Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Welcome Barbara Ross with MUSSELED OUT

LUCY BURDETTE: I read and enjoy many of our JRW pals' books, even while I'm writing (struggling) with my own. On the train home from Malice Domestic, I passed the hours by reading Barbara Ross's third Maine clambake mystery, MUSSELED OUT. As I read, I found myself taking notes--thinking, for example, oh this is how you get an amateur sleuth involved in a believable way...as if I'd published no mysteries instead of almost fourteen!

Anyway, that should tell you how much I enjoy and admire Barb's books--and I'm thrilled to have her visiting here today. Welcome Barb!

BARBARA ROSS: Hi Lucy! I’m so happy to be back visiting the Jungle Reds. Several of the Reds, (you know who you are) have been so supportive of my writing career—going back to my very first book.

LUCY: Your lobstering scenes seem so realistic– I felt like I was out on the boat with Julia. Tell us what kind of research allowed you to write those scenes so well? 

BARB: I’m laughing because maybe you identify with this? I’m writing about a resort and I always seem to be writing in the wrong season. I first heard the series had been sold in October 2012. I had to write a couple of drafts of Clammed Up without ever visiting the real Cabbage Island Clambakes, on which the series is (very loosely) based. It was probably good because I could make up my own fictional island and family without influence, but my husband and I were on the boat to the first clambake in June. Same for Boiled Over, which has scenes set on a blueberry farm. Book due on September 1, wild blueberry season mid-August. I had to put the finishing touches on those scenes at the last minute after a trip to Down East.

For Musseled Out, I had the same problem of timing. Over a long, snowy New England winter, I read and read about lobstering. Two marvelous books I recommend are The Secret Life of Lobsters, by Trevor Corson and The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island by Linda Greenlaw. But we all know you can only get so far with books. So with Musseled Out due June 1, last year, my husband Bill and I were the first people Captain Clive Farrin’s first tour on his lobster boat in May. Interestingly enough, Captain Farrin cited information from Corson’s book on the tour.

LUCY: Now with your third book in the Maine Clambake series, I am imagining you are running into the bane of the amateur sleuth, the Cabot Cove syndrome. How do you think about reasonable ways for Julia to get involved in crime solving? 

BARB: I think Cabot Cove Syndrome particularly haunts Maine writers, since that fictional town is in our state. Down East Magazine once calculated that that the murder rate in Cabot Cove is higher than in Honduras, the murder capitol of the world. You do have to wonder, why do people keep inviting that old lady to dinner?

For me the hardest thing is not finding victims and suspects. When you write about a resort tens of thousands of people visit a year, and a place at the end of the road where plenty of people go to forget their pasts, that part is easy. (Perhaps, Lucy, you identify with this, too?) The hard part for me is coming up with what Ramona DeFelice Long calls the VGR—the Very Good Reason your amateur sleuth becomes involved in solving the murder. After all, 99% of us would call the police or the FBI and be done with it. The more I write mysteries, the more I understand how critical it is to find the VGR and find it early in the narrative. The VGR is what flips your sleuth from being a passive recipient of information to a driver of the investigation, and that in turn drives the story.

It’s tempting, of course, to turn every person the sleuth knows into a suspect over the course of a series, but then you’re back to Cabot Cove Syndrome. Wouldn’t her family and friends solicit donations to send her out of town? (BTW, if anyone knows the Secret Solution to this challenge—e-mail me! I start the fifth book in the series next week.)

LUCY: I love learning more about the intricacy of Julia's family. Are you the kind of writer who had all this mapped out before you began the series? Or have aspects of these relationships surprised you?

BARB: Thank you, I love learning about it, too! The answer is—a bit of both. I did put some Easter eggs into the first few books. For example, the fact that Julia’s mother’s cousin Hugh disappeared off Morrow Island on the night of her twenty-first birthday and was never seen or heard from again is in the first book, Clammed Up. We’ll find out what happened in the fifth book.

But other ideas are more organic. I see it a lot like getting to know a friend. First you know her, then maybe you meet her friends and eventually her family. But inevitably, twenty years later, you’re sitting at a party and she says, “Yeah, that was just like the time I went on a date with Paul McCartney.” And you are—“What! How could I not know this about you?” And she says, “It was stupid really. It never went anywhere. I guess it never came up.”

What I’m trying to say is, your friends surprise you and your characters do, too.

You can read one of the delicious recipes from Musseled Out at Mystery Lovers Kitchen. And Barbara will be here all day to answer your comments and questions...

On bookshelves now!
(Audio book coming from Audible June 2nd)
blog mainecrimewriters.com


  1. “Musseled Out” is in my teetering to-be-read pile . . . and I did check out the yummy recipe, Lucy; thanks.
    I’m curious to know just how much of Julia’s family you “mapped out” at the beginning of the series, especially since you said the characters surprise you.

  2. How fun that we have Hallie over on the Wicked Cozy Authors blog today, too! Musseled Out is on the top of my stack, Barb. Congratulations on this great series.

