Monday, December 27, 2010

Weather and Murder

We have over a foot of fresh snow on the ground, with more falling. We've had blizzard conditions (defined as "Less than 1/4 mile visibility and winds at more than 35 mph for three hours") overnight. It's beautiful, transformative, and dangerous. Later, when the sun comes out and we shovel the walks and driveway, it will invite sledding, snowball fights, cross-country skiing. But for now it's still frigid. The biting wind threatens exposed skin. Wires are at risk of collapsing and leaving people without power.

One of the 'rules' of writing is Don't Begin with the Weather. But conditions like this just beckon for a crime story. I'm particularly in mind of winter murder since finishing Louise Penny's
Dead Cold recently. It takes place in small-town Quebec, a setting I am well familiar with. I have visited my sister Jannie in exactly that setting frequently over the decades. Penny describes the weather and the cold, snowy setting almost as a character. Because she's such a good writer, you don't realize it, but after you finish reading the book, the mind-pictures of the ice and bitter temperatures remain vivid.

I have set stories in every season except deep winter, and I haven't written a murder story involving blizzard conditions yet. This weather just might kick-start a few ideas. How would you stage a snowy murder?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Moving Beyond Rejection

Great news from a couple of fellow writers who have recently landed agents. In particular from Pat Brown, who just posted this on an online group we are both members of:

"So, after sending out 281 queries, getting 185 rejections, sending 17 partials or fulls, leaving 79 who never responded, I have signed with The Literary Group International."

Now that's perserverance! She's a faithful contributor to the group, a fellow member of Sisters in Crime, and a valuable supporter of the rest of who are looking for agents. Plus she writes about Los Angeles, my home town. (This is Pat's picture of the LAPD.)

I'm starting to do avoidance behavior on my Writing Fridays. I'm working on new short stories, and feeling lured back to Book Two (which is about one-fifth written) instead of doing what I need to do first: target agents, find the ones who already represent the kind of writing I do, look up their exact query requirements for what they want to see -- one page, a synopsis, the first chapter, the first five pages, whatever -- and then send the query packet to five or ten agents per week.

After that, sure, I can get back to the fun stuff: writing new material. That certainly isn't fun all the time. It's a lot more fun than the looking-for-an-agent part, though. But part of the draw of of creative writing is wanting to get it out into the reading public's hands. That's called publication. If it also involves a little income and a little fame, well, all good!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Flash fiction

As promised, here's the flash fiction story I wrote for the Crime Bake contest this year. The assignment was to use 10 of the following 20 words from Charlaine Harris' titles:

Bedroom, Bone, Club, Corpse, Counselor, Dark, Dead, Family, Fool, Grave, Heels, Ice, Landlord, Living, Pick, Scene, Secret, Surprise, Trollop, Worse

I used all 20. Enjoy!

A Fool's Grave

His grave still smells of the dead. The family gathers around it. The corpse, my landlord and occasional patient, Pete Hellas, won't give up the secret now. He was a stingy, slovenly, diabetic fool. His stupid son, Spiro, and his trollop of a wife are even worse. The dark-haired son I wouldn't dare pick a fight with. The daughter? President of the Bonehead Club. A pitiful bunch.

I slip away from the scene, careful of my heels on the new ice. They'll be surprised when Counselor Adams reads my name in the will. Seducing Pete in his bedroom and persuading him to leave me the apartment building was worth touching his disgusting body. I'm done working as an underpaid nurse. I'll evict the family and the renters, condo-ize the units, and sell off all but mine. So I gave him a little extra insulin. It's my turn for living.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Author Event Report

We had a great author event the other night. Susan Oleksiw, Leslie Wheeler, Mark Ammons, and I talked about short-story writing, answered questions, and read the first page of our stories from the Thin Ice anthology. We had a good turnout, good snacks, and great hosts at Rivers Edge Gifts and Books in Ipswich.

If you missed the event, Rivers Edge has some signed copies on the shelf for sale, and Level Best Books has free shipping for another week or too. And I am the featured author there this week.

