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Lethal Journal – an excerpt

August 16, 2015

The ebook version of Lethal Journal, a Jennie Connors/Riverview Manor  mystery, is on sale now. Here’s the first chapter for anyone who might be interested.


JLethal Journal - printennie Connors stood for a moment at the turning of the corridor, assessing the activity in the large open area that served as a lounge. Voices hummed in an easygoing camaraderie, providing soundtrack for a series of tableaux that, for Jennie, defined the retirement community known as Riverview Manor.

In one corner, a few of the more serious residents stared at the TV, their expressions bemused and skeptical, while a political know-it-all held forth on the all-news station. At a round table near the window, the tea ladies had their heads together, no doubt plotting something Jennie would, at some point, be asked to subvert. In another corner, a foursome studied the Scrabble tiles in front of them with calculating solemnity. Near the window, with the sun shining on him like a spotlight, Nathanial Pynchon strutted back and forth, declaiming eloquently: “Wherein I spake of most disastrous–”

“I wish you’d go ‘spake’ somewhere else,” one of the TV watchers called out.

Nate rolled his eyes and lowered his voice, but only minimally.

The TV watcher held out the remote and clicked the volume up a notch. His action was, in its own way, as dramatic as Nate’s theatrics.

Everyone else ignored the old actor.

Jennie smiled. Each scene hinted at mild conflict, but taken together, they reinforced her feeling that all was well in Riverview’s world. Not quite all. Where’s Jake? She looked away from the lounge, slightly to her left, down the long hallway that housed residents’ bedrooms. At ten thirty on this Tuesday morning, most doors were open. At the far end of the hall, a glassed-in area looked out over a construction site. Beyond the glass, giant yellow machines were gouging holes in the earth, preparing a foundation for the new activity center that was being added in conjunction with repair work necessitated by a recent fire.

In front of the window, half a dozen low chairs were mounted on swivel bases so they could be turned outward to watch the construction or pivoted toward each other in a manner more conducive to conversation. Only one chair was occupied. Not surprising. Noise from the construction site made conversation impossible and most of Riverview’s residents were of a sociable nature.

Jake Appleton was the exception. He sat alone, with his chair turned toward the window, holding a pair of binoculars against his chest with one hand and scribbling in a spiral notebook with the other. Viewing him in profile, Jennie saw that his lips were moving and knew from his expression that he was dissatisfied about something. “Sour Appleton”, the nickname given him by Nate, sprang to mind.

“Morning, Jennie,” Georgie called to her from the tea ladies’ table.

Doreen pivoted her wheelchair a quarter turn and waved. “Care to join us?”

“Wish I could,” Jennie called back, “but I have a couple of things to do first.” She headed down the hall toward Jake. As Activities Director, it was her job to keep residents busy and engaged in Riverview’s social life–a job that would soon belong to someone else. Jennie had just been named Assistant to Executive Director Leda Barrons, and would assume her new duties as soon as her replacement was hired. Jake Appleton was a relative newcomer and a real challenge–the one resident Jennie hadn’t been able to integrate into Riverview’s social fabric. She stopped when she reached his chair. “Morning, Jake. Anything I can do for you?”

“Doubt it.” He spoke in his customary brusque manner, keeping his eyes on the notebook and not bothering to look at Jennie even when she stepped around the chair so they were face to face. He moved his hand so that his fingers hid the words on the page.

She ignored the rebuff and tried again. This was a nut she was determined to crack and she was running out of time. “Why don’t you join the Scrabble tournament in the lounge? They could use a little new blood down there.”

“Blood! That’s what you’re going to see if somebody doesn’t start paying attention.”

Jennie pushed to the back of her mind the thousand and one things she had on her plate and pulled up a chair beside the old man. “I’m paying attention.”


If that response had come from any other resident, she would have been discouraged but, from Riverview’s resident grouch, it was actually encouraging. At least he was willing to acknowledge her presence. She pasted on her best smile and asked, “Still think the construction company’s cheating us?”

“No doubt about it.”

“Anything specific?”

