How a Post-Pandemic Road Trip is like Writing a Book

This past weekend my spouse and I set doubt and fear aside and took a road trip.

Like many others who live distant from kin, it had been a too long since we’d seen our families in person. We kept to ourselves here in Maine for the duration, visited with dear ones on Zoom and Zoom alone. As we waited through the winter months for our vaccination numbers to come up, we planned our first foray into the world beyond the Piscataqua River bridge.

Over nearly 20 years, we’ve traversed the highways to Massachusetts and Philadelphia many, many times. But after Covid-19 turned routine chores like grocery shopping into tactical missions, we found ourselves a bit anxious about staying safe. Friends who’d driven back and forth to Florida shared their strategies. We read a bunch of stories on the internet. Eventually we devised what seemed like a solid plan.

We took along food and water so as to avoid entering stores along the way.  We did our homework about which hotels live up to their sanitizing promises. A specific tote bag was set aside for disinfecting products, masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. We stopped for fuel either where we could use a card at the pump or where an attendant fills the tank for you (e.g., at the throwback full-service plazas on the New Jersey Turnpike.)

Still, it felt a bit intimidating to head out into a world still being rocked by the pandemic, through places where so many people have died and so many still are falling ill, where many fewer people are fully vaccinated than here in leads-the-nation-in-jabs Maine.

In the end, it was fine. A wonderful trip, in fact. Our preparation served us well. While I suppose something unexpected could have happened, we came to realize we were safe and pretty much in control of the experience.

Sunday afternoon, as we drove through (interminable) Connecticut, I found myself ruminating about how a post-pandemic road trip was similar to writing a book. (How many of you wondered if I’d get around to talking about writing?)

Before I wrote my first novel, I worried about everything there was to worry about, and a few more things besides. Would Joe Gale and his friends and enemies who were so vivid in my mind come alive or be cardboard characters on the page? Was the plot I’d crafted in my head enough to hold readers’ interest for 350 pages? Would the process of writing hold my interest for 350 pages? Assuming I finished the book, could I trust my friends to tell me if it was deadly boring, or would they lie and tell me it was terrific? If the latter, how would I find people to read it and tell me the truth?

Preparing to write my first book was in many ways similar to gearing up for our recent road trip. I read and read and read the work of good crime writers.  I took a few classes and went to a bunch of conferences, which allowed me to meet other writers who had published books. When I asked for their advice they were invariably generous with their knowledge and experience.

Once I had my doubt and fear under control, I committed to a writing routine that complimented my day job. It turned out to have two basic elements: (1) park butt in chair as often as possible and (2) write.

One of my writing spaces.

I hope the readers of this blog who are contemplating starting their own writing journey take this as encouragement.  If you do the necessary prep work, you can go anywhere you want to go.

My advice:  First, read a wide variety of writers.  Reading deeply makes you a better writer.

Second, treat yourself to craft books like Stephen King’s On Writing or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, but don’t overlook the contributions of MCW’s own Kathy Lynn Emerson. If history is your thing, her How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries is a treasure trove of information, and her marvelous new essay collection, I Kill People for a Living, is full of great advice.

Kathy Lynn’s new book of essays. Lots of gold to mine here.

More information on Kathy Lynn’s books can be found at http://www.kathylynnemerson.com/

Third, look for classes and writing groups in your community. If you live here in Maine, the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance is a great resource, particularly its statewide Gather events. Go here for more info: https://www.mainewriters.org/gather.

If mystery/crime is your genre, you might join the local chapter of groups like Sisters in Crime https://sincne.clubexpress.com/ and Mystery Writers of America https://mwane.org/ both of which offer connection, community and a variety of other benefits including craft classes, many of which are offered online.

Fourth, consider attending writing conferences, a fabulous place to meet other writers and learn about the business.  Here in Maine we’re looking forward to Maine Crime Wave in June (see the schedule and sign up here: https://www.mainewriters.org/maine-crime-wave ). And in November, the New England Crime Bake will take place in Massachusetts (probably hybrid this year, so you can go in person or participate virtually). FMI: https://crimebake.org

But like our recent road trip, after all that careful preparation you need to start your engine and go.  You don’t need a cooler or a road trip playlist for this journey. There are no shortcuts, and no alternate routes. Just park your butt in a chair as often as possible, and write.

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.  These days Brenda’s hard at work on new projects.

 

 

 

 

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It’s Win an ARC Wednesday

Would you like to win an Advance Reading Copy of the fourth Deadly Edits Mystery? All you have to do is leave a comment here to be entered in a drawing to be held May 15. Murder, She Edited (publication date: July 27) takes retired teacher turned book doctor Mikki Lincoln on a new adventure, this one centered around her inheritance of a long-abandoned farm not far from her home in Lenape Hollow. There’s a catch to claiming the land. Mikki has to find and edit diaries left behind by a former owner. Just to complicate matters, Mikki has acquired a stalker—a reader who (wrongly) blames mistakes in her favorite author’s latest novel on Mikki’s editing. As usual, Mikki’s calico cat, Calpurnia, is front and center as the story unfolds.

