Organic Growing, Organic Writing

Edith here, delighted to have ‘Til Dirt Do Us Part – my second Local Foods mystery – out and available! And huge thanks to the Wickeds and so many other fans for helping me celebrate all week.

My protagonist in the Local Foods mysteries, Cam Flaherty, is an organic farmer. She’s working hard to get her new farm certified, and has to confront several challenges to that certifiedorganicgoal.

As you might know by now, I was a certified-organic farmer myself twenty years ago, and I’m an organic gardener now. I also, for the most part, write organically. But what does writing organically mean?

Some mystery writers plot out their stories in advance. They write outlines, create spreadsheets and timelines, produce detailed synopses. Others start with a few headlightscharacters, possibly an idea for the crime, an inkling of the villain, a vision of the victim. Then they follow these people around and write down what they do. This has been called writing by the seat of your pants. Writing organically. Writing into the headlights. Writing organically.

My path of least resistance is to write organically, although these days my editor requires me to turn in a synopsis of the next book before I write it.

So how does writing organically compare with growing organically? When I garden, I set compost-pile-curing01-lgup the best soil I can. I add lots and lots of organic matter: compost, wood ash, decomposed leaves, seaweed, whatever I can find. I work the soil only when it is dry, so it doesn’t destroy the natural structure of air and particles under the surface. I either raise my own seedlings or or buy them from a local farm, and plant only organically raised seeds. I water my baby plants only when they’re dry and always when they’re dry. And then I follow my plants as they grow. I prune off unnecessary suckers on the tomato vines. 2011-04-02 22.28.33I harvest the best cucumbers and Asian eggplants and put anything that’s damaged or diseased in the compost. I cut a dinner’s worth of salad, knowing the mizuna, arugula, and baby lettuces will regenerate for another night’s meal.

Same with writing. I prepare myself by taking online courses, studying excellent writing, reading constantly. I create my writing IMG_2925space, both physical and mental, so I’m ready for unimpeded creativity. I churn out a first draft, bringing myself back to the garden of my story over and over again. And then I prune. I weed. I train the vines of my scenes so they work, so the plot is at once complete, fair to the reader, and also a guessing game. I up the suspense, enrich the characters’ motivations and secrets, and also leave a few things unsaid for the dinner in the next book in the series.

Or at least that’s my goal, both in the garden and in the book.

What’s your gardening method? Your writing method? Is there any parallel with reading?

It’s Farmers’ Market Season!

We’re celebrating Edith’s book birthday all week as ‘Til Dirt Do Us Part makes its way TilDirtAmazonCoverinto the world. As part of our festivities, the Wickeds are talking about farmers’ markets and our favorite items to take home from them. We might even share a recipe or two!

Liz: There’s an awesome farmers’ market a couple towns over from me, the Coventry Farmers’ Market, known throughout New England because of its sheer size and experience. It’s like going to a county fair. I love it because the dogs get to go, and in addition to fruits and veggies and all kinds of other treats, they often have other groups there doing educational things. One weekend last summer a greyhound rescue brought some of their dogs, and another weekend some alpacas came to visit. As far as bringing something home, fresh berries, without a doubt. Raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, all of the above. I’m a fresh berry junkie – love them to eat and to put in my smoothies.

IMG_4768Barb: In summer for us, it’s the Boothbay Farmer’s Market on the green in Boothbay, Maine. It’s been open for the season for two weeks now and Bill and I are thrilled because fresh produce can be hard to get on the peninsula–not to mention the local meat, baked goods, cheeses and other delicious treats. But I also wanted to mention Russo’s in Watertown, MA. I famously don’t grocery shop, but over the years, I have made an exception for Russo’s. It’s not technically a farmer’s market. Originally a small retail outlet for a restaurant wholesale business, it’s expanded over the years, yet the aisles can still be jammed with shoppers. What I love is it’s a multi-ethnic, multi-national shopping experience. “What do you do with that?” a little old Italian lady will ask, spying an unfamiliar squash in a young Ethiopian woman’s cart. “Oh, it’s for a stew. You peel it…” This goes on all the time at Russo’s, which is why I enjoy the place so much.

IMG_4769Julie: I live in Somerville, MA, and love that there are so many farmer’s markets around me. Harvard Square has one during the week. Union Square has one on Saturdays. And I am even thinking about getting a half share in a CSA. My favorite farmer’s market finds, though? Much as I love, love, love in-season vegetables, and really love summer crops, I enjoy finding the other items at the market, like jams and jellies, or local chocolates. Supporting local is so important for so many reasons, and farmer’s markets are a great way to discover local businesses. And PS, I am going to Russos soon!

