HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE! How are you, Girlfriends? I'm good, but it's been a long time -- I've been hunkered down in my studio all winter painting and writing -- Joe's been throwing logs on the fire, surprising me with cups of chocolate coffee (he puts Hershey's syrup in coffee and tops it with half and half; I will be paying for this later); freezing wind whistles outside our door, snow swirls off the barn, making the world very beautiful, keeping us happy and cozy inside. Bright red cardinals (nature's Valentine), nuthatches, and chickadees are busy at the feeders outside the kitchen windows, vying for best spot at the perches. The squirrels entertain us with loop-de-loos from the wisteria branches, hanging upside-down to get at the sunflower seeds. Girl-Kitty sleeps in the crook of my knees every night; Jack drops red ponytail bands on my clogs whenever he wants to play (he is a funny bunny), we have Downton Abbey to look forward to every Sunday, so I have to say, life is very good in the house of creativity.

Time is going by so quickly, I can't believe it's already Valentine's Day! Didn't we just have Christmas? But I have news -- just for this special day which is all about celebrating romance . . . so run, go get a cup of tea -- I'll wait . . .

Comfy? Good, here's a little MUSICA . . .

Now I'm embarrassed. I hope I haven't gotten you all excited -- I'm just a little beside myself. Because, as lots of you already know, I've been writing a new book. I'm getting close to done. The pages are numbered! It has a name! It's called A Fine Romance, and I just thought, with a name like that (which will make perfect sense when you read it), what better time to talk about it and show you the cover than Valentine's Day? That's all, no rocket ship to the moon. Except for me, because, getting a book done is totally rocket-ship-to-the-moon-time! (I love having "theme music" for a new book!)

Something else that's new, I've never used a photo on the cover of any of my books before, usually they're all watercolored, but this is a real travel book, and that's a gorgeous road, and to me it just says, "England!" I know where we are too, we're in the Yorkshire Dales, around the corner from the small market town of Middleham and the childhood castle of King Richard the III, the one whose remains they recently found when excavating a parking lot in England and miraculously (to me) identified from DNA from a seventeenth-generation descendent. Now that I've been there, I feel somewhat related to him! (The part about the castle is in the book, but not this about finding his remains, because it just happened!)

ENEEE WAY . . .It's hard to believe it was only a year ago, almost to the day, when Joe and I were out to dinner and he said, "Why don't we go to England in the spring?" There were plenty of reasons why we shouldn't and couldn't, but we stepped carefully over all that, and went anyway! In early May of last year we sailed across the ocean on the Queen Mary II to England where we rented a car and traveled hill and dale on back roads for two glorious months, through Kent, up to the Lake District, to York and the Cotswolds, to Beatrix Potter's House and Jane Austen's house, through castles and pubs, gardens and tearooms; antique stores and book stalls, we loved learning the history of everywhere we visited. We were on a quest for inspiration and freedom-from-routine. And we definitely found it. The trip was like a two month dream, the longest dream I ever had in my life. As well it should be, so it can last a lifetime!

And in case you haven't heard . . . I kept a diary, every day I wrote what we were seeing. I sketched too, and we took hundreds of photos. And when we got home, I chose about 250 of those photos and put them into a hand-written diary that I've been working on since last July. The book starts with a chapter about the thing that made the trip possible, the story of how Joe and I met. The rest of it is filled with watercolors, stories, quotes and recipes and all kinds of ocean-liner-across-the-sea information; there are four maps of the different areas we visited, plus the nuts and bolts like places to stay, the car (driving on the wrong side of the road), money, and electricity. There are extras such as How to Make the Perfect Cup of Tea and the Charm of an English Cottage Garden; there's a reading list, a movie list and a list of the Perfect Music to bring along, plus an interactive index that will coordinate with links you'll find on my blog when the book arrives. I tried not to forget a thing! This book is meant to help you plan your own trip ... but if you're an armchair traveler, I did everything I could so you can smell the wildflower meadows and hear the bleating lambs while cuddled in your chair with your nap blankie.

Some of you have seen a few of the pages I've done so far . . .

So it will be about 250 pages of this.

I still have about thirty pages to paint before the book goes to the printer. Many of you have been asking me to have a "pre-sale" for the book. I wasn't sure because it won't arrive from the printer until maybe September, or even October. That seemed too long for anyone to wait.

