You Can’t Get There From Here

Kaitlyn Dunnett here. First, an announcement. There are FREE BOOKS associated with this post. Keep reading to find out more. And now, back to your previously scheduled program:

Recently, I was going through some material that, once upon a time, was online at www.KathyLynnEmerson.com, the website of my “evil twin,” when I came across a piece I wrote several years ago around the publication date of the fourth book in my (or rather, Kathy’s) historical mystery quartet set in 1888. These novels (Deadlier than the Pen, Fatal as a Fallen Woman, No Mortal Reason, and Lethal Legend) feature Diana Spaulding, a journalist working for a New York City scandal sheet, and Ben Northcote, a physician from Bangor, Maine, as a sleuthing couple.

“You can’t get there from here” is the tag line of an old joke here in Maine, but in writing Lethal Legend I discovered there was even more truth to that saying back in the 1880s than there is today. For reasons relating to the plot of the mystery, I had to move Diana and Ben from Bangor to various nearby locations—Belfast, Bucksport, Ellsworth, Islesboro (spelled Islesborough in those days) and a fictional island in Penobscot Bay. You’d think this would be easy. The distances aren’t great—all in the twenty mile range. But disputes over railroad right of ways and the geographical intricacies of the Maine coast meant that things were seldom as simple as they appeared on paper.

I pride myself on being as accurate as possible when I write my historical mysteries. That means I can’t change a county border just because it is in the wrong place. The county line between Waldo and Hancock Counties happens to run right down the middle of the Penobscot River and out into Penobscot Bay. Yes, I invented an island, but for a number of reasons it ended up being on the other side of the county line from Islesboro and Belfast. That meant that when I needed a county sheriff and coroner, my characters had to send to the Hancock County seat at Ellsworth. You wouldn’t think that would be too tricky . . . except that to sail out of Penobscot Bay and along the coast and then back inland to Ellsworth would take most of a day. To take a boat to Bucksport and a train from there to Ellsworth wasn’t in the cards either. There was no rail line between those two points. To reach Ellsworth, one had to go from Bucksport to Bangor, change lines, and then make the trip from Bangor back to Ellsworth. Naturally, train schedules were not set up to make this trip any easier.

Sometimes the quest for accuracy ends with the writer tearing her hair out in frustration. I consulted the Bangor Whig and Courier for the dates in question and found railroad timetables in all the detail I could possibly want. I also found steamship and ferry schedules. The problem came when I wanted to move my characters from place to place on my schedule. Most of the time, I was able to put Diana and Ben on real trains and steamers, but for their frequent trips to the fictional Keep Island, I had to invent a mail boat owned by the same wealthy gentleman who owns the island. It was really the only solution.

To give you an idea of what the real schedules were like, trains left Bangor for Bucksport, eighteen miles away, at 7:25 AM, 2 PM, and 6:55 PM and arrived there at 8:35 AM, 3:40 PM, and 8:08 PM. On a different line, trains left Bangor for Belfast at 8 AM and 3:30 PM and reached there at noon and at 7:55 PM. Rail travel to Ellsworth, connecting to the ferry to Bar Harbor “in pleasant weather only” one could leave Bangor at 5:50 AM, 1:35 PM, or 6:30 PM. The trip as far as Ellsworth took a little less than an hour and a half.

Travel by steamer, when the river wasn’t frozen over, was the other most popular option and the only way to reach the island of Islesboro (unless you had your own boat). The steamer Rockland made daily trips (after May 17) from Bangor to Rockland, leaving Bangor at 6:30 AM, Bucksport at 8:15, and Belfast at 11:00. The return trip arrived in Bangor at 7 PM. The steamer Cimbria left Bangor on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 7:30 AM and made a number of stops, including Bucksport at 9:30, Islesborough at 11:30 and Bar Harbor at 5:30 PM. Return trips took place on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and offered connections to Belfast aboard the steamer Electra when the Cimbria stopped in Castine.

Of course, people also had the option of riding from place to place on horseback or in a buggy or wagon, but that generally took much longer. Bar Harbor, for example, was a one day trip by steamer but could take three days from Bangor by road. On the other hand, someone could ride the eighteen miles between Ellsworth and Bucksport more quickly than they could sail along the coast or make the trip to Bangor and back.

