Author Archive

What is an Alaska Wilderness Mystery Author?

Tuesday, May 1st, 2018

In my last blog post I wrote about the importance of setting to the success of any mystery series. And I discussed the many reason Portland, Maine was the perfect urban setting for my McCabe/Savage thrillers. After posting that blog I came across a novel by another thriller writer, Robin Barefield, who uses a very different kind of setting to tell a terrific tale of murder.  After reading Robin’s “Murder Over Kodiak”  I asked her if she’d be willing to write a guest blog about how and why the wilderness of Kodiak Island, Alaska offers exactly the right setting for her novels.  Here’s her response.

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Can you smell the salty ocean, the fruity tundra, or the steamy bear droppings on the trail in front of you? I want you to see and smell all those things and more in my novels. I want to open your senses to Alaska because my mystery novels take place in wilderness Alaska; not in an urban setting.

As Mr. Hayman discussed in his last post, the setting of a mystery novel is as important as the characters or the plot of a story. A novel set in the boardrooms of New York has a different feel from one set in Savannah or Aspen. Mr. Hayman’s novels take place in or near Portland Maine, his hometown, and an area he knows well. His familiarity with the setting brings authenticity to his books.

I reside in the wilderness on Kodiak Island, Alaska, so my characters live, play, and murder here. I have lived in the middle of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge for more than thirty years. My husband and I own a small lodge, and in the summer, we guide guests on wildlife viewing and fishing trips. We hike up small streams, sit on the bank and watch Kodiak bears chase and eat salmon. I know the wilderness well, and I respect it. Kodiak Island is beautiful and wild, but it can also be deadly.

As an author, I enjoy throwing my character into this dangerous, inhospitable environment. This wilderness setting often offers me ideas to move the plot forward or to provide background and depth for my characters.


Floatplanes figure prominently in my novels because there are no roads on the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge which covers two-thirds of the island. Travel over much of the island is either by plane or boat. I have had several frightening small plane trips in bad weather, so it is easy for me to write scenes of terror in the air.

In my first novel, Big Game, my protagonist, Jane, struggles with the pilot over a gun, and when she accidentally shoots and kills the pilot, she must figure out how to keep from crashing into the mountain in front of her.

In my second novel, Murder Over Kodiak, a floatplane explodes mid-air over Kodiak Island on a beautiful, calm day. The act is unthinkable to the residents of Kodiak. There are many reasons small planes crash in Alaska, but a bomb is not one of them.

I enjoy creating characters who are unusual and choose, for a variety of reasons, to live in wild, remote locations. These are people who understand the wilderness and use it to survive or to murder.

Over the past two years, I’ve written a monthly newsletter about true murder and mystery in Alaska, and many of these true tales have provided me ideas for my fiction. In Karluk Bones, the novel I am writing now, I weave together pieces of four true stories.


One of my characters in Karluk Bones is a trapper who believes he owns the area around Karluk Lake on Kodiak Island. He considers anyone who camps or hikes near the lake a trespasser and threatens these imagined interlopers. This trapper is known to be violent. He once killed a man in a bar fight and has returned twice from trapping trips, claiming his trapping partner for the winter deserted him halfway through the season. No trace of either partner was ever found. This character is based on an actual person who lived on the Alaska Peninsula. Law-enforcement officers found evidence suggesting he’d killed and eaten his trapping partners, but the trapper disappeared before he could be brought in for questioning. My character based on this real-life trapper is not someone you will find in a novel set in a city.

In my recently-released novel, The Fisherman’s Daughter, authorities fear a serial killer is stalking women on Kodiak Island. Most of the action in this novel takes place near and in the close-knit community of the town of Kodiak, where readers can enjoy meeting some of the unique residents of this quaint fishing village.

Kodiak Island is famous for its huge brown bears. Thirty-five-hundred bears live on the Kodiak Archipelago, so no fictional hike through the woods would be complete without at least seeing a bear. I’ve spent a great deal of time watching bears, and while I’m not terrified of them, I respect their strength, power, and intelligence. I strive in my novels to portray bears and other wildlife as accurately as possible.

I invite you to read one of my novels, take a trip to Kodiak, and get a feel for this wild, mysterious island.



Robin Barefield is the author of three Alaska wilderness mystery novels, Big Game, Murder Over Kodiak, and The Fisherman’s Daughter. To download a free copy of one of her novels, watch her webinar about how she became an author and why she writes Alaska wilderness mysteries. Sign up on her website to subscribe to her free, monthly newsletter on true murder and mystery in Alaska.

Portland: A Great Town for Murder!

Friday, April 13th, 2018

Portland City Hall

Portland: A great town for murder! Not exactly the kind of line the Portland Visitors Bureau would want to use for their latest ad campaign but, for a thriller writer like me, it sums up a lot of what I love about this town.  At least, when I’m writing one of my McCabe/Savage crime novels.

Any writer will tell you that the right setting, along with the right characters and plot, are the three key elements of any successful thriller series. And trust me when I say setting is every bit as important as the other two.  I mean can you imagine what Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories would be like without the winding foggy streets of Victorian London or the empty moors.  Among contemporary writers Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series simply wouldn’t work without the quaint Quebec village of Three Pines.  Nor would James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux books work as well anywhere else but the steamy bayous of Louisiana.

For me Portland proved to be the perfect setting for my stories right from the moment I typed the first sentence of the first chapter of the first book in the series:  “Fog can be a sudden thing on the Maine coast.”

Along with extreme and often unpredictable weather Portland gives a writer like me a lot of bang for the buck.

Here are just a few examples of places in Portland where I’ve set some of my scenes of murder and mayhem.

The Old Port with its winding cobblestone streets, lined with great bars, restaurants and small boutiques help give the town the urban feel that helps New Yorkers like me and McCabe feel at home. McCabe was eating in one of the newest restaurants when he was called away by the discovery of the body of sixteen year old Katie DuBois.

The working waterfront, home to the Portland Fish Pier, where the body of the beautiful attorney Lainie Goff was found frozen solid inside the trunk of her brand new BMW.

The waves crashing against the rocks out on Peaks Island which is part of the city and where I lived for my first twelve years in Maine.  It was here that the schizophrenic Abby Quinn, witnessed a brutal murder and was pursued by the killer.

The elegant nineteenth century mansions that line the streets of the city’s West End and culminate on the Western Prom where poor Lucinda Cassidy was kidnapped in that early morning fog.

I’ve also used the equally elegant Victorian mansions along the Eastern Prom where residents enjoy spectacular views of Casco Bay and the islands beyond.  Luckily McCabe, who lives there, bought his condo there ten years ago.  There’s no way in hell would he be able to afford one on a cop’s salary today.

The old three deckers on Munjoy Hill which was once a neighborhood for working class families but which, over the last ten years, has been gentrified to the point of becoming the city’s most expensive neighborhood.

There’s a busy and active art scene with lots of studios and galleries like the one where McCabe’s artist girlfriend Kyra showed her work. Portland also boasts a great small museum.  And on the first Friday of every month crowds of art lovers jam Congress Street enjoying street performers and looking for art to buy.

Then there are the landmarks.  The 86 foot tall Portland Observatory, built in 1807, is America’s last standing maritime signal tower with spectacular views of the harbor. I haven’t killed anyone there yet but I’m thinking about it.  The US Custom House is another classic old building . And Portland’s beautiful City Hall, pictured here, which burned down in 1908 and was rebuilt and reopened in 1912.  City Hall’s front steps are where McCabe’s boss, Portland police chief and publicity hound Tom Shockley likes to hold big press conferences announcing yet another murder that needs to be solved.