“What IF?”

In this month’s Midwest Book Review one of my Mainely Needlepoint books (THREAD THE HALLS) is reviewed. For an author’s books to be reviewed is not unusual. In this case, however, it was, for two reasons. First, because THREAD THE HALLS was published in the fall of 2017, and reviews are usually of recently published (or about to be published) books. And, second, because the review, of one of my contemporary mysteries, also mentions my historical fiction.

I’ll admit – I didn’t mind. Especially since the reviewer said my historical fiction was “phenomenal,” a term I’m not used to seeing in book reviews. And, oh yes, I loved it!

The review came the same week my newest historical novel (a mystery) was published: JUSTICE & MERCY. And it made me think about what was important about my past and my newest historical fiction.

There is a major difference between JUSTICE & MERCY and my earlier historicals. In my earlier books I was always very — one might say “extremely” — conscious of getting the historical details correct, from place to clothing to politics to mindsets. In JUSTICE & MERCY I did something else. I took a place and a time and a mindset and wondered “what if” something else had happened there.

Don’t get me wrong: I did a lot of research for JUSTICE & MERCY, including visiting the area of New York, next to the Erie Canal, where it is set, studying the laws of the period, and reading local newspapers to find out how the end of the Civil War and the assassination of Lincoln affected that area.

JUSTICE & MERCY is set in the “burned-over district” of New York State. It was an area where social and religious activists and utopians were part of the culture: a fascinating mixture of radical communal religious communities, anti-slavery groups, women’s rights  organizations, and others. (To detail them would take a very long blog post!)

In the pre-Civil War years anti-slavery groups set up underground railroad routes starting in Ohio and leading north to the Erie Canal, and then north and west to Canada.

In JUSTICE & MERCY my “what if?” is whether, after the men went to war, the women they left behind re-invented the established underground railroad routes to help abused women and children escape their homes. In New York State at that time it was a felony to help a woman leave her husband, no matter the circumstances.

So — my latest historical fiction includes more fiction than my usual work.

But — “what if?”

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More Magic, More Empthy, More Urgency

What if nature-based fiction works better than most any science course we ever took? What if it delivers more magic, more empathy, more urgency, and more wisdom than a cross-section or diagram ever could?

When authors use the natural world to illuminate what is most human and inhuman about our species, they also take us on field trips we need to take.

When I travel to speak about my work, I also bring along a handout on nature based fiction that shares this wealth.

Here’s some of what I share. There’s more on my website.  https://www.authorsandraneily.com/naturebased-fiction/

“Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the forest.” Jack London, The Call of the Wild

“The sigh of all the seas breaking in measure round the isles soothed them; the night wrapped them; nothing broke their sleep, until, the birds beginning and the dawn weaving their thin voices in to its whiteness.” Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

“The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.” Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” Willa Cather, My Ántonia

Appreciating moose, even at the end of their lives. (Researching the hunter registration station for a “Deadly Trespass” chapter.)

“When he says ‘Skins or blankets?’ it will take you a moment to realized that he’s asking which you want to sleep under. And in your hesitation he’ll decide that he wants to see your skin wrapped in the big black moose hide. He carried it, he’ll say, soaking wet and heavier than a dead man, across the tundra for two—was it hours or days or weeks? … It’s December, and your skin is never really warm, so you will pull the bulk of it around you and pose for him, pose for his camera, without having to narrate this moose’s death.” Pam Houston, Cowboys Are My Weakness

Jackie helps me release trout back into the river.

“I wasn’t really breaking the law. Maine’s a practical state. My ancestors knew they couldn’t slap a deed on something that slithers through fingers, so they made rivers and trout public property and left it vague how we’d get to them. … Behind Carla Monson’s gate, spawning trout had to be flinging themselves upstream under fall leaves as orange as their cold, swollen bellies. They were my kind of invitation.” Sandra Neily, Deadly Trespass

Reading Suggestions (Reviews are in quotes. My personal notes are not.)

Heat and Light, Jennifer Haigh. “… when an author can tell a beautiful and compelling story about fracking, well, you know you are in the presence of something special.”

Breaking Point, C.J. Box. Two EPA employees are murdered. Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett thinks it might be Butch Roberson whose dreams of retirement income are shredded when the EPA declares his lands a wetland.

Winter Study, Nevada Barr. “Soon after Anna Pigeon joins the famed wolf study team of Isle Royale National Park in the middle of Lake Superior, the wolf packs begin to behave in peculiar ways.” All of her mysteries are set in vivid and various National Parks. All rip nature onto the page.

