Writing a mystery novel? Never discount value of a good conversation.

Hi, Maureen here, on a gloomy July day in Belgrade Lakes.

John Clark, Vaughn Hardacker, Maureen MIlliken and Brenda Buchanan talk mysteries, Maine and other stuff at the Thompson Library in Dover-Foxcroft July 14. (Diane Kenty picture)

John Clark, Vaughn Hardacker, Maureen MIlliken and Brenda Buchanan talk mysteries, Maine and other stuff at the Thompson Library in Dover-Foxcroft July 14. (Diane Kenty picture)

On a much prettier typical Maine summer day two weeks ago, I made the drive up to the Thompson Library in Dover-Foxcroft, whereI and  fellow contributors to this blog Brenda Buchanan and Vaughn Hardacker talked mysteries and writing to a small but appreciative audience, moderated by John Clark, who also contributes to this blog.

One of the questions to the panel concerned research, how we do it and what amount.

It’s a question I hadn’t given a lot of thought to, and my answer was that we’re always doing research. Since Cold Hard News and the upcoming novels in my Bernie O’Dea series are based near where I live and have a newspaper background, I can’t help but draw from what’s around me and what I experience on a daily basis as a newspaper editor. Aside from the usual Googling and looking things up that comes with writing, I thought that was it.

But I realized later that I’d left out a big aspect of my research: the interview.

I thought of this the other day when I finally sat down with a friend and colleague, Scott Monroe, who I’d been hounding for months to tell me about hunting, specifically about field dressing a deer in as much grisly detail as possible. I’m sure that’s info I could find on the internet, too, but there’s really nothing like talking it out with someone. Particularly when your interview victims are smart and insightful, which I always try to make mine are, it’s a goldmine. I’m sure now that my followup questions have already started and show no sign of letting up, he’s already regretting it.

A possible piece of the cover art for the next Bernie O'Dea mystery novel, generously provided by Scott Monroe.

A possible piece of the cover art for the next Bernie O’Dea mystery novel, generously provided by Scott Monroe.

He’s also offered up some art that I hope will be part of the cover art of my upcoming novel, working name No News is Bad News. It’s a tradition, because he also supplied the photo that’s on the cover of Cold Hard News. Hopefully I won’t bug him so much about hunting that he takes it back.

Interviews were also a big part of Cold Hard News.

When I first started writing the book, I needed to talk to someone who was owner/editor of a weekly newspaper. Though I’d worked on dailies as a reporter, then an editor, since 1983, I knew enough about weeklies to know there was a lot I didn’t know. I was living in Manchester, N.H., at the time, and after a lot of research, found the right size paper with the right kind of owner/editor in Enosburg Falls, Vt. Ed Shamy had recently been laid off from the Burlington Free Press (this was 2009 and newspaper jobs were dropping like flies), had bought the County Courier in Enosburg Falls and was willing, though a little reluctantly, to talk to me. He said he wasn’t sure he could help me much and I said that’s okay, it’ll be painless and only take about half an hour.

Well, it ended up being nearly two hours and Ed not only gave me a lot of good detail about how a weekly operated, but also was candid and heartfelt about what it felt like to go from a big, influential daily to a little country weekly. That conversation formed the foundation Cold Hard News was built on.coldhardnewscover

A while before that conversation, I had another one with my friend, reporter Lorna Colquhoun. Lorna, as a reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader, had covered the Bruce McKay-Liko Kenney shootings in 2007 in Franconia, N.H. That double-fatal shooting inspired a dramatic turning point in my book.

A lot of what Lorna told me was deep background and detail that didn’t make it into the book, but I needed to have the conversation to fully understand what had happened, both the people and the events, so I could have fertilizer for my thought process.

In all three cases, I fully understood that I was going to get a lot of stuff that I wasn’t going to use. That didn’t matter and none of it was a waste of time. When I was a reporter, I used to approach interviews the same way. Sure, I had some questions jotted down, but I was just as focused on what the person I was interviewing could add that I wasn’t aware of, or hadn’t given a lot of thought to.

Those two conversations for Cold Hard News, and my recent and ongoing one that will help form a big part of the book in progress are big foundation ones. But both books also were formed out of probably hundreds of small conversations I’ve had with more people, about more topics, than I can remember.

I like to talk. I don’t deny it. Anyone who knows me will vouch for it. But I also think it’s becoming a lost art. Okay, not a lost art so much as dismissed as time-wasting or not productive. We love our electronic devices, and I’m thrilled that I can text, email and message people. In a lot of cases it’s more efficient and gets the job done. But none of those are as satisfying as good old-fashioned conversation.

Next time I’m asked about my mystery writing research I’ll keep that in mind.

And be sure to stop by the Belgrade Lakeside Artisan Show next Sunday, Aug. 2, where Vaughn Hardacker, Lea Wait and I will be manning the Meet the Maine Crime Writers table. It’s 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Community Center for All Seasons on Route 27.

I’d love to chat!

Maureen Milliken is the author of Cold Hard News, the first book in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series.


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2 Responses to Writing a mystery novel? Never discount value of a good conversation.

  1. MCWriTers says:

    Talking, and more importantly, listening, is where we get stories. I really had to sit on my hands yesterday when I had both Deborah Palman–Maine’s first female warden and dog trainer extraordinaire, as well as forensic biologist, and Cat Warren, author of the fabulous book about cadaver dogs, What the Dog Knows, here for dinner. I could have asked them questions all night. Instead, I had to shut up and let them talk to each other.

    Not complaining….it was such a treat. It’s just that when we writers get rolling, there are always so many questions. Needless to say, we are SO grateful to the people who are willing to talk to us so that we can get it right.

    BTW, you could also ask John Clark about dressing a deer. Or about bow hunting, as I had to for a short story I wrote recently. There will never be an end to the questions.

    So looking forward to your next book.


  2. “Ask the expert” is always good advice . . . but often forgotten when it’s so easy to Google superficial answers. Thanks for the reminder.

    P.S. I’m reading Cold Hard News right now and enjoying it immensely.

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