On the Death of an Old Friend

John Clark bringing back something I wrote more than a dozen years ago, in the days when black flies, apple blossoms and alder leaves the size of a mouse’s ear all signified that it was time to go troutin’.

When you marry, you gain more than a partner. You acquire new relatives, different ways of thinking, new customs and family celebrations. All of these are more or less expected parts of a new blended life. If you are lucky, you gain some unexpected things as well. I gained new realms to explore, and I did; hunting and fishing through parts of Maine that had previously been odd names on a topographic map.

old friend

I got in the habit of sitting on the front steps with my father-in-law. He would talk about catching trout in a spot a couple miles in from a particular tote road or trolling for salmon just before dusk with a Rangely spinner below a certain dam. As we watched the setting sun creep across the hill on the other side of the road, I would share my own memories of fly fishing the Carabasset River with my father before it was lined with ski chalets, and trout were still plentiful enough to be fooled by eight year old boys. I’d reminisce about the gold nugget my grandfather found while fishing the North branch of the Dead River and how my father would hike nine miles into Spencer Stream to catch monster trout. These were companionable moments interspersed with the cry of hawks and the beckoning sounds of float planes on their way to Moosehead Lake.

old friend2

I began to explore some of these inherited realms, sometimes alone, sometimes with my wife or friends. There was something magic about wading down the middle of a stream, chest deep in cool water, automatically casting streamer flies while lost in thought. Sometimes those moments would be pleasantly interrupted by the sharp tug of a hungry trout or the wary gaze of a deer caught in the act of drinking. By the end of the day, my body would be tired and my soul recharged.

Certain spots began to acquire their own lore; The overgrown blueberry field where a bear was surprised while eating grubs from an anthill, the streamside trail where a mother hawk maintained her uneasy vigil until satisfied that we were uninterested in her hatchlings, the remote pond where moose and deer ambled through the shallows together, completely indifferent to our presence, the springhole where I suddenly found myself chest deep in frigid water while ice fishing. Each became a part of a blended heritage to be shared with my children while sitting on front steps and listening to the sounds of summer.

old friend1

One August, while fishing one of my inherited streams, I dangled a fly in a small pool below the remnants of a long destroyed mill. The spot had often rewarded me with dinner. To my astonishment a huge brook trout swam out of the jumble of old millwork to eye my offering. After looking it over with the contemptuous experience of trout-like wisdom, he turned gracefully and swam back into the rocky den from whence he had come. I was stunned! In years of fishing this brook, nothing of this size had ever shown itself, not had there ever been a hint a fish this big existed. Numerous attempts with different flies resulted in a couple curtain calls, but nary a nibble. I returned home to share my adventure. Over the rest of the season, I returned several times. Each time my mammoth friend would emerge, eye my offering and grandly swim back to his rocky hideaway. His pool was so small and his length so long that he had to use the entire pool to turn around. One evening just before the season closed, I brought Beth with me and she was treated to a command performance complete with a tentative nibble on the evening’s offering.

Summer slipped into fall, fishing was replaced by duck hunting and then by deer hunting. Winter brought holiday gatherings where I shared the story of my mammoth friend with those from ‘away’. Ice fishing became the prime weekend activity, with slow periods filled by meals cooked over outdoor fires and everyone remembering fishing tales from past seasons. More than once I shared the story of my friend and we all wondered how such a large fish had come to live in such a small pool.

As winter faded into spring, Maine experienced what was to become known as the 500 Year Flood. Heavy rains rapidly ate away the snow cover, creating torrents where small rivulets had been just the day before. River towns were evacuated and it seemed like entire forests were rushing madly under bridges. The events surrounding the flooding and the safety of loved ones erased all thoughts of my friend.

When spring once more passed its mantle of green to summer, I returned to the stream. As I approached the old mill site, I was saddened at the changes wrought by the flood. Pools I had fished for years were unrecognizable, with rocks pushed far downstream. The remains of the old mill were gone. After an hour of fishing in every possible spot, I realized my friend was gone. Smaller fish still lurked among the nearby rocks, but the big trout was just a memory to be shared with friends and family on summer afternoons when the siren song of float planes headed for remote ponds fill the skies.

old friend3

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My grandmothers ….

Eleanor Patterson

Cornelia Kidd

Lea Wait, here.

I’ve been thinking about my grandmothers recently. Now that (gulp) I am a grandmother myself (of eight, I might add, for which I take no credit) I realized that both of my grandmothers – born in the nineteenth century – would have had little understanding of the world we now live in. What will my grandchildren think of me someday, I wonder? Some old lady born ‘way back in the 20th century who wrote books and lived in a really old house in Maine and took forever to get a cellphone.

