Monday, March 31, 2014

Sprintime ritual

I know spring is here because today I went to the nursery for plants for my porch and deck pots. Greg, who keeps my yard in shape and has a much better eye for things, went with me to advise what to buy and what to avoid--like delphinium which, although gorgeous, won't survive our Texas summer. I always have a big pot of fountain grass in one corner of the front porch; when we asked, they said they only had the purple, not the green, which I said was fine. Greg contradicted me--that corner is dark and needs the lighter plant. Last year I only got one frond. I'll go back when they get green fountain grass and hope for better luck.
We bought herbs and shade plants because my house faces north and doesn't get much sun. For the deck, which faces south, we bought a tomato, some lavender, and the beginnings of a vegetable garden. The pot plants will look a lot better when they fill out in four or six weeks--now they're just struggling babies.

The coleus will replace a Wandering Jew that had been in this pot for years. So many things succumbed this winter--the Jew died early, but as little as three weeks ago, lavender, oregano, and sage were showing tiny shoots of new green. Then we got hit with one last arctic freeze, and that was all it took.

I always get coleus and caladium mixed up, so I hope I have them right here, but we bought a caladium--I'd never seen one this bright green and full--to replace a small oregano plant at the shady end of the porch. I'm particularly pleased with the begonias and sweet potato plants we bought for the pots at the top of the stairs to the porch. Last year we had sweet potatoes and something leveled them off.  Hoping for better luck this year.
I'm excited about my vegetable garden--with a wild Indian of a dog I haven't been able to grow anything in the back yard. Last year Greg planted some rose bushes which he said would grow strong, tall, and full. They would have if Sophie didn't knock them down as she ran back and forth to bark at a possum on the wires way above her.
I saw an idea on either Facebook or Pinterest--slit open a bag of potting soil and plant seeds in it. So we did--lettuce, spinach, pea shoots, and I forget what else. I'm looking for onion starters. Greg put the bag on an old table we don't use and dragged it to the middle of the lawn to get sun. Yet it's safe from Sophie. Pictures to follow when the seeds sprout.
What a nice day! Spring makes everything look better.    

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Garage sales--and an instant recipe

Jacob, with Santiago, the wonder seeing-eye dog
Today was our neighborhood garage sale. I know the adjoining neighborhood also held one, and I think it might have been citywide. I woke up to find the street in front of my house lined with parked cars on either side of the street. About an hour and a half later I got myself together to drop by friends who were having a sale--with my kids contributing. It took me at least fifteen minutes to drive what I can normally do in three minutes. The old streets in our neighborhood are not wide enough for two-way traffic with cars parked on either side. Some people were polite and thoughtful; some, unfortunately, were not.
My friends have just moved back to Fort Worth after an 18-year absence--to the house they sold when they left. He kept standing in the yard saying, "This is incredible...this is crazy." I asked if it was this way before they moved, and he said definitely not. The shoppers were not from our neighborhood but appeared to be all over the city. They prowled, they picked up this, that and the other and asked "How much?" and then they put whatever it was down. Jordan made enough for a couple nice dinners out for them; my friends made more, even selling a bedstead and a antique table. Getting right in the spirit of things, I bought a hassock which might fit into my living room if I can find a place for it. We always run out of seating--but where to put it  when it isn't needed. I agreed it was madness. I've always hidden when the kids did garage sales in my yard, so I was grateful to Subie and Phil for hosting. But I was glad to slink away.After less than half an hour there, I came home to make potato salad, to my mind a much more profitable enterprise.
I have friends who spend every Saturday morning at garage sales. It's a routine--dare I say an addiction? I can't imagine anything more boring, and yet I profit from their prowlings with some imaginative gifts.
A side effect: this evening I was handed a grumpy-Gus boy who had been rudely awakened at six this morning and was so sleepy by late afternoon he fell asleep in the car, which made him even grumpier. I asked if he wanted dinner, and he said no, so I ate my dinner. About eight he announced he was hungry. So I said, "You know, sometimes in life you just have to eat dessert first."
I had a recipe sent me by a friend, and so I directed Jacob through making it. At the first step, he said, "This is making me in a better mood already." Now he's happily eating chocolate cake with ice cream and has promised to tell his mom only "Juju gave me a healthy dinner." Ice cream is healthy, isn't it?
Here's the recipe for instant individual cakes:

Mix one box angel food cake mix and one box devil's food cake mix thoroughly.
Put 4 Tbsp. of the mix in a bowl; add 3 Tbsp. water. Microwave one minute.
Voila! A really good chocolate cake. Jacob spooned just a bit of ice cream on each bite and declared it was delicious. I now have enough of the combined mixes to feed him until school is out. And I have a happy camper (probably the sugar helped).

Garage sale day turned out pretty well. The empty cake dish and ice cream container say it all.

Friday, March 28, 2014

What could be nicer?

I came home tonight from a lovely dinner to find a message on my voice mail. When I listened to it, a seven-year-old voice said all in one breath, "Goodbye. I love you." I laughed, because when last seen I was dropping him off at baseball practice. He had insisted I put the top down on the car--I think so he could make a showy arrival, climbing out of the car instead of opening the door. When I jokingly said, "I don't suppose you're going to give me a kiss," he gave me the most disgusted look I've ever seen from this normally sweet child. I know, in front of the coach and the other boys! Never! So I guess this was a bit of a way of making amends.
I had just come home from a wonderful dinner with good friends. Sue lived next door to me for six or eight years and we became close friends. Her parents live in Ottawa, Canada, so she calls me her Fort Worth mother (the age difference is about right). Tonight her parents and her boyfriend, whom I adore, were in town, and they invited me to join them at Sera, a relatively new place near my house. We had a joyful evening, and the food was great--I had Arroz something--with roasted tomatoes, greens, a couple of pieces of artichoke and wonderful sautéed scallops. So good. We had Littleneck clams for an appetizer. Now I consider myself a fairly sophisticated eater--didn't I have tartare last night?--but I've never had clams. I wasn't blown away by them. But we had an olive oil cake (much better than it sounds) and a chocolate/orange something that was wonderful. Nothing better than a great meal with good friends.
I am eternally grateful for the life I lead. Of course there was one blip on the day's screen. Jacob was to go home with a friend after school today, and I was peacefully napping when a neighbor called from the school and asked if I knew that Jacob and his friend were in the principal's office. No one had picked them up, but they had called the other boy's grandmother and she was on her way. So I waited a bit and called, and, yes, she had the boys. When I went to pick Jacob up, I told the grandfather, a friend and neighbor, that I'd forgotten the books I laid out for his wife. "That's okay," he said, "I forgot to pick up the kids." We all have days like that.
Feels like spring, redbuds are blooming, and I think--not sure--I saw a dogwood in bloom today. Maybe this time spring is really arriving, even if a little late. I think today was the first day I had the top down on the car.
Life is good, and I feel blessed with friends and family.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Longing for the good old days...or not

