I love reading books that take me to far-off places and help me see things I've never seen before. My current lifestyle doesn't allow for a lot of travelling, so I do it through books.
When I write a book, I want the story to do the same--but writing about a real place and/or time I haven't experienced means that there is a lot more research involved.
I also want my stories to matter. My hope is that while I entertain, my story makes a difference.
My current novel, Finding Heaven, is set in San Francisco, Edmonton, and Mumbai. It is about a woman who seems to have the perfect life--successful career, position, wealth, successful husband--but then she meets someone who is actually, honest-to-goodness happy. She wishes she could be that happy, but when she receives a cancer diagnoses, she realizes what a shaky foundation her life is built on and that no matter what she has filled her life with, the demons in her past will always know where to find her.
The research for this novel and these characters has been intense, and somewhat therapeutic. (Well, writing is usually therapeutic...) Some of what happens in the story is pretty horrible. My husband has asked me, "Are you sure someone is going to want to read this?"
I don't know. Sometimes I really don't.
Want a sneak preview of my first draft? Then you can tell me.
This is about 1/3 of the way through the story. Sarah, an erotica author, and her husband Craig are about to have Thanksgiving dinner with her family in a small town outside of Edmonton. She told Craig that she has cervical cancer several days before.
Excerpt from Finding Heaven
Written by Talena Winters. All material copyright Talena Winters.
Sarah stood next to Craig on her mother’s shaded concrete stoop, chewing her lip as her husband rang the doorbell. The house was much like any other in this quiet subdivision, built in the sixties when the town of Miller had experienced a bit of a population boom after the new plant had gone in. Her parents had purchased it brand new, but the gypsum siding seemed horribly dated now.
The gift paper on the package in her arms crinkled as she shifted her weight. She held the flat, rectangular parcel like a shield, as though to deflect the oncoming tide of family togetherness. She studied the fading blooms of the sunflowers next to the stoop and took deep breaths of sweet prairie small-town air to calm her nerves. The October afternoon held a hint of crispness, and the breeze that kept tickling her face with some wayward strands of hair smelled of dry leaves and cut fields and savoury cooking.
She heard her mother hollering and footsteps approaching from within, and then the door was thrown open to frame her brother’s hulking figure. His wide face broke open in a grin.
Before Craig could react, Everett crushed him in a bear hug like they were long-lost bosom friends. Craig patted his brother-in-law’s back awkwardly and then dropped his arms, pushing past the bulky blond man—who looked every inch the softened ex-soldier that he was—and forcing him to step back from the door.
Sarah followed her husband into the small entrance—merely a corner of the living room near the door on which the contractor had thought it sufficient to lay linoleum and call the job done. With Craig in front of her removing his coat and shoes and her brother pressed against the wall near the stairs, the space felt very crowded.
“Sarah!” Everett’s face maintained its garish smile as he tried to give her the same treatment he’d given Craig.
Sarah deflected his hug by shifting the package a little further in front of her chest with her left hand and grabbing his hand with her right.
“Everett.” Small handshake. Weak smile.
Everett’s short, slightly heavy-set wife hovered at the edge of the lino behind him, a warm smile on her round face. She’d cut her medium-brown hair into a blunt, chin-length bob since Sarah had seen her last, and she was dressed in her typical uniform of faded jeans and sneakers. She’d traded in her typical graphic tee for a plain black one, her one concession to the holiday. Sarah shifted the package to her hip and embraced the plain-faced woman with one arm.
“Hi, Jill.” Sarah’s smile was genuine now. As much as she dreaded family gatherings, she had a soft spot for her sister-in-law. She sometimes wondered how her brother had managed to convince such a kind person to marry him.
Jill came out of the embrace and frowned as she scanned Sarah’s face. “What’s that?” She indicated Sarah’s bruised cheek with her eyes. Sarah had been able to cover most of the remaining damage with make-up, but not enough to escape Jill’s keen observation.
Sarah glanced at Craig, who had moved onto the living room’s brown shag carpet with Everett. The men were standing by the couch, chatting about hockey, but her husband kept what appeared to be a concerned gaze on her.
Ever since she had told him the news the other morning, his entire demeanour had been different. He had almost been doting on her, checking in on her by text or phone throughout the day while he was at work. Yesterday, he’d surprised her with a true romantic dinner out, just the two of them. The massage and gentle love-making that had followed belied the wounds left by the violence of only days earlier. It was like he was a different person—but it gave her hope. Maybe this cancer diagnosis wouldn’t be all bad. Maybe it would fix what was wrong between her and Craig.
