Friday, May 23, 2014

Barbara Early — Bloom and Doom

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Welcome, Barbara Early! (AKA, Beverly Allen — Roberta/Lucy, you'll relate...)

Barbara and I met at Bouchercon last fall. It was about three in the afternoon — we'd both gotten cups of coffee and found a table near the booksellers. We both gave the same heavy sigh. We both had the same sore feet. But then, we started to talk. 

Lo and behold, our fatigue dropped away as we discovered we had a ridiculous amount in common. Such as — we're around the same age, we're both from the same itty-bitty suburb of Buffalo, New York, and not only had we written novels, but we'd both written novels using flower symbolism! Barbara's is Bloom and Doom, a delightful cozy mystery set in a flower shop. 

How did she get the idea? Is she a gardener? A florist? In charge of filling the vases at a country manor house? Read on....

BARBARA EARLY: Since the release of Bloom and Doom, I’ve had a couple of people ask me about flowers, as if I were a florist. After all, “write what you know” is probably one of the more bandied about writing rules. But before you hire me to make the bouquet for your daughter’s wedding, perhaps you should know the truth…

 I was overjoyed when one of my manuscripts attracted the attention of an agent. “I’ll work with you on it,” she said as she detailed its flaws (ouch!). “But I loved your voice, and I think you’d be a good match for a series that Berkley is looking for someone to write. Would you like to prepare a proposal?”

Now, cozies often revolve around popular crafts and pastimes. In my mind I ticked off the various skills I’ve dabbled with over the years. I’ve sewn, cross-stitched, embroidered, and knitted. I’ve cooked, baked, churned my own butter, decorated wedding cakes, made homemade chocolates, gardened, and learned how to can and preserve. I’d scrapbooked, decoupaged, made stationary from recycled paper, and dipped candles. And I have cats. 

“The protagonist is a florist who specializes in bridal bouquets.”


Whoosh. That was the air being let out of my ego and enthusiasm at the same time.

What in the world did I know about flowers besides the fact that they made my nose run and my eyes red and watery, so much so that my husband was strictly limited to gifts of chocolate?

But bridal bouquets?

“Do you think you can do it?”

“Absolutely,” I said.

So I stuffed wads of tissues into my purse and visited florists. One let me poke around the back room and watch them work. Yes, I took notes of what tools and supplies they were using and witnessed the techniques I’d read about. But I was enthralled with the knife the florist was whipping around like the master chef in a Benihana restaurant. (You probably know where I’m going with this…)

After the contract, I managed to find a florist that was starting a new floral design school. I enrolled in their very first course. I got some hands-on experience with fresh flowers. I even left with an idea for a character: a chief of police who has terrible allergies. All of a sudden, every crime scene in town is filled with flowers.

Poor guy. I know how he feels.

When I first met Susan Elia MacNeal at Bouchercon in Albany, we both were writing novels that touched on the language of flowers. There’s something inherently mysterious and romantic about attributing meanings to flowers. I’m not talking about the modern florists’ version, where everything means some kind of love. (They’re out to sell flowers.)

But to many Victorians, flowers had distinct meanings. And not all of them were quite so romantic. Yes, red rosebuds meant “You are young and beautiful.” But the suitor who wasn’t careful could send the wrong (or maybe right) message with a few blooms. A spider mum (Fuji mum) might get the girl packing. It can mean “Elope with me.” A crabapple blossom, although pretty, could say “You are ill-natured,” while the ice plant says, “Your looks freeze me.” Ouch.

Some flowers are even well suited to mystery.  I had fun in the second book with foxglove, which can mean “insincerity.” Coltsfoot says, “Justice shall be done.”

And Monkshead warns, “A deadly foe is near.”


SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Lovely readers, do you have a black or green thumb? 

Would you rather have a bouquet or chocolate as a gift? 

And what kind of flower do you think would best symbolize you?

 Beverly Allen (aka Barbara Early) grew up buried in the snowy suburbs of Buffalo, NY, where she developed a love for all things sedentary: reading, writing, classic movies, and Scrabble. She holds a degree in engineering, but her creative streak caused her to run away screaming from the pocket-protector set. She taught secondary English and science for several years before home schooling her daughter successfully through high school. When not reading or writing, she enjoys cooking, crafts, home-improvement projects, and spending time with her husband, daughter, and four naughty, but adorable cats.

She cooks up cozy mysteries with a healthy dose of comedy and sometimes a splash of romance. Bloom and Doom, the first book in the Bridal Bouquet Shop Mystery series, released from Berkley Prime Crime in April.


