THANKS FOR STOPPING BY!
I am in the process of querying a middle grade mystery with a twist of magical realism titled HEARST’S GREATEST TREASURE. For fans of When You Reach Me and Chasing Vermeer, HEARST’S GREATEST TREASURE is complete at 52,000 words.
This manuscript is a PitchWars winner, which means I revised it under the mentorship of author Jenna Lehne.
Thirteen-year-old Amelia Wright can think of better things to do with her summer than hang out with a grandpa she’s never met. While her parents are off on a work trip in Africa, Amelia has to spend her days at a museum that used to be some dead guy’s house. She doesn’t expect that Hearst Castle will bring her an adventure of her own.
While following her Gramps on one of his tours for the millionth time, she goes under the ropes (the summer’s too long to obey all the rules) and finds a book Hearst wrote on his deathbed. In it, she discovers the first clue in the hunt for his greatest treasure. Enlisting the help of Oliver, a boy who works on the property’s ranch and gives killer high fives, they work together to uncover the mystery.
As they follow the trail of clues, curious things happen around the castle—an artifact goes missing and strange men start sneaking around. Even worse, Gramps doesn’t believe Amelia and Oliver aren’t connected when he discovers they’ve been doing some snooping of their own.
An already fractured family relationship makes Amelia’s decision to continue the treasure hunt all the more difficult. But with a possible thief in the house, she must find the treasure or her grandpa could get framed for it all, and she could lose the only family she’s ever felt close to.
I graduated with a degree in Journalism from Utah State University and went on to teach high school English and journalism. I currently write for KSL.com and review books for The Deseret News. I also work as lead editor for Month9Books, Tantrum Division.
HEARST’S FIRST CHAPTER
The dry, Californian heat forces crazy thoughts into my mind. I’m standing at the edge of the pool, staring at the blue glass mosaic tiles on the bottom, which make the water look even more inviting.
I know that lady dropped me off here and told me not to touch anything, but technically, I’d be floating in the water … still not touching any of the fancy stuff around this place. I mean, with this heat-pool combo, she’s basically setting me up to fail.
At least the voice in my head agrees.
I look deeper into the water. Wow, are those tiles made of gold?
Only one way to find out.
I reach down to slip off my Converse — I’ll only dip my toes —
“Amelia! I’m glad you made it safely!” My grandpa calls out from the arched doorway. He looks just like his picture — dirty blond hair like mine, a few wrinkles, pale blue eyes, and a shiny, white smile.
“Thanks.” I wrap my arms awkwardly around him in the first Grandpa hug of my life.
I’m hot and sweaty, but Grandpa feels cool as a refrigerator, and smells like aftershave and coffee. Without thinking, I sink into his arms. Immediately, the internal battle I’ve had of whether to be excited about the visit or mad at my parents for ditching me for Africa, shifts in the direction of excitement.
“Call me Gramps! Were you waiting long?” he asks, pushing me out to arm’s length to inspect me.
I shrug. “Not really, just twenty minutes or so.”
Grandpa — er, Gramps — had been busy when I arrived, so this woman who didn’t even give me her name, dropped me off at what she called the Roman Pool and told me unless it was my feet on the ground, no part of me was supposed to touch any part of Hearst property.
Gramps sighs and brushes a stray hair off my forehead. “You look just like your mother.”
I get that a lot. It must be extra weird for Gramps though, since he basically hasn’t seen my mom since she was in college … and hasn’t ever met me as far as I know.
About a month ago, I overheard my mom telling someone she’d just met at a party that she hadn’t seen Gramps in almost twenty years. That person acted like Gramps was Justin Beiber, and my mom didn’t want to talk about him at all. She didn’t even seem sad about the distance between them. Both the lady’s reaction, and my mom’s, still confuse me.
Especially because after the party, I asked my mom why she hadn’t seen her own dad for so long (something I used to ask when I was little but stopped after being denied so many times) and she just totally shut me down and said she’d tell me when I was older.
She was so like that. Telling me I was old when she wanted me to be, like when I had to make small talk with her business associates. But when I wanted to actually get something out of acting like a mini-adult and accept the sip of wine from her boss at dinner or find out about my own grandfather, I was suddenly too young.
I roll my eyes just thinking about it.
“I really am so sorry to keep you waiting,” Gramps said, interrupting my thoughts. “I had some very inquisitive tourists in this group, so many questions.” He smiles, and I know it’s one of those sorry-not-sorry kinda things.
In the two emails I’d exchanged with Gramps in the last few weeks, his love for his job was pretty clear. He’s a tour guide at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. It’s not an actual castle, just a really big mansion some rich guy built like a hundred years ago, filled with rare artifacts he searched the world to collect, and people still come to see it. Truthfully, this place seems cool, but my parents hang with some wealthy people back in New York City and I’ve seen apartments that would make Hearst jealous.
Not that I ever feel totally comfortable in look-don’t-touch fancy places. My parents make me go. Hearst’s people got it right—houses like these are better off as museums.
