Curious and Curiouser

Don’t you love starting a new book? A new series? I do. It is the blank page of it all that is both delightful and daunting. As I considered my next series, I asked myself what stories I wanted to tell, why, what I could bring to it, would it be in the present or be about the past. Where and when would it all take place? Its questions like this that drive me down the rabbit hole of research, disappearing for about two weeks then reappearing with either a plan or holding a handful of rabbit fur and spitting dirt. If spitting dirt, I realize I took the wrong tunnel and head back down again.

This time, I emerged from the hole with an idea for a series about a spunky boarding house owner and a newspaperman in a small village in northwestern Illinois. The series begins in 1876 the year a big city company built a boilermaker plant on the wrong side of the tracks.

I was born in such a town, one that happens to have a wonderful Historical Society with a fine website that includes the police logs from the 1870s, select daily newspapers and the 1876 city directory with business advertisements. Wonderful reference materials filled with future plots. The newspaper was a bi-fold sheet that included local news, crimes, socials, births, deaths, and church services. The real story in between the lines is the friction of growth, of newcomers, of illness, of drought, and the pain of unpredictable accidents. To gain an understanding of the times, I researched mining coal walls, building boilermakers, the effects of the railroad on growth, raising and shipping livestock (specifically hogs), the effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the country, and how all these effected the tiny, Christian communes clinging to their beliefs and way of life that littered northwestern Illinois.

As the town migrated from farming to building boilers that changed the world, mining coal, and making wagons, men set adrift by the War and families seeking work arrived looking for a place to call home. Mind you, in the 1870s there was no village water, sewer, or other infrastructure to support the growth, not to mention building codes. The law was a Constable riding a circuit that included the burgeoning town. Expecting the growth to continue forever, the village Trustees had big plans for it.

The town in my books has a lot in common with my hometown but isn’t, which in no way negates the responsibility to accurately portray the times. It is bucolic with big park, a growing restlessness, surging growth, and lots of potential for mayhem. I get to pick my plots, research endlessly, check 1876 appropriate word usage (it seems every other sentence), discover (serendipitously) that the Pinkertons had a famous female detective working out of Chicago, that both the Winchester ’73 rifle and the Frontier Colt revolver used .44-40 cartridges, and that every day of the week had a purpose and if skillful a woman might have all day Thursday off from her chores.  (Yes, that was one sentence.)

Don’t forget the proper clothing, culture, and morays — if I weren’t a writer, I’d be a research librarian — oops, did that in college, though far too briefly. I conclude that mystery writers need a passion to learn, access to the internet, to donate to Wikipedia from time to time out of guilt, and permission from themselves to order weird books such as Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book and The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1876. Add to the above requirements a brain that plots, conspires, considers motive, and psychology and off you go into the land of the curious and curiouser hopefully to emerge 70,000 or so well plotted, entertaining words later.

Bad Boys and Girls

Some of the most fun I have when writing is fleshing out the character of the bad boys and girls who may not be the villain(ess) but who add depth and color to the hero(ine) ‘s troubles. Occasionally, one bad boy or girl will demand more reader time. No matter how carefully plotted a book or series is, they refuse their assigned part, wanting more. I always think of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet when characters pitch a fit, because to my way of thinking, Shakespeare killed Mercutio because Mercutio insisted on vibrantly stealing the show.

A rampant bad boy or girl in a mystery or thriller can be a problem or add unexpected depth to the plot and to the main character. I have had more than one walk-on demand extra story time. Sometimes like Shakespeare, I just whack them, either write them out or whack them, not as in cutting them from the text, but as in off them in the story. Still some refuse to take their curtain call, one example is an Indochine named Pierre Minotier who slunk his way into my Cooper Quartet series. He is a walk-on in Dead Legend, a shadowy figure in Head First, a player in Pay Back, and that’s just the first three books. Trust me, Pierre inhabits Don’t Tell, the newly published final book in the series..

What is it about Pierre?

