In this first week of summer, the blue gentians are blooming in what used to be (before the drought) a marshy area at the edge of the woods. These are my favorite, favorite Texas wildflower, sometimes called Texas bluebells. I love the Latin name: Eustoma exaltatum. Exalted, indeed. Unfortunately, we don't see as many of these beauties as we used to, along the roadsides and in pastures near highways. People pick them, so they can't reseed. Such a pity. Please consider, when you stop to pick a wildflower, that you're not only picking the single bloom, you're picking all its children. And while you may pick just one, and the next picker picks just one, pretty soon they will all be gone from that location. That's why I don't pick our wildflowers for table bouquets. I'd rather enjoy its descendents.
Garden notes. But I'm happy to pick the okra! I harvested the first one this morning, along with a nice handful of snap beans (Kentucky Wonder). They'll be on tonight's supper table. On the weekend, I dug the potatoes (Yukon Gold) and garlic (elephant garlic). Neither produced a huge crop this year, but there'll be enough for eating this summer and for replanting in the fall.
Book report. I'll have some happy news about A Wilder Rose sometime in the next couple of weeks, when the deal has been signed. In the meantime, I'm moving ahead on the 2015 Dahlias mystery and looking forward to the September 2014 book, The Darling Dahlias and the Silver Dollar Bush. I have a few galleys of that book. If you'd like one, leave a brief comment (on any subject, but do be nice). At the end of the week, Peggy (my webmistress) will choose a couple of names at random and I'll send you a signed galley. UPDATE. 6.28: Congratulations to Janet Balletto and Gayle Jackson--you've just won a signed galley!
Weather report. We had our first tornado of the season a couple of weeks ago, about 6-7 miles from us. I spent the evening with a book and the cat in Archie Bunker (our name for our storm shelter). Molly had to stay in the closet, since she refuses to join me in the bunker under her own power, and she's too big for me to lift. I tell her, "If you get blown away, MollyPolly my dear, it's your own damn fault." Here's a photo taken that night by the intrepid photographer, Aaron Dooley. Yes: the cloud really was that black.
Reading note: Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan.--Margaret Atwood
We've been getting more rain (2.5" in the last 2 weeks), and the garden is flourishing--for the first time since 2011, when the drought began to seriously dig in.The photo: an Edisto melon, a small heritage cantaloupe that does well in hot, humid climates (that's us). Up to my ears in cucumbers, squash, and (soon) tomatoes. I picked green beans this morning, for dinner tonight. You can't ask for a fresher veggie than that.
Book report. I'm also up to my ears in the 2015 Dahlias mystery: The Darling Dahlias and the Eleven O'Clock Lady. These are Ornithogalum umbellatum, but I couldn't very well use that as a title, could I? They're small plants that bloom until the sun gets too hot for them. I'm sure you've seen them popping up out of the grass. Love finding interesting titles that prompt me to grow the plot around them (hope that makes as much sense to you as it does to me).
This book (Dahlias #6, set in mid-1934) is also about the Civilian Conservation Corps projects that FDR began putting in place in 1933, among his first presidential actions. Good move on his part, on all scores, politically, environmentally, economically, with a huge impact on the men (mostly--there was a related project for women) who participated, their families, and their communities. This interesting history is making its way into the book, and creating more plot elements. Love it when this happens! It allows me to come to work every morning, thinking "I wonder what's going to happen in the book today?"
A Wilder Rose garnered a wonderful review yesterday, in the official blog of the Wilder historic home in De Smet. I'll have more news about that book later this week, maybe. Good news.
More books in the works: In April-May, I visited the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library and spent days doing research in the papers of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. I'm looking forward to more work on that project after I've finished the current Dahlias mystery.
And I've just signed the contract for three more China Bayles mysteries! Working titles: A Malted Murder (2016), Dragon's Blood (2017), and The Last Chance Olive Ranch (2018). It's lovely to be able to look ahead and see good work on the horizon, and I'm grateful to the editors, publishers, and readers (yes, that's you!) who have made it possible for me to live the writing life I began dreaming of thirty-plus years ago.
Reading note. I’m up to my ears in unwritten words. —J.D. Salinger
When I was a kid, the Danville IL Carnegie library was my favorite hangout. I opened the imposing front doors, turned to the right, and crept down the curving stair to the basement, where Mrs. Baggott, Queen of the Children's Library, reigned supreme. It was a magical place--the place where I learned to love books and reading and people who also love books.
