Witch’s Rot

Last night I donned my favorite witch’s hat and cloak.  I wiggled my red painted nails as they slipped past the breach of my black Victorian fingerless gloves.  The crescent moon sparkled and danced from a long silver chain around my neck as I slipped a red striped sock onto one foot and then the other, followed promptly by black pointy shoes.  I added a silver bracelet engraved with the phrase, “be magical,” as I made my way to the door, pausing only briefly to grab my best traveling broom from its resting place by the mantel.  Halloween had officially arrived!

To the casual observer it may have appeared as if I was no more than a fun-loving mom enjoying the spirit of trick-or-treating.  They could not know as my youngest daughter made her way from house to house in her Red Riding Hood costume showing off the baby stuffed wolf she had in her basket, that there was something very sinister indeed brewing behind closed doors at my house that very moment.

Lying in wait at our family home, just beyond the happy pumpkins all aglow and the “wipe your witchy feet” welcome mat, bubbled a brew that would frighten the senses of even the most avid fan of horror.  For just inside our door, right by the black cauldron and the motion activated dancing broom rested a rancid pool of rotting flesh, colored blackberry red from the drip, drip, dripping of life’s fruit melting into the stinking ruin of death.

Ok, this is probably where I should ask you not to call the police or children’s services.  Although I really do have a closet full of witch hats and cloaks as well as brooms aplenty, I have never murdered anyone beyond the space of my keyboard.  That being said, there was a very real stinking pile of rot at my house yesterday, but the sin of which I speak was not committed by my hand…

While getting ready for the Halloween palooza, I experienced the most stink-filled tragedy imaginable by any average stay-at-home-mom, and let forth a shriek of madness known by meal planners far and wide as the flesh dripping swan song of a dead freezer!

It’s a sad tale as old as time…

For several days this past week, every time I entered the utility room I found myself assaulted by the reminder to change the cat box – don’t judge.  It was strange, because my little black witch’s companion doesn’t usually have tummy troubles, but that room had a definite odor about it that I was going to have to deal with as soon as time would allow.

Well, the litter really hit the fan yesterday when my husband lifted the lid on our chest freezer to deposit our after-Halloween-frozen-pizzas – again, don’t judge.  The mild odor that had been permeating around the edges of that room blew through the entire house with the speed of a gale force wind!  The horror!  The humanity!  The chicken thighs!!!

As a mom do you ever have one of those epic fail moments when you wonder how something could have been going so wrong right under your nose??  Well, apparently my freezer had lost life support at least a week ago.  It had not been gone long enough for everything to be completely rotted, but well long enough for everything to be cool to touch yet dripping with melted stink!  It was a nightmare…

The inventory taken at the time of death was one whole turkey, one family pack of chicken thighs and legs, one large pack of ground beef, several packs of cookies, ten gallon size bags of apples, three gallon size bags of chopped cabbage with peppers, four full heads of cabbage, three large grocery bags of fresh garden corn, two gallon size bags of chopped green peppers, three gallon size bags of chicken stock, two bags of chopped pecans, and about forty cups of fresh blackberries…harvest season indeed…

On the upside, I had been feeling lazy all month and had not done any meal prepping.  I usually make several freeze ahead meals for the crockpot as well as casseroles for the oven, so it is not unusual for my freezer to contain around twenty meals or more.  I guess my saving grace is that I’ve been such a slacker all month!

So today the freezer is on the porch airing out after being cleaned, and the house is back to smelling like the domain of the living once more.  My sweet little black cat has been exonerated as the creator of the rancid odor, and life is returning to normal.  Only the feeling of grief in regard to my harvested fruits and veggies remain.  I’m sure we will think of them with private sighs of regret each time we don’t have fried apples from our trees on the stove in the wake of fresh fallen snow, or momentarily wish we could see warm sugar crystals glistening on the crust of my homemade blackberry cobbler as the days grow cold…but I’m sure that pain will fade in time…

Today’s photo has been brought to you courtesy of my back porch steps.

Apple Bobbing, Anyone?

I’m sure everyone is shocked that Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party is what I’m currently reading, but what can I say, I like to keep things fresh! lol.  As a person who LOVES all things Halloween, this book has been setting on my bedside table since September, having been pulled from the shelf as soon as I saw the first stray leaf blow by my car.  I put it there just under the book I was reading at the time with a bubble of excitement and a promise to myself that I would not so much as peel back the cover until October arrived…the waiting has been excruciating!

So I probably don’t need to say that I love this book.  I also love the television adaptation of this story.  Of course it’s not hard to love anything that includes David Suchet…David Suchet and Halloween together?  Amazeballs!  Strike up the band, all my happiness just collided with the jitters of holiday anticipation!

You wouldn’t know it now, but this story used to really bother me.  First and foremost in my life is the fact that I’m a mom, so (no spoilers) the fact that this story involves children in such a macabre way used to set me a little bit sideways, but I find that’s not the case anymore.

I used to see the world as a bright field of flowers where children laughed and played and shared the joys of youthful exuberance like butterflies dancing on the wind…cue the vinyl scratch here.  OK, perhaps the image of children flitting around like happy winged insects dancing through the wonderment of life is a bit too cliche, but once upon a time, I was a bit less jaded at least.

Now, I am a mother bear who has suffered the horror that comes from sending your beautiful, sweet, innocent daughter off to the hell known as middle school!  You may tell yourself here that I’m being over-dramatic, but I assure you that wading knee deep in eternal lava would be preferable some days to sending my most loved treasure adrift in a sea of cliques fraught with cattiness and backbiting.

I could pull out my soap box here and lament endlessly on the lack of parenting that goes on in society today, as lately I seem to be spending countless hours in my home explaining to my youngest child that the meanness she experiences at school is often caused because this or that child has not been taught any better how to behave, but I won’t do that…

Instead I will tell you that many of our car rides home from school end up being a continuous loop that begins with empathy and ends in an attempt at teaching in regard to not judging the children who behave in negative ways due to the fact that they are clearly lacking, either in confidence, or proper parenting, or both.  What I don’t say to her is, “These little bitches need to go apple bobbing!”  I want to say it, but I don’t, because it is wrong to despise children…right?  Insert nervous nail biting here

I know it is not the moral high ground to privately daydream about the downfall of certain middle school children, but there are days when I drop my daughter off and watch her climb the steps into school, that I could swear the place takes on the appearance of a Death Star-esk motif as her small steps reverberate in my ears like the menacing bleakness of The Imperial March while I put on my most positive smile and wave at her from my open window singing out, “have a great day!”

Is that a bit dramatic? Yes.  Do I feel that way every day?  No.  But the feeling does seem to come more and more often.  Maybe it’s the sensationalism of modern society as reflected in the current tone of the news media, or maybe it’s the fact that our school seems to be holding suicide prevention seminars for 12 year olds on a regular basis that leaves me with such a dark cloud mentality about the whole thing.  At any rate, it’s pretty clear that a great many children are suffering quite a bit of emotional trauma both at home and at school.

Regardless of the reasons why, as the mom of a bright, intelligent, beautiful little introvert, I have to tell you that on those days when I pick my child up from school and see tears in her eyes because one group of girls or another seems to think that the movie “Mean Girls” is some sort of preteen popularity instruction manual, I find that I lose sight of my compassion in regard to all the reasons why children do the things they do, and instead lean more toward wanting to host a Halloween party highlighted by a vigorous game of bobbing for apples…

*no children were harmed in the making of this blog post


Thanks to crimesquad.com for the use of this cover pic


Book Fair Shenanigans

Today is my youngest daughter’s reading fair at school, which loosely translates into a meme of me burning blisters on the tips of my fingers with a hot glue gun at midnight (MIDNIGHT people!) in a mad rush to help her better secure her nuggets of information onto her much procrastinated/down to the wire presentation board.  Clearly I have somehow created a child that runs best on pure panic driven adrenalin…worrisome indeed.

I tucked her into bed THREE HOURS past her bedtime delivering a much needed talk about the perils of waiting until the last minute to complete projects, all while worrying about the harshness of my tone, in fear that too much chastising might discourage her from participating in these type of events in the future…ah, the joys of parenting!  She wiped my fears aside by looking at me wryly, and saying, “I know Mommy, I should have done it sooner, but I didn’t, and now I’m near tears because I am so tired, so could we just let this go so I can get some sleep?”  Have I mentioned that she’s eleven?  Sometimes I think that she’s emotionally much older than I am!

The book she chose to do her project on was book one in the Wings of Fire series, The Dragonet Prophecy.  If you have children around this age I would recommend the books based on how much my daughter has loved them all.  Her book that she took from home to place with her display board is curled around the edges and worn down from many much loved readings.

I have to say, as a matter of full disclosure, that she very nearly kicked me off the project entirely, as according to her, she likes things clean and simple, and I am more of the “go big or go home” variety.  She informed me with no uncertain terms that I was not allowed to take over her project and turn it into a full stage production!  The result was a display board full of neatly organized facts coupled with some lovely colored sketches of various dragons that she carefully drew herself.  It looked nice.  Had it been up to me, we would have made a three dimensional piece of art coming out of the board depicting the dramatic face melting of the skywing’s, Queen Scarlet – THAT would have been awesome!…idk, perhaps she has a point, lol…

Although she is more reserved, she does have a touch of dramatic flair that leans toward the macabre.  As I was reading over her project outline, I found this sentence, “I believe that Tui Sutherland wrote this book to entertain us with thrilling fight scenes, wonderful friendships and betrayals, as well as some well stated painful deaths!”  I told her that she may want to leave her obvious excitement over the excruciating death scenes off of the display board, as it could disturb some of the judges…then again, my melting face idea wouldn’t have been any better!

Regardless of the hurdles, the late nights, and our push and pull relationship, I’m always glad that she wants to be involved in these types of projects.  I get excited as I watch her love of books grow with every passing year.  For the last month she has been attempting to write her own book!  She has a notebook that she carries around and writes down ideas for characters in, and every couple of days I find her sitting at my computer tacking away on the keys…I think she may be making better progress than I have been lately!  Yikes!  But I’m proud of her little creative mind, and I tell her so as often as I can without getting too gushy.

So my writing advice for the day is to be an encouragement to those around you as much as you can.  Share your interest with your children, even if it’s murder mystery or “well stated painful deaths,” and let them find their own way, even if it comes out neater and less flashy than what you would do.

Also, if your local schools participate in school, county, or regional level reading fairs, get out and support those events!  With social media reigning supreme in our society, and the superficial trappings that kids seem to get bombarded with these days, it’s good for us to take the time to praise the frayed edges of a well-loved book and encourage them to keep reading, writing, and looking at the world through a more creative lens than reality television.

If you’re interested in the book my daughter did her project on, you can read more about the book as well as find out purchasing information at:  https://store.scholastic.com/Books/Hardcover-Books/Wings-of-Fire-Book-One-The-Dragonet-Prophecy

That’s it for me.  I’m off to enjoy the book fair!


*Thanks to Scholastic for the cover picture of Wings of Fire, The Dragonet Prophecy

A Little Punch Drunk

While there is usually one kind of kitchen witchery or another going on here at my house in the hills, today is one of my favorites!  You see, for several weeks I have been carefully watching little balloons dancing in the air atop many dark glass bottles.  A few days ago their dance became somewhat lackluster, and this morning they were found to be completely dead on their feet, thus signaling the completion of fermentation of my blackberry wine.

Things became quite busy in the kitchen today with several batches to strain, bottle, taste and seal.  In short, it’s been a damn fine morning!

All that tasting resulted in a couple of sweet things:  One, I got a pretty good buzz going by noon (trust me when I say that’s not a regular occurrence,) and two, all that lovely blackberry wine eased the sore throat I’ve been nursing…or maybe it’s just gone numb…I’ll take it, either way.

I haven’t made much writing progress this week, as I’ve been sick with the start of school crud that my daughter has no doubt carried home with her.  I broke down yesterday and went to the doctor because I saw an alarming amount of blisters on the back of my tongue.  It turned out to not be blisters at all, but rather some rogue taste buds that have mistakenly come to believe that they are in a race with my ass in terms of size…sigh.  Regardless, the finished wine seems to have put some pep back in my step, lol.

Because I’ve been sick, I decided to look over an old piece I had written to add to my blog instead of writing something new this week…turns out that I either had the writing prowess of a nine year old last year when I wrote it, or my illness has caused me to have an aggressively judgmental mind set, because it was pure garbage!

Stephen King says to always let your work simmer for a couple of weeks and then read it again before you decide if it’s good or not.  I guess we could call that the fermentation of the written word.  Perhaps a year was just too long and spoilage occurred…

How do you feel when you return to something you wrote long ago, does it rest on your tongue like a sweet blackberry wine to be savored, or do you often find yourself puckering in confusion??

Labor Day Ponderings

We just celebrated Labor Day in the good ol’ US of A, spending the long weekend bopping around our little town watching the parade from the Courthouse steps (an awesome opportunity to see multiple fire trucks and all 12 high school marching band members in one place at the same time,) and making daily jaunts to the annual fly-by-night carnival that always appears to be held together by a wing, a prayer, and some powdered sugar.

As I stood on the park lawn last night watching the traditional fireworks display, tucked safely in the arms of my husband, I couldn’t help but think about blood.  Not the kind of blood that runs through the streets of a Midsomer Murders fete, but the kind that runs in me.

Labor Day always makes me think of my ancestry, steeped in the rich history of coal in the Appalachian Mountains.  My great grandparents, like many families during the fight to unionize the coal industry, were forced from their home and lived in a tent community during the coal wars.  My great grandmother gave birth to a son in one of those tents.  Sitting here at my desk in an air conditioned room; I find it hard to imagine such a thing…

Those who came before me played their parts in what became known as the Matewan Massacre, when union miners stood against Baldwin- Felts Detectives for the basic rights of a safer work environment and a decent livable wage.  They joined in on the convergence at Blair Mountain, the largest labor uprising in US history, and stood witness to the only time in history that the United States government declared war on a state.

But even before the fight for miner’s rights, my family was bone deep in the mountains.  My great, great, great grandfather was the notorious “Bad” Jim Vance, one of the front men and often an instigator in the infamous Hatfield and McCoy Feud.  In August of 1882, Ellison Hatfield was stabbed multiple times and then shot in the back by three McCoy brothers.  He was taken to the home of my great, great grandparents, where he later died on their front room sofa, adding fuel to a vicious fire that had been sparking for a while…the rest, as they say, is history.

I often wonder if the blood that runs through my veins is part of why I can so easily turn on my Miss Marple discernment in regard to those around me, and see undercurrents of malice stirring below the surface of small town interaction…maybe so.  I do know that I come from a place that has been so washed in hard history, that it has its own psychological tag line – Appalachian Fatalism.

Many times I have been on these mountain roads with my radio turned up, going 60 mph without a thought as to what might be around the next curve and have found myself curious about the possibility that, even in this modern age of convenience and carpooling, I may have some Appalachian Fatalism resting in me…

Cover photo courtesy of:
Matewan http://www.notcoming.com/reviews/matewan/

Killer Day!

Have you ever had a day when you were supposed to be working but ended up with little more than a blank page and a strong urge for copious amounts of alcohol?  That was yesterday for me.

I still don’t quite understand where it all went wrong.  I had the whole day mapped out perfectly – which was probably my first mistake.  I had the house all to myself, which is a rare treat indeed, since I do my best work in total silence, AND I had a magic bag (my brain) filled with fresh ideas!  If you read my earlier blog post, Shhh, Don’t Say a Word, you will remember that I had the beginnings of a somewhat scattered character running around loose in my head, and had finally thought of a great place for her to land as a visiting relative of one of my mystery town’s more snobbish citizens – so I was excited about that…

Also, I’m working on a non-mystery project right now as well.  It’s crazy time consuming in its beginning phase, as it requires loads of research and fact checking, as well as scheduling in time to talk with my wonderful sister, who is going to be collaborating with me.  I’m really excited about it, but it’s a lengthy undertaking that will be progressing during the span of one full year in actual time.  Basically, I have quite a bit going on to distract me!

So yesterday was supposed to be a productive work day – blog in the morning really quickly, a point of interest research for the progression project until lunch, and then work on the placement of my shuffling lady with the wild hair and expressive t-shirt for the rest of the day until pick-up time at school.  Easy peasy!

Right!  So here is the rundown of how a stay at home mom/plot twist connoisseur can get it all wrong:

“I had the house all to myself,” actually translates into the fact that my husband was gone earlier than usual during our morning routine.  Now ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem, I’m not a total novice at parenting, but on this particular morning my dogs decided to lose their freaking minds!  Incidentally, I found out later that yesterday, according to the evil overlord known as Facebook, was National Dog Day, so maybe they instinctively felt safer, idk…

Regardless, after my daughter finished her breakfast at a snail’s pace and went off to brush her teeth, I figured it was a perfect time to take the dogs out (normally hubby’s morning job.)  We got outside…we walked…we walked some more…no one would use the bathroom!!! The dogs, not me – traditionally I go inside.  So the dogs simply would not go, and as time was edging closer to when we had to leave for school, I started to feel very nervous about what was going to happen to my carpet once I was gone!

Upon reentering the house, I see my daughter hopping around on one leg in a highly distressed state…with a very healthy dose of dog poop on her foot!  No wonder they didn’t need to go outside – the nasty beasts! (Not really, I love them very much, please to not send PETA to throw things at me!)  So I practically knocked her down on the chaise in a panic and began cleaning off her foot, then I got soap and water and cleaned it some more, then a fresh washcloth and more soap and water just to be on the safe side…sigh.  After that, I went about cleaning the floor in pretty much the same frenzied manner.  Ahh, aren’t mornings the greatest!

So by the time we made it to my daughter’s educational oasis, I was urging her from the car to run up the steps before she ended up being tarty on the second freaking week of school!!!  As she entered the building on time, and as other late parents lined up impatiently behind me, I let loose a sigh of relief…followed directly by the thought that she was wearing a long skirt that I forgot to check for dog poop!  Brand new worries folks!  Honestly, its days like this that I think maybe I’ve wasted a great many years not being better aquatinted with Jack Daniels!

I made it back home in what I believed was still time to get on track with my morning.  I was just setting down to write this blog, only the topic was supposed to be the challenges of working on multiple projects (maybe this isn’t so far off,) when the phone started ringing.  I’m pretty sure that everyone I know needed me for something, so I finally just gave up for a while and did the dishes and a load of laundry while saying “Uh-huh” over and over again, with my head cocked sideways like a confused Pomeranian.

By lunch time, with still no writing done at all, I decided to take a shower, get dressed, pretty up a bit, and try to start fresh…

Now I don’t know if I’m the only mom in the world who does this, but when my daughter is away from home, I take the phone with me everywhere (just in case.)  Which is how I ended up 45 minutes later, still not showered, sitting on the toilet half nude, and listening to my Mother-in-Law chattering about all of the deaths she’s heard about recently…oh, and the fact that her best friend’s cousin’s husband who lives in Ohio is very sick.  I am sorry about his illness, but I don’t know her best friend’s cousin’s husband…I’m not sure I actually know anyone in Ohio…I hardly even know her best friend!  Come on people, work with me here!!

By school pick-up time I had accomplished little more than wet hair…

Working from home can be really challenging.  I think that it’s difficult for others to respect your schedule when you don’t actually leave your house – they tend to assume that you are free floating and have all the time in the world.  Another challenge is the fact that, because you’re home (in my case anyway,) you tend to willfully set your work aside, so that you CAN be a mom and do all those important things, like making sure your child makes it to school not covered in dog crap…

It’s still the best job ever…I once worked in a dry cleaners steaming shirts…in August…in Georgia!  I’ll take dog poop and strangers in Ohio over that any day of the week!

So how do you juggle it all??

Shhhh, Don’t Say a Word

I had to go to the doctor a few days ago, no major problems, just one of those necessities in life that caused me to spend a joyful afternoon looking down the barrel of a waiting room full of germ infested people who seemed to have all arrived way before me – awesome.

