Rejection–Part Two

Originally published on the Maine Crime Writers blog, May 5, 2012

I wrote earlier this week about how I’ve experienced the act of rejecting as an editor. Today I want to talk about how I’ve come to think about rejection from the other side, as a writer.

Honestly, haven’t handled it well. Which is hard for me to admit, because, like most people, I don’t like talking about things I’m not good at. Very bad at, in fact. But I’m getting better.

When I first submitted my book The Death of an Ambitious Woman, I got interest from multiple agents right away. But then it didn’t sell to a publisher. For long, agonizing months, it didn’t sell. My agent told me it was the end of the line.

I was crushed. I didn’t write for months and then I started two books, neither of which made it past the first hundred pages. I had plenty of excuses. The company I had co-founded had taken off. My children were adolescents with all the activities and angst that brings. I was busy. I was miserable.

My writers group was patient and supportive. I started writing again. Short stories at first because I’d fallen in love with Alice Munro, and because they fit with my life. And eventually, much later, another novel.

But I’d lost a lot of time and it was, writing-wise, if not life-wise, a dark passage.

I used to wonder why I could pitch a company, and if investors weren’t interested, shrug it off and think, “your loss,” but rejection of my writing was so devastating. “Writing is so much more personal,” people would say. I really don’t think that’s it. Writing is more solitary, but your life and your ideas and your work are all personal, no matter what you do.

I think it’s about confidence. Not confidence about whether you are good or bad. But confidence that “there’s more where that came from.” For those of us who squeeze writing around jobs and families, who spend months on stories and years on novels, each product can become invested, weighted, with such hopes and dreams, as if it is the only chance.

I’ve lost forty-five pounds in the last year. (Great, how did this happen? Now I’m writing about the two subjects I’m most uncomfortable about.) I did it, mostly, by shifting my mindset from one of deprivation to one of abundance. Before, I had to eat that cannoli now because soon —tomorrow, next week, next month, next year—I was going on a diet. But now I think, there will always be more cannoli. So eating that one may not be so critically important.

“There will always be more words,” a woman in my writers group used to cheerfully say when advised to rip out a scene, ditch a character, kill a setting. I embraced it up to a point. Actually up to that point—the scene, character, setting point.

Now I see that for your mental health, writers have to embrace that philosophy all the way up the line. I think it’s what gives some people the magic confidence that allows them to think, “You don’t like it. Your loss.” Because I’m going to be right back at you with something else.

So say it. Think it. Live it.

There will always be more ideas.

There will always be more characters.

There will always be more books.

There will always be more stories.

There will always be more words.

There will always be more cannoli.

P.S. It all turned out okay with The Death of an Ambitious Woman, by the way. When I reread it years later, I was glad it wasn’t published, amazed it got as far as it did. I roto-tilled it, and did get published. It’s not necessarily an example of the philosophy of abundance, since I perseverated on the same book. But I was younger then.

Did My Grandmother Pose for Norman Rockwell? The Answer

(Or reason number 6,400,057 why I love the World Wide Web)

Hi. Barb here.

Last month I wrote a blog post about my investigations into whether my grandmother had modeled for Norman Rockwell in the early 1920s.

Well, I think we got the answer!

One of the comments on that blog post said,

“Hello Barbara,

When you have a moment, please feel free to contact me concerning your grandmother and Norman Rockwell. I believe I have the information you’re seeking.

My best,

Robert Berridge
Norman Rockwell historian”

A bit of Googling showed that Robert Berridge was a known Rockwell expert. (For example, he served as a source for Laura Claridge’s 2003 biography Norman Rockwell: A Life). So I wrote him right back. Here’s his response.

“Good Friday morning Barb – happy to help.

After your Grandmother posed for C. Coles Phillips, she modeled for Mr. Rockwell in the following artwork…

* February 25, 1922 cover of the Literary Digest
* Raybestos ad featured in the March 4, 1922 Saturday Evening Post
* March 23, 1922 cover of Life Magazine

Please feel free to send additional information concerning Eleonore and her New Rochelle days.”

This is truly astonishing. Because it means that when I came around that corner at the Rockwell museum that day and thought I saw my grandmother, I actually did. Naturally, as a writer, I started thinking about how I would make this moment believable if it was in a book. The answer is that the first, wholistic impression, the one that takes in the attitude as well as the totality of the physical aspects is the right one. After that, the more you study it, the less sure you are.

March 23, 1922 Life Magazine cover, “Don’t Say I Said Anything.” My grandmother is on the left.

Here’s what I wrote back to Berridge about what I knew about my grandmother during those years.

“As for my grandmother’s New Rochelle days, I don’t know a lot. I think she would have been a junior at Smith college in 1922. Her family had moved to New Rochelle (Sea View Ave) when the suburbs opened up. She was the oldest in the family and always missed New York City–never quite made the switch. Her mother’s family were quite well-known interior designers–A. Kimbel & Son.”

