Thursday, May 23, 2019

Just Call Me "Talks With Strangers"

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: So I was listening to an NPR show about happiness. I should preface this by saying that at this point in my life, I get 90% of what I know of the outside world from NPR (the other 10% comes from Twitter.) I listen to everything: TED Radio Hour, This American Life, All Things Considered, The Commonwealth Club, Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me - you get the idea.

At any rate, the host was interviewing one of these happiness researchers, who found, for the 100th time, that people in Scandinavian countries are the happiest in the world, despite the hellscape of socialism and the fact they are shrouded in eldritch darkness six months of the year. One of the important factors in happiness, the researcher said, was good social interactions. "People who live alone are more likely to suffer from depression," he said.

"Uh oh," I said to the cat. "I live alone." (Apparently cats don't count as "robust social support." Which I can see, because my cat is a more a combination panhandler/demanding massage client - the wholesome kind of massage, not the Robert Kraft sort - than a Friend In Need.) My kids have all expressed concerns about the quality of my life since they've moved out. Youngest keeps threatening assuring me she'll be back lots and lots of times during the school year.

The researcher then went on to say the research had changed some of his habits. "Now I chat with people on the elevator instead of staring at the fire escape instructions," he said. "It improves your mental health."

Okay, excellent. I'm good. Why? Because I talk in the elevator. I chat with the Uber driver. I ask questions of the cook making omelettes to order at the Hilton. I interact with little kids in the grocery store. 

I am that woman.

Being that woman is a combination of nature and nurture. As anyone who has ever met me has already figured out, I'm extroverted by nature. Not that socializing can't wear on me - like many of you, I limp back to my hotel room after a day at Bouchercon and require a full nine hours of sleep to function again the next day. But I like people. I enjoy talking and finding out what they have to say.

On top of that, I was raised by a woman who thought conversation was the highest art form. My mother's maxim was, "You have to sing for your supper," -  if you were at table, you had better contribute to the dialog. Youngest told me about a documentary she had seen about Consuelo Vanderbilt, who became the Duchess of Marlborough. Evidently, young Consuelo's nanny would stroll her around the garden, and at each bush, the girl was made to converse for a period of time. With the bush. And a different topic for every stop. My mother never marched me around to talk with shrubbery, but the end result was the same, I can - and will! - find something about which to converse with anyone, anywhere.

Over the years, my children have been alternately horrified, embarrassed, impatient and amused by my predilection for passing the time of day with store clerks, auto mechanics, and their friends. There were several years when I was entreated to never say anything to my kids' peers other than, "Hello," and "Would you like [name of food dish]?" Ironically, they now encourage their friends, especially those whose own mothers are far away, to talk with me. This is, I suspect, because a vital part of being a good conversationalist is being a good listener.

As I've gotten older, I talk more, rather than less, with strangers. When I was a younger woman, I had the usual concerns about safety, and more to the point, I didn't want anyone thinking me weird or pushy. Now I'm a silver-haired lady in her fifties, I don't give two snaps of my fingers if someone decides I'm odd or too outspoken. Resembling Everybody's Mother gives a woman a great deal of leeway in her actions.

I will continue, therefore, to happily interact with the people fate puts in my way while running errands or traveling (unless I'm in the Amtrak quiet car. No speaking on the train!) It's good for my mental health. And if you're ever trapped with me yammering away at you, please remember, it's nothing personal - it's you or inviting my children to come back and live with me again.

How about you, dear readers? Are you Chatty Cathy? Or Bashful Bill?

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Heard Through Hotel Room Walls!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: How fabulous is sleeping? That moment, you know, when you slide between the sheets, and the thread count is lovely, and the pillow are puffy, and you cuddle down and sink in and..then—ah. Oh. No.

Whatever. Interrupts you. Someone left the light on. A fly is buzzing. There’s a TV on someplace. Your phone is glowing blue, or pinging about something that you don’t know what is. Everything is magnified into infinity.

Our darling brilliant Agatha nominee (yay!) Annette Dashofy has had her coziness interrupted by—well, let her tell it. But, because she is brilliant and thoughtful and always thinking about her next book—she put the sleep invasion to good use.

