Killing Jan 15-16 FB copy
Isabel Long Mystery Series, Writing

Story Behind the Story: Isabel Long Mystery Series

One day I got it in my head that I wanted to write a mystery. I had already written books for adult and young readers, literary fiction and magical realism, respectively. One is even bilingual.

But it made sense to try this genre as I love a great mystery, especially one that fools me until the end.

So, I sat down, and the pieces came together fast. Extremely fast. That’s how it works for me. Not to sound like a nut job, but ideas come from somewhere. The same goes for the characters and what they do.

Anyway, it made sense that my protagonist, Isabel Long, would tell the story, so I wrote it in first-person, and because I want my readers to feel they are in the middle of the action, also in present tense.

Isabel’s back story: she has just come off a bad year when this series starts with Chasing the Case. Her husband died and she lost her job as a newspaper’s top editor. She is what the French call une femme d’un certain age. Isabel’s bit of a smart ass but she has a caring heart. Yes, I admit there is quite a lot of me in her.

After a year of proper grieving, Isabel is ready for a new life. And that’s when we first meet her. She decides to solve a 28-year-old mystery of a woman who went missing in her town of a thousand people. It was Isabel’s first big story as a rookie reporter. She plans to use the tools she relied on as a journalist to solve this case. And Isabel has a ‘Watson’ — her 92-year-old mystery-loving mother who’s come to live with her. My own mother, who is 97, inspired this character. Isabel also takes a part-time job at the local watering hole, the Rooster, where not only does she find clues for her cases, but a love interest in its owner, Jack.

Then I found I couldn’t let go of Isabel Long. I gave her more cases to solve in Redneck’s Revenge, Checking the Traps and Killing the Story. On Jan. 27, Working the Beat will be released by my publisher darkstroke books.

I hadn’t expected to write a series, but here I am.

And to get you interested in Working the Beat, here’s an excerpt from an early chapter. Here Isabel and her mother happen to be at the Titus Country Fair when they are approached by Shirley Dawes.

Shirley stays sitting when she sees us approach. I make our introductions, and then we take the seats opposite her at the picnic table. I make sure I’m in Shirley’s direct line of vision in case she reads lips.

“So, what did you want to talk about?” I ask.

Shirley works her mouth a bit.

“It’s about my grandson, Lucas. Lucas Page is his full name. He was killed here four years ago and whoever did it didn’t get caught.”

“Here in Titus?”

She gives her head a shake.

“I mean here at the fair. It was after the demolition derby, the first one they had. They found Lucas’s body the next morning behind where everybody watches, in the woods up there. They said he must’ve been drunk and fell down in the rocks. His head was hit real bad I was told.”

“What was he doing on the hill afterward? Was he alone?”

“That’s what I want you to find out.”

This story’s coming back to me now. I was the editor of the Daily Star then. We reported on an unattended death at the fair in a story that made the front page, and then like Shirley said, it was ruled an accident because of a brain injury, although she protested that in a story we ran, too.

“Now, I remember you, Shirley. You came to see me in the newsroom. You said you were frustrated the police didn’t seem to be looking that hard into your grandson’s case and you wanted us to do that.”

I think back and hope I treated this woman nicely.

“Yeah, I did. You said newspapers don’t do that kind of work.”

“No, not the one I worked for.”

“But I heard about what you’ve been doin’ now as a private investigator. Your last case was a doozy. Read about it in the paper.” She crooks a thumb toward Annette and her son, still talking with his admirers. “Course, there was Chet Waters. Maybe you can do what the cops couldn’t or wouldn’t do.”

“You mean find out what happened that night with your grandson.”

“Yeah. I heard you get paid for doin’ this. I wanna hear how much. I ain’t got a lot. But this is important to me. I loved my grandson. I’m the one who brought him up after his mother gave him to me. He was hangin’ around with a rough crowd in those days. Tryin’ to fit in. Here. Let me show you his picture.”

Shirley reaches for the purse on the seat beside her. The purse is vintage style, off white with a smart clasp on the top, no zippers, something my mother would use. I am guessing Shirley holds onto things. She removes a photo from her wallet and hands it to me.

“I took it at Christmas, the last one we had,” she says.

Lucas Page’s face smiles at me. He’s young, blue-eyed, and with the kind of features that would label him a good-looking guy. His most distinctive is the red hair that’s short on the sides and long enough on the top so it has a bit of curl. But back to that smile. He was happy to pose for his grandmother.