Ah, well. Back to my grandmothers. One I never knew — she died before I was born — and I’ve appropriated her maiden name, Cornelia Kidd, as the pseudonym for my new Maine Murder Mystery series, debuting June 12 with Death and a Pot of Chowder. I’ll be writing more about her in another blog. But I hope she’d like that her name will be spoken so many years after her death.

My other grandmother, Caroline Eleanor Patterson, I knew well. I lived with her for a year when I was a toddler, and when I was ten she and my grandfather moved in to share a house with my parents, summer and winter. Their summer home is where I live now, sleeping in the same bedroom she did. She loved reading, was a dealer in antique dolls and toys, and valued books and history. She was very proud when I went to college, a lifelong dream of hers she was never able to fulfill. She didn’t live to see me graduate, but I think she knew I would. If she’d known I was going to write books she would have been thrilled. After all, she was the first person to take me to a library.

Cornelia and Eleanor (as she was called) both had their pictures taken at about the same time, sometime between 1900 and 1910. Those pictures tell their own stories.

Cornelia was thirty-two in 1910. She lived in Montgomery, a town in Orange County, New York. She’d been married for twelve years to a wealthy farmer twenty-two years older than she was, and given birth to three children, one of whom had died. Her picture shows her dressed elegantly (puffed sleeves and ruffles!), perhaps even flamboyantly, perhaps to show off her husband’s stature in town.

On the other hand, Eleanor was twenty in 1910, and still living at home in Boston. Her parents had been married in Edinburgh, Scotland, ten months before she was born, and she was the first of their seven children. (One of them died at the age of five.) Eleanor had been ill in her teens, so had graduated from high school a year later than her peers, and her dictatorial father would not allow her to attend college, or even to leave her home without the protection of one of her younger brothers. She had just convinced him that she be allowed to attend secretarial school, which would at least get her out of her house.

Her portrait is much simpler than Cornelia’s. Her dress is much plainer, and she’s wearing on only simple pin — a cameo she was given when she was eighteen, and which years later she gave to me on my eighteenth birthday. Although both women are pictured in studios, the chair next to Eleanor is simple compared with the elegant high-backed chair Cornelia is sitting on.

Why the differences? Perhaps the ten years difference in the women’s ages. Perhaps the perceptions of their families. Perhaps the difference between Boston and rural New York State.

In any case, I look at those pictures of my grandmothers and wish I could ask them questions I never even thought to ask the grandmother I knew. Were they in favor of women’s rights? Did Cornelia love books, as Eleanor did? What were their dreams? Their frustrations? Their aspirations? What were they thinking as those pictures were taken?

I’ll never know, of course. But whatever they were thinking when those pictures were taken, they’ve now become part of my history. And I cherish both of their portraits.

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Re-Reading Miss Marple

by Barb, working in her new study in Portland, Maine. There are still some boxes to go through, but it’ll do for now

I’ve been working on a new project for my publisher, Kensington Books. It’s actually an update of a novel I wrote in 2011. I finished it, but then the Maine Clambake Mysteries came along, I got busy, and the manuscript has been languishing in the proverbial drawer ever since. Okay, in the virtual drawer. I stole the original first chapter for a short story that was published in Level Best Books Noir at the Salad Bar.

The book is titled, Jane Darrowfield, Professional Busybody. I originally conceived of Jane as my Miss Marple. My version is contemporary, and takes place in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I thought a modern Jane would be divorced, not never-married. And instead of learning everything she needed to know about human nature from observing the citizens of St. Mary Mead, my Jane has seen it all at her job, climbing the ranks of AT&T and later all the permutations of what eventually became Verizon. And –would we even think of her as “old”? After all, old has gotten very much older.

I devoured the Miss Marple stories as a kid, back before YA literature was a thing. I loved them, but over the years, between the movies and the TV shows, my memory has gotten quite fuzzy. Back when I wrote the book the first time, I re-read the first Miss Marple and the last.

Just as Mickey Mouse appears rat-like in his early appearance in Steamboat Willy (1928), Miss Marple is an unpleasant gossip whom people avoid in her first appearance in The Murder at the Vicarage (1930). In Nemesis (1971), the last full-length book written (though not published), Miss Marple is much as we know her and is very much at the center of the mystery.

Struggling with point of view and tone as I rewrite my manuscript, I thought I would turn back to the master. I picked three from an internet list I found of the “best of the Miss Marples,” The Moving Finger (1943), A Murder is Announced (1950), and A Pocket Full of Rye (1953). Each was fascinating in its own way.

In The Moving Finger, Miss Marple turns up late–the book is more than 80% done. She plays a key role, but not the only role in the solution. The book reads, honestly, as if it is someone else’s story entirely, and then her publisher told Christie, “you better make it a Miss Marple,” after it was done.

