Announcing…My New Partnership with She Writes Press!


Photo by Alix Martinez

Photo by Alix Martinez

I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve just signed a deal to publish The Vintner’s Daughter with She Writes Press this summer!  This publication of the novel in the States will coincide with its publication by Harper Collins Canada, so the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Thank you to Brooke Warner, my new publisher at She Writes Press, and to my amazing agent, April Eberhardt, for your unfailing enthusiasm and persistence!

Stay tuned everyone…you’ll soon be able to pre-order the e-book and trade paperback from my site! If you live in Canada, you already can…just click on the sidebar buttons to order!

The Vintner’s Daughter

Here’s a first look at my debut novel’s cover!  The Vintner’s Daughter is scheduled for publication in June 2014.  Click here to pre-order your Kindle edition on Amazon!

Thanks to Harper Collins Canada’s Art Department for crafting this beautiful image for my book, and for permission to post this sneak-peek.  After editing The Vintner’s Daughter with my dream editor and mentor, Lorissa Sengara, we have now passed the manuscript into the capable hands of the copy editors at Harper Collins Canada for its final polishing.  I am so very excited and grateful for all their work!

The scheduled publication in the States and abroad will be announced soon!  Stay tuned!

One Writer’s Paradise: Visiting San Francisco & Napa

Veraison of Pinot Noir grapes, Bouchaine Winery

Researching historical fiction can be tricky and time-consuming, but if you enjoy your subject, it can be a delightful indulgence.  This July, I had the unique opportunity to spend seven glorious days exploring San Francisco and Napa Valley, California, two locations where my debut novel, The Vintner’s Daughter, and its sequel, are set.

The Vintner’s Daughter, set in 1896, chronicles the struggle of a wine maker’s daughter to reclaim her family’s Loire Valley vineyard, and the life that was stolen from her.  The second half of the novel takes place in San Francisco and Napa.  The best way for me to climb inside my characters’ minds, and write about their daily lives, is to see, hear, feel, smell, and taste what they experienced—at the turn of the century.

As a write-at-home mom of three young children, I couldn’t just go gallivanting off for a weeklong holiday in the vineyards (although I considered it!).  Instead, we made it a family affair, with my husband, mother and three kids tagging along for what we now call “our best family vacation ever!”

To sate the kids’ need for Mickey, Shamu and Minions, we spent our first week with cousins Gin & Craig in southern California, touring theme parks and reconnecting with family.  Then we headed north, through the rolling hills and farmland of the Central Coast, finally arriving in San Francisco.

Like every writer, I had my research agenda: visit historical buildings, archives, and vineyards to unearth what life was like living in San Francisco and Napa from 1890 to 1906.  However, it was the unexpected discoveries that made our trip unforgettable.

I had lived on Lombard Street in 1995, but it was wonderful to see the city again through the eyes of a tourist.  We rode the San Francisco cable cars, toured the city on a Big Bus, devoured banana splits at the (historic) Ghirardelli Chocolate Company Shop, and snapped photos of the Queen Anne and Italianate architecture of Haight-Ashbury.  Because a pivotal scene in my book takes place on what is now China Beach, I wanted to make sure I described every detail correctly.  At sunset, we stood on the half-moon, rocky shore of China Beach in Sea Cliff, enjoying the breathtaking sunset and view of the Marin headlands and Golden Gate Bridge.

Ryan inside Ghirardelli
My son Ryan inside Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop
Grace Cathedral
Grace Cathedral
At Tony's (AMAZING) Pizza Napoletana in North Beach (that's my mom)
Mom enjoying Tony's (AMAZING) Pizza Napoletana in North Beach
China Beach in Sea Cliff
China Beach in Sea Cliff
Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge
Powell-Hyde Cable Car
Powell-Hyde Cable Car
Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands from China Beach
Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands from China Beach
Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge
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When we arrived in Napa, the town was in the grip of a 98-degree heat wave.  Naturally, I had arranged to surprise my husband with a fifteen-mile Napa Valley Bike Tour (literally between-the-vines) for our sixteenth anniversary.  Despite the heat, it was phenomenal!  We toured three vineyards, enjoying tastings at BouchaineMcKenzie-Mueller, and Etude, all within the Carneros wine region (where one of the vineyards in my novel is located).  The San Pablo Bay breeze, along with ample water and a gourmet picnic lunch supplied by our seasoned guides, Steve Stone and Paul Torre, kept us happy and hydrated.

We started our bike tour beneath towering eucalyptus trees, noted for their durability, peeling bark and soothing menthol vapor.   American grape farmers took care to plant their vines far from these trees, to prevent the vine roots from soaking up the eucalyptus oil, which infuses grapes and wine with a menthol taste.

Veraison, or the ripening of the grapes, had begun.  The small, green pinot noir grapes were taking on a purplish hue.  Near the end of August, the harvest would begin.  Sparkling wine grapes would be picked first, then the dry wine grapes, and lastly, in late September, the dessert wine grapes, which require high sugar levels.   Our guide, Steve Stone, explained the bulges on the vines (where the vines were grafted), the netting (to deter birds and rodents from eating the ripening grapes), and the circling red hawks (to frighten away large birds and rodents).

Most memorable was our bike ride to the southernmost edge of Carneros, atop the crest of a vineyard hill, which overlooked the reservoir, marshlands and the San Pablo Bay.  To our right, rose Mount Tamalpais, the sleeping princess, and in the distance, we could see the San Francisco skyline.  It was the very spot I’d imagined my novel’s heroine standing, and it existed!  It was a goose-bump moment that I will never forget.

