Thursday, April 28, 2011

My Chateau of Inspiration

The nice thing about writing fiction is that I have some leeway to use a place that is real as inspiration, without using it per se. That’s the case with the Chateau-sur-Mer in Newport, Rhode Island, the summer playground of the wealthy during the Gilded Age.

When I saw this house in Newport, I fell in love. It stands on a green hill, grand but not haughty, elegant without being cold. Until the Vanderbilts started building their mega-mansions in the 1890’s, it was the palatial mansion in Newport.
It was first built in 1852 then remodeled and added onto, twenty years later. It was built for William Shepard Wetmore who made his fortune in the China trade. Originally it encompassed 35 acres and had a sea-view. But later, some of its land was sold (and the Breakers built upon it), making this “castle on the sea” landlocked. William and his wife once had a party for 3000 in the house!

When William died in 1862, the house passed to his son, George, who eventually became the governor of Rhode Island (1885-1887), and a state senator (1894-1912.) He hired Richard Morris Hunt to transform the house—which Hunt did, starting in 1871. He changed it so much that many people thought the original house had been torn down. Hunt later was the architect on the Vanderbilt’s Breakers and Marble House.

I include Mr. and Mrs. Wetmore at a dinner party in Chapter 13 of my book. A little ironic twist that they are guests in the fictitious Langdon mansion inspired by their very real home.

There are five areas of Chateau-sur-Mer that I used in An Unlikely Suitor. I am very partial to wood trim (you would know that if you saw my house), so the paneling of the grand entry really spoke to me. Plus, the stained glass and skylight are stunning. I had great fun writing a scene where my immigrant seamstress character, Lucy, first walks into the house.

The second room I used was the French parlor—that I called Mrs. Langdon’s morning room. It’s notable because the wood paneling of the rest of the house is present there too, but Edith Wetmore had it painted white. As a lover of wood and its grain I cringed. But it’s a very feminine room in a very masculine house.

Third, was the Butternut Bedroom. I made this the bedroom belonging to my main character, Rowena. She’s very warm and unassuming, and I felt the color of the butternut wood suited her, and was a contrast to the formal, assuming, white morning room preferred by her mother.

The Library was another room that inspired a scene, a confrontation between a poor girl in want of a book to read, the heir, and a butler. I have a library in my house, with lots of wood and shelves, so I love this type of room.

Lastly, the back of the Chateau had a porch facing the sea. I created a scene that had Rowena painting a landscape on the porch, and it was also a place she could go to contemplate the drama in the book. (Note: these wonderful interior photos are from a great book about the mansions of Newport by the Preservation Society of Newport County: Newport Mansions.)

I added a room-sized dressing room for Rowena, and stables and outbuildings, as needed. But the spirit of the Chateau lives on in my fictional Porte au Ciel: Gate to Heaven.

When I visited Newport in 2005, the Chateau-sur-Mer was undergoing a restoration but is now open to the public. It’s on my to-do list. After all, the house and I have become very close.//Nancy

Monday, April 25, 2011

How to Help a Grieving Friend ... personal history

I (as in Stephanie, pictured on the right before she was published) hope you won't mind indulging me on this Monday-after-Easter with a brief announcement and a few reflections on some personal history, since the promise of Easter is very personal.

The older I get, the more I look forward to Heaven, because the list of people I get to see again grows. I particularly think about my first husband, Bob, and my own parents. Bob's parents are there, too, and this past year my grandson Barrett left for heaven before I held him in my arms as a newborn.

This past Easter Sunday, I copied parts of 1 Corinthians ... "If Christ has not been raised ... your faith is worthless; If Christ has not been raised ... you are still in your sins ... and those who have fallen asleep have perished ... BUT Christ has been raised! ... (and someday), "in a moment ... in the twinkling of an eye ... the dead will be raised imperishable ... and death
will be swallowed up in victory." I believe that with all my heart. And yet ... in the meantime ... part of being human is facing hurt and loss.

I learned a lot about grief between 1996 and 2001. In 1996, just a few days after Bob received his "terminal" cancer diagnosis, my best friend died of breast cancer. A few months later, both my parents died within six months of each other. And then, in 2001, Bob graduated to heaven.

It wasn't until after Bob had left this earth that I began to realize how terrible I was at helping grieving friends. I found myself calling them and apologizing for stupid things I'd said or done ... things that, at the time, I intended to be helpful. Things that, now that I was the one facing loss, I suddenly realized weren't helpful at all. In fact, some of my well-intentioned words were hurtful.
I joked with another widow about writing a book called Lifestyles of the Well Meaning but Clueless ... because I realized how clueless I had so often been.

Thus was borne How to Help a Grieving Friend, a little book that talks about "how it feels" to grieve and then focuses on "how to help," giving practical ways to offer meaningful help in times of loss.

Not surprisingly, it took my agent a long timeto find it a home. Why? "Well," publishers said, "we just don't do death and dying well." Which, my agent said, was exactly the point. Isn't it interesting that the one thing that every single person ever born has in their personal history, is also the thing that "we don't do well."

And so my announcement:

How to Help a Grieving Friend, is
now available in ebook format for Kindle (
itm=1&USRI=how+to+help+a+grieving+friend and will soon be available as a print book. (I don't own an ebook reader, by the way ... but I downloaded Nook's free app onto my PC and voila ... I can order ebooks!)

If you feel as awkward and helpless as I used to when headed to a funeral (or when I saw someone in the grocery store who had just lost a loved one), if you've wondered what to say or do, this little book can help.

Today's "personal history" blog closes with a poem I wrote many years ago as a reminder of the promise we celebrate at Easter. I hope it encourages you.
Because He lives ....


A lifeless shell (to earthly eyes) can open,
freeing its surprise to dance on a garden leaf.
Gossamer wings gently hesitate to fly.
And then, as wind abates, it flutters towards the sky.

Out of sight, it yet exists and, dancing on,
its wings persist to unseen garden leaves.
No less alive, though out of sight,
it testifies to each man's plight;
a common destiny.
For each of us must leave behind a lifeless shell.
and earthly-minded men can think, "Life's done."
It isn't true.

Although unseen, we flutter on to gardens green with joy,
alive in Christ.
Alive in Christ, Who's dead cocoon, though buried in a garden tomb arose to give new life.
Here's hope for all in facing death:
a lifeless shell (to earthly eyes)
precedes the birth of butterflies.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A New Book and a Contest!

It's always exciting to hold a new book in my hands, and my newest has finally arrived!  An Unlikely Suitor is set in the Gilded Age, 1895.  A New York seamstress, along with her sister and mother, help create a summer wardrobe for a rich heiress.  They end up in the summer haven of the rich, Newport, Rhode Island.  A friendship ensues, a bit of danger, and a lot of romance. 
I've talked about the book in earlier posts, and have begun sharing some of the insights into Newport and the sewing process that I discovered while doing the research.  I'll share more in future weeks.  Here's a woman who looks like Lucia Scarpelli, my seamstress...  I love finding portraits of people who match the characters in my head.  The fact she'd dressed ala 1895, and is sitting in a place that looks like Newport's Cliff Walk.  Zounds, I couldn't have imagined her any better!

I'm so excited about the book's release that I'm having a contest.  I'm giving away a vintage-inspired wooden box full of goodies (worth over $50), an antique piece of jewelry (that sparkles), and a copy of the novel.  Three winners.  All you have to do is leave a comment to this blog entry and tell me the era of history you most like to read about.  Who knows?  Maybe I'll choose that time in history as a setting in a future novel.  Or you can also enter on my website at or on my Facebook page.  I'll draw the three winners on May 15.

Also, just a note... if you like the book I'd sure appreciate you spreading the word, and leaving a review on one of the online bookstores like,, or  If you don't like the book, shhh!   Just kidding.  You're welcome to give your true opinion.

Thank you ever so much for your readership!  Without you, I'm writing to the wind.//Nancy 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Where Did They Get Their Simplicity Patterns?

