My Writers Group

Hi. Barb here. Still recuperating from knee replacement surgery, but doing better, thanks.

I just looked back at 5 years worth of my posts on this blog (which is an interesting journey in and of itself) and was astonished to confirm that in all that time, I have never written about my writers group. I’ve referenced them in passing, but never talked about the group specifically.

I can’t believe it. Because there is no question I would not be here, a published author, an editor and publisher, a Maine Crime Writer, without them.

There are now five of us and we’ve been together, in one form or another, for twenty years. It all started in a class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. It was an advanced mystery-writing course taught by Barbara Shapiro, author of the The Art Forger. (Her new novel, The Muralist, will be out next month.) Barbara is a fantastic teacher. She taught me things about scene cards and scaffolding that first draft that I use to this day. But in addition to teaching technique, Barbara taught us how to workshop–how to read others’ work carefully, how to critique and how to be critiqued. And for that, I will be forever grateful.

My writers group. From left Barb Ross, Leslie Wheeler, Mark Ammons, Kat Fast. Laughing, as we so often do. Leslie calls us the Car Talk of writers groups. Absent: Cheryl Marceau

My writers group. From left Barb Ross, Leslie Wheeler, Mark Ammons, Kat Fast. Laughing, as we so often do. Leslie calls us the Car Talk of writers groups. Absent: Cheryl Marceau

Several of us in the class decided we wanted to continue workshopping our mystery novels–and that it was impractical to pay the Cambridge Center for the privilege. So we formed a writers group. Not one of us had more than a few chapters of our first mystery written. Mark Ammons, Leslie Wheeler and I were in that core group, along with Marge Leibenstein. A year or so later, I was walking in Harvard Square and ran into Kat Fast. She and I had been work colleagues and we had one of those “what are you doing?” “what are you doing?” conversations. When I mentioned I was writing a mystery, Kat’s face lit up. So was she! She became the next to join us. Cheryl Marceau joined several years after that.

Writer’s groups have lots of different formats. Ours continues to be the one we learned from Barbara. One to three people are “up” for the week (depending on number of pages). If you are up, you email your pages out by Saturday evening. Everyone shows up for the meeting on Thursday having read and made extensive notes on the work.

Each reader gives feedback in turn. In the early years when we were learning to trust one another, we followed the rule about mentioning the things we liked first. In our later years we are more apt to get straight down to it. The person being critiqued remains quiet, taking notes. They have a chance to ask questions at the end.

Each of us has different strengths.

Mark teaches drama to acting students at the Boston Conservatory. He knows more about dramatic structure than I could ever hope to. (Six books in and I feel like I’m just beginning to internalize it.) He’s also incredibly visual, which is helpful for those of us who are not, both in making our scenes more vivid and more accurate.

Leslie has the memory of an elephant. She will say, “I don’t like this as much as I liked your approach to this scene in your 42nd draft two years ago.” And you are thinking, “What approach to this scene? Was I actually working on this story two years ago?” And she will be right, every time.

Cheryl is that most cherished of people, an intelligent reader. She will tell you when you are hitting her over the head with something or cluttering your story up with information she doesn’t need. On the flip side, when she says, “I don’t get this,” pay attention. This is particularly valuable to me because I tend to underwrite in early drafts.

Kat is an amazing editor. My Level Best stories always start out as first drafts of 7000 or more words. Working on my own, I can usually get them down to 5500. Then I give them to Kat who takes out the last 500. I usually find a way to add back in two or three. Out of 500. The rest are never missed.

Of course, after all this time, we also know each others’ foibles. Kat doesn’t have a TV and is somehow immune to all print and cyber celebrity news and gossip. When she says, “I don’t know who this Kim Kardashian is. Should you explain?” I know to ignore her.

Others have come and gone. Sadly, Marge died in 2001. I still miss her. Some members have moved away geographically (sniff, sniff, Gin Mackey) while others decided fiction writing wasn’t central to their lives. And we’ve had to fire a few. The most common reasons for firing were people who didn’t actually want critiquing, just to be told how great their writing is; people who were all about themselves, expecting detailed critiques, but not putting the work in for others; and people who just didn’t write. This is a problem, especially early on when building a trust relationship. You can’t critique other people week after week and never put yourself on the line.

How did this wonderful group of people keep me writing? Aside from all the things I learned from critiquing their work and being critiqued by them, I knew writing was the price of admission. If I wanted to keep seeing these people who had come to mean so much to me, I had to keep writing. So I did. Even when the job was busy. Even when the teenagers were demanding. Even when my first agent dropped me and I wanted to crawl into a hole. I kept writing because it was the price of admission.

Not every writer finds a writers group helpful, but this writer did. Invaluable, in fact.

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Kathy’s Great Adventure

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett here. The first thing you have to know about me is that I’m a chicken. The second thing is that I’m a worrier. Combine these two and you get a certain reluctance to try new things, especially on my own. I don’t think this is particularly uncommon, especially among women whose husbands are obliging enough to offer to drive when a trip of any distance is in the offing. I’m happy to have company and he sees better at night than I do. Over the last few years, I’ve hardly ever driven myself farther from home than the post office or the grocery store.

helping me get ready to go

helping me get ready to go

Then two events coincided. The first was the scheduling of my fiftieth high school reunion for September 25-27 in Liberty, New York, about an eight-hour drive from where I now live if you take all the high-speed roads available. The second was the dawning of an idea for a new contemporary mystery series, one in which a woman of my years is starting over on her own, making a major move as well as a career change. The next step seemed inevitable—I would have to get myself to that reunion. On my own. By myself.

a younger, braver me

a younger, braver me

Did I mention that I always go to full service gas stations and let someone else pump the gas? Or that I have a terrible track record when it comes to successfully swiping credit cards? Or that I have some physical challenges thanks to arthritis in my hands, knees, neck, and ankles? Never mind. I decided that if my protagonist could be my age and manage on her own, so could I. Any fumbles along the way would just have to become fodder for comic relief.

Because the new setting will be a small town, but this time not in Maine, I opted to take the scenic route through New Hampshire and Vermont and avoid the Thruway once I hit New York. This, of course, added time, if not miles, to the trip. Since I can’t do anything about that bad night vision, that meant taking two days for the drive with stops to explore along the way and look for details that may become part of my fictional setting. I expected this to be full-blown leaf-peeper season. Not this year. Still, it was a pretty drive.

It was also a long haul: five and a half hours the first day and nearly five the second.

the house I grew up in

the house I grew up in

Both Liberty, New York and Wilton, Maine are in the foothills of the mountains. In fact, the land looks remarkably similar, except that New York allows billboards and Maine does not. But there is one area where there are some distinct differences—how a murder investigation is handled. In Maine, the State Police step in at once, except in Portland and Bangor. In New York, it depends. Fortunately, one of my high school classmates has a son who is a Sullivan County Deputy Sheriff and he agreed to be my local law enforcement expert. We met the first afternoon I was in town and talked shop over McNuggets, fries, and a very large coffee to keep me going through the evening ahead. Yes, of course, my new sleuth will be an amateur, but there’s nothing worse than getting the details wrong and every state handles criminal investigations just a little bit differently.

boxes in carAside from reunion activities, there was one other addition to my personal schedule. I wanted to donate some of my books to the local library. To be honest, I was trying to clear some space for the boxes of new ones that have already begun arriving—the paperback of Ho-Ho-Homicide, the hardcover of The Scottie Barked at Midnight, the trade paperback of Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe, and the hardcover of Murder in the Merchant’s Hall. However, when the librarian responded by asking me to do a talk and signing while I was in town, I didn’t exactly run the other way. I set out with a very full car trunk—two boxes of books for the library, four boxes of books to offer for sale (two oldies set in Liberty and the two most recent titles), and four more boxes filled with extra copies of a few of my older books to offer as freebies to classmates. I still had room left for a suitcase and a cooler for snacks and a tote with necessities: folder with information and maps, (I do not and will not use GPS!), change for the book signing, and the one thing I can no longer live without—my iPad. When my character makes the trip, she’ll also have to find space for a litter pan and feline necessities since she’ll be traveling with at least one cat.

liberty signingSo, how did it go, you ask? Just great. When I couldn’t find gas stations with full service pumps, I managed to con other people into pumping gas for me (dithery females of a certain age can get away with a lot!). I renewed old friendships, visited familiar places, took note of changes the last fifty years have wrought, and generally enjoyed myself. The library talk was well attended, both by classmates and others. The two gatherings of the class, a Friday night icebreaker and a Saturday night banquet, were both fun. Thank goodness, though, for name tags!

group shot

If you’re looking for me in the above photo, here’s a hint: only my nose is showing.