Hess Cellars Turn of Century Winery
Julia & Ryan enjoying the fish pond at Hess
Hess Cellars
The gardens of Hess Winery
Eucalyptus grove
Napa Valley Bike Tours
Salvestrin Winery late 1800s farmhouse
Bouchaine Winery
Kristen touring Carneros by bike
Veraison of grapes
Pinot Noir grapes
Owl Box
Southern edge of Carneros
Picnic lunch at Bouchaine Vineyards
The bung of a barrel
Kristen & David with bike guides Steve Stone (left) and Paul Torre (right)
Goodman Library, Downtown Napa
Enjoying mile-high meringue at Mustards Grille
Enjoying a glass of T-vine grenache at Mustard's
In the garden at Mustard's Grille
Newly-planted St. George resistant vine
1902 Bottle of Red
Hayne Vineyards 1903 Zinfandel vines
Regusci's 1878 Winery
Whetstone Cellars
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The next day I strolled through the renovated downtown to the Napa County Historical Society, housed in the Goodman Library, bursting at the seams with maps, books, documents and photos of Napa through the years.  The research librarian, Alexandria “Alex” Brown, is a young, peppy native who effortlessly fielded my barrage of questions, and happily supplied me with stacks of 1895 maps, books, turn-of-the-century photos of Napa businesses, train stations and schools, and even photos of an old wine press she snapped at a recent visit to the Nichelini winery.  Her enthusiasm and knowledge gave me confidence in my research, and left me eager to continue writing.

On our next excursion, my mother and I enjoyed a private vineyard tour with Certified Wine Professional and Sommelier, Max Roher.  Max shuttled us in an air-conditioned SUV, with another family, to four Napa vineyards, which he’d carefully chosen to match our requests to tour small, historical family-owned vineyards.  We walked through rows of 113-year-old, untrellised Zinfandel vines, toured a turn-of-the-century farmhouse, and visited a 19th century French-style chateau winery built by Hamden W. McIntyre, the expert who designed many of California’s first gravity-flow wineries.  On each occasion, the vineyard owners or managers greeted us personally, taking time to explain how they craft their wines, and answer our questions while we swirled and sipped from our glasses.

Did you know that every bottle of wine we drink contains nearly three pounds of grapes?  The vulnerability of these grapes is striking: over the last century and a half, they’ve fallen victim to pests, rodents, frost, mildew, and Prohibition.  Still, the grape growers and wine makers persist in finding new methods to protect and improve the fruit.  It is a precise blend of hard labor, science and art, to perfect the wines that fill our glasses.  I am inspired and humbled by their efforts.  Cheers!

Kristen’s debut novel, The Vintner’s Daughter, is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2014.


Exciting News!

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve just signed a two-book deal with Harper Collins Canada (HCC), to publish THE VINTNER’S DAUGHTER and its sequel!  I am so grateful to my agent, April Eberhardt of April Eberhardt Literary for her indefatigable enthusiasm, and to novelist, screenwriter and editor Holly Payne for introducing us!  Thank you ladies!

Working with HCC, with my publisher, Iris Tupholme, and my editor, Lorissa Sengara, is a dream come true.  Many thanks to the HCC team for your confidence in my writing, and your eagerness to tell Sara’s story.

I also would like to thank my parents, all my friends and beta-readers who gave me their honest, no-holds-barred feedback.  Your comments helped make the story tight, crisp, and more appealing.

Last, but never least, thank you to my husband, David, who kept saying “yes, you can” and to my three muses, Ellen, Ryan and Julia.  Love you guys!

More to come regarding U.S. publication…but, for now, it’s back to work!

Edge of Carneros region, Napa, California


Fairfield County Celebrates Legacy of Newtown’s Jesse Lewis

Jesse Lewis

Remembering Jesse Lewis
Jesse Lewis was a fun-loving, bright, strong little boy when his life was cut short by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on December 14, 2012.  Since then, his family has struggled with their all-consuming grief, and worked tirelessly to make sure his legacy is not forgotten.

Jesse’s mother, Scarlett Lewis, who grew up in Darien, remembers her youngest son.  “He is sweet, loving and kind.  I don’t use the past tense when I talk about Jesse.  He is larger than life and I feel his presence with me.”

“My mother recently used a quote from Walt Whitman to describe him: ‘Some people are so much sunshine to the square inch.’  That is Jesse.”

Scarlett recalls the happy times with Jesse on their family’s farm.  “He is just a little boy who used to charge home from school, kick off his tennis shoes, pull on his knee-high rubber boots, grab his bucket of army soldiers and rubber ducks and run out to play in what we call ‘the world’s biggest sandbox,’ the arena where we ride our horses.”

Jesse is also a hero.  His clear thinking and brave action helped save many of his classmates on that fateful December day.

The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation
Inspired by Jesse’s bravery and exuberance of spirit, Scarlett Lewis established the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation to change our current culture of violence into one of safety, peace and love.

Scarlett explains, “The Choose Love Foundation is working with professional educators to develop programs to bring compassion and love into the classrooms of our schools.  These programs will teach children, teachers and parents that they have a choice, to choose positive thoughts over negative ones, to choose forgiveness and compassion over hatred.”

The Foundation is hosting its first fundraiser in Fairfield County Saturday, April 27, at South Norwalk’s O’Neill’s Pub & Restaurant.  A $25 donation is suggested.  All are invited to “dance, smile and support” The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation and its important work.

