How Stephen King (and my mom) helped me become a published writer

Hi all, Maureen Milliken here in my first official Maine Crime Writers post, though I’ve been a guest a latestcovercouple times.

My entry into this excellent community of mystery writers comes a little less than two weeks before my debut mystery novel, Cold Hard News, is being released.

One question I get asked a lot is how long it took me to write the book. How long? Well, um. Hmm.

There are a lot of ways to answer that and the answers range from “my whole life” to “several years.”

I’d always wanted to write mysteries since I was around 9 or 10 years old. I read every kids’ mystery series I could get my hands on, graduating to adult books by the time I was 12 or so. I spent a lot of time in bed at night, or staring out the window in school or on long car trips reworking the characters and plots from my favorite TV shows: “The Mod Squad,” “The Rookies,” “The Streets of San Francisco,” “Columbo.” Looking back, it should have been obvious I’d become an editor, too (I am news editor of the Kennebec Journal in Augusta and the Morning Sentinel in Waterville) — I could spend hours or days reworking one scene in my head to get the dialogue or a character right.

The years went by and I never stopped thinking that “someday” I’d start writing that mystery novel, but somehow I never got around to it. Busy with jobs, relationships and work, I found a lot of excuses. But deep down, I realized what the real reason was — I didn’t know how to start. I’d convinced myself I needed to have the plot all figured out, the story all set in my head. I read a book by a mystery writer who I admired quite a bit who said she did full biographies of each character and deep outlines on each chapter before she began to write. I had some vague ideas about characters, themes and setting, but nothing else. I was paralyzed by the thought that I’d have to do all that before I could begin the book.

Another thing holding me back, which I only admitted to myself once I finally got going, was that what if I couldn’t do it? What if it sucked? What if the thing I’d always thought I would do turned out to be something I couldn’t?

About eight years ago, I’d recently started writing a newspaper column again at the paper I worked for in New Hampshire at the time and had gotten quite a response from readers. I hadn’t been a reporter or really written much of anything in more than a decade at the time, and told my mother I’d forgotten how empowering it felt to write and to have an impact on readers.

Her response? “Well, Mo, I’ve always thought of you as a writer.”

That comment had a profound effect on me. I felt like a huge fraud. How can someone who hasn’t written anything be a writer? It was time to fix that.

Que the book by the famous author who outlines everything. Then my inaugural trip to the New England Crime Bake, a mystery writer’s conference that gave me the kick I needed.

But I still couldn’t figure out how to get started.

That’s where Stephen King comes in. I bet you were wondering.

In my desperation for some kind of key to unlock the secret formula, I picked up his book “On Writing.” Half autobiography, half writing kick-in-the-pants, it was just what I needed. There’s a lot of good stuff in that book, but the biggest takeaway was to stop talking about writing and just sit down and do it.

And he was right. I had an opening for the book, a plot explosion I knew was going to happen that was going to upend everything, characters I’d been developing in my head for 30 or more years, and some themes I wanted to be sure got in there, particularly loyalty and the price of friendship. I also knew it would take place in Maine (even though I was living in New Hampshire at the time) and that it would have a heavy and realistic newspaper theme. I wasn’t sure how it would all come together in a book, but after reading “On Writing” I felt a physical compulsion to start getting it down on paper.

I got over the fear and inner resistance and started writing. And Stephen King, brilliant as he is, was right. Things started happening, almost beyond my control. Characters did things, the plot started making itself known. It wasn’t easy, but knowing that it was working the way it was supposed to and the fun I was having doing it kept me going.

And now here we are, several years later, welcoming “Cold Hard News” to the world.

Another thing people have frequently said to me upon finding out my first mystery novel is about to be published: “Gee, I wish I could write a book.”

Well? OK. Start writing.

Cold Hard News will be released June 6 by S&H Publishing. Print and ebooks can be preordered at S&H Publishing, and ebooks can also be preordered on Amazon Kindle and Smashwords.

Check out my website, maureenmilliken.com, follow me on twitter at @mmilliken47 and look for updates on my Facebook page, Maureen Milliken mysteries.

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Weekend Update: May 23-24, 2015

fallsbooks1Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Maureen Milliken (Monday), Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson (Tuesday), Vicki Doudera (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:

This coming Thursday, May 28th, the Maine Literary Awards will be presented at the Space Gallery in Portland. Doors open at 6:00 p.m. and the ceremony starts at 7. MCW will be represented by Vaughn Hardacker and Kate Flora and alum Paul Doiron. This is a fun event celebrating the talents of Maine writers.

