The Road to Maine was Paved with . . . Words

Please welcome our special guest, Kait Carson, to Maine Crime Writers.

Thank you, Maine Crime Writers, for inviting me to blog with you today. I’m an avid reader of this blog. The topics are diverse, and always interesting. I’d also like to thank Maine for its warm welcome. Maine has a reputation of shunning new residents, generally known as “people from away”. My experience has been quite the opposite. Maybe it’s a Valley thing, as in the St. John Valley. In the Crown of Maine, folks are warm and welcoming. Winter, not so much.

In 2005 hubs and I decided to pull up stakes in South Florida and move to northern Maine. The County, to be exact. We’d had it with the heat, and we won’t talk about hurricanes. There was only one problem. I was a Florida probate litigation paralegal. Not much call for that in Fort Kent. Can you see my secret smile? The happy dance in my heart increased with every mile. Torts were about to give way to tomes. In my world, this is known as living the dream.

There is something about Maine that fosters creativity. Whether it’s tales from long-time residents, the long, dark, nights, or the mysterious shadows of the pine forest, inspiration creeps into your soul and bubbles out through your fingertips. Words flow and ideas collide faster than you can capture them. Nirvana for writers.

We weren’t in the Valley a week when new friends took us out to dinner. As the wine flowed, our hostess reached across the table and patted my hand. “Strange stuff happens around here.” She slewed her eyes in the direction of the road to the Allagash. “My late husband worked for the railroad. The stuff that goes on in the woods has no explanation.” She declined to elaborate when her boyfriend gave her the one-eyebrow raised look. Didn’t matter, I soon had my own experiences to mull over.

Kait’s pole-dancing bear cub

Daylight comes late in the north woods. One morning I glanced out my office window to see the side of my driveway illuminated by a pillar of light. I reached for my phone to take a photo, but when I looked back, the woods were completely dark. Then there was the night I sat on the porch to catch a meteor shower. As stars flew through the sky, the treetops on the south side the property lit up as if bathed in a spotlight. There was no sound, we’re too far from the road for it to have been reflected truck headlights, and there’s no road behind or to the side of the property. In fact, if you walk out our back door, you can walk one hundred miles straight to the St. Lawrence Seaway and not encounter another human being or habitation except for the remains of abandoned logging camps. Nothing there to cast light on the tops of the trees.

local wildlife

Maine’s mysterious topics continued to provide fertile soil for a myriad of short stories and essays, but I wasn’t ready to expand the setting into longer works. So, when I learned of the National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRMO – NANO for short), I returned to my Florida roots for my first attempt at a novel. Maybe there is something to Hemingway’s “write what you know exhortation.

I plundered my dive logs for material. After all, what better place to hide a body than under one-hundred and twenty feet of water. One dive, on the wreck of the Thunderbolt, stood out. A flesh-colored plastic bag floated from the wheel house of the long-sunk vessel. I caught sight of it from the corner of my eye and for a brief, shocking, moment, the undulating plastic appeared not as a bag, but a hand. That event provided the infamous inciting incident for Diving Diva. The book morphed into the full-length novel titled Death by Blue Water. The first of the Hayden Kent mysteries recently re-released and now available on Amazon.

Florida and scuba diving provide the backdrop for two more novels, Death by Sunken Treasure and Death Dive. The dark reaches of the northern Maine woods are set to feature in the Sassy Romano mysteries with the first, Deadly Deception, scheduled for release in the fall of 2023. Sassy inherits her family’s inn and artists retreat from her great aunt. What can possibility go wrong?

Kait Carson writes two series set in the steamy tropical heat of Florida. The Catherine Swope series, set in greater Miami, and the Hayden Kent series set in the Fabulous Florida Keys. A new series, the Maine Lodge mysteries, features Sassy Romano, a newly divorced thirty-something, who puts her past behind her when she inherits her family’s Inn and artist retreat.

Like her protagonists, Kait is an accomplished SCUBA diver, hiker, and critter lover. She lives with her husband, four rescue cats and flock of conures in the Crown of Maine where long, dark, nights give birth to flights of fictional fantasies.

You can reach Kait at kait@kaitcarson.com

Posted in Guest Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Weekend Update: January 28-29, 2023

Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by special guest Kait Carson (Monday), a group post (Tuesday), Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson (Thursday), and Kate Flora (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, along with the very popular “Making a Mystery” with audience participation, and “Casting Call: How We Staff Our Mysteries.” We also do programs on Zoom. Contact Kate Flora

Posted in Sunday Updates | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The mysterious case of Elizabeth Freel

From time to time, we introduce you to guests whose work we believe you will find as fascinating as we do. Today’s guest is one of them, as you will soon discover.

Kristen Seavey

Intro

I spend a lot of time with old newspapers, and I love it. One of my favorite parts of having a true crime podcast is research. My show, Murder, She Told (https://murdershetold.com), which focuses on Maine and New England true crime, uses a lot of these old newspapers in the cases we present.