Another Way People Can Help
“People ask me, ‘What can we do now?’  Start with yourself,” Scarlett urges.  “We need every individual to choose to be a positive influence in the world—that will create a ripple effect and will overpower the negative.”  As I exchange goodbyes with Scarlett over the phone, her voice is tinged with heartache—and a mother’s determination that her son’s legacy of love will live on.

For more information, visit the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation’s website or click here to view the Foundation Fundraiser Flyer.  Please come out and show your support!

From Pitched to Published: Polishing Your Manuscript

James Michener once said, “I have never thought of myself as a good writer.  But I’m one of the world’s great rewriters.”  This is a powerful statement.  First drafts are rarely good.  What does it take to prepare a manuscript to be pitched to agents, and then publishers?  I rewrote my debut novel seven times before I considered it ready to be reviewed by an agent.   These are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way.

Hook ‘em on the First Page
Don’t you just love it when a book immediately sparks your interest?  One of the most effective ways for writers to hook a reader is to place him in the middle of the action.  Long before Oprah celebrated Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth as a masterpiece, I devoured it in college, relishing every description.  The first line hooked me: “The small boys came early to the hanging.”  Who are these boys?  Where are their parents?  Who’s being hanged?  Why?  It remains, for me, one of the most brilliant beginnings ever.

Now how do you keep the reader engrossed in the story?  By making sure there’s a burning question or dilemma at the end of each chapter that compels her to turn the page, eager to finish the book without ever putting it down!

Follow Sister Mary Margaret’s Rules
For those of us who attended Catholic School and wondered why on earth God would want us to learn how to diagram a sentence, the answer is: in case you write a book one day!

I remain humbly indebted to the nuns who drilled the grammar and punctuation rules into my seventh-grade noggin.  Luckily, for today’s writer, resources like the Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and The Little, Brown Handbook are available to help us navigate the difference between past and past perfect tense, and to eliminate those pesky dangling modifiers.

Even better, if you know an English teacher, writer, or editor, it’s always advantageous to have them redline your manuscript for grammar and punctuation errors before submitting it to a literary agent.

Choose your Beta Readers
You’ve revised your book to the best of your ability, and now you’re ready to place it the hands of a few trusted readers for their review.  Beta readers are the “advance team” you handpick to critique the grammar, punctuation, character development, technical aspects, plot and pace of your book.  Ideally, these individuals should read extensively, enjoy reading your genre, and be able to give you constructive feedback without killing your dream.

Because The Vintner’s Daughter is women’s historical fiction, I chose ten very different women, aged 18 to 81, and, yes, one of them was my mom (always pick one who will love it unconditionally).   A California winemaker reviewed the winemaking scenes of the book and, near the end of the process, I chose two men—one an English professor emeritus and the other a nuclear physicist—because I wanted their opinions of the male characters and their motivations.

When you hand your manuscript to these readers, ask them three to five open-ended questions, for example:  Who were your favorite/least favorite characters and why?  Which parts of the book were underdeveloped (i.e. where did you want to know more)?  Which part(s) of the story did you most enjoy and why?  Their answers may surprise you.

Keep the Faith
Any creative endeavor into which you pour your heart and soul, and then offer it up for the judgment of others is, by it’s very nature, an ego-crushing sport.  When I prepare myself to receive feedback from my beta readers, I try to lose the ego, but keep the faith.

Ego, or self-importance, can be an impediment to the editorial process.  If you strive to develop a fresh and concise story, elevating the reader’s experience to your top priority, then you will succeed.  When I receive feedback, I try not to take offense, but instead dig deeper, asking clarifying questions of my readers.  You won’t always agree with the changes they suggest, but if you make the corrections that serve the story and the characters well, you will polish your manuscript to a high shine.

For example, my readers uncovered that I have an aversion to commas and I overuse the words “annoyed,” “irritated,” and “vexed.”  I loved my description of “purple and silver light from the retreating sun” streaming across a November sky.  My nuclear physicist didn’t.  He explained that colored skies at sunset were inconsistent with the past century.  The “atmospheric optics and upper atmosphere crystalline structure of the 19th century probably wouldn’t have supported the colors mentioned at the location discussed.”  Who knew?  Not I.  My November sky is now “painted with brushstrokes of orange and gold.”

Take a Page from Jane Austen
Once you revise your manuscript based on your reader’s suggestions and your intuition, consider setting it aside.  When Jane Austen completed First Impressions (Pride and Prejudice’s original title) in 1798, a publisher rejected it without even reading it.  She shoved it in her desk drawer and brought it out fourteen years later, to revise it and then publish it in 1813.  Fourteen years is extreme, but the best advice I ever received was to set aside my manuscript for three to six months, and then come back to it for one final major edit.  Your fresh reader’s eye will spot errors quickly, and you’ll correct them swiftly.

This is just the beginning.  Once you sign with an agent and eventually work with a publisher, there will be several more rounds of edits, all in service to your readers.

I could go on, but I’d love to hear from you.  What do you find helpful when editing your writing, or when critiquing another’s?


Kitchen Table Chat: An Interview with Pat Donelan

(from left to right) Maryellen (my mom and Pat's sister-in-law), Pat, with my daughters Ellen and Julia

When I reflect on the old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” I am reminded of the many people who shaped me into the woman I am today.  Besides my parents, one of the most significant people in my life over the past 42 years has been my Aunt Pat.  Mary Patricia Kulasa was a Polish girl from Akron, Ohio, who married my mother’s brother in 1961, nine years before I was born.  Since then, she’s been a bright light at the center of our family. 

Pat is classy, graceful, strong and quick to share a story.  Over her 75 years, she has survived the sudden death of her husband, single motherhood, two hip replacements, and brain surgery.   In her usual self-deprecating way, she only agreed to this interview if I promised “not to make her sound like Mother Teresa because [she] still use a few swear words now and then.”

I hope you enjoy the story of this week’s inspiring mom, Pat Donelan.

The Little Girl from Akron  MaryPat” was raised in Akron, thirty-five miles south of Cleveland, Ohio during the 1940s and ‘50s.  She’s the daughter of a Polish electrician who emigrated from Warsaw to America at age four and a fourth-generation American stay-at-home mom who was raised on a small farm in western Ohio.  “I was the only child, but mom always had homemade cookies and my dad was available for a game of catch or to help me ride a bike,” Pat remembers.

Finding kids to play with was easy.  “The neighborhood I grew up in was something that you read about today:  playing outside until the porch lights went on, the neighborhood parents knowing everything you did.  I remember when I got my first bicycle and was under strict orders not to ride on a busy street in the neighborhood, which I proceeded to do as soon as I was out of sight.  In less than 15 minutes, a neighbor saw me, called my mom to comment on my new bike and mentioned seeing me riding on the forbidden street.  Guess who was grounded for a couple of weeks!”

Pat Donelan

Growing up near the city, Pat enjoyed going to the theatre and spending time with her three unmarried aunts.  “I had the best of both worlds,” Pat recalls.  Her life in the city consisted of “fashion show lunches at the local department store tearoom and Cleveland Indian baseball games where we sat in the press box and I became an autograph hound.”  As soon as school ended, “my mom and I would get on the train and spend summer with her parents on the farm where I fed the animals, gathered eggs, ‘helped’ with the canning, learned to make soap and embroider.”

With her dad’s family’s Polish gatherings, there was always a lot of good food and plenty of older cousins to spoil and tease her.  As Pat remembers, “Soup was not a meal—just a beginning for the feast to follow!”  For those of us who know her, and have eaten at her well-laden table numerous times, that makes perfect sense.  With regards to food and entertaining, before there was Martha Stewart, there was Aunt Pat.

Pat’s father died suddenly when she was thirteen years old.  She was one of twelve graduating that year from the town’s parochial school.  Pat remembers how difficult it was losing her father and what a “culture shock” it was entering public high school.  “My mom encouraged me to bring friends home, no need to ask twice for many of them who still remember, and I managed to survive four years.  By the time I was a senior, I made Student Council, National Honor Society and class secretary—things that are important to a teenager.”

Pat as a flight attendant

Come Fly with Me  In the 1950s, career choices for women were limited to teacher, nurse, or secretary, which Pat tried for a while.  “I really wanted to be a pilot from the time I was in 3rd grade.  We were studying aviation, and my uncle, who was a pilot in the Air Force, came in his uniform to talk to the class.  He made flying seem so exciting; we were all in awe.  Becoming a flight attendant was the next best alternative.”

Pat worked as a flight attendant for a little less than a year.  She rented an apartment with two friends in Boston, explored new cities, and experienced being broke before payday with no hope of borrowing money from anyone.  However, Pat muses, “it began to lose its glamour one morning at the hotel in Chicago when the phone rang:  ‘Good morning, this is your wake up call.  It’s 4:30 and 14 degrees below zero.  Enjoy your day.’  Right!  And I was on my way to Buffalo where it was snowing.  The day ended at 2:00 the next morning when we were the last flight into snowy Boston, and the only food that day was hot chocolate and whatever we could scoff from the trays that the passengers didn’t want.  No meals were provided for the flight attendants.”

Pat and John Donelan's Wedding Day

She met her husband, John Donelan, shortly after she moved to Boston.  His roommate was dating her roommate.  “John was teaching at Newman [Preparatory School] and was correcting papers when we came in, no more interested in ‘another flight attendant’ than I was in him, but he did invite me out that evening.  I was in the throes of a miserable cold and had planned the next the next chapter in my life:  to transfer to an international airline after a year so I could live in Europe.  He had just returned from the seminary in Europe and was focusing on his teaching job.  In other words, the best laid plans.  That was 1960 and we were married the next year.”

Like a Bad Dream  Pat and John eventually moved to Cape Cod, spent the next sixteen years together, working, running a bed-and-breakfast on Main Street in Centerville, and raising their son, John Paul.  In 1978, at the age of 42, Pat’s husband John passed away, leaving her a single mom to her seven-year old son.  “When John died, it first seemed like a bad dream, and everything would be fine and normal when I woke up.  When that didn’t happen, I just became angry—with him and with God because there was no one else to blame.  Then the normal grief process took over when there was time.  The house was under agreement, so I had six weeks to find my current house and move, my mom was staying with me because she had fallen and broken both her legs, and we had the blizzard of ’78.  So, for a while, it was a matter of which crisis came first.”

A few months later, Pat’s friend gave birth to a daughter with Down’s Syndrome and at Christmas, another friend, who’d had a mastectomy, wrote that her husband left her and their five children to marry his secretary.  “It dawned on me that I wouldn’t trade places with either of them, and I guess I just learned to live with the hand I’d been dealt.  My mom, unknowingly, was a role model from the time my dad died.”

Laughter is the Best Medicine  When you ask Pat how she healed from such a painful time and moved forward with her own life, she insists that she was buoyed by friends wouldn’t take “no” for an answer and family who would just show up at her doorstep.  “I still laugh about the time when I came back from Logan airport (having a pity party for myself on the way home) to find cousins Carol and Peter drinking beer in lawn chairs in my front yard with bikes parked nearby—or Clare Cuddy in clown costume playing the fiddle under the kitchen window on St. Patrick’s Day, with croissants from a Quincy Market bakery.  It didn’t take long for the neighbors not to feel sorry for the young widow who’d moved in!”

