Writing About Places in Fiction — Maryland’s Eastern Shore
As a writer, it’s important to research the places you may feature in your writing. I spent a ton of time walking around Annapolis, Maryland, for my first novel, Beneath the Mimosa Tree, and I did the same with the novel I launched yesterday, Inn Significant. It’s part of the fun, really. As my students in travel writing class can attest from last semester, it’s envigorating to write about a place, but there’s a trick. You have to allow yourself to be completely immersed in the place. Your writing won’t be as vibrant if you’re just a spectator. You have to become one with the place…become a local while you are there and learn what you can from observation, conversation, and getting involved.
The main character in my novel, Milly Foster, has been summoned by her parents to run their Inn on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in Oxford out of desperation—a desperate attempt to help their daughter move past the tragic death of her beloved husband. It’s a last-ditch effort to bring her back to life.
I wanted to set the story in a small and picturesque town, so my mother and I spent time there, and I went back a couple of other times to just walk the streets and talk to people.
Come on–how great is that type of research? It’s simply the best.
I gave it my all to make this work of fiction feel realistic, and I wanted to stay as true to the setting and feel of Oxford as possible. There are also jaunts to neighboring towns St. Michaels and Easton.
To help you visualize the place if you have not been, I thought I’d share some of the photographs I took this summer as I did that dastardly and taxing (ha ha) research.
I hope you enjoy Inn Significant, and as well, this little photo-essay of the places the characters visit in the novel. I’m looking forward to going back for a visit very soon.
Stephanie Verni is Professor of Business Communication at Stevenson University and is the author of Inn Significant, Baseball Girl, and Beneath the Mimosa Tree. Along with her colleagues Leeanne Bell McManus and Chip Rouse, she is a co-author of Event Planning: Communicating Theory and Practice, published by Kendall-Hunt.
About the Inn Significant: A Novel
Two years after receiving the horrifying news of her husband Gil’s death, Milly Foster continues to struggle to find her way out of a state of depression. As a last-ditch effort and means of intervention, Milly’s parents convince her to run their successful Inn during their absence as they help a friend establish a new bed and breakfast in Ireland. Milly reluctantly agrees; when she arrives at the picturesque, waterfront Inn Significant, her colleague, John, discovers a journal written by her late grandmother that contains a secret her grandmother kept from the family. Reading her grandmother’s words, and being able to identify with her Nana’s own feelings of loss, sparks the beginning of Milly’s climb out of the darkness and back to the land of the living.
ST. MICHAELS, MARYLAND
Take a Trip to Ladew Topiary Gardens
Last fall, my husband and I had time all to ourselves during the week while the kids were in school; I was on fall break and my husband took a day off. We spent the day at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Maryland, just 29 miles north of Baltimore in Monkton. It’s a great way to enjoy “together” time, as you stroll the gardens and see the blossoms and collection of plants. Additionally, the topiary gardens are sculpted beautifully. We did go in early autumn, but springtime and summer must be glorious as well. And the weather was so spectacular, that we ate lunch on the patio outside the small cafe.
Harvey Ladew, who died in 1976, was an interesting gentleman who was known as a traveler, artist, foxhunter, and gardener. He had many famous acquaintances, including Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, and Somerset Maugham, and he relished the company of all types of people. He wanted to leave his 200+ acre property for others to enjoy, and in 1971, his home became a non-profit organization for the public to enjoy. To learn more about the history of Ladew, visit the website and click here.
There’s nothing like a day trip to clear one’s head. Strolling gardens looking at nature and blooms of later summer/early autumn reminds me of days gone by when people had no connection to electronics and were able to completely de-stress and just stroll and connect the old-fashioned way—by talking and being together.
I enjoy exploring hidden treasures that are just a short distance from home, and am always looking for a nearby place to spend some time.
Magic Comes Alive at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando
After years of considering this trip, our flight descended into Orlando’s airport. We are not like many families I know who seem to go to Disney World like I go to Safeway. We have not been to Orlando for six years, and the Mouse is not our destination this time. Instead, we are bound for Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Days ago our kids opened gifts for Christmas that asked them this question: Are You Ready to Fly on a Broom?
Welcome to Harry Potter World at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.
I’d been to Universal Studios over twenty years ago with my parents when I was single and didn’t have children; my father had invited me on a trip with his company to Orlando, and I decided to go. Wow, has it been improved and expanded and updated since then.
One of the things my husband I want to do for the next couple of years until my son is in college is to do more travel together. My son, daughter, and I are big Harry Potter fans, so we’ve wanted to go to Universal for years. I worried slightly that they may have been too old for it, but I was wrong. Dead wrong.
