Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year: Time To Cook the Sauerkraut!

I do not remember a New Year's Day of my life when I did not eat sauerkraut. Sometimes on New Year's Eve, too. It's a Pennsylvania Dutch thing and, when my mother was alive, she would make sure all her kids served sauerkraut to start the new year. Even when I lived in Texas – where people eat black-eyed peas on New Years Day – Mom would call and say, “Is your sauerkraut cooking?” It always was.

When I was still living in Pennsylvania and working part time in bars most of them served sauerkraut with pork and sausages at midnight on New Year's Eve. There are endless ways to cook sauerkraut and you can take your pick just as long as you make sure it is served to welcome in the new year.

Some years back, while I was in Houston, my friend Michael's ex-wife Karol gave me a recipe for something she called Russian Christmas Soup. It was a creamy chicken soup with carrots, bay leaves and sauerkraut that you ladled into a bowl with tiny boiled potatoes in it. Since my family had a tradition of having a variety of soups on Christmas Eve, and since we all love sauerkraut, I could not wait to make that the following Christmas. It was a huge hit. My mother said she thought it was about the best thing she ever tasted and, from then on, I made Karol's Russian Christmas Soup every Christmas Eve.

Even though Mom died quite a few years ago and I haven't been back to Pennsylvania for Christmas in years I still make that soup. It has evolved over the years. I now add peas and mushrooms to it but I still make it. This past Christmas Eve, as it was simmering away, I thought about Karol. I knew she was on Facebook because her daughter Ashleigh is a dear friend and I saw her posts on Ashleigh's wall. So I wrote a message to her telling her that, even though inadvertently, she had become part of a tradition in my family. About half an hour later I got a message back from her that was so sweet. She said she hadn't made that soup in years but was now thinking about making it.

2012 was an amazing year for me. My book sales were very, very good and helped me make some much needed improvements in my life. I wrote The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall:Secrets of Marienstadt and it has been selling quite well. I've gotten so much great feedback for it. So I am looking forward to 2013. I have my sauerkraut all ready to cook tomorrow and, to celebrate the tradition, here is Karol's recipe:

Russian Christmas Soup
Boil 1 plump chicken in 6 cups water. Remove chicken to cool and set aside 1 cup of the broth. Add:
½ c. each chopped celery & carrot
1 cup chopped onion
4 chicken bouillon cubes
Simmer until tender.
Reduce heat and stir in 1½ cup whipping cream. Bring to a gentle simmer. Cut chicken into bite-sized pieces and add to soup. In small saucepan melt ¼ cup butter and stir in ¼ cup flour to make a roux. Blend in reserved liquid. Heat until thick, add to soup while whisking. Add in 2 cups rinsed sauerkraut. Heat through. Add salt and pepper. Serve in a soup plate with a few small boiled potatoes in the bottom. (Cook the potatoes by themselves for the best taste.)

Wishing all of you a very Peaceful and Prosperous New Year!!! And thanks for reading.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

History in a Comic Strip: St. Marystown Saga

When it comes to colorful characters there aren't many more colorful than Dick Dornish from my home town of St. Marys, Pennsylvania. I've known Dick most of my life and it was always fun to run into him because he always had a story to tell. Among his many gifts is an ability to draw and throughout the years our local newspaper, The Daily Press, often featured Dick's cartoons about local issues.

In 1995 Dick, with the cooperation of The Daily Press, began an extraordinarily ambitious project. He set about documenting the history of our town in comic-strip format. He drew nearly 300, 4-panel strips and they were all printed in the paper. Now, with Dick's permission, Dennis Lecker has digitized all of those strips and created a web site for them. It is called The St. Marys Town Saga. You can read about the founding and first hundred years of the town, St. Marys, that served as my model for the town of Marienstadt in my book The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall. Enjoy!

Thanks for reading.

Friday, December 28, 2012

My Next Big Thing:

 The Monday Night Needlework & Murder Guild

A few weeks ago I was contacted by my friend and fellow author Susan Oleksiw about participating in a blog tour called The Next Big Thing. The idea was that everyone who participated would answer the same group of questions, post them on their blog, and then tag 5 more bloggers/authors in a sort-of pyramid scheme of book promotion. Obviously I was the last blogger/author on the planet to be tagged because nearly every other author I contacted had already done it. Consequently, I have decided to post my answers, thank Susan for her graciousness in inviting me, list five blogger/authors whose work I admire, and then let this thing die a natural, and over-due death. So this is all about my Next Big Thing:
What is your working title of your book?

The Monday Night Needlework & Murder Guild
Where did the idea come from for the book?

I belong to a needlework group that meets once a month and we often get into discussions that are very heated. I was thinking about the fact that, on the surface we all seem like such nice, polite, older ladies, but all of us are so opinionated and full of fire. Then my imagination just went wild.
What genre does your book fall under?
Crime. It is what is called a whydunnit or a reverse mystery. Right from the beginning you know whodunnit, you just don't know why or how. It is somewhat cozy and also pretty funny in places but it is your basic crime story.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Oh, gosh, I'm terrible at this because I don't watch that many movies so I really have no idea. My characters are always very real to me so it is hard for me to envision them as someone else. It would be interesting to cast because the cast is mostly women in their 50s and 60s and I'm guessing a lot of mature actresses would be great in the roles - especially Cece, Gwen, and Deborah. The lothario is in his 30s so almost any handsome, younger actor would do for him.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

"Retired high school teacher Miss Cece McGill loves being a part of The Monday Night Needlework & Murder Guild, so when an unscrupulous lothario starts causing trouble, she takes it upon herself to protect the guild's members."
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It will be self-published as an ebook.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I've actually been working on this for a couple of years, sporadically. The original version was a short story called Just An Old-Fashioned Murder that I intended to submit to an anthology but there seemed to be too much story for a short work so I put it aside. A couple months ago I started thinking about it and took it out to rework. It grew to 30k words and is now a novella.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Gosh, it's so hard to say. I'm not sure any author can answer that honestly because we like to think our work is unique. Maybe books by Connie Archer or Mark Schweizer but I think there is a dark core in my writing that is more intense and nerve-wracking.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I really admire Susan Oleksiw's books and she is the one who made me want to write crime stories.
What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
My objective in this story was to look into the lives of the women the lothario is seducing and examine why he gets away with it. This is a small, close-knit group of older, mostly professional, women and yet he seems to have a knack for bamboozling them. As I worked on the story I realized that what made the story interesting to me was 1.) how he got away with what he did and 2.) why Cece was immune to his charms. I am always, first and foremost, interested in the psychology of my characters. That's what keeps me writing.
Since I do not have as many “tagees” as I need for this project I am just listing a few authors whose blogs I find particularly interesting. Please enjoy:

Thanks for reading.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Newbie's Guide to Publishing: Konrath's Resolutions For Writers

It is Christmas Eve morning and I have to go do a few errands before snuggling in but this blog post by Joe Konrath is very good. It is long but it shows how he has evolved as a writer. I especially loved this part:
1. Ebooks are forever, and shelf space is infinite. Once you're published, you'll always be selling.
2. Ebooks are not a trend. They are the new, preferred way to read, and mankind will always have the need and desire to read.
3. Ebooks are global. Doing poorly in the USA? That's okay. There are plenty of other countries where you can make money.
4. Sales fluctuate. Always. And there is often no logical or discernible reason why. Riding high in April, shot down in May, that's life.
5. This is a marathon, not a sprint. You're a writer. You're in this until the day you die. As long as you continue to write good books, you'll find readers.

A Newbie's Guide to Publishing: Konrath's Resolutions For Writers

I am off to do my last minute errands and will catch up with you later. Until then, Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

#SampleSunday: Maggie's Christmas from "Each Angel Burns"

From Each Angel Burns: Maggie has left her domineering husband and moved to an old, abandoned convent on the coast of Maine that she is renovating into a sculpture studio. She had planned to spend Christmas by herself but her friends Derreck and James insist that she come to their Christmas party and arrange a date for her:

