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Mark and I only send Christmas letters to those who send them to us, so if you use the same system, this is your only chance to see what we included in our Christmas Letter for 2020.

Dear Friends and Family:

Amid the many disappointments of 2020, we make adjustments while continuing to be thankful and have hope for the future.

The year began with what has become our regular continuing education experience, the Abundant Life Summit in Fountain Hills, Arizona. As we waited at the Phoenix airport for our flight home, the big news was the first few cases of COVID-19 being noticed locally. We had cut our time in Arizona short because of a large private party scheduled at the Blue Belle, which ended up being cancelled at the last minute. Little did we know it would be the first of many bookings, special events, mystery dinners, and trips to be cancelled in 2020.

A Taste of Arizona

Like everyone else, our lives were greatly impacted by the pandemic. Although we both had the memorable experience of dealing with kidney stones in 2020, so far, we are thankful to report that neither of us have been infected with the virus.

The Blue Belle Inn B&B amd Tea House, St. Ansgar, Iowa

For Sherrie, the Blue Belle Inn was without any overnight guests for two months – something that has never happened before in the 29 years she has been open. We are grateful for her loyal customers (many of whom we are happy to call friends) who found ways to support the business as she re-opened with limited seating for dining and many more take-out orders than she’s ever had. She has come to appreciate the new demands of being a “short order cook” and greatly enjoys the pleasant crew of people she has as her staff members as business begins to trickle in once again.

Zion Lutheran Church, rural Hudson, IA

Mark continues as pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in rural Hudson, Iowa, now completing his ninth year. He finds great fulfillment in the ministry there. Although the church never “closed” we have greatly adjusted how we do things. We switched to putting our services on Facebook Live, when we couldn’t have worship with people inside the building. While we continue those internet postings, we are blessed to have a faithful group of in-person worship participants. What a surprise it has been to see people from well beyond our regular membership viewing these services online.

Plum Tart Iris, my new release.

Sherrie published her 14th novel, Plum Tart Iris, set in the Bohemian Alps of the Czech Republic and is nearly finished with her next book, Ragged Robin, set on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. She started posting a daily prayer time on Facebook Live to pray for our country, and friends and acquaintances going through rough times because of the virus, playing a song on the keyboard each day – another big adjustment for someone who has always been shy about having her picture taken and playing the piano by herself.
 
Mark was able play golf more often than in previous summers. Although part of that involved a trade-off of devoting less energy to his other hobby of repairing old bicycles, getting outside in the fresh air has been positive. He wore short pants so often, that he actually had tan-lines for the first time in many years.

This photo was taken about 5 years ago. If you want to know what we look like now (ei. how much weight we’ve gained during the pandemic,) you can see me live doing my Facebook Prayer Time each day, and Mark, on Sunday mornings on the Zion Lutheran, LCMC page, Hudson, Iowa.

As we look ahead to 2021, we pray you may all have a year blessed with love and health. We are hopeful that we will finally get to go back to Europe this spring, and that some of the frustrations we dealt with in 2020 will be worked out eventually. Because we know that’s what God does! We continue to believe that God works all things together for good. As Sherrie likes to say, God makes beautiful things out of broken pieces.     

Love to all of you, 

Mark and Sherrie

Something beautiful made from broken pieces.

We only went on one trip this year – a quick visit to Arizona for an Abundant Life conference just before the pandemic struck. We spent as much time hiking as we could and saw several beautiful sunsets.

Saguaro Nation Park near Tucson, AZ
Saguaro National Forest, near Tucson, AZ
McDowell Sonoran Preserve near Scottsdale

Since the remaining trips we had scheduled for 2020 were cancelled, I’m going to take a look at some of my favorite sunsets from past years. And of course, some of the best sunsets are found close to home.

Czech Republic, 2019
Holbrook, AZ 2019
Moonstone Beach, Cambria, CA 2019
Greene, Iowa 2019
Hanging Horn Lake, MN 2019
Callanish Stones, Isle of Lewis, Scotland 2018
Scotland 2018
Ullapool. Scotland 2018
Scotland 2018
Devon, England 2017
Dingle Penninsula, Ireland 2017
Beatty, Nevada 2016
Furnace Creek, Death Valley, CA 2016
Zion Lutheran Church, Hudson, IA
Hudson, IA
Zion Lutheran Church, Rural Hudson, IA

The tickets are bought, the Airbnbs have been booked. We’re going back to Scotland for three weeks in May and June!

Scot - Uig sunset stones

At least one person has already made the comment, “Again?”, so I’ll explain our reasoning. The answer is, while we loved exploring a new country and seeing new sights when we went to the Czech Republic last summer, we found it exhausting and much more strenuous to vacation on completely unfamiliar turf while dealing with a foreign language in a place where it was rare to find someone who spoke English.

Czechia - Cesky Krumlov view

Our Czechia trip took far more research and planning than usual, and we struggled to get oriented and figure out the lay of the land. It wasn’t unpleasant – we saw some absolutely amazing sights, and I love the story that came out of the experience (PLUM TART IRIS, coming summer of 2020), but it wasn’t as relaxing or fun as going “home” to Scotland. (This will be our 4th trip and our 10th, 11th, and 12th weeks in country.)  Maybe one day, we’ll still morph into one of those couples who goes to the same cabin (stone cottage?) on the same lake (or should I say loch?) in the same state (country?) every single summer. Stranger things have happened!

