Restoring Holiday Joy — Welcome Back Guest Barbara Early

If you like holiday reads don’t miss Murder on the Toy Town Express a Vintage Toyshop Mystery by Barbara Early! Barbara is giving away either a paperback of Death of a Toy Soldier or hardcover of Murder on the Toy Town Express to one of our readers! Welcome back to the Wickeds, Barbara!

Something about the holiday season seems to just generate work. Maybe it’s because I’m not at the top of my game right now, recovering from a nasty bout of infections, five courses of antibiotics, and oral surgery. And trying to promote a Christmas book. Or maybe I’m just getting old. But thinking about all that “needs” to be done between now and December 25th makes me want to cuddle up in my warmest pajamas, climb into bed, and hide my head under the covers until January.

Notice the word “needs” in quotes? When I hit that word, I had a personal epiphany—and yes, I know I’m mixing my holidays. How much of my burgeoning to-do list literally “needs” to be done? Do I need to bake cookies? Do I need to put up all my decorations? Do I need to attempt every cute reindeer craft I see on Pinterest? Do I need to kill myself making the holiday just as magical, plus a little more, than any Christmas I remember?

Cue the “Hallelujah Chorus.” I’ve been emancipated from Christmas slavery.

I don’t have to do anything. I suddenly had a glut of free time on my hands. I could spend more with friends and family. Or I could make a cup of instant hot chocolate, prop my feet up, flip on the Hallmark Channel, and watch heartwarming holiday flicks right up until the big day. Or better yet, read a nice Christmas mystery. Sounded good to me.


And when that little voice sounded, I knew I had to put down the remote and the e-reader and listen.

But…decorating the tree can be fun. And it was true. Putting all the decorations on the tree, making it pretty: it can almost become a form of creative play, much like coloring a picture at the kitchen table. I’ve always been a “Spoonful of Sugar” kind of girl, so stepping back and turning work into a game makes sense to me. Before long, the tree was up.

Because of a couple of very naughty cats, we’ve stored all our fragile and heirloom ornaments, and for the past few years I’ve been putting up a fun vintage toy tree, that goes with my Vintage Toyshop Mystery series. Here’s a video if you’d like to see it.

I still haven’t decided if I will do any more decorating, but I’m going to be careful not to put any the trappings (fitting word) of Christmas on my to-do list. I will not mark holiday success by check marks on a piece of paper. Instead, I can declutter my Christmas using the same one-question method people now use to declutter their homes: does it bring me joy?

For example, baking cookies. Does it bring me joy?

Okay, eating cookies brings me joy, so I might need to whip off a batch of my favorites. Seeing my husband’s face when he realizes I’ve made his favorite also brings me joy. And the smell of fresh baked goods in the house is cozy and comforting. But do I need to make all the different kinds I often make? I certainly don’t need to be eating them!

Setting up the Christmas village. Does it bring me joy? Some, but maybe not enough to warrant lugging three huge totes up the stairs, at least not this year. Maybe next year I’ll set them up in the shape of a Christmas tree. Oh, that could be fun!

Readers, what brings you joy during the holidays?

Bio: Barbara Early earned an engineering degree, but after four years of doing nothing but math, developed a sudden allergy to the subject and decided to choose another occupation. Before she settled on murdering fictional people, she was a secretary, a school teacher, a pastor’s wife, and an amateur puppeteer. After several years living elsewhere, she and her husband moved back to her native Western New York State, where she enjoys cooking, crafts, classic movies and campy seventies television, board games, and posting pictures of her four cats on Facebook. She writes the Vintage Toyshop series and the Bridal Bouquet Shop Mysteries (as Beverly Allen).

Critical Eyes

Jessie: On retreat in Maine.

Lately, I’ve been feeling restless. Life has been changing for my family, mostly for the good, but it makes me see my world with a different view. Especially my physical environment. I’ve been looking at my possessions with a critical eye and wondering which of them I’d keep if I were to move into a home one third the size of my current one. Which things really are the best choices for my changing life?

When my first child was a baby, my husband and I bought a big, old colonial home in a tiny village and set about renovating it. We were on a meager budget and it took a long time to accomplish all we set out to do. More children joined the family and all the rooms became full to bursting. Twenty-two years later the house is mostly renovated. Two of the kids are out on their own and the house feels overstuffed and very quiet. The space and tranquility have given me a chance to ask myself how much of what has accumulated is what I want to take into the next twenty years. I’ve come to recognize there are many things that don’t make the cut.

