Two former Northeast Ohio newspaper journalists have brought their writing skills to the new world of online publishing.
Rena Koontz’s book, “Love’s Secret Fire,” published by Crimson Romance, hit digital bookstores Sept. 24, and Hilary Bernstein’s book, “First Bites,” was released Oct. 11.
Both have received awards for excellence in journalism, and now they bring their expertise to new avenues in their careers.
They are at opposite ends of the book writing spectrum — Koontz has written a romantic suspense novel, while Bernstein’s book deals with encouraging healthy eating habits for babies and toddlers.
But the women share a deep love of writing that began with voracious reading.
“As a teen, one of the first books that captured my imagination was ‘The Flame and the Flower,’ ” Koontz said. “The trend then was historical romances called ‘bodice rippers.’ I must have read that book 52 times and thought ‘I want to write one of those one day.’
“Well, it’s taken a long time, but I’ve done it.”
Koontz said her book will “provide escapism for people who have had a crappy day and want to escape into a fictional world for an hour or two.”
“Love’s Secret Fire” is not the first book she’s written, “but it’s the first to see print,” she said. She credits her husband with giving her the encouragement to start writing.
“I kept coming up with excuses as to why I couldn’t write,” said Koontz, who worked as community editor at The Gazette for a short time in the late 1990s, before becoming a reporter at The Plain Dealer. “I had the characters, the plot all worked out in my head for years but never put them on paper. My husband went out, bought a laptop and said, ‘OK, now write.’ ”
Koontz, who now lives in Forsyth, Ill., put together a book in about a year, but discovered she’d jumped into the deep end of the romance writing pool and didn’t know how to swim the waters of submissions and marketing her work.
“And I didn’t really know how to write fiction at that point. I was writing like a journalist as opposed to a novelist,” she said.
To bolster her skills, she joined the Northeast Ohio chapter of Romance Writers of America.
“I learned from my mistakes,” she said. “I did too much telling and not enough showing in that first book.”
When she sat down to write “Love’s Secret Fire,” she was inspired by one of her first assignments as a journalist on the cops and courts beat for the local paper of a Pittsburgh suburb. Her storyline revolves around a reporter investigating a series of arson fires, and Koontz drew on memories of a ride-along she took with firemen who were doing patrols in hopes of catching an arsonist who was torching abandoned buildings.
“It was midnight and we were creeping down back alleys with the lights off,” she said. “We didn’t spot him that night — I don’t know what would have happened if we had — but the experience stuck in my head and planted the seeds for the book.”
Koontz believes writers always put a little bit of themselves into what they write. Her main character has a twin brother, and Koontz relied on the bond she had with her own twin brother to establish the relationship on paper. Her brother passed away before he could read the book, “but Ronnie did get to see the cover. He’d promised to read it, even though it was a ‘girl’ book.”
Although Koontz recognizes the importance of electronic books, or e-books, she still loves ink on paper and hopes when “Love’s Secret Fire” comes out in paperback it will open the door to more traditional publication venues.
“I want to see my name on the cover of a book,” she said. “I like to hold a book in my hands. When you close a book, you see the title and the author’s name.
“You don’t have that with an e-book. It’s a dream come true to see your name on a book cover.”
The advantage to digital books is that they reach print much faster than traditionally printed books.
“Love’s Secret Fire” may be purchased at amazon.com, iTunes and Google Books. It will be available at barnesandnoble.com in November.
Hilary Bernstein’s “First Bites” is available through www.firstbitesbook.com and www.amazon.com. It also will be available at iBookstore, Sony and Barnesandnoble.com within the next month.
Bernstein shares Koontz’s love of reading as a child.
“I’ve loved to read and write my own stories since I was young,” said Bernstein, who majored in journalism at Otterbein College and came to The Gazette in the late 1990s and worked for about 10 years as a columnist and lifestyle editor. “I still have a drawing from first grade — it’s a picture of me writing at a desk, and I wrote, ‘When I grow up I will be an authoress.’ ”
She continues to heed the words of Mary Rodgers, author of the children’s book “Freaky Friday,” who once responded to Bernstein’s request for advice with “Write, write, write!”
Bernstein, a Stark County resident, now uses her investigative prowess to sort through the scientific articles, medical journals and online sites to provide understandable explanations and practical solutions for introducing babies and children to healthy nutrition.
What began in her blog, Accidentally Green (www.accidentallygreen.com), to help families make healthy and ecological choices in their lives and to find out things she wants to know as a mom, led to her first e-book, “First Bites.”
Bernstein said she didn’t know the health advantages or disadvantages of breast milk, formula, or processed baby food during her first pregnancy.
She only knew she wanted the cheapest option that also was fairly simple. Now her dedication to writing and research has earned her a spot in the invitation-only Healthy Child, Healthy World Network, and her blog was named to the Top 100 Sites for Going Green in 2012. She also was voted No. 13 in the Circle of Moms’ Top 25 Eco-Friendly Moms of 2012.
Once her son was born and she began making choices, Bernstein learned, through research and trial and error, about the health advantages — and disadvantages — of certain foods given to children in the first year of life. She said “First Bites” is the book she wished she had had during her pregnancy and her baby’s first year.
Bernstein walks expectant and new moms through the nutritional maze of choices confronting them. She describes the differences of breastfeeding and formula feeding and explains how making your own baby food is not only healthier than store-bought but often cheaper as well. She also offers tips on how and when to introduce new foods and discusses the effects additives can have on behavior.
“Sometimes people feel pressured to make big changes right away,” she said, “but if they take away one thing from the book, I hope it’s that they understand taking small steps will lead to bigger changes. You have to start somewhere, and every small change will make a difference. It’s not something that has to happen all at once.”
As a woman of faith, Bernstein also brings a spiritual perspective to her work.
“When I looked in Scripture, I found the Bible does address how we should feed our children,” Bernstein said. She added that 10 percent of all proceeds will be donated to World Vision’s programs that help feed hungry children. World Vision, a humanitarian organization, works with families and communities to eliminate the causes of poverty.
“God laid this on my heart,” Bernstein said. “In America, not many people have to worry about where the next meal is coming from. I’m excited to see how much we can give. They have matching grants.”
Contact Judy A. Totts at firstname.lastname@example.org.