How to Start a Cut-Your-Own Christmas Tree Farm

Kaitlyn Dunnett here, eight days before the publication date of Ho-Ho-Homicide, the 8th Liss MacCrimmon Scottish-American Heritage mystery and my fiftieth traditionally published book. In honor of the occasion, I’m giving away an autographed copy to one person, randomly selected, who comments on this post. The winner’s name will appear in the next Weekend Update.

Why am I writing about Christmas tree farms? Well, aside from the fact that I live on one, that’s the setting for Ho-Ho-Homicide, in which Liss solves a series of crimes while helping a young woman start a cut-your-own Christmas tree business. Since Liss is a champion list-maker, I thought I’d share this one.

Step One: plant trees

Step Two: wait ten years, occasionally pruning (and planting more trees each year if you want to continue in business more than one)

summertreefarm (300x225)

Step Three: buy netter, tarps, and saws (Why, yes, a body will fit through the netter!)

netter (300x284)

Step Four: buy liability insurance

Step Five: get PayPal or cube attachment for iPad or other device

Step Six: buy sales pads and print sales-tax calculator

Step Seven: advertise with ads, signs along the roadside and in local businesses, and word of mouth

mvfarmsign (300x249)

Step Eight: offer incentives to buy a tree—free hot chocolate and candy canes (or maybe a free book by a famous local author to the first twenty customers—got to make use of those author copies somehow!)

Ho Ho Homicide-comp (199x300)

Step Nine: set business hours (days and times) and make them clear on a large sign on the premises

Step Ten: cross your fingers and hope that people still want their kids to experience cutting down their own tree and don’t just make do with that artificial pink one stored in the attic

tree on tarp

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Weekend Update: October 18-19, 2014

fallsbooks1Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Kaitlyn Dunnett (Monday), Vicki Doudera (Tuesday), Al Lamanda (Wednesday), Lea Wait (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:

Barb Ross: If there are any librarians out there who are going, I’ll be at the New England Library Association conference this Monday from 3:30 to 4:30 in Boxborough. MA. My publisher has supplied copies of Clammed Up to give away. I’d love to see you there.

Then on Saturday, October 25, 2014, I’ll be at the Boston Book Festival. I’ll appear on the panel “The Whydunnit in Crime Fiction,” at 10:00 a.m., First Church Chapel, Berkeley & Marlborough Street with Sheila Connolly, Ray Daniel, Arlene Kay, Marian Lanouette, Edith Maxwell, Liz Mugavero, Leigh Perry, and Maine Crime Writers own Kate Flora, along with host Julie Hennrikus

Then I’ll be in the Sisters in Crime New England booth from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m., selling and signing books.

Lea Wait: Tuesday., October 21, at 7 p.m. I’ll be speaking at the Curtis Library in Brunswick, Maine as part of their Mystery Authors Series. I love visiting the Curtis Library, and will even “raffle off” an advance copy of Twisted Threads, which won’t be published until January.

Currently I’m booking school visits (talking about my historicals for ages 8 and up for grades 4-8, or my mysteries, and how to write them, for high school or college students) for the spring of 2015. For details about my visits, see my website,

And — looking for a special book to read or give at Christmas time? The Library Journal has a great list of new books to choose from which includes work by Sharon McCrumb, Anne Perry, Donna Andrews, Fern Michaels, and my Shadows on a Maine Christmas and Kaitlyn Dunnett’s Ho-Ho Homicide. Check them all out at

ahmmkk1Kathy Lynn Emerson (aka Kaitlyn Dunnett): The podcast I recorded while at this year’s Malice Domestic is now up at Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine‘s website. Here’s the link to listen to 45 minutes or so of me reading “The Kenduskeag Killer” (set in Bangor Maine in 1888):  Enjoy.

P.S. The artwork shown here went with the original story in the April 2005 issue of the magazine.



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. Don’t forget that comments are entered for a chance to win our wonderful basket of books and the very special moose and lobster cookie cutters.


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:  mail to:

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The Pleasure Of Your Company

Kate Flora here, reporting in from the road. October is shaping up to be a totally crazy month. In an photo 2-12effort to get out there and promote my new books, I’ve scheduled a lot of events. Like me, half of them are in Maine, the other half in Massachusetts. I’ve gotten to the point where when people ask where I live, I respond, “In my car.”