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-three books traditionally published and has self published several children’s books and three works of nonfiction. 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. Her next publication (as Kaitlyn) is the fourth book in the contemporary “Deadly Edits” series (Murder, She Edited), in stores in August 2021. As Kathy, her most recent novel is a standalone historical mystery, The Finder of Lost Things. She maintains websites at www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com. A third, at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, is the gateway to over 2300 mini-biographies of sixteenth-century Englishwomen, now available in e-book format.

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What Do You Know About Rhubarb?

Kate Flora: I’ve been busy in the gardens, weeding, rearranging plants, and evicting invasives, so today I thought I would share one of my late mother, A. Carman Clark’s, columns with rhubarb lore and recipes. This was originally a column in The Camden Herald and later included in her essay collection, From The Orange Mailbox.

We know that spring has really come to the Georges River valley when there are two rhubarb pies for dinner–the traditional old-fashioned kind flavored with a bit of grated orange peel and our own Sennebec Hill rhubarb custard pie with a sprinkling of fresh ground nutmeg.

Before this, when the first pink shoots appear, we enjoy sunny hours remulching the twenty-seven hills of rhubarb and adding fertilizer for the coming year. The winter’s accumulation of magazines and newspapers are lavishly spread between the rows; handfuls of a 5-10-10 commercial fertilize are scattered about to speed the breakdown of the paper; and the whole plot is covered heavily with bales of hay that banked the farmhouse during the winter. One pail of well-rotted manure dumped on each hill and we are ready for another year–a year of eating, freezing, selling, and inventing new recipes  to use up the indefatigable bounty of rhubarb.

New England provides the ideal climate for growing rhubarb, and according to John Lowell, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, it was a Maine gardener who introduced rhubarb into America as a food plant. The history of rhubarb covers almost forty-seven centuries, going back to 2700 b.c. in China. Cultivated as a medicine for use as a purgative and a gastric tonic, roots at least five years old were sliced, dried, and then powdered. Early travelers carried the plant from China to Persia, Greece, and Russia; it was grown in the early botanical gardens at Padua, Italy, taken to England and Scotland, and then to America.

The garden journals of George Washington, John Jay and Thomas Jefferson record their planting of rhubarb, and in 1770, Benjamin Franklin sent rhubarb seeds from Scotland to his botanist friend, John Bartram. But it wasn’t until about 1780 that recipe books began to mention its use in tarts and pies. Probably because sugar was a scarce commodity in rural New England, it was after 1800 that rhubarb gained the Yankee name “pieplant.” Brides going forth to newly cleared acres took along a crock of sourdough yeast, a few cuttings of lilac, and a clump of rhubarb roots. Lewis and Clark carried powdered rhubarb root on their journey of exploration to the Pacific.

While icy northern winters killed fruit trees, the pieplant seldom failed to furnish the first fresh food each spring. Out on Matinicus Island, a clump set out by Iddo Tolman in 1858 is still growing, requiring only occasional fertilizing to nourish the crisp, tart stalks that are one of the culinary joys of the spring season.

Rhubarb seeds need to be planted in a place apart, where it will not be disturbed for years, and it needs full sun for at least half of each day. Healthy, well-fed rhubarb is a handsome plant and when set against a stone wall or the base of a shed or barn, the great spreading leaves fan out like rainforest vegetation. Rows of rhubarb can be set as a border between lawn and garden.

It isn’t necessary to be fussy. The quickest way to start a bed is to beg a few roots from a neighbor. Since the plants need to be divided or thinned every six years, most rhubarb growers will cheerfully give you enough to start your hills.

The roots should be dug and divided before the first leaves begin to uncurl in May. Spade up a clump and hose away the soil so you can easily cut the root mass apart, leaving one bud on each division. Plant the roots three feet apart with the buds set about two inches below the soil surface. Because a rhubarb bed is usually a lifetime investment, the roots should be set in good loam enriched with compost and old manure. But because rhubarb is such a hardy plant it will do well in almost any soil as long as there is good drainage and as long as it is fed annually with plenty of old hay or compost. Many rhubarb growers feed their plants by dumping kitchen scraps–peeling and other compost material–right under the spreading leaves.

