Friday, May 7, 2021

Sarah Stewart Taylor: A Long Island Girl on the Farm

 

LUCY BURDETTE: Recently a friend from early writer days, Sarah Stewart Taylor, has been posting amazing photos of lambing on her Vermont farm. But she's also writing wonderful books--a fascinating combination. I asked her to share that story here, along with news of her forthcoming book! Welcome Sarah, so glad to have you back...


SARAH STEWART TAYLOR: Recently, someone who’s known me since I was a child remarked that she found it amazing that I’d gone from a fairly typical suburban childhood on Long Island to being a sheep farmer in Vermont. I’d been telling her about lambing season at our place, the two or three weeks during which all of our pregnant ewes give birth. It’s a busy, sleepless time as I wake up every few hours during the night to check the barn and help deliver lambs if I need to. Our whole family has to pitch in and at the end of it, we are tired, the house is a mess (well, let’s be honest, the house is always a mess) . . . and there are lots of cute lambs running around. “It’s amazing,” the friend said. “It just seems so far from where you grew up.”

The truth is that my journey from suburban mall rat to rural dwelling sheep farmer was not as long or strange as it might seem. My father grew up in rural New Hampshire, on a sheep and dairy farm, and I have many relatives who make or who have made their lives farming. My mother grew up in Los Angeles but her father grew up on a small farm in rural Iowa. My parents were both teachers and we would rent out our house on Long Island and spend the whole summer vacation in my father’s New Hampshire hometown. I grew up visiting relatives’ farms and hearing lots of stories about farming and animals. As a child and adolescent, some of my favorite books were James Herriot’s tales about his life as a Yorkshire vet in the first half of the twentieth century. (If you haven’t watched the new BBC series based on the books, I highly recommend it!) 


When I met my husband, he was living on his family’s Vermont hobby farm. When he was younger they had overwintered and bred sheep and cows, but by the time I met him they were in the practice of buying a few lambs each spring to pasture over the summer. They had humanely-raised, locally-produced meat for the winter and didn’t have to go out to the barn on frigid winter mornings to break the ice or throw bales of hay to a shivering flock. After we married and moved to the farm and started having babies, we kept up this routine, raising a few lambs for meat each year and adding a flock of chickens to the mix. 

It was a good system. 

Then I decided to mess with it. 

I’d long been interested in breeding sheep, building up our flock for fiber as well as meat, and having new lambs born on the farm. But doing this would mean that we would keep sheep over the winter. As our three children got a little older, I finally felt like I had the bandwidth to learn about shepherding. My husband, who traveled frequently for work, reminded me that it would likely be me who would need to go out to the barn at 2 a.m. to intervene in a troubled birth or to brave below zero temperatures in January to care for the sheep. He had grown up doing that work. He knew what it was like. 

I was undeterred. 


That first year, we borrowed a ram from a neighbor and put him in with our two ewes, Caitlin and Mary. We had him for three weeks, to cover a full sheep reproductive cycle, but I think he earned his keep within the first two minutes. I waited anxiously for the lambs to come, watching Caitlin and Mary’s growing middles and trying to guess how many lambs were in there. They each had a set of twins and I quickly learned that if the births are uncomplicated, sheep can still throw you a curveball by rejecting one or both of their lambs. If the lamb doesn’t nurse from its mother within the first twenty four hours of life, the mother won’t recognize it as her own (through smell, a fascinating process to watch) and won’t feed it. Without human help, the lamb will die. That first year, perhaps because of my anxious helicopter shepherding, we ended up with two rejected lambs that had to be bottle fed. 


It was hard work, but I loved every second of my first lambing season: watching and being involved in the miracle of birth, seeing how the genetics played out, marveling at the exuberance of three-day-old lambs leaping and hopping in the spring sunshine. The next year, we had more lambs, including a hypothermic one who moved into the house with us and wore a diaper and a sweater. (Her name, chosen by a friend, is Ruth Baaahder Ginsburg and she’s now had two sets of twins of her own!) 

I’ve since become much better at knowing when to step in to put the lambs on their mother’s udders to establish that bond immediately; this year, we had seventeen lambs born and not a single one was rejected. 

Shepherds will tell you that sheep are really good at finding ways to die. We’ve been lucky for the most part, though we’ve had a few tragedies, mostly around lambing. This year I had to help deliver a gigantic single lamb stuck in the birth canal of one of our smaller ewes and also deliver a twin lamb that had one front leg back behind its shoulders. Mothers and babies are all doing well. 


I find farming both intensely physical and intensely intellectual. It’s also a great match with novel writing. When I need a break from the computer screen and the convoluted worlds of my characters, going outside to feed the sheep or to shovel actual manure (as opposed to the figurative stuff I shovel on the page!) helps my brain work in a different way and often gives me just the perspective I needed. It also keeps me from spending the day in my desk chair and makes me exercise my creativity in new ways. I don’t have a sheepdog, so how am I going to move these sheep, but not these ones, over to a new field? Or how am I going to set up the temporary fencing in the most efficient way? 

I’ve also loved becoming part of a community of shepherds here in New England and around the world. Shepherds are so generous with their time and knowledge and I’ve learned so much from the sheep people I know, many of them women. I’ve also loved connecting with sheep farmers in Ireland, where my series is set. I’ve made my main character Maggie’s love interest the son of Irish sheep farmers and I even snuck a lambing scene into my new novel, out in June. 


We have been steadily growing the size of our flock over the past five or six years and I think we’re now at a good size. We shear our sheep every spring before lambing and I’m learning about all the different ways to use the fiber. (Here’s a picture of a felted teddy bear my daughter made.) We also sell lambs to other farms and we reserve a few each year for meat. This is the hardest part of farming. Ironically, my family eats far less meat than we did before we raised our own and we now only buy from other small, local farms that meet our very high standards for both treatment of animals and farming practices that take care of the earth. 


We raise chickens for meat and eggs as well and I have come to appreciate my laying hens and even my extremely annoying but magnificent rooster. Fresh eggs are a beautiful thing and I love when our customers remark on the bright orange color of the yolks and how they never knew eggs were supposed to look and taste like that. 

I’m not sure where our farm is going. Pigs might be next. My kids are in their prime years of being both big and strong enough to be helpful and not yet out of the house. Once they’ve all flown the nest my husband and I will have to figure out how much we can – and want to – handle on our own. But this Long Island girl is hooked on farming and I hope that we’ll always have lambs in the spring. 

LUCY: See, what did I tell you? I knew her story would be amazing! Comments and questions anyone?



SARAH STEWART TAYLOR is the author of the Sweeney St. George series and the Maggie D'arcy series. The Mountains Wild was one of Library Journal, Aunt Agatha’s and the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s best of 2020 mystery picks and has been nominated for the Dashiell Hammett Prize. A Distant Grave, the second Maggie D’arcy mystery, will be published in June, 2021. Taylor grew up on Long Island in New York and was educated at Middlebury College in Vermont and Trinity College in Dublin. She lived in Dublin, Ireland in the mid-90s and she now lives with her family on a farm in Vermont where they raise sheep and grow blueberries. You can find her online at www.SarahStewartTaylor.com


In the follow up to the critically acclaimed The Mountains Wild, Detective Maggie D'arcy tackles another intricate case that bridges Long Island and Ireland in A Distant Grave.

Long Island homicide detective Maggie D'arcy and her teenage daughter, Lilly, are still recovering from the events of last fall when a strange new case demands Maggie's attention. The body of an unidentified Irish national turns up in a wealthy Long Island beach community and with little to go on but the scars on his back, Maggie once again teams up with Garda detectives in Ireland to find out who the man was and what he was doing on Long Island. The strands of the mystery take Maggie to a quiet village in rural County Clare that's full of secrets and introduce her to the world of humanitarian aid workers half a world away. And as she gets closer to the truth about the murder, what she learns leads her back to her home turf and into range of a dangerous and determined killer who will do anything to keep the victim's story hidden forever.

