To Make Things as Awkward as Possible, I Created a Male Protagonist

Let’s face it, nobody can know what it’s like inside another person’s mind or body, so why create protagonists of the opposite gender?

In my Summer “Sam” Westin mysteries, my protagonist is female, and we’re so much alike that many people confuse her with me, which is somewhat understandable because, like Sam, I am a scuba diver/kayaker/hiker, although it amazed me that one reader thought I’d actually barely rescued myself from death at the top of a waterfall. If I was as death-defying as Sam, I’d probably be, well … dead. But Sam and Pam are very similar in many ways, so her character is easy for me to write. Although Sam is often socially awkward, she’s at home in the wilderness setting, and so am I.

On the other hand, when I set out to write my first Neema mystery, The Only Witness, I wanted to set the story of a signing gorilla witnessing a major crime in the most awkward place possible: a conservative, gossipy small town that is not open to the idea that an ape might have something to “say.” I also wanted my detective character to feel awkward in the setting, so I made that character a big-city transplant whose spouse deserted their marriage for a local love shortly after their move. I knew I wanted to include teenage mothers in this story of a missing baby. So, which gender should the detective be?

Husbands leaving their wives for younger models is an all-too-common story in real life. So, I decided that a man would probably be more embarrassed by that happening to him. And it seems to me (rightfully or not) that more women are open to the idea of animal intelligence than men, so I created Matthew Finn, a detective who moved from Chicago to the small hometown of his younger wife because she thought it was a wonderful place to start a family. And then she runs off with her old sweetheart, leaving Matt, who is decidedly not an animal lover (in the beginning), with her two cats and a huge dog. And then, after a teen mom’s baby goes missing, a gorilla unexpectedly enters the scene, and she may be his only witness.

All eyes are on Detective Finn. The town hosts a small college that teaches broadcast communications, and amateur reporters are following him everywhere. Strangers tell him they’re sorry about his wife, and try to set him up with an available woman. To solve the case, he needs to interview a bevy of young teenage girls in this uncomfortable #Me-Too era. And talk to a gorilla? How much more awkward can the situation get?

Yep, the situation definitely called for a man.

My Favorite Time of the Year by Paty Jager

While this year has been challenging in many ways, I have to say it has been rewarding for me as an author. I may not have been able to attend several conferences I’d hoped to participate in, however, the state of things made it possible for me to reach my word goal for the year, spend more time working on writing and writing related projects, and to see the path I want to take in the coming years.

I wrapped up my first mystery series. That book will publish in 2021. I’m sad to see this character go as Shandra was my mystery breakout series. The excitement over creating another character for a new series outweighs the sadness. 😉

My hero, Gabriel Hawke, will be protecting Wallowa County until he is retirement age or I can’t come up with a good murder for him to solve. 😉

Speaking of Gabriel Hawke. Book 6, Turkey’s Fiery Demise is available in ebook.

Accident or Homicide?

State Trooper Gabriel Hawke is called to a vehicle on fire. When the steam and smoke clears, a charred body is slumped over the steering wheel.

The Muzzleloader Rendezvous has attendees from all over the Pacific Northwest, but it’s the local club that raises Hawke’s suspicions. With the president of the club dead, rumors abound. If the gossip and tracking won’t reveal the truth to who killed the strutting turkey, Hawke’s focus on the truth will.  https://books2read.com/u/38RnOZ

Moving into 2021, I’m filling out character charts for the new character and secondary characters who will be part of her life. I’ll be gathering the information I need for the next Hawke book, set on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, and digging around to come up with a list of murders that I can use for the two series.

I’ll also be throwing several Facebook parties, like my recent “Where in the world is Isabella Mumphrey?” I’ll be having a month-long event in May for my 50th published book. If you’re a reader, you might want to either follow my author page at Facebook, or join my newsletter to get in on all the fun. I’ll be posting here as well.

I love December because it is the last month of the year. It lets me think about what I’ve accomplished this year and look forward to planning for the next.  And that the month ends with two celebrations, Christmas and New Years, makes it the perfect way to end a year and start a new one. I have already written out my goals for 2021, in writing, publishing, and life. Not that the life ones ever completely happen, but I’m a stickler for getting my writing goals accomplished.

 Do you like December? Do you like to look back over the year and see what you’ve accomplished? Do you write out a plan for the coming year?