Hotel Rooms And Overheard Plots

I travel enough that I can usually sleep well in hotel rooms, but not enough to have contingencies for when I can’t. There are times when I’d give my kingdom for some noise-cancelling headphones. On the other hand, if I owned a set of those, the opening chapter of Fair Game would be very different.

A couple of years ago, I was attending a mystery or writing convention (I can’t remember which one or where it was…or which hotel). As is always the case, I retreated to my room that night, exhausted beyond words. All I wanted was a solid eight hours to recharge.

Okay, who am I kidding. I’d be happy with six hours. Seven would be heaven.

I fell into my lush, comfortable bed, closed my eyes, began to drift into oblivion…

Which was when the party started next door.

Lots of shouting and laughter. A man. And it sounded like perhaps more than one woman. Hmm.

To be fair, even when they weren’t being loud, I could still hear them. I didn’t want to hear them. I wanted to sleep. But I’m a writer and consider overheard conversations a gift from the idea gods. I was wide awake and mining (eavesdropping) for tidbits. Alas, there were none.

At least nothing I could use in my genre.

I considered pounding on the wall and yelling, “I can hear every word you’re saying!” But then another thought struck me.

If I could hear everything they were saying, they could hear everything my fellow mystery author roommate and I had been saying.

Now, I really couldn’t sleep. As writers of crime fiction, we tend to have some…odd discussions. “Well, it might be better if we killed him off by (fill in the blank).” “Or I could dump the body (again, fill in the blank).”

Were those footsteps in the hall the police coming to arrest us?

Thankfully not. But I had more than a mere tidbit of conversation to use in a book. I had a premise for an entire story thread. What if a traveler stays in a motel with paper-thin walls and overhears his neighbor planning to commit murder? Does he report it? The homicidal neighbor might be drunk and blowing off steam. Or he might be a mystery writer discussing his next story.

Or he could be a killer, and reporting him might just save a life.

In the opening chapter of Fair Game, a conflicted traveler has this exact conundrum. The problem is when he got up in the morning, the guy in the room next door had already checked out. Our traveler debates whether to say anything or not…until he passes the Vance Township Police Station and takes it as a sign. He stops and tells Chief Pete Adams, who then must decide how much weight to give such a report. No murder has occurred. No one in his jurisdiction has gone missing. It’s probably nothing.

Until, on a whim, he stops at the motel to get the murderous guest’s name and license number. Both of which turn out to be fake…

So Reds and readers, have you ever overheard any “interesting” conversations through a hotel room wall? And what would you do if you overheard your neighbor say, “I’m going to kill him!”

HANK: That would be a very difficult decision! Whoa. And I’m not sure what I would do. Yeah, I might call. Certainly I would call if I heard “I’m going to kill you!” Definitely.

 The last hotel disaster I had was when every time I took a shower, it set off the smoke alarm.  Truly. It went through my mind, the first time—well, I’m in the shower, I’ll be wet and so, fine. Brilliant. 

I’ve heard loud partiers, that’s for sure. But nothing sinister. 
So how about you reads and readers? Any hotel “insights”? 


Paramedic Zoe Chambers hoped a week at the Monongahela County Fair, showing her horse and manning the ambulance, would provide a much-needed diversion from recent events that continue to haunt her. An old friend, a bossy nemesis, and a teenage crush from her 4-H days fail to offer the distraction she had in mind. But ever the caregiver, she soon bonds with a troubled teen and a grieving father.

Back in Vance Township, a missing woman turns up dead, leading Police Chief Pete Adams into a journey through her mysterious final hours. With each new clue, the tragic circumstances of her death grow increasingly muddied.

A cryptic phone call leads Pete to join Zoe for an evening at the fairgrounds where the annual school bus demolition derby concludes with a gruesome discovery and a new case that may or may not be connected to the first. Pete’s quest for the motive behind two homicides—and Zoe’s stubborn determination to reunite a family—thrust them both onto a collision course with a violent and desperate felon.

