Category Archives: Coffee Corner

Confessions of a Mystery Writer

Did you read mysteries as a child? Saturdays often found me at the library, lost in Nancy Drew’s dangerous world.

I shared one bathroom with six others, but Nancy introduced me to the exotic world of an only child.

Nancy’s father rewarded her for solving mysteries with lots of money. Five dollars, even. My dad made me hoe the garden and gave me a daily quarter for school lunch.

Cool stuff happened to beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed Nancy. Nothing cool happened to geeky, brown-eyed, brown-haired Rachael.

Besides, Nancy wasn’t afraid of anything.

Conversely, my parents nicknamed me “Chicken Little.” The sky fell daily and hit me on the head. Which explains a lot of things. …

When a newspaper reported a huge monster loose in Detroit one summer, I locked all our windows, broiling my family like Fourth-of-July hamburgers.

My parents tried to monitor my reading material and television, including “The Twilight Zone” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.” My teenage secret: Oz’s Wicked Witch still sent shivers up my spine.

Now, when creepy movie music slithers into the family room, I barricade myself with sofa pillows. I’ve spent far more time under theater seats than in them.

I read and write mysteries during broad daylight or when Hubby’s home. Otherwise, I lie awake, counting nighttime noises traceable to chain saw and ax murderers, respectively.

How can I read — let alone, write — mysteries?

Detectives intrigue me, especially Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, who matches sharp old wits against naïve criminals who underestimate her. Other favorites: Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, and TV’s Adrian Monk. I celebrate Sherlock Holmes’ strange genius.

I love piecing together mysteries like jigsaw puzzles, to be solved by strong, funny women who eat pie without gaining an ounce.

However, I prefer that muggers attack imaginary people in dark alleys and that murderers enter elevators elsewhere, not in my hotel.

Research alone rattles me. Once I hiked through a for-real, p-p-pirate cave alone. Gulp.

After investigating weapons online, I receive pop-ups with way too much (shudder) information. My Internet history probably has put me on a CIA list.

Fine. They can find me hoeing my garden.

Mystery writers’ spouses also face unique challenges. Once, at a local restaurant, I asked my physician husband about intentional drug overdoses.

“Keep your voice down,” he hissed. “I don’t do that!”

Hey, living with him isn’t easy, either.

However, as I consider how to kill my latest victim, I wish Hubby wasn’t gone. That it wasn’t nighttime, with sinister shadows lurking outside.

I’m not Nancy Drew.

And they never did track down that monster in Detroit. …

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Who’s your favorite mystery writer?

Waking Up

If you’re reading this, you woke up today.

If you’re reading this, but didn’t wake up, please contact me immediately. I’d like to ghostwrite your best seller.

Waking up has changed since our childhood years. Do you remember when you and Teddy jumped on your parents’ bed to help them celebrate morning?

Later, Mom wreaked vengeance by dragging us out of bed for school, scrubbing our ears and necks before we escaped her clutches.

People have been awakening us ever since.

At college, I assumed I would decree my wake-up time. My dorm, however, housed 500 girls, all armed with high-voltage stereos and supersonic hairdryers. Exercise classes met outside my room — at 1 a.m.

Those years prepared me for apartment life.

“Someday, I’ll own my own house,” I said. “No more party animals. No more percussion teachers upstairs.”

My husband and I did buy a house — and filled it with babies, aka, screaming meanies allergic to sleep. Especially ours.

Not content with that, Hubby delivered babies — and took care of sick people. I frequently awoke to discussions of blood sugar readings and stool reports. And advice on how to kick insomnia.

Occasionally, I slept through his wee-hour departures. His returns? Not so much. Most sleepers might awaken if a shadowy guy joined them in bed at 2 a.m. — particularly if his body temperature equaled an arctic seal’s. If he was tall, thin, and bearded, though, I turned over and dozed off. If short, fat, and/or clean-shaven — Houston, we had a problem.

While Hubby cannot claim my levels of martyrdom, he occasionally lets me awaken him for less compelling reasons, e.g., suspicious sounds in the laundry room at 4:30 a.m. I demanded he defend our dirty socks with his life.