“He was a handsome young man,” I tell Shirley.

She swipes away a tear.

“Yeah, he was.”

I glance at my mother. She’s interested, of course. The questions are forming in my brain, but this isn’t the time to ask them. Already a parade of people I know have passed by with a wave, a hello, and a curious expression on their faces as they wonder why in the heck my mother and I are talking with this woman. They’re just being nosy New Englanders as usual.

“Shirley, we’re interested, but this isn’t the best place to talk. We need some privacy. How about my mother and I come to your home to talk this over?”

“What’d you say? My house?”

“Yes, your house. Well, you could come to ours if you prefer. We live in Conwell. But it would help us if we could see where you and your grandson lived. I should also tell you that if I’m interested in taking your case, I have to clear it with my boss. Do you know Lin Pierce?” I pause as she nods. “He gets a small cut of whatever I make. So, he has a say.” I register the concern in Shirley’s narrowed eyes. “Don’t worry. He hasn’t turned me down yet.”

“I understand,” she says. “Can’t do it tomorrow. I’m helpin’ out in the kitchen here. Monday mornin’ work for you?”

Ma and I exchange glances.

“How about ten?” I say.

Shirley nods.

“Ten, it is. Do you mind if I make a copy of your grandson’s photo with my phone?”

“Go right ahead if it helps.”

I place the photo on the table and remove my cell phone from my bag to take a shot before I hand the photo back to Shirley.

“Here you go.”

Shirley leaves us after she gives me directions to her house in West Titus. She lives on one of those dead-end dirt roads, hers is the last house, that’s also likely one of the last to be plowed in the winter and impassable at times in the spring because of the mud. But she’s probably one of those people who doesn’t mind because she wants to live out of the way of everybody. I don’t have to worry about road conditions this time of year. The road’s been graded recently she told me.

I wait until Shirley is out of earshot as she moves inside the crowd that’s wandering the fairgrounds. She stops first at the pumpkin display, where Annette and Abe are still hanging out.

“What’s your opinion, Ma?”

“I like her. She’s a little rough around the edges like a lot of the people we meet here,” she says. “But it’s about time we found a new case. It was getting a little boring.”

I smile. My 93-year-old mother is game for a new mystery to solve.

“Boring?”

She nods.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Working the Beat has a Jan. 27 release. But if you are a Kindle user, you can download No. 4 Killing the Story for free for two days only.

Here’s the link for Killing the Story: https://mybook.to/killingthestory

Here’s he link for Working the Beat: mybook.to/workingthebeat

 

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Day Job, Newspapers

My Day Job

Well, I didn’t expect this to happen. Once I was done with my job as the managing editor of The Taos News, I figured I was finished with the news biz. No more deadlines. No more being in the thick of what was happening in the community. No more complaints about coverage. No more… oh the list goes on.

But then I found an opportunity I couldn’t let slip away: running the editorial department of the Greenfield Recorder in Western Massachusetts. And — surprise — I got hired as the editor-in-chief.

At the start of March, my life became suddenly busy as I learned the ropes and after a month, I went solo. Actually, I was extraordinarily busy as we were missing a news editor, so until we were able to fill that position, I was working two jobs. As you might guess, that didn’t leave me time for much of anything else, like my own writing. But thankfully, that has changed, and I’m back into my next book. (I will admit, however, I have cut back on my social media presence.)

So, what’s this newspaper like? The Greenfield Recorder, founded in 1792, is a daily paper covering 26 towns in Franklin County in Massachusetts. It has one town that became a city — Greenfield. The rest are towns of varying sizes. Most are very rural. I live in one of them, so I am mindful we need to give people the info they need to make good decisions about their communities — and often entertain them. Yes, we are a community newspaper.

The Recorder — that’s its logo above — is owned by Newspapers of New England, which has a total of nine papers in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, including the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where I once worked as a reporter and editor a long time ago. I like my bosses.

I feel fortunate to have inherited a great staff from my predecessor. Most are millennials who came here straight from college or their first job. Including sports, we have eight reporters (we just hired a sport reporter and are currently down one position on the news-side we’re trying to fill), two photographers, and five editors not including me. They are a hard-working and friendly group — I am often amused by the topics of their spontaneous conversations.

I’m glad I had the experience at The Taos News and can apply what I learned when I was the boss there. For instance, don’t lead by emotion. Help to bring out the best in your staff. (My question every day: What do you have for the front page?) Express appreciation for the work our staff does. I represent the paper wherever I go, so I need to be on best behavior. Oh, the list goes on.

Yes, once again, I’m in the thick of things. And I’m liking it.

THE SWEET SPOT: Hey, suddenly people are catching onto The Sweet Spot, a novel I published two years ago. Set in the hill towns of Western Mass., it’s the story of what happens when a woman is thescan TSS center of a small town’s biggest scandal. It has many of my favorite characters. Here take a look: http://myBook.to/The_Sweet_Spot

 

 

 

 

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cartoon
Newspapers, Taos, Writing

I’m Outta Here

It’s official: I am leaving my job as the managing editor of The Taos News on May 5. I’ve been at it for nearly eight years. It’s time for a change.

I began working as a journalist 31 years ago, when I was a correspondent for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, one of the oldest dailies in the nation. I reported on the town where I lived, Worthington, population 1,400.

Worthington, a hill town in Western Massachusetts, had a surprising amount of news. The first lesson I learned is that I’d better get my story right because it was likely I would run into that person the next day at the general store.

At the start, I had to write my story on a typewriter and drive 40 minutes to the newsroom so someone could type it into the paper’s computer system. Then I was given a Radio Shack laptop that showed seven lines on its tiny screen. I plugged it into the phone jack to send my story and called to make sure the editor got it. Over the years, technology improved until now the web is a vital reporting tool.

Eventually I added several hill towns to my beat. I attended meetings (my favorite was the venerable Town Meeting although a Worthington Board of Health meeting about pigs was a close second). I wrote features and columns. Occasionally there was breaking news, typically a house fire. I did get big stories to cover like the closing of a nuclear power plant. 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.

I am grateful for the opportunity to report on those towns. I had to listen to the way people talk and observe how they behave. That’s been a great help for my fiction.

I became a line editor, then a copy and special sections editor at the Gazette.

As for managing editor of The Taos News, I sort of fell into that job. After Hank and I moved here in 2006, I freelanced for the paper before I was hired as its copy editor. After a year, I became the managing editor.

It’s not an easy time for newspapers. Reading habits have changed — moving from fiber to cyber. During my time as managing editor, I’ve watched many newspapers struggle to keep readership. Some have folded. But The Taos News remains strong.

Taoseños are engaged in their community, and frankly there is nowhere else to get the news our staff reports. I like to think the editorial team covers the heck out of Taos County. (I will miss my colleagues.) Of course, a paper can’t continue without the business side working hard as well. And to keep things on the up and up, a firewall exists between editorial and advertisement.

And those in the industry must feel we are doing right things because the paper has racked up numerous awards, including best weekly in the nation for six of the eight years I’ve been here.

While it has been a fulfilling job, it hasn’t been an easy one at times. I’ve been expected to write hard-hitting editorials and make political endorsements, which has often displeased folks. I’ve been sworn at over the phone. Once a group of critics holding a protest outside the newsroom over coverage chanted my name.

Fortunately I have a thick skin.

On Friday, the paper held a sweet party in my honor. As part of the sendoff, the editorial team created a fake front page for me. It’s hilariously funny with inside jokes. I plan to frame it for my office.

The only parts I will share are the banner headline: “Editor’s exit a boon for ill-behaving officials” and the cartoon, Bill Baron, created above.

The May 5 paper is my last. This week I am working with my replacement to show him the ropes.

Some people who know I am leaving the news biz have asked what I plan to do. I will concentrate on my fiction and other writing projects that have already come my way. We will stay put in Taos but be able to see our family — we have six grown kids and a granddaughter — that is spread around the country more often.

It’s been a great ride, but now I will be going in a different direction. Or as Joey, one of the characters in my novel, Peace, Love, and You Know What, says about Lenora, who is graduating and splitting for Europe: “That’s right. She’s outta here.”

PHOTO ABOVE: Bill Baron, political cartoonist for The Taos News, created that cartoon for me. Bill has been my co-conspirator on the paper’s op-ed page.

 

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Victor Higgins' masterpiece Winter Funeral
Newspapers, Writing

Happy for My Friends

Last week the New England Newspaper and Press Association named the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton the “Newspaper of the Year.” I am happy for my former paper.

First, I know how hard the newspaper’s staff, including many of my former colleagues, works to cover the communities of Western Massachusetts. I follow the news from afar still on its website www.gazettenet.com. Besides the hard news, such as holding government officials accountable, the Gazette balances it with the fun stuff.

Jerrey Roberts' photo

Gazette photographer Jerrey Roberts’ photo of Ellen Bartos

Here’s an example: Take a look at Jerrey Roberts’ photo from the paper’s website of Ellen Bartos walking her horse, Teddy, from a neighbor’s pasture back home. The cutline notes the woman’s horses are enjoying the “last of the good fall grass.”

I am now the managing editor of The Taos News, a weekly paper in Northern New Mexico, and I owe my start to the Gazette.

I never took a journalism course or wrote for a newspaper but an editor agreed to take me on as a correspondent for my town of Worthington, population 1,200. Worthington has one church, one bar, and one stoplight. I had to get the story right. After all, it was most likely I would run into the people I quoted at the town’s only store the next day.

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The front page  of the weekend  Gazette

When I first started, I used to write my story on a typewriter and drive it down to the newsroom where one of the staff would type it into the system. Then, 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 over my phone line to the newsroom. I got paid by the inch.

I used the laptop for years until I got my own computer.

My territory expanded to other hilltowns. I covered meetings, events and any news that concerned each one. I wrote features. The hilltowns may have been small but they were rich with interesting country people and at times controversy.

As a result I became a braver person.

me and tony lake

I ask Tony Lake a question in his White House office in this photo by Gordon Daniels when he worked at the Gazette.

Eventually, I got to take on tougher stories such as the closing of a nuclear power plant. I interviewed Tony Lake, national security adviser under President Bill Clinton who had a farm in Worthington, at the White House.

I was hired full-time as a reporter, then a columnist, line and copy editor during my 21 years with the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

I figure those early years working as a correspondent were the equivalent of a BA in journalism.

Now I oversee the production of a newspaper, which wins its share of awards. I believe our staff covers the heck out of this community.

So I am grateful to The Daily Hampshire Gazette for giving me a chance long ago and for teaching me about community journalism. Congratulations, friends, for a job well done.

ABOUT THE TOP PHOTO: I snapped this photo today of Victor Higgins’ painting “Winter Funeral” hanging in the Harwood Museum of Art. It is my favorite Taos painting and the subject of my story for The Taos News’ Winter Visitor’s Guide.

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An untouched photo of our house captured by my neighbor Mary McPhail Gray.
Writing

My New Website, Oh Boy

Well, you found my new website. I am glad.

After a few years of blogging, and many more creating fiction and non-fiction, I offer a website devoted to the craft of writing, the books I’ve created, and more. The posts from my blogs — joanlivingston.blogspot.com and joanlivingstoncooks.blogspot.com — have found a second home here. Those who visit those blogs will be directed to this website since I work best doing one thing at a time.

Thanks to Andrew Oxford, my tech-savvy friend and colleague, for building this website. We aimed for a lean, clean design. I have a few details still to work out.

An untouched photo of our house captured by my neighbor Mary McPhail Gray.

An untouched photo of our house captured by our  neighbor Mary McPhail Gray.

So, why do I write? That’s simple. I love to write.

First I wrote poetry, because admittedly I couldn’t sustain a thought in prose. Working as a reporter changed that. I also listened to people talk and watched them behave. I am grateful for the experience. By the way, my day job is managing editor of a newspaper, The Taos News.

So, who do I write for? I would say adult and young readers who crave a good story. My hope is they forget they are reading when they pick up a story I’ve created — and can’t put it down.

Let me tell you about my adult books. I love strong characters and often small towns like the one where I used to live in Western Massachusetts. Here is a pitch for The Sweet Spot: Love and mis-love, secrets and discovery, rich and poor, old families and newcomers, deep roots and fresh starts, violence and peace. You can read more about The Sweet Spot, plus an excerpt, in the books section of this website.

Could this story happen where I once lived? Yes. Did it happen? Only in my novel.

The Swanson Shuffle was inspired by my experience living and working in a psychiatric halfway house. That’s a work in progress.

Then, there is my Twin Jinn series for middle-grade readers. My concept: After escaping their master, a family of genies — Elwin and Mira Jinn and their twins, Jute and Fina — goes into hiding among humans. In the first book, they perform magic in a carnival. In the second they go to public school, where they create an alchemy machine for a science fair project. For the third, they live on a horse sanctuary in New Mexico and learn about new powers. I am working a fourth.

I am fond of the twins. They are mischievous and competitive. Their patient parents set boundaries for when and how they can use their special powers, but happily for us, that doesn’t always work.

I certainly have more to write about writing. Thank you, and please come back.

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