Annette Dashofy is the USA Today best-selling author of the Zoe Chambers mystery series about a paramedic and deputy coroner in rural Pennsylvania’s tight-knit Vance Township. A lifelong resident of Washington County (PA), Annette has garnered four Agatha Award nominations including Best Contemporary Novel of 2018 for CRY WOLF. She’s a member of International Thriller Writers, the Pittsburgh Chapter of Sisters in Crime, and is on the board of directors of Pennwriters. FAIR GAME (May 2019) is the eighth in her series.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

And, For the Grand Finale...

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Close to 20 million people watched the finale of Game of Thrones and at least that many more who followed along casually had heard every detail of the conclusion to the eight-year saga by breakfast on Monday. Indeed, it was hard to avoid as people rioted in the streets took to Twitter and Facebook to express their amazement, agreement dismay or disgust. I don't want to rehash the many arguments about whether the ending was fitting or not (it wasn't; Sansa + Tyrion should have jointly ruled the kingdoms, Jon Snow should have been King in the North and Brienne and Tormund should have ridden off to adventures together) but it did put me in mind of some of the memorable series conclusions I've seen over the years, and how satisfying - or jaw gaping - they were.

First off, I have to acknowledge there are many, many TV series that never got a finale on the small screen because they were prematurely, unjustly yanked. (The other two of you in the US who watched Flash Forward will know what I'm talking about. Back in the sixties and seventies, even shows that knew they were ending  rarely capped the series - production companies had their eyes on valuable syndication rights, and didn't want to lose future audiences who, it was thought, wouldn't tune in if they knew how everything ended. (A similar theory still circulates in the publishing world: editors will tell you not to kill the main series characters off at the end for fear later readers won't start reading the beginning.

But starting in the eighties and increasing exponentially in the nineties, companies began tying a bow on their popular TV shows. Part of it was economic, as always - even flagging shows could pull a startling number of eyeballs for a last hurrah. For some series, everything was pulled together in a bittersweet and satisfying way that left you with a glow of contentment. For others, viewers found themselves saying, "What the @#$%did I just see?" after the closing credits.  Let's look at a few I remember:

1. M*A*S*H: After a run three and a half times longer than the actual Korean War, the doctors and staff of the MASH unit were discharged. Everyone who had ever been on the show appeared (at least in a photograph) and I sobbed my way through the entire second hour, not so much because I was going to miss Alan Alda, but because I used to watch it with my Mom and Grandma at Grandma's house and I was seeing the finale in my slightly crummy student apartment and I was never going to be a little kid perched on Grandma's enormous divan again.

You may have experienced this finale differently.

2. Mad Men: This was definitely a "What the heck?" ending. Don discovers EST? Did Don write the famous Coke song? The acme of Sally Draper's character arc is that she's cooking and cleaning and taking care of her younger brothers? (that really cheesed me off.) On the other hand, I really love the Coke song because it reminds me of my tween years, so overall, I gave this a thumbs up.

I promise not every episode will be viewed through the lens of how it made me feel about my childhood.

3. Quantum Leap. I sobbed at this one, too. After all his humane, wise, helpful adventures, Sam doesn't get to go home? He never goes home?!? But Dean Stockwell is still alive, thank God, so there's still a chance of a follow-up movie. We should start a write-in campaign. I hear Netflix is looking for projects.

Fun fact: I'm pretty sure my son was conceived the night this episode aired. Seeking comfort in adversity and all that. 

4. Newhart: The best absurdist ending ever pulled off in theater, TV or the cinema. After eight years of wacky adventures in a Vermont Inn (oh, how I loved Larry, Daryl and Daryl!) in the show's finale, Bob wakes up... in his New York apartment, sleeping next to his wife, Suzanne Pleshette. Bob's deadpan confusion, Suzanne's tolerant "All right, Bob," and the audience's enormous affection for The Bob Newhart Show makes this a slam-dunk.

5. St. Elsewhere: It's not an easy trick to pull, however, as shown in the baffling discovery that six years of drama, black humor and angst at the run-down Boston hospital actually all took place in the mind of an autistic kid holding a snow globe. Author John Scalzi has an excellent observation that the failure mode of clever is "asshole": this finale is living proof. It's a good thing this happened before the age of the internet, or the writers would have been hounded off social media for life.