The question has fascinated me and has felt strangely familiar. Unitl I realized that the process is surprisingly like revising a novel. I tend to write bloated first drafts with a shocking excess of words. I meander and sauter and rarely get straight to the point in the early work. But under all the layers of what isn’t needed, or even wanted, is the truth of the story. By turning a critical eye to the work, I am able to excavate and lift up only that which best serves what I am trying to accomplish. I enjoy that part of the writing process. I love unearthing treasures from amongst the rubble.

It seems writing has permeated all aspects of my life, even my decorating. That same critical eye now can’t stand bloat in my possessions. It doesn’t want unneeded things in my physical world any more than it likes unnecessary words in my work. I wasn’t expecting it, but I am grateful. As a matter of fact, I think I’m going to go revise my laundry room right now!

Readers, do you find a need to change your physical environment as your life circumstances alter? Writers, does your work leak into the rest of your life in surprising ways?

Collection Correction

Jessie: Amidst the voluptuous green of late spring in New Hampshire

I was raised in a household of unrepentant collectors. My mother collected frogs and music boxes and books and sewing supplies. One of my sisters gathered up Barbies and books and every paper she ever turned in throughout elementary school. The other sister couldn’t get enough of anything vaguely Asian in influence.

My father was the most hardened collector of all. He collected rocks and dolls and books and stamps. He hoarded old farm tools, picture frames and art supplies. Chess sets, antique furniture and vintage bottles of patent medicine filled all the nooks and crannies he could wedge them into.

photoI fell victim to the same plight, unable to resist the lure of pretty pebbles, salt and pepper shakers in whimsical forms, teapots of humorous ilk, hats, unicorns and, of course, books. But at some point in the last few years the yearning to collect and to dust and to store so many items has faded. I’ve winnowed and decluttered and evaluated item after item in my home until I’ve reduced the contents to a degree that would have been unimaginable years ago. What’s left is what suits my life now and is a reflection of what brings me joy.

When I first started writing seriously I was certain I had no idea what I was doing so I fought my natural instinct to write with bloated abandon; collecting words and ideas like so many buttons in a cookie tin. I was certain my intuition must be wrong and my first manuscript finished the first draft at around 60,000 words. It was so lean pioneer provisioners could have sold it as jerky.

As time has passed I’ve become comfortable letting my collector out to play. In much the same way that three teapots seemed more appealing than one, I’ve discovered that often times I need to allow myself to say the same thing several times in just slightly different ways in a first draft. After that I winnow the offerings down to the one that best conveys my meaning or most compellingly moves the story along. I’ve found now that I am better at evaluating my physical environment, I trust myself to choose what is best for me in my work world as well.

But no matter how much I winnow in my work or my world I never can resist a pretty photopebble.

Readers, do you consider yourself a collector? If so, what treasures do you have tucked away?

Wicked Wednesday: Spring Cleaning

Before we get into our Wicked Wednesday topic, we wanted to announce the winners from Chrystle Fiedler’s recent guest post! Penny Marks and Shannon Malloy, message us your addresses on Facebook and Chrystle will get your books right out. Now back to spring cleaning….

Spring is a relative term here in New England, but we think it is a safe to put away our winter jackets. Maybe. But with open windows and changing of clothes comes spring cleaning. Wickeds, what  do you do for spring cleaning? Anything writing related? Readers, chime in with your favorite seasonal switch routines.

Julie: I have definite spring rituals. The gradual putting away of cold weather gear, though I always carry gloves and a scarf with me–you never know. I change out my curtains, and my comforter cover. Regarding writing–I get a real boost of energy. I suspect it is because I can go out and walk, and it isn’t miserable. Spring is my day dreaming season–so glad it is here!

Edith: Opening the windows. Planting my vegetable garden. Hurrying to apply anti-tick asparagusstuff on the cats. Putting away flannel sheets and bringing out smooth cotton ones. And this year exulting in the three-year-old asparagus bed finally yielding a pound every other day. I don’t change out much besides sheets and wool coats, because with the see-saw in temperatures – swinging from 85 to 50 and back, and back – the shorts and the scarves have to coexist. Oh, look, there’s the first mosquito! For writing, I find nice weather way too distracting. Have to chain myself to the desk.

Jessie: When the temperatures start to warm and the birds start to sing, I feel the need to lighten up on possessions. I go through all the closets and dressers and pull out the things to donate to charities. I clear books I won’t re-read and I sort magazines into the recycling. I even put off trips to the grocer and plan menus that use up all those things that keep getting shoved to the back of the pantry. By the time summer arrives I feel like my house is ready for the most laid back season.

Liz: Spring shopping, of course! Which I was tremendously successful at this past weekend. And finding pretty new spring shoes. But also purging old clothes to donate, like Jessie, and general decluttering.

