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Taos, Western Massachusetts

Hello, I Must Be Going

Groucho Marx said it best. Actually, he sang it in the movie, Animal Crackers. But, yes, it’s official. Hank and I are leaving Taos next month and moving to Charlemont in Western Massachusetts.

Taos has been very good to Hank and me. Like so many people, we arrived 11 years ago with the urge to live here. No jobs. We knew exactly five people. But we had a sense of adventure, and after selling our home in Western Mass. in less than two weeks, we figured we were on the right track.

Things fell nicely into place here in New Mexico. We found a piece of land — interesting story there — and a great contractor, Beau. I started doing freelance at The Taos News, and then became the copy editor, and then its managing editor for eight years. I like to joke I clawed my way to the top — not really, of course.

Until last May I was in the thick of Taos, news-wise. I had a hard-working editorial team that was fearless and fun when it was warranted. We won a slew of state and national awards. For me, covering the news was more a mission than a job.

Hank and I enjoyed living in a place where creativity oozes from the ground. He created amazing furniture, boxes, and frames from wood. The woodwork in and around our home is his.

I wrote fiction on my own time — adult and kid novels. I even published two adult novels and a bilingual kids book (with my friend Teresa Dovalpage).

So why in the heck are we leaving? The answer is we want to be closer to the people who mean the most to us — our family. I believe people who live here with their families will understand. Four of our six kids live in Massachusetts, plus a grandchild and one on the way. My mother and other family members are there. Phone calls, visits, and Facebook are just not enough.

Then, there is the sense of adventure. And given that our home here was under contract in a week, I’d say things once again are falling nicely into place.

So right now, my life is consumed by finding boxes, packing, and seeing to details. We expect to hit the road with our stuff sometime in late July although no firm date has been set as of yet. We are going through the selling process, inspections and the like — so far, so very good. Thanks, Lisa.

Hank went Back East to find us a place to land. Finding a rental was tough. People are opting for Air B&B and I understand why. But we have a nice, affordable place to live before we find something permanent. Charlemont is a sweet town, population around 1,200, near the Deerfield River.

There will be parts of Taos that I will miss: the people, views, and short, sunnier winters. That’s just for starters. Taos is indeed a special place, but, hey, I must be going.

Here’s the link to how Groucho Marx sings it in the movie Animal Crackers

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Penstemon flowers blooming in my garden.

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bonfire
characters, Western Massachusetts

The Stranger Next Door

Okay, so I’ve told you about two characters in The Sweet Spot: an old coot and one impertinent woman. Benny and Leona offer a bit of comic relief to this novel, which will be released in January. Now, let me tell you about the stranger who moves next door.

His name is Harlan Doyle. Edie, the book’s main character, notices him at the Memorial Day ceremony held at the town common. Besides being the only non-resident there, Harlan has deep scars on his face his sunglasses can’t hide. It’s obvious from the way he stands he was badly hurt one time.

So what’s Harlan doing in Conwell? He’s here for his fresh start. But he does have a connection to this hilltown. He is moving into his grandmother’s house, which is next door to Edie, her father and aunt. They live on Doyle Road, so you know the family goes way back. His grandmother died three years earlier and the house, which was left empty, needs a lot of work. Harlan is a woodworker, so he can handle it.

Harlan has had his rough times. He acted badly after a failed marriage, but as he says, he at least had the anonymity of the city. He didn’t drink, do drugs, or bother his ex-wife in a nosy little town. He had to recover from a serious accident. But the Harlan we meet has gotten over that. He’s a kind and rather shy man who is amused by his neighbors and what happens in town. He is envious of the close relationship Edie has with her crusty so-and-so of a father.

Of course, his neighbors and townspeople are curious about him as well.

He has a key role in this novel’s story.

Writing about Harlan was also a chance for me to demonstrate my knowledge of woodworking and building that I acquired via osmosis. My husband, Hank, is a master woodworker. When I showed him the book, he said I got those parts just right.

Here’s an excerpt. Edie welcomes Harlan to the neighborhood. He’s living in a tent outside because his grandmother’s house is uninhabitable.

“Hey, there,” she called to Harlan, and when she was closer, “My name’s Edie St. Claire. I’m your next-door neighbor.”

Harlan pulled himself upright. His bad leg felt dead and useless, so he punched it a bit to get it moving, feeling embarrassed. Edie kept smiling as if she didn’t notice. He was on his feet and stretching himself upright. He nodded.

“I’m Harlan. Harlan Doyle.”

