Who is watching me?

I am at peace when I am home. We have lots of land and a big house. All of our kids are home with us, even the college kids. My husband and I are both working at home, so we haven’t lost any income. It’s easy to get comfortable, to feel okay with the world and to remain patient as we attempt to fight this virus and eventually return to some definition of normal.

But once a week, I have to buy groceries and I am reminded of how terrifying this is.

It’s not the virus that scares me (Well, it does, but that’s different kind of fear.). It’s the atmosphere. My blood pressure soars the minute I pull into the parking lot and my stomach fills with acid. I see people pulling on masks as they exit their vehicles and I wonder:

Who is watching me?

Who is ready to lash out because I put my mask on wrong, or I adjusted it, or I touched my face or I accidentally stepped within their six-foot circles? Am I wearing the right kind of mask? Will I endure scowls or worse if I pick up a product and change my mind, putting back on the shelf along with my germs?

I am not paranoid. I know they are watching me because I have read the comments on the social media, the lists upon lists of wrong doing. The accusations: Evil people bought all the yeast, all the craft supplies, all the toilet paper. Someone bought a case of beer. Is it for a party? Are they going to violate the social distancing rules? A person took his mask off, and then returned the cart. Someone should call the cops.

The weight of it crushes me, leadens my feet as I walk the aisles. It makes me leery of the people I pass in the aisles or stand six feet behind in line. We have become a police state, not entirely by court order, but by a social order — social media, specifically.

Social media used to be my happy place. I would unfriend those who made my blood boil because I didn’t want that. I logged into Faceboook or Instagram or Twitter to connect with friends. I wanted to share lives, advice, recommendations, articles and photos. That’s it. But social media has changed. If I unfriended all the people who make my blood boil now, I would have a pretty short friend list.

I am trying to be patient. I am trying to remember that I get to leave the grocery store and return to my own rural haven. I have the benefit of living in the middle of nowhere. So many people do not have that option. They live in apartments — on top of, underneath or beside other apartments — or in homes packed so tightly together that they can’t take a walk without brushing against someone else.

They don’t get to watch the insanity grow farther and farther away in their rear view mirrors. It stays with them. The eyes remain on them, and the pressure hurts, so they relieve it by turning on others. They make allegations quickly and ferociously on social media so they can feel safely on the other side of the line. They are the good people, the obedient people, the righteous. Everyone else is bad.

It’s their way of creating distance and I have to remember that.

I hope that as states begin to lift restrictions, we can begin to lift our eyes. Take them off our neighbors and try to see the good around us. Start to rebuild trust. The idea of reopening businesses, schools and services is frightening. The virus is still out there. It will continue to kill people and make them ill. It will be a confusing time marked by conflicting and extreme emotions. But this virus has cost us so much already in lives and in livelihood. Let’s not sacrifice our humanity.

It can begins with social media. How about a week without criticism? Just one week.

A new book deal!

Even during a pandemic, good things can happen.

Today, I signed a contract with Level Best Books for three novels in my Lisa Jamison mystery/suspense series.

I couldn’t be more thrilled. The owners/editors are people I know and trust. I am confident my books are in excellent hands, and I am in the company of some pretty awesome authors.

It is an amazing feeling.

The first novel, A DEAD MAN’S EYES, is due for release April 13, 2021.

The next two novels, NEVER BROKEN and NO TIME TO BREATHE, will be released in April of 2022 and 2023.

Verena Rose, an editor and partner in Level Best Books was the first person I turned to when I broke my previous book contract. Why? Because trust and confidence were the most important considerations as I tried to find a new home for my novels.

I first heard of Level Best Books in 2015 at New England Crime Bake, where I met Shawn Reilly Simmons. (New England Crime Bake, held each November near Boston, is an awesome conference, by the way. I highly recommend it.). Shawn was there, in part, to announce that she and her partners were taking the helm of the company, which published only anthologies at the time.

