We Don’t Get to Make It Up?

Kate Flora: I have always cautioned against the belief some writers hold that they Screen Shot 2019-03-04 at 5.34.41 PMshould only write when they are inspired. Oh, I love inspiration as much as anyone. Who does not love to be in those moments when the words and ideas flow like a raging spring brook and characters seem to narrate the plots at speeds faster than fingers can type? Who would not like to be able to spend hours or days in reading or skiing or binge-watching the latest programs, confident that the writing will resume when the muse flutters down and lands and begins to whisper in the writer’s ear? I would love to be able to allow myself to play and binge-watch, but I am, and always have been, a slave of duty. I believe that it is important to already be here, in the chair, fingers already on the keys, when the muse at last deigns to show up.

Even without the arrival of the muse, writing gets done. I set daily quotas and every day, at least another thousand words go on the page. It may sometimes read like gravel. It may flow like the proverbial molasses up hill in January. But if I stay in the chair and persist, the writing will get done.

When we talk about writing, though, we often fail to mention how much background work goes into crafting even the most ordinary of scenes. When I am looking for just the right green paint for Thea’s baby’s room, I may have to scroll through magazines or even visit the paint sample display at my local hardware store. For Thea’s brief trip to Agway, I will need to decide what she’s going to buy along with the repellent to keep the deer out of her lettuce bed. What flowers will she bring home that may deter garden pests? When Thea finds a photograph of a man in military garb, I will find myself looking up the terminology for some of the clothes that man is wearing. I will need to know whether a particular government agency issues IDs.

photo-26Some days it seems like I will write a page, look three things up, write another page, and answer another series of questions. I will also keep a running list of larger questions that may need to be answered by experts. Questions I can take a ‘research day” off to go and answer. I am surrounded by reference books about crime and investigation.

For this particular book, my tenth Thea Kozak mystery, I am making what may well be a huge mistake—I have allowed my character to become pregnant. It has been decades since I was pregnant, and the fashions, both in clothing and in obstetrics, have changed. What does her doctor mean when she warns Thea about high blood pressure? Until what point in her pregnancy will Thea still be able to fly? Will there be new challenges in getting her clients to take her seriously now that she looks like she’s accidentally swallowed a basketball? How much of her tendency to mix it up with bad guys will go away? Why on earth did I decide to do this?

There are also so many questions that arise from her work. What kinds of honor codes IMG_1132do schools employ, and how are those codes enforced? What is a school crisis plan? What needs to be in such a plan in an era when things move through the media like wildfire? How would someone go about researching a wayward student’s on-line postings?

Right now I’m sitting here surrounded by printouts of information I’ll need in the chapters ahead, and wishing I had a research assistant who could file them, tweak them, and, if necessary modernize me so Thea won’t sound dated.

Years ago, when I was dreamy adolescent imagining the possibility of becoming a writer, I thought that what writers did was sit at their desks and make things up. Now I know that my stories go out into a world of extremely savvy readers who expect that we will do research and make our characters and our plots plausible. Never mind that creative muse who whispers characters and plots into our waiting ears. Is there, perhaps, a muse of research, maybe named Alexa, who can be asked to answer all those questions?

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Where We’ve Been is Where We Are

I’ve been lucky enough to live in some beautiful places: the Oregon Coast, the Connecticut River Valley, the Rockies and the Cascades, and though I always knew I’d come back to New England eventually, I wasn’t always sure which part.

I love Boston, the beautiful city of my birth and childhood, the lakes of New Hampshire, the fields of central Maine where my brother and I summered on my uncle’s dairy farm. When Anne and I resettled on the idea of Maine (we are both Colby brats), I was pretty sure I understood why: my memories of summer, the winter weather, the proximity to the ocean. But the first couple years we were here, I found myself unsettled instead, as if I understood much less than I thought about why I was drawn here. It wasn’t until I came across the following passage in which Wendell Berry describes his return to his boyhood farm in Kentucky that I caught a glimmer of understanding.

