Who is Elsie Lenore?

The fourth book I have available at the Christmasland Writers of the Wheat event is a sequel to Sundrop Sonata, the 2020 suspense novel Sonata of Elsie Lenore.  Released just before COVID shut everything down, Elsie had a rough launch, but she’s hanging in there.

The story begins fifteen years after Sundrop concludes. Izzy anticipates the birth of her first grandchild. Daughter Melody has married a Cuban pianist, Stefano Valdez who was stranded in New Orleans (or what was left of it) after a horrific tropical storm battered the area.  Mel’s interest in relief work dates to the time her mother compromised the family’s safety to help an orphan girl.  Her work takes her to disaster sites from coast to coast in a world increasingly plagued by intense storms.

With his career thriving and a baby on the way, life looks good to Stefano Valdez until a postcard from the past shatters his world. Days before the expected birth, he heads south to find the author of the card, a sister he long believed to have perished in the storm that left him a refugee in New Orleans. Trailing her to Cuba, he unwittingly places his Kansas family in the sights of the crime ring that destroyed his sister. Will he discover the hidden message in her hastily-penned words in time to save his family?

Sonata of Elsie Lenore is Stefano’s story, from southern Kansas to Cuba and back again, where he discovers that Mel has left him to work a tsunami disaster site on the west coast.

Chapter One

LENA VALDEZ CRINGED when her husband hammered the Steinway piano lid with his fist.

His rage growing, Enrique’s knuckle bones threatened to burst through his skin. “I told you,” he said, “no more of this Lecuona crap. Do the jazz. Tonight we want the best Cuban jazz.”   The youngest of the three Diaz brothers punctuated every other syllable with his fist until the piano’s heavy bass strings vibrated with a rising cacophony.

She shrank from every blow.

“Understand?” he yelled.

, Enrique,” she said.

“Get to the jazz. I’m counting on you tonight. ¿Comprendes?

She looked down, her fingers rubbing the familiar ivory ridges of the piano keys.

“¿Lena?” he said.

She felt rather than saw his arm rise and spoke with haste. “Please, Enrique. Don’t hit the piano.”

“Jazz then. Hear me?”

She nodded. Yes, she heard him. How could she not? She could hardly recall a time he spoke to her without yelling. “, I will play jazz.”

“One hour. Then we dress for the show. No more Lecuona.”

She flexed her fingers, took a deep breath, and leaned into the keys. A recent island melody by Jorge Marin swelled from the piano. Swinging with the beat, Enrique danced out the door of the Caribbean Breeze, a nightclub in New Orleans.

Her hands flew over the keys as she coaxed melodious rhythms from the worn Steinway. It wasn’t that she hated jazz. After all, jazz expressed Cuba’s heart and soul. It sang of the courage and beauty of her countrymen. She loved jazz, but she loved classics more and she needed Lecuona right now. Their mother raised her and her brother on Lecuona, embracing classical Cuban tradition.

Lena completed the Marin number and stifled a sob.

“You okay Señorita?” Roberto, the bartender and manager of the nightclub, peeked in from a back room.

She nodded. “I will be fine.”

“I heard some yelling,” he said  and  cocked his  head,  inviting her to say more.

She forced a laugh.  “Enrique. He’s always yelling,” she explained away the outburst. “It will be fine.”

“If you’re sure.” He turned back into the storage room.

She waited a moment,  gathering her nerve,  her fingers silent on the piano keys. In a timid voice, she said, “Roberto?”

When  he  didn’t respond,  she  tried again,  louder.  “Roberto?”

He stuck his head through the swinging door again. “You say something?”

“I just wondered if you would tell me where I could mail a postal card.” She fished a postcard from her handbag.

“Sending greetings from good old New Orleans?” he said with a smile.

Sí. I want to contact my brother.”

“Stefano? How is he anyway? I heard he’d tied the knot with a beauty from up north somewhere.”

She nodded. “I just want to let him know I am here. Where could I mail the card?”

He extended his hand. “Leave it with me. I’ll make sure it goes out tomorrow.”

Gracias, Roberto.”

The bartender disappeared into the back room with her card.  Lena took a deep  breath before she  continued  her  rehearsal. If only Stefano would meet her here. Would he even get the postcard in time? He didn’t know she was booked at the Caribbean Breeze, their old favorite nightclub. Maybe he wouldn’t even believe she was here, set to perform on Mama’s piano, “Elsie Lenore.” He sure didn’t know she’d married into a family of drug smugglers or that she was miserable.

He didn’t know.

She launched into another Marin number. At its close, she whispered into the keys, “Elsie—Elsie, what will I do?”

Unexpectedly, her mother’s voice whispered in her mind. “We do what we must.”

In a flash of recollection she visualized the lewd sneer of her former stepfather as he appraised her youthful body and her mother stepping between them— “Not my daughter, you bastard!” Her mother had split up with that man before the next week passed.

A year later a new gentle suitor presented her mother with the same Steinway she’d lost after the Revolution. A gift from her father when she was young, she had fondly dubbed the piano Elsie Lenore. It was offered as a wedding gift for the woman  he’d loved all his life  and Lena’s mother could not refuse his proposal. Lena and Stefano had grown to love that piano as much as their mother did.

Her mother’s voice whispered again. We do what we must.

“Yes, we do.”  Lena’s  hands  teased  the  keys as she pondered her limited options. Elsie Lenore and her brother Stefano offered one thin thread of hope. Surely he would understand. He had to.

Her fingers caressed the keys and cajoled an Afro-Cuban piece from the belly of the piano. The melody grew, and then waned. She dropped her left hand and allowed her right hand to sketch a rhythmic melody up the keys as she diverted her left hand to the piano case.

Following the melodic sequence, she ran her fingertips to the treble end of the mahogany trim at her waist and pried upward. With a full-keyboard glissando, she moved to the bass end and inched up the trim until the keyslip was free of its mounting screws. She placed it across the music desk without the slightest click.

The music soared again when her left hand joined in. She strummed repeated staccato chords, lifted her hands at the finale, and froze, listening.

Silencio.

Roberto must have gone out for a few moments. Nobody remained inside the club.

She retrieved a set of dining utensils and a paper napkin from the nearest table and spread the napkin beneath the bass keys. Slipping the knife tip underneath a key, she scraped against the key frame, teasing a fine white dust to the edge. She repeated the process under four keys, and scraped the powder onto the napkin. Tossing the knife to the floor, she lifted the napkin’s corners, cradled the powder into its middle, and with a sigh folded it into a tiny envelope. Her brother would have been proud to know she’d learned some intricacies of piano construction. She, for her part, was grateful for his fascination with the technical side of the instrument.

Gracias, Stefano,” she whispered.

She tucked the parcel securely into her cleavage, replaced the trim, and lost herself in the music.

 

To find out what happens next, drop by the Christmasland Event with Writers of the Wheat December 3, 4:00 pm until 9:00, at the Sunflower Plaza, 417 East Gilbert in Wichita. There will be something for every reader’s taste.

Writers of the Wheat is a loosely organized group of Kansas authors who support each other in writing, as well as marketing, their work.

 

 

How About a Little Suspense?

After completion of the memoir in 2014, I plunged into crafting a tale of fiction. Using personal expertise in the field of music, piano teaching, and piano tuning, a story based on abandonment and revenge wrote itself in my head. Today’s featured book is my first suspense novel, Sundrop Sonata, published in 2016. It was a lot of fun to write, and has gathered several awards and great reviews, which launched my plan to write a few more piano suspense tales, the Sonata series.

What is this Sonata about? With her passion for helping people, piano tuner Isabel Woods loves her job–but passion can be a dangerous thing. Reluctantly agreeing to harbor a client’s autistic daughter, Izzy’s good intentions unexpectedly expose her own family to a fiend with a chilling agenda. Human trafficking and bio-terrorism are no longer just buzz words from the nightly news. For Izzy, they have become terrifying and real. As the deadly Sundrop Sonata begins to play, Izzy has one chance to save the people and the country she loves armed with nothing more than courage, intelligence, and her esoteric knowledge of pianos.

Sundrop Sonata will be available at the Christmasland Event with Writers of the Wheat December 3, 4:00 pm until 9:00, at the Sunflower Plaza in Wichita. Writers of the Wheat is a loosely organized group of Kansas authors who support each other in writing, as well as marketing, their work. Join us at the Sunflower Plaza, 417 East Gilbert in Wichita,  December 3. There will be something for every reader’s taste.

Chapter One

IZZY

A chill shot down my spine the instant our eyes met. Nola Pack looked ten years older than she had a week ago when we met in town. She stood in her open doorway, clenching its frame. Her red eyes sought mine as a breeze teased her disheveled hair. The ranch wife I remembered from previous meetings would never have appeared with even one stray hair on her immaculate swept-up bun.

I smiled and greeted her, but her grave face stole the sunshine from the bright spring morning. I no longer heard songbirds sing in the nearby flowering orchard as I searched for clues to her distress.

Nola didn’t return my smile, nor did she speak. Her bloodshot eyes narrowed as she studied my face. She stepped aside, still clutching the ranch house door with a grip that raised veins on the back of her hand. I stepped into the picturesque entryway, put my tool case down, and stooped to remove my shoes.

“No. It’s fine. Come in,” she said.

“You don’t want me to remove my shoes?”

“Not today, Mrs. Woods. Come in.”

“If you’re sure,” I said, wiping my shoes on the entry mat before I stepped onto her white carpet. “And please call me Izzy.”

Awash with sunshine, the music room issued a warm invitation. A sofa and two chairs faced the walnut grand piano across the room, its lid open on full stick. A violin leaned against a matching walnut music stand that filled the piano’s graceful curve.

“What an improvement over the old upright,” I said. “When did it arrive?”

“About ten days ago.”

“Anything I need to know before I begin? Problems? Concerns?”

Her brow narrowed. Still unsmiling, she shook her head and looked over my shoulder to the window beyond the piano. I set my tool case against the wall and tucked a stray curl into the hair clip on the back of my head. “I’ll get started then,” I said over my shoulder.

“Wait, please,” Nola said. “I need your help.” She closed her eyes. Her voice almost a whisper, I strained to understand her words.

“You don’t want me to tune your piano?” I asked.

“No. Not now.”

“A few minutes then? Or did you mean not today?”

“Not today.” Her voice carried unmistakable urgency. “Please. Come with me.” She turned and walked into the hallway beyond the living room.

Another chill raced through my body. I stood rooted to the white carpet. Nola turned and looked at me from the other end of the hall. With a frantic wave she beckoned me to follow.

I walked from the music room, past four closed doors. Two doors displayed a child’s colorful paintings. I knew there were children in the house, or at least a child. During an earlier call a girl had peeked at me for a moment before Nola scolded her. I had never been invited beyond the music room though, until today.

The hallway opened into a glassed-in dining room aflame with spring sunshine. Nola led me outside to a redwood deck extending over a pond, water slapping the rocks beneath us. In the far corner of the deck, a slender girl slumped on a lounge, her arms wrapped around her chest. She stared at the blue water, humming in a split voice that sounded as if she sang in two pitches at once.

I tilted my head toward Nola and narrowed my eyes.

Nola met my puzzled gaze. “She’s talking to herself. She does it when she’s under stress.” Her voice was devoid of any emotion, fear still in the undercurrents.

Nola brushed aside a tree branch bursting with fragrant blossoms and knelt at the girl’s knees. In a soft voice she said, “Laura, this is Isabel Woods, the lady I told you about. She’s our piano tuner.”

The girl didn’t move. If anything, she hugged herself a little tighter.

“Look at me, sweetheart,” Nola said.

The girl turned to her mother, but her gaze shot beyond Nola toward me. Her eyes didn’t appear to focus. I offered a tiny smile, but Laura didn’t respond.

LAURA

Laura Pack squeezed herself, as if tightening her grip on her own shoulders could wring the stench from her mind. All morning the awful smell had overwhelmed her. The pungent odor of putrid diapers drove her mad. Baby poop. Hour after hour, the reek of excrement filled her mind. She couldn’t sleep. She even tasted the stuff. She swallowed, desperate to stop the bile rising in her throat.

Why this happened, she didn’t know. Every time she faced her fears, every time her world went wrong, this same awful odor permeated her nostrils and filled her brain. Mama didn’t believe her. She would shake her head and say she made it all up, that there was no rotten smell because Mama couldn’t smell it.

But after that awful phone call, Laura sure could.

And it grew stronger and stronger until it filled her mind. Mama had decided to send her away. So she’d be safe, Mama said. She didn’t think it would make her safe. She didn’t think she’d ever be safe without Mama.

Laura heard her mother call her name. It sounded so far away. She turned her head, dazed. The awful smell – why wouldn’t it stop?

I can’t see you, Mama. I can’t see you. Don’t look at me. I don’t want to see you. Can’t see you. Can’t see you. Can’t see. Why do I have to go? Why? Why? Why? Don’t want to go. Won’t go. I won’t. I won’t see you, Mama. Don’t look at me. No. No. Baby poop. No.

No – wait. Look at me. I want to see you. Look at me. I see you. I see you, Mama. I’m scared. I’m so scared. It smells so bad. I hear you. I hear your voice. You say I’ll be safe. I’ll be safer. Why? Why? Why? You come too. Be safe. Be safe, Mama. Be safer. Look at me. I can see you. I see you. I don’t want to go. Don’t want to.

Laura’s gaze focused on the piano tuner. The strange woman’s frizzy gray curls struggled to escape from the loose clasp on her head. Laura found no comfort in this stranger. Not even when the woman smiled.

I don’t know that lady. Who is she? I’m scared. Scared, Mama. I see you. I see you, Mama. I see her. She’s looking at me. She’s smiling. I see her. Okay. If you want me to go, I’ll go. I see her. She smiles. She’s kind. She’s kind of – not you!

Don’t want to go. Don’t want to, Mama. Don’t want to. Don’t want to. Don’t want to leave you. Baby poop, Mama. It’s baby poop. You come too. Be safe. Safer, Mama. Come too. Come with me. I see you, mama. I see you – I see you – I see you. I love you, Mama.

Nola clasped her daughter’s hands in her own. She pulled the girl to a stand and pressed Laura’s hands together over her heart. Their eyes met.

IZZY

After a few silent seconds, Nola nodded once. She turned to me.

In a shaking voice she said, “I don’t know how to ask you this. We need your help. Could you – please – would you take Laura for a while? We’re desperate.”

Oh, my God. I don’t believe this. I coughed, choking on my response.

Laura pulled away from her mother.

“She could be in danger and I need time to sort things out,” Nola said.

I glanced from mother to daughter. The girl’s shoulders shook as she sobbed, her head buried in her hands.

What was I to do? I couldn’t take a strange child with me, drive out the driveway, head toward – head where? My appointments filled the day’s schedule. This would never work. What in the world was happening here?

But, I’d never been one to turn down a plea for help. What could I do?

“Please.” Nola’s whisper screamed in my ears.

I shook my head. “I need to think.”

“We don’t have time.”

“Are there no family members? Grandparents? Aunts or uncles?” I asked.

“My family lives in New York. They’re too far away. I need help now.”

“What about neighbors or friends?”

“I don’t know anyone around here. Except you. ”

That I could believe. The Pack family was a mystery to their neighbors. Hints and stray comments dropped when I tuned pianos a couple miles up the road confirmed nobody knew these people. They had no local friends. Just the piano tuner.

Incredible.

“Ranch hands?” I said. “You must have hired help.”

“I don’t trust them.”

“Is that why you think Laura’s in danger?”

“Please. There isn’t time to explain.”

I scratched my head through the mess of curls. Frizzy Izzy. I was living up to my childhood nickname, the hair an outward manifestation of my inner turmoil. “Have you called the sheriff?” I said.

“No. I can’t call the police.”

“Maybe you should.”

“Please. I can’t involve them.”

“This is crazy,” I said. “I can tell you’re desperate. But you haven’t told me why. You want me to pack up your daughter, the girl you’ve never even introduced to me on prior visits – load her up and take her away. But why? ”

“It’s an emergency. I need Laura to leave for a while.”

“I kind of want to leave too. In fact, you’re making me want to race from here as fast as I can go. But I don’t know why.”

“Just take Laura with you. Please.”

She had me. Could Nola read people enough to guess I’d find it impossible to refuse? My passion to help others usually served me well. I was, after all, in a service profession, traveling all over the countryside to tune pianos for people. Service with a smile, was the homily I always told myself. Make harmony from discord. And I loved the work. I loved the people. I found pianos fascinating, each one a variation on an ingenious theme.

This, however, was a first. This was different. Not a discordant piano today. This time, I was being pulled into a desperate situation.

Nola, should I tune your life?

A knot of anxiety hardened in my stomach. I didn’t know how to refuse. “For how long? How long is a while?” I asked.

“Might be only an hour or two. Perhaps a couple of days. I’ll call you when the crisis is over. Don’t call me.”

Chills raced through my body. “Why not? What if something happens?” I said. “What if I need to get in touch?”

“I’ll contact you as soon as I can. Just don’t call me.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Take the girl. No police. Don’t call Nola.

Laura wilted into the deck lounge and wailed.

In a soft voice, Nola said, “Izzy, believe me, if there was any other way, we would never put you in this position. The situation blew up on me this morning. You’re the miracle we need right now.”

“Please tell me why you’re so afraid,” I said.

She shook her head. “There’s no time. You need to go now.”