Sherry: Having lived all over the country while Bob was in the Air Force I’ve been to a lot of farmers markets. In Cheyenne, Wyoming they roasted chili peppers in huge rotating wire baskets IMG_4776over open flames. When we lived in San Pedro, CA I ate so many strawberries I’m surprised I didn’t turn red. In Monterey every Tuesday night Alvarado street downtown was closed. And like with Liz, it was more like a festival than a farmers market. I’ve never seen such fresh produce. In Bedford, MA we found the most amazing tomatoes. And now in Virginia we buy all kinds of produce and oh, the bakery that brings bread, delicious.

Edith: I love going to the farmers’ market, and to local farm stands. It’s a little different, though, when you’re trying to sell rather than looking to buy. I remember putting out crisp, pristine heads of lettuce and watching them wilt in four hours of sun. The next week I got a market umbrella! At one market I was surrounded by bakers and other giving out tasty samples, so I decided to offer samples of tender arugula. It being 1992, nobody had any idea of what that “exotic” green was. But greens lovers always bought a bunch after trying it.

Now I’m trying to sell books at market CiderHillJune13instead of produce. Here I am last year at Cider Hill Farm, our local orchard and vegetable farm, and the farm that inspired the fictional farm-to-table dinner described in the beginning of ‘Til Dirt Do Us Part. I’ve signed up for one market a month through September all over the north-of-Boston region. Wish me luck!

Jessie: Instead of farmers’ markets I usually head for farm stands. I live in a really rural area and am lucky to be surrounded by orchards and blueberry fields as well as farms that raise vegetables. I particularly like McKenzie’s Farm for their delicious tomatoes and cider doughnuts. In the fall we always buy a crate of apples from Kelly Orchards to make cider with friends and family on an antique press.

Readers: What’s your favorite market or farm stand? Any good recipes? Best or worst buys?

Wicked Wednesday: The Cam Flaherty Fan Club

On Wicked Wednesdays, we Wickeds weigh in on a subject. This week we are Til Dirt do us Part Covercelebrating the launch of ‘Til Dirt Do Us Part, the latest in the Local Foods mystery series. So the question is, what do we like about the protagonist of the series, Cam Flaherty?

Jessie: I like that Cam’s spunky and is not afraid to get her hands dirty both literally and figuratively. She works hard to grow her business and to build a community around it.

Liz: Cam’s a cool lady – she’s not afraid to take risks, she’s a fierce believer in local farms and local foods, and she’s dedicated to clean eating. She’s also got no fear – and I totally respect that!

Sherry: I love Cam because Edith’s passion for local foods and organic farms shines through Cam. Cam’s an introvert and has to challenge herself to face that issue so her farm will be a success. It adds another layer of depth to Edith’s books.

Barb: I like the challenge Edith has set for herself as a writer with Cam. Cam is an introvert and a computer programmer who’s lived most of her life in her head. In the Local Food Mysteries, Cam moves from the intellectual realm to the intensely physical, and from a solitary pursuit to one where she can only get by with a little help from her friends–she has to live in and rely on her community. In some ways it’s the ultimate fish out of water story, but in others, it’s a recognizable and believable journey.

Julie: I love that Cam is carrying the family tradition forward. She is farming her uncle’s land, and is determined to make a go of it. That says so much about her character, and it helps support her searches for justice.

MaxFarmerEdith: <Blowing kisses to my blogmates: mwah!> I created Cam twenty years ago when I was a farmer myself, and I wanted a protagonist who wasn’t anything like me. So she’s way taller, younger (so now she’s WAY younger), a geek good with numbers and data where I’m more of a story/words type, single, and an introvert. I have introverted aspects, but I also love being among people I know well, and am just a little bit famous for getting down on the dance floor.

And I think it’s very cool that others see parts of Cam, and Cam in the books, that I had no idea I was writing, or that emerged as part of the stories with no intention on my part.

Readers: What’s your view of this tall, somewhat awkward new farmer? How’s she been doing so far? Where would you like to see her going, in romance, in farming, in life?

Wicked Good Farm Tales

Liz here, again. We’re winding up A Biscuit, A Casket‘s launch week, and today we’re talking farms. In the book, Stan winds up spending a little more time than she ever thought she would on the dairy farm in town. We thought it might be fun to tell our own farm stories. Which I didn’t really have until I started writing this book.

I’m a city girl. I like high heels and coffee. I don’t like work boots and muck. And milking tankworse. I do remember accompanying my mother once as a kid to a local farm to get manure for her garden. The stench remained with me most of the day. When Stan’s next adventure became clear, I knew I needed to get the farm thing down. So I went on a tour of the local dairy farm. I met the cows, I stepped in muck, I even got to check out the milking tank. We didn’t tour the manure pit, thank goodness. Stan seemed to get used to the farming thing. Me? I’m good. Get me to Starbucks, stat.