There’s a local story about about a coastal farmer who once asked a neighbor for enough rhubarb for a bit of sauce. Upon being told there was none to spare, the farmer promptly went out and acquired enough roots to plant a 200 foot row. He allowed as how no one would ever ask him for a mite of rhubarb without being generously provided. Years later, when a younger man took over the farm, the roots needed dividing. With true Yankee ingenuity, he drove his plow straight down the middle of the whole row, split the plants in half, transplanted one half, and ended up with two 200 foot rows.

I once read that farmers in Afghanistan cover their rhubarb with several feet of gravel so that by the tie the shoots have struggled up through this, they are pale and very tender. By placing a chimney tile over one of my plants and pouring several pails of sand inside, I have produced a reasonably accurate facsimile of this method and found the stalks far more delicate than those of the usual plant. Another year I discovered a way to produce earlier rhubarb: placing an open-ended barrel over one hill and mounding manure up around the outside of it. I got tender ruby stalks weeks ahead of the rhubarb in the open field.

The best rhubarb for cooking, canning, or freezing comes from the long tender stalks of well-fed roots pulled between May 1 and July 4. After that, the skin gets tougher (although a well-mulched bed will produce good stalks for pie as late as August). One of our favorites is blu-barb pie, half blueberries and half rhubarb, invented in 1962 for the Maine Blueberry Festival.

Although rhubarb is a vegetable, it is generally used as a fruit–naturally enough since it is in season in spring when fresh fruits are scarce. Because it’s easy to freeze, it can provide a variety of desserts all through a winter.

Rhubarb should be pulled, not cut. Stalks should be be twisted sideways and pulled at an angle. Snip the leaves and the base of the stems onto the mulch around the plants. To freeze rhubarb, wash, dry, cut into half-inch pieces, spread on a cookie sheet and freeze, the move into double plastic bags.

Old-timers around this part of Maine (mid-coast) claim that rhubarb has a tranquilizing effect and surely almost anyone would agree that a flaky-crusted rhubarb pie can exert a calming effect at the end of a working day. But rhubarb is versatile and can be used in many ways.

 

Sennebec Hill Rhubarb Pie

Beat together:

1 1/2 c. sugar

2 eggs

1/2 t. nutmeg

2 T. butter

1/4 c. flour

1/2 t. salt

Stir into this 3 cups chopped rhubarb. Pour into pie crust, add top crust, and bake 10 minutes at 450, then 40 minutes at 350.

Blue-Barb Pie

Mix together:

1 c. sugar

1/4 c. flour

1/4 t. salt

1 1/2 c. rhubarb cut in small pieces

1 1/2 c. blueberries.

Dot with bits of butter and bake 10 minutes at 450 and 30 minutes at 350.

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

Blend together:

2 c. rhubarb

2 c. sliced strawberries

1 1/4 c. sugar

1/4 t. salt

1/3 c. flour

2 T. butter

Bake as a two-crust pie at 450 for 10 minutes and 30 minutes at 375.

Rhubarb Flummery

4 c. cut rhubarb

1 3/4 c. sugar

stew gently for 10 minutes

8 slices of buttered white bread

Layer buttered bread and warm stewed rhubarb in a deep baking dish. Chill for 24 hours. Serve with whipped cream.

Rhubarb Cake

1/2 c. sugard

2 c. finely chopped rhubarb

Blend together and set aside:

1/2 c. butter

1 1/2 c. sugar

1 egg

1 t. vanilla

Mix together:

2 c. plus 2 T. flour

1 t. cinnamon

1 t. baking soda

1/2 t. salt

Add alternately to blended mixture with 1 c. buttermilk

Add rhubarb mixture

Add:

1/2 c. shredded coconut

1/2 c. raisins

1/2 c. chopped walnuts or pecans

Blend together. Pour into a greased and floured 7 x 12 baking pan. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes.

Sennebec Pudding

Mix together:

2 c. blueberries

1 1/2 c. rhubarb

1 t. tapioca

1 1/4 c. sugar

Put this mixture into a buttered 2 quart casserole.

Mix together:

1/2 c. sugar

1/2 c. flour

1/2 c. oatmeal

1/4 c. wheatgerm

blend in 1/4 c. butter

Spread over fruit mixture and bake 45 minutes at 350. Serve warm with ice cream

 

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The Writer’s Life, 1977-1984

1985: my first author copies

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here. Recently I was rearranging some of the books in my office, including old record and day books, and randomly opened one of the earliest, the ledger I kept for the years 1977-1984. I started writing seriously—with the goal of being published and paid for it—when I finished my first and only year as a teacher of seventh and eighth grade English. It may have been called “Language Arts.” Whatever it was called, I was the newcomer. That meant I didn’t get to teach any of the top students. Although there were a few who were willing to learn, the vast majority were more interested in the opposite sex, sports, and goofing off. Worse, that year’s seventh grade class was disproportionately male, making it even harder for a twenty-something female teacher with not a single education course in her background to maintain control. How, you ask, did I even get hired? There had been a secondary baby boom (I was part of the first one) and the administration was desperate for warm bodies. Anyone with a college education was considered qualified to teach.