She turned back to Jill with a terse shake of her head. “Nothing. I whacked my face on a door frame the other day. You know, another one of ‘Sarah’s classic moves.’”
Jill’s frown didn’t disappear, but she nodded uncertainly, glancing toward their husbands in doubt.
“Is that Sarah?” came Ellen Sinclair’s voice from the back of the house.
Sarah raised her voice so she would be heard. “Yes, Mom.”
Her mother bustled toward her from the kitchen, her pear-shaped figure clothed in a lavender skirt suit Sarah had never seen before that was mostly obscured by a clashing faded cotton-print apron she had seen many times. The apron was Ellen’s favourite, and she had used it on family holidays and Sunday dinners since Sarah was a child.
Her mother gave her a brief and distracted hug, then turned back in the direction of the kitchen.
“Hurry up. I need your help.”
Sarah sighed. “I’m coming.”
Jill had a sympathetic look on her face. “Here, let me help you with that.” She took the paper-wrapped package from Sarah’s hands.
Sarah smiled gratefully. She shrugged out of her coat and hung it up, then took the package from her sister-in-law before heading to the back of the house where she knew her mother would be working to prepare dinner. Jill trailed after her.
Sarah knew Jill would already have offered to help in the kitchen, and Ellen would have turned her down. Having learned from past experience, Jill wouldn’t have pressed the issue. In Ellen’s mind, Jill was a “guest.” Everett was the “man of the house,” not to mention her favourite child, which automatically exempted him from anything resembling domestic duties. But Sarah was the daughter—so she had to help.
“Here.” Ellen tossed a frilly apron covered in faded flowers at her.
Sarah caught the wadded cotton, set the package down on the peninsula, wrapped the apron’s ties around her waist and set to work on the salad Ellen directed her toward. Jill tried once again to get involved, but Ellen shooed her away like a child that was interfering where she shouldn’t. Jill gave a small shrug, then settled herself at the peninsula on a stool so she could at least visit with Sarah.
“So, how was your trip to San Francisco? Did you enjoy the conference?”
As soon as Jill mentioned Sarah’s trip, Ellen slammed the oven door closed, whirled to face her daughter, and frowned.
“San Francisco? You were in San Francisco? When?”
“Yes, Mom. Remember? We were talking about it on the phone a couple of days ago. I was at a writer’s conference. I was one of the presenters.”
“Really. Huh. I do remember that, now.”
Sarah wondered if Ellen actually did remember the conversation or not. She indicated the paper-wrapped package with the chef’s knife in her hand.
“I brought you your present. Do you want to open it?”
“I’ll get to it a little later, Sarah.” Ellen’s voice and face reflected impatience that her daughter could think there was time for frivolous gift-opening right now.
Sarah sighed, but decided to let it drop. She turned back to Jill.
“It was okay, for the most part. I’m sure I put on ten pounds. The food there was to die for.”
Jill laughed. “Well, you look amazing, and I’m glad to hear there was something there you enjoyed.”
Unlike Sarah’s husband, Jill empathized with Sarah’s distaste for the genre in which she had made a name as a writer. And unlike Ellen, she knew what the genre was.
“So, you were there for a conference, were you?” Ellen fussed with some pickles and cheese on a tray as she talked. “What were you presenting on?”
“I was talking about, um, how to write romance successfully.”
“You know, I was looking for one of your books in Walmart the other day, and I couldn’t find one. But did you know there is an author with the same name as your father?”
Sarah’s heart caught in her throat and she met Jill’s gaze. Her sister-in-law looked almost as alarmed as she felt. “Really? What are the chances?”
“He writes the nastiest books, though. I’m not surprised if you haven’t noticed them there. Anyway, I thought you said you were a pretty good writer. Why weren’t any of your books there in Walmart?”
Sarah cleared her throat and tried to find her voice. When she finally got it working, it sounded squeaky.
“I—I guess my publisher hasn’t made a deal with Walmart. How do I know, Mom?”
“Well, why haven’t you ever brought me one of your books to read? How many books have you published now, anyway?”
“I, um, I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t know you wanted to read one. I’ll try to remember for the next time I see you, okay?”
Ellen frowned and nodded, then jabbed a piece of boiled potato from a large pot to test for doneness. “It’s almost like you don’t want me to read them. I’m your mother, for goodness’ sake.”
Sarah cringed at her mother’s hurt tone. She had always managed to distract her from this conversation before, but while Ellen Sinclair’s mind may not be a steel trap, she had a habit of remembering things Sarah had said at the most inconvenient times. Sarah replied carefully. “That’s not it at all, Mom. You never read romance novels. I didn’t think you’d like it.”
