Thursday’s Children April 18, 2013

Regarding the tragic events in Boston, where I went to college and lived for over ten years, there’s nothing I can say that hasn’t already been said. During the horrific event and its aftermath, many ordinary people took extraordinarily inspiring action. Thank you for helping those in need and for allowing me to tell my children that people generally, are inherently good, and allowing me to actually believe it.

Inspired by Feet…

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A weekly blog hop where writers share their inspirations. Please join us!

Yes, really. But not just any feet. Ballerinas’ feet. When most people hear the word “ballerina”, an image like the one below pirouettes into their heads.

Russian Royal Ballet Swan Lake

Russian Royal Ballet Swan Lake

But when the lights come back on and the music stops and the pointe shoes come off, this is what a ballerina looks like.

Photo from theperformanceclub.org

Photo from theperformanceclub.org

Legend has it that Anna Pavolova left a trail of bloody footprints when she exited the stage after each performance.

When I was in art school, a friend of mine invited me to an adult ed ballet class she taught, so I could work on drawing figures in motion. Those dancers threw their over-age-thirty bodies around in sometimes laughable attempts to imitate the grace and strength of their teacher. That was an amazing lesson in courage right there, but I was too young and stupid to realize it at the time.

My friend said nobody understands the passion it takes to be a professional ballet dancer, until they see a dancer’s feet. She showed me hers once. A pretty horrific sight. She told me that when she danced with the Joffrey Ballet in New York, she was one of their best jumpers. Jumping over and over again fractured her ribs numerous times, simply from the impact of being caught by her male partners.

So, what intrigues me most about all this is that something ethereally beautiful is sometimes made possible by something excruciatingly painful. I’m wondering if the characters in my WIP, who are tortured by past and present experiences, are strong enough to love each other, and if my writing is strong enough to create something beautiful from their suffering. Only time will tell…


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Thursday’s Children April 11, 2013

Inspired by “The Piano”

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About 10K into my current WIP, I needed to find a piece of music. Something that my MC could dance to, that would give her ALL THE FEELS. And something that would give me ALL THE FEELS too, so I could write about her. It needed to be timeless, instrumental.

The song that came to mind is The Heart Asks Pleasure First by Michael Nyman, from “The Piano”. I hadn’t actually thought of either the song or the movie for years, though I adored the film when it came out in 1993. It has all the elements I crave in a movie, or a book for that matter – passion, tragedy, obsession, suspense, beautiful scenery, and a strong female lead. And by strong, I mean someone with a will of steel and an indomitable spirit. perhaps hidden behind a quiet demeanor. Maybe a survivor. Someone who will risk everything for love.

Want to hear something strange? I’d already written my MC as a selective mute when I went looking for a song. I’d forgotten Ada (the MC in “The Piano”) was a selective mute until I watched the video. You can see she wears a small pad on a ribbon around her neck, and her daughter uses sign language. Orla, my MC, uses her cell phone a lot.

If you’ve never seen the movie, I highly recommend it. Here’s the song…

Has a particular film influenced your writing, subconsciously or otherwise?

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Thursday’s Children April 4, 2013

Inspired by Handwriting…

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A weekly blog hop where writers share their inspirations. Please join us!

This weekend I was sorting through “stuff”, trying to decide what deserves to travel to North Carolina with us, and what does not. I came across some papers.

One was genealogical information from my Aunt Sybil, who died quite a few years ago. Just seeing her distinctive handwriting – bold, somewhat dramatic – brought all kinds of memories back. Like the time in Mexico when she put her hand on the restaurant table to heave herself out of her chair (she was a “big” woman). The whole table listed and the plates, water goblets, silverware slid off, causing all the waiters to rush at us exclaiming “Ay, dios mio!” Sybil surveyed the chaos, and with an air of haughty disdain, announced, “God damn flimsy table,” and exited the restaurant like a ship in full sail. Sybil always wrote with Flair felt-tip pens and I frequently gave them to her as Christmas presents. Here’s what her script looked like…

sybiljpg

Another was from my mother, who died only a couple of years ago. She always hated her handwriting. She compared it to her sister’s and although she thought Sybil’s was “showy”, she felt her own was not distinctive. They were like that in real life too, my mother always overshadowed by her flamboyant sister. When I look at my mom’s writing, I see an even, legible script, written before arthritis crippled her hands. It reminds me of her as a healthy, vibrant person. Her last few years were miserable and her handwriting was almost illegible.

