hilltowns, Western Massachusetts

Up Next: The Sacred Dog

I am pleased to report that my publisher, darkstroke books, has agreed to take on my novel The Sacred Dog. This book isn’t part of my Isabel Long Mystery Series. But it has one of my favorite settings — the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts.

The official release is Dec. 27, and darkstroke will make the formal announcement when the Kindle version is ready to pre-order. But let me tell you a little about The Sacred Dog.

The Sacred Dog is the first book I completed at the start of the millennium. We were living then in Worthington, one of the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. At that time I was immersed in the area, editing stories for the daily newspaper where I worked. Before that, I was the hill town reporter. Plus our family was involved in the town. So, I had lots of inspiration there.

I was able to sign on with an agent, Dan Green of Pom Inc., who tried his darndest to sell it to a publishing house. This was long before digital books and writers had easy access to self-publish. But it didn’t work out and I’ve held onto the book since then. Once in a great while, I’d print it out and get out the red pen, or edit it on the screen. Now, I am happy it will be available to readers.

The story is basically about bad blood between two men — Frank Hooker and Al Kitchen — and that feud’s ultimate climax. Frank Hooker owns The Sacred Dog, the only bar in town, where the locals gather to drink beer, gab, and get away from their families. The only person not welcome is Al Kitchen, but Frank has his reason — he blames him for his brother, Wes’s death. But after an appeal from the grandmother who raised him, Al is allowed to have two beers. Frank figures it’s better to keep his eye on someone he doesn’t trust or like.

Al Kitchen is a hell raiser, no surprise considering the grandfather who raised him was a drunk and an abuser. About the only good thing the man did was teach him to hit a baseball well. But Al always has his kerosene-smelling granny on his side even as an adult. Al was in the car crash that killed his best buddy, Wes, but he wasn’t at the wheel — a fact Frank won’t accept.

Frank’s life is about to change now that his ex-wife and their daughter have returned after living in Florida for three years. Verona says she misses her old life although coming back might mean facing a dark secret that involves both men. 

All is about to come to a reckoning.

I certainly will be writing in the future more about the characters, setting, and why the bar is called The Sacred Dog. 

So sit tight. Besides, I have another book coming out — Following the Lead, No. 6 in my Isabel Long Mystery Series. It has a Nov. 3 release but you can pre-order now, which is helpful to authors. And thank you if you already have. Here is the link: https://mybook.to/followingthelead

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That’s the opening page. The chapter is called King of the Road, a favorite tune among the drinkers at The Dog, as they call it.

The Sweet Spot, Western Massachusetts

Read The Sweet Spot for free

Before Isabel Long, there was Edie St. Claire, the lead character in my novel, The Sweet Spot. Edie doesn’t solve mysteries like Isabel. She’s not part of a series. But she gives readers a different take on the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts that I love to write about.

And for three days — April 24-26 — the Kindle version was free on Amazon.

Before I tell you more about The Sweet Spot, I’d like to thank those who got their copy during the free weekend promo. The book did very well: #1 in Women’s Literary Fiction, #2 in Contemporary Literary Fiction and #8 in Contemporary Women’s Fiction. Now if people had paid outright for the book and those were the rankings, I would be over the moon. But I do get paid for each page if people who have signed up for Kindle Unlimited start reading the book. We’ll see if it pays off as it did when Chasing the Case, the first in my mystery series.

But back to The Sweet Spot

Edie’s family has lived in the town of Conwell forever it seems. They’d what I call rough-sawn. Her father runs the town dump. Her aunt, who lives next door, has no brakes on her opinions or mouth. And Edie is usually in the middle of whatever fun there is in this town of about a thousand people — the Rooster Bar, the local softball team and her in-law’s general store. But still, she can’t let go of a deep sadness — the death of her husband in Vietnam. Gil was a sweetheart of a guy and together
they had a little girl he never met.

Edie tries to ease her pain via an affair with his married brother, but when that ends tragically, she attempts to survive the blame with the help of her family and a badly scarred stranger who arrived for his fresh start.

More about The Sweet Spot: The year is 1978. No cell phones or email or home computers. The Vietnam War ended officially three years earlier. The characters are locals, except for one important newcomer.