At two as promised, the reception room bells jangled and she opened the door to a grinning man with a luxuriant mane of shiny white hair pulled back in a ponytail and a huge, handlebar mustache. He wore a tuxedo jacket over a white pleated dress shirt and, to both her surprise and her delight, a red and green plaid kilt complete with sporran.
Glenn Magnuson, at your service.” He bowed deeply and extended a beefy fist holding a clear plastic box tied with red and green straw and gold bells. “Glenn the Magnificent to my friends,” he added. “And I am honored, dear lassie, honored to be escorting such a fine...” He drew the word out in a rolling Highland brogue—fi-i-i-i-i-ne. “...lady to the day’s festivities.”
The box contained a corsage of white gardenias and tiny red rosebuds. She couldn’t help giggling as she opened it.
You’re not going to believe this,” she said, “but this is the first corsage I’ve ever received.”
He wrapped an arm around her waist, lifted her off her feet, and planted a very loud, and not at all unpleasant, kiss on her lips.
And I am proud to be the one what gave it to you.”
She watched him as he helped her secure the extravagant corsage on the shoulder of the evergreen velvet shawl she had draped herself in and decided she liked him. His big eyes reminded her of Zeke’s.
Glenn the Magnificent drove a twenty year old gold Mercedes with a finish that had mellowed to the color of an old coin. He drove the coastal route where waves crashed with an exuberance that seemed almost celebratory of the day. A Highland Christmas boomed from the CD player as he rambled on giving his opinion of Christmas and how it got to be that way. She was stunned into silence.
At the top of a pine-covered hill stood a long railroad station with an orange tile roof. “The boys”, as Glenn called them, had rescued the derelict building from scheduled destruction and spent six years turning it into a home and studio. Guests were received in the old passenger waiting room where stiff wooden benches had been replaced with deeply cushioned red leather sofas and the old, gold-lettered ticket windows now served as a bar. The entire back of the building had been removed and a long wall of glass windows offered panoramic views of the Gulf of Maine including a direct view—complete with telescopes—of a clothing-optional beach, though Derreck assured her it wasn’t very interesting at this time of year.
The food was extravagant, the company delightful. A fifteen-foot Christmas tree was decorated with bubbling lava lamp lights, holographic tinsel, and ornaments made from vintage paper dolls of Forties and Fifties goddesses of the silver screen in various exotic costumes. The entertainment ran the gamut from inspired to insane. Glenn unpacked a set of bagpipes and played a jazz version of Good King Wenceslas followed by a sweet and poignant What Child Is This.
Maggie shocked herself, and delighted Derreck and James, when motivated by far more hot mulled wine than she could recall drinking, she stood up wearing a fantastical gold and silver bow on her head and trilled La vie en rose in a creditable Piaf impersonation. Everyone hooted and applauded and she sat down blushing furiously and downed another cup of the perfectly wonderful wine.
Glenn the Magnificent proved an amiable date, pleasant but not hovering. He provided her with an exhausting workout as they jitterbugged to a Brian Setzer Christmas tune and rescued her more than once when she got trapped under one of the many mistletoes with an amorous but inebriated celebrant. It was nearing ten o’clock when he came up behind her and, snatching her around the waist, bent her over into a deep, theatrical kiss then whispered in her ear, “If I have to listen to one more goddamned Ella Fitzgerald Christmas carol I’m going to barf.”
They said their good-byes.
As sparkles of snow drifted lazily down through the lace of black tree branches, Glenn changed the raucous zydeco CD for one of the dreamy Windham Hill Solstice ones and drove her back to the abbey. It was all she could do to stay awake.
He pulled into the parking lot next to the chapel and shifted the car into park. Then he shifted himself closer to her.
Come here,” he murmured as he drew her against him and lifted her face. His kisses were very nice and she was sufficiently intoxicated not to protest.
When was the last time you necked in a Mercedes?” he whispered.
She shook her head. “Shhh,” she said. “Keep kissing.”
He obliged her. He lifted her across the console into his lap and if one of them was more eager for their caresses than the other, she couldn’t have told which it was. His hand was under her sweater kneading her breasts and she was very aware of the bulky hardness pushing against her buttocks through their clothes. This is what I need, she thought. Something totally stupid and uncomplicated. He was very good at what he was doing—his hands traveled over her back and breasts then up under her skirt to caress the warm flesh above the lace of her stockings.
Are you ready to find out what I have under my kilt,” he whispered in her ear nipping at her lips with tiny, tantalizing bites.
She pulled back, looked into his teasing eyes, and nodded.
Read the rest in Each Angel Burns....or save 30% with the boxed set of 3 novels.

A wonderful review by a wonderful writer...

This is a wonderful, wonderful review that Hawaiian novelist Kiana Davenport posted to her blog, Davenport Dialogues back in November:



Hello, World.

I've been thinking how, in this age of quick-read novels with thin plots, we yearn for bigger, deeper novels we can sink into, a universe we can enter and be part of. Kathleen Valentine has created such a novel in THE WHISKEY BOTTLE IN THE WALL: VOLUME 1 - 3, SECRETS OF MARIENSTADT.  The town of Marienstadt is fictional, but is based on the Pennsylvania Dutch town she grew up in, populated with fascinating descendants of German immigrants.

Valentine is the author of fabulous short stories and such novels as THE OLD MERMAID'S TALE, EACH ANGEL BURNS, DEPRAVED HEART, and her many fans will be thrilled with THE WHISKEY BOTTLE IN THE WALL, now available as an ebook boxed-set and in paperback through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  In Volume I, we are introduced to characters named Mulligan Wolfe, Peeper Baumgratz, Wenzeslaus Opelt, and beautiful, lonely ladies who run strudel shops, and fabric shops, shops for homemade breads, sausages and sauerkraut. One shop has the mysterious name, "The Bearded Lady Hometown Treats."

And there are a host of fascinating characters based on the author's memories of her hometown: Nuns who run a snowplow business. A handsome, virile chief-of-police, whom married women fantasize being handcuffed to. A three hundred-pound giant who loves to waltz and polka, a veritable legend on the dance-floor. How can you not be drawn to such fabulous characters? And best of all, the three volumes comprising WHISKEY BOTTLE contain a rotating cast of characters, people we grow to love. So it is not just random, unconnected vignettes that made LAKE WOBEGON DAYS, although a bestseller, a somewhat disjointed and disappointing book.

The first story in Vol. 1, "Peeper Baumgratz and the Sisters' Snowplow,"seems a light-hearted, hilarious, home-spun tale. But each tale in the collection takes the reader to darker, deeper depths, such as the journal found in the second story, "The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall," wherein a character learns the tragic truth of who his grandfather really was. In the third story, "The Great Dumpling War and Dance Competition," there is a hilarious scene where two women argue with righteous indignation over the proper ingredients for a variety of dumplings - knadles, niflies, spaetzles, semmelknodels, kartoffelkloses. Here the author is brilliantly eulogizing the dumpling! The most representative food of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage.  

