Welcome to Ogallala!

Picture for 10 15 15 blog post

This photo was taken in May of 1988 when I graduated from Northeast Missouri State University, now known as Truman State University. My first professional job out of college was as news editor for the Pleasant Hill Times. This year-long stint provided much of the inspiration for “Death Goes to the County Fair.”

Today, I join the ranks of mystery writers. My novel, “Death Goes to the County Fair” premiers.
When I put this book together, I had to include a disclaimer. Mine looks like this:
“This book is a work of fiction. All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation to anyone bearing the same name or names. Any resemblance to individuals known or unknown to the author are purely coincidental. The town of Ogallala, Missouri does not exist. It is a fictional location.”
Most of that is true; there is no Ogallala, Missouri. Ogallala is a town in Nebraska that my husband and I drove through in May of 2014. I just loved the name of the town.
The main character, Joni Harte, is a recent college graduate who accepts the job of photographer and reporter at the Ogallala Gazette. She is a figment of my imagination. Well, sort of.
Almost 30 years ago, I worked as a journalist. My first job out of college was for a weekly newspaper in Pleasant Hill, a small Missouri town south of Kansas City. I did all of the things Joni does – I covered city-council and schoolboard meetings. I took photos of toddler beauty-contest winners. I had two amazing co-workers – one named Nancy and the other Ed. And like Joni, I was late for a parade and threatened with the loss of my job. I struggled to learn the intricacies of small-town life.
As in my novel, many of the town residents reached out and welcomed me. The small convenience store next door started stocking my favorite beer: Lowenbrau. Do they even still sell Lowenbrau? A couple I wrote a feature article about invited me to be a judge at their BBQ contest. And like Joni, I lived next door to my landlords: Barry and Ann, who fed me dinner on more than one occasion. Barry used to call me a “greenhorn.”
Any murders happen while I was the news editor for the Pleasant Hill Times? Nope. Not a one. House fires? Yes. Two. Including one house fire in which the old woman who lived there did not escape. I still remember standing by the remains of the house, sick with the sadness of it. That’s likely what inspired the book’s prologue.
What about Sheriff Cletus Butane? He is, I admit, my favorite character in the book. I don’t remember the Pleasant Hill police chief’s name in 1988, but I do remember he was gracious and patient with me. I know. I know. We’re not supposed to like our police, but I do. I like to think Sheriff Butane is a mix of Andy Griffith and Marshall Matt Dillon.
There was a small restaurant across the street from the Times office. It wasn’t named the Wagon Wheel though. That’s actually the name of a small restaurant that my aunt owned in Linneus, Missouri. And yes, her pies were amazing. My fictional protagonist, Joni, loves the banana cream, but I loved my great aunt’s chocolate cream pie.
Like Joni, I made a few mistakes, including writing a feature article about a disabled woman and not getting her guardian’s permission to publish it until the day we went to press. I also misspelled a name or two. This is very frowned upon in the journalism world.
No, sadly enough I did not drive an AMC Gremlin. I drove a 1970-something Pontiac Grand Am until the day a man rear-ended me and totaled it. Then, I bought a very old and beat-up Chevrolet Impala from my landlord. Like Joni, I longed for a car made in the decade in which I lived.
This book is the first in a mystery series. I have lots of ideas for sequels, including titles like “Death Goes Spelunking,” “Death Goes Antiquing,” and “Death Goes to College.” Lots of ideas. Now to turn those ideas into books. Therein is the challenge.
What’s next for me? Completing the two sequels to Celebration House. The trilogy will publish in 2016.
Meanwhile, I wait to hear what readers think about Joni Hart and Sheriff Cletus Butane. It’s my strongest hope they will love these two characters and the others who live in my fictional town of Ogallala, Missouri.
Hands and arms inside the cart: Next, learning how to manage Celebration House.