With the lyrical prose, deeply drawn characters, and atmospheric setting that put The Mountains Wild on multiple best of the year lists, Sarah Stewart Taylor delivers another gripping mystery novel about family, survival, and the meaning of home.




Thursday, May 6, 2021

Why I Love Readers @LucyBurdette



LUCY BURDETTE: I always hold my breath a bit when correspondence from a fan hits my inbox. Will they want the world (including me) to know they hated the book from start to finish, the set-up was preposterous and the character plain stupid, or that an author should never insert her own opinions about ____, just write the damn book? Really, this kind of thing does happen, but luckily not too often. It certainly prevents a writer from suffering of too much head-swelling.


Note from Aunt Flo

When I had my first books published in the early 2000’s, email was only just taking hold. So if someone wanted to write an author, it was longhand, sent through the post office. I still have a few of those I treasure, including this one from an older woman who worried about how much my first character Cassie drank, and how this might affect her golf career aspirations. 


Last summer, one of my readers pointed out how distressing it was to read this sentence in The Key Lime Crime: “But on the other hand, I felt a heavy weight lifting, as though someone had been holding a boot to my neck and I could breathe again.” 


She’d been so upset that she’d had to put the book aside for a while. Of course I’d written that well before George Floyd died and I was as horrified as she to see those words on paper. It was too late to change for the hardcover—already printed. But I was able to remove it for the paperback edition that will be out in July, and I’m grateful to her for pointing it out.


On an entirely different topic, Sue P sent me a note a few years back that absolutely changed the direction I thought I was going with Hayley Snow’s love life:


I recently found this series and love it. I do have a complaint though. I was just getting interested to see how the romance would work out between Hayley and her detective. And you bring back his ex and she gets dumped! I was not a happy camper at this development. I still would like to see where this would go, more so than with her boss, which is where you seem to be leading. I think she needs a challenge and this is not her boss. Bring him back!! Just my opinion. Thanks.


Oh, and sometimes a note is pure joy.  I can’t resist posting this old favorite that had me smiling for weeks:





We are a class of 12 girls in our freshman year at Gymnasium Sylt, a high school which is located in the far north of Germany on the island of Sylt which is surrounded by the North Sea.


We read your book "An Appetite for Murder" in our English lessons (cf. the photo attached) with our English teacher, Mrs Detlefsen. To us it was a really enjoyable book because it is full of romance, action and crime. We particularly liked the Scene with Meredith pushing Hayley off the road and threatening her with a gun. Moreover, we love the different quotations you use, some are so true and fit perfectly.


Though we talked a lot about the characters, the setting and the plot, there are still some questions left we would be grateful for if you could answer them for us. For example, we would really like to know why Hayley just spills the beans about everything (e.g. with the Police) and why she fell in love with that arrogant Person of Chad.


Don't you love that, "arrogant Person of Chad?" 


Writers, what’s the best letter you ever received from a reader? Readers, do you ever send fan or other kind of mail to authors?


Wednesday, May 5, 2021

M. E. Browning on Leaving Things Out


LUCY BURDETTE: I met Micki Browning in March when the Florida Book Awards were announced. She won the silver medal for Shadow Ridge when I won the bronze for THE KEY LIME CRIME. We were honored to appear on a panel together for the Midtown Reader in Tallahassee, and I loved her story, and thought you would too! Welcome Micki!


M.E. (Micki) Browning:  I have a penchant for creating characters who are considerably smarter than I am. On the plus side, it’s improved my research skills, satisfies my hunger to learn new things, and taught me to recognize what information to leave out. That last lesson was the most difficult one for me to master, in part because I didn’t initially recognize it was a problem—and not only a problem, but a symptom of a larger issue. To become the writer I wanted to be, I had to first decompress from the job I once held.

