A Long Book Tour – March 2000

Woman getting out of old carThis trip started when my sister Dolores, who has a home in Fort Myers, FL, invited me down for a vacation. Anyone who has ever spent March in Minnesota knows how wonderful an idea that sounds, so of course I chose March as the month I’d most like to spend with her.

Being conscientious, I asked on rctn if anyone knew of a bookstore or needlework shop that might be willing to sponsor a signing while I was down there. No one did, it seems — +but there were a lot of people who thought I should stop in their town on my way down or home to sign books. And so began the long and tedious process of planning a book tour. As I have a book due at my publisher in July, I could not spend more than a day away from home without working on my current manuscript, so I asked around for someone to share the driving, so I could plug in my laptop on the road between stops. A very old and dear friend volunteered not only to drive, but to use her car, a huge and elderly Cadillac.

Burdened with AAA maps and Triptiks, clothes suitable to all seasons, a hat box, an ice chest loaded with Coca Cola, and an electric frying pan (in case we had to cook in a motel room), needlework for display and to work on, and a bag of the most delicious ginger snaps ever baked, we set off on February 29 for St. Louis. We have friends in St. Louis. They own a fourplex apartment building and actually keep one open for the use of house guests. So our first stop, Fiona and I had a whole apartment to ourselves, which was wonderful. The Barnes and Noble bookstore had misfiled the announcement of our coming in the wrong month, so we didn’t expect a big turnout — and didn’t get one. But the ones who did come were mostly old SCA friends, and we had a terrific time catching up on gossip. And the store manager gave me a twenty-five dollar card to spend on books. I didn’t have a chance to spend it there, but tucked it into my purse for later reference.

The next morning, barely outside St. Louis, Besom (the Cadillac) suddenly started roaring and wanting to go faster and faster. Fiona bravely fought back, and got us off a handy exit and into a gas station, where she shut the engine off. It dieseled for several minutes, and the brakes gave off a smoky stink from being stood on during the escape. After a few minutes, we started it, and it seemed penitent and rode quietly up the road to a repair shop, where the next thing smoking was Fiona’s credit card for a repair to the cruise control.

Off to Nashville. We thought we’d allowed plenty of time, even with the repair stop, but forgot that Nashville is in the eastern time zone, and so arrived breathless, late, and in traveling clothes. But the small audience was friendly. Gene’s Books is a great big store, with a dark, old-fashioned feel that is very comfortable. I gave my talk on how to write a mystery, and autographed a few books — and met a very nice couple who knew about my appearance from rctn.

We found an inexpensive motel and set off early the next morning for Marietta, GA, a northern suburb of Atlanta. Mountains here, beautiful to look at, a little anxiety-making to drive on. Fiona had done all the driving so far, and said she was doing fine. So I plugged in the laptop and wrote half a chapter. Marietta isn’t very near the freeway, and it took awhile to get to Sampler Cottage. We arrived in good time, just not quite early enough for me to change out of my traveling clothes. And this time the turnout was impressive. The Balls had laid on a wonderful buffet of little sandwiches, fresh fruit, cheeses and nuts, with tea and soft drinks. I was too excited to eat much, but I couldn’t get enough of the fresh watermelon.

I had ordered three dozen each of my two needlework books, and they were waiting for me at Sampler Cottage. I sold about two dozen of each in a couple of hours. And the Balls were wonderful, kind and charming. They told me all kinds of great stories about the business of needlework shops, about the Nashville convention for shop owners, about the greatness, kindness and obsessions of needleworkers, and about Atlanta’s spectacular growth in recent years. The Balls’ shop is relatively new, and they were glad to have me as an excuse to get some publicity — and they did, with a color photo and big article in a local paper.

We went charging on down the road after that signing, because we had to be in Gainesville the next morning, and that was a long way off. We stopped not far from the Florida border. Trees here were greening up, and there was a for-real palm tree growing by the still-empty swimming pool of the motel we stopped at. I had grits for breakfast the next morning.

Sally’s place, Cross Stitch and More, is an older shop in a nice complex of shops in Gainesville. It’s on two levels, and all the walls are covered with worked examples of counted cross stitch. The floor is a complex of narrow aisles because of the sheer amount of fabric, patterns, and supplies on display. I bought two books of alphabets, one with cute animals illustrating each letter, the other a collection of fancy letters (I needed an S for the Christmas stocking I’m needlepointing for my cat Stinker). Sally had done up some kits for the designs in the two books, and some mats for them as well. Someone had worked the butterfly in a Watercolor (overdyed) floss in shades of cream and lavender which was simply lovely, and with a lavender mat, it became a work of art.

We sold every book I’d brought along, and couldn’t fill all the demand. We met Alan, who designed cross stitch patterns. He is Jewish, and a lot of his patterns are for people of that faith, but he also had on display some Easter patterns. He and Fiona consulted about a vest she is doing as a kind of sampler. We stayed at Sally’s beautiful home that night, and in the rush to get out the next morning, Fiona left her purse behind. We were looking for a place to have breakfast when we realized it, and started back — only to pass Sally on the road, driving frantically to intercept us before we got on the freeway! Funny how you can forget a purse, but not a plastic bag full of sweet-gum-tree seed pods.

We were within two exits of Fort Myers when Besom started her roaring act again. We got off and let her rest for awhile, but this time when we tried to start her up, she’d go right into roaring mode. So we called AAA, and when the man came with a big flatbed truck, we just had him drive us to Dolores’ house. We had four glorious days in Fort Myers. The weather was perfect, we went to the beach twice (once Fort Myers Beach, once Sanibel Island Beach to hunt for shells), and visited the Ding Darling wildlife preserve on Sanibel where the birds allow humans nearly within touching distance, and the tree crabs on the mangroves resemble enormous ticks (ugh!). We also visited the place where Henry Ford and Thomas Edison built winter homes next door to one another and where the third largest banyan tree in the world grows, and grows, and grows. I spent time on the phone and internet, frantically warning needlework shops on the road ahead that I was out of books and giving them the 800 number for Berkley so they could order their own. (Books an author buys don’t count against sales, and sales numbers influence future book contracts. I told them I would buy any books they didn’t sell.) Then off for Jacksonville.

We decided to leave on the 9th, as Friday traffic in Florida can be terrible. We were going to drive about halfway, but halfway is Orlando, and motels in that area are pricey. So we pushed on to Sarasota Beach — where there was an enormous motorcycle gathering, and motel prices (where you could find a room at all) were tripled. So on again. It was getting late, so we stopped at a little town an hour north of Sarasota and, since we hadn’t had supper yet, went into a Waffle House — where the waitress was wearing a Harley t-shirt. So we had some old-fashioned greasy-spoon chili which was surprisingly delicious, and pushed on. All the way to Jacksonville.

A Stitch in Time is one of those long, narrow shops. The displays were wonderful, and I had to clench both fists to keep from buying a needlepoint canvas of a tiger sitting on a pillow. Fiona, as usual, wandered around, picking up this and that, not spending a lot, but adding to her stash at every stop. She wore her wonderful t-shirt: Whoever dies with the most fabric … is DEAD. When’s the estate sale? A Stitch in Time has a terrific program for making afghans and baby blankets for the homeless. People donate yarn and customers volunteer to knit or crochet the patterns. I got a beautiful knitting pattern I saw a customer working on. And we sold a lot of books, too.

It took longer than we thought to get to Savannah. We rolled into town fairly late, found the shop (Twiggs), was closed. I didn’t have a home address for the owner, though I knew it was near the shop, nor did I know where we were staying the night, other than that it was with a friend of Alice, the owner. So we boldly knocked on a door above the shop (because a light was on), and the man there said Alice lived in the darkened place next door to the shop. We actually got Alice out of bed, but she was very nice about it, and took us across the street to her friend May’s place. Did I mention that all of this was in the historic district? Right on Abercorn Street? Live oaks draped in Spanish moss? Tiny buildings, wrought iron balconies, immaculate miniature gardens? The next morning I took a one-hour walk around the district, and was in love. Everything is on a human pedestrian scale, and everything you look at is perfect. Tiny green squares every few blocks, each with a statue or fountain in its center. The most perfectly proportioned colonial-style church I have ever seen was there. All the buildings were lovely, nothing was overwhelming or ugly. Well, except a strange, shoebox-shaped addition to the Cathedral, but it was easy to ignore. We had coffee and muffins outside under the live oaks next morning in perfect weather.

The signing was more low-key than the previous ones, but the food they put out was wonderful, and everyone was nice. Alice has a very thick Georgia accent — she says she comes from so far back in the woods even the Episcopalians handle snakes — and was one of the most charming women I have ever met in my life. She designs needlepoint canvases and her range of styles is phenomenal. She did a huge banner for the Catholic Cathedral that includes every plant and animal native to the area; and she painted a delicate canvas of white cranes in reeds, totally different in feel to the church banner. Among her stock was a needlepoint canvas belt with the Muybridge series of photographs of a horse galloping. I immediately put it aside, and it came with me when we left. I just knew the first time I saw a needlepoint belt that someone must have done that, and here finally I found one.

I hadn’t found a place to schedule a stop in South or North Carolina, so we drove till we were tired, and found a motel. A big thunderstorm blew in less than half an hour after we stopped, but it was gone by morning. Have I mentioned that we hadn’t used that frying pan yet? We were to stay in Manassas, VA, the next day, and I hadn’t had time to print out the directions, so I read them off the laptop as we maneuvered over the rolling hills and past the picturesque houses homes of Virginia. Steve and Martha were glad to see us, and we were pleased to boast of our journey and show off some of the things we’d been buying. Fiona has an amazing collection of amber jewelry, and Martha oohed and aaahed satisfactorily over it. I stayed with Martha’s brother Bob, who let me use his washer and drier. Bob is a computer nerd of the first order; his is the voice you hear on aol saying, “You’ve got mail!”

Everything Cross Stitch was our first real glitch. They hadn’t gotten the word about ordering more books — I don’t know how I missed them when I was calling from Fort Myers, so I signed books customers had already purchased. The shop is in Fredericksburg, a historic city with its very own Civil War battlefield. The shop is small and friendly, with an amazing variety of cross stitch patterns. I had been listening to too many stitchers who do cross stitch and was feeling ready to buy a pattern of my own. But as I wandered through the selections, I got intimidated all over again and finally asked if they had some Charley Harpers (because those don’t *look* difficult). They didn’t, so I got away clean.

On to Baltimore, which has this really, really long, narrow tunnel which scared Fiona to death. But we made it just fine to Count Your Blessings, which has an amazing selection of needlepoint and counted patterns. An older woman was there and confessed she was the one who had done the Victorian houses counted cross stitch patterns on display, including one gray matriarch set in a garden of every possible variety and color. What amazed me was the way the front porch was designed. The viewer can’t see the spindles that decorate the porch — except by the shadow of them trailing down the front of the house and across the screen door. I was scared to ask what count the fabric was she had stitched that one on. Forty? Sixty? Eighty? Thurman and Carol took us out for a late lunch to a little place up the road that served the most amazingly delicious crab cakes I have ever tasted. I refused to put any kind of sauce on mine, so I could just caress my taste buds with the flavor.

Pennsylvania was hardly any distance away, and we found the King of Prussia Plaza with no trouble. Huge place, very upscale. Gene’s Books is a large store. We were welcomed warmly and allowed to wander around till time for the signing. I found a store that sells toy and model trains, but didn’t buy anything. Back at the bookstore, I listened to the events woman read from the boring short bio I had sent in the press kit, and took the microphone away from her. “Have you ever read a mystery short story and thought, ‘I could write better than that?’ Here’s your chance to learn how. A published mystery author reveals the secrets to plotting and selling a mystery story. Come listen to Monica Ferris at the back of the store, right now!” (Have I mentioned yet that I was starting to get a little punchy from all this time on the road?)

But it worked, we had a pretty nice-size audience (perhaps twenty), and I gave my talk and offered my handout and answered questions and autographed books for about 90 minutes. My Aunt Jeannie turned up in the line — I almost didn’t recognize her. We had a little snack in the food court, then her daughter Carol gave us a computer-generated set of directions to her house. Carol was parked way the other side of the mall, so we just took the directions and headed out. Forty minutes later, we realized we were very, very lost. Halfway to Delaware, I think. It took us awhile to get straightened out, but eventually we turned up at Carol’s place and met her two boys, the older of whom is very bright and charming. The younger is so deep into Pokeman it’s hard to tell what he’s like otherwise.

Aunt Jeannie came over the next day and we got to talking and so got a late start for New York. We were staying with the sister of a friend whose house was farther outside New York City than we realized. We got there barely in time to freshen up and go catch a train for Hoboken. But it was thrilling to go to Hoboken. I’ve heard that name so often, but had never been there. Then we took a PATH under the Hudson to the City, and PATH to 33rd Street. I got to stand in the street and signal futilely for a cab (just like in the movies!), then we took a bus to Times Square. Gosh, Times Square! And the city sure has changed. Fewer bums, and a much friendlier attitude on the part of the natives. Last time I was in New York City, there was razor wire on the marquee of the hotel we stayed at (and it was a very good hotel). No razor wire, no threatening looks, no scary looks from fellow pedestrians. We ate at the Olive Garden, on the third level, with MetroStitchers, a wonderful, friendly group of women who handed around their latest awe-inspiring efforts and who were kind to me about the snowflake I’d managed to stitch from the third novel’s pattern. We had a great meal and had lots of help finding our way back to Hoboken, where we caught the train to Suffern, and got very lost again trying to get back to the town where our hostess lived.

We got to Altoona and met Rose, who lives in a charming old house that hasn’t been mucked about with much and so has all its original stained glass and even a wonderful hanging lamp in the entrance hallway. She fed us home made Italian, and we had a great conversation with her daughters, especially the high school one, comparing the histories of England and Russia. (If you treat history as gossip, it can be very entertaining!) The signing was kind of a stitch-in. Moore Stitches has a big open space in its center, with a long table, at which customers came to sit and stitch awhile. We sold a lot of books, too. And they presented us with gift baskets containing local products: a real metal Slinky (that scares my cats when it walks down the stairs), a bottle of wine, chocolate bars (which didn’t last at all), and pretzels in a variety of flavors (my favorite was the honey mustard).

We were supposed to drive to Pittsburgh that night and stay with the parents of my goddaughter. But the weather turned suddenly awful, rain, fog, wind, sleet, all complicated by those enormous trucks who seem to want to crowd you off the road. So we stopped in Bedford. I was tired and cranky, and when Fiona wanted to sit up and watch some television, I made her shut it off. I think she was tired, too; she fell asleep faster than I did once she went to bed. Have I mentioned that she still hadn’t let me drive?

Akron was next. We stopped for lunch at a fast food place that turned out to be three blocks from Virginia’s house. Virginia and her mother welcomed us, and so did their cats, and we had a few hours’ peace sitting in their living room and stitching and talking. They each had moved out of her bedroom so we had separate bedrooms that night, which was very pleasant. And Ginni’s mother washed our clothes, which was even better. Bless them both. Fancy Threads actually ran up a banner across the front of the shop welcoming Monica Ferris. And we had a super turnout again. I got a couple of ideas for future mysteries there, too, one involving an antique pocket watch with a scrap of lace in it. Virginia brought her bobbin lace pillow to Fancy Threads and sat working it as a kind of demo for customers. Virginia is the one who designed the bobbin lace butterfly that Denise Williams turned into a counted cross stitch pattern in Framed in Lace.

We left for Columbus at noon, and, thanks to the map program in Fiona’s computer, drove straight to my husband’s Aunt Pete’s house. My husband had flown in and we had a happy reunion, and sat talking until I began to worry about when I was supposed to be at Cross My Heart. My itinerary said 7 pm, but there was a question mark, and I had a vague feeling that it was earlier than that. I finally called, and found out I was supposed to be there from three to five — we were already an hour late! So we rushed over. There was a stack of books left by customers wanting them autographed, and a line of customers still waiting. So I got out my pen and got busy. For the first time, a shop owner took me up on my offer to buy any books they didn’t sell, and I bought about ten each of my two titles.

Zionsville, IN, is an interesting little town. It’s like someone restoring a Victorian house — except it’s happened to the whole town. It’s full of tiny shops and the main street is brick. But on a Sunday, nothing is open, so we didn’t get to choose between Greek and English Tea Room, and had to settle for Wendy’s. Ah, well. Persnickety Stitcher (cute name!) is in a small building and it had that familiar charming, crowded, cozy feeling I’d come to expect. It was too crowded to set up a table, so they put us in a classroom, which has a separate entrance. Consequently, we didn’t get many chance customers. But that was all right, we had friends from all over come in for the stitch in. Lucy Zahray, Jeanne Dams, and other mystery fans came, along with a group of stitchers who are given titles by the Queen of Stash (I’m Mistress of Mystery).

We’d sit and talk and stitch, and every so often one of us would get up and go quietly out and down to the shop, and come quietly back with a plastic bag. I gave up and went, too, but determined to buy nothing. The shop owner gifted me with an embroidery floss color conversion chart I was craving, so I felt I’d added to my stash. But on the second floor of the shop are sale items. And among them was a painted canvas of a Christmas stocking. It was so lovely, and so reasonable in price, I fled back to the stitch-in and begged everyone to help me resist the bargain. They, wicked creatures, only laughed. And so, as we were packing up to leave and went back into the shop to buy the books that hadn’t sold, I cravenly asked the shop owner if she would consider sending the books back to Berkley so I might buy that doggone stocking. And she agreed to do that.

On to Peoria — which isn’t at all what I expected. For one thing, it’s on a high bluff on the western side of the Illinois River. Who knew the Illinois River has bluffs? Gorgeous view! Magnificent mansions lining it, including one that is for all the world like Cinderella’s Castle in Disney World, only done in brick. And we went to see where Jim and Marian Jordan started out their married life. Who are they? Why, Fibber McGee and Molly, of course! The signing, at a Barnes and Noble, was modestly attended, and I put a dent in the store’s profits when the manager said I could buy anything at forty percent off by getting out that card and using it plus another fifty dollars buying lots and lots of books.

Though Fiona could just about smell home from Rockford, we duly took 43 across Wisconsin to Milwaukee, where we saw my sister and an old mutual friend and my mother before heading to South Milwaukee and Lynn’s Bookroom. I was starting to feel the strain at this point. I had brought my laptop in to check my email while at my sister’s, and walked out without it. Worse, I had left it plugged into their phone, so we couldn’t contact them to ask for it. We were at that stage of weariness when a trip back to Milwaukee seemed impossible (it might have added 30 miles to our journey). So we kept calling around until we connected with a niece, who went to my sister’s house and they brought the laptop to us.

My mother and another niece and her son Harley came to the signing. We had an excellent turnout, and I read from the third novel and talked about my life as a mystery author. I felt I rambled and even talked nonsense, but I was assured later that I did all right. Lynn owns a tea room next to her bookstore and allowed Fiona and I to sit at a table in the closed shop and eat the pasties we had bought down the street. It was a very eerie meal, its strangeness only added to by our state of exhaustion.We drove to Madison that night, and Fiona was home.

Next day I had lunch with a Madison police investigator, who filled me in on a homicide case he’s working on that sounds much more like a made-for-TV movie than a real-life case. The signing that night was at Booked for Murder in Madison. Again, I read from the forthcoming third novel, signed books, talked about stitchery and research and felt incoherent, though everyone was kind and attentive. Again a mixed bag in the audience, some SCA friends, some stitchers, some mystery fans. Went back to Fiona’s house and slept in her waterbed surrounded by cats. The next morning I got up early, bought breakfast for Fiona, her daughter and her son-in-law, neglected to get a receipt, and headed for Minneapolis.

Very oddly, the trip didn’t seem interminable — which is has done on other occasions when I wasn’t nearly so weary. I drank water, listened to the radio, ate pretzels and the last of the beef jerky we bought somewhere in Illinois, I think. Being really tired does odd things to you that a good night’s sleep doesn’t fix. Your judgment gets foggy, so you don’t know if you’re behaving well or badly. I feel I didn’t do justice to the last three or four signings, but got no complaints. And I must have driven fine on the road to Minneapolis, because there weren’t any close calls.

I walked in the door, to the astonishment of my cat, who was sure I was never coming home again and had started to attach himself to my husband, looked at the huge heap of mail waiting for my attention, and went to bed. It was three days before I could read the book contract waiting for me with any kind of comprehension. For everyone who helped me on this journey: Thank you, thank you, thank you! It was wonderful, I met some wonderful people, saw amazing things, and will never forget this journey. For all you hoping I’ll come west next time: Be patient. Be awfully patient.