Red Christmas ornament

Gifting hope and holiday spirit year-round

Twinkling lights and ornate baubles cover the fragrant Christmas tree, providing a festive canopy for the colorful mountain of presents underneath. Chocolate chip cookies and steaming mugs of hot cocoa are in good supply, ready to be enjoyed in front of the fireplace. Christmas dinner preparations are running on a timetable less forgiving a German train schedule, and the family is finally free of drama. It’s the perfect picture of domestic holiday bliss . . . then you wake up and remember you aren’t Martha Stewart or Santa Claus, and your family makes soap operas look tame. Oh, well, the dream was fun while it lasted.

Creating Christmas fantasies is something author Karen Hulene Bartell has done for years, both in her mind and in print. “I aggrandize Christmas in my head—and it’s great in my head,” she says. “My imagination takes what occurs and adds to it to make it bigger and better.”

The results of her unfettered imagination have made Christmas integral to many of her novels, since it serves as the backdrop to stories of love and the supernatural set around the world. Belize Navidad, Lone Star Christmas, and Christmas in Catalonia transport readers to Belize, San Antonio, and Spain respectively, and readers travel to the snowy St. Louis area to uncover Cahokia’s secrets in Karen’s most recent novel, Christmas in Cahokia: Song of the Owl.

Christmas may be celebrated in different ways around the world, but the emotions tied to the holiday are widely shared. Like excitement for presents, time off from work, and eating a ridiculous number of sweets. There’s also the giddy anticipation for what the holiday has in store. “That’s the magic I want to put into my Christmas books,” Karen explains. “It’s coming! It’s coming! Is it here yet? The feeling manifests differently in every book, but it’s the Christmas season where you’re expecting it.”

Karen Hulene Bartell

Photo by Peter Bartell

It’s true that Christmas is a joyous occasion, but it happens only once a year. Life’s hardships, such as alcoholism, drug abuse, and unplanned pregnancies, can occur anytime. Karen’s characters must endure these situations, which push them to evolve as their story unfolds. “It’s about the human condition,” Karen says. “The characters all start from a bad place. But how they deal with it, how they come from a not-so-good place to a good place, is always different. In my books, it always works out. Maybe not at first, or the way they’re hoping, expecting, or praying for it to, but it works out for the better.”

Karen has some life experience in that area, too. The Blanco River flood of 2015 caused devastation to the Hill Country and countless families, and as a Driftwood resident, Karen witnessed the aftermath firsthand. In response to the tragedy, she was inspired to write Holy Water: Rule of Capture.

“So many of our friends lost their homes and everything they own in the flood, but the book is only partly about that,” Karen says. “It’s about the beauty of the land before the flood, the rape of the land after the flood, and what’s going on politically regarding ground water—what is still going on. Texas is the land of the biggest pump. First in line, first in time. But if everybody took what they’re entitled to, there would be nothing flowing.”

Yet there are two sides to every story, with the truth lying somewhere in between. Knowing this, Karen strives to provide balanced perspectives in her work. “There are so many messages I’m trying to convey without forcing them down anybody’s throat,” Karen says. “One character feels this way about the subject, another character feels that way about it. I try to show different points of view, then leave it up to the reader to come to their own decision.”

Christmas in Cahokia cover

Karen has published ten fiction novels, an American Business English textbook, a children’s storybook, and four cookbooks to date, with her first Valentine’s Day novel—Sacred Heart: Valentine, Texas—set to release in February 2018. With so many titles under her belt, one may incorrectly assume that writing novels is her full-time job.

“I get up about 3:30 every morning, and I write from 3:30 until 6:30 A.M. Then I work a regular shift at the VA downtown as a technical writer,” Karen explains. “When I come home from work, there’s no imagination left. I don’t know if my mind works at night while I’m sleeping or what, but when I wake up, something has come into my mind, and I can type enough to get my day’s quota.”

Even after all that writing, Karen still carves out time to give motivational speeches across the Hill Country and Central Texas. “I talk to a lot of churches, emphasizing religion, spirituality, divinity, and the supernatural,” she says.

Karen also offers free classes for would-be authors on how to self-publish books. “In a year I should be able to write and teach full time. I’m proud because many of my students have gone on to publish books,” she says. “It gives me a little burst of joy.”

To learn more about Karen and her work, visit

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