If you drive around our area in October, you will notice the leaves on the trees have begun to turn, colorful red, orange, and yellow instead of multiple shades of green. The air smells of sweet decay, new mown grass, and when the waves crash against the beach, a clean, verdant aroma wafts through the air, a bit like the ocean but without the brine.
You’ll notice farm markets, large pots of colorful mums clustered together at the edges of the parking lots, filled with a bounty of vegetables: squashes, pumpkins, eggplant, green beans, and apples, lots of apples.
New York is one of the largest apple-growing regions in the country, second only to Washington state. On the south shore of Lake Ontario, where we live, you’ll see acre upon acre of lush orchards, laden with the heavy, ripe fruit. What might surprise you, if you don’t know much about apples, is that not only do they come in different sizes and colors, but there are also hundreds of varieties, old favorites and those recently developed. Each year brings more choices; there’s an almost infinite selection.
Apple harvest here, in the north, is a reason to celebrate. One of our friends spent his earlier years as an MD but has become an apple farmer in retirement (the story of his journey to this point is a long and interesting one), with 100 acres of the sweet and savory fruit. Now he can be seen-cowboy hat, jeans, and boots, shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows-cheerfully working alongside his seasonal employees to pick the crop before the frost creeps in.
We love going to his farm, when on a late afternoon, with a variety of cardboard boxes and tote bags in hand, we stroll through the stands of trees, lined up in rows in military precision. We carefully choose apples that will last in cold storage in our garage throughout the winter: baked into breads, pies, and cakes, eaten with sharp cheese, or sliced into a salad.
After, we’re likely to cluster around a large island in his farmhouse kitchen, drinking glasses of wine and eating charcuterie boards piled high with cheeses, sausages, artisanal breads, and apples, yes, apples. When the skies are clear and the air is cool, he’ll host an evening barbecue for friends in his meadow at the edge of the orchard; a huge bonfire burning with apple wood. Then, we gather, to laugh, share stories and eat a meal of locally sourced food. One year a white bedsheet affixed to the side of his barn served as a screen for an outdoor movie while we munched on apple fritters and popcorn cooked over that fire.
I love October for many reasons: the cool nights and bright warm days; the quiet and calmness now that summer residents and visitors are gone; the bright colors, and the earthy pungency of burning leaves that fills the air. But mostly because it’s apple harvest time, a time for convening with friends and sharing the bounty of the season.
In my mind, it’s never too early to break out the holly and tune up the carols. I’m a Christmas junkie. I cry when I pack away the decorations each year and count down the days when I can put them up again. I’ve toyed with the idea of leaving them up year-round. That would save me the bother of hauling them out of storage each year and unpacking.
Readers of cozy mysteries love Christmas. I’m not sure why, but there’s something about the holiday season that brings out the larceny. Maybe it’s the juxtaposing of a cheery time of goodwill against murder, or the thought of strangling that annoying neighbor with a strand of colored lights. Most cozy series have at least one Christmas-themed mystery. I finally wrote my contribution to the genre: The Notorious Noel Caper.
As you can tell by the title, it’s part of my Sandy Fairfax Teen Idol series—book five, in fact. I’m astounded that I’ve made it this far in my writing. I have two cozies in my other series—the Psychedelic Spy—for a total of seven books. Many authors have a greater backlist, but I’ll celebrate my output. My first novel was published ten years ago (2011), so that’s almost one book a year. Not bad for a part-time author holding down a day job. Also, many writers stop after one or two books, so I’m thrilled with my longevity.
My Christmas mystery has a twist—it’s set in Southern California, where snow is something you won’t see unless you watch a Hallmark movie or drive (with chains on the tires) up the mountains to the ski resorts. In SoCal, Christmas means sand at the beach, and “cold” weather is 55 degrees. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who have commented about the thick, quilted coat I brought with me when I moved from the Midwest. A “winter coat” here is really a hoodie zipped up.
My book is the only Christmas cozy ever written with surfing Santas. When I was writing the third draft, I saw a newspaper article about the real surfing Santas. That sounded so cool I added them in the story. Every year some surfers dress up in red-and-white wetsuits, put on fake beards and Santa hats, and surf off the coast. No agenda except to put a smile on faces as people watch them shoot the waves. My book cover has a surfing Santa. In chapter 15, Sandy is involved in a surfing Santa event and, like everything Sandy does, ends in near disaster.
The story is set at the Santa’s Magic theme park, based off a poplar (and fictious) movie franchise. SoCal is home to a number of theme parks. Santa’s Magic was inspired by the real-life Santa Claus Land (now called Holiday World), which opened in Santa Claus, Indiana, in 1946, making it the world’s oldest theme park (Disneyland debuted in 1955). My Psychedelic Spy series also has a Christmas theme park, but I made sure the two parks had different rides and attractions.
