Tuesday, May 23, 2017

All About Your Name

The Women of Letters logo
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Do you still write letters? I mean, letter-letters? It’s difficult for me, because my handwriting is so illegible, I honestly get emails from people saying “Thank you for your thank you note. What did it say?”

But the other day I participated in an astonishing event. Sponsored by Women of Letters, it’s an international program that asks women to write a letter on the topic of WOL’s choice, then read it out loud to an audience. 

I was thrilled to be invited. Until I heard their topic. We had to write “A Letter to My Secret.” My secret? It took a lot of thinking. And at some point, I was dismayed (?) to realize I have no real juicy secrets. I guess that’s a good thing—no, like, criminal record, or almost criminal record, no horrible encounters or crushing humiliating miseries. Any secret I thought of was—embarrassing. Or boring. Or embarrassing AND boring.

And then I got it. I would reveal—that I do not like my name.

Here’s a photo of us all on stage.

My letter began like this:

To: Whom it may concern:

Yes, I understand where you're coming from, completely. Because let me tell you, Whom, I never liked my name either. "Whom it may concern" works really well for you, and I wish I had thought of it. But I have had to make other arrangements

And then it went on:

It was 1963, remember. And it was bad enough being considered a farm girl when I wasn't, but what made it worse that was that my name was Harriet Ann.  Harriet Ann! 

When all the cool girls are Debbie and Linda, and you are nerdy bookie and unpopular, and named Harriet, it does not make for a pleasant junior high experience. In fact, when all I wanted to be was most popular, they voted me most individual. Harriet the individual. And they put my picture in the school paper upside down. They would not have done that to Debbie or Linda.

I could not understand why my obviously sadistic parents named me this. They tried to explain it, that it was a family thing, that my father, my biological father, was the music critic for the Chicago Daily News, and my great uncle Harry, or something like that, had introduced him to the music of Mozart. So they had, in gratitude, named me after him. Uncle Harry, not Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Which would have been equally horrible.

I did my best, as geeky little Harriet, to overcome this name thing. Oh, you're saying, how about Harriet the Spy? She was cool. Yes she was, and had Harriet the Spy existed at this time, I would've been fine. And writing you about something else.  But there was no other Harriet except for Ozzie and Harriet. Ricky Nelson's mother? Are you kidding me?

It went on—we each read for about 8 minutes. (And I mentioned Harriet Vane, of course.) But wow, it was a memorable evening. 

I ended by revealing how I kinda like Harriet now.

Here’s another photo—this is me backstage with host Sofija Stephanovic, then Abeer Hoque and Callie Crossley,  then me, then Marianne Leone, Rose Styron and Claire Messud

And if you EVER get a chance to attend a Women of Letters event—we had a packed house at Oberon in Cambridge—please do. 

We’re not allowed to talk about what anyone else told—what happens at WOL stays at WOL. 

But people were laughing, and crying, and it was truly unforgettable. 

So Reds and readers—I won’t ask you to tell your secret. Not today at least. But—do you like your name? Have you always felt that way? What do you wish you were named?


Monday, May 22, 2017

How old is your paprika?

HALLIE EPHRON: Last week’s post on our rotating recipes had me looking in my supply closet to assess my staples. An aside: When my husband was a poor graduate student his go-to meal was “staple stew” which consisted mainly of canned tomatoes and beans with a little chopped meat (if he was flush) and a ton of chili powder.

 Here’s the cabinet where I keep my spices and flavorings and assorted staples.

Pulling at random from the shelf, I checked out some of the “BEST BY” dates:

  • Cayenne pepper 5/2005
  • Celery seed 5/2005
  • Ground ginger 8/2012
  • Marjoram 8/2007
  • Baking powder 6/2007
  • Paprika 4/2020
This explains why my from-scratch cakes rise so feebly.

At least they're all this century. Probably not so for the poppy seeds, mace, and ground sage which had no best-by dates (hadn't been invented yet?) but they were all priced $.59. I can only imagine when I bought them.


I can say for certain that spices and herbs with expired dates do not kill you. But how long before you pull the plug? This exercise resulted in my tossing dozens of items.

The good news is that these days, mostly I use fresh herbs—basil, mint, parsley, sage, oregano, thyme, tarragon, dill, scallions—many of them from my garden. And fresh ginger, always have some of that in the house. Fresh herbs make it abundantly clear when they've passed their best-by date.

So here’s the test. Go to your staples supply closet shelf and pick a few at random. Are you expired and what do you intend to do about it?

We really should do this every spring.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Our Jungle Red MINI Cookbook

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Last week, when we were discussing meal subscription services (Hello Fresh, Plated, Blue Apron, etc.,) several of us mentioned some of our favorite rotating recipes. (And we all said we want to move in with Hallie! She is the most fabulous cook!)

