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 Well, there’s the long story, involving ten years in the unpublished writer’s corner and the ups and downs ever since.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

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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.

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Why Stories?

Kate Flora: Recently, at Thalia, we decided to do the occasional group post, and the topic for this round was: Why Stories?

In the new information age, we google everything, so I looked up “Why stories” and got pages and pages of blogs discussing the topic. The quote below is from a New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik, reviewing Gottschall’s book:

“the constant firing of our neurons in response to fictional stimuli strengthens and refines the neural pathways that lead to skillful navigation of life’s problems” and that the studies show that therefore people who read a lot of novels have better social and empathetic abilities, are more skillful navigators, than those who don’t.” Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal

Other writers had different takes. They wrote:

Stories give shape to experience

Stories provide rehearsals for life

I posted these quotes to the group, and dark responses began to flow: Continue reading “Why Stories?”

Writing Characters that Aren’t Like You . . .

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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.

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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.