Looking for Light as the Dark Season Approaches

Kate Flora: When I was young, readily immersing myself in dark films like Bergman’s and dark, twisty mysteries like Minette Walters, or cold ones like those from the brilliant P.D. James, I used to wonder at those in my parents’ generation who expressed a reluctance to read dark books or view dark films because they were too depressing. If the past week is any indicator, I am joining their generation.

Maybe it is simply because the world feels so precarious. So full of violence and uncertainty. Politics. Ukraine. The devastation from Hurricane Ian. The world doesn’t feel like a benign place right now. This is so even though the trees are doing their best to put on a vibrant display, despite a summer of drought. This is so even though there have been such gorgeous blue skies and the ocean is such a lovely dark blue and my gardens are still dancing with color. This is so even though it is excellent walking weather, enticing me to leave my desk and come outside even though I am trying to write at least two thousand words a day.

I’ve been trying to decide whether I am becoming a wimp. With darkness coming on earlier, I am trying to do more reading, and finding books I want to read is a challenge. This week I scrolled through books I’ve downloaded on my kindle and started Tommy Orange’s book, There There. After several pages of graphic and disturbing descriptions of the horrific things that early American settlers did to the Native Americans, I gave up. Despite the great reviews the book got, it was just too awful for some casual evening reading. It’s probably fair to say that I wimped out.

What does one do when a particular books doesn’t seem like a good choice? Move on, of course. There is always another book. We don’t all share the same taste which is why there is such a variety of books to choose from. I will return to Orange’s book another time when I am not so daunted by the opening. I moved on to the next book chosen by my book group, Charles Blow’s memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Alas for me, a wimp looking for something compelling to read yet not so dark. The book immediately opens with a rape. Not graph or dwelled up, but there it was. Something I wasn’t up to spending time with right now.

Okay. There is always another book, right? So I picked up the book I had wanted my book group to read, Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. Liked the character, the voice. Could relate to the dilemma of a women chemist in all-male labs in the early sixties. And then—another rape.

I am considering going back to my usual refuge when I have to read but nothing seems to be working: gardening books, including the Monty Don book I got for my birthday. I am happy to be advised about the steps I need to take in order to put my gardens to bed for the winter, even though that advice may generate a list of things to get at the local garden store. Safer to spray the plants before I bring them in. Some enriched potting soil to top dress some of the pots before they came in. Cuttings from some of annuals to cheer up pots for the winter, including cuttings from several members of the plectranthus family. I only recently met this family and enjoy their company very much.

There are also cookbooks. While I await the arrival of the two I’ve just ordered: Ottolenghi’s Simple and The Cookbook, I’m diving back into The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook and The Silver Palate.

I will also, of course, dip back into my kindle library to look for something a bit lighter while I brace myself for reading those “I don’t wanna” books that will be improving, enlightening, and in the end, I am sure, entertaining.

I will also note this irony here: I sometimes write very dark books. I am writing one right now, the eighth Joe Burgess police procedural, Such a Good Man. Before that, it was the “medium boiled” Death Sends a Message, book eleven in my Thea Kozak series. And last summer, I went more light-hearted with Unleashed Love, my attempt at a romance with readers tell me is women’s fiction. Maybe my need for lighter reading is precisely because I already spend so much time in the dark world of criminals and crime.

My question for my fellow readers in this: Do you sometimes wimp out and reject the books you should be reading? Do have a type of book you take refuge in? Or are you the disciplined reader who believes in finishing what you start and that sometimes we read the books because they improve our knowledge of the world?

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The Other Writer in the Family

From 2009 but we more or less look the same

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here. As you may have seen in a recent Weekend Update or on my Facebook page, I’m no longer the only writer in the family to have published a book. My husband, Sandy, is the author of Well, Hell: the yarns of Bobby Wing, constable of Skedaddle Gore, Maine. He’ll be visiting Maine Crime Writers on October 18 to tell you more about that himself, but I can’t resist chiming in with a few comments about what it’s like living with someone who’s totally wrapped up in producing a publishable piece of fiction.

Sandy tried his hand at writing fiction twice before. The first time, when the state was having budget difficulties back in the late 1980s and laid off almost all of their recent hires, he had time on his hands and filled it, in part, by writing short stories and one pretty decent science fiction novella. None, unfortunately, sold, but he did sell a short nostalgia piece titled “When Dad Went to Sea” to Down East Magazine. His grandmother was so proud she had it framed.

More recently, after he retired from a long career in law enforcement and we gave up the Christmas tree farm, he started writing stories featuring Bobby Wing. Three were published, in the Best New England Crime Stories in 2015, 2016, and 2017. Then his focus shifted to other things, like his woodworking business, skiing, and cycling. He’ll tell you more about that on October 18, too.

Not too long ago, he got another idea for a Bobby Wing story, but this time things were a little different. I guess you could say he was inspired. Or maybe obsessed. I may not have written anything new lately, but he sure has.

the author (at least part of him) at work

It’s been an experience for both of us. I wasn’t used to having him hole up in his office for hours on end, losing track of time and even, on occasion, forgetting to eat. He started getting up in the middle of the night to jot down an idea before he forgot it. He got defensive after asking me for feedback when he didn’t like my gently worded suggestions for change. On the other hand, he often came up with a compromise after he had time to think about it.

Has it hit you yet? He turned into ME!

Now that the book is out, will things go back to normal? I doubt it. He’s just discovered that Facebook isn’t so bad after all. And he’s exploring other avenues of online promotion. I have a feeling he may be better at that than I am. That said, at least for the moment, he’s back to making his jigsaw puzzle tables to sell online. And me? I need to return to revising that book I was working on in August.

If you like eccentric characters, rural settings, and weird crimes, please consider a visit to the world of Bobby Wing, Constable, Fence Viewer, Animal Control Officer and Deputy Fire Warden of Skedaddle Gore, Maine. Bobby’s “yarns” are humorous stories of murder, romance, mystery, redemption, adventure, reluctant derring-do and the wages of sin. They run the gamut from a severed head to a body on a ski lift with plenty of local color in between.

The e-book is readily available for the bargain price of $7.99. Here’s a link to Amazon, B&N, and others: https://books2read.com/wellhell

 

A trade paperback is also available. Any bookstore can order it, but there are still “supply chain” problems with printed books, so be patient. We haven’t even received our author copies yet. It’s priced at $15.99.

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-four books traditionally published and has self published others, including several children’s books. 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 most recent publications are The Valentine Veilleux Mysteries (a collection of three short stories and a novella, written as Kaitlyn) and I Kill People for a Living: A Collection of Essays by a Writer of Cozy Mysteries (written as Kathy). She maintains websites at www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com.

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Weekend Update: October 1-2, 2022

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

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

A chance to meet some Maine Crime Writers here at the Newport Cultural Center:

And coming October 18th . . . at long last 

 

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

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“True” Crime Fiction

I recently watched the latest Elvis film, titled, um, Elvis, featuring Austin Butler in the lead and Tom Hanks as the villain, Colonel Tom Parker.

While Butler is a terrific Elvis, Hanks pulls off a remarkable transformation from beloved actor to the compellingly grotesque figure of Colonel Parker. “Explore Entertainment” describes Hanks as “trussed up under layers of costuming and make-up, bloated and reptilian, with a strange, slightly Dutch accent, and pulling the strings as the carnival barker-turned-talent manager who made Elvis into a star.”

Elvis got me thinking about crime fiction based on actual historic events.

Most famous, perhaps, is Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express. Inspired by the 1932 Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping, Christie imagined a long-delayed plot for justice that has become one of her most admired stories – and the perfect set-piece for detective Hercule Poirot.

Dorothy Sayer’s Strong Poison, the whodunit-howdunnit, introduces readers to Harriet Vane who is wrongly accused of poisoning her lover with arsenic. Lord Peter Wimsey ultimately proves Vane innocent and, well, you really must read the book to see what happens. Strong Poison is based on the trial of the only UK solicitor ultimately executed for murder in 1922. When Herbert Rouse Armstrong was arrested on New Year’s Eve, he actually had a packet of arsenic in his pocket – a detail Sayers’ borrows in her novel.

No literary true crime list would be complete without Truman Capote’s 1966 “nonfiction novel” about the brutal murder of a Kansas family in 1959. In Cold Blood is a page-turner that honors the victims while also displaying empathy for the perpetrators.

My own mysteries are based on actual environmental events and crimes. For example, Secrets Haunt The Lobsters’ Sea is based on the rough-and-tumble domain of the state’s signature fishery in which lobstermen sometimes practice their own rule of law.

I’ll end with Into The Wild, Jon Krakauer’s tale of a young man, the well off Christopher Johnson McCandless, who hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness. Months late moose hunters found his decomposed body. How McCandless came to die is the remarkable story of Into The Wild. A Hampshire College alum (where I taught for over 20 years), Krakauer was awarded an Academy Award in Literature. Into The Wild became a #1 New York Times bestseller and was translated into more than twenty-five languages. It was also Time’s Book of the Year, and was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.

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Tree Stands. Rotting Donuts. Lynx Poop. Environmental Grief.  

After two major surgeries in less than a year (a new heart valve and knee replacement) I was surprised to realize how much I missed the characters and dog I’d created.

Next to my daughter and her grandgirls of course. I missed them most of all.

How to return to my third writing effort with so much time off recovering and feeling … to be honest … depressed?

Immersion seemed like a good idea. I reread my last novel, Deadly Turn, and took notes like it was a class. A class in the novel’s Voice. In my unique characters. In plotting that could carry the novel and each page. In desires, big and little and huge. (Each page should have something someone wants, even a glass of water.)

my plot map

I pulled out my plot map of highs and lows and tweaked what I thought might be a different climax.

Map of Deadly Assault terrain

I updated the map of the novel’s territory I’d created months before.

I made a list of possible perpetrators as, like before, I have several characters audition during the novel to be the ‘bad guy.’

screen saver picture for Deadly Trespass

I remembered that I needed an animal on my screen to draw me back to the essence of the story. For each novel I’ve had a picture that opens in-my-face, telling me to get It DONE! Wolves were the reminder on Deadly Trespass, my first novel.

The eagle (piercing eyes) was for Deadly Turn.

 

And now for Deadly Assault, I’ve put up an otter but some days there’s a salamander.

 

I’d written six chapters before my last surgery. And these words I now share are where I picked up the story.

First, a flashback to introduce the tree stand built by her old wildlife biologist boss, Ken. Then Chapter Six finds Patton alone at the tree, hiding out with her dog, Pock.

[Note: When I am writing and have an idea or something I want to fix, I put it in bold and keep going.]

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

After I’d crawled onto a small porch and sent the harness back down, I stood and stared. It wasn’t the usual tree stand thrown together with wood scraps or bought from a catalogue that offered a tiny, flimsy place to sit. It was a real tree house—an impregnable fort of wide floor boards surrounded by a rugged railing, topped by a metal roof and equipped with a bunk bed nailed into the trunk, two small folding chairs, and a contraption for collecting rain water. Glassed in hole to see below???

The bucket in the corner had to be the toilet. I decided I was going to get to know Ken very well.

He panted as he arrived and turned to hoist up my dog. “I like to stay up here for days. Everyone shows up if I’m quiet.” Everyone meant every animal.

Usually, tree stands overlook game trails used by generations of deer or bear hunters hoping for regular animal habits. Bear hunters, however, didn’t trust bears to just show up so they left buckets of ageing donuts and pastries weeks before the season and then waited to see who’d developed a sugar habit.

Ken’s tree house was only for wildlife voyeurism. Spotting scope tripods were nailed to each railing and after I screwed on a scope, I liked Ken even more. His tree house surveyed all the forest we could see and all homes and haunts different animals favored.

Dense groves of spruce and fir offered up sanctuary and hidden travel routes. Patches of regrowing, tasty brush meant tender twigs in winter and yummy buds in spring and lots of snowshoe hare. Lots of hare meant a lynx probably hunted within Ken’s view. A few grass clearings sloped toward a cedar swamp fed by a clear stream of green pools. Private trout I thought.

“As high as the Eiffel Tower is,” Ken said “that’s how far we can … “

I interrupted. “That how far you can see as animals go about their food and shelter business. I get it.”

Ken’s smile meant I’d passed an important test.

Chapter Six

Without Ken and weak from months lying around, I didn’t know if I could pass the hoist-the dog-sitting-in-the-lap test. It was almost dark so I rummaged through my pack for my headlamp to study the cable system. Pulley systems are designed to distribute weight so someone can pull more weight than they had any right to lift.

Multiple pullies zigzagging back and forth like a giant Z in a barn loft had once saved my life when I felt wolf breath hot on my ankles. I hoped I hadn’t used up my Z-drag karma. I strapped myself into the harness.

“This is your one shot,” I said to Pock, sticking a dog biscuit behind each ear.  “Either you climb into my lap now, or you’re down here for the night where you’ll get freaked out. I have a sleeping bag and will share it. Just eat the biscuits on your way up.”

It’s a miracle neither of us died tangled in the rigging as after Pock ate the biscuits, he decided he was done with the entire process and made a massive leap from my lap onto the bit of deck that was a porch. Before I could strip off the harness, he was back behind my legs in a crouch. I played my headlight into branches above us and found eyes.

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

And here are the end-of-day notes for this session, left to help me get started … next time.

Lynx poop on deck. It’s black, tubular tapered and smelly, same as bobcat. Lynx conversation? Calls in Barred Owl.

Crowded with dog on bunk in sleeping bag. What does she hear? Smell? Too dark to see so she mentally inventories everything that will end when the road and condos replace this place. (Fossil rock. Moose bog. Moss empire.) No animal boundaries in woods. Not like No Trespassing signs to come that slice up it artificially.

BRING THE PAIN; GRIEF FOR WHAT’S LOST.  How to live with environmental grief? With what’s lost or about to be.

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

Well, maybe that’s a question many, many of us are asking. I intend to tackle it in this novel, Deadly Assault.

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.

 

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The Ties Between Eugenics and Genome Editing by Matt Cost

Ken Burns is on to something. But I beat him to the punch. In his new documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, he delves into the influence that America had on the Nazi Party and Adolph Hitler through the study and implementation of the Eugenics Movement.

This past April, I published Mouse Trap, which I began writing in December of 2020. As my mysteries often do, the plot began as one thing and morphed into another beast entirely. As I dug further into the topic of genetic engineering, currently being experimented on with mice, I realized how much bigger this topic really was.

The stated goal is to eradicate disease such as diabetes, cancer, etc. The reality is that the first genetically altered baby was born in the U.S. twenty-two years ago. Since then, new technology, such as CRISPR has been designed to improve this process, and while the FDA frowns upon genome editing on live human embryos, there is little teeth to their position, as the science is outpacing the law.

The reality is that the science is out there to create babies with specific eye color, hair color, (skin color?), body shape, increased mental facilities, and improved physical prowess. With the backing of a wealthy benefactor, the very real possibility of a secret lab creating superbabies does exist.

But this is not something new. It all started in the late 19th century and really began to pick up speed at the turn of the century. In the United States of America. With the Eugenics Movement. In my current WIP, City Gone Askew, 8 Ballo becomes enmeshed in this fraudulent science that attempts to eradicate criminals, the feeble minded (as they termed it), and undesirables such as Blacks, Jews, Italians, and many more.

On the surface, the way toward achieving a purer (their word, not mine) American race was to be through forced sterilization and stringent immigration laws (the 1924 Reed-Johnson Act). These scientific and medical procedures and experiments were supported by many wealthy families of the time such as Carnegie, Harriman, Rockefeller, and Ford. The few dissenting scientist and doctor voices were drowned out in a tidal wave of support.

In Mouse Trap, Clay Wolfe discovers a secret genetic engineering lab, which has come full circle from the Eugenics Movement that 8 Ballo is thrown into in City Gone Askew. Discovering and learning about fascinating subjects such as this is one of the pieces of writing that enthralls me the most, even it often scares me to the core.

When is it time to say enough when trying to improve humanity? When does it go too far? What, really, is an improvement? These are difficult questions that we face today, but they certainly are not new. Being knowledgeable about eugenics and genetic engineering are far too important to not pay attention to.

Next up? Unidentified Aerial Phenomena coming this December!

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 writes the Mainely Mystery series. The first book, MAINELY POWER, was selected by the Maine Humanities Council as the fiction book of the year for 2020. The third, MAINELY MONEY, was a finalist for a Silver Falchion Award.

Cost also writes the Clay Wolfe/Port Essex mystery series. The second book, MIND TRAP, is up for a RONE award from InD’tale Magazine. The fourth book, COSMIC TRAP, is due out in December.

Historical fiction novels have covered such diverse topics as Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, Joshua Chamberlain and the Civil War, and the fight for equality in New Orleans during Reconstruction.

In April of 2023, VELMA GONE AWRY will be published. It is a blend of Cost’s love of histories and mysteries about Hungarian PI 8 Ballo set in 1923 Brooklyn, NY.

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.

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TL;DR Publishing is Weird

Thanks to all who turned out for the launch Wednesday night at Longfellow Books. Great fun, excellent cake, and an outstanding conversation with interviewer extraordinaire Katrina Niidas-Holm. I’m continuing the donation scheme I announced that night through the end of the year. For each copy of The Last Altruist, I will donate one dollar to a donation to the Matinicus Island Library, in honor of their commitment to providing banned books in their stacks. I’m not going to check receipts—if you tell me you bought it, I’ll take your word for it.

Ran into some interesting information about book sales and publishing last week. Not our usual fare, but I suspect there’s some interest in what actually happens in the publishing world, as opposed to the myths and assumptions running around.

The source of this information is the Senior Analyst for BookScan, which is part of the NPD Group, a large nationwide company that does market research and trendspotting in various businesses. So it’s about as legit as we’re going to get without actually seeing the balance sheets. It’s long, but as someone trying to participate in this market, I found it fascinating.

Much of this is quoted directly from comments the analyst provided online, in response to an ongoing discussion of the Penguin/Simon and Schuster antitrust trial. (I’ve redacted her name.) The original article can be found at https://countercraft.substack.com/p/no-most-books-dont-sell-only-a-dozen.

Hey y’all, it’s xxxxx, lead industry analyst from NPD BookScan. I thought I would chime in with some numbers here, since that statistic from the DOJ is super-misleading, and I’m not sure where it originally came from, since we did not provide it directly. 

NPD BookScan (BookScan is owned by The NPD Group, not Nielsen, BTW), collects data on print book sales from 16,000 retail locations, including Amazon print book sales. Included in those numbers are any print book sales from self-publishing platforms where the author has opted for extended distribution and a print book was sold by Amazon or another retailer. So that 487K “new book” figure is all frontlist books in our data showing at least 1 unit sale over the last 52 weeks coming from publishers of all sizes, including individuals.

Because this is clearly a slice, and most likely provided by one of the parties to the suit, I decided to limit my data to the frontlist sales for the top 10 publishers by unit volume in the U.S. Trade market. My ISBN list is a little smaller than the one quoted in the DOJ, but the principals will be the same. 

The data below includes frontlist titles from Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Scholastic, Disney, Macmillan, Abrams, Sourcebooks, and John Wiley. The figures below only include books published by these publishers themselves, not publishers they distribute.

Here is what I found. Collectively, 45,571 unique ISBNs appear for these publishers in our frontlist sales data for the last 52 weeks (thru week ending 8-24-2022).

In this dataset:

>>>0.4% or 163 books sold 100,000 copies or more

>>>0.7% or 320 books sold between 50,000-99,999 copies

>>>2.2% or 1,015 books sold between 20,000-49,999 copies

>>>3.4% or 1,572 books sold between 10,000-19,999 copies

>>>5.5% or 2,518 books sold between 5,000-9,999 copies

>>>21.6% or 9,863 books sold between 1,000-4,999 copies

>>>51.4% or 23,419 sold between 12-999 copies

>>>14.7% or 6,701 books sold under 12 copies

So, only about 15% of all of those publisher-produced frontlist books sold less than 12 copies. That’s not nothing, but nowhere as janky as what has been reported.

BUT, I think the real story is that roughly 66% of those books from the top 10 publishers sold less than 1,000 copies over 52 weeks. (Those last two points combined)

And less than 2% sold more than 50,000 copies. (The top two points)

Now data is a funny thing. It can be sliced and diced to create different types of views. For instance we could run the same analysis on ALL of those 487K new books published in the last 52 weeks, which includes many small press and independently published titles, and we would find that about 98% of them sold less that 5,000 copies in the “trade bookstore market” that NPD BookScan covers. (I know this IS a true statistic because that data was produced by us for The New York Times.)

But that data does not include direct sales from publishers. It does not include sales by authors at events, or through their websites. It does not include eBook sales which we track in a separate tool, and it doesn’t include any of the amazing reading going on through platforms like Substack, Wattpad, Webtoons, Kindle Direct, or library lending platforms like OverDrive or Hoopla. 

BUT, it does represent the general reality of the ECONOMICS of the publishing market. In general, most of the revenue that keeps publishers in business comes from the very narrow band of publishing successes in the top 8-10% of new books, along with the 70% of overall sales that come from BACKLIST books in the current market. (Backlist books have gained about 4% in share from frontlist books since the pandemic began, but that is a whole other story.)

The long and short of it is publishing is very much a gambler’s game, and I think that has been clear from the testimony in the DOJ case. It is true that most people in publishing up to and including the CEOs cannot tell you for sure what books are going to make their year. The big advantage that publisher consolidation has brought to the top of the market is deeper pockets and more resources to roll those dice. More money to get a hot project. More money to influence outcomes through marketing, more access to sales and distribution mechanisms, and easier access to the gatekeepers who decide what books make it onto retailers’ shelves. And better ability to distribute risk across a bigger list of gambles.

It is largely a numbers game and I’m not just saying that because I’m a numbers gal. It’s a tough business.

Hope this has been helpful—back to our regularly scheduled topics next time.

Posted in Dick's Posts, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Weekend Update: September 24-25, 2022

Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Dick Cass (Monday), Matt Cost (Tuesday), and Charlene D’Avanzo (Thursday).

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: The big news at our house is that my husband’s first full length fiction is now available as an e-book. Well, Hell: The Yarns of Bobby Wing, Constable of Skedaddle Gore, Maine, had its origin in three short stories that appeared in three successive editions of Best New England Crime Stories. The protagonist, Bobby, moved to Skedaddle Gore when he retired from the Coast Guard and accepted the job as constable because the extra income would help cover his tab at Sally’s Motel and Bar and Live Bait and Convenience Store. The job description was vague: just handle the “little things” that come up from time to time. He doesn’t carry a badge or a gun and isn’t allowed to arrest anyone, but somehow those “little things” end up including everything from a severed head to a body on ski lift. But don’t worry. It’s not all murder and mayhem. There’s plenty of Maine humor, too. Here are the links to buy the e-book:https://books2read.com/u/mZEeLp

 Kate Flora: I just recorded a podcast for Murder We Write. A lot of fun. If you’re interested in some of my thoughts on writing, and upcoming books, you can find it here:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/murder-we-write-episode-2/id1635664204?i=1000580133927

 

 

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

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Joyce? Wordsworth? They’re just like us!

For several years, I was a judge in nationwide self-published book contest. I was a first-tier judge, which meant I read a hundred or more books, sending one for every batch of 25 back  to the next tier. Duties included ranking each on a 1-5 scale for several criterea (character development, structure, grammar, etc), and also giving a 200 to 300-word critique. (Top tip: If you’re self publishing, pay for an editor, for the love of god). I always used the “critique sandwich” approach — positive opening, the real criticism, positive ending. Example: “You obviously worked very hard on this book… to bring it up to the next level, you may want to consider… you should be proud of your accomplishment.”

James Joyce and me in Dublin.

Sometimes — often — it was very hard to find positive things to say. One memorable one that I struggled with was a stream of consciousness mish-mash with no attention to the rules of punctuation, spelling, sentence structure, or anything else that resembled writing. The writer responded to my critique (an option they had but, in my memory, only two writers — both male and jarringly bad — used). His reply was, basically, “James Joyce wrote like this and he was considered a genuis!”

My rule with that contest was the same as when I was a newspaper editor — if I got a ridiculous email from someone who just didn’t get it, they got one brief and to-the-point response. To this fellow, I wrote something like, “Joyce understood the rules enough to know how to break them.” (Not that this is what this is about, but another tip for aspiring writers: Know the rules in and out before you break them, and if you do, have a plan for it. Don’t just break them because you’re too lazy to write correctly.)

I knew what I spoke of regarding Joyce — one piece of my very excellent liberal arts education was a semester on Joyce from one of the top Joyce scholars of the era. I’m embarrassed to say that the professor, Ed Callahan (who I also had for Shakespeare), was awesome, but I struggled mightily to understand what I was reading and I likely got a bad grade. I plan to revisit Joyce now that I’m older, smarter and on ADHD medication.

I enjoyed being an English major. Besides critical thinking skills and all sorts of stuff about literature and writing, I also learned things that no one in high school ever told me. Thoreau thought Walt Whitman was a slob! Thoreau, while “roughing it” at Walden Pond would go to the Emerson’s for lunch every day, where Mrs. Emerson would cook him a nice hot meal! Etc. I don’t rememember learning anything like that about Joyce, though. So I was delighted to learn, when I was in Dublin and visited the fantastic (but flawed) brand-new Museum of Literature in Ireland, that Joyce was, well… kind of whiner.

Joyce complaining about his publisher to Yeats.

The museum has an entire floor dedicated to Dublin’s favorite writer — as it should. Among the exhibits are letters he wrote to W.B. Yeats complaining about his publisher and asking for help.

In one he complains that the potential publisher refused to publish his book “The Dubliners,” then sold it back to him, but the printer destroyed all the copies. I look at this letter as just softening Yeats up, because the next letter, written on Christmas day no less, asks Yeats to help him get the book published.

The exhibits imply the two guys didn’t know each other well, but were acquainted. I can picture Yeats sitting there saying, “WTF, can’t this guy get a grip? I have my own issues to deal with!” One of the flaws of the museum — a blog post for another day — is that they have very little on Yeats. So we don’t know how he felt about Joyce.

Joyce closing the deal by asking Yeats for help.

But, as we all know, Joyce eventually got the attention he deserved, whether Yeats helped him out or not.

A week or so after my visit to Dublin, I was in England’s Lake District (it was a great trip with my sister Liz — another blog post for another day), and visited Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum. It was interesting to see that Wordsworth, too, had written whiney letters to people of influence complaining about publishers and more.

Don’t worry, I did have more takeaways about these two writers than the whininess. For instance, as I read Wordsworth’s “Boat Stealing,” part of his major work “The Prelude,” I had a strong flashback to my Introduction to Poetry Class first semester of freshman year in college  43 years ago (yes, I was an English major), and the startling revelation that A LOT of poems are about sex. Here’s an excerpt from that poem:

And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again…

See? It’s not just about the boat! Something stirred in me as I read it. No, not that. It was the realization that, nearly 40 years after graduating from college and 43 years after I took the class, I was remembering and drawing on something specific I’d learned. It’s always nice to feel that the money both I and the American taxpayers spent on those four years is paying off. (Though more like two years for the taxpayers, since Reagan decimated financial aid programs when I was mid-way through).

I no longer have the book with “Boat Stealing,” but here’s proof that, yes, I did pay at least minimal attention in college.

I even looked for the textbook with “Boat Stealing” when I got home (because yes, I’m a dork who saved some of my college textbooks), but I no longer have it. I did, however, find my notes on another Wordsworth poem, which, unininspiring as they are, showed I was at least paying enough attention to know that it would be on the final.

I found it interesting that both Joyce and Wordsworth had women at their beck and call who typed, mailed, compiled, soothed, cooked, gave ideas to, allowed the guy to take snippets of their own writing as his, etc. It reminded me a little of my mother’s refrain: “I notice a lot of writers have husbands or wives who work, so they have health insurance and can take time to write…” Thanks Mom! In 2022, I don’t see getting married as a solution to finding time to write. I think the picking up dirty socks, trying to tune out the NFL or “Game of Thrones” or whatever other random thing is constantly droning on the TV, negotiating meal content, and all the other aspects of living with another person would negate any “writing time” I would gain. And the Affordable Care Act is treating me better as far as health care goes than any employer-based insurance I’ve had in the past decade. Sorry, digressing!

Back yard of Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s home in Grasmere, England. Nice place, but would’ve been a little crowded for my taste.

In Wordsworth’s defense, I shudder to think of how crowded his sweet little Dove Cottage must’ve been with his wife, sister, various friends and hangers-on, and growing brood of what eventually became five kids all crammed in. Though they moved to a bigger place after kid no. 3. Oh, and he had a bequest from a friend who’d died that allowed him to live comfortably while he wrote, with the proviso that his sister live with him and be taken care of. That sister, Dorothy Wordsworth, wasn’t a bad writer herself. And as I touched on earlier, she and Wordsworth’s wife, Mary, did a lot of his heavy lifting, including transcribing all his writing, walking four miles one-way to the post office in Ambleside to mail stuff for him, letting him use their ideas, and more. So he got the better of the deal.

But I digress again.

I knew traveling to the homes of some of the greatest writers the world has ever known would be motivating as I struggle along finishing my own book. But the best motivation was that no matter how great they were, they were people, too, with issues and insecurities of their own. And yet they got it done. A lesson for us all.

Now, if any of you guys happen to have Yeats’ mailing address, could you send it along? Just want to drop him a little note…

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Earlate Bloomer

I have a major milestone birthday coming up, which has led me to reflect on my very circuitous path to publishing. I graduated from high school when I was fifteen, college at 19. Rather unbelievably, I was offered a job teaching second grade in a Lower East Side special service K-5 school (i.e., a school in a profoundly disadvantaged neighborhood, where just about every single kid qualified for free lunch/milk). I turned 20 a month after I began.

This hiring was not because I was such a brilliant, big-hearted young woman. There was a dire teachers’ shortage in New York City at the time. Virtually anyone with a functioning heartbeat and a modicum of (in)sanity was accepted to an accelerated education training program at NYU the summer before school started.

Armed with six weeks of instruction, colorful mini-dresses, a stash of Mallomars for snack time, and an overly optimistic attitude, I wandered into P.S. 64 and tried to make a difference. I think I probably learned more than the kids did those two years, and the experience left a lasting impression.

Some disturbing highlights (lowlights?):

There were several pregnant fourth and fifth grade girls each year, which was incredibly awful.

The assistant principal said I smiled too much. A successful teacher didn’t smile until after Thanksgiving. I found that to be an impossible (and abhorrent) goal.

The janitor got furious when I stayed after school to work. He said the empty building was too dangerous, and he didn’t want to be responsible for my safety. I could be raped or at the very least robbed. Why, just the other day someone had come in with a machete, so I could be chopped up too.

One day during school hours the door opened (Some days we were instructed to lock ourselves in, but not that particular morning.). A rock sailed through to the back of the classroom, fortunately missing any little heads. Attached to it with a rubber band was a note: Benny can’t come to school today because he has no shoes.

A discussion about trick or treating devolved into how many scary men the kids had seen in their hallways, not in costumes, but with needles in their arms.

Speaking of health, I caught chicken pox the first year and German measles the second.

But there are many better memories. Second graders are still very reachable and teachable—it’s a wonderful age, where the hard part is over and the hardest part is yet to come. They sometimes brought in their own books for story time—Spanish books. I’d taken French and German in school, so my relevant language skills were nada. But the class complemented my accent, even if I didn’t understand what I was reading.

The kids always brought me presents, some used, and some not. Someone gave me a see-through orange baby doll nightgown. New, thank heavens. I got lots of cute china knickknacks, too.

One year I had a Maria, a Marisol, a Maritza, a Magallis, and a Maribel to keep straight. As a Maggie/Margaret, I almost fit right in.

I learned to say, “Mira, mira!” when I wanted attention.

Before this job, I was used to being the youngest person in the room/group. Time eventually caught up with me. I got married, had kids, moved around the eastern seaboard with a brief detour to Ohio, had lots of varied work situations. Life rolled along, and I got a little itchy. What happened to the girl who worked on the high school yearbook and newspaper, the one who’d made the college English honorary society?

I started to write for real. My first book was published when I was 62, a time when most folks are ready to retire and wear a nightgown all day (though not see-through, and definitely not orange). This writing gig has added a whole other element to my dusty resume, and made me realize it’s never, ever too late to try something new.

And now…do you know what I’d really like to do? You’ll probably never guess—play the drums. I doubt Santa, being a sensible and frugal older gentleman, will bring me a drum kit for the garage. Hitting stuff would surely aggravate my arthritis, and the noise would make me deafer than ever and annoy the neighbors. But I can enjoy YouTube drummers rocking out.

Were you an early bloomer, late bloomer, or a hybrid? What crazy ambition do you have?

For more scintillating info, please visit www.maggierobinson.net

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