One night, in a hotel room, I awoke, convinced Communists were monitoring us through the sprinkling system.

He also insists my snoring awakens him, but he’s upping my stats so his don’t look bad.

My brother has long been the family mischief maker.

However, neither of us will ever achieve my brother’s dastardly wake-up call. During a solo visit, he had buttered me up with a wonderful meal, fascinating tales of his Middle Eastern service, and (!) chocolates. Such behavior should have roused deepest suspicions. Instead, I thought he finally had grown up.

That night, I savored dreamless sleep — until the enormous clock in my room lit up like a carnival ride. An Arab voice belted out a call to prayer that probably awakened Atlanta.

I thought Judgment Day had arrived.

Eventually, I realized it had not yet come for me. But Judgment Day came for him.

Little Brother, if you’re reading this, my offer to ghostwrite your best seller still stands.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What is your least favorite way to wake up?

Summer Campus Cycling Queen Abdicates

Recently, I made the mistake of riding my bike on a nearby college campus, as I had all summer. I ruled the empty sidewalks during July and August, zooming between buildings, rocketing out of parking lots.

Once I surprised a faculty member who fled for his life, open briefcase snowing hundreds of papers on the ground. There also was that time I barged into a band camp, when my bike took out an entire row of tubas.

For the most part, though, no one challenged my reign as Queen of the Bike Routes. Even football camp guys, forever headed for the dining hall, knew better than to dispute my supremacy.

However, as of the beginning of the school year, I have decided to abdicate. Biking to a writers’ meeting on campus, I encountered swarms of young pedestrians who, just because they paid tuition, thought they deserved to use the sidewalks. Some clumped into bunchy obstacles. Others joined in two-way snaky lines that condemned me to following them at three miles per hour — or shaking my liver loose by riding alongside them on the grass. Couples — chained together by a love so strong, even a bulldozer couldn’t separate them — meandered directly in front of me.

As I rode, I ran nonstop evaluations as to whether approaching walkers were in their right minds. Were they tethered to iPods, glued to cell phones or tapping texts to aliens several solar systems away? Such mindsets (or the lack thereof, due to the absence of brain waves) threaten the safety of cyclists and pedestrians alike.

Frisbee golfers comprise a different threat. Deep inside, I cannot condemn these young whippersnappers who, snapping their arms, whip Frisbees so close they trim my nose hairs. My son, studying at a different college, was a member of that club. But when fleets of Frisbees, like the fighters in Star Wars movies, chase an old lady biking to her writing meeting, I say, “Enough is enough.”

Having resigned my position as Queen of the Campus Bike Routes, I have resorted to walking. Now moving at the speed of life instead of lightning, I hear words I didn’t while glorying in my cycling omnipotence: “Excuse me,” “Pardon me,” “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you,” and plenty of smile-filled “Hi!”s. They remind me that the college pedestrians in our area rank among the most courteous in the world.

It’s the wild, crazy cyclists who worry me.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary:  Have you lived on/near a college campus? What changes did September bring?

End-of-Summer Reflections

Do you like that word, “reflections”? When young, I identified it with the forced reading of smarmy poetry, staring at my navel, and/or listening to some windbag.

I will never inflict such harm on my readers. I keep my lousy poetry to myself. I never coerce anyone into studying her belly button. As for my being a windbag — perish the thought!

Having dispelled these unfortunate associations, let us return to my profound end-of-summer reflections:

