I’m Mary Davidsaver. I built my first cozy mystery, Clouds Over Bishop Hill, around a
fictionalized version of Bishop Hill, a former communal society and an Illinois
state historic site. I gave Shelley Anderson, my protagonist and New Adult, a
mission: Find a long, lost painting. I did my best to make her journey a difficult
but maturing experience.
My sequel, Buried
Treasure, begins with a body in a cemetery—the one body that’s NOT supposed
to be there. Shelley gets involved when the prime suspect is a former boyfriend
and the future fiancé of Marsha Ellen: her cousin, best friend, and college
roommate. It’s complicated. And becomes more complicated when Shelley receives
some SHOCKING news.
To which she says, “Whoa, back up to the part where I can’t
be a bridesmaid at your wedding.”
That turns out to be a pivotal point. The rest of the book
explores just why Shelley would make the most unsuitable bridesmaid.
Add a cat food commercial and Bishop Hill is ready for the
For the August meeting of the
West End book club we read Jenny Lawson’s second book, Furiously Happy. We had Let’s
Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir on our 2015-2016
schedule, so some of us knew what to expect in terms of wit, humor, and honesty.
It appears that reading a
Jenny Lawson book had an effect on me. It made me feel free-er to look at
myself, my life, and it can influence my writing, if I let it.
As a gift to my
readers, and for my husband, I wanted to share a story, “Alarms in the Nighttime.”
My husband has put up with me
for 39-plus years of an interesting life. Not as interesting as Lawson’s, but
we’ve had our moments. One of those moments came into play for this story, and
I let myself run with it. As Jenny would say, “It’s mostly true.” Enjoy.
My brain is trying to tell me something important like, “Wake
up, the world has problems that need attending to. You need to move!”
I should probably
open my eyes.
I roll over and mumble
to my husband, “Is that another storm warning?” The past evening had been
filled with our smart phones going crazy every few minutes with thunderstorm
warnings and watches. Most were not too close, but when the Iowa City area had a
funnel cloud spotted on the ground I’d gotten into gear and packed up my
computer along with my most important notes to stow away in our storm room. My
standard procedure for the midwestern tornado season.
By now I’m aware
enough to make out that the loud noise is not coming from a cell phone, and my
husband is saying, “That’s the SMOKE alarm.”
It provides a good
jolt of adrenaline. I’m fully awake now and fumbling for my glasses. By the
time we’re both out of the bedroom and standing by our kitchen table the awful
sound stops. We’re both like, “Where’s the fire?”
I don’t smell
anything. He doesn’t smell anything, and his nose is much more sensitive than
mine. We do a quick search of our rather smallish home and come up empty. No
smoldering menace to be found.
My brave husband volunteers to stay up to
keep a watchful eye out, or in this case a watchful nose, for anything we might
have missed. “I’m awake anyway,” he says. He proceeds to start up his computer
and finds the instruction manual for our alarms. By now I’m not going anywhere
either, so we start our search to see if we can tell which alarm did the deed.
Which one woke us up at MIDNIGHT.
He says, “You have
to look for a blinking red light.”
“Why me?” I ask.
“Because I’m color blind,” he says.
When we first
started dating he downplayed his eye condition to merely “color challenged.” I
remember this clearly. This color identification business shifted as he’s aged.
What was once a “challenge” has become a badge of martyrdom and a ready excuse
to get out of all kinds of color-based tasks. So, I take the lead on this hunt
through our darkened house. I stand under each of our six visible alarms (there
are three more tucked away out of reach) and patiently count to one hundred
hoping my bleary eyes will catch a tiny green dot change to a tiny red dot. And
wink at me.
I make the circuit
twice before I discover the offender. It’s in MY room. My personal writing-space
room of disorder. I’m, like, thinking about how this room should be any different
tonight, or rather this morning, than any other time. I can only come up with
one answer—the caterpillar.
I’m trying to help
Monarch butterflies. To that end I welcomed four kinds of milkweed into my garden
over the past five years—with little tangible success. This year I became
determined to assist some
caterpillars through to full butterflyhood. Over the past month I was
harvesting the tiny white eggs, complete with milkweed leaf, and raising them
in recycled Blue Bunny ice cream containers. My goal: to get them of a size
that when reintroduced into the main milkweed patch they’d make it the rest of
the way on their own. You see, I was SO sure that the precious eggs and
hatchlings were being preyed upon by hungry ants, stealthy spiders, and nasty beetles
that I put up with the fuss and muss of having wild things indoors. Well, in my
garage. Things were going fine and I’d already released a couple of
caterpillars. Then it got hot. Then it got hotter. The poor dears would lie in
the bottom of their respective containers and NOT EAT. Not good. (Caterpillars
are designed to eat—and do the other thing that’s opposite of eating.) When
they tried to escape the over-heated confines of their plastic cells, I had to
make the ultimate sacrifice, I brought them into the air-conditioned comfort of
my home—specifically, MY room.
On the night, or
the morning, of the alarm going off I still had one caterpillar to go. I was
waiting for the right time, for another break in the hot spell. How could I
make this last creature go from 79 degrees of cool comfort to 95 degrees muggy
torture? I couldn’t be that inhumane. My sleep-deprived brain was telling me that
this bug had somehow emitted enough methane, or whatever gaseous byproduct that
comes from digesting milkweed, to set off the alarm. Perhaps there’d been a
build up over the past few weeks and the tipping point had been surpassed. How
do I admit to my husband that it’s all my fault?