All of this is complicated by the fact that I just had surgery on my leg, and according to the “powers that be” I am supposed to stay still and keep it elevated. Not easy to do when I’m in fine bookstores and libraries everywhere. When I’m home, my already awful typing is made considerably worse by having to type while lying on my back with my leg propped up on a heap of pillows. I offer this as an apology to anyone who has recently read anything I’ve written. Between the letters worn off half my laptop keys and balancing all of this on my belly, I am NOT communicating as effectively as I’d like.


With the amazing Carol Briggs at the Curtis Library

With the amazing Carol Briggs at the Curtis Library

But I am having a very good time. Some of the events, like this past Tuesday night at the Curtis Library in Brunswick, have been solo events. This was a return trip to Curtis, where the amazing Carol Briggs puts a fabulous mystery writers series together every autumn. There is an audience. A TV camera, and cookies to die for. And I get a chance to talk at length about the writing process and what it’s like to launch a true story after working on it for five years. Book talks at Curtis are always like being in a room full of friends. I come away feeling like it has been a conversation.


Some of the best times are when I get to do events with other writers. Around 1993, at the urging of a woman I met at a conference, I joined an organization called Sisters in Crime. It was a decision which has enhanced my life for more than two decades. In New England, we have a very strong chapter, and one of the things our chapter does best is run a Speakers’ Bureau, sending panels of authors to speak at libraries and organizations throughout New England. Okay. So when I call this post ‘The Pleasure of Your Company’ I am speaking about both sides of the table. There are the amazing readers whocome to libraries to hear writers talk about what we do. And there are my sister writers on the speakers’ side of the table who share their stories.

The prolific Sheila Connolly

The prolific Sheila Connolly

This means that even as I’m in a library trying to sell an audience–you–on my new books, I am also getting to hear about the perspectives, stories, and research of other writers. And I am just as fascinated as anyone in the audience.

Last week I was in Wakefield, Massachusetts with Arlene Kaye, who writes romantic suspense,

The elegant Arlene Kaye in Wilmington

The glamorous Arlene Kaye in Wilmington

Coralie Jensen, who writes historicals and lovely mysteries set in Italy, and Clea Simon, who writes cozies with a touch of the supernatural. We do the same thing, and we do it very differently, and the conversation was rich as a result. Last night I was at a marvelously funky and generous bookstore called the New England Mobile Book Fair, in Newton, Massachusetts with two writers so prolific they scare me. Sheila Connolly currently writes three mystery series, one involving an apple orchard, one museums in Phildelphia, and a third set in Ireland, and she does at least one book in each series a year (and that doesn’t count the paranormal e–books). Clea Simon writes two series, both with cats and both with a touch of the paranormal, and about a book and a half in each series per year. It’s a prodigious output, and yet they are calm and poised and delightful. And I tell them it took me five years to write Death Dealer.

Clea Simon moderates our panel in Wilmington

Clea Simon moderates our panel in Wilmington

So. I am not done. I will be at bookstores in Maine and Massachusetts again next week. And the week after. And then there is a brief vacation on the horizon, and on to the New England Crime Bake. Planning for next year’s Maine Crime Wave has begun.

Crazy? Perhaps. But when you write books with colleagues who are this congenial, when you get to visit libraries and bookstores this welcoming, and when you get to speak to readers who genuinely care about authors and writing, what could be better.

Perhaps I’ll have the pleasure of your company at an upcoming event? The Concord Festival of Authors? Longfellow Books? Check my website to see where I’ll be next.

p.s. Aren’t you curious about the stuffed German Shepherd?


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Wits’ End

The title of this post illustrates one of the things I like most about writing. Predictably for a kid who was taught to write by the nuns, using that soft paper with three lines on it (two solid ones and a dotted one inbetween, remember?) and a soft-leaded very dark-black pencil, the fat kind that is better graspable by a small hand…

Well, that was a little blast from the past, wasn’t it? Did you learn to write that way, too? But as I was saying: That’s right, it has to do with punctuation.

Because the thing is, if I’d said wit’s end instead of wits’ end it would imply that I’ve run out, or perhaps even that everyone had. Which is another subject that I could go on about, but…

Anyway, it’s the apostrophe placed just that one little space farther to the right that gets me. It makes all the difference in meaning and in implication too, sometimes. I like it so much that even when I’m in the throes of the dreaded book-middle (which yes I am, thanks for asking), that apostrophe can delight me.

It’s a delight with its roots (not it’s!) in a strict rule, yet the pleasure it brings is the kind that’s outside rules, a child’s stubborn “I like it because I like it.” Possibly if I were a painter there’d be something about paint, or brushes, or canvas that would cheer me so much. Musicians no doubt have favorite musical whatever-they-ares, meaningful only to others similarly involved.

Meanwhile I’ve got apostrophes, and spelling, and grammar doo-dads (the subjunctive! and someday let me tell you about the etymology of the word ‘gee-gaw’) to love. The little twist you can give to a sentence, implying something about the mood or someone’s motives, by the choices you make writing it — I certainly don’t always succeed at this, but the knowledge that it’s at least possible by using language is intoxicating.

Language, after all. What an astonishing thing. We make shapes with our mouths and force air through our vocal cords to create sounds that have…meaning? Who thought that up? And we make marks that stand for the sounds (that right there being all its own wonderment) and they have meaning?

And then we write…stories? I mean to say, I am seriously impressed with us sometimes for coming up with all of it. That’s why even in the middle of writing a novel, when there are moments of being at wits’ end, for sure, I don’t have to worry about the end of wit. I may not have much of it on tap today, and it might run slow tomorrow, but I still have a hope of it coming on strong the day after and anyway, someone will have some. There won’t be a wit’s end…

As long as no one misplaces all the apostrophes.

(Note: I’m racing toward deadline so this is a blast from the past. Back to real blogging — with real pictures — next time!)

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A bit of Nostalgia

I wrote this many years ago. Last week, wandering around the edge of the family berry patch got me remembering it.

another world


Blueberry Summers

Beth waited while I looked around the new room, hunting for the Shedd’s peanut butter pail. The room and the pail are both nearly fifty years old, but names, like memories don’t fade easily. When we reached the blueberry field, I paused. “Expect to see a deer.” After dropping the first few berries from a height sufficient to create the time honored ‘plink—plank—plunk,’ we smiled at each other, sharing separate, but still entwined memories of Robert McClosky’s Blueberries For Sal.

Ten minutes later I looked up from picking and saw a golden shape ambling along the back edge of the field. We watched the doe for nearly half an hour. She was enjoying the harvest as much as we were until something we couldn’t see made her uneasy and she bounded off towards the swamp.

Driving back to Hartland I reflected on how many of my early summers involved blueberries. My mother used to lead the three of us across the road, past the big hen house and into the front blueberry field. We were all younger than ten and Mom could count on the bright blue berries to hold our interest while she picked enough for a pie and perhaps a batch of jam. We kids usually ate far more than we contributed to this family harvest and hands and faces took on a blue pallor. It may well have been here in the field where I performed my famous surprise guest appearance; grinning while sticking out my tongue and freeing the cricket I had been hiding in my mouth.

A couple years later, I was helping Dad burn the back berry field when a sudden windstorm took the placid flames and whipped them into the nearby pines, creating a crown fire that is as vivid today as it was almost half a century ago. It taught me more effectively than any TV lecture by Smoky the Bear, to respect fire in the open. Oddly enough, we never did get around to getting that field into production.

When I was eleven, I hired on as a blueberry raker for Gushie Farms in Appleton. The first field we raked was at the head of Sennebec Pond and the cool breeze off the water filled us with a false sense of optimism. By the end of the first day, I was convinced I might never stand upright again. While I didn’t get rich that summer, it was the first time people treated me as something other than a child; not quite an adult, but still, it made me feel valued. By the time we finished the last field and school was about to start again, I had gone well beyond blisters and backaches, having learned the technique of resting one elbow on my knee while running the tines lightly under the berries and lifting them loose. I was also about as dark as a white kid can get.

That fall, I made a bit more spending money by helping prepare blueberry fields for their biennial burning after school and on weekends. This was well before the roaring monsters that can be heard several miles away came into use. We broke open bale after bale of musty hay and spread it over the stripped vines. The following spring, we went back on cool damp evenings and under the weight of Indian Pumps, watched as the crew leader walked around the perimeter, dragging a length of kerosene-filled galvanized pipe with a wick in one end. As soon as the fire line started into the field, we would pump vigorously and extinguish the unwanted line of flames.

Those were surprisingly peaceful evenings, leaving us plenty of time to chat or think quietly as the fire crept towards the center of the field and died. I always came home sooty and reeking of smoke, but these were small prices to pay for this ritual of passage.

I raked blueberries for several years, never getting particularly skillful at it, but earning enough to buy my school clothes and supplies every fall. Along the way, I discovered the itchy and painful bite of brown field spiders and that not all hornets nest in trees. I even watched, bemused as a dozen teenagers ran whooping and hollering after a curious bear that had followed our truck down a woods road from a remote blueberry field.

I even tried to spark a summer romance, but was cut dead by a girl who was in my high school class. She preferred a guy from Erskine Academy who was also on the crew. That relationship still flourishes more than 40 years later. When I wrote Hither we Go, the second book about the Wizard of Simonton Pond, I used a lot of the experiences during those raking seasons as plot and setting for the beginning of the book, even to including a fairly unpleasant older gentleman now deceased. He made a practice of cutting into my raking path whenever the berries were particularly plentiful. Back then, all I could do was grit my teeth. I got my revenge as a writer.

I wasn’t the only family member who was intimately involved with blueberries. Mom experimented with hundreds of different blueberry recipes and wrote about many of them for magazines like Farm Journal. Her fame was such that she was asked to set up the first Maine Blueberry Festival at the Union Fair. Sister Kate ran for Blueberry Queen one year and my late sister Sara was still proudly raking berries in her early forties. I even designed one of the t-shirts for the blueberry festival, a trumpet spraying berries over the caption “It was a great year for the blues.”

Halfway through high school, I switched from raking to working in the processing plant a mile north of the family farm. The work was no less strenuous. Instead of bending in the burning sun all day, I unloaded box after box of winnowed berries and wheeled them on pallets to a huge device that blew even more stems and leaves from the fruit before plunging the berries in a chlorinated water bath. From there, a series of conveyer belts carried them past eagle-eyed women who snatched the remaining stems and green berries from the belts before the blueberries fell into yet another box.

Since we were classed as agricultural workers, overtime wasn’t an option and when the harvest was in full swing, we often started at seven am and found ourselves wiping down the equipment with a strong bleach solution at 1 am the following morning. For the three or so weeks the plant was in operation, life revolved around berries and more berries. My world shrunk to include the plant, my co-workers and the ride to and from the plant. When Sunday rolled around, I barely had energy enough to do more than read and eat.

Because the work environment was so intense for such a short period of time, my memories from those summers nearly 40 years ago are still vivid. There were two girls from Montville who worked on the berry line. Both were attractive, but the younger was more outgoing and we would joke as I passed with laden pallets. Somehow, she gave me the nickname ‘green berry’ and in a moment of teen bravado, I took out the box of magic markers and drew a large green circle on a t-shirt and wrote “The Green Berry Rides Again” underneath. The following morning, I nearly chickened out, but donned it at the last minute before going to work.

Her grandfather, a foxy old Mainer, also worked at the plant. He once put in for 25 hours in the same day. When the owner asked him how this was possible, he said with a perfectly straight face. “Well, I never took my lunch hour.”

There were other intangible blueberry moments that helped define my growing up. I was allowed to drive a dump truck to Cherryfield one Saturday. It was my first experience with anything bigger than my Oldsmobile and I can remember the fun of learning how to shift the dual-speed rear axle as I crested and then descended the hills between Bucksport and Ellsworth. On several other occasions I rode shotgun with a taciturn fellow as we took clean berries to the blast freezer in Portland. We shared his thermos of coffee and while he said little, the comfortable silence said that I was accepted as an equal.

The summer after I graduated from high school, I helped clear a thick area of swampy scrub on Appleton Ridge to create an irrigation pond for the berry fields. There were days that July when no sane person would have run power equipment, but we bulled along and the following year, you could drive by and admire our handiwork.

I went off to school in Arizona that fall and my career as a blueberry person ended, but the memories remained. Even now, as soon as I pick up the family blueberry rake, I automatically assume the position; back bent, elbow on the knee as I guide the tines under the blue clusters. The mind pictures return as well and I smile.


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