by Barb. Still mostly at home with the whole knee thing. But then, being stuck at home is good for the writing.
I first met Maine author Brenda Buchanan at Crime Bake, though I’d known who she was for awhile before that because she was on the board of the fabulous Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. In April, Brenda’s first Joe Gale Mystery, Quick Pivot was released. And just two weeks ago, Cover Story, the second in the series debuted. So we thought it was time to have Brenda around for a visit here at Wicked Cozys World HQ.
Here’s the skinny on Cover Story:
Maine newspaper reporter Joe Gale is at his best when covering the crime beat for the Portland Daily Chronicle. In the dead of winter he heads Downeast to cover the murder trial of fisherman Danny Boothby, charged with burying a filleting knife in the chest of politically well-connected social worker Frank O’Rourke.
O’Rourke held a thankless job in a hard place. Many locals found him arrogant, but say he didn’t deserve to die. Others whisper that O’Rourke got himself killed through his own rogue behavior.
After Joe’s hard-nosed reporting provokes someone to run him off an isolated road, he realizes his life depends on figuring out not only who committed the murder, but who’s stalking him—O’Rourke’s prominent brother, friends or enemies of the dead social worker or members of Boothby’s family. As he digs deeper, Joe uncovers enough secrets and lies to fill a cemetery. He’ll have to solve this one fast, or his next headline may be his own obituary
Barb: All the Wickeds write at least one series set in New England. I’m very interested in the idea of a New England voice. How do you think being a New Englander and writing a series set in Maine where you now live influences your writing?
Brenda: Being a New Englander has enormous influence on my work. I grew up in the central Massachusetts mill town of Fitchburg. I studied journalism at Northeastern University, and was fortunate to be able to spend my co-op terms learning about journalism in the newsroom at the Boston Globe. I’ve lived and worked in Maine for the past 35 years, twelve of them year-round on an island in Casco Bay. So the New England cadence comes through in my writing. That’s true both with my narrative voice, and the voices of my characters.
For example, in Cover Story, my newspaper reporter protagonist Joe Gale is covering a trial in Machias, 40 miles from the Canadian border. He shares the courtroom’s front bench with a pair of elderly spectators, twin sisters Arlette and Truelette Peabody. After a few days, they’ve become friendly enough for the Peabody sisters to invite Joe for after-court refreshments at their home:
I headed back toward the courthouse with the intention of finding a sheriff’s department clerk to dig the police report about the May 22 bait truck accident out of the files, but was intercepted by the Peabody sisters, who had tea on their mind. Tea with me.
“We understand you need to meet a deadline, but our house is right around the corner, and the judge did adjourn early today,” Trulette said.
“It will be a little civilized break,” Arlette added. “And I make a potent cup of Darjeeling.”
I was caffed out, but court had adjourned at three twenty, leaving plenty of time before my deadline, so we proceeded to the Peabody ancestral home. From the outside it murmured old New England. Center chimney. White clapboards. Black shutters flanking six-over-six windows.
As was local custom, we entered through the side door. After shucking our shoes onto a plastic boot tray, we shuffled in stocking feet into a large square kitchen with an antique stove radiating steady heat in the corner. While Trulette put the kettle on to boil, Arlette shoveled two scoops of pea coal into the stove’s top hatch, then bent and shook the accumulated ash into the bottom pan, moving with the easy rhythm of someone who’d fed a coal stove her whole life.
If you’re a New Englander, you know these women. Perhaps they’re your aunt, or maybe your high school English teacher. They are as Maine as a Moxie ice cream float, and an important part of the emotional architecture of Cover Story.
