Excerpt: Little Birds

It takes me a long time to write a novel. My readers wait  at least a couple years between books.  I’m hoping this short excerpt from the beginning of Little Birds will make the wait a little easier.

This novel serves as a bridge between the Wilderness series, which ended in 1824, and the Waverly Place series, which begins in 1883.  Little Birds is set in 1856-57, primarily in the western territories.  The central character is  Callie Ballentyne, one of the daughters of Lily Bonner and Simon Ballentyne. Callie is a nurse and midwife.

I rarely post to this weblog unless I have something longer to share, and for that reason I  have turned off commenting. There is a Facebook page dedicated to my fiction where questions or comments are welcome.  Please stop by if you are so inclined.


New Mexico Territory ca 1870

Little Birds
Sara Donati



Dr. Samuel Markham, originally of this city but resident in Santa Fé, New Mexico Territory for the last­­ ten years, is seeking a formally trained, experienced nurse and midwife to join his medical practice. This position requires someone who will see patients and assist in his Santa Fé dispensary, but who will also make house-calls in the town and environs. Thus the successful applicant must be an experienced rider who can spend many hours in the saddle, often traveling through rough landscapes.

There is a great deal of unrest in the territory. Indian raids and attacks are not uncommon outside Santa Fé and less common within the boundaries of the town, due in part to the presence of the U.S. Army at Fort Marcy. Thus the nurse who joins the practice must be courageous, quick-witted and able to handle weapons. A truly excellent applicant who has no experience with firearms, but is willing to learn, will be considered.

To a well-trained, conscientious, compassionate, vigorous and hard-working individual who is not afraid of the unfamiliar, Dr. Markham offers the following: all costs associated with relocation to Santa Fé; a weekly salary of $15; the use of a good horse and saddle, a private room and board, and services of the household staff. You will take meals with the family (which includes the doctor, his wife and a young daughter) and be counted as one of their number.

Santa Fé’s population is about one-quarter white, not counting the soldiers at Fort Marcy; the rest are Mexican, Indian, African, or mixed blood. There are many different tribes in and near Santa Fé, including the Puebloan clans, the Apache, Navajo, and Ute. Other tribes pass through on a regular basis. As Spanish is the lingua franca, the person hired will be required to learn that language within a reasonable amount of time. Further, she must agree to set out for Santa Fé no later than the beginning of May, and to commit to a three-year period of service. In addition to a very liberal salary, Dr. Markham will consider an annual bonus for a person who becomes an asset to the practice and agrees to a longer contract.

Interested parties should first present themselves to Dr. Michael Colby at the New Amsterdam Hospital. If that interview is successful, he will ask you to send a letter of application to Dr. Markham in which you  may provide information about your background,  training and experience, and what interests you about this position.

Dr. Michael V. Colby, Director
New Amsterdam Charity Hospital

New York City
Posted November 30, 1856


all the novels. so far.


Publication Order of Wilderness Books

Into the Wilderness(1998)Hardcover  Paperback  Kindle
Dawn on a Distant Shore(2000)Hardcover  Paperback  Kindle
Lake in the Clouds(2002)Hardcover  Paperback  Kindle
Fire Along the Sky(2004)Hardcover  Paperback  Kindle
Queen of Swords(2006)Hardcover  Paperback  Kindle
The Endless Forest(2009)Hardcover  Paperback  Kindle

Publication Order of Gilded Hour Books

The Gilded Hour(2015)Hardcover  Paperback  Kindle
Where the Light Enters(2019)Hardcover  Paperback  Kindle

Publication Order of Standalone Novels

Homestead(1997)Hardcover  Paperback  Kindle
Tied to the Tracks(2006)Hardcover  Paperback  Kindle
The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square(2008)Hardcover  Paperback  Kindle

You Can Dance

Right now I’m trying to get Little Birds off the ground, and it has been a struggle. It’s always a struggle, but these characters are not at all clear yet, and until I get a better sense of them everything is stalled.

