The Tale of the Naturalist’s Log

There are books we love because they move us, maybe even change the way we live our life.

Vicki Doudera here. Don’t worry —  I’m not going to talk about The Goldfinch again. (But that post’s available here if you didn’t get to read it the first time…)

Other books scare the Holy Hannahs out of us, and for lots of reasons we crime writers love to discuss, we enjoy these books as well. For me, that super-scare of a book was The ShiningStephen King So vividly do I recall turning those pages, curled up on our living room couch, shaking in my proverbial boots. (Jaws was another one. Can we ever forget inhaling those novels?)

And then there are the books that are special only to us.  For some, it’s a treasured family Bible, with names and dates penciled carefully in. Or a tattered paperback that saw its reader through a difficult period. Or a rip-roaring adventure that mirrored a time in the past when we, too, were on a rollercoaster of a ride.

Perhaps most important are the books we make ourselves, full of our own unique stories.  I’m not talking about books we write and publish (although those are pretty darn important to their authors, trust me!) but tomes of a more personal nature. Scrapbooks of Christmases going back to our days as a newlywed. Journals of trips taken, discoveries made. Diaries from tortuous times in middle school.  Yes, I possess all of these things, including saucy accounts of a college year in Paris, but for me, one of the most treasured books in my collection is The Pitcher Pond Naturalist’s Log, a journal that had its beginnings back in 1998.


IMG_20140723_105134_553 IMG_20140723_105055_459I can’t talk about the Log (photo to right) without mentioning my son Matt, whose 26th birthday is today. Not only is he the creator of the book itself, but, it turns out, he was responsible (albeit unintentionally) for its long disappearance.

But let me start in the beginning, back in the summer of ‘98, when my husband and I sold our 11-room Inn in Camden, packed up our possessions, and moved to a camp (if you’re from Maine you know what I mean – for the rest of you, a camp is a small lakeside cottage) that we’d fortuitously purchased only months before.

The camp was – and still is – in Lincolnville, on a narrow, glacier-formed body of water called Pitcher Pond. Ten years before bidding on the place, we’d rented it, and Matt had been all of 2 months old. When the camp went on the market in the spring of ‘98 we put in an offer to purchase it, never dreaming that our bid would be accepted, much less that our business (and home) would sell three months later.

By then our family had grown to include Nate, 8 years old; Lexi, who was four; chocolate Lab Daisy, and cats Tom and Jerry. It was a crazy,  whirlwind of a time in our family’s saga. We had two weeks to pack up our personal items at the Inn and get the heck out, all the while flipping flapjacks for guests, taking reservations, and presenting to all of our paying customers a relaxed, serene demeanor, even if we felt far from it.

When we finally found ourselves ex-Innkeepers and new residents of Pitcher Pond, we took about a week to unwind from all the stress. Turns out a little lakeside cottage hailing from the 1950’s was the perfect place to do just that.

It was mid-July, and with all of the fishing, swimming, biking, and BB gun shooting, I’m not sure why this eldest son of mine made the book in the first place.IMG_20140723_180350_062 (1)



Probably because, even at age ten, he was the kind of person who liked to craft things with his hands. Chances are he spotted the fabric first, then found some cardboard, grabbed the stapler, paper and scissors, and next thing he knew, he’d made a little book.

I think it was all the wildlife we were witnessing that made me think of starting a Naturalist’s Log. The earliest entries are veritable laundry lists of sightings: porcupines, raccoons, red-tailed hawks, bear scat, paper wasps, and fish ranging from perch to pike.  The very first entry? Mother catfish and approx. 100 one inch babies by shore of beach. Believe it or not, I can still recall seeing that incredible sight, marveling with the kids how each one of the babies was a tiny version of the slowly swimming, protective mom.  It was something I will most likely never see again.IMG_20140723_180339_734

Before long, the boys were scribbling in their own discoveries. Caught a one foot bass on dock during cookout, wrote Matt in July of 2000. Wanted to eat it but Mom said no.  Nate spotted “two grouse and one baby while picking blueberries” in July of 2002. Lexi, still a little young to journal, proved to be an adept finder of unusual creatures, spying tree frogs, salamander eggs, and winged creatures of all types, some of which (if they were dead) we pasted in the journal.

And then, in 2003, the unthinkable happened:  the Log disappeared.

That summer, it simply vanished from its customary perch on a shelf in the camp’s living room, and despite searches of both the cottage and our Camden home, the journal did not turn up.

For five long years it remained missing. And all that time it bugged me. For five summers, I asked myself where the hell the book could be. I looked high and low, in every conceivable spot, and still, the little journal refused to be found.

And then, in 2008, I moved a dresser from the boys’ bunkhouse into my camp bedroom. The lowest drawer was stuck shut, and when I finally pried it open, inside lay the Log. The last entry, written in June of 2003, was one dramatic line, scrawled in Matt’s distinctive handwriting.

Today I saw a bald eagle and it flew right over my head.

At last our Log was back, and we wasted no time once more recording discoveries. A meteor shower that lit up the lake. A mother duck and eight tiny ducklings. A spotting of seven loons swimming in a black-and-white pack. Hummingbirds, chipmunks, Lady slippers, Canada geese – the list goes on and on.

Including the notations I made yesterday as I sat on the camp’s screened-in porch. Saw a giant snapping turtle with a shell 18 inches across, a dead bat, and a kingfisher.

Why do we like to record events in our life?  For me, the Log is a way of remembering just how multi-layered a natural environment can be, how much diversity can co-exist on a three-mile-long pond in the Maine woods. It’s an account of funny family stories (like the time Nate wrote about a loon swimming under his legs, which years later he admitted was fictitious.) It’s a measure of the months and years, stacking up like firewood, a way to make sure we remember that the times gone by have been rich indeed.

As our Maine summer rolls on, I hope you’re enjoying both words and wildlife.  My thoughts today are on Matt, off captaining a yacht in St. Thomas, where he’s spotting everything from sharks to sea turtles.  Happy Birthday, Matt, and thank you for creating a very special book.

And to the rest of you, enjoy this beautiful day.

Nate, Lexi and the Birthday Boy home for a visit in June.
Nate, Lexi and the Birthday Boy home for a visit in June.
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You’d Think It Would Get Easier

Earlier this year I posted two blogs on the stages of writing a novel. “The Hardest Part” dealt with finding the right place to begin. “A Cure for the Middle-of-the-Book Blahs” was about some of the problems that crop up in mid-book. Now it’s time to talk about endings, or to be more exact, the last third or so of a work in progress.

npg - CopyYou’d think, having developed characters and written about them for fifty or sixty thousand words already, and having worked up a plot of some sort, that the push to the finish would be a piece of cake. By this point even pantsters like me have some idea where the story is going. While that’s true, there are also a lot of choices still to be made, plus a couple of pitfalls that aren’t always easy to avoid.

For one thing, there’s the exhaustion factor. I’ve been working on this mystery novel day after day, week after week for months. I really really want to get to the point where I can type “the end.” The scenes I’m writing right now are short on details and heavy on dialogue. They gallop along, hitting the plot points I need to include, and don’t have much depth to them, but at least I’m moving forward. This strong desire to finish will probably lead me to write a rushed climax and denouement that doesn’t do justice to what came before. I tend to be a bit too abrupt in wrapping things up, at least in my rough drafts. Fortunately, I’ll get a chance to improve those scenes when I revise, but that’s a topic for a blog of its own.

It would help if I had a clearer idea what will trigger the climactic scene. At least I’m in good company when I don’t yet know. As the now legendary story goes, until well into filming Star Wars, the script read only, “Darth Vader says something to make Luke mad.”