Digging through archives, I’ll often stumble upon headlines I wasn’t originally looking for—cases that have been buried with time. Some that made their way through the justice system and out of the headlines. Others that didn’t get that far, and, at some point, were given up on.

The case of Elizabeth Freel (https://www.murdershetold.com/episodes/elizabeth-freel) from 1936, whose body was found burning in the mountains of New Hampshire, is by far the most bizarre and baffling historic case I’ve discovered.

“CHARRED AND BROKEN BODY OF WOMAN FOUND ON LONELY MOUNTAIN.”

Around 4:00PM on the afternoon of May 20th, 1936, firefighters were called to Rattlesnake Hill to put out a fire. Rattlesnake Hill overlooks the Connecticut River Valley and borders Brattleboro, VT. It was given its name because at the time, it was infested with rattlesnakes (yes, rattlesnakes). The men climbed a steep, overgrown 2-mile trail in full gear and spent all night putting out the flames, and by the morning, they had made a gruesome discovery.

The source of the fire wasn’t a bolt of lightning or a smoldering cigarette butt; it was the body of a woman, burned beyond recognition.

At the crime scene, they discovered about a dozen bullets embedded in the dirt under where she lay, a fully loaded .22 caliber revolver, a 1-gallon empty maple syrup can, and 99 cents scattered about. There was blunt force trauma on the back of her head, and both of her arms and legs were broken. A burned-up suitcase lay on top of her remains. They determined that an accelerant had been used to light the fire.

Grace Hurley

Nothing at the scene had a name of the mystery woman, so they set about trying to figure out who she was.

The police told the media they believed she was a young woman, and the medical examiner said that she had recently had an abortion shortly before death, spurring rumors of a scorned lover taking revenge. Was it murder? Or did she die by suicide?

They were able to use the serial number of the gun to determine where it had been sold. When they contacted the shop owner, he said that the woman had given the name Grace Hurley, and said she was from Boston. He recalled that she was middle-aged, and seemingly wealthy, peeling off twenties from a roll of bills that looked to contain about $500.

Through some more detective work, and through the help of reporters at the Brattleboro Reformer, it was determined that a guest at a local hotel had given the name Grace Hurley, and had signed in on Tuesday, May 19th, just two days before the fire. She, too, gave her hometown as Boston.

Locals remembered her walking on the trails, interacting with other guests, and paying for everything in bills from a large roll of cash. The Great Depression wouldn’t end for another few years, making people who carry and present large wads of cash something memorable for most people.

But none of the Boston officials that the police contacted seemed to know anything about a Grace Hurley. Was Grace even here real name? The police offered up dental records as well as Grace’s signature to the media, hoping somebody would come forward.

Fortunately, Boston papers picked up the story, and a man in Clinton, Massachusetts recognized the handwriting in the paper and the pseudonym, “Grace Hurley.” It was his wife… Elizabeth Freel. He contacted their dentist, and the doctor confirmed it: the records matched. Grace had been unmasked.

So how did Elizabeth end up on that mountain? And why was she using an assumed name?

Elizabeth’s husband, Robert Freel, told detectives their relationship was unusual. In recent years, Elizabeth had been taking off for days or weeks at a time, returning home when the money ran out. He said her wanderlust was connected with a nervous condition that she had suffered from for nearly 15 years. She’d stay at extravagant hotels under pseudonyms in cities like Boston and New York. Grace Hurley was her favorite name. He never asked questions, and always left $50 around the house so she wouldn’t be without money. He said that despite her quirks and her mental health disorder, he didn’t think his wife would take her own life. He also said he knew nothing of her apparent pregnancy or abortion.

Unravelling the mystery

Investigators discovered that Elizabeth had made two trips to the Brattleboro area before her death. The owner of the hotel she stayed at said she seemed nervous and like she was waiting for somebody. She would take long walks out towards the mountain, which was odd considering she was in heels.

A few days before the fire, on her second and final trip to Brattleboro, she purchased the revolver and the one-gallon maple syrup can. On the morning of her death, Elizabeth herself purchased the flammable cleaning solution—a mixture of gasoline and kerosene—that investigators believed was used to stoke the blaze.

Investigators revisited the crime scene, hoping to find additional clues, and discovered they’d missed a brand-new flashlight in a bush nearby, in a bag with a receipt from a Five and Dime marked the same day as the fire. The clerk remembered a young man buying it, but didn’t know his name. Could he be connected to Elizabeth? Their search for a potential weapon that caused the blunt force trauma was unsuccessful.

Everything that was found at the crime scene was scattered: her dentures were found 12 feet away from her body, the syrup can was 25 feet away, and her suitcase was lying on top of her body.

Police were completely baffled. The circumstances were, and still are, completely mystifying.

