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Okay – I’ll be honest. Part of the reason I write contemporary romantic suspense as opposed to historical is that I don’t have the time or inclination to do research. It’s not that I don’t enjoy history or investigating the past. And it’s not that I’m lazy – really. It’s simply that I’m already stretched so thin that I simply don’t have time. I own and operate a B&B and Tea House called the Blue Belle Inn, and I’m a pastor’s wife in a different town, 85 miles away. I play the piano at church with a traveling band of musicians, and I’m very involved in the lives of my family. I write on the run whenever I have a spare second, often with my laptop propped on the door of the glove compartment while my husband drives us between our two homes. If I had to stop and do extensive research on a specific time period or worry about maintaining historical accuracy, I’m convinced I’d never finish anything.

BBI - Spring 2012  Zion 2013 Sunset shadows

To keep things simple, I try to write about locations I’ve been to or lived in, and occupations or fields I’ve worked in or been trained to do. I’m less likely to make silly mistakes that way. I’ve had characters who are Realtors (I’m licensed in the state of Colorado), interior designers, quilters, farmers, pastors, home renovators, and business owners in Minnesota, Iowa, California and Colorado – all things and places that are intimately familiar to me. No matter – it still takes an immense amount of time to research and validate facts, even for familiar scenarios.

Iowa - sunset 2010

Part of the problem is that my characters somehow seem to acquire minds of their own. Tommy Love giving up on building his dream house in northern Minnesota and buying a beachfront property in central California in “Love Notes” is one good example of a character who went traipsing off in different directions, pulling “my” story and stretching “my” plotline to include things that I never would have thought of on my own, and attempting actions and activities I’d never dare try. What could I do? I was invariably forced to follow his lead, searching for those tidbits of knowledge I was lacking to keep the story grounded and authentic.

Cal - Rachel SS

When I started writing “Blue Belle”, I had never been to Tobermory or the Isle of Mull, or even Scotland. When I finally set foot on the island, I had a strange sense of déjà vu because I was already so well acquainted with the place via the internet. One night, while I was sitting on a bench near the harbor, a woman walked by that looked exactly like I’d always envisioned Isabelle, my main character. It was eerie! I also had to change an entire scene that had Isabelle blithely scooting around Mull on her bicycle when I discovered how hilly the island is. It’s a very steep climb from the harbor street to the top of the hill where our B&B was!

67 Scotland - Tobermory 5

Scoping out a location is only the beginning. I spent almost an entire day researching European chocolates for Blue Belle. When I was in Mull, I even had to go to Tobermory Chocolates to taste their famous Rose and Violet Cream Chocolates. You know, so I could describe them accurately. I had to take tea at the Willow Tea Room in Glasgow, try Victoria Sponge with buttercream and berries and Mini-Battenbergs layered with almond paste, moist cake, and apricot jam, and sample Sticky Toffee Pudding with Caramel Whiskey Sauce.  Not that it stops with the sweets. I had to taste pub grub – things like Cumberland Mash and Cottage Pie with  Thatched Roof  and Smoked Haddock Pie with Mashed Potatoes – at locations all over Scotland. And, I had to stay at several B&B’s so I could experience an authentic Scottish breakfast. Yes, we authors are forced to spend our time laboring over many such unsavory tasks. I spent a huge amount of time looking for Scottish slang, phrases, and speech idioms that would define and give depth and reality to my characters and their conversations, yet be understandable to the average American reader. I researched castles and keeps, Cromwell’s practice of slighting, and the art of building with stones in both Scotland and Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.

73 Scotland - Tobermory Chocolate

Isabelle is a journalist, so part of my research involved investigating the facts behind each of the stories she was working on in the book, from Mad Cow and hoof and mouth to puffins and vultures, a Celtic bathing pool, and the centuries-old gold some people believe is still buried on a sunken Spanish galleon in Tobermory Bay.

82 Scotland Bathing Pool

The thing I like least about research is that I’ve already learned some things the hard way, which, sadly, means I already know everything I need to know about them without doing a single Google search. The thing I love most about researching is that once you start looking for specific answers to certain questions, you discover amazing things that lead you in completely new directions that then become fodder for your plot, and on and on in an explosive chain reaction of knowledge. It’s fascinating!

WI2 - Thistle

One of the things I’ve always loved about reading books is the new worlds that are opened up to me as I see a place or situation through the eyes of each character. Being an author has stretched me even more. Research can seem like a necessary evil at times, and a thrill at others. But no matter how hectic my schedule is or how bad my attitude about having to jump out of the story and take the time to chase down facts and figures, research is a great opportunity to learn more things, broaden your perspective, and see the world in a different light.

