The Return of Lisa Scottoline

Well, at least her return on my radar, at least. I’m sure Lisa Scottoline never went away, but I remember reading a few of her books back in the day, so I was happy to see her pop up on Caroline Leavitt’s website with a new book “Every Fifteen Minutes.”

Lisa Scottoline Every Fifteen Minutes interview
Lisa Scottoline

Authors promoting their novels are encouraged to find an angle that makes for a compelling interview. In her case, it’s easy to assume that she wouldn’t have chosen the one where she grew close to a man she suspects was a sociopath.

All I can say is that I really do believe that I was very close with a sociopath. This was not a murderous person, but rather a person who just merely used people, without any personal feelings for them. Like everybody else, I look back on my life and think about the mistakes I’ve made and why I made them, and my relationship with this unnamed person gave me the idea for “Every Fifteen Minutes.”

It’s a powerful concept for Scottoline to explore. Sociopaths can be very good at keeping secrets from those close to them. You only have to ask Elizabeth Kendall, who was the girlfriend of (unknowingly to her) a serial killer, and later wrote a book about him called “The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy.” The book’s out of print and the few copies available will set you back about $150, but someone posted pages from it on Facebook.

I guess I better set aside my copy for my heirs to sell of.

Mining Story Ideas from Humans of New York

This is a fun thing to do if you feel creatively empty: Visit the Humans of New York website to remind yourself of the boundless variety of human experiences.

Even if you don’t believe these people, even if you think the idea is too far-fetched, it can provide a starting point for a memorable character or story.

These two caught my eye the other day. I’ll print the first line; you’ll have to click on the photo to see the rest story.

humans of new york story ideas finding god in banking
“Believe it or not, I actually found God through becoming an investment banker.”
Humans of New York story ideas cocaine '80s
“I used to transport coke between Miami and Cuba back in the 80’s.”

They’re like the first line of a short story; how can you not want to find out what happened next?

Creating Your Dream House (part 7)

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[This 7-part series on buying a home begins here; or, go to the table of contents page. This is also cross-posted on Wattpad.]

Home renovation isn’t for sissies but it can really pay off. You can pay other people to do the renovations for you, but it has been worth it to us to do as much as we can ourselves. This saves us huge amounts of money and vastly improves our skill sets. It does still take plenty of time and life energy and some money. But not as much money as we would have laid out to Jake the Contractor. This is a choice only you, the potential homeowner can make. Only you know your tolerance for sanding walls and laying in fiberglass batts in the attic.

There are a lot of kinds of home renovation. The very best kind come with the houses that are disguised as handyman specials but are really cleaning lady specials. That is, the house is so messy that it LOOKS like it needs major repairs, but when you remove the junk, clutter, grime, and filth, you discover a nice house underneath. Houses of this type are hard to find and you have to have a good eye to see under the built-up layers of crud to see the good bones underneath.

dream house
Closet-Maid accessories lets you double the number of shirts you can store.
There are the home renovations where all you really need to do is repaint the walls, add Closet-Maid to the closets, upgrade the storage space in the kitchen, pantry, and bathrooms, add ceiling fans, and put in book cases. Add shelves, add hooks, add pull out slides for knives and upright storage for cookie sheets. Houses like these are also hard to find.

We’ve done all of those things and each one made the house a better performer.

Probably the easiest job with the greatest payback involves insulation. We knew, going into the Hershey house, that it had little insulation in the attic or under the floors. Bill insulated, insulated, insulated, and insulated some more. He installed reflective foil in the attic to keep out the heat. Younger son covered the fiberglass batts in the basement with white panels. This has a) improved the insulating qualities, b) improved the lighting by making the ceiling more reflective, and c) kept the cats from eating the insulation.

Insulating the house, a job which we did entirely by ourselves, paid for itself long ago. Now, each winter we spend far less money to heat the house than we otherwise would have. This awful, dirty job made us more financially independent.

Then there are the true handyman specials. The roof is damaged. The windows need to be replaced. The carpeting needs to be ripped out and the solid oak floors beneath to be sanded, stained, and polyurethaned. The wiring needs to be brought up to code. These jobs don’t change the layout of the house and very handy people can do much of this work.

dream house
A home renovation project with Closet-Maid can turn this basement with four long pantry shelves ….

dream house pantry shelves
…. into storage space for much more.
Bigger home renovations involve kitchens that have to be gutted and rebuilt, bathrooms that are filled with mold and leaks, cracked foundations, terrible layouts where walls have to be rearranged, and wet basements. These are all far more costly and far more aggravating to fix.

Still bigger home renovations can mean adding a second floor to the existing house or a new wing. If the house is bought and paid for and it is in an area you love, where you plan to live forever, this may be a better choice than selling and moving. Contractors for this level of work should be carefully selected and not just because the contractor and his crew will see you every morning in your bathrobe at 7 a.m. You will be living with the work crew in your house for weeks or months on end.

So when you evaluate houses, besides the location, the price, and the extra space, decide if you want to do the work of upgrading a house to make it reach its full potential. Almost any house can be improved if you spend the time and money. The improvements will make the house more useful to you, but consider the cost before you start. A house I remember quite well was the gorgeous Victorian castle in Steelton, built by a Bethlehem steel executive. The house was just unbelievable. Solid mahogany everywhere, a slate roof, huge and varied rooms with ten foot ceilings and eight foot windows, a full basement with nine foot ceilings. It was less than a $100,000 dollars! It needed, just from the walkthrough I did, another half million dollars in renovation and repairs starting with repointing all four stories of brick walls and a new slate roof. This was a project that would take decades of time to go along with the truckloads of money. The end result would have been a stunning castle for our heirs, unfortunately located in the dying town of Steelton. We did not, of course, buy this challenge.