Elizabeth climbed a steep, extremely overgrown, rattlesnake infested 2-mile trail with a suitcase and a gallon can full of flammable solution… in heels.

 Her body was found off the trail in untamed forest with trauma to the head, broken bones, and completely immolated. The medical examiner believed the broken bones most likely came from the extreme heat of the fire, but the heat didn’t explain the head trauma. How could she do all these things to herself? Why would somebody bring her up that far to kill her?

Even more strange, the .22 revolver that she purchased, which was found near her body, was fully loaded and was determined not to have been discharged. But underneath her body, embedded 3-4” in the dirt, were about a dozen bullets.

Vermont detectives were insistent that Elizabeth had died by suicide, coming up with a theory of how it happened: as she was seated, she lit the fire and the burst of the flames was so strong it sent her backward, causing her to hit her head on a rock, which was the cause of death.

The New Hampshire state medical examiner strongly disagreed, saying the blunt force trauma couldn’t have been caused by the rock at the scene. It didn’t match up. Her death happened before the fire, as shown by the blood evidence. Elizabeth was murdered.

Ultimately, they couldn’t agree on what happened. Without new information coming in and with the investigation at a standstill, it eventually faded out of the headlines never to be revisited.

Today

I covered this case on Murder, She Told in May of 2021, bringing Elizabeth’s story to a modern world. There were no hits for her name on the internet prior. Her case had been buried with time. Since releasing, I have heard from a few family members; among them, the great-granddaughter of Elizabeth, and a son of Robert Freel from his marriage after Elizabeth’s death.

Her story is tragic, and puzzling. But it shouldn’t be forgotten.

The most frustrating part about this story is that I truly have no idea what I think happened to Elizabeth. Though I can entertain the two official theories, at the same time, neither of them makes sense to me. I don’t know how to wrap my head around at this case, and I think that’s why I find it so fascinating.

Even if we don’t have the answers, I hope that by sharing Elizabeth’s story, that a part of local history has been recovered and preserved. Her memory, once forgotten by the public, will continue to live on. Maybe that’s the only kind of justice we can offer.

For an extensive list of sources and to learn more about this case, visit https://www.murdershetold.com/episodes/elizabeth-freel.

Kristen Seavey is a victim’s advocate and the creator and host of Murder, She Told, an award-winning true-crime podcast that dives into the lesser-known cold cases and crime stories from Maine and New England. She is from Newport, ME.

You can find and listen to Murder, She Told free on any podcast platform, or at https://murdershetold.com

Posted in Guest Blog, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Real People in Fictional Stories

Charlene D’Avanzo: Reading Rhys Bowen’s latest “Royal Spyness” mystery (Peril In Paris) I was intrigued by the appearance of a historical person – Wallis Simpson – who reminds French police that she (Simpson) is the king of England’s fiancée and thereby rescues lead character Lady Georgina from a stint in jail.

Simpson, a storybook figure, is an intriguing addition to Bowen’s novel.

Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, was an American socialite and wife of the former King Edward VIII. Their intention to marry and her status as a divorcée caused a constitutional crisis that led to Edward’s abdication. Edward renounced the British throne on December 10, 1936 in order to marry Simpson.

The bottom line advice I’ve read about parody is don’t go half-way. Make sure the work is clearly parody so that you can argue no one would reasonably assume it is true. In parody the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule.

In other words, if you decide to use a real historical figure or person in your novel you have to do it well.

Parody imitates noticeable features of an existing work in a comical way. Parodies comment on or make fun of the original and generally aim to amuse.  They strictly deal with just one subject at a time and tend to be less serious in nature. Parody usually is for the purpose entertainment and amusement, while satire can lead to intense social/political critiques.

The use of parody includes using imitation or emphasis that draws attention to specific people, events, features, plots, etc. that are strange or silly in nature in order to add or develop humor.

Finally, you can use real historical figures to give historical context/texture to the story but they are not typically protagonists or other main characters.

Posted in Charlene's post, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Taking Joe Burgess to Miami

Kate Flora: I often preach, and yeah, I can get a bit preachy about things, that it is important for writers to get away from their desks, out into the world, and take some time to be observant. What’s around you? Who is around you? What are the colors, the sights, the sounds that are there? Sometimes the question is how you might use them in a book. Sometimes the question is how would your character see what you are seeing and how is it different from what you, the writer, are seeing?

In the winter, I tend to hibernate. Close down the little ocean-front cottage, go home, put the gardens to bed, and sit in my office. I’m happy this way. I like to write. I like to read. I like to cook. Sometimes when the writing is slow, I sneak away to ebay and think about buying a fun new pair of shoes.

But once in a while, we take an actual vacation, which is what we did last week. This actual vacation was to the Florida keys and then Miami Beach. Not very comfortable places for a desk-bound New Englander. After all, I was probably past forty before I allowed myself to wear something sleeveless and I still rarely wear shorts. But there I was, swathed in a large white garment to protect my easily burned skin, looking around. Listening. Trying to imagine how Joe Burgess might have felt and how he would have described what I was seeing.