I had made a significant change in my relation to the place: before it had been mine by coincidence or accident; now it was mine by choice. My return, which at first had been hesitant and tentative, grew wholehearted and sure. I had come back to stay. I hoped to live here the rest of my life. And once that was settled I began to see the place with a new clarity and a new understanding and a new seriousness. Before coming back I had been willing to allow . . . that I already knew the place as well as I ever would. But now I began to see the real abundance and richness of it . . . inexhaustible in its history, in the details of its life, in its possibilities. . . . I saw my body and my daily motions as brief coherences and articulations of the energy of the place, which would fall back into it like leaves in the autumn.

I came back to Maine in a far different form than I’d been in when I left before. I’d chosen to live here this time, to put myself into the harsh climate and build a new sense of my life. What I came to recognize, though, was that all the time I’d been thinking of Maine and seeing what it could give me, in its weather and geography and landscape and its people, its stories. I expected my coming back here to feed me, soothe me, make me more of the person I meant to be, or wished to be.

But what I understand now is that I was unsettled because I realized I owed Maine something in return. My relationship with the state was not a transaction in which I repaid what I received, but a gift I’d received and needed to reciprocate.

This state needed me to listen, to work, and to care for its land and its people, both present and future. To learn more deeply, not so I could count myself a native, but to do what I could to refresh this place with my energy and heart. Maine would serve me, but I needed to serve it, too, not the government or the business parts of it, but the idea of it, its wholeness. I needed to find ways to make my passage here worth my presence, worth what I took away. For isn’t this all we really want, after our material desires prove to be base and we are thrown back on our selves as the core of our identity? To be of use?

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Weekend Update: March 2-3, 2019

Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will be posts by Dick Cass (Monday), Kate Flora (Tuesday) John Clark (Wednesday) Lea Wait (Thursday), and Bruce Coffin (Friday).

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



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

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

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Thoughts on the Cover Challenge

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here. One of the challenges making the rounds on Facebook asks those who are challenged to post covers of ten books they’ve enjoyed, one cover a day. Participants are asked to post only the covers, with no explanation for why they were chosen, and to challenge another Facebook friend to do the same. One of my oldest childhood friends issued the challenge to me and I took her up on it.

I thought it would be easy. Hah! Obviously, these had to covers of books that meant something to me, even if I wasn’t going to explain what it was. There are many books that have influenced me, many I’ve enjoyed, many I could plug for friends by showing just the cover.

I faced a second quandary when I tried to think which of my FB friends to pass the challenge to . . . or rather which ones wouldn’t mind being challenged. This also turned out to be harder than I thought it would be. At about day six, I gave up on that part and just posted covers.

But here’s the thing: it was killing me not to explain why I’d chosen a particular cover. The obvious solution was to give myself the opportunity to do so by writing a blog. Here, then, are the ten book covers I posted and the reasons I selected each of them.

Dorothy Dunnett’s Game of Kings is the first of the six novels that comprise her Lymond Chronicles. Set in the sixteenth century, it’s a tour de force that in some ways defies description. At times it’s a challenge to read because she tosses in bits in other languages without translation. The plot is incredibly complex, she never writes from the point of view of the hero—I didn’t catch that until the third time I read the series—and the sense of place is so powerful that for years I hesitated to set my own books in the same period because I knew I’d never come close to accomplishing what she had. And yes, when I was selecting my pseudonym and it was suggested I use a Scottish surname, I gave a tip of the proverbial hat to her by becoming Kaitlyn Dunnett.

Clair Blank was a real person, not a pseudonym for multiple authors writing for a syndicate. I’ve written about her here before. All of her Beverly Gray girls’ adventure stories, including the one shown here, were favorites when I was growing up, probably because the world of Beverly and her friends was much closer to reality than, say Nancy Drew’s milieu. The first books, one for each year at a women’s college, were written and took place during the 1930s. The series continued through World War II and into the 1950s. I also devoured the adventures of Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton, Cherry Ames, Vicki Barr, and the rest, but the books in this series are the ones I still own.

