Monday, October 07, 2019

Deadly Labors

My characters talk to me. When I’m writing, it’s almost like I am taking dictation from somewhere in the depths of my brain, where my characters live. This has a great advantage when it comes to writing, of course. But the protagonist of my mystery series set in Honolulu, openly gay homicide detective Kimo Kanapa’aka, is notoriously finicky about when he’s ready to speak up.

Mahu, the first book in the series, was accepted for publication by Harrington Park Press, a small imprint from a larger textbook publisher, back in 2003. I was so excited, and so was Kimo. But I wasn’t willing to commit to a second book in the series until I knew if the first would succeed.

Kimo was dragged out of the closet in Mahu, and I knew he would have to take a lot of small steps before he fully accepted himself. So I wrote short stories that moved his life forward, inch by inch. Then the company that owned HPP was sold and the imprint shuttered. I had already written the second and third books in the series, though, and this was long before the advent of self-publishing.

I was extremely fortunate to move Kimo to Alyson Books, which published the first four books in the series before they, too, shut down as a result of a corporate merger. Then Laura Baumbach, owner of MLR Press, agreed to take on the whole series, reprinting the first three and then publishing five more titles.

I had other irons in the fire by then, other standalone books published, and other series in the works. Kimo had stopped speaking to me, and I thought we were done.

I was on the train heading to the big mystery conference, Bouchercon, in St. Louis in the fall of 2011, when Kimo’s boyfriend, fire investigator Mike Riccardi, dragged me into the middle of a conversation he and Kimo were having. As excited as I was to hear them again, I wanted them to shut up until I could get off the train, check into the hotel, and start transcribing their voices!

I wrote four more books on the tide of that inspiration, and then, with Ghost Ship, Kimo was settled with Mike, their foster son and the two kids they shared with a lesbian couple. Since the arc of the series had been how Kimo’s life unfolds after he comes out, I didn't think he had more to say.

Wrong, as usual. I read an article online about a program to teach the hula to to inmates at San Quentin, as part of a native American heritage program. This time, it wasn’t Kimo so much as his mother who began to speak. The son of her friend had gone through that program in prison, returned to the islands and turned his life around. Then he was arrested for a murder Kimo’s mom was sure he couldn’t have committed.

Who among us can resist an entreaty from a mom who has been nothing but supportive throughout her son’s checkered life? Kimo couldn’t, and neither could I. Thus begins Deadly Labors, the 12th book (and 10th novel) in the series. I hope fans will be excited to catch up with Kimo and his ohana (the Hawaiian word for extended family) and that new readers will be intrigued to learn about the dark shadows behind the Aloha State’s sunny façade.

I thought this would be a good chance to take back ownership of the series and relaunch it with new, modern covers. I love the fresh look the series has, and hope you will, too.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

What I Learned from Yard Sales

I picked up a wickedly pointed metal object from the dining room table, holding it by its hollow handle, and asked, "Mom, can we sell this garden trowel?"
She looked up from the box of file folders, staplers and paper clips she was sorting and said, "That's not a trowel, it's a bayonet. Give it to your father."

This was some thirty-plus years ago, when I went back to my parents’ house in Yardley, Pennsylvania, to prepare for a yard sale.

Before I arrived, my mother placed ads in the local papers, announcing a garage sale, featuring furniture, household goods and tools. The first customers showed up a little after eight on Saturday morning, while we were still finishing breakfast. They were so interested in what we had to offer that many of them helped us empty boxes, loading books, handbags, jewelry, office supplies and toys onto our folding card tables.

One of our best customers was Tony, of Tony's Auto Repair, the local AAA towing agent. Tony's wife cruised by early in the morning, and walked around back to my father's basement workshop. I was down there with him handling the cash and trying to make sure no one walked off with any of his dozens of hand tools. She looked around at the clutter, the piles of sawdust and metal shavings, and said, "I'm going to bring my husband back here. This is his kind of place."

