Crime and the Jewel of the Maine Coast

We crime writers are often asked where we get our ideas. Do we conjure them up like magicians? Keep inspirational dream journals? Scribble down snippets of snatched conversations?

Sometimes, it seems, we merely have to live in the right little town.

Vicki Doudera here, and as you know from many of my past posts, I live year-round in Camden,  a town in the midcoast known as “the jewel of the Maine Coast..” If you haven’t yet visited this particularly pretty piece of the Pine Tree State, you owe it to yourself to come. We’ve got gorgeous harbors, Camden Hills State Park with 30 miles of trails, lovely Lake Megunticook, fabulous restaurants such as 40 Paper, a restored Opera House, and much more.

Unfortunately — we’ve also got crime.

You may remember my blog about the woman whose husband pushed her off the top of Mount Megunticook, hoping to kill her so he could pocket her recently inherited millions. A jury found him guilty in July, and Charles Black – now my friend Lisa’s ex-husband – was sentenced to 30 years in prison only two weeks ago.

On the heels of that, there was a stand-off at our downtown pharmacy, a sad situation that resulted in a pharmacist being held hostage while an obviously very troubled man demanded drugs and then took his own life.

And now… ?  Two high-profile cases involving the theft of millions of dollars. Neither has yet to go to trial, but, in at least one case, the defendant has admitted his guilt.

The first involves a couple, Jason and Mary Throne, who moved to Maine from Colorado, where Jason worked as a patent attorney for window treatment company Hunter Douglas. The lawsuit claims that beginning in 1999, the Thrones created a company that billed Hunter Douglas for patent search services that were never performed. Allegedly they purchased trophy homes in Rockport (the town next to Camden) and Steamboat Springs, Colorado, as well as automobiles and a boat. The story first broke in Colorado, back in June, then quickly traveled East

Hunter Douglas’ lawsuit alleges that the Throne’s actions amount to racketeering, the crime of obtaining or extorting money illegally, or carrying on illegal business activities. Jason Throne is still in town, attending high school soccer games while the wheels of justice slowly turn. 

And now we have another white collar crime in our little town:  embezzlement.

This latest scandal broke last week, and it’s a big one for Camden.  It involves a former “Townsperson of the Year,” Russell “Rusty” Brace, who is accused by United Mid-Coast Charities (the organization he headed for seventeen years) of embezzling 3.8 million dollars of charitable donations over a period of a dozen years. Apparently he has admitted to the charges.

I don’t think I’ve ever had the occasion to look up the word embezzlement.  It is “the act of dishonestly withholding assets for the purpose of conversion (theft) of such assets by one or more individuals to whom such assets have been entrusted, to be held and/or used for other purposes.”

The big word in this definition is “entrusted.” Unlike the racketeering scheme supposedly run by the Thrones, this crime (if it is proven to have taken place) involved breaking the trust not only of the organization’s officers, staff, and donors, but of all the charitable organizations to whom the money was supposed to flow,of all the people in our area who supported all the fundraising events. The details are still emerging, but if true, this embezzlement represents a huge breach of trust.

Which is why so many of us here in Camden feel very betrayed.  And that, when it comes right down to it, may end up to be the biggest crime of all.

All of this comes at a time when I am finishing up the third edition of my book Moving to Maine, a guide for people relocating here, or merely thinking about it.  I talk in the book about how safe Maine is, how people rarely lock their doors, how random violence is seldom an issue.

All that is still true, even with Camden’s rash of crimes. Our state is still much safer than most of the country. But even a jewel has its dark side, and beautiful Camden has never been immune to greed, or whatever it is that makes someone want to push his wife off a cliff, demand drugs at gunpoint, or steal millions of dollars from an employer.

Where do crime writers get their ideas?  Sometimes, sad to say, we are living right in the midst of them.

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The Tale of the Naturalist’s Log

There are books we love because they move us, maybe even change the way we live our life.

Vicki Doudera here. Don’t worry —  I’m not going to talk about The Goldfinch again. (But that post’s available here if you didn’t get to read it the first time…)

Other books scare the Holy Hannahs out of us, and for lots of reasons we crime writers love to discuss, we enjoy these books as well. For me, that super-scare of a book was The Shining.  So vividly do I recall turning those pages, curled up on our living room couch, shaking in my proverbial boots. (Jaws was another one. Can we ever forget inhaling those novels?)

And then there are the books that are special only to us.  For some, it’s a treasured family Bible, with names and dates penciled carefully in. Or a tattered paperback that saw its reader through a difficult period. Or a rip-roaring adventure that mirrored a time in the past when we, too, were on a rollercoaster of a ride.