I thought I’d give an overview and some tips for anyone who has not been and who is planning a trip in the near future. Part One today is all about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I will follow up with a second blog post about other attractions and experiences in both parks next time.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure
If you’re like our family, the first things we wanted to see were the Harry Potter attractions, which are split between the two parks. Universal Studios hosts Diagon Alley and two attractions: Escape from Gringotts and The Hogwarts Express (which can take you to Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure). Islands of Adventure features three rides: the ride in Hogwarts Castle called The Forbidden Journey, a flight simulated ride; Dragon Challenge, a high-speed rollercoaster; and Flight of the Hippogriff, a smaller rollercoaster for kids. You will want to spend time in both places, so make sure to block out time for each. Each place offers dining, shopping, and rides.
To Buy the Wands or Not Buy the Wands, That is the question…
One of the questions I had before I left was whether or not to buy the wands at the Ollivanders shop in Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade. My kids both have two wands each, however, they are not interactive. The verdict is to buy the wands (at least one for your family; we got two). The wands have interactive tips that allow you to do magic around the Potter areas. Some of the spells are really cute and worthwhile. If you go to Ollivanders in Diagon Alley, you can get a tour with a wizard, and true to the books and films, the wand will choose the witch or wizard. It’s a great thing to do; my daughter was selected, and the wand chose her. (You do not have to purchase that wand, even though it’s kind of special. Instead, she opted for Hermione’s so that her set is now complete with Luna’s, Ginny’s, and Hermione’s wands.) Spells such as turning on lights in windows, making umbrellas rain, getting information from Marauder’s map, and making a quill pen float and write something are just some examples of the many spells around both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley.
A Special Spot
Diagon Alley at night, located in Universal Studios, is truly magical. I sat directly underneath the Dragon on top of Gringotts Bank for a while one night and just took it all in. NOTE: The dragon breathes fire about every fifteen minutes, so be sure to capture the moment on camera or video. He gives two grunts before the third fireball comes out. If you are standing underneath him or nearby, you will be able to feel the heat of the dragon. With muggles crowding the streets in the daytime during the busiest hours, you will do well to visit Diagon Alley as close to closing time as possible (luckily for us, when we were there, the park stayed open on New Year’s Eve until after midnight; on New Year’s Day and the two days following, it was open until 10 p.m. until it switched to its winter hours of a 9 p.m. closing). You can see Hagrid’s motorbike, cast some spells, shop in uncrowded shops, and just sit and be amazed that you are in Diagon Alley, the night sky lighting it up. For me, it was the most magical spot in the park.
My Favorite Harry Potter Rides
Hands down, my favorite experience is Escape from Gringotts Bank in Univeral Studios. The whole setup in Diagon Alley, the tour through the bank with the goblins, the story of the escape, and the ride itself are so much fun. Also, I must confess, I’m not a roller coaster lover; in fact, I avoid them at all costs. While Gringotts does have a big dip in the beginning of the ride, even us chickens can get over that and enjoy having Bellatrix and Voldemort talking to us and zapping us with their wands. My son and I repeated what Voldemort says on the ride a hundred times, because he says it right to you – “I know you’ve seen Harry Potter; he was in your vault, Bellatrix!” I convinced a couple of people to go on it who were talking nearby and were wondering if the ride was too scary because I, too, was chicken. I assured them that there’s one drop, and that they would be fine because the interactive nature of the ride is so amazing. The woman I convinced to ride it, who was my mother’s age, turned to me afterwards and thanked me for telling her about it—that she wouldn’t have gone on it if it weren’t for my endoresement and that she was amazed by it. We all were.
The Forbidden Journey, located in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry at Islands of Adventure, is a fantastic ride, as well. Fair warning, though: it is a flight simulator, and your vehicle swings and turns, simulating flight (and flying on a broom behind Harry). It is absolutely mesmerizing—however, I could only go on it once as it made me a little queasy. (This could also have been because I didn’t eat anything that morning, so the jury’s out on that). Nevertheless, my husband and kids went on it three more times and loved every minute of it. During those times they were on the rides, I took in Hogsmeade…the stores, the picturesque setting, and the mind-blowing castle that the ride is housed inside. You have to go on it for the experience; it really is a state-of-the-art ride.