My city is changing. I knew this of course but it was made dramatically clear to me by my two meals today. I had lunch at a kosher deli that has been in the city longer than I have--50 years this summer--and hasn't changed much in all that time. It's comfortable, unpretentious, a bit noisy, and all the people greet me like an old friend. Great tuna salad sandwich--not tuna perched on a salad but tuna missed with lemon, mayo, pickle, and I don't know what else. The deli is in a sort of shabby neighborhood, alongside railroad tracks, and sometimes when I park in the back I wonder about being mugged. But I love it and often eat there twice a week.
Tonight I had dinner in a new restaurant in an upscale development of trendy restaurants--some stand-alones and some chains--and lots of new and expensive apartment buildings. A valet whisked our car away, and inside we were greeted with expanses of glass, brick walls, chrome tables, and an intriguing menu. As I looked at lamb tartare, Scotch eggs with chorizo, crispy little quail and other delicacies I had to remind myself that I was still in Fort Worth. I chose the lamb tartare which was excellent though, as the waiter warned me, a small portion. I compensated with a bit of my friends mac'n cheese (made with rigatoni and sophisticated cheeses) and too many pieces of wonderful toasted baguette. Two different worlds.
I like both worlds. I like the familiar comfort of my neighborhood places, but I also like being able to venture a mile or two away and have really awesome food--or even downtown, which these days is a jumping place.
But I don't want to see the older parts of my city swallowed up by development. If you've read any of my Kelly O'Connell Mysteries, you know how I feel about old houses, particularly Craftsman architecture. Kelly makes a living renovating and selling Craftsman houses and lives in one herself. Many of her escapades involving murder revolve around her passion for preserving the character of her historic Fairmount neighborhood.
I myself live in a neighborhood adjacent to Fairmount. Mine is a single-story house built in the early 1920s. I work hard to modernize it without violating it's historic nature--though someone put a galley kitchen in, and I'll be darned if I can decipher the original configuration of the house. But with worn wood floors, a bathroom with tiny tiles on the floor, and windows with that wavy old glass, it's a marvelous house and I love every inch of it.
It troubles me to drive around neighborhoods adjacent to mine and see one-story houses--a few charming and many not so much so--torn down and replaced with quadraplexes that rent for far more than the owners of those modest houses could afford. Currently there's a zoning board appeal to convert an area just north of TCU to, if I understand correctly, unrestricted zoning so a developer can tear down old but solid and lovely brick duplexes and the truly charming houses behind them for a huge apartment complex. I think conventional wisdom is that apartments buildings are great between the first two series of tenants and then begin to deteriorate. When you watch these buildings going up so fast, that's easy to believe.
I'm not against progress, and I do realize some old houses suffer from deferred maintenance so that demolition is the only solution--they even do that in Kelly's Fairmount neighborhood. But I don't want to find myself suddenly living in an area of apartment buildings and quadraplexes. I want the good old days--my familiar hangouts with the option of upscale dining when I want it

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Murder and Mystery in Brooklyn

Please welcome my guest, Triss Stein, a small-town girl from New York state's dairy country who has spent most of her adult life living and working in New York City. This gives her a useful double vision of a stranger and a resident for writing mysteries about Brooklyn, her ever-fascinating, ever-changing, ever-challenging adopted home. Brooklyn Graves was published by Poison Pen Press in March and is second in the series, after Brooklyn Bones. Triss is active in both Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America and is on the board of the MWA NY chapter. Welcome, Triss!

Judy has kindly invited me to write a guest blog as I am blog touring for my new book, Brooklyn Graves.

This is the second book in a new series about Brooklyn, after Brooklyn Bones. Though I have lived in Brooklyn for many decades I am not a native. Believe me, there is a difference, and the question I am asked most often is how I came to write a Brooklyn series. It is a multi-part answer.

I grew up in New York, the state ( really upstate - near Canada) but I had many relatives in New York, the city. It was not the big bad city to me; it was a goal. I planned to have a bachelor girl apartment there someday. Clearly, I was influenced by Doris Day movies, but I did live in New York, the city, as a young woman.

I worked for the public library system in Brooklyn, and they liked to move us around to different neighborhoods. Even then, it seemed to me those neighborhoods were a lot like small towns. People didn't say they were from New York or even Brooklyn; they said they were from Red Hook or East New York. They might even say they were from a mini-neighborhood or project - Ditmas Park or Linden Houses. They maybe went into the big bad city (that would be Manhattan) once a year.

When I started thinking about a new mystery series, it seemed to me that no one was really setting mysteries against the background of ordinary life in New York. Most of us don't walk the mean streets, trade in drugs, join youth gangs. We have jobs, families, local issues, though they all have a special New York flavor. Or at least we like to think so.

By then I owned a home in Brooklyn, had my own neighborhood, raised my daughters there, and sent them to public schools. I had a small garden! Could I write a series about that, set in different neighborhoods where their infinite variety of history, culture, quirks and - of course! It’s a mystery series - conflicts? And crimes old and new?

My heroine is an urban historian in training whose work gives her a reason to ask questions that - sometimes- people don't want to answer. In Brooklyn Bones, the setting is her own neighborhood (and mine, not by coincidence) gentrifying Park Slope, and her own house, where an ugly secret is uncovered during renovation. In Brooklyn Graves, the setting is a Brooklyn landmark, beautiful Green-Wood cemetery, where there is history, memories, and art worth serious money. And of course, there are living people with needs, desires and conflicts.

The next one will be about a tough neighborhood, then and now, that has produced generations of criminals and boxers. After that? Who knows? I'm never going to run out of Brooklyn stories.  If you would like to see some odd ones - wild parakeets and Winston Churchill's mother (yes, she was a Brooklyn girl) - my website has a tab for Brooklyn Fun Facts. Those are stories I haven't figured out how to put in a mystery. Yet.  
And here's the blurb for Brooklyn Graves--
 A brutally murdered friend who was a family man with not an enemy in the world. A box full of charming letters home, written a century ago by an unknown young woman working at the famed Tiffany studios. Historic Green-Wood cemetery, where a decrepit mausoleum with stunning stained glass windows is now off limits, even to a famed art historian.
Suddenly, all of this, from the tragic to the merely eccentric, becomes part of Erica Donato’s life. She is a close friend of the murdered man’s family and feels compelled to help them. She is arbitrarily assigned to catalogue the valuable letters for an arrogant expert visiting the history museum where she works. She is the person who took that same expert to see the mausoleum windows.
Her life is full enough. She is a youngish single mother of a teen, an oldish history grad student, lowest person on the museum’s totem pole. She doesn’t need more responsibility, but she gets it anyway as secrets start emerging in the most unexpected places: an admirable life was not what it seemed, confiding letters conceal their most important story, and too many people have hidden agendas.
In Brooklyn Graves a story of old families, old loves and hidden ties merges with new crimes and the true value of art, against the background of the splendid old cemetery and the life of modern Brooklyn.



