The Perks of Research: Mad River Valley, Vermont

Ah, I love research and travel. Among my suggested list of ways to research (books, library/online research, in-person resources/interviews, museums, etc.), my favorite is to actually go to the source...to touch, smell, and breathe it. Living only 3 hours away from my next book's locale (central Vermont, in the quiet, rustic, gorgeous Mad River Valley), means one thing...road trip! The hubs and I planned a getaway with the kids north for Memorial Day weekend so I could do some hands-on research. And take time off from our busy schedules.

Getting ready to hike a 3.5-mile part of the 273-mile Long Trail (that runs North to South in Vermont) up to a warming hut in the Mad River Glen ski area with views of the valley and nearby mountains.

Getting ready to hike a 3.5-mile part of the 273-mile Long Trail (that runs North to South in Vermont) up to a warming hut in the Mad River Glen ski area with views of the valley and nearby mountains.

More familiar with the White Mountains in New Hampshire and the coastal towns and mountains of Maine, I now know why the Green Mountains are called such. Not only is Vermont a very "green" and environmentally-conscious state, it is in fact, quite green in late spring through summer. Granted, I'd visited Vermont once before to tackle a climb up Mt. Mansfield, but this time my goal was different: research. We planned a relaxing, low-expectations itinerary with plenty of down time. 

Our explorations included visits to the historical, small towns of Waitsfield, Warren, and Iraville, and a few others along the way. No visit to Vermont would have been complete without a tour of Ben and Jerry's and cheese tasting at Cabot Creamery (yum!). Rounding out our trip: a 20-ft cliff jump into a water hole (brrr...I took the pictures and kept my shoes dry!), long country drives, waterfalls, and a climb up Mt. Stark. Note the mud in the fourth picture below...Vermont is known for it's 5th season in early spring, "Mud Season," and we got to experience the tail end of it.

Our days were filled with overcast skies, some sun, and rain, but that's to be expected over Memorial Day weekend in New England. The Warren Lodge was a splendid find! The courteous staff provided us with s'mores fixings and we enjoyed nightly fires by the Mad River while our kids went for a dunk (with clothes fully on -- why not? -- and also with bathing suits later once they realized they had them). It was a lovely respite from the daily grind of school projects, chores, and work assignments (okay, okay, I did do some writing over the weekend!).

Vermont Signatures:

  1. Cows

  2. Covered bridges

  3. Green Mountains

  4. Farms, meadows, long drives

  5. Cheese, ice cream, chocolate

  6. Rivers and waterfalls

  7. Hikes or skiing

  8. Rustic small towns

How do you actually do the research?

Well...

1. No matter what you do, make sure you have fun. Take in the moments and cherish them.

2. Take lots of photos!

3. Chat it up with locals - ask questions about anything! There are always stories to be heard, or some interesting facts only locals know.

4. Get trail maps, brochures, road/park maps, etc.

5. Visit places off the beaten path.

6. Observe people in their everyday routines (parks, restaurants, etc).

7. Eat the local cuisine.

Well, that's all from here! Hope you enjoy the photos, and always remember to follow your heart and have fun while on this ride called life. And when researching, take it all in...and write detailed notes.

Finding Magic and Myths in Scotland

Thistles and heather. Kilts. Castles. Ruins. Craggy mountains. Rain. Lots of rain. Sheep.

Magic. Mystery.

My trip to Scotland fulfilled a bucket list goal and it also fed my imagination for writing about this windswept, mystical place. It was a memorable trip indeed!

When I finally made a trip to Scotland in 2008 after reading books set there (Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, or Judy Garwood’s books, anyone?), I was not disappointed. Those books were just teasers. I was going to see the real thing. They don’t call me a Daydream Believer for nothing (although I was not a homecoming queen, but the Monkees got it pretty close). Kilted Highland lairds (and Jamie Frasier), castles, mountains, and enchanting romances…ah, yeah, I was hooked. And as luck would have it, I even married a man with Scottish ancestry, who – drum roll, please – wore a kilt for our wedding (round out with a bagpiper for entertainment). So, for our anniversary a few years later, it only seemed logical to set off on a fairy tale trip. My husband had studied in Scotland for a semester in college, so he brought a wealth of insider knowledge.

