Saturday, September 29, 2012

Time for a Makeover

Back in 2004, when I made my first forays into publishing digital books were a very minor part of the market. Eight years later that has changed significantly. Sometimes it takes me awhile to catch onto trends and, though I know I've been darn lucky selling digital books it sometimes seems that is in spite of my efforts instead of because of my efforts.

Recently on a writer's forum I participate in someone mentioned freshening up your book covers and I started thinking about that. I get a lot of compliments on my covers but many of them -- especially the older ones -- were designed with print media in mind instead of digital and how they would look in a thumbnail size on computer screens. So this week I decided to start "making over" some of my covers. Two of them required total overhauls. My two short stories about revenge Home-made Pie & Sausage / Killing Julie Morris had the world's most boring cover so I decided it was the first to be freshened up and this is the result:
Quite a change, isn't it? The best thing is within 24 hours of uploading the new cover I saw a nice uptick in sales!

The other cover that needed an overhaul was Arthur's Story: A Love Story. I liked the old cover but it was sort of dull. Also, as I am getting to be better known, I felt my name needed to be more prominent. I wanted to keep the World War I photo because that anchors the story in time but I wanted a softer, more inviting look and this is what I settled on:
I think it is much prettier and more "inviting."

With those two redesigned I thought it might be a good idea to freshen up some of my other covers. I didn't want to mess with the overall design, just give them a little refreshing to make them more attractive in small sizes. I started with my best-seller, The Crazy Old Lady in the Attic:
As you can see, it's a little brighter, my name is at the top (I have struggled with this - I find it hard to emphasize my name) and it's somewhat brighter. Then I moved on to my second best seller, Ghosts of a Beach Town in Winter (which has a sequel coming soon.)
I'm very pleased with this one!!! So now they are all uploaded to Amazon, B&N (the ones that they sell) and my web sites. I'm working on a few others and will post them next week but this is fun and a good thing to so while thinking about the works in progress.

Thanks for reading. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Vampires, Vampires, Everyone Wants Vampires

I remember the first time I saw the movie “Dracula” with Bela Lugosi. It was on Chilly Billy Cardille's Chiller Theater which was broadcast every Saturday night on WIIC-TV from Pittsburgh. I don't know how old I was but I know that it scared the living daylights out of me which is probably why I never wanted to have anything more to do with vampires. I was thinking about this because there was an article in Smithsonian Magazine recently about “real-life” vampires here in New England.
Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt as Louis and Lestat
I realize vampires are all the rage these days and I've been a little fascinated by the phenomenon. Someone joke recently that he was working on a series of books called 50 Shades of Vampires with Dragon Tattoos. He plans on making a fortune and he just might. The second vampire in my life after the horrible Lugosi Dracula was Anne Rice's sexy Lestat and, while he was a big improvement, I never did understand the vampire rage. These days vampires have become sparkly and glittery and are very hot and sexy and while few are as hot and sexy at Gerard Butler, there are plenty of fans in love with Edward Cullen from the Twilight series and all the other vampire clones.
Robert Pattinson as Edward in the Twilight series

The only Dracula I ever really loved was the one played by Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula. I thought he was the perfect combination of sexy and terrifying.
Bela Lugosi, the original Dracula

Smithsonian Magazine's “vampires” are mostly the products of superstition in terrible times when masses of people died in plagues of various sorts and superstitious people, seeking to understand why these terrible things befell them, concocted stories that made them feel less helpless. If they could just find the monster who had brought these terrors upon them and wipe it out, disease would go away and harmony would be restored. It never worked.
Gerard Butler's uber-sexy Dracula

But what is the allure today? Well, today's vampires are quite different from the vampires of old. Today's vampires are sexy and controlling and, once they possess you with that stupefyingly sensual vampire kiss, you have no will of your own. I'm starting to think this is what it is all about really. A lot of people seem to be suffering from a two-sided burden these days – on the one hand they feel like they have to be responsible for managing everything, on the other hand they feel powerless to effect any real change in a world that seems beyond their control. I see this a lot, especially in a lot of young women who are trying to raise a family, hold a job, balance a budget, and maintain a relationship. Yet, they feel like everything they do is ultimately just a balancing act and that one strong breeze could blow the whole thing down. Wouldn't it be lovely to have some handsome, sexy, delicious man who would live forever and knows exactly what to do at all times take all those responsibilities away from them?
Gary Oldman's elegant Dracula

We live in confusing times. The current political scene is so fraught with lies, distortions, and misinformation that many people don't know what to believe. We have always thought of our country as being one that others admire and that we are who others want to be but now we see how many people hate us and want to see us destroyed. Nothing we once believed seems real. Escaping into fantasy is so tempting.

I know I'll never write a vampire story because I don't really understand the whole vampire-archetype. But I am intrigued by it, I am continually intrigued by the allure. Cultural trends always tell us a lot about our deep fears and unconscious desires so vampires are trying to tell us something. I think we are tired and want someone else to take the reins and just let us drift in blissful release.

Thanks for reading.  

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Ambiguous Endings: Books That Make You Think

Spoiler Alert: This post discusses two popular books, Defending Jacob and Gone Girl. While it is not my intention to reveal too much about their endings, if you have not read them, you might want to skip this.

A long time ago a writing teacher told me to trust my readers' intelligence. He said that not every end has to be tied up and not every thing has to be neat and tidy as long as there is a sense of satisfaction at the end of the book. I have thought of this often both as a writer and as a reader. There have been times when reader reviews of some of my work find the ending too ambiguous – of course there have also been a good many times when reader reviews loved those very same endings. Recently I finished two very popular, mainstream novels that both had ambiguous endings but that left me with very, very different reactions.

Both of the books had at their core a husband and wife relationship. In Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl the couple is Nick and Amy, they have been married for awhile but do not have children but are hoping to have one. In William Landay's Defending Jacob the couple is Andy and Laurie who are the parents of 14 year old Jacob. Both books are very well written with plenty of suspense and lots of twists and turns. Both of them concern the commission of a crime and the legal proceedings and investigation around those crimes. Both have endings that leave you guessing, and both of them haunted me for long time – but for very different reasons – one good, on less so.

In Defending Jacob, attorney Andy Barber is a good man who has lived his life trying to be an honorable and decent husband, father and lawyer and has kept secret that he is descended from a line of very disreputable fore-fathers. His own father is serving a life-sentence in prison for murder, a fact which he had always kept from his wife and son. When a classmate of Jacob's is found murdered in a nearby park, Jacob is suspected and, as the story unfolds and as secrets are revealed, we find out that Any isn't the only one with secrets. Jacob has long been the victim of bullying and he has some vary unsavory habits of his own.

In Gone Girl Nick and Amy are a successful young couple who long to have a baby but, on the their fifth anniversary, Amy mysteriously disappears and Nick is quickly suspected of foul play. The story unfolds through a series of diary entries that present Amy as a sweet, trusting, and loving wife while Nick is a self-absorbed womanizer who was cheating on her. This story moves at a much faster pace than does Defending Jacob and had me nearly breathless at times.

Now, here's the thing. As we begin to learn more about Amy and she becomes increasingly complex and devious, while Nick becomes increasingly dislikable and devious. As we learn more about Andy and Laurie, Andy has some problems (not the least of which is his murderer father) but his loyalty to his son and his wife seems a bit naïve but admirable, while Laurie's inability to trust her son and to be overly trusting of the psychiatrist who is evaluating him becomes more annoying. I had a hard time liking Laurie after her first interview with the psychiatrist in which she seemed nearly hell-bent on proving that Jacob was a psychopath. I believed her – I just didn't like her.

I won't go in to the details but both books end with the couples fully aware of the weaknesses of one another and their relationships forever altered by what has happened. In the case of Andy and Laurie, while I was disturbed by the implications and possibilities, I understood why what happens happened. The entire story built to the ending and it could not have ended any other way. With Nick and Amy I felt quite the opposite. While I didn't like either of them and felt they probably deserved each other I thought the ending was a cop-out – like the author had painted herself into such a clever corner that she couldn't figure out how to get out of it so she just quit writing.

What's the difference? For me I felt it was all in the build-up. Plotting is tricky and a skill that takes a lot of finesse. In Defending Jacob everything in the plot built toward an inevitable result. In Gone Girl everything in the plot seemed to build toward an inevitable result that never materialized. Of course these are just my opinions but I was fascinated with how different I felt toward both ambiguous endings. I recommend both books. I gave both of them good reviews . But I was left feeling that, while I would trust Landry enough to want to read more of his books, I did not feel that way about Flynn.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Holiday Boutique Knitting

Mary Jean Daigneault's book Holiday Boutique Knitting: Inspired Home Décor and Gifts to Knit is packed with clever little projects to knit for the holidays many of which can be knit in a few hours. The books is beautifully designed and loaded with tips and tricks for some very charming projects. Her instructions are clear and easy to follow. I was particularly impressed by the variety of projects.

This happy little couple are Mr. and Mrs. Snow. Knit from fuzzy fur yarn they each have their own accessories. A hat vest and bow tie for him, a scarf and hat for her -- and don't forget their carrot noses.
Other gifts in his section include a knitted angel, a tree skirt, and a very cute Advent Calendar. I found her Christmas stockings particularly pretty. There are two different styles, the Vine Style and the Ribbed Style and they come with tips on design and balance.
In the Home Décor section she offers pillows, towel buddies and this Rose Candle piece.
 Her section on Wreaths is particularly creative. There are a number of them but my favorite is the Cable Wreath. She also has wreaths made of pom-poms and fuzzy fur yarn.
And, of course, there are some festive accessories for the holidays. Who could resist these?
And a beautiful, snuggly wrap.
All in all this is a charming collection with patterns from the very simple to the fairly complex. Get this book, get out your knitting needles and get to work.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Guest Blog by Ray on The Elk County Rifles Company G of the 42nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry

Our good buddy Ray Beimel in Pennsylvania recently attended the dedication of a monument to "The Bucktails," a Civil War regiment formed by Thomas Leiper Kane (of Kinzua Viaduct fame.) Ray sends this. 
The Elk County Rifles
Company G of the
42nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry
13th Pennsylvania Reserves
1st Pennsylvania Rifles
The Bucktails
This regiment had many names but were best known at the Bucktails. Thomas L. Kane recruited the core of the regiment from the heavily wooded counties of north central Pennsylvania and they adopted the tail of a white tailed deer as their regimental sym-bol. Most of them were hardy woodsmen who could do their gro-cery shopping with a rifle. Three companies came from this area. They were a rough and ready crew who built their own rafts to float downriver from Driftwood on their way to Camp Curtin at Harrisburg. While training there, they were forbidden from enter-ing the city limits. We can only imagine what they did to earn that proscription from the city’s mayor.

The Bucktails became part of the famed Pennsylvania Reserve Division which was a part of the Army of the Potomac. They fought in nearly every engagement of that hard luck army from 1861 to June of 1864. Whenever the Confederates encountered the Bucktails, they knew they were in for a fight. This isn’t the place to give the whole history of the regiment. Rather this is the story of how Elk County honored the local men who served in this famous unit.

In April 2010 Judge Rich Masson and I gave a presentation about St. Marys and the Civil War. In talking afterward Rich thought that it was a shame that other counties had Bucktail monu-ments but Elk County didn’t. The Mount Zion Historical Society picked this up and ran with it, rais-ing many thousand dollars and designing the fine monument you will see pictured later. Jim Burke, the president of the MZHS has to be given much credit for driving this but he had much help from as dedicated a group of volunteers as I have ever encountered. My part is all this was very small, nearly insignificant. I was asked to be the Master of Ceremonies for the dedication and unveiling of the monument. The site for the event was the lovely little park built by the Mount Zion Historical Soci-ety. There were re-enactors, musicians, displays, demonstrations, and other booths for visitors to enjoy before the actual ceremony.

 Dennis Murray, blacksmith, re-enactor, and award winning story teller,
 demonstrates and entertains.

 Greg Hernandez, the fifer who added so much to the ceremony
shows a young fellow a Civil War sword.

 The St. Marys Area Middle School Civil War Club members in
 period dress doing needlework from the era.

 Charlie Cheatle on the guitar and Greg Hernandez on the fife entertained the crowd
with melodies from the Civil War before the ceremony started.

 This display showed Civil War medical instru-ments, drugs, and devices. They also had actually bullets that were extracted from the wounded. Ghoulish yes, but it’s important that we know how men suffered, that war was not glory.

Of course, in these parts, the guns were getting more interest than probes and scalpels. The Bucktails were one of the few Union infantry units that carried breechloaders. This meant they could reload while lying on the ground. The troops armed with muzzleloaders could only load easily while they were standing upright. Thus the Buck-tails could fight more like modern soldiers. They were often out in front as skirmishers because of their breech-loaders and their experience as woodsmen.

At the re-enactor campsite visitors could see how the Buck-tails lived while in camp. Of course, on the march, accommo-dations were not nearly so comfortable. Sometimes they went months between baths.

 The girls from the Civil War club danced to the tunes from the guitar picker and fifer before the dedi-cation ceremony started.

 Right at one o’clock I called the proceedings to order and asked everyone to find a comfortable seat. The colors were raised by the Weedville American Legion color guard under the direction of Jim McCluskey. Then they were lowered to half mast in honor of the passing of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.

 Then the uniformed re-enactors marched in with the fifer playing marching tunes. They made a guard of honor around the veiled monument while the various speakers addressed the crowd.

 An invocation by Denny Shaffner followed. He is the president of the Clearfield Historical Society. Many of the area Historical Societies made contributions to the monument fund and thus were invited to participate. Reverend Luther Nelson Junior of the Weedville Wesleyan Church gave a fine a cappella rendition of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Jim Burke made some welcoming remarks and then several speakers addressed the group on various things connected with the monument project and the Bucktails. These included Thomas Aaron of the Curwensville-Pike Township Historical Soci-ety and Sandra Baker of the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. Eileen McKean of the McKean County Historical Society spoke about Colonel Kane’s wife. Robert Nay who wrote the book The Elk County Rifles spoke of three members of Company G, including his relative who is buried in the nearby Mount Zion Cemetery. Judge Masson spoke about the ori-gins of the project and how it was such a good experience to work with that committee.

 The keynote speaker was JD Petruzzi, author of the definitive guide to the Gettysburg battlefield. His talk ended a reference to the better angels of our nature that Lincoln spoke of. It was a very appropriate address and was well received. Once he finished it was time for the unveiling, done by the re-enactor group with the proper ceremony.
TAPS was played by a young Boy Scout named Sam Nicklas while the guard presented arms. The ending of the program was fifer Greg Hernandez playing a medley of appropriate hymns. Afterwards the re-enactor group posed in front of the monument along with their Boy Scout bugler.
On the left side of a the monument is a roster of every man who served in Company G. The heroic figure in the middle is Captain Thomas Winslow, the highest ranking man from Company G. And on the right side is a list of battles and en-gagements in which the Elk County Rifles took part. The reverse side of the monument has a short history of the Regi-ment. The whole thing is make from polished black granite. I think the committee did very well with the design.

So nearly 150 years after the Bucktails were fighting and dying in the Civil War, Company G, the Elk County Rifles, finally have a proper monument to their service in the cause of preserving the Union and making men free. I was very pleased and proud to have been a small part of this wonderful project. I cannot say enough good words about the Mount Zion Historical Society and all the work they did to make this happen.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


Okay, that was a little deceptive. But today is the official release date of The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall: Volume 2, four more stories in the Secrets of Marienstadt collection. To celebrate that The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall: Volume 1 is free today, tomorrow and Monday (September 15-17.) 

