1968

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett here. Today is Martin Luther King day. Dr. King (born January 15, 1929) was assassinated on April 4, 1968, almost fifty-five years ago. Thinking about that, I’ve been trying to remember my reaction to his death. Sad to say, I can’t even remember hearing about it at the time.

I suppose it isn’t too surprising that I wasn’t paying much attention to anything outside my own little bubble. I was twenty and a junior at Bates College. As regular readers of this blog already know, I tend to hang onto mementos, so I still have my wall calendar from 1968. In the square for April 4 there are three notations. It was my father’s birthday. He was fifty-eight. There was a band concert at 9 PM. And Rob Players elections were scheduled for 8:15. Robinson Players took up a large portion of my free time. We were in final rehearsals for a reprise at graduation of our March 29 and 30 production of Much Ado About Nothing, for which I was one of three student directors. Finals were about to start because Bates had a two-full-semesters-and-one-short-term year. And in just eighteen days I would be on my way to Germany to meet (and break up with) a boyfriend who was stationed there in the U. S. Army.

gendarmes blocking the road to the Sorbonne

That trip was . . . interesting. In addition to seeing some of the usual tourist sites in Germany, England, Scotland, and France, I ended up as an eyewitness to two sets of student riots. The first was in Leeds, England, where we stopped to visit a college friend who was in the Junior Year Abroad program. The second was in Paris. I wrote “riot following” on my calendar on May 11. Wikipedia’s list of significant events for 1968 lists “Paris student riots” as taking place on May 13, but by then I was back home. I’m not entirely sure what any of those students were protesting, but I know the gendarmes were out in force to stop them. Another JYA friend, this one in Paris, advised us not to speak English in case the riot turned anti-American.

students marching as seen from safe window perch

Sometime in first few weeks after I returned to my parents’ house in Walden, New York and went to work sorting checks at a local bank, Bobby Kennedy came through the area on his campaign for President. I remember going to see him and shaking his hand and being completely turned off by how squishy it felt. On June 5 he was assassinated. That I do remember. I’m not sure he would have made a good president, but given that Richard Nixon was elected that November, he couldn’t have been worse than what we ended up with. Since I turned twenty-one in October, that was the first election I voted in, casting my ballot for Hubert Humphrey and (Bates graduate and Maine Senator) Edmund Muskie.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The calendar for June, July, and August consists mostly of entries that read either “Sandy called” or “called Sandy.” Yup. My future husband was definitely in the picture. He had been waiting in the wings, literally, and on the first of July he asked me to marry him. There were several visits back and forth between New York and Maine until, in September, we started our senior year together. We made our engagement official on the twenty-first of November when he put a ring on my finger during a performance of Barefoot in the Park. He was on stage as the telephone repair man at the time and I was on stage crew, holding onto a door in the set that wouldn’t stay closed on its own. We came face-to-face, out of view of the audience, just long enough to create a truly unforgettable moment.

As you can see from the pages shown here, every day was busy. Catching the news was a low priority. I probably knew about the first Apollo missions, but they didn’t make much of an impression. Ditto on the Olympics—winter games in February in France and summer games in Mexico in October. Reports from Viet Nam and news of anti-war protests during the Democratic National Convention in August struck more of a chord, but that was mostly because my father thought all demonstrators were “communist dupes” and I, although I was not one of them, strongly disagreed. Just a year later, Sandy and I were married and he had joined the U. S. Navy in order to avoid being drafted.

Like any given year, 1968 had both low points and highlights. On a national and international level, things were not great, but I have no complaints about the personal side of my life. Most of those memories are pretty darn good.

Bates “pin” given as place holder for engagement ring

 

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-four books traditionally published and has self published others, including several children’s books. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Her most recent publications are The Valentine Veilleux Mysteries (a collection of three short stories and a novella, written as Kaitlyn) and I Kill People for a Living: A Collection of Essays by a Writer of Cozy Mysteries (written as Kathy). She maintains websites at www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com.

 

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Weekend Update: January 14-15, 2023

Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson (Monday), Maureen Milliken (Tuesday), special guest Albert Waitt (Wednesday) Sandra Neily (Thursday), and Dick Cass (Friday).

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

from Kaitlyn Dunnett: Not exactly news, just fun. I have just completed the 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle given to me by my nephew and his wife. Look familiar?

The puzzle was produced by Shutterfly from a photograph.

Kate Flora: Has no news but is excited to have found someone who will make a book trailer for her book coming in May, Teach Her a Lesson. Which leads to a question for you: Do you like book trailers? Do you watch them? Would on persuade you to buy a book?

