Forty-two years ago this month, the roots that eventually grew into See Jane Run! were planted. My husband (we’d been married for 10 months) had started work at Sky Ranch in northwest South Dakota. I joined him a few weeks later. My mom, my Uncle Jim, and two of his three daughters (my cousins) helped with the move.
The morning we took off, Mom snapped this picture.
It was not an easy move. Everything Hiram and I owned was packed into our used Ford pick up. The pick up proved to be less than reliable. The trip took longer than expected. The house we had rented sight unseen in the little town of Camp Crook turned out to be smaller than anticipated. But the thing that really threw us for a loop was the herd of cattle on the state highway right outside of town.
I’m still kicking myself for not taking a picture.
The image is as fresh to me now as it was in June of 1978. Maybe that’s why Jane, the protagonist of the Tipperary County mystery series, along with her uncle and mother encounter a herd of cattle lounging on the the highway in the opening chapter of See Jane Run!
While writing the scene, I did my best to paint a word picture of what Jane saw and felt in that moment.
Not all of Jane’s emotions matched mine, but some of them did.
Not all of Jane’s adventures happened to me, but some of them did.
Not many of Jane’s fellow citizens were people I knew, but a few of them–all long dead– are.
However, Jane’s culture shock is the same as mine was. So is her growing appreciation for the unique place she moved to right out of college. Through Jane, I want to share with readers the culture and heart of the remote corner of the world where I once lived and still love.
With Jane’s help, I hope you’ll be able to picture it, too.
They say corn salsa–they being the authors of this recipe I found in a free publication available at our local Fareway grocery store and in their online recipe box. The first time I made it my husband, also referred to as the man of steel in other blog posts at this website, called it corn salad.
And the new name stuck.
Let me be perfectly clear. This recipe was not part of our world when we lived in northwest South Dakota. Therefore it has no link whatsoever to the mystery series which is the reason for the Gravel Road blog. However, testing and exchanging new recipes was a favorite pastime amongst my circle of friends when we did live there.
30 years later, I still use many of them. The recipes, not the friends.
I’m recalling that spirit to share this recipe today. It is too good, too simple, and too easy to keep to myself. Plus this is cilantro season here in Iowa, and this is a good way to use it. All 6 people in our house love this dish. That number includes the 5-year-old who is suspicious of anything where different foods touch one another and the 2-year-old who as a rule refuses to eat anything not smothered in barbecue sauce. Plus it works for the 3 adults who can’t eat dairy, the 5-year-old who can’t eat gluten, and the 2-year-old who can’t have soy.
Yes, we are THAT family.
One more thing–I usually double the recipe because it’s just that good.
They Say Corn Salsa, I Say Corn Salad
1 (16 ounce) bag frozen yellow corn, thawed
1 jalapeno, seeded and chopped (put on rubber gloves for this part)
1/2 of a large onion, diced
3/4 cup cilantro, chopped
2 limes, juiced (or 1/4 cup lime juice)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Combine all ingredients. Refrigerate and enjoy!
I once taught in a little school on the prairie. Those 5 years as a country school teacher are the basis of my first cozy mystery, See Jane Run! If it gets picked up by a publisher, my hope is to turn it into a series. Which is why I’ve spent the last few months plugging away at Hear Jane Sing!, the second mystery in the series.
If there’s been a personal silver lining to shelter in place mandates and the cancelation of all spring and summer speaking engagements because of coronavirus, this must be it.
There is no silver lining to the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. But it has led many, like myself, who enjoy white privilege to learn more about what it means to be black in the United States. To that end I recently watched 13th, the documentary about our country’s prison system. Part of the timeline traced the events of the war on drugs.
Part of that war happened while I taught in a little school on the prairie. Our son, who was born with a condition that required frequent surgeries and hospitalizations, was born during those years, too.
That may explain why I was oblivious to the racial injustices being done to black citizens in America. But it’s not an excuse.
When the documentary ended, I almost quit working on my cozy mystery. In light of historic protests and fellow citizens dying because their skin is a different color, the book seemed trite. It is populated by lily white characters, and to be true to the story’s time and place that can’t be changed.
Then again, the heart of each book in the series is the writing of wrongs perpetrated against innocent victims. Victims of injustice.
That sounds familiar. So as soon as this post is finished, I will return to the manuscript and keep writing. I will think of the children in the picture of above who were my students. I will think of Marie, who assisted me and taught me more than I taught my students. I will think of the little school on the prairie and the town’s citizens who reached out to my husband and me in practical and loving ways when our baby was sick and we were vulnerable.
Most of all, I will pray for our nation to do the same thing for its most vulnerable citizens today and always.
*In May, my agent pitched See Jane Run! to 3 publishers. The first to reply complimented the writing, but said the switch from being a non-fiction author to being a fiction author was tricky to negotiate and passed on the project. The second editor said cozy mysteries are hard to sell to their readership. The third hasn’t yet replied. While my agent waits for a reply from that publisher, he’s preparing to pitch it to 4 more. He’s a great agent!
Ugly sweater cookie contests and EA/TEF memories. What could they possible have in common? The answer is plenty, thanks to a recent Facebook post by a dear friend named Barb. She posted a picture about the ugly sweater cookie contest she hosted during her family’s 2019 Christmas gathering and asked Facebook friends to vote for the ugliest.*
Of course, I thought, Barb held an ugly sweater cookie contest at Christmas. That sounds just like her.