This is exciting stuff, and I was grateful for the chance to be the "featured author, Ipswich's own," as our host Meg kept saying. And I felt blessed to have so many friends and family members show up in support and interest.

Now it's time to get writing again. Final revisions are still demanding attention, and then I need to immerse myself in the agent-query process. But what I really want to do is start a new short story and continue on beyond the 12000 words I already wrote in book Two of the Speaking of Mystery series.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Reading, Signing, and Talking About Writing

Several authors (including me...) and editors from the Thin Ice anthology by Level Best Books will be talking about writing, both short and novel-length, as well as reading from our short stories and signing copies of the anthology this Thursday, December 2, at 6 pm at:

River's Edge Fine Gifts & Home Accents/Ipswich Party Shop
15 Market Street

, MA, 01938

Join us! Wine, cheese, and other refreshments will provide preprandial sustenance. I can vouch for every story being a good read, despite each being very different from the next.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Bouillabaise. What do you think of? A rich fish soup? Something involving bouillon cubes? Lots of small portions of very expensive fish and shellfish? ("I'd like a pound of the local haddock, and one of the wild salmon. And two pounds of the mussels. Those are cherrystone clams? OK, two pounds of that, too. That comes to WHAT?") A broth that is more like a stew, featuring garlic, home-grown tomatoes, red wine, shrimp stock, saffron, olive oil, and more?

Well, I created this Sunday dinner treat for two friends we'd invited over for the first time. Patience and Phillip: world travelers, fellow Democrats, word mavens, very fun conversationalists. Managed to pull off the dinner, which included garlic-sauteed green beans, local salad, crusty bread. Got compliments. Finished with Patience's apple crisp (ooh, she peels her apples...) and ice cream.

But what was I thinking when I was savoring the very rich, thick, flavorful soup base? Hmm, you could hide some poison among the poisson. Nobody would ever know. Oh, these mystery writers! Better look for that soup in one of my next books or stories.
In the meantime, here's an approximation of my recipe, adapted from both Julia Child and the New Basics cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins.

Max's Bouillabaise
(serves 8)

1. Scrub and rinse 2 lbs each mussels and clams. Skin and cut 2-3 lbs fresh fish (different kinds) into 2-inch chunks. Keep all seafood cool.

2. In olive oil, saute 5 chopped leeks, 2 peeled and chopped carrots, and 2 chopped
celery stalks until wilted.
3. Add 5 cloves
minced garlic and saute for 1 minutes
4. Add 3 c chopped tomatoes, chopped canned whole tomatoes, or frozen local tomatoes, along with 1 qt fish stock, 1 c red wine, 1 bay leaf, 1 tsp dry thyme leaves, ground black pepper, a pinch of saffron.

5. Simmer 20 minutes. Let it cool a little, and then food process until roughly blended (not pureed).

6. Reheat the broth, add the shellfish, and cook covered 10-12 minutes until the shells open. Transfer the shellfish to a warm platter and keep warm.
7. Add 2-3 lbs fresh fish and a pound of scallops.
8. Cook just a few minutes until the fish and scallops are opaque, and transfer fish to the platter.

9. Serve a portion of seafood into each large individual bowl, and then top with the soup, fresh chopped parsley, a piece of toasted French bread spread with al pesto sauce, and a dollop of red pepper rouille.

And did you know the name comes from the Occitan language? Wikipedia tells us, "Occitan is a Romance language spoken in Southern France, the Occitan Valleys of Italy, Monaco, and in Val d'Aran in Catalonia, Spain, the regions sometimes known informally as Occitania. It is also spoken in the linguistic enclave of Guardia Piemontese (Calabria, Italy). It is an official language in Catalonia (known as Aranese in Val d'Aran).Modern Occitan is the closest relative of Catalan." I bet Lauren Rousseau knows that.

What's your favorite dish to hide poison in, fictionally speaking, of course?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Crime Bake 2010

Crime Bake was better than ever this year. Hundreds of writers (and readers) listened to authors talk about the craft. We attended master classes, seminars, author breakfasts, networking sessions at the bar, and even the Vampire Ball.

