Isabel Long Mystery Series

Staying in Character: Channeling the People in My Books

Great actors are famous for it. When they do, the viewers forget the actor and only see the person they are playing on stage or screen. Some even take it a step further and stay in that role off camera.

But writers like myself have more than one character to consider. We get into their skin, so what they say and do are authentic to the stories we write.

My Isabel Long Mystery Series is written as a first-person present-tense narrative. Isabel is a smart, mature woman who is a bit of a wiseass. As a former journalist, she developed the ability to see through people and any bull they try to dish her. Just like reporting a new story, she’s methodical about her cases. I will admit there is a lot of me in Isabel — I was a journalist for over 30 years although not a widow nor a private investigator. I don’t like that much danger to be a P.I.

Isabel Long is so imbedded inside of me it’s rather easy for me to figure out what she will do in any given scene or situation whether it’s solving a mystery, pouring beer at the Rooster, being with its owner Jack or dealing with her family, including her mother, Maria, her partner in solving crime. 

In Missing the Deadline, no. 7, she’s given a tough case. 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 the person hiring Isabel 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.

So how should Isabel approach such a case? I channel Isabel and we figure it out together.

But, of course, Isabel isn’t the only character in this series. Some are one and done in a book. Many others have stuck around. As each one appears on a page, I channel that character so I know how they should react to any situation I throw at them. 

Take Annette Waters aka the Tough Cookie. She wouldn’t be shy about anything. If someone dared to give her a hard time, she’d dish it back and twice as hard. But then again she runs a garage and junkyard. There’s her cousin, Marsha aka the Floozie who co-owns the Pit Stop convenience store. She’s another one who doesn’t take crap from anyone. Both are locals but they’ve grown fond of Isabel and her mother even though they are newcomers. 

It doesn’t matter the character’s gender. I know what will come out of Jack Smith’s mouth before he says it. Jack’s cousin Fred Lewis aka el Creepo typically says the wrong thing, and Isabel isn’t shy about telling him off.

I believe the best training I received was first as a daydreamer. As a kid, I created fabulous stories inside my head, perfecting them. The second was when I became a journalist. As a reporter, I had to listen carefully to what people said and observe how they behaved. It was a great experience I believe has paid off with authentic characters. I hope my readers feel the same way.

PITCH FOR MY NEXT BOOK: Missing the Deadline, no. 7 in my Isabel Long Mystery Series, has a Dec. 21 release on Kindle. (Paperback readers will have to wait a couple of months.) 

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.

Isabel Long Mystery Series

My Next Victim

This time, it’s a literary agent in Missing the Deadline, my latest Isabel Long Mystery. Well, it makes sense to choose one given the past year I spent querying agents about a book I pitched.

Missing the Deadline is the seventh book in my series. In my other books, the victims included: a woman who worked in a general store; a junkyard owner; a highway worker who wrote poetry on the side; owner of a small newspaper; a beloved grandson. In Following the Lead, no. 6, that case involved the disappearance of a child many years earlier. 

So let me tell you about Gerald Danielson. He is a hotshot literary agent from New York City who moved to a small hilltown village called Meadows Falls — well, he used to be until he got shot in the head and nearly died. His sister found him on the bench behind their home. 

Due to the way the bullet traveled through his brain and its velocity, Gerald survived but he’s not the same. Police ruled it an attempted suicide, especially since Gerald couldn’t remember what happened when the bullet hit him. His sister, who has taken over the literary agency, doesn’t like for him to try recalling what happened before because it gets him so upset.

Cyrus Nilsson, the noted poet whose first agent was Gerald, has his doubts. So, he hires Isabel to investigate. (You might remember Cyrus was a suspect in the third book.)

And as Isabel — with the help of her 93-year-old mother, Maria, her ‘Watson’ — pursues this case, she finds likely suspects: a vindictive ex-wife, a jilted local writer, and even an apparently devoted sister who lives with him. There are more.

(Full disclosure: I have had two agents in the past, but we parted ways amicably when they couldn’t sell my books.)

This is also an opportunity for Isabel to dig into the publishing industry to better understand people’s motives. Frustrated writers will give this short scene a nod.

I hear the bathroom door open and Ma’s footsteps in the hallway. She gives me a nod as she heads to the counter. She pushes down the toaster’s lever. 

“Are you doing that Google thing?” she asks over her shoulder.

