A Key West Literary Tour

by Barb Ross, who’s back in New England but is offering one last Key West post

On Saint Patrick’s Day, Bill and I went on a Key West literary walking tour, along with author Lucy Burdette and several friends. Key West is rich in literary luminaries, the only city other than New York and LA to have seven Pulitzer prize winners living there simultaneously. The best known Key West authors are Ernest Hemingway, who lived there from 1931 to 1940 and whose house at 907 Whitehead Street is a museum, and Tennesse Williams who who started visiting Key West in 1941 and purchased a home there in 1950, which he owned until his death in 1983. There is a permanent exhibit in his honor.

But the point of this tour was to find some lesser known author homes, first apartments in the city, private homes, and so on. The tour guide, Sarah Thomas, did a great job marching her twelve charges around the streets full of Saint Patrick’s Day revelers.

Sarah Thomas, walking tour guide

Shel Silverstein

Shel Sliverstein,was an  artist, songwriter, and author of the children’s classics, A Light in the Attic, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and The Giving Tree, (a particular favorite of my children). He later bought a home on William Street, but his first apartment was on Caroline Street. Jimmy Buffet wrote the song, “Woman Gone Crazy on Caroline St,” about Silverstein’s landlady.

Thomas McGuane

Author Tom McGuane came to Key West in the crazy 1970s. Best known at that point for the novel, Ninety-Two in the Shade, he also directed the movie starring starring Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Margot Kidder and Harry Dean Stanton. I’ll let the Tampa Bay Times explain what happened next, since I can’t keep it straight.

He divorced his wife, Becky, and she ran off with both lead actors in Ninety-Two, Warren Oates and Peter Fonda. (She was married to Fonda for 35 years.) McGuane had a wild and public affair with actor Elizabeth Ashley, who made their romance even more public when she documented nearly every act of coitus in a memoir. While that affair continued, he fell in love with the film’s young starlet, Margot Kidder, whom he eventually married. That marriage ended quickly, and McGuane fell in love with his best friend’s, [Jimmy Buffett’s] sister. Decades of sobriety and artistic maturity followed. [He and Laurie Buffett McGuane are still married.]

Judy Blume

Author Judy Blume is a current resident of Key West. She and her husband were instrumental in creating the Books and Books store in the Studios of Key West and they often volunteer there. Our tour guide said that recently when she was in the store a customer approached Judy Blume for a recommendation of a book for a thirteen year-old girl, having no idea…

Ernest Hemingway

Before they bought their house in Key West, Ernest Hemingway and his wife Pauline stayed in this apartment over the Ford Dealership while they waited for their new car to be delivered to Key West. Hemingway finished A Farewell to Arms there in 1928.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost spent part of sixteen winters in this cottage on the grounds of the home of Jessie Porter, a native Key Wester, hostess and preservationist who often entertained literary figures including Wallace Stevens, Archibald MacLeish, and Thornton Wilder. Frost wrote his famous poem, “The Gift Outright,” which he read that the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in the cottage. If you need the inspiration, you can rent it from AirBnB.

I’ve given you only a taste of the tour, which, of necessity, can barely touch the surface of Key West authors. I’ve left out Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, John Ciardi, John Hersey, and Ralph Ellison, among so many others.

But by that time on Saint Patrick’s Day evening, the crowd was looking like this:

And it was time to move on.

[All photos in this post are by Bill Carito. If you like them and want to see more, you can friend him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/bcarito and follow him on Instagram at @billcarito and @bill.carito.colorphotos.]








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The Nixed Nest of the Girl on the Train

Inspiration (from the Latin inspirare, meaning “to breathe into”) refers to an unconscious burst of creativity in a literary, musical, or other artistic endeavour.