Writing as Discovery

by Janis Patterson

Want to start a lively ‘discussion’ among writers? All you have to do is say something about how ‘plotting’ or ‘pantsing’ is superior. It doesn’t make any difference which; both have their outspoken and extremely vocal adherents. Just make sure you can hold your ground or you have a direct path to an exit. Both sides have passionate adherents.

For those who aren’t familiar with the terms (if there are any of you left out there!) ‘plotting’ is basically an outline, yes, like you used to make in elementary school, but adapted toward a book. Whether it’s the old Roman numeral/Arabic numeral/alphanumeric letter – i.e., bullet point type of outline – or a paragraph style, the outline is a detailed road map of every twist and turn in your story. ‘Pantsing’ is taken from the old phrase ‘seat of your pants,’ meaning you just write and see what happens.

In general, pantsers tend to do more re-writing than plotters, but plotters spend more time on pre-writing work.

I am an avowed pantser. Sort of. My personal system is sort of like a suspension bridge. I know where the story begins. I know where the story will pretty much end – but that has been known to change. I know a couple of plot points in between, though they can be shifted a bit during writing. Then all that’s left is to spin the webwork of the story between them. Does my story change while I’m writing? Yes, it can and has, and I think that’s a good thing, because that means the story is growing organically and being true to itself and – more importantly – to its characters.

Plotters vary from those who put down only a few plot points and notes to those who put in every raise of the hero’s eyebrow and every shrug of the heroine’s shoulders. They also do lots of pre-plotting work, making character sheets, location maps and doing interviews with their characters. I once saw a character worksheet that was at least 5 pages long and included such things as the character’s favorite flavor of JellO and their maternal grandmother’s maiden name. Personally, I’ve had close friends for decades and I don’t know that much about them!

Always willing to improve my craft, I once took a much touted ten-box plotting course that was supposed to be almost magical in creating a book’s structure. A stubborn person, I finished it even though I knew from the second or third lesson that it wasn’t for me. After all, I had paid for it and believe in getting my money’s worth.

Basically you put every turning point and every reaction into one of the ten boxes. An outline, just minus the Roman and Arabic numerals. Using this system I plotted a pretty good romantic suspense novel about Egypt, antiquities smuggling, trust issues, terrorism and a dirty bomb thrown in for good measure.

It will never be written, at least not by me. By the time the last box was filled in I was so bored with the whole idea I never wanted to see it again. Believe me, it shows in the final product when the writer is bored with the project. No matter how good the writer is, the book is lifeless and mechanical.

Don’t think this is a vote either for or against plotting or pantsing. It’s one of those things to which there is no one ‘right’ answer for everyone. The writer has to decide for himself what works for him. And perhaps it is the reader who is the ultimate judge, though most don’t have the slightest idea of the writer’s process. They just know if they like the book or not.

So what do I do? I get an idea for an opening situation, I sit down and I start to write. If the idea is sound, if the story is a good one, the characters just take over and I become more scribe than writer. Do I have to go back and do some re-writing when the plot changes direction? Occasionally, but it only makes the story stronger. Sometimes it surprises me what comes up on the screen as I write, and to my mind that is a good thing. Remember, someone – I don’t remember who – said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, and a wonderful holiday season!

Writing as Discovery

by Janis Patterson

Want to start a lively ‘discussion’ among writers? All you have to do is say something about how ‘plotting’ or ‘pantsing’ is superior. It doesn’t make any difference which; both have their outspoken and extremely vocal adherents. Just make sure you can hold your ground or you have a direct path to an exit. Both sides have passionate adherents.

For those who aren’t familiar with the terms (if there are any of you left out there!) ‘plotting’ is basically an outline, yes, like you used to make in elementary school, but adapted toward a book. Whether it’s the old Roman numeral/Arabic numeral/alphanumeric letter – i.e., bullet point type of outline – or a paragraph style, the outline is a detailed road map of every twist and turn in your story. ‘Pantsing’ is taken from the old phrase ‘seat of your pants,’ meaning you just write and see what happens.

In general, pantsers tend to do more re-writing than plotters, but plotters spend more time on pre-writing work.

I am an avowed pantser. Sort of. My personal system is sort of like a suspension bridge. I know where the story begins. I know where the story will pretty much end – but that has been known to change. I know a couple of plot points in between, though they can be shifted a bit during writing. Then all that’s left is to spin the webwork of the story between them. Does my story change while I’m writing? Yes, it can and has, and I think that’s a good thing, because that means the story is growing organically and being true to itself and – more importantly – to its characters.

