Kate Flora: As regular readers of this blog know, my mother, A. Carman Clark, is dead–gone 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, https://www.amazon.com/Maine-Mulch-Murder-Creighton-mystery-ebook/dp/B00IGZWQX0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1519925482&sr=8-1&keywords=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?
Tell 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 over 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.