Little kids are pretty trippy

First, a confession. If it were socially acceptable, I would play with dolls every day.

Yesterday, I took part in the enormously fun Ask Big Questions “Living Library” event hosted by Virginia Tech and the Blacksburg Library. Each invited presenter represented a job the attendees (preschool and elementary school aged kids) might be interested in learning more about. The llama farmer, who’d brought an actual llama along with her, was tough to compete with, but I still got an enthusiastic crowd of pint-sized storytellers visiting my table.

My exhibit focused on writing and storytelling. Attendees could create their own stories using the characters including a small Barbie, a wizard puppet, a plastic donkey, a squishy frog, a creature made of shells, a Minion doll, and others. I also provided settings in the form of pictures of tropical islands, palaces, dark forests, etc. I’d created some ready-made story prompts, thinking some kids might be stuck for plot ideas, but the kiddos sure didn’t need those! They came up with dozens awesome stories all their own. One little girl even pulled out a purse full of Disney princess dolls and added them to the story. After all, what story couldn’t benefit from a purseful of princesses?

Making up stories with kids is a little like dropping acid or listening to one of this year’s presidential debates. If you just sit back and don’t think too much, the spectacle can be pretty amazing. The stories zigged and zagged in ways I never could’ve predicted. One minute, the wizard character was nice, teaching a class full of wannabe wizards how to fly. Another kid would take over the story and suddenly the wizard would be trapping the plastic donkey in a cave above a secret lagoon, trying to destroy all her kindness with his evil spells.

Here are a few of my favorite story lines:

Not all the kids who attended were able to read and write yet, but those who could were invited to write little mini stories to share with the world via my blog.

Today I am going to a birthday party!

The makings of a great adventure story, for sure. 🙂

It started in China. When I was a little girl when one day I got to go on the plane.

Intriguing, huh? Writing was still pretty new to this little one, but she clearly has a knack for writing a compelling hook.

When I grow up I want to be a zookeeper.

Zoos are great settings for stories. And given how interested this little person was in the animal characters, I’m sure zookeeping is a solid career choice.

One day, I was coming home from school when… OH! I forgot to introduce myself! I’m Shell Dog and I live on a tropical island. Well, back to the story.

I was coming home from school when a dozen six-foot tall Minions, led by Kevin, came up to me wearing bikinis.

“Do you want to go swimming with us?” asked Kevin.

“What the heck.” I said.

Eventually I decided to go swimming with them, and they were super nice. After that, I went swimming with them pretty much every day.

A fun story from one of the slightly older kids, inspired by the characters and settings I’d brought. I didn’t have to correct the punctuation or spelling at all. She even got the hyphen right! An English professor in the making?

Dingbatters and Duck Dialect

Agatha Christie was a shy person. Clever as her mysteries were, she felt that, in real life, her wittiest remarks and most amusing observations always came to her too late–when she was alone at home or long after she’d left a dinner party. Part of the reason she loved to write was that she could use these slightly-too-late bits of dialogue for her characters. I, too, love to take a phrase that didn’t come out quite right when I said it, polish it until it gleams, and then put it into a story. Or, better yet, to steal a great turn of phrase I overhear and put it into the mouth of one of my characters. Writers are a bit like magpies, always on the lookout for shiny objects to add to our collections.

A great joy of writing the Lindsay Harding series is that the books are set in different locales around North Carolina. This has allowed me to play with not just dialogue, but with dialects. This was especially true of the second book in the series, A Death in Duck, which opened my eyes, or, more appropriately, my ears to the High Tide/Hoi Toid accent of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

To write dialect is to walk a fine line between authenticity and reader comprehension. For example, it may be authentic, but the dialogue in James Joyce’s writing has baffled readers for almost a century.

“That made him mad, and he said, liter’ry tone be durned.”

“Thunderation! Keep the durned millingtary step.”

Say what?! I’ve never been able to make it through Joyce’s classic Ulysses because the whole book is populated with incomprehensible jargon and phonetically-rendered accents.

My solution for the native ‘Banker characters in my book is to sprinkle in the occasional regional word–e.g. “dingbatter” to mean “outsider,” “whomperjawed” instead of “crooked”–to give the reader an authentic sense of place. And when the accent is first introduced, I explained the sounds this way:

“Well, you must be Little Miss Lindsay, all grown up,” he began. “I remember seeing you around when you was just a tiny, little thing. Have to say, you got your mama’s good looks. I’d’ve almost reckoned that that was a young Sarabelle Harding sitting there by the fire.”

Even after many decades of living in Duck, Butterworth’s High Tide brogue hadn’t been altered in the slightest. For him, “fire” was “foyer” and “sitting there” was a single word— “settinehr.”

I’m not saying I’m a better writer than Joyce, but if you’re looking for a book to take on your Outer Banks vacation and read on the beach while sipping a cold beer, might I humbly suggest you choose A Death in Duck over Ulysses?

If you’ve never heard the unique Hoi Toid accent, take a listen:

Hoi Toider Accent

Far out, huh?

Mount Moriah in Primetime

When I write, I often think of chapters in terms of “scenes.” I usually see all the action play out in my mind’s eye before a single pixel appears on screen. Leander lurking in the shadows watching Lindsay, Lindsay beating her ex over the head with a get-well-soon bouquet, Geneva digging through her giant handbag–all scenes I can picture as clearly as the room I’m sitting in.

When a number of readers of the Mount Moriah books began suggesting that they’d like to see the books turned into movies or a TV show, I was delighted. If other people could “see” the books, that meant that not only was I not the only one with a disturbingly overactive imagination, but that, for those readers, I’d succeeded in creating vivid and memorable characters and situations. Beyond that satisfaction, I didn’t give the idea of adapting the series much thought. My books are published by a tiny press, and although they sell steadily, I’m not seeing Gone Girl royalties yet. For books like mine, Hollywood doesn’t usually come a’ callin’.

Praying woman_Depositphotos_43517345_s-2015But fellow writer Nicole Loughan told me that Amazon has recently developed a way for writers to drop a line to Hollywood. Amazon Studios sifts through submitted scripts and videos, allowing actors, directors, writers, and producers to collaborate to tell stories. For the lucky few, they might buy the movie or TV rights. I decided to take a shot at adapting the Mount Moriah world as a small screen sitcom. I’ve re-imagined the story and characters minus murder, plus even more zany slapstick, in a series I’m calling Little South of Heaven. I hope you’ll check out the pilot episode, which you can read and rate here: (Click on the PDF link below the image). Please leave a comment or two. The interface is flexible and designed so that it’s easy to update and change the pitch and the script and to add new material. I’d love to incorporate your ideas and suggestions into the small-screen version of Lindsay Harding’s story and here your thoughts on my first attempt at screenwriting!

Let’s laugh our way toward not being jerks

I’m in a coffee shop right now. There are probably 30 people in here, all of us getting amped up on caffeine and typing furiously on our device of choice. I can safely make a few assumptions–we’re probably all fairly well off, since we can afford laptops and lattes. Most of these folks are probably students or academics, since we’re about 20 yards from the edge of a college campus. Everyone seems to be speaking English with an American accent, so we’re all probably Americans. In other words, most of the people here, and in most of the places where I spend my time, are a lot like me. Is that true for you, too? You go to church–people there probably share your beliefs, more or less. Your kid’s school? Probably a lot of the kids there look like your kid.

Circling in the tight little orbits most of us move in, its easy to forget that we live in a huge world, full of incredible diversity. It’s easy to feel like the struggles and stories of “other people” don’t affect us that much, or to develop knee-jerk reactions to “those people.”

The guy at the table next to me just told a hilarious story about a disastrously-executed birthday surprise. (Yes, I eavesdrop. It’s a professional necessity). My table neighbor had decided to surprise his significant other with a puppy. They’d talked about getting a dog for more than a year. Their flexible work schedules would make it fairly easy to care for a dog. They’d even looked together on PetFinder. What could go wrong?

He’d put the puppy in their bedroom for a few minutes, planning to release it when the time was right. When he finally opened the door at the TA-DA! moment, the puppy had already chewed up one of his significant other’s favorite shoes and eaten part of the TV remote control. They couldn’t find the batteries, and, worried the puppy had swallowed them, they had to cancel their fancy dinner reservation and rush the dog to the emergency vet. They spent the birthday night, and $600, in the doggy ER.

That’s the kind of story that anyone who’s ever had a puppy, or a significant other, or a bad birthday can relate to. Does it make the story less funny or relatable if I tell you that the storyteller’s significant other was a man? Would it matter if the storyteller was Muslim? Or Mongolian? Or a gay, Mongolian, Muslim? I hope not. Funny is a pretty universal language.

That’s why I was so heartened to read that science backs me up on this. Exposure to groups unlike ourselves through light, humorous situations can make a lasting, positive impression, especially if you’ve had limited exposure to a particular group in the past.

I hope my books can make little changes like that. Don’t know many small-town Southerners? Never met a mixed-race, gay Christian couple with a three-legged cat? Well, I hope my book allow readers to laugh at and with these people, so that maybe next time we pass beyond our tight orbits, all of our planets will align.

Murder in Mount Moriah – Mindy Quigley – Holly Adams

I was a little worried when I read the first sentence of this blog post, but actually, it’s an awesome review of the Mount Moriah audiobook! Book two, also narrated by the amazing Holly Adams, is out now.

Source: Murder in Mount Moriah – Mindy Quigley – Holly Adams

Mount Moriah Box Set and Death in Duck Audiobook

Just in time to fill your virtual Christmas stockings, critically-acclaimed actress Holly Adams is back narrating A Death in Duck, book two in the Mount Moriah series. Her warm, vibrant characterizations take Lindsay Harding on an adventure to the Outer Banks, where murder muddles her friend Anna’s carefully-planned Christmastime beach wedding. The quirky characters, zany antics, and terrifying tension come alive in Adams’ word-perfect rendition.

Virtual stocking still note quite full? Stuff it to overflowing with a bumper box set of all three Mount Moriah mysteries! Download all three books in the Reverend Lindsay Harding series for only $6.99.

Giving rather than receiving more your thing? Remember that I’m always grateful to receive your reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

CLICK TO BUY Mount Moriah Mysteries Box Set
Mount Moriah Mysteries Box Set
A Death in Duck is now an audiobook
A Death in Duck is now an audiobook



The Four Questions

I’ll be reading this short story this afternoon at the Blacksburg Library, but for those who can’t make the reading, and who don’t have Montgomery County local access TV, and who can’t wait for it to be posted on the New River Valley Voices YouTube channel, here ’tis. A little more serious than my usual fare. Let me know what you think!

The news came on the day of the Passover Seder.

“Sorry, darling, but your father won’t be joining us,” < my mother said, planting a kiss on my cheek as I stepped into the hallway. A vodka martini dangled from her hand like a vestigial appendage. “He’s chosen to pass the holiday with Karen or Corinna or whatever this one’s name is. But on the upside, Tess has made Gefilte fish from scratch. Nothing like soggy fish balls to soothe the sting of betrayal, eh?” She arched a wry eyebrow.

As if on cue, my little sister, Tess, flew down the stairs. “Pretty wild, huh? We’re taking bets on whether this one will be older than me.”

Tess, obese, myopic, lovable, neurotic Tess, possessed little more than a half-completed Master’s Degree in Film Studies from UC-San Diego _ and myriad pollen allergies, but she’d recently decided to become an organic chicken farmer. She and her boyfriend, who’d inherited money, but not business acumen, from his father, had put in an offer on a 70-acre parcel in rural Mississippi, complete with coops for 35,000 laying hens. Their business plan was liberally peppered with phrases like “radical self-reliance” and included a strategy to feed the chickens on a diet rich in seaweed. To my knowledge, Tess has never touched a live chicken. We indulge her, of course. < Families are supportive. That’s what families do. Families indulge things.

