Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Welcome Cindy Woodsmall and The Sound of Sleigh Bells

I'm happy to have my good friend Cindy Woodsmall back to my blog with her new book, The Sound of Sleigh Bells.

Cindy is a New York Times best-selling author whose connection with the Amish has been featured on ABC Nightline and the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Her ability to authentically capture the heart of her characters comes from her real-life connections with Plain Mennonite and Old Order Amish families.

Cindy is the mother of three sons and two daughters-in-law. She and her husband reside in Georgia. Visit her Web site at www.CindyWoodsmall.com

The Sound of Sleigh Bells

Beth Hertzler works alongside her beloved Aunt Lizzy in their dry goods store, and serving as contact of sorts between Amish craftsmen and Englischers who want to sell the Plain people's wares.

But remorse and loneliness still echo in her heart everyday as she still wears the dark garb, indicating mourning of her fiance. When she discovers a large, intricately carved scene of Amish children playing in the snow, something deep inside Beth's soul responds and she wants to help the unknown artist find homes for his work‚ including Lizzy's dry goods store. But she doesn't know if her bishop will approve of the gorgeous carving or deem it idolatry.

Lizzy sees the changes in her niece when Beth shows her the woodworking, and after Lizzy hunts down Jonah, the artist, she is all the more determined that Beth meets this man with the hands that create healing art. But it's not that simple. Will Lizzy's elaborate plan to reintroduce her niece to love succeed? Will Jonah be able to offer Beth the sleigh ride she's always dreamed of and a second chance at real love‚ or just more heartbreak?

The Sound of Sleigh Bells is a heartwarming Christmas novella where lack and abundance inside an Amish community has power for good when it' tucked inside love. Romantic Times gave The Sound of Sleigh Bells 4 stars, saying ~ This is a wonderfully written, transformative story of two Amish families at Christmastime. It will bring sleigh-riding memories to life as readers vicariously join in this jolly and exciting holiday tradition.

To read the first chapter of The Sound of Sleigh Bells, go here.

To purchase through Amazon.

To purchase through CBD.com.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

White Picket Fences by Susan Meissner

Welcome to my friend, Susan Meissner, and one of my favorite authors. Susan's writing inspires me and her last release, Shape of Mercy, stayed with me for weeks.

Susan's new release, White Picket Fences is out and I'm looking forward to this amazing story.

Readers of emotional dramas that are willing to explore the lies that families tell each other for protection and comfort will enjoy White Picket Fences.

The novel is ideal for those who appreciate exploring questions like: what type of honesty do children need from their parents, or how can one move beyond a past that isn’t acknowledged or understood? Is there hope and forgiveness for the tragedies of our past and a way to abundant grace?

The story:

When her black sheep brother disappears, Amanda Janvier eagerly takes in her sixteen year-old niece. Tally is practically an orphan: motherless, and living with a father who raises Tally wherever he lands– in a Buick, a pizza joint, a horse farm–and regularly takes off on wild schemes. Amanda envisions that she and her family can offer the girl stability and a shot at a “normal” life, even though their own storybook lives are about to crumble.

What led you to write White Picket Fences?

Several years ago I was a court-appointed advocate for children involved in protective services. There were times when I saw that despite the outward appearance of a less-than-perfect home, a child could be loved there.

Just because a parent is unconventional or unsuccessful career-wise or makes choices that buck societal norms, it doesn’t mean that he or she is by default a "bad" parent. Likewise, parents who we would traditionally call "good" -meaning they provide, they protect, they don’t hit, they don’t ridicule - can nevertheless make decisions regarding their children that have hugely negative effects and yet their outward appearance would never lead anyone to suspect it.

Even if you live behind a white picket fence, you still have to deal with the fallout of a living in a broken world. You can't hide from it. The perfect, idyllic life is an illusion. Life is a weave of both delight and disappointment and it’s precisely these things that give it definition and depth. To ignore what is ugly is to cheapen what is beautiful.

You dovetailed a current day family drama with the Holocaust and the Warsaw Ghetto. Why the connection?

I think it's fair to say that the depth of the atrocities inflicted during the Holocaust wasn't fully appreciated until after the war. There was ugliness happening, if you will, and much of the West failed to see it -- for whatever reason. Within the horror, though, people made brave choices, selfless choices. And there were survivors who had to choose what they would take with them from the ashes of their suffering. I wanted to explore how a person makes that decision. Even the decision to pretend it never happened is a decision regarding those ashes.

What do you think interests you about the intersection of personal relationships and perceptions – a theme you wove into both The Shape of Mercy and White Picket Fences?

