Writing Two Books at the Same Time

Strange but true that I am writing two books at the same time. Let me explain how this makes perfect sense.

I began Finding the Source, next in my Isabel Long Mystery Series, on Dec. 3. I was inspired while making the final edits for no. 7, Missing the Deadline, which had a release three weeks later. Being in the thick of this story and its characters made me want to start another right away.

When writing novels, I aim for 500 words each day of the week, well, except for holidays and family visits. I started that practice when I worked as editor-in-chief, first for two daily newspapers, and then three at the same time. I got up at 5 a.m. (before the heat came on in the winter) and that was the amount of words I wrote before I left for the newsroom.

Actually, 500 is a satisfying amount of words that helps me maintain the quality of the book I’m writing while making progress. Sometimes I do go over, not realizing it until I look at the bottom of my novel’s document. But I found purposely trying to write longer took the fun out of it. That’s my experience anyway.

But now that I no longer have that job, I wanted to write more. Certainly writing for Substack and my website helped fulfill that desire. But recently I felt it wasn’t enough.

That’s when I found The Talking Table, a YA book I began the day after Christmas in 2022, according to the file’s info. Thinking about that time, I recalled certain family members got Covid, so our holiday gathering that year was postponed. Instead we had a quiet celebration with meals for those who were well and lived nearby.

I was a couple of thousand into The Talking Table when I dropped it. Frankly, I forgot about the book, but there was also a lot of personal stuff going on at that time. I discovered it last month in my computer’s files and was inspired to continue.

The Talking Table is a story told by 16-year-old Vivien Winslow, who recently moved to a trailer park with her mother and brother when they could no longer afford the apartment they had. Their father, who wrote one great book that brought him acclaim, is out of the picture. Why that title? It’s my secret for now.

Here’s how the book starts: We lived in an crappy place, my mother, brother, and me. It wasn’t really a house, but something that came on wheels just like the others in Murphy’s Trailer Park and only a single-wide with white aluminum siding. It was like living in a tin can.

Sure, I told myself, I could write 500 words a day for that book, too. And so I have.

I believe that’s possible because they are two very different books and the readership I am trying to reach is likewise different.

Both are first-person. But in the mystery series, I use present tense to get readers engaged in the cold cases solved by Isabel Long, a smart and savvy older woman. In The Talking Table, I chose past tense as Vivien Winslow reflects on her life as a teenager and what turned out to be a critical experience.

One book is present day. The other takes place in 1967.

The settings are not the same. Finding the Source along with the rest of the series is set in the fictional hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. The location for The Talking Table is a seacoast town inspired by the one where I grew up in the eastern part of the state.

I work on Finding the Source right after I get up and while having my first cup of coffee.

Typically, I save The Talking Table until after I have taken a break doing household chores, errands, shoveling snow, and social media promotion. Sometimes it happens in the late afternoon. But there are times, like yesterday, when I’ve gone from one book to the other. To heck with the other things I had to do.

By my calculations I should finish both by mid-spring. After all, the YA book is significantly shorter than the adult mystery. When that happens, I will get into editing mode and give my books the attention they deserve.

What’s with the sign above? That and another are posted in the Trolley Museum yard in Shelburne Falls Village. 

Isabel Long Mystery Series

When a Cat Becomes a Character

One of the amusing parts about being an author is having people ask if a character could be someone they know in real life. That happens a lot with my Isabel Long Mystery Series, which is inspired by the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, where I live. I’d like to think that I’ve created such authentic characters, readers believe they could be living among them. But, no, I made them all up.

Missing the Deadline, no. 7 in the series, has an exception: the cat is based on a real being — our cat, Stella. They even have the same name. 

The fictional Stella is the pet of Gerald Danielson, a literary agent who was found shot in the head and left to die outside his Meadows Falls home. Gerald survived but is not the same hotshot agent who moved there from New York City. The cops ruled it an attempted suicide, but the person who hires Isabel feels differently.

Gerald lives with his devoted sister and has an aide who assists him. But his cat is the one who brings him comfort when he’s feeling agitated. Having witnessed how animal can do that in real life, I wanted to use that observation in this novel. (I also didn’t mind giving the real Stella a plug.) 

Gerald’s Stella is a stray that just showed up one day and took a liking to him. This Stella is also a Maine coon cat, who is particular about humans. She doesn’t pay any attention to Isabel when she comes for the first interview. Here’s an excerpt in which Gerald’s sister, Wendy, who has taken over the agency, talks about her brother. 

“Sometimes at night I read aloud from their manuscripts and he tells me in his way which ones we should consider. He appears to like that. And he has his cat, Stella. She’ll sit on his lap for hours. Inside. Outside. It doesn’t matter. That helps a lot. You can see her right over there. He calls her Stelzee.” 

Wendy points toward the window seat on the other side of the room. A cat, a Maine coon breed in multiple shades of brown, I believe, is curled, presumably asleep, on a mat in the sunlight. She shows no interest in meeting us.

My best guess is that non-fictional Stella lived on her own after being dumped by her owner during Covid. A good friend, who started feeding her outside her home, put a notice on Facebook looking for a home for the cat. And so she became ours. I named her Stella, so I could channel Marlon Brando when I call for her outside. We do call her Stelzee as well.

An amazing assassin, Stella spends time outdoors, killing any rodent that dares to come near our house, and indoors, often hours lying on Hank’s extended legs. All it takes is a light touch from a human and she purrs loudly. Stella has only sat on my lap twice and after three years has finally gotten used to me holding her in my arms but not for long. 

Eh, I don’t hold it against her, obviously not if I make her a character in my latest mystery.

Missing the Deadline was released Dec. 21 in Kindle. (Paperback readers will have to wait a couple of months, my publisher’s rule.) Thank you if you read my book.

Isabel Long Mystery Series, Uncategorized

Writing about Strong Women

When I began writing my mystery series, I aimed to create strong women characters who know what they want and go after it. Topping the list, of course, is Isabel Long, the protagonist of the series, including the latest, Missing the Deadline.

From the start, Isabel was going to be a woman with some good miles on her. A recent widow, she has grown kids and a granddaughter. As for looks, she’s attractive enough to gain the attention of older men, like Jack, the owner of the Rooster Bar where she works part-time.

Isabel had a long career as a journalist — starting as a reporter covering the dinky hilltown of Conwell where she lives to being the top editor of the newspaper until that ended after it went corporate. When the new owner told everybody they had to reapply for their job, Isabel said, “To hell with that.”

Yeah, Isabel is a bit on the sassy side. She’s also savvy, which made her a great journalist. Now, those qualities and other transferable skills come in handy as a private investigator.

For her ‘Watson,’ I chose a 93-year-old mother, who lives with her. Maria Ferreira, a big reader of mysteries and smutty romances, gives her daughter ideas to ponder and even goes on interviews with persons of interest when there isn’t danger. Ma, as Isabel calls her, says she’s bored when they don’t have a case.

I will admit there is a lot of me in Isabel, which makes sense since I write the series in first person. I was also a longtime journalist. Maria was inspired by my late mother. The rest of the characters are fabricated.

I carry many of my characters throughout the seven book, thus far, including a favorite, Annette Waters. Annette — aka the Tough Cookie, Isabel’s secret nickname for her —  runs a garage and junkyard that used to belong to her SOB of a father. In the second book, Redneck’s Revenge, she hires Isabel to investigate her father’s death.

I so enjoy Annette’s no-holds-barred personality the men in her life enjoy. Her latest venture is singing lead in a band, fittingly called The Junkyard Dogs. In Missing the Deadline, she develops an interesting and unexpected romance , but no spoilers here.

