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.
Charlene 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.
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: