Winter Is Here for a While

Suddenly, we have winter again. That’s what it seems like. It began Wednesday night, and the next day we were shoveling snow made heavy by rain and freezing rain. Friday, I had to sand the driveway because of what happened overnight. Light snow was a constant yesterday. We’ll be shoveling for sure today when it’s a bit warmer. It’s 17 degrees F now. The cat, who likes to go outside, sits on the back of the couch, staring at the snow. Actually, this has not been a hard season, and naturally, I think of the ones before it that were. 

I survived tough winters when we lived in the boonies of Western Massachusetts. Snow storms. Ice storms — the absolute worst. Storms that lasted days. Lingering cold. One month it didn’t get above the 20s so road salt didn’t work.

When I was a reporter and worked from home, covering winter weather in the hilltowns of Western Mass. was part of my beat. I would check in with road bosses about conditions, and interview residents, store owners, and in those days, a loyal weather watcher who was the custodian in our kids’ school. People loved to talk about the weather.

Our former home in Worthington, Mass.

Then, I became an editor, which required me to commute from our home in Worthington to the newsroom in the nearest city, Northampton. My route was through three small towns, up and down steep hills. Each time I reached a border I hoped the highway crew had been there before me, and it was extremely rare they hadn’t. I knew their schedules. I left at 6:10 a.m. for work because a plow truck would make a sweep of the steep hill outside our home at 6 a.m. The crews in the towns I traveled were out early, too. 

We had to have our steep driveway plowed, and sometimes I just parked at the top, knowing we weren’t among the first on her list. (Yes, the person who did that was a woman.)

By the way, our middle son plowed state roads during the winter for a contractor. He has his own stories to tell.

If a bad storm came while I was at work, I left at 1 p.m. It wasn’t worth going at noon, because the guys always broke then for lunch no matter the weather. If necessary, I found places to stay overnight — with one of the kids, when they went to school, or with a co-worker.

I stored three buckets of sand in the back of my Subaru for ballast.

I watched the weather constantly.

I waited for spring.

Then, we moved to Taos, New Mexico. We were at the same latitude as South Carolina but at 7,200 feet elevation or higher. Temps had 30-degree differentials between night and day. We got snow, dry stuff, mostly in the mountains where it belonged. 

When we moved there, I swore I would never have a long commute to work again. I was the editor-in-chief of the newspaper there and had a doable 11-minute drive. We had snow-covered roads. But people tend to stay off them so the traffic was light. The crews there used salt and ground pumice to treat the roads. When we first lived there, they used ground glass from the recycling center, which made for a colorful display in the intersections.

View from our front porch.

We returned to Western Mass. six years ago, this time to Shelburne Falls, more northern than where we lived before but at a lower elevation and near a river. Being away eleven years, I see the change in the area’s climate. Winter comes later. Spring comes earlier. This winter hasn’t been very cold, except for brief spells, and not a whole lot of snow. We have a snowblower, but haven’t used it yet this winter because it couldn’t handle the icy kind of snow we’ve gotten. 

Anyway shoveling is great exercise, a mindless one I will add, which means I will be working on my new Isabel Long mystery, Missing the Deadline in my brain. I’m immersed in a great scene. And at 38,000 words, I have officially passed the halfway point. Now that’s exciting.

PHOTO ABOVE: The view from our front porch.

LINKS TO MY BOOKS: Looking for a good book to read? I have six in my Isabel Long Mystery Series and then there’s my new fast-paced thriller, The Sacred Dog, all set in rural New England. Here’s the link to Amazon:

The Sacred Dog

King of the Road

Country fans will recognize this vintage tune by Roger Miller. You have to go way back, say 1964, when Miller, who wrote it, sang about a “man of means by no means” who proclaims himself with humor and a bit of cynicism “King of the Road.” And if The Sacred Dog, my next book out, had a soundtrack, this song would be at the top of the list.

Certainly King of the Road is a favorite for one of the characters, Monk Stevens who plays it on the jukebox at The Sacred Dog — a bar situated in a hilltown that’s a gathering place for locals.

Monk likes to drop the coins in the slot (the story is set in 1984) and sing along typically after he’s had a few beers.

Truthfully, The Sacred Dog is a dark book about a bad feud between two men. One is Frank Hooker, the owner of The Sacred Dog. The other is Al Kitchen, a local with a rather feral upbringing. Frank blames Al for his brother’s death and won’t believe it’s not true. Of course, Al resents it. There’s a whole lot more to this story, but I will let you know about it in future posts. By the way, this book is not part of my Isabel Long Mystery Series although the setting is familiar — the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts.