B&W View

In our defense, Scotland has so many things to see, and such variety! From highland castles to seaside villages, remote islands to bustling towns and quaint country hideaways, each and every place we’ve visited has been full of charm. The things to do and see are basically limitless. Each time we go, we make sure to include a new island or region in our itinerary as well as some old favorites that bear repeating.

Scot - Hairy Coo

Both of us had enough frequent flier miles to get a “free” overseas ticket, so long story short, we have a lot of connections and we’re flying into Edinburgh instead of Glasgow. But our only expenses were taxes and airport fees, so we can’t complain. We leave on May 18th.

For the first three nights, we’re staying in a stone cottage on a small farm with a stream running through the garden near Humbie, southeast of Edinburgh.  From there, we can explore previously unseen gardens, beaches, manor houses and abbeys in the Borderlands.

S2020 - Cottage in Country

We’ll spend our next 3 days in the same renovated barn we stayed in two years ago when we were in Aberfeldy, one of our favorite places in all the world.

I’ve already made reservations for a return visit to the famed Peat Inn, near St. Andrews, where we’ll enjoy lunch to break up our drive to the highlands.

Scot - Peat Inn

While in Aberfeldy, we’ll see the Atholl Highlanders and bagpipers marching in review and the Highland Games at Blair Atholl Castle for the third time. Love it!

SW 57

Then, it’s back to Dornie, home of Eilean Donan Castle (where SHY VIOLET and SWEET WILLIAM are set), for two nights. Loch Carron (where GOLDEN ROD is set) is an easy side trip from Dornie.

SW 140

Need I say more?

Scot - LC dessert

Dinner at the Lochcarron Bistro, and a visit to Balnacra Pottery at the Smithy and Carron Pottery, Craft Shop & Gallery are on the list as well – maybe even Lochcarron Weavers – all great enticements.

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We’ll be spending one night in Portree, on the Isle of Skye before heading out on the ferry to a part of the Outer Hebrides Islands that we’ve never seen before – North and South Uist.

S2020 - Uist

I’ve been following a photographer on Instagram who posts photos of the sunsets on the Uists and I can’t wait to experience the magic. This photo of Loch Bee was taken from the bedroom window of Na h-Eileanan an Iar Bungalow where we’ll be staying for 4 nights.

215 Scotland - Tobermory 5

From South Uist, we’ll be taking a rather complicated jaunt on a couple of ferries to get to Tobermory, Isle of Mull (where BLUE BELLE is set.) Hopefully the seas will be calm that day!

95 Scotland Dining

I’ve already made sure that Cafe Fish, where we ate 13 years ago on the harbor, is still open. They are, and my only problem now is what to order – the Haddock Mornay rolled haddock fillet stuffed with baby spinach and herbed mushrooms, and topped with a Mull cheddar sauce or the Café Fish Pie salmon, smoked haddock, fresh haddock and queenies in a creamy sauce topped with crushed potato  and cheese. I had the fish pie last time and loved it, but I had Haddock Mornay in 2016 on the Isle of Arran and it was wonderful, too. My usual solution to this dilemma is to see if my nice husband will order one while I order the other, but every so often, he won’t cooperate… we’ll see… Maybe if he gets to play golf one day while we’re on Mull?

97 Scotland - Celtic Cross

Our third night on the Isle of Mull, we’ll be staying on the other side of the island, the Ross of Mull in Fionnphort, where we’ll be catching the foot ferry to the Isle of Iona, one of the oldest Christian religious centers in Western Europe. We hope to visit Duart and Torosay Castles on out way back to catch another ferry to the mainland. With that last jaunt to Oban, our island-hopping will be complete and it’s off to the Highlands again.

S2020 - Fortingall

We’ll be spending one night at Keltneyburn to break up our drive. It’s near Fortingall, a picturesque little town we’ve been to before.

Scot - Haggis

Our farm stay reservation in Aberdeenshire will be our home for the next two nights so we can attend the Taste of Grampian, a food and drink show near Inverurie with over 200 exhibitors – including our favorite food vendor, Kilted Fudge. Their Clootie Dumpling Fudge is the best!  I’m sure I’ll be able to enjoy some Haggis, tatties (potatoes) and neeps (turnips) as well.

Aberdeenshire is castle country, and we hope to see one or two that we missed last time we were there. I love castle gardens and hope to enjoy a bit of color. The bluebells, wisteria, and rhododendrons should still be in bloom in the highlands and the roses just beginning to bloom.

 

We’ll be circling back to Crail, another favorite spot, for our second to last night in Scotland. This is the sea view from the garden where we’re staying. Crail is along the east coast, a traditional Neuk village just a wee bit from Edinburgh. I’m glad we’ll be able to stay by the sea once more before we head home – and of course, I’ll need to visit Crail Pottery again.

Wildflowers - Stripes

On June 9th, we’ll fly home to Iowa. I’ve been asked if this trip to Scotland means there will be another Wildflowers of Scotland novel. As of now, I have no ideas, but then, the whole point of traveling is to expand your mind and find inspiration in the things you see, experience, and learn. So, we’ll see!

IMG_20160605_114838

We appreciate your prayers for a safe and relaxing journey.

(Please note that while most of these photos were taken by me, there are a few (3) that I did not take because they are of places I have not yet visited.)

