I met fellow Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine author Michael Nethercott at the Malice Domestic traditional mystery convention in May. Recipient of the The Black Orchid Novella Award for short fiction, Michael is a versatile writer who is also the author of two novels.
The 1950s post-war landscape… The energetic folk music revival… The rebellious Beat literary scene… Into that swirling Bohemia that was mid-century Greenwich Village, I’ve chosen to weave my latest storyline. Something about that time and place, with its spirited overlap of cultural currents, beckoned to me as I was deciding where to set my next mystery novel.
In The Haunting Ballad, a divisive folk song collector—a “songcatcher”—named Lorraine Cobble has taken a fatal plunge from the roof of her apartment building. Almost everyone—the police, her neighbors, the local musicians—accept her death as a suicide. Almost everyone. The one exception is Lorraine’s admiring young cousin who contends that the songcatcher didn’t jump from the rooftop—she was hurled off. The cousin’s conviction brings the deductive duo of O’Nelligan and Plunkett into the picture. Lee Plunkett is a reluctant young private eye with a somewhat meager skill set. Mr. O'Nelligan is a scholarly, idiosyncratic Irishman who’s the true sleuth of the team. Also in the blend is Lee’s “perpetual fiancée” Audrey who, just to complicate things, is captivated by a handsome, smooth-talking young singer who had a contentious relationship with Lorraine.
While certainly my characters are the stuff of fiction, I was inspired by the many vibrant types who once filled the Village streets and coffee houses. My suspects are a varied bunch: the detached Beat princess; the twitchy bookie, the hepcat ringmaster, the ex-con bluesman; the rollicking Irish balladeers; and the “ghost chanter” who sings tunes the dead have taught her. For good measure, there’s also a hundred-and-five-old Civil War drummer boy whose flirting skills are still intact.
In my writing, I take inspiration from the Golden Age experts—Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout, Dorothy Sayers, etc.—and am very much an apostle of the “whodunit” piece of the pie. I always try to provider the reader with a sizable squad of suspects with shrouded backstories and secret motives. But alongside any tale’s colorful cast is the setting itself. A locale can have a nature and energy that makes it a character unto itself. And the Village of 1957, with all its shine and shadow, was certainly quite a character.
The Haunting Ballad (St. Martin’s Press) is the new whodunit in Michael Nethercott’s traditional 1950s mystery series. It features the sleuthing odd couple from The Séance Society: gumshoe. Lee Plunkett and erudite Irishman Mr. O’Nelligan.
Nethercott has won The Black Orchid Novella Award (for traditional mysteries), the Vermont Playwrights Award, the Nor’easter Play Writing Contest, the Vermont Writers’ Award, and the Clauder Competition (Best Vermont Play.) He has also been a Shamus Award finalist. His tales of mystery and the supernatural have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year, Thin Ice: Crime Stories by New England Writers, Crimestalkers Casebook, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He lives with his family in Vermont
Website: www.michaelnethercott.com/ (See Purchase page for ordering information.)
Digging for Treasure
My daughter hefted a round intact geode in one hand. It resembled a ball of concrete. Yes, that pretty.
We asked the vendor how exactly we were supposed to open our geodes. In our broken Spanish, and her broken English, we determined that either a super-sized bolt cutter or a hammer would do.
“Manimal will like these,” my daughter said, referring to her husband. “They combine two of his favorite things: rocks and smashing things.”
We selected five geodes each. What a bargain!
The Denver Mineral, Fossil, Gem and Jewelry Show was overwhelming. I attended to do some research for book three in my rock shop mystery series. I love this kind of research! In this blog, I’ll explore five things that met my expectations, and five surprises.
Meeting expectations -
1) Geodes – We found plenty of geodes at wholesale prices. I lugged my bag of the cannonball-heavy minerals around until I wised up and stashed them in my vehicle.