Fast-forward several decades to the new library, where my brother John and I spent a week last month, reading microfilmed copies of the Commercial-News, the newspaper we remember from our childhood (research work for our joint memoir). As I read and made notes, I realized how lucky we were to have such a fine local paper, back in the days when print newspapers were the primary source of local and national news. In fact, the first "hard" word I remember reading was the word Czechoslovakia, in a C-N headline. I was six or seven, reading the paper on the floor. I sounded out the word (do they still teach phonics?), connected it to a word I'd heard on the radio, and dashed into the kitchen to show my mother what I could do. It was a milestone in my reading life. And if I hadn't learned to love reading, what kind of writer could I be?
The DPL wasn't the only library I visited on my research trip. I drove from Illinois to New York state, where I spent a week at the Roosevelt Presidential Library, doing research on the letters and papers of Lorena Hickok, Eleanor Roosevelt's intimate friend. (If you've guessed that she's to be the subject of a biographical novel, you're right.) I spent all day, every day at a desk in the Research Room, with a book trolley filled with boxes of original documents. I scanned nearly 100 pages, took many notes, and came away with a greater understanding of the relationship between Eleanor and Hick (Lorena's nickname) and a head full of ideas for the novel. My time at the FDR library was too short, and I didn't cover as much territory as I wanted to. But the helpful archivists there will be copying material and sending it to me, which is the next best thing.
I'd like to settle down to writing the novel, but I can't, not just yet. Both it and the memoir have to wait until September, after I've finished the next book in the Darling Dahlias series, The DD's and the Eleven O'Clock Ladies. Looks like the rest of the year is going to be filled with writing, which is just the way I like it!
Reading note: I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.--Jorge Luis Borges
― Jorge Luis Bor
Death Come Quicklyis coming this week--and I'm going on the road for a few Texas events, to Round Rock, Austin, and Houston. You'll find a complete list here. I'll also be doing several online events to celebrate the launch of the paperback edition of Widow's Tears--check them out at the bottom of the Events page. My publisher (Berkley Prime Crime) is giving away some copies of the book, so be sure to visit! We'd love to send you one.
Other book news: Thorndike Publishing acquired the large-print rights A Wilder Rose (my author-published novel about Rose Wilder Lane and her writing of the Little House books). They published the large-print edition earlier this month, and it's now at the top of the Thorndike bestseller list. I'm delighted. So far, the book has been shelved in 350+ libraries--a super showing for an author-published book. If your library doesn't have it, tell the librarian about it!
My author-imprint, Persevero Press, has published two of my backlist titles: Work of Her Own and Writing From Life, both in ebook and print formats. And Story Circle has republished Starting Points: A Year of Writing Prompts for Women with Stories to Tell. (All the proceeds from Starting Points go to Story Circle.)
I've just finished Bittersweet, China's 24th mystery and sent it off to New York this morning. You'll have it in your hands by this time next year. With it went proposals for three more books in that series--I'll keep you posted on their progress.
I'm working on a memoir with my brother, John Webber, tentatively titled Greetings from Danville Ill. 1950. John and I are planning a trip to Danville in late April, to remind ourselves of the places where we grew up and the people we knew there. Doing the family research, we've dug up several interesting skeletons, as you might guess. It's been a fascinating project and I'm looking forward to doing the writing. I can't get started on it until September, though. The Darling Dahlias are wanting me to write another of their Depression-era mysteries.
And after that, my current stealth project, another biographical/historical novel. I'll tell you all about that when it's a little further along.
Whew. I love it when the writing keeps me busy--and thinking and growing.
Garden news. We've had only a trace of rain this winter, but I put out potatoes, peas, spinach, and onions anyway, and have been faithfully watering. But with drought comes heat, so I'm not hugely confident about the spring garden. The thermometer has already hit 90 this year, with several days in the upper 80s. We've started watering the trees that shade the house and help to keep it cool, which we very much want to save.
Family news. Granddaughter Dorothy & husband Jason brought their new daughter, Evie, home from the hospital last week. Congratulations to Mom & Dad and a warm welcome to Evie!
Reading note: If you can quit, then quit. If you can't quit, you're a writer. R.A. Salvatore
We're celebrating the birthday (February 7, 1867) of Laura Ingalls Wilder with a $1.99 sale of the Kindle edition of A Wilder Rose, the story of the mother/daughter collaboration that produced the Little House books. If you already have the print edition, you might take this oppotunity to add the eBook edition to your Kindle library. While you're at it, take a look at the Reader's Companion, which details the research on which the novel is based. And for your reading group (or for your own guided reading), check out these reading group questions about the book.
As Laura and Rose tell the story in On the Banks of Plum Creek, Ma Ingalls made vanity cakes for Laura's birthday party.
