Weekend Update: January 25-26, 2020

Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will be a posts by John Clark (Monday), special guest Elizabeth Penney (Tuesday), Dick Cass (Thursday), and a group post, “Adventures in Research” (Friday).

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

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Kaitlyn Dunnett’s A View to a Kilt will be released on Tuesday in hardcover and e-book editions. She’ll be posting more about it here on Maine Crime Writers on Wednesday.

Fans of Lea Wait‘s books might want to check out the recent posts at http://cozymysterybookreviews.blogspot.com/ where reviews of just about all of Lea’s mysteries have been posted during the last few weeks. The review of her last book, Thread and Buried, includes comments by Kaitlyn Dunnett and others.

Kate Flora is excited to have a story in the upcoming anthology The Faking of the President, coming in April.

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And with apologies for so much “Kate-focused” news, here’s the link to William Bushnell’s review of A Child Shall Lead Them: https://www.centralmaine.com/?p=1705898

An invitation to readers of this blog: Do you have news relating to Maine, Crime, or Writing? We’d love to hear from you. Just comment below to share.

 

And a reminder: If your library, school, or organization is looking for a speaker, we are often available to talk about the writing process, research, where we get our ideas, and other mysteries of the business. Contact Kate Flora

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So, When Did You Start Writing?

Darcy Scott here. I get this question at least once at every signing/show I attend, along with its inevitable follow-up: “And how long did it take you to get published?” In my case, the answer to the first question is about 40 years ago, if you count a brief, spectacularly unsuccessful Middle School foray into short stories and a disastrous experience with the dreaded personal essay at around the same time. Publication? That one’s a bit more complicated.

About that essay. It was, I admit, a paltry effort completed in record time merely to satisfy what, to my way of thinking, was an arbitrary requirement imposed on us by Mr. Miles, my seventh grade English teacher. I honestly can’t remember the subject I chose; what I do remember is that my best friend’s essay about her Down syndrome brother won her an A—which, I admit, was well deserved. Said teacher would tell you I was a lazy writer, and he’d be right. The fact he thoroughly humiliated me by informing the entire class of this fact—a cruel but common critiquing practice back in the day—turned out to be good preparation for the reams of rejection slips that loomed large in my future.

My love affair with fiction took off later that same year, after the first of many readings of Shirley Jackson’s stunning The Haunting of Hill House—my enthusiasm for putting pen to paper galvanized by all that dark energy, Jackson’s spare and brilliant prose. I started with short stories, as many novelists do—my first attempt a romance of sorts begun on a train trip to Fort Lauderdale to visit my grandparents, and finished as I lounged on their living room floor. I was fourteen and wildly in love with Paul McCartney at the time (cue eye rolls and snorts of derision), and the resulting story—self-indulgent, poorly written and full of embarrassing teenage angst—meandered for a mind-numbing 30 pages or so. Ugh. 

The Author at Work on the Living Room Floor, Circa 1966

I took another brief stab at short stories in college after consuming Jhumpa Lahiri’s brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Interpreter of Maladies, and encouraged by a course I was taking at the time. No one was more surprised than I was when it won the school’s literary prize. It later became the first chapter of many, many, MANY drafts of my first psychological thriller, Margel’s Madness—a semi-autobiographical take on escaping a toxic family situation. This early and very minor success nonetheless left me in no doubt of my inadequacy in this particular narrative form. Short stories require a skill set I simply don’t have—namely the ability to distill my inevitable sprawl of ideas into a succinct 20 or 30 pages. I stand in in awe of writers who excel at it, writers like Ms. Lahiri.

It was then I turned to the novel. Novels, I reasoned, were roomy, expansive. Plenty of space here; a woman could roll up her sleeves and dive right in, travel down any number of narrative byways and not run out of room. Two years later I completed my first novel, Hunter Huntress, though it would be years and years, and years again before it was eventually picked up by a small, quirky publishing house in Britain—a bumpy road that began with a very traditional hunt for an agent. As almost all authors have experienced and many non-authors have perhaps intuited by the deer-in-the-headlights look some of us assume when asked, this can be a grueling and humiliating process. Many agents I’ve encountered don’t bother responding to unsolicited queries; those that do are known to generate reams of form letters that may or may not be personalized. Usually not. One agent did send me a personalized response of a sort, addressing me by my protagonist’s name rather than my own, the letter itself covered with footprints. Everybody’s a critic. 