2) Coprolite – one vendor had two trays of fossilized dinosaur dung. As I made my selection, we made jokes about the insanity of buying dino poop. One browser asked how the vendor knew it was really poop. The vendor said her coprolite guy travels all over the world collecting fossilized dinosaur dung. You can test it to verify it is really poop. What a job!
3) Ammonite – will be featured in its gemstone form ammolite in book two of my rock shop mystery series. Amazing ammonite fossils appeared in many sizes, colors, and forms. I purchased the smaller variety cut and polished, and made into a pair of earrings.
4) Size – I suspected the show would be huge, and I was not disappointed. I now know the source for wholesale items that my character Morgan stocks in her rock shop. In fact, some items were marked “for wholesale only.”
5) Educating me on the reality of a large mineral show. I suspected I did not know enough to write an effective mystery based on this setting, and I was correct.
1) Generosity of knowledge – every vendor I met offered his or her expertise for my research. I will highlight folks in a future blog who went out of their way to bring me up to speed on gemstone prospecting (The Bad Boys of Cripple Creek) and paleontology (Oreodont Fossils).
2) Prospectors – I knew the cast of the television reality show was scheduled to make an appearance at the mineral show. I did not expect to meet the stars! Dwayne Hall and his sister Yvonne made this newbie feel right at home among serious professional rockhounds.
3) Prices – I thought my mystery novel’s rock shop had an extravagant fossil – a Triceratops brow horn priced over three thousand dollars. I saw panels, at least five feet by six feet, that were priced in the tens of thousands of dollars.
4) Variety – of people and goods. I saw boxes of rocks, strings of beads, raw gemstones, cut gemstones, petrified wood pedestals, inexpensive commonplace fossils, crazy expensive large intact skeletons, T-shirts, tools, and toys. The international nature of the vendors surprised me, too. Every continent was represented. Everywhere on the planet, humans are digging for bones and treasure.
5) My daughter was grateful for the vegan, gluten-free food truck, while I was happy that the coffee truck had soy and rice milk. Who would have expected?
My daughter’s youngest succumbed to the heat and walking. She packed up her crew and left. I wandered around for another hour, made a few more purchases, and then conceded that I was on the brink of cranky-tired, too.
The afternoon spent at the Denver Mineral, Fossil, Gem and Jewelry Show was time well spent, and yet it was not nearly enough time to answer all my questions. Fortunately, I met some folks who are eager to educate a newbie rock hound.
I will be writing more about the mineral show, and posting more photos. Until then, here is a photo of one expensive fossil! This panel must have been five feet on each side.
My blog this week offers encouragement, an annoying light at the end of the tunnel, and my own modest moment of glorious triumph.
Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat. - Theodore Roosevelt
These lofty words hardly seem to apply to our everyday lives, and light at the end of the tunnel messages rarely uplift in the manner intended. Especially when we are in the midst of defeat. In fact, they can be downright annoying. This quote was featured in my daily planner yesterday, on the same day an article was circulating through the writing loops on a similar topic.
The Power of Rejection by Moira Allen http://www.writing-world.com/coffee/coffee84.shtml
Power? In rejection? Surely that's a cruel joke.
At the Malice Domestic mystery convention, Sisters in Crime members received an advance copy of Writes of Passage: Adventures on the Writer's Journey. This inspirational collection of essays encourages writers through the difficult process from idea to fruition in the form of publication.
When you hear the same message from several different directions, it is time to take notice.
Yes, the stories of failure and rejection before success are inspiring, but that route is not the one we prefer to take.
The vast majority of us want glorious triumph without suffering failure.
When I was running and training for a marathon, the message was "no pain, no gain." Running and training involve a certain amount of pain, but it's the good kind - sore muscles at the end of a run or a session at the gym. You know that pain will result in a higher fitness level. Faster race times. Less pain when going for a fun run.
That is difficult to translate into other endeavors in life, but think about it. Starting a new job can be mentally and emotionally difficult, but eventually you're adept. Maybe even the go-to person, an expert at your company or even in your field.