Also in Missing the Deadline, we encounter new female characters. Wendy Danielson is the devoted sister to Gerald Danielson, a literary agent who was shot and left to die. He survived but isn’t able to run the agency, so she does. There’s also a vindictive ex-wife and a jilted local writer. One of my favorites is Tammy, a tough local gal who cleans for the Danielsons. She happens to be the sister of Lisa, Jack’s pain-in-the-ass ex, who unfortunately for Isabel keeps appearing in these books.

Other interesting women in the series have included Jack’s sister, Annette’s cousin Marsha, Isabel’s daughter Ruth, a woman police chief, a hoarding grandmother, plus the fearless editor of a small town newspaper. So far, only two women have turned out to be criminals. My lips are sealed about that.

But back to Annette. Here’s a scene from Missing the Deadline. In this case Isabel is investigating the shooting of Gerald Danielson outside his home. Isabel and her mother have stopped at a country store after meeting with the man’s sister.

Annette shakes her head.

“You two crack me up. So, what is it? Murder or missing person? Those appear to be your specialties.”

“So far. This one may be an attempted murder, but we don’t know for sure. Right now, people think it was a failed attempted suicide. Poor guy’s a New Yorker who moved to Meadows Falls. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Does the name Gerald Danielson mean anything to you?”

“Ol’ Gerry?” She laughs. “Yeah, I remember him. He used to have my Pop work on his car since we were a lot cheaper than the garages in New York. I believe Pop met his match. A real piece of work that guy. Kind of an asshole. Sorry, Maria,” she says. “I heard he tried to off himself. Didn’t it happen at his home in Meadows Falls? Too bad. Pop got killed in that fire earlier that year. Gerry came to his funeral. He asked if I needed anythin’. I told him to just keep bringin’ his car for me to fix. Course, that changed in the fall.”

I smile while Annette takes a bite of her muffin.

“You have a good memory,” I say. “You said he was a piece of work. Tell me more.”

“Typical New Yorker. He came here with heavy pockets and let us know all about it. Lives on Gorman Road in Meadows Falls. Bought himself a big ol’ house and had it fixed up. Lots of land came with it. But he and Pop got along okay. I’d be workin’ on a car in the garage and hear them go back and forth like two barkin’ dogs. Pop called him Gerry just to get his goat. Gerry called him Waters. He was kind of a dirty old man. The things he’s say to me when Pop wasn’t around. One day I picked up a wrench and said if his dick needed an adjustment, I’d be glad to do it for free. He got the message.”

“I bet he did.”

“We actually got along just fine after that,” Annette says.

As Isabel would say, you don’t mess with the Tough Cookie.

Missing the Deadline, which was released Dec. 21, is available in Kindle. Paperback readers will have to be a little patient.

Isabel Long Mystery Series

A New Book at the Solstice

Today is the Solstice, in which winter takes its turn on the shortest day of the year. It also means the launch of my next book, Missing the Deadline, no. 7 in my Isabel Long Mystery Series.

I began this series with Chasing the Case when we still lived in Taos, New Mexico. That was in late 2016. 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.

So, I sat down at my computer and the pieces came together fast for Chasing the Case. Extremely fast. That’s how it works for me.

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’re in the middle of the action, in present tense as well

Here’s Isabel’s back story: she’s just come off a bad year after her husband died and she lost her job as a newspaper’s top editor when it went corporate. 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’ll admit there is quite a lot of me in her.

After a year of properly 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.

Isabel uses the tools she relied on as a journalist to solve this case. And she has a ‘Watson’ — her 92-year-old mystery-loving mother who’s come to live with her. (My late mother 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 case, but a love interest in its owner, Jack, a local guy.

I had such fun writing Chasing the Case, I quickly went onto the next, Redneck’s Revenge. Hey, I thought, maybe I’ll turn this into a series.

I struck out querying agents and publishers until I found Crooked Cat Books. Here was the message I got from Laurence and Steph Patterson in Fall 2017: “Thank you very much indeed for reaching out to Crooked Cat with your submission recently. We loved what we’ve read so far of Chasing the Case, and would therefore welcome the remainder of the story for our further consideration. Do please be in touch.”