Kate Flora: From time to time, we authors find ourselves scanning bookstore shelves, reading best-seller lists and reviews, and trying to put our fingers on what moves a book from ignored or midlist to best seller status. Is it the catchy two word title, like The Nix or The Nest or The Help? Is it, as recently seemed to be the case, anything with the word “Girl” in the title? Will it help to read James W. Hall’s book, Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers? All of this reminds me of the playing the game of trying to find the perfect blog title that will evoke Maine and mystery: The Lobster with a Candlestick in a Downeast Lighthouse.

Usually, except for those books that are discovered by booksellers who love them and hand-sell them to their patrons, most of what makes a book take off is the marketing behind the book. That is publishers putting their money behind the book and getting it recognition through ads and reviews that bring it to reader’s attention and paying for prominent placement in bookstore displays. These days, the clever and informed use of twitter and Facebook ads can also help to promote a book.

If you don’t have a publisher behind you spending those big bucks to promote the work, the job is harder. How do writers strike the balance between the time spent writing and the time spent getting readers to buy our books? What are the best avenues for promotion and do they do any good? How do we avoid hitting Facebook several times a day to scream: BUY MY BOOK! and tweeting: “There’s a killer out there targeting police officers. How will one determined detective keep it from happening again?” so that everyone will rush out and buy Led Astray?

I don’t know the best ways to market a book. And I confess, now that we’re three paragraphs into this post, that I don’t really want to write about marketing and promotion today. I’m more concerned about how the demands of marketing and promotion clash with the more quiet, yet more passionate, pursuit of craft and story. And with a question that has been very much on my mind lately as I’m entering my thirty-fourth year of sitting at this desk telling stories: does it make sense to keep writing–and publishing–if you are sick to death of the “buy my book” dance? Is it reasonable to keep writing if you aren’t keen on marketing? Or perhaps more particularly, can a writer prioritize the passion and the magic of writing and turn her back–for a time, at least–on the demands of marketing?

Yeah. I’m kind of suffering from a case of “I don’t wanna.” There is hope for this malady, though. Over the years, something I have learned is that the best way to shake off angst or a bad case of the “I don’t wanna’s” is to take chances. Explore a new corner of the genre. Write something that feels like it is out of my comfort zone. Try writing short stories for a while instead of working on novels. Or go out and explore someone else’s world, as I did with Finding AmyDeath Dealer, and A Good Man with a Dog. My muses tend to come in unexpected forms.

Right now, I’m waiting for the inspiration to take a chance to ring of my doorbell or call me up. If this sounds passive, it doesn’t feel like that to me. Every time my writing has gone in a new direction, it has been because somehow while I thought I was going straight ahead, doing the same old thing, fate gives me a nudge. Joe Loughlin needed help writing a book. The Maine wardens sent me to Miramichi, New Brunswick, to explore a story. Susan Oleksiw decided it would be interesting to explore New England crime writing through the medium of the short story and Level Best Books was born. I started writing Joe Burgess police procedurals because my Thea Kozak series was dropped by the publisher.

Right now, even though I am very intrigued by the plot of my new Thea Kozak mystery, my writing feels kind of like a holding pattern. But one day soon, the phone will ring, or an e-mail will come, or I’ll have a random conversation or drive by something that spurs my imagination, and the new direction will be revealed.

So, dear readers, two questions:

How do you shake off the “I don’t wanna’s?”

What do you all think of me working with a cold case detective?

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Weekend Update: April 8-9, 2017

Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will be posts by Kate Flora (Monday) Barb Ross (Tuesday), Brenda Buchanan (Wednesday), Maureen Milliken (Thursday), and Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett (Friday).

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

from Kaitlyn Dunnett: I’m doing another Goodreads giveaway, this time of four copies of the audiobook version of Kilt at the Highland Games (Liss MacCrimmon #10). The audiobook was produced by Dreamscape on CD and the book is read by Tanya Eby. To enter, go to:


That doesn’t seem to be coming up as a hyperlink, so you may have to cut and paste. Or you can search for the title and scroll down to see giveaways.