In truth, on the beach in Miami, it was hard to figure out what Burgess would think of the nearly endless parade of women in thong bikinis. As his creator, I’m betting that his first thought would be how ridiculously uncomfortable they looked. His second, that people in Miami, like those on the streets of Portland, often exercise poor judgment in their choice of clothing as well as their behavior. Perhaps, though, once he’d gotten judgment out of his system, he might have settled in to enjoy the view.

Or would he? Would the strong odor of marijuana on the breeze be disconcerting to someone when during his entire career it had been illegal? What about the guys cruising the beach with cameras, chatting up awfully young girls and wanting to take their pictures? Would he keep a close eye on the vendors selling beer? The older guy plying young girls he’d met with drinks? Or would he just kick back, close his eyes, and bask in the sun?

The you can take a cop out of New England, but you can’t stop him being a cop.

As we took a golf cart tour of about 50 blocks of buildings that were decorated with wall art, would he have been comfortable enjoying the talent of artists from all over the world allowed, or even paid, to do spray paint art on the sides of buildings? Would he have had a stronger reaction than I did to amazing works that had been tagged by vandals? Would he have been able to relax at all and enjoy it?

I think he would have allowed himself to relax and enjoy the night on a sunset cruise when the boat was suddenly surrounded by ten to fifteen dolphins. Out on the water, there were no bad guys to watch, few other boats posing a threat, and the nature and the sunset were spectacular.

He might have enjoyed the stunning visuals of SuperBlue Miami. He is, after all, a visual guy. Seeing beyond the ordinary is his job. Burgess is a guy who notices things–the things that are there and the things that aren’t. The small movements that people make that become tells that they are lying. The misbuttoned shirt or the small stain on a shoe. Being in a room that played to the senses might have been a great experience for him. His mind might wander, though, to people watching.

Or perhaps, like me, he’d enjoy an immersive show about Van Gogh. I’ve never thought about whether he’s an art fan. He lived a pretty monkish existence before he met Chris. But one thing he always did was take a picture of the crime scene after the body was gone, to remind himself of the void he needed to fill by solving the crime. Would seeing the sketches and then the finished works Van Gogh made make him think about process? Or about the choices that the creators had to make in order to put the show together. They were constructing a story. He is always reconstructing a story.

It’s probably a fact of a writer’s life. We may go away, but often our characters come with us, poking us from time to time to remind us to think about them.

Anyway, I had a great vacation in Florida even when I was dragged out of my comfort zone, and I had a lot of fun imagining Burgess along for the ride.

Posted in Kate's Posts | 3 Comments

Bringing Characters to Life by Matt Cost

Should characters in books have political leanings? I mean, most people do. Some people claim that they hate politics, politicians, and never vote because they’re all crooks. But that is a political belief as well. Most of the rest of the population are just as adamant in their beliefs, be it left, right, or somewhere in the middle.

I understand that you don’t want to alienate a segment of the population. But the same can be said for just about any belief that a person has. Religion. Football fan. Soccer fan. Support Immigrants. Oppose Immigrants.  Eat meat. Vegan. The list goes on and on.

It is my belief that creating a character in a book is like taking a store mannequin and bringing it to life. To do so, you have to provide a hairstyle, clothing, and mannerisms But this is still merely scratching the surface. If you want to truly bring this mannequin to life, you have to go deeper and reach the core essence.

What is the backstory of my protagonist? Sure, Clay Wolfe has commitment issues. But why? The writer has to know this, and share it with the reader, sometimes subtly, sometimes bluntly. His parents died in a car crash when he was eight, is the short version, and the longer version continues to leak out over the course of four books now, with a fifth due in December.

Goff Langdon in my Mainely Mystery series votes Independent, sometimes Democrat, and never Republican. Is that wrong? I welcome discourse, of course, on whether his political beliefs are right or wrong. The argument can certainly be made that Republican beliefs are more valid than that of Independents or Democrats. The question is: Is it wrong for him to have an opinion?

There seem to be two major rules of thumb of what not to do in a book. Don’t kill a pet, especially a dog or cat, and don’t allow your protagonist to have a political belief system. I am good with the first but question the second.

When a writer starts writing to not offend, then the creative process has been stymied. I don’t think we should use fiction to get on a high horse and use our novels as a podium to preach our politics, but to omit something as major as political leanings from our characters seems to be taking a step back to become an inanimate and thoughtless mannequin.

Enough of what I think. What do you all think? Should the protagonist of a book have a political belief system?

Matt Cost was a history major at Trinity College. He owned a mystery bookstore, a video store, and a gym, before serving a ten-year sentence as a junior high school teacher. In 2014 he was released and began writing. And that’s what he does. He writes histories and mysteries.

