As edits begin, I just want to brush my teeth and pee

Have you ever awakened in your dreams to a house full of people only to realize you are still in your PJs with unbrushed teeth and super serious bedhead? If you haven’t, I am glad for you because, in this dream, I am forced into a hostess role without even the chance to pee. It is not fun.

I am publicly exposed at my worst.

As editing begins this month on A Dead Man’s Eyes, the first book in my Lisa Jamison mystery/suspense series, I am excited. Good edits will only make my book a better experience for readers. I look forward to the improvements, which will bring me one step closer to publication day. But, as the editing period nears, that dream, an old one for me, has slipped back into my early morning playlist.

I don’t need an expert to interpret my dream. I am nervous. I am worried about exposing my words to the world only to realize that I failed to groom them, that they are without nuance, without the minty breath of a fresh voice. I fear that I will open the door to readers and reviewers before they are ready. I am guessing other authors have had different versions of this same dream, especially during the editing process of their debut novels.

I trust the editors at Level Best Books. I know they won’t let people into our house before my book is groomed and ready, but my nerves are not easily steadied by such assurances. That’s okay though. I would rather be nervous than overconfident. A good dose of nerves will only make me a better writer. For that reason, I hope I never lose these pre-release jitters.  I wouldn’t mind losing the dream though, or at least treating myself to a dreamy shower, a tube of Colgate and a pee break before my guests arrive.

This blog post is an excerpt from my October newsletter, which features an interview with debut historical author Hilary Hauck, thoughts on writing from mystery author Gabriel Valjan and photos of our new puppy dog, Lola May. You can find the newsletter here and subscribe here to make sure future newsletters come directly to your inbox.

Finding mom in a field full of berries

Steamy heat rising from the tall grass. Yellow jackets at my ankles. Thorns ripping the skin on my hands and arms.

These are my childhood memories of berry picking.

I hated it.

Picking berries was a summer chore in our family, during that small window when blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and chokecherries ripened in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. I grew up on homemade jam sealed with wax lids, one of the ways our mother saved money with eight kids to feed.

It was forced on me. It left me hot, sticky and, sometimes, bloody. So why do I find myself wandering the fields on our property every couple of days through late July and early August, reaching into webs of thorns, plucking plump blackberries from bushes?

Am I becoming my mother?

I have spent a lifetime fighting that possibility.

I loved my mother and I admired her on many levels, but we never really got along. I won’t go into the details, but we could not spend more than twenty-four hours together without breaking into a full-blown argument, even though we talked easily and comfortably on the phone at least once a week.

We drove each other crazy.

I grew up on stories of her upbringing in Nazi Germany, where she was taken from her family and made to work in people’s homes, like many German kids during that era. The Nazis claimed they were protecting city children from potential bombings. It just so happened there were Nazis willing to take them in who needed 11-year-old housekeepers and babysitters.

From her tales, I gathered that a love of nature was her coping mechanism. Unfortunately, it often lured her on unauthorized journeys from her assigned homes, which led to reassignment after reassignment after reassignment. She was labeled a troublemaker, a title she accepted with pride. The need for a particular flower or a certain view was that great.

That craving stayed with her into adulthood and got her into plenty of messes, like the time she tried to drive up Owl’s Head Mountain with a bunch of us in the vehicle, and then couldn’t turn the station wagon around when the rough road narrowed and ended in an area too crowded with trees to even open the doors.

That was mom.

I have always loved nature, but in different, safer ways. I grew up hiking, camping, cross-country skiing and swimming, and continued to pursue those activities later in life. But since we moved to the hills of North Central Pennsylvania ten years ago, I have felt a different kind of pull from the fields, the woods and the water.

It’s a psychological craving that demands satisfaction.

My walks along the trails my husband cleared on our property center me, especially now during all the craziness of the pandemic. I walk slowly, observing the little things – the various languages of the birds, the array of insects and the assortment of plant life, all while noting the blooming seasons of each kind of wildflower. I often take photos, which I enjoy sharing with others on social media.

But when I first saw those plump, dark-purple berries clinging to bushes in clusters along the trails, I felt a new surge of excitement. I immediately rushed home to get a plastic bowl. I covered my clothes and skin in Deep Woods Off, pushed through thorns with bare legs and scraped my hands pulling off berries that were deep among the branches.

What was I doing? Was I becoming my mother?