Plotters vary from those who put down only a few plot points and notes to those who put in every raise of the hero’s eyebrow and every shrug of the heroine’s shoulders. They also do lots of pre-plotting work, making character sheets, location maps and doing interviews with their characters. I once saw a character worksheet that was at least 5 pages long and included such things as the character’s favorite flavor of JellO and their maternal grandmother’s maiden name. Personally, I’ve had close friends for decades and I don’t know that much about them!

Always willing to improve my craft, I once took a much touted ten-box plotting course that was supposed to be almost magical in creating a book’s structure. A stubborn person, I finished it even though I knew from the second or third lesson that it wasn’t for me. After all, I had paid for it and believe in getting my money’s worth.

Basically you put every turning point and every reaction into one of the ten boxes. An outline, just minus the Roman and Arabic numerals. Using this system I plotted a pretty good romantic suspense novel about Egypt, antiquities smuggling, trust issues, terrorism and a dirty bomb thrown in for good measure.

It will never be written, at least not by me. By the time the last box was filled in I was so bored with the whole idea I never wanted to see it again. Believe me, it shows in the final product when the writer is bored with the project. No matter how good the writer is, the book is lifeless and mechanical.

Don’t think this is a vote either for or against plotting or pantsing. It’s one of those things to which there is no one ‘right’ answer for everyone. The writer has to decide for himself what works for him. And perhaps it is the reader who is the ultimate judge, though most don’t have the slightest idea of the writer’s process. They just know if they like the book or not.

So what do I do? I get an idea for an opening situation, I sit down and I start to write. If the idea is sound, if the story is a good one, the characters just take over and I become more scribe than writer. Do I have to go back and do some re-writing when the plot changes direction? Occasionally, but it only makes the story stronger. Sometimes it surprises me what comes up on the screen as I write, and to my mind that is a good thing. Remember, someone – I don’t remember who – said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, and a wonderful holiday season!

There’s A Cat in the Christmas Tree!

There are two cats in the Christmas tree photo above.

One is easy to spot. You’ll have to look for the other one. But he’s there.

I love my holiday rituals. That includes decorating my home and putting up a Christmas tree, usually the day after Thanksgiving.

Of course, when one has cats, and I do— Well, if you have cats, you know what I mean. If you don’t, I’ll tell you.

Bodie, an adventurous kitten.

Some cats don’t pay any attention to the Christmas tree. That has never been the case at my house. As soon as I start decorating, my feline companions gather, eagerly twitching their whiskers, as they happily contemplate that big cat toy that appears once a year.

Pearl, who went to the Rainbow Bridge decades ago, would carefully remove the shiny tinsel balls and bat them around the living room. She rarely broke one, unless she batted it into a chair leg.

Then there was Gus, also long departed, but still remembered fondly, especially for this story. One morning as I was getting ready for work, Gus was under the Christmas tree, checking out the presents and making the ornaments jingle and jangle. In a loud voice, I told him to get away from the tree.

To be fair, he did. But he was tangled in a string of lights, so he took the tree with him. He dragged it several feet across the living room, accompanied by the tinkle of broken ornaments.

The following year, I tied the tree to a sturdy piece of furniture.

I love the smell of a real pine Christmas tree. But disposing of the dried-out corpse at the end of the holiday season gives me the blues. The remedy for that was to go with an artificial tree. I bought a seven-footer at a local store’s after-Christmas sale. When I got it home, I put it up, just to see how it looked.

That’s when I discovered it would hold a full-grown cat. The cat in question, Dexter, was midway up the tree, resting comfortably on a branch.

Clio the kitten, perched midway up the tree.

The climbing-the-Christmas-tree baton was passed to Bodie and Clio, brother and sister, who appeared on my patio ten years ago with their mother, Lottie. That year as I put up the tree, the kittens enthusiastically climbed it.

The following year, I set up the tree and was getting ornaments out of the box when I glanced up and saw Clio precariously balancing at the very top. She stayed up there long enough for me to snap a photo.

Yes, that really is Clio at the top of the tree!

She doesn’t do that any more. The tree is smaller and she’s much fatter.