He closed the notebook and waved it in the direction of the window. “World’s full of crooks.”

There was no doubting his conviction. Jennie looked out the window, trying to gauge what had prompted it. To her, it looked like any construction site. Cumbersome machines made jerky progress amid clouds of dust. Workman dodged around the equipment. Everything and everyone was in motion. She glanced back at Jake. His eyes seemed focused on some point beyond the activity. She looked outside. A flash of heat lightening illuminated the sky.

She said, “Maybe we’ll finally get that rain they’ve been promising.” No response. Maybe he hadn’t heard her. She tried again. “Hope so. We sure could use it.”

Finally, he brushed his fingertips over the notebook. “It’s all in here.”

“Wanna talk about it?”

After a few seconds, he squared his shoulders and looked at her. “Some other time maybe.”

Jennie waved to the source of the recurring booms. “Lot of racket out here,” she said. “How about your room? Later this afternoon?”

“Well, I–”He stopped abruptly and looked over her head.

She turned to see what had distracted him.

Lizzie Stafford and Bruce Appleton, Jake’s children, along with an older man she didn’t recognize, were standing in the hall a few yards from her. She’d been so intent on wooing Jake that she hadn’t heard their footsteps.

“Hi.” She smiled at Lizzie and Bruce. “Nice to see you.” She extended her hand to the older man. “I’m Jennie Connors. I don’t believe we’ve met.”

He grasped her hand and gave it a firm shake. “Bob Walthman. Jake’s brother-in-law.” Walthman was a handsome man with an easygoing, hale-fellow-well-met manner. He directed an engaging smile at Jennie.

The smile set off an itch in her memory. She’d seen him before. Where?

Before she had a chance to pursue the thought, Lizzie said, “Uncle Bob, Jennie’s the woman I told you about. She’s been wonderful to Dad.”

“Good,” Walthman said with another huge smile. “Appreciate that.”

Jennie returned the smile, uncomfortable that the family was addressing her instead of Jake, who hadn’t said a word to any of them yet, nor they to him. Instead, he sat ramrod straight in his chair, scowling out the window and grasping the notebook in both hands.

Hoping her departure would lighten the mood, Jennie said, “Sorry, Jake, I don’t mean to steal your family’s attention. We’ll talk later. Say about three o’clock?”

Jake nodded and tilted his head down the hall. “My room. No privacy out here.”

Jennie said, “Fantastic. I’ll be there.”

The whole time they were speaking, intermittent booms intruded from the work site. An unusually loud blast stopped conversation. A whirl of dust rose to engulf one of the yellow giants. About ten yards from the work area, flames licked at the top edge of a metal drum used to burn trash.

Jennie leaned closer to the window, examining the area around the base of the drum and was relieved to see that it was clear. The last thing Riverview needed was another fire. August in Memphis was always hot and frequently dry, but this year threatened to set a record on both counts. She sent up a silent prayer that the weather gurus had it right and the area would get rain overnight. The sky looked promising. To the west, a bank of clouds hovered above the river. Jennie studied the darkening billows. She loved watching the many moods of the river, but there wasn’t time for that now. She smiled at Jake, patted his arm and said, “See you later,” then headed down the hall.

Nate, grinning his most wicked grin, waylaid her. “Dragon Lady’s looking for you.”

Painfully aware that she was poised to become Assistant Dragon Lady, Jennie swallowed the first response that threatened to spill out.

The rat-a-tat of stiletto heels approached.

Jennie stood a little straighter and pushed back an errant curl.  Despite the fact that she was pudgy and not much taller than a ten-year-old, Riverview’s Executive Director inspired best-foot-forward demeanor. Every day. Every encounter.

Nate scurried off in the opposite direction as fast as his arthritic knees would allow.

Leda reached Jennie just as another boom sounded. She waited for the echo to subside before she spoke. “Jennifer.” She pronounced the name in three perfectly-enunciated syllables as she always did and paused, making sure she had Jennie’s full attention. “We need to work on finding your replacement. I’ve set up an interview for Thursday afternoon. One thirty. I want you to look this over.” She waved a crisp sheet that Jennie realized with a heavy heart was a resume.