Can I just say here, that I do not understand how a system that claims to be dedicated to public health has come to believe that the most reasonable solution to visit patients is to clump about 50 of them, sick and non-sick alike, in the same room, let them stew for a couple of hours and then see what pops out of the petri dish!  Ridiculous…

At one point, while in the throes of waiting room despair, I lost complete control of my senses, and accidentally rubbed the corner of my eye after touching one of the (probably) germ infested magazines.  As a person who writes everyday about various ways to die in a small town, it didn’t take much of a shove for me to convince myself that even though I had arrived reasonably healthy, I was probably leaving with a rare incurable disease.  I had to lay down when I got home and play sick for a good hour before I could allow myself to believe that death had not come calling…

The good thing about going to the doctor, as I mindfully steer your attention away from my clear and present hypochondria, is the awesome opportunity it creates to build foundations for fun new characters, as you are essentially trapped in a small room with random strangers with even more random ailments for an extended period of time.

I’m sure I’m not the only writer out there who loves to study people as they go about their normal activities.  I always have my notebook on hand to jot things down for later, while pretending to update my to-do list (I mean, you don’t want to look like a creeper…)

I looked around the room at the cast of players I had to work with:  A young girl with a rash on her arm, swinging her feet back and forth like she had been there for daaaayyyys – nothing there.  A young man dressed in a t-shirt, jeans and work boots, who rushed in like shit was about to get real and said he needed a shot for poison ivy right away!  – wonder where he’d been?  A couple who sat with a new baby in a carrier between their feet:  Him – an everyday Joe, decent looking but nondescript.  Her – a skinny dirty blond, who had clearly not been blessed with the knowledge that low rise jeans paired with a famine cut tee so soon after child birth could make even the slightest frame look as if one were wearing a flesh colored fanny pack.  (I know, sometimes I get bitchy in my private thoughts.)  Those two didn’t speak to me in any creative way…or to each other…or to the baby for that matter, as both were far too busy dancing their thumbs across the screens of their phones to do much of anything else…blah.

But finally, after many hidden glances around the room, my eyes lit on a spark of life.  There was a lady stuffed to overflowing into one of the wooden chairs, watching Dr. Phil on the wall-mounted screen like she expected him to reach out and change her life at any moment.  She was wearing those Dollar Store knockoff-Nike-slip-on-shower-shoes that made me wonder how she kept her feet from slipping out with every step.  In my head, I could hear her shuffling along like the whoosh of a slow moving elliptical.  She wore black shorts that had seen better days and a dark green t-shirt that read, “Don’t let your mind wonder…it’s too small to be out by itself!!!”

All this was topped off with a wild surge of grey hair that looked like it had staggered into the room of its own volition, a touch late after a night of binge drinking and was now doing some sort of scattered interpretive dance atop her head by means of electrical current.  The only thing keeping it from jumping free and running from the room was the bright red crochet headband that she had clamped it down with.

I began to run scenarios in my mind and envision how she would act and react in each of them, all the while silently begging her to not speak, or walk across the room, or anything else that would break the illusion I was actively painting of her in that moment.

At times like this, I often think of the Foreword from The Body in the Library where Agatha Christie wrote, “…staying one summer for a few days at a fashionable hotel by the seaside I observed a family at one of the tables in the dining room; an elderly man, a cripple, in a wheeled chair, and with him was a family party of a younger generation.  Fortunately they left the next day so that my imagination could get to work unhampered by any kind of knowledge.  When people ask, ‘Do you put real people in your books?’ the answer is that, for me, it is quite impossible to write about anyone I know, or have ever spoken to, or indeed have even heard about!  For some reason, it kills them for me stone dead.  But I can take a ‘lay figure’ and endow it with qualities and imaginings of my own.”

I get that.  I often see physical traits or get impressions of people based on their outer shell and begin to fill them up with my own imagination.  Or I may hear someone, a specific thing they say, the tone of their voice, or the sound of their laughter, and that too becomes a character trait that has nothing at all to do with the person from which it derived.  Spending too much time with any of these strangers may very well cause me to forget the thing I found so interesting about them to start with once it gets all mixed up with their other mannerisms.

So that’s one example of how I start to build a character from what may seem like out of nowhere.  Sometimes I see a person that speaks to me on a creative level; sometimes I hear a word or a phrase that grows into something more, and sometimes they just show up in my brain like little pod people waiting to be filled up, lol.  How about you?  Where do your characters come from?

I’m Still Here!

I haven’t posted much lately.  We’ve been enjoying summer vacation here in the Appalachian Mountains and I’ve been pretty much in full time mom mode since June.  You wouldn’t believe how difficult it has been to get my mind in the right place for murder with free-range Pokémon running across my desk, and worrying more than is probably reasonable about the nutritional content of Easy Mac.

School just started up this past week and I’m finally getting my schedule back on track.  I’ve also been struggling a little bit trying to navigate this strange new world of blogging.  It’s crazy that a person who writes every day can’t seem to properly line up some quick snippets about the daily life of a writer, but I’ve been on wobbly feet and a little unsure about where I should land.