These days the Christmas tree tradition is mostly playing with the ornaments on the bottom and sleeping under the tree. Lottie likes to make a nest out of the Christmas tree skirt and snooze underneath. So do Bodie and Clio, both too big to climb the tree now. At least I hope so!

Bodie sits under the tree.

Happy holidays!

If you put up a Christmas tree, I hope it stays upright.

Guest Blogger- Tara Lush

As a journalist in Florida, I’ve written about the shady side of my sunny state for years.

Political corruption, horrific crime, drunken antics at tiki bars, alligators, naked people with machetes, cockroaches ending up in unmentionable places…nothing shocks me anymore. I’ve witnessed thirteen executions and covered numerous mass shootings.

I’ve long wanted to write crime fiction, and entertained the thought of doing true crime. But that seemed a little too close to my day job, and frankly, covering those horrific stories as a journalist sapped my desire to retell them in a novel.

My first forays into fiction were contemporary romances, and almost all were set in Florida. But crime fiction lurked in the corners of my brain, and in 2019, I sat down and finally plotted a murder mystery.

I adored the work of Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey and Edna Buchanan — how could I not, they’re all journalists, like me — but when I started to write my debut mystery, I just couldn’t muster the cynicism or the edginess of the hardboiled noir. Perhaps the tumultuousness of recent years played a part in that.

As I scribbled my first mystery, I imagined a slightly less-dysfunctional tropical paradise, one that was loosely based on the things I’ve seen in my twenty-plus years as a reporter in Florida.

I knew I wanted to retain the quirkiness of Florida, though, so I created a fictional island in the Gulf of Mexico, chock full of eccentric characters. Devil’s Beach is where gossipy old hippies mingle with reformed mafiosos. Where the local newspaper writes stories about chicken nuggets shaped like manatees. Where a handsome Instagram-famous barista is found dead and no one bats an eye when a laid off journalist tries to figure out how the barista spent his final hours.

I also wanted a gentle anchor in the book, and that’s why I set it in the coffee shop of my dreams. It’s called Perkatory, a place decorated in hues of weathered wood with sky blue accents.

And then, my reporter’s brain kicked in. I drew inspiration from decades of covering crime in crafting my fictional murder. From the stilted language of cop-speak to wrangling over deadlines with editors, I used details from newspaper stories to seed clues into my fictional story. And the suspects, those were easy — they are all based on people I’ve covered in the past, folks who stood out as true characters.

There are also some fun Florida easter eggs in the details — for instance, the wild monkeys that inhabit a park on my fictional island can really be found in a place called Silver Springs.

I believe that for Florida residents, they’ll recognize many of the places, stories and details in the book. And for you non-Florida folks, I’m hopeful you’ll read my book and feel like you’re on a beach vacation, one where you get to know those quirky characters at the end of the tiki bar.

ABOUT GROUNDS FOR MURDER: Barista Lana Lewis’s sleuthing may land her in a latte trouble as Tara Lush launches her new Coffee Shop mysteries.

When Lana Lewis’ best — and most difficult — employee abruptly quits and goes to work for the competition just days before the Sunshine State Barista Championship, her café’s chances of winning the contest are creamed. In front of a gossipy crowd in the small Florida town of Devil’s Beach, Lana’s normally calm demeanor heats to a boil when she runs into the arrogant java slinger. Of course, Fabrizio “Fab” Bellucci has a slick explanation for jumping ship. But when he’s found dead the next morning under a palm tree in the alley behind Lana’s café, she becomes the prime suspect.

Even the island’s handsome police chief isn’t quite certain of her innocence. But Lana isn’t the only one in town who was angry with Fabrizio. Jilted lovers, a shrimp boat captain, and a surfer with ties to the mob are all suspects as trouble brews on the beach.

With her stoned, hippie dad, a Shih Tzu named Stanley, and a new, curious barista sporting a punk rock aesthetic at her side, Lana’s prepared to turn up the heat to catch the real killer. After all, she is a former award-winning reporter. As scandal hangs over her beachside café, can Lana clear her name and win the championship — or will she come to a bitter end?

LINK: books2read.com/u/4A7KLA 

Tara Lush is a Rita Award finalist, an Amtrak writing fellow, and a George C. Polk Award winning journalist. For the past decade, she’s been a reporter with the Associated Press, covering crime, alligators, natural disasters, and politics.

