In the early nineties, refilling our monstrous Pitney Bowes postage meter meant lugging its cumbersome guts to the nearest post office. Back then, you could walk in downtown Harrisburg without getting stabbed or shot, and the fifteen-block trek was often pleasant in spite of my aching arms. It got me out of the office and along the Susquehanna River, where stately mansions face the sluggish water and the dome of Pennsylvania’s capitol building hoists a gilded statue skyward.
Of course, the walk wasn’t so great in winter, and even on the best summer day, I sometimes witnessed the seedier side of the city. Regardless of the season, it was impossible to avoid beggars. Most of them were panhandlers who probably lived in better houses than I did, but some of them were truly homeless . . . and downright pitiful.
I am tenderhearted now in spite of life’s best efforts to turn me cynical, so you can imagine how soft I was back then. I remember thinking about how we pass the homeless, our gazes fixed, avoiding eye contact at all costs, because . . . well, seeing them means we have to acknowledge them, doesn’t it? They must feel invisible at times, like possessors of some strange superpower they never asked for.
One fine morning, with birds chattering in the blossoming trees, I set out for the post office to refill our meter. That day, I decided, I would not ignore the homeless. Oh, sure, some would beg for cash, but I had a surefire plan for weeding out those looking for drug money. “Are you hungry?” I would ask. If the answer was yes, then I would buy the man or woman a meal. At the very least, I would not look straight through them. In fact, I would offer them something I guessed they didn’t see too often – a smile.
I was feeling pretty good about myself and my strategy when somewhere near State Street, a man in filthy rags made a beeline for me. Everything in me screamed, “Keep walking! Avoid eye contact!” but I stuck to my plan. I looked in his eyes, gave him my best smile, and said, “Hello.”
Did he smile back?
Did he turn into a disabled veteran needing cash to get home to Albuquerque where his baby sister was—at that moment—undergoing emergency surgery to remove a third nipple from the middle of her forehead?
What did he say, Jules, you ask.
Well, he ground his teeth together and shouted, “Why the hell do you have to wear your hair the same damn way all the time?”
I ran the rest of the way to the post office, broken-hearted and more than a little frightened.
Since then, I’ve learned to see these crazy moments for what they are: writer’s gold. I mean, you can’t make this stuff up, right? So, roll with it. The next time someone reacts in an unexpected manner, ask yourself WHY they may have reacted as they did. You won’t know the real reason, of course, so you’ll have to guess. Go crazy with the “what ifs.” Some will be downright stupid, but a few will be worth fleshing out into possible plots.
Here are some examples using my homeless guy’s odd reaction:
• What if I never saw the homeless guy before, but he had been watching me for months?
• What if the homeless guy just killed everyone at a mental health facility, then escaped and met me on the street?
• What if the homeless guy was really a prince looking for a woman willing to love a filthy man in rags?
• What if a smile could trigger a killing spree?
Over twenty-five years have passed since that guy yelled at me.
I’ve turned the event over many times in my head and answered every conceivable question but one: why do I wear my hair the same damn way all the time?
Genre: Historical fiction, elements of romance
Publisher: Soul Mate Publishing
Date of Publication: April 27, 2016
Number of pages: 339
Word Count: 100,000
Cover Artist: Fiona Jayde
In 18th century Ireland, drought forces Edward and Henry McConnell to assume false names and escape to America with the one valuable thing they still own–their ancestor’s gold torc.
Edward must leave love behind. Henry finds it in the foul belly of The Charming Hannah, only to lose it when an elusive trader purchases his sweetheart’s indenture.
With nothing but their broken hearts, a lame ox, and a torc they cannot sell without invoking a centuries-old curse, they head for the backcountry, where all hope rests upon getting their seed in the ground. Under constant threat of Indian attack, they endure crushing toil and hardship. By summer, they have wheat for their reward, and unexpected news of Henry’s lost love. They emerge from the wilderness and follow her trail to Philadelphia, unaware her cruel new master awaits them there, his heart set on obtaining the priceless torc they protect.
Book Trailer: https://youtu.be/bNzrVFnl9Ts
County Donegal, Ireland
Henry stood next to his father surveying their largest field. He longed to say that the seeds might yet sprout, that there was still time to yield a return, but the undeniable truth lay right before them: drought had come to Ireland. Their investment in imported flaxseed was lost.
“A hundred days, Henry.” Father’s face bore the pained expression of a man whose hope was as withered as his crops. “A hundred days was all we needed, all that stood between us and prosperity.” He kicked a clod of dirt, and it turned to dust. “It’s all gone, gone along wi’ the horse that harrowed the ground.”
A lump rose in Henry’s throat. He ached for his father, and he missed their horse. Paddy was a fine animal purchased ten years ago after a bumper crop of rye, when Edward McConnell’s luck was good and Henry’s only chore was to stay out of his mother’s hair. Elizabeth McConnell moldered in the ground now, and Paddy plowed another man’s fields.
“We will pray, Father. God will help us.”
“God?” Father kneaded his forehead with calloused fingers. “God’s groping in our pockets right along wi’ your Uncle Sorley. Praying did nae pay our tithes or the hearth tax, did it?”
Surely he didn’t mean that. Everyone knew Edward McConnell to be a godly man.
“We’ll get more seed, Father. It’ll grow next year.” He squared his shoulders and tried to look confident.
“Will nae do us any good. Your Uncle Sorley plans to decrease our tillage in favor of pasture.”
“Wi’ no cut in rent, I’ll wager, and early payment again this year.”
Father spat on the parched ground. “He stopped by yesterday looking for it. Said he’ll call in after services on the Sabbath.” He ground his teeth together. “I’d gi’ anything to see the look on his face when he finds our empty hoose.”
Henry’s chest tightened. Were they moving again? He rubbed the back of his neck and looked across the rolling patchwork of fields to the northeast, where their last home rose above a copse of ash, and where his mother’s daffodils still swayed in the Ulster wind. Four years ago, the cattle plague put them out of that house and into the windowless shack they now shared with Phoebe, their only remaining sow. The hut contained a hearth, a curse necessitating the payment of tax despite the fact that it never contained a fire.
With no peat left and no horse to haul more from the bog, the McConnells relied on a moth-eaten blanket and Phoebe’s body heat for warmth.
They had room to fall; many Catholics lived in the open, bleeding cattle and boiling the gore with sorrel for sustenance. Perhaps his father intended to join them.
“Are we moving again?” he asked.
Father slipped two fingers under his brown tie wig and rubbed his temple, something he often did when puzzled.
Henry followed his gaze to the ruins of Burt Castle, which sat atop a knoll, just above Uncle Sorley’s grand plantation house.
“Nine years we’ve suffered bad luck, Henry. E’er since I buried . . .”
Buried what? Maw? She died five years ago, not nine.
Father sunk his head into his hands, muffling his speech. “I . . . I guess it’s time to . . .”
Henry stepped into the hard, hot field, directly in front of his father. “Father, what in the name of heaven is it?”
Father tilted back his head and whispered to the sky, “Forgive me, Elizabeth.” He looked at Henry. “I buried something. Your maw insisted on it, said it was pagan and she did nae want it in her hoose. I did as she asked. A woman can talk ye into cutting off your own hand, Henry, remember that if ye can.”
Henry nodded, not comprehending, wondering what pagan thing lay buried. He’d never heard it mentioned before, and he was a skilled eavesdropper. “What was it? What did ye bury?”
Father inhaled deeply, removed the worn tricorn from his head, and tucked it under his arm. “I’ll tell ye the whole tale, but first, we have to dig it up. We canny do that until after dark.” He turned without warning and headed for home.
Henry followed him, volleying questions against his back.
Father said nothing until they reached their hut. There, he stormed past Phoebe, flung open the door, and nodded toward a worm-ravaged chest sitting next to a heap of rushes that served as their bed.
“Gather up our claithes and shoes. Use my good cloak for a sack. Bring the dried nettles.” He grabbed the peat spade, the only tool left from his once abundant array of implements, and used it to prop open the door.
“Why bring the nettles?” Henry hated the bitter leaves. “There are more nettles than rocks in Ulster.”
When his father offered no reply, he lobbed another question, desperate for clues as to their destination. “Will ye not wear your good cloak, if we are traveling far?”
“My auld cloak will draw less attention.”
So, they were going to some populous place where good cloaks were bad.
Henry spread the cloak across the dirt floor, careful to avoid Phoebe’s manure. The cloak was long out of fashion, but still a quality garment that Edward McConnell could not afford to replace. He threw their scant belongings into the middle of it, brought the cloak’s corners together, then tied them together to form a sack. Excepting Phoebe and the clothes they wore, the sack contained everything worth saving.
He sat on the rickety chest to watch his father pace.
When Burt Castle became a silhouette against an amber horizon, Father donned his hat and cloak and ducked outside.
Henry followed him to the stone wall separating their field from Uncle Archibald’s.
Father began to tumble a section of wall.
With his perplexity and fear mounting, Henry assisted until there was enough of a breach to push Phoebe through the wall.
She trotted away, grunting and wagging her curly tail, while he helped restack the stones to prevent her from returning.
He could no longer hold his tongue.
“What are we doing? Why are we putting Phoebe in Uncle Archibald and Aunt Martha’s field? Are we going somewhere? Where are we going? Why are we taking nettles?”
In his frustration, he grabbed his father’s arm.
Father whirled around and gave Henry’s shoulders a fierce shake. “Get hold of yoursel’, lad, or I’ll cloot ye upside the noggin. No more questions. Just do as ye’re told.”
Henry stared at his father, who had never once laid a hand on him, nor threatened to.
“I’m sorry, lad. Go on in the hoose and get the bundle.”
When Henry returned with their belongings, his father was holding the peat spade.
“Get a good look around ye, son. It’s the last time ye’ll clap eyes on your hame.”
About the Author:
Julie Doherty expected to follow in her artist-father’s footsteps, but words, not oils, became her medium. Her novels have been called “romance with teeth” and “a sublime mix of history and suspense.”
Her marriage to a Glasgow-born Irishman means frequent visits to the Celtic countries, where she studies the culture that liberally flavors her stories. When not writing, she enjoys cooking over an open fire at her cabin, gardening, and hiking the ridges and valleys of rural Pennsylvania, where she lives just a short distance from the farm carved out of the wilderness by her 18th century “Scotch-Irish” ancestors.
She is a member of Romance Writers of America, Central Pennsylvania Romance Writers, Perry County Council of the Arts, and Clan Donald USA.