And now Crooked Cat through its imprint darkstroke books has stuck with me through this series as well as publishing two of my hilltown books, The Sacred Dog and Northern Comfort.

Writing a series means I can hold onto the characters I love but let them do something else. That’s what happens in Missing the Deadline. Cyrus Nilsson, the noted poet who was once a suspect in a previous case, becomes a client wanting her to investigate the shooting of his first literary agent.

Gerald Danielson was found shot in the head at his home in Meadows Falls. He survived but isn’t the same successful agent who moved there from New York City. The police ruled it an attempted suicide, but Cyrus has his doubts. Certainly there are people, including a vindictive ex-wife, a jilted local writer, and even an apparently devoted sister, who might have motive. 

I will be telling you more about the characters, themes and settings for Missing the Deadline in future posts.

But for now I want you to know Missing the Deadline is live on Kindle. Paperback readers will have to wait a few months. Thank you to those who continue to read my books. 

Oh, one another announcement: I am well into writing no. 8, Following the Source. Wait ‘til you read what Isabel is up to next.

Isabel Long Mystery Series

Meet the Big Shot Poet

As readers of my Isabel Long Mysteries know, I like to carry many characters throughout the series. Often their role changes. That’s certainly the case for Cyrus Nilsson aka the Big Shot Poet, Isabel’s secret nickname for him. He’s a key figure in my next mystery, Missing the Deadline.

Cyrus is indeed a noted poet, hence the snarky nickname the irreverent Isabel Long secretly calls him. He made it big after growing up poor with the release of his first book of poetry, Yonder. He’s done well for himself, building a swanky home in the hilltown of Penfield and driving a Mercedes. He has a slew of adoring fans, mostly women. He’s quite the charmer. And, no, I don’t know anybody like him. Cyrus is a figment of my imagination.

And he was a suspect in Checking the Traps, the series’ third book. That case involved the death of Cary Moore, a highway worker who wrote poetry good enough for Cyrus to steal. Well, he actually paid Cary for the poems, but he put his own name on them in a book that garnered big awards. Isabel, who discovered that, wonders how that bit of news would go over with his publisher and fans. 

(One of my favorite scenes in Checking the Traps is a bookstore reading Isabel and her mother attend. I tried to capture poetry readings I’ve attended, including those loud sighs from adoring fans.)

So Cyrus decides to make amends by getting some of Cary’s poems published in a book called Country Boy. If that sells well, there are many other poems in notebooks Isabel found during her investigation. 

By the way, that book allowed me to write poetry, something I haven’t done in a very long time.

And in Missing the Deadline, Cyrus also tries to make amends with his first agent, the one who discovered him. After making a name for himself, Cyrus dumped Gerald Danielson. But he wants to find justice for his first agent after he was found shot and left to die. The cops ruled it a failed attempted suicide, but Cyrus approaches Isabel because he has his doubts.

In the book’s opening scene, Cyrus is in full-charm mode at a reading he is doing for Country Boy at the Penfield Town Hall. He makes his pitch to Isabel afterwards.

Cyrus has a big role in this book, and I so enjoyed giving him that. Isabel doesn’t mind pushing his buttons, and he takes this in his Big Shot Poet way. I also give him an unlikely romance in this book. My lips are sealed on that one, but I bet readers will get a kick out of that development.

Here’s an excerpt from the second chapter. Cyrus calls Isabel over for a private talk after the reading has been completed.

“That was a wonderful event,” I tell him. “You were a big hit with the audience telling those stories about Cary. I’m glad you asked the Plowboys to play after all. Nice touch.”

“Thanks, but I didn’t call you over, so you can kiss my butt,” Cyrus says, drawing a laugh from me. “I have something important to ask you.”

“Important? Go ahead.”

“I believe I might have a case that will interest you.”