 

 

 

We planned to stay on the Isles of Lewis and Harris for 4 nights because it coincided with the relaxing mid-point of our recent trip to Scotland. My husband says once I get away from home and business, it takes me a week to relax, and that a week before we head home, I start to get tense again, thinking about what’s waiting for me. When we go on a three week vacation, it’s the middle week that’s golden.

Scot- Keeper's House

 

My midgie-bite covered body was looking forward to rest and relaxation on Lewis and Harris. The islands are only 14 miles wide and 100 miles long, so we felt sure four days would not only give us time to see all the sites but to spend some time chilling on Uig Beach, near the Keepers House where we were staying. I couldn’t wait to see the mysterious, now famous Callanish Standing Stones seen in Outlander.

Scot - Callendish stones

The seas were calm on our three hour ferry ride from Ullapool to Stornoway and our expectations were high.

Scot - Ferry

We drove our rental car off the ferry to find a sweet downtown area surrounded by a wandering park topped with a beautiful castle. We settled into a little restaurant with a creative menu (I had chips – big English-style French fries – topped with gourmet mac and cheese topped with the most wonderful, melt-in-your-mouth roast beef ever. Yum!)  A few doors down, we found a shop filled with thousand of yards of wool Harris tweed remnants at reasonable prices. I left with a lovely assortment.

Scot - Stornoway food

We set off for the castle at the top of the hill, surrounded by lovely old trees, with a great view of the sailboats lining the harbor. The story, or so we were told, is that a man bought the Isles of Lewis and Harris with ill-gained proceeds from smuggling drugs, only to have his wife refuse to move to the Islands because there were no trees.

Scot - Stornoway Castle

She reconsidered only after he planted a small forest and built her a castle. And a beautiful castle it was!

Scot - Stornoway castle ceiling

We left Stornoway to meander toward out B&B on the other side of the island, thinking, “How long could it take to drive 25 miles?” More than an hour of narrow, windy, twisting, single track roads later, we arrived to a warm welcome from a cute pair of lambs, checked into our spacious room with a view, and set off to explore Uig beach.

Scot - Uig sheep

The fog was already setting in – or had it ever lifted? – giving the treeless peat fields, hills and dales an atmospheric glow as the sun crested and slowly sank toward the west.

Scot - Uig fog

The next morning, after a delicious, made-to-order breakfast at Uig Sands Hotel, we drove north along the Western shore to Callanish Stones, which turned out to be laid out in the shape of a cross.

Scot - Uig stones

I took a lot of photos even though the skies were foggy and grey, and later, more photos with a blue, sunny sky, and later still, with the sun setting behind the stones.

Scot - Uig sunset stones

We were back in the Jaguar, driving toward the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, an open-air museum with restored blackhouses – long stone cottages with thatched roofs, and Dun Carloway, the remnant of a stone broch (small tower) that’s roughly 2000 years old, when we saw a church with a parking lot full of cars. According to the sign, the service had just started, so we decided to go on in and found ourselves in the midst of a very unique worship service.

Scot - Uig blackhouses

Unbeknownst to us, the Free Church of Scotland has no adornments, and no musical instruments. The songs are chanted psalms and the women wear hats. I fit right in, and the people were very welcoming, but I missed the lively music of our church services.

Scot - Lewis fence

That afternoon, after more than a good bit of hiking up to the tower house (and back down again) and down to the sea behind the blackhouse village (and back up again), we arrived at the very northern tip of the island, or the Butt of Lewis, where we found a beautiful lighthouse and cliffs covered with hundreds of pink flowers and thousands of sea birds.

Scot - Lewis flowers

We finished off the day with a delicious meal at Uig Sands Hotel, where the chef treated us to house-smoked salmon delicacies and more. We chatted with guests from England, Germany and the Netherlands over dinner. It was all very relaxing and enjoyable. I’m glad I didn’t know what awaited us the next day!

Scot - Uig sands

Our plan was to drive over the bridge from Harris to explore the small island of Scalpay and its red and white striped Eilean Glas lighthouse on the island’s eastern cliffs. We had made reservations months earlier for Scalpay’s famous North Harbour Bistro, which we were told was THE place for a tasty and memorable meal, followed by a visit to award-winning Luskentyre Beach with its white sands and blue waters.

Scot - Harris beach

But as fate would have it, our plans were meant to be broken – as were our poor rental car’s tires and wheel rims. I’ll post the next installment – The Jaguar of Our Dreams and the Car Hire Company from Our Worst Nightmare – in a few days.

Thanks for coming along on the next jaunt of our journey.

Scot - Uig sheep single

It was like 2007 all over again. Not wanting to deal with “big city” traffic, congestion and parking hassles, we drove through Inverness as quickly as possible and retreated to the Scottish countryside, this time, on a farm high in the hills overlooking the Moray Firth. After learning how much there is to see and do in any given area on our previous trips, we tried our best to stay at least two nights in the same place. It’s far more relaxing not to have to pack up and move every single day.

Scot - sunset 2

Our countryside view was amazing. The next day, we headed away from Inverness toward the small town of Beauly. There were several wonderful shops in Beauly, a bank where we were able to exchange more dollars for pounds, a nice restaurant where we enjoyed a high tea, and a great fish and chips place.

