All the Details

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.

Dick Reinhardt showing me a blanket woven in 1837 for my quadruple-great-grandmother on the Maxwell side.

When I asked if I could occupy the Vineyard home for a week to hone the book, Uncle Dick welcomed me.

The veranda at the Vineyard house – looks like it could be a wine bar or tasting room!

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.

Linda Hillel and Jon Eisenberg, friends of mine for fifty years

But I had book research to do, too. One of the highlights was arranging an interview with Cloverdale Chief of Police Jason Ferguson.

Cloverdale Chief 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.)

Alyssa Poncia at the Alexander Valley Winery tasting room

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.

Ed and Victoria. She doesn’t look like someone with nefarious ideas, does she?

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!

31 Thoughts

  1. I love reading about the research you do that will find its way into your books. Looking forward to reading this book.

  2. I’m so happy you had a great trip, Edith! I love the details about Santa Teresa and the surrounding area that Sue Grafton put in her books. It felt like I was right there.

  3. Edith: That’s a great research trip! I love how you got to see/meet a diverse group of people/places in the wine industry and the police chief. Amazon Photo memories of my first trip to Healdsburg appeared on my computer yesterday and I thought of you.

    I love reading about far away places such as Iceland or San Francisco with distinct natural landscapes and neighbourhoods. But I also recently read a mystery set in Ottawa. I recognized the apartment the protagonist lived in and the nearby park where a skeleton was found. I have done similar walks around the Rideau Canal and eaten in the same restaurants as her sleuth so that it a really fun read.

  4. FUN-tastic immersive blog, Edith/Maddie! Just like in your books, I love how you draw us into your worlds, and make us believe we are there, interacting with your characters. I just returned from “being with you” up north from my real location, and so enjoyed the trip! I am certain that your new series will be as successful, clever, witty and fun as your other series…and now we know of many other ways that the murderer will use to get rid of the victim(s). Thank you so much for this refreshing read first thing in the morning here in SoCal! Luis at ole dot travel

  5. What an amazing trip for research! That area of California is rich with history and unexpected beauty. The wine business is a perfect backdrop to soooo many dastardly deeds. A sip of wine and a murder? What better plot pairing could there be? I’m looking forward to the new series spilling onto the pages. 😉

  6. You were just north of my old stomping grounds since I grew up in Sonoma County. Didn’t spend much time in that part of the county, however, although I was through there occasionally.

    Glad you had such a great time researching.

  7. I love all the details about an occupation or pastime I’m not familiar with. And I love to learn about new places. I guess I just plain love to learn. You and all the Wickeds are so good at teaching, as are many other good writers. Thanks for the post-graduate education.

  8. What a great article and I loved the photos and the family/friends connections. Your uncle Dick looks like a great fella–96 and a girlfriend! His house is to die for! How lucky were you. I love that part of California. We used to go to San Fran every year at the first of December for an Art Deco Show and then would explore all over. I can’t wait to read your books in this series as I have read many of your other books and love them. I do love to read mysteries that are set in places that I have visited a lot and love–like New Orleans and Key West among others. But I also do love series set in places that I have never been and would love to go some day.

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