The Wedge of the San Rafael

The Wedge of the San Rafael
Someone has to live here, in the middle of desert beauty. Might as well be the Kellys.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Grapefruit Moon, One Star Shining

Author Anne Gracie gets full credit for this column. She's a Facebook friend (and a writer I admire), and she posted the Tom Waites song with the lovely photo of our current huge worldwide moon. She'd noticed it while coming home from dinner in the city. Anne lives in Australia. The comments that popped up were from all over the world, of course, as we all admired the same moon.

I've been admiring that grapefruit moon from my hemisphere. I was coming home from a booksigning on Saturday. It was still light out, but right after I passed Soldier Summit (at 7,000+ feet the highest point on the trip), I noticed the moon peeking coyly between two mountains. It was pale then and not in charge yet, because the sun as still up, but there it was, ready for an entrance. Made me smile.

I woke up early this morning, because the cat must've pushed open the door, and decided I needed a visit. The cat and I got up because that grapefruit moon was so bright and irresistible - in charge now and hugely visible.

And all over the world, we're watching. Last night, our bookclub commented on "A Christmas Carol," our reading for the month. We also had our Christmas potluck. We do a good one. It's not one of those you-bring-this-and-I'll-bring-that kinds of potlucks, but a true take-your-chance potluck. The carnivores ruled, with several kinds of meat. I made cheese grits and hot sauce - total comfort food - and an angel food, raspberry, powdered sugar, Coolwhip, sour cream thingee.

Then we watched the Gorge C. Scott version of "A Christmas Carol," my personal favorite.

I was thinking about Jacob Marley this morning. When I read Anne Gracie's comment about the full moon, and saw the posts from literally everywhere, I couldn't helping thinking about Marley's "Mankind is my business." With Marley, is a lament, because he never thought about anything except making money. After his death, he learned, to his horror, that mankind should have been his business. Mankind is most emphatically our business; we ignore that to our peril.

There we are, all admiring the same grapefruit moon. We're all involved in this world. Do something nice for someone today, ok?

Thursday, November 28, 2013

In praise of bold travelers

First of all, Happy Thanksgiving. I never fail to think of my father on Thanksgiving: He loved pumpkin pie, and he had a pilgrim story from Bangkok, Thailand.

Part of Dad's Korean War was spent in Bangkok, back when a lot of us called Thailand, Siam. He was part of a squadron of Navy airedales who took a carrier-load of planes to Thailand. Essentially, they began the Thai Air Force. At the time, Dad was a chief, which meant he knew everything about his job and could do anything. He was always that way, though. (If you sense some daughterly admiration, you're on the money.)

In that hot and moist climate, Thanksgiving was still coming anyway. One of the Thai workers who spoke English asked Dad about Thanksgiving, so Dad gave a lengthy explanation about pilgrims and a first hard winter in a tough place for beginnings (New England), and the Thanksgiving feast the following year, when the toehold had turned into survival and there was food.

After Dad's explanation, the man just shook his head sadly. "We can't have Thanksgiving here."

Dad asked him why not, and the Thai said, "No pilgrims ever came to Bangkok."

Thanksgiving came anyway, of course, as it does anywhere Americans gather. We're grateful for that toehold in a new world, for subsequent survival, and eventually, our nation. It's as meaningful to me as the Fourth of July, as I praise bold travelers.

The extreme isolation of such people in a new land came home to me 12 or so years ago. It was early December, and I had gone to Charleston, South Carolina for Jeremy's graduation from the Border Patrol. The newly minted agents flew out that same day, so I had a few days to kill in South Carolina. What I did was point my rental car south.

First stop was St. Augustine, Florida, for a spot of research at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. It's a wonderful, well-nigh indestructible fort built by Spanish engineers (they were good), to maintain power in their toehold of Florida. Eventually, the English came into possession, then the Spanish again, and finally the Americans. During our Indian Wars, it housed some Plains Indians, sent there to be reprimanded for objecting to folks taking their land.

After that, I drove back to St. Simons Island, Georgia, where I used to live as a kid. Superb area. I also visited Fort Frederica National Historic Site. It was a fort built by Georgia's colonizer, James Oglethorpe, between 1736-1748, essentially as a buffer zone between those Spaniards I had "visited" earlier in the day, and the prosperity of the English colonies in the Carolinas.

It's another great historic site, with a moat (now a gentle swale), and buildings made of tabby (stone mixed with shells). Nothing is restored, but the stabilized ruins are impressive. I walked through the town, and past the fort, and stood looking at the water. It was a cold day, for Georgia, and no other visitors were in sight. I watched the water quite a while, as the soldiers most certainly would have done.

It came home quite forcefully to me that these little toeholds on the edge of an amazing continent had to be a bit frightening, in that if trouble came, there was no help in sight. You were it; do your best.

And so I praise bold travelers. Without them, we wouldn't be gathering families and friends today and gorging on turkey and cranberries and three or four kinds of pie (or more), and the "inside of the turkey," as my daughter Sarah called stuffing, when she was a little girl. I always take a moment to remember what it felt like to stand alone, gaze across a portion of the Atlantic Ocean, empty too, that day, and honor that kind of courage.

Thanks, you men, women and children. I praise you today.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

One reason we write: the readers

I participated in a booksigning for The Double Cross at the Costco in Lehi last Friday. The whole thing was to have happened two weeks ago. Everyone knew about it, apparently, except that Costco in Lehi. So it goes. No harm, no foul.

The one yesterday was that mix of busy and downtime that booksignings often are. My niece Amy dropped by on her lunch break, and so did her mom an hour later. Other friends, readers and fellow writers dropped by, bought books and chatted. Then there were those stretches when I had to work at convincing folks they really really needed to read this story about Paloma and Marco Mondragon, and care about New Mexico colony at the time of Comanches and Spanish. Must've convinced enough folks, because the books all got sold.

In the course of sitting at Costco, I did my usual informal-survey-keep-your-mind-busy tactic. According to my survey, most people are in Costco to buy 30 rolls of toilet paper at a time (I did the same), milk, and birthday/party cakes. Oh, and lots of disposable diapers, which went along with the numerous women I saw with little kids in the cart, and another on the way. It was totally Utah country.

Then something touching happened, which even now is making me tear up a bit. An older lady stopped by to tell me that her daughter owns and has read nearly all my books. I told her that I bet she didn't have this one. She agreed, and had me sign it for her daughter.

Nothing unusual there, eh? Then she said, so serious: "My daughter is far from home and going through a nasty divorce. She tells me that when she feels low and down, she reads your books over and over until she feels better."

Wow. I'm going to be thinking about that mother and her beleaguered daughter for a long, long time - maybe every time I sit down to work on another chapter. Yeah, it's historical fiction with usually a bit of romance - fluff. Yeah, when I start each book my mantra is, "This isn't Hamlet and you're not Shakespeare." But now and then, I am reminded that what I do matters to more than just me.

You other writers know exactly what I'm talking about.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Books and covers

Yes, yes, I'm well aware that I'm the worst blogger in the history of, well, blog. I also run into people who want to know when my next book is coming out, and why can't I write faster. Plus I sometimes have to do booksignings, which are sometimes quite fun, and other times are a bit frustrating, as I try to convince people that they really ought to try my books. And I take trips and visit friends - you know who you are - and just generally have a life. Blog comes about last, and I do apologize.

And I do enjoy reading other's books. Case in point: I was a huge Tony Hillerman fan, from the beginning to almost the end. Tony died a few years back, and I, like many, mourned his passing. He was a great journalist, pretty good writer, but the best guy at taking a subject few knew about - the Navajo Tribal Police - and giving them, and their nation, the credit they deserve. His name will long be honored among crime fiction readers, and people who love The People.

I'll admit to a tad bit of skepticism when I read that his daughter Anne Hillerman decided to carry on Tony's tales about the Navajo Tribal Police, specifically, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, plus a great addition, Officer Bernie Manuelito, Jim's new wife. Anne's father had introduced Bernie a few books back, but by then, I must say that his novelist's powers were greatly diminished. His last three books had none of the power of the first dozen.

I am a skeptic no more. I read Anne Hillerman's Leaphorn/Chee book, called The Spider Woman's Daughter, and I am hooked. I want to contact Anne and tell her to writer faster, because I want more of Jim and Joe and Bernie. If you enjoyed Tony Hillerman's work, give Anne Hillerman a try. I doubt you'll be disappointed.