From her earlier novels Valentine has proven she understands the darkest aspects of human nature, as well as the abiding goodness in each of us. As the stories progress in Vol. 2, she once again transports us to the highs and lows, the hilarious and tragic, aspects of humans, from unwanted pregnancies, and drug-dealing, to bear-hunting, same-sex love, even cross-dressing. Along the way, she gifts her readers with fascinating bits of local history, old Seneca Indian legends, the documented story of the highest viaduct in the United States, and wild elk who protect children lost in blizzards. 
In Vol. 3, "The Legend of Father Cuneo's Grave," we learn the tale of a priest wrongfully accused of seducing a young girl, and the story behind his tragic death. "The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood" starts off humorous, with a touch of the erotic (a woman pinning a costume on a handsome, virile man), but then quiets down to a deeply sorrowful tale of Oliver, whose boys were taken from him, and his years of loneliness and grief. The scene where he is reunited with the boys as grown men left this reader in tears. 

The last story in the collection, "A Long Day's Journey into Light," fittingly sums up the beauty and frustration of small-town life: people caring for and looking out for each other, but also trying to keep their secrets from each other. In the search for two elderly lost men, we learn the background of the handsome, virile town sheriff, Henry Werner, and why he is driven to womanizing and living his life alone. Its a humdinger of a story, involving a life-long desire and a murder long-overdue!

Reading Valentine's stories, I realize that this is not just an entertaining collection about a fabulously rich culture. She is memorializng her people, and her town. Thus, this becomes a fascinating and educational look at a region and culture relatively unsung in American literature. THE WHISKEY BOTTLE IN THE WALL, VOL. 1-3, SECRETS OF MARIENSTADT, is a tribute to a people and a place, the Pennsylvania Dutch, and their contributions to American history.

With compassion and satire, and beautifully detailed writing, Valentine has delicately chiseled out of these seemingly ordinary lives, the unique, profound, and quixotic traits that make each character memorable, even epic. Read these stories slowly, then read them again: while we are reading about life, love, birth and death, we are also learning the culture and traditions of one of the most fascinating communities in our United States.

I've asked Kathleen to chime in and tell us where she grew up in Pennsylvania, and how the region influenced her, leading her to become the well-loved author that she is today.

Thank you, Kiana. The town I grew up in, St. Marys, Pennsylvania, in the Seneca Highlands, was founded by Bavarian immigrants and is the home of the first Benedictine convent in the United States and Straubs Brewery, the only pre-Prohibition micro-brewery still in operation. Growing up in a mostly Pennsylvania Dutch family, I was surrounded by story-tellers. Sharing stories was central to every gathering of friends and relatives. Whether it was picnics, birthday parties, or just sitting on the porch on a Sunday afternoon, everyone always told stories and, as a kid, I loved them. My dad and uncles told hunting stories. My grandmother told stories about her parents coming from the “Old Country.” My mother and her friends told stories about their children. I loved those stories and kept a mental collection of them.

There is a scene in my first novel, The Old Mermaid's Tale, in which the heroine, Clair, attends a harvest party where the old men sit around telling stories and she realizes that those stories have formed her destiny. She goes on to study folklore and oral tradition and eventually meets Baptiste, the musician who writes songs based on the lives of the people he knew when he was a mariner. I didn't realize it at the time but now I know that Clair's profession has also become mine. The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall is my contribution to the folklore of my people.

Now that I think about it, my second novel, Each Angel Burns, also grew out of a story my mother told me about a man she knew when she was a girl who went on a mission to find two missing statues of angels. If I hadn't listened to story-telling all my life I wouldn't have had much to write about.

I have loved your Pacific Island stories, which I suspect grew out of your people's story-telling traditions so we got our starts as writers in similar ways. Thank you for that.

Kathleen Valentine writes of her people with great PRIDE. Her very heart is in her words. I predict the entire collection of THE WHISKEY BOTTLE IN THE WALL will become a classic.  What a wonderful Xmas offering to the German descendants of St. Mary's. Thank you, Kathleen Valentine!


The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall-

My Web Site:

Friday, December 21, 2012

Blessed Solstice & Bon Hiver

Well, the Mayans were wrong and we got an extremely windy but very mild Winter Solstice today. I have been writing all day but the sun came out a few minutes ago so I went out back to take a few pictures to post as I wish everyone a Blessed Solstice. Tomorrow there will be a teensy bit more light to the day and everyday after we get a little more sunlight. So I wish you blessings on this day that marks the beginning of winter and the growth of light.

And since it is the first day of winter I get to wish you a Bon Hiver and to post ne of my favorite clips from my favorite television program.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

In Praise of People Who Leave Reviews

Every author has a love-hate relationship with reviews, both from professional sources and from regular readers. Whenever an author sees that a new review has been left there is this sort of mixed feeling until we look to see whether it is positive or negative. I know writers who refuse to even look at their reviews. They have a friend monitor reviews for them and let them know if a good one has been left. I participate in several online authors forums and writers are forever agonizing over bad reviews or longing for good ones.

I have been in the position of receiving four or five reviews in one day of which 4 were positive and 1 was negative and I've spent the rest of the day sulking about that one negative one. We writers are strange folks.