Tony himself appeared around lunch time, and after scoping out the basement and the garage he bought a couple of wrench sets, a screwdriver, and my father's drill press. Tony's auto shop is next door to the insurance agency on Ferry street down by the river, one of the four streets that make up the center of Yardley. Before he left, he told my father that the insurance agent next door to him was looking for a circular saw, and that he'd send him by. Yardley was still a small town back then, where you know your neighbors and the kind of tools they're looking for. Even though the ad in the paper said the sale was from nine to three, we were still doing business at nine o'clock at night.

One of our late customers was a mechanical engineer who lived on Main Street in Yardley, a block south of the commercial center, which consists of a few dozen stone and clapboard buildings. Back then, we had five real estate brokerages, a grocery, a delicatessen, a state-run liquor store and a number of boutiques, insurance agencies and doctors' offices. The five and dime closed when I was a teenager, and the hardware and feed store at the corner by the traffic light was replaced by a real estate broker a few years back, as the area surrounding the town made the transition from rural to suburban.

The engineer was a referral, from a co-worker at the Navy turbine plant in West Trenton, just across the river. He bought the lathe, which took us nearly an hour to get unbolted from my father's workbench. I found out that my grandfather had built the workbench, something I'd never known. He was a good carpenter-- I knew he'd built the old back porch on our house, the one we took out when we built the big modern deck.

While we were carrying the lathe out to his car, I learned that the engineer had gone to Pennsbury High, as I had, and graduated in 1960. He was from Levittown, the suburban megalopolis on the other side of the highway, but he said he'd had a girlfriend in Yardley so he'd spent a lot of time there. That’s one of the reasons why I set the golden retriever books in a town that’s very much like Yardley, though a few miles farther upriver. So that as I did during those yard sales, Steve could run into old friends and their families, and people who shared his background.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Dogs and cats in books

I've been a fan of Mary Lee Ashford's since I met her and her writing partner (under the name of Sparkle Abbey) at a Malice Domestic conference years ago. Ever since I've enjoyed reading the Pampered Housedogs series, and I've also enjoyed Mary Lee's Sugar and Spice books. So I invited her to come visit my blog and talk about dogs and cats in books.
I am so excited to be a guest on Neil’s blog and even more excited to hear that he had a new Golden Retriever book out this month! Dog’s Green Earth is definitely right on the top of my to-be-read list and I hope it’s on yours as well.
You see, I love dogs (and cats, too) in books and Rochester, the aforementioned golden retriever, is a great example of why. When books have pets that are fully integrated into the story, it makes the story so much richer. And those canine or feline characters help us get to know the human characters in the story.

First off, just like in real life, whether someone has a pet or not tells us a lot about them. If they don’t, why not? Do they wish they could, but live somewhere that doesn’t allow pets? Have they had a bad experience?

If they do have a pet, how they came to have this particular pet tells us even more. Was it a search for just the right cat or dog? A desire for a particular breed? Or are they, like me, an adopter of strays and a supporter of animal rescue shelters? Neither approach is right or wrong, but it may shed some light on this character’s background and what makes them tick.

And how about the other characters in the book? How do they react to the pets? And, just as important, how do the pets react to them? It’s certainly true that you can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat animals.

When I started writing the Sugar & Spice mystery series, I gave Sugar a cat, Ernest, and Dixie, a dog. Dixie’s dog, Moto, is a mixed breed she adopted from the local rescue. And Ernest, is a six-toed tabby who adopted Sugar. She didn’t plan on having a cat, but…now she does.

Animals in a book not only give you great insights on the characters, but they can also, at times, play a part in the plot of the story. Perhaps, prompting action, increasing conflict, or serving as a cohort in uncovering a clue.

How about you? Do you like pets in books? Do you have a favorite fictional dog or cat?

