All posts by Sonja Hakala

I have been a professional writer since 1987. I've written for newspapers, magazines, worked in the book publishing industry, and published novels and non-fiction books. In addition, I've guided numerous authors through the process of independent publishing, and offer workshops in that same vein. I'm the founder of the Parkinson's Comfort Project and over the course of six years, we gathered and gave away over 500 handmade quilts to people with Parkinson's disease.

Thieves of Fire

TOF 6x9 2018 coverThis week’s publications schedule here in Carding, Vermont is dedicated to telling the back stories behind each of the four novels about the small town that no one can find on a map of the Green Mountain State.

I’m a professional writer, after all, and writers earn their bread and ale by selling books. And with the holidays coming up…well…you get the picture.

Among writers, there’s a general opinion that writing a second book is far more difficult than writing the first. I can testify that that is true.

After I published The Road Unsalted, I felt like my wheels were spinning. I recognized the sensation as a plea from that part of my brain that needs to cogitate before it can act so I let myself wander in the wilderness for a while.

I knew it wouldn’t last long.

And it didn’t. Before long, Thieves of Fire was pounding on my door demanding to be written.

In a very general way, writers fall into two camps when it comes to their approach to books. There’s a big group dedicated to making detailed road maps of what lies ahead, figuring out the details of their tome chapter by chapter before they begin.

Then there’s another group who look at the journey ahead the same way that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins looks at his journey when he sets off from his home in the Shire with Gandalf and the dwarves. Bilbo knew they were on some sort of adventure with some sort of a destination (if you can call tussling with a dragon a destination) but the details were just so much fog lying low on the Brandywine River.

I am definitely in the second category.

It’s not that I haven’t tried to plan out my novels before setting out. I have. But I find that the more I plan a book, the more bored I become. To me, all that planning takes the air and creativity out of the process. All of my dead novels—the fragments lying about in notebooks or on my hard drive—shriveled up when I tried to plan them.

Count me as someone who relishes figuring it out as you go along.

Sometimes, as with The Road Unsalted, I start with an incident that kidnaps my attention. I start playing with it—how did these people get themselves into this situation? Did they think about the ramifications of their actions or was it all a surprise?

Other times, I have a character or characters floating around in my head and I like them well enough to hang out with them for a while. So I start poking around to figure out how they live and how they feel and what they see and how their childhoods were spent and did they like their parents.

But sometimes, books and stories start with a question. That was the case with Thieves of Fire.

There’s a small detail in The Road Unsalted that set Thieves in motion. It’s the description of a painting, a big canvas, a rather gloomy scene of a crow sitting in a tree looking down on a young woman. The artwork, which is entitled “Thieves of Fire,” dominates the foyer of the Carding Academy of Traditional Arts.

Nobody in Carding likes it, and if Edie Wolfe (she’s the executive director of the school) had her way, the painting would be off the wall and out the door in a heartbeat.

But if she does that, the Academy would lose its campus. That’s because the main building and grounds are held in the thrall of a strange clause in the will of artist Joseph Stillman Croft. You see, the Academy is located in the home he built in the center of Carding at the end of the 19th century. And Croft’s will stipulates that Thieves of Fire must remain where he left it until his rightful heir is found.

So the wretched thing stays on the wall.

The idea for that painting and the will that keeps it in the Academy’s foyer was inspired by Isabelle Stewart Gardner and the museum in Boston that bears her name. Gardner and her husband were avid art collectors and their acquisitions are considered some of the finest pieces of their kind in the world.

After her husband’s death, Isabel built a museum for the Gardner collection in the Fenway area of Boston, opening it to much fanfare in 1903. When she died in 1924, Gardner’s will left a bequest for the maintenance of the museum and a stipulation that the collection remain permanently on display as she had left it.

But why would Joseph Stillman Croft, who was regarded as one of the leading illustrators in the late 19th century, make a similar stipulation in his will? (By the way, the character of Croft was inspired by illustrator Maxfield Parrish who lived and worked in the Upper Valley in the late 19th and early 20th century.)

I had to find out. So I started Thieves off by writing about Croft. Why would a man renowned in the cultural circles of New York City live in a small town in Vermont? Was he shy? Did he want to be a big fish in a small pond?

Or was there another, more sinister reason?

