Rhine Mystery #2 — Solved!

Susan Vaughan here.

If you read my June post about Dutch windmills (http://bit.ly/1lZ6iND), you’ll realize this month’s post continuing my cruise up the Rhine River is out of order. Should’ve posted about Amsterdam first. But here goes. Venice, Italy, is known as the city of canals because it’s built on a group of islands. So why Amsterdam in northern Europe?

Am17 - canal

We spent two and a half days in beautiful Amsterdam. It’s a very walkable city, not too large, with excellent public transportation. The biggest hazard is the hundred thousand bicycles zooming along the bike paths and streets. A pedestrian doesn’t dare cross pavement without checking for bikes. The Central Station even has a three-deck parking garage only for bicycles. They’re parked everywhere along the street and canals as well.

Am3 - Parked bikes - Warner

We saw ads for bike tours but shuddered at the image of tourists trying to navigate among all the locals. Not us. We used the Hop on-Hop Off buses and canal boats. Here’s where we waited for a canal boat.

Am11 - Waiting for the Hop on Hop off canal boat

While much of Amsterdam is modern and high tech, like the science museum called NEMO, we tended to explore the older, central parts of the city.

Am20 - NEMO sci & tech museum Warner

The towers of the ancient city gate dated from centuries ago when the city was much smaller and had to be defended from invaders.

Am22 - Old towers city gate

Houseboats, some created out of barges, parked on the canals. Owners pay taxes and receive city services like sewage and water.

Am9 - houseboat barge

More canals, some with houses leaning a bit because of shifting foundations on a sandy bottom.

Am33 - Corner leaning house

More canals and bridges, very scenic, some narrow.

Am35 - Series of bridges

Some wide and exotic, with cafes and hotels. We wanted to eat at this cafe and gaze out at the passing boats but we ran out of time.

Am5 - cafe

So, why the canals? Dam Square, known locally only as the Dam (Dutch: de Dam) derives its name from its original function: a dam on the Amstel River, hence also the name of the city (Amstel Dam > Amsterdam). Built in approximately 1270, the dam formed the first connection between the settlements on the sides of the river. Today the upper part of the Dam is a busy town square with the royal palace, the Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, and hotels.

Am54 - Dam Square

Other dams and dikes do the same for the Rhine and other rivers. The Rhine’s a wild river, or at least it was centuries ago. Uncontrolled, the water flowed in a Delta far and wide. Upstream in the 1800’s, engineers worked to shorten and tame the Rhine, while in the Netherlands (Lowlands, the reason all the water flows to there) Dutch engineers designed and constructed the dams, dikes, and canals that tamed the waters and made them navigable.

Why, you may be wondering, did the Dutch want to build a city where the water could swamp them at any time? Our tour guide’s answer: “Whoever controlled the mouth of the Rhine, controlled the shipping.”

*** My newest release is a box set of the Task Force Eagle trilogy for your Kindle. You can find excerpts and buy links at www.susanvaughan.com.

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Weekend Update: July 26-27, 2014

fallsbooks1Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Susan Vaughan (Monday), Lea Wait (Tuesday), Vaughn Hardacker (Wednesday), James Hayman (Thursday), and Barbara Ross (Friday).

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

TaskForceEagle cover (170x300)From Susan Vaughan: Just released! TASK FORCE EAGLE, Books 1-3 Box Set, Romantic Suspense by Susan Vaughan. When federal agents Rick Cruz, Jake Wescott, and Holt Donovan go after a Mexican cartel kingpin, they face unexpected hazards—to their hearts. http://amzn.to/1wN9v37

From Kathy Lynn Emerson (aka Kaitlyn Dunnett): I’ve just had confirmation of publication dates for the first in the new mystery series set in 1582-3 in England and Muscovy (now Russia) and featuring a new sleuth, Rosamond Jaffrey. As Rosamond Appleton, illegitimate daughter of Lady Appleton’s late husband, she previously appeared (as a child) in several of my Murder in the Queen's Wardrobe coverFace Down Mysteries. Now she’s all grown up, married, estranged from her husband, and recruited to gather intelligence for the Crown. Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe will be out in hardcover in the U.K. on November 28, 2014 and available here in the U.S. on March 1, 2015. I’ve also received a cover proof. Apparently headless woman covers are still “in.” I was more surprised to discover that the book is being billed as “an Elizabethan spy thriller.” And here I thought I’d written a cozy historical mystery!!! Then again, I don’t suppose there’s any reason it can’t be both.

This weekend, July 25-27, Beyond the Sea, a bookstore and gift shop in Lincolnville, Maine, will be hosting a book festival! For details, see http://www.beyondtheseamaine.com/events.html Saturday is mystery and suspense day, and Dorothy, Kate and Kaitlyn will be there. Lea Wait will be talking about her books and signing her Uncertain Glory and Shadows on a Cape Cod Wedding Sunday afternoon, from 1 until 3.

photo 3-5 photo 2-9 photo 1-8

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our traveling gift basket, which will eventually belong to one of you, will be there with us. Loads of great books, some crime scene tape, and two adorable cookies cutters–a moose and a lobster. Stop in and see us and sign up on our entry sheet, or leave a comment on one of our blogs during the next two weeks. Someone is going to be a lucky winner.

 

Thursday, July 31, you can find Lea Wait in Bar Harbor. She’ll be speaking about Uncertain Glory (set !cid_5DD80D18-4277-43A2-92BE-A87ACD38DB1B@maine_rrin Maine during the first two weeks of the Civil War) at the Jessup Library at 10:30, and bringing with her some antiques from the mid-19th century. Then, from 1-3 p.m. she’ll be signing her books (historical novels and mysteries) at the Shermans in downtown Bar Harbor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Clark here: I will be at the author’s tea in Greenville 1-4 pm this Sunday, as part of the Thoreau-Wabanaki Trail Festival. This will be at the Center For Moosehead History.

 

 

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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And a Mole on Her Toe, Ho-Ho

DSCN0134Hello again from Sarah Graves, writing to you from Eastport, Maine, where we have survived the Fourth of July and are well into the sweetly peaceful stretch between it and the Pirate Festival. And the Salmon Festival. And we just had the British are Coming festival, and Indian Days are the week after next, and — well, you get the idea. If things get any more festive around here we’ll have to bestow a liquor license on the whole town and just put beer or at least wine coolers in the children’s lemonade stands.

Also, fireworks. Can I just say right here that I like fireworks as much as the next person? That is, if DSCN0132the next person happens to be a nervous golden retriever with hyperacute hearing and complete confidence in her ability to make me sleep on the floor with her until she stops shaking. Which will be next week. Actually, fireworks on the Fourth of July itself are one thing. Store-bought M-80s, cherry bombs, and other implements of auditory mayhem set off at random by sozzled Neanderthals with little or no…er, I mean, they are entirely another. Although my dog doesn’t think so.

DSCN0136Meanwhile, I really did have a mole on my toe, and it was the weirdly interesting kind of mole that all the literature says if you have one like it, you should See Your Dermatologist. What they really mean, though, is that your dermatologist should see you, and especially the mole, and he did. While he was seeing it, I said, “Do you think this should come off and be sent to the pathology laboratory?” and he said, “Stick your foot out.”

 

Next thing I knew, I couldn’t feel my toe, and the next DSCN0124thing after that was, the mole and I had parted ways forever. None of it hurt except for one teensy tiny pinch. Really, the whole thing was a piece of cake, they treated me with absolutely heart-melting kindness from start to finish, and just four days later I learned I did not have a melanoma, which is a very fine thing to learn, let me tell you, and definitely worth the trip. Also, just in case you have a mole that you keep trying to tell yourself is nothing, can I say again about the Didn’t Hurt part? Because it didn’t. So even if they want to take it off, go for it.

DSCN0138Finally — As you can see I’ve sort of sprinkled a bunch of Eastport pictures in here at random. This time of year it kind of knocks the breath out of me, all this summeriness everywhere, so it’s hard for me to be coherent about my pictures (some people say that’s true about me all year round) but I thought you might like to see them anyway. So here they are.

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The Tale of the Naturalist’s Log

There are books we love because they move us, maybe even change the way we live our life.

Vicki Doudera here. Don’t worry —  I’m not going to talk about The Goldfinch again. (But that post’s available here if you didn’t get to read it the first time…)

Other books scare the Holy Hannahs out of us, and for lots of reasons we crime writers love to discuss, we enjoy these books as well. For me, that super-scare of a book was The ShiningStephen King So vividly do I recall turning those pages, curled up on our living room couch, shaking in my proverbial boots. (Jaws was another one. Can we ever forget inhaling those novels?)

And then there are the books that are special only to us.  For some, it’s a treasured family Bible, with names and dates penciled carefully in. Or a tattered paperback that saw its reader through a difficult period. Or a rip-roaring adventure that mirrored a time in the past when we, too, were on a rollercoaster of a ride.

Perhaps most important are the books we make ourselves, full of our own unique stories.  I’m not talking about books we write and publish (although those are pretty darn important to their authors, trust me!) but tomes of a more personal nature. Scrapbooks of Christmases going back to our days as a newlywed. Journals of trips taken, discoveries made. Diaries from tortuous times in middle school.  Yes, I possess all of these things, including saucy accounts of a college year in Paris, but for me, one of the most treasured books in my collection is The Pitcher Pond Naturalist’s Log, a journal that had its beginnings back in 1998.

IMG_20140723_180317_731

IMG_20140723_105134_553 IMG_20140723_105055_459I can’t talk about the Log (photo to right) without mentioning my son Matt, whose 26th birthday is today. Not only is he the creator of the book itself, but, it turns out, he was responsible (albeit unintentionally) for its long disappearance.

But let me start in the beginning, back in the summer of ‘98, when my husband and I sold our 11-room Inn in Camden, packed up our possessions, and moved to a camp (if you’re from Maine you know what I mean – for the rest of you, a camp is a small lakeside cottage) that we’d fortuitously purchased only months before.

The camp was – and still is – in Lincolnville, on a narrow, glacier-formed body of water called Pitcher Pond. Ten years before bidding on the place, we’d rented it, and Matt had been all of 2 months old. When the camp went on the market in the spring of ‘98 we put in an offer to purchase it, never dreaming that our bid would be accepted, much less that our business (and home) would sell three months later.

By then our family had grown to include Nate, 8 years old; Lexi, who was four; chocolate Lab Daisy, and cats Tom and Jerry. It was a crazy,  whirlwind of a time in our family’s saga. We had two weeks to pack up our personal items at the Inn and get the heck out, all the while flipping flapjacks for guests, taking reservations, and presenting to all of our paying customers a relaxed, serene demeanor, even if we felt far from it.

When we finally found ourselves ex-Innkeepers and new residents of Pitcher Pond, we took about a week to unwind from all the stress. Turns out a little lakeside cottage hailing from the 1950’s was the perfect place to do just that.

It was mid-July, and with all of the fishing, swimming, biking, and BB gun shooting, I’m not sure why this eldest son of mine made the book in the first place.IMG_20140723_180350_062 (1)

 

 

Probably because, even at age ten, he was the kind of person who liked to craft things with his hands. Chances are he spotted the fabric first, then found some cardboard, grabbed the stapler, paper and scissors, and next thing he knew, he’d made a little book.

I think it was all the wildlife we were witnessing that made me think of starting a Naturalist’s Log. The earliest entries are veritable laundry lists of sightings: porcupines, raccoons, red-tailed hawks, bear scat, paper wasps, and fish ranging from perch to pike.  The very first entry? Mother catfish and approx. 100 one inch babies by shore of beach. Believe it or not, I can still recall seeing that incredible sight, marveling with the kids how each one of the babies was a tiny version of the slowly swimming, protective mom.  It was something I will most likely never see again.IMG_20140723_180339_734

Before long, the boys were scribbling in their own discoveries. Caught a one foot bass on dock during cookout, wrote Matt in July of 2000. Wanted to eat it but Mom said no.  Nate spotted “two grouse and one baby while picking blueberries” in July of 2002. Lexi, still a little young to journal, proved to be an adept finder of unusual creatures, spying tree frogs, salamander eggs, and winged creatures of all types, some of which (if they were dead) we pasted in the journal.

And then, in 2003, the unthinkable happened:  the Log disappeared.

That summer, it simply vanished from its customary perch on a shelf in the camp’s living room, and despite searches of both the cottage and our Camden home, the journal did not turn up.

For five long years it remained missing. And all that time it bugged me. For five summers, I asked myself where the hell the book could be. I looked high and low, in every conceivable spot, and still, the little journal refused to be found.

And then, in 2008, I moved a dresser from the boys’ bunkhouse into my camp bedroom. The lowest drawer was stuck shut, and when I finally pried it open, inside lay the Log. The last entry, written in June of 2003, was one dramatic line, scrawled in Matt’s distinctive handwriting.

Today I saw a bald eagle and it flew right over my head.

At last our Log was back, and we wasted no time once more recording discoveries. A meteor shower that lit up the lake. A mother duck and eight tiny ducklings. A spotting of seven loons swimming in a black-and-white pack. Hummingbirds, chipmunks, Lady slippers, Canada geese – the list goes on and on.

Including the notations I made yesterday as I sat on the camp’s screened-in porch. Saw a giant snapping turtle with a shell 18 inches across, a dead bat, and a kingfisher.

Why do we like to record events in our life?  For me, the Log is a way of remembering just how multi-layered a natural environment can be, how much diversity can co-exist on a three-mile-long pond in the Maine woods. It’s an account of funny family stories (like the time Nate wrote about a loon swimming under his legs, which years later he admitted was fictitious.) It’s a measure of the months and years, stacking up like firewood, a way to make sure we remember that the times gone by have been rich indeed.

As our Maine summer rolls on, I hope you’re enjoying both words and wildlife.  My thoughts today are on Matt, off captaining a yacht in St. Thomas, where he’s spotting everything from sharks to sea turtles.  Happy Birthday, Matt, and thank you for creating a very special book.

And to the rest of you, enjoy this beautiful day.

Nate, Lexi and the Birthday Boy home for a visit in June.
Nate, Lexi and the Birthday Boy home for a visit in June.
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You’d Think It Would Get Easier

Earlier this year I posted two blogs on the stages of writing a novel. “The Hardest Part” dealt with finding the right place to begin. “A Cure for the Middle-of-the-Book Blahs” was about some of the problems that crop up in mid-book. Now it’s time to talk about endings, or to be more exact, the last third or so of a work in progress.

npg - CopyYou’d think, having developed characters and written about them for fifty or sixty thousand words already, and having worked up a plot of some sort, that the push to the finish would be a piece of cake. By this point even pantsters like me have some idea where the story is going. While that’s true, there are also a lot of choices still to be made, plus a couple of pitfalls that aren’t always easy to avoid.

For one thing, there’s the exhaustion factor. I’ve been working on this mystery novel day after day, week after week for months. I really really want to get to the point where I can type “the end.” The scenes I’m writing right now are short on details and heavy on dialogue. They gallop along, hitting the plot points I need to include, and don’t have much depth to them, but at least I’m moving forward. This strong desire to finish will probably lead me to write a rushed climax and denouement that doesn’t do justice to what came before. I tend to be a bit too abrupt in wrapping things up, at least in my rough drafts. Fortunately, I’ll get a chance to improve those scenes when I revise, but that’s a topic for a blog of its own.

It would help if I had a clearer idea what will trigger the climactic scene. At least I’m in good company when I don’t yet know. As the now legendary story goes, until well into filming Star Wars, the script read only, “Darth Vader says something to make Luke mad.”

Image1Soon, I hope, I will figure out exactly what final clue will allow my detective to determine who dunnit. Confronting the villain may place her in mortal danger. I haven’t decided yet if that is what I want. If I do, will she rescue herself or will someone else have to step in to help her out of trouble? If the villain gets hold of the sleuth or some other important character, the stakes rise, suspense increases, and (in theory) it’s then an easy jump to the climax of the tale—a rescue or an escape; a fight; possibly a death. Ideally, readers end up eagerly turning pages to see what happens next. How to accomplish that in a way that is not a cliché is another tricky part of writing the end of the book.

In the best of all possible worlds, plot, subplots, and any loose ends are wrapped up in the last couple of pages and the reader finishes the novel feeling satisfied. Once everything is explained, it becomes apparent that the clues were there all along. The solution makes sense. The reader figured it out at about the same time the sleuth did or, failing that, will admit that the answers were only just out of reach. The author played fair. Providing such explanations, however, can become an end-of-the-book minefield for the writer.

pgMany mysteries use a technique syndicated columnist Joel Achenbach called “the obligatory spilling of the beans,” a phrase he coined to mean the scene “where the villain explains his diabolical plot to rule the world, a moment of braggadocio that will lead to his downfall once the hero escapes.” This is the point at which the villain confesses to all his crimes and willingly answers any remaining questions, usually because he plans, immediately after confessing, to kill the sleuth. A last-minute escape or rescue prevents that outcome and the villain gets what’s coming to him (or her). Is the “spilling of the beans” overused? Yes and no. The same plot devices are used over and over again because they work, and because there just aren’t that many ways to bring a mystery novel to a satisfying conclusion. A variation of this is the gather-all-the-suspects-in-the-library ending, in which the sleuth, who may or may not know who dunnit, tricks the villain into confessing.

npg1An alternative to bean-spilling is to have the sleuth work out what must have happened and explain any elusive details to another character for the benefit of the reader. I always have a bit of a problem with this solution. It just doesn’t seem realistic that any one person could be brilliant enough to solve crime after crime with nary a misstep. I’d rather let my sleuth be misled, or even come up with a completely wrong explanation for the crime first, and then discover additional information that makes the pieces of the puzzle fall into place correctly.

As I go past the 60,000 word mark heading for 90,000 (on the historical mysteries) or pass 50,000, heading for 75,000 (for the Liss MacCrimmon novels), there are also other challenges to deal with. Holding information back from the reader is one of the hardest for me. Once I’ve worked out what really happened, my impulse is to share that information—or at least insert a big, honking clue. But if I do that too early, or even to hint too strongly at the villain’s identity, it will spoil the suspense.

Years ago, when I was writing Face Down Among the Winchester Geese, the third of the mysteries featuring Lady Appleton, my sixteenth-century gentlewoman, herbalist, and sleuth, she ended up identifying the killer some fifty pages before the end of the book, but she still had to figure out his motive. That quest led to a twist—the revelation of another person’s involvement in the murders. The clues were all there, but I held back this second person’s identity until the last possible moment. Will I try something like that again? I doubt it. It’s not easy to pull off successfully. On the other hand, variations are a possibility. My detective could have the right villain but the wrong motive, necessitating more sleuthing at greater risk. Or the villain might become desperate enough to do something totally unexpected. Twists and double twists at the end of a mystery novel? Great when they work but not easy to do well.

npgI mentioned wrapping up subplots, but there are times when I feel a strong temptation not to do so. In a series, there are story arcs that carry over from book to book, usually having to do with the sleuth’s personal life. How much do I want to clear up and how much do I want to leave for the next installment? One thing I do know. I won’t commit the sin of leaving my readers in suspense about anything truly important. Fans were furious at having to wait an entire year to find out whether it was Joe or Ranger at Stephanie Plum’s door saying “Nice dress. Now take it off.” Not knowing if a beloved sidekick of the furry variety was alive or dead at the end of not one but two of Dana Stabenow’s mysteries upset many of her fans, including me. I will not do anything remotely similar to either of those things.

The last third of the book is every bit as challenging to write as the first two thirds, especially the last two or three thousand words. When I finally type “the end” I plan to take a nice long break. Maybe work on an entirely different project for a month or two.

Then the revising starts.

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