Perhaps most important are the books we make ourselves, full of our own unique stories.  I’m not talking about books we write and publish (although those are pretty darn important to their authors, trust me!) but tomes of a more personal nature. Scrapbooks of Christmases going back to our days as a newlywed. Journals of trips taken, discoveries made. Diaries from tortuous times in middle school.  Yes, I possess all of these things, including saucy accounts of a college year in Paris, but for me, one of the most treasured books in my collection is The Pitcher Pond Naturalist’s Log, a journal that had its beginnings back in 1998.

I can’t talk about the Log without mentioning my son Matt, whose 26th birthday is today. Not only is he the creator of the book itself, but, it turns out, he was responsible (albeit unintentionally) for its long disappearance.

But let me start in the beginning, back in the summer of ‘98, when my husband and I sold our 11-room Inn in Camden, packed up our possessions, and moved to a camp (if you’re from Maine you know what I mean – for the rest of you, a camp is a small lakeside cottage) that we’d fortuitously purchased only months before.

The camp was – and still is – in Lincolnville, on a narrow, glacier-formed body of water called Pitcher Pond. Ten years before bidding on the place, we’d rented it, and Matt had been all of 2 months old. When the camp went on the market in the spring of ‘98 we put in an offer to purchase it, never dreaming that our bid would be accepted, much less that our business (and home) would sell three months later.

By then our family had grown to include Nate, 8 years old; Lexi, who was four; chocolate Lab Daisy, and cats Tom and Jerry. It was a crazy,  whirlwind of a time in our family’s saga. We had two weeks to pack up our personal items at the Inn and get the heck out, all the while flipping flapjacks for guests, taking reservations, and presenting to all of our paying customers a relaxed, serene demeanor, even if we felt far from it.

When we finally found ourselves ex-Innkeepers and new residents of Pitcher Pond, we took about a week to unwind from all the stress. Turns out a little lakeside cottage hailing from the 1950’s was the perfect place to do just that.

It was mid-July, and with all of the fishing, swimming, biking, and BB gun shooting, I’m not sure why this

eldest son of mine made the book in the first place. Probably because, even at age ten, he was the kind of person who liked to craft things with his hands. Chances are he spotted the fabric first, then found some cardboard, grabbed the stapler, paper and scissors, and next thing he knew, he’d made a little book.

I think it was all the wildlife we were witnessing that made me think of starting a Naturalist’s Log. The earliest entries are veritable laundry lists of sightings: porcupines, raccoons, red-tailed hawks, bear scat, paper wasps, and fish ranging from perch to pike.  The very first entry? Mother catfish and approx. 100 one inch babies by shore of beach. Believe it or not, I can still recall seeing that incredible sight, marveling with the kids how each one of the babies was a tiny version of the slowly swimming, protective mom.  It was something I will most likely never see again.

Before long, the boys were scribbling in their own discoveries. Caught a one foot bass on dock during cookout, wrote Matt in July of 2000. Wanted to eat it but Mom said no.  Nate spotted “two grouse and one baby while picking blueberries” in July of 2002. Lexi, still a little young to journal, proved to be an adept finder of unusual creatures, spying tree frogs, salamander eggs, and winged creatures of all types, some of which (if they were dead) we pasted in the journal.

And then, in 2003, the unthinkable happened:  the Log disappeared.

That summer, it simply vanished from its customary perch on a shelf in the camp’s living room, and despite searches of both the cottage and our Camden home, the journal did not turn up.

For five long years it remained missing. And all that time it bugged me. For five summers, I asked myself where the hell the book could be. I looked high and low, in every conceivable spot, and still, the little journal refused to be found.

And then, in 2008, I moved a dresser from the boys’ bunkhouse into my camp bedroom. The lowest drawer was stuck shut, and when I finally pried it open, inside lay the Log. The last entry, written in June of 2003, was one dramatic line, scrawled in Matt’s distinctive handwriting.

Today I saw a bald eagle and it flew right over my head.

At last our Log was back, and we wasted no time once more recording discoveries. A meteor shower that lit up the lake. A mother duck and eight tiny ducklings. A spotting of seven loons swimming in a black-and-white pack. Hummingbirds, chipmunks, Lady slippers, Canada geese – the list goes on and on.

Including the notations I made yesterday as I sat on the camp’s screened-in porch. Saw a giant snapping turtle with a shell 18 inches across, a dead bat, and a kingfisher.

Why do we like to record events in our life?  For me, the Log is a way of remembering just how multi-layered a natural environment can be, how much diversity can co-exist on a three-mile-long pond in the Maine woods. It’s an account of funny family stories (like the time Nate wrote about a loon swimming under his legs, which years later he admitted was fictitious.) It’s a measure of the months and years, stacking up like firewood, a way to make sure we remember that the times gone by have been rich indeed.

