On the eve of the annual Moonshiner Days festival, first-grade teacher Jennifer Wagner is found with a meat thermometer sticking out of her neck. A year later, police in her small Kentucky town are no closer to solving her murder. As the town prepares to welcome thousands of guests to another Moonshiner Days, reporter and amateur sleuth Maggie Morgan begins to wonder if Jennifer’s killer has ties to the festival. With the sounds of backfiring jalopies and bluegrass music filling the air, Maggie pokes around Jennifer’s life, exposing deep, dark secrets. Just as she inches closer to solving the challenging case, another crime is committed, a murder suspect ends up in jail, and Maggie is forced to deal with a personal crisis.
My cozy mystery, “Murder at Catfish Corner,” begins with the discovery of a woman floating in a pay lake. For those of you unfamiliar with the term “pay lake,” it’s a stocked lake at which you pay to fish. Pretty straightforward, right?
As it turns out, one of my best friends had never heard of a pay lake, and she suggested I remove the reference to it from the book blurb. Although she argued that alluding to a pay lake would confuse potential readers, I kept it in there.
I must admit, her professed ignorance surprised me. After all, my research had located pay lakes as far north as Michigan and as far south as Alabama. Of course, she lives in Maryland, so maybe I should have investigated points east as well.
Anyway, the idea to construct a mystery around a pay lake came to me during a discussion about local landmarks. When the conversation veered to the subject of a pay lake, I envisioned a body floating face-first in the water. At that point, I knew I had the makings of my next mystery and a morbid mind. Okay, I’ve been aware of my morbid mind for decades.
Utilizing a pay lake also allowed me to revisit the antagonistic relationship between two characters in the series: Tyler, the young reporter who never misses an opportunity to make fun of Eastern Kentucky, and Joe, the newspaper editor who never misses an opportunity to put Tyler in his place.
When Tyler derisively refers to Catfish Corner as a glorified pond and belittles residents for paying to fish on private land when the area’s ample creek banks would serve the same purpose, Joe informs him that pay lakes do not exist only in Eastern Kentucky.
Besides, fishing on a creek bank might not yield anything bigger than a minnow. (Pronounced locally as minner.) But a pay lake offers the promise of a significant catch of the day.
“Murder at Catfish Corner,” the second book in my Maggie Morgan cozy mystery series, is now available at amazon.
“Murder at Catfish Corner” opens with Hazel Baker found floating in Catfish Corner. Neighbors in Hazel’s eastern Kentucky community wonder how the retired nurse ending up drowning in the pay lake. Unwilling to accept Hazel’s death as an accident, her sister enlists reporter and crime buff Maggie Morgan to prove Hazel was murdered. As Maggie tries to focus on the case, she’s distracted by her well-meaning boyfriend, her ex-fiancé the police detective, and a crime that hits close to home.
Every region has its own distinctive vernacular and vocabulary, but it takes outsiders to point out these idiosyncrasies in language to native speakers. In my cozy mystery, “Murder on Sugar Creek,” the young reporter, Tyler, plays the role of the person who’s not from around here.
When amateur sleuth and the book’s protagonist, Maggie Morgan, responds to a request for directions by saying, “I don’t care to help you,” Tyler scoffs. In his world, “I don’t care to” literally means the speaker doesn’t care.
In eastern Kentucky, it means, “Why, shore, Bub, I’ll help you out.”
I have no idea when or why “I don’t care to” became a positive response. In fact, I didn’t know the phrase prompted controversy until circa 2008 when I attended a get-together populated primarily by people not from around here. These friendly, considerate folk were in no way ridiculing us. They were, however, baffled by certain expressions they had not heard until they moved here.
Of course, they also exaggerated. One of them noted that we refer to those bodies of water that run by our homes and roads as “cricks.” That’s just ridiculous. They’re creeks. A crick is a pain in your neck.
But it’s true that we live in hollers instead of hollows, that hogs waller in the mud, and that misbehaving children are often accused of behaving like hetherns. I don’t think I’ve ever correctly pronounced the word heathen. Or, for that matter, greasy, spigot, and tomorrow. Those words become greezy, spickit, and tuhmar once you enter our mountains.
We also love to pluralize. My daddy worked in the coal mines. We shop at the Walmarts. We cheered on John Wall(s) the year he played for our beloved Wildcats.
We’re also directionally challenged. Indeed, as my characters can attest, we frequently travel up to Tennessee and down to Ohio. One of my crack proofreaders noticed this in my manuscript and marked it as a mistake. It’s not a mistake, though, it’s just how we talk.
In an effort at full disclosure, however, I must admit that I try to pronounce and use words correctly and to adhere to proper grammar. Yet, despite the best efforts of others, I continue to describe knit caps as toboggans and I refuse to call that annoying, stinging insect a wasp. It’s a wasper. I know the difference, but I don’t care to use the right term. And, in this case, I don’t care to really means that I’m not doing it.
In the third chapter of my cozy mystery, “Murder on Sugar Creek,” amateur sleuth Maggie Morgan joins her parents for a breakfast of biscuits, gravy, raspberry jam, country ham, and red-eye gravy.
Well, that depends.
When prepared traditionally, red-eye contains two ingredients – the grease from country ham and black coffee. Some cooks refer to it as gravy while others call it a sauce.
Although it’s written as red-eye gravy in the book and above, I’m stingy with gravy and sauce accolades in my personal life. So, for me, it’s simply red-eye. For years, I called the scrumptious sustenance red-eye sot. I did so until I realized the rest of my family was saying sop instead of sot. Sop, obviously, comes from the ability to sop up red-eye with one’s biscuits.
Some people prefer to slather a piece of ham with red-eye, but not me. I don’t want my ham and red-eye to mix, so I soak the ham in paper towels to remove as much red-eye as possible. Yes, I realize the absurdity of performing this activity prior to or directly after I ingest scraps of biscuits doused in red-eye, but I’ve got to be me.
You should not confuse this fried country ham with the cured ham that produces deli meat and Christmas dinner. You also can make red-eye on pork chops, but I consider ham more tender and easier to pull apart. It must have something to do with all that time hogs lie around on their huge backsides.
Speaking of pork, when I’m feeling really crazy, I’ll try a couple pieces of sausage, but only of the canned variety. Canning sausage involves spooning balls of seasoned, cooked pork into Mason jars. The clear jars make the meat more appealing because you can see the grease coagulate in the jar before it coagulates in your arteries.
My friends, even those from eastern Kentucky, seem disgusted by the idea of eating canned meat. The way I look at it, if canned meat didn’t sell, they would have pulled Spam and Treat off the shelves years ago.
As much as I love homegrown pork, I will not eat what my sister and I refer to as “hog bacon.” Yes, we know all real bacon comes from hogs, but we like to differentiate between brought-on bacon, which we devour, and homegrown bacon. We find hog bacon too coarse, salty, and fatty. It’s almost like fat back, which as its name suggests, comes from the back fat of hogs. I struggle to understand why anyone would eat something called fat back, but Mother insists it’s good and explains it’s like bacon without the meat.
I eat bacon only for the meat, so I think I’ll pass on fat back, but I will take some more red-eye sop, please.
“You’re letting strangers read your book before it’s published?” he asked. “Aren’t you afraid they’ll steal it?”
As a suspicious type of gal, I had already asked myself those questions. But I had quieted my fears by noting that cozy mysteries follow a formula, and it’s not exactly like I had written a millennial “And Then There Were None.”
Besides, I’ve set the story in my native eastern Kentucky. As I asked my friend, “How would somebody ‘not from around here’ know enough about the area to chronicle the decidedly regional experience of finding yourself stranded on a one-lane road behind a mobile home?”
Such a situation occurs near the end of the book, which also contains several examples of our vernacular and dialect. I tried to share some of our customs and traditions in the book and, from time to time, I’ll do the same in this blog.
For starters, let’s talk a little about the mobile aspect of mobile homes, better known around these parts as trailers. If you live up a holler, better known away from these parts as a hollow, you have to learn how to adapt because someday a neighbor will purchase a trailer and that will impact your life.
Moving trailers up hollers creates havoc and stops traffic. The companies hired to move the trailers must cut tree limbs, weeds, and bushes and, in general, navigate the homes over narrow roads not always wide enough for two tricycles to pass each other. Curves and bridges prove most problematic and time consuming.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have nice neighbors who will let you know in advance when a trailer is scheduled to make its arrival. After all, there’s only one way in and one way out of a one-lane road. However, knowledge is power and, if you know ahead of time, you can plan accordingly and cancel your trip to the beauty shop.
If you’re returning home and find yourself trapped behind a trailer, you have few options. You can park in someone’s driveway or yard, shimmy around the trailer, and walk to freedom. When our school bus couldn’t make its way up the holler because a trailer blocked its way, that’s exactly what my siblings, cousins, and I did. So, there’s that. But the best thing to do is to find a friendly driveway in which to turn your vehicle and get out of there. Visit your mommaw, drive to Lexington, or go to the movies. You have time. Otherwise, you’re stuck in your car for the long haul.
If you’re in your house when the trailer makes its painstaking journey up the holler…well, maybe an emergency won’t arise. If it does, you might as well go ahead and bleed out, have the baby in the washtub, or hike through the hills for that loaf of bread.
Ever since Mags Bennett drank poisoned apple pie moonshine during the second season finale of “Justified,” we fans have been twitching worse than our Stetson-wearing hero’s trigger finger. We’ve wondered if the show could sustain the creative high it achieved last season, if the new villains could fill Mags’ sensible shoes, and if Raylan and Boyd would continue their bromance.
We can relax. If the third season premiere was any indication, the greatest TV show ever set in eastern Kentucky has not diminished in quality, the new villains hold promise, and Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) and Boyd (Walton Goggins) are still engaging in foreplay, I mean fistfights. Continue reading