A Sheet Cake Eases Grief

Ms. Dee Ann, currently being revised as Murder in Narrow Creek or Ms. Dee Ann Meets Murder (maybe I should take a vote for which title to choose) uses Southern life in a small town in 1979 as its setting.

And what could be more Southern than “funeral food”? In one chapter, an elderly member of Dee Ann’s church, Miss Annabelle Jenkins, has died and Elizabeth, Dee Ann’s friend and fellow church member, calls to ask for Dee Ann’s help with the meal to be served to the family in the fellowship hall.  Here’s how the conversation goes:

“Listen,” Elizabeth announced, “I’m in charge of the bereavement meal that will be served before the funeral.  We’ll do the cool weather menu, although at the first of October there are still some warm days and who knows whether people will want green bean casserole or marinated vegetable salad.”

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I [Dee Ann] knew enough about funeral food to recognize that green bean casserole was cool weather food and marinated vegetable salad was warm weather….

“Can you make a nine by thirteen sheet cake?” Elizabeth asked. “You know, just get a box of Betty Crocker yellow cake mix and a can of chocolate frosting.  You don’t have to make a cake from scratch—we working women don’t have time for that anymore—but at least mix up and bake a boxed batter.  

“We don’t want to buy a Pepperidge Farm cake Image result for picture of yellow sheet cake with chocolate icingto use for a bereavement meal.  That would seem uncaring.  Although I do love that chocolate layered cake they make.”

“I’ll be glad to make a sheet cake, Elizabeth,” I interjected before she went off on a tangent about all the different varieties of frozen desserts.

Southern funeral food has always eased the pain of death.

BEREAVEMENT MEALS (List Used by West Haven Presbyterian Church, Rocky Mount, NC)

Cool Weather Menu                                     Warm Weather Menu

Fried Chicken or Ham                                  Fried Chicken or Ham

Potato Casserole                                             Potato Casserole

Green Bean Casserole                                   Marinated Vegetable Salad

Cranberry Salad                                             Deviled Eggs

Rolls                                                                   Rolls

Sheet Cake                                                        Sheet Cake

 

“These are basic menus to use but do not have to be followed exactly. Butter beans are a nice addition to either menu.”

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The Plot Thickens at the NOW Meeting

How to tie in a meeting about the Equal Rights Amendment (see previous post for more details) to my cozy mystery plot?

One of the four young women in attendance is a “person of interest” in the murder that Dee Ann is trying to solve. This woman’s outburst during the question and answer portion of the program adds to the whodunit plot.  Here’s part of what happens:

“My name is Lisa Strayhorn, and I’m married to the music minister at First Baptist Church here in town.”

I [Dee Ann] knew that voice from somewhere. Lisa Strayhorn, married to a music minister.  This was the Lisa I had overheard confronting Cynthia that Saturday at the Junior Woman’s Club Arts and Craft Show.  I was all ears.

“The information you two ladies presented here tonight has made me realize just how oppressed I am in my marriage. For the last ten years, since the day I said ‘I do,’ I’ve built my entire world around my husband.”

Not entirely, I wanted to interject. [Dee Ann knows of the affair Lisa had with the murder victim.]

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“People don’t realize how confining it is to be married to someone in the church. You ladies talk about a woman being paid less than a man.  When you’re the wife of a clergyman—even a music minister—you’re expected to work for nothing.  Parishioners seem to think there’s a buy one, get one free deal.”

How about marry one, have a fling with another? I almost said.

“…Nursery duty, visiting the shut-ins, heading up Vacation Bible School, organizing the Wednesday night suppers. It’s been a full-time, unpaid job, and I’m sick of it.  And I’m sick of my husband for signing me up for all the church grunt work just to impress his boss, the preacher.  Tonight’s meeting has given me the courage to leave the church and my husband.”

Betty and Gloria were talking over each other as they insisted the ERA wasn’t about leaving husbands and forsaking churches. Lisa was too busy planning her future to listen to their disclaimers…”

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There’s more as Dee Ann wonders whether Lisa is really leaving town because of her unhappy marriage … or because of her involvement in her lover’s murder.

 

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Scenes from the Seventies Add to the Setting

Remember the ERA? The Equal Rights Amendment was a 1970s piece of legislation that proponents said would help to guarantee equality for American women, especially in the workplace.  By 1979, this controversial, much-debated amendment needed only three more states to vote yes for ratification.

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In one chapter of Murder in Narrow Creek, set in 1979, Dee Ann, mostly out of curiosity, attends a meeting conducted by representatives from the Raleigh chapter of NOW (the National Organization for Women).  The NOW ladies have come to Narrow Creek to drum up support for the passage of the ERA in North Carolina, one of 15 states that had not yet approved the amendment.

Only Dee Ann and three other women are in attendance as the meeting begins. This soon changes as Mrs. Tippy Gaylord—wife of the president of Narrow Creek Community Bank, Joe’s place of employment—crashes the meeting.  Here’s a snippet.

Suddenly a voice came from the back row of seats, “Who wants to be equal to men? Most women enjoy being put on a pedestal.  I know I do.”  I [Dee Ann] turned in my seat to see who had slipped into the room to interrupt the speaker before she had hardly begun and found myself locking eyes with none other than Tippy Gaylord.

“I would appreciate the chance to speak before fielding comments from the audience,” Betty [the NOW representative] replied, unruffled.

“Personally, I’m not going to sit through whatever communist propaganda you intend to spout off. I came only to warn these impressionable young women here tonight not to believe anything they hear from you liberal feminists.”  Tippy Gaylord made the word feminists sound like a profanity while glaring at us “impressionable young women” in the room.  I felt her disapproving stare lingering on me.  I was hoping she didn’t recognize me from her Fourth of July party.  Maybe all the wives of the men who worked for her husband looked alike to the wealthy Mrs. Gaylord.

Incidentally, North Carolina never voted yes on the ERA, and the amendment fell three states short of ratification by an extended 1982 deadline.

In my next blog, I’ll let you in on how this meeting concerning the ERA advanced the novel’s cozy mystery plot.

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Writing Squeezed into Life

Recently a writer friend asked me whether I had set a deadline for my revision/conversion of Ms. Dee Ann into Murder in Narrow Creek.  “Do you plan to be finished by fall?” she inquired.

The question caught me a little off guard. “No, I don’t really have a schedule,” I replied.  “I just write like crazy every chance I get.”

I could have gone on to explain that it’s summertime and my grandchildren are out of school and I want to hang out with them at the pool. And it’s summertime and I plan to go to the beach as much as possible.  And it’s summertime and there’s a member-guest golf tournament that my husband plays in that involves weekend guests and parties for the spouses.  I could go on, but you get the idea.

I don’t want to live a life of seclusion. I don’t want to give up the fun.  And I especially don’t want to miss the magical moments in my grandchildren’s lives. As I learned with my own, kids aren’t kids very long.

So on good days I squeeze in two to three hours of writing, usually in the morning when my mind is clearer and not yet fried by all the small aggravations and responsibilities of the day.

charlie

And when I don’t have time to sit at my desktop, I improvise. I’ve revised while riding in the car on the way to the beach or sitting by the pool while a grandchild is involved in swim team practice.

Eventually, Ms. Dee Ann will become Murder in Narrow Creek.  A sentence here, a sentence there, every chance I get.

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As God Is My Witness

When I sit down at night in my favorite chair in the den with my iPad, I spend just a few minutes looking at Facebook. Then I start googling: agents interested in Southern fiction, agents interested in cozy mysteries, agents looking for new clients.

What am I going to do with Ms. Dee Ann once it’s revised as Murder in Narrow Creek?  I have spent too many hours—make that years —not to see this book in print.  I feel like Scarlett O’Hara shaking her fist at the heavens, vowing, “As God is my witness, as God is my witness, they’re not going to lick me.  I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again.”

Image result for pictures of scarlett ohara as god is my witness

Sorry, I got a little carried away there. I’m neither hungry nor reduced to sewing a dress from the drapes, but like Scarlett, I’m up against the Yankees too.  Since the hub of American publishing is New York City, it seems most of the agents are also there.  My queries to these people have been for naught.  The polite ones at least respond “no.”  Most don’t even reply.

I know it’s hard to get published. I’ve read all the gloomy statistics during my Internet searches.  The possibility of a book by a first-time author being selected for publication by one of the big four publishers, who are all head-quartered in New York, is super-duper slim.

But I didn’t think it would be so hard to find an agent. Someone to represent me.  Someone to be my advocate.  Someone who knows how the world of publishing works and would try to sell my book for me.  It’s been a very discouraging experience.

But the more I think about it, is traditional publishing the way to go? Maybe I need to start googling “self-publishing.”

“As God is my witness, they’re not going to lick me.” My book will be published somehow!

 

 

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Must I Kill This Darling?

“Kill your darlings.” I’m not talking here about the 2013 movie starring Daniel Radcliff (forever Harry Potter in my mind), but rather a piece of writing advice.

Sometimes for the greater good of a manuscript, it’s necessary to let go off—heck, let’s just say it, to delete—a favorite scene.  Something you as a writer have slaved over, fallen in love with, and think the world would be better for reading.

Except it doesn’t fit with the rest of your book. It doesn’t propel the action forward.  It doesn’t relate to the plot.  It’s off the subject.  It’s wandering around in your novel, just hanging out.  No matter how well-worded or clever this scene is, it doesn’t pull its weight.

Okay, all these vague “you” references should be in first person because I’m talking to myself here as I endeavor to delete a scene I only recently added to the original Ms. Dee Ann. Here’s what’s happening:

Image result for pictures of hospitals

Baby Heather has been sick with a cold all week and now seems to be struggling for breath. As first-time parents, Dee Ann and Joe rush her to the emergency room, where the attending physician is a female of Indian descent who speaks English with a British accent.

 

It’s 1979, so female doctors are still rare, as are physicians of foreign birth. Dr. Patel diagnoses the croup: “It scares the parents, but it sounds much worse than it really is.  When you took her outside to get in the car to come to hospital and she breathed cool air, then the coughing stopped, no?”

Joe has no faith in this female Indian doctor and is somewhat rude in asking for a second opinion.  Once Dr. Patel leaves the room, Dee Ann calls him out on his prejudices.

“Joe Bulluck, what is the matter with you?” I hissed the minute the door closed. “What’s this business about a second opinion? …”

“Dee Ann, we just had a medical emergency with Heather,” said Joe. “In case you haven’t noticed, we are at THE hospital.  Where this woman, who speaks a very funy version of English, sashays in and tells us, no big deal, this baby has the croup.  Just stick her in the shower….

“Maybe that’s how the croup, if that’s what Heather has, is treated in a third-world country, but here in the USA, I’m sure there’s some antibiotic that can be prescribed.”

There’s more, and I think it’s good stuff, before Joe is grudgingly made to see that Dr. Patel, although a woman and of foreign birth, is fully qualified.

But does this scene do anything to advance the plot of Murder in Narrow Creek, my revision of Ms. Dee Ann? Sadly, no.  Unless I can recast it somehow to drop in a clue or reference to the crime, I must kill this darling.

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Red Herrings or Real Clues?

Red herrings, I’ve learned, are a required element in a cozy mystery (see previous posts for more information about “cozies”). The author has to keep the reader guessing, and hopefully guessing wrong, as to whodunit.  Where would the fun be if readers figured out the culprit(s) from the first chapter?

Image result for pictures of the board game clue

In rewriting Ms. Dee Annnow titled Murder in Narrow Creek—I’m having a really good time planting my red herrings mixed in with actual clues.  Right away in Chapter 3, after telling Dee Ann of the murder of ? (I can’t give away too many secrets here), Miss Josie, Dee Ann’s landlady, speculates about the murderer(s):

“Clarabelle Joyner said she heard he [the victim] was involved in drugs although I never saw any sign of that when he was working for me. Clarabelle said drug people will kill each other over their marijuana deals. 

June Hill thinks it was probably just a robbery gone bad. …Someone might have thought [the victim] wouldn’t be home on a Saturday night, broke in to steal his television set and whatnot, and found him there. Then the robber had to kill [the victim] so [the victim] couldn’t identify him.”

Sorry about all [the victim] stuff, but one day you’ll just have to read the book to find out who got killed.

The red herrings (or are they?) continue. A woman in the Narrow Creek Ladies’ Society thinks the murderer might have been a former jilted girlfriend since the victim was a reputed skirt chaser who loved ‘em and left ‘em.  Dee Ann’s hairdresser reiterates the drug theory, relating a story involving her husband.  What’s solid evidence and what’s not?  I hope to keep the reader guessing.

I’m only about a third of the way in my revision, so more red herrings or actual clues are to come. Once I’m finished, I’ll test Murder in Narrow Creek on an alert reader to see whether I’ve succeeded in keeping the identity of the guilty party (or parties) a secret until the very end.

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