Stephen King’s Mystery Solved

When Stephen King was just two years old, his father went out for cigarettes and never returned.

“When people ask you why he left,” his mother would instruct, “say he’s in the Navy and that he’s at sea.” She’d follow up with, “That may not be a lie.”










               The mystery of just who Donald Edwin King was – and where he was from — has stymied the great fiction author his whole life.

That is, until the PBS show “Finding Your Roots” intervened and shed a little light.  King was one of the three guests on last night’s installment, an episode that featured others searching for their long-absent fathers.

Vicki Doudera here. In the event you missed it, let me tell you a little of what transpired.

The fist thing that “Finding Your Roots” discovered was that King’s father’s surname was not originally King.

No, until he was 23, Donald Edwin King’s last name was “Pollack.”

Although no one knows why the name was switched, this discovery helped the show’s genealogists trace back generations to King’s fourth great-grandfather, James Pollock, who, after the American Revolution, emigrated from Ireland to the U.S. This was clearly news to King.

Did Stephen ever suspect he had Irish roots? He said he’d always wondered if his belief in fairies, combined with a stellar ability to tell great stories, had something to do with the Emerald Isle.  When asked how he felt knowing about James Pollock and his lineage, King said that it felt like “a foundation under you.”

A separate branch of King’s family tree revealed another fact: a third great-grandfather, Enoch Bowden, was a Methodist church leader and judge who left Tennessee for the north because he was against slavery. King was visibly proud to discover his ancestor’s moral fortitude.

Many other secrets were revealed to our master of mystery. (His DNA, for example, shows that he is 99% European.) I watched the show thinking how writing a story is one way of solving a question, of finding an answer that just could be possible. Perhaps King was unconsciously trying to solve his own puzzle while writing some of his books.

What’s the mystery in your family history? And how does it influence your life? Are you still looking for the answer to a puzzle that’s stymied you?

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A Rose by Any Other Name

Al Lamanda here. When I was a kid in school in New York, in The Bronx, especially grades six through eight, every kid in my class had a really cool nickname except one. Me. My friends were called Ack-Ack, Muskie, Coop, Big C, Little C and (yeah, I never figured it out, either) Chicken Boy. Around the neighborhood, there was Yoo Hoo, (because he drank a lot of it) Knuckles, (not because he was tough, but because he constantly cracked them) Tulip, (because his last name was Flowers) Boo-Boo, (he really did look like Yogi’s sidekick) Mr. Magoo, (the guy was blind as a bat and refused to wear his glasses. You could play hide and seek with him and never even have to hide) Worms, (you don’t want to know why) Nose, (seriously, the honker on the kid was amazing) Snots, (enough said about that) Spokes, (he got his pants caught in his bike wheel on Gun Hill Road and caused a six-car pile-up) Hair Ball, (to this day I swear he coughed one up) and my personal favorite, my Uncle Sal (his real name was Sam and one time I asked him why he was called Sal. He said, “For short.”)

So that’s the way it was back in The Bronx, when I was a kid. A rough and tumble neighborhood full of rough and tumble kids with some very odd names that reflected some very odd times. As for my lack of a nickname, I was born a nice Italian kid and my parents hung Alphonso on me as a moniker. (go ahead, try to make something cool out of that, I dare you) Snots tried to hang Alpo on me and got a black eye for his trouble. (I would have hit him in the nose, but there was that snot thing to consider) I’m thankful that my youth was spent prior to Happy Days hitting the air because I would have entered high school as the Fonz, and that would have been very un-cool indeed.

So my life has been spent as Al, and cool nickname aside, it hasn’t been so bad. It’s easy to spell and I was usually picked first in schoolyard games. (that ABC thing) Then, a few years ago, nickname disaster struck. Let me back that up for a moment. I’ve written several screen plays and (to my amazement) actually sold a few of them. The producer who bought one of them flew me down to the Florida Keys to help scout locations. Mostly what I did was stand around and gorge myself on Key Line pie, sweat and drink iced-water. I think this is called being an associate producer. Anyway, while there, I came across this street sign.

