Saturday, November 18, 2017

A “Puzzling” Inspiration by Sarah J. McNeal

Most writers draw on people, events, places or objects  as inspiration for their stories…and so do I.

For my Christmas story, "A Christmas Visitor", in this year’s Prairie Rose Publication holiday anthology, SWEET TEXAS CHRISTMAS, I needed to have something for my hero to redeem himself to the heroine for his two year absence. It had to be something that took thought, time, and effort on his part…and it had to be something out of the ordinary, something lovingly special.

Just so happens I have a rather unusual box on my dresser which I bought some years ago at a shop that sells handmade items from around the world. This box is carved to represent two fish swimming in opposite directions like the astrology sign for Pisces. The special thing about this box is it is a puzzle to open it. It takes some twists, removal of pieces in a particular order, and some sliding movements to get to whatever treasure inside.

Puzzle boxes, known as himitsu-bako were first invented during the Meiji Period by three artisans, Takajiro Ohkawa, Tatsunosuke Okiyama, and Mr. Kikukawa who lived in Hakone, Japan. Hakone was a favorite tourist town and soon the small trinket boxes became popular. The boxes became bigger and more elaborate and soon became known as sikake-bako (trick box) or tei-bako (clever box).

Japanese puzzle boxes can only be opened by someone who knows or can figure out the correct sequence to unlock the secret compartment. Simple boxes may have as few as four moves while the more elaborate designs may take as many as sixty moves to open. The sequence, at first only known to the craftsman, is essential to solving the puzzle and getting into the secret compartment.

My hero in "A Christmas Visitor", Sterling Thoroughgood, comes from a family of carpenters and woodworkers. Although Sterling has chosen cattle ranching as his life’s profession, he is also a woodworking artist. He creates a puzzle box for Matilda and inside its secret compartment is something very special, something he hopes may win Matilda’s hardened heart.

SWEET TEXAS CHRISTMAS is an anthology of sweet historical western romances that take place in the state of Texas written by veteran western romance writers: Stacey Coverstone, Sarah J. McNeal, Cheryl Pierson, and Marie Piper.
(my contribution) A Christmas Visitor
Prairie Rose Publications
Released November 5, 2017

 He left her…Now he’s back…But not for long…

Sterling Thoroughgood was Matilda Barton’s first and only love, but he left her three years ago to seek his fortune in Wyoming. And now he’s come back with a puzzle box as a gift with a secret inside. But as far as Matilda’s concerned, it’s three years too late.
Is love lost forever or does the mysterious puzzle box hold the key to happiness?

Excerpt (from the opening):

“Don’t you even think about stepping up on this porch, Sterling Alexander Thoroughgood, or I’ll shoot a hole in you big enough for a team of horses to jump through.” The woman wearing a faded blue calico dress aimed the shotgun straight at his heart…and sometimes his liver since she wasn’t holding the shotgun all that steady.
Sterling raised his hands in the air. His bare hands were practically numb from the cold. He glanced up at the slate gray sky. Snow’s comin’. Then he grinned at the woman holding the shotgun. “Merry Christmas to you, too, Matilda.”
She dipped the shotgun for just a moment, but raised it again as if on a second thought. “What do you want here after being gone for three years? Did you break some hearts up in Wyoming? Maybe you have some fathers and brothers gunning for you and you thought you’d come running back here to hide.”
Well, there it was. He’d hurt her when he left and she wasn’t about to let him forget it.

