Mill Town Tales

Please welcome our special guest, Maine crime writer Brenda Buchanan.

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Mill Town Tales

 In 1971, when I was old enough to start noticing things beyond my own nose, a writer named Doris Kirkpatrick wrote a history of my hometown. Published by the local historical society, The City and the River was 453 pages of text, photographs and illustrations about Fitchburg, Massachusetts, the mill town 40 miles northwest of Boston where I’d spent my entire young life.

Mill with smokestack (300x225)Until Kirkpatrick’s book provided me the context, I had little sense of the go-go Fitchburg where paper, shoes, guns, textiles, saws and motorcycles once had been manufactured and shipped the world over. The ‘burg I knew was scuffed around the edges, infamous for the sulphurous stench of its paper mills and its multi-hued river. Though it had been on the decline for decades, the town still was peopled by first- and second-generation immigrants who held out hope it would regain its status as a hub of commerce and industry. The stories and photos in The City and the River gave me perspective on them, and on the institutions that had been endowed by the families that built Fitchburg’s once-robust economy.

The hospital where I was born—set high on a hill where we kids were free to ski and toboggan during the winter despite the danger posed by cars whizzing by on the busy street below—was named after the Burbank family, which had established Fitchburg’s first paper mill.

The athletic field where I watched home football games was built by the Crockers, who merged their fledgling company with Burbank Paper in the 1820s and built a ten-mill complex that was at one time the largest paper mill in the United States.

Fitchburg Youth Library (300x191)The Wallace Library—which had a separate children’s wing starting in 1899—was a gift to the town from another prominent family engaged in the manufacture of paper. At age four I became the proud owner of a youth library card and spent countless afternoons in that building’s warm, bookish embrace.

When the philanthropic families that had bestowed Fitchburg with its hospital, playing fields and library sold their mills to giant corporations, the same ugly spiral that occurred in Maine’s mill towns happened in mine. Work was shifted to states with lower labor costs. Hours were cut back. The new owners demanded contracts be restructured. Unions went on strike. Mills downsized, then closed.

Mill in process (225x300)My parents didn’t work in the mills, but as the owners of a small service business they had plenty of customers who did. In the summer of 1972 my father was busy installing and maintaining oil burners, but a prolonged paper mill strike forced him to parse through his invoices at the end of the month. He sorted them into two piles—people whose income likely wasn’t affected too much by the strike and those who were walking a picket line. Ignorant of the etiquette required in such a circumstance, I asked why we were holding some bills back. “You don’t send a customer a bill you know they can’t pay,” my dad said. “Those bills can keep until the strike is over.”

My father’s words illuminated one of the central truths I learned growing up in a mill town on the downswing—we were all in it together. Kind of like a marriage: for better or worse, in good times and in bad.

Other Maine writers who grew up in mill towns have described this same feeling with powerful eloquence. Monica Wood’s memoir When We Were The Kennedys captures the tight-knit world of Mexico, Maine and the common sense compassion provided by her neighbors in times of terrible loss. Richard Russo’s protagonist Miles Roby toils under Mrs. Whiting’s weakening thumb in Empire Falls, paying the price for real and imagined sins of others in the past-its-prime town of the same name.

I moved away from my hometown long ago, but on some level you never really leave the place that hatched you. My books are set in Riverside, Maine, a faded textile mill town west of Portland on the banks of the imaginary Cascabago River. It’s best described as an amalgamation of a number of Maine towns—Biddeford, Lewiston, Westbrook, Skowhegan, Bucksport, Old Town and Millinocket, with a little Fitchburg thrown in for good measure.

Tower mill photo (225x300)My mythical Riverside hit bottom many years ago, but in the past decade it has begun to fight its way back. By the summer of 2014 a young developer announces plans to renovate the long-shuttered Saccarappa Textile Mill into condos, artist studios and an all-local brew pub designed to pull the hipsters west from Portland.

Portland Daily Chronicle reporter Joe Gale is touring the defunct Saccarappa when a long-dead body is discovered bricked behind a wall, putting the mill renovation on hold and a cold case investigation into high gear. Fueled on caffeine to stay ahead of the Tweeters and Facebookers who are a modern reporter’s competition, Joe works the story hard, ignoring signals that someone is tracking his every move. When his prime source vanishes, Joe fears his tenacity has provoked another murder, this time to conceal four decades of deceit.

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Quick Pivot will be released April 27—two months from today(!)—by Carina Press, a digital first publisher. I hope readers of this blog who are fans of mill towns, newspapers and traditional mysteries will look for it wherever e-books are sold, and will come see me when I visit your local library this coming spring and summer so we can continue the conversation.

Brenda Buchanan is a former newspaper reporter with a deep reverence for small town journalism. Her Joe Gale Mystery Series features an old-school reporter with modern media savvy who covers the Maine crime beat. Brenda worked as a reporter trainee at the Boston Globe while an undergraduate at Northeastern University. She was a reporter and columnist at the York County Coast Star in Kennebunk before attending law school at the University of Maine. Now a Portland lawyer with a daily writing habit, Brenda lives with her spouse in Westbrook. 

Brenda can be found on the web at, on Facebook and on Twitter at @buchananbrenda.

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Where Are You Ronnie Jay?

Vaughn Hardacker here: Several years back I was a member of a writer group that met monthly at the public Library in Exeter, NH. The group had no rules about what type of writing members had to write (I also belonged to another group that met weekly, but was comprised exclusively of mystery writers) and since the venue was a public library it was open to anyone who wanted to attend–including poets.

PB_Copy_JobsI have to confess that I cannot write poetry, nor do I read it nor do I understand it. I belong to a group today in which there are several poets and each time they read something I am absolutely lost. In fact, what usually happens is that I listen to the comments made by my fellow writers and always ask myself, “How did they draw that conclusion from what was read?” I’m a hard-boiled kind of guy and the nuances of poetic language, as well as the art form are lost on me.

Now, let’s talk about the subject of this blog. I recall watching Ronnie Jay when he entered our group for the first time. He was dressed in a cowboy hat and boots and told us that he had recently relocated to New Hampshire from Nashville where he wrote country music songs. I immediately visualized hearing odes to a horse, laments about lost dogs, whiskey drinking, trains, pickup trucks, and of course women grieving for their husbands and boyfriends who were doing time. To get to the point, Ronnie didn’t read anything that night, but promised to have something when he came back the next month.

He sat quiet through most of the next meeting and when his turn came he said, “I wrote a little poem about writing that I’d like to read.” A few seconds later I was astounded. Ronnie had written the first poem that I could not only appreciate, but also understand. Here’s that poem:

The Unknown Writer
Ronnie Jay
© 2004

I’m an unknown writer
Creative as they come
But, there’ll come a day, I dare say
I’ll be a famous one.
I’ll write a #1 best-seller
And oh, the riches it will bring,
It’ll sell more in every bookstore
Than Grisham, Crichton, or King.
I know you won’t believe me
And I can’t make you a believer,
But, if I don’t believe in myself
No one else will either.
Yes, I know it sounds impossible
To reach those heights of fame
And I realize that I may never
Be a household name.
But, it doesn’t really matter
If my dreams do or don’t come true,
I’m still gonna keep on writing
Because that’s what writers do

Ronnie disappeared from our lives shortly after that. We assumed that he had gone back to Music City, but if by chance you should read this blog, Ronnie. Leave me a comment and I’ll get in touch.

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It’s Just Your Imagination

Kate Flora hereScreen Shot 2015-02-21 at 11.28.35 AM deeply immersed in the next Joe Burgess, And Led Them Thus Astray. Since I spend much of the time when I’m not writing my own books editing other writers or teaching writing, I’m always acutely aware of the pitfalls that arise for writers in the course of their storytelling. Among the biggest is letting the reader see the characters and action without slowing the momentum of the story. A common problem is doing a huge data dump to let the reader know all the cool lore that the writer has learned in order to write the story. Another place problems frequently arise is in description.

How often have we seen a writer try to describe a character by writing something along the lines of: She tossed back her streaming raven curls and compressed her glistening full, red lips together as she tried not to smile at his approach?

Kate Flora the editor always makes a little note in the margin: Is this the way a character would see Screen Shot 2015-02-21 at 11.29.15 AMherself in her own inner narrative? Do we talk about our streaming raven curls? Our full, red lips? The camellia pink mounds of our breasts? Probably not. Our job as writers is to let you see it in a way that doesn’t feel forced or unnatural, that feels like it comes authentically from the characters but gives you the details from which your own imaginations can conjure up the picture.

So this morning I was watching Burgess, after getting only two hours sleep, lumbering out to the breakfast table to try and have a civilized breakfast with his family, when his mind wants to leap ahead to a series of horrific attacks on police officers. I’m trying to let you see the kids gathered around the table, Chris at the stove, and a weary, limping Burgess gearing up for another long day.

It made me think of conversations I’ve had over the years about what my characters look like. From time to time, someone has sent me a photo that they think is Joe Burgess or Thea Kozak. Or they ask me who, if I was casting a movie, I would cast as Burgess, or Kyle, or Stan Perry? Who would play Thea Kozak and who would play Andre?

Sean Bean

Sean Bean

It’s a fun exercise to indulge in–both using real people, or real actors. It also reminds me of something I realized when music videos first became popular: that I really don’t want someone else imagining things for me, either in music or in fiction. I want to listen to the song and see it my own way. I want to read the book and see the cast of characters as they seem to me.

And that leads to a funny story. Some years ago, I was leafing through a catalogue and there was a model who looked like I’ve always imagined Thea looks. I tore out the page and left it on my husband’s desk. When he got home, he picked it up, a bit grumpy because he doesn’t like things left on his desk, and said: “What’s this?”

“It’s Thea,” I said.

“No, it’s not. She doesn’t look anything like that.”

So, readers, I’ve included some of the possibilities for Joe Burgess. Is he more like a bulky Brian

Viggo Mortensen

Viggo Mortensen

Dennehy? A Nick Nolte? Or is he more like Viggo Mortensen or Sean Bean? How do you see him? Who would you cast in the movie?

Screen Shot 2015-02-21 at 11.37.16 AM

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Susan Vaughan here.

When the characters and the plot for my new release On Deadly Ground came to me, I knew I needed to go to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and experience the jungle and Maya ruins up close. Yes, it’s Maya for the people but Mayan for their language, but only archeologists make the distinction—and me. My husband and I spent a week in the Yucatan, soaking up the sun and ancient history. The book is my tribute to a favorite movie, Romancing the Stone, but in reverse.

Partly restored Maya building

Partly restored Maya building

Here’s a short plot summary. Desperate to save her brother, museum director Kate Fontaine must work with Max Rivera, the ex-military guide she doesn’t trust, to carry out the kidnapper’s demands and return a precious Maya artifact to its temple, deep in the jungle. They must outrun black-market smugglers and a predicted earthquake.


Max and Kate spend days trekking through the jungle of my fictional Central American country, facing many dangers—bad guys, wild animals, earthquake tremors—and the hazards of a dangerously inappropriate romance. Coba, a largely unexcavated archeological site deep in the jungle, provided the feel and images I needed. Three settlements there display the architecture of this once large city—including two ball courts and the highest Maya pyramid in the Yucatan. I modeled the temple Max and Kate find in the jungle after this smaller one at Coba, but the one in the story is vine covered and not restored.


For part of their trek, Max and Kate follow a limestone road called a sacbé. These were created for ceremonial purposes leading to the temple and for trade with other cities. Walking on one, I felt I was stepping back centuries. Why did the Maya build their roads of this limestone? Unlike silly gringos who walk around in the hot sun, the Maya traveled by moonlight, and what would show up better than a white road? The sacbé Max and Kate find is nearly overgrown and much narrower than this one.


The Yucatan sits on a limestone shelf, and beneath it lie rivers and deep water-filled caverns called cenotes. For Max and Kate, cenotes are a necessary water source, and an underground river plays a big role in the story.


Finally, we visited a nearby village where contemporary Maya live year round in thatched huts with sapling walls. In these primitive conditions, flowers and plants we consider houseplants are everywhere in their yards. These Maya raise animals and crops, and the women weave beautiful blankets and sew and embroider gorgeous cotton clothing.


Inside this hut we visited, this woman was baking tortillas on a charcoal fire. In the corner was her hammock for sleeping, the usual bed for the Maya and others trekking through the jungle.


The only evidence of modern intrusion seemed to be the school for ages five through twelve and a cinderblock store. Yes, this experience provided me with many ideas for On Deadly Ground, but it also caused me to wonder who was deprived, these people living simply in the jungle? Or was it these Norteamericanos in our shorts and sneakers from so-called advanced civilization where our lives are full of stress, and wars, disease, and atrocities fill the news?

***On Deadly Ground is available in digital and print at More information about my books is at

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Just Hold Your Nose and Write

nightnight“Just hold your nose and write,” is my friend Hallie Ephron’s motto. Hallie has a new book coming out in March, Night, Night, Sleep Tight, a novel of suspense about Hollywood in the 1950s and 1980s. If you’ve never read Hallie’s books, you should, because they’re terrific. If you want a little taste, just to try, she has a short story with the same characters and setting up for $1.99 for Kindle here.

Anyway, I have been chanting Hallie’s motto as if it were a mantra as I steam toward the end of the first draft of Fogged Inn, the fourth book in my Maine Clambake Mystery series. I really want to finish the draft before we leave Key West on March 1. We’re doing a little sight-seeing and family visiting on the way home, and I’m hoping to have that week to let the manuscript “rest,” before I begin the first round of revisions.

birdbybirdAnne Lamott says famously in Bird by Bird, that we all have to write sh**ty first drafts, but sometimes I feel I abuse the privilege. The problem is, I can’t really think unless I write. I’ve always been like this. Back in the day, I solved complex business problems by writing the detailed memo supporting my recommendation–and in the writing process discovered what my recommendation actually was. The memo often never left my computer. Usually it was was transformed into a high level series of Powerpoint bullets. But having written it, I knew my case inside and out, and believed it in myself, and therefore could defend it.

For better or for worse, it’s the same with fiction. For Fogged Inn, I wrote a high level synopsis for my agent and my editor. It’s turned out to be mostly accurate as the first draft has unfolded, but man does it leave out a ton of important information, all of which I have to make up along the way.

I’ve never successfully completed an outline. I do sort of a look-ahead-see-around-the-next-bend form of planning that I call scaffolding. (My writer friend Barb Goffman calls it being a plantser, the combination of the two fiction-writing approaches known as being a plotter or a seat-of-the-pantser.) I brainstorm outside of the draft. When I’m stuck, or feel something is lacking, I’ll write back stories for characters or use a brainstorming technique of 20 reasons. (Write down 20 reasons Joe goes down the cellar…)

onwritingBut ultimately, there’s no substitute for working it out in the writing. Stephen King says characters reveal themselves in the writing like photographs in the developer’s bath, and that is certainly my experience. (I wonder how much longer anyone will understand that analogy?)

It’s fashionable for professional writers to claim there’s no such thing as writer’s block, but I know what it’s like to be at the crossroads where you can’t write because you don’t know what comes next and you don’t know what comes next because you aren’t writing.

halliewritingandsellingIn those moments, I whip myself with my motto, “The only way to it is through it.” I conjure up Hallie’s, “Hold your nose and write.” And I dangle in front myself as a reward the part of the writing process I absolutely love. “If you finish this #$%^& first draft,” I tell myself, “you get to revise.”

Junot Diaz says writing a novel is an act of faith. Faith in the beginning that your idea is good enough to be a novel, faith in the middle that it will somehow lead to the ending, faith as you write the ending that is has anything to do with the beginning you wrote so many months ago.

You gotta have faith.

I have faith that I will be returning to New England soon with a completed first draft. It will be too short, terrible, disjointed, out of order, and full of dead ends and things-I-forgot-to-tell-you-earlier. But it will be done.

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