  1. Oh, how sad that flowers make you sniffley and red-eyed :( 

    Choosing between chocolate and flowers is impossible . . . but I’d rather have my flowers in a pot so that I can plant them in the garden . . . .
    Not knowing too much about the meanings of different flowers, I’ll just choose my favorite daffodil to symbolize me . . . .

    Flowers make me smile and the flowers pictures are gorgeous . . . I’m off to hunt up “Bloom and Doom” . . . .

  2. I have a very black thumb. Most often, I think it's because I over water for the first two weeks and then lose all interest and the plants die from lack of water.

    I also have allergies. In fact, I get shots for grass, trees, weeds, and house dust. I'll take the chocolate, thank you.

  3. Oh, and now I understand a certain Facebook status update from you in the last couple of weeks. :)

  4. Thanks, Susan Elia MacNeal, for inviting me today. I guess I picked the right place to rest my feet at Bouchercon!

    Good morning,Joan. I'll bet you have a lovely garden. I can admire it at a distance. :) A single daffodil represents good taste. Would it be cheeky to follow that with, "I hope you enjoy the book?"

    Hello, again, Mark! And yes, allergies are a bear. Although I seem to be doing better this year. Maybe they're waning.

    I did start some flowers from seed (popular cutting flowers--looking to get in some free practice), but am having trouble finding a dry day to get them in the ground. We shall see what happens...

  5. Accidental friends are the BEST. It's fate, and there is no denying it.

    I'm mostly weeding right now -- terrible wild grape and rose vines are trying to take my lilacs -- but I've been splitting and transplanting hostas all month. It's like free plants!

    I love to work in the dirt. Get my hands dirty.

    Good luck with the series, Barbara!!!!!

  6. Barbara, what a fun post! It sounds like it was meant to be--and such a good description of the writing process...

    I do well with a vegetable garden, but not so much with flowers. This reminds me of the book THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS--did you read that one? I'll definitely look for your wonderful debut!

  7. Hello, Jack, I wish you hired out. I think I grow weeds more than anything else.

    And hi, Lucy aka Roberta! (I have a signed copy of DEATH IN FOUR COURSES right on the shelf next to me.)

    I did read LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS, but only after I wrote the first book and established the characters. I didn't want to be influenced one way or another by it. Amazing book!

  8. Welcome, Barbara! It's kinda nifty your guest blog is the same week as Kendal's about making genuine connections — since we had one at Bouchercon!

    Personally, I have a black thumb. But I keep a child and two cats alive, so I think it balances out?

  9. Good morning, Susan. I wish I could say I was good at making connections. I do try--but for the introverted writer, it can be difficult. I think we might have discussed that, too.

    And yes, I think kids and cats should count. I suspect a lot of writers don't do well with plants because they're not as patient about having their needs met. They don't care about deadlines. Of course, neither do kids or cats, but they can do more to get our attention.

  10. Flowering plants are a marvel to me--not just the colors and shapes, but the textures of blossoms and leaves and the scents--oh, the divine scents of lilacs and old-fashioned roses and.... A pressed petal in a journal, pen and ink drawings of flowers--it's no wonder that flowers have been imbued with so much meaning! I can just imagine the kinds of wedding bouquets your protagonist will be creating, Barbara! And I'm with Jack--love getting dirty, digging, weeding, making my plants happy!

  11. Welcome, Barbara! I'll keep an eye out for your book!

    Chocolate-I'll take chocolate every single time. I can't kill it! My reputation for under-watering plants is well-deserved. I've never met a plant I didn't under-water.

    I love just about all flowers. I am especially fond of violas, violets, johnny-jump-ups. I really like the combination of purple (my favorite color) and yellow, and these flowers are especially cheery!

  12. Barbara, you come across as anything but introverted. For two introverts sitting together randomly, we did pretty well! It helped that we could talk about our novels and flowers.....

    I have such respect for you gardeners out there. I love other people's gardens... ; )

  13. I have a brown thumb. I'm okay in the garden, and okay with hardy plants. But more delicate things, like African violets, well, it doesn't go well. However, I did once managed to kill a cactus, so I'm not sure what that says.

    Barbara, funny you should mention monkshood. I just finished a short story where monkshood features prominently. Such a pretty plant and so very deadly. And isn't it funny what we can write when a contract is on the line?

    I don't know the meaning of flowers, but I adore sunflowers, calla lilies and gerbera daisies - so I think I'd choose those.

  14. Oh, and Susan, I've kept two kids and a husband alive, so yeah, I think it all balances out! LOL

  15. FChurch, flowers are amazing. I'm just grateful I don't have to reproduce all those bouquets Audrey (my florist) does. Much easier to write about them. Although I just learned that I'll be helping with the flowers for my daughter's wedding in...uh...less than a month.

