We’re Not Making This Up

Miramichi 018Kate Flora: Of course, as fiction writers, we are making some of it up. You all know that. What many readers don’t realize, though, is how, even in midst of creating fictional characters and fictional crimes, we’re constantly doing research to try and make it realistic.

I was thinking about research and reality this morning as I’m preparing to do a workshop for aspiring crime writers next weekend on guns and violence. As a desk-bound suburban woman well into her middle years, I have to work hard at writing realistic police procedurals featuring male cops. Along the way, I’ve taken a citizen’s police academy and a police taught RAD self-defense class. During the part of our police academy where the students were the cops and the cops played bad guys, I got a ton of insight into a rookie’s first days when I tried to do a traffic stop, caught my baton on the door handle, and slammed face first into my own car window in front of my entire class.

img_0995I’ve attended the Writers’ Police Academy http://www.writerspoliceacademy.com (described as Disneyland for Crime Writers) started by the wonderful Lee Lofland http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/ and wish I could go back every year. I’ve hung around with evidence techs apparently instructed to show me the worst pictures they could, just to see how I’d handle it. At a national writer’s conference, I’ve played at being an evidence tech myself, learning to lift fingerprints off a glass.

I’ve done a lot of riding around in police cars, late at night, talking quietly with officers about what they’re seeing, trying to see the streets through their eyes. Had those fascinating conversations as they read the streets and houses like a roadmap of crime and interpersonal violence. The body in that basement, the murdered girlfriend, the killer who ran down that alley and shot himself right there. I’ve sat through traffic stops where I watched the officer’s wary body language, and later debriefed about the process and why it is so important to see the person’s hands. I’ve gone on a stakeout where I spotted the bad guy. Interviewed a witnesses’ husband and got a detail the police didn’t know.

I see police officers and stories about the police through different eyes now.

And then there are the books. In Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine there was img_0997fascinating entomological evidence, which led me M. Lee Goff’s book, A Fly for the Prosecution. Working on a story about an excavation where bones are found led me to a whole host of books about bones and forensic analysis. Trying to make my cops feel authentic was helped by Lee Lofland’s book, Police Procedure and Investigation. Trying to make the crime scenes feel authentic led me D. P. Lyle’s Forensics.

Since we can’t make our bad guys obvious or one-dimensional, understanding human psychology becomes surprisingly important. Yes, much of what we write we know from observing the people around us. Deviants, psychopaths, and sociopaths can be found anytime we drive on the highway or stand in a airport line. But books can be helpful in developing them and understanding how bad guys are shaped by their families and childhoods. There’s no better dark reading than any of the books by FBI profiler John Douglas and cowriter Mark Olshaker.

img_0996I even have two criminalistics textbooks, scored at library yard sales, and my own copy of Vernon Geberth’s Practical Homicide Investigation. That last comes with this story: I decided to preview investigation textbooks, and so I borrowed a copy of this through my local library. When the book arrived, the male librarian was reluctant to give it to me. “Are you sure you want to see this?” he said. “It’s pretty graphic.” I said I did and he reluctantly handed it over. It is pretty graphic. It also have fabulous checklists which help make my fictional investigator better at his job.

Our mystery reading audience can be a pretty tough crowd. And we sometimes have to do some tough work to be sure we meet their standards.

 

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I’m Not a Panster, I’m a Cooker

 

Miramichi 018.JPGYou all know how it goes. There is a panel of authors sitting before an audience. The presentation is done and now it’s time for Q&A. Once in a while there’s a question that is delightfully quirky or unpredictable, but most times, along with questions about where we get our ideas, someone will want to know whether the writers outline before they write.

The answers will vary. Some of the writers will be serious outliners, the kind who have a detailed, sixty-page outline before they write word one. They are likely the same folks who carefully keep notebooks about each recurring character. Who give their characters birthdays. Who remember that in book two, Uncle Henry and Aunt Rita were feeling estranged from the main character. Who will have carefully noted when their character’s sister burned down the house or shot the neighbor’s dog. They will have a note on the name of that deceased dog so they won’t use it for another dog later in the series. These people, though I long to emulate them, are just too organized.

Others will work from a shorter outline, possibly the one they submitted to a publisher to Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 12.18.22 PMget another contract. These writers generally know the story they mean to tell, although most will readily admit that the book they end up writing often bears little resemblance to the outline they submitted. Usually, neither the author nor the editors cares when this happens.

