So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Good Night

One week from today, the fourth and final Lady Adelaide Mystery, Farewell Blues, comes out, and I’ve been thinking about past release days. I don’t think any writer gets jaded about them, no matter how many books they’ve published. There’s a mix of excitement, dread, and uncertainty. You wonder if you’ve done too much or not enough. You know you’d still tweak the story if you could, and think of the perfect scene far too late. You promise yourself not to read the reviews but do it anyway. You Google the book title, refresh Amazon every hour to see your stats in Hot New Releases, and post on Facebook and Twitter all day until people are pretty sick of you and your damned book.

But nothing tops my very first “book birthday,” all the way back to April 27, 2010. On Saturday, April 24, I brought my husband John to the hospital emergency room early in the morning. He was in acute pain and gastric distress. By that evening, a surgeon had removed 18 inches of his colon and clapped on a colostomy bag. The doctor’s diagnosis was Stage 4 rectal cancer, delivered around midnight in a matter-of-fact way to my oldest daughter and me in an empty visitors’ room. She wasn’t sure what it meant, but I was. I went home and contacted our other kids, friends, and online writing friends I’d never met in person but who had supported me every word of the way. I was totally numb.

By Monday, the lab results came back, and oops. NOT cancer. The colon had wrapped itself around something and the mass formed a blockage. We were incredibly relieved, though kind of angry at the same time for the two days of deadly depressing death-thoughts. But now all four kids were home, and it wasn’t for a vigil.

The day after I found out my husband was not going to die a gruesome imminent death, the book debuted. There was no champagne. I was still in an exhausted fog without it, and all of the promo stuff on Twitter and Facebook you’re supposed to do was taken over by my wonderful critique partners and writing friends, for which I cannot ever thank them enough.

That Tuesday, I was so relieved John was going to be all right, I went out and bought a house on a lake that he’d looked at. And by looked at, I mean he walked around the outside once and stared in the windows. He didn’t even know how much I paid for it until he came out of his drugged stupor days later. We toured the inside once he got out of the hospital. Fortunately, he liked it and thought I got a good deal.

We moved away from the lake two years ago, and other release days have been much less momentous. Next week, there might even be champagne. My writing friends will cheer me on again, and I will be filled with gratitude for eleven more years of marriage, mayhem, and the mysteries of life and publishing.

Tea in London. Inadvertently both in purple.

Maggie Robinson is a former teacher, library clerk, and mother of four who woke up in the middle of the night, absolutely compelled to create the perfect man and use as many adjectives and adverbs as possible doing so. A transplanted New Yorker, she lives with her not-quite perfect husband in Maine, where the cold winters are ideal for staying inside and writing historical mysteries and romances. A two-time Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice nominee, her books have been translated into French, German, Portuguese, Turkish, Russian, Japanese, Thai, Dutch and Italian. Maggie is a member of Sisters in Crime and Maine Romance Writers.

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Weekend Update: September 4-6, 2021

Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be  posts by Maggie Robinson (Tuesday), Joe Souza (Thursday), and John Clark (Friday). Some Wednesdays from now on will be “Win a Book Wednesday” with giveaways, drawings, and announcements of winners. Be sure to stop by at mid-week to see what’s new.

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

You will find several MCW writers at Books in Boothbay on Saturday, September 11th

Saturday, September 11, 2021
9 a.m. – 12 p.m. & 1 p.m. – 4 p.m.
Admission to book fair is always FREE!

Author Line-Up*
Morning Session 9:00am–12:00pm
Kerri Arsenault, Danielle Bannister, Hilary Bartlett, Sarah Carlson, Richard Cass, Matt Cost, Irene M. Drago, Fran Hodgkins, Peter Ilgenfritz, Susan T. Landry, Mary Lawrence, BJ Magnani, S. Lee Manning, Sandra Neily, Anne Britting Oleson, Maria Padian, T. Blen Parker, Barbara Ross, David Sloan, Kevin St. Jarre, Lara Tupper, Caitlin Wahrer, James M. Wright

Afternoon Session 1:00pm–4:00pm
Cheryl Blaydon, Ellen Booraem, Charlene D’Avanzo, Jean Flahive, Kate Flora, Cheryl Gillespie, Jason Grundstrom-Whitney, Vaughn C. Hardacker, Gerry W. Hawes, Tom Huntington, Len Mattano, Dave Patterson, Dale T. Phillips, Lynne Schmidt, Bette Stevens, Thomas Urquhart

Missing library events? You can sign up to Zoom this Making a Mystery Event at the Athol, MA library:

Athol Public Library is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.
Topic: Sisters In Crime – Making a Mystery
Time: Sep 14, 2021 07:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)
Join Zoom Meeting
https://us06web.zoom.us/j/81845635516

Meeting ID: 818 4563 5516
Passcode: 171700
One tap mobile
+16465588656,,81845635516# US (New York)
+13017158592,,81845635516# US (Washington DC)

A reminder that the New England Crime Bake is on for this coming November. A live event is still planned but there is also an exciting week of programming if they have to go virtual. Check it all out here: https://crimebake.org

This week, we are asking our readers the question: What would you like to see us blog about? Do you enjoy book reviews? Want to see where we write? Are you interested in craft? In research? Are there topics you’d love to see that we never seem to write about? Comment here to let us know.

