Maggie Pill

The Most Entertaining Cozy Author You Never Heard Of!

Friday, July 26, 2019

Sister Story #1

I'm in Blue (r); Sis in Rose
When we were little, Mom used to dress us up (often in mom-made dresses that were alike but different colors) and have us sing in church. The best family story concerning that is when I, at perhaps four years of age, realized partway through our song that I had an issue.

Our church had a curved altar rail with a padded arc below it for kneeling during communion. Halfway through our number, I leaned over the railing and told my poor, cringing mother in a stage whisper, "I have to go to the bathroom!"

When she nodded to indicate she'd received the message (along with everyone else in church) I climbed over the rail, bounced off the knee-pad, and headed at a run up the aisle to the ladies room. My poor sister was left to finish the song on her own, though I doubt anyone heard it for the laughter.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Losing a Sister

In the past week I've lunched with two friends who lost a sister, one recently, the other a while back. Since my sister died in May, our conversations wind around the theme of sisterhood and what it feels like to be the one left behind.

Yes, Mom made our dresses!
In two of the three cases the sister was younger. Both left behind families that needed them, making it more of a tragedy than simply the loss of a sibling. We take comfort in supporting them in whatever ways we can. In all three cases death leaves a void for us, a person whose role can't be filled by anyone living. Sisters grow up together, so we can't start over and build a new sister relationship. We might have sister-like people in our lives, but nothing replaces that person who was always there in your childhood, your strongest supporter one moment and the one who tried to stab you with a knitting needle the next.

The loss of someone who understands you intuitively, a person who shares the same roots, experiences, memories, and to a large extent, world view, is a shock. Who can I talk to about this or that? Who can I call when I need to hear a familiar voice? Who already knows I'm a little weird and therefore won't judge me when I make my latest confession or launch yet another rant?

There isn't a perfect answer, but the best one is the friends I mentioned in the first sentence. They don't know me as well as my sister did, but they know what it's like to share a lifetime with someone and then lose her. We talk. They listen. I listen. We'll get through it.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Working Animals

We didn't really have pets when I was a kid. We had animals that lived with us and did work in return for bed and board. That doesn't mean we didn't love them, but they earned their kibble.
Me, my sister, Laddie, & Ching-a-Ling

The cats were there to keep the mice away (probably rats too, but that never occurred to me. Ick!)
Each of our two farmhouses had a "house cat" that lived inside and was quite pampered compared to the "barn cats" who lived in the barn and multiplied freely. Each new batch of kittens was a treat for us girls, and we hunted them down in whatever spot their mothers chose to hide them by listening for their mews.What fun to move a bale of hay and find four or five little balls of fur to play with. We didn't even mind that their tiny claws were sharp enough to leave bloody trails down our forearms.

The family dog was responsible for helping to herd the cows from and back to the barn. Looking back, I realize that our beloved Laddie wasn't the brightest of cow dogs. He was a collie, but now that I've seen the trained dogs in Scotland do their magic, our Lad was just...kind of willing. And lovable. Luckily, cows aren't that hard to herd; you just get one or two going in a direction and the rest follow.

Of course the other farm animals served a purpose too. The cows gave milk. The horses were draft animals when I was really small, but they gave way to tractors, and then we only had riding horses. The chickens provided eggs (and Sunday dinner on occasion).

I think it's great that people love their pets, but I come from a time when pets weren't just something to pamper and fuss over. They were partners in the work of the household.

Friday, July 19, 2019

And the Ideas Keep Rolling In

Writers often gripe about people asking where we get our ideas from. That's because we often can't articulate how a story goes from a germ to a book. Sometimes an idea shows up almost full-blown. Other times it has to be teased along. Sometimes it changes over time. For example, the plot for the last book, Captured, Escape, Repeat, came from a discussion I had with my sister, who lived for a long time in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. There she read about a piece shown at a local maritime museum that turned out to have been taken illegally from Lake Michigan. "Maybe one of the sisters could recognize a stolen object and get into trouble," she suggested.

How did that change? Why? I can't tell you, but the item that was stolen is in an antique shop, not a museum, and the setting isn't Manitowoc but Green Bay. The person who recognizes the contraband is Lars, not one of the sisters. The result is still trouble, so that's all good for a mystery.

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My next idea could be one suggested by a woman at a book group I attended. They'd read one of the books, and she had an idea for a future story. In our area (northeastern Lower Michigan), there's a lake that disappears from time to time, drying up and then gradually refilling due to the karst structure underlying much of the area. The suggestion was that a crime might be uncovered when the lake dries up, and the Sleuth Sisters would be called in to investigate.

How will all that work into a story? I don't know yet, but the idea is a great one. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Life with a Partner, and Without

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I recall reading a book a long time ago (It might have been The Accidental Tourist), where a man whose wife has left him starts doing his laundry in the shower, kicking the clothes around while he washes himself. Having known several people who've been alone too long, the scene struck me as completely realistic. When no one is there to see, lots of things don't matter nearly as much as they once did. You eat cereal for supper. You stay in your pj's all day. You designate "no tooth-brushing" or "all TV game show" days.

The Sleuth Sisters have different life scenarios. Retta had a husband she loved very much, and she was forced into single living by his death. Barb chose to be single and is therefore the most idiosyncratic of the three. Faye has Dale and always has had. After decades together, they form a cohesive unit and respond to each other's personalities almost without effort.