mumjpg

For a very long time I kept a letter from my grandmother, Pearl. Her handwriting was strong, closely spaced, and often served to communicate judgmental observations and moral admonitions. The letter I saved was written in red ballpoint. I can “see” it, though I threw it away a long time ago. Now I wish I hadn’t, because I don’t remember what it said.

I also found a copy of a very old family letter (1861). I’m not really sure who this person was, other than an ancestor on my mother’s side. They spent considerable time and effort on penmanship back then. Just mastering pen and ink took lots of practice.

oldfamjpg

Anyway, all this made me think about how seldom I receive or send a handwritten letter. Yes, we fiddle around with fancy fonts to try to personalize things. But our fonts have gone missing. Even without making a study of handwriting, like a criminologist (and by the way, they must miss the handwriting days too), you can learn a lot about personality, as well as physical and emotional health, from studying a person’s writing.

One of my books features a husband and wife. His script is like my Aunt Sybil’s, but on steroids — commanding, showboat-y. He’s a respected lawyer and active member of the community, but underneath he’s a “bad hat”, as Madeline would say. His wife’s script is faint and practically microscopic. She’s so downtrodden and frightened, she barely dares to make an impact on paper. Hardly surprising that she cannot protect herself from her husband. She can’t protect my MC either.

I like using subtle, mundane nuggets like this to help bring characters to life. What kind of details do you use?

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Thursday’s Children March 28, 2013

Inspired by Cheerleaders…sort of

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“Leave It All On The Mat”

That was the first Facebook post I saw Sunday morning. One of my daughters belongs to an All-Star Cheering team and they had a competition later in the day. For those who have no idea what All-Star Cheering means, stick around. Five or so years ago, I had no idea either. I thought cheerleaders cheered for boys’ high school sports teams and that cheerleading was the domain of pretty, popular girls who could do cartwheels.

Times have changed.

Cheering is its own sport and has the dubious distinction of causing the most visits to the ER among school- age athletes, because the one thing that hasn’t changed are the skimpy uniforms. No helmet, no pads. Concussions are par for the course – not just for the flyers (the girls who get thrown up into the air) but also the bases (the team members who do the throwing and catching). Tumbling runs and stunts become more dangerous the higher the level. There are boys on teams. And non-skinny girls. And huge national competitions with really loud music. They’re all aspiring to be as good as this…

That was entertaining, right? But now you’re asking yourself what front tucks and scorpions and basket tosses have to do with writing. Well, maybe not in exactly those terms…

Writers must leave it all on the page.

Don’t end your ms feeling like you played it safe. If you hold nothing back, then you won’t be wondering what you could have or might have done. Put it all out there. Give it all you’ve got.

This is something I’m struggling with at the moment. The boy MC in my new WIP has a disturbing backstory. I wasn’t aware of this until I started writing about him. And the girl MC, well, she’s not the person I thought she would be either. She’s quite a bit more dysfunctional. I’m not sure this boy and girl are right for each other, or that their relationship can heal them. Their story might not be marketable. But, now that I know who they are, I’m fascinated. I can’t rethink their story into safer territory. At least not in the first draft.

Do your characters ever take you by surprise? What do you do about it? Do you give them free rein and let them tell you their stories, or do you make them tell the story you intended?

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Thursday’s Children March 21, 2013

Before anything else, I must congratulate three Thursday’s Children who’ve had exciting news this week!

Laura Oliva has launched her debut novel ALL THAT GLITTERS. Woot! She’ll be doing a guest spot here on my blog on Friday. I think even those of us attempting to go the traditional publishing route can benefit from her pointers about organization and promotion. I keep hearing pub houses have skimpy budgets for debut authors…

Jessie Devine is now an associate editor at Entranced Publishing. Yay!

Louise Gornall has revealed the cover of her book IN STONE!

