And Then I Ran Away . . .

Kate Flora: With a bit of trepidation about Florida’s covid practices (and masking) and with only one Moderna shot for protection, last week Ken and I loaded up the car with shorts and tee shirts and our laptops and flip-flops, and headed south to spend the month of March on Sanibel Island.

Last March, as covid numbers rose and we could see and hear the neighbors around our rental pooh poohing the virus and declaring it to be a hoax or gathering in clusters as though there was no issue, we left early. Left the beach walks and the birds and the flowers and swimming in the pool and fled north. It was an eerie journey. In those early days, food outlets were closed, the rest areas were jammed and the roads were crowded with snowbirds heading north and Canadians trying to get home before the border closed. We made our normal three day trip in two, arriving in New York after driving all the way from Rocky Mount, North Carolina in driving rain to reports of snowstorms in New England. By Providence it was snowing, making our warm, beachy vacation quickly a thing of the past.

Who could have imagined it would be a whole year later and our worlds would still be so circumscribed? So cautious? That forays away from the house would still feel a lot like heading into battle, armed not with weapons but with hand sanitizer, wipes, masks with extra filters, and only on essential journeys.

Luckily, things went smoothly. Total compliance with mask wearing at the first hotel, along with social distancing, only two people or a family group to an elevator, and the first dinner away from home in a long, long time. Georgia was slightly less careful and masked, but we survived. A quick visit with friends (both with two doses of vaccine and social distancing) to enjoy a tour of Sarasota, then back on the road.

Today we landed in our rental house and unpacked. It will feel strange, and yet familiar, to sit on someone else’s stool at someone else’s counter, and see what story will become my task for March. Since I had so much fun writing Wedding Bell Rusemy one and only romantic suspense, I might unearth an old short story about a match-making dog, and see where it goes. But during those long hours on the road, a short story, Ma Baker’s Revenge, has begun to emerge, so I’ll probably start with that.

There are big signs on the approach to the island that instruct people to wear masks. I expect this will still be a month of delivered groceries, not eating out, and carrying masks even to the beach. But after so many years of my Sanibel month in my life, I’m still looking forward to this partial escape from captivity and curious about whether my enthusiasm for writing, dimmed by this covid year, will return.

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Another Update on Shadow

Kaitlyn Dunnett (aka Kathy Lynn Emerson) here. We’ve had Shadow living with us for a year and a half now, so its time for another update. I’m hoping the video below will play, but if not, I have plenty of still shots to share.

The video was taken when we first introduced Shadow to the concept of the cat door. We installed what is actually the “small dog” size ages ago so our cats could get to the cellar, where their litter boxes were kept. Since Shadow had been living on one floor before she came to us and wasn’t used to stairs, we decided to let her get used to the two main floors of the house first. We put her litter box behind the wood stove and closed off the cat door. It’s only lately that she’s started showing an interest in the cellar, usually when I go down to do the laundry. A couple of times she was even brave enough to go all the way to the bottom of the stairs and step onto the dirt floor, a common characteristic of rural Maine houses. The video shows her trying to figure out how to get through the cat door. She’s since managed it just fine in both directions.

Her other accomplishments since the last update include all but climbing into my husband’s desk drawer (photo above) in search of the thingy he uses to hold his mask out to give him a bit more breathing space. He has several. We finally gave up and let her have the one she’d chewed on as a toy. Now, of course, she ignores it.

A real breakthrough came when I was sitting on the reclining loveseat a couple of weeks ago. For the first time, she voluntarily hopped up, climbed into my lap, curled up, and stayed for a good twenty minutes, even allowing me to pet her while she was there. Unfortunately, when I had to shift my weight (she’s a big, heavy girl!) she left in a huff and hasn’t yet repeated her act of affection, but I’m hopeful that she’s mellowing toward me.

Most of the time, she has other favorite places to sleep. For some reason she spends the afternoons upstairs, where the heat is turned off. When she gets cold, instead of coming back downstairs, she has other techniques to keep warm.

 

And, of course, she is queen of all she surveys, both in the house and through the windows.

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-three books traditionally published and has self published 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. Currently she writes the contemporary “Deadly Edits” series (A Fatal Fiction) as Kaitlyn. As Kathy, her most recent book is a standalone historical mystery, The Finder of Lost Things. She maintains websites at www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com. A third, at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, is the gateway to over 2300 mini-biographies of sixteenth-century Englishwomen.

 

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Weekend Update: February 27-28, 2021

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

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

Kaitlyn Dunnett: The large print edition of the third “Deadly Edits” mystery, A Fatal Fiction, featuring retired school teacher turned free lance editor Mikki Lincoln, is now available from Thorndike Press. The cover is a little different from the regular hardcover, which is also available as an e-book. There will not be a paperback reprint, so if the prices on the hardcovers are too steep for your budget, please consider asking your library to buy a copy or borrow one through inter-library loan. The next entry in the series, Murder, She Edited, will be published as a hardcover and in e-book format at the end of July.

Books from Maureen Milliken and Vaughn Hardacker, as well as a bunch of other writers from around New England, are some of what’s available at the Harrisville Children’s Center annual online auction, which is ongoing until March 21. The auction raises money for the center in western New Hampshire, which provides support services and daycare for children, and has everything from baked goods to stays in New England inns — 464 items, including nearly 100 books. Worth checking out. Visit hccauction.org to check it out.

 

 

 

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

 

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

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Fishing in Siberia. Best Lottery Ticket Ever. And George.

Sandra Neily here: I see that another Maine Crime Writer has written about George Smith who does deserve lots of attention and accolades. He was a good friend and I have some good George stories.

But first, in honor of this amazing man and if you love Maine’s outdoors as he did, please buy an Outdoor Heritage Fund lottery ticket, or three or thirty. Thanks to George and Maine Audubon (where I worked at the time), millions of dollars are raised to fund urgent wildlife projects that Maine can’t afford. George explains more.

(It’s the only lottery ticket I buy. I stuff them into envelopes for birthdays and holidays. They make great cheap gifts and encourage recipients to ‘pay it forward’ and buy lots more.)

Here are two George Smith stories.

I once created a research grant to solve what I called the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine problem after a ride home in a packed car of discouraged Maine Audubon staffers. We’d just suffered through another discouraging day at the legislature where SAM testified against everything we hoped to accomplish. That day it was our failed efforts to add some birds, invertebrates, and butterflies to Maine’s list of species at risk.

Fishing in Siberia. hahaha (Yes, that’s the location.)

For a month I asked people how to solve the SAM problem. Most people said (often affectionately) something about how Executive Director George Smith was in the way. My favorite suggestion was, “send him to Siberia fishing for 6 months. He’d like that.”

I invited George to lunch (we usually ate sandwiches outside) and told him I had money (hence lunch at Slates in Hallowell), and told him about the grant and the Siberia thing. He LOVED it. The Siberia thing. I told him I’d let him hire the project researcher from a pool of applicants, if he’d open SAM’s files, documents, and archives to the process of creating a report with recommendations.

We discovered we had different missions. SAM advocates for its members who pursue and enjoy wildlife; it is active in support of species they catch or hunt. Maine Audubon advocates for the health of Maine’s wildlife, encouraging members to get involved in discovery and conservation.

But the most important thing we discovered was a lack of resources and funding to take care of all of Maine’s wildlife needs. The competition for scarce resources had our groups competing for our respective missions.

The result of our work together was Watching Out for Maine’s Wildlife. It went to every legislator and circulated for years as a problem- solving document that also enabled our organizations to work together when we could and not savage each other when we could not.

My second story.

George and I were on opposite sides of a table in a tense meeting. SAM was proposing bounties on coyotes, maintaining they caused the decline in northern deer populations. (Having hunters try to kill more coyotes only makes them breed more. The coyotes.) I’d already given George a cartoon from the SAM newsletter (which showed a proud hunter with a coyote strung up at a tagging station) where I’d cut out the coyote, and replaced it with a picture of a harvesting skidder hanging in the air like a dead animal. (Rampant harvesting of winter tree shelters caused outsized deer mortalities.)

George smiled genuinely, pretty much always appreciating my sense of humor. Then he started in on wolves and how it was essential that Maine pass legislation making it illegal to even think about re-introducing them. I scribbled a note, put it under my shoe, and slide it over to his shoes. He picked it up and looked at me. The note read, “Guess what reduces coyote populations better than hunters could ever hope to do?”

He raised his shoulders quietly. I smiled a wicked smile and mouthed, “Wolves. They hate coyotes.” His loud laugh had the room looking our way, so we ducked our heads and pretended to take notes.

Years later I took on the wolf issue and the sportsman issue in my first novel. I sent him draft pages where I’d used a bit of my knowing him to create a character. He read them and called me right back, saying he couldn’t wait to read it. His review is in the editorial section of Amazon’s DEADLY TRESPASS page. (I’ve added a relevant George excerpt from the novel at the end, here.)

George was a generous man and also a life-long learner. I will let Bob Duchesne explain it so clearly.

George Smith picked up birding binoculars late in life and bridged a divide

By Bob Duchesne, BDN 2/22/21

George Smith passed away last week.

He was probably least known as a birder, but he was.

For those of us who care about birds, George’s story reveals a truism: We have all come to birds in our own unique ways. I was 6 when I embraced birding. George was 60.  …

Wonderful collection of George’s essays and columns.

… Like most hunters, George had keen powers of observation. When such a person spends a lot of time in a tree stand, they notice the other critters in the woods. As George related to me several times, he’d be sitting still, blending into the background, and the warblers would start moving around him. Only, in his quintessential Yankee accent, he called them “wobblers.”

… One spring morning, I met George and his wife, Linda, at their house in Mt. Vernon. We walked his property and the neighborhood road as I showed him all the wobblers that were living there. He was astounded, and mad at himself. All these great birds had been living next to him for all these years and he didn’t even know they were there!

George was hooked. He bought binoculars and a spotting scope – probably the first scope he ever owned that didn’t have crosshairs.

… Even before he developed a sudden passion for birds, George’s appreciation for nature led him to realizations that benefited all wildlife in the state. Although much of his career was spent lobbying on game issues, he recognized that nongame species were part of a healthy ecosystem that served everybody. The entire food chain was important. I was truly surprised when this conservative hook-and-bullet Republican came into the Natural Resources Committee during my freshman year, hand-in-hand with Maine Audubon, to advocate for protection of vernal pools. Later, George grew dismayed at how lead sinkers were killing loons and lead ammunition was killing eagles.

George collaborated with Maine Audubon multiple times over the years, starting with the popular Chickadee Checkoff that underwrites the state’s Endangered and Nongame Wildlife Fund. … George figured out early that if the sporting communities and wildlife communities got together, there was no conservation goal they couldn’t achieve.

His passing is a tremendous loss to Maine’s birding community.  Twenty years ago, nobody would have seen that coming. Bob Duchesne developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com.

*********

With George’s blessing and some fictional license, Mike Leavitt in “Deadly Trespass” came to life. (The line about agreeing only “on trout” is verbatim George and me.)

… released back into the headwaters of the Kennebec River

Excerpt: I was squeezed behind the staff table sharing a pot of tea with Mike Leavitt. Mike lived for mint tea heavy with honey and didn’t care if it was served on plastic picnic tablecloths or law firm mahogany. Governors made appointments, but the executive director of the Maine Association of Sportsmen and Trappers got into the senate president’s office—or any office, camp, or truck—without an appointment because Mike Leavitt was the most powerful man in Maine.

I waved Ian toward us. “Ian Glenburn of the Bangor Weekly, meet Mike Leavitt, better known as the Sportsman’s Santa.” Ian ran a quick hand through sleep-smashed, dripping hair.

… Mike beamed at me. He turned to Ian. “We can’t explain it, but somehow Patton and I seem to be friends who don’t agree on anything but trout.”

Ian crushed his cup and crouched on the milk crate, notebook open.  … Mike grunted. “You tell it, Patton. You always get it right.”

I rattled off my standard MAST explanation. “Mike and his mostly men members side with corporate forest land owners because owners have the keys to the gates. Behind the gates, nine million acres of hunting, fishing, and trapping are the Promised Land. MAST members will work on protections for fish or bear or turkeys and other game species when those protections won’t upset their more important relationships. In short, MAST votes for whatever the corporate owners say they need.”

Mike raised his voice, throwing his politics toward boots clumping into the dining room on the other side of the wall. “Well done, my dear. Some folks think the enviro-movement was started by Rachel Carson whining over dead birds, or wilderness nuts like John Muir.” Thumping his chest with both hands, he pounded out a kettledrum echo. “We started it. Hunters. We taxed ourselves to return wild turkeys, ducks, elk, bobcat, deer, bear—and there must be more I forgot.”

Thank you, George.

Sandy’s novel “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine,” was a finalist in the Maine Literary Awards, a recipient of a Mystery Writers of America national award and a national finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest. Her second Mystery in Maine novel, “Deadly Turn” is now in Sherman’s Books and on Amazon in Kindle and paperback. She lives in the Maine woods and says she’d rather be “fly fishing, skiing remote trails, paddling near loons, or just generally out there.” Find more info on her website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Memories of Traveling, Redux

For me, New England’s long winter months require a general re-think—particularly this year, gripped as I am by nostalgia for a time we could all travel freely and vacation together. Thus this revisiting of one of my favorite posts from the not so distant past with a few extra shots thrown in at the end that I didn’t include the first time around. 

If you’ve been following my Maine Crime Writers saga, you’re already aware that my husband and I spend summers living aboard our sailboat as we travel the coast of Maine, but some years back my in-laws (good, old fashioned Anglophiles that they were) introduced us to their own favorite cruising style: narrowboating in Wales.  

Leaving Chirk Marina via the Llangollen Canal

The rich and complex history of the British Inland Waterways—with their accompanying flights of locks, swing and lift bridges, tunnels, and canal-side pubs (ah, those pubs!)—would require a separate post or three to adequately explain, so should the concept interest you I suggest you check it all out on Wikipedia. For now, a bit of history to whet the appetite.

Designed and built before the advent of railways, and as a network for ferrying goods and services throughout the land, these shallow, narrow canals are today home to a unique kind of tiller-steered watercraft sporting a nominal beam (about six and a half feet) and length of up to seventy-two feet that now crisscross the region in a strictly recreational role. 

Originally pulled by horses along the towpaths paralleling the canals—paths used these days for walking and cycling—today’s “narrowboats” are mostly diesel-powered, with interiors as comfortably fitted-out as many summer cottages. And while the kitchens (galleys in boat-speak), are more than adequate for pretty much anything you’d care to whip up, we choose to pub it whenever possible.

One of the Many Roman-Era Canal Bridges Still in Use

Our preference is to arrive in country mid to late May, before the start of British tourism’s “high season” and just as the year’s crop of lambs and goslings are first making their appearance along the more pastoral routes (our favorites). In spring, the rural towpaths are bordered by a mix of rustic fencing and rambling stone walls wildly ablaze with the gold of Scotch Broom, riots of wild lilac and clematis blooms the size of dinner plates. In many places, these towpaths are just a few miles’ walk from publicly accessible castles, ancient bridgeworks, aqueducts, and the cobbled streets of centuries old villages such as Ellesmere, where kerchiefed grannies still wander with basketed arm to do their marketing.

UK canal routes range in flavor from the urban to the rural, as well as in length and difficulty of terrain—utilizing a system of locks that enable the boats to change elevation along the way. This can be a slow and arduous process during the busier months, resulting in impromptu cocktail parties and barbecues breaking out along the towpath as travelers meet and commiserate with others in the queue for the flights (series) of locks. Rather conveniently, locks are often found cheek by jowl with canal-side pubs serving much needed sustenance.

Our Vessel, The Mayfly
The Top of the Grindley Brook Locks (Note the pub on the left)

The best boat hire company in the UK, in our view, is Black Prince Narrowboats (https://www.black-prince.com), with bases in England, Scotland and Wales. We like to rent from their Chirk base in the Ceiriog Valley of North Wales, a few hours’ train ride from Manchester airport, which provides easy access to our favorite canal route: the peaceful and bucolic Llangollen Canal (or “The Welsh” as it’s known to locals)—arguably the most beautiful in Britain. Pronouncing this properly is tricky, and when done correctly sounds as if you’re hocking up a fly from the nether reaches of your throat.  

Forty-one miles in length, the Llangollen dips through hillsides thick with sheep, cows, and wildflowers. A real highlight is traversing the navigable Pontcysyllte Aquaduct over the River Dee. This 18-arched stone and cast iron structure (completed in 1805) is the longest aqueduct in Great Britain and the highest canal aqueduct in the world. Check out this video for a taste of the experience: https://binged.it/3fYbwbq

From here, it’s maybe an hour farther on to where the canal dead ends in the town of Llangollen itself with its many shops, quaint tea rooms (a full English Cream Tea can be had here for a song), and, yes, more pubs. The Robin’s Nest is a particularly good one in town, its claim to fame being the coronary-clogging “Cumberland sausage and egg stottie”—a kind of savory pastry that’s the hands-down favorite of the men in our party. Others worthy of a stop at various points along our route include The Romping Pig, Dusty Miller, Cotton Arms, the Royal Shepherd, The Brown Cow, The Black Lion, and my personal favorite, Darcy’s Pub (yes, it’s a real place). The drinks are large and the food generally excellent. Be sure to try the Spotted Dick somewhere along the way (no worries…it’s a dessert pudding).  The entertainment is, well, eclectic.

The Men Check Out the Bar…
…While the Women Check Out the Entertainment

Llangollen “attractions” include Chirk Castle—a magnificent, 700-year-old marcher fortress built by King Edward I—and the remains of Castell Dinas Bran situated some 4000 feet above the verdant Vale of Llangollen and 800 feet above the town itself. Built in the 1230s by Madog ap Gruffyd Maelor, a nemesis of LLewelyn the Great (who was, interestingly enough, an ancestor of mine), the ruins are a good 45 minute uphill climb. Trust me; the view is worth it.

Looking Toward the Vale of Llangollen from the Ruins of Castell Dinas Bran

After all this hiking and pubbing, you’ll no doubt be ready for a rest. Simply pull your boat to the side of the canal anywhere you fancy, drive a stake into the towpath, and tie off for the night. Drinkies are at six.  Okay, five-thirty.

The Author at the Tiller

A few photos not included the first time around…

Chirk Viaduct and Aquaduct
Chirk Castle
Who knew?

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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Walking in Winter

This is the first winter in many years I haven’t spent working out in a gym, for the obvious reasons, and other than not having that reason to warm my car up in the morning, I’ve been surprised to find I don’t really miss it.

The curtain dropped on public involvement around mid-March of last year and so the grip of winter at that point had loosened considerably. Instead of riding the bike to nowhere or climbing the stairway to the moon, I walked.

My town has great walking possibilities—Crescent Beach State Park, Kettle Cove, Fort Williams—but I don’t always want to fire up the vehicle to go someplace to walk (feels a little like putting my bike in the car to go somewhere to ride), so I’ve developed a bunch of walking loops that take me through my neighborhood.

Other than the ease of it, I’ve noticed many more small things and many more ways in which each day in the movement of the seasons brings something new. For example, if you aren’t walking outside right now (admittedly, in single degree temps), you’re maybe not aware that bird life is starting to kick up, that songs and movement in the brush are probably at their highest level since last fall.

The other obvious benefit is the requirement to slow down. Even as fit as I am (heh), I can only walk so fast on frost-heaved roads and icy verges, which has forced me to throttle back my desire to get a walk done and enjoy where I am. And see.

See the profusion of cardinals that resides in our local copses, the snow coats drifting off of frozen twigs in the breeze, the pile of old ski gear someone left leaned against an old car last fall, now buried in snow. Where’s the story that explains that? Or the massive stack of lobster traps that hasn’t moved in a year?

I know the places in the roads where the melt accumulates, then freezes at night. I know which stand of trees I can duck into for a discreet pee. I know how the dark water of Trout Brook looks as it flows under the ice.

I’ve connected with a few more locals, too, the early dog-walkers and hand-wavers, the same people on their way to work at the same time every morning.

It’s brought a different sense to my writing, this slowing down. I find, with extra time, I’m less focused on getting my daily quota done, more focused on teasing out better sentences, weighing the worth of my words. It’s an open question whether that helps the books eventually, but there’s always hope. As there is for the spring.

 

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Now that you’re comfy online, check out the Harrisville Children’s Center Auction

One thing the pandemic has added to our lives that may not be that bad is more comfort with a virtual world. Yeah, I know, if you’re like me, Zoom meetings are getting pretty old. But there’s also so much more accessibility for things that were always in person before — not just author talks and things like the Maine Crime Writers Making a Mystery panel (coming to a library near you!), but all sorts of things that used to require getting in the car and driving to.

In recent weeks I’ve thought of attending (though haven’t always followed through), a public hearing on dam removal on the Kennebec River, a museum-sponsored look at how the Androscoggin River has been cleaned up over 50 years, a webinar on the National Register of Historic Places and Maine properties on it and more. If that stuff doesn’t pique your interest — yes my insterests are very dorky — there is plenty of other stuff out there.

One virtual event that existed way before the pandemic made being online all the time a thing is the Harrisville Children’s Center annual auction. The auction, in its 15th year, raises money for the nonprofit Harrisville Children’s Center, which provides child services in the Monadnock region of western New Hampshire. Its goal this year is to raise $23,000. last year, 305 auction registrants throughout New England and beyond placed 3,663 bids to raise more than $22,000.

While western New Hampshire may seem like a long way away, especially this time of year, the auction is online and has been way before that was a thing. It has 464 items, and 87 of those items are books. Full disclosure, one of those books is mine, the third book in my Bernie O’Dea mystery series BAD NEWS TRAVELS FAST.

But if you think this is a shameless ploy to get you to bid on my book, it’s not. If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you’ve already read it or you’ve decided to take a pass. That’s cool with me, after all I’m the gal who wants to attend webinars about Maine river infrastructure. I know everyone has different tastes.

Anyway, it also has books by fellow Maine Crime Writer Vaughn Hardacker and writers even more famous than we are. It’s a great chance to browse through some authors and also help out a great cause.

I know you’re comfy being online now. You’re Zooming and Facetiming and meeting up and Amazoning your heart out. So next time you’re online check out the auction at hccauction.org. It runs through 9 p.m. March 21.

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Weekend Update: February 20-21, 2021

Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Maureen Milliken (Monday), Dick Cass (Tuesday), Darcy Scott (Thursday) and Sandra Neily (Friday).

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

The winner of a copy of The Corpse in the Compost is a commenter known as Chickadee04287. If you would like to send us your name and mailing address, the book will find its way to you. Thanks for commenting. We enjoy the interaction.

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While we are all still masked and isolated, there is hope that someday soon we will gather in person. But whether in person or via Zoom or another medium, Maine crime writers are available to do programs for your library or your organization or school. Popular ones that allow a lot of reader interaction are our Making a Mystery program and Casting Call: How we find out characters. Please let us know using the contact below if you’d be interested in a program.

In Making a Mystery, the audience suggests character names, occupations, location of the crime, the weapon, and the motive, and the panel uses that to create an on the fly mystery. In Casting Call: How writers staff their stories, we use audience suggestions to show how we develop our characters and give them the attributes they need for their roles in the story.

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

 

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

 

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GEORGE SMITH, TIRELESS ADVOCATE OF MAINE’S ENVIRONMENT

I dedicate today’s post to George Smith, ground-breaking Maine outdoorsman, tireless writer of outdoor activities, travel and legislative issues, and director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine for nearly two decades.

George died this week at 72 following his ALS diagnosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, last year.

Governor Janet Mills who knew George well described him this way: “George loved Maine. And Maine loved George … An avid sportsman, a prolific writer, and a good-natured friend to all, George Smith was the very embodiment of the character of Maine: strong but kind, independent but compassionate, wise but humble.”

While I certainly didn’t know George well, our limited interactions demonstrate his generosity and kindness. I first met him a while back at the annual Boothbay Railroad Village “Books in Boothbay” event. The first mystery in my Maine Oceanographer Mara Tusconi series had just been published, and I was trying to pitch the eco-mystery to anyone who’d listen. George didn’t just stop to listen; he asked questions, requested a copy, and offered to write a review of future books if he liked what he read.

George’s blurb for “Glass Eels, Shattered Sea” is featured on the book’s back cover. His comment that my novels “really capture Maine’s islands and put you there—and on the water” meant the world to me.

Among the many tributes to George, I especially appreciate Angus King’s. The senator said: “I loved George Smith … He spent his life exploring the Maine outdoors – and if you asked him, there was no better way to live. That is why George used every tool at his disposal to share these natural treasures with millions. As a prolific and talented writer, George’s tales of adventure encouraged countless Maine people to take a walk in the woods; as a dogged advocate and natural leader, he spent decades supporting conservation efforts to make public lands more accessible for everyone. He was tough, smart, and deeply determined to protect the boundless beauty of Maine. Nature speaks a language of its own – one that George spoke fluently, with joy in his heart.

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Tell again: the pleasures of re-reading

Like many others in what is now nearly a year of plague-induced isolation, my wife and I spent many hours reading.  In normal times we read a lot.  I always have two books going at a time, alternating between one fiction and one nonfiction one, and my wife is usually buried deep in a novel (though, as I have noted in prefaces to my own mysteries, never any of that genre—including mine!).  In 2020, we read even more. 

The problem, however, was getting books to read.  The bookstore in Portland that I routinely patronize shut down at the beginning of the plague.  It offered delivery of orders, but that approach presented two problems:  first, you have to know just what you want and can’t browse to find books you don’t know you want; second, the delivery systems (USPS, FedEx, UPS) were so overwhelmed by the surge in online purchases that it often took weeks to get the books I ordered.  I found another independent bookseller that remained open and began to buy there, but because it’s smaller than the Portland one its stock is limited.  Special orders were readily accepted, but the problem of knowing exactly what book you want remained.  I understand there’s a website of a company in Seattle on which you can order anything you want, but the day I patronize it will be the day of my memorial service. 

It turned out the solution to our problem of finding books was right in front of us in the form of yards and yards of bookshelves where over the years we have placed thousands of books. But of course, with few exceptions, we had read them already.  Reading a book for a second time was simply not a habit, with the exception of those very special ones that I ritualistically re-read every year:  The Great Gatsby and Walden.  So the absence of new books to read as we endured the plague forced us to become re-readers.  What a pleasure it turned out to be. 

I started with the 12 novels of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series, reading two a week and enjoying revisiting the very English world Powell creates so brilliantly.  Next came a festival of John Marquand, in some ways an American version of Powell.  I had read most of his novels at one time or another, but reading through them in order of publication gave me a new appreciation of his talent and of his growth as a writer.  He is sadly neglected today, but as I re-read him I became a bit of a crusader on his behalf, sending emails to friends urging them to give Marquand a try.  John Cheever was a natural fit in this line of writers of novels of social manners, but he turned out not to hold up well.  The Wapshot novels were disappointing and kept me from going on to his later ones, at least for now.  I may return to them if the plague persists.  Other old favorites have held up well in re-reading.

I also re-read nonfiction, mostly historical studies that I had read in my earlier days as a scholar of early American literature and culture.  The master works by Bernard Bailyn and Edmund Morgan were particularly impressive on second reading.  I’m currently re-reading Alan Heimert’s Religion and the American Mind  from the Great Awakening to the Revolution, a 550 pager so dense with theological analysis that I limit myself to 30 or 40 pages a day.  As I do, I’m coming around to accept the original criticism of it as a work of fiction, but that’s another matter.   

When I tell friends about my re-reading frenzy, the first question is always “How much do you remember?” Sometimes a lot, sometimes almost nothing beyond a sense of general atmosphere or strong characters.  Plots in novels rarely come back to me, and even though in re-reading the historical studies I always know how things turned out in reality I seldom remember the shape of the writer’s argument.  Perhaps I just suffer from poor memory.  But I think it’s more a case of being a different person.  It’s a truism that books appeal differently to you at different times in your life, and finding new pleasures in books you had liked before becomes a way of understanding your own growth. Maybe the pleasure of re-reading is simply having something to read.  But I also think that there is some deep human need to repeat, to revisit, to try again.  When I finish telling a story to my 5-year old granddaughter, she almost always says, “Tell again.”  She likes the comfort of hearing something she likes a second or third time.  I’m now reading to her the Pooh stories, a deeply satisfying experience for me because I read them to her father so many years ago—read and re-read them to the point that we both have huge passages forever lodged in our minds and can repeat them if triggered by a phrase like “it was on just such a blusterous day as this” or “these are the wrong sort of bees.” 

We know the plague will eventually end, and when it does bookstores will open and I’ll be back to browse and sample new titles.  But my re-reading habit isn’t likely to go away.  I know I’ll still pace my bookshelves and seize on a novel or a history that I once liked and want to find out if I still do—and why.  Tell again.              

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