Scot - Chanonry Point

From Beauly, we went on two nice drives – the first took us to the narrow end of the Moray First, across a bridge and up the other side. We had a lovely hike along the coast at Chanonry Point, where we missed seeing seals but found a lighthouse and wild roses and Queen Anne’s lace blooming along the rocky beaches.

Scot - lighthouse

A few miles further down the road, we found a small National Trust property that had a delightful garden and a thatched roof house that was the home of Scottish local hero, Hugh Miller.

Scot - hugh's house

His story was fascinating and we related to it on several levels. He believed in Creation and had an extensive collection of fossils.

Scot - Hugh

From there, we headed south through a shady mountain pass to Loch Ness. Once again, Urquhart Castle was closed by the time we got there, so we took a few photos from a distance, watched for signs of Nessie rippling in the blue waters and drove home along the shore.

Scot - Loch Ness

Our B&B for those two nights just west of Inverness was on the first floor of a new house, with a private entry and a very comfortable bed. The sunsets both nights were beautiful, but the midges were starting to bite and came out at sunset. I did a dance as I walked through the grass, snapping and moving and snapping and moving, hopefully fast enough to avoid having a midge land on me.

Scot - Beualy B&B

The next day, we set out to see my Scottish friend, Ang, in Balintore, a seaside village north of Inverness. The fog seems to settle in each night, and it hadn’t yet lifted as we walked along the shoreline, talking. Two years ago, Ang used the word “atmospheric” to describe the misty air hugging the sea, and I will forever think of the word when I encounter foggy landscapes. We exchanged treasures and good conversation – a definite highlight of the trip!

Scot - Ang beach

After lunch, we left the east coast of Scotland and were off  to Ullapool, on the west, when we decided to detour down to another Historic Trust property. As Trust members, we love seeing these properties “for free”.

Scot - inver rhodies

I’ve heard from many people that they’re always amazed at how much we managed to see in one short day. What they may not realize is that everything is so close – the most we drove in a day was 100 miles. It’s also daylight from 4:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m, so if you get up at a decent hour, you can do a lot before dark.

Scot - Invereray

This is one of those days that we stretched things a little too far. Everything would have been fine except that we reached Inverewe Garden about 5:30 p.m. Last entrance was 6 p.m., but the gates to the garden were open until 8 p.m., so we had plenty of time to explore. The sky was blue, but there wasn’t a breeze to be found, and the midges surrounded me in swarms.

Scot - Inver wisteria

Dense forests were crisscrossed with mazes of paths and steps that wound through rhododendrons, bamboo and perennial gardens and eventually, out to the sea. Before long, I was swatting and itching and breaking out in blistering welts. But it was so beautiful, and we got in for free, and…

Scot - inver flowers

The only solution was to walk faster and faster. If I was capable of running up and down rickety, stone stairways that didn’t have handrails, I would have. What can I say? I’m glad we saw the gardens – they were lovely, but I’m not sure the itching and oozing I went through for the next week was worth it.

 

Scot - Ullapool

The sun started to set on our way to Ullapool, and we arrived just in time to see sunbeams shining over the harbor. We found our room at the top of an extremely steep hill overlooking Morefield Brae.  What a beautiful setting! But alas, as we climbed out of the car, our host warned up to enter quickly and close the doors behind us because the midges were really biting.

Scot - Ullapool B&B

Great. While we settled in, our hosts at the Fair Morn B&B found a restaurant with openings for 8:45 p.m. We were seated in a conservatory facing out to the garden and left to choose from a wonderful menu. All was well until we started to notice we were itching even more than we had been earlier. Then we noticed a small window open at the top of the wall. Suddenly, we were caught in a swarm of midges. But the time we caught the eye of our waiter and asked to be reseated in another room, the damage was done.

Scot - skye castle

In the morning, we headed north along the brae and into the mountains where we were treated to castle ruins, sheep grazing, red deer running along the hilltops, and altogether amazing scenery.

Scot - Lochinver house

We stumbled on a craft fair and a pie place at Lochinver and then took a narrow winding road to Achmelvich Beach with its white sands and aquamarine waters. When I heard about the beaches in Scotland, I assumed it would be like California in January, with crisp temperatures and cold winds even though it would have the appearance of being summery. But the day was perfect for beach-going, in the mid 80s, and we had a picnic with the meat and fruit pies we’d nabbed at the pie place in Lochinver.

Scot - Uig beach

By that time, however, I felt like I had a beacon on my back that said “Bug Bait.” There were bugs in the sand, and bugs in the rocks – but unlike midges, these were big, and could be seen, and felt, and they seemed to be going for my eyes, and anywhere my midge bites were oozing and itching. Yikes! I don’t mean to sound negative, but it was not exactly a relaxing day at the beach.

Scot -ullapool house

We ended the day back in Ullapool, where we ate at an upscale fresh seafood shack and found a handmade woolen treasure at a local craft shop. I walked as fast as I could everywhere we went to fend off the midges who were waiting to land. They seemed to get sneakier as time went by, burrowing under my clothes and biting my back and thighs, under my hair and hat. Nothing dissuaded them.

Scot - Ullapool harbor 

I had a hard time sleeping that night because I was so hot and itchy, but there’s always a bright side… We had a delicious Scottish breakfast to look forward to and a forecast of calm seas for our three hour ferry ride to the Isle of Lewis and Harris. And someone told me that there were no midges on Lewis or Harris because there was always a good breeze blowing. Music to my ears…

Someone once told me that one great way to restart your brain is to take a shower. I’ve had it happen more than once. I’m working at the computer with whatever I’m working on open on the screen and I can’t think of a thing to write. No matter how hard I try, nothing comes. Then, I get in the shower, with no way to write anything down, and no sooner does the water start to rain down on me than the voices of my characters start to jabber inside my head and new plotlines magically form.