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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Travel, Then and Now

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here. Last weekend many mystery fans and writers expected to gather in New Orleans for Bouchercon, the largest of the annual fan conventions. A month or so beforehand, it was cancelled due to Covid concerns and rescheduled for a future date. It turns out this was a good thing, since New Orleans ended up being in the path of a major hurricane and attendees would have had a difficult time getting home again.

During the past few months, other annual gatherings have either been cancelled or had already switched to virtual programming. Was I planning to attend any of the in-person ones? No. But it wasn’t all that long ago that I would have been, and in common with those who were registered, I regret that plans had to be changed. For writers, conferences, especially those organized by fans, are a big part of publicizing their work. They’re also a lot of fun. That’s probably why, today, I’m waxing nostalgic about past gatherings.

Maine contingent, Malice Domestic 2015

I can’t say I was ever a big fan of the travel involved, especially if it meant long hours on a plane, but back when I first started going to conferences, even that part of the trip was much less of a hassle. Both before and after 2001, my husband would drive me to Portland Jetport, but in the beginning we’d get me checked in and then go upstairs to the restaurant for a leisurely meal while waiting for the call to board. He could accompany me to the gate to say goodbye and then stay in the waiting area to watch my plane take off before heading home. It was a pleasant, relaxing way to start a trip.

my critique group, Romance Writers of America conference in NYC in 1994

You know what airports are like now. And the planes themselves are less passenger-friendly, too. For the last five or six years, unless I could afford to splurge and fly first class, arthritis and other health issues made even a short flight physically uncomfortable for me. It didn’t help that seats are closer together than they used to be. You want proof? Try lowering the tray table if you carry your weight in front of you. I’d end up arriving at my destination already hurting, and if the conference hotel also required a lot of walking, the fun factor took another hit. At the last few conferences I attended, the hotels didn’t even a nice big lobby bar to hang out in. If you only see fellow attendees when you’re attending the same panels, it really limits the socializing.

how to meet friends at Malice Domestic 2014

A lot of my best conference memories took place in lobby bars, where groups of us pulled chairs together around a table and talked about every subject imaginable. It didn’t matter that most of us only saw each other at those conferences. We could pick up right where we left off the year (or two) before. Thank goodness e-mail and Facebook have made it possible to stay in touch even without the physical conferences. They are a poor substitute for meeting face-to-face, but better than nothing. What’s sad is that far too many friends from the earliest days of my career are no longer with us.

lobby bar, Novelists Inc. conference in Vancouver in 2000

The very first conference I ever went to was the Amherst Children’s Literature Conference in 1987. Thanks to a mutual friend, I was invited to stay at Jane Yolen’s home. Jane was a very big deal in children’s books and wrote a how-to on writing books for children that I still have. One of her best bits of advice was that you don’t have to have children to write for them. You don’t even have to like children. You just have to remember what it was like to be a child.

The next year I attended the International Crime Congress in New York City. That was where I first met many mystery writers who later became friends. At an open house at one of Manhattan’s four (yes, four) mystery bookstores, I also met a reader who is still one of my best conference pals today.

It was 1991 when I first attended Malice Domestic, in the third year it was in existence, and also went to the annual Romance Writers of America conference. That year it was held in New Orleans, my one and only visit to the city that is so much in the news today. What do I remember? That it was summer and hot and humid! And that over lunch and a drink called a Hurricane, I pitched the idea for a time-travel romance to my editor. She loved it! In fact, she was sure Echoes and Illusions would be my “breakout book.” It didn’t quite turn out that way, but I treasure the memory.

Speaking of hurricanes, of the weather variety, I’ll never forget one memorable Novelists Inc conference. We met in White Plains, New York and were wrapping up when we started hearing about cancelled flights. Fortunately, I’d traveled by car with two writer friends, one from Maine and one from New Hampshire. Going home, we made room for an additional passenger, a writer from New Brunswick who was stranded in New York as Hurricane Sandy approached. The other Maine writer took her as far as Bangor and her husband drove there from Canada (in those days, border crossing was easy!) to pick her up.

I could go on. By a rough count, I’ve been to at least ninety writers’ conferences since 1987. Some years I was traveling somewhere on an average of once a month from the spring through the fall. Will I ever attend another in person? Only time will tell. It would help if someone would hurry up and perfect transporter technology. Post-Covid booster, I’d have no hesitation at all if I could be beamed from my house directly to a conference site.

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-four books traditionally published and has self published several children’s books and three works of nonfiction. 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 newest books are Murder, She Edited (the fourth book in the contemporary “Deadly Edits” series, written as Kaitlyn) and, as Kathy, I Kill People for a Living: A Collection of Essays by a Writer of Cozy Mysteries. She maintains websites at www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com. A third, at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, is the gateway to over 2300 mini-biographies of sixteenth-century Englishwomen, now available in e-book format.

 

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Am I Lazing on the Porch? Or Plotting?

Kate Flora: As seems to be its habit these days, summer arrived too slowly and now seems poised to flee just as we are settling in to enjoy it. I object! While it’s true that official fall doesn’t arrive until later in the month, the sudden onset of early darkness and a hint of melancholy in the air confirm that it is coming.

