Utah author Dean Hughes’ first published book was for children. Titled "Under the Same Stars," it was about the early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Jackson County, Mo., near where Hughes and his family were living at the time in 1979.
This year, his 100th book, “Through Cloud and Sunshine” (Deseret Book, $25.99), the second volume in the Come to Zion series, rolled off the presses.
“It’s been a way to make a living that I’ve loved,” Hughes said of writing.
The 70-year-old author doesn’t have plans to stop writing.
His writing career has included sports, humor, historical fiction, nonfiction and books for a variety of reading levels, from series for beginning and middle-grade readers to adults.
“I’ve never really stuck with one thing,” Hughes said of the genre of books with his byline.
Hughes has worked with several publishers, those that cater to the LDS niche, including Deseret Book, and those who have a broader audience, including imprints for Random House and Simon and Schuster.
“The first book that got accepted — it was an enormous thrill,” said Hughes, who wanted to be a writer since junior high and had also taught university-level English. “Then you start to realize that a lot people do this.”
It was a children’s literature class in college that put him on the path to writing middle-grade books, which included several series.
Through his writing career, he has gravitated toward historical fiction and has written the Children of the Promise and Hearts of the Children series, set in World War II era, and the recent Come to Zion series that parallels newlywed and pioneer couples.
“I’m fascinated by the topics I’ve written about,” Hughes said of Mormon history and World War II. "I love the research part of historical fiction.”
‘Through Cloud and Sunshine’
His 100th book, “Through Cloud and Sunshine,” continues the parallel stories of young couples Will and Liz Lewis, as they make their home in pioneer-era Nauvoo, Ill., and their descendant Jeff and his wife, Abby, as they live in modern-day Nauvoo.
The Come to Zion series started with “The Winds and the Waves” where both men, Will, then in England, and Jeff, in the United States, faced employment challenges. Jeff, a lifelong member of the LDS Church, and Abby, a convert and only Mormon in her family, moved to Nauvoo after Jeff became unemployed. There they could live in a home of a couple serving a mission elsewhere for free while renovating and updating it.
“I want to show the parallel of any young person or any young couple in time is that the basic human emotions don’t change that much,” Hughes said of the 417-page novel. “Deep down, we’re human and we’re going to go through the same emotional experiences.”
Both are struggling to start their families and both women have complications with their pregnancies. Both Will and Jeff struggle with their faith as they want to bless their families along with protecting and providing for them. Both are asked to serve in ways that challenge them — Will is called to serve a mission during the winter months, having to leave his wife and young children for several months, and Jeff is called to serve in his ward’s elders quorum presidency — and both recognize their shortcomings.
“Will and Jeff are versions of myself. You can’t help but do that as a writer,” Hughes said. “Doubt is a big part of their lives. You join the church and then wonder about (things), like can I have the faith to heal?”
They don’t just absolutely believe everything and have absolute faith at all times.
Both men also feel the pressure of providing more for their families — Will from the promises he made to his father-in-law, who is from a higher class than Will’s family, and Jeff as his East Coast mother-in-law comes to visit.
“The idea is that when you marry, you marry into the family and the family has a big effect,” Hughes said. “One of the challenges of being young and getting married is that you then have to meld all of your backgrounds together where you didn’t even realize how different you are in some ways."
In pioneer-era Nauvoo, Will and Liz see the poverty, sickness and the effects of some people’s human nature — both in and out of the church — around them as they try to carve out a living and keep their faith while doing what they can to help others. It includes the uncertain time around the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith.
Hughes introduces new characters, including Abby’s mother, who comes to visit after her grandson is born and who has never really thought much of Jeff, and in Will and Liz’s story, neighbors who, like them, are excited about the gospel, but struggle to make a living in Nauvoo.
The first book’s title, “The Winds and the Waves,” is from the hymn “Master the Tempest is Raging” and this one, “Through Cloud and Sunshine,” is a phrase from “Abide with Me!” (Hymns, No. 166).
The third volume includes the pioneer era of the exodus West, going to Winter Quarters and the Mormon Battalion, and is due out next year. As it’s in a series, the characters are already established, but it’s impossible to assume a reader picked up the first book.
Hughes and his wife, Kathleen, served as public affairs missionaries in Nauvoo after she was released from the general Relief Society presidency, and Dean Hughes also had an ancestor, Robert Harris Jr., who took a similar path from England to Nauvoo and also later participated in the Mormon Battalion.
And while this isn’t a re-creation of Harris’ story, he’s trying to accurately portray the era.
“It’s hard to think yourself into another century,” Hughes said.
Writing historical fiction from any era does come with its challenges. It requires meticulous research to get the facts correct and to not apply present-day values and make assumptions about what it was like.
“These have been some of the hardest books I’ve ever written,” Hughes said of the Come to Zion series.
“A lot of my readers are LDS and a lot of them feel they know that history — and they do know quite a bit,” Hughes said. “You’ve got to get it right.”
However, while people know this history of the pioneers, the stories are at times simplified or one well-known story that only happened to a few people is applied to just about all pioneers. And when the historical facts differ from what is widely accepted, readers start to wonder how much is fiction or fact.
“We have an understanding of the early Saints and we get it wrong most of the time,” Hughes said. Also, they weren’t much different than members of the LDS Church today in terms of human nature, faith and struggles.
“They all struggled with the same kind of stuff that we do,” Hughes said.
Book publishing, writing
One of the biggest changes Hughes has seen in the book publishing industry is the switch to digital formats for books and how there are many avenues for self-publishing. About a third of his income from his books is from electronic downloads or e-books.
“Everything is changing fast,” Hughes said.
Digital books have helped keep older titles that might have ordinarily gone out of print available longer
“You don’t have to store it in a warehouse or ship it,” he said. “That’s good in that there is a lot of stuff out there, but the competition is enormous.”
And the availability along with more self-publishing means there is more for people to pick from and that aren't expensive.
“At first, I thought 'Oh, I couldn’t curl up with a reader'" like with a book, Hughes said of his initial resistance. “But it’s really not very different.”
His Kindle went with him on trips they took this summer and he took all the things he wanted to read with him.
In writing, Hughes does his research, some type of outline for the plotline and character development before writing a draft.
"I think it's best to write a fairly fast rough draft and not try too hard to be perfect in the first draft," Hughes said. "Get down and then revise a lot."
In each draft, don't focus on perfection, just "push it forward."
In writing the parallel stories of Jeff and Abby and pioneers Will and Liz, he outlined both couples' stories to know how to mesh them and where to switch between the perspectives before writing the 400-plus page novel all the way through.
The 101st book
Hughes plans for a third volume in the Come to Zion series, which is due out next spring. He is on track to get the manuscript finished by fall.
He has other plans for other books, including an idea for a young adult novel and other LDS-themed projects, too, but not at a pace as fast as he has done before when he was putting out several books a year.
However, Hughes still says, “I feel like I'm the same guy who was writing when I was 30."
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