But before I could
come clean and confess—I was SAVED.
My always clever
husband presents his own theory. He declares with a straight face, it was still
dark so I’m guessing it was a straight face, he says “It was those radioactive
I restrain myself
and listen to him explain about how old-time smoke detectors used radioactive
stuff to do their detecting work. Combine that with the spiders that travel
into the country by hitching rides on bananas, which everyone knows are sources
of radioactivity, and you get spiders that can set off smoke alarms all
What could I do
but agree with him? I was so thrilled to be totally off the hook.
caterpillar went free a couple of days later—and I placed a moratorium on
raising any more Monarch eggs—for THIS year.
P.S. My husband read this and he totally disagrees about the martyr thing.
P.P.S. He likes to have sliced bananas on his cereal.
© Mary R. Davidsaver 2017
Two interesting items from
this past week: A guest visit to a writer’s critique group in Madison, and a
request to apply for another panel for Killer Nashville.
The critique group I visited
does things differently than the Writer’s Studio that meets at the MWC office
in the lower level of the Rock Island library twice a month. At the Writer’s
Studio gatherings, we read a few pages and discus them. The other group in
Madison has writers submit pages before the meeting for written comments,
questions, and grammatical input. This is an approach I’ve been wanting to
experience again. I liked it for a workshop on novel writing I had several
years ago. The workshop leader came from Iowa City and it was as close as I
could get to the Writer’s Workshop without enrolling in the U of I. (That old workshop was where I first came face to face with “comma splicing.” Didn’t know it existed
until then. Can I handle it now? No comment.)
I think the Madison critique group's approach to grammar, hence the introduction to the term “Wordinator,” was quite
helpful. Like a higher-level Beta reader. As one guy put it, “You combine all
of us together and you get one good editor.” (Or words to that effect.)
My thoughts after 2 hours of 5
people going over 13 pages of manuscript: be constructive, be supportive, and
About the same time as I was
working on my critique pages, I received an email the founder of Killer
Nashville saying, “I want to make sure I portray you in your best light.” So, I
could apply for a position on another panel.
I went through the KN schedule
and made a list of panels I might be able to offer something constructive to
and wrote down my thoughts:
Creating & Weaving Subplots
I read Kathy Reichs first
novel, Deja Dead, and felt that she threw in everything but the kitchen sink. I
was impressed with the complexities. So, I was not averse to add a lot of
subplots to my novel. I have a missing painting, a fake painting, a destroyed
painting, a Swede with a fake name, four villains with ulterior motives, detailed
description of a village in Illinois, and lots of family secrets. The thing
that (hopefully) saved me became clearer with a comment I heard from Ethan
are lots of ways to build plot, characters, etc. There’s only one way for a
story to go wrong: fail
to pose one and only one emotional question for the reader.”
Boys (and Girls): The Villains You Can’t Forget
I love my villains. Once created I couldn’t get rid of
them by pinning them with the crime. At a panel for Murder & Mayhem in Chicago the moderator asked for any examples
of a mystery that didn’t have a killer. I was too shy to raise my hand, but I
did slip her my card afterward with a note about the metaphor I thought was most
important to me. (And yes, that was going against the advice of one of my
editors, but I had to make a point for my theme of preservation. Just another
stubborn writer I guess.)
Up, You are Where You’re Supposed to Be: Keeping Perspective
There is a YouTube video of
J. K. Rowlings giving a commencement address where she talks about the lowest
point in her life and how she had to focus completely on getting one thing
right, her first novel. I can identify with that. I’m a late bloomer as a writer
and I had a lot of ground to make up. I did one thing, my first novel, and not
much else for years. Because of that singlemindedness I don’t have an
impressive resume for publications, but I feel I did my best at getting my
message across in the novel. (If I didn’t, well, there’s the 2nd
I’m Not the Same Anymore: Character Arcs
Early on a friend made me
promise to have my protagonist grow and change. I kept that in mind. Workshops
taught me that there are positive and negative arcs. Upward and downward. I
have used both. And none. It was pointed out that some characters don’t change,
i.e. Jack Reacher.
(There’s a YouTube video of
Curt Vonnegut diagraming story plots. Love the visual aspect of it. Might be
useful for this panel.)
Buy My Book and Pay Me to Speak
I had to have a fifth entry
on the form and I picked this for no other reason than I’m thinking about it
Peaches and Scream by Susan
Furlong is an excellent introduction into the complicated life of Nola Mae
Harper. She’s a Georgia
belle who went AWOL after high school and has returned to sort out her life.
She has issues with family, friends, job, and finding a body leaning against a
peach tree on the family farm. Furlong leads the reader through the streets of
Cays Mill as she piles up clues about a host of suspects. She then takes us on
to a bumpy ride over narrow back roads to the final twist of an ending that I
never saw coming.
I thought the Harper clan had
its share of adversity piled pretty high in Susan Furlong’s third visit to Cays
Mill, Georgia. Most of it thanks a long-standing grudge nursed by a peevish
sheriff who can let important clues slip by. Though, I have to admit that those
clues slipped by me as well. All thanks to the clever writing of the author.
Furlong made me wait to the very end to fully reveal all the guilty parties.
Both books were well plotted
out, stocked with believable and approachable characters, and true to the cozy
And the recipes were more
than just window dressing or sources for peachy humor. I really learned to like
peach salsa and how to thaw out frozen fruit. It works. All of this really
works. Good reads all the way around.