Western Mass. mystery

Getting My Revenge

They say revenge is sweet. In my case, it’s part of the title of the mystery I finished this week, and really, that accomplishment is indeed sweet for me.  Redneck’s Revenge, its full name, is the second in my Isabel Long mystery series.

So, who is Isabel Long? She’s the main character in this series set in the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, the preferred setting for most of my adult fiction. Isabel’s a former journalist who got canned after the newspaper she managed went corporate, part of a bad year in which she also lost her husband. So she uses the skills she learned as a journalist to solve a 28-year-old missing persons case in her town. (She also has a Watson — her 92-year-old mother who lives with her.) Adela Collins’ disappearance way back when was her first big story as a reporter. The mystery is written from Isabel’s rather sassy POV.

It’s taking me a while to find a publisher for Chasing the Case. Yeah, that’s a bit disappointing, but it hasn’t stopped me from writing another mystery featuring Isabel and some of other characters I created in the first, plus new ones.

In Redneck’s Revenge, a woman contacts Isabel to find out who killed her father, an ornery SOB named Chet Waters who owned a junkyard and repair shop in a nearby hilltown. Now Annette Waters, who’s a bit rough around the edges, owns it. She doesn’t believe the official ruling her father passed out from booze and died when a cigarette set his small house on fire. Isabel decides to take on the case even though Annette can only pay her through free service on her car.

Another glitch: legally Isabel needs to work for a licensed P.I. for three years before she can go on her own. She finds a P.I. who’s a bit down on his luck that agrees to take her on.

I began writing Redneck’s Revenge in May and kept at it despite a 2,400-mile move from New Mexico back to New England and all that entails. A couple of weeks ago I wrote the so-called last word. Then I went through the novel one more time, changing things here and there.

I will surely do it again, looking for little things to change here and there. But I am happy about what I wrote. I feel the novel is complete.

What do I do when I get to the end of a novel? I’m not the type to whoop it up although perhaps I should. Using 84,000 words to tell a story is, as I stated above, an accomplishment.

I will tell you what I did do. I started the next one. Isabel, who’s a bit banged up from her last case, and her mother will be asked to solve another hilltown mystery.  This one is called Checking the Traps — a phrase I used as a reporter when I would make the round with my sources. I’m a few pages in and raring to go. Damn, I’m excited.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Along the Deerfield River on a recent hike.

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

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The Sweet Spot

The Sweet Spot Is Here

As of today, my new novel The Sweet Spot is available in paperback and Kindle. I hope you will read the first of my hilltown novels set in Western Massachusetts. Of course, that means I hope you will buy my novel in whatever format you prefer. Thank you if you do.

To get the business out of the way, here is the link to my author page on Amazon where you can find my novel: The Sweet Spot on Amazon

Just like Edie St. Claire offers her new neighbor, Harlan Doyle, I toast the novel’s launch with a glass of well water that I’ve let run until it’s as cold as it is deep in the ground. Well, it is morning. Maybe later I’ll have a beer straight from the bottle.

To set the mood, I choose Country and Western music, preferably pre-eight track with the likes of Patsy Cline and Hank Williams.

For those new to my novel, here is a brief synopsis. It is set in 1978 by the way. Most in Conwell love Edie St. Claire, the widow of a soldier killed in Vietnam, until her affair with his married brother ends badly. She tries to survive this small town’s biggest scandal through the help of her rough-sawn family and a badly scarred man who’s arrived for his fresh start.

It’s been a bit of a process bringing The Sweet Spot to readers. I wrote the first draft in 2004 while I was recuperating from being hit by a car. I was a pedestrian in a crosswalk. The guy claimed he didn’t see me. It took me less than two months to finish the draft. I was living in the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, where the novel takes place.

My then-agent wanted me to start the book in the middle, which I did, but he couldn’t sell it after all. The Sweet Spot remained unpublished for years. Once in a while I would give it a read until finally I decided to return to its original and rightful plot.

Eventually, after I had moved to Northern New Mexico, I showed The Sweet Spot to my second agent, who gave me some solid advice about upping the dialogue, which is one of my strengths. There were other changes. The novel got better. Alas, he didn’t sell it either.

So here I am doing it on my own, except for Michelle Guiterrez, the novel’s skilled designer. She came up with the cover and font after she read the novel. I believe it’s a classy-looking book. Thanks, Michelle.

I have also had the encouragement of writer friends like Teresa Dovalpage and Fred Fullerton.