Oh, but did I mention that it rains in Scotland? A lot. Even though September is supposed to be a drier month, many of our supposedly breathtaking sights were shrouded in a gray cloud of heavy precipitation. Aside from our mishaps (which I'll elaborate upon in a moment), Scotland fulfilled my preconceived notions, with my own Scottish knight by my side to escort me through the perils of winding highland roads, haunting castle ruins, and dark alleyways to questionable hostels.

Lone sheep wandered down the middle of a meandering country road. Windswept moors, heather fields, and green rolling hills flanked our drives. Wild rocky trails and impressive mountains greeted us on our hikes. Blue lochs were aplenty (yes, Loch Ness is a deep beautiful loch and no, we didn’t see Nessie – but we did see the ghostly remains of Urquhart castle) on our two-week trip in this geological gem of a country. I think I gasped on the tarmac when I emerged from the plane in Glasgow.

My husband and I packed our itinerary because when we go tramping, we set the bar high and want to soak it all in! What can a couple do in less than two weeks? Well…

  • Visit a dozen castles and palaces (Threave castle required a rowboat ride across an overflowed River Dee)

  • Kayak on the astutely named Loch Awe to the ruins of Kilchurn Castle

  • Hike through Highlands and mountains

  • Watch a Highland game

  • Partake in culinary delights such as haggis and fish and chips

  • Carry on conversations with locals (about the upcoming American presidential election)

  • Drive over sketchy bridges to reach Rua Reidh, a lighthouse hostel on the North Minch of Wester Ross (no, not the Westeros of Game of Thrones fame, but I can see the striking similarities)

  • Expand our navigation skills on double-roundabouts (like a figure 8), one lane roads, and left-side driving

  • Meander through abbey and church ruins

  • Take a moment of reflection at the remains of Culloden battlefield

  • Stay at the haunted (yes, there's a ghost) 14th century Borthwick Castle

Certainly there were lows (err, mishaps?)…blowing out a car tire on a rock, getting a manual car instead of an automatic, while driving on the opposite side of the road (it is the UK, after all) – oops!, castles closing before we got there, getting lost on city roads, plodding trough the deluging rain to find a hostel down a dark alley, and hiking a washed out trail through Glencoe, while hundreds of midges made a home in my hair…okay, those are a lot of mishaps for one vacation. Nonetheless, I left Scotland feeling rejuvenated and inspired and ready to take on the next big novel!

The setting in A Hundred Kisses (release date is this spring, stay tuned!) takes my hero and heroine on a journey across Skye (another soaker of a day on our trip – those majestic Cuillin, yeah, they were hidden by rain – thank goodness for internet research). But their journey begins at a signature castle, Eilean Donan, and remarkably, sunshine visited us that day. This castle is as resplendent and utterly romantic as all the pictures portray. We even managed a solo visit right before a tour bus arrived. We didn’t get out to the big islands to see standing stones, so as luck would have it, there’s a bit of that in my novel, too. I did say I have a good imagination (and love research), right? Our visit to Dryburgh Abbey inspired one of my “practice novels” (the manuscript currently sits on my desk for revision, awaiting resurrection as I contemplate throwing a ghost into that story). And magic? What thirteenth-century Scottish romance would be complete without that magical element entrenched in those standing stones and a culture rooted in superstitions (remember Nessie)?

So, how did we do on our Scotland adventure? Thistles and heather – check! Kilts, castles, ruins, craggy mountains, lots of rain, sheep – check!

Magic and mystery?

Checkmate.

Slioch (a view from a hike up Ben Eighe), a thistle, Eilean Donan Castle, and Glencoe.

Slioch (a view from a hike up Ben Eighe), a thistle, Eilean Donan Castle, and Glencoe.