Research for a Setting

In fiction I like a strong sense of place, where the environment has shaped people and their problems. Before I begin a story, I want to have a clear idea of the real place where I’m locating my characters. I may change the name, add buildings and roads, but I begin with something real.

For the stories set in central Massachusetts, I chose the town and surrounding area where my family lived for many years. This was a farm community that had once had an industrial base at the end of the nineteenth century. The mills, small compared to some in other area cities and towns, were small, and the empty brick buildings prone to decay, as well as fires. The village where my family lived is at the northern end of the town. I know the community fairly well, since I visited my family often, but I wanted a better sense of its history, the kind that comes from having grown up there. I listened to people’s stories, looked over historical maps, but the absolute best resource was something I came across by accident.

In 1923, the local Reunion Association authorized the publication of a history of the town, which appeared either in 1924 or soon thereafter, in a sturdy cloth-bound book. The history is interesting, but more interesting from my perspective are the notes. Someone took pen in hand and added names and comments on several of the homes and what happened to them. She (and I think it was a woman) added a few historical notes as well. There was apparently a toll on the road through the hamlet, and she’s marked that page and added dates.

Several buildings marked and annotated are no longer there, but the notes give me a good idea of what kind of tiny hamlet it was—more than homes and a church. The shoemaker’s shop is gone, but I know where it was, and the post office and store are also gone. A chapel was replaced by a library, and a small school disappeared. Not included in the book is the last business in town, a second-hand bookstore that closed down probably in the 1990s. The house is noted in the book, and I visited the bookstore, but now it is only a home.

The former bookstore was also the toll house. According to the writer, “The position of toll-taker was not free from danger, as some persons denied the right of the corporation to tax persons for the use of the highways and at times insisted on passing the barrier without payment of the customary toll. This led to bodily encounters which sometimes ended with the shedding of blood.”

The history is not without its odd characters. “Uncle” Calvin Mayo “insisted that Tully mountain was at one time located where the Lily pond now is, but that some great force of nature took it from there, turned it over and gave it its present location.” The note in the margin says “Can you beat this?” Another story concerns an old cannon that was hauled up a mountain to help the miners, and brought a quick end to their work and part of the mountain.

This little book is giving me more than I had expected. First is the history, some of which is obscure; second is the tone of the writer, Mrs. Ward, who graduated from the Salem Normal School and taught in Lynn, MA. And third is the writer or writers who added details on when a house was auctioned, and who lived in it more recently. One writer made several more personal notes, such as “We lived on this road.”

I’m not sure how much of this history will make it into the next Felicity O’Brien book, but it’s already giving me ideas for a few more stories. It also has me thinking about writing an historical mystery—with lots of humor.

Lie, Lady, Lie: A Grammatical Short Story

In which a liar lying on a beach lays to rest all possible confusion about the words for reclining, telling falsehoods, and setting things down.

Lie, Lady, Lie

I should be at home laying tile in the kitchen, but I instead I’m lying on the beach. I called my husband—ex-husband-to-be—and lied, telling him Grandpa’s home health aide had called in sick and that I’d have to stay with Grandpa all day. The kitchen can wait. We’re only fixing it up so we can sell the house for a higher price after we move out and go our separate ways. I lie on my back and close my eyes, lay my phone on the blanket, and then remember to turn it off. When I’ve lain here long enough, I’ll get up and wade in the waves. But not yet. When was the last time I was free to just lie around and be lazy? I swear, I married a slave-driver. I’m not going to miss him. Once, I lay in bed until nine o’clock and Dan listed all the things I could have accomplished if I’d gotten up at seven. On a Saturday. Today, I’m making up for lost time

I wake with a start, wondering how long I lay asleep in the sun. I reach for my phone to check the time, but it’s not where I laid it. My hand grabs a man’s ankle instead. I look up to see Dan’s attractive young assistant, Sebastian, holding my phone and smiling down at me.

“Bad lie.” His voice is low and teasing. “Your grandfather’s house is on Dan’s way to the office. Your car wasn’t there. And he said he heard gulls in the background when you called.”

Darn. The best-laid plans of weary wives … “And he sent you to make me go home and lay tile? You’ve got to be kidding.”

“He sent me to go look at a property we’re leasing for the business.” Sebastian takes off his shirt and lays it on the sand, then lies beside me, propped up on his elbow, grinning. “Of course, when he mentioned your call, he complained about what a lazy wife he has. He doesn’t appreciate you, Celia. So, I lied, too. And here we are.”

His half-bare body is as beautiful as I’ve often imagined it would be. The longing that has lain dormant in both of us for years awakens, and we embrace. On someone’s radio in the distance, Bob Dylan’s classic love song, “Lay, Lady, Lay” is playing. Sebastian laughs. I ask him what’s so funny, and he says, “It’s such a sexy song, but I always wonder what he wants her to lay across his big brass bed? A silk duvet? Granny’s crocheted afghan?”

“Her body, silly.” I kiss his neck and nibble his earlobe. “He wants her to lay her body down.”

“Then he should be asking her to lie—”

“I already did. ” My fingers caress his lips.  “We both did.”


For more fun with lie and lay, check your mastery of these words with a couple of quizzes.

I’ve never written anything in first person present tense before, so this experiment was fun for that reason as well as my attempt to incorporate every possible variation on lie and lay in a story as short as NPR’s three-minute fiction. (I’m sorry it’s not a mystery, but with the characters both lying and lying, the thematic words lent themselves more to a tryst.) I was inspired by Jane Gorman’s entertaining homophone post and by my encounters with lie/lay confusion in print and in speech.

Occasionally, I take yoga classes taught by a young woman who understands the human body and teaches well, but she uses the transitive verb lay for the intransitive verb lie. When she wants her students to assume a supine or prone position, she says, “Lay on your back,” or “Lay on your stomach.”

In some parts of the country, this is a regional speech idiom, and of course it occurs in popular music. Perhaps that’s why it’s confusing for writers. I’ve found lay/lie errors in published books, overlooked by editors and proofreaders. Even the grammar-check function in Word is confused, and occasionally tries to supply the incorrect word. It found fault with one of the two quotations from the ungrammatical yoga teacher and not with the other.

I can’t bring myself to make any of my characters talk the way she does, even though it would be more realistic if a few of them did.  What about you?

Comments welcome! Lay it on!

Photo credit: The lead image was originally posted to Flickr by J.C. Rojas at


Life of a Saleswoman

I was the Girl Scout who sold the fewest cookies. When my school asked students to sell Christmas cards for its building fund, I knocked on all of two doors. I could dance, act or speak in public without a flutter of stage fright, but facing a neighbor at her front door and telling her I was selling something filled me with dread. I was sure I was bothering her.

Needless to say, as a young adult, I planned my career in performing arts, not sales. Then I moved to Virginia to be with a boyfriend and we broke up. There I was, with a degree in theatre and dance and no money to move again. I passed the state insurance exam and went to work for a company that sold supplemental disability policies for auto accidents. The job sounded stable and professional. I had no idea what I’d gotten into.

My boss assigned me to ride around out in the country to hamlets like Frog Level, being trained in door-to-door sales by a huge mustachioed man in a plaid suit. I wish I could use his real name, it was so funny—I’ll call him Don Duck, though. It’s close enough. He drove under the speed limit, his big belly up to the wheel, serene as a smiling Buddha, teaching me the Dharma of Selling. “Ask for the sale.” “Agree with their objections. You’ll break down those objections, but do it so they don’t notice.” “Get them to agree with you.” People would pass him on those two-lane roads, giving him the finger for his slowness, and he’d say cheerfully, “Must be in some kind of hurry.”

He seemed happy. Our boss, though, was tense and smarmy, proud of the twists and turns he could take to avoid paying when people got hurt. (“Did you walk to your mailbox to get your check?” “Yes.” “Great, glad you’re feeling better. That’s your last check.”) When a policy had to pay out, he would grumble, “Don never should have sold those people.” If I found selling those cards and cookies hard, imagine how tough it was for me to knock on doors for a manager like that. I quit.

My next job was with a lingerie company as a model and salesperson, part-time with no benefits. We did fashion shows of elegant nightgowns—and also teddies and corsets-with-garters and thigh-high hose. Nothing showed that wouldn’t show in a bathing suit, but the setting had a whole different mood than a beach: hotel bars. I learned to twirl on my toe while shedding a sheer peignoir down my back to reveal the teddy, looking over my shoulder, the peignoir hanging from one finger—hokey, but I was an actor and it was a role I could play. Mingling with the audience to pitch the products after the shows, I was great at shooting the breeze, making jokes that were just risqué enough while still being a lady, channeling Mae West into my far from West-like form. My boss said I could, in her words, “sell ice cubes to Eskimos.” Not true. I could sell lingerie in a bar while wearing it.

One of the customers at a show thought I had such sales skill he offered me a job with his office supply company. I needed benefits, so I took it. This was before online ordering, back when sales reps and middlemen were the norm. Discouraging is an understatement—I was driving around gritty industrial neighborhoods with my catalog of office supplies trying to get office managers to place orders with us when I knew full well our company had nothing to offer that was better than our competitors. Hello. Our product line is limited and our service is slower and more expensive. Please buy from us. I couldn’t sell those ice cubes anymore, and I could see where I’d be headed once I was off probation and on commission.

I thought my selling days were over when I got a theater job and worked for ten years as actor and choreographer. Then, in one of my periodic self-reinventions, I went back to college and got two more degrees and my various fitness certifications, and eventually opened my own yoga and personal training studio. What was I thinking? I had to market it.

It started off well. Word of mouth was good, and I gave away some great T-shirts. (This was in a small North Carolina town, so they said “Down Om Yoga” on the back.) People are funny about fitness and stress management, though. When they get stressed out and need it the most, they stop. I forgot the Dharma of Sales and didn’t ask them to commit, though it would have been good for their health as well as my bottom line. I agreed with their objections and stopped there. It was a sad day when I closed my studio. A friend in Norfolk tried to reassure me that I’d done the best I could in that location, saying, “If you’d had a truck wash and gun-cleaning service along with the yoga, you’d still be in business.” But I couldn’t help thinking that if I’d been a better salesperson, I could have kept the place alive.

As a college professor, I don’t have to sell my yoga classes anymore. I don’t have to market anything. My selling days could finally be over. But no—I’m a writer. Unless an author is with one of the big publishing houses and has a publicist who does the shameless commerce for her, she has to be her own marketing department. Except for my peculiar genius for selling sexy nighties in a bar, I haven’t been a stellar saleswoman in the past. Why is this so hard? I need to get back in the car with Don Duck …

“Agree with their objections.” He eases off the gas, taking a curve past a bait shop and gas station. “They say they never heard of you? Yep. It’s true. They’re in for a good surprise, though, and they can brag about discovering you. What else do they say?” Don grins and loosens his tie. “They’re afraid they might not like it. Lordy. I know the feeling. I read a book I didn’t like once, and it gave me a headache. I read some I thought I wouldn’t like, though, and man, they won me over—kept me reading all night. I especially like those e-books that only cost me as much as a latté. I kick myself when I spend that much on a fancy cup of coffee, but not a book. I get into a book and my wife keeps saying say, ‘Don, turn off the light,’ and I say, ‘One more chapter,’ and it’s two more, three more … I never had a damned latté keep me up that long. Coffee wore off in a few hours. A good book—that’s forever. And I liked some of those characters better than my wife.” He glances my way, popping a mint in his mouth. “You got that? Agree with their objections. But then meet them and ask for the sale.”

I shrink into my seat. “Oh, Don, I’m sure you’re right … But I can’t. I’d be bothering people.”

“What’s the matter with you? You’ve won awards, you’ve got good reviews …” He sighs, shaking his head. “If you won’t get out there and sell your books, you’ll just have to give ’em away.”

Ah. That, I can do.

Blog follower giveaway:

Two blog readers will win all four books in the Mae Martin Series in paperback. Here’s how to enter:

You don’t have long—just a few days—so do it now. Send an e-mail to with the heading Blog Follower. Let me know which blog or blogs you follow (I have four*), and I’ll enter you in the give-away. I will reply confirming your entry. You can ask to subscribe to my new release mailing list at the same time if you want, but I will not automatically subscribe you. Fear no spam. It’s not coming.

On Monday Sept. 28th at 12:00 noon Eastern time, I’ll close the entries and put all the names in a virtual hat and have a colleague pull two out. I will contact the winners and ask for their mailing addresses, and contact the other entrants with only the first name and last initial and general location of the winners, no personal information, i.e. “Winners are Jane X in Saskatchewan and John Y in Florida.”

If you’re not familiar with my fiction, you can read the book descriptions on and also try a free sample:

*The four blogs are: a blog about the mysteries of life and reviews of mysteries set in New Mexico. a blog dedicated to supporting and reviewing the work of indie authors who publish everywhere, not just Amazon. (It started as my Nook book shopping list and grew.) a group blog with seven other women who write mysteries. a book review blog covering everything I read, from yoga philosophy to cozy mysteries to literary fiction to thrillers and more.