Eventually I signed with an agent in Manhattan (Manhattan!!) who was very enthusiastic about the manuscript and sent it off to several top New York houses. When no one bit, we doubled down. Ten more submissions, ten more rejections. Twenty, thirty—which in the annals of publishing, is a mere drop in the bucket. I reassured myself with stories I’d heard of far longer waits than mine. Robert Persig’s classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was rejected by 121 houses prior to its eventual publication. Karl Marlantes’s debut novel, Matterhorn, was stuck in literary purgatory for more than thirty years before he found a publisher willing to take it on. He simply refused to give up. By comparison, Hunter Huntress was turned down by a paltry 35 publishers before my British publisher picked it up. 

Happy ending, right? I wish. Upon publication, the head of this erstwhile concern suffered a nervous breakdown (the dual victim of financial fraud and a romantic con), and hid from all the world, including her clueless roster of increasingly agitated authors, for a good six months. This is not a joke.

By this time, though, I was well into writing Matinicus, the first of my Maine Island Mysteries, and hardly blinked when that Manhattan agent informed me she was burned out and leaving the business for a job as the manager of a Playboy Club. This is also not a joke. 

But, as they say, that was then and this is now. Today I’m happily ensconced with a small regional publisher specializing in books about Maine written by Maine authors—a close-knit, passionate group that spends its days joyfully ushering books into print. Lucky me. 

Darcy Scott (Winner, 2019 National Indie Excellence Award; Best Mystery, 2013 Indie Book Awards; Silver Award, 2013 Readers Favorite Book Awards; Bronze Prize, 2013 IPPY Awards) is a live-aboard sailor and experienced ocean cruiser with more than 20,000 blue water miles under her belt. For all her wandering, her summer home and favorite cruising grounds remain along the coast of Maine—the history and rugged beauty of its sparsely populated out-islands serving as inspiration for much of her fiction, including her popular Maine-based Island Mystery Series. Her debut novel, Hunter Huntress, was published in Britain in 2010.

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Messages from the Universe

Kate Flora: I am now starting day six of an awfully spartan diet, which likely colors my mood in a not very pleasant fashion. Still, when I sit down to blog, thinking of readers and writers out there, I always cheer up. I don’t really know who reads this. We’re all so busy that being a faithful blog follower is difficult. I will assume, though, that someone will read this, and perhaps, like me, be one of those who find the winter months are great for reflection.

From time to time, usually in anticipation of what my husband and I call “significant” fullsizeoutput_2397birthdays, I will wake up one morning with an interesting question in mind. For fifty, it was “What matters?” For sixty, “What are you waiting for?” For sixty-five, the question was “What will you regret?” Now, having passed another significant birthday, the message is, “It’s okay to slow down.”

I have found these “messages from the universe” to be very helpful. Asking what matters really made me reflect on things that are most important to me. It made me ask what do I love? I love Maine. I love being in our little cottage and smelling the sea air and watching the birds and boats and sunsets. I love writing, watching those stories emerge from my imagination, sometimes coming so fast that I can hardly type fast enough to get them down, other times when they stubbornly refuse to get told. Testing me and making me work for every character and scene. I love it when I am so deeply into a book that I don’t want to do anything else. I love that dozy time before I wake when the story is already playing in my head and I can hear my characters talk. What matters? Family and friends.  Feeding people. My gardens.

IMG_2655The message from sixty was compelling: what was I waiting for? I’ve always been a bit timid, kind of a loner. A worker bee who rarely gives herself permission to leave the desk, the project, the characters, and just go out and play. I still haven’t become a motorcycle outlaw or run away for a six months to a year just to do obsessive writing (despite being so jealous of John McPhee), but I have traveled to places I always dreamed of, like Egypt and India and Patagonia. I have tried to say “yes” more often, instead of staying at my desk. I’ve twice gone to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts for two week writing residencies. I’ve stopped being so cautious about saving all my money for the future and let myself enjoy little treats. I’ve indulged in my Goodwill and Salvation Army treasure hunts. Trivial as it is, I’ve let the little farm girl who only had one pair of shoes buy all the second-hand shoes she wants. My closet is groaning.

fullsizeoutput_2132“What will you regret” is another nudge to live instead of postponing life. I’m slow to put it into practice–I still haven’t climbed Katahdin or made it to The Common Ground Fair, but hope to do that this summer. I have started to plant vegetables in pots. I’m taking tap dancing lessons, despite being an utter klutz. I’m saying yes to more chances to spend time with friends. I’m enjoying the adventure of trying a new character and learning his story. I’ve marked my calendar so I’ll remember to enter the lottery for The Lost Kitchen. I saw fields abloom with poppies in California. I finally went out to see the puffins!

 

I haven’t lived with “It’s okay to slow down” for very long, but I have a kind of a y665yK9WQ2CicU+dNaJI3Qpushme/pullyou reaction so far. Turns out, I have absolutely no idea how to slow down. Not with a book to be rewritten, another awaiting beta comments, and one due in June. Maybe, as in that movie “What About Bob?” I’ll have to work on this one with baby steps. Baby steps like stopping in the window to watch birds at the feeder or how blue shadows illuminate animal tracks in the snow. How the oilman’s hose leaves snake tracks across the yard. How if I stay very still, I can listen to the little creaks of my house. I can even put my delicious oils in my diffuser, close my eyes, and inhale.

Friends, do you get messages from the universe? Do you listen? What are your messages?

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Watching true crime TV is good for your writing. Honest.

The weather outside is frightful, but inside “Forensic Files” is on.

I have a lot of reasons for not getting far with my new book. Actually, I got semi-far, but the hard drive on my laptop died, and while I thought I’d saved the book to the cloud, I apparently didn’t. [Insert Microsoft rant].

So now I have some bits and pieces and have to kind of start over. But don’t cry for me. I’m just taking it in stride. Or, to put it another way, I’m in state of suspended animation.

I blame winter, three jobs, a balky furnace, my lost Fitbit and a really serious Gifford’s chocolate ice cream jones that I just recently kicked. I have a reliable desktop computer, but since I work at home most of the time, sitting in the same spot for a sustained 12 hours or so isn’t going to happen for me.

One and a half of my jobs I could do with the TV on, and my laptop and I got into a nice habit of watching HLN [think nonstop “Forensic Files,” and a lineup of B-level true crime shows with cheesy reenactments] while I worked.

Now my laptop is gone, at least temporarily, and I have to choose. “Forensic Files” or write? Actually, there’s another option. I’m typing this on my iPad. I dusted off the old Bluetooth keyboard and am trying to write by combining using the unsatisfactory tiny keyboard and the touchscreen. I’m not enjoying it. [Memo to helpful readers: NONE OF THIS — the laptop issues, the lost book, the Microsoft rant, not enjoying typing on a tiny Bluetooth keyboard with no apparent way to select things — is a cry for tech advice. Don’t want it, don’t need it. Thanks!]

So, like I said, unsatisfactory and not something I’m going to be doing a lot of. But at least I’m not upstairs in the home office with the hard chair and the non-working baseboard heater and the nervous feral cat. I’m on the living room couch with the gas fire and “Vengeance: Killer Coworkers” on the TV.

I’ve always been a fan of true-crime TV (and books and podcasts) and lately it’s all I can tolerate. Can’t watch or read much else. Maybe it’s winter. Maybe the jobs. The good news is, I consider it helpful to my writing. Seriously. Those of you who are writers may get it — I’m always writing in my head, working on ideas, assessing the world around me for how it may  fit in.

