Cheryl St.John: Christmas in Red Willow

I have boxes of books sitting in my office floor—my Christmas anthology, Western Winter Wedding Bells! I’m going to give away advance copies to two readers who leave comments today.

Western Winter Wedding BellsCharlene and I were delighted to be asked to contribute stories to this year’s collection of western novellas.  Sometimes I have a fat binder full of research and notes and story ideas, even for a novella-length project, but for this story I have very few pages of notes, a couple of character photos, pictures of old churches, November and December 1880 calendar pages, a brainstormed list of 25 Things That Could Happen, and my seven page synopsis. That’s it. I didn’t even finish my character grids, which I do for every story. Well, every story except this one.

Every story process is different, and once I learned to go with the creative flow of the development process, I accepted that each story will develop in its own unique way. For Christmas in Red Willow, I started with two lists of character traits and ran with them.












Concentrates deeply











Chloe Hanley lives right next door to the house Owen Reardon helped his mother select.  On Sundays she watches her neighbor lady’s children and grandchildren play on the side lawn. Chloe’s only family, her beloved grandfather, the parson, has been gone for years.  The church he loved so much is in ruins and the town council, led by Owen’s older brother who is also a former beau of Chloe’s, give Chloe a short deadline in which to fix up the church or it will be torn down.

Chloe asks Owen for his help.  Not only has he always been fascinated by her, he has his own reasons for wanting to see the church building saved.  It all boils down to a race to the finish line as they work to complete the repairs by Christmas.

Here’s an excerpt:

“What did you do when you left Red Willow during those years?”

He leaned back in his chair. “I kicked around the country for a while. Mostly I stayed clear of cities and found places in the mountains where it seemed like no man had ever set foot before. I saw the Rockies in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho. Spent a winter in Saskatchewan. I hunted and trapped mostly. Sold furs and pelts and did a little mining.”

She imagined him off on his own, wintering in the extreme climates and eating over a campfire. He was a quiet person, but setting out alone was a choice she had trouble understanding. “What about wild animals?”

“They mostly leave you alone if you leave them alone.”

“Weren’t you ever afraid?”

“Not really. When you’re using your wits to survive day to day, life is pretty simple. Uncomplicated.”

“But you came back.”

He nodded. “My father got sick.”

“Would you have come back if not for that?”

“I never intended to stay away indefinitely. My brother could’ve handled things, and my mother has the girls. I wanted to come home. I’d had a lot of time to think, and there were things I needed to do.”
She wanted to ask what those things were, but she didn’t have any right to pry into his privacy. “Well, I know your mother is thankful you’re here.”

He nodded. “Probably.”

She deliberately moved her gaze to the list on the table. “I’m glad you’re here.”

He didn’t say anything. Her heart rate increased. She stole a look at his face.

He was watching her with a soft expression, his eyes more like warm honey than cinnamon tonight. “Did you ever want to leave?” he asked.

She considered his question for a moment. As a very young girl she’d foolishly imagined going after her mother and finding her. She’d daydreamed scenarios where the woman was overjoyed to see her and accompanied her back to Red Willow. But all those imaginings had ended up with Chloe returning to her home.

This place was all she knew. She shook her head. “I wouldn’t have had anywhere to go.”

Owen had always dreamed about leaving Red Willow. The earliest plans he could recall involved enduring school so he could set out on his own. But even without a family tying her to this place, Chloe was content. There was much to be said about contentment, he decided.

“I think we’ve exhausted the ads in these papers,” he said. “This list should do nicely.”

“I’ll send the telegrams first thing tomorrow,” she assured him.

“Good. I have the man coming to start the roof. Can’t be completed soon enough with the weather so uncertain.”

“More snow would fall inside.”

He rubbed at an ink stain at the joint of his index finger. “Yes, but the real problem would be ice and snow on the roof, making it too treacherous for the workers.”

“Oh, yes, of course.” She gathered up the newspapers. “Will you be returning these?”

He shook his head. “I’ll put them in the kitchen. My mother has a hundred uses for newspaper.”

“I really like your mother.  She’s lovely.”

“She’s a special lady,” he agreed.  He gestured to the doorway that lead to the foyer.  “Let’s get our coats and I’ll walk you home.”

“It’s right next door,” she answered with mild surprise.

“You never know what could be lurking in the side yard.”

She stood and walked ahead of him toward the front door.  “I’ve never run across anything lurking in the side yard.”

“How would you know?  It’s dark.”

“Are you trying to frighten me?”

He took her cranberry wool coat from the tree and held it so she could slip her arms into the sleeves.  Again he noticed her fair hair against the black-tipped brown fur.  “Not at all.  But those rabbits get pretty hungry this time of year.”

She laughed, and he liked the musical sound.  After pulling on his jacket, he led her outdoors.  It was a cold crisp night, every star in the heavens winking brightly.

“No sign of snow yet,” he said.  “The weather’s in our favor.”

They approached her house.

“You’ve painted your home its original colors,” he said.  “How did you know which colors to use?”