I touched the girl’s trembling shoulder with my fingertips. “Laura, are you okay with this? Will you come with me until your mother calls?”

Still sobbing, Laura ventured a tiny nod and turned to her mother. They grabbed each other in a desperate embrace.

Nola gently pushed the girl away. Taking her hand, she said, “Let’s go.”

She pulled Laura through the open doorway and gathered a few bags from the dining table. We dashed down the hall and into the music room, the bags in Nola’s arms brushing Laura’s artwork as she ran. I collected my tool case and hurried out to the waiting Blazer.

After I tossed my tools on the back seat, Nola handed me a briefcase. “Don’t lose this,” she said. “These things can’t be replaced.”

What does she mean? Another wrinkle.

I scrutinized her for a moment before I set the briefcase behind the driver’s seat.

Nola deposited Laura’s bags on the back seat and tucked her daughter into the passenger seat. She leaned inside and kissed the child.

“God be with you, Laura. I’ll see you soon.” A tear dropped into the girl’s stringy blond tresses.

Nola wiped another tear from her cheek and glanced at me. “Now quickly – go!”

I turned the Blazer onto the long gravel drive and spun the wheels as we left.

Accelerando, Isabel. Step on it.

We jiggled across the pasture lane. Laura shrank against the opposite door and wailed. Her thin voice vacillated with bumps in the road. At the end of the long driveway, we rumbled across the cattle guard and through stone pillars. The remotely controlled gate surged to life as soon as we cleared it.

“Your mom must be listening,” I said.

Laura’s strange two-tone whine rose a notch in volume.

I braked enough to navigate the turn onto the deserted county road. Heading south, I floored the accelerator. Less than two miles later, we met a two-ton flatbed pickup. It raced toward us, engine roaring.

“That guy’s in a hurry,” I said.

Laura gasped. Mouth open, eyes wide, she clung to the door, her gaze riveted on the truck. She ducked, hiding her eyes behind her long hair.

“Laura?”
The truck aimed straight for us. I swung the steering wheel right and braked hard. The farm truck thundered by as my Blazer crept along the shoulder. “Dang, take your half out of the middle,” I said.

Laura dissolved into hysterical sobs.

I pushed our speed again. We sailed along the road, sunlight streaming through the windshield. The bright morning mocked the grim mood inside our cab. Tears streamed across Laura’s cheeks. She reached up with her right arm and wiped her face with her sweatshirt sleeve. I reached over and squeezed her rigid hand.

“That was a close one, wasn’t it? You recognized the truck. Did you know the driver?”

Laura nodded. Her chest heaved. She worked her jaw, as if trying to speak, but her words didn’t form through her wail. She screwed up her face, knotted her hands into fists and managed to blurt in her strange split-tone voice, “My dad.”

“Your dad?”

She nodded and shrieked heart-wrenching sobs.

Her dad?

Was he the source of Nola’s panic this morning? Were her urgency and desperation because her angry husband headed home? Why would Laura’s life be endangered at her father’s hands?

I wished I could have stolen a look at the truck driver. I’d never met Laura’s dad. In all the previous service calls, not once had he been home. Did he look into my car? Did he recognize Laura? The thought horrified me.

“Honey, do you think your dad saw you as we passed?”

She shook her head. She must have watched his face, even if I didn’t get a peek.

“Is your dad the reason your mom sent you with me?”

A hesitation. Then a quick nod. This was a family dispute.

Nola’s words echoed in my mind. Her life is in danger. I shuddered.

In danger from her dad. Something she failed to mention.

No police, Nola had begged. Why not?

“It’ll be all right, Laura,” I said to reassure her.

Would it though? I was unconvinced.

 

To find out what happens next, drop by the

Christmasland Writers of the Wheat event!

December 3, 2021, 4:00 – 9:00 pm.

Sunflower Plaza, 417 East Gilbert in Wichita.

What is a Windshadow?

Over the next few days, I will post information about each of the four books I have available. All of them will be part of the Christmasland Event with Writers of the Wheat December 3, 4:00 pm until 9:00, at the Sunflower Plaza in Wichita. Writers of the Wheat is a loosely organized group of Kansas authors who support each other in writing, as well as marketing, their work. Join us at the Sunflower Plaza, 417 East Gilbert in Wichita,  December 3. There will be something for every reader’s taste.

Today, I feature my first published book, a memoir titled In the Shadow of the Wind. Though I have aspired to write books as long as I can remember, it was this one that had to come first. It uncorked the bottle of my creativity, so to speak. Released in 2014, I continue to be amazed at the response of new readers. It seems to connect with new folks scattered from coast to coast, and I am humbly grateful to the Winds of the Spirit for making the story known to those who struggle with their own personal grief and need encouragement.

What is it about?

Following a series of tragic losses, at age thirty I found myself in a strange world, anticipating a lonely future.  Widowed, and grieving the loss of two infants, I retreated to the wilderness for comfort and healing. Planning to stay forty days, I set up a solitary camp on the Neosho River bank of my family’s abandoned farm homestead. Marooned by rising flood water after only a few days, I had to face my own mortality.

I discovered that there is life after loss. Through a sequence of extraordinary events, In the Shadow of the Wind tells my story: how an ordinary woman learned to dance on the threshold of fear, to cherish every moment of life, and to believe in my inner resources to conquer adversity.

Prologue from the Book

“It’s okay, Daisy Pup,” I said. The small spaniel whined. I drew her to my chest and we cuddled together. Thunder exploded in the air above our little tent. The after-rumbles faded. Seconds later rain pelted the nylon roof of my fair-weather shelter. Daisy shivered in my arms. “It’ll be okay.” I tried to convince myself.

I felt foolish. How could I have thought this was a good idea? How could I have dreamed that I would be able to withstand forty days in the wilderness? The rain turned my plan into a futile effort that bordered on the edge of insanity.

A drop of water stabbed my forehead. In the gray afternoon light, I saw hundreds of droplets hang heavily from the inside of the tent roof. The threat of a cold shower hovered  inches away.