When I started writing this book years ago, I typed the first draft of The Sweet Spot with only one hand. It was summer 2004, and I was recuperating after getting hit by a car as I walked across the street. (The driver claimed he didn’t see me in the crosswalk.) The impact threw me into the air and broke my collarbone. It could have been much worse and I used that experience in the second book of the Isabel Long Mysteries Series when Isabel was banged up after a car crash.

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.

Two agents tried to sell the book, and there it sat until I published it myself.

Those who have read the Isabel Long Mystery Series — thank you — will find a different tone in The Sweet Spot. Although Edie is a lively character, she’s not a smart-ass. She makes mistakes and pays dearly for them. But I sure love that woman’s determination.

Here’s the link to Amazon: The Sweet Spot


Western Massachusetts, Writing

Two Books at Once

Well, here’s something new for me — working on two books at the same time. One is a work in progress and the other is a novel I wrote a long time ago. There’s a good reason for it, and I don’t mind saying it’s fun to be plunked into two different worlds.

The first book is Killing the Story, the fourth in the Isabel Long Mystery Series. Isabel Long, my protagonist and the rather sassy narrator of this series, has been hired to solve the death of the editor and co-owner of a small town newspaper.

Years ago, Estelle Crane slipped on some ice walking home one night from the newsroom and died from the fall. Everyone thought it was an accident. But then her son, who took over the paper, recently found a briefcase with papers that makes him feel otherwise.

I will share a secret: I solve the mystery along with Isabel. No outlines for me. That’s what happened with my other books. And although two-thirds of the way through, I am still figuring it out.

Could it be the town’s crooked police chief that has a history with Estelle’s family? How about his son, who’s on the force, or the nosy newcomer who was after Estelle to dig up some dirt via anonymous letters? Maybe it’s somebody else that Isabel — and me — have overlooked.

With my job as editor-in-chief of a daily newspaper, this book is taking me longer to write. To catch up on the gaps in writing, I print out a hard copy and get out the red pen.

But I have set myself a deadline of April 1, so full speed ahead.

Now, to the second book, Northern Comfort, which I wrote in 2007. My agent then came really close to getting it published. Sigh.

Northern Comfort, which I would call a literary novel, is about the dark side of a rural “New England town, holding onto its traditions of making maple, playing old-time music, and keeping family secrets.” That’s from the query letter I wrote.

It’s a heavy book that begins when a child dies in a sledding accident. His death brings together three people: his mother, the man whose sled killed him, and the father who had abandoned him.

When I picked up Northern Comfort recently, I found myself moved by the story. Yes, it is my work, but it had been a long time since I had read it, and I had forgotten my characters and the weight of the words I used. Although it is set in Western Massachusettes, it is nothing like the Isabel Long books. I have a printed copy and am going over it with a red pen. Actually I found just small things here and there to change.

My aim is to pitch Northern Comfort to publishing houses that focus on literary fiction and don’t require an agent. I have a top choice, that requires a query letter describing the book and the first 50 pages, which I’ve been editing. I showed it to two friends and I am almost ready to mail it out — the company only does snail mail.

So, here goes. Wish me luck.

ABOUT THE IMAGE ABOVE: The exterior wall at Satchel’s Pizza in Gainesville, Florida, which we recently visited.

Life lessons, New Mexico, Western Massachusetts

In Two Years’ Time

Two years ago, Hank and I were driving somewhere in the Midwest as we made our way from Taos, New Mexico to Western Massachusetts. Hank was at the wheel. Our cat sat on my lap for almost the entire 2,400 miles.

I know for sure because Facebook reminded me. I wrote “Adios, Taos.”

We lived in Northern New Mexico for 11 years. We built a home there. I ran the editorial department of the local newspaper. Hank got into the artistic side of woodworking. We enjoyed grand views of the mesa, mountains and big skies. Great food. It was an interesting place to live.

But we had our reasons for leaving.

And a lot has happened since then. A lot of good things.

Having easier access to more of our family is an important one. Four of our six kids and our two granddaughters live in Massachusetts. (You gotta love it when your two-year-old granddaughter calls you Grandma Applesauce.) Then there is my 95-year-old mother and other kin.

We found and bought the style of home we wanted — an arts and crafts bungalow. (My wish then: we find the right house for the right price in the right location.) Youngest daughter, Julia, a real estate agent, negotiated the deal.