Skinny Dip, Carl Hiaasen. “…is about “a young, handsome marine biologist whose expertise is marginal and a crooked farm tycoon who owns large vegetable fields which he relentlessly pollutes with fertilizer run-off.” Hiaasen’s best-selling satires pit Florida’s outdoors against relentless stupidity.

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, Christopher Scotton. “The events of this fateful summer will affect the entire town of Medgar, Kentucky, beset by a massive mountaintop removal operation that is blowing up the hills and back filling the hollows.” NY Times raves: “a page turner.”

A Night Too Dark, Dana Stabenow. Alaska’s many natural resources provide conflict in most all her novels from mineral wars to fishing turf battles, to big oil up against native tribes. “Her over 17 novels about the Aleut PI Kate Shugak are an outstanding series. She’s 5 foot 1 inch tall, carries a scar that runs from ear to ear, owns a wolf/husky dog named Mutt and tries to survive the worst Alaskan wilds throw at her.”

The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey. In it, Hayduke says “No one knows precisely how sentient is a pinyon pine, for example, or to what degree such woody organisms can feel pain or fear, and in any case the road builders had more important things to worry about, but this much is clearly established as scientific face: a living tree, once uprooted, takes many days to wholly die.”( In my novel, Deadly Trespass Patton says it’s, a “classic hymn to lawbreaking on behalf of the natural world.”)

And more: The Overstory, Richard Powers * Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens  * Bearskin: A Novel, James A McLaughlin * Barkskins, Annie Prouix  *  Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver   *  The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories, Sarah Orne Jewett  *  Watership Down,  Richard Adams  *  The Beans of Egypt Maine, Carolyn Chute  *  The Weight of Winter, Cathie Pelletier  * Massacre Pond, Paul Doiron * The Great Alone, Kristin Hannah

Sandy’s novel, “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine,” won a Mystery Writers of America award and was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest. Last year, she was nominated for a Maine Literary Award. Find her novel at all Shermans Books and on Amazon. Find more info on the video trailer and Sandy’s website.  The second Mystery in Maine, “Deadly Turn,” will be published in 2019.

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Susan Vaughan here. Happy spring to everyone, although here in Maine true spring won’t show up for a month or more. Nevertheless, March 20, 2019 is the spring, or vernal, equinox in the northern hemisphere. As dawn is the time of new light, the vernal equinox is the start of new life.

It brings days and nights in equal proportions of daylight and nighttime. But did you know this is true only on the equator? For the rest of us, the proportion of daylight to night time varies, depending on where we are on the planet. In some cases, the date varies as well. As a date, the spring equinox has changed. Calendars created by ancient leaders, such as Julius Caesar and Pope Gregory XIII, and ancient peoples, such as the Maya, were imperfect for astronomical reasons. The date would remain the same every year if the earth’s journey around the sun took exactly 365 days, but it doesn’t, the same reason we have a leap year every four years.

The spring equinox has been an important cultural event for thousands of years. The Maya of Central America celebrated it. In what is now Mexico, the celebrated the arrival of spring (and the autumnal equinox as well) at Chichén Itzá. The pyramid of El Castillo (the Castle) was built to honor the god Kukulkán, the feathered serpent. When the sun sets on the day of the equinox, a play of light and shadow creates the appearance of a snake undulating down the pyramid’s staircase. To this day, thousands of people gather to observe this phenomenon, an effect which appears to have been deliberately created by the pyramid’s designers. In this picture, beside my husband and me, are giant snake heads, where the end of the light-and-shadow snake ends. The Maya were master builders and knew the power of mythic belief.

The Anglo-Saxon festival of Ostara celebrated the horned god and the spring maiden, both representing the arrival of spring. Some symbols of this ritual include eggs and rabbits, which spread to a Saxon festival honoring the dawn goddess Oester, from which are derived the words East and Easter. The date of the March equinox plays a major role in calculating the dates for observing the Jewish Passover and Christian Easter.

The ancient Chinese had a tradition for the spring equinox. One balanced eggs, a symbol of fertility, to bring good luck and prosperity. This custom has brought about a modern myth, that the spring equinox is the only day of the year when an egg can be balanced on its end. The truth is that you can balance an egg on any day.

In many traditions, spring equinox is the start of the new year. The Roman year began on the Ides of March, the fifteenth. The astrological year begins then when the moon moves into the first sign of the Zodiac, Aries. The Greek god Ares is equivalent to the Roman god Mars, for whom the month of March is named.


