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A Book A Year – My Rhythm

As many of you know, my goal is to publish “a book a year” in my Oceanographer Mara Tusconi mystery series. I’m writing #3, Honor the Lobster’s Sea, now.

Like most authors, I’ve developed a writing rhythm. Ideas for the next book bubble up about year in advance. Twenty-nineteen’s book #4 will likely take Mara to a Costa Rican jungle by the sea I’ve visited. A turtle nesting beach there is endangered by rising seas and more storms – both caused by climate change.

Since one of my key goals is to take readers literally into and onto the ocean, I must to write about places where I’ve done just that. For instance, I never could’ve written Demon Spirit, Devil Sea without sea kayaking the Haida Gwaii archipelago off British Columbia.

Honor the Lobster’s Sea is partly set on a small lobster-community island 20 miles off the Maine coast Mainers will recognize as Matinicus (I call it Macomek Island). I’m trying hard to get the island’s culture right – family, tradition and history, fishing, suspicion of outsiders, home rule – by talking to lobstermen and others and reading a ton about Maine’s lobster community. In a couple of weeks, I’ll fly out to Matinicus for a couple of days. (I rent a cottage on the water because there’s no hotels or B&Bs, restaurants, or campgrounds.)

Like a painter or musician, I’ll drink in the light, sounds, smells, land and waterscape, seabird calls, people’s mannerisms and takes – all that – and report back on my Facebook, which you can access here.

It’s been an up and down year for environmentalists. Globally, 2016 was the warmest in the 36-year satellite record (Earth System Science Center press release, Jan 30, 2016). The incoming administration denies warming is a problem and supports the big oil.

On the other hand, the historic Paris Agreement signaled that the world is finally taking this crisis very seriously. More than 300 mayors who attended the meeting returned home committed to address warming in their cities. Some have already been hard at work. Miami, for instance, is spending $400 million to raise streets, install pumps, and elevate sea walls to combat sea level rise.

I’m on track to publish “a book a year” in the Mara Tusconi Mystery Series. Demon Spirit, Devil Sea, book #2, now has a cover. I hope it conveys the stunning beauty and mystery of the archipelago 50 miles off British Columbia where most of the story takes place. To learn more about the book and read an excerpt, click here.

As I write, Demon Spirit is undergoing the final edit. I’ll review suggestions page by page and return the manuscript by the end of January to Maine Authors Publishing, my new publisher. I’m excited to have a publishing house up the road in Thomaston, which I can visit in person. Also, I desperately want local writers as colleagues, and MAP workshops and online forum offer that opportunity.

MAP founder Jane Karker is a terrific person and her son Dan went to Hampshire College where I used to teach!

There’s no rest for the weary writer though. I’m already in the middle of research for book #3. We’re back in Maine for this story, which focuses on lobstering and lobsters. I don’t know a whole lot about the subject so the research is a great deal of fun. I’ll keep on reading books and research articles for at least another month before I start crafting the story.

I can say that Mara finds a dead lobsterman in the first chapter or so. As in most amateur sleuth mysteries, the rest of the story centers on her quest to find out what happened.

First Day of Fall

I live on the coast in southern Maine where ocean waters still warm from summer have a big impact the weather. As New England boaters know too well, the Maine coast is notorious for fog in late August and in September. When cooler fall air meets warm water, you’ve got fog.

There are some terrific literary quotes about fog. Here are a few:

Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make a whole trip that way. (EL Doctorow)

The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over the harbor and city on silent haunches, and then moves on. (Carl Sandburg)

Exploratory research is really like working in a fog. You don’t know where you’re going. You’re just groping. Then people learn about it afterward and think how straightforward it was. (Francis Crick)

The coldest summer I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco. (Mark Twain)

Fog engulfs Mara in Demon Spirit, Devil Sea as it did in Cold Blood, Hot Sea. Chapter One of Demon Spirit begins with Mara desperately trying to keep her run-away, rudderless kayak from sweeping her into the cold, deep Pacific Ocean off the Haida Gwaii archipelago. As if fighting the riptide were not enough, fog overtakes her:

Back at the Maine Oceanographic Institute, I’d studied Haida Gwaii’s currents. Longer than wide, Augustine Island protected Kinuk’s inner bay from the Pacific’s ravages. The outer bay was a very different story. A paddler dumb enough to venture out there’d be trapped in current that raced past the island’s tip.

If dumb paddler me zipped past Augustine, the jig would be up. The big ocean’s crashing waves twice the length of my boat, icy water, sharks—I’d be at the mercy of all of it.