We met Barb and her young family way back when, when we lived in a remote town of 92 people in the northwest corner of South Dakota. Her 2 oldest daughters were in my country school classroom, and Barb created beautiful birthday cakes for them each year. Word got out, and since our town was at least 60 miles from the nearest bakery, she was soon creating cakes for all sorts of occasions.
She even created a cake for our EA/TEF baby’s first birthday in 1983. The cake featured a baby-with-a-feeding-tube-and-a-string-coming-out-of-his-mouth. Those who are used to 2020 EA/TEF technology may not be familiar with the 1982 version. Our baby’s feeding tube was a honking, huge Foley balloon catheter. The string went into his mouth, down his esophagus (placed there during a very dicey surgery), into his stomach, and out the feeding tube hole. The two ends were tied in a knot that was untied so dilation tubes could be attached to it when his repair scar needed to be stretched. Our baby endured this process, without anesthesia, about 2 dozen times. Thankfully, modern day dilations are less frequent, more effective, and much more humane.
Back to the cake.
My husband and I tucked the cake in the back seat of our car and strapped our baby into his car seat. Then we drove 120 miles to Rapid City Regional Hospital to celebrate our boy’s birthday in the GI lab with his GI doctor and his nurse.
The long trip was not kind to the cake, which looked like it had been in an earthquake by the time we arrived. Even so, our fellow party goers oohed and aahed over it. “Who made that? How did she do it?” they wanted to know.
Barb was amazing then, and she still is.
For me, posts about ugly sweater cookie contests and EA/TEF memories go hand in hand. Both of them show that things we’d rather not have in our lives (ugly sweaters and EA/TEF) can be redeemed in relationships and celebration.
Families decorating ugly sweater cookies at Christmas and asking Facebook friends far and wide to vote.
A friend turning the hard bits of an EA/TEF baby’s first year into cake decoration.
A doctor and nurse taking time from their day to eat cake with the young parents of a baby whose life they saved.
A cozy mystery book series (if, God willing, a publisher offers a contract) to celebrate the long ago place and time where our EA/TEF baby was born.
Thanks to my friend Barb, ugly sweater cookie contests and EA/TEF memories will always belong together. If you have an EA/TEF baby, and even if you don’t, hope you have a friend like Barb in your life, too.
*I forgot to vote, but the cookie I deemed ugliest won, which can only mean that my thoughts are able to influence elections.
Adding a dollop of caregiving to the cozy mystery genre has been a dream of mine. So this winter, I’m making the giant leap from writing non-fiction to fiction while my agent pitches See Jane Run! to publishers. I’d love to have all my caregiving friends join the adventure. Because cozy mysteries are fun, and caregivers need more fun in their lives. Do you need a little more convincing? Check out the book’s elevator pitch:
When young woman dies and an old bachelor rancher goes missing, a greenhorn schoolteacher solves the mystery. But the murderer remains free to roam the vast, remote short-grass prairie of South Dakota in the late 1970s. Can she keep the killer from claiming another victim?
Jane, the schoolteacher, has a disabled father. Guilt from leaving her mother to shoulder all his care dogs her throughout the story. Years of watching multiple sclerosis steal away her once-vibrant father move her to find the person who killed the mother of one of her students.
Are you ready to leap with me? Then jump in with me as this website is transformed into my cozy mystery fiction central HQ. From here on out, the plan is to feature pictures, snippets of history, and authentic recipes from where and when the story takes place. You’ll also find exclusive content and more at Down the Gravel Road’s Facebook group, as well as on Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. (Note: If you want to search for Down the Gravel Road on any of those platforms, shorten “road” to “rd” as in “DowntheGravelRd” or “Down the Gravel Rd”) Once the website’s RSS feed and mailing list are up and running, you’ll be able to sign up for those and stay up to date on everything the site has to offer.
Still not sure about adding a dollop of caregiving to the cozy mystery genre? Maybe these questions and answers will ease your concerns.
What’s a Cozy Mystery?
Cozy mysteries are a sub-category of the mystery genre, and they have several characteristics:
- They almost always feature an amateur sleuth.
- The sleuth solves crimes that impact their work.
- They usually take place in a small city or town,
- They have a limited amount of suspects.
- They have no sex, hard-core profanity, or violent scenes.
To read more about cozy mysteries, check out this Huff Post article.
Why a Cozy Mystery?
I’ve loved cozy mysteries since high school when I read Agatha Christie for the first time. Well-written cozies with vivid, character-driven stories are my favorite escapist medium. When I left teaching to become a writer, I was surprised by my 16 years of success with non-fiction. This giant leap is a return to my first love while I still can. After all, I’m 63 now and not getting any younger.
Why Are You Adding a Dollop of Caregiving to the Cozy Mystery Genre?
A first rule for writers is to write what you know, so combining my passion for cozies with my experience as a caregiver makes perfect sense. My teaching experience and the years my husband and I lived in a teeny-tiny town in northwest South Dakota are also big players in See Jane Run!
Are You Ready?
Then leap over to Down the Gravel Road. Stay up-to-date by signing up for the website’s RSS feed and Down the Gravel Road’s mailing list. Find exclusive content and more at Down the Gravel Road’s Facebook group, as well as on Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.