The Beauty of Life Stories, Well Told

I love a well-written obit.

In fact, the obituary section may be why I still subscribe to several newsprint papers, which, unlike their digital cousins, invite me to really read, rather than skim. That’s important when we’re talking mini life stories. Friends, mere acquaintances, total strangers—it doesn’t matter. I want to know what they invented, who they loved, how they made a difference in the world.

As a journalism student I worked at the Boston Globe, initially as a newsroom clerk (we all were called copyboys, even though by the late 1970s some of us were female).

We wrote on these back in the day.

One of my duties was to write basic obits. When person died who was moderately famous (or infamous), at least locally, the city editor would assign whichever copyboy wasn’t otherwise occupied to gather information and write it up.

I wasn’t a reporter yet, but was striving to be, so I paid close attention to the newsroom veterans who wrote the feature obituaries. While theirs may not have been the most exciting beat, they were masters at the craft of condensing someone’s life into a respectful, sometimes funny, often poignant short story, usually on a tight deadline. I eavesdropped sometimes while they asked question after question, mining for the nugget of gold that would explain something essential about the subject’s life.

That’s where I learned the important lesson that I’ve carried over into my crime writing: detail illuminates character.

A memorable example of this is in the 2015 obituary of Leon Gorman, the grandson of L.L.Bean, who transformed that iconic Maine company from an outdoor gear store with fewer than 100 employees to a billion dollar business. His obituary talked about his business success, of course, but also about something he didn’t advertise. For a dozen years, Mr. Gorman was late to work every Wednesday because he spent the early-morning hours at Preble Street in Portland, helping to prepare and serve breakfast to hundreds of homeless folks. That telling detail has stayed with me for years.

A few weeks ago, I was moved by the obit for Bernice “Bunny” Sandler, known as the Godmother of Title IX.  After experiencing sex discrimination in the 1960s when she was told she wouldn’t be considered for a position in academia because she came on too strong for a woman, she became the driving force behind the 1972 law that barred discrimination by educational institutions that received federal funding. Title IX is most often talked about in terms of increasing opportunity for women and girls to play sports, but Bunny Sandler’s determination revolutionized the world of education on every level.

Last week, I read in the Globe about Betty Ballantine, who died at 99. Betty and her husband Ian are credited with introducing America to the paperback novel. Starting in 1939 when she was just 20 years old and he was 23, they began to import quality novels in paperback form—popular in Britain but not in the U.S.—and built the enormous market for which we writers remain grateful. Betty and Ian went on to found Bantam Books and Ballantine Books, both now part of Penguin Random House.

On my website I link to a site called Obit of the Day, an amazing compendium of stories about ordinary and extraordinary people. Readers who share my love for a good life story should hop over there and browse. An example of what you will find: On the day after Christmas in 2012, Fontella Bass, whose song Rescue Me has resonated since it first hit the charts in 1965, died after a lifetime making music. According to her obituary, it is a common misconception that Rescue Me was an Aretha Franklin song. Here’s a link to her obit, if you’d like the rest of that story and a link to the song as well:

So here’s to the obituary writers, who manage to capture something of the essence of a person’s life in a few paragraphs, one of those thankless jobs that deserves a sincere salute.

Blog Readers: Do you read the obits? Why or why not? Please let us know in the comments.

Brenda Buchanan is the author of the Joe Gale Mystery Series, featuring a diehard Maine newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. Three books—QUICK PIVOT, COVER STORY and TRUTH BEAT—are available everywhere e-books are sold. She is writing a new series that has as its protagonist a Portland criminal defense lawyer willing to take on cases others won’t touch in a town to which she swore she would never return.

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Weekend Update: February 16-17 , 2019

Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will be posts by Brenda Buchanan (Monday), Barb Ross (Tuesday) Kate Flora (Wednesday) Susan Vaughan (Thursday), and Sandra Neily (Friday).

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

From Kaitlyn Dunnett: From February 14-18, the Kobo edition of Kilt at the Highland Games will be on sale for 99 cents. Look for more ebook offers in the next weekend update.




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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Deadline for New Novel, New Novel Coming Out, New Website & New Ideas

The snow is falling as I write this. It’s thick, wet and heavy. Somehow we’ve hit the midwinter blues. Nothing better to do than put on the coffee and settle into a writing routine. Or for you readers, settle with a good book.

The deadline for my new novel is fast pproaching and at this point I find myself in good shape. Writing under a strict deadline means that I’ve not gotten to read very many novels (sorry writer friends). But I’m feeling confident now. What started out as a worrisome piece of #£¥€ first draft has coalesced quite lnicely into a twisty psychological thriller. My only problem now is that I don’t yet have a name for my new book. Or, to be more precise, I have lots names for this novel but nothing that has struck a chord. Now I have to work with my publisher to pick out the best one.

On April 30th my new novel, PRAY FOR THE GIRL, comes out and I’m very excited for the world to meet Lucy Abbott, the gritty heroine of the novel. On the very next day I’m due to turn in my new, as-yet-to-be-named manuscript. Combine all that with the fact that I need to market the new book and set up readings and blogs, this spring should be a very busy time for this author.

I’m excited to announce my brand-spanking new website, Thanks Bob and Courissa. It’s been awhile in the making, but I’m very happy with the way it’s turned out. I’m hoping that people will sign up for my newsletter so that they can receive updates on new books and where I’ll be speaking. I promise to use this newsletter judiciously and not innundate subscribers with a barrage of useless information.

I’m just starting to develop some new ideas for novels. This process is fun but also daunting. So if you see me staring into space please know that I’m deep in thought trying to formulate the many twists and turns that make a good psychological thriller. And I’ll soon be getting back to reading all the books my writer friends have put out. Thanks for being patient, author friends. I promise I’ll get to them soon.

Meanwhile, PRAY FOR THE GIRL is on préstale and comes out April 30th. Make sure you pick up your copy today

USA Bestselling Author Steve Konkoly says of it, “PRAY FOR THE GIRL delivers one devilish twist after another, pulling you into the story and never letting go. A tightly paced suspense drawn with compellingly real characters, Souza’s newest domestic thriller is a genre defining tour-de-force.”

Happy winter, everyone! See you this spring. Now time to shovel.










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Give Every Character a Secret

Deadly Edits #2 (in stores June 25)

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, working on the rough draft, otherwise known as first draft, s**t draft, or “throw in everything, including the kitchen sink” draft, of the third “Deadly Edits” mystery. This is always the most challenging stage of writing for me, since I lack the ability to think very far ahead in the story. Believe me, I would love to be able to outline the plot in advance, but I’ve learned over the years that it’s far less time consuming to simply sit down and write the book. I’ll worry about making sense of it all when I revise. That’s also when I’ll make an outline. It’s soooo much easier after the fact!

What do I know in advance? I usually know who gets murdered, why, and who dunnit. I will also have given some thought to alternate suspects and their motives, and have come up with a reason why my amateur sleuth should get involved in solving the crime. She has to have a good reason, at least in her own mind.

I also try to follow a bit of good advice I first heard when I was a newbie: give every character a secret. At the time I was writing for ages 8-12, but this is one rule that works in writing books for any age group. The secrets don’t have to be big ones, just important enough to keep. The suspicion that people are hiding something is a wonderful way to complicate the plot. It may even provide an entire subplot for the novel.

The real killer is keeping at least a couple of big secrets—the murder itself and the reason behind it. Other characters may have committed some less serious crime or may not have done anything wrong at all. Some secrets may be very minor indeed. The important thing is that keeping them quiet matters. In one of my children’s mysteries, the protagonist’s mother is a college professor on sabbatical. Her secret is that she’s using her time away from academia to fulfill a lifelong dream—she’s writing a romance novel. She was wise to keep this to herself. One reviewer questioned her choice, wondering why, of all things, it had to be a romance. That pretty much made my point.

I still have some early character notes for my second mystery for ages 8-12, The Mystery of the Missing Bagpipes. I admit the premise is a bit of a stretch—a group of bagpipe enthusiasts gather at a campground in Maine to take classes and study the history of the instrument—but I was writing at a time when my husband was in a bagpipe band and spending most weekends marching in parades. The conventional wisdom is to write about what you know, right? Anyway, in this novel, the pipers have their families with them. Each of my character sheets contains information on age, hair color, eye color, height, build, and special skills, but there are also lines labeled “secret” and “reason for keeping secret.” The book opens with my preteen heroine, Kim, declaring she hates the sound of bagpipes. Her secret is that she would really like to learn to play the instrument herself, so that she can share her father’s hobby. Her new friend Shelly’s secret is that she plays the bass drum in her parents’ bagpipe band. She keeps quiet about that because she believes that Kim dislikes everything to do with pipe bands. Shelly doesn’t want to alienate her. Among the adults, the sponsor of the gathering is trying to keep his heart condition quiet. Other characters are trying to hide criminal activities. Kim’s father also has a secret. He’s planning to retire from the NYPD and move to Maine, but he doesn’t want to tell his children until things are settled. Kim’s mother is hiding the fact that she’s house hunting. Kim’s eight-year-old twin siblings don’t want to reveal that they saw someone sneaking around late at night because they were supposed to be sound asleep in bed at the time. Most of these secrets don’t fall into the category of earth-shattering revelations when they come out, but they do complicate the plot and distract my amateur sleuth from solving the crime too soon.

In writing my two current cozy mystery series, I haven’t always given every character a secret in advance, but secrets certainly have a way of cropping up as I fumble my way through the rough draft. In Vampires, Bones, and Treacle Scones, the seventh Liss MacCrimmon Mystery, I introduced a teenage character nicknamed Boxer. He was supposed to be comic relief, delivering malapropisms like “That’s the way the cookie bounces.” I gave him an unwed mother from a local family of n’er-do-wells and a history of being pigeonholed as a kid who’d never make anything of himself. I planned to turn that assumption on its head, but I had no idea until I was actually writing a scene late in the book that he was about to reveal one heck of a secret. The identity of Boxer’s father came as a huge surprise to both Liss and me.

In my WIP, I’ve not only assigned secrets to most of the suspects, but also to my amateur sleuth, Mikki Lincoln. She hasn’t told her late husband’s family (they’re in Maine; she’s now living in New York State) anything about the two previous murder cases she’s been involved in. She didn’t want them to worry. Naturally, this information comes out at the worst possible moment and when her visiting nephew hears the horrifying details, he goes into protective mode. Mikki then has to keep even more secrets from him in order to solve the most recent murder.

There was also a second “rule” I followed when I was writing for middle-grades readers. It was “kill off the parents.” Not always literally, of course, in those innocent days of the 1980s, but think about it: if you want children or teens to solve a crime, they need to be able to do their sleuthing without the adults in their lives hovering over them. In writing cozy mysteries for an adult audience this rule translates into “figure out a way for the amateur sleuth to operate unimpeded by police professionals”. . . but that’s a topic for another blog.

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) 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 and and she maintains a website about women who lived in England between 1485 and 1603 at

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Make them talk

William Andrews: I find cute-grandchildren stories as boring as the next person, so a warning: this posting starts with my granddaughter. She’s 3, and obviously she’s cute. She’s discovered how much I enjoy making her animals (when did they become “stuffies?”) talk. She enjoys their tales as well and often presents one or more of them to me with the command: “Make them talk.” And so they do, telling stories of their adventures, asking her questions, speculating about what her parents are up to, and so forth. I don’t know how long this period of magic will last, but I love every minute of it. And it naturally got me thinking about what writers do all the time.

We make our characters talk. Of course we also make them do things, and we create a background upon which they both talk and act and a theme that underlies the whole. But fundamentally, at least for me, writing is about making them talk.

I can’t prove it, but based on my own experience and on conversations with other writers, the most common question we get asked at signings and readings is a variant on “Where did the story come from?” Every writer is different, some starting with the story, others with the characters, still others with a theme. But I think the most honest answer, at least for me, to the question of how the story started is that writers hear voices, or at a minimum that once the story is underway it’s the voices we hear that sustain it. My first mystery, Stealing History, began when I read a newspaper account of items stolen from New England historical societies. The plot came quickly into my head, but almost simultaneously I imagined the central character, Julie Williamson, and before I knew it I heard her voice, and the voices of her secretary, her trustees, visitors to the historical society where she works.

The voices are no doubt composites of voices I’ve heard—and in some cases still hear regularly. For example, Julie’s secretary, Mrs. Detweiller, is not at all like the several secretaries I had the pleasure of working with in my other career, but her voice combines qualities of a number of people I’ve known: accusatory, distracted, somewhat pompous, often talking more to herself than responding to others. Her voice defines Mrs. Detweiller and reflects the troubled relationship Julie has with her because of Julie’s being “from away.”

The voices I hear as I write raise an interesting question: are they talking, or am I making them talk? If you hear voices in your head you may be a candidate for therapy. Or you may be a writer. Or maybe both. Let’s assume you’re a writer and reasonably sane. As you make your characters talk you give them the power to move your story along, to act in ways that create tension and present conflicts to drive the narrative. And you let them develop their personalities, their habits, quirks, likes and dislikes. Who knew my Julie Williamson doesn’t like to cook but is fortunate to have a boyfriend who does? I didn’t know that when I first met her, but over time as she talked that part of her personality and her relationship with her partner helped define her for me. The way she talks about food—she loves it, and all the more when her friend cooks it—reflects her personality and helps explain her actions.

But back to my cute granddaughter. Two of her animals, twin badgers named Badger 1 and Badger 2, are frequent story tellers. I’m asked to make them talk, I’m sure my granddaughter knows, at some level, that I’m the one doing the talking. But note that she says make them talk. In other words, let the badgers have their say. When we write fiction, we always aim to let the characters use their own voices, while we also know we are making them talk. Are we talking or listening? That’s a mystery for mystery writers to ponder.

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Dorothy Cannell: I was sitting at an airport waiting for my connecting flight when I Screen Shot 2019-02-10 at 1.13.07 PMheard the person in the seat beside me talking directly into my ear.  That’s how it sounded, although when I looked up I saw it was woman on her cell phone.  What she had said caught my attention.

“A five year old deciding whether he’d go to school or not.  A child of his age,” heroutraged voice shot up with each syllable, “staging that kind of rebellion and being allowed to get away with it!  A period of isolation was clearly in order!” A pause as whoever she was talking to replied.  Then a self-congratulatory grunt. “No, after that little trauma things went reasonably well.”

Had the book I was reading been David Copperfield or Oliver Twist I’d have wondered if I dozed momentarily and found myself in the world where mistreatment of children was rejoiced in as a righteous prerogative.  A period of isolation.  That sounded more like days locked into a room on bread and water rather than fifteen minutes in time out.

Screen Shot 2019-02-10 at 1.14.26 PMWho was this woman?  One of those TV reality series super nannies brought in to restore calm to the family home where the offspring swung from the light fixtures, flung themselves on the floor and beat their feet like drums, or drove the car out of the garage to make clear they really were running away from home?  I took a look at her harsh profile and decided she would never have acquired her Mary Poppins certificate.  A truant officer, fifty years overdue for retirement?  I settled on that – even a pack of Dobermans and a Condemned Notice attached to the house could not keep her out. The sort where discussions occur beforehand such as:

“I know she’s your mother, and you’re not to blame for that, but can’t you have a heart attack and die five minutes after she marches in?  Surely she’d take that as a hint this is not a good time.  Oh, hell!  That won’t work.  She’d stay to arrange the funeral and then never leave.

“Don’t ask me to be nice to your sister.  She’d decide I was currying favor out of a massive inferiority complex and bring in a psychiatrist, who’d go along with the insistence that I’m a danger to myself and others.

“Why don’t we pack up what we need, including the kids, in a couple of suitcase and run away to some deserted Pacific Island?  I know, dear, I hate endless sunshine, blue seas and sand, but anything is better than having her rant on about my not eating the raisins in my bran flakes and how if I were her husband I wouldn’t be allowed to go to work until I did.”

She reached down for her carry-on and marched purposefully out of eyesight when a boarding call was announced.  I was left wondering about a five-year-old boy who didn’t always want to go to school and as a result brought down the ire of that awful woman.  That’s how I thought of her, although if taken as a whole – instead of a snippet of overheard conversation – she could be a pleasant person who happened to be travel-fatigued and overstating what was on her mind.  But I would never know her or that little boy.  All I was borrowing from reality was a couple of lines of dialog, which is why I could let my imagination roam uncluttered.

What was her relationship to the child?

How would the memory of that incident impact him as an adult?

How far might he go in taking revenge?

I have already written a scene in which a man tells the police this story in hope they will view her as a suspect in the crime being investigated.

Happy reading,


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Weekend Update: February 9-10, 2019

Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will be posts by Dorothy Cannell (Monday), William Andrews (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:

 Bruce Coffin was too modest to add his own news last week. Beyond the Truth has been announced as a finalist in the best novel category for the Agatha Award. Winners will be announced at the Malice Domestic convention in May. Congrats, Bruce!





Kate Flora and her writing companions Katy Munger, Taffy Cannon, Gary Phillips, and Lise McClendon have a valentine present for you. From February 14-17, Beat, Slay, Love will be free! Here’s the link:

Love a Chef

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 if your library or organization is looking for a truly entertaining program, consider this:

Making a Mystery – a panel of crime writers and lots of audience interaction

The audience writes out index cards with names, weapons, settings, occupations, and motives, and then deposits the cards in paper bags. The panel then pulls the cards out of the bags and build a mystery “on the fly.” Along the way, the audience learns something about how a writer approaches the decisions made during the task of making a mystery. They also learn something about the mystery-thriller-suspense sub-genres.

Hilarity ensues. At least it has every time we’ve done it so far.

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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