Doing it on your own is tough. I should have kept track of how many times I read The Sweet Spot — forwards, out loud, and even backwards a few times. But it makes me feel good that I still enjoy reading the book. I love its characters, even its so-called bad guy. Edie. Walker. Gil. Harlan. Benny. Leona. Amber. The whole damn town of Conwell. They all came from my imagination but they are very real to me. I hope you feel the same. And if you do, I’d love a review.

The Sweet Spot on Kindle

The Sweet Spot in Paperback

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Hank shot that photo of me holding The Sweet Spot in our front yard. Yeah, I’m really that happy about it.

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The Sweet Spot

Family Drama Makes Good Fiction

Yesterday, I tweeted this to a friend: Family drama makes good fiction. Certainly, I believe that’s true for my novel, The Sweet Spot, set for a Feb. 20 launch. Especially, when it involves class.

Edie St. Claire, the novel’s main character, is in the thick of this drama. She is a part scan TSSof two families. The first is the one she has with her father, aunt, and young daughter — the Sweets. Then, there are her in-laws, the St. Claires.

If you were to divide the fictional town of hilltown of Conwell into classes, the Sweets would be in the lowest. After all Edie’s father runs the town dump. They live in a modest duplex home on a back dirt road where Benny Sweet stores all the junk he hauls home from the dump.

When Benny finds a kid’s bike, he spray paints it gold for his granddaughter. Her grandparents, the St. Claires, buy her a new one.

Edie’s income comes from the government, because her young husband, Gil, died eight years earlier in Vietnam, and what she gets paid working at her in-laws’ store.

Her in-laws, the St. Claires, are in the opposite class. Fred and Marie own the town’s only store and do well by it. They have a fine home. They are generous with their granddaughter.

The St. Claires certainly were not happy their favored son, Gil, loved and married Edie. They made that very clear. It took a while, but Marie and especially Fred got over it.

Of course, there is family drama when it comes to Walker, Gil’s married younger brother, who is having an affair with Edie. I am not going to say more about that, except when things turn ugly, high family drama comes to play. People are downright cruel.

There’s other drama in the novel. I mentioned in the last post the good-natured rivalry between Benny Sweet and his sister Leona, the fiery, one.

Of course, Harlan Doyle, the newcomer who moves next door to Edie, gets a ringside seat for all of it.

Here’s a scene early on at the Memorial Day celebration the St. Claires hold at their house. Edie is there with her young daughter.

Later, Edie gnawed on a chicken bone while Gil’s great-uncle napped beside her in his wheelchair. He had a smile on his sleeping face. Gil loved the man, and she was content watching him while she tried to build a buzz from the weak beer her in-laws bought.

Marie took the chair next to hers. Her face was flushed.

“Edie, I don’t know why I do this every year,” she spoke loudly. “It’s getting to be too much.”

Edie closed her eyes briefly. She smiled at her mother-in-law. Women who didn’t drink for fun got so sloppy when they do to forget. She didn’t blame Marie. This was tough day for her. So was Gil’s birthday, Christmas, or any day that reminded her she was a mother to a good son who died young.

“You don’t have to, Marie,” Edie told her. “People would understand.”

Edie knew her mother-in-law wanted to talk about Gil. It wasn’t always this way between them. She remembered how much Fred and Marie disliked her when she and Gil went out in high school. Their Gil loved Benny Sweet’s daughter, the girl who used to go with her father when he worked at the town dump. They were too polite to say it directly to her, but Edie knew by their stiff comments and the way they checked the clothes she wore. Both wanted another girl to marry their son, someone who went to church and whose father had a respectable job. But it was behind them now.

She only had to glance at Marie, and the woman began blubbering about Gil.

“I was so scared when he went.” Marie’s brown eyes, like Gil’s, dug into her. “I knew something terrible was going to happen to my Gil. I just knew it.”

She could finish her mother-in-law’s sentences. Gil didn’t deserve to die. He would have been a wonderful father to Amber. She was grateful Edie made him so happy.

Marie grasped Edie’s hand.

“Edie, Edie, what am I going to do?”

“Marie, you’re gonna be okay.”

“No, I’m not. Sometimes when I see men Gil’s age come into the store, I wish they were dead instead of him.” Marie’s hand wound around Edie’s as if it grew there. She whispered, “I feel wicked saying it, but I can’t help it.”

Edie sniffled.

“Marie, it’s not gonna change a thing. Gil’s never coming back. Never.” She slipped her hand from Marie’s and stood. “And you’re sure not making me feel any better.”

ABOUT THE IMAGE ABOVE: I bought this little treasure, a hand-made lace handkerchief, for $2 at a local thrift store. I can’t imagine the work that went into this piece. A labor of love, I am certain.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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