Now writing books without a net (or a plan) means you have to accept that digressions happen. And sometimes, these various and sundry digressions look and feel a lot like a ball of yarn that just lost a battle with a litter of kittens.

That happened to me with Thieves when I reached what turned out to be the halfway point in the novel. I had Joseph Stillman Croft over here and another character named Lydia Talbot and her daughters over there and a would-be heir dragging Edie Wolfe into court and my first draft was just one big mess.

In fact, I almost abandoned the book because I couldn’t find the key that would draw all the parts together.

Then one evening at a holiday party, I got into a conversation with my friend Peg who told me a story about a young woman we had both known as a teenager. This young woman married a man who had been her teacher and lover while she was still in high school. (Believe me, it was as messy as you imagine it was.)

The week before our conversation, Peg had coffee with the young woman. They had visited for just a while when the young woman abruptly excused herself, explaining that her husband and their children were waiting for her in the car.

Peg said her surprise was visible. As the young woman turned to go she explained her predicament: “He stole my life,” she said, “and I had nothing to say about it.”

When I woke up the next morning, I suddenly realized that Peg had given me the missing puzzle piece to Thieves of Fire.

When you steal someone’s life, you steal their fire.

As readers of the Carding Chronicles know, my stories and novels are records of the very human endeavors in the extraordinary lives of the people we pass by every day. They’re meant to entertain, to make folks chuckle with appreciation or reach for a tissue to soak up a stray bit of water gathering in the corner of an eye.

On top of that, you get to enjoy some of the beauty of the special place I call home.

The four novels of Carding, Vermont are available for order from your local book store or online at They are great gifts for everyone who loves to read.

They are, in order of appearance:

The Road Unsalted

Thieves of Fire

The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life

Lights in Water, Dancing

I hope you’ll read my books and subscribe to this website so that you can enjoy stories about Carding, Vermont every Thursday.

And if I can ask one more favor, please review all the books you read online. Online recommendations help us all to figure out what to read next.

Thank you.

HalfMoon Lake at sunrise 2
This photograph is the one I used for the cover of Thieves of Fire. It was taken at sunrise on Holland Pond in Holland, Vermont, almost in Canada.

The Road Unsalted

TRU-2018 coverThis year, I published my fourth novel about Carding, Vermont (Lights in Water, Dancing). Carding is a small, rather quirky town that is a distillation of life in the bi-state region of Vermont and New Hampshire that locals (like me) call “the Upper Valley.”

I grew up in Massachusetts in a place like Carding, a town with churches in several different flavors, an elementary school in every quadrant, dirt roads, lots of hills, a mountain for skiing, and great places to swim in the summer.

So yeah, I love town life in New England.

This point of view was reinforced by the five years I spent writing for the Upper Valley’s local newspaper, the Valley News. Much to my delight, reporting gave me the opportunity to watch the ebb and flow of local politics and the lives of fascinating people up close and personal.

It was the best education a newbie writer could ask for. I discovered that there’s a lot of wisdom in our hills and rivers. All of these experiences and locations make up the river that flows through Carding.

In all the years I’ve been entertaining readers on this website, I don’t think I’ve ever taken the time to write about the background of the little town that no one can seem to find on a map and how it coagulated into a physical form that I see in that mysterious place we call “the mind’s eye.”

Isn’t that a great descriptive phrase, “the mind’s eye?”

Here’s one of the starting points. When my family first moved to this area, we rented a house on 75 acres of land in one of its very smallest towns. I’ve always maintained that Carding has a population of 3,700 people which is small by many standards. But Carding’s size dwarfs the real town of Dorchester, New Hampshire (population 300 at the time).

In Dorchester, we were, literally, a 45-minute ride from everywhere, living on the top of a small hill surrounded by bigger hills. There wasn’t a street light to be see for miles around.

And it was very, very quiet.

That first winter was INTENSE with more snow than we’ve seen in any winter since. Our mailbox and newspaper box became holes in the snowbank on the side of the road. When the snow from the roof of our living room slid off to the ground, it piled up so high, the bottom half of our windows were covered.

One of our closest neighbors was a woman who had lived in the same house all her life. She cooked on a wood-burning stove and was fond of saying: “Anyone who talks about the ‘good old days’ didn’t live through them.”

