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The Sweet Spot

Sibling Rivalry

With the Monday, Feb. 20 launch of The Sweet Spot ever closer, I wanted to offer a post on one of the novel’s themes: sibling rivalry. The Sweet Spot has a fun one between an older brother and sister that provides a humorous balance to the novel’s grimmer parts.

Alban “Benny” Sweet, father of the novel’s main character, Edie St. Claire, is the crusty old so-and-so who runs the town dump. Leona, his fiery and outspoken sister, lives next door on their dead-end dirt road.

Both are up there in years, but they haven’t lost their spark. They are among my favorite characters I’ve created.

Benny is a bit of a rascal who smokes and drinks. He brings home the good stuff people throw out at the dump, like furniture and appliances. His barn and shacks out back are filled with them, and he would do the same in the yard if his daughter would let him. He borrows tools from the town’s highway department without asking, which gets him in hot water with the road boss. His other two daughters, much older than Edie, won’t have anything to do with him.

Leona is a woman with no brake on her mouth. She dyes her hair bright red and wears makeup. Married three times but now single, she jokes about men, sex, and everything else. I believe people in town, particularily the natives, are a bit afraid of her because she doesn’t hold back. She cheats at cards even with Edie’s seven-year-old daughter. She’s a big fan of Edie’s softball team and doesn’t miss a game, especially when they’re home and she gets to drink for free.

Both love Edie and her daughter, Amber. They stand by them, especially when things get really ugly in their small town, or as Leona says, “We Sweets stick together.”

Much of the time we see Benny and Leona separately except for a few key scenes. (They are later in the novel, and I don’t want to spoil things.) They may talk about each other and their faults to Edie, but I always get the feeling they do it out of love and habit.

Here are two short scenes that give you an idea about the rivalry. In the first, Benny — Pop to Edie — talks about the newcomer, Harlan Doyle, who moved in next door.

“I tried to take a nap on the porch, but there was too much hammering next door. Bang, bang, bang, that’s all I could hear.”

“At Aunt Leona’s?”

“Nah, the other side. Doyle’s.”

The Doyle place was located at the bottom of their dead-end road, closed up after the last Doyle, Elmira, died, and the family who lived elsewhere couldn’t decide what to do with the property. It must have been three years ago, and Pop got a few bucks keeping an eye on the place.

“Somebody moved in? Elmira’s house has gotten really rundown.”

Pop glanced up from his plate.

“I went over to see what’s what and met the fella. Damnedest face I ever seen. Scars up and down like somethin’ clawed him. He walked with an awful bad limp.”

“What clawed him?” Amber asked.

“Didn’t bring it up. It’s not polite, honey. I’ll let your Aunt Leona do it.” Pop grinned at his crack. “Friendly guy though. Name’s Harlan Doyle. His father, Aldrich, grew up next door. Elmira’s boy. He went to Japan in the war, and when he came back, he married a woman and moved south to be with her people. They used to visit the old folks here once in a while. Says he remembers me.”

Here, Leona talks about the new neighbor, Harlan Doyle, who showed up at Edie’s softball game. They are walking back to the car after the game.

“Aunt Leona, how much beer did you drink tonight?” Edie asked.

Leona waved her away.

“I lost count after the fourth inning,” she said.

Leona’s voice was hoarse from yelling. She booed one of the ump’s calls so loudly he muttered and glared. At that point, Vera asked Edie to tell her aunt to pipe down. But Edie reminded her it wouldn’t make a difference if she did. Her aunt wouldn’t listen. She was having too much fun.

“Vera’s gotten as fat as a pig. She should go on a diet,” her aunt went on. “She can’t even bend over to pick up a grounder.” She paused to take a breath. “I see our new neighbor came to the game. Harlan Doyle. Nice name, don’t you think?”

“He said you went by to meet him.”

“I did.” Leona nodded. “Too bad about his face. Something or someone hurt him, but you get used to it.” She frowned. “And, no, I didn’t ask him how it happened. That’s what’s Alban would do.”

“Funny, Pop said the same thing about you.”

“The smelly bastard.”

Leona clamped her mouth shut. Edie almost laughed, but she held back because it would provoke her aunt into a long discussion about Pop, mostly about his no-good qualities. He still hadn’t cut the grass. The weed trimmer from the highway garage lay on the porch. But Edie was tired of nagging her father.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Michelle M. Gutierrez’ great cover design for The Sweet Spot.


William Cullen Bryant homestead
The Sweet Spot


Monday, Feb. 20, the official launch day for The Sweet Spot, fast approaches. For the past couple of months, I’ve been trying to generate interest in my hilltown novel’s characters and plot. I will continue that practice over the next few days via these posts.