Meanwhile, while we are awaiting February, the crazy month, you will have noticed that some of us are blogging about the trials of winter. Here are some photos from winters long ago, back when Maine had serious winter.

Looking at 1000 East Sennebec Road from the south hayfield

Kate and her dad bringing back a Christmas tree

Skating on the pond across the street

 

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, along with the very popular “Making a Mystery” with audience participation, and “Casting Call: How We Staff Our Mysteries.” We also do programs on Zoom. Contact Kate Flora

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Winter Woes

Confession: While I have lived in Maine much longer than New York, the state of my birth, I have never really acclimated to Maine winters. Or winters of any location. Growing up on Long Island, I walked a mile to high school with a cello and, in the days before backpacks, an armful of books. Not exactly uphill both ways, but close enough, with the snowbanks taller than I was and the sidewalks slippery. It will not surprise you that I dropped out of orchestra after my freshman year and ditched that cello.

As for outdoor activities in crowded suburbia? You needed real money for travel and equipment to learn how to ski back then, and my family certainly didn’t have that. I did own a pair of ice skates, and I religiously turned both ankles at every opportunity at the local rink. Building a snowman gave me only brief bragging rights before my artistic endeavor turned into a puddle and my gloves got soggy. So being a bookish child and wise beyond my years, I mostly stayed indoors and read until the forsythia bloomed.

As a mom of four, I spent forever dressing the kids in snowsuits, boots, and mismatched mittens, only to have them come in after ten minutes begging for hot chocolate with lots of marshmallows. Before we moved recently, we lived down a long, intimidating icy camp road in Belgrade, which gave me good reason to hibernate and not crash my car into the house. Or the lake.

So, it’s fair to say I’m indifferent to winter’s wonders, except for its depiction on Christmas cards and calendars. My website bio even says, “A transplanted New Yorker, she lives in Maine, where the cold winters are ideal for staying inside and writing historical mysteries and romances.” But one must do more than write and occasionally stare out the window at Nature’s chilly beauty to occupy oneself. If you are hermitting until mud season like me, here are some suggestions to pass the time.

I am very late to the Inspector Gamache series, having read the first (of 18!!!), Still Life, last week. I have to say the numerous point of view shifts (even within paragraphs) drove me a little—okay, a LOT—crazy, but Louise Penny has created an intriguing world. I highly recommend watching the 8-part Three Pines on Amazon. Alfred Molina is merveilleux as the Montreal detective hero. Fortunately, my high school French (along with closed captioning) is sufficient, and I’m wildly impressed that the cast slips from French to English so effortlessly. I’m now curious about watching the earlier series, Still Life with Nathaniel Parker as Gamache, even if I know who dunnit now.

The second season of Whitstable Pearl on Acorn finds the two appealing lead characters romantically involved with others, yet they work together as PI and DCI to solve some coastal crimes. Lovely Kentish seaside scenery, and the food in Pearl’s restaurant looks fabulous.

I recently finished the Boston-set The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentil. The book’s structure defies conventional description, so I won’t even try. If you like a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, this will be a satisfying read.

Elly Griffiths’ third book in her Harbinder Kaur series, Bleeding Heart Yard, has the policewoman relocated to London. It can be read without knowledge of the first two books, but it is delightful to see Harbinder grow into her job and independence. Griffiths creates quirky, very real characters (see also her Ruth Galloway and Magic Men/Brighton mysteries) and I’ll buy anything she writes.

All three Skelton’s Guides books by David Stafford are fun and very funny: Skelton’s Guide to Domestic Poisons, Skelton’s Guide to Suitcase Murders, and Skelton’s Guide to Blazing Corpses. Set in the late 1920s in England, awkward Arthur Skelton is a reluctant legal lion, with a slew of very unusual companions and relatives.

So, that might keep you entertained until spring. Or at least until Groundhog Day. You know what I’m hoping for. No shadow! What can you recommend for me?

For more info on Maggie and her books, please visit www.maggierobinson.net

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The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine No More…

Vaughn C. Hardacker

Vaughn Hardacker here: As I write this, I look out the window at a dark, dreary day with below-average snow on my lawn (I can see grass spots!). If you wonder if I am complaining about that, I’m not. Why I am complaining about is that we have not had a sunny day this year. It hasn’t made an appearance since before Christmas. Every year I suffer from Seasonal Affected Disorder (appropriately abbreviated SAD), commonly called seasonal depression, which makes every day a battle.

