Nicholas Sparks is always working, especially when he’s on vacation. “I work a lot when I travel,” he says. “I take a lot of notes and photographs. I’m generally writing, because that’s what writers do.”

At today’s morning breakfast, Sparks will discuss Every Breath (Oct.), the inspiration for which he found on a trip to Zimbabwe, where he took a safari, one of a few he’s taken during his life. He has always found his guides “intriguing” on these trips. “The lives they lead and the training they have—it was all very fascinating to me,” he says. “At the same time, my international sales are growing and growing, so I thought it was a good idea to add a little international flavor.”

Sparks’s 20th novel follows a few momentous days in the life of Hope Anderson, a 36-year-old woman trapped in a dead-end relationship. She heads to the family beach cottage in Sunset Beach, N.C., preparing to sell the house as her father copes with an ALS diagnosis. During this visit, Hope meets Tru Walls, a safari guide from Zimbabwe who has traveled halfway around the world following a mysterious letter from a man who claims to be his father. Hope and Tru find a powerful love connection at Sunset Beach, one of the many North Carolina coastal towns that play a role in Sparks’s novels. Just like Nights in Rodanthe—Sparks’s generation-spanning 2002 love story set in a North Carolina beach town—the duo uncover profound family secrets while standing at a personal crossroads.

When working on a new novel, Sparks constantly shuffles story elements to create the ideal mix. These combined elements must pass his personal test before he starts writing. “It has to meet these three criteria: original, interesting, and universal,” he says.

Sparks teases his readers for months before the launch of a new book. The Every Breath announcement came in March in a missive to his newsletter subscribers. The author also employs a full-time social media manager to keep his fans engaged every single day. One week after the Every Breath announcement, nearly 29,000 fans had shared the book cover on their Facebook newsfeeds. Sparks’s most powerful platform is Facebook, where he has well over 2.7 million followers, compared to 340,000 followers on Instagram and 633,000 followers on Twitter.

“What would I want if I was following some writer that I particularly enjoyed?” Sparks asks himself while planning his Facebook posts. “My social media strategy is simply to put myself in the reader’s position. To offer the helpful information and personality that they would want.”