Wildflowers of Scotland Novels by Sherrie Hansen (2)

Over the years, I’ve learned that a vacation – especially one to a far off destination – can have the same effect, only in a much more profound way. Here’s what seems to happen when I take a trip, and how to enjoy a traveling adventure that refreshes both brain and body.

 

1. Let go of expectations. Anything can happen on a vacation. I like to plan our trips and enjoy researching places to eat and stay, as well as things to see and do, but I’ve also learned that it’s fairly impossible to predict what will happen on any given day, how long it will take to get from Point A to Point B, and what things we might encounter along the way. Once I let go of my stubborn insistence that things have to be a certain way, it’s amazing what can happen!

Pictures from phone 9Sept2015 115

  1. Forget about staying focused and enjoy the distractions. You may not be able to tell it from looking at my house (creative minds are rarely tidy as the old saying goes), but I’m a highly organized person, at least when it comes to my professional life. I make lists and cross things off when they’re done. I thrive under deadlines. I plan events with an intricate timeline based on what things I can do ahead down to the tasks that have to be done at the last minute. When I go on a trip, it’s a challenge and a pleasure to be able to relax and realize that nothing matters but having fun.

  1. Open your mind to new ideas, possibilities. It’s kind of sad, the way I go to the same restaurants and order the same exact foods and wear the same few shirts and skirts until they’re worn out from washing. I like being in my comfort zone, but when I’m forced out of my established ruts and have to try new things, I experience a wondrous feeling of freedom and discovery!

  1. Bloom and grow. I try NOT to grow any wider when I’m on vacation – it’s difficult when every corner grocery has caramel shortbread (Millionaire Bars), Battenberg Cakes, Meat and Fisherman’s Pies, pâté, amazing cheeses, and oddles of creamy Cadbury milk chocolate delights. But I love widening my perspectives, learning new things and stretching myself. It’s so easy to become stagnant. Letting a Chinook wind blow in and infiltrate my mind is like spring coming to the soul after a long hard winter.

  1. Meet new people. Stir the pot. I think the older we get, the harder it is to meet new people and make new friends. Most of us have lived in the same place for quite some time, and the people already have their established circles. Adult children and grandkids occupy people’s time after a certain age, and the sad truth is, I’m often so worn out after I do what I have to that I’m too tired to want to get out and socialize. When I do go out, I have to think long and hard about what we have to talk about because we’ve already spoken about everything under the sun at least a million times. But when I’m on vacation, every day is an opportunity to participate in new conversations about different topics, to hear what different people from other countries think and feel about things. It’s a great way to not only liven things up, but to gain a new perspective. I love listening and learning from the “chance” people I meet when we’re traveling.

  1. Strip away the mundane and set your sights on the extraordinary. Letting go of old things is almost a requirement for being able to embrace new things. If you’re clutching at what you have, you can’t open your hands and accept something new. If you’re always looking down, you’ll never catch sight of a rainbow. If you don’t walk away from your work or your possessions, your family, or whatever it is that tethers you to the ground, you will likely never fly, accomplish your dreams, or sail off to uncharted waters.

  1. Let your senses be reawakened. Open your eyes. I’ve written several articles urging people to look for the beauty in their own backyard. It’s a wonderful thing to do. But the fact is, after looking at the same garden or flowering tree or porch swing every day for a quarter of a century, it’s easy to get desensitized to even the most lovely scene. Traveling, seeing different sights and fresh images, and taking the time to walk about and relish the beauty in unfamiliar locations not only jumpstarts my creativity, it makes me notice things through fresh eyes.

If you haven’t taken a good long vacation lately, I highly recommend that you find a way to get away. For me, escaping the familiar and journeying to unknown realms is the best way to rejuvenate.

(As you read this, Sherrie and her husband, Mark, are on their way back to Scotland to enjoy a much-anticipated vacation. Watch for Sherrie’s next book, DAYBREAK, a sequel to NIGHT & DAY, coming from Indigo Sea Press in July. All photos are from our home and previous vacations to Scotland, Romania, Kentucky, and England.)

Late summer is a golden time of year. Fields and ditches are full of goldenrod, tansy and black-eyed Susans blossoms shining bright in the sunlight. Springtime blues, lavenders and pinks gradually give way and are outshined by the yellow gold hues of early fall.

Golden Rod - lighthouse

… Just one reason why late summer is the perfect time to read Golden Rod, my latest Wildflowers of Scotland novel.

Golden Rod

When I first chose to name my new book Golden Rod, I had a flurry of people tell me that they were allergic to goldenrod, and associated  the flower with sneezing and feeling like their head was going to explode.

Golden Rod bird

My research shows that allergies to goldenrod are very rare, since it is not airborne, and that people who suffer allergy symptoms this time of year are more likely affected by ragweed, which blooms at the same time.

Golden Rod - JD

Although I can truly promise you nothing by pleasant sensations if you read Golden Rod, this brings me to a related topic – why some of you think you are allergic to reading romance novels. Here are some of the reasons I hear from romance reading skeptics:

Golden Rod 2016 a

Fallacy #1:  Romance novels are for women. I’m a guy.