I have been down a particularly rocky road to success in the career of my heart, fiction writing. My early uneducated dreams of the writer's life have been tempered by experience and reality. I have several "trunk books," those early attempts at writing a novel that ended in disaster. And now I am published. My debut novel went through countless revisions, but I would guess at six major rewrites, and at least a dozen serious editing overhauls.
In the hectic pursuit of balancing my day job, family life, and writing career, it is easy to lose sight of my glorious triumphs. The recent repeated messages of success made possible by walking through the fires of defeat may be, for me, a reminder to savor this time. So I'll share my Moment with you.
I had breakfast with my editor the other day.
I've waited a long time to be able to make that sort of statement.
Sunday I had the privilege to join senior editor Deni Dietz and several fellow Five Star authors at breakfast. Everyone sitting around the table that morning had experienced rejection. The difference between success and failure is often a matter of perseverance. So hang in there, whatever your goal is, and remember to enjoy your moments of triumph.
As You Like It
A friendship rediscovered is a rare treasure. I recently reconnected with a friend from my Sunday School teacher days. Susan and I were recruited as teachers, not for our Bible knowledge or our skills with children, but because our kids wouldn't stop crying when we tried to attend services upstairs.
To celebrate our recent reunion, Susan and I decided to attend our local Shakespeare in the Park production. Our husbands were not interested. Recoiling in horror might be too strong to describe their reactions to being invited, but not by much. I have wanted to go for several summers, and somehow it never happens. I was not going to miss it again this year.
The play was everything you'd expect from homegrown theater. I was impressed with some brilliant performances, but what we talked about most on the way home were the bits of side entertainment.
The play took place at the Rock Ledge Ranch, an historic homestead in Colorado Springs. As we walked into the park, we noted the strong odor coming from the barn. I do not mind the smell of livestock. In fact, it added a bit of realism to hearing the Bard's work. Surely manure was one of the sweeter odors to be experienced back in Shakespeare's day.
We have enjoyed an unusually rainy summer. This made the park brilliantly green and lush (for Colorado), but it also created a large, murky puddle outside the tent. A walkway had been erected to traverse the swamp, as we affectionately dubbed it after several crossings.
As we retrieved our tickets from the will call booth, the helpful young women gave us tokens. "Since you paid full price, you get a free dinner." We inquired about this dinner, and learned it was a hot dog. Both of us are vegetarians. Somehow we had expected a wet bar and choice snacks. This was Shakespeare after all. We noted the audience of older, prosperous citizens. Definitely not a hot dog and soda pop crowd. And then we noted all the wiser folks who had smuggled in booze. Well, we know for next time.
At intermission, we emerged from the tent in darkness. We followed the crowd of slow moving seniors to the restrooms. As we returned, the play had already begun again. We had to wait outside, straddling the swamp, until we were allowed reentry. Seriously. They send the old folks tottering through the dark a quarter mile to the restroom and back, and expect a twenty minute intermission to suffice?
As we hustled to our seats, there was a commotion on the top row. Bleachers of a sort rose up several levels. Folding metal chairs perched in rows. As someone hurried to his or her seat, a miscalculation apparently caused hindquarters to miss chair. Susan and I believe the person was rescued by his or her companions before falling out the back of the tent. At any rate, no ambulance showed up. I can't say for certain, but I'm guessing this group was one of those who smuggled in their own wine.
One highlight for both of us was realizing we could still understand Shakespearean-era English. It took a few minutes, but we got up to speed quickly. As You Like It contained plenty of humor, some of it bawdy, as well as serious reflection, and fight scenes that looked painful.
Local theater is an experience not to be missed. The sets and costumes were creatively thrifty, and the venue fraught with issues. That was what made it such a fun experience for me. There was nothing slick about the tent in a pasture. The performance itself commanded all my attention. Will I brave the inconveniences to do this again? You bet!
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