6. The Sopranos: Love it or hate it, the ending of this ground-breaking crime show/family drama was singular and memorable, not so much for the way it completed hanging plot lines - it sort of did and sort of didn't -but for the last four minutes. Three of the four members of the Soprano family are sitting in a diner booth. The camera widens so we see a man walk into the restrooms. Two big guys approach the jukebox. The dialog is banal and the music is anything except suspenseful, but the tension is almost unbearable. The daughter, running late, crosses the road. We hear a ting as the diner door opens and...slam to black. 

The way writer/director David Chase set the scene is purely cinematic, but the ambiguous ending is very novelistic to me. A tricky choice that had lots of fans yelling, but it worked as art.

All right, dear readers, it's your turn. What are your favorite or infamous series finales?

Monday, May 20, 2019

"It's Not That Bad, Mom!" Our First Apartments

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Youngest just reached another milestone this past week when I move her out of her freshman dorm and into her first apartment. Admittedly, her residence will be short - she's subletting from a sorority sister until late June, when she heads off on another first - studying abroad in Kosovo. She's staying near campus to work full-time until her away program begins. She's also taking two courses - as our friend Marcia Talley would say, she's tearing up the pea patch!Anyway, the move put me in mind of my first apartment, on Ithaca's East Hill, just below Cornell. Below being the operative word, since East Hill is STEEP and travel from the Commons (the main downtown area) all the way up to the campus was pretty much like strolling up the Matterhorn. I had thighs like iron that year, from the many times I either missed the bus or had been bar-hopping downtown and stayed past the bus's operational hours. Yes, youth of today, there was a dark age when you couldn't just call Uber at 2am - you had to beg a ride from somebody with a car or walk a mile home. The plus side? Even if I had been imbibing like a college junior in an era when the drinking age was 18, I sweated 75% of it out on the hike home.

The apartment itself was perfectly nice, probably because my roommate, Karl Schoen-Rene, was post-undergrad and was actually working for money before going to grad school. (Yes, my life IS interlaced with other hyphenated last names!) We were strictly roommates - I got the place because Karl's brother and I were in the same acting program at Ithaca College - but it was still a hard sell to my parents, who figured proximity = propinquity. They relented when I pointed out Karl had a girlfriend, I had a boyfriend (two, actually, they didn't know about the other one) and, best of all, my roommate was working 9 to 5 and didn't hold wild parties or keep late hours. If they had "quiet hours" at the IC dorms back in the day, I certainly don't remember them, and I was looking forward to being able to study in peace.

It was the standard two bedrooms, living room/dining area and kitchen combo, all furnished in Late Mid-Century Student: family cast-offs, stuff rescued from the curbside, and Patrick Nagel posters. I took advantage of having my own place to immediately start hosting dinner parties - another personality trait that's followed me through the years. Unfortunately, I knew nothing about cooking, I could boil hot dogs -that was it.

The most memorable occasion in the apartment was the afternoon I made Bolognese sauce for the first time. My mom had given me the most simple recipe in the world - saute ground beef, diced onions and garlic together, drain, mix in canned sauce. Voila! I could, by then, also boil pasta, and my friends were bringing a jug of red wine that evening, so we were all set. I diced the onions, minced the garlic (that took forever) broke two pounds of ground beef into a nice, wide pan, and stirred until everything was brown and tender.

Then I drained the entire pan into the sink.

Reader, I didn't know any better. Yes, I must have seen my mother's "grease jar" more than once at home, but it never occurred to me that the liquid remains of two pounds of beef - and it was all 75% fat in those days, baby - couldn't go straight down the drain. And Karl, who DID know how to cook, was away for the weekend at his girlfriend's place.
So while my friends and I made merry at dinner, drinking and stuffing ourselves with spag bog (the sauce was quite tasty) a good two cups of grease was hardening into an impenetrable plug. I was mystified when I tried to clean the dishes the next day and the water wouldn't drain. I can't recall if my error came out under close questioning from my roommate or in a frantic phone call to my mother, but I distinctly remember realizing I was Not As Smart As I Thought I Was. I also remember the plumber laughing quite a bit.