As our Maine summer rolls on, I hope you’re enjoying both words and wildlife.  My thoughts today are on Matt, off captaining a yacht in St. Thomas, where he’s spotting everything from sharks to sea turtles.  Happy Birthday, Matt, and thank you for creating a very special book.

And to the rest of you, enjoy this beautiful day.

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Edgar Allan Poe Explains it All

Early on, I admired the work of  Edgar Allan Poe, thanks mostly to my mother who read out loud to me his very creepy short story The Gold Bug. It was about a man obsessed with

searching for treasure after being bitten by an insect thought to be made of pure gold. The bug was described as a “scarab,” and I remember that detail adding an extra level of spine-tingling fear, because my mother was fond of wearing a colorful bracelet decorated with oval stones, also called scarabs.

Vicki Doudera here. Those early bedtime readings of Poe planted a deliciously sinister seed. Later I would read his short mystery Murders at the Rue Morgue and haunting poem, The Raven, and marvel at the way the man mixed literary horror and suspense. Truly Poe’s impact on literature, and on crime fiction specifically, cannot be overstated.

Given my history, you can imagine my delight at finding that Mr. Poe holds pride of place in a slim volume I’m reading called Great Writers on the Art of Fiction. His chapter, the first in the book, is an essay in which he makes the case that good writing is not the result of “ecstatic intuition,” but deliberate and careful consideration. Through painstaking analysis,  Poe offers what he terms a “peep behind the scenes” at how he came to write The Raven.

Some of you may have read John Curran’s book about Agatha Christie’s diaries and the secrets of her writing process revealed within the scribbled pages.  While Poe’s chapter is much more polished than those entries, and is, in fact, a well-constructed essay, it gives those of who write the same kind of insight as Christie’s journals.  There’s a wonderful kinship gleaned from realizing that the greats who came before us struggled with the same literary decisions.  They, too, had to scrap passages that didn’t work, change language that didn’t flow, and make the tough editorial choices all scribes must make. Just like me, they sat in front of a blank page and asked themselves, “Now what?”

For example, here are some of Poe’s concerns while writing The Raven:

1) Length, or what Poe calls the “extent” of the poem. He discusses just how long a reader will sit and read a poem, and makes a critical first decision: his work will consist of 100 lines. “It is, in fact, a hundred and eight,” he says, with perhaps just a touch of smugness.

2. Impression, or effect to be conveyed.  Poe says he wanted to create a work that would be “universally appreciable,” i.e., popular. “Now I designate beauty as the province of the poem,” he says, explaining that while truth and passion are also worthy topics, they are far better attainable in prose.

3. Tone. Having decided on beauty as his theme, Poe says that the highest manifestation of beauty is sadness – therefore his poem will have a melancholy tone.

4. Refrain.  He decides that a single word will be repeated, and then, ponders what that word will be. He’s led to the “long ‘o” as the most sonorous vowel, in conjunction with ‘r’ as the most producible consonant.”

You see where this is going, right?

“In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word “Nevermore,” says Poe. “In fact, it was the very first which presented itself.”

But who will speak the refrain?  Poe imagines a “non-reasoning creature capable of speech,” and pictures a parrot. He then decides instead on the raven, as it, too, can speak, and is “infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.”

Does anyone else eat this kind of literary explanation up?  Poe goes on for several more pages describing in more detail the actual composition of the poem, and it’s fascinating stuff. Not because he’s a poet crediting some distant muse for his flashes of inspiration, but because he’s a craftsman explaining in great detail the many important decisions made navigating the artistic road.

For me, this chapter serves as a log for one of Edgar Allan Poe’s creative journeys. It took a bit of effort to read it, but when I finished I smiled and breathed a sigh of relief.  Why?  Because unlike the man searching for treasure in The Gold Bug, I’m not alone. I’ve got Poe and Christie by my side, and they are formidable allies.

Who are the “greats” whose writing process inspires you?

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What Lies Beneath

I became a diver in 1986, taking an open water SCUBA class at the YMCA on Huntington Avenue in Boston. I was in my early 20’s and had always been drawn to the ocean. Growing up through the 70’s, Jacques Cousteau and his boat Calypso were huge influences on me, but also my father was an early and enthusiastic diver, and I loved hearing about the adventures he had off the tip of Provincetown as part of a diving club.

Enter Ed, my boyfriend at the time (now husband of 28 years) who loved the sport, and showed me his log describing dives he’d done all over the world, including one in Mexico that took him to the Cave of the Sleeping Sharks. (He says he’s fortunate that they weren’t home.)