About the Sugar & Spice Mysteries:

Sugar (Rosetta Sugar-Baker), a down-sized magazine editor and Spice (Dixie Spicer), a blue-ribbon baker, believe they have the perfect ingredients for a successful community cookbook publishing business. When you stir in a dash of small town drama and a dollop of murder the result is a delicious new mystery series…

Game of Scones - Sugar & Spice Mysteries Book 1

Risky Biscuits - Sugar & Spice Mysteries Book 2

About Mary Lee

Mary Lee Ashford writes the Sugar and Spice series for Kensington Books, and also writes as half of the writing team of Sparkle Abbey. She is the founding president of Sisters in Crime – Iowa and a former board member of the Mystery Writers of America Midwest chapter, as well as a member of Novelists, Inc., Romance Writers of America, Kiss of Death the RWA Mystery Suspense chapter, Sisters in Crime, and the SinC Internet group, Guppies. Her delights are encouraging other writers, reading, and enjoying her family, especially her six grandchildren.

And she loves to connect with readers!

Website: www.MaryLeeAshford.com

Monday, September 16, 2019

Yardley and Stewart's Crossing

It’s no secret that I have based Stewart’s Crossing on Yardley, the small town in Bucks County, PA where I grew up. It had once been a river town, with an active business life along the bank and a broad street stretching down to a two-lane bridge. But when the bridge crumbled during the hurricane of '58 so did much of Yardley's identity. When I was a kid, a funeral home, a cafe, a gas station rarely patronized and an inn comprised the riverfront, and small houses and bungalows stretch away in both directions.

You could see evidence of the fact that we lived in the Delaware Valley as we climbed hills outside of town, where farmland stretched for miles. When I took the late bus home from high school, we roved those country lanes and dropped kids off in front of farms and silos.

Back then, the town’s focus shifted a bit west, to Main Street, where the old mill and the florist's greenhouses anchored the commercial district. Victorian houses heavy with gingerbread abut the modern firehouse, with its two bays; the remodeled bank, town hall, the small shopping center, the doctor's offices and the decorator shops, the convenience mart and pharmacies and real estate agents fill the rest of the street.

Today, a lone traffic light still guards the intersection of Main Street and Afton Avenue, that broad street that stretches down to the remains of the old bridge, now a memorial to victims of the war, where a wilting wreath of red, white and blue usually rests. On its way there, Afton Avenue jumps over the canal, which stretches parallel and quiet along the Delaware, and runs past more decorator shops, gas stations, and grocery stores.

In the other direction, Afton Avenue climbs one of the hills that make the Delaware Valley, passing the mill pond and the old library, a Victorian Gothic one-room building with peaked windows and high shutters. It was built in the late 1800s by the townspeople and only in the recent past did the growth of the surrounding area force it to move to new, more spacious headquarters farther out in the country.

The suburbs have encroached on the farmland I once knew. Driving inland now, I hardly recognize any landmarks, the familiar old streets now lined with housing developments and strip shopping centers. There’s even a Fortune 500 company, Crown Holdings, located somewhere in town. When I was growing up, riding my bike along the cracked sidewalks of downtown, I couldn’t have imagined that.

I’ve tried to recreate some of old Yardley in my portrait of Stewart’s Crossing. The Delaware still flows past, shallow and fast, rising up to the low points on the River Road during the spring rains, when it carries with it the runoff of upriver snows. Since so many cozy mysteries take place in small towns, there’s no reason why I can’t immortalize my own home town in fiction, the way Bruce Springsteen did with his in song.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Hi, Neighbor!

About a year ago, my husband mentioned a website he had joined called Nextdoor, a way for neighbors within our gated community to communicate with each other online.
Here’s the way they describe it: “Nextdoor is the private social network for your neighborhood. Nextdoor is the best way to stay informed about what’s going on in your neighborhood—whether it’s finding a last-minute babysitter, planning a local event, or sharing safety tips. There are so many ways our neighbors can help us, we just need an easier way to connect with them.”

The site required verification of your address, so you could know that those who posted were real people who lived near you.


In general, I agree with the site’s premise. I’ve seen a number of posts there about things that relate to the gated community where we live, as well as the greater neighborhood. I’ve learned things about construction project and social groups that I might otherwise never have know about.