Like the stories in Volume 1, the three stories in Volume 2 are a mixture of comedy, tragedy, folklore, colorful characters and good food! Speaking as the author, I'm always attracted to characters in my stories and this collection has two of the most scrumptious men I've ever created. Oliver Eberstark, the big, brawny woodsman, is the strong, silent type but gorgeous, sexy Chief of Police Henry Winter is a walking fantasy. And both of them have secrets. Of course, I have some lovely ladies in the collection as well. Quilt shop owner Gretchen Fritz is beautiful, well-bred, creative and irresistible. Lola Eckert, who owns Lola's Strudel Shop, is bashful but lovely and oblivious to the fact that men adore her.

This is the description from Amazon for Volume 2:
(Americana / drama / humor - 53k words) Volume 2 contains four complete stories from "The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall: Secrets of Marienstadt" that continue tales set in the fictional town of Marienstadt, a Pennsylvania Dutch community in the Allegheny Highlands. Featuring a rotating cast of characters including Oliver, Gretchen, and Father Nick from The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood. Other characters include the devastatingly handsome Chief of Police, Henry Werner; Lola Eckert, a beautiful but bashful strudel artist; Candy Dippold, the shopkeeper with a guillotine; Peeper Baumgratz, who knows the woods and the dangers they hold; Stella Loeffler, whose Bearded Lady logo hides an ancient mystery; Ezra Winter, son of a notorious moonshiner, and many more.

Story 4 - The Confession of Genny Franck
When Father Nicholas Bauer is called to hear the Confession of 103-year old Genny Franck she tells him she first wants him to hear her story. She tells him about her family's escape from the Old Country, about meeting her beautiful husband, the musician Daniel Franck, and how his death at a young age left her with terrible choices to make. 

Story 5 - Drugs, Alcohol, Bacon, Firearms
A black bear has taken up residence in Fischer's Mill, an old grist mill that was a notorious moonshine operation during Prohibition. While checking on the bear Henry Werner and Oliver Eberstark begin to suspect someone is running a meth lab and using the mill for drug deals. Both the drug dealer and the bear have got to be found and dealt with.

Story 6 - The Day The Viaduct Blew Down
While sorting through boxes of old photographs donated to the Marienstadt Historical Society Candy Dippold makes a strange discovery, a photograph from the 1930s of a barnstorming pilot flying a biplane under the famous Kinzua Viaduct. He is determined to find out who the mystery flier is and how he did this stunt. Meanwhile Chief of Police Henry Werner has his hands full with complaints about the guillotine Candy just built and a bunch of kids who have turned an old washing machine into a tank. 

Story 7 - Of Beautiful Strangers, Woodchucks, and Bearded Ladies
Crazy things are going on in Marienstadt! A writer from a NY City magazine is in town interviewing the local food businesses for an article, a group of people are trying to raise money to buy back a 17-foot tall fiberglass woodchuck, a portfolio of photographs of a mysterious bearded lady is discovered in Marshall's Stationary Store's basement, and heart-throb Henry Werner has finally met his match.

Enjoy! And, as always, thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ghosts of Halcyon Beach: Books I've Yet To Write

Halcyon Beach is full of ghosts because shady stuff has gone on there for over one hundred years. And we all know that shady stuff and dastardly deeds lead to misdeeds that result in ghosts. Everybody loved “The Geezers” in Ghosts of a Beach Town in Winter and a lot of people loved the whole town of Halcyon Beach, Massachusetts so it was an easy decision to make to set another story there. Actually, I have several stories in mind and, because I love making covers even if I never get to use them, I decided to make covers for the stories I have in mind. My favorite of the lot is this one:

Ghost of a Dancer by Moonlight is a ghost story that has been bouncing around in my head for a long time and, when I hit upon the idea of writing more Halcyon Beach stories, it seemed like a perfect setting for it. I haven't started to write the actual story yet but I've done a lot of writing about what the story is about.

I was having a very hard time coming up with a title for the second story in the series so I asked some people from an online group I belong to what they thought. It is about a woman artist who lives in the lighthouse keeper's cottage of a lighthouse where a famous murder/suicide took place many years ago. Gina Black (author of The Raven's Revenge) suggested Ghosts of a Lighthouse in Autumn to go with Ghosts of a Beach Town in Winter and I loved it. I am hopeful that this book will be ready for this Halloween.

This is the cover for Ghosts of a Beach Town in Winter and I think it conveys the dark, moodiness of the story.

I have no idea when I will ever have time to write these books and get them polished up – I have so many irons in the fire right now but busy is good. And the season of ghostly carryings-on is approaching so there will be more to come.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

“Who's Got My Golden Arm?”: Telling Ghost Stories

During my recent visit to Pennsylvania my sister Lisa reminded me of a ghost story that I used to tell that she said always scared her. It is called The Golden Arm and it is an old classic with many, many variations. Probably the most well known version of the story was written by Mark Twain in his essay “How ToTell A Story” and this is perfect because the effectiveness of the story is based on how it is told. It has no impact whatsoever if it is merely read. You have to tell the story, building suspense as the ghost advances, and then the abrupt and accusatory conclusion that always makes kids jump.