Now, this is unexpected, but then again I’ve found a few of my cases in unlikely places like a pig roast and a country fair. A poetry reading? Okay, Cyrus, I’m listening.

“Well, you do have my interest. I want to hear more.”

Cyrus glances around. The Town Hall’s custodian and a couple of helpers are folding chairs and loading them onto a cart. It appears we will be getting kicked out soon.

“This isn’t the place or time to go into detail. But it concerns my first literary agent, Gerald Danielson. He’s the one who gave me my big break,” he says. “He used to live in New York but moved to Meadows Falls.”

Meadow Falls is directly east of Caulfield. It’s actually a village made up of parts of the towns of Meadows and Granite on either side of the Ridge River. Meadows Falls is a bit of an unknown for me since it wasn’t part of The Daily Star’s coverage area. Sam and I visited it a few times, but it’s been years. I recall the village is a low-key but charming tourist spot. Think restaurants and little shops on the artsy side. The Ridge River running through it has interesting rock formations and two bridges, one for traffic and the other for fans of flowers called the Bridge of Blossoms, a big attraction when it’s open for the season. 

Frankly, I don’t know a soul who lives there. Would that scare me off from taking a case? No, of course, not.

But Cyrus wouldn’t be interested in any of that.

“Let me guess,” I say instead. “His death was ruled an accident, but you have your doubts.”

Cyrus shakes his head. 

“It’s my understanding that is a particular area of expertise for you.”

“That and a couple of others.”

“Good because Gerald isn’t dead although he came close. He was shot in the head and left to die in his backyard. But he was too tough to do that. Gerald still lives, but the man is nothing like what he used to be. I saw that for myself when I visited him and his sister.”

“Go on. And the cops didn’t catch whoever did it.”

“The official ruling was that it was an attempted suicide. Perhaps, money was an issue for his agency. I’m sure there’s more to it than that. Afterward, when he had recovered, Gerald couldn’t tell the police what happened. He has cognitive issues because of his brain injuries. And apparently, there were no witnesses.” Cyrus makes one of his charming smiles. “I’ve been following you in the news. Well done, Isabel, on that last case. You’re making a name for yourself. That case was nearly fifty years old. This one happened only three years ago.”

Oh, brother, the tables are turned and the Big Shot Poet is kissing my you-know-what. But I aim to keep an open mind. Investigate the shooting of a literary agent? My cases thus far have included a junkyard owner and newspaper editor, so why not a literary agent? I certainly would like to do a little online research on this Gerald Danielson before we meet again. Maybe the Old Farts have some info since their reach tends to extend far.

 “Cyrus, you have my attention, but I will need to hear a whole lot more before I say yes. When can we do that?”

“How about tomorrow at my house, say one?” he says. 

“You’re really serious about this.”

“I am. And please bring your mother. I want to hear what she has to say.”

“Will do.”

MORE ABOUT MISSING THE DEADLINE: This book will be released Dec. 21 on Kindle. If you pre-order now, it is most helpful, so I thank you if you do. Plus your book will magically pop into your device that day. Paperback writers will have to wait a few months. Here is the link: Missing the Deadline.

SUBSTACK: I’ve just discovered Substack, through an author friend’s recommendation. Basically, it’s “an online platform that provides publishing, payment, analytics, and design infrastructure to support subscription newsletters.” Most writers give free and paid options for subscriptions. (Yes, people make money.) Mine is free. My newsletter is called Joan Livingston Writes. (Some people use catchier names.) My subtitle is “A bookish mix of mystery and discovery in rural New England.” I’ll be posting observations, experiences and, of course, stuff about writing.

I invite you to subscribe to my newsletter and if you like what you see, start your own newsletter. And I would certainly subscribe to yours. If you are already on it, please let me know.


ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That’s a moody photo, untouched, of the Deerfield River in our village of Shelburne Falls as it passes behind our son Zack’s Floodwater Brewing.