Weekend Update: July 21-22, 2018

Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will posts by Jen Blood (Monday) Barb Ross (Tuesday), Susan Vaughan (Wednesday), Dorothy Cannell (Thursday), and Lea Wait/Cornelia Kidd (Friday).

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

Today (Saturday, July 21 from 10:30-12:30) Dorothy Cannell, Dick Cass, Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson, Barb Ross, and Lea Wait/Cornelia Kidd will be signing books and chatting with readers at the Beyond the Sea Book Festival in Lincolnville Beach, Maine. For more details, click here http://www.beyondtheseamaine.com/book-festival-.html

Also today, if you happen to be in Boothbay Harbor, there’s a giant estate sale at Barbara Ross’s house. https://www.estatesales.net/ME/Boothbay-Harbor/04538/1946076 Come one, come all.



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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Early Summer Writing Retreat

Many hours of uninterrupted time. Near-complete quiet. A sublime swimming spot.

That’s what I needed and that’s what I got Fourth of July week.

Middle Pond, one of the Five Kezar Ponds

Dear friends own a camp in North Waterford, on one of the Five Kezar Ponds. They offered me its use for the week as an early-summer writing retreat, an incredible gift for which I thank them with all my heart.

Me on the keyboard, lost in the story.

At the lakeside cabin I was able to stay in full-on writing mode for seven entire days, creating trouble and adventure for my new protagonist Neva Pierce, a Portland criminal defense lawyer caught up in an intense, dangerous case.

There really is no place like someone else’s place to get some serious writing done. I cranked out fourteen chapters, some a revision of an earlier start that was going in too many directions. But most of the words were new, and it feels right (at least for the moment) to be sending Neva down this particular perilous path.

As writing retreat environments go, the North Waterford camp was perfect—comfortable, rustic and classic. No internet or cell service, meaning no configuring one’s phone as a hotspot in order to check a fact on the web, and backup via flash drive only.

A dogsled in the rafters of the camp suggests winter fun.

Diane was there much of the time, the ideal retreat partner in that she appreciates and respects my need to be in the zone. I rose early each morning, meditated briefly on the lake’s beauty, then set to work, writing on the screen porch or in the living room. She settled in the far bedroom, reading in a comfy rocker, sipping tea and keeping the classical music station low on the radio.

I wrote until the point in the afternoon when the heat and humidity (you remember Fourth of July week, right?) became too much to bear. Then we changed into bathing suits and skipped down the stairs to Middle Pond.

Early in the week the water was on the cool side. As the hot days built upon each other the water temp warmed to the point that it was necessary to swim out beyond the float to find the ribbon of coolness we sought. It was a singular pleasure to tread water, gaze at the foothills of the White Mountains and let the day’s words flow through my head.

My meditation spot

We cooked in most of the time, listened to Red Sox games on the radio as the sun set, watched a neighbor’s private fireworks display on the Fourth. As the evenings deepened, the loons called on the pond, a lullaby if I’ve ever heard one.

The week had all the essential elements of a perfect writing retreat.  I am a lucky woman, and a grateful one, too.

This girl and her friends sang us to sleep

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 hard at work on 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’d never return.



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Sex, Booze & Pushing Boundaries

The characters in my new psychological thriller, THE NEIGHBOR, drink a lot. And I mean a lot. How much drinking is too much in a novel? Is it a case that you’ll know it when you see it. The same goes with sex in a crime novel. Can there be too  much of it?

When it comes to pushing boundaries, the writer of crime fiction must be weary of going too far. Gratuitous sex or violence can often take away from the plot and leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. Considering that the majority of readers are women, finding this line can be tricky.

John Cheever and John Updike featured many alcoholics in their stories, as did Raymond Carver. Their books were primarily literary fiction and so they could get away with it. Stieg Larson had many graphic scenes in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, but I felt it worked in the context of his plot. Graphic sexual content also depends on the novel’s genre. It worked in FIFTY SHADES OF GREY because the book fell into the category of erotic romance. Women accepted the sexuality in this book because the main characters loved one another—meaning the sex was not gratuitous.

Are there lines in crime writing that cannot be crossed? I suppose that’s up to the individual reader, but for me, as a writer, there are definitely lines that can’t be crossed. Rape and pedophile are two examples. I remember reading a book once that rather abruptly included one of these scenes. It offended and repelled me as a reader and I couldn’t finish it. Maybe there are writers who could pull this off, but I would never include graphic scenes of these kinds of acts. I think a writer can allude to it in their fiction, because this after all is a reality of criminal enterprises, and the crux of man crime stories, but they should never detail the acts.

Otherwise, I encourage writers to push boundaries. Gratuitous of anything for the sake of shock value always plays second fiddle to emotional profundity. Yes, people are alcoholics, but showing too much of it will turn people off.

Now let me leave with you with some levity. Here’s an excerpt from a finalist for the 2017 Bad Sex Writing award.

The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet

“He puts his hands on Bianca’s shoulders and slips off her low-cut top. Suddenly inspired, he whispers into her ear, as if to himself: ‘I desire the landscape that is enveloped in this woman, a landscape I do not know but that I can feel, and until I have unfolded that landscape, I will not be happy …’

Bianca shivers with pleasure. Simon whispers to her with an authority that he has never felt before: ‘Let’s construct an assemblage.”


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Talking Heads

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, today writing on the topic of talking heads. What, you ask, are talking heads? Well, there are actually two types. One involves the dueling pundits seen on television. You know—the conservative and the liberal debating some hot topic or two experts with differing opinions on, well, just about anything. Stretching that definition a little, there are experts (or celebrities) on panels.

Jen Blood, Me, Lea Wait: talking heads on writing

Then there’s the other kind, the kind found in fiction.

In a novel, especially in the early drafts one one, a writer creates talking heads by putting two or more characters on the page and giving them dialogue but very little else. The dialogue itself may be riveting, but even the most lively exchange also needs action. I’m talking about the difference between a radio play and a technicolor movie here, and even with only audio, you have sound effects to support what characters are saying to each other.

The earliest draft of any given scene in one of my mysteries is, I admit, nearly all dialogue. I put two characters together and let them talk and in that way I learn all kinds of things about their personalities, their relationship, and what has to happen next in the story. However, an entire book with nothing but characters yakking at each other would lose readers fast. Yes, scenes with lots of dialogue are following the old rule to “show, don’t tell” but they’re missing, you should pardon the pun, the “telling” details that make a scene come alive.

Many writers put in descriptive details at the same time they invent dialogue for their characters. Most of the ones I insert at that stage consist of boring word choices, the odd cliché, and a dash of purple prose. I usually replace all those with something better during the many “read through and revise” sessions that follow.

That’s not to say it’s easy to come up with good ways to describe what’s going on during a conversation. Even physical descriptions of the participants are tricky. A character may inded be a tall redhead with green eyes and freckles, but to make readers remember her the next time she shows up in the story, it might be better to refer to her hair as carrot-colored or maybe, for fans of British word choices, ginger. On the other hand, describing those fiery locks as Titian-tinted tresses is probably over the top.

For my own use, I have made lists of useful words to use to describe a character’s appearance. Some are commonplace while others are a bit more distinctive. Take noses, for example. I have a tendency to have people look down long, thin noses at someone in my early drafts. My nose list offers alternatives. A nose can be a beak, or hawk like, or bulbous, or large and slightly flattened. It can be Roman or Aquiline. It might have broken veins or a bump on the bridge, the result of being broken. Chins can be negligible, double, or contain a dimple or a cleft, and they can quiver in the heat of an argument. You get the idea. Such descriptive details should, however, be used sparingly. My rough drafts may list all the physical attributes of each character as he or she is introduced into the story, but those details will have to be spread out, or left out, when I revise. The same goes for descriptions of what characters are wearing. In one of my books, I thought I was being clever by hinting at personality through dress. Readers rapidly tired of all that emphasis on clothing.

But back to talking heads. Readers expect hints as to the appearance of each character and at least a few details to give them a picture of the setting, but the people in the scene also need to move. If they just stand around (or sit around) and talk, things get very boring very fast. Fight scenes, in fact any scenes that involve characters in conflict, are relatively easy to write. Physical reactions that go hand-in-hand with a character’s emotional state come readily to mind. Fists clench. Eyes blaze. Skin loses color, or gains it. The quiet scenes are the ones that present problems and there are a lot of those in a cozy mystery. The amateur detective talks over a clue with a friend, or tries to get a suspect to reveal something during a casual conversation. What are they doing while they chat?

In the Liss MacCrimmon mysteries, if Liss is at work at Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium, I tend to fall back on three choices: drinking coffee and eating some goodie from Patsy’s Coffee House in the shop’s cozy corner; packing orders for shipment in the stock room; dusting the shelves and cleaning or rearranging stock on the shelves. The latter two allow me to work in details of some of the Scottish-themed items Liss sells, but that gets old fast. Nine times out of ten, I fall back on the coffee-drinking scenario. This has challenges of its own.

How much coffee can one character drink in the course of a 250 page mystery novel? And it’s no good substituting tea, or some kind of soda, or even beer or liquor. After awhile the reader is going to start believing the sleuth has at least one superpower—the ability to down endless quantities of liquid without ever needing to use a bathroom. I’ve been trying to break myself (and my characters) of the coffee habit, but they have to do something to avoid becoming nothing more than talking heads.

Books written or set in earlier times could have characters smoking. Cigarettes, cigars, and especially pipes, provided plenty of casual action and interaction. I don’t think anyone smokes in cozies, not even villains. I have gotten some mileage, and sometimes a bit of humor, out of Liss’s dislike of herbal teas, since her aunt keeps insisting on serving them to her, but that’s just the problem. I don’t want to keep repeating the same old ploys just to give my characters a bit of action. I’ve written scenes where the conversation takes place while washing dishes, while exercising, and while watching a movie on TV but I’d really like to find some “stage business” I haven’t used before. It would have to be believable, of course. I can’t see Liss taking up knitting just to give her something to do with her hands while she’s interrogating a suspect in the cozy corner.

So, over to you, the clever, perceptive people who read this blog. Do those endless cups of coffee bother you? Do talking heads? And if you have any suggestions for alternative actions that would work to liven up the conversations in Liss’s world, I’d love to hear them.

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of more than fifty-five 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 and the “Deadly Edits” series (Crime & Punctuation—2018) 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 www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com and she maintains a website about women who lived in England between 1485 and 1603 at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women.

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Writing tip: It’s okay to let some of your darlings live

I have about 30,000 words worth of stuff I’ve taken out of my current manuscript — so far.

If you’re a writer, if you’ve been to even one writing conference, you’ve heard it: Kill your darlings.

The quote is from William Faulker, though sometimes it’s attributed to Stephen King, who was quoting Faulker. I once heard it attributed to Elmore Leonard, but he was quoting Faulkner, too. The point, if you’re the rare writer who has never heard it, is there may be things you really, really like in your manuscript that you’re going to have to get rid of.

The issue though is it’s frequently taken to mean that if you really, really like something, you have to get rid of it. Or if you really, really like something that someone else doesn’t like, you have to get rid of it.

Like a lot of pithy sayings that get tossed around, the deeper meaning frequently gets lost.

Here’s something to chew over: you don’t have to kill all of them, or even any of them. What you do have to do is harder.

Before killing the darling, see if passes these tests:

  • Can you make a case for allowing the darling to live?
    You’ve thought about what you’re writing. Thought deeply about what you wanted to say and how you’re going to say it. If you’ve done that, you should be able to make a case for the darling. If you can’t make a case after all that thinking, then kill it. If you haven’t done the thinking you need to do, go back to square one — I know! So hard! So much work! — and do that thinking, then see if the darling fits.
  • What does the darling add to the story?
    While your writing should be tight and the plot must steadily advance, you may have something bigger to say (again, you’ve thought about this bigger thing A LOT, right?). Does this darling advance understanding of character? Add to the theme? Is it consistent with your voice? If any of those apply, maybe it should be allowed to live.
  • What does the darling take away from the story?
    Does it drag the narrative down, confuse readers, feel out of place? Kill it! Or maybe rehabilitate it, if you feel it has a place in the book.
  • Does the blood-thirsty person urging you to kill understand what you’re doing?
    All of us have had times where someone reading our stuff has said we should kill a darling and we’ve argued for clemency and they’ve triumphantly come back with “Don’t forget, you have to kill your darlings!” They may be right, but killing just for the sake of killing — as mystery writers we know this — doesn’t work. Consider the source (I think Jim Bouton said that).
    It’s great to have people tell you how wonderful you are, but not if you want a good book. Conversely, it’s not great to have people not get what you’re doing. They’re not going to help much either. Pick manuscript readers who get your voice and genre, and who’ll be honest and offer constructive criticism.
    I understand that if your initial readers don’t get something, readers of the actual book won’t either. On the other hand, every single person in the world isn’t going to like or understand your book, your voice, or get what you’re saying. You need to, though, and the smart honest people who read for you ought to as well.
    It’s also important to remember that one person does not make a consensus — ask your other readers what they think. Yes, have more than one, and make sure they’re different enough so they have different approaches. (Keep it to three or four or you’ll never want to have anyone read your manuscript again.)
    It’s even more important that you, the writer, understand your voice and what you’re doing — I know I already said this, but I can’t say it enough — so you’ll know enough to know if someone simply doesn’t get it, or if they have a good point that you missed.
  • Talk it out.
    I’ve found the best way to rework things in my manuscripts that my initial readers don’t think works is to discuss it with them and figure out if there’s a way to make it work. All the above comes into play if you’re going to do this.
  • Understand criticism.
    Does what the person is saying make sense? Or do they just plain not like the darling because it’s not their personal taste, or it’s not the way they would write it, or it doesn’t conform to their reality? It’s important to know when someone who doesn’t like your darling doesn’t like it for reasons that don’t speak to the writing or the big picture.
    And that brings us to…
  • Knowledge is power (and confidence).
    It’s important to be confident enough in your voice and message that you can defend what you feel is important. But it has to be the kind of confidence that comes from  understanding the craft and what you are aiming for as you write.
    Yeah, I know I already said that in a bunch of different ways. But I can’t say it enough.

As someone who’s edited a lot of fiction and read hundreds of self-published books as a judge for the Writers Digest Self-Published Contest (I no longer do this, BTW, so don’t hassle me if you’ve entered), there were consistent issues that got in the way of good writing. By consistent, I mean the huge majority of books I read as an editor and as a judge had these problems. (Also, by all that’s holy, pay for a professional editor. Please. But that’s a blog post for another day.)
If these are recognized more darlings will live:

  • Writers didn’t have a clear overall idea of what their book was about.
    I’m not talking about the elevator pitch, or the plot, or the genre or sub-genre. I mean, what are you trying to say? If you’re trying to say something, then what works and what doesn’t will be easier to figure out.
  • Writers didn’t get beyond the first draft or revise.
    The huge majority of books I saw both as an editor or judge were first drafts. (Another reason to have a professional editor who will tell you this if they’re worth the money you’ll pay them.)
    I find as a writer that I work a lot of things out in the first draft, then when I go back and revise, I can take background and tangent out. I had to write it in the first place to figure out where I was going, but as I honed the narrative, I could get rid of it.
    I have more than 30,000 words of the manuscript that I just completed in folders in my computer. (Most of my darlings aren’t cremated or buried, they’re cyrogenically preserved for reference or possible future use).

Kill your darlings if you must, but don’t let innocent ones die in vain simply because you didn’t know how to keep them alive.

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Weekend Update: July 14-15, 2018

Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will posts by Maureen Milliken (Monday) Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson (Tuesday), Joe Souza (Wednesday), Vaughn Hardacker (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:

It’s book festival season in Maine! This weekend many of us will be at Books in Boothbay and next Saturday, July 21, is the Beyond the Sea Book Festival in Lincolnville Beach, Maine, when Dorothy Cannell, Dick Cass, Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson, Barb Ross, and Lea Wait/Cornelia Kidd will be signing books and chatting with readers, as will many other Maine writers. For more details, click here.

If you can’t make it to Lincolnville Beach July 21, try the Belgrade Lakes Region, where Maureen Milliken will join other local authors in the Day’s Store 60th Birthday Party

Days Store in Belgrade Lakes, a Maine summer institution, is celebrating the owners’ 60th anniversary July 21.

The day, which celebrates 60 years of the current owners’ family owning the store, also includes Gifford’s Ice Cream, a dunk take, cool things to buy, food (of course!), music and much more. Authors, including Friend of Maine Crime Writers Kate Cone, with her guide to craft breweries, will be there from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and the events continue until 9 p.m. The store is on beautiful Long Pond in Belgrades Lakes, and if you’ve never been there and are looking for an idyllic Maine summer destination, give it try.


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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Starting Over

William Andrews: It’s Friday the 13th, and in the spirit of bad luck said to occur on such Screen Shot 2018-07-13 at 8.26.57 AMdays I offer this tale as my first MCW blog.  May this and all your days be lucky.

In early October of 2016 I was nearly 100 pages into a new mystery and feeling satisfied. I was in a different fictional world from that of my first three mysteries, trying something new in characters, setting, and point of view.  With the text up on my screen I took a break to check email. One from FedEx had just arrived, with an attachment.  I don’t open attachments unless I know the sender, but of course I knew FedEx and was in fact expecting a delivery from them.  So I hit on the attachment.  You guessed it:  an ominous message instantly popped up on my screen to inform me (I’ve repressed the exact wording) that my computer was frozen and that I could unfreeze it only by paying a ransom, in Bitcoins.  I told myself this couldn’t be, but as I moved application by application through the computer I found all my files were frozen.  The nightmare I had read about had come to me.

The next several days passed in a rush of fruitless activity as I consulted techie friends, local computer experts, even the sheriff’s office.  All agreed I was without a way out, including paying a ransom, which is universally considered useless.  But I calculated mine at around $39 (who would go to such trouble for that paltry sum?) and decided the odds favored at least trying that route.  Even that recently, Bitcoin was not a widely available form of exchange, and my most frustrating experiences over the next week were trying to buy some.  Using my back-up computer I shopped around and ultimately found a site deemed trustworthy. In some ways it was tootrustworthy because it required so many levels of security that I spent hours, literally, going through the requisite steps. Finally I secured the Bitcoins—or the code that verifies I owned them.  Following the instructions from the initial ransom statement I paid up. And then waited for the promised code that would unlock my machine.

Screen Shot 2018-07-13 at 8.27.41 AMNeedless to say, it never came. The contents of my computer remained beyond my reach.  In addition to the text of the new mystery, I lost a year of financial records, many photos, and more emails than I can bear to think about. I had backed up some files to thumb drives, but the new mystery was simply gone.  How had I been so stupid?  Perhaps the pleasure of the new writing numbed me to the risk and I blithely plowed along.  I really don’t know why I hadn’t taken minimum precautions with the new prose, but there it was.  Friends of a literary turn were eager to remind me of famous examples of writers who lost manuscripts and had to start over.  Hadley Hemingway left a suitcase of Ernest’s early stories on a train. T.E. Lawrence left the manuscript of Seven Pillars of Wisdomin a café at a train station.  Perhaps most famously, Thomas Carlyle asked his friend John Stuart Mill to review the manuscript of his French Revolutionand then learned that Mill’s maid had mistaken it for waste and burned it.  Carlyle started over from scratch and eventually published his masterpiece. None of this was particularly comforting.

I felt violated, but mostly I felt stupid.  I couldn’t think about the lost work.  I had extensive notes (on paper!), and of course I remembered in a general way what I had written.  But I simply could not sit down to write it again.  I subscribed to a cloud service to do automatic back-ups and I bought and religiously used thumb drives to preserve other work.  But writing—nope, couldn’t do it.

Then seven or eight months ago, more than a year after the hack, I told myself it was now or never. I sat down at the computer and started to write.  I’m now through the point in the original when the hack occurred and more or less on my way to finish. I save it to the thumb drive hour by hour even though the cloud service claims to be doing so for me.  The experience was harrowing and made me even edgier and more paranoid than I normally am.  But at least I’m writing again.  Friends assure me the new work will be better than the original, something like a second draft guaranteed to be superior.  Maybe.  That’s to be determined.  But for now, I’m trying to learn from my mistake.  What’s the lesson?  Obviously: Back Up!  Everything!  All the time! Expect the worst to happen and you won’t be disappointed.  When you have no one to blame but yourself, it’s a bit hard to come to terms with failure. All you can do is emulate Carlyle—and start writing again.  And relentlessly backing up!

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