My Response:  Don’t let my flowery titles fool you. My novels all have two perspectives, two point of view voices – one male and one female. My books are not about women living in a fantasy world – they’re about men and women struggling along in a very real world. Their differing attitudes, perspectives, feelings, needs and approaches to problem-solving provide my books with stimulating conflict, movement within the plotlines, and differences of opinion. I’ve had many men tell me how much they enjoyed my books, and one couple who even argued over who got to read it first.

Golden Rod 2017

Fallacy #2:  Romance novels are shallow, dumbed down versions of the literary novels I enjoy.

My Response: A reviewer who’s a very intelligent mathematician called my novels “the thinking women’s romance.” Doctors, lawyers, and professors have written telling me they enjoyed my books. My characters are complex and my novels include complicated situations and scenarios worthy of readers who like books that stimulate their intellect and emotions.

Golden Rod Cattails

Fallacy #3:  I like action and adventure novels, thrillers and mysteries.

My Response: Today’s romance novels can and do include all of the above. My books have included murders, sex-crimes, scams, thefts, kidnappings, and all kinds of deceitful goings on. They also include romance, but love definitely isn’t the only thing between the covers (no pun intended).

Golden Rod Flood Bay 2016

Fallacy #4:  Romance novels are full of graphic sex scenes.

My Response: I’ve written on this topic previously. Some of my books have love scenes and some don’t. When love scenes are included, they’re not gratuitous, they’re there for a reason. They’re a necessary part of the plot. They’re also sweet, tender and satisfying. Sometimes, they’re even humorous. And just like real life, lovemaking is rife with consequences.

Golden Rod Ely

Fallacy #5:  Romance novels are filled with overly dramatic, shirtless bodybuilders and low-bodiced, big-busted heroines who I can’t relate to.

My Response:  My books are set in modern times and my characters are as real as you are. Some are good-looking, others not. They have flaws and frustrations and quirks just like all of us do. That’s what makes them so lovable and most importantly, believable.

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So let me recommend this trusted cure for allergies. Expose yourself to just a little bit, then, gradually a little more, until your discomfort disappears. I’d be delighted if you’d try just one of my Wildflowers of Scotland novels, and Golden Rod is a great place to start. If you like it, you can read more.  Hopefully, you will find that you enjoy my romantic suspense novels.

Golden Rod Flood Bay 2017

What have you got to lose? Enjoy the goldtones of late summer, and don’t be afraid to read a new book or a new author.

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You’ll find beauty in all kind of unexpected locations.

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Although my Wildflowers of Scotland books are contemporary, I always find a way to weave in a wee bit of history… an old kirk with architectural and religious artifacts gone missing, a sunken Spanish galleon filled with gold that was never recovered, a castle with a melancholy history all its own, or the Isle of Skye’s magical Fairy Glen. In GOLDEN ROD, I incorporated a touch of history via a 500-year-old castle that was cursed by a traveling minister when the owners refused his blessing, preferring to wait for the prayers of a Catholic priest.  At least, that’s what legend holds, and it would seem the legends are true, since no eldest son has ever inherited Lachlan Castle – not once in 500 years.

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From GOLDEN ROD:

A traveling Protestant minister who liked to speak in rhymes leveled the curse when the MacKenzie clan refused his blessing, preferring to wait until a Catholic priest could dedicate the newly built edifice.

Oh Lachlan, ye’re on shifting sand.

Nae eldest son shall have a hand

In furth’ring hist’ry on this land.

In the history of the castle, no eldest son has succeeded his father as heir of Lachlan Castle.

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All kinds of tragedies have transpired as a result of the minister’s curse, including ghosts Laird Valan MacKenzie and Lady Rosemary being stranded at Lachlan for over 500 years.

A ghost dressed in full Highland attire roams the castle and grounds at Lachlan, on the shores of Loch Carron. A favorite of locals, Laird Valan MacKenzie so desperately wanted a son to pass the castle on to that he may have taken his wife’s life when she bore him nothing but daughters. Laird Valan’s version of the event was that his wife tripped and fell to her death despite his best efforts to save her. Many a guest has seen Laird Valan’s kilt, plaid, and sporran. Legend has it that Valan will haunt the castle until an ancient curse is broken.

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I won’t ask if you believe in ghosts because it doesn’t matter. GOLDEN ROD is a work of fiction, so all I’m asking you to do is to suspend your disbelief while you’re reading the book. But whatever our beliefs, I think we all have thoughts on the subject of ghosts. Some of us are afraid of them, or would be afraid to stay in a place that’s haunted by ghosts. Others are fascinated or even intrigued by ghostly happenings and seek out places that are reputedly haunted. What about you? Maybe you’ve had your hair stand on end when you’ve been seated around a campfire listening to ghost stories. How do you react to the subject of ghosts?

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A ghost, known as the “Blue Lady” also frequents Lachlan Castle, on Loch Carron. She is thought to be the wife of Laird Valan MacKenzie, and mother to their five daughters. Her husband allegedly pushed her from a fourth floor window so he could take a new wife who might bear him a son. The ghost of Lady Rosemary MacKenzie, who ironically, was discovered to have been pregnant with a son at the time of her death, is said to have scratched the words, The Son You Always Wanted, upside down on the window sill outside the bedroom window where she fell. The inscription can still be seen there today. It is reported that the “Blue Lady” leaves the scent of rosemary and bluebells wherever she goes. Because her own life ended so tragically, legend holds that the “Blue Lady” will haunt the castle until a Lachlan love story ends with a happily-ever-after ending. Unfortunately, due to an old curse, the dreams of many a castle resident have ended tragically, perpetuating the haunting of the castle by Lady Rosemary.

