A great Christmas movie that’s not on any list but mine

So, Thanksgiving, right? I feel under some pressure to do a “what I’m thankful for” post, so here it goes…

Ha ha! I almost had you, didn’t I? I think you guys know me better than that.

‘Tis the season for “top Christmas movie lists.” Let’s talk about that.

Do we really need to be told that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is something people watch? And if you’re a fan of “A Christmas Story,” skip it this year. Instead, if you can find it, check out the darker, edgier and so much funnier “Phantom of the Open Hearth,” which aired on PBS in the 1970s and is the original movie based on the Jean Shepherd essay that the Christmas movie later came from.

My friend Brian Ruel and I saw “A Christmas Story” when it first came out. He had to review it for the late, great Biddeford Journal-Tribune, which no longer exists, and we saw it in an afternoon showing at the Cines 5 theater in Biddeford, which had just opened, but also no longer exists. When it ended we both said something like, “Wow, they really watered down ‘Phantom of the Open Hearth.'”

But I digress.

Want to see a Christmas movie you haven’t seen a zillion times? Watch “Desk Set.” I downloaded it from Amazon Prime Video — I also have it on DVD, but it was easier to buy it from a streaming service than to hook the DVD player back up.

A man and a woman in 1950s clothing on a balcony, with the man holding a bottle of champagne.The 1957 Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn film has a snappy Henry and Phoebe Ephron script that’ll soak into you like heavily spiked egg nog in front of a fire.

The movie begins in November and you can feel that pre-Christmas giddiness that you’re all probably feeling at this very moment. Its climatic scene is one of those boozy office-shredding Christmas parties that have gone the way of the Journal-Tribune, Cines 5 and “Phanton of the Open Hearth.”

The biggest gifts are some classic Tracy-Hepburn scenes, including lunch on a roof early in the movie and a bottle of champagne and some whip-smart flirting in the research stacks during the Christmas party.

But the best is a dinner scene at Hepburn’s apartment involving her, Tracy, Gig Young and a monogrammed robe Hepburn was going to give Young for Christmas. The scene is perfect in every way, and I’d put it up against anything from “Elf” or whatever else people put on their “best Christmas movies list.”

There aren’t any fart jokes, excrement in the punch bowl, the dog getting electrocuted by Christmas lights. It’s not about a guy trashing his dreams and resigning himself to a life in a go-nowhere job because everyone in his town is too hapless to get out of their own way if he isn’t there to hold their hands. Sorry, maybe I’ve seen that one too many times.

The technology aspects of the plot — the movie was bankrolled by IBM — may seem dated, but it’s really not. The gals in the research department of a TV station are afraid a computer is going to take their jobs. When I turned the movie off, I switched on an episode of “Superstore,” and the gang at the store was afraid a new robot that cleans floors and stocks shelves was going to take over their jobs. Ditto for some of the gender issues — sure they’re through a 62-year-old lens, but things haven’t changed nearly as much as they should have.

Anyway, the plot is secondary to what’s going on, if you know what I mean.

Wow, not to interrupt, but I just saw on TV that the HLN Thanksgiving “Forensic Files” marathon begins at midnight. It’s going to be a late night for this mashed potato!

Speaking of Thanksgiving, I heard someone say recently that there are “no good books” centered around Thanksgiving. Not for nothing, but my second Bernie O’Dea mystery, NO NEWS IS BAD NEWS, has a climatic Thanksgiving Day scene, where an uncooked turkey rotting on a counter is not even in the top five of bad things that happen. And, not to brag or anything, but a reader at an author talk this summer told me I ruined Thanksgiving for them forever.

You know? I know I said this wasn’t going to be some sappy post about what I’m thankful for, but man — from “Desk Set” to “Forensic Files” to “Hey! I’m a writer who does it well enough to ruin holidays for strangers!” — if I were the kind of person who said said things like “I’m truly blessed” I’d say it.

Happy Thanksgiving folks!

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An Excerpt from Lea Wait’s THREAD AND BURIED

Lea Wait’s Thread and Buried hit bookstore shelves and ebook outlets yesterday. Here, for your reading enjoyment, is an excerpt from the beginning of the novel, number nine in the Mainely Needlepoint Mystery Series, supplied by Lea’s publisher, Kensington Books.