Today I had a kind of breakthrough, which doesn’t happen often. I’m writing about it here so I will remember exactly what happened, and also to entertain readers who happen to wander by.

Two of the primary characters in Little Birds are pretty well established in my head (they are  Lily’s children, but you don’t know them), but a crucial third character — somebody entirely new — is missing.  This has been causing me some distress. Of course I did what all writers of fiction do in this all-too-common fix: I found a way to procrastinate and went out to run errands.

Driving home from errands, I decided to turn off the audiobook that was playing (dry, but interesting) and turn on my current music playlist, which is set to shuffle. The song that started took me by surprise because I forgot it was on the list:  Save the Last Dance for Me — the Drifters original recording.  

And suddenly I had that third missing character.   I don’t even know his name yet, but I can see him leaning against a wall, arms crossed, watching people dance.  Or maybe, just maybe, somebody has offered him a fiddle and he’s playing and watching the dance floor.

Where did this come from, you might be wondering.  I had to think about it to sort out the associations, but it ties into my own experiences while I was living in Vorarlberg in my early twenties.  I did a lot of dancing. There were dances, all the time. Simple weekend dances.  Big fancy dances for Mardi Gras or annual celebrations of one guild or another. Big or small they all featured local musicians and dancing. And lots of beer. And schnapps. You’re thinking ump-pa-pa, but no. That’s not what it’s like at all and I’m not sure I can make it clear how un-umpa this experience is, but I’m going to try.

Imagine  a lot of people crowded onto the dance floor, some proportion of them much the worse for beer, still cheerful as they bumbled along.  Some small portion — maybe fifteen percent — were there because they really liked dancing and were good at it. I was in that fifteen percent. 

This is a video from Helsinki, a polka dancing competition.  The music is scaled way way down, but I’m posting this here so you can see the dancing. You can hear the excitement in the audience, and hear them yodeling in appreciation. This captures part of what it’s like. 

In your imagination you have to speed this up some, and also imagine it is happening in a hazy smoky dance hall (ca 1980), and now imagine the dancers are just regular (and somewhat younger) in their nice-casual clothes. But they can dance. Speed it up again. If you’re good at this there’s a lot of improvising, double and triple steps, stamping, things I can’t really describe but I could do, and do well. If I had stayed there I’d probably weigh 120 and be able to carry a calf around, no problem. It’s exercise and cardio exercise all rolled into a single package that you WANT. And that’s the trick, of course. 

One of the chapters in Homestead was meant to capture what this kind of dance was like.  Now, today, while I was listening to Save the Last Dance I had a flashback to the dance I described in that chapter.  This is what happened in real life: Someone I didn’t know asked me to dance toward the end of the evening, when the musicians had had a couple shots of schnapps and they were just on a tear.  I had noticed this guy dancing and hoped he might come ask me, because watching him I knew that I would dance well with him. 

Here’s the thing, in this kind of dancing. If a guy who is strong and lithe and confident puts a hand on your waist and takes your other hand in his, and then he just takes off — and you can follow him — it’s the most exhilarating thing in the world. If you can follow him, and then assert yourself a little, and he responds to this … I’m going to say this but you won’t believe me. Better than the best sex.   To this day I remember the feel of the stranger’s arm muscles through his shirt.  I remember the way he smiled down at me, and winked. I remember he didn’t ask and I didn’t hesitate when the set ended, we just kept dancing.

I never saw him again, never learned anything about him, but we were absolutely in sync with each other in a way that is distinctly more than dancing.  There were a lot of unplanned pregnancies in Vorarlberg at this time (and maybe still are, but apparently this kind of dancing is out of favor, to which I say NO NO NO), and I am convinced that some large percentage of them happened after two people click like this on the dance floor.

Now I have to go figure out who this character is. While I interrogate him you can watch this Bruce Springsteen cover of Save the Last Dance. It gives me chills, because: well, nobody can do a song like this better.  After you watch this go look for his Tougher than the Rest.