Some of our lovely readers suggested that we should publish a Jungle Red cookbook. That might be a bit beyond us, with our busy book schedules, but in lieu of that, today we're each going to give you one of our favorite standbys. Bon apetit!

Here's mine: I discovered this recipe a couple of years ago when I treated myself to a Le Creuset cast iron braiser. I was looking for new braising recipes and found THE BRAISER COOKBOOK by Wini Moranville on Kindle. The book only has 22 recipes, and all I've tried have been delicious. But this one is a real standout, because it is so easy and so good. It's become a regular selection on our table.

Salmon on Creamy Cabbage

(serves 4)

2 tablespoons butter (divided use)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 (16-ounce) package coleslaw mix
1 - to 1-1/ 2 pound fresh salmon fillet, skinless, cut into 4 pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper 1 shallot, finely chopped (1/ 4 cup)
1/ 4 cup dry vermouth or white wine
1/ 4 cup white wine vinegar
1/ 4 cup whipping cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Snipped fresh chives

Heat 1 tablespoon of the butter and the olive oil in a 3-1/ 2-quart braiser over medium heat.
Add the coleslaw mix and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly wilted but still crunchy, about 5 minutes.
Season salmon with salt and pepper.
Place salmon on top of cabbage mixture. Cover and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until salmon flakes easily when tested with a fork, checking after 5 minutes of cooking time to make sure cabbage is not browning— lift and stir cabbage around the salmon if needed.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallot and saute until tender, stirring occasionally. Add vermouth and vinegar; simmer until reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Stir in cream. Simmer to desired thickness. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside and keep warm. 3. To serve, spoon cabbage mixture onto plates. Top with salmon fillet and spoon sauce over top. Garnish with chives.

(Leftovers are good if you are only cooking for two.)

HALLIE EPHRON: I've made this a few times it's a keeper. I usually have some frozen shrimp and often a zucchini on hand. The rest of the ingredients are staples. It's a twist on crab cakes.

Zucchini/shrimpcakes with dipping sauce


1 large zucchini
1 egg (might need 2)
Flour (a handful)
Cornstarch (a half handful)
5 or 6 large deveined peeled shrimp, cooked (I boil them for 3 minutes) and chopped into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces
Vegetable oil

Cook and chop the shrimp
Grate the zucchini (large holes on the grater)
Place shredded zucchini in a colander and salt liberally, toss to distribute the salt, and let it stand 10 to 15 minutes
Rinse the zucchini (to get rid of salt) while it’s still in the colander and press out excess water
Dump the zucchini into a clean dish towel and wring out as best you can
Scrape the shredded zucchini into a bowl and mix with the chopped shrimp, egg, flour, cornstarch (add a second egg if it isn’t holding together)
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in over medium (NOT HIGH) heat in a frying pan
Drop heaping tablespoons of zucchini mixture into skillet and flatten
Cook, turning until golden and crispy on each side
Drain on a paper-towel lined cookie sheet
While you make the next batch let the sheet sit in a warm oven

Serve with soy dipping sauce, approximately equal parts:
Soy sauce
Rice vinegar
… mixed with about 1 tsp sugar
ADJUST proportions to taste

DEBS: Yum!!!! And I have a great go-to salmon cake recipe which I will share another time.

INGRID THOFT:  This is a go-to in our family, and I’m tempted to be embarrassed by its simplicity, except it’s a Mark Bittman recipe from the New York Times.  According to Bittman, the roots of this recipe can be found with Chinese immigrants who live in India, which makes me feel quite worldly as I grab the ketchup from the fridge.  Most importantly, it’s delicious, easy to make, and I always have the ingredients on hand.  FYI – I don’t like spicy so I leave out the cayenne pepper, and it’s still great.

Time: 20 minutes
1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken, preferably dark meat, in 1/2- to 1-inch chunks
1/2 cup flour, more as needed
4 tablespoons neutral oil, like corn or canola
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons slivered garlic
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 cup ketchup

1. Toss chicken with flour so that it is lightly dusted. Put 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet, preferably nonstick, and turn heat to high. When oil smokes, add chicken in one layer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

2. When chicken browns on one side, toss it and cook until just about done: smaller pieces will take 5 minutes total, larger pieces about 10. Remove to a plate. Turn off heat and let pan cool for a moment.

3. Add remaining oil to pan and turn heat to medium high. Add garlic and cayenne pepper and cook, stirring, about 2 minutes. Add ketchup and stir; cook until ketchup bubbles, then darkens slightly. Return chicken to pan and stir to coat with sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning, then serve.

Yield: 4 servings.