1-If you are planning on visiting Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, I would strongly suggest staying in a hotel on the grounds. With that comes a pretty substantial perk: guests who stay in hotels on the grounds get an early admittance pass and can enter the park an hour before everyone else. This affords you the advantage of getting to Harry Potter rides early and eliminates long wait times (some rides could take 45 minutes to 80 minutes of waiting during peak hours). We entered the park early two days, and it made the biggest difference.
2-Be sure to interact with some of the wizards and people from J.K. Rowling’s novels and films. For example, the driver of the Night Bus and his Rastafarian bodiless friend are a hoot to chat with. Additionally, “Sir,” one of the goblins who runs the bank exchange in Diagon Alley, is hilarious. He interacts with you and talks with you. My kids were amazed by this.
3-The Harry Potter merchandise is fun; however, some of the merchandise is not found in both parks. For example, I bought a Harry Potter Daily Prophet scarf with newsprint on it, but it could only be found in Diagon Alley and not in Hogsmeade. So if you see something you like, buy it, especially if you have no plans to come back to that particular park.
4-If you like the taste of Cream Soda and Butterscotch, be sure to try the Butterbeer. You can get this in both parks, but be sure to get it frozen. It’s much better that way.
5-If you take the Hogwarts Express between the parks, you will get to cross through Platform 9 ¾. You will want to do this. The train station will blow you away; additionally, be sure to ride the train both ways, as there is a different story both ways. Be prepared to wait in lines at times, and know that the ride between parks isn’t very long, but it’s still worth it. It is an exact replica of what you see in the movies.
Summary of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
I’m not gonna lie; I’m a middle-aged woman, and I think it’s one of the most fun places I’ve been. You get to forget about life for a while. You get to have fun, and you certainly feel like you’ve been dropped into a magical village. I think the two early mornings I spent there, along with the late evenings, made a difference. Without crowds knocking me over, I was able to immerse myself into this magical place.
I’ll follow up this blog post with another about the attractions in both parks soon. Hope your found this helpful, and I wish you a fabulous journey when you go.
Happy New Year!
Stephanie Verni is the author of Baseball Girl, Beneath the Mimosa Tree, and the upcoming novel Inn Significant. She is also a co-author of Event Planning: Communicating Theory and Practice, published by Kendall-Hunt.
An Eastern Shore Treasure: Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay
As a Marylander who sometimes enjoys a quick getaway to the Eastern Shore, I recently had the privilege of once again staying at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Golf Resort, Spa and Marina. Situated on the banks of the Choptank River, the resort boasts 342 acres in Cambridge, Maryland. As this was my third visit as a guest—having gone once before with my husband and then again for a girls’ getaway weekend—I always forget just how large, well-maintained, and picturesque it is. Unlike some resorts, it does not have an air of superiority to it; instead, it welcomes guests with open arms and invites them to walk the trails, spend time along the waterfront at the beach area or two pools, get pampered at the spa, or play a round of golf or two at the well-designed course on site. The restaurants are lovely, and we enjoyed a delectable breakfast as we sat in a terrace room that overlooks the water. Quite simply, the resort offers guests the perfect opportunity to unwind and enjoy the splendor that surrounds them.
One special touch the resort offers guests: their own bag of neatly packed s’mores to roast by the outdoor fire.
Stephanie Verni is the author of Baseball Girl, Beneath the Mimosa Tree, and the co-author of Event Planning: Communicating Theory and Practice.
BREATHING IN THE AIR AND TASTING THE WINES IN NAPA VALLEY
First, there was the air, consistently devoid of humidity according the locals, and as fresh and crisp as you would imagine the hills and unspoiled land of Northern California to be. Puffs of soft clouds decorated the blue sky as temperatures hovered in the high sixties. Then, there was the scenery. The rolling greens of the mountains lulled you in sweetly, beckoning you to stop what you’re doing, forget your watch, and stay a while. Rows and rows of meticulously placed and aligned grape vines grow upwards on the mountains as striking winery after winery welcome and encourage you to come and taste what has been made on the premises from their own incredible natural resources. The varieties and abundance of roses in almost every shade from passion pink to love-struck red to bright snow white add the cherry-on-top charm to this stunning part of the United States. The breeze wraps its arms around you, and without being totally conscious of just how hypnotized you are, within minutes you are enraptured by wine country.