Image1Soon, I hope, I will figure out exactly what final clue will allow my detective to determine who dunnit. Confronting the villain may place her in mortal danger. I haven’t decided yet if that is what I want. If I do, will she rescue herself or will someone else have to step in to help her out of trouble? If the villain gets hold of the sleuth or some other important character, the stakes rise, suspense increases, and (in theory) it’s then an easy jump to the climax of the tale—a rescue or an escape; a fight; possibly a death. Ideally, readers end up eagerly turning pages to see what happens next. How to accomplish that in a way that is not a cliché is another tricky part of writing the end of the book.

In the best of all possible worlds, plot, subplots, and any loose ends are wrapped up in the last couple of pages and the reader finishes the novel feeling satisfied. Once everything is explained, it becomes apparent that the clues were there all along. The solution makes sense. The reader figured it out at about the same time the sleuth did or, failing that, will admit that the answers were only just out of reach. The author played fair. Providing such explanations, however, can become an end-of-the-book minefield for the writer.

pgMany mysteries use a technique syndicated columnist Joel Achenbach called “the obligatory spilling of the beans,” a phrase he coined to mean the scene “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 is the point at which the villain confesses to all his crimes and willingly answers any remaining questions, usually because he plans, immediately after confessing, to kill the sleuth. A last-minute escape or rescue prevents that outcome and the villain gets what’s coming to him (or her). Is the “spilling of the beans” overused? Yes and no. The same plot devices are used over and over again because they work, and because there just aren’t that many ways to bring a mystery novel to a satisfying conclusion. A variation of this is the gather-all-the-suspects-in-the-library ending, in which the sleuth, who may or may not know who dunnit, tricks the villain into confessing.

npg1An alternative to bean-spilling is to have the sleuth work out what must have happened and explain any elusive details to another character for the benefit of the reader. I always have a bit of a problem with this solution. It just doesn’t seem realistic that any one person could be brilliant enough to solve crime after crime with nary a misstep. I’d rather let my sleuth be misled, or even come up with a completely wrong explanation for the crime first, and then discover additional information that makes the pieces of the puzzle fall into place correctly.

As I go past the 60,000 word mark heading for 90,000 (on the historical mysteries) or pass 50,000, heading for 75,000 (for the Liss MacCrimmon novels), there are also other challenges to deal with. Holding information back from the reader is one of the hardest for me. Once I’ve worked out what really happened, my impulse is to share that information—or at least insert a big, honking clue. But if I do that too early, or even to hint too strongly at the villain’s identity, it will spoil the suspense.

Years ago, when I was writing Face Down Among the Winchester Geese, the third of the mysteries featuring Lady Appleton, my sixteenth-century gentlewoman, herbalist, and sleuth, she ended up identifying the killer some fifty pages before the end of the book, but she still had to figure out his motive. That quest led to a twist—the revelation of another person’s involvement in the murders. The clues were all there, but I held back this second person’s identity until the last possible moment. Will I try something like that again? I doubt it. It’s not easy to pull off successfully. On the other hand, variations are a possibility. My detective could have the right villain but the wrong motive, necessitating more sleuthing at greater risk. Or the villain might become desperate enough to do something totally unexpected. Twists and double twists at the end of a mystery novel? Great when they work but not easy to do well.

npgI mentioned wrapping up subplots, but there are times when I feel a strong temptation not to do so. In a series, there are story arcs that carry over from book to book, usually having to do with the sleuth’s personal life. How much do I want to clear up and how much do I want to leave for the next installment? One thing I do know. I won’t commit the sin of leaving my readers in suspense about anything truly important. Fans were furious at having to wait an entire year to find out whether it was Joe or Ranger at Stephanie Plum’s door saying “Nice dress. Now take it off.” Not knowing if a beloved sidekick of the furry variety was alive or dead at the end of not one but two of Dana Stabenow’s mysteries upset many of her fans, including me. I will not do anything remotely similar to either of those things.

The last third of the book is every bit as challenging to write as the first two thirds, especially the last two or three thousand words. When I finally type “the end” I plan to take a nice long break. Maybe work on an entirely different project for a month or two.

Then the revising starts.