My husband and I had bought a house on twenty-five rural acres in 1975. Newly unemployed and with no particular job prospects on the horizon in the fall of 1976, I decided it was finally time to stop talking about wanting to write a novel and actually do it. The fact that I didn’t know anything about what I was doing didn’t stop me. In fact, that was probably a good thing.

That first year I wrote two long historical novels and started a third, all set in sixteenth-century England, and completed the rough draft of a nonfiction book about Tudor women. Since I recorded mileage as a business expense, I know that in 1977 I made many trips to libraries (Wilton Public, University of Maine at Farmington, Bates, Colby, and the Maine State Library) to do research. 331 miles in all. This was long before the Internet, although Inter-library loans were available. I was also running up a healthy postage bill sending queries to publishers. First class postage was thirteen cents, but it still mounted up. Sending an entire manuscript of 560 or so pages cost $2.90.

My biggest expense in 1977 was a new typewriter, replacing my old portable with an Adler model 200. It cost $320 plus $16 sales tax. I was using medium white erasable typing paper ($8.40 a ream) with carbon paper. The only other option for making copies was the Xerox machine at the library, but that was even more expensive. Carbon paper cost sixty-nine cents a package. Typewriter ribbons went for $1.39 each. A note at the end of the year indicates I used seven reams of typing paper, seven ribbons, and five packages of carbon paper in 1977. I also spent $117.77 on buying books. My home library consisted of forty-two reference books and twenty “pertinent novels” at the end of 1977.

1978 was more of the same. More big historical novels, revisions of what I’d already written, and a few short stories. Nothing sold, although I did occasionally get personalized feedback in rejection letters. This was before most writers’ groups were founded. It was still pre-computer. Just as an example, typing the final draft of one of the historicals (I don’t have a page count) took me sixteen days. Just typing. With a carbon copy. On a manual typewriter. And if I did any revising, the whole thing would have to be retyped. I kept the “good copies” in a fireproof safe when they weren’t being submitted.

In 1979, the final draft of my longest effort, a 785 page historical novel set in Colonial New England, took the longest time to type. I started on May 16 and didn’t finish until July 3. That was just typing. I wasn’t experienced enough yet as a writer to be doing much revising as I typed. I probably thought my deathless prose didn’t need any more tweaking.

By 1980, postage had gone up to fifteen cents for a first class letter. That was the year I actually sold something. It was my nonfiction book about Tudor Women, but there was no advance and it wouldn’t be in print until 1984. My current e-book original, A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, is the much revised, expanded, and updated version of that book. It wasn’t until July of 1982 that I finally earned my “professional writer” credentials by selling a short story, “How Chester Greenwood Invented Earmuffs,” to Highlights for Children for a whopping $80.00. It was published in the January 1984 issue. In 1983 I sold my first novel, not one of those big historical stories, but a contemporary mystery for children ages 8-12. Again, there was no advance, and it was 1985 before it was in print from Down East Books. As with the nonfiction, I’ve recently reissued The Mystery of Hilliard’s Castle as an e-book (and in trade paperback).

1984 was a banner year, with my first paid publication and my first published book coming out from a traditional (small, scholarly, but still . . . ) publisher. I also did my first paid gig as a writer, receiving an honorarium of $50 for leading a workshop at a local Young Author’s Conference. I edited my grandfather’s memoirs that year, but only for the family. It wouldn’t be until last year that I’d issue The Life of a Plodder as an e-book and trade paperback.

Looking back, it’s a wonder I persevered, but during those years I couldn’t not write. By the time the first book came out. I was still honing my skills, but I was also working as a library assistant at the University of Maine at Farmington’s Mantor Library to make ends meet. My husband, who never wavered in his support as a “patron of the artist” was a deputy sheriff, one of the most underpaid jobs around. It would have been nice to have written and sold a bestselling novel, but I can’t regret the way things have gone. I’m just glad technology soon advanced to the point where I didn’t have to pound out drafts on a manual typewriter anymore.

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-three books traditionally published and has self published several children’s books and three works of nonfiction. 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. Her next publication (as Kaitlyn) is the fourth book in the contemporary “Deadly Edits” series (Murder, She Edited), in stores in August 2021. As Kathy, her most recent novel is a standalone historical mystery, The Finder of Lost Things. She maintains websites at www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com. A third, at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, is the gateway to over 2300 mini-biographies of sixteenth-century Englishwomen, now available in e-book format.

