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Mom’s Special Christmas, Circa 1931

My mom, who is 90, was reminiscing recently about Christmas during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

There wasn’t much in the way of gifts. Matter of fact, there wasn’t much in the way of food.

Daily life was usually a struggle. Grandpa became a scavenger, coming home with fruit that had been discarded by stores, or fallen off a truck onto the streets of New York City. As long as it was not rotten, they’d eat it. To this day, my mother will eat fruit that neither you nor I would probably touch.

“It’s only bruised,” she will say. “There’s nothing really wrong with it.”

There was only one Christmas during those years that Mom remembers getting a store-bought gift. While she and her sister were singing in the children’s choir at church on Christmas Eve, either Grandpa or Grandma slipped out, dashed back to the little apartment where they lived, and put two wrapped presents – one for my mom and the other for Mom’s older sister – under the tree.

Later, when they all returned from church together, Grandpa and Grandma pretended to be surprised to see gifts under the tree.

Mom doesn’t remember what her sister’s gift was. But her eyes still open wide when she recalls the thrill of opening hers: A Shirley Temple doll.

My mother’s experience during the Depression is a reminder of the excess of material things we have today, and that we don’t need much – or anything at all – to celebrate Christmas.

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A Novel’s Character: Peculiar, or Charming?

Pelicans in St. Petersburg, Florida

Do you ever talk to wild birds or animals (or critters, as we say in the South)?

I thought this was an unusual hobby until I was in Florida last week, when I flat-out asked people. I was surprised at the number – one out of every ten, I would venture to guess – who raised their hands.

I was in Florida as part of my book tour for my latest Miss Dreamsville novel in which one of my characters – the eccentric Dolores Simpson – talks to a heron that has built a nest in a nearby tree. Dolores is a middle-aged woman who suffered from acute “man trouble” in her youth and retreated from the world. She lives in an old fishing shack on the edge of the Everglades. Her son – her only companion – has gone off to seek adventure, so Dolores finds herself pouring out her heart to the heron. She confides in the heron, and eventually gives it a name: Peggy Sue.

Peggy Sue, I should note, has been immortalized on the cover of my new novel by an astute book-cover designer – no doubt, someone in the art department at Simon & Schuster who just so happens to talk to critters.Final Cover Dreamsville 2

When I was writing the book, I wondered if Dolores’s chit-chat with the heron was a little over the top.

And yet, it felt true to me, so I left it all in. I’ve known people who talked to critters, and, truth be told, I do it myself.

For example, a blue heron I call “Big Guy” has been visiting our property for years, always in the exact same location. I would know that bird anywhere. He is cranky if another bird gets too close to his turf. His arrival signals the start of Spring, and I always go out on the deck to welcome him home.

Then there’s “Mr. Kingfisher,” who spent entire summers perched on the same slender branch of a willow, bobbing up and down in the breeze. When a hurricane knocked down his favorite spot, Mr. Kingfisher was irritated and looked at me as if to say, “Hey, who moved my tree?!” I told him, “Don’t worry!” and planted a new tree that very afternoon.

Now, I know there are people out there who think this is silly, or even downright nutty. Others would say it’s peculiar, while some might find it charming.

In the weeks since my novel was published, I’ve learned that readers truly like my character Dolores and her bird-talking ways.

Collier County egret (Copyright Amy Hill Hearth)

And I’m finding it kind of fun to ask an audience, once the subject has been broached, if anyone confides in wild critters.

One man said he talks to an alligator every day. My sister-in-law admitted that she talks to squirrels.

But by far the most common are people, like me, who converse with birds. While traveling in the Sunshine State last week, I remembered that it was while living in Florida that I picked up the bird-talking habit. After all, birds in the Southeastern part of the USA all seem like characters. Sandpipers are adorable, mockingbirds are a hoot, pelicans are goofy, herons are curious, stately, and appear to be wise.

And, just like Dolores, I’ve always found them to be good listeners.

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Goodreads Giveaway! Win one of 5 copies of my new novel

Simon & Schuster is sponsoring a giveaway of my new novel on Goodreads! Enter to win one of five copies of my new novel. Here’s the link:

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New Book Trailer!

Florida Gulf Coast: Photo by Barbara Hill Feichtinger

A book trailer (or short video) is a way for an author to connect with her readers and let them know what her book is about.At 5 minutes and 49 seconds, my new one is a little longer than most. While it focuses on my new book, we found it necessary to provide some context by including a little background about my early career as a newspaper reporter and my nonfiction books. My novels are historical fiction, and they are inspired by real people (mainly, my late mother-in-law), so there is a lot of ground to cover!

But part of the reason my new book trailer is on the hefty side is that I couldn’t resist asking the filmmaker to use some spectacular photos of Florida, where my novels are set. In the midst of creating the video, I noticed that my niece, Barbara, a lifelong Florida Gulf Coast resident, had posted a spectactular storm photo on Facebook. I asked if I could use it, and she enthusiastically said yes. In fact, she sent a bunch of them for me to use.

After the storm: Florida Gulf Coast. Photo by Barbara Hill Feichtinger.

My book trailer also features a bona fide soundtrack of the Everglades itself – a place that is never silent – along with the rumblings of a thunderstorm coming up
over the Gulf.

I hope you like it! Here it is:

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The Lazy Days of Summer: Where Did They Go?!

One of the saddest moments when you’ve become an adult is when you realize that summer is not what it used to be.

Gone are the days of playing hopscotch, climbing trees, and getting on your mother’s nerves.

Gone are the days when the only deadline is getting home in time for supper.

The lazy hours reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, or playing King of the Mountain with the kids next door, has become a thing of the past. Long afternoons sprawled out in the grass, with nothing to do except study the shapes of clouds, are a luxury.

Strange that you have failed to notice that Mom has been working very hard to make your summer carefree. Picnic food miraculously appears in the refrigerator. It is prepared to perfection and placed in front of you, its nutritional value calculated in Mom’s ever-vigilant mind. Dad comes home from work, where he has earned the money to pay for the summer road-trip, which he will plan with care. (We will, as always, stay one night at a roadside motel because the owners have a goat, and all year long you – the youngest child – have been hollering, “Can we stay at the place with the goat?” Not only do you stay at the place with the goat, but Mom, who thinks of everything, has thoughtfully brought carrots.) Somehow, the station wagon has got itself tuned up and filled with gas. Somehow, everything falls into place.

The hardest thing you have to do is decide which toys and books will fit into your little suitcase.

Next thing you know, you’re in junior high. You are now moody and hormonal. Skinned knees have been replaced with zits. You have braces on your teeth. You quarrel constantly with your older siblings. Mom suddenly decides that what you need in the summer is a “schedule.” You become a babysitter with regular gigs and a five-day-a-week volunteer at United Way.

You now own an alarm clock, and you own a watch.

In a flash, you have grown up. You have graduated college. You find your first real job, and are shocked to realize that you will work 60-plus hours a week, including most weekends and holidays, and – gasp – all summer long. There is nothing special about summer. Alas, it is just another part of the year.

You grieve.

But somewhere along the line, you fight to get summer back. Your older siblings begin to have children, which provides you with a great excuse. You take time off from work to be a doting auntie, and get to act like a child again.

You now look for ways to re-live the summers of your childhood. You arrange for the old family boat to be removed from storage, and rehabilitate it. You learn to pilot the old boat yourself.

You read outside. You lay in the grass.

You watch the clouds float by.

And you thank dear old Mom and Dad for teaching you the joys of simple summer pleasures which last a lifetime.

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Finding a Place to Belong

When I was twelve my family moved from a rural area outside of Columbia, South Carolina to Scarsdale, New York, the famed suburb of New York City. Overnight, I went from being a confident Carolina tomboy with plenty of friends to “the new kid” sitting alone, day after day, in the lunchroom. I was a freak. Suddenly, my clothes seemed ghastly, and my accent sounded odd even to my own ears.Miss dreamsville

Everyone, I suppose, has had the experience of being an outsider looking in. School is usually when it happens, either because your family moved, as mine did, or because you’re thrown in with your peers in a competitive way for the first time. Maybe you were the last person picked by the team captain for a game of kickball, or you were on the wrong end of the pecking order at the bus stop. It happens to adults, too – and probably more often than we admit to ourselves. Perhaps you’ve found that you don’t click with people on your block, colleagues at work, or even some of your family members.

If you happen to live in a small town, being a “misfit” is probably harder. Differences seem more obvious. And, there’s nowhere to hide.

I think I’m a bit obsessed with this topic. I could have written about any topic, yet the subject of my first novel, Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society, is the conundrum of the outcast.

Two things fascinate me about misfits: First, there are many different ways to be one. And, second, how and why a person is an outcast reveals certain truths about the people, time, and place in which it occurs.

As critics have noted about Miss Dreamsville, none of my main characters fit in. It’s 1962 in Collier County (Naples), Florida, before it was developed into the resort community it is today. Back then it was a sleepy Southern backwater. My main character, Jackie, is a newcomer from Boston. (Talk about a fish out of water!) Then there’s Dora, the narrator of the novel, who is an outcast because she is divorced. (Hard to believe today, but true at the time.)

My other major characters, for various reasons, are outsiders as well.

In my novel, the human spirit triumphs. No, they are not accepted by the status quo. What they do, however, is create their own safe haven – in their case, by forming a book club. Together, they find something they never had as individuals – a place to belong.

I suppose it’s not coincidence that this was similar to how I survived my family’s traumatic move when I was twelve. After a few weeks of being rebuffed again and again, I realized I would never be accepted, or I’d have to grovel endlessly, which I wasn’t willing to do. Meanwhile, I had noticed there was another girl – her family was from Japan – who was also an outcast. I sought out her friendship, and we became pals.

I found my place in the world. And so did she.

Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.

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Married Since 1950: A Little Tribute to Mom and Dad

My parents celebrated their 64th wedding anniversary last month. They’ve been married, I realize, longer than many people live.

Dad was 26 when they got married; Mom was 24. Their wedding was held at First Methodist Church, Pittsfield, Mass. where they’d met as members of the Young Adult Fellowship. Both were new in town and employed by General Electric. Dad was a lifelong Methodist; Mom was brought up as a Lutheran.

Dad says Mom joined the Methodist fellowship because (hahaha) that’s where all the young GE engineers were. Mom said she started going there because one of her friends did.

Their church group decided to put on a play: “Life with Father.” Dad, always gregarious, had a leading part in the play. Mom, a born introvert, was the assistant stage manager.

But it was at a church-group party held at someone’s home that Dad finally figured out a way to approach Mom. Dad went into the kitchen to get something to drink and there was Mom, quietly sitting at a table by herself and playing with a small dog – a dachshund. Well, Dad has always loved dogs, too, so it was second nature for him to comment about the dog and play with it. Somehow, that turned into Mom offering to teach Dad how to ski. (Dad had missed the down-hill skiing craze – think of the movie “White Christmas” – because he was in China during World War Two.) Dad took her up on the offer.

Mom was impressed that Dad didn’t mind having a woman teach him how to ski. He was a good sport, she said, and laughed at himself when he fell.

They were engaged in May and married that September – and have been happily together ever since.

As you can imagine, when I count my blessings, they are at the top of the list. I am grateful they are my parents, and grateful for every day I have with them.

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