Julie: When I was in college, my friend Jo-Ann’s family owned a dairy farm in Maine. First of all, I never understood real darkness until I went to visit her family for the weekend. No ambient light meant when you wake up on a moonless night, it is dark. “Darker than the inside of a cow,” Jo-Ann would say.

We went to visit during calving season. That meant three things. First, mud. Happily, my father had bought me a pair of green boots with yellow laces that were up to the task. green bootsI had had little use for them at school, but brought them with me. And I earned big points with Jo-Ann’s father for having them.

The second thing it meant was seeing pregnant cows. Yeesh. That is a sight for a city girl, let me tell you.

And the third thing? Brand new calves. We walked out and saw a calf literally minutes old. At the same time, the hay truck came out, so the new mother got up, left the baby, and went for a nosh. I was a wreck, waving my arms, keeping my distance from baby but convinced that s/he was doomed. S/he got up, and mama came back. And Jo-Ann’s father told the story for years, about the city slicker who was waving her arms in the middle of the field.

Edith: Great stories! In ‘Til Dirt Do Us Part (out May 27!), farmer Cam gets rescue Chickenschickens. I wasn’t really that familiar with chickens, since there were no animals except cats on my own farm. But my son JD was working on a local farm with chickens last summer, so I stopped by for a visit. And they are the funniest things! They make a gargling sound – none of the “bok-bok” you hear people make in imitation. They have personalities. Some are way smarter than others. I had a ball visiting them several times and asking my several farmer friends for their hen stories. I even met an attack rooster in Maine called Ruffles, who I just had to incorporate into Farmed and Dangerous!

Barb: My family used to endlessly tell the story of little me the first time I saw a cow. It was grazing on a median strip on a highway and my question was (allegedly), “Who winds it up?” I have no memory of this and I think the story is apocryphal. My Great Aunt Elsie and Uncle Pierre had a sheep farm in New Jersey and we spent every Easter there until I was about ten. Here’s what I remember: sheep are dumb. And finally, chickens. At sleep-away camp it was my job to put the chickens to bed. It was an awful job. I’d get half of them in the coop, then round up the other half, open the coop door and the first group would run back out. The expression shouldn’t be “herding cats.” It should be “herding chickens.” If you’re getting the impression I won’t be moving to a farm anytime soon, you’re on the right track.

Jessie: I have a summer camp farm experience too. The summer between fourth and fifth grade my parents sent me to camp for a week for the first time. The owners of the camp had six children of their own. They also had an enormous vegetable garden and a whole slew of farm animals to help feed their family. Because of this all “fun” activities at the camp revolved around farm labor. I remember feeding ducks before breakfast and spending the afternoons weeding the garden and lugging buckets of vegetables to the back of a truck. Needless to say, my parents sent me to a different camp the next year.

IMG_4buffy477_2Sherry: My husband lived on a farm in Idaho for five years during junior high and high school. Another farmer gave his family a good deal on a calf every year in the spring. The calves would stay with the other farmer to be fatten and sold the next fall. One year a calf pulled a fast one on them by getting pneumonia. So Bob’s family brought the calf home to nurse her back to health and named her Buffy. Buffy liked Bob and followed him around nudging him with her head when she wanted attention. One day as he worked, he ignored her. She didn’t like being ignored. Bob bent over to pick something up and Buffy butted him right in the rear end. He went flying, found himself flat on his face in the dirt, and mad as the dickens at Buffy.

Readers: What’s your favorite farm story?


Auctioning for a Good Cause

I just assembled a basket of signed books and goodies. It will be auctioned off at auction basketthe Fur Ball in a few weeks, which is the gala fundraiser of our local Merrimac River Feline Rescue Society, a no-kill shelter, cat adoption center, and feral project.

I love doing this. I get a colorful basket at the discount store and line it with green tissue paper. I sign copies of my books. I include the Fish Nets anthology, which has my short story of murderous revenge, “The Stonecutter.” I slip in bookmarks, a bottle of local beer, a packet of organic salad green seeds, a pair of gardening gloves, and voila!

1980-01-01 00.00.14It’s easy, inexpensive, and could raise a few dozen to a couple hundred dollars for the society. I made a similar basket for the auction at the California Crime Writers’ Conference.

And finally, I drew up a certificate for the right to name a character in the book I’m IMG_2589writing now, Farmed and Dangerous. How fun is that? They want to put that item in the live auction. I offered the same thing at a different auction for a character in ‘Til Dirt Do Us Part and someone named Diane Weaver won it. I met her in person this weekend at Boucheron!

