The Scent of Balsam

The simplest thing can bring on the flood.

A song. A scent. The shiny red-green-gold beads in a strand of garland.

It’s Christmastime, and for me, sentiment comes easy.

Putting up the tree triggers the memories, doesn’t it? Last weekend we brought this year’s balsam fir in through the front door and danced her to the corner of the living room where a you’ll-only-need-one-for-your-lifetime tree stand from LL Bean—twenty pounds of cast iron—awaited. Tree standSix feet tall and beautifully proportioned, we positioned her with a relative minimum of fussing about whether she was leaning this way or that, offered her a drink and began the long, memory-filled process of unwrapping the ornaments.

The Eiffel Tower reminding us of a trip to Paris.

The shamrock from Ireland.

The sea glass garlands discovered in a shop in Deer Isle.

The cowgirl hat and western bird ornaments bought in Arizona.

The Quebec flag shaped like a heart.

The Red Sox 2004 World Series commemorative championship ornament. (Okay, okay, and the 2007 and 2013 ones, too, and perhaps Santa will bring me this year’s in my stocking.)

But the ornaments that really bring on the torrent of memories are the old-school ones.

Santa on his sleigh

Santa on his magical sleigh

The fragile tin balls shaped like planets and moons. The shiny reindeer with antlers, ready to pull that sleigh full of gifts.

Santa himself, reins in hand, about to embark on his magical trip around the world.

Speaking of Santa, a ramble through an old scrapbook suggests I was a bit intimidated the first time I met him face to face.


with Santa

I was either skeptical or terrified.

From this photo I’m guessing I’d just turned three. My blond sister appears to be reciting her list while I look like I’m getting ready to run for my life.

A few years later—the date on the letter tells me I was six years and six days old—I’d gotten over my fear of St. Nick.  Despite my confusion about the interchangeability of the letters “d” and “t,” Santa did bring me a drum that year. Shockingly, on or about December 26 it disappeared, a Buchanan family mystery still unresolved.the letter

I don’t know if I got the unnamed doll or her more popular cousin Nancy Nurse, but it’s possible. The ball and the col(l)oring book are probable. Thanks to the miracle of the internet I learned in the course of writing this post that Gobs o’ Fun was sort of a slime thing. As for a GoGoGo, I have no clue.

The scrapbook also holds a collection of the obligatory photo Christmas cards. My much-older brother opted out eventually, leaving the smiling to me and my sisters.

The choirboy and choirgirl candles often played a starring role, as did the manger, which you can see in the background in this shot.

posing with choirsingers

That’s me on the right, in my all-time favorite Christmas dress.

The manger was of my mother’s treasured possessions, and I was afraid to touch the delicate baby Jesus made of wax, but had a great time introducing the wooden cows and the oxen to my pals Gumby and Pokey.

On Christmas morning the manger played a central role. Rumor had it some kids were allowed to rush for the tree as soon as they woke up, but we Buchanan girls were expected to comb our hair, brush our teeth and wait for our teenaged brother to drag himself out of bed. After a seemingly interminable wait, my father went downstairs and plugged in the tree. When we finally descended, my sisters and I were marched across the living room where we knelt in front of that manger and said our morning prayers. My parents and big brother knelt behind us, poised to redirect a wandering gaze away from the unwrapped gifts and back to the nativity scene.

It was excruciating.

Later in the morning there were mutton pies (a subject for my St. Patrick’s Day post perhaps), and all day long the house was filled with aunts and uncles and cousins. Once we kids were good and sugared up from eating all the ribbon candy from the fancy glass dishes in the living room, the small hill in our backyard became the tryout run for new sleds and flying saucers.


My younger sister Kate, possibly on the hunt for for ribbon candy.

Memories of those carefree days were constant this week, brought on by Bing Crosby singing Silver Bells, the scent of balsam perfuming the house and that gorgeous, shiny beaded garland, handed down from Diane’s grandmother.

I wish you happiness this season, whatever holidays you may celebrate, and a joyous, peaceful, wonderful new year.

To the readers of this blog: What are your favorite holiday memories? Please let us know in the comments.

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


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Memorable Fictional Killers From A Single Source!


Vaughn Hardacker here: At some point in a writer’s career they will be asked: Where Do You Get Your Ideas? It’s one of those questions that seems easy to answer until you’re standing before a group or sitting on a panel looking at the faces of an audience. My first impulse is to ask myself What humorous but insightful response can I give? The truth of the matter is that in my case there is only one answer: The real world.

In my novel SNIPER I was influenced by the D. C. sniper killings. In THE FISHERMAN it was Robert Pickton a Vancouver, B.C., killer who lamented that his quest to kill 50 women had come up just short at 49. The motivation for Black Orchid was the Black Dahlia case of 1947.

Surprisingly enough some of crime fiction’s most recognizable serial killers all came from a single source: a relatively unknown and diminutive reclusive named Edward Gein. Born at the turn of the century into the small farming community of Plainfield, Wisconsin, Gein lived a repressive and solitary life on his family homestead with a weak, ineffectual brother  and domineering mother who taught him from an early age that sex was a sinful thing. Eddie ran the family’s 160-acre farm on the outskirts of Plainfield until his brother Henry died in 1944 (it is believed that Edward killed his brother, but it has never been proven) and his mother in 1945. When she died her son was a thirty-nine-year-old bachelor, still emotionally enslaved to the woman who had tyrannized his life. The rest of the house, however, soon

degenerated into a madman’s shambles. Thanks to federal subsidies, Gein no longer needed to farm his land, and he abandoned it to do odd jobs here and there for the Plainfield residents, to earn him

a little extra cash. But he remained alone in the enormous farmhouse, haunted by the ghost of his overbearing mother, whose bedroom he kept locked and undisturbed, exactly as it had been when she was alive. He also sealed off the drawing room and five more upstairs rooms, living only in one downstairs room and the kitchen.

Ed Gein killer and grave robber.

Following her death in 1945, his mental health disintegrated. After Gein was apprehended as a suspect in a 1957 murder, the investigation of his home yielded a highly disturbed man who kept human organs and fashioned clothing and accessories out of body parts. He spent the rest of his life institutionalized, his story fueling the creation of such infamous movie characters as Norman Bates (Psycho), Jame Gumb (Buffalo Bill of The Silence of the Lambs), Leatherface (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) as well as numerous lesser known hack and slash horror movies.

Surprising is the fact that when compared to Ted Bundy, Gary Ridgeway (the Green River Killer) and the aforementioned Robert Pickton, Gein was more of a grave robber than a serial killer. He was convicted of two murders.

Gein’s KitchenUnder questioning, Gein confessed to killing Bernice Worden and three years earlier, a woman named Mary Hogan. Additionally, he admitted to digging up numerous corpses for cutting off body parts, practicing necrophilia and fashioning masks and suits out of skin to wear around the home. (I am underplaying the horrific extent of Gein’s psychosis but an internet search on him will bring forth the full extent of his illness and resultant crimes.) With that sort of evidence, authorities attempted to connect him to other murders and disappearances from recent years, but were unable to draw any definitive conclusions.

In early 1968, Ed Gein was determined fit to finally stand trial. That November, he was found guilty of the murder of Bernice Worden. However, he was also found insane at the time of the murder, and as such he was recommitted to Central State Hospital.

Gein’s Bedroom

Save for his attempt to petition for a release in 1974, which was rejected, the mild-mannered Gein made virtually no news while institutionalized. Later that decade, his health failing, he was transferred to the Mendota Mental Health Institute, where he died of cancer and respiratory illnesses on July 26, 1984.

As I write this it becomes obvious to me that there is a lot of truth to the old saying: The truth is stranger than fiction.



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Thea Kozak’s Quick and Dirty Holiday Party

Kate Flora: This past Saturday, Ken and I gave our annual holiday party for our neighbors. When one of them asked how long we’ve been giving this party, I pulled out

my ancient copy of Martha Stewart’s Entertaining and checked the publication date. It was 1982. That Christmas, we went to a party for the Board of Appeals and spouses (Ken was the spouse), there was amazing food, and the hostess showed me the book. Ken bought it for me and the next Christmas, our neighborhood party began. It has grown over the years, and on Saturday, about sixty smiling people came through the door.