But Tess is the youngest, and there are still no grandchildren, so even if she goes around spouting agricultural pronouncements like a poultry-specific version of the Oracle of Delphi, the finding of the hidden afikomen and the recitation of the Four Questions fall to her.

My older sisters, the twins, took the news about my father like cosmopolitan sophisticates, laughingly wondering how long it would be before Dad would announce that we had a new little brother or sister. They took their cues from our mother. For her, the zap of a joke could staunch the blood pouring from any wound, and a quick-witted retort could dispel unpleasantness with the swiftness of a magician’s wand. My mother’s eyes smiled along with the twins, but her mouth was sewn up into a tight button.

I alone, it seemed, was astonished by my father’s absence. To me, it seemed like some trick of the light that would be revealed as an optical illusion. “Ta-da!” someone would spring from the shadows and shout. “He was here all the time!” Instead, there was an empty chair next to Tess who was enthusiastically belting Mah Nishtanah, the Four Questions, like she was trying to stage a Hebrew rendition of Oklahoma!Ma nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot?” What is different, this night, from all other nights?


I got through dinner, even the homemade Gefilte fish, but after we got home, my husband found me in a sobbing heap, splayed next to the tub like an unmolded Jell-O.

“Come on, babe,” he consoled, bent low, hand on my back. “They’ve always been miserable. They were doomed from the start, like Romeo and Juliet, only without the stabbings or the sonnets or the suicides. Or the romance. Okay, not like Shakespeare, but you know what I mean.”

I shook my head. I knew he was trying to cheer me up, but I couldn’t even muster a smile. Fran and Benjamin Aaronson of Evanston, Illinois, passing their Seders separately for the first time in 33 years.

Puffy-faced and red-eyed, I dragged a toothbrush back and forth in my mouth, thinking of my own Four Questions.

Had my parents always been miserable? Probably. When they fought, the insults they hurled had a seemingly inexhaustible power supply, a nuclear arsenal, mutually-assured destruction. But their banter fed on the same fuel, igniting explosions of laughter that reduced them to tears and shook the very walls of our house.

Was my mother to blame at all? Most likely. Her ruthlessness as a public prosecutor was second only to her ruthlessness toward her liver, which she’d spent her life doing her best to pickle. And although my father could give every bit as good as he got, no doubt he could be forgiven for seeking out eyes that could look upon him without that unfocused glassiness.

And to what could I ascribe my father’s philandering, which was stitched into the very binding of their marriage? It wasn’t a midlife crisis—Nana Ruth once told me that it had always been this way, even when they were dating. And it had always seemed to me like a game he and my mother were playing together. Sure, the joke was sick, but I thought she was in on it.

As I climbed into bed next to my sleeping husband, it was a fourth question that planted itself in my mind and took root like a fast-spreading bamboo. Whatever they’d had, hadn’t it always been the same? For 33 years. Through four daughters. Through the death of my only brother, little Evan, the wispy candle flame of his life snuffed out before he even took his first breath. Through my father’s prostate cancer scare, hadn’t she tended him during the long months of treatment and recovery? Through my mother’s fear of flying, so paralyzing that when my Nana Ruth was dying, and mother had one of her panic attacks in the departure terminal at O’Hare, hadn’t he driven her through the night and day all the way down to Miami—26 hours—so she could be with her mother in the final hours? Hadn’t what they had been the same through my wedding the previous summer, when they had stood next to the chuppah, smiling and holding hands with habitual ease as Jason and I took our vows.

What is different, this night, from all other nights? I rolled the question around in my mind, trying to recall the moment when everything transformed. Some words, maybe? An insult too far? A joke that fell flat? If I could only find out what had changed things, I could use that knowledge to dig a firebreak around my own marriage. To keep the spark from catching, and burning my life to the ground.