    Deb, violets are one of my favorites in the language of flowers. They say, "You occupy my thoughts."

    Susan, I find that the case at so many of these conferences and conventions. Even the most introverted writers can usually talk about writing. And I've met the nicest people!

  16. Hi, Mary!

    I'm using monkshood in the third novel in the series. Both monkshood and monkshead were both very deadly flowers--not sure what that says about the perception of monks back then!

    Sunflowers are interesting. They vary in meaning based on the size. The dwarf sunflowers suggest adoration, while the full-sized ones can mean haughtiness. Calla lilies are a lovely wedding flower. They mean magnificent beauty.

  17. Bridal bouquets?? I have a question. My daughter is getting married in late September -- she wants a bouquet that is only green (no flowers). What could it be?
    Centerpieces will be potted ferns.

  18. Good morning,Denise. Oh a quiz! Green flowers...I know roses and hydrangeas can come in green, as do Bells of Ireland. There are some lovely green orchids. Hypericum berries come to mind. And many are doing bouquets made of assorted greenery and succulents.

    If the centerpieces are ferns, I wonder if your daughter would like something like this one I found on Pinterest.

  19. Oops, I missed the fact that she didn't want flowers. The pinterest picture might be a good starting place. There are a lot of non-flower elements there,including ferns, fiddleheads, and succulents.

  20. Debs and Barbara, I love violets, too! I wear violet perfume and have a violet candle. It's a hard flower/fragrance to find, but so wonderful.

  21. Denise, may be she'd like a bouquet of silk flowers that can be kept and repurposed? As for growing things, my thumb is pretty iffy. I lived up north for quite a few years. I really enjoyed lilacs in bloom (though I'm allergic) and peonies. Now I'm back south again and nothing transports me like the scent of blooming gardenias.

  22. Another green, non-flowering plant is lamb's ear. Wouldn't that be pretty in a bridal bouquet?

    I inherited a very green thumb, coming from both sides of my family. Both my grandfathers were incredible gardeners, and my great grandmother had exquisite peonies and other flowers. Veggies are my passion right now, but in the past I had a huge herb garden, before it got torn up to create a patio. I should probably start that again, since deer eat all the flowers we try to grow.

    We have millions of violets in our untreated yard. A couple years ago I gathered a big bowl of blossoms and made violet syrup. It makes a dandy cocktail, Susan, FYI. It is a lot of work, though.

  23. Hi Barbara! Congrats on your book!

    OK, first thing, how did you bold in your responses above? Let me try -- BOLD.

    (Now we'll see if that shows up correctly.)

    I love plant lore, flowers, gardens. You'd think I tended a garden with all the books I have. I've got two drawer stories featuring plants, gardens, lore, etcetera.

    I've definitely got the potential for a green thumb--if I had time and an actual yard.

  24. It worked! I didn't know we could use HTML code in comments until now. Cooool. :-)

  25. Denise:
    Here's a link to a couple of green-no-flower bouquets [scroll down past the first one, which is not green] . . . .

  26. I'm a haphazard gardener, but I love love love my garden. It's an oasis of green and shade, and right now full of flowering shrubs. Our brutal winter has given way to an absolutely spectacular spring. And I swear, the spring warblers migrated directly through our yard. Now we have broods and broods of nestlings (cardinals, cat birds, robins, sparrows).

    Congratulations on the new book, Barbara! Sounds like lots of fun.

  27. Hi, Pat D! Ooh, gardenias. That's more than a fair trade for peonies, I think. The gardenia symbolizes peace and refinement, which I can almost see in a gardenia.

    Karen--Wow, you're a busy lady! Violet syrup? I must look into that. Sounds like a plot bunny waiting to happen. Cocktails, you say? Can you do anything else with it?

    Hi,Lisa! Yes, I was getting about to post when I saw the note about html tags. I figured it would be easier to see what people said if I bolded their names. LOL.

    I will admit, my passion for gardening books exceeds my passion for gardening. Somehow I think I suffer from the delusion that if I buy another book, a beautiful garden is going to magically appear.

  28. Hey again, Joan! Interesting link. Good thing for my protagonist that the language of flowers goes beyond flowers and into greens, herbs, and even fruits and nuts! I saw apples in one bouquet, and in the language of flowers, the apple stands for temptation.

    An herb bouquet could be nice, too. BTW, even watermelon has a meaning--bulkiness--but I'm not sure how you could put it in a bouquet.

    Hello, Hallie! By the way, I met you also at the Bouchercon in Albany, although only briefly, but I did get a chance to tell you that your Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel was one of the first writing craft books I bought. Seemed to have worked!

