Writing About Writing, Law, Life, and Occasionally Politics
I post news and excerpts about my novels, plus miscellaneous thoughts, speculations and occasional rants about writing, publishing, current events, legal issues, philosophy, photography, and events in my life.
Let's start the week with another excerpt from my upcoming historical romance What Heals the Heart. The reader and Joshua have seen Clara. Now it's time for the two of them to meet. --------
blacking, coffee, cornmeal, flour, soap. Put it on your tab?”
you kindly.” The suggestion would, in fact, save him some embarrassment. His
patients had lately been paying in roast chickens, bacon, cream, potatoes, even
horseshoes — all welcome and useful items, but it left him short of coin.
you’ve got a letter.”
This would take some juggling. Joshua
picked up the envelope first, opening it and extracting the letter, tucking the
envelope into his vest and laying the letter on the counter. Next, he grabbed
the sack full of supplies in his left hand and picked up the letter in his
right. That left him without a way to tip his hat, so he nodded his goodbye and
walked out, glancing at the letter as he went. Major, idling in the street,
jumped up to follow.
Joshua knew he had not been a satisfactory correspondent.
The last letter to his mother in which he had mentioned anything of actual
importance had been the letter he sent on his way west, trying to explain why
he had felt compelled to leave his family and his home so far behind. Even as
he sent that letter on its way, he had known it would fail in its mission. What
he had been unable to say to her face, he had been equally unable to put into
words on paper. Either would have required that he call to mind, and then stain
her memory forever by recounting, the life he had lived as a soldier and a
medic. Without that understanding, how could she understand how unreal and
hollow the civilized life of Philadelphia had become for him?
His mother still wrote every two weeks,
however, and he’d
been awaiting her latest for several days. Now he saw what had kept her busy.
His middle sister’s baby had come — except it was twins! A boy and a girl. He
could imagine his younger and oldest sisters knitting madly to deal with the
As for his father — what? He was writing a
Joshua had been paying just enough
attention to where he was going that he didn’t trip on the planks in the street or walk
in front of any horses. But not enough, it turned out, to avoid walking smack
into someone. He started backward, dropping his sack, and stammered apologies,
while Major added to the confusion by circling the scene and barking loudly.
His victim, Joshua realized, was the tall
green-eyed woman he had seen in the street the day he first met Mrs. Blum. She
had managed to stay on her feet and now stooped to help him retrieve his
groceries, whisking them away from Major’s investigative sniffing. Her hands looked
strong, with long fingers; it took her almost no time to fill his sack again.
She stood up, neither smiling nor frowning, and handed him the sack. “I hope
that isn’t bad news in your hand.”
He tried to pull himself together enough to
answer her. “Uh,
no, not bad news. Just news. Babies. Two of them. That is, my sister just had
The woman’s eyes widened. “Congratulations to your
sister! I’m sure she’ll cope splendidly.”
An interesting way to put it. Was she
speaking from experience, and if so, her own or someone else’s?
Manners! What would his mother — or for
that matter, Freida Blum — say? “I beg your pardon. I’m Joshua Gibbs.”
The woman tilted her head slightly and
nodded in what might, unlikely as it seemed, be approval. “The doctor. I’ve heard
of you. People speak well of you.”
Did they? He supposed they might. The
comment left him feeling absurdly pleased. With some difficulty, he suppressed
a foolish grin.
He was becoming curious about the woman’s identity, but
accidental assault was hardly the basis for him to ask about it. She took pity
on him and volunteered the information. “My name is Clara Brook. We’re recent
arrivals. Our farm is a little over four miles to the southwest.” He was not
that good at accents, but thought she might have grown up in or near Kentucky.
Joshua had about an hour before he needed
to be back for his afternoon office hours. How much money did he have on him?
grabbed a few coins in case he needed them at the general store. It should be enough, at least if he held himself to a single scoop
without toppings. “May
I buy you an ice cream? As an apology for my inexcusable carelessness?”
Miss Brook looked at him gravely. “Hardly inexcusable. I’ve
seen —” She cut off the comment and said instead, “Thank you. That would be
very nice.” Not a fan of hyperbole, it seemed, in others or in her own speech.
Joshua led the way, in case Miss Brook had not yet learned the ice cream
parlor’s location. Major had apparently decided to adopt her, trotting by her
side rather than his master’s. When they reached their destination, Miss Brook
paused and gestured toward the dog. “Does he accompany us or no?”
Joshua shook his head, having decided
previously that ice cream was unlikely to be a good addition to Major’s diet. Miss Brook then
startled Joshua by snapping her fingers toward Major and pointing to a position
near the window. Major immediately sat.
The clerk at the ice cream parlor looked at
Joshua with some surprise as they entered. Joshua asked Miss Brook’s preference, ordered
her single scoop of strawberry along with his own vanilla, paid — narrowly
escaping the embarrassment of coming up short — and carried both plates to the
little table next to the window.
Now what? Well, she knew he had sisters,
one of them with new additions to her family. Surely he could ask after similar
details, at least indirectly. “How have you and your . . . your family been finding Cowbird
Creek? Is it what you hoped, when you decided to settle here?”
Somehow it failed to surprise him when she
avoided a conventional response. “I wouldn’t say we know enough, yet, to
answer that question. Or perhaps I should say we didn’t have very specific
expectations. My parents wanted to buy land, to leave my brother someday, and
there was land for purchase here. It’s a deal of work for the four of us, but
we’re used to work.”
A brother, but no sisters — at least none
still at home. It was unlikely she’d lost sisters in the War of Rebellion,
but she might have had more brothers before that long and bloody nightmare. All
through his childhood, he had wished he had brothers instead of, or in addition
to, three sisters. That wish, too, had died in the war.
It was Joshua’s turn to say something, but nothing came
to mind. Miss Brook did not seem to be one of those women who could set a man
to talking. Or maybe she chose not to do so. He could think of only one inane
question. “What are you growing, or raising?”
Her left eyebrow twitched upward. “The usual, I suppose.
Corn, oats. I have some interest in planting winter wheat, but my father has
not yet agreed. I have a vegetable garden, though I’m still getting accustomed
to the weather and how it affects what I can grow. We raise hogs — and
chickens, of course, but mainly for our own eggs and our own pot.”
He might be carrying home some of those
eggs, some day. They would be good eggs, he’d wager — he guessed she took good care of
Before he could come up with some other
conversational gambit, she asked him, “What’s the most surprising thing about
Cowbird Creek? Something we wouldn’t have had a chance to learn yet?”
There was a question he hadn’t heard before. “Hmm.
Let me think.” Madam Mamie’s establishment was tonier than some, but even if
that counted as surprising, he could hardly mention it. And the presence of a
Jewish widow was unusual, but he doubted Mrs. Blum would appreciate being held
up as a local oddity. “Our Chinese laundryman struck it rich — well, maybe not
rich, but close — in the California gold fields.”
Miss Brook smiled, the first smile he’d seen from her, but
quickly went grave again. “I don’t think I’ll mention it to my brother. He used
to hanker after the gold fields himself, and I’d be sorry to remind him.”
She had finished her ice cream, and he
needed to be back for any patients needing him. He took a final spoonful of his
own and stood up. “Miss
Brook, it’s been a pleasure, despite my regrettable way of introducing myself.
I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again.”
That eyebrow twitched again. “I agree. Though I hope
it won’t be in your professional capacity.”
Cursing his clumsy tongue, he bowed and
escaped back to territory where he was less likely to put a foot wrong.
This next in my series of pre-release excerpts for What Heals the Heart follows immediately after the previous one. Here, the reader meets Freida Blum, elderly (by her standards, at least) Jewish widow from New York, who will spend much of the book trying to match Joshua up with one woman after another, none of whom will be Clara Brook. I'm an Ashkenazi Jew, descendant of immigrants from Poland and Germany and first generation American-born, so Freida is woven together from traces of various relatives in my parents' and (mostly) grandparents' generation (along with other sources such as Borscht Belt Jewish comedians from decades past). ------- Joshua made the blacksmith drink down the first glass of water and powder before he left with a pouch holding six more doses. Whether he’d keep taking it, well, that was the blacksmith’s problem, for now anyway. There was no one waiting, but before Joshua had time to do more than take a book down from the shelf, the door opened and a woman walked in. No, more like sailed in, a proud vessel, a four-master. She took off her coat to reveal a well-tailored dress, fitting snugly on her large, well-upholstered frame. Her graying, wavy hair peeked out from under a truly astonishing hat. He hadn’t met this woman, but he believed he’d heard about her. Another newcomer to town, from somewhere back east; a widow; and apparently Jewish. That’d make her the first Jew he’d met. She held out her hand. “Doctor! I’m so pleased to be meeting you. I’m Freida Blum.” He shook her hand, studying her. He’d never heard her accent before, or not quite. It wasn’t as thick as the accent of that German he’d tended the last year of the war, when he’d turned medic; he could understand her without straining. But “Doctor” ended in a rough, husky sound, and “meeting” sounded more like “meetink.” There was something different about her vowels that he couldn’t put a word to. And her speech had a rhythm and a melody to it, almost like singing, or chanting anyway. But here he was standing and gawking when he needed to be doctoring. “Please come through to the back and sit up on that table. Then you can tell me what brings you in today.” She strode after him, passed him, and got on the table with a little jump, the wood creaking as she landed. “Oh, I’ve just had some aches and pains, here and there. And I get tired by afternoon. My age, you don’t expect to feel like a spring chicken. But I thought I’d stop in.” She was studying him quite as much as he’d studied her. Whatever she’d heard about him, he guessed it was her curiosity more than any medical need that had sent her his way. But he’d check her over. He picked up his stethoscope. “So young, for a doctor! But that’s just an old woman talking, I suppose.” (He wouldn’t call her old, exactly. Not quite. She might be in her middle fifties or a little older.) Speaking of talking, she would need to stop. “If you could just take a deep breath, and then another, while I listen to your lungs.” “Of course, of course. How can you do your job —” (“yure chob”) — “when I’m rattling on like a freight train? Samuel always said to me, Freida, the way you talk, when do you manage to breathe?” “Mrs. Blum. Please.” Praise be, she stopped talking and took deep breaths as he commanded. Her lungs sounded good. But she winced as she took the third breath. And she put a hand to her back as if it was paining her. She might have her reasons for being there, at that. Or she could be lonely. Lonely people without enough to do sometimes felt sicker than they really were. “What do you do during the day, generally?” The woman beamed at him as if rewarding the question. “I sew for so many people! This dress, I made it. All I have to do is walk around town, it’s as good as putting an ad in the paper. And I’m setting up the social library in the schoolhouse, me and the teacher, such a bright young woman. And my little neighbor, she’s like a daughter to me, I take care of her babies sometimes so she can get her rest.” Not idle, then. He pressed the stethoscope to her ample chest, giving thanks once again to the inventor who had spared him the even more awkward necessity of putting his ear there instead. Her heart sounded good — or did it? There might be a faint suggestion of a galloping rhythm. Laudanum would help her with those aches and pains. He reached for a bottle, but Mrs. Blum stopped him, exclaiming, “Oh, I have that at home! May I come to you for more when I run out?” Joshua pointed next door. “I get mine from the pharmacist. You can do the same.” A shade of what might have been disappointment crossed her face. For whatever reason, she apparently found doctors more interesting than druggists. Her next questions suggested as much. “How did you learn so much about medicine? Did you go to one of those new schools?” He shook his head. “I picked it up during the war, to start with.” And that was all he was going to say about those years of floundering and failing, the lives lost all around him, the suffering he could do little to ease. The bell on the front door jingled a welcome chance to escape more questioning. Maybe he’d be summoned to some nicely far-off homestead to attend a stolid farmer, someone who had less to say for himself. “Excuse me, Mrs. Blum.” Without waiting for an answer, he stepped back into the front room to see a familiar face, a farmer’s youngest son, shifting his weight from foot to foot, his hands clutched together in front. The boy’s hair was wet — it must have started to rain since Joshua’s sunny morning walk. Good news for the farmers. “Please, doc, we need you to come see to Paw. He was sharpening the coulter for the plow, and it fell over on his leg. It’s cut something awful.” Joshua’s lips tightened, and he barely avoided a frown. That’s what wishing brought you. You’d think he’d learn. “I’ll get my bag.”
I've been reading Kristine Kathryn Rusch's fascinating series of posts about the licensing of story elements, and it led me to a related notion: putting book covers on t-shirts myself (via Redbubble, probably).
That would, however, require me to obtain a merchandising license for stock images I licensed myself, as I didn't purchase the extended license required for merchandise, and/or obtaining permission from the cover designer. That means spending money to maybe, eventually, make a little money. So I need to know which cover designs are cool enough to appeal to people who've never read, and may never read, one of my books.
Please let me know which, if any, of these covers you'd consider wearing or giving to someone!
You can respond by comment here, or by replying to the Facebook and Twitter posts where I'm putting the link to this post, or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for any feedback you can send!
Next in my series of excerpts from What Heals the Heart: a look inside Joshua's medical practice. It should give you an idea of what kind of doctor he is, not to mention his willingness to learn from those outside his usual social circle.
Two patients were waiting outside his door when he opened it. He steered the blacksmith, who seemed the steadier on his feet of the two, not to mention the one who wouldn’t get ruffled about waiting, to a chair and took the sheriff into the back where he’d set up his exam table and instruments.
The sheriff hoisted his considerable bulk up onto the table. “My belly’s been aching considerable.”
Joshua noted the sheriff’s flushed color and straining suspenders. “And just what have you been putting into that belly of late?”
The sheriff shrugged sheepishly. “You know Ma’s pork chops and creamed corn, and her molasses pie. You had vittles like that waiting at home, you’d eat too much of ‘em, I reckon.”
“Well, roll up your left sleeve.” Joshua picked up the lancet and gave the sheriff the pan to hold. He didn’t hold with bleeding patients for many ailments, but this seemed like one of the times it might help. And most of his patients believed it would, which could make a difference in itself.
When the pan held a sufficient quantity of blood, he took it to throw away later and bandaged the arm. “Take it easy on that pie, now.” He grinned. “You can bring some by my place, to remove temptation.”
The sheriff snorted as he slid off the table and made his way toward the front of the office, swaying a bit as he went. Joshua followed him to make sure he stayed on his feet, then looked around for the blacksmith. But the chair was empty. Just then, his fugitive patient hurried back in. “Sorry, doc. Had to run to the outhouse, like I’ve been doing every few minutes for two days now. Can you fix me up?”
Joshua stroked his chin. “I just might have something that’ll help you.” He fetched a glass jar half full of powder, powder he ground up from the plant that Cherokee medicine man had shown him. The blacksmith watched, his forehead wrinkled and eyebrows lowered.
“What in tarnation is that?”
Joshua laughed. “Darned if I know what it’s called, except in Indian talk. But it works better than anything I can say in English.”
The blacksmith was shaking his big head. Joshua held up a hand, palm out. “Now before you go blustering at me, you should know those folks have some pretty good remedies. Living the way they do, they notice things. Tell me, how many people around here have got milk sickness lately?”
The blacksmith just looked confused. Joshua suppressed a sigh. “I haven’t had a patient with milk sickness since I came to town. And you know why? It’s because a doctor who listened to Indians did some listening when a Shawnee woman told him —” It had actually been a lady doctor, Doctor Anna, but Joshua didn’t think the blacksmith could swallow that idea when just the idea of Indian medicine was sticking in his craw. “This woman told him that milk sickness came from drinking milk or eating meat from an animal that fed on white snakeroot. And that doctor told people, who told people, and now most farmers know to keep their stock away from white snakeroot. Now do you want me to give you something that’ll help you, or would you rather move into the outhouse and try to shoe horses there?”
I'll continue to dribble out excerpts until October 15, 2019, when my historical romance What Heals the Heart goes live. This will be one of the shortest -- small town doctor Joshua Gibbs' first glimpse of Clara Brook, newcomer to Cowbird Creek, Nebraska.
Joshua had by now lived in Cowbird Creek long enough to take particular notice of any new face. So when he saw a woman heading into the general store and realized he could not remember seeing her before, he stopped and took a second look. Besides her being unfamiliar, Joshua’s first impression was that she was tall for a woman, and next, that she was thin, her plainly cut dress doing nothing to disguise the fact. As she turned into the store, he caught a glimpse of striking green eyes and a long dark braid hanging beneath her simple bonnet — darker than Joshua’s own, almost black.
A farmer, one of Joshua’s patients, was lounging nearby while one of his sons argued with the blacksmith about how long it took to shoe a carthorse. Noting the direction of Joshua’s glance, he spat some tobacco juice and said, “That’d be the daughter on that farm that changed hands last month. Skinnier’n you, ain’t she?”
Given the farmer’s girth, his view of what it meant to be “skinny” was somewhat skewed. Joshua would describe himself as lean. The farmer, meanwhile, added, “Owners gave up fighting the drought and went back east. I heard something about these folks renting land somewhere else and coming here to buy their own place. Got some kind of funny name, Crick or Stream or suchlike.”
With that pronouncement, the farmer straightened up and went in to relieve his son in the dispute with the blacksmith. Joshua pulled out his pocket watch and hurried along.
Just to make it easy for anyone intrigued by this or future excerpts, I'll always include the preorder link.
Last December, I posted the very beginning of my then-untitled Western historical romance. (Actually, whether it's "Western" depends on one's definition. It's set in the Old West, but there are no outlaws or gunslingers or ranchers, and only one brief mention of cowboys.) That passage has changed in several minor and one significant way. So I'm posting it again, plus the following few paragraphs.
Joshua Gibbs felt sun on his face and thought about opening his eyes. He decided to wait. He had some blessings to savor that wouldn’t need sight.
He was in a bed, a four-poster with a well-stuffed husk mattress, instead of in a tent on rough ground.He was in Nebraska, far from any of the towns he had passed through — or seen devastated — during the war. The sound nearest his right ear wasn’t the whistle of a shell or the wails and screams of dying men, but the soft grumbly snore of his Irish Setter. And the dog’s name might be Major (or, to give the full grandiloquent version, Reginald Phineas Major), but that was the closest to an officer he’d find for miles around.
And what Joshua smelled, when he took a slow, lazy sniff, was a mix of Major and almost-clean bed linen, and not . . . well, no need to sully a brand new morning with the memory of what he’d have smelled this time nine years ago.
But thoughts like these were not worth staying abed for. He opened his eyes and sat up, stretching out his arm and laying a hand lightly on Major’s side for the warm breathing comfort of it. Major’s eye twitched, and his tail, but that was all. A dog knew, without having to think about it, what safety meant.
Joshua levered himself out of bed. He’d shave, get dressed, and take a walk with Major before frying himself some breakfast.
As a boy, if he could have even imagined himself so old as thirty-three, he’d have assumed he’d be leaving a wife behind staying warm in bed or making breakfast, or better yet, accompanying him on his morning amble. But things change. War changes them. And solitude suited him, these days.
Most of the latest — perhaps the last? — snow had melted. It wouldn’t take him too long to clean off his boots after his walk. Joshua liked having clean boots when he saw patients, even if some folk in town might think it affected of him.
He headed away from the square to start, toward the creek that had given Cowbird Creek its name. If he’d been taking this road out of town to see a patient, he’d have been riding his trotter Nellie-girl or using one of the livery stable buggies. He wouldn’t have had time or attention to spare for the serviceberry bushes just starting to put forth their lacy white flowers, or the sparrows with their thin high chirps, stirring about on whatever business sparrows had.
He got as far as the buttonwood tree by the creek before his hollow stomach reminded him to turn round. He took a turn around the square and saw a light in the laundry. Li Chang looked to be hard at work already. It wasn’t easy to get the Chinese fellow talking, as busy as he kept himself, but his tales of the gold fields could cure anyone of hankering after mining. Though he’d managed to make enough of a stake to set up his business and even pay for help — except the help had given up on America and gone home a year since.
Turning the corner brought Joshua past the church. Passing the church meant passing the churchyard. A few of his patients were at rest there, though others were buried on their farms. One or two of them wouldn’t be there yet, if he’d known then what he knew now. He paused, bowed his head, and sent them a silent apology, and a promise to stick to his books until he knew as much medicine as anyone could learn that way.
At least there were other folk, asleep in bed or about their chores, in town and outside it, who might have been sleeping colder in the ground if not for him.
He picked up his pace, more than ready for breakfast. He had bacon and eggs he’d got in payment from the farmer whose cough he’d dosed two days ago. Good thing he liked his eggs runny, because he hadn’t left all that much time for cooking and eating before opening his office and seeing who sauntered or stumbled or limped in to be doctored.
I'm filling out review requests for my upcoming release What Heals the Heart, and one of the request forms asks for a link to the synopsis. As used in review requests, "synopsis" is usually synonymous with "blurb." So here is my current blurb for this book.
Joshua Gibbs survived the Civil War, building on his wartime experiences to become a small town doctor. And if he wakes from nightmares more often than he would like, only his dog Major is there to know it.
Then two newcomers arrive in Cowbird Creek: Clara Brook, a plain-speaking and yet enigmatic farmer’s daughter, and Freida Blum, an elderly Jewish widow from New York. Freida knows just what Joshua needs: a bride. But it shouldn’t be Clara Brook!
Joshua tries everything he can think of to discourage Freida’s efforts, including a wager: if he can find Freida a husband, she’ll stop trying to find him a wife. Will either matchmaker succeed? Or is it Clara, despite her own scars, who can heal the doctor’s troubled heart?
I also usually find a place to add that this is a "closed door" and "slow burn" romance. "Closed door" means there's no explicit sex (and in this case, nothing hotter than a kiss and embrace). "Slow burn" is the opposite end of the spectrum from "insta-love." The reader should expect the romance to develop gradually.
And by the way, here's the preorder (and eventually the order) link to the Kindle edition.
And the cover, because I never tire of looking at it.