Mystery writers: truly a community, and the best kind

OK, Maine Crime Writers fans, the mystery of the missing blog post has been solved. Because here it is. Sorry it’s a little late today. OK, a lot late.

But you know what I DID do today? I signed up for the New England Crime Bake. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s held in Dedham, Massachusetts, every year on Veterans Day weekend. A conference for mystery writers and fans. And it’s awesome.

I’m probably repeating myself, because I know I’ve blogged about Crime Bake before, but everything about it bears repeating.

I went to my first one in 2008, desperate to find a way to get going on the mystery novel I’d planned on writing my entire life. I’ve gone every year since, and when I hit it this year, I’ll have two published mystery novels under my belt. I owe a lot of that to Crime Bake.

Not only was listening to the writers, publishers, editors — everyone at the conference — motivating, but it was also a huge learning experience for someone who knew next to nothing about getting a mystery novel published. Or, obviously, even getting one written.

Just as important, I made friends there that have been the foundation of my mystery writing career. At my first one, I met June Lemen and Lisa Haselton, two other New Hampshire writers, and we formed a writing group. That got me writing Cold Hard News, my first Bernie O’Dea mystery.

That's me, second row, in pink, with the other 2015 debut novelists at last year's Crime Bake. Brenda Buchanan is two to my left, in the red sweater.

That’s me, second row second from left, in pink, with the other 2015 debut novelists at last year’s Crime Bake. Brenda Buchanan is two to my left, in the red sweater.

Over subsequent years I met fellow Maine Crime Writers blogger Brenda Buchanan, who, it turns out, was the reporter who always beat me when she was with the York County Coast Star and I was with the Biddeford Journal-Tribune in the early 1980s.

There are a lot of other people, too. Some of them I just see once a year (and on Facebook, of course), but it always feels like it was just yesterday.

I’ll tell you something about the newspaper business you may never guess otherwise: it’s not the most nurturing, supportive environment. It’s stressful, the stakes are high, our mistakes are out there for the world to see. People don’t send us flowers (OK, it  happened to me once, but the guy was kind of a stalker), and rarely call or email to tell us they love us or what we do. They do call, but not to tell us that.

Doin' journalism.

Doin’ journalism.

Even the hardest, most satisfying work is there for a flash, a day or two, then gone. I’m not bashing it. I’ve been doing daily journalism for thirty-three years and I love it. It’s a vocation to me, not just a career, and I can’t imagine doing anything else (or imagine anyone else who would have me).

The only other thing I could imagine doing is being a full-time mystery writer. And one of the things that would make that so awesome, aside from all the other obvious things, is the mystery writing community. I was welcomed when I was struggling to write a novel, I was welcomed as I was writing it, and I was welcomed after I was published. I’ve never, ever heard a harsh word from a fellow mystery writer, never felt like what I was doing wasn’t worthwhile or I wasn’t a member of the club. The encouragement and support is phenomenal.

Aside from the really good advice, support and encouragement from my former writing group and Brenda, and countless other friends in the mystery writing community, here’s stuff that wouldn’t have happened to me without Crime Bake:

When Cold Hard News was “finished,” but I still didn’t have a publisher, I signed up for a manuscript critique at the 2014 Crime Bake. I don’t get easily discouraged, but I’d been pitching and revising for four and a half years and if I weren’t a stubborn blockhead, may have given up. Hank Phillippi Ryan was my critiquer (I don’t want to say critic). She went through my first chapter with me in such a thorough and insightful way that Friday night that I spent the next afternoon rewriting it. When I told her Saturday night that I was inspired and reworking it, she encouraged me to email it to her when I was done. Right, I thought. She’s a nice person, but very busy and I doubt she has time for my cruddy manuscript. Sunday, after I got home from Crime Bake, I sent the reworked chapter to her anyway. She responded a couple hours later with an ecstatic email telling me what a great job I’d done, including an all-caps WOW and an admission that it made her teary-eyed.

Two months later, after I decided to skip trying the whole agent thing and directly query publishers who accepted submissions from authors, my now-publisher liked my manuscript. Maybe it would have  happened anyway, but if they can’t get through the first chapter, they won’t read the rest. I have Hank to thank for that.

Gerry Boyle reads from Once Burned at a dual book signing in Waterville, Maine, last June.

Gerry Boyle reads from Once Burned at a dual book signing in Waterville, Maine, last June.

After Cold Hard News came out, Ellen Richmond, a bookseller in Waterville, Maine, agreed to a signing with me and fellow Maine Crime Writer Gerry Boyle. Now you have to understand how Gerry is regarded in Maine. I work for the same newspaper he once did, and when people found out I was writing a mystery novel, they’d say “Like Gerry Boyle?” or “Have you heard of Gerry Boyle?” or “Now Gerry Boyle, there’s a mystery writer.” I don’t disagree. In fact, when I read his first book, Deadline, in the early 1990s, it was the first mystery I ever read that I felt got journalism right. He got Maine right, too. And I said, “See? I want to do what that guy does.” So yeah, I knew who Gerry Boyle was.

At a Crime Bake before Cold Hard News was published, I approached Gerry after he did a master class on writing character. I was kind of shy, thinking the big-shot writer would brush me off, but I wanted to introduce myself now that I was back in Maine and worked where he used to. Not only didn’t he brush me off, he was friendly and gracious enough that it led to a friendship.

No News is Bad News, the second in the Bernie O'Dea mystery series, coming out in July. Thanks, Crime Bake!

No News is Bad News, the second in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series, coming out in July. Thanks, Crime Bake!

That said, I was still nervous about a dual book signing last June. Here I was with my one book, shaky as hell that no one would like it, and Gerry was promoting Once Burned, his zillionth or gazillionth I think (the gazillionth-and-one just came out this week: Straw Man). Lots of people came to the signing, most of them to see Gerry. But here’s what Gerry did: he talked up my book. He didn’t have to, but he did. More than his own, or at least that’s how it felt. And people bought it.

Both of those experiences were huge lessons to me well worth the price of the Crime Bake admission. What they brought me in terms of “success” aren’t even the most  important things about them.

Writing a mystery? Or even a non-mystery? Consider going to Crime Bake this year. You won’t regret it.

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Cold Hard News was published in June 2015, and No News is Bad News is due out in July. She is City Editor of the Morning Sentinel newspaper in Waterville, Maine. Follow her on Twitter @mmilliken47, on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries and sign up for email updates on her website, maureenmilliken.com.

 

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Into the Flow

Bruce Robert CoffinLast October I had the great pleasure of taking part in the first annual Murder by the Book, a two day event held at Bar Harbor’s historic Jesup Memorial Library. Is there anything more inspiring than autumn on the coast of Maine? As a rookie, among a dozen accomplished and award-winning Maine novelists, I was thrilled to have been included. On Friday evening, a handful of writers read aloud from unpublished works, gifting those in attendance a rare treat, a sneak peek at upcoming novels.

During one of the Saturday panels, Gerry Boyle and Julia Spencer-Fleming briefly discussed “the flow” that occasionally happens while writing. Being in the zone. Storytelling autopilot. Those times our stories take unexpected turns as they are being written. When characters begin to speak and act for themselves as the writer struggles to keep up. I used to believe this writerly flow was something that famous writers said to sound hip, that is, until it began happening to me. Any writer will tell you, those days are the absolute best, rare though they may be. If we could figure out a way to bottle that flow, manuscripts for entire novels would be completed in mere weeks. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. It happens when it happens, often departing as quickly as it came. Writing a novel is hard work, believe me. Endless hours sitting in a chair, staring at a monitor, trying to untangle thoughts into something comprehensible and entertaining. But still, there are those glorious times when it almost seems to write itself.