  • The spring equinox can occur on March 19, 20, or 21.
  • Equinox is Latin for equal nights.
  • Fred Rogers was born on March 20, 1928
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin on March 20, 1852.
  • March 20 is also the International Day of Happiness, adopted by the UN in 2012.
  • UN French Language Day is celebrated on March 20. The other five official UN languages are celebrated on other dates.

Thanks to Time and Date [www.timeanddate.com] for some of the above information.

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Voice in Fiction

by Barb Ross. Last post from Key West. Traveling home to Portland soon.

Voice in fiction is defined as

  • the author’s style, the quality that makes his or her writing unique, and which conveys the author’s attitude, personality, and character
  • characteristic speech and thought patterns of the narrator of a work of fiction.

Learn about Author’s Voice in Fiction Writing

In writing and publishing circles, voice is often talked about in hushed tones as something undefinable and unteachable. It is the reason agents most often offer representation to authors, and the reason they most often reject them. “I didn’t fall in love with the voice,” or “the voice isn’t strong enough,” or “distinctive enough” or even “the voice didn’t speak to me,” are the kind of maddeningly vague rejections writers get. Editors say, “I can fix anything but voice.”

That duality, the author’s voice and the narrator’s voice, is certainly part of the challenge of talking about and teaching voice. Huck Finn’s character voice is strong and clear, but we can see through it to Mark Twain’s distinctive attitude, personality, and character as he pulls the strings. How did Twain do that?

Writers very often come to believe that voice equals

  • narrator’s POV
  • distance
  • tense
  • time
  • tone
  • word choice







I believe voice equals

  • narrator’s POV
  • distance
  • tense
  • time
  • tone
  • word choice







Let’s break it down.

Point of View

Lot’s of great stuff has been written about Point of View. From the mechanical–first person, close third person, third person multiple, and the much less frequently used

  • multiple POVs, with one first person narrator and additional third person narrators
  • second person narration. (You got up this morning. You kissed me good-bye. You went for run as you always do.)
  • third person omniscient narration, common in the classics, but rarely used in commercial fiction today.

Once we have a narrator or narrators and we know which person (first, third, etc) they speak to the reader in, writers much inhabit that person (or those people when there are multiple narrators) in order to understand how they view the world, their experience, and language. Sometimes we know all of that before we start writing and sometimes the personality of the narrator becomes distinct as we write and revise.


We also have to know how far inside that narrating character we are. The current trend commercial fiction is to be deep inside the narrator’s skin. At the New England Crime Bake there is a fun event where agents and a published author sit at a round table with a group of writers seeking representation and each writer reads the first page of his or her manuscript. When I have participated, whenever the agent responds to the work with, “I’m not getting the narrator,” or “the character is not compelling,” my more practical, writerly advice is, “Go back and edit out all the distancing words- I felt, I thought, I saw. We don’t hear those words in our heads. Put it on the page as the character experiences it.”

Two thoughts about distance:

  • The closest I ever felt to a narrator was in Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. She throws the so deep into Thomas Cromwell’s guts at the beginning of each scene it feels like you have to fight your way to the surface, Alien-style, to look around and see where you are, who else is there, and what is going on. It is remarkable.
  • I’ve never been able to read Ann Cleeves’ first Shetland book Raven Black, even though I love her other books. One of the POV characters is an intellectually-challenged man who is practically a hermit. Cleeves so successfully gets you inside this character’s skin that I’ve found the space too claustrophobic to stay there for very long.


You all get what tense is. Choices are present, simple past and the much less frequently used (for good reason IMO, especially for a full-length novel) future and conditional.


Naturally you must use language appropriate to your narrator’s time in history, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

You must also know when the story is being told. Is it being told as events unfold so the narrator has no more idea what will happen next than the reader does? (This will always be the case if you are writing in present tense.) Or, does the narrator have some distance? Has he refined the tale down to one of his best bar stories? Or are the events in the story in the distant past, perhaps when the narrator was a child? Has the narrator grown and changed as a result of what has happened? Does she view these past events with new insight?

It’s important to understand when the story is being told relative to the events being related.


Is the book serious or is it humorous? If it uses humor is it light and funny, or ironic, sardonic, or sarcastic? Or, is the tone earnest, pure, reportorial, intellectual? How much self-awareness does the narrator have about himself and his role in the events in the story? Is the narrator offering knowing insights or naivety?

Word choice

  • Short sentences or long?
  • Formal construction or conversational language?
  • Complex vocabulary or simple?

You’ve got this one. This is the prose, and of course, it all depends on who the narrator(s) is (are).