LUCY BURDETTE: I love this recipe, set on a bed of salad greens with any kind of steamed veggies on the side. And a biscuit maybe...it's the perfect way to use leftover chicken. And it's lower in sodium because the curry makes the flavor pop so you really don't need salt!


One half roasted chicken, skinned, boned
One bunch red grapes, washed and halved
3 Sprigs of dill, washed and chopped
1/2 cup toasted pecans
1/2 to 1 cup mayonnaise, to taste
1 tsp curry powder
2-3 ribs celery, washed and chopped

I use leftovers from my own roast chicken, but if that's not on hand, use purchased roast chicken from the supermarket. Debone the chicken, strip off skin and any chewy bits, break into bite-sized pieces and add to a large bowl. Wash and chop 2-3 sticks of celery. Wash the red grapes, halve them and add to the bowl. Wash dill and snip into the bowl. Toast 1/2 cup pecan pieces and add them.

Mix the mayonnaise with the curry powder and adjust seasoning. Fold this into the chicken mixture. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  These all sound so great! Here's my pasta on a deadline--I always make this on nights when I get home late and still want to come up with a delicious dinner that's quick and easy.  The recipe has just a few ingredients--the key is a little parallel processing to make sure all the elements are ready at the same time.  It's one of those recipes where you think you know what it's going to taste like--but it doesn't! The total of the hot peppers and the garlic and the cheese is more than the sum of the parts!


 (serves 2 to 3)

A box of your favorite pasta (Penne works well, so does farfalle. Small pasta works better than spaghetti or linguini)
Water for cooking pasta

One tablespoon chopped garlic
1/4 cup or a little more olive oil
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/4 cup or more bread crumbs

1 bunch broccoli rabe, chopped smallish

Grated Parmesan cheese  (the best quality you can find)

Salt and pepper to taste


1. Put uncooked pasta in big pot of boiling water

2. Put olive oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes in a small bowl, and put in the microwave.  (I know you'll wonder if you really need the red pepper flakes--you do!)

3.  When pasta is two minutes from done,  gently cook oil mixture in microwave for one and a half minutes on reheat.

4. At essentially the same time, add the chopped broccoli rabe to the cooking pasta.

5.  Take the oil mixture out of the microwave, and mix in the bread crumbs to make a paste.  The consistency should be more oily than stiff, so add bread crumbs gradually. 

6. When the pasta is done, the broccoli will be done.  Drain the pasta/broccoli and return to hot pan.

7.  Quickly add the oil and breadcrumb mixture and stir to combine.

8. Serve instantly with grated cheese and salt and pepper. (You don't want this to get cold!)

**I've used regular broccoli, and also chopped spinach instead of broccoli rabe--and it still works perfectly. The peppery flavor of the rabe is a nice addition, though. Sometimes I add hot grilled corn kernels at the same time as the oil mixture.

**You can also heat the oil mixture in a sauce pan--the key is, you're just heating the oil to infuse the flavors, not cooking it.

Add a nice side salad and a glass of wine, and you are good to go!


JENN McKINLAY'S Last Minute Breakfast, Lunch, or Dinner:  Bacon-Ricotta Frittata


1 package cooked and crumbled bacon
1 bunch diced green onions
8 cups diced kale and/or spinach
12 large eggs
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup fresh, fine grated parmesan cheese (divided into ¾ and ¼ cups)
15 ounces whole milk ricotta cheese

Directions:  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Cook bacon in skillet until crisp. Transfer bacon to a separate plate. Set aside the bacon drippings by pouring them into a bowl. Return 2 tablespoons of the drippings to the pan and fry the green onions for about four minutes over medium heat.  Add half of the diced up greens and toss for a minute until they begin to wilt. Add the remaining greens and sauté for about ten minutes until they are wilted. Transfer to a plate. Rinse and dry skillet. Beat eggs in a large bowl. Whisk in ¾ cup Parmesan cheese, then greens and half of the bacon. Stir in the ricotta but not too much, leave some clumps. Heat one tablespoon of the bacon drippings in the skillet over medium heat.  Pour in egg mixture, making sure the greens and bacon are spread evenly. Sprinkle remaining bacon and ¼ cup Parmesan over the eggs. Cook for ten minutes until the edges are set and then transfer to the oven to bake for twenty minutes. Once the frittata is set, remove it from the oven and loosen it around the edges and carefully transfer it to a platter. Let cool for 30 minutes. Apparently, frittatas are supposed to be just a bit warmer than room temperature. Slice into wedges and enjoy with a nice loaf of bread and a fruit salad.