She stood at the bottom of the steps. She held something wrapped in aluminum foil.

“I know who you are. Pop told me about you. So did my Aunt Leona. I hear your truck go by. I brought you something.” Her hand swung forward. “This is for you. Banana bread. I made it myself this morning. It has real walnuts.”

Feeling too tall and awkward standing on the porch above this woman, he limped down the steps. He took the bread. It was still warm.

“That was awfully nice of you,” he told her.

Edie glanced around. Harlan saw what she saw.

“You got a lot to do here.”

“I work with wood.”

“Work with wood. What’s that mean?”

“I build furniture. One-of-a-kind pieces.”

“Fancy stuff?”

“Sometimes.” He grinned. “My tools are supposed to get here soon.”

Her head tipped to one side.

“You gonna sell the house when you’re done?”

“No. I’m planning to live here for good.”

“For good? Really? People usually fix up these old places to make money.”

She came nearer. Her blue eyes opened wider. He felt himself smile.

“Not me. This house belonged to my family.”

She laughed as she gestured toward the tent.

“You’d better hurry up then. Winter always comes faster around here than we think, and your tent’s not gonna keep you very warm.”

He nodded. Edie only came up to his shoulders. She didn’t seem to mind being this close to a man she just met.

“I was going to go into town to find a roofer. I don’t have a phone yet. I thought I’d use the payphone near the store.” He slapped at his right thigh. “Bum leg. It’d be tough for me going up and down a ladder carrying bundles of shingles.”

She studied his leg and then his face.

“Were you in the war?” she asked quietly. “Is that how it happened?”

“I was in an accident.”

He glanced away for a moment. Her eyes were still on him.

“You got hurt real bad. Sorry it happened.” She paused. “I know someone who can help you. His name’s Walker St. Claire. He’s my brother-in-law. He does this kinda work, and anyone who hires him gets his money’s worth. He could help you find a plumber and electrician, too, if you need ’em. You got a paper and pencil? I can give you his number.”

“Come inside.”

Harlan stumbled forward, dragging his leg, impatient at his clumsiness, but he made it to the door first, so he could open it for her. The kitchen was a large, square room with wooden cabinets and six-over-six paned windows that would let in natural light once their glass was washed. This was the first room he cleaned. The appliances were long gone, except for an iron cook stove in one corner. The plumbing was missing beneath the sink, but its porcelain was in decent shape. He already fixed the leg on the kitchen table. That and a chair he found in the attic were the only pieces of furniture in the room. He set the bread on the table.

“I liked your grandmother an awful lot,” Edie told him. “I work at my in-laws’ store. I used to bring her groceries on Saturdays. It was the day she baked, and she always gave me something to take home.”

“I’m afraid I didn’t know her very well. I only came here a few times when I was a boy.”

“That’s a shame. Elmira was a wonderful woman, and she was awfully kind to us. I remember she made us all dinner when my mother died. I still have the pink blanket she crocheted for Amber after she was born. Amber’s my little girl.”

She laughed.

“What’s so funny?” he asked.

“Whenever your grandmother hired Pop to help around the house, she made sure he completely finished the job before she paid him. She’d give it a close inspection. She knew my father all right. She’d say, ‘Alban, don’t ever try to fool an old lady, at least not this old lady’.” Edie raised a finger. “I suggest you do the same, Harlan Doyle. I love my Pop, but he’s bit of a rascal, if you get what I mean.”

He handed her a paper and a stubby pencil from the counter. He watched her write.

“I’ll keep it in mind.”

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: One of the bonfires lit at a holiday event in Taos Saturday: Bonfires on Bent Street.

 

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hilltowns, novel, Western Massachusetts

Starting The Sweet Spot

I typed the first draft of The Sweet Spot, my next novel out, with only one hand. It was summer 2004, and I was recuperating after getting hit by a car as I walked across the street in Northampton, Massachusetts.

I was in the middle of the crosswalk on my way to get coffee before I headed to the newsroom. (The driver claimed he didn’t see me.) The impact threw me into the air and broke my collarbone. Something on the hood of the car cut the back of my head. It could have been much worse. I am grateful for that.

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That’s where it happened.

I missed work for a week. I was a copy editor then for a daily newspaper. When I returned, I got good at typing with one hand. Ice and the meds I took then helped. Plus Hank, who had a job in the valley, drove me back and forth to work until I mended enough to drive.