Bruce Robert Coffin: will be appearing at several different venues this coming week. Tuesday, April 11 at 6:00 pm, he will be at the Wells Public Library. Wednesday, April 12 at 6:30 pm, he will be at the Rockport Public Library. And on Thursday, April 13 at 6:30 pm, Bruce will be appearing at the D. A. Hurd Library in North Berwick. Bruce will read from and sign copies of his bestselling novel, Among the Shadows.

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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“What Am I Really Writing About?”

Lea Wait, here, thinking about personal passions and interests and how they can become themes, in life and in writing.

As a child I was fascinated by books (often set in the nineteenth century) about orphans who found caring homes. As an adult in my mid-twenties I volunteered with abused children in New York City. When I was thirty I adopted my first daughter.

When I was in my mid-forties, the single adoptive parent of four daughters, caring for my mother and working for a large corporation, a major publisher contacted me and asked me to write an autobiography about being single and adopting older children.

I’d been writing for adoption publications. I’d spoken at adoption conferences as an adoption advocate. I’d counseled prospective parents (both single and married) about adopting older children.

But when that publisher called, I did some hard thinking. My four daughters were teenagers then, all coping with major (different) issues. As a family we were going through difficult days. As a parent, I was struggling, too. I was clinically depressed and trying to find the strength to guide my children through their struggles while I was also challenged by a changing workplace and my mother’s illnesses.

But I believed we’d all survive. My girls would become strong and capable and productive adults, and I would go on to the next phase of my life.

Much as I was thrilled to be offered the opportunity to write a book, I didn’t want a memoir of those difficult days to be published, and perhaps to haunt the healthy futures of my daughters.

I not only turned down the publisher, I stopped writing and talking about adoption, and started writing fiction.

Fiction was different. It wasn’t my life.

I could write about anything. Anything but adoption.

I’d always loved historical fiction. I was fascinated by the past, and how ordinary people had lived then. I believed everyone had secrets, large and small, and that, more often than they knew, those secrets changed their lives.

In time, my children found their own ways, as I had hoped — had believed — they would.

I wrote mysteries for adults and historical fiction for young people.

About five years after my first book was published, a manuscript I’d been working on for more than a year was rejected, sight unseen, by my publisher. They’d decided they didn’t want a book on that topic. My editor asked me to come up with another book to meet my deadline. I was crushed by the loss of a book I’d loved, and, although I tried, couldn’t come up with another subject I wanted to write about.

Finally, after several months, I had lunch with my editor and told her how frustrated I was. None of my ideas were coming together. I was lost, and afraid. Nothing was working.

My editor was calm and understanding. “Well,” she said, “all your books are about a quest for home. Sometimes that means family, sometimes it means place, or purpose. But all of your characters are searching for a place they can be loved and accepted for themselves.”

I was stunned. I hadn’t realized that. And yet, thinking of what I’d written, my editor was right.

The book I wrote after that lunch was Finest Kind, set in 1838, about a family that has a secret that changes the way they interact with their community. My major character, thirteen-year-old Jake, also discovers that other families have secrets, too.

Since then I’ve written books for both adults and children. My nineteenth book was just published (a mystery, Tightening the Threads,) about a character whose whole life and family have been a secret, until now.

I don’t always think about quests for family and secrets when I’m starting to write a book.  But my characters and plot always seem to lead me in those directions. And now I’m more conscious of that happening, and I’ve accepted that it’s all right. Searching for family and home and helping others to do the same has been a theme of my life. It’s not strange that it’s now a theme in my writing.

In my books, that search seldom involves adoption directly, although in my Shadows Antique Print series my protagonist, Maggie Summer, did adopt an older child. (In Shadows on a Morning in Maine.)

I’m writing the beginning of a new series, now. The two protagonists are sisters who have just met for the first time. They have very different background and goals. And yet, they are both my characters. They find part of themselves in each other. They become family.

I hadn’t thought of that when I imagined the series. But I’m not surprised by it.