How to Write a Really Terrible Mystery

On October 28th, I’ll be giving a talk at the Blacksburg, VA Public Library. “How to Write a Really Terrible Mystery (and HowHow to Write a Really Terrible Mystery Poster Not To)” will feature tips from my alter ego, Mandy Quagley. Below is a little sneak peek at the kind of colossally unhelpful advice Mandy will give to mystery readers and would-be mystery writers.

There will be lots of audience participation, and lots more terribly hilarious writing samples. Hope to see you there!


Instead of laying cunning clues that lead your reader little by little toward the finale, withhold all information. I mean, this is a mystery, people! Be mysterious. You don’t want to give anything away. So at the end, dump all the information on your reader like a trash collector tipping his load into a fetid landfill.

Take one or more chapters right at the end to reveal in excruciating detail who committed all the murders and how they did it. Ideally, they should do this in one really, really long monologue while your protagonist is tied to a chair or something, but I know this isn’t always possible. A good rule of thumb is that this exposition should recap your entire book.

Here’s a quick example from The Weiner Schnitzel Conundrum by Mandy Quagley:

“Remember that jar of poisoned pickles in the first chapter?” Baron Otto Von Killerstein said, stroking his menacing goatee. “Well, they weren’t poisoned after all!  That character just had a heart attack, you fool! But actually that gave me the idea to poison those pickles in Chapter Five. The ones the other character ate.”

“You mean Count Nebulous Throckmorton died from eating poisoned pickles?” Juliette asked, her blonde curls quivering with fear.

Nine, he’s the one who got bitten by the snake. Don’t you remember? I just told you about the snake I trained specially to be attracted to the scent of mango chutney, and then I gave Count Throckmorton the mango chutney scented cologne?”

“Oh, oui. So it was Professor Leopold von Fingerschweitzen who ate the poisoned pickles.”

Nine! Think about it. Chapter Five? The one with the redhead and the hunchback?”

“Wait, you mean you and Bavaria Bumbersnickle were working together this whole time?” Juliette asked, her ample bosom jiggling with anxiety.

Baron Von Killerstein pulled back the cleverly fitted mask that covered his face. “I am Bavaria Bumbersnickle!”

You will never find closure

The vet school where I work when I’m not writing the Mount Moriah Mysteries runs a Pet Loss Hotline, and I sometimes volunteer there. Many of the callers use the hotline to support them through the acute, initial phases of grief. The sympathetic ear we provide can be particularly helpful if the pet’s death has been traumatic or sudden, or if the owner’s friends, coworkers, and family are the kind of people who think they’re being helpful when they offer suggestions like, “Let’s go to the Humane Society this weekend and pick out another cat for you.”**

**Note to those inclined to give such advice — For many people, their pets mean as much to them as your human relatives mean to you. So unless you’d feel comforted by someone saying, “Let’s run down to the assisted living facility this weekend and pick you out a new grandma,” maybe keep that particular bit of advice to yourself.

Grandma shopping aside, there’s an aspect of these calls that reminded me of some of the struggles the protagonist of my Mount Moriah mysteries, Lindsay Harding, has faced. Many of the callers are haunted–often for months or even years after their pet’s passing–by unanswered questions. “Did I euthanize Fluffy too soon? Would the cancer really have killed her, or should I have tried another round of chemo?” “What did Max actually die of? Was it really unavoidable, or did my vet just make a mistake and cover it up?” A variation on these calls comes when the pet has simply gone missing. “Where is Bailey? Is he happily living with a new family, or was he hit by a car and killed?” In all these cases, the callers’ brains drive them around the same rutted track, night after night.

My books, too, contain some unresolved mysteries. I don’t want to be accused of dropping spoilers of my own work, so suffice it to say that book two, A Death in Duck, ends with the fate of a major character unresolved. In book three, The Burnt Island Burial Ground, there is still no resolution, and the tension that comes with not knowing impacts many of Lindsay’s actions in that book. I have the luxury of being able to decide if, when, and how the mystery of that character’s fate will be resolved, but my poor protagonist still doesn’t know. One thing I’ve been at pains to have her avoid, though, is seeking closure.

As a hospital chaplain, Lindsay will have heard many variations on the themes of the Pet Loss Hotline’s callers. And I’m sure that she, like me, will have quickly picked up on the idea that it would be counterproductive to offer answers to the person’s questions. Saying something like, “I’m sure Bailey is fine. He was a smart dog, and I bet he’s living a really happy life on a farm,” may fool a five-year-old, but it’s certainly not going to help someone struggling with profound grief. (And if any of you have ever been told the “Bailey went to live on a farm” story as kids, you know how well that worked out!)

So how, then can we find closure when we are confronted by unanswerable questions? Well, we can’t. And I think it’s silly to try.

That may sound harsh, but one thing that has seemed to help callers to the hotline is for me to suggest that humans are hardwired to try to fill in gaps. We are creatures of meaning. We may complain that it’s unrealistic when our favorite TV series ends with a series of perfect weddings and happily-ever-afters, but we roar in agony when they end in cliffhangers, à la The Sopranos. Unanswered questions sit on our brains like itchy scabs, refusing to heal, demanding our attention.

So if we accept that such rumination is normal, what are we to do about it? My belief, which I’ve planted in Lindsay’s head, is to focus on living. Little by little, allow yourself to smile, breathe, and love again. Congratulate yourself when you do. When the unanswered questions start to poke their little fingers into our thoughts, remind yourself that they will always be there, but that you don’t have to let them drag you back to that same mental rut right now. You can choose instead to use those thoughts as reminders to take an action that would honor your loved one or pet. Bailey loved walks? Well, when you start to think about his disappearance, might it honor him if you took a walk and remembered the good times you had? Thinking about Fluffy’s tumor? What is something that might channel that question into something life-affirming? Perhaps putting a dollar in a jar each time you think about her diagnosis, and then donating that money to an animal charity?

As for Lindsay, she struggles to put this into practice, but I’m confident that she’ll keep trying. Sometimes it’s good to know that you’re in control of someone else’s happy endings, because in real life, closure is elusive.

Two days, 9 hours, seven minutes, 24 seconds. Make that 23 seconds!

I’m not a savvy shopper. I love stumbling across a bargain as much as the next guy or gal, but in general I’m a person who goes out with a pretty fixed idea of what I want. If I’m in the market for an eight-roll box of Earth Rated® Poop Bags Dog Waste Bags, for example, I won’t be swayed because I see that the EZ Scoop brand comes in purple or that ordering a bulk box of 100 rolls would make them slightly cheaper. And, although I see the benefits of my mother-in-law’s willingness to drive to five different grocery stores to ensure she gets the best price on Saran Wrap, you won’t find me among the ranks of the Super Couponers. Not that I automatically buy the most expensive things. I’m devoted to CVS brand cosmetics and non-prescription medications. I would buy Food Lion’s generic sodas for the names alone. After all, who wouldn’t want to drink Mountain Lion or Dr. Perky? But for most purchases, I don’t care about price as much as I care about getting exactly what I want.

Food Lion sodas have the best names!

Maybe it’s laziness. Maybe it’s an affectation of a newly-bourgeois person who was raised without much money and who is trying desperately to appear to not have to scrimp. Maybe it’s a affectation of a control freak who is trying desperately to be in a position to demand exactly the products she wants. Whatever Freud or Marx or any other German-Austrian dude from the nineteenth-century would have to say about my shopping habits, the fact is you won’t find me shoulder-deep in bargain bins or sleeping in the Walmart parking lot in the run up to Black Friday.

But just because I don’t get a contact high from clipping a two-for-one coupon for Stainless Steel Chicken Beer Can Roaster Deluxes (with Recipe Guides!) doesn’t mean I don’t like to offer my loyal readers a good bargain now and again. In fact, lots of readers have told me they discovered the Mount Moriah Mystery series through a BookBub freebie deal or an Amazon 99-cent discount. So for the next two days, The Burnt Island Burial Ground, book three in the series, is only 99 cents on Kindle (regularly $4.99). If you do snag this bargain, please don’t forget to leave a review and tell everyone what a great deal you got!