Chop n’ Bop Playlist: Girl Power Anthems for Cooking

To celebrate the publication of Six Feet Deep Dish, I was invited to write a guest post for the awesome mystery blog, Criminal Element. Read on for more on writing, music, and my uncanny similarity to Olympic gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps.

Before a big race, swimmer Michael Phelps listened to a playlist to amp up his energy, increase his focus, and get in the zone. Maybe you can picture him, headphones on, bopping his chin to a beat that was audible only to him. I’m exactly the same. You heard it here, people. Michael Phelps and I are basically the same person. Except instead of setting world records for a sub-two-minute 100m butterfly and going for gold as the most decorated Olympian of all time, I write novels about a fat cat and pizzas.

Read more about girl power anthems and my (essentially) twin, Michael Phelps

https://www.criminalelement.com/chop-n-bop-playlist-girl-power-anthems-for-cooking/

Wicked Authors Blog

You ask people about their cupcake preferences, and they probably have thoughts. Chocolate or vanilla, fancy boutique flavors or made straight from the Duncan Hines box, unadorned or topped with edible sugar tchotchkes. These are legitimate opinions, and a variety of taste preferences is generally accepted.

Ask people about their favorite pizza, though, and emotions start running hot. Foldable New York by-the-slice? The pleasingly solid rectangle of a Detroit-style pie? Or a simple, quick-baking Neapolitan? Choose your weapon, because this is a shooting war.

For a chance to win one of three copies of SIX FEET DEEP DISH, read more about this pizza versus pizza battle royale on the Wicked Authors blog…

I found the perfect place to kill a bunch of people.

In my last post, I wrote about stumbling upon the adorable town of Maysville, Kentucky, which is in fact so cute it could be the eighth member of BTS. Today, I will tell you about my quest to find a similar place, so that I could kill people there.

Warning for readers who are sensitive to disturbing cow trivia: This post will also feature details about history’s only mass-murdering bovine.

When I originally pitched my latest series to St. Martin’s Press, I knew I wanted the restaurant at the heart of the books to serve deep-dish pizzas, which to me, necessitated setting the series in the home of deep-dish: Chicago. Fairly early in the process, I’d settled on centering the action in the Hyde Park neighborhood. It’s an interesting part of town, culturally rich and ethnically diverse. I always like to throw real tidbits of a place’s past into my books, and Hyde Park teems with fascinating history. I decided to make one of the main characters a great-grandson of the legendary Chi-town gangster Al Capone, who frequently conducted business in Hyde Park’s Shoreland Hotel.

The overall feedback from the editor on my pitch was reassuringly positive. The publisher loved the characters, the chonky cat, and the deep-dish pizzas. The only thing they didn’t love was the setting. This type of book usually takes place in a small, tightly-knit community. As my agent said, “somewhere people can relax and take a mental vacation.” I resisted. One of the most popular and durable cozy mystery series out there, Cleo Coyle’s Coffeehouse Mysteries, is set in Manhattan! How could I do a deep-dish murder mystery series without setting it in Chicago?

My aunt Sandra and my husband arrived at the answer independently, both encouraging me to consider relocating the series to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. I resisted at first, but as I delved deeper into the area’s history, I began to see the appeal.

Lake Geneva is nestled in rolling, lake-dotted countryside about 90 minutes’ drive north of Chicago. The Chicago connections are myriad. European settlement around the lake developed in several phases. One was as a series of “camps” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As the middle classes in the Chicago area grew, they started forming associations called “clubs” or “camps,” in which members would group together to buy land where members could hunt, fish, and boat. Some of the camps were formed around employees of one particular business or from one particular town or area of the city. For example, Lake Geneva hosted an “Elgin Camp” and a “Congress Club” where people built cabins or houses or even collections of mansions where they and their families could pass the summer holidays.

Another big driver of growth happened following the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. The fire, which urban myth attributes to the errant kick of a lantern by one of Mrs. O’Leary’s cows, killed 300 people. The veracity of the cow story is highly questionable and rooted in the anti-Irish bias of the time. Hard to believe that the Irish were kind enough to share their magically delicious cereal and their adorable accents with America, and all they got in return was decades of vicious prejudice, amirite? Although the bovine origin of the fire is almost definitely false, what is not disputed is the utter destruction caused by the blaze. It destroyed more than 3 square miles of the downtown, including 17,000 structures. One hundred thousand people were left homeless.

As parts of the city would be uninhabitable for years as the city was rebuilt, many of Chicago’s wealthiest families shifted their operations to Lake Geneva. Some expanded pre-existing dwellings. Others built brand-new mansions. The fire coincided with the completion of a rail line from Chicago to Lake Geneva, making travel back and forth easier than ever.

Speaking of transit, another quirk of geography and history deepened Lake Geneva’s Windy City connections. From 1920 to 1933, a constitutional amendment prohibited the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages throughout the U.S. So of course all Americans immediately stopped drinking as soon as that amendment was passed.

Hahahahahahahahaha! <<wipes tears>> Just kidding.

As anyone with even a borrowed brain cell could have guessed, it was a super dumb idea that allowed underworld criminality to thrive. Figures like Al Capone became extraordinarily wealthy, a billionaire in today’s money, by controlling the illegal booze supplies that poured into the Lower 48 from Canada. Capone also ran any number of other criminal enterprises, from brothels to casinos to protection rackets, and the availability of booze underpinned those businesses as well. The vast majority of Chicago’s alcohol came via routes through Michigan and Wisconsin.

Lake Geneva and its surroundings proved not only a convenient pit stop along this smuggling route, the area was also considered a good place for gangsters like Capone, Baby Face Nelson, and Bugs Moran to lay low when things in the big city got too hot.

Today, the Chicago -><- Lake Geneva connection is as strong as ever. About 80% of the tourists that the lake’s economy thrives on are visitors from the Windy City.

After I got over my initial reluctance to move the DEEP DISH MURDERS out of Chicago, I realized that glamourous, scenic, and idyllic Lake Geneva (rendered in the books in lightly fictionalized form as “Geneva Bay”) would be the perfect place for me to start my murder spree.

So look out Wisconsin, here I come!

The first book in the series, SIX FEET DEEP DISH, is available for pre-order wherever books are sold.

I discovered the Hello Kitty of towns

The Quigley clan traveled to England over Christmas to see my husband’s family, so our miniature Schnauzer spent the holidays with my parents. She had a fantastic time and gained a mind-boggling amount of weight. Like three pounds in six weeks. That’s about 15-20% of her body mass. Was she running an IV drip of bacon grease? Did she discover a hidden cache of Egg McMuffins buried under my parents’ garage? There will be a future blog post on America’s pet obesity epidemic.

Anyway, when it was time for us to reclaim our dog, my parents kindly offered to meet us halfway between their house and ours. Ten hours separate Blacksburg and Chicago, so I spent some time with Google Maps trying to find a location that would not only be roughly halfway, but also a nice place to spend the New Year’s weekend. I discovered Maysville, Kentucky.

Maysville, Kentucky is cute AF.

Y’all, this town. I’ve traveled extensively in the eastern US and have spent a lot of time in Kentucky over the years. And yet I had never even heard of Maysville — a town so adorable, it makes Hello Kitty look like a mangy old fleabag in comparison. I’m talking quaint storefronts. I’m talking cozy cafés. I’m talking a bustling Main Street, all tarted up for Christmas.

At this point, you may be asking why my writing blog has suddenly become a travel blog. You may be asking if I’ve been paid off by the Maysville Chamber of Commerce. Alas, no, but I do want to use this opportunity to let it be known that I am very amenable to bribery in any form.

There’s not a lot around Maysville. Like if a medieval cartographer drew the area around it, they’d draw some squiggles and a sea monster in that part of the map and call it a day. Maysville, it turns out, benefitted from some fortunate geography, being one of the few Kentucky towns along the Ohio River that could host a steamboat port. That led to it becoming a hub for commerce. Industries, such as wrought iron manufacturing, grew, and the town flourished. Over time, more transport links developed and the town became a regional hub. Somehow, although Americans no longer have a great appetite for steamboat travel or decorative ironmongery, the town has retained its charm.

Which brings me to my writing, and to a town that is near and dear to me: Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Wisconsin has lakes by the absolute pantsload. You can barely move in that state without squelching your flip-flops into some little swimming hole or another.

