Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society: A Novel (New York: Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, Oct. 2, 2012)

The first of two historical novels set in 1960s Florida about a Northern newcomer who upsets the status quo in a small town.


I'm known primarily as the author of nonfiction books (Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, Strong Medicine Speaks: A Native American Elder Has Her Say, Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York).

A few years ago, however, I decided to take a break from my nonfiction book projects and the intense world of book publishing. I told my mom, “I’m going to write just for fun for a while.” And that’s what I did. I had never tried my hand at fiction.

I began working on a short story, which I hadn't tried before either. The more I wrote, the more I loved my characters and plot, and I thought, Could this be a novel? I just kept writing, telling no one (except my husband, although even he didn’t see a draft for several months). And so writing "just for fun" turned into a short story, and the short story turned in a novel. And when I showed it to my agent, he loved it, and so did the first editor he showed it to....and that's how I became a novelist.

I'm not sure what this means except that we are all capable of surprising ourselves. Sometimes good things happen when we don't over-plan.

The first book is Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society. The second, a stand-alone sequel, is Miss Dreamsville and the Lost Heiress of Collier County.

Both are historical novels set in a small, quirky town in Florida in the early 1960s. That small town is Naples, now one of the world's most famous resorts.

The title character, Miss Dreamsville, was inspired by a real person – my late mother-in-law. When my husband’s family moved from Boston to Naples in 1962, his mom was deeply disappointed. She was a beautiful Boston redhead, very intelligent, flirty, charming and restless. She loved libraries, museums, shopping, and night life, none of which was in abundance, to say the least, in Naples at that time. She was, also, very much a “Yankee," or, in other words, outspoken and opinionated.

I have some understanding of what it was like to be a newcomer in the South in the 1960s. I was born in the North but when I was six years old, in 1965, my father’s employment took us to Columbia, South Carolina for six years. Unlike my mother-in-law, I had the advantage of being a child and I quickly fit in.

I have lived, also, in Florida which many people don't even realize is part of the South. (It was the third state to join the Confederacy!) Florida is a surprisingly complex and fascinating state. I went to college and worked as a newspaper reporter there in the early 1980s. Several of the colorful characters in the Miss Dreamsville novels are inspired by real people I met while covering stories years ago.

The first novel, published by Atria Books/​Simon & Schuster in 2012, focuses on my mother-in-law and her scandalous (for the time) late-night radio show on WNOG, “Wonderful Naples on the Gulf.” She really did have her own radio show and she did, in fact, call herself “Miss Dreamsville.” It was not considered appropriate, however, for a middle-aged wife and mother to host a sexy radio show. This delightful scenario served as the springboard for the first novel.

The other major plotline is her effort to pump some cultural excitement into the town by starting a book club. (As far as I know this did not happen in real life.) The only people who will join, however, are the town’s other outsiders, including a recently-divorced woman, a closeted gay man, a brilliant young black woman who dreams of going to college, and a wealthy older woman who served decades in prison for murdering her husband. The book club ends up providing a haven for them all. For the first time in their lives, they find a place to belong.

The novel was a book club pick for Simon & Schuster, a Reader's Digest Select Edition, and a main selection of the Pulpwood Queens, an international book club with more than 600 chapters. It has been translated into Portuguese and published in Brazil. It has also been published in Hungary and the Czech Republic, and it was selected by Library Journal (the American Library Association) in an article recommending books about book clubs.

Here is a sample of reviews of the first novel:

"You may already know Hearth's name - the former journalist wrote the nonfiction book Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years which was a bestseller and play. Miss Dreamsville is Hearth's first novel, and her fictional storytelling is just as captivating." - Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan, The Durham (N.C.) Sun

“Sometimes, an exceptional writer finds an exceptional premise, and the result is a truly exceptional book. Such is the case with Miss Dreamsville...The writing is brilliant, especially the dialogue through which the characters are defined." - Philip K. Jason, Southern Literary Review

"Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society was a surprise. Segregation, feminism, gays coming out, inter-racial dating, it's all in there, written as it happened in small towns everywhere. And wisdom; you could learn a lot about life from reading this book. Most of all, be daring, be friends, be true to yourself. By the end, I cried and I must say, I wouldn't mind hearing more about each of the richly painted characters."- Patricia Harman, author of the novel, The Midwife of Hope River