Isabel Long Mystery Series, Working the Beat

No. 5 Is Finished — Sort Of

Today, I reached the end of Working the Beat, no. 5 in the Isabel Long Mystery Series, which weighs in at 74,940 words. Well, I’m sort of at the end. I have printed all 279 pages and will go through them with my trusty red flare before I listen to them on my computer.

And then I will happily submit Working the Beat to my publisher, darkstroke books.

Yesterday, a son asked if this was only a first draft. My answer: I don’t work that way. I will stop at certain points in a novel’s process, basically when I feel I am ready, print out what I’ve written so far and go at it. I feel by time I’ve reached “the end” that it’s in solid shape. Of course, my editor will find things I need to fix as well.

I will admit it hasn’t been easy finding the time to write — and promote — given the increased demands of my job as editor-in-chief of three newspapers. But when I could, I found a great deal of satisfaction being with the characters and setting I created as I let Isabel Long try to solve yet another mystery.

So, what is this one about? A man’s body is found after a demotion derby at a country fair. The official story is that he was drunk and fell down a rocky ravine. His scrappy grandmother doesn’t believe it, so she hires Isabel to get to the truth. Once again Isabel encounters family secrets, unsolved crimes and the unusual suspects.

Just to get you started, here’s the opening scene to the book’s first chapter “Dead at the Rooster.” For those new to the series, Isabel and Jack, who owns the Rooster Bar and Grill, are an item, as they say. She tends bar part-time for Jack as well as being a P.I. solving cold cases in the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts.

It’s a dead night at the Rooster, deader than I’ve ever seen it. There’s no band even though it’s a Friday night, but Jack was smart not to book one. A few drinkers have bellied up to the bar, but nobody lingers long. Neither did those who come for dinner. Jack’s customers have somewhere else more important to go: the Titus Country Fair in the next town over. It was the same yesterday for truck pull night. That’s when drivers, mostly guys, try to get their stripped-down and souped-up car or pickup to pull as much weight as possible over a line, and everybody in the crowd watches to see if they make or break it. Tonight, horses are pulling, a draw for the traditionalists. And tomorrow, Saturday, is demolition derby night. Jack’s not even going to bother opening his bar. Besides, he wants to go like his pals. And he wants me with him. That’s what I get for hooking up with a local boy. 

Right now, Jack and I are sitting at the bar, playing poker and listening to tunes on the jukebox to pass the time until much later when people will likely show up when the fair shuts down. No booze is allowed at the Titus Country Fair, for good reasons, so people will be mighty thirsty unless they managed to sneak in something.  

“Ready for our hot date tomorrow night, Isabel?” Jack asks. 

“Are you saying watching cars smash into each other until only one of them is left is your idea of a hot date?” 

He grins as he throws down his cards. Crap, he’s beat me again. 

“Uh-huh. What’s your idea?” He chuckles. “By the way, you’re one lousy poker player. If we was playin’ strip poker, you would’ve been naked a few hands ago.”

“Me naked at your bar?” 

Jack grins.

“Not a bad idea.”

“Sure, boss.”

Okay, that’s enough. It’s back to work for me. In the meantime, if you want to check out my other books on Amazon, here’s the link: Joan Livingston Books

Darkstroke Books, Isabel Long Mystery Series, Killing the Story

Ta-Da I’ve Reached the End

Yes, I am writing about Killing the Story, the fourth in the Isabel Long Mystery Series. I typed the last words on the last page this morning. Congratulations to me.

One would think I would be giddy about finishing. But I know full well I have editing ahead. I’ve printed all 302 pages and now I will get out my red markers, looking for weak lines, over-used words, and other pitfalls. I will read the manuscript aloud. (For one novel, I read it backwards, which made me focus on the writing and not the plot. I’ll see if I will do the same for Killing the Story.) Two author friends have volunteered to give it a read.

Of course, I will need to work with my publisher’s editor.

But I will admit I love the editing part of the creative process as well. It’s like taking up a daydream and making it better.

This book took longer than the other three. Normally, I can write a novel in six months. This one took almost a year. Chalk it up to having a full-time job as a newspaper’s editor-in-chief, which certainly means more than forty-hour workweeks. I got up insanely early to write before I left for the newsroom. Then, there were the weekends.

But enough about me.

What’s Killing the Story about? This case takes Isabel to Dillard, another small town that’s down on its luck since the railroad doesn’t stop there anymore. Instead of passengers, the trains haul freight to faraway places. It has a sad little downtown, with a corner bar, a greasy spoon of a diner, and low-end commerce in its storefronts. But it also has a weekly newspaper that covers that part of the world: The Observer.

As a former journalist, Isabel gets hooked on this case because of that newspaper. Estelle Crane, the former editor and co-owner, supposedly died when she slipped on ice and hit her head hard. But a note her son, Emerson Crane finds raises questions about Estelle’s death — and even her husband’s death two years earlier.