How about you, Reds? Any memorable stories from your first apartments?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Julia. this is so funny--I was just thinking about my first apartment this morning, for some reason. My freshman courses I did at community college, my sophomore year at Austin College (that's in Sherman, Texas, up near the Oklahoma state line) I commuted from home, an hour each way. That got really old, and I used to get really sleepy driving. But my parents, who were shelling out tuition for an expensive private college, were not about to pay room and board as well. 

At the beginning of my junior year, I found a garage apartment to rent in the historic part of town. It was behind a Queen Anne Victorian house that was lived in at that time by one of the philosophy professors--and, yes, he had some wild parties. The rent on my apartment was $75 a month!!!! Living room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and a screened porch. We furnished it with family castoffs and yard sale finds, and my parents and my aunt and my very artistic uncle came and painted and cleaned like crazy. It was adorable!!! 

And it was QUIET. I learned to cook without any memorable disasters, although phone calls were long distance in those days and I ran up quite a bill asking my mother how to do things.  There was a huge pink crepe myrtle in the back yard, with a hammock under it, and an enormous fig tree in the landlord's yard hung over my fence. It was there that I learned to love figs. And learned to love sitting on porches. And cooking, and gardens, and old houses. I wish I could say I had wild parties, but I had to study too hard!

LUCY BURDETTE: I know I had apartments before the one I had as a grad student in Knoxville TN, but it was memorable because of the cats. My roommate Sheila had one white cat, and I had two tortoiseshell sisters, Gabriel Lee and Spearman's Rho (taking statistics at the time.) They both escaped that year and came back pregnant. I ended up with nine kittens, plus the 3 grown cats. It was a nightmare! 

One night I remember hearing a lot of noise and went out to find most of the cats circling one of the kittens, growling. I broke it up, but the quarters were simply too crowded. Another time I came home late and slid into bed and noticed--sniff sniff--the sheets were wet and smelly. Sheila's white cat was over the situation and let me know by peeing in my bed. Anyway, I learned my lesson about spaying. AND SHEILA, so sorry for being a lousy roommate!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Love this! And I had Patrick Nagel posters, too. Hilarious. My first apartment was a house, on Illinois avenue in Indianapolis. I shared it with Sharon Butsch, who is a still a pal of mine, and we were SO happy. I remember I was working at the radio station, it was 1970, I guess, and this house was terrific. Driveway, garage. (I had a Chevette and i think Sharon had a...Pinto? I could be wrong. ) It had a front porch, and a living room, a full dining room and kitchen and bathroom on the first floor, and two bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor. It was kind of ... dark wood and stucco? Sharon is an artist, and painted everything gorgeously, with hard-edged green and yellow arrows pointing upstairs. Which seemed cool at the time. 

Artist interpretation of cool apartment with shag carpet
We also had hand-me-over furniture, one piece of which was a huge blue Eames armchair from my mom which I bet was valuable.
We had lots of parties, but kind of.. nerdy. We played charades all the time, and word games, one of which was called "It's not the New York Mets," which always ended up with  M & M fights,. Fun, but disastrous for the luxurious shag wall to wall carpet we had (ridiculously) installed ourselves.  WHITE SHAG CARPETING!  

Anyway--the rent was $100.00 a month. $50.00 each. We scraped and saved for everything, and would buy, like, a pound of hamburger and share it. We LOVED it.

JENN McKINLAY: Six girls in a three bedroom apartment on Farnham Road in New Haven with ONE bathroom. What were we thinking?!! Halfway through the school year three roommates bailed - probably to live in tents in the park where they'd have more privacy - and it became not so bad. The next year, my senior year at Southern, I rolled into a second floor apartment on the Boulevard. Two guys, two girls, four bedrooms - but still ONE bathroom!!! 

We rarely saw each other as we all had frantic schedules. I was working FT in a bar called Toad's Place, had an internship in NYC all day on Fridays, and was taking seven classes just to get out in four. Small wonder I arrived at graduation hungover and with half of my ginormous hairdo (it was '89) singed from an unfortunate lighter incident the night before. Yes, I accidentally lit my hair on fire. These things happen, mostly to me, apparently.

