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Life lessons, New Mexico, Western Massachusetts

In Two Years’ Time

Two years ago, Hank and I were driving somewhere in the Midwest as we made our way from Taos, New Mexico to Western Massachusetts. Hank was at the wheel. Our cat sat on my lap for almost the entire 2,400 miles.

I know for sure because Facebook reminded me. I wrote “Adios, Taos.”

We lived in Northern New Mexico for 11 years. We built a home there. I ran the editorial department of the local newspaper. Hank got into the artistic side of woodworking. We enjoyed grand views of the mesa, mountains and big skies. Great food. It was an interesting place to live.

But we had our reasons for leaving.

And a lot has happened since then. A lot of good things.

Having easier access to more of our family is an important one. Four of our six kids and our two granddaughters live in Massachusetts. (You gotta love it when your two-year-old granddaughter calls you Grandma Applesauce.) Then there is my 95-year-old mother and other kin.

We found and bought the style of home we wanted — an arts and crafts bungalow. (My wish then: we find the right house for the right price in the right location.) Youngest daughter, Julia, a real estate agent, negotiated the deal.

The home, built in 1900, has great bones. We had to fix the things the previous owners either did or didn’t do to the home. Luckily, Hank is a skilled woodworker. Me? I was the unskilled helper. The only work we hired out was the roof, floor sanding in two rooms, plumbing and electrical. But as it goes in older homes, there’s still work ahead for Hank.

We live on the Buckland side of Shelburne Falls, a charming village in a rural area. Think small shops, restaurants, and our son’s microbrewery, Floodwater Brewing, which opened last November. And for the most part, friendly people. Folks come from all over to admire the Bridge of Flowers that spans the Deerfield River. We achieved our goal of being able to walk to places from our home — only four-tenths of a mile to Floodwater.

It’s been a productive year for me writing-wise. I’ve published the first three books in my Isabel Long Mystery Series through Crooked Cat Books. I am onto the fourth.

I have a freelance gig copyediting history books for the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ohio. I’ve learned a lot about our nation’s history.

If that weren’t enough, I am now the editor-in-chief of The Greenfield Recorder. I didn’t think I would go back in the biz, but here I am again running the paper’s editorial department. I am glad to say I have a hardworking and friendly staff devoted to community news.

Oh, our cat, Two, who is around 15, is just fine.

Yes, we got a lot done in two years. What will the next two bring? Bring it on.

PHOTO ABOVE: A not very flattering selfie taken somewhere on our cross-country trek with our cat Two glued to my lap. She hated the carrier.

 

 

 

 

 

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Shelburne Falls, Mass.
Winter

Stay Warm

That’s what I’ve been telling people these days. As I write this post, the weather app says it’s minus-5, but it feels like minus-19 in the Western Massachusetts village where I live. Well, it is winter, and staying warm is on everybody’s mind these days.

So, I say “Stay warm” to the clerks in the stores where I shop, the person pouring my tea, and frankly, whomever I meet wherever I go.

I’m as prepared as I can be for this weather. Long johns and wool socks are now part of my everyday costume, well, except when I went for a job interview. (I suffered a bit wearing a suit, nylons, and dress shoes.) I wear a hat, scarf, and gloves when I venture outside. I don’t fool around.

As I write this, I can hear the furnace cranking. We have one of those programable thermostats so we have variable temps throughout the day and night. The thermostat’s set at 55 degrees at night because we like sleeping in a cool home. You know it was cold last night when the furnace had to kick in to maintain that level. That and the cat slept with us under the covers.

And then there’s the wood stove in Hank’s workshop, which is off my office. We’ll keep a fire going in there.

It’s good weather to work on the final edits of the next book in my Isabel Long Mystery Series — Checking the Traps — which has a March 22 launch. I also just received the next history book to copyedit for a university.

Still, we might just venture a walk down to the village for hot beverages and just to see how tough we are.

In this weather, I feel fortunate that I have a warm place to live. That’s not true for everybody, and this is where this post turns serious. I see homeless people whenever I visit a nearby city. During the last cold snap, a man and woman died in a tent in the woods. While the cause of their death hasn’t been officially determined, the weather must have been a factor.

I will admit to being a bit hard-hearted in the past when I was approached by panhandlers. Although I often don’t have any cash on me, I didn’t give when I did. My justification? They’ll spend the money on something other than food or a place to live.

But after those deaths, I’ve changed my mind. I plan to keep singles in my bag, and if someone is holding one of those cardboard signs, I will give what I can. I may not have a lot, but I certainly have a lot more than they do. How they spend it is their business.

“Stay warm.” I told that to the homeless woman huddled on the sidewalk when I gave her money the other day. She said, “I’m trying.” And, you know, I believed her.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: The frozen village of Shelburne Falls, where I live on the Buckland side.