It was almost three thirty by the time Jennie made it back to Jake’s room. The door was firmly closed. She grasped the doorknob, but knocked before she turned it.

No response.

She tried again.


She figured he was angry at being kept waiting and prepared to humble herself. She tested the knob. It turned easily so she pushed the door open a couple of inches and called out. “Sorry I’m late. I got here as soon as I could.”

Still no answer.

“Jake?” She pushed the door another six inches and knocked again. “You decent? Okay if I come in?” She listened, heard only the radio, tuned to a station that played oldies–real oldies–big band music and the sweet love songs of the forties. She listened a little longer, reflecting on the inconsistency of his taste in music with his cynical outlook.  Another tap on the door, this time louder. When he still didn’t answer, she had no choice but to go in. As much as she hated to violate a resident’s space, especially one who guarded his privacy as jealously as this one, in a retirement community, safety concerns trump modesty.

She called out, “Coming in,” and pushed again. The door moved another couple of inches, then refused to budge. She leaned into it. It still didn’t give, but something on the floor did. She glanced down. A shoe-clad foot. Omigod! He’s fallen. No wonder he didn’t answer the door. Jennie squeezed through the narrow opening. And froze in her tracks. Jake Appleton lay on his back. His face and head . . . She averted her eyes, unable to look.  The floor in the area surrounding Jake was dark red. One silver curl stretched like a question mark in a pool that had to be blood.

Jennie’s scream merged with a boom from the construction site.

Would you like to read more?

Amazon Kindle:

Barnes and Noble Nook:


The Hidden Art of Translation

August 3, 2015

I’Carmen Ferreiro Estebanm pleased to to welcome my friend, Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban, to Birth of a Novel. Originally from Spain, Carmen now lives in Bucks County, PA where she works as a writer/translator. She recently published the Spanish translation of her paranormal romance Immortal Love (Crimson Romance, 2012) under the title Bécquer eterno. You can find it at She’s also the author of Two Moon Princess, a YA fantasy, which she hopes to translate into Spanish some day.

Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban: Like writers, translators are wordsmiths. They use words to communicate. But, while writers are the creators of their stories/articles, translators are like mirrors; they must render the source document into the target language without distortion, that is, without altering its meaning.two_moonpb_hires

Doing so, it’s not as straightforward as it sounds.

A text is made of words that convey a certain meaning. But, even in the simplest of texts, a translation of meaning cannot be accomplished by a word-by-word translation of the source text. In most cases, this would originate an awkward and, most probably, inaccurate sentence in the target language.

Among other reasons:

  • Because words have synonyms that are not interchangeable. Babies don’t wear “sombreros”, nor baseball players “berets”. Although both are translations of the word hat.
  • Because the order of the words in a sentence is sometimes inverted. “The white house” translates as “The house white” in French or Spanish.
  • Because even ordinary expressions are different in different languages. In English a person “is x years old” while in Spanish “she has x years.”
  • Because idioms are specific to each language. Do people turn blue when they are sad or green when they are jealous, in China?
  • Because we don’t mean what we say, literary. It never rains cats and dogs and we do not build castles in Spain, nor cry over spilled milk.

Carmen's book Spanish 2All these reasons apply to all kind of texts from the very technical to the highly poetical.

But when we talk about the translation of a lyrical text, a poem or a song, we must consider an extra level of sophistication. For the translator must find, not only words that translate the meaning, but words that translate the sound and length of the original ones; she must translate the music embed in the original.

The words maybe different from the ones the author used, but the feeling the poem/song/story elicits in the reader must be the same.

It’s in this context, that a translator transcends the source and creates his/her own piece and translation must be considered art.

A great example of a perfect translation is, in my opinion, Leonard Cohen’s rendition of the poem “Pequeño Vals Vienés” by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca into the haunting song “Take This Waltz”.


Thanks, Carmen, for sharing your expertise with us. I never realized how complex the process is and I have a feeling I’m not alone in that.

