I am an author/illustrator of southern gothic, cozy mystery, and sweet romance. When I'm not creating characters, I'm building worlds, both literally and, er, literally. Check out my blog and my books and you'll see what I mean.
The mystery in question is this: why, when my adult children ask me what I’m up to, and I tell them, “I’m cutting off the heads of small animals,” (albeit, plastic animals, but they did not know that) why are they not disquieted by that? In fact, the eldest child responded with, “Mom, I think you need to start another book.” Cheeky kid. (Okay, in all fairness, my internet search history could get me arrested for crimes I never committed. I write MYSTERY, after all.)
It all began with a game of CLUE. I’ve always loved games with colorful boards. Rather, I love architecture, building, design, and my favorite games as a child were Clue (because of the beautifully colored boards, the rooms, the floor patterns, etc., and LIFE, with its 3-D bridges, hills, houses, and cars. It was less about the game, more about driving little cars over hills and bumps, collecting little peg babies, and a husband. So I thought, hmmm, I used to love dollhouses as a child. Of course, I had neither the skill nor the follow-through to create anything of beauty, but I’m older and have a bit more patience and I’m between books. So why not create a 3-D Clue board?
I found my gameboard surface, an old oak table top. It’s divided into rooms and hallways and square tile spaces in keeping with the original game, and my plan was to work on and complete one room per week. HA!
So although I have the walls for a study papered, bits of study-like furniture built, and miniature books for shelves that went kind of wonky, I diverted with the thought, “Oh, what if I cut the heads off of little plastic animals, paint them, glue on some tufts of sheep’s wool, and make some cute little trophy heads for the wall? I know what you’re thinking. Anyone who’s ever played a game of CLUE or grew up watching The Beverly Hillbilliesknows that the trophy heads go in the Billiard Room, not the Study!
“It was done in the Billiard Room, by Mrs. Partridge, using a pair of tweezers and super glue!”
On the other hand, maybe my kid is right, and I need to just start the next book… Hmmmm….
I’m doing the second round of edits on the WIP (work-in-progress), so nearing completion. In it, I have, hopefully, built a magical small town community, (based on a very real small town) that I find to be magical. Don’t forget to “follow” this blog at the bottom of this post to hear about the upcoming release date, as well as…
Today, (and in coming weeks) I’ll be sharing some of my favorite magical spaces around my home and yard. What, you may wonder, does this have to do with Cozy Mysteries? Well, hopefully, I’ve created a series of magical vignettes, the inspiration for my fictive worlds.
This week, I’ve been fluffing the outside of my office – the Word Crone Cottage.
But if you take a closer look, you might see a surprise or two…
Not in a creepy kind of way, but who doesn’t love getting a glimpse of the interiors when the evening light is dimming and interior lights are warming those private spaces. In a book, you get a look through a window… in a non-creepy way that won’t get you arrested.
It’s all about perspective. There’s the plot, the sub-plot, and the hidden “easter eggs” to be found at that golden hour of daylight.
Warm light and crystals…
If you look hard enough, a little magic just might make itself visible to you.
In the meantime, if you’re interested in something a little magical, southern and dark, try PLAIN JANE, a contemporary re-telling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre! It’s the perfect pre-Halloween read.
I write mystery, so is there any wonder I have a fondness for hidden spaces/magical places? It’s the cornerstone of every project I tackle. I tend to look at things, not by what would be most practical, but with the premise, “how can I make this a magical experience?”
One of my favorite toys ever purchased for my kids were those little Polly Pockets – not the larger lanky dolls that came out afterwards, but the original little compact Polly Pockets, the ones that were the size of a finger nail that came with their own little world in a plastic box. Open the compact, and then you could expect three surprises in each little doll’s world – a swinging door, a slide, a secret compartment, etc. within the compact. It made a pretty cheap thrill, a plastic thing that probably cost pennies to produce, but somehow, it took on magical properties in that it provided a sort of scavenger hunt to uncover the hidden bits and bobs within. (And holy wow, they’re worth a fortune now. Guess I should have saved them.) I loved whenever we found another one at a yard sale or thrift store. It was like opening an I Spy book…
I love that rule of three that should be a staple of design. It’s in each I Spy Book. The I Spy Spooky Night and Can You See What I SeeOn a Scary Scary Night Halloween themed books are probably among my favorite. The goal is to find the list of hidden objects in each image, but around that, there are 1) surprises in the photography – items used in unusual ways, 2) a recurrent object in each picture, and 3) a hidden story that beautiful color photographs depict. They are all about playing mind tricks through perspective.