When most writers are new to the game they really take reviews personally. Most of us, as time goes by, get over that. When I am stressing about negative reviews I go to the book sale page for a book I absolutely love and read the negative reviews. It reassures me that, even works that I consider to be of utter brilliance, get torn apart by some readers. I have also learned to make a distinction between substantive reviews and non-substantive ones. If a 1-star review does a good job of saying what they disliked about that book, well, I hope I learn from that. But if it just says, “This book was lame, not even worth getting it free” I'm less inclined to be upset by it. Some reviews tell more about the reviewer than about the work being reviewed.

All that being said, let me say once again how very much most writers appreciate the readers who take the time to write a review – even if it isn't a long one. What a lot of readers don't know is that there are book promotion sites which will not feature a book until it has x-number of reviews. If you read a book, especially an indie or small pub house book, and like it, taking the time to write a quick review is a real gift to the author. It is always appreciated.

There is a lot of controversy in the indy writer community about responding to reviews. Some writers do, some do not. There was a famous incident about a year ago when an indy writer responded to a negative review of her book on a blog with a blistering attack and the whole thing escalated until she looked like a genuine lunatic. This is not something any writer should get involved in. But what about thanking reviewers for a good review? Some writers think it is only polite, others say don't do it.

In the past few weeks I've received some awfully nice reviews and also emails, especially for The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall series. I love the reviews and often repost them to my Facebook and to Twitter. I always respond to emails and here on my blog and on Facebook but do not on book sites like Amazon, B&N or Goodreads. It's too easy to start an unintended flame war that makes everyone look bad.

But I'm grateful for those who take the time to post a review. Even negative reviews that have substance can be educational. Because I am not only a writer but an avid reader, I try to leave reviews for books that I finish. I rarely leave anything less than 3 stars for the simple reason that I don't write reviews for books I do not finish and if a book is that bad, I don't finish it.

One of the things I've always been amazed at when reading reviews both for my books an for books I've read is what an individual experience reading is. People read and get things out of the experience that are totally unique to them. I've especially noticed this with a few of my psychological horror novelettes. One person will say “that was so boring, there was nothing scary about it” and the next one will say “I was absolutely horrified – I couldn't get to sleep.” People definitely have different capacities for horror!

So, as a writer, I have to say, thank you for leaving a review, and as a reader I have to say, thank you for writing something worth reviewing.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Second Amendment Collateral Damage

I have not done much since Friday and its terrible news. Sometimes things that happen seem sadder and deeper than humanity should have to bear. I never watch television and get most of my news from internet news sites and every time I open a page and see those sweet little faces I just want to cry. Like everyone else I want to know how could this happen? But it is happening every day.

Naturally, this tragedy has spawned hundreds of insipid graphics with pithy, facile slogans that are littering Facebook and being spread far and wide. These mindless images blame the massacre at Sandy Hook on the absence of school prayer. They ignore the massacres that have taken place in churches, not to mention the molestation. They also proclaim that guns are not the problem. This makes me want to scream.

I grew up in hunting country in Pennsylvania. All the men I knew hunted as did many of the women. I grew up in a house full of guns and we often entertained ourselves by shooting targets mounted over the coal bin in my Dad's shop. I've helped with processing deer that my Dad and brothers killed and I've shoot hand guns and rifles. I do not have a problem in the world with hunting rifles. Assault weapons are another matter. High-capacity clips are another matter. Deer and bears and rabbits do no wear kevlar vests. High-capacity clips exist for one reason and one reason only, to shoot a lot of bullets in a short period of time. What civilian needs to do that?

In 1994 the Federal Assault Weapons Ban was instituted. It only affected the manufacturers, not private citizens. It expired in 2004 and was not renewed. We need to revisit this. I'm so tired of the lame, mindless excuses by people who say that banning assault weapons is “just the beginning” and “the government will take our guns away.” Where are their brains????

We are such a fear-driven society! During the last election I made a point of trying to get people to talk to me about why they “hated” Obama and I was continually astonished by the lack of knowledge they had about his record as President. They spewed ridiculous “opinions” that had no basis in fact. And they had absolutely no interest in learning the facts. They had their opinions and they were sticking to them regardless of how lacking in intelligence they were. Now I'm seeing the same thing about a mass murder. They say guns are not the problem, lack of prayer is the problem. Two weeks ago a woman was shot in the back while she was playing the organ in her church on a Sunday morning. But that was different – or so I am told when I point that out.

I am so sad. I am sad about the loss of those sweet little children and the women who tried to save them. But I am equally sad about the stupid, stupid, stupid slogans and pithy signs being passed around excusing the unjustifiable. We are a very stupid society. Not all of us but a lot of us.

When Barack Obama was reelected there was a ripple of absolute shock among people who believed such a thing could not happen. Even now many of them are saying, “How could this happen?” Now, many of those same people are saying, “Guns are not the problem.” It is true that all guns are not the problem but some kinds of guns are. It is my fervent hope that the people who are still reeling over the changed electorate that reelected our President will be equally stunned when the evolved electorate changes laws concerning access to assault weapons and high-capacity clips. We have to change. These beautiful children are not Second Amendment collateral damage. It is time for us to grow up. Some losses are too great to bear.

Thanks for reading.  

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Gregory Gibson on School Shootings and Why They Go On.