  3. And Joan--Barb's husband Bill is the big cook in the family. I think he's the one who designed those mussels...enjoy the book--it's a treat!

    Edith, going over to see Hallie right now:)

  4. Welcome, Barbara, congratulations on the great series! And I used to live in Sommerville, MA, years ago! I have fond memories.

  5. Hi Joan!

    I had the basics of Julia's family mapped out from the beginning. She's the product of a marriage between a once-wealthy summer family and a local lobstering family--that's a foundation of her character--so a lot came with that. And since her mother inherited the island where they offer their clambakes, and it has an 1890s mansion on it, that also provided a lot of history and structure. Also, Julia and her sister represent two different paths. Julia went off to prep school, college, an MBA. Her sister fought that at every turn and married a local guy at 18.

    What's fun is exploring what radiates out from that. Julia's sister's in-laws play a big role in MUSSELED OUT. I didn't know anything about them before I started that book. Then again, her family barely appears in FOGGED INN, the book I'm handing next Monday.

    I hope you enjoy Musseled Out. And thanks so much for asking.

  6. Yes--the mussels recipe is definitely my husband Bill's, as are about 80% of the recipes in the books. I figure out what Julia is eating when, and then Bill whips it up!

  7. Hi Susan--

    I had no idea you used to live in Somerville! I wonder if you'd recognize it. Actually, it looks physically much the same, but its become weirdly trendy.

  8. I am a HUGE fan! Love your books, Barb--they re truly special.
    (Mussels are so weird, aren't; they?)

    Rushing to work but back to you soon--
    do you look at fish and the ocean differently now? Now that every species might have a title connected to it??l

  9. Barb's books are smart and funny and sooo atmospheric. I have a special connection to Maine, too. Interesting that you had to make so much up. I set a book in the Bronx and have never been there other than driving through. So far no one's called me on it... I did do a lot of research so maybe that's why.

    Can't wait to read the new book. I'm a huge fan, too.

  10. Laughing, Hank! I look at the ocean differently now that every species might have a MEAL connected to it.

    But seriously, doing research for the book, I have learned a ton about the Maine fisheries, and it is fascinating. I'll tell you this, the life cycle of the lobster is so complicated, it's amazing to me there are any at all.

    Thank you for the kind words!

  11. Wonderful description of the real life of a writer! I'm a part time Mainer, but my part, Aroostook County is really the end of the road. Never been downeast, so I love my visits through your books. Thank you for the glimpse into your process.

  12. You do great VGRs, Barb!

    Love the series. I've never been to a clambake, so my reading of yours in Busman's Harbor is vicarious living for me. I'm now curious about the life cycle of a lobster. Is it like a crawfish, I wonder? Which seems pretty sad, since they live in mud.

    Looking forward to reading Musseled Out!

  13. Ah yes - the VGR. Something I was never able to come up with because you're right: 99% of us call the police and wash our hands. My solution? Start writing police procedurals. =) An entirely different set of problems, but at least I never have to come up with a reason why he's involved (although I did learn a couple weekends that my protagonist, a patrol officer, would not normally be involved in a murder investigation or anything requiring lots of hours, but the state trooper who told me this also, very thoughtfully, suggested a solution).

    And I totally hear you about the characters surprising you. You think you know everything, then something comes up and you're all "what the heck?" I love it when that happens.

  14. Hi Mary!

    My first book, the Death of An Ambitious Woman, was a police procedural, so I thought I had the VGR knocked, but as I was writing, people kept asking me, "What is the sleuth's emotional connection to this case? Why does she keep investigating? It has to be more than her job."

    My first thought was, "How do you do YOUR job? Because I take my job really seriously." But then I realized they were right. Even professionals need VGRs, though they may not be revealed until much later in the book.

  15. Hi Ramona--

    The VGR is brilliant!

    Lobsters live in cobble, which is exactly what it sounds like, cobble stones. They like nooks and crannies for their homes.

  16. Kait

    Oh, Aroostock County. That really is the end of the road. Like Lucy Burdette, I spend time in Key West, and I've often wanted to visit the other end of US Route 1--the other Mile Marker 0--just to say that I have. But then I look at all that territory....

    So glad you enjoy the Maine Clambake Mystery series.

  17. I love making stuff up, Hallie. Though Busman's Harbor is based heavily on Boothbay Harbor where we have a summer home, I love the made up aspects of my little town. It's like being a kid and playing with dolls and doing "set ups" as we called them. Fictional little towns where one person lived in the Barbie house and another in the bookshelf.

  18. Barb Ross really, truly knows her Maine, so for all of you who love the state, you're getting the real thing with her Clambake Mysteries. (Not to name names, but there are a LOT of "Maine" mysteries written by authors who get their information on a two-week visit in the summer.)

    Also, I love the concept of VGR! So glad I have a term to use for that key ingredient in an amateur sleuth mystery...

  19. And by way, Barb's DEATH OF AN AMBITIOUS WOMAN is another excellent read, once you've devoured these and are impatiently waiting for FOGGED IN. (which is a great title by the way...)

    Mary S, Michael Connolly set up his Harry Bosch series with an overall compelling stake--his mother was murdered when he was a child. So Bosch is always always looking to solve crimes involving underdogs, and people who might otherwise be dismissed as not worth the bother.

  20. Lucy and Barb - yeah, I have developed that kind of "emotional stake" of why and it's related to my characters personality/upbringing. As I mentioned to an agent a couple weeks ago, the bedrock of his being is "the strong should not be able to prey on the weak with impunity." And I've brought in other characters he cares about to provide other motivation.

    My problem with amateurs was answering, "Why didn't you just leave it to the police?" When your character is a police officer, you don't have to ask why he's at the scene of a crime in the first place (although as you both point out, there has to be more than "this is my job" to keep him going).

  21. Hi Barb - I'm enjoying your Clambake Mysteries and have purchased all for my library in Wallingford, PA. Such a sense of place and perfect Maine characters.

  22. VGR - never though about that but must be what keeps us coming back to our favorites like the Clambake Mysteries. But I must say that I don't really feel bothered by Cabot Cove Syndrome either if a series just somehow grabs me. The real life part of my brain knows everyone would run from Jessica, but I get invested in the stories or characters or something and it's okay to suspend disbelief. Kind of like watching a Cary Grant movie - nobody I know ever lived like that, but fun to go on the journey!

  23. Can we just get rid of the "Cabot Cove Syndrome." She actually solved very few murders there each year so was so busy traveling all over the place. Of course, her relatives were all suspects, sometimes more than once, but still, it's not as bad as everyone makes it out to be.

    Okay, got that off my chest.

    I love this series, too. I'd forgotten about that little tease in the first book, but I'm interested to see how it plays out in the fifth.

    Seriously, if you haven't started this series, do so today!

  24. Jen--Thank you so much! You comment is especially meaningful because I lived in Wallingford from fifth to seventh grade and your library one of the most formative places of my life and imagination.

    I wrote about it here http://mainecrimewriters.com/barbs-posts/my-library-story

    I later received a lovely note from a woman who lives in Howard Horace Furness's old library, inviting me to visit.

  25. Mary--"the strong should not be able to prey on the weak with impunity."

    I love that!

  26. Lucy-

    Bill and I just finished watching the Bosch series on Amazon. It really grew on me. Glad it has been renewed.

  27. Thank you Julia. You saying I really know my Maine is so meaningful to me!

  28. Mark--you're right. We should call it something else. But that label is so easy, because the series and TV show are so widely read and watched--everyone gets it.

  29. Grandma Cootie--you're willing suspension of disbelief--ie allowing us our "gimmee" is what keeps us going. We'll try hard not to abuse it!

  30. It looks like I have some catching up to do on yet another series. I guess it's good that I love reading series, and, Barb, your Clambake Mysteries sound delicious. (Sorry, I couldn't resist the pun.) I so enjoyed reading your thoughts on writing, and the VGR was a lightbulb moment for me. I know that I had subconsciously wondered about the placement of an amateur sleuth in an investigation, but until I read about the VGR, my wondering was rather unfocused. Now, it has a name to it and a clear-cut purpose.

    Also, Barb, I love the titles and covers of your book. The upcoming Fogged Inn may be my favorite. Do you spend much time on thinking of the titles, or do they just come easily. Clever titles are such a fun part of reading for me, and I even have a category for it on my Goodreads page.

    Thanks for a delightful post today, Barb. I didn't see your name on the Bouchercon attendees. Is there a chance you will attend? Would love to meet you.

  31. Hi Barb--Just by reading what you've said about your characters and their backgrounds, I'm hooked. LOVE the VGR!!! You've started me thinking about my own characters and their motivations. Even though they are cops, they still need something in their past or their make-up that drives them to do the job. And even though they're cops, I always give my characters an emotional connection to the case they're investigating. Otherwise, why do we care?

    Your books are going on my to-read list.

  32. Great piece on Wicked Cozy, Hallie!

  33. Oh my gosh, Deborah, that means so much to me! I am one of your biggest fans! I've read all the books, most of them in hard cover.

    I talk a class in Revising at the Maine Crime Wave recently, and one of my points was professionals also need the VGR, so thanks for that.

  34. Kathy--all the titles so far have come easily, though my editor and I did have a bit of a round and round about Fogged Inn. It was originally Fogged In, which he didn't hate, but didn't love. I made several other suggestions, which I thought were hilarious, but he didn't like. Finally, after we'd both resigned ourselves to Fogged In, I had a sudden inspiration and added the extra "n."

    All credit for the VGR goes to Ramona DeFelice Long, editor, teacher, writer, who attended Seascape with me, Lucy, Hallie, I think Hank dropped in briefly, and a whole host of other authors, many now publishes.

    No Bouchercon for me this year, but next year New Orleans, for sure!

  35. Barb, major kudos. Every blog you write is filled with interesting tidbits that make me think a little bit more about my own projects and challenges. Good luck with the series!