featuring guest authors; crafting tips and projects; recipes from food editor and sleuthing sidekick Cloris McWerther; and decorating, travel, fashion, health, beauty, and finance tips from the rest of the American Woman editors.

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Thursday, March 31, 2016


Eric Reed is the pen name of writing duo Mary Reed and Eric Mayer, co-authors of the John, Lord Chamberlain, historical mystery series set in 6th century Byzantium. The Guardian Stones, a World War Two mystery set in rural Shropshire, England, is their most recent release. Learn more about Eric and Mary at their website and blog. Today Mary joins us to discuss how women during World War Two made do without their beauty staples.

Making Do for Makeup

Have you ever noticed how thick and lustrous women's hair looks in photos taken during the Second World War?

Egg shampoo is commonly touted as an excellent aid in achieving this effect, but in the spring of 1941 the practice led to questions in Parliament after a London West End hairdresser was reported for giving egg shampoos, using as many as four eggs for one treatment.

Hansard, the official record of Parliamentary proceedings, records that in replying, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food said enquiries into the case were under way, adding in the case of such egg shampoos, both hairdresser and client committed an offence under wartime regulations, by which he meant by willfully using food fit for human consumption for other purposes.

Beauty aids may not spring immediately to mind when considering the legendary British Make Do and Mend campaign during World War Two, but as a boost to general morale they were considered important to the war effort. It was another area where making do meant exercising great ingenuity in finding substitutes for what had been commonplace before hostilities broke out.

While makeup was not rationed, it was both expensive and hard to find, largely because a number of companies making it were now using part of their production facilities to manufacture items needed for the war effort.

Good old-fashioned British ingenuity came into play and substitutes were found.

In place of lipstick, for every day use at least, wartime's popular bright red lip coloring was achieved by applying beet juice or cochineal, although given rationing, the latter must have been more difficult to obtain than the common root vegetable. Liquid stockings -- brown tinting for the legs -- replaced real stockings, an item in very short supply. Eyebrow pencil was used to draw "seams" up the backs of the legs, and some fashionistas even traced out appropriately shaped faux heels and stocking tops. For those with less disposable income, there are references to the use of gravy browning to give the same effect. With general shortages, it must have been difficult at times to choose between putting gravy on your dinner or your legs! Burnt cork or boot polish were both reportedly substituted for mascara, although these sound dangerous to use to me, while baking soda often replaced deodorant.

Human nature being what it is, such shortages created openings to make a bit of money, meeting demand in a left-handed fashion despite stiff legal penalties if caught.

Although women often made do by applying talcum powder in place of face powder, also in short supply, we should not therefore be surprised to learn that in March 1942 a question was raised in Parliament concerning a man prosecuted for illegally manufacturing and selling the latter. Hansard records he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a £100 fine and three months in prison, plus another three months if he did not pay the fine.

We cannot say what his clients felt about his conviction and subsequent loss of supplies, but things would have gone better for him if he had remembered an old Dutch proverb to the effect that beauty is dross if honesty is lost.

The Guardian Stones

In mid-1941, children evacuated to the remote Shropshire village of Noddweir to escape the Blitz begin to vanish. It was not uncommon for city children faced with rural rigors to run away. But when retired American professor Edwin Carpenter, pursuing his study of standing
stones, visits the village and discovers bloody clothing in the forest, it is clear there is a more sinister explanation.

The village constable is away on military duty so the investigation falls to his daughter Grace. Some villagers see the hand of German infiltrators bent on terror. The superstitious, mindful of the prehistoric stone circle gazing down on Noddweir, are convinced malevolent supernatural powers are at work. And Edwin, determined to help Grace find whatever predator is in play, runs into widespread resentment over America's refusal to enter the war.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2016


Corpse Cookie
Mary Feliz writes about an amateur sleuth with a penchant for organizing. Today she tells us about how she organized her very first event to promote her forthcoming book. Whether you're planning to participate in a crafts fair, a flea market, or a neighborhood tag sale, Mary's experiences might come in handy. 