I asked Mr. Berridge how he knew this was my grandmother, and this is what he said,

“Over the past forty years, I’ve conducted thousands of oral interviews, phone calls, letter writings and emails concerning the life and times of Norman Rockwell-a hobby that went out of control!  My archives are vast.

February 25, 1922 cover of Literary Digest, “The Master Violinist.” My grandmother’s face appears just under the bow.

In the mid 1980’s, I happened to interview a close friend of Mr. Rockwell’s in New Rochelle, NY – a behind the scenes Rockwell biographer of sorts.  In that interview, I received a treasure trove of information including that of your Grandmother Eleonore.


In November of 1921, Mr. Rockwell traveled to South America.  He started one sketch right before he left and two soon after he came back.  Your Grandmother’s name was given to me as the young woman who modeled for those sketches – the illustrations listed….”

Once I knew what I was looking for, I found the other covers easily on the web. They’re both well-known works. Some people believe the Life cover, “Don’t Say I Said Anything,” is emblematic of Rockwell’s life-long hatred of gossip and presages his much better known Saturday Evening Post cover, “The Gossips.” “The Master Violinist” was made into a Rockwell plate (plate like a dish, not plate as in printing) and depending on the condition and lighting, you can see her face much more clearly.

All of the artwork my grandmother appears in, both the C. Coles Philips pieces and the Rockwell ones, was published in a period of a few months between December, 1921 and March, 1922. I have no idea what lead times were like in publishing in those days, but it makes me wonder if my grandmother spent the summer between her sophomore and junior years in college modeling.

It must be noted here that Venus Van Ness, the archivist at the Rockwell Museum writes that there is no documentation to support the oral histories Berridge collected in this case.  Here’s her response.

“I spoke with Robert Berridge last week about your grandmother.  Based on the extensive oral histories that he has conducted with individuals connected with Rockwell, he determined that your grandmother was in fact a model for Rockwell.  He didn’t provide me with any real specifics or documentation, however, so that basically still leaves me at square one.

Unfortunately because the dates in question are so early in Rockwell’s career, it’s difficult to find supporting documentation.  One source that we rely on here are Rockwell’s check registers.  In many cases, the check stubs show us who modeled for Rockwell, the date(s), the particular work, as well as how much they were paid.  The problem is that these check registers only date back to 1937.  Additionally, the business correspondence collection that we have has very few items from the teens and twenties.

So, to make a long story short, I can’t confirm that grandmother was a model for Rockwell.  However, based on the dates, the fact that she lived in New Rochelle, and had worked as a model for other artists, makes it very possible.  At that time in Rockwell’s early career, he did employ professional models.  Your grandmother may very well have been one of them.

So sorry that I couldn’t be more definitive in my response.  Best of luck with your continued searching.”So there is still a leap of faith here, though a much tinier leap than before.

Did My Grandmother Pose for Norman Rockwell?

Originally published on the Maine Crime Writers blog, August 17, 2012

Hi. Barb here.

I’ve been having a Maggie Summer adventure. For those of you who haven’t read Lea Wait’s Shadows of a Down East Summer

Hey, why haven’t you? What are you waiting for?  Go buy it here. I’ll wait.

Okay, and we’re back. Anyway, in it, Lea’s protagonist Maggie Summer investigates a story about two girls who posed for Winslow Homer at Prouts Neck in the summer of 1890.

My grandmother. Publication unknown. Found this scrap in a box of family papers

A few weeks ago, my husband Bill and I took advantage of a talk I was doing at the (gorgeous) Lee Library in Lee, MA to spend a few days at the Red Lion Inn in the Berkshires. On the first day, we visited Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, which I totally recommend. We also saw King Lear at Shakespeare and Company, which was fantastic.

But when we went to breakfast on the second morning, the dining room was abuzz. We were traveling in that vacation news bubble and didn’t know that there’d been a fire overnight at a transformer recycling company in nearby Ghent, NY and everyone was urged to stay indoors and turn off their air conditioning.

So we scrapped our plans for the day and decided to revisit the Norman Rockwell Museum because it is, at least, indoors.

We’ve been before and I do love the place. I think Rockwell is a consummate story-teller. Even though I’ve seen it several times, I still teared up looking at “The Problem We All Live With,” just returned from being on loan to the Obama White House, both because of the subject of the painting, and because of what it meant for it to be hanging in this White House.

But after the main tour, I started poking around investigating something I’d wondered about for years. On a much earlier trip to the museum, I’d come around the corner in a exhibit on Rockwell’s early years in advertising and come face to face with…my grandmother. I was so startled, I think I even jumped.

Rockwell ad for Raybestos 1922. “Thinking about my kiddie.”

