The Stakes

by Barb, in her office in Portland, Maine, enjoying the breezes

The stakes

For a little more than a year, I’ve been doing a library/conference presentation called “Mystery Making: How They Do It!” (or some such, local listings may vary) with Sheila Connolly, Hallie Ephron, and Hank Phillippi Ryan. (Parnell Hall filled in for Hallie at Malice Domestic 2018.)

The audience writes out index cards with names, weapons, settings, occupations, and motives, and then deposits the cards in paper bags. We pull the cards out of the bags and build a mystery “on the fly.” Along the way, the audience learns something about how a writer approaches the decisions made during the task of making a mystery. They also learn something about the mystery-thriller-suspense sub-genres.

Hilarity ensues. At least it has every time we’ve done it so far.

From left: Hallie Ephron, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Barbara Ross, Sheila Connolly

One time we reached into the Motive bag, and out came the motive, “stole his/her parking space.”

I loved this motive.

Hank, however, was having none of it. She has a new thriller coming out, Trust Me, and she was representing the art of thriller writing in our group. “The stakes have to be bigger, much bigger,” she said.

“This can work,” I countered. We’d already established that the protagonist was a librarian. (We were at a conference full of librarians at the time.) All downtown libraries have insufficient parking. “What if the killer thinks he’s entitled to the senior librarian parking spot, but gets passed over somehow?” I asked.

“The protagonist’s family is going to be killed if she doesn’t figure this out and stop it,” Hank insisted.

The steaks

“What if the killer now has to park at City Hall four blocks away and walk to work in the wind and snow?” I asked. Having worked for fifteen years for companies that sold and supported software at institutions of higher education, my favorite joke is, “Why are the politics in academia so vicious? Because the stakes are so small.” I was on a roll here.

“No, no, no,” Hank said, “More stakes. The world is going to end.” (This may not exactly be what she said, just the way I remember it. These sessions get pretty wild.)

The actual stakes

The parking space went by the boards and the game moved on. But it was a great lesson for me in the stakes.

In my corner of the cozy mystery universe, I don’t need it to be the end of the world.

I just need one person who believes losing that parking space was the end of his world.

I haven’t written the parking-space-as-motive mystery yet, but I am sorely tempted to see if I can pull it off.

Meanwhile, check out Hank’s book Trust Me, coming to you this August 28.


A Contest! This one should be a lot of fun, and we hope to see entries from many of you.IMG_1393 The subject: Where Would You Put the Body?

The contest: Send us a photograph of the place you’d put a body, along with a description of why you chose that spot.

Where do you send it? To

What will you win? This nifty Poe tote bag and a bunch of books and other goodies.

What’s the deadline? Thursday, June 28th. Grab your camera and send us those pics.

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Who is Cornelia Kidd, and why is she writing Lea Wait’s Books?

Lea Wait, here. And it’s June 12 — launch day for Death and a Pot of Chowder, the first in my Maine Murder Mystery series. And, yes, it’s written by Cornelia Kidd.

There are many reasons an author writes under more than one name. That’s really the subject of another blog. (Hint: it’s usually the publisher’s decision.) But in this case, a special story goes along with my change of name.

Because Cornelia Kidd was my father’s mother.

Born in 1876, in Montgomery, New York, a farming community in Orange County, north of New York City along the Hudson River, in 1897 Cornelia married George Wait, a well-to-do local farmer. She was twenty-one and he was forty-three. They lived on his farm on the Walden Road, and by 1911 she had given birth to three children. Her second child, Thomas, had died.

Cornelia Kidd

On the evening of August 18, 1911, Cornelia and her husband and their two remaining children, Helen, aged thirteen, and George, who was three, got in their automobile to drive to Walden to hear the band concert.

According to The New York Times, “their automobile was struck by a train on the Wallkill Valley Railroad … about two miles from Montgomery, where there is a sharp curve. It was dark when the machine approached the crossing. Mr. Wait was driving about fifteen miles an hour up the slight incline to the track, and apparently did not hear the train approaching. The automobile was squarely upon the tracks when it was hit.”

Both children were thrown about twenty feet from the track, and sustained numerous cuts and bruises, but survived. Cornelia was thrown in front of the train, which ran over her. Her husband’s body was found under the wrecked automobile.

In 1911 automobiles were relatively new, and no signals marked where roads crossed railroad tracks. (During the following four years three other people died in similar accidents in the same location.) The Times also reported that during the three previous months several serious auto accidents had taken place at other crossings near New York City.

If such an accident happened today the area would quickly be swarming with police, ambulances and tow trucks, along with investigators. What happened in 1911?

According, again, to the Times, “The train was quickly stopped and the crew and passengers ran back. As they approached the crossing they heard the crying of children and found them at the side of the track. Not far away was the mangled body of Mrs. Wait. At the side of the crossing was the smashed automobile and underneath it the body of Mr. Wait. The train was run to Walden with the bodies and the children.”

Cornelia’s three-year old son, George, was my father. His sister, Helen, was taken in by their Uncle Charles, but no one in the family wanted George, so another uncle rented the family’s farm to an assortment of different people during the next fifteen years, on the condition that they also take care of George. That, too, is another story.

But when I was asked by my new publisher, Crooked Lane, to choose a pseudonym, I decided to honor the grandmother I had never met, and use her name for The Maine Murder Series. I know more about how Cornelia died than about how she lived, but these books are a tribute to her.

If you’d like to find out more about Death and a Pot of Chowder, I’ll also be launching Cornelia’s first book with three other Crooked Lane authors — Eva Gates, J.G. Hetherton and R.J. Koreto — on a special Facebook page (CLB June 12 Launch) today. I’ll be there from 2 until 3 p.m. and from 6 until 7 p.m. Giveaways, sneak peaks, quizzes — and I’d be happy to answer any questions. See you there!

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Native to What?

So, once again, we come to the Silly Season—no, not the annual return of the summer people driving like soused nonagenarians down the wrong side of Commercial Street, but political primary season. I notice that, this time around, a lot of local races feature folks whose chief stated asset is that they’re native to the state, and while that certainly bespeaks the dedication to stay through our winters, I’m not sure I want to elect my public servants based on where Mother and Father happened to be when the baby came.

Speaking as the spouse of someone with thirty-some years experience as an educator in public and private schools who interviewed for twenty-eight different jobs in local school districts over two years before she found a school that would love her, I can testify that the NBH (Not Born Here) branch of NIH (Not Invented Here) is alive and well. Which is a double shame in a state where the employable population diminishes with every new million-dollar condo on Munjoy Hill.

I just read a beautiful book called One Goal by Amy Bass, an account of Lewiston High School’s soccer team, composed of Somalis, other African immigrants, and the native children of that challenged central Maine city. The team’s state championship in 2015 played an enormous role in pulling divisions in the city, if not exactly close enough to heal, close enough to touch. It’s an inspiring read and worth the time, even if you don’t care a whit about what the rest of the known world calls football. (The book is so good, I even forgive the author for attending Bates instead of Colby.)

If there’s a lesson in that story, it’s how the long-time coach of the Lewiston team, a native of the city, Mike McGraw, was forced to change his mind, his style of coaching, and his attitudes toward the players and their families when the first influx of Somali kids at his high school turned out to be first-rate soccer players.

Don’t need to belabor that point, do I? In the context of our political climate? Didn’t think so.



What the story reminds me, though, is how fortunate we are in this state to have a literary community, broad and deep as it is, that welcomes its own set of immigrants.

June 14 is the date for the annual Maine Literary Awards gathering, hosted by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, and I will wager that if you tolled the birthplaces of everyone in Space Gallery on Thursday night, there will be as many other-than-natives as natives. But what I also know is that, beyond maybe a twinge of individual joy or individual disappointment, pretty much everyone in that room will be celebrating the fact that the Maine literary community is together, thriving, and supporting one another, regardless of genre, subject, or birthplace.

This is our tribe, yes, but if you write, you read, you publish, you’re a native, no matter where you were when you entered the world.

Come celebrate with us—we’d love to have you.

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Weekend Update: June 9-10, 2018

Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will posts by Dick Cass (Monday) Lea Wait (Tuesday), Barb Ross (Wednesday), John Clark (Thursday), and Jessie Crockett (Friday).

In the news department, here’s what’s happening with some of us who blog regularly at Maine Crime Writers:

Lea Wait: This is an exciting week for me! Tuesday the 12th my first Maine Murder Mystery, DEATH AND A POT OF CHOWDER, debuts, under the name Cornelia Kid

I’ll be launching the series on Facebook, on the page “CLB June 12 Launch” (CLB  is Crooked Lane Books, the name of my publisher.) I’ll be on-line between 2 and 3 in the afternoon and 6 and 7 in the evening (Eastern time) and at other times Grant Hetherton, Eva Gates, and Richard Koreto will be posting about their books debuting that day. We’ll have giveaways, trivia, plot teases, recipes … it should be fun!

Then Thursday, June 14, at 7 p.m., I’ll be in Groveland, Massachusetts, speaking at the Nichols Village, 54 Main Street, about my new series. My talk will be co-sponsored by Nichols Village and the Langley-Adams Library, and copies of my books will be available for purchase and signing. The talk will be open to the public — hope to see some of you there!

 A Contest! This one should be a lot of fun, and we hope to see entries from many of you.IMG_1393 The subject: Where Would You Put the Body?

The contest: Send us a photograph of the place you’d put a body, along with a description of why you chose that spot.

Where do you send it? To

What will you win? This nifty Poe tote bag and a bunch of books and other goodies.