My father read historical novels. My mother read (and watched) Perry Mason. They also subscribed to Readers’ Digest Condensed Books. Since no one ever put any restrictions on what I read, I soon discovered that the novels I enjoyed most were historicals. I read all of Thomas B. Costain and even convinced my ninth grade English teacher to let me do a paper on him instead of one of the authors on her list. That said, Frank Yerby’s The Golden Hawk stands out in my memory. Why? It contains a steamy kiss, at least by 1950s standards. That the female pirate who makes up half the romance later informs the male half that she won’t put up “mouthing and pawing” also made an impression on me.

I don’t remember exactly when I discovered the novels of Anya Seton, but when I did I read them all. Green Darkness stood out for two reasons. It’s set partly in my favorite historical period, the sixteenth century, and it has a paranormal/reincarnation element. Later I came to disagree with Seton’s characterization of several real people in the story, but that couldn’t sour my memory of reading this book for the first time.

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig is a (relatively) recent discovery. Like Green Darkness, it is a past/present story but in this case, both the historical spy story and the tribulations of the modern day heroine, a researcher, are leavened with humor. It’s the first of a series in which the secrets of the past are slowly unraveled in the present. Romance is nicely blended with mystery, history, and comic relief.

Most of Clive Cussler’s novels also combine past and present, although most of the action is set in the present day. In my humble opinion, his mid-career books—Treasure, Dragon, Sahara, Inca Gold, and Flood Tide—are the best, containing incredibly complex plotlines that somehow come together seamlessly by the end of the book. The movie version of Sahara only presents a small part of the whole. If you read the book, you’ll never think of Abraham Lincoln the same way again.

Brief Gaudy Hour by Margaret Campbell Barnes was my first experience with reading a female author who was writing about the life of a real historical woman. There have been many, many takes on Anne Boleyn in both fiction and nonfiction, but I have a soft spot for this one. Later, when I read accounts of some of the events in Anne’s life, I could visualize them much more clearly because I already had a picture of them in my mind. I discovered Brief Gaudy Hour among my aunt’s books while on a visit to Connecticut when I was twelve and had read the whole novel before it was time to go home again.

John Dickson Carr’s The Burning Court is a mystery that slides over into woo-woo territory. Can you tell I have no problem with mixing genres? There’s a good dollop of history, too. And since the challenge was to post covers, how could I resist sharing this one.

Charlaine Harris’s Dead Until Dark is the first in her Sookie Stackhouse series. Mystery, the supernatural, and humor—what could be a better combination? Dead Until Dark inspired the HBO series True Blood, but the books are much lighter in tone. Since they’re written in Sookie’s point of view, readers are not obliged to witness her brother’s sex life first hand and it’s up to them how much bloodshed to imagine.

I wanted to include at least one romance in the ten books. I read romances voraciously when I was writing them and continue to buy every new book from certain favorite romance and romantic suspense authors even now. Since picking just one book would be impossible, I shifted my focus and chose one cover that stands out from the rest. Study it carefully. Can you spot the reason it’s so memorable? I’ll put the answer in the comments section.

So there you are—my reasons for choosing the ten books I did for the book cover challenge. What about you, readers? How hard or easy would you find it to pick ten covers to post? And if you’ve already participated, what covers did you choose?

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of nearly sixty traditionally published books written under several names. 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. Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (Overkilt) and the “Deadly Edits” series (Crime & Punctuation) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in a Cornish Alehouse) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” mysteries and is set in Elizabethan England. Her most recent collection of short stories is Different Times, Different Crimes. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com and she maintains a website about women who lived in England between 1485 and 1603 at www.TudorWomen.com

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Channeling Luigi Pirandello

John Clark, offering free characters to anyone who wants (or dares) to use them. They’re in honor of a play I’ve never seen, but love the title. “Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello, written and first performed in 1921.

Here are six fictional Maine residents anyone reading this blog can use as they wish. In fact, I’d be tickled any color save for white, to see one or more of them find their way into print.