I especially enjoyed this latest entry because this summer I took one of those trips to Navajo Country with my daughter, Mary Ruth, and her dear friend, Renee, who is now my friend, too. We went down to Gallup for the Intertribal dancing and drumming, held annually. After a brief overnighter in Santa Fe (do eat at The Shed if you go), we spent a few days in Gallup. Renee raised her family there, and Mary Ruth taught there for a few years, so it was fun just to drive the streets and listen to the two of them remember good and bad times. We visited the flea market and bought jewelry and I bought a lovely skirt, a twirly skirt. I'm in heaven.

Driving home north through the great Navajo reservation was also wonderful, a chance to see the great outcropping and rocks (Shiprock being one) that define the borders of the land of the Dineh. All this made Anne Hillerman's book extra special.

But to books and covers: I'm writing Book Two of the Spanish Brand Series, and reading for research, too. I came across a novel called The Staked Plain. It takes place in the area of West Texas called Llano Estacado, because it is so trackless that supposedly early Spanish explorers drove stakes in the ground at intervals so they wouldn't get lost. I found the old paperback via Amazon with that title, by Frank X. Tolbird. First published by Harper & Brothers in 1958, I have a 1962 paperback edition with a positively lurid cover - tall white man standing with a rifle over a winsome Comanche (I suppose) woman. There's an obnoxious blurb on the front cover that reads, "Peyton Place on Horseback - or a Kinsey Report on the Comanches of West Texas in the 1860's and 70's."

Absolutely nothing could be farther from the truth. The Staked Plain is based on a true story about an interesting fellow named Llano Estacado (Staked Plain) Nabors, who actually lived the life written about. It's a wonderful story and I am learning so much about the people and the area. Unfortunately, the print is so tiny, and the pages so yellowed that I can barely read it.

So I ordered a larger copy this morning. This one is published by a university press, with forwards and afterwards by distinguished writers and historians, giving the book its due. But oh, that original cover! That's what writers have to put up with, at times. But we love to write, so we get over it.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


I've always just sort of stumbled into things in my life. Sometimes I think when I wrote Miss Whittier Makes a List, I wanted to be an organized chick like my heroine. Naturally, things didn't work out anything like Hannah's list (stuff has to happen in fiction, after all), but there was a bit of wishful thinking on my part.

My husband retired from a North Dakota university in 2009 and we moved to Utah. As it turned out, he's the only one who retired; I've just gotten busier, and it's my own darned fault. Luckily, writing is something I can do anywhere, and which still allows me to wear my beloved thrift store clothes to work. Brushing my hair is optional. I love a job like that.

Part of what goes along with writing books are booksignings and talks (or at least, that's the route with me). I have two booksignings this Saturday, September 28. The first is at Seagull Books on Redwood Road in Salt Lake City from 9-11 a.m. The second is at Seagull in Spanish Fork from 2-4 p.m. Later in October there is one at the Costco in Lehi, Utah, and another at The King's English in Salt Lake.

Then, oh goody, I'll be on the road for two weeks. I enjoy this. I'll be speaking at the library in American Fall, Idaho, on  October 1, and the Malad, Idaho, library on October 2. Then I'll be at Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park to visit a ranger friend. We generally get together in October. I get to hear wonderful stories about back country rangering (mainly on horseback), and just how scary urban tourists are.  The next morning, I'll meet another ranger friend in Chico Hot Springs for breakfast. Randy and I first rangered together at Fort Laramie National Historic Site, then later at Fort Union Trading Post NHS. I'll hear more good stories.

Then I'll be on the Montana/Alberta border visiting son Jeremy. This will include a booksigning in Cardston, Alberta, always a pleasure. Then I'll head south to Billings to visit cousins, and then to Nebraska to speak to English students in Morrill, Nebraska. After that, there's a booksigning at the Mountain & Plains Book Expo in Denver, followed by a visit to Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo, Texas, which was a favorite spot for Kwahadi Comanches. (Book Two of the Spanish Brand series takes place near there.) After that, I'll spend the night in Salida, Colorado, where hopefully I can replace a cool piece of pottery that my clumsy cat destroyed. Then home.

Besides the friends, family and readers, here's what's fun for me: Tuna fish sammiches. I love them, especially with dill relish. Invariably, I'll make myself tuna fish sandwiches so I don't have to stop for lunch. I may change it up with canned chicken. I'll put cucumbers in my drinking water, and eat grapes and apples. Gone are the days when M&Ms were my travel food of choice. Also, I have a stash of audio cds from the library that come along for the ride. Mostly it's crime fiction - Johnathan Kellerman and Elmore Leonard right now for sure - and history lectures, 18 hours of the Emperors of Rome this trip. I can hardly wait for those ol' Romans.

What a great time of year to drive through the Intermountain West. It's cool and maybe sn**y (you never say the word), and there will be cattle drives. I never mind waiting for cowboys and cattle. I have a few favorite restaurants, including one in Choteau, Montana (home of the great A.B. Guthrie), and Old Faithful Lodge, which I figure I can afford once a year.  I see relatives and friends (I hang onto both a long, long time - boy howdy, I am a good friend). I'll visit my daughter Liz in Lafayette, Colorado, and drop off a plant or two from her dad (provided they survive the trip that far).

I never used to do this, but I'll bring along books to sell. It's better than snake oil. Which reminds me: I'll probably haul along some of my homemade hand cream, too. It makes great gifts. I subscribe to the Lewis & Clark Method of Traveling Amiably - always have useful goods to hand out to the natives. H'mm. It worked pretty well until Lewis shot a Blackfeet Indian.

If I can, I'll go a bit out of my way to Thermopolis State Park and the Wyoming State Bath House. I love that place, even though I'll reek of sulfur. Who cares? When I run out of Elmore Leonard, I'll drag out my cds and sing at the top of my lungs.

Gee, all this fun, and my mileage is tax deductible. Does it get any better?

Monday, September 9, 2013

I'm such a fan girl

I don't watch television. No time, really, and I don't like vulgar comedy. The only thing I watched last year was Downton Abbey, and I'm not even convinced I want to see this year's episodes that start in January.  I mean, really, was it necessary to kill Matthew? I will watch Netflix now and then and other dvds (always watch L.A. Confidential at least once a year), but that's it. TV is too much bother.

Silly me. I was nosing around on instant Netflix on my iPad late one night, and my goodness, I happened onto Ripper Street. As soon as I noticed that the BBC series (first season) starts six months after the last "visit" by Jack the Ripper to Whitechapel, I knew I was hooked. Crime fiction is my escape reading, and I decided that Victorian crime fiction on the telly was worth a look.

My goodness, I loved it, all eight gritty, gory, violent episodes. The casting is amazing, with Matthew Macfadyen as Inspector Edmund Reid, who in fact handled the H Division located in Whitechapel, one of London's seamiest slums. His gruff and tumble sidekick Sgt. Bennett Drake is played by the excellent Jerome Flynn. Rounding out the ensemble is Andy Rothenberg as Homer Jackson, a former Pinkerton/U.S. Army surgeon and general, all-around bad boy, who supplies the technical know-how in an era just dipping into technology. There are ladies, and bad girls, and a Jewish orphanage director, and assorted flats, cheats and dangerous creeps. Be still, my heart.

The set is dressed amazingly well, with a scrupulous eye to detail, especially in the period clothing and manners. Maybe the stories strain credulity a time or two, but did I care? Not a whit. I even ordered the dvd of Season One on Amazon this morning (which I plan to loan to you, Bob Kisthart, when I see you in Yellowstone in a few weeks). Apparently Season Two was in the planning before Season One even came out. It's that good.

If you're not a fan of violence, heavy accents, bloody swash and nonstop action, don't watch. But if you enjoy impressive eye candy in a rough-hewn way, excellent acting, and something a bit different, tune in. I believe the new season starts in November. I can barely wait.

Now to something different - A few weeks back, I spoke to a library book club in Emery, Utah, about My Loving Vigil Keeping. The group calls itself the Page Flippin' Divas, and they are a fun, well-read group. Pretty much every group I speak to wants to know which of the characters in the novel are real (most of them), and how I did my research. I'm happy to talk about it, if they'll willing to listen.

When the meeting was over, I chatted with the ladies. One of them - she might have been in her 80s - wanted to tell me about her father. His last name was Hansen and she was the oldest child. She went with him everywhere, and grew up hearing him say "Diolch," in place of "thank you." In that way of children, she never questioned him about it, because she knew he was saying thank you. She did wonder what the language was, but never asked him.