I do not have the time or the patience to pick quart after quart after quart of berries and devote days at a time to making them into jam. I never force my children to pick with me for hours at a time. I barely gather more than a bowlful from each picking.

It excites me because I love that the land gives me something back. I don’t even have to ask. I love the act of foraging. I love the sweetness of the blackberries even though they leave tiny seeds between my teeth. I love the thought that we could live off the land if ever we had to.

Even though I am not my mother, my walks and my blackberry obsession have brought me closer to her. I have developed a better understanding of the woman who was born a rebel and left everything she knew behind for new adventures in America with a U.S. soldier she had met, and then married after only a few months of courtship.

Nature was her solace while she raised eight kids with a man who eventually left her for his high school sweetheart. It was a connection to her childhood and her home country, a way of coping when she felt out of control. It was something familiar in a world full of uncertainty.

With every berry I pick, I am reminded of my mother, who passed away four years ago at 87 years old. But the memories are not of sweat, stings and bloody scratches. Instead, I am reminded of her determination and inner strength, the drive that fueled her through nursing school in her 40s after her marriage failed, that kept her working until age 71, that earned her retirement with a house of her own and a little money stashed away.

I am reminded of the little girl who slipped out through the windows of strangers’ homes to pick flowers—symbols of beauty in a time of darkness—the little girl who was willing to risk anything for freedom and adventure, the life she craved and deserved.

So, no, berry picking does not make me into my mother. It brings the best of her alive again for me.

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Should I stay or should I go?

How to decide whether to break a book contract

Years ago, when my husband and I were house hunting in Arizona, a realtor gave us some advice: Don’t ever threaten to walk away from a contract unless you are prepared to follow through.

The detail are long and boring, but her words saved us from a big mistake.

They saved me again almost 20 years later when I parted ways with my first publisher, a company with which I had a three-book contract. The decision brought me back to square one. I had to start all over to find homes for my books, just like we did with that house hunt when the offer on the place we thought was perfect fell through.

I did not know then that I would sign a contract with Level Best Books just a few weeks later. I did not know that the new book deal would confirm for me what a terrible mess I had been in. I did not know anything at all except that the decision to break my contract, as frightening as it was, made me oddly happy.

It thrilled me despite the unknown consequences because that realtor’s words forced me to ask myself why I was staying in a bad situation, what was keeping me from breaking that contract. They helped me explore and confront my lack of confidence and my fear of failure. I had stayed because I worried that I would never get another chance.

That was a terrible reason.

If I didn’t have confidence in my writing, who would?

The act of breaking the contract was an act of faith in myself.

Since then, I have received several emails from authors who read my blog post about leaving my publisher and have found themselves in similar situations. They have asked for advice, wanting to know how I made my decision and why.

So it here it goes. This is my advice to those who are questioning their contracts and trying to make that big decision: Should I leave? (Disclaimer time: I am not lawyer. I am not an expert. This is simply advice from someone who has been there.)

The first step is to review your contract, point-by-point. Has your publisher actually violated the legal obligations of the contract? If not, it might be harder to succeed in getting released, but it is not impossible. Some publishers are willing to let an unhappy author go simply because it’s best for everyone. If you can afford it, hire a lawyer to review the contract for you and make the argument for your release.

Second, develop a list of reasons to stay and reasons to part ways. Put everything on it, not just the business factors. Write down the emotional factors as well. When you are done, circle the emotional factors and decide whether they should remain on the list. If those emotional factors are not going to change, then they should stay on the list. But you might find, like I did, that you are the problem, that your emotions are holding you back, and that when you delete those factors, the choice is obvious.

Third, comes the series factor. I was fortunate that this did not come into play for me. I had not yet released any books through my first publisher. Some of the authors who contacted me already had two or three books of a series with their current publishers. They knew chances were slim any other publisher would pick up the books mid-series.

What do you in this position?