Every year, I, like many, think that I will spend long summer days curled up in a porch rocker, my nose buried in a book. Last summer I even toyed with the notion of retiring, of never again sitting down at my desk and typing: Chapter One, and then seeing what my characters would do. I failed to successfully retire, though I did perhaps succeed in slowing down.

When I find myself feeling jaded, after thirty-five years at the desk, I often try to write something different. This summer, I thought it might be fun to convert a half-finished short story called “Unleashed Love” into a romance novel. (Those of you who remember that I vowed never to try romance again, where were you when I needed a reminder?) Anyway, as is usually the pattern when I set out to write something, what I’ve planned when I was plotting the story in my mind is pretty often not what happens when my characters start feeling their oats and misbehaving. “Unleashed Love” is supposed to be the story of a woman’s adventures when, recovering for a terrible breakup, she adopts a rescue dog and her dog turns out to be an excellent matchmaker. I intended the book to be sweet and light, but apparently that’s not my style. The story has gotten a lot deeper as I’ve explored Sarey’s relationship with her complicated and demanding family and the retired psychiatrist who is her dog walking companion and subtle advisor.

I may complain, but in fact, I love the adventure of seeing my characters start directing my stories, reminding me that while I am supposed to be in charge, at least on some subconscious level, the story is writing itself. Or I am making all these things happen but unaware that I am.

In any case, I was going along quite happily following Sarey’s adventures, with several

Coastal Maine Botanical Garden

more chapters plotted out, when I was reminded that I’m supposed to have sent the next Thea Kozak mystery to my publisher, and I’ve barely started writing it. I’ve been playing the avoidance game because I’ve put Thea—and myself—in a very difficult situation. After years of talking about a baby, Thea and Andre finally have one. Not only is it a challenge for them, as new parents. It is a very big challenge for their creator. Thea is used to being an independent woman, frequently called out, sometimes into dangerous situations, in the service of her client schools or people who need her help. But larking off to a client school, or setting out to help someone, as Thea the Human Tow Truck puts it, “broken down on the highway of life,” isn’t so easy with a tiny baby.

So while the book opens with Thea, while running a quick errand, finding herself facing what appears to be a desperate young mother whose baby has been kidnapped, she uncharacteristically hands the desperate girl over to the police. Thea might want to help but she has a newborn. Babies need to be fed and changed and rocked and none of that can conveniently be done on the public street or at a police station.

Thea Kozak series, book 1

Saying no is not part of her character, and I am alternately cursing, and embracing, the challenge of how she’ll go about solving a mystery without doing much away from home detecting. There is also the challenge of all the new baby gear that people have these days. My youngest is thirty-eight, but luckily, there are two recent babies in the family, and I’m sure the mothers won’t mind advising Aunt Kate on the latest innovations.

So…in closing, a question for our readers: What would you like to see Maine Crime Writers blog about? Process? Where or how we work? Where we get our ideas? We are always eager to hear your suggestions.

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Revisiting Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Post: Are You a Mainer?

Today, the last day of our Blogcation, we’re sharing a post from Julia, who addresses the perennial question: How do you tell if someone is a Mainer? What would you add?

I’m writing this from Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, an annual event that moves from the west coast, to the middle of the country, to the east in a three-year cycle. This year, it’s taking place in Albany, NY, a scant 165 miles south of where I was born (Plattsburgh) and only 45 miles away from the Washington County town my ancestors settled in 1720. Being back in what is arguably my home turf got me thinking about what makes a New Yorker – and, by extension, what makes a person a Mainer.

How do you know when to call yourself a Mainer? Can you lose your Mainer status? Let’s find out by taking some questions from totally imaginary people.

1. I moved to Maine four years ago. I volunteer at the local clam festival and I know the location of the secret Sheepscot bypass, which gets you past the Route one bottleneck in Wiscasset. Am I a Mainer?

No. And don’t blab about the bypass, you’ll alert the tourists and ruin it for the rest of us.

2. I married a Mainer, and have lived here for twenty-six years. I can spell ‘Damariscotta’ without looking it up and am a selectman on my town board. I’m a Mainer, right? You got elected as a selectman?

After only twenty-six years? That’s impressive. But no, you’re not a Mainer.

3. My parents aren’t Mainers, but I was born and raised in Portland. I’m a Mainer, right?

Only in coastal southern Maine between Camden and Kittery. North of Augusta and east of Bucksport it’s best to simply say, “I’m from Portland.” However, when out-of-state, you can claim your Mainehood all you want, especially if you’re wearing a flannel shirt and scuffed-up Bean boots.

4. I love Maine! I’ve come here every summer since I was a kid. A few years back, I made a killing on Wall Street and bought an ocean-view house to enjoy with my own kids. I like to hang out at the local lunch counter and swap stories with my fellow Mainers.

We’re pretty polite here, so no one’s going to contradict you when you refer to yourself as a Mainer (especially if you own a place that’s pumping major bucks into the town’s property tax fund.) But honestly, we sometimes laugh about it when you’re not around.

5. I’m from Massachusetts and–

No.

6. I was born and bred in Rumford, and my family goes back over a hundred years. I’m moving out-of-state, however. Will I still be a Mainer?

Living away from Maine does erode your Mainehood. The pace of de-Mainification depends on where you’re relocating. In rural New Hampshire, for instance, you can remain a Mainer in good standing for years. On the other hand, you can lose it within a week if you’re living in Las Vegas or Los Angeles. (However, if you become famous, we’ll gladly claim you as one of our own again.)

7. I come from Machias, and my last name is Beale/Eaton/Skillin. I went to high school with thirteen of my cousins and I lost my virginity out by the old quarry.

Yep, you’re a Mainer. Pour yourself a glass of Allen’s Coffee Brandy, kick back in the La-Z-Boy and tune into the Red Sox game to celebrate.

And remember, folks – we can’t all be Mainers, but we can all enjoy The Way Life Should Be.

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Blast from the Past: How We Keep Our Series Characters Fresh

Today, as part of our August “blogcation” we repost a post from a few years ago, but one that always had relevance for our readers, a chat about our strategies for keeping the series fresh.

Kate Flora here, starting a conversation about the challenges of writing series characters. In a recent post, we asked our readers what question they might ask if they met us at a library or bookstore. One reader, who is just embarking on a series, asked if we would talk about how we keep a series character fresh and interesting to ourselves and to our readers. It’s a great question, and one I know we’ve all faced. So, Maine Crime Writers, what are the challenges and how do you handle them? Here are some specific questions for you.

Gerry, in a recent conversation, you said you started writing your Brandon Blake series because you were tired of Jack McMorrow after so many books. Why Brandon, and did imagining and writing a new character help you feel “fresher” when you went back to Jack?

Gerry Boyle here. Thanks, Kate. Good question. And yes, I was a bit tired of my reporter friend Jack McMorrow after eight novels and two movie projects (neither of which resulted in an actual movie, but that’s another story). I’d spent a lot of time with McMorrow and friends and wanted to try a new series hero, one whose life was less similar to mine (McMorrow and I shared a profession, and covered the same rural Maine territory much of the time). I also wanted to write a book that wasn’t in the first person.

This may not seem like a big deal but a first-person narrator and a third-person narrator are very different things. FIrst-person is great for intimacy and truly getting inside the head of your hero. It’s limiting in that the writer can only reveal what he knows, sees, hears. Third-person, in my Brandon Blake books, allowed me to write from the point of view of multiple characters and to view my hero from outside. It’s been fun and PORT CITY SHAKEDOWN and PORT CITY BLACK AND WHITE have a very different feel, I think (readers chime in here) from the McMorrow novels.

That said, going back to McMorrow for DAMAGED GOODS was like reuniting with an old friend. We took up right where we left off and that book practically wrote itself. It’s a real pleasure to write a book filled with characters who feel like old friends. Now I have projects underway with both characters and may even have them meet. Jack, meet Brandon. Brandon, meet Jack. Then I’ll step aside and see how and if they hit it off.

Kaitlyn: You’ve written whole shelves of books, and many different series. So what are your strategies for keeping your characters straight and not mixing them up or being repetitive? Do you work on more than one book at a time?

Kaitlyn Dunnett: I’ll give the short answer first. For the last few years I’ve alternated between writing one of the Liss MacCrimmon mysteries (contemporary humorous) and writing a non-mystery historical set in the sixteenth century. When one needs to “rest” or I hit a snag I switch to the other one. As for keeping characters straight,  I make character sheets for each character, even the walk ons, with details of physical appearance, odd little habits, relationship to other characters, and so forth. The tricky part is remembering to add information from book to book, but at least the character sheets keep me from giving someone blue eyes in one book and brown in the next. Each WIP is in a big looseleaf. I use dividers to section off each chapter. And yes, I do print a hard copy. I print up every day’s work in addition to making umpteen electronic backups. Also in the looseleaf for any given book is a set of a-z dividers so I can arrange the characters by surname and find them easily. Other sections are labeled “outline,” “dates,” “setting,” and “notes.” The outline isn’t the synopsis used to sell the book. It’s the outline I make as I go along, so I know what’s really in each chapter, including significant character development. “Dates” includes calendars, a chronology of everything that’s happened in the series so far and, in the case of my historical series, significant historical events even if they aren’t mentioned in my story. Continuing characters usually have birthdays assigned, so those are in there too. “Setting” has maps. Lots and lots of maps. Also floor plans. Photos, too. Notes on distances between places. For my 1888 series written as Kathy Lynn Emerson, I also had a lot of information on train and steamboat schedules. “Notes” is for everything else. For Bagpipes, Brides, and Homicides, I had information on wedding planning (what to do six months ahead of time, three months ahead of time, etc.), Scottish festivals, Medieval crafts, hand fasting ceremonies, and hand and a half broadswords. If I have very thick files, they go in a file box for each book and some of them stay there from book to book. The file box for BB&H had folders on how murder cases are handled in Maine and on Scottish dancing, luxury hotels, Scottish games, and the discovery of America by a Scot sailing for Norway in 1387 (see my blog tomorrow for more on that and a chance to win a copy of the book).

As to the original question of how to keep characters fresh, one simple way is to let some time elapse between the action in one book and the action in the next.

