Northern Comfort

Harsh Realities in Northern Comfort

My next book, Northern Comfort, is getting oh-so-close to its July 19 release. This novel is about the harsh realities of rural life in New England.

Willi is a single mother trying to raise her young son, who was brain-damaged at birth. She had a tough childhood after her kind father died in a crash while drunk and her mother married a cruel man who abused Willi. Then she married young.

Now, Willi and Cody live in a cabin left to them by the loving grandfather who took them in after Junior Miller, the boy’s father, abandoned them. Willi’s situation is a desperate one. She’s alone, barely making it. But she’s tough and doing the best she can.

In the opening scene, Willi is home from her job cutting hair at a country beauty shop and hanging clothes on a line in her backyard. It’s the dead of winter, cold and dark, but the job has to get done. She doesn’t have a drier because she can’t afford one.

Willi tries to keep Cody close to her as she works. But then tragedy happens when the boy’s sled quickly takes him in the path of a truck driven by Miles Potter. Willi and Miles have known each other since they were kids, but until the moment her son dies, they were separated by their families’ places in town.

How Willi handles this situation demonstrates her resilience and the kindness of those living in her small town, including Miles. Then, there is Junior, who eventually faces his failings as a father.

That’s what Northern Comfort is about. It’s not the stuff for pretty postcards although I do include a lot of the hilltowns’ traditions like maple sugaring and making old-time music.

By the way, Willi is not based on anyone real. The same goes for all of the characters in this novel. Without sounding like a nut, the story and the people in it came to me as they do with the other books I write. 

Here is a scene from Northern Comfort. The chapter is called “The Buy.” Thanks to donations people gave Willi at her son’s funeral, she is able to buy boots to replace the cracked ones she has.

Willi parked her car next to a display of roof shingles poking through a snowbank outside Fisher Brothers Hardware in Penfield. The store never seemed to change, not since she was a little girl coming here with Daddy to get new works for the toilet or something else to repair their house. She sidestepped the displays of stovepipes and paint cans, the floorboards bending and squeaking beneath her feet. The last time she was here was in the fall when she bought tarpaper to wrap her house and the red sled for Cody. Today, she had two things to buy: a light shade to replace the one her boy broke and a pair of boots, if they were still on sale, as one of her customers told her.

Horace Fisher stood behind the counter, one of three brothers, who were all in their seventies and too stubborn to let the next generation take over. He smiled at Willi. Horace had an extra-long space between his thin upper lip and the bottom of his nose, a common trait among all the Fishers, who lived in Penfield even before it was officially a town centuries ago. 

“Willi, it’s been a while. How are you doing today?”

They made small talk about her errands and the winter as he directed her to the lighting section, where she pondered for several minutes on the selection of glass shades. Horace showed her an opaque shade, a white rectangle with slanted sides. But she had her eye on a round one, its surface engraved like lace, which was twice as much. A few weeks ago, she would have taken Horace’s suggestion, but now she didn’t.

“That’s a nice shade, but I like this one better. Now, I’d like to buy some boots.”

She walked behind Horace, who carried the glass shade to that part of the store. The boots stood in lines on long, wooden shelves. Willi saw a pair of insulated ones from Canada, which cost more than she expected, but they appeared the warmest. She fingered the wool felt lining, thinking of the cold wrapping around her toes whenever she stepped outside. 

Horace cleared his throat. “Well, we were running a sale last week on ladies’ boots, twenty percent off. But I was telling my brother Homer this morning we should extend it another few days. He said it was fine by him.”

She knew the man was fibbing, but it was a nice fib. She sat on a wooden stool to try on the boots. They fit right on her feet. She stretched her legs and rolled the boots on the back of their heels.

“They’re awfully nice. I’ll take them, too.”

At the counter, Horace centered the glass shade on a stack of newspapers and wrapped the sheets to pad it. He tilted his head as he eyed Willi kindly.

“I was sad to hear of your little boy’s death,” he said. “We lost a child, too, a little girl, Pearl, our next to the youngest. She drowned in an irrigation pond. My wife thought I was watching her, and I thought she was. It was such a long time ago.” He shook his head slowly. “It gets better, but you never forget. I don’t think you’re supposed to.”

Willi smiled as she gazed into the man’s eyes, a blue as light as water. Old-timers have manners, she thought, as she opened her purse to complete the purchase.