Here’s a link to Carmen’s Amazon Author page:

Willa Cather – A Strong Woman

July 30, 2015

Willa CatherIn the summer of 2013 I set aside a month to immerse myself in the work of one writer and chose Willa Cather. It was a good choice. Note: this is a repeat of a post I wrote a little over a year ago, but since I’m now engaged in a similar reading experiment, I decided to re-visit and re-post my thoughts about this exceptional woman. If you’ve already read this and want to skip it this time, that’s okay – you’re excused – but I do hope you’ll come back.

Why was Ms. Cather a good choice? For me, reading is all about characters. The books that I love and go back to again and again are those with strong characters – people with whom I fall in love and cheer for, or sometimes hate and jeer at. Either way, these people real to me. After I close the book and turn off the light, I worry about them. When the book is finished and back on the shelf, I savor their triumphs and regret their disappointments. And when it comes to creating strong characters, nobody beats Cather – especially strong female characters.

My favorite examples of Cather’s strong women are portrayed in the books known as the Prairie Trilogy: Oh Pioneers!, Song of the Lark, and My Antonia. If you want to understand the history of our country, read these three books. They tell the story of a country – growing, changing, and forging itself into a nation. The characters are not heroic in the usual sense of the word, but they, through the lives they led, the hardships they endured, the perseverance they displayed, are the foundation of this country. Their strengths and weakness are at the heart of who we, as Americans, are. In each of them, there’s a strong woman, a woman who’s not afraid to take charge of her own destiny.willa cather - prairie

 Song of the Lark is a little different from the other two in that it looks at the less than admirable side of life in a tight, closed community. It’s the story of an artist, nurtured by the prairie she loves and, at the same time, constricted by the expectations of the community and stifled by small-town life. I couldn’t help but wonder how much of Cather’s own experience went into this one.

To round out the month, I read a collection of novellas that included A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House, and Death Comes for the Archbishop. They were all good stories, but I have to admit about half way through Death Comes for the Archbishop, I began to skim. It’s set in an earlier time than the others and was an inspiring story in many ways. The archbishop traveled all over the southwest, including some Native American sites that I’ve visited and found fascinating. I’m not sure why I lost interest. Maybe I was just maxed out on life on the great prairies – in other words, too much of a good thing.

All in all, I enjoyed immersing myself in Willa Cather’s books. She was a wise woman, and a fine writer. A few of her observations that I thought worth jotting down:

“There are some things you learn best in calm and some in storm.”

“Where there is great love, there are always wishes.”

“It does not matter much whom we live with in this world, but it matters a great deal whom we dream of.”

“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”

No fancy language – just seemingly obvious statements, expressed in simple, declarative sentences. Yet I found them provocative. All in all, I enjoyed immersing myself in the books of one author enough to do it again. This time around, I’ve picked Pearl Buck, another strong woman. More about her in a future posting.

A Patchwork Plot

July 17, 2015

My First QuiltOne of the things I enjoy almost as much as writing is quilting. There I am, a few years ago (no grey in my hair then), assembling the layers of my first full-size quilt.

There is more similarity between quilting and writing than one might think. Both involve a love of the components that go into the makeup of the finished product. I love words. I feel joy in the power they give me to translate ideas into stories to share with other lovers of words. I also love color. I’m fascinated by the way the mood of a color changes according to other colors near it. I enjoy playing with different shapes, curved or straight lines and the texture of fabric.

Choosing the fabric, the colors, and pattern of a quilt is very like choosing the attributes of a fictional character. Combining dark and light shades is like working out the details of a storyline. Writing is almost completely intellectual; quilting is very tactile. When I’m working on a quilt, I’m compulsive Southwest Quiltabout it and resent anything that keeps me away from it. The same is true when I’m deeply involved in a writing project.

A book begins as a tangle of ideas with only the glint of a story shining through. A quilt begins as a mishmash of fabrics with colors and patterns that clash. Both the writer and the quilter begin by examining their components, testing different ways of combining them, seeking an arrangement that will blend the conflicting parts into a harmonious whole. Both as a writer and a quilter, I find this part of the process pure pleasure.