You have four choices:

  • You can query other publishers in hopes that yours will be the series that beats the odds and becomes the exception. Maybe another publisher will pick it up. You never know. If you plan to follow this route, you must be absolutely certain that your publisher does not have rights to future books involving those same characters and/or settings. This is critical. Failure to explore this could lead to a legal mess.
  • You can self-publish the remainder of the series as long as doing so does not violate the terms of your contract cancellation. The same legal concerns apply as stated above. You must also be careful about cover art. You might be violating copyrights if you use cover art that pulls concepts from your already-published books.
  • You can ditch the series and start anew with a new publisher. That can be a difficult choice. You have a huge investment in these characters and in their future exploits, but you might also find that creating and exploring new characters and motivations invigorates you.
  • You can stay with the current publisher for that particular series and either hire a lawyer to demand your contract terms be met or be your own advocate, pushing your books through on schedule and with the appropriate distribution.
  • Regardless of your decision, review all contracts and make sure the rights to your books revert to you immediately should the publisher go under. Let’s be real. You would probably not be considering parting ways with your publisher if thought your publisher was going to thrive. So this should be high on the list.

Breaking a publishing contract is a huge decision and not one that should be taken lightly. This is why our former realtor’s advice so important. If you have not done the hard work–if you haven’t thoroughly explored your reasons, the options and the consequences–you might find yourself drowning in a pool of regret and self-doubt. That negativity might get in the way of success. Be strong, be confident, be sure. Don’t walk away unless you are prepared to follow through.

These woods: A place of hope in a time of darkness

This is the path I took the other day when I learned a sixteen-year-old boy from our community died five days after he slipped during a hike and hit his head. I did not know Blake Driskell, but it was impossible to ignore his struggle. Purple signs proclaiming “Blake Strong” lined the streets of Addison, NY, where he was a well-known student and athlete.

Prayer requests filled social media pages, posted by people in his school district and in ours. A GoFundMe account quickly raised thousands of dollars for his family. I felt his loss. Not in the same way as those who knew him, but I felt touched by him.

A hike on our hill seemed like a good way to process it along with the recent murder of George Floyd, which brought back memories of a similar killing I covered as a journalist in 1995, that of Jonny Gammage at the hands of police in a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA.

I walked seeking life.

I didn’t know that while I walked a friend was making funeral arrangements for her 26-year-old daughter, a mother of three young boys, who died at home. I had only met Bethany Leach once, but I knew that her mother loved her immensely. I knew that Bethany had been struggling and that her parents had endured a great deal of pain and heartache as they did their best to help her through it.

My heart aches for my friend and her family, and especially for those three boys.

So these photos are for all of you: Blake Driskell, George Floyd, Jonny Gammage and Bethany Leach. They are a celebration of life in a dark time, a promise of hope and renewal, hope that communities large and small will heal in time and flourish again.

A new book deal!

Even during a pandemic, good things can happen.

Today, I signed a contract with Level Best Books for three novels in my Lisa Jamison mystery/suspense series.

I couldn’t be more thrilled. The owners/editors are people I know and trust. I am confident my books are in excellent hands, and I am in the company of some pretty awesome authors.

It is an amazing feeling.

The first novel, A DEAD MAN’S EYES, is due for release April 13, 2021.

The next two novels, NEVER BROKEN and NO TIME TO BREATHE, will be released in April of 2022 and 2023.

Verena Rose, an editor and partner in Level Best Books was the first person I turned to when I broke my previous book contract. Why? Because trust and confidence were the most important considerations as I tried to find a new home for my novels.

I first heard of Level Best Books in 2015 at New England Crime Bake, where I met Shawn Reilly Simmons. (New England Crime Bake, held each November near Boston, is an awesome conference, by the way. I highly recommend it.). Shawn was there, in part, to announce that she and her partners were taking the helm of the company, which published only anthologies at the time.

Verena, Shawn and their third partner, Harriette Sackler, all have impressive resumes. Harriette is a multi-published, Agatha Award-winning short story author. Shawn is author of the RED CARPET CATERING MYSTERIES, published by Henery Press, and a former submissions editor for a small press. Verena is the Agatha Award nominated co-editor of NOT EVERYONE’S CUP OF TEA, AND INTERESTING AND ENTERTAINING HISTORY OF MALICE DOMESTIC’S FIRST 25 YEARS and the managing editor of the Malice Domestic anthology series. She is also researching and writing a novel of her own.

All three editors/owners serve or have served on the board of directors for Malice Domestic and are involved in a number of respected writer associations.

Soon after the team took over, Level Best Books began accepting submissions for novels. They started small with a few novels releases in the first year under their new serial mystery imprint, Dames of Detection. Then they grew, slowly and steadily, adding a second imprint, Historia, a publisher of serial historical crime novels, this year.