“Uh-huh, I’m reading the agency’s website.” I give a small snort. “I’m on the submissions page. It says authors have to email a query letter, synopsis, and the first ten pages. The response time is up to four months. It says if you don’t hear from them by then, they’re not interested.”

My mother goes to the fridge for milk and jam.

“That’s a long time to wait and get nothing.”

I nod.

“I guess that’s how it works in that business. Sounds like you’d have a better chance of winning the lottery.”

Yes, indeed.

For this case, Isabel has a few chance encounters with Gerald, who she likes. He has a constant aide, Miguel. Plus there’s his cat. One of Gerald’s favorite occupations is sitting on the bench, yes, the same one, that overlooks a deep river valley. He still helps his sister, Wendy, with queries, giving advice on whether a book is worth representing. Gerald will sometimes mix up words.

I enjoyed creating the scenes involving Isabel and Gerald, especially the crucial one toward the end — my lips are sealed on that one.

To make this character’s situation authentic, I relied on Bob Manners, a longtime paramedic who lives in my village of Shelburne Falls. We had two interesting conversations about trauma. Also, I have met two people who had similar shooting experiences.

Here’s another scene from Missing the Deadline. Isabel and her mother are having lunch with author Lyle Baxter, a person of interest, at the Loose Goose in Meadows Falls, when Gerald and his aide unexpectedly come to eat. Lyle introduces Isabel.

I automatically stretch my hand toward Gerald for a shake. I did it all the time when I was a journalist meeting somebody for the first time although hardly as a private investigator dealing mostly with country folk who might think it odd, especially coming from a woman, but it is definitely a natural reflex. Gerald’s hand swings forward to meet mine. 

“Nice to meet you, Gerald,” I tell him. “I’ve met your sister, Wendy. I was at your house the other day.”

Gerald smiles as his hand folds firmly around mine. The skin is warm and soft. The handshake seems like an automatic response for him as well. I imagine him doing it with clients and publishers when he was active in his agency. But it doesn’t appear this greeting is going to end any time soon. I wiggle my hand a little as a sign for him to let go, but Gerald continues his hold. He keeps that smile going. I have his full attention.

“You know me?” he asks.

“No, we just met,” I tell him, smiling back. “How are you today?”

“Ask Miguel. He knows.”

I am unsure what to say next, but Miguel makes a soft chuckle.

“You’re just doing fine today, Gerald,” he says. “Right?”

I note the scar near the temple area on the right side of his head, and I suppose if he turned, I would see the one for his exit wound. Gerald makes a slight grunt and continues to hold my hand. It is a firm but friendly grip, as if we could be walking together hand in hand.

“Nice baby,” he says. “I’m having pie.”

Miguel bends his head forward.

“Gerald, you can let go of the lady’s hand now.” Miguel lips are pressed as he looks at me, and then he says, “Sorry, he can’t help it. He mixes up words.” I give him an understanding nod, before he’s back with Gerald. “Yes, she’s a nice lady. Come on, Gerald. She needs to go.” His voice is kind but firm. “Look. Gloria’s bringing your pie. That’s why we came. Remember?”

Gerald’s fingers lose their grip oh so very slowly. Lyle promises a visit very soon, but Gerald keeps his eyes on me as the waitress sets the plate with a generous piece of apple pie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream in front of him. 

“You know me?” he asks again.

“I do now, Gerald. My name is Isabel Long. Maybe I can visit you some day.”

“Izzie,” Gerald says, and I decide that he is the only person I will let call me that.

“Yes, Izzie,” I say. 

In case you’re wondering about the book I pitched … The Swanson Shuffle was inspired by my experience living and working in a psychiatric halfway house during the time Massachusetts was closing down its state mental hospitals. And, no, I didn’t find an agent or publishing house interested in representing it. Too bad. I feel it’s the best book I’ve written.

Finally, Missing the Deadline will be released Dec. 21 in Kindle on Amazon. (Paperback readers will have to wait a few months.) Until then it’s in the preorder phase. The price: $3.99. I’m touched by those who have preordered since it helps with ratings. So, thank you if you do.

Author reading

Sweet Homecoming at The Millicent Library

It was indeed a warm welcome when I gave a reading Oct. 18 at the Millicent Library in my hometown of Fairhaven, Mass. I was touched by the people who came, including many who had read my Isabel Long Mystery Series, which the library carries. Thanks Friends of The Millicent Library for hosting me.

