Hilltown Postcards

Nigel the Hermit

Here’s the next Hilltown Postcard — stories I wrote years ago about our life in rural Western Massachusetts. My agent at the time wanted me to write a tell-all book with lots of dirt, but I didn’t have it in me to do that. Rereading those stories has inspired me to write more. In some instances, I have changed people’s names. That’s true for this story.

I used to see Nigel pushing his bicycle up Mason’s Hill toward the general store in Worthington. He wore a porkpie hat and tinted aviator glasses, stopping at times on the steepest part to rest. It was an old-style bike, one speed, fat tires, and a metal basket on the front.

If there was a hermit in our town, he was it. He lived on Dingle Road, in a house that hadn’t had a coat of paint in years, one of those New England stringer homes, where buildings get added on in a row like blocks. The grass grew tall and dried. The place looked unwelcoming, and that’s probably the way he liked it.

Nigel may have shunned people, but many years ago he stirred up his neighborhood. It was a quiet Sunday summer afternoon when Nigel dressed in winter clothes took shots at his own house from the outside.

Neighbors called the town police, but the chief realized this was beyond him and called in the state police. Things were quiet when the cops came, but Nigel had barricaded himself in his house with several loaded guns and ammo.

The police moved the neighbors out of their homes and used a loudspeaker to get him out, but he wouldn’t budge. A Special Tactics Operation Team surrounded the house. Finally after seven hours, police launched a canister of tear gas into the home, which finally drove him out. He was taken to a ward at the VA hospital, where he stayed for a couple of years.

Turns out Nigel, then nearly 60, used to teach math and physics, but he got fired when he hit a fellow teacher. He didn’t deny doing it nor did he explain why. He sued successfully for back pay. He also wanted to be reinstated but that didn’t happen. 

After the incident, neighbors said Nigel was quiet and kept to himself although one got to know him when they repaired a water line they shared. She said he was intelligent and well read. He was profoundly hard of hearing so she made sure she faced him when she talked. An elderly brother dropped off groceries.

Nigel once asked Hank if he worked in Northampton because he needed a ride, but he didn’t. He told him of another man in town who did and that arrangement lasted a while until he moved.

Another man inherited Nigel. Bruce said Nigel would call him from the pay phone at the store to arrange a ride. He’d be waiting outside his home, and Bruce didn’t mind going out of his way to drop him off at the law library. He didn’t explain what he was researching or much about himself. They rarely talked.

One fall afternoon, I was stacking wood and lost in thought until I looked up to see Nigel staring at me. (We had moved across town to a house we built near Mason’s Hill.) He held his bike so quietly he could have been an apparition.

Nigel didn’t introduce himself, but, of course, I knew who he was. I don’t know if he knew my name, because he didn’t use it. He wanted a ride back and forth from Northampton.

His hearing aids weren’t working, so I couldn’t explain how we could arrange that. I found paper and a pen. I would be leaving at 6:15 a.m. and I would come by his house.

I went the next morning. It was before the change in time so it was still dark that morning. It had rained that night, so everything was black and shiny in the headlights. I stopped in front of his house. No light was on inside. No sign of movement.

I thought to sound the horn or knock on the door, but I didn’t think he would hear either. I wouldn’t even know which door to knock. I waited fifteen minutes, and then drove off.  

I didn’t see Nigel again. Two years later, in the middle of February, he died alone in his house. The medical examiner ruled it was from natural causes, likely a heart attack. He was 72.

The police found him locked inside his home after the person who delivered him meals felt something was amiss. Nigel had lived in town for 20 years and the police chief noted he was a man who didn’t want any outside help.

Isabel Long Mystery Series

When a Cat Becomes a Character

One of the amusing parts about being an author is having people ask if a character could be someone they know in real life. That happens a lot with my Isabel Long Mystery Series, which is inspired by the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, where I live. I’d like to think that I’ve created such authentic characters, readers believe they could be living among them. But, no, I made them all up.

Missing the Deadline, no. 7 in the series, has an exception: the cat is based on a real being — our cat, Stella. They even have the same name. 

The fictional Stella is the pet of Gerald Danielson, a literary agent who was found shot in the head and left to die outside his Meadows Falls home. Gerald survived but is not the same hotshot agent who moved there from New York City. The cops ruled it an attempted suicide, but the person who hires Isabel feels differently.

Gerald lives with his devoted sister and has an aide who assists him. But his cat is the one who brings him comfort when he’s feeling agitated. Having witnessed how animal can do that in real life, I wanted to use that observation in this novel. (I also didn’t mind giving the real Stella a plug.) 

Gerald’s Stella is a stray that just showed up one day and took a liking to him. This Stella is also a Maine coon cat, who is particular about humans. She doesn’t pay any attention to Isabel when she comes for the first interview. Here’s an excerpt in which Gerald’s sister, Wendy, who has taken over the agency, talks about her brother. 

“Sometimes at night I read aloud from their manuscripts and he tells me in his way which ones we should consider. He appears to like that. And he has his cat, Stella. She’ll sit on his lap for hours. Inside. Outside. It doesn’t matter. That helps a lot. You can see her right over there. He calls her Stelzee.” 

Wendy points toward the window seat on the other side of the room. A cat, a Maine coon breed in multiple shades of brown, I believe, is curled, presumably asleep, on a mat in the sunlight. She shows no interest in meeting us.

My best guess is that non-fictional Stella lived on her own after being dumped by her owner during Covid. A good friend, who started feeding her outside her home, put a notice on Facebook looking for a home for the cat. And so she became ours. I named her Stella, so I could channel Marlon Brando when I call for her outside. We do call her Stelzee as well.

An amazing assassin, Stella spends time outdoors, killing any rodent that dares to come near our house, and indoors, often hours lying on Hank’s extended legs. All it takes is a light touch from a human and she purrs loudly. Stella has only sat on my lap twice and after three years has finally gotten used to me holding her in my arms but not for long. 

Eh, I don’t hold it against her, obviously not if I make her a character in my latest mystery.

Missing the Deadline was released Dec. 21 in Kindle. (Paperback readers will have to wait a couple of months, my publisher’s rule.) Thank you if you read my book.

Isabel Long Mystery Series, Uncategorized

Writing about Strong Women

When I began writing my mystery series, I aimed to create strong women characters who know what they want and go after it. Topping the list, of course, is Isabel Long, the protagonist of the series, including the latest, Missing the Deadline.

From the start, Isabel was going to be a woman with some good miles on her. A recent widow, she has grown kids and a granddaughter. As for looks, she’s attractive enough to gain the attention of older men, like Jack, the owner of the Rooster Bar where she works part-time.

Isabel had a long career as a journalist — starting as a reporter covering the dinky hilltown of Conwell where she lives to being the top editor of the newspaper until that ended after it went corporate. When the new owner told everybody they had to reapply for their job, Isabel said, “To hell with that.”

Yeah, Isabel is a bit on the sassy side. She’s also savvy, which made her a great journalist. Now, those qualities and other transferable skills come in handy as a private investigator.

For her ‘Watson,’ I chose a 93-year-old mother, who lives with her. Maria Ferreira, a big reader of mysteries and smutty romances, gives her daughter ideas to ponder and even goes on interviews with persons of interest when there isn’t danger. Ma, as Isabel calls her, says she’s bored when they don’t have a case.

I will admit there is a lot of me in Isabel, which makes sense since I write the series in first person. I was also a longtime journalist. Maria was inspired by my late mother. The rest of the characters are fabricated.

I carry many of my characters throughout the seven book, thus far, including a favorite, Annette Waters. Annette — aka the Tough Cookie, Isabel’s secret nickname for her —  runs a garage and junkyard that used to belong to her SOB of a father. In the second book, Redneck’s Revenge, she hires Isabel to investigate her father’s death.

I so enjoy Annette’s no-holds-barred personality the men in her life enjoy. Her latest venture is singing lead in a band, fittingly called The Junkyard Dogs. In Missing the Deadline, she develops an interesting and unexpected romance , but no spoilers here.

Also in Missing the Deadline, we encounter new female characters. Wendy Danielson is the devoted sister to Gerald Danielson, a literary agent who was shot and left to die. He survived but isn’t able to run the agency, so she does. There’s also a vindictive ex-wife and a jilted local writer. One of my favorites is Tammy, a tough local gal who cleans for the Danielsons. She happens to be the sister of Lisa, Jack’s pain-in-the-ass ex, who unfortunately for Isabel keeps appearing in these books.

Other interesting women in the series have included Jack’s sister, Annette’s cousin Marsha, Isabel’s daughter Ruth, a woman police chief, a hoarding grandmother, plus the fearless editor of a small town newspaper. So far, only two women have turned out to be criminals. My lips are sealed about that.

But back to Annette. Here’s a scene from Missing the Deadline. In this case Isabel is investigating the shooting of Gerald Danielson outside his home. Isabel and her mother have stopped at a country store after meeting with the man’s sister.

Annette shakes her head.

“You two crack me up. So, what is it? Murder or missing person? Those appear to be your specialties.”

“So far. This one may be an attempted murder, but we don’t know for sure. Right now, people think it was a failed attempted suicide. Poor guy’s a New Yorker who moved to Meadows Falls. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Does the name Gerald Danielson mean anything to you?”

“Ol’ Gerry?” She laughs. “Yeah, I remember him. He used to have my Pop work on his car since we were a lot cheaper than the garages in New York. I believe Pop met his match. A real piece of work that guy. Kind of an asshole. Sorry, Maria,” she says. “I heard he tried to off himself. Didn’t it happen at his home in Meadows Falls? Too bad. Pop got killed in that fire earlier that year. Gerry came to his funeral. He asked if I needed anythin’. I told him to just keep bringin’ his car for me to fix. Course, that changed in the fall.”

I smile while Annette takes a bite of her muffin.

“You have a good memory,” I say. “You said he was a piece of work. Tell me more.”

“Typical New Yorker. He came here with heavy pockets and let us know all about it. Lives on Gorman Road in Meadows Falls. Bought himself a big ol’ house and had it fixed up. Lots of land came with it. But he and Pop got along okay. I’d be workin’ on a car in the garage and hear them go back and forth like two barkin’ dogs. Pop called him Gerry just to get his goat. Gerry called him Waters. He was kind of a dirty old man. The things he’s say to me when Pop wasn’t around. One day I picked up a wrench and said if his dick needed an adjustment, I’d be glad to do it for free. He got the message.”

“I bet he did.”

“We actually got along just fine after that,” Annette says.

As Isabel would say, you don’t mess with the Tough Cookie.

Missing the Deadline, which was released Dec. 21, is available in Kindle. Paperback readers will have to be a little patient.

Isabel Long Mystery Series

Staying in Character: Channeling the People in My Books

Great actors are famous for it. When they do, the viewers forget the actor and only see the person they are playing on stage or screen. Some even take it a step further and stay in that role off camera.

But writers like myself have more than one character to consider. We get into their skin, so what they say and do are authentic to the stories we write.

My Isabel Long Mystery Series is written as a first-person present-tense narrative. Isabel is a smart, mature woman who is a bit of a wiseass. As a former journalist, she developed the ability to see through people and any bull they try to dish her. Just like reporting a new story, she’s methodical about her cases. I will admit there is a lot of me in Isabel — I was a journalist for over 30 years although not a widow nor a private investigator. I don’t like that much danger to be a P.I.

Isabel Long is so imbedded inside of me it’s rather easy for me to figure out what she will do in any given scene or situation whether it’s solving a mystery, pouring beer at the Rooster, being with its owner Jack or dealing with her family, including her mother, Maria, her partner in solving crime. 

In Missing the Deadline, no. 7, she’s given a tough case. Gerald Danielson was found shot in the head at his home in Meadows Falls. He survived but isn’t the same successful agent who moved there from New York City. The police ruled it an attempted suicide, but the person hiring Isabel has his doubts. Certainly there are people, including a vindictive ex-wife, a jilted local writer, and even an apparently devoted sister, who might have motive.

So how should Isabel approach such a case? I channel Isabel and we figure it out together.

But, of course, Isabel isn’t the only character in this series. Some are one and done in a book. Many others have stuck around. As each one appears on a page, I channel that character so I know how they should react to any situation I throw at them. 

Take Annette Waters aka the Tough Cookie. She wouldn’t be shy about anything. If someone dared to give her a hard time, she’d dish it back and twice as hard. But then again she runs a garage and junkyard. There’s her cousin, Marsha aka the Floozie who co-owns the Pit Stop convenience store. She’s another one who doesn’t take crap from anyone. Both are locals but they’ve grown fond of Isabel and her mother even though they are newcomers. 

It doesn’t matter the character’s gender. I know what will come out of Jack Smith’s mouth before he says it. Jack’s cousin Fred Lewis aka el Creepo typically says the wrong thing, and Isabel isn’t shy about telling him off.

I believe the best training I received was first as a daydreamer. As a kid, I created fabulous stories inside my head, perfecting them. The second was when I became a journalist. As a reporter, I had to listen carefully to what people said and observe how they behaved. It was a great experience I believe has paid off with authentic characters. I hope my readers feel the same way.

PITCH FOR MY NEXT BOOK: Missing the Deadline, no. 7 in my Isabel Long Mystery Series, has a Dec. 21 release on Kindle. (Paperback readers will have to wait a couple of months.) 

Isabel Long Mystery Series

Meet the Big Shot Poet

As readers of my Isabel Long Mysteries know, I like to carry many characters throughout the series. Often their role changes. That’s certainly the case for Cyrus Nilsson aka the Big Shot Poet, Isabel’s secret nickname for him. He’s a key figure in my next mystery, Missing the Deadline.

Cyrus is indeed a noted poet, hence the snarky nickname the irreverent Isabel Long secretly calls him. He made it big after growing up poor with the release of his first book of poetry, Yonder. He’s done well for himself, building a swanky home in the hilltown of Penfield and driving a Mercedes. He has a slew of adoring fans, mostly women. He’s quite the charmer. And, no, I don’t know anybody like him. Cyrus is a figment of my imagination.

And he was a suspect in Checking the Traps, the series’ third book. That case involved the death of Cary Moore, a highway worker who wrote poetry good enough for Cyrus to steal. Well, he actually paid Cary for the poems, but he put his own name on them in a book that garnered big awards. Isabel, who discovered that, wonders how that bit of news would go over with his publisher and fans. 

(One of my favorite scenes in Checking the Traps is a bookstore reading Isabel and her mother attend. I tried to capture poetry readings I’ve attended, including those loud sighs from adoring fans.)

So Cyrus decides to make amends by getting some of Cary’s poems published in a book called Country Boy. If that sells well, there are many other poems in notebooks Isabel found during her investigation. 

By the way, that book allowed me to write poetry, something I haven’t done in a very long time.

And in Missing the Deadline, Cyrus also tries to make amends with his first agent, the one who discovered him. After making a name for himself, Cyrus dumped Gerald Danielson. But he wants to find justice for his first agent after he was found shot and left to die. The cops ruled it a failed attempted suicide, but Cyrus approaches Isabel because he has his doubts.

In the book’s opening scene, Cyrus is in full-charm mode at a reading he is doing for Country Boy at the Penfield Town Hall. He makes his pitch to Isabel afterwards.

Cyrus has a big role in this book, and I so enjoyed giving him that. Isabel doesn’t mind pushing his buttons, and he takes this in his Big Shot Poet way. I also give him an unlikely romance in this book. My lips are sealed on that one, but I bet readers will get a kick out of that development.

Here’s an excerpt from the second chapter. Cyrus calls Isabel over for a private talk after the reading has been completed.

“That was a wonderful event,” I tell him. “You were a big hit with the audience telling those stories about Cary. I’m glad you asked the Plowboys to play after all. Nice touch.”

“Thanks, but I didn’t call you over, so you can kiss my butt,” Cyrus says, drawing a laugh from me. “I have something important to ask you.”

“Important? Go ahead.”

“I believe I might have a case that will interest you.”

Now, this is unexpected, but then again I’ve found a few of my cases in unlikely places like a pig roast and a country fair. A poetry reading? Okay, Cyrus, I’m listening.

“Well, you do have my interest. I want to hear more.”

Cyrus glances around. The Town Hall’s custodian and a couple of helpers are folding chairs and loading them onto a cart. It appears we will be getting kicked out soon.

“This isn’t the place or time to go into detail. But it concerns my first literary agent, Gerald Danielson. He’s the one who gave me my big break,” he says. “He used to live in New York but moved to Meadows Falls.”

Meadow Falls is directly east of Caulfield. It’s actually a village made up of parts of the towns of Meadows and Granite on either side of the Ridge River. Meadows Falls is a bit of an unknown for me since it wasn’t part of The Daily Star’s coverage area. Sam and I visited it a few times, but it’s been years. I recall the village is a low-key but charming tourist spot. Think restaurants and little shops on the artsy side. The Ridge River running through it has interesting rock formations and two bridges, one for traffic and the other for fans of flowers called the Bridge of Blossoms, a big attraction when it’s open for the season. 

Frankly, I don’t know a soul who lives there. Would that scare me off from taking a case? No, of course, not.

But Cyrus wouldn’t be interested in any of that.

“Let me guess,” I say instead. “His death was ruled an accident, but you have your doubts.”

Cyrus shakes his head. 

“It’s my understanding that is a particular area of expertise for you.”

“That and a couple of others.”

“Good because Gerald isn’t dead although he came close. He was shot in the head and left to die in his backyard. But he was too tough to do that. Gerald still lives, but the man is nothing like what he used to be. I saw that for myself when I visited him and his sister.”

“Go on. And the cops didn’t catch whoever did it.”

“The official ruling was that it was an attempted suicide. Perhaps, money was an issue for his agency. I’m sure there’s more to it than that. Afterward, when he had recovered, Gerald couldn’t tell the police what happened. He has cognitive issues because of his brain injuries. And apparently, there were no witnesses.” Cyrus makes one of his charming smiles. “I’ve been following you in the news. Well done, Isabel, on that last case. You’re making a name for yourself. That case was nearly fifty years old. This one happened only three years ago.”

Oh, brother, the tables are turned and the Big Shot Poet is kissing my you-know-what. But I aim to keep an open mind. Investigate the shooting of a literary agent? My cases thus far have included a junkyard owner and newspaper editor, so why not a literary agent? I certainly would like to do a little online research on this Gerald Danielson before we meet again. Maybe the Old Farts have some info since their reach tends to extend far.

 “Cyrus, you have my attention, but I will need to hear a whole lot more before I say yes. When can we do that?”

“How about tomorrow at my house, say one?” he says. 

“You’re really serious about this.”

“I am. And please bring your mother. I want to hear what she has to say.”

“Will do.”

MORE ABOUT MISSING THE DEADLINE: This book will be released Dec. 21 on Kindle. If you pre-order now, it is most helpful, so I thank you if you do. Plus your book will magically pop into your device that day. Paperback writers will have to wait a few months. Here is the link: Missing the Deadline.

SUBSTACK: I’ve just discovered Substack, through an author friend’s recommendation. Basically, it’s “an online platform that provides publishing, payment, analytics, and design infrastructure to support subscription newsletters.” Most writers give free and paid options for subscriptions. (Yes, people make money.) Mine is free. My newsletter is called Joan Livingston Writes. (Some people use catchier names.) My subtitle is “A bookish mix of mystery and discovery in rural New England.” I’ll be posting observations, experiences and, of course, stuff about writing.

I invite you to subscribe to my newsletter and if you like what you see, start your own newsletter. And I would certainly subscribe to yours. If you are already on it, please let me know.


ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That’s a moody photo, untouched, of the Deerfield River in our village of Shelburne Falls as it passes behind our son Zack’s Floodwater Brewing.