Weekend Update: November 14-15, 2020

Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson (Monday), Kate Flora (Tuesday), Susan Vaughan (Thursday) and William Andrews (Friday).

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

 

 

 

 

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. We also do programs on Zoom. Contact Kate Flora

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Who Knew? Of Salamanders and Their Service. Well. All Services.

Sandra Neily here: this article was first published in my 2005 “Valuing Nature” column in the Moosehead Messenger. We’re all likely to have a hibernating winter ahead of us. Like salamanders.  Sometime in the spring we can crawl out to be social again. Like salamanders. Time now to think ahead when we can be outside with kids or grandkids, turning over logs to find and visit salamanders. (A guaranteed crowd pleaser!)

Under the soil a large army of wiggly, illusive engineers, soil scientists, and food service workers are helping to create billions of dollars of economic value. If we could count each of them working in a factory, we could value them as part of our economy. Just how are we to value these tiny, essential and moist forest workers who add so much value to our lives? Salamanders aerate the soil and support essential biological processes that enhance soil productivity and they are excellent “protein concentrators.” Without beaks, feathers, or scales, every bite of a salamander is an efficient nutritional delivery system for other animals.

Spotted Salamander

Natural ecosystems (like forests) perform fundamental life-support services upon which we depend.  Just like the life support team in a trauma center, these services give us life itself and without them, we would most certainly perish. We value forests for timber and recreation but they provide a myriad of other services that clean our air, filter our water, provide over 50% of new medicine development, and regulate our climate. While many people “get” this concept they are unprepared for what comes next.  The economics of supporting a healthy ecosystem “service” or replacing a degraded one has now become an essential calculation and the question of how we develop without losses or who pays for a loss will become even more controversial.

Red Spotted Newt

Salamanders are part of a vast and shadowy economy referred to as “ecosystem services.” Ecosystem services are the processes by which the environment produces resources that we often take for granted: clean water, habitat for fisheries, or pollination of native and agricultural plants.

(In Maine wild honey bees and their pollination services help support a $75 million blueberry industry, yet bee populations are threatened by pollution and pesticides.)

Sometimes it’s easier to understand an ecosystem service and its value if we have to think about paying to replace it once it is damaged and gone. When New York City’s water supply fell below accepted standards, the price tag for building an artificial filtration plant was $6-$8 billion dollars, a high price for what had been “free” before.  The city decided to spend $660 million to restore and protect the watershed (the water source.)  These funds purchased land, halted inappropriate development and compensated landowners who improved septic systems.

This “who pays” question does lead to other some possibly sticky issues in Maine.  If harvesting so affected deer wintering areas in Washington County that local income from deer hunting was seriously reduced, who should pay the correct price for restoring that particular ecosystem service?  If degraded air quality from ancient coal burning plants in the Midwest brings Maine significant costs from illness as well as lost productivity, who pays to replace the values of the service of clean air?   If extensive development on shorelines degrades water quality and affects the economic value of publicly owned resources valuable for tourism (rivers, lakes, wildlife), who compensates future generations for that loss?

salamander eggs in a vernal pool

As New York’s challenge reminds us, a penny spent on prevention is our wisest course.  Preventing the loss or degradation of essential ecosystem services is just a smarter, cheaper route to travel.  For the salamanders that means encouraging landowners to know amphibian breeding routes, leave shade trees to cover roads on these routes, and buffer vernal pools necessary for creating the next generation of “soil scientists.”

a Maine vernal pool

In return, for free, we all receive the ecosystem benefits of creatures who are an important part of forest health.

The journal “Nature” has this message of all of us: “The economies of the Earth would grind to a halt without the services of ecological life support systems, so in one sense their total value to the economy is infinite.”  A recent report attempting to calculate the global value of ecosystem services places their worth at somewhere between $16-$54 trillion dollars (or a mean of $33 trillion). The sum total of the world’s gross natural product from all countries is $18 trillion. That’s a lot of salamanders.

Slow down in the spring. The amphibians are seeking romance in vernal pools, crossing from upland areas down to vernal pools.

Check out this great 202o NY Times article on a Maine couple saving salamanders.

And this one from my very good friend and salamander road warrior, Dr. Sally Stockwell.