There are other reasons to contemplate home renovations. If you want something out of the ordinary you will have to install it yourself. Home renovations of this type also mean that you aren’t planning on moving anytime soon.

If you want to store a year’s supply of food and a few thousand gallons of water, then you will have to build the storage; very few houses come with this kind of setup. Apace is needed for serious food gardeners as well. A productive vegetable garden gives you heaps and heaps of carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, whatever you grew. Good food storage means you can preserve that harvest and eat it all winter long.

Are you a serious gun collector? Then you need a place to put your arsenal; a place that is secure and dry.

Do you collect art? You need miles of blank walls for display and plenty of space for storage.

If you want to collect and harvest rainwater on a casual summertime water-the-garden basis, you need gutters and places to place your rain barrels. If you really need to collect every drop of rainwater to provide for every household need for a year, then you need to install a 10,000-gallon cistern and a hand pump.

If you want to reuse every drop of your water, then you need to install a gray water reclamation system. Very, very few homes have this kind of setup already in place so expect to install it yourself.

Do you want to generate your own power? More homes come with solar panels and battery storage space but still not very many. Is the roof big enough? Is it oriented correctly? Is there space for the battery banks? Can you go passive solar with hot water heating, trombe walls, and stone floors that act as heat sinks? You won’t find many houses with these things. You will have to install your own wind turbines as well. Good luck finding a house with one already on the property.

If your home business is car repair or fine woodworking, then you need way more extra space than a writer does. A writer can manage with a flat space to set a typewriter on. A woodshop needs hundreds of square feet of well lit space and miles of work benches.

If you need space for your 10,000-book library, then you need to evaluate the amount of blank walls you have. Should they all be lined with bookshelves or would it be better to turn a spare room into a dedicated library with stacks?

If you want your house to light itself, then you paint every ceiling white, every wall with pastel high-gloss paint, you clean every window, you install new windows, you mount mirrors opposite every window, and you install solar tubes and skylights. You will still need paid lighting at night, but you don’t have to turn on the lights during the day anymore to read, to cook, to work.

Are you serious about bicycling everywhere? If so, then where do the bikes live so they are easily accessed when needed? Where do you put their spare parts? Our bikes currently live on our Florida Room, where they take up precious living space. Better than the living room, I suppose, but still. The long range plan is to build a dedicated bike storage shed just inside the yard where the bikes are contained within the fence, hidden by the hedge, protected from the weather, out of the way, and yet in easy reach for use.

Are you a serious ballroom dancer? Then you need to add a 2,000-square-foot addition with a hardwood floor that is kept completely empty so you have plenty of space for your routine. My sister did this with her house in Florida. She absolutely loves the space and she would certainly never have found a house with this kind of renovation already in place.

There are probably dozens of specialty uses that houses can do, with the proper renovations. Art studios, yoga studios, dance studios, sewing workrooms, taxidermy, alpenhorn rooms (I read about this but have never seen one). What do you want or need? If it is an out of the ordinary requirement, you should evaluate houses with this renovation in mind.

So these are my thoughts on getting housing that will help you and your family to be more resilient, more sustainable, and get closer to the goal of Financial Independence.

There are so many things to be considered when you buy a house. What do you want your house to do for you? How much do you want to pay for your house in terms of cash, time, and life energy? Is the location good for the long term? Are you close to family, friends, work, and a supportive community? Are you subject to natural hazards that you know will happen like floods, landslides, forest fires, and tornadoes? Are there things you want to avoid?

A carefully chosen house can help you reach your goals. A poorly chosen house may cost you dearly. Houses and spouses, spouses and houses. Choose wisely and you will always be grateful. Choose badly and you will never stop paying.

Finding Your Dream Home (part 6)

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Suburban stockade introductionNow that we have considered how much yard we want, and whether we want the privacy of living deep in bear country versus the shorter commute and more access to services from living in town, we come back to the house. How much house do you want? How much house do you need? They aren’t the same thing.

To talk about this, we’ll have to talk about our experiences in our two homes, the one in South Carolina that we started our married life in, and our current home. We hope that you can learn something from our experiences, even if it’s only “I don’t want to go through all that.”

A lot of us lower- to middle-class people grew up in 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom ranch houses. Bill and I grew up in one, and that’s what we lived in down in South Carolina. Three bedrooms (parents, boys, girls), one lone bathroom, kitchen, small dining area, living room, laundry corner, furnace and hot water heater tucked in somewhere. No basement and not much usable attic space. A carport. No pantry. Tiny closets. Very little storage space and most of that was in the barely accessible, non-climate-controlled attic.

There are plenty of these houses available in much of the country. Ones built prior to 1960 tend to have under the awful carpeting hardwood floors. Behind the plaster or drywall, there was two-by-four framing. In the attic and under the floors, large heavy joists of a kind you don’t see anymore. Pre-1960 ranch houses also tend to have windows arranged to maximize cooling from breezes during the summer. Since they are small, they usually cost less to buy, less to insure, have lower taxes, and their utilities can cost less. Are they worth a look? If the location and price are excellent, then certainly.

As noted earlier, it is impossible to fix the location of a house. But you can fix the house. In the small 1959-vintage ranch house I grew up in, my dad remade the carport into a family room, insulating it well, and installing a pot belly stove for supplemental heat. He built shelves wherever he could. Redid the bathroom. Fixed things. Insulated wherever he could. Made the house more functional in every way.