Occasionally there are those who admit they start at the end of the book and work backward, making sure that everything that happens leads to that already designed and inevitable ending.

Then there are the pantsers. These are the writers who sit down at the keyboard (formerly Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 12.19.23 PMknown as the typewriter), type Chapter One, and have at it. Many of them will admit that at the end of the writing day or a scene or a chapter, they have no idea what will happen next. For them, much of the joy of writing is in that journey of discovery. It’s in somehow having their creative minds lead them forward into the next chapter. And for pantsers—while they will admit to those moments of despair when they don’t know what to write next and no fluttery little muse is whispering in their ear—this approach generally works.

I am neither an outliner nor a pantser. When I wrote my first mystery—one of the three that reside in a drawer labeled: In the event of my death, burn these—I wrote the pieces I knew. From there, I made an outline of what I needed to write to connect these pieces, and finally, an outline of what needed to still be filled in. I wrote the next in much the same fashion, feeling my way along. Probably following that line that is attributed to many writers including Doctorow that writing is like driving a night. You can only see as far as your headlights but if you keep going, eventually you will get there.

That felt a bit shaky and disorganized, so for the next book, I wrote an outline. Following that outline lasted exactly one chapter. At the end of chapter one, in a book that I had planned to be about real estate and corrupt bankers, a student walks into my protagonist high school teacher’s classroom and says: “You’ve got to help me, Mr. M. I’m in big trouble.” The book became about that trouble.

I’ve lost count, but at book twenty-four or so, I’ve evolved into what I call a cooker. Not meth, thank goodness, but plotting. When an idea comes to me—often only a phrase, or a person in a difficult situation or whatever—I begin the process of wondering. Who is this person? Why is he or she in this situation? What’s in the past that led them here? And once that musing leads to a protagonist and a victim, I wonder about why the victim is dead, what my protagonist’s connection is, and then my mind begins to fill in the details about the crime scene, the clues, the killer, the other suspects, and how it will all be unraveled. I don’t write it down, but I remember it.

During the cooking period, I can get quite lost in my own head. Plot ideas or critiques of what I’ve planned can come flying at me at any time. While driving. In the shower. As I go to sleep and as I’m waking up. During this time, I joke that I should wear a tag like Paddington Bear that reads: Please Look After This Author. Thank You. If Found, Please Return To . . .”

That in-my-head plan can still get knocked awry by a character seizing control—an event that used to scare me but now I embrace. But mostly, I follow the story line I’ve cooked up.

So if I zone out during dinner. If I suddenly get a glazed look in my eyes. If I suddenly whip out my phone and begin typing—please smile indulgently. I’m not being rude. I’m just cooking.

The Writer’s Journey is a Bumpy Ride

Kate Flora, here, on a frigid New England day with temperatures hovering around zero anGood Man with a Dog Cover-2 a wind chill factor predicted to be around minus thirty. Not a good day to be outside tramping around in the snow, but as writers know, bad weather is just another reason to be at our desks. Right now, I’m sitting at mine, doing a form of mental triage as I sort out the months ahead.

Perhaps you’re wondering about that bumpy ride I mentioned? Well, there’s the long story, involving ten years in the unpublished writer’s corner and the ups and downs ever since. And the short one. I’ll tell the short one. When I looked ahead at 2016 from the middle of 2015, I was looking at a very rosy year, a year that was going to carry me from fourteen published books to seventeen. The arrival of each new book is a special moment, and 2016 promised to be full of excitement and the challenge of a whole lot of book promotion for very different books.

What was on the horizon? A book due out in April, A Good Man with a Dog, a retired Maine game warden’s memoir of twenty-five years in the Maine woods that I co-wrote. http://amzn.to/1mz0End A fascinating project. A 2 ½ year process. And finally, a story that surprised both me and co-author Roger Guay. That book, thankfully, is still on track.

And that would have been enough. Except that there was supposed to be another book in May (that is, finally appearing in May after two previous delays). I was looking forward to that book because it was the long-delayed eighth book in my Thea Kozak series, Death Warmed Over. Writing a series with a returning set of characters over many years is like occasional get-togethers with good old friends. When I decided to revisit Thea, after a few years between books, her voice just jumped off the page, she came alive, and it was like getting a chance to catch up with someone I really liked spending time with. Her ironic sense of humor, her world view, and her deep compassion for the little people make her an excellent companion.

