Labor Day weekend will be different this year. For as long as I can remember the holiday was more about celebrating my mother’s birthday than celebrating laborers. Then again she was born on September 3, which was Labor Day in her birth year of 1928. Which means her birthday was and will always be a celebration of labor, though not of laborers.
Because Mom’s birthday usually occurred during a three day weekend, it often coincided with gatherings of our extended family. Though Labor Day weekend will be different this year, that much will remain the same. Our annual cousins’ reunion––there are 39 of us, a number that swells quickly when you throw in our spouses and descendants–– will be held the day before Mom’s birthday.
This year will be quite different in other ways. Mom left this world on June 23 and will not be with us in body on her birthday. Then again, our memories of her and of her seven siblings who waited patiently for her to join them in heaven, will be present in full force. We will tell our family stories. We will share favorite memories of our parents. They were all farmers and housewives and teachers, remarkable people though not well-known outside our circle and never, never showy.
Since some of my cousins weren’t able to attend Mom’s celebration of life, I will take the memory book the funeral home compiled for them to see. I’ll also bring the scrapbook, filled with photos of our parents and their parents, which I made the year Mom turned 80. How can that be 15 years ago? I will also take the birthday cake she loved best, homemade German chocolate cake. Not the cupcake version on the chocolate bar pictured above, but the traditional version pictured below. The cake is delicious, moist and very big. A good thing in an extended family as large as ours.
My piece will probably be on the salty side, not because I have a heavy hand with that ingredient, but because I will be crying as I eat. My tears will be good. Sad. Joyful. Healthy. I expect them to flow freely as my cousins who knew and loved Mom teach me what they already know. She, like their parents who went before her, is alive and well in our hearts.
Happy birthday, Mom, from all of us.
In loving memory of Dorothea Lorraine Stratton
September 3, 1928-June 23, 2023
Does this picture make you want to read See Jane Dance! before its release date? The third book in the West River Mystery Series will be available at Amazon on October 10, but you can read it sooner by joining the launch team.
Before passing on the deets about how to join, I want to explain why See Jane Dance! updates have been sparse in the last several months, it’s because my indomitable mother (Doris Newell’s prototype) passed away on June 23, a few months shy of her ninety-fifth birthday. Saying good bye was hard. Still, I rejoice to think of her free of pain and reunited with her husbands, her parents, and her seven siblings who left this earth before her.
Now that most of her legal and financial matters settled, my attention is focused on the upcoming release of See Jane Dance!, the third book in the West River Series. Here’s a quick peek at how Jane and her fellow Little Missourians decide to usher in the new year:
1978 is only a few days old when Jane Newell stumbles over a body on her way to Round the Bend, Little Missouri, South Dakota’s most popular (and only) bar and cafe. Soon she’s juggling not only a murder investigation, but also the addition of four kindergarteners to her lively country school classroom. Thanks to weekly square dance lessons paid for by her mother, the town switchboard operator, and the school janitor, all of them determined to kick start her romantic life, she’s also fending off eligible bachelors right and left. Jane braves bone-chilling temperatures, dangerous snowstorms, and town gossip as she and the sheriff zero in on a killer who’s dancing too close for comfort.
If that’s got your curiosity doing a jig and you want find out how Jane tracks down the killer, please consider joining the See Jane Dance! launch team. Here’s what’s in it for you:
- An advance reader copy in September.
- A FREE Kindle version on October 10.
- An invitation to whatever kind of launch party I have time to dream up. This one depends on how much attention Mom’s remaining affairs require.)
Your part is to write an honest review and post it on Amazon after the book releases on October 10. (More about that in future blog posts.) To join just email me. I would love to have you on the team. I guarantee that taking square dance lessons with Jane and her rotating roster of partners will not be boring.
Now for two final tidbits regarding See Jane Dance!…
First, Mom’s chocolate chip oatmeal cookie recipe can be found at the end of the book. Second, Mom learned to square dance in gym class while attending a small, conservative Christian college in the 1940’s. The students, however, had to refer them as “square games lessons” because dancing wasn’t allowed on campus.
Which goes to show that words really do matter.
Where did Columbo 2.0 come from and why is he part of the West River Mystery Series? That was the question I asked myself while developing a backstory for a new character who debuts in See Jane Dig! (That’s Book 4 if you’re keeping track.) The new character is the Tipperary County Deputy Sheriff. He was mentioned in both See Jane Run! and See Jane Sing! but remained nameless and never made an appearance. The same thing is true of See Jane Dance!, which will be released in the fall of 2023.
More on that in an upcoming post.
During the planning session for See Jane Dig!, my editor and I decided the time had come to rectify the situation. The elusive deputy deserved to show up and be named. My good intention went no further until April of 2023 when Hiram and I were on the road. We stopped for lunch at the Zapp Thai restaurant in Greenfield, Indiana. The place was crowded and while we waited for the server, who was being run off her feet, to take our order I opened my composition notebook and began brainstorming names.
My only criteria for the deputy was that his surname was Italian.