Her name was Francis and she once told me that “it snows in Dorchester when it doesn’t snow any place else.”

At first I dismissed her remark as just so much “Yankee hubris.” But Francis was absolutely right.

Geographically, Dorchester was settled on a curved ridge that functions much like your hands do when you scoop up water. Just north and east of the hills of Dorchester, the formidable White Mountains rise up to scrape the sky.

Every time a storm ventured in our direction, the clouds struggled to rise above Dorchester’s long incline. Like hot air balloons trying to cross mountains, the clouds had to lighten their load in order to keep going so they released copious amounts of snow on our very small town.

And that meant we’d be shoveling again.

And again and again.

Snow softens sound just as surely as it softens the contours of a landscape. It’s a hush like no other. I loved the intense silence and undisturbed darkness so on clear nights, I got into the habit of taking a turn down our driveway—it wasn’t very long—to enjoy the starlight and moonlight undisturbed by anything manmade.

We don’t get the chance to do that very often in our estranged-from-nature world, do we?

I remember one windless night in particular as I watched the Milky Way wheel overhead. For just a few moments, I sensed the Earth’s orbit and heard her turn.

It was an exquisite sensation.

Or course, the Upper Valley isn’t all wonder and beauty. It’s got people in it, after all. There’s plenty of personal sturm und drang to go around. And then there’s politics, local politics. It was in local politics (which I covered as a reporter) where The Road Unsalted began.

In general, folks in the small towns of northern New England argue about pretty much the same things—schools and how to pay for them, property taxes (which is how schools are financially supported), town buildings and town equipment (as in how they are bought, managed, renovated and built), and roads.

In my experience, no subject is as touchy as roads.

Living in northern New England means dealing with weather, lots of weather, and it is a struggle that not made for sissies. Our roads bear the brunt of all this weather with temperatures that range from 90 degrees above zero and humidity so high you can barely breathe to 20 degrees below zero and coatings of ice.

For those of you who are into numbers, that’s a 110 degree difference in temperature over the course of a year and all of the physical adjustments that go along with it.

Roads up here are expensive to maintain. Asphalt, salt, sand, plowing, cutting back weeds, filling in potholes, digging drainage ditches and clearing drainage ditches, and grading dirt are all a part of this year-round struggle. And this work represents a significant part of every town’s budget.

Of course, everyone wants their road to be perfect every time they drive somewhere, and it doesn’t matter if that road is an interstate highway or a one-laner of the dirt variety.

So you can understand why towns elect not to plow or sand or salt some of the less-traveled dirt roads in winter. When they do, these byways become “the roads unsalted.”

Now a town can’t decide to do this willy-nilly. There’s a process they have to follow when abandoning what many Vermonters call “ancient ways” and that process can be very, very contentious with all sorts of repercussions when it comes to ownership and use.

This bit of esoteric knowledge lies at the heart of my first novel of Carding, Vermont called, appropriately enough, The Road Unsalted.

The story begins when one of the main roads in town becomes part of a power struggle between a woman named Edie Wolfe and her still-bitter-after-thirty-years ex-husband, Harry Brown

Edie, whom many in Carding consider the town matriarch, is the executive director of Carding’s best-known asset, an internationally renowned school called the Carding Academy of Traditional Arts. Harry owns Brown & Sons, Inc., a trucking and construction firm that’s the town’s biggest employer.

For safety reasons, Edie wants to stop Harry’s trucks from using the portion of Meetinghouse Road that passes in front of the school. One of her students had been hit by Harry’s eldest son, Gideon, giving her a legitimate reason for concern.

Harry’s having none of it, and when he discovers that Meetinghouse Road lies in legal limbo, he forces the whole town to take part in his effort to avenge himself on the woman who dared to leave him so many years ago.

But just at the moment when it looks like Harry will succeed, he discovers that this idyllic small town is not immune from the follies of human conduct. And one of these follies (based on a story that I witnessed as a reporter) has the potential to sabotage the best-laid plans of Harry Brown.

A note about one of the main characters in The Road Unsalted. When I started drafting the book, I figured Harry’s son Gideon would just noodle about in the background as a minor figure. But as my words became sentences and paragraphs, I developed a real fondness for this emotionally damaged man as he struggled to emerge from his father’s dubious shadow.