“I’m so sorry about your little girl,” she said. “Yes, it’s hard these days.”

LINK: Here’s the link to buy Northern Comfort. It’s only $2.99 for Kindle. Thank you if you do. Paperback readers will have to be a little patient.

Northern Comfort

Only Days to Go for Northern Comfort

Northern Comfort, which has a July 19 release, is my next book set in the fictional hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. That’s only days away. Perhaps you’re wondering why I continue to choose that setting. Frankly, it’s because I have had a long fascination with the real ones. Let me explain.

After living in a number of cities, Hank and I decided a better place to raise our family would be in the country. And with the encouragement of new friends, we found ourselves moving to the town of Worthington, population around 1,200. Before the move, we checked out the town, camping in our friends’ yard. That night the sky was alive with Northern Lights, which I took as a positive sign.

We rented a funky, little house for $150 a month. Actually it was less than that for several months since we helped clean and fix up this house, which had belonged to the owner’s grandfather. Just like those Northern Lights, we got a welcome from the people who lived in town, in particular one of its largest families, the Donovans. Hank and I immersed ourselves in the town. Two of our six kids were born here. They all went to the local schools. Hank established himself as a skilled woodworker.

Eventually, we were able to buy a small piece of land and build a house, thanks to the generosity of so many people in the local construction industry who gave us great deals and even worked for free.

I got a job as a freelance reporter, a correspondent, actually, who reported on Worthington for the local newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette. I covered selectboard meetings, fires, storms, accidents and other emergencies, basically anything I thought readers would want to read about. I wrote features about people and the things they did like truck pulls, hunting, farming, maple sugaring, etc. I was paid by the word.

Eventually I expanded my coverage area to two more hilltowns. 

Hank and I also enjoyed the nightlife, which meant drinking and dancing at the town’s watering hole, Liston’s. (Before that, it was the Drummer’s Club.)

As a reporter, I listened to the way people talked and how they behaved. I heard so many stories, some of which weren’t printable, but they gave me insight and inspiration. I am also grateful for the experience because it broke a 25-year writer’s block. But it wasn’t until I was hired by the same paper as an editor, that I turned my newfound writing skills into fiction. Among those is my new book, Northern Comfort.

So what’s Northern Comfort about? Willi Miller and her son are a charity case in a NE town that holds dear to the traditions of making maple syrup, playing old-time music, and keeping family secrets. They live in a cabin left to them by their grandfather, who took them in after Junior Miller abandoned them. Then, on a snowy day, Cody’s sled sends him into the path of a truck driven by Miles Potter, a man of means. Willi and Miles have known each other since they were kids, but until the moment her son dies, they are separated by their families’ places in town. 

This is a story about the haves and have nots in a small town. Over the next couple of weeks I will share more posts about the book in my attempt to entice you to buy it. As of July 19, it will be available in Kindle for $2.99. (Paperback readers will have to be patient.) My thanks if you do.

Here’s the link:

Northern Comfort

Why I Chose ‘Northern Comfort’ for My Book

My next novel, Northern Comfort will be released July 19. It’s a dark drama in which the accidental death of a child changes the lives of those involved. No, it’s not part of my Isabel Long Mystery Series. (Another is not the way.) But, yes, it has a favorite setting, the fictional hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. Why did I give it that title? As I so often say, I take what I know and have my way with it.

One of the great pleasures I had as a reporter living and working in Western Massachusetts was the start of maple sugaring season. That would happen in late winter when the weather was warm enough during the day to get the maple trees’ sap flowing and cold enough at night, that it would stop. There’s a lot of work that goes into getting those trees ready and for boiling the sap into delicious maple syrup. Every year, I tried to find a new angle for a story, and the maple sugarers were very accommodating. One of my go-to guys was Paul Sena, who still makes maple syrup in my former town of Worthington. Hank and I still drive there to buy syrup from him. It is one of my favorite foods. Here’s a link to an earlier post about that topic:

Since this book is set in winter, I wanted to capture the process of stringing lines, tapping trees, and even boiling. Miles Potter, one of the main characters, helps his buddy, Dave, a relative newcomer to this hilltown, who is enamored by the old-time ways including sugaring. For Miles, the work is cathartic. He was the one driving the truck when little Cody Miller’s sled slid into its path. Miles knows Cody’s mother, Willi Miller. They grew up in the same town, but their places were separated by what their families had or didn’t have. Will and Cody were dirt poor. Miles grew up comfortably.