RHYS BOWEN: my first apartment was after college. I was in a ladies residential college, part of London University. But after graduation two friends and I looked for am apartment in London. They were expensive unless we moved way out to the burbs and we wanted to be central, so we found top floor of an old house in a crummy area near Paddington Station. Three rooms plus kitchen. The bathroom was down one and a half flights of stairs and shared by the whole house, including the three women who lived on the ground floor and we soon discovered made their living as prostitutes. So going down to the loo in the night was hazardous! You never knew who you'd bump into.
As soon as we had a little money we looked for something better and struck gold. An attorney on a Queen Anne Street, great part of the city behind Oxford Circus decided they might as well let out their top two floors. Rent really low, lovely Georgian house, and for me, working at the BBC, steps from my studio. The only drawback was no heat and only one bathroom. But we had three great years there. A few parties, the other girls getting used to strange actors or rock singers wandering in looking for me or sleeping on my couch.

HALLIE EPHRON: I got married right out of college, Jerry (my same Jerry!) and I spent 3 months (we were nuts) in Europe immediately after, and returned to move into a 1-bedroom apartment ($165/month, rent controlled) on West End Avenue on NY's Upper West Side. LOVED that apartment. But yes, we did plug a few drains with our cluelessness. Not grease, but cat littler. We kept our cats' litter box in the bathtub. And eventually, well, you know. Going to look for a picture of us, young and in situ...

JULIA: Now I'm wishing we had decided to discuss "most memorable hair styles" because damn, Jerry's sideburns are something else.

How about you, dear readers? Tell us about your first apartment adventures!

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Real Guac

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Now that it's getting to be patio weather, at least in some parts of our JRW world, it's time to think about summery foods. I know that we may be facing a shortage of avocados--and the price has definitely gone up--but I can still get a big bag at Costco for less than $6. The problem with the big bag is that they all tend to ripen at the same time. 

So what do you do? 

You make guacamole! It's fabulous. We can just eat it for a meal this time of year. Who cares about having anything else for lunch or dinner?

However, I have discovered that not everyone in non-Texas land knows how to make guacamole. And sometimes, even in Texas, people put weird things in it, so I am going to give you the low-down, absolutely classic, essential guac recipe.

Except that it's not very exact.

Use Haas avocados, the ones with the wrinkly black skins. They have the best texture and flavor.  A ripe avocado should just give a little bit under the pressure of your thumb. You don't want hard, and you definitely don't want mushy. If there are brown spots inside, throw it out. You might salvage some for avocado toast, but not in your guacamole!

Here we go!

Serves 4. Or maybe 2. Or maybe, if the cook is really greedy, 1.

2 to 3 avocados, depending on the size
Juice of at LEAST 2 limes, depending on size and juiciness
Half a red onion
Half or whole jalapeno, depending on size and your heat preference
Half a bunch of cilantro

Cut avocados in half and save the seeds. Peel and put flesh (that sounds weird, but you know what I mean) in bowl. Dice onion very fine, almost to a mince. Remove seeds and ribs from jalapeno, mince. (I wear rubber gloves for this.) Chop cilantro--I like this really fine, too. Salt everything generously--fresh ground sea salt is best. (Remember that avocado is bland by itself.) Squeeze lime juice over everything, then mash all the ingredients with a fork until you don't have any big lumps and everything is well mixed. Taste, add more lime juice and salt as needed. The flavors should really pop. This is food magic!

Put the guacamole in your serving dish and nestle one or two seeds in the dip. They help keep it from turning instantly brown.


Serve with tortilla chips, or, my personal favorite, small savory rice crackers, because the chips tend to get really salty very quickly.

Or just eat your guacamole right out of the bowl, with a spoon.

And that's it. No tomato, no garlic, no extra flavoring.

If, by some remote chance, you have guac left over, put in an airtight storage container with the seeds. I press some plastic wrap tight against the surface, too, before sealing with a lid. You will still have a thin layer of discoloration the next day (avocado oxidizes very quickly,) but it's easily scooped off with a spoon. Enjoy again!

