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.


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.


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.