 

Sandy’s novel “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine,” was a finalist in the Maine Literary Awards, a recipient of a Mystery Writers of America national award and a national finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest.. Her second Mystery in Maine novel, “Deadly Turn” is now in Sherman’s Books and on Amazon in Kindle and paperback. She lives in the Maine woods and says she’d rather be “fly fishing, skiing remote trails, paddling near loons, or just generally out there.” Find more info on her website.

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The Arsenal

A year ago last November I had cataract surgery for both eyes. I stopped driving a couple of months before that—I couldn’t read street signs. Really, I couldn’t read books and magazines even with my progressive lenses, and watching television was impossible no matter where I sat or angled my head. And all lights had a huge halo around them.

Cataract surgery is the one of the safest, most commonly performed procedures, but that didn’t make me want to go through it, LOL. I’ve been wearing glasses since the fourth grade, with a brief contact lens era in my thirties. I used to be known for my big brown eyes, and in my heyday I wore eyeshadow, eyeliner, and mascara to emphasize them. Even though I’ve abandoned such gilding of the aging lily, the thought of someone, even a qualified eye surgeon, messing with my eyes was scary.

I’m a very visual person, a lover of art museums and a dabbler in art myself, not to mention I spend all day in front of a computer screen trying to kill people. I don’t mind being a bit hard of hearing; a lot of life can be aurally ignored with no harmful effects, and in fact can be a blessing. But sight is my most precious sense.

I’m happy to report all went well. I can see things in the distance for the first time in decades, but I do have trouble with close vision, even with new progressives. (At the time of the surgery, I could have opted for additional artificial lenses to be inserted at additional expense, but I didn’t.) So I now have an arsenal for the fine print. Both my desktop and my Kindle’s fonts are magically enlarged by the press of a button. My lit magnifying glass makes me feel like a 21st century Lady Sherlock, and I own a necklace that’s as useful as it is pretty. Two mirrors are on call in case I ever want to swipe on some mascara again. As I have an aversion to resembling Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, that is unlikely.

However, magazines remain a problem. I’ve let a couple of subscriptions lapse, because I simply can’t read the articles comfortably. Country Life is still great for my research—I’ve gone full circle from childhood picture books to adult pictorial magazines.

And books? The old librarian in me is appalled, but I totally depend on my reading device since I can jack up the font. Heresy. A student once told me “Books are obsolete.” I wanted to jump over the circulation desk and strangle him, but now I almost see his point. See. Get it?

Don’t worry—I still own a zillion physical books, and even more are in my Kindle Library. What’s your preferred method of reading? Can you part with books once you’ve finished them, or are you a re-reader? Do you have a To-Be-Read pile that could topple over and crush you?

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Veteran’s Day versus Memorial Day

Vaughn Hardacker here: There are two holidays that always seem to confuse a lot of people. One is Veterans Day (for many years known as Armistice Day) and Memorial Day while both honor our military veterans. They are not the same.

Veterans Day

Vaughn Hardacker, a young 20 years old Marine in Vietnam 1968

We celebrate it every year, but how did Veterans Day come into existence? It dates back to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. While this day will always be known as the official end of World War I, also known as The Great War, it was at the eleventh hour of the eleventh hour of November 1918 (it is for this reason the holiday is always celebrated on the 11th regardless of which day of the week it falls on), that the war truly came to an end when the armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities between German and the Allied Nations, went into effect. The following November in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson became known as the president who celebrated the first commemoration of Armistice Day. The name later changed following the Second World War and Korean War in November 1938 when it became the legal Federal Holiday we know and honor today, Veterans Day, which is dedicated to American veterans of all the wars.

Memorial Day

People have honored the sacrifices of soldiers for as long as there have been wars, Memorial Day as we know it in the United States got its start during the American Civil War. As the conflict wound down, people across the North and South tried to honor fallen soldiers.

Front of Vaughn L. Hardacker’s Purple Heart (Posthumous) awarded August 15, 1944

One such ceremony was held on May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina. Local all-black churches led a gathering of roughly ten thousand people, many of whom were former slaves,  in properly reburying Union soldiers and holding a ceremony to honor their sacrifice and dedicate the new cemetery. The event included speeches, the laying of wreaths and crosses, drills performed by Union soldiers and even picnicking. However, it’s unclear if the event influenced any other such ceremonies in the country, so it remains ambiguous if it should actually be considered the first Memorial Day.The Birthplace(s) of Memorial Day. There are numerous places in the country that claim to have first celebrated Memorial Day a recurring holiday rather than a one-off event. Boalsburg, Pennsylvania claims that an 1864 gathering of women to mourn the deaths of soldiers at the Battle of Gettysburg makes it the founder of the holiday, while Carbondale, Illinois claims two markers in its cemeteries as well as a parade led by Major General John A. Logan (more on him in a moment) as proof that it held the first annual celebration. There’s even a Columbus, Georgia and Columbus, Mississippi with competing claims. While Waterloo,