When I was a kid, my mother brought me there to borrow books. As I told those who came for the reading, I tried to read the library’s entire Wizard of Oz series — a friend in the audience said he actually had it at home when it was bought at a sale the library held long ago — plus the one for Nancy Drew, when I and everyone else thought it was written by a woman named Carolyn Keene.

When I moved onto the adult books, I vowed to read every one in the library, an impossible task for certain.

I never know how many people will come to a reading or who will be in the audience. I was surprised right away when a man named Mike presented me with a large black and white photo taken a while back of my parents and his parents dancing at an event. How thoughtful.

Chairs were added as more people came. My cousin, Michael, who has read my books, was there. Several classmates from Fairhaven High School, who had likely seen my post on Facebook, were present. There were people I hadn’t seen in a very long time. Beth David was shooting photos for her Fairhaven Neighborhood News, the local paper.

The talk and reading went fine. I had prepared a script, with each opening sentence highlighted and the script in 22 point, which I had practiced ahead of time so I had most of it in my brain. I talked about my connection to the library and writing experience before delving into the books I have written. I read from them briefly, including the first chapter of Northern Comfort, my latest.

Then I opened it up to questions, which was fun. One man suggested I do podcasts. (Thanks for the suggestion. I am thinking about it.) People had questions about the books such as do I have a hard time keeping characters straight in my different books. (No, I don’t.) What authors do I like? Advice about publishing.

Afterward when I was signing books people bought, I was approached by my ninth-grade history teacher, Dennis Duval. I had written a blog post, The People Who Teach Us, about meeting him last summer at my mother’s convalescent home. I had no way of knowing how to reach him, but he told me he found it online by chance. He had printed it out and asked me to sign it for him. 

It was a sweet homecoming for certain.

NEXT READING: I will be doing one Sunday, Oct. 22, 2 p.m. at the Arms Library in my village of Shelburne Falls.

ABOUT THE PHOTOS: Hank took the ones of me talking and signing books. I snapped the one of the audience.


Reading at the Millicent Library

When I was a kid, I spent so much of my time reading thanks to the Millicent Library in my hometown of Fairhaven. On Wednesday, Oct. 18 at 6:30 p.m., I will experience a different kind of reading there — when I share my experiences about writing and read from a couple of the books I wrote. I smile as I type this. 

First a little history: The Millicent Library is one of the extraordinarily beautiful buildings given to Fairhaven by Henry Huttleston Rogers, a resident who became wealthy thanks to oil. Charles Brigham, the noted architect, designed the Italian Renaissance building, which took two years to complete. The library is dedicated to Rogers’ daughter Millicent, who died at age 17. It appears she once said, “I wish we had a good library.” It was dedicated on Jan.30, 1983, the anniversary of her birth.

Friends from Taos, where Hank and I lived for 11 years, will recognize the name Millicent Rogers. In Taos’ case, this Millicent was the granddaughter of Henry Huttleston Rogers. She lived a fabulous life. An art museum, which I visited often, is in her name.

But back to Fairhaven … My late mother, Algerina Medeiros who was a big reader, took us frequently to the Millicent Library to borrow a stack of books. I recall attempting to read the whole Wizard of Oz series. I remember when I stopped using the kids’ room to venture into the adult sections, including nonfiction.

So, I was excited when I learned that the Millicent Library had my books available for its patrons to borrow, most notably the Isabel Long Mystery Series. Earlier this year, on a visit back home, I stopped in to thank the staff and to give a copy of The Sacred Dog. I was touched when I received an email from Barb Mitchell of the Friends of the Library inviting me to do a reading. Of course, I accepted.

At the Oct. 18 reading, I will talk about my writing experience, including how I overcame a 25-year writer’s block, and my books in particular. I will read from the latest, Northern Comfort, a dark drama about the haves and have nots in a rural town. I also plan to give a sneak peek into Missing the Deadline, the seventh in my Isabel Long Mystery Series, which darkstroke books is releasing later this year.

I will be glad to take questions. And, yes, I will bring books for sale at a discount. Ten bucks will get you one of them.

Friends and family, I hope to see you in the audience on Thursday.

ABOUT THE IMAGE ABOVE: One of the elaborate lights at the Millicent Library.