I see every great work of fiction being about human relationships. Gone With the Wind is so much more than just an epic story with the Civil War as a backdrop. It's a story of human relationships. Scarlett and Ashley, Scarlett and Rhett, Scarlett and Melanie, Scarlett and her father. It's within our closest relationships that our brightest virtues and worst flaws are exposed. That's why there is such tremendous story value within intimate human relationships. We are at our best and our worst when we are responding and reacting to the people who shape who we are. Human history is the story of relationships and what they teach us about what we value. And what we don't.

White Picket Fences is a different kind of novel than your acclaimed book, The Shape of Mercy, but there are some similarities too. Can you explain those?

As with The Shape of Mercy, there is a historical thread in White Picket Fences, though it is not as dominant. The invasion of Poland by the Nazis is woven into the story, and provides the backdrop for Chase's and Tally's discoveries about hope, dreams, and redemption. This thread is enhanced by visits to a nursing home where Chase and Tally meet a man blind from birth who survived the occupation of Poland. It is also a story that draws its pathos from family dynamics and the near-universal desire we have to make straight what is crooked. There are two young protagonists in "White Picket Fences," like there was in "The Shape of Mercy," as well as a third character, who, along with the two men in the nursing home, provide a similar multi-generational story thread.

What do you hope readers come away with after reading White Picket Fences?

The pivotal moment in the story for me is when Josef says to Chase: "[This] is what all survivors must decide. We have to decide how much we will choose to remember, how much courage we are willing to expend to do so."

It takes courage to acknowledge and remember what drove you to your knees or nearly killed you. If you choose to forget – and that's assuming you actually can – then it seems to me you suffered for nothing. You are different but you don’t spend any time contemplating – or celebrating – how. I'd be happy if there was a takeaway for someone out there who needs to consider that.

RH: Great thoughts, Susan!

Susan's bio:

Susan Meissner is the multi-published author of The Shape of Mercy, named one of the Best Books in 2008 by Publishers Weekly the ECPA’s Fiction Book of the Year. She is also a speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. A devotee of purposeful pre-writing, Susan encourages workshop audiences to maximize writing time by mapping the writing journey and beginning from a place of intimate knowledge. She is the leader/moderator of a local writer's group, a pastor's wife and the mother of four young adults. A native San Diegan, Susan attended Point Loma Nazarene University. When she's not writing, Susan directs the Small Groups and Connection Ministries program at The Church at Rancho Bernardo.

You can purchase White Picket Fences here:

And read an excerpt here:

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

4 Writers and Me on what makes us feel MOST like ourselves

In Oprah's eponymous magazine, there's a fun article: "4 Authors on What Makes Them Feel Most Like Themselves.

Among the featured authors was Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird, Traveling Mercies, and Imperfect Birds. Here's Anne's answers.

I look most like myself…in worn jeans and a tight-ish white T-shirt.

I act most like myself…at church, overeating after worship.

I feel most like myself… lying in bed on Sunday mornings with the dogs and the cat, reading The New York Times.

I feel least like myself…when I have to socialize with people I do not know.


I thought it'd be fun to play along, in all of my writerly anonymity.

I look most like myself…in worn jeans and a T-shirt or top, wearing flip flops or my Ohio State crocks.

I act most like myself…at church, at home with friends. Well, pretty much anytime. I am what I am!

I feel most like myself… when I'm with hubby, writing or watching DVDs. When I'm worshipping.

I feel least like myself…when I'm around certain individuals in the publishing industry. I feel so awkward and geeky.

What about you? What makes you feel most like yourself. If you're so inclined, copy and paste the question into the comments and give your own answers!

Next: When Mary Karr acts most like herself

Friday, October 16, 2009

Siri Mitchell Winners and the weekend

Congratulations to Carol Jarvis, Angie Brennan and Crystal Offhaus, winners of Siri's latest books! I actually had two copies of Constant Heart so I picked an extra winner.

Send me your snail mail ladies! :) Click on the Contact page and send it through there.

So, what's planned for the weekend?

I'm going into "deep dark mode" meaning submerging myself in writing. See you all next week!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Is there a med out there for blogfobia?

Because I think I have it. A disease. Blogfobia. See, I can't even spell phobia! How'd it all start, Rachel, you ask.

Well, um, see, a loooong time ago, 2002, I started blogging in Diaryland. Just fun little tidbits about my days, news of my writing, my first book contract, life at the office. Which, btw, was nothing like the TV show.

