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: http://www.greatbigstory.com/stories/hoi-toider-ocracoke-brogue-in-north-carolina.

Hoi Toider Accent

Far out, huh?

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.

Writers Who Kill Interview

If you’ve never checked out the wonderful Writers Who Kill blog, might I suggest that today would be an excellent day to do so? Coincidentally, they have kindly featured an interview about my Lindsay Harding series. 🙂 I’ve posted an excerpt below.

An Interview with Mindy Quigley

Mindy Quigley writes a mystery series featuring a most unusual sleuth, one with a profession I never contemplated before. Main character, Lindsay Harding is an ordained minister who serves as a hospital chaplain. Her profession brings her in contact with victims, but her personal life and history connects her to criminals as well. She’s not your parents’ minister.

Lindsay Harding Mystery, No. 1

How did you concoct Lindsay Harding? Was anyone you knew a hospital chaplain?

One of my many jobs (and, as a project manager who moved every couple of years, I’ve had many!) was working with the chaplains in the Pastoral Services department of the Duke University Medical Center. The chaplains would come back from the wards with these unbelievable stories, full of drama, heartbreak, and humor. It was a very unique place to work. I often told them, “One of you has to write a book about this.” None of them ever took up the challenge, so I was obliged to do it myself.

I have another source of real-life inspiration in that two of my four college roommates became ministers. One is a very “high church” Episcopal minister who happens to also be lesbian, and the other is an agnostic-leaning Unitarian Universalist minister who was a complete party animal in college. They are both fantastically empathic, deeply spiritual women who help their congregants wrestle with the big questions. Knowing them definitely changed my perception of what kind of person makes a good minister. Read more…

Birthing books, birthing babies, and cuddling with all kinds of feedback

Writer, reviewer, and book blogger Judy Nickles featured an interview with me on her blog yesterday. Check out an excerpt here:

If you’ve written more than one book, what have you learned between the first one and the new release? I’ve learned to greet critiques from my beta readers with wide open arms. The prospect of doing major rewrites (or even minor ones!) can be daunting, but it’s a necessary part of improving the final product. I owe it to my readers to put polished, entertaining work out there for them. Odds are high that anyone’s first draft is going to suck. The more comprehensive the feedback you receive and incorporate, the more you diminish those odds in subsequent drafts!

I’ve also learned that there’s a reason most writers don’t achieve success at a young age. Writing well, for me, involves a deepening of wisdom, a broadening of life experience, a honing of the skills of observation and concision, and a hell of a lot of practice. A few very gifted, very lucky individuals write fantastic first books at an early age, but obviously those people are freaks of nature who should be isolated from society to keep the rest of us from looking bad.

Read the entire interview on The Word Place blog.

I forgot to water the blog.

I’ve been neglecting the blog lately, but I have a good excuse! I’m working on two exciting Minty Fresh endeavors:

Firstly, I’m busily drafting A Burnt Island Burial Ground, the third book in the Lindsay Harding series. Although I’m still a few months from publication, here’s a little sneak peak of the Back Cover blurb:

“We hid the body. The money belonged to everyone, but we stole it for ourselves. You have to help me give it back before it’s too late. If I don’t stop this, that money’s gonna drag us all straight down to hell.”

With these words, whispered to hospital chaplain Lindsay Harding as part of a cryptic confession, the stage is set for another intricately-plotted Mount Moriah mystery. All signs seem to point to a murder, but no one can find any trace of a body. Lindsay’s sure that not all is as it seems, but she’ll need hard grit and quick wit to follow a trail that leads from the deathbed of a wealthy textile magnate back through history to Burnt Island, a remote patch of swampland in eastern North Carolina.

Lindsay’s task is made all the more complicated by the quickly shifting landscape of her personal life. After pre-wedding jitters jeopardize a relationship that seemed to be her best shot at happily-ever-after, Lindsay falls under the spell of a charming stranger. Whether she gets another chance at love will depend on following her heart…and on whether she can keep that heart beating for long enough to unlock the mystery of Burnt Island.

The second major development here at Minty Fresh HQ is that I got word last week that A Murder in Mount Moriah is being turned into an audiobook by ACX! I just listened to the first few voice-over artist auditions, and they are SO GOOD. I’ll be posting more on my progress with that as the project takes shape.

Oh! If you don’t yet own A Death in Duck on Kindle, now’s your chance to snarfle up a copy for dead cheap. It’s only 99¢ until January 21st.