 

THREAD AND BURIED

Lea Wait

 

Chapter 1

 

Still as through Life’s meandering path I stray
Lord be the sweet Companion of my way.
My kind Conducter, to the Blest abode
Of Light, of Life, of happiness and God.
—Sampler titled “An Emblem of Innocence,” stitched in silk on linen by Eliza Mallonee in 1825. Eliza’s sampler does not include an alphabet, but is intricately embroidered with a border of strawberries on two sides, and flowers, birds, and trees on both the top and bottom.

From Harbor Hopes
by Ruth Hopkins

July 4, 1963, a small town on the coast of Maine

The red, white, and blue scarf tied around Amy’s ponytail blew behind her as late afternoon sea breezes cooled the air. She ignored the boats in the harbor, the tourists snapping pictures of the lighthouse, and her red apron, stained with the salt water she’d been steaming lobsters in, and turned inland, toward the pergola on the town green, where Caleb had said he’d meet her.

Caleb. She smiled, just thinking of him. Fate and heritage had brought them together. When she was in kindergarten he’d defended her from first-grade bullies. In junior high he’d carried her books home from school and they’d done homework together on the pine kitchen table while her mother made molasses cookies for them.

When her mother was sick he’d brought flowers to her hospital room, and held Amy as she cried. He and his family had sat behind hers at the funeral. When she was sixteen he’d asked her to wear his class ring. She hadn’t taken it off since then, and had encouraged him to stay in high school even when she knew the life he’d planned as a lobsterman didn’t require graduation.

She turned the corner and waved. He was standing, tall and slim, his crew cut as short as ever, waiting for her, just as he’d said he’d be. He’d never failed her.

Amy waved back, and glanced at her watch. She couldn’t stay long, and neither could he. The Sea Fare, where she worked, expected her back from her break in half an hour, and Caleb would be heading out to Second Sister Island to help his father set up tonight’s fireworks.

She started to run as he held out his arms. They both smelled of lobsters and the sea, and, as their lips met, they knew they were always meant to be together.

“Meet me after the fireworks tonight?” Caleb murmured in her ear. “Down at the wharf?”

Amy nodded. Caleb’s Sea Witch, the inboard lobster boat his grandfather had left him last year, and that he was so proud of, was docked near his father’s lobster boat. “I’ll be there. But not for long.”

Caleb sighed. “Your dad?”

“He told me he wanted me in by ten thirty tonight.”

Caleb broke away and moved to the other side of the pergola. “He won’t always be able to control you, Amy. You’re not a child anymore. You’re seventeen. I have a lobster boat; I can make a living for both of us. And I’m not disappearing.”

“I know,” she said. “But it’s easier if I just tell him I’m going to watch the fireworks with Carol and Joan and Marty.”

“He really hates me, doesn’t he?”

Amy didn’t say anything. They both knew the answer to that question. “We’ll find a way, Caleb. We will.”

He put his arms around her again. “Yes. We will.”

 

Thousands of vacationers head for the coast of Maine every July looking for lighthouses, beaches, lobster rolls, and cooler temperatures than in their home states. But for those of us who live in Maine full-time, temperatures in the eighties seem hot, and summer isn’t a time for relaxing.

It’s a time to run restaurants and tourist attractions, sell the art and crafts we created during winter months, and convince visitors that Maine is, indeed, “the way life should be.”

That’s the goal of the police, state troopers, Marine Patrol officers, and Coast Guard, too. “The way life should be” should not include murders. And if it does, then solving them as quickly as possible is critical, not only for the victims, but also for Maine’s reputation.

Somehow in the fifteen months I’ve been back in Maine I’ve gotten involved in helping the police do just that.

I’m Angie Curtis. I grew up here in Haven Harbor, but took a ten-year hiatus working for a private investigator in Arizona, which is why I have some of the skills the police are looking for, although you probably wouldn’t guess it if you met me. I’m twenty-eight, I live with my black cat, Trixi, I have ordinary straight brown hair that I pin up in summer. And, oh yes. I have a Glock. Which I know how to use.

But what most people in town know about me is that I run Mainely Needlepoint, a business started by my grandmother. I make sure gift shops, galleries, and decorators have all the needlepointed pillows of eider ducks and lighthouses and harbor scenes they can sell, update our Web site, meet with customers who want custom work, and keep track of the schedules of all the needlepointers who have other jobs.

Nothing to do with crime.

Which is fine by me.

I’ve also been seeing Patrick West. He’s an artist, and runs a gallery in town. And, yes, what most people know about him is that his mother is movie star Skye West.

This summer Patrick and I’d hoped to spend time together, exploring Maine and each other. Patrick even hired a student from the Maine College of Art to “gallery-sit” so he’d have more time in July and August for his own painting and for me.

We didn’t schedule time for any activities other than art and needlepoint and romantic evenings.

That fantasy crumbled when Patrick’s mother announced that her friend, producer Hank Stoddard, had found enough investors so he could make a movie here this summer. Harbor Heartbreak would be directed by Marv Mason, and written by Thomas and Marie O’Day, who’d spent last Christmas with Skye here in the Harbor and fallen in love with the idea of making a movie based on a book written by my friend and fellow needlepointer Ruth Hopkins. Ruth has supported herself for years by writing, and many of her stories are based here in the Harbor. Not many people in town even knew she’s an author, since she writes under different names. Or, they didn’t know before now.

Of course, Patrick’s involved in the film. Skye also recruited me and another fellow needlepointer (and antique dealer) Sarah Byrne, to help lighting and set designer Flannery Sullivan create two sets, one for scenes set in the early 1960s and one for contemporary scenes.

They’d hired a number of locals, and were paying a lot more than minimum wage seasonal jobs paid here, so that was good. “It’ll be a summer to remember,” Gram kept reminding me.

But so far I kept remembering what I’d hoped this summer would be: time for Patrick and me to spend more hours together.

Looked now as though we’d have to wait for fall.

Here it was, already the third week of July, Harbor Heartbreak was set to begin filming in a week, and Patrick and I had hardly seen each other in the past couple of weeks.

Lea’s cat, Shadow, with THREAD AND BURIED

To read the rest of Thread and Buried, here’s a buy link to all the usual online booksellers. You can also ask your local independent bookstore and/or your local library to order a copy.

For more information on Lea and her books, you’ll find her website at http://www.LeaWait.com

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ROAD TRIPPING

Susan Vaughan here. I’m not what anyone who knows me would call spontaneous. I like things planned, I like to plan, but I can adapt when events don’t go as planned. Striking out with no particular goal or direction in mind shifts my pulse up a notch. Or two. So when my husband the Car Guy declared we should go on a road trip for a couple of weeks, with only the vaguest notion of “heading south,” first my pulse did that shift and then my stomach clenched. “But where?” I asked, and “how far?” He responded that after a week of heading south, we’d turn around and head back home to Maine. My mind whirled with questions—where would we stay and how far would we drive each day and how would we know what to see and do in various places. He brushed off my concerns with a “we’ll figure it out as we go.” (Which meant I would figure it out as we went.) Two weeks had to be our limit because of our senior dog, who would have to board.

After some back and forth, I agreed on the road trip but had stipulations. One, I would not stay in any dives. Two, we’d try for hotels with breakfast included. And three, we would decide each day how far we could go so I could start finding a hotel by early afternoon. I began perusing a road atlas to figure out a general (dare I say it?) plan for “heading south.” My finger moved along Interstate highways through Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania, and landed on—Gettysburg!

I knew I had him. Car Guy is also a history buff. Neither of us had ever been there. Yay, our first major destination. Not really a plan, I told him, because who knew where we’d stop between here and there. Then he mused that it would be nice if we could get to Nashville, if it wasn’t too far south. There, I felt much better knowing we weren’t just heading out blindly. And I had places to research. Planner’s heaven. (And yes, for my books, I’m also a plotter.) So on October 15, we packed up the RAV4 with suitcases, various layers of jackets, maps, the GPS, my little Acer netbook, and a cooler and headed south.

After a slow, rainy trip and two overnight stops (success with phone apps and GPS directions finding decent hotels), we reached Gettysburg in sunshine. We walked around the historic downtown and had a delicious early dinner at One Lincoln on Lincoln Square.

Lincoln Square

The next day, armed with a map from the visitor center at Gettysburg National Military Park, we drove and walked various parts of the battlefield.  Tomes have been written about

Gettysburg National Military Park.

the Battle of Gettysburg, but I’ll share the tidbits that have stuck with me from our visit. First some background for those of you, like me, who remember little from long-ago history classes about the importance and events of that 1863 struggle. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, emboldened by an earlier battle victory, marched north. They were followed closely by the Union Army, and the two met at Gettysburg, by chance. On July 1 through 3, the Union Army commanded by George Meade and the Confederates fought near the town on farms and hillsides.

Cannon hole remains above the lower roof.

July 3 brought the fateful Confederate attack known as Pickett’s Charge. Cavalry and foot soldiers marched across an expanse of fields toward the Union Army hunkered down on a

Copse of Trees

hill near a copse of trees, which is still on that knoll today. That attack is known as The High Water Mark because it marked the greatest advance north of Confederate forces . The attack was driven back and, in the span of one hour, cost Lee 5000 lives. The fields were soaked with the blood of men and horses.

The Battle of Gettysburg was essentially over, and the loss turned the tide of the war. Every state participating has a monument, and smaller memorials to individual soldiers or skirmishes stand in every cornfield. Yes, those fields are still farmed. If you look in the background of this photo, you can see a small memorial and a cannon.

Toward the end of our day, we climbed Little Round Top. On that hill on July 2, Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine Regiment defended the brigade’s left flank.

View from Little Round Top

At the top of the hill we found the Maine monument and a plaque commemorating the successful defense. Notice the coins on the monument’s base. A Vietnam veteran who placed a penny there explained to me it was a sign of respect, showing you’d visited.

20th Maine Regiment

We finished the afternoon at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, very near the battlefield. The Gettysburg Address was Abraham Lincoln’s speech to dedicate this burial ground. The cemetery is immense, with memorials created by family members of the deceased soldiers as well as a vast field of unknown soldiers. Stone markers identified each state’s section of simple graves for hundreds of men. I found the one for my home state of West Virginia and this one for Maine.

Maine’s Unknown Fallen

The scope and ferocity of what we saw and learned that day sobered us both and more than once brought me to tears. Although the Civil War tore the country apart, its conclusion preserved the Union, for which I am profoundly grateful.

The next day we continued south. In case you’re wondering, yes, we made it to Nashville. We saw a show at the Grand Ole Opry, walked the so-called Music Row (Broadway, actually ), and visited the Country Music Hall of Fame. It was a great trip, but I’m happy to be home in Maine.

Finally, a word about Thread and Buried, by our dear friend and colleague Lea Wait. Today, November 26, is the release date for her final book. This link to Kensington Publishing will connect you to all the major booksellers for both the digital and print versions. https://www.kensingtonbooks.com/book.aspx/39279 Or you can purchase this book from your favorite independent bookstore and request that your local library order copies. If you want to know more about Lea and all her books, visit her Web page at http://www.LeaWait.com.

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Mystery Loves Company

Dear Readers, Dorothy cannot blog this month, so since we know you like your regular dose of her insight and humor, we are rerunning a post from a few years back that you might enjoy discovering or rereading. What are your thoughts about whether Agatha Christie’s novels were cozy or had a dark underside?

Dorothy Cannell: A few weeks ago a friend from England came to visit and gave me, perhaps in hope of breakfast in bed, a page from The Times, Monday October 3, 2016 written by David Sanderson under the headline “And Then There were … Plenty.” Set below is the opener:

“The best known novels of Agatha Christie are being revived for new film and TV audiences writes David Sanderson…. For once the culprit is obvious. It was Agatha Christie in her study with an astonishing output of drama and intrigue.

“The author’s murder mysteries are set for a multi-million pound, 21st century makeover after her estate signed a string of film and television deals. The names in the frame are a who’s who of Hollywood including Sir Kenneth Branagh, Ben Affleck, Dame Judi Dench and Johny Depp.

“There are at least four feature films in the pipeline, plus a seven-programme adaptation deal with BBC, and another Hercule Poirot continuation novel.”

In my thoroughly biased opinion as an enthusiast of Christie’s work I think this news calls for a National Day (if not year) of The Mystery. What mainstream writer of her era is in her league when it comes to garnering fans not born until yeaCrs after her death in 1976? To have escaped becoming dated, as has been the fate of many from her era, is an inspiration to today’s mystery writers.

A quote from Hilary Strong, chief executive of Agatha Christie Limited, caught my attention:

“There is a darkness to the work that has not necessarily been interpreted by the film makers before…And Then There Were None is actually the grandmother of horror.”…. She was a social historian, and there is the wonderful sense of humour. Sir Kenneth [Branagh], who is directing and starring in a new film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, agreed that there was an edge to Christie’s work. He described the novel as ‘mysterious, compelling and upsetting,’ adding that he was honoured to be bringing ‘these dark materials to life for a new audience.’’’

I have frequently been involved in writers’ chit-chat as to whether Cristie’s mysteries can be labeled cozies. My take on The Body in the Library has long been cozy title to fit setting and grim plot, and that’s what I took from this article – that she can’t be slotted into any niche. She was the whole package – unique until some other writer can work out how she wove her magic.

Upcoming Feature Films: Murder on the Orient express; Witness for the Prosecution, And Then Were None, Crooked House.

BBC TV Adaptions: Ordeal by Innocence, Death Comes As The End, The ABC Murders.

On a personal note, huge thanks to PBS for the many wonderful British programs they provide. Currently loving Poldark and The Dr. Blake Mysteries on Thursday nights.

All best wishes, Dorothy

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Mystery Loves Company

Dear Readers, Dorothy cannot blog this month, so since we know you like your regular dose of her insight and humor, we are rerunning a post from a few years back that you might enjoy discovering or rereading. What are your thoughts about whether Agatha Christie’s novels were cozy or had a dark underside?

Dorothy Cannell: A few weeks ago a friend from England came to visit and gave me, fullsizerender_2perhaps in hope of breakfast in bed, a page from The Times, Monday October 3, 2016 written by David Sanderson under the headline “And Then There were … Plenty.” Set below is the opener:

“The best known novels of Agatha Christie are being revived for new film and TV audiences writes David Sanderson…. For once the culprit is obvious. It was Agatha Christie in her study with an astonishing output of drama and intrigue.

         “The author’s murder mysteries are set for a multi-million pound, 21st century makeover after her estate signed a string of film and television deals. The names in the frame are a who’s who of Hollywood including Sir Kenneth Branagh, Ben Affleck, Dame Judi Dench and Johny Depp.

“There are at least four feature films in the pipeline, plus a seven-programme adaptation deal with BBC, and another Hercule Poirot continuation novel.”

In my thoroughly biased opinion as an enthusiast of Christie’s work I think this news calls for a National Day (if not year) of The Mystery. What mainstream writer of her era is in her league when it comes to garnering fans not born until yeaCrs after her death in 1976? To have escaped becoming dated, as has been the fate of many from her era, is an inspiration to today’s mystery writers.

A quote from Hilary Strong, chief executive of Agatha Christie Limited, caught my attention:

“There is a darkness to the work that has not necessarily been interpreted by the film makers before…And Then There Were None is actually the grandmother of horror.”…. She was a social historian, and there is the wonderful sense of humour. Sir Kenneth [Branagh], who is directing and starring in a new film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, agreed that there was an edge to Christie’s work. He described the novel as ‘mysterious, compelling and upsetting,’ adding that he was honoured to be bringing ‘these dark materials to life for a new audience.’’’

screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-2-03-20-pmI have frequently been involved in writers’ chit-chat as to whether Cristie’s mysteries can be labeled cozies. My take on The Body in the Library has long been cozy title to fit setting and grim plot, and that’s what I took from this article – that she can’t be slotted into any niche. She was the whole package – unique until some other writer can work out how she wove her magic.

Upcoming Feature Films: Murder on the Orient express; Witness for the Prosecution, And Then Were None, Crooked House.

BBC TV Adaptions: Ordeal by Innocence, Death Comes As The End, The ABC Murders.

On a personal note, huge thanks to PBS for the many wonderful British programs they provide. Currently loving Poldark and The Dr. Blake Mysteries on Thursday nights.

All best wishes, Dorothy

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Weekend Update: November 23-24, 2019

Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will be posts by Dorothy Cannell (Monday), Susan Vaughan (Tuesday), Maureen Milliken (Thursday) and Charlene D’Avanzo (Friday). On Wednesday. the day after it’s published, we’ll be posting an excerpt from Lea Wait’s Thread and Buried.

In the news department, here’s what’s happening with some of us who blog regularly at Maine Crime Writers:

Lea Wait’s Thread and Buried has been garnering good reviews from Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) sent out by her publisher. There’s one here at Maine Crime Writers and the prestigious review journal Booklist praises its “Maine setting and satisfying plot twists.” To read Thread and Buried for yourself, here’s a buy link to all the usual online booksellers. You can also ask your local independent bookstore and/or your local library to order a copy.

Also, for those of you who read ebooks with Kobo: from November 29-December 1, most of Lea’s previous Mainely Needlepoint Mysteries will be on sale at $1.99 each. This includes Thread on Arrival, Dangling by a Thread, Thread and Gone, Thread Herrings, Thread the Halls, Threads of Evidence, and Tightening the Threads.

 This holiday season, if you’re looking for something special to do in Maine, Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens winter feature, Gardens Aglow, is a magical event. Here’s the link, and some photos from last year. https://www.mainegardens.org/calendar-events/gardens-aglow/

 

An invitation to readers of this blog: Do you have news relating to Maine, Crime, or Writing? We’d love to hear from you. Just comment below to share.

And a reminder: If your library, school, or organization is looking for a speaker, we are often available to talk about the writing process, research, where we get our ideas, and other mysteries of the business. Contact Kate Flora

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How Hating November Enriches My Vocabulary

Kate Flora: Three cold, rainy days this week have reminded me how much I hate IMG_2972November. The sky is gray, the clouds are gray, the world around me is gloomy shades of brown. I don’t want to write in the midst of so much gloom, I just want to eat cookies and leftover Halloween candy and avoid the fact that soon I’ll have to carry my collapsed pumpkin, the only bright spot in the landscape, around to the compost pile.

When the writing is stuck and the world is dark and dull, I take refuge in reference books for better language to illuminate the dark and the dull. Perhaps this is an exercise of “When life gives you lemons, etc.” After all, if a character merely says the world of November is dark and dull, the reader isn’t given much with which to imagine what that world looks like.

IMG_2973First, though, now that the sun has finally returned, I kick myself out of the desk chair where I am sulking and take myself outside. How is this November landscape different? Past the bright orange pumpkin, whose features are falling in like an old man’s face, there is still the defiant bright gold of my amsonia, rich against the fallen leaves. To my right, a handful of pink buds on a rose still look hopeful, as though maybe the weather will warm again and they’ll still get a chance to bloom.

Hiding under the bare branches of the spirea, two heuchera, transplanted from plantersIMG_2971 where they’ve spent the summer, still cling to their color—one a startling bright lime green, the other a velvety purple and silver, like the dress of a medieval lady. Farther along, somehow dark and sinister, with its large leaves resembling lily pads and thick purple stems, the ligularia has collapsed across the path as though waiting to trip an unsuspecting passerby.

 

More heuchera are at the edges of the stonewall, clinging stubbornly to their color. The shedding of the leaves reveals the shapes of different types of trees, and the fierce, broken stumps from storms that have been hiding behind the summer green. The blooms of grasses still stand feathery and golden above the plants.

When I come inside, I pull out the books and look for better language than brown. My trusty Rodale’s synonym finder suggests bay, chestnut, sorrel, rust, brick, cinnamon, ginger, hazel, chocolate, coffee, mahogany, walnut, dun, fawn, tawny, amber, tan, drab—and the rather delicious dusky, fuscous, umber, and musteline. If I used musteline in a story, would you know what it meant, or would it stop you in your tracks and send you scurrying to a dictionary?

IMG_2983Another challenge: how to convey the decay and desolation left when frost has killed the leaves. My mother liked the word “sere,” described as withered, shriveled, or dessicated. There are also terms like drooping, dragging, sagging, wilted, or limp. Searching “wilt” gives us flop, drop, dip, bow, languish, dwindle, atrophy, molder, rot or decay.

In the book I’m writing, it is still August, so I can turn my back on November and go back to Thea’s first garden, her bright new house, and Maine roads liked with gardens and farmstands. But fall will come in this book or another, and my refreshed vocabulary will be ready.

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