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Bob’s your uncle

Silent Fighting

Silent Fighting

Probably all families have a store of catch phrases–familiar “in house” sayings that serve as shorthand for getting a point across, or calling up a common memory.  Some are universal, like “Don’t make me come up there,” or, “Do you want me to stop the car?

But others are particular to an individual family’s experience. My mother would often put an end to a litany of our desires for things that weren’t going to happen– I wish I was an only child; I wish I didn’t have to do the dishes; I wish I had my own room–with the proverb “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.” And my siblings and I still say it, with a smile and a silent nod to Mom.

Recently my daughter mentioned that she’d wrapped up an explanation on how to complete a task with the words, “And Bob’s your uncle.” She was met with a puzzled stare. The phrase is old-fashioned British slang, meaning “you’re all set.” It caught my fancy years ago. The first time I said it to my young children, the words sent them into fits of giggles because of our dog, Bob. The thought of dog as uncle was quite hilarious to them (did I say they were quite young?). They  picked up the term and used it, until it became part of our store of particular, and perhaps peculiar, family expressions.

Other adages we use that others probably do not developed out of specific family situations. On an afternoon that had been filled with petty arguments and tears, I sternly told my children that I didn’t want to hear another fight that day. About half an hour later, my youngest daughter, Brenna, wailed in frustration, “Sara is silent fighting with me!”

She then proceeded to demonstrate the loophole her older sister had found in my edict. By mouthing words without sound, accompanied by fierce expressions and menacing hand gestures, Sara proved it was possible to tease and annoy without breaking silence. The phrase “silent fighting” thus came into general family use.

Another go-to family aphorism is the phrase, “I would prefer not to.” It comes from the Herman Melville story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” wherein the title character refuses all requests with that simple, but implacable, response. I had always liked the subtle insubordination of it, and used the decree both in jest and for real, depending on the circumstance. I didn’t realize Brenna had adopted it until at age 5, she answered a request from her teacher with the words, “I would prefer not to.” Which I correctly read as a harbinger of the quiet but steely force of will lurking beneath her blue-eyed, curly-haired angelic demeanor.

In the eighth grade, her older sister Sara made another contribution to the family lexicon, when she chose an ambitious topic for her first research paper, the Watergate scandal, which was akin to ancient history to her. The concluding line of her paper revealed both her boredom with the topic and her hope that an abrupt ending would be attributed to forces beyond her control. “Nobody knows what happened to the Watergate Seven.”

To which I had to answer, “Yes, Sara, yes they do. Quite a few people know exactly what happened to them, and I think you need to find out, too.” She completed her assignment, received a respectable grade, and added another axiom to our family. It’s still our go-to phrase for any half-formed effort or ill-conceived project that dies aborning, as in “Nobody knows what happened to … Susan’s 6 weeks to fitness challenge.”

The language of families is a strange and wonderful thing. Rejoice in yours.

bob2a

Bob, gone but not forgotten.

This post first appeared two years ago and is back because it popped up in my Facebook memories feed at just the moment when I’m battling an epic cold that turned into a respiratory infection. The drugs to combat it have left me a little fuzzy-headed and low on creative writing juice. 🤧A new one next time.

 

 

It’s not you, it’s me.

dog at computerIn my last post, I repeated what I’ve said many times before—I love hearing from readers—and I do. Most of the correspondence is fairly similar: questions about publication of the next book, or a plot twist, or whether they like or dislike certain characters. However, this past week, I had an email exchange with a twist that left me both surprised and amused. So much so, that I’m sharing it with you. The only thing I’ve changed in what follows is the name of my correspondent.

Hi
I started book 5 and Leah is not going to get with Gabe is she?
Is she ever going to get with Coop?
Thank you. Harvey

Clearly, Harvey liked to get right to the point. I answered promptly.

Hi Harvey,

I don’t know how far into Dangerous Flaws you are, but you’ll see that Leah and Gabe do get closer in the story … I think it’s quite possible that Coop and Leah will eventually find their way to each other, but it may be a pretty tangled journey. Of course, I could be wrong. Leah will have something to say about this, and she can be very unpredictable.–Susan

Harvey responded just as quickly.

Hi. I appreciate your reply and i understand where you are coming from. While I have enjoyed the books I usually pick one guy at the beginning and I do get emotionally involved with the characters ( which is on me ) and I don’t like it when it takes so long and they might not get together. Books are entertainment to me and when I might not get the ending that I am looking for I tend to move on and find something that will. I am not trying to be critical but this is the way I like things and at my age I want what I want. I have stopped [reading your book] for now but I will keep checking to see what happens. I apologize for this but I am what I am. I have learned this the hard way because I usually pick the wrong guy and I don’t like it when it is dragged out. Again I apologize. Thank you 

There it was. My first literary break-up. I’ve been dumped. Kicked to the curb. Cast adrift. Tossed aside. Left behind. Harvey even broke up with me using the old, “It’s not you, it’s me,” line. I tried to maintain my dignity in the face of the inevitable.

Hey, Harvey–

No need to apologize. It’s one of the nicest things you can say to a writer—that you emotionally engage enough with her characters to want things to go right for them. I hate to lose you as a reader, but I’ll keep your email, and if things move definitively in one direction or the other in the next book, I’ll let you know. Provided, of course, that you swear yourself to secrecy, no spoilers allowed.–Susan

Actually, I do understand where he’s coming from. I still haven’t forgiven Louisa May Alcott for pairing my first favorite heroine, Jo March, with the middle-aged Professor Bhaer, instead of the much more appealing Theodore “Laurie” Laurence. Louisa didn’t lose me as a reader, but she did teach me to be a bit more wary about where I give my literary heart.  Harvey has learned the hard lesson, too, and I respect the firm stance he’s taken against being the pawn of cavalier authors. Although I lost him as a reader, I have to thank him for an email exchange I truly treasure. 😉

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 March. 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 if 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. 😉

 

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.

 

 

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