John Clark‘s retirement party will be held from 1-3 p.m. on Saturday, May 30th at the Hartland Library. Sweets and snacks and a sad farewell and a chance to meet the incoming librarian.

Brenda Buchanan is kicking off a little library tour to talk about her debut mystery, Quick Pivot, with a stop at Baxter Memorial Library in Gorham at 6:30 on Wednesday, May 27, and a noontime chat at Portland Public Library on Friday, May 29. Last week she launched Quick Pivot, with a convivial party at RiRa, an Irish pub on the Portland waterfront. Here’s a photo of Brenda with some of the other Maine Crime Writers who came to raise a pint to the success of her book.

Chris Holm, Katrina Niidas Holm, Brenda Buchanan, Ken Cohen and Kate Flora

Chris Holm, Katrina Niidas Holm, Brenda Buchanan, Ken Cohen and Kate Flora at Ri Ra

 

Last week, Kate Flora threatened you with a rhubarb…a rhubarb recipe, that is. So here, for those of Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 4.28.14 PMyou who have a rhubarb patch and can’t wait for a sweet version of this venerable spring tonic, is:

Rhubarb Strawberry Pudding Cake (heat over to 400 and butter 8″ square baking dish)

1/4 c. water, 1 1/2 t. cornstarch, 1/3 c. sugar. Stir together in saucepan and add 2 c. chopped rhubarb.

Bring to a boil*, stirring constantly, then simmer, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add 1 c. chopped strawberries.

Whisk together 1 c. flour, 1 3/4 t. baking powder, 1/2 t. salt, and 1/2 c. sugar in a bowl.

In large bowl, whisk together 1 large egg, 1/2 c. milk, 1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly, and 1 t. vanilla. Then whisk in flour mixture.

Reserve 1/2 c. fruit mixture. Pour the rest into baking dish and pour batter over it. Drizzle remaining fruit over batter. Bake 25-30 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean. Cool 5 minutes before serving.

From Gourmet, April 2007

*original recipe says bring to simmer. Kate says bring to boil, then simmer. Your choice.

And some sources say that rhubarb was first introduced to the new world by someone from Maine. http://www.rhubarbinfo.com/history

From Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson: For those who remember my blog on the town of Wilton needing to establish itself as a “slum and blight” in order to qualify for grant money (see http://mainecrimewriters.com/?s=slum+and+blight), there is good news. It worked. For the whole story in our local online newspaper, you can click here Daily Bulldog

 

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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Meet the New Hartland Librarian-Nicholas Berry

John Clark introducing everyone to my successor as librarian in Hartland. Right after we finished interviewing Nick, Karen McGrady who is a trustee and headed the search for a new librarian, looked at me and asked, “What do you think?” “It was like talking to a younger version of myself,” I replied. She nodded in agreement. What are the odds you’ll find someone who not only reads, but writes in the YA fantasy genre to pick up where you left off? Well, that’s what we did and I’m excited to have Nick step in and take the library to new places.

He’s a native mainer and has his undergraduate degree from UM-Farmington and his MLIS from Syracuse University. You can’t ask for better credentials than those when looking for someone to run a small, but extremely busy public library. While I plan to stay involved as a volunteer, I’m being extremely careful to act as a resource and let Nick have the freedom to do what he sees fit in order to run the library. If you’re interested, we’re having an open house at the library to celebrate the changing of the guard as well as recognize our valued volunteers. This takes place on Saturday, May 30th from 1-3 at the library which is located at 16 Mill St. in Hartland. Anyone reading this is welcome.

Here’s an interview I did with Nick for the blog.

Nick in the chair he'll soon be using on a daily basis.

Nick in the chair he’ll soon be using on a daily basis.

What was your life like growing up–where, interesting things you did, what did you read, what were your hobbies

I grew up in Livermore, Maine. I mostly spent my time reading (a lot of boxcar children mysteries and great illustrated classics among other things, later Dragonlance and Terry Pretchett novels), swimming, camping, and hiking, mostly with the cub scouts and boy scouts. I also developed a love for board games and table top games in general. I also was involved with area youth sports or AYS that was organized between Livermore, Livermore Falls, and Jay. Soccer and baseball, and a couple years of basketball. I was never really athletic but it got me involved, and I was on a soccer team through freshman year of high school before it got more about competing than playing the game. I also spent a lot of winters skiing, not coming in until I was soaked through and frozen. I also played the trumpet from fourth grade through freshman year of high school in school band. Actually found myself reminiscing and wanting to relearn when I pulled it out of the closet this weekend. Other than that I have always been an animal lover, mostly dogs but at one time my family had two dogs and two horses (one of which was friendly most of the time but would only let my mom ride her). I actually got thrown off one of them and hit my head on a rock once (thankfully was wearing a riding helmet). Other than that it was a lot of family gatherings, writing, and going to the library.

How did you survive high school? What was the best part of it, worst part?

I mostly survived high school by putting my nose to the grind stone and focusing on school, always a bit of a complete nerd. I think the worst part was the little bit of bullying I encountered but I just tried to move on to different people. I think the best part was the trip I took to England through the school. Best decision I made to get some experience visiting other countries. Lots of history, lots of walking, and some nasty swans.
You went to UMF what was your college experience like? Highlights, defining moment(s)
Well, at first I was an English major, but as soon as I got there I realized I really wanted to be a writing major, so the first year was started with me learning what classes both majors required and taking those in addition to general electives. I spent the first two years applying to the creative writing program and taking advice from writing professors, including the director of the program. I felt a profound sense of accomplishment when I was finally accepted to the program.

My freshman year I had a group of friends, we went to all the meals together, went to the movies together, but then we were split apart when two of us who were dating split up in a nasty way, and then broke further apart a year later. I reunited with one of the original group though when I became a Community Assistant, probably the best of the group to be friends with too.

After that I met two people that would become my best friends at UMF that have continued after, Sean and Erich. Sean worked in the University snack bar and would give me extra stuff, including double sized quesadillas (paid for of course). We would all get together in the snack bar on weekends when he was working and there were fewer people there, building bigger and more unhealthy quesadillas we would share, culminating in the Alpha-dilla which was multi-layered and included such things as curly fries and mozzarella sticks and anything the snack bar had in it. We each had special handshakes and would talk about what we would do if we ever got rich. We invented a place called Manada, because it would be in between Maine and Canada, where we would all live and have roller coasters connecting all of our houses, and each with a different position within this new country.

And some of my best friends were my neighbors in the residence halls and my fellow writers, many of which overlapped. Lots of weekends spent gaming, writing, and “stealing” the neighbors rug to put in front of our door until they took it back.
I think some of my best experiences were as a Community Assistant (what others may know better as an RA). I met some of the best people working that job and apart from being paid I got to create programs for people which leads into library programming too. I think my favorite programs were the writing contest I started that continued for a couple years after I left, and games of Human Clue and Human Candyland I helped plan with many other Community Assistants across campus (brainchild of my friend Cassie) which brought together CAs, residents, our Assistant Directors, Director, and Professors.

You started writing when? What got you started?
I don’t really know what got me started. I always had an active imagination, pretending I was part of my favorite shows or books, at some point I just started writing my thoughts down. I started writing poems, which led to writing a christmas poem for my family every year which I still do even though I started hating writing poetry. I then began writing short stories and starts to novels that never really got finished but was very encouraged by one of my English teachers, Mrs. Hatfield.

You majored in creative writing, did you have any professors who were memorable? Why?

The most memorable professor for me was Elizabeth Cooke. She was the professor for my first creative writing class and was my greatest support and help getting accepted to the creative writing program. Afterwards she became my academic adviser. She was always kind but constructive with her criticism and loved reading all the stories she read and was always making us think about why we wrote something a certain way. She could help turn a three page draft written in sleep deprived delirium into a great ten page story.

What got you interested in library science?
Well, I have been going to libraries since before I could read. I volunteered at my local public library in high school, and worked as a library aide in the high school library. Interesting it didn’t occur to me that I was heading towards being a librarian until I did my apprenticeship for the creative writing program at the same library I volunteered at in high school. Myra threw everything at me to see if I would crack and I just got more interested in being a librarian.

How was the Syracuse program?

The Syracuse program was great. The program focuses a lot on theory about planning, marketing and assessment but there is lots of opportunity to get hands on library experience and learning. There is a lot of room to design your own program and direction with electives once you get through the required classes. There is a strong emphasis on community and the library being the center of that community. There is also a lot of emphasis on technology and the advancement of technology in and through libraries. There are some professors that were proponents of going fully technological (libraries with no physical materials, just digital with computers and tablets to serve the patrons) but I am a proponent of middle ground. Always good to improve technology and there might become fewer books and other physical materials but there will always be a balance of digital and analog or else you aren’t really serving your community. I think the best part of the program is a lot of the courses require you to talk face to face with librarians and immerse ourselves in the profession while still learning, including with the required internship. I learned a lot with my internship with the Syracuse branches of  the Onondaga Public Library System and was exposed to a lot of diversity that my education was previously lacking.

Treat Memorial Library in Livermore Falls where Nick worked before taking the job in Hartland

Treat Memorial Library in Livermore Falls where Nick worked before taking the job in Hartland

You started a creative writing group got young adults, tell us about that.
I always was interested in starting a writing group in a library, but obviously not if there wasn’t an interest or a need. There was also a lack of programming for teens at the library, so in the interest of improving teen services I sent out a teen survey to the local middle school and high school. When the surveys came back there was some interest in a teen writing group. It took awhile to get the advertisement out but after enlisting the help of family members in the schools we got some interest. We have six regulars, most are interested in writing fiction but there are some that want to write nonfiction or are at least interested in it. Most of the meetings have been writing prompts that I think of beforehand. I try to get a good range that allows them to write whatever kind of writing they want to, sometimes with a loose “theme.” The intent was to get them sharing their work and workshopping their pieces to improve their writing.

What/who are your influences as a writer?

I think my major influences are Terry Pratchett (mostly his humor and his version of Death), and Margaret Weis of Dragonlance fame (I share my birthday with her too so that is cool). My poetry was very influenced by Emily Dickinson. I think most of my realistic fiction has been heavily influenced by my observations of the people around me, and the aforementioned Elizabeth Cooke. Probably a bit of J.K. Rowling thrown in there as well.

You’re about to take on responsibility for a small, but active public library. Why did you apply and what are you looking forward to the most?

I grew up in rural Maine so I have always had a love for small, local libraries. The big libraries are fun too but leave a lot of corners to hide in and you don’t get to experience everything, sometimes not even getting to work hand-in-hand with the community. In libraries like Hartland Public Library you get to immerse yourself in everything and you get to meet everyone in the community and get to offer your help in helping them find what they need and want.

Where do you see yourself in ten years as a librarian, as a writer?

I don’t know where I see myself in ten years with either, I’m really open to anything as long as I am part of this world of libraries and writing. Hopefully I will have been published and hopefully I am still learning from my experiences as a librarian and from the patrons I am serving. Probably sounds a bit lame.

What’s the most memorable experience you’ve ever had?

Well, its not really one moment, more of an annual moment. Every year after Thanksgiving my brother, a couple of my cousins, myself and now my sister-in-law get together for a weekend of tabletop role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, and other tabletop games. We play late into the night and wake up early and eat things that are generally bad for us. Its a weekend of inside jokes, gaming and fun. We have more weekends like that but after Thanksgiving has always been constant (though sometimes with absences if someone has other things to do).

What place do you want to visit the most?

I think it would be fun to travel anywhere but being honest I think the place I most want to visit right now is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As I said, complete nerd. I am a huge Harry Potter fan and would love to see it if only just once.

 

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Never Too Many Books

four from MaineDorothy Cannell: Had a wonderful time at Malice meeting up with writer and reader friends. Also spending blissful time in the bookroom splurging on new and out of print titles. Afterwards my husband Julian and I drove Margaret Maron and her husband Joe back to Raleigh and spent a few days with them. Again more purchases there at a fabulous (huge) used book store. Great selection of mysteries from decades past, which I enjoy but also find helpful in writing my current series set in the nineteen-thirties. It being important to me to get the language right – not inserting words or phrases inapproriate to era.

I do appreciate being able to order desired books from Amazon, but there is always the delight of the treasure hunt in searching through shelves and spotting a favorite author. One who may not be much read these days but whose work, in my opinion, still holds up today. We have a great ‘Second Time Around’ store on Route 1 in Belfast. The owner is wonderfully knowledgeable about out-of-prints. She put me on to Leslie Ford, Helen Reilly, and Rae Foley. We once had a passionate discussion on Patricia Wentworth, our enthusiasm for her Miss Silver, and the pity that these mysteries do not seem to have received their deserved acclaim.

My own meanderings introduced me to Sara Woods whose protagonist Antony Maitland is a London barrister who goes above and beyond for his clients. Another find was Anthony Gilbert (pseudonym for female author) also featuring a barrister, but of the less polished short. Particular favorite is E.X. Ferrars who wrote many stand-alones, several featuring retired botany Professor Andrew Basnett.

At Malice I had a happy chat with Jim Huang, who in addition to doing some reprints of authors (including Pat Carlson), has edited or otherwise worked on a number of resource books for mystery enthusiasts under the imprint The Crum Creek Press, which I find invaluable in my searches for appealing authors past and present. These include: They Died In Vain. Overlooked, and Underappreciated and Forgotten Mystery Novels. I find these useful not only for the info, but also in being able to check off which books I have read so as to avoid repeat purchases. Needless to say I have been blissfully binge reading these past couple of weeks. Wishing you the same!

Dorothy

P.S. On a braggy note I received gratifying reviews on Death at Dovecote Hatch from Booklist, Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.

 

 

 

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I Came in from the old Cold (War)

Gayle at BEA - largeGayle Lynds  When I was young, there were times when I surprised myself by doing something smart. In fact, it was because of one of those wonderful aberrations that I was inspired to write international espionage novels. It all started when I was hired by a private think tank that did studies for the U.S. military as well as other organizations. The job was as a lowly copy editor, the first rung on what I hoped would lead to God-knew-what. I had just graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in journalism. My problem was, the only college classes I found riveting were in fiction writing, at the Iowa Writers Workshop

But novelists didn’t earn livings.

Novelists starved in garrets.

I’d heard they led rich sexual lives.

No, no – I needed to earn a living.

So with a brand-new wedding ring and my journalism creds, I went off to the California think tank with the goal of eventually writing abstracts and reports and of working with scientists who studied how to green deserts, create model villages down to portable generators, and – remember this was defense and intelligence work, too – kill enemies in large numbers.

But first I had to wait for an intense government background check – tracking down my high school algebra teacher was a pain, I heard later. Until then, I wore a badge with only my name – no security classification. I felt like a file folder with a blank tab. I needed my tab to be blue or orange or maybe red (even though it was still the Cold War, and red = Communist), with my name and clearance typed in boldface. With that, I could get access to a file drawer and some meaningful work.

As I waited, I was restricted to unclassified public information and certain areas in the building.   If I wanted to go into the print shop, I had to grab a fellow employee to tap his or her secret code onto the keypad that unlocked the door. Then the employee had to hang out, watching over me. If I needed to go upstairs to a lab, same routine. This of course was an irritant, because they had real jobs to do. Still, no one in that dozen-story building showed any interest in sharing his or her code to get rid of me, and I had enough common sense (it happened sometimes) not to ask.

Weeks later I was finally awarded Top Secret clearance. With it came much more interesting work that delved into problems around the world, but I also had more rules: If I left my office, even if it was for just three minutes to get a cup of coffee, I had to lock all my classified documents back in my safe. If I was working on a need-to-know project, I couldn’t mention it at the gabfests around the water cooler, even obliquely. On the wall in the Security Office hung a poster – I’m not kidding – from World War II: “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” In our case, it signified the Ship of Government Research. The poster was a source of amusement because it was so darn old – but at the same time it was a point of pride that we classified employees had a history of working quietly and often successfully behind the scenes for our nation. I was 21 years old and finally beginning to grow up.

I was lucky to have experienced all of this, because it ignited my fascination with geopolitics, history, culture, and clandestine agencies. (Did I mention the shadowy characters I’d occasionally meet?) When my first baby was born, I left the job (even though I’d been promoted from copy editor to full editor – wahoo!), but never the pride I had in my work and fellow employees.

These days the old Cold War is long behind us, while a new one periodically heats up. I’ve been publishing spy thrillers for some twenty years now. I credit my three years at the think tank for giving me the subject matter I needed to get me off the literary fence and into writing fiction. I still stay in touch with the covert world. In fact, a few years ago I had the honor of taking a group of fellow authors for a tour of Langley.

Security clearances play a key role in my new international spy thriller, The Assassins, due out June 30th. It’s no surprise, but then as former Defense secretary and CIA chief Robert Gates once said, “When a spy smells flowers, he looks around for a coffin.

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Gayle Lynds is the best-selling, award-winning author of ten international espionage novels, including The Book of Spies and The Last Spymaster. Library Journal calls her “the reigning queen of espionage fiction.” A member of the Association for Former Intelligence Officers, she is cofounder (with David Morrell) of International Thriller Writers. Visit her at www.GayleLynds.com

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