2013 Best Crime Writer in Maine
In Maine, you win a literary award and you get a blue balloon!

The book went to my editor a couple years ago and then sat, in limbo, for nine months of silence. Finally, there was a request for revisions, and it went back to the editor’s desk with a plan, first to publish last year, then to publish it this May. It has languished again in limbo ever since and another silence has fallen.

This is not news. Nor a tragedy. In the writing business, we go through this a lot. Books and authors get orphaned. It’s embarrassing to have told readers the book was finally coming, but writers rarely die of embarrassment. It does mean that now I have to find the book a new home or decide to publish it myself.

Which would have been enough. Two books in a year are plenty. Except for the fate of the third book. That one was supposed to publish in November, right on time for our regional mystery conference, The New England Crime Bake. Only, after waiting nine months for a contract, what I got was an e-mail saying the publisher was discontinuing their mystery line. Now my fifth Joe Burgess, And Led Them Thus Astray, is also an orphan.

So here I sit with two books that suddenly have no publishers–and a lot to ponder on. At times like this, after thirty years on this bumpy road, giving up can seem tempting.

I remind myself: In 2014, I had two books published. The non-fiction book, Death Dealer: How Cops and Cadaver Dogs Brought a Killer to Justice, was an Agatha and Anthony nominee and won the Public Safety Writers Association award for nonfiction. My fourth Joe Burgess won the 2015 Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. It was a great year. And now this. If there’s a message from the universe, it is clearly along the lines of “sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down and you have to keep on writing.”

I’m going to listen to that message from the universe. The last time I had a series get

IMG_1973
Accept rejection or be open to what comes next?

dropped, after I got over the initial despair and floundering, I was led into some fascinating adventures. Starting a police procedural series. Saying “yes” to the invitation to help form Level Best Book, a venture into publishing crime story collections that put over a hundred authors in print and led to a project that continues today, though I have long since retired. Deciding to take chances and say “yes” instead of wallowing led me to writing nonfiction, which has been an incredible journey.

Where the bumpy ride will take me next, I don’t know. What I do know is that when I shove self-pity aside and open myself to adventure, it becomes a fascinating journey. I don’t know what lies ahead, but I can’t wait to see what is around the next corner.

It’s Never Too Late

Kate Flora: Happy Almost 2016. Many times, when I speak about the writer’s life at libraries, people come up to me after my talk and say, often mournfully, that they’ve always wanted to write, but they’ve put it off for so long that now it’s too late. The same thing happens when I teach. I respond that if writing is part of their dream, it’s never too late. Then I tell them that my mom wrote her first mystery in her eighties and published it at 83. They are often astonished, but I like to think that mom’s story gives people hope.

Here’s an interview I did with her for our local Sisters in Crime newsletter shortly before her book, The Maine Mulch Murder, was published.

It’s Never Too Late: An Interview with 83-year-old mystery newcomer A. Carman Clark

One of the hardest things for the aspiring author to deal with is rejection and the feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness that a long series of rejections can cause. Frequently, authors meet writers who, though they love the craft, have grown discouraged by the process of trying to become published and given up. As an inspiration to all of us, we talk with an 83-year-old author, A. Carman Clark.

Q. How long have you been writing?

I can’t remember when I wasn’t writing once I discovered that words on paper held thoughts and could be used and reused. I wrote down what my mother said I could do and held it as evidence when she changed her mind. Creative writing? A very romantic story, written when I was ten and illustrated by a classmate, showed me the joy of making words into scenes from my imagination. I never recovered from this creative attack.

Q. How long have you been writing mysteries?

In 1990, I outlined ideas for a series of mysteries set in a fictitious town I’d created years before. Playing with plots through 1991 led to noticing places where a body might be found from public rest rooms to behind hedges and woodpiles. I settled down to daily writing of the book in 1992, having cleared away a non-fiction project so I could give my full attention to the characters and dialogue in this village murder.

Q. How long were you trying to get the book published before you finally sold it?

My mystery began traveling out to an agent and to publishers in March, 1994. When editors made suggestions, I did rewrites to improve what they considered weaknesses when their suggestions made sense to me. The manuscript finally sold in April, 2000, after my daughter suggested that I send the book proposal to The Larcom Press.