As the author panel continued, I began to mentally wonder off, though no fault of Julia or Gerry, pondering this anomaly. I wondered, where does this flow come from? Is it a vehicle by which some magical muse inserts ideas into our heads? Sitting upon our shoulders and whispering suggestions. Or leading our fingers to the correct letters on the keyboard, rendering it into some kind of electronic Ouija board. And why doesn’t it happen to everyone? Why aren’t we all accomplished raconteurs? After all, everyone has a story to tell. Our entire lives are comprised of them. Those things that happen as we traverse the long and bumpy road of life. But if that’s all it takes, if we really are all bursting with stories ready to be told, where is release button to make them flow? Does the muse only appear to some folks and not others? Or could it be something else entirely?

I think it’s far more likely that we writers, who spend an inordinate amount of time inside our own heads, have simply exercised and developed the imagination muscle more than most. We’ve spent so much time poking holes in that thin membrane of the creative mind, the mental fabric restraining our best thoughts, that the stories just flow freely from our mind to the page.

Other writers may disagree. Each of us probably have our own thoughts on the source of this creative wellspring. But whatever the cause, I am sure of one thing. We’d all be eternally grateful if it happened more often.

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Price Drop

Jessie: In New Hampshire, eagerly awaiting school to let out allowing her return to the coast of Maine.

As a thrifty New Englander I keep a weather eye on prices at the grocer. I have a bunch of kids and have spent a lot of years keeping them fed on a budget that would do my Mainer grandmothers proud. One easy and nutrious trick up my mitten has always been a reliance on recipes featuring eggs. No one looks at a spinach souffle and thinks you’ve offered them a cheap dinner. They are more inclined to ohh and ahh over the delightful smell and the cloud-like texture.

But in the last few months, those staples of my refrigerator have been much more expensive. Those of you who don’t do the shopping in your household may not be aware that the price of eggs has spent time in the scandalous range. At my local grocer a dozen of them reached the high price of $3.00. It was like a sign of the end times!

But this week, when I conducted the shopping, it was with a light heart I noticed a sale sign hanging over the egg display. In celebration of the price returning to 89 cents per dozen I thought I would share one of my favorite egg-based recipes. It is dairy free, gluten freen and delicious. It’s easy to make and perfect for warm weather. I use the leftover egg whites to make meringues.

Pineapple Nutmeg Flan

3 cups pineapple juice

1 cup brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

18 large egg yolks 

In a saucepan bring pineapple juice adn 1/4 cup of brown sugar to a boil, stirring constantly, until the sugar dissolves. Lower heat to medium and simmer until reduced to about 2 cups. Stir occassionally. This will take about half and hour. Cool to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 350F.

In a clean saucepan combine 3/4 brown sugar and 3 tablespoons of water. Stir over low heat until the sugar dissolves. Raise heat to high and cook, without stirring, until the sauce reaches a deep caramel color, approximately 10 minutes. You may swirl the pan gently if it looks like it is darkening more in one spot than another.  Remove from heat immediately and pour sauce into the botoom of a large pie dish, tilting to cover the surface.

Set pie dish in a larger, oven proof pan like the bottom of a broiler pan.

In a large bowl beat egg yolks until smooth,. Add cooled pineapple juice mixture and nutmeg. Whisk together thoroughly. Pour into pie dish. Place pie dish/ larger pan ensemble on a rack in center of the oven. Add hot water to the larger pan until it reaches halfway up the outside of the pie dish. Bake for approximately 1- 1 1/2 hours or until center jiggles but doesn’t slosh as though still liquid. Cool completely.

Run a knife around the outside edge of the flan and invert onto a serving plate. Allow sauce to spill over the edges and decorate with freshly grated lime zest if desired.

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Weekend Update: May 14-15, 2016

fallsbooks1Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Jessie Crockett (Monday), Bruce Coffin (Tuesday), Maureen Milliken (Wednesday), Lea Wait (Thursday), and Dick Cass (Friday).

