Simone (aka “Smoochie”) is a former talk radio host who sidelined her on-air persona to lead a carefully curated life until her 17-year-old niece moves in, bringing adolescent angst and drama with her. Things are fun for a while, then it all goes south, but Simone emerges better and stronger to become a change agent within her privileged world.

Intrigued? So were the judges of the Colorado Gold Literary Awards Contest, who named “Smoochie Stays Fresh,” a novel by Middle School English teacher Stacy Swearingen, a finalist in the women’s fiction category of this year’s competition.

The seed of Swearingen’s story grew from many summers spent on her family’s pontoon anchored in Maxwell Bay on Lake Minnetonka where an older house on a gorgeous property captured her imagination. “Because we rarely saw anyone on the property's dock or yard, I kept wondering, 'Who are these people?' Finally, I'd imagined so many tidbits about them, I wrote this story, which relies on many playful and harrowing moments between auntie and niece," she says. "I think anyone who's raised teenagers, or who teaches them, would find themselves or someone they know in its scenes. Also, the story is a kind of rumination on empty-nester 'hood,' my current life phase.”

Swearingen completed the 88,000-word manuscript in November and plans to pursue traditional publishing options. “I'll also keep writing,” she says. “My 2017 Donaldson Sabbatical from Blake led me to cultivate a daily writing habit that starts at 5 most mornings and goes until I shift gears at 7am for teaching.” Swearingen finds the feedback she receives from contests like the Colorado Literary Gold to be particularly helpful and says she’ll likely continue to enter more competitions.

“Whether or not publication is in ‘Smoochie's’ future (or whether or not that working title stays intact!), it's fun and time well spent. Having my own writing practice helps me be a more empathetic and energized writing teacher.”