We Thin Ice authors did a group signing of the anthology as lots of fans passed their copies down the line.

I caught up with old frie
nds and made new ones, even meeting another author, David Carkeet, who has written about a Linguistics professor and who went to the same grad school as I did (IU at Bloomington).

Dennis Lehane inspired us with something along the lines of, "Of the writers who started out when I did, the ones who succeeded did not whine, did not complain. They were determined to make it, and they did." I took that to heart, even though the agent I pitched to was not overly enthusiastic ("It's not really grabbing me. Send me five pages when you can...").

Now it's back to the revision job. I have some ideas for making Lauren's life more conflicted, darker. Should help.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

On Silence

I am accustomed to silence. I have been a Quaker for 21 years. We sit joined in silence on Sundays, only occasionally broken by a message someone among us feels moved to share. Not everyone is comfortable with this form of worship. At one time I brought someone to Meeting who fidgeted his way through the hour. He'd been raised a high Episcopalian, and church for him meant somebody else creating an hour full of sound and activity. (Photograph of Amesbury Friends Meeting worship room by Ed Mair.)

At home, we hold hands before meals for a moment of silence, that for me is always filled with blessing and gratitude, and that I usually want to continue for longer than my hungry partner does.

When I walk, I don't listen to music or news through earbuds and I rarely walk and talk with others. While it's not exactly silent, I have the birds and rustling leaves to cushion whatever thoughts might arise out of the quiet solitude. I treasure my long walks out on Labor in Vain Road, a hilly wooded route on a dead-end road whose end opens up to the creek and the salt m

Silence is perhaps most valuable when I'm writing, though. I live with someone who is fond of playing music from his large and eclectic CD collection pretty much all the time. We also both like to listen to NPR news and talk shows.

But I find that I have to turn it all off (and ask him to turn the music volume down) when I want to write fiction. I need to hear the characters' voices, to be able to heed their thoughts and intentions. For this, it ha
s to be quiet. Preferably I'm alone in the house, but living with a self-employed person, that doesn't happen very often. I'm fortunate to have a lovely office of my own with doors that close tight, though. And I use them!

What about you? Do you need quiet for your creative endeavors? Do you prefer a bustling noisy surround?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Publication Getting Close

Level Best Books has a new web site that's clean, clear, and lets you order Thin Ice directly from them. Check it out.

Thin Ice
launches in 10 days at Crime Bake, the New England conference in Dedham, Massachusetts for mystery writers and readers. We'll have a group signing on that Saturday afternoon, with all the authors sitting in a row signing their story page of the anthology. It'll be fun. And two weeks after that is the reading/signing event in Ipswich. Exciting times!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dreams of Stories, Dreams of Life

I dreamed about the murder of the King of Norway's daughter right before her wedding. It's still very vivid - I saw the butler carrying her slashed body out in silence through back rooms so the king and queen wouldn't find out. The butler made eye contact with me and I knew I could not tell the parents, not yet. We sat having tea with the Queen and someone remarked how good her English was. "Well, she's American!" I said. It was one of those dreams that felt like reality when I woke up and never faded into the mists like so many dreams do.

I think I just came up with a new story. How can I
not write this? I looked up the King of Norway on the internet, and then wish I hadn't. He looks like a very nice man and apparently has a daughter and grandchildren. Well, as usual with writing, we take bits of reality and interweave them with much more straight from the imagination.

I mentioned this dream on Facebook. Two other writers independently posted of dreaming part of a story. Dreams seem to be in the air.

We saw the movie "Inception." It's all about dreams, dreams nested in dreams, shared dreams. It has way
more action scenes than mine ever do, but is realistically confusing at times. How did we get from floating in the elevator to falling off the bridge to skiing toward the fortress? It was exhausting in its dream-truth.