DEBS:  I'm set now for a couple of weeks! I've bought the shrimp and zucchini for Hallie's recipe. I have chicken fries in the freezer that will be perfect for Ingrid's chicken thighs. Next time I roast a chicken or cave for the supermarket rotisserie, it's Lucy's chicken salad. Hank's pasta with broccoli rabe can fill our Thursday night vegetarian pasta slot.  And I'm drooling over Jenn's frittata
and trying to figure out how to make it for two people instead of four (two of which are Jenn's hungry teenage hooligans...) Make the whole thing and have lots of lunch leftovers, I think.

What about you, READERS? Share your infallible get-through-the-week favorites!

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Who's Handy?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I solemnly swear I am married to guy who can fix anything. Here's the latest.

Our old, rickety gas grill died in the last few weeks. So, facing a summer without cooking out, we did the research, made a decision, and ordered a new grill shipped from Home Depot. The UPS guy delivered the huge, heavy box about 6:30 on Thursday, and by 9 that night, Rick had the whole thing assembled, without even too much swearing. And, then, as he rolled it from the living room towards the back door, he said, "You do realize this grill is NG (natural gas), not LP (liquid propane?)

The new grill, ready to be rolled outside!
"What?" I said. "But I ordered LP. I'm sure I did." 

Either way, the thing was put together--no way it was going back!

We have natural gas, and the meter is only a few feet from the grill, so what was the problem?

"We'll have to get a plumber," he says. "To put in the gas. It's a professional job."

You have to understand, this was a big deal--we don't get plumbers at our house. To my hubby, plumbing is an irresistible challenge. Dishwashers, washing machines, broken pipes and toilets, he's installed or fixed them all.

And by the next morning, he'd decided he'd plumb in the grill himself. After lots of YouTube videos (how did we ever manage without YouTube?) and trips to the hardware store, by dinner time Friday, voila. 

Gas for the grill, plumbed and ready.

Here's the before-and-after.

Isn't that smashing? Am I impressed? You better believe it!! Surprised? Not really, because I've seldom seen him fail at a mechanical project.

But I am curious about what makes people "handy." I don't think it's gender. The running joke in my house when I was growing up was that my dad couldn't change a light bulb, and he was a very smart guy. He just didn't have the handy gene. Nor do I! (Understatement of the century...) But my brother was building his own TVs and stereos by the time he was sixteen.

I'm not sure I have any female friends who tackle major plumbing and wiring jobs, but I know plenty of women who love their tools and take on things I would never dream of.

Is this learning? Environment? Basic individual wiring?

What do you think, REDS and readers? And how handy are you?

P.S. Grilling is such a guy thing, right? I do all the grilling in our house:-)

P.S.S. Bibliophile and Susan, you're the winners of Francine Mathew's Merry Folger books!! Send me your addresses at deb at deborahcrombie dot com and Francine will get them off to you! 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Francine Mathews--Death in Nantucket

DEBORAH CROMBIE: One of the (many) blessings attached to writing crime novels for twenty-plus years is the writers you come to admire--and the friends you make--along the way. For me, one of those is Francine Mathews. You may know her as Stephanie Barron, for her wonderful novels featuring Jane Austen as a detective, or for her brilliant and original stand-alone novels. But I came to Francine's books with her first series, featuring Nantucket police detective Merry Folger, and those books have remained in my sacred shelf of favorites ever since.

Luckily for all of us, new readers now have a chance to know Merry, too, and there is a new novel to boot! Here's Francine (my favorite ex-spy) to explain how it came about.


Twenty-five years or so ago, I was working as an intelligence analyst at the CIA. I’d been assigned to Eastern Europe, because the Berlin Wall had recently fallen and the lack of knowledge on the part of the US was staggering. For example, I was supposed to study the region but I knew not a single East European language. I’d been researching Brazil in graduate school when I was hired. But the situation was dire--none of the Iron Curtain apparatchiks we’d been following for years was in power any longer, and none of the old intel assumptions applied. I spent my days researching and drafting psychological profiles of emerging leaders, people who’d been dissidents for years, like Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia and Lech Walesa of Poland. It was interesting work, but I suffered from something of a Princess Complex. I hated having to be at my desk from 8 a.m. until 6, regardless of whether anything life-shaking was happening in the world; and I figured out quickly that NOBODY is really capable of nine solid hours of mental effort. Most of us pretend we’re working for at least half of that.

How much more efficient, I thought, if I simply put in a good four hours of work each day? --And did it at my own desk, instead of the Agency’s?

So I proposed the idea to my husband. What if I quit my job, stayed home, and tried to write a bestseller?

He was a little bemused by the suggestion. But he took me seriously enough to offer me a challenge. Don’t burden your dream with the necessity of financial success, he said. That’s too much pressure. Everybody has a good idea for a novel. Very few have an entire book in their heads. See if you can FINISH a story. And if you can—we’ll talk about you quitting.