My husband was unhappy about things going on in our community, and he found a vocal group who shared his opinions. He made connections with neighbors we might otherwise not have known, and he enjoyed the social aspects of the site. I often heard about the complaints neighbors were making about the way our homeowner’s association was being run.

Those complaints fed into the story of Dog’s Green Earth. Though the ones I reference in the book are fictional (and River Bend bears only the simplest resemblance to the community where we live) I found that framework a great way for Steve to learn about complaints – and about people who might be suspects in the murder he’s investigating.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Who were the Philistines?

In writing David and Jonathan, an M/M romance from the Bible, I did a lot of reading of the Old Testament and various other sources, and after spending a long time on the battle between David and Goliath, I was curious to see who exactly the Philistines were.


There are a number of other tribes mentioned in the Book of Samuel. Chief among them, of course, are the Philistines. Sources indicate they were an Aegean people, perhaps from Crete, who settled in Canaan around the same time as the Israelites, in the 12th century BCE.

The Philistine confederacy was composed of five major cities (the Pentapolis): Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath (as we later learn, home of Goliath). And eventually they gave their name to Palestine.

The Philistines are often called “the uncircumcised ones” in Samuel, but I’ve expanded that definition to all the other tribes that are mentioned, particularly because I wanted to give David some experience with a foreskin before Saul commands him to provide 100 foreskins as a bride price for his daughter Michal.

These other tribes include the Jebusites, an ancient Canaanite people that lived in an area called Jebus, on the site of current-day Jerusalem.

The Amalekites were a nomadic tribe living in the Negev, who are frequent enemies of the Israelites, even though they are said to be descended from Esau. One of the many inconsistencies I found in the Biblical story of David concerns the Amalekites. Adonai commands Saul to kill all the Amalekites and destroy all their possessions (1 Samuel 15). Saul disobeys, however, leaving Agag, the king of the Amalekites, alive, and confiscating the tribe’s best livestock.

This leads Samuel to curse Saul, tearing his garments and claiming him unfit to rule Israel. Then Samuel blesses David and anoints him as the future king.


Mount Gilboa
All that’s fine to me. However, when Saul is wounded at the battle of Mount Gilboa, an Amalekite slave finds him. Saul asks the slave to kill him, and then take his gold crown to David. There’s a lovely symmetry to having an Amalekite handle this task.

But if Saul had all the Amalekites other than their king killed, where did this slave come from? My guess is that there were other Amalekite tribes floating around, or that this slave was captured before Saul killed all his people. But it’s a weird anomaly to me.

The Edomites, also descendants of Esau, were an ancient people living in Edom, a region south of the Dead Sea.

The Kenites were a tribe of itinerant metalsmiths related to the Midianites and the Israelites who plied their trade while traveling in the desert rift valley extending from the Sea of Galilee to the Gulf of Aqaba. Before Saul kills the Amalekites, he tells the Kenites to leave from among them, because they have been good to the Israelites in the past. Moses’s father-in-law, Jethro, was a Kenite, so it seems like these tribes lived peacefully together and occasionally intermarried.

The Ammonites lived east of the Jordan river, and their chief city was Rabban Ammon – or Amman, the current capital of Jordan.

Adriel the Meholathite marries Saul’s oldest daughter, Merab—but all I can find is that this means he was from the town of Meholath, in the same way that David’s father Jesse is called a Bethlehemite.


I hope this gives readers some background into the various tribes who play a part in David and Jonathan's story, and my attempt to create a modern M/M romance out of one of the iconic relationships in the Old Testament.

You can buy the book from Amazon, or from other retailers here.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Year-End Holiday Wishes


I want to wish you all the happiest of holidays and the healthiest, best and most productive New Year.!

I’ve been quite busy this fall writing and I thought I’d let you know what’s in the pipeline.
My general practice is to write a first draft, put it aside, then come back to it a few months later. I’ll add in descriptions, make sure the timeline works, and so on. If I’m happy, I’ll send it off to one of the freelance editors I use. Then I’ll do another draft based on her advice, hire my fabulous cover designer to create a great cover, and then put it up for sale.