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

Screen Shot 2016-04-03 at 3.17.27 PMFrom Kate Flora: We’re running another giveaway for the month of May, the winner to be chosen from those who comment on May posts here at Maine Crime Writers. The prize is a Poe tote bag containing books by some of our regular bloggers. All you have to do to enter is post a comment on any blog appearing in May. The April prize, a Nancy Drew tote bag with goodies and books, was won by “Gram.” Runner up was “Skye,” who won a jar of Stonewall Kitchen blueberry jam.

 

In other news, bestselling mystery writer Nevada Barr has set her newest Anna Pigeon novel, Boar Island, in Acadia National Park. Want to meet her? She will be making two appearances at Maine libraries. On Monday, May 23 at 6:30 PM she will be at Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor and on Tuesday, May 24 at 6:30 PM she will be the guest of Gray Public Library in Gray, Maine. The Gray event will be held at the Spring Meadow Golf Club. Tickets are free, but must be acquired in advance. For more information, call 657-4110.

Vaughn C. Hardacker’s novel, THE FISHERMAN, was selected as a finalist in the Crime Fiction Category of the 2016 Maine Literary Awards by the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. The winners will be announced at the SPACE Gallery in Portland on May 26, 2016.

Maureen Milliken is traveling south of the border to participate in the Local Authors Local Author Fairat Nevins Library(1)Fair at the Nevins Library in Methuen, Mass. The event is from 1-3 p.m. and there are a lot of cool authors to meet and get books signed by.

While Maureen isn’t a “local author” currently, she spent some of her formative newspaper reporter years in nearby Haverhill, where she worked at the Haverhill Gazette.

Please stop by and say hi to Maureen and the other authors!

 

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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It’s Friday the 13th, and We’re Asking: What Scares You?

Maine Crime Writers here, celebrating Friday the 13th by sharing stories of the books, movies, and real life events that have scared us. It may not always be true, but one of the benefits of being a crime writer is that anything can be grist for the mill. It lets us turn life’s big scares into emotions we can tap for the page. So here, without further ado, our stories:

Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 11.30.10 AMKate Flora: Back when I was a kid, and going to the movies was a rare thing that involved driving all the way to Rockland, my brother got the bee in his bonnet that we should all go to see a movie called The House on Haunted Hill. Somehow, I was convinced that it would be funny. To find the money for tickets, we scoured old purses, went through coat pockets and even vacuumed registers to find lost coins. Then, money in hand, we went to the movies. It was NOT a funny movie. It was a terrifying movie. One of those Ten Little Indians sorts of films where everyone got killed off. I had nightmares for years and having entirely forgiven my brother John for suggesting it.

From Wikipedia: House on Haunted Hill is a 1959 American horror film. It was directed by William Castle, written by Robb White and stars Vincent Price as eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren. He and his fourth wife, Annabelle, have invited five people to the house for a “haunted house” party. Whoever stays in the house for one night will earn $10,000. As the night progresses, all the guests are trapped inside the house with ghosts, murderers, and other terrors.

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson: The scariest movie from my childhood? The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad! I spent weeks looking over my shoulder, expecting to find the Cyclops behind me. They used pretty hokey special effects by today’s standards, but back then? Terrifying!

Maureen Milliken: When I was a preteen, my brother, sister and I took turns reading The Mystery of the Crimson Ghost by Phyllis A. Whitney to each other (was that weird, that we used sit around reading to each other? I don’t know). I don’t remember much about the book, except that there was a giant ghost dog that glowed crimson and it scared the hell out of me. I know there was a logical explanation for it at the end, but that image is the one thing I can remember — the unknown, unexplained and terrifying.

pogoBy the way, here’s a thought about Friday the 13th and writing: I don’t think one month has gone by since those young years that on the 13th of the month I haven’t thought of Pogo, my all-time favorite comic strip. On the 13th of the month, if it wasn’t a Friday, one of us kids would say “Friday the 13th comes on a (whatever the day is) this month.” I’m not superstitious at all, but that resonates with me, the idea that a small, innocuous thing can trigger such big feelings in people. It also always makes me think of  the other great line from Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” As a writer, I’m constantly absorbing impressions — seriously, I didn’t pick this, it picked me — and the things that trigger feelings in people, whether it’s Friday the 13th, Pogo,  a crimson dog ghost tend to form the bigger ideas that end up being the foundation of books.

