The Unforgiving Town

Starting a New Book

I was feeling a little lost after sending Missing the Deadline, no. 7 in my Isabel Long Mystery Series, to my publisher, darkstroke books. Then, I realized I needed to get cracking on another. And so I have. It’s actually a book idea that’s been buzzing inside my brain since The Sacred Dog was published in December. I wanted to write a sequel. And so last week I began The Unforgiving Town.

That’s certainly an ominous title for a book. But if you’ve read The Sacred Dog — and thank you if you did — you will understand what this book could be about. For those of you who haven’t, I am not going to be a spoilsport. What I will say is that one of the characters from the first book returns home after doing time for a despicable crime. The character has nowhere else to go but the same town where it happened. It appears this character learned life lessons while in prison and is a changed person, but is the town willing to accept that? Except for a cousin who reached out, I seriously doubt it, which will set up a lot of tension. Of course, this book is set in the fictional hilltowns of Western Massachusetts like most of my books.

But first I had to do research about sentencing and prison. I reached out to two lawyers who do criminal cases and got no response. But then I remembered I had a valuable resource in my brother, Tony, who worked in the prison system for many years until he retired. Our conversation plus the research I did online gave me such useful information. I was ready to move onto the next step.

The big question in my mind was how far into the future would The Unforgiving Town take place. I decided on fifteen years. The first book took place in 1984. The second would be in 1999, which also works given the uncertainty many people felt about what the turn of the century would bring.

Next, I needed to decide which of my characters would still be alive. How old would they be? What would the characters from the first book be doing although that will play out as I write this book.

Then, I got my paperback copy of The Sacred Dog and put bookmarks in the chapters involving this character in case I need them for reference.

All of the above took place over a couple of days. I was ready. I created a new doc in my laptop with the slug The Unforgiving Town. I wrote the first five hundred words Thursday, April 10. The next day, I did the same, and given that’s my pace for writing, I will continue, with exceptions like a camping trip. 

I like what I’ve written so far. The first chapter is called Back Home. It feels right in the telling.

LINK: Curious about The Sacred Dog? Just click on the title and it will send you to Amazon. Thank you if you do.

Northern Comfort

Northern Comfort: Lucky 13

Northern Comfort, which was released July 19, is my 13th book published thus far. Looking at this baker’s dozen of novels on my Amazon author page’s bookshelf makes me feel pretty darn good.

It all began February 2016 with the self-publication of my bilingual kids’ book, The Cousins and the Magic Fish/Los primos y el pez mágico, which is in paperback format only. (Thanks to my dear author friend, Teresa Dovalpage who did the Spanish translation.) This book even won a Zia Book Award the following year from the New Mexico Press Women. At the time we were both living in Taos.

The truth is I had a stack of eight completed books at that time. I started writing novels for adult and young readers around 2000 but, alas, I had no luck finding a publisher for any of them. I even had two agents. So with the encouragement of others, I self-published Peace, Love, and You Know What in April 2016. You can imagine what that book’s about — life in the early ’70s following a raucous three-day party by college friends.

Then the following February I self-published The Sweet Spot, the first one set in the fictional hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. I also self-published a Kindle-only collection of short stories, Professor Groovy and Other Stories. Sales were lousy. I didn’t know how to promote them properly. But for me, these books meant I was a published author, a good feeling for certain.

It was a fortuitous when I finally found a publisher in November 2017. Laurence and Steph Patterson of Crooked Cat Books — now called darkstroke books — read Chasing the Case, the first in the Isabel Long Mystery Series, and liked what they read. I had actually started the series when Hank and I still lived in New Mexico and by time I queried, we were again living in Western Massachusetts. I had also finished the second in the series, Redneck’s Revenge.

So far darkstroke has published four more in the series: Checking the TrapsKilling the StoryWorking the Beat, and Following the Lead.

Then I submitted two more not in the series to darkstroke: The Sacred Dog and Northern Comfort, which are not part of the series but are what I call my Hilltown Books. I am grateful for the support and interest the Pattersons have in my writing.

Northern Comfort is a dark drama. A child’s death has a powerful impact on his mother, the man involved in the accident, and the father who abandoned him. I chose the bleakest time of year — mid-winter — to tell this story. I include those New England traditions of playing old-time music, maple sugaring, and, yes, hope. 

It’s $2.99 on Amazon for Kindle. Paperback readers will need to wait a couple of months.

So what’s ahead? Well, I still have five completed books percolating in my computer. One is an adult novel. Two are part of the Twin Jinn Series (the first The Twin Jinn at Happy Jack’s Carnival of Mysteries I self-published in 2021) and two in The Cousins/Los Primos Series

As for the Isabel Long Mystery Series, I am oh-so-close to calling it a wrap. I am making the last changes before I submit Missing the Deadline to darkstroke books — no. 7. My mind is already thinking about the eighth. But before that happens I am writing a sequel for The Sacred Dog. It’s called The Unforgiving Town. No spoilers here.

A sincere thanks those who have read my books. I do enjoy sharing what I write. Your support is so important.


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.

barroom, Dialogue

Barroom Banter in My Books

I am not a barfly, but I’ve spent enough time in bars and taprooms to get a sense of what people talk about while consuming an alcoholic beverage. And I have used that experience to create what I hope are entertaining and accurate conversations in my books.

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a bar in all of the adult books I’ve written, sometimes more than one. In my Isabel Long Mystery Series, the chief bar is the Rooster, where Isabel works on Friday nights. Jack, her love interest, owns the bar, the only one in that dinky hilltown. Isabel also spends a lot of time at Baxter’s meeting people of interest and just plain snooping. That biker bar, located on a lake, had a pivotal scene in no 5. Working the Beat. No. 4, Killing the Story had a seedy little joint, Red’s Corner Lounge.

Then, there is my latest, The Sacred Dog, which is not part of my mystery series. Actually, The Sacred Dog is the name of the bar owned by the protagonist, Frank Hooker. He renamed the bar after his pet, Louise. It used to be named for his ex-wife, but the dog was more loyal than her. A great deal of the book happens within its walls.

My books tend to be heavy with dialogue. I believe I’m inspired by the many, many years I was a reporter then an editor interviewing people and listening to what was said at meetings and other gatherings. Although I have left the biz, I find myself still interviewing people wherever I go. I joke that often the person doesn’t know anything about myself but I know a whole lot about them, sometimes even secrets. Yes, I missed my calling as a spy although I couldn’t manage the danger.

Now, there is a difference between my mystery series and those that stand alone, which includes Northern Comfort, a book I self-published earlier. In my mystery series, we get everything from Isabel’s point of view since it is written in first-person, present tense. What you read is what she and others talk about. Of course, Isabel is a bit of a wise ass so the conversation tends to be entertaining.

The Sacred Dog, however, was written in third person, past tense. In that situation, I create whole conversations. The Dog, as the locals call it, has its regulars. Among them are: Early Stevens, Frank’s best friend; Monk Stevens, Early’s nephew who runs the town dump among other jobs; Jerry Smith, who’s always hiding out from his wife and family; Big Mary, Frank’s cousin; Lloyd and Royal Dixon, bachelor brothers who always smell like fresh manure since they run a dairy farm.

The regulars will make jokes about each other, and banter about the news in town, who’s doing what or not doing what. They are all natives to the small town of Mercy, so they’ve known each other all of their lives. They also are aware of Frank’s disdain for Al Kitchen, who he blames, rather unfairly, for his brother’s death in a car accident. Al does come into the Rooster but only because his grandmother pleaded his case. He gets two beers and that’s it. I warn you nothing good’s gonna come from that feud.

I enjoyed immersing myself in The Sacred Dog and what was being said. I will give you a hefty sampling. Here’s a scene from the chapter called, No Kin.

A few hours later, Big Mary’s laughter carried across The Sacred Dog. She nearly lost her balance on the stool after Jerry Smith told her about the kid who got sick last year on the bus ride home. Everybody in the place was having a good time at the expense of the kid, a third grader who threw up several helpings of American chop suey from the school cafeteria.

Frank chuckled because Jerry gave his story such a big, slow windup, he could be lobbing softballs. “The kid missed the seats, thank god, but made a mess on the floor,” he said. “The route only started, Jesus, and the bus was starting to stink because of the heat. I figured it was a matter of time before the other kids got sick from the smell and started puking, too. So, I parked the bus near Wicker Brook and filled the bucket I keep up front for the lost and found.”

Jerry started laughing so hard at his story he had to set his full bottle of beer on the bar top, so it wouldn’t spill. He slapped the edge of the bar several times.

Early patted Jerry on his back. “Take it easy, boy. I hate to see a good beer go to waste.”

Beside him, Monk bent forward over the bar. “Come on, Jerry, for Christ’s sake, tell the story, won’t you?”

“Okay, okay. Hold your horses.” Jerry took a breath. “Well, I yelled to the kids to pick up their feet as I threw water over the big pile of puke.” He grinned because he was the center of attention. “Hell if I knew if it was the right thing to do, but I had feeder vans to meet.”

“You didn’t clean it up?” Monk asked.

Jerry started to laugh but caught himself. “Nah, but you should’ve seen it. Every hill the bus traveled, the puke water sloshed to the front or back of the bus. The kids squealed their heads off and raised their feet whenever it flowed their way.” He lifted the bottle near his lips. “Some of the kids were suckin’ air through the open windows. The smell was that bad. I could barely stand it myself.”

Monk chuckled. “I bet that Patty Monroe had a fit when she saw the mess,” Monk said.

Jerry raised himself off the stool. He placed his hands on his hips, gave them a little wiggle, and mimicked Patty’s voice. “I hope you don’t think for one minute, Jerry Smith, I’m gonna clean this up for you.”

Frank’s laugh barked.

Jerry was doing a decent imitation of his ex-wife’s sister. “Yeah, I can hear her sayin’ those exact words,” he said.

The Dog got lively early with the pleasant din of clinking glass, voices, and music from the juke, typical for a Friday night. Every so often, Frank checked when the front door opened to see if Verona was going to take him up on his invitation, but he was let down each time it was somebody else. He looked across the room at a friendly contest under way at the Lucky Strike pinball machine between the Dixon brothers and some other local boys. The big blonde was here without her jealous boyfriend, and Frank felt a little wary when he saw her drinking with a group of his pals at a back table. She could be trouble. Monk played King of the Road twice and led most of the crowd who was willing in a sing-along. He stood on a chair as he held an empty bottle of Bud in one hand as if it was a conductor’s wand and he clicked his fingers along with Roger Miller with the other. 

Early shook his head in disbelief. “He ain’t no kin of mine.”

It was after nine when Al Kitchen stumbled into The Dog’s front door. Frank fixed a tray of mixed drinks. His arms made little swinging motions as he filled the glasses with ice. He grabbed the bottles of hard stuff from the shelves behind him and poured without measuring. Winsome placed the drinks on a tray, and over her shoulder, Frank noticed Al falling into the seat next to the big blonde. He wrapped an arm around the back of her chair and leaned in toward the woman, talking and laughing at whatever he said. She was giggling so hard, her large breasts moved beneath her blouse as if little springs attached them to her chest.

Frank got distracted when Monk said he wanted to buy a round for his friends at the bar.

Monk gave a whistle. “Hey, there, Frankie boy, I’m lookin’ to spend some money,” he said. “You still in business or what?”

“Yeah, yeah, big mouth. I heard you loud and clear,” Frank answered.

He reached into the beer cooler, but his eyes stayed on Al and the blonde. Al lit her cigarette.

Early twisted around to see what Frank was watching, and when he turned back to face him, his tongue played along the inside of his mouth. “Looks like a problem’s brewin’ back there, I’m afraid. Hope her fella doesn’t make an appearance tonight.”

Frank waved his hand. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve got it all under control.”

“If you say so,” Early said.

Frank was busy filling another order when he heard Monk’s high-pitched voice. “What kid did you say that was?”

When Jerry said the boy’s name, everyone sitting at the bar agreed the only one who could have handled such a public display of humiliation was this brat of a kid who was usually Jerry’s primary suspect when there was trouble on the bus. His old man was the same way when he was a boy.

“Gee, I haven’t seen that cuss in a while,” Jerry said. “Used to be a regular here.”

“Heard he’s on the wagon,” Monk said. “I bet that’s a lot easier on his wife. Liquor sure put him in a black mood.”

Big Mary tossed her head toward Al. “I’ve seen worse. Al Kitchen’s Daddy was a real piece of work. beating the crap out of that pretty girl from Wilmot that he married. He just wore her down ’til she got sick and died.”

Early shook his head.

“Eh, he was nothin’ compared to his old man,” he said. “You should’ve seen the bastard in action. I once saw him win a big hand at poker, and when one of the players accused him of cheatin’, he punched the man so hard to the head, the guy almost lost an eye.”

Frank passed the full tray to Winsome. He blew air through his closed lips. “Shit, can’t you all think of anythin’ else to talk about besides the Kitchens?” he said. “You’re givin’ me a headache.”

Early, Monk, and Big Mary gave each other small looks. 

Jerry broke into a sly grin. “I know. Mary can tell us all about her new boyfriend.” 

Mary’s face went red. “Oh, yeah, Jerry, and the next time your wife calls, I’m gonna grab the phone and tell her you’re here,” she said, so sharply, it set them all laughing, even Frank. 

LINKS TO MY BOOKS: You can find all of my books here And thank you do.

ABOUT THE IMAGE ABOVE: A glass of Cyborg Joan (yes there is a story behind that name) at my son Zack’s Floodwater Brewing in our village of Shelburne Falls, MA.


A Different Way of Writing

I believe the change began around the time I left journalism. Perhaps it’s because I no longer have the distractions of working long hours as editor-in-chief reading what other people wrote plus handling my managerial duties. Perhaps it’s because I have more time. Most likely, it’s both.

Even before I left my job, I was having too much fun writing my Isabel Long Mystery Series to let that workload stop me. I got up at 5 a.m. to put down 500 words. The words flowed. The story flowed. From one chapter to the next until the end. First five in the series were published this way. It was a bit miraculous.

But how I write has changed and I am now realizing that as I’m into no. 7. I believe it began with Working the Beat, no. 5, as I was winding down from my job, and intensified with Following the Lead, no. 6.

I still aim for 500 words a day.  But before I begin, I look back to what I wrote the previous day to add, if needed, a word, sentence or paragraph in the one before. Essentially I am expanding — and in my mind improving — what I wrote recently before I move onto the new chapter or chapters. (I still write short ones.) Basically, I am not waiting until I reach the half-way point or the end to look for holes

I am also finding that as I move through the story, I think back whether something is missing earlier.

Making the Deadline, the tentative title for no. 7, involves a shooting possibly made to look like a suicide attempt. Isabel has been approached by a possible client, Cyrus Nilsson aka the Big Shot Poet. He’s made a good pitch, but she’s not sure, so she’s doing her initial research and interviews. 

The victim, a literary agent (frustrated authors will enjoy this), is now mentally incapacitated. I realized early this morning that as Isabel begins gathering her list of contacts, she should be checking the agency’s website. An earlier online check revealed no reports of a shooting in the local papers since most do not report suicides or attempts. There was a brief in an online magazine that the agent has stepped away from the business “for health reasons” but I realized I wanted more. What about the agency’s website? Bingo. Isabel needs to find that online.

And although I never plan ahead — Isabel’s next case starts as a fragment in my brain — I am mindful I do not want to have a series that is formulaic. I liken it to what my protagonist, Isabel, does. As the series moves on, she’s taking more complicated and unusual cases. There will always be new characters but I also want to keep the old ones fresh. I feel I owe it to my readers. And to myself. I don’t want to just call it in.

THE SACRED DOG: This novel is not part of my Isabel Long Mystery Series although the setting is similar. Basically, there’s bad blood between two men. The title comes from the name of a bar one of them owns. I will be telling you a whole lot more about it from now until its launch date Dec. 27 and beyond. Here’s the link to learn more:

FOLLOWING THE LEAD: Here’s the link for no. 6 in the Isabel Long Mystery Series:

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: A mural spotted in Brattleboro, Vermont.