Vernal Poole is a Gulf War veteran who has learned to deal with his PTSD by avoiding humanity whenever possible. He’s combined his love of solitude, photography and ability to move soundlessly through any terrain, into his job as an environmental investigator for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. He’s so good at his job his supervisor has offered him six promotions in five years, but he’s refused all of them because of the increased human contact issue. He has a significant number of photos he’s taken of things found in remote locations that he’s convinced have no earthly origin.

Chandra often stops and chats with these folks.

Ravi Ohli is a New York refugee. Son of a high caste Indian mother and an Italian dad who bombed as an opera tenor, Ravi was so traumatized by his mother’s insistence he take belly dancing lessons as a child, that he became seriously anorexic, believing that losing what little abdomen he had would thwart her. Fortunately, an alert school counselor noticed his condition. Mom was hospitalized, Dad fled back to Italy and Ravi, sixteen at the time, boarded a bus and landed in Portland. After a short stint on the streets, he joined a Zen commune, got his GED and now works making custom pasta for a high end Portland restaurant. He’s hoping to go to SMCC and get a degree in whatever is as far removed from belly dancing as possible.

Vernal never misses a chance to enjoy hidden jewels like this.

Suba Rioux, is an escapee from one of the most shiftless families in Franklin County. The single-wide she grew up in was so rusted and drafty, it was triple layered in bubble wrap, scavenged from the town transfer station. Fortunately Suba had a growth spurt as part of puberty. She was 6’1” by the time she turned fifteen and learned how to use anything remotely throwable when male members of her extended clan tried to be too friendly. In fact, in one of her trade school classes at the county tech school, she designed a sweatshirt depicting all the body parts she’d clipped from her male relatives. It became so popular with other girls that she sold enough of them to pay for her first year of auto maintenance classes at CMCC. Her dream is to become the first woman to win a NASCAR race with a car she built herself.

Chandra Lier is a gender fluid thirty something who grew up in rural Kentucky, but realized early on that it wasn’t the best place for someone like them. They tried Philadelphia, but city life wasn’t a good fit, so they ended up in Washington County, living in a berm house they built after taking courses at WCCC. Chandra has built a high end custom lighting fixture business, hitting thrift shops, lawn sales and flea markets, scooping up various items that can be taken apart and reassembled into fancy objects both rich locals and people from away hanker for. Far from foolish, she’s investing all free cash in solar power.

There are times after a long day at work when Ann sees things like this that nobody else can.

Ann Dorphin grew up in Aroostook County, daughter of Meldwin and Osira Dorphin, cooks at a remote lumber camp in T9 R7. Getting to the nearest school was difficult in good weather, impossible in winter and mud season, so she was home-schooled, with a few lessons from Franco-American lumberjacks that weren’t part of the curriculum. By age eleven, she could do the Monty Python ‘I’m a Lumberjack’ skit in two languages and when she left home, she could spit, cuss and throw an ax with the best of them. Unfortunately, her social skills were a bit rough, making job seeking challenging. Fortunately, she made friends with another young woman her age who worked for Jackson Labs. Ann worked with her friend, raising mice at the lab until an offer she couldn’t refuse came her way. She’s now a quality control specialist at the largest medical marijuana operation north of Portland.

One of the few places Mudrun can sing without getting hassled. Of course, the rapids drown him out, except in late August.

Maine has a rich tradition of musical talent, especially when it comes to country and bluegrass. Unfortunately, Mudrun Ford is not, nor ever will be part of it. It’s not for a lack of enthusiasm or effort, because Junkhauler, as his towtrucking buddies call him over CB radio, has been writing songs and performing them for almost twenty years. Too bad he couldn’t carry a tune in a rubber washtub. His singing is so off-key AAA removed him from their on-call list because he refused to stop singing with customers in the cab. He got away with it until one snowy evening when he made the mistake of singing When Nubile Warthogs Dance, I’m in Love, while transporting the newly elected state attorney general and his just-pulled-from-the-ditch new car. It’s rumored said AG had his staff scour the Maine Revised Statutes for days, trying to find something to charge Mudrun with. Business is now so slow, the poor guy sits in his man cave, watching bootleg reruns of Frankenstein’s Country Jamboree and imagining himself on stage.