Many of us have been asked why there are so many mystery and horror writers from Maine. At a writer’s event, Tess Gerritsen was asked this question, and she replied: “Long, dark winters.” In my case, the opposite is true. I become so down it takes all of my energy to get out of bed in the morning, and my productivity as a writer is Slim, and none–and Slim left town. The only thing that seems to become active is my random excuse generator. I can come up with hundreds of reasons why I can’t write. I have a SAD therapy light to brighten up the room (I’m told to restrict its use to two to three hours a day–which means I only have to find a way to cope with the other twenty-one hours a day) and have been prescribed an anti-depressant, but neither do much.

A major component of the problem is where I live. At one time or another, we’ve all been asked what living in Maine is like. The usual answer is nine months of winter and three months of poor sledding. I think back to my youth (yes, I can still remember that far back), and all of my memories seem to be of winter. As for summer memories, well, I may as well have dementia… they are few and far between.

How have I been trying to overcome this? For one thing, I have a friend who raises goats, and I asked to borrow one. He quizzed me, so I explained: “I want to sacrifice it and see if the sun will come out.” There’s no need to say I did not get the goat. My counselor has told me I need to find a winter activity, such as snowmobiling. I’ve been all over the area shopping for a suitable sled. Few, if any, come with heaters and FM or satellite radio. This means I would have to spend money on suitable clothes and footwear. In an economy where a small carrot cake at the supermarket went from $5 to $10, can you imagine what a suit, helmet, gloves, and insulated boots cost? I told my counselor, “If I could afford to spend that much, I’d go to Florida or Arizona…”

So, what is my alternative? I can do what I’m doing right now–complain. I can tell you that does no good. After a while, even your pets will avoid you. I can take all calendars from the house (I tried this… did no good, the heavy overcast sky is still visible through the windows.) I could move… the chances of that? You might refer to Slim above.

Looking at this blog, I wonder if I’m spreading SAD–like Typhoid Mary. If so, I permit you to say that I have a negative attitude (I do… but I looked at my calendar, and April is only 85 days away! Until then, I think I’ll take a nap.

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Meet Brian Katcher

John Clark interviewing friend and fellow librarian Brian Katcher whose newest book is set in Maine.

You’re a school library media specialist in Missouri, but you’ve had some interesting travels if I remember correctly. What stands out the most?

I spent three years living in Mexico, teaching English. That was a lot longer than I had originally planned to stay, and I realized if I didn’t leave when I did, I never would. I learned Spanish, I traveled to Central America, and got to have some of the best food I’ve eaten in my life. Mexico City is my favorite city in the world.

How has your work influenced your writing?

As a librarian, I’ve seen what happens when politicians decide they need to get involved in what your children are permitted to read. Here in Missouri, the attorney general is trying to make it a crime to allow kids to read certain graphic novels. In other words, a librarian who stocks a book that the government deems ‘pornographic’ could be arrested as a sex criminal. This is a thinly veiled attempt to remove LGBTQ materials from public and school libraries. As a writer and I librarian I refuse to knuckle under to politicians who are willing to throw marginalized children under the bus in order to advance their own political agenda.

Where did you grow up and what memories stayed with you?

I grew up in St. Peters, Missouri (a suburb of St. Louis). I was a nerdy, funny kid who was afraid of girls. I think that comes through in almost all my books.

What’s living in Missouri like?

Missouri combines northern hospitality with southern efficiency. It’s a highly conservative state with large liberal enclaves. It’s kind of fun being an outlier, but what I wouldn’t give to live in some charming New England state like Vermont or New Hampshire, or…

You’ve written a number of young adult books. Let’s start with Playing With Matches which was published in 2008. I really liked it and it made me keep you on my book radar. What was the inspiration for it?

Thank you for reading! Playing With Matches is about Leon, a nerdy high school junior, who is absolutely based on myself at that age. He befriends Melody, a girl with a badly disfigured face, and wonders if they are destined to be more. The town is based on my home town, the school on my high school, Leon’s friends on my friends.

What inspired it? Well, in my favorite novel, Catch-22, the protagonist sees a girl with a badly scarred face and thinks ‘no one will ever love her.’ I thought that was rather harsh. Surely there’d be a guy out there who could see beyond her scars. I think that’s when I got the idea of a rather superficial guy realizing he was falling for a girl who is far from classically beautiful.

Almost Perfect came next and remains my favorite YA story about a transgender teen. I wasn’t the only one who wished for a sequel, but understood why one was next to impossible, Can you talk about how the book came to be?

Almost Perfect is about Logan, a heterosexual guy who discovers that the new girl in his school, Sage, is transgender. When he realizes that he’s still attracted to her, he wonders if this means that he’s gay—or if he still considers Sage to be a girl.

