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Sept. 6, 2017 – I love the day job, I really do. But recently – what with fires and smoke (and fires and smoke and fires and smoke) – it’s been a lot of job.

So I’m even happier than usual to take off my editor’s eyeshade and put on my novelist’s hat and head off to Denver for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s Colorado Gold Conference – three whole days with nothing to do but talk, think and breathe fiction. Lord almighty. I just might die of happiness.

This year, I’m tickled to be giving a workshop on Sunday – Brilliant Disguise: How to Turn Real People into Fictional Characters.

One downside? It’s at 8 a.m. Sunday.

Another? This one is the mother of all downsides – I’m up against my friend Andrea Catalano and Heather Webb’s workshop – The Joy of Great Sex, on how to write sex scenes.

Pretty sure I’ll be talking to an empty room!

lolopeaksmokeSept. 4, 2017 – Pretty sure I’m being punished for all the times – approximately one million and counting – I’ve said how much I love to cover wildfires.

Because what’s not to love? Big, dramatic flames in big, beautiful landscapes, and let’s not forget the big, gorgeous firefighters. (Oops, did I say that out loud?) One of my first published short stories was about wildland firefighters, and it remains one of my favorite pieces of writing.

I should have known that, like all passionate love affairs, this one would end badly. Wildfire season 2017 has brought more fires to Montana, burning longer, than any summer I can remember, and with them a new factor – smoke. Not the usual two- or three-day infestation that lays down a layer of ash on our cars, but one that has lingered for weeks now, blotting out our view of the mountains and making even mild outdoor exertion an exercise in insanity.

Smoke is not beautiful. It’s not exciting. It sucks. Your eyes sting, your throat burns and your lungs spend all day screaming WTF?

IMG_1828But – trying to find the bright side here – it’s wonderfully atmospheric. The air takes on a yellowish tinge and has actual taste and texture. During the day, the sun is a baleful orange ball, flaring into glorious sunsets before giving up and sinking behind the mountains, which is when the fires – invisible behind their daytime shroud of smoke – rise up against the darkness. People and cars emerge ghostlike from the murk and fade back into it.

Either smoke muffles sound, or things are quieter because so few people want to venture into it. Either way, the silence enhances the eeriness of ours days. Everyone’s edgy, cranky. Any day now, crime is going to get weird.

All of this is great stuff for writers, right? You want to a big, dramatic scene? Throw in some fire. But to really creep people out, go for smoke.

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Aug. 19, 2017 – That’s how it feels these days, both on the national scene and in Missoula, Montana. We are literally surrounded by fire, with huge wildfires burning in every direction, leaving our valley socked in with smoke. The closest is south of here, in a town called Lolo (site of the poker game that was Paul’s downfall  in the movie version of A River Runs Through It), eleven miles away, but burning so fiercely that its flames and smoke are visible from downtown Missoula.

Every night, when the winds pick up, the fire sends up a massive plume of smoke and turns the sky an eerie, foreboding orange. It makes for great sunsets, but also lends an air of doom to everything – dovetailing a little too neatly with the national mood.

IMG_1309Last night, after an evening of fire-watching from a high point in town, the sweetie and I stopped for ice cream at Missoula’s justly famed Big Dipper. I looked around at the crowd of kids and dogs, all of us enjoying our cones beneath the spooky skies – and couldn’t quite avoid the analogy of fiddling while Rome burns.

 

July 27, 2017 – Every time I feel like a failure as a mom (100 percent of the time, right?), I remind myself that I have kids who read.

My daughter and I have especially similar tastes in books, and our conversations always include a check of what the other is reading, and a hard nudge for ideas for more. She’s far more organized than I, keeping a list of everything she reads. Every so often, I ask her to just send me her list, as a lazy way of creating a list of my own.

We’ve been on a roll this summer, discovering a new book we both love, and rediscovering an older one.

beartownI take credit for stumbling across Beartown, Fredrik Backman’s (A Man Called Ove) April release by Atria. I clicked on a whim, without knowing anything about it. Within hours of starting, I was on the phone to Kate

“Drop everything else and read this book right now.”

It’s about ice hockey, was all I’d tell her, this daughter who played ice hockey on a boys’ team in high school. Which, as anyone who’s read the book knows, is a wholly inadequate description. But to say more would have been to give too much away.

By the next day, she was calling me so that we could compare notes on what we’d read so far. Each of us loved it. Each of us hated to see it end – the ultimate measure of a great book.

fowlerAnd each of us felt bereft, the only cure for that being to read another good book. By happenstance, I went to my shelves and pulled one she’d recommended a long time ago, but that I’d never gotten around to reading: Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. (2013, Putnam’s)

A few pages in, another phone call. “This is fabulous. I love her writing, her protagonist.”

Kate just might have said, “I told you so.” But she also picked up the book again and is re-reading it, enjoying it just as much as she did the first time – another mark of a terrific book.

I’m nearly to the end, though, and badly spoiled by two great books in a row. Recommendations?

 

Nothing makes a book under construction seem more real than seeing the final cover design – a face to go with the name, if you will.

UNDER THE SHADOWS, Book 5 in the Lola Wicks series, has the striking cover I’ve come to expect from Midnight Ink, a looming, ominous image of the world’s largest temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Guess where it takes place?

UnderTheShadowsCoverHere’s the description.