Back home again, I’m slowly catching up and getting back into my normal routine. I was fine as long as I kept going. It’s stopping that’s the killer. I still feel as if I could sleep for a week, but no rest for the wicked. Less than a week from now, I’m off to Bouchercon, another reunion of sorts, this one with fellow mystery writers and readers.



Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award in 2008 for best mystery nonfiction for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2014 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (The Scottie Barked at Midnight) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries as Kathy (Murder in the Merchant’s Hall). The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. Her websites are and


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Cooking Up a Good Villain

Kate Flora: Yes. You read that right. I’ve often written here, and elsewhere, about the Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 10.52.24 AMimportance of taking chances and how chance taking can have a surprisingly positive effect on writing and a writer’s career. Sometimes, as in the creation of Beat, Slay, Love, the group novel by the pseudonymous Thalia Filbert, which debuts tomorrow, the process is not just a positive adventure that stretches me as a writer, it is downright good fun. And a big part of that fun was constructing the scenarios in which famous TV chefs are killed, and the apparently invisible villain who is killing them.

Fun, you say? Since when is writing fun? Isn’t writing supposed to be a grueling activity that makes your bottom spread as you spend those endless hours at the keyboard and concentrate until drops of blood appear on your forehead? Well. Yes. That’s part of it. Maybe that’s most of it, a truth that is revealed if I back toward a mirror or swipe at my forehead. But writing can also be a whole lot of fun. Especially if it is done with the right group of people.

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 9.33.09 AMHere’s how it all came about. (Though I’m betting each of the five of us who are Thalia Filbert will tell a slightly different version of the story.) One day I got an e-mail asking if I’d like to join some other writers in a blog group. After I got over the idea of cheating on Maine Crime Writers, I said yes. This group is made up of writers I’ve known since my beginnings in this business more than twenty years ago. We’re spread all over the country. I respected them and thought it could be an interesting adventure. Not long after we started blogging together, on a blog called “Views from the Muse,” someone suggested it would be fun to put together a crime story anthology. The result was Dead of Winter

That was a lot of fun and the book was good, so naturally someone asked what we might do next. As we all jokingly now say—the next obvious thing to do was write a group novel. But how could we write a group novel, given the very different things we were writing, and what would it be about?

Here are the players:

Gary Phillips writes hardboiled tales of flawed characters and their pursuit of hollow dreams.  In addition to being part of the Beat, Slay, Love crew, he is co-editor of Occupied Earth, an anthology of life and resistance under the boot heels of the alien Mahk-Ra.

Katy Munger has written fifteen crime fiction novels, including series in the cozy, private eye, and modern noir genres. She was a co-founder of Tart Noir.

Lise McClendon writes mystery and suspense, celebrating 20 years in print last year. Her series include an art dealer in Jackson Hole, a private eye in Kansas City, and a lawyer with five sisters in France. She also writes thrillers as Rory Tate (PLAN X) and co-owns Thalia Press with Katy Munger.

Taffy Cannon has written a mainstream novel, thirteen mysteries, an Academy Award-nominated short film, and The Baby Boomer’s Guide to SibCare.

Kate Flora writes two series—strong, amateur, female PI in her Thea Kozak series and cops in her Joe Burgess police procedurals. She’s published more than fifteen crime stories. She’s been a publisher at Level Best Books and teaches writing at Grub Street in Boston.

Somehow, the topic became a serial killer, traveling the country killing off celebrity chefs,

Bacon, squid ink pasta, and hot peppers!

Bacon, squid ink pasta, and hot peppers!

and our villain was born. Actually, she was more of a Frankenstein creation, with everyone contributing pieces, then written, tweaked, augmented, revised, and redescribed until everyone was satisfied. As motivation, she was given such a backstory of mistreatments and misadventures that she couldn’t help but want delicious revenge on those who had abused her. Imagine, if you can, having not one but five pen pals, and when their letters arrive, they come as chapters in an ever-unfolding adventure. An unfolding serial that we both read and wrote. That was Beat, Slay, Love, a story Charlaine Harris calls “an incredibly sly mystery.”

Oh, and the cover lettering? Real bacon, squid ink pasta, and red peppers. How culinary is that?

Read an excerpt from the book here:

To celebrate we’ve put together a cookbook of party recipes called Thalia Filbert’s Killer Cocktail Party. To get a copy, send a quick note to Thalia (our pseudonymous five-person author) at

Beat Slay Love: One Chef’s Hunger for Delicious Revenge  by Thalia Filbert

Thalia Press     October 1, 2015


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The Writer’s Life, getting published and the secret to achieving it

Hi all, Maureen Milliken here, comtemplating The Writer’s Life.