She told me that not until she read My Loving Vigil Keeping, and saw that word in the book, did she put two and two together and realize that her father, a Hansen, was saying thank you in Welsh. "My younger brothers and sisters don't remember him saying that," she told me. "Maybe by the time they came along, he was just farther away from the word."

Since her father's last name was Danish, I had to ask her about her mother. "Her last name was Oliver," she said. Bingo. Welsh. We had a little laugh, and she said that the book brought her closer to her father, because of that simple word.

And that's the fun part about writing, and the total payoff: visiting with readers and hearing their stories.

Now, how many days until Season Two of Ripper Street starts? I am a fan girl.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

I'm still here

My apologies for such a delay between blogs, and I don't know where all the photos vanished. It's probably part of a new improvement that I missed out on. Well, tough.

July was a hard month. My husband had a stroke. He probably got lucky, though, because it only involved three of the five major symptoms of stroke: a sudden, stabbing headache, loss of balance, and loss of vision. He spent four days at the University of Utah Medical Center in Salt Lake City, undergoing a raft of tests. His vision returned, except for the rare odd flash of something or other. His balance is fine now, well sort of. Two or three weeks after the stroke, he was out on his usual walk, didn't lift his foot high enough to get to the curb, and did a face plant. The result was a broken nose, and the broken humerus bone about 2 inches below his elbow. (H'mm, look at those two words. Guess I never noticed how closely related they are.)

Luckily again, the break was such that he has a splint, rather than a cast. The doc let him take off the splint, and he'll probably be doing some rehab time in physical therapy.

Naturally, during all this the basement remodel began. It's a week from being done now, so all is well.

The surprises continue. I was supposed to take part in a booksigning at Brigham Young University during Education Week next week. I was informed yesterday that I have been uninvited. When I asked the publicity guy at Cedar Fort to find out why, he learned it was because I also write for Harlequin. I have to wonder which of my Harlequin Historicals they read to make their informed decision, but they probably read none of them.

This sort of broke my heart yesterday, but today I'm seeing the funny side. One of my Facebook friends suggested that I dedicate my next Harlequin to BYU, and I'm going to do just that. It'll read something like this: To Brigham Young University, my alma mater, where I studied history and learned some shocking things you can't write in books, apparently. Thanks for your support.  The book is called The Wedding Ring Quest, and it will be out in March.

I do give props to BYU's excellent history department, where I learned a lot about research and thought, as well as "the hot poop," as my favorite teacher there used to say. Well, when next I go on campus - we like to see plays there - I'll probably have to wear a scarlet A.

Now to the funny stuff. I was shopping yesterday and noticed that Air Wick has come out with a National Parks line of air fresheners.  So far, the four choices are Zion, Acadia, Cape Cod, and Rocky Mountain. As a former ranger in the National Park Service, this gave me the giggles. Personally, I think Rocky Mountain National Park air freshener should smell like mosquito repellent. If they every do Fort Laramie National Historic Site, where I worked, it'll have to smell like stables and old saddles. Fort Union Trading Post NHS, where I also worked, is a reconstruction of John Jacob Astor's 1828 fur trade fort. Historical research has determined that there was no evidence anywhere of privies, in the fort's 38-year history. I guess that air freshener will have to smell like, well... you get the gist. I worked at Yellowstone National Park in a private capacity, years ago. The predominate odor there is most definitely sulfur, from all the geysers and hot pots.

I guess it's a good thing that Air Wick didn't hire me as their Park Service consultant.

As for writing, The Double Cross and Safe Passage are out now. I'm working on Book Two of the Spanish Brand Series. So far, I'm calling that book Son of Double Cross, because I don't have a title yet.

So cheerio to you all. I'll be better about blogging in the future.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Down time is creative time

I know. I know. If there's a worse blogger in the known world, I wouldn't know who it is. I do what I can.

Housekeeping: This Friday and Saturday (June 28-29), I'll be in Malad, Idaho, at the annual Malad Welsh Festival. This year I'm selling my books and Mrs. Kelly's Novel Hand Cream. I have 19 different fragrances, one of which I developed for the Welsh Festival called Oatcakes'n Honey. It's a good conference, sort of a modified eisteddfod, with singing groups young and old. There are talks on a variety of things Welsh, other Celtic music, displays, and lots of kindly folk with Welsh ancestry (including moi). It's great.

But this is down time for me. I just finished a novel for Harlequin, which I titled, A Wife Like Mary. No telling what Harlequin will rename it. I'm due to start Book Two of the Spanish Brand Series. The first book will be out August 1, although I hear that some of the Barnes & Noble stores already have it. I enjoyed every minute of writing The Double Cross, and look forward to the next book, which I'll begin August 1.

Actually, it's far from down time. What I'm doing is research, which means reading about Comanches, and smallpox, and those primitive inoculations which preceded Edward Jenner's vaccination, and comancheros, those bold and brave New Mexicans who traded with the Comanche. It was a tough time and place that makes me feel a bit guilty when I whine about getting a paper cut. But I love that northeast area of present-day New Mexico around Cimarron. I'll be down that way in August.

This is the challenging time for a writer of historical fiction - trying to figure out the bones of a story, and stay true to history. I have no doubts that ignorance is bliss, but I always want my stories to be accurate.  It's doubly tricky when writing about some branches of the Comanche who were so elusive. There was no more ruthless Indian nation than the Comanche; they asked no quarter and gave none. For some 250 years, they owned Texas and wore it out with repeated raids and depredations. Can I make these folks appealing? You bet.

So why in the world would a writer set a series about a brand inspector right on the edge of Comancheria? I've been told that my novels are good, in part, because of my realistic and compelling characters. And nothing reveals character more than adversity. I like a writing challenge. I like putting all the pieces together in a logical way. To me, that's the great challenge of writing. Put people in a dangerous place - some will live and some will die. Mostly I hope you care about Marco Mondragon and his wife Paloma, and their sort-of ally, Toshua, a Kwahadi Comanche on the outs from his own tribe. He's also Paloma's protector, whether she wants his protection or not.

That challenge of putting the pieces together is evident in my next Cedar Fort novel, Safe Passage, which comes out August 15. It's set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920. The Mormons had established a series of successful colonies in Mexico, starting in 1885. When things went terribly wrong, they were forced to flee in 1912. The story of their exodus from Mexico is compelling enough, but I decided to give it another twist. How about a young man estranged from his wife for two years, who learns from his father-in-law that his wife didn't get out? Someone has to go find her, and he's elected. He also wants to see if he can make things better between them. He has his own conflict, in addition to the above: he's born and raised in Mexico, and he really doesn't want to leave at all.

Maybe it's just me, but what I hope comes through in this story for my readers is my great love for Mexico and its kindhearted people. The more I wrote, the more I felt it.

So right now it's back to Comancheria and a brand inspector and his sudden wife. I've given myself until the end of December to write this second book in thee series (no name yet). And then I'll be researching an area I've visited a time or two - southeast Wyoming, but in 1887. What's the conflict here?  A really, really bad winter.

Well, excuse my rambling thoughts. I certainly have a writer's mind, but I don't entirely understand it. A writer's life is a hard slog, at times. But at all times, it's a total privilege to create people that linger in the mind. Mine, anyway, and maybe yours, too.

Back to Comanches. I'm in writer heaven.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Now Hear This!

This is terribly short because I'm headed to Cedar City to see niece Terri Metcalf-Peterson play the role of Dolly Levi in "Hello, Dolly."  She has a magnificent voice, is a lyric soprano professional, and it will be terrific.

The news:  Here's to the Ladies: Stories of the Frontier Army is now in ebook format! This is my collection of Indian Wars army stories that was published in 2004 by Texas Christian University Press, better known as teacup.

It's a collection that means so much to me, because I started writing those stories when I was a ranger at Fort Laramie National Historic Site. I still remain in close contact with the gentlemen listed in the dedication, except for the one who is now in Fiddlers Green (army jargon for passed away). Two of these short stories won Spur Awards from Western Writers of America.

These short stories launched my writing career. Is there any wonder that I have such affection for them?

Anyway, I'm tickled.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

BookExpo America

This is a commercial. Cedar Fort is flying me to New York City on Thursday to participate in BookExpo America. I've never been before, but I do know it's a super-duper, big deal of a book publishers/sellers' convention. Cedar Fort is expanding and looking for a wider audience, and this is one good way to do it.