As a child, I’d overheard references to my grandmother modeling for Rockwell, but this was in the sixties when both Rockwell and my grandmother were still alive and the references were in the “Man, we should have held on to those pictures,” vein. I think honestly I only heard it once or twice and I wasn’t sure if the story was apocryphal. It made some sense, yes. Rockwell was working in New Rochelle, New York in the late teens and twenties, which is where my grandmother lived, but beyond that, who knew? I didn’t think to write down details about the drawing when I saw it at the museum or take a photo.

My grandmother on a Life Magazine cover by C. Coles Phillips, December 15, 1921

But then, a few years ago when I helped my parents move, I found a couple of other illustrations my grandmother had posed for. That seemed to put a little more meat on the bones of the story. So this summer while we were at the museum, I spent time looking through the catalog trying to find that picture and came up with several advertisements that might possibly be my grandmother. And when I got home, I went back to the scrapbook and looked up those other illustrations.

Both have notes on them in my grandmother’s distinctive handwriting that say, “Eleonore Taylor by Coles Phillips.”

C. Coles Phillips was a well known American illustrator who lived and worked in New Rochelle until he died tragically young in 1927 at age 47. He owned his own advertising agency where one of his first employees was his fellow art school student, Edward Hopper.

My grandmother, Eleonore Kimbel Taylor, in a Scranton Lace ad, by C. Coles Phillps, 1922

The first item in the scrapbook was a December 15, 1921 cover of Life Magazine. The “fadeaway” technique of having the outfit and background be the same color is something Phillips was known for. Once you know what you’re looking for, you can find these covers all over the web and I ordered copies for family members.

The second item was just a fragment, an ad for Scranton lace, but you can find the full ad on the internet and I ordered an original via ebay. As with the Life covers, Coles Phillips did a whole series of these ads. This one appeared in the Ladies Home Journal in February, 1922 when my grandmother would have been a junior at Smith College.

My grandfather, Richard Morrow Ross in a Lord Calvert whiskey ad, 1945

But did my grandmother pose for Rockwell? Why keep copies of the Phillips illustrations and not the ones by Rockwell? Of course, I never saw any of them out in her house.  Which is odd because the advertisement for Lord Calvert whiskey my grandfather posed for was always displayed. Maybe when I was growing up in the fifties and sixties, 1945 just seemed a lot closer to my grandparents than 1922 did. The drawing at the top of this post I found tucked in with her page from her high school yearbook.

I wrote to the archivist at the museum, Venus Van Ness (which should totally be a character name, don’t you think?). She said they do have some (scant) information on models and she would check. In the meantime, here are some contemporary photographs of my grandmother.

What do you think?

Note: Thanks to this post, I got an answer to my question, which I wrote about here.

Photo 1919
Photo 1919
Photo 1922
Photo 1925

Oh, the Sacrifices We Make for Art

Originally posted on the Maine Crime Writers blog on August 8, 2012

Hi. Barb here.

Most of the Maine Crime Writers have written about the things they must do to make their books feel believable. Paul, as we know, is a certified Maine Guide who also follows the doings of the Maine Warden Service closely. Paul Gerry has wandered the woods where his Jack McMorrow books take place Jim has researched both schizophrenia and post traumatic stress disorder . And we know Kate will go to any lengths to make sure both her true crime books and her police procedurals are accurate

Both Kaitlyn and Lea have written about the research and work that goes into their historical fiction. Sarah really does do all those home repairs And who knew Vicki‘s day job as a realtor was so dangerous?

So the time has come when I must sacrifice myself in the name of authentic, Maine crime writing. And I have been doing this by

–taking harbor cruises and eating lots of lobsters and steamers.

It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

My new series of Maine Clambake Mysteries is about a woman who leaves her Manhattan job as a venture capitalist to save her family’s failing clambake business. Her family offers a harbor cruise to a private island where guests are served a full Maine Clambake. (Yes, the food served at clambakes varies throughout the northeast United States, but a Maine Clambake always includes lobster.)

The series was “inspired” by an actual clambake. However, when I wrote the proposal, in October, I had never actually been on this excursion and it was too late in the year to go. My contract was signed in the winter, which I’m kind of glad about, since I had months to make up my family and my island and my clambake business, which are all, quite happily, distinct from the real one.

But you can imagine how excited I was when this summer rolled around and I was actually able to make the trip. I signed my husband and myself up for the first clambake of the year, which is fantastic because the first novel in the series, CLAMMED UP, starts on the first day of the season.

The real Cabbage Island Clambake

Everyone in the Moore family, who actually own the island and run the Cabbage Island Clambake, was very accommodating and answered my tons of questions, as did the captain of the boat that took us over and many of the employees. Like-

What’s the capacity of this boat? What kind of boat is it? How do you get the food out here? The wood? What happens to the trash? Where does your water come from? How long do you cook that? How many people work here? What would you do if you had a group of customers who were really causing problems?