I mention all this because it catapulted my writing career.

I knew it was a mistake to attempt the Great American Novel straight off the bat. The sort of people who’d taught in my college writing program—Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates—specialized in those, but it seemed a tall order to me. This was essentially an exercise designed to convince my spouse I deserved to work in my pajamas, right? I cast about for a story template, something I could analyze (like an unknown East European leader) and emulate. I hit on my favorite kind of reading: The murder mystery.

I’d been devouring detective stories since I was a kid. I’d been watching them on PBS. I was inspired by authors like P.D. James and Elizabeth George (and later Deborah Crombie) who advanced the puzzle plot into a complex study of the psychological development of characters. I was also impressed by the strong sense of place and social order that certain localities, particularly British-based mysteries, gave to the world these authors created. I began to think seriously about setting interesting people in a distinct landscape and burdening them with violent conflicts that absolutely could not be ignored.

I chose Nantucket Island to live on, for the next nine months or so that my writing project required. Why Nantucket? I had first seen the island at the age of four and had loved the place forever, it seemed. I had spent my seventeenth summer as a nanny exploring the terrain with a three-year-old on the back of my rented bicycle. But I got there from DC all-too-rarely, now. If you have to inhabit a place in your mind on a daily basis and torture its inhabitants, it had better be a place you passionately miss. 

It seemed to me then, and still does today, that small New England villages offer delights similar to those of Agatha Christie’s St. Mary Mead. I would go further and argue that they have the same sterling qualities peculiar to Jane Austen’s universe of “two or three families in a country village.” Intimate observation of character, penetration of motive, and familiarity with ordered traditions—as well as the ways they can be violated—are the gifts of the amateur detective. They work for Emma Woodhouse in Austen’s eponymous novel as well as for Miss Marple in Nemesis.

In my case, however, I chose to make my protagonist a professional: the first female police detective on the Nantucket force, an institution run by her father and grandfather before her. Merry Folger is descended from one of the four founding families of the island, a lineage that dates back to the early 18th century. She knows Nantucket on an instinctual level, but her island is no longer an isolated, windswept and foggy world teetering on the edge of the Continental Shelf. It’s a tourist destination half the year, slowly overwhelmed by the rarified economics of outrageously wealthy Summer People who invade in jets every three seconds during the peak months of July and August. The potential for violent strains in a small community is amplified by the cultural divide between islanders and off-islanders, natives and Summer People. I’m particularly obsessed with the Nantucketers who sustain the island’s police, firemen, schools and basic services—but can barely afford to live there. They feel displaced and usurped and yet vital to a community that is their birthright; and those emotions often express themselves in violence. 

I managed to finish my Spousal Exercise. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. I gave it tentatively to a few people to read. One of them was my mother-in-law, a newspaper editor with an acquaintance who was a literary agent. Without informing me, she sent it to him—and a few months later, I had a two-book deal.

I quit my job and moved to Colorado.

I eventually wrote four novels in the Merry Folger Nantucket mystery series during the 1990s, before exploring other themes that intrigued me, in standalone espionage and the long-running Jane Austen mysteries I write under the pen name of Stephanie Barron. The Nantucket years were golden. They coincided with the childhoods of my two sons, whom I carried off for summer weeks among the dune grass and the wind. I would spend hours researching such things as fishing fleets and heroin addiction and climate-based beach erosion and the dying scallop industry and the impact of lawn fertilizer on the algae bloom in the Harbor—or occasionally, how FBI forensic psychologists approach serial killers. But in between, I’d buy fresh harpooned swordfish and cook it on the charcoal grill for my sunburned boys while they played baseball in the yard with their dad. It was perfect.

A year or two ago, Soho Crime asked me to consider republishing the entire series, which had gone out of print, and write a new novel in Merry Folger’s life. The books had never been digitized for eBook download, and this was a perfect opportunity. I agreed to the idea, on one condition: That I be allowed to bridge the twenty-year gap that now existed between Merry’s original outings and the current Nantucket reality. That meant I would have to reread and revise the first four novels I’d ever written...twenty-seven novels later.
Friends and relations, there is no more hideous assignment on earth.

Sitting down with that Spousal Experiment for the first time in two decades convinced me it should never have seen the light of day, much less a literary agent or publisher. On the one hand, it was comforting to recognize that I’d learned something in all the years I’d been writing. On the other, it was embarrassing to think that I’d put my name on this thing in the first place. And a blessed relief to be able to edit it again before it was offered to current readers.

I decided to bring the action forward from the 1990s—nobody’s favorite decade—to an achronological present. That way, the new fifth novel—DEATH ON NANTUCKET, due out in hardcover from Soho June 6th—moves seamlessly from the previous book, DEATH IN A COLD HARD LIGHT. Moreover, all kinds of tech advances in the intervening years have transformed police work. Consider that there was no DNA analysis when Merry debuted, much less cell phones or electronic crime databases, and you begin to get the idea.