Lady Appleton from the first short story in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine

With the Face Down series, about two years passed between each story, which gave Lady Appleton and her friends time to live their lives and do something besides deal with dead bodies. I don’t let that much time pass between Liss MacCrimmon’s adventures, but even a month or two is enough to let me imagine all sorts of things unconnected to murder that might be going on in her life. These events may never be mentioned in the books, but as long as I know about them, they make Liss more real to me. That, in turn (I hope) makes her more real and more interesting to my readers.

Paul: You are on a tight yearly publishing schedule, while at the same time working a very demanding day job. What is your process like for coming up with new plot ideas? Do you have your warden mapped out for several books in advance?

Paul Doiron: Tighter than it looks even! I hope to have some more news on that front soon. Definitely having two full-time jobs (three if you count the publicity work that comes from being a professional author these days) means I have to be more organized than I tend to be by nature.

I use my favorite program, Evernote, to keep track of ideas from day to day. I get news updates from both the Warden Service and the Department of Public Safety, and these go automatically into my Evernote folders. I also have a Google alert programmed for the Maine Warden Service. Every night at approximately 10:30 I hear a ding in my office as my computer gets a digest summary of the day’s news involving game wardens. And I tend to do a lot of clipping of Web pages and factoids as I’m browsing throughout the Internet. My Evernote database is a repository of all kinds of weird and wicked information —from hunting homicides to sightings of mountain lions in Maine to historic anecdotes about old lumber camps. (And yes, I back it all up in twenty different places.) To me there’s not a more useful program for writing research in existence.

In answer to your question about planning the series, I have Mike’s life mapped out to some degree in my mind (and my notes). The stories aren’t centered around specific lurid plots per se. They’re more about the cast of characters I have already introduced into his life and some future characters—good and bad—that I know are looming. I tend to work closely with my agent and editor to rough out plots from book to book and am open to making major changes. In Bad Little Falls I introduce a femme fatale into Mike’s life name Jamie Sewall. She started as one kind of character but gradually became more complex and, I hope, interesting through the revisions. As Jamie changed the story changed, too. So it’s a matter of having a general direction in mind concerning luckless Mike Bowditch, but making frequent detours in search of better routes. As I’ve noted before, my game warden is maturing from book to book—but readers should expect plenty of twists and turns on his journey.

Lea: We know that you write both Y/A historicals and adult mysteries. At any given time, you have many irons in the fire. How do you keep the different genres separate? What’s it like when you return to writing your Shadows series after working on a book for younger readers?

Lea Wait: The two genres I’m published in are like two separate worlds that I move between. The periods are two hundred years apart, and the research required ranges from whether people wore underwear in 1789 to what forensic techniques are used today. My 19th century voice has a different vocabulary and  different experiences in a very different political and social world — even if that world is geographically very close to my 21th century world. Although the 19th century books are officially written for younger readers, they’re not “written down” to younger readers. Their differences from my Shadows mysteries are that their protagonists are aged 12 – 14. They live in the first half of the 19th century in Maine and the only mystery they’re solving is how to survive and suceed under harsh circumstances. In comparison, characters in my contemporary mysteries have it pretty easy!

The historicals take longer to research, and the writing is more compact. In Shadows of a Down East Summer I combined the two genres by including entires from the nineteenth diary of a young woman as a key element of the plot. That was fun — but not something I could repeat!

Writing in two genres gives me a wider basis to explore characters and plot possibilities. At the moment I’m exploring possibilities of writing other books, too … Whether or not any of them are ever published, I want to stretch the range of my writing further. And the only way I can do that is to head off in different directions and see where they take me.  I’ve been lucky so far to find homes for two very different types of books.  I’m hoping that same luck will carry me into other possible areas in the future.

Barb: After working for a while with your police chief character, you’ve embarked on a new Maine-based series. I believe you’ve got a contract for three books, right? So how do you approach that? Are you mapping out your character’s arc for the three books, or will you take it one book at a time?

Barbara Ross: So that is the question, indeed–a question every single author on this blog could answer better than I can, since you all have the benefit of experience. I have a three book contract, and it is built on a larger arc for the protagonist that’s comprised of three smaller arcs–i.e one for each book. When we meet Julia Snowden her life has just changed radically. She’s given up her job in venture capital in Manhattan and returned to New England to rescue her family’s failing clambake business. It’s going to be a tough adjustment, and she’ll have to decide if she can commit to a new business, a different kind of town and a very different way of life. Each of these decisions will be in a different book. At least, that’s what I think now. There’s always the possibility that in book two she’ll decide to chuck it all and go to clown college where she’ll fall in love in and have lots of clown babies.

Vicki: Darby started out with some personal issues when she first arrived in Maine. Do you have a long-term plan for developing her character over the course of your series, or do you take it one book at a time? After a few books with her, does she feel like a friend? Do you find you know a great deal more about her, and what makes her tick, than needs to appear in the stories?

Vicki Doudera:  I have a long term plan for Darby in some respects, but in other ways she’s developing on her own as the series goes along. Her relationship with the investigative journalist Miles Porter, for example — I really didn’t intend for there to be a romantic angle in the series, but apparently that’s something Darby wants!  Book 5 opens with Miles and will feature him more than in the past. I’m certainly hoping I’ll have the happy problem of figuring out his role in books, 6, 7, and 8….!

