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Serendipity and the Sky Island

An Interview with Author Karen Hulene Bartell


This week I'm welcoming Karen Hulene Bartell to the blog. Her book, Kissing Kin, was released on March 13 by The Wild Rose Press.


 

Photo of Author Karen Hulene Bartell

Author of the Trans-Pecos, Sacred Emblem, Sacred Journey, and Sacred Messenger series, as well as Kissing Kin, Fox Tale, Wild Rose Pass, The Keys: Voice of the Turtle and more, Karen is a best-selling author, motivational keynote speaker, IT technical editor, wife, and all-around pilgrim of life. She writes multicultural, offbeat love stories steeped in the supernatural. Born to rolling-stone parents who moved annually, Bartell found her earliest playmates as fictional friends in books. Paperbacks became her portable pals. Ghost stories kept her up at night—reading feverishly. The paranormal was her passion. Novels offered an imaginative escape. An only child, she began writing her first novel at the age of nine, learning the joy of creating her own happy endings. Professor emeritus of the University of Texas at Austin, Karen resides in the Texas Piney Woods with her husband Peter and her mews—three rescued cats and a rescued Catahoula Leopard dog.


 

Welcome, Karen, and cheers to the new release! Let's dive right in.


For fun: what is your favorite non-writing past-time and why?


Travel! Traveling has always been my inspiration for writing. In fact, I wrote both my first textbook and first published novel while teaching at Soochow University in Taiwan.

 

Traveling gives me the best ideas. Airports, cruises, road trips—you name the mode of travel—trekking inspires ideas like nothing else. Sights, sounds, scents, regional cuisine, local lore, and history all conspire to inspire.

 

Travel is the number one item on my bucket list, and I could easily name five places/trips as my top five things. Alaska is my uppermost destination, and my husband and I have tickets to cruise the Inner Passage this spring. But thinking hypothetically, I would next go to the Emerald Isle, then Greece, Spain, and Portugal.


Please tell us a little about your novel, Kissing Kin.


Book Cover for KISSING KIN by Karen Hulene Bartell

To some extent, everything I write is based on my experiences and my reactions to events. In the case of Kissing Kin, I am enamored of the mountains and deserts of west Texas. Its isolated areas, abandoned ranches, and long-forgotten family cemeteries give rise to my imagination. So much joy, heartache, and history have taken place in these arid miles that the past cries out to me, and I weave my actual experiences with historical events and imagined outcomes.

 

Kissing Kin is set in west Texas. It’s about a woman starting over after a broken engagement—and mustering out of the Army. No job and no prospects, she spins out on black ice and totals her car.


When struggling vintner Luke Kaylor stops to help, they discover they’re distantly related. On a shoestring budget to convert his vineyard into a winery, he makes her a deal: prune grapevines in exchange for room and board.


But forgotten diaries and a haunted cabin kickstart a five-generation mystery with ancestors that have bones to pick. As carnal urges propel them into each other’s arms, they wonder: Is their attraction physical…or metaphysical?

 

The following scene is one of my favorites in Kissing Kin because it embodies the paranormal romance’s central dramatic question. It’s the moment when Maeve and Luke begin questioning whether their budding feelings for each other are their own—or are prompted by some supernatural force.


****


The vineyard reflected the rusty-red tones of the late winter sunset.


Dusk. I held back a sigh as I glimpsed the winery and cozy cabin. Heartrending in its homey beauty, the scene tugged at my earliest recollections.


The child of vagabond parents, I was often on the road at dusk, just as the lights began coming on in the houses we passed. Growing up without a permanent address, I fantasized about living in one of those comfortable homes instead of viewing them through the car window.


“Gets dark early in the mountains.” Luke caught my gaze, did a double take, then stared.

“Is something wrong?”


“Your hair…”


“Is something on it?” I swiped at my head.


“No.” He chuckled. “The sunset captures your hair’s highlights—gives it a reddish glow.”


“Oh.” Pleasantly surprised, I gave a nervous laugh as the heat crept to my cheeks. “Thanks.”


He reached out his hand and hesitated. “May I?”


“Sure.” Wondering what he was doing, I quivered as his hand swept my hair behind my ear. As arousing as a caress, the gesture sent a shockwave through my body.


Then his hand molded itself just above my neck, gently supporting my head as he leaned toward me.


Without warning, I ached to feel his mouth on mine.


He leaned closer.


His warm breath tickling, I met him in a rush of hormones and adrenalin. Then lifting my lips, I closed my eyes, reveling in the give and take of his kiss.


Only Teddy’s insistent bark woke me from the daze.


Then, like a fly buzzing at the window, a high-pitched sound droned—squeak…squeak…squeak—as the chair rocked back and forth on the patio.


In the fading twilight, a nearly transparent silhouette emerged.


I pulled away with a scream, and the image vanished.


“What?” He followed my stare.


“I saw a woman…cradling a baby…” I spoke without turning toward him, watching as the chair gradually slowed its rocking, then came to a standstill. “What’s going on?”