I met Gregory Gibson several years ago at a writer's discussion group about his book Hubert's Freaks. Yesterday, when the news of the horrific shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School broke, he was the first person I thought of. You need to read this article and then you need to buy his book Gone Boy and read that. Greg is someone who knows first hand what no one on earth would want to know: 

December 14, 2012

Why America Lets the Killings Continue

Gloucester, Mass.
MY wife and I learned about the Connecticut school shootings on our way home from the cemetery, where we had just finished observing the 20th anniversary of our son’s murder.
Our son Galen, who was 18, and a teacher were killed on Dec. 14, 1992, by a deranged student who went on a shooting rampage at Simon’s Rock College in western Massachusetts. Galen was a gifted kid, and Simon’s Rock seemed like the perfect place for him. He’d never been happier. The killer had a vastly different reaction to this environment. After run-ins with college officials, he vowed to “bring the college to its knees.” He bought an SKS at a gun shop down the road, and obtained oversize clips and ammunition through the mail.

Obviously I have no answers in light of yesterday's horrific shootings but there is one thing I think we should consider. I think we should adopt a national policy on the part of the media and everything else to never, ever, ever speak or publish the name of anyone who does such a thing. They will only be referred to as "the fool" and they will be buried in an unmarked grave. No one will see their pictures from earlier times, no one will talk about them. They will be shunned by EVERYONE and pass from human memory without ever being given a single shred of fame/infamy.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Writing Fiction Is Like Making A Patchwork Quilt

“Write one true thing. Write the truest thing you know.” - Ernest Hemingway

I suspect every writer goes through this: a reader comes up to you or emails or posts on your blog to say, “I read ______ and I loved_____. You based him/her on so-and-so, didn't you?” Now, the chances are that we really didn't but the reader has this fabulous back-story in their mind and they really don't want to know it isn't so. I have rarely created a character that was modeled entirely on one person (there are a few exceptions and they are all in The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall) but I do combine things like one person's personality, another's looks, another's approach to life. I suspect many writers tend to do this. I remember reading an interview with the wonderful writer Mary Doria Russell in which she was talking about her character Emilio Sandoz in The Sparrow and Children of  God (one of my favorite characters in contemporary literature) and she said that his sense of humor was her husband's. I loved that because I loved Emilio's sense of humor.

Now that The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall is generating feedback a few people have tried to “guess” who the characters were supposed to be in real life. The truth is most of them are composites, a fact I tried to stress in the Introduction. One of the most remarked-upon characters in the book is Oliver Eberstark, the huge, reclusive but fascinating woodsman who owns Opelt's Wood. In the first story we meet him when he is chopping down a birch tree and Henry, the Chief of Police, recruits him to go into Opelt's Wood and track down Peeper who has gone on the lam. Oliver is the consummate woodsman and finding Peeper is easy but when he hauls him into the station and two of the ladies in the book are all flustered by his presence, he just turns around and goes back to the woods. A few stories later he is tracking down a wounded bear and saves Henry's life in the process but still he keeps to himself.

Finally, in the ninth story, we get to know Oliver and the devastating secret that has driven him into sadness and seclusion. What we know about Oliver is that he is huge man, muscular and barrel-chested with dark-hair, pale blue eyes and an impressive red beard. One of the characters remarks that he looks like Brett Keisel, the giant Pittsburgh Steelers Defensive End, #99, (a #99 plush doll sits on my desk keeping an eye on my writing.) Anyone who remembers my brother Jack will recognize Oliver's woodscraft and presence but, all that being said, Oliver is a unique character. He is one of my favorite creations.

I'm always a little surprised when readers ask if things that happen in my books happened to me. One reader said he was so shaken up by Tempest's “possession” – the one that sent her to a psychiatric ward – in Depraved Heart, that he said a prayer for me because he thought I must have experienced that. I didn't. A lot of readers have commented on Clair's first forays into exploring her sexuality (in The Old Mermaid's Tale.) They say that they so closely parallel their own that they must have been taken from life.

I suspect that's what being a writer of fiction is about much of the time, telling a story that is all your own invention but which is told so truly that many people can relate to it. That's what Hemingway would say, “Write one true thing. Write the truest thing you know.” I try.

Ever since that horrible shooting inCoudersport, PA, last week, I have been thinking about what possesses a person (and I chose the word “possess” on purpose) to go into a church to kill someone. I believe there is something demonic in that and I've been thinking about that a lot. But, here is the thing, it happens more often than one would think so that says to me there is something going on with that dynamic. It is awarenesses like that which convince me that there is no such thing as a totally unique situation or character. Writing fiction is like making a patchwork quilt. You take a bit of this and a bit of that and a bit of something else and, if you do your work well, something beautiful happens. It is what I strive for.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

There's A Dead Guy in My Cellar (Pass the Cookies)

A few years ago I got this bright idea – yes, I know, I get a lot of them – for a story. There was this character knocking around in my brain. Her name was Cecelia McGill, called Cece for short, and she reminded me a lot of, well, me. Cece is a woman of a certain age, as they say, and she is single. She's an old hippie who is an accomplished needleworker who loves to knit but has also spent years sewing, weaving, gardening, canning, baking – all the things a lot of us old hippies are fond of. In her youth she was a bit wild but then life butted in and she had to straighten up, get a job, and at least try to act normal. Until she decided to kill someone.