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Trials and Tribulations of an Old Dog

If I was a dog, I would be a nice old one. I know this to be true because as a person, I am a nice old one. As is the case many times, it is very difficult for an old dog and an old person to learn new tricks. The old dog in me might catch the Frisbee, but I’m certainly not bringing it to you. At best I might spit it out at your feet. The old writer in me might be capable of learning all the new marketing and self-promotion tricks of the trade, but executing them is an entirely different matter. (see spitting Frisbee thing)

If there was such a thing as an Author’s Prom, I would be the guy in the back of the room with a glass of punch in one hand and a notepad in the other, doing my best not to spill punch on the notes of my latest writing project while trying to stay invisible.

A while back, my better half (code word: wife) strongly suggested (code word: nagged) that I become involved in Facebook and Twitter as a way to do self-promotion (code word: brag a whole lot about nothing) and marketing. I listened attentively (code word: zoned out) but didn’t follow up until my better half insisted (code word: threatened) and I finally decided (code word: caved-in) to take a look at this self-promotion (code word: brag a whole lot about nothing) marketing tools.

So I went to Facebook to sign up for a page. Confusing at first (like learning Chinese arithmetic) I navigated (code word: fumbled about clueless) until I managed (code word: dumb luck) to complete the process. I was now a member of the community, but I had no friends, fans and nobody liked me (sort of like the Authors Prom, huh.) My better half pointed out (code word: what are you stupid?) that friends and fans weren’t going to just magically appear without actively seeking them out. So I sought help from the Facebook help page (apparently written in some ancient Latin dialect that hasn’t been spoken in two thousand years) to find out the best way to make friends and fans. In theory (E=MC²) the best way to make Facebook friends and fans is to seek out (code word: stalk) people who are avid readers of your genre and let them know that you’re alive and do a little self-promotion (code word: brag a whole lot about nothing.). I gave it a shot.

After a bit, my wife’s cousin became my first friend. I was immediately treated (code word: bombarded) with photos of her young daughter, the dog and cat doing fun stuff to the young daughter and so on. As charming (code word: as exciting as changing a flat tire) as this was I doubted the young daughter would be perusing bookstores in search of my latest mystery novel anytime soon. (not her fault, she has to learn to walk and read first)

But I kept at it and soon acquired a small army of book reading friends and fans to market my work to. I quickly discovered that many book readers can only read while at Starbucks and while posting photos of their delicious lattes and mochas. Others responded to my posts with their favorite recipe (I got a good one for peach cobbler) and show me pictures of their culinary delights. Other avid readers are farmers (they’re not very good at it as they seem to be missing a lot of farming tools) who apparently live in a place called Farmville, and while farmers are certainly allowed to read, I’m really not much for moving there as they keep trying to get me to do. Some avid book readers are sneaky little devils. Case in point is the woman who, the moment we became friends told me how I could read her latest eBook for free. A bit confused about that, I asked this woman why she would go through the time and trouble to write a book only to give it away for free. She told me to #*^&*##))@((@#$$^&#. We’re no longer friends. Another case in point are the avid reader friends who, the moment they become your friend see you as a target for their political opinions (code word: out of control foaming at the mouth rant) and can’t wait to share them with you. Some avid reader friends are also avid TV watchers and are seemingly obsessed with The Walking Dead. I don’t watch much TV and wouldn’t know The Walking Dead from The Grateful Dead, except that both are, well, dead. I sent them to un-friend land (which I believe is the next town over from Farmville) to live with the free eBook lady.

Not being one to quit (code word: afraid of your wife) I pressed on and continued to market my work to my audience of avid mystery readers. I found some interesting traits among them. For instance, some can’t wait to tell me the day of the week and that Wednesday is hump day. Others love to post thirty-year-old photos of themselves on Thursday for some reason. Some of my friends are apparently addicted to sugar and constantly bug me about candy and almost daily send me requests to shop at a place called Candy Land. I like a good Snickers bar as much as the next guy, but come on, eat a salad or something. Then there is the group of avid reader fans who are all meteorologists and they just can’t wait to tell me the weather on a daily basis. Complaining about how it’s just 55 degrees in South Carolina in January and they can’t go to the beach. Do I need this after shoveling snow for six hours? Now I’m not sure how many of my avid reader friends actually buy my books, but my guess is none. So I decided to send the lot of them to un-friend land, which left me with my wife’s cousin and she really does have a nice baby, and dog and cat.