Of course telling a ghost story around a campfire is very different from writing a ghost story. I am of the opinion that many readers are just not predisposed to accepting ghosts as part of a story and so they will be disappointed no matter how well the story is written. But it is fun to write for those who like a good ghostly tale. I, personally, love ghost stories and am always trying to write a better one.

My two favorite ghost stories are Shirley Jackson's “The Haunting of Hill House” and Peter Straub's “Ghost Story.” Both of them send shivers down my spine no matter how often I read them.

I suppose there are a lot of ways to tell a ghost story but for me the most interesting has always been the stranger who behaves in a mysterious and perplexing manner until, after the story is well-along the reader realizes, “oh my gosh, this person is a ghost!” When I wrote Ghosts of a Beach Town in Winter that was what I was focused on, telling a sad tale about an unhappy person who becomes enchanted by someone and then realizes, “oh my gosh!”

Writing that ghost story, which I released for Halloween last year was so much fun that I decided to go back to Halcyon Beach, the seaside amusement park that is closed up for the winter, and spin another ghostly tale. It is coming along nicely and I might just have it ready for Halloween.

I've written one other ghost story which is part of The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall: Volume 3 which I hope to have ready by the beginning of November. It is a story based on an old legend that I grew up with. The two people who have read it said they got chills so I'm looking forward to other reactions.

What is it about ghost stories? What is it about scary stuff? There's something so delicious about being scared. I remember going on ghost walks when I was a kid . The first one I ever went on was when I was at a summer Girl Scout Camp, Camp A-Da-Hi, near where I grew up. The Scout leaders lead is through the woods at night with lanterns and flashlights. There were strange things hanging from the trees and a popping out of the woods. I remember being so scared my knees shook. We ended up around a campfire in a big field in the woods where we roasted marshmallows and listened to stories. I don't think we slept much that night.

So today I am working on another Halcyon Beach ghost story. The Geezers are gathered in the Pub talking to Fleur, a young artist who is wintering in the cottage attached to Halcyon Beach's lighthouse. She has fallen madly in love with a fisherman one of the Geezers introduced her to but strange things are happening and the figure of a mysterious woman keeps appearing in her paintings. I have to get back to work writing because I'm dying to know what happens.

Thanks for reading.  

Monday, September 10, 2012

Mail Pouch Tobacco: Treat Yourself To The Best

Today on a Facebook Group someone mentioned the old Burma-Shave signs and the Mail Pouch Tobacco Barns. I vaguely remember the Burma Shave ones but I've been photographing Mail Pouch Tobacco barns for years. On a recent trip to Pennsylvania  I spotted two I had never seen before. One was outside of Olean, New York and is in pretty bad shape. 

The other is on Route 6 near Coudersport and has been well taken care of.
I remember that there were three of them in the St. Marys area when I was a kid. One was on the highway leading to Pennfield. I used a picture of it in my cookbook, Fry Bacon. Add Onions:
The other two were off of Boot Jack Hill between Kersey and Ridgway:

Mail Pouch Tobacco barns were first painted in 1890 as an advertisement for - what else? - Mail Pouch Tobacco. Farmers were paid a dollar a year for the advertising space plus they got their barn re-painted every 2-3 years for free. In 1965 when the Highway Beautification Act was enacted to control the clutter of advertising along the country's interstates, Mail Pouch barns were exempted because they were considered historic landmarks.

I still get excited when I spot one and have to stop to photograph it -- I just can't help myself. Most of them are long gone and of those that remain a few are well-maintained but most are falling apart:
One year I made a quilt for my Dad for Christmas. My sister Anne took it home after Dad died and she still has it. I've been thinking I'd like to make another one one of these days.
The one below is also in the cookbook and I don't remember where I took it:
They're little bits of history with a charm that never fails to make me smile.

Thanks for reading and Treat Yourself to the Best.

Friday, September 07, 2012

You Can't Go Home Again

That was the name of Thomas Wolfe's posthumously published novel about a novelist who writes a book with many references to his hometown and incurs the wrath of town's residents. Of course every writer puts bits and pieces of their past in everything they write. One of my sisters told me she can't read my stories because she keeps trying to figure out where I got the various ideas/characters/references from. She apparently doesn't believe me when I tell her they come from Storyworld, the parallel universe in which characters live while searching for a writer to write about them.

I did go “home” again in August That is I went to my home town for a few days, saw some family, and a couple of old friends. It was a lovely time and I took a little time one afternoon and drove around town. Some things were very different and some things have not changed a bit. The thing I was happiest about was how beautiful two of the places that shaped my life – and fired my imagination – were still.

The house above is 327 Chestnut Street where my Uncle Tom Valentine lived all his life until he died a few months ago at the age of eighty-nine. I lived the first six years of my life in that house and it was recently purchased by a couple who are in the process of fixing it up. I'm so happy that it was purchased by people who will love it. I cannot tell you how many hours I spent on that porch or in the back yard or in the apple tree beside it reading books and just daydreaming.

One of the best things about that house was the alley in back of it. It was a wonderful, narrow little alley, sheltered by trees and bordered on both sides by the backs of garages, and fences covered with greenery, and gardens. When we were little my brother and I used to play in that alley. I remember finding a little cement bird in the weeds one time. Probably a lost ornament from some long-ago birdbath or garden ornament. The alley lead to the park below and many times my mother and I would walk down that alley so Jack and I could play. It was a perfect park with swings and slides and huge sandboxes.