Like many working-class kids from the Chicago suburbs, I often spent summer weekends at my friends’ and family members’ lake houses in Wisconsin, passing days tubing, canoeing, and cultivating the kind of radioactive, three-alarm sunburn that was probably outlawed sometime in the late 1990s when parents collectively discovered SPF.

All around Lake Geneva, there are nice little towns with nice little lakes. But if you were visiting, say, the nearby town of Elkhorn, you’d have no idea that you were mere minutes away from a really incredible place. Don’t get me wrong. Elkhorn is lovely. In fact, I got married there. But that part of Wisconsin goes like this: cornfield, little lake, bunch of cows, dinky town, GIGANTIC EFFING MANSIONS AND SPLENDIFEROUS LAKE, cornfield, little lake, bunch of cows*, dinky town, etc. You’re hypnotized by the monotonous repeat loop of cows and corn and then you hit Lake Geneva and Hubba-Waaaah….? Mansions.

In the late nineteenth century, Geneva Lake drew Chicago’s lords of the realm—the Wrigleys, the Schwinns, the Vicks. These folks built straight-up, thirty-guest-bedrooms-and-a-butler-named-Jerome mansions around the lake. Why did they pick that spot? Why did Lake Geneva grow into the same kind of lovely, random pocket of affluence that Maysville, Kentucky did? And what does any of this have to do with my writing?

Stay tuned. I’ll answer these and other burning* questions in my next post…

*Burning. Cows. It’s a clue!

How I became Julia Child(ish)

You may know me from such culinary disasters as:

  • That time I set a baguette on fire
  • That time my oven broke on Thanksgiving Day and I hacked apart a frozen turkey and cooked pieces of it into a rubbery jerky using my toaster oven

  • That time I set a kitchen towel on fire
  • That time I put a rancid pork loin in the crockpot without realizing it had gone bad and came home to a dead body smell that permeated the apartment walls for weeks

I am not known for my cooking. Or maybe I am, but not in a good way. When my girlfriends and I used to have regular potlucks, I got put in charge of bringing the salad. Then I was demoted to buying the bread. Finally, I was told that there was no need to bring anything that might actually be ingested–my sparkling company would suffice.

So naturally, I am now writing a mystery series set in a restaurant, featuring a protagonist who is an incredible cook. When the opportunity to create the Deep-Dish Mysteries came my way, I thought to myself, “You’ve written stories about murders without ever killing anyone, surely you can write about cooking without really knowing a choux from a roux.” I could already describe basic techniques, having been a Food Network obsessive since Emeril’s first Bam! So I took a deep dive into research about cooking, culinary school, and becoming a chef. I hit up friends for stories about working in restaurants, and got behind-the-scenes tours of working kitchens. I inhabited the headspace of a chef, and tried to capture in words what the world looked like lit up in a technicolor of scent and flavor.

Then the series editor told me off-handedly that I would need to write original recipes related to dishes described in the book, because “it’s good for marketing.”

Imagine you managed to write a pretty decent book about Mozart. You’re feeling good about it. The fairytale beauty and courtly intrigue of 18th-century Salzburg sparkles on the page. You’ve found fresh ways to describe the hectic, almost giddy melodies of his overture to the Marriage of Figaro. You’re confident readers will weep at your description of the final, tortured months of the great composer’s life as he succumbed to his fatal illness. Then your editor is like, “Oh, by the way, score an original symphony so we can include it in the back matter for marketing.”

Okay, maybe writing pizza recipes isn’t quite on a par with that, but suffice it to say, the Quigleys have been eating a lot of deep-dish pizza this year. There were notable highs, like when I finally hit upon a crust recipe that reliably rises or when I had the profound epiphany that there really is no limit to the amount of cheese a deep-dish pizza can contain.

You can’t put too much cheese on a deep-dish pizza.

There were also, however, many, many lows, like the time I set out to make a bratwurst and cheddar pretzel crust pizza and instead produced a cardboard bowl containing a greasy orange slurry.

I was fortunate in a way that the global pandemic pushed back my publication date to Fall 2022, giving me extra time to research recipes, refine ideas, and practice, practice, practice. And all that kitchen time has heightened my understanding of my characters. I now really know that yeast is a mysterious little beast of an organism whose vicissitudes can make or break your whole day. I know with painful clarity that finding the perfect balance of salt and spice in a sauce can be damn tricky. I inhabit these people in a way I could not have if I hadn’t been forced to do their work. Makes me wonder if I should try to pull off a couple of murders as research? JK, future law enforcement folks!

In sum, while I can’t promise that I will never set fire to another loaf of bread, I can take pride in the fact that the poundage I packed on during the pandemic was for a higher purpose. Marketing.

Don’t hold your breath.

A few weeks ago, I lost the ability to breathe. Usually, I think about breathing about as often as I think about making my hair grow or making my blood circulate through my body. Which is to say, never. Breathing is supposed to be part of a body’s standard operating system. Like how when you buy a car, you shouldn’t have to specify that you want one that includes wheels. However, for days on end, I found myself yawning uncontrollably and struggling to take deep breaths. The yawning may have something to do with me having a toddler who currently likes to ninja into my room in the middle of the night and wake me up with a horror movie whisper of, “I need a pee.” But the fact that the yawning was coupled with other physical manifestations of stress made me suspicious that this was about more than what was happening in the “wee” hours.

My subconscious, as usual, was alerting me to an inner issue with all the subtlety of a submarine klaxon. I called my therapist.

Me: So, I think I’m stressed about something, but I can’t figure out what it is.

Her: Tell me what’s going on in your life.

Me: Everything’s good. Kids are healthy, parents and extended family are vaccinated, work is great. I’m waiting for some feedback on writing stuff, <<briefly ceases to breathe>> but… it’s… fine….

My therapist is wonderful, but even if she had the intuition and listening skills of a pickled beet, she would probably have picked up on the fact that my issue related to writing.

As I began to talk more about that aspect of my life, it became obvious that I hadn’t acknowledged that it was causing me stress. On the surface, things are great. I’ve got a sweet three-book deal from a great publisher, and I’m working with a fabulous agent and editor. Out of nowhere, I got a cool opportunity to pitch for another writing contract. Everything’s coming up Mindy!

However, my first book has been with the editor for months, due to a combination of my delivering the manuscript months ahead of deadline (overachiever alert!) and her heavy workload. I have no idea if she likes it, hates it, or is using it to line the bottom of her parakeet cage. I have a book contract, but no physical book yet. The other cool new writing opportunity involves a head-first leap into the unknown, with absolutely no guarantee of a soft landing. I literally have no idea if I’ll hear back about it tomorrow or in six months or possibly never. For all I know, that pitch is currently being ground up and used to make Grape Nuts. (Assuming Grape Nuts aren’t just grown in a Ukrainian lab??)

If you’ve ever sent off a query letter to an agent, you’ll know that the publishing business is glacial. I had a friend who got a manuscript rejection from a literary agent after almost two years. After she’d already self-published her novel and started working on the sequel.

Like most people, I really hate uncertainty. My therapist helped me realize that the long periods of dead air were playing into my imposter syndrome and insecurity in a big way. Because my Deep Dish Murder series came about during the pandemic–literally I got the offer on March 9, 2020–I’ve never even met my agent or my editor in person. I barely know them. I don’t know what’s normal in this business. And this has allowed me to project every fear that has ever sashayed across my brain into that absence. Take that stress salad and sprinkle on the uncertainty of a global pandemic. I totes get how Schrödinger’s cat felt. Like, has anyone read what I wrote? Do I have a literary career? How did I get inside this box? Why am I a cat? Do I even FREAKING EXIST?!

Putting a framework around my hyperventilation has helped tremendously (thanks, therapist!) and I’m happy to say that my breathing has mostly regained its default autopilot setting. This is crucial, and not only for the obvious reason of breathing being an essential function of a living mammal. If I’m going to make it as a writer, I’m going to need to learn how to hold my breath and wait.

“You never know when your pizza cat mystery will come along.”

I do not recommend trying to become a writer.