While The Sacred Dog may be dark, I also wanted to portray the bar, its patrons, and owner realistically. Of course, there is humor, whether it’s the antics of the regulars or what comes out of their mouths. I believe this helps to heighten the book’s drama.

When I began this novel, I bought a CD of Best of Roger Miller — His Greatest Hits. Well that was 22 years ago. Now I could hear it on Spotify. But I listened to that song, plus the others like Chug-A-Lugand Do-Wacka-Do. But King of the Road did it for me. It described a carefree life the people at Frank’s bar only imagined.

There is also something serious to consider here. In 1964, the man singing the song was considered a “hobo,” a wandering person who picked up work, often menial, wherever it could be found. Today, those people are called homeless, who live that way for a variety of reasons. I doubt if many feel the same way as Miller’s King of the Road.

I wanted to quote lines from the song in my book, but there are copyright issues. So, I try to give readers a feeling for the song which plays more than a few times at The Dog, which is what the locals call Frank’s bar. Here, I found a video on YouTube that will give you an idea:

And here is an excerpt from The Sacred Dog in which King of the Road is featured:

The jukebox played King of the Road by Roger Miller. Monk Stevens, who sat on one side of his Uncle Early, got going when he heard the finger-snapping, fiddle-strumming start. He mouthed the words he knew by heart, half-singing the lyrics along with Roger, but his voice got louder. Early tapped the beat with the bottom edge of his lighter and grinned at his nephew, Monk, who used his fingertips to mimic the sound. Frank enjoyed the show. It was an easy song to sing, and though none of them led as carefree a life as Roger Miller described in his lyrics, they fancied they understood its true grit.

“Hey, Monk. Sing next to the window, and I’ll help you out,” Early joked as he lifted his bottle.

Conversations stopped with each clap of thunder, and when they resumed, many talked about the storm and compared it to others they experienced. 

“I remember the time I was out in the middle of my cornfield when the storm hit,” one drinker said. “I thought for sure I was a gonna. I tried to make myself as low to the ground I could.”

“That must’ve taken some doin’,” his buddy said.

“Aw, shut up.”

Frank had a theory that every drunk in a bar was either an authority or a sad sack.

“Which one are you?” Frank once asked Early.

“I’d say a little of both,” Early replied. “Why don’t you get me another beer and a shot.” 

The lights went out, and Roger Miller’s voice from the jukebox slowed unnaturally. The racket from the pinball machines petered out. Frank, who had already put a large flashlight on the counter, snapped it on. There were a few wisecracks, but most people were quiet as Frank went into the backroom to collect candles and a kerosene lantern that had belonged to his dad.

“It’s okay. Calm down, girl,” he told the dog, who whimpered beneath the counter.

Frank arranged candle stubs on Budweiser bottles and raised the globe of the lantern to light its wick. 

“Those aren’t gonna last long if this storm keeps up,” Early said.

But Frank didn’t answer. He and everybody else in the place turned when a truck stopped in The Dog’s parking lot, and a man moved across its headlights toward the bar’s front door. Hippie Joe, his long hair plastered to his head and neck, stood drenched as lightning lit the space behind him.

“Accident,” he shouted. “Call it in. A car hit that large maple on the curve near Cole Road. Tree was down, and the driver didn’t see it. His car’s wedged under. Some people stopped to help him. He’s hurt, but I dunno how much. Big mess. Tree took a couple of poles with it.”

Frank, who was on the phone to the power company, relayed quickly what Joe said before he called the emergency dispatch. The volunteer firefighters in the bar drained their beers and were out the door before their beepers sounded. Frank handed the phone to Joe, who gave dispatch more information about the accident before he followed the others outside.

Early shook a finger.

“The tree warden wanted to take that maple ’cause it was leaning a little more each year,” he said. “The selectmen were ready. They even held one of those tree hearings, but old lady Smith who owns the property next to it raised a fuss. So they all agreed to let it be.” He looked about ready to spit. “And then this happens.”

Frank half-listened to Early. His mind was elsewhere, on his brother’s open casket, Wes, only in his twenties, lying there in the suit he wore to his high school graduation. Frank’s ex-wife was a month away from giving birth to their daughter, but even that joyous event didn’t help his parents recover from their younger son’s death. Their grief was like a dry wind that drew life from them, and though they were only middle-aged, they died within months of each other a few years later. 