Reverse side. Vaughn L. Hardacker. KIA France August 15, 1944

New York eventually won federal recognition because of evidence that its celebrations involved the full closure of the town, it has well over 20 rivals for the title, and all of them — even Waterloo — rely on evidence that is at least somewhat disputed. There’s only one event that unambiguously served as a forerunner to Memorial Day.

A few years back there was a popular C&W song entitled Some Gave All and it too has been cause for confusion. The widely used phrase “All gave some, Some gave all.” is mostly related to the members of the United States military who were wounded or killed in action. You will probably hear it more often around Memorial Day every year, and its not for the Veterans Day. A lot of Americans get this confused, and we’ll be honest — it can be a little annoying to all of the living veterans out there.

Memorial Day is a time to remember those who gave their lives for our country, particularly in battle or from wounds they suffered in battle. Veterans Day honors all of those who have served the country in war or peace — dead or alive — although it’s largely intended to thank living veterans for their sacrifices.

The above pictures are used to illustrate my point. In the top photo I was a twenty-year-old Marine Corporal serving in Vietnam. The lower photos are of the purple heart medal awarded to my uncle, Vaughn L. Hardacker, a nineteen-year-old sergeant in the U. S. Army who was killed in action on August 15, 1944 (days short of his 20th birthday). I as a veteran, was willing to give . . . my uncle (and namesake) gave all (I possess this medal and every time I look at it I wonder how much more he should have given so that they could spell his last name correctly).

I have finally gotten to the point where I can accept someone saying, “Thank you for your service.” without becoming upset (a subject I dealt with in a blog a few years ago) and I make sure that I always remember that my uncle would have liked to be told that very thing … after all, he gave all. So always remember, it isn’t the politician who has given us the right to either like, or dislike the direction we perceive our nation taking. It was those who gave all that paid for our freedom. I for one was willing to put my life on the line so that we all have the freedom to believe what we want without being belittled and viewed as being of less intellect and of less worth by those who don’t like our politics or our religious beliefs–especially from those who were unwilling to put their lives on the line for freedom. I am speaking to all those people who have made a living as career politicians making large salaries (which most of them–regardless of party–do absolutely nothing to earn) and granting themselves benefits for life, not to mention protection from prosecution for doing things you or I would go to prison for–case in point if we lie to Congress we can be sent to prison. However, a congressman or woman, cannot be prosecuted for blatantly lying to Congress to push their own agenda. Remember, unlike many of our elected officials, our founding fathers were true public servants. The business of government was done during the winter because the rest of the year they had to remain at home to raise their crops and support their families. So, the next time you see a veteran, either successful in life, or standing beside the road holding a sign asking for help, remember. He or she was willing to give all.

The purpose of this rant is not to belittle or attack anyone, but more to make us think about how our veterans, both alive and those have passed on leaving their families emotionally and financially devastated must feel when they see the so-called dead-locked congress and are supposed to be happy when a politician passes a two or three percent pay increase while giving themselves a thirty percent or higher raise.

 

 

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Domestic Thrillers

The recent popularity of domestic thrillers in crime fiction begs the question: what exactly is a domestic thriller? More often than not it involves a crime that in some way touches upon a fragile relationship, usually a troubled marriage. The setting is typically the home or possibly the office, and the main character feels somehow trapped in a situation where there seems to be no escape. Oh yes, and a crime is always involved.

Once I discovered the joys of reading a good domestic thriller I was hooked on the genre. When reading one I feel like I’m a fly on the wall watching from behind the scenes, understanding the true dynamics of a couple’s relationship. In fact I liked reading domestic thrillers so much that I decided to write one. This after five horror novels, a book of short stories, a kidnapping mystery and a hardbitten crime novel set in Portland.

My first exposure to a real life domestic thriller happened almost twenty-eight years ago. On October 23rd, 1989, an unusual crime happened in Boston. Reports came in that a black man had forced his way into a couple’s car, robbed them, and then shot the two of them before fleeing on foot. This brutal, senseless crime caused racial tensions to escalate in the city, especially since Charles Stuart’s wife and unborn child ended up dying in the attack. As he lay in the hospital with a gunshot wound to his abdomen, Charles recounted to the police his version of events.

But as police began to dig deeper, Stuart’s lies began to unravel. His brother, Matthew, went to the police and admitted his role in helping Charles pull of this despicable crime. Matthew admitted that the two of them conspired to use the race card in order to hide the true motive for killing Carol Stuart: money!

I remember obsessively following the case in the news, each day learning new information about the murder. It was as if I was reading a riveting mystery or watching a great suspense movie. I wasn’t the only one mesmerized. The entire region seemed eager to find out who had attacked this seemingly happy couple as they returned home from child birthing classes. They made a handsome pair, too. Charles was tall and good looking, and a successful manager of a fur shop on Newbury Street. Carol was a tax attorney who had graduated from BC and was expecting her first child. This couple seemed to have everything going for them. I remember thinking: why do bad things happen to good people.

Back to Charles’ brother. After Matthews admitted his role in the commission of the crime, confirming the police’s suspicions, Charles’s story began to unravel. Of course, like in any good mystery, it was discovered that he had a whole other side to his personality. He’d tried to convince his wife to abort the child so she could keep earning her high salary. But she refused to give up the child. Because of her pregnancy, she’d gotten the upper hand in their marriage, which shifted the balance of power in her favor. Charles was planning to open his own restaurant after he killed her, using the life insurance money as a downpayment. Oh, and like most cases of domestic intrigue, he had a girlfriend on the side.

Unfortunately, Charles Stuart never got the justice he deserved. As soon as he found out his brother had confessed to the police, he drove to the Tobin Bridge, parked his car alongside the rail, and jumped to his death.

The Stuart case has always fascinated me as both a husband, father and a crime writer. I’d recently graduated from Northeastern when the crime happened, majoring in Criminology and Political Science. The idea that a successful husband would even think to kill his beautiful wife and unborn child seemed completely senseless to me. I wanted to understand the warped psychology of an individual who could commit such a heinous crime. I was intrigued by both the crime itself and the use of racial profiling to deceive the police. The crime itself was deeply flawed in execution, and far from complete, and yet it was brilliantly devious in the most psychopathic way. By playing on white Bostonians racial fears, Stuart sought to create the perfect murder.

The Stuart case was my first real introduction to marital bliss gone wrong, and I often still think about it. What is it about marriage that causes spouses to want to kill each, even in jest? Do you ever wonder how certain couples act in the privacy of their home, away from family and friends? Often, but not always, marital disagreements are about money. Or a secret affair. Almost everyone in a relationship experiences these problems at some time in their life. But only a few twisted individuals resort to criminal behavior to resolve the issue in their favor.

Charles Stuart happened to be one of them.

GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn was the first domestic thriller that truly captured my imagination. Flynn is a brilliant writer with amazing insights on marriage and the roles husbands and wives play in their relationships. Her character, Amy, is a wonderful literary creation and one of the most cunning and despicable villains in the genre. I couldn’t read the book fast enough. And I loved her alternating husband/wife first person POVs. GONE GIRL went on to reinvent the domestic thriller and bring it to the forefront as a new kind of mystery. The clever twists and turns astounded me, and made me realize how ripe this genre was to be explored. 

Since GONE GIRL, I’ve gone on to read dozens of books in the domestic thriller genre. Many of them good, others not so. None of them, in my opinion, matched Flynn’s cleverness, razor sharp insight and plot machinations. But they’ve all piqued my interest in one way or another, and got me thinking about the institution of marriage and the complex dynamics that define it.

So I sat down one day to write my own domestic thriller. Oh, I had wild ideas and intriguing plot points kicking around in my head. The words came our fast and furious. Many plot points changed in the editing process. The result? My agent loved it. He told me it was the kind of book he’d been looking for for quite some time. And the best part is that he sold it in a two book deal to an editor who was equally enthusiastic about the manuscript—and the genre.

Not only are domestic thrillers growing in popularity, but many agents on Twitter (#MSWL-more about this in another blog posts for those seeking agents) are actively seeking manuscripts in this genre. It seems that the reading public has an insatiable need for such fiction, and will for the foreseeable future. It’s why I took a career risk and wrote a domestic thriller, and in the process reinvented myself yet again as a writer.