The true-crime TV immersion is helping with my book, even though 30,000 or so words are now lost to the cold winter cyber wind.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. I saw that little moue of disapproval on the faces in the audience at a recent author talk when I said I get ideas from true crime shows. Not exactly Agatha Christie, am I?

When I say “get my ideas,” though, I don’t mean the book I’m working on is going to have a disgruntled wife giving her husband ethanol-laced Gatorade, or a husband who drowns his wife in the bathtub (so many, guys!) and says it was an accident. It won’t have a victim who “lights up the room,” the cops won’t call the bad guy “a gentleman.” It’s not going to be a town “where everyone knows everyone and no one locks their doors. Until the unthinkable happened.” There was never a “simpler time,” and the if there every really was, it sure as hell wasn’t the ’70s or ’80s, so I won’t be saying that, either.

No one’s going to say “go missing.” Unless it’s followed by my protagonist going nuts on them.

If there’s “a shocking twist that no one saw coming,” I won’t use those words.

Those are all things you’ll hear any given night on true-crime TV.

Not that those aren’t fun, but there are things that go a little deeper. One great thing about true crime TV is that it’s a textbook on human behavior. It’s an exercise in figuring out why people act like they do, even if it means I’m yelling at the TV because the guy is obviously a psychopath and everyone blithely ignored the red flags, and still can’t figure out “why he did it.” So, come to think of it, it’s also an exercise in how people react to the psychopath, or the crime, what their reactions are, and the narratives people give situations.

It’s also a lesson in things like how casually constitutional rights are dismissed. “Lawyering up” for instance shouldn’t be a bad thing. It’s nuts how people are constantly denied or tricked out of their constitutional rights, but no one sees a problem with it on true crime TV. Or in real life a lot of the time. I laughed out loud when on one pretty good show, the suspect said he wanted to exercise his 6th Amendment right and the cop interrogating him didn’t know what that meant.

Even the cliches help inform the thinking writer — leave all that crap out of your book. If anyone in one of my books says “that kind of thing doesn’t happen here,” you can bet it’ll be followed by someone saying, “Yes it does. All the time.” Because I find myself yelling that at the TV almost every night.

So, as the temperature dips below zero outside and I sit by the light of my TV listening to the howling wind, I’m not feeling too bad about not recapturing those 30,000 words. At least not right now.

The winter is long. And there’s a new episode of “Killer Confessions” coming up in 10 minutes.

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“Every Body Leaves A Trace”

“The Nature of Life and Death: Every Body Leaves A Trace”—now that’s a book for mystery writers. And the subtitle “Tales of A Forensic Ecologist” certainly got this ecologist’s attention.

Author Patricia Wiltshire is a botanist and palynologist who identifies pollen, spores, and the like to solve crimes. Wiltshire says she “can tell where you lingered with a loved one, which corner of a field you waited in, which wall you leaned on … And if you are one of those unlucky souls who comes to me as a cadaver, I can tell your loved ones how, when, and where you died.”

Using plants to solve crimes is nothing new. In the 1930’s the solution to the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder rested on the type of wood a ladder was made of. But Wiltshire, who established and ran a masters’ course in Forensic Archaeological Science at the University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, is at the top of the modern game and therefore in high demand.

So what does this forensic ecologist actually do? If you bring her a suspect’s car, clothing, shoes, etc., she’ll first examine and identify pollen, spores, soil particles dirt, mud, and debris. From this, she can describe in surprising detail where and for how long the body was dumped—e.g., an old-growth forest behind a roadside hedge or an overgrown field fallow for no more than three years. When her analysis is done, Wiltshire says she can see the place in her mind’s eye as if she’s looking at a photograph.

I’ve used a microscope to identify marine diatoms and other tiny bits of life but would be hard-pressed to say when I last looked at pollen spores. Scanning some photos I have to agree with Wiltshire that they are gorgeous—colored gold, red, and the like, many are spheres with dimples, spikes, bumps, plates, and hard-to-describe bits.

After decades working with and for the dead, Wiltshire’s take on the end of life is a good lesson for all of us. She says, “I know that my husband’s molecules and mine will mingle. Our ashes will be spread in the same place so that we might even end up in the same tree or bluebell. How marvelous!”

To me, that ecological take on the end of life is indeed “marvelous”.

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Weekend Update: January 18-19, 2020

Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will be a posts by Charlene D’Avanzo (Monday), Maureen Milliken (Tuesday), Kate Flora (Thursday) and Darcy Scott (Friday).

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

 

An invitation to readers of this blog: Do you have news relating to Maine, Crime, or Writing? We’d love to hear from you. Just comment below to share.

 

And a reminder: If your library, school, or organization is looking for a speaker, we are often available to talk about the writing process, research, where we get our ideas, and other mysteries of the business. Contact Kate Flora

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I LOVE RESEARCH

Winter has me thinking about getting away to somewhere warm. Since I can’t do that right away, I thought I’d revisit a previous trip that yielded both warmth and a research bonanza. I wrote a bit about this in an earlier blog post, but I’m expanding on the direct research today.

When the characters and the heroine’s quest for my 2015 release On Deadly Ground came to me, I knew I had to go to Mexico and experience the jungle and Maya ruins up close. Yes, it’s Maya for the people but Mayan for their language, but typically only archeologists make the distinction.

The book is my tribute to a favorite older movie, Romancing the Stone, but instead of seeking a valuable artifact, Max and Kate must return theirs to its temple. They spend days trekking through the jungle of my fictional Central American country, facing many dangers—bad guys, wild animals, earthquake tremors—and the emotional hazards of a dangerously inappropriate romance.

My husband and I spent a week in the Yucatan, soaking up the sun and ancient history. Along with beach time on the Mayan Riviera, we toured two of the ancient cities. Chichen-Itza offers the most famous Mayan pyramid and is mostly restored. Fascinating but not inspiring. I needed an undeveloped site for my characters’ destination. Another tour led by a Mayan guide to flooded me with ideas and questions.

Cobá is a ruin deep in the jungle, still being excavated and restored by archeologists. I had created in my mind and in my notes my protagonists and their quest, I pictured archaeologists working alongside nearby Mayan villagers. But I hadn’t firmed up the roadblocks and dangers that would confront them, the plot twists, you see. When the guide said some of the buildings’ destruction was from earthquakes, I thought: what if the people believed an artifact with a curse caused quakes. When further research on Maya gods yielded Kizin, the god of earthquakes, “eureka!” popped into my head and didn’t resist the urge to shout. So the artifact Kate was returning became a carved and bejeweled figure of this earthquake god.

Cobá, so primitive and wild, provided exactly the right feel and images.   Three settlements there contain the architecture of this once large city—including two ball courts and the highest Maya pyramid in the Yucatan.

I modeled the temple Max and Kate find in the jungle after this smaller one at Cobá, dedicated to the god of commerce. It’s shaped like a beehive because one of their big trading commodities was honey. Of course, when Max and Kate find theirs, it’s covered with vines and untouched.

The Yucatan sits on a limestone shelf, and beneath it lie rivers and deep water-filled caverns called cenotes.  The ancient Maya believed these caverns were the doors to the Underworld and deposited tributes to the gods and sacrifices—mostly animals, not humans—in them. For Max and Kate, cenotes are water sources, and an underground river plays a big role in the story.

Many contemporary Maya are integrated into the larger society, but some live in the jungle year round the way their ancestors did, in thatched huts with sapling walls. They cook over charcoal fires and raise animals and crops. The women weave beautiful blankets and sew and embroider cotton clothing by hand. A shop in the village sells their embroidered clothing and colorful blankets. I wonder how long we Norteamericanos would last living that way.

On Deadly Ground is the first book in my Devlin Security series. It’s available in both print and ebook forms on Amazon. An excerpt and more research photos are on my website, susanvaughan.com.  And exciting news! A different series, the four books of Task Force Eagle, is on sale starting today on Amazon, through Jan. 21. Always a Suspect, the first in the series, is free, and the other books are 99 cents.

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