Bridgewater family cultivates creative authors

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by Melodie Davis

Jennifer, Gabrielle, and John Churchman pause outside their barn near Essex, Vermont. John grew up during his adolescent years in the Shenandoah Valley. The dogs include from far left, Cyrano (tan and partially obscured) and Quinn, with Laddie and Maisie in foreground. Photo by John Churchman

Jennifer, Gabrielle, and John Churchman pause outside their barn near Essex, Vermont. John grew up during his adolescent years in the Shenandoah Valley. The dogs include from far left, Cyrano (tan and partially obscured) and Quinn, with Laddie and Maisie in foreground. Photo by John Churchman

Once upon a time there was a personable 10-month-old lamb named Sweet Pea who became dangerously ill. She belonged to a talented farmer, John Churchman, who with his equally gifted wife Jennifer, eked out a living on a semi-self-sufficient 23-acre farmlet in Vermont. Farmer John also sold nature photography to glossy photographic magazines, calendars, and produced his own greeting card line, while Jennifer worked in public relations specializing in helping companies with branding.

Further south in another area blessed with scenic mountain views, the Shenandoah Valley, there was a dairy farmer Dennis Trissel and his wife Beth; he sells farm implements on the side and once their children went to school, Beth began imagining, plotting, researching and publishing historical romance novels, sometimes with a ghost or two thrown in—the paranormal. She also developed a love for traveling through time—at least in her novels.

Both John and Beth are offspring of Charles and Pat Churchman of Bridgewater, Va. Charles and Pat have two more children, Catherine and Chad, who both live in rural Rockingham and who have their own remarkable gifts and journeys/stories (perhaps to be told/published someday). But for now, here’s more on Sweet Pea’s “shepherd” John; the romance writer Beth; and the story of Sweet Pea’s rise to the New York best seller list (including a three-book deal with a major children’s publisher—changing their lives forever). Sweet Pea’s literary story is indeed the stuff of romance.

Sweet Pea started out life orphaned, and was fed by bottle. One day when Sweet Pea had developed a limp and fever, in the middle of the night Laddie the sheep dog made a commotion barking. Farmer John went out to the barn to investigate, knowing that sheep, if lame, can go down and die rather quickly. John called their favorite veterinarian, Allison Cornwall who came out immediately to check over Sweet Pea. To help her get better, the Churchman’s brought the Sweet Pea into their warmer greenhouse, along with another Prem, for company. All along, John shared updates on Sweet Pea’s status on his Facebook page, followed at that point by hundreds of fans who just enjoyed the back-to-nature ambiance of John’s frequent farm tales.

As Sweet Pea got better the Churchmans posted adorable and ingenious photos such as Sweet Pea with hay on her head for a new “hay-do.” The number of fans grew and urged: you need to celebrate Sweet Pea’s recovery. One wisecracked that you could have a “sheepover!”  The Churchmans thought why not and decked out their animals in party hats and prepared celebratory but healthy treats and took fun photos of the barn party. Fans online continued the thread urging, “You’ve got to put this story and photos into a book.”

It is incredibly important for children to love reading from an early age. Literacy is such a key building block to succeeding in life.

John and Jennifer possessed the skills and chutzpah to take on the challenge. They used KickStarter to raise the cash to publish the book, creating artsy, full color mixed media pages with animal photos and a captivating storyline and produced their first book: “The SheepOver.”

Sweet Pea as featured in “The SheepOver,” now published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Photo by John Churchman

Sweet Pea as featured in “The SheepOver,” now published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Photo by John Churchman

Thousands or maybe millions now self publish their own books so the question was would their little volume languish with just a couple hundred copies in sales or perhaps thousands, without really taking off? After John approached The Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vermont about handling the book and customers started picking up and buying it immediately, the owner, Elizabeth Bluemle wrote a blog post which landed the Churchmans an agent and a bidding war among several children’s book publishers.

As Publisher’s Weekly put it, “They [the Churchmans]are not just sheep farmers who had this thrust on them,” said their eventual agent Brenda Bowen. “They are quite savvy about how to run a business and how to build a brand.” Before too many weeks, “The Sheepover” had rocketed up the New York Times bestseller list.

The next in their three book series, “Brave Little Finn” just came out in October 2016, focusing on Little Finn’s first days. He had to be tube fed like an infant every four hours for about six weeks.

From years of photographing animals, John snags shots at the perfect moment, filled with almost-human emotion. They have also just completed a third book, “A Farm for Maise” about a border collie whose three puppies they decided to keep, to be published next year. Anyone can follow the adventures on their “picture farm” by following their website or Facebook page, “Sweet Pea and Friends.”

But John was not a total newcomer to farm life. His parents had spent time teaching English in Taiwan when both Beth and John were small, sent by the Presbyterian Church (Pat’s parents were missionaries in the Philippines at the time). The family returned to the states for further education and moved to Bridgewater when John was in fifth grade, Beth in eighth. John says he loved spending time in the summers at his grandmother and uncle R.W. Moffett’s family dairy farm called “Chapel Hill” near Fishersville (his grandfather died early on, so John’s uncle and grandmother ran the farm).