Verena, Shawn and their third partner, Harriette Sackler, all have impressive resumes. Harriette is a multi-published, Agatha Award-winning short story author. Shawn is author of the RED CARPET CATERING MYSTERIES, published by Henery Press, and a former submissions editor for a small press. Verena is the Agatha Award nominated co-editor of NOT EVERYONE’S CUP OF TEA, AND INTERESTING AND ENTERTAINING HISTORY OF MALICE DOMESTIC’S FIRST 25 YEARS and the managing editor of the Malice Domestic anthology series. She is also researching and writing a novel of her own.

All three editors/owners serve or have served on the board of directors for Malice Domestic and are involved in a number of respected writer associations.

Soon after the team took over, Level Best Books began accepting submissions for novels. They started small with a few novels releases in the first year under their new serial mystery imprint, Dames of Detection. Then they grew, slowly and steadily, adding a second imprint, Historia, a publisher of serial historical crime novels, this year.

I came to know Verena virtually about two years ago, and I have been following the progress of Level Best Books all along. I have been nothing but impressed. Verena, Shawn and Harriette are smart business women who know the publishing business from both sides — as writers and as editors.

Level Best Books is an approved publisher of Mystery Writers of America and of International Thriller Writers. That is important to me. The authors I know who publish with them are happy. That is even more important.

I am proud and fortunate to call myself a Level Best author.

Bobcat on the brain

I am distracted enough in my attempts to write with a new part-time job, fours kids studying at home and my husband working from home. Yesterday, the distraction problem escalated.

This guy came slinking through our backyard. Now I can’t help peeking out the window every few minutes, hoping to catch another glimpse of him.

Rediscovering Marco: A Canine Love Story in the Time of Corona

When we moved into our new house seven years ago, we also adopted a second dog. Marco was a 75-pound rescue. The vet guessed he was about 18 months old. He was a border collie/lab mix and the gentlest dog I have ever met.

Marco and our other dog, Clover, instantly clicked. Clover was older and smaller with the body of a beagle and coloring of a border collie. They behaved like siblings, wrestling, playing tug-a-war and curling up near each other in exhaustion.

Thanks to a wireless fence, they were able to run and play outside all around the house. As Clover aged, she no longer need the collar that gave her a slight shock when she got too close to her boundaries. She hated the feeling and she had a torn ligament that limited her mobility.

Marco had always been a bit more stubborn. He escaped now and then, despite the “stubborn dog” setting, but he always came right back. He’d been so good this past year that we didn’t expect it when he bolted after some deer one day this fall, and we were shocked when Clover followed.

I searched our property and the neighborhood for two hours. Then I returned home to find a message on the answering machine from the vet. Marco was fine, but Clover had died instantly when she was hit by a car. Some kindly neighbors had taken Marco to the vet for identification and they brought him home to us.

Another kind neighbor brought Clover.

That’s the sad part of the story.

It gets better from here on thanks, in part, to the coronavirus. Yes, as devastating as the virus has been, some little bit of good — some measure of happiness — has come out of it.

When Clover died, the two older kids were in college and the two younger kids were busy with school and school activities. My husband worked full time 45 minutes away and my days were spent writing, running errands for us and for my mother-in-law and cleaning.

We couldn’t trust Marco with the wireless fence anymore and we didn’t want to lose him, so he was relegated to a run. It was a long run with good reach, but he was clearly not happy. He would bark and bark at the deer in our backyard, but they would continue eating 20 feet away, unbothered. They learned quickly that he couldn’t get them.

Marco grew less active. He spent more time on the sofa. He’d lost his puppy-like energy. He and Clover had always entertained each other. Marco missed both his freedom and his buddy. We cuddled him more than usual and that was good, but he wanted more and we were all too busy to notice.

Then the virus hit.