Sometimes a book takes more than two drafts. I’ve been working on an MM romance version of the story of David and Jonathan from the Bible, for example. In the first draft I took the Bible stories from the book of Samuel and knitted them into a coherent timeline (apparently several different authors contributed to that book, so it’s a mess.)

It wasn’t a real love story yet, because the Bible didn’t treat it as one, so I had to do another draft to improve that. I’m hoping after another draft, and then editorial review and revision, it’ll be ready this spring.

Also on my hard drive is a historical MM romance set along the Delaware Canal in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where I grew up. It’s also where the golden retriever mysteries are set. I’m in a historical mood right now—almost finished with a book I’m calling The Gentleman and the Spy, a romance adventure set a few years later but in London and the Cotswolds. Something about the tumult of that period appeals to me—the US was recovering from the Civil War, and Victoria reigned over India.

And finally, I finished a first draft of the next Have Body, Will Guard book, in which Aidan’s ex, Blake, needs him and Liam to protect Blake’s husband, an Argentine diplomat, at a convention in the Bahamas. You can feel free to tell anyone you know in the IRS that it’s loosely based on a trip my partner and I took in the spring!

If you haven’t read the most recent book in the series, The Same Page, Jon Michaelsen has posted an exclusive excerpt at his website, featuring the secondary couple of the book, young Russian Arseny and his Italian boyfriend Giovanni.

I’ve had several readers ask to see them in another book. What do you think? Leave a comment here or at Jon's blog and I’ll choose someone to get a free digital copy of The Same Page—or any other book in the series, if you wish.

While you wait for all that, here’s a brief piece of flash fiction about Aidan and Liam, who can’t seem to get away from protecting people, even if they’re not hired to do so.

Christmas Village in the Place Massena, Nice

“Ice skating, Aidan? Really? You do know it’s eighty degrees outside.” Liam stared at me.

“Yes, but this rink is only temporary for the holidays.”

“Didn’t you get enough of the cold when we were in Chechnya?"

“It’s not like we were there for vacation. Please, Liam?”

“Fine. But if you fall on your ass, I’m laughing.”

“Ditto.”

They drove their Jeep down into the center of Nice, which was jammed with holiday tourists, and found a parking place in a garage near the Place Massena. On their way to the ice rink they passed an animated Christmas village, complete with elf, and a place where kids could have their photos taken with Santa.

“If you tell me you want to sit on Santa’s lap I’ll call you a pervert,” Liam said.

“I’ll settle for your lap, later.”

Beyond Santa’s village was a sugar shack, which was announced as a Canadian tradition. They both followed the instructions, dipping a stick in hot syrup and then rolling it in snow until it became a lollipop. “This is good enough to make me want to visit Canada,” Aidan said.

 They strolled through the rest of the Christmas village, where people shopped for handmade ornaments or crèches, drank mulled wine and ate crepes and waffles. The rink was the size of an Olympic swimming pool, about half-filled with skaters in an odd mix of clothes, from T-shirts and shorts over bare legs to ski pants and long-sleeved turtlenecks.

It was in the low sixties, so they had both worn jeans and polo shirts. While they fitted their skates beside the rink, the fan blowing cold air chilled Aidan’s bare arms and rose goosebumps, but once they were on the rink he didn’t notice them anymore.

His first few glides were wobbly, as he let his body remember how to do this. He had grown up on a lake in Pennsylvania, and when it froze over he joined the rest of the neighborhood kids out on the ice, skating in loops and joining pick-up ice hockey games.

As with almost everything athletic, Liam was better than he was, taking off on a long glide right out of the gate, even though Aidan was sure he hadn’t been on skates since he was a teenager. Aidan focused on keeping his balance, skating slowly around couples and small children.

As he did, he watched the crowd. When he had taken bodyguard school years before, when he first decided he wanted to work with Liam, one of the things he’d been trained to look for was people whose attire didn’t fit the weather. Men in long overcoats, for example, when the temperature didn’t merit it.