  • Regardless of propaganda touting it as the ingredient for pizza, smoothies and cheesecakes, nobody likes kale.
  • My husband’s “short” bike rides require a passport.
  • Grandbabies’ discriminating palates prefer four summer food groups: sand, mud, gravel and sticks.
  • My palate also dictates four summer food groups: butter pecan, salted caramel fudge, chocolate almond, and Moose Tracks.
  • A related reflection: Skinny, beautiful people on TV drool over yogurt, but they never, ever will convince us it can replace ice cream.
  • I sleep with only a sheet, but still need a quilt on my feet.
  • If we water gardens to induce rain, the clouds know.
  • Also, the probability of rain is in direct proportion to the amount we spent on Cubs tickets.
  • If not for relatives’ summer visits, would the carpet get swept from June through September?
  • Nobody really likes an ecologically diverse yard. Or wants me to preserve the prairie.
  • Morning glories I plant always shrivel as if my trellis were radioactive. Yet a thousand healthy, nasty lovelies strangle my cucumbers.
  • Deer who scavenge neighborhoods never eat crabgrass.
  • Scratching sounds in an attic mean raccoons have started a summer obstetric ward there — or mosquitoes have grown bigger than I expected.
  • While rainy days ruin human vacations, my fern, Carolyn, considers steamy conditions a five-star experience.
  • If you live by a lake, visit kin who live by a different lake. Hurry, because it’s almost fall, and that’s the only way you’ll get a free vacation, too.
  • I and other Stain Queens should be forbidden by law to wear white pants.
  • People who grill only vegetables are not to be trusted.
  • If a certain age, never shop the weekend before school starts. You will park in a different zip code. You also will return home with 143 15-cent notebooks.
  • Ferris wheels at county fairs still fill me with six-year-old wow.
  • After a lifetime of watching people voluntarily buying cotton candy, I still haven’t figured out why.
  • Finally, when police know campers next to your site on a first-name basis, pitch a tent in your backyard instead.

Yes, summer will fade, but never fear. I soon will supply my readers with a whole new set of reflections — autumn reflections.

Not that I’m a windbag, or anything. …

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What end-of-summer musings fill your mind?

Grandmas Shop the Sales

For years, my friend Dana and I have met every shopping challenge known to womankind. Blessed with two daughters apiece, we survived the daunting task of finding clothes for bloomers, early and late. Dana and I practiced motherly glares and “Because I said so!” drills for prom season. When the girls all married, we scoured stores for mother-of-the-bride dresses that wouldn’t age us on contact or ready us to dance on the reception tables. Together we played, grayed and prayed through decades of shopping.

Little did we know our retail history would prepare us for the ultimate shopping experience: buying for grandchildren. Serious business, right? We prepare for action by regularly polishing our credit cards.

We go in Dana’s car because she has fewer accidents. Also, her car features dual heating controls so we don’t hot flash each other to death.

First things first: Grandmas, in their feeble state, need energy to stimulate the economy. At the restaurant, our waitress brings extra rolls, dripping with butter, along with hypocritical salads.

At the mall, we try to take interest in clothing purported to fit us. But what grandma wants to face her body in fitting-room triplicate?

Much more fun to buy clothes for grandchildren. Like well-trained hounds, Dana and I follow the sales scent to 80-percent-off signs. We scout baby departments, hungry for the softness of little sleepers and onesies.

We’re such a seasoned team that we don’t need phones. If we chase our prey into separate departments, we rendezvous for critiques and/or celebrations at exactly the right moment. Like Vikings, Dana and I methodically plunder each store until salespeople tremble. The whole retail world is at our mercy until—

Until we encounter racks of lacy velvet dresses at 80-percent off.

Our daughters prefer practical clothes for their children.

Don’t they understand grandmothers do not live by denim alone? We want pictures of little princesses clad in scratchy Cinderella gowns. We want grandsons to wear ties they will soak in ketchup. We covet fairy-tale photos we can show off to friends, relatives and strangers at convenience stores.

But our children frown. Sigh.

To console ourselves, Dana and I make a beeline to the cookie store. After several rounds of favorites, plus diet Pepsi, we agree we are blessed, Cinderella or no Cinderella.

We drag our bags outside. After sociable trips through the parking lot, greeting others who cannot find their cars, we remember we entered through Appliances, not Intimates. Dana hits her remote again. Her car grumbles when we load it till it barely clears the ground.

Grandma sales mission accomplished.

For now.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Can you recall a favorite shopping trip?

Where a Writer Goes

Some compare a writer’s life to a monk’s: starved, withdrawn from the speaking/smiling world and — like author Annie Dillard — incarcerated in a closet-like room decorated only with a picture she drew of a cow pasture.

I’ve experienced hermit weeks, although starvation doesn’t enter into the equation. Because I can’t draw cows or anything else, I allow myself a window.

