Recycle and Reuse

I’m looking for a plant stand. But I don’t want to spend money on something new.

Instead, I’ve been prowling second-hand and salvage shops, looking for inspiration. And I’m looking here at home to see what I have that could be repurposed into a plant stand.

So this blog post is all about making use of what we already have.

After all, I live in California, in the Bay Area, where we’re proud of our recycling rates. And I love checking out antique stores to see what old items I can give a second life.

When it comes to writing, I also recycle. I suspect many other writers do the same.

An incident removed from Till The Old Men Die found its way into Nobody’s Child. I took a scene from my first mystery (unpublished, predating Kindred Crimes) and reworked it into a scene in the upcoming Jeri Howard book, Cold Trail.

And one of the two plots in Bit Player came from something I mentioned in Kindred Crimes – that Jeri Howard was named for her grandmother, Jerusha, who was an actress in Hollywood a long time ago. For years I thought about writing a short story about that, and eventually I started the story, but it kept getting longer and longer, because it wanted to be a novel.

The first book I ever wrote wasn’t a mystery. I still have the manuscript and I think it has possibilities. Recycle and reuse – in this case add a body and turn it into a crime novel.

Waste not, want not, that’s what I say.

My real life experiences and interests have also found their way into my fiction. Jeri Howard’s apartment in the earlier books? That’s an apartment I once looked at. The murder victim in Take a Number was an old boyfriend. I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed that.

The company in Where the Bodies Are Buried bears more than a passing resemblance to a company where I once worked.

In Bit Player, I recycled my own interest in movie memorabilia, as well as a newspaper clipping about a mysterious discovery at Camp Roberts, a World War II-era training base in Central California.

Something I learned at a law firm where I used to work became my Jeri Howard short story “Slayer Statute.” A remark overheard at an Oakland deli inspired me to write another short story, “Little Red Corvette.”

I know some of my work experiences at places I refer to as “the job from hell” will find their way into my novels.

You see, someone once gave a me a tee shirt that reads, “Be nice to me or you’ll wind up in my book.”

Don’t Call, Don’t Come Over

Wendy Hornsby

Don’t call, and don’t come over. Everything is fine, no need to worry. I know you haven’t seen me around for a while. And the garden could use some water. No one swept the driveway after the windstorm, but trust me, there’s no problem, no issue. Except this one: I have a book to finish and the deadline looms on the near horizon. So, thank you for the invitation, but lunch is out of the question. Ditto a movie, a hike, or a fast trip to the coast for a couple of days.

No, I have not become a hermit and I am not lonely. I spend hours every day with dozens of people. Sure, they all spring from my own imagination, and yes I do talk out loud to them, and they talk back to me as well.  That may not seem normal to you, but I’m a writer and that’s normal for me. Indeed, I wouldn’t make any progress with this book if all those imaginary voices didn’t chatter. At this point in their story they not only talk to me while I’m working, but sometimes they invade my dreams at night. Sometimes they set up such a racket during the day that I find it difficult to shut them up long enough to fall asleep, perchance to dream. About them.


The husband is fine as well. I’ll tell him you inquired about his wellbeing. He has, as he always does, picked up those chores I’ve abandoned for the duration. That should keep him busy enough, but he’s my first reader as well. It’s good to have a champion nitpicker as the first reader. He keeps a good supply of sticky notes and pencils stowed in random places, ready for those random times when I thrust sheaves of new pages his way. He does it all with good humor. Bless his heart, couldn’t get through without him, wouldn’t want to try.

I would love to stay and chat a bit longer, but as you know, there’s a looming deadline and I need to get back to work.

But thank you for your concern.

Keeping Warm in New England Winters … Now, and Then

DSC02122DSC01871Lea Wait, here. And although I can’t officially claim to be a Mainer (I was born in Boston, and have only lived here ‘year round for 17 years) I do live there. I live in a house built in 1774 on an island in the Sheepscot River, one of Maine’s many tidal rivers, about twelve miles from the official “ocean.” The North Atlantic.

This winter has been an especially challenging one for those of us who choose to call Maine our home.  Normally, we have 25-40 inches of snow by this time in the area where I live, along the coast. This winter we’ve had almost 80 inches … in the past month. And as I write this … and as you read it … the snow is falling again. The next storm is due in a couple of days. And – did I mention? For the past month the temperatures have been in single  digits or below at night, and, some warm days, they’ve risen to the teens during the day.

But, considering it all, few people really complain. After all, we chose to live here. And this is an unusually snowy and cold winter.

Plus –  let’s not forget. This is 2015. Most people have  some form of central heat.  Storm windows. Insulation. Grocery stores. Running water. Stoves. Silk or thermal underwear. Fleece. Flannel. Wool. Plows. Salt and sand. And heated cars or trucks to get us from one heated place to another on plowed roads.

For hundreds – perhaps thousands – of years people survived here without most of those things.

I’m not an expert on the ways Abenakis and Micmacs survived winters.

But I do know a little about how Europeans lived here when my home was built. When the river wasn’t just patchworked with ice floes. It was  frozen so  hard  people use it for sleigh  races.

People prepared all year for winter. In snowy months men took sledges into the woods and  lumbered.  Wood was chopped in summer so it would be dry for winter fireplaces.  Fires were kept burning all day and night. On the coldest days, warmly dressed people slept 2-4  to a bed or pallet near the fire. Pine boughs were woven together in fall and piled around a house’s foundation. Snow would fill the holes, helping insulate the building. Snow was melted for water, for occasional washing, and for the soups and stews that, with bread, were sustenance. Fish, meat, vegetables and fruit were harvested in summer and dried, to be resurrected in winter stews. Clothes weren’t washed for months. Even infant’s clouts (diapers) were hung to dry in kitchens without rinsing.DSC00782

In Maine, small workrooms (the ell) connected houses to their barns, so animals could be fed without going outside. Privies were often located in the far corner of the barn. Roads were not plowed. Sleighs pulled heavy pieces of wood to push deep snow down so horses and sleighs didn’t sink in it.

But most people stayed home for the winter. “Winter well!” was a common farewell in fall. Those who didn’t live in town might not see neighbors until spring. Babies would be born, people would die, and no one outside the family would know for months. Sometimes a whole family would die, of disease or hunger or cold or fire or depression that led to violence, and no one would know until late spring, when muddy roads dried and were again passable.

I think of those people in winters like this one. I wonder how they felt. What they thought. How glorious spring must have seemed.

And I thank them. They, and others like them in other parts of our country, were survivors. And so our country survived.

A little snow? Just part of life.

Death of a Mystery Writer

By Meredith Phillips

It is my sad task to report the recent death of our forthcoming author, Tony Hays, at age 58. His mystery, Shakespeare No More, will be published next September.

The only information on his death that I have is from the funeral home’s obituary,!/Obituary

Since last fall, Tony, a Tennessee native, had been living in Saudi Arabia, teaching English as a second language. He contacted us frequently by email concerning the editing, proofs, and cover of his book. The last time we heard from him was a few weeks ago, when he said he was going to Luxor in Egypt on vacation. According to the obituary he fell ill there and died. I was concerned that he hadn’t been in touch, and when his monthly blog post didn’t appear today I asked our blog web maven Sue Trowbridge if she’d received it. Somehow she found the link above (which doesn’t come up from just Googling his name).

I never met Tony in person, and knew him only through emails. He was charming, collegial, and very cooperative in doing anything possible to benefit the book, and make it the best it could be. He was quite a scholar on Shakespeare and various theories on his possible murder. This was the first in a projected series about Shakespeare’s friend, a Stratford constable. Tony had written a previous four-book Arthurian mystery series that garnered nine starred reviews and an award nomination. He will be missed from the company of historical mystery writers, as well as by other colleagues, friends, and family.

