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Readers Want to Know

cat in glasses lying on sofa with bookOne of the things I like most about writing is hearing from readers. Quite often they say nice things, which is very pleasant. Sometimes they point out errors–a missing word or a typo–which is less pleasant, but still welcome, because I want the books to be as smooth to read as possible. Occasionally they ask questions about the characters and settings in the stories.

Recently a reader asked how I came up with the name of the town where the characters in my Leah Nash Mysteries live: Himmel, Wisconsin. The inspiration actually came from my immigrant grandmother, Susannah Andrews. She spoke English to my six siblings and me most of the time. But when we had driven her to distraction with our antics, she would shout in German “Mein Gott im Himmel!” [My God in Heaven]. It was the signal that we’d pushed just a little too far and repercussions were about to happen. So, the name of my fictional town, in one way, is a bit of an homage to my grandmother. But the choice of name was also intended to be a little more layered.

Himmel, with its shrinking population, abandoned stores and declining economic base, seems pretty far from heaven to Leah Nash, the main character in the series when she returns home. But the more she learns about herself and what matters most to her, the closer the name becomes to describing how she feels about her imperfect, struggling hometown and its inhabitants.

Another frequent question is whether or not Himmel is meant to be my own small town. It isn’t. For one thing, it’s a bit larger, for another, there’s a lot more homicide happening. I will admit though that I sometimes transplant landmarks or variations on them from my hometown to Leah’s.

Readers also ask if the characters in my books are drawn from people in my life. The answer is no, in the strictest sense of the disclaimer you sometimes see in the front pages of books: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

But that’s not to say that I don’t draw inspiration from people I’ve met or observed—or avoided. I try not to use the name of anyone that I know, to prevent having people in my own life try to match fictional characters with real life counterparts—an exercise I feel has the potential to end badly.

However, it’s inevitable that I’ll sometimes unintentionally create characters whose names belong to actual people. Not long ago, I received a very nice email about just that. The woman who wrote said she’d enjoyed one of my books, but jokingly added that she was a little dismayed because she and the murderer shared a first name.

My email conversation with her gave me the idea of offering readers a chance to be a minor character in the next book in the series. I’m finding it quite fun to weave the winners into the story, and from the response so far, it’s also fun for them to meet “themselves” in a fictional setting.

The contest is only open to members of the Leah Nash Mysteries mailing list. I’ll be inviting entries in late February. Shortly thereafter, two names will be randomly selected to become part of Leah’s story.  If you’d like a chance to be a part of the next Leah Nash mystery, but you’re not a member of the mailing list, you can sign up for the list here.

Note: This is an updated version of a post that first ran in 2016.  

My Day at the Office

donotdisturbWhen I worked in a traditional job in a traditional office, it was common practice during a push to meet a deadline to retreat to cubicles or offices, close doors, send calls to voicemail, and focus entirely on getting the project done.

I find that harder to do in my home office because the other person who lives in the house cannot easily be ignored by the mere closing of a door. Gary is a very active person for whom to think, is to do. He is in and out of the house at least half a dozen times a day: to have coffee, to attend a meeting, to go to the hardware store, to visit a friend, to talk to a neighbor, to organize a meeting, to go to the post office, to stop at the library. If an idea pops into his head, he acts on it. And he gets an amazing amount of things done in a day.

I, on the other hand, spend quite a lot of time thinking before doing. But once started I like to work straight through for long periods, focused and undisturbed. Gary likes to share regular updates on his progress, and he usually meets this need as he interacts with people on his rounds. Except on the occasional day when he decides to spend time working on projects at home.

This is what my day at the office is like then:

9 a.m. Gary looks at a two-year-old tax return that he has come across “organizing” his files. He calls to me to come downstairs to his desk and look at the item that is disturbing him. I look. It does not disturb me. I go back to my desk.

9:30 a.m. Gary sees something odd on the surface of the river. He goes out to explore. I do not see it because my blinds are closed. He asks me to video what he’s seeing. I go outside to shoot the video. I go back to my desk.

10 a.m. Gary calls me downstairs to hold the tape measurer for him. I do. I do not ask why, or what he is doing. That might land me in a project I want nothing to do with.

10:30 a.m. Gary comes to my office to tell me we’re out of toner for the printer. I suggest he might like to run to the store to buy some. He does.