What’s the deadline? Thursday, June 28th. Grab your camera and send us those pics.

Last weekend, most of us were at The Maine Crime Wave in Portland, the annual conference/gathering of the crime writing community. Here are some pictures:


MCW group

An invitation to readers of this blog: Do you have news relating to Maine, Crime, or Writing? We’d love to hear from you. Just comment below to share.

And a reminder: If your library, school, or organization is looking for a speaker, we are often available to talk about the writing process, research, where we get our ideas, and other mysteries of the business. Contact Kate Flora

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The Surprising Collaboration Between Writers and Readers

Kate Flora: Thirty-five years ago, when my second son was born, I decided to quit my IMG_0134job and stay home for a few years with my boys. I immediately had the terrified thought, But I’ve always worked. Now what will I do? Then I thought, I’ve always wanted to write. Maybe it is something I can do while the boys nap. Naive thought. My boys were not nappers. It was hard to find those spaces where it was quiet enough to write. But I started a novel, and it sent me on the course I am still on today.

For nearly ten of those first writing years, I toiled quietly at my desk, all of the storytelling happening between me and my characters on the page. That changed when my first Thea Kozak mystery, Chosen for Death, was published. As readers began to discover Thea, and her family, and the Maine state police detective, Andre Lemieux, who would become her love interest, a surprising thing happened. Through letters and emails and comments readers made, I discovered that while I had always thought my characters belonged to me, creations of my imagination, now they had became characters in my readers’ imaginations as well. And my readers had opinions.

9781614178422In those early days, I was surprised to have a man show up at a reading declaring that his wife had given him permission to date Thea. When a number of my sister writers of strong female protagonists killed off their character’s significant others, I got numerous notes from my readers declaring that if I killed off Andre,they would never read another one of my books.

As Thea struggled with her difficult relationship with her mother, readers wanted to know whether Thea’s mother was based on my own. I was genuinely shocked at that, and explained that my mother was my role model and my mentor. Then readers asked who she was modeled on, and I realized that, in part, she was a blend of my two grandmothers. When readers suggested that I solve Thea’s problem by killing her mother off, I responded that I didn’t believe in killing mothers, and hoped that over time, and the arc of the story, Thea and her mother could reach a better understanding.

When Thea and Andre struggled in their relationship because he was from the world of serve and protect and Thea was herself an intrepid rescuer, readers weighed in. They told me that they hoped Thea and Andre would be able to find a way to work out their relationship challenges. They also hoped that they would be able to find balance between the challenges of their jobs and their desire to have a family, sometimes offering their own stories as proof that it could be done.

Readers also wouldn’t let Thea do dumb things, something I’ve always disliked in mysteries with female protagonists. So when I sent Thea off to confront bad guys without thinking things through, a beta readers said, flatly, “Thea wouldn’t do that.” So the scene got changed.


The photo of Thea that I put on my husband’s desk

Another thing I’ve discovered, and something I believe we all, as readers, appreciate, is that however I envision my character’s appearances, readers create them in their own minds. I’ve had readers send me photos of their local police chiefs with the note that this is what Joe Burgess looks like. My favorite story in this realm is the day I found a picture in a magazine of a woman who looked like my image of Thea. I put it on my husband’s desk and when he saw it, he said, “Thea doesn’t look anything like that.”

What I’ve learned from this? That yes, I am the writer, and I’m the one making it up. I am also in a collaboration with you, the reader. You have expectations. You have come to care about my characters. You worry that Thea mixes it up with bad guys too much. You worry about Joe Burgess facing the challenges of loyalty to his victims and duty to his family. You’re proud of Joe for choosing such a wise life-partner. You want Thea and Andre to find their dream house.

As I write the sixth Joe Burgess, A Child Shall Lead Them, and prepare Death Goes to School, the ninth Thea Kozak mystery, for publication, your relationship with my characters has become a part of my writing.

If you’re not already a Thea Kozak reader and you’d like to start your own relationship with Thea, here are the buying links:





 Google Play

Note: Maine Crime Writers is having a contest, and we hope you’ll join in the fun. The IMG_1393question is “Where Would You Put The Body?” We’re asking readers to send photos answering this question, with a brief description of the place and why they chose it, to: Winner will receive this great Poe tote, with books and goodies. Contest runs until June 28th. The winner will be notified by e-mail and announced in our weekend update.


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“It’s Never Too Late To Be What You Might Have Been”


Mary Anne Evans once wrote “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

And she did become what she should have been. She became the novelist George Eliot, choosing a man’s pen name to ensure her works were taken seriously. Arguably the greatest novelist of the Victorian era, George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) penned a novel that’s always on lists of the world’s best novels: Middlemarch, my favorite.

Her humor sneaks up on us: “And, of course men know best about everything, except what women know better.”