I suspect that most authors have similar experiences, consciously or unconsciously. That the same themes run through their work. Readers, too, seek out books that reflect the themes of their aspirations, or their lives.

Is that true for you?

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Dive! Dive!

From the Department of Redundant Self-Promotion Department:

  • Reading and talk at South Portland Library Saturday 5/13 at 2 PM
  • Panel with Kate Flora and Lea Wait Thursday 5/18 at Gray Public Library
  • Signed contracts this week for In Solo Time, the prequel to Solo Act, for publication in 2017.

Now on to our regularly schedule programming . . 

I was watching that great documentary movie of hippies at sea and fly-fishing in Key West in the 60’s, Tarpon, the other night and heard my spirit bear, the great big one-eyed boy Jim Harrison, declaim the following:

“Age brings us a diminished portfolio of enthusiasms.”

The fact that he was somewhere in his twenties robs this of some of its authority but the phrase stuck in my mind nevertheless. I suspect my interpretation is not what Harrison intended in his louche and world-weary cry to the losses of age. I took what he said as a warning not that getting older narrows the set of things you care about, but the reverse, that lessening the number of things you are enthusiastic about ages you before your time. But as someone sniffing at the early edges of old age (I can but hope . .) I don’t feel a need to expand or diminish my range of enthusiasms as much as I want to deepen the ones I have.

I’ve always been catholic about the writing I’ve taken on (though I refuse to perpetrate poetry any more). But an idea will occur to me that needs an essay or I’ll get interested in something factual like a biodegradable six-pack ring developed by a Florida brewery and want to learn enough about it to write a nonfiction piece. And always, of course, the stories and novels, crime-focused and not.

But thinking about Harrison’s words brought me to the realization I need to widen the scope of my reading too, which is turning out to be more difficult than I thought. I have to make a conscious effort to expand my attention to places and people I don’t normally attend to. Which I suppose is the point.

I started reading very young with the adventures of Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, then graduated to Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen Magazine. For me the age of paperbacks was golden and even now, the rotund silhouette of Nero Wolfe on a cover promises joy, if a completely familiar one.

Except for a brief and unfortunate attempt to read (and write) like an honest-to-god English major, my choice of reading material has always been crime stories, murder mysteries, thrillers. You can imagine my joy after reading The Deep Blue Goodbye at discovering that Travis McGee had twenty other adventures and that John D. had written scores more books for me to read on streetcars, family car rides, and in summer cottages.

And when I started writing crime fiction seriously, I was mad for help, reading and rereading all my heroes for their virtual mentoring, learning everything I could without being taught directly. Lessons from Robert Parker, Elmore Leonard, John Sanford. Marcia Muller, Patricia Highsmith.

Until I realized the narrowness of my reading was squeezing my writing. I knew how to make some things happen on the page, in certain ways, in certain tones and colors. But there are things that are beyond me. Many things. One of my mentors, the great Thomas Williams Jr., told his students once of receiving a note from John D. MacDonald himself, complaining mildly about the fact that he was constrained to certain ways of writing, both by his success and by long practice.

Well, look. If you are a writer, some things are always going to be beyond you. If you don’t know that, you don’t know a thing. But it doesn’t mean you don’t want to reach for them.

And my deliberate strategy for reaching beyond where I am is to try to read things that don’t attract my shiny magpie attention: authors I don’t know, genres I don’t know, or even—gasp—books out of genre altogether (whatever genre means any more).

It piques me in some interesting ways, forces me to broaden and deepen the characters I write about, work a little harder at creating stories that are better, larger, richer than I’ve been able to do up until now. It’s an attempt to intensify one of the enthusiasms I already have (preferably without losing any of the others).

But if the portfolio must diminish over time, as my boy Jim suggests? What I want then is that each remaining enthusiasm allows me to go deeper and be as engaged as my efforts can make it. Or in the words of that other great seagoing movie, Submarine Command? Dive! Dive!

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