One of my favorite songs is Joni Michell's song about Amelia Earhart. "Dreams, Amelia, dreams and false alarms," is the last line. It's a good thing seeing a princess slashed right before her wedding is a false alarm. It's a good thing I'm a crime writer so it doesn't seem totally odd that I'm excited about such a gruesome dream. What would Fritz Perls say about it? All parts of the dream are parts of yourself, and you own the power of each part.

Have you ever dreamed a story and then written it? Or read one and wished it was a dream? Look for a short story next year featuring the dead Norwegian bride.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Flash Fiction

I've been working on a super-flash fiction story for a Crime Bake 2010 contest. The assignment? Use 10 of the following 20 words in a 150-word crime story:

Bedroom, Bone, Club, Corpse, Counselor, Dark, Dead, Family, Fool, Grave, Heels, Ice, Landlord, Living, Pick, Scene, Secret, Surprise, Trollop, Worse

These are words used in titles by this year's keynote speaker, Charlaine Harris. It's fun, and a challenge, to create a story that works using 10 of these words. Many cite the king of flash fiction, by Ernest Hemingway: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Every word has to count. So I used all 20! I can't publish it here until after the conference mid-November, and promise to do so then. Writing flash is such a good lesson for writing longer works. Every word should always have to count.

In the meantime, pop over to the Publications tab and scroll down to the last item. I put up a flash story (600 words) I wrote that won a holiday contest a decade and a half ago. Have you written any extremely small stories? Won contests with them? Do you like the form or hate it (either reading it or writing it)?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Garden in Decline

It's fall in New England. Everybody likes that, right? Gorgeous red and yellow leaves splashed against clear blue skies. Dry mild sunshine. A chance to wear boots and vests and scarves again.

But no! Some of us wail, some of us quietly grieve. What it means to me, most of all, is a virtual end to locally grown produce. The Ipswich Farmer's Market had its farewell appearance a week ago, and when I stopped by the Rowley market the next morning, hoping for a few more local pears and a head of Romaine, they weren't there, either. The couple of large farm "stands" around here will shut down after the pumpkin and corn-maze craziness of Halloween; only one stays open all year round, but the produce they stock won't be their own until the first spinach of spring.

Until the ground freezes, I'll have a few bits of lettuce and mizuna to harvest. Snips of oregano and rosemary. The farm potatoes and carrots I've been stockpiling. Tomato sauce and blueberries in the freezer. Locally grown chicken and meat from Tendercrop, the one farm that stays open for business. That's about it.

So what's a writer to do in the dark days of late fall and early winter in the north with nothing local to eat? Get writing, obviously! Of course, make stews, roast chickens, bake bread, create pies. Tend the wood stove. Dust off last winter's knitting project. Mostly, though, finish the revisions on Speaking of Murder and keep writing on Death on the Neck (or whatever the next book is called) until the first draft of that one is done.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Idealism Lives

When we were in college a century ago, we felt like we were the vanguard of a new social order. It wasn't anything wild. We lived quiet lives in small group houses down the street from other houses full of like-minded friends. But to us, it seemed that we invented food coops, discovered recycling, created vegetarian menus for the first time. It was exciting, and very different from the quiet suburban California lives most of us had grown up in.

We studied amino-acid protein combinations from Diet for a Small Planet. We knew about the horrors of trans-fats in margarine 35 years ago. We made our own whole-grain bread in 4-loaf batches and held a potluck Thanksgiving dinner for 20. I created a small vegetable garden in the small yard behind the beach house we called home during the school year. We drove down the coast to Laguna Beach and the first food coop I had ever heard of, did our work shifts, and loaded up the one car among the 4 of us with soybeans, leeks, and peppermint soap with a crazy rant on its label. We rode our bikes wherever we could and, in the absence of public transportation in the area, hitched rides when we couldn't.

We had a lot of fun doing it. Made some spectacular mistakes, too. Did you know homemade soybean patties just don't hold together very well on a grill? And that 100% rye bread doesn't rise? And that a single girl hitchhiking to class might need to keep her hand on the door handle just in case a male driver gets creepy? (Can I believe I even did that??)

