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The day Col. Sanders met Lyndon Johnson’s dog

A reviewer once opined that, though she loved my books, she found the speaking in tongues scene in A Murder in Mount Moriah unbelievable. I laughingly noted that that scene, along with the notorious squirrel in the bathroom incident, are just about the only events in the book that are based on true incidents. This reader had happily swallowed the miles of yarn I’d spun and choked on the single nugget of truth.

I was reminded of this recently during a long road trip with a colleague, who I travel with several times a year. You can only talk shop for so long, so we often end up telling stories of our younger days to pass the tedious hours trekking back and forth along I-81. We were regaling one another with tales of pets our families had kept over the years–the bird who angrily demanded everyone in the house go to bed at 9pm, the filthy stray female dog who, because of an anatomically ambiguous mat of fur, was thought to be a boy and thus ended up with the name Bert.

My colleague then said, “Did I ever tell you about Blanco?”

If you’re a keen historian of Presidential dogs, you may know Fala, FDR’s faithful Scottie, who is permanently enshrined on the National Mall. fdr-memorial-falaAlso well known is Checkers, who Nixon famously refused to part with, even though accepting the dog as a gift may have violated campaign contribution laws. Less well remembered is LBJ’s collie, Blanco.

Lyndon Johnson was a beagle kind of guy, owning a pair of dogs named Him and Her and several of their puppies. Blanco joined the family in 1964, when he was given to President Johnson as a gift by a little girl in the Midwest. TBlancohough the Johnsons did their best to integrate him, Blanco was never happy at the White House. The constant noise and action involved in being a Presidential dog grated on the shy, high-strung collie. He didn’t get along with the Johnson’s band of beagles and didn’t like strangers. He ended up on tranquilizers to manage his anxiety. When the time came for the Johnsons to leave office, they started to talk about whether they should bring Blanco back to Texas with them or find a new home where he might be happier.

One of their Secret Service agents was part of these conversations and mentioned that he had a sister who lived on a 28-acre farm in Corbin, Kentucky with her doctor husband and their three children. The place would be perfect for a shy dog like Blanco. The arrangements were top secret, and Liz Carpenter, Johnson’s press secretary, declined to give the media any details. Citing the fact that several trees planted by Lady Bird Johnson had been dug up and filched, she said, “The dog is too likely to be stolen, so we decided not to say where he is.”

Despite these precautions, word spread quickly in tiny Corbin. Even before Blanco’s private charter plane alighted in the small airfield near Corbin, attempts at secrecy were undermined when Air Force One made a low, slow flight over the farm to check it out.

If the story so far isn’t wacky enough, here’s where reality becomes sur-reality. You see, besides being a favored retirement destination for Presidential dogs, Corbin, Kentucky has another claim to fame. It is the home of Colonel Harland Sanders, the man who founded Kentucky Fried Chicken. By the late 1960s, Sanders had moved away, but happened to be in town visiting. When he heard about Blanco from his chiropractor (who was friends with the doctor whose wife was the sister of the Secret Service agent who’d worked for LBJ), that LBJ’s dog was living nearby, he hightailed it out to the farm to visit with the vicariously-famous collie.

And that, my friends, is how Col. Sanders came to meet LBJ’s dog at my colleague’s childhood home. The story comes pre-packed with drama, humor, political intrigue, and small-town wholesomeness. It even has a happy ending, with Blanco living out his days in Corbin, happy, calm, and drug-free. Despite all that, I can never use this tale in a novel. Not even the most credulous reader would believe that reality could be so very much stranger than fiction.


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.

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.

All Creatures Great and Not So Great

Because I really, really love animals (and because the big Hollywood movie deal on the Lindsay Harding books has yet to materialize), I continue to work my part-time day job as Clinical Trials Coordinator at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Yesterday, things in the office got a little bit weird. Luckily, one of the Communications Office reporters was on hand to document events as they unfolded. Does this remind anybody else of the squirrel scene in A Murder in Mount Moriah? That, too, was based on a true story from when I worked at Duke University, and one of our graduate students had a close encounter at a urinal. Truth really is stranger than fiction.

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Of Fish and Bicycles

“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” – quote attributed to Gloria Steinem

To find out why I, a writer of light-hearted cozy mysteries, would begin a blog post using a quote from Gloria Steinem, a hard-hitting feminist intellectual and writer of much-lauded essays, pop over to the Jane Reads blog

Cozy mystery connoisseur and all-around great person, Jane, and her cat, Maxie, recently reviewed The Burnt Island Burial Ground on her blog. I’m pretty chuffed about being awarded a “five kitty” review, their highest honor. This is especially exciting since it’s the first time I’ve been reviewed by a non-human! This could open up a whole new readership for me, because I have yet to really break into the anthropomorphic cat market. 🙂

And speaking of fish, bicycles, and anthropomorphism, here’s a whimsically delightful video clip I found when I was trying to research who actually said the fish/bicycle quote for the first time:

Exclusive sample of The Burnt Island Burial Ground

Book3-updatedThe Burnt Island Burial Ground, book three in the Mount Moriah mystery series, is available for pre-order on Amazon! For the eReader-less among you, the paperback will go on sale in June.