“Good Lord, Daisy—it’s going to rain inside the tent.”

There was no escape from the chill in the air. No escape from the fingers of cold that crept up from below. No escape from—“Oh, my God, the sleeping bag is wet.”

I shifted sideways in the orange tent and discovered we huddled in a growing pool of water, now about an inch deep. “Oh, God, this is crazy.”

My canine companion stood and shook.

“You need to go out?”

She wagged her stubby tail and shook again. I unzipped the door and she jumped into the deluge. I grabbed my boots and began to pull one over a damp sock. On second thought, I tied the laces together, removed my socks, and backed out of the low-slung tent. I pulled my backpack into the soggy afternoon, zipped the tent door shut, and stood barefoot in black ooze.

Daisy splashed through standing water. She located a slight rise, squatted, and relieved herself. I glanced at the sodden landscape. Water stood everywhere, and I was already soaked in the downpour. What were we to do? I turned in a circle and searched for shelter. An old wooden railroad boxcar, the only structure that remained on the abandoned farm, stood right behind the tent.

I stooped to look under the boxcar. We could wiggle under it. I quickly discarded that idea. The prospect of lying in muck was no better than sitting in a wet tent. Padlocks secured the sliding doors of the boxcar. Even if I had a key, I doubted I could budge them enough to allow entrance. The aged wooden sides looked weathered and soft. One ragged gap at the leading edge of the north door panel appeared almost large enough for me to wiggle inside.

I slogged to the side of the boxcar and grasped the lower edge of one ragged slat. I tugged on the worn end. With my entire weight behind my efforts, I ripped off inches at a time until the opening had grown twice as large.

“Come here, Daisy. Let’s check this out.” She was instantly at my mud-covered heels. I patted the dark floor of the boxcar, standing forty inches off the ground. Daisy leaped. With an assist from me, she scrambled into the dark interior. I stuffed my backpack behind her, slogged to the tent and pulled my boots and the bedding into the storm. I struggled to maintain balance as I slipped back to the hole in the door and crammed the bundle of blankets inside. Then I leaned into the darkness of the abandoned car and jumped. On my stomach, legs dangling out the opening, I snaked forward a few inches. With flailing arms, I reached into the darkness in search of something to grab.

There. Something metallic. Perhaps an old piece of farm equipment. I didn’t know. I could see very little. But it didn’t budge, so I was able to pull myself into the relatively dry interior of the old boxcar. Across the car, Daisy snuffled and sneezed a couple times. I stood and felt my way around the area. After locating a pile of old shingles along the south wall, I propped the backpack on the floor beside them. I shook the damp bedding. My clothing was soaked through, so I wrapped the blankets and sleeping bag around my shoulders. I sat on the shingles and leaned against the wall of the boxcar.

Daisy bounded onto my lap. We shared each other’s warmth as the deluge continued outside. Moments after we both settled down, I heard scratching noises inside the boxcar. Light-footed creatures scampered about the interior. I hugged Daisy a little tighter. I could see pinpoints of light here and there, small eyes that reflected the afternoon light filtering in through holes in the wall. Oh, my God.

Rats. Lots of them.

 I screamed. “I am such a fool, Daisy. Why do you put up with me?”

She licked my chin.

I spoke to my late husband Craig. “What am I going to do? I don’t think I can do this. I can’t live without you.”

He, of course, didn’t answer. I was on my own.

Daisy whined softly and licked my chin as if she understood. The storm mirrored the anguish in my heart. The entire universe wept with me. “What are we going to do, girl? I don’t know where we’re heading. I only know where we’ve been.”

When I met Craig, we thought we had all the time in the world. A decade was hard to visualize. Had we known that all our joys, our plans, and dreams, would have to be packed into one decade, would we have spent our days differently? Would our choices have been laced with more love and wisdom, or with desperate lunacy? Based on the law of averages, we had every reason to expect several decades together.

Yet there was barely one.

“It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” I railed against the universe.

 

 

Grandma Georgia’s Recipe File

With a sense of blissful excitement, I am pleased to announce the arrival of my latest book project, Grandma Georgia’s Recipe File. A divergence from my previous endeavors–hardly suspense fiction–there’s not a single piano in its pages, but it’s still ripe with story.

1984

Georgia Wells Harris was a quiet woman, but she opened her home and her heart to everyone. Each of her family members loved her dearly. She lived a devout faith, slow to anger, loving through dissention, refusing to judge others. Born October 3, 1891 in the Ozark hills of Missouri, her family migrated to central Kansas before the turn of the century in covered wagons, and by rail. She lived through the depression, two world wars, birthed four children, and buried two of them before her own last breath. A farm wife, her realm was home and garden. She kept everyone fed through good times and bad.

Quilting lessons, 1979

She spent her free time crafting quilts and gave them away to each of her children, grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren that she knew. She socialized with clubs of neighbor women at church and in a one-room schoolhouse auxiliary called “72 Club.” She delighted in simple things and her easy laughter was contagious.

Georgia blowing bubbles in the timber one Easter in the early 70s.

My grandmother’s dilapidated recipe file came to me a decade ago after my father passed away. Though I always knew I would share it someday, the time for sharing was postponed by the bustle of a busy life. I wanted to share the cards with all my grandmother’s living grandchildren, my two sisters and a cousin and me. But the project got tabled, and mostly forgotten.

1971

Then a year ago, that busy life came to a standstill due to the COVID restrictions. I am not the only person who discovered that one blessing of the COVID time was to open the chance to catch up on long-overdue projects. This was one of them. In fact, the slower pace reminded me of Grandma Georgia and how I appreciated the slower pace of her life.

1976

Visits to her in my young adulthood always slowed me down and I relished the peace of her quiet life. Last October I pulled the little pink recipe file box from my hutch and began to catalog the cards. It didn’t take long to realize that there were very few duplicates. I would have to split them up. How could I possibly divide them into 4 equivalent batches? What if I sent the wrong recipes to people? Then there was the valid possibility that maybe–just maybe–we’d all like the entire set of recipes.