Some of us from that group are still vegetarians, and at a recent reunion, it was interesting to see how our shared life style had stuck with all of us in one way or another. But was that a blip in history? Is there any hope for younger generations glued to their cell phones and their video games? What's with the popularity of pointed high-heeled shoes with young women? Do students care about recycling?

If my son, John David is any example, it sure looks like it. He's living in a 3-story coop house with 13 housemates. They do chores in rotation and take turns cooking "family" dinner for the entire group 5 nights a week. Recyling and compost bins looked full and well-used when I visited. Most residents seem to arrive home on their bicycles. JD himself is an avid supporter of small-scale urban gardening and works for environmental change. And I work with a young man who also lives in a cooperative house and wants to get together with similar houses in the area.

This is very cool. Very gratifying for the older generation to see at least a few young people carrying on the effort. Very pleasing for a mom who never stopped growing organic vegetables. Go Verndale House!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Local Speaking Gig

So excited. Just got asked to speak on a panel of fellow authors with short stories in this year's Level Best Books anthology, Thin Ice.

Why so excited? It's a short walk away in downtown Ipswich, Massachusetts, my fair city (okay, town) on December 2, just a few weeks after the anthology is published. We'll be speaking at the Book Nook at River's Edge on Market Street. Right down the hill from here.

Oh, wait - that means I'd better get business cards done up. Lots of them. And what else? Polish the pitch about the book. Be ready to talk about Ipswich as character. Find an outfit? No, got that covered. And I already set up an Author page as Edith M. Maxwell on Facebook, on the recommendation of our local social networking guru, JA Hennrikus, writer (look for her on facebook). Stop on by.

Exciting it is, though. Details to follow for those of you who want to make a visit to the North Shore on a dark December evening. I just might throw a little party at my house afterwards. Any takers?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Evocative weather

How does weather influence characters' actions and motivations?

This week, after the Equinox, it has been strangely warm for fall days of equal length
in Massachusetts. The light has a slant that, when the air is crisp and clear, brings back memories of new school shoes and the taste of pears in my lunchbox. My personal memories of those aromas come from southern California, but New England fall also brought the start of school for my two sons (although this year is the very last one of those years, John David's senior year at university...), and similar smells. Fresh notebooks. Different soccer uniforms. New expectations.

But when it's 72 degrees at 6 in the morning, the air is hazy and it's just getting light, I am right back in Bamako, Mali, or Ougadougou, West Africa. Those are the only places I have lived that were closer than 15 degrees of latitude to the equator. All year round, dark falls within 30 minutes of 6 pm and gets light within 30 minutes of 6 am. Dawns and twilights are wicked short (as we say in Boston). And that hazy air has nothing crisp about it. By 7:30 it's almost too hot to play tennis, or to go for a run, as if anybody on the streets there needs to run for exercise. They burn enough calories in just living.

Barometric pressure rising or falling can affect moods and health. Humid air or dry, winds or lack thereof, can bring us instantly to another time, another place, another emotion. Living in a rainy climate or an arid one (or one that alternates half years between each), could have a huge effect on a (fictional, let's say) character's stability.

While I know I include descriptions of the local weather in my scenes, and try to make sure it matches the mood and action of the scene, I'm not sure I have fully utilized the effect of weather memories on my characters' actions and motivations. Could Thomas be driven over the edge by the extra-long winter weather this year because of a bitter-cold mistreatment by a departed stepfather? Maybe Virgie's inquisitive, generous nature is a result of growing up in a warm-climate village.

What are your associations with weather and emotion? Do you have favorite fictional characters who act (or not) in accordance with barometric pressure? Have you written any stormy characters who only show up in inclement weather?

Drop in and share, while we enjoy a few hurricane remnants North of Boston tomorrow.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Blog Absence - Will She Lose Fans and Friends?

My goal of blogging weekly is slipping.

