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 http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00SF3OAUA. More information about my books is at www.susanvaughan.com.

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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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Weekend Update: February 21-22, 2015

fallsbooks1Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Barb Ross (Monday), Susan Vaughan (Tuesday), Kate Flora (Wednesday), Vaughn Hardacker (Thursday), and special guest Brenda Buchanan (Friday).

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

Columnist Maureen Milliken did a great article about Kate Flora’s true crime, Death Dealer, this week. Lots of interesting stuff about some of the Maine heroes of the book, and what surprises an author after a book is published. Here’s the link: http://www.centralmaine.com/2015/02/18/maine-search-crew-the-real-deal-in-death-dealer/

from Kathy Lynn Emerson: Finalists for the Agatha in the short story category (Art Taylor, Barb Goffman, Edith Maxwell and Kathy Lynn Emerson—that would be me) have decided to do a little group publicity. The first installment appeared yesterday in Art Taylor’s blog at Criminal Minds. Next up will be Edith Maxwell’s March 6th post at Wicked Cozy Authors. I’ll remind you of that closer to the date. Then we’ll all be here at Maine Crime Writers when it’s my turn to blog in April. If you want to read our nominated stories, go to Malice Domestic and click on the “awards” link at the top of the page.

Maine Crime Wave

maine crime wave 2 A whole bunch of current Maine Crime Writers, alumni, guest bloggers and Friends of the Blog, are going to be teaching, paneling and hanging out at the Maine Crime Wave, sponsored by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. The date is April 11. Registration is here. We’d love to see you! And there are some fun things in the works for Friday night as well. We’ll update you when the details are final.

Here’s the schedule for the day.

8:00 AM – 8:45 AM–Meet and Greet

8:45 AM – 9:45 AM

Real Writers on the Realities of Research

Panelists: Paul Doiron, Gayle Lynds, Lea Wait   Moderator: Gerry Boyle

10:00 AM – 11:00 AM–Workshop Session I

Tips for Writing Successful Traditional Mysteries
Kathy Lynn Emerson

A Phased Approach
Barbara Ross

11:30 AM – 12:30 PM–Workshop Session II

Creating Unforgettable Characters for Your Crime Novel
Jim Hayman

How to Play Fair with Your Mystery and Still Ratchet Up the Suspense
Chris Holm

12:30 PM – 2:00 PM–Lunch

2:00 PM – 3:00 PM

Creating and Sustaining A Series

Panelists: Kathy Lynn Emerson, Sarah Graves, Al Lamanda
Moderator: Brenda Buchanan

3:15 PM – 4:15 PM

The Other Aspects of a Writer’s Career

Panelists: Chris Holm, Lukas Ortiz, Katherine Osborne, Barbara Ross
Moderator: Kate Flora

Throughout the Day

Book Sales by Kelly’s Books to Go, Book signings, Manuscript critiques

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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