 

 

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Hank and Two
Cats

Our Cat’s Second Banana

Yup, that’s me. Our black cat named Two prefers my husband, Hank any day, any time, except when he’s not around, of course. I’ve learned to accept it.

Actually, right now as I write this post, Two is sitting on my lap. It is morning. I am drinking coffee. Usually, Hank is sitting across the table with the cat on his lap, but he’s away. So, I guess I’m good enough.

We found Two nearly ten years ago at the Taos Feral Feline Friends shelter run by Leanne Mitchell. Two wasn’t feral, but declawed by a previous owner — a cruel thing to do to a cat — and relegated to the old and fat room. (There are no cages at this shelter, just rooms in the Mitchell home.) The cat came right up to me. I told Hank this is the one. He chose to look around a bit, a fact I remind the cat from time to time to no avail.

Leanne gave us a bit of the cat’s history and also her real name, Dusty. We decided to name her Two because she reminded us of our two best cats, Amos and Lewis. Her full name is Dusty Two Cats.

Two settled in rather quickly. We discovered she is a talker. I’m not really nuts, but she can say, “no” and “I don’t wanna” — Hank can’t get her to say “yes” — and knows what “out” and “eat” means.

And she took to Hank, largely, I believe, because I was working and he was home. Also when he had surgery, she stuck to him like his little nurse.

When we are watching TV, Two will lie on Hank’s outstretched legs for an hour or more. I can only manage ten minutes, which might account for her preference. Then there’s the lap sitting at breakfast. She will do the same when he’s reading. (See the photo above.)

Two and I have our things. She will go a bit nuts on me with play biting and swats when I rub her down. When we drove 2,400 miles from New Mexico to Western Massachusetts this summer, she was glued to my lap almost the entire trip. Of course, I make sure she has enough food and fresh water all the time. And right now, she’s still on my lap.

But I’ve learned you can’t make a cat do what she doesn’t want to do. It’s strictly on her terms.

There have been times Hank has not been around because he was traveling to help one of our kids. The longest was six months last year. I was surprised how quickly she adapted to making me her one and only. I joked with Hank over the phone, “You are now dead to her.”

But, no surprise here, she dumped me as soon as he returned. I wasn’t hurt. It’s just the way things are with this cat.

ONE MORE THING: Thanks to the owners and authors of Crooked Cat Publishing for making me feel most welcome. For this who missed the last post, Crooked Cat will be publishing my mystery, Chasing the Case in May or June. Yes, given this post, I recognize the irony in the publishing house’s name.

ONE LAST THING: Here is a link for my books for sale on Amazon, including my most recent, The Sweet Spot, set in Western Mass. They’re not free, but they are for the taking. Check them out: https://www.amazon.com/Joan-Livingston/e/B01E1HKIDG

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Joan cover 2 copy
The Sweet Spot

The Sweet Spot Is Here

As of today, my new novel The Sweet Spot is available in paperback and Kindle. I hope you will read the first of my hilltown novels set in Western Massachusetts. Of course, that means I hope you will buy my novel in whatever format you prefer. Thank you if you do.

To get the business out of the way, here is the link to my author page on Amazon where you can find my novel: The Sweet Spot on Amazon

Just like Edie St. Claire offers her new neighbor, Harlan Doyle, I toast the novel’s launch with a glass of well water that I’ve let run until it’s as cold as it is deep in the ground. Well, it is morning. Maybe later I’ll have a beer straight from the bottle.

To set the mood, I choose Country and Western music, preferably pre-eight track with the likes of Patsy Cline and Hank Williams.

For those new to my novel, here is a brief synopsis. It is set in 1978 by the way. Most in Conwell love Edie St. Claire, the widow of a soldier killed in Vietnam, until her affair with his married brother ends badly. 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.

It’s been a bit of a process bringing The Sweet Spot to readers. I wrote the first draft in 2004 while I was recuperating from being hit by a car. I was a pedestrian in a crosswalk. The guy claimed he didn’t see me. It took me less than two months to finish the draft. I was living in the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, where the novel takes place.

My then-agent wanted me to start the book in the middle, which I did, but he couldn’t sell it after all. The Sweet Spot remained unpublished for years. Once in a while I would give it a read until finally I decided to return to its original and rightful plot.

Eventually, after I had moved to Northern New Mexico, I showed The Sweet Spot to my second agent, who gave me some solid advice about upping the dialogue, which is one of my strengths. There were other changes. The novel got better. Alas, he didn’t sell it either.

So here I am doing it on my own, except for Michelle Guiterrez, the novel’s skilled designer. She came up with the cover and font after she read the novel. I believe it’s a classy-looking book. Thanks, Michelle.

I have also had the encouragement of writer friends like Teresa Dovalpage and Fred Fullerton.

