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 Spring 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

 

Facebook, Undead Russians, and the Tying of Loose Threads

Terrance Winter, a writer for The Sopranos, has a ready answer when asked about the most frequent fan question he fields — hands down, it’s about the episode with the missing Russian. What happened to the Russian?!

If you’ve seen the series, you know what I’m talking about. The episode, called Pine Barrens, features a botched execution of a Russian thug and his subsequent mysterious disappearance into the frozen wilderness of New Jersey. Neither the Russian nor his would-be corpse makes any other appearance in the series, and the mystery surrounding his whereabouts is never solved. It drives people bananas. Series creator David Chase had this to say about the episode:

This is what Hollywood has done to America. Do you have to have closure on every little thing? Isn’t there any mystery in the world? It’s a murky world out there. It’s a murky life these guys lead. [1]

Part of me loves this mystery. But that part is infinitesimally tiny compared to the part of me that feels that the NOT KNOWING is an unscratchable itch that will preoccupy my psyche until kingdom come.

I had reason to revisit my hatred for loose threads recently because I experienced the unparalleled joy of tying off a thread that has been dangling for the better part of thirty years. When I was in fifth grade, my best friend moved away. This was back when long distance phone calls were expensive and when the internet was still only a gleam in Al Gore’s eye. My friend and I exchanged letters for a few months, but quickly lost touch. I’ve often wondered about her over the years, but web stalking never turned up any clues to her whereabouts. Recently, though, I happened upon her mother’s Facebook page, which led me back to her. Thanks, Evil, Personal-Data-Stealing Corporation! My childhood friend is happily married, owns a powerboat, and seemed only mildly disturbed by my decades-long obsession with finding her.

As a writer, I am torn by the same impulse that led Chase and Winter to craft a messy ending for the Pine Barrens episode. I’ve written before about the unanswered questions in the Lindsay Harding series. My latest book will (I hope) be the start of a new middle-grade adventure series set in Scotland, and my initial draft left many questions unanswered. Life, after all, is a tangled ball of loose threads that dwarfs the biggest twine balls in Kansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Missouri. You hear that, Midwestern states? Your balls are not as big as you think.

I’m also a reader, though. With the help of a kindly literary agent, I realized that the initial ending I wrote was unsatisfactory, especially for a middle-grade audience. Readers needed more answers than I had given. As I polish this new draft, I’m trying to strike the right balance of resolution and continuing mystery. It turns out that resolution is as easy as killing a Russian in the Pine Barrens, which is to say not very easy at all. Wish me luck!

So are you still acting?

I heart this post. It’s true for anyone who works in a creative profession, but also true for anyone who’s just trying to live their life without getting weighed down by someone else’s idea of what they should be doing.

Quarantine Chronicles

Just don’t say it.  Ever.  Not to me or any of my peers.  We’re damaged enough by whatever hole in our personality  drove us to hop on this crazy circus train to begin with, so please don’t ask.   Or if you do, be prepared for an answer that could come out with a mix of venom or self-pity; depending on the status of our relationship with what we do is that day.  You see, the average Creative spends ninety percent of their life looking for work, and the other ten percent bitching about getting the job they now feel they can’t complain about.  I recall a friend who was active in union politics a while back describe that we had both had decent years – made 18,000 or so in income as an actor and because of that 18,000 grand – were in the top like three percent of our…

View original post 1,269 more words

I’m in love with a weird, evil Yoda creature

I’ve been pretty busy these last few weeks, bringing forth the miracle of life in all its wriggling, pooping, chubby-cheeked glory. Our latest addition, a boy, was born in early June and has kept us on a pretty short leash since then. I’ve been a little hesitant to post here, even when I’ve had the odd spare minute (and spare minutes are very odd these days), because my command of the English language seems to have disappeared along with my nights of unbroken sleep. The other day, for example, I found myself writing “yous” when I meant to write “use.” I guess sleep-deprived Mindy is a wise guy from New Jersey.

