Danica Winters is a bestselling romance and mystery author for Harlequin who came to Dunrovin via the Montana Festival of the Book. She was intrigued by our “cyber ranch” and loved Dunrovin’s story, so she decided make Dunrovin Ranch the setting for a series of four books called the Mystery Christmas Series. Her first book in the series, Ms. Calculation, was released this past August. The second book, Mr. Serious, was released in late September and has already reached the bestselling lists at Publisher’s Weekly and Walmart. Congratulations, Danica! Many of our DaysAtDunrovin members have been reading them to compare notes with the real Dunrovin. Once the entire book series has been released, Dunrovin will invite Danica to participate in a Mystery Christmas Series book club so readers can engage directly with her.
Happily, this collaboration between Danica and Dunrovin has brought her out to the ranch for several special events and just to hang out and get to know the ranch. During the Horse of a Different Color (see our August Dunrovin Lifestyle Magazine), Danica announced the name of the Mystery Montana contest that was held in conjunction with Destination Missoula, who had graciously offered to give away an all-expenses-paid trip for two to Missoula for five days to meet with Danica and attend our planned Living with Passion Women’s Retreat to be presented by Spirit Horse Life Coaching at Dunrovin. Liz Digman from Texas was the winner.
However, the Lolo Peak fire disrupted everything. Instead of hosting the Living with Passion Retreat, we opted to refocus our attention on healing from the impacts of the fire and host a Fire Medicine Retreat; and the contest winner, Liz, decided to come next spring when Montana would once again be Big Sky Country. The modified retreat format brought Danica out to Dunrovin to lead participants in a writing exercise meant to clarify and articulate our feelings about the fires or any other issue swirling through our minds and lives.
In this close and intimate circumstance, Danica revealed some of her life story. She did this to put all of us at ease and to create an atmosphere of trust and openness. Her story is an important part of her career as a writer, her roles as a wife, daughter, and mother, and her desire to inspire other women to find their own strengths and resilience, overcome their own life obstacles, and quiet those nagging, self-doubting voices that all too many women hear in their heads.
“I grew up in Missoula, Montana, a small town with a big heart. During my formative years, I lived in a stable but volatile home. Being a woman meant you spent your days in the kitchen and were subservient to the men in your life. You were there to please, and if you weren’t pleasing, you were going to come under fire. When I left home and struck out on my own, I was accepted to the University of Montana and given grants for my writing. Writing was a path I knew I wanted to take, but not only did I have antagonists at home, but I also had one in the form of my high school English teacher who accused me of being too stupid to have written a paper and, therefore, I must have plagiarized. I hadn’t, but the attack broke my spirit. It took me a long time to want to write again. I was just a girl . . . I was too stupid . . . I was no one. Who would want to read what I wrote?
When I finally met the man of my dreams (and we started a family), I found that I wanted to contribute and help other women who had lost their voices as well. I started writing again. At first it was small articles and then children’s books, and then, with the help of local organizations, I decided I wanted to do more. I wanted to give my readers a chance to escape and find a place of rest from their lives through my work, and I became empowered. No longer would I allow someone to call me stupid, to put me down or degrade me. I have entered a phase in my life where yes, I want people to be happy with me and my work, but my self-worth no longer relies on others’ approval. And all of this has been through my writing. I have found who I am supposed to be . . . and, with this, one of my most important goals is to pay it forward.”
Danica then had our group do a short journaling exercise. She came with some small, lovely journal notebooks that she generously handed out to everyone. Using some tips from the Tiny Budda Blog, she asked us to write a short story about an incident or something in our lives that illustrates who we are. She also instructed us to use the third person.
I must admit that at first I was very hesitant. In fact, I felt rather awkward about the entire retreat atmosphere. While I am very open about much of my life, I find it uncomfortable to be in a small-group setting where our feelings are the focus of attention. It seems like pressure to me. My personal introspections nearly always come during my nature walks, out with my animals, or while reading a good book that stirs my emotions. However, both Danica and the retreat leader, Lynn Baskfield, are very good at creating the right environment and tone for such conversations. I was surprised by how easily the words flowed once I set my angst aside and privately relived some moments in my life that I thought captured the person I am.