Monday, March 24, 2014


Not my best day. I spent it trying to straighten out various technological aspects of my daily life. First of all, my U-Verse bill shot up. I solved it by "chatting" online with someone from AT&T--it took forever, but we finally did find that the promotion I signed up with had expired. Got some new promotion, and the result is a bill only minimally higher than it used to be. But I am not patient during those long pauses while the chatty person looks up my record, etc.
Next problem was that my cell phone had developed an annoying habit of telling me I had the wrong voicemail password. It would announce this at odd times, mostly in the midst of a phone call which was blocked while I hit cancel. Two seconds later, same message would appear. I spent quite a while with an Apple chatter, only to find out Id have to go back to AT&T. Did that and Josh, nice as he was, gave me one little bit of wrong information which led us both on a wild goose chase. He concluded I probably had to go to the Apple store. When I signed off--it was dinner time and I was hungry--I happened to find the link he was talking about--not where he said it was--and fixed the problem.I do have to say everyone I chatted with was most helpful and polite.
The sum total of my accomplishments for the day is problems with U-Verse and AT&T solved, newsletter proofed, yoga done, and 1,000 words written on my work in progress. Makes me feel a lot better to look at the day that way rather than as a waste spent chatting with Apple and AT&T.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Butterflies...and an adventure

Yesterday I took Jacob and an eight-year-old friend to the Butterfly Garden at the Fort Worth Botanical Garden. Max's family has been so good about taking Jacob on adventuresome play dates, and this was one thing I thought I could do alone, though I was a bit uncertain about it.
Yes, back in the day I took four children everywhere by myself, never thought a thing about it. But then I was in my thirties; I'm a bit older now. I remember once when I had a fifth child with us. We went into a store and as we left, I realized I'd left a child behind. Turning to find that child, I bumped into a woman and said, "So sorry, ma'am, but I've lost a child." She put a comforting arm on mine and said, "Don't worry, honey. You got enough as it is." Another time I piled the children into the car at the grocery store and started off down a side street, only to realize that Jamie, my third, was running frantically down the street, waving his arms and calling. Jamie is the one who always says he's suing for the indignities and dangers he was subjected to as a child.
When  you have someone else's child or grandchild, you're even more careful as I was yesterday. I wouldn't let those boys out of my sight for two seconds, and when I wanted to use a restroom, I asked a docent to watch them.
The Botanic Garden has a tropical arboretum, and every year (I think) they release lots of butterflies into the space. I remember going about eight years ago when there was so many, flying at you from every direction, that it freaked my oldest granddaughter out and she had to leave. That time, they also had glassed-in boxes through which the children could watch butterflies emerge from the chrysalis, and the kids were fascinated.
On the way to the garden, the boys wanted the top down on the car, and from then on they were boisterous, loud and noisy, waving and calling to pedestrians. At the arboretum, they listened politely to the rules--no touching, watch where you walk, etc.--and I added no loud voices because they would scare the butterflies. They were actually well-behaved and listened attentively to a docent who helped them identify the ones they saw. But after five minutes, Max asked, "Can we leave now? I'm hot." It was hot and humid in there, no way around it. I tried to get him to take off his top shirt, which he finally did. But the butterflies were not nearly as numerous as I remember, and there was no chrysalis display.
Afterward, they wanted to run in the meadow behind the Botanic Garden building, and Jacob had a fine time running and throwing himself down in the grass. After a very few minutes, Max was too hot and came to sit with me in the shade.
We left for home and nothing would be but Jacob wanted to look for frogs in the ponds that had frog statues at either end. Max told him there were no frogs and waited in the car with me, while Jacob walked the perimeter of both ponds.
Finally I got them home, fed them ice cream (which they let Sophie eat too much of), and breathed a sigh of relief.  But they continued to raise holy Ned in the backyard--they broke a tree which they were "just leaning on" and found a nonexistent gate that they urged a neighbor to go through until I stopped that--I didn't want the gap between the fences widened enough for Sophie to get through.
A long but satisfying afternoon. I worry abut the scarcity of butterflies. They, like bees, are endangered these days--maybe that's what prompted by rant last night about our artificial world. But I will add that we saw some beauties yesterday--particularly the turquoise Blue Morpho, yellow-edged giant owl, and the tiger longwing. It's worth going to see the exhibit.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Our artifical world

Maybe it's because I'm getting old and I remember the "good old days," but lately I've really been worried about the artificial world we live in. Not much is left to nature these days, and yet I firmly believe that grand old lady knows what she's doing. This isn't a new thought for me, but it hit home when I saw where someone--probably a nutrition authority--said we do not eat food any more. We eat "food-like products." I am truly alarmed by GMOs but even more so by pre-packed, pre-prepared foods which must have a jillion preservatives in them. "Just add water, heat and serve." No thank you. Most of it tastes like cardboard. But there are some foolers. I love ranch dressing, especially the powdered kind you mix with buttermilk and mayonnaise for salad dressing or mayonnaise and sour cream for a dip. These days I make my own ranch flavoring out of fresh herbs or relatively fresh dry ones. I also make my own taco seasoning. I don't buy chicken nuggets for my grandson any more--they aren't chicken but "by-products" and when I buy him hot dogs (which he loves) I get Oscar Meyer Select which the label says is pure chicken or turkey or beef. Hope I'm not being gullible on that one. Sometimes I can't escape using Velveeta because of its melting qualities, but it's a rare day. I'm thinking of making my own mayonnaise though right now I'm using Duke's, which my gluten- and dairy-free friend recommended. I don't buy margarine but stick with real butter and try to be cautious about the amount (though I do love it). I don't buy low-fat dairy products since someone pointed out to me if they take the fat out they have to put something else in to compensate. And I wish I could afford all organic vegetables and fruit--but I try for locally grown, and I think there are some products that you really should buy organic--berries, for instance. And apples.
Cleaning products pollute our world terribly, and some include ingredients that can do all kinds of damage--bug sprays for instance. I have an infestation of moths right now, which really upsets Jacob. He wants me to hire an exterminator, and I explained that I wasn't going to spray my house with poison for a few moths. When I do need an exterminator, I call a company that uses only organic products. Except with rats--I had a rat problem last summer, and when I asked how they get rid of rats organically, the representative said flatly, "We don't. There's no way." The internet though has tons of recipes for home-made, effective, organic cleaning products--many with good old white vinegar.
I have long had my own superstition about all the concrete with which we are covering Mother Earth. I think the earth needs room to breathe, and yet we building multi-story structures and parking lots and slowly but surely getting rid of all open space--and all the plants and trees that destroy carbon dioxide and help create fresh oxygen for us to breathe. Whenever I fly over the American West and see the vast open land, I'm a bit reassured. But I think sometime we will be called to account for what we do to the land and the environment. And don't ask me about strip mining in the Alaskan wilderness or the Keystone Pipeline.
Finally, in my litany of worries, I think so many of us are overmedicated. My doctor found a certain medication threw off my electrolytes, so when I took another medicine to correct that, I developed digestive problems. I really like my doctor, but I want to say to him, "Don't you think my body is trying to tell us something." Don't get me wrong--I appreciate modern medicine for the most part--if I didn't take the hypertensive, anti-cholesterol pills and others, I would not be as healthy as I am for my age. But yoga also contributes a great deal--and is a natural remedy..
The whole point of all this rambling is "Quit messing with Mother Nature." When I hear Senator John Cornyn urge Texans to keep the EPA out of Texas I see red. I hope next fall we can get a Congress who will pay attention to pollution, climate change, and the damage we are doing to ourselves and our world--and forget kowtowing to coal mining, the gas industry and fracking, the oil industry, and others.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The sagging middle

