Fact, Fiction, Moral Imperatives, and Jen’s New Book

As I write this, Magnus the Cat is in the next room attacking the contents of my closet. I’m not entirely sure what’s in there, but whatever it is, by the sound of things it will be all over the floor by the time I’m done here. There’s no question that Marji the Pup loves hijinks, but Magnus definitely is no slouch in that department. They make a winning team.

Meanwhile, I’m in the throes of eleventh-hour preparations of my eighth novel, the second in my Flint K-9 Search and Rescue series. The novel (titled Inside the Echo, to be released this coming Tuesday, February 27) follows K-9 handler Jamie Flint and her team – both human and canine – as they search for a group that’s mysteriously vanished during a dog sledding expedition for battered women in Maine’s Mahoosuc Mountains. When the authorities learn that a rogue gunman was at the heart of the disappearance, the question turns to which abusive partner is behind the violence. Jamie Flint, herself a survivor of domestic abuse, is haunted by memories of her own experiences as she and her dog, Phantom, fight to find the missing women before the shooter does.

I’ll admit, this has been the toughest novel I’ve written yet. Not just for the content, which has inevitably taken me to some dark places. Beyond that, though, life has changed so much in the past year that finding the energy and the will to visit those dark places isn’t as easy as it once was.

Not so long ago, I lived in an apartment with my mom and my sweet old dog Killian in Cushing. She did the cleaning. I shopped and cooked. And worked as a writer and editor, fourteen hours a day. No guilt. No thought of living a bigger life. Just… y’know. Words. Tons of words. All of them, beautiful fiction. That small, simpler world feels very far away lately.

Without getting into politics too much, I will say that the 2016 presidential election shifted the ground beneath my feet in many ways. I’ve found myself asking more than once whether writing fiction is really where I should be putting my energy. I’m a passionate defender of wildlife and the environment, so the deregulation and gradual dismantling of vital protections that’s transpired over the past year has meant there are daily phone calls to make to local and state representatives; letters to write; petitions to sign; marches to march. What good does fiction do in the grand scheme of things? Should I really be helping people forget reality, when it feels to me like right now that’s the very last thing we can afford to do?

Meanwhile, I’ve gone from that apartment in Cushing with my mom and my sweet old boy Killian, to a whole new world. I have a new house, a relatively new partner, new puppy and cat, and a brooding (but genuinely awesome) fifteen-year-old boy walking our halls whenever he’s on break from the Maine School of Science and Math. It turns out, I quite love all of those things. I love taking care of our old New England farmhouse. I love baking bread and making marmalade, pickling pickles and sewing (I don’t actually have the sewing down yet, but I’m very optimistic), and I can’t wait to get my hands dirty in the garden come spring. In the face of a strange new world, all of these things feel important to me.

When I was thinking about writing this post, I reached out to fellow Maine Crime Writers to ask if there was a time in their lives when they had wavered in their faith in fiction. Had they worried about the impact of putting more violence into an already-too-violent world? I got some wonderful encouragement back, and particularly loved the response I received from Kate Flora:

“As for the fact that we write violence–yes, we do–but we tend to write in genres where good triumphs over evil and the moral order is restored. I’ll never forget the night Hallie Ephron came to her launch party for a book that was published right at the time of 9/11. She’d just been doing a TV interview where the interviewer asked her…didn’t she feel guilty at such a time, profiting from violence and death. Hallie’s response was perfect–she said we should all wish the real world was more like fiction, where the bad guys get caught and moral order is restored to the world.”

Upon much reflection, I think Kate (and Hallie) are right: it’s important to not only be able to escape to a world where good triumphs over evil, but to maybe even inspire some hope that the same is attainable in life. I’ll continue to call my senators and representatives every day, to remind them where I’m at and that – whether they believe it or not – they still work for me. I’ll march, I’ll write, I’ll keep on top of the news.

And then, I will write my fiction.

Jamie Flint is a strong single mom running a successful business of her own, who just happened to be the victim of an abusive partner at one time. That doesn’t define her, though – it doesn’t even define this novel, at least not completely. There’s also a brewing romance, some great character interaction, adventure and twists and nail-shredding suspense. There’s a ghostly edge, and tons and tons of quality dogged-ness. There’s a lower body count in this novel than in any I’ve done before, and ultimately I think the perspective I’ve gained over the past couple of years means added depth to both my characters and my content.