So when I found a need to reach an awkwardly placed bedroom in our home, the obvious solution was to install a staircase solely for accessing that room. But this staircase needed to be unique, in that it had to fit in a very tight space. So how about a unique design I once saw in an old, antebellum house? An alternating staircase. (Psht. Building codes are for rule followers.) And what if I made the handrails into bookshelves? And trifecta, what if I installed books shelves under each tread? Bibbidy, bobbidy, book!
Basically, the design involves building a half tread on alternating sides. Each tread falls at double the height of a usual stair tread, requiring one to always lead with their right foot. It climbs at a rise:run ratio that is double:half of a normal staircase, thus, requiring half the space of a typical staircase. Whoever came up with the design was brilliant… and probably very nimble. The first one I saw when touring a home for potential purchase, I knew it was a magical place, (and possibly haunted. 🙂
In keeping with that theme of magical spaces, hidden places, I think my next few blog posts will explore some of those secret cubbies throughout my house and yard.
And the alternating staircase? Well, sadly, it was sold along with that house, but I still dream of possibly installing another one here, in our forever home. Until then, I’ll just look back fondly on that deathtrap staircase… and plot my next hidden space, magical place.
So I hope you join me next week for a tour of another favorite magical corner of my life, and I would love to hear about the magical spaces in your home! Until then,…
I finished the first draft of a complete rewrite of a previously dropped book. What does that mean?
It means the manuscript that used to exist is now going to the moldy drawer in which it belongs and a new, improved, completely different southern cozy mystery MIGHT be ready for your reading consumption before year’s end! What? Yes, the manuscript that I’ve been working on and saying, “should be another month before it’s done” just took the better part of a year.
And it ain’t over yet. What does a first draft consist of? All of the basic plot points, the words, the dialogue, for a somewhat interesting, occasionally snooze-worthy bit of writing. So now it’s time to get back into it while wearing my witch’s hat perched on my brow, a muse curled up in the window, and some fresh eyes. I’ll probably take a day this weekend to read something off-genre, so I can hit it again next week with fresh-ish eyes.
So here’s the “to-do” list for a complete second draft:
Check general grammar and spelling.
Check off all of the clues, when they’re dropped, and who dropped them.
Get into the head of each character, making note of what they know up to that point, who they are, and the lens through which they see the world.
Drop some “foreshadowed” bits after-the-fact. (That’s the magical bit.)
Write the epilogue/grace note.
And then, the really tough work begins – writing the book blurb, deciding on the new direction of the book covers for this whole series, making a marketing plan, and a book trailer, swag art, and maybe a couple of audio excerpts.
But for now, I’m going to give the studio a much needed deep clean. Ahhh. We both (me and the studio) give a sigh of relief.
Yes, I’ve come to a screeching halt in my projects for the week, all because of writing.
I took off writing last week to accomplish some projects for some deserving people. First, there was five days of dog sitting, during which I installed a fence for the elderly dog, followed by another five days of light projects for Mom, none of which felt very satisfactorily done, thanks to a jhank back.
Oh well. And then there were the projects this past week that were waiting for me at home that were not getting done – namely, the shower repair which was delayed following a mishap with an electric saw, requiring a few stitches. As a wise person once told me, “if a Bandaid will cover it and a wine cooler with dull it, it ain’t that bad.” So by this logic and comparison, the mishap with the power saw doesn’t compare to the jhank back.
I blame HGTV, and their ability to fill me with a false sense of my own carpentry prowess. They never show you “take number 15! Someone see about staunching that blood!” I feel justified in deciding to call in a professional, although, it took bloodshed, and a jhank back to convince me.
I decided I could be a productive member of society today by tackling the grass that needs cutting, but halfway through the task, one of the mower blades came loose necessitating that I flip the mower, and lay down on the ground with hand tools… and did I mention my jhank back?
So I tried to fix the jhank back by getting on the treadmill, which my burly fellows moved from the house and the room of plumbing repair to my office across the yard. (The thing weighs a ton.) Sadly, some wiring got wrenched during transit across the yard, so maybe I could flip it over to repair it… but for my jhank back.
I’m still trying to decide if I can get to the floor to do the sets of exercises that have worked in the past, but that floor is awfully far away and… it’s a Catch-22, really. How very literary of me.
So here I sit, at my desk, writing my weekly blog post, which is probably the main reason I have a jhank back. And this is how I’ve come to the conclusion that writing is among the most hazardous of jobs.
I hope you find the time to read a book or make some art. Hey! That sounds like some great advice!
Well, it turns out quite a bit. (Long story follows.)
I get regular “Google Alerts” – whenever one of my books is being distributed through a disreputable site for “free.” Rather, it’s free to folks who subscribe to these sites, or the pirates running those “free book” sites are being compensated in some way – advertising, subscriptions, patronage of some sort or another. I, in turn, receive nothing, because it is a pirated copy. I get it. Free stuff is sometimes nearly irresistible, irresistible like looting during a disaster! It’s theft, but it happens with more regularity than we like to think about.
When I learn of a new pirating source, I typically send a form “cease and desist” letter and they pull it or they don’t. It’s nearly impossible to receive compensation (they are pirates, after all. Arrrgh) and lawyers and court fees are more costly than the amount of compensation due, so a C&D is about the best you can do. Ask them to take it down and hope for the power of plenty – a lot of authors who are being pirated, filing C&D orders, or someone else suing the company and getting them shut down for a short period of time until they re-open their “store” under a different name, or slightly different name, etc. That’s not the sort of name I’m writing about. No, this story gets juicier. 😊
So just last week, I received another “alert”, this one regarding my photos that are being sold through a questionable source. I do the occasional pen and ink drawing and offer it through various sites for printing on mugs, shopping bags, book plates, etc., so it was not beyond the realm of possibility that my “pictures” were being offered for free without compensation.
My kids constantly warn me, “mom, do not google that. Whatever you do, do not plug that into a search engine! FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, do not google that!!!!” It’s good advice.
I didn’t google it. I just followed the link to find out which of my pen and ink drawings was being pirated. (It’s a vanity thing in that someone thinks they’re good enough to pirate.) So I clicked the link… and oh-my-goodness!
Let me say first and foremost, those pictures are not me. Rather, do not confuse SoFie Couch, spelled with an “f” with Sophie Couch, the film star of the exercise tutorial, Naughty Pilates. She is not me (bless her heart). I am not she. Her. I don’t avoid photographs, but I don’t seek them out… and I sure as heck never posed like THAT in front of a camera! I am still laugh/crying!
But then it occurred to me, how many of her followers are clicking on my link, hoping for the reward of an entirely different brand? She may not want to be associated with my MURDER MYSTERIES or romantic comedy.
But here in is the dilemma. If a part of an author’s brand relies on her name/pseudonym, what to do with the cross-over from another person – author or film star – whose brand, er, clashes with your own? UGH!!!
In my own defense, I’ve used this nickname since it was bestowed upon me in middle school. (Sweet Sarah? Brat Pat? Joanie Macaroni? Which of you is responsible for this silliness?) I thought using a childhood nickname was a great solution to being vaguely anonymous, yet having a name to which I readily answer. Well, I guess it’s back to the drawing board. I suppose I’ll find a new nom de plume. Sadly, it means reserving that name under all of the most prominent social media sites, acquiring a new URL, etc.
Or I could just continue as SoFie Couch… and enjoy the Facebook friend requests meant for a different Sophie Couch. She is very pretty… and young… and… oh my! Maybe not.
I’m usually pretty good at tackling the big projects, being my own project manager. I guess I learned that from my Dad who grew up on a farm where they ate what they grew or hunted. If they didn’t grow or hunt, then they didn’t eat, so everyone, all eight kids, seem to have been pretty proficient at those tasks. In farming, if something breaks, you fix it and if you don’t know how to fix it, you figure out how to fix it. That was my Dad.
Over the course of his lifetime, he built five houses for himself… as a hobby. (I’m not counting the countless renovation projects he tackled for us, or friends or relatives.) He worked for Sperry Marine as an estimator, but after he got home from work, the necktie came off and work clothes went on. I remember my Dad walking to whatever site on our property he had chosen to begin building, and he built, first the home of my early childhood, then a duplex as a rental investment, then every five years thereafter, he built another house, as he could afford the materials, which roughly coincided with his building speed.
I don’t think he had ever built a house before my childhood home. He and mom drew up a set of plans of their dream ranch-style house on graph paper, taking inspiration from whatever 1960s family situation comedy was on television at the time. Our kitchen cabinets came from a set of plans for the cupboards on the set of Ozzy and Harriet’s kitchen. I’ve no idea how my mother came by the plans.
When Dad reached a stage in the build with which he was unfamiliar, he would drive around the county until he found another house at a similar stage of completion, get out of his truck, and go chat with the guys in the construction crew who were working there, sometimes volunteering to pitch in to perfect his skill. In that way, he became fairly proficient and learned, often by trial and error, how to build a home, start to finish. He taught himself masonry, wiring, plumbing, framing, and roofing. He was the plasterer and on occasion, when resources were tight, the excavator. All of this was learned without the aid of the internet. He was the internet!
As you can imagine, building a house, start to finish, is a HUGE task! I’m fond of saying, “a learned man can preach from the pulpit, but a carpenter built the cathedral.” How to hold all of that in your head and delay gratification of completion until it’s finished? Five years later? You don’t. He tackled each task as its own entity. Of course, by drawing up the plans, he had a fairly good idea of what needed to happen in preparation of the next stage in the building process. He dreamt building. The gratification came every day with the completion of a single row of block work, with each window installed, each roll of roofing felt tacked down. The gratification came every day, but especially at the end of the project, when the first family moved into the rental, or when he built our family vacation home on a river and could enjoy the fruits of his labor on the weekends.
There was always another big project in the back of his mind, but I think he compartmentalized the big stuff, breaking it into smaller, more mind-manageable, bite-sized nuggets.
I hope I absorbed a little bit of that from my dad. In 2020, I converted a shed into my writing studio. At first, I thought of it in its entirety. That overwhelming task sat in my brain for five years before the pandemic. It was only when I sat down and wrote down the different pieces, breaking it up into small, easily digestible tasks, tasks that could be completed in one week, that I finally completed the transformation… in two months.
I flatter myself in thinking that writing a novel compares in some way with building a house. You start with a premise, or an ending, or sometimes, just one unique character, then you start, one word at a time, to form sentences, then paragraphs, then pages, chapters, until it’s finished. And then you start all over again. The short-term gratification comes every day after writing a single scene that you later dream about, create a character so authentic you question whether or not they are real, or when you tweak a line until its meaning is filled with sub-plot, yet elegantly simple.
A couple of weeks ago, I decided, (after the third plumber failed to show up) that I would just rip out the upstairs shower myself. I pulled down the tile and had that sudden sense of dread when faced with a big task. That’s when I think I channeled Dad. I’m back on track now, compartmentalizing tasks: remove backer board, remove shower pan, level floor, install new shower pan, install new backer board, solid surface this time, glass shower doors… I think I need to set a timeline for myself to motivate me in this task. Maybe by next week’s blog post I will have completed the demolition. “Backer board, backer board, backer board…” Boom.
Today, I tweaked chapter whatever – more than halfway through rough edits of the work-in-progress, mowed the grass (until it started to rain), made dinner, fed the cat, cleaned the sink… I started to get overwhelmed, thinking about the half-gutted shower upstairs, then all of a sudden an old song popped into my head, “Inch-by-inch, row-by-row…”
I lead a small existence. I have home, immediate family, and a few friends I connect with on the regular. It’s what I’m used to and what I most enjoy. Heck, I fill the bulk of my days talking to voices in my head. You can’t get much smaller than living inside your head!
We went on vacation about a month ago. We drove to Quebec, Canada, which, depending upon where you live, is either a big deal or a little deal. For me, it was a big deal, having to drive half-way across the country (from south to north, so maybe not such a big deal as I make it sound, but yeah. Fiction. It’s what I do.)
But for the first time in my life, I had a panic attack. Okay, I’m not sure it was a full-blown panic attack, so I don’t want to minimize the trauma suffered by people who have full-on panic attacks. But if anything is going to induce a panic attack, I would say the traffic around New York/New Jersey along the turnpike, is probably up there with panic attack-inducing events.
I’m a pretty cautious person. I drive the speed limit or a mile or two under… unless it’s raining, and then I’m 5-10 mph under the speed limit. (Yes, I am that old woman.) I’m comfortable doing that. I drive in heavy traffic if I must. But since that event driving through NY/NJ, I’ve been a nut job. Or maybe I’m just noticing it more now, having experienced it once. I sit in the passenger seat, clenching the door handle, sucking air through my teeth when someone cuts in front of us in what I would deem an unsafe maneuver, and I have even said the choice word or two. (Okay, for both of my kids, their first swear words came out while in heavy traffic. One was in her little car seat. She asked me if, indeed, that car that had just cut dangerously close in front of me was an “ass-ho’”. The other child, while playing with MatchBox cars with his father, looked up at him angrily and said, “Daddy, you bein’ a ‘ass-ho’.” Note: don’t cut my kids off in traffic. They’re adults now and have a richer vocabulary and they’re not afraid to use it.)
Okay, so I’m a nut job who has panic attacks in heavy traffic and I was a terrible parent of toddlers.
All this just to say, we just drove through the D.C. Metro area on our way to Ocean City Maryland, the busiest, touristy, peoplest place on the east coast, and that is why I’m blogging from a little Microtel, in the dark, recovering from yesterday’s trauma. Not sure it’s worth it for a three day weekend away, but the company that awaits us in Ocean City is worth it. Proof that I’d cross hell and back for you. See ya soon!
No, no one has lost a life or limb by unnatural means. Well, okay, occasionally, every town has a “stranger than fiction” occurrence. That’s the fodder for writing, but mostly, I think of myself as living a cozy mystery, because of the setting.
I live in a strange little community where the make up of neighbors runs the gamut, from what some would call “filthy rich” to “church mouse” socio-economic status. There are the salt-of-the-earth characters, the gossips, the high-rollers, the social climbers, the mean girls, the church-goers, a wiccan or two, diversity in race, gender, orientation…
In the same neighborhood, there is an old mill for atmosphere, pastures of horses, cows, sheep, quaint and elegant churches, mountains, a country club behind gates, vineyards and a cidery…
I can always drive just a few miles for inspiration… or look out my own window. Heck, sometimes, I don’t even have to look outside the window very far, like the time my son found a buried treasure in the form of those little porcelain animals that used to come in boxes of tea, a miniature two-inch soda bottle… filled with soda! Remnants of a dog kennel behind an old shed where it was purported someone died, a death in our own house that occurred before our habitation, an old moonshine still….
Last weekend, I was inspired by the environs on the Mattaponi River, so much so, I’ll be heading back this weekend. There is a main street community, multiple churches within the township, water, wildlife, and in my next cozy series, there’s even a made up building or two, inspired by long-gone historical features.
I hope you will join me for the introduction of this new series and “family” of outcasts who make friends and enemies by shining light on murder and mischief. I keep pushing back the release date, but let’s say, before the end of the year.
In the meantime, here’s one of those made-up buildings that figures prominently in the first book in the series.
How can a cozy be based on both fact and fiction? Well, here’s a long-form blurb from the first book with explanations in parentheses: “Rocky Smith loves his hometown of Poropotank. (Poh-rope-oh-tank – it means muddy river in a native dialect. The town does not actually exist, but it is based on the peninsular town of West Point, VA.) So much so, he finds himself still lurking around after his death. Searching for his raison d’etre in this limbo, he takes up residence in the condemned Gray’s Hotel. (Again, it no longer exists in the real town. That’s the beauty of fiction.) From his perch in the attic of the condemned building, Rocky can easily see the comings and goings of the town’s characters, but slowly, as clues are exposed by the dear ladies with whom he shared his life, Rocky begins to remember how he died… and at whose hands.”
Or something to that effect. I hate writing blurbs. Love writing stories. I never know how much to give up, how much to hold back. I’m like that with gift-giving too. I’m a terrible secret keeper. In my tradition of reading, writing, and making art, I hope you will come back as the release date approaches. I’ll be launching in slow dribbles and drabs, the animated video of the book trailer in serial form. Woo hoo!
I’ve been on a few writers’ retreats over the years. My favorite though, is the one in my own backyard, er, Mom’s backyard, er, Mom’s vacation home backyard. This weekend, I am joined by friends. Not long. Just a three day weekend, but there is something to be said for sun, the sand, good company, any food that I didn’t have to prepare, and the pressure of hearing those keys a clickety-clackin’ in the next room, to get the creative juices flowing.
Ever thought of hosting your own Writers’ Retreat? It doesn’t take much, but here’s a list of a few things to consider.
I am lucky enough to have the occasional use of my mother’s home away from home, a very motherly house on the Mattaponi River. She was kind enough to let me come here with a couple of writer friends. We have kayaks and will put them in the water later… provided our balmy 93 degree fahrenheit temperatures take a dip later in the day/early tomorrow morning. (Somewhere in there, I’ll squeeze in some grass mowing.)
If you don’t have access to a cool venue, you might consider an Airbnb, or other venue suited to a very quiet house party. In the past, I’ve attended retreats at Winter Green Ski Resort, The Porches, a lovely remote, rural setting in Nelson County, Virginia, the guest house at a lovely estate just outside of Culpeper, VA, and a few that took place in conference centers. Consider something with few distractions, a nearby grocery store, and an evening amenity or two.
On the topic of food, you may want to confer with your fellow retreaters on this. On a previous retreat weekend, we broke up meal duties by the number of people in attendance, each of us preparing a meal and snacks – three meals over the course of two full days, six writers. It was a hoot and surprise at every meal. It’s tough though if there are special dietary restrictions or likes/dislikes. This weekend, we’ve opted to just catch-as-catch-can. Everyone is on their own for food prep, but we may decide to go out for a meal, or we can always shuffle on over to the grocery store. (I am, of course, the least prepared among us, so l will hit the grocery store before dinner.)
Is your venue accessible to everyone in your party? Our little troop is small enough, we could pile into the one car (electric) so it has also been very little cost to anyone. Okay, it’s no cost to anyone traveling with and literally pennies to charge at the outside plug now that we’re here.
That’s always a consideration. Well, it is for me. This weekend it is not, but at those past retreats, we have had to figure out the rate per person (if we were renting a venue) and split it accordingly. There is typically one person in charge of collecting all that dough and reserving the place. The cost is a factor for many, so they should know that figure going into the retreat.
In the past, with larger crowds, we have established quiet times during the day. Those are the hours that everyone agrees will be for the express use of writing or another quiet endeavor. Then there are often pre-determined gathering times. In past retreats, we had a time in the evening when we got together to discuss our WIP. (We arranged to have time slots, so no one person monopolizes the feedback time.) Maybe your writing time is in the evenings and mornings are set aside for a leisurely breakfast together. S’all good. It can be a time for critique or a fun time for a game or two. In our case this weekend, one of my friends and I will head out on the water and scope out the wildlife in the marsh. There are curious tracks on the sand that I believe to belong to a family of fisher cat living in the cypress tree on the beach. I’ve yet to see it or catch it on camera. They are very elusive. Maybe we’ll have better luck checking out the marsh.
Best if everyone is on the same page with regard to check-out times, especially if you may incur financial penalties for late check-out. Depending upon your familiarity with your group, you may or may not want a contract informing everyone of “da rules”, check-out times, check-in times, the structure of the day regarding quiet and not quiet times, etc. I’ve participated in gatherings both ways – loosey goosey and contractual. (We’re all adults, used to working with one another, so no contracts this weekend.)
Most of all, enjoy. Yeah, yeah, it’s work, but all work? Well, to work without distraction you might just as well stay home and shut the office door. Have fun!