Remembering why I write

A few months after my debut novel, Celebration House, was published in August of 2013, I received an email from my older brother, Kevin. He and I had lost touch over the years and hadn’t seen one another since the late 1990s. Kevin said that he and his wife, Kathy, had purchased my ebook and would like to have a print version. Where could they buy one?

My response to my brother was something along the lines of, “So, you’re the one who bought my book,” and that there was not currently a print version available. For my brother and I, my small success in writing was the catalyst, I think, for us to reconnect. A few months later, as 2013 came to a close, my brother wrote to me again to tell me that he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer and was fighting for his life. He died July 30th.

And so began my journey into grief. It’s a private trip into one of the darkest places I’ve ever known. Unlike other struggles, like my divorces or child-custody battles, there’s no villain for me to attack. No one person against whom I can wage war. My mother died 12 years ago, but losing a sibling is a different genre of grief. Please forgive me if this sounds cold, but most of us expect to lose a parent. We don’t expect to lose a 51-year-old brother.

In August, I began working on the sequel to Celebration House. If you know my novel, you know how it ends. You also know that the heroine of the second book, Beth, walks a similar path to mine. Like me, or perhaps because of me, Beth feels overshadowed by sadness, remorse and perhaps guilt. She has little patience with the bridezillas who rent out Carrie’s house – she still thinks of it as Carrie’s – and doesn’t always know what to do with the tidal waves of emotions that pummel her daily. One of my favorite scenes is when Beth relates to a friend that her sadness has sat outside in the hot summer sun and rotted, turning into anger she can barely contain.

I stopped writing Beth’s story. Who would want to read it? Instead, I began working on a cozy mystery called Death Comes to the Ogallala Fair. My reasons for doing this are, I’ll be honest, a little financial. Cozy mysteries sell. They’re fun. They’re lighthearted. They’re not, well, sad.

I wasn’t sure I could do this. I mean, the death of my brother moved the foundation of my mental health a good three feet. So how could I kill people?

It was easier than I thought! Because to quote Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie, True Lies, I only kill bad people.

Something happened as I struggled to write my 1,000 words each day and piece together characters and a setting for the mystery. I began to have fun. Real fun! I would laugh out loud at the outrageous things happening in the small town of Ogallala, Missouri. (Yes. I know there is no such place, but I just love saying it: Ogallala. Ogallala. Say it with me. Ogallala.

The town itself is based on Pleasant Hill, Missouri, where I had the privilege of being a newspaper reporter for a year before taking a job with The Sedalia Democrat. Oh, did I mention I set it in 1988? Yep. No cellphones. No internet. Somebody break out the George Michael cassette tapes.

The novel is complete fiction, but like my other books, the people who live on the pages are based on people I know, including my former bosses and co-workers at The Pleasant Hill Times. I’ve elaborated on the sheriff because, well, I wanted to. And the ultimate villain? It’s…wait. I intend to finish this book and hawk it for $2.99. I better keep that to myself.

I am reading the Amazon bestselling books in this genre, and I purchased two e-books about how to write a cozy mystery. Right now, I’m crafting the characters. I want to create a protagonist who the reader cares enough about to stay up until 2 a.m. to see what happens to her. I want to intricately plot this book. I want to whittle my storytelling with my sharpest-edged knife. And I want to laugh, or rather, keep laughing at the things these new people in my life say and do.

The few pages I’ve shared with my critique group have been well received. They like the idea of this small town where a killer is loose and the sole reporter for The Ogallala (See! Isn’t it fun to say?) Gazette stays just one step ahead of the murderer. Or perhaps, murderess?!? Oh, this is going to be fun. One of my critique partners compared it to the Mark Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. I would never go that far, but I will say this: it helps.

Kevin and PoppyWriting dilutes and on a really good day, dispels my sadness. And sitting on the desk next to my computer is my favorite picture of my brother, Kevin. He is with me still.

Hands and arms inside the cart: Next, have I gone too commercial?