I’ve realized that all the “big” things in my books — tone, voice, character — all come from these little snapshots in my head, many of which I’ve had for decades. Sorry if that’s all new-agey and navel-gazey, but I’ve got the third book forming (with number four elbowing in) and the process is all-consuming. In fact, it reminds me of another quote from Pogo: “We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities.”

Bruce Robert Coffin: When I was twelve-years-old I read my first Stephen King novel, Salem’s Lot. Having been a fan of the supernatural genre, this was not my first foray into the world of literary macabre. It was however my first “adult” horror novel, as my prior reading was mainly limited to what readers of today might call young adult (YA) novels. I still remember the scary Bookland television commercial for the King novel, which usually ran just after dinner each night.

The story about a writer who revisits his boyhood home of Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine is filled with creepy characters, a haunted house, and vanishing townsfolk. If you like horror stories, this book is a must read. But be forewarned, lock all of your doors…

Chris Holm: Hmm. What to talk about? My first brush with grown-up horror? (Like Bruce’s, it was a Stephen King novel.) My all-time favorite horror movie? (John Carpenter’s The Thing, which may be my favorite movie period.) The time, when I was little, that I woke up to find myself covered in insects? (Yup, that actually happened. It inspired a lifelong phobia and a creepy scene in The Wrong Goodbye.)

Nah. Instead, I’ll highlight something new that scared the heck out of me: the indie horror movie Hush. It’s a gorgeously acted and directed movie about a deaf woman (and thriller writer!) who winds up terrorized by a would-be home invader. (Spoiler: she proves more resourceful than he bargained for.) Made on a shoestring by a husband and wife team (they co-wrote; she stars; he directs), it’s smart, scary, and satisfying from start to finish. It’s also streaming now on Netflix.

Brenda Buchanan:  I read Helter Skelter the first winter I lived in Maine. I was living in a cottage that creaked and groaned when the wind howled across the adjacent marsh. I started Vincent Bugliosi’s account of the investigation and trial of Charles Manson and his gang on the Friday of a long weekend when my housemate had gone off to Boston. Once I started reading I could not stop, even though it meant I slept with every light in the house blazing all three nights.  I’m not one bit ashamed to admit it, either.

Jessie Crockett: When I was about 10 I read And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. I had started it in the afternoon and couldn’t put it down. After I was supposed to be in bed that night I read it under the covers. Between the setting, the creepy use of a nusery rhyme and worrying about being caught for staying up past bedtime I was terrified. But I couldn’t stop reading. I guess that is why Christie is still a bestseller!

Barb Ross: When I was five or so, we had an older woman who babysat for us. A night owl even then, I’d go to bed and stay awake as long as I could, then wander back to the living room rubbing my eyes and whining, “I can’t sleep.” Once when I did that she was watching an episode of Perry Mason. It was about a little girl who comes to Perry’s office and says, “I want you to find out who I am.” Of course, he takes the case. She gets dolls at regular intervals from Switzerland, so Perry goes there to investigate. At the halfway point, a doll arrives at Perry’s hotel room with it’s neck broken clean in half and a note that says, “This can happen to little girls, too.” And then the stupid woman sent me to bed!! I never saw the resolution. I was terrified by this for years.

John Clark: Seriously deer ticks freak me out as much as anything fictional. When you’re hunting and realize that little devils are crawling over you in droves, it’s beyond uncomfortable. This happened five years ago on the family farm in Union. I ended up stripping down to my underwear (not the smartest thing to do in deer season) and by the time I was done, I’d picked off and killed 34 deer ticks. I haven’t hunted since and just the memory makes me shudder. Imagine what life might be like if a burst of cosmic rays mutated a few into something the size of a coyote.

Readers, what scares you?

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