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He Said, She Said: The Mechanics of Writing Dialogue

I’ve been doing a pile of editing recently for authors of all ages, many from other countries. One of the things that always surprises me at these times is just how confused many seem to be about the mechanics of writing dialogue. Where do quotation marks go? Is the comma before the quotation mark or after? What about capitalization? I actually put together a cheat sheet for my book on writing, The 5-Day Fiction Fix: Writing Complex Charactersand I thought it might be helpful to include that cheat sheet here.

NOTE: The UK and other countries use different standards when it comes to single and double quotes and punctuation placement; these rules apply specifically to works in the U.S.

Quotation marks: “”

Beginning quotation, end quotation. Quotation marks surround any words a character says out loud to another character. To indicate inner dialogue (words attributed directly to a character in that moment that he does not say aloud, e.g., I’d love a piece of her cake, he thought) no quotation marks are used, but you may choose to italicize in order to make your meaning clear.

Punctuation within dialogue:

Commas, periods, dashes, and ellipses that are part of the direct quote all belong within the quotation marks.
“I can’t believe I just did that!”
“I don’t know what else to say…”
“Do you know the way to San Jose?”


Dialogue tags before a direct quote belong outside the beginning quotation mark:
He said, “I can’t believe I just did that!”
She replied, “I don’t know what else to say…”
They sang, “Do you know the way to San Jose?”

Dialogue tags after a direct quote belong within the ending quotation mark:
“I can’t believe I just did that!” he said.
“I don’t know what else to say…” she trailed off.
“Do you know the way to San Jose?” they sang.


Direct quotes are capitalized unless they are continuations of a quote that began earlier in the same sentence.
“There’s something about him,” she said, “that I just can’t forget.”

Attributions after a quote are not capitalized, regardless of the punctuation. Think of them as a continuation of the same sentence.
“How many times do I have to tell you?” he asked.
“There’s an eyeball in my drink!” she shouted.
“This is the first time I’ve been to Mexico,” she said.

Single Quotes: ‘’

Used when you are directly quoting someone or quotation marks are required for some other reason, within a direct quote.
“That’s something I don’t understand. He told me, ‘Don’t wear your flippers to the party,’ but how else am I supposed to get there?”
“My favorite version of ‘Mony Mony’ is the cover Billy Idol did in the ’80s”

When continuing a quote from one paragraph to the next, use no end quote at the end of the first paragraph, but use a beginning quote at the start of the second paragraph.

“I can’t believe you’ve been waiting for me all night,” she said. “Imagine what could have happened. Wolves could have eaten you alive.
“Though to be fair,” she continued, “I guess there aren’t that many wolves around. Badgers might have gotten you, though.”

There are other niggly things you can learn about punctuating dialogue, but if you know this much, your editor and beta readers will thank you and you’re already well ahead of the game. I hope this proves helpful!

Jen Blood is the USA Today-bestselling author of the Erin Solomon Mysteries and the Flint K-9 Search and Rescue Mysteries. To learn more, visit http://www.jenblood.com. 

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Different Ways to Garden

Lea Wait, here. When I think of my grandparents, especially my grandmother, I think of her gardens. In her home in

My Grandmother, when she was 22

My Grandmother, when she was 22

Roslindale, Massachusetts, where I spent some of my earliest years, she had a wonderful large rectangular rose garden, with a circular brick path in the middle that I loved to run around. I also loved to fill jars with the Japanese beetles that ravaged those roses – and pull off their legs.

So — her garden wasn’t entirely a romantic experience. At least for the Japanese beetles.

After my grandfather retired, my grandparents shared a home with my parents in New Jersey in the winter months, but, in the summer, they all shared the home in Maine where I live now. My grandparents would head for Edgecomb as soon as they deemed it warm enough — usually in early April — so they could start gardening. They installed a kidney-shaped iris garden near the porch, and a large garden near the barn which included raspberry bushes, vegetables, and flowers. The raspberries were especially important to them since during the hard days of the Depression when they’d lived in New York City they’d dreamed of being able to grow and eat raspberries.

My grandmother would get up early to “beat the birds to the berries,” and lay the damp, ripe red raspberries she’d picked on cookie sheets to dry on card tables at one end of our kitchen. Later in the day they’d be turned into raspberry pies or shortcakes — or, if not perfect, jams, jellies, or syrups for the winter months. Tomatoes were canned. Mint became mint jelly for winter lamb. And, of course, we had fresh flowers all summer, and fresh salads, and vegetables for the table. I helped to some extent by weeding and picking berries and vegetables and stirring sauces and straining jellies, but my mother and grandmother did most of the work. By the time I was old enough to make a major contribution I was assigned to lawn mowing, and by fourteen I had a summer job as well.  But the garden, and its products, were all part of our summers in Maine.

When I had my first home in New Jersey I, too, had a garden. I planted daffodil bulbs in the fall because I loved spring flowers, and I grew vegetables and a few annuals in the summer. I was a single parent, and the vegetables helped with my budget as well as being fun to grow.  The snow peas seldom made it to my stir fries: my daughters ate them off the vines.  I loved that.  Somehow, despite working full-time and studying for my doctoral comps, I remember canning tomatoes until the wee hours of the night (or morning,) and being proud of the line of canned tomatoes and tomato sauce on the shelves lining the steps to our basement.

One year a lot of tomatoes ripened just as we were to leave for our Maine vacation. Not wanting to lose that fruit, I packed two grocery bags full of ripe or near-ripe tomatoes, put them on the passenger seat next to me, the children in the back seat, and headed north. I figured I’d make tomato sauce in Maine.

It was a hot July day. As we drove through New Jersey and New York traffic, the tomatoes kept ripening. And, as I took a sharp right exit  turn onto the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut … both bags of tomatoes fell.  Sideways.  Onto me.

To shrieks of delight from my daughters, I found myself driving the remaining six hours to Maine covered with smashed, ripe tomatoes. In our family, that turn will forever be known as “the tomato turn.”

It turned out that was my last garden. I moved again, to a larger house, when my family grew, but although I started a garden there, nothing grew. We were on a hill, and there was little topsoil.

Daffodils in Lea's Yard Today

Daffodils in Lea’s Yard Today

The lawn was mostly moss, and even my daffodils didn’t grow, although every year I persistently planted more bulbs.

So when I finally was able to move to Maine full-time, I knew one thing I wanted to do was bring back the gardens. They had long since disappeared; there’d been no one to take care of them since my grandparents died so, gradually, they’d been taken over by lawn. I hired someone with a tractor and started again. I planted vegetables, and flowers. That first year I was busy, writing, and taking care of my mother, and didn’t give the garden the care it needed. The flowers survived to some extent. The vegetables provided fodder for various types of insects and the local woodchuck. But I discovered, to my delight, that the violets and johnny jump-ups that my grandmother had loved appeared, as though by magic, in the places she had planted them, so many years before.

And in the fall I planted daffodils.

And they bloomed in the spring.

Violets Along the Path

Violets Along the Path

I soon realized my writing and my family were more important to me than my garden so it, too, is now gone; all that is left now is the slate path I laid that first year. The daffodils delight me every spring, and I add to them regularly.

But every year, near that slate path in the grass, the violets come back, reminding me that my grandmother lived her dream here, in this house; in this yard. She wanted a garden, with raspberries. And she made that happen.

I, too, had a dream. I wanted to write. And I’m making that happen. Her violets are here as witnesses. I don’t think she’d be disappointed that I haven’t continued her garden. I think she’d like that this house is still a place where dreams come true.

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