Maine, Where Your Neighbor Can Be a Mystery

Gerry Boyle here. Just back from a 30-mile bike ride. The miles fly by on the back roads in my part of Maine—woods, farms, cows, dogs (hopefully on chains), last week a near collision with a tractor pulling a load of dripping manure.

It would not have been pretty.

But here’s the deal: from a bike you get a long look at every driveway, cabin, trailer, house with blacked-out windows, abandoned camper (or is someone living there?). You see every bag of beer cans tossed out some high school kid’s car window (Bud Lite the beer of choice), every broken bottle, every road kill (porcupines get whacked most often; quills no protection against a speeding pickup) every highway sign blasted with buckshot.

And if you’re like me you find yourself thinking, who are these people?

I don’t say that because I’m not part of my community. I am. But poking your biking nose into Maine’s back roads leaves you wondering  what their lives are like, what’s  behind that locked door, why that trailer is closed up, is this owner doing three to five?

If you make people up for a living you tend to be very curious about the real people, bits and pieces of whom are the basis of your fiction. Especially the people who don’t want to be seen or heard. The people for whom Maine is a refuge, a sanctuary, a hideout.

I find myself inventing their lives as I ride by. I wonder about their childhoods, their spouses. Their trucks and their jobs. Their felony records and their firearms. I want to be a fly on the wall of their lives. And I understand, I think, why some people just want to be left alone.

And I leave them alone, especially the people who have signs like the one above, which I rode by the other morning (and had to come back and snap). For them, Maine is a place where you can  shut the wider world out. Can’t get there from here? Ha. You can’t here from here. But you can just keep right on going, mister man.

I’ve known a few of these people. They’re mostly interesting, once you break through the gruff exterior. All kinds of stuff whirling around in their heads. It’s the kind of stuff that makes than ill-suited to your average subdivision but so be it.

As writers, we take a piece of people, even when they don’t talk to us. When they don’t want to be bothered. When they put a sign on the end of mile-long driveway into the woods that says, “No Trespassing. … Posted … Private … Stay Out.”

We do and we don’t. I see a sign like the one above and I start inventing (another good thing about biking is it allows you to think). In two minutes that person is taking shape. In ten minutes he or she is well on the way to becoming a fully developed character.

Funny thing about this writing business. There’s no fence, no warning sign that can keep us out of your lives. We’re out there sucking up people and spitting them out. In fiction.


PS The first commenter on this post (not affiliated with this blog) will receive a signed copy of my first novel, DEADLINE, featuring Jack McMorrow, who has spent the past 15 years traveling the back roads of rural Maine.

PSS I’m at the Newport Cultural Center today at 5:30. If you’re in Somerset County, drop by and join the conversation.







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10 Responses to Maine, Where Your Neighbor Can Be a Mystery

  1. Joan Emerson says:

    Glad you avoided the collision with that tractor!

    I think most states have their share of people who live behind those “No Trespassing . . . Stay Out ” signs as there does seem to be a broad segment of society that has no interest in interacting with others. As you say, it’s the stuff that feeds the imagination of writers. [Of course, if they didn’t exist, writers would simply invent them anyway, don’t you think?]

    • Gerry Boyle says:

      Me, too, The tractor, I mean. A dripping, oozing mess it would have been. And yes, rural America is filled with people who have retreated. Fed up, frustrated, or just enjoy solitude. Trick is knowing when that Keep Out sign really means keep out.

  2. Deanna says:

    I love that sign. It reminds me of rural NH, too. Dee

  3. MCWriTers says:

    Great post, Gerry. Wondering about people is what we all do, all the time. I started teaching a mystery writing class last night, and the first class had to be about characters–how we shape them, why they belong in the book, their weaknesses and secrets as well as their strengths. I think it’s my favorite part of any new book–seeing who will come along and how they will fit into the story.

    Right now, I’ve got a room full of people arguing in the new Thea mystery, and I’m really not sure where that will go, but I’m looking forward to following along and seeing what they do next. And of course, as we all know, Maine is full of characters.


  4. Gerry Boyle says:

    I’m sure, Deanna. It was not far from “4-Wheel Drive” Any of those over your way?

  5. Andrea says:

    I often wonder, which Maine is the “real” Maine? There’s the backwoods Maine you are describing, the coastal areas, the County, the rugged north…and each has its own personality and view of ‘outsiders’. (Welcome to Maine. Now leave.) Growing up and then residing in Waterville is like living in a Maine that has been distilled, all the original flavor washed out. My guess is that the sign is mostly for show, and if you met the owners they would open up to you. But I wouldn’t bet on it. Unless, of course, you’ve got Claire with you on a tandem 🙂

    • Gerry Boyle says:

      Right, Andrea. A tandem with holsters instead of panniers!
      The real Maine? I guess it’s a matter of point of view. But if “real” means not influenced by outside forces, I’d point inland or way Down East. Just one answer to an interesting question.

  6. Gerry, you have hit on one of the reasons I enjoy cycling so much!

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