Still on the research kick, I’m in the process of learning all about moonshine. No, not how to drink it. How to make it. While plotting out my next book, Death Takes the Fifth, I realized moonshine (and by extension, moonshiners) would play an integral role in the story. Let’s be clear—making moonshine is a against the law in 48 states unless you’ve got a distributor’s license, so DO NOT make this stuff. And, for the record, the moonshiners in my book get in a lot of trouble for what they’re doing.
I got the idea from watching the TV show, “Moonshiners”, on Discovery TV. Yep, I’ve followed the cast through quite a few of their antics, whether it be finding a still site, constructing a still, what kind of water makes the best hooch, recipes for anything from whiskey to gin to absinthe, and how to escape the law (well, moonshiners try, anyway). I even bought a jar of (legal) moonshine marketed at a nearby liquor store to see how it tastes. I’m pretty sure the storebought version is lower in alcohol content and therefore has less of a bite than the real stuff, but I still saw a few fumes behind my eyeballs.
After recovering from that bit of research, I started jotting down some of the facts I needed to make sure the moonshiners were correctly depicted in my book.
The most important ingredient in moonshine is the water. From what I understand, spring water loaded with limestone makes the best liquor. We have a lot of limestone in Texas. Heck, the exterior of my house is limestone. And there are plenty of springs around Austin for this to be a viable process. Once you have your water, it’s time to make the mash.
Oh. The mash. That’s the combination of grains (corn or barley or wheat, etc.), sugar (which brings up the alcohol level–can be anything from refined sugar to sugar beets), water, and aromatics (can be fruit or spices or herbs depending on what type of moonshine you want to make) and yeast. For example, if you want to make a gin moonshine, you must have juniper berries–which can taste pretty strong. The moonshiner might counter that with ingredients like cardamon pods, peppercorns, anise, lemon/orange peels, cinnamon—you get the drift. The mash is then sealed in a big tub (whiskey-aged barrels give it a real nice quality, I understand) and allowed to sit for seven to ten days for all of it to ferment.
By now, it’s time to find the location where you’re actually going to make the moonshine. Near a limestone spring is optimal. It’s also important that the site be away from hikers, hunters, and passers-by. You do not want anyone stumbling on to your still site and either stealing your stuff or calling the police. Again, it is ILLEGAL to make moonshine without the proper permits. Also, moonshiners like to find a spot where they can make a quick get-away if the revenuers come a-calling.
While the mash is doing its chemical thing, its time to construct the still. The folks on The “Moonshiners” tend to favor copper stills, but I’ve seen them make it out of empty beer kegs, old barrels, etc. I’ve inserted a diagram below describing the design of a rather simplistic still. Everything is welded together.
The mechanism on the far left is where the now fermented mash is poured and heated (to somewhere starting at 170 degrees Fahrenheit.) The steam put off by the mash is the alcohol. The steam goes through the cap arm into the thumper keg where it mixes with cold water, thus increasing the alcohol level. After going through the thumper, the now liquid alcohol goes into the warm box and spirals down to the spout. When the liquor’s ready, it comes out the tap or spout. To make sure the liquor doesn’t go everywhere, the moonshiner puts a (pardon the language) coon dick in the spout so the liquor pours straight into whatever container you’re putting the moonshine in. I’ve seen The Moonshiners use gallon glass jugs, plastic milk jugs, mason jars, etc.
About the coon dick. Yes, it really is a raccoon’s…umm…tally whacker. And yes, the aforementioned tally whacker on a raccoon has a bone in it that is perfect for keeping a steady stream of moonshine heading right into the waiting container. (I’m not making this stuff up.)
Now it’s time to see if the moonshine is any good. First off, the moonshine product should be clear. Next, the moonshiner usually uses a mason jar to test the alcohol level of the product. They fill the jar halfway, put the lid on tight, turn it on its side and shake the jar. The bubbles will tell the story. If the bubbles are large and pop pretty quickly, the alcohol level in the jar is high. If the bubbles are small and stay around a while, the alcohol level is low. And, of course, there’s the taste test.
I’ve had a blast learning about all of this, but then again, I love to do research. Between the TV show and the internet, I hope I’ve created some plot twists and characters that you will enjoy as much as I do.
Relationships between mothers, daughters, and sisters, as they relate to one another as individuals and as a family unit, are complex. Now wrap them in the horrors, deprivations, losses, and dangers of World War II in Russia and France, and you have the foundations of two exceptional novels of mothers, daughters, and sisters in love and war.
Authors Kristin Hannah and Karen Robards place their readers in the middle of two families of women with fractured relationships. For one family, the war is over and it’s the traumatizing memories that cause the drama. For the other, the family’s story takes place in the midst of World War II.
In Kristin Hannah’s sweeping saga, The Winter Garden, World War II, specifically the siege of Leningrad, is the historical backdrop for the damaged Whitson family. The destructive tentacles of the past hold the emotionally scarred Anya Whitson in a stranglehold, impacting her relationship with her two daughters, Meredith and Nina, who were kept emotionally distant throughout their childhoods by their mother. Anya often expressed anger or indifference toward them, despite all attempts to please her. Sadly, the sisters believed their mother was a cold woman who did not love them. They had no idea of the past tragedies and secrets that had damaged Anya and created what seemed to be an impenetrable shell around her heart. Over time, a wall of pain and resentment developed between the sisters and lasted for decades, adding to the misunderstandings with their mother.
As an adult, Meredith, the more traditional of the two, stays close to home, marries, and helps run the apple orchard. She raises two children but keeps her husband at arm’s length. The other daughter, Nina, is a world-traveling photojournalist, and she stays away from the family as much as possible until their father’s failing health forces her to return.
On his deathbed, Evan Whitson demands a promise from his daughters. They are to get their mother to tell the entire fairy tale she’d partially told them as children, but after his death, Anya’s behavior becomes unbalanced. Again, they listen to the fairy tale about a prince and a peasant girl and remain confused, still unaware of the story’s significance.
One day, Meredith finds old papers with a letter from a Russian professor in Alaska addressed to Anya, stating that while he understood her refusal to tell her story, it would have been an excellent learning experience for others. Inspired by the professor’s words, the sisters take their mother on an Alaska trip, where they learn what had happened to her in Russia, the brutality of the German invasion, followed by the horror of life under Stalin.