What I came to appreciate about Gideon Brown is his self-awareness. His actions hurt people, including the love of his life, but instead of taking the easy way out by blaming others for his loss, he faces his faults squarely. But the question is, will Gideon be able to change the course life has laid out for him?

It took me three more novels to answer that question.

As readers of my books and the Carding Chronicles realize, my stories and novels recognize and celebrate the very human experiences in the extraordinary lives of the people we pass by every day. They’re meant to entertain, to make folks chuckle with appreciation or reach for a tissue to soak up a bit of water gathering in the corner of an eye.

And you get to enjoy some of the beauty of the special place I call home.

The four novels of Carding, Vermont are available for order from your local book store or online at They are great gifts for everyone who loves to read.

They are, in order of appearance:

The Road Unsalted

Thieves of Fire

The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life

Lights in Water, Dancing

I hope you’ll read my books and subscribe to this website so that you can enjoy stories about Carding, Vermont every Thursday.

And if I can ask one more favor, please review my books online. We probably all turn to online sources to figure out what to read next and this way, you can show others the way to Carding.

Thank you.

River with snow 2

Special Features: The Novels of Carding, Vermont

TRU-2018 coverAre you the type of person who watches the special features segments included on many DVDs? I do. I love to know how the magic is done.

In fact, that’s why I became a writer. I wanted to be the magician behind the page. I thought you might enjoy coming “backstage” with me so for this week, I’m sharing some of the back stories about my Carding novels.

Every time I do an author appearance, I’m asked questions about the small town that’s at the heart of my (now) four novels. Where is Carding, people ask. And what does it look like?
TOF 6x9 2018 cover
In fact, one of the greatest compliment I’ve ever received on my books was from a woman in a book discussion group who asked me why she couldn’t find Carding on MapQuest.

Yeah, I loved that one.

This past August, I published my fourth Carding novel, Lights in Water, Dancing. Even though I know I’ll come back to my favorite little town in Vermont, I’ve been keeping a second series on a back burner for some time now and I want time to swivel my attention to that. So the novels of Carding, Vermont will be on hiatus for a little while.

That hiatus decision doesn’t include Thursday’s Carding Chronicles however. So if you’re a subscriber, you’ll still be able to enjoy your weekly trips to my quirky little town.

Dazzling 2018 front cover

Of course, this novel celebration includes my hope that you’ll buy yourself or your loved ones one (or more) of the Carding sagas. I am a professional writer, after all, and one of the ways author pay their Comcast bills is by selling books.

If you like purchasing your books at your local book store, you can order all of the Carding novels at your favorite bricks-and-mortar location. They are also available through

LiWD cover March 2018

And if I can ask one more favor, please take the time to review books online. Not only will it make your favorite authors smile, your recommendation have a huge impact on sales.

At this point in our retail lives, most of us base some of our buying decisions on online reviews. This is true of books, movies, cleaning products, refrigerators, travel mugs and music. We’re all helping one another navigate the internet terrain. I hope you’ll include Carding in your efforts.

So thanks for being here. Thanks for subscribing to the Carding Chronicles and sharing them with friends and family. Thanks for reading. Book lovers are such great company.



Home Is the Place Where…A Carding Chronicle

SH-thanksgivingThe Tennyson twins, Flora Mae and Mary Beth, have always had a reputation for being eccentric.

They’re not in Carding very often so the greater Tennyson family was surprised when the sisters showed up for Thanksgiving with a peacock in the back seat of their van.

Welcome to Carding, Vermont where life always includes a dash of the unexpected. Carding is the small town (population 3,700 or so) that no one can seem to find on a map of the Green Mountain State. But you can find it any time, right here in the Carding Chronicles and in the four novels of Carding, Vermont.

Details about the novels are at the end of this story. And may I encourage you to subscribe to my website so you won’t miss out on anything Carding.

Today’s Chronicle is the third of three parts. Part one is here and you’ll find the second one here. I hope you enjoy today’s story and have a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Later on, when they had a chance to talk about their “Tennyson mission,” Ruth Goodwin and Edie Wolfe agreed that the word “stunned” was the best way to describe the sensation they shared when they walked through the front door of the old Victorian house that Flora Mae and Mary Beth had called home for so many years.