****


An orphan, Maeve Jackson has always yearned for a home and family, but now that she's starting over after a broken engagement, as well as mustering out of the Army, she's drawn more than ever before. Add to this a strong physical attraction to Luke that’s apparently reciprocated, and her heart’s racing.


Can you tell us more about how you came up with this idea and what readers can expect?


The earliest idea for the paranormal romance first came to me during 2020 because of the striking similarities between Covid and the Spanish Flu of 1918, but publishers convinced me that no one wanted to read about pandemics. Time passed. My manuscript languished.

Then I noticed a handmade cookbook my grandmother had constructed during the 1930s depression. It’s made of two cardboard flaps reinforced at the edges with duct tape and held together by two metal ring binders. Originally given as a Christmas present to her oldest daughter, I inherited it decades later. That modest book inspired me. (In fact, I used some of its recipes in Kissing Kin: Simple Sponge Cake, Mother’s Soft Gingerbread, and…a formula for the treatment of chicken lice with nicotine-sulfate.)


The general tone of the cookbook was chatty, reading more like a journal than a collection of family recipes, but it motivated me to begin drafting a five-generation story of forgotten diaries and a haunted cabin with ancestors that have bones to pick.


What inspired you to write Kissing Kin?


What inspired the setting? Travel—and a missed turn!


Whenever I visit provocative places, encounter new experiences, sample different ethnic foods, or chance upon stimulating people, I’m inspired. Ideas flow. (I should’ve been a travel correspondent.) There’s something about traveling that takes me out of my rut and propels me into new realms of possibility.


I’ve written some of my best concepts sitting in noisy airports or hotel bathrooms at midnight (so I don’t wake my husband with the light). Being out of my element and in new environments stimulates my imagination.


As I visit new destinations, I’m infused with innovative ideas, envisioning scene after scene, like vignettes flowing from one to the next and the next.


In Kissing Kin’s case, my husband and I spent Christmas week hiking and horseback riding in Big Bend National Park twenty years ago. You’ve seen the area on maps—the southernmost tip of Texas that borders the Rio Grande and dips into Mexico. Spanning more than 800,000 acres of Chihuahuan desert, mountains, and rivers, Big Bend is larger than the state of Rhode Island—and filled with lions and bobcats and bears. Oh, my!


Driving home early that New Year’s morning, we missed the turnoff in Alpine and followed TX-118 north. Snow-covered and glinting against the frosty blue January sky, a remote jumble of mountain peaks and ranges beckoned as they rose above the desert floor. I was enchanted. Gazing at the sky island for the first time, wide-eyed, I wondered whether those rocky pinnacles were mirages or optical delusions.


But as the craggy peaks loomed larger (a mile high, I later learned), I realized they were no hallucination or Fata Morgana. A hasty glance at the map told us these were the Davis Mountains. As we approached, vertical basalt columns rose like thousands of giant fingers reaching for the sky. The palisades, buttes, and bluffs towered above both sides of the road with a raw, majestic beauty, and I breathed a contented sigh, almost as if coming home.

That missed turn took us only a half hour out of our way, but as we drove through those mountains, my life changed. From that day to this, the area’s held my heart and imagination. Wild Rose Pass became Book I of the Trans-Pecos Series, and Kissing Kin has become Book II. Both novels are standalones with dissimilar genres—Wild Rose Pass is a historical novel, while Kissing Kin is a paranormal romance.


So what was the inspiration for Kissing Kin?


It was a combination of discovering the magical beauty of the sky island, as well as recognizing the sentimental value of a humble booklet.


How much research did you conduct for this story and what was the most interesting thing you did while conducting your research?


I enjoy researching novels. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the parts I like best about writing, but Kissing Kin’s research was especially complex—as well as physically demanding and a whole lot of fun!


Why do you describe Kissing Kin’s research as complex?


A big reason is that the manuscript underwent several iterations before being published. The first version was a story about two generations linked by Covid and (via journals) the Spanish Flu of 1918. However, publishers passed on it, saying readers were sick of pandemics.


Because the second version would have been part of series set in Colorado, I changed the location, names, and family relationships. I also adapted the story to fit the series’ outline and removed the flu, but that version didn’t fly, either. My third attempt is the version being released March 13th, which required further revisions and, occasionally, restorations. Try, try, and try again…


Greed and a checkered family history shaped the property lines for Kissing Kin, where some of the characters swindled the land from its rightful owners. This aspect led me into a hornet’s nest of legal research: warranty deeds, quitclaim deeds, squatter's rights, and a process called adverse possession. Both Texas and Colorado are ‘notice’ states, which means that recording documents legally notify the public of property transfers. But the state laws differ, and I had to research both sets of laws, rewriting the second version with Coloradan laws, and then redrafting the third version, while reverting to the Texan laws.