Free copies of A Death in Duck

Those of you who obsessively check my Amazon and Goodreads pages (or is that just me…?) will have Final-Book-Cover-Vector-v4seen that the cover artwork for the Lindsay Harding series has recently undergone a facelift. In celebration, I’m giving away three signed copies of A Death in Duck with the older artwork (the original Doberman cover) to the first three people who post reviews of either book on Amazon. Or better yet, review both books and then post your reviews on Goodreads as well! 🙂

Book2-v3 (2)Once you’ve left your honest review on Amazon, post the link in the comments section below. I’m interested in your opinion–both critique and praise–so please opine freely!

Reviews page for A Murder in Mount Moriah
Reviews page for A Death in Duck

If you’ve posted a review previously, THANK YOU. Just post the link to claim your free book! I’m also running this contest via my mailing list, so I’ll post updates in the comments section below as the free books are claimed.


There’s no shame in writing fluff! Interview with bestselling cozy author Julie Anne Lindsey

Bestselling cozy mystery author Julie Anne Lindsay

Julie Anne Lindsay, author of the fabulous Patience Price mystery series, muses on feminism, the importance of community and why writing is fun (in a never-ending torture kind of way). She also explains why she won’t be stabbing you with a shrimp fork any time soon.

Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): One of my favorite writers, Ann Patchett, recently said that all of her books, which have very different plots, are fundamentally about groups of strangers being thrown together. Do your books have an overarching (or underlying) theme? Feel free to make up some fancy-sounding literary mumbo jumbo about how your island setting represents the existential isolation of man or how your villain typifies a Kafkaesque archetype of bureaucratic modernity. Or, you know, just tell the truth.

Julie Anne Lindsey (JAL): I like to think my books are laden with feminism. Not the kind that hate men and burn bras, (I mean, do you KNOW what bras cost these days???) I want to write strong, smart women unhindered by an imagined limitation.

Feminism aside, I try to make readers smile and highlight the wonders of community. Friends and family are what life’s all about. We can’t take anything with us when we die and we’re all going to die, so what matters while we’re here is how we live. The relationships we create, how we impact, encourage and change one another is the beautiful part of life. Patience may live on an island, but she’s not one. She’s part of a community who, no matter how different and often times at odds they might be, love her.

MFM: Your Patience Price mysteries feature a quirky young FBI administrator-turned-counselor-turned-amateur sleuth. She’s funny, nosy and unlucky in love–a bit Bridget Jones-esque. In what I read, what I watch, and what I write, I find that I’m I’m drawn to that kind of character, too. What do you think makes characters like Patience so appealing?

JAL: I *LOVE* these characters. I think you and represent a new and upcoming group, though. My mysteries were rejected by all the major publishing houses before Carina Press found and loved Patience. (Who has gone on to hit #1 on Amazon, B&N and Kobo in cozy mystery this year).

The target cozy demographic is something like 35-65 years old women and the guidelines for traditional cozy writing are stringent. Well, the incoming group of 35-year-old readers are different people than the last group. We’re looking for more upbeat sassy women to lead our stories because we can relate to them. We are them in many ways (too many ways LOL). We want a dash of romance. We want cute shoes and hot boys and friends who behave badly so we can live vicariously through them while maintaining the reputation we’ve worked for (or trying to leave a bad one behind). We prefer funny humor over dry wit and we want to see another young lady struggle with her waist line and say the things we long to say like, “Yes. I’ll have the double bacon cheeseburger, fries and a malt.”

Short recap of my super-way-too-long answer: I hope more readers like us will demand more books like ours and publishers will find room on the shelves this new generation of cozy.

MFM: Your books are often described as “cute.” Is that a fair description or does it make you want to poke people in the eye with a shrimp fork?

I think “cute” is a totally fair description. I write cozy as a means of escape for readers. A quick retreat. A reprieve from their troubles. I want the dialogue to be snappy and light, the setting to be gorgeous and the plot to unfold in fast forward. I try to create characters I’d want in my life. Quirky. Lovable. Worthy and fun. Hopefully, quite they’re all quite cute as well.

MFM: You’re an incredibly prolific writer. I’ve previously written that the trick to writing a novel is to think of it like digging a very long ditch. Do you agree with that assessment? And if you disagree, are you prepared to challenge me to a duel to settle the question? If so, I’ll need a bit of notice because I have to get my dueling pistols out of storage. 

JAL: Can we do rock, paper scissors? I’m fairly good at that game, so long as you only answer scissors. The pressure to make split second decisions again and again seems to freeze my hand into the rock. Also, I still want shrimp after reading your last question, so I’m leaving for lunch as soon as I finish this interview. You should come with. Bring your fork.