There is no shortage of winemakers in Napa and Sonoma Valleys. With over 2,400 wineries sprawled across the two counties, there is an abundance of alcohol being created to be shipped to a town near you stamped and branded with labels from California. If you are a movie buff or wine aficionado and have seen the film “Bottle Shock,” starring Alan Rickman and Chris Pine, you may well remember how California wine beat the wine of France in a blind taste test competition that took place in 1976. That singular event, as depicted in the film, catapulted Napa Valley wines to success and proved that French wines were not unbeatable. Additionally, rumor has it that many celebrities own vineyards, and whether they operate a working winery or simply enjoy the peaceful retreat from hectic Hollywood, the area offers much in the way of relaxation, food, wine, and recreation, not to mention the fact that some pretty spectacular homes and resorts are nestled in and among the hills.
One such resort—the resort where my husband and I stayed for three extraordinary nights—is called The Carneros Inn, located on Sonoma Highway in Napa, California. To say it was beyond either of our expectations is an understatement. While the word “inn” may conjure up images of one building with several rooms, The Carneros Inn strays quite far from that traditional and somewhat limited definition. Replete with a gorgeous, state-of-the-art reception building, Farm Restaurant, Hilltop Restaurant, Boon Fly Café, spa, two pools with hot tubs, workout facility, country store, and views and gardens that encourage you to take leisurely strolls while simultaneously asking you to stop and smell the roses, we had never experienced a place quite like it. Our “room,” if you dare to call it that, was a small cottage with contemporary designs and hardwood floors, a dreamy bed, large bathroom, and a private patio with loungers and a table with an umbrella. The front porch, of course, boasted two white rocking chairs and a perfect vantage point for admiring the sweeping gardens that were full of vibrant colors and exotic plants, not to mention unique fountains, bountiful trellises, and bamboo canopies.
As someone who has grown up almost her entire life living near the water—and someone who has regularly stated that living near the water is a must—I have to admit that visiting Napa Valley may have changed my perspective on this notion of mine. The landscape took my breath away—the lush canopy of olive trees, grape vines, green trees on the mountains (including a few Redwoods), and the carpet of lawns in the valley offered a sense of serenity that I did not expect to find. At times, the landscape reminded me of the topography of the Cotswolds in England or the exquisiteness of Tuscany. If you had been blindfolded and dropped there and were asked to “guess” where you were, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have said it was one of the two aforementioned landscapes (although, yes, the architecture in both may have given it away quickly; but if you guessed solely based on the landscape, who knows?).
One of my favorite parts of the trip was taking the bikes the Inn provided and touring through the back roads. While our five mile ride was a bit hilly (only in one part in particular), touring on a bike offers a much different perspective than driving in a car and seeing the sights. My husband and I stopped to take photographs along the way as we attempted to capture the beauty of that morning’s sun, the way it graced the mountains and the vineyards, and the way the greenery glistened as the dew evaporated. I adore riding a bike—this one had a basket for our things—and I often wonder what it would be like to live in a place where you could ride your bike or walk more than you need to drive your car. We passed so many charming things—a house covered in vines with lush gardens, a picturesque barn, and a pond in the valley with views of the mountain—and our bicycle jaunt was by far my favorite part of our stay at the Inn.
Our wine tours were fun and another highlight of the trip, but you must hear me clearly—I am not a wine expert. I like wine, am typically more partial to white wines over reds as the reds can sometimes give me a headache, but I am by no means any sort of a wine intellectual. That said, taking the tours of the wineries interested me because I wanted to learn more about how they make, bottle, store, and market wines. It’s an incredible undertaking and business—and most of the people or companies that own the wineries are not short on cash (if you know what I mean). Our first tour of the day was to Domaine Carneros (pictured below), which specializes in sparkling wines. We were able to see the machines they use to turn the wines in order to remove excess sweetness and sugar from the bottles before they are sent off to stores for purchase. In the early days of sparkling wine manufacturing, these bottles were hand turned; now, with incredible contemporary machinery, the wines are turned and processed all with the switch of a button. This winery was impressive; it sits on the top of the hill with the vineyards all around it, truly a majestic presence. Despite the rain that morning, Domaine Carneros was lovely.
In the afternoon after the sun chased the clouds away, we toured Hall Winery (pictured below), which was a fantastic 90-minute tour of the grounds and facility. Our guide provided the history of the winery, the process of making wine, and at the end of the journey, we enjoyed sampling both red and white wines produced by Hall Wines. Owned by husband and wife Kathryn and Craig Hall, the duo has invested much into the property. In this modern facility, we learned about the incredible journey the grape takes from vine to bottle, as well as the sad turn a bad grape may take into the compost pile. The equipment and engineering of the grapes, from the way they are harvested to the way they are processed, is fascinating, and no detail goes unnoticed. And I’m not kidding about the rejected grape—grape profiling ensues to ensure that only the best grapes possible make it into the bottle.