11 a.m. Gary returns from the store. He comes to my office to tell me about a person I don’t know, who is doing something I don’t care about. Then he gives me some flowers. Now I find it harder to order him out of my office, but I do anyway.

11:15 a.m. Gary calls up to me from his desk downstairs. He asks me if it’s going to rain tomorrow. I tell him I don’t know.

11:25 a.m. Gary comes to my office to tell me that yes, it is going to rain tomorrow.

11:26 a.m. I close my door. Loudly.

11:40 a.m. Gary taps softly on my door and whispers—as though the act of speaking softly cancels out the disturbance—asking if I know where his meeting file is. I do not.

11:45 a.m. I have hung a Do Not Disturb sign on the doorknob. I can hear Gary walk down the hall toward my office, then footsteps retreating after he sees the sign. Then it is quiet. Then I hear him in the kitchen faux whistling an unrecognizable tune—making half humming, half flutey-sounding noises. Then he stops. Then he starts. Then he stops. A few minutes pass. Then he starts again.

I start laughing. Because, well, Gary. I take the sign off the door and catch up on my email instead of writing the next chapter. Tomorrow is another day.

Note: This post first appeared in March 2016. It’s here again both because I’m hard at work on the fifth Leah Nash Mystery and I’m behind schedule, and because the content is still true. 😉

 

Lost in Facebook

Where’s Fim?

Growing up in a family with seven children and two adults, the phone was always ringing for someone. My sisters and I fought over phone time, often interrupting each other’s really important phone calls with demands that the phone be relinquished for our really, really important phone calls. We sparred verbally, and on occasion physically, as we struggled to claim what we perceived as our fair share of phone time.

Not so my brothers. Neither of them were on the phone often, and never for the long, intense conversations that my sisters and I engaged in with our friends. My youngest brother had an almost pathological dislike of talking on the phone, and would go to great lengths to avoid answering it. If forced to pick up an incoming call, he would just hang up the phone if the caller failed to make her need clear within the first five seconds. As he got older, he became more at ease with communication technology, but for a long time he refused to make the switch from flip phone to smart phone, and he resolutely refused to engage in the next communication wave, social media.

So, when one of my sisters mentioned that a friend had said our youngest brother—let’s call him Fim—was on Facebook, we were all astonished. My sister Barb—her real name, Barb has no privacy concerns—and I immediately went online to verify, but were unable to find his profile. We checked to make sure we’d gotten the story straight, and were assured that his profile had definitely been spotted on Facebook.

We searched again and again came up empty. This time, Barb messaged a good friend of Fim’s, thinking that he, if anyone, would know if Fim really was part of the Facebook Nation, but had contrived somehow to stay invisible to his older sisters.

Her message was worded thus: “Hey, we can’t find Fim on Facebook. Do you know where he is?” It seemed innocuous enough. But remember that old game “Telephone,” wherein one person whispers a message to the person next to her, and that person passes it on to the next and on and on until the circle is complete? The last person to receive the message then repeats it out loud for the group. Usually, it’s become such a mishmash of original content and misunderstanding, that it seems like an entirely different message.

Well, with lighting speed Barb’s original query traveled throughout the universe of Fim’s friends, both on and off Facebook. The final version of the message was that Fim was missing, and his family didn’t know where he was. As a result, both Barb and Fim received responses from concerned friends inquiring and theorizing about Fim’s fate. In addition, Fim, who had no idea any of this was happening, was flummoxed to find his phone blowing up with voicemail and text messages from friends asking if he was all right.

On one hand, the level of engagement and concern from friends could be seen as gratifying. On the other, to a person like Fim, who uses the phone for talking and texting as sparingly as if he were being charged $5 per word,  the result was extremely unsettling.

When we finally got hold of Fim ourselves, we learned that he had, in a moment of weakness, agreed to set up a Facebook Page for a business he was launching. However, instead of a flood of interest in his products, he received a number of messages from former girlfriends, some of whom were single and interested in reconnecting. Which was rather awkward, given that Fim’s significant other, with whom he was and is very happily partnered, was handling his Facebook business page. Thus, he had some ‘splainin’ to do.

His deep-seated wariness about modern communication having been validated, he took the Facebook page down immediately, which, in keeping with the law of unintended consequences, ultimately resulted in him playing the leading role in his own version of Where’s Waldo.