I was joking with someone last week and commented that I might very well be the only person on the planet who is actually cooler in person than they are online!  I think the problem comes down to the fact that I tend to instinctively shy away from social media and enjoy my privacy to the extreme.  It’s tough for someone who normally avoids things like Facebook like the plague to suddenly dive into the deep end of the social pool.  It’s easy for me to think of characters and then systematically kill them off with a bit of light humor, but way harder to reveal too much of myself in a blog…sigh.

But at the end of the day, isn’t that what Chasing Agatha is all about?  It’s really about the journey of becoming the best person I can be – the person I envision when I look inside myself – the person who lives boldly in success and follows dreams to wherever they go and hopefully can inspire others along the way.  In short, it is to be like Agatha, and be bold enough to do the thing that scares you a bit, because it is also the thing you must do to set yourself free of fear…

So, that’s it for me lamenting on excuses, fears, and stumbling blocks, and time to get back into the business of writing.  Even though I’ve been away the last few weeks, I have still been working in small bursts so I will have quite a few posts coming up this week.  Please visit often, like, comment, and share, and I will gladly return the favor!  🙂

Nice and Cozy

I have not been feeling particularly nice or cozy lately.  I have a couple of book reviews coming up that have turned my thoughts to the technical as well as the entertainment aspects of what constitutes a proper cozy mystery.

Now I am not one to cast aspersions on anyone else’s idea of creative expression – whatever gets you hummin’ – have at it, but for my personal enjoyment as a reader, I have found my bookstore’s cozy corner a tad far flung lately.

I keep bringing home books that I am supposed to enjoy, they are resting there in my category happily butted right up against Agatha Christie after all, and yet, more often than not, I end up wanting to throw them across the room by chapter 2.

Please do not concern yourself overmuch with my tempter, I am not usually prone to vicious outbursts of rage, nor do I regularly stoop to the level of actually causing my dogs to run from the room in fear of being dive bombed by paperbacks, but to say that I have been a touch underwhelmed with my reading selections as of late would not be an understatement.

My latest foray into the depths of dissatisfaction led me to pose the question:  What exactly am I looking for?  I have on my shelf of rejected books a seemingly lovely stack of murder mysteries that involve everything from knitting circles to downward facing dogs, and yet my appetite has not been sated…sigh.

So what’s the problem?  I think to answer that, I really have to define, at least from my perspective, what actually constitutes a proper cozy.  The most basic answer is that it is a complex puzzle, deceptive in its simplicity, that begs to be solved – for that really is the lure that pulls us back for more, isn’t it?  The joyful working of our “little grey cells,” the red herrings that lead us down long and winding paths to nowhere, and the delightfully complicated twist in the end that leaves us in consternation of the fact that we didn’t see it sooner…

From a technical perspective, there are basic rules to a proper cozy:

  1. A murder must occur within either a confined location or a size specific area that provides a very limited suspect pool. The location aspect could be as narrow as a locked convent or as broad as a small town, as long as the perimeters are such that all possible suspects can be accounted for early on.
  2. We must meet our murderous mastermind somewhere near the beginning, so as to develop some sort of relationship with the character – that way it will bite a bit when we find out that he/she is actually a right twisted piece of work.
  3. A proper cozy must take place in an environment that is not only limited by a handful of suspects, but also gives the reader a false sense of security. The reason that these types of works intrigue us so is because the setting often pulls us in with an illusion of safety, and then shatters that illusion with a death blow.  This is where the cozy really shines by way of creep factor – one minute you are singing nursery rhymes in the warmth of a perfect day, and the next you’re facing a body hanging defiantly in the old oak tree – it’s a beautiful, horrible thing…
  4. There must be loads of twists and turns where subtle nuances masquerading as clues lead readers to believe they are on to the one suspect that has more than likely been overlooked by everyone else, and then the rug must be heartily jerked from beneath the reader’s feet. As we all know, the least likely suspect is often the culprit; however, just being counted as the least likely can propel a character to the most likely position, which will invariably place them squarely back in the least likely slot after all…ahh the joys of murder and mayhem.
  5. The writer must always play fair with the reader. At the end, when all is revealed, the writer cannot simply pull some complicated chain of events out of their ass and call it day.  All the clues, however subtle, must always be hiding in plain sight and easily seen once the entire picture has been revealed.  The same holds true with the rule of meeting the murderer in the beginning – do not bring me some dried up, tired mess of a resolution where a never before seen person disguised as a vagabond drops his assumed persona to reveal a character I have never seen hide nor hair of and expect me to be shocked and amazed.  Why would I be shocked by the actions of a perfect stranger?  Doesn’t the fact that they’re a new character imply explicitly that I have no preconceived notions what-so-ever of what they may or may not be capable of???  This is not a finale with a twist, more rather, it is a portrait of a writer who dropped the ball some ways back and continued to run for a touchdown anyway – it is not fair play!
  6. A good cozy mystery should also make the reader laugh. Character quirks, imperfections in personality, humorous social situations or awkward predicaments – all those things work very well in a genre that serves up murder with a cup of tea.  In truth the whole point of a cozy is to set readers beside themselves in some way.  To focus too much on the horror of murder is a different genre altogether, and frankly, takes the reader away from the attractive lull that all is well until it is not.  A cozy is not a drama, nor do we want it to be, for it is not the focus of the murder or the seeking of justice that draws a reader into this preferred genre, but the irony of feeling good in the face of the worst possible outcome.  It is an odd puzzle of the mind that deserves not to be trampled by too much heaviness.
  7. And please, for the love of God, give us a main character that is at least likable and intelligent. Do not show me countless examples of how ridiculously silly someone is as they stumble into clues in some sort of Jack Tripper-esk comedy of errors, and then expect me to believe them smart enough to pull it all together in the end.  I have my own rule as a reader here – if the main character laments too much on the state of her yoga pants or stares in awe as her baby blues widen in surprise at everything from murder to overcooked oatmeal, or basically behaves in any way that makes me want to scoop my eyes out with a soup spoon to avoid reading about her any longer, I immediately toss that book aside.  Life is too short for that kind of crap, lol.