“I scraped layers of paint in several places,” she replied.  “I was pretty convinced I was right about the colors, and then I thought to ask Mr. Gregory.”  She gestured to a dark house across the street.

The man who lived there had to be nearly a hundred.  Occasionally Owen mowed his grass, and talking to him, he’d learned that the man had lived on the property nearly all his life.  His house had belonged to his parents before him.  Again Owen was impressed by her inventiveness and integrity regarding the preservation of old workmanship.

Chloe took a key from her pocket.  The windows of her house were dark.  “Looks like Miss Sarah has gone to bed,” he said.

“She retires early.”

“Want me to come in with you?”

For the record, neither Charlene or I chose the title of the anthology or the cover. 🙂

I especially love Christmas stories. They’re filled with optimism and good will. I hope you’ll look for Owen and Chloe’s story this October!

This has nothing to do with anything, but I’m an amateur photographer in my spare time. here’s Elli, my latest subject:


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51 thoughts on “Cheryl St.John: Christmas in Red Willow”

  1. I love Christmas stories, I don’t care what time of year it is. I’ll look forward to finding out what happens between Chloe and Owen. Elli is a doll, these are very good pictures.

  2. Hi Linda! Seems a lot of people feel that way, because Christmas stories are so popular.

    It’s an October release, Margaret. I can’t get the amazon widget to work to include a link here.

    Elli is a lot of fun.

  3. Hi, Cheryl! Congratulations on “Christmas in Red Willow”! I absolutely love Christmas stories and everything to do with the Holidays! My favorite time of the year is September through December. I try to keep the spirit of Christmas in my heart all year long. I read holiday romance stories throughout the year, and I would love to read Owen and Chloe’s story!

    Thanks for the cute baby pictures. They put a big smile on my face : )

  4. It’s hard to believe that Christmas is around the corner!! Our birch trees are already turning yellow and the squirrels are hustling about gathering some acorns. Tomorrow night we’re supposed to be in the mid-40*’s !! Ahh!! Fall is here!

    I too love Christmas stories! I’d love to read how Owen and Chloe’s “save the church” project develops into a love story!

    Ellie’s pictures… Perfect! You definitely captured the moment! She’s adorable!

  5. Your story sounds great. I always read the Harlequin Historicals. The authors of those books are on my always buy list. I ordered this book from eharlequin yesterday as well as Wyoming Lawman by Victoria Bylin. Can’t wait to get it!

  6. Hi Cheryl! Elli gets cuter every day. What a smile that girl has! I love Christmas novellas. They’re perfect reading in the rush of the holidays. Chloe and Owen make a lovely couple!

  7. Hi, Cheryl. You are right about Christmas stories and the hope inherent in them. Love that. Oh, and those dangerous bunnies in the side yard made me laugh. Too fun!

    Maybe a Christmas story will help me forget that it’s still in the 100s here in Texas. I’m so ready for Fall.

  8. Ellie is a cutie. Like the pictures. She has the sweetest smile.

    I love anthologies. I have one full bookcase of them, about a third are Christmas anthologies. I like the sound of your story. The main characters’ interest in preservation of old structures parallels our own, so of course I’d like them. Sounds like a good story. I look forward to adding it to my collection.

    Have a great Labor Day Weekend.

  9. Virgina, I love Christmas too. It’s my favorite holiday, but I love Thanksgiving, too. I collect readers’ and writers’ photos of their Christmas trees and post them on my blog, so remember me when you get your tree up this year.

    That goes for everyone: The Great Christmas Tree Tour 2010 is right around the corner.

  10. Karen,

    I’ve heard stories of the temps in Texas all summer. What a year it’s been for you folks, eh?

    Yes, the bunnies…we have a few bunny issues in our own yard. They especially like to eat morning glories, roses (I gave up) spider wort any tiger lilies. grrrrrrrrr

  11. Patricia, who doesn’t love a man with a deep appreciation for Victorian architecture and the preservation of beloved buildings, right? I enjoyed creating Owen’s character. He’s a deep thinker, and that was fun.

    He appreciates that Chloe waits for him to speak and really listens. I’ve noticed that people who take their time forming words or opinions are often talked over or drowned out by those who are impatient. I never said as much in the story, but that was how I’d seen his previous experiences.

  12. What precious photos of Elli! Her personality really comes through. Such a little doll!
    I love Christmas stories. How do you get yourself in the mood to write about the Christmas season during the rest of the year? Seems hard to summon up Christmas spirit when it is sweltering outside.

  13. Sounds awesome! I buy the Christmas anthology books every season. I love stories that fall along this time period. I think I was born in the wrong decade.

    And, seriously could the grandbaby be any cuter? I’m loving those teeth. Maggie cut her first tooth 2 days ago and she has already bit her lip and her arm!

  14. Thanks, Mary! I’m certain a book can find its way to you.

    Judy, I guess it’s like all the other parts of the book, weather and seasons are part of the setting. I immerse myself in them to bring them to life for me. I have to say it FUN to write about snow and Christmas when it’s the middle of summer.