In the midst of her investigation, Isabel digs into small town secrets, including one involving a crooked cop who quickly becomes a suspect.

Of course, Isabel has her mother’s sage advice. And her relationship with Jack, owner of the Rooster Bar, makes a turn. Characters from the other books like the Old Farts, Annette Waters aka Tough Cookie, and the Beaumont brothers come along in this one. Of course, I’ve created new characters for this book.

I will certainly let you know when Killing the Story is ready to buy. Now, that will be exciting.




The Sweet Spot

What’s Good about Bad Guys

I’m ticking off the main characters of The Sweet Spot one at a time. You’ve met an old coot, an impertinent woman, and the stranger next door. Now meet Walker St. Claire, the bad guy in my soon-to-be-released hilltown novel.

Walker is the younger and only brother of Gil St. Claire, who died in Vietnam. For the past couple of years, he’s been having an affair with Gil’s widow, Edie, one of the novel’s main characters. Oh, yeah, Walker is unhappily married to a beast of a woman and the father of twin boys.

It’s a miracle they have hidden the affair in the nosy hilltown of Conwell. But that doesn’t last.

Here’s a little bit about Walker: he’s a successful building contractor in the hilltowns. He hangs out at the Do-Si-Do bar. Yes, he’s a bit of a drinker. Although he’s not much of a family man, he does teach his boys everything he knows about baseball.

He’s good looking in a country kind of way.

Walker’s also cocky although that’s tempered a bit because his parents clearly favored his brother. That hurts. He’s also married to a woman he doesn’t love. They got hitched after she got pregnant.

And then, there’s Walker’s love for Edie. Their relationship helps Edie ease the grief of losing her husband. But it means much more for Walker. He gets quite possessive of Edie, which ultimately leads to a tragic turn of events.

My former agent hated Walker. He said the man had no redeeming qualities.

I disagree.

I understand why Walker acts that way. Although he is my creation like all of the novel’s people, I’ve met men like Walker who let their emotions override good sense. They make bad decisions. Certainly, he does.

He’s a necessary part of this novel’s story. I’m not one to write about sweetness and light. Certainly, there are bad guys in my other hilltown novels. Walker is the first you will meet and actually the nicest of the bunch.

Here is a scene from early in The Sweet Spot, set for a release in January. Walker meets up with Edie for a romp in the empty apartment above his parents’ general store.

Now she slipped her hand from Walker as she tried to get up, but his fingers cuffed her wrist to keep her from leaving.

“Where’re you going?” he asked.

“To the bathroom.”

“Stay here.”

Edie rolled onto her side to face him.

“How’s the new job?” she asked.

He frowned.

“Damn New Yorkers. You know who I mean, the couple that bought the old Franklin place on the south end of town. They can’t make up their fuckin’ minds.”


“The woman wants wainscoting in the dining room. The man wants a chair rail. I joked they might have to flip a coin cause one of ’em didn’t want what the other one did. Maybe they’ll do both. You know how New Yorkers are.”


“First, they asked for exposed beams in the kitchen. Now they’re not sure it’s what they want. They’re gonna get back to me on that one.”


“On top of that, one of my framers quit mid-week. Couldn’t hack the work. Remember I told you about Tom? I had my doubts he’d last anyway, but I thought I was doin’ his family a favor. Dumb fuck can’t hold down a job for long. I feel sorry for his wife and kids.”


“To top if off, the lumberyard messed up my material order. It set me back today. I hate that shit.”

“You’ll fix it, Walker,” she said. “You always do.”

Walker sighed. The air came from deep inside him.

“Yeah, Edie, I will. Hey, I see you got a new neighbor. You meet him yet?”

Edie shook her head.

“I heard about him though. I think he’s the one who was at Gil’s ceremony on Memorial Day.”

“I saw him that day, too. Seems like he was in an accident or something.”

“I need to go over. Pop and Aunt Leona already have. They say he’s really nice.”

“You do that. At least, I won’t have to worry about him.”

“Why do you say that?” Edie asked.

“You haven’t seen him up close. He’s one ugly son of a bitch. I can’t see a woman wanting to be with him for free.”

“Walker, you’re not being very nice. Suppose he was in Vietnam like Gil?”

“Then I feel real sorry for him.” He gazed around the room. “We’ll have to do this again.”

Edie shifted.

“Not so fast.” His hand closed tighter. “What’s with you and Lonny?”

“Him? We’re just having some laughs,” Edie said.

“I heard you both left at the same time the other night. You sleep with him?”

“We left at the same time? So what. Walker, you’re hurting my wrist.”

His lips opened and shut, but he didn’t speak. He loosened his grip.

“Tell me more,” he said.

“I was having fun, just like you and me are having fun.”

“Fun. Is that what this is?”

“What else can it be, Walker?”

“I’m hoping for more.”


ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: We got a bit of snow yesterday. I took this photo on the back porch. That’s my office window and a bit of snow-covered flower garden.



books, hippies, Writing

Over and Over and Over Again

I felt a great sense of accomplishment Thursday morning when I emailed my manuscript of Peace, Love, and You Know What to the designer. I believe the book is the best it can be, and that makes me feel good. Ah, but the process was a long one.

As I’ve mentioned before, I wrote this book after we moved to Taos in 2006. We were renting a condo in town and figuring out how we belonged. I freelanced for the newspaper then and worked in a gallery. This book came to me.

Actually, three short stories pre-date the novel: Ripple in the Jungle; Fat Mark Writes It Down; and Professor Groovy. They contain the same characters found in Peace, Love, and You Know What although they have different names. Two of the stories were published.

I tried pitching the novel to agents — I had just left my first one — and publishers. I entered it in contests, and when all of that failed, I moved onto other writing projects.

But I like the book, love it really, and when I recently considered publishing via Kindle etc. I thought this book would be a worthy experiment. It’s a comedy set in the early ’70s, an exciting time. It has engaging characters. Many are hippies. And I wrote it with authenticity. After all, I lived a version of it.

And in one of those ah-ha moments, I came up with a new title, Peace, Love, and You Know What. (Its original was Last Weekend in Westbridge.)

For the past several months, I have read and reread Peace, Love, and You Know What. How many times? I lost count. I also had my smart daughter, Sarah give it a couple of reads.

I read all 81,000 words on the computer screen. I read them out loud. I printed the ms. and marked up the hard copy.

One time I got the brilliant idea to just read the book’s dialogue — twice — and found changes I wanted to make. I ran the novel through an online word frequency checker and found how many times I used words like “right” and “stuff.” Earlier this week, I printed the ms again, but this time I found very little to change — a comma here and there, a better choice for a word elsewhere.

I was done.

So what’s next? Michelle will work her designer’s magic on the cover. (Thank you Mary and Hector for loaning us your VW van for a photo shoot by Katharine.) In the meantime, I am learning more about the business end of publishing.

Naturally, I am excited and a bit nervous. I want people who buy my book to love it as much as I do. I want them to feel they know the characters. But I really want them to laugh out loud. Even after reading Peace, Love, and You Know What so many times, I still do.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Yes, that’s yet another photo from the past. I immortalize that shirt, given to me by my sister Christine, in the book. Lenora, one of the main characters, wears one like it. Yeah, those are feathers in my hair. Pigeons? Chickens? I honestly don’t remember.


books, hippies, Writing

A Novel Idea

After the author Pat Conroy died Friday, The New York Times offered this quote: “One of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family,” Mr. Conroy told the writer John Berendt for a Vanity Fair profile in 1995. “I could not have been born into a better one.” He added: “I don’t have to look very far for melodrama. It’s all right there.”

And so Conroy used his experiences being born into an unhappy family in his novels The Great Santini, Prince of Tides and others.

When I look at my own writing, I admit it is inspired, certainly the adult fiction, by where I’ve lived, whether it is rural town, a psychiatric halfway house, or a small state college.

The books are not memoirs. I am not that interesting a person and frankly, I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. (A former agent wanted me to write a tell-all book about the hill town where I once lived in western Massachusetts but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.)

But I do use what I have experienced, heard, or observed, and then have my way with them.

My novel Peace, Love, and You Know What will launch soon, hopefully by the end of this month. And I anticipate questions about how much of it actually happened.

Here’s the basic storyline: Hippies at a small state college are planning a three-day graduation bash in 1972. The main characters are: Tim, who is faking his graduation so he doesn’t disappoint his mother, and his roommates Mack, Manny, and the nervous poet Joey. Then, there’s Lenora, their queen who is graduating and splitting for Europe.

The three-day bash is a big hit for every hippy freak and dirty professor. Then, there is the aftermath: graduation and adulthood.

Yes, it is a comedy.

People who have read drafts have asked how much of it is true.

peace scan

Me on the steps of an apartment house that appears in the novel.

To be honest, I didn’t go to a three-day bash although pretty damn close. No one got away faking their graduation. A groovy professor didn’t die doing the dirty deed.

People I knew and loved inspired some of the characters. But in Peace, Love, and You Know What, I gave each a life of their own. Actually I used parts of my father twice — for Lenora’s dad and a coach.

(Unlike Conroy, I didn’t have an unhappy childhood. It wasn’t perfect but the people in my life then encouraged me to use my imagination.)

Many characters are made up like Tim, Manny, and Mack.

Lenora? I’d like to think she’s a much hipper version of myself back then. Yes, I did hang out with a group who had a slummy apartment that was party central. We did smoke pot and drink. We protested and plotted. I fell hard and fast in love, and suffered for it.

It was an exciting time. And I hope by using what I know and letting it rip, I’ve captured it for you.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: I found it tucked behind another in an album. I have such few photos from that time. On the back, it says: “Keep those cards and letters coming, folks, love Joani.” I dare say I look a bit stoned.