Mainly because two homesteaders who came to northwest South Dakota in the early 1900s were Italian. They had a big family, and many of their descendants remain in the area to this day. I wanted the series to reflect their presence. After the server took our order I did an internet search for and found the Italian derivative of a certain English name. It’s a bit of a spoiler, so you’ll have to wait until Book 4 to learn what it is. Next I searched for popular Italian surnames and Columbo popped up.
What could be better than naming Tipperary County’s lawman after television’s most rumpled detective?
Once Deputy Columbo had a name, the details for his backstory began to flow. Some are riffs on the original:
- My guy wears a western duster instead of a trench coat.
- He chews tobacco instead of a cigar.
- His appearance is rumpled.
- He is underwhelming at first glance.
Other details are unique to Columbo 2.0:
- He loves animals and takes his dog everywhere.
- He’s lazy, except when it comes to hunting and fishing.
- He has a family and is a devoted father.
- He’s late to everything.
So where did Columbo 2.0 come from?
I guess you could say he began at the very busy Zapp Thai restaurant in Greenfield, Indiana. Hiram and I encourage you to eat there if you’re ever in the area. The food was some of the best we’ve ever had, and the prices were reasonable. After you pay the bill and tip the overworked server generously, look around someone who resembles Columbo 2.0.
I found him there. Maybe you will too.
Photo Credit: Created by Prawny for Pixabay
My character information spreadsheet saved my writing life today. Some of you may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. The innocuous character information spreadsheet pictured above truly saved my life this week.
The events that necessitated this dramatic action began yesterday when my Midwestern Books editor sent the continuity and proofreading edits for See Jane Dance!. (It’s Book 3 in the West River Mystery Series in case you’re counting.) Soon I was reading through and approving the changes suggested by the proofreader. Who is amazing. Seriously amazing. All was going swimmingly until the proofreader’s note about second grader Cora Barkley. In a nutshell, the editor cited passages in See Jane Run! and See Jane Sing! that said Cora was a first grader.
Gasp! This is bad news for a fiction writer. (Yes, that would be me.)
I consider creating a consistent story world to be essential. How in the world was I going to reconcile this discrepancy and put Cora in the grade where she belongs? And how was I going to explain the shift to her teacher Jane who won’t have enough copies of first grade worksheets if that’s where Cora lands.
Oh wait. Jane is a fictional character. But still.
So what I did instead of freaking out, which I was my first reaction? First I opened my character information spreadsheet. I started this document before beginning See Jane Run! and have been updating and expanding it as new characters are added. The sheet includes basic information that helps me keep each character’s story consistent.* Not everything on the sheet ends up in the books, and that’s okay. It’s there just in case. Also, the picture above is of the beginning of the spreadsheet. It goes on for pages and pages.
A quick glance at Cora’s entry confirmed that she is supposed to be in second grade.
I also checked my composition notebook where I brainstormed character names and student grade levels long ago. Those notes also listed Cora as a second grader. Finally, I read the chapters in Run! and Sing! that were concerning to the proofreader. I used printed rather than electronic copies and discovered that those consistency errors had been caught and corrected before the books went to the printer and upheld Cora’s status as a second grader.*
Thus, thanks in part to my character information spreadsheet, I am breathing once again. My writing life has been saved, and Jane does not need to make a flying trip to Tipperary to copy more first grade worksheets for Cora. Whew!
*My character information sheet is only the tip of the character development iceberg. For each character, I have created a much longer document about their parents, immediate and extended families (very important in Little Missouri as everyone is related to everyone else), their education and employment, quirky habits and mannerisms, their homes and ranches, vehicles, motivations, faults, strengths, and more. Perhaps one day I’ll write a post about that.
**My guess is the proofreader had referred a document that hadn’t been updated to show those changes.
Adding flesh to the bones of See Jane Dig! has been keeping me busy. For those of you who are wondering what bones I’m talking about, you may want to read this post to get your bearings. What comes next in this post will make much more sense once you do.
Here’s what is involved in adding flesh to the bones of See Jane Dig!
- Creating a new project for See Jane Dig! using Scrivener software, making a folder for each anticipated chapter, and writing summaries from the notecards mentioned in the previous post.
- Filling in calendars from the year the story takes place with the progression of the chapters along with very brief notes of the action. This may seem redundant, since the chapter summaries contain the same information. However, I’m very linear and function best when the action of the entire plot is accessible without having to click back and forth between folders.
- Studying the map of the county which is the model for Tipperary County and counting the miles between “Little Missouri” and the dig site, as well as between “Tipperary” and the dig site.
- Opening to a fresh page in the trusty composition notebook where I scribble ideas and notes about each book in the West River Series and sketching a map of the dig crew’s camp and the dig site. Since it’s fiction, the details can be changed, but the map helps me envision the action and keep descriptions consistent.
The next step in adding flesh to the bones of See Jane Dig! is creating characters and writing their backstories. I’ll describe that process in a future post. In the meantime, I’ll be thinking up names for the professor and five college students who make up the dig team. If you want to suggest possible names for 3 women and 2 men born between 1957 and 1960, as well as their professor born in 1945 leave them in the comment box!