After Playing With Matches, I was determined to write another book before everyone realized I was just faking it. I wanted to write a boy meets girl story that hadn’t been done a thousand times already. I hit upon the idea of a heterosexual country boy and a transgender girl. Could they make it work? I tried it as a short story. The people in my writers’ group told me that there was no way that I could pull this off in eighty pages. If I wanted to tell this story, it needed to be as a novel.

I knew I was out of my depth so I turned to the internet. I went to transgender support pages and asked people if they would be willing to tell me their stories as part of my research. Their histories, especially fifteen years ago, broke my heart. The overwhelming theme was not being able to go to anyone with who they were and feeling utterly alone and misunderstood. That’s when I knew I had to tell Sage’s story.

I believe I was the second YA author to write about a transgender teen (after Luna, by Julie Anne Peters). In retrospect, I could have done a lot better. But I was proud when the book won the Stonewall Book Award.

Everyone Dies in the End was, I thought, deserving of an Edgar nomination. It had mystery, quirky characters and amazing dialogue. Where did it come from?

So you were the one who read it! Seriously, thanks for the kind words. I read entirely too much Lovecraft in college and became obsessed with the idea of finding a forbidden book, an isolated evil town, or a gateway to another dimension. Everyone Dies is kind of a tribute to that era, and what might of happened had I actually succeeded in my quest.

The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak has some of the same flavor as Everyone and is also funny. What can you tell readers about it?

My editor asked me to write a book that was similar to David Levithan’s Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, the story of two cool kids and a crazy night to remember. But she wanted the main characters to be nerds. I had to figure out where a couple of geek kids would go during the night. Not a club or a party or a rave. What’s a wild, nerdy place that’s open all night? Well, one of my favorite events: Comicon. I’ve been attending cons since I was a teenager, and a lot of Ana and Zak’s adventures are reflections of my own experiences.

Deacon Locke Went to Prom took a most interesting look at proms. I think all of us regardless of age have some memories and feelings about proms, (that is if they went to a school big enough to have one instead of going to the gravel pit and shooting cans). What do you remember about yours?

Well, when I was a high school junior I went to a Key Club convention in Kansas City and met a cute girl. We agreed to exchange letters (this was the pre internet era). Much to my surprise, her first letter was to ask me to her school’s junior prom. I, of course, agreed. The problem was, she lived in Hannibal, over 80 miles away. The only way this would work is if I were to stay the night at her house. The fact that our parents agreed to this shows what big nerds we were. It was a very fun night, somewhat soured by the fact we knew this would be our only date.

For my senior prom, it was a double date with a buddy. The girls went with us as ‘just friends.’ We were both kind of crushing on our dates, and it was an awkward evening. But I’m glad I went.

Your new book Marley’s Ghost is set here in Maine. How did that come about? It’s a very interesting look at a character who might be dead, but still plays a big role in the story. I really like it and got the sense that there’s more to come. Will there be a sequel?

I think we’ve all had that uncle, aunt, or older cousin who we looked up to, who’d let us break the rules, and who lived life on their own terms, even if the rest of the family didn’t see them that way. I wanted to tell the story of a couple of cousins who loved their Uncle Marley maybe more than anyone else did, and are having a hard time filling up the hole he left. And if that means taking the two girls they like on a treasure hunt in another state, then that’s a sacrifice they’re willing to make

I have the bad habit of leaving books open-ended, just in case the public clamors for more. Unlike with Almost Perfect, I retain the rights to these characters, so who knows?

How did the pandemic affect you and your writing?

I mean, what do writers dream about? Unlimited time to sit and home and write? Unfortunately, I found that I write better when I have the pressure of a deadline. ‘I have to have this done in a month? I’m on it.’ ‘I have all year to do this? Well, what’s the rush?’ When it was all over and done with, I don’t feel I was any less or more productive than in regular times.

This is the ‘roll your own’ part. What would you like readers of Maine Crime Writers to know that hasn’t been covered?

I’m attempting a science fiction novel. Wish me luck. Writers are some of the most creative people in the world. Here’s to a happy and productive 2023 for all of you.

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Captivating TV Shows I’ve Watched

Lately I’ve been watching a lot of TV shows. Normally, I’m very selective about what I watch, but the last three dramas my wife and I sat through captivated me and made me thing about my own writing, and how I can improve. Yes, there’s a difference between novels and film, but a good story is still a good story. I believe artists can learn a lot from both mediums, and take instruction in how to better serve their work. In this post I’ll tell you about the three shows that held my attention.