No, I'm not referring to my middle though, alas, it is sagging these days. But authors talk about the sagging middle--when you get to the middle of a work in progress and you sag, it sags, you don't know where to go. It happens to those who outline methodically and to us pantsers who have a rough idea of where we're going and leap into it.
Well, I have not even reached the middle, and I'm sagging. At 16,000 words. I think my method that I crowed about--1,000 words a day--is making it sag. I find myself thinking, "Well, what trouble can I get Kelly into in a thousand words today?" The result is an episodic work in which I'm not seeing the forest for the trees. There's no overall controlling sense in the story, even though I know there's a good basic story there to be told.
And in trying to get Kelly into trouble, I've let her become a victim, rather than the person she's been, ready to fight bear for her family and her neighborhood. At three in the morning the other night I decided that she's hopelessly passive, and I'm bored with this new Kelly--which means readers would be bored.
So I've got to start all over, give Kelly some life, work in Keisha's story, for I figured this would be Keisha's book, just as Ms. Lorna and Mike had their books in Trouble in a Big Box and the forthcoming Deception in Strange Places (due out at the very end of July).
So here I am, waking between two and four in the morning, because the dog has a new habit of wanting to go out then, and  lying awake wondering about Kelly and her current stalker and how I can work  it out. Oh, my.
For those who think writing is easy, I beg to differ. It's sometimes like pulling teeth. The words don't come easily nor do the ideas. And I admit I am fully capable of distracting myself with a manuscript I'm to edit, a newsletter to put together, Facebook, another mystery to read--hey, that's educational, right?
For those who haven't read any Kelly O'Connell Mysteries, this is probably pretty incomprehensible. I can only hope you'll decide you have to meet all these characters.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Flowers in the house

I love having fresh flowers in the house, and today I am blessed with them in three places. To me, these blooming things signal that spring at long last is going to arrive. Today I went to get my flowers of the month and placed them in their customary spot on the sideboard in the dining room.
Then I turned to the dining room table where Jordan has been kind enough to share with me the lovely flowers her friends bought for her Saturday night birthday celebration. And finally there is the orchid Jordan brought me for Valentine's Day. I feel surrounded by flowers and they brighten my day. Here they are, in reverse order--orchid, birthday flowers, flowers of the month. Lucky me! Just thought I'd share the joy tonight.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Attending arguments--or keeping silent

I saw something on Facebook today that said, "You don't have to attend every argument you're invited to." Good advice, and yet I find myself increasingly drawn into arguments on Facebook. It's no secret my political sympathies are definitely left so it's no surprise that I am outraged by some of the posts from the conservative side and I want to share some from the liberal side. I try to be judicious about the posts I share--checking the sources, etc. I'm willing to be contradicted, but by hard facts not opinions.
Not surprisingly, I irritate a lot of people who hold different views. Some are polite, a few verge on being rude and unpleasant. I try to maintain calm, avoid shrillness, and restrain some thoughts that come to mind.
But I decided that if you firmly believe in a way of life, a philosophy if you will, it's your responsibility to speak up. I believe the fall elections are critical. This country cannot survive another stalemate in Washington and another obstructionist conservative Congress, nor am I one bit happy about the Republican control of the state I call home. We may have great jobs numbers, but we rank poorly in health care for the underinsured (the ACA would help), education, and other vital human services areas. We're great on outlawing abortion but we don't provide for those babies when they're born. And our record on women's rights is not good. I see so many reasons that the Democratic candidates are more to my taste--more compassionate, more concerned about the welfare of all people, willing to work to level the wealth, health, and education inequalities in this country.
I would willingly work for Democratic candidates (no, I don't like them all and, yes, I realize there are dishonest, selfish people are both sides of the aisle) but I can't physically walk the block, and my one attempt at being part of a phone bank (for Bill White's gubernatorial campaign) was a disaster at least to me. I give what I can but like all of us, I am besieged by everybody from the local party up to the top national office. I cannot honor every request--plus the three universities that want to claim my loyalty.
So being forthright on Facebook is my way of fighting for what I believe. On the other hand that means I'm not only attending every argument, I'm starting some. I was raised, like all female children of the fifties, not to argue, but I don't think it's right not to stand up for what you believe, to listen quietly without objection to distortion and lies.
I have a good friend who is an activist on Facebook for many causes, from liberal politics to LGBT to issues to women's issues, but she also posts about her grandchildren, her animals, her fabulous garden. "I want people to know that I'm a regular person, not just an activist," she explained to me once. Words I've never forgotten.
It may be extreme to say in this day when President Obama has been compared to Hitler, but I see parallels to pre-WWII Germany. The German people didn't speak up as Nazism took over their country. I can't let ultra-right, conservative (sometimes Tea Party) thinking quietly take over my America. Sure, I'm probably on some lists, and I laughed when Vice President Cheney thanked me for supporting him and invited me to a big Washington dinner. Wrong list, Dick.
If you don't want to read my posts or you want to defriend or hide me, I understand. I hope you understand that I feel strongly about free speech, and sometimes I hope what they say about advertising is true--repetition works. And I'll keep posting about Jacob, Sophie, mysteries and all the various aspects of my life and opinions. I hope there's a lot more to me than strongly held political opinions.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A slight lesson in Fort Worth history...and a little BSP