I came to know Verena virtually about two years ago, and I have been following the progress of Level Best Books all along. I have been nothing but impressed. Verena, Shawn and Harriette are smart business women who know the publishing business from both sides — as writers and as editors.

Level Best Books is an approved publisher of Mystery Writers of America and of International Thriller Writers. That is important to me. The authors I know who publish with them are happy. That is even more important.

I am proud and fortunate to call myself a Level Best author.

Bobcat on the brain

I am distracted enough in my attempts to write with a new part-time job, fours kids studying at home and my husband working from home. Yesterday, the distraction problem escalated.

This guy came slinking through our backyard. Now I can’t help peeking out the window every few minutes, hoping to catch another glimpse of him.

Rediscovering Marco: A Canine Love Story in the Time of Corona

When we moved into our new house seven years ago, we also adopted a second dog. Marco was a 75-pound rescue. The vet guessed he was about 18 months old. He was a border collie/lab mix and the gentlest dog I have ever met.

Marco and our other dog, Clover, instantly clicked. Clover was older and smaller with the body of a beagle and coloring of a border collie. They behaved like siblings, wrestling, playing tug-a-war and curling up near each other in exhaustion.

Thanks to a wireless fence, they were able to run and play outside all around the house. As Clover aged, she no longer need the collar that gave her a slight shock when she got too close to her boundaries. She hated the feeling and she had a torn ligament that limited her mobility.

Marco had always been a bit more stubborn. He escaped now and then, despite the “stubborn dog” setting, but he always came right back. He’d been so good this past year that we didn’t expect it when he bolted after some deer one day this fall, and we were shocked when Clover followed.

I searched our property and the neighborhood for two hours. Then I returned home to find a message on the answering machine from the vet. Marco was fine, but Clover had died instantly when she was hit by a car. Some kindly neighbors had taken Marco to the vet for identification and they brought him home to us.

Another kind neighbor brought Clover.

That’s the sad part of the story.

It gets better from here on thanks, in part, to the coronavirus. Yes, as devastating as the virus has been, some little bit of good — some measure of happiness — has come out of it.

When Clover died, the two older kids were in college and the two younger kids were busy with school and school activities. My husband worked full time 45 minutes away and my days were spent writing, running errands for us and for my mother-in-law and cleaning.

We couldn’t trust Marco with the wireless fence anymore and we didn’t want to lose him, so he was relegated to a run. It was a long run with good reach, but he was clearly not happy. He would bark and bark at the deer in our backyard, but they would continue eating 20 feet away, unbothered. They learned quickly that he couldn’t get them.

Marco grew less active. He spent more time on the sofa. He’d lost his puppy-like energy. He and Clover had always entertained each other. Marco missed both his freedom and his buddy. We cuddled him more than usual and that was good, but he wanted more and we were all too busy to notice.

Then the virus hit.

The virus brought the college kids home to take classes via Zoom. The living room became a classroom for the younger kids. My husband started working from an office in the basement. With nowhere to go and everyone sitting at desks, we all needed breaks. Something totally different. Something fun and exciting.

That something, we discovered, was Marco.

It started with rough-housing between assignments and classes. The kids, each in turn, would leave their work stations and seek him out. They would talk to him, play tug-of-war with him and alternate chasing him and being by him. My husband started taking Marco along after work when he retired to the garage, where he is building pieces of the tree house of all tree houses.

I had been walking alone and with friends for exercise before the virus hit, but after everyone closed in on the house, I found I needed the psychological relief of the outdoors more often. I located Marco’s old harness, hooked him up and started taking him for walks on our property and along our rural roads.

Sometimes, I would find a child waiting on the stoop when I returned, anxious to take Marco on another adventure. Other times, the kids joined me. More often, they took him for walks on their own, wanting more purpose to their outdoor time than a solitary stroll.

It’s been three weeks since our oldest came home from college and two weeks since serious social distancing began. The world is suffering from the virus and from the loneliness the necessary isolation has forced upon us. But for Marco, it has been a rebirth.

He is happy again.

Everybody should have a Marco

Embracing envy, a side effect of the pandemic

I find myself envious during these days of social distancing of those who have younger children. My husband thinks I am crazy. Some of his colleagues are struggling to work from home while toddlers and elementary school kids disrupt their meetings and concentration with outdoor voices, giggles and tantrums.

He is grateful for the cooperation of our college students, who are endlessly occupied with online classes, and our twin 13-year-olds who juggle schoolwork with video games and television. All four kids have been especially quiet while they all recover from a different virus, the kind that attacks kids with inexperienced immune systems, leaving adults unaffected. They have been easy even in illness, so I am grateful as well.

But then I see these posts on social media of parents doing crafts with kids, cooking with kids, taking them on small hikes. That’s when the envy creeps in. I miss those days when the two oldest would play for hours at the kitchen table with Playdough, Legos and Polly Pockets. I miss watching the twins narrate self-created episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine while they push their personified toys along their wooden tracks. I miss taking the kids outside to play in the mud, throw rocks in the creek, search for worms, ants and spiders.

I miss the days when our kids were fascinated by everything and anything.

They still get outside, but I have to remind them and push them and encourage them to find activities that are worth their time. One twin sometimes plays baseball with my husband. The other throws shot put and discus at the track. The two boys often walk outside together to talk about their mutual interests or conjure up some new story line for a video game or comic strip.

The older kids will sometimes go for walks or runs, but it can be struggle, especially since they have been sick and the weather has shifted from spring-like and sunny to rainy and cool. They have also just returned from huge college campuses, where they walked a mile or two to class and shared tight spaces with others.

They are savoring the peace and quiet.

I need to remember that all of our kids are also mourning. Our oldest should be preparing for a five-day field trip to Colorado, where his Penn State geobiology class planned to test its newfound knowledge in the field. The internships he applied for this summer are on hold. He lost his job when the campus dining halls closed.

Our daughter was excited by her life in Raleigh . She had fallen in love with the city and with the people she had come to know on the campus of NC State. She had finally found friends who shared her views, a major that she loves and the independence she craves.

The twins lost baseball, track, the school musical, all-county band, marching band, field trips and time with their friends. They love learning and conversing with their teachers. All that is gone for now.

So I am grateful that they have all been cooperative and accepting, that they haven’t succumbed to depression when it tempts them every day. I am grateful that they make an effort to get along and that they are such a pleasure to be with. I am grateful for family game night, shared television shows, dinners together and deep conversations.

I am very fortunate.

But I want to paint windows with Easter decorations. I want to make “stew” from grass and berries and rocks. I want skip stones in creeks and ponds. Or do I? Really?

I know this is nostalgia speaking. I know that if I dig deep enough, I will remember the frustrations of floors littered with toys, kids who won’t sleep, constant interruptions to my attempts to write. I will remember getting every meal for all four kids, instead of letting them get their own breakfast and lunch, having to order and baths or showers, breaking up deeply emotional arguments, and finding the next new activity to keep them occupied despite physical and emotional exhaustion.

I will remember all that and I will be relieved that we are long past those stages. I am grateful, truly grateful, for the freedom young adulthood and the teen years give us and I would not trade our lives now for anything else, but my envy defies logic. It persists.

So what can I do but embrace it?

If I really think about it, I understand that my envy is a good thing. It means that, overall, those days were good. They were worth longing for. I hope all parents who are home with young children right now can feel the same way someday. I hope they will be able look back on this pandemic through rose-colored glasses, and maybe feel a tinge of envy when they see other parents with young children. Like me.

Good-bye, book contract

My heart is heavy.

I made a painful decision this week. I asked that Black Opal Books release me from my three-book contract, and they did. I am, once again, a writer without a contract.

It was not an easy decision, but I did it out of respect for myself and my work. The Oregon-based publisher was bought out by an employee in July, a few months after I signed my contract. The previous owner was sick and the new owner wanted to do right by the authors.

Her intentions were good, but she inherited a mess and things only got messier. Books were released without the authors’ knowledge, authors were forced to cancel launch events because their books were not published on schedule, book orders for events routinely went unfulfilled.

Emails to editors and the owner often fell into a void, my own emails included.

I was told things would get better.

I waited and waited, but they have not.

I sincerely hope I regret my decision someday, that the new owner and the remaining authors are hugely successful. I have made some great friends through Black Opal Books and I want them to do well.

But for now, it’s back to the keyboard for me.

The full manuscript for a new thriller, Never Let Go, is in the hands of three fantastic agents and I am reaching out to a wonderful press about the three books that were previously under contract with Black Opal Books: Dead Man’s Eyes, Never Broken and No Stranger Here.

This has been a difficult and disappointing experience, but I am optimistic. The heaviness will lift and my books will find a new home. So, I will keep my chin up and write on.