Anya’s story weaves through an unimaginable nightmare as she tells her daughters the truth about living through the almost 900-day siege of Leningrad. Things begin to make sense about their mother’s bizarre behaviors. In Anya’s deliriums, she’d envisioned herself back in Leningrad during the siege and tried to strip and boil wallpaper to make soup, as the starving populace did because wallpaper pastes were made from potato starches. They also learned the tragic reason for her emotional connection to the winter garden outside her house. And most important, why she seemed detached from her girls. World War II is a past we only see through Anya’s tortured memories, but we suffer with her for what she’d endured, and we feel the pain of a mother and her daughters as they learn the truth and try to find forgiveness and love.
In The Black Swan of Paris, Karen Robards drops us into occupied Paris in 1944, in a historical thriller that keeps us on the edge of our seats with unrelenting tensions and fears – as life must have been for the resistance fighters of France.
The main character, Genevieve Dumont, a celebrity singer, is adored by the Nazis. Her manager, Max Bonet, is Captain Max Ryan, British SOE (Special Operations Executive). Max recruits her after helping her through a deadly incident in Morocco, and she becomes a reluctant front for the British spying and intelligence gathering network, living in constant fear for her life.
The French resistance cells are autonomous, keeping identities secret to increase their chances of survival. Thus, other cells don’t know of Genevieve’s double life and view her as a Nazi collaborator, but that cover is what gives her and her manager Max entry into the world of the Nazi hierarchy. But the Black Swan of Paris has deadly secrets of her own.
Unbeknownst to almost everyone, including Max, Genevieve was born Genevre de Rochford, the daughter of Baron and Baroness de Rochford, whom she’d disowned, along with her sister, Emmy, years earlier. Genevieve has no feelings for her parents or Emmy, or anyone else until she inadvertently hears that the Baroness de Rochford, now a member of the French resistance, has been captured by the Nazis. She learns that Max has been ordered to rescue the Baroness or kill her before the Nazis can torture information from her regarding the planned Allied invasion. This information shocks Genevieve and the familial bonds she thought dead surge to the surface. She doesn’t know what to do, but her sister Emmy, serving in another resistance cell, has kept track of Genevieve’s public career and finds her. Together, they put aside all past differences because somehow they must rescue their mother—but they need help from Max, the operative ordered to kill her.
Both stories are rich with details that bring readers into the world of these characters, showing the importance of extensive research. World War II, the siege of Leningrad, life under Stalin, the occupation of France, and the French resistance, come alive through superb storytelling.
One understands Anya’s behaviors through her tragic memories and feels the sense of powerlessness, the pain of losing loved ones, the physical pain of starvation, and the fear of what was to come by those who endured and survived the siege of Leningrad.
In Paris, 1944, the French resistance waits for Operation Overlord while Genevieve Dumont walks her tightrope, which could snap and plunge her and her network into the hell of Nazi hands and possibly undo the planned Allied invasion. The reader experiences the pressure of the tremendous weight on so few shoulders and the unrelenting fear of being captured.
The depth of knowledge of those historical events, whether told in the sweeping family saga of The Winter Garden or in the historical suspense thriller The Black Swan of Paris, are used deftly andadd details and layers to the stories, enhancing each novel’s authenticity.
The world has been a crazy place since the emergence of Covid-19. Although it’s still out there, I’ve begun to venture forth into the world and attend author events. It feels wonderful to get back into the world of books and speaking with other writers! I think the last event I went to was the Bullet Books event in February of 2020 at the Bosslight Bookstore in Nacogdoches. (Fellow AMW writers Kathy Waller, Helen Currie Foster, and Laura Oles are also Bullet Books authors.)
My first foray back into the public realm was a Noir At The Bar event in Dallas back in June. Of course, it was outside and still blazing hot even though it started at 7. But I had such a great time listening to the other authors that it was worth it! Not a dud in the bunch. We laughed at some stories and were creeped out by others. I read a short piece that I wrote a few years ago, Tutusuana. (“Tutusuana” is a Comanche word that’s explained in the story.) It was nice to see old friends and finally meet online friends in person. Loved the experience. I highly recommend The Wild Detectives bookstore/bar. This is a jewel in the Bishop Arts district in Dallas.
Now we travel to Book People. Yesterday, August 21, I went to my first Book People event since pre-Covid. Mark Pryor has a new book Die Around Sundown. This is the first book in a new series so of course I had to be there to cheer him on! I’m excited to read this book. It’s an historical mystery set in Nazi-occupied France. I enjoyed the book talk and, again, seeing friends in person that I haven’t seen in a while.
This Wednesday I plan to go to an author event at my local library. I haven’t met Michael Miller but since I live in a small town, I want to attend events and provide support. He’s a long-time university professor, presently at Texas State. And he is also a Presbyterian minister, serving La Iglesia Presbiteriana Mexicana for the last ten years in San Marcos. His book is The Two Deaths of Father Romero: A Novel of the Borderlands. Sounds interesting!
Then the next day I’ll be back at Book People, if the roads aren’t flooded. (We’ve been in a severe drought this summer, as much of the world has been too. I’m looking forward to the rain, but I hope it’s a slow, soaking rain and not a deluge.)
Our family’s favorite mystery quote (bolded below) appears in Strong Poison, by Dorothy Sayers, where detective Lord Peter Wimsey first meets novelist Harriet Vane. Vane’s on trial for murder, accused of systematically poisoning her former lover with arsenic.
Wimsey suspects the lover’s uncle, Norman Urquhart, but the uncle assures the police that he served a blameless dinner to his nephew. Wimsey sends the all-competent Bunter (his manservant and WWI batman), to winkle out secrets from Urquhart’s cook, Mrs. Pettican, and the housemaid.
Bunter ingratiates himself by means of crumpets:
“At half-past four…he was seated in the kitchen of Mr. Urquhart’s house, toasting crumpets. He had been trained to a great pitch of dexterity in the preparation of crumpets, and if he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter, that hurt nobody except Mr. Urquhart. It was natural that the conversation should turn to the subject of murder. Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavour seems to be.”
What a setting! I’ve never tasted a crumpet, but can feel the heat of the fire and inhale the smells of toasting and melting butter. And in contrast to (or fueled by) this warmth, this delicious comfort, the cook reminds us of the victim’s death: “A dreadful wicked woman she must ‘a’ been,” said Mrs. Pettican, “—‘ev another crumpet, do, Mr. Bunter—a-torturin’ of the poor soul that long-winded way. Bashin’ on the ‘ed or the ‘asty use of a carvin’ knife when roused I can understand, but the ‘orrors of slow poisonin’ is the work of a fiend in ‘uman form, in my opinion.”
So in our kitchen at buttery moments some family member will mutter, “If he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter…” But this week I wondered, “What are crumpets?” I mean, with Bunter toasting them over a (presumably coal) fire, then lavishing butter on them, they sound wonderful, especially for teatime in a firelit kitchen, on a cold wet afternoon, discussing the horrors of slow poisoning.
Compelled by curiosity I found a recipe. https://www.daringgourmet.com/traditional-english-crumpets/ Huh. I’d imagined English muffins. No. Instead, the goal is a tender disc, yeasty but also leavened with baking soda, creating bubbled holes to absorb melted butter, jam, and other decorations. Problem: locating crumpet rings. Yes, I’ve ordered some.
Sayers wasn’t writing a culinary cozy, despite the crumpets and an intense discussion on the following page between Mrs. Pettican and Bunter about casseroled chicken. A scene beginning with toasting crumpets produces a triumph of setting and character, a comic but dread-inspiring description of the victim’s death, and clever clue placement. Sayers does not describe either the smell of the toasting, or the taste of the crumpets, but surely you, dear reader, imagined those? Didn’t you feel yourself right there in the kitchen, with the rainy day outside, the gossipy discussion of the lover’s death agonies, and a vivid depiction of Bunter’s character? Courteous, yet firm, he deftly extracts critical information not reflected in the police report—and yes, a clue you doubtless spotted. Maybe Vane will escape the hangman’s noose after all.
Despite the strong impact of smells on humans, writers’ references to smell often seem sparse. Part of the problem is the sheer difficulty of describing certain smells. Imagine trying to describe the smell of a beloved house. It’s a mysterious mix, isn’t it? If I try to describe my mother’s house, I can’t do it with just one word. Part of the remembered smell is a faint perfume—maybe a bath powder she used, like Caswell Massey’s Gardenia. But there are other ingredients as well—contributions from oak furniture, cotton sheets, old Christmas cards on a closet shelf… See, I can’t accurately describe the smell itself; I have to name things.
My grandmother’s house in Hill County delivered a similar mixture, varying by seasons. In summer, it smelled of cantaloupe from her garden; at Christmas, of a decorated cedar tree. But always the substrate included a hard-to-describe mixture of our grandfather’s Yardley English Lavender talc, kept on the kitchen shelf where he shaved; of the garbage chute in the kitchen; of oil and electric discharges from his ham radio rig; of the ancient living room piano (wires, wood, felt). How describe the totality of that smell, that amalgam of odors, so instantly recognizable to me, but unknown to you? And how describe it without a bunch of nouns?
Poets apparently run into that problem. I set out to locate poems incorporating odor and fragrance, grabbing poetry volumes from the shelves. Yeats? Gorgeous references to sight and sound, as in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”: “Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee, /And live alone in the bee-loud glade…” The poem is rich in sight, in sound, but not smell. We don’t smell the clay and wattles or honey.
Same for Wendell Berry’s A Small Porch—a volume of ideas, images, light and air. But I didn’t find smell. Nor did I find smell references in Chaucer or a number of Renaissance English poets, except that Michael Drayton gives us a wonderful line in “To the Virginian Voyage” referring to the much-anticipated Virginia landfall of seaborne English explorers: “When as the luscious smell/of that delicious land…” Of course Shakespeare mentions the “sweet odour” of roses (as in Sonnet 54): “Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made.”
Indeed, I had trouble finding references to smell in most of the poetry books I opened. There were some. In “Aimless Love,” “gazing down affectionately at the soap,” Billy Collins writes, “I could feel myself falling again/as I felt its turning in my wet hands/and caught the scent of lavender and stone.”
Marianne Moore, in “Enough,” from O To Be a Dragon, gives us this: “The crested moss-rose casts a spell; its bud of solid green, as well, /and the Old Pink Moss—with fragrant wings/ imparting balsam scent that clings…” Many readers will recognize balsam. Another from Moore’s “In the Public Garden”: “O yes, and snowdrops in the snow that smell like violets.”
Also readers may know the smell of violets. Charles Wright, in “Dog Creek Mainline,” gives more challenging references: “Dog Creek: cat track and bird splay,/Spindrift and windfall; woodrot; Odor of muscadine…” If you’ve played around wild grapevine you know the odor of muscadine––maybe woodrot too.
Try the experiment yourself. Pull some poetry off the shelf. Don’t most poems rely on sight and sound, and rarely odor? Because a particular smell can be very hard to describe.
“The way the brain deals with smells is very different to how it deals with other senses, such as seeing and hearing. For example, we can identify the different instruments playing in a band, or the different shapes and colours in a painting. But it is very hard for us to tell the individual parts of a smell mixture.” He goes on: “We can sense the smell of “orange” or “coffee” as a single thing, but have trouble identifying the many different parts that make up those smells individually. However, it is possible to get better at this with practice. Professional wine-tasters or perfume-makers can detect more parts of a smell mixture than most people.”
Our difficulty in describing smell is not that we humans can’t detect odors—we can, says Greg Miller, Science (November 11, 2014): “We humans have about 400 different types of receptors for detecting odorant molecules. That’s on the low end for mammals, but it’s enough, at least in theory, to allow us to distinguish a trillion different odors, one team of neuroscientists calculated earlier this year (although there’s been some controversy about that estimate).”
But, per Miller, we describe odors differently from sights and sounds: “When people—English speaking people, anyway—describe odors, what they are actually doing much of the time is describing the source of the odor. Orange-y. Smokey-. Skunk-y. This seems natural enough, but it’s fundamentally different from how we describe other sensory experiences. Words like “white” and “round” describe visual features of an object, not the object itself. It could be a baseball, or it could be the Moon. In the same way, a tone can be “high-pitched” whether it comes from a bird or a teakettle.” https://bit.ly/3JFFobV
Some studies suggest that our language is inadequate to the task of describing smell. Another suggestion is that other languages than English may be better at conveying odor.
But determined mystery writers find a way, because odor can make important contributions to a setting. In 1937, in Rex Stout’s fourth Nero Wolfe mystery, The Red Box, the detective lectures his cook, Fritz Brenner: “Do you know shish kebab? I have had it in Turkey. Marinate thin slices of tender lamb for several hours in red wine and spices. Here, I’ll put it down: thyme, mace, peppercorns, garlic…” https://amzn.to/3PahvKz
Can’t you smell those spices? And doesn’t that passage help round out (pun) our vision of Nero Wolfe, gourmet, gourmand, brilliant detective? We’re planted in the kitchen of Wolfe’s New York brownstone, the primary setting for all the mysteries. These few lines convey Wolfe’s insistence on sophisticated cuisine, and reflect the rigor he demands of every employee under his roof, including Fritz the cook; Theodore Horstmann, the keeper of his orchid greenhouse; and our narrator, his foot soldier, Archie Goodwin. A shish kebab recipe helps define the setting and Wolfe’s character as well.
Ngaio Marsh begins Night at the Vulcan (1951) with Martyn Tarne, a young New Zealand actress desperately seeking an acting role in London. One night, out of food and money, with no place to stay, she enters the Vulcan Theatre which has advertised for a dresser: “She was at the back of the stalls, standing on thick carpet at the top of the ramp facing the centre aisle…The deadened air smelt of naphthalene and plush.” The empty theatre lacks an eager audience, waiting for the curtain to go up. Instead Marsh gives us the “deadened air” of a closed theatre, where the plush seats are empty, and the air smells of naphthalene—chemical dry cleaning. Martyn starts to work: “As soon as she crossed the threshold of the star dressing-room she smelt greasepaint. The dressing-shelf was bare, the room untenanted, but the smell of cosmetics mingled with the faint reek of gas.” I don’t know the smell of greasepaint, but Martyn does; she’s in a setting she understands.
Mick Herron’s unputdownable Slough House series uses odor to create the key setting––the decrepit building which serves as center stage. Book 2, Dead Lions, describes entry to the building as follows: “No one enters Slough House by the front door; instead, via a shabby alleyway, its inmates let themselves into a grubby yard with mildewed walls….” Yecch, mildew. The building houses the “slow horses” who flunked out of MI-5’s headquarters in posh Regent’s Park, and are now under the tutelage of former Cold Warrior Jackson Lamb, a terrifying mentor. “Jackson Lamb’s lair,” the office on the building’s top floor, is described thus: “The air is heavy with a dog’s olfactory daydream: takeaway food, illicit cigarettes, day-old farts and stale beer, but there will be no time to catalogue this because Jackson Lamb can move surprisingly swiftly for a man of his bulk….” No question that odor is part of the setting. Lamb is an olfactory terrorist. https://amzn.to/3ppQsAJ
The century-old Beer Barn, a beloved road house in Coffee Creek, is where townspeople gather in my Ghost series. That includes lawyer and protagonist Alice Greer. Naturally the smell of beer is key. In Book 3, Ghost Letter, Alice invites a political reporter to the Beer Barn for lunch: “As they pushed through the Beer Barn’s tall swinging doors the fragrant haze enveloped them—incense compounded of hickory smoke from the wood-fired grill, chiles toasted on an iron comal, and thousands of bubbles popping in bottles and glasses, releasing the yeasty magic of beer to the air.”
Smells may be hard to define, but including the smell of a setting can enrich a mystery’s impact. Or, as Mrs. Pettican says, “Have another crumpet, do!”
Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, loosely supervised by three burros jostling for roles in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, set in the unique landscape of the Texas Hill Country. So far all three burros have made an appearance, though insisting on aliases. Book 8 is on its way…
Have you ever dreamed of leaving your current life behind, moving to a new city, and opening up a bookstore?
I had the good fortune of meeting someone who did just that. In a chance encounter while attending the Malice Domestic Agatha Tea and Closing Ceremonies, I ended up sitting next to Sam Droke-Dickinson (she/her), owner (with husband Todd Dickinson) of Aaron’s Books. The store is named for their son, Aaron, who was two and a half years old when they opened their business. The bookstore’s tagline is Family Owned. Fiercely Independent. Community Minded. We had a wonderful conversation about her journey from working in Washington D.C. to moving to Lititz, Pennsylvania. I was so intrigued by her story that I asked her if she would share it with our readers.
LO: Tell me a bit about your previous life—the one before you chose to open a bookstore.
SDD: Our store is in a small town in Central PA, but we’re not from the area (more on that later). Before opening the store, we lived and worked in the DC area. I was a middle school social studies teacher, and before that various arts administration jobs. My husband was a lobbyist and government programs analyst for several science and medical non-profits.
LO: What was the catalyst in your decision to move and open a bookstore?
SDD: The commute and need to constantly be on the go in DC was not fun. Add into the mix a young child and we needed to find something else to be doing. At the time my husband was a stay-at-home dad and was really enjoying his time away from office politics and such. I was teaching and commuting early in the morning every day and staying up late planning and grading. We decided, with the house prices soaring, that was the time for us to make a move. So, we sold our house and moved up to Pennsylvania. We picked it for several reasons, one being that it was exactly the half-way point between the grandparents. Once we found a place here, we decided to be our own bosses and open a used bookstore. We both loved books, and I had an administration background, and he was a “people person”.
LO: I would love to learn more about your town and your community. How do they factor into your daily life as a small business owner?
