Nine Lords A-Leaping

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, today writing about how I came to invent “the Twelve Shopping Days of Christmas” for my 2009 cozy mystery, A Wee Christmas Homicide. This was to be the third book in a three-book contract for the Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries, and my editor had requested a Christmas book. Since I had no guarantee that the publisher would want more books in the series, I was ready to pull out all the stops.

I don’t outline, but I did have to come up with a short and rather vague synopsis as a requirement for getting approval to actually write the book. Initially, I had two things in mind for the story. First was that Liss, who runs Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium in the tiny village of Moosetookalook, Maine, would discover that she has in stock the toy every kid wants that Christmas. “Tiny Teddies” are miniature bears wearing various costumes. Liss bought a supply of the ones in kilts for her shop. At the time, she had no notion how popular they would become. Or that someone might kill to possess one.

My second idea was to use “The Twelve Shopping Days of Christmas” as a way to turn Liss’s windfall into a promotional opportunity for the entire community. Two other shops in Moosetookalook also have a few of the precious toys to sell, so together they get busy organizing a parade, an auction, a pageant, and other events. I had a lot of fun with this, and found plenty of opportunities to insert humor into the tale. For one thing, Liss ends up having to keep doves, hens, geese, and “calling birds”—parrots—in the storeroom at the Emporium. One of them is a particular trial. Chapter Three ends with this sentence, still a favorite of mine: “Polly hungry,” the parrot screeched, sounding even more irritable than before. “Gimme the f—ing cracker!”

Recruiting enough (bag)pipers isn’t as easy as Liss thought it would be, either, but it does give her an opportunity to further her relationship with state trooper Gordon Tandy, pitting him against her other love interest, Dan Ruskin. I never intended to let this triangle last long, so the subplot of A Wee Christmas Homicide also sets up the idea that, when she’s with Gordon, Liss too often lets her impulses override her better judgment. In particular, a chase scene on snowmobiles has consequences.

I’ve always been fond of the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and one of my favorite jigsaw puzzles shows scenes from all twelve days. That said, I inadvertently set Liss up for a major blooper, one that, strangely, no one seems to have caught. At least no one wrote to me to point it out. I only caught it myself after the book came out and by then my only recourse was to have Liss, two books later, joke about her terrible memory for lyrics.

Have you spotted it yet? Take a look at the title of this post. Liss (and I) had nine lords a-leaping and ten ladies dancing—the reverse of what’s actually in the song! Oh, well. Good for a laugh, right?

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-four books traditionally published and has self published others. 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. In 2023 she won the Lea Wait Award for “excellence and achievement” from the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. She is currently working on creating new omnibus e-book editions of her backlist titles. Her website is


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Never Waste A Word

John Clark, weighing in of an interesting insight…No writing is necessarily wasted. The story that was recently selected by the Principal Foundation and garnered me a $250.00 honorarium, was originally written for one of the flash fiction contests that are part of the Maine Crime Wave. Likewise, the story that was featured last month for Halloween Mystery Rat’s Maze podcast was one I wrote for a Halloween liquor spooky story contest a year ago.

This year, I missed the deadline for the Maine Crime Wave flash fiction contest because I was wrapped up in other projects. Therefore, I’m using it for my November MCW post. Hope you like it.

I was on my hands and knees scrubbing up blood in the entry when the doorbell rang. “Can you get it?” I hollered before remembering I’d given Lou the day off. Good help was impossible to keep, so I treated my only employee with kid gloves.

Whoever was outside the clinic entrance started banging on the door. I tossed the sponge in the pail and stood. “I’m coming, dammit.”

It was Phil at my front door and I wondered how he’d managed to get here without Blackie. You never saw one without the other. I unlocked it and could tell he was terribly worried about something. “Blackie in trouble again?”

Phil nodded and looked meaningfully at my van.

“I’ll be right back.” I hurried to my work area, retrieving a folding scalpel and the only gun I owned. I knew something bad must have happened to my uncle, but these were the only weapons I had, so they’d have to do.

Phil followed me to my van and got in when I opened the passenger door.

“We going to camp?” I asked.

Phil nodded and I exited my driveway heading north, wondering what pickle my eighty-nine year old uncle might have gotten into this time. I thought by now, he’d run out of stupid ideas. After a forty year career as a merchant marine, coupled with so many semi-shady schemes to make a buck that I’d lost track, you’d think he would have learned to cool his heels and enjoy the oversized cottage he owned on Bristow Lake. Well, I’d soon find out.

I debated calling 911, but decided to wait. If whatever jackpot Blackie had stumbled into was illegal, the last thing either of us needed was getting hauled into the sheriff’s office. Neither my practice nor his heart would benefit from such an experience.

The closer I got, the tighter I gripped the wheel. I had visions ranging from finding the camp a smoldering pile of ashes, to his skinny frame lying broken and bloody under the attic window. At least I didn’t have to worry as much about my parents. They were safely ensconced in a fancy assisted living facility in Florida.

Phil was staring ahead as if he could see what we were about to find, but then, he already knew what awaited us.

The camp looked fine when we arrived. I hopped out and Phil climbed across to exit on my side.

“Blackie?” I hollered and heard a faint cry for help coming from inside.

The door was open, heightening my anxiety. I searched the lower floor with no success. I found Blackie with the most embarrassed look in his upstairs bathroom.

“Smartest dog you ever treated. Damn glad you let me adopt him” he said, patting Phil on the head. “My ass got too skinny and I’m stuck. Can you free me, Dr. Billings?”

My career as a veterinarian included many things, but this topped them all.

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Genre Snobbery

Charlene D’Avanzo: During a Thanksgiving visit at a relative’s home I came to the conclusion that my host was likely a fiction snob. There were a hundred-odd titles in several bookcases but nary a one appeared to be fiction.

I’ve written a half-dozen mysteries so that realization came as a shock, and I’m clueless what to do about it – if anything. Maybe I’ll send them a copy of Secrets Haunt the Lobsters’ Sea or another in my Maine oceanographer Mara Tusconi series as a Christmas present. We’ll see.

A valid critique of fiction snobbery points out the obvious – weighty books such as Macbeth, The Tempest, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Catcher In The Rye are all fiction. The collection of all time best selling books also includes The Catcher in the Rye (65 million copies), The Alchemist (65 million copies), and One Hundred Years of Solitude (50 million copies). Of course, the list goes on.

I’ve read that a reader’s repertoire can be called an ecosystem of books that requires a certain level of diversity to thrive. As a ecologist, I think that is a terrific analogy.

Here are a few tips on how to spot a genre snob and what to do about it. For example, the literary elitist may:

– believe genre fiction is less serious and of worse quality than literary – say things like “popular fiction entertains the masses while literary fiction challenges the mind”
– read only literary fiction – no commercial genres
– never read a self-published book or a best seller
– never read feel good books with happy endings

The response:
– The distinction between popular and literary fiction is arguably false and something of a publishers’ marketing exercise.
– I would rather see people read anything, than not read at all. Read what you like and don’t let book snobs stop you. People are entitled to like what they enjoy. It is great to read.

– On the other hand one could argue that some books are “better” than others. A good novel tells a story honestly, without falling into clichés or wish- fulfillment. It subtly changes the reader without hitting her over the head with a “message.” It makes her want to examine the book, the world, and herself more closely.

Given these attributes no genre is worthless and none is flawless.

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Maine Authors for Lewiston: A way to show your support

Since the October 25 shootings in Lewiston that killed 18 and seriously injured 13 people from across central Maine, there’s been an outpouring of support. But that doesn’t mean more isn’t needed.

If you are still looking for a way to give, or already have, but still want give, more than 80 Maine authors, in partnership with 10 libraries, are hosting Maine Authors for Lewiston events through December 16.

Many of the families of those who were killed, as well as those who were critically injured, face long, painful journeys that will still be a struggle for them long after everyone else has moved on. There’s no such thing as too much support.

The events are simple — up to 20 or more authors will be at each site selling books, with each author donating a portion of their proceeds to charities that support Lewiston shooting victims and their families. As fellow Maine Crime Writer Kate Flora is famous for saying, “Books make great gifts!” And by buying one — or more! — you can also help support victims and their families Lewiston, Auburn and many other communities. The charities donations are going to are Central Maine Medical Center Compassionate Care Fund, City of Lewiston Support Fund and Maine Community Foundation Lewiston-Auburn Response Fund.