My favorite thing?
New covers.

The reissued Nantucket books are gorgeous trade paperbacks instead of mass market editions, graced with the images of Cary Hazelgrove, a longtime Nantucket photographer whose work I’ve collected over the years. They offer moody, atmospheric visuals that perfectly capture the whole world I wanted to describe in print, all those years ago.

My husband and I went back to Nantucket last May to research DEATH IN NANTUCKET. In mid-May, the Summer People have not yet arrived. Most of the restaurants aren’t even open. You can easily find a parking space on Main Street. Painters are scaling ladders to brighten the clapboard fronts of the gray-shingled buildings and landscapers are sticking hydrangeas in the ground. We drove an open jeep all over the island, revisiting the places we’d loved with our boys: the turtle-fishing pond in Madaket near the Town Dump; the hedge-lined houses we’d rented on Eagle Lane and Carew Street; the ice cream place in Sconset. For a few days, it was our island again.

In my heart, and Merry Folger’s, it always will be. 

DEBS: Readers who aren't familiar with the Merry Folger books, you are in for such a treat. 

AND we have an extra-special gift for today's commenters--Francine is giving away two complete sets of the five Merry Folger books!!!!

So tell us in the comments if you would like to get to know Merry, and tell us your island of choice for a dream getaway!

Meanwhile, I am dreaming of Nantucket...

Here's more about DEATH IN NANTUCKET.

"Mathews takes readers on a holiday tour with an ocean view, complete with a murder mystery as twisted as the emotions that family can evoke."
   —Publishers Weekly

Spencer Murphy is a national treasure. A famous correspondent during the Vietnam War who escaped captivity in Southeast Asia, he made a fortune off of his books and television appearances. But Spence is growing forgetful with age; he's started to wander and even fails to come home one night. When a body is discovered at Step Above, the sprawling Murphy house near Steps Beach, Nantucket police detective Meredith Folger is called in to investigate.
The timing couldn't be worse: It's the Fourth of July, Merry's planning her wedding to cranberry farmer Peter Mason, and her new police chief is gunning for her job. Merry is inclined to call the death at Step Above a tragic accident . . . until another member of the Murphy clan comes to a brutal end. As Merry grapples with a family of unreliable storytellers—some incapable of recalling the past, and others determined that it never be known—she suspects that the truth may be forever out of reach, trapped in the failing brain of a man whose whole life may be a lie.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Stopping Point

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Whether or not we are writers, all of us who participate in this blog are first and foremost READERS. And we all have our little quirks about how we read and when we read, but here's a question I've been thinking about lately. When you are close to the end of a book--especially a really good book--at what point do you either have to put the book down or FINISH IT.

This is a little harder to judge if you're reading on a device, but for me, with a paper book, it's usually about 50 pages from the end. There are two factors here. One, if I keep going I know I'll read all way to the end and then I won't be able to get up on time in the morning. And, two, I know if I do manage to read just a little bit more and then have to stop, it will spoil the exquisite pleasure of the resolution.

Is this silly? Or maybe a wee bit obsessive/compulsive???

And of course this isn't counting the nights when I fall asleep reading, and hubby has to take off my glasses and put the book on the night stand. The dozing off thing is very annoying--it means that the next day I have to page back through the book until I find the last thing I remember.

REDS, what about you? Where do you have to stop? And is there anyone who can put a book down five or ten pages from the end?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Nope, nope, absolutely not. Once I get close, I want the whole experience. Sometimes if it's too late, I'll start reading something else instead, because I know if I stay up I'll be sorry in the morning. Also--I always think it's not fair to the author to rush through just to see what happens--which is what I wind up doing.  I ALWAYS see Jonathan asleep with a book on his chest. Is that a compliment to the author--or not?  

LUCY BURDETTE: no, I save it for the next day, even though that almost kills me. I want to savor, and I know I don't remember the last thing I read late (for me!) By the way, I finished a good one last night called Celine, which I am sure a couple of you recommended last week. There I was, in bed, with nothing left to read and not quite ready to turn out the light. So I started something new, a book I had given to our daughter for Christmas called The Mothers by Brit Bennett. What an amazing voice! Now I am excited for bedtime tonight!

HALLIE EPHRON: The Mothers is on my bedside table as we speak, but I haven't started it yet. My daughter loaned it to me -- she raved about it, too.

I cannot read in bed (I fall asleep) and I often stop with 20 or fewer pages left. Especially if it's a really good book and I want it to last.

JENN McKINLAY: I read in bed and I read all the way through. Yes, I know I'll regret it, but I do it anyway. If I don't, I'll just stay awake wondering what's going to happen so it's best if I just keep going. I do wake up with books on my chest, and it cracks me up when I have to go back ten or more pages to figure out where I clonked out. Sleep-reading, it's a thing.

INGRID THOFT: I can put a book down with as few as twenty pages left, and I definitely stop reading if I don't think I'll be able to finish it before I doze off.  Like Debs, I want to savor (and remember!) the ending, which is more likely to happen the next day.  My hubby and I also debate the fact that even if I'm loving a book, if I get sleepy, I can't possibly keep reading.  He, however, is able to stay up and finish.  He says the books I'm reading aren't interesting enough, but I beg to differ!  I think this is more a commentary on me and my brain than on the book I'm reading!

RHYS BOWEN: I find very few books these days that I simply can't put down. I suppose I'm more picky than I used to be. I get letters from fans accusing me of making them stay up all night to finish one of my books. I don't think I've ever done that, but I have stayed up well past my bedtime. I think the last one was Kate Morton's The Lake House. Usually if I have a book I'm really enjoying I look forward to going back to it, like having a secret stash of dark chocolate and taking nibbles when I have a moment. And there have been a few books I didn't want to end.... ever!  I'm off to England next week and have a fully loaded Kindle which, fortunately, I'll be able to take on the plane with me. Huge sigh of relief.

DEBS: There is nothing I love more than staying up into the wee hours to finish a really gripping book, and I have to admit I'll indulge myself when I'm in England on my own, with no fixed daily schedule. Otherwise, sigh, I have to put the book down at a reasonable hour or I'll regret it. The dogs aren't inclined to take "I stayed up too late" as an excuse in the morning!

READERS, what's your stopping point?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Karin Salvalaggio--Waiting for Buses

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Where do writers get their ideas? 

This is the questions readers most often ask (and I am endlessly fascinated by the answers, because they are always different.) 

The second is, "How exactly do you get those ideas?" (Meaning is there some magical process by which those ideas are delivered.) 

Well, my friend Karin Salvalaggio (and her friends) are here to tell exactly how those ideas come about.  And Karin should know--here's what the Richmond Times-Dispatch has to say about her fourth Macy Greely novel, SILENT RAIN:  
"Salvalaggio, whose trademarks include intricate plotting and stark but affecting prose, scores another triumph."—Richmond Times-Dispatch

SILENT RAIN has been all the buzz on the crime writing scene the last few weeks, and with good reason. It's fabulous!

Karin, I might add, is my polar opposite. I live in Texas and write books set in London. Karin lives in London and writes books set in Montana. But we both have to come up with a method for getting those words down on paper. (She is also my best London research pub crawl pal, and, yes, there is such a thing.) Here's Karin to reveal her secrets!

KARIN SALVALAGGIO:  'Eighty percent of success is showing up’. – Woody Allen

Most people seem impressed when I tell them I’m a published author. I’ve noticed that the words ‘crime novelist’ are an added bonus, but more on that later. It’s rather nice that our profession is still held in such high regard. I therefore believe it’s important to maintain a bit of mystique. When asked where the motivation to continue writing comes from I nod sagely and say silly things like: The ideas come and the next thing I know I’m swept away’ or ‘There is a bit of a struggle until I find that all-important tipping point. After that the book almost writes itself’.

All of this is, of course, a load of bollocks. There is nothing mystical about motivation. Much is down to establishing good habits and setting realistic goals, but sometimes even that fails to get the engine turning over. A writer’s life isn’t glamorous and mornings can be cold. Most days I’m home alone in my dressing gown clutching a bowl of muesli as I sit in front of a laptop. I subscribe to the notion that ideas are like buses––you wait for hours and then three show up at once. You’re not going to get very far if you’re not there to catch them. But it’s not always easy to find the motivation to stay ‘seated’ when your deadline is months away and sunshine is pouring through your office window. Cue the sound of the neighbors having a cheeky early afternoon glass of wine. It’s all I can do not to leap out the window.

Thankfully, there are many ways to jump start the process. I belong to group of writers on Facebook. We occasionally have ‘word races’. Participants publish their word counts at the end of the session. I’m highly competitive so will crank out in excess of 2000 words an hour if focused. Not all of it will be usable. In fact some of it will go straight to the bin, but remember what I said about ideas being like buses. There’s something I forgot to mention. You not only need to be sitting in that seat to catch them you also need a lot of buses.

I asked some of my author friends what they did when they were struggling with motivation.