A big fan of irony, serendipity, diversity, and quirky intelligence tempered with gentle humor, Mary strives to bring these elements into her writing, although her characters tend to take these elements to a whole new level. Learn more about Mary and her writing at her website. 

Corpse Cookies Make Pre-Promotion Easy
Pushing my books promises to be one of the toughest parts of being an author for me. Despite a career in Corporate Communications, marketing is just not my thing. 

So, when a friend told me she was holding a holiday craft fair in her home featuring many of our mutual friends as vendors, I jumped at the chance to "practice my pitch" although my debut novel Address to Die For won't be released until July, 2016.

I asked my friend if it would be helpful to have a "greeter" for her event—someone to direct people to all the different venues within her house where vendors were set up. The house isn't large, but I thought it might be easy for people to overlook the vendors who were set up in the backyard and the garage.

She loved the idea. Since I had nothing to sell, I wouldn't be backing up traffic. I loved the idea, since I knew I'd have a truly useful purpose other than promoting my books. 

I'd hoped to have cover copy for the book, but as the date approached, I had to give up on that plan. 

Instead, I created a "series" graphic using the artwork from my website, I created pens and bookmarks for my swag. Both were relatively inexpensive things that I knew I'd want to bring to conferences after my book comes out. Ordering test versions gave me a good sense of the lead-time required and which parts of my design worked and which didn't.
I loved how both turned out, but next time I'd use fewer words and a larger font for the pens. Few people turned the bookmark over to read the back. Several people though my character's name was my name. 

Initially, I'd planned to order sugar cookies embossed with the book cover art. Instead, I made my corpse cookies on my own and ordered crime scene ribbon from an internet ribbon maker. 

With some crime scene fabric (also ordered from the internet) and a black banquet table cover, I was good to go. 

Based on the suggestions of friends, I planned to put bookmarks and pens in wine glasses. A gruesome "R.I.P" bottle of red wine picked up on the spur of the moment from Cost Plus was fun to pair with the glasses. 
Mary's "Welcome" Table
Driving to the event, I regretted not buying flowers or making a stand-up sign about the books. Next time, I promised myself, remembering that today's event was about practice, not perfection. 

With a cooler full of water and snacks, I was set. After greeting my first 10 customers, I realized I needed to talk more about my book and tell people it was a local murder mystery. The local angle was something all the visitors responded to.

By noon, I was out of cookies. People loved them and it was easier for me to talk about the cookies than it was to hype the book. Once people had the cookies, they asked about the book, and it was easy for me to answer their questions. 

The oddity of having a "welcome" booth that sported tape blaring "CRIME SCENE-DO NOT CROSS" also sparked comments. 

The demographic of people who attend holiday boutiques is nearly identical to the demographic of people who buy cozy mysteries—suburban moms and grandmoms. And, although I thought that via social media everyone I knew had heard of my book, I ran into several acquaintances who were astonished to learn I'd signed a publishing contract. 

By the end of the day, I'd distributed 100 bookmarks and pens to probable readers who will likely tell friends about my books.  And as the day wore on, my tagline tripped off my tongue easily. I'd asked friends and the vendors to inspect my booth, eavesdrop on my pitch and offer suggestions for both. Their glowing reports and constructive critiques gave my confidence a huge boost. What I'd imagined as a shakedown tour turned out to be a perfect promotional opportunity I might easily have overlooked.

Many of the volunteers planning holiday boutiques will begin firming up plans in the next few months, so now is a perfect time to start asking questions about how you can help. The Gala Gallery is already on my calendar for next year (when I'll actually have books to sell.) I'll approach my next event more confidently...and with more cookies, fresh flowers, a backdrop...and eventually, a plush golden retriever to represent my character's chief side-kick. And with the knowledge that I can market my books like a pro.

Address to Die For
For professional organizer Maggie McDonald, moving her family into a new home should be the perfect organizational challenge. But murder was definitely not on the to-do list . . .