The virus brought the college kids home to take classes via Zoom. The living room became a classroom for the younger kids. My husband started working from an office in the basement. With nowhere to go and everyone sitting at desks, we all needed breaks. Something totally different. Something fun and exciting.

That something, we discovered, was Marco.

It started with rough-housing between assignments and classes. The kids, each in turn, would leave their work stations and seek him out. They would talk to him, play tug-of-war with him and alternate chasing him and being by him. My husband started taking Marco along after work when he retired to the garage, where he is building pieces of the tree house of all tree houses.

I had been walking alone and with friends for exercise before the virus hit, but after everyone closed in on the house, I found I needed the psychological relief of the outdoors more often. I located Marco’s old harness, hooked him up and started taking him for walks on our property and along our rural roads.

Sometimes, I would find a child waiting on the stoop when I returned, anxious to take Marco on another adventure. Other times, the kids joined me. More often, they took him for walks on their own, wanting more purpose to their outdoor time than a solitary stroll.

It’s been three weeks since our oldest came home from college and two weeks since serious social distancing began. The world is suffering from the virus and from the loneliness the necessary isolation has forced upon us. But for Marco, it has been a rebirth.

He is happy again.

Everybody should have a Marco

Embracing envy, a side effect of the pandemic

I find myself envious during these days of social distancing of those who have younger children. My husband thinks I am crazy. Some of his colleagues are struggling to work from home while toddlers and elementary school kids disrupt their meetings and concentration with outdoor voices, giggles and tantrums.

He is grateful for the cooperation of our college students, who are endlessly occupied with online classes, and our twin 13-year-olds who juggle schoolwork with video games and television. All four kids have been especially quiet while they all recover from a different virus, the kind that attacks kids with inexperienced immune systems, leaving adults unaffected. They have been easy even in illness, so I am grateful as well.

But then I see these posts on social media of parents doing crafts with kids, cooking with kids, taking them on small hikes. That’s when the envy creeps in. I miss those days when the two oldest would play for hours at the kitchen table with Playdough, Legos and Polly Pockets. I miss watching the twins narrate self-created episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine while they push their personified toys along their wooden tracks. I miss taking the kids outside to play in the mud, throw rocks in the creek, search for worms, ants and spiders.

I miss the days when our kids were fascinated by everything and anything.

They still get outside, but I have to remind them and push them and encourage them to find activities that are worth their time. One twin sometimes plays baseball with my husband. The other throws shot put and discus at the track. The two boys often walk outside together to talk about their mutual interests or conjure up some new story line for a video game or comic strip.

The older kids will sometimes go for walks or runs, but it can be struggle, especially since they have been sick and the weather has shifted from spring-like and sunny to rainy and cool. They have also just returned from huge college campuses, where they walked a mile or two to class and shared tight spaces with others.

They are savoring the peace and quiet.

I need to remember that all of our kids are also mourning. Our oldest should be preparing for a five-day field trip to Colorado, where his Penn State geobiology class planned to test its newfound knowledge in the field. The internships he applied for this summer are on hold. He lost his job when the campus dining halls closed.

Our daughter was excited by her life in Raleigh . She had fallen in love with the city and with the people she had come to know on the campus of NC State. She had finally found friends who shared her views, a major that she loves and the independence she craves.

The twins lost baseball, track, the school musical, all-county band, marching band, field trips and time with their friends. They love learning and conversing with their teachers. All that is gone for now.

So I am grateful that they have all been cooperative and accepting, that they haven’t succumbed to depression when it tempts them every day. I am grateful that they make an effort to get along and that they are such a pleasure to be with. I am grateful for family game night, shared television shows, dinners together and deep conversations.

I am very fortunate.

But I want to paint windows with Easter decorations. I want to make “stew” from grass and berries and rocks. I want skip stones in creeks and ponds. Or do I? Really?