Yes, I know I put that in caps. That’s because it’s the name of a Thomas College class I’ve been asked to be a guest speaker at in a couple weeks. As always, I look forward to any opportunity where I’m actually being asked to speak. Usually I’m being asked to stop.

But what to say about The Writer’s Life? Or even the writer’s life? No writer’s life is the same, and I always feel when people want to hear about it — and maybe I was like this too before I was published — they want to come away with a tip sheet, or even just one magic tip, that will lead directly to publishing success. Ugh.

I’m not sure what my fantasy of the writer’s life was. I’ve wanted to write mystery novels almost since I was able to read. I think my fantasy involved the actual writing more than “being a writer.” But I know there WAS a period of time I also fantasized about being on the Dick Cavett Show. I was probably 12 or 13 or so and had a mini-crush on Dick. He

Dick Cavett. I think we all can agree that Dick looks like he's saying, "You know, Maureen, I found your book fascinating."

Dick Cavett. I think we all can agree that Dick looks like he’s saying, “You know, Maureen, I found your book fascinating.”

just always seemed so interested in what his guests had to say — a novelty for me (again, used to being asked to stop speaking). And he was so smart, but he acted like his guests were smart, too. And something about his voice. Instantly recognizable and so, so…something. Every once in a while I’ll hear Dick Cavett’s voice on TV or somewhere and it gives me a pleasant shiver.

I haven’t fantasized about being on Dick Cavett in a good 40 years or so. I’m going to try now. Dick: So Maureen (he knows my name!), I don’t understand this plot point having to do with the bridge and the…

Oh, nuts. Dick has turned into the guy who accosted me in the community center parking lot after the recent town meeting (voted to build a new town office!) and wanted to wrangle over my major plot twist as his wife nervously kept saying, “Don’t bother her.”

Ah yes. The writer’s life.

Here’s what this writer’s life is like Aside from having more conversations than I ever could have imagined with people (who are not Dick Cavett) about my book and the finer points: I work long, long hours (gosh should actually be getting ready to go to work about

Everybody writes! As a judge in the Writers Digest self-published book contest, I 've read and critiqued hundreds of self-pubs over the last few years.

Everybody writes! As a judge in the Writers Digest self-published book contest, I ‘ve read and critiqued hundreds of self-pubs over the last few years.

half an hour ago) at a job I love but takes every ounce of my physical and mental strength to do. I do freelance editing and judge in the Writer’s Digest self-published book contest to help pay the bills, which means reading as many as a couple hundred self-published books a year and then critiquing them. Sometimes I try to do things like clean my house, read a book for pleasure, keep up on the news, do things with family and friends and tend to my dog and cat. When I can fit it in.

So when do I find the time to write the next book, which is due with the publisher,  um, sometime soon? Good question.

I’m not complaining, just explaining. As an only recently published writer, I can say forcefully that no one wants to hear someone whose book has been published complain about what a burden it is.

Anyway, everyone’s got it tough in one way or another. The writer’s life is as diverse as the writers themselves. I was fortunate to hang out with a bunch of mystery writers in Bar

Can I talk? You betcha. I won't give up the mike at the Jesup Library's Murder by the Book, The Real World vs. The Page panel: Maine Superior Court Justice William Stokes, journalists Maureen Milliken and Earl Brechlin, Hancock County District Attorney Matthew Foster and retired Portland Det. Sgt. Bruce Coffin

Can I talk? You betcha. I won’t give up the mike at the Jesup Library’s Murder by the Book, The Real World vs. The Page panel: Maine Superior Court Justice William Stokes, journalists Maureen Milliken and Earl Brechlin, Hancock County District Attorney Matthew Foster and retired Portland Det. Sgt. Bruce Coffin

Harbor at the Jesup Library’s Murder by the Book event earlier this month, and was struck by the different lives each of the dozen authors at the event leads. Lots and lots of lawyers and former lawyers. But still, wildly different lives. Lives as different as the books we write.

But I bet every single person who writes has his or her challenges when it comes time to do it. I’m happily single, but there are times I wish there was someone around to clean the house — those week-old dishes aren’t going to wash themselves! — or go to the store or walk the dog. Or even bankroll my career.

Then I laugh. The last thing I need is someone lounging on the couch clicking through 570 TV channels and leaving his socks on the floor while I’m trying to write. But I digress.

