Original Writing – Excerpt #1: Murder & Turtles

I have a handful of friends who like to post writing prompts, and I occasionally humor them with my take on a scene. Here’s the first one. Maybe I’ll write the whole book someday.

Prompt: Create the beginning of a murder mystery novel. Your beginning must include the following: You are in the New Orleans French quarter, naked and holding both a live turtle and dead chicken.


Lorraine stood on the corner of Bourbon street, watching the bright headlights flash by and waiting. She shivered as sweat trickled down her naked spine, in part from the heat of the night, and in part from fear. Something else dribbled along her left arm and she glanced down at the drooping head of the once white chicken, now soaked red in its own blood.

The street emptied and quieted.

She shifted a rounded, heavy load further up her right hip and crossed quickly, the blood of the chicken leaving a speckled trail across the pavement. There was a hissing sound and she tightened her grip on the large object as she walked. “No, Beau, it’s okay.” she said under her breath as the small snapping turtle stretched out its long, snake-like head to look around. Beauregard looked her in the eye and nodded before retreating back and presumably going to sleep.

On the other side of Bourbon street stood an ivy covered, many leveled restaurant. The bouncer at the door took one look at her and started cursing. “Where are your damn clothes, woman? He sent you out for a chicken five hours ago and you come back naked and covered in blood. What else you got there? Is that a fucking snapping turtle?”

Lorraine raised her eyebrows at him but didn’t answer. She eased past him when he opened the door and entered the well appointed kitchen.

Mason glanced up from the last of the dishes at the sound of the door, and quickly dropped a soapy pan when saw her. “Jesu Christe. What happened to you? Why is Beaureguard with you?”

Lorraine dropped the bloody chicken carcas on the freshly cleaned counter top and walked past him to the staff dining room before putting Beau on the table. She walked back into the kitchen, rinsed off her bloody arm, and donned a spare chef’s coat. Then she returned to the dining room and sat down. Mason joined her with a glass of sweet tea. “I’m going to need something stronger than that.” She remarked, but chugged the tea anyway.

When he placed two fingers of whiskey in front of her she sighed, crumpling into the chair. Beauregard shuffled over and she absentmindedly rubbed her head and she reached out and took the whole bottle of whiskey from Mason’s hand and upended it over her glass.

“Zach’s dead,” she said, placing the bottle on the table.

There was a loud thump and a wobble as Mason’s butt landed in a chair and nearly sent him over backwards. “What? How? When? What?” He stuttered his words as he tried to grasp at this new reality.

“It’s a long story,” Lorraine answered, picking up her glass. “But before I explain, we should probably call the police.”


Do you have a take on this story prompt? I’d love to see it! Feel free to email me at Amanda@highlightsandhotchocolate.com and I’ll share my favorites in a post!

Top 10 Reads of 2019

December feels like it was 10 years ago. Among everything that’s happened in the last six months, I realized that I never shared my favorite reads from 2019. If you, like me, are in need of something really good to get you out of your stress induced reading slump, consider giving one of these a try.

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman
Nina works at a bookstore and hangs out at trivia nights with her friends. Her mom sends occasional postcards from her travels, and everything is right with the world. But then the father Nina never knew dies, and suddenly she has family members coming out of the woodwork, all of whom want to get to know her. Worse, her trivia nemesis seems interested in getting to know her better. All Nina wants is peace and quiet. Can she adjust to a new normal?
This one was delightfully quirky and funny, and I made it my very first staff pick at the bookstore when I started working there. More people should read romantic comedies.

May Bird Warrior Princess by Jodi Lynn Anderson (Full Review)
This is the final installment in a children’s trilogy about a girl who gets sucked into the land of the dead, known as the Ever After, and has to find her way home. After two books, May and her hairless cat, Somber Kitty, have only just returned to the land of the living when the unthinkable happens. A prediction about the end of the world, and the Ever After, comes true.
This whole series blew me away. The character development, the world building, was all phenomenal. The first book honestly creeped me out, but I kept coming back for more. May grows from a scared child into a brave young woman, capable of taking on the “big bad”, along with all of the ghouls and monsters out to get her. With the help of some friendly ghosts and monsters of her own, May is the kick-butt heroine kids need.

Well Met by Jen DeLuca (Full Review)
Emily has just moved to town to take care of her sister and niece when she is thrown into participating in the local renaissance faire. She tries to keep an open mind, but Simon, one of the organizers, just will not let any missteps slide. Which would be frustrating enough if he didn’t look so good in pirate’s leathers. Now Emily is trying to balance caring for her family with the topsy-turvy events of her weekends, and she’s not completely sure she can keep up.
First of all, a rom-com at a renaissance faire?! With a side of bookstore?? Sign. Me. Up. I read this in one sitting, and I was very happy with how well the relationship was written. It was real, and characters had good boundaries, and I just loved it so much. 10/10, will reread regularly. The sequel, Well Played, is due out Sept. 22nd, 2020.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djeli Clark (Full Review)
Agent Hamed al-Nasr and his partner Agent Onsi investigate a mysterious tram car in this alternate universe, early 1900’s Egypt set novella. Humans and Djinn live in quasi-harmony in the city of Cairo, where magic makes mass transportation and many other things possible. Women are gathering to fight for the right to vote, and the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities deals with anything out of the ordinary.
This novella blew me away. I was captivated from the first page, and when it ended I desperately wanted to know what case the agents would be assigned next.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
For as long as they can remember, the people of The Protectorate have given up a baby to the evil witch who poisons the forest so she will let them live in peace. That’s just the way it is. For as long as she can remember, Xan has rescued a child from the same grove of trees every year and brings them to the villages far away from the poisoned forest. As she travels, she feeds them star dust to keep them full and healthy. Xan is getting old though, and one year she makes a mistake. She feeds an infant moon dust instead of star dust, and just like that the little girl is en-magicked. Now Xan, her swamp monster Glerk, and her dragon Fyrian have a little witch on their hands to train and care for, and to keep safe from the dangers looming in the long silent shadows of the forest.
This magical middle grade novel was both heart wrenching and heart warming at the same time. Mystery and truth were so tightly wound that I could hardly tell one from the other, which made the ending that much sweeter.

Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny (Full Review)
A man wakes from a coma, at first unsure of who he is, but then sure of one thing. He is Corwin, a son of Oberon, and a rightful heir to the throne of the one true world, Amber. If only he can remember how to get back there.
This book so tightly winds world building with character development that it is hard to separate one from the other. What is true and what is imagined? Who can be trusted, and how does our world factor in to Amber? With vague ties to Arthurian and Merlinian legends, the 10-book Chronicles of Amber series is one every fantasy lover should pick up.

Gift of the Shaper by D.L. Jennings (Full Review)
On a routine trip into the neighboring town of Lusk, Thornton and his best friend, Miera, barely escape from black-clad thugs who claim to want something other than money from the pair. Their return trip moves even more dangerous, and by the time they reach Highglade, Thornton’s father is nowhere to be found. Convinced the thugs have kidnapped him, the young apprentice will stop at nothing to find the only family he has.
This debut novel was just the quest fantasy I needed. Wars, prophecies, and gods are all wrapped up in a neat package with great world building reminiscent of Tolkien. The sequel, Awaken The Three, hits shelves August 11th, 2020.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (Full Review)
A story of faeries and witches and demons who try to push the seasons around for their own gain, Spinning Silver is a masterpiece of interwoven storylines. Heroes all, Miryem, Wanda, and Irina must band together to bring nature back into balance and return peace to their families and their kingdom.
This was the second book I’ve read by Novik, and while I think this one was slightly harder to follow, given the mutli-POV, it was so interesting to see similar people react to things in totally different ways.

Heart of Iron by Ashley Poston (Full Review)
This whirlwind adventure takes the old-as-time story of Anastasia and launches it into space, where it takes on a life of its own.
This book was my second staff rec pick when I was the bookstore. It’s so well written, and all the characters are such colorful individuals that I just couldn’t help loving them all. Lots and lots of queer and POC rep in this one too! The sequel and end of the duology, Soul of Stars, is now available as well.

Temptation Ridge by Robyn Carr (Virgin River #6)
Luke Riordan is a retired Blackhawk Pilot, ready for some peace and quiet in the mountain town of Virgin River. Shelby is ready to get back to living after five years of caring for her very sick mother. She’s just settled into her uncle’s home in Virgin River when she meets Luke and sparks fly, but their difference might be too much for them to overcome.
I love just about all of the Virgin River books, but Luke and Shelby’s story has a very special place in my heart. They’ve both been through a lot, and come from military families, and there’s also a 13-year age difference rearing it’s ugly head to keep them apart. If you’re looking for a happy ending despite the odds, this whole series is for you.

Honorable Mentions:
Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow (Full Review)
Shades of Magic Vol 1: The Steel Prince by V.E. Schwab

TOTY – 28: Further Reading Required

Here we are, at the end of another trip around the sun. It’s been a whirlwind year that doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

Last summer, I was focused on getting all my ducks in a row for my last semester of graduate school. I was getting new roommates, and preparing to start a new job at a bookstore, which was the most exciting thing ever. Fast forward to October, and two of my grandparents were in and out of the hospital. I finished my master’s degree in December, only to promptly slip on ice and take a fall down my front steps the next morning on my way out to work. An afternoon in the ER, five weeks of being house bound, and another three of physical therapy kept me down for the count through the beginning of 2020. In mid-January I lost my grandfather, and traveled down to be with my family for the funeral on the weekend before I returned to work. I had only been back at work for about six weeks when the bookstore closed and put us all on furlough for safety due to COVID-19. In May, graduation was cancelled. At the end of June, I was officially laid off from the bookstore due to COVID-19 financial strains and being one of the lowest people on the proverbial ladder. So far, I have spent more than half of 2020 in my house. It’s been weird to say the least. Here’s hoping I can at least do something productive with the second half of the year.

Looking at my list of goals for my 27th year, it doesn’t look like I got very far, but I guess that’s to be expected given how deep in focus I was during grad school and then how home bound I’ve been since. I got into better shape, but that was only after I really hurt myself. Expect a whole post soon about my post-accident fitness journey. Being stuck at home in a pandemic has enabled me to be more conscious of my nutrition, but that’s also something that I’ll need to keep working on.
Writing is hard under normal circumstances, but I definitely hit a wall during quarantine. No fiction, no book reviews, nothing. Even reading was hard for a while. I did manage to complete two outlines last fall though, so hopefully I can turn those into full drafts this year. Things like buying a car, saving for travel, and paying off some of my student loans have to be pushed to a back burner while I find a new job, but thankfully the government has cancelled loan interest and payments until the end of September due to the pandemic. My roommates and I are still hunting for the right cat for us, but we’re hoping to find one soon.

So, what does all of that mean for the next year? It means I still have a lot of work to do. My “Theme of the Year” is Further Reading Required, because I want to keep inspiring myself to dig deeper, do more research, more learning, more exploring of myself and society. I need to take what I wanted to get done last year and bring that with me, while also continuing to push forward and weave in new skills and routines. Here’s what that’s going to look like.

TOTY 28 Goals:
1. Practice, Practice, Practice. There are a couple things I want to learn to do this year.
● Learn to do crossword puzzles.
● Learn to skateboard.
● Re-learn to play guitar.
● Learn more about nutrition and practice my cooking and baking skills.
● Learn more about personal finance.
● Learn more website design.
2. Continue to work on strength and fitness.
3. Finish at first draft manuscript by the end of August, and at least two (2) more first drafts in the next year. I’d also like to complete two (2) more outlines, and solid second draft of the manuscript I’ll be finishing in August.
4. Educate myself better on human rights issues, specifically starting with racism and white supremacy.
The current Black Lives Matter movement and my experience working through Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy has helped me to see that I am not supporting Black authors, or my Black friends and acquaintances as much as I can be, so I’m committing to reading at least two books every month by Black authors, one fiction and one non-fiction, for at least the next year. I’ve already added the following to my list, but I welcome any recommendations!
**Apologies for the present lack of accented letters. WordPress keeps deleting them, but I am working on a solution.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
She Would Be King by Wayetu Moore
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron
Unraveling by Karen Lord
Queen of The Conquered by Kacen Callender
Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope
Lost Gods by Micah Yongo
The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare
Red at the Bone by Jaqueline Woodson
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Becoming by Michelle Obama
The Immortal Life Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Good Talk by Mira Jacob
So You Want to Talk Race by Ijeoma Olou
Why I am No Longer talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Between the World and Me by Ta-Hehisi Coates
The Autbiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X/Alex Haley
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindess by Michelle Alexander
The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race by Jesmyn Ward
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

I hope that by working toward these goals I grow into a better person than I am today. I hope I find new interests and rediscover old hobbies. I hope I continue to grow in understanding and love for myself. I hope that I become better educated about society and continue to speak up for those that cannot, and amplify the voices of those who can. I also hope I have really good news to share in the next year, because the world could always use more good news.

Thank you for reading my Theme of the Year post, as you all do every year. I know they’re sometimes hokey, but I find that they really set the tone for my year and help keep me accountable throughout the next 365 days. Talk soon.

~Amanda

Past Theme of The Year Posts:
TOTY – 27: Aiming for the Stars
TOTY – 26: Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise
TOTY – 25: Responsibility
TOTY – 24: Me Doing Me
TOTY – 23: Wellness and Becoming My Best Self
TOTY – 22: Why Soul Searching is NOT my Theme of the Year