Indeed, this is a characteristic of these early Miss Marple mysteries. She shows up a little sooner in A Murder is Announced, and her reputation precedes her, at least among the detectives. But it is not her story in any sense and there are only two scenes from her point of view, though she is the major driver of the solution. I haven’t finished A Pocket Full of Rye, the police are well on the case and have interviewed all the major suspects and we’ve not yet seen Miss Marple.

Keeping your sleuth scarce is a wonderful technique for a mystery writer. Going into her point of view is fraught–to play fair we most reveal all she knows, and a distant sleuth will be more exotic, their thought processes and techniques more inscrutable. (See Conan Doyle.) However, it won’t work for me in this case.

Nonetheless, I plan to keep re-reading. Christie’s language and descriptions are far more wonderful than she gets credit for, and her pictures of privileged life during and after the World War II are so interesting. The puzzles are great, of course. I always get a piece, but never the whole.

Readers: Are there any Christie fans among us? What are your favorites? What should I re-read next?

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The Secrets in my Filing Cabinet

Kate Flora: Recently, I was asked, as writers often are when we identify ourselves as

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Cover for my forthcoming short story collection

writers, if I was published. I replied with modest, down-cast eyes, that I had published eighteen books. Thinking about the eighteen published books, and the short story collection, novella, and ninth Thea Kozak mystery that I am putting the finishing touches on, made me wonder. Including the books that are hiding in my files, how many books have I written, as opposed to those I have published?

Since I spent ten years in the unpublished writer’s corner before my first book appeared, and since I am very serious about the fact that what writers do is write, whether published or not, I have quite a stash of unpublished books. Books we sometimes refer to as “books in the drawer.”

So what is in my drawer? To begin with, three books that I describe as being in a safe which is wrapped in chains, encased in cement, and at the bottom of the sea. These are my practice books. Two books in a series about a law student–representing, I suppose–the oft said idea that all early works are autobiographical. Another book about a New Hampshire school teacher with an irresponsible ex-husband, who moves her sad child to Florida and becomes a dog groomer.

When I first started writing my Thea Kozak series, I alternated those books with a series about Ross McIntyre, a Maine high school biology teacher. So the drawer contains three Ross McIntyre mysteries.

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Cover for my Girls’ Night Out novella

Around the time that my New York publisher dropped the Thea Kozak series, and before another publisher picked it up, I tried my hand at writing thrillers. The only one that got published was Steal Away, published as Katharine Clark, about a child who gets kidnapped. The other thrillers, still collecting dust in the drawer, include Spring Break, about a college student who learns she’s the child of a politician running for President, and has to go on the run when she becomes a potential pawn for the candidates. Spring Break shares drawer space with Teach Her a Lesson, about a school teacher trying to defend herself she when’s unjustly accused of seducing a student, and Runaway, a romantic suspense story about a girl on the run and a man who needs to get married.

No. That drawer still isn’t empty. There’s also the first book in a planned series about a female architect. Alas, this book is missing the ending, and the file is lost so many computers ago that I can’t find it. Of course, there’s also half a sequel, in which her rat of an ex-husband is found nail-gunned to the floor in a house she’s designed, and he’s the prime suspect.

I think that’s all. I believe we’ve come to the bottom of the drawer, but after thirty-five years in this writer’s chair, there might be another that I’ve forgotten.

This past weekend, I pulled out the manuscript for Spring Break, and it was just like reading someone else’s novel. I couldn’t put it down. I have a zillion things I need to be doing, but I needed to know what happened next. It’s my favorite part of writing–this need to get back to the story to see what happens next. This week, I got to entertain myself with my own long-neglected book. Yes, it’s a hokey book and too much bad stuff happens to my brave heroine, but it is still fun to read what I was writing almost twenty years ago.

Writers who are reading this–do you have a drawer full of unpublished books, too?

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Weekend Update: May 19-20, 2018

Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will posts by Kate Flora (Monday) Jen Blood (Tuesday), Barb Ross (Wednesday), Lea Wait (Thursday), and John Clark (Friday).

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

 

 

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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My Biggest Challenge

Vaughn Hardacker here: I have just started the rewrite phase of my most recent novel, which I have tentatively titled THE EXCHANGE. I have always found rewrite to be the hardest task in the writing process. In particular, what to keep, what to change, and, most difficult, what to take out.

We’ve all had occasions where we have written a scene that we truly love and then we remember the adage, “Sometimes you have to kill your darlings.” I recall the first time I read a piece to a writing group. I was really pleased with this scene and when one of the group members said: “That is a great piece of crime writing,” I began to feel as if I had just surpassed a major hurdle. When she went on to say: “Take it out…” I felt my bubble burst when without waiting, she said: “It reveals too much, too soon.” My first reaction was to dismiss her advice. However, when the other members of the group agreed with her,I was forced to accept their opinions. After overcoming my resistance I took that scene out of the book.