What, you are perhaps wondering, does that have to do with crime writing? Well, unlike her writing mother (me), Thea Kozak is a working woman who leaves her desk, goes on the road, and often tangles with difficult clients or is called upon to be troubleshooting at private schools instead of tending home and hearth. She wants to be more domestic, but her job doesn’t allow it. Still, like many of us, she thinks about food a lot and early Kate Flora newsletters called “Yours in Crime,” there are always Thea’s Quick and Dirty recipes.

9781614171379In An Educated Death, she is at a private school in Massachusetts, helping them deal with the death of a student, when the headmistress’s secretary bemoans the fact that she has twenty-five people coming for a party and because of the crisis, has had no time to prepare food. Because of my Martha Stewart cookbook, Thea and I were able to come to the rescue.

The secretary says: “I am supposed to be at home right now getting lots of lovely little snacks and desserts ready for a bunch of our friends. Twenty-five people coming at seven and I’ve done nothing. I don’t care if even more people get killed, I’m out of here at four.”

 “Are you really in trouble with your hors d’oeuvres? Because I’ve got some great quick and dirty recipes.”

 “I am. I was just going to go to the market and hope for inspiration,” she said, sitting down and picking up her pen. “Shoot.”

 Maybe it was heartless of both of us, when Carol Frank and Laney Taggert were both brutally dead, to sit and exchange recipes, but life goes on. And anyway, I had to keep my mind moving or the image of Carol would come back to haunt me. “I hope you don’t mind cream cheese. It’s the staff of life.”

 “Not at all.”

 “Get some smoked trout or bluefish. About half a pound. You have a food processor?” She nodded. “Okay. You mix it with a package of cream cheese, horseradish, and lemon juice. Thin it with half and half if it’s too thick. Great on crackers, wonderful on cucumber slices. Next, a can of crab, another package of cream cheese, a little lemon juice, and a teaspoon or two of curry. Mix it together, put it in a dish and bake for about twenty-five minutes.” I dictated while she scribbled frantically.

 “Now, everyone is impressed by piles of food. Doesn’t have to be special, just has to be massive. So get a couple pounds of shrimp. Pile ‘em on a platter on a bed of lettuce, use a green pepper filled with cocktail sauce in the center, and lots of lemon wedges. Do the same with a platter of raw veggies. Use sugar snap peas, red, yellow, and orange peppers, those ready-peeled baby carrots, cauliflower and broccoli. Hollow out a small red cabbage and a small green cabbage, fill one with ranch dressing and one with honey mustard dressing. Belgian endive. Separate it into spears, fill the big end with herbed cheese, arrange on a tray like a flower, and sprinkle with sprouts.”

 “Stop,” she said, “this is great but you’re making me hungry. But how do you know all this. You never entertain. You’re always at work. I know you are.”

 “I used to have a life once. And my mom is the world’s greatest cook. Don’t forget little smoky sausages and Swedish meatballs with a dish of mustard. Don’t forget toothpicks.”

 And just that easily, in one trip to the market and about an hour of prep, dear reader, you, too, can provide an appetizing spread for a holiday party, and still have time to solve a murder.

Of course, there are other things at my party as well, including one pretty quick item that was the #1 hit at this year’s event. Boil a few pounds of mini potatoes. Cool, wrap in bacon skewered with a toothpick, and bake at 400 until the bacon is crisp. Serve with dilled sour cream.

May your life be free of mysteries, except the fictional ones and the burning question of where you hid that gift you bought back in July.

And if you have a quick and dirty recipe of your own, Thea and I would welcome it.


Aftermath. A good time was had by all.

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Weekend Update: December 15-16, 2018

Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will be posts by Kate Flora (Monday) Vaughn Hardacker (Tuesday), Brenda Buchanan (Wednesday) Jen Blood (Thursday), and Barb Ross (Friday).

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

On January 11, 2019 Vaughn C. Hardacker will be appearing at the Aroostook Regional Gifted and Talented annual event at the University of Maine, Presque Isle. The ARGT seeks out positive role male models from the northern Aroostook area to speak at the Guys and Goals segment of the event. Vaughn will do a presentation for Gifted and Talented boys in grades 5 & 6.




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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Happy Holidays To All & Expressing My Gratitude & Best Wishes!