I’ve been happily married for over twenty years and have two kids. The only domestic thrills I encounter these days are mundane at best, such as who will take out the trash, do the laundry or dishes. They say the best advice is write what you know, but I’ll leave that to my imagination.

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A Public Service From Your Friendly Local Mystery Writer

I’m not a morning person, until recently tending to read well into the night, but COVID-19 has been altering that. Beth has difficulty sleeping, so she’s often up around 3 am. I don’t get up that early, but an aging body with low back pain and a temperamental bladder often has me up an hour or so later. What follows is interesting. I generally go back to bed where I enter a twilight zone. I’m not exactly asleep, nor awake, but somewhere in between. It’s there that my creativity has a cup of decaf with my memories and I remember things long forgotten. Some of them slide back into whatever brain cell they reside in, while others pace around the figurative campfire until they morph into a story idea.

 

Three days before the deadline for Unmasked: A collection of stories about masks and what lies behind them last Saturday, I was in that place and an idea popped forth. Hours before the deadline, it was written, revised, proofed and sent. It may not be selected, but I’m quite satisfied with it. Close behind it came a new look at what I thought would be a juvenile mystery novel. I started it three years ago, but set it aside as some of the plot elements weren’t playing nice. I started looking at it again in the twilight zone and realized it was the missing short story in an anthology I am calling Hardscrabble Kids. It was just about one story from being long enough to feel marketable. Now the fourteen year old whose OCD cost him a big toe will finally have a home.

Scary things lurk in Maine cemeteries.

That brings me to today’s column. Beth and I have interesting and varied dinner conversations. She remains on Facebook, I left a couple months ago, so I get to listen to her mental squirming over what is posted there. Somehow we got on the subject of stuff that needed to be done. She’s a list maker and often has one that daunts her, me, not. I repeated something that is true, if a bit morbid; “You know, the day you die, all that stuff becomes someone else’s problem.” Surprisingly, she agreed. Anyhow, in the zone this morning, I remembered a song the Koster girls taught Kate, Sara and I to sing when we were kids, called the Worm Song. (https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-1-d&q=did+you+ever+think+when+the+hearse).

Since we writers do in plenty of souls, I guess in a bizarre way we’re performing a public service. That led me to start a list of the perks of being dead in no particular order.

1-No more bills.

2-No more bad hair days.

3-You’ll never have to make or change the bed.

4-Scam calls and crap mail are things of the past.

5-After the funeral (if you have one) no more visits from relatives you can’t stand.

6-Admonitions about clean underwear become meaningless.

7-Dreading the dentist is a thing of the past.

8-You’ll never have to cook or do housework again.

9-Who’s president will be immaterial.

10-No more tax returns.

11-You’ll never have to remember birthdays, what’s on the shopping list, or when the oil needs to be changed again.

12-whether the house is too hot or cold will be someone else’s problem, ditto whether the lawn needs mowing.

13-No more unexpected trips to the walk-in clinic because your cloth cutter ate part of your thumb. (Happened to Beth on Saturday)

This list could be endless, but you get the idea. What would you add to it?

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Weekend Update: November 7-8, 2020

Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by John Clark (Monday), Joe Souza (Tuesday), Maggie Robinson (Thursday) and Sandra Neily (Friday).

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

On Wednesday, November 11th:


Nov
11

Zoom With Vose Wednesdays @ 6pm: AUTHOR KATE FLORA AND HER MOTHER’S BOOK: The Corpse in the Compost by A. Carmen Clark

6:00pm – 7:00pm

Join Maine author Kate Flora as she shares her journey of editing and publishing her late mother’s novel “The Corpse in the Compost” by A. Carmen Clark through a draft manuscript that had been started before her death in 2005 as a follow up to her first novel, The Maine Mulch Murder, An Amy Creighton Mystery. Kate’s challenge to find her mother’s “voice” led her to make the changes she felt were necessary to finish this sequel. Flora’s mother, A. Carmen Clark is best known in the midcoast as the Home & Garden editor for The Camden Herald in the 1980s where she held that position for over twenty years. Her column, “From the Orange Mailbox” received national praise, and selections from the column were later compiled into a published book of the same name. The book received several awards and an article she wrote for Self magazine in January 1998 won an award for the best magazine article in the nation. Kate Flora is well known as a Maine Crime and Mystery writer and has published nine books. Please Click on Title of Program for Zoom Link.