To answer your question (I tend to bunnytrail) I think the ditch is a pretty good analogy. I compare writing to climbing a sand dune. That goes for the writer life in general, too. We climb a while, make some progress toward our goal, then the sand gives way beneath us and we slide back a few feet, only to begin again. And again. Sometimes we have to start fresh from the bottom. Also, there’s the relentless desert sun of every-single-other author’s amazing success beating down on us while we toil fruitlessly. Writing is not for the weak or tender hearted. It’s grueling and occasionally mean. If you ever make it to the top of the dune, there will be another, taller one waiting, harder one climb and with tougher critics.

What a glamorous picture we make! I don’t know why everyone doesn’t stop what they’re doing right now and write a novel. Come on, everyone, join us on the chain gang!

MFM: You and I have both written books set on islands. For me, part of the appeal was being able to take a mini vacation to the Outer Banks every time I sat down to write my second novel, A Death in Duck. Is Chincoteague Island a place you like to mentally vacation? 

JAL: Oh, definitely! In fact, I visited Chincoteague years before I had a clue I’d ever write anything longer than a grocery list. The place stayed with me. I tell people I brought part of it home in my soul. My mind wanders there daily and when it came time to write a mystery, there was no place else I wanted to set it. Chincoteague is my idea of perfection. I’d gladly uproot the family and move if someone would help me buy the house. Offers? Anyone? No realtors. That wasn’t what I meant by help.

MFM: Funny books are sometimes thought of as fluffy, and yet it’s commonly acknowledged among writers that “funny” is way harder to achieve than “creepy,” “steamy” or “exciting.” Do you find it easy to weave humor into your books? Do you take issue with the idea that funny books are light reading? And if you do take issue, maybe together we can beat up those people who say that. I’ll just need a couple of days to prepare because my bowstaff is also in storage.

JAL: You have a lot of weaponry. I’m impressed and a little intimidated by you right now. My arsenal includes: scream and run. Also hide, but I’m not that great at hide. My run isn’t awesome either, but my scream? A masterpiece. I think I could do the scream for horror movies. My fear of mostly everything has developed the scream over the years.

I’m bunnytrailing. Let me reread the question…..

Yes. I like smiling. Writing the light stuff is much easier or more natural for me than the dark stuff. I think I was born half silly and that helps. It didn’t help in school or my dating years, but definitely now.

Are my stories fluff? **Insert nerd rage here!!!** Kidding. Maybe. I guess it depends on your perspective. My goal as an author is to make people smile, so if that goal isn’t lofty enough for those trying to change the world with global awareness while I’m trying to change it with laughter, then, I guess I write fluff.

I like to think that the woman who has cried out all her tears and picks up one of my books for an escape … if she gets lost in my words and finds a smile on her face, then how can fluff be bad? Where’s the negative side to “fluff” that can do that?

I’m proud of my fluff. #TeamFluff

If anyone’s still reading this blog post and thinking they need more fluff in their lives, I hope you’ll consider one of my Patience Price Mysteries. The third installment is a new release and you don’t need to have read the others to fall into the story. Here’s a bit about it:

MIRT_selectMurder in Real Time
With the chaos of summer tourists and fall birders out of town, counselor Patience Price is looking forward to the quiet life she remembers. She longs for some peace. And an apple fritter. But the calm is cut short when a reality show sets up camp to film a special about ghosts on her little island. Now fans, reporters and crew have flocked to sleepy Chincoteague. Who knew ghost hunters had an entourage?

When two cast members are killed in a room at the local B&B—a room usually occupied by Patience’s FBI agent boyfriend, Sebastian—she finds herself on the case. Sebastian doesn’t want Patience ruffling any feathers but, as always, she can’t help herself.

Patience promises to let Sebastian handle the investigation—he is FBI, after all—but after a drive-by shooting, her wicked curiosity gets the best of her. And with the TV show forging ahead with filming, the list of suspects (and the line of food trucks) only grows. But has the shooter already flown the coop? And how do you find a killer when you don’t know who the target is?

Amazon  |   Barnes&Noble  |   Carina Press

About Julie: Julie Anne Lindsey is a multi-genre author who writes the stories that keep her up at night. She’s a self-proclaimed nerd with a penchant for words and proclivity for fun. Julie lives in rural Ohio with her husband and three small children. Today, she hopes to make someone smile. One day she plans to change the world.

Murder in Real Time is the conclusion to The Patience Price Mysteries series, from Carina Press.

Learn About Julie at: Julieannelindsey.com

BookBub is my new husband.