Ah, but the next part – no fun at all. About halfway through a book, I invariably hit a wall. I’m besieged by doubt. Can I turn this idea into a story that readers will actually enjoy? Will they understand what I’m trying to say? Is the idea big enough for a whole book? Are my characters distinctive and yet universal? Will readers believe in them? At the root of all these niggling doubts is the real question, the twofold biggie: Am I really a writer? Can I finish this book?

Somewhere in the process of making a quilt, I wonder why I ever thought these colors worked together. Is this pattern too complicated for my skills? Will I be able to get all of the angles right, the points nice and sharp, the corners square? Will my patience last long enough to see it through? Will I finish this Sean's Bug Jar Quiltquilt? One of the things that pulls me through the doubt is the anticipation of sharing my creation. A favorite of mine is the bugjar quilt I made for my grandson, Sean’s, fifth birthday. It seemed perfect for the little boy he was.

When I finish a book, I feel an enormous sense of pride, but following that initial high, there’s a letdown. The ideas that have consumed my thoughts (and sometimes my dreams) are ready to stand on their own. It’s time to let them go. I need to explore new ideas – write another book. The same is true when I finish a quilt. I am delighted to be finished with it, but before long, my fingers itch to be engaged. I David's Cat Quiltneed to begin anew, but … can I do it again?

Of course I can – at least in part because my two obsessions feed each other.

One last quilt: one that I made for David, the son I told you about in my last post.

The Weirdest Kid

July 6, 2015

My son, David, has always been an animal-lover. I know. Lots of people are. In fact, I’m convinced all the best people are, David & Badgerbut David’s a bit goofy about it. I mean that in a good way. I’m incredibly proud of the man my son has become.

He has a whole houseful of pets and they all have distinct personalities. I won’t list them all here. Today, I just want to tell you about Badger, the Jack Russell Terrier. That’s him with David in the picture on the left. Rarely do you catch him in such a quiet moment. He’s usually a study in perpetual motion and is one crazy dog.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Badger, but sometimes he can be too much of a good thing. (I seem to remember thinking the same thing of David when he was little. You’d never guess from the photo what an intrepid little boy he was.)

I grew up surrounded by pets. (I’m pretty sure David inherited his pet-loving gene from my mother, who had a huge heart and was always ready to move over and make room for any creature in need of a little TLC.)  Still, looking back over the years and the critters I’ve known, Badger wins the prize for the most individual. To say he is excitable is gross understatement. He can (and does) jump four feet straight up (at least) and can do it an uncountable number of times without stopping. He’s probably the most loving dog I’ve ever known (and that’s saying a lot). Every morning, as soon as he wakes up, he goes through the house and touches noses with all the other pets. Visitors to my son’s home are routinely greeted with a display of Badger’s athletic ability, followed by a series of sloppy kisses and, when you sit down, Badger is immediately on your lap, jumping for joy – a mixed blessing. I usually have bruises all over my legs after an afternoon of Badger’s lap-dancing. As I said, too much of a good thing.

Once, when I’d had more than enough doggy love, I asked David why he loved Badger so much – more, I could tell, than McGee, his majestic Black Lab, or any of his four cats. His answer: “Think about it, Mom. If you had a whole bunch of kids and one of them was a little weird and you knew other people didn’t like him much, wouldn’t you love that one the most?”

That answer stopped me cold. I knew he was right. Most of us love the weirdest kid the most. I try to remember about that when I’m writing. Characters need a bit of weirdness if they are to engage a reader’s heart. One of the better parts of human nature is our instinct to cheer for the underdog. We like to give our love where it’s most needed and, when we’re reading, we like to see our characters overcome their inner demons as well as the foe from without.

One thing I have to add: I would be remiss if I didn’t give a nod to Sue, David’s life partner, and a real sweetheart. As you can imagine, she puts up with a lot. I’ll even give her the ultimate compliment and say she reminds me of my mother.