Happy holidays, everyone. The end of the year has arrived and many of us are celebrating our favorite holidays with our families. It’s a great time to get loved ones gifts to put under the Christmas tree. One of the best gifts to give are books, especially psychological thrillers like the kind I write. Hint: THE NEIGHBOR (Kensington).

End of year is also a time to re-evaluate and reflect on the year leaving us, and  think what we can do better in the year to come. We hope to fix what we did wrong and do better the following year. Some years are better than others. The new year is always a fresh start and the beginning of something new and exciting.


I consider most years to be pretty good, but 2018 was a great year for me as an author. Kensington Books published my psychological thriller THE NEIGHBOR in the spring and we garnered some recent film interest in the book. I finished my next novel, PRAY FOR THE GIRL, which will be published in the spring of 2019. In addition, I signed another book deal with Kensington, with the hopes that it will be my home for years to come. I also had a short story chosen and published in LANDFALL: NEW ENGLAND’s BEST CRIME STORIES 2018 (Level Best Books). I performed a few readings and sat on two Crimewave panels.


I have a lot to be thankful for this year. I have a great family that I love very much. My wife and I shipped off our youngest to college in the fall, while our older daughter continues to work and attend college near home. They support me in my writing and have always been there for me. Thanks, Fam!


I consider myself so fortunate to have Evan Marshall as my agent. His wisdom, pep talks and sage advice have proved invaluable to me. Thanks to my brilliant editor, John Scognamiglio, who helps make my novels shine their brightest. In November I had the great pleasure of traveling to New York and meeting with my agent and editor at Kensington Books. What an amazing and informative visit it was. Breakfast with Evan and a great conversation about books and career goals. Then a tour of Kensington Books to meet all the people who make my books come to life. We had a nice lunch at a nearby restaurant in midtown.. Everyone treated me like a rock star and made feel so welcome. I could not have been happier.

Of course, a HUGE THANKS goes to all the people who’ve supported my career by reading my books and  reviewing them. Without readers, and their love for books, it’s all trees falling in the forest.


Finally, I’m so lucky to be a crime writer in Maine. It’s amazing the writing community us crime authors here in Maine share. Trust me, there’s nothing like it. Everyone is helpful and supportive of each other. We read together and socialize as a group and assist each other when possible. We promote each other’s works and have each other’s backs. I’d thank them all but I’m afraid I’d forget someone. So thanks to all of you fellow crime writers who have made me feel so welcome and supported in this community. We all write stories about backstabbing and murder, crimes and misdemeanors, but the crime writing community here in Maine has the kindest most helpful people you’ll ever meet. Hopefully, we can all have a productive and joyful 2019 and produce our best works to date.


Happy Holidays, everyone! Here’s Brenda Buchanan, Barb Ross, Julia Spencer-Fleming, E.J. and yours truly at Julia and her daughter’s talk at One Long Fellow Square.








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The Writer at Work

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, today talking about how I write and attempting, for the first time, to share a video.

Stage one is what I call “raw” writing—from head to fingertips to screen. No one reads this version of a book except me. It’s pretty bad. Often it’s entirely dialogue, with no descriptive details at all. Since I don’t plot much more than a couple of chapters ahead, it’s also somewhat disjointed. On future passes there will be additions, deletions, and large sections moved to other locations in the text. I keep at it until one of three things happens. One, I can’t figure out what comes next. Two, I realize I need to go back and put in a lot of material I didn’t realize I needed when I started writing. Or, three, I am interrupted by something I can’t put off. It could be something in my personal life but it’s just as likely to be a competing obligation in my writing life, like page proofs that need to be proofread and sent back to the publisher by a certain date.

Stage two comes after that interruption, when I go back to page one and read though the printout, which I keep in a loose-leaf binder, revising as I go. Most of this is done not at my desk but by hand while seated on the reclining loveseat in the living room.

Most of the pages end up looking like this:

Then it’s back to the computer to enter the changes and press on from the place where I stopped. Let me insert an aside at this point. Every once in a while, a local teacher asks me if a student can job shadow me. I always say no. I refuse to be guilty of boring someone to death. Don’t believe me? Watch the video below. It’s only 49 seconds. Imagine an hour or more of the same.