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. We also do programs on Zoom. Contact Kate Flora

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How I Beat Writer’s Block

Vaughn

If there is such a thing as a lazy writer, I guess it may be me. When I finally come up with a plot idea, I crank out more than 1000 words a day. However, once I finish a manuscript I usually go through a period of procrastination which sometimes goes on for months. In his book, Writer’s Block: The Cognitive Dimension (1984), Mike Rose defined it as: “a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown. This loss of ability to write and produce new work is not a result of commitment problems or the lack of writing skills.[1] The condition ranges from difficulty in coming up with original ideas to being unable to produce a work for years. Writer’s block is not solely measured by time passing without writing. It is measured by time passing without productivity in the task at hand.”

Skipper & Ginger

I find that the condition is strengthened by life. I’ve always said: “Life gets in the way of living.” There is always something to take my attention away from dealing with the condition. I take the path of least resistance, the internet. I often spend hours perusing the net seeking topics that interest me, but have little if anything to do with writing. I have found something that takes me out of my self-induced funk–Skipper and Ginger. Who are these people? My Yorkies. When I want to think and get away from distractions I walk them. In Stockholm, the town has created a walking path that meanders through the woods along the Madawaska River. In this environment I find that I do some serious thinking. On several occasions I’ve had an epiphany–an idea for a plot.

I’ve always had a soft place in my heart for dogs (In fact I prefer them to kids–eventually

Maggie

kids become teenagers and turn on you.) A dog gives you unconditional love and all they ask in return is food, water, and possibly a daily walk. There is however a down side . . . Before Skipper & Ginger, there was a five pound Maltese named Maggie. In January of 2018, Maggie was 17 years old. She had become deaf, blind, and spent all of her time lying in her bed. Jane and I made the tough decision of having her put down. Jane had gotten her as an eight-week-old puppy and for many years it was the two of them against the world. They went everywhere together–everywhere, including the bathtub, kayaking on the Androscoggin River, and riding Harley motorcycles. After Jane and I started our relationship, Jane spent two weeks in

Maggie’s Flight to Florida

Florida. Maggie flew with her (she whined being cooped up in the carrier and Jane got permission to let her sit in the empty seat next to her. Making the decision to put her down was possibly  the hardest decision Jane ever made. (It wasn’t easy on me either . . . When I lived in Chicago my wife had our dog put down and I was in my office crying like a baby. My wife said to my daughter, “I don’t understand this, he didn’t cry when his mother died. My daughter answered: “Mom, he liked the dog.”) On January 30, 2018 Maggie left us. On January 31, 2018 Skipper joined us and in August along came Ginger.

Getting back to the topic of this blog . . . what does all this dog stuff have to do with writer’s block? When I walk the dogs I become mentally isolated from all the extraneous B. S. that we all deal with on a daily basis. As we are walking, there isn’t a time that I don’t

Plotting the next scene in my book.

think about my late mother-in-law. When she wanted to describe someone who was being treated badly she’d say they were treated like a dog–not mine. I’d love to have their life. As we walk I find my mind roaming from subject to subject and voila my muse kicks in. To show you how this works, I’m writing this on Tuesday, November 3 and it will publish on November 6. For several weeks I’ve been wracking my brain for a topic to write about. This morning as I walked the dogs I got the inspiration to write this.

I have recently started a new novel, a follow up to my novel, Wendigo, and have hit that saggy middle. Where do I go from here? I’ll figure that out on our afternoon walk through the woods.

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I’m Talking Cars Again

It has been a week, hasn’t it?  On Monday, focus was a struggle.  By Tuesday it was close to impossible. Now it’s Wednesday, and I think the wisest course is for me to revive a favorite post from the past.

Why did I choose this particular re-run?  We recently bought a Subaru, the make favored by my imaginary pal Joe Gale and many actual Mainers. So wheels have been on my mind, as has this January, 2017 post about the cars that our characters drive.

Next month I promise to come up with a fresh post. In the meantime, please make sure to tune into Crime Bake at 7 p.m. on this coming Saturday night, November 7. Here’s the registration link: https://crimebake.org/

From the MCW archives, January 4, 2017:

One of my beta readers jotted an interesting question in the margin of an early draft of my first Joe Gale book.

