‘We get to write all the badness out of our systems’: Maine crime writers explain why the state is so thrilling

Author Paul Doiron
John Holyoke
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Posted March 11, 2014, at 5:46 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — During the upcoming Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance “Crime Wave” conference on April 19 in Portland, some of the state’s most accomplished crime writers will talk about their work and the field.

Authors and conference participants Paul Doiron, Kate Flora and Kathy Lynn Emerson answered a series of questions about the April event, writing about crime in such a low-crime state, and whether Maine creates thriller writers or thriller writers gravitate toward Maine.

Doiron is the former editor-in-chief of Down East Magazine, and his series of crime novels following fictional Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch have won a slew of awards in the genre, including a Barry Award by the publication Deadly Pleasures and one of Mystery Readers International’s Macavity Awards.

Flora is a former attorney who went on to write 12 books, including seven mystery novels featuring protagonist Thea Kozak, three fictional police procedurals, a suspense thriller and — working with a former Portland deputy chief — a nonfiction book about the 2001 murder of Portland woman Amy St. Laurent.

The Wilton-based Emerson has written under three pen names — Kaitlyn Dunnett and Kate Emerson, in addition to the name listed above. In her works, Emerson has written across a range of genres, including historical mysteries, children’s books and romance novels. Her nonfiction, “How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries,” claimed a coveted Agatha Award, named of course for Agatha Christie.

Q: As a writer, why is it important for the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance to offer conferences in specific genres, and what do you expect the reception to be for the upcoming “Crime Wave” event?

Kate Flora: As a writing teacher, I don’t necessarily think that conference offerings need to be genre specific. Basic craft is basic craft. That being said, I do think that there are conventions in the mystery genre, and in the thriller genre, that writers wanting to work on those areas need to know. Sure rules get broken all the time, but we break them better when we know them to begin with.

What do I expect the reception to this particular conference to be? Golly … we put this thing together because MWPA kept hearing that the members wanted some mystery-specific focus from the organization. Whether or not — now that we’ve built it — they will come, remains to be seen. One thing I know after so many years in the business is that the mystery community really is a community. It’s generous and supportive and connected. And in my experience, quite uncompetitive compared with other areas of writing. Maybe two things contribute to that: First, we get to write all the badness out of our systems through the type of writing that we do. Second, despite the popularity of crime fiction, we’re used to being treated like second-class citizens because we write “genre” fiction and most of us have been asked, at one time or another, when we’re going to write a “real book.” So we band together.

Plus, how many other authors want to talk poisons and lividity and GSR and how many things “CSI” gets wrong per episode, never mind dissecting the liver and the use-of-force continuum?

Paul Doiron: Ultimately I believe that good writing is good writing. There are many works of crime fiction that I would rank with the best novels in literature. But every genre comes with certain formal expectations, too. Readers expect that at the end of a murder mystery, the murder will be solved. A writing conference is a chance for participants to talk about the craft of telling stories. We’re hoping that the Maine “Crime Wave” gives writers and readers a chance to focus on what makes crime fiction distinctive and how we can make our books more thought-provoking and entertaining.

Kathy Lynn Emerson: To answer the second part of the question first, I hope folks who attend will be encouraged to begin — or continue work on — that mystery novel they’ve always wanted to write. I’ve seen too many people over the years get discouraged and give up. Nothing ever saw print in a desk drawer, especially if it was never finished. As for being genre specific, there are characteristics distinct to each genre of popular fiction. Although there are cross-genre novels, in general a mystery has differences in structure and characterization from, say, a romance. Then, too, there are a good many subgenres within the mystery genre, more than enough ground to cover in a one-day conference without branching out into any other areas.

Q: Maine seems to have a relatively high population of writers. Do you think the state brings out the writers in people, or do writers gravitate toward Maine?

KLE: It’s probably a little of both. I’m told Maine has a mystique for people from away — one reason it’s so often the setting for novels. I certainly take my inspiration for the series I write as Kaitlyn Dunnett from living in a small town in the Western Maine mountains. And at this time of year, essentially snowed in for several months, I sure do get a lot of writing done.

KF: I think writers gravitate toward Maine. Maine has privacy, which we crave. Maine has characters, which we need. And Maine believes in leaving people alone. Plus it is gorgeous and has great visuals and food.

PD: Maine is a state that has always attracted artists and writers. You can go back to Frederic Church and Henry David Thoreau in the 19th century and see the pull the landscape had on creative people. Visitors come here and find themselves inspired. Long before sociologists were discussing the “creative economy,” Maine had communities of artistic and literary people who found this state a good place to do work.

Q: Maine is such a low-crime state. Why do you think there are so many crime writers here?

KLE: I suspect that, because we have fewer murders, those that do occur get more attention. So do crimes that are, for lack of a better word, unusual. I know I’ve been inspired by real cases more than once, although by the time I get through reimagining them in a cozy, small town setting, they are considerably changed. The mysteries I’ve written under my own name are historical, so they have a slightly different origin, but in the Diana Spaulding 1888 Quartet, two of the mysteries were set in Bangor and the crimes of the 1880s and how they were investigated had a huge influence on what I invented.

PD: My own theory — take it with a grain of salt — is that Maine just seems scarier than it is. People are fascinated by wild, dramatic places, and Maine has everything you want in a suspense story: fogbound islands, impenetrable forests, remote villages where everyone seems to be keeping a dark secret. The mystique is real, and readers looking for escapism don’t care whether the image lines up with the latest crime statistics. Of course, as a lifelong resident of the state, I’m glad to live in such a relatively safe place where most people treat each other with trust and respect.

 

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