Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Brenda Buchanan: There are Places I Remember...

Breaking News! Congratulations to our own Hank Phillippi Ryan for 2(!) Anthony nominations!
Hallie Ephron: It's always a special pleasure when a writer we've gotten to know through Jungle Red publishes a debut novel, and today it gives me great pleasure to turn the "mike" over to Brenda Buchanan whose novel Quick Pivot was just released by Carina Press.

I've had the pleasure of reading it, and she sets part of it on my favorite Maine Island (Peaks!)

Take it away, Brenda!

BRENDA BUCHANAN: Thank you, Hallie, for inviting me to Jungle Reds today to chat about Quick Pivot. It’s the first in the Joe Gale series, featuring a contemporary newspaper reporter covering Maine’s crime beat.

At its core, Quick Pivot is about a 1968 murder that remains unsolved for more than four decades. Before I wrote the first word, I knew that on page one, a long-dead body would be found in a defunct textile mill. In my writer’s mind, the mill looks something
like this.

I also knew the story would move back and forth between the late 1960s and the present day. And while it was clear the story would take place near Portland, that lovely city by the sea would not have worked as the primary setting for Quick Pivot. The central events in my book—especially the murder—had to unfold in a smaller, grittier community, someplace in upscale Portland’s shadow.

Westbrook, where I live, would have been a logical choice. Located just west of Portland, it has a proud industrial past and is the right size to make the everybody-knows-everybody aspect of Quick Pivot’s plot believable. But it is a delicate thing to kill someone on the page in a real town, especially when the fictional murder causes economic and personal pain to reverberate through the community for years to come.

Because it would have felt wrong to do that to Westbrook, I invented Riverside, an on-its-way-back mill town populated by folks with long memories.

However, all of the secondary settings in Quick Pivot are realPortland, Peaks Island, Cape Elizabeth and Kennebunkport among them. Readers familiar with Southern Maine will find landmarks they know and love when reading the scenes set in these places.

One of my favorites occurs at Crescent Beach in Cape Elizabeth, in a picnic grove perfumed by beach roses. Since writing that chapter I cannot go to Crescent Beach without strolling past the spot where newspaper reporter Paulie Finnegan and his lover Joan Desmond had an explosive conversation in the early summer of 1968. This is how it looked on the late-April day I was writing this post. Spring still is making its way north, so you have to imagine the beach roses.

Several key scenes also take place on Peaks Island, the Portland neighborhood where I lived for a dozen years. Brave, vulnerable Helena Desmond fled to Peaks shortly after her brother disappeared in 1968, and it’s been her safe haven ever since. The passages that occur at Helena’s home in the middle of a spruce forest wrote themselves, because I know so well the slant of the afternoon sun in that beautiful place, and the birdsongs that fill the air at dusk.
Cape Porpoise is an iconic village within the town of Kennebunkport where I lived when, like my protagonist Joe Gale, I was a newspaper reporter. I had a blast writing about Joe taking a retired State Police detective out for supper at a clam shack at the Cape Porpoise Pier, plying him with lobster stew to find out what went on behind the investigative scenes 46 years earlier.

Another restaurant—one I’d driven by a thousand times but had never visited—also wound up in Quick Pivot. I needed a place for a cop and a reporter to hold a surreptitious meeting on a hot summer night in 1968. After doing some research, the obvious choice was an Italian restaurant that's been in continuous operation on the edge of Scarborough Marsh since the1950s.

Because it was one of those rare scenes that required almost no revision, the restaurant became associated with my hope for Quick Pivot. My spouse and I made a pact—if I sold the book, we’d go there to celebrate.

Stepping through the door for the first time last September, I found my intuition about the place had been spot on. I could almost see Paulie Finnegan and Tom MacMahon sitting in a booth with a view of the door, one of them smoking, the other asking questions that had to be asked.
I ordered what they did—Johnny Walker Black and a steak, medium rare.

It was fabulous.

So, Reds, do you prefer real settings or made-up towns? If you read or write stories set in real places, do those scenes fill your head each time you pass by? What rituals to you have for celebrating your accomplishments?
Quick Pivot is available in digital format wherever ebooks are sold. Here’s a plot summary:
In 1968, a cunning thief skimmed a half a million dollars from the textile mill that was the beating heart of Riverside, Maine. Sharp-eyed accountant George Desmond discovered the discrepancy, but was killed before he could report it. After stashing the body, the thief-turned-killer manipulated evidence to make it appear Desmond skipped town with the stolen money, ruining his good name.

In 2014, veteran journalist Joe Gale is covering a story for the Portland Daily Chronicle when a skeleton falls at his feet: Desmond’s bones have been found a basement crawl space at the long-shuttered mill. For Joe, digging into the past means retracing the steps of his now-deceased mentor, Paulie Finnegan. The same people who bird-dogged Paulie four decades ago are watching Joe now. As he closes in on the truth, his every move is tracked, and the murderer proves more than willing to kill again.


  1. Congratulations, Brenda . . . I'm looking forward to reading "Quick Pivot."

    I don't think I have a preference between real and made-up towns for story settings. But I do find myself "looking" for places mentioned in stories that use real places for their settings.
    As for celebrating accomplishments, champagne is always nice . . . .

  2. Such great news that your book is out, Brenda! I'm looking forward to reading it, especially since I don't live far from those places.

    My two books set in a fictionalized Ipswich often confuse me - I wanted to go have a croissant at Irene's Bakery - except I made it up! I set an exciting scene in the real Choate Bridge Pub - and whenever I eat there now I imagine that scene going down.

  3. thrilled for you Brenda! I have the book on my ipad and can't wait to read it!

    I like the real places and will enjoy the settings you've described, as I have in-laws living in Cape Elizabeth! But I totally get your decision not to use your own town. Pretty soon Key West will be getting tired of my murders:)

    wishing you many sales!

  4. I guess I split the difference... I usually make up the place name but use a real place for all the details to anchor it in my head. That's a lot easier than making up the geography and details.

    Brenda's Riverside is an utterly convincing fictional corner of Maine.

    My new novel takes place in Beverly Hills in the '60s and the '80s -- and most of the details I had to get out of my head or from old pictures and maps on the Web, because nothing stays the same in Southern California!

  5. And I've got to ask, what is it like living on a tiny island in the middle of Casco Bay year round?? I can barely imagine it.

  6. Brenda - Congratulations!! Quick Pivot sounds fabulous, and I look forward to reading it.

  7. congratulations, looking forward to reading your book. The fictional Ohio town of my books is based on a real town where we lived twenty years ago, but I changed all the place names.

  8. SO fabulous! I am bursting with happiness for you..this only happens once in a lifetime!

    Hmmm…I like real places, with imaginary bits. So my books are in Boston, clearly, but in the acknowledgments I say--savvy readers will see I have toyed a bit with the geography… Because I don't want to kill people at the Copley Plaza, you know?

    Still I see why you did it--and "realistic MAine town" is so evocative, it works beautifully!

    YAY !!!

  9. Thank you, Joan, for your good wishes. When I've read a book with a strong setting based on a real place, I also look for the inspirational spots.

    Edith, it was wonderful to see you at Malice - thank you for your good wishes. Your Irene's is like my Riverside Rambler, a place I'd love to be able to stop in for a bite to eat.

  10. Lucy/Roberta, I did not know you had in-laws living in Cape Elizabeth. I hope you (and perhaps they) especially enjoy the scene at Crescent Beach.

    In my second book my reporter travels downeast to Machias to cover a murder trial, so even imaginary Riverside won't become the murder capital of Maine.

  11. Welcome Brenda and hearty congratulations! I'm all in favor of fictional places and absolutely understand your decision not to use your own home town.... Now between Brenda and Julia, I'm keen to plan a Maine summer vacation — but without the murder, please.

  12. Hallie, living on Peaks Island year-round could be a book in itself (and perhaps I will write it one day).

    Aside from the natural beauty, which takes on a whole new dimension in the off season, there is a special intensity to relationships.

    There are a lot of quirky people, which is mostly seen as a good thing. People know pretty much everything that is happening in your life. It's a fishbowl. But for the most part, that deep knowledge manifests itself in a positive, supportive way.

    We have lived on the mainland for seven-plus years now, but I still think of Peaks as my home.

  13. Thank you, Kaye and Margaret, for your good wishes!

  14. Congratulations, Brenda!

    I do enjoy reading books set in places I'm familiar with. I can be happy reading about a "real" place being disguised with a different name.

    Your mystery sounds exciting, and I look forward to reading it. And thanks, JRW, for introducing me to so many new authors over the years!

  15. Congrats, Brenda! This sounds like a winner.

    I write a mix of real places and made-up. The cities and streets are real, as are public buildings, but I make up house numbers and some businesses. If I'm going to kill someone, I try to use public space or make up a location. Same for if an employee is up to no good.

  16. Brenda, I forgot to say that it is so great to hear that you have gone from reader of this blog to published writer!

  17. One of the reasons I will pick up a book is to visit the place where it is set. Maine is magnetic for me. I'll be there in Quick Pivot before long and looking forward to it! As for me, it is really hard to disguise St. John in the Virgin Islands so I haven't even tried, although I do fictionalize the villas where murders take place. Don't want to freak out the tourists now, do I?

  18. I love reading stories set in places I know and visiting places I've read . . . even with fictional details added there's a feeling of reality in the place.

  19. Thank you, Hank, for your enthusiasm about Quick Pivot and congratulations on your two (count 'em) nominations for Anthony Awards, announced this morning!

  20. Susan, when you come to Maine (a place where so many murder tales are set, but, in fact, one of the lowest crime states in the nation) we will keep you safe.

    Thank you for your good wishes.

  21. Deb and Mary, JRW back blog sisters, thank you for your kind words.

    I agree that it is fun to mix it up - use some real places for inspiration but put your own stamp on them, especially when killing someone off.

  22. Brenda, how exciting it must be to have your book out and people reading it. Congratulations! It sounds like a great read, and I am adding it to my TBR list. For some reason, abandoned factories and lost industries really interest me, and I love to read about people's characters being restored from unfair demise.

    I'm a bit torn on real places and fictionalized places for settings. I probably prefer real places, as I love reading the book and imagining walking the actual streets. If I've visited the area, it's even better, like Lucy's Key West. And, I like being inspired to visit a real place setting from my reading, like Julia's Adirondacks, which I made a detour on a trip just to be in the same surroundings as Russ and Clare.

    Having said the above, I certainly enjoy made-up settings, too. I'm thinking that Hallie has a great approach of using a fictionalized place name, but using real place details. Of course, it's easier if I haven't visited an area to accept and enjoy a made-up setting, with care having been taken to ensure authenticity. It sounds like your Maine setting is true to that area of Maine, so I know that I will love it. Of course, never having been to Maine, it's nice to know that you took such care with it.

  23. Hank, congrats!!!

    And Brenda, congrats on your first book! So lovely to see you here as a guest on JRW. Quick Pivot sounds like a great read and I loved your descriptions of the settings.

    I usually use real towns and/or neighborhoods, but will fictionalize specific locations. There is no Otto's Cafe on Elgin Crescent in Notting Hill, but every time I walk down that street I expect to see it:-)

  24. Michele, I'm glad to know you are so drawn to Maine. It is a pretty special place, I agree, and hope you enjoy my description of these special places.

    storytellermary, I know what you mean. It's like the twilight zone between reality and make-believe, no? Kind of fun.

  25. Kathy Reel, you are one dedicated reader, and I hope your travels bring you to Maine where you can check out some of the lovely spots in my book. I think changing the names to protect the innocent is a good middle-ground approach, but did not want to fictionalize everything.

    Deb, thank you for your good wishes. It is an honor to be a guest here on JRW.

  26. Brenda, congratulations on publishing your story--and congrats to Hank on her Anthony nominations! Another red-letter day for the Reds' community!

    What you describe is a careful, reasoned approach to your story. As Deborah notes, even when the setting is real, you have to fictionalize part of it in order to ground your fictional characters. What I dislike intensely is reading something--say, set in Maine, or Boston, or New York--where the author is clearly clueless about the reality of place and simply bases their story on a cliched version of that reality.

    Looking forward to reading Quick Pivot!

  27. I get very uptight about using real places-- trademarks and all that-- unless they are publicly owned and have been there forever (i.e., Washington Monument.) But there are places I've been that are engraved in my mind (sometimes in my heart.) I have been known to move them to another city and rename them.

    My former agent says a book sells better if it names a place. In other words, if I set a book in Milwaukee and had someone ride his bike up Downer Avenue, people who live on Downer Avenue would buy the book. Not sure that's the case. I'd rather set the book in a place that looks just like Downer Avenue, but in an unnamed city in an unnamed midwestern state. (Paranoia strikes deep.)

  28. FChurch, I so agree. Reading an inaccurate or even ham-handed description of a real place can pull me right out of a story. Setting really is a 'write what you know' thing, for me at least.

    Ellen, that is interesting what your former agent says about real places helping a book's sales. I will have to see if that proves true in my case. Hope so!

  29. Thank you to all who commented today (or those who still might drop a line.)

    And thank you, Reds, for inviting me to share my book on your wonderful blog.

    It's been a delight!

  30. Congratulations, Hank . . . so excited to hear about your Anthony Award nominations!

  31. I'd like to add my congratulations to Brenda on Quick Pivot - and thank Hallie for her piece today. BTW, please join us May 17 - when Brenda will grace our blog Crime Writer's Chronicle ( www.crimewriters.blogspot.com) with her visit too! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

    P.S. And huge hugs to Hank for all the current fame she is getting - she is like the 8th Wonder of the Planet!