The event takes place at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan. On May 31, Friday at 2 p.m., I'll be signing my books at the Cedar Fort booth. On Saturday, I'll do the same at 10 a.m., then catch a plane for home that afternoon.

This'll probably a noisy, crowded, above-all interesting event, and I'm looking forward to it. We lived in Brooklyn, NY, from 1969-1972, while Martin earned an MFA in directing from Brooklyn College. We were poor students at the time, but we did manage to see the major sights in the Big Apple. I wish I had time to visit the Frick Museum again on this trip, and go to Coney Island for Nathan's hot dogs, but I doubt it's possible. (And I doubt Nathan's Famous is still 50 cents.) I'm supposed to attend a party for Harlequin on Thursday night, but we'll see. I'm not the world's greatest mingler. Still, I can probably leave anytime I want.

It'll be hard to top last weekend in Washington, DC, when I saw a niece get married, visited with my two sisters, had a delightful day of sightseeing in the Blue Ridge Mountains (Appomatox Courthouse and Lexington, VA) with my brother-in-law and 2 beagles, and toured Ford's Theatre in DC. Good cake at the wedding, too. And what could be cooler than the Star War's Victory March used as the recessional?

I do like a good time.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Whitney is becoming a favorite name

There's a point in awards ceremonies where I always ask myself, why do this? I can eat chicken and mushrooms at home, and I can avoid rolls at home. Then I ask myself, should I really just take one bite of the chocolate mousse pie and give the rest to my husband, because after all, I probably won't win a Whitney this year, since I won one last year? And gee willikers, I paid a lot for food I'm a) either not eating  b) or I could cook at home. (This is how nervous nellies think. It's not a pretty sight.)

But I was a good enough girl. I passed up the roll, didn't eat all the mashed potatoes, and yes indeedy, handed over that chocolate mousse pie to Hubby, after one - mebbe two - bites. Then I waited through interminable comments by presenters until we arrived at the historical fiction category, where My Loving Vigil Keeping won best Historical Fiction of the Year at the 2012 Whitney Awards.

I happily accepted the Whitney Award in memory of "my guys," the 200 men and boys who died in the Winter Quarters Mine Disaster in 1900. They were on my mind anyway, since it isn't that long since May 1, when the Number Four Mine blew up and killed the morning shift. Quite a few guys in the connecting Number One died, too, of afterdamp. That's only part of the story, of course. Novels are built of more than that.

Three days before the awards ceremony, I went up to Scofield for a visit. Going to the cemetery makes me sad, because they all died too young, and generally with large and hopeful families. And some of them were buried so far from previous homes in Finland, England, Wales, Scotland, you name it. The sadness passes, though, and I feel the peace of the place. Eagles swoop and soar overhead. The logical side of my brain tells me they're only on the hunt for the cemetery's gophers. The other side suggests to me that they're looking after my guys,too.

Time passes. In a few weeks, there will be a paper flower on each grave. The Price Sun-Advocate began a project a few years ago called "No grave left unadorned." Scores of folks make paper flowers, which are put on each grave in Carbon County. Once a year, someone leaves a paper flower for my guys. But I go up several times a year, walk the rows, and think about lives cut short, hard-working men, and what compels people to leave their homes in other nations or states and follow the coal veins to Utah. For some, it was religion, and probably the hope of better lives for their children. For others, it was just the latter, or better lives for themselves.

I've noticed that sometimes others leave flowers during the year, so I know these men are remembered. I remember all the time.


Now a little housekeeping- If any of you live in New York City, you're welcome to drop by the Jacob Javits Center on May 31 at 2 p.m., or June 1 at 10 a.m., where I'll be signing books. It's part of the annual Book Expo America. Cedar Fort is flying me there, and I'm totally jazzed about it. I've never been to BEA, but I hear it's a great place to meet authors and snag free books. I'll also drop by the Harlequin booth on Friday morning, and maybe the Signet booth, because I have some interests there, too.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Readers make my day

A month or so ago, I received a forwarded letter that had been sent to Mills & Boon in London. It was from Joan in Dubbo, New South Wales, who had some kind things to say about The Admiral's Penniless Bride. It's fun to hear from readers, and doesn't happen all too often.  Thought I'd share it with you. It's my birthday today and I can do what I want. I looked up Dubbo, NSW. It's a small town on the Macquarie River, sort of west by northwest of Sydney. Ironically, it's close to Wellington, which is where I live, but 15,000 or so miles away on another continent.  Joan is forever etched in my heart for two reasons: I really enjoy readers, and I especially enjoy readers who know how to use a semi-colon, which she does. Goodonyer, Joan!

To Harlequin/Mills & Boon

   Would it be possible for you to e-mail or Fax my regards to Carla Kelly? I have just finished reading 'The Admiral's Penniless Bride' and I can honestly say I have never enjoyed any book as much as I did this one.
   The sense of humor comes across beautifully. In fact I cannot recall any Historical Story with humor like this one.
   As I have read hundreds of Mills & Book books over the years and hope to have many more years left to enjoy even more; I hope there will be more from this author especially if it contains the same type of humor. 
   Many of my friends also enjoy these books and we pass them backwards and forwards between us.
   These include my mother-in-law -- aged 86 this year and a good neighbour aged 84 this year.
   My age is 72 and many of my friends are in this age bracket.
   At our ages we have the time to sit & read (& enjoy) a good romantic story.
   As I am computer illiterate I cannot write to Carla myself so will hope you can forward this to her.
   Thanks so much for such a varied range of reading matter.
Yours sincerely,


7 May 2013

Dear Joan,

Harlequin /Mills & Boon forwarded your kind letter to me here in Utah. Thanks for your words about The Admiral’s Penniless Bride. I have to tell you – the germ of the idea came from our move to Utah from North Dakota. My husband bought a house that was a total wreck. I had remained behind in North Dakota because I was a) packing  b) finishing up a history of Fort Buford for a publisher. I didn’t speak to him for a few days!

Luckily, we all survived. The house was completely remodeled in stages, with the kitchen finished last summer. This summer, we’re going to remodel the basement. Crazy. Since I’m a writer, I naturally drew from my own experiences, although we never had a house as erotic as the one Admiral Bright inflicted on Sally Paul.  Well, almost not. My dad was in the U.S. Navy, and we lived in postwar Japan for a while. Our first house was owned by a Japanese writer, I believe, who had some oddball “western” ideas. He had a huge statue of a naked woman by the front door. My mom was a bit of a prude, and it gave her quite a jolt. I was 7 at the time, and my sister was 9, and we thought the whole thing was hilarious.

Maybe that’s part of being a writer – we remember quirky events. At the time I certainly never planned to write anything, much less a novel with a naked statue, but it did come in handy, years later!

Here’s another chuckle about The Admiral’s Penniless Bride – every few months, or now and then (it’s random), I get a box of 3 books which is a translation. I can generally figure out the language, but “Bride” came a few months ago in a language I had never seen before. It looked a bit Finnish, but not quite. We finally figured out that the book had been translated into Estonian.  

And yet, it’s not a funny book, not at all. Some readers took me to task because they thought the admiral’s reaction was extreme, but I never thought so. A man used to command and instant obedience is not about to tolerate what he thought was a terrible coverup from the woman he was now in love with.  My original title was “Admiral Bright’s Inconvenient Marriage.”  But Harlequin loves to change titles, for good or ill.

My most recent Harlequin is set at Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory, in 1876.  I had been begging and begging to write something besides a Regency, and Her Hesitant Heart was the result. It’s just out, but doing well. I’m back to writing Regencies, though. Working on one now.

The Fort Laramie story will always be dear to my heart, because I used to work at Fort Laramie National Historic Site as a ranger in the National Park Service. I love the place and know it well.

And you’re from New South Wales. We had to look up Dubbo on our atlas. I have to tell you, Joan, that I have three favorite books, and one of them is Nevil Shute’s novel, A Town Like Alice (I believe it was originally titled The Legacy).  Great book.

I’m a bit younger than you. I’m 66 today, May 7. I write for two other publishers, besides Harlequin. If you were computer literate, you could look me up on Amazon and maybe get some of those books, too.

Best to you, and thanks so much for writing.


 Carla Kelly
I think I might send her another book. I'll do that for someone who understands a semi-colon.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Her Hesitant Heart

Had to include this lovely review for Her Hesitant Heart. After years of begging to write a Western, Harlequin Historical agreed to one. I'm back to a two-Regency contract, but this book will always be a highlight for me.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The best of times, the worst of times

There's really nothing to add to what happened yesterday in Boston. Throughout the day on Facebook, that wonderful Mr. Rogers quote popped up a lot, where his mother assured him that in any troubles, look for the helpers. They were there in Boston, too.

I remember the flood of 2009 in North Dakota. Our little town of Valley City was evacuated, because of sewer collapse. We were wondering what to do, when a church friend called from Fargo, just out of the blue, wondering if we needed anything. Fargo had been through their bad flood days a few weeks earlier. We told him we needed a place to stay, and he invited us right over. We spent a few days there, enjoying their many kindnesses.

Curious thing about those North Dakota floods - the Red Cross hurried in and set up shelters for people just like us. After a week or so, they closed them, because friends and neighbors and strangers were taking in those people who would otherwise have gone to shelters. That's the way of life up there, and apparently, in Boston, too. Probably all over America, because that's what we do.

I'm reminded of something I heard from a policeman. "Whenever I speak to kids, I tell them that if they are ever lost, just to find an older woman who looks like a grandmother and go to her. She will always help." Nice to be in that demographic.

Two closing thoughts. I keep these on my writer's board beside my computer. I look at them often.

Will & Ariel Durant - Introduction to The Age of Napoleon

"All in all, in life and in history, we have found so many good men and women that we have quite lost faith in the wickedness of mankind."

Ellis Peters - One Corpse Too Many - Brother Cadfael is speaking to sheriff Hugh Beringar

"You did the work that fell to you, and did it well. God disposes all. From the highest to the lowest extreme of a man's scope, wherever justice and retribution can reach him, so can grace."

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Don't Poke the Bear

Now for something a tad more light-hearted, in its own way. I was culling stuff from filing cabinets last night and this morning, and came across a doozy. It's going in my too-crazy-to-be-fiction file.

On July 2, 2012, the Deseret News published an article about a total whack job on I-80 in Wyoming, who pretty much terrorized the Interstate near Wamsutter, where, basically, nothing ever happens.

Sorry Case (No real name; I don't want him looking for me) from Nameless Town, Utah, apparently was driving erratically, stopping cars, getting out, fighting with motorists, trying to break into other cars, chasing people, and just being a really bad a**. He managed to get into one car and swiped a semi-automatic handgun, which he immediately started firing from inside the car through closed windows. Luckily, the lady managed to bail out. He rammed other cars, broke out a truck's window, and stabbed some guy with an "unknown sharp object."

I'm condensing this drastically. A few miles later, he got out of his car and stretched out on the highway, naked. He had somehow found a cane, and that became his weapon of choice when some truck drivers and motorists stopped to restrain him. By then, a highway patrolman arrived, and all of them struggled with this supremely odd individual. With the help of four people, the trooper got one handcuff on him. More officers arrived from Sweetwater County Sheriff's Department and bundled the guy off to the hoosegow.

Whew. There he was in 2010 in Green River, under what the newspaper referred to as a "slew of charges." I have to list these, because it's a prime example of why it's not wise to mess with cops, or "poke the bear," as my Border Patrol son calls it.

Are you ready? "Sorry Case was arrested for investigation of aggravated assault, attempted manslaughter, battery, driving while under the influence, driving on a suspended license, reckless driving, property destruction, criminal entry, larceny, felonious restraint, failure to report a crash, failure to maintain vehicle within a single lane, failure to yield right-of-way to a pedestrian, parking on a highway, resisting arrest and promoting obscenity." (I guess that last one covers nudity on an Interstate.)

I can picture it: A whole bunch of peace officers thinking of every possible, well-deserved thing to throw at the man, and rightly so. They want to make darned certain that this guy doesn't get out of jail for a loooong time. Maybe until the 12th of Never. Crossing southern Wyoming is never a total treat, but it shouldn't have to be terror.

I asked my son once if he'd like to be able to give a ticket that just says, "You're stupid. Here's a ticket." Oh, yeah.

So if you're ever tempted to strip past your skivvies and stretch out on I-80 through Wyoming, don't. Just don 't.
My other favorite law enforcement stories happened in  North Dakota, where cops impounded a chicken crossing the parking lot of a local bank in Valley City. Another one comes from Fargo, where a cop was investigating a report of kids trying to sneak into a drive-in movie. As he walked by one car, someone in the trunk passed gas and all the kids in the trunk got the giggles. Busted.

Welcome to spring, the silly season.

P.S. If you want to read other nonsense like this blog, my book, Stop Me If You've Read This One, should be available on Amazon soon. It's a collection of some of the Prairie Light columns I wrote while reporting for the Valley City Times-Record.  I seem to recall one column about guys under some sort of influence stealing a flamingo from a zoo in Minot and eating it. Maybe they're related to the nude guy on I-80.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Sometimes the mountain talks

It's been a tough week in coal country. People turning on light switches in places other than Carbon and Emery counties probably have no idea how expensive coal was this week. While retreat mining, Elam Jones, continuous miner operator, died when part of the roof collapsed. His partner and friend, Dallen McFarlane, suffered a knee injury, but survived.

It was the Rhino Mine, located up Huntington Canyon in Emery County. It's also not too far from Crandall Canyon, where 6 miners and 3 mine rescue team members died in 2007. Elam had been part of that rescue, so he knew the dangers first hand. All of them do, but they mine coal. It's hard and dirty and at times dangerous. It's also a generational thing around here. Elam was a third generation miner on his father's side, and a fourth generation miner on his mother's side. His mom, Julie, is a city councilwoman in Huntington. We know Julie.

This just hurts. The Rhino Mine is the mine I was allowed to go inside, when I was researching My Loving Vigil Keeping. The surface superintendent is a church friend, and he kindly gave permission. I spent a few hours underground, just getting acquainted with a mine. I assure you that my friend is hurting in the worst possible way right now. MSHA has closed the mine while an investigation is ongoing, but it's a good mine, well-run. These are the risks inherent in digging that electricity out of the ground.

Elam and Dallen were engaged in retreat mining. This is when a section has been successfully "mined out," and it's time to pull the pillars, get that coal out, and let the roof naturally collapse. When I say pillars, I don't mean skinny little faux decorations. These are massive. Retreat mining is a common practice, but it has its dangers, obviously.

It's interesting what happens after a collapse. Mine rescue teams from all over the area converge, and the men go in to get out their buddies. Mike McCandless, economic development director for Emery County, said this is the March 28 Deseret News: "This work binds miners together and that brotherhood means they'll drop whatever they're doing at a moment's notice to find a trapped miner."

Dallen echoed this: "Everybody is your brother. Everybody's got your back." And Dallen added, "Nobody here blames the mine, it was just a bad accident."

Elam leaves behind a wife, Jaqlynn Jones, and two little boys, age 4 and 5. Sadly, they now belong to that miner's club that no one wants to join. But here's the thing: There were more than 1,000 people at Elam's funeral in the Huntington Stake Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These tight-knit communities of miners, family and friends will keep the little Jones family close to them. It's a Welsh thing, it's a mining thing, it's what people do around here.

I just wish it didn't hurt so bad.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Old Mill

My mother was the best kind of mom. She saved important works, including my very first fictional effort, a bit of deathless prose called The Mystery of the Old Mill. I've included the entire work here, so you can enjoy it, too. I was six years old, and plunked out the novel on her Olivetti-Underwood, a beast of a typewriter. H'mm, one incomplete sentence. Like this one. And a run on sentence, or maybe we could call that a comma splice, also a deadly sin.

Intermission here. Years ago, when it was all the rage, I tried to read Jean Auel's best-seller, The Clan of the Cave Bear. I didn't get too far, because the thing was crammed with comma splices. I didn't toss the book, so I can't really call it a wallbanger, but I most definitely stopped reading.

I also committed another deadly sin in my brief attempt at mystery writing; I used the word "very." I got out of that habit quickly in high school, when I came under the tutelage of Jean Dugat, Senior English AP teacher, sophomore English teacher and journalism teacher. I owe my writing career to Miss D, as we called her. She was an overbearing dragon and there were times when I hated her. By the end of my sophomore year, it occurred to me that if I paid attention to what she was teaching me, I'd be a writer.

Miss D loathed and despised the word "very."  I distinctly remember her telling us that it was a useless filler word, and that we might as well write "damn," instead. Since then, I have been sparing in my use of the word. If you're ever supremely bored, just pick up a novel of mine and count the times I use the dread word. Generally, it's never.

All I can say in my defense of the V word in The Mystery of the Old Mill is that I was only six, and wouldn't meet Miss D until I was 14.

As you can tell from the cover, I spent more time drawing the old mill than I did writing. I'm no artist. The text inside has the promise of a story. I suppose I quit writing because I hadn't yet learned how to spin out a yarn. Someone wiser than I am once observed, "Writing fiction is just one damned thing after another." True. I was young and unwise in the ways of the world. Maybe I should have tried again when I was in the second grade. By then, I was more interested in reading, which is also a good thing for a writer.

Mom also saved my favorite book, Ukelele and Her New Doll. It was a Golden Book, published in 1951,and probably cost a quarter. I loved the story of Little Ukelele, who lived in the South Seas in a grass hut. She had a wooden doll her father made her. She could wash her doll in a shell bathtub, and feed her sand cookies.

"One day there came to the island a big, beautiful sailing ship to trade for coconuts," the story goes. One of the men from the ship gives Ukelele a china doll with real hair and blue eyes and lovely clothes. Ukelele loved her new doll, but she discovered that she couldn't wash her in the shell bathtub, because the water was bad for her. She couldn't feed her sand cookies because the sand stuck in her hair. The doll just wasn't a lot of fun. By the end of the day, Ukelele took her dear wooden doll to bed, "and hugged her tight until they were both fast asleep."

Lovely story. One thing about it strikes me: On the cover of that book is a sailing ship, probably a frigate similar to those I have been writing about for years. The navy men bartering for coconuts look like the men of the Royal Navy, another topic well-known to me and well-used in my novels. I have to ask myself: Did I subconsciously store up memories of that ship and those men from the little book I read when I was four?

I still love Ukelele, and I still write about the Royal Navy. In fact, I'm writing a novel about a captain on a lengthy shore leave for the first time in 12 years, now that Napoleon is on Elba. Maybe I'll dedicate this book to Ukelele.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Just a sample

Whew, Valentine's Day hit us hard here in Carbon County. First, daughter Liz's boyfriend got her a gi-normous Russell Stover heart, which we've all been encouraged to eat. (Gotta do what you gotta do.) The task was made simpler because there was one of those keys, which tells you what is what. With that much help and encouragement, the assignment to eat became simpler. I could avoid all the raspberry nougat centers hidden in chocolate coating. What a relief.  And there was a truffle, just waiting for me.

When I was at my daily therapy session (i.e. water aerobics), one of my fellow swimmers mentioned Suzie's Candy Shop. Apparently Suzie had a candy store in downtown Price, Utah, at one time. She decided to pedal back a bit, and remodeled her garage to make a kitchen/store there. Armed with directions, Vondell (my swimming buddy) and I found Suzie on February 13. She was puh-lenty busy, but graciously added us to the list, if we could pick up the goodies on the afternoon of Valentine's Day.  We each got the assortment - a sample of this and that - and were put on Suzie's mailing list.

Ostensibly, Suzie's assortment was for my husband, but again, we're all dipping into the chocolate. He very kindly got me a dozen roses that are multi-colored red and white. They're just fun to look at.

I got another sampler today. Bryony Green, my London editor with Harlequin Historicals, gave me the good news that the North American direct marketing group is going to include the entire first chapter of Her Hesitant Heart, as a samplein a direct mail package that will reach some 320,000 customers between June and September.

People who respond will then receive the whole novel in their introductory shipment. I did notice on the cover of Her Hesitant Heart these words under the title: "New Beginnings." I gather this is an additional series that readers can sign up for. I hope they will.

I emailed back to say I'd be delighted to be part of the proposal.  And I am. Her Hesitant Heart is a story dear to my heart. It's set at Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory, in 1876. I love Fort Laramie. I volunteered there for a few years, and then was a seasonal ranger/historian for a few more years from roughly 1973 to 1975. Fort Laramie was where I forged some friendships that continue to give me real pleasure. It's also where I started writing (and selling) what I call my Fort Laramie stories, short stories and novellas about the men, women and children of the Indian Wars era. The stories are set at Fort Laramie (Wyoming), Fort Bowie Arizona), Fort Buford (North Dakota), and Camp Ruby (Nevada).

The stories were eventually collected into one book, Here's To the Ladies: Stories of the Frontier Army, and published by Texas Christian University Press. It remains probably my personal favorite, although My Loving Vigil Keeping is following as a close second. Those ranger friends made it a favorite work. One has passed away (the Old Army used to call that 'going to Fiddlers' Green'), but I generally see the others every year or so at one conference or other. I do value my friendships, and none more than that bunch of fellow rangers who took great pleasure in sharing our country's history with visitors from all over the world.

And this was my little secret: The U.S. government paid me every two weeks for doing something I would have done for free, because I love it so much.  I think everyone should have a job like that, at least once in a lifetime.

I hope you all had a lovely Valentine's Day.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Here's the deal...

This is really really short, because Cedar Fort wants me to add this promo for My Loving Vigil Keeping. It's good through February 28 - $2.99 for an ebook. Woo hoo! And it's a Whitney Award Finalist in the Historical Fiction category.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A man with a good idea

First, nuts and bolts - My Loving Vigil Keeping was named a finalist in this year's Whitney Awards competition. It's in the Historical Fiction category, which works about right. I believe the awards event is in early May in Provo, Utah. Now I'll promptly forget about it, because if I don't, I'll start worrying and wondering what will happen. It's a privilege to reach that finalist stage, and I thank whoever made that happen.

Also, Cedar Fort is flying me to New York City on the weekend of May 31 for BookExpo America. I believe there will be two booksignings. It'll be a short visit. I may volunteer to pay for another night there, myself. We used to live in Brooklyn, NY, while Martin was in graduate school. I'd like to have time to visit a favorite eatery (Nathan's Famous Hotdogs), and maybe the Frick Museum.

Now to that man with the good idea, per this blog's title. I don't generally read obituaries in the newspaper, but this one caught my eye. The man's name is Welsford Hone "Gus" Clark, and for 38 years, he taught in the elementary education department at Brigham Young University, retiring in 1994.

This caught my attention, because my daughter Mary Ruth Huerta was going to school in elementary education at that time. I just sent her a Facebook message, asking if she had ever taken a class from Dr. Clark.

Here's what really caught my attention - the last paragraph reads, "In lieu of flowers, the family requests that you purchase a children's book and spend precious time reading it to a child."

Boy howdy, how great is that? Wouldn't it be a good funeral where everyone just got comfortable and listened to a good storyteller read children's books? We could all drink cocoa and wrap up in a fuzzy blanket and listen to good books. I could enjoy that.

If I had a quarter for every book I read my children, I'd be rich. Come to think of it, I am rich, because we heard some wonderful stories through the years. My kids had their favorites. Sam liked Brinton Turkle's series about Obadiah, the little Quaker boy on Nantucket, who was always getting in trouble. Thy Friend, Obadiah, is his favorite. Jeremy liked Munro Leaf's classic Ferdinand, about the little Spanish bull, who liked to "sit just quietly and smell the flowers." I think Liz liked Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. I can still recite copious portions of that book. Ditto the Madeline books.

Madeline and the Bad Hat was a favorite. Madeline befriends the naughty little son of the Spanish ambassador, who lived next door to the girls' school ("An old house in Paris that was covered with vines."). What with one thing and another, the Bad Hat gets in lots of trouble and ends up injured. There's this line - "There was sorrowing and pain in the embassy of Spain."  To this day, if one of my kids has a problem, I think of that line, and often say it out loud, even though I get weird looks from folks who aren't in the know about children's literature.

Sarah loved the beautifully illustrated books by Tasha Tudor. I wrote Miss Tudor once and told her how much Sarah liked her books. She sent a gracious reply, which really impressed little Sarah. I can't recall offhand which was Mary Ruth's favorite kid book. I do know that she has a houseful of books for her own three children, Aaron, Ruby and Joshua. She sends some to me, too. You're never too old for a great children's book (or two or three).

Has there ever been anything better than reading to children? My big angst came when, gradually, they preferred to read their own books. The upside of all this is that my children are readers. What a blessing, what a gift.

