Going on Tour

Starting February 28, Craks in a Marriage and the Mah Jongg Mystery series are going on the Great Escapes Blog Tour to introduce readers to Serendipity Springs, Florida and my quartet of amateur female detectives. This is the first time I’ve promoted a book this way and I hope those who read this will stop by and say hi as I’m visiting these blogs.

Here’s the schedule:

February 28 – Texas Book-aholic
February 28 – StoreyBook Reviews
March 1 – Babs Book Bistro
March 2 – Cozy Up With Kathy 
March 2 – Escape With Dollycas Into A Good Book
March 3 – The Pulp and Mystery Shelf 
March 4 – Laura’s Interests
March 4 – Mysteries with Character
March 5 – Readeropolis
March 6 – Books a Plenty Book Reviews 
March 7 – Valerie’s Musings
March 7 – Maureen’s Musings
March 8 – My Reading Journeys
March 8 – Socrates’ Book Reviews 
March 9 – A Blue Million Books 
March 9 – Brooke Blogs

For buy links, go to “Mah Jongg Mysteries” on this website.

 

Getting Cozy

I started reading cozy mysteries during the latter months of pregnancy with my first child. Though still working on my thesis and preparing to take my comps for a master’s degree in history, I needed something else to keep my mind active while I waited for the arrival of the little one (girl, who’s now in her mid-forties). What better exercise of the brain than an Agatha Christie mystery? Soon after, when I’d read all the Christie’s in the library, I branched out to Ellery Queen.

Several years later, when I started writing fiction, I considered writing my own cozy mystery but decided instead to focus on romance novels since there seemed to be more opportunity in that field.

Jump ahead several more years to 2012, when my first contemporary romance, The Sleepover Clause, was published. Since then, I have added ten more full-length novels and one novella to my repertoire. The last three novels have been self-published.

I’ve enjoyed writing contemporary romance, because it forced me to deal with conflict in human relationships and develop credible resolutions. But I’ve never forgotten my love for cozies. This year, I decided to try my hand at writing one. It wasn’t something that came to me overnight. I fast discovered that murdering a victim is one of the last parts of the set-up. Several other questions had to be settled first. Where is the story set? Who is the protagonist and what skills and limitations does she or he bring to the story? What is the world of the protagonist and how do they get pulled into the vortex of murder?

The heroes and heroines of my romances are typically in their early to mid-thirties. The stories have been located in central Iowa, on an island on the coast of South Carolina, or in New York City or Los Angeles. I employed my background in human resources to develop my characters’ occupations, using the catch phrase “Romance at Work.”

Now that I have retired and live the better part of the year in central Florida, I wanted my first cozy series to reflect that. So the setting became a small town not too much unlike my new home. I made my protagonist a woman  slightly younger than me (I don’t specify her exact age) and also retired. I gave her three friends who play mah jongg with her.  I liked them and their relationships so much, I decided to stray slightly outside the typical cozy model and made them all the protagonists.

As the one who tends to be the ringleader, Sydney Bonner takes the lead in the first book, Craks in a Marriage. Like many amateur sleuths in this genre, she doesn’t do so on her own initiative. She is pulled into a murder investigation by another mah jongg player who fears she’ll be arrested for her husband’s homicide if the real culprit isn’t found. Having no investigative experience, Sydney prevails upon her three friends to help her. Besides their belief in their friend’s innocence, their efforts differ in two key respects from the authorities’: their social connections in town and ability to glean information from locals without it being detected as part of the investigation.

It was a challenge developing four different characters but also great fun. None of them is based on an actual person, but each reflects bits and pieces of people I know or have known. And myself.  The real fun has been developing the world of Serendipity Springs, their fictional town. This gave me the opportunity to portray and comment on my life as a retiree.

I haven’t stopped writing romance novels; I’ve just put them on hold temporarily. I still have at least two more books in the UnderWright Productions series to do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Redesign on a dime, or in our case, a few hundred dimes

While I attended the Romance Writers of America annual conference at the Dolphin at Walt Disney World in Orlando this past summer, my husband painted the bedroom of our condo. A year ago, we bought a new duvet and matching pillows and shams, which remained in the box while we decided (debated/negotiated) on a color. The duvet set was navy with white trim. The old wall color was supposedly an off-white but looked yellow. So we wanted something different that would still match the duvet. What color would you choose?

My husband wanted light tan. I wanted gray. Last spring, having reviewed at least twenty color swatches from Home Depot, Lowe’s and Sherwin Williams, we settled on one that was a blend of both. We marked it and set it aside until we returned this summer to make the purchase. However, when that time arrived, we couldn’t find the card. So the negotiations began again.

I’ll skip over this next part, the second round of negotiations, because they weren’t particularly pretty. Those concluded, back to Home Depot we went, where we each selected the colors we liked best and then attempted to find yet another compromise. Miraculously, we did manage to settle on one color. We purchased it and brought it home.

The next day was the first day of painting. Once again we learned that color swatches aren’t necessarily accurate. The walls were gray. I was elated, my husband not so much. Not to disparage the Navy, but he called the color battleship gray, and not in a nice way. But we told ourselves paint goes on dark and then as it dries, it gets lighter. Not really.

At this point, I told him to return to the store and get the color he wanted. But a gallon of paint these days is expensive and my husband is thrifty, and since he was doing the painting and was not thrilled with the prospective of doing it all over again, the gray remained.

I love it, especially with the blue bedding. But to make things better for him, I went off to the Conference and left it up to him to decide which pictures to rehang and which would now go into storage. Needless to say, all my pictures of palm trees and ferns are history.

Doing Research the Fun Way

I am working on my first mystery novel. No, I haven’t given up writing contemporary romance. In fact, my new series, UnderWright Productions, is about to launch. But I’ve long been an avid mystery reader, especially cozy mysteries. Not sure what those are? Think Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series or the current Pampered Pet series by Sparkle Abbey.

Lello and Irmao Bookstore

Since I’ve only finished a rough draft of the first story, I’m not yet ready to reveal much about this series. But I will tell you it features older heroines. Women who are still quite active even though they’ve retired from previous careers.

I used the recent river cruise my husband I took in Portugal as a living lab to observe my fellow passengers and pick up pointers about this age group. Though none of my “research” was scientific, I did come away with some important impressions.

1. Many seniors in their 70s and 80s, the kind who take trips like this, reflect the same type of energy as my heroines. My cohorts did much better than I on side trips to cathedrals, castles, quaint villages and vineyards, which required significant walking and climbing.
2. Unlike me, many seniors rise early. I was usually one of the last to arrive at breakfast at eight.
3. They know what they want and like and aren’t afraid to express their views. Meals especially. If a waiter failed to bring their coffee or whatever soon enough, they went in pursuit of the supposedly dawdling server.
4. They possess sufficient disposable income to enjoy themselves and purchase memories. Especially cork. Almost every woman on the tour came away with a new cork purse; I got an eyeglass case.

5. Seniors have led interesting lives and pursued fascinating careers in engineering, chemistry, finance, interior decoration, to name a few.
6. Not all couples are married or related. Perhaps the most interesting tidbit I picked up. That will definitely find a home in my books.

The Atlantic Ocean from high in Madeira

The “fun” part of my research was the trip itself. I knew little about the archipelago (group of islands) of Madeira beforehand. I didn’t even realize how far out into the Atlantic it was. A series of hills and mountains make up the landscape, with numerous tunnels allowing internal transit. The place was absolutely beautiful. Flowers everywhere. Along with banana trees, planted anywhere there was space.

Lisbon is a port city on the Tejo River. Its inhabitants are still very proud of the accomplishments of its early explore, Prince Henry the Navigator. To our surprise and delight, we were housed for three days in the Pestana Palace Hotel. I spent Mother’s Day enjoying a Pepsi Light at the private pool. This locale will show up in future stories for sure.

The Pestana Palace Hotel

The Douro River begins in Spain and empties into the Atlantic at Porto in northern Portugal. Our actual cruise started there, after visiting many of the city’s landmarks, including the Lello and Irmao Bookstore, where supposedly J.K. Rowling received inspiration for her later Harry Potter books while she taught there.

Mother’s Day by the pool

The most notable features of the Douro are the high terraced slopes of numerous vineyards, which produce the country’s famous port.

The terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley

At Barca d’Alva, the western border of Spain, we boarded buses and headed for Madrid, stopping off in the university city of Salamanca first to roam parts of the old city.

We only had one full day in Madrid. Much too little time to see it all. Places like the Royal Palace, the Prado, Plaza Mayor and Gran Via will have to wait for future trips. I highly recommend a river cruise for those who prefer to have others organize their itinerary.

Porto, Portugal

Blueberry Time in Central Florida

Barb and blueberry fieldAfter hearing several friends rave about picking blueberries and sampling some of the wonderful food that resulted from their excursions, my husband and I set off to do the same. Southern Hill Farms, southwest of Orlando, Florida in Clermont has been offering customers the chance to pick their own blueberries or purchase what others have gathered for a little over four years. The first crop was planted in 2010. Eight fields offer ten different varieties. Customers set out to pick with gallon buckets provided by the Farms and a map describing the sizes and tastes of each variety. Pickers can eat as many berries as they want as they go.

blueberries

Blueberries in varying degrees of ripeness

 

The Farm also offers blueberry snacks, a gift shop (I bought a blueberry-scented candle crafted on-site), a hay rack ride, another ride called the Blueberry Express, and a small playground. Their season extends from mid-April to around Memorial Day, although not all varieties are available that long. In fall, they offer pumpkins and gourds. Around Christmas, they do an outdoor showing of “The Polar Express,” complete with hot chocolate. rocking chairsblueberry field

I ventured into the fields long enough to snap shots for this article, then retired to my own rocking chair in the open air picnic area. It was one of those glorious, sunny Florida days with low humidity and a gentle breeze. My husband picked for about forty-five minutes and returned with about three pounds of blueberries.

blueberry field 2

The rows of bushes are aligned in straight rows. Note the irrigation equipment throughout.

 

For more information about the Farms, visit SouthernHillFarms.com/blueberry-u-pick.

I have big plans for making blueberry pancakes, blueberry muffins and a blueberry pie in the days ahead. Included here is a modified recipe I received from a friend years ago for Blueberry-Grape salad. Enjoy!

Blueberry-Grape Salad

 

Use a 13x9x2” pan or dish

Dissolve 2 boxes (large) grape gelatin in 2 c. boiling water

Add: 1 large can crushed pineapple, drained, 1 can blueberry pie filling (okay, so this doesn’t quite work with fresh or frozen blueberries; if you want to be a purist, there are several recipes for blueberry pie filling online)

Let this set in refrigerator until firm.

Once set, mix together until lump-free, 1 c. sour cream, 1 large package cream cheese, ½ c. sugar and 1 tsp. vanilla. Optional: 1/8 tsp. lemon juice.

Optional: sprinkle top with finely chopped walnuts and/or shaved blueberry chips (don’t go overboard on these; the bottom layer will already be sweet.)

 

Even Authors Have to Eat

 

home chef

Parsley-Capers Medallions of Pork with Warm Cauliflower Salad

Have you ever stood before your open refrigerator door and pondered to have for dinner that night? In recent years, it has become a common occurrence in my life. It’s not that I don’t like to cook. I don’t plan well. Also, when most of my brain power is absorbed in writing, I lack creativity in the kitchen.

 

Enter my salvation, the weekly meal delivery service. After hearing friends and family rave about the tasty, nutritious home-cooked meals they’ve prepared thanks to these hunger helpers, my husband and I recently signed up for two meals a week. Trial basis for now, mind you, to see if this is a wise investments. After three weeks, my conclusion is yes, definitely!

Customers of this particular company get lots of choices: number of meals per week, types of protein, vegetables, and other ingredients preferred/disliked, and day of the week selections should be delivered. For this period, we limited our protein choices to beef, chicken, and pork. We’ve already tried some of each. So far, the sirloin steak, which we’ve had twice, is my favorite.

We’ve found it works best if we prepare these meals together. Each meal has required a certain amount of chopping, slicing and mincing, just like the cooking shows you see on the Food Network. My husband has taken over that duty. While he and the knives are doing their work, I’m prepping the meat, mixing various items, seasoning and placing items in the oven or on the stove.

The beautiful thing about this process is that most of the ingredients needed for the meal arrive pre-portioned in refrigerated boxes, which will survive outside your door for several hours, if you’re not home when delivered. The only “extra” ingredients we need to provide are salt, pepper, olive oil and cooking spray plus aluminum foil and the appropriate pots, pans and cooking sheets.

We’re still adjusting to the prep process itself. For instance, our kitchen counters are in an L-shape. The oven is at the short end of the L, the two drawers that house most of our utensils, the cutting board and potholders are in the corner, the sink comes next, and at the top of the L is a small counter space. I’m learning that the chopping should be done on that latter counter space, so that I have access to everything else, including the stove and oven. The first few times, he chopped in the corner, which prevented me from getting at the items I needed. kitchen

We learned we need at least two timers, sometimes three, to stay on top of the various operations taking place simultaneously. The recipes and pictured instructions refer to meat temperature, so we also purchased a meat thermometer rather than guess. The chicken and beef were to be browned in a pan on the stove, which produced a certain amount of splatter, so we now have a splatter guard as well.

Is this expensive? It’s cheaper than purchasing a similar meal in a restaurant. If you’re used to meals of frozen chicken breasts and frozen or canned vegetables, or sandwiches or hamburgers, probably not. But it’s provided us welcome relief, at least two nights a week, from deciding what we want to eat. That’s a huge relief when you’re trying to develop a plot, strengthen a hero’s motivation or enliven dialogue.

One more thing. My husband wants me to add that a chief reason using this service for meal prep is the togetherness. Yes, we bump into each other sometimes and one may question the other’s techniques on occasion, but in the end, when we’ve been going two different directions throughout the day, this is the time for coming together.

Welcome to new followers of this blog. Hope you’ll stick around. News of my next project coming soon.

 

Something’s Coming

Having a taste“Under construction”

“What’s cookin’?”

“Under my hat”

“Coming Attractions”

Several friends are eagerly anticipating the birth of new grandchildren. We were in their place just a little over a year ago. It’s a time of dreaming dreams of what lies ahead, what could be. For some, wondering if it will be a boy or a girl.

This author is experiencing similar dreams, not as lofty and heartwarming as the birth of a child, but exciting, just the same. My last romance novel, Not Your Mama’s Mambo, was released in November of 2016. Since that time, I’ve been very productive, working on a new series of romance novels, which I’ll be announcing in the weeks ahead. I also finished the rough draft of my first mystery. I wish I could tell you more, but just like expectant parents, I’m withholding additional information about my “babies” until I have more specifics to share.

under constructionCheck back in a month for more details.