Excerpt From “Custom Decorated Corpse”

A hemlock hedge completely screened the yard from adjoining properties; it sloped downward to a stone retaining wall with steps down to Juliet’s section of the yard. The stone wall was bordered on top by a mixed bed with remnants of daffodil foliage, iris, and daylilies and would be in bloom most of the spring and summer.

Lavender Cottage was nestled at an angle at the end of the large yard. It was a Cape Cod cottage, with a roofline punctuated by dormer windows that extended down to the first story in the front with a shed dormer across the rear second story, white clapboard with shutters that were the perfect shade of gray shading to lavender. A porch ran the length of the facade, with floor to ceiling windows and French doors giving access from all the main floor rooms. Pots of fuchsias and ferns hung from the porch ceiling. The steps and adjacent patio were pink brick, with a fountain in the center. Various kinds of rose bushes and lavender plants filled the beds; large grayish lavender pots lined the steps filled with annuals of all colors. Private, Lizzie thought, quiet, serene, a place to retreat from the world. She whistled for Tib and Boo, who had been busy exploring the yard, and carefully made her way down to Lavender Cottage.

Lizzie exclaimed in delight when she saw the hydrangea bushes lining the retaining wall at the bottom of the steps. There was a large tilled bed behind the garage that would be perfect for tomatoes and herbs; perhaps she could have a garden. A deep perennial border ran the length of the fence in front of the hemlock hedge; the iris had finished and the daylilies and daisies were just beginning to bloom with coneflowers and monarda not far behind. The fountain splashed, bees were buzzing over the lavender, and climbing roses twined the porch columns.

She slowly walked up the porch stairs, admiring the wicker furniture. There was a hanging swing at one end of the porch and a cozy table and two chairs where she could enjoy her morning coffee. Taking a deep breath, she opened the glass storm door and stepped inside.

I’ve been carrying around the characters of Lizzie Christopher and Nick Cameron for years. They’ve aged, worked in their respective professions, married spouses and had children. In my novels, they are both widowed, meet, and tentatively start merging their lives.

During a major birthday year, I finally created a Word document, labeled it Chapter One, and started writing my first novel. I ran out of gas after the first hundred pages, periodically tinkering with it and writing some character sketches.

In January 2014, we were headed into a brutal winter. I received an email from the Crime Writers Association with information about on line novel writing classes (writingclasses.co.uk). On a whim, I registered for what turned into a five month journey with intrepid writing tutor Elaine Murphy and an engaging group of classmates for the two courses. I completed a first draft of Custom Decorated Corpse in May.

Through the marvelous Sisters in Crime Guppies organization and the Midwestern Mystery Writers of America, I found readers who left my novel bleeding and slashed to ribbons. My Guppy critique group provides friendly support and great suggestions. A revision class with Linda Rodriguez pointed me in new directions in terms of character development and plotting. A story arc class with Ramona Long has kept me focused on a tight, coherent plot and character growth and change.

Labor Day 2014

Colleges are in session and the leaves are starting to turn. On Labor Day, I always think of the restaurant job I had on Cape Cod during my college summers. I did much of my morning prep work at a picnic table on a screened porch adjacent to the walk in refrigerator. A large horse chestnut tree stood in front of the library next door. Every August, I would watch for the leaves to start turning brown, as they did by the middle of the month. The Sunday of Labor Day weekend was always my last day; I would return to college at the end of the weekend, tanned, rested and energized for another academic year.

This was in the seventies, when we lived off our summer earnings during the academic year. Internships were almost non-existent; my entry into the job market after graduation was an unplanned void. I was an English major, able to do everything and nothing. My summer days consisted of double restaurant shifts, morning prep and evening dinner service, with three or four hours off in the middle of the day for reading, tanning, and day dreaming. The restaurant was closed on Mondays, library and laundromat day.

I read my way through the local library, always careful to shake the sand out of my books before returning them. Hesse, Vonnegut, Woolf, Fowles, Styron, Roth. And I started to write, not a tedious literary journal, but descriptions of people and places, word snapshots of the restaurant workers: the morning produce delivery guy, the fisherman who dragged a huge bluefish across the kitchen floor, the owner and head chef, stirring his Sunday pot of lobster bisque.

I took early morning walks on the deserted beach, watching the sanderlings run at the water’s edge and the osprey tend to her chicks in the nest on top of a telephone pole in the marsh. The song sparrows were nesting in the dunes, singing their distinctive calls. On August nights we huddled in blankets watching the shooting stars. The beach was my home, the restaurant and village my world.