Pierre was raised on the family plantation, Bonne Chance, southeast of Saigon. His father, a French plantation operator, was both a legitimate businessman and head of one of the five French sanctioned opium cartels. As his father leaves for Dien Bien Phu and his death, he burdens Pierre with the family business(es), entreating his son to ensure his sister Chloe’s safety, not that Pierre’s sister needs much saving. Chloe is a pistol, too. Still, Pierre makes a deal to get Chloe out of Vietnam that brings him to near ruin, requiring him to consider his future, the cartel’s future, and whose side he takes in the Vietnam War.

Pierre is a raptor, and I’m very fond of him. I hadn’t meant it to be that way. At first, I felt betrayed by his refusal to fade away before realizing he had an irresistible sleazy, rotten, wonderfulness about him and welcomed him to each successive book. And in turn he enlivened the books, adding a bit of rot to each, and moral ambiguity to my hero Laury Cooper’s journey. That’s a lot to carry for a bit player that wasn’t supposed to exist.

Is it his sleaze or his power?

Before Pierre appears in Dead Legend, Laury Cooper considers Pierre’s reputation:

The one-hundred-year-old Minotier franchise was operated by Chloe’s brother, Pierre. Laury knew him by reputation. They had never met.

Over drinks in Saigon, Philippe Latondre, the photographer, had ratted that Pierre bought and resold downed pilots for exorbitant amounts of lucre. Latondre boasted, as though Pierre was some how his, that Pierre was adrift, immoral, deadly, corrupt, loaded with funds and impossible to find, moving as he did in the dappled gray of the shadow business.

In Head First, Robin Haas, Laury Cooper’s cousin, finds an envelope folded between the pages of Jolie Minotier’s diary (Chloe’s daughter). Robin shares it with the darling Chief Warrant Officer Dan Cisco, another bit player who refused to stay within the bounds set for him. His footprint grows in each ensuing book, a bit of a ying to Pierre’s yang. If Pierre is a dark knight, Dan is a dumpling.

“The address on the envelope is in San Leandro.”

“She’s sixteen. Her mother and her pack of Rottweilers are in town. They tried to nab her in Berkeley, she came to you. There aren’t a whole lot of people she trusts. For some reason, you appear to be one of them. Pierre Minotier may be another.”

“Not Pierre, Dan. No.” Robin disagreed.

By Pay Back, Pierre demands everyone’s attention:

A small, elegant man in his mid-forties perched on the cot at the back of the chamber. He was blond and dark-eyed with a two- or three-day growth of reddish-blond beard. He was dressed, not unlike Cooper, in white linen slacks, with socks, blue canvas shoes, and a soft, yellow lawn shirt that fit. He crossed to Cooper with his right hand extended, showing the copper bracelet he wore around his wrist.

“Mais, oui.” Pierre directed Cooper away from the others, his silky gate silent in his canvas shoes. Cooper and Minotier were a study; one dark, one light, one tall, one short, yet both moved as though their timing belts were tuned perfectly for combustion.

And, finally, in Don’t Tell. Pierre Minotier and Laury Cooper are joined by mutual daring and admiration:

Pierre rotated the envelope so that the flap faced Laury. “Avant de l’ouvrir, I have had the contents for a month. It was a gift of sorts, more a bribe, je pense. These people, they are not what they wish you to believe, mon cher. They do not play with fairness.”

“And you are overcome by French-ness,” Laury quipped.

Pierre lifted one shoulder, stared into the brightening fog, and said, “Mais oui. I find these things difficult with those I have strong feelings for—good or bad.” A frisson rode up Laury’s back at the softness in Pierre’s voice.

Or the whole package?

I took great care in writing Pierre’s character, and in return he offered shading, nuance, moral ambiguity and more than a few thrills. He has his fierce loyalties. To those he trusts, he is patient, caring, and slyly supportive. Over the arc of the Quartet, Pierre skulks from a shadowy, frightening participant in a horrifying scam to an ally, the kind you can rely on when all of the cards are against you — for a price — a price you may not expect or want to pay. I’m glad he fought for his place in the telling, stayed true to himself and the Coopers, and let me have fun with a character that, like Crabby Appleton of yore, is rotten to the core. Or is he?