 

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Weekend Update: May 1-2, 2021

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

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

It’s Maine Crime Writers “Where Would You Put the Body” Spring 2021 edition. How do you enter? Send a photograph of your chosen spot to: WritingAboutCrime@gmail.com with “Where Would You Put the Body?” in the subject line and the photo’s location in the body of the email. There will be prizes for First, Second, and Third place–books of course and other Maine goodies. You may enter no more than three photographs, each one entered separately. They must be of Maine places and you must identify the place in your submission. Photos must be the submitter’s original work. Contest will begin May 1st and will run through June 15th.

 

 

 

 

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. We also do programs on Zoom. Contact Kate Flora

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The Hardest Part of Writing – MCW Authors Discuss

Today, we’re getting together as a group to discuss which aspects of the writing process are hardest. For different writers, different parts of the process are most challenging. For some, it is plotting, for others crafting memorable characters, and for others, it may be writing believable dialogue or choosing details to use in description or how much of an author’s research ends up in the final work. Feel free to chime in with your comments.

Kate Flora: I have been at this for about thirty-five years now, and so for me, different aspects present as my hardest challenges at different times and in different books. In the beginning, it was often how to nail my characters’ voices, and pay attention to the nuances of speech among men and women, older people and younger, the effects of different levels of education, and habits of particular characters. I had to learn (and often relearn) to shut up and listen. I tell my students that one good place to listen without seeming to be rude is store dressing rooms. (Not in the last year, of course) And for guys, who may not be chatty in dressing rooms, Dunkin’ Donuts, especially in mid-morning, is a great place to sip coffee and eavesdrop.

Sometimes, especially when I’m working on a thriller or a nonfiction book, pacing, or organizing the material in a way that will make it compelling and urge the reader forward is a challenge. There is always avoiding the sagging middle, and remembering that if what I’m writing bores me, it will likely bore the reader as well.

In the early years, I used to hate revision, and would start another book instead. Now I see revision as the chance to tie up those careless loose ends, improve the prove, make sure the plot and characters work, and find those damned places where a word is missing.

Maggie Robinson: What isn’t hard, LOL. I have great difficulty following any sort of outline, as my characters inevitably do not care for the path I originally chose for them. So they strike out, amidst much grumbling (theirs AND mine), on their own, with varying results. I used to think writers were crazy when they blamed their characters for willfulness, but 20+ books in, I’m crazy now too. Consequently, I am often surprised by the turn of events, and have to go back to “fix” things.

I love to write beginnings, but like a lot of people get mired in the mucky middle. I know if I feel I’m flagging, it will seem deadly to the reader, and I’m not talking about murder. So I have to remind myself that the second act should be just as much fun as the first, and lead logically to the third.

John Clark: The writing is easy. It’s everything that follows that’s the hard part for me. Lazy? Cowardly? Fear of Rejection…Who knows. I’ve got four books completed, but not edited in my Wizard of Simonton Pond series, An anthology of Ya stories about Maine kids, plus four more YA fiction titles in various stages of completion. At 73, however, the grim reaper sits atop my book case nodding and whispering “Time’s a’runnin out bubby, better get cracking if you want any of this drivel to see the light of day.”

Susan Vaughan: Like Maggie said, what isn’t hard! But I’ll choose one. Conflict. Conflict, as writers know, is what drives a story. Here’s an example of what doesn’t work. Bill needed a job or he’d starve and the gang would kill him. Bill got a job and then he was safe and fed. The End. Boring. You’d close the tiny book’s cover after a few pages. But suppose Bill struggles throughout the book, barely making it alive to the end. You’d want to know page after page how he fared.

When I first began submitting to publishers, the rejections usually said the writing and the plot were good but there wasn’t adequate conflict. They meant the characters’ internal conflicts, their personal issues, not what I described for poor Bill. It wasn’t until I figured that out that I sold my first novel, which will be 20 years ago in June. And it hasn’t gotten any easier finding my characters’ inner demons and creating the plots to force them to face and deal with those demons. In my current project, Genuine FakeBoyd blames himself for his Special Forces’ buddies’ deaths and believes he can’t be trusted to protect anyone. So I force him to be responsible for protecting Gemma, the woman he’s never forgotten and who asks him for help, because someone is trying to kill her. I hope I’ve made this work so readers will keep turning the pages.

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson: Yes, it’s all hard, but for me, right now, the hardest part is getting going again. I’ve taken a rather long break from doing any new writing. Although I’ve been revising older projects and self publishing them, that’s not the same thing as creating a new novel or short story from scratch. The longer I go without facing that blank screen, the harder it is to talk myself into committing myself to the long months of work involved in producing a novel. The idea of writing several proposals is even harder to face, since each one would involve an emotional investment in characters and their story with no guarantee any editor out there will be interested in the result. I’m past the point of trying to come up with something someone is “looking for” in order to make a sale. Whatever comes next has to be something I want to write.