She made them with beaten eggs and white flour. She dropped them into a kettle of sizzling fat. Each one came up bobbing, and floated till it turned itself over, lifting up its honey-brown, puffy bottom. Then it swelled underneath till it was round, and Ma lifted it out with a fork. She put every one of those cakes in the cupboard. They were for the party.
In Little House Cookbook, Barbara Walker gives us her recipe for Vanity Cakes:
1 large egg
1/2 cup white flour or whole wheat pastry flour
Beat egg and salt in a bowl for 1 minute, then beat in 1/4 cup flour, then add rest of flour one tablespoon at a time until batter is stiff but not so hard that it could be rolled out. Cover a plate with flour and then drop dough by small spoonfuls onto the flour. Flip them over so both sides are coated. Cook in hot lard (approx 350 degrees). Drain cakes on a paper towel, then dust with powdered sugar.
If you make these, please remember that children of pioneer parents didn't have sugar, so even a hint of sweetness would have been a treasured treat. If you'd like to make a modern baked version, here's how. If Ma Ingalls had had lots of sugar, plenty of eggs, and could rely on a very slow oven, this is the way she would have done it.
Happy birthday, Laura!
Reading note: As you read my stories of long ago I hope you will remember that things truly worthwhile and that will give you happiness are the same now as they were then. It is not the things you have that make you happy. It is love and kindness and helping each other and just plain being good."--Laura Ingalls Wilder
On Monday, it was 80. On Thursday night, 18, snowing and sleeting. Today (Sunday), in the 70s. Ahead on Tuesday, another repeat of snow/sleet. I've been ready to put in potatoes for a couple of weeks, but this kind of yo-yo weather means rapid soil warming and chilling, not exactly the kind of conditions you want to submit plants to. And January has been another dry month, with only a trace of precipitation (the sleet didn't amount to a hill of beans) and the lakes down to 38%.
But gardeners live on hope, so I've started cabbages and tomatoes. The cabbages are up and green under the lights, but the tomatoes are still jut a promise. Spring can't be that far away, though--especially here, where summer always seems to hover just over the horizon.
Book report. Bittersweet is moving along, but it's another research-heavy mystery, so progress is slower than uusual. But that's okay. I'm discovering lots of uniquely Texas stuff I didn't know, and I've lived in the state for 40 years.The book is about deer farming and canned trophy hunts, a large and ugly industry that's built on people's desire to hang monster antlers on their walls. As usual, China is in the thick of things.
I'm also working on a project with my brother, John Webber, a memoir in two voices about our growing-up years in/around Danville IL in the 1950s. We've been sharing photos, names, places, events. It's fascinating to follow the trail of a memory and see how one recollection leads to another and another, rediscovered a past world that has disappeared under the relentless waves of the future. We're planning a research trip in April, to see what else we can rediscover--and from there, I'm planning a brief visit to the Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park NY, for another project I've have underway for some time. More about that when it's farther along.
Also in April, Story Circle's 7th national memoir conference. If you're considering writing about your life, this is one conference you'll want to attend. All women, wonderful keynoters, great presentations. (I'm on the conference committee, so when I say "wonderful . . . great," believe me.)
A Wilder Rose continues to grow and flower. Recently, the novel introduced me to Carol Mayfield, a reader in Harlingen TX, where Rose owned a home in the last decade of her life. Carol knew Rose through her parents, who were Rose's neighbors. Carol and I have begun an email friendship, sparked by our mutual interest in Rose. We're working on something together that we'll be sharing right here in the next few weeks. Watch this space.
Reading note. A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.--Richard Bach
Not the prettiest things in the world, are they? But deep in the wizened hearts of each of these seed potatoes lurks a pretty green plant.
And underneath each green plant lurks a half dozen new potatoes--if I'm lucky. Texas being Texas and what with the usual vagaries of temperature and rainfall (and climate change on top of that), the pretty green plants don't always yield six potatoes. Sometimes only three, maybe even just one. Some seasons the crop is splendid, some seasons not so much.
But whatever the outcome, the magic is always there for me. I come from a long line of gardening women, and planting potatoes, as I did when I was a kid and as my gardening mother did and her mother before her and so on, is a celebration of life and hope and trust in a beneficent universe. All of which is on my mind this morning, as I sort through this year's seed potatoes and get ready to put them in the ground.