BlueBelle 2016 I grew up watching tales of Casper the Friendly Ghost,  the classic Christmas Carol, and even Ghostbusters, so I’ve always been comfortable with the concept of ghosts. In church, we heard about the Holy Ghost, a comforting presence who was always with us. When I bought a house in St. Ansgar, Iowa and turned it into a B&B and tea house, locals told me about a friendly ghost who rescued the century old floor plans from the dump and returned them to the house when they were accidentally thrown away, among other adventures. So in one form or another, I’ve always accepted that ghosts are real.

In GOLDEN ROD, Rod MacKenzie has felt the presence of Laird Valan and Lady Rosemary since he was young, but never had a direct encounter with them – until Katelyn O’Neal arrives from America and stirs things up.

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Katelyn thinks the whole thing is a crock, and is convinced there has to be some sort of logical, scientific explanation for the odd things that are happening to her.

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Laird Valan and Lady Rosemary, the ghostly duo from GOLDEN ROD, have very distinctive personalities and a sometimes quirky sense of humor. As Laird Valan and Lady Rosemary get more and more desperate to break the 500 year old curse so they can finally rest in peace, the stakes grow higher.

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Once Rod discovers what they’re up to, he’s more than happy to comply, or at least humor them, except that Katelyn’s niece is dying, and if he has to choose who to help, a dying twelve year old or a pair of ghosts who’ve already been dead for five hundred years, the choice is clear. Except that nothing is clear – and Laird Valan and Lady Rosemary will do anything to change history and break the curse that binds them.

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You’ll have to read GOLDEN ROD to learn how the story ends. Here are the Buy Links for GOLDEN ROD at Amazon:
Kindle: http://a.co/3zRGCpF
Paperback: http://a.co/8oJpv4Q

In the meantime, I hope the ghosts that may haunt you are friendly ones.                                                                                                                                                                     Ghosts - blur of blue

An almost full moon reflected off a pond hugged by beds of flowers in blues, yellows and violets of various heights. In the center, a fountain trickled down the neck and breasts of a stone statue of a woman with full hips and voluptuous curves. The scene was framed by walls of stone and brick, etched with pink climbing roses and lavender wisteria. This is what they were going to destroy?

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As Mark and I head off on another trip to indulge our love affair with Great Britain and research settings of future books, I’m anticipating the release of GOLDEN ROD, the book inspired by last year’s journey to Scotland.

One of the things I most love about writing is the chance to scope out new locations – and with them, the likeable qualities and legends that give the place its charm. And when we get home, my pleasure is doubled when I get to sit down with my thoughts, reminisce about our experiences, and craft a story with word pictures about the places we’ve seen.

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Although Rod MacKenzie’s exquisite walled garden and the unique castle pictured on the front cover of GOLDEN ROD are fictional in the sense that they’re not located along the shores of Loch Carron, many of the other spots mentioned in the book are as real as you and me. In the text below, I’m going to share a snippet from GOLDEN ROD followed by a photo of the real life image that inspired it. Craigievar Castle, Leith Hall Garden and Crarae Garden, which I magically transported to the Lochcarron and the Wester Ross area of Western Scotland, are actually located to the east in Aberdeenshire and Argyll. Enjoy!

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The blue waters of Loch Carron disappeared, then reappeared. The road widened. Katelyn glanced out the window and caught sight of a rusty old gate surrounding a cemetery. The stones were all but covered with moldy-looking splotches of who knew what and some sort of green slime that looked straight from the pages of a horror flick.

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A few blocks later, a large white building appeared. The huge black letters on its side wall spelled LOCHCA, followed by an R dangling precariously from what looked to be one nail, and a tenuous RON. Which is exactly what she wished she’d done the second she set foot in Scotland – run. Rod might have fanciful – make that delusional – images of the town where he’d been raised, but all she could see was a place that needed a good PR person to improve and update its sad, sorry, broken down image.

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The town was comprised of a long row of houses on one side, with a sidewalk, a greenbelt, and the lake on the other.

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Rod pulled into a parking spot and came around to open the door for her. The sign on the front of the whitewashed building with blue trim and a slate roof said Waterside Café, Tearoom Takeaway. There were round picnic tables with bright blue umbrellas over the top in front. Rod straddled the bench of one, and motioned for her to have a seat.

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“Ye can go in and look at the menu board on the wall if ye like, or wait. They’ll bring ye a menu in a minute.”

“You don’t need one?”

“Nae. They know what I want.”

“How could they?”

“I’m a regular.”

“And you have the same thing every time?”

“For lunch, Stornoway Black Pudding Stack. It’s layered with apples and Stilton cheese. Pure dead brilliant.”

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 “M’Lady? M’Lady? Are ye here?” Valan MacKenzie stood at the window where his wife had fallen to her death 500 years earlier and started to sing her favorite song in the hope she would come to him.

When bluebells start to bloom each spring, I’ll come to ye. My love I’ll bring.

