Arguing with My Mother

Kate Flora: As regular readers of this blog know, my mother, A. Carman Clark, is dead–Kate Flora - Maine Mulch Murder- Cover1agone now for twelve years. But my mother was a writer, an editor, and a keen observer of country living and the natural world, and I often have questions I wish she could answer. When she was in her eighties, she published her first mystery, the tale of Amy Creighton, a sixty-something single book editor and avid gardener, who finds a body in the sawdust shed at the local sawmill when she goes to get sawdust to mulch her strawberries, and has to solve the mystery of the young man’s death. The book was called The Maine Mulch Murder, and it was published when she was eighty-three.

When she died, after suffering a stroke at eighty-five, she left behind the manuscript for her second Amy Creighton mystery, The Corpse in the Compost. Last summer, after hearing from Ann and Paula at Mainely Murder in Kennebunkport that mom’s book is still very popular with their customers, I decided to dig out her manuscript, do whatever editing was needed, and publish it. That’s when I started arguing with my mother.

I was barely off page one when I first stared skyward and said, “Mom, you have to establish some details about your characters. If you’re going to have three children in distress appear during Amy’s morning swim, you have to tell us how old they are, so we can draw a mental picture of them as they tell her what they’ve found.” And so it went. She’d written, I edited and added in essential details, either from the first book or from my knowledge of her, or from knowing about her gardens.

And then came the issue of the tapestry bag. The children have found a mysterious old bag under an abandoned shed. Inside the bag is a tapestry bag, and inside that bag are some jewels. Shortly after that, Amy and the New York editor she works for are at a swank dinner party and she meets a man who is thinking of writing a book about antique tapestry fabric. She invited him to look at the bag the children found. And then? No information about tapestry or the bag. I look heavenward and shake my fist. Mom? Mom? What is the point of this scene if you don’t tell the reader anything?

18449640_10156151398733082_480439399386806272_oTell me what John Jones looks like, I say. Tell me why you have barely mentioned Dort Adams with respect to his budding romance with Amy, which was central to the last book and Amy’s character. Why are you taking so long to tell us what the Ingraham girls (a pair of seventy-something sisters) know?

All the questions I would ask a writer who consulted me about a manuscript come to mind as I work my way through my mother’s book. Can we talk a bit about pacing? Do you have a plan for whether Amy’s friend Jane is going to become interested or involved with John Jones? Don’t you think you ought to develop Jane more fully if she’s going to be present for so much of the book? Look, Mom, I say to my sadly absent parent, could we sit down and talk about compost, so what has happened is clearer to your reader? You do know you have to explain it to them, don’t you?

Right now, this manuscript looks like an early draft of one of my own. I have scribbled all IMG_1410over the pages, and on the back of the pages. There are circles and arrows indicating where sentences need to be moved. There are lots of questions in the margins still to be answered. I also have tiny bits of paper on which her best friend, Marilys, has made her comments, red pen marks where her friend Noreen had edited, and many typed pages of my comments from when I read the book perhaps fourteen years ago.

“Mom,” I ask, “how do you want me to handle cell phones?”
“Amy is always feeding people. When do we see her cook? Go to the store? Did you mean to include recipes in the book?

I thought it was going to be a quick edit. Instead, now that I’ve done an initial edit on the book, I have to retype the whole thing  because her old files won’t open on my computer. It is slow going. It is also a wonderful way to get to spend time with my mother, even if we are arguing a lot.


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22 Responses to Arguing with My Mother

  1. That’s beautiful, Kate. Good for you for taking on the project! I looking forward to reading the book when it’s published.

  2. Gram says:

    Wonderful…I loved the first book and am looking forward to this one. When I am reading it I will remember this blog and smile.

  3. Lea Wait says:

    What a wonderful experience, Kate! And — it’s OK to argue with your mother. (And I think she’d agree with that!)

  4. Cheryl Worcester says:

    What a special adventure you’re getting to share with your mother…and I can see why Bruce Coffin has you as his mentor!

  5. bethc2015 says:

    This must be the hardest kind of editing: deeply rewarding but also putting great pressure on you to honor to your mom and her writing legacy. What a gift you are giving to her and her grandchildren.

  6. If you get stuck for bits and pieces. I’d do my best. I sorts knew her too.

  7. It must be both wonderful and so hard to spend this time with your mother. It is tough enough that they can not answer us except in memories and in who we are because of them. I am so glad you took on the wonderful/horrible task. Now I have to meet your mother through her first book. I love your books and look forward to seeing how you decided to handle these issues in the second.

  8. Barbara Ross says:

    What a wonderful task. A final collaboration and a way to bring memories back into focus.

  9. Marni Graff says:

    So happy to hear this, Kate, despite the arguing. Right after we met for the first time I bought a copy of Maine Mulch Murders and I’m happy to hear there will be sequel. I think your Mom would tell you: You’ll figure it out! Something to look forward to–well done, you. A labor of love~

  10. Gerald Lenaz says:

    What a wonderful tribute to a special person. While you maybe stylistically correct in your editing may I suggest that in someplaces Mother knows best in that “less is more”

    • No doubt you are right. She was very wise. I edit as I type, and then, of course, it will all be edited again. Quite a challenge not to mess with her style while still getting in what needs to be there. Thus….the shaking of fists skyward, wishing she were here.


  11. Kate, this is wonderful. You are very lucky. I adored my mother, a lawyer and legal writer and editor who lived to 96. I learned editing at her knee when I was ten. But I don’t think she ever read a mystery in her life. And the books she wrote had titles like Corporate Minutes and Meetings. The long-term bestseller was the Encyclopedia of Real Estate Appraisal. Count your blessings! And the question I’m dying to ask is, Was it a first draft? Had your mother resolved the issues of pace and detail in her published first mystery, or could you have given her a hand with that one too if she had asked?

    • Anonymous says:

      Liz…probably a second draft. She and I edited each other’s books. She was better at grammar and spelling; I was better at plot and character development. What I love is her very distinctive voice and sense of place. When I read her books, I hear her voice.


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