Screenshot 2014-08-09 09.27.42Who, you ask, is that fancy person sitting on Amazon’s bestseller charts at Number 12 alongside Janet Evanovich and J.K. Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith)? Why it’s lil’ old me, with my BESTSELLING novel A Murder in Mount MoriahAnd how did a lowly self-published author reach these heady heights? Just ask my new husband, BookBub

With apologies to my actual husband, BookBub pleases me in ways that my actual husband never could, namely by selling a bub-load of my books. My husband has a lot of excellent qualities, but he has never sold 1,300 copies of my book in a single day the way that BookBub did.

For the uninitiated, BookBub is a company that sends daily email alerts about bargain books to their enormous subscriber list. In their own words:

BookBub features ebooks ranging from top-tier publishers to critically acclaimed independent authors. Our team of experts makes sure that we’re only featuring great deals on quality books that you’ll love. 

Note the section I’ve marked in bold. BookBub differs from other marketing avenues in that they feature indy/self-published books alongside traditionally published books. Although it is a paid service (and a very expensive one at that), there are no guarantees that they’ll allow you the privilege of forking over your cold, hard cash to them. I’ve heard of several instances where they reject books that aren’t well reviewed or that they don’t think will please their readership. They curate their offerings so that readers can be fairly certain of getting a book that is interesting, well-written and well-edited.

I realize that I’m gushing, and I don’t want to come across as a BookBub schill. But there is simply no other single marketing service that can deliver the kind of sales boost that I and some of my indy publishing friends experienced after our books were featured.

Here are my tips for deploying the B-Bomb:

  1. Make sure your book is in good shape before submitting it. It should have a fair number of positive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. If you’re having trouble getting anyone to post reviews, try sending out free copies to people on Goodreads or Library Thing who read a lot of books in your genre (i.e. private message them to see if they’re interested in reading/reviewing). Or you can do what I did and run a free giveaway through Kindle Select. My book was downloaded about 10,000 times and I netted about 10 reviews that way. The rest just trickled in over time.
  2. Have more than one book. I always planned to try BookBub at some point, but I wanted to wait until my second novel, A Death in Duck was released. I figured that if people read and liked A Murder in Mount Moriah, they might go on to buy the next book. I’d get double bang for my (many) bucks. So far, my hunch has proven to be true. In the weeks before the BB promo, I’d sold about 40 copies of A Death in Duck–I suspect mainly to my friends and relatives. Since the promotion, I’ve seen a steady uptick in sales. I’ve sold between 3-10 copies per day of that title.
  3. Enjoy the surge, but gird your writerly loins for the inevitable slide. On the day of the promotion, I sold 1,300 copies of my book. The next day, around 250. It’s been downhill from there. Now, one month post-promo, I’m selling about 6-12 books per day. Part of the reason is undoubtedly because my 99 cent sale ended. People like cheap e-books. But another part of it is that once you leave the Amazon bestseller lists, your book becomes unfindable once again. No one sees it unless they seek it out. So, all in all, I’m heartened that 6-12 people are seeking out my titles each day. I think it can only be word-of-mouth at this point, because I’m not in the charts or doing any active marketing at present.
  4. Accept that BookBub will not make you a zillionaire. I paid $650 for my slot on BookBub (mystery is the most expensive category, because it has the widest subscriber base). I reckon that $1,200 in sales over the past month are attributable directly to the promotion (i.e. that’s how many more books I sold compared to previous months). So, my profit was about $550. I’ve heard of cases where authors didn’t break even after paying for their promotions, but I’ve heard of cases where people make even more money than I did. It’s fun to sit alongside J.K. Rowling in the charts, but a one-day (or one-week) sales spike does not a literary zillionaire make. Yet.

Sneak Preview: Chapter One of A Death in Duck

ImageGod willin’ and the creek don’t rise, A Death in Duck, book two of the Reverend Lindsay Harding series, will be released on Amazon at the end of June. The friendly furry fellow at the left will feature on the book cover, which my lovely cover designer, Paige Nowak, is currently putting the finishing touches on.

<<Drumroll>> And so, here is a world exclusive, super top secret, just for you sneak peek at Chapter One. I hope you like it. Really, I do. Because it took me, like, a year to write this dang book. 🙂

Chapter 1

‘Twas the weekend before Christmas, and frankly the chocolate Yule log wasn’t looking its best. Lindsay Harding had brought the cake as her contribution to an early Christmas dinner. She was dining for the first time at the home of her boyfriend’s mother, and she had scoured the internet for something to make that would mark her out as desirable daughter-in-law material. Snowman cupcakes were rejected as too cutesy. Cookies were dismissed as too cliché. The Yule log, however, sent all the right messages. It nodded to convention, while still demonstrating a bit of domestic flair. She pictured herself triumphantly unveiling it as she walked through the front door. Warren’s mother, Teresa, would gasp and exclaim, “Oh, Lindsay! You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble.” Teresa might even insist that it sit in the middle of the table and act as the centerpiece.