The books of the Cooper Quartet, Dead Legend, Head First, Pay Back and Don’t Tell are available in ebook, papeback and hardcover on Amazon. Pierrre starts here: https://www.amazon.com/Dead-Legend-Cooper-Quartet-Church/dp/1735520829.

Saying Goodbye to a Series

First off, Happy Thanksgiving to all! It is a bit bittersweet for me, as I find myself oddly at a loss with the publication of Don’t Tell, the final book in The Cooper Quartet. I suspect all authors suffer the same symptoms when a series ends.

  • I miss the Coopers, Laury, Byron, and their cousin Robin.
  • I keep wondering if I should write the one book I didn’t and fill in a big relationship blank. The book would take place in 1970 between the first and second books. If I did, The Quartet would become a Quintet. Then what?
  • Am I the only one who cares that these fighters are now on their own without me guiding them through further adventures?
  • Did I do what I set out to do: get one military family through the tumult of the Vietnam War while exorcising my own ghosts of the same period?
  • Did I manage to show the dichotomy of military women’s lives at that specific time in history when women’s roles were changing so rapidly?
  • Now what?

I suspect that some series go on and on because the author just can’t say goodbye to the main character, and as long as fans can’t either, that’s a good thing. I admit to an adoration for the MacDonald’s, Ross and John, whose detectives mirrored the society in which they existed and who grew and changed over the books. Travis McGee, in particular, begins like Mike Hammer with all women objects and ends understanding a world where women are not only not objects but are equals. Still, too often, series drag on, the protagonists don’t grow, readers learn nothing new … blah, blah, blah. I stop reading those after about the third book.

I didn’t want to be one of those authors who just yamity, yamity, yams unable to say goodbye to their own creation. So, I planned The Cooper Quartet as a trilogy. It became a quartet when Don’t Tell demanded I write it as the finale to the series. The procedural plot of Don’t Tell happened to me, as I note in my acknowledgment, except no one died. However, it was the reason I left the Navy. So, Robin became my vehicle to tell the world what happens to good people caught in a rigid system, even as the world rotates in their favor.

I’m happy to leave the Coopers, truly. Mostly. Am I in mourning? Yes, a bit. Okay, more than a bit. I have strong feelings for Laury Cooper, Chloe Minotier, her brother Pierre, and Dan Cisco. And, of course, my alter ego, LT Robin Haas. But I set out to write a family saga told via four military thrillers with the climax of the arc the third book and the denouement the fourth.

The first book in The Cooper Quartet, Dead Legend, takes place in 1967-68 during the hardest fought period of the Vietnam War and looks at what grifts war can hide. The second, Head First, occurs during the Christmas carpet bombing of 1972 and touches on the plight of Amerasian children. Pay Back deals with the Fall of Saigon and the corruption of the war, and Don’t Tell covers the fallout of all three prior books and the societal changes that occurred while our protagonists battled through the era. And, yes, I suppose, if there was a clambering to know why Chloe Minotier has such a soft spot for Laury Cooper, I’d write number five.

The books in The Cooper Quartet (Dead Legend, Head First, Pay Back and Don’t Tell) are available on Amazon in all formats.

Postscript:  For those who have asked me about my use of the red and yellow stripes that tie the four covers together. Here is the answer. The flag of South Vietnam has three horizontal red stripes on yellow like the horizontal stripes on the books in The Quartet, and the Vietnam Service ribbon has three vertical red stripes on yellow (green at each end). But do you know what I’ve learned? Other than Vietnam Era veterans, absolutely no one remembers the ribbon or the South Vietnam flag. And though I am aware that the U.S. wanted nothing so much as to leave the distaste of Vietnam behind, it is still stunning how completely it was accomplished. (Thus ends my rant)

The Paths through the Forest

A storm is brewing out my windows, clouds dense with rain hang heavy over the hills. You can feel the damp in your bones, in the air you breathe, and the chill that falls at your feet. Depending on your perspective, the promise of a deep drenching rain either fills you with trepidation or joy. Joy for me…always.