The libraries hosting the events should have information on their websites listing what authors they are hosting.

I will be in Ellsworth, Auburn, Camden and Lewiston. Fellow Maine Crime Writer Dick Cass will be in Gorham, and Matt Cost will be in Kennebunkport, Gorham and Bath.

Hope to see you there! The schedule is:




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Weekend Update: November 25-26, 2023

Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Maureen Milliken (Monday), Charlene D’Avanzo (Tuesday), John Clark (Thursday) and Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson (Friday).

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

The judges had a very hard time this year picking winners for our “Where Would You Put the Body” contest and wanted to pick all the submissions as winners. It was a fabulous crop of submissions.

Here are the Winners:

From Shelley Burbank:

with the following description (and excellent writing prompt):

In the attic of this creepy house in Farmington, Maine. I would make this an old sorority house from when UMF was Farmington State Teacher’s College in the 1960s. New owners buy the house to fix it up and turn it into a crime writers retreat center…and discover a body in the attic dressed in a moth-eaten sorority sweater. Who was this girl? Why was she murdered? Will the killer come out of “retirement” to stop the investigation?

From Jeff Cutler:

In among the ruins of Fort Popham in Phippsburg, ME. The loose rocks and crumbling facade would make it easy to stuff a body in a corner where only the young eagles (pictured) could pick at it until the bones are dry and brittle.

And from Louisette Castonguay:

Once heard of a Gangsta’ fixer who said he knew of places to “hide a car” in the Maine woods where no one would ever find the body. I’ve occasionally seen cars seemingly abandoned, since then, on little side roads, and thought of this.

Congrats to our winners. Please send your snail mail addy to to receive your prize.

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, along with the very popular “Making a Mystery” with audience participation, and “Casting Call: How We Staff Our Mysteries.” We also do programs on Zoom. Contact Kate Flora

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Thanks and Giving by Matt Cost

What is Thanksgiving? The history dates to a feast shared between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people in 1621. As history is merely an interpretation of the past, the exact dates and how it all went down are all a bit vague. The spirit in which it is celebrated revolves around the first successful harvest after the first difficult winter for the Pilgrims that decimated their group of a hundred to merely fifty survivors.

The first national proclamation of Thanksgiving was issued by the Continental Congress in 1777 and was observed by General Washington to honor the defeat of the British at Saratoga. The observation of this day flittered around for another nearly hundred years until the mid-point of the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that the final Thursday of November to be day of thanks and giving, replacing Evacuation Day, which had been a yearly celebration of the day the British left America following the Revolutionary War.

In 1939, President Roosevelt changed Thanksgiving to a week earlier in an attempt to give merchants a longer period of time to sell their goods before the Christmas Holidays and a few years later Congress ratified that it would be observed on the fourth Thursday of November. Twenty years ago, we changed it to the fourth FRIDAY in an effort to gather family together outside of other commitments.

Turkey has long been a Thanksgiving mainstay, but that like everything else, is fluid and adaptable to personal preference, taste, and attainability. In the book The Martian, Mark Watney celebrates very happily with potatoes, the first real food he has had in some time. The tradition, food, and spirit of Thanksgiving is relative to each individual and their reality of the moment.

Traditions of Thanksgiving are parades and football. The Macy’s Parade dates back to 1924 and football games have been a staple of this day since the inception of the National Football League. The president has received a turkey every year since 1873, mostly for marketing purposes. John F. Kennedy was the first president to pardon the turkey when he said he wasn’t going to eat the bird. George Bush made it official in 1989 and every president has followed suit since.

The spirit of Thanksgiving is what can be celebrated by all. I believe that the day holds a different meaning for all people. It can be a religious observance, a celebration of America, or simply a nod of thanks for the gifts we are bestowed and the ability to give to those less fortunate than ourselves.

For whatever it means to you, Happy Thanksgiving.

About the Author

Matt Cost was a history major at Trinity College. He owned a mystery bookstore, a video store, and a gym, before serving a ten-year sentence as a junior high school teacher. In 2014 he was released and began writing. And that’s what he does. He writes histories and mysteries.

