Worst of Winter

There always seems to be one week in winter when it feels the grayest, coldest, and maybe the snowiest. And where I live that typically happens in mid-January. Certainly, for the past several days, we have been experiencing a brutal cold — although it appears the same is true for much of the country. (My daughter who lives in Florida says it was in the nippy 30s there.)

This past weekend, it was 8 degrees when I got up and the temps didn’t rise that much during the day. Sunlight streamed in from the east side of the house, but I wasn’t fooled into thinking it could be warm outside. I had to force myself to take my daily walk and carry in armfuls of firewood for the workshop’s stove. I thought “ka-ching” every time I heard the furnace begin to crank. Luckily, any snow we got was powder thanks to the cold, so shoveling was easy or the flakes just blew away.

I dreaded this week when I worked outside the home, specifically as a newspaper editor. In those days, I drove a good country road, Route 143, from Worthington, the small hill town in Western Mass. where we lived, through two others to a valley city. I began my commute at 6:10 a.m. and left work at 3 p.m. Most of the year, it was a pleasant 45-minute drive with long views, deep forests, occasional wildlife, and very few vehicles. A traffic jam typically involved three cars stuck behind a logging truck on one of the route’s steep hills.

But winter was a different experience altogether. I was obsessed with following the weather and planned accordingly. But more often than not, the worst stretch was the aforementioned mid-week in January.

That week started with the day we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day — a day off for the highway crews. Every year it seemed, we got hit with a storm and the crews would have to be called in to take care of the roads. As I drove home, I hoped my timing was good.

And, of course, the light deprivation and isolation can be really hard on some people.

When I wrote Northern Comfort, one of my three Hilltown Books, I wanted to capture this bleak time of year. This is a book about haves and have nots. One of the main characters is Willi Miller who lives in poverty while raising her disabled son alone. The book begins with a tragic accident, but it evolves into a story about hope and perseverance, much like what spring can do for us.

Here is a passage from the first chapter, appropriately called Worst of Winter, that I feel describes this time of year. Willi Miller is hanging laundry after coming home from work.

She picked her hat from the snow. The sun was low in the sky, and the dark smudge spreading from the west likely carried more snow. Willi frowned. It’d be too much trouble to take the clothes down again. She hated this part of winter, mid-January. It snowed every day, not much, but enough to keep the road crews going with their plows and sanders. Winter always has a week like this, unsettled weather, the worst of the season, of the year, as far as she was concerned. Often, it happened after the thaw, so that brief warm spell seemed like one cruel joke.

I believe the temperatures are supposed to rise this coming week. Well, it was 16 degrees when I woke up this morning. That’s a start. But being a skeptical New Englander, I’ll say seeing — and in this case, feeling — is believing.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Something amusing I saw outside a bakery in the Berkshires.


My Hilltown Books

So far I have written three novels I will call my Hilltown Books. Of course, that’s not counting my Isabel Long Mystery Series, which has the same setting. But my focus in this post is on these books: The Sacred Dog, Northern Comfort, and The Sweet Spot.

My interest in writing books set in the fictional hilltowns of Western Massachusetts was sparked when I read the works of the late Larry Brown. His books, set in the rural South, feature hard scrabble characters. I felt the same when I immersed myself in Russell Banks’ books, especially The Sweet Hereafter. I also learned a great deal living in the hilltown of Worthington, and then reporting on it and the towns around it, say a thousand people or so, for a local paper. Then, I became a newspaper editor. I was ready to try my hand at fiction.

The three Hilltown Books thus far focus on the darker parts of rural towns. I believe I’ve created authentic characters and story lines. They are all set in the late ’70s to early ’80s — pre-internet, pre-cellphone, when many of the people were trying to hold onto their town’s oldest ways. I focus, with one exception, on the natives.

Actually, The Sacred Dog was the first book I wrote although it wasn’t published until this past December. It concerns a big feud between two men in a small town. One is Frank Hooker, the owner of The Sacred Dog, a bar where the locals drink and gab. The only one not welcome is Al Kitchen, but that’s because Frank unfairly blames him for the death of his brother. Have I encountered feuds in the hilltowns? Of course. But none as dark as the one in The Sacred Dog.

I wrote The Sacred Dog in 2000. My then-agent tried his darnedest to sell it but couldn’t. So it sat, although once in a while I would dive back in to make changes. So, I am grateful for darkstroke books, who publishes my Isabel Long Mystery Series, for taking it on. Thank you Laurence and Steph Patterson.

My next hilltown book is Northern Comfort, which I finished two years later. Thanks to darkstroke books, it will be released July 19 on Kindle. (Paperback readers will have to be a little patient.) This book, set in winter, begins with the tragic death of a child. Willi Miller and her boy, who was brain-damaged at birth, are a charity case after her husband, Junior Miller abandons them. One snowy day, Cody’s sled slides into the path of Miles Potter’s truck. Until that tragedy, they are separated by their families’ places in town. Yes, it’s a story about haves and have nots.

The third hilltown novel is The Sweet Spot. I wrote it in 2004 when I was recovering from an accident — I was hit by a car when I was walking in the middle of a sidewalk. With a broken collarbone, I typed The Sweet Spot with one hand. I finished it in six weeks. My then-agent suggested I start it in the middle, so it underwent a revision. He pitched it to editors in two publishing houses — one died in surgery after rejecting it. Ten years later, I published it myself.

Here’s the story line for The Sweet Spot: Most in Conwell love Edie St. Claire, the widow of a soldier killed in Vietnam, until her affair with his married brother ends tragically. She tries to survive this small town’s biggest scandal through the help of her rough-sawn family and a badly scarred man who’s arrived for his fresh start.

Now, I take what I know about the hilltowns and use it mostly in my Isabel Long Mystery Series. For number seven, Missing the Deadline, I am oh-so-close to getting it ready to send off to darkstroke. After that, I plan to write a sequel to The Sacred Dog. No spoilers here for those who haven’t read it, but the book will be called The Unforgiving Town. And, I already have in mind the victim for the next Isabel Long book. That’s going to be a fun one to write.

The hilltowns continue to be an inspiration for me. And, thank you, readers, for joining me.