I switched to Xanga, then Blogger. I hopped onto MySpace, then Facebook and a myriad of other social sites. Blogging became key to a new writer's existence. Everyone started blogging.

All my deep, personal thoughts, funny bits about Santa Mouse Christmas songs suddenly became fodder for comparison to all the other genius writers now blogging.
People started, gasp, giving stuff away. Books, iPods, prizes. Bloggers were funny. Wise. Full of publishing industry information.

Suddenly I'm Aubrey Montegue in Chariots of Fire, running the Steeple Race, landing in mud puddles, tripping over hurdles, coming in last.

Am I to be funny? Every day?! Am I to be deep and wise? Every day?! Should I give stuff away? Did I mention I'm a fledgling author?

Am I to go on about publishing industry news? Add posts of self promotion? Interview other authors. Write book reviews.

Ahhhh, I don't know what to blog any more!
Is there such a thing as a blogging trainer? I need to get in shape!

I don't feel so good.... "Mooooommm!"

Don't worry. There's not enough people who read my blog to pick up my germs and spread the disease. Maybe there's a blogphobia hospital where I can recoup with all the other authors suffering from "what do I blog?"

I use all my best brain to write books! Now, I must write an award winning blog. Sorry, I'm just not that competitive.

Don't worry. I'm strong. I'm healthy. I'll recover.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Spending time with author Siri Mitchell

I've always been a Siri Mitchell fan. Of her writing. Of her person.
This summer I read her newest release "Love's Pursuit" on a plan ride to Washington D.C. I was captivated. Loved, loved, loved the book. I saw Siri in D.C. as well as her editor, Dave Long. I had to gush to both of them about the story and Siri's work.

If you haven't read a Siri Mitchell book, please do.
I asked Siri to answer some interview questions, which she graciously agreed to do.

Siri has written seven novels, two of which (Chateau of Echoes and The Cubicle Next Door) were named Christy Award Finalists.

A graduate from the University of Washington with a business degree, she has worked in many levels of government and lived on three continents. She currently resides with her family in the Washington DC metro area.

Listen in to a bit of our conversation!

RH: Siri, I loved Chateau of Echoes and Moon Over Tokyo, very different books but both set in foreign cities. Can you talk about writing with international settings?

SM: I’d love to – they’re my favorites! I think the key in writing international settings is remembering whose eyes you’re supposed to be viewing them from. Cultures are foreign to us because, given the same set of information, they would probably draw different conclusions and find different solutions than we would. It’s always been easier for me to write an international setting from the view of an outsider. That way, I can use my own observations about the place and the culture. Besides highlighting international differences, I also like to touch on the similarities. It’s important to realize that people across the globe (and across time) deal with the same issues and same questions that we do.

RH: So true. When I traveled for my job, I was so struck by the commonalities of people across the world. We all want to be happy, to be loved and to raise our kids in a warm, safe environment.

You’ve gone from contemporary and chick lit books to writing historicals. Can you tell us about this migration in your work?

SM: I actually came into the publishing industry wanting to write historicals, but at the time, no one was buying them. (That changed, of course, about two weeks after I signed my first contract!) I enjoyed writing contemporaries, and hope that I’ll have the chance to get back to them, but for now, I have a backlog of historicals that I feel the need to put on paper.

RH: My first book was a WW2 historical, but the research is too tedious for me. I think I have a more contemporary voice. Your historical voice is so perfect. I really felt enveloped into Puritan Massachusetts when reading Love's Pursuit.

What’s next for you?

SM: What’s next is another historical, She Walks in Beauty. It officially release in April 2010.

The book is set in 1890s New York City in the upper levels of society during the late-Victorian era. When Clara Carter is told she’s to debut a year early, her social education shifts to high gear.

There’s more than dance skills and manners to learn. There are corsets to be fitted and bosoms to be enhanced, for a girl so tall and gangly as Clara could never hope to attract a man by simply being herself.

But the more enmeshed she becomes in New York City’s social scene the more she begins to wonder if this is the life she really wants. Especially when she’s pitted against her best friend for the hand of the most eligible bachelor in town. When she does manage to find a kindred soul, a man who seems to love her simply for who she is, her heart begins to assert its case. But there’s more at stake this social season than just Clara’s marriage and the future of her family depends on how she plays the game.

The more research I did into corsets and late-Victorian culture, the more their problems seemed to mirror ours. Women still go to dangerous lengths to ‘fix’ the way they look. Media still creates a celebrity-focused culture. Advertising still perpetuates unreasonable standards of beauty for women that lead to anorexia-inducing behaviors, and we still grapple with our attitudes toward and treatment of the poor. Most books about debutantes focus on the glamour of the lifestyle or the cattiness of the girls themselves.