So let's all take Dr. Clark's advice, and buy a book and read it to a child. Civilization will keep percolating right along. The only thing sadder than someone who can't read is someone who won't read.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Coming up

Writing creates a certain momentum. I'm on Chapter Three of a novel I owe to Harlequin, swinging right along, then bam! I get hit with final proofs for another project. I have to stop and read the final proofs, which slows down the first project. And so on. That's just the business. I drop what I'm doing and immediately look over those final proofs. This keeps me best friends with my editors.

What I was re-reading were the proofs for Stop Me If You've Read This One, that collection of my Prairie Lite columns from my daily newspaper job in North Dakota, roughly 2005 to 2008. That may have been one of the most enjoyable jobs I ever hated, because daily newspaper work is a total grind, and I'm a tad lazy. Just a tad. I learned a lot, wrote a lot, and have not too many regrets about what I wrote.

I've attached one of the columns you'll see in "Stop Me," when it comes out toward the end of April. I was thinking of this story only last week, when I pulled out the book for another look.

Long Time No See

   I broke a North Dakota rule this winter: Never read about cold during a cold winter. I read Frozen in Time, an account of the Franklin Expedition of 1845-48 send to find and map the Northwest Passage.
   The Franklin Expedition came to my attention years ago, when I watched a documentary about the Royal Navy's attempt to explore islands near the Arctic Circle and find the fabled Northwest Passage. In the nineteenth century, Great Britain spread its influence globally until nothing was left to explore except the frozen north. Supremely confident, the navy planned to fill in the last blank spots on the map.
    There's no more bleak place in the world than the islands of northern Canada. Few go there. In the 1840s, Inuits sometimes passed through the area in summer, but no one stayed. It was too inhospitable. Inuits were not then, and are not now, foolish.
    Into this region came the ships, well-provisioned for a three-year expedition to a place everyone else had the good sense to avoid. Entering from the east, Sir John's task was to complete the mapping of the region begun earlier, and exit to the west, into the Bering Strait.
   The expedition utilized a new technology: canned food. The ships carried 8,000 tins of canned goods, plenty for a three-year exploration. By the 1840s, everyone knew that lime and lemon juice would prevent scurvy, that dreadful and often-fatal disease of the deepwater sailor. The expedition had taken that into account, too. No detail was too small to escape notice.
   What no one anticipated were colder than normal summers in the region. The Terror and the Erebus sailed into Lancaster Sound in 1845 and vanished. By 1847, the ships still hadn't popped out of that western end. Where were they?
    In years to come, several expeditions were mounted to find Franklin and his 128 men. The rescue expeditions proved as dangerous as the initial voyage. Gradually, the story came out - how the ships were finally trapped and choked in pack ice, with what remained of the crew forced ashore, where they suffered and died. Some tried to travel to a Hudson's Bay Company post 2,000 miles away, nothing but a forlorn attempt by desperate, starving men. The shocking deaths involved cannibalism, madness, and probably enough despair to circle the earth two or three times.
    In recent times, Canadian scientists took an interest in the sad story. Mounds of empty tin cans from the Franklin Expedition had been found, giving testimony to the highly probable cause of death by lead poisoning. Researchers discovered that the primitive cans were soldered in a way that allowed the lead to seep inside. Add that to scurvy, and the sailors probably never knew what hit them.
    In the early 1980s, anthropologist Owen Beattie of the University of Alberta led a team of scientists to tiny Beechy Island, where three graves of Franklin Expedition members had been located years earlier. Beattie received permission to exhume the bodies of two sailors and one Royal Marine who died in that first winter of 1846, when things weren't desperate yet. Beattie needed tissue samples to test for lead content.
    Over the course of several summers, Beattie and his scientists dug up those crew members, X-rayed and autopsied them right there on Beechy Island. Because they were buried below the permafrost, the corpses were in astoundingly good condition.
    Here's what struck me about the whole experience. Here's what I can't forget. One of Beattie's scientists was Brian Spenceley, a great-great nephew of John Hartnell, who died January 4, 1846, and was buried on Beechy Island. 
     When the scientists opened Hartnell's coffin for the first time in 140 years, Spenceley looked on the body - not the skeleton - of a long-dead uncle. Hartnell's eyes were half open. In the photographs, he looked not quite alive, but not quite dead.
     Beattie described the emotional experience of studying the bodies, and the extreme reverence the team used in its scientific work. When the scientists finished, the bodies were reburied carefully. Everything was replaced the way it had been, before anyone interrupted the men's long sleep on Beechy Island.
    And there was Brian Spenceley, with a story no one else in the world could tell. On Beechy Island, he had the awesome privilege of gazing at someone no one else has ever seen: a truly distant relative from another era. Frozen in Time is a hard book to forget.
This morning, I looked up the book on Amazon, where it's easily purchased (I have an older edition). I wasn't surprised to note that it's now available in ebook format. You'll hardly ever read a more fascinating - if morbid - book than Frozen in Time.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Take a good look

Since I last blogged - and I'm not prolific - something has changed. I'm writing this without my glasses. Two weeks ago, my right eye was operated on for cataracts. Yesterday, my left eye ditto. Although that left eye is still a bit dilated, I'm okay. I've worn glasses or contacts since I was eight years old, and now it's just me and my bionic lenses.

My daughter Sarah was my best cheerleader. She's an ocular diagnostician and worked for Doctors Hansen and Byers in Price, Utah. When I flunked an eye exam in November, she was so pleased, because the next step was cataract surgery.

I'll admit to some apprehension two weeks ago, but it was slam dunk. They don't knock you out for cataract surgery, but they do numb the eyeball, then sedate you with what I call "I'm-not-out-but-I-don't-care" drugs. I could hear indistinct voices and see some odd flashes of light, but that was it. For yesterday's surgery, I was less sedated, so the voices were more distinct and I could see better out of my previously corrected eye. Interesting.

So here I am, and I'm happy. Two things: 1) don't be afraid of cataract surgery  2) don't put it off.

Busy times. I made my changes on the copy edited manuscript of The Double Cross, my first in the continuing adventures of Marco and Paloma Mondragon in 1780s New Mexico. The first book will be out August 1, and I'm happy with it. Marco and Paloma will be around for at least four books, and maybe more, if they do well.

I've received a copy of the ARC (advanced readers copy) for Stop Me If You've Read This One. It's a collection of some of my Prairie Lite columns from the Valley City [ND] Times-Record, a daily newspaper where I labored for four years, before we moved to Utah. Writing for a daily is a total grind, but the carrot was the opportunity to write - among other things - a weekly column on anything I wanted. For a writer, that is dangerous, indeed. I made the most of it. "Stop Me" will be out in April.

Harlequin Historicals sent me the cover for Her Hesitant Heart, which stunned me. It's a beautiful cover, and has everything to do with what happens in the novel. I sent an email to my editor, Bryony Green, and the Big Cheese, Linda Fildew, telling them how delighted I was. (After not being delighted for quite a while.) But it's a great cover. Her Hesitant Heart will be out in late April/early May. That book, set at Fort Laramie in 1876, turned into huge fun for me, because it's a subject I know well. There's nothing nicer for a historical fiction writer than to be able to turn around and look at shelves and shelves of research books on the Indian Wars, Napoleonic War, and medical history.

I've been speaking at a number of book clubs lately. At one last week in Carbon County (where My Loving Vigil Keeping is set), one of the readers said she is a great-granddaughter of Richard T. Evans, who is the choirmaster and good friend of the fictitious Owen Davis. At another book club in Utah County, a lady told me that years ago when her husband was in graduate school at BYU, they lived in an apartment in the Knight-Allen House. In "Vigil Keeping," that's where Jesse and Amanda Knight live. Other readers have told me of their relationships to some of the real people in the book, which pleases me greatly. The challenge to putting real people in fiction is to get it just right. It matters.

Onward. Now I'm writing the outline for the first of two Regencies I owe to Harlequin. It's either going to be set during the Treaty of Amiens in 1802-03, or just after Napoleon is exiled to Elba in 1814. Involves a Scottish lass, Mary Charleson, who goes on an adventure to locate a Christmas cake in which a valuable ring was baked by mistake. And fruitcakes being fruitcakes, the doggoned thing has been passed to other folks, and passed on...

So it's off to the living room, where my European history is shelved. And I'll look at it through "new" eyes.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

When in Rome

I'm test-driving my "new" right eye. Yesterday, I had cataract surgery on it. When I went in for the post-op checkup, it tested at 20-20, so I am a happy girl. (So was my tech, Sarah, who happens to be my daughter. She started to cry, she was so pleased.) Doc Byers will do Eye 2 in two weeks. Last night, my other daughter Liz, a former optician, took the right lens out of my glasses, which helps. Sarah will cut a blank for those glasses, so I won't poke myself in the eye.

