Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Nose Knows

© Marta Stephens 2009 all rights reserved

What better thing to write about today than how easily our memories can trigger our senses? Think about a wonderful holiday at home and all of a sudden, you’re there, hearing the joyous laughter filling the house and smelling whatever is cooking on the stove.

When I sat down to write chapter 18 of my second novel in the Sam Harper series, it was months away from my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, but I wanted the reader to get that “going home” feeling. I wanted them to smell the turkey roasting in the oven and the scent of nutmeg and cinnamon rising from the baked goods on the sideboard. Cooking and family get together is one thing I know—after thirty years of it, I should.

I thought about that chapter for a while and then immediately drew from my experiences--the excitement in knowing that the family is coming home and wanting everything from the food to the table decoration to be … perfect.

Okay, so back to my book …

For those who haven’t read THE DEVIL CAN WAIT, Walt Harper is Detective Sam Harper’s widowed father. Walt is also a retired homicide cop who not only likes to poke around into Sam’s cases, but is also handy in the kitchen. Readers will see much more of Sam’s relationship with his father in the first book, SILENCED CRY than in the second book, but for some reason, this scene struck a chord with many.

The scene begins early on Thanksgiving morning. Harper has four victims in the city morgue and his first stop is the lab where he reviews the forensic evidence that Carter Graves has uncovered in the case before going home.

Excerpt from Chapter 18
© Marta Stephens 2008 all rights reserved

… Harper headed north toward his father’s farmhouse, located in the small community of Litchfield thirty miles from Chandler. Only a few weeks ago, the foliage along this road had been a vibrant display of color. Now it was reduced to browns, grays and barren tree barks. An amber tint filtered through the overcast sky; a color he recognized as a sign of more snow. It was two in the afternoon and his only thought was to have no thoughts in the few hours left of this Thanksgiving Day. He was going to kick back, eat too much, have a few beers, and watch too many football games before he returned to work in the morning. His father’s two-story home was visible from between the pine trees that lined the narrow road leading to the driveway. As he nosed his black Jeep Commander into park, a familiar figure stepped out onto the porch to greet him.

“Hey Dad. Were you waiting behind the door?”

“Heard you pull up.” Walt waited for his son to walk up the front steps before giving him his usual pat on the back. “You okay?”

“Yeah. I’m fine.”

“Right. You look like crap and you’ve lost more weight.”

“I’m all right.”

“Come on, I left something simmering on the stove.”

Harper placed his duffle bag on one of the living room chairs and followed Walt into the kitchen. Since his mother’s death a few years before, Harper’s father insisted on maintaining the Thanksgiving tradition.

The aroma filling the kitchen assured Harper that he was home. Cinnamon and nutmeg lingered in the air as steam rolled off the freshly baked pumpkin pies on the counter. Next to the pies sat a container filled with Snicker Doodles, his favorite kind of sugar cookies. As far back as he could remember it had been his job to scoop the dough into inch-size balls and roll them in a mixture of sugar and powdered cinnamon. Sometimes he’d placed them too close together on the cookie sheet and they’d baked into one. Whether a solid mass or perfectly formed three-inch circles of sweetened dough, they always baked into a flat chewy cinnamon encrusted cookie he couldn’t resist.

Walt’s fifteen-pound turkey had a couple more hours of roasting to go. Harper glanced at the finely chopped celery and onions on the cutting board; the key ingredients that would go into his favorite oyster dressing. Harper’s father always complained that he couldn’t figure out his late wife’s secret ingredient for her sweet potato pie. Harper suspected it was his father’s way to finagle a compliment which Harper was glad to give. Creamed spinach, on the other hand, would need a lot of doctoring before he would try it. Still, it was a Thanksgiving staple. Everything was out on the counter, including the cranberry sauce, waiting their turn in the process of Walt Harper’s well-timed annual ritual.

“How many are you planning to feed?”

“Elaine and Bernie.”

Aunt Elaine, his father’s older sister, was a retired phone operator who had settled nicely into the official post of family meddler. Every year, she asked Harper the same question: “When are you going to find a nice girl and settle down?” Every year his reply was the same: “When I find her, you’ll be the first to know.” That seemed to satisfy her for a few weeks until her next visit. She and his Uncle Bernie were as different as any two people could be, yet they were forty years into what seemed to be a happy marriage. One of these days, he’d ask for their secret.

The chapter goes on for several more pages and ends the following morning like this:

Dawn had barely gleamed above the horizon. The smell of fresh coffee and his dad’s tinkering around in the kitchen lured Harper downstairs.

“Morning,” he said, rubbing his eyes.

“Morning – you’re up early. Sleep okay?”

“Yeah.” Harper brushed one of the kitchen curtains aside and glanced across the side yard then up at the clouds. “Temperature is supposed to drop again today.” The sight of the blue-purple hues painted over the snow-covered ground gave him a shiver. He poured himself a cup of coffee and pulled out a kitchen chair across from his father. He was seconds away from taking his first sip of the day when his cell phone rang.

“Forensics,” he told his dad when he saw the number flash across the screen. He listened, drew in a breath, and assured the technician he appreciated the call.


“Just more of the same.” He took that first drink of coffee while the words formed in his thoughts. “That fine thread holding my case together just snapped.


For me, writing what I know involves all my collective experiences, but more important is showing the things that I see, feel, smell, taste, and hear that will place the reader there in the kitchen with Walt Haprer, drinking his coffee and eating one of Sam’s (and mine) favorite Snicker Doodle cookies.

Great food and good times are the magic ingredient that go into making great family memories. Best wishes to all for a wonderful Thanksgiving!

About the author:
Marta Stephens writes crime mystery/suspense. Her books are available online at familiar shops such as all the Amazons, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-a-Million, and Powells. Other locations include, but are not limited to those listed on her website.

THE DEVIL CAN WAIT (2008), Bronze Medal Finalist, 2009 IPPY Awards, Top Ten, 2008 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery).
SILENCED CRY (2007) Honorable Mention, 2008 New York Book Festival, Top Ten, 2007 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery),
Personal site:
Character Blog:


Sheila Deeth said...

Lovely sensory details, and lovely examples. Thanks. Now my mouth's watering for tomorrow.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Marta, that chapter with Walt was one of my favorites, precisely because of teh homey atmosphere and evocative aromas. I love Walt - what a great father he is to Sam. I wish you and yours a wonderful Thanksgiving. And now - back to making my stuffed celery!

Marta Stephens said...

Thanks Sheila and Aaron. Happy Thanksagiving to you!!

s.w. vaughn said...

Great excerpt and great advice. :) Hope you had a good Thanksgiving!