Does the reader really need to know what kind of car Joe drives? 

I didn’t even have to think about it. Wheels always matter, at least to me.

 

Joe drives an aging Subaru station wagon, which says so much about him. (By the third book in the series he’s actually on his second Subbie, having totaled his first one during Cover Story.)

 

If you’ve never owned one, you have no idea how much stuff these babies can hold.

Joe’s a loyal Subaru guy because his job as a newspaper reporter requires him to drive all over the state in good weather and bad. He carries a lot of gear, and with the back seat down, a Subaru wagon is almost as versatile as a truck. And every Subaru model is equipped with all-wheel drive, making it the all-but-official car of Maine. If Joe drove a VW, he’d be a completely different guy.

To my mind, choosing the right car is as critical as getting a character’s name right. Take Paulie Finnegan, who appears in the parts of Quick Pivot that take place in 1968.

Paulie was not a stylish fellow. He wore lace-up brogans, wash-and-wear shirts and heavy-framed glasses when they were decidedly un-hip.  In the summer of ’68 he drove a 1963 Chevrolet Bel Air. Solid car, but hardly flashy.

By contrast, as a young banker Jay Preble drove a 1968 MGB Roadster.

Jay Preble tooled around Riverside in one of these.

Forty some years later he tooled around in a vintage Jaguar and his golf cart was tricked out to look like a miniature Mercedes-Benz.

Was Jay a foreign car nut, or was he hiding his insecurities behind such high-tone wheels? You’ll have to read Quick Pivot to find out. 

A related technique is to use a car to convey something about setting. Several key scenes in Quick Pivot take place on Peaks Island, where vehicular longevity matters more than style. Jimmy B. Jones—a minor character in the book—drives a rusty pickup truck with spring-sprung seats and a passenger door that can only be opened from the inside. Jimmy’s durable wheels speak volumes about the quirky folks who live on a rock in the middle of Casco Bay, including Helena Desmond, who plays a central role in the book’s plot but, alas, does not drive.

A lot of the writers I read seem to put careful thought into fictional vehicle choice.

Can’t you picture Elder driving this Cougar?

MCW blog-mate Dick Cass uses his protagonist’s wheels to tell us about Elder Darrow’s world view. In his fine first novel Solo Act, Dick describes Elder’s car:  The Cougar’s black vinyl top was shredded, the yellow paint tinged faintly green as if it were molding.  The rocker panels were perforated with rust holes, but it ran and it was paid for.

This passage tells readers something about Boston, the city where Elder operates his jazz bar, The Esposito. Anyone who has lived in that city understands the benefit of driving a car with a few dings and dents. Hub rotaries can be a dangerous place indeed for those in shiny new cars.

A classic Crown Vic, gone, only used models still available.

 
 

Cops like Bruce Coffin’s John Byron and Kate Flora’s Joe Burgess don’t drive Crown Vics anymore because Ford no longer makes the longtime police favorite. So Byron drives a Taurus with balky air conditioning and Burgess patrols Portland in an Explorer.

New England colleague Steve Ulfelder is a race car driver in real life, and his wonderful character Conway Sax knows how to use his big Ford Trucks (an F-150 in Purgatory Chasm, an F-250 in Wolverine Bros. Freight & Storage) to chase down bad guys in a way that is as entertaining as it is intimidating.

But no post about cars in fiction would be complete without mention of the most complete and terrifying car of all, Stephen King’s Christine, a 1958 Plymouth Fury that still haunts my dreams more than three decades after I read it.   

Dear readers, do you notice what kind of car a character drives? What do you drive, and what does it say about you?

The protagonist in my new series-in-progress, lawyer Neva Pierce, drives a 2002 Range Rover, a gas guzzling monster that was the only useful thing her father left to her when he died. But it’s paid off, so for the time being it’s the perfect ride. It looks like this:

Neva’s inherited wheels. A behemoth that’s hard to park and gets about 15 mpg, she vows that her next car will be a hybrid.

Brenda Buchanan is the author of the Joe Gale Mystery Series, featuring a diehard Maine newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. Three books—QUICK PIVOT, COVER STORY and TRUTH BEAT—are available everywhere e-books are sold.  These days she’s hard at work a new series featuring Portland criminal defense lawyer Neva Pierce, who represents people in all kinds of trouble.