After twenty minutes, each woman shared her story (I share mine with you at the end of this article) and discussed the personal characteristics conveyed, and how it fits into her hopes, her challenges, and her dreams. I found myself pulled into the group, listening to their stories and hearing fragments of my own life in each of theirs. That, perhaps, is the essence of such group sessions. We learn we are not alone in our struggles, that joy and sadness and failures and triumphs all ebb and flow through all of our lives. By sharing and caring, we learn about ourselves and absorb strength from one another.
I am thankful that Danica has wandered into my life via the Montana Festival of the Book. Her leadership during the Fire Medicine Retreat was appreciated by all. Her focus was on us – not on herself as she shared her story and encouraged us to use writing as a way to mine our feelings. She clearly has many talents. Her prolific writing requires dedication and self discipline, and her role as an author takes her on the road and away from her family. Yet, somehow, she manages it all. During several of her visits to Dunrovin, she has brought her daughter, son, and mother – we even got her mother on a horse for the first time in some time. In a word, I am impressed with Danica – and look forward to more opportunities to spend time at Dunrovin with her.
SuzAnne’s short story:
Turing a corner, the four horsewomen came face-to-face with six men gathered around a fire. Each man was dressed entirely in black: black leather pants, black t-shirts or sweatshirt hoodies, black boots, black chaps with long fringe. A couple of them had scraggly looking beards; one wore his hair long and tied in a ponytail while another tied his long, slightly graying hair back with a dirty red handkerchief. They were covered with weapons. Machetes and long knives hung at their waists. Each had a should holster with a large caliber pistol, such as a Smith & Wesson .44 magnum revolver.
Strewn around the firepit were open beer cans, bottles of whiskey, and cheap grocery store edibles: Doritos, hot dogs, packages of bologna, a loaf of plain white bread, cookies, donuts, and candy. The fire had clearly been burning for hours, with large logs showing bright embers and black charcoal bits lining the stone-lined pit.
Nothing about these men or this place was inviting. Menace filled the air. The men were void of smiles and looked suspiciously at the four women astride their horses.
Julie froze at the sight. Her tensed body transmitted her fear directly to her horse, who began to fidget and paw. Nothing in her 35 years of living in London had prepared her for this moment, for this scene before her.
She glanced at her cousin, Torrey, for reassurance. Torrey was always the strong one in their family, the adventurer, the one who had run off to New Zealand to live on a sheep station, grow her own food, and live off the energy grid. Torrey had asked her to come along to Montana for a “wild west” horseback adventure, to experience cowboy country, and to challenge themselves with the wide-open spaces and high mountains so often depicted in western movies.
But these were not handsome young horse whispers ready to rescue any person or animal in distress. Julie wanted to cry or scream or both: but she just sat frozen, unable even to control her horse.
SuzAnne broke the silence by saying, “You boys had damned well better have saved us some beer.”
This is a true story. I was guiding a group of women—one from London and her cousin from New Zealand and one from Montana—when we came upon a scene much like I described (OK, I did add some drama!). What I was trying to convey about myself is that I am generally confident among people of all walks of life, which I happen to think I get from having grown up in Butte, Montana. I basically believe in the goodness of people regardless of the circumstances.
The men gathered around the fire that late evening were all employees of Zombie Tools, which make, you guessed it, zombie tools right here in Western Montana! Who knew? The men were funny, friendly, and truly did offer us a beer, which we took since we are at the end of our ride. They explained that they were feting one of them before he headed off for a tour of military duty in Iraq. They had literally been playing zombie games when we rode up on them, and they were just as uncertain about us and we were about them. How could we possibly understand?
Once they were sure that we would not be judgmental, they opened right up. Taking a shine to my horses, they asked if they could come out and take some photos of a model wearing their weapons and a costume while riding a horse. Naturally, I obliged. Also please note – the next time I happened by their campsite, it was as clean as whistle. They were good and responsible men.
I am certain the women from London and New Zealand continue to tell this story.