This has been a hectic week for Michelle Gutierrez, the novel’s designer, and me. Dissatisfied with the proofs of the book’s physical cover — the spine’s printing was off — she decided to change the design a bit to alleviate any problems. Ah, so another set of proofs had to arrive, which they did Wednesday. Voila. The cover looks fabulous. But I am holding off publishing until last minute. (With Create Space and Kindle, you can’t set a future release date.)

The Kindle version was a bit trickier. But Michelle figured out the formatting problems.

Then I had to come up with ad copy through Amazon marketing for the Kindle version. I plan to run the ad for the next two weeks at least, starting Monday. People were nice enough to weigh in on the ad copy on Facebook.

Ah, then I found out I had to reduce it all to 150 CHARACTERS. Wow, how do you reduce 80,000 words into that amount? Here’s what I came up with: Most love Edie, widow of a soldier killed in Vietnam, until her affair with his brother ends badly. Can she survive her small town’s biggest scandal?

That will appear on certain ads, like when somebody opens their Kindle e-reader.

I also came up with a headline for the other types of ads: Secrets and Scandals in a Small Town.

Of course, I will do promotion via social media, and later next month, a reading in Taos. It would be fun to return to the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts to have one.

And hopefully, those who read and like my novel will write reviews as they did for my last novel, Peace, Love, and You Know What.

More tomorrow ….

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That image of the road leading to the William Cullen Bryant Homestead in Cummington, Massachusetts was taken from an old postcard. Hank and I used to walk the old-growth forest beside it when we lived in the hilltowns. Conwell, the fictional town in The Sweet Spot, would fit nicely beside Cummington.

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The Sweet Spot

A Sense of Place

Hoo boy, the launch of The Sweet Spot is only a week away, Feb. 20. For the past few months, I’ve been writing posts about the novel’s characters and relevant subjects. This time I write about creating a place, in this case, the hilltown of Conwell.

Conwell doesn’t exist in Western Massachusetts. I will admit the name Conwell has significance to the town of Worthington, where my family and I lived for over two decades. Russell H. Conwell, who was born there, founded Temple University in Philly. He was a whole lot of things like a minister, orator (his most famous speech is called Acres of Diamonds), philanthropist and more. The elementary school my kids attended was named for him.

But Conwell is not Worthington although there are similarities. Both have a general store, a Congregational Church, and a bar. Men and women play softball. There’s a constant stream of newcomers seeking the good life in the country. And, as I’ve written, people can be nosy and helpful. Yes, there are feuds. And lots of dirt roads.

I will admit also to borrowing the Fourth of July Parade from Worthington’s neighbor Chesterfield.

Or as I write in the books acknowledgements, I feel I could plunk Conwell in between Worthington, Chesterfield, and Cummington, and it would fit just nicely.

I use the name Conwell in all of my other hilltown novels, including the mystery I am writing now.

It’s been easy to create such a town as a setting for my novels. I became immersed in the hilltowns when I reported on them for many years for the local daily newspaper. I remained interested after that ended. The hilltowns, its people and landscape are still a part of me although I live 2,000 miles away in Northern New Mexico.

Here is an excerpt toward the start of The Sweet Spot. Harlan Doyle, who grew up elsewhere, came to Conwell for a fresh start. It is through Harlan that we get an outsider’s view of the hilltowns. Here he is bringing a load of trash from his grandmother’s house that he’s fixing up. Benny Sweet, who runs the dump, is his next-door neighbor and the father of Edie St. Claire, the novel’s main character. Benny is letting Harlan bring his junk on his day off as a neighborly favor.

Harlan inched his pickup over the rutted road. He passed Benny’s house, both vehicles gone, and Leona’s, buttoned up. Then he was on a paved road to the town’s main route, a few miles to the Conwell General Store. He’d been here only five days, and already he knew his way around. The public buildings like Town Hall and the school, plus the Conwell Congregational Church were centrally located. The general store, a garage, and a graveyard, where the Doyles were buried, were a few miles away on the same road. The Do-Si-Do Bar was in the western end of Conwell. A few paved roads crisscrossed the town, but most, like the one where he lived, were dirt.

He pulled his pickup into the entrance of the town dump and then backed the truck to the edge of a large pile of garbage. He had a full load, his second trip today. Benny Sweet came quickly to examine the contents, but once again he complained all he had was junk.

Benny’s breath smelled of liquor.

“Looks like your grandmother’s place got cleaned out. Hope your family got the good stuff she had,” he said.

Harlan flung a lampshade on top of the pile, its side stove-in badly like someone took a foot to it.

“I hope so, too,” he said.

“You can’t leave an empty house alone without asking for trouble,” Benny said. “Kids started hangin’ out there, making a mess. That’s when your uncle had it boarded up and asked me to watch the place. Kinda too late by then.”

Harlan held the racks to a refrigerator no longer in the house and scraps of metal he couldn’t identify.