The excerpt below tells you a lot about the tradition of maple sugaring, including the history of why it was called ‘northern comfort’ before I used it as a title.

Given the drama of this case, the title Northern Comfort fits so well. We have a mother grieving for the young son she raised by herself. It hasn’t been easy considering he was brain-damaged at birth. Then, there is Miles who feels remorseful for his role in the accident, and finally, Junior Miller, who uncomfortably must face the fact he abandoned his former wife and son.

What kind of comfort can any of them find in the cold north?

As promised, here is an excerpted from Northern Comfort. The scene takes place at Dave’s sugarhouse. Miles is there as well as Dave’s family, including his pregnant wife.

Sap flowed into the metal holding tank at the sugarhouse, sweet music to Dave, who threw up his arms and did a jig next to the evaporator. “I knew it, I knew it,” he sang. “I just knew it.”

Dave’s little girls danced with him, although they didn’t understand what their father was shouting about. 

His wife, Ruth, whose belly was too big to dance, laughed and shook her head. “You gotta love the man,” she said.

Miles laughed as he stoked the fire beneath the evaporator’s pan. He was doing as Dave taught him, putting the slabs of hard and soft wood, bark-side down, inside the firebox. His goal was to get its cast-iron doors hot enough to glow red. Now the firebox’s ears, or hinges, were another thing. Dave, who learned to sugar from an old-timer long dead, said he only did it once so far.

Miles stripped to his thermal shirt. He couldn’t work bare-shirted because sparks flaring from the firebox’s opening would burn his skin. The shirt and jeans would be useless by the end of sugaring season, bit through with so many holes they’d look like someone had fired birdshot at him. Miles reached inside his jeans pockets for the coins and keys. He took off his belt. He had learned from Dave their metal would heat up enough to leave red marks on his body.

“Hey, Dave, you might want to forget to tell the doctor about emptying his pockets when he comes for his ceremonial boil. We’d get a laugh watching him jump around like his pants were on fire.”

“Yeah, that’d go over big,” Dave said flatly.

Yesterday, when the temperature rose into the forties and everyone’s houses dripped melted snow, some sap collected in the vats at the bottom of each sugar bush. Today, the run was full-blown with two thousand gallons ready to be boiled into syrup.

Dave was full of local lore as he moved around the sugarhouse after Ruth and the girls went home. He talked about how farmers in New England used to make maple sugar, forming it into hard cakes. Maple syrup became popular in the late 1800s when someone invented the evaporator, which resembles a flat-bottom boat when it’s empty.

Miles glanced up from the firebox’s door. He raised a gloved hand. 

“Dave, you’ve told me this story six years straight. Why don’t you tell me this on the third week when we’re so sick of this stuff and pulling all-nighters we vow never to do it again? Or better yet, save it for the doctor. I bet he’d love telling his buddies back in New York all about it.”

Dave studied Miles.

“Shit, you can be such a spoilsport sometimes.” He reached for his leather gloves. “Anyway, around the Civil War people up North began using maple sugar instead of cane sugar and molasses from the South. They used to call it northern comfort.”

“Yeah, yeah, I remember that from last year.”

The sugarhouse, only yards from Dave’s house, was unheated, except for the evaporator’s fire box. Step a few feet outside at night, and the cold had a punch, but next to the evaporator, all was humid and hot like a woman’s mouth. The swirling sap in the pan gave off a bank of steam, which rose to the sugarhouse’s vented roof.

They fired up the evaporator about an hour ago. It’d be another two before Dave could pour the season’s first syrup. As Dave reminded Miles, the first boil sweetens the pan, so it takes longer than the next firings. They’d be here until ten or so and resume boiling the next day.

Miles helped Dave build his sugarhouse seven years ago. They took measurements from an abandoned shack in South Hayward that had collapsed from heavy snow the year before Dave’s was built. Rough-hewn boards nailed vertically covered the rectangular building. On the wall near the shelf for the radio, Dave penciled the starting and ending dates for each season, and how many gallons of syrup they had made. Today’s date was Thursday, March 5. 