She also writes contemporary romance set in tropical locations under her real name, Tamara Lush. A fan of vintage pulp-fiction book covers, Sinatra-era jazz, and 1980s fashion, she lives with her husband and two dogs on the Gulf coast.

The Man Who Waits by Heather Haven

Other than changing my social doings, Covid19 has done little harm to my professional or artistic life. I’m still writing, when I’m not fretting over who’s going to be the next president of the United States. My books are still selling. Instead of sitting in Bay Area traffic trying to get from point A to point B, I now Zoom from my office with my writing pals and organizations. The gas gauge of my car is grateful and so is my back.

This is not true for hubby. He is an entertainer, a singer, and musician. He needs an audience, as does every other performer out there. Working steadily since his teens, he’d been singing with the same rock and roll band nights and weekends for nearly 17 years. He’d built up a thriving business during the day entertaining the inhabitants of assisted living homes throughout the Bay Area. What was a career for him, money coming in, a purpose for getting up in the morning, crashed and burned early last March.

But you can’t keep a good man down. And tough times like these, more often than not, show the true mettle of a person. Instead of sulking and feeling sorry for himself — which would have been my route — he is perfecting his piano playing by taking lessons on the internet. He’s learning lyrics to new songs. When he can, he performs with other artists via Zoom. But those are rare days. What he does daily is practice to become an even better musician. And he was pretty danged good in the first place.

Eventually, the vaccine will be available to one and all. Eventually, opera houses and theaters will resume. We will start going back to nightclubs and other venues. Maybe even take a cruise again. But this November and December, we will celebrate the holidays by ourselves. We will be grateful. Not for what we don’t have but for what we do have. That would be our health, our home, each other, and enough money to squeak by on. These are things many others do not have.

But it is what it is. And meanwhile, he waits.

Happy holidays to you and yours. And remember, the heart cannot be separated from those we love. So Zoom your love this holiday season and stay safe. There is a future before us.

Guest Author – Kathleen Kalb

What Are We REALLY Talking About?

by Kathleen Marple Kalb

  Keep your eyes open when my characters start talking about social issues.

 Chances are pretty good I’m slipping in some very important evidence that you’ll want to remember later. One of the wonderful things I’ve learned as an historical mystery writer is that all of that background gives me unique ways to work in key clues while most of the reader’s attention is on other things…for an especially satisfying reveal later in the story.

Here’s an example: in A FATAL FIRST NIGHT, most of the cast is at the main characters’ home for Sunday afternoon tea, and they get into a wonderful discussion of suffrage, women’s role in the world, and whether females can kill. Some extremely important evidence comes out during that talk, and of course, I’m not going to tell you what it is because of the potential spoiler. But that scene is one of my favorites.

I’m far from the first writer to use this trick. Many of my favorites, especially people I grew up reading and wanting to emulate, do the same thing. Elizabeth Peters, probably my all-time favorite, was the sneakiest of them all. Especially in her Amelia Peabody historical series, you’d be thinking about amulets or dead pharaohs, and first thing you knew, the Master Criminal had pulled off some dastardly deed that Amelia would sort out at the end.

Ella’s world is just chock-full of similar opportunities. Not only is there all of the social ferment to fuel heated teatime debates, there are also the worlds of opera, newspapers and sports, all of which contribute bits of the solution to the plot, and provide fun ways to get there. Plus, because this is a series about a performer, classic backstage dramas.

My favorite writers take familiar plots and tropes, and give them a twist just when you think you know what’s going to happen, and that’s what I like to do too. Ella’s relationship with her beau, Gilbert Saint Aubyn, Duke of Leith, is all about upending expectations. In old-school historical romances, a Duke is the ultimate matrimonial prize, usually drawn as a suave fellow who could have any woman he wanted but chose our heroine because she was interesting, and of course, virtuous.

The Barrister (as most of the cast calls him) is in fact a Duke, and easy on the eyes. After that, though, the tropes are out the window. He’s anything but suave, inevitably saying stupid things when he tries to impress Ella, and much more comfortable playing the lawyer he trained to be than the Peer he became. She likes him because he’s open-minded and unpretentious, but still has less than no interest in marrying him and becoming his legal property.