Cost has published four books in the Mainely Mystery series, with the fifth, Mainely Wicked, due out in August of 2023. He has also published four books in the Clay Wolfe Trap series, with the fifth, Pirate Trap, due out in December of 2023.

For historical novels, Cost has published At Every Hazard and its sequel, Love in a Time of Hate, as well as I am Cuba. In April of 2023, Cost will combine his love of histories and mysteries into a historical PI mystery set in 1923 Brooklyn, Velma Gone Awry.

Cost now lives in Brunswick, Maine, with his wife, Harper. There are four grown children: Brittany, Pearson, Miranda, and Ryan. A chocolate Lab and a basset hound round out the mix. He now spends his days at the computer, writing.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Weekend Update: January 21-22, 2023

Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Matt Cost (Monday), Kate Flora (Tuesday), Charlene D’Avanzo (Thursday), and special guest Kristen Seavey (Friday).

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

RIPPED OFF

Encircle Publications of Farmington, Maine will release Vaughn Hardacker’s seventh thriller, RIPPED OFF, on Wednesday, January 25, 2023. It is can be purchased or ordered via all of the major book vendors.

 Matt Cost was part of a panel on predicting the future on Technology Revolution Radio with Bonnie Graham. His prediction was that audiobooks will start being released by chapter, much like a Netflix series or Sunday Night Radio in the 1950’s. Wolfe Trap was recently released on audiobook. Mind Trap, Velma Gone Awry, and Mainely Fear are soon to follow. Check it out here: https://www.voiceamerica.com/episode/140906/technology-revolution-2023-crystal-ball-predictions-special-5

Matt Cost will be on Big Blend Radio next Thursday at 2 p.m. talking about his upcoming release, Velma Gone Awry, which is a a 1923 historical PI mystery set in Brooklyn, NY. Check out what he has to say here: https://www.blogtalkradio.com/big-blend-radio

 

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, along with the very popular “Making a Mystery” with audience participation, and “Casting Call: How We Staff Our Mysteries.” We also do programs on Zoom. Contact Kate Flora

Posted in Sunday Updates | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

You’re Crazier Than the Weather, Charlie

Another of my old teachers died last week. Charles Simic was a Pulitzer-Prize winning poet, a MacArthur grantee, and a well-loved teacher at the University of New Hampshire. He died in Dover, NH of complications of dementia. He was also a former Poet Laureate of the United States, and when he started to become famous, turned down many offers to relocate his art and his teaching to more famous institutions than the state university of New Hampshire.  He said in an interview that he had a tree on his property that he could not leave.

Back when I thought I was a poet, I was delighted to discover his absurdity and his delicate way with words. The obituary in the New York Times quoted several of his better-known poems, but the one I loved the best, and which, to this day, defies my search for meaning:

The truth is dark under your eyelids.
What are you going to do about it?
The birds are silent; there’s no one to ask.
All day long you’ll squint at the gray sky.
When the wind blows you’ll shiver like straw.

A meek little lamb you grew your wool
Till they came after you with huge shears.
Flies hovered over open mouth,
Then they, too, flew off like the leaves,
The bare branches reached after them in vain.

Winter coming. Like the last heroic soldier
Of a defeated army, you’ll stay at your post,
Head bared to the first snow flake.
Till a neighbor comes to yell at you,
You’re crazier than the weather, Charlie.

Is this winter he’s talking about? I doubt it’s that simple, though shivering like straw in the wind could let you conjure that. The flies hovering, the branches reaching, all of the images are delightful to me, and  impenetrable. You could shoehorn all kinds of meanings and ascribe many  intentions, but you will eventually slide down into such deep water, you’ll drown in your possibilities. I’ve given up trying to parse it.

As a teacher, Simic had a different voice than his poems. He was quietly thoughtful, respectful of a student’s fumbling for ideas, patient. My last connection with him was in a graduate course in American literature, and unlike some poets I’ve known, he had a deep knowledge of and an appreciation for, the beauty of a prose line, the power of a narrative.

I don’t know if I can imagine a worse end for someone so devoted to words and poetry than to lose his memory and to lose his language. I only hope, in a perverse way, that the dementia also took away his awareness of what he was fading. Ave, Charles. You left a mark.

Posted in Dick's Posts, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

On Ignoring Private Property Signs … and More

Winter Vigil: Raven knows that squirrels’ tunnels all lead here…..

Sandra Neily here: With a bit of everything: recent lines from book #3, some great Maine winter events to join that fit into the spirit emerging in my novel, and a repeat, by request.

*********

(In novel #3, “Deadly Assault,” Patton and Pock are spending the night high up in a tree stand built by her old wildlife biologist boss.)