LINK FOR NORTHERN COMFORT: The book will be released July 19 for Kindle readers. Here is the link: It only costs $2.99. I hope you will preorder as it helps with ratings. Thank you if you have already done that.

Paperback readers will have to be a little patient. I will let you know when it’s available.

PHOTO ABOVE: A half-gallon of the delicious maple syrup created by Paul Sena. Forgive the crusted drips of sap.

Northern Comfort

Northern Comfort: How It Starts

Only days ago, I announced my newest book, Northern Comfort will be released July 19 on Kindle. Until then, it is in the preorder phase. I’m chuffed, as my UK friends would say, that readers have enthusiastically preordered the book. Thank you because it helps the book get traction on Amazon. (The link is below.)

Northern Comfort is not part of my Isabel Long Mystery Series, but it has the same setting, the fictional hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. But this book is what I would call a dark drama because of the story I tell — a woman struggling to raise her brain-damaged son, Cody after his father abandoned them. They are way below that so-called poverty line as she supports them working in a hair salon. They live in a cabin left by the grandfather who took them in. Willi tries to do her best for her son. But a tragic accident involving Cody severely tests her resilience.

Over the next few weeks I will write more about the characters and themes in Northern Comfort. For now, here is the first chapter to hopefully pique your interest.

The chapter is called Worst of Winter. That’s the time of year this book takes place. It’s the coldest and dreariest part of the season in the small town where Willi and Cody live. Here I will let the first chapter set the scene for you.

Willi Miller pinned her best blouse to the rope line, shaking her bare hands to keep the blood moving, as she reached into the broken plastic basket for something else. She should have done this miserable chore before she went to work this morning, but she didn’t have the time. 

Short and thin-boned like her mother, but yellow-haired like her father, Willi spun around for her boy, who stood a half-foot away, staring at the dog whimpering and jerking its chain. “There you are, Cody. Stay near me,” she said.

Her boy, dressed in a one-piece red snowsuit, his mittens packed tightly on his hands, didn’t say a word. He only made noises that sounded like words, and he was seven. His ‘Ma,’ Willi had decided, was exactly as an animal would say it.

Earlier this afternoon, she got Cody at the babysitter’s house, where the van took him after school. Willi was a hairdresser at the Lucky Lady Beauty Shop in nearby Tyler although the running joke among the gals who worked there was it should be called the Unlucky Lady because of the stories the customers told about their men. Cheaters, drunks, and bums, the whole lot of them, it seemed, by their complaints.

The ‘Lucky Lady’ was busy today with high school girls who wanted their hair curled and piled high for the semi-formal tonight. They were fun customers, so excited about their dates and the big Friday night ahead, she didn’t mind their lousy tips. Willi remembered not that long ago she did the same.

She fed Cody cereal after they got home just to hold him until she made dinner. He ate a few spoonfuls before he began playing with it, making a mess as usual, so she dressed him in his snowsuit and took him outside after she lowered the damper on the wood stove.

Now, Cody walked beneath the hanging laundry toward the dog, named Foxy by her grandfather, who used to own the brown, short-haired, pointy-eared mutt. Willi called to her boy, who moved step by step across the snow, breaking through its icy crust until he sank to the top of his boots. He turned toward his mother. His green eyes peered from beneath the brim of his cap. Yellow snot bubbled from one nostril.

“Yeah, I’m watchin’ you,” Willi said, bending for a towel.

Snow seeped through a crack in her right boot. Cold numbed her toes. She should put duct tape over the brown rubber, but it was her only pair, and it’d look like hell.

“Hey, Cody. Where’re you goin’?”

Her boy marched with fast little feet past the junked truck to the back of their house, where his sled, a cheap thing she bought, was propped against the wall. “This is a red sled,” she told Cody in the hardware store.

Her boy uttered a sound that might have been “red” but only she would know. She understood his ways most of the time. He wanted things tick-tock regular when he ate, what he wore.

Her eyes followed her boy, dragging his sled, grunting, toward her. He dropped it at her feet and sat inside. The heels of his boots kicked up and down. “Maaaaa,” he called.

Willi sighed. Cody wouldn’t let up until she gave him a ride. Her boy liked it when she towed him in his sled along the driveway to get the mail. He made happy chirps and flapped his mittens. She wiped her hands on her black jacket, a man’s, too big and open in the front because the zipper was broken. Its bottom swayed against her legs as she walked.

“All right, Cody, but just a little ride.”

She reached for the towrope and pulled Cody in a large circle. His mouth formed a wide, sloppy smile, and he let out gleeful sounds as Willi went slowly, then gained speed. She had to work at it because her feet sank through the snow, although the sled glided easily on its surface. She was careful to stay on the flat part of her land, away from the edge of its tabletop, where it plunged onto her neighbor’s property then to one of the town’s main roads below. When she squinted, she could see the Mercy River flowing through its snowy valley like a blue vein on a woman’s wrist.

Round and round Willi towed her son. She slipped on the packed ring of snow, and her straight, yellow hair dropped to her jaw when her knit cap fell. Cody’s head rocked back as he yelped in pleasure. After a while, she stopped, out of breath.

“I gotta finish hanging the clothes before it gets dark. Alright?” she told Cody, although she did not expect his answer.

She picked her hat from the snow. The sun was low in the sky, and the dark smudge spreading from the west likely carried more snow. Willi frowned. It’d be too much trouble to take the clothes down again. She hated this part of winter, mid-January. It snowed every day, not much, but enough to keep the road crews going with their plows and sanders. Winter always has a week like this, unsettled weather, the worst of the season, of the year, as far as she was concerned. Often, it happened after the thaw, so that brief warm spell seemed like one cruel joke.

She bent for one of Cody’s shirts. She had to work faster because the clothes were stiffening inside the basket. After she hung them, they would freeze into thin slabs, like shale, and after a day or two, they’d be dry. If she had any money, she’d buy a dryer. She glanced toward her house and saw missing clapboards. She’d fix those, too.

When she was a girl, she used to keep a mental list of what she’d get if she were rich: stuff like pink high heels and a long white coat. None of them seemed practical for a town like Hayward, where half the roads were dirt and fancy things were in other people’s houses. Now, she’d buy a car that worked without worry and hire a lawyer to make her ex-husband, Junior, pay child support. 

Her boy bucked his body while he lay on his belly inside the sled, wailing as if he were wounded. Willi shook her hands and grabbed a pair of jeans from the basket. 

“Shit, I hate this life,” she said.

LINK: Kindle readers can buy Northern Comfort for $2.99 on Amazon. Of course, if you have Kindle Unlimited, it is free. Here is the link:

Alas, paperback readers will have to wait.

My Books, Northern Comfort

New Book: Northern Comfort

I am excited to announce that my next book, Northern Comfort, will be released July 19 for Kindle readers. But starting today, this novel is available to pre-order. Here I’ll make it easy for you:

So what is Northern Comfort about? This book is not part of my Isabel Long Mystery Series, but it has an oh-so-familiar setting — the fictional hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. It is not a mystery but a story about the harsh realities of rural life that takes place in winter, as the great cover created by Laurence Patterson, darkstroke book’s co-publisher, illustrates.

Willi Miller and her young son are a charity case in a New England town that holds dear to the traditions of making maple syrup, playing old-time music, and keeping family secrets. It’s a tough life although she does her best by Cody, who was brain-damaged at birth. Their home is a cabin left by the grandfather who took them in after Junior Miller abandoned them. 

Then, on a snowy day, Cody’s sled sends him into the path of a truck driven by Miles Potter, a man of means. Willi and Miles have known each other since they were kids, but until the moment her son dies, they are separated by their families’ places in town. 

Cody’s death has a powerful effect on the people involved. Miles discovers he and Willi have more in common than the tragedy that brought them together. Junior tries to face his failings as a father and make amends that matter to his child’s mother. And Willi, a slight woman with a powerful resolve, must confront her past to find some measure of peace.

So, what’s with the title, Northern Comfort? I am referring to the tradition of maple sugaring, which has a role in this book. It also has a meaningful connection to the characters in this book. Count on more posts concerning the characters I’ve created and elements of the plot.

I hope this post will entice you to pre-order Northern Comfort. The cost is $2.99, but for Kindle Unlimited subscribers it is free. Pre-ordering helps authors get attention from Amazon for their books. So I am grateful if you do. Here’s the link:

Regarding paperback, that version won’t be available for a little while. I certainly will let you know when that happen.