I know this is nostalgia speaking. I know that if I dig deep enough, I will remember the frustrations of floors littered with toys, kids who won’t sleep, constant interruptions to my attempts to write. I will remember getting every meal for all four kids, instead of letting them get their own breakfast and lunch, having to order and baths or showers, breaking up deeply emotional arguments, and finding the next new activity to keep them occupied despite physical and emotional exhaustion.

I will remember all that and I will be relieved that we are long past those stages. I am grateful, truly grateful, for the freedom young adulthood and the teen years give us and I would not trade our lives now for anything else, but my envy defies logic. It persists.

So what can I do but embrace it?

If I really think about it, I understand that my envy is a good thing. It means that, overall, those days were good. They were worth longing for. I hope all parents who are home with young children right now can feel the same way someday. I hope they will be able look back on this pandemic through rose-colored glasses, and maybe feel a tinge of envy when they see other parents with young children. Like me.

Good-bye, book contract

My heart is heavy.

I made a painful decision this week. I asked that Black Opal Books release me from my three-book contract, and they did. I am, once again, a writer without a contract.

It was not an easy decision, but I did it out of respect for myself and my work. The Oregon-based publisher was bought out by an employee in July, a few months after I signed my contract. The previous owner was sick and the new owner wanted to do right by the authors.

Her intentions were good, but she inherited a mess and things only got messier. Books were released without the authors’ knowledge, authors were forced to cancel launch events because their books were not published on schedule, book orders for events routinely went unfulfilled.

Emails to editors and the owner often fell into a void, my own emails included.

I was told things would get better.

I waited and waited, but they have not.

I sincerely hope I regret my decision someday, that the new owner and the remaining authors are hugely successful. I have made some great friends through Black Opal Books and I want them to do well.

But for now, it’s back to the keyboard for me.

The full manuscript for a new thriller, Never Let Go, is in the hands of three fantastic agents and I am reaching out to a wonderful press about the three books that were previously under contract with Black Opal Books: Dead Man’s Eyes, Never Broken and No Stranger Here.

This has been a difficult and disappointing experience, but I am optimistic. The heaviness will lift and my books will find a new home. So, I will keep my chin up and write on.

Preparing for the polar plunge: book promotion

While I still don’t have a firm release date for my debut mystery novel, A DEAD MAN’S EYES, things are happening behind the scenes at Black Opal Books that indicate it will be on bookshelves by late spring. And that means it’s time for me to get to work.

I need to start seriously promoting my novel.

I feel a bit like I did as a kid, preparing to dive into the tea-colored waters of an Adirondack lake for the first time after a long winter. Adirondack lakes never really warm up, so a late-spring swim can feel like a polar plunge. That first moment of contact is a shock to the system and the anticipation of it can be enough to make a weaker soul run for the heated pool inside the Best Western.

But the rewards … oh, the rewards.

Those who brave the first plunge find the gates open to a whole summer of freedom — swimming across Ampersand Bay, leaping off cliffs at The Gulch, skipping-dipping under the post-midnight stars in Lake Flower (Who? Me?). The body quickly adjusts to the temperature and the initial shock gives way to exhilaration. Winter is gone and summer, full of new possibilities, arrives.

This is my spring. Winter — a time of first drafts, first query letters, first rejections and first acceptances — was lovely and full of its own adventures, but it lasted almost 20 years and I am ready for this new season. I am excited, thrilled even, but I have to steel myself for that first plunge, for the initial shock of promotions.

It’s a huge and intimidating shift from the private life of a writer to the more public life of an author/business person. I know I can write books, but can I sell them? The thought of promoting and marketing my books is enough to make me run to the nearest public relations firm. But I know that it will be worth it, that I just need to take that first plunge and let my mind adjust to the temperature of it all.

I still have some time, so I am preparing with a book that came highly recommended, Before and After the Book Deal by Courtney Maum. I have only just begun reading, but I’m finding it inspiring so far. I would love to hear from other writers. How was your transition? How did you prepare for your debut novel? Feel free to link to any blog posts or books in the comments.