Her Bark is Worse Than Her Bite

I wrote, then tossed, then wrote and tossed again, until I finally wrote and kept a first chapter for my Karnie mystery #2, THE STEAKS (STAKES) ARE HIGH. First chapters are like that for me, and I let myself fiddle with them until they at least get most of the things I want right I wanted to start Karnie out married to Matt and devoted to his two children. I wanted to remind readers that Karnie works in her family’s butcher shop and that in the last book, she helped solve the murder of a woman propped against the shop’s back door.

I know the chapter’s not perfect, and I know I’ll have to fiddle with it again, but getting the first chapter right sets me out in the right direction. This time, I have the main characters introduced, the setting, a whiff of the problem that has to be solved, and the tone I want for the story.

I don’t want Karnie to be too much like Jazzi from the Jazzi Zanders cozies. I want her to be a little pricklier than most of my protagonists. She’s not as patient, not as tactful, but she has a big heart.

I admired a woman like that. When our girls were little, we belonged a small church that cooked a lot of church suppers to raise money for charity. A small group of retired women organized most of the meals. One in particular, Mary, scared the girls. She always sounded gruff. Always raised an eyebrow when they ran into the kitchen to ask about something. Heck, she scared me, too. She assigned me the messy jobs of dredging, slicing, cutting, chopping. As a young mother, I had a low rank in the kitchen, not even high enough to be a sous chef. But I noticed how many hours Mary worked, how many people she helped. And I remembered something my mother had told me when I was little. “Her bark is worse than her bite.” So I told the girls, watch what she DOES, not how she says things. And that opened our eyes to the true beauty of Mary.

Karnie was like that. She thought of herself as drab and boring–a hard worker. Her brother’s friend, Matt, thought of her that way, too, until his little girl lifted her arms and wanted Karnie to hold her. Divorced, Matt paid attention to what Karnie DID. He looked past her prickly attitude and saw the beauty inside her. And once he spotted that, it was on. Karnie thought she’d stay single for life. She was wrong.

That made it fun for me as a writer. In Jazzi and Ansel’s last book, they decide to start a family. Karnie marries Matt and inherits an instant family. His almost 5-year-old Jackson and 3-year-old Chelsea don’t think of her as the evil stepmother. Their pretty, social mother left them for Matt to raise. They want someone solid, and they choose her. She resists for a while, but how do you turn away from a wonderful man, two great kids, and a lovable border collie?

Now, if only both couples could quit tripping over dead bodies…. But then I wouldn’t have a mystery:) So I don’t give them a choice. Protagonists can’t have it all. And once again, Karnie’s going to have her hands full.

More Memories Than Usual

My grandson graduated from high school on Friday, May 25th, and on Saturday, we had an Open House to celebrate the event.  John’s brother flew in from Oakland, California on Tuesday, so that we could visit and enjoy ourselves before things got too busy.  Our daughter, Robyn, and her husband, Scott, drove up from Florida (they live near Clearwater Beach) on Thursday.   My daughter, Holly, and her two boys live with us, so our cozy bungalow bulged at the seams,  full of people, and a magical thing happened.  Kids who’d grown up in the houses behind us or across the street or around the corner showed up to join in.  And I found our house filled with laughter and memories.

I love kids.  Always have.  My sister, Mary, is 12 years younger than I am, and I think it started with her.  My parents looked shell shocked when they got the news there was an unexpected surprise on the way, but they quickly looked forward to having a baby.  I was thrilled.  My sister, Patty, and I are exactly ten months apart.  Cohorts in crime.  But Mary was someone to read stories to, to drag to the ice cream parlor, and to play with.  So when it came time to choose a career, I went for elementary education.

I taught for six years before I had my daughters.  I’m sort of a nerdy brain, and lots of professors tried to talk me out of “wasting my talent” on teaching reading and arithmetic.  But my question to them was, “If you don’t have dedicated teachers in first and second grade, what kind of students do you think you’ll get by the time they reach you?”  Teaching was a lot of hard work, but it was every bit as fulfilling as I thought it would be.  I meant to go back to it once Robyn started first grade, but the rules changed while I stayed home with my girls.  A Master’s Degree became a death sentence to my career.  No one would hire a teacher with a Master’s because they had to pay us more money.  So I stayed home, and Life had other plans for me.  John’s father got sick and died.  His mother didn’t do well on her own.  My dad got blood cancer, and I took my turn sitting with him at the hospital in the afternoons.  And I filled my house with kids.

We became the “neighborhood house.”  We made our basement into a kid zone.  My husband built a craft table and kids hung paintings to dry on a clothesline that stretched across a side wall.  We mixed salt clay and used cookie cutters to make Christmas ornaments.  John and I laid indoor/outdoor carpet, perfect for roller skating, and bought fold-out seats for kids to stretch on while watching the TV down there.   One Halloween, the kids beheaded every Barbie doll in the house to hang from the basement rafters to make a haunted room.  We bought a dehydrator to dry fruits.  I baked after school snacks.  And we enjoyed.  The kids gave more to us than we ever gave to them.

If Holly’s boys needed something, growing up, one or another of those kids have been there to help.  Jerod took Ty to hunting school and Jason taught him how to fish.  Heidi and her husband, his godparents, faithfully contributed to sending him to St. Therese and Bishop Luers.  Nicky took Ty out to supper when he needed some “guy” talk.

When I put kids in my writing, like Reece’s step-brother and sister in Wolf’s Bane, a young son in the novel Empty Altars, or Thea’s cocky niece in Fabric of Life, I hope I make them as special as I think kids should be.  Because I’ve been lucky.  I have wonderful daughters.  Awesome grandsons.  But I have more.  I have wonderful neighborhood kids.  And it was great to see them at Ty’s Open House, because they’ve been a part of his life.  And mine.

My John was in the Vietnam War, and I usually think of soldiers when I watch the parade that marches past our house each year.  But this Monday, I had so much more to think about.  Floods of memories.  All of them good.