As far as Darby being a friend, she’s becoming more like someone I’d have as a buddy as the series goes on. In A House to Die For, she was so raw from the personal issues you mentioned that I would have had a hard time hanging out with her!  But she’s maturing as the series develops and becoming more than just a driven busineswoman. Her edges are softening, I guess. And yes, I do know an awful lot about her, and yet each new book has a freshness for me that I really enjoy. I think the fact that I don’t have it all planned out means I can experience the joy of discovery along with my readers.

Kate Flora: My solution to keeping the series characters fresh is to alternate books in two different series (or write a true crime or some short stories), so that when I return to Thea Kozak or Joe Burgess after writing something else, it’s like coming back together with old friends. Rejoining them, I’m curious about what has been going on in their lives, how they’re doing, how characters have changed while I was away. It always fascinates me to start a new book. Even though I think I’m in control, the characters often seem to have minds of their own, and they are going off in unanticipated directions or having thoughts or feeling that I didn’t plan for them to have.

When I was just beginning to write, the idea that a character might do something unplanned or unexpected used to terrify me. I felt like the book was spinning out of control. But now that I’ve written something like 22 books (yes, Virginia, I do have a closetful of unpublished manuscripts), I trust that there is a purpose behind these things, and I go with them. It’s a real adventure to follow a willful character or dig into an unexpected scene, and see where the story wants to go. Yes, sometimes I know that that sounds a little bit too “woo woo” for some writers. But for me, it invariably takes me somewhere better, or richer, or more surprising, than what I had originally planned.

And the other way I keep the characters fresh and unexpected, to me as well as the reader? I do what is generally called, “writing toward my fear.” If there is something I imagine doing that I immediately dismiss because it’s too hard or I simply don’t know how to do it–that’s where I know I should go with my writing. That’s where I got Joe Burgess–from knowing I didn’t know how to write from the point of view of a middle-aged male cop. And Joe has been a fascinating person to spend time with. So now I stare down that fear, and start down that road, even though it’s scary, and I know that there will be moments when I’ll be tempted to throw the manuscript, or indeed, my laptop, into the sea. Or go back to writing something easier.

I don’t know how many times, at libraries and bookstores, someone has come up to me and said, “I always wanted to write a book, but I tried it once, and it was hard.” Yes. It is hard. But yes, it is also amazing. And most of the things that are worth doing are hard.

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Weekend Update: August 28-29, 2021

Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be re-posts by MCW alumni Monday and Tuesday, and then posts by Kate Flora (Thursday), and Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson (Friday). Some Wednesdays from now on will be “Win a Book Wednesday” with giveaways, drawings, and announcements of winners. Be sure to stop by at mid-week to see what’s new.

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

Maureen Milliken will be at a live author talk at Springvale Public Library 6 p.m. next Thursday (Sept. 2). Cold Hard News, her first Bernie O’Dea novel, is one of the Maine Humanities Council library mysteries by Maine authors series, and the library patrons are having her in for a chat about it, as well as Maine mystery writing in general. She’ll also join Maine writer (and fellow Holy Cross alumn) Irene Drago at 6 p.m. Sept. 14 at Topsham Public Library, under the big tent, in an event postponed from May.

Kaitlyn Dunnett: The winner of an autographed copy of my The Mystery of the Missing Bagpipes (w/a Kathy Lynn Emerson) is Heather Elizabeth.

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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There’s no such thing as the right write space

Happy August 27! Where did the summer go? Rhetorical question. You and I both know it’s been lost in a haze of brown-tail moth rashes, unbearable humidity, people with out of state plates stopping in the middle of one of Augusta’s rotaries, attempted social distancing at the grocery store, etc.

If you want to get back into the live event world, I’ll be at Springvale Public Library 6 p.m. next Thursday (Sept. 2), for a book talk (hope I remember how to do that!). Cold Hard News, my first Bernie O’Dea novel, is one of the Maine Humanities Council library mysteries by Maine authors series, and the library patrons are having me in for a chat about it.

Speaking of which, I’m off to Lithgow Public Library, in Augusta, (my childhood haunt) to do some writing since it’s also the summer of the contractor doing the renovation next door discovering podcasts (or talk radio) and what better way to listen than at top volume? Even the boulder relocatoin by guy with the wooden boat business down behind doesn’t drown it out.

With that in mind, here are some thoughts on writing locations in a post first published in May 2018. Enjoy!

Maureen

 

It doesn’t matter where you write, as long as you (and the dog) are happy with it. Though this is Emma’s “stop writing and sit with me on the couch” look while I was writing NO NEWS IS BAD NEWS.

In the last Boston Sunday Globe, there was a feature on the writer Elin Hilderbrand.

Seems she likes to write at the beach. There she is yucking it up in a bikini, pad and pen in hand, sun beating down.  My reaction? Ugh. Hot. Itchy. Sun glare. Bugs.

But what do I know? Her 21st book, a mystery novel, comes out next month. She turns out two a year writing at the beach. Without an assistant! The Globe is amazed! (That threw me off a little. Am I supposed to have an assistant? Wondering if I did have an assistant what he/she would actually do? Go fetch me more Reese’s cups! Something like that).

This is NOT Castle’s writing space, no it was mine during No News is Bad News crunch time.