In our 1954-vintage ranch in South Carolina, we ripped out the carpet revealing the red oak floors, added a closet in a bedroom, and converted a previously enclosed sunroom into a home office, a half bath, and a pantry. We rebuilt the kitchen, added ceiling fans throughout, put in shelves everywhere, and insulated the attic and crawlspace. If we hadn’t moved up here to Hershey, the next step would have been to turn the carport into a family room.

Our current, 1955-vintage ranch reveals what can be done over and above staying in the footprint of the house. It has, unlike the other two, a full basement, with 3/5ths of it turned into living space with a small bathroom. They also added a Florida Room to the back of the house that provides seasonal living space, and built up by adding a partial second floor. The second floor gives us a fourth bedroom with its own, large walk-in closet and private bathroom. There is still plenty of attic space left over for storage.

We have repainted, added shelves, rebuilt the pantry to triple its usable space, insulated, insulated, insulated, added solar tubes for free lighting, built in a home office, rebuilt the closets, and in general added storage organizers of every kind to every possible corner. This doesn’t include any of the extensive work we did in the yard, starting with the 4-foot chain-link fence and the hedges.

Did this house have some issues? Of course. But we could afford it, its daily maintenance, and its renovations while still paying extra to the mortgage. We are in town in a great school district, Bill did not have a bad commute, we don’t live in an HOA, and we can walk to all kinds of things. We also have a world-class (they tell us this regularly so it must be true, da?) hospital two miles away in the Penn State Milton Hershey Medical Center and in the other direction, we have Hershey Amusement Park.

When Bill spent six months house-hunting up here in central PA, he worked from a list of things we wanted:

* A home with enough space for all five of us and all our animals.

* A home with space for storage, our library, our home office, my sewing area.

* A home with a basement.

* A yard for kids, dog, and vegetable garden.

* The best school district we could afford.

* A home in town to be closer to a range of services.

* A home within 20 miles of Bill’s job. We lucked out there, finding a place 10 miles away from the Patriot-News. When they moved its offices to the West Shore, the commute doubled, but was still within the magic 20-mile radius.

Bill was renting an apartment up here, while I, three kids, four cats, and a big dog stayed behind in South Carolina doing the “Dress Your House For Success” program trying to sell our house. Not easy but we did it. And it was worth it. Bill got us a house that worked for us that we could afford. And we got, six months after the sale, a lovely piece of validation for all the work we put into the house in South Carolina. The new home owner sent us a thank you note saying how much she loved the house because it “made her organized”. Wow.

So take your time and look over the houses you see. Look at location and price first. Then evaluate how much of your money and life energy it will take to turn the house into what you really want. Some extra space is absolutely worth paying for, but be realistic about how much that extra 2,000 square feet will cost you in life energy.

A basement is very nice. We use most of ours as finished living space, including my sewing area and our home office. There is a finished bathroom with a shower stall so we have some overflow space. We rebuilt the existing shoddy pantry shelving into a finished space that was double in volume compared to what we started with. The unfinished portion of the basement serves to hold the washer and dryer, a work shop, the mechanicals, and plenty of dedicated storage space. A crawl space could not have been rebuilt like this. I suppose you could dig out a crawl space into a basement, but really, it would be easier to buy a house with a basement. A slab foundation wouldn’t even give you that option.

A carport or garage is very nice. My dad, as mentioned above, turned our carport into finished living space, all by himself. He even built in a desk for a home office. If we had stayed in South Carolina, we would have enclosed the carport in much the same way. A garage might be even easier to finish as it already has walls.

An attic that you can stand up in is very nice. These can be finished off as well, either into living space or dedicated storage space. The hard part is arranging for a permanent staircase rather than one of those awkward pull-down ones, or worse, a hatch accessible only with a ladder. In my parents house (bought in 1972 and long since paid off), my dad took advantage of the two parallel hallways on the second floor. He removed both pull-down staircases (the house was weird in many ways) and turned one hallway into a permanent staircase with a closet built underneath it. You can’t refinish an attic that is full of trusses into any kind of storage space without putting on a whole new second floor. That is a huge job and will need a contractor, but it can be done.

Porches can be very nice. My house in Norfolk had, at one time, a porch that was enclosed by the house on two sides and had the house roof as it’s roof. Someone, years ago, enclosed the porch, turning it into heated living space. I used that space as a sewing room. Our house in South Carolina had the same thing. Someone, years ago, enclosed it and tied it into the heating system. We finished the job, installing a home office, a much needed half bath (a second toilet! what luxury!), and a big, walk-in pantry.

An extra room can be very nice. This can become a home office, a sewing studio, a guest bedroom, or dedicated to storage.

Some space for a dedicated workshop is very nice. You should have at least some place to put the tools, the screws, the paint cans and their brushes. A built-in workshop area means you can do simple home repairs more easily as you have space to do them in and a space to store all the tools. A bigger workshop can lead to bigger projects, like library-style shelving and upgraded pantries. Because these projects kick up a lot of dust, opt for a separate room, or at least an area curtained off from the rest of the basement. Dust will fly!

Next week, in the final chapter (at last!), we’ll move from the general to the even more specific, with ideas about how you can renovate your house into the home you want.

dream home
Some houses have more potential than others, however.

In Which I Mumble Something About Appearing in Public This Weekend

Self-promotion is not my forte. Like a lot of writers, I prefer to let my works do the talking. But I am excited about two events this weekend, and so let’s get to work, shall we?