I kept telling everyone that the fictional clambake business in my books would be portrayed in a very positive light (except of course for all the killings) which the family members seemed to find more amusing than reassuring. I think it had honestly never occurred to them that someone could see a happy day spent with family and friends eating lobster in a negative light.

It was also fantastic listening to the comments of the other diners and meeting the people who take the cruise.

Here’s the website for the real Cabbage Island Clambake–in case you want to go.

All and all, a hugely successful day. I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story.

We passed the Burnt Island Light on the way to the island. Harbor porpoises gamboled next to the boat.
The mixed hardwood for the clambake. (The clambake in my book is done a little differently.)
At 91, Mrs. Moore, the matriarch, still works in the little island gift shop.
Can you imagine being the island cat at the clambake?
My husband Bill is so supportive–anything for my art!

The Seafarer Inn

Originally published on the Maine Crime Writers blog, July 24, 2012

Hi. Barb here. I’m battling a deadline (sadly those scenes just don’t seem to write themselves) and found this post in my archives. I couldn’t resist sharing.

I’ve just returned from 10 days at the Seafarer Inn in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Sitting in one of the rocking chairs on the Inn’s wide front porch watching the sailboats glide across the harbor is one of my favorite things in the world.

The Seafarer

Your hostess at the Inn is my mother-in-law, Olga. Ignore the first name, which came from a novel her mother favored in the 1920s. Her maiden name, DiIanni, is much more meaningful. Like the Marchmains of Brideshead, the DiIannis of Olga’s generation are cursed with a dangerous charm, albeit in a version I like to think of as “Marchmain lite”—not quite the same taste levels, but also far less alcohol.

For almost 20 years, Olga has put the DiIanni charm to good use running The Seafarer as a Bed & Breakfast Inn. Often have a reserved mid-western couple hoping for a quiet night in Boothbay been surprised, after the communal breakfast and ritual picture taking, to find themselves enthusiastically hugging and kissing Olga good-bye on the big front porch, promising to come again.

Some guests go even further. Olga has a small but fanatical following who seem to like nothing better than to come, stay for several days, and do her chores for her. These guests arrive every year to wash the lawn furniture, pull the weeds, hang pictures and do other rounds of endless activity and then pay her for the privilege.

Olga and my kids on the front porch of The Seafarer, 1990

We, her children, have wondered about this for some time. Appropriate to its architecture, The Seafarer is decorated in the Victorian manner, which is to say that every available surface, either horizontal or vertical, is covered with—something. We gave up moving any of this stuff around long ago (except occasionally to clear off a chair so we can sit down), because we found that liberating any space at all only created an invitation to fill it up again. Therefore, we have often been mystified by the sudden appearance something like a heavy bureau in a third floor bedroom.

“Picked it up at the dump,” my mother-in-law will proudly explain. “Solid mahogany. Can you imagine someone getting rid something like this?”

“Perhaps it was someone who already had three or four bureaus per bedroom,” my husband will suggest, gazing around meaningfully.

“How does she even get this stuff in here?” he would hiss soon as she was out of earshot, imagining house elves or magic mice.

“I think,” I answered, “It’s the damn guests.

My suspicions were initially aroused when I answered the phone at the Inn one day. “Hi,” proclaimed the chipper voice at the other end. “It’s Steve. I was just calling to make my reservation.”

“When did you want to come, Steve?” I asked.

“Second week in October, the same as always.” Steve seemed a little offended that I wasn’t aware of this. “I come every year to see the foliage and put up the storm windows.”

The harbor

This year, I finally got the chance to catch the action first hand. While I was staying at the Inn, Al, Marsha and Miles O’Brien arrived from Peabody, Mass., for a two night stay. Olga actually closed the Inn two summers ago, but that has not stopped the most fanatical of the chore-doers from coming, even though now the place is now 100% amenity-less. For these people, making your own bed and breakfast at the Bed & Breakfast only adds to the appeal. I have to say that on the surface the O’Briens seemed like perfectly normal—even nice–people, though Miles was perhaps a bit more polite than the average adolescent dragged off to a Bed & Breakfast with no TV or internet by his well-meaning but clueless parents.

The minute they arrived, Al huddled with Olga about the to-do list. They inspected the property. He had ideas. Of course, so did she.

“Time for bed,” Al announced to his family immediately following dinner on the first night with all the anticipation normally reserved for a fishing trip or a cruise to Monhegan. “The hardware store opens at 6:00 a.m.!”

I came down the next morning to find Olga in the kitchen. “Where are Al and Marsha?” I asked.

“Marsha ran to the supermarket and Al is trimming the bushes,” she answered showing absolutely no awareness that these are not vacation activities–are, in fact, the very activities that most people go to a Bed & Breakfast to get away from.