In the late nineteenth century, orphan trains carried youngsters from the East to find homes in the small towns and fields of the Midwest and West. Some were orphans, others were given up by tearful families who could not care for them. Along the way, farmers and townsfolk would come on board, pick out youths who looked like good workers, and take them home--sometimes it was almost like indentured servitude. At any rate, Fort Worth was the last stop, the place were children not chosen got off the train. A minister--all I remember from my research is the name Isaac--used to meet the trains and try to help the children. Belle Burchill, the first woman postmistress of Fort Worth, was also instrumental in establishing child care in Fort Worth--a system that, by twists and turns, ultimately led to the Edna Gladney Home. But still, Fort Worth had a number of street children who lived by their wits and cunning...and not always honestly. But they were a band of brothers.
At the same time, Longhair Jim Courtright was in Fort Worth, though on the downside of his career. He had been a U.S. Marshal, deputy sheriff, jailer, private detective, racketeer, and fugitive from the law. The story I always loved was that when marshals from New Mexico had him under arrest for murder, they escorted him under heavy guard to a local restaurant. Courtright's friends had hung two guns under the table. He reached for his napkin and came up with guns...and made his escape on a waiting horse.
Because I love the history of the West and particularly of Fort Worth, I combined two stories into a novel, A Ballad for Sallie. Neither Courtright nor Lizzie, the orphan girl, fleshed out the novel, so I included an eastern woman come to inherit her cousin's store, and of course, there's a love story--though Sallie never gives Courtright, a married man, the attention he thinks he deserves.
Much of the story is actual history--Hell's Half Acre, the cattle drives for which Fort Worth was the last civilized stop, the shoot-out between Luke Short, gambler, gunman and bar owner, and Courtright. Courtright lost, and his funeral procession was the longest in Fort Worth history at that time.
I tend to forget about A Ballad for Sallie, which I shouldn't because it's one of my favorites of my early novels. Amazon picked it up when the previous publisher went under, and it's still available albeit with a over that makes me wonder. This story about an orphan girl shows a mounted man getting off his horse, gun in hand.  There weren't even horses involved in the Courtright/Luke Short shootout. But that's publishing!
If you're interested in Fort Worth history, check it out at

Told you this was going to be a bit of blatant self promotion!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Killing the fatted calf...or not

Sometimes, with apologies to Jordan and all she does for me, I think the child who stays close to home gets taken for granted while we trot out the fatted calf for the one who doesn't visit often. That's sort of how I felt last night when Colin (Houston) and his family plus another family stopped to spend the night on their way from Santa Fe to Houston. They arrived about 8:45 and there was no fatted calf--dry cereal they brought with them was more like it. My offers of wine, beer, and ice cream were politely declined. But oh my goodness, the children and Sophie had a wild picnic, and this morning the living room was a mine field of dog toys which sweet Morgan promptly cleaned up for me, dumping them all into Sophie's toy basket.
Colin did his three chores--pass on a couple of paintings I have no place for and thought he might take home, spray WD 40 on the 80-year-old trike that the kids, no matter how big, continue to ride, and rearrange my cupboard so that the crock pot is not high up where I have to climb on a stool to get it. (Sons are so helpful!)
Jordan and Jacob arrived while I was still dozing, and they were amazingly quiet. But we got everyone dressed, cars loaded, Jordan off to work, and the rest of us went to Carshon's, Colin's favorite, where, to his delight, he could have lunch for breakfast. His friends had never been anywhere like it and loved the food. The kids--five of them including Jacob--had a high old time at their own table. No wonder the owner didn't recognize me and when she did said, "I wondered who all those people were." We lingered almost two hours over breakfast, and when we came home all thoughts of taking Jacob someplace wonderful had evaporated. I was tired.
Tonight I capped off the day with a  happy hour with Jordan, followed by dinner with two good friends. We went to Little Red Wasp where they have the world's best hot dogs--hmmm, Stag's Leap Chardonnay and hot dogs! Not to be beat.
It's early to bed for me tonight and though I'd like to say back to work tomorrow that doesn't quite work. There will be 16 at the house for enchiladas celebrating Jordan's [no, I'm not forty] birthday on Sunday. Lots of work to do!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Spring break rolls on

Today, although it started out cold, I really do believe spring is on its way. Greg, the wonderful neighbor who keeps my yard in shape, came to begin the spring cleanup and move indoor plants outside. I swear I will scream if it freezes again. It will take a while before the yard and porch and deck look like I want them to, but we're on the way, and we have great plans. I saw somewhere the idea of buying potty soil, slitting the bag lengthwise, and pushing seeds down into it, so you can grow rows of lettuce, spinach, whatever. Perfect, because I have an old glass-topped table I can put the bags on so a) I won't have to bend over to get to them, and b) Sophie, who is a great plant killer, can't destroy them. Last year she killed three roses--not knock-out but like them--that Greg planted. She literally trampled them to death.
Pleasant evening tonight waiting for Colin, my oldest, and his family to arrive on the way home from Santa Fe. They are bringing another family I've never met, and I had every good intention of cleaning house. It went by the way when I remembered I had a speaking engagement this morning, but I have sort of straightened. Because I'm anticipating their arrival--and a phone message that Jordan is home--I don't really want to settle down to work, so I'm going through the food magazines on my desk and clipping recipes I want. Always makes me happy. Anyone for salmon with smashed peas?
Meanwhile I haven't heard from the Austin branch who are skiing at Beaver Creek but I am getting wonderful pictures from the Frisco Alters who are in Seattle. Makes me want to jump on a plane and join them.
They report that the farmers market is one of their favorite places so far, and I can see why. It's enough to draw anyone from dry Texas to the lush Northwest.
But they also enjoyed a ferry trip to Bainbridge, wherever that is. I understood the joy on Maddie's face--I, who am firmly against a cruise, love to ride a ferry.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Company Store

Please welcome my Wednesday guest, Catherine Dilts, who writes mysteries set in the mountains of southern Colorado and here gives us an informative glimpse into the early days of the mines that pepper the mountains of that area. I for one hope Catherine will turn from contemporary and write about the Ludlow Massacre, which I'd never heard of before. Here' s Catherine:

The grimy faces of young boys emerging from a mine stared at us from a poster in the Western Museum of Mining and Industry. My daughter told her middle child, “If you lived back then, you’d be marrying one of those boys. Soon. Then you’d have babies. That’s all you’d get to do.”

My granddaughter seemed unsure whether she should believe her mother. As we would learn that evening, a coal miner’s wife in the early 1900s often had a bleak, hard, and short life.
I became a member of the museum last summer. My fiction has gravitated toward stories involving modern day prospectors and gemstone mining. The WMMI is a good resource, plus they offer free programs, like the February lecture on Social Life in Western Mining Camps, presented by Associate Professor Fawn Amber Montoya.

Colorado is known for gold and silver mining, but the state is also rich in coal. Over a century ago, coal camps dotted Southern Colorado. The Colorado Fuel & Iron Company (CF&I) dominated the region, controlling the mines, the mills, the trains, and the towns.
In the early 1900s, workers flocked to the CF&I mines. Many were immigrants, lured to America with promises far exceeding reality.  A survey from the time listed over twenty different ethnic groups, with English, Spanish, and Italian as the predominant languages. At Ludlow, one of the tent mining camps, this diverse population got along quite well, playing music and singing in the evenings. Professor Montoya’s description of camp life was one of harmony.