Claire Fuller admits to having a big problem with motivation, especially with first drafts, whether that's novels or articles. She often has to trick herself – ‘Claire, you only have to read the paragraph you wrote yesterday’. Hopefully reading it will make her start writing. Or she resorts to bribery: ‘when I've written 500 words I'm allowed to stop and have lunch’. Claire’s debut Swimming Lessons is published by Tin House in the US.

Dinah Jefferies experienced a devastating lack of motivation as she wrote her fifth book. ‘It was truly uncomfortable and lasted three months, during which time I sat at my desk and continued to write my first draft. Once it was down, I then had something to play with. Since then the edits are proving really rewarding and I'm glad I stuck with it’. Dinah’s earlier book, The Tea Planter's Wife is published in the US by Crown.

Considering her legendry output it would be wise to listen to Louise Beech’s heartfelt advice. ‘I motivate myself with chocolate digestives. Fantastic for my words - fatal for my figure’. Louise’s second novel is entitled The Mountain in my Shoe.

Kerry Hadley sets aside 90 minutes and just writes. ‘That's it. No phone, no FB, no talking or daydreaming, just door-closed-leave-me-alone-I'm-writing-time ... I don't word count - that's not important. If I fancy doing more, I do, if not, I don't. Apparently, according to Oprah, it takes 7 days to form a habit like this (and 30 days to overcome an addiction.) I've found this to be a much more satisfying way of producing something than, say, a daily word count, or sitting in blank hope for the day.’ Kerry’s novel The Black Country is published by Salt Publishing.

Author Rachael Lucas finds it almost impossible to write without a deadline, so she asks her agent to give her one ("I want four chapters by next month"). ‘First drafts are the worst thing for me. Once I have something to play with, I'm much better.’ (The State of Grace will be published by Feiwel and Friends in the USA in 2018)

Vanessa Lafaye finds editing much easier than writing, so she tricks herself into getting started by thinking that she’ll just read the last thing she wrote. ‘Usually that works, but not always. I like to read the book reviews in The Sunday Times. The reviewers' comments always spur me on, hoping I won't make the same mistakes they criticise in others' work - I'll make different ones!’ Vanessa’s debut At First Light was published by Orion in 2015.

Christine Breen also finds editing much easier. She thinks her training as a copy editor is a double-edged sword. ‘When I'm stumped I turn to some of my favourite women writers like Elizabeth Strout, Alice McDermott, Ann Patchett, Deborah Levy and Anne Tyler and reread passages to jump-start the stalled engine.’ Her Name is Rose was published by St Martin's Press.

Author Kerry Fisher tells herself that it's like having a huge piece of homework hanging over her and that she’ll feel so much happier when she’s done it. She also has a minimum word count of 1000 words a day and forces herself to do them. ‘Sometimes I'll be there on a Friday night at 7pm with the wine waiting downstairs, thinking '73 more words'...I write the expected weekly word count on my calendar, allowing a few days off here and there for impromptu family crises. If I fall behind, I make myself work weekends to catch up. The one thing I cannot face is a deadline panic (teens leaving revision till the last minute puts the family under enough stress without me joining in.)’ Kerry’s novel The Silent Wife is published by Bookouture.

DEBS: I'm so happy to see that I'm not the only one who struggles with that daily word count. I love the Woody Allen quote, and I LOVE the buses. "Waiting for the bus" is my new mantra.

And all very useful advice from Karin's writer friends, although my favorite bit is definitely the chocolate digestives... (Brit-speak for chocolate-covered-sort-of-graham-crackerish cookies. There really is no American equivalent. But they are delicious, and perfect with tea, and very inspiring.)

Here's more about SILENT RAIN--

Grace Adams has spent three years trying to move on—mentally, physically, emotionally—from the traumatizing events of her past. But it’s not easy when the world is morbidly curious about the crimes that shaped her childhood, when despite her changed name, people still track her down for the sensational details. Now in college in Bolton, Montana, the one person Grace has trusted with the truth about her past has betrayed her. The bestselling novelist Peter Granger wants to use Grace’s story in his next book, regardless of how desperate Grace is to keep the details to herself. And then, on Halloween night, Peter Granger’s house burns to the ground and his and his wife’s bodies are found inside.

Montana state detective Macy Greeley is sent to Bolton to handle the investigation into the fire and deaths…which soon appear to be arson and murder. It doesn’t take Macy long to realize that Grace isn’t the only one whom Peter Granger has betrayed, and there are no shortage of others in town who took issue with him and his wife. What at first looked like a straightforward investigation is poised to expose some of Bolton’s darkest secrets, and the fallout may put more than one life in danger.

KARIN SALVALAGGIO received an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck at the University of London. Born in West Virginia and raised in an Air Force family, she grew up on a number of military bases around the United States. She now lives in London with her two children. Silent Rain is her fourth novel.

REDS and readers, what do you do to get motivated?