And museums are not the kind of places where grandfathers should live. Technically, he lives in a little guest house down near the ranchers quarters, but I mean, it’s basically the same thing. This cottage is his retirement home and the tour guide job is his retirement hobby.
How’d I come to know all of this info if my mom wouldn’t even spill one bean about my Gramps when I asked? Because suddenly they get the archeological job of a lifetime in some name-I-can’t-pronounce town, Africa and a long-lost grandpa is the safest place to store their extra baggage, I mean daughter, for eight weeks while they’re gone.
My first official summer as a teenager is ruined.
“Your parents emailed this morning,” Gramps says, taking my purple Samsonite suitcase from me as I pick up my backpack (also purple.) “They’ve landed in London and will stay the night there before continuing on to Africa.”
“Mmhhmmm,” I mumble. The scales tip again and I’m back to not forgiving them for changing our summer plans so last minute on me. I still don’t know how they decided my other summer plans just didn’t matter. This year, my parents promised days at the boardwalk, lots of rollercoaster rides and ice cream, and a week in Disney World. Not to mention my best friend Charlotte and I had tons of plans to lay by her infinity pool, drinking lemonade, and seeing who could get the most likes on our pedicure pictures.
Now, for a whole summer, I’m stuck next to some Roman pool I can’t swim in, at a castle that definitely isn’t Cinderella’s, with Gramps as my only company for miles.
“You must be proud of your parents, Ami,” Gramps interrupts my internal pity party. “To be asked to speak on such a distinguished lecture tour and be part of new archeological digs is quite the honor.”
“I guess so.” I shrug again. My parents have been trying hard to break my shrugging habit, but apparently, it’s here to stay.
“Don’t you worry, Ami, we’re going to have the best time this summer.” He winks and takes my hand in his.
I pull my hand away and pretend to tie my shoe. Calling him Gramps doesn’t all of a sudden make us close. We are not at the hand-holding stage yet. Now that I’m thirteen, I doubt we’ll ever get there. The fact that he calls me Ami makes it even more obvious he’s been absent for my whole life. My mom hates when people call me that. Says if she wanted people to call me Ami, she would’ve named me that, not Amelia. Me? I kinda like the lightness of it, how quickly it floats into conversation. It feels fresh.
I stand up and follow Gramps through the gardens, pulling on my backpack straps to keep my hands from being in holding territory.
“Just wait,” Gramps says, gesturing with his arms across the horizon. He looks at all of the Greek statues on the patio and up at the massive towers of the mansion like he’s legit in love with them or something. “This place may even hold an adventure or two.”
Even though I’m thinking Ha! Adventure, here? I force a smile and say, “Sure, Gramps. Sounds fun.”
After all, it isn’t his fault my parents chose work over their own daughter.
After a short jeep ride down to Gramps’ house, he puts my bags by his door and tells me to follow him up this steep, dusty hill.
The climb isn’t long, even though it sort of feels like it with Gramps whistling all the way up. When I get to the top, I hate to admit it, but this place is so beautiful, it’s actually lifting my sour mood. The hills beyond the castle are rolling green, and seem to go on forever. Aside from the main mansion, the other smaller buildings, and the occasional tour bus rumbling up the road, it feels like a different time. Way before Starbucks, amazing reality TV, and billions of people glued to their cell phones.
My hand instinctively reaches to the back pocket of my shorts for my phone, only to be reminded my parents took it from me before I left so I wouldn’t be distracted by my “tweetbooksnapping” with my friends.
Ugh. I’m so not of a fan of them right now. I breathe deeply, letting the smell of the nearby ocean calm me. The Pacific Ocean has a different smell from the Atlantic Ocean … feels more wild, but I can’t explain why.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
I don’t even want to think about what my friends are doing across the country, especially if I can’t peek to even pretend like I’m a part of it. Or post something to show them I’m having as much fun as they are.
It’s not like I’d have anything to brag about, anyway. The only people I’ve met around here are adults. Not really upping my cool factor to take a selfie with my Grandpa. I mean, my first impression of Gramps is fine, but I need someone my own age to talk to.
“Oh, here’s Sam and his son Oliver, they’re ranch hands,” he says, then notices my confused look and continues, “they work with the cattle. Their ancestors lived on this land before Hearst owned it. You won’t find anyone who knows the area better than them.” He’s pointing at two figures coming our way. One of them is on a horse, and the other is running alongside it.
“There’re cows here?” I ask, surprised because I don’t hear one “moo” or smell one cowpie.
“Thousands of ‘em,” Gramps answers. “This ranch has been around since the first Mr. Hearst owned the place. It’s 82,000 acres.” Gramps shines with pride as if it were his own.
A boy, who looks to be about my age, runs up to us, a little out of breath. “Hey,” he says, waving at us. His dark brown hair falls almost to his shoulders and he tucks one side behind his ear, revealing his light brown skin smooth over his high cheekbones and his brown almond eyes sparking with either mischief or the sun.