In fact, I’m not even sure I know what “becoming a writer” is. When I published the first Lindsay Harding novel, did that make me a writer? Or was it the brief and shining moment when the first book climbed to the top of Amazon’s cozy mystery rankings for a couple of days? Or when I got my first royalty check? Maybe it was when I won my first writing contest. Does the fact of having published three novels and half a dozen short stories mean that I’ve permanently achieved writerdom? Or if I cease to publish but still write, do I remain a writer?

These questions plagued me toward the end of 2018. (Remember 2018, when existential angst could involve mundane things like career aspirations?) I’d decided that 2019 was going to be a decisive year for my writing. I vowed to “become a writer” by age 40. Despite my progress toward that goal, by October 2019 my 41st birthday loomed, and I still felt like an impostor. After a few decent earnings years, my royalty income had dwindled to pocket change. I’d finished a manuscript for my middle-grade adventure novel, MINERVA MURGATROYD AND THE VERY OLD BOY, but after several near misses, I was unable to find representation for it. I blew out the candles on my 41st birthday with a heavy heart. Forty had come and gone with no real progress toward my writing goal. My day job had ramped up and I felt pressure to follow the steady paycheck and turn my back on my writing hobby.

And then, two days after my 41st birthday, I got a message from Lyndee Walker, a bestselling mystery novelist I’d met at a few conferences over the years. Lyndee had heard from her agent that St. Martin’s press was looking to develop a new mystery series. She didn’t have time to pitch for it herself, but she remembered me and thought I might be a good fit for the project. All she knew was that it was on the very cozy end of the mystery spectrum–it needed to be set in a pizza restaurant and to prominently feature a cat. The marketing folks had already road tested the concept and found that “Pizza Cat Mystery” was a niche that needed to be filled. Now, they just needed to find a writer who could pull the project off.

When I told my sister about this unexpected opportunity, she reminded me how only weeks earlier, I’d decided to throw in the towel on my writing dreams. “You never know when your pizza cat mystery will come along,” has since become our family’s version of “Persistence pays off.”

Fast forward to March of this year. After a couple of setbacks, including the departure of a key editor at the press, I was offered a three-book deal for a new series set in a deep-dish pizza restaurant. The first book, tentatively titled SIX FEET DEEP DISH, is set to come out in Summer 2022.

The advance still doesn’t justify giving up my day job and becoming a full-time writer, but it’s a respectable supplement to our family’s income that might allow us to redo our tacky master bathroom next year.

So am I a writer now? <<shrugs>> Ask me when I’m 50.

That time I was famous

Somehow I appear to have forgotten to create a blog post to tout my appearance on Blue Ridge PBS’s Write Around the Corner program. Author blogs basically exist for for self promotion, so don’t ask me why I never wrote a post specifically about the biggest self-promotional opportunity of my career–a thirty-minute TV show about me and my writing. Maybe part of me was a little self-conscious about it? Probably. But I’m over that now, and I would like you to buy my books, please.

Without further delay, here is a link to the episode.

WATC

 

Short, dark and than some

My short story “Taming the Tiger” will be published in the collection, The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell, later this spring by Untreed Reads. I wrote the story more than a year ago, so it was a little jarring to look back through it as it’s being prepared for publication and realize how dark it is. There is a sinister love triangle, a twisted power struggle, and a Talented Mr. Ripley-style murder. This isn’t the first time I’ve written dark short fiction. In fact, when I started thinking about it, all of my short stories, both published and unpublished, explore disquieting themes and paint bleak pictures of humans and their motivations.

All of this got me wondering: just what kind of monster am I?!

It’s probably common for people to assume that writers match their writing. Ernest Hemingway, whose books center on dashing, macho men battling their inner demons, was a dashing, macho man, battling inner demons. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a Gatsby-like party boy. When asked where his dark inspirations stemmed from, Stephen King had this answer: “People think I must be a strange person. This is not correct. I have the heart of a small boy. It’s in a jar on my desk.” (For the record, King isn’t quite the sicko his books would make him appear, but he was a raging alcoholic for decades, and even now he’s known for being quirky and elusive).

In my case, though, the darkness of my imaginary worlds doesn’t match up with my personality. I’m generally jolly and usually upbeat. I like wiener dog races and the color yellow and pictures of newborn babies wearing giant hair bows. My childhood had the usual share of minor traumas, but I grew up surrounded by loving family members. So why, when I sit down at a computer, does blood and fire pour out of my fingertips?