For nearly two years this story has nagged at me when I was working on other projects. When I would be in between stories, Cece would show up and say, “Hey, writer lady, what about me?” So, once I finished writing The Whiskey Bottle inthe Wall, I returned my attention to Cece. It's been four months now and yesterday I finished the first draft of a 28k novella that I'm calling The Monday Night Needlework & Murder Guild.

The story revolves around a group of women in their forties, fifties, and sixties who have been meeting regularly on Monday nights to work on their needlework and discuss murder mystery novels. The organizer of the group, Miss Serena Pitts, is an elderly spinster who owns a lovely house in Pitts Crossing, a coastal Massachusetts town. Being invited to join Miss Serena's Guild is a sign of social prestige in Pitts Crossing and women vie for invitations. But, when Miss Serena kicks the bucket at the age on ninety-seven, the group is faced with a disappointing situation. None of them have a living room the size of Miss Serena's and they don't know how they will keep their guild together. This is when Cece takes it into her head to have the cellar in her 17th century home finished and transformed into a meeting room for the guild.

However, as the cellar is being worked on, a new problem arises. There is a guy in town, something of a good-for-nothing but relatively young, relatively handsome, and very good at flattery, who is causing problems among the ladies of the group. Cece finally decides that enough is enough and takes matters into her own hands. Right from the beginning we know that Cece has put an end to the guy's misbehavior but the why and the how is what makes the story happen.

I LOVED writing this story because, while it is essentially a crime story, it is the psychology of each of the characters in it that made it interesting to write. How can one guy get away with what he does? How indeed. And how is Cece able to be immune to him? Well, that's what the story is about.

I finished the first draft yesterday and I'll do a rewrite before I pass it on to test readers but, so far, I've really enjoyed working on it and I think Cece is one of the most psychologically interesting characters I've ever written about. And, despite its gruesome content, the story has a lot of humor in it.

Sometimes I wonder how other writers get ideas for stories. Mine just seem to show up and say, “Write about me please.” That's what Cece did along with all of her friends. I've said it before but I'll say it again, Writing is magic. I have no idea how it comes about most of the time. The actual writing itself is hard work and often challenging. But the ideas for writing are always a mystery to me.

So, maybe by the end of January The Monday Night Needlework and Murder Guild will be ready to go live. In the meantime I'm hard at work on The Crazy Old Lady's Revenge. I don't know how this happened either but I have to keep writing to find out.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

#SampleSunday: A Christmas Kiss from "The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall"

From Story #9, The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood in The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall: Ever since she was a kid Gretchen has had a crush on Oliver but in recent years he has lived as a recluse deep in Opelt's Wood. Finally, Gretchen discovers the reason for his seclusion and helps their mutual friend Father Nick to do something about it. Oliver is grateful and Gretchen can't stop thinking about him. On Christmas Day she leaves her mother and sister and drives down to Opelt's Wood to find him:

 There were over a dozen deer feasting on apples in the hollow as she approached the sawmill. One was a buck with a beautiful rack. She was glad to see he had survived another hunting season. She pulled her car up beside Oliver's truck but before she could get out he appeared at the door of his workshop with sandpaper in his hand, Toots by his side.
“You're not supposed to work on Christmas,” she said as she got out of her car.
“Who says?” he asked.
She shrugged. “You're supposed to sit around the table with a bunch of relatives, eat way too much, get drunk, and pass out in front of a football game. Isn't that the tradition?”
He laughed and she noticed he looked very good, happy, rested, and content.
“Merry Christmas,” she said as she approached and stood on her toes to kiss him.
“Thanks for what you did,” he said. “I still can't believe it. I'm so happy.”
“It was Father Nick who found them.” She was intensely aware of the feeling of his hand on her back as he guided her into his shop. “And thank you for my beautiful clock. Where did you find that little lady with the quilt?”
He grinned. “Sister Hilda at the convent made it. I ordered a bunch of miniatures from her to put on more clocks.”
“I love it.”
He stood silent for a moment and then he looked at her feet. “I'm glad you have good boots on. I've got something I want to show you. Come on,” he said, pulling on his jacket. “Toots, you stay here. We'll be back in a bit.”
Toots gave a little whimper and curled up by the woodstove.
He walked with her to his truck and opened the passenger side door for her. “Watch your step,” he said.
He stepped up into the driver's side and said, “Fasten your seat belt and hang on.”
They headed off past the sawmill, up the single lane drive that hugged the river. Here in the depths of Opelt's Wood the snow was deeper on the ground. The trees grew thicker and darker almost blotting out the sun.
“Okay, hang on.” He guided the truck off the road onto an old logging grade and they bumped and lurched through miles of bushes so thick they scraped against the sides of his truck. She rolled down the window and captured a juniper bough loaded with frosty blue berries. The trees were wound round with the skeletons of wild grape vines. Hemlocks brushed the windshield leaving scatterings of little cones across the hood of the truck.
“This is my favorite Christmas adventure ever,” she said laughing.
“Just wait,” he said. “This is part of the Seneca Highlands not many people get to see.”
They climbed a steep hill with the truck tipped so far to the side that she thought if she reached out of the window she could touch the ground. Then, as suddenly, as they had entered the deep woods, they emerged into a clearing... a vast field in which the milkweed plants stood as high as the windows and sumac and sassafras bushes were everywhere. Ahead of them, at the crest of a rise, stood a mammoth oak tree, whose bare branches formed a pattern of black lace against the bright blue sky.
“That's beautiful,” she said.
“Wait,” he said, “I'll get us closer.” As they approached the tree he leaned over to her and pointed. “See that?”
She followed the direction of his finger. Though the branches were bare, in the them, on the right side of the tree, low in the limbs, was a ball of brilliant greenery. It looked completely out of place in a tree bare of leaves and yet it swayed and shone in the winter light.
“What is that?”
He smiled. “Come on.” He parked the truck and they hopped out. The dry winter grasses weren't as deep here at the top of the hill and he put his arm around her waist and guided her through the ankle deep snow until they were standing under the tree.
She looked up and saw clusters of small white berries nestled among the leaves.
“It's a parasite,” he said. “It takes up residence in some trees like big oaks and it grows there all on its own. Here...” He bent down and picked up a sprig of the green leaves and clusters of white berries that had fallen into the snow.
“It's beautiful,” she said, touching the berries.
“Let me,” he said and he wove it into her silky blond curls. “That's a perfect place for it. Haven't you ever seen it before?”
She shook her head. “I don't think so.”
“I bet you have,” he said. “It's mistletoe.”
He looked into her eyes and knew, as they stood under the old tree atop the snowy landscape on this Christmas afternoon, that he wanted children of his own and that this woman beside him was the one he wanted to have them with. So he stroked her hair, and drew her to him. He cradled her warm body against his, cupped her face in his big hand, leaned down, and shared with her the tradition of the mistletoe. 
Read the rest of the stories, The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall, Boxed Set.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Happy Belsnickel, Everyone! Spread the Belsnickel Love.