Lindsay had spent much of the previous night concocting the dessert, rolling the thin cake into a cylinder and then coaxing two different colors of chocolate icing into the striations of a realistic wood grain. She had even sculpted little pinecones out of tinted marzipan to decorate the serving dish. But she hadn’t factored the unseasonably warm weather into her plan. When she and Warren had stopped to pick up a bottle of wine on the way over to his mother’s house, they’d left her car in the sun.

Now, here they were, seated at Teresa’s beautifully-laid table. Teresa’s homemade peppermint-scented candles formed part of a centerpiece that looked like a cover shot for Southern Living magazine. Teresa’s desserts—three kinds of cookies, a 2-tier fruitcake and a chocolate fountain—were arrayed on the sideboard like offerings to some pagan sugar god. And Lindsay’s chocolate Yule log cake slumped next to them like a large, soggy turd.

The only part of her vision that had been realized was that Teresa did indeed utter the exact words, “Oh, Lindsay! You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble,” as Lindsay removed the Tupperware top and exposed the melted monstrosity. However, those words were followed by the Southern woman’s kiss of death—“Bless your heart.”

Impressing Warren’s mother was always going to be an uphill battle. Teresa Satterwhite was everything that Lindsay was not—tall and gracious, a true Southern belle with perfectly-manicured nails. She owned aprons that complemented her outfits, and wore lipstick that complemented her aprons. Her perfectly-coiffed, carrot-colored hair was cut into a flattering angled bob and it shone atop her head like a radioactive tangerine. Lindsay, small and skinny with thick glasses and a wild blonde mop of hair, felt like one of those good luck troll dolls standing alongside a Barbie.

Lindsay sat at the table, feeling almost too self-conscious to enjoy the wonderful food on the plate before her. She turned to Teresa and said, “This all looks delicious. When there is more than one thing happening, I always find it so hard to coordinate all the timings and keep everything warm.” Lindsay’s usual cooking strategy was to put things in the oven for 20 minutes at 350°. If the food didn’t get cooked, she’d set the oven to broil and leave it until it looked done. The fact that her Yule cake hadn’t ended up as a burnt offering was a miracle in itself.

“Well thank you, honey. I do like to make an effort to make the holidays special for my babies.” She beamed lovingly at Warren and his sister Tanner. Warren returned his mother’s adoring smile, his warm brown eyes reflecting the light of the candles. Tanner, meanwhile, was turned sideways in her chair feeding morsels of turkey to her four Pomeranian dogs. They yapped and bounced straight up and down in front of her, like demented yo-yos. Warren and his mother shared the pale, freckly complexion of natural redheads. In Tanner, however, this pallor was taken to the extreme. Her skin and hair were a matching shade of pale peachy white. Only her coal-black eyes indicated that she wasn’t an albino. Tanner’s husband, Gibb, sat silently across from her, throwing food down his throat like he was trying to fill a sinkhole.

“Tanner, stop messing with the dogs. Mama is talking to you,” Warren snapped.

Tanner rolled her eyes at him and turned back to the dogs.


Lindsay had already had the pleasure of making the dogs’ acquaintance a few months earlier when she and Warren had been out on a double date to the movies with Warren’s sister and brother-in-law. Tanner and Gibb had pulled up in front of Warren’s house in their Ford Fiesta. Although this was their first time meeting Lindsay, they didn’t come up to the door when they arrived. Instead, they idled in the driveway, honking the horn until Warren and Lindsay emerged.

Tanner waved lazily out the window, “Hey. You must be Warren’s girlfriend. I’m Tanner. This here,” she said, gesturing to the large man with a wide black mustache who sat in the driver’s seat, “is Gibb.” Gibb wore a hooded sweatshirt and reflective sunglasses. If it hadn’t been for the roll of stubble-covered fat that formed his second chin, Lindsay might have mistaken him for the Unabomber.

Lindsay opened the door of the car to find the backseat entirely filled with small orange dogs.

“You can just put them on your lap,” Tanner said. She pointed to each of them in turn. “That’s George. That’s Ringo. And those two are John and Muffin.”


“Yeah. Paul got washed away during the hurricane last summer so we got Muffin to replace him.” Without warning, Tanner exploded into loud sobs and draped herself dramatically over the dashboard of the car.

Warren shot Lindsay a weary look over the top of the car. “As you can imagine, it’s still a painful subject for her. The hurricane was their Yoko Ono.”