In Quick Pivot, the first in the Joe Gale series, every third chapter takes the reader back to 1968. Those chapters are written in the third-person voice of Paulie Finnegan, Joe Gale’s now-deceased mentor, who was a young reporter in the sixties. I had a great time writing the dialogue in those chapters, because I worked with reporters like Paulie when I was a journalist in Boston and Maine. Smart and savvy, working class, a bit of a wiseass, but sentimental beneath the surface. In this scene Paulie’s on a jaunt with a source named Jay Preble to Old Orchard Beach (a place I understand is near and dear to the Wickeds):
They drove south as far as Old Orchard, a beachfront town that oozed fryolator grease from its pores. The main drag was lined with tourist emporiums—places that sold sweatshirts, cotton candy and inflatable balls—many of which were open but doing little business. Not so the bars.
Preble steered them to a waterfront joint where they ate fried clams and drank beer for a couple of hours before moving to a bar where a rougher crowd was pounding down booze as though it were Saturday instead of Sunday. They switched from beer to whisky while Paulie worked his way up the list of guys waiting to take on the resident darts champ, a scrawny man named Bo with hard eyes and a cigarette dangling from his lip.
Neither Preble nor Bo knew that Paulie held the all-time darts title at the South Portland Coast Guard base, capable of throwing with either hand, dead drunk or Sunday school sober. But they found out. By the time Preble dumped Paulie at his doorstep in Riverside, it was after eleven and he still had thirty fresh bucks in his wallet. Their bar bill had eaten the rest of what he’d won.
Barb: Your protagonist, Joe Gale, is a reporter and you were once a journalist as well. I’ve always wondered, how are the skills journalists develop applicable to writing a novel, and how are they a hindrance that must be unlearned or overcome? What was the best, most important thing you learned as a journalist?
Brenda: Most important? Not to fear the blank page. When I settle in to write I’m kind of like a musician sitting down at the piano. I tap out a few words, riff around a little, and pretty soon I’m pounding out a tune. It’s not always good music, mind you, but I’m not one suffer blank page paralysis. For better or worse, my experience as a reporter taught me to jump right in.
It was important to break myself of the notion that I was writing to deadline. A journalist must submit to her editor the best story she can write in the time allowed. A novelist needs to take however much time is necessary to write a story worthy of submission. Big difference there.
One habit I had to resurrect was the daily writing routine. When you’re a reporter, that’s a given. It took me a little while to realize that writing fiction was going to demand the same daily commitment to the keyboard. When I decided eight or nine years ago to take a crack at writing a novel, my routine varied with my energy level. If I’d had a hectic day at work, I’d give myself a slide on writing that night. That meant I never got in the groove, and found myself endlessly fussing around with the first chapter. It was only when I committed myself to write two pages a night minimum, no matter what, that my first book began to take shape. That book, by the way, was Cover Story, the second book in the Joe Gale series. Like many first efforts, it needed a lot of cooking time.
Barb: In April, you crossed the line from unpublished to published author when, Quick Pivot, the first book in the Joe Gale series, was released. What is the most surprising thing that’s happened since then?
Brenda: I have been delighted by how much I enjoy going to libraries and book groups to talk about my books and crime writing in general. I thought that would be a nerve-wracking experience, but it’s turned out to be the opposite. A colleague offered some wise advice before my first appearance—folks who go out of their way to meet authors make for a dream audience. They’re dedicated readers, she said. They want to like you and your work. Those words were like magic. They set my mind at ease.
Because my publisher is digital-first, the many wonderful bookstores in Maine are not available venues for me at this time. But libraries and book groups are a great fit. If any readers of this blog would like me to visit their local library or come (in person or by Skype) to hang out with their book group, they can contact me through my website, http://brendabuchananwrites.com
Barb: What are you working on now?
Brenda: I’m in the middle of copyedits for Truth Beat, the third book in the Joe Gale Series. It’s about the suspicious death of a Catholic priest who was well-known as a tireless advocate for victims of clerical sexual abuse. Set in the imaginary town of Riverside with scenes in Portland, Bangor and Bethel, Truth Beat will be out in February, 2016.
Thanks for inviting me to chat with the Wickeds today, Barb. I hope we can keep the conversation going in the comments.
What do you think, readers? Is there a New England regional voice? Is there a particular voice in your corner of the country or the world?