So far, I’ve thought of two BIG THINGS to tell the eager students at Thomas College. Two nuggets of wisdom that apply to every aspiring writer, no matter what his or her life is or may become.

First thing is, write. Write write write write write. Don’t let the excuses, the challenges, the dishes in the sink or the need to make a buck deter you. Buck up, knuckle down, shut your pie hole and write.

Second: Don’t give up. Make sure it’s as good as it can possibly be and then plug away, graciously but persistently, with conferences, agents, publishers big and small, learning the craft and how things work, until someone who’s willing to pay for  it likes your book as much as you do. If your book is worthy and  you behave professionally, there is no other secret to getting published.

Oh yeah, I guess there’s a third. Never ever ever, no matter how hard it is, forget what a

This never stops being cool: Cold Hard News on display at The Book Cellar in Waterville, Maine.

This never stops being cool: Cold Hard News on display at The Book Cellar in Waterville, Maine.

huge privilege it is to see your book in print. Be thankful and gracious to every single person who buys it, asks you to sign it, or even wants to argue plot points with you in the community center parking lot. Remember, there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who wish they were you but haven’t done what you did — written a book good enough to get published.

And that’s the best damn thing about a writer’s life.

Maureen Milliken is a newspaper editor in central Maine and the author of Cold Hard News, which was released by S&H Publishing in June. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 or check out her Facebook page, Maureen Milliken mysteries.

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Visiting Your Story’s Location

Lea Wait, here.

At a recent mystery conference I spoke on a panel titled “Research.”  While I was preparing notes on that topic I asked my Facebook friends what they’d be interested in knowing about research. Amy Reade asked, “Do you have to visit places you write about?”

Without dealing with the question of fictional locations (which still have to remain true in all ways to the area where they’re set), my answer is a definite “yes.” And then I’ll add a “but.”

BUT … I’d strongly advise doing a lot of homework before you set your GPS or buy your plane ticket. First, I’m assuming you have a definite reason your story has to take place in a certain location. (I’ve set contemporary books on Prouts Neck, in Maine, in central New Jersey, and at the Duchess County Fairground in New York State as well as in Maine. My characters in historicals have lived in or visited Saratoga, New York, Charleston, South Carolina, and Edinburgh, Scotland, among other places.)

I’ve lived in some of those locations; I visited the rest when I knew I’d be writing about them. But I spent months researching before I visited.

Why? Several reasons. First, my stories were set in history. Visiting those cities today wouldn’t show me what they looked like in 1805 or 1848, the years I was setting my stories. I wanted to know what the cities looked like in the past. I found maps, pictures, books on the histories of the cities, read other books set in those locations, and basically immersed myself in the food, climate, animals, plants and, of course, the people who lived there at that time.

After I felt I’d feel at home in that place, at that time, I went there with a list of specific places to see and questions to answer. I chose places for my characters to live. I visited local archives to see newspapers printed at the time. I took binders of notes. I walked the streets, tasted the food, and, in Charleston, even lived through a hurricane and visited homes that had been in Charleston when my characters lived there.

I immersed myself in the towns. I interviewed historians about specific questions I had, visited the locations my characters knew, and, perhaps most important, walked the streets and imagined the people in my book walking there.

I took pictures. I bought postcards. I bought local maps, books on local plants and animals and geology, and recipe books that dated to the past. (Used bookstores helped there.)

In no place I visited for the first time after researching it did I find it as I’d imagined it. No written sources I’d studied could tell me what color the cobblestones were, or how close the university felt to the area where my characters lived, or what tombstones were important in the local cemeteries … and how tall they were, and how weathered, and how the grounds were kept up and whether squirrels or cats lived there.. Yes, maps can tell you where streets are. But feeling how close buildings are to those streets, how high they are, where sunlight falls or shadows hide, is critical to making descriptions real.

So my answer to Amy, and everyone else who has asked, is simple.

Yes. Visit the places where your characters live. And even if you live in the same location as your characters, double check to make sure the right birds arrive at the right times, the right flowers bloom, and the right fish spawn.

Google maps can help, yes. But they can’t tell you the smells and sounds and feel of a place. They can’t tell you how living in a place can mold a character.

You need to get all those things right to make your story credible.

True – not every writer does. But how many times have you read a story or novel about a place you knew and found errors? Those errors take readers out of the story.

And you don’t want your readers to stop reading, do you?

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