He recalled how his brother’s buddies who came to the wake seemed scared, as if his death could be contagious. Wes was a little foolish, but he would have turned out okay, Frank was certain. He watched Al joke with one of the ballplayer’s girlfriends, a well-built blonde whose head rocked forward as she laughed. It should’ve been somebody else who died that night. It should’ve been Al.

LINK: The Sacred Dog will be released by darkstroke books on Dec. 27, but it’s ready for Kindle readers to pre-order. Please do as it helps a great deal with ratings. Thank you. Here I will make it easy with the link:

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Yes, that’s my CD of Best of Roger Miller — His Greatest Songs.  

hilltowns, Isabel Long Mystery Series

Having My Way With It

Actually, that title is an abbreviation of what I will be talking about March 9 at an event sponsored by the Shelburne Falls Area Women’s Club. Specifically, I will talk about how the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, where I live, have been an inspiration for my fiction.

Actually, if I were to give the whole title it would be: I Take What I Know and Have My Way With It.


Andrew Heinrich on the bassoon at Brodksy Bookshop in Taos, NM

I will be honest in saying I love doing these events. I’ve done them at libraries, classrooms, book stores, on stage and for literary groups — in person and virtually. One memorable reading was for my novel, Peace, Love, and You Know What, at Brodsky Bookshop in Taos, NM, where my friend, Andrew Heinrich played Beatles tunes on the bassoon. It was appropriate given the book’s pitch: First a three-day bash at a college hippie pad … and then maybe adulthood. Peace, Love, and You Know What is a comedy framed by the Vietnam War and Watergate.

Now I will be talking and reading in Shelburne Falls, Mass., the village where I live. For this event, I will concentrate on my Isabel Long Mystery Series. As I’ve said before, there’s a lot of me in Isabel. Given it’s written in first-person, present tense, I can’t help it. But I have no plans to be a private investigator now that I’ve left journalism for good. I will write about one instead — plus work on my other writing projects. It’s been a month, by the way, since I left that profession.

I admit I pay homage to family members, especially my mother, in this series. But this is definitely not a memoir. The rest of the characters are made up. So are Isabel’s cases.

But I honestly believe the hilltowns are a permanent part of my DNA considering the the length of time I’ve lived in Western Mass. — 25 years the first go-round and reaching five years this one — and importantly covering it as a reporter.  It helps my books be authentic.

I’ve been to lots of readings by other authors, so I am familiar with what works and what doesn’t. For the next few days I will concentrate on what I will say and how much I will read. There will be time for questions and I will have books for sale at a discount.

If you’re in the area, here are the event’s details: Wednesday, March 9, 4 p.m. at the Shelburne Buckland Community Center at 53 Main St., on the Shelburne side of Shelburne Falls.


That’s me giving a reading at SOMOS in Taos — “a place for the written and spoken word.”


Here’s the link to Amazon:




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.

The Sweet Spot

A Good-Hearted Woman

As promised, I will tell you next about Edie St. Claire, the main character in The Sweet Spot, my novel that is set for a release next month. She’s a young widow, a single mom, and a good-hearted woman who knows how to have fun. Edie Sweet Spot Coveralso has a strong backbone, which comes in handy when she gets caught in the middle of a dirty scandal in this snoopy little town.

Here’s a bit of background: Edie’s father, Alban “Benny” Sweet, has run the town dump for 35 years or so. Her mother died when she was young although her feisty Aunt Leona, who lives next door, took over motherly duties. Her two older sisters, ashamed of their Pop, high-tailed it out of town as soon as they could.

Edie married young to Gil St. Claire, a sweetheart of a guy who got killed in Vietnam. She’s bringing up their daughter, Amber, mostly by herself but with help from her family. She works in her in-laws’ general store. (They weren’t happy their favorite son married her by the way.)

Eight years after his death, Edie still grieves for Gil. She tries to ease that sadness with a bit of fun, whether it’s with her family, drinking it up and dancing at the Do-So-Do Bar in town, or playing on the Conwell Women’s Softball Team. (She’s a great third baseman.)

Then, there’s the affair with her married brother-inlaw, Walker, who’s nothing like Gil although Edie recognizes the man’s caring side. But things turn out badly both for Edie and Walker. Really badly.