SUCCESSION — Not necessarily a crime show, Succession is a thriller unlike any other drama on television. Based loosely on the life of Rupert Murdoch, I was riveted by this drama about an elderly corporate titan hesitant to pass the reins to one of his four children. This show depicts the harsh realities of capitalism in the twenty first century. And this family is as tight and ruthless as the family in The Godfather. What intrigued me most about this series is that all the characters are loathsome, and yet I still couldn’t stop watching them, and what would happen next. The dark and twisted plot moves along briskly, tight and stylistic. Their are many crimes committed, even manslaughter. The various locales are stunning, especially the scenes shot in New York City. The dialogue is so good that I took notes at times, reminding myself of the inventiveness of the show’s writers. There were a lot of twists that happened that really surprised me, and I was thoroughly disappointed when the last season ended. But there’ll be more. I highly recommend this show for writers looking to study plot, action and great characterization.

WHITE LOTUS — This show was different because the two seasons were completely unrelated, except for one dark and surprising subplot that connected the two episodes. The first season takes place on a high end resort in Hawaii. Various guests come in and out of the plot, creating high drama and mayhem. The hotel employees are just as wild and out-of-control as the guests, even more so. The second season takes place in Sicily and is as much a psychological thriller as it is a family drama. Besides being a great crime show, White Lotus takes on heady topics such as class, racism, sexual identity and fidelity. Great pacing and again, great character puts this one in the top echelon of my favorite TV shows.

MARE OF EASTTOWN — A fascinating show that is part police procedural, part family drama, and part mystery. Set in a small, working class town in Pennsylvania, Mare of Easttown delves into many complex issues. Mare is a local detective, grandmother to a young boy, and mother to a son who committed suicide. She wants to keep custody of her grandson, who is still living with her addict mother. Mare’s other daughter is a bright young student exploring her sexuality in a small town that seems close minded. The death of a young mother sets off an explosive set of events in this compelling tale. And the ending is a complete shocker I didn’t see coming. This show has great acting and moves at a slower, more deliberate pace. While not as explosive and wild as the previous two shows I mentioned, I did find this one compelling and worth checking out.


Definitely find time to watch these three dramas if you have a chance. As a writer, I found them very entertaining and instructive. I think you will too.

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Weekend Update: January 7-8, 2023

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

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

RIPPED OFF

Vaughn C. Hardacker’s seventh thriller,RIPPED OFF, is scheduled for release by Encircle Publications on January 25th. It is available for preorder.

Retired or not, never double-cross a hitman…
A former hitman’s retirement bankroll has been stolen. To recover his money, the quest will lead him from Maine to Boston, Boston to the Caribbean Islands, and then to the Amazon Rainforest of Brazil. He will be faced with crooked lawyers, South American drug lords, and the largest and most violent of Brazil’s criminal syndicates.

Signed copies can be ordered from vaughn at vhardacker@gmail.com.

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, along with the very popular “Making a Mystery” with audience participation, and “Casting Call: How We Staff Our Mysteries.” We also do programs on Zoom. Contact Kate Flora

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WAIT FOR IT?

by Jule Selbo

I’m reading John Grisham’s 2021 release The Judge’s List.

Very soon – as I was reading – I got interested in how – in the first 100 pages, Grisham’s employed the “I can’t tell you now”, “I can’t tell you everything I know”, “I can’t tell you here”, “I can’t let you look at the file that is right here in my hand because I am afraid/untrusting/paranoid” and “If you meet me tomorrow, I’ll tell you more” technique. I have to admit, I got a little frustrated, but I could see, story-wise, what he was using the page space for:

  1. Set up the BJC in Florida (Board on Judicial Conduct); where the protagonist works as a lawyer whose task it is to make sure misconduct of judges is illuminated. Make it clear what procedures have to be followed, as well as the protocols, missions and pecking orders of the BJC office. Who’s in charge, who makes the final decision on what cases to pursue. Also, what the lawyers must do when faced with a complaint – what is in their jurisdiction, and what they must hand over to local law enforcement or the FBI.
  2. Allow enough time (days) to pass to get to know the protagonist (Lacy Stoltz, just turning 40). A bit of her backstory (this is the second in a series), how she feels about her career, her choices, setting up the ennui that has set in.
  3. Let Lacy show her chops as an investigator. She takes the little information she’s given by the mysterious, tight-fisted complainant, allows her curiosity to lead and expands on the small bits of material that have been given to her.
  4. Set up antagonistic forces and nay-sayers. A lazy boss (Cleo) at the BJC, and having to answer to a board of directors who need to hear about every case,  and be clear that the local, state police force (and FBI) will often not share information.
  5. Give the reader a chance to like other characters at the fading-in-energy BJC. The ones who are, for different reasons, committed to their jobs. Saddell (researcher) and Darren (fellow lawyer with a sense of humor) are quickly filled out, the reader comes to “like” them and will worry about them down the road.
  6. Move the “I can’t tell you here, meet me there for the next smidgen” scenes from meeting place to meeting place – this gives the reader a series of locations that help ground the story in place.
  7. Allow Lacy to become “a reluctant hero”. She’s tired of her job, the way the office is run, the perimeters of how she must proceed. The “I can’t tell you now” info provider is frustrating to her – the complaint is suspect (no actual proof, just circumstantial – a gathering of dubious clues). The crimes cross state lines, Lacy knows this complicates her job – even takes it out of her area of authority. More of the rules of conduct are laid out and Lacy is tired of bureaucracy – wonders if she should change jobs.
  8. Lacy tells the persistent “stingy-with-information” person that she (meaning the BJC) will not/cannot take the case quite a few times (I won’t go back and count, but it’s at least five or six or seven times) and gets annoyed with the person does not hear that “no”.
  9. Expand on the character (Jeri) – the woman who parcels out information so slowly.
  10. Let the reader get to know the accused bad-guy judge without even “meeting him” – we learn through Jeri’s biased accounts. Build the (possible) criminal’s reasons for his crime. Build his odd, scary personality and backstory through the lens of Jeri.
  11. Let us wonder if Jeri a reliable source or has she gone off the deep end?
  12. The slow drive up the entrance to the story highway also gives Grisham the time to set up Lacy’s romantic life – getting the reader to care about her in another sphere besides the workplace. Her FBI boyfriend might be ready to pop the question and Lacy’s wondering if she wants the engagement ring or not.
  13. Get the reader wondering if the “real story” will pop in soon.

Question: What’s your preference? Does this kind of overt withholding of information work for you or do you prefer to give as much information as you can at each turn  – to see how the story can deepen from there?

I’ve just gone back into The Judge’s List to count the days that have passed in the first 100 pages. Three workdays, a weekend, two more workdays – a total of seven days. There are multiple times Lacy tells Jeri, “I can’t help you”, “Don’t call me again”, “This is not what the BJC does”, “My boss says we can do nothing”, “You have no proof, so there is no case.”. Lacy’s continual “no” to pursuing the case is juxtaposed with her picking up the phone and/or agreeing to meet Jeri over and over again. This push and pull of Lacy’s intent makes the reader see her deep need to get excitement into her life – for the rush she gets from entering a danger zone when on the hunt for a bad judge who really needs to be put away.

Alert: SPOILER (Stop reading if you haven’t read the book and plan to read it and you hate spoilers. My husband doesn’t mind them because he’s trained his mind to only retain information on cars, boats and new cocktail recipes. (At least that’s what it seems like to me.))

So, at page 100 or so, the story kicks in. There’s a twist. There’s a new murder. Lacy kicks off her doldrums about life, work, love. She accepts a promotion. Now she can make larger decisions at the BJC office – i.e. what cases to pursue, where to put the manpower. Her curiosity, her hunger for glory, the thrill she gets living on the edge is now able to move forward.

Question: Is the 100 page mark the “typical time” for a shift, for the raising of stakes, of knowing that set up now must be over and more aggressive crime-solving action must become paramount?

I like procedurals, reading about and learning about how the professionals solve crimes. I also like amateur sleuths because most, in their pursuit of justice, are dogged and obsessed and make plenty of mistakes. I like the hybrid nature of Lacy – part amateur and part pro. She has skills, she knows the law, she knows her given role in the pursuit of crime solving – but she’s untrained in things like surveillance, use of guns, etc. This hybrid works for me.

Some amateur sleuths boggle my mind. Late one night, when wanting to veg, I happened on a crime show, In the Dark (2019-2022, a CW show).

The amateur sleuth (Murphy) is in her twenties, she’s blind, she’s selfish, she’s a sexaholic and alcoholic, she uses people, and she expects huge passes on her arrogant behavior because of her disability. She works at a Guide Dog School, screws up and/or bags on her job constantly (to have sex or follow clues on a crime she’s interested in). Viewers are meant to care for Murphy because she’s flippant, self-deprecating, pretty and she’s got a great guide dog and she does bond with a few people.