At the other end of the spectrum is “Castle.” I haven’t watched that show in years. Is it still on? Yet I’m haunted by the episode where he submitted a book to his “publisher” and a few days later there it was, piled up, a huge end-cap mountain at a fancy New York bookstore. I’m even more haunted by the fact that I see books “written” by “Richard Castle” at my local bookstore. But again, I’m getting off topic.

When he “writes” on his show, he’s basically posing handsomely with has laptop in front of a fire, or at his stylish kitchen counter, handsome (did I already say that?) brow furled as he decides, I don’t know, whether to use a semicolon or period. Memo to Castle: Always go with the period if you have to think about it.

It’s so sterile. It’s just handsome him, his furrowed brow and his laptop. No notes or messes or writing stuff. At least Elin Hilderbrand (an actual real writer) looks like she has two notebooks on that beach towel.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably saw the group post last week in which several Maine Crime Writers talked about where they write. If you didn’t, click here to read it.  AFTER this. Sheesh.

The the book-signing line for Louise Penny at Malice Domestic.

I didn’t get in on the post. I was at Malice Domestic in Bethesda, Maryland, making new friends. I was not stalking Louise Penny. It just looks like I was. For an account by an author who WAS stalking her, click here. After.

Seeing the Elin Hilderbrand story, as well as the group post, reminded me that where writers write is as varied as their writing process and style, and probably almost as important.

Just like my writing process, I never thought too much about where I would write until I started writing fiction. It’s not a thought-out thing, but it’s weird how it evolves with each book. I always start out — all three of my Bernie O’Dea mysteries so far — writing on my desktop in my home office room. Then things kind of get out of hand.

I have to do the actual writing with a keyboard (unlike Elin Hilderbrand and others who write it out longhand). My brain is faster than my hands (insert joke, thanks). But once I get going, things come to me at all hours of the day and night, so I have legal pads and pens by my bed, in the kitchen, by the chair in the living room. I also email myself or write them on anything handy. If I’m in the car, I use the voice memo feature of my iPhone. I learned a long time ago that a brilliant idea that can solve the books plot blockage can flitter away as fast as it came if you don’t write it down.

Stop writing and sit with me on the couch! I can stare like this way longer than you can write.

With my second book, I ended up doing the huge push to the end, always the  most intense writing time, in the chair in my living room, the laptop on my ottoman. It was dumb, because it caused severe pain in my elbows and forearms that took months to go away, but  I was compelled to do it there. I couldn’t control it.

My dog, Emma, who’s no longer with us, would let me know when I was writing too long — usually around the three-hour mark — and sit in front of me staring until I stopped. If I was on a roll, I’d take a break on the couch to make her happy, then get back to it.

With both my first book, COLD HARD NEWS, and the one I’m finishing up now, BAD NEWS TRAVELS FAST, I ended up at my kitchen table without really making a firm decision that’s where I’d write. The first one was in New Hampshire, and it was a nook with a hard wooden bench, but I could do about eight hours without severe complications, if you don’t count the fact that I had two dogs at the time.

New Hampshire kitchen table writing space. Dog? Check. Coffee? Check.

The book I’m “finishing up” now, BAD NEWS TRAVELS FAST, is really benefiting from my kitchen table here in Maine. I get a nice view of the street, which is soothing rather than distracting. When it gets dark out, I close the curtains so I’m not on display.

The view out my window is soothing, rather than distracting. But not a lot happens on my street, so that helps.

The azaleas are in bloom, so a lot of bumble bees and at least one hummingbird a day visits. I haven’t had time to clean out and replant the window box, so robins and cardinals are helping me with that.

One of the pileated woodpeckers out my window.

If you look closely, you can see the silhouette of one of the pileated woodpeckers that made swiss cheese out of a tree outside my writing window last month.

Things were pretty exciting a month or so a go when a pair of pileated woodpeckers decimated a dead tree in my neighbor’s yard across the street. The fun ended, though, when the neighbors had the tree chopped down.

I an also keep track of who drives up and down the street, which also isn’t distracting, believe it or not.

What is distracting is email and cellphone. The phone goes in a drawer and the email goes off.

I’m not sure what’s so compelling about the kitchen table. I think part of it is there’s a lot more room than the desk where my desktop is, and I can spread out all my notes and stuff.

The aftermath of the Great Coffee Spill of 2016.

The aftermath of the Great Coffee Spill of 2018.

There are some hazards to that, naturally. The biggest is the inevitable coffee spill all over the notes. But I also had one with my last book, when I was ruining my forearms in the big chair, so yeah, it’s going to happen no matter what.

Inefficient but ultimately effective outlining for No News is Bad News. Colors represent things like point of view, chapters, etc.

When I’m cruising toward the end, I have to do a giant outline as I go through the book to keep the plot and other things straight. With NO NEWS IS BAD NEWS, I did it with post-its on a piece of poster board, which wasn’t great because they fell off and my cat and dog thought it was a new toy.

Much more effective whiteboard outlining system for Bad News Travels Fast. Don’t look for spoilers,even I can barely read it.

This time, I got a giant piece of whiteboard panel at Lowe’s ($9.99!) and some colored dry-erase markers, propped that baby up on a couple chairs and BOOM! Some people like Scrivener, but I go with the giant outline every time.

I think writers who are just starting out — and even those of us who have been doing it for a while — get a little hyped up about how it’s “supposed” to be done. We mine other writers for how they do it, then kick ourselves because we do it differently and maybe their way is the “right” way. The more you write, the less it happens, but it still happens.

My kitchen table has turned out to be an excellent writing space.

I think I was finally cured of that when I saw that photo of Elin Hilderbrand on the beach. She looked lovely and like she was having a ball. She has 21 books, I know. But man, the sun. The sand. The bugs. The wind. She can have it. I’m doing just fine right here at the kitchen table.

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Querencia, Revisited

For various reasons, including a big number birthday and a major transition for my parents, I’m taking some time off from writing for the blog. I hope to return in the fall sometime. For now, I hope you’ll enjoy a rerun of a piece that I wrote in the heart of least year, about what we think of as home.

****

I don’t always get my inspiration from reading flyfishing magazines, but it happens often enough that I haven’t cut my subscriptions yet. What got me going this time around was a lovely story about Questa, a town in the high desert of New Mexico that managed its resurrection from a mining-dependent resource-extraction economy to one based on guiding flyfishers in pursuit of a relatively rare trout, the Rio Grande cutthroat. The article was titled Querencia and spoke movingly of how the people who lived in the town were committed, when the mine closed, to finding ways of maintaining lives for themselves and their young people, in the place where so many of them wanted to stay. Because it was home.

The Spanish word querencia originates in bullfighting, that place in the ring where a wounded bull takes its defensive, perhaps final, stance. More appropriate to this discussion is the definition Barry Lopez gives in The Rediscovery of North America:

In Spanish, la querencia refers to a place on the ground where one feels secure, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn. It comes from the verb querer, to desire, but this verb also carries the sense of accepting a challenge, as in a game.

I take it to mean that querencia is the place where you feel your most authentic self, both a refuge and a place where you recharge your energies.

Anne and I have moved around a lot, and while that has been a privilege, it means we have not always settled our roots deep enough into ground to feel much pain when we’ve yanked them back up again. Neither of us would question whether we are of and from New England, but as I look back on the traveling years, I realize there were moments of querencia, if that’s possible: lying on my back watching eagles from Cape Falcon in Oregon; hiking a dripping stretch of rain forest in Seward, Alaska; walking onto a beach full of elephant seals on Maui.

So I’m not sure querencia needs to be a place, but for me, certainly, one of my best places is MacMahan Island, where Anne and I recently spent a couple of pandemic-ignoring days by ourselves, reading, drinking tea, and peering through the fog at the Sheepscot River. Even though we have no property rights in any of it, it owns us.

Thirty-six years ago (37 now), my new wife and I took the small boat from the dock at Five Islands out into the river and onto the island to honeymoon in an old cottage facing the bay. My primary memories of that weekend are a three pound lobster, a bottle of Johnny Walker Black, and a game of Trivial Pursuit with the late Wilson Jones and family that devolved into such silliness that the entire family only knows me today as Whitey Ford and my good wife as Lesley Gore.

Wilson is gone, the family scattered, but the island still brings me peace, one of few places I feel relaxed and calm, a refuge. Yet today I think what we most need to learn is that true querencia need not be a physical location. What we could profitably relearn is how to maintain our own querencia, and carry it with us. Hermann Hesse said it clearly:

“. . . inside of you, there is a peace and a refuge, to which you can go at every hour of the day and be at home with yourself, as I can also do. Few people have this, and yet all could have it.”

In these months of uncertainty and challenge, my friends, I wish you querencia, whatever form it takes for you.

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Win a Book Wednesday: August 25, 2021

Today’s offering for “Win a Book Wednesday” is a chance to win a autographed paperback of Kathy Lynn Emerson’s The Mystery of the Missing Bagpipes, a book written for ages 8-12 and first published by Avon Camelot. This edition, reissued in 2020, has a new cover and a few minor edits but is essentially the same as the original.

The story takes place in the summer of 1986. Spending three weeks in rural Maine listening to the sound of bagpipes isn’t 12-year-old Kim Hanlon’s idea of fun, but her father has signed up to attend classes in playing that instrument at the estate of an eccentric millionaire and he’s brought his family with him to the adjacent campground. When a valuable set of antique bagpipes disappears, Kim’s new friend Woody is suspected of the theft. Refusing to believe he’s guilty, she’s determined to discover who really committed the crime. Reading level 5.2.

from the reviewers:

Bangor Daily News: “an excellent summer choice for that niece or nephew.”

Booklist: “Emerson weaves much food for thought into the narrative through Kim’s willingness to trust in Woody and her search to understand her own goals and talents.”

In order to win, leave a comment below. The winner will be notified by email and announced in the next Weekend Update.

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-four books traditionally published and has self published several children’s books and three works of nonfiction. 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 newest books are Murder, She Edited (the fourth book in the contemporary “Deadly Edits” series, written as Kaitlyn) and, as Kathy, I Kill People for a Living: A Collection of Essays by a Writer of Cozy Mysteries. She maintains websites at www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com. A third, at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, is the gateway to over 2300 mini-biographies of sixteenth-century Englishwomen, now available in e-book format.

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