The view from the porch

As I sat on the porch, sipping coffee and gazing at the boats in the harbor and occasionally at Al doing his Edward Scissorhands impression in the hedge, I thought I had the answer. “Ah,” I thought, “Al is one of those men who don’t know how to relax, who think puttering equals recreation.”

But Marsha put that notion to rest as soon as she returned. “I can’t get him to do a thing at home,” she said, gazing fondly at her husband who was sweating profusely while tangoing with a winsome rhododendron. “I have a to-do list and I have begged him and begged him to do just one thing on it.”

“Don’t you have to make your own bed in rehab?” my daughter Kate asked a little later. She was sitting in the rocker next to mine, painting her toenails and staring at Al, who appeared to be covered in small cuts, and, along with his hedge-clippers, was now so entangled in a lilac bush he looked like he was battling a giant squid. Kate’s furrowed brow told me she, too, was trying to understand the O’Briens.

“Yeah,” I answered, “but I think that only does something for people who are so addled they can’t make their beds at home.”

That night, Marsha reminisced at dinner. “The first time we came here was the week you opened. We were on our honeymoon. I helped you hang the curtains in the living room.”

“Is that so?” Olga replied politely.

Frankly, Marsha seemed a little hurt that Olga couldn’t remember this, but really, so many guests, so many chores…

Later, we looked at through the photo albums (assembled by guest Jeanine Weinstein, 1994-2002) trying to find pictures of the O’Briens on that fateful visit. We came up empty, though we did find snaps of the year they stained the deck.

View of the house from the water

I never did unlock the mystery of why people come to work and pay money to Olga for the privilege. Maybe it’s that deadly DiIanni charm. Or maybe their parents live far away, or are gone, and these guests want to remember what it’s like to spend a weekend doing annoying tasks with poor tools and an irritating level of supervision. Or maybe they want not so much rehab as “hab,” that feeling of satisfaction that comes from helping someone who needs the skills you have and the time you can give, and who provides friendship and connection in return.

Whatever it is, it doesn’t speak to me. I sat on the porch and finished reading my book.

A Writing Retreat in Old Orchard Beach, Maine

Originally published on the Maine Crime Writers blog, June 6, 2012

Hi. Barb here. Just back from an amazing, productive and restorative writing retreat in Old Orchard Beach, Maine.

When I announced that I had sold a new series (see that blog post here), I explained the integral role my agent John Talbot of the Talbot Fortune Agency and Sisters in Crime New England had in its creation and sale. What I didn’t say at the time was that three other fabulous New England authors had participated in the same process and also sold their series.

Last weekend, one of the authors, Jessie Crockett, invited us to her beach house for a fantastic weekend of writing, writing, writing, great food, wine, wine, wine and of course, staying up too late and talking, talking, talking. Talking about our books, the publishing industry and sharing our hopes and dreams.

Here are my fellow authors and their series.

Jessie Crockett

Our hostess, Jessie Crockett‘s first book, LIVE FREE OR DIE, won the Daphne DuMaurier Award for Excellence in Mystery and has basically never been off the Amazon Kindle Store’s top 100 women sleuth‘s list since its publication. Here’s the announcement about her new series.

“Daphne DuMaurier Award for Excellence in Mystery Award winner Jessie Crockett’s DRIZZLED WITH DEATH, TAPPING TROUBLE, and BOILED DOWN TO MURDER, a new series of Maple Syrup Mysteries set in rural Sugar Grove, NH, starring a fourth generation syrup maker and recipes, to Berkley.”

Edith Maxwell

Writing as Tace Baker, Edith Maxwell‘s first book, SPEAKING OF MURDER, will be published by Barking Rain Press this September. Here’s the announcement for her new series.

“Former Five Star Organic Farm owner Edith Maxwell’s A TINE TO LIVE, A TINE TO DIE, TILL DIRT DO US PART, and MURDER BY RUTABAGA, a new series of Local Foods Mysteries featuring a novice farmer and a colorful group of mystery-solving locavores, as well as lots of recipes, to Kensington.”

Liz Mugavero

Liz Mugavero‘s new series will be her first novel length fiction publication. Here’s her announcement.

“Liz Mugavero’s KNEADING TO DIE, DIGGING FOR DEATH, and MEOWING FOR MURDER, ‘Pawsitively Organic’ Gourmet Pet Food Mysteries set in a storybook New England town and featuring a gourmet pet food chef and her Maine coon cat, to Kensington.”

Barbara Ross

If you read this blog regularly, you know about me. Here’s the announcement about my new series.

“President of Sisters in Crime New England chapter Barbara Ross’s CLAMMED UP, BOILED OVER, and MUSSELED OUT, a new series of Clambake Mysteries set in coastal Maine and featuring a woman and her family clambake business, including recipes for such delicious treats as Snowden Family Blueberry Grunt and Snowden Family Clambake Clam Chowder, to Kensington.”

The retreat was also a mini-reunion for Edith, Liz and me. We attended the Seascape Writers Retreat together in 2009–an experience I totally recommend.

John Talbot will be one of the agents at The New England Crime Bake this year. One of many, many reasons to attend! But hurry. Registration’s only been open a month and the conference is already 3/4 full.

A huge thank you to Jessie for making this wonderful weekend possible. I just love the New England mystery-writing community!

Hard at work. Notice the placement of the wine bottle

A Wedding in Portland, Maine

Originally posted on the Maine Crime Writers blog, June 19, 2012

Hi. Barb here. On May 19, a group of people gathered on a hill with a stunning view of Portland Head Light for a very special wedding ceremony.The weather was perfect–not always a given for Maine in mid-May, and if ever there were two people who deserved a beautiful day, it was this bride and groom–Briana and Nick.

Kate and Briana in first grade

Briana and my daughter Kate have been best friends since childhood. Who knows what magic chemistry draws one person to another, especially when we’re very young? From the first week of nursery school Kate and Briana played together. They went to daycare and dancing school together, bopped in and out of each others’ houses, were harassed by each others’ big brothers, and vacationed at each others’ grandparents’. Throughout elementary school, they had plenty of other friends, but it was understood by everyone that they shared a special bond.

Middle school and high school are so often the time when these early friendships grow distant. Kate and Briana travelled on the periphery of each other’s crowds, but somehow, defying the odds I think, stayed close friends. They toured colleges together, but in the end made different choices. Kate went off to UNH and Briana to UMass Amherst.

Kate and Briana at their senior prom

I still remember, vividly, the day Kate, home from college, stood at the top of the stairs in our house and told me Briana’s mother, Michele, had ovarian cancer. “Oh, Mom,” she wept, “Michele is so sick.” Over the next few years, Michele continued to pursue life with the openness to people and experiences that were always a part of her character, but both the disease and its treatment took their toll. Briana left college to care for her.

Kate graduated in 2006 and moved home. It was time for her to go out into the world, and yet, she didn’t. Normally, I would have been worried and nagging, but I, too, could tell it wasn’t time for Kate to go. That summer, Kate moved into Michele’s house for the last three weeks of her life, and stayed with Briana while she and a dedicated group of family, friends and professionals cared for her mother. During Michele’s illness, I’d watched Briana mature beyond her years, but sometimes you don’t know what your own kid has in her.

Kate and Briana at Briana’s wedding

In the last days of her life, Michele and I had a conversation. I talked about how she’d always raised her kids to be independent, self-reliant and resilient, and how well that was going to serve them now. She agreed. She said she knew things had been tough for them during her illness and would be tougher after she was gone, but Michele truly believed her kids were going to be okay.

Briana returned to school and both she and her new husband Nick are in the healthcare field. I believe their career choices are fitting because they both have a special capacity for caring. And by one of those weird coincidences in life, Nick is a very distant relative of my husband’s-so Briana and Kate are thrilled that they’re at last related.

Alfredo and Michele at Briana’s wedding

Both Michele and Nick’s late father, Alfredo, who also died too young, were a palpable presence at the wedding. It was impossible not to think about how proud Michele would have been of the fine young men her sons have become, and of her daughter, the beautiful bride.  My husband and I sat at a table with Michele’s friends where we talked about how, just like Michele, Briana fills her life with interesting people and remains fiercely loyal to them. There were people at the reception from every part of Briana’s life.

It was an honor and a privilege to be with Briana and Nick on their special day. I think they know that Bill and I, and every person there, wish for them nothing but the best.

Whoopie pies instead of wedding cake, perfect for a Maine wedding.

Rejection–Part One

Originally posted on the Maine Crime Writers blog, May 1, 2012

Rejection is part of every writer’s life.  Not the good part, I would add, but a part. I’ve been wanting to write about it for awhile, because it’s something I feel like I’ve learned a little about over the past many years, but I it’s also an area where I feel I’m still learning.

One of the ways I’ve learned about rejection is by being an editor at Level Best Books.  Just as we often have insights into our own writing when we’re editing someone else’s work, I’ve learned something about rejection from rejecting. So today, I’m going to look at what I’ve learned about rejection from the outside in—as an editor.  And I’ll look at how I’ve experienced rejection from the inside out, as a writer, in my next post.

When I first started writing, I was aware, as everyone is, about the fantastically bad odds of having any single story or novel accepted for publication. But for some reason, in my head, I thought that most of what was getting rejected was probably dreck. I figured, once they get rid of the 90% of awful, it’s a race among the remaining 10% as to what actually gets bought.

But that hasn’t been my experience at Level Best at all. Let’s look at the pile of stories we get every year.

Let’s say they are a hundred stories submitted.  There are actually more, this year it looks like a lot more, but round numbers are helpful. And let’s say we’re looking to fill 20 open slots—which is typical.

Roughly 10% of what we get actually is awful. Awful to the point where you wonder why people put postage on it. Wrong genre, wrong word count. Written with crayon on paper covered with drool.  But honestly, this a tiny percentage of our submissions.

The next 20% will typically be beautifully written character studies that go nowhere, or plot-twisters in which amazing things happen to people we care nothing about. In some ways these are the most heartbreaking because they are usually by the least experienced writers and we are always looking for that new voice. But these stories often have such great raw energy and show so much imagination that you just know that if the author keeps working and developing, he or she is going to be really good one day.

The next 20% are stories that suffer from what I call premature submission. They’re heartbreaking, too, because you know if the author had held onto the story for just a couple more days, he could have filled that plot-hole, fixed that inconsistency or tightened that scene. We don’t have time to do any developmental editing, but it is always sorely tempting to do so in these cases. These are good stories from good writers.

So then we’re done. We’ve eliminated 50% of what was submitted. But we still have 50 good stories and 20 slots to fill. Now we’re faced with trying to put a book together. We need long stories and short stories, dark and light. We need some established authors who we know can help us sell copies (after all, we don’t want to just print your story, we want to get it into the hands of readers) and we always include a few first pubs. We need male and female authors from each of the six New England states. When people used to ask me how to improve their odds of getting into the anthology, I would say, “Move to Rhode Island,” but this year we had several excellent submissions from the Ocean State so I need a new joke.

And remember, there are four of us. While I think the world would be a better place if everyone shared my taste, sadly it is not so. I’ve done this long enough now that I’ve seen stories I loved get great reviews and award nominations. And I’ve seen stories another editor loved and fought for, that I was kind of meh about get great reviews and nominations. We editors have been together long enough we mostly agree, but if another editor is fighting hard for a story, I’ve learned to listen. And that often means something I love has to go.

So here’s what I want you to take from this, if, like me, you are scribbling away at home, wondering if you are crazy.

  • 50% of the stories we get we would very happily publish. We have to turn down 30+ stories that we love.
  •  70% of the stories we get are good stories. Really good stories. Some may need a little more time or care, but they all have the potential to be really good.
  • 90% of the stories we get are from people who either are now, or could potentially be really good writers.

So when we say, “we can’t use your story this year,” it means exactly that. It doesn’t mean, “You’re a talentless hack.” It doesn’t mean you should take to your bed, or take up macramé, or take cyanide.

So that’s what I’ve learned from being an editor.  Really, really good stuff gets rejected. For all kinds of reasons. I don’t know if you find that encouraging or discouraging, but it’s certainly helped me.

David Hockney

Originally published on Maine Crime Writers blog, April 19, 2012

In 1975 at the end of a long post-college tour of Europe, I came around a corner in the Tate (now Tate London) and was stopped in my tracks by a painting. It grabbed my attention so aggressively; I literally rocked back onto my heels. It had been a long, art-filled trip, yet I remember this painting and my reaction to it as if it were yesterday. The painting was David Hockney’s double portrait Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy.

Sixteen years later, on my husband’s and my fifteen-year-delayed-honeymoon, or first real, no kids trip (take your pick), I was eager to show him the painting that had taken my breath away. But its room in the Tate was closed for repairs. I was brokenhearted and cranky for the rest of the day.

So, when I realized that our trip to London this year to visit our grad student daughter would coincide with the tail-end of an exhibit of Hockney’s Yorkshire landscapes at the Royal Academy, I was all over it. The exhibit was so popular, our tickets were for 10:30 p.m. on a Tuesday.

I’d seen some of the early Yorkshire landscapes before. In fact, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston had an exhibit of them in 1998 and owns one. But nothing prepared me for what I saw at the Royal Academy.

Back in England after decades in Los Angeles, Hockney is fascinated by the changing seasons in his native Yorkshire. The pictures are big and bold and amazing. I’m so sorry these images don’t do them justice.

One room is filled entirely with paintings Hockney did on an iPad. Hockney has always been fascinated by the technology artists have used through history to solve challenges. He points out that to the cave painters who used sticks and fingers, a brush would represent technology. The problem he is solving with the iPad is one of time, light and change. He wanted to do a study of the same spot in the woods from its winter awakening through full spring. But in northern Europe, time was against this. The light changed every hour and coming back at the same time everyday was not a solution because the scene itself changed every few days. Drawing rapidly on the iPad solved this problem, and when printed, created an incredible group of canvases.

Staring that these beautiful pictures, I kept thinking, this man is seventy-five years old. I have writer friends who throw up their hands when Facebook adds a feature.

How do the David Hockney’s happen? How does it all come in one person? The hand, the eye, the intellect, the drive, the curiosity, the risk-taking, the imagination? It seems impossible, but thank God, it does happen.

