3-2-1 Truly! Part Two: Beginnings

The countdown to Really Truly, my third Pumpkin Falls mystery, continues today with a peek at how the series came about. It’s a bit of a tale, so buckle up. . . .

Absolutely Truly, the first book in the series, sprang to life because of a happy convergence of several factors:

  1. A long-cherished desire to write about a big family.

Many moons ago, when I was growing up, my family rented a cottage on a lake in Maine for our summer vacation.

Me, about nine years old

It had two things I’ve coveted ever since: A row of rocking chairs on a huge porch overlooking the water, and an entire wall of built-in bookshelves. Heaven! I couldn’t decide which was better — swimming in the lake or lolling on the porch with a book in one of those rocking chairs.

It was there on those shelves that I discovered Cheaper By the Dozen, a memoir about the sprawling Gilbreth family.

At my tender age, the cringe-worthy racist stereotypes in an unfortunate chapter about the family’s Chinese cook flew over my head – I was just entranced by the idea of a family with TWELVE CHILDREN. In my family, there were just three of us kids, me and my sisters. I couldn’t fathom TWELVE CHILDREN. Amazing!

 

  1. My love for small New England towns, like the ones I grew up in around New Hampshire and Massachusetts

 

Jane Austen once told her aspiring novelist niece, “Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on.” I couldn’t agree more! I followed her advice for the Mother-Daughter Book Club series, and I followed it again as I was dreaming up Pumpkin Falls.

  1. My love of covered bridges.

Because who doesn’t love a covered bridge? They’re amazing!

  1. My growing curiosity about a bookshop that my grandfather owned in Providence, Rhode Island, back in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The Ultima Bookshop wasn’t terribly successful, alas. For one thing, Grampie’s timing was terrible. Nobody was buying books during the Depression! For another, for some unfathomable reason, he threw caution to the wind—along with his business plan, apparently—and decided to create a sort of bookstore hybrid.

Can you see that sign on the door in backwards writing? My grandfather turned the back room of his shop into a lending library, which pretty much sums up the business acumen in the Vogel family. Grampie advertised this proudly…

You have to admire his confidence. “Unusual Lending Library!”  Yes, and an unusually BAD business idea! Who would buy a book if they could borrow one?

Well, how about James Joyce?

I made an exciting discovery shortly before starting work on Absolutely Truly. SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY was a famous bookstore opened by Sylvia Beach in Paris’s Left Bank in 1919. During the 1920s it was a gathering spot for writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce (who used the bookstore as his office, and in fact Sylvia Beach was the publisher for his novel “Ulysses”). As it turns out, my grandfather was kicking around Europe in the 1920s, studying bookbinding in Vienna and chaperoning his sister, who was also a student there.

Quite the fashionista, isn’t he? I love those socks. . . .

A store like Shakespeare & Company would have drawn Grampie like a moth to a flame.  And guess what?  Shakespeare and Company also had . . . wait for it . . . a lending library! Patrons could buy OR BORROW BOOKS!

Did Grampie pattern the Ultima Bookshop after Shakespeare & Company?  That will forever remain a mystery, as he is no longer around for me to ask, but personally, I think the evidence is pretty compelling.

Whether it was the lending library or the general economic climate, Grampie’s shop sputtered along for a few years, then closed its doors, but he kept his love of books and reading for his entire life, and he shared that enthusiasm with me and my sisters. So, I thought it would be fun to feature a small-town bookshop in my novel, as a tip of my hat to him.

Here’s the actual present-day store that helped spark Lovejoy’s Books in the Pumpkin Falls mysteries.  Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island, Washington, is one of my favorite bookstores. (In fairness, I am the Will Rogers of bookstores and libraries – I’ve never met one I didn’t like.) My friend Victoria Irwin works there, and she graciously allowed me to go undercover for a few days as a bookseller, for research purposes.

Left to right: Me, Sarah, and Victoria

This is why being a writer is the best job ever. The things we get to do for research! You can read more about that adventure here.

So we’ve got a small town, a covered bridge, a bookstore. We’re not finished yet, though.

4. “To my grandfathers”

Those who read Absolutely Truly may have noted that the dedication reads “to my grandfathers.” You’ve already heard about one grandfather, but there’s another ancestor who inspired an important piece of TRULY. Two, in fact!

On the far left is my paternal great-great-grandfather. Next to him is my maternal grandfather. Both were amputees. My great-great-grandfather lost an arm in a threshing accident back in the 1860s; my grandfather lost a leg while working for the Canadian Railroad in the 1930s. Both of them were burdened with heavy, uncomfortable wooden prostheses. I was just beginning the first book around the time of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, and I was tremendously moved by the many stories of war veterans who helped those who lost limbs transition to their new normal. That got me thinking about these two men in my family, whose lives might have been entirely different if they’d had sympathetic mentors and access to modern prosthetics. And this was the seed that sprouted into Truly’s father, Lieutenant Colonel Jericho T. Lovejoy, who has to navigate the sudden shift in his world, just as Truly has to navigate hers.

And finally, there were other personal connections that made it into the book…

My long-standing love of Shakespeare, for one, and for E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (which I consider one of two perfect novels in the world, alongside Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). And there was also an owl who flew into my back yard in Oregon on my birthday, just as I was struggling to find my way into my main character. You can read more about that here.

I think it’s true for every writer that pieces of our lives, pieces of our hearts, and pieces of the things we’re passionate about find their way into our books.

By the way, I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to the amazingly talented Charles Santoso, whose artwork graces the covers of these books. They’re swoon-worthy, don’t you think? I just want to dive straight into the cover of Really Truly and live there for a while!

