Crime Bake 2021

Exciting times! Last weekend I attended (in person – first time in two years!) the New England Crime Bake conference for writers and readers in Boston, Massachusetts. I was proud to be chosen as one of three Honorable Mentions for the 2021 Al Blanchard Short Crime Fiction contest.

The winner was Joseph S. Walker, and you can read his haunting story “Herb Ecks Goes Underground” as well as my own and many others in the Best New England Crime Stories anthology “Bloodroot”.

Cover Design © Darlene Albert/Wicked Smart Designs

Looking Back

The railings had a hard rough frost yesterday that didn’t feel slick at all, more like the gritty stuff they put on steps to keep people from slipping. Winter is coming. As always, and four years after moving here from the city, I’m still amazed by the utter silence in the mornings. My heater is blasting, and here I am, looking at one year left before I’m three-fourths of a century old. Or young, as they like to say now. The doctor who recently gave me my physical did say I’m in better shape than anyone he’s ever seen my age. I told him I should be – I work hard enough at it.

I’ve been trying to look back on seventy-four years, but there’s just too much to take in. The fact is, I’ve lived through so many wonder-ful, interesting and plain stupid things in my life, I’ve had people accuse me of making them up. Maybe that’s part of the reason I became a novelist. Fiction is all about “making things up”. But one thing most people don’t understand is that, if we put even half of what we know to be true into our fiction, many would reject it as implausible, suspect, hard to believe. Hence, I believe, the recent surge in memoir writing. Folks want to put it down somewhere, and be damned to those who don’t believe “it actually happened like that!”

When my mother passed away, I invited my niece and nephews to come and get the things of their mother’s that Gram had saved since my sister’s death: school records, programs, toys, craft projects, her wedding dress which had been made over for my niece when she got married and then stored away again. Photos, photos, photos. Every time they came to Mama’s house, I said, “Please go upstairs and go through it – I can’t take it all home with me.”

Well, I did end up taking it home with me – who can bring themselves to throw such things away? Many years later, when my niece was drawn to her own ‘looking back’, she sent an email asking if I still had anything of her mother’s. I bundled it all up and sent it to the last address I had for her. She had moved some months before without mentioning it on Facebook (today’s version of a phone call), and we had a time tracking it down. Luckily she knew the people who had moved into her old house. They were about to throw it out.

My point is, such yearnings for memories must come at their own time, each at our own age. And if that time comes late, we are left wondering what we’ve missed. Maybe not letters these days, but Gram’s old books, Pop’s collection of brochures of the places he dreamed of traveling to someday, Mama’s handwritten notes for the guitar class she took when her babies were young. But most of all, long leisurely conversations. All those things that would give us a better understanding of what kind of people they were, not just our own memories of what kind of parents they were.

I must start jotting things down and hope I have time to make a sort of memoir so my grandkids won’t someday regret all the questions they were too far away or too busy with life to ask while I was here. Like the things I regret not asking my own Granny about – living through the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, the War (any of them). Widowhood. Two husbands. Six kids born at home. Remembering her, I will try to let my grands and great-grands know what all I was up to before they became aware that Grams must have had their own lives, after all, not just adjuncts to their own.

I only hope they won’t say, “Well, that’s pretty hard to believe. I’ll bet she made it up!”

C’mon, Granny

It’s been a busy summer with not much chance to take another walk through the woods. I did write this 100-word tribute to a friend who was born to a mining family.

PHOTO PROMPT© Roger Bultot

“Smile, Grandma!”

“Get that thing outen my face.”

“C’mon. All your grandkids want to see you.”

“I’m still livin’ in the same house.”

“Most can’t afford to travel so far.”

“Shouldn’t’ve left the place they were born, then. Nothing wrong with it.”

“Except there’s no jobs.”

“Plenty of jobs. Just lazy people who don’t want to work.”

Meredith sighed. “We can’t all work the mines, Granny.”

“Good enough for your grandpap.”

“Who died from Black Lung, remember?”

“Balderdash. Old fart wouldn’t stop smokin’ cigars his whole life.”

“Forget it, Merry,” said Thomas. “Some old dogs you can’t teach anything.”

chadhymas.com

Most soul-crushing jobs kill you early. Coal mining takes its time.

My summer walk before writing

New England roads

Whew, it’s been a dry spell but I’m back. When I finally got settled in my new place, I found to my delight that I could walk down to the village and back in less than an hour, a considerable improvement over where I lived before. The biggest problem is that there are no sidewalks on the road and for most of the walk, there are little or no verges either. Which means most of the time I’m walking out on the asphalt. I can usually hop into the weeds while a car goes by, but there’s a few places where the hill on one side goes straight up and on the other side it goes straight down.

I’ve been known to straddle a guard rail or two while the driver in the truck gives me a cheerful smile as they go by. Sometimes the driver and I will compromise; I squeeze over as far as I can and she squeezes over as far as she can, and we both breathe easier afterwards. There’s not that much traffic, luckily, and New Englanders are very nice about slowing down. I’ve even had cars on the far side slow down, which makes me wonder if they’re expecting this little old lady to dart across both lanes like a squirrel.

Passing drivers always wave and I wave back, which is a nice start to the day. There’s sounds of water in stony creeks, the whiffle of birds in the trees, bright green smells and the occasional rumble of a tractor out in a field. I go from warm sun to cool shade and breathe in oxygen from the thick plant life.

At the beginning of spring I saw an appalling amount of trash by the side of the road, much of which had been accumulating under the snow all winter. I’m not sure if it comes under town maintenance or if the local Scout troop does it for merits, but the road is now nearly pristine. I say nearly, because you can’t stop folks from sucking up a beer on their way home and then throwing the evidence out of the vehicle. What I still see most of are the little blue masks. The stores mean well by handing them out free, and recalcitrant customers will grudgingly put them on, but they often rip them off as soon as they leave and then toss them out the window on their way out of town. Some sort of political statement, I suppose, though it just seems rather bad-tempered to me. I have no idea if the used masks are sanitary so I’m hesitant about picking them up, which I sometimes do with a bottle or a can, to take to the garbage bin. But I will try to pop the elastic loops so that wildlife doesn’t get tangled in them. Thank heaven it looks like masks might disappear soon.

My walks may also disappear in November, of course. The little town is good about clearing the road, both lanes, for the cars. But that means no hopping into the weeds anywhere, since they’ll be buried under a four-foot wall of snow and ice that goes straight up from the edge of the asphalt. So come winter snow, I’ll have to sniff out a safer route or give up entirely.

For now I like to mix my daily walk with errands in the village. There’s the post office on one corner where I have a box because where I live now has no mailbox, nor do they intend to get one. Something about the darn snowplows always knocking them over and “danged if I’m gonna buy another one.” I don’t mind, it’s an excuse to chat with the woman behind the Post Office counter. Unless I mis-time it and hit her lunch break when the counter’s shuttered until she comes back. She used to have one of those cardboard clock things with moveable hands showing the time she’d open back up, and she was usually pretty close. Now the hours are actually painted on the glass door, but you can still tell an out-of-towner by the way they try to open the door around noon and then stand there looking mystified.

Because of Covid, only two people are allowed in the post office at a time, but there really isn’t room for more than that anyway. So the rest of us will hang around outside shooting the breeze until one person comes out. You can meet a lot of nice people that way.

I stop off at the little bank branch to get some cash, if I remember my debit card. The last time I was there,  I realized I had forgotten it, but the teller said, “Oh, I know you. You’re [So-and-so’s] mother-in-law, my sister works with her at the hospital.” And she gave me money out of my account. That’s New England. Screw up, and they know where to find you. Just ask Betty Ann down at the bank.

I go into the little deli-mart now and then, to browse amongst the local vegetables or to buy bread or eggs. Not milk. Tried that once, and nearly threw out my shoulder carrying it home. And I might pick up a book at the library. I used to go inside, sit in the AC for a while and read. Covid changed that, so now I put a book on hold online and then pick it up from the table on the library porch, nicely wrapped in day-old newspaper with my name written on it. I used to stop at the gas station for a coffee (it’s really good, New England coffee, if you don’t mind gourmet prices). But I’ve reached an age when coffee goes through much faster than I can get home.

Unfortunately, going home is the hardest part of the walk since it’s all up-hill. But when I get there, my Fitbit is buzzing on my wrist because I’ve already made my daily steps goal. I collapse on the sofa and sloth around for the rest of the day and feel virtuous. Until it snows.

A Picnic by the River

So many things going on in life! While I keep working at my next novel, it’s a treat to take a break and work on something else. Here’s this week’s 100-word story to a picture prompt provided by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields for the Friday Fictioneers. Tell me what, if anything, it makes you think about:

PHOTO PROMPT © Dale Rogerson

Maggie smiled at the children seated around the makeshift table. The dark sky matched their wet coats and mud-caked shoes.

Tina snarled, “It’s still flooded here. Why can’t we eat somewhere else?”

“Our guests are more comfortable here.” Maggie set out a platter of sandwiches. “The river is—was—their home. Please, everyone, help yourselves.”

The oldest boy picked up a sandwich, sniffed it. Then crammed it in his mouth. The other children joined in. Maggie poured hot tea, and they sipped happily, warming both hands.

 It was a beautiful day. If you were in a mood to appreciate it.

***

I actually wrote this also as an answer to a challenge from the Thursday Night Writers, which was to write a 100-word story where the environment contrasts with the main character’s mood. I found this surprisingly difficult, since I’ve spent a writer’s lifetime learning to use the environment to reflect the character’s mood and feelings. i.e., a sunny day reflects a sunny mood, while a view of gray clouds or a flooded riverbank reflects a character’s feelings of depression. Instead, I strove to make Maggie determinedly cheerful despite her environment. I hope I succeeded.

Join the fun! Write your own story to the prompt and post it on your website, blog, etc. Please be sure to credit the photographer — they donate the photos for our use. Then click on the froggie and add your story to the others at Friday Fictioneers. And read everyone else’s efforts — it’s astounding how many different reactions there can be to one picture!

While you’re at it, visit Rochelle’s blog post — she always adds the most interesting historical background to her story and the photo.

Theft of Humor

Or is it just out of fashion?

Hello! Here’s a little story to this week’s picture prompt posted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields for Friday Fictioneers. This is the conversation that came to my mind when I saw it:

PHOTO PROMPT © Ted Strutz

Sally dumped her bin on the Post Office counter.

“Whatcha got today, kid?” Will asked.

“The usual. Packages. Some letters.”

“Anything rush?”

“You guys still do that these days?” She laughed, but friendly good-natured Will was suddenly scowling at her, looking both angry and hurt.

“We’re doing our best,” he snapped. Instead of sorting through her bin right there while they chatted, he carried it to the back.

She waited, but he didn’t return. Finally she said, “Geez, I’m sorry. When did we all lose our sense of humor?”

“We didn’t lose it,” said the other clerk. “It was stolen.”

Click on the froggie and join the fun!

Try it! There’s a new photo every Wednesday or so. If you’re a writer, or even if you don’t think you are, it’s a good way to get the creative juices flowing. You don’t have to win a Pulitzer — just write a little story and post it on your website or blog — And please, please give credit to the photographer. They share their own work, no charge. Then click on the froggie and share your link on the Friday Fictioneers Inlinkz site. And remember, it’s 100 words or less! I can hear you writers groaning, but it’s a great way to practice Hemingwayesque brevity. Then read the myriad ways other people have interpreted the same picture. Comment and receive comments from them.