And as much as I would have liked to think the Keys had rolled out the red carpet for me, they hadn’t. The Allamanda is a cute little flower that grows all over the place in the Keys and hence the street name. Anyway, when I left the Keys, where it was eighty-seven degrees and returned home to snow on the ground Maine, I forgot about the cute little flower that bore a resemblance to my name and got to shoveling.

Spring rolled around and I was invited to speak in my old hometown of New York City at the book event Day of Dialogue. I had just been nominated for the Edgar Award and things were going pretty well. The day of the event arrived and I flew into New York and so far so good. Until after the event when the host and I were chatting in a hallway. The host informed me that every time she tried to Google my name for some additional bio material she kept getting this cute little flower that seems to grow just about everywhere. So, I googled myself, something I never do and found that dozens of pages are dedicated to the cute little Allamanda plant. (yes, I’ll wait while you Google me and see for yourself) Still no big deal. So far.

After the event, I was invited to dinner with some people from the biggest publishers in the business, including those that took a chance on my Edgar nominee Sunset. During the chit-chat that took place during dinner, someone asked for my bio and someone else said to Google it.

Disaster. The Googling took place and after a while I was asked why Googling Al Lamanda brings up nothing but this cute little plant known as the buttercup. And there it was, the nickname I had lacked my entire life. Buttercup. By the time dinner was over and the laughter died down, (took way longer than it should have) I knew this one wasn’t going away easy.

So the kid from a tough Bronx neighborhood, a former US Marine and amateur boxer of forty fights with the mug and knuckles to prove it, writer of tough guy mysteries had a nickname at last. Buttercup. And yes, years later I do receive emails that begin with Dear Buttercup, or Hey BC, (like my Uncle Sal, BC for short) and I’ve even been asked to autograph a book or two with my less than desirable nom de plume.

Not exactly cool nickname material for the old gang back in The Bronx for sure. So if ever you find yourself in the company of a guy called Ack-Ack, Muskie, Knuckles or Snots, please keep this to yourself.

And remember to keep a safe distance of at least six feet from Snots for the obvious reasons.

Al Lamanda is the author of the Edgar Award nominated mystery novel Sunset. The sequel, Sunrise, was voted best crime fiction novel of 2013 by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. His latest work titled First Light was released in July 2014.


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Amazing Mazes

Kaitlyn Dunnett here, musing about mazes.I’ve always liked the idea of mazes. The reality? Not so much.

hamptoncourtmaze (300x169)On a visit to Hampton Court Palace, where one of the most famous mazes in the world is located, I totally chickened out before I’d gone a dozen steps inside. I’m not normally claustrophobic, but there was something about those high solid green walls that freaked me out. It wasn’t that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find my way to the exit. Not really. After all, there were lots of other people going through the maze and somewhere there was a way out. But the hedges were higher than I was tall. I couldn’t see over them without jumping up in the air and I couldn’t see very far ahead because of the twists and turns of the pattern. I did a rapid about face and got myself out of there while the getting was good!

large_cornmaze (300x225)That said, I happily used a maze in one of the non-mystery historical novels I wrote as Kate Emerson. No one got lost, although there was some hanky-panky going on at the center. I made mention of a corn maze in Vampires, Bones, and Treacle Scones although I didn’t end up using it in a scene. But then, when I started work on Ho-Ho-Homicide, set on a Christmas tree farm, it occurred to me that it might be possible to create a Christmas-tree maze. The problem, of course, was why would anyone do that? I admit it took me awhile to come up with a reason. And then I had to figure out how to use the maze in the plot. Sometimes this is called “writing yourself into a corner.” Fortunately, in the cozy mystery genre, especially the segment of it that accepts humor in mysteries, eccentric characters and the things they do are acceptable. Although I’m nowhere near as funny, I like to think of myself as writing in the tradition of Charlotte MacLeod, Joan Hess, and our own Dorothy Cannell.

Mazes still fascinate me, as long as I don’t actually have to set foot in one. When in England, quite possibly at Hampton Court, I purchased a booklet entitled Mazes: Ancient and Modern by Robert Field. It’s a wonderful, colorfully illustrated look at  hedge mazes, labyrinths, and designs in turf and stone—the latter are nice low mazes even I would walk through! There are also mazes in mosaic floors. One look at some of the patterns in various mazes is enough to reveal that there is a link between mazes and puzzles and thus, of course, to mysteries. I seem to recall maze puzzles in kids’ magazines when I was young, where you were supposed to use a pencil to find the way to the middle. Maybe that’s where I got the idea it was easy.