My motivation for getting certified myself was complete when we became engaged, and so, the spring before we left Boston, before we packed up and moved to Maine, before we got married (at which time Ed gave me a mask, fins, and snorkel) and before we honeymooned in Mexico (at which time I did my check-out dives)  before all that –  I rode the T every Wednesday night to the Y for my SCUBA instruction.

I will never forget one of the classes. The instructor had us:sitting on the bottom of the pool without masks, practicing something called “buddy breathing” with four other people. If you’re not familiar with SCUBA, buddy breathing is an emergency technique designed to save your life should you ever run out of air underwater. Back in the mid 1980’s when I was first learning, it meant sharing someone’s demand valve on a regulator, the piece of equipment that goes in your mouth and from which you breathe.  Today, virtually every regulator worn by divers has two hoses with a second mouthpiece called an Octopus, used by a diver in trouble. (In fact, buddy breathing isn’t taught anymore because of the new equipment.) But back then, there were only single mouthpieces, so buddy breathing meant relinquishing (temporarily, you hoped) the source of your precious air.

The exercise on the bottom of that pool felt like a kind of torture: the water pressing against my face, the rising panic as I waited for my turn at the regulator, my lungs desperately wanting that piece of rubber hose that meant life. Lifeguards know that a drowning person will do anything to get air, and after my experiences on the floor of that old pool, I  believe it.

Of course, I had only to swim upwards fifteen feet or so, and I could gulp all the air I wanted.  No fear of sharks, or nitrogen narcosis. We were in a pool, in the middle of Back Bay – not the middle of the ocean.

Now imagine that scenario in open water – 80, 100, or maybe even 140 – feet down, and you’ll see where my head’s been at the past few days.

Vicki Doudera here. Today I’m flying back to Maine after spending a week with my family in St. Croix, where our oldest son, Matt, is the Captain of a 120-foot yacht. It’s been a fabulous week of sunshine, sandy beaches, cool rum drinks and warm ocean water, along with several dives to explore the island’s coral reefs. Matt’s a dive master, and the yacht has all the equipment necessary – tanks, regulators, weight belts, buoyancy compensators – to take our family of certified divers out to explore what lies beneath the pretty turquoise waves.

All three days of diving were impressive, but our first excursion, on a part of St. Croix called Cane Bay, was one of the many experiences that got my writer’s mind thinking. 

We’d driven out to Cane Bay the day before for “Mardi Croix,” a fun, funky, all-day Mardi Gras celebration complete with a festive parade, strand upon strand of colorful beads, and the requisite rum drinks served from beach bars full of locals and a few vacationers like us. Located on the North Shore of the island, Cane Bay boasts beautiful sand, gorgeous vistas, and, a hundred yards or so from the beach, “The Wall,” a drop-off that descends 13,000 feet down from the reef. 

That’s right – thirteen thousand feet, down into a dark blue void.

Except it’s not a void, even if you peer into it and see nothing. Matt told us as we were strapping on our tanks and preparing to wade into the ocean that we might see humpback whales, and a guy at a shop (where I made the last-minute purchase of a rash guard to keep the steel tank from chafing my back) said he’d seen them from shore.  WHALES???  Never mind sharks, which Matt mentioned we might also see (and in fact did see, although on a different dive) but WHALES?

We dove that day to 140 feet, one of the deepest dives I’ve ever done. We did not see any whales, although on another dive we heard their eerie, echo-y underwater cries.  We did see some spectacular sights – massive, globe-like brain corals, schools of blue tang, skinny pilot fish, and big-eyed squirrel fish. And we saw the very impressive drop-off: The Wall.

I have to admit that it freaked me out a little. Okay – a lot, although I was the only one in our family that it seemed to bother. I just did not like the sight of all of that deep, dark blueness so close that it could swallow me up. I don’t think it was what could come swimming up from out of that blueness that panicked me (although I knew it would if I let myself ponder it for even a second) but rather the fact that it was so dark, and so deep. To say that I found The Wall unsettling is putting it mildly.

After our dive, while we sipped rum drinks (you do a lot of that on St. Croix) and ate burgers with a reggae band jammin’ in the background, Matt told us about the only recorded shark attack at Cane Bay.  It happened back in the 1980’s. Two guys were diving The Wall when a shark rose from the depths and grabbed one of the men, dragging him down into the cerulean fathoms.  His body was never found, and none of his equipment was recovered.

I took a big swig of my rum drink, thankful my son had shared his tale after the dive and not before, but he wasn’t quite finished with the story.

