A Favorite Past Post: Using Cuss Words in Cozies

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here. This month we’ll be reprising some of our favorite past posts, and I’m starting it off with one originally published back in 2014. It was slightly revised to be included in I Kill People for a Living: A Collection of Essays by a Writer of Cozy Mysteries. So here goes:

Not too long ago, I received an e-mail from a reader taking me to task because Liss MacCrimmon, my amateur sleuth, after her earliest, cuss-free adventures, had started swearing. In this reader’s opinion, swearing disqualifies a novel from being considered a cozy mystery. Furthermore, such a book should not be left lying around the house lest a child pick it up, open it, and be exposed to bad language.

Needless to say, I disagree with this very limited definition of a cozy. And I make it a policy not to respond to e-mails that force me to go on the defensive, a no-win situation if there ever was one. However, I was curious as to what had prompted this complaint.

Since the e-mail was not specific, I pulled up the doc file of the book in question (A Wee Christmas Homicide) and used the “find” function to check for the presence of any words a reader might object to. I knew I hadn’t dropped the f-bomb, and I didn’t think I’d referred to any other bodily functions or . . . let’s call them byproducts. Of course, strictly speaking, none of those are swear words, although most would probably be considered inappropriate language for a traditional mystery. What did I discover? I did use the word “pissed” once, to mean “angry with,” but since the speaker was a man and the situation he was in warranted strong language, I figure that word choice was pretty mild compared to what he might have said in real life (or in a hardboiled detective story).

Swearing, so I was always taught in Sunday School, is taking the name of the Lord in vain. I was pretty sure I hadn’t done that, although the use of “damn” (as opposed to not giving “a Tinker’s dam”) implies the use of “God” before it. I’ll be honest with you. My search yielded more instances of the word “damn” than I’d expected. I probably should have cut some of them, but not because they were swear words. They should have been cut because they were repetitious. Liss is frustrated on several counts during the book and seven times, twice in one sentence, she uses the words “damn” or “damned.” She also thinks it once. Other characters use “damn” four times in conversation. But here’s the funny thing: neither the number of times I used the word nor the word itself struck me as excessive any of the many times I reread the manuscript, nor did they jump out at my first reader, my agent, my editor, or the copy editor, all of whom had the opportunity to tell me to remove some or all of them from the text before publication.

Having investigated this far, I was intrigued. By my definition, “hell” isn’t swearing, either, but I figured that was the second most common “offensive” word I was likely to have used. I found five instances in this same novel, but Liss herself didn’t use any of them.

What about other books in the series? According to the e-mail, the earlier entries in the series were in the clear, so I picked another later one at random and ran the same check. My grasp on realistic language appears to be consistent. One person, provoked, said “pissed.” The word “hell” appeared four times, used by two different characters, neither of them Liss, but Liss did use the adjective “hellish” on one occasion. As for “damn” and “damned,” Liss used the former four times and the latter once. Liss’s gal-pal Sherri said “damn” once. Liss’s love interest, Dan, said “damned” twice and other characters used that word three times. When I turned in the manuscript of that book it was 76,803 words in length. It contained seventeen “bad” words. In another in the series, Ho-Ho-Homicide, Liss only said “damn” once, but other people said “hell,” “damn,” and “damned.” Out of a total of 78, 411 words, those instances added up to a total of twelve. On the one occasion where Liss swore, she was under extreme stress, afraid neither she nor Dan would make it out of their predicament alive. I’d be more surprised if she didn’t swear.

“But wait,” as the TV commercials say. Here’s the kicker. I was taking that “fan’s” word for it that Kilt Dead and Scone Cold Dead were cleaner than A Wee Christmas Homicide. Well, guess what? On page five of the hardcover edition of Kilt Dead, Liss gets the bad news that a knee injury has ended her career as a professional Scottish dancer. Her reaction: “No. Damn it, no!”

And it doesn’t stop there. I counted twenty-nine “damns” in Kilt Dead. And twenty-three in Scone Cold Dead. There is one instance of “pissed” in each and several “hells.” My goodness me! That’s more cussing than in the book my correspondent was complaining about. How very strange.

 

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-four books traditionally published and has self published several children’s books and three works of nonfiction. 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. Her newest books are Murder, She Edited (the fourth book in the contemporary “Deadly Edits” series, written as Kaitlyn) and I Kill People for a Living. 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, now available in e-book format.

 

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Weekend Update: July 31-August 1, 2021

Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett (Monday), Kate Flora (Tuesday), and John Clark (Friday). On Thursday we’ll have a repost from one of our alums. Some Wednesdays from now on will be “Win a Book Wednesday” with giveaways, drawings, and announcements of winners. Be sure to stop by at mid-week to see what’s new.

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

from Kaitlyn Dunnett: The last Liss MacCrimmon Mystery, A View to a Kilt, will be on sale in ebook format for $1.99 from July 30 until September 1. In this one, Liss finds a body, literally, in her own back yard. The Scotties also make an appearance. For a quick link to e-book outlets, you can click here: https://www.kensingtonbooks.com/9781496712677/a-view-to-a-kilt/

 

 

 

 

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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Crime Writers Share Some Favorite Maine Places

Today, we’re sharing some of our favorite Maine places. An impossible task, I know, since we all have many favorites. We would love it if you would share some of yours in the comments–photos and descriptions. Summer. Winter. Land. Sea. Coastal. Inland. Maine has so much to offer.

Kate Flora: A big part of summer, growing up on the farm, involved agriculture. Weeding the garden. Harvesting and processing fruits and vegetables. My father always knew the best places to find wild blackberries. Mom had a huge raspberry patch. And across the road, we had a blueberry field, where we would pick berries and sell them at a table we’d set up beside the road. Sometimes, at Thanksgiving, if it wasn’t snowy, our after turkey would be an able through the blueberry field. Some years it would be black from the  semi-annual burning to keep down weeds and pests; other years it would be a brilliant red. Once we found a charred wallet. Another time, a deer skull. But it was best when the every other year crop was ready for harvesting, and the undulating open field was a vivid blue that matched the August sky overhead. For my 55th birthday, my husband Ken bought me the blueberry field adjacent to the family field, and I went out and ran through it, a truly ecstatic experience.

Pie from my Union blueberries.

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson: I know it’s boring, but it’s true. My favorite place in Maine is my own back yard. I was just going to use some old photos,  from 2010, and then decided to take a few new ones, since it is a beautiful summer’s day as I’m writing this.

old photo, in fall

part of the same field now with the Christmas trees all grown up

the other field, 2010

and part of it now

That small body of water in the third photo is the original Moosetookalook. It’s very small, just a mini-pond dug to drain off a swampy area, and at this time of year it’s completely dry.

Maggie Robinson: I’m with Kaitlyn/Kathy. I’ve talked about my garden here before. I can’t think of any other place in Maine I’d rather be. But if we’re going for incredible beauty, may I suggest Islesboro? We lived out there for four years while my husband was the superintendent/principal of Islesboro Central School, which is housed in a magnificent former estate. No matter where you look, there are water views, charming antique houses, grand “cottages,” and wonderful gardens.

Island living is not for everyone with its isolation and dependence on the ferry. (Though if you’re buddies with a lobsterman, maybe you can talk him into crossing Penobscot Bay after hours.) It wasn’t for us, but my middle daughter and grandson still live there. Here’s the lighthouse and museum on a chilly winter day.

This is my daughter’s sunset view!

And here’s my three-tiered garden in Farmington.

Brenda Buchanan:  I’m also rather predictable. Regular readers of this blog know that part of my heart lives in Hancock County and another part lives on Peaks Island, two places where I made my home for a lot of years, and where I still spend as much time as possible. Here are some photos of my favorite spots:

View of Penobscot Bay from Barred Island in Deer Isle.

My favorite swimming beach, the location of which I am not inclined to reveal.

Whaleback, on the back shore of Peaks Island

The path through the aptly-named Davies Sanctuary on Peaks.

 

Sandra Neily here: I love camping by the Penobscot River north of Millinocket. (Husband Bob, relaxing and Raven refusing to come and get in the car when we are all packed. She loves it too.) The bridge shot is from a land trust tail on Westport Island, but I am so grateful for so many Maine land trust properties. Find them here. And my favorite wild flower walks happen in June and July on ski area slopes that are open and sunny and welcoming to so many different kinds of flower. This one is one Moose Mt. trail just north of Greenville (formerly Squaw Mt.).

 

 

Maureen Milliken here. While there are tons of places in Maine I love, my absolute favorite is Baxter State Park. Fun fact: You don’t have to hike Katahdin to enjoy Baxter. It seems to be a common misconception that’s the only reason to go there. I’ve written about it plenty here already, so I won’t go into it all.

I will say this: no wifi, no cell service, no leafblowers, no fireworks. Just nature. Before our family went there for the first time in the 1970s, our next-door neighbor told my parents, “It’s a pain in the ass to get there, but once you’re there, Shangri La”

But since I just got back from a visit, where all I did was hike a little and sit by Trout Brook and read, here are some snaps.

Trout Brook, the scene from my lean-to at the Trout Brook Farm campground at Baxter.

My private reading spot outside my lean-to.

 

That’s me on North Traveler Mountain, I believe in 2015.

My sister Liz kayaking on South Branch Pond in, I believe, 2015.

Me enjoying the wild blueberries in 1975.

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Summer of Soul

John Clark shifting gears on the way to a blog. I had two other topics in mind for today until Beth and I went to the movies last Sunday night. I’m old school and prefer watching movies in a theater. After hearing about Summer of Soul, I knew I wanted to see it. I was at Woodstock the same summer that this six weekend festival happened in Harlem, but to my utter shame, never heard of it until I saw the promo for the movie a week ago. After watching it, my first thought was that viewing it was like getting handed a box of puzzle pieces, many familiar, that when assembled, created a completely new way of seeing something.

Most of the performers featured in the film are familiar. In fact The Fifth Dimension was the first musical group I ever saw live when they performed at Grady Gamage Auditorium during homecoming weekend at Arizona State University in the fall of 1966. Two of the members reminisce about how they came to record The Age of Aquarius. Add in Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, a quick appearance by Moms Mabley among others, and you’ve got almost two hours of great toe tapping, memory stimulating music, but that’s just a small part of the experience. Several of the performers, as well as many concert goers are featured, talking about how it felt then and how it feels looking back from today.

It’s saddening and thought provoking to realize that it this long and support from a charitable foundation for this film to be made. The footage sat, neglected for fifty years. It’s blended with interviews with performers as well as notables who grew up in that era like Charlaine Hunter-Gault. She shared her fight to start using Black instead of Negro while working for New York Times. When editor A.M. Rosenthal, changed it from Black back to Negro in a headline, she responded with an eleven page memo. It did the trick.

Also of note are the clips and reminiscences about losses felt by the Black community through assassinations, JFK, RFK, Malcolm-X and Martin Luther King. Jesse Jackson and a younger Al Sharpton weigh in on the effect. I also found the comments by Harlem residents regarding the impact of a man landing on the moon during the festival to be eye opening and thought provoking.

Don’t take my word for how great and impactful this film is. Make the effort to see it, then think about how those times were for the Black community and ask yourself if much has changed for them since this was filmed.

Here’s a description of the movie from the brochure at Railroad Square as well as a link to a NPR article and a trailer for the movie.

The United States in the summer of 1969 was at one of the most significant moments in national history. Culturally, scientifically, economically, the tenuous fibers of the great experiment were unraveling to reveal the tentacles of change engulfing the country. Most of us pinpoint at least one event―Woodstock, Apollo 11, the Manson murders, the Stonewall protests― but everywhere America looked there was disruption. Lost amongst the wondrous chaos of 1969 was The Harlem Cultural Festival (or “Black Woodstock”), a two-month celebration of Black pride and music attended by nearly 300,000 mostly Black Americans. The lineup speaks for itself: Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, B. B. King, Stevie Wonder, Hugh Masekela, The 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, and The Staples. But for half a century this celebration of Black identity had been lost to the world. Miraculously, this incredible footage—looking and sounding up-to-date and spectacular in all ways by director Questlove—has been found and turned into the film event of 2021, winner of the Audience Award at Sundance.

https://www.npr.org/2021/07/01/1010306918/summer-of-soul-questlove-movie-review-harlem-cultural-festival

trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slFiJpAxZyQ

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Win A Book Wednesday July 28th

It’s another Win a Book Wednesday (July 28) here at Maine Crime Writers.

Sandra Neily here:   First I need to announce Grace as the winner of my first novel, Deadly Trespass. Apologies to all jumped in promptly, hoping to win.  It took me a while to figure out I should email folks in return. I’ve given away Kindle copies to all the other entrants!)

Win More of the Maine Woods:  To win a copy of my second Mystery in Maine, Deadly Turn, just leave a comment below mentioning the title. (Sandra’s an award winning author from East Boothbay, Maine, working on her third novel, Deadly Disease.)  Deadly Turn is reviewed as:

“What a whopping good read! Gripping as Agatha Christie, evocative as Aldo Leopold, and in the end as satisfying as a Brother Cadfael mystery. The book drew me into the Maine woods, reawakening memories of the thrill as well as the peace of being fully immersed in a forest or a river.”

“Ms. Neily has done it again! She has produced another fast-moving mystery grounded in the both gritty and endearing truths of human behavior, based in the northwoods setting she clearly knows so well, starring her gutsy, no-frills protagonist, Cassandra Patton Conover and her canine sidekick Pock!  …  Loved every minute of it! Count me as another reader asking, ‘when is the next one com

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The only writing rule? There are no rules!

I was chatting with a new acquaintance about my new, more flexible, schedule, and how it will give me the time I need to finish my book. I think I mentioned to him that the first half of the day is for the book, the second half for the paying gigs. I may have mentioned that I still plan to have coffee and read the Boston Globe before anything else, as I have nearly every morning for the past four decades.

New Acquaintance, however, insisted that the only way I can be a succesful writer is if I write immediately upon getting up in the morning, before I even have coffee or breakfast, or read the paper, or anything else.

The fact I’ve written three traditionally published mystery novels had no impact on his insistance that I COULD NOT WRITE A BOOK if I didn’t do it first thing in the morning, immediately upon getting up, before I have coffee, breakfast or newspaper. Otherwise, he said, I’d get caught up in doing other things and would never get around to writing.

The fact that I’ve never ever written in the morning before having coffee and newspaper, as well as often doing other things, and have still managed to write three books that have not only been published, but also fairly well-received, didn’t deter him. He kept insisting.

The fact that I know many many succesful fiction writers, and they write at all sorts of times of day, also didn’t deter him.

Did I mention he hasn’t, to my knowledge, written a novel? Apparently he read somewhere that’s the “only way” Stephen King and Ernest Hemingway were able to write. He also, if I remember the conversation correctly, claims King even advocates for this writing process in his book “On Writing.”

Memo to aspiring writers: Anyone who tells you a writer “has to” do it a certain way, or at a certain time of day, or for a certain amount of time or anything else like that is simply wrong. The time of day you should write is whatever time of day that works best for you. I have never discussed this, or anything else, with Stephen King, but I’ll bet a year’s worth of morning coffee he’d agree with me.

In fact, if you’re looking for writing advice, the best I’ve ever found is my one big takeaway from Stephen King’s “On Writing”: Just sit down and write.

You’re welcome.

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Weekend Update: July 24-25, 2021

Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Maureen Milliken (Tuesday), John Clark (Thursday) and a group post (Friday). Some Wednesdays from now on will be “Win a Book Wednesday” with giveaways, drawings, and announcements of winners. Be sure to stop by at mid-week to see what’s new.

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

Sandra Neily here: Announcing that Grace is the winner of my first novel, Deadly Trespass. (From the June 30th Wind a Book Wednesday.) I emailed all entry hopefuls a free Kindle copy of the novel. (Apologies. Took me a while to realize I needed to email everyone in return.) Please stop by this Wednesday for our next Win-A-Book-Wednesday!

On August first I’ll be interviewed by V. Paul Reynolds on his “Maine Outdoors” radio program at 7 PM. It’s been a few decades since I sat in the studio with him. I think I had a loon calling contest with someone who called in. I think I won.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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A Good Cry & the Do-It-Yourself MFA

Sandra Neily here (also sharing a selection of disparate pics that may wander away a bit)

At a library author talk this past week, I was asked how I wrote a novel when I’d only written non-fiction for work.

I said I burst into tears, got up and paced the room, made a mantra of the names of women friends who said I had a voice and should write, repeated that names mantra over and over … and I sat back down and started typing. Crying but typing.

But I also told them about my do-it-yourself MFA. (Still ongoing …)

I attended some writers’ conferences. (I used a tax refund to audit Middlebury’s Bread Loaf Writers Conference. The next year’s return went to the UMaine’s Stonecoast conference.) I attended several New England Crime Bake mystery writers/readers conferences in Boston, sleeping on a friend’s floor as I couldn’t afford the hotel. (Best seminar? How to write about sex. Not what I expected, but it was right on!)

And helpful books! Favs: Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott. (Don’t miss the “Shitty First Drafts” chapter.) Also, On Writing by Stephen King, The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson and Don’t Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden, and absolutely anything Donald Maass writes.

I found lots of free webinars on line as various people tried to tease me toward buying a tutorial package, but most marketing sessions were helpful. Derek has the best free seminars; just sign up for his newsletter.

And I could not live without Jane Friedman’s newsletter. You’ll just have to sign up to see why. She’s the best source for anything related to publishing. I share out her pathways to publishing chart at least once a week.

I distill essential writing reminders on a wall chart I stick it up wherever I write. (Recently I duct taped it to camper curtains as I worked on a tiny table … Tiny.)

Here’s some of my updated 2021 list.

The first reminder below is about Pain; I’ll l be bringing a special pain to my narrator Patton in Deadly Attack (the 3rd Mystery in Maine.) These pics explain that pain.

Maine mountain wildlands being blasted apart for … in this case…17 miles of remote roads.

CMP’s clearing of wildland vegetation (eventually crossing over 300 streams, ponds and wetland areas) so we can send power to MA.

 BRING THE PAIN to your protagonist and bring it early.

CREATE COUNTERINTUITIVE SURPRISE w/ characters & plot

On Emotional Originality: My narrator Patton (whose first name is Cassandra), shares a lot with the mythical Greek Cassandra (painted here). She spoke truth and was ignored. Too bad for the people of Troy. (Wooden horse.)

Deliver “EMOTIONAL ORIGINALITY” (Maass). My narrator chooses outdoors struggles to know she exists; her job diminished her.

FIND STRONGEST WAY TO PLAY THE RISKY GAMBIT (Maass)

PUT PROTAGONIST OFF BALANCE

DO A LONGMIRE (aka author Craig Johnson). Others describe your character’s M.O. or expected behavior, etc.

Always ask the SITUATIONAL PREMISE: WHAT IF? (re: King)

WORST POSSIBLE THING THAT CAN HAPPEN?  Create It!

Worst thing. Your beloved dog disappears down a crack in the melting spring ice. (Deadly Attack). Yes, paid for the pic.

SECRETS: for everyone & in most chapters (Can be simple: hides chocolate to find it as later surprise.) Also, maybe an epic, huge, life-animating/diminishing, under-the-radar secret for protag?

EACH SCENE, Each PG, WHO WANTS WHAT? (can be simple: drink of water or BIG). Thwart the ‘wants’ a lot.

MENACE, SUFFERING, WANTING….ALL CHARACTER COMES FROM WANT

Sidebar: My dog Raven WANTS to chase squirrels, not sit for pics. But I caught her motionless anyway.

EACH PG…EVERYBODY WANTS SOMETHING…even glass of water.  Character defined by wants and needs.  All character is want/desire.

FIRST TIME we SEE PROTAG we see her weakness/strengths, get a sense of her journey.

FIRST WORDS, first impressions ENCAPSULATE CHARACTER.  Each setting, description, word of dialogue, action and reaction and reflection is a CHARACTER BRUSH STROKE.

The open book near my desk is a first hardcover edition of Thoreau’s “The North Woods,” 1909. A few parts of Maine still look like what his prose captured. Thoreau’s words make a few appearances early on in Deadly Attack.

DESCRIBE a location, people, animals, etc. in the EARLIER narration. Don’t slow action or climax w/descriptions. Readers should already know these places and people.

DO SOMETHING during conversation. (Moz carving stick. Kate’s finger through butter.)

Create a DISCONNECT b/w character’s APPEARANCE and true CAPABILITIES

EACH CHAPTER TO HAVE AN ARC! Each chap at least one character has a WANT and frustrations with it. Part of arc.

STORY MUST ALWAYS MOVE FORWARD (PLOT) AND BACKWARD (CHARACTER DEPTH) at same time

PLOT is people, emotions & desires at CROSS PURPOSES, getting hotter, fiercer until they rub up against each other and explode.

STRUCTURE: ¼ opening, ½ middle, ¼ climax; false climax (or a crisis that does not resolve ¾ way through)

About the “Code.” Patton always chooses wild ones, even small ones like salamanders, over most anything else. (Who knew Asian restaurants deep fry them alive and import them illegally.)

Case WORKS ON SLEUTH, not just how sleuth works on the case.

REDEMPTIVE ARC Sleuth makes up for something in her past.

Protagonist has a PERSONAL CODE. Adhered to no matter what costs or consequences.  Must protect code like parent protecting child.  CODE IS CHARACTER. (i.e. Reacher)

Patton arriving late when the body’s already under the ice. The WWI knife with brass knuckles? (Was her grandfather’s and I’m still working on that.)

ARRIVE LATE; LEAVE EARLY (start close to action, leave when action just done)

Create 1 real clue that IMPLICATES PERP, THEN BURY IT, CAMOFLAUGE IT

WHAT’S AT STAKE for any character? What happens if she/he fails?

BIG IDEAS NEED TO BE CONTAINED IN SMALL STRUCTURE (i.e. divorce trauma revealed in T-shirt worn inside out)

SCENE ENDINGS: major decision, terrible things, portents, strong emotion, question w/ no answer

DEADLINES: create in story line to move/force action forward

CREATE WORTHY ADVERSARY: spend as much time on her/him

re: the Time Jump. Well. Many pots of make-believe tea and days of crayons and smeared jam everywhere and author Neily started to write again. (Will drop all for the grandgirls.)

JUMP/compress TIME, “two pots of tea and one hour later …”

LISTS to COMPRESS BACK STORY (In high school we’d ….etc)

FOIL READER EXPECTATIONS. Make a list of what readers might expect; decide several ways they won’t get it. (Advice from the great mystery writer, Elizabeth George).

THE ABOUT TO BE MOMENT “Don’t Do It!  Don’t Do It!!!” screams a reader’s brain.

Last thing, but it might be the first thing:  “Because this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?”

 Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

The second Mystery in Maine, Deadly Turn, was published in 2021. Her debut novel, “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine,” won a national Mystery Writers of America award, was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest, and was a finalist for a Maine Literary Award. Find her novels at all Shermans Books (Maine) and on Amazon. Find more info on Sandy’s website.

 

 

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WRITING A BOOK BASED ON ACTUAL EVENTS

   Translating true events we know something about into a terrific story shouldn’t be hard, right? All the essentials are in hand — what happens plus the characters, the scene, and the plot.  In practice, it is much more challenging than you’d imagine.

So why is this? And, since real events do motivate some mystery/crime writers, how do we avoid the expected pitfalls? Here are some ideas and suggestions:

1. Writers must remove themselves from the story and keep in mind that they are telling the story, not the center of the story. Otherwise, what happens is based on a writer’s own biased point of view. In other words, writer you aren’t the hero.

2. Figure out who/what is absolutely essential to your story so you “get it right” story-wise and not necessarily history-wise. Again, readers look for a good story. That means you might need to exaggerate or invent emotions, add scenes, change dates, and include remarkable characters.

3. Give your characters room to roam – again, add scenes and expand the terrain.

4. Protect the privacy of real characters – change their names, physical appearance, histories, and where they live.

The Shark, The Girl & The Sea, number five in my Maine Oceanographer Mara Tusconi series, will be published this summer. Since the story was motivated by an actual shark fatality not far from my home, I faced each of these challenges and continue to keep them in mind when I discuss the book. For example, in my story:

— The person who suffers a fatal shark attack bears no resemblance to the actual victim except for their gender.

— Each of my books has a strong environmental focus, and in this story that emphasis is great white sharks themselves, as opposed to the victim. For example, I expose human practices such as shark finning (for shark fin soup) which have made sharks an endangered species worthy of our protection. Also, scene’s such as shark cage diving in Mexico help readers appreciate that sharks are extraordinary, beautiful animals. In this way, I’ve “expanded the terrain”.


— The growing relationship between Mara and shark expert Brady MacFarlane occupies much of the story’s emotional landscape. Again, this is “expanded terrain.”

A little about three well-known crime novels based on actual events:

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy: A noir set in post WWII Hollywood, the story explores the murder investigation of Hollywood hopeful Elizabeth ‘Betty” Short, including how nobody walks away undamaged from a murder.

Psycho by Robert Bloch: The author lived very near Ed Gein, the butcher of Plainfield, Wisconsin, who was arrested for the murder of two women in 1957. Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous film certainly made Gein the most famous semi-fictional serial killer of our time.

The Executioner’s Song: Norman Mailer depicts events leading to the execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah. Gilmore, who murdered two men in separate robberies, was tried, convicted, and eventually executed by the method he chose: firing squad. In an interview, Mailer pointed to the key theme in the story: “we have profound choices to make in life, and one of them may be the deep and terrible choice most of us avoid between dying now and ‘saving one’s soul”. Author Joan Didion remarked that “no one but Mailer could have dared this book”.

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Real Place, Different Story

Kaitlyn Dunnett here, today talking about the setting of the new Deadly Edits mystery, Murder, She Edited. It will be available in hardcover and e-book formats one week from today.

One of the ways I add verisimilitude to my two cozy series is to base the settings in my stories on real  places I know well, Western Maine and the foothills of New York’s Catskill Mountains. In the Deadly Edits series, Lenape Hollow bears a striking resemblance to the town where I grew up. Specific buildings, particularly houses I lived or in which I spent a great deal of time also appear. A family farm was one such place. It belonged, collectively, to my maternal great-grandfather’s children, but when I was a child only my grandparents lived there, raising chickens to sell the eggs and taking in paying guests during the summer season.

To create my story, I left the farmhouse, land, and outbuildings as they were when I last saw them in 1958 when I was ten years old. Then I invented an entirely fictional family to live there in that same year. They abandon the place, taking nothing with them, after someone is murdered in the house. My senior sleuth, retired teacher turned book doctor Mikki Lincoln, comes into the story in the present day, when she’s informed that she’s to inherit the property if, within a certain specified time, she finds and edits several diaries left behind by the former owner.

I had a wonderful time returning to the site of so many happy childhood memories, even while adding crime and confusion to the mix. As I wrote, I kept expanding, using bits and pieces of the farm besides the house. Someone, you see is using the old barn for nefarious purposes. I even tried to work the farm pond into the story, and threw in a scary story my grandmother told me about a snake. Then I remembered that there was an apartment over the detached garage that was also rented out in the summer. What if the prime suspect in the murder was the person who lived there at the time? What if suspicion haunted him for the rest of his life? What if he had a child, still living, who wants that cold case solved as much as Mikki does?

There were dozens of possibilities, all centered around the physical appearance of the farmhouse and outbuildings. In fact, there were so many that I couldn’t use them all, although I had fun trying. Plot and characters may be the key elements in any mystery novel, but in this case the setting ran a very close third.

Readers, do vivid settings help pull you into the story? Share, please! And look for a chance to win a hardcover copy of Murder, She Edited in the very near future.

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-three books traditionally published and has self published several children’s books and three works of nonfiction. 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. Her next publication (as Kaitlyn) is the fourth book in the contemporary “Deadly Edits” series (Murder, She Edited), in stores in August 2021. As Kathy, her most recent novel 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, now available in e-book format.

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