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Weekend Update: September 20-21, 2014

fallsbooks1Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Kaitlyn Dunnett (Monday), Al Lamanda (Tuesday), Vicki Doudera (Wednesday), Lea Wait (Thursday), and James Hayman (Friday).

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

and it looks as if everyone is busy writing. Have a great weekend everyone!

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:


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A Writer’s Police Academy? Seriously?

Kate Flora here. 
The weekend after Labor Day, I joined more than two hundred other writers in Screen Shot 2014-09-18 at 5.54.27 PM 1Greensboro, North Carolina, for an annual conference organized by the tireless and charming Lee Lofland, designed to teach crime writers how to write better cops and crime scenes. Or, as the WPA motto goes:

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With the help of the Guilford Technical Community College facilities, and an amazing faculty that included a police S.E.R.T. assistant commander, a tattooed Louisiana police chief, two retired ATF special agents, a secret service agent, a police officer who has served as a prostitute decoy, an expert on jail and corrections procedures, an explosives and hazardous materials specialist, a microbiologist, and many, many more, we had in-depth classes, demonstrations, lectures and simulations designed to help us write better scenes and more accurate characters.

Over the course of the next three days, we learned about police culture, did driving simulations, did IMG_1097simulated fire arms training (FATS), learned how to set up a prostitution sting, and heard a terrifying lecture on ebola and other biologicals and how they might be made or acquired and dispersed. We watched EMTs handle an accident scene, watched explosives experts blow a door, and saw how they would light a woodland crime scene at night.

On Thursday night, I had the good fortune to win the lottery that let me go on a ride-along with a Guilford County police officer. It was a very quiet night. I often say that if a city or town wants a quiet night on their streets, they ought to take me along in the car. I have a very calming effect on the criminal population. It might have been disappointing, except that any officer with seventeen years of experience has stories to tell. And so, around nine p.m. or so, when we passed a guy walking along a country road and turned around to go back and check him, and I asked why, I got to hear a truly amazing story.

What the officer had in his trunk.

What the officer had in his trunk.


The officer I was riding with told me the story of a night five years earlier when he’d passed another man walking the roadside at 4:00 a.m. and stopped to check him. The check came back that the man was wanted on federal warrants. When the officer got out again to detain him, the man pulled out a hidden gun and started firing and he ended up on the ground, trying to draw his weapon while the bad guy stood over him.

There was video in the car so the entire gun battle was recorded and he was able to pull it up on his computer so I could watch it. Then, as we drove the dark, quiet streets, he told me about the whole thing, about the aftermath, even about how he went about making the phone to call his wife to tell her he’d been shot at and had shot someone. It was moving, and powerful, and once again, left me so grateful for the generosity of police officers who are willing to talk to us crime writers so we can get it right.

One event I signed up for was building searches. I thought they’d just walk us through a building and IMG_1112tell us how they’d do it and tell us what they were looking for. No such thing. We had fake guns, we had teams, and we had an abandoned apartment complex to search for bad guys. And there WERE bad guys hiding inside. The question was whether we could shoot them before they shot us. It definitely made my adrenalin climb, especially when we’d searched the whole place and HAD NOT YET FOUND THE BAD GUY. But he was still in there somewhere.

For days after I got home, every sound in the house made me scurry around, looking under beds and in closets and wondering why I was doing it without backup.

I already do a lot of research for my books, and ask cops questions all the time about what their training would have them do in a particular situation. This gave me more experience, greater insights, and a team of experts to answer my questions down the line. Best of all, it let me imagine scenarios and deepened my appreciation for the cop’s life.

Special guests include some of my favorite writers: Michael Connelly, Lisa Gardner, and Alafair Burke.

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Like everyone who attended says, I can’t wait to go back again next year. Registration opens in January after an intense countdown, and it usually sells out in a day. But if you’re interested in an insider’s view of the many things cops do—through the incredible generosity of the WPA instructors, you can have it in just three crazy days.





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