The mining companies hired teachers, more to train future workers than to educate the children. Both boys and girls attended school starting with kindergarten and ending by sixth grade. They learned practical arithmetic needed by miners, farmers and laborers. The only library consisted of whatever books the teacher happened to own. While children learned to read and write, their parents were typically illiterate.
This sign warns that you are entering a uranium mine area with possible open shafts and tunnels and possible radioactive radon gas. It cautions visitors to stay on the existing road. [Note the handkerchief over Catherine's face.]

One photo showed eight-year-old boys dressed in mining gear. They weren’t working in the mines. Not yet. They were participating in a career field day. My oldest granddaughter just turned thirteen. A boy that age would have one year of childhood left before going to work.

What about the girls? They married young and started families or worked as domestic help. Most women didn’t live past the age of forty-five. Dying in childbirth was common. People had large families with the expectation they would lose two or three children.
Working conditions for those “men” aged fourteen and up were shocking. Life expectancy was between forty and forty-five. Men died in mining accidents or from black lung caused by coal dust.

In 1913, just before the start of World War I, miners began striking in what became known as the Colorado Coalfield Wars. They demanded relief from the dangerous conditions and from the near slavery resulting from low wages and the requirement to shop exclusively at the company store. The miners even had to pay full retail price for the coal they had dug out of the mines.
The mining camps were often tucked into canyons, where the entrance was easier to control than a camp on the open prairie. Armed guards supervised who came and went. Handy when you wanted to keep union organizers out.

After months of escalating violence, on April 20th, 1914, mine company employees in National Guard uniforms were ordered to evict the striking Ludlow miners from their tent city. The miners fought back. Fourteen hours later, seventeen men, women, and children had been murdered. Some died when their tent city was burned to the ground. News of the massacre spread, inflaming workers around the world to strike in protest. 
Despite the outrage, not much changed for many years after the Ludlow massacre. The strike had been broken. World War I started. Miners went back to work in the same conditions. Eventually the United Mine Workers and federal laws changed the mining industry.

What grim, terrible times. And yet Ms. Montoya described an interview with a woman who had grown up in a coal camp. Most of her memories were of the epic baseball games and team rivalries between the different camps. Life wasn’t all suffering. 
After the company town monopoly was broken, people could live and shop where they wanted. Mining companies sponsored baseball teams and picnics. At one, a contest offered a prize to the heaviest lady. The women consented to a public weigh-in to determine the winner. In another, the woman with the most children won shoes for the entire family. Those were definitely different times.

I found it interesting that happy memories prevailed for the former mine camp resident. I wonder what my granddaughters will remember from the lecture. The hard life of a coal miner’s wife or Grandma attempting to sing “I owe my soul to the company store” on the drive home?
Here’s a link to the lyrics:; You can learn more about the museum at:

About Catherine Dilts
Catherine Dilts writes amateur sleuth mysteries set in the Colorado mountains. In her debut novel Stone Cold Dead – A Rock Shop Mystery, business is as dead as a dinosaur, but when Morgan Iverson finds the body of a Goth teen on a hiking trail, more than just the family rock shop could become extinct. Catherine works as an environmental scientist and plays at heirloom vegetable gardening, camping, and fishing. Her short fiction appears in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Visit her at

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Spring break

PhotoThe Houston Alters ski Santa Fe

Jordan and Christian at Ruidoso
Spring break means different things at different phases of your life, I’ve found out.This year, for me, it means that none of my family are safely where they belong, a thought that sort of disquiets me. Colin and his family, above, are skiing in Santa Fe--not sure how they had the nerve to go to Santa Fe and leave me behind, but they did. Megan and her family are in Beaver Creek, Colorado, and Jamie and his family have gone to Seattle so Maddie can see the University of Washington (if you want to be cool, say U-Dub). and Jordan, Christian and Jacob have gone skiing in Ruidoso. The latter is a bit funny--Jordan does not ski, end of discussion; Jacob tried one day at Christmas and wasn't particularly enthralled, but maybe he'll do better this year. Christian loves to ski.
I worried about a long, empty week where work and no play would make Judy a dull girl, I filled my dance card too full and am having a really busy week. Yesterday I had lunch out and friends in for leftovers from Sunday night supper. Tonight I have had breakfast, lunch, and dinner out and am worrying about when I'll ever get my 1,000 words for the day written. Tomorrow I have a breakfast date but an otherwise empty calendar--except I think I should really run to the grocery store. And Thursday evening Colin and his family will stop overnight, bringing with them the friends they're traveling with, so I'l have a full house and a full guest house. Friday morning, we'll all go to Colin's favorite restaurant, Carshon's Deli, for breakfast. Then they'll be gone, Jordan will come by in the late afternoon, and Saturday I will cook for 16 people for Jordan's b'day.
Meantime, Sophie and I know how to relax. I'm sleeping later in the mornings--no Jacob to hug on his way to school in the mornings--and I'm getting nice, late, long naps in the afternoon--no Jacob to pick up and do homework with. Here' Sophie relaxing. I suspect she'd rather have Jacob and the activity he brings. She'll welcome Morgan and Kegan Thursday night.

Spring break

The Houston Alters ski Santa Fe

Spring break means different things at different phases of your life. This year, for me, it means that none of my family are safely where they belong, a though that sort of disquiets me. Colin and his family, above, are skiing in Santa Fe--not sure how they had the nerve to go to Santa Fe and leave me behind, but they did. Megan and her family are in Beaver Creek, Colorado, and Jamie and his family have gone to Seattle so Maddie can see the University of Washington (if you want to be cool, say U-Dub). and Jordan, Christian and Jacob have gone skiing in Ruidoso. The latter is a bit funny--Jordan does not ski, end of discussion; Jacob tried I one day at Christmas and wasn't particularly enthralled, but maybe he'll do better this year. Christian loves to ski.
Jordan and Jacob in Ruidoso
Meantime Sophie and I were left behind. Worried about a long, empty week where work and no play makes Judy a dull girl, I filled my dance
card too full and am having a really busy week (sorry but I can't make this type justify left). Yesterday I had lunch out and friends in for leftover
from Sunday night supper. Tonight I have had breakfast, lunch, and dinner out and am worrying about when I'll ever get my
1,000 words for the day written. Tomorrow I have a breakfast date but an otherwise empty calendar--except I think I should
really run to the grocery store. And Thursday evening Colin and his family will stop overnight, bringing with them the friends
they're traveling with, so I'l have a full house and a full guest house. Friday morning, we'll all go to Colin's favorite restaurant, Carshon's Deli,
for breakfast. Then they'll be gone, Jordan will come by in the late afternoon, and Saturday I will cook for 16 people for Jordan's b'day.
Meantime, Sophie and I know how to relax. I'm sleeping letter in the mornings--no Jacob to hug on his way to school in the mornings--
and I'm getting nice, late, long naps in the afternoon--no Jacob to pick up and do homework with. Here' Sophie relaxing:


Sunday, March 09, 2014

Variations on the ubiquitous tuna

I love tuna fish. In salad, in a casserole, plain. It's high on the list of my favorite foods, and every time I hear a doctor advise, "Eat more fish," I gloat a bit and think, "I already do." But I fix it a lot of different ways.
Most people groan at the thought of a tuna casserole, that hangover from the fifties when women were housewives and stayed home to cook. I have a killer recipe.

