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!


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.