“Want any of this stuff?”

“I’ll take the racks. Toss the rest.”

Harlan hoisted himself onto the truck’s bed. He planned to use a shovel to scoop what was left.

“Thanks again for letting me do this,” he said.

Benny winked then pointed to what he had set aside, a couple of lamp bodies and a wooden trunk between his attendant’s shack and the dozer he used to move the trash. He leaned against the pickup’s fender. He made a whistling laugh through the gaps in his front teeth.

“You won’t believe what people dump here. Once I seen a woman grab a wedding dress and veil outta the back seat of her car and toss it onto the garbage. I laughed to bust a gut after she left. Gotta be a story there.” He tipped his head. “I seen sad things, too. I wanted to cry out loud the day a young couple who lost their baby threw out their crib.”

Benny frowned at the memory.

“I run an orderly dump here. It’ll get a bit tricky when it gets hotter, and I gotta keep the flies down. But the dozer does an excellent job gettin’ it covered.” He spat a yellow wad of phlegm on the gritty ground near a stray tin can. “I get rats, too. Big suckers. Some nights I just come down here with a bottle and my twenty-two and pick ’em off one at a time. My Edie used to come. She’s a real hot shot like her old man. You might like to join me sometime.”

Harlan leaned on the shovel.

“I met your daughter today. She brought me some banana bread she baked. I ate a slice already. It was really good.”

Benny made a whistling laugh again.

“She gave you one, too? She’s a fine girl, my Edie. She’d make some man a great wife. You might wanna think about it.”

Harlan grinned as he scraped the flat-edged shovel across the bottom of the pickup’s bed. His leg throbbed, and he moved slower than earlier this morning, but this was the last load today.

Benny squinted.

“Harlan, hand me that copper wire you got back there. Now there’s somethin’ worth somethin’.”

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That copy is from the first set of proofs for The Sweet Spot. Michelle has changed the spine’s design so we are awaiting the second, set to arrive Wednesday.

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The Sweet Spot

Fussing and Feuding

You’d like to think that everyone living in a small town would get along, but from my experience that isn’t true. When I was a reporter in the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, I witnessed some doozies. I even wrote about them. And, yes, I’ve included feuds in The Sweet Spot, set for a Feb. 20 release in paperback and Kindle.

First, here’s the real stuff. Dogs are a big source of neighborhood feuds. Barking dogs. Wandering dogs. And, of course, biting dogs. When I was a reporter sitting in board of selectmen’s hearings, I saw perfectly nice people go at it. (A board of selectmen is like a town council, but New England-style.)

I once covered a great pig feud between newcomers, who didn’t like smelling the animals next door, and the local guy, who didn’t seem to mind because he was raising them for meat. When the newcomers complained, the pig owner just moved the pen closer to the property line. The feud went to the Board of Health, who actually ruled in the pig owner’s favor. (Tony Lake, who later became Bill Clinton’s National Security Adviser, spoke in favor of the pigs.)

Then there are the feuds that are more personal, like an affair, sloppy flirting or some wrong done a long time ago I didn’t know about. I remember one guy who lived way out in the sticks giving the road guys a hard time. I also recall a notorious feud between members of a town department.

Sometimes neighbors just couldn’t stand each other’s guts.

The Sweet Spot has two notorious feuds.

The first involves Edie St. Claire’s father, Alban “Benny” Sweet, and the town’s road boss. Benny, a cantankerous but lovable old fart, runs the town dump. He keeps borrowing stuff like tools from the town’s highway department and, of course, doesn’t bring them back. It ticks off the road boss, who gets his revenge by plowing and grading their road the very last.

The feud has a brief reprieve — a very brief reprieve — when the road boss, in a fit of anger, accidently runs over a dog, but that’s all I will write about that.

Edie becomes party to the second feud. But this one doesn’t just involve one other person, but a whole family following a tragedy. They put the blame all on her, and, man, they’re awful to her.

The excerpt below gives you an idea about the feud between Benny and the road boss.

Edie heard shouting from inside the house, and when she checked the kitchen window, the road boss and Pop were going at it near the highway department’s idling pickup. The man’s face was red and his fingers punched the air in front of her father. Pop, just home from the dump, had been hauling his booty into his shacks out back. Amber, she was relieved to remember, took off on her bike to Leona’s.

Edie stepped onto the porch, but the men didn’t notice her until she was beside them. Pop, his overalls caked with dirt, smelled sour and rusty like the inside of a garbage can.

“I told your old man to keep his hands off the highway equipment.” Spit flew from the road boss’ mouth. “Who in the hell does he think he is?”

“Leave Edie outta this,” Pop growled.

Edie didn’t like the look on the road boss’ face. She had seen enough bar fights, and her father, although a scrapper, was no match for a man his size or age.