Tuna casserole

1 cup white wine
Assorted dry herbs
1 can mushroom soup
1 7 oz. can tuna
1 stalk celery
half of a small onion
Olive oil
One starch--rice or pasta, cooked
One  vegetable--I favor frozen green peas
Salt and pepper to taste
Maybe a dash of Worcestershire
1 can French's fried onions

Bring the wine to a boil in saucepan. Throw in a handful of assorted herbs--thyme, basil, oregano, tarragon, whatever strikes your fancy. I'd advise against using Mexican spices though. Boil hard until herbs turn black and wine is reduced a bit.
Meanwhile sauté celery and onion in a small amount of olive oil. Add soup, tuna,, and pasta or rice.
Season to taste. Put into ovenproof dish and top with fried onions.
Bake at 350 until casserole is bubbly and onions are browned--20-30 minutes.

And tuna salad doesn't have to be lemon juice, onion, tuna, celery and mayo (though I love that). Sometimes I put the tuna in a mini-processor and flake it; then I add juice of a whole lemon, a good squirt of anchovy paste, one scallion, chopped, and just enough may to bind but not make it soupy.

Another way I like tuna is with grated cheddar. This is meant as a filling for pasties--and you can do that by separating crescent rolls and filling each with a bit of salad; seal tightly; brush tops with egg white, and bake at 400 for 15 minutes. But I like the filling plain:

1 7 oz. can tuna, drained
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar
1/4 cup diced celery
1/3 cup sour cream--or you can stir in a bit of mayo

And finally southwestern tuna is a favorite of mine:

I use this as a dip, served either with crackers or tortilla chips (the good strong kind), but I long ago lost the recipe, so I kind of recreate it each time.

7½-oz. can albacore tuna
Juice of 1 lime (a good juicy one)
2 Tbsp. chopped cilantro
1 Tbsp. capers
¼ c. chopped celery
¼ c. chopped red onion
Pinch of cumin
Mayonnaise to bind
1 can chopped chilies (Use your own judgment about canned chilies or a chopped jalapeño—I like the canned.)

Disclaimer: I always use canned white albacore, and I order it from the Pisces cannery in Oregon where it is canned and then cooked, instead of being cooked twice. So much better than the standard brands. You can only buy it by the case, but if you have a tuna-loving friend it works out fine and you'd be amazed at how fast it goes. For ordering information, leave your email in a comment.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Solitude #2

It's spring break, and my local kids have gone skiing--well, that's a generalization. Jordan won't ski, Jacob will probably ski once. But they're gone. I'm used to having them in and out of the house, so their absence leaves a hole in my life. But I've been diligent about filling my dance card and have lots of things on the calendar for next week--lunches, dinners, haircut, two breakfast dates. I won't be lonely or bored but I may be fat.
Besides, I'm back into writing that novel--1800 words today. A respectable accomplishment. Five hundred of them came because during the night I rewrote a passage I wasn't happy with. Went back and redid it today, making it better...and longer, which always pleases me. In two days I've gone from 4500 words to 7800--and here I thought I already had 10,000!
Pleasant surprise today--a ten-minute visit from Colin, my oldest, and his family. They were driving from Houston to Santa Fe (with a stop in Amarillo tonight) and needed a potty break. But how thankful am I they decided to come here instead of a gas station bathroom. I got grandkid hugs and big kids hugs. Morgan made me a little dog face and cautioned me seriously not to let Sophie chew on it. They'll be back next Thursday to spend the night, along with the family they're traveling with.
Tonight, as I often do when home alone on a Saturday night, I made myself a special dinner--halibut Florentine, which means filet of halibut topped with creamed spinach and then with a Panko/Parmesan/lemon coating. Since the recipe was for two, I went ahead and made both--probably wouldn't have done that if I'd realized how expensive halibut is. The spinach and crumb topping were wonderful; the fish, alas, a bit bland. Needed more lemon or salt or pepper. Now I don't know how to add it with dislodging the toppings.
Reading a book assigned for review. It's a nail-biter thriller, with a background of a search and rescue mission in the California mountains during a blizzard. Not exactly my cup of tea, and I find myself alternately captivated by a couple of the characters, repelled by the serial killer stalking them, and anxious to turn pages and get through it. Maybe I can finish tonight.
Sweet dreams, everyone.

Friday, March 07, 2014


Solitude is great. Writers are supposed to like solitude, and I enjoy my quiet space as much as anyone. I like sitting at my desk early in the morning, reading email and Facebook and that skinny thing they call the daily newspaper. I don't want anyone around, except Sophie who sleeps in the chair across from my desk. And at night, I like that last little bit of quiet, again at my desk, sometimes checking Facebook, often reading a book--when I've given up work for the day. Today I was even impatient for Jacob's dad to come get him because I wanted to fix my supper and write. And I can't write with people in the house, though Lord knows I did for years.
But I can't live with solid solitude (forgive the weak attempt at alliteration). I need people around me. The other day, Jordan had a hard day, and she stood in the kitchen, pouring us a happy hour glass, while Jacob chased Sophie (or the other way around) through the house, frequently careening through my narrow kitchen. "They're going to trip you," she said, and then a few minutes later, "I don't know how you stand it." I told her it took me back to the days when she was a toddler with three not-much-older siblings. Happy hour was then called "the fussing hour." They were hungry, they were tired, and they screamed. My house was always filled with people--screaming babies, invited guests for supper, unexpected guests, I didn't care. I loved it.
I like the balance I have now. Some days it's fairly quiet around here. Other days, you might drop in and suddenly find others dropping in, and there's a spontaneous party.
People ask me when I'm going to think about assisted living, but it's a thought I put out of my mind. I love my home. I love the fact that next week one night my oldest son and his family will be here overnight. They'll have another family with them, and we'll put them in the guest house--Jordan and I have already put clean linen on the beds, and I have a care package of toilet paper, plastic cups, Kleenex, and Lysol wipes ready to go (the latter at Jordan's insistence--wouldn't have occurred to me).
In a one-bedroom assisted living apartment, I wouldn't have all these people around me. I wouldn't be able to cook dinner for six or eight, which I do most weekends. I would grow old--quickly. Let's see--if you happen by this weekend, the menus is a big pot of cheeseburger soup; next weekend I think it will be chicken enchiladas. And tomorrow I'm going to cook dinner halibut Florentine for my "solitude" . I'd never do those things in assisted living.
Give me solitude in measured doses, please.

