Edith/Maddie here, writing from north of Boston but not completely sure what time it is.
I arrived home last evening after dark from a full week – full in all senses of the word – in northern California, three times zones away. I went to fine-tune atmospheric details of Murder Uncorked, my first Cece Barton novel, as well as “Murderous Mittens,” the novella in Christmas Mittens Murder that will precede the novel in publication and will introduce the series. Both books will release next fall.
The Cece Barton series is set in the Alexander Valley wine country in northern Sonoma County. I’ve created a fictional town called Colinas (“hills” in Spanish) that I shoehorned in somewhere vaguely in the vicinity of Geyserville and Cloverdale.
As it happens, my father’s sister Jo and her husband Richard Reinhardt built a vacation home in a community called the Vineyard in the hills above Geyserville in 1969.
Sadly, Jo passed away almost fifteen years ago, but Dick – the first published author I ever met – is a lively and sharp-minded San Francisco resident of ninety-six who maintains his garden at the house in the Alexander Valley.
When I asked if I could occupy the Vineyard home for a week to hone the book, Uncle Dick welcomed me.
After twenty-four hours of rich conversation and laughing with two of my cousins, their spouses, and Dick and his lady friend, they all went back to the Bay area and left me this house for the next five days.
The outdoor writing spaces alone are enough to make anyone drool.
But I didn’t head west for an intensive writing retreat.
I wanted to soak up all the details of the place. What the air smells like in October, when Murder Uncorked takes place. What’s blooming, which birds fly around, and how the light looks. What produce is being harvested. How the drought is affecting home gardeners and larger-scale farmers. Who lives and works in the area. What small-town California policing is like. How the intensive grape agriculture and wine production affects people’s lives. And the hazards of the ever-present fire danger.
I’m a native southern Californian, but I’d forgotten the distinctions between live oaks, scrub oaks, and black oaks. I was reminded of the California quail’s beautiful headdress, and the call of the scrub jay. I saw how some mornings dawned bright and sunny, and on others fog filled the valley and didn’t burn off until eleven.
I also visited a farmers’ market, an independent bookstore, and two long-time college friends in the small city of Healdsburg.
But I had book research to do, too. One of the highlights was arranging an interview with Cloverdale Chief of Police Jason Ferguson.
My fictional town of Colinas is about the same size as Cloverdale, ten miles north of Geyserville, and I was delighted that Chief Ferguson was enthusiastic about giving me a half hour of his time to pick his brain about small-town California police procedure. He spoke to how his people would work with the Sonoma County sheriff’s homicide detectives and crime scene unit. He told me of the various crime charges, which can vary state to state, and about the issues facing their town. And now I have a California cop on speed dial.
I also paid a pilgrimage to the Alexander Valley Winery tasting room and totally grilled the young woman pouring that day. Cece Barton manages a wine bar, not a vineyard tasting room, but she and the knowledgeable Alyssa share many of the same practices. (Sherry’s daughter Elizabeth Harris, who manages a winery in Virginia, has also been super helpful.)
Other highlights of the trip included meeting neighbors of my uncle’s, Jo and Jose Diaz.
Jo is a wine reviewer and knows all about the industry. She and Jose invited me for dinner, and Jo even pulled out her Le Nez du Vin sommelier smell-training kit, with fifty-four tiny vials of scents found in wines.
The day before I left, Victoria Heiges, another family friend, invited me to take a tour of the Kendall-Jackson vineyards production facility. It’s extensive, and accepts the grapes, separates them from stems and leaves, crushes out the juice, puts it in vats, ferments it, and eventually fills barrels. Victoria’s friend Ed Robinson is the maintenance manager of the place and gave us a thorough tour.
Victoria is an avid cozy mystery reader and realized she’d already read five of my books before even knowing I was Dick’s niece. She was full of lurid excitement – exactly the kind of fan any crime writer wants – about all the dangerous opportunities in the Kendall-Jackson facility. Two-ton vats of (heavy, juicy) just-picked grapes, giant grape-moving augers, powerful air-filled crushing bladders, and the workers who have to crawl into the bottom of 62-ton vats filled with carbon dioxide to clear out the residue.
Oh, plus chemicals to clean tanks as well as the enormous diesel-powered generator, which they turn on in case of fires or other power outages. Take a gander at those power cables.
These hazards won’t be in the first book, which is already written, but you can expect to read about wine production – possibly even including murder – in future stories.
So, yeah, my mind, along with my notebook and my phone camera, is full of rich details to enrich the first book, the first novella, and all the rest of the Cece Barton stories. For those of you who are northern Californians, I’ll be back next fall when Murder Uncorked releases!
I have all these wonderful family members to ask details of in the meantime.
And who wouldn’t want to return to this stunning sunset Mother Nature blessed me with on my last evening there?
Readers: What kind of regional or occupational details have you enjoyed reading about? Have you imagined any murderous mayhem? Share your favorite!