Maureen Milliken: Writing is “hard” in that it takes a lot of attention to detail, mental energy and time. Often, those things aren’t fun. But if you really hate them, that’s going to be the hardest thing about writing and you may want to consider why you’re doing it. I’m not saying stop doing it, I’m just suggesting you consider whether you feel driven to write, or if you’re motivation is simply to be “a writer.” You can’t be one without doing the hard work. For many years, I was an editor in the Writer’s Digest self-published book contest and have read hundreds of self-published books. The number one issue (tied with really awful “editing”) is that people were submitting first drafts. They hadn’t done the work. I’m a writing dork, I guess, who actually enjoys the work. The hardest thing for me is finding the time to do it, with three jobs that keep a roof over my head.

 

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So Ya Think Ya Know Maine?

John Clark battling the fifth episode of a malady I never heard of until it struck, ingrown eyelashes. Whether they’re related to cataract surgery, or will eventually go away on their own, remains to be seen, but each occurrence seems to happen about three months apart and feels like someone glued a tiny strip of sandpaper on the inside of my lower eyelid. Unfortunately, this time it hit on Thursday night and my eye doctor is closed on Fridays, so I’m making do with pain relievers and maudlin thoughts.

Back in the mid 1980s, I tried out for MPBN’s So You Think You Know Maine quiz show. Preparation included sitting on the hopper after the kids went to sleep and memorizing every question and answer in the box version of the game. I won three times and finished third in the final that year which was filmed in Deering Oaks Park. It was a fun and memorable experience. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to challenge readers of the blog with some Maine trivia. (answers at the end of the column.)

1-Maine has numerous towns sharing their name with U.S. Presidents. How many are there and who was the last elected president sharing his surname with a Maine municipality?

2-Maine has sixteen counties. Several municipalities have the same name as a county, but not all of them are in the county whose name they share. Out of the following, which are in a different county? Cumberland Center, Franklin, Hancock, Kennebec, Knox Center, Lincoln, Oxford, Penobscot, Somerset Junction, Waldo, Washington, York

3-Kate and I grew up in Union. Like several other Maine towns, there was Union, North Union, East Union and South Union. Our father grew up in West New Portland which also had North New Portland and East New Portland. As far as I can tell, no town in Maine has entities with all four compass directions in their name (formal or informal). I’d love to be proven wrong.

4-There’s Northport, Eastport, Westport and Southport. Do they share anything in terms of proximity?

5-Let’s talk body parts (this is a mystery blog after all). How many towns/locations have a body part in their name. No need to list multiples, and towns like Livermore Falls don’t count.

I gave into a COVID-19 isolation impulse and had five of these bumper stickers made. The first day it was on my car, some woman who thought I was going too slow, tried to smooch my bumper. As soon as she saw this, she backed off and stayed far away until turning.

And now for some answers.

1-Nine, and Clinton was the most recent

2-Franklin is in Hancock, Kennebec is in Washington, Knox Center is in Waldo, Lincoln is in Penobscot, Washington is in Knox

3-I’m curious.

4-They’re well apart with Eastport in Washington County, Northport in Waldo, Westport and Southport are in Lincoln County, but on opposite sides of the Sheepscot River.

5-South Arm, Owls Head, Shin Pond, Prouts Neck, Back Cove, Kidney Pond, Heart Pond, Blood Pond, Lower Elbow Pond, Townsend Gut, and colloquially Finger Lakes http://lakelife.dovewayme.com/diving-into-maines-finger-lakes along with Nipple, a spot of land lying southeast of Virgin Island off the coast near Jonesport.

If you’re looking for a good spot to dispose of a body Consider Industrial Waste Pond in Easton because nobody is gonna fish in a place with a name like that. For those who like interesting websites, I found this which lists all freshwater bodies in Maine. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_lakes_of_Maine

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The not so fun part of writing (cats are mentioned in this post)

Last month, I offered some “easy tips” on writing. Let’s face it, though, nothing is easy about writing, even if you really really really really like it. Don’t just take my word for it — in a few days we have a Maine Crime Writers group post on the hardest things about writing. There are many.

What do writing and herding cats have in common? More than you’d think.

That said, some things are harder than others. This came to mind last week as I read a couple books in a series (not by a Maine Crime writer!). I’m enjoying this series a lot, but the books brought to mind one chronic issue that I’ve seen many times as a book editor, and as a reader. It’s kind of a cat-herding thing — so much going on that some things  are going to get away.

Before I delve in, I want to point out that it’s hard for a writer to keep all the cats herded. There are many. These metaphoracal cats range from things like spelling, punctuation and sentence structure to a couple of the ones I’m going to talk about today. It’s easy to overlook some things when you’re immersed in the writing. It’s a can’t see the forest for the trees thing. Or maybe can’t see the bushes for the trees, or can’t see some of the trees because of the other trees. Or all of those things.