What suddenly lay ahead erased all thoughts of currents and sharks. I squinted, squeezed my eyes shut, popped them open. The Maine kayaker’s nightmare.


The clammy murk smothered me in an instant. Splashing waves, sky, light. Vanished. Replaced by a wet, woolly gray. My heart beat fast against layers of fleece, paddling jacket, and life vest. Breathing fast and hard, I swiveled and squinted in every direction. The vapor was so dense there was no telling where miasma ended and sea began. Waves booming against rocks said the island was tantalizingly close, but dead blind in fog, I couldn’t see a thing.

The scientist in me kicked in. Water and air warmed by July’s sun met frigid open-ocean. That meant fog. But for once, science couldn’t help me at all.

The kayak raced on through the gloom. Too soon, the booms were muted. I’d just slipped past my refuge. My fate was certain—I would drift out onto vast ocean in a seventeen by two foot boat.

Besides fog, in Demon Spirit Mara deals—among other things—with vanishing visions, hot pools that inexplicably drain, the Haida people’s claim that Raven’s spirit watches over them, a bear attack, and a (genuine) dispute between the U.N. and the Haida Nation. The book will be published in spring/early summer in time for summer reading.

Safety First!

The third week in June, as we’ve done for the last 20-odd years, my kayak buddies and I rented the same next-door houses on the water in Stonington, Maine. At the end of a long peninsula, Stonington is a seakayaker’s mecca. A dozen or so islands not far from shore offer us refuge from the open ocean and delightful spots for picnics and hikes. We can see the hills of Acadia National Park from the house and water.

This year, a sudden squall scared the heck out of a couple of us, including me. I wrote about what happened on my Facebook page (link). Essentially, it was terrifying and truly took all my skill to not flip over. If I had, my pals couldn’t have reached me because they were fighting the same conditions. We made it to shore, but a few hours later we learned that two kayakers were not so lucky and died as a result of the decision not to wear wetsuits. There’s a scene in COLD BLOOD, HOT SEA in which readers learn how and why paddlers practice rescues. What happened to those kayakers is why.

Since the event, I’ve been asked for details on how to safely kayak in marine waters. I’ll use Mara as an example of Kayaking 101.

Mara's Kayaking Gear

Mara’s kayak, like her buddies’, is specifically designed for rough ocean waters – very long and narrow (hers is 17′ long and cockpit narrower than most – just big enough to squeeze into). In high winds she might drop her skeg a bit into the water so the boat doesn’t turn into the wind. Other boats have rudders, some nothing. Basically these boats are designed to go straight and fast (river kayaks turn quickly). Mara’s kayak is light – less than 50 lbs – so she can lift it easily.

Mara always wears a wetsuit when she paddles off the Maine coast, even in midsummer, and of course her PFD (life jacket). She would never go out without her sprayskirt, which wraps around the cockpit and keeps waves from swamping the boat. If the water is really cold, as in early spring, she wears a drysuit. It’s a total pain to put on but keeps her dry if she rolls the kayak.
As I show in the book, Mara and her pals practice self and buddy rescues. Using a paddle float, she can get back into her kayak in about a minute if she flips the boat and can’t roll back up (although it’s never happened to her).
Mara has years of experience dealing with super tall waves, breaking waves, wind events, currents, and motor-boaters who can’t see kayakers (so low in the water) or don’t look for them. She loves to surf waves with her kayak even though that’s a tricky maneuver.

Finally, Mara carries these on her trips: weather radio, compass mounted on the deck, chart, extra paddle, emergency kit, emergency food, extra water, extra clothes in dry bag in the hatch, cell phone, bilge pump, tow rope, and whistle attached to her PFD. No wonder it takes her so long to get ready for a trip!

The event was another sobering reminder of how everything can change in an instant. As Mark Twain said, “Life is short, break the rules … Never regret anything that makes you smile.”

Rafting, Turtles, and More!

I just came back from one of the ecological wonders of the world – Costa Rica. What a terrific place! They’ve never had an army and a quarter of the country is national park and other protected land. The biodiversity of Costa Rica is astounding, especially considering it’s roughly the size of West Virginia. The diversity of the landscape – extensive Atlantic and Pacific coasts with volcanic mountains and farmland between – is partly responsible. Also, of course, this is a tropical country with benign weather year around.

Tourists flock to Costa Rica. Two long coasts with gorgeous beaches, volcanoes you can drive up to in national parks, ziplines, river rafting. That’s me in front of the raft, by the way.