Essentially, this process is repeated again and again until the mess of a manuscript turns into a publishable book. It’s not pretty, but for me it works. My husband shot the video above so that my chiropractor could see where to improve my work habits and decrease the arthritis pain in my neck. He also took the other photos of the way I work. What were the chiropractor’s suggestions? Lower the monitor a few inches and sit with my back against the back of the chair. You’d be amazed the difference it made. Sadly, my bad posture while in the recliner is probably beyond redemption.

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of nearly sixty traditionally published books written under several names. 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. Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (Overkilt) and the “Deadly Edits” series (Crime & Punctuation) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in a Cornish Alehouse) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” mysteries and is set in Elizabethan England. Her most recent collection of short stories is Different Times, Different Crimes. Her websites are and and she maintains a website about women who lived in England between 1485 and 1603 at

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A problem with books

When a writer refers to a book problem the assumption is she’s having trouble writing or revising. Writers have lots of those, but now I’ve got another problem with books: what to do with them when you move.

My wife and I just sold the small condo in Portland that we used as a pied a terre for 20 years and bought another in Yarmouth that we think is more suitable to our current (and likely future) way of life. Moves aren’t fun, but ours went smoothly. Except for the books. We had split our library between our two residences: current fiction and nonfiction in our house in Newry, and those from our academic lives in Portland. To accommodate the latter, we had floor-to-ceiling fitted bookcases constructed a number of years ago.

The move presented two problems: the books and shelving for them. It was far too easy to decide to take all the books to our new condo. It’s hard for anyone to dispose of books and certainly doubly hard for a writer to do so. Of course I don’t really need Selected Letters of Cotton Mather, William Byrd’s diary, or four copies of Walden. I don’t need what turned out to be 35 heavy cartons of books, but I dutifully packed them and paid movers to dutifully haul them to the new place and stack them along the walls of an empty room.

So the next step is shelving them. As we looked at various possible condos over the summer we were struck by the absence of book shelves. Only a couple of places had anything that could be called built-in bookcases, and aside from a couple of coffee-table volumes they were filled with knickknacks. The new place, grand though it is, has not a single place where a book might reside. We need a carpenter, but when I tracked down the excellent young man who built ours in the Portland condo I learned that he had recently gotten divorced and—in some related way I’m not quite clear about—had to sell his entire woodworking shop and equipment. (I wondered whether losing his tools was worse than the divorce but didn’t dare ask.) I’m now in pursuit of another carpenter but am beginning to wonder if the idea of building bookcases–for heaven’s sake–strikes potential carpenters as a bit perverse.

My books now sit in their cartons as a sort of silent rebuke and cause me to wonder why I bothered to pack and move them. The odds that I’ll re-read Cotton Mather’s correspondence are somewhere south of zero. I re-read Walden every year but don’t need multiple copies. And so on. But there’s just something about books that make them hard to leave behind, especially for a writer. They remind us of hours of pleasure, they trigger vivid memories, and of course as someone said they do furnish a room—but of course only with adequate shelving.
One reason I cling to the books is that I can’t imagine a way to dispose of them. Some years ago when my father in law moved to assisted living we helped clean out his house and had to face the question of how to dispose of his books. A Latin teacher, he had a large collection of classic texts. We called the local library. No thanks. We called some schools. No thanks. Pressured by time we finally decided that had to be recycled—i.e., sent to the local dump. But we didn’t have the heart to tell him that his beloved books were unwanted. So we told a lie. We invented the “Vassar College annual booksale” and explained that his collection would raise funds for a scholarship. He was pleased.

It’s one thing to lie, if gently, to your father in law. It’s another to lie to yourself. I just couldn’t invent a similar rouse, and so I moved the books, and they sit awaiting shelving. It cost me to move them, it will cost much more to have built-ins constructed, and it will cost me hours of time to paint the new shelves. As I eventually unpack and re-shelve them I’m sure I’ll dip in and out and set aside a few I want to re-read in full. But it’s a short-term solution since eventually all those books will end up somewhere. My son knows all about the fictional Vassar College annual booksale, and I suspect one day he will be assuring me as I lie in bed at an assisted-living facility that he donated the whole lot to a good cause. I will probably even believe him. In the meantime, I’m happy I made the decision to keep and move them. A writer needs books around, even if someone else wrote them.

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