The home, built in 1900, has great bones. We had to fix the things the previous owners either did or didn’t do to the home. Luckily, Hank is a skilled woodworker. Me? I was the unskilled helper. The only work we hired out was the roof, floor sanding in two rooms, plumbing and electrical. But as it goes in older homes, there’s still work ahead for Hank.

We live on the Buckland side of Shelburne Falls, a charming village in a rural area. Think small shops, restaurants, and our son’s microbrewery, Floodwater Brewing, which opened last November. And for the most part, friendly people. Folks come from all over to admire the Bridge of Flowers that spans the Deerfield River. We achieved our goal of being able to walk to places from our home — only four-tenths of a mile to Floodwater.

It’s been a productive year for me writing-wise. I’ve published the first three books in my Isabel Long Mystery Series through Crooked Cat Books. I am onto the fourth.

I have a freelance gig copyediting history books for the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ohio. I’ve learned a lot about our nation’s history.

If that weren’t enough, I am now the editor-in-chief of The Greenfield Recorder. I didn’t think I would go back in the biz, but here I am again running the paper’s editorial department. I am glad to say I have a hardworking and friendly staff devoted to community news.

Oh, our cat, Two, who is around 15, is just fine.

Yes, we got a lot done in two years. What will the next two bring? Bring it on.

PHOTO ABOVE: A not very flattering selfie taken somewhere on our cross-country trek with our cat Two glued to my lap. She hated the carrier.






Western Massachusetts

Our New Old House

Hank and I had a list of wants when we decided to leave Taos for Western Mass. This week we completed an important one when we bought a home on the Buckland side of Shelburne Falls Village. That’s it above.

At the top of our list was a small bungalow. We also wanted to live in the country but be within walking distance of an active village, so we could step out for cup of coffee or a beer or a meal. We wanted to be closer to family living in Massachusetts and able to visit those who are not when we vacation.

Oh, yeah, the house had to be in our price range.

Here was my request: we buy the right house in the right location for the right price.

Bingo. It happened.


The two-story garage.

We bought a two-bedroom, two-bath home with a small garage. It’s located on a quiet street — except for church bells and train whistles — and with a great view of a mountainside.

I’ve written about how we drove all over Franklin County and some of Hampshire during that search for a permanent home. We kept coming back to Shelburne Falls, where Hank worked for six months helping our son, Zack, with the brewery he will be opening there.

What we found for sale were old rambling houses that weren’t well maintained or too expensive — or newer ones that weren’t well built.

After doing some research, we decided not to build. Previously we owned two homes we had built — Hank put his creative hand and hard work in both of them. Construction has gotten more costly since those two experiences.

It was Zack who told us about the bungalow. He heard from a co-worker who had thought of buying it but didn’t. In one of those serendipitous moments, Hank and I were walking by the house when the owner came out and told us it would be going on the market.

Then, our daughter Julia, who is a licensed real estate agent with Keller Williams, stepped in, contacting the agent in Shelburne Falls, who would be listing the property.

We had a short wait for the house to go on the market. The day it happened — another lucky experience — we had the first chance to get inside, and with Julia’s help, we submitted a bid that night that was accepted the next day. Yes, she’s our daughter, but I believe we wouldn’t have gotten the house if she hadn’t jumped on it right away for us. (Naturally, there was a great deal of interest when the house hit MLS.)

We had cash from selling our home in Taos, which also was going to speed up the sale. I will spare you the details. I’m just glad we had Julia to handle them.

We signed the paperwork Wednesday.

So what’s the house like? From the outside it looks like a charmer. It certainly is. We are big fans of the architecture of the arts and crafts movement. But it needs work such as a new kitchen, windows, deck, and next year, a new roof. The garage, which has studio space, needs some attention as well. Perhaps it will be Hank’s new shop.

We are considering other changes. The house was built in 1900. It’s gone through a lot of owners with mixed results. But it has great bones as they say.

As this old home’s new co-owner, Hank will put his design and woodworking talents into the place. Yeah, there’s a lot of work ahead, but we will hire out some it. I can assist with painting and other things.

But like everything else since we decided to make this move, the pieces will fall into place. Home sweet home.

ONE MORE THING: Here is a link for my books for sale on Amazon, including my most recent, The Sweet Spot, set in Western Mass. They’re not free, but they are for the taking. Check them out: https://www.amazon.com/Joan-Livingston/e/B01E1HKIDG