This books looks at the huge spiritual, physical, and emotional costs these girls were made to pay. But really, in true Victorian fashion, this book has a happy, heartwarming ending and I think there are scenes that will make readers laugh and others that will touch their hearts and make them cry (happy tears only, please!).

RH: All right, I'm hooked. I love the title. And I love the Victorian Era. You create heroines that are so profoundly impacted by their culture and traditions. It's fascinating. Cannot wait to read it!

Tell us a bit about your writing day. I know you have a daughter, so how does parenting work with writing for you?

SM: It really only works when I compartmentalize. I’m a bad juggler (even with scarves), so I do my best work when I’m concentrating on only one thing at a time.

After school starts, I work out. After I work out, I write from 2-4 hours 4 days a week (I figure that in any given week, I’ll have an appointment I have to go to or a series of errands I’ll have to run).

After I write, I take care of housework until my family comes home. Once they’re home, I’m theirs…and they get the weekends too. That’s my life. Pretty boring! In summer, I don’t keep a regular writing schedule. I operate on the assumption that I’ll be doing all the research reading for my next book, but frankly, I have a hard time making that happen.

RH: I can't juggle scarves either. :) Maintaining "life" is key to authors because we can become consumed by the deadline, by the craft. Sounds like you've found a good balance.

Historicals require a lot of research. Do you enjoy that aspect? How do you go about researching?

SM: I love research! What a great excuse to explore history. And buy books. I love books! I usually start my research in a very broad way. I like to read generally about my time period to get a feel for what was going on in my characters’ world politically, culturally, and spiritually.

After I get a good grasp of the period in general, then I start to narrow my research. I try and read biographies of women in the same class as my protagonist to see how the more widespread events of the day impacted women in particular. I’ll research specifics on architecture, food, and clothing.

Sometimes, if needed, I’ll delve into health and medicine. I’ve researched childbearing and marriage ceremonies. Period music, folk songs, and dance steps.

When it comes to actually writing my books, I try to forget everything I’ve learned. I try to interpret the world through my characters’ eyes rather than my own. I think I’m growing in this area. When I do it right, I treat the historical details matter-of-factly and my readers are able to buy into the illusion I’ve created, even when the characters do things that would seem odd or wrong to our modern day sensibilities. Write historicals with confidence and without apology. That’s my motto!

RH: Great advice about research. Even for me, researching contemporary issues and settings is key to a great story. Like you, I have to forget it all when I start to write and let it surface in a natural way.

Are you a plotter, Siri? Or Panster, as we say? How do you come up with your stories? Then, how do you approach writing?

SM: I’m a pantser, but my pants don’t seem to be wearing out quite as quickly these days. (RH: LOL)

I always try to craft a better book and I know that plotting is my weakness. For the past three books, I’ve been testing out different methods of quasi-plotting in order to find something that works for both my right and my left brain.

My stories always start with a character who comes to me and begins to tell me their story. In the early stages of writing, I’ll often hear my characters speaking and I’ll hurry to jot down what their saying. It used to be that my first draft manuscripts were lots of dialogue…with lots of gaps in between. I’ll usually know the beginning of my stories and their end and a few key scenes in the middle before I start to write.

With the book I just finished (She Walks in Beauty), I used scene cards to organize my thoughts. With the book I’m just beginning, I spent a lot of time thinking about theme and premise (influenced by Dr. Stanley D. Williams book, The Moral Premise).

I found it gave purpose to my scenes and helped me understand the actual structure of a novel. James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure and Jeff Gerke’s How To Find Your Story have also been very helpful. I guess I’d say I’m a pantser who wishes she could be a plotter. How’s that?

RH: While we can always improve our craft approach, there's some part of us that just "is." I'm a bit of a both-and writer myself. I plot and plan, then start writing and see what bubbles up!

What do you want readers to take away after reading one of your stories? What do you want them to feel?

SM: I want them to feel God’s great love. I want them to know that they don’t have to be anyone else, they don’t have to look like anyone else, they don’t have to act like anyone else. God created them for a purpose. And they deny that eternal purpose if they don’t value the person God created them to be.

RH: Your words so echo my own heart about my stories. I want readers to know God's amazing love for them and His destiny for them is uniquely designed for them!

Of all the places that you have traveled, which one is your favorite? Is there a place you haven’t been that you would love to visit?