I still worry about whether I’m doing enough to make a difference in the world right now. I’m not sure that’s going away anytime soon. Ultimately, though, I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember. It’s both a tool of escape for me, and one of understanding. I hope it can be the same for my readers.

Jen Blood is the USA Today-bestselling author of the Erin Solomon Mysteries and the Flint K-9 Search and Rescue series. Her latest novel, Inside the Echo, is out February 27. 

 

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Beginning the Third Year of Caregiving.

Bob and I, dancing in a Paris park. 2005

Lea Wait, here. Although Bob Thomas and I’ve known each other, as friends and/or lovers, off and on for fifty years, we didn’t live together or get married until 2003. I’d taken care of my mother for the last 25 years of her life, and Bob had cared for both his mother and his previous wife, both of whom died of cancer. We knew one of us would, some day, be caring for the other, and part of our decision to marry was our vow to each other that we would do that. In the meantime, we would support each other in what we wanted to do, individually and together.

Bob, at home, 2013

I was a writer. He was an artist. Two creative people who loved each other. We could make this work.

And we did. We traveled, to see family, and so I could sign books. One memorable trip to Beirut, where Bob had grown up, with a stopover to see friends in Paris. New Year’s Eves in Quebec City. New York City, where we’d met. Family weddings in Arizona, California, New York State, and New Jersey.

But two years ago we knew that our years of careless celebrations of life were coming to an end, and I would be the caregiver this time. (Although Bob kept insisting I might die in an automobile accident any day and he’d be the one left alone.)

At Bob’s suggestion, about two years ago I posted on this blog that within the past two months he’d been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, COPD, and then he’d had a stroke. Our lives changed.

That first year, after his diagnoses and stroke, our major concerns were Bob’s regaining his strength and ability to eat, drink, hold a paint brush, and deal with the pain in his legs from his peripheral artery disease. (Oh, yes. He had that, too. And a minor seizure disorder. And occasional internal bleeding, resulting in serious anemia.) Despite everything, he was stubborn and worked hard, and, overall, dealt well with his challenges. He was able to paint again.

Last year I posted again, writing about what it was like to live with someone whose health issues influenced every day of our lives. The major change for me at that time was that I was now doing all the “household chores” that Bob had done: shopping, errands, cooking, cleaning up, and so forth. My writing time had been cut back.

And yesterday, after the past few, rough, months, Bob suggested it was time for me to write yet another blog, letting the many people who’ve asked, know how he’s doing.

2017 was an increasingly difficult year. In May Bob had (on top of everything else!) an appendectomy which, because of his other issues, kept him in the hospital for ten days. He suffered brief oxygen deprivation, and learned how critical it was to be on oxygen. He came home with oxygen tanks and associated apparatus. But he didn’t use the oxygen all the time, and last summer we occasionally went out to dinner or for short visits to galleries where his work was hung. He didn’t paint much.

January, 2018

He tired easily, and was frustrated by having to use a nebulizer and emergency inhaler as well as, some days, the oxygen. But he enjoyed golfing (9 holes, and he rode on the cart) with neighbors, and greeting friends on our porch at cocktail hour. Standing or walking for any time or distance were difficult, but we cut back our schedules, and worked around that.

In September Bob’s brother, Rich, arranged a week in York, Maine, for all four Thomas brothers and their significant others. Bob used his nebulizer and inhalers and meds, and sat quietly most of the time, but it was a good week, with memories and laughs and good food. Bob quietly told me, “This may be the last time all four of us are together.” But we hoped that wasn’t true.

Bob was gradually becoming weaker. Then, in October, he went through a week during which both of us wondered (separately) whether he was dying. I moved a cot into our bedroom and slept there. Bob had major problems breathing, and his struggles were frightening. He used the oxygen all the time, and the nebulizer every couple of hours.

With granddaughters Samantha & Vanessa, several years ago

Finally his doctors (who work together impressively) convinced him to go to the hospital, and we spent several days there for tests and treatments. The base problem was not his COPD, which we had assumed … but his heart. His heart was failing more, and his lungs were struggling  because of the lack of blood.  Doctors upped the diuretics he takes, and he came home.

In November and December Bob had a few good days — but our definition of “good” has radically changed. Since early December Bob’s spent most of his time in bed, or sitting in a recliner in the bedroom. He’s become addicted to CNN and sports, and his television is on close to 24 hours a day. He uses oxygen all the time, and takes over two dozen medications. The stair lift and ramps I’d installed in our house when I was taking care of my mother make it possible for him to get up and down stairs relatively easily, and make it easier for me to move our meals upstairs so we can eat together.

Bob, 2016, with part of an exhibition of his paintings

Bob and I both, individually and together, have hours and days when we’re (quietly) depressed or angry.  We don’t talk much about the future.  Bob sleeps off and on during any 24 hour period. I sleep at night, lightly, so I can wake up if he has trouble breathing and I can help with his nebulizer. The diuretics have helped, but they also cause severe, painful, cramping. Sometimes he gets confused. He now depends on me for almost everything. In December our understanding next door neighbor drove to our house to pick up Bob and I to attend a party at his house — and returned us home in an hour. Bob hasn’t left the house since then except to visit doctors

Me? I spend a lot of time wishing I could help more: make his breathing easier. Take away the pains, when they come. It’s horrible to watch someone you love struggling, and not be able to help.

I’m tired most of the time. I try to cook food Bob craves. (Only in the past week has his appetite diminished.) I set up his oxygen and nebulizer and medications. My study is next to his room, so even when I’m working, I can hear if he calls me or is struggling to breathe. I’m interrupted often. I find it hard to focus on writing. I asked for (and got) an extension on my manuscript due last fall, and an extension on the book that was due February 1. I haven’t finished that one yet, and I have two other manuscripts due this year. Some days that panics me.

I know our situation won’t get better. While I’ve been writing this short blog Bob has needed me five times. He’s having a bad day. I feel guilty that I’m not with him all of the time. I want to seize and value every moment with him. When he wakes up, even after a short nap, he calls for me, to make sure I’m still here. I feel guilty that I can’t drop everything to be with him. But I have commitments, and I have to meet them.

We’re both doing our best. But … no. It isn’t easy. It’s painful, and frustrating, and scary.

We don’t have a timeline. We don’t know exactly what will happen next, or when. All we know is that we’ll face whatever comes in the best way we can.

We cherish this time. We say “I love you” a lot. And we’re very lucky to have had the past fifteen years together. Some of the best years of our lives.

And those years aren’t over yet.


Note: Bob read and approved this blog.

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THE TOUGHEST DECISION

Vaughn Hardacker here: This past month has been an emotional roller coaster. On January 29th we were forced to have our seventeen year old Maltese, Maggie, put down. She had been failing rapidly and was blind, deaf, and living in constant pain from arthritis. Throughout my life I’ve had a number of pets but this was the first time I have had to have one put down. It is an experience that I never again want to have.

Maggie

I started feeling guilty the minute we made the decision (actually I wimped out on that one–Maggie was my domestic partner’s dog and I left the final decision to her) and now three weeks later, I still feel as if I have betrayed her. In the nine years I was in her life, Maggie taught me about unconditional love and trust. On the drive to the vet’s office, she rested in Jane’s arms and all I could think of was how she trusted us and we were about to end her life. I’ve often thought that when my quality of life deteriorates and quality of life is no longer good I wanted to end it. I’m certain that Maggie’s QOL was gone and all she did was sleep twenty hours a day but I asked myself: What gives you the right to make this decision? Would Maggie agree with our decision? I can only rationalize our actions and tell myself that Maggie is no longer suffering.

Jane had periods of crying from the moment she made the toughest decision she’d ever made and I (the world’s most adept at pain avoidance) vowed no more pets: it hurts too much when they pass on. However, watching Jane’s grief as she perused facebook looking for puppies made me relent. I realized that while a new dog could never replace Maggie’s place in her heart, a new pup would help her deal with the grief. Henceforth, Skipper, a nine week old Yorkshire Terrier (aka Yorkie) entered our lives.

Skipper has a lot of Maggie’s mannerisms and some that she didn’t share. It has been over twenty years since I’ve had to train a puppy and it has opened my eyes to how they can be like a human child–for instance, instead of the 2:00 A.M. feeding, there’s the 2:00 A.M. pee call. It has been just over three weeks since we brought Skipper into our home and we have found him to be extremely intelligent–as a matter of fact, in the short time he’s been with us, he’s already got Jane and I trained…

Skipper

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Stealing Bases & Writing Crime

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Baseball and crime writing? Trust me, I’m not coming out of left field with this blog post.

Spring training has started and as a Red Sox fan I’m pretty excited about my team’s prospects. The Sox have a new manager and some great players. The new season is like starting to write a new book. It’s a time of optimism and fresh ideas. “Batter up” I think to myself every time I sit down to write.

As a writer of crime and thriller novels, I can’t help but see the parallels between a good crime novel and a baseball game. Can the phrases “stealing a base” and ‘stealing signs” merely be coincidences? How about Curt Schilling’s bloody sock in the  2004 Series? Or Dwight Evans memorable catch in the 1975 World Series, stealing a home run off Joe Morgan and winning game six? Love it when a new pitcher “comes out of the pen.” There’s even a “three strikes” law that puts criminals away for life. And let’s not forget that the dreaded Yankees wear pinstripes (Boooooo!).

Writing a novel is a lot like a baseball game in many respects. Both have set parameters. My novels tend to run between 100 and 120 thousand words. A baseball game is nine innings and has no set time, although there’s extra innings if the game is tied in the ninth. In both, it’s crucial to get off to a good start. In both, it’s important to keep the pressure on in the middle, whether that be a compelling subplot or putting in a competent middle reliever or pinch runner. Then you have to finish strong. In baseball that means clutch hitting and solid defense combined with a shutdown closer. The crime novelist, as well, needs to round all the bases and write a killer ending that provides closure for the reader. Sometimes the ballgame goes into extra innings, just as sometimes the author needs to add more scenes to adequately wrap everything up for the reader’s benefit.

The goal for us writers when we start a novel is to “hit it out of the park.” Is it any wonder why baseball and literature are so tightly entwined? Or why the Red Sox are so near and to many writers hearts? Robert Parker’s Spenser was a big Red Sox fan. Authors past and present loved the Sox including Doris Kearns Goodwin, John Updike and Steven King. In fact, King wrote a novel called The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. It’s about a girl who gets lost in the woods and survives by thinking about her favorite Red Sox pitcher.

Fenway Park is an iconic landmark and shown in many Hollywood dramas. I even used it as a setting in one of my earlier horror novels, when I was writing in that genre. My favorite scene in the movie The Town, based on Chuck Hogan’s crime novel, Prince of Thieves, takes place in Fenway Park. Ben Affleck’s character and his gang pull off the heist of a lifetime when they sneak into Fenway Park dressed as Boston cops, and manage to make their way into the cash room, stealing millions.

A new year for the Red Sox brings with it much optimism and hope for a winning season. Just as the Sox hope to have a great year—and crush the dreaded Yankees—so are all of us crime writers. As the Sox open the season in April, I too will step up to the plate with my new thriller, THE NEIGHBOR (coming April 24). Hope you can check it out and let me know if I hit out of the park with this one. Here’s the link to check it out. https://www.amazon.com/Neighbor-Joseph-Souza-ebook/dp/B074DGFKS8/ref=la_B0083J9IZ8_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1518998292&sr=1-2

Now Play Ball!

Posted in Joe's posts, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Weekend Update: February 17-18, 2018

Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will be posts by Joe Souza (Monday), Vaughn Hardacker (Tuesday) , Lea Wait (Wednesday), Jen Blood (Thursday), and Susan Vaughan (Friday).

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

Maureen Milliken: I’ll be at the Albert Church Brown Memorial Library in China Village at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 18. I’ll be bringing my custom slideshow and a box of books, so come on over and check it out.

Kate Flora: We promised a give-away for February, and so here it is: A stack of crime story anthologies in this wonderful Edgar Allan Poe bag. How to win? Just leave a comment on one of our posts, and one of those lucky commenters will win the swag.IMG_1393.JPG

Barb Ross: As Brenda mentioned in her post, four Maine Crime Writers, Brenda Buchanan, Richard J. Cass, Barbara Ross, and Lea Wait, along with alum Chris Holm, will have a staged reading of their work by actors at the Portland Stage on Monday, March 5. Tickets are $10.00 if purchased before and $15.00 at the door. We’d love to see you there.

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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Maine winter love: There are no words

We love to grouse about winter in Maine. That’s when we aren’t saying, in the middle of a blizzard or a minus 20 snap, “Hey, it’s winter in Maine, what are you going to do?”

We love it. We know we do.

And to prove it, here are some photos. And if you think that I’m just throwing a bunch of random photos that I took with my iPhone down because I’m strung out from writing writing writing, yeah, maybe I am.

Even so, look at these photos and tell me what’s not to love.

Happy Valentine’s Day (two days late) Maine!

Ferry Beach in Scarborough. Winter was just beginning. Love that low sun and long shadows.

This is on my way to the town dump. I probably have a million photos of this view, all seasons, all times of day. But the camera never does it justice. For instance, with the naked eye you can see Mount Washington in New Hampshire, but it’s barely visible here.

My love affair with the State House continues.

I’d been living in South Portland for more than a year. My first night back home I walked down to Day’s store.

I like sunrises as much as sunsets. This is out my back porch door.

Lights in the windows in winter always gives that warm cozy feeling.

It’s so great to be able to walk right out of the front door, throw on the snowshoes and enjoy a beautiful day outside.

These guys next door to my house are waiting for summer.

Belgrade Stream. Caught this one coming home from the grocery store a couple weeks ago. It was just there.

 

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The Strange Disappearance of . . .

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, pondering the fact that the more varieties of a product there are, the harder it gets to find the one you want. I understand that shelf space in grocery and drug stores is limited, but over the last few years a fair number of products I like have become hard, if not impossible, to locate.

I first noticed this with shampoo. I had used Breck since I was a teenager and suddenly it was no longer on store shelves. I found out later that the company was bought out in 2006. Although there is still a Breck shampoo available, at least online, it’s no longer the same product I remember. I sucked it up and experimented until I found another brand I liked, but I wasn’t happy about being forced into a change.

Then it was the soap I started using as a teen on the recommendation of a dermatologist, something called Cuticura. It’s still around, thank goodness. It’s manufactured in Canada and I can order it online, but find it in a store in Western Maine? Forget about it.

More recently, the variety of St. Ives skin cream I was using vanished from local stores, I presume to make room for eighty kazillion other varieties of that brand on store shelves. Sorry, I don’t want those extra fragrances and herbs and vitamins.

Don’t even get me started on toothpaste choices.

Sadly, it isn’t only the personal care products I prefer that are hard to find. Until recently, I was always able to buy Pepperidge Farm stone ground whole wheat bread and Arnold’s seeded Jewish rye at the nearest Hannaford’s. That’s my standard breakfast—toast and coffee. Toward the end of last year, I started having trouble finding either one. Now they’ve both completely disappeared from that Hannaford’s and only occasionally show up at the other Hannaford’s that’s within a reasonable distance. I know there are other brands, but to me they just don’t taste the same. And the slices aren’t the same size, either.

I’m not exactly a foodie. Far from it, in fact, but when I find a product I like, I want to buy that same brand and variety again. It’s reached the point that, most weeks, I end up stopping at both Hannaford’s, a Food City, and the nearest Wal-Mart before I’m able to find everything on my grocery list. Example: I like to keep a couple of Di Giorno’s Pizzeria! four-cheese pizzas in the freezer for those nights when I don’t feel like making a meal from scratch. (I add my own toppings.) In three out of those four stores I frequent, there are at least a half dozen other DiGiorno’s varieties, but never the one I want. And sometimes store number four is a washout, too. The same goes for Utz pretzel rods, my go-to snack when I want something in the crunchy and salty family. Only on my lucky days does one of the Hannaford’s have some in stock.

Okay. End of rant. I feel much better now (and a bit hungry). Over to you, dear readers. What products do you have to hunt for? Is there some favorite you can no longer find on store shelves? Share, please. I’d hate to think I’m the only one who grumbles about this!

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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