  29. Oh funny. The whole time, I've never noticed that note below the comment box. D'oh.


  30. Oh, this is wonderful! I'd much rather have flowers than chocolate, ANY day!

    I love our garden, how the flowers come and go--right now the huge array of tulips is just over, (we had some great ones) and the dahlias are in. The azaleas are going crazy, and the hydrangea vines are about to pop. The peonies have buds, and the roses are thinking about it. Oh, and the clematis is out!

    What flower would I be? Maybe a hyacinth? Because they are tough and smell good? Or a tulip, because they arrange themselves in the universe so nicely.

  31. Karen in OH — violet syrup, wow! Yes, I'm sure it takes a lot of time. I take the easy way out and buy creme de violette, to use in Aviation cocktails...

  32. Hank, I can't imagine you having time to garden! Every time I look around, you're zipping to a different event. But your garden sounds lovely.

    Hyacinth varies in meaning, depending on color. In general, they can mean game, play, or sport. Blue hyacinth stands for constancy. Purple hyacinth for sorrow, and white hyacinth for unobtrusive loveliness.

  33. I forgot to congratulate you on your book, Barbara! Sorry. Flowers carried me away. Anyway it sounds fun. Any bridezillas involved?

  34. Thanks, Pat. Of course! There has to be a bridezilla.

    I had a lot of fun researching modern trends in weddings, too. It's amazing how much detail goes into them, these days, especially elaborate theme weddings or those at exotic or unusual locations. And there's so much pressure to make sure things go exactly right. Those are bridezilla's natural spawning ground!

  35. Denise, so interesting that your daughter doesn't want flowers. I bet the bouquet will be lovely!

    Barbara, I bet if you did a survey, most of us writers would turn out to be introverts. But this business draws us out too!

    And ps, I tried the html tag but it did not take. Can one of you explain exactly how to do it? thx!

  36. Hey Lucy/Roberta--

    Below the comment box are the tags. For the sake of example, I'm going to substitute parentheses for the less than/greater than signs (<,>) that you have to use.

    Let's say, Lucy, I wanted to bold your name, I'd type:

    Hello (b)Lucy(/b). Only use the < and the > instead of the parentheses.

    For italics, use an 'i' instead of the 'b.'

    And I have no idea what 'a' is.

    Does that help?

  37. Thanks so much for inviting me to share with you today, Susan!

    And thanks to the Jungle Red crew for stopping by!

  38. I'm missing out here a bit as I have the grandgirls for a few days and am busy, busy.

    Barbara, I feel for you when you were told the series was about flowers. I'm like Mark, a black thumb, and it would be the last thing I would feel qualified to write. It sound like you've brought yourself up to speed, and I look forward to reading Bloom and Doom, a great title. Jack, I do love hostas, and are the only plant I've ever planted successfully.

  39. Hi, Kathy, You caught me just before I nodded off. I hope you enjoy Bloom and Doom!

  40. Like Kathy, I'm late to the party too --we're taking care of my niece's baby while she attends the rounds of activities involved in being a bridesmaid this weekend.

    Barbara, this is a great post and I'm really looking forward to reading BLOOM AND DOOM. I love so many kinds of flowers, it's just too hard to choose one. Purple is my favorite color, also blue and shades of rose, but for scent I'd have to pick the heavenly smell of gardenias, the citrusy aroma of magnolias, the light woodsy smell of violets and I love all my bright fresh daffodils.

    Vegetable and herb gardens have always been more successful for me, with my brownish thumb for houseplants, and my husband has the real green thumb in the family, so it all works out well!

    I'm a Gemini, so please don't make me choose between flowers and chocolate! ;) Very fun post today.

  41. Barbara, very funny story of how you came to write about flowers!

    My thumb is not green, but I refuse to give up. My backyard orange trees had tons of flowers that developed into lots and lots of tiny baby oranges. Then something came along and ate them all. No fresh-from-the-tree oranges this Christmas! That has been my trade-off for not having snow for the last few years. Not this year. So no—no green thumb.

  42. Good morning, Lynn. Yes, I've had more success with vegetable gardens, too. Not this year, though. This year I'd hoped to make good on my threat to add flowers. Since we had a late spring and a regular deluge since, I've not yet gotten anything in. But there's plenty still left in the garden centers, so I'm not off the hook yet. I hope you enjoy BLOOM AND DOOM!

    And hi,Reine! I had a similar thing happen to a lovely cherry tree that was on our property when we bought it. I watched it flower and produce loads of immature fruit--and then a flock of red-wing blackbirds came and ate them ALL. We learned we could probably put a net around the tree, and planned to do that,but then the tree blew over in an ice storm. Ugh.

    Again, I've loved the discussion. Thanks for inviting me!