I’ve also holed up in libraries, more exciting than most imagine. Take the Notre Dame library, where I did research for a biography of St. Augustine. Entering the skyscraper bearing its gigantic “Christ the Teacher” mural (known to football fans as “Touchdown Jesus”), I dared not speak to anyone, as even janitors appeared to be Fulbright Scholars.

I fought with a computer catalogue, then hunted for an elevator, which I finally rode to the philosophy and religion department on the 14th floor. Encountering a locked door, I rapped on it.

Silence.

I banged until my fists hurt.

Ditto. I’d spent forty-five minutes for nothing?

A brave aide on the elevator ride down asked if he could help.

“The philosophy and religion department is locked,” I griped.

“Which floor?”

“Fourteenth.”

“The philosophy and religion department is on the 13th floor. Father Hesburgh lives on the 14th.”

Taking a break from libraries, I traveled to story settings. Non-writers assume a publisher arranges free, first-class flights to exotic spots with four-star hotels. Instead, halfway to Cave-In-Rock, Illinois, I stayed at my daughter’s. Having been hugged, mugged and slimed by three sweet grandkids, a dog and a cat, I slept on a sofa. Eat your heart out, Karen Kingsbury.

Afterward, I drove to the enormous cave on the Ohio River where, during the early 1800s, enterprising pirates ran a tavern. They lured flatboat pioneers with “Last chance for a hot meal and mug o’ grog before the Mississip, matey!”

“Guests,” however, ended up at the bottom of the Ohio.

Climbing alone around the cave’s mottled walls, I listened to dead voices while the I-don’t-know-nothin’ river flowed past.

Maybe the Notre Dame library wasn’t scary, after all.

Rachael Phillips, Eileen Key, Cynthia Ruchti, and Becky Melby sampled the popular Door County sundaes.

Many of my stories, though, take place in pleasant places:

  • I’ve watched children in Peru, Indiana, defy gravity, homework and other laws of the universe by participating in their annual Youth Circus.
  • I’ve visited all 31 covered bridges in Parke County, Indiana.
  • I’ve ridden in an Amish buggy whose GPS consisted of the horse’s memory.
  • I’ve traveled through Door County, Wisconsin, researching that Martha’s-Vineyard-of-the-Midwest setting, including exactly how many yummy cherries are used in their famous Door County sundaes.

Currently, I’m staying close to home. But not for long, because we writers are a brave, daring breed.

Maybe I should set my next story in Hawaii.

 

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: If you were (are) a writer, where would you place your story?

August: the Not-So-Special Month?

My daughter once wished for a different birthday month. I referred her to God for further discussion.

I do see her point, however. August boasts no holidays — not even a fake holiday like St. Patrick’s Day. Nobody throws big parties on the eve of August 1, as they do in January.

The hotter the weather, the more we chill. Dressing up is wearing matched right and left flip-flops. Days pass before we turn the calendar page.

When we do, though, a tiny tadpole of awareness wiggles into our days.

It’s August. Something’s different.

Outdoor projects delayed till warm weather now have been postponed till fall. Yards need extreme makeovers, but we’re so sick of yard work, we pay 4-Hers to release goat herds on our premises.

August presents an end-of-summer reality check. I purchased a “miracle” swimsuit in May. Now I realize the only miracle is that I paid big bucks for it.

August affects mothers in peculiar ways. They buy pencil boxes, though no one in human history has ever proved pencil boxes serve a useful purpose. Kids talk Mom into buying cool new backpacks, though 23 uncool backpacks languish at home.

Mothers also obsess about imminent changes in schedules: “Go to bed now so you’ll be ready when school starts.” My mother, who had five kids, did this. As of August 1, we went to bed at 4:00 p.m.

Even the sun listens to Mom and retires earlier in August. Yet during daytime, it unfurls golden rays as if leading an everlasting summer, ticker-tape parade. While eating home-grown, ice-cold watermelon in the backyard, we experience a different kind of reality check:

It’s been a great summer.

By August, every able-bodied person in the Midwest has ridden a Ferris wheel and consumed a warm, crisp elephant ear.