The idea of making a recipe book was born the moment I realized it would be impossible to split up the cards and be sure that the right granddaughter received those appropriate for her. Why not make them all available to all of us? I began to type the recipes into word documents on my computer. As I typed, it became clearer how much of our lives are told by the food we eat, those favorite dishes we share with our loved ones.

1985

She had noted names on many cards, to remember who provided those recipes to her. Some people I knew. Many I barely knew. Some were total strangers to me. Her dear daughter, and some of us grandchildren were noted, but there were other family names I had only heard about, including Mabel and Florence Ethel (Pete) whom you might recall from the story “High Courage.”

I became doubly excited about this booklet idea. In addition to creating my grandmother’s recipe book, I would use this project to learn how to format manuscripts for publication. The project took on multiple objectives.

I intended to surprise my sisters and cousin at Christmastime.

Well, some things just can’t be rushed. Christmas came and went, and I was still working on designing the cover with the help of my computer-savvy stepson. What’s wrong with Valentine’s Day, I thought? Often in past years, our “Christmas” greetings became Fellentines. This could fit right into that.

But Valentine’s Day came and went also, while waiting on the printing process.

However, I am happy to announce that the project has come to a very successful completion. Last week, I received my first order of the recipe books, and I packaged up several to send off and surprise family members. The unexpected books by now have reached every destination, so the secret is out!

When chatting about this project in December with some friends, I mentioned that I didn’t expect anyone beyond family to be interested. But some friends insisted that they would like the opportunity to have one of these traditional family cookbooks. I felt quite honored by that declaration. My proof-reader sister asked if I’d autographed all the books, and I replied, “I autographed NONE of them. I don’t really feel like it’s my book. It’s Grandma Georgia’s.”

Spring flowers blooming at Georgia’s house.

With satisfaction, I can report that I did manage to work through the steps to format this booklet without assistance. Very cool. No need to shy away from that process in my future endeavors. And with love filling my heart, I can say that the opportunity to read through some of Grandma Georgia’s letters was incredibly rewarding. I had kept every one that she sent me before she died June 25, 1990. The correspondence allowed me to season the book with bits of her life philosophy. In this blog’s new “Comfort Foods” category, I will share a few more recipes, as well as snippets of philosophy, in coming weeks. There will be recipes from Georgia’s kitchen, but also some from other beloved friends and relatives. Stay tuned!

My heart is full. I offer the recipe book with love to anyone who needs a lift.

Georgia’s Recipe for a Life well-lived:

Work hard.

Love deeply.

Laugh often.

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B08T85DXDQ/

 

 

Re-Writing Life

What do you do when your first novel receives great reviews, and people urge you to write more? That’s the real test. Last week I listened in on a live interview with Edwin Hill, author of Little Comfort and The Missing Ones. He mentioned how there is a delicious freedom with the first novel—no expectations, no deadline, nobody waiting anxiously for the arrival of the book. The second book presents the real challenge.

For subsequent works, you must write under pressure of expectations. Can I fulfill the requests of readers and maintain integrity with mywriting? Do I have more stories inside, worthy of being shared? How long will it take? And how long will the readers wait patiently for an attempt?

It was definitely a challenge to write a second novel. You’d think, now that I’d done it once, the second novel would be easier. But that was not so. It was hard, writing Sonata of Elsie Lenore.  I wanted to satisfy my readers. I needed another suspenseful tale, utilizing pianos and piano technicians as characters. I wanted to provide readers with another Izzy story.  After all, that was what several readers specifcally asked for.

But Izzy was all storied out. I tried mightily to write Elsie Lenore with Isabel Woods as the protagonist, but it just didn’t work. Maybe she could be the narrator then? That didn’t work either.

The seed of the Elsie story germinated 20 years ago, and was nourished by events since, but there was nothing quite as concrete as the events that wrote themselves in the Sundrop story. I had to introduce new characters, as well as keep the older ones, and it was HARD. It seemed that Elsie Lenore just didn’t want to sprout. Or she did, but the seedling was all twisted and wrong. The story didn’t flow. Even after I had a complete draft, and was re-working the three parts, it wasn’t coming together. I  finally realized it was because this was no longer Izzy’s story. I was trying to make it another Izzy adventure, but this story belonged to someone else. It belonged to Stefano.

And I re-wrote the entire book. Several times.

Elsie Lenore has been through so many re-writes and revisions, I have lost count, but there are 6 different outlines in my computer files. Six major revisions later, Sonata of Elsie Lenore was released–shortly before the world screeched to a halt with the COVID-19 pandemic, and that added a new layer of complication. Everything looks different through a coronavirus lens, but I hope the final product is one that readers will enjoy, as they follow Stefano Valdez from Izzy’s piano shop in Kansas to Cuba and back again. I hope they cheer him on as he grapples with major failures and shortcomings in his personal life.

It’s true that the biggest part of the writing job, is, in fact, revising and re-writing. Polish the prose. Edit for clarity and flow. Do it again and yet again. And when you realize that the story just isn’t working the way you envisioned, you have the prerogative and the privilege to start again. Indeed, more than a prerogative and a privilege, it may be more of an obligation to re-write.

This makes me think of our global situation today. Right now, our society, our culture, and our species own the same prerogative. The same obligation. The pause in life gifted to us by COVID-19 has allowed us to step back and take a look. Things just weren’t working out too well for most people–not to mention most of the living things on this planet. Were they? This is the perfect time to re-write our future. We may not receive such a chance again.

As we move from isolation cautiously back into the social realm, let’s tread carefully, step out in a different direction, and when the path forks, flip a coin and try something different. Only one thing is certain. We can’t go backwards. Forward is the only way to go.

Let’s re-write our future together.