Besides the abundance of wineries, there are some picturesque towns that are definitely worthy of a visit. Napa was our first stop. Perched on the Napa River, the town offers adorable shopping, great restaurants, wine bars, and views worthy of your best camera. We ate at Bounty Hunter Wine Bar and Smokin’ BBQ, a restaurant/bar that was highly recommended to us, and my husband touted that meal he downed in mere seconds was one of the best barbecue sandwiches he had ever eaten. Additionally, we sat at group tables, and we made friends with the couple next to us who were celebrating the husband’s birthday. We ended up sharing appetizers, glasses of wine, and good conversation the whole time.
As we strolled, we took a walk across the Napa River and saw the Napa Valley Wine Train coming back from its day out. Noted as a restaurant on rails, this train takes passengers through the valley to enjoy a scenic tour while eating and drinking aboard. While we didn’t get to enjoy this experience, it would be on my list of things to do at some point when we return to Napa Valley. The conductor stopped the train for its passengers to disembark (or maybe they had so much fun they stumbled off?), and chatted with us, proudly explaining the train’s route and how reservations book up quickly.
Across the river is the Oxbow Market area. It’s worth the short walk into this small section of Napa. The Oxbow Public Market itself is clean and full of food and merchandise vendors. We bought a fresh loaf of bread that tasted exactly as it should—hard on the outside, soft on the inside. On the bridge, we took photos because we couldn’t help but to just stop and look wherever we went. All around us, the views were stunning.
Yountville, a town north of Napa off 29, was our favorite. Nestled among the hills, Yountville is known as the “Culinary Capital of Napa Valley.” I can certainly vouch for this slogan with regard to the restaurant Bottega, celebrity chef Michael Chiarello’s goldmine in Yountville. As someone who is an America with Italian heritage (both of my parents are of Italian decent), and someone who has eaten her fair share of pasta here and in Italy, I am not stretching the truth when I tell you that the plate of pasta I savored at Bottega was probably the best pasta dish I have ever eaten. The homemade pasta combined with the delicate red sauce was outstanding. Also, the bread with olive oil was unlike any my husband and I have ever eaten—the olive oil dipping sauce was filled Parmesan cheese, along with fresh herbs, thrown in to make it even tastier. We asked for a second serving.
The streets of Yountville look as if they are staged from a film set. Window boxes full of vibrant flowers dress up the shops; vines grow against brick restaurant buildings to add character and charm; and little gardens—some decorated with art—grace this town and make it something to treasure.
One afternoon, after exploring quite a bit of Napa Valley, we headed to Sonoma Valley, just over the ridge. It was my idea to venture over there and get a taste of it, only because—well, quite frankly—I wanted to be able to say I’d visited both places. We stopped in Sonoma at the square and walked around. Sonoma definitely has a different vibe than Napa Valley; it’s a little more relaxed, and its look is completely different. Infused with almost a Mexican-meets-Western flair, this postcard town is adorable, but in a completely different way. When we asked a local if it’s true whether there is a rivalry between Napa and Sonoma Valleys, he said there was, but that it is a very friendly rivalry, and they enjoy the laid-back competition between the two wine producing strongholds.
On Saturday night, we ate at Farm Restaurant, The Carneros Inn’s own first-class restaurant. Both the Hilltop Restaurant (on the hill at the Carneros Inn overlooking the vineyards) where my husband and I ate outside for breakfast two mornings in a row, and Farm showcased great menus, including a pretty remarkable French toast for the morning taste buds and delicious scallops and friend green tomatoes to satisfy the palate in the evening. And, of course, there was a tremendous selection of the Valley’s great wines from which to choose to go along with anything on the table.
Truth be told, both my husband and I love to travel and experience new places, sights, and people, however, with teenage children, it’s tough to get away by ourselves and go on a trip like this. In fact, it’s a rarity. Luckily, we have loving grandparents who come in and save the day which allowed us the opportunity to get away. Our travel bucket list is filled with places we want to go and explore, and now, we can cross Napa Valley off of our list. However, this does not mean we do not want to return. In fact, it’s a place I could see myself coming back to again and again, if only to just cleanse my lungs with that amazing sense of fresh air and power down enough to allow me to be in the moment. In every essence, we truly did stop and smell the roses.
Stephanie Verni is the author of Baseball Girl, Beneath the Mimosa Tree, and the upcoming novel Inn Significant. She is also a co-author of Event Planning: Communicating Theory and Practice, published by Kendall-Hunt.