Weather has been part of my being since I was a child, thanks to my father, who flew through it all. And though I spent my time in the Navy in weather, I never once dreamed of taking that path in my life. But my broad brush with it has enriched me and my writing. I look at the sky, read the signs, and assess how what I see will affect my world, real or imaginary. In my stories, rocks, dirt, and slush roil down hillsides, a dry roadway on a frosty night hides a bridge slick with black ice, and the ocean sucks life from the beaches depositing its victims with the tide.

I have an affinity for the muddy side!

Like all of us, I’ve stared down many forks in the road and chosen a path through the forest of opportunity, fear, and hope lying undefined before me. I reinvented myself time and again to succeed in male-dominated businesses. I bucked trends, bosses, been on bucking horses, driven sixty-thousand miles a year back and forth over two states in a station wagon filled with educational assessments, flown hundreds of thousands of miles in the same quest, set up on demand scoring facilities nationwide, and my husband wants me to add, ridden an elephant.

My point is this . . . one of the great joys of writing is the ability it presents to follow anew the paths not taken. Each plot is an opportunity to ask what if I had become an anthropologist, a minister, a professor of English literature, a Naval aviator, or taken the bigtime NY advertising agency job when it was offered. Maybe I should have apprenticed at Vogue like my great aunt wanted or started at the bottom at National Geographic and worked my way up? What if I had purchased the family farm and lived that dream?

How different would my life have been if I had grown up in the town we were born in, married my high school sweetheart, and lived there still. Who would I be? I know I would be mad as a hatter and ready for the brick sanitarium with barred windows that once overlooked a sharply manicured lawn in the town I consider home. I can imagine being that person, bound to a town, a husband, a job, children, and family. How does that me react to the current me when we meet head-on in a plot?

Each path we don’t take informs and colors us as much as the one we did. The curiosity that drove us toward that choice lingers inside us. What we learned before we turned away still piques our curiosity and benefits our knowledge base. Writing is our opportunity to find out through our characters what might have been. Of course, as ladies of mystery, we spice it all up with a dead body or two, a conspiracy, a disappearance, or perhaps just the evil that stalks the dark of night. Boo!

I chose to leave the Navy when the life of one of my division members was destroyed by an unethical decision, supported by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and three fearful men. What if I had chosen to stay in? I’ll never know. But the incident and my resulting decision rode my shoulder as I drafted the final book of the Cooper Quartet, my series about a military family in the Vietnam Era. Don’t Tell will be released November 11 and is already a Reedsy Must Read, noting, “This author is an expert at action-packed intrigue and mystery.” And just in, from Booklife, “In this military milieu, Church—a Vietnam-era Navy veteran herself—does a remarkable job of keeping multiple plotlines running with clarity and power. Church spins a lively tale where motives are unclear in a vividly realized hothouse naval environment. The engaging characters and their detailed histories make this a satisfying capstone to a wide-ranging epic.”

Don’t Tell will be available November 11 on Amazon as an ebook, paperback, or in hardcover. In the meantime here is a link to the Booklife Review: https://booklife.com/project/don-t-tell-59592

The 700-Word Crazies

California’s wildfires inspired this story. The 700-word length was more manageable the second-time around, but this tale required more precise word choices than my first attempt six months ago. For me, writing this story was a moment to reflect on the power of words, how one choice over another changes the storyline, the emotion, and the character. Mid-way through, I even considered rewriting it in the first-person, tried it, and realized the tone was just right in third person: distant and indifferent. Had Louisa Belden narrated her story, the coldness would have evaporated, and a completely different tale would have emerged.