I used my reaction to Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy in my novel The Death of an Ambitious Woman. The victim’s husband is a sculptor, and here is the passage from the scene when the protagonist, Acting Police Chief Ruth Murphy, sees his enormous sculptures for the first time.

“But it wasn’t the architecture that seized Ruth’s attention. Rising from the floor, in some cases almost to the ceiling, were five pieces of sculpture. Ruth wasn’t much for modern art, but her response was immediate, visceral. She felt as if she’d been punched in the chest. The twisted hulks were abstract, but were, unmistakably, dinosaurs. Their frozen postures were so real; the immense beasts seemed about to break free and resume lives interrupted long ago. Each piece displayed an intense emotion. Ruth clearly understood their rage, terror, hunger, even the strutting self-satisfaction of the crested duckbill. The vitality of the sculptures was stunning, especially as Stephen Kendall had portrayed it, shot through with decay. The dinosaur’s gleaming outer skin melted away in spots, revealing torn canvas, jumbled wires, and quick glimpses of jutting metal frames. Even as the beasts ruled the earth, rot was in them, on them, the specter of extinction already present.”

At the end of the scene, the husband’s art dealer says to Ruth, “You know, I envy you today. You only get to see them for the first time, once.”

Because isn’t that what we all want from art? To be stopped in our tracks? To leap to our feet after a performance as if an unseen force has grabbed us by the collar? To close a book and cry because it’s over and we’ll never again live in its world the same way? To know, that your life has been forever changed.

Reading Agatha Christie’s secret notebooks

Originally posted on the Maine Crime Writers blog, on March 2, 2012

I’ve been reading Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran. This fascinating book, which won the Agatha Award for best non-fiction in 2011 and was nominated for an Edgar, contains the first detailed analysis of the seventy-three notebooks Dame Agatha left behind.

It’s an interesting and instructive read for a writer. For one thing, the notebooks are not dated and the writing in them is not sequential. Curran calls Christie’s use of the notebooks “utterly random,” in the sense that she usually had about a half dozen going at once and would grab the one that was nearest at hand, find a blank page (even if it was one between two filled pages) and begin to write. She wrote in them back to front, then front to back, and in the war years when paper was rationed, sideways. And while publication dates can be guideposts for some of the pages, notes for books, stories and plays never written or completed are impossible to date.

In addition, during Christie’s most prolific years (roughly 1930-1950), Curran describes her handwriting as “almost indecipherable.” As she grew older, she seems to have attempted to slow down and she may be one of the few people whose handwriting improved with age.

Curran writes that Christie, “thrived mentally on chaos, it stimulated her more than neat order; rigidity stifled her creative process.” I think there is a certain aspect to fiction writing where the exercise is imposing order on a world of chaos and possibility. Nonetheless, Christie’s “process” (which she refused to see or label as such) sort of blows my mind.

What is in the notebooks: Lots of sketched ideas and lists of possibilities. Ideas may be things like, “dangerous drugs stolen from car,” “Old lady in train variant—girl is with her—later is offered a job in the village—takes it.” Some of these ideas turn up in several notebooks covering years, as she works them and reworks them, trying to find the right angle, the right mystery and the right way to tell the story. Some pages have lists that appear to be a brainstorming of story ideas.

Other lists are her way of working out plots, “Miss S going to dentist,…H.P in waiting room—shoe buckle—loose—annoys him.” In some cases, she’ll rework these lists over and over again, looking for the twist, the sequence, the clues. As someone who was just moaning that I never start with the ending or the twist, seeing these lists from the foremost mistress of plot was heartening.

And all of this is mixed in with lists of Christmas gifts to buy, things to take to her summer home in Devon and notes about books her publishers had asked her to blurb. In other words, with daily life.

What you don’t see in the notebooks: detailed character back stories and bios, author “interviews” with a character, etc. The greatest criticisms of Christie are usually about her lack of characterization. In fact, she relies on our own prejudices about certain types of characters to help fool us.

Curran attributes Christie’s popularity to four characteristics. Readability, the “ability to make readers continue from the top to the bottom of the page and then turn that page,” Plotting, Fairness, and Productivity. Her prodigious output includes detective novels, non-crime novels, short stories, plays for the theatre and for radio and the creation of not one but two famous detectives.

I’ve always been a Christie lover, and always will be. I recently re-read several Marples, and was thrilled to find not only do they stand up, they draw a fascinating portrait of a certain type of English life as it evolves through 20th century. When my friend Julie Hennrikus wrote her masters thesis on Christie at Harvard, she wondered if she should include an introduction justifying her choice of subject. Her advisor said, “No one who is read more than forty years after their death has to be justified.”

Curran recently published a second volume from the notebooks called Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making, which analyzes the way Christie challenged and changed the conventions of mystery novels. I look forward to reading it.