Lola Wicks is in bad shape. A family tragedy has nearly flattened her in a way that her years reporting from war zones never did. Her friends, alarmed by signs that Lola is in the grip of a destructive addiction, hope that a freelance assignment will get her back on her feet. The threat of having her child removed persuades Lola to head for Salt Lake City on a puff piece about overseas adoptions. But the story takes a dark turn when the teenager at the center of her story lands in jail facing a murder charge. Setting out to prove the youth’s innocence takes Lola to her own dark place, and she’s not sure if she’ll ever be able to find her way back

Coming, as they say, in March 2018.

 

Yesterday I sent Book 5 in the Lola Wicks series off to my editor at Midnight Ink. You know what that means – hamster dance!

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It also meant a lazy summer afternoon with my sweetie at a local cidery by way of celebration, sampling ciders with varying degrees of alcohol content, followed by astonishment that evening was upon us … funny how that works.

 

This morning brings only a wee headache, along with the sadness that accompanies the sendoff of any manuscript. The thing that I’ve cursed for so long for the way it’s dominated my mornings before work, chewed up my weekends and made me possibly not the most pleasant person to be around – gone.  What to do now? There’s only one thing.

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I was bowled over to see both DISGRACED and RESERVATIONS on the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association‘s summer reading list for mystery and detective fiction.

Of DISGRACED:

disgracedcoverDisgraced contains much of the same timely social and political commentary as the earlier volumes in the series. Sexism and racism and their corrosive effects on both the victims and the perpetrators receive the principal focus, this time raising important questions about the cost of harassment for soldiers risking their lives to defend their country and for the civilians back home who care about them …. (Lola) may be home from the battlefields of Afghanistan, where she spent years as an international correspondent, but she continues to explore—and expose—crimes against women and minorities throughout the West.

 

 

And, of RESERVATIONS:

ReservationscoverReservations begins with one of the best opening lines I’ve read in a long time: “The day that would see Ben Yazzie transformed into shreds of flesh in too many evidence bags began with a rare strong and satisfying piss”…

Reservations offers all the usual Florio pleasures: lyric descriptions of the land and the people who inhabit it; cultural commentary on Native American communities, traditions, and history; Native American vs. white conflicts, both historical and contemporary; sharp critiques of big business and its effects on the well-being of those it impacts; a strong social justice approach that rivals that of Sara Paretsky in force and potency; and a solid, fair-play mystery. All four books in the series are excellent, and they keep getting better.

 

All I can say is … wow. Better than ice cream and strawberry shortcake on the Fourth of July.

 

 

The last thing I wanted to do, with the timebomb of a deadline ticking away, was take a break from revisions.

But that’s what a family reunion mandated. Sure, I could’ve ducked away for awhile every day, but – no excuses here – chose not to. Left the laptop at home so I wouldn’t be tempted. And then, of course, fretted about my choice for five whole days.

Until I got back, and turned a fresh eye on the ms. Holy cow. Inconsistences everywhere. As scary as it was when each new one popped up, it felt even better to find them and fix them – sort of like literary Whack-A-Mole. I know exactly how that guy in the video feels.

I’m crediting the break with the fresh eyes, and the new well of energy. It’ll be fast depleted, of course. But for now, I’m actually enjoying it. Whack!

 

montananoircoverThat’s right. I’ve taken a deep, delicious dive into the dark side, thanks to a terrific invitation last year from editors James Grady and Keir Graff to contribute a short story to MONTANA NOIR, part of Akashic Books’ noir series.

I hadn’t written a short story in years, mainly because they scare the crap out of me. So little space. So much precision required. So many masters of the form. (Alice Munro, anyone?)

Plus, I wasn’t really sure what noir was, beyond “I know it when I see it” – not really helpful when confronting the blank screen. But James and Keir are wonderfully supportive editors, and with their guidance, I had a blast getting in touch with my inner creep.

The book comes out in August. I remain gobsmacked to be in the company of my fellow contributors. Just look at this list: David Abrams, Janet Skeslien Charles, Debra Magpie Earling, Jamie Ford, James Grady, Keir Graff, Eric Heidle, Walter Kirn, Sidner Larson, Carrie La Seur, Thomas McGuane, Caroline Patterson, Yvonne Seng. Holy hell, right?

If you’re in Montana this fall, check out our book tour. The darkness. It’s coming.

After weeks writing about Afghanistan, I’m back to Book 5 in the Lola Wicks series, which takes place in Utah.

Pause for whiplash.

But it’s good to be hanging with Lola again, a protagonist I’ve come to love. Lola the character is a major pain in the ass, but she’s a lot of fun to write, and I enjoy finding new ways to push her buttons. Over the years, people have asked me how I envision her – a question that usually takes the form of, “Who would play Lola in the movie?”

My first impulse: a major badass. Geena Davis as Thelma, getting ready to shoot the hell out of that semi.

thelma

Lola is indeed a badass. But her badassery is of the more covert variety. The woman’s a reporter, for heaven’s sake. A professional observer. So then I flash to Sigourney Weaver in The Year of Living Dangerously.

sigourney

She wasn’t a reporter in that movie, although she fell for one (what was she thinking?). But her wary demeanor in that role is perfect for Lola. The trick will be, as deadline barrels toward me, to keep from getting punchy and hearing “Zuuuuullllll” in my brain as I write.

sigourney.ghostbusters

Who ya gonna call? Manuscript busters!

Oops. Looks like the punchiness has already set in.