117 Scotland Castle Statue

Blue Belle Front Cover Draft

 

Blue Belle should be available shortly! I will have copies to sell by next Tuesday, and I”ll keep you posted on the online availability as I hear updates, but in the meantime, I wanted you to see the beautiful cover. The photo is of Duart Castle, Isle of Mull, Scotland, where Blue Belle takes place. I will forever remember the day I photographed it, and the brilliant blue of the sky. I’m so excited that Blue Belle is finally in print, and that everything has come together so perfectly.

 

 

Books - Scotland Promo

 

 

I suppose I shouldn’t be waxing on about Scotland on a day that belongs to the Irish, but it is what it is. I’m lucky enough to have visited Scotland. Ireland is on my bucket list, and when it happens, I’ll write about it. I hope it’s soon!

Blue Belle Promo Poem

Blue Belle was the first novel I set in Scotland, although in the release date queue,  it follows Thistle Down (a novella) and Wild Rose. An editor first planted the seed in my mind to write a book set in Scotland. I was at a conference sponsored by the Romance Writer’s of America pitching books set in southern Minnesota and Iowa, and the editor I met with told me that people flock to buy books set in Scotland. By that time in my life, I’d visited England twice and fallen in love with all things British Isles, so it didn’t take much nudging to point me in that direction.

Scotland - Tobermory 5

 

I started to research Scotland online and stumbled onto the Isle of Mull, and the village of Tobermory because it’s known for its weddings. And, they have a rainbow-colored waterfront whose buildings are reflected in the water. And, they have a chocolate factory, and castles galore, mountains, and white sandy beaches. And, there is a centuries old legend about a Spanish galleon, filled with gold, that sunk in the bay back in 1588 that was never recovered (although several attempts have been made.) In my mind, that covered all the necessary ingredients for a great story.

Scotland - Celtic Cross

 

The rough draft of Blue Belle was nearly finished by 2007, when I got to visit Tobermory and the Isle of Mull in person. By that time, I felt like I knew the Island intimately, since I’d been “living there” in my mind for months. It was more than a dream come true. I had a strong sense of deja vu as I wandered around the harbor and saw Duart, Torosay and Glengorm castles for the first time.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000035_00023]  Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000035_00023]

It was on that same trip that my husband and I stumbled across St. Conan’s Kirk on Loch Awe. This old church was another case of love at first sight. My mind started reeling the second I rounded the hedge of rosy rhododendrons and saw the stone spires and awesome views. It’s definitely not the biggest or most grand cathedral in Scotland – more of a country church, really. But the crumbling steps and flying buttresses and angelic stained glass windows, and the copper, rabbit-shaped drain spout drew me in immediately, captured my imagination and inspired Wild Rose and Thistle Down.

Wild Rose - tag line

Shy Violet? I got the most beautiful photo of a totally gorgeous bagpipe player standing in front of the Eilean Donan castle, playing a haunting melody. I decided then and there that it was going to be on the cover of one of my novels.

Scottish Bagpipe player 5

The Wildflowers of Scotland concept? I bought a deck of cards at a gift shop titled the Wildflowers of Scotland. Among the cards were Wild Rose, Bluebell, Shy Violet, and Sweet William.

Sweet William

 

I have no idea if there will ever be a book called Sweet William, but last summer, I started seeing the flowers everywhere after not noticing that variety of flowers in any garden I’m aware of for decades. That must mean something. The wheels are turning.

WI2 - Thistle

 

Whether you love Scotland already or will one day, whether you’ve already visited Scotland in person or just imagined it in your mind’s eye, I hope you’ll come along for the journey.  Thistle Down and Wild Rose are available from Second Wind Publishing or your favorite online bookstore now. Blue Belle should be out this May. Shy Violet is half done, so you shouldn’t have to wait long. Although there are recurring characters throughout the novels, the plot lines and stories are unrelated – each one a new adventure.

13 Scotland - Band in Kilts

How hard is it for you to trust someone you’ve just met? And should you? Can new friendship and new loves happen without trust? Blue Belle, coming soon from Second Wind Publishing.

Blue Belle Promo Poem

Isabelle doesn’t want to be found. Michael doesn’t want to be found out. But when Damon starts searching for the centuries-old gold he thinks is buried in the bay, everyone is in danger. A reporter from Virginia and a psychologist from Wisconsin – both in Tobermory, Scotland, both with secrets –  hers, shocking, his kept to protect the people he loves. When Isabelle stumbles upon the biggest story of her life, and Michael discovers the truth, will the painful memories that are dredged up destroy their chance for love, or will they strike gold?  Blue Belle by Sherrie Hansen. Coming soon from Second Wind Publishing.

 

 

 

The Isle of Mull, Scotland, is the setting of my next book, Blue Belle (the second of my Wildflowers of Scotland trilogy). Blue Belle will soon be off to my publisher, and shortly after that, ready to read. I just wrote a scene that includes Duart Castle. I hope this helps set the mood! If you haven’t read Thistle Down or Wild Rose yet, now is the perfect time!

