Writing Two Books at the Same Time

Strange but true that I am writing two books at the same time. Let me explain how this makes perfect sense.

I began Finding the Source, next in my Isabel Long Mystery Series, on Dec. 3. I was inspired while making the final edits for no. 7, Missing the Deadline, which had a release three weeks later. Being in the thick of this story and its characters made me want to start another right away.

When writing novels, I aim for 500 words each day of the week, well, except for holidays and family visits. I started that practice when I worked as editor-in-chief, first for two daily newspapers, and then three at the same time. I got up at 5 a.m. (before the heat came on in the winter) and that was the amount of words I wrote before I left for the newsroom.

Actually, 500 is a satisfying amount of words that helps me maintain the quality of the book I’m writing while making progress. Sometimes I do go over, not realizing it until I look at the bottom of my novel’s document. But I found purposely trying to write longer took the fun out of it. That’s my experience anyway.

But now that I no longer have that job, I wanted to write more. Certainly writing for Substack and my website helped fulfill that desire. But recently I felt it wasn’t enough.

That’s when I found The Talking Table, a YA book I began the day after Christmas in 2022, according to the file’s info. Thinking about that time, I recalled certain family members got Covid, so our holiday gathering that year was postponed. Instead we had a quiet celebration with meals for those who were well and lived nearby.

I was a couple of thousand into The Talking Table when I dropped it. Frankly, I forgot about the book, but there was also a lot of personal stuff going on at that time. I discovered it last month in my computer’s files and was inspired to continue.

The Talking Table is a story told by 16-year-old Vivien Winslow, who recently moved to a trailer park with her mother and brother when they could no longer afford the apartment they had. Their father, who wrote one great book that brought him acclaim, is out of the picture. Why that title? It’s my secret for now.

Here’s how the book starts: We lived in an crappy place, my mother, brother, and me. It wasn’t really a house, but something that came on wheels just like the others in Murphy’s Trailer Park and only a single-wide with white aluminum siding. It was like living in a tin can.

Sure, I told myself, I could write 500 words a day for that book, too. And so I have.

I believe that’s possible because they are two very different books and the readership I am trying to reach is likewise different.

Both are first-person. But in the mystery series, I use present tense to get readers engaged in the cold cases solved by Isabel Long, a smart and savvy older woman. In The Talking Table, I chose past tense as Vivien Winslow reflects on her life as a teenager and what turned out to be a critical experience.

One book is present day. The other takes place in 1967.

The settings are not the same. Finding the Source along with the rest of the series is set in the fictional hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. The location for The Talking Table is a seacoast town inspired by the one where I grew up in the eastern part of the state.

I work on Finding the Source right after I get up and while having my first cup of coffee.

Typically, I save The Talking Table until after I have taken a break doing household chores, errands, shoveling snow, and social media promotion. Sometimes it happens in the late afternoon. But there are times, like yesterday, when I’ve gone from one book to the other. To heck with the other things I had to do.

By my calculations I should finish both by mid-spring. After all, the YA book is significantly shorter than the adult mystery. When that happens, I will get into editing mode and give my books the attention they deserve.

What’s with the sign above? That and another are posted in the Trolley Museum yard in Shelburne Falls Village. 

Hilltown Postcards

Meeting Ed in Chesterfield

I wrote this piece about Ed Dahill a couple of years before we moved to Taos in 2006. Ed was still the road boss and I was an editor for a daily newspaper when I interviewed him for a book I thought I’d write but didn’t.

It’s the second week in January, and a thaw is in the works after a stormy spell. The computer monitor in the Chesterfield Highway Garage is picking up radar from a satellite hookup. All’s clear today although rain was expected the next.

Ed Dahill, the town’s road boss, is sitting behind the desk, amused I called earlier to set up this talk. We’ve known each other since I was a reporter for the Daily Hampshire Gazette phoning him for news about a storm and other information. Often he’d be out on the roads, but if he got my message before we went to press, he’d get back to me.

Ed’s hair, straight to the collar, is gray now. His nose gives him a strong profile, and his skin is slightly tanned even though this is the dead of winter. He’s dressed to work outside.

The three-man crew would not be plowing this week, but Ed told me they’d be busy still. He had a list of repairs the trucks needed. The men do all the maintenance. How else could the town afford it, he tells me. One big tire for a truck costs $250 alone.

The highway garage is a cavernous place with pool-blue metal siding the town built in 1967 for $40,000. The inside smells of exhaust, but it’s as neat as a six-bay garage can be. I remind Ed that over the years the town has talked about fixing it. He laughs and says, “We’re still working on it.”

The walls of his office are painted a shiny road-sign green. Ed’s wedged in by filing cabinets filled with paperwork and shelves lined with catalogues and ball caps. A wild turkey feather is stuck in with the pencils on his desk. He says the two ornate tins held Christmas cookies, gifts from grateful residents.

The sticker on the front of his metal desk says: Don’t panic. Ed looks like he never does. He smiles easily even when we’re talking about a storm last week that dumped about a foot of wet snow. It packed hard on the roads and Ed didn’t like that. The plow clattered over the road’s surface. That left ridges. It was the kind of snow that needed a lot of salt, but then that would have made slush. If there’s going to be snow on the road, Ed says it should have a mealy consistency.

He started the job in January ’88 and before that he worked ten years for the highway department in his hometown of Huntington. He said when he’s on one spot on Bryant Street in Chesterfield, it’s three miles straight across to his house. He can make out the power lines. But there’s no direct way and he must swing around through another town to get to the highway garage. That takes 20 minutes.

Ed has an associate’s degree in engineering and one in liberal arts, but most of his knowledge about roads comes from on-the-job training and advice from veteran highway supers. It’s a little unusual the town hired an out-of-towner to be the road boss, but if anyone was bothered, they’ve gotten over it, because Ed puts in the extra time. He laughs. “Yeah, I’m a foreigner. A lot of good it does me.” He pulls out the Chesterfield telephone book, about as big as an owner’s manual, and shows me his name and home phone number printed on the back page. He laughs again. So much for living out of town.

Ed talks about some of the other work his crew does: roadside mowing, grading the dirt roads in the spring, and patching holes. Since he arrived they’ve rebuilt a mile of road a year, tackling the work instead of farming it out. The first job, on Ireland Street near the Chesterfield Gorge, has held up nicely still.

In all there’s 56 miles of roads; a little more than half are paved. In the spring the crew will begin paving Sugar Hill Road, now a dirt way. That idea by the board of selectmen raised a big stink last year.

People on the road were divided about it. It seemed as if the newcomers who moved there for its rural charm wanted to keep it dirt. Those who had lived there longer were fed up with the mud and ruts. Ed, who got caught in the middle, says the road built up fast, with 40 houses on a 1.8-mile stretch. The road in its present condition can’t handle that kind of traffic.

Ed is an admitted weather-addict, constantly checking the weather at home. The satellite feed at work came six years ago. He leaves his house at soon as the first snowflakes start. Most storms come from the south and west, where Huntington is situated to Chesterfield. “They hit my house first,” he says. 

If it’s night, the owner of the town’s only store leaves a large thermos of coffee for the men.

Matt does the western end of town. He has Ed’s old route and the newest truck, but Ed says he likes to keep good workers happy. He and Luther divide up the rest of the town. Part-timers come in to help with the back roads.

Ed says he doesn’t think too much when he plows. He listens to music and keeps in touch with the other men by mobile radio. 

He remembers one blizzard a few years ago in which the visibility was so poor he didn’t see the other plow truck until they were on top of each other. He pulled the men off the road then. If a car had broken down, they would have run over it.

The worst he remembers was an ice storm New Year’s Day in 1982 when he was still on the Huntington crew. The roads had two inches of ice. He had to back the truck up a steep hill so he could ride over the sand, but by time he got to the top it had iced over so fast he couldn’t get back down. He had to radio another sander to rescue him.

Complaints? He says he doesn’t get many. Three or four hours after a storm the roads are cleaned up, ready for the next one. The crew takes a lot of pride in their work. When they reach another town’s line – Chesterfield borders four – they like to see if they’ve done a better job. He smiles. He says they usually do.

Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie’s Story Broke My Heart

Facebook reminded me that I wrote this post on my then-blog eleven years ago when I lived in Taos, NM. The notification inspired me to reread Sherman Alexie’s short story, ‘Basic Training’ that appeared in Blasphemy. Ah, my reaction to his story was the same as it was in 2013. 

I don’t know author Sherman Alexie, but I do his writing. I have all his novels and have read them all, a few more than once. He deservedly won the National Book Award for his YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Yes, I am a fan.

His collection, Blasphemy, contains a few stories selected from other books like ‘The Toughest Indian in the World’ and ‘The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven’. Most are new.

I enjoyed reading the stories in Blasphemy. They are solid Alexie.

And then, I got to the second-to-the-last story, ‘Basic Training’, about a Donkey Basketball outfit. For those unfamiliar with Donkey Basketball, it’s like the regular game but the players do it while riding donkeys. Donkey Basketball teams travel from town to town, raising money for schools and good causes. They are a throwback to another era. Not many of them are left.

In ‘Basic Training’, Carter & Sons is one of the last Donkey Basketball teams. Business is bad and Emery Carter is unlikely going to pass the business onto his son, who has other plans. Emery Carter brings the donkeys to a game at the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. Then, they are on their way to another.

I’m not going to spoil what happens next in ‘Basic Training’ but it has the kind of power that makes the reader feel incredible pain. At least it did me.

I don’t write authors, but I did Alexie. I told him “you broke my heart” and not much more than that.

No, I didn’t hear back from him. I didn’t expect it. But if I ever write something that moved someone as much as this story did me, I would want to know.

Hilltown Postcards

All the News Fit to Print

It was by chance I became a journalist — a career that lasted 35 years. I saw an ad in the Daily Hampshire Gazette for a correspondent to cover Worthington, the hilltown in Western Massachusetts where I lived. I had never taken a journalism course or worked for a newspaper except for writing a goofy column in my college’s newspaper. But I was a big newspaper reader, so I believed I understood what constitutes a solid news story. And somehow I convinced Mike Evans, the editor overseeing the hilltowns, to hire me.

In those days, the Gazette had freelancers covering the small towns in its coverage area. Often they lived in the town they covered and like me, had no reporting experience. I recall Mike telling me to choose someone in my town and report what that person would want to know. I chose a smart, older woman who lived on Witt Hill Road. It worked.

It was definitely on me to get the story rightAfter all, most likely I would run into the people I quoted at the town’s only store the next day. But I was up for it. 

I figure those early years reporting were the equivalent of a BA in journalism.

That was 1985. We were living in a dumpy house we rented in the Ringville section of town. If we wanted to get ahead and hopefully, have our own home, I needed to bring in an income. Getting paid by the inch wasn’t going to make a whole lot of money, but it would be a start. Oh, I also got the paper delivered free to my home.

I remember the first meeting I covered. The Board of Selectmen, as it was called in those days, met in the town’s elementary school because the student population had dwindled and the town had yet to build an addition onto Town Hall for offices. The board, which consisted of Julia Sharron, Bert Nugent, and Steve Kulik, who later would become a long-serving State Representative, was very welcoming.

When I first started, I had to write my story that night on the typewriter I used in college and the next morning after the kids got on the school bus, I drove it to the newsroom in Northampton, where one of the staff would type my story into the system. Usually, I had the youngest of our then-five kids with me. Zack would bring a box of Matchbox cars and play while I tended to business. I was fascinated by the newsroom’s hustle and bustle during these visits.

Many months later, the paper gave me a Radio Shack laptop that showed seven lines of copy on its screen. That’s all the computer could do, plus send the story electronically over my phone line to the newsroom. I used the laptop many years until I got my own computer.

So what kinds of news did I find? Local government meetings of course. My favorite was the venerable Annual Town Meeting although a Worthington Board of Health meeting about pigs was a close second. Definitely, the most contentious were dog and junkyard hearings. I wrote features about people and the things they did. I had a column. Occasionally, there was breaking news, typically a house fire or accident. Big weather events, winter storms especially, were on my beat.

Eventually, I took on two more towns: Chesterfield and Cummington. I also got big stories to cover like the closing of a nuclear power plant in Rowe, tax-war resisters in Colrain, and a tornado that touched down in Great Barrington. I even went to the White House to interview Tony Lake, who was national security adviser during Bill Clinton’s first term and a Worthington resident.

Eventually, I was hired full-time as the hilltown reporter, then a line and copy editor during my first 21 years at the GazetteI went on to be editor-in-chief of The Taos News in New Mexico and then came full circle back to Massachusetts to hold that position at the Gazette and its sibling papers, Greenfield Recorder and Athol Daily News. Not bad for a person who never took a journalism course.

As part of these Hilltown Postcards, I will share some of the experiences I had as the Worthington correspondent. I am grateful for that opportunity as it immersed me in the hilltowns more than if I just lived there. I had to listen carefully to what people said and watch what they did. That inspired me to write novels with that setting. Ah, yes, to be continued….


D.H. Lawrence Remains

I so enjoy visiting the places where famous creatives once lived and worked. I got a healthy helping of that when I lived in New Mexico. Writers. Artists. Today, I will focus on D.H. Lawrence. Yes, he lived there.

I was inspired after Poetic Outlaws shared Lawrence’s poem, On That Day. I shall put roses on roses, and cover your grave/ With multitude of white roses: and since you were braveOne bright red ray. 

The poem brought me back to the several visits I made to Lawrence’s grave in San Cristobal, an unincorporated area north of Taos with less than 300 people. The 160-acre D.H. Lawrence Ranch includes two modest cabins and a chapel-like memorial for Lawrence, in which his ashes are mixed in a block of cement or so the legend goes.

Lawrence and his wife Frieda first visited New Mexico in September 1922, when they were invited by Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy patron of the arts who settled in Taos. (Luhan brought other luminaries of the day such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams, and Aldous Huxley.) The Lawrences came three times— staying a total of 11 months. On the second visit, Luhan gifted the ranch to Lawrence and Frieda, who gave her the original manuscript for Sons and Lovers.

The ranch’s cabins where the Lawrences and their artist friend, Lady Dorothy Brett, lived are made of Ponderosa pine logs cut in the 1880s and adobe plaster. The Lawrences lived in the three-room Homesteader’s Cabin, and Brett in the one-room cabin, dubbed the Dorothy Brett Cabin. Lawrence, who was on a self-imposed exile from England, wanted to start a utopian society and Brett was the only one to take him up on his idea.

The D.H. Lawrence Ranch is about 18 miles north of Taos, where I lived. I can only imagine what a rough journey that must have been when he stayed there. Even now the last leg is seven miles on a dirt forest service road. (Watch out for cows wandering along the road.)

Then there is the Lawrence tree. He wrote in long hand beneath this grand pine and O’Keeffe later memorialized it in her painting, The Lawrence Tree. While here Lawrence wrote a short novel, St. Mawr, a biblical drama, David, and parts of The Plumed Serpent.

Lawrence died in France in 1930. Five years later, Frieda had his remains exhumed then cremated. His ashes were brought to the ranch. 

After a dispute with Luhan and Brett over what to do with Lawrence’s remains, the story goes Frieda mixed his ashes with wet cement in a wheel barrow and used it for his memorial altar. The altar has his initials and above it a statue of his personal symbol, the phoenix. Visitors often leave mementos.

Frieda, who entrusted the property to the University of New Mexico, is buried outside.

During my visits, I reveled that a giant in the literary world would choose even for a short time to live in this primitive and remote spot. My first experience with Lawrence was reading his classics Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Sons and Lovers in a one-room cabin with no running water or electricity in New Hampshire. But that is another story.