Weekend Update: November 22-23, 2014

fallsbooks1Ne xt week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Al Lamanda (Monday), Dorothy Cannell (Tuesday), Lea Wait (Wednesday), and Barb Ross (Friday) and next weekend we’ll have a special post from our cyber expert, Jayne Hitchcock on what to watch out for during the holiday shopping season.

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

Lea Wait:  This weekend I’ll be signing at Studio 53, (53 Townsend Avenue in Boothbay Harbor, Maine) a wonderful 3-story gallery full of locally-made crafts, jewelry, paintings — and books! I’ll be there Saturday the 22 from 7 a.m. until 11 a.m. (Early Bird Sale in town!) and Sunday from 1 until 2 p.m. Then, next Friday, I’ll be at another wonderful place with Christmas ideas — the Nobleboro Antiques Exchange, route 1 in Nobleboro, Maine, where antiques are displayed, and “repurposing” is the key. Two great places for one-of-a-kind gifts! 51qkuGEqAxL._AA160_[1]

And I’ll really thrilled that the towns of Rumford, Mexico, Dixfield, Byron, Hanover, Roxbury, Carthage and Canton (yes, they’re all in Maine!) have chosen UNCERTAIN GLORY as a community read for this spring as part of their project “Local & Legendary: Maine in the Civil War.”  I look forward to visiting with those folks next spring.

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson: No news from me, but I’m chiming in to comment on Lea’s community read. Those towns are by way of being neighbors. In fact, I can see the Wilton/Carthage town line from my house. By the time of Lea’s visit, the new windmills up on the ridge will probably be operational.

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: mailto: kateflora@gmail.com

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Back from Bouchercon

Vicki Doudera here, and I’m back from Long Beach, California and my first Bouchercon. For those of you who are wondering what the heck I’m talking about, Bouchercon is the World Mystery Convention, held annually in the fall for writers and fans. The first one took place in 1970 in Santa Monica, California, and recent ones have been held in Cincinnati, Albany, Anchorage, and St. Louis.

Bouchercon is named for Anthony Boucher, a writer, editor, and critic of science fiction and mystery.According to the convention’s website, Boucher “championed many crime-writing greats long before the mainstream literary establishment recognized their talents, and remained an indefatigable fan and insightful reviewer of every category of crime fiction. He helped found Mystery Writers of America in 1946 and served as its president in 1951”

Bouchercon has grown over the years to be a giant gathering, and, speaking as a first-timer, it’s somewhat overwhelming. But  I had a wonderful time, met up with old writing buddies, connected with some readers and made many new friends.  What more could a crime writer ask for?

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How Much Danger is Too Much?

1883burglar (300x251)Kaitlyn Dunnett here. I recently had an interesting email exchange with a reader in Australia. Although she likes the Liss MacCrimmon mysteries, she feels I tend to put Liss in too much danger at the end of the books. She pointed out, as our correspondence continued, that Miss Marple and Miss Silver are rarely in danger. They discover the identity of the murderer but don’t risk their lives to do so. Then she commented that putting the sleuth in danger makes it seem that the  author doesn’t have enough faith in the interest and excitement of the story as it stands and has up the ante at the end to keep the reader’s attention.

Wow. Food for thought.

I responded that I felt most of my readers expect Liss to be in jeopardy before the villain is captured. If Liss is going to investigate a murder, she’s going to make an enemy of the murderer, who is trying to get away with his or her crime. That makes Liss a target. If she simply turns the information she finds over to the police and lets them make an arrest, the end of the book ending will seem anticlimactic.

Deadli2x3The last chapters of my mysteries aren’t particularly violent. The most harm I’ve ever done to Liss is in Vampires, Bones, and Treacle Scones and even there she suffers no long-term damage. I wouldn’t consider the level of violence either excessive or gratuitous. But put my heroine in danger at the end of a book? Yes, I definitely do that, and deliberately, too. That applies to the historical mysteries I write as Kathy Lynn Emerson as well as to the Liss MacCrimmon series. To tell you the truth, I think I’ve always considered doing so to be a requirement of the mystery genre, whether we’re talking cozy or hard-boiled or police procedural. In fact, the covers of my Diana Spaulding 1888 Quartet all reflect this by picturing an “action” scene, although not necessarily one at the climax of the story. It’s the degree of danger and violence that differs from one sort of book to another. So, the question remains: how much danger is too much in a cozy?

finalfatalcover (199x300)I don’t see myself doing without a confrontation scene between amateur sleuth and villain in which the villain temporarily holds the upper hand. For one thing, without it, it is difficult to have what syndicated columnist Joel Achenback dubbed “the obligatory spilling of the beans” at the end of the novel. As Achenback put it, this is “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 won’t  happen unless the villain plans to kill his or her listener right after confessing. I grant you that this isn’t the only way to manage explanations and tie up loose ends at the end of a mystery novel, but it is one tried and true device that ups both the stakes and the suspense. Of course we know Liss (or Diana or Susanna or Rosamond) will find a way to survive or the book wouldn’t be part of a cozy series.

Our email discussion also explored the acceptability of more violent endings when that violence is in keeping with the book as a whole. My correspondent found the endings of my books a bit more frightening than the rest of the stories warranted. This is a valid criticism and I’m going to have to take a hard look at this aspect of things at as I write the next one. Then she added yet another thought-provoking comment: my cliff-hanger endings arise out of the character of the heroine because Liss is “a bit too defensively sure of her own abilities on feminist grounds.”

I don’t think of Liss as a feminist, but I do write her as self-confident (except around her domineering mother), sometimes foolishly so. And she’s impulsive—her main character flaw. In the old days, there was a category called the “women in jeopardy” novel. It morphed into “romantic suspense” and along the way the kick-ass heroine emerged, a woman capable of getting herself out of danger. Sometimes she ended up saving her significant other, too. In these novels there is always a scene toward the end of the book where everything, even the heroine’s life, is at risk. I have trouble imagining writing a story without that climactic moment when the heroine defies the odds to thwart the bad guy.

Ho Ho Homicide-comp (199x300)But the question of how much danger is too much in a cozy mystery remains. In the most recent Liss MacCrimmon, Ho-Ho-Homicide, written well before this email exchange, Liss is definitely in danger of losing her life and she definitely experiences physical violence. I write about her fear but skip fairly delicately over her pain. I don’t want to read scenes with graphic violence, let alone write them. In next year’s entry, The Scottie Barked at Midnight, also turned in before this subject came up, Liss is again in danger, although this time it comes earlier in the book and it is not a threat of being stabbed, shot, or throttled. Instead, she ends up on her own in the middle of nowhere and is at risk of developing hypothermia if she can’t find her way back to civilization. Is she ever truly in danger of losing her life? Well, she certainly thinks she is. And that’s all I can say about it without spoilers.

I’m very glad one of my readers took the time to make her feelings known. Every once in a while it is good for writers to step back and take a long, hard look at why they structure their stories the way they do. Most of the cozies and traditional mysteries I read put the sleuth in some sort of danger at the end of the novel, but there are ways to maintain suspense and up the ante without doing so. As I start work on the tenth Liss MacCrimmon novel, I’m going to be considering all the possibilities.

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A question of morale

 

Sometimes one is so tempted to take to drink

Sometimes one is so tempted to take to drink

Kate Flora, here: A Maine writer attending the New England Crime Bake conference a week ago observed that she appreciated what we are writing at Maine Crime Writers because there is often useful advice for other writers. Since one of the goals of the Crime Bake is to create community among crime writers, her remark reminded me of this old column I wrote about writer’s block and keeping up our spirits when our publishing goals always seem too far away and what we’re writing feels like gravel.

We’re coming into the dark season now, and when the days are short and the weather gets nasty, it’s hard to keep our spirits up. So here are some thoughts as we all embark on winter.

Everything I write lately does feel like gravel and as I’m embarking on a new Joe Burgess book, it seems like I have no new or fresh ideas. After a chat with my artist friend, Pete, about how my spirits won’t lift and I’m getting very little writing done, I decided to look up writers and morale on the internet, and see what wisdom was out there. My first hit immediately lifted my spirits. I found this, from the UVic student writing guide:

As a noun, a moral is what you get at the end of a fairy tale.

As an adjective, moral means “righteous” or “ethical.” It is an example of an abstract word which can be abused.

Morale measures the level of your spiritual happiness, usually when you are at war or playing sports.

When I stopped smiling, I started to wonder: when I am writing, and my “spiritual happiness” seems to be a low ebb, it this war or sports? Some days it sure feels like war, like a perpetual battle of the writer against the editor, the agent, the bookseller, the other writers whose books are being chosen or purchased or lauded, and the tiresome postman who keeps bringing bad news or no news and rarely a check.

Other days, it seems like a sport, especially when I’ve scored a goal, or the equivalent of a goal in the writer’s arena of worldly success. Those goals are hard won, though, and they don’t come very often. The fact is that this is a hard business. Not as hard as being a cop or an emergency room physician, but hard. To get the work done, we must be solitary for long periods of time, and we have to be our own bosses. We are the ones who have to set our own schedules, keep ourselves in our chairs, and meet our deadlines. Often, we even have to create our own deadlines.

Sometimes, the rewards seem too fleeting compared to the time we spend working toward them. And for the aspiring writer, the beginner, there is often little more than faith in their own ability to sustain them. I’ve been sitting here today thinking about some of the writers I know who have struggled for years to achieve publication. Some of them, some really talented writers, have finally gotten discouraged and given up.

When I hear that another writer is feeling despair, I always wish I had more wisdom, after thirty years at

We try to be wise, but is anyone listening?

We try to be wise, but is anyone listening?

this, to share. More time and generosity to sit and listen, to pay attention, to notice when people I care about are looking pinched and broken. And I wonder if other writers have better answers to the question: What should we be doing for each other? How can we help each other remember that we’re writers because we love words, and using our imaginations, and telling stories. And that we don’t stop being writers because someone didn’t love our latest story or we got a rejection letter in the mail, or something we thought was done needs to be rewritten.

As I’ve said all along–if you want to be a writer, you have to have the hide of an alligator. And you have to believe in yourself because no one else cares as much as you do. You have to believe in your right to write. You have to protect your writing time for everything that would steal it. You have to find your joy in the relationship between your mind and the page. In the now and now instead of what may lie ahead.

My friend Pete closed the conversation by suggesting that when it’s all discouraging, he seeks renewed inspiration by going to a museum and looking at paintings by great artists. Maybe, he suggests, I should read a really good book. And I happen to have one right here. So when my Blogging “homework” is done, I’m going to reread Roxana Robinson’s Sparta, and study her storytelling and how she reveals her characters. And tomorrow, I know, will be better.

Something else I found while I was looking up writers and morale. On a site called Geist.com, I found a writing exercise labeled: Morale Exercise: Real Writers . . .

So next time you have a discouraged day, write this down: “Real writers …” and free write from this for 10 minutes.

Question markReal writers drink bourbon, believe in rewrite, and try to use words more creative than those labeled by my mother as “ordinary swears.” This sometimes leads to some peculiar questions, as I try to improve my vocabulary. Real writers watch the world around them and wonder about it. Real writers listen in on other people’s conversations and pay attention. Real writers blow off the laundry and eat cold pizza because their characters are doing things they need to attend to. Real writers are willing to admit, even when they’re stuck in the unpublished writer’s corner, that they are writers, because on the good days, being a real writer is magical.

Well, gentle reader, who knows where this exercise will put you ten minutes later? Thanks for listening.

 

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A Change of Plan

DSCN0465Hello again from Sarah Graves, who has planned for traveling but  has not been doing so. For instance: The 2014 Crime Bake in Dedham, Massachusetts was great, I hear. I was supposed to learn this in person, but with my bags packed, registration long accomplished, banquet ticket bought and bus fare in hand, I was instead felled by a virus of unknown origin pretty much as I walked out my back door.  While I might’ve attempted the trip anyway, I made the on-the-spot  judgment call that maybe a 6-hour bus ride was not such a good idea under the circumstances. So I pouted instead, which turned out to be just about all I could accomplish for the next 48 hours, and I’m still disappointed. I do, however, have a virtuous feeling about all the people I did not infect with an ailment whose intensity was matched only by its unpleasantness. You’re welcome, everyone.

DSCN0469This is a print of a sardine label, from back when people ate sardine sandwiches for lunch. I personally can’t even look at an anchovy. Popping a whole fish of any size into my mouth — and then, dear heaven, chewing it! and swallowing it! — just isn’t in my DNA, it seems. But at one time those sandwiches were as common as PB&J is now, and plenty of people on the Maine coast made their living by catching, cutting, and packing the small fish into tins, and labeling them like the one at right. Here in Eastport there were several “sardine factories” where mostly women (and children, wielding knives as long as their arms and standing on boxes to reach the cutting tables) prepped and packed the catch. Different factories had different whistles, so that wherever you were in town you knew when “your” factory’s load of sardines had come in, and you should hurry down to work.

DSCN0457It’s cold here now, but last week we were still enjoying the fool’s gold of early November. Leaves were raked and newly planted garlic beds were covered with straw while we asked one another if maybe it wasn’t too soon, because if it stayed this warm for much longer the bulbs would sprout early. We put the straw down anyway, though, because in our hearts we recognized what none of us wanted to admit, and now we’re nodding sagely at one another: we knew it all along.

DSCN0466I see these decoys in antique stores and think of the ones that used to be in our basement when I was a kid. There were big burlap bags full of them, all glass-eyed and painted to resemble the birds that flew in by the thousands to Horicon Marsh in northern Wisconsin. Near the bags stood the huge hand-built table with the shotgun-shell reloading press bolted to it. On the bench too were the bags of shot, the gun powder, the wadding disks and small bright metal primers. Often there were bags full of spent shells there, as well, and on Sunday afternoons we kids went down and reloaded shotgun shells for fun. I can still feel the heavy, solid ka-chunk! of the shell press coming down to mash all the contents together and crimp the end tightly closed. (I can still feel my tooth coming down on a stray bit of birdshot when we ate roasted duck, too, but that’s another story.)

winter coverOne plan that has not changed is for WINTER AT THE DOOR, still due out January 6, 2015. I distinctly recall writing the first few words of this, feeling that stepping-off-into-the-void sensation of starting a novel, knowing there were 89,995 words of it left to write and that I had no idea what any of them were. I mention this now because, had I been at Crime Bake and had anyone asked me, I’d have said it’s the same whether it’s your first book or your many-eth: there is really nothing else you can do but go on. Page one is as blank for the old writer as for the new, the words as unknown until they’re written. Fortunately, the only thing you can do — keep at it — is also the main (some say only) requirement, when you get right down to it.

 

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