If looking for a locally written book to tuck into a Christmas stocking, Urbana resident Beth Harbison provides a healthy escape from reality in her best-selling novels. Harbison’s eighth novel, “Driving with the Top Down,” was released in August and is a New York Times bestseller. The paperback version of her previous book, “Chose the Wrong Guy, Gave Him the Wrong Finger,” was released in July. Often labeled contemporary romantic fiction, Harbison’s books typically tell stories of modern women dealing with the challenges and adventure of real life.
Other popular Harbison titles include “Shoe Addicts Anonymous,” “When in Doubt, Add Butter,” and “Hope in a Jar,” with common subjects such as friends, shopping and romance. Harbison’s books are mostly light and fun reading, but she often brings depth to her characters and humor to the stories. Readers are often left guessing until the end, where a lesson may be learned. As Publisher’s Weekly described, “Harbison’s books are a perfect blend of ‘chick lit’ and women’s fiction,” and she “creates vivid convincing characters and handles them well.”
Readers can find relief and a little escape in Harbison’s books, and she finds the same through creating the stories. “Writing is an extension of armchair travel,” Harbison said. “You can be and be with who you want, wherever you want.” She first discovered the joy of writing in fourth grade when she decided to re-write the end of “Black Beauty.” “I love horses and wanted to bring them all back to life at the end,” Harbison said. “I discovered the power of re-writing and creating your own life.”
Harbison grew up in Potomac, Md., and found that reading and writing offered a happy escape to life’s challenges, including her father’s sudden death when she was 17. She often escaped into young adult fiction, including the Nancy Drew and Trixi Belden series. “I loved reading about groups of good friends having adventures,” Harbison said. After studying at the University of London’s Harbeck College, Harbison graduated from the University of Maryland. She found writing could be a way to express her ideas and emotions.
Cookbooks were Harbison’s first entry into publishing. She wrote three books on bread machines, but her first book was “A Taste for Love: A Romantic Cookbook for Two,” in 1996. Around the same time, Harbison began writing a new line of light, romantic fantasy novels for Silhouette Books. In 10 years, she wrote 21 American romance novels, including “Diary of a Domestic Goddess,” and “A Dash of Romance.”
Since 2008, Harbison has published eight novels for St. Martin’s Griffin Press, about modern women who face difficult real-life challenges, but the characters are engaging and the story often includes humor and a relatively happy ending. “Writing stories lets me create new lives,” she said. Her books are very rarely and then very loosely based on her life, Harbison said. “Sometimes it was something I wished had happened to me.”
Writing may be therapeutic for Harbison, but she admits it isn’t easy. She called it “the constant impossibility of creating fiction.” For her, writer’s block is having difficulty deciding where the story should go, and as a single mother of two, finding quality time to write is always challenging. “It takes about six months from the first outline to completed manuscript,” Harbison said. “It is several hours most days where I don’t answer the phone and just focus on the story.”
Although she said her writing skills have greatly improved throughout the years, Harbison believes writing was easier in some ways when she was younger. “I was more carefree and fresh and didn’t have as many demands and commitments. I used to write on the kitchen table while my husband fed the baby.” Harbison moved to Urbana in 2006 with her husband, John, and children, Paige and Jack.
John Harbison was locally renowned and performed at nightclubs in Washington, D.C., where he was often part of Harbison, Bond and Goddard. The Harbisons divorced in 2012 after more than 20 years of marriage, but remained close. John Harbison died unexpectedly in March 2013, and Beth has kept very busy with the additional demands of managing his estate and caring for their children, Paige, now 20, and Jack, 14.
Paige has followed in her mother’s footsteps and now writes young adult fiction. Her most recent novel, “Anything to Have You,” came out in January. Paige also works for Orion Wine and Spirits in Urbana, consulting with clients about the extensive liquor collection. Jack is now a freshman at Urbana High School.
Besides her family, friends and writing, Harbison is enjoying the many restaurant choices in the area. “I have really gotten into Frederick food,” Harbison said, “and so many great choices!” She has found another escape from the pressures of writing and life in antiquing. “I don’t get much time to celebrate and relax after a book is finished,” Harbison said. “Then it’s right back to the next one! I love finding old pieces of furniture and re-finishing them, and enjoying a shorter time until the feeling of success.”
Harbison’s book, “Shoe Addicts Anonymous,” is currently being adapted for a movie, and Halle Berry has signed on for a scheduled 2015 release. Learn more about Harbison’s work at www.bethharbison.com or visit her Facebook page.