While still recovering from that gathering of DNA-related strangers known as a family reunion, we rendezvoused with cousins who long ago sneaked into drive-ins with us. We kissed sweet baby kin’s brand-new cheeks and gave grandmas and grandpas a smile.

In August, homeowners stop vying for the Yard of the Year. Instead, we concede the grand champion ribbon to God for His spectacular pastures of goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace and Sweet Williams.

He treats us to evening concerts by cicada choirs that sing their best in August. Fireflies, now veteran presenters, perform spectacular light shows at dusk with few technical glitches.

Whether we own farms or only farmers’ tans, the ripe cornucopia of gardens, tasseled cornfields and leafy rows of soybeans reassure us: After harvest, we will celebrate with plenty of food on our tables.

All during August — the not-so-special month.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What do you like best about August?

Festival Magic

If you’re a normal Midwesterner, you have attended or will have attended a festival this summer.

If abnormal, you saved lots of money. And added years to your life.

Still, we who joyously hand over cash and longevity wouldn’t miss these hometown Mardi Gras for anything.

Not long ago, I helped staff a booth at the Blueberry Festival in Plymouth, Indiana, my former hometown. Not a novelty. When we resided in Plymouth, I sold soft drinks to fund my children’s activities. I also joined most of the town’s population (10,000) in parking cars that annually brought 350,000 people to the party.

This time, however, I signed books I’d written, including The Return of Miss Blueberry, set during this festival.

Yay! I didn’t sink into melting asphalt. Nor did I, like dozens of stand owners, hover over sizzling stoves. Instead, I perched inside the souvenir/information booth, yakking with old friends. I even met Miss Blueberry, whose golf cart graced the park.

My privileged position, however, brought new challenges.

If you stand behind book stacks, people think you know something.

Thankfully, after 28 years of Blueberry Festivals, I could answer the Number One Question: “Where are the bathrooms?”

When 350,000 people need to go, they mean business.

“Paid restrooms across the covered bridge,” I recited. “Free portable johns near Jefferson School.”

By the 177th inquiry, a tiny inner voice whispered, “For this you achieved an English degree?”

I quashed it (See, the degree didn’t go to waste!), glad I could, um, serve humanity.

Question Number Two: “Where are the blueberry doughnuts?” The seekers’ eyes mirrored the restroom hunters’ urgency.

Yes, people came to scream themselves into spasms on carnival rides, to applaud bands, crow in rooster contests, paint faces, reenact battles, cheer Little League, rassle pigs, and test testosterone with sledge hammers and souped-up tractors. They scoured craft tents for quilts, stained glass, handmade furniture, John Deere china and marshmallow shooters.

But whether attendees wear polyester shorts, Amish attire or tattoos with little else, food sends them to festivals. All year, everyone dreams of favorites:

  • Corn popped in an enormous black kettle.
  • Thanksgiving-platter-sized tenderloin sandwiches.
  • Deep-fried elephant ears, butter, Pop-Tarts® and Kool-Aid.
  • Plus, all things blueberry: doughnuts, pies, sundaes.

“If you buy here, neither of us starves!” read one stand’s caption. Watching the line at his window, I doubted any danger of either.

Back to booth duties. I was not only expected to know all, but to locate all: lost eyeglasses, car keys, phones and preschoolers.

I also was to ensure good weather for the hot-air balloon launch.

I had no idea that booth would grant me such cosmic power. But that’s what festival magic will do for you.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What is your favorite festival and why?

In Purse-suit of Perfect Understanding

My husband doesn’t understand why I need more than one purse. Or why I carry a bag at all. One skinny billfold meets his needs.

My answer: has anyone during a business meeting, church service or ski run asked you for Kleenexes? Tylenol? A spare outfit? Extra skis?