How do their lifestyles affect the stories? Well, Barb is certainly sure of herself, which makes her a natural leader for their firm. She's also got a chip on her shoulder about women being relegated to second place. Retta isn't shy about using femininity to get what she wants. Often lonely and bored in her empty house in the country, she tends to take chances neither Barb nor Faye ever would. And Faye doesn't mind being the backup, the organizer, the researcher. That might be partly because of her happy home life. She's got nothing to prove to herself or to anyone. She just wants to help people

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Monday, July 15, 2019

The Woman on the Farm

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One of my earliest memories of farm life is my mother washing out milkers with the hose, her back bent, her brow knitted as she focused on the task. People who knew her as the kind-but-strict schoolteacher or the music-loving choir director might have been surprised to see how hard she worked at home, but that was life on the farm in the '50s.

It was a family farm, which meant my father stayed on the land his parents owned, becoming a partner by sharing the work with his father. My grandmother was the gardener, growing vegetables to can, and the raiser of chickens for eggs and meat as well. We kids were often given tasks like gathering eggs, picking potato bugs, and pulling weeds to make Grandma's work easier.

Though raised as a "city girl," Mom could drive a tractor or kill a chicken for Sunday dinner, thought she later confessed to me that when she had to chop the head off one of the flock, she couldn't make herself eat the meat.

Mom, Grandma, and one or all of the aunts were responsible for feeding the men who came to help with the harvest, friends and neighbors, who rotated around a half-dozen farms, working as a team to get everyone's crops in the barns or sheds in as short a time as possible. I remember the excitement at mealtime on those days, when my job was to carry the food from the kitchen to a table (usually boards set on sawhorses) outside. Men of all ages sat elbow-to-elbow, eating heartily whatever we set in front of them, their faces and arms red from sunburn below and white above their caps and shirtsleeves. Their voices were loud as they discussed the crop, the machinery, and how long they had to get the work done before rain or night. When our crops were cut and stored they went on to someone else's, where other women showed off by providing their best meal, just as we did.

Those images come back to me as I write the Sleuth Sisters mysteries, and bits and pieces slide into the stories.
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Friday, July 12, 2019

The Animal Thing

Book Two

Animals play a big role in the Sleuth Sisters Mysteries, starting in Book 2. I didn't get how much pets and livestock affected me until I started writing this series. In my life I only spent one span of time without a pet, and that was my freshman year of college, when I lived in a dormitory. Other than that I had chickens, cows, horses, pigs, geese, dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, and a few temporary "pets" like an baby raccoon or a fawn whose mother was killed by violators.

Like Faye in the Sleuth Sisters books, my younger sister was a horse nut. We started with ponies in the '60s and graduated to horses. Dad wintered a few cart horses that worked on Mackinac Island in the summers, and we learned to ride on their wide backs. We also learned about their tough mouths and distinct personalities. Eventually my sister was allowed to keep one for her own. Soon that horse was going to shows all over northern Michigan, and she often won top prizes despite some judges who sneered at her size. No, she wasn't really a saddle horse, but she'd do anything my sister asked of her, so she left with blue ribbons more often than not.

Drawing on those long-ago experiences has been fun, and I think it enriches the series. How about your favorite childhood animals?

Book Six

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Sisters: Where You Came In

There's a lot of study of birth order and how it affects a person's behavior. I suppose it has to have some effect, but so do a lot of other things. Here are a few.

What were things like for your parents when you were born? Were they happy? Financially secure? Ready for a baby...or another baby?

What's the setting for your childhood? Did you have wide open spaces to roam? Was it safe?

What was the family dynamic? Were there siblings? Grandparents? Extended family nearby?

Answers will vary, but here's a short version of my early life. My parents were rural and poor but happy and hard-working in 1950. They lived on a family farm, so while there wasn't a lot of money, we always had lots to eat. I was their first child as a couple, and while the family eagerly awaited a male child (Dad was the only son of an only surviving son), I never felt unwelcome for being a girl.

The farm was safe, and I went pretty much anywhere I chose from daylight till dark, either alone of with my sisters and a large group of cousins who visited often. My grandparents' house was steps away from ours, and I was in and out of their house all day. It was the childhood America thinks of when they consider the "good old days," but I'm aware that things were not like that for many people back then.

Monday, July 8, 2019

A Series on Sister Power

Book One
This is the first of a series of posts leading up to National Sisters Day, August 4th. Please respond with your own memories, whatever comes to mind as you read.

No one was more surprised than I when the Sleuth Sisters series took off. What I'd intended to be a single e-book grew, due to reader demand, to include print and then audio formats. Since that first book, the sisters have returned again and again (7 times so far) with more adventures. Just about the time I think readers are tiring of Barb, Faye, and Retta, someone writes to ask when the next book will be available. "If you do decide to end this series," one fan wrote, "please don't kill off any of the sisters!" Having lost a sister IRL two months ago, I could never do that to my fictional family.

If I had to give a single reason for the success of the Sleuth Sisters, it would be sisterhood.We don't all have sisters, but those who do often recognize themselves in the stories. Readers tell me which sister they are or point out how one of the three is exactly like one of their siblings. They have strong reactions, like the woman who wrote to tell me she "can't stand Barb." Or another who wrote to tell me that she didn't like one spot in a book because "Barb is braver than that. She'd have..." and I got a long description of what Barb would really have done if someone stuck a gun in her face.

That means the characters are real to readers, and I love that. The key to writing about sisters arguing among themselves and grousing about each other is that there has to be love behind the arguing and grousing. Sisters share experiences, genetics, and such, but we aren't alike. If we're lucky, the things we share help us understand the times when we differ.

Book Seven