I look forward to each week’s new prompt. Both the photos and the stories keep me thinking, about people and everything else we deal with every day. Funny — I didn’t even notice the contents of the bin at first. Now that would have made for some humor!

Life Revisited

A 97-word story to a picture prompt from Rochelle Wisoff-Fields and the Friday Fictioneers:

PHOTO PROMPT © Alicia Jamtaas

The young girl held her father’s hand.

“What’s that thing, Daddy?”

“Well, there used to be something here called an amusement park.”

“Amusement?” She wrinkled her nose. “What’s so amusing about a busted-up railroad?”

“It’s not a railroad. They called it a roller-coaster. Cars went up and down real fast and people rode in them.”

“Why?”

He shrugged. “People paid to get scared back then.”

“That’s stupid. We’re scared all the time, and we don’t pay anything. It’s no fun.”

He squeezed her hand, thinking of the zombies.

“People’s lives didn’t have much meaning back then, honey.”

Click the Frog to Add Your Link

My first zombie story! Join in the fun — write your own story (100 words or less) and post it online. Don’t forget to give full credit to Rochelle Wisoff-Fields and the photographer. Then follow the sad little frog to share your post by next Wednesday.

Priorities

Here’s a little 100-word conversation that jumped into my mind as soon as I saw this picture. It seemed relevant somehow. Thanks to Rochelle Wisoff-Fields, both for the photo prompt and for hosting the Friday Fictioneers.

PHOTO PROMPT © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

“How can you report on something so stupid, Ted?”

“I report what they tell me to report.”

“Seriously? What if they told you to report that the earth is flat?”

“Leave me alone. I’m going to get through this broadcast about a teacup poodle beating up its owner and then go home.”

“Ted, look at me. The government is under water, the climate is haywire, terrorists are at the gates, and you’re willing to do a report on an abusive teacup poodle?”

“Abuse is inherited and often involves mental illness, Marsha. People need to be aware.”

“You worry me, Ted.”

Join the fun! Write your own story (no more than 100 words!). Then post it and share the post link with all of us. Be sure to read our stories — it’s amazing how people will get a completely different take on the same image.

Story of My Life

I’m on a roll! Here’s another 100-word story to a photo prompt from Rochelle Wisoff-Fields and her Friday Fictioneers. Quick and easy, folks. This one is for writers:

PHOTO PROMPT @ Jan Wayne Fields

Cherie looked happily at the little clutch of supplies stuffed into the corner of her “desk”. Never mind that it was a shelf in the laundry room. Yes, she’d gone a little crazy, buying pens and things. But now she could start her new career as a novel writer. She opened a blank page on the computer and stared at it. And stared some more. And wondered if going for a walk would bring up some ideas. Maybe do some laundry. Those supplies would still be here tomorrow. But of course, so would the blank page.

Join the fun! Write a story based (loosely) on the picture prompt and post it on your blog, page, website, whatever. (Be sure to give credit to the photographer, they deserve it!) Then click on the froggie here and add your story to ours. Read a few — we’d love to hear what you think. This link party ends in five days. But that’s okay — There’s another one every week.

Out of Reach

A small story of children trying to understand the adult world, written to a picture prompt at Friday Fictioneers.

PHOTO PROMPT © Na’ama Yehuda

He held tight to her hand, his small head tilted back. “Does Mom really live way up there?”

“That’s what the newspaper said.”

“I’d like to live high up where nobody could yell at me.”

“If you lived up there, she’d probably yell at you.”

After a moment he asked, “Did she yell at you when she lived with us?”

“Well, she mostly yelled at Dad. Don’t you remember?”

He shook his head.

“Good,” she said firmly, “it’s better if you don’t.”

“I think Dad remembers.”

“He tries hard not to. So don’t mind if he yells at us sometimes.”

If you’d like to join the fun, write your own story (no more than 100 words!) and post it on your blog, website, media page, whatever. Then click on the New Year’s froggie and enter the link to it. Then read everyone else’s! We want to know what you think.