“Hey, Oliver,” Gramps says, pushing me in front of him, “This is my grand-daughter, Amelia. She’s going to be staying with me over the summer and could really use a friend.”
“Gramps,” I mutter, shuffling my feet. How embarrassing! I peek up at Oliver and quickly look back down, hiding my flaming cheeks.
I know I’d just had that exact thought like thirty seconds ago, but I didn’t need Gramps setting up play dates for me. Especially with a boy with hair that keeps falling into his eyes, and a smile that seems to charmingly only work on one side.
“Hey, Peter,” Oliver’s dad, Sam, greets us as his horse trots to a stop. “This Amelia?” he asks, bending over and holding his hand out to me.
As I reach up to shake it, I don’t miss the fact that Gramps has been talking about me, and seemingly looking forward to my visit. It’s such a grandfatherly thing to do, and I’m caught off guard.
While I’m looking away from Sam, I unintentionally look at Oliver again. Oh, now the other side of his smile works, too, and boy, he has a cute smile.
“Wanna see the cows?” Oliver asks, standing next to me as I pet the side of the chestnut stallion. Or maybe it’s just a regular horse? I don’t know.
I’m not really sure if I’m ready to go see the cows and don’t know what to say, so it’s a good thing Gramps cuts in, “Maybe some other time, buddy. She needs to unpack and get settled. Appreciate the offer though.”
“Sure, some other time,” Oliver says, lifting his hand like he’s waiting for a high-five.
Seriously? A high-five? Then he smiles again. Okay, sure. I hit my hand against his.
“Good to meet you, Amelia,” Sam says, as we all turn and walk down to Gramps house. “We’ll see ya later?”
I just nod and follow Gramps to his tiny white stucco house and through his old wooden door. I tell Gramps I need to use the bathroom and I shut myself inside.
I know it feels like I’ve gone back in time, but what is wrong with me? I should still know how to talk.
I splash water on my face and take a deep breath.
If I’m not getting the summer I wanted, I’m sure not gonna suffer here. I stare into my own reflection and promise myself three things: I’ll spend more time outdoors, let myself be thirteen since Mom’s not around to make me act eighteen, and I’ll have those adventures Gramps was talking about.
Oh, and a fourth thing; if Oliver comes along for the ride, I won’t complain.
OTHER COMPLETED WORKS
THE WISH GARDEN: A middle grade magical realism novel complete at 38,000 words. THE SECRET GARDEN meets LOVE, AUBREY when a girl’s belief in wishing is tested after the death of her mama.
Ten-year-old Penny thought all storms led to rainbows and all wishes came true. Until her mama died. Now she doesn’t believe in wishing, her papa never comes out of his room, and when she thinks about losing another person in her life-she doesn’t want to leave her room either. Instead, she keeps to herself. If you don’t love someone, it won’t hurt when they leave.
Then one day in the forest behind her house, Penny discovers a magical garden and its caretaker Minya, where the flowers represent the hopes and dreams of everyone in Penny’s town-including her own. Penny is convinced that if she learns enough about caring for these flowers, her papa won’t need his happy pills anymore and she can finally make friends-which in turn will help Mama’s final wishes come true.
When a classmate’s mother is in a terrible accident, Penny is torn between wanting her classmate’s wish for survival to bloom, and needing someone else to understand how empty she feels inside. After months of bottling up her true feelings, all the darkness comes crashing down. Penny needs to decide if she can believe the way her mama taught her-even after she’s gone.
CHARLY AND NELLA: A middle grade contemporary novel, with an unreliable narrator, complete at 36,000 words. Charly and her brother are twins. That means for the last thirteen years of their life, they’ve been inseparable. Then, during an end of summer trip to the beach, tragedy strikes, and the ultimate separator pulls them apart forever.
With Charly struggling to comprehend life as an only child, especially with suddenly absent parents, she finds solace in a new-found friend, Nella. Nella is everything Charly needs and doesn’t mind when she lashes out in grief. The only problem is Nella lives in a run down house around the corner and everyone at school watches them like they’re aliens from another planet. Even Charly’s parents suggest she keep her distance from Nella.
When Nella has enough, she runs away, and Charly follows. Returning to the beach where her brother died, Charly is faced with harsh realizations, and the decision of holding on, or letting go and moving forward.
WORKS IN PROGRESS
TALL TALES AND TREASURES: A group of friends explore Yellowstone National Park Goonies-style in search of mountain man Jim Bridger’s cache of treasure.
SPONTANEOUS: Thirteen-year-old Emerson has a smile that causes people to act spontaneously. Sometimes those actions end up horribly, so she learned early to just not smile at all. When her parents divorce, she wonders if it’s her fault. Things slowly get worse and she wants to escape. Her ticket- winning a yearbook category prize and summer camp scholarship. The only option without a front-runner-Best smile. Can Emerson conquer her fears, or stay stagnant in her guilt and misery forever.
PEMBERLEY BOYS: A Pride and Prejudice retelling set in the complicated world of private middle schools.