Frustrating as it can be at times, I enjoy doing research, especially when it turns up odd little details. One terrific source of trivia was the annual report of the City of Bangor for March 1887-March 1888. That year, the city had more arrests than usual, mostly due to “strangers” working on the railway. Half of all arrests were of non-residents. Of the 1,443 arrests in all, 895 of them for drunkenness. Two people were committed to the Insane Hospital in Augusta, Maine. There were no murders.

I learned quite a few things that didn’t make it into the novel, among them that although the terms police department and policeman were used in the report, law enforcement in Bangor was actually in the hands of the city marshal. There appear to have been between thirteen and seventeen policemen and nine constables, but some of the names appear on both lists. There was no city coroner, but there was a city physician, which is, more or less, the job Ben Northcote holds in the novels and in the short story “The Kenduskeag Killer.”

One thing I learned about the office of county coroner that didn’t make it into the story is the sort of thing that is perfect to include in a blog on crime writing. It seems that these officials, elected every two years, were responsible for investigating unnatural or violent deaths and, according to A Bicentennial Look at Bygone Bangor (1975), they followed a rule of thumb when it came to bodies found floating in the Kenduskeag Stream or the Penobscot River. If the deceased had money in his pockets, he was a suicide. If he had no money on him, he’d probably been murdered.

Ah, the good old days when things were simple . . .

The Diana Spaulding 1888 Quartet is available in ebook format and my evil twin also has a good supply of print copies in storage. A complete set of these will go to one lucky reader of this post. Just leave a comment below and in a day or two I’ll throw the names in a hat and pick one. Good luck.

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59 Responses to You Can’t Get There From Here

  1. Lynn Demsky says:

    After doing all of this, hard to believe you find time to write! Thanks for sharing with us!

    Like

    • Boy, Lynn…. you are an early riser!

      Like

    • Hi, Lynn,
      It isn’t so much finding time (I have no social life!) as it is tearing myself away from the research, which I (mostly) enjoy, to actually write the book. Solving those little real life mysteries, like how to get from Islesboro to Ellsworth, can be very rewarding, but along the way there are all these other avenues to explore . . . all sorts of fascinating tidbits that have nothing at all to do with Diana and Ben’s story. I did manage to work Maine’s official soft drink–Moxie– into the plot, though.

      Kathy/Kaitlyn

      Like

  2. Sharon says:

    Thank you for sharing your story behind the story. I love knowing how authors deal with their logistical problems while staying true to their story and the realities of the world it is set. Sounds like an interesting series!

    Like

  3. Deanna says:

    I’m going to look for these in my local library, but count me in anyway please..Dee

    Like

  4. Kate Flora says:

    Kathy, this is way too much work. In the contemporary world, we use problems with cell phones, snowstorms, and cars that breakdown. But since there has been construction on the Maine Turnpike in the first 24 miles and near Waterville for about the last decade, I guess I can always rely on that as a plot device.

    Thanks for taking us “behind the scenes.” I often find, as I’m writing, that I need to flip an emergency e-mail to one of my advising police officers. They always begin: HELP!

    Like

    • Hi, Kate,
      Refering back to your Sunday post rather than this comment, it occurs to me that, one of these days, I’ll have to blog about how GPS just gets folks lost in rural Maine.

      Kathy/Kaitlyn

      Like

  5. John Clark says:

    Fascinating information. I remember Dad telling me that my Aunt Kate Burke, who owned the general store in Bingham was able to get from New York City where she went on buying trips, to Bingham by train, sometimes in one day…Of course that was back in the 1920s. Too bad progress did such a number on rail lines and public transportation here in Maine.

    Like

    • Hi, John,
      A good portion of Deadlier Than the Pen, the first book in this series, takes place on a train headng from NYC to Boston (and then on to Bangor) . . . during the Blizzard of ’88. It was a much shorter trip if the train you were on didn’t get stuck in a snowdrift.