So those are the basic elements, but just like any recipe, writers can add their own flavor to any twist they prefer, as long as it still resembles a cozy when they close it out.  Some call this a type of formula fiction – that’s cool – math is solid, formulas work.  Whatever genre people prefer, that is, at the end of the day, what they expect to find within the pages of their book selections.  If something looks like it follows the “formula” of a cozy from the outside, but upon closer inspection reads more like a “formula” for drama, or horror, or romance, then the reader feels cheated.  So I’m ok with formula fiction, as long as the puzzle within it is a new one – Hershey has a formula for chocolate that works pretty well, and if I take one home and unwrap some new age concept of melt in your mouth granola I promise I’m gonna be pissed off!

The biggest problem I’ve seen lately, is not a failure on the part of writers to understand the basic concepts that I’m looking for, it’s more that they seem to be hitting these points of interest like a game of tag – touching but not delving deeply enough.  Many of them seem to be of the belief that if someone drops off the twig in a pie shop face down in a blueberry confection of some sort, their work is done – it’s not!  It takes more than a complimentary setting to make a cozy complete!  Regardless of its sweet and flaky outer layer, a cozy mystery must be filled with enough ingredients to really engage the mind of the reader.

I have picked up one book after another in the past few months that, at best turned out to be no puzzle at all, or at worst left me feeling like an idiot for wasting my time on some sort of sophomoric jaunt through the cake batter.

The readers in this genre are not people with silly, frivolous minds – they do actually require some depth of thought on the part of the writer.  The readers of cozy mysteries are clever and enjoy the irony of the twisted idealism that comes when death invades on an otherwise perfect scene.

So please writers, please give me a good puzzle to solve.  Something that looks sweet but has actual darkness around the edges – give me a touch of madness – with or without the blueberry pie.

I am hoping for some suggestions for reading materials from you guys.  If I don’t find something that leaves me guessing soon, I fear that the litany of reviews I put out in the coming weeks is going to better resemble moving a herd to slaughter than a sweet glass of “Sparkling Cyanide.”

Apologies for the rant…

*Note to readers – This weeks picture is featured on my site, and is an original painting by artist Devyn Thompson, aka – my beautiful daughter…#devynrocks 🙂


Taken at the Flood

This Agatha Christie title takes on a whole new meaning for me this week as I see so many families in dire circumstances across my beautiful state of West Virginia.  I dedicate my blog this Friday to the flood victims in my neighboring counties.  So far 26 people have been killed and still others are missing – my heart breaks for them.

To understand the devastation one must first understand the geography of this place.  The mountains in West Virginia create these little pockets of narrow valleys where people live.  As we were driving along a few days ago, my youngest daughter asked me why so many of us live along the river.  I explained to her that when the first settlers came here, it was only reasonable to settle along the rivers to have access to water for crops and the other necessities of life.  In other places people are able to spread their communities out from the water sources, but here the mountains are so dense and our valleys so narrow, that there is nowhere else to spread.  As we drove along, I pointed out to her that a mountain was climbing up to the right of us just a few feet from the road.  To the left was a small row of houses along the river, and beyond that was a steep bank that led up to the railroad tracks running alongside another mountain.  She said, “Mommy, we really do live in the woods, don’t we?”  Yes, we do.

In the book I am currently working on, which is set in a small West Virginia town, one of my main characters is new to the area.  This provides so many opportunities for me to see the lay of the land I am so familiar with through a stranger’s eyes.  At one point he is standing in the center of town and notices the walls of green on all four sides of him and the small patch of sky overhead, and likens the feeling to being dropped in a very deep well.  I have heard from new comers that they feel claustrophobic here, and I can understand that – outsiders often feel like the walls are closing in on them.

Those who are born and raised here feel quite the opposite.  No matter where I go, when I’m on the interstate and see my mountains in the distance I release a breath I didn’t even know I was holding.  For those of us that live with this wild place in our blood, nothing makes us feel as safe as that low lying fog that hangs over the trees like grandma’s homemade quilt.

