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: https://www.amazon.com/Joan-Livingston/e/B01E1HKIDG




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.