Sandy is the emcee of the Miss North Pole pageant, inspired by the fact that teen idol Donny Osmond has been involved with both the Miss Universe and Miss USA events. But things get sticky when Sandy’s girlfriend, Cinnamon, is jealous of him spending time around the beautiful contestants. Sandy and Cinnamon are sorting out their relationship that’s been growing over four books.
And the mystery? Well, this time I have three bodies. I had asked members of a cozy readers Facebook group how they felt about multiple murders in a book. Their answers scared me. One said, “The more the merrier!” Since cozy murders take place off the page, three bodies are not as ruthless as it sounds. All of the bodies turn up at the Santa’s Magic park, substituting ho-ho-homicide for holiday cheer.
Christmas cozies remind us of the darkness that lurks in human hearts. In scripture, after the joyful nativity the Holy Family fled into another country to escape an evil ruler who then killed hundreds of babies. Christmas Day may mean sorrow to families who can’t afford gifts or those who face empty dinner table chairs that once held loved ones who have passed away. For some, Christmas may be just another day of living in a sidewalk tent. But cozies also bring us a happy ending: the crook is caught and community order is restored. And what will happened between Sandy and Cinnamon? That too may be a happy ending as well.
It’s Christmastime in Tinsel Town, and there’s plenty of ho-ho-homicide at the soon-to-open Santa’s Magic theme park, where bodies are dropping like snowflakes. Former pop star Sandy Fairfax has a killer job—he’s the emcee for the televised Miss North Pole beauty contest–er, scholarship pageant. But will the beautiful contestants make his girlfriend jealous? Or will she join him in his sleuthing? The deadly Christmas season begins at a celebrity bowling tournament when a pinsetter plops down a body instead of the pins. Throw in surfing Santas, a seductive executive’s wife, a sleazy tabloid editor, an egotistical movie rival and a gift-wrapped death trap, and it’s the most wonderful time of the year.
As my Christmas gift to readers, I’m giving away a free story to those who sign up for my mailing list. Sandy Fairfax starred in a hit 1970s TV show, Buddy Brave Boy Sleuth. You can get a free Buddy Brave adventure, “The Medieval Malice Caper,” at http://sandyfairfaxauthor.com; scroll to the bottom of the page for the button.
Sally Carpenter is a native Hoosier who now lives in Southern California. Besides writing seven cozies, all published by Cozy Cat Press, she has stories in three anthologies and penned chapter three of the group mystery Chasing the Codex. She works at a community newspaper where she also writes the Roots of Faith column. This year she welcomed a new rescue cat into her home.
Let’s face it – writing is a lonely business. Whether you’re a full-time writer or just part-time, whether you have a large family or a job or whatever, whether you’re like Jane Austen and can pen immortal prose sitting in a room full of chattering people, writing still basically comes down to you and the characters in your head.
Creating world and populations out of little but imagination and caffeine is hard and lonely work. What’s worse is that even if you have loving and supporting friends and family (and I know many don’t) unless they are writers themselves they don’t understand what a writer must go through to create.
That’s why I am so grateful for writers’ conferences. There we can gather with others like us, others who understand the hard work writing takes, the agony of finding out you made a mistake in chapter two that necessitates pretty much a total rewrite of the nearly-finished book, the frustration of having characters who suddenly decide to go their own way without your direction. (And woe betide, in my house at least, those who are so unwary as to say “But you made them up – they have to do what you say.” Yeah, sure.)
My husband, who since his retirement has been dragooned into being my Business Manager, and I just got back from the Novelists, Inc. conference in Florida. Besides being set on one of the loveliest beaches you can imagine in a beautiful resort where they treat us like kings, it is one of the smaller conferences (a 400 attendee cap, as opposed to some others where the people number in the thousands) and restricted to professional writers who have not only published a number of books but have also reached a certain floor of income. Although there is always a varied program of interest to professionals, in my opinion it is this interaction between writers that makes this conference special, especially for those who live in a writerly-things vacuum.
The first thing you notice about a writers’ conference is the noise level. Often attendees will skip the workshops that are of little interest to them in order to sit in the lobby or in the courtyard or on the beach and talk to other writers. With them they can share things they experience with the knowledge that there is a level of understanding there that even the most supportive and sympathetic non-writer can give. At mealtimes, especially those held indoors because of untrustworthy or even inclement weather, the noise level is unbelievable, enough to make the biggest bird house in the world sound like a cone of silence.
I said the NINC conference was capped at 400; it has been for many years. In January of 2020 the conference was almost sold out, but with the plague hysteria by the time the last week of September rolled around only 46 or 48 (tallies vary) of us actually showed up. We rattled around the huge resort like dried peas in a can, most of us quoting the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V far too often. This year it was better; there were 230-odd attendees. Both years there were only two workshop tracks, as opposed to the four that have always been standard, but this year all were in-person, as opposed to the half-in-person, half-virtual of 2020. (I intensely dislike virtual!) Some vendors did do some non-workshop virtual appearances, mainly on an individual by-appointment-only basis, and that was good.