Meredith Phillips, Editor
Perseverance Press/John Daniel & Co. /

Natural Inspiration

I was never an outdoorsy person until a few years ago, when an interest in birding and a desire to go for walks in new places got me out and moving around. But I’ve always loved the beauty of my natural surroundings.

After all, I grew up in Colorado. The Rocky Mountains were visible most of the time, and my father’s idea of a great Sunday drive was up one of those canyons scoring the Front Range, especially in the fall when the aspen were turning gold.

For the past 35 years I’ve lived in California, most of that time in Alameda, where San Francisco Bay is a few blocks from home. From here, it’s just a short drive over to the coast, where the continent ends and the Pacific Ocean stretches out to the horizon. I never tire of looking at the ocean, with its never-ending play of swells rising offshore, rushing onto rocks or beaches.

But I’m a writer. I write crime novels. The sight of waves crashing on cliffs just naturally makes me think about dead bodies. How could I not? The ocean is such a good place to dispose of many secrets, including bodies.

The beautiful Sonoma coast

The beautiful Sonoma coast

After all, the title of the fourth Jeri Howard book came from a warning sign on the Mendocino coast reading, “Don’t turn your back on the ocean.”

Since a writer uses everything to hand, it’s only natural that the natural world winds up in my books.

Looking back at my novels, I see plenty of examples. Readers get a tour of the Rockies along the route of the California Zephyr in Death Rides the Zephyr, riding along with Zephyrette Jill McLeod. Private eye Jeri Howard visits Monterey and Carmel in Don’t Turn Your Back on the Ocean. Mendocino is the setting for the climactic chapters of A Credible Threat. Other-worldly Mono Lake, in the eastern Sierra, found its way into Bit Player. So did the landscape of western Sonoma County, which is where most of the upcoming Cold Trail is set.

It’s more than just setting, though. Plots and twists come to mind as I view land and water. Pollution in a pristine bay. Scraps and squabbles over precious water resources. Environmental damage caused by people who value profit over resources.

All of these are fertile soil for the mystery writer.


by Nancy Means Wright

For those who begin writing in their sixties, seventies, even eighties, the tenet “less is more” literally applies. Less time left to complete a long work, yet more years of living to write about. Now that I’m in that season of life myself, I love to discover late blooming writers. There are many, of course. like Wallace Stegner, or Harriet Doerr who published a debut novel in her seventies. But few are as brilliant as British writer Penelope Fitzgerald, who resembled, as writer Julian Barnes whimsically described in The New Yorker, “some harmless, jam-making grandmother who scarcely knew her way in the world.”

Grandmother she was, but hardly harmless–every word a polished dart. Her first novel tiptoed into the world when she was sixty; her last, The Blue Flower, about poet Novalis’s real life infatuation with a twelve-year-old girl, appeared when the author was eighty. She was, as she quipped, “an old writer who had never been a young one”– a crusty eccentric who dyed her hair with tea bags, ate blackboard chalk to counter a calcium deficiency, and wore clothes, as her biographer Hermione Lee wrote: “curiously constructed, I think, out of curtains.” Fitzgerald wasn’t wholly ignorant of the writing world; rather she grew up “dipped in ink.”

Her father was editor of the satirical Punch, her brother a Cambridge don and WW2 code breaker; her mother wrote off and on for The Manchester Guardian. She worked for the BBC and married a handsome Irish ex-soldier, Desmond Fitzgerald. Together they ran a cultural magazine that published writers like J.D. Salinger before he penned The Catcher in the Rye.

But her husband’s psyche had been damaged in the WWI fighting. He fell to pieces, the magazine failed, and his wife was left to raise their three children. Ultimately homeless, the family slept and ate on a dark, leaky barge in the Thames River. “I’m sorry I’m late,” Fitzgerald famously announced one day at the school where she taught, “but our house sank.” The barge had capsized at high tide with all their possessions, books, and family papers turned to pulp. Only the cat was saved, clinging to the mast.