And she gives us stunning new ways of seeing an old world. “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

But most of all I love the persistence that shines out of “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

Last week, the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance event, Crime Wave, treated its participants to tools we can use so we are not “too late” to write something wonderful.

Our panel on publishing options: Gerry Boyle (standing), Lea Wait, Jen Blood, me, William Andrews.

Even though I was on a panel to discuss various ways authors get published (in a world where traditional publishing is almost out of reach), I took notes on how I might persist and carry on despite sometimes feeling it may be “too late.”

Here I will share some of what we shared.

I said that Hope Clark’s “FundsForWriters” is an award-winning site with tips, lists of contests to enter, and grants to apply for.

Jane Friedman has a chart that defines the pros and cons of various publishing paths.  

Jane also has excellent book and book business advice; I never miss her newsletter. Sign up.

Author Jen Blood (also a Maine Crime Writers blogger) suggested people seeking editors and professional aid on their publishing journeys go to

Jen also wanted folks to know about Joanna Penn’s writing and publishing assistance at

Author Lea Wait replied to a marketing question by saying that developing a mailing list and then making personal communications to it was the most important thing an author could do.

I asked author Kate Flora  for nuggets she shared with her “Point of View” craft seminar and she generously sent this message:

“So, with my POV class, I suggested an exercise to test their point of view comfort level, which is one I use with my students. Write a paragraph introducing yourself in first person and third person, and see the results of the different points of view. The book I suggested is What If by Pamela Painter and Anne Bernays, which is full of writing exercises.

Doing an exercise is often helpful if you’re stuck in your writing.”

There was just too much great stuff at Crime Wave to get it all down, but I’m glad someone reminded us of Elmore Leonard’s best writing rule, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Pretty much the entire event is dedicated to persistence and to the premise that “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” Please join us next year!

(Here’s a MWPA recap:

Sandy’s novel, “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine,” won a Mystery Writers of America award and was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest. This year, she’s been nominated for a Maine Literary Award. Find her novel at all Shermans Books and on Amazon. Find more info on the video trailer and Sandy’s website.  The second Mystery in Maine, “Deadly Turn,” will be published in 2018.


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Big Talent

A fantastic celebration took place in Portland on the evening of May 22. It was Big Night, the annual showcase of work by students at the Telling Room, Maine’s nonprofit writing center for high school, middle school and elementary school students.

May 22 was this year’s Big Night, showcasing work of young writers from the Telling Room

The energy at USM’s Hannaford Hall was joyous and electric. Telling Room writers buzzed around, smiling for the camera, laughing with pre-event jitters, offering to sell and autograph this year’s anthology, Atomic Tangerine.

The cover of this year’s Telling Room anthology, Atomic Tangerine

A collection of poems and stories by students from schools across Maine—Kittery, Brewer, Richmond, Portland, Westbrook, Waldoboro and Topsham, among others—Atomic Tangerine has color as its theme. The anthology features the work of 36 young writers, beautifully crafted pieces about a little pink bootie, a woman dressed in red, the experience of having black skin in an overwhelmingly white state and the hues of evening light on a Maine beach.

After just the right amount of lobby mingling, Big Night’s large crowd settled into the auditorium for a series of readings, videos and even a musical performance by an inspired group of elementary school students who punctuated their words with dance moves.  There was lots and lots of well-deserved applause.

Some Telling Room writers were born here. Others have moved here from Iraq, Rwanda, Somalia, bringing powerful stories to their new homes in Maine. One of the latter is Zainab Almatwari, a sophomore at Westbrook High School, writes in both Arabic and English.

Westbrook poet Zainab Almatwari

Her poetry bowled me over when we first met a year ago during a student showcase at Books in the ‘Brook, a monthly writing salon in Westbrook.  Zainab’s contribution to Atomic Tangerine is a poem called Rocks Into My Stomach,  which has as its closing lines:

I’m the fire that ends a poem and starts a story

I’m a different kind of glory

And while the fire is still burning inside me

I see the reflection of the sea.

Zainab is one of more than 4,000 – that’s FOUR THOUSAND! – students who participated in Telling Room writing programs during the past year. They include after-school groups like Writers Block, Publishing Workshop and Young Writers & Leaders, the program that received the 2015 National Arts & Humanities Youth Program Award from then-First Lady Michelle Obama.

With a legion of volunteer mentors, the Telling Room teaches the fundamentals of writing and encourages students to broaden their storytelling skills with podcasts and radio shows.  It also offers college essay workshops and one-on-one programs to assist students with their applications for post-secondary education. Its programs build literacy skills, confidence and community.

Telling Room students also learn the importance of selling books!

The Telling Room is a gem, a place that makes a difference in many lives. For more information about this remarkable organization that has as its mission the support and nurture of young writers, go here:

And next year, consider attending Big Night. Trust me, you’ll come away inspired.


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