“Take it easy,” she said. “Pop took care of the trimmer. He didn’t mean any harm.”

“That’s not the point,” the road boss said. “It don’t belong to him. All of this is town property.”

“I’m a taxpayer and a town employee, ain’t I?” Pop said.

Edie cringed.

“It don’t give you the right, you stupid little fuck,” the road boss said. “Stick to the dump where you belong. I don’t go taking your crap.”

The road boss’ belly jiggled beneath his chambray work shirt as he stepped onto the porch to get the trimmer. He cursed loudly when he noticed a gas can and tools belonging to the Conwell Highway Department. Pop cussed back while the man loaded the stuff into the back of the pickup. Her father trailed him, making certain he didn’t take anything of his, and in his agitation, he tripped. The road boss sniggered as Pop fell to the ground.

“You fucker,” Pop growled.

Edie bent over her father. Pop was too angry to take her hand although he managed to scramble to his feet when the pickup’s tires spun away. Pop jogged after the truck, and Edie relaxed. She knew he’d only run a few yards before he’d be out of breath. This episode would be over until Pop was brazen enough to borrow something else from the highway garage. The board of selectmen would never fire Pop because no one else wanted his job. Besides, he was popular with the townspeople, especially the newcomers who thought he was a colorful and helpful character.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That’s the backside to The Sweet Spot’s cover by Michelle Gutierrez. The next step is to upload the contents etc. and order proofs.


snowy gate
The Sweet Spot

Talk of the Town

I prefer living in a small town. I’ve had my share of big city life, but my comfort zone is being around a thousand people, give or take a couple of hundred. And small towns are the preferred setting for my novels, including The Sweet Spot, set for a Feb. 20 release.

I like living in a place, where on any given day I will bump into somebody I know.

I am also confident someone will stop to help me if they see my car stuck in a snow Sweet Spot Coverbank or broken down on the side of the road, which has happened. Their kids grow up with our kids. We drink and dance together at the local watering hole.

And because a whole lot doesn’t go on really, we take an interest in what our fellow residents are doing, good or bad. Yes, small town folk can be a bit nosy. They sure are in The Sweet Spot.

I grew up in a big small town along the ocean. For about 25 years, I lived with my family in a hilltown of western Massachusetts that had about 1,200 people, plus one store, one church, one bar, and one stoplight. I even reported on it and the neighboring hilltowns for a daily paper — my start in journalism. Now I live in an unincorporated part of Northern New Mexico.

Writers often use what they know, and that’s the case for me with the hilltowns. For The Sweet Spot, I came up with the town of Conwell. It’s not where I lived although it could have been. At least, I tried to make it true.

As for the folks who live in Conwell — they’re made up too — the slightest difference in those around them is worth noting. After all, this is 1978, before the internet took over people’s lives.

And The Sweet Spot has a big scandal involving its main character, Edie St. Claire that does indeed becomes the talk of the town. Folks are either on one side or the other in this tragic turn of events. Sad to say, those who are against Edie are the majority.

Let me offer you a peek at small town nosiness that’s early on in the novel. Edie works in the general store owned by her in-laws, Fred and Marie St. Claire. Here is this exchange she has with the store’s old guy customers who have taken an interest in her new neighbor, Harlan Doyle.

Now the retirees were settled in. Edie brought a wet rag to wipe the tabletops.

“Edie, your new neighbor was in this morning,” one of the men said. “Says he’s fixing up the old Doyle place.”

“That’s what Pop told me. What’s he like?”

Another man lifted his cup.

“He’s kinda tall and skinny,” he said. “He’s got brownish hair hanging to his shoulders. He didn’t look too old, but it’s hard to tell with the scars on his face.”

The first man nodded.

“He had a soft, slow way of talking like he was from the South or something,” he said.

Her father-in-law spoke.

“Real quiet guy. Odd name.” Fred’s brows creased as he tried to recall more. “Shoot, he said he used to come here as a kid.”

“Pop said his name’s Harlan,” Edie said. “Harlan Doyle.”

“That’s it. You meet him, Edie?” Fred asked.

“Not yet. I have to go over and welcome him to the neighborhood,” she said.

“Did Benny tell you about his face?” Fred asked.

“He said it was scarred badly.”

Fred’s eyes shot up and down.

“You’re telling me,” he said. “I didn’t know where to look. No one did.”

Edie held the rag.

“I think I saw him at the Memorial Day ceremony when we were at the stone for Gil,” she said. “A man stopped to see what was going on. He had a limp, too.”

“I wonder what he’s doing here. His grandmother’s place can’t be in any shape to live in,” Fred said.

“He told Pop he’s gonna fix it up.” She shrugged. “Maybe he’ll sell it.”

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: A snowy scene from last week. That’s the Japanese-style gate Hank built for the fenced front yard.