SM: I have to say Paris. I’ll probably always say Paris! We were able to live there for 4 years and I completely fell in love with the city. But I would also love to visit all seven continents. I only have two left: South America and Antarctica. An Argentina/Antarctica itinerary would be a dream vacation for me.

RH: I've been to South America but Antarctica... wow, that would be some trip! Send me a post card!

Do you have any hobbies that you do in your spare time? Is there something you would love to learn but haven’t had the chance yet?

SM: I like to golf. My long-term goal is to get my handicap low enough so that I can play St. Andrews.

My husband has already played The Old Course twice. The next time we go to Scotland, I’m playing too! I also actually enjoy working out (lifting weights). And, I kind of hate to admit this, but I think I’m learning to enjoy gardening. As far as aspirations, I would love to be able to knit a lopi sweater like this one, but so far, I’ve only been able to conquer several really long scarves. (I have a lopi from 1984 that I still wear…mostly because I’ve never found another to buy.)

RH: What’s a typical family day like in the Mitchell household?

Unfortunately, it would probably begin at about 6:45. For some reason, some of us in my family are incapable of sleeping in. (That would not be me, by the way.) It would probably involve a sport (golf, tennis, biking, or swimming) or a visit to a museum. There’s so much to do and see in our area that the possibilities are endless!

RH: One of the great advantages of living metropolitan. Stuff to do. What kinds of books will we find on your bookshelf? What is the last book that left a big impression on you?

SM: All kinds of books line my bookshelves. And the desk. And the floor. And my nightstand. Non-fiction probably outnumbers fiction, but for pleasure reading, I’ll choose a novel every time. I have a long-time interest in fashion and French history (extra points for French fashion history), so I’ll add books in those categories regardless of what my research needs are at any given time.

Big impression? Probably Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. (Set in China during the foot-binding period.) As I was reading it, I kept looking at my feet thinking, ‘Really? People used to do that to their feet? Because they thought it was beautiful?!’ For anyone wondering, they used to break their feet (on purpose), bend them over into themselves, and let them basically rot into a gelatinous mass. (You have to read the book.)

RH: It's incredible what woman have endured through the centuries in the name of beauty.

I know you love to cook. What’s your favorite meal to prepare? Your favorite dessert? Do you cook every day?

SM: I’ve just discovered orange bread. And grilled coconut shrimp. But now that fall is coming on, I’ll be able to get out all my recipes with dried fruit (pork with apricots; chicken with prune sauce…). And Rachel Ray has a great recipe for penne pasta with pumpkin, sausage, and portabella mushrooms.

I’m not big on making desserts, though I love to eat them. But one of our French friends gave us a recipe for chocolate mousse. You’ll know I really like you if I take the time to chop up the chocolate, separate the eggs, and whip the egg whites up into a stiff meringue.

Usually, I cook every other day. 'Cook once, eat twice' is one of the sayings I live by. I never really liked leftovers until I became the chief cook and bottle washer. Now, I think they’re vastly underrated!

RH: Cooking is so not an interest of mine. I mean, I try. And if someone gives me an easy way to cook with variety, I'll do it, but I'm not a kitchen person. Too many other things to do.

What would you like readers to know from your heart about your books and writing?

SM: My goal has always been to make my readers think. I’m always trying to say something or work out how I feel about an issue. (My curse is to not be able to do it in less than 85,000 words!) I’d be flattered if reaaders couldn’t put my books down or felt like they connected with my characters, but I’d be honored if something I wrote gave them pause and caused them to stop, for even a moment, to consider something for the first time or from a new perspective.

RH: In my opinion you've accomplished your goal. You write storylines and characters that make me think. I've said this before but the storyline of Thomas and Small-Hope in Love's Pursuit is such an amazing Christ as Bridegroom image. Thank you for taking the time to create characters and stories to touch our hearts!

Thanks for stopping by, Siri!

Now, to blog readers, I'm giving away two autographed books by Siri Mitchell: Love's Pursuit and Constant Heart. For a chance to win, click on my Facebook badge to the right and post a comment! I'll draw names in a few weeks!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A weekend with family

I drove to Knoxville for the weekend with Lola to see my Mom, baby brother and baby sister. Middle brother and big brother couldn't make it. We had a blast. So fun to hang out, and run with the kids at the park.

The closeness in Grandma's living room got a bit... hmm... close! But it was worth it.
My brother has 2 kids and my sister, 4. Ages ranged from 1 to 16!

I'm posting a picture because it paints a thousand words. Ah, to be 3 and rolling down hills.

More later. Need to get writing!