Purple Asters

John Clark with a reprint of an essay I wrote in 2005 for Wolf Moon Journal. I’m sharing it because it relates to fall and when I came out of the Alfond Center this morning after my aquatic exercise class, the purple asters hit me with a wave of nostalgia.

Gardening, flowers and my family have been intertwined for as long as I can remember. My father, a frustrated horticulturalist, had flowers growing wherever and whenever he found time and space. My mother went him one better, both raising flowers in numerous gardens at Sennebec Hill Farm and carving out a fifty year career as a garden writer.

My Uncle Leland, postmaster in New Vineyard for many years grew dinner plate dahlias all along the edge of his wraparound porch on Rt. 27 so the folks heading down country or up to Sugarloaf could enjoy a spot of color as they passed by. My Grandmother Clark fascinated my sisters and me with her hundred foot long garden in New Portland when we were small, often reading to us as we sat in the little arbor on the path that bisected this magical place.

Like most kids, I fought vigorously against working in the garden when assigned chores, trying every trick I could think of to avoid pulling pigweed or witch grass. I loved flowers, but rebelled against the hands-on aspect of their care. However, the seed had been planted, so to speak.

My college years exposed me to flowers in the desert. Tempe, Arizona in the late 1960s provided an interesting contrast in sights and smells. On those rare nights when humidity crept east from the Pacific Ocean, we could smell the Phoenix Stockyards in all their glory. Imagine your local dairy farm, multiply it tenfold and you would have some inkling of the smell. This minor annoyance was trumped majestically when the orange trees came into bloom and a wave of natural perfume filled the Valley of the Sun so pervasively that one went to bed smiling and woke with the same sense that the world was a dandy place to be.

Rain in the desert is a rarity. I became fascinated by nighttime thunder showers as the lightning was clearly visible when hitting the desert many miles away with the rain evaporating before touching the ground. On those occasions when meaningful amounts of rain did fall, the waiting plants responded by blooming so quickly it resembled watching a slow motion video of gardens shown at high speed.

One of my best friends from my college days invited me to visit him in Pasadena, California a couple years after we graduated. He inadvertently introduced me to a place that laid the next step in my growing love of flowers and their possibilities, the Huntington Library and Museum. (http://www.huntington.org/) Imagine a place that teases your spirit with beautiful furniture, great art and endless acres of themed gardens and you have the Huntington.

Thirty-five years ago, the Australia and Zen gardens had yet to be created, but the cactus and Japanese temple gardens along with the hundreds of rosebushes in bloom caught my imagination and fired a desire to create some form of designed garden when I had my own place.

We moved to Chelsea in 1977, and surveyed our new back yard with dismay. Chaos started six feet from the back of the house, presenting us with a mix of burdock, a rotting pigsty, large rocks, broken glass and rusting cans. Anyone with an ounce of sanity would have given up then and there. Instead, we spent the next 25 years sifting and adding to the soil while gradually carving out a lawn, a vegetable garden, a small orchard and several flower gardens. The level of beauty and order rose and fell with the demands of raising two daughters and both of us returning to graduate school twice. No matter how hectic life in Chelsea was, we always found time to ensure some color flourished around the house.

Both the flower gardens and the small orchard benefited from family donations. Our Concord grapevine came from Beth’s Aunt Sylvia in Hudson, N.H., while phlox and iris came from the farm in Union. Along the way, we learned as much from failure as from success. I discovered that planting fruit trees two days after hernia surgery wasn’t terribly smart and that those hardiness zones in the catalogs really do apply. Things hardy in zone 7 will not survive a winter in zone 4.

There were many failures, but these were always offset by unexpected bounty. Our Stanley plum went wild one year, bearing 628 purple treasures. Sadly, the same tree perished two years later when a combination of borers and a harsh cold snap were too much for it to bear. Our Niagara grape provided a similar bounty a few years later bearing so many clusters we gave up trying to eat them all and sent the girls around to the neighbors with shopping bags filled with the surplus.

You cannot garden without having the experience evoke strong feelings. Weeds and woodchucks evoke irritation and frustration. A wave of brilliant blooms or foliage can summon awe and satisfaction. The great ice storm of 1998 brought forth a scream of despair as I watched my cherry tree lose the fight to remain whole and slowly split down the center. The moments of angst are few in comparison to the joy that grubbing in soil brings.

Our move to Hartland in 2003 came with unexpected bonuses. By that point in our lives, gardens were so important we included in our offer that we would be able to plant the vegetable garden before we closed on the house. The thought of losing an entire growing season was too terrible to bear. In the process of working the soil to get ready for planting, I spent some time chatting with the seller. She recognized a kindred soul and confided that a friend who was a medium had said that spirits in the back yard would nurture darn near anything planted there.

We are now at the end of our third growing season and I suspect those spirits are real. Fruit falling from the twelve apple trees has added a natural percussion to my gardening rhythm since late July while keeping the deer away from the tall green wall of kale that divides the garden. Melons and ever-bearing strawberries have provided a pleasant addition to the endless salads. Broccoli that had nearly been chewed out of existence by a woodchuck continues to bear more shoots than we can cook and the row of cherry tomatoes looks like some giant strew edible rubies in a three by twenty foot swath.

Trumping this bounty is the flower garden we inherited from the previous owner. Hartland lies in a mini-climate zone. June brought a string of storms that lashed us with wind, lightning and monsoon-like downpours. The weeks of labor that revamped the Maltese cross shaped garden a year ago seemed like they had all been for naught as the low area where this garden lies filled with water that sat there for nearly a month. When it finally drained away, the cannas and most of the gladiolas had rotted and walking through the center resembled passage through a freshly drained beaver bog. Dying plants were replaced and twins of many that survived were planted.

Every gardener finds secret symbolism in their work. For me, the first purple aster triggers a mix of sadness and excitement; sadness because this flower irrevocably signals the end of summer and excitement at the prospect of fall, my favorite time of year. The purple asters have been in bloom for more than a month now, the large single blooms in the garden waving in the wind at their multi-blossomed wild cousins rising from the tall grass beyond the lawn’s edge. I stop to admire them before turning to those tasks their blooms remind me must be done before the winds of November chase me back inside for a winter of writing.

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Querencia

Obligatory Self-Promotion (scroll past if you like): Hope you’ll join me for a virtual book launch for Sweetie Bogan’s Sorrow, the fifth (!) in the Elder Darrow jazz mystery series. Free parking, goofy prizes, and a chance to help support Project Healing Waters, my charity of the year. I’ll publish a link to register toward the end of the month, on Facebook and Twitter. (Richard Cass-Writer or @DickCass.) Or email me.

I don’t always get my inspiration from reading flyfishing magazines, but it happens often enough that I haven’t cut my subscriptions yet. What got me going this time around was a lovely story about Questa, a town in the high desert of New Mexico that managed its resurrection from a mining-dependent resource-extraction economy to one based on guiding flyfishers in pursuit of a relatively rare trout, the Rio Grande cutthroat. The article was titled Querencia and spoke movingly of how the people who lived in the town were committed, when the mine closed, to finding ways of maintaining lives for themselves and their young people, in the place where so many of them wanted to stay. Because it was home.

The Spanish word querencia originates in bullfighting, that place in the ring where a wounded bull takes its defensive, perhaps final, stance. More appropriate to this discussion is the definition Barry Lopez gives in The Rediscovery of North America:

In Spanish, la querencia refers to a place on the ground where one feels secure, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn. It comes from the verb querer, to desire, but this verb also carries the sense of accepting a challenge, as in a game.

I take it to mean that querencia is the place where you feel your most authentic self, both a refuge and a place where you recharge your energies.

Anne and I have moved around a lot, and while that has been a privilege, it means we have not always settled our roots deep enough into ground to feel much pain when we’ve yanked them back up again. Neither of us would question whether we are of and from New England, but as I look back on the traveling years, I realize there were moments of querencia, if that’s possible: lying on my back watching eagles from Cape Falcon in Oregon; hiking a dripping stretch of rain forest in Seward, Alaska; walking onto a beach full of elephant seals on Maui.

So I’m not sure querencia needs to be a place, but for me, certainly, one of my best places is MacMahan Island, where Anne and I recently spent a couple of pandemic-ignoring days by ourselves, reading, drinking tea, and peering through the fog at the Sheepscot River. Even though we have no property rights in any of it, it owns us.

Thirty-six years ago this year, my new wife and I took the small boat from the dock at Five Islands out into the river and onto the island to honeymoon in an old cottage facing the bay. My primary memories of that weekend are a three pound lobster, a bottle of Johnny Walker Black, and a game of Trivial Pursuit with the late Wilson Jones and family that devolved into such silliness that the entire family only knows me today as Whitey Ford and my good wife as Lesley Gore.

Wilson is gone, the family scattered, but the island still brings me peace, one of few places I feel relaxed and calm, a refuge. Yet today I think what we most need to learn is that true querencia need not be a physical location. What we could profitably relearn is how to maintain our own querencia, and carry it with us. Hermann Hesse said it clearly:

“. . . inside of you, there is a peace and a refuge, to which you can go at every hour of the day and be at home with yourself, as I can also do. Few people have this, and yet all could have it.”

In these months of uncertainty and challenge, my friends, I wish you querencia, whatever form it takes for you.

Posted in Dick's Posts, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Weekend Update: September 26-27, 2020

Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Dick Cass (Monday), John Clark (Tuesday), Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson (Thursday), and Kate Flora (Friday).

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

from Kathy Lynn Emerson: One more cover reveal, this time for my second mystery for children ages 8-12, The Mystery of the Missing Bagpipes, originally published by Avon Camelot back in 1991.

The new edition doesn’t change the story (it’s set in Maine in 1986) but I did revise a few clunky sentences and commission a new cover. The reading level is 5.3.
Here’s the book description:
Spending three weeks in rural Maine listening to the sound of bagpipes isn’t 12-year-old Kim Hanlon’s idea of fun, but her father has signed up to attend classes in playing that instrument at the estate of an eccentric millionaire and he’s brought his family with him to the adjacent campground. When a valuable set of antique bagpipes disappears, Kim’s new friend Woody is suspected of the theft. Refusing to believe he’s guilty, she’s determined to discover who really committed the crime.

from the reviewers:
Bangor Daily News: “an excellent summer choice for that niece or nephew.”
Booklist: “Emerson weaves much food for thought into the narrative through Kim’s willingness to trust in Woody and her search to understand her own goals and talents.”

It’s currently available as an e-book—click here for links to buy https://books2read.com/u/3kWy9W

A paperback (print on demand) edition is in the works and should be available in about a month

 

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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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Is The First Amendment In Jeopardy?

 

Vaughn

Vaughn Hardacker here: I have been giving a lot of thought to the question every writer gets at some time: “Where do you get your ideas?” We always respond that there are many sources from the media to our life experiences. It has led me to consider what might happen if we lost our freedom to express our personal, religious, and political beliefs. Of late the news has been disturbing. I’m not alluding to the results of the upcoming election, but about the state of our institutes of higher education. When I was a college student the environment encouraged me to think and if someone disagreed with my point of view to at least listen and respect them. This doesn’t seem to be the case today. What disturbs me more is that this is not unique to modern times or to the United States. The first thing an autocratic dictator does is to stifle any opposition, both written and verbal. The most blatant example of this was in 1930s Germany. On the night of May 10, 1933, an event unseen in Europe since the Middle Ages occurred as German students from universities once regarded as among the finest in the world, gathered in Berlin to burn books with “unGerman” ideas. The students, along with brownshirted storm troopers, tossed heaps of books into a bonfire while giving the Hitler arm-salute and singing Nazi anthems. Among the 20,000 volumes hurled into the flames were the writings of Henri Barbusse, Franz Boas, John Dos Passos, Albert Einstein, Lion Feuchtwanger, Friedrich Förster, Sigmund Freud, John Galsworthy, André Gide, Ernst Glaeser, Maxim Gorki, Werner Hegemann, Ernest Hemingway, Erich Kästner, Helen Keller, Alfred Kerr, Jack London, Emil Ludwig, Heinrich Mann, Thomas Mann, Karl Marx, Hugo Preuss, Marcel Proust, Erich Maria Remarque, Walther Rathenau, Margaret Sanger, Arthur Schnitzler, Upton Sinclair, Kurt Tucholsky, Jakob Wassermann, H.G. Wells, Theodor Wolff, Emilé Zola, Arnold Zweig, and Stefan Zweig.

Josef Goebbels addressing crowds on Krystallnacht. “The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end…”

Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels joined the students at the bonfire and declared: “The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end… The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you. As a young person, to already have the courage to face the pitiless glare, to overcome the fear of death, and to regain respect for death – this is the task of this young generation. And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past. This is a strong, great and symbolic deed – a deed which should document the following for the world to know – Here the intellectual foundation of the November [Democratic] Republic is sinking to the ground, but from this wreckage the phoenix of a new spirit will triumphantly rise…”

Krystallnacht: The burning of the books.

Before Hitler, German university towns had been counted among the world’s great centers of scientific innovation and literary scholarship. Under Hitler, Germany’s intellectual vitality quickly began to diminish. Truth, rational thinking, and objective knowledge, the foundation stones of Western Civilization, were denounced by Nazified students and professors in favor of mysticism, speculation, and collective thinking toward a common goal – the pursuit of a glorious future for Germany. Germany was now led by a self-educated, high school drop-out named Adolf Hitler, who was by nature strongly anti-intellectual. For Hitler, the reawakening of the long-dormant Germanic spirit, with its racial and militaristic qualities, was far more important than any traditional notions of learning.

The youth-oriented Nazi movement had always attracted a sizable following among right-leaning university students. Even back in the 1920s they sensed Nazism might be the wave of the future. They joined the National Socialist German Students’ League, put on swastika armbands and harassed any anti-Nazi teachers. Now, many formerly reluctant professors were swept along by the outpouring of student enthusiasm that followed Hitler’s seizure of power. Most of the professors eagerly surrendered their intellectual honesty and took the required Nazi oath of allegiance. They also wanted to curry favor with Nazi Party officials in order to grab one of the academic vacancies resulting from the mass expulsion of Jewish professors and deans. The entire teaching profession throughout Germany, from elementary schools to university level, had been purged of Jewish instructors and anyone deemed politically suspect, regardless of their proven teaching abilities or achievements, including 20 past (and future) Nobel Prize winners. About ten percent of Germany’s university teaching force was sacked in 1933-34, with devastating results for disciplines such as quantum physics and mathematics where Jews had been prominent. The world’s premier physicist, Albert Einstein, settled in the United States along with many other intellectual refugees from Hitler’s Germany. Lovers of truth and freedom who remained behind in Germany only managed to escape through the phenomenon of inner-emigration. The Nazis could never actually know one’s inner-most thoughts as long as one maintained a kind of poker face and didn’t reveal those private thoughts. However, this could also be a dreadfully lonely existence.

Eventually, small groups of like-minded students and professors still opposed to Nazism found each other. They sometimes held clandestine off-campus discussions featuring a free exchange of ideas. One such group based at the University of Munich became known as the White Rose and boldly distributed leaflets demanding that Hitler “return to us the personal freedom which is the most valuable possession of each German, and of which he has cheated us in the lowest possible manner.” Two members of the group, Hans and Sophie Scholl, were arrested by the Gestapo for this and executed. Grammar schools and high schools throughout Germany now had National Socialist teachers of questionable ability forming young minds in strict adherence to the Party motto: “The supreme task of the schools is the education of youth for the service of Volk and State in the National Socialist spirit.” They taught Nazi propaganda as truth and had their young students recite it back from memory. In the college classroom, professors gave lectures amid the nagging fear they might be denounced by one of their students for any reason and possibly wind up in a concentration camp. Politically ambitious teachers sometimes kept secret dossiers on the utterances and activities of their fellow educators which could be turned over to the Gestapo to further their own careers. The widespread insecurity that resulted caused academic timidity which further lowered educational standards. In this New Order, anyone refusing to conform was simply removed from society and sent away for a special kind of re-education within the confines of a concentration camp. There they would be broken physically, mentally and spiritually until they either submitted completely or died. The first such camp was Dachau located near Munich. It was so successful that it became the model for all subsequent concentration camps, and there would be hundreds of them.

We Americans have a tendency to ignore impending threats by burying our heads in the sand like an ostrich. Let’s take a few minutes to think about the atmosphere of intolerance that seems to pervade our colleges and universities today. Professors encourage students to attend protests (many of which have turned into violent riots) rather than class and in many cases join them in those protests which have a single purpose, to suppress the communication of ideas that disagree with their personal beliefs. There have been reports of faculty members telling students that if they vote a certain way they will be given an F. I am very concerned when I see speakers disrupted by protesters and hecklers when they hold a talk or town hall. If you don’t agree with a speaker, do the people who came to hear what he or she has to say a favor: STAY AWAY! At the very least challenge the speaker during the question and answer period of the talk by asking an intelligent and well thought out question. As a veteran who spent eight years of his life defending the rights given us by our U. S. Constitution this disturbs me greatly. I have seen what happens to a country when a given philosophy becomes THE philosophy. So all that said, here’s my question. Do we as freedom-loving Americans want to spend thousands of dollars in tuition (not to mention the huge amounts of student loan debt) to have our youth, the leaders of tomorrow, indoctrinated and told what to think rather than how to think? Is there a chance that the freedoms given us in the 1st Amendment will be taken away or restricted? Is there a burning of the books in our future?

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Should you read a fiction series in order? The answer is…

A wide expanse of river with foliage on the banks that's just beginning to turn color and a blue cloudless sky

This photo of the Kennebec River in Augusta has nothing to do with my topic, but it’s a nice shot from a walk I took earlier today and thought you’d enjoy it. Because we love Maine!

So, I somehow just binge-read a 23-book series over the last two months. I’m not sure  how — or even why — and don’t want to delve too deeply into that part of my psyche right now, so this post isn’t about that.

You’re welcome.

The books take place in a period of time quite a while back. Though they were written over the past two decades, each book is set about a month apart. Until you get to number 20, which takes place five years before the first book. There’s a big cataclysmic event that precedes the first book in the series, and the 20th takes place right before that event and as it unfolds.

[This series is not by a Maine Crime Writer, or even a New England one, in case you’re wondering.]

You know I’m usually not coy, but I’m not going into the details of books, who wrote them or what they’re about, because this blog post isn’t specifically about these books and I don’t to distract from the point.

And the point? I came across a post on the internet, long before I got to Book 20, that suggests readers read Book 20 before they start the series, since it takes place five years before the first book.

The post was not by the author, but by a fan. Or maybe just a blogger who hadn’t even read the books. I don’t know. But it bothered me when I read it, and I had that in mind as I plowed through the series.

I admit, I’m a linear person. The first book I read in the series was actually number 19. I liked it. The next one I read was number 1. Didn’t even have to think about that. I always do that when I find a book I’ve just read and liked is part of a series.

When people ask me whether they should read my three-book Bernie O’Dea series in order, I tell them each book is written so it can be read out on its own, but I always suggest people start with the first book.

Most series have a character arc that expands and evolves through the books. If you hadn’t read earlier books in a series — any series — it’s hard to get the same satisfaction as a reader out of the later books that you’d get if you had.

When I read Book 20 in the series I binged this summer, it underscored that. Even though it’s a “prequel,” there’s no way readers new to the series would read the same book as those who’d read the previous 19.  It’s not only because knowing what’s going to happen later adds layers to what people say and do, but also it adds emotional heft that those who don’t know the characters as well won’t get to experience.

I tried this in a way with my second book, No News is Bad News. I felt the urge to do a prequel, but instead of a full-blown prequel, I interspersed scenes from before the series started with what was happening in “real time” in the book.

As I wrote those prequel scenes, I couldn’t help but write them with a foundation of what I already knew about the characters. Not that readers have to read the first book, Cold Hard News, to understand the scenes, but if they have, they’ll have knowledge that makes the scenes more powerful.

Most of us who write a series try to manage the tightrope of referring to things in previous books without spoiling them or being too distracting for new readers.

On the other hand, you have to mention previous book stuff. I mean, most of our protagonists, or other major characters, go through things that would cause major physical and emotional trauma to people in real life. While the books are fiction, that element of being affected by past events is still necessary.

When I did those prequel scenes in No News is Bad News, I didn’t think at all about this issue. But looking back, and knowing what I wrote, it’s obvious to me now that those scenes likely would’ve been very different if they were the first thing I’d ever written with those characters in them.

If a writer travels back in time, she’s doing it with the acquired knowledge she has of her characters as she’s grown to know them by writing about them. As much as a writer may try to make later books in a series OK to read as a standalone, they can’t help but write them in a way that’s informed by what came before.

If it has an impact on the writing, it also will have an impact on how the books are read. Reading books in order makes each subsequent one better than it would be on its own.

You’re going to do things your way. I know that. Don’t even get me started on people who read the last page before they start the book (with mine that won’t tell you who the murderer is, it’ll just spoil the emotional payoff #sorrynotsorry).

But if you’re wondering whether to read a series in order, the answer is don’t wonder, just read them in order.

Posted in Maureen's Posts | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Good Grief

I originally had an entirely different, fall-themed post planned for today, but it seems I’m unable to wrest my thoughts from memories of my mother-in-law, Lois, who died seven years ago this month at the well-seasoned age of 87. Seems an odd thing to be focused on considering everything else that’s going on, especially as ours was a decidedly prickly relationship—she, a stickler for all forms of social etiquette while I’ve forever rebelled against them, often for no reason other than a lifelong need to go against the grain. But the mind goes where the mind goes, and so here we are.

Lois was many things: an avid and accomplished sailor, president of numerous southern Maine garden clubs, and an award-winning flower designer in the ancient school of Ikenobo Ikebana—an esoteric Japanese art form she demonstrated and taught all over the world. She was also known for enormous, themed dinner parties and could mix a mean martini. But there was another talent she had quietly mastered unbeknownst to family and friends. The lady, it appeared, could write.

I’d never have known this about her if I hadn’t stumbled across a box of her things some months after her death, among them a short, “self-published” pamphlet of her poetry—written, it appeared, just after my father-in-law succumbed to his final illness a few years earlier. Titled Good Grief—My Journey Into Widowhood, it demonstrates the subtle, poignant beauty of her writing, and pulls the breath from me to this day. I share some of it below. Enjoy.

TOM-C

The shelter called him Lawrence.

To us he was “Kitty” or “Tom C.”

Cat-like, he napped everywhere.

Mostly cat-like, he took our bed.

On the last day, he sat lion-like on the foot of that bed.

He watched all day while his master breathed hard.

Tom-C did not nap.

Tom-C did not move.

Tom-C listened.

Tom-C watched. 

After the last breath, Tom-C got down.

Tom-C went to the kitchen and ate.

IT’S BEEN A WEEK

Just ditched the flowers,

Except the lilies—the buds opened.

Family gone.

Back in their routines.

After all, life goes on.

I have no routine. Writing notes to say thanks.

Thanks for what?

Comments are all the obvious.

“Sympathy, condolences, prayers. Sorry, thinking of you.”

Nothing new or different.

He was the different one.

WAVES

The ocean makes waves.

Water surges.

It finds its peak and collapses.

Grief makes waves.

Emotion takes over.

It surges.

You think you can’t stand it.

Then, just as when the tide goes out

Calm comes. But not enough to wave goodbye.

ROUND THE BUOYS

An excellent start. Over the line with the gun.

Going to windward, the helm feels balanced.

Perfectly trimmed jib. Tell-tales streaming parallel.

Wind gusts and a knock down puff put us on the rail and parallel.

Careful not to pinch, we tack on a lift. 

We are early rounding the buoy.

The reaching leg is a delight.

The boat planes and we relax a bit.

We are in this together.

The wind changes and we almost lose it.

Control is everything.

We argue about the course.

All thoughts of “parallel” flee.

The tide helps us around the buoy and we jibe the boat.

Downwind is where we lose the lead. We pop the spinnaker.

Working as a team again.

The wind brings the fleet upon us.

We are overtaken.

We do not win that one.

But…what a race!

What a life! Together!

Why Lois never shared her writing with anyone remains a mystery. I only wish I’d taken the time to know her better—just one of the many regrets I have about our relationship. The grief, it appears, is not only hers.

Darcy Scott (Winner, 2019 National Indie Excellence Award; Best Mystery, 2013 Indie Book Awards; Silver Award, 2013 Readers Favorite Book Awards; Bronze Prize, 2013 IPPY Awards) is a live-aboard sailor and experienced ocean cruiser with more than 20,000 blue water miles under her belt. For all her wandering, her summer home and favorite cruising grounds remain along the coast of Maine—the history and rugged beauty of its sparsely populated out-islands serving as inspiration for much of her fiction, including her popular Maine-based Island Mystery Series. Her debut novel, Hunter Huntress, was published in Britain in 2010.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Weekend Update: September 19-20, 2020

Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Charlene D’Avanzo (Monday), Darcy Scott (Tuesday), Maureen Milliken (Thursday), and Vaughn Hardacker (Friday).

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

from Kathy Lynn Emerson: Last week I showed you the cover for my next adult mystery, The Finder of Lost Things. Today I’m revealing the first of a series of covers to go on reprints of some of my earliest books—mysteries for children ages 8-12. First up is my very first published fiction, The Mystery of Hilliard’s Castle, originally published by Down East Books back in 1985. The new edition doesn’t change the story (it’s set in Maine in 1982) but I did revise a few clunky sentences and commission a new cover. Here’s the book description: Kerry Odell and her younger brother Lyle are not enthusiastic about spending the next six months in rural western Maine. It seems like a pretty dismal place, especially in March, and means entering a new school in mid-year. The house their mother has rented, with its locked tower, has all the makings of a haunted “castle” with mysterious comings and goings, odd noises in the night, and a landlord who seems to have it in for them. Reading level 4.9.

It’s currently available as an e-book—click here for links:https://books2read.com/u/4jWJND

A paperback (print on demand) edition is in the works and should be available in about a month

 

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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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Back at it

After a one-year leave of absence (and thank you for that, Kate!) I’m happy to resume blogging on Maine Crime Writers.  Let me explain why I left and why I’m back.  Last October my wife tripped on a curb in Philadelphia and broke her femur—for the second time in six months.  The first, last March, resulted when she was hit by a snowboarder.  The recent one was purely accidental:  crossing the street she glanced up to renew acquaintance with a 19th century bank building she had once written an article about.  Not a good idea.  She had surgery in Philadelphia and managed to fly home, but, unlike the earlier injury, this time she could not put weight on the affected leg.  That meant that for over three months we had to stay in our one-level condo in Yarmouth rather than our multi-level home in Newry.  And since she was confined to a wheelchair and walker, it meant that I was on 24/7 caretaker duty.  The writing I had been doing on a new mystery came to an abrupt end, as did my blogging.  And simply being away from home for such a long time was a trial. 

In the winter she regained the use of her right leg, we returned home, and I faced resuming my writing.  But I found I couldn’t pick up where I had left off and became increasingly frustrated.  Writer’s block is no fun, and I couldn’t bring myself to blog about it—or anything else.  With her two accidents that year, we called 2019 our annus horribilis.  Little did we know what 2020 would bring! 

The dreaded blank page

Like everyone else we sheltered in place, and my frustration at being unable to write grew alongside the other negative mental responses the lock-down brought.  I envied the way my wife coped by working several hours a day on an earlier textbook of hers that a publisher contracted her to revise.  She urged me to try the same approach: write.  I tried, but without success, and finally realized—or accepted—that the mystery I had been working on just wasn’t going to jell.  Then a new idea gripped me as I was trying to sleep, and the next morning I sat down and started sketching it out with notes and timelines.  I’m now over 100 pages into it.  I have no idea whether I’ll be able to finish it, but I find that for at least three or four mornings a week I can sit down at my laptop and write.  When I say “write” I of course mean developing characters, creating dialogue, constructing a plot, and laying down prose.  But I also know that what I’m doing is coping— coping with the pandemic and its intrusions into our lives by focusing on an imagined story over which I have complete control.  Who, in these days, doesn’t want control?  So if I finish this mystery and it gets published, I suppose I’ll have to credit the pandemic.  And if that doesn’t happen, at least I’ll have focused my way through to what I hope we can call a normal life.  Either way, at least for now, I’m glad to be back at it.         

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Is the Government Watching Me?

Susan Vaughan here. A recent post by Maggie Robinson about how easy it is to be sucked into detailed research for a book prompted me to consider how research by writers who create fictional murders, terrorist threats and attacks, and international spy rings might trigger attention from government agencies like the FBI or the NSA.

When I began writing, researching meant walking into a library building and sitting down with large tomes or calling on experts in person or on the phone. Sometimes fascinating but tedious and slow. For my first published book (originally titled Dangerous Attraction and now Always a Suspect), I telephoned the Drug Enforcement Agency in Boston with a list of questions. When I was finally transferred to the Public Information Officer, she required that I send in personal information including my Social Security number. I also had to ask my employer to send her a letter verifying my identity and upstanding character. A month later—yes, thirty days—I was able to ask my questions—make of pistols, make of vehicles, etc. Basic stuff. That still didn’t mean the PIO would answer. She did share the weaponry but wouldn’t reveal what vehicles they drove. Now the information I wanted back then can be found on the Internet. The standard issue pistol is a Glock 19, and the vehicles vary depending on the case, some labeled DEA, some anonymous. But hmm, does my search engine then alert NSA?

In Primal Obsession, my hero and heroine are deep in the Maine woods being stalked by a serial killer, but state detectives are working on the case. In the state of Maine, except for in the larger cities of Portland and Bangor, major crimes like murder are investigated by state police detectives. So I needed information on the Maine State Police Major Crime Unit. I went to the small State Police building in nearby Thomaston (It’s no longer there.) and started asking questions of the dispatcher. He obligingly turned off his radio (yes, really), but after hearing my questions, referred me to a better source. He gave me the phone number of the state’s public information officer in Augusta.

When I phoned, I reached Steve McCausland, the PIO, directly. No intermediary. Amazing. Those of you who live in Maine know Steve’s distinctive voice announcing homicides or abductions and progress on solving them.  No extensive background check or reference letter was required, but I can picture him signaling someone to verify my identity before he listened to me further. On the phone, he was funny and charming and eager to help. He did answer my questions and even invited me to call again if I needed more, which I took him up on. But much later.

For another book written later when technology had made research a matter of clicking, I needed to know if it might be legal to carry a pistol on an airliner. And if so, what were the procedures and requirements. Easy research. I popped over to the Transportation Security Administration website and found my answer. Except for certain trained law enforcement personnel and air marshals, the answer is no weapons in carryon luggage. Weapons in checked baggage must follow certain regulations and inspection. My security specialist and guide in On Deadly Ground, had to check his weaponry and take care of all the red tape. I eventually deleted my carefully detailed scene because it didn’t seem dramatic. Nevertheless, does the TSA know I visited their site to look for that? And do they care? I’ve never been contacted, so…

For my current project, as yet untitled, I’ve been researching art forgery and authentication of art, specifically paintings. I’ve learned what provenance might be required to prove a work of art is legitimately for sale and authentic and also how to fabricate such information. I even found a website explaining how to create fake art to sell on eBay. The disclaimer said the contents were “satirical.” Right. Apparently selling fake artwork on eBay a flourishing cottage industry. A forger was recently caught after selling a fake Picasso there. I don’t plan to try my hand, but the criminals in my story are benefiting from the tips I’ve picked up. FBI Art Crime is too busy with those eBay forgers to bother with me. I hope.

I called Steve McCausland again when I was writing Hidden Obsession . I needed information on whether the medical examiner had to arrive at a murder scene to declare the victim deceased or if technicians or a medical doctor could perform that function. The short answer is, it depends. But back to the phone call. When I identified myself, to my surprise, Steve remembered me! We chatted and he again graciously answered my questions. A year or so later, he has retired, and I wish him well. The state announcements and my Maine research won’t be the same though.

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A Vocabulary for Fall

Kate Flora: Years ago, my mother’s Christmas gift to me—still a lawyer aspiring to be a IMG_2717writer—a copy of Rodale’s Synonym Finder. Over the years, as I transitioned from lawyer to writer, that book has always lived beside my desk, and lists of words have been taped to the wall above it. My family loved word play, and the dinner table was a lively place as we played with words and groaned at Brother John’s awful puns. I’m sure that some of the pleasure of creating my characters is seeing how distinctions develop among the ways they use words and how those distinctions arise from their backgrounds and the way they see the world.

After her stroke, when my mother was still determined to write her weekly column for The Camden Herald, she began one that described the late fall fields at the farm as “sere.” It was such a perfect, evocative word for what happens when the frost has taken away the color and the world becomes more monotone, more shades of fading gold and brown.

fomydlDdQ9yjboNzqQ4BFAThe character in my Joe Burgess police procedurals, trained by his mother to stop and see the world, often challenges me to slow down and see the world that he would see, and I am grateful. As I drive south on I-295 from Brunswick, I will pass what I call Burgess’s salt marsh, and observe how it changes through the seasons from brown in spring—land and mud nearly the same, to vibrant green in summer, to gold that deepens and then grows pale in autumn.

Slowing down and seeing and listening comes not only from my characters. It began with my mother, who was so passionate about observing life on her hilltop farm in Union from sunrises over the orchard and sunsets over Sennebec Pond. In her collection of columns, From the Orange Mailbox, she writes:      

            “. . . as we pass the autumn equinox, the earth is beginning to cool off. The chirping

            fiddling insects quiet their night songs but come out at noon, warming themselves by

            the stone walls, to sign their September tunes.”

She was a better observer of the land and the changing seasons than I am. I struggle toautumwestlake describe the smells of late August and September, when the plants are drying in the heat and the air smells of hot vegetation and dust and warm grass. When the air changes over from dry to the first faint scents of damp and decay. When a walk will bring the surprise of  the season’s last roses, or smelling warm apples or the intoxication of ripe Concord grapes.

It is interesting that in my synonym finder, when I look up fall, I get descend, sink, slip, decline, diminish and wane, when we tend to see the word as inspiring thoughts of brilliant color, surprisingly blue skies, the bounty of harvests and invigorating air. I always remember driving from Augusta, when I worked in the attorney general’s office, east on Route 3 early in the morning, seeing the valleys and hollows filled with dense white fog against the purple shadows of hills, and passing fields of golden corn and the bright orange of pumpkins and roadside ditches filled with purple asters.

It is true that fall can be depressing—the great crescendo of color before the dark of winter—and make us sad. But it also is a time to take note, breathe in the majesty, and to feel vibrantly alive.

Grace Paley writes:

What is sometimes called a   

   tongue of flame

or an arm extended burning   

   is only the long

red and orange branch of   

   a green maple

in early September   reaching

   into the greenest field

out of the green woods   at the

   edge of which the birch trees   

appear a little tattered   tired

   of sustaining delicacy

all through the hot summer  

Or this thoughtful piece:

Leaves

Lloyd Schwartz – 1941-

Every October it becomes important, no, necessary

to see the leaves turning, to be surrounded

by leaves turning; it’s not just the symbolism,

to confront in the death of the year your death,

one blazing farewell appearance, though the irony

isn’t lost on you that nature is most seductive

when it’s about to die, flaunting the dazzle of its

incipient exit, an ending that at least so far

the effects of human progress (pollution, acid rain)

have not yet frightened you enough to make you believe

is real; that is, you know this ending is a deception

because of course nature is always renewing itself—

        the trees don’t die, they just pretend,

        go out in style, and return in style: a new style.

 

 

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