I’ve posted an exclusive sample Use the password “burntisland” for a sneak preview of the first two chapters.

And now, I present: Brain-achingly terrible limericks.

Last week’s guest Cindy Blackburn‘s terrible poetry inspired me to share some of my own really appalling limericks. Beware, your brain may never forgive you.

by Mindy Quigley

This miniature donkey hates lollipops

This miniature donkey hates lollipops.
But for hay in the shape of a ball, he drops
what he’s doing
and commences to chewing.
And when he has finished it all, he stops.

This koala I know hates licorice.
He claims Twizzlers will make his throat ticklish.
But with leafy eucalyptus
he’ll cook a yummy hot dish.
It’s a recipe beloved by the Amish.

This egret isn’t fond of candy bars.

This spectacular egret hates candy bars.
But for mouse meat she’ll happily flap quite far.
To pick up a morsel,
I tell you of course she’ll
fly from here to Cote d’Ivoire.

This panda I met hates bubblegum.
But for bamboo over hilltops and fields she’ll come.
She’ll even fight leopards,
and she once bit some shepherds.
An addict I fear she’s become.

These animals all find it preferable
to eat their favorite comestibles.
So to stay on their good side,
it’s essential that you provide
food they will find acceptable.

If you managed to make it this far, congratulations! Please feel free to leave your reactions (or your own terrible poems) in the comments section.

Build your own adventure.

Probably every writer works in a slightly different way. I usually write my books in order, starting with Chapter 1. Other people write key scenes and then knit them together later. The same is true of plotting a novel. I really like Rachel Aaron’s advice about figuring out where you want to end up and then working backwards. That’s not, however, the way I usually work. It’s probably my training as a project manager, but I treat the plot and subplot like a complex, multifaceted project.

Anne Rowling Clinic, Edinburgh, Scotland

For example, when I was working on the Anne Rowling Clinic project at the University of Edinburgh, I had an overall goal: make sure that, at the end of a certain period of time, we went from having a giant hole in the ground to having a functioning research clinic. But we couldn’t just focus on that one outcome. In order to make hole=building, we needed to work with patient focus groups and architects to get the design right, provide continuous progress reporting to university higher-ups and the major donor, hire staff, create a website, design a logo, choose furniture and interior finishes, ensure IT integration with the hospital and the university, get National Health Service approval, work with relevant charities and patient advocacy groups and approximately eleventy jillion other tasks. Within each of the tasks I’ve listed, there is a mini project. For example, “hiring staff” actually means creating a job description, getting it graded and approved, forming a search committee, advertising the post, collecting resumes, vetting candidates, scheduling a day for interviews, inviting candidates for interviews, reserving an interview room, informing the successful candidate, doing the hiring paperwork. Rinse. Repeat.

Plot points
My handy dandy strips o’ plot for my next novel, The Burnt Island Burial Ground (summer 2015)

And so it is with writing a novel. To me, it doesn’t do much good to focus on your main story arc and forget about all the subplots. They are not filler, but will likely form about 90% of your book. And every significant plot point has an effect on the others. If your main character’s house gets broken into, she has to clean up the mess, get a locksmith, make repairs, live somewhere else for awhile, or whatever. She might become paranoid about locking her doors or not being left alone. Actions have consequences, both in real terms and in terms of character development.

I plot my novels using little fortune-cookie paper sized strips. I write down the significant plot points for each story that needs to be told. Then I lay them all out in order. Sometimes I realize that something that I’d planned to happen late in the novel actually needs to happen at the beginning, so that other, dependent plots can be set in motion. Many times, I realize that what sounded good inside my brain doesn’t make a damn bit of sense when I commit it to paper or look at it alongside everything else. I can often see where more detail is going to be needed to take characters from point A to point B-ook.

Best of all, as soon as I finish this paper plotting process, I type everything into a Word document with my book’s title. So usually, when I actually start writing, I already have a 2-3 page plot document to structure my work. It avoids the dreaded blinking-cursor-on-blank-page and instills me with confidence that I know what story I’m going to tell. All of this is, of course, highly mutable. But for me, just getting words down on paper really helps in avoiding writer’s block.

Okay, I must get back to writing now, because I’m still staring at a gaping hole in the ground where a book needs to be.

Giving away two copies of A Death in Duck

We’re nearly barfing with excitement!

Why the gastrointestinal upheaval, you ask? Well, my dear friend, A Death in Duck, Book Two in the Reverend Lindsay Harding Series, comes out on Friday, July 18th!

Wanna get in on the book launch action? Minty Fresh Mysteries is giving away two paperback copies of A Death in Duck. That’s right. Free books, my friends. All you have to do to enter is leave a comment (any old comment will do) on the blog post that your eyeballs are currently perusing.

Two winners will be selected at random from all eligible entries. We’ll notify you if you win, so look out for an email.

This offer is only good until the stroke of midnight on Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014. We can’t be sure what will happen if you try to enter the contest after that, but we have it on pretty good authority that you’ll turn into a pumpkin.

Good luck!

Minty Fresh Mysteries Headquarters