“I’d read yours.”
Oh, the horror of the idea.
“Okay, Mom. Sorry.”
Jill came to Sarah’s rescue.
“How did your garden do this summer, Ellen?”
Ellen’s face lit up. This was among her favourite subjects. “Well, that early frost got a bunch of my tomatoes and all my summer squash, but the potatoes and peas did quite well.”
Sarah tuned out as her mother went on about vegetables and the Farmer’s Market where she sold them, focusing her energy on chopping tomatoes and carrots and mixing dressing. Despite her best efforts, she couldn’t block the sound of Craig’s and Everett’s raucous laughter from the next room. It sounded like they had moved off hockey and were now discussing movies—actresses, to be precise. Craig’s voice dropped, and she could hear only the low rumble of men’s voices between snickers. She frowned slightly, not sure she wanted to know what was being said, anyway.
When she had first found out that Craig had arranged for them to come here for Thanksgiving instead of bowing out as he’d promised, she had been upset. In response, he had gently explained that in light of her news, he thought she should spend some time with her family.
She was perfectly well aware that he had arranged it before he knew about the cancer—probably as part of her punishment for defying him. However, he was being so nice to her now that she let it drop. Their only disagreement in the last several days had been whether or not she should tell her mother about the diagnosis—Craig insisting that she should, and her own heels dug in hard against the idea, ostensibly because she didn’t want her mother to fuss.
If she was honest, she didn’t want to appear vulnerable to her family—not to any of them. However, as usual, it didn’t take long for Craig’s reasons to start making sense and she had acquiesced to going to the dinner, at least. Now that she was here, she wondered if it was fair to her mother and sister-in-law not to tell them what the doctor had said. If the situation was reversed, wouldn’t she want to know?
She chopped green onions fiercely, barely even seeing what she was doing. Pain shot through her finger.
Sarah stared at her bleeding index finger in dismay, then went to the sink to wash it off so she could inspect it. It could have been worse, but it would still be a major inconvenience and make typing painful for days.
“Jill, would you run to the bathroom and grab me a bandage?”
Jill glanced at her, continuing to nod in commiseration with Ellen about the neighbour’s invading hops plants even as she took in the blood on the cutting board and Sarah running water over her hand. She jumped off her stool without a word.
Ellen didn’t even look up. In fact, it seemed likely she hadn’t even noticed what had happened. She kept right on talking as she scooped a large blob of butter into the drained potatoes and opened the fridge. She scanned the contents and went silent, looking puzzled. After poking around for another few seconds, she stepped back with her hand on her hip, staring into its depths in dismay.
“Oh, good grief. I forgot to buy whipping cream.” Ellen turned to her daughter. “Sarah, you’re going to need to run to Duncan’s Market.”
Sarah had dried her hand and was holding her finger out for Jill to wrap in an adhesive fabric bandage.
Ellen finally noticed the injury. “What happened to you?”
“The knife slipped a little. I’m fine.”
Jill finished patting the ends of the bandage down and smiled. “Good as new.”
“Thanks, Jill.” She flashed her an appreciative grin and started removing her apron. “Do you want anything else while I’m there, Mom?”
Ellen frowned uncertainly. “You’re sure you’re fine?”
“Yes, perfectly.” Another chorus of laughter burst from the living room. Sarah frowned. “Would you like to come, Jill?”
Ellen waved her hand. “No, no. She doesn’t need to do that for me. Jill, honey, you go on and relax in the living room with the men.”
“How about I finish Sarah’s salad instead?” Jill moved to clean up the bloody cutting board.
Ellen pressed her lips together, then gave a short nod. “I guess it’s got to be done. As long as you truly don’t mind?”
“Of course not. It’s my pleasure.” Jill set the clean board back on the counter and began peeling carrots. She flashed a small, secretive smile of victory at Sarah, who covered her own with her hand.
Ellen turned back to her daughter, who was waiting by the kitchen entrance for a response. “Only the whipping cream. Everett will be so upset if I don’t make these mashed potatoes the way he likes. And what about the pumpkin pie?” Ellen’s face was covered in horror as she contemplated the consequences of serving pumpkin pie without whipped cream. She couldn’t bear to disappoint Everett in anything. “Hurry, okay?” She paused. “And drive safe.”
Sarah rolled her eyes after she turned away so her mother couldn’t see. “I think I can make it to the store and back, Mom.”
“You know it’s my job to worry about you, right?”