A New Chapter

Earl Nightingale said the hardest job you can tackle is thinking a thought through to its end. That’s what writing is. You get an idea and not only have to think it through but revise it many times to make it more effective.”

— Marvin Swanson

This morning I headed to the college in Arkansas City to prepare pianos for the spring semester. My mind was drawn to the day I worked at that same task one decade ago. While busy twisting tuning pins, getting the fleet of pianos tuned up after the dry winter air soured them, my phone rang. It was the hospital in Winfield. My dad had arrived and was having “a little heart attack.” To this day, I cannot fathom why the medical person called it “little.” They had decided he should go to the Heart Hospital in Wichita. Do I need to drive him there, I asked. No, she said, we will send him in an ambulance.

Thirty-six hours later, after a procedure in Wichita, after  my sister from northern Kansas arrived, after a lengthy visit or two in his hospital room, laughing and remembering, and saying “I love you,” after a last phone message recorded on my answering machine while I was en route home, (“Please bring my walking stick next time you come up. Don’t make a special trip.”), another heart attack took his life. It was January 13, 2010.

We were called back to the hospital late at night by a nurse who didn’t think he’d make it through this one. This was the Heart Hospital. She ought to know. Kay and I dressed hurriedly and rushed back, fretting through a cantankerous stop light that refused us a green, running it red, racing to the parking lot and dashing in, only to learn he had just passed.

And so, in that moment, the role of grizzled and wise family elder passed to my sisters and me. We were orphans.

That was ten years ago. I marvel at what he and my mother missed in those ten years. Though I miss them more than ever, life goes on. Things my dad missed include weddings of several of his grandchildren, and break-ups of others, births of my three grandchildren, as well as several of my sister’s, watching them grow,remodeling our house—complete with geothermal heat pump, solar panels, and wind turbine,

 

remodeling a building in downtown Winfield into an art gallery,

friendships renewed, new friends made, international travel opportunities, heartaches and joys, hopes, dreams, and disappointments.

Life goes on.

I also marvel at the way my dad’s death opened a new chapter in my avocation. He was a master at new chapters. And he taught me well. When you face inescapable changes in life, it is far better to embrace them and turn a corner to new adventures than to wring your hands in despair. Losing my dad reminded me that you can’t take life for granted. If there’s something your heart urges you to do, do it. Conversations and events in the days following his exit convinced me to return to writing, an ambition from my early years. It was time to finish a book I’d started 28 years previously. I’d put it aside to raise a family, and to get beyond the emotional upheaval of those times. For ten years now, I have risen early to put pen to paper. And I have finished three books in those ten years.

In the Shadow of the Wind went to press in 2014. Two years later I finished Sundrop Sonata, a novel of suspense started in my wild imaginings 12 years previously during the summer following my mother’s death.

And as I write this today, Sonata of Elsie Lenore, a sequel to Sundrop Sonata, is ready to upload to the printer. It should be accessible by February 9.

Book #3 has been an adventure of another kind, taking me to Cuba ten months ago, bringing new friends into my life and bolstering old friendships. (More about this in future posts.)

Three books in ten years. I think my dad would be pleased.

With his career thriving and a baby on the way, life looks good to Stefano Valdez, a Cuban classical pianist. Then a postcard from the past shatters his world. Days before the expected birth, he heads south to find the author of the card, a sister he long believed to be dead. Trailing her to Cuba, he unwittingly places his Kansas family in the sights of the crime ring that destroyed his sister. Will he discover the hidden message in her hastily-penned words in time to save his family?

Why Belong?

The “Writing Life” can be lonely. Sometimes that’s good. I need time to think, time to plan, time to write, review, revise and re-write. All these things work best in quiet isolation. Too much stimulus can be—well—too much. It almost seems stunting at times and I feel a creeping desperation to run and hide.

However, the last few weeks have given me several reasons to celebrate belonging, and to feel grateful for networking with people in general and other writers in particular. I belong to two regional writing groups, Kansas Authors Club and Oklahoma Writing Federation. Each has its own strengths, as well as limitations. Others may find the initial limitations enough to stay away. When they are handled with good humor and flexibility, the benefits of belonging can outweigh those stifling stimuli.

Why belong? Here are a few key reasons.

Like nobody else, writing friends understand what I face with time management, craft development, and the daunting prospect of marketing my published words. In the past month, I have exchanged drafts with some good friends for feedback. As always, my writing friends make fine critique partners. I benefit in two ways from exchanging critiques. First, of course, I learn how the selections I send impact a reader. And second, when I return the favor, I find my own skills of reading “like a writer” are honed ever sharper. The ability to read my own words as an editor might read them enhances my writing.

In the last month two writing friends tipped me onto opportunities to share my books. The first event was the anniversary of a little bookstore in El Dorado called The Next Chapter.

A charming atmosphere with aisles of used books (and a few new releases) made this book signing a delight. It was initiated by a writing friend and colleague in Kansas Authors Club.

The manager of The Next Chapter introduced me to DartFrog which is a gateway for Indie writers to offer books in independent bookstores across the country. Marketing is probably the single biggest challenge for me so I was excited to learn about DartFrog. Perhaps you would like to check it out: www.DartFrogBooks.com.

Another tip from a writing friend and colleague in Kansas Authors Club put me in touch with the Wichita Barnes & Noble bookstore. This local branch is hosting a “Local Author Day” in July. I submitted my suspense novel for consideration to be included and received word that I was accepted. I just filled out the event agreement to be one of the writers featured in Barnes & Noble.

In addition to these exciting events, writing groups host conferences. Over the last few years I have attended several conferences in Kansas and Oklahoma and gleaned many tips from the featured instructors. Beyond regional groups, many genres have national organizations and host conventions for the edification of writers who attend. Most conferences offer writing contests also, which can be a great way to get feedback on your work. I even received personal help adding seals of excellence to my online book covers for award-winning books. A big “Thank You” goes to the staff of Meadowlark Books.

