Happy Thanksgiving

Wendy Hornsby


This year, as I sit down with my family, prepared to tuck into an opulent meal, I am reminded how fortunate we are, how very much we have to be thankful for.  384 years ago, depending on the most accepted account of when the first Thanksgiving took place, a ragtag group of immigrants, religious refugees from a far shore, sat down to share a meal with the local, American born, people who had helped them to survive the Starving Time, as their first year in the new land came to be known.  I know there are many versions of what that first feast signified, but for now I want to stick to the mainstream message we have chosen to accept as the meaning of Thanksgiving.  That is, the feast was a sharing of bounty between the natives and the newcomers.   The United States, as F.D.R. reminded us, and we should all remember, is a nation of immigrants.  Let us celebrate that legacy of diversity, and let us always welcome the pilgrims who come here hoping for a better life.

I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.


Happy Birthday, Mom

As I looked around for topics for this month’s blog, there seemed to be several choices, all of them depressing. JFK’s assassination, on Nov. 22, 1963, would be an obvious choice—too obvious, really. And there’s Thanksgiving, but what can I say about Thanksgiving that hasn’t already been said ad nauseam ad infinitum? My high-school sweetheart got married (not to me) on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 1964. Because of the inexorability of the calendar, that was Nov. 25, the same as this year.

Of course I could have written about the terror attacks on Paris, but I can’t even stand to watch the news reports the last few days. I don’t want to analyze or reflect on that horror. And by the time I could post something, there would probably have been another attack, like the one in Mali.

Then, “while I pondered, weak and weary,” it occurred to me that November 23 is my mother’s birthday. She was, in many ways, a remarkable woman, though not without her blemishes. Her life spanned most of the 20th century, from 1919 to 1995, and I think my brother and I still feel her influence every day.

My mother was the third of five children, four of them girls. Her brother, whom she adored, was a couple of years older than she was. In 1954, when she got the phone call that he’d been killed in an auto accident, she collapsed on the floor in hysterics, a scary thing for a nine-year-old to witness.

Knowing her when I was an adult, I came to realize that she never felt that her mother loved her as much as her siblings. She was the only child in her family who was not given a middle name at birth, and she felt that was a deliberate slight. She was a tomboy who had a goat for a pet and carved her initials in a tree in her yard higher than anyone else. I suspect she was hard to handle. Her great desire in life was to own a motorcycle. At 60 she settled for a Moped.

I knew my grandmother as a loving woman, but in earlier years, I’ve learned, she was famous for her temper. Raising five children during the Depression, when her husband had two businesses fail under him, might have accounted for some of that discontent. My mother felt that her mother’s anger tended to focus on the middle child. She once told me about saving her money to buy her mother a vase as a birthday gift. Her mother put it in a drawer and never displayed it. When her mother died, my mother retrieved the vase and put it in a prominent place on her mantle.

In spite of the difficulties in her relationship with her mother, my mother always wanted to be as close to home as possible. When my dad was at Georgia Tech in 1949-51, she drove from Atlanta to her parents’ home in upstate South Carolina every chance she got, taking me and my younger brother for weekend visits. In later years she pitched in with her sisters and took care of her father in his senility and then her mother for several more years afterwards. In the late stages of her own struggle with cancer, I heard her mutter, “It’s my turn, and we’re going to do it my way.”

My mother was a worker all her life. After finishing high school, she worked for several years in a hosiery mill before starting college in the fall of 1941. She worked in the college dining hall, where she met my father. While cleaning out my parents’ house, I found an old knife, not part of their set of cutlery, that bore the initials MHC. No one in my family knew who MHC might be. Then one cousin suggested that the letters might stand for Mars Hill College, where my parents met. At his college, he said, all the cutlery bore the school’s initials. (Yes, I still have the knife.)

While we were at Georgia Tech, my dad went to school and held two jobs. My mother got a paper route. At age five, I begged to go with her, so one morning she got me up at 5:00, put me in the wagon she used, and off we went. I vaguely remember being miserable, and I’m sure she regretted taking me.

In 1956 my mother started work at Rollman’s Department Store in Cincinnati. She worked in retail for the rest of her life, usually in the office, at places like Penney’s, K-Mart, and Walmart. She was very good with money and accounts, skills which I did not inherit. This did mean, though, that, at ages 11 and 8, my brother and I were latch-key kids long before the term was coined and continued to be until we finished school.

My mother had a keen sense of humor and wasn’t afraid to do outlandish things. In 1944 she rode a train from SC to California to marry my dad, by then a Marine. She once let me read a few pages from some letters she had written to her family from California. Describing her wedding and what came after, she said, “then he moved over to my side of the bed. What happened next is a military secret.” She told me I could have the letters after she died, as long as I promised not to publish them. Before I could get to them, though, my dad burned them. “They were private,” was all he would say.

I think her greatest weakness was her impatience. She once told me that she and I got along well because “you knew what you needed to do and you did it.” My brother, on the other hand, took after her, with a strong independent streak. By the time I was in junior high, I had my own room, and I learned to just close the door when storm clouds gathered over other parts of the house. To this day I will go to great lengths to avoid confrontations. My wife keeps assuring me, “Hon, I’m not your mother.”

Whatever her limitations as a parent, my mother was a terrific grandmother. My children are adopted, but she took them as hers from day one. They loved to visit, and my greatest regret in life is that we lived so far away that we got to SC only two or three times a year. One of my sons needed serious surgery when he was eight. His recovery was slow, and we were concerned. My mother sent him a huge Transformer toy, and you could see the change in him overnight. Twenty-five years later, he let my grandson have some of his Transformers, but he would not part with that one. Whether she was playing with her grandchildren in the pool or riding them around the neighborhood on the back of her Moped, she enjoyed them with exuberance and they still remember her fondly.

As do I. Happy birthday, Mom.

The past rears its cinematic head

About 30 years ago I was asked to help write a horror movie. I love movies and I like good horror—not just gore, but scary stuff with real characters and something of a plot. How could I turn down that invitation? I’d always wanted to write a screenplay and nobody had ever asked before.

We had three producers and two writers. I don’t remember who came up with the idea or the title–Night Feeder–although I know I had something to do with it.

My fellow writer and I began working on the script and the producers began looking for actors and connected with some special effects people at Industrial Light and Magic, already very well known and local in the East Bay where we all lived at the time.

We had a small budget but lots of energy and hope, and we all liked each other.

We got it written and my job was done. The producers dealt with the casting, the sets, the monster, and everything else. In a couple of months I got my copy of the movie, watched it, noticed that a number of plot points had been changed,  and someone had done some rewriting. But what the hell, I thought. It was fun and not the worst movie I’d ever seen. I stashed my copy somewhere and hoped for the best.

A few months later I heard something vague about the movie being shown or distributed or something somewhere in Europe. That was the last I heard of it.

Until a couple of months ago, when I got a note from one of the producers, along with a tiny check that he asked me to split with the other writer. I found her and sent her the money.

Again, I resigned myself to never hearing anything about it again.

And then, a couple weeks ago, I heard from the creative member of the team, Jody, an artist who still lived in her warehouse studio in the East Bay. Turned out, she said, that the movie had picked up a distributor and a bit of a cult following and there was going to be a screening at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco November 21.

I’m sure there’ll be no red carpet, even though Polly and I are on what Jody calls “The List.” Neither one of us likes driving any distance at night any more, and we live in Petaluma. So we’re going to spend the grocery money on a limo for a no-stress night. I believe in that.

We’d love to see you there. Admission is cheap.


Uncovering the Past

Lea Wait, here.Stopping to Home

Historical research is done by librarians, historians, genealogists, doctoral candidates, homeowners wondering about the history of their homes, and grade school students reluctantly fulfilling classroom assignments.

I’ve done all of the above, at various points in my life. But now I do historical research primarily because I write historical novels set in 19th century Wiscasset.!cid_5DD80D18-4277-43A2-92BE-A87ACD38DB1B@maine_rr

I’ve always loved the idea of “place” influencing the people who lived in it, so my goal is to show, in a series of stand-alone books, how people in a small Maine village lived during different time periods.

Why Wiscasset? Because Wiscasset “had it all,” in terms of history. Abenaki lands, early European settlers, citizens taking part in every war Maine has been involved in, a deep-water harbor surrounded by farmlands and lumbering. Mills. Fires. Inns. Wiscasset was on the Boston Post line. The railroad came to Wiscasset.

Stopping to Home (set in 1806) and Seaward Born (1805-1807) show Wiscasset when it was the largest port east of Boston. Wintering Well (1819-1820) is set against a background of new statehood. Finest Kind (1838) shows the result of the Panic of 1837. And Uncertain Glory (1861) takes place during the first two weeks of the Civil War.

My major characters are fictional, but the minor characters are the real people who lived in Wiscasset.

How do I find out about them?Wintering Well

I search the Wiscasset Library archives files on “doctors” and “lawyers” and “houses,” and read through newspapers, files on Wiscasset families, and letters. I don’t just collect names; I collect lives. The Lincoln County Courthouse has records of who was in jail when and for what offense. They also have customs records of ships arriving, homes built and changing hands, and legal cases in Lincoln County. Wiscasset’s graveyards help with dates, and raise new questions. (Why would a man be buried next to only his first wife, when he was married three times?)

In Uncertain Glory my protagonist is an actual teenager who published Wiscasset’s newspaper in the mid-nineteenth century. His diary is at the Maine Historical Society archives in Portland. The newspapers he published are in the Wiscasset Library. Files on his family helped me place him in town, and write historical notes about what happened after the book was finished.

Seaward Born            Other research? I read extensively in political, military, religious, and philosophical analyses of what was happening in the United States during the year(s) I’m writing about. I choose year-and-place appropriate names for fictional characters. I search dictionaries published in New England during the year(s) I’m writing about, to ensure I use words authentically. I study maps. I collect old medical books, books of old recipes, lists of kitchen utensils, weapons, tools, and laws. I read studies of the ways in which women, children, minorities, and the handicapped were treated, through both laws and practices.

All these pieces of research become fodder for the background of my books; sometimes even the basis for specific scenes. But the most important research I do is on my protagonists and their family; how they fit into the community, how they would react to events around them, and what decisions they would make.

Because I write stories. Historically accurate stories, I hope. Stories set in a real town. But, most important, stories of what happens when my major character’s life is changed, and he or she must decide what he or she will do next to survive. That’s the heart of all my books.


Maine author Lea Wait has written five books set in 19th century Wiscasset in addition to two contemporary mystery series, the Shadows Antique Print series and the Mainely Needlepoint series. For more information about Lea and her books, see www.leawait.com, and friend her on Facebook and Goodreads.  



The Day I Never Believed Would Come, Came

By K.K. Beck

I have been retired from my last job ever, for two and a half months. I liked my job (except for the occasional pointless meeting, which I usually attended remotely with the phone on mute while I filed or read the newspaper) so I didn’t feel as if I were escaping from a soul crushing grind or ghastly office politics. I just knew that I was never going to work again, which I found impossible to believe.

I knew I wouldn’t be like those fake retired people in AARP or investment services ads who are kayaking and climbing mountains and surfing and starting glamorous new careers in four inch heels or becoming wildlife photographers in the Amazon.

I am holed up at home, reading three or four books a week. I’ve decided to read all of Anthony Trollope’s novels in order. When I read about something or someone interesting in a nonfiction book, I put it on a list of things to look up and read about somewhere else. I know a lot about Rasputin and about British spies in revolutionary Russia right now.

I watch movies in the middle of the day. Yesterday I saw Myrna Loy and William Powell in Evelyn Prentice, a pre-production code combination thriller and weepy about adultery and murder. A wisecracking Una Merkel playing Myrna’s best friend.

My closets are now completely organized. (The sweaters are all rolled into little tubes so I can see all of them when I open the drawer because they aren’t in stacks, something I read about in a peculiar book that also says when you throw things out you should thank them for having made you happy, advice I have resisted taking on board.) My jewelry is organized too. All the gold and silver chains that used to be in little knots are now threaded through drinking straws. Eventually, I plan to organize everything I own – yes, even all those photographs loose in boxes. But not until I feel like it.

I am never in a hurry. I have stopped multitasking and going into a room to do something, then getting distracted by something else that needs to be done. Instead of driving to the grocery store, the library, the post office and the bank, I walk there, looking at other people’s front yards. I have the time to do all the routine maintenance of life slowly and properly. I wake up in the morning realizing there is nothing I really have to do. This is heady stuff.

I remember feeling so sorry for my grandmother when I was a teenager and she was retired. Surely, I thought, she must be going nuts just puttering around her house all day and maybe pulling a few dead leaves off the African violets once in a while. Now, I completely get it.

It feels divine. And also oddly familiar. Retiring turned out to be just like summer vacations when I was a kid, spending time lying in the grass and looking up at the light coming through the leaves of a tree, and maybe joining the summer reading club at the library.

Jumping Ahead

When the question is asked – pantser or outliner – I usually describe myself as a pantser.

A pantser is a writer who writes by the seat of her pants.

Or, to paraphrase Tony Hillerman, I write myself into a corner and then write myself out.

But that’s not entirely true. Sometimes I’m an outliner. But I don’t call it that. I associate outlines with something I had to do in school. I suppose that’s why I avoid the term.

When I’m starting a book, I sit at the computer and write whatever comes into my head – character sketches, background information, bits of dialog and plot. I explore, I digress, I run around in circles and meander off in search of box canyons and red herrings. By this time I have a have a good idea of where the book starts and ends, but not what happens in the middle.

Ah, those pesky middles.

So I start a timeline. I write down what happens before the book opens – that’s the backstory. My timeline gives me an idea of what needs to happen in order for my protagonist to get to the conclusion and solve the mystery. But at this stage my timeline may only get a few chapters into the plot. Sometimes I write in a linear, chronological fashion, and sometimes I figure out the order of events while I’m writing the book. I discover that order by writing scenes out of order. I call this jumping ahead.

I did it in my Jeri Howard novel Witness to Evil. I managed to get Jeri down to Bakersfield to look for a missing person. Then Jeri learned about a murder. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. I only knew that Jeri had to go to Los Angeles to follow a lead. So I jumped ahead. Jeri left Bakersfield and headed over the Grapevine to the LA Basin. I pounded out seven chapters in a short time and when I got Jeri back to Bakersfield I knew more about my timeline. I went back to earlier chapters I’d written and inserted crucial action.

Right now I’m working on my twelfth Jeri Howard book, titled Water Signs. I have a good beginning and a good sense of where Jeri and I are heading. But again, I’m at the point where I’m not sure about what goes where.

So I’ve jumped ahead. I’ve written a number of scenes over the past few days and I’m learning more about my book as Jeri talks to people, ferrets out information and visits the scene of the crime.

The technique is working. I’m making progress by jumping ahead.

Writing the Culinary Thriller

5-Thalia-Filberts with frame
Beat Slay Love is a serial novel about a serial killer, credited to “Thalia Filbert” but actually written by five members of the Thalia Press Authors Coop (TPAC) – Lise McClendon, Katy Munger, Kate Flora, Gary Phillips, and Taffy Cannon. TPAC was created five years ago as a group of eight congenial midlist authors who would share a blog and work together on other projects. The first was the Dead of Winter short story collection in 2011.

The authors discuss their experiences in writing Beat Slay Love.beat-slay-love-cover=final

Taffy Cannon: We five have published over 75 novels among us, and we’ve all been in the mystery community since the early 90s. Gary was on my very first mystery panel at LCC in Anaheim. I remember meeting Kate in an elevator at Malice Domestic. She was wearing a shirt that said “Publishing business is an oxymoron” and I liked her immediately.

Kate Flora: Still, we were already an odd scenario for a blog group, never mind people I’d spend two or three years collaborating with on a group novel.

Gary Phillips: While we set out understanding that Beat Slay Love was to be a send-up of foodie mysteries, we did play it straight in terms of defining the characters, grounding them in certain realities, not writing really outrageous chapters and leaving it to the next writer to be even more outlandish in solving the cliffhanger – as some of these round robin projects can unspool.

Katy Munger: I would write something and the next person would key in on a kernel of what I had written and take it in a whole new direction.

Lise McClendon: What surprised me about the final product of Beat Slay Love was how I couldn’t be sure which part I wrote! Obviously I know I wrote the section in Montana—we each wrote about regional food, often in our own neck of the woods—but we also wrote pieces about our protagonists, Jason the food blogger and Kimberly the FBI agent. Not to mention our anti-heroine, the sex-and-food-obsessed Hannah.

Kate: Everyone on the team has a different voice and style, occupies a different corner of the big tent, and we often had different visions of the central characters. But just as we’ve all learned to work with editors and behave nicely (most of the time) on panels, we’re all seasoned pros who can work with what we’re given. But then, saying “work with” fails to acknowledge the fun of it all.

Taffy: This may be the most fun I’ve had on a writing project since – well, since I covered the 1977 Miss Texas Pageant. I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but here I was required to watch the Food Network and read cooking magazines, and investigate culinary ideas I might not have ever thought of. Squid ink pasta? Who knew?

Gary: I hadn’t participated in a round robin novel before, though I was aware of other such efforts, one of the most famous being Naked Came the Stranger in the ‘60s, riffed on in the ‘90s in Naked Came the Manatee.

Taffy: I didn’t sign on initially because I didn’t see how it could possibly work. There was no outline and no plan, and that’s not the way I normally approach mystery writing. But when the other four authors had done their first sections, I was offered another chance to participate. By then there were major and minor characters and three nasty, chef-appropriate murders. (This is most assuredly not a cozy.) I read what they’d done and agreed immediately.

Katy: At first I could not see that there were real connections between our passages.

Taffy: The second time I had the manuscript, I noticed that somebody had changed part of a scene I’d written earlier. That gave me permission to fiddle with other people’s work and I started to do some editing myself for consistency of style and tone. I took out all the bylines we’d started with. Then I set up a time line and figured out where everything logically fit on it. The writing was exuberant, but it didn’t always fit together.

Gary: In terms of my involvement, being the only male, it wasn’t that tough tapping my feminine side. I think women and men interpret and therefore say some things differently when talking about the same subject matter. Though this project definitely had an effect on me as I recently had to write a short story about cars and crime, and it just seemed natural to me that the protagonist in that story would be this young woman of color who is a surfer.

Taffy: When there were issues or questions about how to handle something, we’d talk it through in email. All kinds of stuff got resolved that way, from the title to deadlines to character names to later issues about production and promotion. I was really impressed at how complementary our various talents and connections proved to be.

Gary: Let me say as a sometime editor of anthologies, in terms of editing other writers’ work, Lise and Katy did an outstanding job of editing and retooling the draft into the final manuscript. That’s hard work but it shows in how seamlessly Beat Slay Love reads.

Katy: It was a whole lot of fun and a surprising experience. We had somehow divined what each other was thinking.

Kate: Would I do it again? You bet! Can’t wait to see what this group of wonderfully creative people will cook up next.


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