But that rule didn’t seem to matter when it came to an ice rink on the Côte d’Azur. A young man, his face almost obscured by his heavy beard and a wool cap over his head, wore a heavy wool coat that hung to his knees. But who could blame him, when the ice was a frosty thirty-two degrees, with cold breezes generated by the fans at the sidelines that had chilled Aidan earlier.

Ahead of him, Liam twirled around and skated backwards toward him, then took Aidan’s hand and spun him around slowly. “You goof,” Aidan said, but he smiled.

Liam let him go, and zoomed off around the rink, and Aidan skated slowly behind him. When he passed the young man in the overcoat, he couldn’t help noticing something in his look. He remembered going to gay bars when he was barely drinking age, back in Philadelphia. He had the feeling he’d looked that way, longing as he watched men come and go with each other. Would he ever find a man to enter his heart?

There had been Blake first, for nearly eleven years, and then Liam, so Aidan knew that his youthful fears had been ungrounded. He had the desire to pull that young amn aside and tell him not to worry, everything would be all right in the end.

But what if he wasn’t gay? Suppose he was just frightened of getting on skates?

“Did you notice the guy in the overcoat?” Liam asked, as he skated up beside Aidan.

“The one who looks like a kid outside a candy shop?” Aidan said. “Yeah.”

“I wouldn’t describe him that way. I’d say the guy who looks like he’s hiding something under that coat.”

“Liam. He probably just wanted to stay warm out on the ice.”

“But he’s not on the ice. He’s on the sidelines and he’s sweating like mad. Why not take off his coat?”

The next few moments appeared to Aidan to pass in slow motion. The young man unbuttoned his coat, and Aidan recognized the outline of a long gun beneath it. Liam saw that, too, and with a strong push on his skates, glided quickly toward the sidelines. He jumped the low fence with the ease of an Olympic skater, slamming into the young man.

The crowd reacted by pulling back, especially when a twenty-something mother noticed the gun that had fallen free and called, “Au secours! Un pistolet!”

Aidan skated close to where Liam wrestled with the young man, but couldn’t do anything to help because he had his skates on. Fortunately a pair of flics arrived almost immediately, securing the long gun and separating Liam from the young man, whose hat had come off to reveal an unruly mop of black hair.

Aidan skated over to the exit, swapped out his skates for his shoes, and picked up Liam’s running shoes as well. As he returned to Liam, he heard his partner explaining how he had noticed the gun. 

The crowd supported him, and the dark-haired man was hauled off to the police station, after the flics had taken information from all the witnesses.

“Just another sunny day on the Côte d’Azur,” Liam said, as he swapped out his skates for his shoes. 

“I’m starved. How about we go back to that Canadian place and try the grilled marshmallows dipped in chocolate?”

“You know the way to my heart,” Aidan said. “Though you did cause it to skip a couple of beats when you launched yourself at that guy.”

“Just keeping things interesting,” Liam said.

Thanks for reading this far! The hardest thing about the Have Body, Will Guard series is figuring out why someone needs a bodyguard. I’ve already done the following:

1.    A courier who needs protection (Three Wrong Turns in the Desert)
2.    A pop star who comes out amid death threats (Dancing with the Tide)
3.    A boy who may be in danger as a pawn in his father’s business deal (Teach Me Tonight)
4.    The young daughter of an opposition politician (Olives for the Stranger)
5.    A businessman building in a sensitive area (Under the Waterfall)
6.    A man who learns dangerous information about the government (The Noblest Vengeance)
7.    A former porn star in danger (Finding Freddie Venus)
8.    A man whose former love is now a government official (A Cold Wind)
9.    A young man who needs to be rescued from Chechnya (The Same Page)

(BTW, all the links are to Amazon, where I sell most of my books, but they’re all available widely at Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple and other e-retailers.)

Any ideas I can use? I’d love to hear them, either by email, Facebook message or post here or at Jon Michaelsen’s site.

Love and joy –

Neil