Thursday, March 06, 2014


Erma Bombeck, one of my heroines, once wrote that she'd rather scrub floors than look at a blank piece of paper in her typewriter. Poor Erma, I think she did all her writing before the age of the computer, but I fully understand and agree with her sentiment. I hate that blank screen.
In January, feeling big and bold, I wrote about 4500 words on a new novel--oh, good, only 64,500 to go! I was off to a gangbusters start on my 1,000 words-a-day goal. But then a manuscript I'd committed to edit came across my desk; then a manuscript of my own flew back and I dealt with edits, proofreading two more times (I am almost but not quite tired of the story--good thing I think it's worthwhile), and I got lost in the machinations of preparing to self-publish that one. And then the manuscript with first edits came back. My 4,500 words lay untouched.
Every weekend I said to myself, "This is the week I get back to that manuscript." But it didn't happen. I am fully capable of spending a morning with email, Facebook, the newspaper (skinny as it is these days), and yoga. Then, oops!, it's time for lunch with a friend. Then home for a bit more FB and it's time for a nap. I go pick Jacob up, we do homework, and who can revisit a novel in progress in the time left between five and six at night? And evenings, either I went out to dinner or I had that compelling book I was reading. Even tonight, I'm reading a book I've agreed to review.
But this morning I said to myself firmly, "Today is the day." I'm actually a pretty organized person and compulsive about what's on my desk, but when Jacob was here today I found myself making grocery lists, prowling through recipes, fiddling. I was procrastinating.
Tonight I finally read that 4500 words over, appalled at the typos--like different words, "next" for "night" and so on. I went through it and slowly began to feel myself drawn into the story. I wrote about 600 new words--not a great record for a day, but I figure it's a good start.  Tomorrow I'll get back into the groove--of course, there's the grocery store (that list, you know) and Jacob's last day of school before spring break. But next week, with school out, wash my dust...maybe!

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

A guest...and a new book

Please welcome Joyce LaVene, my Wednesday Guest. She and her husband, Jim Lavene, write award-winning, bestselling mystery fiction as themselves, J.J. Cook, and Ellie Grant. They have written and published more than 70 novels for Harlequin, Berkley, Amazon, and Gallery Books along with hundreds of non-fiction articles for national and regional publications. They live in rural North Carolina with their family. Visit them at  and
A new book is like a new baby. Everyone fawns over it, and fusses about it. If you’re lucky—there is more cooing than mudslinging at the parents. Its arrival is always exciting, full of promise and wonder. You can’t feel the birth pains anymore because you’re too overwhelmed by the glory of having done it. The end result is pretty much the only thing that gets most authors through the process.
Not surprisingly, since I’m here today, I have a new baby/book that came out at the beginning of January. The title is Playing with Fire. It’s the second book in the Sweet Pepper Fire Brigade Mysteries.
The protagonist is a little different than most cozy mystery readers are used to. Stella Griffin is a ten-year veteran firefighter from Chicago who comes to the small town of Sweet Pepper, Tennessee to jumpstart their new volunteer fire brigade. She’s strong, professional, and able to lead her small band of men and women in and out of danger. She doesn’t plan to stay after the fire brigade is up and running.
Then she meets Eric.
Eric Gamlyn is the former Sweet Pepper fire chief. He was killed in a fire forty years ago and ended up back at the log cabin he built. He’s been there ever since. His main source of enjoyment has been frightening away people who want to live in his cabin, and watching the Little Pigeon River run by his deck. When Stella shows up, the situation changes. He wants her to stay in Sweet Pepper and rebuild his fire brigade.
And he finds out that he didn’t really die in the silo fire he thought had claimed his life. His bones were found in the walls of the firehouse he’d built, along with his badge and his uniform.
Stella and Eric met for the first time in That Old Flame of Mine, book one in the series. Hero’s Journey is a novella between the two books that tells the story of the fire brigade’s mascot, a Dalmatian named Hero. He’s training to be a rescue dog so he can work with the team.
In Playing with Fire, Stella has to make a decision about staying in Sweet Pepper or going home to Chicago. Her job there won’t be on hold forever. Her parents come to Sweet Pepper to convince her that she shouldn’t stay. But Stella is determined to figure out what really happened to Eric, no matter what it takes. She’s also more than halfway in love with the small mountain town. It’s not an easy decision. She knows she’ll never be fire chief at home, another factor that weighs in Sweet Pepper’s favor.
And there’s the Pepper Festival. It’s the town’s yearly celebration of all things pepper. Sweet Pepper gets its name from growing, packaging, and selling the hottest, sweetest peppers in the world. The festival is three days of pepper-eating contests, pepper-recipe contests, pepper hats, and pepper games.
A lot of research went into creating Sweet Pepper, which is close to the Smoky Mountains National
Park, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville. Even more research went into what it would take to set up a small volunteer group. Writing about fighting fires was easier. There are firefighters in my family, both volunteers, and professionals in Chicago. Creating the volunteer firefighters, who race into fires and learn as they go, was fun and exhausting at times.
A third book will be out in 2015, In Hot Water, which continues the story of Eric, Stella, Hero, and all the others. A new book is only as exciting as the feelings and characters we create for it. This story has been a wild ride. I want to thank all of the readers who have written such nice letters and reviews. It’s only because of you that the story goes on.
Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Why do I write?

Do you ever wonder about the value of what you do day by day? I mean, do you question if you’re adding to the greater good. When I was director of TCU Press, it was pretty easy: I was publishing books, and one of the goals of an academic press is to add to the existing body of knowledge. So I was making a dent in ignorance, albeit pretty small.

But now I’ve retired and am writing mysteries. How does that contribute to the greater good? You can’t say my books are great literature—pure escape reading, they make no claim to lasting fame. But I might make a case that I provide just that—an escape, however temporary, to a new world free from the problems that distract you in your daily life. Mark Twain wrote for the satisfaction of having written, which may well be partly true of me. In short, I write because I cannot not write.

But writing mysteries has caused me a problem. I too used to read cozies an escape. Now I have become a critical reader. I don’t get as lost in a story as I used to—you know that feeling of being reluctant to read the last chapter because you don’t want to leave the world of the book? Now I’m a critical reader, thinking “I wouldn’t have had that happen here” or “I’d give this character more distinctive traits.” Even, “I’d write this character—or scene—out of the book.” I’m sure any mystery authors who read my books feel the same way.

Of course there are books that leave me in awe of the creativity and care that went into plotting such an intricate story, the skill with words, the ability to have characters walk off the page and into my life. Those books contribute something to my life and so, I suppose, to other lives.

But I sure have my moments of wondering what I’m doing. It’s a lot of work, but maybe if I reach one reader a day it’s worth it. And if I keep myself busy and actively engaged in the world, so much the better. It’s a way of keeping time’s winged chariot far behind me.