‘So what, it’s Maine’ isn’t good enough for the book you’re writing

I was wandering through a local gift shop recently, a little stunned at how such a large store could have so little I wanted to buy, when I came across a small Maine section. Imagine my delight when I saw notecards with “Augusta, Maine” on them. Not only is it my hometown, but it’s not often celebrated on notecards.

When I took a closer look, I saw the cards had a pastoral coastal scene. Definitely NOT Augusta, Maine.  I even took a photo, so you’ll see I’m not making this up:

When I brought it up later to a Portland acquaintance, he said, “So what? It’s Maine. People from out of state don’t care.”


Granted, he’s not a writer. Nor should he be. But here’s a tip if you are an aspiring writer and wondering about setting: “So what, it’s [fill in the blank]” isn’t good enough.”

I’m sure I’ve discussed in this space before the young woman I was talking to at a conference a few years ago who was writing a book set in Maine. She’s never been here, might visit someday. She’s using guidebooks for information.

The notecard made me wonder if that young woman was going to put Augusta in her book and if that Augusta, too, would have a rocky coast with sailboats. That same day, I also bought the Lonely Planet book “The Unique States of America,” hoping to find some tips for a cross-country drive I’m going to do this summer. [Different store, in case you were wondering.]

The first state I turned to in the book was Maine, just to see what unique things about Maine it had for those not lucky enough to live here.

Oh my head. I think whoever wrote the Maine passage used a guide book for the guide book.

It starts out, “The Eastern Seaboard of the U.S., particularly New England, is often thought of as a manicured, developed place, more well-tended garden than untamed, rugged wilderness.” Um, on what lonely planet is your New England? Have we all turned into Connecticut? Who thinks that? Maybe someone who watched a lot of “Murder, She Wrote.” Which was filmed in California, people.

In any case, it goes on to make the case that no, we’re not all lounging in our developed gardens here — “the cliche is blown away in Maine by a salty wind lashing off the Atlantic Ocean over granite sea cliffs that look as raw as the oysters plucked from a cold-water estuary.”

In other words, a cliche I’m not sure is even a cliche is blown away by a cliche that we all live and suffer under. It may not surprise you the recommendations for food are blueberry pie, lobster and “Portland’s food scene.” Wait! Portland has a food scene? Just kidding. I read the paper and watch TV.

On the next four pages all the natural escapes; art, culture and history; family outings are on the coast except for a nod to Baxter State Park. Lonely planet tip: “There’s a good chance you’ll see a moose.” [Maureen tip: I haven’t seen one the last four times I’ve been there]. One tip it doesn’t have is that if you’re planning on driving up in July or August and camping on a whim, you’re not going to get in since it fills up months in advance. But why quibble with those details?

Oh, and, wait for it… there’s a little sidebar about lighthouses. Just in case you wondered but couldn’t find that information anwhere. And, if you’re wondering where to shop, they recommend L.L. Bean. Hmm, they’re going out a limb, but you never know, people just might check it out.

So, apparently the unique things about Maine are the absolutely most obvious things that anyone who knows anything about Maine thinks about Maine.

I know this sounds like a random rant, but really is a writing tip. I’ll get there soon.

I heard an author say recently than an agent told him “Maine is hot.” In the publishing world, not temperature-wise. Though if this winter is any indication, that’s coming.

I wonder, though, which Maine is hot? Is it the one with the lobsters, lighthouses and craggy coast with the salt sea spray, or the 95 percent of the state that doesn’t have those things?

Anyone can do guidebook Maine. Maybe that’s comforting to the rest of the world, and that’s the Maine they want.

But if it’s the latter, come on up and get us, publishers.

There are writers, many of the Maine Crime Writers, who take a lot of pride in making sure Maine gets its due in their books. Some of them even do it while throwing in a lighthouse or two.

Setting is more important to some writers than others, and to some readers than others. As a reader, I get annoyed (go figure) when I read books set in Maine that seem a lot like that notecard or guidebook. Even worse, they keep saying it’s Maine, but it could be anywhere.

As a writer, I wasn’t going to do that. I aim for writing about a Maine that, if you live here, you say, “Yeah, that’s it.” If you’ve never been here — whether you think it’s a manicured garden state (really? I still don’t get that) or a craggy, sea-driven coast — you say, “Ohhhh, that’s what Maine’s like.”

The real Augusta, rather than the Cabot Cove one on the notecard, is an interesting place, full of history, interesting architecture, winding little streets and some neighborhoods that go back more than 200 years. I’m sure you can find some Adirondack chairs and beach roses, but they’d be the least interesting thing you’d find.

But those are just facts and I won’t go into a lot of detail, because you can probably find all of it in guidebooks. To get the texture of the city, or any other place in Maine, or any other place, period, you need to spend some time there and see how it feels.

Instead of that notecard, how about something like this:

Pretend both the notecard and this photo are books. Which one would you pick up and read? If it’s the first one, OK. Enjoy the lobster roll and lighthouse tour. I’ll take the second one, because it’s something that I may not have seen before and I’m curious about what I’m going to find.

Seriously, too, which one would you want to write?

I’m not saying books with lighthouses on the coast of Maine are bad books. I’m not saying writers should only write about places they know. I’m just saying know a place before you write about it. Then find a way to make a reader know it, too.

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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7 Responses to ‘So what, it’s Maine’ isn’t good enough for the book you’re writing

  1. Anne Cass says:

    Love this, Maureen. Laughing often.

  2. Lois Bartholomew says:

    I know exactly what you are talking about, Maureen. For ten years we had the good fortune to live in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, one-time home of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Although the television show “Little House on the Prairie” remains popular, I sincerely doubt any of the writers ever lived there. I stopped watching it when they had Laura driving in a wagon over a mountain to Mankato and back in one day. While you can drive a car the 80+ miles in about an hour and a half, a horse and wagon only travels between 4-10 MPH, making a round trip at least 20 hours, if you want to wear out your horse. And in all the trips I made to Mankato each month to meet with my writing group, I never did see a mountain.

  3. kaitlynkathy says:

    Well said, Maureen! I agree completely.

  4. Darn! Here I was already to park on Water Street so I could catch the 10 am ferry to North Haven and rent my cabana. Guess I’ll just drive south to Gouldsboro instead.

  5. Monica says:

    I moved to (coastal) Maine 15 years ago because I wanted to live along the coast, not to ignore the rest of the state! I remembered Popham Beach from a 2 hour visit there when I was 17. It pulled at me for years.
    We bought a B&B here and went day-tripping to find things for our guests to see. The one thing I avoided like the plague? Red’s. There was no way they could be as good as every tour guide, magazine blurb, etc stated. 9 years into our life here we broke down and went. It really was good. We were impressed.

    In re writing – I put an IGA grocery store in a book I was writing. Then I asked my writing group if there *were* IGA’s in Maine because I didn’t want to make a real blooper on something easy to check. I got a lot of ‘who cares?’ ME! I care! That sort of thing would stop me dead in a book.

  6. parkermccoy says:

    Very thoughtful post, Maureen. I usually write about my own locale of Tennessee. I don’t focus on the background a lot when writing a story but I’ll try to go back and add in some details later. I think some readers really get into setting while others don’t. Some want a rich history just like you are talking about while others wouldn’t care if the story took place in a closet. I don’t put a lot of emphasis on it but when I do, I try to do some research at least. most of us don’t have the money to literally go to every place that we write about but given what the internet can offer, we should at least spend an hour or so digging a little. If a writer were to contact you and want you to give them some pointers on writing about Augusta, Maine, would you want to help or tell them to do their own research? Ha. Just wondering. Love this post!

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