SDD: Lititz is your quintessential small town. It really is the scene for so many cozy mysteries. A main street with small shops, a town park, lots of festivals. No murders though (phew!). Our store is right in the middle of the downtown area, and we’ve lived a mile or less from the store for the last 15 years. At one point we lived in an apartment above the bakery next door. Our town has 73 indie businesses and only 1 chain (a Subway). The town has worked hard to keep it that way, so the feeling of community is very important. We have always felt that we should be active and supportive participants of the community, as citizens and business owners. We were part of the core group that started a “Second Friday”, which is one Friday a month all the shops stay open late and there is music and events around town. About 12 years ago the town council tried to take away all the open flags so we worked to get them to allow a standard flag that all the businesses would fly and then I designed that flag. My husband has served on the board of our local Main Street Program non-profit for 10 years. And last year I ran for school board (I didn’t win). For us, community is not just living and working in the town but helping to make it better.
LO: : So many people dream of opening a bookstore. What was the process like for you?
SDD: We tell people not to do what we did. We went in completely blind to any and everything. We just got books and put them on the shelves. It was about three months in that we started joining industry organizations and spent a good seven years learning from workshops and conferences. We STILL are learning. The great thing about the indie bookstore world is that we help each other. We share things that work and don’t work. We have meetings and conferences every few months. And just last year the Professional Bookselling Certification Program was launched by our regional trade association (New Atlantic Booksellers Association). My husband was president of the association when they first started planning the program. Right now, it is six modules from inventory management to event planning. It’s run like a real school with lectures, round table discussion and homework. I’m finishing up the Store Operations module right now and have learned all sorts of things relating to personnel and financial management. For anyone that is interested in the dream, I highly recommend they seek out their regional trade association. The resources there are bountiful. And bookstore people really are the best people!
LO: What advice would you give to someone who is considering opening their own bookstore (or purchasing an existing one)?
SDD: The love of reading is great, but it’s not going to pay the bills. Take some basic marketing and accounting classes. And realistically, kiss your free reading time goodbye. People have this vision of opening a shop and then just sitting at the counter reading all day. Those are the rare days… and you don’t want to have them because that means you don’t have any customers, and customers are what pay the bills. That being said, after 17 years I can’t imagine doing anything else. It took us time to grow, and there were a lot of pains. But it is so worth it when we see books and people connect. In fact, a teen that used to shop in our store a decade ago, just opened her own shop in the next city. It feels good to know that we’ve been around long enough to inspire the next generation of booksellers.
LO: What do you love the most about running your own bookstore? What are the challenges? Any misconceptions?
SDD: Is it cheesy to say the books? Unpacking the boxes each day is like a birthday and Christmas rolled into one. I have to tell myself that I can’t take every book home. It’s a struggle. I’m a Type-A personality so I just love the day-to-day operations of the shop. The administrative things, the planning, the handling of issues. And the absolute best thing is when someone finds their “perfect” book on our shelves, especially the kids. Having a robust selection for young readers is core to our mission. The challenges are the same as most businesses- the work/life balance and money. No one has ever gotten rich owning a bookstore, but no one goes into bookselling for the money. It’s for the love of sharing books. At least I hope that is why we all got into this business. The biggest misconception is that bookstores are dying. That may have been true in the late 90’s early 2000’s, but right now there is a huge growth in indie bookstores. New ones are opening every week. Indie bookstores outnumber chain stores in this country. Most offer online shopping, e-books, and audiobooks too. So, the idea of the struggling little “shop around the corner” that can’t offer what the big guys do is very outdated. The other misconception, which is born out of a stereotype, is that indies don’t carry genre books. So many of us do and are run by genre readers. Lots of people think that indie bookstores are snobby… and there are some that are, but they are the rarity these days.
LO: Anything else you’d like to add?
SDD: I encourage all authors to check out their local bookselling regional trade association. They usually offer author level memberships. That is truly the best way to see what is going on in your area in bookselling and to make connections with booksellers and publishers. Be active in the book community at all stages of your writing and publishing process.
This week I’ve been in the Land of Stuck. Walking in circles around the kitchen island struggling to come up with the missing scene. My next mystery’s nearly done, but… I’m stuck. Ever been there?
The poetry shelf offers a momentary escape. Billy Collins can always pull me into a poem. Often he’s going for a walk and I can’t help but feel invited. His “Aimless Love” begins:
He’s got me.
Or “The Trouble with Poetry,” which begins,
“This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.”
Well, of course there he’s got me. Then again:
“The trouble with poetry, I realized
as I walked along a beach one night––
cold Florida sand under my bare feet,
a show of stars in the sky––”
I feel that same cold Florida sand under my right arch, despite the Texas heat outside.
Another walking poet: Mary Oliver. In Blue Iris, She begins “White Pine” this way:
“The sun rises late in this southern county. And, since the first thing I do when I wake up is go out into the world, I walk here along a dark road.”
Huh. Walking as discipline? Every morning?
Walking’s not just for poets. St. Augustine is often credited with the Latin phrase Solvitur ambulando––“it is solved by walking” (which may have originally been a response to the 5th C. B.C. philosopher Zeno’s concept that we can never actually arrive at a destination).
“Solvitur ambulando” was the official motto of the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society, formed in 1946 to help those in former occupied countries during WWII who risked their lives to help RAF crew members escape. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solvitur ambulando (check out the terrific solvitur ambulando quotes in this article, from Lewis Carroll, Dorothy Sayers and others). I can’t imagine how high the blood pressure of those resistance heroes climbed during such episodes. Mine skyrocketed just reading A Woman of No Importance, Sonia Purnell’s description of the amazing work of America’s Virginia Hall in France during the resistance. Talk about tense moments. So, did the RAF Escaping Society adopt this motto because of the therapeutic value of walking, or because walking can trigger ideas, or solutions? Or both?
Bruce Chatwin (The Songlines, 1986) claimed he learned the phrase from Patrick Leigh Fermor. Fermor himself was quite a walker. He set out, in 1933, at age 18, to walk across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul and Greece. He tells the tale in Between the Woods and the Water, 1986.
I loved this book and Fermor is fascinating (check out his WWII heroics on Crete, including engineering and carrying out the kidnap of the Nazi commander).