“I don’t think they unpacked from any of their trips,” Ruth said. “They just dumped their suitcases on the floor, bought new ones, and went off to visit some place else.”

Edie agreed. “I wonder if they even know what they’ve got.”

Edie and Ruth had been friends for long enough to understand that each of them approached the issue of organization from very different perspectives. For Edie, clutter was a form of static, a jumble of harsh noises that was both aggravating and tiresome. While not strict about it, she was someone who was more comfortable when everything was in its place.

Ruth, on the other hand, could never find anything if she put it away. Her whole house was a series of piles of stuff.

“We just need different atmospheres in order to create,” Ruth once told her exasperated friend.

“But you say yourself that you waste a lot of time looking for your tools or the right fabric or stamps for your envelopes,” Edie pointed out.

“Ah, yes, but I always find something interesting while I’m looking for something else,” Ruth said.

So you can understand how each woman reacted to the lawlessness apparent in room after room of the rambling old Tennyson house. Ruth’s eyes widened with the thrill of discoveries yet-to-come while Edie wondered how to find the refrigerator in order to determine whether Flora Mae had food in the house.

Speaking of Flora Mae, she was no help at all. After she opened the front door, she simply slumped into a large chair, lapsing into immobility.

“Mary Beth is going to be so angry with me,” she mumbled. “But what was I supposed to do?”

Edie discovered a stool under a mound of colorful shawls, liberated it, and pulled it close to Flora Mae so that they’d be at eye level. “What happened to Mary Beth?” Edie asked.

Flora Mae pointed to the floor near her feet. “She fell down, right there, and I thought she’d stopped breathing. I tried to revive her just like I’ve done in the past but it didn’t work. All I could think to do was call the fire department.” When she looked up at Edie, Flora Mae’s face was wet with tears. “That’s what we did when father fell for the last time. We called the fire department.”

The bereft twin sister looked around the room, her long thin fingers weaving in and around one another. “Mary Beth always said we should not have called the fire department because they took father away and we never saw him again. Is that what’s going to happen to her? I’ll never see her again?”

Out of the corner of her eye, Edie saw Ruth pull out her phone and walk into the next room, closing the door behind her. “We’re going to find out for you, Flora Mae,” she said as she wrapped her hands around the other woman’s fingers. They were very cold.

“In the meantime, we need to get you warmed up.” Edie reached for one of the shawls. It was beautifully made of soft wool and she guessed it was alpaca.

“Oh, isn’t this a pretty one,” Flora Mae said as Edie swaddled her in the colorful wrap. “We found this in a market in Peru.”

Edie picked up another shawl to spread over the other woman’s legs.

“And this one came from the Shetland Islands,” Flora Mae said as she stroked its subtle gray and silver pattern.

“I’ve never been to the Shetlands,” Edie said. “What did you think of them?” Just then, Ruth returned, and Edie looked up with a question in her eyes. Ruth’s small shake of the head was answer enough.

“Flora Mae, have you had anything to eat this morning?” she asked.

“Eat? No, no, Mary Beth told me there was no more money for food,” Flora Mae said. “I’ve been trying to take care of her, you see.” She gazed around the room. “I was lucky to get her home.”

Ruth came up to stand beside Flora Mae, resting her hand lightly on the woman’s shoulder. “I have my car outside and I know that Edie just baked cookies. Why don’t I go get them and we’ll make tea.”

Flora Mae raised her head and smiled. “Edie lives just down the street, doesn’t she?”

“Yes, she does.” Ruth picked up her keys. “I’ll call Lee,” she whispered to Edie as she headed toward the door.

As Ruth headed for her yellow Jeep, Flora Mae suddenly turned to look at Edie with a surprisingly focused gaze. “Who said, ‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in?’”

“Robert Frost,” Edie said softly.

“Yes, yes, it must be. I always liked him. That’s why I wanted to come back to Carding. It’s always been my home.”

It didn’t take long for Lee Tennyson and his wife Christine to show up. Flora Mae was delighted to see them. They had already called the hospital to learn that Mary Beth had died on her way there, and reluctantly told her twin sister.

But Flora Mae seemed resigned and accepting. “Mary Beth knew it was her time. She’d run as fast and as far as she could,” she told Lee.