And that’s when I started The Sweet Spot, which has been the novel’s name all along. I set it in the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, where I lived then. The small town of Conwell is pure fiction, but I feel I made it believable enough that I could plunk it in the middle of Worthington (where we lived) and its neighbors, Chesterfield and Cummington.

The year is 1978. No cell phones or email. I didn’t know anyone who had a computer at home. The Vietnam War ended officially three years earlier.

The characters are locals, except for one important newcomer.

I set the stage with softball and baseball games, a Fourth of July parade, a general store, a swimming hole, and raucous nights at the local bar.

Emotions get high. As I learned as a resident and reporter, things can get mighty personal in a small town. In this case, Edie St. Claire, one of the main characters, messes up big time. Most in Conwell won’t let her forget it.

And there are feuds. Edie’s father, who runs the town dump, has an ongoing one with the road boss. Pop keeps taking stuff that belongs to the highway department, and the road boss gets his revenge by plowing and grading their dead-end dirt road last.

I remember coming home and letting the words flow one after the other. I don’t know where they and this story came from, but there it was, 80,000 words later.

I also got quite good at typing with only my right hand.

I sent the manuscript to my then-agent. His suggestion: start from the middle. I reworked the novel that way. He pitched it to two publishing houses: both editors took a pass. One of them died the next day in surgery. True story.

Slow forward ten years later. I reread The Sweet Spot. I loved it enough to tear it apart and rewrite it. I added much more dialogue thanks to the encouragement of my then-agent. But alas he couldn’t sell it either. My pitches to other agents and indie houses after I let him go were unsuccessful.

So I will be publishing it myself. I feel it’s too good a novel not to let people read it. Very soon.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Chile ristras hang from a vendor’s booth at the Taos Farmers Market on the Plaza.

 

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pottery shards
hilltowns, Western Massachusetts, Writing

Finding the Sweet Spot

The Sweet Spot is the next novel I will be publishing. I like the title very much, and I’ve stuck with it from the start because it has many layers.

This is the first of what I call my hilltown novels. They are set in Western Massachusetts, where my family and I once lived for many years. I call the novel’s town Conwell. It doesn’t exist, but if it did, it would be located in the hills west of the Connecticut River and to the east of the Berkshires.

But not only did I live in one of those hilltowns, Worthington to be specific, I reported on them for the local newspaper. I sat in numerous meetings, interviewed countless people, and covered whatever news happened in them. I got schooled on how people talk and act. I am grateful.

So like other authors, I take what I know and, as I’ve said before, have my way with it.

Yes, in my mind, the hilltowns are indeed a sweet spot even though this is not that kind of a book.

Here is a brief synopsis: Most in Conwell love Edie St. Claire, the widow of a soldier killed in Vietnam, until her affair with his married brother ends tragically. She tries to survive this small town’s biggest scandal through the help of her rough-sawn family and a badly scarred man who’s arrived for his fresh start.

(For the record, that didn’t happen.)

Other Sweet references. Edie’s last name was Sweet before she married. The family, notably her crusty Pop, who runs the town dump, and her outspoken aunt, like to say, “We Sweets stick together.”

She also plays on the Conwell Woman’s Softball Team, and naturally batters try to hit the ball where it will create the most velocity aka the sweet spot.

Then, there is this quote from Walker St. Claire, the aforementioned married brother-in-law, as he describes Edie:

“Gil’s the only one who’d understand how I feel about her,” Walker said. “My parents sure as hell don’t.” His voice faded as he lit the butt. “She always dressed up nice for me. Her hair shined and smelled good. When she laughed, the sound bubbled up from a sweet spot inside her.” He took a drag. “You ever see the way she talks with the people in the store? I’ve seen her give an old barfly at the Do her ear for an hour. She lights up everything and everybody, including me. That’s why my brother loved her. That’s why. Jesus, the last time he was home, he didn’t want to leave her for a minute. I had to shame him to get him up here with me.”

(For the record, absolutely no characters in this novel are based on real people.)

Right now, I am still giving The Sweet Spot extremely close reads. I am compiling parts for the back of the book, my bio, acknowledgements etc. for Michelle, its designer, when she is ready.

Expect to read more posts about the novel, like how I typed the first draft with one hand while recuperating from being hit by a car. I will write about the novel’s characters — Edie’s family is a colorful group — and other topics.

For those posts, I will be pitching The Sweet Spot.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Those are ancient pottery shards spotted on a hike above the hot springs at Ojo Caliente in New Mexico, not too far from where we live. There are many shards scattered on the ground, and I am pleased my fellow hikers let them be, as we did.

 

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