I was pleased to see that the park is still in great shape and seems to be popular. Those big stone pillars marked all the entrances to the park. Years ago they had round big round lamps on top of them. I remember that when I was little policemen still “walked a beat” back then. I can remember standing up in bed at night looking out the window until I saw a policeman walk up our street under the street lamp.

So, though you can't go home again, you can still remember, And sometimes there is a lot more stuff lurking in your memory than you thought. You see an old, familiar place and the memories come flooding back. … so you gather the up and keep them until someone from Storyworld has an idea of how to use them.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Four Samples from "The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall: Volume 2"

On September 15th the second volume of stories from my Secrets of Marienstadt collection will be available for Kindle. The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall: Volume 2 contains four stories, one tragic, some funny, all rich in history, and Pennsylvania Dutch atmosphere. Volume 1 is currently available from Amazon and Volume 3 will be out in November. A paperback containing all 11 stories is scheduled for October. Here are selections from each of the stories in Volume 2. Enjoy!

from The Confession of Genny Franck
It was a lovely September evening – I hadn't missed a dance all summer – and the music was better than it ever had been. Whenever Daniel played it seemed people danced more joyfully. At least that's what I thought. Though I danced every dance with any boy who asked me I had a hard time taking my eyes off Daniel. How can I explain this so it makes sense? I didn't know what was happening to me. All I knew about sex was what I saw the chickens and the dogs doing. It held no interest for me. But when I watched Daniel I felt the way I did when I saw the sky all brilliant in rose and gold and violet at sunset, only a hundred times more. It made me think of the first day in springtime when you smelled lilacs or when I was working in our garden and a breeze blew and lifted my hair off my neck. Looking at Daniel felt like those things magnified. It was an incredible mystery to me.
When the musicians took a break that night, I walked down to get a cup of Mr. Zweig's lemonade. There were strings of lights between the trees but outside the circle of lights everything was dark. That's when I heard his first words to me.
You sure love to dance,” he said.
I turned toward the voice and my stomach got all fluttery and fizzy inside. He was leaning back against a tree trunk smoking a cigarette. He wore a fedora-type hat pulled down low over his forehead but even before I saw his face I knew it was him. My stomach knew first and then the rest of me did.
I'd rather dance than anything,” I said.
He grinned and even in the dark his teeth flashed brilliant white. “How old are you?”
Seventeen,” I lied. I would be in October.
Seventeen, huh?” He took a long drag on his cigarette. “Want a smoke?” he asked.
I'd never smoked a cigarette but I would have done anything that gave me an excuse to stay there with him.
Sure,” I said. “Thanks.”
He took one from his shirt pocket and held it out to me. “Have you ever smoked before?”
Of course,” I lied.
I raised the cigarette to my lips and he struck a match and held it out for me. I looked at him and then cupped my hand around his as I leaned the cigarette into the flame. I'd seen other women do that and I thought it looked very sophisticated. It might have worked if I hadn't started coughing the minute I drew in the smoke.
Easy, easy,” he said shaking out the match and patting my back. “You're quite the smoker, all right.” He laughed.
I just did it too fast,” I gasped and he chuckled again. “How old are you?” I asked.
Twenty-two,” he said. “Too old for you.”
Oh, I don't think so,” I said. My second draw on the cigarette was more successful and I managed to blow out a stream of smoke turning my head to the side. “I dance with guys much older than you all the time. Some of the best dancers are guys my Papa's age.”
Dancing?” he said. “Is that what we're talking about, dancing?”
What else is there?” I said. I thought that was pretty clever of me.
He was looking down at me with a smile that made me flutter all over. “Well, in that case,” he said, “I guess it's okay for me to ask you for a dance.” We could hear the musicians beginning to tune up. “Here,” he said, “give me that.” He took the cigarette from between my lips and his fingers brushed them lightly as he did so. “You're too young to smoke.”
He put his hand on my back and led me toward the pavilion.