Congratulations to you all! I’m looking forward to hearing more about…everything.

Inspired by Background Noise

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A weekly blog hop where writers share their inspirations. Please join us!

The idea for this post came from two different sources.

There was last week’s post about winter surfing, which led to a comment which led to a reply, wherein I mentioned that hearing ocean waves makes my heart beat faster. And a couple of months ago there was a conversation with an agent  – not the agent whose offer I accepted. She talked about audio-books  Someone she knows produces them with “background noise” — soundtracks that weave in and out of the narration. She imagined ocean waves for TENDRIL because it’s set on the Maine coast and the sea definitely plays an active role in the story. (And I would add the occasional foghorn too, because my fictitious Frost Island is frequently fog-bound).

Something along the lines of 

Waves are the omnipresent background noise during my daily walks on the beach, when I’m most often thinking about writing. Depending on the weather, I sometimes hear them at my house when I’m actually writing too. A few months from now we’ll be moving and I might need to resort to a wave soundtrack for my computer…

My childhood soundtrack included mourning doves. They’re called that because of their doleful coos. But I never think of them as sad sounds, instead they remind me of lazy summer mornings, where the day stretched out ahead of me, waiting to be filled by my imagination. I still get that same “anything’s possible” feeling whenever I hear them.

Mourning Dove Coo

My husband thought they were owls… Guess his childhood soundtrack was different.

Owl hoots sound quite different, and give me a wild and spooky sort of sensation.

During my twenties, my soundtrack was urban. Lots of sirens, car horns, club music, and an apartment-building neighbor with an obsession.  Think Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the comic version. “You still deliver, right?…Great. I’ll have the Shrimp Egg Foo Yong, Kung Pao Shrimp, Shrimp with Spicy Garlic Sauce, and the Sweet and Sour Shrimp, oh and some Shrimp Lo Mein…” Every. Single. Saturday. All shrimp, all the time.

Background noise in a book can convey a sense of place, time of day, season, and emotional atmosphere. Maybe the same sound has different connotations for different characters in the same story. Let’s say the MC lives near the train tracks. The sound of clacking and whooshing fills him with guilty excitement as he fantasizes escaping his snarky wife and bratty children. To his neighbor on the other side of the tracks, the same noise induces gut-wrenching despair as she recalls the day her son tried train-hopping with tragic results. Anticipating the train, hearing the train, ratchets up those emotions.

Perhaps even a seemingly innocent but constant background noise like a bouncing basketball, a barking dog, or the snapping of chewing gum could  drive someone over the edge. Or maybe a familiar sound could pull someone back from it. Warning: do NOT snap gum around me.

What’s the background soundtrack to your writing? To the story you’re telling? What feelings do these sounds inspire in your characters? Your readers?

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Thursday’s Children March 14, 2013

Inspired by Surfers…

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A weekly blog hop where writers share their inspirations. Please join us!

No, not the bronzed demi-gods who frolic under the summer sun.

Maine winter surfers. The wave-junkies clad in thick rubber suits. I see them before, during, and after every winter gale. Out there in the seething gray ocean, with the wind shearing the tops off the whitecaps. In fact, I was watching surfers last Friday at the beach near my house and that’s what got me thinking. Some are young dudes, but many are guys in their 40s and 50s. They live for the thrill. Not even freezing cold water can stop them. And believe me, that water would be frozen – except that moving salt water simply can’t freeze.

Some might call them brave. Others might call them crazy. I think the same adjectives might be applied to writers. We can’t give up the rush either, not even when conditions are, um, gnarly.

I’ve just plunged into writing a new book. It’s exciting and scary. I’m not in the water literally, but I am floundering around in a sea of words. It’s not so much that I’ll be searching for perfect waves – I’ll be trying to create them. Individual words, that when combined, offer speed, amplitude, and a glassy face that is both superficially beautiful and translucent enough to let the light shine through. The waves that will carry my story to its final destination with power and grace.

I’m no longer a “kook” (newbie just starting out) so I know what to expect…

Wipe outs–massive deletions of entire chapters and character eliminations.

