In three mystery series and short stories, Susan Oleksiw explores the clash between the traditional and modern: in India in the Anita Ray series, with an Indian-American photographer living at her aunt's tourist hotel; in a New England town with Chief Joe Silva; and on a New England farm with Felicity O'Brien, healer and farmer. Susan's short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, and her nonfiction appears in A Reader's Guide to the Classic British Mystery (1988) and The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999). Learn more about Susan and her books at her website.
Building Tall Tree Farm
In Below the Tree Line, Felicity O'Brien takes over the family farm when her father can no longer manage. When I began developing the idea for this series, I didn't have a specific farm in mind but as the research and writing progressed, I drew on the dairy farm where I was born (and left at a young age) and the one my parents bought after my father retired. These helped me with specific details and layout, but they were not enough to build an entirely new one.
I considered a neighbor's farm, which had an envious view across fields and a brook. A farm across the street from where my parents lived for thirty years gave me another idea, and a very small farm, less than ten acres, in a nearby town suggested the advantages of compactness. By the time I was finished, and had written half of the first mystery, Felicity's farm was as alive as any of the trees in my front yard. I sketched out my idea of this new setting, sighting the house and barn, gardens and hayfield, and driveway. The view from the house mattered, as well as the distance from the road, where she could set up her farm stand. Once I started added detail upon detail, it was hard to stop. Tall Tree Farm is now five hundred acres of mostly forest, with a vegetable garden, farm stand, hay field, paddock for sheep, and outbuildings.
Ideas for Tall Tree Farm came randomly, as often happens, so I set up a Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/susanoleksiw/tall-tree-farm/
page just for the farm. Here I could post images that attracted me, inspired a story idea, or just fleshed out aspects of the farm I might have to consider in the future. When I was thinking about what kind of cat Felicity would have, I gravitated to the snowshoe because we had a dear one who died. In the end I decided on a calico cat, and named her Miss Anthropy.
It was too easy to get distracted by images of tools, and I posted lots of photos of pitchforks, all different designs for different purposes. The same can be said of rakes. When I came across the importance of a certain kind of fork, according to anarchaeologist in England, I stopped to learn about the craft of making them. After that I inspected the handles of all sorts of tools, looking for the preferred hickory and the rarest of rare, the pitchfork made from a single sapling in France by the same family for the last several hundred years.
Anyone who has lived in or visited New England is familiar with the image of the old barn during the autumn season, with gold and red leaves bursting out of the forest and turning magical a structure that anyone else would tear down. I couldn't omit photographs of autumn on a farm.
But where did Felicity fit into the total farming community? In 1974 Massachusetts had 4,497 farms; in 2012 the state had 7,755 (in 1997 the state adjusted how farms were counted, and the numbers jumped, but not enough to account for the entire increase). But farms got smaller. In 1974, the average size of a farm was 130 acres. In 2012, the average size was 107 acres for hay, and 67 acres average overall. Today 22% of farms make hay. Overall, the total land under cultivation declined from 601,734 acres in 1974 to 523,517 in 2012.
Felicity's struggles with making her farm a success fit right into contemporary life. She has several income streams, as we now say, many of them thin, and some that dry up in the summer, but she soldiers on. Like the farms that inspired Tall Tree Farm, the profit margin may be thin but the work is richly rewarding.
Craeft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts by Alex Langlands
Below the Tree Line
In the Massachusetts countryside, family secrets run deep...but an outside threat could uproot them all.
Felicity O'Brien hopes the warning shot fired from her porch is enough to scare off the intruder who's been snooping around her family's Massachusetts farm. Days later, when two young women are found dead nearby, Felicity can't figure out how the deaths are related, and even her inherited healing touch isn't enough to ease the community's pain over the tragic loss.
Felicity does know that somebody wants something bad enough to kill for it, but all she has is the neglected property her parents passed down to her. Joining forces with her friend Jeremy Colson, Felicity tries to uncover the truth and save herself and her land from those who are capable of unthinkable harm.