I’d keep my eyes open for clues whenever those two are fencing and courting. You never know where I might hide something…

A FATAL FIRST NIGHT (coming 4/27/21) opens with a murder in Richard III’s dressing room after the premiere of the Ella Shane Opera Company’s new production, The Princes in the Tower.  Ella and friends aren’t at all sure about their colleague’s guilt — even though it seems obvious. Meanwhile, newspaper reporter Hetty MacNaughten has finally escaped hats to cover a sensational murder trial. Before it’s over, the cast will have to sort out several interlocking mysteries, welcome an unexpected visitor…and find another Richard III. Will everyone survive to the final curtain? 

PREORDER: https://www.kensingtonbooks.com/9781496727244/a-fatal-first-night/

Kathleen Marple Kalb grew up in front of a microphone and a keyboard. She’s currently a weekend morning anchor at 1010 WINS Radio in New York, capping a career she started as a teenage DJ in her Western Pennsylvania hometown. She’s the author of the Ella Shane Mystery historical mystery series: A Fatal Finale is out now, A Fatal First Night this spring. She also just began a darkly comic new chapter series on Chanillo.com: On the Side of the Angels.

WHERE TO FIND ME:

Website: https://kathleenmarplekalb.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Kathleen-Marple-Kalb-1082949845220373/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/KalbMarple

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/kathleenmarplekalb/

Photo source: public domain picture from the NYPL Digital Collections

The Natural World in Crime Fiction

Many of the books I enjoy include some aspect of the natural world. An obvious recent example is The Witch Elm by Tana French, which revolves around an old tree in a yard where the main characters played as children and one returns as an adult to recover from an assault. Then there’s my own Below the Tree Line, which is set on a farm in rural Central Massachusetts. Now that I’m writing about a suburban setting, I’m taking a look at my neighborhood for scenes or aspects of nature to include in a traditional mystery. It’s not going as expected.

My first choice was to talk about apple trees, since we have one. However, it hasn’t produced a real crop in a few years, and right now looks like it’s dying. It might work if the book were entitled “Death of an Apple Orchard,” since the tree looks more like a sculpture than something that might have ever produced fruit. Scratch that idea.

The ornamental trees in this area seem to have developed a disease that kills off their leaves, so for the last two years they have looked like they too are dying. No one seems concerned enough to take them down, so we’ll have to wait and see what the future holds.

To this I can add all the invasive species that have killed off our native species, thereby depriving other plants, birds, and animals of expected sustenance. Our own backyard is being overtaken by bittersweet, bamboo, rose of Sharon, and lots more. I’m not sure it’s even possible to get rid of the invasives now. It may be too late. Nature as evil invader. Not my idea of the setting for a cozy.

The other obvious choice for drawing nature into a tale is birds. I love birds, love watching them flit among the shrubs picking up a meal—bugs or seeds—and jabbering at each other. Cardinals are of course always welcomed, along with goldfinches, northern flickers, and egrets, even crows. But the winged creatures I most often see are not nearly as attractive, or as much of a pleasure to watch. Turkeys.

Turkeys are everywhere now.

Last year a flock made its way slowly down our street, passing from yard to yard in search of edibles. When they encountered a fence they headed out to the street. A driver trying to park made the mistake of honking at one of them. This is received as a direct insult, and the turkeys responded accordingly. Two of them attacked the car, pecking and jabbering at it. Not satisfied with this display of temper, they headed out into the street, bringing two lanes of traffic to a halt. This was so disruptive that a neighbor entered the fray shooing away the turkeys to the other side of the road, allowing traffic to flow again. But the turkeys weren’t done yet. They reentered traffic, once again tying it up, until bored, they wandered away, down the center of the road.

Once when a turkey was behaving appropriately, I snapped a pic of it. The click of my iPhone startled the bird and he looked up, scanning the area for whatever creature had threatened him. I moved on.

These feather characters won’t work as background detail for a story, though they might serve as a motive for murder.

Notice I began looking for an apple tree but mine was not attractive, and then moved on to other aspects of nature that were less than serene or beautiful. The cozy mystery needs the apple tree in blossom, but a thriller or suspense story needs the scaly fruit tree. Nature offers us both (and a lot in between) and as writers we choose aspects of the natural world to signal theme, tone, mood. I plan to get those diseased decorative trees into a story very soon. The turkeys are more likely to find their way into a humorous story, perhaps fleeing a homeowner determined to get rid of them. I’ll enjoy writing that one. And then I’ll talk about the rabbits that are now everywhere.

