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.


Writing Characters that Aren’t Like You . . .


Hi, it’s Kate Flora, coming to the end of a summer of visiting Maine libraries. One of the best things about talking mystery to a library audience is the questions I get asked. So often there are questions I’ve never been asked before that make me reflect on my process, and on what I’ve learned from nearly thirty years in the writer’s chair.

Today, I’m pondering a question someone in the audience asked recently night at the Camden Public Library, where Vicki Doudera, Janis Bolster and I were appearing on a Sisters in Crime “Beach Reads” panel. The question was this: When I made the transition from writing Thea Kozak mysteries where my character is a “strong, amateur, female P.I.” to writing dark, grouchy, and decidedly male Portland detective Joe Burgess, what did I have to do to make Joe Burgess credible? To write a cop? To write a man? To write a character who has seen far too much, when I’ve spent so much of these last thirty years facing a screen and exercising my imagination? How do I go about crafting any of the characters in my books to make them seem real to a reader?

It’s a wonderful question. My first answer would be that men and women writers have always written both male and female characters. This is simply the writer’s job–to fully imagine characters like ourselves, and also blow life into the ones who are very unlike. Sex isn’t the only challenge, there is age, ethnicity, educational background, morality and culture to consider as well. But that doesn’t explain some of the challenges we face, or the techniques we use, in trying to get it right.


Here are some of my answers to that question. First, to write any character, I have to think deeply about their psychology and their history. What happened in my character’s life–whether I’m writing a good guy or a bad guy or a victim–that shaped the person my reader will encounter on the page. It’s a lot of wondering and imagining, and it often also involves asking experts my questions. I will talk to psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers about what shapes human behavior, and how a particular kind of damage, or behavior will manifest itself in the adult. Or, conversely, if I have a character who behaves a particular way, I may ask what things in life might have shaped him or her like this.

If I’m writing a young person, I may also talk to a school psychologist. If I’m writing a stalker, as I did in my last Thea Kozak mystery, Stalking Death, I’ll talk to cops, and to victim/witness advocates, as well as to stalking victims.

A casual conversation with a young lawyer in my agent’s office, about the book when I was working on it, led to a quote that went to the center of my character’s dilemma. In Stalking Death, there is a young black student, an outstanding female basketball player, who is being stalked by a male who calls whenever she’s alone in her room. The administration doesn’t believe her, despite some ugly physical items which have been left in her room, and claims she’s doing it to herself, especially once she identifies her stalker as the grandson of a major donor to the school. This makes her even more isolated and frightened because she has no one to turn to for help.The young lawyer I spoke to had been a stalking victim while she was at college, and when she spoke to someone in the administration about the devastating effects of those constant, intrusive phone calls, that sense of invasion and being watched, and how profoundly unsafe she felt and how much it affected her ability to concentrate, he remarked that he didn’t know what she was so upset about. It wasn’t as though the guy had touched her. But oh yes he had–he’d touched her spirit and her sense of security. It was deeply illuminating, and I was able to weave it into the book.

Joe Burgess is the product of a lot of time spent talking to the police. Going on ride-alongs, taking a

Deep in the Canadian woods, viewing the sentinel tree that the killer used to mark the location of Maria Tanasichuk’s body.

citizen’s police academy, taking a police-taught self-defense class, and doing a lot of looking and listening. I’ve sat in the chair across from some very scary police officers and had them ultimately give me the gift of their trust and their confidence. The stories they tell when I’ve stopped being a civilian and an outsider have been instrumental in illuminating Joe. His character first grew out of a story told to me by a Delaware cop over breakfast several years ago. Spending time on interviews, and building trust, has also been instrumental in bringing the people in my true crime books to life.

Creating any character is a process of observation–how do different people speak, how do they move, how do they express their world view. It is also a process of wondering. What shaped them, what are their politics, their religion, how do they relate to others, and what is/was their family like? When I ride down the street with a police officer, I will ask: What are you seeing that I’m not? When I conduct an interview, I will always conclude it by asking: And what are the questions that I should have asked? And when I sit in someone’s office, or at Dunkin’ Donuts or I’m in a store dressing room, I’m looking and listening. How do people dress and move and relate to each other. How do they communicate?

When she was 83, my late mother, A. Carman Clark, published her mystery, The Maine Mulch Murder. She wrote it because she’d complained to the local librarian that either everybody in the mysteries she took out was improbably beautiful and so rich she couldn’t relate to them, or else the books were too violent for a lady in her seventies to enjoy. The librarian said, “Mrs. Clark, if you don’t like what we have to offer, why don’t you go home and write one.” So she did. When she gave the draft to some friends to review, they told her they liked the plot and they like the setting and they liked the characters, but they didn’t believe everyone in a small Maine town spoke like a 7th grade English teacher. She realized she had to start listening, and the book was greatly improved.

I tell my students that the starting point for imagining a character is to think about how the character is like you, then how the character is unlike you, and what do you need to know about them to understand those differences. It’s a lifelong challenge, of course. I learn it. Forget it and have to go relearn it. Because in the end, I want people to feel like they know Joe Burgess. That he’s not generic, or cardboard. He’s a man who struggles to do what’s right, to be honorable, to take care of the little people, and who longs for a more peaceful and normal life. I want you to care. And if I do my job right–you will.