I’ve landed in the midst of the taxidermy trade while working on my next manuscript, The Nighthawk’s Nemesis. I’ve never been comfortable with specimens that fill museum dioramas or trophies in hunters’ lodges. Those glass eyes follow me about with their haunting stare, and a loud part of my being simply wants to bury the dead.
When I researched taxidermy for this manuscript, it was an absolute eye-opener. The practice, which began in England in the early 19th century, is a scientific art that is still overseen by The Guild of Taxidermy. Like the Mason’s Guild, this peer group monitors and accredits professionals within the craft. Taxidermists take multiple courses, work apprenticeships, are heavily regulated by laws, study anatomy in depth, and receive credentials based upon mastery of taxidermy skills. Some raise the craft to a form of fine art that is now displayed in high-end galleries. While the number of licensed taxidermists is decreasing, its popularity as an art form and use as modern décor is increasing.
Check out Polly Morgan Taxidermy.
Intriguing, yet icky.
I walked away from this bit of research feeling enlightened, relieved to know that a vast majority of specimens are the end result of roadkill, flying into windows, or natural death; that British laws protect even dead wild creatures; that taxidermists file formal documents on all specimens with government agencies; and that a license is required to sell any taxidermized creature save game birds shot in season. I have a much clearer view of taxidermists (no, they are not ghoulish) and a profound appreciation for their artistry.
Still, I simply want to bury the dead.
When I am not caught up in writing an exciting scene in one of my novels, I am working in an IB (international baccalaureate) school. We come thundering back to campus in early August. While many are still kicking up sand on the beach, our summer has ended. We are already back-to-school.
Every adult can still recall the excitement found in the first days of school. The smell of a new pink eraser, lining up colored pencils with never-used points that promise a rainbow of fun, placing crisp sheets of paper in glossy folders, and wearing the newest, coolest jeans. We are sluiced with the thrilling anticipation of what might just happen tomorrow. We hunger for the unknown found in each new classroom. The flip side—plenty of strangers, getting lost in the halls, sitting alone at lunch—is best forgotten; a memory we all deny yet share.
The best part about being a cozy writer is the creativity that flows across the keyboard: painting scenes in the readers’ minds, bringing imaginary characters to life, plotting out the mystery, and weaving together the threads leading to a big reveal.
The worst part about being a writer is not getting published…or is it? A friend once asked if I cry when I receive a publisher’s rejection. Ah...no. Facing that is never a good feeling, but instead of crying I reflect upon my work and then begin rewriting.
I was shocked by how much better my book became during the first rewrite. Face it—writing a full-length novel takes time. During those many, many months, we (hopefully) continue to grow by reading articles, delving into how-to manuals, listening to stern lectures, and following online suggestions to hone our skills. Year to year, I have learned an amazing amount which in turn has dramatically improved that first novel, The Stars Prevail. Trundling it out to another publisher, I’ve taken my big pink eraser to the second novel in the Barrington Bay series, The Tide Turns. Once again, the story improves with each edit. The characters are more colorful, the pacing tighter, the dialogue snappier.
Instead of losing faith in my abilities as a writer, publisher rejection has fanned my passion to become better and made me even more determined to succeed. It’s weird. It’s wonderful.
When I was a child, my family had the tendency to move. One of the places we called home was a stretch of land in an agrarian community named Caledonia. At the time, I had no idea that “Caledonia” is Latin for “Scotland.” Nor was I aware that this region had been settled by U.K. immigrants. Unknowingly steeped in that sovereign nation’s culture, I learned every lyric of “Drunken Sailor,” "Nut Brown Maiden" and “The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond” in school. Our neighbors spoke of banshees in the gloaming and selkies in the sea. The library stacked Brontë, Burns, and Dahl beneath highland landscapes trapped in ornate frames. Heck, I thought every American parade featured old men wearing wild skirts and blurting bagpipes.
We moved. The deep snows of northern Wisconsin froze out those lush childhood memories. The turbulent echoes of the Vietnam War eroded such bucolic images from my heart.
I was driving down a back road in Scotland when our vehicle was surrounded by a fold of Highland cows. Weighing over 1,000 pounds each with a three-foot horn spread, I gave way. We sat in the middle of the road, engine idling while my erstwhile navigator and I fell madly in love with the ridiculously cute beasts. Their long horns and wavy red-brown hair both frightened us away and beckoned us closer.
“Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
-- Paul James McCartney
I grew up surrounded by Red-winged Blackbirds that would flock over tilled fields each spring and then returned to bent, barren corn stalks in the fall. Their endless songs, echoing across farmland in the gloaming, would carry me off to sleep and just as often wake me in the morning.
It’s early April. The spring migration is in full force. Birds course along the edge of Lake Michigan, heading north. The call of Red-winged Blackbirds again fills my mornings with dewy memories and delight. It is a bird watcher’s heaven.
It is also incredibly appropriate, since I am penning my fourth cozy mystery, The Nighthawk’s Nemesis. The story is woven around bird watchers—twitchers, as they are called in the UK. As usual, I’m knee deep in research as I begin a new novel. I am studying ornithology, birder’s slang, and the stunning migration along England’s coast. It is made all the more fascinating by the actual spring migration that hovers over my own head in Wisconsin.
In that recent research, I have learned that a group of chickens is a peep, a group of owls is a parliament, a group of larks is an exaltation, and a group of blackbirds…a murder. How terribly appropriate.
Writing is both wondrously fulfilling and endlessly challenging. I am always trying to improve my craft. I find it all fascinating: character development, pacing, plot twists, grammar, dialog, and setting. Nothing, however, captures my attention more than similes (a metaphor that uses 'like' or 'as'). Perhaps it's because I adore the imagery they create, but I also find them so very hard to write! Spotting this weakness early on, I endeavor to write them into all of my novels simply to grow that skill. So, smile for awhile as I review some similes from the Barrington Bay series:
This blog is where I post my inspirations for each book in the Barrington Bay series as well as behind-the-scenes tips, pics, and other tidbits. Feel free to click 'Read More' for in-depth posts.