Upon learning this, my wife was visibly upset (code word: blood shot out of her eyes) and convinced (code word: my arm still hurts from being twisted) me to give it another shot. I soothed her anger with a nice peach cobbler and climbed back aboard the Facebook train.

After a while I moved over to Twitter. I must confess that I find Twitter friendlier, easier to navigate and a good place to do marketing and brag a whole lot about nothing.

The only real problem that I seem to have is getting the hang of this one hundred and forty characters limitation. However, as an author I s

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Thirteen Reasons why Maine is the BEST Place to Live

Recently Maine Crime Writers alum Paul Doiron, building on the theme of this year’s crime writing conference, the Maine Crime Wave, wrote a blog post that got a lot of traction on BuzzFeed about why Maine is the scariest place to live: 13 Reasons Maine is the Scariest Place in the World

Well, we’re crime writers, often looking on the dark side, so we agree with Paul. Back roads. Isolation. People so desperate for drugs they’ll do anything. A vast coastline that lends itself to smuggling. Crashing surf, surprise storms, unexpected undertow, the deadly distortions of fog. A whole lot of people with guns. Indeed, we often find ourselves quoting that great Conan Doyle passage from Sherlock Holmes:

“Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”

“They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

“You horrify me!”

“But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)

Sherlock Holmes in “The Copper Beeches” (Doubleday p. 323)

But we also wanted to offer, on behalf of Mainers everywhere, our own 13 Reasons Maine is the BEST Place in the World.

So, starting today, and appearing in our weekend updates for the next few weeks, are the reasons:

Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 5.39.26 PMGetting Directions: As Kaitlyn Dunnett wrote in one of her earliest posts, Turn Right at the Refrigerator, people in Maine tend to be rather practical about giving directions. Kate Flora likes to tell guests arriving on Bailey Island that if they come to the end of the road–they’ve gone too far. And we’re lucky that we’ve got plenty of unusual landmarks–the flying moose. The Paul Bunyan statue. The giant blueberry. There’s plenty of scenery to gaze at wherever you go in the state, but you’ll also want to keep your eyes out for some of the unexpected sights.

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If you come to the flying moose, you’ve gone too far.
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When you get to Paul Bunyan, take the next right.







Maybe you need to stop here and buy some blueberry-related products?

Whoopie Pies. Yes. That’s right. From country stores and grocery stores, from mom’s school lunches to trucks parked along the road, Maine is home to a fabulous selection of whoopee pies that go way beyond the traditional chocolate. Strawberry. Pumpkin. Maple. Oatmeal cookie.







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And if you think we’re kidding, go here:

Where Your Dog is as Welcome as You Are: Dorothy Cannell says that her dog is so used to shopping with her at Reny’s in Belfast that he thinks he ought to have his own credit card.









Wildlife. Many places, you have to go a zoo or on safari to see wildlife. In Maine, often as not, the wildlife will come to you. Here are some recent wildlife sightings:















Crescent bear




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Weekend Update: July 19-20, 2014

fallsbooks1Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Kate Flora (Monday), Al Lamanda (Tuesday), Kaitlyn Dunnett (Wednesday), Vicki Doudera (Thursday), and Sarah Graves (Friday).

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

If any of you happen to see a copy of the summer edition of Mystery Scene Magazine, take a look at the crossword puzzle on page 68. Books by both Lea Wait and Kaitlyn Dunnett show up as clues.

Lea and Kaitlyn (also appearing as Kate Emerson and Kathy Lynn Emerson), together with Kate Flora and Dorothy Cannell and many other Maine writers, will be participating in the Beyond the Sea Book Festival in Lincolnville Beach, which runs for three days, July 25-27. The full schedule is at

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:






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