Who knew whooping cough could influence a career choice?
Not in medicine — but as an author.
That was the case with romance fiction writer Mariah Stewart, who at the age of 7, spent an entire summer in bed, recuperating from the respiratory disease.
"Every other day, my mother would send my older brother to the library to get books for me," the New Jersey native recalled. "But it was a small town with a small children's section. Once I'd blown through all the books from the library shelves, I started to write my own to keep myself amused. By the end of the summer, I had a stack of black-and-white composition books under my bed."
Today, those handwritten stories have been replaced by 31 published novels and three novellas — ;earning Stewart a long list of literary honors, including the Reviewers Choice Award and the Golden Leaf. She also has been a finalist in the prestigious RITA Award given by the Romance Writers of America and has been inducted into the New Jersey Romance Writers' Hall of Fame.
Along the way, she has developed a loyal following of fans, who so anxiously await her next book that they encourage her to write faster.
Many of those fans will have an opportunity to meet with Stewart when she appears at an anniversary book signing event on Saturday, July 7, at Turn the Page Bookstore Cafe in Boonsboro.
Stewart will be joined by about a half dozen other authors, including Nora Roberts, from noon to 2 p.m.
While she always knew she wanted to be a writer, "coming from that very small town, it never occurred to me that it was an attainable goal," Stewart shared. "People who came from where I came from — that place and time — didn't grow up to become published authors. When I was growing up, career paths for girls coming out of high school were very narrow. We were encouraged to be teachers, nurses or secretaries. Plus, all of the authors I read were dead. Didn't seem like much of a career path."
So, instead, she narrowed her choice to teaching — "actually, because I can't stand the sight of blood and, back then, I couldn't type."
But she never gave up her dream of becoming a storyteller — a dream that was realized in 1995, when her first book, "Moments in Time," was published.
"It was the first book I wrote and, while I was writing it, my only goal was to finish it — to prove to myself that I could, in fact, write an entire book," she noted. "It never occurred to me that anyone else would ever want to read it."
Stewart, who now lives in Chester County, Pa., said she stopped teaching after four years and worked for several insurance companies over a period of 12 years. She then went to work with an insurance brokerage firm.
During that time, she was writing two books a year, raising two daughters and renovating a 125-year-old house — "and, no, I don't know how any of us survived it."
Stewart's early books were contemporary romances. But by 2000, her books began to take increasingly darker twists and turns as she wove more suspense into her stories, including the Mercy series.
While she loves writing thrillers, Stewart hasn't forgotten her roots and several years ago published the first book in The Chesapeake Diaries — a series set in one of Stewart's favorite places, the Eastern Shore.
Her newest and the fifth book in the series is "Home for the Summer."
"All of the books are set in the little town of St. Dennis, which I named for both my dad and brother. Sadly, both passed away within a few short months of each other before the first book in the series, 'Coming Home,' was published," Stewart said. "So, neither of them ever knew because I was going to surprise them. I like to think that they both know now."
The current book focuses on Lucy Sinclair, who grew up in St. Dennis, but now owns a celebrity event planning business in L.A. Something happened to her in the summer she turned 14 and she has avoided coming home — until she is hired to plan a very high-profile wedding at her family's inn. Now, she has to deal with the demons from the past and put them to rest.
While "Coming Home" would make a great beach book, Stewart said she, herself, won't have much time for pleasure reading this summer. She's currently working on "The Long Way Home," book six in the Chesapeake series.
"I do have a stack of books I've been saving for when I do have time, though — a couple of thrillers," she noted. "I did buy Nora's new hardcover, 'The Witness,' thinking I'd hold onto it until my book was finished. But the temptation was overwhelming and my willpower is pathetically weak."
Stewart said she has met Roberts several times "and, seriously, she's one of the nicest women I've ever met. I'm a total fan of her work and of her as a person."
She's looking forward to joining Roberts at the book signing event, which will be her fourth appearance at Turn the Page.
"It's the best bookstore ever," Stewart said. "I love signings there because it's always fun. The readers who come are great and it's always an opportunity to meet other authors, some new to me, others I've met before but don't see often. Always a pleasure, either way."
Stewart said she does several book signings each year — "usually right after new books are released. The feedback I get from readers is mostly 'write faster.' When readers get hooked on a series, they want the next book as soon as they finish the last one, which I totally understand because I'm the same way. Unfortunately, I can only write so fast."
But she can't imagine doing anything else.
"I have the best job in the world," she admitted. "I get paid to tell stories."
If you go ...
WHAT: 17th Anniversary Book Signing
WHEN: noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, July 7
WHERE: Turn the Page Bookstore, 18 N Main St, Boonsboro
CONTACT: For more information, contact Turn the Page at 301-432-4588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
MORE: Free tickets will be given out from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. The authors will sign until everyone with a ticket is seen. Books to be signed must be purchased at Turn the Page.
Authors include Nora Roberts aka J.D. Robb, Jennifer Armentrout, Virginia Kantra, Diana Peterfreund, Caridad Pineiro, Mariah Stewart, Karen White and local baseball author David B. Stinson.