At 2 p.m. today (3/28), I’ll be signing books — including “The Early Punch Parodies of Sherlock Holmes” and “Sherlock Holmes Victorian Parodies and Pastiches: 1888-1899″ — at the Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg. This is one of my favorite bookstores in the area, and not because they do a great job of selling books by local authors on consignment. They focus on nonfiction books, and right now, focusing on Mark Twain and the Victorian era, I’ve found some great books, including “Mark Twain Laughing” (a collection of humorous anecdotes you won’t find in the biographies), and a volume of his letters.

Plus, it’s a beautiful bookstore.

Midtown Scholar Harrisburg
The Midtown Scholar, Harrisburg

It was also here a few years back that I interviewed the store’s co-owner Eric Papenfuse. He had launched a publishing imprint and one of the books was “City Contented, City Discontented” by Patriot-News columnist Paul Beers, so naturally I interviewed him for the newspaper. Papenfuse has been an energetic civic activist for the city, and now he’s being given the chance to put his philosophy into action as mayor of Harrisburg.

Midtown Scholar 025

I’ll be signing books with Deb Lerew who has written a couple books on the paranoral: “Encounters with the Paranormal: Personal Tales of the Supernatural” and “The Newbie: A Kyrie Carter Ghost Hunting Adventure.”

On Sunday at 2 p.m., I’ll be hitting the road again, talking about Sherlock Holmes at the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop. I had a great time here last year with my Agatha Christie presentation, and look forward to doing the same with Sherlock. If you come out, say hey!

Bill Peschel talking about Agatha Christie at the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop
Talking about Agatha Christie at the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop in 2014.

Finding Your Dream Home: Gardening (part 5)

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Suburban stockade introductionFor the last couple of weeks, we’ve been looking at the decision-making process while shopping for a home. (Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four).

Now, let’s turn to the yard, and its future role as a way of raising your own food.

The key to food production is planning and management. It is wasteful of time, energy, and resources to grow more food than your household will use. We keep running up against this problem here at Fortress Peschel. It is easy to grow 50 pounds (or more!) of tomatoes. But what do you do with them all? Especially if they all ripen at the same time? They can be given away to the neighbors, they can be dried, frozen, or canned, all of which take time, and they can rot in place (which at least puts organic material back into the soil!). The preserved tomatoes all have to be used up during the rest of the year. If you don’t use them up, prior to growing new ones the following year, you end up with still more preserved tomatoes in your pantry making you feel guilty.

Your vegetable garden doesn't have to look as good as at Longwood to provide plenty of food for the family table.
Your vegetable garden doesn’t have to look as good as at Longwood to provide plenty of food for the family table.
There is an obvious solution, but one that isn’t that easy to implement. Grow less. Way, way, less. This requires being honest about how much home cooking from scratch you are going to do and are you growing things that your household will eat. It is really easy to grow twelve tomato plants: four slicers, four cherries, and four marinara style. They don’t take up very much space. It sounds like such a small amount Yet twelve plants give a huge amount of tomatoes that have to be dealt with. We may be better off with only six plants, two of each type.

Then we address the peppers (which freeze well and we do use up), the lettuces, which have to be eaten fresh as lettuces don’t preserve at all, the cucumbers which we always grow as supermarket cukes are terrible, the carrots which are cheaper and easier to buy, the swiss chard which no matter how we cooked it tasted like dirt and my God! The enthusiasm with which it grew! The tomatillos which were best used as a sort of lemony jam as any other way no one liked them. The sweet potatoes which grew with tremendous vigor but the weather was uncooperative so we couldn’t cure them well and we discovered that we don’t use them up at nearly the rate we should have so they will have to be dealt with, somehow. The peanuts which younger son wanted to try and the amount of work involved in harvesting and shelling them made supermarket ones so much easier and cheaper. Onions which turned out, after the first very good year, to be never worth the effort ever again. Onions from seed don’t grow that well for us and onion sets from the hardware store all came pre-inoculated with onion maggots so now we have to wait several years before even thinking about onions ever again. Egyptian walking onions grow with such joy that they take over the yard in no time but as they are mainly a substitute for leeks and green onions, how many do you need? Not nearly as many as we have. Kale which grew beautifully and then we didn’t use it up fast enough. Spinach which was excellent and grew sparsely and grudgingly. New Zealand Malabar spinach which was sold to us as being a heat proof spinach substitute. It grew fine, but bore very little relationship to actual, delicious spinach. Rhubarb which grows with vigor but how many rhubarb pies can you eat and back to that damn kitchen again to freeze it all for the winter.

Bleah. I do think that everyone should grow at least some of their own food. It makes you appreciate just how hard farmers work and how easy and cheap it is to buy decent produce at the grocery store. And some foods, like tomatoes, good lettuces, and cucumbers have to be grown at home in order for them to taste like they should. But, you have to learn to grow what your family likes to eat and you don’t want to grow more than what you will eat.

Preserving the harvest for the winter is an extremely worthwhile goal but it has had, for us, a steep learning curve both in the preservation skills and the using them up in the kitchen skills. We keep coming back to that pesky time management thing. If I am spending time cooking from scratch then I am not spending time sewing for me or my clients and I am certainly not spending time writing for you, dear reader.

The other reason for learning to grow some food is that eventually, you may have to do so, in order to supplement the rice and beans you can afford to buy at the store. Home grown produce gives variety, taste, and much needed trace vitamins and minerals to supplement that boring diet of grains and legumes. It takes time to get your soil up to par and it takes time to learn how to grow things successfully, cook them successfully, and preserve them successfully. We have had our share of failures and anyone who tells you that they can take a jar of preserved seeds and grow a successful garden after the zombie apocalypse is delusional. They’ll starve while waiting for those seeds to produce something edible.

If you have to grow some of your own food, a slightly larger parcel of land, say a quarter of an acre rather than 1/10th of an acre may, may be better simply because you can allow parts of the yard to lay fallow every year. That is, you don’t plant every square inch every year but let the soil rest instead under its life restoring layer of green manure. If you are going to let beds lie fallow, you need enough of them to rotate them in and out of usage and that means you need a little, just a little more space for the extra, empty beds.

So don’t be lured into thinking that you need to buy acres of land on which to grow a mountain of food. You don’t. You do need to have some space on which to learn and practice but it can be as small as a tenth of an acre. When I walk Muffy through the village of Hershey, we cruise the alleys looking at all the back yards. There are many tiny yards that are closely managed and they produce, clearly, plenty of produce. This is, by the way, yet another reason for a fence with a privacy enhancing hedge. You may not want to have your food production efforts on display for all the world to see. And touch. And take.

We have about a quarter of an acre (8/32), including the footprint of our house and driveway. Subtract out the house and driveway and you move down to 6/32 of an acre, maybe? Subtract out the wilderness-y screen across the front yard providing privacy from Google Street View and habitat for wildlife. The total acreage I can grow food on got smaller, maybe 5/32 of an acre? This space is our fenced in back yard lined with yews and thujas to act as more screening. There is a hedgerow of blackberries and other shrubs on the north side with hardy kiwi trellised along the fence, a tool shed and compost bin area, a climbing gym grown over with hops, clothesline space, a back forty to retreat to, a thicket dead center to provide wildlife habitat containing shagbark hickory trees, a row of persimmon trees and gooseberries, a rise of hazelnuts, a bed of three kinds of currents, a row of twelve columnar apple trees, and some grassy areas. This is a lot of potential food production right there.

Raised beds and pathways under construction.
Raised beds and pathways under construction.
Finished asparagus beds, planted and waiting for spring.
Finished asparagus beds, planted and waiting for spring.
Then we come to the extensive raised beds, with built in trellises on some of them, their paved walkways, and the two permanent beds of perennial vegetables (rhubarb and asparagus). These beds, if I managed them better, harvested them better, cooked from them better, and preserved from them better have the potential to provide much of the vegetables and fruit we currently eat. I wouldn’t have to buy very much produce other than citrus and bananas. If I changed my cooking to reflect what I can grow in my climate (and trained the family to eat it) and gave up entirely on things I can’t grow in my area, did four-season gardening, and learned how to preserve it all for the winter, I wouldn’t have to buy any garden truck at all.

To do this my gardening would have to be much better thought out and accomplished. If I improved my container gardening skills, making better use of the natural winter light I have, I could grow citrus and peppercorns in my house. According to the Logee’s catalog, I could grow my own bananas, coffee beans, and a wealth of other tropical goodies. Their catalog is astonishing and shows how much you could do, if you wanted to spend the time, money and effort.

If I wanted to, I could transform the abandoned climbing gym into a chicken coop. That would net us eggs and manure for soil enrichment and if we were serious about this, meat for the pot. I would remove the hops as I don’t think we will brew our own beer and replace them with grape vines. The fruit would be more useful than the hops and I suppose we could make our own wine instead our own beer. That might be easier as wine can be made from grapes alone but beer needs barley to go along with the hops.

Convert a child's gym into a usable chicken coop. Or a brother-in-law suite.
Convert a child’s gym into a usable chicken coop. Or a brother-in-law suite.
We have enough room that we could house rabbits for meat as well. The difficulty would be Muffy wanting to eat the rabbits before we get to them. The other hard part would be slaughtering and prepping the chickens and rabbits so we could eat them. But I could learn. Plenty of people do.

If I wanted more meat than what I could raise easily in my ¼-acre yard, I could take advantage of the fact that Pennsylvania is a big hunting state. There is a season on some kind of game animal virtually the entire year. Deer hunting is so big in Pennsylvania that the first day of deer-hunting season with a rifle (we have several deer seasons depending on how you kill them) is a day off from school! It is traditionally the first Monday following the Thanksgiving Break, so we get a five day weekend for the holiday. The Reese factory down the street has an empty parking lot on the first day of the season. Plenty of people here in Pennsylvania fill their freezer with meat for the year during our various hunting seasons. We could do that too, and thus have to purchase even less food than we do.

If I wanted to add more to the workload, I have the space for a bee hive or two. That means better pollination for the entire garden, honey, and beeswax for candles.

All these possibilities on a ¼-acre lot in town, surrounded by other ¼-acre lots. So yes, some land is vital but it doesn’t have to be acres and acres. I like living in town and a smaller lot is the usual trade off for services like a post office, drug store, bank, and grocery that I can walk too. I can get quicker emergency response too — police, fire, ambulance, and rescue — simply because I am closer to all those service providers. That is, they don’t have to travel for miles down sunny dirt roads deep in bear country to reach me when my house catches fire or the electricity fails due to winter storms.

Finding Your Dream Home (part 4)

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Making A Decision

Do you want the least expensive, smallest house? That leaves more money left over to pay off the mortgage and any other debt. You can achieve financial independence sooner without a mortgage or debt. But, will the house help you? Is there enough space for extensive food gardens and pantries? Does the house have any kind of supplemental heat like a wood burning stove? Is it heavily insulated? Will you have to do extensive renovations that will burn up the money you saved on the price? Is there a source of water nearby? Are you allowed to harvest rainwater? Do you have space for a home-based business? Will the zoning allow for small livestock like chickens or rabbits? How’s the commute? The schools? The walk ability? Local services? The neighborhood?

Do you want the biggest house? Bigger houses give more room for options like home offices, studio and workshop space for home based businesses, libraries, extensive food storage space, the renting out of rooms to bring in some money (is that legal in the neighborhood?), having relatives who can contribute to your domestic economy live with you, or taking care of elderly or challenged family members. Bigger houses also take more money to insure, to heat and cool, to furnish, to maintain, to reroof, and to pay taxes on. If you are concerned about always having money left over, the size of your house does matter.

Do you want the house that is furthest out in your twenty mile radius? That means more privacy, fewer intrusive neighbors, and usually, more land to go with the house. It also means that you have to be better organized in every way, when every single item you run out of means a trip into town to get it. You either learn to do without said item, you maintain extensive storage supplies of whatever you run out of, or you keep very careful shopping lists that you continually update. Further out means more commuting time and it’s associated costs of money and wear and tear on your body and your vehicle. More commuting time means less time spent at home doing other things. Further out means fewer neighbors who can watch over your house with you and possibly help you when you need it. Further out means that every single time you need something or you have an appointment, a school or church function or you meet someone for lunch, you have to drive to do it.

Do you want the oldest house? The one with the solid red oak floors, the extensive woodwork and moldings, the solid wood doors, the slate roof and mature landscaping that cools the house in the summer, the pre-air conditioning house that has decent ventilation. This may be the house that needs to have insulation blown into all the walls, a new roof, re-wiring, and termite removal.

Do you want the newest house? It has decent insulation and up to code wiring. It may also be made of chipboard and staples and glue, with the very cheapest of everything from kitchen cabinets to carpeting. Since it is new, the assumption is that you will run either the air conditioner or the furnace to cool and heat the place. Opening all the windows won’t naturally vent the building as they weren’t lined up by the builder on opposite walls to do this. Some rooms, like bathrooms, may not even have windows. Hope you have alternative lighting for these rooms for when the power goes out.

Do you want the house with the largest yard? A larger yard means space for extensive food production areas, fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, tool sheds, bicycle storage, chicken coops and rabbit hutches and bee hives, clotheslines, compost bins, rain water storage, patios and outdoor kitchens. A larger yard means you can spare the space to run a yew hedge all around the perimeter for privacy. You have space for wilderness areas to provide habitat for predatory insects and birds. If you need to build in an outhouse, you have the room. A larger yard may have a well and a septic system, which can free you from those kinds of utility bills. Your well and septic system will give you another layer of complexity that you have to maintain. A larger yard will cost more to install a six foot chain link fence all around the perimeter, and more to buy the yews and cedars that you plant as a screening hedge just inside the fence, all around the perimeter. A larger yard takes more time to mow as it tends to have more grass areas.

Do you want the house with the smaller yard? A careful layout of almost any yard will allow space for raised beds for vegetables, some clothesline space, some compost bin space, some outdoor living space, even some space for ornamental and wilderness areas. A smaller yard is much easier to maintain and keep track off as you can see it all and walk through it quickly. But, you need to plan out the layout carefully as it isn’t that easy to change the locations of raised beds, compost bins, and patios once they are in place. Smaller yards mean saying no to some of the things you may want such as chicken coops. Smaller yards mean choosing semi dwarf fruit and nut trees. Smaller yards mean that every plant in them should be doing double duty in terms of food production, attracting pollinators, screening out the neighbors, providing wildlife habitat, and being beautiful to look at. This double or even triple duty need for each plant you choose means that you can’t just go down to the nursery and buy what looks pretty. You will have to do a lot of research, in advance, to get the best usage of your space and money with your plant selection.

Do you want a yard at all? In this case, the answer is absolutely yes. Even if you end up with some kind of duplex or row house, you need some yard space. Yard space gives some room of your own for your kids, your dogs, your laundry, your outdoor living, and your gardening. You can’t harvest rainwater or make compost without some outside space. Yes, you can sign up for a slot in the community garden and this may be your only alternative. But it is far easier to grow and use tomatoes and lettuces when they are steps away from your kitchen door, rather than when they are a fifteen minute drive away. Even a 100 square foot walled patio (ten feet by ten feet) will give you some room for vegetables, flowers, a lawn chair, and a bird bath.

You don’t have to have acres of ground for food production. A smaller set of raised beds, managed closely, can be extremely productive. A larger, traditional garden of long rows that gets away from you with its unending labor needs of weeding, watering, harvesting and preserving can produce a whole lot less usable produce. Look for books such as “Square Foot Gardening” by Mel Bartholomew and “How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Though Possible” on Less Land Than You Can Imagine by John Jeavons.

Which brings us to the next part of our series: making the best of the land that you buy.

How Much For That Sherlock In The Window?

The organizers of the Sherlocked event have emailed us the price list for having your photo taken with the actors, giving us a reliable gauge for how much they think they’re valued by fans.

At the top of the list, of course, is Benedict Cumberbatch. Standing by Sherlock will cost you 45 quid, or about $66.

sherlock holmes selfie
Or about twice as much as having it taken at Madame Tussauds.

It’s a rare moment in pop culture where the villain does not outshine the hero (actors know it’s always better to be the bad guy). In this case, one Moriarty is worth three-quarters of a Sherlock.

Since Martin Freeman won’t be attending, we won’t know how he matches up. A little less than Sherlock? I couldn’t think so. Depending on your flavor of slash fiction, he should certainly stand alongside his particular friend. And what about Amanda Abbington, his partner both in real life and as Mary? How would you value their brief presence beside you? That could make for an interesting discussion among Sherlockians.

The only wild card on the list is Lara Pulver, this generation’s Irene Adler. She has a “TBC” by her name. They could treat her as iconic, certainly to the female fans, and charge as much as Moriarty.

Personally, if I was going to spring for a professional selfie, I would buy a moment with Mark Gatiss, who at £20 is clearly undervalued. He not only portrays Sherlock’s brother but is one of the major forces in putting the show on its legs in the first place (but as a writer of course I would value him much more).

But Gatiss must console himself — as if he needed to — with the thought that, if Conan Doyle came back and agreed to a Sherlocked-style convention, he would probably be priced just the same next to his creation.

"Humph. They would have charged more if I got my kit off."
“Humph. They would have charged more if I got my kit off like Irene.”
But perhaps they priced Gatiss for his on-screen qualities alone. Comparing him to the actors on the rest of the list, he is matched with Rupert Graves (Lestrade) and Lars Mikkelsen (Milverton), and five pounds higher than Louise Brealey (Molly! — heavens! another underpriced actor) and Jonathan Aris (Anderson).

Rounding out the list at £10 is Clive Mantle (the doc in the “Hounds” episode), Alistair Petrie (Sholto), Elizabeth Coyle (Miss Sutherland), and Louise Breckon-Richards (victim in “A Study in Pink”). One hopes they don’t take their valuation personally (at one-fifth of a Sherlock).

Finding Your Dream Home (part 3)

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Suburban stockade introduction

When you zero in on a potential dream house, drive out to it from your job at your normal time. I did not buy a townhouse in Virginia Beach for this very reason. When I went out with the realtor to look at it, we went at 11AM. It was lovely and such a nice, empty, quiet drive. When I drove out a few days later at five PM, that 20-minute drive took me 50 minutes. I didn’t buy the townhouse.

When you zero in on a house, ask about any damages to the house from radon, mold, asbestos removal, flooding, murder, meth labs, anything you can think off. Not every state requires full disclosure of any past problems so you have to ask. Find out about the school district. Ask about the crime rate at the local police station. Are any new developments or shopping centers being planned for nearby? Is the road in back of the house being turned into a limited-access freeway? You may not get answers, but you certainly won’t find out if you don’t ask.

Use your eyes and look around. Visit the house at various times of day and night. Does it seem what you want? Quiet, safe, low-key neighbors? Screams, sirens and gunshots? Vegetable gardens? People on the street who seem to know each other? Maintained properties? Broken glass and litter?

Does the house belong to a homeowner association? Some people really like being in one. But if you are serious about food gardening, chickens, compost bins, wilderness gardening, landscaping other than grass, small scale power generation via solar panels or windmills, clotheslines, running a home business, even putting up an American flag on a flagpole, then don’t buy in an HOA.

An HOA is a private organization and when you buy into one, you give up many of your rights to do with your property as you wish. The Supreme Court has said so by ruling that HOAs are private groups not regulated by the government. Most HOAs take extremely dim views of anything that, in their eyes, looks messy (such as vegetable gardens), reduces property values (a sculpture made from spare engine parts and swingsets), or lets the home owner show any individuality whatsoever (such as painting your front door in any color but the approved beige).

In exchange for the dubious advantage of having curtain-tuggers monitoring your life, you’re subjected to annual maintenance fees and a laundry list of dos and don’ts. Read the HOA manual very, very carefully before buying into a planned community. If you don’t like the rules, don’t inflict them on yourself or your family.

Why so much emphasis on taking care when buying the house? Because nothing can cost you more than poorly chosen houses and spouses, and they’re the kinds of decisions that we can make on impulse. Both can bankrupt you or lead your household to financial independence, safety, and security.

So take your time and go slow, when shopping for a house or a long-term rental. It is so much trouble and expense to buy a house. All of this time and care and work up front is to spare you endless problems down the road, problems you could have avoided if you hadn’t been in such a hurry. Since this house will be your permanent home, the one you get carried out of feet first, it is worth taking the time to do it right. Just as when selecting your spouse, you don’t choose the very first likely looking person you meet. Get to know them first and meet their family and friends, too. Pay attention to those red flags, whether it is the boyfriend being abusive to waiters or the house having cracks in the foundation. These problems don’t get better on their own.

Know, in advance, just how much you can afford. Realtors make their money by selling more expensive houses. They have to do just as much work for a cheaper house where the paycheck is smaller. If you don’t insist, in advance, on your price range, then you will be shown whatever the realtor thinks you can afford. Being able to afford a house means not just the monthly mortgage payment. It means the escrow to pay the taxes and the insurance as well. Frequently, ads imply only the actual mortgage, not all the other added costs.

Affording a house means being able to pay for the insurance, taxes, heating, cooling, lighting, landscaping, furnishing and decorating costs. Some of these are ongoing, such as the heat. Other costs are one time only like installing a four foot chain link fence all around the perimeter. Can you afford a new roof? A new kitchen? Repaint all the walls currently done in various shades of mustard and dirt? All that takes cash and it is cash you can’t spend on the mortgage or anything else.

Estimate what you can actually pay and then shop for houses that come in well under that cost. That allows for money left over to meet maintenance costs. It also means that if your income is cut for some reason, you have a better chance of still being able to stay in the house. Realtors love telling you that a house is a stretch now, but it won’t be in years to come as you get those pay raises. Pay raises may not come. You can never count on future income. You can only count on what you have now.

The bigger the down payment you save up, the smaller the mortgage payments will be. Smaller payments are easier to make and they are also easier to double up on. When you get your mortgage written up, make sure you can make extra payments towards the principal. Some contracts will penalize you for doing this so read those documents carefully and don’t sign the contract if you don’t like it. There is always another house. You lose all your negotiating power when you sign the contract. Up until that point, you can walk away. If the contract isn’t what you want, then be willing to walk away. There is always another house. Repeat this mantra to yourself. There is always another house.

A 30- year loan is set up to pay for the house two, three, or even four times over, depending on the interest you pay. Each payment is divided into principal (what you borrowed) and interest (what the bank earns). The payments are divided on a sliding scale so the first few years on a $500 monthly mortgage payment mean a principal payment of ten bucks and an interest payment of $490. That’s right: for the first year or so, you may pay less than $200 towards the truck load of money you borrowed.

Get an amortization schedule and read it carefully. In the first year of the mortgage, every single extra dollar you pay towards the mortgage will chop months off the life of the loan. An extra hundred dollars a month in principal during the first year may chop three or four years off of the total life of the loan. Put extra dollars towards the mortgage faithfully and you can turn a 30-year loan into a 20 or even a 15-year loan. Does this take self-discipline? Oh, God, yes. But the payoff is well worth it.

I know that plenty of financial planning people tell you that you should be putting your extra cash into the stock market via your 401K plan. After all, you don’t know if you are going to be living in that house for very long. However, only you know if you want to homestead in an area. If you are in an area for the long haul, all your relatives nearby, with the services and amenities that you like, then why would you rent? Unless you live under a bridge or you permanently couch surf, you have to live somewhere. Make it your own place, paid for in full, instead of paying rent on the same property for 50 years to a landlord. I had relatives who did this in North Dakota. They were forced to move when their long-term rental was sold out from under them.

What To Look For In A Property

So what else do we look for when buying a property?

Some people say they won’t buy anything old as they don’t want someone else’s problem. Other people figure that an older house will be better built. Certainly, a home designed and built before 1960 will be far more likely to have windows all around and in every room. No air conditioning meant that every single room had to have natural ventilation. Windows might be lined up to provide a through breeze, allowing the house to better cool itself.

oriented strand boardOlder houses are more likely to be built with nails and solid wood as opposed to glue, staples, and oriented strand board, a wood-like panel made of shredded wood glued together. Older houses may be built of real brick or concrete block. They tend to be in older areas, more walkable and closer to the center of town, with mature trees that shade in the summer and allow the winter sun to warm the house. Hardwood floors and solid wood windows are other pluses.

Newer houses tend to have better insulation. It isn’t that easy to add insulation to an existing house. It can be done and the insulation contractor will be happy to work with you on improving your house. If you do this, study up before you sign any contracts. Make sure you are sitting down when he tells you how much it will cost.

You can fix all kinds of things on any house. Roofs can be rebuilt, insulation and storm windows added, kitchens improved, storage of every kind added in. Gardens planted, fences erected, trees and hedges grown to provide sun and wind control. It is damn difficult to fix the location.

Realtors say the three most important things about any house are location, location, location and they are absolutely right. Number four would be buying more house than you can honestly afford on your salary. That can be just as damaging to your long term goals as buying a house that floods every other year.

Take your time shopping for a house. Go to every open house in your target area, including the ones for houses you don’t want and can’t afford. You are training your eye so you can recognize that great deal when you run across it. In the meantime, save up as much money as you can for the biggest down payment. Make lists of what you want your house to do. Need a home office? A sewing studio? A greenhouse? Room for a swimming pool? Extensive food gardens? Clotheslines? Chicken coops? Garage and workshop space? Storage space for a years’ worth of groceries? Space for a home based business? Every house you look at should be evaluated with the things that you want in mind. Take notes and photos as you go, so if you see a great idea like a Solatube, you can add it to your personal list of things to add in your own home.

If you end up in the lovely position of being able to choose between several equally good houses that you can easily afford, then you really have to make decisions.

And we’ll cover that next week.

Did I Find Two “Lost” Sherlock Holmes Poems?

From illustrator Ian Schoenherr:

Did I just find two “lost” Sherlock Holmes poems? I don’t know. Maybe…

I should say that I’m going through yet another Sherlockian phase right now, so while painting the illustrations for Maile Meloy’s next novel (out this fall!), I listen to audiobooks of the Canon, and in between brush strokes I browse books and blogs about Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Yesterday, I finally looked up one of the earliest – if not the earliest – parodies of the great detective, “My Evening with Sherlock Holmes”, which was published anonymously in The Speaker for November 28, 1891. Its author turned out to be Conan Doyle’s soon-to-be friend, J. M. Barrie, who later created Peter Pan (another early obsession of mine).

Inspired by this – and also by the recent ruckus over “The Book o’ the Brig” – I started poking around for other early, possibly “lost” Sherlock Holmes parodies or pastiches. Soon, I found these poems:

Best I can tell, these poems haven’t appeared anywhere else since Charles Joseph Colton published them in his 1899 book “Volume of Various Verse.” A check of Colton on the Library of America’s Chronicling America site (where many newspapers have been digitized) didn’t return any results for Colton, making him one of the more obscure contributors to the genre.

If you’re interested at all, take a look at Schoenherr’s post. They’re lively, fun poems.

Author, Editor, Anthologist, and Owner of Peschel Press, the Publisher of Histories Behind the Mysteries