Pat's husband John, with John Paul

Muddling  What advice does Pat have for single parents who find themselves in similar circumstances?   “Muddle.  Seriously, the best advice I received was from our pediatrician who told me that kids take cues from the adults in their lives.  He told me to keep things as normal as I could including meals, and to do something nice for myself every day—whether it was taking a bubble bath, going for a walk or even making snow angels and looking at the clouds.”  She also points out that going back to work opened a new world for her.  “I started as a part-time receptionist for a local bank and eventually became a mortgage originator; I took courses, always at night, (which meant waking a sleeping boy to take the babysitter home), and made new friends.”

With regards to parenting, she missed having John to serve as a sounding board for her decisions.  However, Pat is quick to point out: “when things turn out right, you get twice the reward.”  Her friends Ag and Fred, parents whom she greatly admired, told her to say “yes” as often as she could, so when she said “no” it carried more weight.  “I said ‘no’ to hockey, a 20 mile drive to an early morning practice, and ‘no’ to football, but a reluctant ‘yes’ to a paper route.  I drove on collection evenings when it got dark early and on Sundays when the papers were huge.  On the plus side, it was uninterrupted chat time and a good excuse to buy donuts.”

I hope John [her son] knows I was always available, but had my own friends so I wasn’t smothering him.”  Like her own mother, Pat invited John’s friends over to her house, so she knew who they were.  She never did enjoy much sleep on Friday nights.

John, Pat’s son, most admires his mother’s resilience.  ”She’s one of my very few heroes. ‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how,‘ said Nietzsche.  And that’s how mom has been since I was old enough to pay attention: able to zero in on the why with an effortlessness that continually amazes people.  She has a back yard full of English ivy that has become one of many running family jokes over the years, but she reminds me of it: no matter what you throw at it, the ivy keeps thriving.”

Remember Me, God?  I asked Pat what role faith has played in helping her survive two hip replacement surgeries and brain surgery for a benign tumor discovered during a retinal scan.  “Faith isn’t something that’s easy to define.  I’m a firm believer that if God gets you to it, He’ll get you through it, but I don’t believe He wears a wristwatch, so it’s not always the way or at the time we plan it.  I do keep in touch with Him daily; so when a crisis arises and I need help, I don’t have to say, ‘Remember me?’

“After my second hip replacement (a week after my first), I kept thinking of the young girl I’d seen—she was on crutches with severely deformed legs and no hope of ever walking normally; and the woman who shared my hospital room after my brain surgery who’d had an aneurysm—she could ever return to teaching.  In other words, someone always has more problems than you do, so count your blessings.”

Cioppino over Sterno, anyone?  One of my favorite memories of Aunt Pat was in 1991 during Hurricane Bob.  Winds were howling, trees were down, power was out, and Pat digs through the back of her bottomless freezer and comes out with mussels, clams, scallops…everything you need for Cioppino over Sterno!  I was incredulous…it was delicious.  That’s one of Pat’s great talents: making even the most absurd circumstances fun.

Pat and her son John, with my son Ryan

My cousin John recalls, “When Hurricane Bob roared over the Cape and I was stranded at her house with my best friend and two cousins (including this blog’s author); we had no power for almost over a week, no hot water, trees across the streets, and nature bombing us back to Colonial times. Most households in the area were stuck eating instant soup or mac and cheese but mom followed her usual storm-preparedness drill: after a rummage around her basement, kitchen and garage to assess supplies she quickly had drinks made, Jimmy Buffet playing and five-star cuisine that just seemed to keep manufacturing itself from the kitchen. We ate like libertines while Bob eventually howled himself out–largely ignored.  Twenty-two years later, just last month, I was stuck at my best friend’s house during the blizzard and we were laughing with his own kids about ‘Grandma Pat’s hurricane feast.’”

Stories of Pat’s entertaining escapades are legendary.  The very first Thanksgiving she cooked for her new husband’s family was disastrous.  “The oven door on which the turkey was resting broke under the weight, the turkey went sliding across the kitchen floor, I screamed “s*$#!”—no juices for gravy and I ruined a new pair of suede heels.  The dog lapped it up, the baby was screaming, and Uncle Frank was strumming his guitar and singing, ‘Gobble, gobble, gobble, it’s Thanksgiving Day!’”

Pat’s always been a fantastic improviser.  “A guest chastised me once for not serving red wine with roast beef, so I did what any gracious hostess would do: went to the kitchen and poured some white wine into a carafe and added enough red food coloring until it was just the right shade.  Julia Child, I think, said it right: ‘whatever happens in the kitchen, stays in the kitchen’”.  At my request, Pat has shared some of our favorite family recipes below, including the Cioppino!

Baked Brie
Marinated Shrimp (or mussels)
Aran Blathai (Irish Soda Bread)
Lemon Tea Bread
Steamed Pudding
Macaroni and Cheese
Sweet and Sour Pot Roast
Potato Casserole

“I Did It My Way”  When asked what her theme song would be, Pat didn’t hesitate: Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way.”  One of the things I most admire about Pat is that she doesn’t wallow in life’s disappointments—she finds the fun in life.  She’s also built a vibrant social life for herself. The “Stitch ‘n’ Bitch” group she joined eventually evolved into the “Macaroni and Cheese” friends who seek out and sample different recipes for mac ‘n’ cheese.  She volunteers at the Centerville Historical Museum, as a wedding coordinator at church, and an usher at the Cape Cod Symphony (“it’s a free ticket to great concerts”).

Since retiring from her job as a mortgage originator, Pat’s been working part-time for a local car dealership.  “In between I try to be a good person for Pepin, my 13 year-old puppy, and keep in touch with the friends I’ve collected from school and parts of my life along the way.”

I will always be grateful to Pat for teaching me about faith and grace under pressure.  Does her story remind you of someone you know?  Sometimes, we needn’t look far for our role models—they are often seated right around the kitchen table.


Meet Award-Winning Author, Editor and Writing Coach Holly Payne

Holly Payne

In 1994, Holly Payne was struck by a drunk driver and left unable to walk for nearly a year.  She received a letter from the driver asking for forgiveness, but rather than write him a letter, she wrote him her latest novel, Kingdom of Simplicity.  Kingdom of Simplicity won the 2010 Benjamin Franklin Award from the Independent Book Publisher’s Association, the 2011 Grand Prize for the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards, and has been nominated for a National Book Award in Belgium.

I met Holly at the 2012 Writer’s Digest Conference in Manhattan and I’m pleased to share with you a glimpse into her life and writing experiences.

Finding her Calling
Growing up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Holly remembers when she first experienced the joy of writing in fifth grade.  “I had written a series of fables one night in my bedroom: How the Raccoon Got Rings Around Its Eyes, How the Alligator Got to Be Preppy—I’m dating myself here, clearly…and How the Sunset Turned Red.  I remember the flood of those words and how I couldn’t keep writing fast enough to keep up with the images I was seeing. I ran downstairs and read the fables to my mom. She just smiled and said, ‘You have a way with words.’  It made me feel so seen!  I was so excited. I submitted my fables to a school writing contest and won honorable mention. I had no idea how much that little award would encourage me to keep writing.”

‘Terror and Grace’
Holly was forever changed by the 1994 accident.  “It was an experience of terror and grace. Terror for the obvious reasons.  I actually thought that the bicyclists who had been on the road that night had also been killed, and then I thought I was dead, too.  The grace was that I discovered something about myself, and this life, that has been with me ever since: a deep and profound belief in something bigger than me that’s guiding my spirit.  I vowed the night of the accident that if I survived, I would dedicate my life to serving others with my writing and teaching. It’s why I take it so seriously; I have often felt like I am on borrowed time.”

Holly’s Writing Process
Holly’s inspiration usually comes in the form of images.  “A story will come to me, I get a flash and I know instantly it is the seed of a novel. There’s a resonance and I almost always get the chills instantaneously.

“Then it all fades and the roadblocks arise (I’m laughing as I answer this because isn’t this the case with all creativity?).  Nothing like obstacles and tension to bring something into physical form.  Once the flash is there, usually a character appears and, when I know their problem, I start to ask a lot of hypothetical questions.  Why are you there?  Why are you doing what you’re doing? What did you do before this moment?  Where do you want to go from here? etc.

“That forms a loose basis for the preliminary plot outline which ends up a lovely mess of dialogue, scene snippets that seep through the story development, and character back story, which I learn as I go.  At least I’m learning to let go of needing to know everything and really trust my intuition as I write.  But even this loose outline eventually gets tighter and more refined as I work my way through the book.”

Motherhood, to Holly’s surprise, hasn’t slowed her down at all.  “Not only has motherhood given me the greatest gift of my life in my daughter, but I’ve found that I’m even more productive and efficient with my time. Actually, I don’t have a choice. I have to find windows and if I blow it, I lose that chance to write. I ended up writing more in the first year of my daughter’s life than I did in all the years on my own, even when I could work 10-12 hour days. Now, I get about 4 hours each day to focus so I try to shut off the internet, my emails and my phone so I can just do the work. There’s no magic formula. You have to sit down and write in whatever time you get between all the roles we play as parents.”

Holly has also developed a tried-and-true formula for removing her writing blocks.  “Whenever I get stuck, I go hiking and watch a ton of movies. That seems to unblock me. I’ve come to accept and realize that the block is simply a fear.  When I’m afraid to make a choice in the narrative, it usually means I’m not committed in present time to what the story is telling me. Sometimes I just need to take a few days off and let something simmer—let my subconscious work out the kinks.  If I think too hard or force myself to write, it’s disastrous.  Always.  It’s always best to write without thinking about it too much. Turn the mind off. I’m really beginning to believe that when I’m in the flow, I’m actually in another part of my brain—far away from the bullies of my analytical mind. Those guys are lethal to the muses but nobody ever teaches most writers how to stay in that other part of the brain—and I’m still figuring it out.”

Lessons Learned from Self-Publishing
One of the most difficult and daring decisions Holly made was to leave her agent to self-publish her third novel, Kingdom of Simplicity.  In 2008, Holly launched Skywriter Books to help herself and other writers form a healthy and empowering digital publishing partnership.  Holly and her team also have an imprint, Third Eye (iii), which is a digital publishing entity for undiscovered writers and authors who would like to re-release their work as an ebook or print on demand.  Kingdom of Simplicity has been translated into Dutch and Chinese and published in the Netherlands, Taiwan, and soon China with Turkish rights pending.

“Self-publishing is anything but ‘self,’” Holly insists.  “Self-publishing was about the most collaborative professional experience I’ve ever had aside from working in film. I love filmmaking because of this aspect and truly enjoyed the process of putting together a crew for my book: various editors for each stage of revisions, cover designer, interior designer, marketing stages, even working with the photographer for the front cover image, web designer, sales reps at the printing and fulfillment company and now a foreign rights agent.

“I also learned so much from reading Peter Bowerman’s The Well-Fed Self-Publisher. Most importantly, I realized that successful self-publishing requires an entrepreneurial disposition. You need to be your own project manager, highly organized, and raise the standards so that what you offer to the world meets or exceeds the industry standard. It’s the only chance we all have to chip away at the stigma that’s kept so many of us from committing to, supporting and celebrating this alternative route. I like to be reminded that Mark Twain also self-published, which always helps frame the possibilities for everyone, especially now in this beautiful golden age for writers.”

Writing as Healing
In addition to writing, Holly has taught screenwriting and story development classes for 12 years, at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, for the MFA writing program at California College of the Arts, and online for Stanford’s On-Line Writes Studio.  Currently, she coaches writers one-on-one to reach their full potential, and then helps to edit their work and map out publishing strategies for them.

“There’s nothing more inspiring than watching a new writer align with their creativity and seeing how that inner health radiates into all aspects of their life. In many ways, I honestly believe that writing is another modality of healing.  I believe that all of us have a story to share, and while I recognize the fear that holds most of us back from pursuing our creativity, not owning our voice can do serious injury to our spirits.

“For those who have the courage to pursue this path, I’m very protective of their hearts.  I want to make sure they really believe in themselves so that no matter how long or short the coaching relationship lasts, I know they will keep at it and never give up no matter how frustrating and daunting it can get along the way.  I love the passion of a fledgling writer and I do everything I can to make sure that writer is seen, supported and celebrated.”

Crested Butte, Colorado
The idyllic surroundings of Crested Butte, Colorado
The Cabin Accommodations at Skywriter Ranch
Skywriter Ranch Writing Retreat
Skywriter Ranch Writing Retreat
One-on-one coaching with Holly Payne (left)
Creative victory at Skywriter Ranch!
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Skywriter Ranch Writing Retreat
Another way Holly encourages writers is through her an annual Skywriter Ranch Writing Retreat in Crested Butte, Colorado.  “This is one of those weeks where you get to be a kid again—and focus completely on yourself,” Holly explains.  “Crested Butte has always been a special place for me and is the birthplace of Skywriter Books.  I’ve honestly never seen a more beautiful place. This is the town that changed my life—where I learned how to be a survivor and where I returned year after year to recharge my spirit.

“Each year, the curriculum changes based on who attends and what their needs are.  It’s 100% tailored to the group. I come with no agenda until I receive a thorough questionnaire that helps me design the week based on individual needs. The group hasn’t fully formed yet for this year, so I’m excited for the mystery that awaits in August.”

Holly describes an idyllic venue that promotes relaxation and creativity.  Guests stay at guest cabins, “lovingly run” by a local family, and enjoy “creekside hammocks and swarms of hummingbirds… majestic mountains and almost technicolor wildflowers, alpine lakes and gourmet picnic lunches.”  Holly says “our outdoor classroom really made for a new heaven—and a very long goodbye.  None of us wanted to leave!”

A Few of Holly’s Favorite Things
Holly’s writing space hosts her laptop, books and her notorious piles.   An old-fashioned feather pen, a carpe diem slate for her tea cup, a black and white photo of her swaddled baby daughter, a Sufi—a small glass whirling dervish from Turkey, and an old, black Remington typewriter that still works are just a few of the treasures she keeps to inspire her.
Her favorite author?  Right now, Louise Erdrich. “I am having a love affair with her work and couldn’t put down The Round House. She is so accomplished with the craft, so genuine in interviews, so generous of spirit—it clearly shows in her depth and understanding of the human condition. She’s a star!”

Lastly, Holly shares her favorite books with us:

The Alchemist
The Book Thief
Bird by Bird
All the Pretty Horses
anything written by Shel Silverstein

So what is the next step for this accomplished writer, coach, editor and speaker?  In addition to studying for a Master of Intuition Medicine certification, which she intends to weave into her writing coaching practice, she is currently starting a new novel, publishing Ushi Patel’s debut collection of poetry, Brave the Unknown, through Skywriter Books in May, and co-producing Words on the Waves, a reading series on the Sausalito houseboats for the Litquake festival this October.

To learn more, visit Holly Payne at her website,

From Pitched to Published: The Beginning

Loire Valley Vineyard

It came to me in a flash.  It was October of 2000 and I was standing on the edge of a Vouvray, France vineyard, marveling at the pristine rows of grapevines, the limestone caves and whitewashed winery on my far left, and the old abandoned watchman’s shed on my right, just off the main road to town.  “This,” I thought to my then-banker self, “would be the perfect setting for a novel.”

Eleven years, three children, and seven major revisions later, I completed my debut historical novel, The Vintner’s Daughter.  Set in 1895, The Vintner’s Daughter chronicles Sara Thibault’s struggle to reclaim her family’s Loire Valley vineyard and the life that was stolen from her.

While crafting my novel over the past five years, I decided to take the advice of one of my favorite authors, Tracy Chevalier:  “Don’t write what you know, write what you’re interested in.”  It was that passion for learning about French and California vineyard life in the 19th century that pushed me forward, along with the encouragement of my family.  Perhaps my husband David gave me the best advice.  When I was frustrated because I didn’t have large chunks of time to write, or because I didn’t reach my goal of fifteen pages per week, he reminded me that Rome wasn’t built in a day.  He urged me to keep chipping away at it, bit by small bit.  One day, he assured me, I’d hold my finished novel in my hands.