Lit by a full moon so intense my shadow copied me as if I had quiet company, I scraped lynx scat off the floor boards, hauled up the backpack I’d clipped onto another rope, and thought about the towel I’d brought for my dog to sleep on. He snored on the Colonel Bisbee sleeping bag, so I lifted its edges over his shoulders. If I spooned inside with him later, I’d have dog warmth—some violent twitching and dream yelps, but that was expected.

I pulled a chair over to the edge of the deck, drank the rainwater collected from Ken’s funnel and hose system, and chewed on beef jerky.  Thoreau’s book of Maine travels sat on my lap, but I didn’t need it open, and I didn’t daylight either. Spread out before me was the same kind of forest he saw hundreds of years ago.

Burnt Jacket’s steep slopes sent clear streams tumbling down into lowlands where beavers dammed the current into pools. Bogs and wetlands ringed by soft, green moss fed ducks and countless other creatures. Individual trees disappeared into black, shaggy shapes looming over clearings lit by shafts of light. House-sized boulders abandoned by retreating glaciers glinted as the moving moonlight caught minerals that winters had scoured to the surface.

Two deer tiptoed up the game trail, snorted as they caught human scent, and crashed away into the trees. During the night other hooves, paws, and slithering small ones would use this trail. Like the moving moonlight, they’d flow across the landscape, hunting up high or down low near water, hiding in snags of ancient trees or in muddy dens. Everyone who lived within the reach of the moon’s rays knew no boundaries and ignored all the Private Property signs. I envied them.    

Gilsland Farm Bird Walks – Winter hours

Beginning in December, walks shift to 8-10 am for the winter.  Free, no registration required.  Join us for a weekly bird walk at Gilsland Farm, led by Maine Audubon’s Staff Naturalist Doug Hitchcox and others. Meet in the parking lot, in front of the Visitor Center, where we’ll begin a slow walk around the property to look and listen for birds using Gilsland’s diverse habitats.

Lily Bay State Park

Kennebec Land Trust 2023 Lyceum Lecture Series
Maine’s State Parks and Public Lands: Conserving Nature, Managing People, and Embracing the Future
Thursdays March 16, March 23, and March 30 ~ 6:00 – 7:30 PM
Winthrop High School Auditorium

Join Kennebec Land Trust for our annual winter lecture series to learn more about Maine state parks and public land from Maine State staff.

Recreational and Cultural Importance of Maine’s Parks and Public Lands
Thursday, March 16, 2023, 6:00 – 7:30 PM

Conservation of Wildlife and Biodiversity of Maine’s Parks and Public Lands
Thursday, March 23, 2023, 6:00 – 7:30 PM

Looking Forward: Land Acquisition Partners and Priorities
Thursday, March 30, 2023 6:00 – 7:30PM

*********************
Apologies for reposting something so soon (see below), but I when I sent this out December 23rd, many, many folks were like me: buried in the run-up to holiday cooking, wrapping, pleasant sipping, or just watching the moon rise.

My friends and relatives who got a link to it in holiday e-letters, encouraged me to share it again in the new year.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about good and evil and feeling the power of evil way too much.   Over two decades ago I wrote a letter about good and evil to my daughter as she was deep in despair after September 11th. Today I share it with you on the darkest night of the year. More light coming soon…

********************

September 12, 2001

Today I woke, thinking of the plane hitting the World Trade Center… and thought of you and how you told me last night that you did not want to live in such a bad world.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I turned away from my “church” religion because no one at my church could explain why children suffered and died in huge famines, floods, and wars. Years later, in college, reading widely about how people have always tried to reconcile the nature of both good and evil existing in the world, reading about how we have evolved into better creatures while at the same time committing atrocities against each other, I must have come to my own resolution about good and evil.

I hope that you will also come to your own understanding and not feel defeated by yesterday’s horrors.

“It is these undeniable qualities of human love and compassion and self-sacrifice that give me hope for the future. We are, indeed, often cruel and evil. Nobody can deny this. We gang up on each one another, we torture each other, with words as well as deeds, we fight, we kill. But we are also capable of the most noble, generous, and heroic behavior.” ― Jane Goodall, Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey

In fact, recently, you gave me a reminder of how we accept evil and good as part of our world, how we find triumph and goodness in the middle of despair. You asked me to read Jane Goodall’s book “A Reason For Hope” and I did. Jane thought the world of the chimps was a more perfect, natural world. Their society was caring and nurturing; how could humans be destroying such creatures, she thought. She and her research staff were shocked to witness the chimp wars where (probably maintaining territorial control) they snatched and killed the babies of family members, pulled apart chimps they had known for years, and committed various atrocities against each other.

It was a dark time for her. This darkness was reflected in the evil Jane felt around her as the jungle was destroyed and as she came to feel strongly about our cruelty to animals in labs and research. At the end of her book, she comes through the darkness, sees beyond the evil to the essential goodness in the chimps, to our ability as humans to make progress: regrow the jungle, plant trees, enact new laws and procedures for lab animals, develop products without animal testing. Faced with evil in a very personal way, she decides that hope and goodness are the stronger element and she finds clear examples of their stronger powers.