Doing it on your own is tough. I should have kept track of how many times I read The Sweet Spot — forwards, out loud, and even backwards a few times. But it makes me feel good that I still enjoy reading the book. I love its characters, even its so-called bad guy. Edie. Walker. Gil. Harlan. Benny. Leona. Amber. The whole damn town of Conwell. They all came from my imagination but they are very real to me. I hope you feel the same. And if you do, I’d love a review.

The Sweet Spot on Kindle

The Sweet Spot in Paperback

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Hank shot that photo of me holding The Sweet Spot in our front yard. Yeah, I’m really that happy about it.

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The Sweet Spot

Sibling Rivalry

With the Monday, Feb. 20 launch of The Sweet Spot ever closer, I wanted to offer a post on one of the novel’s themes: sibling rivalry. The Sweet Spot has a fun one between an older brother and sister that provides a humorous balance to the novel’s grimmer parts.

Alban “Benny” Sweet, father of the novel’s main character, Edie St. Claire, is the crusty old so-and-so who runs the town dump. Leona, his fiery and outspoken sister, lives next door on their dead-end dirt road.

Both are up there in years, but they haven’t lost their spark. They are among my favorite characters I’ve created.

Benny is a bit of a rascal who smokes and drinks. He brings home the good stuff people throw out at the dump, like furniture and appliances. His barn and shacks out back are filled with them, and he would do the same in the yard if his daughter would let him. He borrows tools from the town’s highway department without asking, which gets him in hot water with the road boss. His other two daughters, much older than Edie, won’t have anything to do with him.

Leona is a woman with no brake on her mouth. She dyes her hair bright red and wears makeup. Married three times but now single, she jokes about men, sex, and everything else. I believe people in town, particularily the natives, are a bit afraid of her because she doesn’t hold back. She cheats at cards even with Edie’s seven-year-old daughter. She’s a big fan of Edie’s softball team and doesn’t miss a game, especially when they’re home and she gets to drink for free.

Both love Edie and her daughter, Amber. They stand by them, especially when things get really ugly in their small town, or as Leona says, “We Sweets stick together.”

Much of the time we see Benny and Leona separately except for a few key scenes. (They are later in the novel, and I don’t want to spoil things.) They may talk about each other and their faults to Edie, but I always get the feeling they do it out of love and habit.

Here are two short scenes that give you an idea about the rivalry. In the first, Benny — Pop to Edie — talks about the newcomer, Harlan Doyle, who moved in next door.

“I tried to take a nap on the porch, but there was too much hammering next door. Bang, bang, bang, that’s all I could hear.”

“At Aunt Leona’s?”

“Nah, the other side. Doyle’s.”

The Doyle place was located at the bottom of their dead-end road, closed up after the last Doyle, Elmira, died, and the family who lived elsewhere couldn’t decide what to do with the property. It must have been three years ago, and Pop got a few bucks keeping an eye on the place.

“Somebody moved in? Elmira’s house has gotten really rundown.”

Pop glanced up from his plate.

“I went over to see what’s what and met the fella. Damnedest face I ever seen. Scars up and down like somethin’ clawed him. He walked with an awful bad limp.”

“What clawed him?” Amber asked.

“Didn’t bring it up. It’s not polite, honey. I’ll let your Aunt Leona do it.” Pop grinned at his crack. “Friendly guy though. Name’s Harlan Doyle. His father, Aldrich, grew up next door. Elmira’s boy. He went to Japan in the war, and when he came back, he married a woman and moved south to be with her people. They used to visit the old folks here once in a while. Says he remembers me.”

Here, Leona talks about the new neighbor, Harlan Doyle, who showed up at Edie’s softball game. They are walking back to the car after the game.

“Aunt Leona, how much beer did you drink tonight?” Edie asked.

Leona waved her away.

“I lost count after the fourth inning,” she said.

Leona’s voice was hoarse from yelling. She booed one of the ump’s calls so loudly he muttered and glared. At that point, Vera asked Edie to tell her aunt to pipe down. But Edie reminded her it wouldn’t make a difference if she did. Her aunt wouldn’t listen. She was having too much fun.

“Vera’s gotten as fat as a pig. She should go on a diet,” her aunt went on. “She can’t even bend over to pick up a grounder.” She paused to take a breath. “I see our new neighbor came to the game. Harlan Doyle. Nice name, don’t you think?”

“He said you went by to meet him.”

“I did.” Leona nodded. “Too bad about his face. Something or someone hurt him, but you get used to it.” She frowned. “And, no, I didn’t ask him how it happened. That’s what’s Alban would do.”

“Funny, Pop said the same thing about you.”

“The smelly bastard.”

Leona clamped her mouth shut. Edie almost laughed, but she held back because it would provoke her aunt into a long discussion about Pop, mostly about his no-good qualities. He still hadn’t cut the grass. The weed trimmer from the highway garage lay on the porch. But Edie was tired of nagging her father.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Michelle M. Gutierrez’ great cover design for The Sweet Spot.

 

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