 

 

 

 

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Casting Call: Finding Characters for the Book

 Kate Flora: I had the privilege, earlier this week, of doing a zoom panel for the Concord Festival of Authors on the topic of how we choose and develop characters for our books. The discussion included two Maine Crime Writer bloggers, Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson and Charlene D’Avanzo, along with another writer, Edwin Hill.

It’s always fascinating to take part in a discussion where the involved authors write different sorts of mysteries and so have different challenges in creating the protagonists for their books. Things may be far different for a cozy than for a gritty police procedural. To staff the books, authors must ask themselves what are the attributes which my character will need in order to be a credible performer of the job they’ve been assigned—whether it’s a burned out detective or a baker of gourmet dog biscuits—and to solve the mysteries that come their way.

Sometimes, as in the case of Kaitlyn’s protagonist, Mikki Lincoln, for her Deadly Edits series, the character is an older woman emerging from retirement to supplement her income. Mikki is given Kaitlyn’s childhood home to renovate, but the rest of her character, and the editing challenges she faces, are things that her author must learn.

screen-shot-2017-05-20-at-4.01.36-pmIn the case of Charlene’s Mara Tusconi, a marine biologist, she draws on her own experiences as a marine ecologist, but must also give her much younger character the skills and strengths to cope with a job that throws her up against the many challenges working as a woman scientist in a man’s field presents.

I began my writing career with what I often call a “Help Wanted” ad. My character had to be brave and strong enough to handle entanglements with bad guys. Smart enough to solve mysteries. She had to have a profession that would allow her to avoid “Cabot Cove Syndrome,” where everyone in the character’s orbit eventually gets killed. Thea answered the ad. I had to learn my tall consultant’s challenges both in finding clothes that fit, and what her world as a consultant to private schools was like. When Andre entered her life, I had to imagine what he’d be like, both personally and professionally, and send the two of them off on a journey where he was sometimes lover, sometimes sidekick, and sometimes antagonist when his protective nature clashed with Thea’s independence.

A bigger challenge presented itself when I decided to develop my interest in the policeDeath Warmed Over and the work they do into my Joe Burgess series with three male protagonists. I often tell my writing students that part of the challenge of imagining characters is to understand how they are like you and how they are not. Burgess, Kyle, and Perry were far different from me and it took a lot of interviewing, and time spent around police officers, to bring them to life.

I’ve written enough books now that when I embark on a new character, as I did in the book I wrote last year, The Darker the Night, a large part of the pleasure and challenge is to get to know the new characters. What will their attributes be? What are their secrets? Where are their strengths and weaknesses. What are the narratives in their heads as they learn about the crime and try to solve it. What drew them to their field? What’s their history? Where are their blind spots?

Of course, it is not only protagonists who need our attention. There are also antagonists, a part of our cast that includes not only the bad guy, but other characters who play a role in thwarting our protagonists as they try to solve the crime. It is very important to make bad guys as dimensioned as our protagonists. Bad guys usually believe that they were driven to commit their bad acts. That they were justified. They had to do it. As we like to say in the crime writing biz, the bad guy or gal doesn’t look in the mirror while brushing their teeth and think, “Oh, I am so bad.”

AngelOfKnowltonParkFrontThose other antagonists? The boss. Jealous colleague. Someone  higher up the food chain. A spouse. A parent. Anyone whose actions thwart the investigation? They all have to be developed in a way that makes their behavior credible.

Then there are the peripheral characters—friends, family, lovers, witnesses, etc. Our challenge is often how to use them without spending too much time on them or creating reader’s expectations or getting readers too attached to them. 

I learned this the hard way. When I wrote the initial draft of my first Joe Burgess mystery, Playing God, I opened the story with a rookie cop, Remy Aucoin, finding a body in a car on a wintery Portland street. Remy was nervous and didn’t quite know what to do, drawing the wrath of my protagonist. Beta readers, though, immediately bonded with Remy, assumed the book was about him, and were disappointed when he disappeared from the story. I had to rewrite the opening to give the scene to Burgess.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, they worm their way into our hearts and become regulars. That’s what Remy did even though I wouldn’t let him steal that scene.

A few things I’ve learned along the way? Don’t give your series character a spouse who will say, “Where are you going? It’s three a.m.” when your character needs to go investigate. And if you’re going to let your character have kids? Be sure you have good childcare lined up. This last is something Thea and Andre will have to deal with soon.

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