So, here it is, still imperfect, but? As you read it, consider words you might have chosen, how you might have told the same tale, and from whose viewpoint. I know I would make changes … does the search for perfect never end? I suspect not, but I do know the discipline of 700-words is a great way to brush up your skills.

Almost Free

It had been an accident; a metal blade hit stone and sparked the dry weeds. The breeze did the rest. Louisa made no attempt to put it out. She drove her tractor into the small shed at the family home and waited. It was time for it to end.

When her cellphone chirped the evacuation notice, she checked out her kitchen window, the ridgeline was haloed in orange. She snapped on the charm bracelet her father had given her, grabbed her box of treasures, her computer, and her emergency suitcase, packed them in her ancient SUV, and hightailed it to a hotel. She didn’t leave the prescribed note on the door indicating the house was empty — she did pour gasoline on the kitchen floor and turn on the gas burners.

That was three days ago. Louisa tracked the raging fire religiously. She knew when updates were posted, she knew the best incidence commanders, she even knew the old burns. A knock on her hotel room door drew her attention from the latest posting. The maps weren’t always accurate, but if yesterday’s was, the fire had ended her long watch.

“Miss Belden?” a voice called, followed by another knock.

Louisa peered through the drapes. Two police, one male, one female. She opened the door, wrapped in a thin bathrobe from her emergency pack. Instinctively, she clutched the lapels of the robe tight over her favorite sleep shirt.

“Do you have a moment?” The two cops stepped in. Louisa’s right hand shot up, the ice cream cone charm on her bracelet slapping her wrist. “Sorry. May we enter?’

Louisa sat at a small table in front of the hotel window. The police joined her, folding their hands on the tabletop.

“Your home has burned to the ground. While putting out embers, the fire detail found bones in the ashes of the kitchen, the fire seems to have concentrated there. We’ve been looking for you since, hoping to find you alive.”

Louisa fidgeted with her charm. “You found me. There was a root cellar under the kitchen; my sister and I played house in it when we were little.”

“Christine?”

Louisa nodded. “She disappeared when she was twelve, between the bus stop and home. Twenty years ago. I have a picture of her in my treasure box.” Louisa fluttered a hand toward her few items piled on an armchair.

“No need. This bracelet was in the ashes near the bones. Not a full skeleton, the smaller bones disintegrated in the heat. A skull and femur survived.”

Louisa fingered the horse charm dangling from the bracelet the male cop held. “Father insisted that Christine was kidnapped because the bracelet was gone.”

“According to the cold case files, you girls rode the bus to school that day, you had band practice, Christine came home alone. One of the neighbor boys claimed he saw your father and sister in the woods arguing or kissing the night before. He was four, so it was disregarded. He still insists.”

“So?”

“Your father molested your sister, didn’t he? The bracelet was meant to buy her silence.” The male cop flicked the ice cream cone dangling from Louisa’s bracelet. “I bet you were happy when he moved on to Christine. Or were you jealous?”

The female cop crossed to Louisa’s treasure box. “Enough to kill her,” she said, holding up a filet knife.

“Christine’s favorite shooter marble is in there, too, if that matters. My sister showed me the knife on the way to school. It was back in the utensil drawer the next day. I searched for her for years. When I found her grave, I told father I was going to the police, he bought me a pinecone charm.”

“You didn’t leave a note when you evacuated, did you hope the incident report would assume the bones were yours?”

Louisa nodded. “Then we would be free.”

“We’ve tried to locate your father. Do you know where he is?

“Gone. Mother remarried after he left.”

“The femur was an adolescent’s; the skull is an adult’s. The fire crew is still searching.”

“May I?” Louisa held her hand out for her sister’s bracelet, adding Christine’s charm to her own.

.###

A quick note: The final book in the Cooper Vietnam Era Quartet, Don’t Tell will be available November 11, 2021. In celebration of the coming event, the ebook of the third book in the series, Pay Back, will be available for $.99 October 7-13. https://www.amazon.com/Pay-Back-Cooper-Vietnam-Quartet-ebook/dp/B08CJDHP92