“I’m so sorry about Paul. That must have been awful,” Lindsay said as she tried to maneuver her way into the back seat without smothering Ringo with her rear end. As a rule, she didn’t much like small dogs, and it was a particular struggle to extend her sympathies for the death of one of this band of glorified rats. Each one was about the size and weight of a cantaloupe. They climbed over each other on the seat, tongues lolling out of their mouths and eyes spinning wildly in their heads like furry little mental patients. Lindsay was wearing shorts, and during the ride the dogs took turns clawing their way up her thighs and then madly scrabbling to keep their footing on her lap when the car turned a corner. By the time they arrived at the movie theater, Lindsay looked like she’d been kickboxing a wolverine.

Despite the presence of the Fab Three (plus Muffin) and the dreadfulness of the movie—some inane crime spree buddy comedy chosen by Gibb—the double date had gone reasonably well. Gibb remained almost silent throughout the evening, emitting only occasional grunts to show agreement or displeasure. But Tanner kept the mood lively by telling a series of hilarious childhood stories in which she cast Warren as a rule-following mama’s boy and herself as a popular party girl. On the drive home, the dogs yapped continuously, rendering further conversation unnecessary.

“Oh, hey, y’all!” Tanner exclaimed, jumping up from the dinner table. “Gibb taught the dogs a new trick.” She summoned the dogs to the center of the adjacent living room, where Warren, Lindsay and Teresa could get a clear view. “Okay, boys,” she commanded, “Freshen up!” At this directive, the dogs proceeded to get into a line, one behind the other, and lick each other’s rear ends.

A strange hacking wheeze came from across the table, and Lindsay turned to see Gibb slapping his thighs. Despite the obvious amusement in his eyes, it was nearly impossible to tell from the sound he was making whether he was laughing or choking.

Teresa smiled tightly, her lips compressing and turning almost purple. “Gibb, honey. You really are too much. Bless your heart.” She rose and began to clear the dishes in front of her. “Our little Tanner really made quite the match when she married you.”

“Mama doesn’t much like dogs,” Tanner stage-whispered to Lindsay across the table. She turned to her mother, smiling as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. “Isn’t that right, Mama?”

Teresa’s fingers tightened around the salad fork she was holding.

Warren put his hand over his mother’s clenched fist. “Mama, you sit down and relax. Lindsay and I will clear up.”

“That’s so considerate of you, baby. You really are just the sweetest little boy any mother could ask for. But Lindsay’s our guest. We can’t have her cleaning!”

“Honestly, Mrs. Satterwhite,” Lindsay said, popping up out of her seat, “it’s no trouble. It’s the least I can do after you made such a wonderful meal.”

Lindsay and Warren brought all the china and crystal through to the kitchen and confronted the monumental task of post-feast cleaning. Lindsay had just plunged her hands into the hot, sudsy water in the sink when Warren embraced her from behind and buried his face in her hair. “Thank you so much for coming. This whole thing is a damn sight better with you here. At least Tanner waited until the end of the meal to start trying to give Mama a heart attack. And believe it or not, Gibb was on his best behavior.”

Lindsay spun around to face him. “You don’t need to thank me. This is fantastic! A real family Christmas. I’ve literally never had this. It’s like being in a movie.”

“What? National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation?”

“No! One of the black-and-white ones where everyone keeps breaking into song. Honestly, this is perfect.”

Lindsay had had an unorthodox childhood, and it held almost no positive memories of Christmas. When she was six, her young parents had been arrested for running a small-scale marijuana growing operation out of their house. They went to prison for several years, and Lindsay was shipped off to North Carolina’s Outer Banks to live with her father’s elderly aunt. The two of them shared a small house near Corolla. Corolla was then a remote village; until 1984, just before Lindsay arrived, it hadn’t even had a paved road connecting it to the larger settlements of Duck and Kitty Hawk further south.

Christmases with Aunt Harding were sparse affairs. Usually, they would pass Christmas Eve with Aunt Harding reading aloud from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Aunt Harding’s house contained very few books, and almost no works of fiction. She made an exception for Dickens. Her own parents had allowed her to read his novels as a child, and, since her mind was sharp as a drawing pin, she concluded that they must be good for a child’s intellectual development.

On Christmas morning, Lindsay and Aunt Harding would exchange gifts. Lindsay usually made her presents from the flotsam she found washed up on the beach near the lighthouse—shell necklaces, sun catchers made of wave-smoothed glass. Aunt Harding’s gifts to Lindsay tended toward the more pragmatic. She vividly remembered the gifts Aunt Harding had given her during the four years they’d lived together: Age 7: a shovel (“For gardening, beach combing and self-defense, if necessary. It’s a tool, a toy and a weapon all in one.”), Age 8: a watch (“Because you’re always lollygagging.”), Age 9: a giant tin of protein powder (“You’re too small. Other children always single out the weak ones.”), Age 10: a hunting rifle (“Because it’s time you got your head out of those library books and started learning about life.”).

After the presents were opened, they would hop into Aunt Harding’s old Jeep and drive to Raleigh to visit Lindsay’s parents. They would first head to the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women to see Lindsay’s mother. After an hour spent making awkward small talk, they’d drive ten minutes down the road to Central Prison to eat vending machine soup with her father.

Lindsay’s father, Jonah, became a born-again Christian while he was in prison, and when he was released, he started a small storefront church. When she was 10, Lindsay returned to their hometown, Mount Moriah, North Carolina to live with him. Lindsay’s mother was released a year later, after serving extra time for her involvement in a jailhouse gambling ring. The little family passed one strained Christmas together as a family before Lindsay’s mother disappeared from their lives. From that time on, Lindsay and Jonah spent their Christmases doing the work of his church. His ministry grew and grew over the years until it occupied its current quarters in a large red brick building on the edge of Mount Moriah. The nativity story in the Book of Luke replaced Dickens for Christmas Eve reading. On Christmas day, Lindsay would make the rounds with her father, visiting parishioners in the hospital, in nursing homes, or in prison. It was noble work, but hardly the stuff of a child’s Christmas fantasies.

“For your sake, I wish we could have celebrated on Christmas Day. It’s not really a movie Christmas if it takes place on December 21st,” Warren said, releasing Lindsay from his embrace.

“I’ll take a real Christmas whenever I can get it,” Lindsay smiled. She turned back to the sink and continued washing dishes. She had been slightly disappointed not to be able to spend the holiday with Warren. He was a police officer for the force in New Albany, the largest of the small towns in their part of the North Carolina Piedmont. Since he was the only member of the force without children, he had volunteered to work on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. His mother didn’t want to forgo the traditional family celebration, so they decided to move the whole thing to the Saturday before Christmas.

For the first time in her four years of working as a hospital chaplain at the Mount Moriah Regional Medical Center, Lindsay did not have to work on the holiday. In fact, her boss and best friend, Rob Wu, had miraculously given her the entire week off from Christmas Day until New Year’s Day. This was unprecedented; Rob usually did everything in his power to schedule her for punishing back-to-back night shifts and as many holidays as he could manage. Looking back on his generosity during the weeks that followed, Lindsay realized that she should have known something was amiss.

Teresa peeked around the door. “Okay, kids! It’s time for dessert and presents.”

Lindsay was just drying her hands on a towel when she heard Warren’s phone start to buzz. They had been dating for almost 6 months, and she had come to learn that even on his days off, Warren was never really off duty. As one of only two detectives, he could be summoned to work whenever a serious incident took place. As he listened to the caller, Warren’s face took on a grave expression. He hung up the phone and looked at her. “I’m sorry, Lins. I’ve got to go.”

“But we haven’t even opened presents.” Lindsay realized she sounded childish, but she couldn’t keep the disappointment out of her voice.

“I’m sorry, but it’s important. They need me.”

“It’s always important. They always need you.” Warren’s dedication to his work was one of the things that had drawn Lindsay to him when they got together the previous summer. Working together, the two of them had kept an innocent woman out of prison. While others on the New Albany force had been content to accept easy answers, Warren always kept pushing until he arrived at the truth. Lately, however, Lindsay had begun to realize that Warren’s ambition and drive had serious downsides. Whenever they talked about the future, Warren made it clear that if anyone’s career was going to be sacrificed on the altar of marriage and family, it would be hers.

He looked at her with growing impatience. “And the hospital always needs you. How many times have you covered somebody else’s shift or stayed late when you didn’t even need to?”

“If I’m sitting with a patient, I can’t just get up and walk out because my shift is over. It’s not like, ‘Oh, hey, person who was just diagnosed with terminal cancer, it’s 7 o’clock now. Can your spiritual crisis wait until tomorrow? I’m supposed to go and see Thor with my boyfriend in 20 minutes.’” Her words sharpened with each syllable.

“Look, Lins. I’m disappointed, too. You know I’d rather stay.” He placed his hands gently on her shoulders.

She sighed and tried to smile. “How am I supposed to get home? You drove me.”

“I’m sure Gibb can give you a lift if you want to stick around for dessert.”

The memory of sixteen tiny sets of claws was still too fresh; she wasn’t sure she could handle the 20-minute drive home with Tanner, Gibb, and not-so-Fab Four. “That’s okay. Really. I’ll come with you. You can drop me off after you finish.”

“It could be awhile. Someone has,” he paused and lowered his voice to a whisper, “passed beyond.”

Despite the macabre topic, Lindsay almost cracked a smile. “‘Passed beyond?’ Are you sure they didn’t ‘Go to their eternal rest?’ or ‘Cross over Jordan’s River?’ You can tell me ‘somebody died,’ you know. Chaplains deal with death and dying almost every day.”

Warren put his hands up in a mock gesture of surrender. “Sorry. You win. I forgot that you’re the Cadaver Queen, Extinction Expert.”

“Very funny.”

“Come on, Lindsay. I know you’re disappointed. I’ll make it up to you next week. We’ll spend the whole New Year’s holiday together. No interruptions. I promise.” He looked annoyingly handsome—the sleeves of his dress shirt rolled up, his full lips curled into a playful smile.

There were occasions when Lindsay found Warren’s even-temperedness irritating—his near-inability to become emotional sometimes felt like an implied judgment of her own, more volatile nature. Today, however, she allowed herself to be soothed. “I’m sorry, too. Just take me with you, okay? If you get stuck at work, I can get Rob to come and pick me up after he gets off work.”

They headed into the living room to give their apologies to Teresa, Tanner and Gibb, who were sitting near the fire drinking mugs of hot apple cider.

“At least let me make you up a plate of desserts to take with you,” Teresa protested. “I can’t let you leave here unless I can be sure that you’re more stuffed than the turkey.” She advanced toward the adjacent dining room but stopped in mid-stride. “Oh dear.”

On the sideboard, spattered with chocolate, stood Ringo, George, John and Muffin. Lindsay had left her chair pushed back from the table when she went into the kitchen to clean, and the dogs had managed to use the chair as base camp for their ascent onto the sideboard. They had bypassed the cookies, the fruitcake, and the chocolate fountain and headed straight for Lindsay’s Yule log. Their furry orange manes and tiny paws were painted with smears of frosting. They had hollowed out the entire middle of log, leaving only an empty shell of icing at the sides. The whole scene looked like a shoebox diorama of miniature lions devouring an unlucky wildebeest.

Tanner rushed past and gathered all four dogs into her arms at once. “This is terrible!” she screeched. “Oh, good lord!”

Lindsay stepped past Teresa toward the Christmas carnage on the sideboard. “You don’t have to apologize. Don’t worry, really,” As soon as she caught sight of Tanner’s expression, however, she realized that the concern had been directed at the dogs, not at her.

Tanner’s black eyes stared accusingly at Lindsay. “Don’t you know that chocolate is poison for dogs?! You might as well have baked strychnine muffins!”

“There’s only milk chocolate in the recipe,” Lindsay quickly reassured her. “I think they’d have to eat pounds of it before it’s really dangerous.”

“What are you? Dr. Doolittle?” Tanner snapped. “Gibb, get our coats. I’ll meet you in the car. We’re gonna have to take ‘em all to the animal hospital and have their little stomachs pumped.” She stroked the dogs as tears formed in the corners of her eyes. “Hang in there babies. Mama’s got you now.” She rushed out the door without a backwards glance.

They stood for a moment in shocked silence.

“Well, guess we’d better head out, too. Thanks for supper, Mama,” Warren said, leaning down to kiss his mother’s cheek. “Sorry we have to rush off.”

“That’s okay, baby. I know how important your job is,” Mrs. Satterwhite said, tousling his hair affectionately.

“Yes. Thank you so much for the lovely meal, Mrs. Satterwhite,” Lindsay said. Gibb had retrieved the coats and was pushing past them out the door. “Please tell Tanner I’m sorry about the chocolate. I didn’t really intend for the cake to be eaten by dogs.”

As he passed her, Gibb uttered the first words that he’d spoken all night. “Yeah, it looked more like you intended it to be put in a slop bucket and fed to hungry pigs.”

A Negative Amazon Review Didn’t Kill Me; It Made Me Stronger

Remember how I said that I was girding my loins for my first negative Amazon review? Well, it happened. An Amazon reviewer gave AMiMM 2 stars. Weirdly, the negative review was followed by a bounce in sales, two totally awesome reviews on Amazon, and several 4 and 5-star ratings on Goodreads. The Goodreads giveaway closed out with 800 entries, which was pretty great. I’ve resolved to do less marketing for awhile, and less obsessive checking of my sales figures. I probably like that side of things more than most writers, but I need to focus more on writing the next Lindsay Harding book, A Death in Duck, which I hope to publish in Summer 2014.

Also, for those who don’t regularly watch the Blacksburg-Christiansburg public access channel (which, I think I can safely assume, is all of you!), you can now view the 2013 Valley Voices competition winners on YouTube. My story comes on around minute 21.