I’m going to put together another basket and certificate for an auction to support our local art cinema, the fabulous Screening Room.

What kinds of things do you bid on in auctions? Have you ever had your name attached to a character in a mystery?

The Un-Farmer

By Liz Mugavero

From farm country, Connecticut

In celebration of Edith Maxwell’s A Tine to Live, A Tine to Die release this week, we’re all  talking about farming.

And I realized I’m at a distinct disadvantage.

me and coffeeI will freely admit, I’m not a “get your hands dirty” type. I would much prefer to stroll along Newbury Street with a coffee in one hand and a shopping bag in the other than dig in the soil and plant things. My mother was a big gardener, and I remember the mandatory “helping” activities I had to do: Turning the soil with a pitchfork (lots of worms under there), picking strawberries while kneeling in the dirt, holding up tomato plants while she tied them to the wooden stakes that kept them sturdy.

They’re not my favorite memories.

I love what’s produced from those exercises – I just don’t want to do them. But I have the utmost respect for farmers and gardeners. It’s such a productive activity. I wish I did like to do it, but I’m well aware of my limitations. I can barely keep houseplants alive. Scratch that – I can’t.

Since moving to Connecticut, I’ve had a lot more exposure to real farming than I’ve had previously. I live near a goat farm. One of my neighbors is an old-time farmer. I’m not quite sure what he farms right now but he’s got one cow, rumored to be a rescue, which Shaggy the schnoodle desperately wants to play with. And I toured a dairy farm recently (see thebaby_cow newborn baby cow in the photo!) as part of the research for A Biscuit, A Casket, the second book in the Pawsitively Organic Mysteries.

Has any of this made me long to stick my hands in the dirt? Absolutely not. I have become quite cognizant of the importance of buying locally, and visit the farmers’ market every chance I get. I love that my dog loves cows and wants to be friends with them. And I appreciate the enormity of the hours farmers keep and the work they do.

Still, it’s a profession I’m much more inclined to admire from afar, even though I got a good milking tankglimpse inside the milking tank.

What kinds of jobs do you admire people most for sticking to, even when it gets tough?

Rooted in Magic


reveling in the lush green of rural New Hampshire

In celebration of Edith’s book launch this week all the Wickeds are talking about gardening, plants and all things green and growing.

I come from a family of gardeners. One of my earliest memories is of a dowser coming to our home to recommend a spot for a garden well. The dowser held her arms out in front of her, fists clenched. She walked the property, crisscrossing back and forth, her hands jerking downward now and again as she encountered likely spots for water. She decided on one and my father began to dig. The water was there and ever since, in my mind, gardens have been linked with magic.water+can+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2bl

Gardens are built on faith. You start with a vision, a hope of what just might be possible. Like a magician, you call forth life by placing seeds in earth and adding the twin enchantments of heat and water. Time bends and stretches when you tune into your place in the world as you search for signs of life, of frost, of predators. You notice the incremental unfolding of bud, to bloom, to fruit. You are humbled by the industry of insects and are entertained by the dramatic lives of birds.

You become attuned to the changes in the slant of the light as days lengthen and shorten. You notice how the plants respond to the rhythms of the season and begin to notice how you do the same.  And you become aware of how, as the creator of the garden, you are merely the catalyst. The whole thing takes on a life of its own, seeds flinging into unplanned spots and flourishing, plants growing larger than the size noted on the plant tag.

Writing, is much the same. It starts with a vision and enough faith to fill a wheelbarrow. You summon characters to life because you imagined them into being. Time loses meaning as you get lost in the details of the story world with its own insects and birds and dramas. You fell the thrum of excitement as the story begins to poke up from the fertility of your own subconscious and to blossom and bear fruit. Characters grow beyond their expected size,  ideas wither under the hot sun of editorial scrutiny. And, as magically as happens in the garden,if you are lucky, you realize, here too, you are just the one who set things in motion. The story runs away with you, the end surprises you and you’ve created something to love out of nothing more than time and ideas.

Do you garden? Do you write? How do you encounter every day magic?

A nearly life-long resident of the Granite State,Jessie naturally adores black flies, 98%

SONY DSChumidity, killing frosts in August and snow banks taller than the average grandmother. When not working on her next murderous adventure she enthusiastically putters in her gardens, combs the beach and throws parties. She delights in mentoring young writers at local schools. Jessie lives with her dark and mysterious husband and exuberant children in a village so small many other New Hampshire residents have never heard of it. Her debut mystery, Live Free or Die, was the 2011 winner of the Daphne du Maurier Award for Mainstream Mystery. Her new book, Drizzled with Death, will be released by Berkley Prime Crime on Oct. 1, 2013.