Maggie McDonald has a penchant for order that isn’t confined to her clients’ closets, kitchens, and sock drawers. As she lays out her plan to transfer her family to the hundred-year-old house she’s inherited in the hills above Silicon Valley, she has every expectation for their new life to fall neatly into place. But as the family bounces up the driveway of their new home, she’s shocked to discover the house’s dilapidated condition. When her husband Max finds the caretaker facedown in their new basement, it’s the detectives who end up moving in. What a mess! While the investigation unravels and the family camps out in a barn, a killer remains at large—exactly the sort of loose end Maggie can’t help but clean up . . .

Tuesday, March 29, 2016


Ann Myers loves cooking, crafts, and cozy mysteries. Talk about an author who’s perfect for Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers! Ann lives with her husband and extra-large housecat in southern Colorado but feels most at home in Santa Fe. Learn more about her and her books (and find a few more recipes) at her website.

As I write this, it’s my grandmother’s 96th birthday, and I’m thinking of her and one of her signature dishes, lemon chiffon pudding. It’s a shape-shifting dessert, transforming in the oven into a creamy lemon pudding on the bottom and a fluffy soufflé on top. My grandfather used to say he married my grandmother for her lemon chiffon. Of course it was the beautiful, kind, witty woman who won his heart, but the pudding is still legendary in my family, a dessert made for wooing.

In Cinco de Mayhem (book 2 of the Santa Fe Café Mysteries) that dessert is “magic” chocoflan, seemingly impossible layers of chocolate cake, flan, and caramel baked up in a Bundt pan. Café chef and amateur sleuth Rita Lafitte isn’t looking for a proposal-producing pudding, though. For her upcoming home-cooked dinner date with hunky lawyer Jake Strong, she wants a dessert that says, “Let’s take our time.” Her flirtatious octogenarian friend Flori, on the other hand, thinks Rita can’t go wrong with chocoflan. I have to agree. It’s a truly magical dessert!

Rita also plans to honor the history of Cinco de Mayo with some French-inspired dishes. Here, I’m adding a recipe for another Cinco de Mayo favorite, margaritas, only in pie form (because what isn’t better as pie?) This margarita-meringue pie hits all the main margarita tastes and is perfect for spring: tart lime, smoky tequila (optional since there are toasted flavors in the meringue, too) and a salty-sweet pretzel crust. It also reminds me a little of my grandmother’s lemon chiffon. Let me know if you make it and get any proposals, or if you have a legendary dish in your family. 

Margarita Meringue Pie

1¼ c finely ground salted hard pretzels
3 T sugar
7 T butter, melted

1 T finely grated lime zest
4 large egg yolks (reserve the egg whites for the meringue)
1 (14-oz) can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 c fresh lime juice (from about 2 large limes or more if smaller)
1–2 T tequila (more or less to taste, or none at all)

Meringue Topping
4 egg whites
¼ t cream of tartar
6 T sugar
½ t vanilla extract
Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly coat a 9-inch pie pan with non-stick baking spray.
Prepare the crust: Crush the pretzels until very fine (whirling in a food processor works well, or place in a plastic bag, cover with a towel, and take out some stress by striking with a rolling pin). Mix in the sugar and melted butter. Press the crust mixture into the prepared pan using the back of a spoon or measuring cup. Bake for ~9 minutes until the crust is firm.

Prepare the filling: Whisk the condensed milk and egg yolks in a bowl. Add lime zest, lime juice, and tequila (if using). Pour into the prepared pie shell. Note: the lime mixture will come only halfway up the pie shell. You’ll fill the rest of the space later with meringue. Bake the pie for approximately 20 minutes. Set on a rack to cool slightly. Keep the oven on at 350°F.

Prepare the meringue: In a clean, dry bowl, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Gradually add the sugar, vanilla, and pinch of salt and beat until the sugar is dissolved and stiff, glossy peaks form. Spoon the meringue over the pie and bake for 10 to 14 minutes until the peaks are set and slightly golden. Serve warm or chilled or with a margarita!