from Drugs, Alcohol, Bacon, Firearms
Fischer's Mill had been built in the early 1860s as a grist mill to serve the growing farm community of Marienstadt. A dam upstream on Pistner's Run powered the water wheel that turned the millstone inside. The mill had its own railroad siding where boxcars carrying grain could be parked while buckwheat, corn, rye, and wheat were unloaded and ground. By the turn of the century the mill was so busy that a steam engine was installed to increase productivity. The Fischers added attached buildings out of which they sold feed and grain as well as building supplies such as sand and cement. For close to a century Fischer's Mill was an important part of Marienstadt but in recent decades it had deteriorated badly and was now both an eyesore and a hazard. If a bear had taken up residence there, he was a bear with very low standards, Henry thought.
The truck lurched and jerked as Henry drove cautiously down the lane steering to avoid the worst of the potholes. Though it was an early May morning the air was cold. As the road widened he saw a large gray Ram truck parked close to the edge of the lot where the bank fell off into Pistner's Run. Oliver Eberstark stood beside it, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his down vest looking off down the creek.
Oliver.” Henry parked beside his truck and got out.
Checking up on the bear?” Oliver turned toward him. In the dull light his pale blue eyes were the color of the mist rising up from the water.
Is there really a bear? I wasn't sure what to expect. The kids that told me about it were pretty excited.”
Oliver shook his head. “I chased them out of here, the little turds. More curiosity than brains. One of them went inside the building looking for the bear.” Oliver turned toward Henry. “Whoever owns this property needs to tear that monstrosity down.”
Have you seen a bear?” Henry noticed that Oliver had a rifle lying across the seat in the cab of his truck.
Yeah, he took off though.” He nodded in the direction of the creek. “I've seen that bear before. He's a big one and I think there's something wrong with him. I don't like the way he's acting.”
Henry looked down the creek but the bear was well out of sight. “What do you think is wrong? Do bears get rabies or anything like that?”
Oliver raked his fingers through his beard. “Rabies is rare but this one could be wounded and in pain. A four hundred pound black bear in a lot of pain is not a good thing. I'll give the Game Commissioner a call. Back when I worked for the Forestry Service up in Potter County we had a bad situation with a bear that had gotten into a fight with something, a dog or a wolf, I don't know, but she was pretty torn up. I had to put her down because she was half out of her mind with pain by the time I tracked her down.”
Poor thing.” Henry often wished Oliver would talk more about his years as a forest ranger. He wished Oliver would talk more about anything. He was one of the most interesting men in Marienstadt but he kept to himself and seemed to prefer that.
Yeah, listen I think you might have a bigger problem than a bear on your hands. Come take a look at what I found.” He gestured with one shoulder and Henry followed him to where one of the wooden doors into the mill's main housing was broken open.
It was dark and filthy inside with piles of junk and odds and ends of machinery stacked everywhere. Oliver bent down, picked something up off the floor and handed it to Henry.
These are all over the place.” It was the broken end of a glass light bulb. A straw was stuck through the opening and held in place with duct tape. He slid aside a panel propped against the doorway to another room. “Take a look at this.”
Henry stepped inside. There was a pile of black plastic trash bags that had been torn open, their contents spilled all over.
I don't like this,” he mumbled.
Neither did I.” Oliver hunkered down and, picking up a stick, poked through the trash. “I counted thirty bags and there's more underneath.”
Hundreds of empty paper packages of cold tablets, empty boxes of household matches, discarded metal cans of denatured alcohol, drain cleaner, and acetone, as well as empty jugs of rock salt and cat litter spilled out of the broken bags.
Somebody's making methamphetamine.” Henry stood staring down at it.
Oliver nodded. “That would be my guess.”

from The Day the Viaduct Blew Down
The very existence of the Kinzua Viaduct was something of a marvel all by itself. Candy supposed that people who lived in close proximity to amazing things were the most likely to take them for granted. It wasn't until that terrible day in 2003 when three tornadoes of incredible force shrieked through the tunnel formed by the Kinzua Gorge and collided with the old viaduct, sending eleven of its twenty towers crashing to the forest floor that he, and thousands of others, realized how much they had taken it for granted. When he heard the news he was so stunned, so unable to believe it, that he and Eunice drove up to Mount Jewett, took the familiar roads into the park, got out of their car, and walked down to the overlook. It was a dark, mist-shrouded evening. The hills were saturated from the departing storm. Rain water dripped from leaves and fog rose, gray and shifting, almost as though it was so saddened by what had happened that it wanted to drift over everything and hide the terrible sight from human eyes.
Thousands of trees were torn up by their roots and lay smashed through the entire valley. The Kinzua Creek that meandered and sparkled most days was sluggish and swollen, burdened with sodden leaves and branches. And there on the floor of the gorge lay the towers. Many had fallen neatly in line and looked as though all they needed was for someone to pull them upright, pat them into place, and say, “There now you're all better again.”
The nine towers that remained on either side of the valley looked as they always had except for where the next one should have been. The iron rails, on which steam locomotives had once carried coal and lumber and tourists, hung twisted and curled under like the ribbons on a present that had been carelessly ripped open. Candy, like many of his fellow mourners, stood speechless, tears running down his face.
Marienstadt had its own unique connection to the viaduct. The man who first conceived the idea of building it, Thomas Leiper Kane, was a Philadelphia lawyer who distinguished himself during the Civil War by forming the famous Bucktail Regiment of Sharpshooters, including the Elk County Rifles, complete with men from Marienstadt. They fought in the Shenandoah Valley and at Gettysburg where their colonel was killed when he and four other soldiers tried to capture an entire Confederate regiment. It wasn't until after the Civil War that Kane became interested in the land around Marienstadt. By the 1880s he was the president of the New York, Lake Erie and Western Railroad and he had a mission – to bring coal from the coal fields that surrounded Marienstadt across the Kinzua Valley to northern Pennsylvania where it could be loaded onto barges in Lake Erie and shipped throughout the country. There were, Kane discovered, two ways for trains to get from towns like Marienstadt to towns like Bradford – a long, meandering route requiring eight miles of track through rugged terrain. Or they could go straight across the Kinzua Gorge from the top of one hill to the top of the next. It was little more than half a mile but that half mile was three hundred feet up in the air. Candy marveled at the audacity of a mind that could look at that valley and think, “I need a bridge up there that trains can run across.”
At the time it was built the viaduct was the tallest train track in the world and was dubbed The Eighth Wonder of the World. It was so successful, and so useful, that it was dismantled and rebuilt in 1900 out of stronger steel in order to support bigger trains and heavier loads. It remained in service until 1959. The architect who built the bridge, Octave Chanute, was said to have commented that the rebuilt structure would last for a century. It exceeded his prediction by three years.