I don’t think we’ll see Fim on Twitter any time soon. It wouldn’t even surprise me if he reverted to his flip phone. But his Facebook misadventure is a permanent and welcome addition to the collection of family stories that never grow old–except, perhaps, to the person they’re about. 😉

At last …

It’s here! Dangerous Secrets, the fourth volume in the Leah Nash Mysteries series is published at last. I anticipated that when this happy day came, I would be dancing exuberantly around the living room to one of my all-time favorite songs, “Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas.  And believe me when I tell you, that is a sight to behold.

However, instead, I am ensconced on my couch with a cup of hot tea, a box of Kleenex and a fire in the fireplace, because I have contracted the mother of all colds. In place of Martha, Etta James is providing background music with her rendition of “At Last.” Still and all, not a bad way to celebrate reaching the finish line.

The writing of any book is its own journey, but the path to this one was a little more difficult than the others have been. I wasn’t sure I’d make the deadline, but happily, I have. Here’s what it’s about:

A week that starts out with a woman’s dead body in the living room rarely ends well. When small-town reporter Miguel Santos arrives home after a short vacation, he discovers that his weekend renter has failed to checkout–at least in the usual sense. By Wednesday, Miguel’s uncle is arrested for murder.

That’s when his friend, clever, quick-witted, true-crime writer Leah Nash, steps in. The victim is the owner of SweetMeets, a website for sugar daddies in search of college-age sugar babies. An eyewitness places Miguel’s uncle at the murder scene, and police uncover a motive he was anxious to hide. But, it turns out that he isn’t the only resident of Himmel, Wisconsin with something to hide.

In her most complex investigation to date, Leah must use all the smarts—and smart-assery—she has to find the killer’s true identity. When she does, things come together in a tense climax that tests her courage and reveals some dark and dangerous secrets beneath her small town’s surface.

You’ll find plenty of twists and turns, some surprising developments on the personal front for Leah, and an ending that opens the door to a new phase in her life.

This is the soft launch of the book, wherein I beg and plead for readers to write a review on Amazon. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but reviews are critical to selling books, and selling books is what keeps a series going. So, if you like the book, I hope you’ll post a review on Amazon or Goodreads. I appreciate every single one of them. (If you don’t like the book, let’s just forget I asked.)

Also, if you have friends or family who share your taste in mysteries, please tell them about Dangerous Secrets, It’s available in both ebook and paperback on Amazon exclusively for the next three months. After that, it will be on other platforms as well: Nookbooks, Kobo, and iBooks.

And now, it’s time for my nap. Happy reading, all.

Just Keep Swimming

“When nothing goes right…go left.”

Last week I had a day when nothing went right, and everything took way longer than it should.  I tried three times to complete an online insurance form, only to have the website shut down each time. Then I spent half an hour on the phone with the company trying to get an answer, but was cast repeatedly into an automated phone attendant loop, like an escapee from Groundhog Day. Next, I spent an hour, not the 20 minutes I’d allocated, getting a flu shot at a local pharmacy. And on and on the day went, in a series of frustrations large and small to which I responded with neither grace nor equanimity.

At 4:30 I realized that I had not worked for even 10 minutes on what I had gotten out of bed early that morning planning to do. So, I stopped trying. I put away all thoughts of book writing and turned to a photo project that I’ve been working on for a few months. As I looked through the pictures, I recalled the nature drama that had unfolded the day I took them.

I’d been sitting at my desk staring out the window (not all my unproductive days are the result of external misfortune, some just spring from laziness). I saw a hawk land in the yard, and I jumped up and took this photo.

Right afterward, all hell broke loose. With a lightning quick move, the hawk launched into the air, then did an amazing high-speed, almost vertical drop, down to the river. He rose carrying a prize in his claws—a little bird that wriggled and writhed in what seemed to be a doomed escape attempt.

But as I watched, both fascinated and horrified, the bird twisted out of the hawk’s grasp and fell back into the water. I ran to the river’s edge. Just as I reached the bank, I sensed something behind me. I turned to look in time to see an eagle swoop over my head, zeroing in on the little bird that had just escaped from the hawk.

Something–maybe my sudden movement into the line of the eagle’s downward trajectory—threw him off his game. He veered away, leaving his would-be prey to swim another day. And swim she did, with an odd, herky-jerky style, in loopy circles, round and round for several minutes.