But the main issue today is a total fan letter to Ruth Downie, whose latest book is out, and which I've already devoured. I don't read great gobs of fiction (too busy writing it), so when I like a book, I become a loyal reader.

Ruth Downie lives in Devonshire, almost my favorite place on earth. I paid a too-short visit to Plymouth a few years ago, and would gladly return. She writes the most wonderful mystery series set in Roman Britain at the time of the emperor Hadrian, roughly 120 A.D. The hero, a reluctant hero, is Gaius Petrius Ruso, a medicus (doctor). He's physician in the Roman army, and stationed in Britain, a real backwater for someone with ambition (which probably wouldn't be Ruso). His unpleasant wife has divorced him, and his family from Gall put the D in dysfunction, always asking him for money and other favors.

He acquires a slave girl named Tilla, a Brit of the Coronotatae tribe. A convenient arrangement becomes far more permanent, after a book or two. These are thoroughly delightful characters. Tilla is tough, opinionated, certain she's right, tender now and then, and devoted to her doctor. Ruso is much the same, but a bit easier on humankind than Tilla is. Together, they form an odd couple in Roman Britain - he has status as a Roman officer, and his services are essential, but he is cynical. Tilla is a second-class citizen in her own country, and powerless, or is she? The books contain a lot of humor, mixed with mayhem. I think of the Rusos as the Nick and Nora Charles of early British crime fiction.

I found the first book, Medicus, in a Deseret Industries thrift store four-plus years ago. I think it cost me 75 cents. I rarely pass up a book with a Roman setting, because Roman history has fascinated me since junior high. It was charming. After I finished my 75 cent copy, I knew I'd have paid more to read it (and certainly have since).

You do need to read this series in order, because their lives change significantly with each installment. The order is Medicus; Terra Incognita; Persona Non Grata; Caveat Emptor; and now Semper Fidelis. They may or may not be to your taste, but give Medicus a try, if you're so inclined.

I have certain crime fiction authors that I read: Michael Connelly, Robert Crais (consistently fine); Peter Robinson (ditto); James Lee Burke sometimes; Lee Child (hit and miss); Steven Havill (fun). Now I'll add Ruth Downie's book to my admittedly short list of guaranteed purchases.  I do hope she's working on another book about Ruso and Tilla. I mean, right now.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Eyes Have It

This is one of those little-bit-of-this-and-that columns. On Monday, I'm having cataract surgery on my right eye. This will be followed two weeks later by the left eye. I flunked an eye exam last fall, so it's surgery for me. This delights my daughter, Sarah, the ocular diagnostician, because she tells me I'll see better soon, and probably without needing spectacles. (Down time is s'pozed to be brief, so I'll soon be back trying to help Ammon and Addie Hancock get out of Mexico before the Pancho Villa-types make it even more difficult. I had to hang four gringo cowboys two days ago, and I didn't much enjoy that.)

I think I'm a pretty good patient, but how would I know? My last surgery happened when I was four years old and had my tonsils and adenoids removed. I suppose I can count the event in 2002 where I broke my arm and the doc put me out, because he wasn't sure if I needed to be sliced and pinned. Turns out he was able to line up everything again, so it wasn't too bad.

The tough part about this means I have to stay out of the pool for a week. Water aerobics is not only good exercise; it is also my source of all knowledge here in Carbon County.  No, no, not necessarily gossip. I've only lived here 3 1/2 years, so whenever I have a county-related question, I know I can ask it in the pool and someone will have an answer. Hasn't failed yet.

I did an amazingly extravagant thing after Christmas, and it came in the mail yesterday. A month ago, my daughter Liz shared her history of perfume book with me. We discovered that - supposedly - the oldest actual brand-name perfume that is still in production is something called Jicky, by Guerlain. It came to life in 1889, and was/is popular with Cary Grant and Sean Connery. Yes, a guy fragrance at first, but it became a favorite with the ladies.

It's not cheap, and I'm cheap, so I had no plans to buy any. Then my sons each Amazoned me for Christmas. "Why not?" I asked myself, so I ordered a bottle of the spray cologne. It came yesterday, and me oh my, it is an original scent - mild with overtones of lavender. I've even figured out how I can work a reference to Jicky into the Mexican Revolution novel I'm writing now. Whether I do or not remains to be seen. I've certainly never done any product placement in a novel before.

Oh, those of you who are buying Miss Whittier Makes a List as an ebook - thanks! It's doing pretty well.

One more tidbit, then it's back to Chapter Fourteen. There is a most intriguing website called that I have to mention. My friend Steve Patterson told me about it, and I'm hooked. It's a random series of old photos - they seem to range from the Civil War era to the 1970s - which have/can be enlarged to show amazing detail. People's comment are equally entertaining. Take a look; you might get hooked, too.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Pioneering Made Easy

If you'd had your head hanging out a window recently, you'd have heard my snort and guffaw when I got my latest Deseret Book catalog.

For those of you who aren't Mormon, let me explain. In 1847, Brigham Young led a pioneering company of some 120+ Mormons into the Salt Lake Valley. From 1847 to roughly 1860, Mormons followed the Mormon-Oregon-California Trail to the Salt Lake Valley in covered wagons. From 1856 and for a few years, the poorest pioneers came via handcarts, pulling all their possessions in a small cart. After 1860, most emigrants went to the Missouri River and were freighted to Salt Lake by wagons and teams that had delivered goods to the East, and would otherwise have returned to Utah Territory with empty wagons. And after 1869, most came by railroad.

It's become popular for Mormon youth groups to stage those handcart treks. Typically, they'll borrow or build a handcart, and dress up in pioneer clothing, and push and pull a handcart five or so miles. It's a nice spiritual experience for many, and gives today's more tech friendly, privileged youth a tiny - and I do mean tiny - taste of the rigors of trail travel. Don't get me wrong - I think it's a good idea.

Well doggoned if the Deseret Bookstore Catalog isn't starting a Pioneer Trek Outfitters Guide, where pampered youth can buy ready-made skirts, bonnets, aprons, shirts, blouses, bandannas (12 colors), neck coolers, pioneer hats and trek wristbands. There will also be pioneer dinnerware, a trek journal (probably in tasteful leather which can be eaten if the journey turns into a Donner Party sort of gig), and appropriate hand sanitizer, sunscreen and lip balm.

Oh, give me a gigantic break. Half or most of the fun of reenacting is to make your own period clothing and accessories, and rough it a bit. Neck coolers? Wusses.

I can say this because I was one of the first to organize such a trek, and we did it the hard way. When we lived in Torrington, Wyoming, in 1972-75, I worked summers at Fort Laramie National Historic Site as a seasonal ranger/historian. During the school year, I also taught an early-morning Seminary class for high school-age Mormons, where they learned about our church, the Book of Mormon, and the Bible. One winter, my Seminary class and I decided that since we lived on the Oregon Trail, we would make a handcart and pull and push it in July from Torrington to Fort Laramie, one of the prime stops on the overland trail. It's a distance of 25 miles. When Brigham Young organized the handcart companies, he figured the pioneers could travel that distance in a fairly easy day. A typical day proved to be about a 10-12 mile trip.

We did it two summers, starting early in the morning and arriving in mid-afternoon. We were sunburned and footsore, but we learned a lot about our pioneer ancestors and ourselves. One thing we all discovered was that after a mile or two, NOBODY looked back. We didn't, because it became too discouraging to look back and find out how short the distance was that we had traveled.  We started joking each other, "If you're going to fall down, fall down facing west."

We also understood completely when those "real" pioneers described in their journals their joy at seeing the American flag at Fort Laramie. We felt that same joy, after our day of arduous travel. But we only had to walk and pull that handcart for one day, and not the 110 days that it took to make the journey from Iowa City, Iowa, to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. Our handcart had ballbearings, so it was easy to pull, and it wasn't loaded with food and all our earthly possessions. It was hard enough, but there was none of that exhaustion, desperation and pain that the real pioneers felt. Or the true joy of arriving in Salt Lake.

Even after some 30+ years, I see some of my Seminary students now and then. We remember that experience, and we are grateful. We learned not to look back and to keep moving, no matter what, valuable lessons.

Storebought clothes, neck coolers and hand sanitizer? Sissies.