Reasons? Sure. Back issues have me consorting with Brother Pain. My mother's fall and broken hip today, on her 85th birthday, 3000 miles away, have me consulting Sister Worry and Auntie Helplessness. The need to keep working at the day job from home, while standing (with Brother Pain sitting on my shoulder), brings me mail from Uncle Stress. And the lack of focus on my fiction writing has Cousin Wistful emailing constantly. I'm even going to have to miss the long-awaited Gun Workshop on Saturday : a day-long event for crime writers at the Worcester Gun Club where we'll (alas 'they'll') learn to identify and shoot firearms.

But! All the advice says blogs must be kept fresh. We must keep our fans and readers (and friends and relatives) continually stimulated and motivated about the "brand" we're creating. The brand being [TRUMPET SOUNDS] Edith Maxwell, Author of Mysteries.

Well, that's fine in the best of worlds. Right now, dearest readers? I might not be around for another little bit. And I think the world's going to survive just fine. My so-called brand will, too. We're given long lives so we can do many things in them, right? I think that includes time for not doing quite as much, too.

But do check back within the week. You never know.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


How do we get inspired to write? What experiences have planted the seed of an idea for my stories and for the various scenes in Speaking of Murder? Sure, we're advised to write what we know. For fiction that has its limits, but familiar events and scenes can also prompt the imagination to take off running. When that happens, I and my fellow writers have to race to keep up, getting as many words down in the first draft as we can.

Some years ago, I was driving home from work after dark. I saw a road crew digging a big hole in the ground to work on pipe or wires or something. Floodlights illuminated the area and it looked like a movie scene. All you could see were the workers in the spotlight. A few weeks after that I saw a man walking in Beverly, Massachusetts, who just did not look American. Italian, maybe, or Portuguese. Full head of dark hair, although he wasn't young, and pants and shoes of a cut you don't see in Macy's or Walmart. So I combined those into a story of a granite cutter from Portugal who works at night and his romance with a librarian. Never got it published, but I worked hard to craft the characters and I still feel good about the story.

My story, "Obake for Lance," which was published in Riptide (see the Publications tab), was loosely based on someone I knew when I lived in Japan. A fellow English-conversation teacher, he was deported on spurious charges. The story I wrote is fiction, but many of the scenes and descriptions stem from my experiences in my two years of teaching English there.

Melanson's Boat Shop was an Ipswich fixture. I was intrigued by it when I moved here and walked along the river. It was decrepit, strange, mysterious. I had already written it, renamed Pulcifer's, and a fictitious resident into a short story and into Speaking of Murder. Then last summer when we were in Maine for a week, my son called and said the boat shop was burning down. You can hardly make this stuff up. So the fire got written into the book, too. I don't know the actual inhabitant or anything about him, except that he survived the fire, so I felt free to continue to invent his character and subsequent events.

In the sequel to Speaking of Murder, Lauren walks on Ipswich's Crane Beach. I spent a lot of time on the beach this summer, as much as I could. And I noticed the area to the west where the wooded hill comes right down to the sand and rocks at the edge of the water. I thought, "Looks like a great place to find a dead body." And as I wrote along in the Challenge on the new book, bingo! A dead body happens along as Lauren runs on the beach.

What experiences have sent you to the keyboard to write a scene or a story? What stories have you read that you suspect have a basis in fact?

Monday, September 6, 2010

What is Linguistics, anyway?

My protagonist, Lauren Rousseau, is a Linguistics professor. We find out that she speaks Japanese and Bambara, a language spoken in Mali. We see her teaching a class on Japanese phonology and learn that she's writing a paper to present at the East Asian Linguistics conference. She seems pretty good at identifying regional and foreign dialects and accents, and in fact uses that to help solve the murder. She pops up with a smattering of greetings in languages like Russian and Greek.