Also on my mind: Bittersweet (China Bayles' 2015 mystery), due at the end of March. Last week, Bill & I took a 2-day research trip down to Uvalde County, where Bittersweet is set. We visited Utopia (we had pie at the Lost Maples Cafe), drove along the southern rim of the Edwards Plateau, and visited a couple of places where Bill used to spend summer vacations when he was a boy. Uvalde County is unique. It straddles two very different ecological regions--the Edwards Plateau and the Coastal Plains--so it offers a rich variety of landscapes, plant communities, and wildlife. I'm about a third of the way through the book, which is taking China into the deer and exotic breeding/hunting business, a burgeoning enterprise across the country. Here in Texas, it's a political hot potato with potentially unfortunate environmental consequences.
Update on A Wilder Rose. Kirkus named Rose to its list of Best Indie Fiction for 2013--quite a compliment to the book! The number of libraries acquiring it has zoomed up to 225 (just in the World Catalog system)--even a library in Australia! It will appear in a large-print edition in March, and it's under consideration for audio. I couldn't ask for a warmer response to the book.
Update from Persevero Press. You may remember that I launched my own imprint last year, Persevero Press. We've recently added the 20th anniversary edition of Work of Her Own: A Woman's Guide to Creating a Right Livelihood to the list, and two other titles will be forthcoming shortly. Some of these books will be available via Kindle and Nook only, some also in print. I'm delighted with the new and exciting publishing technologies that make it possible to get books into the hands of readers. There'll be a lot of junk on the market, but discriminating readers will quickly sort through that stuff and choose the ones they think are worth their reading time.
I finished the needlepoint project (designed by the amazing Laura Perin) that' I'm donating to the silent auction that's held during Story Circle's National Women's Memoir Conference, coming up in April, in Austin. When you come, please plan to spend time out in the Hill Country. It's going to be a banner year for bluebonnets!
Reading Note: I never feel that it's finished, but you have to stop somewhere.--Annie Proulx
I'm delighted to tell you that A Wilder Rose has been named by the prestigious review publication, Kirkus Reviews, to its 2013 Best of Indie Fiction list.
Writing this book--a tribute to the unacknowledged coauthor of the beloved Little House books--and publishing it has been a remarkable journey. My grateful thanks to all of you who have made that journey with me, and whose support means more to me than I can say. It truly takes a village...
I'm staying at Coyote Ridge, our place in the New Mexico Mountains, working on a book, soaking up some of the local history, and loving the rugged landscape. One afternoon, I drove up through the valley of the little Rio Manuelitos, through the tiny villages of Upper Rociada (ele. 7600') and Gascon (8100'), which are less than a mile apart. Remote and isolated, they are part of the vast Las Vegas Land Grant, originally awarded to settlers in 1835 by the Mexican government in order to establish control and exert its rights over its enormous territory.
In the days when the entire valley was part of Jean Pendaries' large ranch, the villages must have been lively, because the ranch hands lived there with their large families. Gascon, named for Pendaries' native Gascony, had its own post office (the mail came once a week by horse from Las Vegas, New Mexico, 30 miles away). Upper Rociada had a tiny general store and a post office in the front room of the Ramirez' home. Upper Rociada also had a church, the San Jose Mission, built of adobe and plastered with mud, in 1862. The priest might've said mass there only once a month (his flocks were scattered all through the mountains and he came by horseback), but it was still the heart of the village. Several years ago, the people of Upper Rociada got together to restore their church.
It was a challenging project, physically and financially, and an important symbolic gesture. Most of the parishioners had moved away, but they had never forgotten their village, and restoring San Jose helped to restore their deep connection to the place they still call home.
Driving through this snow-covered valley in my comfortable Honda Element, I'm only 30 minutes away from modern Las Vegas. But when the San Jose Mission was first built, Las Vegas was an arduous two-day trip over a rutted dirt road, steep in many places and cut by sometimes impassable streams. During the short summers, the villagers grew most of their own food (vegetables, fruits, and grains); any groceries they needed (sugar, salt, coffee, tea) were hauled up the valley by wagon. In winter, when the road was covered with snow, there was no travel except by horse, sometimes for weeks on end. The villagers ground their grains (wheat, rye, barley) at the mill Jean Pendaries built in 1876 on the Rio Manuelitos at the foot of the valley.
Rootedness is a quality of life that we have traded for the advantages (or so we think them) of mobility. But as I look at what is left here and reflect on the strength of the people who built it, I think they had something we lack.The villagers were rooted in these rugged mountains, and their lives were difficult. To survive and thrive, they had to be rugged themselves, durable and resilient. They knew the land. They belonged to it and were at home in it--were a part of it in a way that most modern people can never be.
Reading note: The question is not whether land belongs to us, through titles registered in a courthouse, but whether we belong to the land, through our loyalty and awareness. . . In belonging to a landscape, one feels a rightness, at-homeness, a knitting of self and world. Scott Russell Sanders