The English provide walkers with such wonderful public walking paths. My husband and I recently walked the Thames Footpath for several miles along the Thames, over to Bray––yes! Home of the Vicar of Bray! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Vicar_of_Bray
In this charming village you can taste amazing smoked salmon at The Hinds Head (where you can read how many times the Vicar changed his denomination to keep his job, back in the religious flip-flops of England’s sixteenth century) and also at The Crown, a pluperfect pub. The Thames Footpath takes you through leafy woods, with views of the rivers, the fields, and occasional historic and mysterious signs (“Battlemead”). It provides boats to watch, ranging from kayaks and paddleboards to elegant near-yachts, festooned with banners for Jubilee, and one incredible ancient polished Chris Craft, casually docked by the restaurant at the Boathouse at Boulter’s Lock by two grizzled old salts. We tried but failed to overhear their intense lunch conversation. Just trying to eavesdrop was imagination-stirring. Where did they come from? Where were they going?
The footpath also led us to the village of Cookham, home of another surprise: the Stanley Spencer Gallery. Spencer, a WWI veteran and Slade School graduate, produced remarkable paintings, sometimes mixing nominally biblical subjects with contemporary life—for example, a resurrection study of Cookham housewives in aprons, climbing out of their graves with surprised faces. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/sir-stanley-spencer-1977.
I thought I remembered Spencer’s name from Virginia Woolf’s diaries and looked it up when we got home. She wrote on May 22, 1934, about Clive Bell, Vanessa Bell (Clive’s wife), Duncan Grant (Vanessa’s lover), and Quentin Bell (Vanessa’s son) “all talking at once about Spencer’s pictures.” In 1934 Spencer was showing six works in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition…about the time Patrick Leigh Fermor was off in the middle of his big walk.
Other poetic walkers? You’ve already thought of Robert Frost (“Two Roads Diverged…”) and Dante. Dante’s walks take the cake; I mean, the Inferno’s a hell of a walk.
So if walking calms the mind, allows creativity, reveals solutions, why am I revolving around the kitchen island?
Now that I think about it, some ideas have emerged. For instance, how much my extended family loves hiking in the Rockies, with (1) a destination; (2) a well-rounded lunch, including chocolate, in the pack; (3) plenty of water. How it feels to set off, hoping to see (1) moose, or (2) marmots, or (3) ptarmigan. How it feels to walk to the destination, grab a flat-topped boulder, warmed by sun, and have lunch, staring out at the view. Then to walk…downhill. No longer out of breath. Watching your fellow hikers dodging limbs, swinging around switchbacks. Triumphant walkers. And in the meantime, there have been discussions on the trail, conversations about this and that, switching from one companion to another. At the end of the trail, a sense of sleepy satisfaction.
So it’s time to get up early enough for a walk. Get up early enough to beat the Texas sun, and see if my neighbor’s front pasture includes a jackrabbit, or “jackbunny” as some call it. Cause a snort from the deer in the brush.
… Okay. Back from the walk. I think I’ve figured out that pesky bit about the last scene, except for a couple of details. So tomorrow, when the alarm rings—I’m going for a walk. Would you like to come too? I’d love it. We could talk.
Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, closely supervised by three burros. She’s curious about human nature, human history and prehistory, and why the past keeps crashing the party. She’s currently finishing book 8 in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery novel series. Book 7, Ghost Daughter, was named Grand Prize Short List in the 2022 Eric Hoffer Book Awards, and Finalist for Mystery, 2022 National Indie Excellence Awards. Her books are available on Amazon, Kindle, and Audible, and at independent bookstores.She loves to talk with book groups.
I wrote the following for my personal blog to answer a “challenge.” I intended to post it at the end of September 2009–yes, 2009. But I got all tangled up in words and couldn’t write a thing. Then I intended to post it at the end of October. I still couldn’t write it. I managed to write it after the October deadline.
But the challenge specified a four-sentence review, and I had hardly one, and I didn’t want to repeat it three times.
So there’s the background.
I must also add this disclaimer: I bought my copy of A Broom of One’s Own myself, with my own money. No one told, asked, or paid me to write this review. No one told, asked, or paid me to say I like the book. No one told, asked, or paid me to like it. No one offered me tickets to Rio or a week’s lodging in Venice, more’s the pity. I decided to read the book, to like it, and to write this review all by myself, at the invitation of Story Circle Book Review Challenge. Nobody paid them either. Amen.
Review of Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own
I like Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own: Words About Writing, Housecleaning & Life so much that it’s taken me over two months and two missed deadlines to untangle my thoughts and write this four-sentence review, an irony Peacock, author of two critically acclaimed novels, would no doubt address were I in one of her writing classes.
She would probably tell me that there is no perfect writing life; that her job as a part-time house cleaner, begun when full-time writing wouldn’t pay the bills, afforded time, solitude, and the “foundation of regular work” she needed; that engaging in physical labor allowed her unconscious mind to “kick into gear,” so she became not the writer but the “receiver” of her stories.
She’d probably say that writing is hard; that sitting at a desk doesn’t automatically bring brilliance; that writers have to work with what they have; that “if I don’t have the pages I hate I will never have the pages I love”; that there are a million “saner” things to do and a “million good reasons to quit” and that the only good reason to continue is, “This is what I want.”
So, having composed at least two dozen subordinated, coordinated, appositived, participial-phrase-stuffed first sentences and discarding them before completion; having practically memorized the text searching for the perfect quotation to end with; and having once again stayed awake into the night, racing another deadline well past the due date, I am completing this review—because I value Nancy Peacock’s advice; and because I love A Broom of One’s Own; and because I consider it the equal of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird; and because I want other readers to know about it; and because this is what I want.
I’ve posted this review before both here and elsewhere. I consider the reposting a service to writers. The book is absolutely invaluable, and all writers need to know about it.
I blog at Telling the Truth, Mainly. I write crime fiction–have published short stories and am working on a novel. My blog, however, doesn’t have much to do with crime. There I write about anything that comes along. I like to think it’s eclectic, but it’s really just a jumble.
I’ve just returned from the Writers’ Police Academy in Appleton, WI. The brainchild of retired cop, Lee Lofland, The Writers’ Police Academy (WPA) is a rare opportunity for writers to participate in the same hands-on training as the law enforcement officers, investigators, EMS, and firefighters. Attendees drive patrol cars on closed courses, conduct traffic stops, participate in explosive building entries, shoot firearms, and much more.