But what is linguistics? It's a wide-ranging field with a number of sub-specialties. You can read about it here:

You don't have to know a bunch of languages to be a linguist, although many do. You could spend all your time theorizing about the underlying structure of language, or you could go out with a recorder to collect data about a language that has only two speakers left who learned it as their first language. You could trace back the history of words like 'apron', which was misanalyzed after it came into English from French . When people said, 'a napron' others heard it as 'an apron' and that's what stuck. Or you could track sound shifts that resulted a common Indo-European root for 'father' ending up beginning with a [p] sound in the Latinate languages and an [f] sound in the Germanic languages, of which English is one.

You could measure how many milliseconds an average vowel is in English when it precedes a voiced consonant like [d], [b], or [g] as opposed to when it precedes a voiceless consonant like [t], [p], or [k], and conversely the length of those consonants.

You could study psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, or typology of languages: is their basic word order Subject-Verb-Object, which the majority of languages use, or SOV, as in English, or VSO. You could study languages that use tone to mark meaning and grammatical function, like Hausa, Yoruba, and Chinese. Linguists also work in forensics, testifying in court about, for example, whether a written confession or a text message was in fact created by the accused.

Speaking of Murder
only touches on the possibilities of a linguist as an amateur sleuth. We're looking forward to seeing how else Lauren might use her skills to solve crimes in the future. One of my favorite blogs is linked to on this site: The bloggers are a number of well-known academic linguists who post about all kinds of topics of general interest. I recommend it.

What experiences do you have with linguistics? Any questions you've been dying to ask?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Setting as Character: Ipswich locations

They say that a setting can be a character in a book. I'm trying for that in Speaking of Murder. Ipswich, Massachusetts, is a real town in a real state. I happen to live in it. And it is a character with character. We celebrated the 375th anniversary of its founding last year. I even hand-sewed an outfit to match the year of our house, 1718, and walked in the parade.

Not all the quirky parts of town are historical, but a lot of them are.
In my book, you'll find references to the Choate Bridge, and the Choate Bridge Pub.

The bridge, adjacent to the busy downtown intersection and for more than a hundred years one of the only ways to travel south, is the oldest stone arch bridge in North America. Colonel John Choate funded part of the construction and supervised the building of the bridge. According to Ipswich Historical Society publications, when the bridge was opened in 1764, Choate was on horseback ready to flee north to New Hampshire if the radical new method of construction failed.

The Choate Bridge pub is on the corner next to the bridge. It features locally brewed ales, friendly waitstaff, lots of locals, and really excellent fried clams, also harvested locally. And is also the site of a pivotal scene in my book.

My protagonist walks and runs on Labor in Vain Road. She finds someone near death from a drug overdose just over the Labor in Vain Creek Bridge. According to legend, probably true, when the Ipswich River silted up, locals would try to row up the river, but at about the point when they encountered the creek, they realized they were "laboring in vain."

Lauren walks in the historic cemetery. She watches an antique boat shop burn down. Her friend lives in a house built in the 1700s.

The next book in the series already features Crane Beach and the Crane mansion, a stately residence that sits atop a hill overlooking the beach. It involves a real-life conflict between the Feoffees of Little Neck and the local School Committee. Stay tuned

What is your favorite locale-as-character?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Video Forensics

One of the key tools used to solve the crimes in Speaking of Murder is video forensics. What's video forensics, you might ask?

JB, Lauren's boyfriend, works as a civilian video forensics expert at the local police station. The tool he uses is dTective from Ocean Systems, developed by Grant Fredericks and used by police departments around the country, to clarify surveillance video and present video evidence in court.

The dTective software just happens to sit on top of Avid Media Composer, for which I wrote technical documentation for 14 years. Hmm, coincidence? You decide.

I knew I wanted to feature this software in my books. I was fortunate to be able to consult with the Raynham, Massachusetts police department, and also the Bristol County District Attorney's office. They each use this software in their daily crime-fighting. Chief Lou Pacheco of Raynham (and his video analyst Tim), and Kelli Hutchings of the DA office each spent a half day with me, demonstrating the software and talking about how they use it.

It was a fascinating look into some of the inner workings of the criminal justice system. I hope I've done justice to their expertise.