So what is so important, so fulfilling about four days spent in the comforting embrace of your tribe? It’s not just the information in the workshops (valuable as that may be) or even the mini-vacation so many writers stretch the conference into. (The resort is very generous about giving us ‘shoulder days’ on either side of the conference at the deeply discounted conference rate.) The world is full of beautiful vacation spots, and in this day of the internet, websites and special interest email loops almost all the information from the workshops can eventually be found from the writer’s own computer. So…?
I believe it is the validation that we get from being with other writers. We writers are not different-from-normal creatures who live so much in our head. We also get to see and interact with friends made on the internet or separated by an inconvenient number of miles. It is human contact with those of our own kind. It is where you can talk openly about the benefits of strychnine versus arsenic as a killing method, or the sex life of a human-reptile shapeshifter, or if a woman raping a man is an acceptable opening to a passionate romance without worrying that the people at the next table will call the police… or the men in the little white coats. It is where you can discuss the business of writing and learn specifics of various businesses without fear of being sued or arrested. It is sharing experiences with those who have had the same experience.
That is what my oldest daughter, one of my beta readers, said to me while reading my latest draft of the next Gabriel Hawke book. I laughed and asked why. She mentioned two things that were not my character’s fault. They were mine. So it is the writer and creator of Gabriel Hawke who is getting senile! LOL
Actually, this last manuscript, I found myself having to reread the last two or three chapters every time I sat down to write because I would have days in between being able to write. I lost the flow of the story and the events. Even though I also write about three or four chapters and then go back and on a notepad write down all the significant events that have to do with the murder or investigation they are doing.
I also have a calendar white board that I put small sticky notes on each day with the significant information that is discovered that day. It helps me keep track of the length of time the book plays out over and what forensics information could be coming in.
With all of these “cover my backside” in place, I still repeated things and had my character saying things that he’d already said. Yikes!
Now I know why I didn’t pursue my writing career until my kids were older. Right now we have our oldest granddaughter living with us. We have been attending her volleyball games and I’ve been taking days to go trail riding with other grandkids. I’m spending time with family and my writing is suffering. But I would rather have that than my family suffering.
While the Hawke book is off with my beta readers, I started fleshing out the next Spotted Pony Casino Mystery book. I did something I have never done. I made a 5 page outline of sorts. I wrote five or less sentences for each chapter pushing the plot of the story along. I didn’t add in any emotional or sub plots, but I’m hoping those will come naturally as I write and the outline will keep my story flowing without repeating and backtracking. Because until this granddaughter graduates in May, I will be busy with her and her school functions as well as having fun with the grandkids down the road.
If you are a writer, do you plot or do an outline before you start a book? Have you ever discovered at the end that you had repeated information?
Readers, have you ever read a book that repeated information or made the main character seem lost?
Let’s face it, joy seems to be in short supply these days. The world is in trouble. Between global warming, hurricanes, floods, fires, and the pandemic, if you want joy, you have to seek it out. It no longer springs up and dances in front of you.
For me, joy often comes in small ways. I feel joy watching birds bathe in the birdbath. They splash about with such utter abandon, I grin from ear to ear. I get joy from playing with my cat, Ellie, and in hearing her purr. Or in seeing yet another gardenia bloom in my small but yielding garden. It’s finding the perfect word for a wanting sentence. That brings me joy and gobs of relief, of course. And I take joy in spending time with my life partner, a man I truly admire.
Speaking of which, my husband is a performer — mainly a singer — but also plays the guitar, drums, and piano. He often performs alone, singing jazz standards while accompanying himself on the piano. He’s also been a member of a rock and roll band for over 13 years. The group has a pretty solid following, although they haven’t played many venues recently with the pandemic. However, whenever I go along with him to one of his gigs, whether he’s solo or part of the band, I am struck by the sense of joy the audience experiences while they listen. Pure joy is written all over their faces. Live, good music can do that.
That got me wondering. Do I, as a writer, give any joy to my readers the way my hubby does to his listeners? I sure hope so. Every now and then I do receive the random note or email from a reader who tells me she/he is reading my book to a hospitalized or sick loved one, relative, or friend. They write a certain story or novel has taken them away from their current problems or worries. I am so grateful they let me know. Because I’m not there, the way a performer is, I can’t see any of this for myself. This could be one of the bigger drawbacks to being a writer, the solitude of what we do.
It is my hope my stories offer my readers a certain amount of joy, especially the lighter, more humorous books. That would be mission accomplished. As far as I’m concerned joy — no matter how fleeting or how it comes to us — is always a welcomed addition to our lives.