Still Exploring

June 28, 2015

One of the things I’ve grown to believe about writing is that stories are like children: they all develop at their own pace. As parents, we sometimes have to be patient and let our child grow according to his or her own timetable. As writers, we sometimes have to be patient and allow our story to reveal itself when it’s ready. Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote the following post about a work in progress. It’s a little embarrassing to admit that I’m still working on the same book – further along, but still a long way from completion. This story is taking its time revealing itself to me, but I choose to believe that its slow growth is a ripening process – both for the story and for me. At the moment, it’s the story that’s in control, not the teller.

?????????????There are few things more exciting – or unsettling – to a writer than admitting you’re not in control of your story. Most of us like to think we’re in control of our lives, but, deep down, we know that’s only partly true. In reality, our lives are subject to a million and one curves the universe can throw at us. As writers, though, we’re dealing with a universe of our own creation, so we should be in control. Right? You’d think so. But, as in other aspects of our lives, it’s not always the case. Sometimes a character or even the story itself throws us a curve.

I wrote LOVE AND NOT DESTROY as a stand-alone – or so I thought. It’s the story of Peace Morrow, a young woman who was abandoned as an infant and adopted by a strong, loving woman who gave her a nearly perfect childhood, but still, Peace can’t help wondering about her biological parents.

Thinking back over it, I remember that my original intent was that she would never discover who her biological parents were. The idea was that she would come to realize that it doesn’t matter whose blood flowed in her veins. She is what she makes herself.  Somewhere along the line, I realized that it was unfair to the reader and to my protagonist to leave that part of the puzzle unresolved and, truth be told, I wanted to know myself. So, by the end of the book, Peace has learned that her father is dead and her mother is someone she doesn’t really even like. That’s a complete turnaround from my original intention. The story took over and told me what needed to happen. I thought I’d tied up enough loose ends that the story was finished.

But Peace’s situation haunted me. I had to know what happened next and, unless I wrote the story, I’d never know. So, there you have it – I’m writing another Peace Morrow book. I planned to write about Peace’s relationship with her adoptive and biological mothers, and, almost as important, the relationship between the two mothers. It seemed like an interesting premise for a book. I had what I thought was the perfect title: ALL THAT I AM. I felt confident that I could make an interesting book out of this situation. I wrote a couple of chapters, introducing new characters as necessary to flesh out the story and, since I write mysteries, I inserted a mystery element into the book  … and, wham, the story took over. I realized the new characters’ lives were impacted in ways that could not be ignored. Peace and her two mothers are still there, but the focus has changed.

That’s where I am now. I’m being led down an unexpected path by characters who I thought I’d created, but who have assumed lives of their own. That’s what characters do; they demand that their story be told and even reveal to those of us who consider ourselves their creators what that story is. All we have to do is find the right words to do justice to the lives of these people.

Writing is an unpredictable endeavor – sometimes unsettling, always exciting.

The Necessity of Dreams

June 22, 2015

lark“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” Shirley Jackson

I can’t speak for larks and katydids, but I hope for their sakes, it is true for them. And I think it must be. How else could a lark sing so beautifully? Or a katydid produce its own uniquely musical sound?

I know it’s true for human beings (some more than others). I’m convinced that our dreams make us more human (in the case of other species, perhaps more lark-like or more katydid-like). Who knows? I do know that my life has been shaped by my dreams. As a kid, most of the trouble I got into was because of something I did (or didn’t do) when my mind was busy living a daydream. I remember overhearing my father say to my mother in absolute frustration, “I think she wakes up in a different world every day.” I must have been about ten or eleven at the time and I was not offended, just amazed. I thought, “How does he know?” I realize now what I didn’t know then: that other people wake up in other Library Statueworlds too. There’s a statue next to our library of a little boy lost in a book. And what is a book but a dream? Next to him, there is a stack of more books. More dreams waiting their turn.

Some even come true. I’m getting to live my favorite dream. I write books!

I think the universal need for dreams is the reason books are so essential. Writers share their dreams and confront their fears in the stories they tell; readers recognize their own dreams and fears and, in the process, we come closer to understanding an often insane world–even manage to exist sanely in it.

So – dream on.


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