(I read recently that to prevent browning, you should cover your dip with a thin layer of water, then pour the water off before serving the guacamole again. I tried it. Did NOT work. Watery guac had to be thrown out. Ugh.)  

And how wonderful is it that avocados are GOOD FOR YOU!

If you twist my arm, I'll give you the recipe for an authentic, absolutely essential margarita to go with your guacamole...

REDS and lovely readers, do you like guacamole? Like Mexican food? Make guacamole? And do share any cooking hacks with us! 

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Making Lemonade from Lemons

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I posted several weeks ago about the tree disaster that befell us this winter. Our neighbors cut down the huge one-hundred-year-old elm tree that completely shaded our back yard and patio in the afternoons. As I practically live outside from early spring until fall, this was a devastating blow for me. This is Texas, after all, and the back of our house faces pretty much due west--or maybe slightly south of due west, which is even worse! 

Our patio went from a shady haven to flagstone hell! But there was nothing we could do--the tree was just on the neighbors' side of the property line.

After a few miserable weeks (it took them three weeks to get the tree down, AND they had to work out of our back yard to do it) I started trying to find an upside. 

Our roses on the back fence would get lots more sun. Our grass would probably do better. Our water bills would be less (we were the ones watering that huge root system for the last twenty years, after all.) And, um...still thinking.

All possibly good things, but none of them solved the issue of the deck and especially the patio being unusable from about one o'clock in the afternoon on. 

Then, one morning as I was taking a walk, I noticed a neighbor had a shade sail over their driveway. Hmm. I started to research. I consulted the practical hubby, who said it could be done, and we plunged in. We went for the red that picked up the color in our Japanese maples (which we hope survive. They are under story trees, not meant for full afternoon sun.)

And here we are, lots of hardware, rope, ladders, and a post later, besailed!

A sail over a small part of the deck, and a bigger one over a section of the patio. We had to put in a post at the back fence to hold the third point on the patio sail, but it shades at least a section of the patio until late afternoon. (The fence point on the sail is where the tree used to be.)

My little paradise may not be quite restored, but it's certainly improved, and the sails make me smile every time I look at them. I got to plant a few of my shade-loving pots, as well.

And the sunny parts of the deck are thriving.

I may still not be a happy camper when the temps hit the upper nineties, but I'm trying to make the best of things. We have a third sail that we think we may block a little more sun from our west-facing sun porch windows, but we haven't had a chance to put it up.

So, dear REDs and readers, how have you made the best of an unpleasant or distressing situation? It does force you to be creative.

(And thanks to Jasmine and Dax for the photo-bombing:-))

Friday, May 17, 2019

Marcia Talley's Family Vault

DEBORAH CROMBIE: It is always such a treat for me to host my dear friend Marcia Talley! And I  have to admit that I've read an advanced copy of her newest Hannah Ives novel, TANGLED ROOTS, and I LOVED it. 

I've always said that reading a Hannah novel is as much fun as sitting across the table with Marcia for a nice long visit, and I love learning what leads to the plots in Marcia's books. I well remember discussing this one when it was just a gleam in Marcia's eye!

Here's Marcia to fill you in!

MARCIA: Last year about this time, after I delivered Hannah’s sixteenth adventure, Mile High Murder, to my editor, and while I awaited her feedback, I began visiting my relatives … the dead ones, that is.

My sister, Debbie, started me off on what is turning out to be an addiction by entering our family details into and sharing editorial responsibility with me, the oldest of our siblings. Just like the ads on television, a leaf pops up, you click on the leaf, head off on an adventure of discovery to a new family fact, click on another leaf and so on and so on until four hours have flown by and your husband is wondering what on earth has happened to dinner.

Fortunately, there's already a lot we know.  We had a great-great uncle on our father’s side who was deep into genealogy and wrote a book about it. Then there’s our Mormon cousin who provided a family tree that takes our family back – I kid you not – to Ragnhild “Hilda” Hrolfsdatter, born in 1836 in Maer, Norway.

Most of the Duttons came over with the Winthrop Fleet in 1630, it appears . I confirmed family legend that I'm directly related to John Hart, a signer of the Declaration of Independence through his daughter, Susanna, and to John and Priscilla Alden of Mayflower fame. But we knew all that.

