DOVER, NH – Bernie O’Dea is a newspaper editor in Redimere, Maine. She constantly asks the tough questions, works around the clock to publish the Peaks Weekly Watcher – primary news lifeline for the small-town Maine community – reluctantly romances the chief of police, Pete Novotny, and manages to help solve murders when others lack the curiosity or investigative instinct to follow the subtle but obvious leads.
O’Dea is a bigger-than-life character conjured by mystery fiction writer Maureen Milliken, a former Union Leader reporter and editor who also has walked the walk of a newspaper editor in small-town Maine. But her passion for the art of storytelling is as compelling as her cast of characters, which bring the fictional town of Redimere to life in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series, now three books deep.
⇒ Want to win the complete Bernie O’Dea book series? See below for details.
On Saturday I went to see Milliken and three of her Sisters in Crime writing. They were speaking at a writers workshop called “Stealing from the Dead” held at Freethinkers Book Shop in Dover. They talked about the finer points of being mystery novelists, from research and process to the first commandment: Just sit your ass in a chair and write.
I met Milliken when we shared space on the night shift in the Union Leader newsroom from 2001 to 2008, but we have remained sisters in news, even as our careers have survived various twists and turns in the shifting news industry. The thing I have always admired about Milliken is her tenacity. She speaks her mind, apologizes for nothing and takes a back seat to no one. She is capable and confident. Before finally writing her first mystery novel, she wrote a thin but punchy guide, aptly titled “Get it Right: A Cranky Editor’s Tips of Grammar, Punctuation and Usage,” and edited a book compiling thoughts on the afterlife by a diverse range of thinkers.
For as long as I’ve known her, Milliken has been fascinated with the stories behind the headlines, the devilish details of real crime stories, particularly murders, that live in the heads of reporters but never make it to print. Her wild Irish-Italian gift of gab and gumption, expressiveness and exasperation at mediocrity, define her as a news chick and crafty crime writer.
Before retiring from the Union Leader and moving to Maine, Milliken was for decades a resident of the city’s West Side. She knew it intimately, from long walks with her corgi rescues, Emma and Dewey, but particularly from her vantage point as a news reporter and sports editor. Before that, she lived in Augusta, Maine, and would often tell me that one day she was going to find a perfect little house deep in the Pine Tree State, and live the life of a reclusive novelist, publish her first mystery novel, the bones of which were already being assembled in rough draft form before following through and making the move, and retire on royalties.
Turns out it’s not that simple, as fame and fortune is hard to come by when you’re a writer, no matter your genre.
Her Bernie O’Dea trilogy, Cold Hard News, No News is Bad News and Bad News Travels Fast, bring to life the fictional town as well as the gutsy protagonist, unmistakeably Milliken’s alter ego, at least to me. It’s impossible to read the books without envisioning a Hollywood version of Milliken as the bold and boisterous O’Dea, unraveling the murder mysteries that otherwise might go unsolved.
I am not an avid reader of fiction but have learned through reading the Bernie O’Dea series why so many people are bookworms. Burrowing yourself in a book series takes you to places you’d otherwise never know, fabricated by authors who generously share their creativity through the written word. They are legitimate artists with gifts as tangible and undeniable as any composer or painter. And like their musical and fine-art counterparts, they write in colors and styles and techniques that tickle our imaginations. Although never one-size-fits-all, the reading public has a reverence and respect for the greats – whether you love Mozart or McCartney, or feel moved by Picasso or Klimt, each one of us can name a song that speaks to us personally or a painting that leaves us in awe of the gifted hands that created it.
What I learned during the writer’s workshop is that being a fiction writer is hard work. There is research, fact-checking and constant revision required to succeed. You can’t fall in love with your own words. When you tell a story that begins with a murder and ends with an unexpected bang, you need to do the legwork that will draw a reader into your mythical world and keep them reading to the end. Not because they want to know how it ended as much as they have become intimately connected with the characters.
And most of all I learned that those who craft fiction do so, not because they expect to retire on the royalties, but because they must. Writing is an involuntary facet of life for them, like blinking or breathing, for which there is no meaningful way to live without.
I told Milliken her books should be a Netflix series. She may not find me to be a credible source, given our friendship and my tendency to wade in the shallow pool of reading. But brush strokes she has used to paint Bernie O’Dea and her fictional world resonate with me. Her portrayal of a working female journalist is true to life. Bernie O’Dea’s foibles are what endears her to me most, because I know in real life we all have our weaknesses. But what makes a modern-day news chick a heroine in any world, fictional or otherwise, is that her sense of purpose outweighs her paycheck, her attention to detail and good grammar are crucial, and she must always lead with curiosity.
Milliken’s fellow Sisters in Crime – Linda Shenton Matchett of Wolfboro, Edith Maxwell and Leslie Wheeler of Massachusetts – all have created alternate literary universes based on their individual life experiences. Matchett, a self-proclaimed “history nerd,” writes historical fiction set in World War II. Maxwell, a lifelong Quaker, has created a series of mysteries under the pen name Maddie Day, set in the late 1800s with a female Quaker protagonist. And Wheeler uses real historical figures or events drawn from her Cambridge/Berkshire communities to craft historical fiction that is relatable to those who know their local history, and are willing to suspend their disbelief while accepting her creative license with actual stories of people they have known.
Because I am so sure you will love Bernie O’Dea as much as I do, I’m giving away all three books to one lucky reader. Simply drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, subject line “I want to win some books,” and I’ll pick one lucky reader at random, to be announced via our Facebook page later this week. I only ask that you love mystery novels, and that you will send some feedback once you’ve read the books.
Her books are also available as audiobooks at Audible. Click here to check it out!
About Sisters in Crime/New England Chapter
With 3500+ members in 51 chapters world-wide, Sisters in Crime offers networking, advice and support to mystery authors. The organization includes authors, readers, publishers, agents, booksellers and librarians bound by a common affection for the mystery genre and mutual support of women who write mysteries. Sisters in Crime was founded by Sara Paretsky and a group of women at the 1986 Bouchercon in Baltimore with a singular mission of promoting the ongoing advancement, recognition and professional development of women crime writers.
Carol Robidoux is publisher of Manchester Ink Link.