My fellow mystery writer and good friend, Tracee DeHahn, and I were talking about this phenomenon recently. She, too, is a uniformly upbeat person who comes from a stable background. We’re both relatively new to the world of mystery writing and have been wowed by the kindness and affability of the mystery authors we meet. Seriously, Malice Domestic, the annual gathering of writers who spend their days mentally murdering people, is filled with folks who are, on the whole, kinder than your average church bake sale committee (though, it has to be said, much, much raunchier).

My theory is that for many writers, the page is a safe place to process negative emotions. For me at least, fiction is like an external hard drive to store my darkness. Even cheerful people like me have heaps and heaps of bad thoughts that need to find expression.

Maybe I particularly like to visit those dark places in short fiction because it seems to allow me just enough time to explore those themes without absorbing them. Short fiction is a long weekend in the Land of Id — the raw, exposed, and sometimes downright yucky swamp in my emotional landscape. Visiting Id-Land allows me to appreciate life back at my emotional dwelling place: Giant Baby Bow Town.

 

Underneath it all

I’ve been tinkering with a new story lately and I was reminded of a phrase that’s always driven me batty: s/he is “a good person underneath it all.”

The story I’m writing is written from first person point of view, a perspective I haven’t used in awhile. Being inside your character’s head can allow a little more scope for introspection and give space for your character to explain his or her actions to the reader. As I was creating my protagonist, it struck me just how unlike real life that is. What a luxury to be able to do something crappy and then be able to spend a few paragraphs explaining your underlying motivations, limitations, and experiences!

As a society, we rarely afford one another this luxury. Say some NASCAR wannabe cuts me off on the highway and causes me to swerve. Perhaps I’m feeling generous enough to sketch out an appropriate justification and backstory for her — maybe she was rushing to her child’s school because she got a call from the nurse? maybe she’s a doctor who’s just been called in to consult on a critical patient?

But nine times out of ten, I’m going to flip that crazy driver the bird, mentally or verbally. (Sorry, kids in the backseat. Don’t repeat what Mommy just said at daycare.) Maybe then the cycle of judgement continues. Another driver who missed seeing the near-accident happens to drive past my car a moment later. They’ll see me swerve, and then pass me as I’m red-faced and screaming, with my wide-eyed kiddos in the backseat, trying to process the colorful vocabulary they just learned.  Neither crazy NASCAR driver nor I will have a chance to hand out explanatory pamphlets to justify our actions.

What I’m getting at is that life is basically one big series of stories written in third-person limited point of view. For the most part, your character (Let’s call her You) is essentially the sum of You’s actions.

The phrase “good person underneath it all” is often rolled out as a sad platitude by kindly former neighbors or classmates after someone does something heinous. It’s like an atomic “bless your heart” — a way of reminding ourselves that even villains have backstories. The underneath it all idea represents a perennial strain of moral philosophy. Just think of the schism between Catholics and Protestants over whether a soul can get to Heaven by faith alone, or whether good works are also needed. Even though I was raised Baptist, I always found myself on #TeamCatholic for this one. It seemed extraordinarily unfair that some absolute stinker who repented in his very last breath would have access to the same harp-strumming, blissful afterlife as, say, Mister Rogers.

Even though I have some definite ideas about this, even I have to admit that my Actions = Character argument has some limitations. Most of the time, bad actions are made more likely by circumstances. It’s easier to be generous if you’re not starving. It’s pretty damn hard to give love if you’ve never received it. I also have to find a moral space for things like mental and physical illness. If a bipolar friend flakes on me because she’s going through a manic episode, that doesn’t make me think she’s a fundamentally bad person.

Still, I maintain that the best path is to recognize that our interior lives are, a majority of the time, inaccessible to our fellow humans. So even if we have Darth Vader-worthy origin stories to explain how we went over to the Dark Side, as much as this dumb old world will allow, let’s try to stay on the sunny side. Smile. Give a compliment. Give a hug. Unless you carry around a stack of explanatory pamphlets, you’re stuck as a third person kind of person.