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!

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.