Fast-forward to the secrets?  Before he married my mother-in-law, my father-in-law had been married before. Who knew? And that first cousin once removed we know never married? Well, apparently he did, during WW2, in Iowa.

It’s the deaths that fascinate me.  Sometimes their tombstones tell the tale. In November 1910, baby Robert Culver, my second cousin once removed, lived only 6 hours. His mother, Helen, died a day later.

But, the real treasure trove are the death certificates you discover online. My second great grandmother Helen Drew lost four of her children, ages 15, 17, 20 and 25 in a single year during a typhoid epidemic. I. Can’t. Even. And two of these little angels only lived into their teens, drowning two years apart in separate accidents on Lake Michigan. 

My husband’s step-grandfather, drop–dead handsome James, was caught between train cars and decapitated. 

“Papa Hise,” another relative on his mother’s side, fetched the shotgun out of the attic, killed the family dog before the horrified eyes of his daughter, Odie Grace, then shot himself in the head. It took him two days to die. Then there was the Brelsford great uncle who went West to seek his fortune. When prospecting didn't pan out, he shot his car before turning the gun on himself. Better the car then the dog, I say.  

One relative was murdered at age 21. What's that all about, I wonder?  Another, a Rebel, died of smallpox in a Yankee prisoner of war camp.  My great grandmother, Marcia Jane Drew, for whom I was named, died at age 42 in Lowell Massachusetts during dental surgery, or so my grandfather firmly believed. And yet there’s her death certificate, staring me in the face: ovarian tumor. As a cancer survivor who confidently stated “there’s no history of cancer in my family” that would have been good to know.

About that time, I needed an idea for a novel, so I figured why look any further than my own family’s deeply tangled roots? My 3rd great grandmother, Sarah Drew, died of “suicide by hanging.” Really? At age 84? 

I definitely felt a novel coming on.

My deep research for Tangled Roots began with the obvious first step: I spit into a test tube and sent it off for DNA testing.  I spent the weeks before the results came in constructing my family tree on a popular genealogy website and soon, like Hannah, found myself sucked, head-first, down a rabbit hole.  Now, nearly a year later, I’ve reconnected with a long-lost cousin (Hello, Ellen!), discovered that a first cousin in fact wasn’t, learned that identical twins don’t just run in the family, they run rampant, and visited a cemetery not far from the King Arthur Flour Company in rural Vermont where generations of my family lie buried. Some of these genealogical adventures inevitably wove themselves into the fabric of Tangled Roots.

Hannah Ives’s sister, Georgina, has some astonishing news. A DNA test has revealed she is part Native American, and Hannah’s test has similar results. The link seems to come from their late mother. But how?

As Hannah dives into constructing her family tree, she uncovers a heart-breaking love story and a mysterious death, while DNA matching turns up two second cousins, Mai and Nicholas. Hannah and her niece, Julie, are eager to embrace their new relatives and learn about their surprising ancestry, but Georgina’s husband, Scott, isn’t so keen… Are more revelations about to come to light? And can Hannah untangle her family roots to uncover the truth behind a devastating tragedy?
Tangled Roots officially releases in the U.S. on July 1.  What to do in the meantime? I have to admit that genealogy is now a passion.  After building my own family tree, I’m helping friends research theirs.  When an elderly British friend told me she knew her mother had been married before, but she didn’t know anything about the man, not even his name, I immediately volunteered to help.  Several days later, I was able to give her a photograph of his tombstone in Flanders: over 4000 young British soldiers had died in combat on that same day in 1917.

If the contents of friend and family closets ever peter out, what with the popularity of Scandinavian Noir these days, maybe I’ll start writing under a family-inspired pseudonym – Hilda Hrolfsdatter has a nice ring to it, don’t you agree?  

You can learn more about Marcia Talley and her books by going to

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Marcia blogs with the Femmes Fatales at

DEBS: Marcia's family is certainly more interesting than mine--at least as far as I know! REDs and readers, what skeletons have you discovered in YOUR family closets?? 

DEBS PS: Marcia's book is available for pre-order from your favorite bookseller!