      Kathy/Kaitlyn

      Like

  6. Eve says:

    I am currently writing my own historical fiction mystery novel set in Indianapolis, IN in the early 1900s. I am discovering that it takes a lot of time and research to really capture what life was like in Indianapolis in 1905. I live about an hour north of Indianapolis, so I do have the advantage of taking a trip to Indy and discovering all of the wonderful historical facts that I can incorporate in my book. I have read your book on how to write historical fiction mysteries and found it very helpful in guiding my research along. Sadly, I have not read any of your historical fiction mysteries, but they are on my list!!! Thanks for sharing some fun facts about this series!

    Like

  7. Librariandoa says:

    I love this series couldn’t you write more?

    Like

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the books, but Diana and Ben’s story was designed as a quartet of books with a story arc that finishes up in Lethal Legend. I did write two short stories, one with Ben and one with Diana, set between Deadlier Than the Pen and Fatal as a Fallen Woman, but I’ve pretty much done all that I wanted to do with these characters. I never say never, but right now other settings and other sleuths are pulling at me more strongly. Sorry.

      Kathy/Kaitlyn

      Like

  8. Nikki Strandskov says:

    Fascinating information, especially since my grandfather was born in 1888, so it’s an important time for me to learn about. (He was born in Alexander, Maine — Washington County. I have his grandfather’s diaries of living in Princeton from around 1870 to 1908. It took a lot of hard work to cobble together a living Down East in those days. Come to think of it, it still does!)

    Like

    • Hi, Nikki,
      Diaries are a wonderful source of inspiration. Although my grandfather (born in 1876) lived in rural New York state, I used many of the details he wrote about in his memoirs to recreate life in the 1880s. He had kept what he called “diary books” for years, but most of what he wrote in those concerned what he’d planted and when . . . and he had an absolute obsession about recording the deaths of his neighbors!

      Kathy/Kaitlyn

      Like

  9. Hi Kathy,
    You are in good company. Just finished listening to an interview with Amy Tan about her latest book, and she describes herself as “obsessed with detail.” The little things do make a difference — keep it up!

    Like

  10. Joyce Lovelace says:

    It sounds an awful lot like trying to use public transportation to get around Central New York. Basically – you can’t get there from here – or at best only twice a day.
    I am in awe of the amount of research that goes into writing good novels.

    Like

  11. Nancy Anderson says:

    I assumed that anyone that would take the name Dunnett would have to know a thing or two about research. I was right. Enjoy your books.

    Like

  12. Cheryl says:

    Your books sound really good. I always like to learn something when I read fiction

    Like

  13. Barbara Ross says:

    I delved into the complicated world of Maine’s railroads when completing a town history for the next book in my Maine Clambake Mystery series, Boiled Over. Whew! Those long peninsulas that made Maine such a powerhouse for shipping created huge challenges in the age of railroads.

    You can’t get there from here, indeed.

    Like

  14. Aubrey Hamilton says:

    Well, I see those problems from my old math books about one train starts from one terminal going 60 miles an hour and another train starts from a second terminal etc. etc. would never work out in Maine. What an interesting background to your historical series. Thanks for taking the time to explain it all.

    Like

  15. Jody says:

    Fascinating. I’ll bet there are times you really wish you could add in some of the facts you’ve learned but it doesn’t help the story. I love history and historical fiction.

    Like

    • Hi, Jody,
      I always try to put things I shouldn’t into the stories and then have to take them out. A few sneak past. There’s a story about a runaway camel in Deadlier than the Pen that was just too good not to use.

      Kathy/Kaitlyn

      Like

  16. Nancy Miller says:

    Thanks for an interesting post. I enjoy historical novels because they make the times come alive…but I never heard about the suicide/murder theory. That’s quite a conclusion. Next thing you know someone in a mystery will be stuffing the pockets of their latest victim…voila!, a suicide!

    Like

  17. Lil Gluckstern says:

    i really enjoy this series, and I love learning some things about the research that makes the story come alive. I enjoy your other series, but this one strikes me as being more authentic, and I love history too.

    Like

    • Thanks, Lil. I think it’s because 1888 is a little closer to now. We don’t remember “the good old days” but family stories from that time period are still floating around.

      Kathy/Kaitlyn

      Like

  18. I am most intrigued by your quartet. My Grandmother and her family came from Maine, and Bowdoin was where the men went to college. Father was born in Bangor in 1896. It seems longer from New Hampshire than I would have supposed.

