As I Remember It

Dorothy Cannell: My husband, Julian, and I are going to England in August.  The first part of our trip will be spent at the mystery college at St. Hilda’s College in Oxford.  This will be our second time at this event and as we get closer in time, and my mind is filled with happy possibilities, I also find myself thinking back to the England of my growing up years and what I most treasure in memory:

The bluebell woods in spring, the sound of the cuckoo in the early morning.  Reciting the Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 4.59.07 PMwords – The cuckoo comes to England in April and flies away in June. Wallflowers.  Such ordinary flowers with a heavenly scent.  Holding a buttercup under someone’s chin, and if there was a golden glow saying “you like butter.”  Standing at the edge of a pond catching tidlers in a net.

Long winter evenings with the curtains drawn snugly against wind or rain, with the coal fire crisply red and casting warm silhouettes upon the papered walls.  We didn’t think of the harm to our lungs in those days, the only negative was the chilblains on our toes from putting cold feet to the heat.

Summer with its long days and nights, watching cricket played on the green.  Strawberries picked from my paternal grandfather’s allotment (a piece of land for growing vegetables, etc.) and eaten soon after dipped in sugar.  He had a shed on the allotment where he kept a tin of ginger biscuits.  I remember they were always rather soft, but it seemed right they should be that way.  Some years we went on a week’s summer holiday to the seaside, but more often we took day trips by coach (long distance buses).  Either way the most glorious moment was the first smell of the sea.  We lived in Kent so we usually went to Folkston, Hastings or Margate.  The latter was working class then, but I’ve learned that it and its neighbor Ramsgate have gone up market because so many people want second homes on the coast.

Going on a bus ride to the nearest town.  Best of all one that had a market day, with part Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 5.01.33 PMof the road given over to stalls that sold everything from linens, fabric, china and glass, brass and copper, to dogs, cats and rabbits.  My school friend had a dog she’d ‘got off the market’, but my mother said they always had worms.  Just being on the bus was lovely.  I always liked catching bits of conversation.  I remember a woman talking to the one sitting next to her.  She was going to spend the day with her daughter-in-law.  She always did this on a Wednesday.  It stayed with me because it sounded so cozy and settled.

Trains were the great thrill.  We didn’t have a car.  We had aunts and uncles with them, but I never thought that having one would be nice.  When our mother took us up to London, something that happened perhaps four or five times year, it was always an enormous treat especially because we went to John Lewis, the department store in Oxford Street, where my father worked in the woolen materials department.  We loved to creep up on him when he was serving a customer and see the ‘surprise’ on his face.  England will always be for me my parents, my father with his love of books and the garden, and my mother with her wonderful gift for anecdote and laughter.  Coming up out of the underground was magic because of the steep escalators leading to the main line station.  When I was little I called them the golden moving staircases because the treads were made of brass.

Close by my Grandfather’s allotment was the graveyard where his wife, my grandmother, was buried along with their oldest son who had died in a work accident when he was twenty.  My father took me there once when we were out cycling.  Just me and him.  We leant our bikes against the iron railing and walked between the tombstones until we came to the one with the familiar names on it.  I knew from my mother that my father had been devastated by his brother Gilbert’s death.  They’d been only elven months apart in age.  “He can’t talk about it,” she had said, “it goes too deep.”  We stood without saying anything for several minutes and returned to our bikes without breaking the silence.  I remember it as a sacred occasion.  I sensed that my father didn’t want me to speak, just to be there while he remembered.  Our older son’s middle name is Gilbert.

Remembering those days is at the core of who I am.  I have now lived in America far longer than I lived in England and I love this country.  But England gave me what I believe I was meant to be. It frames my writing life, which is my inner world.  So, I will go to Oxford and then on to Lincoln where I have family and paint new memories.

Happy reading.


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Kingsolver on the Power of Fiction

In my last post I drew on the wisdom and experience of E. B. White who wrote from his Brooklin, Maine home about his love of farm implements and animals, seasons, weather, and wordsmithing. Another celebrated writer, this time living, is the inspiration for today’s piece.

Barbara Kingsolver—author of the Pulitzer-nominated The Poisonwood Bible—has made it her mission to speak and write about the craft of creating fiction. Carrying out her task, she is direct, absolutely clear, inspiring. And, to be honest, some of what she says scares the bejesus out of me.

Literature, Kingsolver tells us, is a craft so extraordinarily powerful we are obliged to take it seriously. It’s a weighty calling.

Kingsolver likens the act of writing a book to walking into a cathedral. Recalling a visit to Saint Patrick’s in Manhattan, I understood her meaning. You leave behind the noise and distraction of Madison Avenue and step into the hushed domain of time and stunning craft. The Gothic cathedral was built by generations of exceptionally skilled artisans following inspired designs of men who dreamed up the whole damn thing, and you just can’t believe it.

Kingsolver uses the word “humility” when she likens cathedral making to penning a piece of fiction. Both demand humility because, she says, “the body of all written words already in print is vaulted and vast. You think you have something new to add to that? If so, it can only come from a position of respect: for the form, the process, and eventually for a reader’s valuable attention.”

In my view, respect for the reader translates into creating something that matters. As Kingsolver puts it, that something creates empathy and impacts readers politically. In her case the understory in The Bean Trees is parental rights of Native Americans and in The Poisonwood Bible Congo’s it’s the bloody history of political struggle.

A lover of the natural world and ecologist by training, it’s no surprise that Kingsolver took on the most compelling global crisis of our day—climate change. This crisis is “really, really terrible, let’s face it,” she says. “And it’s not going to end well.”

Kingsolver’s climate-fiction book Flight Behavior is both momentous and intimate, which is precisely why it works so beautifully. She transforms what is literally whole earth catastrophe into something personal through Dellarobia Turnbow, a restless Tennessee farmwife whose husband Cub “does everything in first gear”.

Very early in the story Dellarobia’s life is instantly changed by a magical other-worldly sight—15 million monarch butterflies that suddenly roost on the Turnbow property. As she later learns from a biologist investigating the phenomenon, climate change underlies the monarch’s sudden appearance. Budding ecologist Dellarobia faces a personal crisis when Cub’s father says he will clear-cut the butterfly roosting site to pay off an impending debt.

Based on Kingsolver’s own criteria, Flight Behavior has been generally well received. “Urgent issues demand important art. (This book) rises – with conscience and majesty—to the occasion of its time”, The Guardian said. Kirkus Review calls it “one of Kingsolver’s better efforts at preaching her politics and pulling heartstrings at the same time.” “Global warming and intimations of doomsday … share these pages with smaller-scale, deliciously human moments” says the New York Times.

Inspired by Barbara Kingsolver, here is today’s take-away for fiction writers: 1) the craft can be extraordinarily powerful—never forget this, 2) revere the form, process, and principally the reader, and 3) cultivate humility.




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More living (and writing) in the great state of Maine

As regular readers know, I’ve been thundering around Maine in the Subaru, and posting some of the photos from my travels here.

Someone who is a regular visitor to Maine’s coast from out of state (I guess not a regular reader) recently wondered to me if there was “anything interesting” in inland Maine.

There is.

Here’s some of it from my travels just in the last three days.

Visited Swan Island — the one in the Kennebec River, not off the coast — which is a preserve of the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. It used to be a town, and some of the houses are still there, including this one, built in 1787.

Was driving on U.S. Route 201 just north of Skowhegan, and saw a sign for “Robbins Hill Scenic Area.” I checked it out, and it was.

I’m a sucker for anything to do with Benedict Arnold’s ill-fated march to Quebec City. There are historical markers all up and down the Kennebec River, as well as in Frankllin County. This one is particularly poignant, where they had to cross the Kennebec then portage their 400-pound bateaux and supplies up and down steep cliffs. Route 201 just north of West Forks.

Another scenic view, this one just south of Jackman. Attean Lake is named after Joseph Attean, the first elected chief of the Penobscots, and also Henry Thoreaus guide on one of his trips to Maine. Attean died on a Penobscot River log drive attempting to save his crew as the boat broke up on rapids.

There’s a lot more, just from the last three or four days, but this is a sampling. Except for Swan Island, none of this was an intentional trip. These are just the types of things you  come across as you travel around Maine.

I strongly suggest to everyone that this summer you grab your Maine Atlas & Gazzetteer (GPS isn’t always reliable) and hit the Maine roads. When a sign says “scenic view,” stop and check it out. When there’s a historical marker, check that out, too. Stop in if the historical society or museum you pass is open. You’ll be thrilled and amazed at what you may find.

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Weekend Update: June 22-23, 2019

Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will be posts by Maureen Milliken (Monday), Charlene D’Avanzo (Tuesday), Dorothy Cannell (Wednesday), and Lea Wait (Thursday) with a group post on Friday.

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

Maine crime writers will be all over Maine this summer, talking books and writing and offering our entertaining new program, Making a Mystery, that involves readers in creating a mystery on the fly so they can see how crime writers work. Is your library hosting a Maine crime writer this summer? What about your book club or community group? We’re here, ready and willing to visit. Just let us know what you’d like. Ask your library to invite us!

Below: Dick Cass and Barbara Ross during a Making a Mystery program at the Maine Crime Wave

 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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Weird Gardening: Ticks, Slugs, Cats, and Beetles

Sandy Neily here, trying to keep slugs off my petunias.

A few years ago, writing for a regional paper, I went looking for unusual garden tips, first interviewing Joanne Suley, a spunky Skillins Greenhouses instructor. “People are just going to think I am horrible,” she said.

When asked for unusual solutions, Suley had plenty. “For slugs, I shake out salt or use circular sandpaper I cut and arrange around a plant. Slugs don’t like to cross it because it does rip their stomachs up.”

She laughed about Japanese beetles. “I have a friend who collects them and puts them in a blender with a cup of water, and then sprays her plants. She says it works, but if you go to her house for mixed drinks, make sure which blender gets used. Of course, it smells like gross decomposition.”

She uses baking soda and water as a fungicide and says most leaf diseases that show up early are from too much overhead watering followed by a good dose of sun. “Maine doesn’t have early blight. I fight mildew with a spray of spoiled milk or seasoned yogurt whey. Yes, it gets funky but it’s very acidic and it works.”

I’ve updated the piece and added more tips. There’s such a wealth of “pssssst, try this” advice, that gardeners gave me permission to list their ideas without names. Ready to gather up toilet paper, yogurt cups, and lemon rinds? Let’s go!

First Ticks! Keep lawn short, very short. Create a 3 ft. “nothing” barrier between lawn and woods with woodchips or gravel. (Not leaves, and clear any down leaves you have anywhere!) Create this kind of barrier around swing sets and recreation sites. Ticks won’t cross that barrier to get to grass. Move your wood pile outside the “nothing” zone if you can. More than deer, mice are vectors of Lyme disease and they love wood piles.

Home-made tick tubes. You can buy prepared ones.

Folks are using tick tubes in their wood piles and around lawn edges, but they must be well hidden from pets. Here’s all you need to know.

Acadia’s park rangers duct tape from low on their socks and tucked-in pants right up to their calves and then use DEET spray on the whole mess. (And they should know.) I could find no one who is deeply immersed in the outdoors who uses natural remedies for ticks. Turkey hunters who crouch all day in dense brush treat one set of clothes with Permethrin and swear by it. (Follow can instructions. Yes, nasty to apply; I use a mask and gloves. It’s OK when dry. I use one treated set of pants, socks and long-sleeved shirt all summer. Great for hiking, too.)

This strategy works well, especially for kids. After an outing, go straight to the bathroom; no stopping for anything! Strip, put clothes in dryer for at 15 minutes, pop child or yourself in shower.

Moving On …

  • For weeds, thick newspapers topped with straw or bark mulch are an effective weed barrier. (Oh, that’s why my mulch fails.)
  • Tilling by moonlight discourages weed growth; weeds can’t germinate without sun. (I plant with a headlamp anyway; no black flies.)
  • Use a pipe planter for mint and crazy-spreading plants; plant in a long pipe that has been buried vertically. Roots must go a long way down to spread.
  • Keep plants warm to extend your season. Keep water buckets in the garden so the sun can heat them, and at night the heat from the water slowly warms the garden.
  • Powdered milk (it’s the calcium) makes juicy tomatoes; just add it to the soil.
  • Crushed eggshells keep slugs and snails out and add essential nutrients.
  • Glue pennies around the flat side of raised beds; snails and slugs won’t cross them.
  • Car wax on old stiff tools loosens their joints; upending tools in a bucket of builder sand keeps them clean and rust free.
  • Make a spiffy garden pond out of an old bathtub. Add goldfish and then donate them to a local school. (Woohome, has great garden enhancement ideas.)
  • Place old seeds on a wet paper towel. If sprouts start, they’re good.
  • Invasive cats in the garden could fill an encyclopedia. Plant plastic forks throughout your garden (tines up); cats and critters don’t like to navigate them. Suley uses chicken wire. “I place it on the ground early in the season so plants grow through it. Cats just hate walking on it.”
  • Folks also suggest we plant or distribute the herb rue or use a motion activated sprinkler or place attractive rocks between flowering plants to deter digging or introduce unpleasant odors. Try citronella, orange or lemon peels, coffee grounds, vinegar, lavender oil, eucalyptus oil, or tobacco.
  • Save veggie cooking water to water plants. Pour, grow, eat, repeat!
  • Put a diaper in the bottom of the hanging plant or pot before putting in soil for moisture retention.
  • Start seedlings with cupped lemon rind (used halves) or small yogurt cups; poke a hole in the bottom for drainage, add soil, plant one or two seeds, and it’s a starting tray.
  • Plant tons of seeds and get the spacing you want. Just place seeds on unrolled toilet paper, re-roll it, and then unroll it in the garden, gently covering to the proper depth.
  • And deer? Here’s plant and tick protection at the same time (if you want to discourage deer). I use Milorganite.

    Moose and deer are no longer getting my day lilies thanks to Milorganite.

    It’s technically a fertilizer but is human-based. Deer hate it; plants and my Labrador love it. I spread it too thin for my dog to gulp, but the bag and web site says it’s pet safe. I now have huge flowers and no deer. Don’t think I would spread it on veggies.

Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association also comes to the rescue, offering up ‘The Pest Report’ during the growing season. The discussions include biology of the pest organism, effects on the plant, and recommended solutions.

Baking soda can be used to make fungicide, weed killer, grub killer, and much more. Maine has an Integrated Pest Management Program to “reduce reliance on pesticides.” Click around the site to find fact sheets and practices that are environmentally friendly.

Light colored pants and white socks advertise ticks before they get to your armpits and other cozy places.

Good luck! (Tuck those pants into white socks!)

Sandy’s 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 she’s been a finalist for a Maine Literary Award. Find her novel at all Shermans Books and on Amazon. Find more info on the video trailer and Sandy’s website. The second Mystery in Maine, “Deadly Turn,” will be published in 2019.


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One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Kate Flora: When people ask about a writer’s process, the questions are usually about IMG_2254whether we are plotters (outliners) or pantsers–writing by the seat of our pants. Sometimes the questions are about the number of hours we write, and whether we write everyday. More rarely does the discussion involve how much of our time we spend on the actual writing, and how much is spent on researching questions that arise during the course of the writing.

It is June, and the gardens are gorgeous, and with all of the news about “forest bathing” and how we should spend time outside, I definitely want to be outside, on my hands and knees, weeding and pulling out little volunteers to nurture, and pruning back those plants who have stepped over their bounds and are leaning on other plants. I want to admire the contrasts of foliage and color and texture. But I have a book to write, and I foolishly said that first draft would be done by September. So I am in what we at MCW call “Writer’s Jail.”

What’s this about one step forward, two steps back? Here’s the story. Four or five years IMG_2279ago (time flies when you’re chained to your desk) a character named Rick O’Leary sat down on an imaginary bar stool next to me and began to tell me a story. Despite my loyalty to Thea Kozak and Joe Burgess, I had to listen. O’Leary was dark and damaged and the story he was telling was compelling. “Okay, Rick,” I said, “talk to me.” I had time to spend seven chapter with him before other deadlines nudged him aside, and he went into a drawer, bar stool, bodies, damage and all.

But now, as I search for a way to shake things up, he’s out of the drawer and perched on my desktop. He’s telling a dark story, and I am listening. Unfortunately for me, Rick is telling a story that requires a lot of research. I’ve never walked into a bloody crime scene. I don’t know anything about dismemberment. And as so often happens when I’m writing in an area I need details to imagine well, I am back to the books as often as I am meeting my daily thousand word/five page quota.

Part of the problem is that our characters do stuff that we writers don’t expect. I know it IMG_2281sounds odd, since we are the engineers of the piece, but writing is a conscious and subconscious act, and somewhere in there, the mind has characters doing things we don’t plan. Part of the current plan? The killer has scrawled something on the wall and as the scene progresses, the medical examiner says to Rick, “What’s with the runes on the wall?” Rick and I are off and running, learning about runes.IMG_2280

Two books and many YouTube videos later, I am beginning to understand what is written in the wall. A book about serial killer communications, though, has me wondering whether this is intentional communication or the killer screwing with the police. If so, why? And are these the killers first crimes or will records from other places provide more clues? Are the runes a new touch?

Oh dear. So much to think about. And then there’s the question of that mystery woman on the nearby barstool. Not me, but she definitely has an agenda that involves Rick O’Leary.

Some of the authors I know would never let their characters misbehave like this, leading them in unknown directions and throwing things at them requiring detours and research. For me, though it slows the writing, it is fascinating, and keeps me on my toes.

Happy June. Enjoy your gardens. Forest bathe. And stay off barstools next to dark characters.IMG_2260


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Susan Vaughan here. At the Maine Crime Wave conference earlier this month, I attended a craft session entitled “Yes, You, Too, Can Write Killer Plots,” taught by the amazing Gayle Lynds, award-winning thriller writer extraordinaire.

I write romantic suspense, a subgenre of romance that can easily spill into thriller territory, and some reviewers have described my books as romantic thrillers. Gayle’s presentation hit all the sweet spots in an approach that made me think about plotting in a new way. Regarding plotting, fiction writers generally fall somewhere along a continuum between plotting an entire book before writing the pages and diving into a new project with only a glimmer of an idea and writing “by the seat of their pants.” My style is more toward the plotting end, but only for the major conflicts and twists as well as character studies. You might say I’m a “plotser,” a hybrid between plotter and “pantser.”

Gayle covered several important points about plotting and story plots, but one in particular sparked my imagination and had me analyzing my own books. In her words, “Your villain drives the plot…until the end. And then the hero and the heroine drive it right back.” It’s the villain’s role to challenge the hero every step of the way, but toward the end, in the third act, both hero and villain are doing the acting, being the hunters. You see, it’s not just stage plays that are structured in three acts. Commercial fiction and movies that are well plotted should also play out in three acts, the ancient Greek Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end. I asked myself if this was how I’ve structured my plots, even though I had never looked at plotting this way.

My current project, Hidden Obsession, to be released later this summer or early fall, is the sequel to an earlier standalone, Primal Obsession.  I analyzed the earlier novel first. In Primal Obsession, Annie Wylde, an investigative reporter, goes on a canoe and camping trip in northern Maine to fulfill a promise to her friend who was murdered by a serial killer the media calls the Hunter. Annie plans to study her notes on the killer and try to understand him by experiencing the kind of wilderness where he kills his victims. Sam Kincaid, a former Major League player, is the Maine Guide leading the trip.

Both have their goals and issues, and they banter and flirt until, a little after halfway in the story, it becomes clear that the various “accidents” plaguing the expedition mean that the Hunter has followed them or is one of the campers. So far, it’s the villain driving the plot, challenging the hero and heroine and complicating matters. About 75% through the story, in act three (yay), Sam and Annie decide to stop running away from the Hunter and go after him. And now it’s the hero and heroine driving the plot.

Hidden Obsession is not a wilderness story, but is set on a Maine peninsula. Sheri Harte, a freelance writer, returns reluctantly to her home town of Dragon Harbor to ghostwrite the memoir of an elderly woman. I said reluctantly because a tragedy in her past has deterred her for many years. When she arrives, she learns a man has been killed on the nearby rocky cliffs, as in this image. Of course it’s a foggy day on the coast of Maine. Justin Wylde is a Maine state detective and the brother of Annie Wylde in Primal Obsession. Justin was also the detective in that book. In Maine, state detectives investigate major crimes such as murder in all locations except the two largest cities. In the story, the villain systematically attacks some village residents, and in more than one case, murders people. This book is less of a romantic thriller and more of a romantic mystery, a whodunit with a love story.

While Justin investigates and Sheri snoops along with being a target of the bad guy, the villain continues acting under their radar. Until about 85% into the story, again, in act three, when Justin and his partner have enough evidence to confront the villain. Then, as in Primal Obsession, the tables are turned—with a few more twists to come. I have no cover yet for Hidden Obsession, but enjoy this photo of a man who could be Justin Wylde.

I’ve been purposefully vague about some of the events in both books and especially about the villains so as not to include spoilers in case some of you want to pick up one or both books. I’m confident my other books are similarly structured, although I haven’t analyzed them to the same detail as these two.

I will leave you with another pithy insight from Gayle Lynds. “While ‘story’ feeds the mind and heart, ‘plot’ is the engine that dramatizes it.”

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