  • The Caribbean coast most impressed me. I spend several days in Tortuguero, a national park only accessible by water and air. It’s the closest I’ve been to a jungle and is replete with animals like caimans (they look like small crocodiles), brown pelicans, magnificent frigate birds, dozens of herons (little blue, tiger, cattle, green, tricolored), green macaw. The list goes on. Tortuguero is most famous for nesting turtles. For instance, the beaches swarm with leatherbacks on January nights.

    Given the timing of my visit, I didn’t see turtles. I did see the beach, though, and was stunned that the distance from the upland down to the ocean distance was so short. That means this critical habitat is extremely vulnerable to rising sea level caused by climate change.

    I’m always on the lookout for ideas for future books and have been thinking about setting one in Tortugero. Mara, Ted and Harvey would study impacts of warming on the turtle beach. What a setting for a mystery – caimans, the jungle, and howling monkeys and more!

    But that’s for later. Today I send off my draft version of Shadow Spirits of the Sea (working title) to the good folks at Torrey House Press. The story takes Mara, Ted, and Harvey to Haida Gwaii, a temperate rainforest and archipelago of islands fifty miles off British Columbia. The memory of thousands of earliest Haida people who lived off the land and water is everywhere. Crumbling totem poles greet Mara and her colleagues as they kayak ashore and vanishing spirits challenge Mara’s world view.

  • Snow, Sea, and My New Book

    It’s the beginning of February and the Iowa caucus and Groundhog Day are behind us. Since the groundhog didn’t see his shadow, we may have an early spring. Given climate change that’s not surprising, of course.

    A couple of weeks ago I was in Flagstaff, Arizona with my husband, John. He visited colleagues at Northern Arizona University. I brought my snowshoes but had to drive up to 8000 feet to find enough snow. It was glorious – huge open meadows and gorgeous mountain views. I worry about the lack of snow given the drought crisis there, but this year’s El Nino precipitation has helped.

    As is obvious from my books, my favorite sport is sea kayaking. However, paddling in Maine during the winter means frigid water and dry suits, neither of which I’m crazy about. (My protagonist, Mara Tusconi, constantly deals with icy water and doesn’t like it either). So I’m heading to Costa Rica in a few weeks to canoe, kayak, and swim. It’s eighty degrees down there right now. Plenty warm!

    I’ve finished the first draft of the second book in the Mara Tusconi mystery series. Shadow Spirit of the Sea (working title) takes Mara, Harvey and Ted to Haida Gwaii, a spectacular archipelago fifty miles off the coast of British Columbia. Each novel in the series is based on an actual marine ecological controversy. In Shadow Spirit the issue is geoengineering. In 2012 the Haida paid an American entrepreneur named Russ George a lot of money to dump about 100 tons of particulate iron off the western coast of the archipelago. George promised enhanced salmon runs and return in the investment through carbon credits. It fascinated me that a people with such a rich historic connection to the sea would be interested in such a scheme.

    Haida Gwaii is a Canadian National Park and world-famous kayak destination. I’ve sea kayaked there and was enthralled by the temperate rainforest of huge cedars and hemlocks, astounding marine diversity, and Haida relics (e.g., totem poles that greet landing kayaks). That’s all there in Shadow Spirit along with menacing bears, run-away kayaks, and a whole lot more.

    Finally, review copies of Cold Blood, Hot Sea are in the hands of potential reviewers now. I was especially pleased with Dan Bloom’s review on his cli-fi blog. Dan coined the term “cli-fi”.

    Less than seven weeks until the official start of spring!

    First post, last of 2015

    Big news: Cold Blood, Hot Sea, the first in the Mara Tusconi Oceanography Mystery Series, can be pre-ordered from your local indie bookstore, from Barnes and Noble, or on Amazon. The official publication date is May 10, 2016.

    This has been a terrific year for me as an author. I was awarded a prize for new authors from Mystery Writers of America, found an agent and publisher, and became a moderator on the cli-fi site (Ecology in Literature and the Arts). I’m a lucky girl!

    For my first and last post of 2015, I’ll try to answer the question people ask me all the time: what’s a marine ecologist doing writing mystery novels? In a nutshell, a famous scientist in Amherst, MA (where I was a professor) explained what it was like to be harassed by climate change deniers. I was outraged that the very people trying to understand causes and impacts of warming were hounded to the breaking point. But what could I do?

    The idea just came to me. Tell the story in fiction. Since I love mysteries, that choice was easy. As C.S. Lewis said, “Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”

    See you all in 2016, Charlene