Thanks Giving

D. Z. Church

How lucky am I to have my blog appear on Thanksgiving Day! This year. In the middle of a pandemic. When no one can travel or sit at a table with all those they love. Okay, it’s been on my mind.

A lot.

Thanksgiving has always been my holiday. Back in the days when we had nuclear families, as in grandparents living with us or nearby, aunts and uncles and cousins just up the road, Thanksgiving was it! Just a great big, whack-a-doodle party from beginning to end. Especially since as kids our entire responsibility was to stay out of the way while the feast was prepared. My older sister and I and an aunt and uncle our ages made Christmas chains out of all the left-over aluminum foil at a big old card table in the front parlor. If we were really good, we got to pour water into the water glasses and set up the kids’ tables. Remember those?

The outbuildings at the farm, the house was to the left of the tall trees.

The entire family, including great aunts and uncles from Chicago, all converged on the family farm, a Century farm in northwestern Illinois with a big old Victorian farmhouse. The local aunts, uncles, and cousins arrived by late morning. But, since we lived only twenty minutes away, we strolled in for breakfast, which always included Grandma Mid’s thumbprint cakes. These things were to die for, and you might actually die from them. They involved large dollops of heavy cream hand-churned from milk from our cows by a second cousin a few miles away. OMG!

Cooking for the big day, started the previous weekend with pies. Grandma Mid and her daughters were glorious pie makers. The inscription on one aunt’s tombstone ends with: And the best damn pie maker. No kidding. For reference, imagine one of those ads you used to see with a huge family around an enormous table covered in food and double it. It was like a Norman Rockwell painting gone wild.

As soon as we were released from our eating obligations, we kids would roar out into the farmyard or across the lane to the timber and romp and stomp. Back then, there were only six grandkids and our youngest aunt and uncle, but the eight of us could make a world out of the woodland, the ditch, and the farmyard. Sooner or later, a ball game would erupt on the front lawn with the walnut trees standing in for bases. When darkness descended, the Hearts game started. My uncles played hardcore unforgiving Hearts with raised voices, accusations of cheating, and peals of laughter.

I once drew a picture for my second grade class of Thanksgiving at our farm. I was meticulous about it, putting every single one of the thirty-one participants in the picture. The assignment had been to draw a true picture of the holiday, suspicious my teacher questioned my accuracy. She even showed it to my mother, who forever gained my adoration by systematically naming all thirty-one persons in the picture. Though I think she fudged on more than a few.

Is it any wonder that this farmhouse stood in for the one in my Cooper Vietnam Era Quartet? Becoming a character in the newest and third book, Pay Back.

The farmhouse

Redolent with years of yeasty bread and the gossip of farm families, the farmhouse kitchen took up a full quarter of the ground floor and was the aorta of the home. Everything and everyone flowed through it whether to climb the stairs, enter the front parlors, or go to the bathroom. An oak table, ten feet long without leaves, surrounded by ladder-backed oak chairs with a captain’s chair at each end, took a full third of the room. A built-in corner hutch gleamed with a new multi-paned glass door.

Ash planking adorned the restored floor. The cabinets were white, the countertop butcher block, and the appliances stainless steel and time-tested. Rag rugs made by the Plainwell Woman’s Club from strips of used clothing were sprinkled around the room, one in front of the six-burner gas stove, one in front of the sink, and one under the oak table.

That kitchen stove had a bun warmer to one side. Every now and then, I would have the joy of tumbling downstairs for breakfast to tiny cheeps emanating from behind the warmer door. I remember Grandmother frying eggs at the stove, then casually leaning over to open the bun warmer as the cheeps crescendoed. Tiny little yellow chicks bobbled out on to the floor, trying their untried wings, and wobbling along. Grandma’s calico cat, the only working cat allowed in the kitchen, rested her paws on the edge of her water dish. She watched them take their first drink, her little cat lips pursed.

Sigh.

We may not have this Thanksgiving with family, but we have all that came before and all those to come. So, get out the albums, cook up your turkey, and snuggle in front of a fire (be it on Netflix, electric, gas, or wood), and spend time with your family on Zoom, Hangouts, or a video conference of choice. And enjoy!

Three books of the Cooper Era Vietnam Quartet: Dead Legend, Head First, and Pay Back are available on Amazon in paperback and ebook. Pay Back at https://www.amazon.com/Pay-Back-Cooper-Vietnam-Quartet-ebook/dp/B08CJDHP92