Cost has published five books in the Mainely Mystery series, with the fifth, Mainely Wicked, just released in August of 2023. He has also published four books in the Clay Wolfe Trap series, with the fifth, Pirate Trap, due out in December of 2023.

For historical novels, Cost has published At Every Hazard and its sequel, Love in a Time of Hate, as well as I am Cuba. In April of 2023, Cost combined his love of histories and mysteries into a historical PI mystery set in 1923 Brooklyn, Velma Gone Awry. City Gone Askew will follow in April of 2024.

Cost now lives in Brunswick, Maine, with his wife, Harper. There are four grown children: Brittany, Pearson, Miranda, and Ryan. A chocolate Lab and a basset hound round out the mix. He now spends his days at the computer, writing.

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Amateur Hour

In 1985, David Halberstam wrote a small lovely book called The Amateurs, chronicling the work and sacrifice of four American Olympic-class scullers. Given the subaqueous profile of their sport, none of these athletes had any prospect of extrinsic reward. Even Olympic medals are not real gold. The achievable end of their physical pain and dedication was exquisitely symbolic. So why did otherwise intelligent and ambitious people endure indifference, ignorance, daily pain, and all the markers of stalled –out personal and professional lives? For love.

Love, to love, amare, is the Latin root of amateur. And doing something for its own sake, not for profit or attention or glory of others, is the mark of a lover. An amateur craves the gift of the activity more than the outcome and the activity is somehow purified by the lack of reward. Amateurs do it, whatever they do, for the love.

I like my work, even the boring and tedious parts, and can lose myself in it with joy, but I’ve never enjoyed publicizing, selling, “branding” myself in the hope of more success. I’d rather spend the time being a writer than an author. Which leads me to suspect I might be an eternal amateur.

I come to the state honestly.

Mark Twain once said: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

From the time I established myself, my work and my passions, as separate from my father’s, I’ve appreciated the truth in that. But knowing how sons push back at what our fathers stand for, I’m surprised to see how much I resemble the man I pushed against so hard when I was a boy.

The year my parents marriage turned fifty, I took my father striped bass fishing off of Cape Cod. I knew he’d been to the Orvis School for fly-casting instruction the year before but I didn’t know how much had taken.

As I feared, watching the fly line whistle back and forth, a weighted Clouser once or twice conking our guide, he hadn’t learned much. But we were deep in a school of bass and I was too busy with my own gear to pay much attention to what was going on aft, except I was aware of the flailing and some mild curses, his, not the guide’s.

“Ha!” I heard finally and turned to look.

Terry, the guide, was helping him gingerly unhook a toothy but very small bluefish.

“Got the little bastard.”

“Emphasis on the little,” I jabbed.

But the beatific smile beneath his hat was enough to warm the cold windy ride back to Plymouth. He’d come to his fishing day without expectation of reward and been pleased. And that day I learned that being an eternal amateur was an honorable legacy, that not having to be an expert at everything meant not needing more and bigger successes every time.

If amateurism is rooted in love, it also springs from a passionate curiosity. One of my best friends built a national consulting business around athletic shoes: manufacture, styles and trends, financial and corporate analyses of the companies that make and sell them. It’s a serious business, even if it doesn’t sound like one – he’s been called the Sneaker King – and he’s the preeminent expert in his niche. He traveled a lot, found the work consuming and interesting, and it made him plenty of money.

So why, on Thursday afternoons, does he drive to a rickety white house on the edge of a university campus and broadcast a volunteer radio show presenting funk music? Passion – he may be an amateur in  the music and the radio ‘businesses,’ but he’s passionate about the music, curious about its history, its players, development.

I bring all this up because at eighty-six my father, the erstwhile fisherman, taught himself American Sign Language. For no particular reason – he didn’t want to stand up in front of his church and translate the service for members of his congregation. He hadn’t made new friends who were deaf. He wasn’t simply keeping himself busy: he had water aerobics, the food committee, the woodshop. He was doing it for the best of all reasons – he got curious about it.

As anyone who’s lived to eighty-six knows, curiosity doesn’t kill any cats – if anything, it feeds them. If anything, it’s certainty that kills things.

As a society, we revere specialty. We respect what appears to be a deep expertise in almost anything: business, financial, athletic, even romantic. But that kind of monomania requires certainty – you must always know you are on the right path, that nothing outside the path is interesting or can contribute to achieving your goals.

Curiosity is the dead opposite of certainty. It is the acknowledgement there are things we don’t already know that might be important, useful, or even just interesting. Curiosity is fed by that attitude of perpetual amateurism: what happens if I do it this way? Why is this like that? Why do we have to think this way?

Certainty takes things and people for granted. Curiosity is the daughter of doubt. We could use a little doubt, a little less certainty we know everything we need to know.

There is, after all, only one important certainty, that we die. When and what happens after, who knows? And who cares, really? And this thing we should be so certain of is the one thing we pretend will not happen to us. That itself is a strong enough argument against too much certainty.

So if we’re uncertain about what we ought to be certain of, maybe we also show too much certainty around things we cannot or should not pretend are knowable: relationships, politics, religion.

A politician is always a fat dumb easy target, but most politics is nothing more than certainty carried to a ridiculous degree, when even an individual’s positions can become mutually exclusive. Our politicians are certain evolution is a hoax, that old white men know best what women should do with their bodies, that homosexuality is an abomination (unless their son or daughter comes out).

All this certainty makes me yearn for a citizen legislature again, underpaid, supported by its own work outside the body. As messy and inefficient as it is – and I’ve seen the New Hampshire one at work, so I know – can our current governing bodies claim more success? Maybe amateurism can return some joy to the process – letting people with passion serve, the curious, the open-minded. Let’s bring back that perpetual amateur: in love with the work for its own sake, the process and the product, competent without being narrow, curious for what he or she knows and, most especially, does not.

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Eat Well. Eat Cheap. Avoid Bloated Buns

Bucks Harbor (think One Morning in Maine)

Sandra Neily here: In late August I was treated to a three-night cruise on the windjammer the Angelique. There was much to rhapsodize about. (Thank you, Leslie!), but this is a post about food and avoiding disappointment, financial or otherwise.

I was warned the boat food would be amazing.

breakfast on deck

It was. And all cooked in two tiny, closet-like kitchens. I could smell the baking rolls, breads, and pastries by 6:30 each morning. A partial list of meals we ate helps explain my epiphany and my project.

Here goes: tarragon-curry chicken salad wraps with olive oil, lemon, chives, a touch of mayo, honey and pickled grapes and a crisp pink apple salad; breakfast, quiche made with lobster, Canadian bacon, and fruit salad; lunch on deck, freshly made fish chowder, green salad, and flaky biscuits. Dinner again, marinated steak tips with creamy garlic mashed potatoes, roasted squash and chocolate chip brownies for dessert.

On the cruise I had an epiphany when one of the women lying on the deck with me, asked, “When is the last time you had food this good?”

Here’s the last great meal memory that I shared. “Down a tiny ally in Quebec City when every road only had a small tunnel to walk between the banked snow. I think it cost at least $175 Canadian and that was forty years ago. All-you-can-eat mussels with a different sauce each time we cleaned a bowl of them. Delicate white fish with a piccata sauce, lemons grilled into the flesh. Fresh bread that literally melted in our mouths. Chocolate mousse I won’t try to describe. Think moans.”

But that memory was paid for by having a regular income. And sadly, that meal was decades ago.

So. Two things.

Bob and I don’t have regular incomes anymore. (And we’re getting shocked at the cost of fresh fruit and veggies. Not a good sign.) And I am soooooo done with reading about amazing Maine restaurants where, looking at the menu, I could perhaps afford two appetizers.

And two, when we do go out and try to eat affordably, the food makes me angry. Very angry. It’s often not worth $10, let alone $35 or more.

I feel increasingly ripped off. Bloated stale, cheap buns on small burgers; dinner salads with limp iceberg lettuce, unripe tomatoes, and a slab of unseasoned, mass-produced Sysco chicken tossed on it; rubbery baked potatoes that have aged badly in a warming bin.

My list of never-going-there-again eateries is getting longer and longer. Bob fears it will shrink to hot dogs from seasonal food carts.

I still read the wonderful restaurant reviews from all over the state, but know from the list of entrees, I’d be way over $100 for both of us to eat out.

Now to my current epiphany project: answering this question. “How might we eat out one or two times a month and spend less than $40-$45 per meal? Hopefully less than $35 per meal? Maybe a good goal would be $75 per month for two evenings out. The food has to be really, really good food. I could hope that it’s lovingly prepared, or just simply well prepared.  

Starting with this post I am going to offer up some reviews, menu suggestions, and even some figuring of the bill.  I hope colleagues and readers of this blog will send suggestions I can share.

Please send me your short reviews, using this one below as a template. Please always find something good to say. Add a line or two about something unique or worth knowing.

Here’s the format. I think we’ll just use first names.


King Eiders, Damariscotta, Maine  (reviewed by Sandy)

The Good: The burgers are great: thick and cooked as one orders them, and the thick-cut, chewy yet somehow crisp fries taste like real potatoes cooked in mom’s oven. (Probably they aren’t, but they taste like it.)  My sister still raves about their deep bowls of appetizer mussels redolent with garlic and wine, but on our budget, that dish would be ordered as an entrée.

Needs Work or Don’t Order: Don’t order the swamped Caesar salad unless you ask for dressing on the side. (It will come from a bottle though.) If you want chicken with it, ask to have it come warm from the grill. Not cold from a fridge, perhaps suspiciously sourced from a Sysco truck. (More on Sysco at another time).

Good to Know: wonderfully, cozy atmosphere on a cold winter day. Reserve a booth. Choose off hours unless you like rubbing lots of joyful shoulders; they have a full-throated, really happy, Happy Hour. Bring a crowd and dive in maybe. When busy, the tiny, mid-room tables are like New York City dining that has you in your neighbors’ laps. (Good eavesdropping though.)

The Approximate Bill: With one shared burger and its generous pile of potatoes, plus a mussels appetizer ordered as an entrée and a thoughtful tip, King Eiders, while on the high-end for us, is still about $40-$45.

I’d be curious to hear reader suggestions for “Eat Well. Eat Cheap” ideas. Already someone’s suggested inexpensive public suppers where there’s good food and always interesting company. I’d also welcome eatery reviews, just a few sentences that touch on the following: The Good. Needs Work or Don’t Order. Good to Know. The Approximate Bill.

Send to Subject: Eat Well. Eat Cheap.

(Next month, I’ll share a truly affordable treat: Bakers Way in Boothbay Harbor. Paired with a King Eider’s outing, we’ll be close to or under $75 for two nights out.)

Sandy’s 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. The second Mystery in Maine, “Deadly Turn,” was published in 2021. Her third “Deadly” is due out in next year. Find her novels at all Shermans Books (Maine) and on Amazon. Find more info on Sandy’s website.


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The Job of an Opening Paragraph

Kate Flora: Last week, when a friend, Clea Simon, had to have surgery the week her book came out, eight of us got together to do a Zoom book launch for her. After we’d each read our assigned portion, we spent some time discussing the book. Not a difficult task, since Clea is a pro, even though a cozy about the Witch Cats of Cambridge wouldn’t normally be my cup of tea.

It was so interesting to get to talk about craft, and the many ways that a writer tells the reader about the book that’s coming. We talked about how the protagonist is introduced, through her own thoughts as well as through her observations about others. We talked about setting and how that is presented and how the author gives a sense of place through the details that are shared. It was fun to talk craft with seven other writers, some of whom I’d never met before. An hour of reading and fascinating conversation and To Conjure a Killer was launched.

The Joe Burgess series begins with Playing God

I woke up the next day still thinking about first paragraphs and the job they have to do for a book, and that pondering sent me back to my first Joe Burgess police procedural, Playing God. The books opens this way:

The small black dog skittered into the street, shining eyes registering canine astonishment that a vehicle dared to be out at this hour. Burgess stomped on the brakes, the Explorer responding with orgasmic ABS shudders, stopping just short of the beast. Four-wheel drive beating out four-foot traction. With a look Burgess decided to take as gratitude, the dog turned and trotted away. A good result. The cops waiting with the body wouldn’t have taken kindly to freezing their nuts off while their detective worked a dead dog scene.

 We may not always get it right, but that first paragraph, first page, first chapter has many jobs to do. Introduce the protagonist. Introduce the setting, Introduce the fact that the book is going to be about a murder. Perhaps share the time of year, the time of day, the narrator’s state of mind. Share something that will hook the reader on the story and compel them to read on to know what happens next or what the story is about.

Rereading that paragraph sent me to the bookshelf to see what I’d done in other books. Staring, of course, with my first published book, the first book in my Thea Kozak series, Chosen for Death.  Here’s how that book opens:

New England weather can be very unpredictable in September. Mornings that start off crisp and cold can be steaming hot by noon. That was how I found myself sitting in the sweltering church slowly baking in a jacket that I couldn’t take off. I couldn’t take it off because the matching dress was sleeveless and I’d been raised by a mother who knew to the depths of her soul that you couldn’t wear a sleeveless dress in church. Everyone else in the Boston area was spending that glorious Saturday outside. Not that I would have been. With the private school year just getting started, the consulting business I worked for had worked stacked up like planes at Logan Airport at five p.m. But I wasn’t at the beach or at work. I was at my sister Carrie’s funeral.

 First book. I didn’t know anything about the rules for a first paragraph or the importance of a hook, and yet there it was. Time of year, setting, the fact that the narrator has a demanding job, and the kicker: she’s at her sister’s funeral. Soon, she will find herself trying to solve her sister’s murder, and we will be following Thea Kozak as she does.

In my nonfiction books, I often have a lot of false starts before I find the right way to open, even though I know how the story will go. With Finding Amy, I jump right into the story:

It is every parent’s nightmare—your child goes out on Saturday night and vanishes off the face of the earth. It is also, sadly, something that happens far too often—a sensible and independent young woman who thinks she know how to take care of herself crosses paths with a predator. The bad guy doesn’t look evil. He is charming, charismatic, lively, and fun. It is only when he has his victim alone that his true self—his violent, explosive, self-indulgent, and remorseless side—emerges. Suddenly, a lifetime of striving toward maturity and self-awareness, of good decisions and generous acts, is changed by one bad choice. This is one of those stories.

 If I’ve done the job right, a reader will now need to know what happened and who the characters are.

The opening of The Angel of Knowlton Park is probably the darkest and most graphic of any that I’ve written. It was so troubling that when I was writing the book, I cut it out and tried a different opening several times. In the end, as books often seem to have their own truths and their own way that they want to be written, I came back to this, troubling as it is”

The fat, blue-black fly circled lazily in the July heat before landing in the child’s open eye. Burgess stifled his instinctive impulse to brush it away. He’d just started working this scene, and he wasn’t letting anything muck up his chances of learning everything it had to say about what had happened to this small dead boy.

 What do we know? That it’s July. It’s hot. A small boy had been killed, and the narrator is an experienced detective force to war between his protective instincts and his professional need to hold that back and observe the scene.

Part of a writer’s job, always, is to use all the available details to develop character and story, and here there’s an immediate insight into Joe Burgess—who he is and how he works—that will be developed throughout the story.

I could go on and on, of course, with so many books. And my small dive into some of them shows me that there are some I might open differently. But writing is a craft that is always learned and never mastered, and so I have more openings ahead where I will face the challenge of where and how the story begins.


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Weekend Update: November 18-19, 2023

Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Kate Flora (Monday), Sandra Neily (Tuesday), Dick Cass (Wednesday) and Matt Cost (Friday). Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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

 Body Contest Results? Are, alas, delayed, but will post next week.

Kate Flora is thrilled that book 8 in her Joe Burgess police procedural series will debut in December.

John Clark has had several good things happen recently. One of his short stories was selected by the Principal Foundation for Money Chronicles: A Story initiative. Read on for more details here:

In late October, one of his stories was featured on Mysteryrat’s Maze podcast.

His latest anthology Dark Maine is out and available at Amazon, or from the author

On a note unrelated to crime (we hope) don’t miss Gardens Aglow, the seasonal light display at the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden.

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, along with the very popular “Making a Mystery” with audience participation, and “Casting Call: How We Staff Our Mysteries.” We also do programs on Zoom. Contact Kate Flora

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