Northern Comfort

Why I Chose ‘Northern Comfort’ for My Book

My next novel, Northern Comfort will be released July 19. It’s a dark drama in which the accidental death of a child changes the lives of those involved. No, it’s not part of my Isabel Long Mystery Series. (Another is not the way.) But, yes, it has a favorite setting, the fictional hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. Why did I give it that title? As I so often say, I take what I know and have my way with it.

One of the great pleasures I had as a reporter living and working in Western Massachusetts was the start of maple sugaring season. That would happen in late winter when the weather was warm enough during the day to get the maple trees’ sap flowing and cold enough at night, that it would stop. There’s a lot of work that goes into getting those trees ready and for boiling the sap into delicious maple syrup. Every year, I tried to find a new angle for a story, and the maple sugarers were very accommodating. One of my go-to guys was Paul Sena, who still makes maple syrup in my former town of Worthington. Hank and I still drive there to buy syrup from him. It is one of my favorite foods. Here’s a link to an earlier post about that topic:

Since this book is set in winter, I wanted to capture the process of stringing lines, tapping trees, and even boiling. Miles Potter, one of the main characters, helps his buddy, Dave, a relative newcomer to this hilltown, who is enamored by the old-time ways including sugaring. For Miles, the work is cathartic. He was the one driving the truck when little Cody Miller’s sled slid into its path. Miles knows Cody’s mother, Willi Miller. They grew up in the same town, but their places were separated by what their families had or didn’t have. Will and Cody were dirt poor. Miles grew up comfortably.

The excerpt below tells you a lot about the tradition of maple sugaring, including the history of why it was called ‘northern comfort’ before I used it as a title.

Given the drama of this case, the title Northern Comfort fits so well. We have a mother grieving for the young son she raised by herself. It hasn’t been easy considering he was brain-damaged at birth. Then, there is Miles who feels remorseful for his role in the accident, and finally, Junior Miller, who uncomfortably must face the fact he abandoned his former wife and son.

What kind of comfort can any of them find in the cold north?

As promised, here is an excerpted from Northern Comfort. The scene takes place at Dave’s sugarhouse. Miles is there as well as Dave’s family, including his pregnant wife.

Sap flowed into the metal holding tank at the sugarhouse, sweet music to Dave, who threw up his arms and did a jig next to the evaporator. “I knew it, I knew it,” he sang. “I just knew it.”

Dave’s little girls danced with him, although they didn’t understand what their father was shouting about. 

His wife, Ruth, whose belly was too big to dance, laughed and shook her head. “You gotta love the man,” she said.

Miles laughed as he stoked the fire beneath the evaporator’s pan. He was doing as Dave taught him, putting the slabs of hard and soft wood, bark-side down, inside the firebox. His goal was to get its cast-iron doors hot enough to glow red. Now the firebox’s ears, or hinges, were another thing. Dave, who learned to sugar from an old-timer long dead, said he only did it once so far.

Miles stripped to his thermal shirt. He couldn’t work bare-shirted because sparks flaring from the firebox’s opening would burn his skin. The shirt and jeans would be useless by the end of sugaring season, bit through with so many holes they’d look like someone had fired birdshot at him. Miles reached inside his jeans pockets for the coins and keys. He took off his belt. He had learned from Dave their metal would heat up enough to leave red marks on his body.

“Hey, Dave, you might want to forget to tell the doctor about emptying his pockets when he comes for his ceremonial boil. We’d get a laugh watching him jump around like his pants were on fire.”

“Yeah, that’d go over big,” Dave said flatly.

Yesterday, when the temperature rose into the forties and everyone’s houses dripped melted snow, some sap collected in the vats at the bottom of each sugar bush. Today, the run was full-blown with two thousand gallons ready to be boiled into syrup.

Dave was full of local lore as he moved around the sugarhouse after Ruth and the girls went home. He talked about how farmers in New England used to make maple sugar, forming it into hard cakes. Maple syrup became popular in the late 1800s when someone invented the evaporator, which resembles a flat-bottom boat when it’s empty.

Miles glanced up from the firebox’s door. He raised a gloved hand. 

“Dave, you’ve told me this story six years straight. Why don’t you tell me this on the third week when we’re so sick of this stuff and pulling all-nighters we vow never to do it again? Or better yet, save it for the doctor. I bet he’d love telling his buddies back in New York all about it.”

Dave studied Miles.

“Shit, you can be such a spoilsport sometimes.” He reached for his leather gloves. “Anyway, around the Civil War people up North began using maple sugar instead of cane sugar and molasses from the South. They used to call it northern comfort.”

“Yeah, yeah, I remember that from last year.”

The sugarhouse, only yards from Dave’s house, was unheated, except for the evaporator’s fire box. Step a few feet outside at night, and the cold had a punch, but next to the evaporator, all was humid and hot like a woman’s mouth. The swirling sap in the pan gave off a bank of steam, which rose to the sugarhouse’s vented roof.

They fired up the evaporator about an hour ago. It’d be another two before Dave could pour the season’s first syrup. As Dave reminded Miles, the first boil sweetens the pan, so it takes longer than the next firings. They’d be here until ten or so and resume boiling the next day.

Miles helped Dave build his sugarhouse seven years ago. They took measurements from an abandoned shack in South Hayward that had collapsed from heavy snow the year before Dave’s was built. Rough-hewn boards nailed vertically covered the rectangular building. On the wall near the shelf for the radio, Dave penciled the starting and ending dates for each season, and how many gallons of syrup they had made. Today’s date was Thursday, March 5. 

LINK FOR NORTHERN COMFORT: The book will be released July 19 for Kindle readers. Here is the link: It only costs $2.99. I hope you will preorder as it helps with ratings. Thank you if you have already done that.

Paperback readers will have to be a little patient. I will let you know when it’s available.

PHOTO ABOVE: A half-gallon of the delicious maple syrup created by Paul Sena. Forgive the crusted drips of sap.