    Like

    • Thanks for your comment. I suspect part of the reason train trips took so long is that they stopped at every little town along the way. There were “express” trains but they were few and far between.

      Kathy/Kaitlyn

      Like

  19. Carol-Lynn Rössel says:

    Hey Kathy!

    I’d love to win your books.
    I’ll be at Crime Bake.

    Like

  20. Pat Garland says:

    I haven’t read this series but, being a fan of historical fiction, I will make sure I do. As a long time summer resident on the coast of Maine, I completely understand your frustration, and am well acquainted with the phrase “you can’t get there from here”.

    Like

  21. Carol M says:

    This sounds like a great series! I’d love to win it! I like it when the historical mysteries I read are accurate. You learn so much that way! Thank you for the giveaway!

    Like

  22. Thanks for sharing such an insightful post. Always love to hear about how others research and what fascinating nuggets they uncover. I’m definitely curious to not only enjoy your stories but learn more about Maine, which I’ve only been to once when a kid. Want to know about 19th century Baltimore, then I’m your gal, but it sounds like your books would be a great vacation away in time and place for me. Thanks!

    Like

  23. I did not know about this mystery series of yours–you are prolific! Looking forward to reading it, and I’m with you on the research. I just love research, and can happily spend more time on it than actually writing. We even have a Facebook page called “Research Rapture” which anyone is welcome to join–it grew from a panel I was on at the last HNS conference.

    Like

  24. Eric Hendrie says:

    Kaitlyn
    About two weeks ago I was in a book store with my children and wife looking around when I came across your book Vampires, Bones, and Treacle Scones. Being a life long reader , Im 48 now, I find myself now being drawn into reading more mysteries than before and your book caught my eye for many different reasons. My son,Robbie, who is 7 wasn’t interested since it didn’t have to do with Star Wars or Mario. My youngest daughter, Jessea, who soon will be 23 months in a few weeks wasn’t much help either since it wasn’t a touch and feel book. But my middle child, Mollea, who is 5 was a huge help she found the book and brought it over to me. She loved the cover since it was a Halloween theme with a dog and a cat. Then upon opening it I saw you were in Maine which struck a cord with me since my wife had just lost her grandmother who lived in Booth Bay Harbor Maine , she was a 105. So long story short I bought the book and loved it. It was hard to put down and I finished it in just two short days. Its strange in some ways it reminds me of one of my favorite books, To Kill A Mockingbird, I’ll explain that at a later time.
    So in short I love your writing and you’ve made a new fan thanks to a 5 year old girl. I’ve been searching out your other books to add to my collection. Someday I hope our paths will cross so I may have one or two of them signed by you but living in Michigan that chance may be slim.
    The books you talked about in your posting seem to be ones I would enjoy since I love the amout of detail you put into your work, one can tell they are a true labor of love. So throw my short haha comment into the hat for the drawing please and continue your writing please because this new fan awaits your next book.

    Take care,

    Eric

    Like

    • Hi, Eric,
      Thank you so much for your comments. And it sounds like you’re bringing up another generation of readers, for which we’re all grateful. I’ll add a plug here, too, for another member of our Maine Crime Writers family. If you like my Liss MacCrimmon books, you’ll also enjoy Barb Ross’s series, starting with Clammed Up. Barb summers in Boothbay Harbor and her mystery series centers on a family who host clam bakes on an island off the coast.

      Kathy/Kaitlyn

      Like

  25. Judy D says:

    I’m impressed by the research. Love to win. Thanks.

    Like

  26. Kerry Hammond says:

    The books sound very interesting, I love historicals!

    Like

  27. KarenM says:

    I can see that there is a lot of interest in your series. Please enter me as well.

    Like

  28. Sally says:

    Love your mysteries (just finished reading the latest in time for Halloween!) but have not yet read these historical works by your evil twin. I hope I get to read them soon!

    Like

  29. AND THE WINNER IS . . .

    Jody.

    Thanks to everyone who commented. I wish I had enough copies to send books to everyone.

    Kathy/Kaitlyn

    Like

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