I hope that you do too.

Humans have always had to deal with the problem of evil. Every culture tries to explain how they are related, linked, even useful to each other. Without the blackest darkness of night, could we celebrate the rippling sunshine on rivers. Can we know the light—feel the joy of light—without knowing the darkness? That is the question.

Christians believe the Bible’s good and evil origin story. Eve is expelled from the Garden of Eden (a perfect place where there is no good or evil), because she listens to the devil (serpent) and eats the apple that gives her the knowledge of good and evil. God expels her from the garden, saying she will live this knowledge. She will “bring forth children in pain.”

So he sent us out with pain, but in this story, he sent us out with children. And for me, (as you know) that has been the greatest gift. In our creation story, we were sent out with both pain and joy … and children.

All cultures around the world have stories about the origins of good and evil, but always the good—the hope—triumphs.

Magazine cover: Bill Cosby’s accusers.

I can-actually see that around me. When I was your age, assaulting women was considered a private affair or not worthy of much attention. Unless the woman died. Now we have evolved to understand the evil of the misuse of power and rage. Women (in many countries) have the right to a safe life. Does this stop the evil of abuse? Not always, but we made progress recognizing the value of women and their right to be protected.

I see this evolution as the triumph of good, not in a perfect world, but the growth of goodness because we are working to protect and take care of people and we did not do that before.

Haines, Alaska’s version of the Women’s March. January 21, 2017

In Maine, The Great Works dam comes down. In the text, check the amazing video link to the story.

Years ago, people tried to dam every river in sight. Even today in China, the mighty and gorgeous Yangzee is dying underneath the crime of the biggest dam on the planet. I believe that one day, the Chinese will know the evil of this crime against nature. Here today, in our country the dams are starting to come down. I never thought that in my life, I would see this turn of events, that people would see this particular evil, this crime against the value and health of rivers and actually begin to reverse the process. I do see examples of the triumph of goodness and knowledge over the forces of darkness, evil and ignorance.

But I do believe we will always have both in the world.

Last night after you went to bed, on the news they showed the long lines of New Yorkers waiting to give blood: out the hospital doors, down the streets—people all waiting hours to give blood, to do what they could. That is an image of powerful good that is at least as powerful to me as the one of the plane slamming into the building.

I know that you have experienced your own darkness, but you have been lifted up and carried on by the goodness and light of the many people who love you and have helped you through the darkness. I know you must sort out your own personal truth about good and evil.

I wrote you this letter to let you know that we are all on a search, we all have moments of doubt, and that we all have questions about evil. For me, the goodness of your being here outweighs any evil the world may toss my way. I have confidence that you will find your way as you walk between the darkness and the light; and I DO love you more than all the chocolate chip cookies on earth.

Moo

******************

Thank you for the tree, Bob!

Sandy’s debut novel, “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine” won a national Mystery Writers of America award, was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest, and was a finalist for a Maine Literary Award. The second Mystery in Maine, “Deadly Turn,” was published in 2021. Her third “Deadly” is due out in 2023. Find her novels at all Shermans Books (Maine) and on Amazon. Find more info on Sandy’s website.

Posted in Sandra's Posts, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

Easy fast and no-brainer top writing tips for all writers

a bunch of papers and notes scattered across a floor

Writing isn’t always easy and neat. That’s what makes it so fun!

Hi, all! I was asked just the other day for some “writing tips,” so it seemed like a good time to reprise this classic from a couple years ago.

And also, in the spirit of Tip Number 1, I have a book to work on. So….

Got you with that title, didn’t I? Seriously, though, it’s a reality that all writers — beginners and veterans — want tips.  We write about them on this blog freqently. Just in the past few days, I’ve been asked for some by a variety of people. Yes, that’s right. Me.

Writers can debate, and do all the time, what “good” and “bad” tips are. We could write thousands of blogs of writing advice and still not cover it all.

That said, here are some quick tips that I think most writers would agree are universal. They’re probably things you’ve heard before, but that’s because they work.