from Of Beautiful Strangers, Woodchucks, and Bearded Ladies.
On her way back to The Calico Cuckoo from the meeting at Mulligan Wolfe's store, Gretchen stopped at Bearded Lady Hometown Treats. Lettie waved to her from the garden as she got out of her station wagon and Stella called hello from the store's doorway.
Hi,” Gretchen said. “How did your interview with the lady from New York go?”
Good.” Stella held the door for her. “She seems like a very nice young woman. I think this is a whole new world to her.”
I think so, too. We just had a meeting with some of the people working on Father Nick's cookbook. I think she wasn't quite prepared to find so many people with so much interest in food. When I left she was going with Mulligan to take Kuni home so he could show her the herb garden he made and then they were going back to his place to tour his gardens. From the way she reacted I don't think she'd ever meet anyone like Mulligan before.”
Stella laughed. “Maybe that's because there is no one else like Mulligan.”
No kidding. I want to get a couple jars of your tomato marmalade and some pear relish before it's all gone.” She picked up one of the shopping baskets inside the door. “If her article is a good one it could do wonders for a lot of businesses around here.”
Oh, I hope so. Mandy was in right after Brianna interviewed her and Bob. She's so excited.”
Well, we'll keep our fingers crossed. I arranged for her to have a tour of the brewery tomorrow.” She lifted her basket onto the checkout counter then stopped and stared. “What,” she said, “is that?”
Stella turned. Gretchen was staring at the bright yellow poster on the wall.
Oh, you haven't heard about the bring-home-the-woodchuck people?” Stella grinned. “A guy named Arnie Foley who lived here years ago is trying to rally people to raise ten thousand dollars to buy back the woodchuck that used to be out front. Crazy, huh?”
Gretchen stared at it then smiled. “When I was in high school my sister and I used to go out to the Dairy Queen in the evening and get lemon slushies. We'd swipe a bottle of rum from our dad's liquor cabinet to put in them and we'd drive around half-hammered. One night we made our brother Dan come with us and Kris and I climbed up on top of that statue, drunk out of our minds, and Dan took a picture of us.” She smiled, remembering. “I have no idea where the pictures are but that sure was fun.” She took out her wallet to pay Stella. “I'd like to see the woodchuck back here.”
Stella nodded. “I think I would, too.”

All excerpts  are from The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall: Volume 2, available for Kindle on September 15.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Guest Blogger Julie Huss: "It's A Sign"

In a recent online discussion some writers were talking about coincidences that occur when you are writing and how they often make us feel as though we have been sent a "sign" to keep working. I invited writers to send me stories about this and Julie Huss is my first guest. Enjoy!

It’s a sign…
Last fall in a fit of inspiration I decided that instead of stock photos and clip art for my non-fiction titles, I should just purchase a nice camera and take my own photos. Since I have a line of credit with Dell (don’t ask – I’m addicted to Dell) I went online and got myself a snappy Cannon Rebel T3i with a cool telephoto lens.

The camera came in the mail about a week later and off I went to the park to see if I could catch nature in action on a misty November morning. I got to the park and starting shooting some pine trees because I was about to write a unit on evergreens and I needed examples of bark, roots, cones, and needles. I also snapped all kinds of pictures of crows, light through the leaves, aspens, and bugs (telephoto isn’t a macro, but it works to a certain degree). I even got a cool one of a magpie in flight. But it was the image of one plump little bird sitting on a fence that caught my eye when I went home and previewed my morning's work.

It was a small brown sparrow-like bird with a pinkish hue and it was just so darn cute I had to know what it was. I spent the entire day trying to identify that bird. I went to umpteen different websites and I scoured the Cornell ornithology database, looking and searching for this adorable bird that was holding me captive. I did random searches on Colorado sparrows and I almost started sending the thing to bird experts around the country. Luckily I stopped my obsession around dinnertime and decided to move on.

A whole day wasted on this dumb little bird.

Well, a few months later I was choosing names for my next fiction project and since my characters have wings I decided to use bird names. So off I went to the Cornell ornithology website to find some cool bird names. I found a lot actually, and I made a long list. I had Plover, Tern, Wren, Starling, Flicker, Ibis, Junco – all sorts of names. But there was only one on that list that kept coming back to me – Junco. I had no idea what a junco was, so I looked it up.

And guess what I found? Yes, that’s right. That little sparrow photo I took a few months before was in fact, a junco. A dark-eyed, pink-sided junco - better known as the snowbird.
I cannot for the life of me imagine my main character’s name being anything other than Junco. Who knows, maybe she’d still be called that even if I never took that photo, but once I identified the little bird, I knew it was a sign.

J. A. Huss writes science books (both fiction and non-fiction). She lives in Colorado with her two donkeys, five dogs, more chickens and ducks than she can count, and of course, the real filthy animals, her kids. The I Am Just Junco series was born after falling in love with the ugliest part of Colorado and the Rural Republic is based on the area of the state she currently resides in, minus the mutants, of course.