In the first season, one of few friends she has gets murdered; she’s devastated and becomes obsessive about finding the killer. She outsmarts cops and entrenched criminals, stumbles (literally because of her disability) into great danger. As a viewer, I sometimes laugh out loud as her (unbelievable) survival skills. But – I admit, I’m still watching (just finished season one). What’s keeping me watching? I guess wanting to see how the writers complicate the stories, how they deal with Murphy’s disability, and hoping she might actually decide to learn some actual procedural skills. (I won’t hold my breath – this is a CW show and aimed at viewers who like aspiration, are fine with stereotypes, appreciate nice make-up (Murphy, the blind protagonist wears perfect eyeliner, mascara and lipstick at all times). CW viewers tune in for more broad stroked-stories, don’t worry too much about logic – the programming is usually not out to explore a more ‘reality’ based story palate (IMO).)

But back to WAIT FOR IT.  In the Dark has 13 episodes per season. A crime is committed in episode one and the solving of it takes 12 more episodes. The amount of not giving known information, of withholding information that, if shared, could solve the crime much sooner is huge.

Sometimes this is accomplished by using an interruption of an opportunity for sex (which, of course, must take precedence over crime-solving) or a bar fight or malevolent of benevolent stonewalling, getting in the middle of a drug deal or a birthday party at the Guide Dog School.  I am having a lot of fun watching the show and yelling at the screen.

Question: Are you a tortoise when it comes to information sharing?

 Or are you a hare?

Every story’s going to have its own form and pace. But when is “slow” too slow? Is parsing out information a style? Not even sure what I’m exploring here, but Grisham’s book and this improbable television show got me thinking about these questions.

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My 2022 Stack

I didn’t need socks this year. The bottom drawer of my dresser is jammed so full I struggle to close it sometimes, so Smartwools weren’t on my list.

Similarly, I’ve got plenty of scarves, hats, gloves.

I didn’t need any kitchen gadgets, but I got a few new ones. You’ll never hear me complain about that.

But many of the people in my life bought me books for Christmas, a treasure trove for which I am grateful. Here’s the 2022 stack.

Anyone who’s seen the bookshelves in our house knows the multiple meanings of this picture—(a) my friends and family are generous when they feed my hunger for books and (b) it’s time to box up some of those I’ve already read to make room for the new arrivals.

At the turn of each year, we cull books we don’t feel the need to keep into sturdy boxes and deliver them to one of the several libraries in our lives, then fill the gaps on the shelves with fresh literary loot. This year brought some terrific fiction and non-fiction, and I cannot wait to dive in.

Fintan O’Toole writes for the Irish Times, primarily. He’s also been a drama critic for the New York Daily News and written for The Guardian and The New York Review of Books, among other publications. I appreciate his sharp eye and incisive writing style, and was so pleased to find his newest book, We Don’t Know Ourselves – A Personal History of Modern Ireland under my tree.

On the subject of journalism, I was thrilled to unwrap Margaret Sullivan’s memoir, Newsroom Confidential, Lessons (and Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life.  The former media critic for The Washington Post, Sullivan also served for three-plus years as public editor of the New York Times.

Last month I heard her being interviewed on the CBC, and it was evident her lens on the media was shaped by her many years at The Buffalo News—a regional rather than a national newspaperone reason I’m especially eager to read this book.

Staying with the newspaper theme, last year I enjoyed Val McDermid’s 1979, featuring rookie newspaper reporter Allie Burns fighting for scoops at a scrappy daily in Glasgow around the same time I was in journalism school. 1989 is the sequel, with Allie ten years older and wiser, and the world a different place for a multitude of reasons. I’m hoping for a snowed in weekend to devour this one.

I’m also keen to settle in with the other books in my stack—Eli Cranor’s Don’t Know Tough is drawing raves, I’ve been tardy getting to Rosalie Knecht’s Vera Kelly books, and Kathryn Shultz’s memoir Lost & Found promises to be a powerful, moving read.

Sharp eyes also will spot a cookbook, The World in a Skillet, by the fabulous cooks at Milk Street Kitchen. This will complement the beautiful cast iron skillet I received as a gift last year, which has become my go-to pan.

Finally, an important hole in my bookshelves has been filed by two books by one of my favorite children’s book authors, the late Robert McCloskey. I don’t know what happened to my earlier versions of Burt Dow, Deep Water Man and One Morning in Maine, but I’m glad to have received replacement copies this Christmas. These are great to have on hand when young friends visit. But sometimes a woman just needs to settle in with a book ostensibly written for kids, and McCloskey’s illustrated tales —like those of E.B. White, who also set his children’s stories in Hancock County—are deeply pleasurable reads no matter one’s age.

Happy New year to all of our readers here at MCW. Please let us know in the comments what books you received as gifts and/or are looking forward to reading in the new year.

Brenda Buchanan brings years of experience as a journalist and a lawyer to her crime fiction. She has published three books featuring Joe Gale, a newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. She is now hard at work on new projects. FMI, go to http://brendabuchananwrites.com

 

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Better Taken with a Grain of Salt?

A tweaked and recycled post from a few years ago, advice to be considered as those of us who do so are making New Year’s Resolutions to try writing, or to write more, in the new year.

Kate Flora: As we enter another writing year, and may be making New Year’s photo-89resolutions which include finally writing that book you’ve always dreamed of writing, I am here to help you along on your journey, by sharing pieces of advice I’ve gotten over the years which have proved singularly unhelpful. I share them as a warning against the world of writing advice with this caveat: Don’t take them at face value, or assume they are true for you, until you’ve tested them against your own experience, your own instincts, and seen whether they advance your writing or impede it. Some of them may work for you.

 

  1. If something you’ve written in your work-in-progress makes you cry when you pen dripping inkreread it, excise it, cut it, leave it out. This is something I totally disagree with. I have some bits in books I’ve written over the years that still make me cry when I reread them. It just may be that there’s nothing wrong with powerful emotion in our books. If you have a section you’re worried about because someone has given you the advice above, try it out on a few beta readers and see if they think it should be cut. Always be ready to listen to advice but also be open to listening to your instincts. In the end, it is YOUR work.
  2. If you don’t know how to write, it’s necessary to take several writing classes and read lots of writing books. I think here the answer is: not so fast. I love teaching, and yes, it helps to learn some craft and spend time in classes where you can get feedback from instructors and other students. But there is a downside–the risk that you will fill your head so full of advice about what the rules are (rules that often vary from one instructor to another) that you lose any ability to be spontaneous. There’s also the risk that you won’t be discovering yourself as writer. You won’t be developing a practice to get your writing done if you’re always filling your time with classes. You may become so wedded to prompts and assignments that you aren’t listening to your own imagination, exploring your own individual creativity, or learning what parts of the writing craft actually enchant you.
  3. Don’t write a word until you’ve written an outline. Again, not necessarily. If you’re a magnifying glassperson who can’t tackle a project without an outline or some signposts to guide you along the way, then yes, do an outline. It doesn’t have to be the kind we learned in 6th grade. But many writers aren’t plotters but pantsers, and love the excitement of discovery that comes with waiting to find out what happens next. See advice in 2, above. You have to actually write for a while to discover what kind of a writer you are, and that means hours at the keyboard, by yourself, finding yourself as a writer, not waiting to be told who you are by someone else.
  4. You should pick a writer whose style you admire, and learn to imitate that. See my comments above. Learning to distinguish the elements of particular styles can give you tools in your writer’s tool box to choose from, but slavish imitation, sometimes unaware imitation, will come between you and the writer you’re meant to be. There are great prompts in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction asking you to write several styles, and this is a fun exercise to do. In the end, though, you want to be you the writer, not an imitator.
  5. Don’t worry if you don’t have an idea today, write only when the spirit movesScreen Shot 2019-01-02 at 4.20.51 PM you, the muse appears, or you’re inspired by a great idea. Nope. Despite the fact that we’re surrounded by those people who say, “I always wanted to write, but I tried it once and it was hard,” the truth is that writing is hard, but writers go to their desks and write on the days when their heads ache, when they’d rather rub themselves with sandpaper, when it seems like everything they write is gravel. Writing is a job–often a great job–but still a job, and so we go to work. This means you will be there, at your desk, fingers curled over the keys, at the magic moment when the fluttery little muse deigns to visit and whisper words in your ear. When you suddenly get into a flow so exhilarating you can hardly catch your breath. But we earn those moments by spending time with gravel or the merely adequate.
  6. Read all the bestsellers in the genre you plan to write in, and then write a book like that. It’s sure to sell. Alas, although it’s true that agents and editors always think they want a book just like the last bestseller, only different, by the time you’ve spent a year writing that book, there will be a new new thing and your book will be yesterday’s news. You’re much better off writing the story that enchants you, that matters to you, that you can immerse yourself in. There’s no guarantee you’ll sell that one, either, but at least the journey will have been a good one.

I could go one and on, but that’s enough for today. Don’t be discouraged. Writing is hard, sometimes brutally hard. It’s also magical, and so addictive that even when the books don’t sell, or don’t sell well, we don’t give up. And my one piece of advice, learned the hard way through ten years in the unpublished writer’s corner: Be stubborn. Be your own best cheerleader. While it’s true that rarely will someone knock on your door and demand the chance to publish your novel, and also true that getting published can be a brutal process filled with rejection, only you get to decide that you’re a writer.

 

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