Q. How long did it take you to write the book and how many revisions did it go through before it was accepted for publication?

I wrote MM in about nine months and did five rewrites. Didn’t change the plot but worked to make characters more fully rounded and dialogue more suited to individuals.

Q. What made you decide to write a mystery? What’s it about?

MM originated from my frustration with reading too many mysteries in which I was turned off by drugs, violence and gore, and characters I couldn’t identify with because they had more money than I could imagine. I wanted to read about ordinary folks living in a small town where everyone knew everyone else, and about the question of whether they truly knew what happened behind closed doors. When I complained to the local librarian that I couldn’t find any mysteries I liked, she challenged me to write one. So I did. My protagonist was a divorced woman in her sixties, self-employed as a copy editor, who enjoyed rural living. One day, while gathering sawdust to mulch her strawberries, she finds a body. The subsequent investigation explores family secrets and the lengths people will go to to protect them. And the story reunites Amy with her old school friend, Town Constable Dort Adams, and ignites a romance.

Q. How did it feel when you learned that a publisher wanted to buy your book?

My first thought was to cheer and celebrate the fact that my obituary wouldn’t read, “Mrs. Clark once wrote a book.” (Clark is the author of From the Orange Mailbox, a collection of her newspaper columns.) Now there would be two books and then more. I went out and ran around the house squealing in glee. My house is isolated. This didn’t disturb my neighbors. Then I went back to the computer with a new sense of confidence, whipped out my weekly column with no hesitation and went on to my next assignment as though I’d had an injection of adrenaline.

Q. Drawing on your many years of experience as a working writer, what advice would you give other writers about dealing with discouragement and rejection?

As a writer and as head of Maine Media Women’s Communications Contest for five years, I’ve counseled and advised writers to consider that rejections are often the opinion of one person. But take time to reread the book or article, and now, distanced by time, see what you’d like to change or improve. When a writer feels her story is good, it’s important to keep sending it out. Somewhere there will be an editor who will respond. Let rejections be challenges.

Q. What else would you like to say to other writers, besides hooray?

I used to hate rewriting. But since my second complete revision of MM, I’ve come to enjoy the process. I live in the village of Granton (the fictitious setting of the book) and move through it, seeing new aspects of small town life which can be incorporated into The Corpse in the Compost, my next Amy Creighton mystery. When I’m really into writing a book, I forget to eat. Writing every day from November to April is a great help in avoiding cold weather nibbling, which adds pounds. Although by statistics or publishing records, I’m a later life author, I’ve been a writer since I first discovered the magic of words, when I learned to make the right marks with pencils. On days when I’m not writing a book, I feel something missing, so I use journaling to keep me alert and to catch ideas that flit across my mind. Questioning myself lets me push away unrecognized mental limits and then move ahead in my writing.

Family Thanksgiving 1 001
Mrs. Clark with her family during Thanksgiving at the family farm

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Sadly, Mrs. Clark died while she was doing a last rewrite of The Corpse in the Compost. She left behind a generation of writers inspired by her faith, her talent and her tenacity. So if you dream of writing and haven’t gotten around to it yet—it’s not too late. Make that New Year’s resolution to get going. 

Where Do You Turn for Inspiration?

It’s an interesting question, especially on a day when a blog post is due and the author is feeling brain dead.

A mushroom that looks just like my brain feels
A mushroom that looks just like my brain feels

Photographs? The great outdoors? Sure, there’s plenty to inspire here. But sometimes, I turn to a different place: Facebook

Facebook? Seriously?

Okay. I know. I admit. I complain about Facebook as an evil time suck. A place where writers, who are at the keyboard anyway, can go waste time, read cartoons, get redirected to The Onion. Get marketed to. Amused. And asked for sympathy as beloved pets cross the rainbow bridge.

But in its own whacky, time-wasting way, it can be a fun, kind, amusing, supportive community to belong to, assuming you have the right kind of friends.

I guess that I do, because once I asked for advice about a piece of evidence to drop at a crime scene, and got a zillion replies, including one from the Attorney General. Oh yes. Facebook can be a crime writer’s dream. FB is where one goes to view the pages of local folks who’ve been arrested. To see the comments behind the meager stories that the police spokesmen are willing to share. To get the inside gossip, the neighbors and relatives views. So yes. I spend/waste some time there.

