Twenty-eight years ago, an infant in my arms and a madcap three-year-old cavorting around my house, I decided that I wasn’t going to practice law for a while. I was going to stay home with my boys. Not long after, though, having always worked, I was overcome with the fear of letting go, and the uncertainty of how I would handle my new life. I decided that since something I had always wanted to do was write, I’d see if it was possible to fit writing in around the boys’ schedules, and I started my first mystery.
Why mystery? Because one thing that practicing law had done was make me deeply curious about the nature of good and evil, and what it was that let some people decide it was all right to deviate from the social contract we’d all made, and do selfish, evil, hurtful things. The ultimate evil, of course, being the taking of another’s life. Working for the Maine Department of Human Services, dealing with child support and battered children, I saw plenty of selfish, evil, hurtful things. I saw more of those as counsel to the Maine Human Rights Commission, and then, surprisingly, a lot of lies and misbehavior working the area of planning and zoning. I had plenty of fodder for mystery writing.
I spent ten years in the unpublished writer’s corner. Produced some practice novels I describe as being “at the bottom of the sea, in a safe, wrapped in chains and weighted with cement.” And then one rainy December night, my agent called and told me that she’d sold my first Thea Kozak mystery and the publisher wanted to make it a series. I didn’t know what a three book, hard/soft deal meant, but I called my husband, reported the exciting news, and he trudged through the winter slush all over Boston, trying to find the bottle of Perrier-Jouet he had promised for when I sold the book. No Perrier-Jouet to be found. It really didn’t matter.
Fast forward several years. Writing Thea Kozak, described in mystery parlance as: strong, amateur, female P.I., was wonderful. I would alternate the books with another, as yet unpublished series, always finding Thea’s voice fresh and wonderful when I came back to write another. It was like joining a group of old friends, and fascinating to see how Thea evolved. But one thing I was learning was that the best way to challenge myself to keep writing better books was to get out of my comfort zone. True, every book was a new and different experience, but my research had been regularly putting me in touch with cops as I learn about investigative procedure, and I wondered what it would be like to write a police procedural. Then I upped the ante. What would it be like to write MALE cops? To write a trio of characters?
The road to the Joe Burgess series was interesting. A citizen’s police academy, a R.A.D. course at my local police department, a three-hour breakfast in Philadelphia with Lt. Tom LeMin telling me a stunning story, and the beginning of a beautiful friendship with Joe Loughlin at the Portland Police Department, who became my advisor and helped me find the experts I needed to make it sound authentic. It was evidently a chance worth taking. Library Journal called the series “a triumph in the police procedural genre,” and Publisher’s Weekly called Playing God a “dazzling debut.” But the greatest compliment was from a detective, who wrote to say:
‘Playing God’ is absolutely full of minute little details that capture a reader, but mesmerize a cop-reader…….Like the subtle little mention on page 17 where Burgess changed into a jacket and tie after leaving the crime scene, completed initial reports and then carried on…………………’Cuz that’s what real cops do!! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a call to a scene at 1:00, worked all night, gone home, changed into a shirt and tie, and carried on!………..Your book is chock-full of those little things that real cops do all the time, and that other people would give not a second thought to. So, when you say that you are pleased when it ‘seems to work’, be very, very pleased. 🙂
But the surprises had only begun. Joe Loughlin was the lieutenant in charge of CID in 2001 when Amy St. Laurent disappeared, and he soon began to say he wanted to write a book about the case. After a year of giving him writing advice, I suggested a collaboration, and for 2 1/2 years, we worked on the story. Talk about challenges–I had never written true crime. I had never collaborated. I had no idea what I was doing. We fumbled out way toward story, writing and rewriting, interviewing and reinterviewing, and arguing about everything. Finding Amy has brought endless surprises. First, the emotional surprise of discovering what a grip writing the real would have on me. Second, the career surprise of writing a book that mattered to so many readers and that brought us an Edgar nomination. Third was the friendships it led to, including one with the game warden who organized the search for Amy’s body–Lt. Pat Dorian–and through Dorian to another crime story and the wonderful friendship of some special police officers in Miramichi, New Brunswick.
It seems that the surprises and adventures are far from over. I’m currently working with another retired Maine warden on a collaboration about his 24-year career, a project best described as “James Herriot with Guns,” and a narrative nonfiction project about an international child abduction.
Fiction still has its grip, though. I’m editing a suspense novel, tweaking a romance, and my crime stories appear this week in two newly published anthologies, Dead of Winter and Dead Calm.
And I’ve just signed a movie option contract.