My heart for ye, it always breaks. But sadness will nae overtake.

For hope lives on in each new day. My love for ye will find its way.

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Rod was holding two large china plates. “I took the liberty of getting some essentials since ye were asleep when we reached the grocery. I thought ye’d enjoy trying a full Scottish breakfast – eggs, bacon, sausages, potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes and toast. I skipped the haggis and the black pudding on yer plate since ye seemed a bit squeamish about them yesterday, but the rest should be-”

Her stomach had started to roil at the word eggs. It wasn’t that she disliked eggs, but the thought of eating such a huge breakfast when she was stressed out and in an unfamiliar place and it wasn’t even breakfast time where she was from…

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They walked through the laburnum archway he and his da had planted a decade earlier. The slender yellow fronds were just starting to fade.

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A minute later, Katelyn came flouncing down the steps of the blue and white house where Colin’s office was located. He’d never met anyone – man or woman – with so much attitude.

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The taller one smiled. “Is Sea Worthy booked for the rest of the afternoon or are you free? We were hoping to see Kilt Rock and Portree from the sea.”

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“Do ye like fish? I’ve two nicely smoked haddock filets that I picked up in Portree this afternoon. My mother used to make something called Haddock Mornay. It’s been years, but I think I can remember how to make the sauce.”

Katelyn looked up and smiled faintly. Aye, the lass was warming up to him awright.

“My mum would make a roux and then stir a wee bit of garlic salt and some buttery, soft white Cheddar from the Isle of Arran into the cream. If ye’re a fan of fish, the taste of the Mornay sauce, o’er a bit of mash, is pure dead brilliant.”

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Rod tried to put Katelyn out of his mind as he walked back to the cottage. The deep, mossy scents of the forest floor, the sun-warmed pine needles, and the last remnants of the bluebells filled his nostrils with the familiar scents he loved so much. He could have spent all evening in the woods.

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Katelyn twirled slowly, not willing to miss a single degree of the panorama spread out in front of her. “Thank you so much for bringing me here. I can’t imagine a place more beautiful than this one.” She peeked through the lacey fronds of Scotch pines and Douglas firs that stretched from blue waters to bluer skies.

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Rod put one arm around her shoulder and pointed with the other. “See the big white house on the other side of the loch? That’s Stromeferry, where my grandpa’s ferry used to operate.”

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Katelyn looked past the feathery fir trees and the hillside covered in bluebells, and the buttercups in bloom, and caught a glimpse of the sky. Moody, grey, towering clouds cast shadows into each valley, every fold of the hillside, turning sunshine to gloom. She felt as unsettled as a changeling, which she might as well believe in now that she’d met a pair of ghosts and God.

She could have stood with her neck arched, looking up at the roiling clouds, forever. It wasn’t because they were beautiful, or even captivating. They were on the move, ever-changing. They were frighteningly unpredictable. They were out of control, so various and sundry that one couldn’t be sure what was going to happen from minute to minute say nothing about tomorrow. Just like her life.

 

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I hope you’ll read GOLDEN ROD when it comes out next month! Although you’ll see a few familiar faces from my first four Wildflowers of Scotland novels, it’s not necessary to read any of them to enjoy GOLDEN ROD.

The only way Katelyn O’Neal can save her niece’s life is to ruin Rod Mackenzie’s. One 600-year-old Scottish castle. A rightful heir. A legal heir. Two desperate ghosts. GOLDEN ROD by Sherrie Hansen. Coming from Indigo Sea Press in June 2017.

Golden Rod Front Cover Final

In real life, it’s called a bad case of the blues, losing hope, or hitting rock bottom.   In a book, it’s called the black moment – that devastating culmination of circumstances when all momentum comes screeching to a halt, when you think things are so bad that they can’t possibly get any worse, and then, they do, that time when all hope is lost.

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The thing that saddens me is that, whereas the characters in the books we write and read almost always come around to a happy ending, in real life, when we come to a dead end, we sometimes (often?) really do give up and walk away from the things that could bring us true happiness.

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We all know that summer comes for only a season, and eventually, must ease into fall – which leads to the desolate cold of winter.

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In some cases, it’s even given a name – SAD, or seasonal affective disorder. I’ve been prone to it for years. It can be depressing and debilitating. It can mean death to your dreams and the end to your goals.

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In my book, Sweet William, Lyndsie and William seem to have finally overcome the issues that are keeping them apart when tragedy rips their dreams to shreds. The scenes that follow are some of the blackest I’ve even written, but because of the pain they have to work through, their joy is deeper, and the ending, more sweet than any before.

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When we hit a wall, we have two choices… we can crawl into a cave, cry ourselves to sleep, and settle in to hibernate for the winter, and maybe beyond.

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Or, we can spend our winters looking for bright spots.

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Because there are rainbows in winter, and rainbows in deserts, and flowers and dashes of color where you might least expect them, and inspiration in odd places.

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And the sun keeps shining even on the coldest days.

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It may be blotted out, or obscured for a time, but it is there, giving warmth and melting the snow away from your heart, and making you ready for spring.

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The next time you feel hopeless and blue, read a book, maybe even THE Book.

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Horrible things will happen, maybe even things that are worse than whatever is making you sad.

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And then, wonder of wonder, there will be a resurrection, and out of the ashes will come new life, and somehow, you will find a happy ending.

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Have faith. There are rainbows even in the desert.

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