The benefits of belonging number so many, why wouldn’t everyone want to belong? The old adage, “You get out of it what you put into it,” surely applies to writing groups. But when the balance tips to the point you find yourself putting in more than you could possibly gain, burnout is expected. Then it may be time to flee the stimuli and hermit yourself away in a writing retreat. Until that time, I will reap the benefits of belonging as long as possible.

Capturing the Poetic Moment

Writing a poem is the easiest thing to do and, at the same time, the hardest. District 5 is excited to announce a workshop at the October convention aimed at claiming those varied moments of inspiration for poetry. The class, “Capturing the Poetic Moment,” will look at methods of capturing poetry. Presenters Diane Wahto and Ronda Miller plan to illustrate ideas with poems they have written. They will share how they managed to hunt down the poems and let them loose in the world.

“Poetry is everywhere—in nature and in our families. We write about lovers, children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, animals. A poet will snap to attention, salute, and write  when that poetic moment appears.”

Ronda Miller is a Life Coach who works with clients who have lost someone to homicide. She is a graduate of the University of Kansas and continues to live in Lawrence. She is a Fellow of The Citizen Journalism Academy, World Company, a Certified Life Coach with IPEC (Institute of Professional Empowerment Coaching), a mother to a son, Scott, and a daughter, Apollonia.

She created poetic forms loku and ukol. She was the co-chair, along with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, for the Transformative Language Arts Conference at Unity Village September, 2015. Miller was poetry contest manager for Kansas Authors Club (2011-2014), District 2 President of Kansas Authors Club (2015 – 2017), state Vice President (2016 – 2017), and is the club’s current State President (2018-2019).  When she isn’t coaching clients, volunteering time to Kansas Authors Club, or writing poetry, she is busy learning life skills from those she works with. Miller presents workshops throughout the U.S.

She has three published poetry collections, Going Home: Poems from My Life, Moon Stain, and Water Signs.

Diane Wahto started writing poetry in 1983 when she entered the Wichita State University MFA creative writing program. Her poem, “Somebody Is Always Watching,” won the American Academy of Poets award in 1985, and was published in the American Institution of Discussion Review.

Since then, her work has been published many times in various journals and magazines, and she regularly places in poetry contests. Most recently she won the poetry division of the 2019 Kansas Voices contest.

After graduating from WSU in 1985, she taught journalism at Winfield High School and English Composition and creative writing at Butler Community College.

Her book of poetry, The Sad Joy of Leaving, was published in October 2018. The book launch was held at Watermark Books and Café, where she read with Michael Poage and Kelly Johnston.

Other recent publications include “Empty Corners” in Same, “Persistence,” in The Ekphrastic Review, and “Yellow Music,” in Heartland. She is co-editor of two issues of 365 Days: A Poetry Anthology.

Diane is the president of Kansas Authors Club District 5 and has served several years as Awards Chair for the state. She is co-chair of this year’s convention in Wichita. She lives in Wichita, Kansas, with her husband Patrick Roche and their dog Annie.

Diane Wahto
Ronda Miller

 

Letter to a Young Writer

I received an invitation to write a letter of encouragement to a grade school student who dreams of writing. Perhaps these thoughts are relevant to writers of any age.

Dear Joslyn,

Your teacher told me you dream of being an author. That is awesome! You have taken the important first step toward achieving your dream. The support of my fifth grade teacher launched my dream long ago and I appreciate her more than words can say. Perhaps you also will correspond with your teacher for the rest of your life.

Do you love to read? When I was your age I did. I still read a lot. I love the way I can escape to different times and places through stories others share.

If you haven’t already started, I encourage you to keep journals of your activities, your experiences, and—most important—your thoughts and feelings about everything. The more you write, the better your writing will become. It’s one of those things where “practice makes perfect.” Our alphabet and the written language derived from it are perhaps the most important invention of humanity. Used with skill, words possess the power to change the world.

Today it is easier than it has ever been to see your work published. No longer do you have to convince agents to represent you and offer your manuscripts to publishers. At the same time, because of the ease of publication through online sources, anything you publish will have A LOT of competition. To attract readers, learn to make your work stand out. Take your writing seriously. Study the intricacies of our language and its rules of grammar. Learn the basics of storytelling.

How do you do this? English classes will get you off to a good start. Beyond school, how-to books on writing are easy to find. I took special creative writing classes as early as high school. And when you finish high school, there are university tracks which offer intensive training in creative writing.

You could join a writing club. These groups bring writers together and they welcome members of all ages.

Enter writing contests. Many contests welcome submissions by students. A couple of contests available in Kansas are Kansas Voices and the annual literary contest sponsored by Kansas Authors Club. Submit your stories and poems as often as you can. After the winning writers are selected, contest judges often offer suggestions about how writers can improve their craft. Don’t resist revising and re-writing your first drafts.

If you are bold, you could attend workshops and conventions to learn more about writing. It is invigorating to surround yourself with others who share your passion.

Seek a variety of activities to understand how other people view life. Pursue adventure. Crave new experiences. Engage in life. Watch people and listen to their speech patterns. Collect friends and get to know them inside and out.

Allow yourself to feel deeply the entire circle of emotions. Learn what it’s like to love intensely, to laugh with abandon, to rage helplessly, to fear powerful adversaries, to feel your heart break with sorrow, and even to despair with little hope. Write it all down, sparing nothing.

Careful observations as you experience life could lead to unique twists in your stories that make them stand out. Use your experiences to feed your imagination. Create new worlds and write them to life.

You have set out on an exciting journey.

Be proud that you have taken the first step toward your dream, but don’t be surprised if life dictates a few detours. Embrace them also. Farm them for scenes, characters, places, and conflicts. And never stop writing. It’s a long road and a lot of hard work to see your dream come true. You may get discouraged, but don’t give up. Every step of the way is worth it. Someday you may touch a needy heart. Someday—maybe soon—you will make a difference and help change the world with your words. There is nothing more important.

Good luck to you and Write On!