Cinco de Mayhem
Tres Amigas Café chef Rita Lafitte is busy baking up green chile soufflés and chocolate-flan cake for Cinco de Mayo. If only her friend Linda, the daughter of Rita’s octogenarian boss Flori, could get into the festive spirit. Linda’s cart, Tía Tamales, is losing business to Crepe Empire, the hottest food cart in Santa Fe. Napoleon, Crepe Empire’s owner, is a pompous, celebrity chef who wants to squeeze out the competition. But when Linda gets into a heated argument with Napoleon and his corpse is later found stabbed and pinned beneath the wheels of her tamale cart, she becomes the number-one suspect.

Determined to prove Linda’s innocence, Rita investigates. From Napoleon’s disgruntled former employees to a shady health inspector, the list of suspects is longer than Flori’s strings of dried chile peppers. And when another corpse surfaces, Rita must scramble to find an elusive killer with an appetite for murder…

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Monday, March 28, 2016


Every so often I like to repeat a favorite post from the past since our readership has grown so much over the last six years. With spring break coming up, these wooden spoon puppets are a perfect afternoon activity for a day when you have nothing else planned. When the puppets are finished, have the children stage a puppet show.

12” wooden spoon; 6-1/2” x 16” piece of fabric; 3” x 4” flesh-colored felt; 3/4-yd. 1-3/4” wide gathered lace; 4” length of 1” wide gathered lace; 1/2-yd. 1/8” wide satin ribbon; acrylic paint: flesh, dk. flesh, pink and black; acrylic satin varnish; paint brushes; curly doll hair; 4” straw hat; 1” miniature butterfly; paint brushes; tacky glue; low-temp glue gun; graphite paper; pencil; basic sewing supplies

1. Paint spoon bowl, sides of bowl, and approximately 1” of the handle below the bowl with 2 coats flesh paint, allowing paint to dry between coats. 

2. Print out face and hand patterns, enlarging face pattern box to 1-3/4” wide and hand pattern box to 2-1/4” wide.

3. Using graphite paper and pencil, ransfer face pattern to the bowl of the spoon.

4. Paint the mouth pink. To make eyes and freckles, dip the brush handle end into paint and dot eyes in black and freckles in dk. flesh. Allow to dry.

5. Apply 2 coats of satin varnish over painted areas.

6. Sew a length of wide lace to the bottom long edge of the print fabric. Using a 1/4” seam, sew the short ends of the fabric right sides together. Press under remaining long edge 1/4”.

7. To make the dress, run a gathering stitch along the pressed edge of the fabric. Gather tightly around the spoon directly under the bowl. Apply a small amount of tacky glue to hold the fabric to the spoon at the neck.

8. Gather a 6” length of remaining wide lace. Tie tightly around the neck over the gathered fabric for a collar.

9. Gut two hands from the flesh felt. Glue a hand to either side of the dress as shown in photo. Cut the 1” lace in half. Glue each half over a hand to form cuff.

9. Using tacky glue, glue lengths of doll hair to back and edges of spoon.

10. Using the glue gun, glue hat to the back of the head and butterfly to hat brim.

11. Make a bow from the ribbon. Glue to center front of collar. 

Friday, March 25, 2016


Tracee Lydia Garner published her first book at the age of twenty-three after winning the BET First Time Writer’s Contest. She’s been publishing ever since. She’s also a social worker and public speaker dealing with the issues that concern people with disabilities and the physical and attitudinal barriers they face. Learn more about Tracee and her books at her website/blog.

Time management: 5 Tips to do More with Your Time and Do It More Efficiently

At some point I learned a few tricks to get more done with less. We all have the same amount of time, but man, are some people using it better than the rest of us! Despite feeling pretty confident about my own ability to manage my time better, I’ve discovered there’s always more to learn. Here are some tidbits and a few new discoveries I’ve employed to make time work for me.

Take your own pictures for your Blog or other social media. We all have some sort of newsletter either as a writer or contributor or side hustle we enjoy. I was looking for pictures of words the other day for an exercise I give my students. I teach How to Write a Novel at the local college. When I couldn’t find something I liked and wanted that was free and clear (copyrights), I took my own. You can take your own pictures. You can even make extra money selling them to photo sites. Do your homework if you decide to do this.