The shark attack is the official, accepted version of what happened some thirty years ago. But Matt, who has lived on St. Croix for close to three years now, says he’s heard a few locals describe a very different account.

Apparently the two men were more than just dive buddies. They were business partners, known to be in the middle of a disagreement regarding their finances.

We sat with our rum drinks and discussed how easy it would be to kill someone while diving, especially in that incredibly deep water. A simple matter of cutting the oxygen supply, watching the victim drown, and then weighting the body — perhaps by releasing any remaining air from the buoyancy compensator, or adding a weight from one’s own weight belt. In 140 feet of water or deeper, a body wearing a steel tank and other weights would never float up to the surface, and most likely an Apex predator or two roaming the depths would enjoy the unexpected snack.

I’m pretty sure most families don’t sit around sipping rum and contemplating murder, but when Mom writes crime novels, it’s bound to happen.

I used the drama of the deep in Killer Listing, writing the SCUBA scenes from my own experiences with Matt as my consultant.  I’d originally thought that my character, a depressed diver, would commit suicide underwater, but as I got further along with the writing, it became clear that a planned suicide with a last-minute change of heart was what needed to happen. Reading those scenes makes my heart pound, and hopefully yours does, too.

The thing of it is, diving is a dangerous sport, often done in very small groups. If two people are diving and one of them disappears, no one but the survivor can relate what happened. A shark conveniently putting an end to a messy quarrel?  Here’s my theory. Many misdeeds can be buried in the vast ocean – perhaps forever.

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I Scream, You Scream… the Pig Screams?

Okay, so you’re walking down a quiet street in China, Maine, with your dog. He’s sniffing the mounds of dirty snow and you’re imagining what you might eat for lunch. Out of the blue  – an ear-splitting scream.

It pierces the silence of this rambling country road and raises the little hairs on the back of  your neck. You  look to the right and the left and freeze.

It’s happening again and it’s coming from the farmhouse on the corner.

Of course you think domestic violence.

Let’s face it. This is Maine, and while the state is relatively safe when compared to other parts of the country, it’s a place where domestic violence has an unfortunately solid foothold. You’re not being alarmist – you’re being realistic.

The sound of the scream endures, and it gets under your skin. You’ve got to do something, and fast.

You whip out your cell phone. Your fingers are freezing but you dial 911. You tell them where you are, and what you fear. Someone is getting hurt in that farmhouse.

The cops glide in a silent car. You and your dog stand by the road and watch. They circle the house, hands on their guns, and knock on the door. A woman wearing jeans and a flannel shirt appears. She moves back to allow the police entry and you and your dog wait. You brace yourself:  more screams and maybe gunshots are next.

Instead you hear laughter. That’s right – laughter. The cops are out of the farmhouse and they’re slapping each other on the back and chortling.  You and Leo (cause that’s your dog’s name) wander closer. “Everything okay, officers?” you ask.

“Yeah, yeah,” says one of the cops. He glances at his partner and then cocks his head toward the farmhouse. “Lady raises pigs,” he says. “And she just put a male in with a bunch of horny females. You better believe he’s screaming.”

“Screaming for joy,” adds his partner.

“Huh,” you say, backing away with your dog. It’s an odd feeling – you’re almost disappointed.

OK – so this is a real story here in Maine. Happened in Gerry Boyle’s neck of the woods, and I’ve gone off on a fictitious romp.  A client in New Jersey alerted me to the story. Her email was headed, “Only in Maine.” She’d seen this particular news item on the Huffington Post.

I had to blog to you about it…. perhaps because I’m remembering instances when I was scared silly, and they turned out to be… nothing. Not quite pigs… but nothing.

Experiences like this help inform the crime writer. And so do images.

Take a look… Probably the creepiest painting ever, right?

Somehow I don’t thing Edvard Munch was thinking of pigs.

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So Thrilled! My latest news…

The world of writing can be fraught with disappointment.  The agent who doesn’t want to take on new clients.  The editor who isn’t totally pleased with your series. The less-than-favorable review in just about anything from the local rag to Publishers Weekly.

Of those three scenarios, I’m relieved to say that only the first has happened to me. Getting an agent was pretty frustrating, but it’s nothing compared to the stories of many writers I know who toil away, year after year, despite countless setbacks, including a very big one – failing to get a book deal.

Writers take the road less traveled by, to borrow a line from our fellow Northern New Englander Robert Frost, and it’s a path that requires thick-soled shoes, a dependable compass, and lots of chocolate. Our route is more like climbing Mount Katahdin than strolling Boothbay’s Botanical Gardens. You want to be a writer?  It definitely ain’t for wussies  Better pack an extra Cadbury.

