisonburg. Sometimes I could think only of the weather. A few times, as the snow fell hard and fast, I prayed out loud. Other times, on beautiful starlit evenings, I thought about what kind of takeout (Thai 99 or Wayside chicken?) I would get when I approached the last turn toward home.

But often, with no music playing and only the drone of traffic filling my ears, I thought about Ross and Dennis and David, who’d left Tipton to fight in World War II, and about Alice and Anna who by now had arrived in Rapidan.

What adventures they were all having! I liked these people (with one or two exceptions). Some of them I loved. They were, for the most part, good souls whose lives were taking them places they hadn’t counted on going. And they were taking me places I hadn’t expected to go.

I completed a first draft before my visiting professorship ended at JMU. The summer before my final year of teaching there, I moved home to Orange County, to a little house on the family property where so much of the story takes place.

Although I didn’t think about it at the time, I was following my characters to Rapidan.

What had they found there?

What would I find?

And who, for heaven’s sake, was writing whom?

The answer to the first question is now between the covers of a novel called Tipton, new this month from Knox Robinson Publishing. The answer to the second is a work in progress. The answer to the third is written in the fog somewhere above Afton Mountain and between the stars glittering, as I write this, far above my corner of the world in Rapidan.