Her day had definitely not gone as planned. I stayed on the bank watching her and taking pictures. Several times she attempted to climb up on some rocks, only to slip back into the water and flap about before making another wobbly approach to stable ground. On the fourth attempt, she made it.

I moved in to get another photo, but finally realized that my large human presence was probably even more alarming to her than the two predator birds that had tried to make dinner of her had been. I left her in peace.

As I relived the story yesterday, I thought about that bird, going about her daily business, when out of nowhere a hawk snatched her away from her happy bird life. She didn’t give up, even though the hawk was many times larger and stronger than her. She twisted and turned and gave it her best shot. Wonder of wonders, it worked!

But she didn’t even have time to recover, let alone rejoice, before an even bigger predator zeroed in on her. Now, that’s having a bad day. You slip away from one looming threat, only to be confronted by an even larger one. When the danger unexpectedly passed, she started swimming again. Not in any particular direction at first, but she was moving. And really, if you’re going to stay afloat in life, what else can you do?

Things large and small swoop down on us daily. Sometimes they come so fast they knock us right off course, sometimes they just bump us around a little. The solution for peace of mind is to remember that when things go wrong—and they’re usually of far less consequence than the predator-prey drama I had witnessed—just keep swimming. Sooner or later you’ll get back on course.

This post first appeared in October 2014.

 

 

Come in, the door’s open

When my six siblings and I were growing up, our family finances hovered between lower middle class and working poor. We didn’t realize it, though, because many of our neighbors were in the same shaky socio-economic bracket.

But years later, as adults looking through old family photos, laughing at unfortunate clothing choices and epic hairstyle failures, it finally hit us. “Look at this!” One of my sisters was pointing not to the people, but to the background in a photo: TV trays used as end tables. A bedspread thrown over a sagging couch. A television set with a pair of pliers next to it—for use in turning the broken TV dial. “Geez, you guys, we lived in the Sanford & Son house!”

Which made us laugh really hard because it was true, and because it had never occurred to us before, and because we’re fond of a little dark humor in my family. We then recalled other unrecognized-at-the-time signs that our family had lived on the economic edge. Macaroni and butter five nights in a row. We just thought, Yay, no vegetables. Hand-me-down clothes—from people we weren’t even related to. A house furnished entirely with garage sale purchases.

Our lives as adults are different. We all enjoy a more secure financial footing than our parents did. No one is fabulously wealthy—I’m quite disappointed by my siblings in that respect. I’m looking at you, Tricia, Janet, Jim, KK, Barbie, Tim. Because how great would it be to have a younger sibling shower you with financial tokens of affection in return for the loving oversight and guidance you provided during their early years? But, I digress.

I’ve always credited our successes in life to our parents. Not because they inspired us with the exhortations and expectations of “tiger” parents, or subscribed to the interventionist guidance of “helicopter” parents. If anything, their parenting style might best be described as laissez faire. Their goals for us were modest: do your best, be honest, be kind, don’t kill each other. They stepped in when we strayed too far from those basic standards, but it was primarily by their example that we learned what kind of people we wanted to be.

But I think there was another factor, too, that tipped fortune in our favor. Although we lived in a rundown house, in a middling neighborhood, on the raggedy residential edge of a street that at its other end boasted a scrap metal junkyard, we also lived only two blocks from Alma College. The small liberal arts school was very friendly to neighborhood children. Perhaps because liability and child safety worries didn’t loom large in those days, the college was part of the landscape of our everyday lives. We rode through campus on our bicycles, cut through the wooded area behind the president’s house, played on the bleachers at the football field, trick or treated at the fraternities and sororities and sold Girl Scout cookies in the dorms.

And we saw students, not all that much older than we were, walking back and forth to class, studying in the library, playing Frisbee on the grass. We came to view attending college as the natural progression of things—like going from junior high to high school. Our proximity to the college, and its easy acceptance of our presence, gave us the expectation that we had a place in the world that Alma College represented.

I believe that success in life is about hard work and developing your talents, but it’s also about opportunity. A lucky accident of geography helped the children of a man who didn’t graduate from high school, and a woman who dreamed of nursing school but had to go to work instead, believe that other doors were open to them.

In an era of reduced opportunities and narrowing choices for children from families like the one I grew up in, I was happy to read that Alma College will be offering 10 full-tuition scholarships annually to area students. Good fences, as the saying goes, may make good neighbors. But open doors make even better ones.

 

 

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