But inspiration? Well, one of the things FB is best at is asking questions and getting a wide variety of random answers. Recently, I asked about “adult coloring books.” The number of replies I got was staggering. Yes. It’s true, a couple of the guys asked what I meant by adult. I left that to their obviously already fertile and active imaginations. Lots of other people said it was a great tool for relaxing and meditation. There was enough material in those responses for a good short story. Possibly for a cozy mystery series.

Writers can’t be snobs—we know that inspiration can come from anywhere. Stuck? Go ahead and ask that question on Facebook. For example, today I am feeling practically brain dead. It’s a beautiful fall day outside, but I’m in here, overwhelmed by a to do list and I have this blog post to write. So I turn to my FB friends. What shall I write about,?

From the back of my closet
From the back of my closet

And being friends—they answer. Write about food porn. Write about Halloween. One friend says, “Well, you already cleaned your desk. Now write about what’s in the back of your clothes closet?” Is anyone truly interested in stretchy leopard high heeled boots and a black leather pencil skirt? Maybe those guys who like “adult” comic books?

Another writer suggests writing about daylight savings time. A hot topic. Let’s plunge ourselves into darkness even earlier. Or I could research the origins, and why we still do it, and how people feel. Is there a story here? Perhaps. Someone is early to an event because she forgot to “fall back,” and sees something she’s not supposed to see?

One friend gave me a whole list of blog topics: Persistence, dealing with rejection, how to …., why I write. All hard topics on a day when I’m brain dead, but they can be filed away for the future. Another writer, also on the topic of the writer’s life, suggests that I blog about influences. I’m filing that one away for another day, but the ideas are already bubbling up.

Also on the topic of Halloween…there is the suggestion to blog about leftover Halloween thoughts (damage, the potential to commit a crime on

This is NOT a cat picture. Exactly.
This is NOT a cat picture. Exactly.

a night filled with spooky characters and mischief) and of course the upcoming pumpkin shortage. Is there a crime story there, perhaps? Two determined matrons battling over the last can of pumpkin and the mayhem that ensues?

Then, two subjects that blend together perfectly: “Use cat pictures” and “What’s on your unbucket list—the things you hope you’ll never have to do.”

Well. For this I have an answer: Using cat pictures because I’m feeling brain dead is definitely on my unbucket

list. Now I can move on to making the rest of that list.

So, friends out there in the digital universe, where do you find inspiration when you’re feeling brain dead? Curious writers want to know.

Vacation with a Writer’s Eye

Kate Flora: I’m back at my desk today after a mini-vacation up to Nova Scotia, so today I thought I’d share some of my trip photos, so you can see what I tend to photograph when I’m traveling.

For example, taking a hike after visiting Roosevelt’s house at Campobello, I couldn’t resist taking these pictures. Don’t they look like something that belongs on a book cover?

An uncomfortable forest
An uncomfortable forest
Just tree roots or something that will move as soon as your back is turned?
Just tree roots or something that will move as soon as your back is turned?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Or perhaps there are perfectly innocent things that no one else would think twice about, but I look at and immediately imagine the story possibilities, like these:

It's not that the man is drinking so heavily, but simply that at a winery they bring you many tastes in many glasses...but this photo without a caption?
It’s not that the man is drinking so heavily, but simply that at a winery they bring you many tastes in many glasses…but this photo without a caption?
Other people in the parking lot see a large brownish tank. I think of the great molasses flood in Boston that drowned many people.
Other people in the parking lot see a large brownish tank. I think of the great molasses flood in Boston that drowned many people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


How about what a writer sees when she peers down into the water?

Yes...eerie. But it's just a lobsterman's glove caught on a rope.
Yes…eerie. But it’s just a lobsterman’s glove caught on a rope.

But just so you’ll know–it’s not all dark. There are the obvious things–like birds, and flowers and sunsets. And now, the well of imagination refilled, I’m back at my desk, sharing these little bits with you.

Okay...so maybe it's a little dark to take a picture of black grass, and imagining the kind of interesting garden it could grow in?
Okay…so maybe it’s a little dark to take a picture of black grass, and imagining the kind of interesting garden it could grow in?
Unflappable heron in the garden, Halixfas
Unflappable heron in the garden, Halixfax
Sunset in Cheticamp, Nova Scotia
Sunset in Cheticamp, Nova Scotia