Several of the things you can do with this software:
  • Apply a standard to see how tall someone is
  • Lighten a dark image of a license plate
  • Zoom in on a tattoo or other unique physical characteristic
  • Compare a fingerprint left on a counter to one taken after arrest
I'll a couple of images here. It's very cool stuff. Pix from the Ocean Systems web site.

  • Note: I should have included (and now have) that Grant Fredericks developed the dTective software and was the generous soul who pointed me to Chief Pacheco in the first place. Thanks, Grant!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Convergence of Interests

Life brings a convergence: Fave blog posts about portraying historic and regional dialects in fictional dialog.

Language Log is a group of linguists who blog on a wide variety of topics, usually in a way accessible to any educated reader, not just to linguists. But they rarely blog about writing fiction, so this was a fun read.

It's hard to write characters producing realistic-sounding dialog, contemporary or historic, without annoying the reader. For example, I have a young college student speaking to Professor Rousseau. Now, I happen to know that many 20-year olds out there use the word "like" as a high proportion of their total word counts. I wanted to get that across in her dialog. But if you have to read more than a line or two, you might be tempted to put that book down and never pick it up again. It's as irritating as hearing it in person. So I used frequent "like"s in the first line or two and then let them subside.

Because my protagonist is a linguist, she often notices how people around her say things, and uses her ear for that to identify a suspect in an overheard conversation. It's an interesting challenge to slip in language-related clues wherever I can without making it obvious.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Short Story Acceptance

Late-breaking news: I'm delighted to report that my short story, "Reduction in Force," has been accepted for publication in Thin Ice, this year's anthology of crime fiction by New England writers, published by Level Best Books.

"Reduction in Force" tells a timely tale of conflict and revenge when a software company lays off employees.

The anthology will be out by early November.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

One Page a Day

I'm participating in a six-week writing challenge. On Jungle Red Writers, Jan Brogan challenged readers to write one page every day before checking personal email. Sounds simple, right? It's just one page.

Many writers, me included, have found the Internet to be a big black hole of distraction. There's that blog to read. That Facebook to catch up on. That Twitter feed to update. The email Inbox containing daily digests from three different Yahoo groups. All of which can be about writing: the craft, publishing, upcoming events, pitfalls, celebrations. We also hear that many publishers do little to promote 'mid-list' books, so these activities are crucial for getting name recognition and building a following, even before publication.

But when does that leave time to actually write? It's hard to carve out the time, especially when you hold down a day job, like I do. I often write only on my non-work Fridays. My most productive period, however, was when I participated in another challenge in February. That one, the Guppies Chocolate Challenge, was to write as many words as you could in the month of February. The winner was to be sent chocolate by all the other participants. Well, I didn't win the challenge, but I did win by writing 28,000 words and finishing the first draft of Speaking of Murder.

How did I write an average of 1000 words a day? I squeezed it in around the edges. I wrote after work. I wrote before work. I wrote every weekend day. I wrote in the passenger seat on a trip to New Jersey. And it worked.

One important component, though, was concentration. And you really can't focus on following your characters around and writing down what they do if you're always taking little side trips into cyberspace and answering email, reading what Sisters in Crime is up to, responding to a fellow Guppy's recent success or a question from Crime Scene Writers group, doing a little research on blood splatter.

So the practice of this page-a-day thing BEFORE INTERNET TIME is already working. In two days I have produced four pages, on a brand-new book, the next in the series. Stay tuned! It's easier than it seems.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


Reporting in from Ipswich, Massashusetts, with Blog Number One. Welcome! 

I'll be writing weekly on topics pertaining to my Speaking of Murder mystery series: writing, Linguistics, video forensics, the Society of Friends, and small-town life in New England. And whatever else comes to mind. I appreciate your dropping in here, and would love to hear your comments on any posting. Feel free to pass the link along, too.

A note of thanks to all my writer friends who blog regularly and who have provided a model of how to do this. Thanks, too, to Allan and John David, my very excellent sons, who blog with insight, clarity, and humor about life weekly (or more often).