Excerpt (Sterling gives Matilda the puzzle box):

When she glanced up to ask Sterling how to open the box, he stood before her with a grin spread across his face. Before she could ask, he answered her unspoken question. “It’s a puzzle box, darlin’. There is a way to move the pieces to open the box. It took a while for me to draw up the plans and quite some time to get it to work just right. I thought about what pleasure it would be for you, so I was determined to make it just right.” The light of pride fairly glowed in his eyes.
“It’s a beautiful thing like a work of art. That it is made into a puzzle box with such intricacy and thoughtful design, makes it the most significant present I have ever received.” She heard something shift inside the box when she moved it to examine it more closely to discover how to open it. “There’s something inside?”
Sterling nodded his dark head. “Yes. In fact, the greater gift is inside the box.” Again, he grinned with a boyish delight. “I made it big enough to hold all your treasures. Do you like it?”
“Oh Sterling, I positively adore it. I can see the craftsmanship you put into it. I didn’t know you could create such a beautiful thing.” She smiled. “And I am so delighted to know you made it with me in mind. Would you open it for me so I can see what’s inside?” Matilda tried to hand him the box, but he shook his head and refused.
“No ma’am. You must discover how to open it yourself. That’s half the fun.”

Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media:


  1. What a beautiful box. I have two handmade boxes by a friend. In one case, it looks like a small trunk of a tree, while each box can swing open to hold small jewelry items. I used a handmade box in one of my books also. They are indeed very cool-- especially if you know the creator.

    1. You are so lucky to know the artist who made your box. I think a box with a tree or a swan would be just magnificent. Those are my two favorite symbols. After those two, I like dragonflies and fish. Is a tree your favorite symbol?

    2. I hadn't thought about that, but since we have the seven huge oaks by our home and I appreciate their energy, it's definitely one. Dragonflies are in various forms in the house :)

    3. When you mentioned the "energy" of trees, I couldn't help but think what that energy means to me. because trees are old, they seem wise and calm. I find them comforting.

  2. What's in the box? Anyone with the least amount of imagination would want to know...What's in the box? Now I see two of you know about the boxes..Sarah and Rain...each as unique as the other..talented and unique!

    1. Celia, I think I would have asked that question, too. I should have included it in this blog.
      In one compartment is both my wedding bands, a bloodstone ring Mom and Pop gave me for my 21st birthday (bloodstone is my birthstone and Pop's), my gold journalism medal from high school, a beaded bracelet my husband gave me in 1970, my friend's lieutenant bar with a yellow ribbon from when she was in Iraq after 9/11, a friendship bracelet my great-niece made for me when I had cancer and my baby bracelet.
      In the second compartment:
      Pop's dog tags (Navy/WWII) on a leather string with a bear bead,a 100 year old penny, Pop's class ring he gave Mom as a wedding ring until he could buy her a wedding band, Mom's Girl Scout pin from when she was a Girl Scout leader, and an old baby diaper pin with a blue duck I think belonged to my oldest niece, Christy, who died in the service.
      I have a fascination with wood and tin boxes. They are wonderful for storing my keepsakes and treasure.
      Thank you so much for coming...and I would like to add I wish you continued success with the mail order bride collection. It's doing GREAT!

  3. So the box holds small items that mean something BIG to you. it. Most interesting? Diaper pin with a blue duck. Who would have ever thought of that?

    1. Yes, Celia. The box has small things that mean a great deal to me.
      Christy's diaper pin from when she was a baby was the only thing I had of hers small enough to put in that box. She was a sweet kid, only 8 years younger than me. She was determined to get a college education. She joined the service to improve her life, but unfortunately died there. She was just 21.The light went out in my oldest sister's family when Christy died.
      My parents each had a cedar box they kept their treasures in. I have them both. I must have gotten my love of treasure boxes from them. When I miss them sometimes it helps me to get out one of their treasure boxes and look at the little things that meant so much to them.

  4. Sarah, I've enjoyed your other stories and look forward to reading this anthology. Best wishes for a lovely Thanksgiving.

    1. Thank you so much for your lovely comment, Caroline.

  5. Sarah, what a clever idea. Incorporating a puzzle box in your story is so unique, I'm sure it will fascinate all the readers. Best wishes with Sweet Texas Christmas!

  6. Lyn, I must confess that I used a puzzle box some years ago in a fantasy story, THE LIGHT OF VALMORA, which is up for revision and to be released by Fire Star Press.
    Thank you for coming and for your kind words


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