Scotland Duart Castle - Mull

Here’s the Back Cover Blurb: Isabelle doesn’t want to be found. Michael doesn’t want to be found out. But when Damon starts searching for the centuries-old gold he thinks is buried in the bay, everyone is in danger. A reporter from Virginia and a psychologist from Wisconsin – both in Tobermory, Scotland, both with secrets –  hers, shocking, his kept to protect the people he loves. When Isabelle stumbles upon the biggest story of her life, and Michael discovers the truth, will the painful memories that are dredged up destroy their chance for love, or will they strike gold?  

My latest novel, and the conclusion of my Maple Valley Trilogy, has been out for two months now. I’ve had a brief rest from writing, in which I’ve been busy with high season at my bed and breakfast and tea house, the Blue Belle Inn, spending fun summer times with family, languishing on too hot, too humid days (and nights), stressing out over  the latest goings-on at my husband’s church, and promoting “Merry Go Round”.

But now it’s time to get back to work. I’ve dusted off my electronic copy of Blue Belle of Scotland, a novel I first started about eight years ago. I was within a chapter of  being done with the book soon after I married my husband. I remember trips in that first year of marriage when he would drive, and I would type into a laptop propped on pillows perched on the open glove compartment door. Life with a new husband, a 13 year old stepson and new people in a new town soon took on cyclonic properties and has been a whirlwind for the last 7 1/2 years.

Glengorm Castle, Island of Mull, Scotland, at sunset.

Fast forward to the present, and three or four used laptops later – the last chapter of Blue Belle of Scotland is missing, and I am one blue belle. By the time I discovered the chapters were missing, it was far too late for benefit of instant recall. My husband eventually recovered a few pages of the missing text, but gone is the climactic, attempted murder at the top of the keep, the tender reunion of Alianna and her savior, Micheal’s heartbreaking downfall… and who knows what else…

Tobermory, on the Island of Mull, Scotland – the setting of Blue Belle of Scotland.

It appears I am in good company. In “Love Me”, a short story written by Garrison Keillor for The Atlantic, Keillor writes about leaving a manuscript in the bathroom of a train.  The bartender in the story, who tells the devastated Keillor that T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land fell into a hot bath, where the ink washed off, and that Robert Frost once wrote a poem that was eaten by a dog, advises him to “Take adversity as an opportunity! Pick yourself up and do better. That’s the American way. You lose your manuscript, you write a better one!”

Ernest Hemingway was devastated when his first wife, Hadley, lost a suitcase filled with his manuscripts at the train station as she was traveling to Switzerland to meet him in December 1922. She had packed all of his manuscripts – including the carbons – in a small valise, which was stolen (Never leave your bags unattended!). The material was never recovered and the marriage eventually failed. If found today, I suppose Hemingway’s missing works would be worth their weight in gold.

This is not the first time I’ve lost a precious creation. When I finished my sophomore year at Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL, I left Chicago directly, without first returning home to Minnesota, to drive to Bar Harbor, Maine to meet my friends Julia Swann and Katherine Anne Hutchins. I was told I could leave some of the personal belongings I had packed up from my room in a storage area in the dormitory. I labeled the boxes with my name and address and drove off to Maine with a light heart and a couple of suitcases filled with clothes. I soon had three or four jobs – playing an old piano and a pump organ at a tea house called the Crystal Palace, working as a chambermaid, and serving lobster to hungry tourists in the tiny town of Hull’s Cove. I also picked blueberries, made a lot of scrumptious pancakes and muffins, lived on my own for the first time ever, and got engaged. It was decided that I would drop out of college since my future husband and I would be heading off to live in Germany.

That fall, I returned to Wheaton to say good-bye to my friends and retrieve my belongings, only to find they had gone missing.  One box included the work I had done for my creative writing class that spring. In it were short stories and poems I had labored over  for hours. And I could not remember them, perhaps because my summer had been so full of new, first-time sights and experiences, perhaps because my memory is bad. Most of the poems were frivolous – one was about a tennis ball, and obviously wouldn’t have changed the world with it’s austere wisdom. But there was also an Easter sonnet that I had written on Good Friday of that same year that still haunts me. I remember only one line, in all it’s iambic pentameter glory:  “We live as though the stone, unrolled, still lay across the door.”  In my heart, I believe it was inspired, and was and still is the best thing I have written.

Island of Mull, Scotland.
Sheep grazing in Ayrshire, Scotland.

I will rewrite the final chapters of Blue Belle of Scotland. Perhaps the new ending will be better than the old one. Perhaps what was lost can never be found.

Eileen Donan Castle, Scotland.

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