The Guest Who Came in from the Cold

Irene M. Drago: Last summer, I spied two crime writers at the Railway Village in Boothbay. Kate Flora and Jule Selbo were sitting behind a table covered with stacks of their top selling mysteries, and I was sitting a few authors away. We were all waiting for the heralded Books in Boothbay to begin. The hands on the clock mounted high on the Meeting House wall informed me we had five minutes to showtime, so I made a beeline to Kate. Why Kate not Jule? Well, that’s a key point in my first blogpost as a guest of Maine Crime Writers.

In Maine, authors tend to form a Congo line as they move from one event to another. When we shake the hand of one author, they turn and introduce us to another. And just like that, we connect and begin to support each other. I met Bruce Robert Coffin at the Poland Spring Strawberry Festival in 2018. As we signed books from morning to dusk, we chatted about the writing life. During that conversation, the former detective sergeant mentioned Kate Flora. He said she was one of his greatest mentors, and I sensed his sincerity. In 2020, when COVID–19 cancelled all our events, I asked Bruce if he’d be willing to interview me about my new novel via a Webinar with Curtis Memorial Library. He said yes and that virtual event was the best conversation I’ve ever had about The Maine Point.

Are you wondering how I’m going to weave Kate Flora and Jule Selbo into this blogpost? Am I creating a mystery? I hope so because since moving to Maine I’ve come to believe that mystery writers rule. Over the last six years, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Bruce, Maureen Milliken, Charlene D’Avanzo, and Matt Costa, and the more I learn about Maine Crime Writers, the more I want to be a Maine crime writer, but I write historical fiction. For better or worse, the M in Irene M. Drago does not stand for mystery. Nevertheless, my conversations with Bruce and other authors gave me the courage to walk up to Kate Flora at Books in Boothbay and say, “Hi, Kate, my name is Irene Drago.” And much to my surprise, she replied, “I’ve heard that name before.” Then she introduced me to Jule Selbo, and I felt embraced. Within five minutes, Jule suggested I write a blog as a guest of MCW. I shook my head and told her I didn’t write mysteries, but she was ready for that response and invited me to write about my process. In a blink, Jule convinced me to be a guest blogger among some of the coolest authors I know.

Now, on a cold winter day, I’m keeping my promise. In addition to expressing my gratitude to the many crime writers who’ve encouraged me to stay the course and keep writing, I’d like to address the topic of process because that’s where we can find common ground. In order to write a compelling story, in depth research is a necessity. Before I begin a historical novel, I read every nonfiction book I can find that explores the time and place I want to create. Before I introduce the first character and begin a storyline, I peruse maps, photos, newspaper articles, journals, and letters that describe real people, places, and events in a particular time period. The research for Lavinia Wren and the Sailmakers, my latest novel, was extensive beyond measure because I met the granddaughter of one of the last captains and shipbuilders of schooners out of Thomaston, and she gave me incredible insight into the Dunn & Elliot Sail Loft—a fortuitous beginning.

When I write historical fiction, my goal is to draw the reader into my characters’ world and lead them to believe that the characters might have lived. Lavinia might have talked and dressed just the way I describe her, and she might have felt the same joy and sorrow I spill onto the page. Recently, I received an email from a reader who wondered if Lavinia Wren was an actual person in history. The reader asked, “Did Lavinia attend Colby College and work for prison reform?”  Though I was flattered, I had to tell her that Lavinia was completely fictitious, but some of the supporting characters were actual shipbuilders and sailmakers who lived and worked in Thomaston. I also told her that the storyline involving the prison—in Thomaston but not of it— was inspired by a real prisoner. Then I sweetened my reply by telling her that Charles Ranlett Flint, one of Lavinia’s closest friends, was my touchstone. Born in 1850, Charles was the son of a prominent shipbuilder and became enormously successful as a commission merchant. In fact, he was labeled the “Father of Trusts.” Historical fiction blends fantasy with reality and that’s an intriguing process.

All of my stories are imbued with hope, but they are also peppered with flawed characters who struggle with the challenges of life and death. As a former teacher of language and literature, I often say we teach history through war. As a novelist, I prefer to pull the thread of love, not war, through history. If I’m looking for common denominators among mysteries and historical fiction, the exploration of good and evil comes to mind. Lavinia Wren is orphaned by the Civil War, but she survives because of love. My historical novels are multi-generational, family love stories, and every generation is impacted by war. That’s the cold reality, but this winter I’m a guest blogger for Maine Crime Writers, and I’m feeling the warmth of the Maine literary community. We will survive.

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6 Responses to The Guest Who Came in from the Cold

  1. John Clark says:

    Welcome. I’m a regular, but my books are YA fantasy and paranormal. However, I do write short mystery stories, so they let me hang around. I’m currently editing a book I wrote last year about a high school girl in 1969. While that’s fairly recent history, the research to make it accurate was quite eye-opening. I hope to see you post here again.

    • irene drago says:

      Thank you for the welcome! And I agree that whether we’re writing about 1869 or 1969, painstaking research is required. That’s when the fun begins! We can’t paint the past without searching for those luscious details buried in the archives.

  2. We are definitely a community, as you’ve noted, and we’re thrilled you agreed to be our guest here at MCW. Your work sounds fascinating.


    • irene drago says:

      Thank you, Kate! I’m so glad we met. Writing a blogpost for MCW was an honor and a delight!

  3. kaitcarson says:

    What a wonderful post! If you will permit me an assumption – crime writers and historical fiction writers are children of the same mother. Both research extensively and have a high regard for plausibility and accuracy. It’s great to get to know you!

  4. irene drago says:

    Thank you! I trust our paths will cross again. When they do, I bet we’ll both have a pen or a book in our hands!

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