Lee Lofland is a veteran police investigator who began his law-enforcement career working as an officer in Virginia’s prison system. He later became a sheriff’s deputy, a patrol officer, and finally, he achieved the highly prized gold shield of detective. Along the way, Lofland gained a breadth of experience that’s unusual to find in the career of a single officer. Oh! And as part of the latest Writers Digest Books Howdunit series, he wrote Police Procedure and Investigation: A Guide for Writers.
He’s a cop who wants writers to “get the cop thing” right—and he created this phenomenal conference to make that happen.
Highlights for me (this was my 3rd WPA) started right off the bat with the first morning session. A drunken driver accident was staged, and the ensuing response acted out. Cops were first on the scene, followed quickly by fire trucks and EMT’s. (Real ones. The only actors were the two people “injured” in the accident. Umm, the dead victim was a life-size practice dummy…I’m pretty sure…) Triage, jaws of life, on-scene field sobriety tests—all of it. Then came the Life Flight helicopter. And an hour worth of Q & A with all the professionals. Awesome.
Next, I went to the Body Camera Session, which, if you pardon the pun, was an eye-opening experience. I learned that the body camera sees a whole lot more than the wearer can see. Two examples. The camera has a much larger field of vision than the human eye. Also, the camera has the ability to adjust its iris so that it can see in very dark conditions. Sometimes what we see on TV from the camera’s POV, the cop couldn’t see at all.
Other things I learned? The choreography used by SWAT teams to secure a room; that breed means everything in K9 dog selections; (from personal experience using virtual reality scenarios) that when threatened, a person’s stress reaction is to focus specifically on the threat. Sounds logical, but when my “gun” was pointed at the guy with a knife coming toward me, I never saw a different guy walking up to my side. I was completely focused on what I perceived was the immediate threat.
Boom. I’m dead.
Special shout out to Jason Weber, the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College Public Safety Training Coordinator. He recruited all the instructors, police officers, county sheriff officers, chiefs of police, municipal judges, and fire science instructors to be our teachers, as well as coordinating all the physical needs for our instruction.
And then there’s the fellow writers who attend WPA. We eat, travel, and learn together. The ability to be in the company of folks who understand the importance of research, the plotting, the writing, the marketing, the self-doubt, the exhilaration of putting a good scene on paper is overwhelming. I treasure these people, and I feel treasured by them—we are kindred spirits.
The conference ended with the 2022 WPA Guest of Honor, Robert Dugoni, the critically acclaimed New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and #1 Amazon bestselling author of the Tracy Crosswhite police series. Dugoni spoke to us about why we write. In my heart I felt a re-awakening of the passion for what I do. Thank you, Mr. Dugoni.
And thank you, Lee Lofland and all of your crew. I’ll be back next year at WPA to learn more!
You know those friends you haven’t seen in so long? The ones you really miss? And that feeling you get when you finally get to share company again? That’s what I’m feeling right now. We’ve been through some things together, seen some stuff, pulled through some tough times.
I should clarify that I’m talking about my imaginary friends.
Private investigator Jamie Rush, and her partner, Cookie Hinojosa, are back in Port Alene with a new case, and I’m thrilled to be back in their world. Deuce the wonder bulldog is still charming people wherever he goes (usually at the pub, pier, or beach), and Marty is keeping the drinks flowing at Hemingway’s. Erin’s booking business is hopping, and her clients are saltier than the Gulf Coast.
This new case, though? It’s going to change things in Port Alene forever.
It all started simply enough.
A small request from a family friend.
One Deadly Secret.
No Time to Lose.
PI Jamie Rush has her hands full with small-time skip-tracing and surveillance jobs in Port Alene, Texas. The work is steady, though she still struggles to make ends meet. But when her partner, Cookie, brings in a low-paying and potentially time-consuming case, Jamie takes it on out of loyalty.
Cookie’s childhood friend, Renata, needs to find her younger sister, Leah. As Jamie digs into Leah’s past, it becomes clear that the missing woman’s life was shrouded in secrets, the kind that could jeopardize those involved in the case.
To complicate matters, PI Alastair Finn has returned, and he’s willing to reclaim his town by any means necessary. Jamie has never been one to retreat, and Alastair enjoys a good fight. Sparks will fly.
A missing woman. Felonies. Finn’s return. Every twist reminds Jamie that she’s still an outsider in this town. Jamie must prove herself all over again, and the stakes have never been higher.
Pub Day for DEPTHS OF DECEIT is May 31,2022.
If you’d like to spend time with Jamie’s crew, you can pick up a copy for a special pre-order price here:https://amzn.to/3KvSUO
A perfect croissant may have hundreds of layers of dough + butter + dough + butter, made of a packet of dough enclosing a layer of butter, rolled out in a precise rectangle, folded, chilled, rolled, chilled (repeat until you have maybe 600 layers), rolled, then cut into squares which are rolled diagonally and baked in a perfectly hot oven until perfectly brown and the magic has happened. As the butter melts between the many layers, it creates steam which inflates the layers, creating not a single “loaf” of baked dough with a brown crust, but a perfect combination of crunch and tenderness: layers of crunchy brown butteriness, then the airy middle, still wafting yeasty buttery smells toward you. Bite. Let joy be unconfined. What’s your approach? Bite the end off? Peel off the outer layers, flake by triangular flake? Either way, you lay open the mystery of layers. https://www.mic.com/articles/180451/the-science-backed-reasons-why-croissants-always-taste-better-in-paris#:~:text=When%20it%20bakes%2C%20the%20butter,delicious%20flavor%20of%20the%20croissant.
When you bite into a croissant, crisp little layers flying everywhere, with the tastes of yeast, butter, magic, sorting themselves out on your tongue, do you too think of murder mysteries?
It’s the layers. Got to be. Oh, not just croissants. Think of mille feuilles… seven layer dip… your family’s best lasagna…baklava… chocolate mousse layer cake finished with butter cream frosting. Or, at the individual level, consider a perfect taco, precisely the way you like it, the perfect proportion of tortilla to filling to guacamole to sour cream to salsa to [supply your favorite ingredient here].
Layers take work. Think of seven-layer cake. Split the original cake layers, evenly, without bumps and tears. Apply filling. Stack without a disaster (such as uneven layers, sliding in wrong directions). Repeat, repeat, repeat. Carefully ice your beautiful cake. Let no one approach, much less jiggle or wiggle, your cake. Serve with care.
But layers, in the right proportions, create both variety and synthesis. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Back to your own favorite taco, a compilation of layers. When you decorate your taco to your own satisfaction, you bite into a creation that’s more delicious than any of its components.
A mystery requires characters, setting, plot. Each component requires detail. Characters, for instance: we want to know how the main characters look, some of what they think, whom they love. Maybe just a brushstroke to add what music they prefer, or hobbies, or food. Special tics that make them memorable? Of course. Give us what we need to remember each character. And writers are cagey. The cautious reader will wonder: is this new character critical to the plot, or just part of the setting? Is the kindly cashier at the village grocery just there to make the village feel safe and homey, or is he/she a witness to crime? The next victim? Or the criminal? But when a character demands too much page time, sometimes we readers hit the wall. We don’t need to know what the clerk at the village store is wearing. Stop it, we think. Get on with the story! Give us enough to fire our imaginations—we readers can and will supply more detail!
To digress: maybe this is imaginative work the reader does (without the author’s permission) is why it’s jarring when a favorite mystery we’ve read appears on television. If we’ve already imagined favorite characters, and the television versions don’t resemble what we now think of as their true selves, we’re faced with a difficult choice. Watch? or retain the original versions in our heads, rejecting the televised version? (This happened to me, but maybe not you, with the televised versions of Cormoran Strike and Robin. Thoughts?)
On the other hand, the WWI flashback at the beginning of the recent Death on the Nile (which is not in Agatha Christie’s original) adds to the character of detective Hercule Poirot—adds a new layer which enriches our understanding of not only his observational acuity, but his apparent emotional detachment. I now think of Agatha Christie’s creation in a more kindly light. Actually, I’ve become attached to Branagh’s version, whereas before I found him a little…tiresome.
Back to the question of how much detail is enough: the same warning holds for setting. Just right, please. English village? New York bar? Hill country town? We appreciate memorable details, but not a travelogue. We want enough detail, but not overkill, on characters and settings.
But then comes plot. Mystery readers are puzzle-solvers, clue-collectors, memory banks. They anticipate that—like the detective—they may traipse down the wrong path. Of course that means there’s more’s to learn, that they aren’t yet in possession of all the facts. More clues to come.
No one likes the dead artist. Wimsey can count six suspects––hence, five red herrings. Wimsey must winkle out the true killer. But oh, the alibis. Train schedules! Missing sailors! A stolen bicycle! The famous artist who’s gone missing, face wrapped in gauze, leaving a tight-lipped butler and a baffled maid who saw—well, no spoilers here either.
While clues point to the killer, red herrings baffle and divert the detective. But they can add layers of richness to a plot. Five Red Herrings would be less than a novella, only a short story, without the layers of red herrings which paint (excuse me) a vivid picture of this art colony—tension, distraction, jealousy, romance, hatred. Certainly the story would lack the puzzles demanded by mystery readers. Furthermore, red herrings affect our emotions. For example, we sympathize with Hugh Farren, the artist who, frustrated by his ever-so-prissy wife, hares off into the countryside, making a living by re-painting pub signs. We hope he’s not the killer, this man who sets up his easel outside a pub and explains to open-mouthed watching children how he’s making the pub sign funny on one side, scary on the other. It’s a great scene. Another layer to the mystery. And let’s face it, to persuade her readers to struggle with those complicated train schedules, Sayers has to keep us caring which artist is the killer.
The WWI flashback in Death on the Nile is neither a clue, nor a red herring. Instead, it offers us a layer of Poirot’s character that doesn’t solve the mystery, doesn’t identify the killer, but adds to our understanding of Poirot’s emotions, deepening, in a way, the impact of his solution of the mystery.
Niccolo’s mathematical and musical gifts, including his memory for Greek liturgy, came back to me as I listened to the sung service. Literature can bestow a gift that keeps on giving, a writer’s description of an event, a scene, that returns to the reader the smell of incense, the sound of voices, and the intensity of a moment imagined by the writer, but which becomes part of the reader’s own imagination. Dunnett’s scene isn’t integral to the plot, to the ultimate discovery at the end of the series of the murderer’s identity, but is a layer that adds to the protagonist’s character and the intensity of his psyche.
I just finished Book 8 of Mick Herron’s unputdownable series and am pawing the earth for the next. But I mention it because Slough House (the name of the building where those who flunk out of MI-5 headquarters wind up), though technically Herron’s setting, functions almost as a character. And my fussing about “not too much detail” above? Inapplicable. Herron embarks on oratorios of detail about Slough House, and because its decrepitude, its slovenliness, its lonesomeness, its outdatedness, so reflect (and infect) the struggles of the changing spies in the building, that I say, bring it on! Herron also does star turns with London weather and landscapes. His treatment of setting is masterful––creating layers of texture, smell, sight, emotion, that become integral to the story.
I’m working on Book 8 of my Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, so the “perfect croissant” of plot, setting and character occupies my waking moments. Alice, if you’ve met her, is a lawyer who by training and inclination wants every single fact. She hopes never to be blind-sided. She must decide whether fact A helps her defend her client, and whether her client needs a defense to fact B. She knows the compulsive joy of a new case—a new legal pad of notes, a new box of messy documents. She wants to plunge in, deciding what’s a clue, what’s a red herring. She knows that somewhere in the mess is a key fact, the fact that she knows instinctively will win the case for her client. She’s rooting through the layers, reminding many of us of a favorite poem. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/54897/the-layers Or a croissant.
Sounds like a murder mystery, right? Stay tuned.
Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series north of Dripping Springs, Texas, loosely supervised by three burros. She’s fascinated by human history and by how, uninvited, the past keeps crashing our parties. Her books are available in Kindle, paperback and on Audible, from Amazon, Ingram Spark, and at various independent bookstores. The latest, Ghost Daughter, has been named First Runnerup for Mystery in the 2022 Eric Hoffer Book Awards. https://smile.amazon.com/s?k=ghost+daughter&crid=VHN5P2IYJCLZ&sprefix=ghost+daughte%2Caps%2C151&ref=nb_sb_noss_2