  1. The book won’t write itself. That’s right — no matter how many tips, tricks, hacks or whatever, you have to just sit down and write it. If you don’t believe me, read Stephen King’s “On Writing.”
  2. Write what you “know,” but more importantly, know what you write. There’s nothing wrong with branching out, otherwise we’d all be writing about writers sitting in a room thinking about writing. But make the effort to gain deep knowledge that’ll enhance your book. Visit the sites, talk to people (or at least eavesdrop on conversations), move past what “everyone” knows to the things only a few do. Research has never been easier with the worldwide web. But visit the newspaper archives at the Maine State Library or newspaper.com, out-of-the-way historical societies, read books about your topics — the possibilities are endless. Nuances and insight will enrich any story.
  3. Read. The more you read, the more variety you read, the more your world and imagination expand. Read everything you can get your hands on and never stop.
  4. Read bad books. Good books are great, but most readers tend to get lost in the story because, duh, the book is good. I’ve learned more about the basics of writing from reading bad books and seeing what could’ve done better than I ever have reading good ones.
  5. Know the basics. You don’t have to go get an MFA in creative writing or even drop a ton of dough on writing courses, but put that Strunk & White that you have somewhere around the house to use. More importantly, go online and find information about writing basics and brush up. I was a  judge for years in the Writers Digest self-published contest, and can say with certainty that many writers just don’t know the basics. I’m talking about things like clauses that don’t match subjects, a universally chronic issue; misuse of prepositions; innacurate or inconsistent tense; you name it. No one is going to be a perfect writer, but the better you know the basics, the better you’ll be at telling your story.
  6.  Know the bigger stuff. Writers who understand things like point of view shifts, when to use exposition and when not to, how to weave in background, and more will have better books than those who don’t. When I was a freelance editor, I’d sometimes get pushback from writers saying, “But [insert famous writer’s name here] doesn’t [insert writing basic here].” That’s fine for them, but for the rest of us, knowing that stuff and doing it correctly will only help.
  7. Know your voice. Don’t be afraid to be yourself when you write. There may be people — your writer group, an editor, your spouse — who want you to water it down and be more generic. If you know the craft and understand what your voice is and why you’re doing what you’re doing, let it fly. Yes, I know I said I learn more from bad books than good ones, but one big thing you can learn from good books is how good writers find a way to let their voice shine through. Two of my favorites are Elinor Lipman and Carl Hiaasen, two very different types of writers who have unique voices and write beautifully.
  8. Don’t be afraid of your imagination. Similar to voice, let your imagination go where it will. Again, if you know the craft well enough, you can make it work. Don’t be afraid of it. But also understand what’s important and what isn’t to make the story work.
  9. Have a structure in mind. If you are at all involved with writing, you’ve heard the whole “pantser” and “planner” thing. You know there isn’t one “right” way to go about it. That said, at some point, you have to figure out where the book is going, what works, what doesn’t, and give it some structure. I usually start my books with a vague idea of where it’s going and I usually have an ending of sorts, and then I see where the writing takes me. That means I’m constantly outlining, beginning when I get to about the 100-page mark, to stay on track. Then I go back, adjust things, move things, re-outline, etc. until it’s finished. I know that sounds exhausting, but I actually enjoy it.  You don’t have to do it my way, but just be sure you at some point start figuring out where you’re going, what’s working, what is extraneous and how it’s all going to tie together.
  10. Pay for a good professional editor. This is a must for those hoping to get an agent or publisher, or to hit it big with their indie book. It’s also useful for someone with a publishing contract so they can send a nice tight manuscript to the publisher. I no longer do freelance book editing, so this isn’t a plug for my services. But I’ve read hundreds, yes hundreds, of indie books for the Writer’s Digest contest and the No. 1 issue is that almost every single book is not well-edited. Almost every single one. While everyone seems to know someone who’s awesome at finding typos, and that’s a good person to know, that’s not what editing is. When I finish my first draft, I have four to five readers; then, once I’ve done revisions, I have one or two who check for typos, spelling etc. Then I get the book edited. So, for those who have someone who does that for them, that’s great. Once that’s done, send it to a professional editor. Good book editing means not only knowing the things in No. 5, but also the things in No. 6. And, no matter how much you think that friend or spouse, or whoever, will be “honest” with you, someone who is a professional and paid to do it actually WILL be honest.
    It’s important to ask around and do some research. Ask other authors, check out books the editors have said they’ve edited. You can find freelance editors at a number of places online, including the Maine Writers & Publishers Association and the Editorial Freelance Association website. I would strongly recommend NOT going through an online editing service (a blog post for another day), but rather find someone through word of mouth or professional references. Reach out to people whose books you like that are well-edited, organizations that help writers and other reliable sources.
    An editor can be good and still may not be right for you. You want someone who understands you and your book. That’s why it’s important for YOU to understand your book, and why the first nine tips are important.
    If you think editing costs a lot of money, you’re right. It’s one of the most undervalued professions out there, because everyone knows someone who’ll do it for free. Scrape your dough together, though, and find someone who’ll actually do well.A final bonus tip: While it’s hard work, you should also get some joy out of writing. If you don’t get any joy out of it, assess what your goal is and why you’re doing it.I know I’m kind of a broken record on this, if you’ve been reading my blog posts over the years, but if writing sounds like a lot of hard work, it’s because it is. As a book editor and judge in the Writer’s Digest contest, I’ve found it’s easy to see who’s willing to do the work and who isn’t. One of my favorite quotes is from Thomas Edison, who said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like hard work.”
Posted in Maureen's Posts, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments