Using Local Events and Issues As A Plot

Vaughn Hardacker here: I am currently working on a new novel that deals with the Bald Mountain mine issue. For those of you who are not familiar with it, Bald Mountain (located in T12 R8, D-3 on map63 of DeLorme’s The Maine Atlas and Gazeteer) in close proximity to the Fish River, which feeds into the Fish River chain of lakes (Fish Lake, Portage Lake, St. Froid Lake, Eagle Lake, Square Lake, Cross Lake, Mud Lake, and Long Lake) before feeding into the Saint John River in Fort Kent. A company that was  once a small New Brunswick, Canada company has grown into a giant mega-corporation owning the timber and mining rights to over 500,000 acres of land in northern Maine. The geologist who determined that Bald Mountain is a site with deposits of copper, zinc, gold, and silver. However he also stated due to the massive quantities of iron sulfide (which creates sulfuric acid when exposed to air and water) and arsenic mining the site was too

AMD in stream near Pittsburgh, PA.

risky from an environmental perspective. To get to the point, the potential for Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) is so high that the mine could be a major environmental disaster waiting to happen. Currently, Maine has the strictest mining laws in the United States and there is a major push in Augusta to ease them so that the mine can go forward.

This is an example of a local issue screaming to become a plot. Add the discovery of the body of a female state senator who is the key person holding the line against the Maine Department of Environmental Protection easing the mining regulations in the trunk of her car on the American Reality Road in the North Maine Woods and we are off and running (I’m currently approaching the 45,000 word mark).

Each and every one of us writers has been asked: “Where do you get your ideas?” I always respond the local and national news as well as controversial issues happening right in my back yard. So if you are like me and once you finish a book you spend time trying to come up with a new idea, talk to people in your neighborhood and learn what are the local issues that have them hot and bothered.

By the way, two mining companies have already studied Bald Mountain and both came to the conclusion that the potential for AMD getting into the ground water and our lakes and streams is far too great and the cost of clean up could be greater than the profit gained. Several  similar mines in Canada and the U. S. have turned into disasters and the estimate of the time until the sulfurous containing minerals are exhausted and the water is clean again could be hundreds or even thousands of years. (There is currently an AMD clean up project at the Iron Mountain mine near Redding, California that has cost $200,000,000 to date and scientists estimate that it will continue to produce AMD for 2,500 to 3,000 years.) They walked away from the project. What research I’ve done into the controversy has me concerned that factions within our state government will allow the mine to go forward. I for one have written to my local representatives in Augusta but have become aware that at least one of them has a personal interest in making sure that the project moves forward? I’ve always said that we have the best government that money can buy.

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Who needs a vacation when you live in Vacationland?

If I’m repeating myself, forgive me. I love Maine, you know I do. But don’t ask me what I did on my summer vacation, because I haven’t had one.

At least I get to work from home a lot of the time, so it’s almost like having a vacation.

That hasn’t stopped everyone else. One of the issues with living in a beautiful village where the population doubles in the summer is that half the people are on vacation. As I write this, at 7:41 p.m., music is blaring from the place it blares from this time of night most nights. I can hear shouts and boat motors, probably from people parked in their boats listening to the blaring music.

Speaking of which, I haven’t seen much of the people from away who occasionally visit their house across the street this summer. There was one night, however — a week night — when a group of about two dozen Millenials spent the night blaring music and shouting the F word until 2:30 in the morning.

And it wasn’t even good music. Are the kids being ironic when they blare Steve Miller at 2 in the morning, or have they just been bombarded with so much mediocre music the past two decades that they think he rocks?

I went over there one night three years ago — it was September, time for this foolishness to be over — when the man of the house was in the garage, which has been converted to a “man cave,” blaring — I’m not making this up — The Golden Girls. I listened for two hours — laugh track blah blah blah laugh track blah blah blah — then about 12:30 a.m. went over with my maglite flashlight, a jacket thrown over my pjs, and told him I had to get up in five hours to work. He seemed startled. I’m not sure if it was by the sight of me, or the fact that, yes, people do work in this town.

That’s right, don’t friggin’ wake me up. Took this selfie after I came back from scaring the hell out of the guy blaring The Golden Girls at 12:30 a.m. a couple Septembers ago.

So, to recap: Yes, the same house that kept me up on a work night blaring Steve Miller kept me up on a work night blaring The Golden Girls. To quote Dylan: If you don’t believe there’s a price for this sweet paradise, just remind me to show you the scars. (That’s Bob Dylan, not the guy who works the counter at Starbucks, kids).

His wife, the first time she backed into my neighbor’s mailbox and knocked it down, asked Dave (the neighbor) how often he’s here. “All the time,” Dave said. “I live here.”

In any case, I’m not complaining, even though it sounds like I am. It’s not lost on me that I get to spend my life in a spot that most people get to spend two weeks in and spend the other 50 weeks dreaming of being here.

And I get to work at home a lot of the time. And, I have to say, I don’t mind tooling around Maine for my job, either. There could be worse ways to make a living.

One recent day, I had to go to Millinocket and, even though my book is done, a character in the book drives from my fake town in Franklin County to Millinocket. I wondered what the  route was like.

Went from Millinocket to Belgrade via Somerset and Franklin counties a couple weeks ago, and I don’t regret the detour. This, I believe, is Moscow, Maine. Route 16 and nothing but scenery.

So, yeah, a little out of my way, but I drove it anyway. I didn’t regret it. No blaring music here. No laugh track. No idling boats. Just Maine.

I may not get any sleep, but I have a book! Yes I do. Take that, you loud vacationers.

Speaking of which, the third in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. BAD NEWS TRAVELS FAST is due out October 31. You know, the time of year it’s nice and quiet.

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Too Darn Hot

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, writing this on August 10, the first relatively cool day we’ve had in weeks. More heat and humidity are due in next week, when this blog will actually appear. Let me just say . . . yuck!

I like living in Maine precisely because we don’t usually have more than a handful of hot, humid days each year. 2018 has already broken the record. DO NOT tell me climate change is a hoax. It’s pretty obvious something untoward is going on with the heat index.

We have window units in three rooms—the living room, the bedroom, and my office. Air conditioners work pretty well for controlling how hot it gets in the house, but the humidity is another matter. Did I mention I hate to sweat? Worse, my brain doesn’t work properly when the weather is steamy. It’s a good thing the current manuscript (the one set in March) is in a “resting” stage, because I doubt I’d have produced anything readable in this weather.

I visited New Orleans once, back in the 1990s, in the summer, for a RWA conference. It’s an interesting city, but the humidity nearly killed me every time I went outside the hotel. Drinking hurricanes helped, but only up to a point. I did make a successful pitch to my editor at the time (for the book that became Echoes and Illusions), but my most vivid memory of those few days is of being profoundly uncomfortable.

Our recent heat wave has been on a par with that experience, only it’s lasted longer (23 days and counting). Here in western Maine a lot of places aren’t air conditioned at all. The heat builds up inside during the day and it doesn’t have anywhere to go at night. Forget sleeping well if you don’t have something to help cool things off. Even in air-conditioned buildings, energy savers cut in and out, making you sweat just before you get another blast of cold air. The end result is a lot of cranky people.

Animals aren’t happy either. I took pictures of Bala for International Cat Day (August 8). She wasn’t about to move, let alone be cute for the camera. Maybe cats have the right idea—sleep until things improve.

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of nearly sixty traditionally published books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (Overkilt—November 2018) and the “Deadly Edits” series (Crime & Punctuation) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in a Cornish Alehouse) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” mysteries and is set in Elizabethan England. Her most recent collection of short stories is Different Times, Different Crimes. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com and she maintains a website about women who lived in England between 1485 and 1603 at www.TudorWomen.com

 

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Mistaking the world for a book

A friend for whom the expression passionate reader is a vast understatement sent me this quotation from Michelle de Kretzer’s The Hamilton Case:  “Now I saw that I had fallen for an old enchantment.  I had mistaken the world for a book.”  He knew I would assume the second sentence applies to him.  As I was considering the extent to which it also applies to me, I opened the latest issue of the monthly magazine published by my alma mater.  The lead story bore the headline “Beyond Books” and proceeded to unfurl the usual clichés about how this distinguished university research library offered so, so much more than mere books.  As someone who had roamed the stacks of that library as an undergraduate in love with books, I felt a bit betrayed.  I’m not a luddite, or at least I don’t think I am, but I do love books and think they should be at the heart of a library.  Had I myself “fallen for an old enchantment?”books1

It’s not that I mistake the world for a book.  I know the difference, and I love both.  In fact, I think each leads us into the other.  This seems particularly true of mystery novels.  Cozies, the kind I read and write, turn their worlds upside down through crimes like murder and then restore the world through clever detection, the solution of the mystery, and the punishment of the offender.  I read them to affirm my faith in the human capacity to right wrongs and restore order in a fallen world.  Okay, not to get too pompous here:  I read mysteries because they’re so much fun.  Ditto, for that matter, any fiction.

For me the connection between books and the world parallels that between a practice session and a real game.  Whatever the sport, in practice you try out moves, hone your technique, experiment with new patterns.  When you get out on the field against a real competitor—another team, a single opponent, or the mountain or ocean you’re up against–you’re prepared to bring all that practice together in the form of a polished game. Reading represents practice, a way of getting ready for the world.  Reading fiction you explore character, see how various forces come together to motivate action, test moral principles, understand the consequences of behavior.  You ready yourself for what we call the “real” world by playing in the fictional one.

And it works the other way around.  Reading is enhanced by everything we experience outside it.  That’s why we say a character in a novel reminds us of someone we know or why when two characters face a moral choice their dilemma resonates with us because of a situation we actually experienced.

This connection between books and the world seems to me at its most interesting with young children.  My granddaughter, two and a half years old, can’t read of course but is read to so frequently and intensely that it’s fair to say her real world and book world are nearly one.  The mouse dentist who pulls the tooth of the wily fox in William Steig’s Doctor De Soto is absolutely real to her, and she acts out that and other stories with her dolls and soft animals.  When we see a parade of circus animals marching up her driveway they are as real as the ones she sees in the books I read to her.  So when she’s read to she’s practicing life, and when she experiences life she brings to it what she’s seen in books.

Now it’s obviously possible that people can so conflate books and the world that they no longer know the difference and so become, literally, insane.  But that’s an extreme response that, thankfully, few minds succumb to.  For the rest of us, most of the time, books and the world have a productive and enriching relationship.  The greater worry, I think, is that as reading seems to be declining in our culture, people will lose the ability to practice life through books and to enhance life itself through what they learn from books.

But in the meantime, for myself and my granddaughter and all those folks who love to read, I say it’s just fine to occasionally fall for the old enchantment and mistake the world for a book.

books3

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Weekend Update: August 11-12, 2018

Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will posts by William Andrews (Monday) Maureen Milliken (Tuesday), Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson (Wednesday), Joe Souza (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 Kaitlyn Dunnett, a question: do any of you reading this blog read your e-books on Kobo? I ask because there’s a promotion coming up for Kilt Dead in that format (more details here when it actually begins) and I’m curious. Most of the people I talk to who read e-books regularly seem to choose either Kindle books or iBooks. Any Kobo fans out there? What is it you like about the format? Thanks in advance for any input.

Congratulations to Lea Wait. For Freedom Alone went up on Kindle August 8 and by August 10 it was the #1 new release in Children’s European Historical Fiction. The tale is set in Scotland and a great read for all ages. Here’s the link: https://www.amazon.com/Freedom-Alone-Lea-Wait-ebook/dp/B07GBGV7Z7/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1534014436&sr=1-3&keywords=For+Freedom+Alone

 

A huge thank you to librarian Heidi Dow of the Guilford Library for hosting a Maine Author Day, a fun event in a beautiful library. She even gave us lunch. Here are so photos from the event:

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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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An End Inspires a Beginning: A Wedding in Midcoast Maine

Liz Wait, 1st day home in America … age 9. Liz was born in Calcutta, India

Liz & Herman saying their vows in front of my home; our friend Sally Bullard did the honors

Lea Wait, here, reporting from warm and glorious midcoast Maine, and delighted to announce that yesterday my youngest daughter, Elizabeth Purnima Wait, and her (admittedly long-time) fiance, Herman Joseph McNeal, both of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, were married at my home.

As many of you know, I adopted my four daughters when I was a single parent. They were all born in different Asian countries, and after they came home they attended school in  New Jersey and visited Maine in the summertime. Over the years I’ve watched proudly as they all chose different futures, in different states, and became independent adults. Liz and Joe had been engaged since 2004, and were clearly in no hurry to rush their vows … but Joe lost both of his parents recently, and when they found out I was ill, they decided

The bride and her mom

they wanted me to see them marry.

Lea, with daughters Ali Hall, Liz McNeal Wait, Caroline Childs & Becky Wynne

The result? All four of my daughters were together yesterday for the first time in many years, we laughed, drank champagne, and Liz and Joe became Mr. and Mrs. It was a lovely day, full of memories, and hopes for a future I won’t be here to see, but that I firmly believe in.

In every end there are beginnings, and I was thrilled to have been a small part of this one.

My brother-in-law Bob O’Malley, my sister, Doris Wait, me, granddaughter Vanessa Ali Hall, the bride and groom, Caroline Childs & Becky Wynne

Vanessa, Ali, Caroline, Liz

 

 

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Interview with Liz Milliron

 

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people’s stories, for as long as she can remember. She survived growing up through reading, cutting her mystery teeth on Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark and, of course, Nancy Drew. As an adult, she finds escape from the world of software documentation through creating her own fictional murder and mayhem. She lives near Pittsburgh with her husband and two teenage children, and fantasizes about owning a dog – one of these days. (Headshot courtesy of www.erinmclainstudio.com)

Bruce Robert Coffin recently had occasion to chat with Liz about her new novel, Root of All Evil, which will be released on August 14th.

Tell us about your latest novel, Root of All Evil.

Reports of a new meth facility reach the Pennsylvania State Police. At the same time, rumor is a man previously accused of meth production is back in the Laurel Highlands. It’s a connection even Trooper First Class Jim Duncan’s trainee can make. Meanwhile, Sally Castle’s colleague is being uncharacteristically nervous and reticent. What’s he hiding? Sally is determined to find out. When the two investigations converge, it uncovers disturbing secrets in the county justice system—secrets worth killing to keep.

So how did Root of All Evil come to be?

This came from a bit of overheard conversation. I forget exactly where I was, but I heard a person on a cell phone call say, “You better fix this. I mean it!” They were pretty upset. Of course, my brain started thinking. “Who better fix what? Why is this person so angry? What will happen if it isn’t fixed? Who needs to do the fixing? What if…?In the first draft it was an overheard conversation, but in the final manuscript it’s a note that’s found on one of the character’s desk.

The Laurel Highland Mysteries is set in an area near and dear to your heart. Tell our readers about your town.

The Laurel Highlands in southwest Pennsylvania encompasses Cambria, Fayette, Somerset, and Westmoreland counties. There’s a lot of natural resources in the area: camping, hiking (part of the Great Allegheny Passage), fishing, whitewater rafting, cycling, etc. OhiopyleState Park is centered around the town of Ohiopyle and the Youghiogheny (pronounced “yock-o-ganey”) River. There are several resorts; the best known are Nemacolin and Seven Springs. Renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright built two houses there: Kentuck Knob and Fallingwater (built for Kaufmann’s founder Edgar J. Kaufmann, Sr.). There’s a lot of history, too. A young colonel by the name of George Washington skirted Ohiopyle Falls during the French-Indian War. Washington’s decision to go to Pittsburgh by road led to a skirmish with French forces, and Washington subsequently surrendered at Ft. Necessity. This incident led to the first British taxes on the American colonies and, 22 years later, to the Revolutionary War.

What brought you to mystery writing?

Reading mysteries. I’ve loved mysteries since I read my first Nancy Drew. That led to Agatha Christie, which led to Mary Higgins Clark, which led to Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum. My husband asked if I’d ever consider writing something else. My response: “Like what?”

How much of Sally Castle do you see in yourself? What about the other main characters who populate your novel?

Once upon a time, I thought I’d be a defense attorney. Then I learned that it’s more paperwork than passionate speeches in court. But I still believe a lot of the things Sally believes: primarily, every person deserves a fair hearing under the law. I like to think there’s a little of me in all my characters, even my villains. I share Jim Duncan’s belief in justice and protecting those who may not be able to protect themselves. I share Aaron Trafford’s and Colin Rafferty’s desire to do right by my family. My bad guys just go to extremes.

Why do you feel this is important, and what would you want a reader to take away from reading these books?

As I was writing, the idea of “how far would you go to get what you want?” kept coming to me and how it applied to all the characters. It’s a question I think people need to ask themselves and be honest with the answer. And recognize that you can go too far in the quest for a good cause. Every person reaches a point where they may say, “Is this further than I can morally go?” I hope this book shows a little bit of the fall-out when people go too far. I think all my characters ask themselves this question and the difference between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” is how they answer.

What makes a good book or engaging story?

For me, it always comes down to the characters. Are these people I’m invested in and want to follow for 300 pages? They don’t have to be “likeable” (Dennis Lehane’s The Dropcomes to mind), but I have to want to follow them. Especially the protagonists and major secondary characters. If I can hang with the characters, I can forgive little plot lapses or “I see where this is going.” If the characters don’t capture me, I start picking apart the plot and that’s when my enjoyment tapers off. Since the adage is “write the book you want to read,” that’s what I hope I’m doing with my stories.

Are there writers with similar themes to yours? Who are your influences (can be writers, or even artists, musicians, or others) and what is it about their work that attracts you?

I don’t know if these writers share themes, beyond the “search for justice,” but I will automatically buy anything from Hank Phillippi Ryan. Same with friend and critique partner Annette Dashofy. I love Catriona McPherson’s stand-alone thrillers, and enjoyed Rhys Bowen’s firststandalone, In Farleigh Field. And this Bruce Robert Coffin guy<insert grin>. In all cases these writers have drawn wonderful worlds and characters. Their dialog is tight and well written, the characters feel “real” to me, and I’m invested in their stories. Musically, I’m drawn to old country and classic rock (70s and 80s) because those songs are stories.Read Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics and you’ll see what I mean.

Is storytelling mostly entertainment, or does it serve other functions? Do you have particular goals other than telling a good story?

My #1 goal is entertainment. The real world is so depressing at times, so if I can get a reader to say, “Thanks for giving me a few hours of fun,” I’m be thrilled. That said, if I also make people think a bit, and maybe go deeper on what they believe, it’s a bonus.

Any other goals you’ve set for yourself, professionally or personally?

For the last couple of years, I’ve been focused on The Laurel Highlands Mysteries and what I was going to do with it. Now that it’s found a publisher, at least the first three books, one goal is to be able to write a fourth. I’d also like to finish the final installment in the middle-grade fantasy adventure series I write as “M.E. Sutton.”

Some writers write fast and claim not to rewrite much. Do you do this, or painstakingly revise? When you send the book off to the publisher, are you happy with it, or just tired of it?

I do write fast. I’ve conditioned myself to turn off the Inner Editor for what I call Draft Zero and just pump out the words. Because of this, I can have a rough draft down in 30 days. That draft usually clocks in around 90,000 words and is typically a bit bloated. Then comes the revision. A pass for to get it ready for my critique group, a pass after they’ve had at it, a pass before it goes to the publisher. I don’t know if that’s “painstaking” or not – depends on your definition. Butby the time it goes to the publisher I am both happy AND glad to send it on!

Who are some of the authors you enjoy reading? Favorite genre?

See above the above answer for some contemporary authors. I also enjoy Lori Rader-Day, Karin Slaughter, and I’m looking forward to Keenan Powell’s next Maeve Malloy. When I need “comfort food,” I’ll pick up an Agatha Christie and I re-read the entire Harry Potter series almost every year. My favorite genre is crime fiction of all kinds, but I try to read across genres. I love a good biography.

If an aspiring writer came to you for advice, what words of wisdom would you offer?

Read as much as you can, write as much as you can. I think it was Stephen King who said if a writer doesn’t read, you can’t write. Truth. Read your preferred genre, but try other things, too. You never know where you’ll pick up a good trick.

Stories can be told using a variety of different mediums. Can you see your book as a film, audio, etc.? How would that alter the telling?

Somewhere along the line, I read advice to try and see your book as a movie so yeah, I can see The Laurel Highlands Mysteries as film. Although I think some of the slower scenes, particularly in the McAllister sub-plot, that would get cut. Film doesn’t give you the time to step back like books do. And I’d love to hear a good narrator bring all these characters to life in audio.

What’s the next step in your writing world? Where do you hope to go from here?

The immediate next step is getting the second book, Heaven Has No Rage, ready for submission to the publisher. It’s already scheduled for release in August 2019. I also recently completed a historical mystery that I’ve tagged “Rosie the Riveter meets Sam Spade.” I’d like to see that in print at some point. And finish the middle-grade series.

Tell us a fun fact about yourself.

I am a second-degree Black Belt in taekwondo.

Where can folks purchase your novels?

The usual suspects: Amazon and Barnes & Noble online. Being with a small publisher, I don’t know if B&N will stock the book, but you can probably special order it. Same for your local independent bookstore (I know a couple people who ordered that way).

Web page: http://lizmilliron.com

Twitter: @LizMilliron

Facebook: https://facebook.com/LizMilliron

 

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