Barb: I do many of the same things. Changing out my clothes and donating things that weren’t worn over the last season, taking coats to the dry cleaner and putting them away. I change some of the household the decor seasonally–little things around the place that signify the season. I’d love to be cleaning out drawers and cupboards, but the last two years I’ve had a book deadline June 1, which has interfered with the heavy lifting. Next winter will be tough, with deadlines January 15 and March 1, but the spring will be glorious!

IMG_3488Sherry: Well, I feel like a slacker. I don’t have any rituals or routines. I did take a lot (and I mean a lot) of papers to a local shred event last weekend. But to me spring means an opportunity to go to garage sales!


Readers– what are your favorite seasonal switch routines, and does spring affect your work?

Putting My House in Order

by Julie Hennrikus
Overlooking Boston

de-clutter_mind_map-copy1Today is my last day of a much needed vacation. This spring was a crazy one. Conferences, both for work and for writing. A difficult end of the semester for my students and I, all impacted in different ways by the Boston Marathon bombings. Planning a conference for the end of June. Getting ready for an office move at the end of August. And the rest of life.

So the vacation was a staycation. Writing (lots of writing), visiting my parents, and then back to Boston, and getting ready for re-entry. Feeling refreshed, after three days in my apartment, and I came to a difficult conclusion. Though very clean, the clutter was tipping me over to an audition for an episode of hoarders. So I’ve been tackling the closets, draws, and cabinets. But in the work, the mystery writer thrives.

So here are Julie’s vacation decluttering tips, mystery writing muses:

Makeup needs to be thrown away pretty frequently. I went to Sephora on Sunday. I walked out with a new foundation, eyeliner, and eyeshadow. And some tough love on skin care–I promise I will wear SPF every day. I came home and googled when to throw away makeup, and realized I needed to clean up the makeup kit. When was turquoise eyeshadow in style? Did you know they advocate new mascara every three months? It had been a while since I’d done a big clean. Decluttering tip: look up the frequency, go through your makeup stash, and toss. And when you buy new makeup, mark the date with a sharpie. Mystery writing tip: glosses, creams, liquids? What do we willingly do to look better/younger? My mind whirs with the opportunities for both character development, and for poisoning.

Food in cabinets does not miraculously stay good forever. I went through my cabinets, which I do regularly, but I still found food that expired in 2011. And I was also struck by how many duplicates I have. Put it this way, I shouldn’t have to buy black beans for a good long time. Decluttering tips: Go through the cabinets. Use sharpies to date food that doesn’t have a date stamp. (I have a jar of strawberry lavender jam from a gift basket that is taunting me. I am trying to remember when I got it, before I toss it.) And for those of us in small kitchens, group the food so that it makes sense for your lifestyle. Don’t worry about what your sister will say when she looks for ketchup and finds cans and cans of tomatoes. Mystery writing tip: like it or not, your food choices say A LOT about you. So I am adding a kitchen cabinet to my character sketches. What does your character have on hand? What kind of meal can be pulled off? Is the junk food front and center? Are there baking supplies? Can you make a pie with what you have on hand?

Careful of the chemicals. I have been trying to go through my cleaning supplies, and I am appalled by the duplicates I own. I could wash the windows of the Hancock tower. But I am loathe to try and combine any, because I am not a chemist. So I need to figure this out, and decide if I really need a separate granite cleaner. (I think I do. Stainless steel and granite–good ideas in theory, challenging to keep up in practice.)  Decluttering tip: go green whenever possible, and don’t buy anything until you make sure you really need it. Mystery writing tip: cleaning supplies offer a huge opportunity. As I am lining up my window cleaners, I had a thought. Why do I trust that what the label says is in the bottle is in the bottle. And the mystery writing mind follows that path.

Clutter, when piled up, can fall. I have a wall of books waiting to be donated. Actually it eight boxes, piled up four boxes high. But while going through the shelves, and trying to fill four more boxes before I donate, it occurred to me that this could be a safety hazard, so I need to donate sooner rather later. Decluttering tip: don’t wait. When you bring something in, send something out. Mystery writing tip: I have been thinking about collections, and what they say about a character. And also what the hazards of keeping them could be.

Decluttering is good for you. Decluttering tip: everything needs a place to go, so create that space. And then put things away. Mystery writing tip: there is nothing like a big cleaning to get the creative juices flowing. So cleaning out that cabinet is writing. Really.

Years ago I went on the FlyLady bandwagon, and I am back. Her site is a great tool for getting the chaos of clutter in control. But how about all of you? Any decluttering tips?