Turns out, the years of research, of refining the plot, of writing during the kids’ naps and on the weekends tucked away in a corner of the Darien Library might have been the easiest part.  Well-meaning writers and friends lamented, “It’s so hard to find a publisher these days.”  Statistically, this is probably true.  However, well-crafted, high quality self-published books are climbing the bestseller charts every day.

Carneros, California Vineyard

In January of 2013, I recommitted to my goal of publishing my book, traditionally or independently.  After 20 literary agent rejections last year, I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel until I’d reached Kathryn Stockett status—60 rejections of The Help before she signed with an agent (I know, crazy)Only then would I consider self-publishing as a first-timer.

And then it happened.  In late January, a published author I’d met at a writer’s conference last year agreed to give an interview for my blog.  And-oh-by-the-way-how’s-the-agent-hunt-going?  I told her of my 20-rejection triumph and she said, casually, “Why don’t you send over your query?  I have an agent friend who’s looking for women’s book club fiction and I think she might like your novel.”

I’ll be honest—at this point, I was just hoping not to embarrass my new friend.  I emailed my query to the agent.  She was interested; she wanted to read the first three chapters.  Ok, I thought, she’s being polite.  A few hours later, she wanted to read the whole manuscript.  Mission accomplished, I’ve made a decent showing.  When she called me the following week to offer me representation, it was like my birthday, Christmas, and winning the lottery all in one glorious moment.

So where are we now?   Just today, we finished polishing up the pitch and manuscript to present to publishing houses in the United States and Canada.  Fingers crossed.

This blog post is the first of a series designed to offer insights into the process of writing, pitching, and publishing (or self-publishing) a book.  Whether you’re a writer or a reader, I’d love for you to join me on this journey as I uncover, brick by brick, the road “From Pitched to Published.”

If you’d like to read more about The Vintner’s Daughter, click here.  If you’d like to read more “From Pitched to Published,” stay tuned for this week’s interview with award-winning self-published author and writing coach, Holly Payne.

Darien Family Hopes for Dravet Syndrome Cure

Miles and Jeremy Clark

Every day I drop off my daughter, Julia, at her preschool and enjoy the smiling faces of the toddlers who greet me.  Until last week, I had no idea that one of her classmates, Miles Clark, and his identical twin brother, Jeremy, suffer from a rare form of epilepsy called Dravet Syndrome, which can be life-threatening.  I’d like to share with you how the Clark boys and their parents cope with Dravet Syndrome, and how we in the Darien community can help these precious boys in the fight of their lives.

Miles and Jeremy Clark are typical-looking 4 year-olds with spiky blond hair and quick smiles.  The boys’ mother, Lindsey Clark, describes her sons: “They’re really normal little boys, highly active and so very happy!  Jeremy loves trains, music and all outdoor activities. He runs all over the place!  Miles loves music and all types of vehicles. His absolute favorite song is Wheels on the Bus.”

Miles Clark with his father, Cyrus

However, at age 2, after suffering numerous seizures, followed by extensive genetic testing, Miles and Jeremy were diagnosed with Dravet Syndrome.

As in the case of the Clark boys, approximately 90% of Dravet gene mutations are ‘de novo’, meaning that they are not inherited from a parent, but rather are new mutations in the child.[1]

According to the Dravet Syndrome Foundation, Dravet Syndrome “is a rare and catastrophic form of intractable epilepsy that begins in infancy.”  It occurs in approximately 1 out of every 40,000 births.  Children with Dravet Syndrome do not outgrow the condition and it affects all aspects of their lives.  “The constant care and supervision of an individual with such highly specialized needs is emotionally and financially draining on the family members who care for these individuals,” the Foundation reports on its website.

According to Lindsey, she and her husband Cyrus are constantly on the lookout for potential seizures, which can occur if Miles and Jeremy become overheated.  “We never leave home without their nasal spray (medication to stop the seizures should they occur).

Jeremy Clark playing the keyboard

“Most precautions depend on the season….in winter it’s all about fever and illness.  I’m constantly monitoring their temperature and on high alert if there is illness at home or in school.   Also, I need to be sure not to overdress the boys or they’ll overheat.   In the summer months we have their cooling vests ready to go and we water their heads down whenever we’re outside in the heat.  We never let them out of our sight for a long period of time in case one has a seizure.  If we go anywhere, like the playground, we need to be watching them both closely, and of course there is the fear that a seizure will occur and cause injury to one or both of the boys.”

There are many fears that come with parenting a child with Dravet Syndrome.  Lindsey explains that she and Cyrus “worry that we might lose them, or that they will regress and lose any abilities they currently have [such as language] due to seizures or medications.”  As a result of its child study in partnership with the NYU Epilepsy Center, estimates that “a much higher percentage (16%) of children with Dravet syndrome die early (before 18) than in the general epilepsy population.”

Despite these fears, hope abounds that Miles and Jeremy will grow into mature young men, and that the medicines will improve and have fewer side effects.  Lastly, Lindsey and Cyrus hope for a cure, which is what the February 27th fundraiser is all about!

Join us February 27th from 6-10pm at the Backstreet Restaurant in Darien for beer, wine, appetizers and acoustic music to raise funds for a cure for Dravet Syndrome.  Proceeds from the fundraiser will go to purchase new cooling vests for Miles and Jeremy, which cool the blood near their hearts to prevent seizures, toward iPads for children with Dravet, and to the Dravet Syndrome Foundation.

$50 cash at the door, or $20 cash and a check for $30 to the Dravet Syndrome Foundation.  Click here for a detailed flyer you can pass along to your friends!