Now, on to my argument about confidence. I believe the “magic” in voice is the author’s command of the story and the story-telling. The narrator doesn’t have to be a confident person, but the author has to believe the story is worth the telling. The author has to whisper to the reader through the character, “Come with me. I know what I’m doing. This story will be worth your time. It will –entertain, amaze, challenge, amuse–you. I won’t let you down. I promise.”

This is where the duality of the authorial voice and the narrator’s voice come together, in the author’s absolute confidence that the story is good, seducing the reader into believing in the author and the story, too.

Where does that confidence come from?

Sometimes the voice is the first glimmer the author has of the story. A voice starts talking in our heads. I have friends who tell me entire books have poured out of them this way. It may have been their first book or their tenth, catching the author by surprise.

This has never happened to me. When I hear a voice telling a story, it always peters out and wanders away by page 50, or with a short story by the fourth scene. I would love to have it happen, and maybe it will someday, but not so far.

More often, the author and the narrator are both timid, and it’s only in the revising and revising, as the confidence of the author grows and the narrator’s personality becomes more distinct that the voice takes command. Either way, a strong voice has to be there by the end. Voice isn’t magic, but it is the special sauce that makes every piece of fiction work.

Do authors follow some mental checklist on these elements of voice? Not really. I often compare writing fiction to riding a bicycle. In the beginning you’re conscious of everything–balance, steering, braking, pedaling, road safety. But once you learn, you’re only conscious of the thing that’s most challenging–steering on a wandering path, braking on a hill, navigating city traffic. Most authors don’t consciously make all the choices above, but if something’s not working, it’s worth going back and reviewing them.

Readers and writers: What are your thoughts about voice? I would love to hear them.

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Weekend Update: March 16-17, 2019

Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will be posts by Barb Ross (Monday), Susan Vaughan (Tuesday) Sandra Neily (Wednesday) Maureen Milliken (Thursday), and Lea Wait (Friday).

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

On Saturday, March 23, Bruce Robert Coffin will be taking his show on the road for two appearances in Massachusetts. At 11:30 he’ll be at the Milford Town Library discussing his Agatha nominated Detective Byron novel, Beyond the Truth. Then at 3:00 pm he’ll be at the Falmouth Public Library for Death and Dessert. Joining Bruce in Falmouth will be mystery authors Peter Swanson, Mary E. Hart, and Sarah Osborne. Hope you can make it to one of these fabulous venues.


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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Here Comes The Sun

Two young women in a red convertible with the top down zipped by me when I was driving home from work Tuesday evening. Heads thrown back, sunglasses glinting with the 5:45 rays brought to us by Daylight Saving Time, they were having a grand time, laughing and singing along with the radio.

Their Mini Cooper was crusted with salt and spattered with road wash just like my CRV, but they were in the springtime groove and their anticipatory happiness was contagious.

The city streets are pocked with potholes the size of washtubs (is it me or are they worse than usual this year?) and the country roads are decorated with the traditional roadside signs warning of that distinctive northern New England condition known as frost heaves.

Sign ‘o the times

But I’m ready to unzip my coat and venture forth into spring, because here comes the sun, my friends.

The snowbanks are receding, the early morning songbirds are getting vocal and I’m wearing shoes to work instead of boots.

Some days there’s still red ice on the sidewalks (as hazardous to those of us who traverse Portland’s brick sidewalks as the black variety that hides on Maine roadways after whatever thawed the previous day freezes up overnight), but it’ll be gone soon.

Everything is overdue for a good spring cleaning. House. Car. Gym bag. I’m itching to replace the wool and fleece I’ve been wearing since November with cotton and linen, eager to unpack the happy season attire of sneakers, shorts and swimsuits.

Red’s Dairy Freeze in South Portland opened on Monday. Local breweries are transitioning from Porters and Stouts to lighter ales and beers.

Smelt shacks herald spring

Smelts are running and before you know it the clam shacks will open and we’ll all be sitting at picnic tables waiting for our number to be called.

Oh yes. At Five Islands, perhaps? Or Bagaduce Lunch?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Sunday is March 17. Two weeks ago, we took our holiday wreath down. Now it’s time to toss the beribboned evergreens in the ceramic pots that flank our front porch. However festive they seemed in December, the relentless wintry mix of January, February and early March has left them glum and frozen in place, two stubborn ghosts of Christmas 2018.

But mark my words. By the time the sun comes up on St. Patrick’s Day those final Christmas decorations will be gone, even if I have to use an old screwdriver to chip them out of the lingering ice.