Riptides–wayward characters and unanticipated subplots that threaten to carry my story far out to sea, or onto jagged hidden reefs.

Acid drops, when the lovely wave drops out from under me and I’m suddenly free-falling — aka plot holes.

And let’s not forget about undertow — that writerly crisis of confidence–those this whole freaking thing SUCKS moments.

But, I’ll take my chances, for the moments when magic flows through my brain and onto the page, when thought and language form a perfect union, when writing is a transcendent experience.

So, who’s ready to hang ten (fingers on the keyboard) with me?

Here’s a video about winter surfing in Maine. This beach is about half an hour from me.

And here’s one shot at the beach in the town next to mine

taken at Kennebunk Beach

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Thursday’s Children March 7, 2013

Inspired by Trees…

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A weekly blog hop where writers come together to talk about whatever inspires them. Join us!

There’s no question that I was a tree-worshiping pagan in a former life. Willows, oaks and birches are my favorites. Throughout my life, individual trees have held special significance for me.

First there was the mighty pine tree which supported my childhood tree-house — a double-trunked monster with its bristled head in the clouds and its scaly dragon claws dug into the ground. Its sticky golden blood was virtually impossible to remove from human skin, and somehow I always got some on me. Dirt and pine needles adhered to my skin with the power of super-glue.

Then there was the decayed weeping willow tree in the Boston Public Garden, whose hollow trunk provided privacy and shelter during a super-steamy kiss one drizzly autumn evening. Fond memories of that willow inspired us to get married under a different willow tree two Halloweens later.

flickr.com

Boston Public Garden flickr.com

During a trying time in my life I made a weekly pilgrimage to a particular oak tree. It lived in a nature reserve on the New Hampshire seacoast. Its gnarled branches and twisted trunk had endured the harsh elements for well over a century. I’d lay my hands on it and close my eyes and try to absorb stillness and strength. That actually works, you should try it sometime. Okay, secret’s out, I’m a tree-worhiping pagan in this life too. Sssshhhh...

One day a few years later, I was working in the yard. A young woman stopped her car and got out. She asked if she could come see our willow tree. The willow was a stately specimen and completely dominated our side yard. As it turned out, her father had planted the tree to mark her birth. She didn’t care to see the house where she’d lived as a child, but she really wanted to visit “her” tree because it was an important part of her story.

Sometimes inspiration can be found literally, in my own front yard.

BirchTreesBlueskyJPG

The slender birch on the left leans against the sturdier one. The larger tree’s dark branch embraces the paler one’s trunk and the embrace itself has actually wounded them both. The scar tissue binds them closer still. (Why yes, I AM mad for metaphors). Their branches mingle as they reach for the sky. Their roots are tangled, like lovers’ legs, under the blanket of snow and earth.

I love this tree couple. They provided inspiration for my first book, in which spirits from the 17th century try to fulfill their thwarted passions through my modern day main characters. Two trees that begin as individuals have hidden interwoven roots. Eventually they meet and become irreversibly joined. They will grow, and eventually die, together.

Do you like trees? Any particular kind? Is there a tree which holds special significance for you?

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Thursday’s Children February 28, 2013

Inspired by a Dog Groomer

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Since I got all serious on you last week, I’m mixing it up a little. Please bear with me (or in the case of Laura O., “bare” with me, inside joke, snort), while I weave a tenuous connection between dog grooming and writing. Yes. Really.

I’m too chicken to clip my dogs’ nails myself. When they were tiny puppies I managed it a couple of times while they slept on my lap. But one day Buster woke up, just as I was squeezing down the blade. That resulted in frantic squirming, loud squeals (both of us), and a bit of blood (his). We were traumatized and I decided to leave nail-clipping to the experts.

B&DFeb13jpg

Buster & Daisy

There are two kinds of experts. Those who believe in themselves, and those who don’t.