While there are too many elements of writing a book to mention in a list, three came to mind with recent reading and I’m going to focus on them today.

Wait, whose head are we in?

First is point of view. I know there are some really succesful and famous authors who shift point of view in the middle of a scene, or even a paragraph. As an editor  and reader (rather than a writer who’s not nearly as succesful or famous), I’ll posit that they’re successful despite that slippage, not because of it.

Even when written in the third person, point of view is important. Whose head are we in? Whose perspective are we seing things from? A reader’s imagination is a powerful thing, but a major way to draw the reader fully into the story is to put them in someone’s head. If there’s no point of view, then readers are more detached. Just as jarring is if the reader is in one character’s point of view and then suddenly in another with no signpost. Readers need a signal that the point of view is changing — ideally a new scene, with an immediate signal as to who’s head they’re in now.

As a reader, you may not always notice point of view slippage.  You may like the book and don’t really care. What you’ll never know is how much more you would’ve liked the book and its characters if the writer kept a firm hand on point of view.

At worst, point of view slippage can damage the narrative arc or dramatic tone. That happened to me with a book I was reading this weekend. A point of view shift (combined with a big block of unnecessary background exposition that even basic editing should have excised), made me think a character knew something about another character that he shouldn’t have. I took it for what it was — badly placed and unncessary exposition — and knew the character whose point of view we had been in didn’t know those things. Particularly since the exposition was written generically, not how the character as we’d come to know him would think. But a new reader to the series, particularly one who isn’t as obsessive as I am about things like that, would’ve thought this character knew something about another character that he didn’t, spoiling a lot of the dramatic arc of the story.

But I thought he was a nice guy!

Another issue is making sure characters stay in character. From small things to big things, it’s important to be mindful of every action a character takes, even if it’s not a major one, and make sure it’s something he or she would do. This goes for what they say and think, too.

In one series I recently read, the protagonist, a polite and gentlemanly guy, though a little blunt at times, would “push” someone aside when he got urgent word of something and needed to get going. Usually it was a woman standing in a doorway who he was interviewing. I just couldn’t see him pushing, or sometimes “shoving,” anyone out of the way. And if that’s what the author actually intended, it should’ve been remarked on in the narrative.

I think the writer caught on eveuntually, because after about half a dozen books in the series, the protagonist stopped pushing women out of the way and started finding a more polite way to get out of rooms when he was in a hurry.

In another recent book I read, a character had just come back from serving as a nurse in a really ill-conceived war. She had very strong opinions on war and its place in the world and is hot-headed and not afraid to express them. Yet, in a scene that’s in her POV, when she sees another character talking to a child about how awesome war is and how many more there’ll be (Victiorian England!) that will allow the kid to be brave and honorable, her reaction is pleasure that someone is paying attention to the child. She has no reaction to the startling pro-war-any-war, subject matter.

The author was likely focused on the main point of the scene — the  child being paid attention. But the strong convictions of the protagonist didn’t have to  disappear to make the scene happen. If the author deliberately intended for the character to let go of her convictions because she was so delighted someone was being nice to the kid, that should’ve been mentioned. There are a lot of different ways the scene could’ve played out that would’ve kept the intention there, but also not had the character slippage.

Where did that thread go?

Another thing a writer whould pay attention to is all the different threads. And there are so many in a mystery novel.

In a book I just read, a character had a life-changing, devastating issue with the muder victim, who was a close relative. Everyone knew it and it was remarked upon frequently to the detective. It made her a major suspect. Yet when he went to talk to her and asked her what she liked and didn’t dislike about the person, she didn’t mention it. He didn’t ask about it. Now, it could be possible the detective was testing her to see if she’d bring it up. But if that was the case, it would’ve been part of the narrative.

My thought in reading that scene was the that writer was focused on a lot of different things that were going on, and while it was in her head, it didn’t make it to the page. [An aside — an editor also should do several reads, one just as a reader. But that’s a blog post for a different day.] Meanwhile the reader, if they’re paying attention at all, is screaming “WHAT ABOUT THE BIG THING? ASK HER ABOUT THE BIG THING! THE ONE THING THAT MIGHT HAVE CAUSED HER TO HATE HIM ENOUGH TO KILL HIM!”

Also, the character being interviewed by the detective was described as mentally ill by many others in the book. There are hints by the authoer that she it’s possible she’s really not mentally ill, just mistunderstood and incredibly frustrated. She certainly does not act as she had been described when she talks to the detective, but instead is thoughtful, intelligent, rational and not overly emotional. So, my guess is it was the writer’s intent to show the juxtaposition between what other people, some with an ax to grind, want to depict and what the reality is to the detective trying to find out why the murder happened. But that juxtaposition was never made clear. Or, it could’ve just been that the thread that the woman was mentally ill got dropped. The reader will never know.