When I was a teenager, “Mom” Pennell made my Easter outfit every year. (I contemplated inserting a photo of me in my favorite “Mom” Pennell creation, but regained my sanity.) A retired seamstress, Mom Pennell had worked for a wedding gown designer. He drew … she sewed. Mom could transform her employer’s drawings into a 3-D object long before CAD existed. My understanding of how she did that is that God the Creator gifted her to create by perceiving spatial relationships in a way that enabled her to combine a drawing with a woman’s shape (in her mind) and then cut a piece of fabric to fit that shape. 3-D geometrical talent applied to cloth. Of course Mom also had a dress form, and I always went for at least one fitting … just like 19th century dressmakers.

In the U.S., until Butterick began to publish patterns, fashionable clothing that fit properly was the purview of the wealthy. The rest of society either wore makeshift clothing that didn’t fit very well or hoped for hand-me-downs from someone higher up the income ladder. Aprons (a straight piece of cloth gathered onto a narrow piece of cloth tied at the waist) or belts often give shape to what was little more than a long, hemmed, sack. In this engraving of a maid in the 1750s, the softness around her neck is probably a square of cloth folded and draped like a scarf. The headgear? A circle (invert a pail, a basket, or a crock and you’ve got a circle pattern) gathered to fit around the head (measure with a length of twine to see how far to draw it up). I’m no seamstress, but I think I could manage.

Of course none of that was sufficient for women who were part of the growing “middle class” 19th century America. By then, a woman’s dress required buttonholes and darts and set-in sleeves. Enter (I think) the women like Mom Pennell who had the gift to look at the page and make it happen.

While the Civil War created demand for men’s ready-to-wear in the form of army uniforms, women would have to wait until later in the century (the 1880s) for much to happen in that marketplace (and then, of course, they’d still need the means to barter or buy). I know from reading western women’s pioneer diaries that they helped each other with their sewing needs. So I’m going to make an “educated supposition” that, if there was a Mom Pennell within twenty miles, she probably helped more than one pioneer woman with her dressmaking. (It’s also possible to de-construct a dress you like and use it for a pattern. Seam-ripper in hand, a pioneer woman could have taken a dress apart and used the resulting pieces as a pattern for years to come. Did they? I haven’t a clue … but I once did that with a beloved dress.) The brief research I’ve done on the history of dressmaking indicates that Godey’s Lady’s Book offered full-size patterns in the 1850s. When I learned that, I rushed to my bookshelf to check my 1875 Godey’s. Alas, no dress patterns that year, although pull-out fashion plates abound.

I did, however, find the pattern on the left in an 1869 edition of Peterson’s Magazine. How long do you suppose it took a woman to transfer the drawings into usable size ... and how did she make this "one-size-fits-all" approach work for her child? The brief instructions include the admonition that, “by the letters it may be readily seen how to put it together.” Oh ... really????

Mass-produced, sized, dress patterns came along thanks to Ebenezer Butterick. The family cut and folded the patterns by hand at first, moving into mass production by 1866. Millions had been sold by 1871. James McCall became a competitor. I enjoyed reading the Butterick company history here:

Thanks to Vince for suggesting this topic. (Simplicity, by the way, was founded in 1927 ... I didn't know that!)

I, for one, have new appreciation for how easily I can don an "Easter outfit" if I so choose...although I am far more interested this year in snuggling my Easter grand-babies than thinking about new clothes! Here's the First Arrival with his big sister ... hours after his April 14 arrival. The next Easter baby is due any day now ... she and her cousin will be in the same church nursery soon.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Breakers

Summer “cottage” my foot. Yet that’s what the wealthy set of the Gilded Age called their mega-mansions in Newport.

The Breakers is the largest of these mansions and is used in the climax of my novel An Unlikely Suitor. Encompassing 65,000 square feet of living space (not to mention the cubic feet) it’s the size of thirty homes in one—and one family lived in it. A little about them: 
Cornelius Vanderbilt II
by John Singer Sargent

Cornelius Vanderbilt II was the grandson of the Commodore who ignited the Vanderbilt fortune decades earlier by getting into steamships and railroads. Cornelius was the favorite grandson and was bequeathed $5 million upon his grandfather’s death in 1877. When his father (William Henry) died in 1885, he received $70 million. Quite the nest egg. But C-2 didn’t sit around doing nothing. He took over the helm of the his family’s railroad legacy.

But backing up…C-2 met his wife Alice Gwynne while they were teaching Sunday school. They married in 1867 and had four sons and three daughters. Mrs. Vanderbilt was a leader in New York Society. Here’s a picture of her at one of her costume balls in 1883, dressed as "Electric Light".

This portion of the Vanderbilt family was very generous and gave to many charities including the YMCA, Salvation Army, Red Cross, their churches, as well as donating Vanderbilt Hall at Yale in memory of their son William, who died of typhus while in his junior year there in 1892. I think it's important to note that when C-2 died he had not added to his fortune, but had given away what he had made over his lifetime. We’re talking millions.
Breakers 1909

When they built the Breakers they had five living children, aged 9, 15,18, 20, and 22. The first Breakers burned to the ground in 1892. Its replacement was started a year later, and finished the year of my novel, 1895. But Mr. Vanderbilt suffered a bad stroke the following year, so this was the only year the Breakers was fully enjoyed by Alice and Cornelius. The 70-room mansion purportedly cost $7-12 million to build ($150-260 million in today’s dollars.)

Alice and daughter Gertrude
 Because the first house had burned down (as did many houses in the Gilded Age due to the use of open flame lighting and fireplaces) C-2 was determined the new house not suffer the same fate. And so he built the house without the use of wood. It used steel trusses, and C-2 even had the furnace placed away from the house, under the street. Set on 13 acres, commanding a view of the sea, the Breakers represents the epitome of Gilded Age extravagance with Italian and African marble.

Dining Room
The Music Room is decorated in real gold, and the Dining Room has columns of alabaster. Richard Morris Hunt was the architect. Looking at the detail…the artistry… I have a degree in architecture, but I can’t imagine envisioning such design, much less finding people with the talent to implement it. And once you have the house designed, you have to furnish it! All this done in two years? It’s astonishing. How could I resist having my own fictional ball in this massive hall? (below) 
Neily and Grace

When the Breakers was finished in 1895, the Vanderbilts were going through a bit of a personal crisis, as their son Cornelius III (Neily) had fallen in love with Grace Wilson, who had been secretly engaged to his older brother Bill, before Bill died of typhoid. In spite of his parents’ objections, Neily and Grace were married in 1896 and were cut out of the will. They were married their entire live. Neily’s mother didn’t reconcile with him until 1926.
Morning Room
Alfred, the third Vanderbilt son, died in the sinking of the Lusitania. Next son, Reginald, was the father of Gloria Vanderbilt—the grandmother of journalist Anderson Cooper. Daughter Gertrude married Harry Payne Whitney and became a patron of art and formed the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931. She was also a sculptor and designed the Titanic monument in Washington, D.C., honoring the men who gave their lives so women and children could be saved. Their youngest daughter became a countess by marrying Hungarian Count László Széchenyi.
Gladys Vanderbilt
by John Singer Sargent
C-2 didn’t have long to enjoy the Breakers. He had his first stroke the year after it was finished, and died in 1899 from a cerebral hemorrhage from a second stroke at the young age of 55.
He left the home to his wife, who left it to Gladys—who always loved the estate. In 1942 she leased it to the Newport Preservation Society for $1, but in 1972, the Society purchased it from Gladys’ daughter Countess Sylvia Szapary for $365,000. The family still owns the furnishings. What a bargain! When Sylvia died in 1998, she left the estate to her two children, who continue to spend time there, up on the third floor, away from the tourists. Over 300,000 people visit the Breakers every year. You really should be one of them. Newport Mansions//Nancy

Monday, April 11, 2011

Treadle sewing

I wax nostalgic when the topic of treadle sewing machines comes up, because .... I learned to sew on one. At Clark Junior High School in East St. Louis, Illinois, we had an entire row of them in the Home Ec classroom, and that's what we used to create our fully lined black wool sheath dresses, and our two-piece wool pants suits. Pedal-pedal-pedal-pedal! In 1963-4. (And then of course we climbed aboard the covered wagon to go home. Uphill. Both ways. In the snow.)

For years my Grandmother's treadle sewing machine was part of our home decor. (Grandma Rose was Grandpa's sixth wife, but that's a topic for another blog. Or not.) I remember the drawers still housing all the attachments, and how I wish I had Grandma Rose's machine back...I'd probably use it!

As Nancy reminded us a few posts ago, the sewing machine changed women's lives forever. Reading her blog reminded me of some anecdotes I've come across in my studies of 19th Century Great Plains women.

In 1867, a Nebraska pioneer woman wrote, Didn’t this sewing machine help me long fast. I never mean to sew by hand any more if I can help it.

In 1878, Nebraskan Mattie Oblinger wrote about her Mother's sewing machine back home, "I wish I was near enough for awhile to do some sewin' on. I have so much to do I do not know where to commence." Later that same year she wrote, "I had to make some new clothes for the girls to wear to the fair, and I was very much hurried as I done it all by hand. Mother, I often wish I was close to your machine for three girls makes lots of sewin'."

Iowa farm wife Emily Gillespie was so thrilled to get a sewing machine, she wrote about it in her diary. I finished Henry’s clothes, took me just 49 hours to make coat, pants, and vest. "Just 49 hours" .... Oh my.

Nebraska sod house homemaker Luna Kellie wrote, J.T. had bought me a new Singer Machine and I made good use of it making all the clothes we all wore. I had done this before by hand only occasionally taking some long seams down to sew on Mrs. Strohls machine. Machines were not so high then I think we paid 30 or 35 dollars for it.

At least J.T. wasn't like one husband I read about who said that he thought that twenty or twenty-five dollars was a lot of money to pay for a machine that did "little more than lighten a woman's work load." Where do you suppose he's buried :-).

Ranch wife Grace Snyder had been married four years before she saved enough to buy a sewing machine by raising an orphaned calf. Imagine her joy when her husband returned from a supply run to town with that machine in the wagon ... and imagine her disappointment when they discovered he'd only brought the cabinet! The machine head, shipped in a separate crate, was still back at the train depot with the rest of the load. It would be a few days before the working part arrived!

For all the advances in women's sewing tools, I still think there's something to be said for the soothing monotony of hand stitching. I have a wonderful sewing machine and a Featherweight, but I still love to thread a needle (the thread spools perch on this antique thingy (what's it called?) and stitch by hand. And I honestly believe that our pioneer foremothers enjoyed it, too--in spite of all they had to accomplish. There is great satisfaction at looking at a bit of needlework and saying, 'I made that." Dinners get eaten, cookies disappear, laundry just has to be done again ... but stitching? Stitching often outlasts the hands that do it.


Monday, April 4, 2011

Home on the Plains: Quilts and the Sod House Experience

Many years ago I had the privilege of being shown the Dowse Sod House in Custer County, Nebraska, by the gentleman who's father had build the soddy. When I asked him where he'd been born, Mr. Dowse
turned around and pointed at the bed pictured here and said, "Right there."
I looked at the quilt on the bed and wondered ... "What kinds of quilts did those women have?"

So I went on a search for quilts used in Sod Houses. Fellow author and textile
historian Kathy Moore joined the fray and together we combed museum collections and the Solomon Butcher photographic collection for evidence. And we found quilts and women's stories. We share some of them in the new book ... Home on the Plains: Quilts and the Sod House Experience   It's a true work of my heart and the result of years of research, miles spent driving gravel and dirt roads, untold hours in archives ... and at the sewing machine.

Co-author Kathy and I also MADE about a dozen quilts for the project, taking inspiration from
the antique quilts we discovered and creating a variety of reproductions and/or "new variations on the theme."

You'll note that the woman pictured on the book cover has spread a couple of her quilts on the fence in front of her sod house just before the photographer took her photo. What does that say about her? Did she make them? Or did the woman you can't see (seated in the wagon the mules are pulling) make them? We'll never know which member of the Comer family created these quilts, but we do know part of their story. As a woman, the most interesting "detail" to me is that Mrs. Comer had Sarah Ellen in 1872,Cora in 1875 (who died in 1876), Paschal in 1877, Minnie May in 1880, Hattie Bell in 1883, Georgie in 1885, Andrew in 1886, James in 1889, Melville in 1891, and Mary Elizabeth in 1903. Makes me tired just to tell you about it ... but that's the kind of "news" that keeps me writing stories.

In the case of this book, all the stories are true. I hope you'll enjoy meeting school-marm Susan Payne, young mother Luna Kellie, grandmother Maria Newton, and the other women featured in this book intended to be a tribute to our pioneer foremothers. The book also includes patterns for how to make some of the featured quilts. There's a sneak peek of sample pages at More info "Home on the Plains" (and a way to order an autographed copy.

P.S. I made the blue quilt on the cover (and several others featured in the book) ... but I had a lot of help with the quilting. //Steph


I also want you to know about a re-release of The Story Jar by author friends Robin Lee Hatcher and Deborah Bedford.

The Story Jar…

The jar itself is most unusual—not utilized in the ordinary way for canning or storing food, but as a collection point for memories. Some mementos in the jar—hair ribbons, a ring, a medallion--are sorrowful, others tender, some bittersweet. But all those memories eventually bring their owners to a place of hope and redemption in spite of circumstances that seemingly have no solution.

Isn't the idea of a jar of stories appealing? Hope you like it!

Robin got the story idea while speaking in Nebraska ... she shares the "story behind the story" ....

In September 1998, I received a story jar as a thank you gift after speaking at a writers’ conference in Nebraska. The small mason jar, the lid covered with a pretty handkerchief, was filled with many odds and ends – a Gerber baby spoon, an empty thread spindle, a colorful pen, several buttons, a tiny American flag, an earring, and more.

The idea behind this gift was a simple one. When a writer can’t think of anything to write, she stares at one of the objects in the jar and lets her imagination play. Who did that belong to? How hold was he? What sort of person was he? What does the object represent in his life? Writers love to play the “what if” game. It’s how most stories come into being. Something piques their interest, they start asking questions, and a book is born.

A week after receiving my story jar, I attended a retreat with several writer friends of mine, Deborah Bedford included. On the flight home, I told Deborah about the jar. The next thing you know (after all, what better thing is there for writers to do on a plane than play “what if”?), we began brainstorming what would ultimately become The Story Jar. We decided very quickly that we wanted this to be a book that celebrates motherhood, that encourages mothers, that recognizes how much they should be loved and honored.

The Story Jar was first published by Multnomah in 2000, but eventually went out of print. Thus Deborah and I are delighted that Hendrickson wanted to bring it out in a new, revised version because we believe these stories can inspire others, just as it did this reader back in 2001:

"I am an avid book reader and have read thousands of books––maybe more––since the age of 5. I can honestly say that [The Story Jar] has touched me more than any other I have read. I cried, I laughed, and I relearned things that I had forgotten long ago as well as realizing things I never knew. Thank you for sharing your stories with your readers. They are truly inspiring. I plan on giving it to all the ‘mothers’ in my life for Mother's Day."

You don’t have to be a writer to want a story jar. It can be a family’s way of preserving memories. Consider having a family get-together where everybody brings an item to go into the jar, and as it drops in, they tell what it means to them, what it symbolizes. We can learn something new about our loved ones when we hear their memories in their own words. Or do what my church did a number of years ago to create a memory for a retiring pastor. Inspired by The Story Jar, members of the congregation brought items to the retirement dinner to put into a story jar or they simply wrote their memories on a piece of paper to go into the jar. It was our way of saying thanks to a man and wife for all of the years they’d given in God’s service.

A story jar can be a tool for remembering all the wonderful things God has done in our own lives. As Mrs. Halley said, not all of God’s miracles are in the Bible. He is still performing them today in countless ways today, changing lives, healing hearts.


Robin Lee Hatcher is known for her heartwarming and emotionally charged stories of  faith, courage, and love. She makes her home in Idaho where she enjoys spending time with her family, her high-maintenance Papillon, Poppet, and Princess Pinky, the kitten who currently terrorizes the household.

When Deborah Bedford isn't writing, she spends her time fly-fishing, cheering at American Legion baseball games, shopping with her daughter, singing praise songs while she walks along the banks of Flat Creek, and taking her dachshund Annie for hikes in the Tetons where they live.

Order your copy here:

Have a fabulous week! Spring's coming!