That cryptic comment was typical of Fitzgerald, who came from a family of few words. When the alcoholic husband died, she at last had a room of her own, and the words poured from her pen. She drew on her own life experience for novels like The Bookshop and Offshore (that leaky barge)–the latter won the Booker Prize in 1979. She set fiction in times and places she’d never experienced: Innocence is set in Florence; The Beginning of Spring in revolutionary Russia; The Blue Flower in 18th-century Germany.  She treated the drama of personal defeats “as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?”

Most of the books are under 200 pages. Less is more. “I feel drawn to whatever is spare, subtle, and economical,” she declared. “I try to make everything quite clear, but then I think, this is an insult to the reader…and so I begin to cut out, whole chapters go.” She worried about endings, too, that she might wax sentimental, or that she might explain too much–and so she pared them to the bone. (I think here of some TV versions of mystery novels, in which the last several minutes attempt to explain every moment of a crime. I personally deplore this dull recapitulation.)

In the last scene of Innocence, about a girl who sets her hearts on a bullheaded doctor who resolves to be emotionally dependent on no one (the Boston Globe called it “a delectable comedy of manners”), the despondent young doctor asks “What’s to become of us? We can’t go on like this.” And the character Cesare, who tends to silence, replies: “Yes, we can go on exactly like this for the rest of our lives.”

And so Fitzgerald wrote to her final breath at age eighty-three. The Blue Flower has fifty-five short chapters, some only a page or two. Each detail is momentary but vividly imagined–like the evasive blue flower, which appears to be something ineffable that we seek in our lives, but seldom find. It’s that greater truth we long for, perhaps, now captured by the writer–in a few carefully chosen words.


When my kids were younger my wife and I tried to teach them that their actions had consequences. We hoped they would become adults who gave some thought to what they might do before they did it. As William James put it, “Wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences.” Today as I read the newspaper or watch the news on TV, I think that’s a principle that people in general have lost sight of, and many of the problems we face are a result of that loss.

The radical Islamist attack on Charlie Hebdo was barbaric, savage beyond belief. Nothing—religion, politics, personal spite—could justify it. But the staff of the magazine knew that the material they were publishing was offensive to such people. They have every right to publish whatever they choose, but I wonder if they thought about the consequences. People have a right to poke a hornets’ nest with a stick, if they choose, but I would urge them to consider what might happen if they do.

I sympathize entirely with Sony over the hack which took place last fall, and I support their right to make movies on any subject they choose, but I wonder if anybody, during a pre-production meeting, raised a hand and said, “You know, the North Koreans can be pretty sensitive about their leader. Are we prepared for their reaction? Is what we’ll gain from this project worth the blowback we may experience?”

As W. Somerset Maugham said, “You can do anything in this world if you are prepared to take the consequences.” In our ever-shrinking world, we have to be aware of the hornets’ nests around us and consider the consequences if we choose to poke them with a stick. As westerners we live in what we call the 21st century. Most of us believe in an open society in which men and women of all races, nationalities and faiths should be respected and given the right to live as they see fit. We understand that, in order for us to live the way we want, we have to allow others to live as they choose.

Unfortunately, people in some other parts of the world don’t look at things that way. They see themselves as right and others, by definition, as wrong. And they believe they have the right—even the duty—to enforce their “correct” way of thinking or believing on everyone else, even to the extent of killing those who refuse to agree with them. We live in a global society and, as John B. Larson said, “Globalization is not a monolithic force but an evolving set of consequences—some good, some bad and some unintended. It is the new reality.”

In the light of this new reality I don’t suggest that we limit our own freedoms, just that we think one step further about what might happen when we do or say something. Just because we can do something, that doesn’t mean we should do it. In the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, “Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.”


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