DVR everything - I'm sorry I just can't do it anymore - sit through commercials or watch things in real time. I can’t believe I’ve had a DVR for about 7 years and really only recently started using it more purposefully. Now of course I’m getting spoiled, I can’t seem to watch anything that hasn’t been “recorded”. Can I also say that I’ve been cutting off the TV and when using the DVR you are especially “running” through the commercials? Doing that alone seems to have given me less of an opportunity to be wooed (coerced) by advertisers into buying something I just don’t need, which could really and truly affect your bottom line.

Note that with the DVR, if it’s something I really want to see and chat with friends/coworkers about the next day, then I just start the program 15-30 minutes into the show. You can still save time shaving off some minutes and finish at the same time as everyone else.

Make a Master List of all the foods you buy on a regular basis. Copy it (save it on your computer) but make a few copies of it and have it on your fridge or a drawer in the kitchen. You and your family can highlight or circle items, and then you’re ready to go.

Label it properly, put it away, and leave out the master to-do list - To cut down on clutter, which also reduces mental clutter and feeling overwhelmed, I’ve put away stacks and stacks of paper into folders that are properly labeled and then filed them away, thus freeing my desk up for space and comfort. Just keep a running list of things to do, front and center, put the rest away and only pull it out when you’re ready to work on that particular item. A timer can also help with this and a simple timer is available on your phone or computer.

Compose anything using talk to text My all-time-favorite and Newest Better Time Management Discovery is depressing that tiny little microphone picture to talk my lists, parts of my book, e-mails and other kinds of output. Part of this blog post was written using talk to text at 4:00 in the a.m. when insomnia sets in. I make lists and mostly write about 300 - 1000 words for my story with this little gizmo. It’s available on almost every phone, no matter your carrier or brand. Look for the little microphone button, just try it. Open an e-mail and speak, even tone and normal like conversing with a friend, that’s a friend with perfect hearing. There’s no reason to yell or enunciate your words (unless you have a thick accent) for the talking to texting feature on your phone, and you can spell out names if it doesn’t recognize some of the unusual ones.

There you go. Just a few things you might not have thought about. I can’t wait to see what new time management practices I’ll adopt in the year to come. Want more productivity and time management advice? I explore this topic in depth through a four-part series that appeared on my blog.

Anchored Hearts
Despite her prestigious professional role, Allontis Baxter’s private life is in shambles. She’s just broken up with her no-good boyfriend, her adopted mother figure is dying in the hospital and now she’s been turned down in an attempt to adopt a child of her own. Plus, Allontis’s old flame Cole Parker has returned to their hometown from New York City, causing her dilemmas to multiply as old feelings are rekindled. What’s a successful and motivated nonprofit career woman to do?

When a series of chance encounters at work fling her into the middle of a mysterious scandal, Allontis realizes she’s caught up in a dangerous game that could send her chaotic life up in flames. Struggling to keep the pieces of her own life together while protecting those she loves, Allontis is forced to confront the true meaning of family and to face some demons of her own. 

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Thursday, March 24, 2016


The city of Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia, from the beach  
At the age of six Australian author Helen Ellis composed poetry for her school magazine. She’s been writing ever since. Her work includes contemporary women’s fiction, romantic drama, cozy fiction, urban fantasy, mystery, humorous chick-lit, historical drama, linked short stories, and novellas, all with a romantic element. Learn more about Helen and her books at her website

Hello from Australia – or Oz, as we Aussies call it!

I live on the Gold Coast, in the southeast corner of the state of Queensland. The Gold Coast is the sixth largest city in Oz, (the others are Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth), and it’s a subtropical area with a mild, dry winter and a hot, humid, wet summer. My city is a destination for tourists from everywhere. It’s here that the mighty Pacific Ocean rolls onto great stretches of sandy beaches, bringing surf that’s the envy of the rest of the world! Some tourists have likened the Gold Coast to Miami – we even have a suburb called Miami – others to Hawaii, but, even though we have our skyscrapers and serious shopping precincts, I think we are rather unique in that laid-back “it’ll be right, mate” kind of Australian way.

I think we Aussies tend to underestimate the beauty of our country. It’s such a large place. There’s a bit of a poem I was taught at school – “I love a sunburnt country, a wilful, lavish land, all ye who do not know her, you will not understand” – and this rather sums up Oz, I think. We have terrible droughts, floods, bushfires, storms and cyclones, but beautiful springs, amazing summers, gorgeous flowers, stunning scenery, and very friendly people.

70% of the Australian mainland is classified as semi-arid, arid or desert, making it the driest inhabited continent on Earth. Consequently all the major settlement is around the coastal areas, and on the east the Great Dividing Range separates the coast from the remarkable inland pastures. However don’t think we are without mountains, for in the south of New South Wales and northern Victoria are the Australian Alps, snow-capped in winter.
And of course everyone knows about our kangaroos (we have a small group of them living on the hill behind our home) – fascinating animals. But it’s the birds that I love. Oz has some of the most colourful birds in the world – lorikeets, parrots and galahs – and also the famous laughing kookaburra. Kookas sit on the light pole outside my home, eye me off, and laugh at me.

This is my world. I sit at my desk and write, happy to live in Oz. Come visit.

Escape to Santorini
Afraid for her life, Mary Illingford abandons her home in Sydney and her abusive and violent husband, Paul. With her daughter, Jenni, she embarks on a journey to a place where she thinks he will never find her – the island of Santorini, Greece, where her friends Eleni and Julia await her.

Jenni and Marios, Eleni's son, fall in love and are challenged by the differences in their cultures. The three women, and Eleni’s friend John, learn about each other and share their problems in the beautiful surroundings of the Greek island. Mary discovers real friendship and support, Julia puts old issues behind her and extends her horizons, Eleni gains comfort beyond her family, and John shakes off the paranoia of his ex-wife.

But Paul, in trouble with the law, resolves to find Mary and Jenni. His chase inevitably leads him to Santorini…Love will prevail, however. Always.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


Do you consume copious amounts of coffee or tea? Are you embarrassed by the stains they leave on your teeth? Have you been spending huge sums on teeth whitening strips and gels to whiten your pearly not-so-whites? Here are two tricks to cut down on teeth stains.

Along with coffee and tea, juices and sodas can not only discolor your teeth but also leave them weak. An easy trick is to use a straw, directing the liquid to the back of your mouth so it doesn’t come in contact with your teeth. If you don’t have a straw handy, always swish your mouth with water after you drink any of these beverages.

Stains on teeth are bad enough, but what’s worse are foods that weaken your teeth. Carbohydrates are one of those food groups. They wreak havoc on your teeth because the bacteria in your mouth combines with the carbs to produce acids that eat away at your teeth’s enamel. Foods rich in calcium can offset this damage by boosting the levels of certain minerals that protect your teeth. One way to counteract the damage that carbs will create is to top off your meal with a piece of cheese.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


This Blueberry Banana Bread was so tempting that my husband ate half of it before I had a chance to take a photo!
Blueberry Banana Bread

Note: This recipe doesn't require an electric mixture. Just use a whisk and a spoon.

1 very ripe banana
1/3 cup melted butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
juice and zest of one small lemon
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 heaping cup frozen blueberries, defrosted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 4” x 8” pan.

Using fork, mash banana until smooth. Whisk in melted butter.

Mix together baking soda, salt, and sugar. Whisk into banana/butter mixture.

Whisk together egg, vanilla, lemon juice, and zest. Mix into batter.

Coat blueberries with small amount of flour. Mix remaining flour into batter. Fold in blueberries.

Bake 50 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Allow to cool on wire rack. 

Monday, March 21, 2016


Hudson Bay blanket coat
photo by Steelbeard1 from Wikimedia Commons
Carolyn Mulford worked on five continents as a magazine editor and freelance writer before making the transition to fiction. She divides her time between her first love, historical novels, and her last love, mysteries. Her latest releases are Thunder Beneath My Feet, set during the devastating New Madrid earthquakes, Show Me the Ashes, the fourth book in her Show Me series. Learn more about Carolyn and her books at her website.

My teenager had to have a blanket coat. Nothing else would do for her.

Lots of young women felt that way last year when fall fashions arrived. But the blanket coats advertised in 2015 were ponchos or ruanas rather than the original hooded, calf-length wool coat. Worn by French-Canadian voyageurs from the late 1700s, the warm, durable garment spread rapidly among American fur trappers and Native Americans.

And it endured. Most fashions and textiles have changed drastically in 200 years, but the frontier blanket coats—particularly those made from the Hudson Bay Company’s white wool blanket with short red, yellow, green, and black stripes—lived into this century. Today those who value them for outdoor activities settle for used ones or buy the blanket and make their own.

My teenager, fifteen-year-old Betsy, wasn’t making a fashion statement in 1812. She needed the coat to survive a three-week trek from a mild climate into weather so cold that the Mississippi River froze from bank to bank.

Betsy is the resourceful, courageous protagonist of Thunder Beneath My Feet, a novel for tweens and teens set during the devastating earthquakes centered near New Madrid, Upper Louisiana (Missouri) Territory in 1811-1812. Weeks of quakes, severe aftershocks, and shakes destroyed homes, made the river run backwards, created lakes, and prompted most of the population to flee.

Betsy stayed on her family’s farm with her younger brother and four strangers until the shocks and shakes posed more danger than a 200-mile walk north.

I’d placed her in this historically accurate fix, so I had to find her a realistic way out. Her shawls definitely wouldn’t withstand the cold and snow. She couldn’t walk and work under the weight of the buffalo robe. She lacked the time and materials to make a wool-lined buckskin coat. That left the blanket coat, which she could also curl up in at night.

I’d seen the coats in photos and a museum, but my 4-H sewing projects hadn’t included making a coat of any kind. I remembered how frustrating it had been to put a sleeve in a blouse or a dress. At least these coats had no buttonholes to contend with. Instead a sash held the open front closed. Could Betsy make coats for herself and her little brother?

I went to Google for advice. To my surprise, links led me to information on making blanket coats, including the original French-Canadian capote (cape). One site said it took only three to five hours. A Californian who used a pattern to make one for winter hiking warns that he’d spent three days, part of that time practicing on an old blanket. Smart man. And he had no regrets.

Betsy had no pattern. She borrowed a blanket coat to figure out how to size it by measuring with a piece of yarn, cut the pieces with a knife and by tearing, and sewed together the loose-fitting garment. Ease of construction and warmth far outweighed such considerations as how it draped.

A traditional blanket coat has only five or six pieces. The major one is the body, made by cutting according to the wearer’s girth and height and folding that piece with the edges overlapping several inches at the front. Betsy would have overlapped folds on the shoulders and left a flap for the collar. The pointed hood, two pieces sewn together, attached to that. The hood had to be big enough to go over a skunk- or coon-skin cap.

A slit from each shoulder to under the armpit allowed her to insert the broad end of the raglan-style sleeves, ones long enough that she could turn down the cuffs to cover her mittened hands. She would have used a multipurpose rope rather than a sash to keep the front closed.

Making a blanket coat remains relatively simple today despite our concern for fashion. If you want to make a traditional or modified one, I recommend investing in a pattern rather than winging it as Betsy did.

Thunder Beneath My Feet
Shy, sensible fifteen-year-old Betsy takes charge of the family farm and her ten-year-old brother Johnnie when their mother rides south to bring her sick husband home to New Madrid, Missouri Territory. Four days later on December 16, 1811, powerful earthquakes destroy homes and trees, flood and poison the land, and turn the Mississippi into a river of death. Their neighbors flee the never-ending quakes. Betsy stays to wait for her parents, care for the animals, and find the family’s stolen money. She and Johnnie share a lean-to with four strangers—a 16-year-old French-Shawnee boy, a mute slave woman, a poor French tutor, and his elegant Spanish wife. Their secrets hold them there as the quakes and the cold threaten their lives.

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Friday, March 18, 2016


Steve Liskow is a panelist and mentor for both Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and has been named a finalist for both the Edgar Award and the Shamus Award. His next novel, The Nowhere Man (hello, Beatle fans), will be published in May. Learn more about Steve and his books at his website. 

Rock & Roll Mystery
When I started college, I was a big British Invasion fan. I also liked the Monkees and Paul Revere and the Raiders, all of which helps you guess my age. In the fall of my sophomore year, I took a date to see Martha and the Vandellas, and the opening act was some guys called the Muddy Waters Blues Band. I’d never heard of them, but they blew me out of the water and I dropped my teeny-bopper allegiance and became a blues fan on the spot.

About two months later, I bought my first guitar, slightly better than what you’d find at Toys ‘R’ Us now, and began struggling to fingerpick the blues. I wanted to become the next Charley Patton, but sounded more like General Patton. Small hands, a lack of talent, and a wrist broken playing football didn’t help, but I still play. Since then, I’ve bought, sold or traded about twenty-five guitars and I can’t even guess how many amplifiers. I perform at local open mic nights, and I love it.

The writing epiphany came several years ago when my wife and I returned to Michigan for my high school reunion and I met a classmate—a woman I never knew then—who was now a session keyboard player in Detroit. In fact, her escort was the former drummer from Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet band. That meeting inspired my Chris “Woody” Guthrie PI series, set in Detroit. I envisioned the character as a guitar player and set out to list song titles that might also suggest a mystery. Right now, that list is five pages long and most of my published titles use songs or a line from a song.

The manuscript collected over 100 rejections under four different titles and dozens of revisions. Woody’s name changed three times, too, but the basic premise never varied. Years later, one of my musician friends commented that it sounded like the Bobby Fuller murder in 1966, and I admitted that I hadn’t thought about that at the time. I self-published the book in 2013 as Blood On the Tracks (the title of a Bob Dylan album), and it placed in the top ten of over 1500 entries for the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Novel Awards.

Now, Chris “Woody” Guthrie has his own series. He and girlfriend Megan Traine, an ex-keyboard player, get involved in cases that have a music slant. The first book solved the cold case of a rock star who died in his car years before, and it got some decent reviews. Oh Lord, Won’t You Steal Me a Mercedes Benz involves a car thief, the Detroit Mob, and a pregnant stripper. One of the important clues is a Gibson Les Paul guitar, which a man bought only weeks before someone kills him. Under one of his earlier names, Woody solves the murder of a rock singer in “Stranglehold,” which won the Black Orchid Novella Award for 2009, too.

I gave Woody my general appearance and musical preferences, so he plays a Fender Stratocaster for electric and a Gibson Hummingbird for acoustic. Now that he’s hooked up with Megan, a real musician, he practices more often and he’s a much better player than I am. In the third book, slated for fall of 2016, he’s learning to play “Crossroad Blues,” a classic by Robert Johnson, the King of the Delta Blues (You may know Eric Clapton’s reworking of it with Cream). Johnson was murdered at the age of 27, and a line from that song is my title: Dark Gonna Catch Me Here.

Music helps me write because a good song involves rhythm and harmony, too.  The chords and rhythm in a song are like the subplots and pacing in a good story, and I like to change points of view so everyone gets a solo.

Does it work? Well, I know the title of the fourth Woody Guthrie book that I won’t start writing until next fall. And I still have about 325 song titles left on my list.

Oh Lord, Won’t You Steal Me a Mercedes Benz
When “Hot Rod” Lincoln steals a Mercedes, he doesn’t know Tony Fortunato’s dead in the trunk, but the Detroit cops charge him with murder anyway. He turns to PI Chris “Woody” Guthrie for help, and Guthrie discovers that Tony, who married into the Mob, may have been embezzling—talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

Everyone wants that money, but nobody knows where it is: Tony’s cheating wife, his pregnant stripper girlfriend, his crime boss uncle…or whoever really killed him. Guthrie needs to find the money and the killer before the meter runs out.

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