The bad end of our terrain, is that when something like this recent flooding happens, and the water rushes through our little valleys, there is nowhere to go.  It is a feeling that is so surreal; it’s almost like an out-of-body experience.

I know that feeling well.  I grew up listening to my grandmother tell about the Buffalo Creek disaster of 1972, the worst flood in our state’s history, when the Pittston Coal Company’s coal slurry impoundment dam burst, unleashing approximately 132,000,000 US gallons of black waste water, cresting over 30 ft high, upon the residents of 16 coal towns along Buffalo Creek Hollow. Out of a population of 5,000 people, 125 were killed, 1,121 were injured, and over 4,000 were left homeless.  My uncle’s family lived there at the time.  When the water started coming he and another man jumped in a car and sped along the narrow hollow shouting warnings to people along the way, but the water was too fast for many to make it out.

In 2001, my own community that sits along the Guyandotte River was flooded in what was dubbed The Hundred Year Flood.  My father’s house was destroyed and had to be rebuilt, and my own home had to be torn down two months later due to foundation damage that could not be repaired.  The water came so fast that day, the only thing we could do was grab what we could and seek higher ground.  The river covered the road on both ends of our community, essentially trapping us in, as we all stood together on the blacktop and hoped for the best.  I watched in fear as my husband went into the rushing water time and time again to help a neighbor or rescue a pet.

And now these floods that have left so many devastated…

So why do we stay in this place?  I hear that question a lot.  The environment is wild, and not always friendly.  We have many people living in poverty as the unemployment rate rises.  Many communities have been hit hard by the prescription drug epidemic…and yet we remain.  It’s hard for someone from the outside to wrap their brain around, but we stay because the mountains are in our blood.  Our history – our roots – run so deep that it feels like they have been fused to the mountains.  We are often classified as the “South,” but we can’t really breath down there in those lower states, the air is just too thick.  The northerners don’t understand our ways or our close nit culture.  It seems like once you’ve acclimated yourself to this part of the world, you just don’t fit anywhere else…

We are connected to the earth here in a powerful way.  Last week, when the storms started rolling in I stood on my back deck and just turned a circle following the clouds across the sky.  The mountains rose all around me as I breathed in the smell of the rain.  Some old timers will tell you that there is magic in these mountains, and when you put your bare feet to the ground and feel the force of nature surround you, you start to believe that might be true.  I often wonder how people in cities, surrounded by steel and concrete manage to hold on to their connectivity to the earth.  Where does their sense of humanity go when they are surrounded by so much that is not alive?  Sometimes I feel like all the problems in the world, from war to racism, could be solved by sitting around grandma’s table with the understanding that we are, none of us, disconnected from one another by too many degrees…We seem to have a pretty good grasp of that here.

At the end of the day, the main reason we stay is because of the people.  The folks in West Virginia are unlike any others.  We are strong.  We persevere.  We love each other like family.  You can be thousands of miles away from home and meet another West Virginian and feel an instant spark of light – we know each other.

When our family was struck by flooding in 2001, regardless of the fact that we were faced with losing everything we had, no one cried, we dug in and helped each other.  Just before the water got to my house, a neighbor of mine who lived down the road in a little mobile home came over, and when we asked him how things were at his house and he said, “Oh it’s all gone.  I just came to see if I could help you get some of your stuff out before the water gets in.”  To this day, tears come to my eyes when I think about that.  Another neighbor who lived on the hill up from us, grilled corn dogs and rode around on his four wheeler handing them out to people – that is, to this day, the best corn dog I have ever eaten.

After the water started to recede, and so many in our community were left with nothing.  My grandmother went up to our camper we had moved to higher ground and started to make coffee.  My dad, whose home had been destroyed, pulled out his grill and started to cook whatever we had that might go bad.  I emptied my freezer and took it up, and pretty soon everyone around was bringing food to the camper to be cooked.  In the two weeks that followed when no one was able to get to a store, we never ran out of food, and everyone in our community was fed every day from that little camper.

In this recent flooding, I’ve seen one video after another of people working together.  When they ask for help, it is not money they request, they simply say, “Bring a shovel and help where you can,” and people do.  Not once will you hear one of them ask for government assistance, they will help each other.  Not once will you see looting or riots, what can be given is given freely.  That is the wonderful nature of these people…it’s just that simple.

Two days ago I was driving through one of our poorest communities, and the volunteer fire department there was standing in the road asking for donations for the flood victims.  In the poorest community around, I had to wait in traffic to take my turn at dropping what I had in the donation bucket – they raised over $2600.00 in that one afternoon.

We love each other here.  Sometimes we don’t like each other, like any family unit, but we always love our fellow Mountaineers.  That is a support system that just doesn’t exist in too many places, and not something I would trade for all the riches in the world.

So the storm clouds will come and we will watch them dance across our patch of sky from deep in the valley.  We will smell the rain on the wind.  And when the flood waters rise we will stand up and rebuild with the magic of the mountains holding us up when it seems that all our strength has gone.

Montani Semper Liberi – Mountaineers are Always Free