  15. This is on my must read list and I can’t wait to have it in my hands. I’m crossing my fingers all day as this would make a great birthday gift a month early. Your graddaughter is such a cutie.

  16. I like to read Christmas stories starting with the first cold day in the fall. This one sounds really good.
    You are a very good photographer but of course you can’t lose with that subject. Elli is very cute and looks happy.

  17. What great pics, Elli is adorable! 😀
    I love Christmas stories, great for adding that extra bit of happiness to one’s day. Always leave a Christmas story feeling great!

  18. Cheryl, I love these pictures of Eli and the other ones that you have posted on your blog. You have a real talent for photography.

    I am looking forward to your next book. I really enjoy reading Harlequin’s western anthologies, especially Christmas stories.

  19. Hi Cher, Christmas stories are always my faves..I have paperbacks I store in the decorations and bring out and re-read each season. What a darling couple and great story-starters you showed us.

    And Elli, be still my heart. She gets cuter with each passing day. oxox

  20. The last couple of years I’ve made it a tradition to buy a Christmas/Holiday themed romance or two when I’m out shopping the day after Thanksgiving – When I saw this was coming out next month I knew I’d want to buy it and then hide it away until we got closer to the holidays- best of luck with it and your photography!

    Colleen 🙂

  21. What gorgeous photos of Elli. Such a pretty baby.
    Your book sounds great. I love Christmas stories. I like the cover.

  22. ooooooooh, i love the excerpt–feels warm and comfortable–like a christmas story somehow? 🙂
    thank you for sharing!

    and thank you also for sharing pics of your adorable elli pics!!!!!
    she is BEAUTIFUL and you got some wonderful shots

    i’ve seen them on your blog…but can’t comment on that one here at work–so couldn’t say it before

  23. This sounds wonderful I have been waiting a a while for one of your lonely books. Great day for me to check in at the Junction. I have been really busy with 3 little ones under 2 it has been very joyful but very busy.
    Elli is so beautiful she looks just like grandma. (wink)
    Can’t wait to get a hold of this holiday book it will make me in the season for the tree not sure where we will put it this year with all this baby stuff.

  24. Hi Tabitha – sad you can’t comment on my other blog from work, but so glad you visit here.

    I’m going to post some photo bloopers just for fun. I always show the good stuff and thought you’d enjoy behind the scenes stuff. Some are pretty funny – like the dog jumping up in front of Elli.

    Hi Minna! Good to hear from you

    Oh Brenda, you are so sweet. Even my own mother says Elli looks like me!

    I know what you mean with baby stuff – we ‘re buried with Boppies and Excersaucers and swings and jumpers in the doorways and highchairs and pack’, plays and toys and diapers……..

  25. I just love Elli’s smile. Christmas and Historical together is something I love. I’m looking forward to reading this. I love Christmas stories all year round but the closer to December the more I feel Christmas in the air.

  26. Hey Cheryl,

    Congrats on the new book. OF course, I cannot wait to get my hands on it. I read all of your books

    AZ is really nice I am so glad that I am finally moved
    Elli is beautiful

    Walk in harmony,

  27. Must be something in the air today. On another book chat group I am on, we were talking about when we read holiday theme books.
    I will be putting this book on my tbr list for sure of Christmas books to read..

  28. Hi there!
    I see I’m definitely not the only one who loves a good Christmas story any time of year. Many thanks for writing this book.
    I’m looking over the heroine character traits and am smiling. Focused – I appreciate that in others but don’t think I fall into that category … frugal – yup, definitely me to a “T” … honest – I’ve learned that telling lies snowballs and you get burnt, so I’ve tried VERY HARD not to lie for the past 20+ years (although I have been known to omit details!) … inventive – hmmm, they say necessity is the mother of invention, so I guess I can be inventive … sentimental – holy catfish, come see my scrapbooks!!! … energetic – darn, you’ve got me on that one, although I WAS energetic 50 pounds and 20 years ago … lonely – whew, I’m definitely NOT that … enthusiastic – depends on what we’re talking about and with whom we’re talking! … humble – yup….
    So … I’m looking forward to seeing the similarities and differences between the heroine and myself, as you just know my dreams will include ME as the heroine of my own stories after I’ve read this book!

  29. I love Christmas stories, the more romantic the better. I love the specialness of Christmas and the Christmas story, and find books centered around that really special. Can’t wait to read this one.

  30. Again! It’s like opening a candy bar, taking a mouth watering wiff, and then not being able to sink your teeth into it! You know what that means? Can’t wait to get my hands on it! Every word you write creates a magnetic pull to the next!
    BTW: Elli? Too adorable for words.

  31. This books sounds like a great read! I love to read Christmas stories all year long!

    nancyecdavis AT bellsouth DOT net

  32. I LIKE Christmas stories. The excerpt sounds wonderful.Please enter me in the giveaway. I ENJOY READING all of your books . augustlily06(at)aim(dot)com.Thank you.

  33. I love Christmas stories. I’m actually re-reading the C0wboy Christmas anthology. I love those pictures of Ellie. . . you’ve got a good eye (not to mention you write fantastic stories)

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