Which is why, when something good comes our way, we like to celebrate. Brag a little. Pat ourselves on the back and get congrats from our colleagues. Or anyone who will give them.

Vicki Doudera here, excited to share some news that’s about a month old.  I’m not sure why I’ve been holding out – I think I wanted to really savor it, let it sink in, because to me, my latest accomplishment is tremendously exciting.

Okay, so I didn’t get the call from the Pulitzer committee, but here it is:  my short story was chosen for the 2014 Mystery Writers of America anthology, Ice Cold.  Wahoo!

I’ve never entered a writing contest, and I’ve never really written a short story, but that’s not the best part.  The anthology includes nine other MWA members, and then a host of big-name “invited” authors:  Joseph Finder, J.A. Jance, John Lescroart, Laura Lippman, Gayle Lynds, Katherine Neville, Sara Paretsky and T. Jefferson Parker.

Did I mention that it’s co-edited by Jeffery Deaver and Raymond Benson, the only Americans selected to write James Bond novels?  Or that J.A. Jance was the inspiration for my Darby Farr mystery series? Or that Sara Paretsky, who birthed Sisters in Crime, is a legend for me? Or that the theme of Ice Cold is the Cold War, one of my most favorite time periods?

And here’s the really good part:  I nearly gave up several times.

Many of my writing “firsts” have given me goosebumps… the first time one of my articles was published in Yankee, way back in 1988, the first book I wrote, Moving to Maine, in 2000, and my first fiction novel, A House to Die For, in 2010.  But this “first” feels even better.  Not only is it validation from other writers in the mystery field — professionals whose opinion I really, really, value – but it is a timely reminder that taking that less traveled road can be worthwhile.

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Thank you, Sarah Graves!

I lead a double life.

Vicki Doudera here. Most of you know me as the author of the Darby Farr Mysteries, a series that stars an Asian American real estate agent who solves crimes and makes deals.  Final Settlement is the fourth book in the series, with Deal Killer due out in April. 

I’ve also written several guides to my state, the most popular of which – Moving to Maine – will be updated and republished in 2015.

In addition to my writing career, I’m a broker for Camden Real Estate Company, helping buyers and sellers find new homes or move on from the ones they own.  It’s engrossing, enjoyable work, and I’ve been at it a decade now.

Working as a real estate agent is rewarding in many ways.  It not only pays the bills but gives me my much-needed “people outlet” as I’m a full-on extrovert, unusual in the writing world!  I’ll be forever thankful to the profession because it’s what inspired me to come up with my mystery series in the first place. I’d always wanted to write fiction, and somehow real estate gave me the key to unlock that creative door.

And it continues to give me gifts. 

 

On Monday, I will sell a water view home in South Thomaston to a lovely couple from Texas, Carolyn and Ted.  I’ve been emailing these folks for years – sending them updates on homes – and every now and then, reaching out to see if they were still interested in moving to Maine.  This spring, when I jotted off a little note, Carolyn wrote back to say that they were indeed ready to come, and had listed their Texas house.

A week later, she wrote to say it was under contract.

In early August, Carolyn and Ted flew to Maine and we looked at homes for several days.  These folks have never lived in a cold climate, so it was fun to educate them about heating systems, plowing, and R-values in insulation.  They were eager and excited learners, but it was evident they were fish out of water – or longhorns out of pasture!  Finally I asked them the obvious question:  why Maine?

Neither of them has family here.  Neither went to college in one of our wonderful little institutions of higher learning. Neither spent summers in a rambling “cottage” in Bar Harbor or a quiet lakeside camp in Bridgton.

Here’s why they are purchasing a home in Maine on Monday:  they read one of Sarah Graves’s mysteries.

“Her descriptions of Maine were just so beautiful,” Carolyn told me. “I told Ted that I had to visit Maine before I died.  And then when we came, we just fell in love with it all, and decided to make the state our home.” Eastport proved to be just a little too far-flung, so the couple settled on the midcoast, but it was Sarah’s words that inspired them to make this major life change.

In real estate, it’s pretty easy for me to see how my actions influence and hopefully help my clients. I can reassure them about radon remediation, recommend a thorough building inspector, give them a tour of the town’s daycare centers. I’m brutally honest about whether they are making a smart investment in a neighborhood. But as a writer, it’s much more difficult to see the impact my stories may have. We meet readers, or hear from some of them, but we don’t always now how our words reach out and touch others. 

I’m betting that Carolyn and Ted will not regret their move to Maine.  I think they’ll thrive in their new climate and home. I’ll be here to help them along the way with any questions they have, but they are so clearly up for this new adventure that I’m sure they’ll succeed.