Over the past few years I have recalled that night many times and have arrived at a conclusion “not all good writing belongs in a particular book. I’ve since come up with a couple of rules that I use to address the issue:

  1. Make sure that each scene in the book adds suspense and/or poses a question that keeps the reader involved in the story.
  2. Does the scene add new information crucial to the plot.
  3. Ask yourself: “Does this scene move the story forward?”

If the answer to any of these questions is no, it should be taken out. When I write a novel I have a insatiable desire for word count, which can lead to having scenes in the story that not only don’t move the story forward, but bog the story down. When I read a book and I get to a scene that doesn’t meet the criteria above, I’m tempted to set the book aside. For several years I was an avid Tom Clancy fan, however, Clancy could bore down into technical description that completely turned me off. One of his books was about a terrorist plot to detonate a nuclear dirty bomb at the Super Bowl. To me the one quarter of the book that went into excruciating detail on the manufacture of the device didn’t add any new information that moved the plot forward. I felt that the plot was about terrorists attacking one of America’s largest sporting events, not how to make a bomb. Eventually I came to the conclusion that Clancy’s plots were to a great extent technology not character driven and I haven’t read any of his work in over ten years.

‘Nuff said. Time to get back to THE EXCHANGE in which a three year old child is abducted for the purpose of selling her on the illegal adoption market.

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Selective Memories

Fred Gorton–an expert at selective memory

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, today thinking about how subjective our memories are. I’ve known this for a long time. Back in 1980, I edited my grandfather’s memoirs. He wrote them based on his diaries, most of which recorded nothing more exciting than when he planted various crops, what the weather was like, and who had just died, and on his memories of events that took place many years in the past. A lot of what he knew at the time of those events was based on gossip. When he was recounting a scandal or a crime and he didn’t know those involved personally, he tended to be a bit careless with details. Although I knew some of his statements should be taken with a grain of salt, I didn’t want to censor his story. I added a few editor’s notes along the way and let his account stand. For those interested, “The Life of a Plodder” (his title) is online at http://www.kaitlyndunnett.com/gorton.htm

When I started working on the “Deadly Edits” mysteries, featuring a retired school teacher turned book doctor as the amateur detective, it was with the idea that I would call on my own memories of growing up in the Borscht Belt of New York State to create the setting. My protagonist, Mikki Lincoln, was born and raised there. As I have, she’s spent the last fifty years living in Maine, but she makes the impulsive decision to return to her roots. Three things combined to make this seem like a good idea to her. As a recent widow, Mikki finds it difficult to stay on in the house she shared with her husband. Her high school class is holding its fiftieth reunion. And the house she grew up in comes on the market. Only after she buys it and moves in does she fully realize how much has changed in five decades.

my old house (and Mikki’s)

Although the murder and Mikki’s involvement in the investigation are set firmly in the present day, events and relationships from her past keep popping up. These both help and hinder her progress. That her memories are frequently my memories presented me with a challenge. My recollection of events from my childhood and teen years is amazingly vivid in some places and totally blank in others. In addition, what I remember of those days is very different from what some of my classmates recall. We all have selective memories. They pick and choose which things to save. They also tend to make small changes so that when we replay those scenes in our minds, the past is distorted ever so slightly, usually in a way that makes us look better than we really were.

Nope–neither of us remembered it!

When I went to my fortieth reunion, I was sitting next to my best friend from high school while one of the “boys” from our class reminisced about the celebrations after our team won an away game and a championship. Football, I think. I went to home games and pep rallies back in the day, but I had absolutely no recollection of what he was talking about. I looked at my friend and mouthed “Do you remember that?” and she shook her head. Similarly, events that were of huge importance to me will barely have registered on the radar of others in my graduating class.

40th high school reunion

I suppose this may be an advantage. If I use a few real memories in Crime & Punctuation (in stores May 29) and its sequel, Clause & Effect, few people are likely to recognize them. My unique perception at the time, plus the distance of fifty-plus years, will equal something far closer to fiction than to reality. And, of course, in a lot of cases, I am making this up.

It will be interesting to see if anyone but me can tell the difference.

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of more than fifty-five traditionally published books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries and the “Deadly Edits” series (Crime & Punctuation—2018) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in a Cornish Alehouse) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” mysteries and is set in Elizabethan England. Her most recent collection of short stories is Different Times, Different Crimes. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com and she maintains a website about women who lived in England between 1485 and 1603 at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women.

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