Hubby also bemoans how they clutter an entire closet:

  • The pastel-striped birthday surprise from my best friend. Salivating, she offered, “If you don’t like it, I’ll take it.” I wouldn’t think of hurting her feelings.
  • The look-alike brown and black leather bags. Hubby, who took me Christmas shopping, rejoiced at the 50-percent-off sale. “Yay, I’m saving money!” My take: “Woo-hoo, I can buy two for the same price!” Guess who won.
  • The clutch I ordered for my daughter’s wedding. Silvery and pretty, it’s nevertheless a gutsy little bag; when 9/11 struck, it found its way to Indiana in time, despite the grounding of all planes.
  • The light brown, patterned purse my mother gave me. I repeat: Mom gave me this purse. She adored trendy bags she bought at garage sales and rarely surrendered her finds. I took this as a sign from God I should never toss it.
  • The straw clutch I carried Sunday mornings, along with diaper bag(s) and one or more children with car seats. It still contains a Happy Meal figure and petrified Cheerios. My kids puked into it. All the more reason to feel sentimental.
  • The purple purse my daughter gave me. Do you know what a big, shiny, purple bag does for a 60-something woman? Wrinkles retreat as she struts her stuff. Even the Bible says every woman should own a purple purse.

Okay, that’s stretching it a little. However, the first European convert, Lydia, sold purple items. As a woman entrepreneur, of course, she created purple purses!

My large collection’s very abundance provides protection unmatched by deadbolt, alarm system or Lab. No robber will know which one contains money and credit cards. I don’t, either, but he might finish digging through them by Christmas. The only other alternative: stealing them all. First, few burglars want to be caught carrying cute purses. And, as Hubby says, the poor wretch would wreck his back.

A purse provides other protection. Once, a mouthy young man shared my airport shuttle when I was suffering from jet lag.

“What a huge purse!” he trumpeted. “Why would you carry a big ol’ purse like that, lady?”

I swung it in a small circle. “It makes an excellent weapon.”

Not everyone understands my purse fetish. But I think that kid understood perfectly well.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Fess up. How many bags do you own?

Escape to the Circus

I used to threaten to run away to the circus. But Mom refused to drive me there. So, I gave up.

Decades later, I decided to attend one. Not just any circus. This one starred kids — Little Leaguers, 4-H ribbon winners, teen hamburger flippers — who reside in a town nestled among cornfields.

I’d known about the Peru, Indiana, Amateur Youth Circus all my life, but never went. Research for a novel sent me to this circus’s spring practice.

As I entered the arena, unicycles nearly ran me down. Diving into a restroom, I considered changing my novel’s setting to a hospital.

I peeked out. No more unicycles. No one swallowing swords. Just everyday children carrying gym bags. I followed them inside.

Adults clustered on bleachers, talking and helping kids with homework. A gold-scrolled wagon — the concession stand — emitted a fragrance of hot, buttered popcorn. Research can be wonderful.

Above, adults climbed webs of ropes resembling the work of overachieving spiders. Below, teens and children hauled equipment without once mentioning child labor laws.

A herd of little kids wearing leotards lined up to turn “somersaults” — mostly belly flops. But they didn’t quit.

Neither did grade-school jugglers practicing with Hacky Sacks®. The “old guys,” who had shaved maybe once, flipped clubs under legs and high in the air, missing most of the people climbing around the ceiling.

I greatly admired the jugglers. From afar.

When more kids hung from the ceiling than clothes in my closet, I white-knuckled my seat. Children swung on trapezes and spun on cables. One teen girl shinnied up another walking a wire 10 feet above the floor. The walker shuddered. The long pole she carried shuddered. I shuddered.

But the walker regained her balance. The climber slowly rose above the walker’s shoulders, legs shaking — then dropped.

I nearly swallowed my grandma fist.

The climber fell into a net. She bounced nonchalantly then dismounted.

A few more practices, and the paramedics and I were on a first-name basis.

That July, though, Hubby and I returned to see the actual show. Would these super-spangled young circus stars live up to their billing?

Did they ever. No belly flops for the little tumblers. They somersaulted and cartwheeled. Bigger children soared above trampolines and flipped friends onto each others’ shoulders. Performers balanced on bicycles, unicycles, enormous sparkly balls. They hung from hoops, rings and trapezes. Some spun, hanging by ankles, necks and teeth. The jugglers tossed fiery clubs. We watched high wire walkers perform a seven-girl pyramid act.

My buds, the paramedics, stood by.

I didn’t faint once. And I couldn’t wait until the next July.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What are your favorite circus memories?