Karen’s “legal” advice 101: Warranty deeds are better than quitclaim deeds, but recorded warranty deeds are rock solid—unless squatter's rights and a process called adverse possession come into play. Then you have a legal fight on your hands—as well as a thickening plot…


Kissing Kin is mainly set in a vineyard. As vintners, farmers, and ranchers know, nature can be cruel. Pierce’s Disease attacks grapevines from Florida to California, where insects called sharpshooter leafhoppers spread the bacteria. I’d never heard of Pierce’s Disease. I have no background in vineyards, and I have a brown thumb. Plants would rather die than live with me. Because of my total lack of knowledge, I had to research the disease, its carriers, and the way to control it.


However, the most entertaining research included picking and stomping grapes in two central-Texas vineyards. (I love hands-on (and feet-on) study 😉.)


Why do you describe Kissing Kin’s research as physically demanding and a whole lot of fun?


After learning how to prune the vines and harvest the grapes, I did a Lucy-and-Ethyl grape stomp—which was sloshing good fun! Of course, the best research was the wine tasting that followed the stomping!


What did you learn while writing Kissing Kin?


I learned about warranty deeds, quitclaim deeds, squatter's rights, and a process called adverse possession. I learned about a new, nicotine-based pesticide that eradicates leafhoppers. I also learned from my grandmother’s hand-printed recipe book, that she treated chicken lice in the 1930s by painting their roost perches with nicotine-sulfate.

Apparently, nothing’s new under the sun.


PTSD was another new area of exploration. Because two of Kissing Kin’s characters suffered from its symptoms, which wreaked havoc on them—as well as their relationships, I learned what a sad legacy our soldiers too often have to combat after they return from combat.


What surprised you the most while you were writing it?


The fact that publishers initially passed on Kissing Kin, saying that readers were sick of pandemics, was the most surprising phenomenon to me. When a disease puts a country—the WORLD—on hold, I’d think people would want to relate to something in literature that had such a significant influence on their lives.


What type of supernatural elements are your favorite to include in your stories?


Ghosts are my favorite supernatural elements, but I also like cryptids, such as Japanese kitsunes, Alaskan wendigos, and Cajun rougarous.


Inspire us: If you sit to write and you’re feeling uninspired, what do you do to get your creativity flowing?


I don’t sit down to feel inspired. I walk the dog or do mindless house cleaning. It seems that while my body is doing something physical, my imagination takes off on its own.


What theme or message do you hope readers will take away from your work?


My stories are always upbeat despite the characters’ trials and tribulations. They always end on a high note. I believe in HEAs, where love wins and right wins, despite many twists, turns, and temptations. In a series, sometimes the stories end in HFNs (to be continued in the next book). Hopefully, the takeaway from reading my books is belief in oneself. If the character can triumph, so can the reader.


What are some of your biggest writing influences and what have you learned from them?


Rather than one author inspiring my writing, it’s more accurate to say each and every author since I learned to read has influenced me in style, expression, or pacing. However, when I was a child, I read every Nancy Drew book our library loaned, so if I had to choose one author, who had the biggest influence on my writing, I would have to name Carolyn Keene.


Can you give us a sneak peek into what you’re working on next, and what readers can expect from your future books?


Fox Tale (release date April 8) is set in Kyoto and Tokyo, Japan. It’s about a woman who’s terrified of heights. When a stranger saves her from plunging down a mountain, he diverts her fears with tales of Japanese kitsune—shapeshifting foxes—and she begins a journey into the supernatural.


She’s attracted to Chase, yet primal instincts urge caution when shadows suggest more than meets the eye.


She’s torn between Chase and Rafe, her ex, when a chance reunion reignites their passion, but she struggles to overcome two years of bitter resentment. Did Rafe jilt her, or were they pawns of a larger conspiracy? Are the ancient legends true of kitsunes twisting time and events?

 

My current WIP is a suspense intrigue thriller—a departure from my more usual genre—paranormal romance. I believe Sino-American diplomatic relations will decline as tensions between Taiwan and China intensify. In my next novel—working title, Silkworm—I’ll put those predictions into print.


This political-suspense thriller, set in Taipei, Taiwan, portrays a U.S. Senator’s daughter caught between two men, two cultures, two political ideologies, and the two Chinas.


A love triangle is the metaphor for Taiwan and China (the two dragons) competing for geopolitical and technological accords with the US. As mainland China seeks to recover the third of its lost provinces—Taiwan—Rachel Moore struggles to escape the triple nightmare of impending war, a marriage of convenience, and an assassination plot against the man she loves. Silkworm weaves their stories with the trilateral events currently erupting in Southeast Asia.


To find out more about Karen and here books, please visit her website at karenhulenebartell.com.


 

Thanks for joining us, Karen!


Until next time,

Author Joie Lesin


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About the Author

Joie Lesin, Author of Speculative Fiction

Minnesota-based author, Joie Lesin is a life-long fiction writer and the author of The Passenger. She has long been fascinated by anything otherworldly including ghosts. She loves to write a good ghost story—especially when it includes a touch of romance.

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