Carrie is a lovely young woman, probably in her early thirties. She always pats my dogs and sweet-talks them before they even see the nail clippers. She’s been grooming dogs a long time and she knows her stuff. But still, every time, it’s a struggle. Daisy has learned to derail the process by shoving her head against Carrie’s arm, or pushing with the hind foot not being clipped. She whirls in my arms like a well-oiled machine part. For a thirteen pound dog she puts up a helluva fight and I have all I can do to hold her. What terriers lack in size, they make up for in determination. Buster is closer to seventeen pounds and because he’s a wimp to begin with, it doesn’t take much to launch him into full-fledged panic mode. There’s always lots of high-pitched sobbing (his, not mine). The nails get done, but it’s not pretty.

Adam is a good deal younger than Carrie-he might still be in his teens. He’s multiply pierced, has a frail build, and is very shy. But he has a quiet authority when it comes to his job. Daisy puts up only token resistance. Buster might let out a pathetic whimper, because that’s what drama queens do. But basically the dogs relax and it’s all over in just a few minutes. Then Adam gets down on the floor and plays with Buster (Daisy’s more interested in the pet store’s resident ferret).

From my point of view, both groomers grab a paw and clip the nails. I can’t tell the difference in what they actually do, but obviously my dogs can. I think it all boils down to self-confidence.

As writers we need to believe in our stories, and our ability to write them. We need to write well and with authority. As a reader, I don’t let myself become immersed in a story which starts off poorly written. By that, I mean grammatical mistakes, florid prose, lamentable word choice, starting the story in the wrong place (so far “in” that I’m confused or so far “out” that I become bored).  But I’ll happily take the figurative hand of a good writer and jump right into the world he or she has created.

The extent to which I don’t always believe in myself became clear during an edits discussion with my agent. It was our first talk since I’d accepted her offer. The changes were minor. Intellectually, I recognized that. But inside was that voice whispering, “What if I can’t do them right? Sure, they seem easy, but what if they turn out to be harder than I anticipate? What if I suck at this, and she changes her mind about being my agent?” Then, she said offhandedly, “I’m not going to tell you how to do them obviously. You’re a very deft writer…”

Really? 

So, I did the edits, which led to more pangs of doubt. One of her suggestions was a transition chapter between a particular significant scene and another. I wrote the chapter. It was twenty-eight words long. No matter how I tried to spin it out, it didn’t work, adding words just diluted the power of the original twenty-eight. I sent off the edits and braced myself, waiting for her to tell me in the kindest possible way that I sucked. Well, she loved the twenty-eight word chapter.

I really need to trust myself more than I do. That is my current writerly goal. If Adam can clip Buster’s nails and make it look easy (which I know it isn’t), then I can write the story the way I feel it needs to be written. Which isn’t to say I intend to ignore constructive criticism, because that’s important too, just not for this post.

 Do you have a hard time telling the critical voices in your head to shut the hell up?

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Thursday’s Children February 21, 2013

Inspired by Pain

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I liked Sinead O’Connor’s music back in the day, but her rage, put me off a little. I had no idea why she was so terribly angry.

Now, having read this article, I know.

The notion of suffering being part of the artist job description is pretty widespread, but open to interpretation.

Some people’s pain inspires creative work so magnificent that the world becomes aware of their torment, though the details may remain obscured. For some, their suffering may yield art that will never be shared with even one other person. It still matters.

During college I did an internship in Art Therapy. Every week I worked with three art therapists and a group of troubled teenagers who rode the proverbial short bus from the seedy sections of Boston (Roxbury, Dorchester, Southie, etc.) to affluent Brookline.

Danny and Marco used art very differently.

Danny was obsessed with airplane disasters. EVERY drawing he did depicted planes cracked in half, consumed by flames, with black smoke filling the sky. When he got overwhelmed by his own art, he ran from the room. It became my responsibility to cajole him back in. I always succeeded, but first we had to play his game, which included swearing at me, hiding so I had to go find him, and threatening to hurt me when I did find him. Underneath the “game” was pain, of course. His father was disabled and, as I learned firsthand, his mother was a BITCH. Danny invited me to dinner at their house. I got permission to go as a covert operative, since he never told the therapists anything about what went on at home. Throughout the entire torturous meal Danny’s mother taunted him, belittled him, and make snide remarks about his “useless” father. Freudian interpretation of Danny’s drawings suggested castration anxiety. My observations seemed to support that theory.

