Let’s talk about sex. Or not. Should writers go there?

Sex. Kind of surprising how much the topic comes up when talking about mystery writing. Or maybe not surprising. I was an English major, and, as all you fellow English majors know, everything is about sex.

As most readers who enjoy mysteries know, there are different sub-genres and they have different approaches to sex. Cozy mysteries, those of the no violence onscreen, small-town, cute characters and frequent cats, may allude to it, but that’s all. The less cozy the mystery, the more likely there is to be sex. Hard-boiled? Often hard core.

At least that’s the general idea.

No News is Bad News has a scene with sex in it, but is it a sex scene?

No News is Bad News has a scene with sex in it, but is it a sex scene?

But no writer — of mysteries or anything else — should take including sex or not including it lightly. My impression from much of what I read in current fiction, both mysteries and other genres, is that the writer gives less thought to the sex scenes than any other scene in the book. That’s a mistake.

I’ll say right now that you won’t read a graphic sex scene in any of my mystery novels. Sorry to disappoint. I’m not a prude. I feel like I have to say that because I want you to understand that the lack of graphic sex in my books is not a moral decision, it’s a writing decision.

I can write a bang-up XXX sex scene. Just so you know. Someday I’ll reveal my secret erotica pen name and you can go on the Internet and check for yourself. Am I kidding? Maybe. Maybe not.

But in a lot of books I find graphic sex…distracting.

It’s pretty simple: Everyone has different tastes, a different idea of what’s hot or exciting. Readers also have their own ideas about who the characters are. If I as a writer start getting down to the nitty-gritty, I take a big chance that readers who have different sensibilities, who see the characters their own way rather than mine, will suddenly be jolted out of the dream world I worked so hard to put them in and back into cold reality and the knowledge they’re simply reading words that someone else put down on a page.

Does that make sense?

Look at it this way: I don’t do into a lot of detail describing my characters. I give a hint here or there, but I let readers form their own pictures based on what the characters say and do. I find that readers have much more finely drawn ideas of what the characters in my books book like when it’s left to their imaginations.

That same philosophy guides my attitude toward writing a sex scene. Writers work hard — or should — to make sure every line of dialogue a character speaks, every decision each character makes, is true to that character. Those are the specifics I deal with as a writer. It’s more difficult to do, though, when sex is introduced. It’s a third character and one most readers have very specific ideas about and the delicate balance that’s been developed in the book can very easily be thrown off. Some writers are great at it. I prefer to let those reading my book use the same imagination they’ve been using all along to fill in the blanks.

This isn’t to say that my characters don’t do it. In fact, there’s a sex scene in the first chapter of No News is Bad News, the book I just finished. The scene isn’t gratuitous, it has a role in the plot as well as contributes to some character development. I’m not going to spoil it, but I will say the point isn’t to get anyone worked up. An early reader of the scene, in another iteration a few years ago, told me it wasn’t sexy enough and my protagonist’s reactions weren’t very romantic. Good! That’s just what I was aiming for.

In fact, I don’t think of it as a sex scene at all, but more of a scene with sex in it.

As the book went through several revisions, the scene moved closer to the beginning until I got concerned about it being “too soon.” Would readers who haven’t read the first book in the series, Cold Hard News, be uncomfortable with people they’re just meeting taking their clothes off?

But then I reminded myself that it’s not a sex scene. It’s a scene with sex. Actually, it’s a post-sex scene and then a little later there’s a remembering what led up to it sex scene. Does that sound like a lot of sex? It’s only as much as you make it.

My philosophy about sex scenes isn’t an absolute for all writers. I’ve read scenes that are red hot and a great addition to a story. I’ve read others that are such clunkers that it left a bad taste for the rest of the book.

Like everything that goes into crafting a book, a writer has to think about it. How will it fit with what’s going on in the book? Will it be an uncomfortable distraction? Like all the other scenes, does it move the plot or character development along?

The only real advice about putting a sex scene in a book that is true for every writer is to make sure it works.

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. The second in the series, No News is Bad News, is due out in July. The first, Cold Hard News, was published last year. Follow her on Twitter: @mmilliken47, on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries, and check out her website and sign up for email updates, at maureenmilliken.com


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Clearing Clutter and Finding Gold

Kate Flora: It’s Monday morning and I’m due in a distant courthouse for Jury Duty in about an hour, so today’s post will necessarily be brief. It’s about my office–a subject we all dwell on from time to time. It’s really about the fact that I’ve been writing for almost 33 years. I’ve lost track, but I think I’ve now written about 24 books, and all the research, drafts 1-6, plus contracts, publicity, reviews, author photos, galleys, and the estate paperwork from my father, mother, and sister, are crowded into very small space. Yesterday, all that paper felt overwhelming, and I decided: Something must be done!

I spent many hours sorting through stacks of papers–hours that as of this writing are barely beginning to show despite two overflowing wastebaskets. The trouble with cleaning an office where so much creative work has taken place is that so many things are sentimental. Kind fan letters from readers who have discovered my work. Little notes in my mother’s handwriting, including a gargoyle saying “Happy Birthday.” A gargoyle? Seriously? But I am sentimental not about the gargoyle but the handwriting.

Under one of the desks, I find the briefcase my father bought me when I finished law school. It is now threadbare and ratty and I haven’t touched it in a dozen years. Keep, because of what it represents, or pitch because it no longer serves a purpose? I decide it can go. But a little farther on, there is my mother’s rolodex. She’s been gone ten years, but the names of the people, where they live, and her little annotations? It’s more like a storybook. I call my brother and ask what he things. “Throw it out.” It is still sitting in the undecided pile.

Then I grab what looks like an empty file, and inside are my earliest notes for my first published book, Chosen for Death. Amazing that I still have them all these years later, and in the stack, actually laminated to save it for posterity, the yellowing clipping from an Ann Landers column that gave me the idea for the book:

Dear Ann Landers:

A few days ago, a woman phoned and announced she was the daughter I had put up for adoption many years ago. She tried ro be nonthreatening and sounded like a nice person, but I was absolutely stunned. Old heartaches and fear overwhelmed me. She asked if I wanted to se her. When I said, “No,” she politely rang off. I sat by the phone shaking for 30 minutes.

I made a mistake when I was young, and I suffered for it. I never told a soul about the child I had. It was my intention to take the secret to my grave.

Can you imagine the pain of telling a thing like that to your husband, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews and friends? I don’t think I could have lived through it.

Please advise people who assist in such searches to find another hobby. Inform those wrongheaded do-gooders who reveal confidential information that it is highly unethical and probably illegal, and it can do incalculable damage.

I can appreciate people’s curiosity about their biological parents, but I beg them to consider our right to keep this part of our lives secret. Although the woman who phoned seemed perfectly content to leave me alone, I have no assurance that she will. I now live in fear that she might appear at my door.

That telephone call has forever changed my life and robbed me of my peace of mind. No one has the right to visit this kind of hell on another person. Please so no, Ann.

Petrified in Iowa

From the column, I was able to create the collision of this woman, who had secrets to keep, and the daughter who longed to know why she was given up.

It made the whole day of cleaning worth it.

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Weekend Update: April 30-May 1, 2016

fallsbooks1Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Kate Flora (Monday), Maureen Milliken (Tuesday), Lea Wait (Wednesday), Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett (Thursday), and Barb Ross (Friday).

In the news department, here’s what’s happening with some of us who blog regularly at Maine Crime Writers:

This weekend Dorothy Cannell, Jessie Crockett, Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson, Barb Ross, and Lea Wait are at Malice Domestic. With luck, we can add more photos, but here is a start.

Shown below, uncaptioned, Kathy/Kaitlyn and Lea. Then Barb with Sherry Harris and Kim Grey all at the Friday evening charity auction/desert reception.

There is a gap after those because my iPad hates WordPress, so scroll down for later additions.



Kaitlyn's auction item--the overflowing Scottie box

Kaitlyn’s auction item–the overflowing Scottie box

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Dorothy Cannell at the Sisters in Crime breakfast

Dorothy Cannell at the Sisters in Crime breakfast


Bottom photo is Jessie Crockett, smiling because she has good news, undoubtedly to be shared here soon.

An invitation to readers of this blog: Do you have news relating to Maine, Crime, or Writing? We’d love to hear from you. Just comment below to share.

And a reminder: If your library, school, or organization is looking for a speaker, we are often available to talk about the writing process, research, where we get our ideas, and other mysteries of the business. Contact Kate Flora: mailto: kateflora@gmail.com

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A Great Maine secret (and coming soon)

John Clark here. If you’ve followed the blog for any length of time, you are aware that there’s a connection between writing and gardening for several of us. Kate and I come by it naturally. Our father had a degree in horticulture and Mom was a garden writer and plant adventurer for years (she even has a tomato named Sennebec that she discovered in her garden).

We couldn't make the sale this year, so we grew our own

We couldn’t make the sale this year, so we grew our own

While I hated gardening as a kid (getting assigned weeding as your first plant related experience tends to do that), I’ve embraced it more and more as time has gone on. Last year, for example, I took on the enjoyable task of revamping and stocking my neighbor’s small flower garden across the street. This year, Beth and I agreed it was time to get a decent home greenhouse, so I looked around online and with son-in-law Russ’ help, have a really nice 8×6′ redwood frame greenhouse that’s full of seeds in containers ready to go.

When we moved to Hartland 13 years ago, one of my discoveries was the annual Fedco tree sale. Over the years, I have come to understand that it’s as much a cultural event as it is a great opportunity to get Maine hardy trees, vines, canes and organically grown set plants. The parking lot fills up early and quickly. Before it was moved to the current location, it was an adventure just to park as both sides of the rural road were lined with cars for half a mile in either direction. Since it moved to the present location (see link below) parking and access have gotten much easier.


It’s the kind of event where you see people you haven’t had a chance to chat with for ages, or get to know new and often interesting ones while waiting in line, learn about new varieties of fruits and discover ones you never knew grew in Maine. Several years ago, I bought twenty everbearing raspberry canes. They fruited the first year, doing so well I went back the next two years to get more. The third time, they were our of the red variety we liked, so I took a flier on Anne, a gold everbearing type that have turned into such a prolific producer we end up freezing much of the harvest and enjoy them in pancakes and ice cream smoothies all winter long.

Ultra sweet and big, big, big.

Ultra sweet and big, big, big.

This year I’m going to be conservative. We have no more room for raspberries, but deer consumed one of the cherry trees I bought last year, so I’ll replace that and maybe add an apricot. The good news for you readers is that the sale is next Friday and Saturday, so that gives you time to take advantage of it. Here’s what Downeast Magazine said last year when they named the sale a Best Springtime tradition: “It’s just two days in late April or early May, but ever since 1984, the annual Fedco Tree Sale has been a red-letter event for Mainers with a green thumb. The Fedco warehouses just off I-95 in Clinton are filled with apple, peach, pear, plum, cherry, and nut tree saplings, plus blueberry bushes, rootstock, and vines, and close to 3,000 folks come from all over the state to shop and visit with friends they may not see again until the Common Ground Country Fair. It’s a rite of spring. 213 Hinckley Rd., Clinton. 207-426-9900. fedcoseeds.com

So good you can have lunch while picking them come late July.

So good you can have lunch while picking them come late July.

Hope to see some of you there, but if you want the best selection, go on Friday and browse the online catalog (http://www.fedcoseeds.com/trees/) in advance to create a wish list so you won’t be disappointed.

If you're coming from the Eastport area, we'd love to hitch a ride.

If you’re coming from the Eastport area, we’d love to hitch a ride.

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Dream Vacation?

Jessie: Eagerly awaiting tomorrow’s start of  the Malice Domestic Conference!

Everyone has an idea of their dream vacation. For myself and a lot of the writers I know, some of the best vacations involve attending writing conferences. I realise a working vacation is not everyone’s idea of a great time but I promise, for many of us it’s true.

Because our work is done in solitude, we have to seek out opportunities to interact with other people in our industry. Writing conferences function sort of like an office water cooler for us. Despite the fact that many of us would proudly claim the label introvert, we still enjoy spending time with people who have an idea of what it is like to be in this crazy business. In fact, when writers get together, most of us are having such a good time we are quite outgoing.

It does the heart good to talk with people who really understand why an agent requesting the first fifty pages of your manuscript is enough to keep you going for a couple more years. It is wonderfulto have the rare chance to compare notes about the writing process, craft, the state of the industry  and how to reach new readers.

Putting faces to names is part of the fun too. Often writers have online correspondances with each other long before they meet in person. Having the opportunity to visit live with people you feel like your already know, but have never meet, is such a treat. Meeting readers, especially those who have commented on your blog posts, or have sent you fan mail, is truly wonderful.

There’s also the fun of star spotting. Conferences are full of other writers you respect and to whom you have written fan mail of your own. At conferences you can listen to them share their own stories from seats on panels or you may even be so lucky as to run into them in an elevator or at the bar.

So, if you ask a writer about their vacation plans, don’t be surprised to hear them gleefully replying they are headed for a long weekend of staying indoors and talking shop in a city not know for its tourism.

Readers, do you love to attend conferences in your industry? Writers, do you have favorite conferences you’d like to recommend?

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