Can I share a secret? I really don’t like having a newborn baby. I was first struck by the unusual nature of this feeling when we were still in the hospital. At the birthing center where I delivered, they fit newborns with a little electronic ankle bracelet — the baby version of those plastic tag alarms they put on leather handbags to keep shoplifters from swiping them. I’ve heard stories, and I know there are desperate people out there who have tried to steal babies. Sure, babies are cute when they can sit up and gurgle adoringly at their caregivers. And who doesn’t love a cuddle with a cherub-faced two-year-old who has just awakened from a 12-hour nighttime snooze? By all means, covet one of those. But to want to steal a NEWBORN? Newborns are wrinkly little Yoda-looking blobs who fuss constantly and are essentially super glued to your boob six or seven hours a day. They make creepy little hand gestures and give suspicious sideways glances like they’re villains in a silent film. They use those tiny, powerful lungs to let you know how pissed off they every time they have to fart.

Even though objectively no one should want to endure a hellacious pregnancy, an excruciating delivery, and then several months of Guantanamo-style torture at the hands of a tiny tyrant, somehow there are still seven billion of us on the planet. How to explain this? For me, the magic is encoded in our DNA. Coiled in every cell in our bodies, we have about two meters of DNA strands. Six feet of the stuff! In every cell. The DNA to build a complete human evolved very slowly over millions of years and gosh darn it, it wants to live on. So in those impossibly thin, tightly packed DNA strands, there are adaptations that make us delight in the weird little faces of our babies. And that let loose a hormonal barrage that bonds mother and child. And a thousand other little bits of code unfold to ensure that however we may objectively feel about newborns, we do our darnedest to keep them alive, thriving, and happy. Perhaps the most important of these adaptations is the one that makes us forget all the (very) bad parts and fall madly, irrevocably in love with our children.

Must dash. The evil overlord, um, I mean sweet little baby needs to be super glued to my boob again.

Think of it as a murder time machine.

If you follow my blog, you’ll already know that work on book four of the Mount Moriah Mystery series ground to a halt earlier this year when I spent the better part of four months vomiting. I’ve recovered from BarfFest 2016, but still haven’t made as much headway as I’d like on the latest Lindsay Harding adventure.

malice_anthology_coverI haven’t been entirely unproductive this year, though. In addition to incubating my fetus, I also managed to publish a short story in the brand spankin’ new Malice Domestic Anthology, Mystery Most Historical. Malice Domestic is the world’s premier cozy and traditional mystery fan conference. It’s a mystery geek’s paradise. Think Disney World, only with fewer costumed princesses and more alcohol and murder. This year, there were well over 100 authors attending, all of whom write in the traditional mystery genre–i.e. no excessive sex or violence and typically involving relatable protagonists and “puzzle” type mysteries with clues. For fans, it’s a great chance to mingle with your favorite authors and stock up on all things mystery.

I was honored to have my story, “The Blackness Before Me,” not only selected for this year’s volume, but also chosen as the lead story for the whole collection.  I’m the lead-off batter, y’all! All the stories in the collection are set prior to 1950, and all of them prove that murder and mayhem are by no means modern phenomena. My story rides the murder time machine back to nineteenth-century South Africa, where a naive governess finds herself caught up in an intricate murder plot. The collection includes stories by well-known authors like Charles Todd and Catriona McPherson in addition to works by humbler folks like me.

That girl is strange, no question.

If you are a woman of a certain age or the parent of a such a woman, no doubt the title of this post immediately got you humming the opening number from Disney’s 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast. My family owned that tape on VHS; in fact, I think it’s probably still somewhere in my parents’ basement. Even though my sisters and I must have spent the better part of our childhood and adolescent years watching it, I hadn’t thought about it again until recently. Last week, my ten-year-old daughter went to see the new live-action version of the film and fell every bit as in love with it as I did with the original.

Revisiting this touchstone of my childhood got me thinking. The movies both open with the same set up — intellectual misfit Belle chafing (in song!) against the quotidian conformity of her fellow townsfolk. The divergence manifests itself in lyrics like this:

Baker: Good Morning, Belle!
Belle: Good morning, Monsieur.
Baker: And where are you off to, today?
Belle: The bookshop. I just finished the most wonderful story, about a beanstalk and an ogre and a –
Baker: That’s nice. Marie! The baguettes! Hurry up!
As a bookish kid, I was 100% Team Belle. Her love of literature clearly made her superior to oafish townspeople like the Baker, and especially to that Philistine-in-Chief, Gaston.
Watching the same thing play out from the perspective of adult experience, though, I had a slightly different take. When I look at this same scene now, here’s what I see:
Baker (being polite): How’s it going, Belle?
Belle: Let me start to tell you the really long, convoluted plot of a fairy tale I just read…
Baker (realizing that a grown woman is about to fill his entire morning with a painstaking, blow-by-blow summary of a children’s book she’s irrationally excited about): Oh, hey, Belle. Um, that’s cool. I just realized that I’m super busy with these baguettes, though. Later!
Belle, like so many Disney heroines, is a child trapped in a woman’s body. Sure, we all love characters with child-like exuberance. That’s why the internet gets such a kick out of things like this gnarly old dude tearing up the skate park. But this is especially true for female characters. Think of an iconic, lovable female character from a book or movie. Now ask yourself — is that woman fully an adult? I can think of male characters who manage to be magnetic, while still maintaining their dignity. You wouldn’t see Aragorn from Lord of the Rings breathlessly wasting someone’s time with a dizzy recounting of a book he just read. And Atticus Finch doesn’t go around befriending birds and flowers à la Snow White. Mr. Darcy may be uptight and arrogant, but he’s a compelling adult. James Bond, despite his Jack-the-lad demeanor, exudes manliness.
I can’t, however, think of a single adult female character who fully embodies an adult role while still remaining lovable. This is true, I admit, even of my own Lindsay Harding character. She’s trying to be a grown-up, but she’s got a long way to go. Remove the fun from a fictional heroine, and you’re left with a stick-in-the-mud. Or, worse, a bitch. Even the fact that female characters, like Belle in the song lyrics above, are often called girls is telling. Lots of iconic female characters actually are girls or at least very young women, from Anne Shirley to Alice in Wonderland to Katniss Everdeen. Am I wrong about this? I sure hope so. If you have a counter-example, leave it in the comments section.

What a North Korean assassination can tell us about our souls

If you’ve been following the news the past few weeks, you may have come across a series of stories describing the bizarre assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the exiled older brother of North Korea’s secretive dictator, Kim Jong Un. This type of thing–the flagrant murder of a political enemy by state-sponsored killers–is reassuringly rare. And when it does occasionally happen, as when Kremlin-backed murderers poisoned former KGB operative Alexander Litvinenko in a London restaurant, the killers are usually careful to cover their tracks, making it nearly impossible to prove that the hit was orchestrated by a government. I recently heard a radio commentator discussing why such killings aren’t more common, and why governments go to such lengths to hide their crimes. After all, if you’re a nefarious dictator, killing your enemies seems like a pretty straightforward way of dealing with dissent. There are a variety of international laws and treaties that explicitly prevent this type of behavior, especially when it occurs on foreign soil.

You may be wondering why this international intrigue piqued my interest, and if I’m planning to abandon the world of cozy crime and make an abrupt shift to writing spy thrillers set in the world of bad haircuts and imported cheese. Luckily for the reading public, the answer is no. Rather, my interest comes down to the word the commentator used: “prevent.” As in these laws prevent this type of behavior. It got me pondering the age-old question of inherent evil. This is Philosophy 101, Hobbes vs. Locke. If laws weren’t around to prevent, curtail, strongly discourage, etc. us from being horrible and violent, would the world just be one big Lord of the Flies-style foray into the darkest cesspools of the human soul?

I’m not talking here about laws that prevent jaywalking, insider trading, and other selfish or thoughtless acts. I’m thinking specifically of killing. Setting aside the small number of people who are utterly detached from reality and social norms, those who are, say, deranged by severe mental illness, caught up in a war, or scarred by childhood abuse, is it true that the fear of legal punishment is what prevents us from committing violent crimes? I’ve thought about this quite a bit as I’ve invented characters whose compelling motivations and character flaws combine to cause them to commit or attempt to take another person’s life.

My feeling is that most basic laws against violence weren’t codified to try to scare people into reining in a natural propensity toward murdering other people. Instead, I see laws as arising from the inherent belief that 99% of the world’s population already shares–killing people isn’t something most of us would even want to do, even if we were assured that we would never be punished. Unless a very specific set of circumstances and personalities are in play, killing doesn’t happen. Sure, I’ve been angry enough to want someone dead. Just the other day, someone (obviously deserving of death) bought the last package of whole grain waffles right out from under me. But if you actually put a knife in my hand and said, “Go for it. No questions asked and no consequences…?” I, along with most people, would take a pass. Even many nefarious dictators would think twice.