Danny’s art was inspired by his fear and his rage. Pouring them out on paper was the beginning of catharsis. After completing catharsis, he could connect. At least a little.

Marco was equally obsessed with his popsicle stick house. Each week he got right down to business and worked straight through to the end of the session, usually skipping snack. None of the kids EVER skipped snack, and with good reason. Marco never told us about life at his house either. But his younger brother Andre did. Theirs was a single parent household. Mom had many male “friends”, most of whom were involved in gang activities. Chaos. Poverty. Violence. Over the months, Marco created a multi-story popsicle stick house with several rooms. Once the house was complete, he used more popsicle sticks to build tiny furniture. Then he carefully painted everything in vibrant hues. We suggested he create some people to live there. He made only one. Himself. He created a space where he controlled everything. A home that was clean, safe, and well-appointed.

Marco’s art was also inspired by his fear and his anger. To cope, he built a better world in the most literal sense.

Though I have no contact with either, both boys continue to inspire me. I write things out of my system that have to be gotten out. And I create worlds for my characters, worlds I can visit whenever I need to.

Is writing ever “therapy” for you?

And now, Sinead O’Connor

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Thursday’s Children February 14, 2013

A weekly blog hop where writers share their inspirations. Please join us!

A weekly blog hop where writers share their inspirations. Please join us!

Inspired by blizzards, and local history…

Last week I lost track of time and had to scramble to get my TC post up. This week Snowmaggedon/Snowpocalypse/Nemo made it virtually impossible to leave my house for the two days of the storm, except to shovel and drag my reluctant doggies outside to do their business.

I’ll be going stir-crazy by Monday, just itching to fly the coop. So, I ‘m actually writing this on Saturday the 9th.

Storms make for great writing opportunities within stories too. They’re dramatic. Primal. The wind screeches and trees snap-and if you live by the ocean, the waves roar like a raging sea monster. Bad weather forces people out of their comfortable routines and behavior patterns. The isolation of a storm may lead some to feel more vulnerable, and some to feel less accountable. Being trapped in a house by a Nor’easter is akin to being marooned on an island. It’s just you and the people trapped with you, or with whom you are trapped.

Tension builds. Anything could happen. 

In 1978, a very dramatic incident happened at Goat Island Light, which is about three miles down the road from where I now live. Here’s a photo from the late 19th or early 20th century. I’m not sure when the one below it was taken, though clearly it was taken after the invention of airplanes!

GoatIslandLightOld

US Coast Guard Photo

US Coast Guard Photo

Below are photos of Goat Island Light taken this past weekend by their webcam.  That tall white structure is the new fog bell tower. You’ll be relieved to know the lighthouse is no longer “manned”, because in the middle photo all that black stuff is sea water that’s breached the rocky base of the island. As is the foamy white stuff in the last photo.

goatisland2913jpg

goat island stationjpg

GoatIslandFeb2013jpg

The passageway on the right connects the lightkeeper’s house to the lighthouse, which is out of view in the picture above.  The passageway is quite new. It wasn’t the first one to be built.

Back to 1978, or more specifically the Blizzard of ’78.

Martin Cain was the lightkeeper at that time. He had just stepped from the passageway into the kitchen when the entire passageway was swept out to sea. I used that incident in my book TENDRIL (but with different characters, a hurricane not a blizzard, and a different, fictional lighthouse). In real life, a rescue helicopter came to evacuate the Cain family, but there was room for only one adult and one child. Martin’s wife took the baby, leaving her husband and two year old son behind. Can you even imagine?

By the way, many claim the lighthouse is haunted by its last resident lightkeeper, who died in 1992. Presumably a rogue wave capsized his boat when he was a short distance from home. But that’s another story…

A few days ago, on neighboring Vaughn Island, human bones were found by a person walking his dog. They may belong to the college students who went missing just before Christmas. Some of their clothing was found on Goat Island, shortly after their disappearance. The bones were found above the usual high tide mark, probably deposited there by the the thirty foot seas we had during the storm.

Yet another tragic and mysterious story…

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer Portland Press Herald

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer
Portland Press Herald

Are there any events from local history that have inspired your writing?

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