Sarah blinked and glanced back at her mother, who was standing with her hands on her stout hips. The frown on Ellen’s face seemed meant to show concern for her daughter.
Sarah knew her mother worried—constantly—but she had never for a second thought that it was ever about her. Everett, bingo, her garden, her house, her neighbours, even her dead husband, but never her daughter.
“When did that start?” Sarah regretted the words as soon as she said them.
Ellen blinked, then turned away, but not quickly enough for Sarah to miss the hurt look on her face.
“Mom, I didn’t mean—”
“Buy some gouda, if they have any.” Her mother’s voice was tight.
Sarah sighed and retrieved her coat from the front closet.
“Where are you going?” Craig demanded, reclining in an easy chair.
“To the store. Mom forgot whipping cream.”
Everett folded his meaty arms and leaned back into the couch, watching the exchange with interest.
Craig frowned slightly. “I told you to call her this morning to see if she needed anything. Didn’t you do it?”
Sarah frowned as she shrugged into her coat and arranged her scarf. Everett and Craig both stared at her like she was a small child whose forgetfulness had caused the greatest inconvenience possible.
“I did call, remember? She didn’t realize it until just now.”
Craig jumped up. “I’ll come with you, then.”
Sarah’s throat squeezed. She had been looking forward to a few minutes to herself. Even though Craig had been more civil recently, she still felt like she was walking on the edge of a knife when they were together, and it was exhausting. But she didn’t want to discourage the changes she was seeing, either. She kept her tone even. “If you want. But I’ll be right back. I’m only going to Duncan’s.”
Craig’s phone beeped, and he peeked at the display. His lips flattened in an annoyed line and he glanced up at her.
“Whatever. Forget it, I’ll stay here. The keys are in my coat pocket.” Craig turned back to Everett and rose. “I gotta make a call.” He headed for the back patio.
Everett nodded, then turned back to his sister. Alone at last, he let pretence dissolve into a look no brother should ever have. It was hungry.
Sarah gulped and tried to quickly fish the car keys out of her husband’s coat pocket. Not fast enough. When she turned around again she bumped into Everett’s chest. She yelped involuntarily and he smiled unpleasantly.
“Jill’s expecting.” Instead of being proud, his smile looked predatory. His breath smelled like something dead.
Dread sunk talons into Sarah’s gut and began shredding her insides. Her brother was the very last person in the whole world who should have a kid. And yet, he was. But right now, she feared more for her own safety than his unborn child’s.
“Congratulations.” Sarah forced a steadiness into her voice that she didn’t feel. She glanced sideways around her brother’s bulk to see if anyone had noticed the two of them in such close proximity, but the stairs blocked the view of the kitchen from here. She could see Craig through the dining room’s glass patio doors, standing on the deck in his socks and shirtsleeves with his back to them. “She hadn’t mentioned it.”
“She wanted to wait and tell everyone at dinner. But after Craig told me you two have been having a bit of a hard time of it, I thought you should know.”
Sarah eased backward, flattening herself against the coat closet doors, surreptitiously trying to put some space between them.
“Hard time of what?” She glanced at the front door and eased in that direction.
Everett shifted his weight to match her movements and barred her path with a hand on the wall by her head. His smile was that of a cat playing with a mouse. “Getting pregnant.”
Sarah frowned. They hadn’t actually tried to conceive yet. Why had Craig brought it up? Maybe he’d been trying to get Everett off of a touchy subject. But had Craig mentioned the cancer, too?
She pressed farther into the wall and tried to twist away as Everett leaned in close to her ear, but his other hand held her arm fast now and there was nowhere to go. He was close enough that she could smell sweat and cologne, the same musky scent her father had used. Her throat burned with bile.
“Maybe he’s not doing it right.” Everett let go of her arm to rub the back of his fingers down its length.
Sarah’s heart was flinging itself at her ribs like a caged bird. With her arm free at last, she smacked away his hand, ducked under Everett’s other arm and fled out the door, not even closing it behind her. Scrambling into the car, she closed the door and locked it, breathing hard. She couldn’t see the front door of the house from here, but she held her breath, wondering if Everett would be rounding the corner of the garage at any moment. The car engine revved to life and she slammed it into reverse.
She promptly had to put it back into park. Opening the door, she leaned out and deposited her breakfast onto the gravel driveway.
Sarah closed the door and sat there for a moment, engine idling. When she was sure she was under control, she began easing backward onto the street.
Glancing back at the front of the house before she pulled away, she could see her brother standing in the picture window, watching her leave.
It looked like he was laughing.
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