My brilliant poet friend Alice Persons, founder of Maine’s own Moon Pie Press, wrote a memorable bit of verse about this annual ritual. With her permission, here it is:

The Wreath People

By Alice N. Persons

I’m sick of them,
these wreaths —
brown, desiccated,
with forlorn red bows
they linger on doors and windows
in the strengthening sun.
There must be fifty in my neighborhood alone.
It’s almost Easter.
They have to go.
Green and fresh, in dark December
they gladdened the heart
but it’s long past time to
recycle, bury or burn.
I fantasize about roaming the streets
picking off wreaths with
silent rubber bullets.
I should get a medal from the mayor.
The Wreath People puzzle me —
they live among us, but why?
Is it laziness, inertia, an arcane ritual,
or do the dead wreaths
mark their houses for the mother ship?

From Thank Your Lucky Stars (Moon Pie Press, 2011).
Used with the author’s permission.

Happy St.Patrick’s Day, dear blog readers. Are you seeing signs of spring in your neck of the woods.? What are you most looking forward to when the snow finally melts and the flowers bloom? Do you have favorite poems about spring?

Brenda Buchanan is the author of the Joe Gale Mystery Series, featuring a diehard Maine newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. Three books—QUICK PIVOT, COVER STORY and TRUTH BEAT—are available everywhere e-books are sold. She is writing a new series that has as its protagonist a Portland criminal defense lawyer willing to take on cases others won’t touch in a town to which she swore she would never return.

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Finally A Light At The End Of The Tunnel


Vaughn Hardacker here: As I write this I am looking forward to setting the clock ahead one hour! I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (better known as Seasonal Depression) and this winter has been possibly the worst (defined as longest) that I can remember. We got our first snow on October 18 and, unlike most years, it stayed with us; add to that a cumulative snowfall of 152 inches (we are forecasted to get another five inches on Monday and Tuesday, March 11 & 12). Considering that we usually get snow through mid-April we could set a new all-time record

for cumulative snowfall.

For years I’ve been told that I suffer from S. A. D. but never really understood what it was. All I knew was that I hated winter (truth be told, I still do) and for many years made a point of never returning to Maine from November to June. In 2009 I returned rationalizing that snow and cold are only a problem if you have to go out in it–and as a retiree I could stay inside as much as I liked. I did not account for one thing . . . a phenomenon we call cabin fever.

I researched Seasonal Depression (S. A. D.) and here’s what I’ve learned

Seasonal depression is a mood disorder that happens every year at the same time. A rare form of seasonal depression, known as “summer depression,” begins in late spring or early summer and ends in fall. In general, though, seasonal affective disorder starts in fall or winter and ends in spring or early summer.


While the exact causes of SAD are not known, some scientists think that certain hormones made deep in the brain trigger attitude-related changes at certain times of year. Experts believe that SAD may be related to these hormonal changes. One theory is that less sunlight during fall and winter leads to the brain making less serotonin, a chemical linked to brain pathways that regulate mood. When nerve cell pathways in the brain that regulate mood don’t function normally, the result can be feelings of depression, along with symptoms of fatigue and weight gain.

SAD usually starts in young adulthood and is more common in women than men. Some people with SAD have mild symptoms and feel out of sorts or irritable. Others have worse symptoms that interfere with relationships and work.

Because the lack of enough daylight during wintertime is related to SAD, it’s less often

Clearing My Front Walk

found in countries where there’s plenty of sunshine year-round.

Winter Symptoms

People with SAD have many of the normal warning signs of depression, including:

  • Less energy
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Greater appetite
  • Increased desire to be alone
  • Greater need for sleep
  • Weight gain

Summer Symptoms

  • Less appetite
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Weight loss


If you’ve been feeling depressed and have some of the above symptoms, see your doctor for an assessment. He or she will recommend the right form of treatment for you.


There are different treatments, depending on the severity of your symptoms.

The View From My Front Porch

Traditional antidepressants are often used to treat seasonal depression.  Bupropion XL (I use this, it was sold as an aid to quit smoking under the brandname Ziban) is currently the only medication that is FDA-approved specifically to prevent major depressive episodes in people with SAD.

Many doctors recommend that people with SAD get outside early in the morning to get more natural light. If this is impossible because of the dark winter months, antidepressant medications or light therapy (phototherapy. I have a special lamp provided by the VA and it does seem to help somewhat; however sunlight works best for me.) may help.

In closing, I’ve been at a number of writing events where people ask “Why are there so many writers in Maine?”. I’ve heard several writers say: “The winters are long.” I understand where these people are coming from, but if, like me, you suffer from S. A. D. you may find the winter months to be your least productive. It’s now half-past March and May is a mere six weeks (seems like months) away and finally I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel!

By the way . . . anyone know of a place with Maine summers and Arizona winters?



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