John Churchman captures photos of Sweet Pea’s “friends” at a photoshoot for the book which became the now bestselling “The SheepOver” children’s storybook. The photo includes Laddie, one of their border collies, lambs Speckles and Freckles, and bigger sheep, Sunny and Sweet Pea. Photo by Jennifer Churchman

John Churchman captures photos of Sweet Pea’s “friends” at a photoshoot for the book which became the now bestselling “The SheepOver” children’s storybook. The photo includes Laddie, one of their border collies, lambs Speckles and Freckles, and bigger sheep, Sunny and Sweet Pea. Photo by Jennifer Churchman

John recalled getting up and helping with the milking, haying and other farm jobs—“a very important formative time for me which got into my mind that maybe someday I would want to have a small farm.” He also loved fishing on Bridgewater’s river and playing pick up games of football, baseball, or whatever was being played on the athletic field behind Bridgewater College. Charles Churchman taught English literature at Bridgewater for many years and Pat also worked on campus in public relations. The Churchman children were exposed to reading from little up and were used to hearing their father spout favorite lines from poetry or literature even around the dinner table.

John spent his first two years of high school at Turner Ashby where friends from the early 70s might remember him playing “Lil’ Abner” in a stage production. For his last two years of high school following a family tradition, he transferred to the same Episcopal high school in Alexandria, Va. which Charles went to. John emphasizes, “It is incredibly important for children to love reading from an early age. Literacy is such a key building block to succeeding in life.” So he and Jennifer strive to create storybooks which engage both children and the adults who read them.

Beth Trissel, meanwhile, has been creating an average of a novel or novella or two a year since she began writing in earnest about 20 years ago. She writes historical romance, especially from the Colonial period of American history, and has branched into books classified as time travel, paranormal, young adult/new adult fantasy romance, (protagonists in the 18-30 age group), and a couple of smaller nonfiction books. Too many to list here, her author page on Amazon contains 23 titles, some in series.

Beth often starts with just a kernel of an idea or plot and develops it, investigating widely to make it historically accurate. Along the way she discovers many true stories and legends that help develop plot turns. Beth formerly had a New York City agent but discovered that New York-based publishers were not interested in any stories of the Colonial American era. As for writing about the Civil War years, Beth’s family legacy from that period still feels “too recent and raw to write about,” says Beth.

Organizers for a 2014 “Romancing Colonial America” event in Halifax, N.C. with period re-enactors, artisans, and tours, also honored author Beth Trissel at a book signing for “Traitor’s Legacy” her historical romance set in Halifax. Photo provided

Organizers for a 2014 “Romancing Colonial America” event in Halifax, N.C. with period re-enactors, artisans, and tours, also honored author Beth Trissel at a book signing for “Traitor’s Legacy” her historical romance set in Halifax. Photo provided

An enthusiastic fan in North Carolina once suggested that Beth center a novel around Halifax, (just over the border with Virginia) which gave birth to Beth’s novel “Traitor’s Legacy,” later a trilogy. Historic Halifax, which is a living history museum like a mini-Williamsburg, featured Beth at a book launch event during their “Romancing Colonial America” festival in 2014. She has collected many author awards which are listed on her Amazon author page.

Her main publisher is The Wild Rose Press focusing on romance novels, but playing the publishing game with Amazon.com in the picture is a maze of keeping up with Amazon’s rules and roll out programs just to stay viable. Beth explains that at first authors were offered 70 percent royalties to have their books be published by Amazon, but it has dropped considerably over the years.
Beth keeps a small steady income with her books by assisting in marketing them, strategizing when to offer sale Kindle copies for just 99 cents, buying ads on focused websites and blogs from all around the world. She also offers her own expertise in raising herbs and flowers for other romance writers (especially) on British herbal lore through online classes who pay to take her class. Someone suggested she make a book out of the information and photos she used in her class so now that’s a book too, “Plants for a Medieval Herb Garden in the British Isles.” She offers this book free to those who take the class.

Beth is part of Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s monthly reader program where for a monthly fee, readers can read Kindles for free from authors enrolled in Amazon’s Kindle Select program, (titles sold exclusively through Amazon). Amazon then pays authors a varying amount per pages read, but Kindle sales are down as readers join Kindle Unlimited.

Beth Trissel and her daughter Elise consult on some creative projects they worked on. Photo provided

Beth Trissel and her daughter Elise consult on some creative projects they worked on. Photo provided

She calls the Amazon publishing world “overwhelming” because the company constantly comes up with new angles or changes programs for authors and customers. She said Amazon now publishes thousands of books a day which floods the market including reviewers who cannot keep up and review all that is out there. Reviews help spread all-important word-of-mouth advertising for an author.

The literary influence and love of reading and art is also seen in Beth and Dennis’s daughter, Elise Trissel, a freelance photographer, graphic artist, also working to become a children’s book illustrator. She has collaborated with her mother on several titles in illustrations and artwork. While a senior art major at Bridgewater College, Elise’s senior art show used mixed media illustrations for a book called “Skritch, Scratch, Munch” using photos and painted imagery, which encircled an entire library floor. But she now prefers photography, illustrations and graphic art.

The Trissels have long welcomed children from school groups and daycare/preschool classes on the two dairy farms they run with their family, the better to educate children on where some of their milk and food comes from.

Despite many heartbreaks and hurdles along the way, the love and creativity that Charles and Pat Churchman nourished in their home is tangible as their adult children and grandchildren grow food, animals, photos and books for new generations.

Melodie Davis, editor of Valley Living, is the mother of three adult daughters, and lives with her husband near Harrisonburg, Va. She also blogs at www.FindingHarmonyBlog.com.

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