In honor of Belsnickel tomorrow I am reposting this blog post from December 2010. I'm on a mission to spread the Belsnickel Love so today I'm asking people to do something nice for someone in secret, don't let them know who their Belsnickel is! Since I wrote the original article I have also published a story about Belsnickel which is free for Kindle from now through Friday. The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood is a novella about which Book Lover's Alert says: Brew yourself a pot of hot chocolate and curl up with this story. Based in Pennsylvania Dutch folklore, it will renew your faith in Christmas, in love, and in basic human decency.

Dec. 6, 2010: Since today is the Feast of St.Nicholas, or Belsnickel as it was known during my childhood, I am reprinting one of the stories in my cookbook/memoir, Fry Bacon, Add Onions. Enjoy. And if you hear a jingling sound outside your door tonight, you better be good and say your prayers!

No book about a Pennsylvania Dutch childhood would be complete without a few words about Belsnickel. Every year on the Eve of St. Nicholas’s Feast Day, December 6th, we looked forward to a visit from Belsnickel. It is a tradition that began among Pennsylvania Dutch people in the early 19th century and was quite popular when I was a kid. My sisters Lisa and Anne have carried on the tradition for their children which I am happy to know.

The name “Belsnickle” is believed to be a derivation of “Pelz Nicholas” or “St. Nicholas in furs”. Pictures of St. Nicholas always show him wearing a long, fur-trimmed cloak and carrying a huge sack as he walks through the forest accompanied by deer, rabbits and other woodland creatures.

Gram Werner told me that when she was a child Belsnickel was quite fearsome. She said when they heard the sleigh bells ringing, that signaled his approach, through the cold and snowy night, her brothers would run outside in the snow and hide in the outhouse. Legend was that Belsnickel knew who had misbehaved and was likely to carry off very naughty children and give them a good thrashing.

By the time I was a kid Belsnickel had mellowed somewhat. He would arrive and we had to be ready, freshly bathed and in our pajamas (though I suspect that was my mother’s contribution to the tradition). He would ask if we had been good and then we would kneel at his feet and say our prayers. After that he would open his huge sack and give us tangerines, nuts, popcorn balls and other treats.

When I was quite young we had real actual Belsnickels in fur-trimmed red outfits that came to the house. I know now that it was usually Sonny Seelye who undertook that job. Sonny and his sweet wife Mary were two of the nicest people in our neighborhood. They had no children of their own but sure were good to the neighborhood kids. Mary was my first 4-H leader and is the person who taught me how to sew, something I’ve never been able to thank her enough for. Sonny had this marvelous train set that all the kids in the neighborhood remember with fondness.

One year it was my Aunt Rosie who played Belsnickel for us. That was the year Belsnickel had laryngitis and couldn’t talk, no doubt because we would have recognized her voice immediately. Actually, I only found this out when she told me a couple weeks ago.

Later, when there were no available Belsnickels, we would leave our shoes outside the door. When we heard the sleigh bells ringing we had to wait and then go outside to find our shoes full of treats. This is the tradition that Lisa and Anne have continued for their children.

Thanks for reading.