As a new writer, I thought transitioning from crime fighter to a crime writer would be easy. If you count police reports and grant writing, I was already a paid professional. As for experience, over the course of twenty-two years, I had participated in hundreds of hours of training and amassed a wealth of knowledge and experience. I could cite chapter and verse when it came to the elements required to prove a crime had in fact occurred. I knew my way around a courtroom and understood that a well-written report could keep me out of the courtroom. By the time I retired, I’d attained the rank of captain and was in charge of the administrative division of the agency. 



What I didn’t know was how little that information meant when it came to storytelling. The maxim exhorting wordsmiths to write what they know, while pithy, is somewhat misleading. It’s not what you know but what you leave out that is important. In my quest for accuracy, my first two completed manuscripts were dense with policies, procedures, and minutia. I was so busy educating my readers that I forgot to entertain them. 


It was time to pivot.

After retirement, my husband and I relocated to the Florida Keys. There, I created a character who was a teuthologist—a marine scientist who specialized in the study of octopuses. As a scientist, she possessed the analytical, organizational, and observations skills that would make her a good sleuth. Because the mystery involved a missing person, a detective played a supporting role. Each character saw the role of investigator through a different lens and they both required me to dribble in only the details that were critical to the plot. 

It hadn’t occurred to me before writing this post that my police character played a larger role in the second book in that series. I’d amped up the danger to my protagonist and it was natural that the detective had a more active role. In hindsight, I was flexing new skills and preparing myself to write the story I’d dreamed about creating. 

My first police procedural was my third published novel. All the things I left out made room for deeper characterization and improved pacing. The perspective resulted in a more honest portrayal. The second in the series will launch in October.

I’ve noticed a similar need for distance and perspective while dealing with the tumultuousness of the Year That Shall Not Be Named. At a recent event I was asked if I intended to incorporate the pandemic into my writing. My response? It’s too soon to do it justice—I don’t know what to leave out.


What about your writing? Has there ever been anything you’ve been so close to that it’s impacted your ability to write about it? Are there books that you won't read because they're too close to reality?


M.E. BROWNING served twenty-two years in law enforcement and retired as a captain before turning to a life of crime fiction. Writing as Micki Browning, she penned the Agatha-nominated and award-winning Mer Cavallo mysteries, and her short stories and nonfiction have appeared in anthologies, diving and mystery magazines, and textbooks. As M.E. Browning, she writes the Jo Wyatt Mysteries. The first in the series, Shadow Ridge, was a finalist in the Colorado Book Awards and a silver medalist in the Florida Book Awards. Mercy Creek launches October 2021.



About SHADOW RIDGE:

Death is one click away when a string of murders rocks a small Colorado town in the first mesmerizing novel in M. E. Browning’s A Jo Wyatt Mystery series.

Echo Valley, Colorado, is a place where the natural beauty of a stunning river valley meets a budding hipster urbanity. But when an internet stalker is revealed to be a cold-blooded killer in real life the peaceful community is rocked to its core.

It should have been an open-and-shut case: the suicide of Tye Horton, the designer of a cutting-edge video game. But Detective Jo Wyatt is immediately suspicious of Quinn Kirkwood, who reported the death. When Quinn reveals an internet stalker is terrorizing her, Jo is skeptical. Doubts aside, she delves into the claim and uncovers a link that ties Quinn to a small group of beta-testers who had worked with Horton. When a second member of the group dies in a car accident, Jo’s investigation leads her to the father of a young man who had killed himself a year earlier. But there’s more to this case than a suicide, and as Jo unearths the layers, a more sinister pattern begins to emerge–one driven by desperation, shame, and a single-minded drive for revenge.

Ps from Lucy, sorry about all the type size changes, Blogger would not listen to my suggestions!