Meanwhile – a message to my fellow Maine Crime Writer —- next time you’re in Camden, Sarah, lunch is on me!

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Sam Spade and Me

The other day, while out at our camp in Lincolnville, I pulled an old hardcover mystery anthology from 1959 off the shelf, flipped to the first entry, and started reading.

The selection was The Maltese Falcon, written in 1930 by Dashiel Hammett. As the editor of Ten Great Mysteries noted, an auspicious way to start a collection which includes works by Dorothy L. Sayers, Erle Stanley Gardner, Margery Allingham, and Rex Stout. 

Vicki Doudera here, admitting that I have never read this most famous of crime stories, and that I was immediately hooked. Arguably one of the twentieth century’s most influential works of fiction, the novel virtually created the genre we call noir, a realistic style of writing that ushered in generations of imitators, including many of us who pen fiction today. Yes, it’s dated, but the San Francisco streets Hammett described still seem gritty. The dialogue, although oft parodied, is well done and rarely stilted, and manages to sound menacing without the use of one four-letter word.

For me, where The Maltese Falcon especially shines is in its introduction and depiction of the protagonist, the very prototype of the hard-boiled detective, Samuel Spade. Cool, calm, and collected, tough (and yet occasionally tender,) Spade is so well drawn that it’s surprising Hammett trotted him out only a few times.

Did I picture Bogart while reading about Spade? Of course. It’s impossible not to. Talk about your perfect casting! Or is that just because I saw the movie first, before I could form my own version of Spade? No matter —  I’m looking forward to seeing the film again for comparison’s sake.

As a mystery writer, I enjoy reading anything in my genre, but it’s especially rewarding to read a classic like this and feel compelled to know who dunnit. I see techniques that this master writer used and marvel that I do some of the same things. I think about the way the plot unfolds — the little nuances that are nearly invisible, and yet so vital. I watch how Hammett weaves in supporting characters, red herrings, and suspense. I want to keep reading… and I want to write.

I’ll probably work my way through this whole anthology this summer, both for pleasure and for edification. After all, none of these masters remain with us – all have gone to their big Underwoods in the sky — and so reading their works is a kind of homage, too. The book’s a bit musty, but nothing a trusty antihistamine can’t counteract. An occasional sneeze for hours of pleasure? I’m sure even hardboiled Sam Spade would approve.

This Friday, I’ll be at the Bath Book Shop at noon, signing copies of the latest Darby Farr Mystery, Final Settlement, and talking mysteries.  Come out and say hello!

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Getting Ideas from My Day Job

I had a wonderful half-hour-plus interview last week with a real estate reporter from the Wall Street Journal. She called because she’s intrigued by my dual career as Realtor and author of a mystery series with an amateur sleuth who just happens to be a real estate agent.

Vicki Doudera here, hoping that the article appears in print sometime soon, and launches me into the crime-writing stratosphere.  In the meantime, I enjoyed the conversation immensely, mainly because she asked such great questions, and I came away from our discussion with several observations that I didn’t have before.

1. My Day Job Has Helped my Work Ethic. You know how journalists make good novelists because they know how to write to deadlines and don’t buckle to so-called “writer’s block?” The reporter wondered if being in real estate had helped me knuckle down and write, and I realized it was true. The deadlines inherent in helping someone buy or sell property are good training, not only for accomplishing things on time, but also for putting the paralyzing kind of perfectionism we writers tend to favor to bed.

BRE (Before real estate,) I wrote magazine articles, generally about a thousand words in length, and writing one took me months and months.  That’s right — one!

Now these were not super-complex treatises on the meaning of life, but how-to gardening or cooking articles, historical pieces or light essays.  Why did I anguish over them – each – for waaaaaay too long?  Mainly because I could.

For one thing, I wasn’t trying to get as much done as I am now, so a project could expand to fill not only entire days, but weeks. Secondly, I could indulge my love of nit-picking perfectionism, the recurring  rounds of editing and rewriting that never seem to end, because I had too much time. Real estate changed my work habits, and those changes have carried over to my current career as a novelist.

2. Real Estate is Exciting. Sometimes I forget this when I am juggling several transactions at once, but describing deals to this reporter (and why I’d put them in mysteries) made me reflect on the adrenalin-rush nature of selling property.  The mystery I am writing now – Deal Killer – takes place in Manhattan, where, as one broker said, it is “raining money” from the “overseas super-rich.” My premise – a murder involving a Russian billionaire’s daughter for whom a $30 million apartment was purchased as a “dorm in the sky” – is not at all far-fetched in this overheated market of wealthy foreigners vying for their bites of the Big Apple.