“What do you mean by ‘run?’” Lee asked. “Had Mary Beth broken some sort of law? Were you in trouble?”

“Oh no, no, nothing like that,” Flora Mae said as she settled into a chair closer to the front window of the old Victorian so she could watch her relatives arrive. “We never got into any real trouble.”

Lee felt a hand on his shoulder just then and knew his younger sister Elaine had arrived. “What is it you’re trying to tell us about Mary Beth?” she asked as she crouched down by Flora Mae’s chair.

“Well, she was different, you know. When we were little, she couldn’t read like the other children in school and she didn’t see the world the way you and I do. I had to protect her, you see, so that no one would put her away, cage her up. Mary Beth was always scared of being shut up,” Flora Mae said. She smiled as Christine handed her a sandwich.

“Did Mary Beth see things that weren’t there at all?” Christine asked.

“Oh no, I don’t think my sister had the imagination to see things that weren’t there. She tried to explain it to me once. She said it was like seeing the world with all its colors turned up as high as they could go. That’s why she liked peacocks so much. The colors of their feathers are turned up as high as they can go,” Flora Mae said.

She looked down at her now-empty plate. More members of the Tennyson family swirled around her now, pacing slowly through the rooms of the old Victorian house, alternately awed and discouraged by its condition.

“Could I have another sandwich please?” Flora Mae asked. “This time with mustard. Mary Beth didn’t like mustard but I love it.”

“I’ll get it for you,” Elaine said as she picked up her aunt’s plate. “Do you think you could help me, Christine?”

In the kitchen, the Tennyson cousins and assorted spouses closed in around Christine.

“You’re a nurse, Chris, what do you think is going on?” Elaine asked.

“I don’t know for sure but I think it’s safe to say that Mary Beth had an undiagnosed form of dyslexia. That would explain her difficulty reading,” Christine said. “As for the visual distortions, she may have had a slow-growing tumor that pressed on a nerve or there may have been a form of macular degeneration. There’s simply no way of knowing for sure.”

The gathered Tennyson cousins shook their heads in unison. “I get the impression that Aunt Flo spent her whole life protecting her sister,” Elaine said as she slathered a slice of bread with mustard.

“And she almost died because of it,” Christine said. “I don’t think she’s stopped eating since Ruth and Edie got here this morning.”

“The question is, what do we do now?” one of the other cousins asked.

Elaine stopped moving, her butter knife poised over the table as she looked from one familiar face to another. “We’re Tennysons, a practical people as my father used to say. So why don’t we start with what we know we can do? I’ve been prowling around the house since I got here, and unless I’ve missed something major, it’s still very sound. It needs a good deep cleaning and a lot of paint but it’s not falling apart.”

“Well, it was built by a Tennyson,” Christine said. “You folks always build to last.”

Elaine clapped her hands. “Okay, who wants to go to Coopers store? We need paper towels and dust rags and buckets and probably some totes…” The cousin brigade began to troupe out the back door.

As they watched them go, Elaine turned to his favorite sister-in-law. “So Chris, what do you think about having Thanksgiving dinner here? Maybe by then, we’ll have figured out what needs to happen next for Aunt Flo. She shouldn’t have to sacrifice any more of her life.”

Christine picked up the sandwich, and added a pickle. “That sounds just about right to me.”

You can visit Carding any time in my novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, and The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life. The fourth in the series, Lights in Water, Dancing, has just been published! You can find them all on Amazon or you can order them through your local independent book store.

You can subscribe to the Carding Chronicles by clicking the button on my home page. When you do, my stories speed from my keyboard to your inbox every Thursday without any further effort on your part.

If you’d like to get in touch, my email address is:

Home for the Holidays

The Tennyson twins, Flora Mae and Mary Beth, have always had a reputation for being eccentric.

They’re not in Carding very often so the greater Tennyson family was surprised when the sisters showed up for Thanksgiving with a peacock in the back seat of their van.

Welcome to Carding, Vermont where life always includes a dash of the unexpected. Carding is the small town (population 3,700 or so) that no one can seem to find on a map of the Green Mountain State. But you can find it any time, right here in the Carding Chronicles and in the four novels of Carding, Vermont.

The Chronicles are published every Thursday, right here. This is a sample of what’s in store for tomorrow.