If you look closely at Really Truly, you’ll notice a tail in the water, up to the right of the canoe. How a mermaid swished her way into Pumpkin Falls is a tail for another day! Stay tuned . . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writer’s magic, unexpected left turns, and my new friend Esther

It happens every single time I write a book.

Writer’s magic.

Others call it serendipity, or “the universe” (whatever that’s supposed to mean), or coincidence, or any number of things. But for me, it’s always been — magic.

Here’s the way it works. I sit down and start to write. I’m a pantster, which means I fly by the seat of my pants. No outline, no bulletin boards with pictures of characters cut out of magazines, no charts or lists or anything like that which my plotter friends use. Sometimes I have a vague general idea of where the story might go, but as often as not, it takes a surprise left turn and goes somewhere else entirely.

I just love this process of discovery as I go along! I love all the unexpected twists and turns. It keeps things interesting. Plus, inevitably, the magic happens, which is exactly what occurred recently with the draft I’m working on at the moment. (It’s another Pumpkin Falls mystery, in case you’re wondering.) And this time, I caught it in the act — well, almost — which rarely happens. It’s hard to track exactly where ideas come from, but once in a while, eureka!

So I was writing along, minding my own business, and all of a sudden, this synchronized swimming element popped into the story, completely out of the blue (or so it seemed). My main character, Truly, is a swimmer, so the pool is always a part of her story, but whoa, where did this come from? And not just synchronized swimming in general, but specifically two nonagenarians (great word – a nonagenarian is someone in their 90s) named Zadie and Lenore who used to swim with Esther Williams in Hollywood!

Seriously — I kid you not, they just turned up on the page, all sassy and bursting with life. No way was I going to shut the door on the two of THEM. They were pure magic.

Writer’s magic.

So into the story they’ve swum, and I am spending my evenings researching Esther Williams and watching her movies.

Now I haven’t watched an Esther Williams movie since I was in middle school, and happened to stumble upon one when I was channel surfing on a Saturday afternoon with nothing else to do. THAT’S A LONG TIME AGO! What on earth had made me think of her, and those fabulous over-the-top Busby Berkeley choreographed water ballet sequences? Dozens of swimmers! Fountains and flames! Live music! And Esther herself, with her sequins and shimmer, her girl-next-door smile, her perfectly coiffed hair and perfect makeup, which no amount of water could ever dislodge!

I had no idea.

But I’ve learned not to question these magic moments when they occur, and I’ve been having enormous fun immersing myself (pardon the pun) in Esther’s watery world, and finding ways to bring elements of it into my new book.

 

That’s a scene from Million Dollar Mermaid. Isn’t it fabulous? And isn’t Esther amazing? She was a real athlete, a champion swimmer who would very likely have been an Olympian but World War II interfered, and she ended up in Hollywood instead. She makes those stunts look easy, but they aren’t. Not at all.

Meanwhile, last weekend I went to see the new movie Crazy Rich Asians for the second time, because I liked it so much the first time I saw it, weeks ago right after it came out.

And suddenly there it was, onscreen, the source of this particular moment of writer’s magic. Just a flash of a scene at the very end, of synchronized swimmers performing at an over-the-top celebration.

Aha, I thought. THAT’S where I got the idea!

Knowing where and when the seed was planted took some of the mystery out of it, but none of the magic. Because the magic wasn’t done with me yet. It turns out that my young niece, without knowing any of what’s been going on in my head, JUST JOINED A SYNCHRONIZED SWIMMING TEAM!

Which means I have a spy to help me with my research. Isn’t that fun?!

So here’s to writer’s magic, left turns, and my new friend Esther Williams!

Catching up

Hi there! Remember me? Oh my, what a whirlwind spring and summer I’ve had! I’ve been writing writing writing, mostly. I’m working on a new Pumpkin Falls mystery featuring the one and only Truly Lovejoy. Anyway, I spent the past week on a “staycation” from my day job, coffee-shop-hopping around Boston with my laptop in search of the perfect writing spot. I love writing in coffee shops! It’s a nice change from working at home alone. Anyway, I thought I’d share my favorite spots for decaf mochas, my current motivator of choice.

The winner is …


BURDICK’S!  Oh my goodness. I knew their hot chocolate was a winner, but the mochas? Swoon. Unbelievably rich, with just the right balance of chocolate and coffee. I love the fact, too, that this outpost is just a few blocks from the Boston Public Library, which is one of my favorite writing haunts.

Coming in at second place is Tatte (rhymes with “latte”), which is like a little slice of Paris here in Beantown.

Seriously – I dare you to resist something this gorgeously creamy! And they have amazing baked goods which I try hard to resist but usually can’t. Fortunately, they offer teeny tiny cookies at the checkout (so smart of them), so I can indulge in a wee treat without ending up not fitting into my pants.

(And yes, there is a mermaid on my laptop screen — I use Scrivener, which let’s you customize the “Composition mode” backdrop. There’s a mermaid element in my new book….)

In third place is Athan’s.

A European-style bakery with delectable hot chocolate and very good mochas. I like the casual buzz, too. You can often find me here.

Finally, a newly-opened neighborhood hangout: Cafe Landwer.

It’s been around since 1919 (not in my neighborhood), and in fact my favorite drink on their menu right now is a tea called “Berlin 1919” — Berlin, Germany, is where the cafe has its roots. It’s served with cinnamon and lemongrass and mint and a slice of orange and is HIGHLY ADDICTIVE! BUT there is something on the menu that is also calling my name and which I intend to try very soon: NUTELLA LATTE.

Are you kidding me?

Sign me up. I’ve been resisting (see: importance of fitting in pants, above), but I have a feeling I’m going to cave this weekend. I’ll check back in and let you know how it was…

What are your favorite places to write? Or read, or daydream, or draw, or whatever it is you love to do?