But here’s something you might be surprised to learn:  even the “little” deals are exciting to me. Really!  The house I bemoan as fit only for the proverbial little old lady suddenly has – you guessed it – a little old lady eager to buy it. A log cabin that belonged to a hoarder of antiques (and took months to clean out) is enjoying a flurry of activity, and the homebuyers whose commitment I questioned will buy a property at the end of the month.  You never know who will walk in the door, call on the phone, or send a random email.  It could be someone wanting information on a modest ranch …. or a mega mansion.

3. I Do Love the People I Meet. The reporter asked me if I would abandon real estate if my book sales shot through the roof, and I said no.  The thing is, I enjoy people too much not to have guaranteed contact with them nearly every day, and I especially enjoy meeting new people.  Here’s an example.  The other day a couple walked into the office (we call them “walk-ins” – so clever!) to discuss buying an older home in Camden. Suddenly the woman leans forward and says urgently, “Tom, we have to tell Vicki the truth!”

I’m expecting something such as “We don’t have a red cent to our names!” or “We’re both headed to jail in two months!” but it turned out the woman’s father, an elderly man in his nineties, had just died and they were most likely flying to California in a day or two for the funeral.  

These kinds of encounters fuel my creativity.  Perhaps I could extrovert enough by hanging out in cafes or upping my volunteer efforts even more, but I doubt it.  I think, as crazy as my life sometimes is, that it works just right for me.

I’m grateful to the WSJ reporter for helping me remember this and wondering…what’s something you’ve learned about your career recently that surprised you?

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Standing Up for Words

As writers, we are constantly telling ourselves to keep our butts in our chairs and get those words on the page.

Vicki Doudera here. We’re right to realize that focusing on the task at hand – rather than social networking, shopping or making fudge – will help the pages pile up. But new studies show that in our quest to produce the most words we can, we may actually be doing something very wrong.

The problem, medical experts say, is that sitting all day is damaging our health. Our bodies were designed for movement, not keeping ourselves immobile in a cramped position for hours at a time. Sitting strains muscles, lowers metabolism, increases risk of heart disease and can even shorten your life.

For one thing, sitting makes you fat. There’s an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase, which normally captures fat in the bloodstream and incinerates it, that isn’t released when you’re sitting still. When this enzyme doesn’t circulate in your bloodstream, any fat that isn’t incinerated can be stored in the body as adipose tissue.

Here’s the quote that got me. James Levine, MD, an obesity researcher at the Mayo Clinic, says that the biggest difference between thin and fat people is not how much they eat or exercise, but how much they sit.

To add insult to injury, experts say that 60 to 90 minutes of daily exercise may not be enough to counteract the damage done by a whole day of sitting. Say what?!

Sitting also wreaks havoc on your back. Ever notice how a long day of writing makes  your lower back absolutely kill? It’s because siting all day forces the natural “S” curve of your spine into a “C,” and our backs weren’t built to withstand that pressure.

Finally, a 2010 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology followed thousands of people and their daily habits for 14 years. Their findings? The people who sat for 6 hours a day had a 37% increased risk of dying versus those who sat for 3 hours or less. Also, risks of cardiovascular disease were 2.7 times higher in the 6 hour sitters. Yes, sitting literally kills.

So – say you’re like me, with a big deadline for the fifth Darby Farr Mystery looming. You’ve got a month to produce more than 150 pages, which means a lot of time banging out words. You want to write, but you don’t want to spend the whole day sitting. Aside from taking regular breaks to walk the dog, what else can I do?

The photo above shows one solution.  To save my back (which does ache after I sit for a while) I bring my laptop to the kitchen island, prop it up on a few books, and write standing up.  At first it seemed strange, but the longer I do it, the more natural it feels.

I’ve also reclined on a divan to write. While this style of sitting may not be releasing that lipoprotein lipase, it is taking the pressure off my back. Same goes for using a barstool. The theory here is that you “perch” rather than sit on a stool, so that your thighs and legs are taking some of the weight – not just your spine. I also bought an exercise ball to bounce on while I spin my stories.  Now I just have to blow it up!

My dream antidote to sitting is to find an inexpensive treadmill and build a little desk  hanging over it.  I’ve fantasized about this for years, not because I was worried about sitting, but because I wanted to stay warm.  It’s a real challenge for me during our Maine winters to keep from getting chilled, and I thought if I could walk a little while writing, I’d stay nice and toasty.  As with the bouncy ball, I’ll keep you posted.

The bottom line is both OUR bottoms and our backs. This year, find ways to keep moving while you write, so that your sentences won’t sacrifice your health.

 

 

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