Back to the cat herd

None of what I’ve written about here is intended to put down or criticize a particular author or any specific books. But specific examples work  best. And it’s a good reminder that even seasoned authors have trouble herding all the cats. When I was a freelance book editor I frequently felt in discussions with first-time writers that they wanted some kind of easy button to get past all the mundane tedious stuff. They often didn’t want to hear about the kind of work they had to do to tighten things up and get their great thoughts into a form that would allow readers to get the most out of it.

One thing I do when writing my own books is to try to make sure I have these issues in hand is do revisions for each character and their plot thread as one of my post-first-draft revisions. What that means is, I read the manuscript for Character A, making sure everything he says and does is in character, that all his threads are tied up, that every scene that’s in his POV doesn’t slip into someone else’s, or into a POV no man’s land.  Major characters, in particular, take a lot of time and effort. Minor ones not so much, especially if there are no POV scenes for them. But you want to make sure they don’t sneak their POV into someone else’s scene.

MILO: The Human thinks she’s gong to herd us. PENNY: Ha ha. Not on even one of my nine lives is that happening.

Other writers may have different methods. But there is no easy button, no matter who you are or what your process is. The important thing is to understand that it’s easy to overlook one thing because you’re focusing on another.

Writing in general is a lot of fun. Getting that story down, the big thoughts, seeing it all come to life is one of the most satisfying experiences a human who writes can have.  But the only way to keep as many cats with the herd as possible is to do the tedioius work of grabbing them and… OK, let’s stop using the cat metaphor. You get what I’m saying — there’s ofthen still work to do, even when the “writing” is done.

 

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Weekend Update: April 24-25, 2021

Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Maureen Milliken (Monday), John Clark (Tuesday), a group post (Thursday) and a guest post (Friday).

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

from Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson: With record swiftness, print copies of my collection of essays (originally blogs published here) are now available at Amazon and elsewhere. I don’t have my box of author copies yet, just the one, but Shadow has given it her approval.

The ISBN is 978-1-393-71534-4 and it sells for $12.99. The e-book is also available, at $5.99.  For 283 pages of text, I hope folks will find those prices reasonable. Feedback (comments, reviews, whatever) will be much appreciated.

 

 

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. We also do programs on Zoom. Contact Kate Flora

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The in Loss

Getting a little philosophical this morning, so if it’s early and you just want to drink your coffee in peace, I absolve you of responsibility. It’s been a strange couple of weeks on Trout Brook, and bound to get stranger, and there’s been a little more thinking than usual.

Those of us with aging parents know how the life equation flip-flops at a certain inflection point, how the giver of care becomes the taker, and all the love and tension that go along with that. It’s not a new story, nor a particularly compelling one, except when it’s happening to you and then you are riveted and it is difficult to think about anything else. What that point brings, sometimes, is a sadness and a lean toward depression.

I’ve been watching Ken Burns’ excellent documentary about Ernest Hemingway and was struck all over again with how tortured and complicated his family life was, some of that inherited and some of it of his own doing. Depression and suicide ran in the family like blue eyes. He treated lovers, wives, and friends all horribly, apparently in service to a self-image that would not concede he was less than great and perfect and wonderful in all ways. Except, of course, when the black dog hit him and the depression consumed his brain.

Most writers, most artists I think, flirt with the black dog off and on. Writing is a narcissistic occupation even in its most innocent exercise and no writer, I hope, is content to examine only the sunny side of a character or situation. It’s a necessary part of the work to tiptoe to the edge of the crevasse and stared down into it, maybe even a horrible pleasure sometimes.

 

I suspect the Hemingway history is part of what underpins the still-prevailing cultural myth that writers and painters and sculptors and musicians and dancers must all suffer to practice their art at the highest level. It’s the kind of thinking that made Dave Brubeck take on a heroin addiction, to see if it would enhance his already magnificent talent. And I do think, when we’re young, we might embrace the possibility as if it were a simple equation: I hurt, therefore I create.

What I hope is that most artists realize, most people realize, that after a toe-dip in that black lagoon, that the making—writing, painting, building furniture—is more an occasion of joy than pain. The best work we do does not flourish in the dead crushed rock of depression or even unhappiness, but in joy. We do our work out of love as much as necessity, and depression, unhappiness, addiction, are not aids to creating, but impediments.

So as I watch my parents age and count their diminishments, I see them also learn that the losses they suffer are still less than the joy that remains, that always, always, there is something to come next, and it is well worth staying around for.

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