I’m awfully fond of Edie, who’s a woman of incredible strength. She’s a mother who wants the best for her young daughter. She’s true to her family. And she’s got this wonderful energy and spark that Harlan Doyle, the man who moves next door into his grandmother’s ramshackle home, admires. So do I.

I begin The Sweet Spot with this scene. Lonny is a guy Edie hooked up with at the Do-Si-Do Bar in Conwell. There’s nothing serious with this man, or as I write later: “One thing led to something else, and then he followed her home in his pickup truck.” It’s Memorial Day 1978.

The rap on the bedroom door was light and quick. Edie St. Claire sat up in bed.

“Crap, it’s after nine,” she said.

Her daughter’s voice came through the door in a thin, worried wail.

“Ma, you up yet? We gotta go.”

“Yeah, yeah, Amber, I’m getting ready.”

Edie reached over Lonny for the black bra on his side of the bed. He groaned in his sleep when she touched him, and then she was on her feet, running to use the bathroom, grabbing whatever clean clothes she could find. She was a pretty woman, the type who made men smile and want to be with her. Short, she favored her father’s side, the Sweets, with her slight build and light blue eyes. She combed her fingers through her brassy brown hair, cut straight at the jaw.

Lonny opened one eye and watched her hasty dress. He mumbled something low and creaky in the back of his throat.

“I gotta go. I told you last night,” she said.

Lonny propped himself on one elbow.

“When you comin’ back?”

“I dunno.”

Edie slipped out the door with her purse and a bottle of mouthwash. Amber was on the other side, her blue eyes blinking fast, brows arched high. Edie shut the bedroom door behind her.

“Amber, I gotta teach you how to use the coffee machine.”

“But I’m only seven and a half.”

“Seven and a half? You’re old enough.”

They raced out the kitchen door to the car. Pop’s pickup blocked their way. Edie studied her father’s half of the house. Nothing stirred, except two gray cats jumping off a couch to the porch’s floorboards.

“How we getting out, Ma?”

“Don’t you worry about that, Amber. Just get in the car.”

The wheels of Edie’s white sedan spun into the high grass when she drove across the front yard, steering hard to the right to avoid the drainage ditch. Her mouth was full of wash, and she worked at the sharp liquid until she spat out the open window.

“See?” she said.

Her daughter’s head moved in several small bounces.

“Yeah, Ma.”

They were nearly at Aunt Leona’s house, one of three on this dead-end dirt road. Amber spent the night there and walked back this morning. Leona’s dog, a mix of golden retriever, collie, and some other breed, trotted slowly like the old mutt he was along the road’s shoulder. The dog halted briefly and raised his head when he recognized the sound of her car.

“Uh-oh, old Bob’s following you.” Edie slowed the car when it tires chattered and slid sideways over the road’s hard ridges. “We’ll just have to bring him back later. I don’t have time for it now.”

“Are we gonna be late?”

“No, no, we’re fine. Honey, fish in my purse for my sunglasses. Any aspirin? No? Shit. Oh, yeah? Open the bottle and give me two. Thanks.”

Edie pushed the car forward to the main road, past the edges of dense forest toward the town’s center, where she found a parking space behind her in-laws’ Thunderbird.

Amber knelt to reach the car’s back seat.

“See. I remembered,” she said.

Amber clutched a framed photograph, the one taken of her father weeks before his helicopter was shot down in Vietnam. It happened one month before Amber was born, and the sun glinted off Gil’s long, thin face in a way that broke Edie’s heart all over again. His hand was on his hip. His khaki shirt was unbuttoned as he leaned against the chopper. He and his crew, who died together, called it the Angel of Darkness. Gil’s dark eyes went through Edie as if he was cool and tough, but she knew better. Those were boys who died that day in Vietnam, and sweet boys if they were like her Gil.

“I’m glad you brought Daddy’s picture. Come on. It hasn’t started yet.”

Edie and Amber slipped through the small crowd clustered on the town commons. People nodded or spoke her name. Edie knew every one of them because people had a way of sticking close to the hilltown of Conwell in Western Massachusetts.

“Marie, Fred,” she greeted her in-laws, but her attention was on her mother-in-law. “How are you?” Edie asked although she didn’t expect an answer.

NEWS ABOUT THE RELEASE: The release of The Sweet Spot has been moved to Feb. 20 for very good reasons. That is a definite. Until then, I’ll keep feeding you posts about the novel.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: This is part of the path I take on my daily walk through our sagebrush-filled neighborhood. Those are prints from my boots and what appears to be a coyote’s paws made the day before.