But then, last year, we ran out of calendars for the first time -- before Christmas! So I realized that I wanted my Willard and blog friends to have first dibs and no chance of running out. I spoke to my publisher about it; at this point they are just guessing on how many books to order; they have NO idea how the book will sell, and will have to decide on the final number by the end of March. (When Heart of the Home, my first book, came out, it was October, it sold out before Christmas and didn't come back in until the following June!) So, I asked if I could do a pre-publication sale of the book in my web store to make sure those of you who want them will get your books FIRST, and they said that would be fine, in fact, it would help them know how many to order. The bottom line is, if the book sells out that will be wonderful, but best of all, it won't be awful for us, because you will already have yours! It takes four months to get a reprint done, so if we ran out right away, we wouldn't get any more until after Christmas and that would not be fun. So, here we go ... as of today, A FINE ROMANCE  is for sale in our web store, at a pre-sale discounted price, and that's the only place it will be for sale until it goes into stores next fall! We will ship the book the second they come in. If I am in California when they arrive, I will sign them before they go out -- if not, then I will make sure to sign a book plate for each pre-ordered book.
You will be needing a BOOKMARK, so I designed this one, in honor of Valentine's Day. With love from me to you. Just click on it and you can print it out on card stock. If you are getting a book for someone else, be sure to make them a bookmark to tuck inside. And for those of you regular Girlfriends to my blog .... I can't thank you enough for all of your support and kindness to me while I've been creating what is certainly "our" book. Book-writing can be quite a lonely business, but because of you, I never felt it this time! Your wonderful comments on the blog, keeping in touch the way you have, made it much easier. Each time I started a new page, I thought to myself, what would these girls like today? In a sense, it's a giant love letter -- that's true about all my books, but this time, it was a two-way street and I can't thank you enough.
Now, there is one more thing. Sometime in June (I think it's June, might be May, could be July) the printer will air mail (haven't heard that term in a long time!) a few pre-publication copies to me. I am going to give one of those away to YOU, dear Girlfriends ... it will be the very first book in "circulation," three months before any of the others come in -- you can sign up to be in that drawing on our blog, just leave a comment (at the bottom of any post where you see the tiny word "comments") at www.susanbranch.com, between now and February 20, and you will be entered for the drawing. Vanna will choose the name after the 20th, so we will all know our lucky winner long before the book arrives. Chills just went through me! OH BOY.

Next Fall, Joe and I will travel to bookstores across the USA where we hope to meet as many of you as possible. I have one book signing set up already in San Luis Obispo, California, November 9th and 10th at the Madonna Inn Expo Center for the Remnants of the Past Antique and Vintage Show. The show opens both days at 9am, and I think I'll let everyone shop before I interrupt them, so I'll probably come in around 2 ish. I'll be sure to set up a schedule on my blog with more details as the time gets closer.

Has anyone noticed that it says, "A Fine Romance" on the February page of this year's calendar? Are you wondering how I did that?

Me Too! I designed the 2013 calendar in 2011, long before Joe and I decided to go away to England. But I wrote the story of my first date with Joe years ago -- in my good handwriting, with the watercolor title of "A Fine Romance" -- it's never been published. When I went to design the February page for the 2013 calendar, I decided to use the title I'd painted for the story. After I turned in the art for the calendar, I pretty much forgot about it . . . we decided to go to England, I wrote this book, and I planned to show you the cover of it for Valentine's Day, so when I turned over the calendar page, I was surprised! I had to laugh. Fate had it all figured out . . . she knew I was going to write this book before I did!

I thought, while we're waiting for the book, you might like to have one of the recipes from A Fine Romance.

Ihis seems like it might be the national dessert in England -- it was on almost every menu, everywhere we went -- we managed to wait to taste it until we got to the Lake District where we were told this pudding originated. (It's not really a pudding, they call almost every dessert a "pudding" --- after dinner they will say, "Would you care for pudding?") When Joe tasted it, his eyes got wide, his words were muffled, spoken through a big mouthful, but I could figure out what he was saying, "You have to put this in the book." It was just delicious!

And here's what else is new . . . You know I love lambs, I loved seeing them everywhere in England, and I've painted lots of them into the book. But what you didn't know is that the last time I went antiquing across country with Joe, wherever we went, I looked for more of these planter/vases. I love mine so much, it's such a harbinger of spring, I thought maybe some of you would like one too. The ones I found aren't all exactly like this one ... but they're definitely all cute and waiting for you in our VINTAGE section right now.

We sold out of this little paperweight iron lamb, the one that's actually a bank -- but more will be coming in by the middle of March, in case you are wondering. Perfect timing for Spring table decorations.

Look how adorable he is!

A brought this heavy cotton Union Jack Dishtowel back on the boat with me . . . I wished I'd gotten fifty more of them! So we found where they were made, and now we have them on our website. For the kitchen anglophile in all of us.

Another special little item. My new Birdhouse. I just got it; I've been keeping it in my studio for the time being -- it could really stay in there forever -- it's such a cheerful little house to have around. When it stops snowing, it will hang in the tree in the garden. It has windows, and a little opening in the back so it can be cleaned out . . . it's really quite perfect. I thought you might like one for your garden, so I got more!

And last but never ever least . . . we found a fairly large collection of Beatrix Potter figurines . . . I think whichever creature you've been looking for, we probably have now. Kellee adds them to the VINTAGE part of our web store whenever we can get them, but they get harder to find all the time. We just got lucky.

Big fat snowflakes are coming down right this very moment, blowing toward the house, sticking to my windows, and settling on the picket fence I can see from my art table. The furnace is humming, the fire is making little popping noises, Jack is asleep on the back of the sofa . . . this is what I call romance. It's exactly how I dreamed life would be. The words "May the force be with you" just came to mind. I don't know why, but it feels like it is. May the force be with you my friends. xoxo
Now, the coup de grace, remember how I've written that I think there are elves living here on Martha's Vineyard who run ahead setting up scenes and making everything adorable? Here's our newest elfwork . . . I happen to know the elves that did this --- Matt and Bridget Tobin . . . they own Eden, a darling farmstand and garden shop in Vineyard Haven which is not even open this time of year! But that doesn't stop them. We came home from a dinner party on a cold rainy night, rounded the bend and saw this wonderful thing. We do love our magic elves and they clearly love us back.

And here are a few new things from my web store: